Let’s assume that to write criticism we will not apply theories or categories to things. We won’t show how The Wire is Marxist, Blood Orange is neo-R&B, or that Michel Houellebecq is patriarchic. Let’s assume, rather, that we want to write critically about this program, this album, this novel.
This is not to say that we
can’t make use of theories, categories, and genres. We should, and indeed must,
make use of what we already know. After all, we come to things as we come to
them, knowing what we know, thinking what we think, believing what we believe.
There is no objectivity; to evacuate ourselves of ourselves is not the goal, as
if such a thing were even possible or even desirable. It’s to say that we won’t
begin with these concepts, these ideas, these meta-structures. We’ll begin with
the thing at hand.
All things — all texts — are
to be read. And, in fact, all things are always already read. That’s what it
means to exist: we are things that are perceived and processed just as we
relentlessly perceive and process other things. Everything — you, me, these
words, the internet, the chair you’re sitting in, the phone in your hands, mosquitoes
— is what Deleuze calls a little engine. They make themselves, their way of
But where do we begin our
critique? Well, there’s no one way in or through a thing. Take this essay here.
You could begin anywhere — with the title: Is this a how-to? What is its
approach to the how-to? What does it ask of the reader (yes, you)?
Or you could begin with the
use of pronouns: Who’s this we
Coffeen keeps using? What function does this serve? How does this writer — me,
or my name, as the case may be — stand towards you? What is it asking of you?
Complicity? But in what, exactly?
You could put aside these
more formal aspects for the moment and focus on the content. What does Coffeen
mean when he so readily conflates things and texts? How does this play in the
course of the essay? What’s at stake by at once distinguishing and conflating
things and texts?
Or what about this related
claim that everything is always already read? How does this shape or inflect
the borders of things, of you and me, or critic and object, of screen and
reader, of this essay and you? Is this why he keeps using we? Hmn.
Every text offers multiple
ways to begin, multiple doors, as it were. Derrida always loved beginning with
some often overlooked element such as a particular word or a footnote. I once
wrote on Paul Ricoeur’s book La métaphore
vive which is translated as The Rule
of Metaphor. That’s where I began: the movement across languages from life to rule. When I wrote about Moonrise
Kingdom, I began with the way the camera moves in a scene so as to create a
contraption from the interactions on screen. (That
essay is here.)
How do you choose to begin
with this rather than that? That all depends on what grabs your attention,
piques your interest, seizes your fancy. Begin with what you notice and follow it to
see where it takes you. It may take you nowhere interesting. On the other hand,
it may open the world itself.
The trick is to follow that element and ask: So what?
What then? So the camerawork in Moonrise
Kingdom creates a contraption from scenes. Who cares? Well, I couldn’t help
but notice that contraptions, films, and stories share this comment element,
the way different things interact with each other so as to propel other
behavior. And then it occurred to me that film is actually machinic, both
literally (the camera is a machine) and metaphorically (a story is a machine in
which different components interact in such a way as to create something,
namely, the story itself). And so I
began with this observation — the contraption-like scenes — and ended with the
claim that things we don’t normally connect, stories and machines, are in fact
What a critic does is account
for the different elements of the thing — its what as well as its how.
That is, each thing has its qualities — red, loud, funny, tall. And also has the
manner in which it puts this what together, its how — the movement of the camera, the voice and structure of the novel,
the rhythm of the song. This is where criticism lives and thrives: in that
place where the what meets the how and vice versa.
But then there’s the
affective state of the thing, its mood, its tone, its temperament. A book, a
film, a song have their what — the story, color, instruments; their how — the
structure, voice, rhythm; and their affective flow — humor, wit, melancholy,
exuberance. The manner in which something happens is a critical component of
that thing. It’s impossible to talk about Nietzsche without accounting for his
zealous play, to talk about The Beastie Boys without mentioning their play and
humor, to critique The Wire without
mentioning the nihilistic humor.
Or take Moonrise Kingdom. Yes, Wes
Anderson finds the machinic quality of stories. But he also finds the opposite:
the play within machines. The joy of the film — its humanity and humor — argue
for the pathos and richness of the mechanical, a vice versa.
None of these elements — the
what, how, and mood — are proof that your reading is right or wrong. There is
no right or wrong. No, all of these elements are evidence. And it’s your job as critic to weave them together into
some kind of multiple, generous, whole that sheds light on how the thing
functions. Which is to say, while your critique may not be right or wrong, it
may be out of bounds, off the mark: you might just be making stuff up. Which is
not necessarily bad but, alas, is critique.
Criticism is almost puzzle-like
only there’s no one way to do it. You assemble all these elements and put them
back together in a new way. I suppose, in a sense, to critique is to dj,
creating a new composition out of the existing, found elements. It’s playing
with the found.