Better Living Through the Critique of Everything (with Reference to Nietzsche)

I'm reading the review of AO Scott's new book, Better Living Through Criticism, in The New Yorker. The title of Scott's book obviously appealed to me; it's been my mantra for years. But his book, as with The New Yorker essay, comes at critique — and indeed the world — from a fundamentally different vantage point than I do.

To them, the arts are special, even essential to human existence. But they're extra. Art, for them, happens afterwards or elsewhere, to the side of things. There is life — social discourse, marriage, medicine, diet, factories, language — and then there is this special other thing they call art.

But what happens when, as Nietzsche argues, everything is constructed? When everything is some kind of artifice? This is the premise of Nietzsche's worldview: art, not truth or survival, comes first. Every word is a poem, a metaphor, an interpretation, a making of the world. You see the moon and think of cycles; the French see the moon and think of light. These are artistic choices.

We are all poets, all artists. Or, rather, we are all would-be artists, would-be poets. Too often, he tells us, we don't create. We imitate. We use metaphors as if they were literal; we deploy interpretation as if it were truth. Indeed, for Nietzsche (and for me!), science is poetry that's forgotten it's poetry. Science, along with the various intertwined edifices of knowledge, suffers from amnesia — and a certain will to power, a will to hierarchy, to the expert, to the one who knows and hence controls the world. Forgetting we're artists is constitutive of a certain will to power, to control, to knowledge (hence, Foucault's project).

Indeed, for Nietzsche, the very creation of humankind — not to mention the self — is a work of art. There were beasts of prey, he tells us, roaming and fighting and hunting. But some wanted a more interesting life and so began to work their own bodies as a sculptor works clay — molding, cutting, whipping their own bodies into a being capable of keeping a promise, that is, a being capable of being continuous over time, a being capable of repetition. For Nietzsche, this took unspeakable strength — a strength that is fundamentally artistic in search of a more interesting life (See On the Genealogy of Morals, if you're interested).

What, then, is the role and purview of criticism? AO Scott and The New Yorker like to believe that the critic is a professional role, assuming its rank and position alongside the other keepers of knowledge — scientists, politicians, and such. But that only serves to reinforce the anti-art structure of knowledge. It is a belief in the expert, in those who know more. The premise is: sure, you all have your silly opinions but it's the real critic, the learned, who knows how to critique.

I want to suggest a fundamentally different operation of critique, one that is radically democratic and hence anti-expert. This operation is available to all who want to live a life that's awake, that's aware, that's creative in the fundamental sense, whether you're making paintings, conversation, love, a meal, or kids.

To critique, I maintain, is to abolish cliché, to brush aside the hegemony of dominant discourse, and usher in a new, fresh, lively way of viewing the world — whether it's a painting, a film, a smile, a child's tears. It is to seek, to will, the interesting. Critic is not the title of the special, the expert, the revered. I want critic to be the title, the mantle, of all those who seek to live life amid the infinite becoming of the universe rather than exist in the closed, predetermined structures of what we call knowledge.

The critic is one who parries everyday nonsense with keen twists and turns armed with both an origami delicacy and a hammer. You assume you need to be in a couple to be happy? You assume a job, a house, a kid is what's called for? You think life and death are opposed? Silly, silly, says the critic who reveals assumptions to be creations, truths to be interpretations, life to be a constant creation rather than a track we're on. 

This is the kind of criticism we should be teaching — not how to master a text but how to open a text, revel in its manifold ways, reveal and steer its assumptions into more interesting possibilities. We shouldn't be limiting our purview to the sanctioned world of art — to books, films, paintings, and performances. Criticism should pervade every moment because every moment is a work of art, even if it's a pile of shit (such as marriage or careers). The critic's job is not to only notice the spectacular. On the contrary, the critic's job is to notice everything.


davidtEDU said...

Oh god this was so good. So perfect. We are so going over this in class. Thanks Daniel.

Mr. Ziebarth said...

Seriously! This makes me want to be a better teacher, a teacher of seeing, of noticing, of living!