|Seeing seeing seeing: the camera splays our vision before us, allowing us to see — to see anew.|
Nothing, save for the occasional sexual encounter, entails the intimacy of critique.
To critique something is not, as the popular imagination might have it, an obstacle to living or being present. On the contrary, it is precisely to be present to something — to let something else happen, to follow its contours, to see and taste and consider and enjoy its multiple windings, its folds and modes, its scents and sense.
To critique something is to form what Deleuze and Guattari call a nuptial. In critique, you go together with this thing, entwined. While we tend to imagine critics as standoffish, sitting on the sidelines as life happens proffering quips without sullying themselves, critique in in fact a kind of love.
To clarify, critique or criticism is not judgement or negative assessment. Sure, teenagers and lovers will often yell, Stop criticizing me as they storm out of the room. But what they really mean is stop judging me. Critique, however, is not inherently judgmental. It may fundamentally operate at the level of judgement; critiquing this and not that is judgement. But to critique is not to give a thumbs up or thumbs down.
Critique suspends such gestures for being radically local (my taste) and so, finally, banal. Unless I know you intimately, I don't care whether you like something or not. Your critique of something, however, offers the greatest promise there is: to see something anew. To see something in a way that I could not have seen. Critique is the radical act of multiplying the possibilities of a thing. And, when the critic shares this vision, we readers are in turn opened, multiplied. Reading your critique that opens something else — a dish of food, a book, an idea, a person, a film — I in turn open.
As I said, critique is not without judgement. But this judgement is implicit: if you're critiquing something, you're saying that that thing is worth knowing, crawling into, following, knowing, metabolizing, sensing: loving. A critique is judgment just as introducing a close friend or lover to other friends is: we can safely assume that because you're critiquing it, it is worth our time and energy. By choosing to critique something, a critic tells the wold This is a friend of ours.
This isn't always the case, of course. I once wrote a harshly judgmental critique of Pixar's Wall-E as a guest post on Ryland Knight's great film blog. I don't usually like to spend any energy thinking or writing or talking about things I don't like. As critique is so intimate, I only want to critique things that enthuse me, vitalize me, intrigue me. In the case of "Wall-E," I saw it with my young son and, to make the experience more enjoyable for myself, I leaned in and articulated precisely why I loathed it. I made the best of the situation.
Why'd I then spend the time writing my critique and sharing it? Well, because intimacy and engagement are complex experiences. Sometimes we sleep with or have intense flings with people we don't really like. While the wise thing to do is just to shut it down, at times intimacy with things we don't like is edifying, exciting, engaging at some level.
In any and all cases, though, critique is not judgment. Critique is empirical. To be empirical is to be awash in another thing, to take it up and let it take you up and see what happens, what comes, what new possibilities of life emerge.
I feel like there's a common assumption that cameras, while fun to use out and about with friends, are a layer between you and the world. Stop filming and just live is a common sentiment even as photography is ubiquitous. But I've found that the camera in my pocket is a path to the world, a way of engaging that is deeply intimate. When I take a picture, rather than just seeing the world with all my blindness of assumptions and habit, I see my seeing of the world! Right here on my phone!
After all, most of the time, I'm not really seeing the world. I'm moving through it. The things I see are already known, have already been seen and so are not seen at all — some cars, trees, people, clouds, garbage. It's rare for the world to pop from this background of familiarity to present itself as something, as a force to reckon, as a thing that demands I stop and let myself be reoriented.
And yet we've all had that experience of being stopped in our tracks by an exquisite sky, a huge moon, a streaming sunset, a beautiful person, someone out of control on drugs or madness or life itself. We may even tell others about it: You won't believe what I saw today! Or: Did you see that sky as the storm came in? So, yes, we all know that sometimes, something removes itself from the blurry din of the quotidian to announce itself as something that is so resonant that we tell other people that we saw it. Most of the time, we don't talk about the things we've seen because most of the time we go about half blind. That's not a good or bad thing. It's a matter of fact.
In taking out my phone-camera to photograph something splays the everyday event of my seeing before me. And in so doing, renders my very seeing foreign: the camera moves from my seeing from behind my eyes to the front of my eyes. As I photograph, I move my actual seeing around the world, letting it take up that view, that face, that branch from angles and proximity and freshness my eyes simply can't.
In this case, the camera is not a layer between me and the world. It's not an obstacle to living life. On the contrary, the camera removes the film my eyes, allowing me see something with startling intimacy, my lens running its lengths, shifting perspectives, first here then there, as I move about seeking the best way to see the thing. That's what taking pictures asks of us: What is the best way to see? The camera removes seeing from the realm of habit and makes it an event that seeks the best of itself. (Is best the best word? No, in that there is no absolute. I use best here in the colloquial sense.)
Such is critique: it's a mode of photography. When we critique something — a book, film, chair — we take it up, frame it, and repeat it. When we critique something, that something makes an impression on us and we, in turn, make an impression on it.
Which is why we should all be discerning when it comes to doing critique. You don't want to be so intimate with something that drains your energy, your vitality, that doesn't infuse you. Imagine reading the work of a writer you hate and spending years not just reading the work but thinking about it, letting it play across your mind and life, trying to articulate its ways of going, its sense. You'd have to dwell in something that saps you — which is masochistic.
When I taught — at UC Berkeley and the San Francisco Art Institute — I only taught books, essays, films, music that I enjoyed living with and so wanted my students to enjoy living with. I never put one thing on the syllabus that I didn't think was great and capable of recreating the reader in the very act of critique. I couldn't imagine teaching an essay that I thought was terrible. Eeesh! That'd just be cruel — to me and them.
As I've said, this doesn't mean that I have to like all these texts. I once had a former MFA student ask me to write about his work for a gallery show. He invited me to his studio and said, I know you don't really like my work. But I'd like your take on it. And he was right: I didn't particularly like his work. But I thoroughly enjoyed sitting with it, digesting it, making sense of it, and finally writing my critique of it — a critique absent any thumbs up or down. Someone else might love it, love hanging it on their walls, but not be able or not want to critique it. Critique is love but not all love is critical.
Critique seeks to infuse the world with the new. Despite its reputation, critique is essentially creative. Just as a painter isn't copying the landscape but creating it anew, the critic sees the painting of the landscape anew.
And, if nothing else, critique is generous. Rather than standing back from the world, critics throw themselves into the mix. All critique is, at some point, gonzo.
No doubt, not all love and immersion in something is critique. Sometimes, we just want to be enraptured without organizing that rapture, without contemplating it, without talking about it. That's a beautiful experience — and generous with the thing at hand.
But critique does something else. It lets itself be taken up and then seeks to show both that thing and the world precisely how it is so amazing. Critique, then, not only sees the world anew: it invites the world to do so, as well.