Tuesday, July 30, 2013

critiquing a critic

My friend Nabina Das (writer and poet) brought this essay to my attention:

"What Should Be the Function of Criticism Today?"

It's by Anis Shivani. Aside from his analysis, his prose is cogent, intelligent, and even has a certain elegance. One must, of course, be careful about such things -- not conflate the quality of writing with the quality of the ideas expressed.

Whether what I have to say about this essay is coherent and significant or is just weird-headed, I think this is an important topic, and I enjoy putting one word down after another.

I agree with Shivani's overarching theme: literary criticism is a vital complement to creative literature. But whereas I would consider it subsidiary, he seems to be saying criticism is on an equal footing to the literary object itself. As if the story or poem is insufficient in itself to convey its own powers of impression and meaning. How bizarre.

Here on this very blog, I have argued that poets should also write some stuff about poetry, as opposed to only writing poems. So at least in that regard, Shivani and I are in sympathy. But beneath the arc of his general theme stands his insistence that criticism nowadays should be "humanist criticism" (that all the older forms are exhausted; that current forms are insular and anemic).

Shivani is mistaken in that suggested (declared?) form of replacement criticism. He argues as if the political-humanist context is the a priori or somehow given method for confronting the literary object. Literature -- story, poem -- is not really suited to such an imposed "philosophical" agenda. Rather, it is about an individual aesthetic response to being-in-the-world. Criticism should -- contrary to Shivani -- reflect, be sensitive to, and emphasize this ancient function, this aesthetic priority of a story or a poem. It seems to me that he dismisses with a wave of his hand the vogue or approach of New Criticism from the 1920s to the 1950s, which took the literary object to be of supreme concern as an aesthetic object.

In the first paragraph under "1. Provide deep context," he champions all the criteria that is beside the point to me (he leaves out the most significant thing -- literature as aesthetic-spiritual adventure):
How deep? Deeper than any form of literary criticism known today. Deep enough to include investigations of the author’s relationship to his specialty, the connections between her and others like her and unlike her, the evolution of her thought process both in an individual and collective manner, and every available insight from philosophy, psychology, sociology, economics, art, and science to shed light on the work in question. 

I've come across few things more dubious and unsubstantiated than this claim about his proposed version of criticism:
It must be so erudite as to destabilize the veracity of the work under consideration. It must set itself up as an equal and opposing force against the work of imagination. 

Or this about his preference:
Every piece of criticism in this vein becomes an open-ended, demanding, ferocious, relentless investigation of morality at a structural level. 

Deep context means tackling the work of art at a level of complexity greater than its own, rather than retreating in the face of apparent self-containment.

My goodness! -- "tackling." That sounds a bit aggressive. How about this  instead: aesthetic engagement with the object of literature as a manifestation of language and consciousness within the mystery of time?

Shivani takes current post-structuralist versions of criticism to task for their perceived shallowness and artificiality. An emphasis on multiculturalism and identity politics in academia is, for me, rightly questioned by Shivani (all voices should be heard, if they're producing works of aesthetic excellence). And he might have a point about how the careerist aspects of conformity and self-referentiality dilute criticism of a living, breathing vitality.

He fails to realize, though, how superfluous his own prescription is for a new criticism -- what he oddly calls "deep criticism." There can be no deeper approach to the literary object than the aesthetic one (how its effects register along the spectrum of quality -- the quality of image, cadence, voice, intuition, metaphor, organization, development, compression, epiphany).

In "4. Connect to other cultural fields," Shivani says that our critics of today are too specialized, not broadly cultured enough to bring other enriching things to a work's evaluation. That other perspectives than those sanctioned by present theory should be brought to bear during a critique:
The ideal critic I am proposing will make it a habit not to explore connections between fields of culture for their own sake, but to radically expand the range of what it is possible for the critic to understand and convey.

To me, that goes without saying. Any good critique or essay worth its weight in words will bring many things from experience into the evaluation or sophisticated reverie. Really...did that even need to be said? Do critics today actually write without a background of various references and subliminal associations? If so, then something more elemental than mere critical posture is affecting academia and beyond -- a pathological lack of curiosity and failure of soul!

In "5. Be global," he argues for a sense of cosmopolitanism to enter American criticism. I've no problem with that.

In "6. Adopt a sharp point of view," we get this:
I would go so far as to claim that arguing from a strong point of view, proving and disproving premises, hammering away at opponents, abusing one’s enemies when necessary, overpraising and indulging and hitting hard and delving into personalities—all of it should be on the table if criticism is to be revived as a vital cultural enterprise.

That's a bit much. A critic's first and perhaps only duty is the exploration of a work's quality. If the emphasis is on argument and premise for their own sake, with the work fading from the foreground, then it becomes more about the critic than the work. And "overpraising" -- what the hell's up with that?

The critic must be willing to explore and expose his own biases, his prejudices, his subjective disabilities and strengths, his irrationalities, and his passions and hatreds, so that the reader is challenged to respond or retreat, as the case may be.

I'm on board with that. But in "7. Argue from personalities," things go haywire:
What I am calling for is a radical subjectivisation of criticism, so that the critic’s personality can be front and center; it doesn’t always have to be, but there should be more than plenty of room for it. What this will require is the expansion of the reduced boundaries of confessionalism from the present arena of private dysfunction to the critic’s relationship with society, including his relationships with publishers, editors, and fellow writers, his relationship to work and to literary status or lack thereof, his education and class, his politics as they affect his personal life, his quirks and idiosyncrasies, his acts of violation, solicitude, trespassing, and intrusion, whatever makes him respond personally to the work or author or genre in question.

When I read a critical review of a text, I want the critic there only implicitly, with his aforementioned prejudices, irrartionalities, passions present behind the scenes. I'm interested in the story or the poem, not in the critic's "relationship with society" or his publishers or his freaking status. His class, quirks, and trespasses are already boring me. Good grief!

I'm of the opinion that most literature these days -- story and poem -- is rather dismal. But there are examples of brilliance approaching genius, works that deserve praise and promotion. So the following from "8. Dispute the possibility of art" strikes me as extreme and ridiculous (again, the critic elevated beyond the work -- surely Mr. Shivani got overheated and carried away with himself here):
I believe that this is one of the most important functions of the critic of the future—not to proselytize on behalf of particular works of art, but to quarrel with the very possibility that any art is possible in the age of new media, whose early stages suggest much more radical changes to come. Continuing to try to prove the existence and importance of art, high or low or in-between, is a losing proposition. It creates the opposite of the intended effect. The only way that art can become central again is if it is attacked repeatedly and from every front, from every angle possible, by critics agnostic about its existence, or even militantly atheist toward it. Instead of advocating for art, the critic of the future should passionately foretell its demise, marshal every resource at his disposal to bring it down, to bring the whole miserable enterprise to an end. This confrontational posture is the only service a critic can provide to art at this late juncture; everything else is mere dishonesty that doesn’t compel strong artists into being.

Shivani continues his rage against the machine:
What function can poetry possibly serve when all the poetic dreams have been appropriated by the media, converted into debased forms of visual manipulation and aggressive denial?
Poetry is not for society at large. Poetry is for poetry. Poems are written because the ancient, organic drives of wonder and saying are perennial ones. Good, even great poems will always be written. Bad ones, too. Critics are not going to change the basic dynamic. At most, they can discover quality and bring it to the attention of those disposed to receive it.

In "9. Make the tradition new," Shivani argues that the avant-garde and other current meretricious eruptions should be abandoned in favor of revitalizing old stuff from the canon. That writers should return to the "musty"and "baroque" examples in order to find new voices and inspirations. I don't like the sound of that. Prescriptions about a more or less universal style and attitude to creative writing is arrogant and claustrophobic. Any age or era has within its cultural DNA the potential for mutations of originality, brilliance, and spiritual depth. Fiction, poetry, whatnot -- they all are possibilities of the profound, as long as the aesthetic -- language as conveyance of quality -- is the dominant complexion of consciousness.

There are works of brilliance out there -- unexpected, unprecedented, uncanny things. It's the critic's and the editor's job to go out and discover them. Not to impose some kind of cultural predetermination and preference.

In the final section "10. Downplay politicalization," Shivani is on the right track. Politics and art don't mix well at all for me. But maybe not for the same reasons he is against it. I get the impression that if art was in a healthier condition, then the political could suavely move into it and make itself at home:
If the critic can address the problem of politics with the subtlety I propose, he can end up redefining the problem of authenticity for our times—just as in directly interjecting his personality into criticism, he can help redefine the problem of confession and privacy.

The "times" can take care of itself. Stories and poems take place in a region of the timeless. Authenticity and politics are artificial and incommensurate temporalities. The work of art is too much related to the mystical and the mysterious for such trespassing nonsense.

Imagine a composer sitting down to create authentic and political music. Then imagine the later critical exegesis. A composer sits down to create music as music. His critic should listen to the inner harmonics of that soulful aural effusion.

In the final paragraph, Shivani says: "...and the work of art is judged above all else for its artistic qualities." That's the first instance in the whole essay where I found such an emphasis. Maybe the quality of a work of art is important to Shivani, but he certainly went to a lot of effort disguising it. More important to him, it seemed, was establishing a new critic-centered criticism and promulgating a new consciousness about making art. Less important, it seemed, was a humble evaluation of what has been made by an actual maker. Because he goes on to say in that paragraph that the critic "should help bring about a new subjectivity."

I've come upon this kind of general essayistic tonality before, in regards to a "new" criticism. To this kind of contextual imposition. Usually, it's in the form of: poetry should try to change society, should have a political cast or imperative about it. Shivani isn't that wayward. But it's a worrisome trend that intelligent writers like him would also presume too much about the state of poetry and downplay the significance of a work's internal, autonomous energies.

The only "theory" that should be in play regarding literary criticism is a Theory of Wonder.

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