The Decline Of Criticism Is Not The Fault Of Critics

You can find a lot in a navel. Lint. Grime. The meaning of life. This is the uncanny remainder of the cord that once bound me to my mother? Incredible. Why not gaze at it? Why not let sight spin into its depths the way water twists down the drain that becomes an eye in the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho? Yes, you can find all sorts of things in a navel. A flower. A button. (Tender button?) A tiny vortex. The knot at the end of a balloon. In medieval times, it was thought to be the “seat of wantonness,” the source of pleasure for a woman. (Tender button!) An understand­able error, almost more geographical than biological.

Another few centuries had to pass before we got “navel-gazing,” or omphaloskepsis. At first, it just meant “to meditate,” because omphalos invoked the rounded stone in the shrine at Delphi, once believed to be the center of the ancient world. The derisive word omphalopsychite was coined in the nineteenth century to describe the Hesychasts, a group of thirteenth-century monks who fixed their eyes on “the middle of the body” in order to “attach the prayer to their breathing.” When we navel-gaze now, we are in commu­nion with only ourselves. In our current usage of the term, these ancient spiritual and erotic ideas around “navel-gazing” coincide, clash—and somehow burst, deflating into something masturba­tory, bathetic, even distasteful if we notice the implicit ableism.

Where were we? Ah, yes. The state of criticism today. Criticism—if by that we mean writing about our experiences, interpretations, and judgments of aesthetic objects—has always been a bit ompha­loskeptical. You can trace this self-consciousness across some of its favorite forms: the apologia, the defense, the treatise, the mani­festo, and now (dread word) the think piece. Well, the think piece doth protest too much, methinks. Our tendency to reflect on our work—the theories, the methods, the artworks—has devolved into a strained bleating about our “relevance” and “value.” Criticism has become, in a word, metacritical: making a case for itself, proph­esying its own demise, nostalgically musing on its halcyon days, decrying yet another crisis in the conditions of its production.

Perhaps we should start calling it crisis-ism. Endlessly diag­nosing a crisis—etymologically, the point in a fever where either it breaks or we do—is in fact a symptom of something worse. We could see it as a kind of hypochondria. Everything from media illit­eracy to what the French call le wokisme to plunging enrollments can be read as a sign of what’s wrong with criticism. But isn’t it getting tiring? This ritualistic navel-gazing, this fatalistic fetal position? The neck begins to ache, the hunched back twinges, the gazing eyes cross, a hiccup grows like a bubble in the ribcage. The hiccup is a thought; the thought is this: Why can’t we all just do our jobs? Why talk about criticism, why talk up criticism, instead of just doing criticism?

Criticism has never thrived because of its marketing. Students did not pile into seminars led by Fredric Jameson, lectures deliv­ered by Roland Barthes, or classes taught by I. A. Richards because their metacritical accounts of their critical practices were enticing, reasonable, or even comprehensible. The work itself and its effects on us were advertisement enough. Criticism lit people up, stirred them, made them reconsider what they value and how. If that is no longer the case, it isn’t because we don’t try to sell our product any­more. I would submit that it is precisely because we do, desperately, and in the wrong way.

I recently saw a series of ads placed by a well-known university press in a well-established vehicle for serious criticism, highlight­ing the titles How to Get Over a Breakup: An Ancient Guide to Moving On (a translation of Ovid’s Remedies for Love); How to Care about Animals: An Ancient Guide to Creatures Great and Small (Porphyry, Aesop, Ovid); and How to Be Queer: An Ancient Guide to Sexuality (“Sappho, Plato, and Other Lovers”). Now, I don’t mind adver­tising as such—it has been, and has led to, great art. But the logic behind this way of selling our critical wares strikes me, again, as the kind of begging that begs the question. Why pretend that great works of philosophy and literature are self-help books?

It is not our job to convince “consumers” that “creative con­tent” is a “good purchase.” It is not our job to explain our rele­vance by asserting—spuriously, I might add—that great works in the humanities can help grow brain cells, work empathy muscles, foster good vibes, or manifest good politics. And it is not our job to convince companies like Condé Nast or universities like Yale or institutions like The Museum of Modern Art to devote funds to art or criticism by promising them a high return on investment.

The so-called crisis of the humanities is in fact not our respon­sibility—neither in the sense of our fault nor in the sense of our job to fix. The degradation of artistic practice and reception is the endpoint of political and economic forces that are way beyond our reach and our pay grade, somewhere up in that vast, mechanical realm of neoliberalism, the modus operandi of which has always been clear: it’s easier to turn people into profitable consumers and tireless workers if they’re deprived of literacy and culture.

This longstanding, insidious project in effect co-opts our aes­thetic impulses. Just look around. No one wants to read. They want to get published. No one wants to look at paintings or sculptures or installations. They want to collect “views” on social media posts. No one wants to watch films or plays or dance performances, or to discuss what they mean. They want to make viral TikTok loops and reaction videos that pantomime the occasion. No one wants to listen to music. They want to stream the latest release and ride the unfurling “long tail” of cultural products.

These claims may sound like hyperbole, and you will no doubt have evidence (statistical or merely anecdotal) to contest them. But what we used to call art and culture—the movements of words, images, sounds, and gestures among people—bear little relation to what we now call being a “fan,” a “media consumer,” or a “creative.” These ersatz versions of making and experiencing art are based on satisfying “preferences,” on the idea of art as comfort, tool, or escape—in sum, art as something you buy and sell or that you use in some “productive” way.

Critics and artists have never exactly been lucrative or service­able, so why are we pouring our energies into marketing instead of, say, unionizing? To convert our earnest navel-gazing into merce­nary self-promotion, the “careerism” that Christian Lorentzen has named “the dominant style of American life,” is not to resist but to capitulate to the logic of a machine that is indifferently masticating us to smithereens.

despite my aversion to tap-dancing for institutional pennies, I do think we have a job to do. Critics, too, are homo faber, even if all we make are arguments. The question is not whether we should work and for how much. It is whether we can find work that doesn’t alienate us from itself, and from each other. What might this non-alienated work look like? Well, it still involves “navel-gazing,” but in two other ways. The first is to historicize, to gaze at our­selves but from a distance, instead of remaining in the reflexive circularity of a presentist “state” or perpetual “crisis.” The second is to pay better and closer attention to the art that we claim to be so interested in, to zoom in on it with a formalist lens.

In his 2021 book, Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts, Jed Perl refers to “authority and freedom” as “the lifeblood of the arts.” He then opens out to a grand theory: “Whether reading a novel, looking at a painting, or listening to music, we are feeling the push and pull of these two forces as they shape the creator’s work. Authority is the ordering impulse. Freedom is the love of experiment and play. They coexist. They compete.” Yes, I thought upon reading this. Exactly.

Then I realized that my yes was more of a déjà vu. Wasn’t this just Friedrich Nietzsche’s distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian aesthetics? Or Roland Barthes’s account of readerly and writerly texts? Or Elena Ferrante’s recent account of two modalities of writing: staying within the margins or scribbling outside them; writing “neat narratives” while enticed by a “discordant clamor”; a “whirlpool” caught in a “cage”?

Looking back, a great variety of aesthetic models I’ve encoun­tered over the years take recourse to this kind of division. Other examples, in roughly historical order, might include: tragedy/comedy; sublime/beautiful; matter/form; sensuous/rational; hor­ror/terror; modernism/realism; novel/epic; invention/tradition; alienation/catharsis; dialogism/monologism; avant-garde/kitsch; punctum/studium; open/closed; experimental/lyrical realism.

It’s as if criticism is always erecting opposed poles to describe art, to describe itself. It is not news that humans love to sort the world as Noah did, two by two. This is a given of contemporary philosophy, modern linguistics, critical theory, and cultural studies, as is the idea that every binary implies a hierarchy, unassailable if reversible. What is perhaps surprising is that all of these pairings can be mapped onto each other relatively smoothly, such that we can abstract from them a dynamic relation of what Mikhail Bakhtin called “centripetal” and “centrifugal” forces.

Between those forces that scatter and those that bind, Bakhtin suggests, there’s a relation of adjacency. (They “go forward” “alongside” each other.) Friedrich Schiller, having reasoned his way through a set of “opposed drives” and “opposed principles” in aesthetic experience, describes their relation as “reciprocal action,” “opposition,” the “most perfect possible union,” “equilibrium,” and “the preponderance of the one element over the other,” before finally landing on “oscillation,” which he goes on to call “play.” Oscillation appears in metacritical arguments as well. “In the final analysis,” writes Barbara Johnson, “it is perhaps precisely as an apprentice­ship in the repeated and inescapable oscillation between human­ism and deconstruction that literature works its most rigorous and inexhaustible seductions.”

The word for this, of course, is “dialectics.” One task histori­cist navel-gazery grants to criticism, then, is to describe what kind of dialectical relation obtains in an aesthetic experience or a criti­cal analysis. In any given text, are we playfully bouncing between the two poles? Does that oscillation over time yield a kind of spi­ral? Is there a unifying synthesis or a destructive sublation of the two poles? What happens when the gap between them cannot be bridged, when we cannot make two positions match or meet or mate but must still account for their coexistence? Do we catch them in a parallax, as Slavoj Žižek has it? Are they stuck in a rela­tion of non-relation, what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari called a “disjunctive synthesis”? We may be stuck with twos, but the per­mutations of their dynamic relations are as endless as the computa­tions programmers derive from ones and zeroes.

Another question we can extrapolate by looking at our past is: How do critics in turn judge the respective elements of those bina­ries? At the heart of any dialectic is an impulse to rank, to say, for example, that the beautiful is better than the sublime, experimen­tal fiction better than lyrical realism. But history shows that artistic and critical values cannot be judged in any final way. (If they could, we would be out of a job.) When we take the long view, we see that while critics claim to judge aesthetic values, what we really do is argue about the relative worth of our respective indexes of value.

This is because every dialectical pairing has its own indexes of value (which of these two is more interesting? awe-inspiring? pleasing?), and these are often incommensurable with each other. Aristotle explained incommensurability by noting that we cannot judge how sharp a pencil, a wine, and a musical note are with ref­erence to each other. Their respective sharpness lies on different planes of meaning; there is no universal scale of sharpness. And this is, often as not, true for the concept of beauty among artists or taste among critics. “Different strokes,” as we say—but only if we mean the radical distinction between the breaststroke and a brain stroke, stroking a pet and the stroke of a pen.

This is one reason why trying to sell our project as critics is so futile. Our sense of value—the idea that it is dialectical and incommensurable—cannot be reconciled with capitalist logics of value. Capitalism calculates values by making them exchangeable, by reducing them all to the same scale of value, a general equiva­lent that we call money. For instance, capitalism might judge the respective worth of films by comparing how much money they make. We sometimes debate this metric as if it had anything to do with art. But whenever it is presented to viewers as bluntly as, say, the proposed Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film or the already extant Golden Globe Award for Cinematic and Box Office Achievement, we buck. Nobody actually wants a Box Office Oscar (BOO).

Most people understand, at some intuitive level, that the value of art cannot be reduced to how much money it makes or be mea­sured according to capitalism’s other main priorities: reproducibil­ity, fungibility, and efficiency. While capitalism asserts that values can be compared and calculated through this kind of math, criti­cism is busy arguing endlessly about the differences in kind that make that math impossible. Our various indexes of value simply cannot be applied universally, cannot be generalized. Judging the beauty of Marvel movies makes as little sense as judging the sales records of Greek tragedies.

We already know about this contestation of incommensurable values in the world of art—it is what Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is about; it is what Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction is about; it is what Andy Warhol’s screen prints are about. And while I obviously prefer critics’ and artists’ version of value to bankers’, that is a matter of my taste, my politics; the two systems are them­selves incommensurable. Defending art in terms of how profitable it can be—how remunerative, how useful—is not just distasteful or banal or foolish. It is a contradiction in terms.

one definition of art may even be this: the exposure of incom­mensurable values. Whether aesthetic, ethical, or social, different values coexist within the work, both inviting and thwarting our efforts to weigh, reconcile, or unite them. Art gives us a picture of those forces at war. Form is our name for what surrounds or frames both material contradictions and the fission of distinct aesthetic techniques. Confronting this, criticism itself tends toward two poles: To bind and resolve art’s contradictions, explain their emer­gence, and shape them into ideas. (This is historicism.) Or to allow art’s contradictions to break over us, dissolve us, and then account for that experience as best we can. (This is formalism.)

Certain works of art epitomize this constitutive incommensura­bility. Winged Victory of Samothrace, the statue of the goddess Niké, stands headless at the Louvre. She has her own alcove at the base of a grand staircase, like an icon; the placard tells us she was stolen from Greece and reconstituted from three large broken pieces. She is human in shape, superhuman in size, both heavy and weightless. Her rounded flesh weights the air; her trailing drapery, which is somehow also her skin, seems lighter than air. She is missing a head, but we just know that it was lovely. Her robe flows against and behind her like the sea, rippling with the winds of her ancient isle; her feet are planted on a curving ship’s bow, yet her wings, arcing above missing arms, are ready to raise her high. Her bound­edness, the way she carves into space and time, we call beauty. Her breach, the way she cracks open time and space, we call sublimity.

She is perfection; she is a jumble of fragments. She is grace; she is a shatter. She manifests labor and freedom at once, too. To change the emphasis in Walter Benjamin’s phrase “the work of art,” Victory clearly took a lot of work. We cannot but recognize in her the anonymous labor of her making, even as it yielded an illusion of effortlessness. Her physical presence will not let us forget the time spent gathering the material to build, shape, and reconstruct her, nor the time that has passed since she was made, which yawns back into history even as she stands before us now, like the angel of history.

In an essay on photography, Walter Benjamin asks, “What is aura?” and answers with a riddle:

A peculiar web of space and time: the unique manifestation of a distance, however near it may be. To follow, while reclining on a summer’s noon, the outline of a mountain range on the hori­zon or a branch, which casts its shadow on the observer until the moment or the hour partakes of their presence—this is to breathe in the aura of these mountains, of this branch.

Web, manifestation, distance, near, follow, recline, outline, range, horizon, branch, shadow, moment, presence, breath: somewhere in the interstices of these opposed, even incommensurable, ele­ments of Benjamin’s conceit is the feeling of being with this statue. It’s closer to a disturbance than a delight—less a free play of the mind than a jarring détente between senses distinct in kind.

Elsewhere, Benjamin says that “aura” is just our feeling that a work of art is looking back at us. Even without eyes to see, Victory glows with this returned gaze over the vastness of time—and with severance, too, the fracture of our alienation from her. After all, we are with her not on her breezy island but in the great hall of a famous museum whose grandeur and profits rest on the bones of the impoverished and the dead, our fellow victims of capitalism. (Niké/Nike.)

Yet our critical gaze need not be cowed by this monumental celebrity. Swept up in the collision of her incommensurabilities, our attention is drawn to her center, pulled there as if by a cord, or by accord. Or perhaps our attention is more like an arrow piercing her, pinning her still, as if in revenge for wrecking us. For there in her center is a wound, a whirlpool, a mystery: the slightly torqued recess of her navel. Omphalos. Something from the far reaches of the past, at the center of our own world, staring back at us.

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