How To Be A Critic (pt. 2)

Posted by @ 4:16 pm on February 15th, 2013

Young Critic Engaging with John Lavery’s
“Portrait of Anna Pavlova” (1911)

In Part One of this series, I introduced a network of ideas aimed at rethinking our approach to criticism by foregrounding observation over interpretation, and participation over judgment, by asking what a text does rather than what it means. This time, I’ll expand on those ideas.

The young girl in the picture above demonstrates an angle on the critical practice I proposed. She also brings to mind what Nietzsche said about the ideal reader in Ecco Homo, “When I try to picture the character of a perfect reader I always imagine a monster of courage and curiosity as well as of suppleness, cunning and prudence—in short a born adventurer and explorer.”

The critic as monster, performer, participant, adventurer, explorer.

“For me,” wrote Elaine De Kooning, “the most important thing about the words ‘painting’ and ‘drawing’ is that they end in ing. A painting to me is primarily a verb, not a noun, an event first and only secondarily an image.”

I see no reason why “writing” should fail to benefit from a similar approach.

To rewrite De Kooning, then: a book to me is primarily a verb, not a noun, an event first and only secondarily an object.

Brandon Shimoda demonstrates a take on this approach in his recent essay on John Ashbery’s The Double Dream of Spring, where he reveals the process of his relationship with the text. He writes, “What I was actually falling in love with was mystery, danger, unknowing.” What we get in place of a value judgment about the book, or in place of an attempt to decipher the book, is a description of how the text becomes an active node in the circuit of Shimoda’s life. Less a static thing, more an experience.

Trish Harnetiaux offers a similar but distinct approach in her recent contribution to Delirious Hem’s Chick Flix series curated by Jennifer L. Knox, with her piece “WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING we accidentally watched a Sandra Bullock movie twice in a row (based on the memory of a true story).” Written in the form of a play, this highly imaginative engagement with Jon Turteltaub’s 1995 Sandra Bullock vehicle illustrates the event-like quality of a text: through the dialogue of the characters the film becomes less a noun, less a thing, and more a verb, more a site of and for action. Notice the way Harnetiaux’s characters interact with the text and open it up by connecting it to other films and memories in a way that expands and contributes to the text.

This line of thinking (text as verb more than noun) reminds me of Gertrude Stein’s work. Oh how she hated nouns. Have you seen Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Gertrude Stein’s Punctuation From Gertrude Stein on Punctuation“?



By erasing the words and leaving the punctuation marks, Goldsmith foregrounds the presence of constellations in her work. “Stars stuck all over…,” as Sylvia Plath said. “The stars he unhooked from the night…” as Apollinaire said. Little markings, little landmines, Morse code.

Goldsmith comments on the text by observing and creating.

The critic as participant, explorer, performer.

For guidance on how one might instantiate this practice, consider the dynamic illustrated in this example of an acting exercise called “The Mirror”:

Here, the text corresponds to the lead actor, and the critic corresponds to the actor mirroring the leader. The importance of this relationship as an example of critical practice aligns with their shared privileging of close observation, engagement, movement, adjustment, openness, suppleness, and adventurousness. Notice that the actor mirroring the leader does not interpret the movements. Instead, the mirroring actor observes and follows without judgement the movement of the lead actor. (The young critic at the top of this post performs the mirror exercise with Lavery’s painting.)

Avoiding interpretation is paramount to this process, because interpretation is the act of judgment, the act of reduction more than expansion. To confuse observation with interpretation is to confuse the direction of traffic: to drive on the left-hand side of the road rather than the right-hand side of the road.

Observation and explanation, which are the practices I have encouraged (identifying what the text is doing and elaborating on how the text is doing it), are antonymous with interpretation. To clarify their distinction, I defer to Franco Moretti, who puts it nicely:

To be clear, I take the distinction between interpretation and explanation from Ricoeur [and partly from Elster]: interpretation turns the words/actions in the text into a new text created by the interpreter [What Horatio really means in the play is…]; explanation establishes a relationship between the words in the text and an already existing external force or structure [for, respectively, causal or functional explanations]. Whence, usually, a greater sense of “solidity” conveyed by explanations over interpretations.

Instead of blocking a text with interpretation, it can be opened by observation, description, and participation. Instead of transforming a text into another text with interpretation, the critic can allow the original text to remain itself and then create a companion text for it.

Recall, for example, the engaging criticism created by readers of Zachary German’s Eat When You Feel Sad, which called itself “promotion,” but in fact serves as the kind of criticism I am suggesting, akin to the young girl’s criticism of Lavery’s painting above. Here are a few examples, from Blake Butler, Megan Boyle, Tao Lin, and Adam Robinson:

Notice how they interact with the text, how they avoid interpretation, and resist a desire to find meaning. Instead, they simply participate.

To put it another way, Jean-Luc Godard, a film critic before he was ever a filmmaker, once said that the only valid way to criticize a movie was to make one of your own.

This form of criticism is creative and affirmative, more than destructive and negative. It resists value judgment. It makes the text bigger, more than making the text smaller. It does not rewrite the text, but instead produces a companion for the text. It helps to expand the text, more than reduce the text, which brings to mind this comment filmmaker Steven Soderbergh made recently in an interview Ken Baumann brought to my attention. He said:

“I’m always curious to hear how something was made—though I have no interest in why an artist did something, or what his work means. Like with Jackson Pollock: I’m always interested in what kind of paint and canvas he used, I just don’t want to know what he meant. You’re supposed to expand your mind to fit the art, you’re not supposed to chop the art down to fit your mind.”

Which reminds me…have you read Nick Demske’s review of Joyelle McSweeney’s book, Percussion Grenade over at Phoebe? He engages with her book of poetry by writing a poem. The way Goldsmith engages with Stein’s text by creating its doppelgänger. The way Butler, Lin, Boyle, and Robinson engage with German’s book by making a video. The way the young girl engages with the Lavery painting by performing a dance. The way Shimoda engages with Ashbery by writing a personal narrative. The way Harnetiaux engages with While You Were Sleeping by writing a play.

The idea, as Soderbergh reminds us, is to increase more than diminish, to intensify, to proliferate, to expand.