On Criticism

Posted by @ 11:03 pm on March 17th, 2011

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about the position of criticism. At least, specifically in the online sphere. Clearly, the culture of criticism is something that helps perpetuate discussion about this stuff we like, which is always a good thing. Namely, this stuff we like, here at HTMLGIANT, is literature. Criticism can be great because it can carry on a conversation about a piece of work which helps to maintain the lifespan of the work. This is stuff that needs to happen– literature should not be read and forgotten, it should live on in other words I think.

The first public writing I ever did on the internet was film reviews. I started doing it because I was watching a lot of movies that had me really fucking excited, but nobody else on the internet was writing about them. Or, if they were mentioned at all, it was either in dismissive brevity or a simple exclamatory remark like “THIS SHIT IS DOPE!” Empty hyperbole is fine, and sometimes that’s all you have the energy to say, but I didn’t want to leave the space of these films. I wanted to engage with them and keep them going, because I knew they were powerful and needed some more recognition.

The first problem I ran into would be when I would watch something & end up not liking it at all. At the time, when I was basically just “developing content” in addition to gaining experience with what it was that I was doing, anything I had in my mind that I was going to review before watching it, I was stubborn enough to actually write about. If I found a film mediocre, the writing became a chore. If I hated a film, it was easy to spit vitriol, but I knew I wasn’t engaging with the film & that my commentary was useless. So, to put it simply, I stopped reviewing anything I didn’t like.

I’d like to suggest that this is a good approach; especially in regards to when you are writing on an outlet such as a blog. When you are not getting paid to write criticism, and you are doing so of your own volition, it strikes me as an incredible exercise in futility to waste energy writing negativity. Sure, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be able to articulate why you don’t like something, but it seems to me much more progressive & useful to be able to article why you do like something. It also strikes me as a lot difficult, because it requires more thought.

Let’s consider, perhaps, the thought process that you (or, well, “I” at least) encounter when I encounter a work of art and I like it enough to want to write about it. My initial response, generally, because of how I function, is one of pure affect. I can feel the text, or the movie, or the art, pulse into my bloodstream and carry my body. I get excited. Sometimes I want to just jump up and down in pleasure. It is, basically, my favorite feeling in the world. It’s pure physical response. So, if I have to examine why exactly my body is responding to art, I really have to consider it. I have to move beyond the hyperbole and look inside of the text, try to crack the code of what it is that’s moving me.

This is, as I’ve said, hard work. But it feels good when I figure it out. If I can put my finger on what exactly it is that inspire such a reaction inside of my own headland & body, then I can look for it further. I can find more things that have this “thing,” and I can possible work towards including the “thing” in my own work. Not only this, but I can (theoretically), introduce other people to this “thing.”

This is a constructive approach to criticism. There is no negativity, and there is only forward progression. Of course, it’s also constructive to figure out things that bring a work of art down. I don’t question that. It’s near impossible to find things that are perfect. But it’s easier to intellectually approach what doesn’t work in a work of art that you do like than it is in something you don’t like. In a work of art that you don’t like you are unlikely to care enough to really microscopically examine the work to the point where you can articulate exactly what it is that you don’t like. Instead, one will likely be stuck with the overwhelming despair at the idea of having to look harder into a text that brought them no pleasure.

In the height of despair you are more likely to only see the forest, not the trees (hah). You’ll forget that the forest consists of hundreds of trees. If you don’t like the way the forest looks, you shouldn’t blame each individual tree. Wait a second I hate metaphor what am I doing. My point is, basically, I don’t see the point of writing criticism of something you hated if you’re under no obligation to.

To be fair this arises more often, here, in the comment threads than it does in actual posts. It’s this sort of overwhelming negativity that immediately finds me frustrated. Somebody makes a post about something they love (most recent incident: Stephen Tully Dierk’s guest post on Steve Roggenbuck), and then, for no honestly discernible reason, somebody will make a comment that boils down to “THIS IS FUCKING STUPID I HATE IT.” I’m not questioning dissent, and good lord do I not want everyone to like the same shit (that would be so BORING), but I really don’t understand what the point of this comment is.

There are a number of artists in the world that I completely despise that will often, and do often, get lauded in critical arenas that I frequent. I hate Quentin Tarantino possibly more than anyone else who has ever made a movie, yet for some reason people I respect seem to honestly enjoy his work, and will often dialog with it in tangent with something that I wanna talk about, think about. I have a really hard time dealing with this. Mostly because, for whatever reason, Tarantino is a director who, in opposition to the happy jouissance my body encounters when faced with something truly awesome, inspires a pure, physical, revulsion. I have literally shaken with anger when people have spent time trying to convince me that Tarantino is the best director in the world or whatever.

I understand, this happens.

In fact, for a couple years I would intentionally waste money to see his movies in theaters so I could craft a carefully articulated & pre-packaged response when people would, of course, bring whatever his most recent movie was up, lauding its merits. I do not like talking about shit I don’t like, and for some reason Tarantino fanboys really like to insist on talking about him. So, I thought, “I know, I’ll just have some highly articulated and memorized spiel ready so I can disarm these motherfuckers before they push full-steam ahead and then I can get out unscathed.”

In theory, this is a good idea. In practice, this makes you a cunt. If somebody really loves something, and you try to counter their enjoyment with some “objective” or “analytical” defense of why what they love is terrible, it’s not like they’re going to suddenly, immediately, have a change of heart and decide that what they love is bullshit. It ain’t gonna happen. All that’s going to happen is that you’ll find yourself suddenly engaged in a two hour conversation about a movie that you wish didn’t exist. This is wasted energy. This is not even Bataille’s accursed share, this is just basically nihilism.

I could write a 200 page treatise on why Tarantino’s movies are shit, and people are still going to like them. You could write me a 200 page treatise on why Jess Franco’s films are crap, but I’m still going to love him. In fact, it’s unlikely that I would even read a 200 page treatise that spends those 200 pages trying to convince me that something I love is bullshit. Who in their right mind would? So all you’re doing is wasting time when you’re hating on something.

This is an annoying fact of life.

I’m not saying I’m above this. There is a TON of shit I hate, and even a ton of shit that I like to hate on. But being, so to speak, a hater, I’ve learned that there are times when I just need to shut the fuck up and appreciate the fact that everybody has their own taste, and no matter how objective you think are you are saying something, objectivity cannot invalidate someone’s subjectivity.

So, I guess, my suggestion is: how about we pour our energy into writing about things we love instead of things we hate?