Review Stand


in Archive


Technology killed criticism. I can explain very specifically how this happened. Take Netflix, for example. On Netflix, every movie or TV show available on the site comes pre-rated for you. Netflix collects the data you’ve created in choosing movies and in telling Netflix what you thought about movies you’ve already watched. The company then use an algorithm that combines your data with data from other users in order to rate everything you haven’t seen according to your pre-established preferences. The system is not perfect. It doesn’t, and probably cannot, account for every quirk and oddity in the wonderfully complex individual human being. But in my experience, the system works very well, perhaps disturbingly well. The same system is used by Amazon to rate and suggest books for you. Pandora functions in a roughly similar way with music.


Never before has the general public had access to such an array of tools by which they can pre-sort the entirety of the world’s cultural production along the lines of what they already like and dislike. Let us put aside whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. It has elements both of goodness and badness, as do all such sweeping changes. What it surely does, however, is to further isolate the poor critic. The authority of the critic is diminished to near zero when, with the touch of a button, anyone can find out what millions of people with tastes just like them already feel about artist X. For what purpose is the lonely judgment of our critic, our petulant voice from a lost time? She is, increasingly, a voice shouting in the wilderness, except that the wilderness is fully peopled, the wilderness is cacophonous with voices that utterly drown her out, our little critic from another age.

Some lament this situation; they rail against the coming darkness. That is a legitimate option. Others, though, take a different approach. They face the oblivion with joy, knowing that with death comes freedom. Some critics seem to know instinctively, to feel it in their very critical bones, that the death of the critic-as-authority is the birth of another kind of criticism.

I call that other kind of criticism, the kind that doesn’t rely on authority and judgment, Romantic criticism. I call it that because of what I learned, long ago, from that melancholic and suicidal German, Walter Benjamin. Early in his career, Benjamin wrote a typically esoteric and maddeningly impenetrable essay called “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism.” There is much in that essay that I take to be wrong. There is something in it that I suspect to be crazy. But there is an important idea in it, too, an idea that took its first form in the ramblings of men like Friedrich Schlegel and the poet Novalis. The idea is that criticism does not stand outside the work of art, but stands alongside, maybe even inside, the work of art, participating in the work in order to further express and tease out what the artist already put there. In this theory of criticism, we don’t need the critic to tell us what is good or bad, to tell us what to like and dislike. We need the critic, instead, to help us experience. We need the critic in the way that we need a friend or a lover. We need the critic as a companion on a journey that is a love affair with the things of the world. Benjamin once referred to this form of criticism as “the first form of criticism that refuses to judge.” The primary virtue of this kind of criticism is its inherent generosity. It wants to make experience bigger, it wants to make each work of art as rich as it can possibly be. Its sole medium, as Benjamin put it, is “the life, the ongoing life, of the works themselves.”

Just this Sunday past, the New York Times—that venerable institution of public record —  put out an edition of its Sunday books section with the stated purpose of figuring out the current state of criticism. They asked six critics (Stephen Burn, Katie Roiphe, Pankaj Mishra, Adam Kirsch, Sam Anderson, and Elif Batuman) to weigh in on the matter. I found it particularly pleasing, moving even, to note that a Benjaminian attitude, consciously or less so, is alive and well in most of the responses (even if such an attitude is rarely to be found at a books section in which the “thumbs up, thumbs down” school of criticism is by far the majority voice). The title of Kirsch’s piece, “The Will Not to Power, but to Self-Understanding,” I take to speak more generally for all of the responses and to capture the shared Benjaminian Romantic spirit. Speaking about the same loss of authority that I referred to at the beginning of this essay, Kirsch writes, “What this displacement takes from the critic in terms of confidence and authority, it perhaps restores to him in terms of integrity and freedom.”

Indeed, I feel it, too. The warm, light breeze of freedom and integrity. Are we crazy, Kirsch and I? Kirsch does, after all, back off the point immediately, pointing out that he is a poet and thus already resigned to the condition of marginality. But no, the Benjaminian flavor pops up with the comments of the other critics as well. Here’s Sam Anderson striking a note that would have made Schlegel smile:

Updike’s career is a different thing in the wake of Nicholson Baker’s “U and I.” Catullus is a different poet after Anne Carson’s “Nox.” In the grand game of intertextuality — which is, after all, the dominant and defining game of the Internet era — critics are not just referees: they’re equal players.

There is freedom and confidence in Anderson’s statement. The feeling of freedom does not come from being an authority. Anderson does not want to be a referee; he wants to be a player. He wants to participate in the life of the works he writes about. Even Katie Roiphe, who is perhaps more concerned about the loss of authority than some of the other critics in the issue, does not see the question of authority in terms of the supposed importance of the critic’s opinion. She sees it in the writing. “The secret function of the critic today,” she claims, “is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.” This too reflects the inherent generosity of a Benjaminian Romanticism. Writing well about writing is criticism in the service of an overall magnification of beauty. It increases the life of the work, just like Benjamin wanted.

That sense of increase, magnification, and generosity always also came through in Benjamin’s love of “marginalia.” Benjamin treated children’s literature with the same seriousness with which he read anything. He loved toys and old letters, the writings of the insane and the popular science fiction novels of Paul Scheerbart. Reviewing a book about the history of toys, a review that he tellingly titled “Marginal Notes on a Monumental Work,” Benjamin opened with the sentence, “It will be a while before you are ready to read this book, so fascinating is the sight of the endless variety of toys that its illustrated section unfolds before the reader.” There is an immense amount of joy here, a bigness that comes from the freedom of non-authoritative criticism. It is intensely serious, precisely because it is seriously willing to take for criticism the entirety of creation, to see “in every scrap of paper covered with writing … a free ticket to the great theatrum mundi.”

This is exactly what Stephen Burn is talking about in his essay for the New York Times when he says:

The culture is what it is — messy and multi-valent, open to a certain range of entertainments and cultural expressions — and the critic’s yearning to dominate a larger audience is an index of the extent to which he or she finds the critical task insufficient in itself. Stepping aside from the culture of opinion, delving deeper into open-minded analysis, critics might fulfill their most important function: locating major works that are not always visible in mainstream networks.

Such an approach has always made a certain kind of critic nervous. The nervous critic is always worried that the good will be confused with the bad, that standards will wither and die, that the philistines will finally destroy everything that is solid and true. There is no guarantee, of course, that such terrible events will not come to pass. The barbarians are, as ever, waiting at the gates. But the path of freedom will never be open, alas, to the overly nervous. To surrender all great claims to authority, to stop worrying nervously about the fate of civilization and your role in preserving it, is to give up on the immediate trappings of power and glory. That is a difficult thing to do. It is particularly hard for the critic, who is being asked to relinquish the one worldly treasure that seemed within her grasp. It is to be told to turn your back on the one thing that is supposed to matter to the culture at large: your critical opinion. For those Romantic critics, however, who are willing to give up their authority, to renounce the desire to influence and shape the tastes of the time, another possibility begins to emerge. Adam Kirsch has written a lovely phrase that hints at what such a possibility would look like. It is criticism as “a way of making one’s self, one’s soul.” This is an option that has always existed, has always been a possible answer to the question, “Why does criticism matter?” Today, now, in our world, it looks like a better answer than ever. • 4 January 2011