On the Purpose and Utility of Critique and Politics

This post grows out of a sort of smoldering rant that I've been having for a while now. As I sit here at one of these synthetic moments when I'm trying to figure out how past interests and experiences build up to the future--how do the things that I loved so much in college affect life/me now?--the purpose of social/literary theory ("philosophy with a cause,") is one of these things.

The internet loves polemics, and so 'theory has a venue here, but I've read a lot of blog posts and emails from people who seem to yield theory and critique like a baseball bat, rather than a toothbrush, [1] so it's been even more on my mind.

What is critique? What separates "good" critique from "bad" critique, and what end does it serve?

I think if any of you are presently reading Stephen Greenblat or Elaine Scary--for instance--you might have a pretty good answer for this. But what about the internet? There's a lot of critical work that's out there on the internet, a lot of people working outside of the academy who contribute to a discourse that attempts to analyze the world and our culture, often with various kinds of political goals. This is also critique.

Now I don't want to seem like (too much of) an ass, I read a lot of crap on the internet that, to my mind seems like either really bad critique or (more likely) critique that fails to really capture the spirit of what I think the critical mode is.

Feel free (and encouraged) to disagree, but lets do a little bit of brainstorming on what makes good critique or bad critique:

  • Critique is synthetic. Critique really needs to draw together multiple perspectives and sources. You can't critique something without consulting previous critical literature (this is why theory is necessary, without it, we are contextually adrift), without consulting similar and dissimilar works. Critique is the mode through which all of these perspectives come together.
  • Critique is often positive. It's very easy to assume that the purpose of critique is to go through some abominable text [2] and tear it to shreds, and often this is enjoyable, but it is not productive. "Bad" and otherwise objectionable content will either stand or fail on it's own, and taking a positive approach to critique means, I think that critique can be more politically productive, because, critiques can say "this good thing is good," which is more instructive to consumers and producers of content. This doesn't mean that critique has to be unequivocally positive--far from it--but if there isn't a substantial positive outlook, the critique suffers.
  • Critique doesn't pass judgement; critique that passes judgment is called "review" and I think "review" has a different role and mold. It's unfortunate that people who produce in both modes are called "critics."
  • Critique is contextual: This is sort of an adjunct statement to the first, but I think it's important to realize that critique that doesn't contextualize both the works in question, and the moment of critique is useless. This is also, potentially controversial, but I don't suspect we have very many New Critics in the audience. Texts and critics don't exist in a vacuum, and criticism can't either. From this principal springs a couple of subsidiary values:
  • Paradoxically, readers of criticism need not be familiar with the texts your addressing, though they are likely familiar with the larger body of work that the texts belong to.
  • Critics can't hold individual works accountable for "their times," nor can critics rise above the constraints of their times in criticism. Attempts to violate these rules are almost always tragic.
  • Critique has an agenda: People don't create texts or critique those texts without an agenda. Period.
  • Critique has data, that is to say "texts." One cannot critique abstract objects, or at least I doubt that it could do that very well. Particularly when specific texts are at the heart the critics' work. For instance you can't critique victorian gender norms, but you can critique the ways that legislation, and fashion standards vis a vis a sewing manual shaped gender norms during a period. You can't critique a political campaign, but you can critique the marketing strategy vis a vis the advertising of various candidates.
    • Often the more specific the data is the better.
    • Often it's hard to get all the data surrounding contemporary texts and phenomena. This requires special considerations.
  • Critique is a pathway to understanding: Looking for and elucidating mechanisms behind particular literary/artistic/cultural phenomena is one of the most powerful and important goals of critique.

That's enough for now, but I'm interested in seeing what you all have to contribute...

[1]This is to say, that critique is a tool for getting the grit off of a surface of something that's obscured, generally for the purpose of making it look bright and nice. It's delicate, and precise, and has important effects, but it doesn't change things fast. Baseball bats hit and break things, they hurt people and evoke strong reaction when swung in public spaces.
[2]I use text in the broadest sense possible.
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