Critique is such a misnomer for the activity it denotes. The split between denotation and connotation is such that those who are interested in the former are discouraged from engaging with it by the latter – and, moreover, that those who are interested only in the former claim it at the expense of the latter. The result is writing that proclaim to be ‘critical’ without knowing the first thing about critique, and (sadly) writing that never takes place for pretty much the same reason.
It is a shame. I daresay it is bad.
The split is between the notion of being ‘critical’ – having negative things in general – and critique – being able to discuss something intelligibly and for the purposes of mutual enlightenment. One of these can be done without knowing anything in particular about the subject matter, almost effortlessly; the other is a painstaking effort wherein the ambition is to present the best possible knowledge on the topic at hand. As subtle as the difference between the two might seem at first glance, it turns out to be the vastest of abysses when put into practical use.
The purpose of critique is to make sense of things, and to make this sense publicly available in some form. Determining whether a particular thing is good or bad is part of the sensemaking process, but it is not the most interesting thing that can be said about it. A critique that ends after proclaiming something good or bad is an uninteresting critique – it only tells us that the thing exists, is good/bad, and possibly some reason for this verdict. It tells us nothing about the thing itself, its context, the various aspects of it that fail or succeed, the ideas it mobilizes by going through its motions, and so on. All these things are relevant to make sense of with regards to a particular work or text, and if the only thing that can be said about it is “it’s bad”, then no sense is being made or shared at all.
The worst critiques are those who have a set list of criteria for good and bad respectively, and then proceed to judge everything based on whether these criteria are fulfilled. Not only are these algorithmic critiques possible to predict beforehand, they also tell us very little about the object in question. More specifically, a reader will only find out if the work possesses any of the (un)desired qualities the critic has deemed relevant, and nothing else. In terms of furthering a shared making of sense, the advance is limited indeed. And if your view of the world is limited to only considering these aspects when confronted with new works of art or texts, then it does double duty by also being limiting as well.
This focus on furthering shared understanding places an onus on the critic to partake of what is already said and known about the subject matter at hand. If something has already been said a thousand times, it is a missed opportunity to not learn from these previous times when preparing to say it for yourself. If what you are about to say something about has extensive documentation written about it, then choosing to remain uninformed is a counterintuitive choice. While not knowing everything about everything is not a failure in and of itself – it is the human condition, from which we all suffer – the critic owes it to their ambitions to know something about something. There is already a shared understanding of most things, and any ambition of furthering this understanding requires some familiarity with its general outlines.
If you have read this far, then you are probably beginning to suspect that a critique is about more things than simply pointing out flaws in something. It is an unfortunate fact of language that the word ‘critical’ has come to connote assuming a hostile position against something, and that being critical and being hostile is seen as being the same thing. To be sure, if you are hostile towards something, then pointing out its flaws is a gratifying activity. But the gain to our shared understanding of the thing ought to be greater than simply finding out that you are hostile towards it; and, in the spirit of honesty, you owe it to yourself to find out why you are hostile towards it. Not only to be able to think clearly about it, but also to convey to others exactly why you think what you think.
The best critiques are those who ground the reader in a tradition and introduces them to useful points of reference for further thinking about the subject matter. It is for this reason some texts about particular works of art or fiction begin by talking about seemingly unrelated topics, until they suddenly arrive at the subject matter with such clarity and explanatory force that it becomes unthinkable not to see things that way. The best critiques manages to convey this sense of shared understanding by sheer force of explication – they formulate a point of view, and by trying on this point of view we can see the world in new and improved ways.
All this requires a non-trivial amount of time and effort to pull off. Having read the books, seen the movies and initiated oneself in a tradition is not something that happens overnight. It is about more than merely knowing a subject matter – it is about understanding the point of view that goes along with it. And, in the process, to point out any potential flaws inherent in this particular way of thinking about the world. So as to make us think better.
The purpose of critique is to make points of view visible.
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[…] set of criteria on a limited set of objects. Going through the motions of such a procedure does not increase our understanding of the works in question, or even why they were included in the ranking process to begin with. With […]