And do we need them (anymore)?
When I go online to buy a book, Amazon is quite good at providing me with recommendations, with no critic required. They do it using algorithms based on what I’ve already purchased and rated, and on other things people who also purchased those books bought and rated highly. Right now it suggests Rebecca Makkai’s short story collection Music for Wartime (which I want to read); McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene (which I want to read); Juliana Spahr’s poetry collection This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (which I have read and admired), and the final book in Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants saga (which I want to read—to my daughter). The accuracy with which they can predict my buying habits, if not exactly my taste, is testifies that when we consider the act of criticism, we must now consider the work of criticism in the age of mechanical recommendations.
Sentimental attachments to the ideal of criticism aside, if the critic can’t do more than tell us “you’ll probably like this,” the critic is likely out of a job.
Of course critics have long predicated their authority on the idea of answering questions larger than “will you like this?” In the eighteenth century David Hume drew a distinction between what he called “the argument of sentiment” and the question of taste. The argument of sentiment, he wrote, took as a given that discussions of taste were simply discussions of individual preference. You like Milton, I like Marlowe, and that’s the end of it. But what we’re really discussing, then, aren’t the qualities of Paradise Lost or “The Passionate Shepherd to Her Love”—we’re discussing ourselves, and our individual affinities and distastes. If you believe in the argument of sentiment, you can’t really say whether one book is better than another. But if you know someone’s predilections, you can predict, with some confidence, what that person might enjoy. “This is good” is beyond you, unless you’re simply using it as shorthand for “I know a thing or two about you, and think you’ll like this.”
Amazon’s algorithms are great aficionados of the argument of sentiment. But for Hume, the real critic doesn’t rely on this way of judging. A proper critic really does want to say something about the object in question, rather than about the subject who will like or dislike it. The critic matters, because his or her (well, his, for Hume) judgment comes from due consideration of the aesthetic object, from sensitivity of perception, and from familiarity with many other objects of the same kind. How do you get to be a Humean critic? Practice, practice, practice. The sensitive, experienced critic knows what good art is because he knows how to judge, and has earned that authority. This is still the principal upon which many critics base their authority: “I’ve been reading poems carefully every day since you were in diapers, kid, so trust me: this is a good one, and if you’re not feeling it, that’s because you’re missing something I’m not. Try harder.”
Kant comes at things a little differently, but ultimately his game is the same as Hume’s: he’ll tell you we can distinguish the beautiful from the ugly not through some specific formula (the regularity or irregularity of a poem’s meter, the ratio of one drawn line to another) but because we can figure out which acts of judgment are better than others. If we’re letting our moral sense interfere with our judgment, we’re not making a good one (the pyramids may have been built through the exploitation of slaves, but that doesn’t make them failed monuments, for Kant—and Triumph of the Will, while an evil film, doesn’t necessarily make it devoid of beauty). If we admire a poem because we’re in love with the person who wrote it, we’re also making an impure judgment. Only to the degree that we screen out personal connections, moral evaluations, and a sense of whether the art in question will work good or ill in the world, are we truly making a judgment of beauty. For Kant, the screening out of all these impure elements makes for a proper judgment of whether something is truly beautiful, and we can hypothetically (and perhaps only hypothetically), arrive at such pure judgments.
Beauty, though, isn’t necessarily the standard by which things ought to be judged, at least not to many thinkers of our own time. Fredric Jameson, for example, distinguishes between taste (which is personal), analysis (which links a work’s formal qualities to its historical moment) and evaluation (which “interrogates the quality of social life itself by way of the text or individual work of art”). The best critic, for Jameson, moves beyond individual preference and beyond scholarship. The critic sees the artwork as a symptom of the social system that gave rise to it, and makes an evaluation of the justice or injustice of that system based on the evidence of the artwork. Thus the aesthetic critic becomes the social critic, a creature we may find, for better and for worse, in many a faculty lounge across the land.
The experienced critic; the pure-minded critic; the politicized critic: each of these does something different, and something more, than saying “you might like this.” But so do the machines, nowadays, at least a little.
When you go online to see if a movie has been well-received, the sites you are most likely to visit will break down the reaction into two categories: the reactions of critics and the reactions of audiences. You’ll see the percentage of critics who thought highly of a movie, and the percentage of audience members who responded positively. Often the two numbers are similar, but at times they are at variance: sometimes you see a movie that was the critics’ darling despised by general audiences, or vice-versa. The machines that assemble and present this system of dual ratings are making a distinction between the different types of appeal movies can have. Pierre Bourdieu, who measured reactions to artworks in much the same way that online algorithms do—by counting them—understood well the phenomenon of people appreciating different art for different reasons. He draws a distinction between “the pure gaze” that looks primarily at style, formal elements, and composition, and appreciates novelty; and its opposite, “the popular aesthetic,” which wants to participate in the artwork, to identify with its protagonists emotionally, to hate what the work hates and love what it loves and revel in the victory of truth and love in the final chapter of the book or the final scene of the movie. Bourdieu wasn’t interested in saying one way of appreciating art was better than another, but he was interested in who looked at things which way. And what he found, after years of empirical study, was something very like the online movie rating systems division of the critics and the audience.
What do we get from Bourdieu’s studies, or from the online movie sites? Not the critic’s traditional “this is good, trust me.” Nor simply “you might like this.” We get something like “this movie is good for this way of looking at things, but not for that way of looking at things.” If you want a critic’s pure gaze experience, this movie may let you down, but if you want what the popular aesthetic wants, break out the popcorn. We’ve moved to some kind of third ground beyond “this is objectively good” and “this is something you will like.” Now we’re looking at “this is good for x, but not so good for y.”
One thing a critic can do in the age of mechanical recommendation, other than insist on the pure or practiced nature of his or her judgments, or the acuity of his or her political evaluation of the artwork, is this: the critic can do a better and subtler job of understanding what a particular piece of art or writing is good at, and what it doesn’t do so well.
For this task, the critic needs to turn not to the qualities of the artwork itself, or not only to those, but to the way the artwork interacts with the critic’s own sensibilities. When you, as a critic, react well or poorly to the work of art, you can go beyond recording this, and listing the pleasing or displeasing qualities of the object—you can take your own positive or negative reaction as the text to consider. When you analyze the whole phenomenon of the meeting of you and your circumstances with the object, you interrogate the result of that meeting: what was it about my expectations and standards that was delighted or disappointed by the work, and what does that tell me—not only about the work, but about the limits and significance of my habitual responses? Sometimes, if this is your practice, the works you find insignificant, ugly, offensive, or banal can be the most revealing, in that they expose the frontiers of your own sympathy, and can perhaps help in expanding them. The critic will understand, as well as judge, and will be able to say “the work is good at affirming these sorts of values, and not good at affirming those other values—and my judgment does the converse.” This gives the reader more than mechanical recommendations can currently give us, except in the crudest and most rudimentary form. And it has the potential to liberate the critics from the tyranny of their own tastes. When we follow this path—which is not the only path, to be sure—the critic’s sensibility (practiced, pure, political, or otherwise) becomes an object of analysis, rather than an iron law.
ROBERT ARCHAMBEAU is a poet and critic whose books include the poetry collections Laureates and Heretics and The Kafka Sutra and the critical studies Laureates and Heretics and The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, among others. He is professor of English at Lake Forest College.