Critics of Critics Should Be Criticized

Wesleyan's president thinks students question their readings too much. Which raises a few questions ...

Famed critic Larry David. (HBO)

As a critic, I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty that people hate criticism, and, for that matter, critics. If you point out that much science-fiction has a less than ideal historical relationship with imperialism, you will get lots of sci-fi fans lining up to tell you that you are awful for trashing something that gives them joy. If you say that Dead Poets Society cheerfully encourages young men to embrace sexism and fascism, fans will complain that you are preventing them from being as awesomely inspired by Robin Williams as they should be. Even relatively positive appraisals of, say, romance novels, can invite pushback.

For that matter, here I am complaining about people criticizing me. Why oh why don't they simply lean back and bask in my wonderful brilliance? Why do they have to quibble and cavil? Criticism: Even critics don't want it.

It was, then, not a surprise to see Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth taking to the New York Times to launch a criticism of criticism. Roth laments that his students read Rousseau and Emerson only to contradict them:

Instead of trying to find mistakes in the texts, I suggest we take the point of view that our authors created these apparent “contradictions” in order to get readers like us to ponder more interesting questions. … Yes, there’s a certain satisfaction in being critical of our authors, but isn’t it more interesting to put ourselves in a frame of mind to find inspiration in them?

A big reason people are critical, Roth writes, is to show "that you will not be easily fooled. It is a sign of sophistication." He goes on to warn that "fetishizing disbelief as a sign of intelligence has contributed to depleting our cultural resources." Question Emerson and America will fall, or at least be depleted.

The biggest problem with this argument is fairly obvious. Who decides which works are beyond questioning, and which questions are inappropriate? Should we open ourselves and be absorbed and inspired by Birth of a Nation? By Mein Kampf? Or, closer to home, by the collected speeches of George W. Bush or (so as not to be accused of partisanship) Bill Clinton?  Should we just do it, to quote an inspirational slogan that will help us grow if we only take it at face value?

So here I am doing that thing that Roth doesn't want me to do. I am not taking his writing as an opportunity for inspiration. Instead I am finding in it material to object to. Mea culpa. Let me instead, then, open myself to his argument, and agree that, yes, sometimes people dismiss things too quickly or without thought. But has knee-jerk negativity really increased, in academia or anywhere?  No matter how much you try not to think about it, it's hard to avoid the fact that Roth's evidence is entirely anecdotal. (And some of the anecdotes seem a little beside the point. The rising tide of negativity is responsible for kids playing with their cell phones in class, really?)

Roth's request that we put aside criticism isn't new or isolated. Julia Cameron in the best-selling self-help book The Artist's Way from 1992 fulminated similarly against the critical process, arguing that creativity should flow naturally like urine (okay, she didn't phrase it exactly that way, that's me being snarky, because snark is funny, sometimes, and why should that be a bad thing?). Barbara Ehrenreich in her 2010 Bright-Sided pointed out, like the hater she is, that Americans seem constitutionally and oppressively wedded to hating hate. And Rod Dreher in response to Roth's post nods along acceptingly: "There are some things that cannot be fully known from a critical distance."

So there's plenty of reason to believe that Roth’s arguing not for a new wave of wonder, but for an old wave of not wanting to engage in critical thought. In doing so, he himself seems to harbor some of the cynicism that he decries. His essay is, after all, a criticism—of his students, of current campus culture, of this insufficiently uncritical American life. He encourages us to "understand an experience from another's point of view"—but he doesn't try to understand the experience of reading Emerson. (Perhaps Roth would say that he has created these "apparent contradictions" in order to stimulate thought. To which I would reply, hey, I anticipated that objection, and just included my own apparent contradictions.)

Roth does acknowledge that "critical thinking is a useful tool." But that acknowledgement doesn’t engage with the way that critical thinking is inseparable from just plain thinking.  You don't turn off your brain when you watch a film. How can my enjoyment of Roth's essay be separated from my evaluation of what Roth is saying?  If I love Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, how is that love separable from my evaluation of his use of language, his subtlety of characterization, or his criticism of the protagonists' families?  For that matter, how can I be inspired by James Baldwin without taking seriously his insistence that criticism, of film, of art, of politics, is a moral act? Surely what's inspiring about Jonathan Swift, or Virginia Woolf, or, for that matter, Emerson, is the slashing, fearless beauty of their critical thought—their imaginative refusal to accept the truths most everyone else takes for granted.

Roth worries that too much critical thinking will prevent students from learning new points of view. If we're too negative, he suggests, "We risk seeing a different way of living not as something alien, but as a possibility we might be able to explore, and even embrace." Opening up new worlds or perspectives can certainly be one of the great accomplishments of art. But those worlds generally don't open without you or someone else first putting great big tears in the world you've got. Ursula K. Le Guin didn't imagine her anarchist utopia in The Dispossessed in a vacuum; getting there involves critiquing what's here now.  Opening yourself to the experience of Solomon Northup in 12 Years A Slave is inextricably linked to a criticism of America's past, not to mention its present.

Saying that critical scrutiny of Emerson, or James Baldwin or Kathleen Gilles Seidel will somehow rob them of value makes their work seem like a weak, fragile thing. But the truth is, Emerson doesn't need help. James Baldwin doesn't need protection from students. Away with this trembling art. Give me art that gets stronger when you fight it, not weaker. Give me the art that's left after the hammer comes down.