Advice for critics

Walter Benjamin, Virginia
Woolf, & Roland Barthes

Image: Raoul Hausmann,
The Art Critic (1919-1920),


Walter Benjamin

“The critic’s technique in thirteen theses” (1928)


I. The critic is the strategist in the literary battle.
II. He who cannot take sides should keep silent.
III. The critic has nothing in common with the interpreter of past cultural epochs.
IV. Criticism must talk the language of artists. For the terms of the cenacle are slogans. And only in slogans is the battle-cry heard.
V. “Objectivity” must always be sacrificed to partisanship, if the cause fought for merits this.
VI. Criticism is a moral question. If Goethe misjudged Hölder­lin and Kleist, Beethoven, and Jean Paul, his morality and not his artistic discernment was at fault. [One can hear echoes of Kant's Critique of Judgment in this passage].
VII. For the critic his colleagues are the higher authority. Not the public. Still less posterity.
VIII. Posterity forgets or acclaims. Only the critic judges in face of the author.
IX. Polemics mean to destroy a book in a few of its sentences. The less it has been studied the better. Only he who can destroy can criticize.
X. Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby.
XI. Artistic enthusiasm is alien to the critic. In his hand the artwork is the shining sword in the battle of minds.
XII. The art of the critic in a nutshell: to coin slogans without betraying ideas. The slogans of an inadequate criticism peddle ideas to fashion.
XIII. The public must always be proved wrong, yet always feel represented by the critic.

Man Ray, photo portrait of Virginia Woolf (1935)

Man Ray, Photo portrait of Virginia Woolf (1935)

Virginia Woolf

“The decay of essay-writing” (1905)

The spread of education and the necessity which haunts us to impart what we have acquired have led, and will lead still further, to some startling results. We read of the over-burdened British Museum — how even its appetite for printed matter flags, and the monster pleads that it can swallow no more. This public crisis has long been familiar in private houses. One member of the household is almost officially deputed to stand at the hall door with flaming sword and do battle with the invading armies. Tracts, pamphlets, advertisements, gratuitous copies of magazines, and the literary productions of friends come by post, by van, by messenger — come at all hours of the day and fall in the night, so that the morning breakfast table is fairly snowed up with them.

This age has painted itself more faithfully than any other in a myriad of clever and conscientious though not supremely great works of fiction; it has tried seriously to liven the faded colors of bygone ages; it has delved industriously with spade and axe in the rubbish-heaps and ruins; and, so far, we can only applaud our use of pen and ink. But if you have a monster like the British public to feed, you will try to tickle its stale palate in new ways; fresh and amusing shapes must be given to the old commodities — for we really have nothing so new to say that it will not fit into one of the familiar forms. So we confine ourselves to no one literary medium; we try to be new by being old; we revive mystery-plays and affect an archaic accent; we deck ourselves in the fine raiment of an embroidered style; we cast off all clothing and disport ourselves nakedly. In short, there is no end to our devices, and at this very moment probably some ingenious youth is concocting a fresh one which, be it ever so new, will grow stale in its turn. If there are thus an infinite variety of fashions in the external shapes of our wares, there are a certain number — naturally not so many — of wares that are new in substance and in form which we have either invented or very much developed. Perhaps the most significant of these literary inventions is the invention of the personal essay. It is true that it is at least as old as Montaigne, but we may count him the first of the moderns. It has been used with considerable frequency since his day, but its popularity with us is so immense and so peculiar that we are justified in looking upon it as something of our own — typical, characteristic, a sign of the times which will strike the eye of our great-great-grandchildren. Its significance, indeed, lies not so much in the fact that we have attained any brilliant success in essay-writing — no one has approached the essays of Elia — but in the undoubted facility with which we write essays as though this were beyond all others our natural way of speaking. The peculiar form of an essay implies a peculiar substance; you can say in this shape what you cannot with equal fitness say in any other. A very wide definition obviously must be that which will include all the varieties of thought which are suitably enshrined in essays; but perhaps if you say that an essay is essentially egoistical you will not exclude many essays and you will certainly include a portentous number. Almost all essays begin with a capital I — “I think,” “I feel” — and when you have said that, it is clear that you are not writing history or philosophy or biography or anything but an essay, which may be brilliant or profound, which may deal with the immortality of the soul, or the rheumatism in your left shoulder, but is primarily an expression of personal opinion.

We are not — there is, alas! no need to prove it — more subject to ideas than our ancestors; we are not, I hope, in the main more egoistical; but there is one thing in which we are more highly skilled than they are; and that is in manual dexterity with a pen. There can be no doubt that it is to the art of penmanship that we owe our present literature of essays. The very great of old — Homer and Aeschylus — could dispense with a pen; they were not inspired by sheets of paper and gallons of ink; no fear that their harmonies, passed from lip to lip, should lose their cadence and die. But our essayists write because the gift of writing has been bestowed on them. Had they lacked writing-masters we should have lacked essayists. There are, of course, certain distinguished people who use this medium from genuine inspiration because it best embodies the soul of their thought. But, on the other hand, there is a very large number who make the fatal pause, and the mechanical act of writing is allowed to set the brain in motion which should only be accessible to a higher inspiration.

The essay, then, owes its popularity to the fact that its proper use is to express one’s personal peculiarities, so that under the decent veil of print one can indulge one’s egoism to the full. You need know nothing of music, art, or literature to have a certain interest in their productions, and the great burden of modern criticism is simply the expression of such individual likes and dislikes — the amiable garrulity of the tea-table — cast into the form of essays. If men and women must write, let them leave the great mysteries of art and literature unassailed; if they told us frankly not of the books that we can all read and the pictures which hang for us all to see, but of that single book to which they alone have the key and of that solitary picture whose face is shrouded to all but one gaze — if they would write of themselves — such writing would have its own permanent value. The simple words “I was born” have somehow a charm beside which all the splendors of romance and fairy-tale turn to moonshine and tinsel. But though it seems thus easy enough to write of one’s self, it is, as we know, a feat but seldom accomplished. Of the multitude of autobiographies that are written, one or two alone are what they pretend to be. Confronted with the terrible specter of themselves, the bravest are inclined to run away or shade their eyes. And thus, instead of the honest truth which we should all respect, we are given timid side-glances in the shape of essays, which, for the most part, fail in the cardinal virtue of sincerity. And those who do not sacrifice their beliefs to the turn of a phrase or the glitter of paradox think it beneath the dignity of the printed word to say simply what it means; in print they must pretend to an oracular and infallible nature. To say simply “I have a garden, and I will tell you what plants do best in my garden” possibly justifies its egoism; but to say “I have no sons, though I have six daughters, all unmarried, but I will tell you how I should have brought up my sons had I had any” is not interesting, cannot be useful, and is a specimen of the amazing and unclothed egoism for which first the art of penmanship and then the invention of essay-writing are responsible.

Arthur Dove, The Critic (1925)

Arthur Dove, The Critic (1925)

Roland Barthes

“What is criticism?” (1963)

It is always possible to prescribe major critical principles in accord with one’s ideological situation, especially in France, where theoretical models have a great prestige, doubtless because they give the practitioner an assurance that he is participating at once in a combat, a history, and a totality; French criticism has developed in this way for some fifteen years, with various fortunes, within four major “philosophies.” First of all what is commonly — and questionably — called existentialism, which has produced Sartre’s critical works, his Baudelaire, his Flaubert, the shorter articles on Proust, Mauriac, Giraudoux, and Ponge, and above all his splendid Genet. Then Marxism: we know (the argument is already an old one) how sterile orthodox Marxism has proved to be in criticism, proposing a purely mechanical explanation of works or promulgating slogans rather than criteria of values; hence it on the “frontiers” of Marxism (and not at its avowed center) that we find the more fruitful criticism: Lucien Goldmann’s work explicitly owes a great deal to Luckács; it is among the most flexible and the most ingenious criticism which takes social and political history as its point of departure. And then psychoanalysis; in France today, the best representative of Freudian criticism is Charles Mauron, but here too it is the “marginal” psychoanalysis which has been most fruitful; taking its departure from an analysis of substances (and not of works), following the dynamic distortions of the image in a great number of poets, Bachelard has established something of a critical school, so influential that one might call French criticism today, in its most developed form, a criticism of Bachelardian inspiration (Poulet, Starobinski, Richard). Finally structuralism (or to simplify in an extreme and doubtless abusive degree: formalism): we know the importance, even the vogue of this movement in France since Lévi-Strauss has opened it to the methods of the social sciences and a certain philosophical reflection; few critical works have as yet resulted from it, but they are in preparation, and among them we shall doubtless find, in particular, the influence of linguistic models constructed by Saussure and extended by Jakobsen (who himself, early in his career, participated in a movement of literary criticism, the Russian formalist school): it appears possible, for example, to develop an entire literary criticism starting from the two rhetorical categories established by Jakobsen: metaphor and metonymy.

As we see, this French criticism is at once “national” (it owes little or nothing to Ango-American criticism, to Spitzer and his followers, to the Croceans) and contemporary (one might even say “faithless”): entirely absorbed in a certain ideological present, it is reluctant to acknowledge any participation in the critical tradition of Saint-Beuve, Taine, or Lanson. This last model nonetheless raises a special problem for our contemporary criticism. The work, method, and spirit of Lanson, himself a prototype of the French professor, has controlled, through countless epigones, the whole of academic criticism for fifty years. Since the (avowed) principles of this criticism are rigor and objectivity in the establishment of facts, one might suppose that there is no incompatibility between Lansonism and the ideological criticisms, which are all criticisms of interpretation. However, though the majority of French critics today are themselves professors, there is a certain tension between interpretive criticism and positivist (academic) criticism. This is because Lansonism is itself an ideology; not content to demand the application of the objective rules of all scientific investigation, it implies certain general convictions about man, history, literature, and the relations between author and work; for example, the psychology of Lansonism is utterly dated, consisting essentially of a kind of analogical determinism, according to which the details of a work must resemble the details of a life, the soul of a character must resemble the soul of the author, etc. — a very special ideology, since it is precisely in the years following its formulation that psychoanalysis, for example, has posited contrary relations relations of denial, between a work and its author. Indeed, philosophical postulates are inevitable; Lansonism is not to be blamed for its prejudices but for the fact that it conceals them: ideology is smuggled into the baggage of scientism like contraband merchandise.

If these various ideological principles are possible at the same time (and for my part, in a certain sense I subscribe to each of them at the same time), it is doubtless because an ideological choice does not constitute the Being of criticism and because “truth” is not its sanction. Criticism is more than discourse in the name of “true” principles. It follows that the capital sin in criticism is not ideology but the silence by which it is masked: this guilty silence has a name: good conscience, or again, bad faith. How could we believe, in fact, that the work is an object exterior to the psyche and history of the man who interrogates it, an object which the critic would exercise a kind of extraterritorial right? By what miracle would the profound communication which most critics postulate between the work and its author cease in relation to their own enterprise and their own epoch? Are there laws of creation valid for the writer but not for the critic? All criticism must include in its discourse (even if it is in the most indirect and modest manner imaginable) an implicit reflection on itself; every criticism is a criticism of the work and a criticism of itself. In other words, criticism is not at all a table of results or a body of judgments, it is essentially an activity, i.e., a series of intellectual acts profoundly committed to the historical and subjective existence (they are the same thing) of the man who performs them). Can an activity be “true?” It answers quite different requirements.

Julio Ruelas, Criticism (1905)

Julio Ruelas, Criticism (1905)

Every novelist, every poet, whatever detours literary theory may take, is presumed to speak of objects and phenomena, even if they are imaginary, exterior and anterior to language: the world exits and the writer speaks: that is literature. The object of criticism is very different; the object of criticism is not “the world” but a discourse, the discourse of someone else: criticism is discourse upon discourse; it is a second language, or a metalanguage (as the logicians would say), which operates on a first language (or language object). It follows that the critical language must deal with two kinds of relations: the relation of the critical language to the language of the author studied, and the relation of this language object to the world. It is the “friction” of these two languages which defines criticism and perhaps gives it a great semblance to another mental activity, logic, which is also based on the distinction between language object and metalanguage.

For if criticism is only a metalanguage, this means that its task is not at all to discover “truths,” but only “validities.” In itself, a language is not true or false, it is or is not valid: valid, i.e., constitutes a coherent system of signs. The rules of literary language do not concern the conformity of this language to reality (whatever the claims of the realistic schools), but only its submission to the system of signs the author has established (and we must, of course, give the word system a very strong sense here). Criticism has no responsibility to say whether Proust has spoken “the truth,” whether Baron de Charlus was indeed the Count de Montesquieu, whether Françoise was Céleste, or even, more generally, whether the society Proust described reproduces accurately the historical conditions of the nobility disappearance at the end of the nineteenth century; its role is solely to elaborate a language whose coherence, logic, in short whose systematics can collect or better still can “integrate” (in the mathematical sense of the word) the greatest possible quantity of Proustian language, exactly as a logical equation tests the validity of reasoning without taking sides as to the “truth” of the arguments it mobilizes. One can say that the critical task (and this is the sole guarantee of its universality) is purely formal: not to “discover” in the work or the author something “hidden,” “profound,” “secret” which hitherto passed unnoticed (by what miracle? Are we more perspicacious than our predecessors?), but only to adjust the language his period affirms him (existentialism, Marxism, psychoanalysis) to the language, i.e., the formal system of logical constraints elaborated by the author according to his own period. The “proof” of a criticism is not of an “alethic” order (it does not proceed form truth), for critical discourse — like logical discourse, moreover — is never anything but tautological: it consists in saying ultimately, though placing its whole being within that delay, what thereby is not insignificant: Racine is Racine, Proust is Proust; critical “proof,” if it exists, depends on an aptitude not to discover the work in question but on the contrary to cover it as completely as possible by its own language.

Thus we are concerned, once again, with an essentially formal activity, not in the esthetic but in the logical sense of the term. We might say that for criticism, the only way of avoiding “good conscience” or “bad faith” is to take as a moral goal not the decipherment of the work’s meaning but the reconstruction of the rules and constraints of that meaning’s elaboration; provided we admit at once that a literary work is a very special semantic system, whose goal is to put “meaning” in the world, but not “a meaning”; the work, at least the work which ordinarily accedes to critical scrutiny — and this is perhaps a definition of “good” literature — the work is never entirely non-signifying (“mysterious” or “inspired”), and never entirely clear; it is, one may say, a suspended meaning: it offers itself to the reader as an avowed signifying system yet withholds itself from him as a signified object. This disappointment of meaning explains on the one hand why the literary work has so much power to ask the world questions (undermining the assured meanings which ideologies, beliefs, and common sense seem to possess), yet without every answering them (there is no great work which is “dogmatic”), and on the other hand why it offers itself to endless decipherment, since there is no reason for us to stop speaking of Racine or Shakespeare (unless by a disaffection which will itself be a language): simultaneously an insistent proposition of meaning and a stubbornly fugitive meaning, literature is indeed only a language, i.e., a system of signs; its being is not in its message but in this “system.” And thereby the critic is not responsible for reconstructing the work’s message but only its system, but as the linguist is not responsible for deciphering the sentence’s meaning but for establishing the formal structure which permits this meaning to be transmitted.

It is by acknowledging itself as not more then a language (or more precisely, a metalanguage) that criticism can be — paradoxically but authentically — both objective and subjective, historical and existential, totalitarian and liberal. For on the one hand, the language each critic choose to speak does not come down to him from Heaven; it is one of the various languages his age affords him, it is objectively the end product of a certain historical ripening of knowledge, ideas, intellectual passions — it is a necessity; and on the other hand, this necessary language is chosen by each critic as a consequence of a certain existential organization, as the exercise of an intellectual function which belongs to him in his own right, an exercise in which he puts all his “profundity,” i.e., his choices, his pleasures, his resistances, his obsessions. Thus begins, at the heart of the critical work, the dialogue of two histories and two subjectivities, the author’s and the critic’s. But this dialogue is egoistically shifted toward the present: criticism is not an “homage” to the truth of the past or to the truth of “others” — it is a construction of the intelligibility of our own time.

4 thoughts on “Advice for critics

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