Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Criticism Concepts: Part 1: Emotion and Reaction

(This is the first part in a planned series on the constriction of a critique, and the criticism enterprise in general)

Critics get a bad rap, which is a little odd when you consider how we all place ourselves in the critic’s booth at one time or another. Amazon, Youtube, and just about every video game site is loaded with reviews of all kinds and of varying quality - from short, one-sentence diatribes, to extended essays damning or eulogizing a particular work in question.  What, if anything, does this constant stream of amateur expression have in common with the supposedly refined and impartial writings of a professional critic?  What ties reviews of all sorts under the single heading of “critique”?  Or does such a unity in fact even exist?

Let’s try to put these questions to a process, shall we?  Imagine this: you are sitting at home after a long day of work, trying to unwind while clicking through a seemingly endless series of cable channels. Suddenly, your eyes light up as you land on a movie some friend of a friend of a coworker mentioned a while back.  Curious and with nothing else pressing, you decide to have a looksie.  An hour and a half flies by, and the movie closes, leaving you feeling...

Now here is the critical point.  How, exactly, do you feel by the end of it?   Elated for the good fortune to have stumbled across such a masterpiece?  Angry for the 90 minutes now lost that can never be recovered?  Or, perhaps, simply bored, neither hot nor cold, and ready to embark on yet another quest for a moment’s distraction?  The specific emotion matters less than the act of feeling itself, for this is the initial spark, the impetus that could propel you towards crafting a developed critique, should you prove willing.

Unfortunately, this is where the process usually ends for many would-be critics. One has only to scan a few web comments to notice that most “reviews” amount to little more than a base emotional reaction thrown around with little forethought or reflection.  This can sometimes be harder to spot than you’d think, since so much of it is cloaked in flowery or rigorous-sounding words. In fact, for the more cynical among us, this may be all that criticism amounts to - high-falutin words meant to conceal a single and simple binary: “This rocks!” or “This sucks!”

So how do we move beyond that?  Or are the cynics right in declaring that there is no point beyond where our personal feelings of like or dislike take us?

I find this line of thinking completely unacceptable.  

I'll admit that there is a certain appeal in saying “Everything is relative, so think what you want!”  But most of us don’t buy that line when it comes to a deeply held conviction, like religion or politics.  Even a commitment to the belief that “you shouldn't judge the beliefs of others” requires...well, a commitment, and if you won’t commit to something you think is The Truth, than what’s the point?  And I have encountered very few good arguments that in any way spell out how the Arts differ from any other topic of note.  Aesthetics - the branch of philosophy dealing with the the nature of beauty and artistic taste - has many thousands of years of dedicated pursuit of an objective criterion of “art” under its belt, and the insight from its many champions are well worth a gander if you have the interest.  That said, most people - critics or not - have neither the time nor the patience to digest dense tomes tackling (or attempting to, anyway) the definition of art, the gendered hierarchy of criticism, or the applicability of “sublime” to any piece worthy of critiquing.  Furthermore, the pronouncements of these great minds, profound as they are, feel as though they are missing something very basic - namely, feeling itself.  Emotion was always something of a blind spot at the heart of philosophy, even aesthetics, and to many looking in from the outside, philosophers lose sight of the basic joy of experience in the process of formulating their arcane theories.  I’ll have a lot more to say on the great range and enormous depth of aesthetics later, but suffice it to say that the public perception that most philosophy is “all head and no heart” isn't far off the mark.

So it seems that we have come full circle.  While I don’t believe that emotional reactions are the be-all and end-all of a good critique, they shouldn't be completely cut from the process either.  So where does that leave us?  If emotion is the “spark” of the critiquing process, where lies the tinder?  While your gut feelings and immediate emotional reactions should not - indeed, cannot - be stifled, one should still hold them at a comfortable distance, letting them settle to the bottom while you sift through the sediments with a relatively clear mind.  Once the initially tight wad of charged emotions unwinds into something beyond “It sucked” and “It rocked,” an intelligible reader response forms: “outrage” becomes “disappointed at the unresolved plot threads in the ending”; “joy” becomes “good chemistry between the two lead that end on a high note”; and so on.  It isn't quite a critique, not yet, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.  With a little clarity towards why you responded the way you did, you can move beyond crude rocks/sucks binaries and embrace a more complex - and dare I say, more accurate - picture of your 90-minute distraction.

If anyone has anything else to share, feel free to post below.

See you at the movies!

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