The Purpose of Criticism – Towards an Aesthetics of Ideas

The other day, I listened to a podcast that challenged my vision of criticism by bringing together two previously distinct ideas that had been kicking around the inside of my skull for a little while now.  The podcast in question was an episode of The Marketplace of Ideas in which Colin Marshall has a conversation with the literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall, author of Literature, Science and a New Humanties (2008).

Gottschall cuts a fascinating figure.  Here is a someone who has put themselves through the meat-grinder that is graduate school only to emerge on the other side having retained enough passion and ambition to carve out a career at a time when graduate school is increasingly becoming little more than an aspiration-trap through which universities monetise the intellectual fantasies of their students, exploiting their youth and naivete by dangling before them the prospect of an academic career that is utterly beyond the reach of all but the most gifted and driven of supplicants.  In a voice tinged with bitterness, Gottschall speaks of how the humanities have lost their way.  Rather than studying literature and unearthing truths about the books they work on, most literary humanists are now engaged in the construction of elaborate intellectual architectures.  Cathedrals of ideas drawing upon the pseudoscience of centuries past in order to construct readings and interpretations of texts that are completely unfalsifiable and completely uninformative.  This is not study conducted with the purpose of uncovering truth, this is study as a form of self-indulgent play.  Gottschall’s solution to the problem is to replace Literary Theory with science and quantitative analysis as the analytical engine of the humanities.

I have not read Gottschall’s book and so I cannot comment upon the feasibility of his manifesto, but the idea of literary criticism as a form of play does chime quite neatly with some of the aspects I enjoyed in M.D. Lachlan’s recent Fantasy novel Wolfsangel (2010).  That novel, it seems to me, is about exploring a metaphysical construct.  A spell, a prophecy and a werewolf that are bound together by the powers of madness, pain, love and identity.

Is Gottschall correct that criticism is completely severed from any notion of truth?  If he is, then that need not be a bad thing.

The Cover of The Function of Criticism

In his seminal work of historical meta-criticism The Function of Criticism (1984), Terry Eagleton considers the social role played by criticism since its initial appearance alongside the creation of a middle-class intellectual public sphere in the early 18th Century.  Eagleton, a committed Marxist, opens his book with the statement :

“Modern European criticism was born of a struggle against the absolutist state.” [p. 9]

Eagleton then considers how the rise of capitalism has seen the public sphere almost entirely co-opted by commercial interests.  Where once the critic defended the values of his intellectual community by praising good works and castigating bad ones, he now finds himself on the outside of a community held together not by shared aesthetic standards but by the joys of consumerism, hype and a collective responsiveness to mega-budgeted marketing strategies.  Eagleton concludes his work with a neatly symmetrical warning :

“Modern criticism was born of a struggle against the absolutist state; unless its future is now defined as a struggle against the bourgeois state, it might have no future at all.” [p. 124]

This idea of criticism as a form of political struggle is one that Gottschall addresses in his interview.  Gottschall states that the politicisation of literary criticism has resulted not only in bad scholarship and the vaporisation of large chunks of (previously) public intellectual discourse into an academic sphere largely inaccessible to people who are not a part of the academic infrastructure.  Indeed, as the Science Wars demonstrated, it is not actually clear in what way the poor benefit from Lacanian readings of Isaac Newton.  Smash all the conceptual boundaries you want but such activities will not feed the hungry or bring down any corrupt governments.

So what should the purpose of criticism be?

Cover of the new edition of Anatomy of Criticism

As Northrop Frye puts it in Anatomy of Criticism (1957) :

“The subject matter of literary criticism is an art, and criticism is evidently something of an art too.” [p. 3]

This strikes me as a much more healthy tack to take.  Rather than being rubbish revolutionaries, critics should be understood as artists in their own right.  Frye preempts the obvious objection by framing this ideas as uncharitably as possible :

“This sounds as though criticism were a parasitic form of literary expression, an art based on pre-existing art, a second-hand imitation of creative power.” [p. 3]

I would suggest that this vision of the critic as a cultural parasite had a good deal more potency when the difference between artistic forms was more pronounced.  Indeed, if artists are in the business of painting, writing music, writing novels or composing sonnets then the ‘art’ of writing an essay about a book can seem like a category mistake or a confusion of meta-levels.  However, one of the more exciting developments in recent cultural history has been the acceptance of the essay not merely as a tool for discussing art but as an artistic form in its own right.  This acceptance has also coincided with the rise of a set of aesthetic values that seem perfectly suited to the production of genuinely insightful and beautiful criticism.

Reality Hunger

Serving as a critical figurehead for this movement, David Shields produced a book entitled Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010).  The book is a collection of over 600 short passages, some only a sentence long, some ranging over a page.  Together, these passages present a manifesto for a form of non-fiction writing which, though anchored to existing artistic forms and  traditions such as the ‘lyrical essay’ and the ‘creative non-fiction’ memoir, seeks to transcend all of them and create something genuinely new.  What is particularly interesting about Shields’ manifesto is the fact that of the 600 passages included in the text, the vast majority are actually lifted from other sources. Indeed, Shields’ mission is beautifully articulated in one passage lifted from John D’Agata’s non-fiction collection The Next American Essay (2003) :

“612.  What the lyric essay inherits from the public essay is a fact-hungry pursuit of solutions to problems, while from the personal essay it takes a wide-eyed dallying in the heat of predicaments.  Lyric essays seek answers yet seldom seem to find them.  They may arise out of a public essay that never manages to prove its case, may emerge from the stalk of a personal essay to sprout out and meet ‘the other,’ may start out as travelogues that forget where they are or begin as prose poems that refuse quick conclusions, may originate as lines that resist being broken or full-blooded paragraphs that start slimming down.  They’re hybrids that perch on the fence between the willed and the felt.  A lyric essay is an oxymoron: an essay that’s also a lyric, a kind of logic that wants to sing, an argument that has no chance of proving out.” [p.203-204]

This combination of subjective personal opinion anchored in objective fact (the body of a text) but heading out of the plane of the textual ecliptic at a high rate of burn strikes me as a good analogy for the nature of criticism.  As a critic I am not in the business of providing purchasing advice, but neither am I in the business of attempting to read the author’s mind by establishing the facts about a text.

As a critic, I am engaged in the construction of conceptual edifices.  I bring to bear theories and asserted truths ripped from the world and my own imagination and crash them into the text of a book or a film like a runaway train into an orphanage.  On a good day, I may make people marvel at the explosion or weep at the humanity of the dead children pulled from the wreckage.  Criticism is narcissistic, self-regarding and utterly pointless.  But then… so is most art.

Of course, art-for-art’s sake is simply a polite way of describing self-indulgence and while I would defend criticism’s right to be both intellectually respectable and utterly self-indulgent, I also think that criticism fulfils a social need.

An interesting place to begin looking for criticism’s purpose comes in the shape of another podcast.  In an episode of Entitled Opinions devoted to The Uses of Literature, Robert Harrison speaks to Joshua Landy about the distinction between Literary Theory and theories of literature.  During the podcast, Landy makes two fascinating claims:

  • Firstly, he suggests that what draws many people to the study of literature is a Love of Beauty.  This Love of Beauty then crosses the aisle from being a relationship to the text to being a set of values used to engage with ideas about the text.  This explains why the likes of Freud and Lacan have continued to enjoy enormous currency among literary scholars despite their theories having long-since shed any shred of scientific respectability they might once have had.  In other words, one does not use Freud to deconstruct a text because Freud’s theories are true, one uses Freud because Freud’s theories have an aesthetic appeal of their own and by projecting Freud’s theories against a work of art, the critic is able to create his own Thing of Beauty.  As Landy puts it, “it requires you to make the grand gesture”.
  • Secondly, Landy argues that by reading certain kinds of work, we are engaging in what he calls a form of ‘spiritual exercise’.  What he means by this is that to read an intelligent novel or to watch a great film is to be an active participant in a form of intellectual ballroom dancing in which the active reader tests their imagination, moral principles, sense of empathy and ability to reason against what are ultimately a series of words printed on pieces of paper.  The act of reading is an act of creation whereby the capacities of the individual are used to transform a series of words on the page into a succession of mental images.  Images of people, places, events and ideas that prompt the reader to have emotional reactions.  If the use of literature is to provide an arena for this kind of spiritual and mental exercise, then criticism — which is nothing but the results of active reading made public through the medium of prose — is all about constructing a lens.  A lens through which people can view the text and view the world.

In my review of Lachlan’s Wolfsangel, I drew a comparison between the metaphysical artefact described by the novel and the intricate ideas pulled together by the generations of theologians and philosophers who have helped to elaborate sophisticated understandings of religious beliefs.  When Lachlan is describing a spell that ties love, madness, suffering and werewolves together with the death of the gods and the end of the world, he is engaged in the same kind of activity as Nagarjuna when he was commenting upon the teachings of Buddha or Augustine when he was commenting upon Christian teachings through the lens of Neo-Platonic thought.  This activity is the construction of conceptual spaces that can be engaged with for the purposes of intellectual and spiritual exercise.  These spaces challenge your thinking, they make you change your way of looking at things, they test your commitments and force you to make new ones.  These conceptual spaces are intensely engaging and they in no way require a commitment to truth.

All artists share this undertaking: The creation of engaging conceptual spaces.  The elaboration of intellectual playgrounds.  The building of a testing ground for ideas and identities.  This is the purpose of criticism too.

That and making shopping recommendations…

And trying to read the author’s mind…


  1. I heartily agree!

    Interestingly, Gary Wolfe and Charles Brown made almost exactly this point to me on the first day I met them (although with way fewer words, and without the academic background material).


  2. I am in excellent company then :-)

    I don’t think I’m saying anything fundamentally new, but this post is a way for me to make sense of the stuff I’ve been reading recently and reflect upon where I stand.


  3. I understand! It’s amazing how getting the thoughts down on paper (or onto screen) helps clarify things in your own mind. I’ve had many a post the same.


  4. Hi Jonathan,

    Trust you’re well; it’s been too long.

    Finally I’ve listened to the Marketplace Of Ideas piece in question (thanks for the tip) and finally I have had time to read this piece which i enjoyed very much – great food for thought. I have linked to it over at The Drift.

    I completely agree about the dilemma the critic currently faces, but think the negatives come with positives to balance them out. Most crucially, the undermining of an elite with a monopoly on opinion is a plus. Did you read Sight & Sound’s celebration of the critic, precisely in response to the critic’s supposed decline. Led me to some very inspiring writing.

    Where I think you’re 100% right is the critic should produce art at their best, and indeed should we cast a quick eye over that we find ourselves in wonderful company. From Baudelaire writing aabout Poe all the way up to David Foster Wallace dissecting David Lynch – great criticism inspires and opens up the mind to possibilities just as effectively as great art. Indeed, they are practically one and the same. If there are modern fiction writer’s who can write like Robert Hughes, I’d love to read them.


  5. Hi Richard :-)

    I’m not doing too bad thanks. Had a rough couple of weeks but things do seem to be returning to some semblance of routine. Certainly enough that I can actually do some thinking and writing!

    I did read S&S’s celebration of the critic and even went to the BFI event that they held in conjunction with it… but of course, you can always count on a bunch of critics to celebrate themselves and their importance :-)

    One of the interesting auxiliary questions to the conception of the critic as an artist is what kind of art the critic should be in the business of producing. If criticism is art then all critics are artists, but if not all critics are artists then how does one move out of mere criticism and into actual art? Is it a stylistic thing suggesting Manny Farber as an ideal, or is it a performative thing suggesting the likes of Charlie Brooker and his foul-mouthed imagery.

    I don’t think that there’s an obvious answer but I am also wary of wheeling out the “its art darling” defence too easily.


  6. “Write the suffering out,” as Strindberg once intoned rather ominously. Glad to have you back thinking and writing anyway. Surely you’ll be passing judgement upon Inception at some point? I am curious to know what you think.

    You’ve got me thinking now about critics. I feel we’re in similar terrain to when Auden shed light upon Raymond Chandler and defined it as ‘not as escape literature but as works of art’ – largely because of the quality of prose. I wonder if a Critic can ever produce pure ‘art’ as such, rather criticism that is artistically inclined. Which might sound like semantics, but hopefully makes some sense. A work such as ‘Lipstick Traces’ by Greil Marcus certainly seems to bridge those boundaries, and I think much of K-Punks writing exploits similar terrain. Whether I feel Kenneth Tynan or Robert Hughes have produced works of art per se, I’m unsure, even though their writing is as inspiring, erudite and informative as any piece of fictional prose could hope to be. It’s just the Critics work hasn’t been triggered by quite the same impetus that a work of art has and this ultimately effects the form it takes. It’s a distinctly intellectual origin, not an emotional or aesthetic one. Does this matter, I wonder? In many ways I prefer this form, and have gained more from it. But it does feel rather different to a Flaubert novel in what it’s objectives are.


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