Thursday, January 22, 2015

Know-Nothing Criticism

The Los Angeles Review of Books has a recent essay by Noah Berlatsky that I found challenged some of my thinking on criticism--and that's a good thing! Mr. Berlatsky is saying that the expertise gambit, that you need to have a certain level of expertise before you are entitled to criticize, is possibly over-rated:
Whether you’re talking about Breaking Bad or William Shakespeare, Star Wars or superhero comics, the debate about the quality of your ideas devolves into a debate about whether or not you know what you’re talking about, or are part of the select group of fans who has the right to speak about these issues.
And he concludes:
Art isn’t just for fans, which means that it’s not just for the knowledgeable, but for passersby as well. Expertise, then, seems an excuse to make everyone talk about the same things in the same way. But there’s no one true way to view a piece of art; no one privileged perspective that will give you the right experience of Shakespeare, or Wonder Woman, or video games, or romance novels. A partial view may be as meaningful as a whole one, and being alienated by a work of art, or feeling you don’t want to finish it, or look at it for a second more, is as valid as obsessive interest and passionate fandom.
This is a good way of making the point that there is no such thing as criticism that is privileged by authority. It has been asserted that arguments from authority went out with the Enlightenment, but that is rather a blinkered perspective, historically. The alternative to arguments from authority has always, since the days of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, been various forms of valid argument. Oh yes, and there are lots of invalid arguments other than from authority! Medieval philosophers used to like to categorize the various kinds of spurious arguments and there is a nice list of them here.

The quality of argument in most public spaces these days is pretty low. Prominent politicians seem to specialize in non sequiteurs and just about everyone likes to attack straw men. Public intellectuals make accusations and then turn around and commit the same errors themselves. Sometimes you get the feeling that no-one is paying any attention.

I enjoyed the essay by Mr. Berlatsky because it seemed an honest attempt to make some useful comments about criticism. But he doesn't delve very far into the problem. He is so captured by the notion that there is "no one true way" to view a piece of art, that he ends up by having to say that everyone's opinion is equally true or equally meaningful, whether it is partial or whole or based on a tiny amount of experience or a lot of experience. This is rather a tired old argument that consists mostly of giving up! I think the truth is more that yes, interesting ideas, observations and criticisms can come from anywhere. Authority has no privilege. But half-baked, erroneous and superficial ideas, observations and criticisms can also come from anywhere!

There really is no substitute for knowing what you are talking about, but this knowledge has to come from experience, not authority. One telling example that Mr. Berlatsky cites of an interesting contribution from an unexpected source turns out to be useful because of experience, not despite it:
Sharon Marcus, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, knew just about nothing about the original Wonder Woman comics, but wrote a lovely essay about (among other things) Wonder Woman’s costume design ... She isn’t a comics expert, but she is an expert in something else, which allows her to approach the material in a different way than most comics scholars have.
 The use of so-called "expertise" to shut down debate instead of engage in it, really is just a misuse of expertise, turning it into a kind of authority. You may have a great deal of exposure and experience of something but still be deeply mistaken about it. Expertise needs to be examined to make sure it contains wisdom and not just undigested experience. Encountering real expertise is exhilarating because it enables you to enjoy the fruits of someone else's long experience and hard-won wisdom about something.

Let me give an example: I am reading Carl Dahlhaus' masterful book Nineteenth-Century Music and his expertise regarding the operas of Rossini is making me very eager to listen to a lot of Rossini, whom I have not previously had a lot of interest in. Dahlhaus' expertise is very convincing because of its internal logic, wealth of historical example and apt choice of musical examples. Expertise, when it is the good kind, is stimulating and convincing. The bad kind is numbing and dismaying because it seems to use knowledge in the service of some unshared and inappropriate agenda. When it comes to music I can usually tell the difference.

But this does not invalidate Mr. Berlatsky's point that good critical ideas can come from anywhere. They can.

Now let's listen to some Rossini! This is a performance of his first opera in FrenchLe si├Ęge de Corinthe from 1826:


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