Criticism in Doubt: A.O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism

It’s not clear why, exactly, A.O. Scott wrote Better Living Through Criticism in the first place. It seems like the sort of thing the lead film reviewer at the New York Times ought to do, I guess. But, as Leon Wieseltier’s dead-on and damning review makes clear, Scott doesn’t have any particular critical position, never mind a thesis, to defend. The book’s subtitle, How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, turns out to be a joke: of course no one can tell you these things, or at least Scott doesn’t seem to think one should. He’s perfectly comfortable praising or trashing an individual film, as you can see in his reviews on any given day in the Times, but when it comes to stating his working principles as a critic, he retreats.

Scott finds that two major critical positions, elitism and populism, turn out to be the same: “The idea of critical authority and the ideal of common knowledge are not in competition, but are rather the antithetical expressions of a single impulse toward comprehensive judgment, toward an integral aesthetic experience, the achievement of which would eliminate the need for critics altogether.” This sounds nice, but its strategy is to nullify the difference between meaningful critical attitudes. And it’s this discomfort toward the disagreements that occur when critics take concrete positions on art that they are willing to defend that is a problem for the rest of Scott’s book. 

Better Living Through Criticism constantly performs this anxiety over disagreement, and particularly about being on the wrong side of disagreement. Over time, Scott tells us, “You are guaranteed to be wrong,” proven wrong by changing tastes, which come to laud the movie you trashed in print, proven wrong by history, which now views that delightful comedy you reviewed favorably as a paragon of fascist cinema, your opinion fossilizes, turns to dust, and so on. Times change, tastes change, critics can only accept it. That’s good practical advice for a working critic, but terrible advice if you happen to be writing a book about the actual practice of criticism. What the reader wants from a book like Scott’s, what its subtitle seems to view as an ironic impossibility, is a book of ideas and methods that have the chutzpah to claim critical authority for themselves, to tell you why you should believe them, and to anticipate and eviscerate any argument that says it ain’t so.

But it’s almost as though Scott feels he doesn’t have the authority to make such claims — then why write the book? Several sections are written as dialogs between Scott and some interlocutor (modeled, Scott tells us, on David Foster Wallace’s “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”), presumably his own nagging voice of self-criticism and doubt. In them he is forever offering qualifications and revisions, telling us, “Of course, we’re all determined beings, made by circumstances beyond our control. But we’re also changeable creatures, highly susceptible to the influence of accident, free agents with the power to invent ourselves.” The formation of critical judgment is equal parts nature and nurture, sure. But surely a book like this ought to offer some thoughts as to how the practice of criticism can identify and, to some extent, ground our unknowing suspension between the tastes we absorb by osmosis and those we cultivate, to make conscious and explicit the unacknowledged and implicit forms we struggle to see in the objects before us and which exert power over our thoughts and beliefs. Scott’s book opts out of the difficult work of hewing knowledge from uncertainty. Criticism begins in doubt, but the point is to overcome it, not enshrine it.


David Bowie, the Language of the Tribe, Weirdness, and so on

There have been a couple pieces written about David Bowie and what he meant to the “weird kids.” Here are some vaguely continuous thoughts I’ve had over the last 24 hours as a former “weird kid.”

1. Bowie was the ur-weird kid transformed into something larger than life. Ziggy Stardust was the theater nerd as messiah, the sci-fi geek as rock star, the choir dork as diva.

2. One of Bowie’s qualities that I think made weird kids latch onto him was a sincere lack of belief in authenticity. This was seemingly instinctual rather than intellectual, felt rather than theorized. He didn’t believe that “authenticity” was a real thing, and that wasn’t just some postmodern line.

3. Authenticity is a problem for weird kids. You aren’t part of any clique or group. The experience of being a weird kid is one of constantly trying to fit into some group and knowing full well you don’t belong there. And they, the group members who do belong in the group, know it too. And the more you try to pretend you do belong there, the worse it gets. You speak nervously and try to adopt the language of the tribe, but it doesn’t take. There’s something wrong with the way you’re dressed, with the way you talk — your self-consciousness gives away the fact that you are trying to fit in instead of just fitting in.

4. When you try to fit in and fail, you are exposed as inauthentic, as a faker, as someone trying to deceive their way into friendship, human contact, something . You aren’t really a jock — you’re not good at sports, don’t know anything about them. You aren’t a skater — you don’t even own a skateboard. You aren’t a stoner — you’re too scared to smoke weed! You insist that you belong, but this is a desperate lie, and a transparent one. Telling it feels really bad, but not because you’re being dishonest. It’s because you’d rather lie than face the social wasteland, which is where everyone knows you truly belong. And that is pathetic.

5. I remember being 12 or 13 and hearing an interview with Bowie where he used the word “dilettante” to refer to himself. He sounded ironic, I think he was laughing or smiling when he said it. I had to go look it up, and after I did, I remember feeling bad for him, because he had been found out too. They knew he wasn’t authentic, that he didn’t belong. He was just a dabbler. He was cast out. I listened to his music obsessively all through middle school and high school.

6. It took me longer than it should have to understand that Bowie was laughing about the word “dilettante” itself. It implies lack of commitment, dabbling, and so on. It’s the sort of word specialists throw in the faces of curious generalists when they feel like their enclaves are being invaded. To be made to feel like a dilettante in a room full of specialists is to be reminded of your inauthenticity.

7. But Bowie seemed to feel no such pressure to “commit” to one thing or another, to one style or another. He pursued an idea until he had exhausted it. He seemed to feel no compulsion to continue to lug the exhausted idea around. He shed it once it was complete. He wasn’t the idea; the idea wasn’t him.

8. If you watch the BBC documentary Cracked Actor, which follows Bowie after the end of his Ziggy Stardust phase, you see him struggling with this process. He is frighteningly thin, reedy-voiced, as unsure of himself in interviews as he is confident on stage.

9. By the time he entered his Thin White Duke phase, he seems to have gotten over these nerves.

10. If David Bowie was a dabbler, a dilettante, an outsider forever intruding into mediums, genres, and styles that were not properly “his,” this inauthenticity was liberating rather than fraudulent. His ability to leave behind a form or statement once it ceased to be alive for him in a state of continuous curiosity about what it was he was even doing.

11. If you’re a weird kid, you exhaust yourself trying to figure out how “to be authentic.” You’re exhausted because you can’t figure out authenticity — you are authentic or you aren’t. You belong or you don’t. So you spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about it. You wear yourself out, make yourself anxious. You internalize your own position as an outsider and become an enigma to yourself.

12. But David Bowie was an unworried outsider. He didn’t want to be anything he wasn’t, he just wanted to know what it would be like. This sense of relaxed acceptance, of curiosity rather than anxiety, was what he gave to the weird kids.



Disconnected Post Script: Almost none of the remembrances of Bowie published yesterday or today mention what a tremendous singer he was. Watch footage of any performance from the 70s and stand in awe.

Stenography, Spirituality, and the Media History of Liberation

pitman psalms

The Book of Psalms in the Corresponding Style of Pitman’s Shorthand

More religion and stenography, this from Isaac Pitman’s A Manual of Phonography, or, Writing by Sound (1864):

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the principles of the Reformation were extensively promulgated in this country from the pulpit. A desire to preserve for future private reading the discourses of the principal preachers of that day, led to the cultivation of the newly invented art of shorthand writing. Teachers and systems increased rapidly; and by a comparison of one mode with another, and by experimenting with various series of alphabetical signs, Mason, at length produced a system of the art, from the publication in 1588 of Brights’s system of arbitrary characters for words (or rather from the publication of the first shorthand alphabet by John Willis, in 1602) to the appearance of Mason’s system in 1682, may therefore be considered as resulting from the dawn of RELIGIOUS FREEDOM. Mason’s system was published by Thomas Gurney, in 1751, and it is used by members of his family, as reporters to the Government, to the present time (17).

So, on the one hand, because the “desire to preserve … the discourses of the principal preachers of the day” required a mode of recording faster and more efficient than normal writing, our knowledge of the Reformation depended on the development of shorthand writing systems. On the other hand, though, the rapid increase of shorthand writing systems and schools in the 16th and 17th centuries also points to the idea that shorthand writing was a product of the Reformation. So shorthand and “RELIGIOUS FREEDOM,” in Pitman’s account, sort of produce each other.

This seems like a dubious empirical claim, but there’s something about it that I don’t want to let go of. After all, we’re now used to talking about how new technologies enable the transmission and circulation of ideas that have real effects in the world (the Arab Spring and Twitter, for example). But the idea of print and the printing press dominates the way we imagine that information circulated basically until the invention of the telegraph. (I’m ignoring the work of many important scholars, like Lisa Gitelman and Bernhard Siegert, but stay with me.) Pitman may offer a hyperbolic, slightly dubious account of the Reformation’s media ecology, but in doing so he forces us to imagine a world in which the means by which information, language, and ideas made their way from one medium to another, from the voice of a speaker to the eyes or ears of a distant reader or listener, were not so settled.

In Deep Time of the Media, Siegfried Zielinski urges us to recapture those lost possibilities that inhere in forgotten or vestigial media. He argues that progressivist models of media history view our present media environment as developing inevitably out of prior environments. In this view, “history is the promise of continuity and a celebration of the continual march of progress in the name of humankind” (3). This progressivist idea of history is, in truth, ahistorical, since it suggests that, “everything has always been around, only in less elaborate form. One needs only to look” (3). Media historical progressivism remains blind to the possibilities offered up by media and technologies that didn’t survive, that remain buried. It is these forms that Zielinski finds interesting, urging us not to “seek the old in the new” but to “find something new in the old” (3).

The history of shorthand offers this kind of new oldness, but the relation between past and present, new and old in shorthand is more dialectical than what Zielinski suggests. I do see in Pitman the echo of an older way of thinking about the metaphysics of the voice’s relation to the hand and a foreshadowing of media history to come. Pitman’s enthusiasm about shorthand’s entwinement with political and religious liberation could easily transform into its opposite. Where he saw the shorthand as an agent of freedom, we could also see the origins of the copyist as a mechanized drudge. I’m still not settled on how I think all this plays out. Maybe it’s all because Pitman was a Swedenborgian.

Stenography’s Spiritual Dimension

Currently I’m reading a lot about nineteenth-century short-hand writing systems. It’s turning into a pretty large project, and a lot of it involves reading lots of old handbooks and tracts and magazines and such (many of which you can find online; the internet is still amazing, guys). As the historian Carole Srole has shown, from the 1830s to about the 1870s, shorthand writing systems were considered tools of social reform. Shorthand was both a kind of trade and a skill that would enable men (and it was practiced almost exclusively by men at first) to enhance their own learning. As Srole writes,

Stenographers’ early history strengthened their identity as middle-class men. Their unique association with reform and mastery linked them to middle-class values of progress and perfectibility. Shorthand’s potential as a skill for future learning contributed to stenographers’ self-identity as men who made themselves. They could see each action as movement forward. Their efforts to seek out new material and courses, practice to build speed, and travel for employment enhanced their image as ambitious, autonomous men (42).

Shorthand became a way to build, solidify, and perfect a kind of professionalized middle-class virtue. Shorthand allowed its practitioners to improve themselves economically (through increased employment opportunities), mentally (through enhanced literacy), and in some sense spiritually through what was for some a nearly monomaniacal dedication to craft and the transubstantiation of the spoken word to the written word.

Shorthand’s spiritual dimension is totally fascinating to me. For example, here’s an excerpt from Isaac Pitman’s seminal Stenographic Sound-Hand (1837) that suggests just what was at stake in writing reform for early shorthand evangelists.

Convinced as the writer is of the unspeakable importance of the art of writing, and more especially of short-hand, to man, while an inhabitant of this material world; convinced also of the superior excellency of a language written as pronounced, above one, like the English, where the sound of the letters is continually at war with the sound of the words; keeping in mind too the discoveries,the improvements, and facilities of every description that characterise this new age; he thinks he is not too sanguine in expecting, that, ere long, shorthand will be the common hand, in which the imperishable Word of God will exist no larger than a watch, and be as constantly used for the discovery and regulation of man’s spiritual state, with reference to eternity, as the pocket chronometer is for the discovery and regulation of time with reference to the the present life (10).

Two interrelated ideas seem important here. The first is the idea that, through its condensation in shorthand writing, the Bible (“the imperishable Word of God”) could be reduced to the size of a pocket watch and carried on the person at all times in order to ensure the constant vigilance of man over his “spiritual state.” And just as a pocket watch regulates our daily rhythms in “the present life,” the ever-present shorthand Bible would ensure that we remain in sync with the spiritual rhythms of “eternity.” 

The second idea is that shorthand could harmonize a language in which “the sound of the letters is continually at war with the sound of the words.” The disjunction between the individual sounds of component parts and the combined sounds of those parts has, for Pitman, a kind of transcendental wrongness about it. In this sense, the sound of the word and the sound of the letter reflect a more pervasive spiritual imbalance suggested by the absence of the Word of God from the person of the average man. In Pitman’s view, then, a perfect accord between English as it is spoken and English as it is written would create a kind of neo-Adamic language, one appropriate to realign man’s spiritual clock with that of God.

For someone like Pitman, the stakes of language reform and the possibilities of shorthand are transcendental. This is one of the aspects of nineteenth-century shorthand I find endlessly compelling. As shorthand became a popular means to achieve professionalization and middle-class respectability though, especially in the U.S., this spiritual dimension, sadly, predictably, fell away.

Laughing At/With Nathanael West

I’ve been writing something about Nathanael West, and I had occasion to go back and look at a conference paper I presented on The Day of the Locust from about six years ago. It’s not very good! But I did find some paragraphs I kind of like.

“It was another joke. Calvin and Hink slapped their thighs and laughed, but Tod could see that they were waiting for something else. Earle, suddenly, without even shifting his weight, shot his foot out and kicked Calvin solidly in the rump. This was the real point of the joke. They were delighted by Earle’s fury. Tod also laughed. The way Earle had gone from apathy to action without the usual transition was funny. The seriousness of his violence was even funnier” (111).

Tod, and therefore the reader, has no access to the motivations behind Calvin and Hink’s provocation of Earle. But “the real point of the joke” is not the joke itself – it’s the violence the joke induces. The violence and the transition-less passage from joke to violence is the source of the laughter. Moreover, because “the seriousness of the violence” paradoxically amplifies its humor, the line between humor and violence is, for all intents and purposes, erased. Violence is only funny when it is real violence, as opposed to slapstick or comedic violence. For Calvin and Hink, the humor is funny and meant to be funny. But as readers, we’re left with a comedic moment that isn’t meant to be funny. The staging of comedy is pretty grim in itself.

This performative contradiction is the engine of West’s book, both in its status as a black comedy and as a critique of what West sees as a particularly American mode of violence. In an oft-quoted letter to Malcolm Cowley, West notes that humor is bound inextricably to every facet of his writing. “I’m a comic writer,” writes West, “and it seems impossible for me to handle any of the ‘big things’ without seeming to laugh or at least smile … I tried to describe a meeting of the Anti-Nazi League, but it didn’t fit and I had to substitute a whorehouse and a dirty film. The terrible sincere struggle of the league came out comic when I touched it and even libelous” (Veitch ii). In the Shoop episode, then, the collapse of the violent and the comic represents a serious issue for West’s practice as a writer. For him, this issue is cultural.

I guess I’ve been thinking about The Day of the Locust and laughter not just because I’m writing about it again, but because, in the time between when I originally wrote the conference paper (early 2009) and now, comedy’s become, I don’t know, more “important feeling.” West’s sense of the comic and the violent are nearly indistinguishable from each other — he thought that Americans required ever-more extreme forms of entertainment in order to satisfy the desires that mass culture imbued in us. And eventually, the only thing that satisfies the need is not just comic representations of violence, but actual violence.

You could make the argument that he was right, and that the real and figurative violence on reality shows just fulfills his fictional vision. But we’re also in the middle, I think, of a kind of comic elevation. I’m hardly the first person to say this. Certain stand-up comics (Louis C.K., Hannibal Buress, Maria Bamford, Marc Maron I guess) are looked at more as artists than entertainers, things like “Too Many Cooks” exist and rack up millions of YouTube views, people seem more generally willing to extend aesthetic leeway to comedians, comedies, comics, etc. So if West was right about the way that, under the conditions of mass culture, violence and comedy have become indistinguishable from each other, he didn’t predict (couldn’t have been expected to predict) the way that the comic has, in some ways, elevated itself above the expectations people have of mass culture.