A Defense of Criticism; or, “If You Liked it Then You Shoulda Put a Leash on it”

At TrainBust and in general, we spend a lot of time thinking and writing critically about culture. For this, we receive a good deal of criticism ourselves. Apparently, we are doing it wrong. It seems that proper appreciation of art, music, [pop] culture, video, games, politics, etc., requires


The hat has a false bottom, and rabbits are surprisingly compact(ible).

passive experience, and any attempt at actively parsing the many, many messages we experience somehow misses the “true”, “real” message. We either chase chimeras or “take the fun out of it”, as if media were magic tricks we spoil by explaining.

These complaints and many like them pop up now and then, and I am usually content to dismiss them as they arise. Currently, fashion dictates an almost epicurean delight in stimulus for the most part incompatible with sustained consideration. So be it. But now that we have a pla[y]tform to engage in our futile pastime, it seems necessary to defend it. Some of the backlash against criticism from those who see it as exclusionary or as a usurpation. It isn’t either, at least it doesn’t need/mean to be.

When we talk about interpretation (applying critical thinking/theory to media) we aren’t trying to determine what the artist “meant” (a meaningless assertion these days when production companies rather than artists make much of what we consume). We interpret the consumers’ experiences. In this way we are, in fact, more in line with the critics of criticism than the criticism that they critique. I don’t believe in the philistine, and I don’t believe in an innocent or naive experience of media. We can have no “erotics of art/media” as Susan Sontag puts it in her essay “Against Interpretation” because, in practice, we have no unmediated experience of media. Media is the mediation, and the critic’s job is not so much to “decipher” the messages, which are comprehensible to more or less everyone, but to name the means and mechanisms by which media function.

Given its academic heritage, some of this naming does unfortunately exclude others from the conversation, but this problem (and it is a problem) has to do with the exclusionary language rather than the exclusionary practice. Not only are we all capable of engaging in criticism and interpretation, we all do.

A recent dust up in the poetry community in response to the New York Times‘ poetry critic [I didn’t know that they had one either] David Orr’s book Beautiful & Pointless demonstrated this. While I didn’t and won’t read the book, Orr reportedly suggests that a poem, rather than being interpreted, must be “loved” uncritically in order to be properly appreciated. Love, however, is anything but uncritical, and refusing to talk about these elements (that we may love as thoroughly, mystically, and passionately as any others) does not negate their existence any more than discussing them negates our love.

We may love a poem, but we do not love it without reason, and giving name to these reasons we call criticism. We do not need to talk about iambic pentameter when we discuss Shakespeare, but having the tools to do so gives us a way to refer to this meter. Similarly, we do not need to discuss the assumptions that a lyric makes when we discuss a song or music video, but, if we care to, criticism provides the vocabulary. It may be “just a song” or “just a video”, but the assumptions it makes exist and are interpreted, “loved” within their greater cultural context. Beyoncé may not have meant or interpreted “if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it” as “if you liked it then you should have put a leash on it”, but one can hardly deny, especially as she claws, crawls, and gyrates on the floor that that message, that “interpretation” is there. Perhaps that’s even what one “loves” about the video, and perhaps it’s none of my business if it is, but it’s no coincidence that only women and homosexual men crawl to exhibit sexuality in music videos, and only willful ignorance can prevent someone from interpreting this as a representation, if a particularly catchy one, of our [heteronormative] ideas of sexuality.

This may be why some discussions veering toward critical theory become as heated as discussions of veganism. No one likes to hear about how they are perpetuating oppressive and unethical cultural norms, but not all criticism centers on how its subject is bad either, even if that’s how we tend to use the term. Criticism allows us to engage more fully with what we consume, and like adolescents pontificating on the symbolism and significance of the Deathly Hallows (and they do, endlessly), we discuss our subjects critically not to deride or destroy but to love.