Uncertainty Principles: The Malfunction of Criticism at the Present Time

Today, I’m introducing a new project – a retrospective – that should take me the better part of what’s left of 2019 to complete. I don’t promise it’s going to be a fun ride, but I hope the essay I’ve put together today will serve as an overview of why I’m going to be doing it. Don’t worry, we’re still in the business of movie essays around here. Before we continue / reboot officially, though, some navel-gazing in which I hope you will indulge me.

Last winter, I began Uncertain Regards as a kind of therapy, a means of convincing myself that writing – criticism, in particular – could be a vehicle for some kind of aesthetic and moral work, if not to say “good.” At the time, I was writing a lengthy dissertation on childhood, shame, and imperialism in the late Victorian novel. My days consisted of poring over the same old set of novels, each written inevitably by a racist, and seeking after increasingly refined explanations of how their racism was conditioned by and enabled further development of a complicated collision of cultural touchstones: children’s growth into and yet difference from adults, hierarchies of racial and national comparison, the necessity of and yet repugnance for shame in Anglo-American society between the Darwinian revolution and the First World War.

This kind of academic exercise is criticism at its slowest. The project remains necessarily unfinished a year later, even if the dissertation is done and delivered and under copyrighted lock and key. And the supposed virtue of this slowness, the laborious and painstaking vision and revision of the product over roughly a decade of research, is durability. Taking such time in academic research is a kind of institutionalized hedging of bets, I began to realize, that the fundamental rightness of the work, the correctness of the knowledge represented therein, should endure beyond the fashions and whims of any of its individual readers and interpreters. The scholarly monographs most respected and canonized in the academic line of work, the academic tradition, are those that, like the artworks they purport to explicate, are themselves able to withstand the test of time while simultaneously meeting the inevitable demands, inherent to any market, for novelty, invention, and usefulness.

Yet as an avid consumer of criticism from a wide variety of channels, as I suppose many of us must be in 2019, I started to feel a profound sense of cognitive dissonance, a suspicion of the emotional forces that made a virtue of duration arising from a skepticism of the very possibility of duration. Uncertain Regards became my vehicle for working through these suspicions, a kind of emotional laboratory for thinking about criticism at a different pace. Over the course of a few months, I tried to write a review of some substance every week, in addition to my other work obligations, giving films the feature-length treatment of 2500 words or, in a couple of cases, telescoping into longer and wilder essays. The one criterion for selecting the subject of the weekly essay was that I have enjoyed the film in question: no rants, no screeds, no hatchet jobs, no hit pieces. It ultimately didn’t matter to me whether the film was recent or dated, whether it was well known or obscure, whether it was “ripe” or rotten. As an antidote to writing slowly and laboriously about racists, I selfishly – and again, therapeutically – wanted to write about things I liked, quickly and regularly, in the hopes of explaining to whoever might read my personal investments in cinema.

If this sounds naïve to you, that’s because it is, in multiple senses of the word. It seems undeniably rube-ish to think that explaining one’s preferences should be an uncomplicated act, particularly when there are much more vital functions that criticism ought to serve (and, in fairness to its practitioners, has served) at the present time. But I was interested to see if such a thing as “naïve criticism,” in Schiller’s sense, were aesthetically and ethically viable. That is, if criticism is something that always responds to art in some kind of consciousness of culture, context, whatever – if the critic is someone whose knowledge of intellectual history, of tradition, of codified and potentially alienating social rules and strictures necessarily informs the critical product – then is criticism an inherently modernized product, with no possibility of achieving the spontaneous lack of self-awareness, the absorption, and the organicity of merely making a thing? Or, as Oscar Wilde put it:

But, surely, Criticism is itself an art. And just as artistic creation implies the working of the critical faculty, and, indeed, without it cannot be said to exist at all, so Criticism is really creative in the highest sense of the word. Criticism is, in fact, both creative and independent […] Criticism is no more to be judged by any low standard of imitation or resemblance than is the work of poet or sculptor. The critic occupies the same relation to the work of art that he criticizes as the artist does to the visible world of form and colour, or the unseen world of passion and of thought…

(If it’s been a while since you’ve read “The Critic as Artist,” or if you never have, buckle up, because the next few months are no doubt and of necessity going to contain repeated references… sorry not sorry?)

A number of people asked me, after my review Call Me By Your Name, why I was compelled to structure that first review in such a weird way, what purpose was served by the three parts, the digressions about Barthes and, ultimately, about myself. And, moreover, why much of the writing here tended to be weird. I’d point them toward Wilde as an answer, since as he puts it, the highest criticism is essentially autobiography, “the record of one’s own soul,” “deal[ing] not with the events, but with the thoughts of one’s life, not with life’s physical accidents of deed or circumstance, but with the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind.” The best criticism is ekphrastic, an opportunity for the critic to transform the experience of the art into an exploration of oneself.

It matters less that the critic can deliver an objective and informed account of “the object as in itself it really is,” potentially revealing hidden designs or nuances or references that illuminate the thing. Rather, “Criticism’s most perfect form,” for Wilde, “is in its essence purely subjective, and seeks to reveal its own secret and not the secret of another.” Criticism, like all art, is fundamentally selfish, revealing more about the eye of the beholder than that which is beheld. And any criticism that fails to acknowledge this impressionistic aspiration as such, or worse yet attempts to repress it out of the compositional process, is no criticism at all.

By the time he wrote the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde found concise language (albeit necessarily paradoxical) for expressing the consequences of this aesthetic philosophy. If criticism necessarily reflects on the critic, rather than on the work under critical assessment, then “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” In other words, what the interpreter or critic of an artwork might take to be a represented vice or virtue will vary. The disagreement or debate that might arise from such provocation merely attests to the art’s timeliness, interest, and value. And as such, Wilde clears away considerable space for artists to be absolved of judgment, censure, or worse on merely moral grounds: “No artist has ethical sympathies,” as he put it. “An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.”

Of course this isn’t really the way we critique now in 2019, not for some time and only with considerable privilege. Much criticism that exists for our consumption, in journalistic or quasi-journalistic outfits funded by advertising revenue, is occasional, in the musical sense meaning created in direct response to a timely need or incident. The novelty of criticism is the cannibalized novelty of the art itself, each release date coincident with a profusion of hot takes and thinkpieces ready and waiting. Dipping into more than the recent past in such a venue generally requires waiting for coincidence: an anniversary of a certain art work, the death of its actual author, or the appearance of a new art work that reminds us of or evokes others by association.

The chief function of the bulk of such criticism is simply to help consumers determine where they should spend their leisure time. Art proliferates at an extraordinary rate in 2019, and any help in determining what unmissable things we should be watching, listening to, or reading so that we can avoid being left behind, culturally speaking, is its own kind of public service, a kind of sanitation initiative. But the rate of proliferation of art has a concomitant effect on the rate of proliferation of criticism, leading to considerable anxiety about the extent to which the durability of either has been somehow compromised by changes in the modes of production of both.

One of the tactics critics have found for mitigating against the erosion of criticism’s durability is to hasten the erosion of specific works of art, or where possible the defamation of their artists, on ethical grounds. Much such criticism is not unreasonable, irrespective of the domain and artistic medium. The aesthetic value of monuments to the Confederacy, for instance, is not really something up for serious debate as a defense against their removal and destruction; their largely off-the-shelf quality is taken for granted as a condition of their production in a relatively short period of time to provide Jim Crow with a geospatial infrastructure in a specifically commemorative (rather than, as in most other elements of Jim Crow infrastructure, bureaucratic) idiom.

But while destroying monuments to racial hatred seeks to disrupt the culture of white supremacy through physical demolition, critical discussion of this tactic became amplified as part of a broader discourse surrounding a mythical (and inevitably black-, queer-, and/or feminist-coded) “cancel culture” supposedly invested in destroying the reputations of (pop) cultural figures by boycotting their product/content and voicing dissatisfaction on social media. The ethical failing of the artist thus serves as its own variety of timely event for reconsideration of the oeuvre, even as detractors of “cancel culture” drastically overstate the extent to which “culture” (whatever that is) remains in the stranglehold of a radical coalition of marginalized people and their allies (Danielle Butler at the generally awesome Very Smart Brothas has an epic takedown I sympathize with a lot.)

Defamation, though, is a curious device. The production of a persona non grata serves as a means of performing the act of deplatforming the artist in a necessarily partial, consumer-driven way. The artist still has access to a wide network of producers who may resist the attempt at cancellation, or who may even be emboldened by it. More maddeningly, such declarations are part and parcel with the eternal present-ness of criticism in our very present time, doing nothing to look back at the past and offer restitution or consolation in any direct way for those who have suffered abuses at the hands of the artist in question.

#TimesUp and #MeToo at least have the virtue, as movements go, of dwelling on the past in uncomfortable ways, of continually forcing those of us in the critical present to consider the history of art, artists, and criticism, and to insist that the timely opportunity to reexamine a work might also be coincident with retraumatizing people negatively affected by related art works or people (critics included). The resulting tension, though, creates a landscape in which consumer frustration with artists whose problematic pasts – or even presents – should prohibit them from an ethical right to produce art continue to do so, while the moral certainty of such consumers leaves it unclear to what extent offending artists might go about having themselves reappraised after, optimally, experiencing some moral development, or whether there are some sins from which one should not be able to come back.

I started this blog in this climate, and I settled on the name “Uncertain Regards” to advocate for the kind of critical ethos I wanted to put into practice. The name is a pun on the “Un Certain Regard” category at Cannes, a prize given to films and filmmakers that tell a story in experimental, nontraditional, or unorthodox was – idiomatically, the expression means “another point of view.” Erasing the space into “uncertain,” for me, this means acknowledging the exhaustion of having yet another point of view on film to read through, but also attests to the necessity that such views be recognized and validated as inherently uncertain. Durability was always the enemy for this blog, and I’m convinced that web-based writing is inherently disposable and critics are a dime a dozen. So rather than seek for something that endures, Uncertain Regards is a space to practice the virtues of flexibility, development, passing fancies. It’s a space to try to do justice to Wilde’s belief that the best criticism reveals the self while also acknowledging the flawed ethical entailments that follow from such a premise. Rather than seeking to satisfy and neaten these ambiguities, I’ve wanted the writing here to be messy without compromising (to the extent that I can avoid it) readability. I want to avoid occasional criticism whenever possible and use this space for getting outside of the present moment. And if I can do that well enough, since you can’t ever really get outside ideology, I hope to be able to occasionally (ha) bring things back to the present and see whether and how my point of view has shifted over time, and if it’s made my criticism – which is to say my self – any better.

All of which brings me to the present project. Each of the problems I’ve evoked over the past 2000 words or so is massive and ineluctable. The relationship between aesthetics and ethics. The dialogue between the artist and the critic. Criticism as a vehicle for objective appraisal or subjective revelation. The endurance of art versus the disposability of work. Occasional creation in response to the present or the pursuit of timeless themes by excavating and dwelling upon the past. Censorship, the persona non grata, feminism, sexism, racism, abuse of power, development, expiation, transcendence (which, I think, is different than durability, and is a theme to be developed over the next few months). I’d like to think that my attendance to these forces has helped to make me a good critic, a better critic than I otherwise could have been, and that for all their thorniness and knottiness they nevertheless remain instructive. Indeed, my awareness of the initial dichotomies and their cultural symptoms are integral to my appreciation of what art can do in the world: how it can be true, how it can be good, and how it can be beautiful.

But if criticism is the most rarefied variety of autobiography, if the goal of the best criticism is for the critic to reveal themselves by way of their criticism, an artistic act of creation in and of itself, then I have a bit of a problem. It’s bothered me acutely over the past year in ways that I don’t think I was ready to sort through in a public way (limited though this public might be), but I think that the only way I’m going to be able to try and sort out this whole muddle is by doing it in writing and in public, with the sustained discipline that blogging might be able to provide. It’s become a kind of obsession for me, addressing this particular body of work, because it is arguably the art that most influenced me in wanting to pick up the pen, so to speak, and actually make criticism in the first place.

It is a body of work that considers each of the major themes of the preceding paragraph ruthlessly and obsessively, tracking and retracking the bounds of these forces across multiple genres, and reflecting on the art and practice of cinema in itself and among others in so thoroughgoing a way as to, in recent years, neurotically but fascinatingly fuse narrative and critique together into a single object. Without encountering certain of these works when I did, without wanting to experience them all, without trying to make sense of how they constellate together into a career and a set of preoccupations spanning several decades, and without wanting to better understand the consciousness claiming responsibility for their production, I almost certainly would not be writing in this genre today, and almost certainly not with the kinds of priorities I’ve set forth for myself as general principles above.

I’m speaking, unfortunately, of Lars von Trier’s films.

Are you still there?

I know, it’s bad. He’s not a great person. Björk all but said that he was deeply emotionally, if not sexually, abusive of her on the set of Dancer in the Dark. He was literally banned from Cannes as an official persona non grata after making a weird and very likely misinterpreted joke about being a Nazi sympathizer. His films have been variously interpreted as either glorifying misogyny or being deeply empathetic elaborations of the difficulties of being a woman, with compelling arguments (I can’t believe I’m about to use this phrase, after Charlottesville) ~*on both sides*~. His sense of humor can be sophomoric and scatological, his general sensibility sadistic and obsessive, and he’s been riding the self-styled provocateur train for at least two decades too long. The movies are at their worst gratuitously violent, bloated in their own self-indulgence, crippled by befuddling retreats into Christian mysticism. I’m consciously aware of all of this information that should, in the present, make me feel deeply conflicted about counting several of his films among my favorites of all time, and I am, and I do. I don’t think there’s any way to be a good person in 2019 and not.

At the same time, I would be a worse person in 2019, I think, without having encountered these films. At the very least, I would be a worse critic. And it would be profoundly disingenuous of me not to acknowledge the importance that they have had over my own intellectual and empathetic development. When I watch one of his films now, I feel as though I know the person making them with a sense of intimacy that I experience with few other filmmakers. Partly, this is von Trier’s design, the consequence of the egotism in which all of his films marinate. As punishing as they can be, though, I always come away feeling somehow challenged, enlarged, forced to reckon with a multitude of inconvenient truths about, if such a thing can be said to exist, The Human Condition: the stories we use to cope with extreme adversity, the compromises we make to achieve coherence, the irreparable harm we are capable of visiting on others in the pursuit of those compromises.

All of his movies, arguably, are about the people who are written out of the world, Cast aside as useless, whose stories are somehow incompatible with the exigencies of psychological realism, modernism, naturalism, or any of the other tricks of the trade in a certain variety of filmmaking. Nor are they wholly fabulist, in the whimsical sense, though they often truck in the conventionalism and stock characters of allegory and melodrama. If it weren’t for their detailed particularity, his characters would risk becoming almost entirely abstracted from reality – but because of their particularity, they become human, creatures of our own critical scale, even as their stories threaten to explode into cosmic proportions (and, in fact, often do).

It’s a conundrum that sounded cute in 2013 and sounds downright trite in 2019: my fave is problematic. So over the next few months, I’d like to do something about it. I’m going to be writing a piece about each of von Trier’s films, beginning with the most recent and going all the way back to his first Danish-language productions. I’m skipping over his short films, somewhat arbitrarily, as well as any production for which he was merely the screenwriter. And because of the magnitude of the production, I’ll be including his only foray into television. His oeuvre is, as I said, notable for its incredible generic promiscuity: slasher, sex diary, sci-fi, horror, Brechtian drama, musical, kitchen sink realism, office comedy, social experiment, documentary, medical procedural, soap opera, neo-noir, detective story, swords-and-sandals epic, metafiction, dystopia… I hesitate to include “romance” if only because no possible entry in that category seems conventional. There are only a couple of his productions that I haven’t seen, and they’re among his earliest films, so my hope is that by descending into the abyss, I’ll be better prepared to trace von Trier’s own origins alongside the excavation of my own.

Since this project is bound to be somewhat depressing, and no doubt will prove alienating to some readers despite my explanation as to why I’m dedicating so much space to it, I’ll be interspersing the von Trier-a-thon with other reviews, so every other week we get a breath of fresh air before descending further. I make no promises, but I’ll make every effort to keep these other reviews somewhat tonally distinct – I don’t much relish, for instance, reviewing Antichrist and immediately backing up into, I don’t know, The Exorcist (or even Rosemary’s Baby, haunted by the specter of Polanski, whom von Trier called a “midget” at Cannes 1999 after failing to win the Palme d’Or for Europa). That’s not healthy for any of us.

My hope is that, by considering von Trier’s works, I can get a better handle on my own critical blind spots as well as my critical predilections. If my fave is problematic, what exactly does it say about me? Can I stay true to my mission “to write about things I liked, quickly and regularly, in the hopes of explaining to whoever might read my personal investments in cinema” when those investments might be inherently compromised? And by looking long and hard at von Trier’s output, can I shake anything usable out about that series of ineluctable critical problems, or is it all empty provocation all the way down?

I just can’t be certain.

I recognize these movies might not be your cup of tea. But Your Humble Critic submits that he wouldn’t really exist as such without them, and he needs to take a beat (and perhaps a beating) to process what it all means. Consider it a descent into hell submitted for your approval or your approbation. So next week, The House That Jack Built, a literal descent into hell, and a kind of prospectus about critical durability versus critical transcendence.

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