What Connects?

Part 1: Sucks or Rocks?

Often I ask students to think beyond whether something is good or bad, or as I put it in my Youth Culture class, to push past whether it “sucks or rocks.” “Good or bad for what?” I ask. “Good or bad for whom?”

This can be disorienting for introductory literature and culture classes because when most people hear the word “critic,” they think of someone who evaluates books, films, or other cultural products according to how good or bad they are. Someone who asks eruditely, with persuasive evidence, a broad background, a fine desire to uphold standards and enrich our culture, but still, at the root of it, someone who explains whether something succeeds or fails, flies or flops, rocks or sucks.

This actually has very little to do with what goes on in any of my classrooms, or so far as I know, any of my peers’ classrooms. This part of culture is more properly the realm of reviewers. In other words, it’s a branch of consumer product reviews. The products in this case are cultural ones, and as more and more cultural products compete for our attention, there’s more need for these reviews.

So ultimately, this is criticism as consumer education: should you invest your time in a film, book, or album? Is it going to be satisfying?

A few features of this kind of criticism:

  1. The fancypants name for the branch of aesthetics that deals with evaluation, the question of whether something is good or bad, is axiology.
  2. Traditionally axiology deals with a novel, film, etc. as a discrete object. We might rank it in connection with other better or worse novels, films, etc., but its goodness or badness is supposedly disconnected from its context, from what it’s connected to.
  3. Thinking of something as a discrete object works well with evaluating it as a consumer product: do I buy the film ticket or not? should I pick up this book or download this song?
  4. Axiology is implicitly normative: it assumes norms or standards by which we can judge cultural products.
  5. Traditionally, demonstrating one’s command of these standards is a form of cultural capital, conveying that you are an educated person and, insofar as culture is concerned, an informed consumer. The connoisseur as an exemplary consumer.

Part 2: Good or bad for what? Good or bad for whom?

I like these questions because they lead away from the book or film as a discrete object and toward what it connects with, away from standards that are supposedly self-evident and toward judgments that are more situational.

These questions also tilt toward what something means: what sense can we make of this? To me this almost always more interesting (though more effortful) than asking how good something is as an aesthetic artifact, or how satisfying it is as an aesthetic experience.

Above and beyond meaning, though, there’s also the question of what something connects with (or can be connected with) and how these connections work. Following these existing connections, and experimenting with new ones, is not independent from meaning. If I wanted to get philosophical (and Daoist) about it, I might say they are prior to meaning, the assemblages out of which meanings are made.

What’s most important for me, though, is that following and forming connections directs my attention away from my own experience, or at least out toward connections to things that exceed my experience. I usually find those connections more interesting than my likes and dislikes, which to me are kind of boring. (In other words, I bore myself!)

I’m thinking all this about connecting and assemblages needs its own separate blog post. But before closing on the limits and drawbacks of evaluating how good or bad art is (as if this were the end–not merely the initial stage–of engaging with it), I have a qualification. I think there’s an exception to my general inclination away from asking “good or bad?” and toward “what does this connect to?”

For me this exception is for other producers of culture. I often find that the person best equipped to evaluate how a novel succeeds or fails aesthetically is another writer. That’s usually where their interest lies, in part because they are a competitor (for artistic acclaim, cultural recognition, or even cold hard cash.). When confronted with a novel they think is awesome, they are often (and rightly) less concerned with what it means than with how it was done. (Or to paraphrase TS Eliot, “that effect was awesome! How can I steal it?)

At least that’s how I feel when I’m in the middle of a creative project. I mostly view similar projects in terms of inspiration (things I’d like to emulate) and focus on mistakes that I want to avoid. I’m thinking less as a consumer of culture and more as a producer of it, looking for tricks and tips, anxious to avoid missteps.

But if judging how something succeeds or fails is the only tool in my box, then my world becomes a poorer place, filled mostly with objects that disappoint–a world scorched by an aftertaste of dissatisfaction, where my only consolation is a self-congratulatory belief in my powers of discernment. Life becomes less interesting and more, as David Foster Wallace puts it somewhere, un-fun.

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