I read a piece somewhere. I can’t find it now but I think about it often enough that maybe some of what I think about it wasn’t actually there. Anyhow, I remember that it made an argument for Peter Schjeldahl as a significant critic in part because of a pedagogical mode in his critical writing. The piece argued that he enacted for the reader the possibility of careful attention through the way he wrote about experiencing an artwork with careful attention. This was quite lovely. Reading Schjeldahl’s reports from the art world, I think of that piece often, because it in its turn enacted a kind of loving and careful attention to Schjeldahl’s criticism. Such an approach models and offers a spiraling loop of appreciation and a deepening capacity to attend that seems to me to be at the hopeful heart of aesthetics. [ETA: Thanks to the glorious and generous C. Thi Nguyen, who knew about the original post, which is even better than I remembered (please go read it now!).] In my first book I was obsessed with the question, coming from marxist aesthetics, of how we combat alienation and deepen our love for the world, or our living entanglement with it – and this question turns out (in that tradition, anyhow) to have a lot to do with the capacity for play, for putting our solid sense of self up for grabs, for being or becoming available for transformation.
This week, as the novel coronavirus transforms the world, it feels ridiculous to think about how we appreciate the world. And yet, many people I know are thrown right now into the question of what use our work is, whether it’s a good time to write academic work at all. Some of us are answering those questions by deciding that we should write about the coronavirus, plunging ill-advisedly into writing hot takes about the pandemic. Another option is to write about things we love, or about things that are close to us. This is a long-standing feminist tradition, taking seriously the possibility that hobbies, domestic arrangements, various kinds of fandoms, and other perhaps small or particular things are worthy of serious attention. Some of my favorite philosophy comes out of such an approach, from Ladelle McWhorter’s incredible writing about subjectivity through understanding gardening and line-dancing as worthy of attention to Donna Haraway’s care for being with dog agility practice. And yet I’ve been practicing resistance, even before COVID-19, to writing about things I love.
Schjeldahl had a piece in a December 2019 issue of the New Yorker in which he reflects on his impending death, parts of his life, and his work as a critic. There are a number of lovely, heartbreaking, and incisive bits, often all of these at once, in it. I very much liked these paragraphs about how he selected art to write about:
I retain, but suspend, my personal taste to deal with the panoply of the art I see. I have a trick for doing justice to an uncongenial work: “What would I like about this if I liked it?” I may come around; I may not. Failing that, I wonder, What must the people who like this be like? Anthropology.
I assess art by quality and significance. The latter is most decisive for my choice of subjects, because I’m a journalist. There’s art I adore that I won’t write about, because I can’t imagine it mattering enough to general readers. It pertains to my private experience as a person, without which my activity as a critic would wither but which falls outside my critical mandate.
I’m fascinated by the idea of that which pertains to my private experience as a person but without which my activity as a critic would wither. It feels critically (ha) important that we critical theorists would have to maintain some conscious control over what we write about in order to maintain some reservoir that is not made available to others. Until reading this, I hadn’t had a way to think about the importance of having things in our lives, maybe lots of things, that we do not write about in our critical work, that doesn’t meet our critical mandate (however we have constituted it). Not everything should be written about because it is important to have a significant chunk of things that are personal experience – necessary to the liveliness of the critical work, but necessarily not included in it.
Schjeldahl is also generous here in offering a model of the critical endeavor as partially imagining that something could be otherwise, including our own response to a thing. I’m imagining now what would happen to my readerly attention if when I encounter theory I hate or disagree with I made a habit of asking “What would I like about this if I liked it?” Or what if I started asking about things I adore, what would I hate about this if I hated it? I know that this is pretty basic, but I’m finding these useful in the overall project of offering attention to that which is uncongenial, the world that should not now exist, which is so much of the world right now. Aside from the prospect of holding some things as personal, as not available for translation into academic or scholarly currency, the question of significance helps me think about clarifying the stakes of what we work on and why. Not everything should be written about, because the resources of attention are political. I think we could benefit from better being able to assess something both for quality and for significance, and from having having an account of what makes something significant.
Fred Moten thinks about conceptual and theoretical terms or moves as toys rather than tools, as ways we can put ourselves into play. He says,
“In the end what’s most important is that the thing is put in play. What’s most important about play is the interaction… If you pick them up you can move into some new thinking and into a new set of relations, a new way of being together, thinking together. In the end, it’s the new way of being together and thinking together that’s important, and not the tool, not the prop. Or, the prop is important only insofar as it allows you to enter; but once you’re there, it’s the relation and the activity that’s really what you want to emphasize.”
So the idea of the personal, of making space for not writing about what we love, also comes back to play, to de-alienating our work, or refusing to alienate our love through writing about everything we love in an academic register or in a way we can count as part of research productivity. Not everything significant to us needs to be shared, especially not in academic writing. For those of us working as academics right now, we could productively resist speed-up as a response to the pandemic, not write for publication, but think and notice a lot, just like Schjeldahl.