When does bar-room debate count as criticism?
You know how it begins. You’re out to dinner, or on the subway. Maybe you’re on the phone. Most probably, you’re in a bar. And out of the loose talk and ambient sociability there emerges a sharper drift, or just a frontal assertion: ‘The new Los Campesinos! record is absolutely their best.’ Or, ‘If you don’t love “Elvis Presley Blues” by Gillian Welch with all your human soul I’m not sure we can be friends.’ Or, ‘Vanessa Beecroft needs to fucking stop.’
You know the rest. What happens then, if you’re lucky, is something between a bar fight and a love song – an aria, sung in multiple voices, of disproportion, implacability and devotion. Thomas Pynchon gets the texture of this kind of talk exactly right in his novel Vineland (1990), in the account of a single exchange between a teenaged punk-rocker and his girlfriend’s dad:
‘“Hey, so, Mr. Wheeler,” Isaiah said at last, “how you doing?”
“What’s this ‘Mr. Wheeler,’ what happened to ‘You lunch meat, ‘sucker’?” this line having climaxed their last get-together, when, from a temperate discussion of musical differences, feelings had escalated into the rejection, on a quite broad scale, of most of one another’s values.’
What Pynchon so precisely captures here is the sense that what’s up for grabs when we fight about what we love, and why we love it, is value: the terms through which we appraise the world, and do our best to render it habitable. In his essay ‘Frivolity and Unction’ (1996), Dave Hickey, a writer at his best when tracking ‘the way people talk about loving things, which things, and why’, calls this the ‘street-level negotiation of value’, and the ardor, inventiveness and real-time agility of these negotiations are only a few of the reasons to love them. (We might also love them because such talk is often a way of actually sustaining our most cherished intimacies in and through conditions – temporal, geographic – that tend to erode them, and of turning those loves, their totems and their histories, into shareable language. But that’s another story.)
So is what happens there – in the hyped-up talk, the denunciation, the only half-unmeaning hyperbole – something we can recognize as criticism? Here is all that I have to say: we should.
There are, after all, a number of ways of dismissing this kind of talk. It does not cure cancer, is not rocket science, makes claims no more verifiable than unverifiable, and does indeed partake of the kinds of self-indulgence and self-delightedness for which the bourgeois classes are known. But charges of pretension and complacency are not the worst of it. To the degree that we understand fighting about bands, or artists, or authors as a kind of in-group clannishness – a disciplinary policing of what is hip, say – then to that degree does the now curiously modish critical vocabulary of Pierre Bourdieu come to seem, in a twinkling, apposite. It is Bourdieu, on this reading, who reminds us that in certain precincts of the mercilessly capitalized world the choice of objects on which to bestow one’s devotion, particularly aesthetic objects, is in essence a strategy of distinction, a way to insist upon one’s own exalted place in a social hierarchy whose material ungroundedness – whose evanescence and immateriality – does nothing to diminish its viciousness. Many a contemporary arraignment of the hipster, and of the urban plague of his skinny-jeaned brethren, falls out in exactly these terms.
And yet, and yet … I’m ready to concede at least part of the point about the debilitating snark of so much object-love. (‘You don’t like tUnE-yArDs? Peasant.’) We all know people like this, people who expend great quantities of capital in these economies of cool and who use their enthusiasms, or the performance of them, like a carving knife. The art world, it is fair to say, is no stranger to the species. (Nor for that matter is the academy. Or Brooklyn. Or Shoreditch. Etc.) But in truth I have no heart for this kind of quasi-sociological hipster-hate. When I see kids bedecked in the accoutrements of one emerging micro-trend or other, I do not, I confess, experience so immediate and blinding an access of rage that I am forced to reach, gunslinger-like, for my copy of Bourdieu’s Distinction (1979). Perhaps indefensibly, what I see are kids who love things, and who are using what languages are at their disposal (sartorial, affective, sometimes steeply monetized and sometimes not) to give that love some kind of heft and shape and articulacy. Those languages aren’t my languages – like most of my friends I prefer complex syntax and bar fighting: this is why we are friends – but I don’t dismiss out of hand the latent acuities of their love, whatever its object and whatever its mode.
Those affectations and my preferred kind of talk share, after all, a submerged and wholly estimable premise, which is simply that loving things, loving them articulately and combatively, is itself a style of engagement not a lot less rich for being as informal, uncredentialed and overheated as it is. You come to that scene of talk not to push people away – not unless you’re an asshole – but to collaborate, and to collaborate particularly in a project of what I think of as a kind of world-making: of converting the bursts of joy you experience in the presence of certain kinds of objects into usable terms, a vocabulary made of parsings and principles you might use to grapple with a difficult, broken world. (To know why you prefer the Minutemen’s ‘Doctor Wu’ to Steely Dan’s, or Van Morrison’s ‘Bring It On Home’ to Sam Cooke’s, might be to know a lot about the kind of world you want to make.) We invest ourselves in those scenes because they’re places where we learn how to contest first-order questions of value, yes. But they are also where we get to insist, with the cyclonic force of all that enthusiasm and invective, that despite the vast mediating machinery of new-millennial capital and multiplying systems of instantaneous commodification, what we love matters, and matters in ways that, because they are unstable and un-predetermined, must be fought over, and over, and over.
I suspect everyone who cherishes slight, useless things enough to devote such disproportionate quantities of life to them can recall the experience of falling hopelessly in love with a song (or sculpture, or book, etc.), and knows without having to be reminded what that unnerving, inflooding sense of captivation is like. I don’t mean to imply that criticism needs to be rooted in some account of that sensation, or that engagement with any object must always return to, say, the sense of raw exhilarated wonder before the fact that so inexhaustible and singular a thing actually exists in the world – however transforming that feeling has been for many of us. Nor am I louche enough to suggest that criticism ought to end up there, determined to give words to those bright intensities. But I do think that work that severs itself too utterly from these wellsprings of responsiveness runs the risk of devolving, pretty swiftly, into what Hickey calls ‘term papers and advertising’. And so, like Joni Mitchell says, if you want me I’ll be in the bar.
is Professor of English at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, USA, where he teaches American Literature. His book about sex in the 19th century, Tomorrow’s Parties, is forthcoming from NYU Press, and his next project is called How To Do Things With Joy.
frieze is now accepting letters to the editors for possible publication at email@example.com.