What is the relation between criticism and crisis—is criticism in crisis? On this episode of "What is X?," taped in July 2021, Justin invites the critic and poet Ryan Ruby on to attest to the state of criticism today. Is it even possible to play a social role as a critic today, Justin asks, given the economic structures that disadvantage serious long-form criticism? There’s more good criticism than one might expect, Ryan offers—an embarrassment of riches amid the top-ten listicles. Criticism, Ryan says, following Oscar Wilde, has become a form of art in its own right. What can account for the paradoxical abundance of good criticism precisely at the time when there are so few incentives to writing it? Ryan and Justin discuss criticism in an age of abundance and information overload: Is everything a worthy critical object? How central is negativity—or, conversely, praise and rapture—to the critic’s arsenal? Along the way they talk about the medium of poetry, hierarchies of taste, individual subjective judgment vs. the canon, and the Filet-o-Fish.
Justin E.H. Smith [00:07]
Hello, and welcome to "What Is X?" I'm your regular host, Justin E.H. Smith, and this is a podcast of The Point magazine. Regular listeners will know the rules. On each episode, I invite a guest to discuss with me a question of the form: What is X?, where X is filled in differently on different episodes, usually with some difficult and, let's say, large and philosophically, or intellectually, or culturally important, yet nebulous concept. In this pursuit, we're somewhat imitating the dialogues of Plato, where Socrates would seek with his interlocutor to answer a question of the similar form. Now, in these dialogues, Socrates would usually end up in one of three positions by the end, namely: agreement, disagreement, or aporia. Aporia being the Greek word for “dead end,” or, as it was sometimes put in Plato's dialogues, a “wind egg.” So today with me is a guest I've long admired and I'm happy to finally be able to talk to, writer and critic based in Berlin, Ryan Ruby, who will be discussing with me the question, “What is criticism?” So welcome, Ryan.
Ryan Ruby [01:57]
Thank you for having me, Justin. It's a pleasure and I'm looking forward to it.
Justin E.H. Smith [02:01]
So before we get started, I was wondering if you could just say a little bit about the work you do and what your questions are in your own critical work.
Ryan Ruby [02:14]
So I am the author of a novel, Zero and the One, which was published in 2017. I'm the author of an as-yet unpublished, book-length poem called Context Collapse, which is a survey of the history of poetry in poetic form, which concentrates on the history of poetry as a medium, which I am sure we'll have to discuss later on. And in the last, say, year and a half or so, I've been working primarily as what one might call a working critic, and I've been writing, mostly, book reviews, but also other forms of criticism for venues including Poetry magazine, the Believer, the New Left Review, and also forthcoming, there will be also a piece very long piece on Peter Weiss, forthcoming from The Point very soon.
Justin E.H. Smith [03:16]
Okay, so you're one of us. You're a Point man, so to speak. Do you see yourself as working both sides of the street, so to speak, when you move from the creation of literature, be it prose or poetry, to critical work? This is a question that maybe helps us get into the examination of the “What is it?” question?
Ryan Ruby [03:41]
I do, and I'm not quite sure that everybody feels this way. But I think that the particular experience of having made the object of a novel, certainly, and not just having made it, but also, having gone through the process of publishing it, which strikes me as very relevant, certainly informs the way I think about the books that I review, especially the contemporary ones. And the poem itself is criticism. It's an essay and criticism in a sort of parodic, almost Popeian style. So my interest, as a critic of poetry, that is very much, very much present. And the things that I've learned in writing that poem manifest themselves in nearly every critical piece on poetry.
Justin E.H. Smith [04:33]
Now, we're trying to steer away from the question “what poetry is” simply because we've already used that one up, though, it's tempting to explore it, at least briefly through the lens of criticism—namely, whether in your view, the work of a critic is fundamentally different when it's focused on, say, a novel as opposed to when it's focused on poetry, and whether in turn that difference can help us answer the question of what criticism is.
Ryan Ruby [05:11]
I think that, if I understand you correctly, it is important, it is important for every critic to be attentive to the kind of object one has in front of them. When one is—when one is writing in the genre of criticism, and I suppose there I've already given away two base-level assumptions about what I think the thing is in question, and it’s such that it is different when one is working with a novel than one is working with poetry. And that's in a very, very obvious way—these two particular modes and forms and their particular histories, all become part of the consideration of what the, what is being done, and how that is being received and presented. But also that, I would say, as a sort of practice is true, even at sort of much more, sort of subsidiary levels. When you're talking about what kind of novel are we talking about—it's the reason I reviewed a historical novel, and that has a particular set of genre expectations that come with it. And… Or whether or not, for example, the work is contemporary. Or is the author dead? Or so on and so forth. And these are all—these are all, I think, important considerations for the critic to have when approaching the object of criticism.
Justin E.H. Smith [06:47]
Moving back to both the etymology, but also the philosophical deployment of the notion of criticism. It's closely wrapped up with its kind of semantic cousin: crisis—right? And a critical moment is a moment from which things will never be the same again, a turning point, so to speak. And that's significant, perhaps, for understanding again, what criticism itself is, but also it makes it seem particularly strange or, so to speak, next level, to ask the question that I'm about to ask, namely: Is criticism in crisis? That is to say, in the present moment, with the economic structures that support or fail to support critical work, is it even possible to play a social role as a critic today?
Ryan Ruby [07:55]
This is a great question. And this is getting to the essence of things already, from the outset. My answer to this question is, the answer is yes and no. And the answer is, yes, criticism is in crisis in that sense: that the function of the critic as it has been previously known, as an arbiter of taste, as a person who can make or break a career in the old mid-century sense, that is fast disappearing to the point of being gone. But I think what is actually less discussed is the "no" part, in which sense criticism as a mode of writing is flourishing—and probably as a result of the crisis itself. You see a proliferation of very talented, extreme—I'm just overwhelmed, we have an embarrassment of riches in the critics that we have, and just speaking in the sort of Anglophone literary or critical space, coming either from working novelists or poets or writers coming from the academy, people are being sort of forced out of the academy for many reasons, primarily economic reasons. And they're bringing their academic expertise into a sort of para-academic or academic, critical space. And in that respect, what we have is a really bright, vibrant critical community. Now the function of those people, none of us or very, very few of us, almost to the point where none of us is you know, the exception that proves the rule is that our influence is not the kind of influence that was lauded by critics in previous periods, but what we have is a sort of, what I would say what I see in the contemporary moment is a lateral move on to a kind of criticism that moves from the sort of classic Consumer Reports model, as it were, that you associate with some of the newspapers which still have books sections, into a space where criticism has become an art in and of itself, a genre of writing in and of itself. And if we look at criticism as that, as a way of writing about, in this case, books, in a way that sort of breaks down this sort of primary, secondary constellation, we have a lot of that, and it's really quite good. So many people are doing it—not a day, and certainly not a week goes by where I don't see an absolutely impressive hit of criticism, when viewed as an art, as an art form in and of itself.
Justin E.H. Smith [11:00]
Right. Is this a paradoxical situation where we're left unable to explain why there's such a proliferation of high-quality criticism at precisely the moment where the economic structure is least supportive of it? I think about for example, Christian Lorentzen's lovely, never-ending plaint about all the listicles. And the transformation of what we used to think of as relatively medium to highbrow reviews into top ten beach reads-type of publications. And this is something that is happening, you want to say, at the same time as criticism is also reaching new heights as an autonomous domain of creative expression. That's really interesting, but also paradoxical.
Ryan Ruby [12:01]
In a broad sense, the singular fact of our time, in terms of culture, is abundance. And I just mean, pure sheer qualitative elements, right? Abundance of information, abundance of data, abundance of writing, abundance of venues. I think probably the effects of that are overall harmful. But if when we're looking for a silver lining of it, what we're seeing is the proliferation of really quite stupid things, of which Christian's argument about the listicles is quite a spot-on example. And we see that—you know, especially in venues where the financial resources are more there, where one would expect a better quality, we are not seeing that. We are seeing the sort of, you know, the typical complaints about clickbait articles and lowest common denominators of readers, and so on and so forth. But that coexists, and it doesn't negate there's no more sorting mechanism for really any kind of information distribution and its quality. We live, in a weird way, in a very, very, in principle, egalitarian production space, in terms of information. What that has led to, is just...the metaphor is always the flood, a flood of information. And so what you're seeing is, and to your second point, I think that's actually quite astute. Like, insofar as the critic has, indeed become the artist, you know, to steal a phrase from Oscar Wilde, what we're seeing is the kind of conditions as before, say, in the classic period of bohemia, in mid-nineteenth century France, there's a very strong division between the social character of the artist and the social character of the people writing about art, and producing discursivity about art. And there was a very strong opposition between those two groups of people, and then generalizing here across a large bit of history. But now what we're seeing is that as the critic becomes an artist, is forced to engage in this as a sort of expressive medium, because there's so much abundance and because there's abundance, generates competition for these various small perches at known or what is derided as legacy media, the critic, the artist, the academic have sort of been pooled and proletarianized, in a way, and they're responding to the same kind of economic pressures.
Justin E.H. Smith [14:55]
Right, right, right, the collapse of the viable career path means that you no longer have to do it as a career. And you can say what you really think and produce real criticism. It seems along those lines, then, that the critic would want to take on the responsibility of sorting, as well, like starting to help with the sorting right now, to ensure that the right stuff gets saved and filtered into our attention as we go into the future.
Ryan Ruby [15:35]
Yeah, there's a little bit less of this than—I think I agree with you as to the ethos of criticism. And there's a little bit less of this than one would think. And I'm as guilty myself of this as anybody, is that when I'm encountering something, especially... One of the things that I think about when I'm writing is: Well, okay, there are some times when I'm just like: I just want to write about this object and stay with the object on its own terms. And there are other times in which I want to use the object as a starting point for a discussion about something else, and to produce my own work parallel to the object. Insofar as, and I think that happens quite frequently, because the incentive is, when you design to do criticism, you're also writing a piece yourself, and you would like to have that particular piece reflected upon in a particular way . So it has to have its own artistic qualities and things. That's the difference in the sense that the critic and the artist is where are a strange way in, especially in literature, or in a strange way, in competition within the medium of the discussion itself.
Justin E.H. Smith [16:58]
I wanted to maybe shift gears a little bit, just to get in everything I have to explore with you today. And there's a lot to ask you. What, you think, is the appropriate domain of the objects of criticism? Is there in principle, a boundary to the objects that a critic could take up? Or is there nowhere you would stop? I mean, I recently had a conversation with someone on the the "What Is Art? episode, I think it was, and we were talking a lot about the art/nature boundary. And one of the questions that came up when we were talking is, why can't there be nature criticism, which is a really weird thing to ask. And I was kind of floored by it. You can address that if you want to. If you think that's kind of beyond the pale, then you know, we can move back closer to the realm of the human and talk about, say, a design of McDonald's Happy Meals or other kind of cultural products that usually pass under the radar of critical attention. If they do pass under the radar or beyond the limits of criticism, then I suppose the question is why? And what are the criteria for selection of objects?
Ryan Ruby [18:31]
My answer to that question—I guess we can debate this, but my answer to that question is no, there's no limit. And I, much like any monk, I don't make assumptions about what other people do, I have a certain hierarchy, what I think is a hierarchy of objects, in my brain and prejudices towards particular objects rather than others, some of which are justified—I think that literature is a much more important social object than a McDonald's Happy Meals box—and some of which are unjustified: I also think that literature is more important than fun, totally unjustified prejudice, but that's just my prejudice. But to take the Happy Meal box—you know, Jane Hu wrote a really wonderful piece about the Filet-O-Fish, I love that piece about the Filet-O-Fish.
Justin E.H. Smith [19:26]
Oh, right. Yeah, of course, and she's right, too, Filet-O-Fish is fantastic.
Ryan Ruby [19:30]
And there you go, right. And the thing about that, the two points in that would be, one, given the fact of total informational abundance, that almost everything will get touched somewhere. We might not—there are artists and authors, certainly, who I am outraged that they're not a part of mainstream conversation, but that's how it is. But nevertheless, every time I think of those authors and I say, Well, you don't know who this is, I find a hundred people on Twitter who say no, no, of course, this is a great author, and that's already a much larger community than existed in that sort of pre-abundance period. And so in the sense that everything will get touched upon is the difference, really, ultimately, at the end of the day between is, is the criticism of the McDonald's Happy Meal box good? Is it interesting to tell me something new about the object, does it change my way of looking at the world? Does it tell me why it's important to notice details that I could not otherwise notice?
Justin E.H. Smith [20:37]
Ryan Ruby [20:37]
Do I see differently is primarily one of them. I think that what a critic does, is a critic is person who notices. You know, like Henry James says: the writer is the person on whom nothing should be lost. But I think that as an ethos, that is, that is true. And that goes for, I cannot think of a thing in which I would not like to read good writing about it. Whether or not it's good writing is a secondary question, which we can discuss. But I'm pretty agnostic and sort of pluralistic about the possibility of critical objects.
Justin E.H. Smith [21:14]
I suppose maybe one worry is that it's a pretty easy move for a Tyro critic to think "I'm going to go recover something from the infinite treasure trove of our culture." And say that this warrants critical reexamination, you know—Juice Newton, or whoever you want to grab from the past, and someone is going to buy into it. But your point of view is that one sort of has to be agnostic, that everything is potentially worthy of critical reexamination, because, and maybe this is stronger than you would put it, but because the responsibility for making it worthy of criticism lies not with Juice Newton or the Happy Meal, but with the critic who trawls it back up.
Ryan Ruby [22:14]
Totally. And I think that there is a sense in which—and I do understand people who disagree with this point of view in the sense there's, you know, all persons who have allegiance to anything resembling high culture must think of themselves as, really, someone under siege. And that's a perfectly reasonable stance to take towards the sort of like, this culture just really really bombards us with, as you were saying, the infinite treasure trove of potential objects. But at the end of the day, if my model as a critic, as artist, is tenable, it really should be the case that much like the artist, the critic should have free rein to go for anything. And I think that there are enough of us that it will all sort itself out in the wash.
Justin E.H. Smith [23:20]
Maybe I'm confessing too much here, but I spend a great deal of time worrying that my multi-year harangue against the Marvel Cinematic Universe and against binge-watching worthy TV series, and so on and so on, amounts to little more than a prejudice in the end, because I love Tijuana bibles and all sorts of detritus, of junk culture, of decades past. And if I try to come up with a sound reason for making the distinction between good junk culture and bad junk culture, the only ultimate answer I can come up with is: because that's who I am. And yet, I really feel the urgent need to impose this conception of things on other people. Now I'm not a professional working critic. But I wonder sometimes, is that what a critic is ultimately doing? They have the things they care about, that they for whatever reason, perhaps some sort of congenital deformation, feel the need to impose on other people.
Ryan Ruby [24:41]
I think that's one thing, right? And I think that actually, I'll just go back and say that vis-a-vis the Marvel Cinematic Universe and their constituent TV series—I've never seen any of these things, I'm not motivated to do so, so I probably wouldn't read any writing about it. I think that if you wanted to have a criteria, if you wanted to sort of meet—like we can meet the other view halfway—you can say: well the things in culture that really annoy me, that bother me personally, are the ones in which I feel that there's an obligation to discuss them, that is actually not a result of my own choosing, but rather because there's this cultural saturation. And that cultural saturation is the result, in turn, of a very large, very powerful, very capital-intensive publicity onslaught, that—you know, just to pick on any TV series, like, why is it that I have to know about that? Because everyone else is talking about it, and so on and so forth. And so I would say that, if you were going to do a hierarchy of things, again, I think at the end of the day, it's a question of prejudices. So I'd rather read criticism about, again, the Happy Meal box, because I haven't read that before. And there's tons of people who are going to be talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which I don't understand why I'm obligated to care.
Justin E.H. Smith [26:07]
Ryan Ruby [26:08]
And so, you know, since the critics often worry that we're imposing our own prejudices, taste preferences, on other people, and in some respects, that's a good thing. You're like, Hey, here's a new author, here's a new movie that I think that none of the people are talking about, I would like you to experience that because I think that will improve your experience of life—that's a valuable thing. We critics do that thing. But we also actually do it in the least pernicious way possible, relative to the culture at large. And we do it, I think, with self-doubt, self-reflection, and consideration as to whether that's a good thing, which is not shared by the vast majority of the popular objects of our criticism.
Justin E.H. Smith [27:02]
Yeah, I, at a certain moment, I wanted to propose that critics or something like a kind of small-scale, volunteer publicity machines for works that don't have the publicity machine behind them that Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow or whatever has, but that's not quite right, because unlike the publicity machine behind Black Widow, critics also write negative reviews, right? And publicity is, however, kind of emptily, nonetheless unrelentingly positive, whereas it's part of the work of a critic also to pan or to take up a work in view of its shortcomings. So that means that the two are quite different.
Ryan Ruby [27:59]
I think here is the point at which I would say, when you're talking about "What is criticism" as a "What Is X" object, it's worth remembering that one critic can do many different kinds of things. And criticism as a whole, being considered as a sort of class or group of people, are doing all of them. So one of the functions of criticism is, precisely, yeah, to do that, to say hi, I wrote about Sergio De La Pava's book, A Naked Singularity, and my purpose in writing about Sergio De Le Pava's book A Naked Singularity was that more people read Sergio De La Pava's book A Naked Singularity. The same with a recent piece on Mayrocker that I wrote—the purpose of that was I went and read her work and wanted a critical overview that would explain why this was a likeable thing. And so I wrote it—one didn't exist in English, so I wrote it, and the aim of that was that more people should read that, because I believe, you know, when you have these sort of objects actually the culture will be benefited by more people liking this thing. Right? And then in another instance, you know, you take a work and you're like, no, this isn't good. So the classic critique, anywhere from gentle critique to hatchet job, is another way of wanting to do. One could say, Well, what does this object say about us? Right? That's a very popular gesture or movement. All these different moves are—they're different functions of criticism, and they're all tools in the arsenal. They're all paths one can go on as a critic, and yes, in that respect it is very very different from the kind of implicit publicity entertainments.
Justin E.H. Smith [30:05]
I mean, I suppose I've seen recently some—in fact, Point-affiliated, or Point-adjacent— people like Becca Rothfeld, Lauren Oyler, defending the irreducible value of negativity in critical work against something that is, I take it, a kind of infection of the community of critics by the mentality of the publicity machine that they take to be vapid. But it's also associated, I suppose, with people like Dave Eggers who have argued over the years that writers are embattled enough, we should all just encourage each other and say, Hey, good job. So do you have any particular commitments on this controversy as to whether there's kind of a duty to go negative?
Ryan Ruby [31:10]
Yeah. Becca and Lauren, those are critics I admire very, very much. I reviewed Lauren's book. And I think that the assumption there—but I haven't disagreed in this sense. The assumption there is based on assumption of the kind of book under review. And the assumption is precisely that we're talking about the—so for example, the author in question is Sally Rooney. Right? So what is Sally Rooney? Sally Rooney is a contemporary author, that contemporary author is being published by a publishing house, the publicity apparatus for Sally Rooney's work is everywhere. There is a large critical impulse of people who work in the industry, like if you have a large enough event, you will get positive reviews. That is a fact. And that is a shameful fact about how how publicity works even even in the small media object, like a book. And so when we're talking about a Sally Rooney, or when we're talking about any contemporary author—and it's different than when you have a debut author, and [when] you have this sort of big, known entity, like the new DeLillo book. So in those particular cases, all bets are off. And, indeed, the notion... those people by virtue of their advancement, publicity, or their status in the culture will get reviews, and therefore, as an ethical result, those people are open to critical opinion as such, whatever happens. And that's going to be different, or, depending on who gets those assigned, at what particular places and so forth. And so in those cases, yeah, fair game. However, as a general principle, that doesn't apply, for example, to many of the sort of writers that I am writing about. For whom the difference is going to be: review or not review. And for whom the difference is going to be: will people know about this particular thing. At which point, the reason you're reviewing it at all, as opposed to not reviewing it, is to bring people's attention to it, because it wouldn't otherwise get that attention. And the very fact that you're reviewing it implies that you think it is worthy of the attention that you are about to lavish upon it. And so, again, when we think about the sort of ethics of criticism, there's not one criticism. And to reduce it, the one critique I have of the critic as defender via negativity of the culture is precisely that it already assumes the kind of cultural objects under review. Again, as such, it is totally justified. But as a prescription for the entirety of criticism, neither the Eggers view, or the sort of, the Rothfeld view, captures all critical or all potential objects within the field. I think actually Becca would agree with this.
Justin E.H. Smith [35:07]
Right, right, right.
Ryan Ruby [35:10]
Even though in the particular case, the sad thing about those particular debates is precisely there was the sense in which this was a universalizable proposition across a very limited section of the field. And even within that section of the field, there was debate about it. And that is both frustrating and in need of a broadening out across the field as a whole, and all the thousands upon thousands of books that get published, there are different kinds of books and there are different kinds of criticisms to be applied.
Justin E.H. Smith [35:51]
Right, right, right, right. What does a critic need to know? And I wonder about this because I used to love to read Robert Christgau in the Village Voice in the Nineties, when he would avowedly say, I'm an old man now, and I have no idea what CDs they're sending my way, but this one's called NSYNC, or this one's called the Spice Girls, let's check it out. And it was in some ways a docta ignorantia, right, a learned ignorance, that only an old master like Christgau could pull off—his ignorance was against the background of decades of learning. But there's also, I think, a certain value placed on a kind of intuitive ability to say I like this, I don't like this, but to not know why. And to be a kind of, like—I'm thinking about the famous, you might remember the name, I'm forgetting him, the American wine critic who is a breath of fresh air in the wine world, they say, because he doesn't have this fancy vocabulary of the French, he just takes it in, and he says, I like it. And then the next thing you know, everyone wants to buy the wine. That seems like a strategy that could easily attract charlatans. But also, it seems like there's a serious question about what the actual background body of knowledge a critic must have is, and how this in turn constitutes what we might call critical competence.
Ryan Ruby [37:51]
My intuition is that the ideal critic knows everything.
Justin E.H. Smith [37:57]
He knows everything!
Ryan Ruby [38:02]
That is what we all aspire to. And we all fail in certain respects. Or at least in any given instance, a reasonable compromise would be in any given instance, to know what one has to learn to write that critical piece. And to do that, in any sense. Because if you want to, conditions don't always permit this, but if the aim in an ideal sense is, is a sort of perfection, even if debatable perfection, or in which there are sort of multiple, competing perfections, you want to bring as much to bear as possible, because we're going to be doing and looking at the thing, and you want to be able to make sure to see as much of that thing as possible. And knowing as much as you can. Again, it's hard to generalize. For example, in a recent piece, I reviewed a book of historical fiction about—Rivka Galchen's new book. And for that I read other books set in that period, I read and have a little bit of knowledge about the seventeenth-century witch craze, and what we know about the witch craze, there are different theories about the witch craze, about the genre of historical fiction, and other issues in that genre, along with, you know, what are the sort of contemporary questions that might be raised in the reception of that book by not just me, but by also potentially a sort of imagined reader, along with, how do books get made? What are the challenges and obstacles to putting together a book? What are the things that get a particular book published in a particular space by particular people? What do they think that they're doing with this book, and so on and so forth. And so things get pretty complicated pretty quickly. And that, of course, is just, you know, a grain of sand on the dune of possible knowledge. But the critics that I like the best, like Guy Davenport, you read a book, a piece by Guy Davenport, and you're just sort of overwhelmed by the things that Guy Davenport was able to notice. For example, in The Geography of Imagination, let's say, he's talking about the painting American Gothic, right, which is a sort of banal painting. And he's able to say where the buttons on the dentist—he's a dentist, first of all, the person in the painting— he's able to say where the buttons on the dentist's wife would have come from. Through that kind of detail there's an extrapolation of a literary theory about the Gothic. And that's the kind of thing you would not be able to see if you had not looked at the button. Or the way there's this lovely passage in The Rules of Art by Bourdieu when he talks about the meaning of ultramarine paint. I don't know much about painting, and I go look at a quattrocento altar or whatever, I look at it, I see blue in it. I think it's blue, whereas he discusses this painting and says, no, it's not blue, it's ultramarine. And that difference matters. Here's why. Because ultramarine blue would have cost four florins, this other kind of blue, German blue, would have cost two florins.
Justin E.H. Smith [41:41]
That's so interesting. I mean, it seems to me that it depends on the object once again. And by the way, it's Robert Parker is the name I was thinking of, and the French have been worried over the years about the Parkerization of wine criticism. Now, as far as I'm concerned, Robert Parker can have the wine, he can say whether it's good or bad, I don't really care. And that has something to do with the fact that I don't take wine criticism all that seriously as an endeavor. I think I'm just perfectly happy with a kind of de gustibus, non disputandum approach. That's the end of it. And my intuition is quite quite different for literature, where I absolutely agree with you, or for painting. And so it's almost as if these differing intuitions track the distinction that I tried to get at in an earlier question, when I asked you: What is the appropriate domain for criticism? Though, of course, different people will have different intuitions here.
Ryan Ruby [42:55]
Well, yeah, I want to say that bringing those two things together, like any object goes, but the difference between good criticism and bad criticism of that object is the level of knowledge that the person brings to it. And that knowledge can be tangential and surprising. At the end of the day, on the view, I don't know what the rules of the genre of wine criticism are. Maybe my experience could be changed by a description, of a sort of suitably elaborate description. But at the end of the day, we're also faced with a problem that, you know, there's something irreducibly subjective about the experience, especially that of an object of literal tastes, eating, but true for other objects as well. And the critic, at the end of the day, that can't be the final word on it. Because at the end of the day, why should I care what someone else's subjective opinion about the thing is, if I'm going to have one as well, and they're equally valid?
Justin E.H. Smith [44:09]
Ryan Ruby [44:10]
I wanted criticism, whatever it is—and canon. I love criticism, which incorporates the story of the critic experiencing the thing. I think that is also an interesting way of doing criticism, but at the end of the day, it's going to have to reach across this divide, using language to persuade me, ultimately, that whatever it is the critic wants to persuade me it's going to have to exit pure subjectivity.
Justin E.H. Smith [44:45]
Yeah, over the years, I've disagreed with the philosopher Barry Smith, who works on the philosophy of wine, which I think is a bit of a racket that he's worked out to get free tours of vineyards. Though I mean, he's great, he's wonderful. But, you know, I've tried to make precisely this distinction, that wine is in your mouth, whereas the painting or the sculpture is before viewers who can behold it together and come up with, to speak with Kant, at least, some kind of intersubjectively valid judgment about an external object. And accordingly, for Kant, gastronomy is pretty low on the hierarchy of the kinds of judgments of taste you could make, whereas painting and sculpture are at the top, but again, here, I'm constantly worried about my disposition to create hierarchies. And I always wonder how historically conditioned that is, and how much prejudice is baked into it.
Ryan Ruby [46:04]
I think this also should be said in that particular case—and again, this is not myself knowing, being ignorant about wine criticism—is that what we've again described here is a situation in which the point of the critical mediation is to tell us whether something is good or bad. And that, again, is a sort of a paradigm where I was saying earlier, is a sort of consumer report paradigm. And perhaps, you know, even in something like say wine criticism you think there could be other ways of addressing what's valuable about the thing, whether at the end of the day, for example, it could be not a question of like, whether or not I want to drink it, except to say is like, how does this thing get produced and what does the way it gets produced say about us as a people, or what is the novelty of this particular thing? What are the the techniques of production which are novel? Which are all gestures that are very standard in literary criticism? We could talk about a new formal technique and how that formal technique operates, and I think that at a production point, you could probably make the same gesture about a bottle of wine as well.
Justin E.H. Smith [47:35]
Ryan Ruby [47:35]
It could be interesting for a reader who may or may not ever taste that wine, ever.
Justin E.H. Smith [47:38]
Right. That's once again coming around to your idea of criticism as an autonomous domain of expression, right? Yeah. That's so interesting. We should start moving towards a conclusion. But before we do that, I wanted to talk to you a little bit more about poetry, both your work in poetry and poetry in general, and how this can perhaps help us to answer the "What Is Criticism" question. You are yourself working in the genre of epic poetry, which must be—among other things—which must be something you experience as a kind of defiance of everything that the world around us cares about. This is a form that has slipped, many would think irremediably, into the past, and yet you're contributing to it. And you've already said today that your contribution to it is a kind of critical intervention. So say a little bit more about what you're doing there.
Ryan Ruby [48:57]
It totally um—I should say that the genesis of this is: I had a thesis, and it was a thesis about poetry. And I wanted to write it as a poem. And at that moment, it started off as a joke, really, for the reasons you described, [which] I think are accurate. This form is irremediably gone, and the reason that it's irremediably gone, one of the things that the poem discusses, is because the social continued conditions for its production and reception have long gone. And so it started off as a joke and ended up as a project of over a year's work. Which I suppose gives you an indication into the sort of irrational decisions I make in my life. But, you know, I wanted to find—there was no way that anyone is going to let me publish it as a long essay. And as it turns out, there's no way that anyone was gonna let me publish it as a poem. But what it is, is that it's a 95-page poem that goes from Homer all the way to the present, Rupi Kaur, the last poet that is discussed, the entire sweep of at least Western poetry, and central pieces. And it is, it's an essay-criticism, it's discursive, it is rhetorical, it makes an argument. And this is precisely what is thought to be, given our current, my conception of what poetry is, the unpoetic, it's discursive, and rhetorical, rather than probing, and imagistic, for example, it does play with music, it contains footnotes, also in verse, it plays with form in precisely these ways, but it's also going to refer back to the sort of eighteenth-century verse essay, which does not exist, there's no reason it should exist as a poem, other than for the amusement of writing it as such and for the amusement of reading it as such. But first, one of the interesting things about writing under these constraints, the constraints of poetry, the constraints of meter—it's metered—is that one comes to see why it is that it is a difficult form for the expression of abstract ideas, except in the sort of erotic way that I've done, and that has to do ultimately, with the most interesting question to me, I think: What is the medium of poetry? What is poetry's medium? Of course, as you know, in the West, at least, the original medium, and function of poetry is a storage medium. We have meter, precisely because meter is conducive to remembering large chunks of text.
Justin E.H. Smith [52:19]
Right. If I can just break in here briefly to say for the audience that Ryan and I first began corresponding as a result of our shared admiration of a scholar named Milman Perry, who died young in the 1930s. And who was both a classicist and an ethnographer, who determined that the epic of Homer had existed prior to being written down as an oral tradition. And he did this by doing ethnographic field recordings of Bosnian bards, who also worked in a tradition that involved some of the same formal elements as Homeric epic, and Perry established that these elements are there working with these living representatives of the tradition, that these elements are there, as you say, Ryan, aide memoire, as tools for getting the epic stored in the mind. And so this is indeed something that is very foreign to our world. Not only do we have books for a handful of centuries now. But we have much more sophisticated technologies for taking care of the storage for us, right. And this profoundly transforms the way we relate to works of literature and the way we understand what literature is.
Ryan Ruby [54:13]
That's as good and succinct a description of Milman Parry's book as I have yet heard, and yeah, so my hypothesis here—and of course, Milman Parry gets picked up and is sort of known at all, he's known, because he was such an important influence on Marshall McLuhan, whose birthday it is today...
Justin E.H. Smith [54:37]
Ryan Ruby [54:41]
But the theory that—McLuhan goes on is if this is true, this sort of fact about epic poetry, Greek epic poetry, is in fact, true about all media. And one of the things that I do in the Context Collapse poem, or the argument is essentially it's true for all stages of poetry, that's what I argue, that the means of storage, distribution and production mediate the relationship between the poet and the audience. And that's just as true in the particular way and the particular conditions for Homer, as it is for Petrarch, as it is for Baudelaire, as it is for Mallarmee, as it is for Pound, as it is for the Language poets. And as it is for today's sort of sound poets, concrete poets, and now the Instapoets, right. And if you look at the medium, and media development, and the history of media, I always find a group of poets who sort of got there first. And that the shadow of futurity that Percy Bysshe Shelley talks about in "The Defense of Poetry"—or the shadow of futurity is this is new media development. And you can look and see, in every kind of formal innovation in poetry, we work through the possibilities and availabilities of different kinds of videos, of manuscripts, or print, or the availability of a cheaper print, or the postal system, the distribution mechanism. Or, of course as today, the system that we're all concerned about is that sort of a digital flood as well as overabundance. And I think that one of the reasons that this question always comes up in our present times like everyone says, effectively we have, it's interesting here. Effectively, we have an institutional definition of poetry—that poetry, that a poet is whoever can get them to believe is a poet and is claiming that they work at poetry.
Justin E.H. Smith [57:12]
Right, George Dickie's thesis of the institutional theory of art right now.
Ryan Ruby [57:19]
That's functionally what we have, in terms of our understanding of drama and poetry. And what's interesting to me is that the number one response to the poem that I wrote, which is, interestingly formally traditional, but primarily discursive, is: it's not poetry. That gives me hope. There's a kernel of belief in that, that poetry is something that can be defined. And I think that what people are responding to in that is a discontinuity. What I was hoping to write in this forum was to show what we've forgotten, first of all, the formal possibilities that have fallen away as the social conditions for their production have also fallen away. But also a sense in which we're committed sort of provocation that no one has been committed to, the idea of some defense, of some idea of poetry. And in this particular case, it seems, the trope again for this is discursive. So here the criticism takes the place of the other.
Justin E.H. Smith [58:28]
Ryan Ruby [58:29]
And that's interesting to me, just as a sort of important—I think it's a nice thing that this particular poetic experiment was considered out of bounds as poetry precisely because it operated in a critical [way] as opposed to something [inaudible].
Justin E.H. Smith [58:50]
Well, I hope it will make you filthy rich, if not immediately. This is weird. You know, I think I hear some wind blowing. And I'm not quite sure why because I like everything you've said. Maybe what it is, maybe the reason we're ending in aporia, is because I'm still somewhat attached myself to the idea of naive criticism. I'm worried about the way it might invite charlatans, but I also think it's an important social role to keep open for at least a select few. How they're selected is a complicated question. But I feel like we need some people around who just give us a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down in an inscrutable way that they refuse to explain and it becomes a kind of quasi-priestly thing, even though I absolutely love, value, appreciate your ideal of criticism, which as you very nicely put it is to know everything, even if that ideal can never be obtained. In any case—
Ryan Ruby [1:00:22]
I have to say that this aporia was the outcome I was hoping for.
Justin E.H. Smith [1:00:29]
Oh, good. Yeah, one thing I always like to remind people of is that it's not like agreement equals winning, right? After all, one thing that aporia can show is how formidable the concept in question is, or how difficult it is to get a handle on it. And that speaks in favor of devoting your life to it, right, whereas if it's easy to come to agreement about it, then it's probably something really dumb.
Ryan Ruby [1:01:10]
Well, now aporia means the conversation goes on, and that's the important thing.
Justin E.H. Smith [1:01:13]
Exactly, yeah. Anyhow, listen, this has been a fantastic conversation. Again, I've been here with Ryan Ruby, and we've been talking about criticism. This is, one more time, "What Is X?", and I'm your host, Justin E. H. Smith for The Point, and we'll see you next time. Bye bye, Ryan.