Criticism as Equipment for Living by Kevin O’Rourke

Posted Mon, 11/01/2021 - 8:55am by  |  Category: ,

Toward the end of his recent book, Image Control: Art, Fascism, and the Right to Resist, Patrick Nathan offers a robust defense of the art of criticism.

Here, despite the risks associated with starting a post with an overly long quote, is the key paragraph. The italics (and urgency) are Nathan’s:

From the perspective of citizenship, it is radical to resist not only the commodification of art, but the commodification of oneself. It’s here where criticism offers a very different form of resistance, an anticynicism, a turning toward, a meeting of the gaze. There is not “universal truth”; but via aesthetic, political, and ethical criticism, there is dialectical truth. In the rushing flow of commodities, a dialectical approach to the art we make and the relationships we forge is the rock in the river, the stick in the spokes. Interrogating failures alongside pleasures, criticism resists reducing our works and ourselves to consumable images. Criticism fosters a sensibility of plural validation: a book is this and that, an author’s vision successful, challenging, and problematic. It recognizes works and persons as existing in time and capable of change—the concept upon which all radical hopes are built.

This is heady stuff, and is indicative of the overall thrust and style of Image Control (which, full disclosure, I recently reviewed for the Women’s Review of Books). Image Control is certainly a book of this and that—it’s a wide-ranging, forceful, flawed examination of everything from Donald Trump’s awful influence to porn—but Nathan hits the nail on the head here. We need criticism, perhaps now more than ever.

Which is why it’s a bummer that the state of criticism, and following that the state of public intellectualism in the US, ain’t what it once was (this is hardly news). The last few decades have seen the loss of both important critical voices—Susan Sontag died in 2004, Roger Ebert in 2013, and John Berger in 2017—and outlets where those voices can be heard, plus a decline in broad interest in even hearing them.

For example: Roger Ebert’s once widely popular At the Movies went through a number of progressively less successful iterations before it went off the air in 2010; the Simpsons-esque animated show The Critic, starring Jon Lovitz, only lasted two (glorious) seasons; and in much more recent news, the publisher of the criticism-leaning lit mag The Believer recently announced that The Believer’s February 2022 edition would be its last. RIP, The Believer.

Meanwhile, The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list is dominated by breezy celebrity memoirs, and the actress Zendaya recently described the new Dune film as, “just about humans trying to survive…which is I think a pretty universal concept.” Hmmm sure, maybe, but Dune is really about colonization, resource-dependency, the amalgamation of capital, the corrupting nature of power, and the limits of human endurance/ingenuity, among other things.

I admit it’s somewhat unfair to criticize what actors say while doing press junkets, but again the point stands that criticism—perhaps even critical thought?—ain’t what it was. (Another example: when Christopher Lehmann-Haupt reviewed Sontag’s landmark 1977 book in the Times, Alex Haley’s Roots was on the top of the bestseller list, and column on chess, “A King’s Home is His Castle, But It Needs Its Beefeaters,” ran next to the Sontag review.) Therefore, in the face of these various criticism-related bummers, it was refreshing to come across Patrick Nathan’s forceful defense of criticism as not only art, but as a source of hope, and hope with a capital-H no less; his very defense of criticism is itself hope-inspiring.

It also reminded me of the literary critic Kenneth Burke’s essay “Literature for Equipment for Living,” which I’ve been coming back to for years. The essay posits that literature can be used—much like proverbs—as “strategies for dealing with situations,” or “for consolation or vengeance, for admonition or exhortation, for foretelling.” Here’s a section I’ve long enjoyed:

For surely, the most alembicated and sophisticated works of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct the larger movements and operations” in one’s campaign of living. One “maneuvers,” and the maneuvering is an “art.”

Following this, I’d say criticism can be seen as equipment for understanding living, and by fostering a sense of “plural validation,” per Nathan, understanding how to live. As Ezra Pound—who perhaps more than any other twentieth century writer embodied this and that—said, literature is the news that stays news. And criticism is how we make sense of that news.

For more, take my class on writing critical essays and reviews, which starts November 6. There are still spaces left!


Kevin O’Rourke lives in Philadelphia, where he works in publishing. His first book, the essay collection As If Seen at an Angle, was published by Tinderbox Editions; he is currently working on several follow-up books, including a book about surviving suicide. A member of the NBCC, he is an active book and arts critic; his criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kenyon Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review. Learn more at kforourke.com.