Critique of Critique
Roy Ben-Shai



Across the street from our apartment building, something ghastly is being built. Judging by the signs, it is to be an office building with an adjacent hotel. Construction crews start work around 5:00 a.m., as we can tell by the beeping sounds of mobile cranes and tractors. They have a whole arsenal of these vehicles, each with its distinctive beep, but all sound uniformly horrid this early in the morning. Following the ancient wisdom—“If you can’t stop them, bitch about them”—my wife, Verónica, and I have acquired the habit of critiquing the construction work from afar. At first, when we were amateurs, we judged this worker for never wearing his hardhat, that one for frolicking aimlessly about instead of helping his friends, and above all, we criticized the one we deduced is the foreman for his complete lack of leadership. With experience came expertise. Today we judge all aspects of the process—from reverse-driving to bricklaying to project management. Never have two people with so little knowledge or interest in construction spent so much time scrutinizing it. The other morning, as I awoke, I saw Verónica sipping her coffee at the window, shaking her head in dismay, muttering, “What a spectacle . . .” What a way to capture the situation, I thought. The ever-industrious, plague-stricken world outside is a spectacle (and a shameful one at that), and critiquing it from our bedroom window is our way of being human—a metaphor for much of human existence.

We all do it, in one way or another: we critique. There are different ways of thinking; there are even different ways of thinking critically, but critique is the one that consists in evaluating something or passing judgment. While characteristically inclined to the negative pole, critical judgment falls on a scale between two opposites: good or bad, true or false, beautiful or ugly, as conveyed in the film critic’s thumbs-up or thumbs-down, in the tomato that is fresh or rotten, and in the right or left swipe of the dating app. We critique our friends, our teachers and students, random strangers, world events, politicians and governments, books, movies, and TV shows, and the world itself (or “what has become of it”). Some of us do it professionally as art critics, professors grading papers, or peer reviewers casting our stones over the walls of double-blind anonymity. Many others do it casually in everyday life, when commenting on a film they saw or writing an online restaurant review. And, of course, we critique ourselves. One of the first things some of us do in the morning as we confront our faces in the mirror is exclaim: “God, must you be so cruel?”

The oppositionality of judgment is intrinsically related to the spatially oppositional orientation of the critic with respect to the thing she critiques. This relationship establishes two opposing sides and opens a space between—a “critical distance” as it is sometimes called. The two sides confront each other from opposite directions (→ ←), as is the case, for example, when we look in the mirror and it looks back at us. In reading, too, we find this duality: the author worked “forward,” constructing the text from ideas, and the reader now works “backward,” deciphering the ideas from the text—and might, indeed, tear it apart. The fact that this oppositional orientation frames the environments in which we learn how to think, and how to think critically (like the classroom, in which we sit opposite the professor, looking at her as she is looking back at us), can make critique and judgment seem like the most natural thing in the world. Yet there are other orientations of critical thought. A reader may, for example, experience herself as inside the text, like a visitor to an unfamiliar place. She can get lost, find her way, get lost again. She chooses her path, draws her connections. In such a relation there are no two “sides” and no opposition.

The oppositional relationship that is unique to critique is therefore not a rule for all thought or experience. This book’s argument is that critique is a particular orientation of thought that frames not only our approach to this or that object but also our experience of the self, the world, and everything in it. The parameters of this orientation form, inform, and delimit our encounters. Hence the value of a critique of critique, which enables us to take a step back and consider the specific way we are oriented when we think and alternative ways we might be oriented.

This book would not exist without the support of trusted editors, friends, and interlocutors. I am especially indebted to Paul Kottman for his faith and patience, to Erica Wetter for her support, and to Lissa McCullough for meticulous editing and deeply insightful suggestions. I was fortunate to have two particularly perceptive reviewers, whose input helped significantly improve the book’s argument. I started working on this project with the support of a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship in the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities at Haverford College. During that time, I benefited from, and deeply enjoyed, conversations about the project with Jill Stauffer and Gabriel Rockhill. I also thank Paulina Ochoa Espejo, Tom Donahue, Jeremy Elkins, and Joel Schlosser for their helpful feedback following a presentation of my project at the Tri-Co Political Theory Workshop. A very special thanks to David Kishik and Scott Shushan for reading and commenting on different versions of the manuscript and for our conversations, which made a profound impact on the book. My brilliant student assistants at Sarah Lawrence College, Victoria Mycue and Niamh Martinek, were great interlocutors. Finally, three collaborators stand out—Joe Lemelin, Amy Smiley, and Verónica Zebadúa-Yáñez—not only for their consistent contributions to my thinking and the writing process but also for pushing and encouraging me to see this project through. You have made the process so much freer and more pleasurable. I thank you all deeply.