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Why Criticism: In Defence of the Personal

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Writing for The Walrus, Jason Guriel tackled the idea of personal writing in criticism with “I Don’t Care about Your Life: Why critics need to stop getting personal in their essays“. Not without merit, Guriel makes a specific case against the confessional-style essay, which appropriates the cliche of the unreliable narrator. While Guriel is not dismissing the form as a whole, he questions whether this critical writing crutch has done more harm than good. As he says, “copping to unreliability is a quick, painless way to earn your reader’s trust and, well, prove your reliability.”

Guriel isn’t wrong when he suggests this rhetoric style has become a problem in the critical world. Too often, writers use it as a crutch and use the intimate, personal nature of their anecdotes — doubt and self-reflexion — as a defence against those who question their argumentation and ideas. To dislike or even to argue against some of these articles suggests a personal attack, and consequently, some arguments are softened before they’re even met with disagreement. Without indulging the dreaded political correctness debate, more often than not, this has become the leftist version of anti-intellectualism. Whatever side of the political spectrum you might fall under, I think healthy debate and dissent has been mostly pushed back into a corner, to make way for screaming forces hoping to shut people up before they even have time to speak.

But this argument against the personal smacks with a certain elitism, one that seeks to uphold the way things used to be. Assuming that things were somehow nobler and fairer in the pre-Internet age (when gatekeepers were newspapers and magazines) ignores the fact that objectivity assumes an impossible ideal. All writing is personal — I think most of us can agree on that. Just like photographs don’t represent whole truths, neither do words. To assume that one style has more value become it has the guise of objectivity doesn’t quite sit right. What does objectivity really mean? Who has the power to dole out a truly objective position?

Logically, we know that nobody does. A person with the most objective take on anything would have to be a robot created from demographic data, and that figure would likely not resemble what most audiences would imagine as a generic arbitrator of taste. To determine objectivity indulges in a really narrow field of experience (which privileges the status quo). In the ultimate mind-fuck of 21st century living, most of our versions of “normal” do not align with our relationship to the world. Whether you live outside the American bubble or don’t happen to be part of a white, middle-class family, it’s likely that what you think is normal, generic and objective is not rooted in “reality.”

The beauty of the personal, in its imperfect glory, is that it has the power to shake away these illusions. The personal has an edge of danger and, as a result, can unravel what we have accepted about the applicability of the universality of experience. Great writing that integrates personal anecdotes and experience, which integrates the “I”, can be empowering and revolutionary — when in the old way of doing things, your voice was silenced or cast aside. The personal has the power to break away from the old guard, to break away from the tenants of an artificial objectivity built on the shoulders of the old ways of thinking.

In discussing issues of labour in a piece entitled “Signs of the Times: Stray Dogs“, Michael Pattison’s injection of the personal — his own experience working as a promoter, fuelling his university lifestyle and standing in the rain and sleet — added an ironic layer to his piece. Bowled over by the Tsai Ming-Liang film, Pattison uses anecdotes to reveal both his concerns of labour as well as his own limited perspective. Rather than assume an ultimate authority, Pattison relates that his struggles working similar jobs were not a battle for survival; the stagnancy he bemoans, which is very much present in the film, was something he was able to escape. It offers him perspective into the lives of the characters, but similarly reveals the limits of his subjectivity.

For Vague Visages, Angelica Jade Bastién writes a column, “The Feminine Grotesque”, exploring the intersection between cinema and personal experience. Unapologetically filtering her cinematic experience through memoir, she consciously shifts away from the tropes and obsessions of traditional film criticism. Radical in every sense of the word, her writing favours films that have traditionally been dismissed (movies centered on the lives and experiences of women). In her piece “Kingdom of Rot – On ‘Queen of Earth”, she fights against the accepted default of male privilege, not only behind the camera, but also in criticism. Deconstructing the issue of female mental illness as a “male concern,” she hits back at the film’s universal praise by reflecting the experience of women, especially those who suffer from mental illness. Writing from a personal perspective, she is thus able to challenge some rather stiff praise levelled at the film and suggest that the “majority take” maybe isn’t looking deep enough. “Despite writer/director Perry saying he sympathizes with Catherine” she writes, “that isn’t evident in the film from the way she’s framed from the very beginning — consistently looked down upon by the camera — to the completely inauthentic understanding of female friendship.”

One of the reasons that Bastién has become such a force in personal writing, as a form of criticism, is that she roots her examples in the text. Her examples, anecdotes and personal injections don’t merely serve her writing — they are the foundation of it. She makes a case that personal writing has the power to challenge the status quo. Personal, in her case, transcends mere style and usurps the consensus in such a way that dismantles and unnerves its privileges, bias and subjectivity. In her personal writing form, Bastién suggests the objectivity that we value so desperately merely reflects the subjectivity of the elite and the privileged; the old guard that refuses to let go of the way things used to be.

Like all writing, not all personal writing is good, not all personal writing has this power. And even when it does, our personal stories and feelings are sometimes taken for granted, and the emotional toll of giving so much of yourself to the world can be exhausting. Honestly, we’ve come to think of writing in such narrow terms, negating the possibility for the changing face and value of criticism in society. I don’t think that personal writing in criticism is inherently superior to other types, it just offers a vibrant alternative when done well. At its best, it challenges how we understand the role of the critic and criticism.

And, this week on Film Twitter:

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5 replies »

  1. Thank you for addressing this form of writing. I have been writing and teaching about the “myth of objectivity” (NYU journalism scholar Jay Rosen has a great series on this) for a long time.

    My subjectivity/experiences are often brought into play when interpreting/responding-to films. A prime example is when I discuss the depiction of violence – how does one’s experiences as a victim of violence alter the way they experience/perceive violent films (especially violence played for laughs). I make obvious my personal politics through an understanding of why a film speaks to (or offends) me, especially if others are responding very differently.

    It seems that the understanding of art in general, and films in particular, as operating as a type of mirror in which we often see what we believe, supports the need to make explicit ones perspective/subjectivity in formulating a response.

    Also, thank you for the introduction to Bastién’s “The Feminine Grotesque”!

    Like

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