Skip to content

Everyone's A Critic

Osita Nwanevu
10 min read
Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky

Hey all. Let's hop to it.


The brilliant Tobi Haslett was interviewed by The Point's Jessica Swoboda recently about politics and criticism. An excerpt:

JS: In your lecture for the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design’s 2022 Critical Issues Lecture Series, you said, “More and more people ended up realizing there isn’t a built-in audience for their work. There isn’t a built-in way to survive as an artist, or a writer, or any sort of what we now lamentably call ‘creative’ in our society.” Today, what do you see as the biggest challenges critics and artists and creatives are facing?
TH: Living under conditions of vastly less security—everyone says this because it’s obvious, and true. But the downstream effects are various. Trends come and go with rapacious velocity. I think the world itself is facing much more important and greater challenges. But insofar as the “creative class” exists, its major problem right now is not just impaling itself on the absolute reification of everything. Can you have an intellectual life that dares to take a stance vis-a-vis this or that trend or take exception to this or that thing in a way that isn’t simply the photonegative of a compulsory celebration? Is it possible to be critical without being an unthinking provocateur? Is it possible to dissent without having that position flatten into yet another card to be shuffled in the same deck?
These problems intensify the more people feel twisted down by market pressures, which really do exist. But it’s also become socially acceptable to genuflect to them completely. I have no idea what the right path or answer is, and I think I fail a lot, personally. I do think that the complete material and ideological obliteration of a bohemian alternative—the combination of rising rents and just giving up on the project of an oppositional attitude within culture—has not been great for thought.

Critics have been wrestling with that reality for a while now. Elsewhere in the interview, Haslett mentions an n+1 editorial from 2013 which speculated that the precarity of artists and writers might force them into deeper engagement with the working classes:

Cultural revolution or the struggle for a new left hegemony — call it what you like, but the proletarianization of bohemia may lead to a ProBo challenge to the Bobo consensus on the irresistible embourgeoisement of all culture. To use old Marxist language (perhaps somewhat refreshed from a long historical nap), the conflict would be between “organic” intellectuals, allied with the working class, and “traditional” ones convinced of their independence despite relying on and reinforcing the ruling class. The organic intellectuals wouldn’t only be those emerging from the working class but many falling into it. Nor does this rule out the economically comfortable radical of the Engels type — but calls for an insurgency against your own class become more meaningful if and when insurgency seems like a real threat. There exists a chance, anyway, that closer consorting between culture and the rest of life, and among intellectuals and nonintellectuals, will do something to fulfill the old dream of the aestheticization of society, the socialization of art, and the corresponding regeneration of both. This, too, belonged to the program of socialism and cultural revolution.

Thanks to the web ⁠— and a social media landscape that hadn’t fully developed in 2013 ⁠— intellectuals and nonintellectuals are consorting all the time these days. A broad, hyperliterate population reads and engages in public writing about the arts on a regular basis; that writing is often suffused with ideas and language borrowed from academics. Never before in human history has so much criticism been produced by and for so many.

Most of it is bad.

The first sections of the editorial anticipate the dynamics that have come to shape arts discourse ⁠— there’s griping about the word “content” ⁠— but the central questions it poses seem even more important and more difficult to answer in our post-2014 world than they must have back when it was published. Does leftist criticism really matter? Or is it just another empty consumable capitalism offers us? Does the quandary itself matter? Or do professional writers pretend it does to give themselves something more to write about?

I don’t know how to untie that knot, and I’m not going to try very seriously to here. Instead, I want to highlight some writing by Trotsky ⁠— referenced in the editorial ⁠— that seems relevant to thoughts I’ve shared previously on the importance of putatively "apolitical" art and on Marxism’s relationship with liberalism. As I’ve argued previously, Marxism takes the liberal individual subject for granted, and even valorizes it, in a way that seems generally underappreciated to me, though I’m not a political theorist. Trotsky’s literary criticism, which I hadn’t read before now, is another place where this shows up. Here he is in Literature and Revolution taking on the question of whether humanist literature could be reconciled with the left’s revolutionary project. Emphasis mine:

When the futurists propose to throw overboard the old literature of individualism, not only because it has become antiquated in form, but because it contradicts the collectivist nature of the proletariat, they reveal a very inadequate understanding of the dialectic nature of the contradiction between individualism and collectivism. There are no abstract truths. There are different kinds of individualism. Because of too much individualism, a section of the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia threw itself into mysticism, but another section moved along the chaotic lines of futurism and, caught by the revolution – to their honour be it said – came nearer to the proletariat. But when they who came nearer because their teeth were set on edge by individualism carry their feeling over to the proletariat, they show themselves guilty of egocentrism, that is, of extreme individualism. The trouble is that the average proletarian is lacking in this very quality. In the mass, proletarian individuality has not been sufficiently formed and differentiated.
It is just such heightening of the objective quality and the subjective consciousness of individuality that is the most valuable contribution of the cultural advance at the threshold of which we stand today. It is childish to think that bourgeois belles lettres can make a breach in class solidarity. What the worker will take from Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dostoyevsky will be a more complex idea of human personality, of its passions and feelings, a deeper and profounder understanding of its psychic forces and of the role of the subconscious, etc. In the final analysis, the worker will become richer.

He expands on this in the next chapter, where he frames the arrival of humanist individualism in literature as an important part of the bourgeoisie's dismantling of the old hierarchies ⁠— an important and necessary move for mankind that the bourgeoisie can’t fully follow through with.

In the tragedies of Shakespeare, 'which would be entirely unthinkable without the Reformation, the fate of the ancients and the passions of the mediaeval Christians are crowded out by individual human passions, such as love, jealousy, revengeful greediness, and spiritual dissension. But in every one of Shakespeare’s dramas, the individual passion is carried to such a high degree of tension that it outgrows the individual, becomes super-personal, and is transformed into a fate of a certain kind. The jealousy of Othello, the ambition of Macbeth, the greed of Shylock, the love of Romeo and Juliet, the arrogance of Coriolanus, the spiritual wavering of Hamlet, are all of this kind. Tragedy in Shakespeare is individualistic, and in this sense has not the general significance of Oedipus Rex, which expresses the consciousness of a whole people. None the less, compared with Aaeschylus, Shakespeare represents a great step forward and not backward. Shakespeare’s art is more human. At any rate, we shall no longer accept a tragedy in which God gives orders and man submits. Moreover, there will be no one to write such a tragedy.
Having broken up human relations into atoms, bourgeois society, during the period of its rise, had a great aim for itself. Personal emancipation was its name. Out of it grew the dramas of Shakespeare and Goethe’s Faust. Man placed himself in the center of the universe, and therefore in the center of art also. This theme sufficed for centuries. In reality, all modern literature has been nothing but an enlargement of this theme. But to the degree in which the internal bankruptcy of bourgeois society was revealed as a result of its unbearable contradictions, the original purpose, the emancipation and qualification of the individual faded away and was relegated more and more into the sphere of a new mythology, without soul or spirit.

The individualism the left is opposed to, per Trotsky, is a vulgar individualism detached from collective aims. And forms and modes of literature that center the mysteries of life are good ⁠— vital even ⁠— to the extent that their enlargements of individual experience are marshaled for the left’s sociopolitical project. “Tragedy is a high expression of literature because it implies the heroic tenacity of strivings, of limitless aims, of conflicts and sufferings,” he wrote. “Bourgeois society, individualism, the Reformation, the Shakespearean dramas, the great Revolution, these have made impossible the tragic significance of aims that come from without; great aims must live in the consciousness of a people or of a class which leads a people, if they are to arouse heroism or create a basis for great sentiments which inspire tragedy.” Like Marx in The German Ideology, he goes on to describe the ideal socialist society as a flourishing, artistically rich utopia of individual reason and free expression:

[D]oes not an excess of solidarity, as the Nietzscheans fear, threaten to degenerate man into a sentimental, passive, herd animal? Not at all. The powerful force of competition which, in bourgeois society, has the character of market competition, will not disappear in a Socialist society, but, to use the language of psycho-analysis, will be sublimated, that is, will assume a higher and more fertile form. There will be the struggle for one’s opinion, for one’s project, for one’s taste. In the measure in which political struggles will be eliminated – and in a society where there will be no classes, there will be no such struggles – the liberated passions will be channelized into technique, into construction which also includes art. Art then will become more general, will mature, will become tempered, and will become, the most perfect method of the progressive building of life in every field. It will not be merely “pretty” without relation to anything else.
All forms of life, Such as the cultivation of land, the planning of human habitations, the building of theaters, the methods of socially educating children, the solution of scientific problems, the creation of new styles, will vitally engross all and everybody. People will divide into “parties” over the question of a new gigantic canal, or the distribution of oases in the Sahara (such a question will exist too), over the regulation of the weather and the climate, over a new theater, over chemical hypotheses, over two competing tendencies in music, and over a best system of sports. Such parties will not be poisoned by the greed of class or caste. All will be equally interested in the success of the whole. The struggle will have a purely ideologic character. It will have no running after profits, it will have nothing mean, no betrayals, no bribery, none of the things that form the soul of “competition” in a society divided into classes. But this will in no way hinder the struggle from being absorbing, dramatic and passionate.
And as all problems in a Socialist society – the problems of life which formerly were solved spontaneously and automatically, and the problems of art which were in the custody of special priestly castes – will become the property of all people, one can say with certainty that collective interests and passions and individual competition will have the widest scope and the most unlimited opportunity. Art, therefore, will not suffer the lack of any such explosions of collective, nervous energy, and of such collective psychic impulses which make for the creation of new artistic tendencies and for changes in style. It will be the aesthetic schools around which “parties” will collect, that is, associations of temperaments, of tastes and of moods. In a struggle so disinterested and tense, which will take place in a culture whose foundations are steadily rising, the human personality, with its invaluable basic trait of continual discontent, will grow and become polished at all its points. In truth, we have no reason to fear that there will be a decline of individuality or an impoverishment of art in a Socialist society.

In a sense, the internet has already given us a capitalistic perversion of the ideal in miniature. Everyone’s got a platform, everyone’s chattering away about everything to everybody else, and our disagreements about art share the very same spaces as our thoughts about how we might ‘regulate the weather and the climate.’” And it’s terrible ⁠— very possibly because our discourses haven’t been accompanied by or the product of any actual improvements in our political economy. We have critical discourses open to all and a set of cultural industries that, like most other industries, are actually controlled by an ever-shrinking few. It’s not obvious that there are many inherent and destabilizing tensions between those two realities. I’m tempted to believe that our critics might change things if they were better, which would mean challenging critical discourses that, as I’ve argued before, are killing off the idea that art might be Good or Bad to the benefit of major corporations. But, again, it’s not obvious to me that even good criticism has all that much independent material power. We should try to find out, though.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

The collapse of Australia’s conservative government in yesterday’s election seems like a real turning point in their infamously terrible climate politics. “While votes are still being counted,” Chris Dite writes in Jacobin, “it now seems undeniable — this was Australia’s first major climate election.”

The right-wing coalition government was decisively thrown out. It lost a series of crucial inner-city seats to “the Teals,” a loose grouping of independent candidates focused on climate change. There were huge swings, particularly in Queensland, toward the Greens, who have overall managed to win at least two, and possibly four, seats in the House of Representatives. The opposition Labor Party lost votes nationally and will possibly fall short of the required seventy-six seats needed for a parliamentary majority. But even so, with the Coalition unlikely to win more than fifty seats in total, it can be said with certainty that Labor’s Anthony Albanese will be the next prime minister. Labor might need to turn to the Greens or climate independents for support in order to govern.
While some commentators have declared the climate wars to be over, it would be a mistake to assume this guarantees government action on climate change. It’s satisfying to see Scott Morrison banished as a result of his sneering denialism. But if we are to halt our march toward climate catastrophe, the environmental movement must seize this rare moment and escalate its demands.

A Song

"Construção" – Chico Buarque (1971)