I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.
Week 11: Daring to be Uncritical
I finished Caesar's Column shortly after I posted my last update, and I immediately tweeted something to the effect that even though I enjoy utopias (eutopias), it's dystopias that my heart truly beats for. I realized distantly that in doing so I was committing the cardinal sin of PhD coursework: I was approaching a text uncritically. I "liked it" in other words, a characteristic which is next-door to anathema in academic terms. Liking something implies that it has penetrated your consciousness in a way that has bypassed your critical gaze, a sort of defensive/intrusive contagion-like metaphorical figuration which weirdly blames the like-er in a condescending, almost pitying, way.
I spent some time thinking about this while I was driving home this evening and what it meant. I can't deny I've adopted and mostly internalized the "always-on, broad-spectrum, critical gaze toward nearly everything" that the program seems to demand of me, but despite some embarrassing over-identifications with this approach (being too eager to criticize things I didn't yet completely understand just out of pure reflex), and how dour, off-putting, and tiresome it can sometimes make my coursework seem, I have somehow managed to retain the capacity to occasionally enjoy something.
Caesar's Column was one of these things. The film Her, and the novel and film of The Wall were three more. And while I immediately wanted to discuss them, I found myself wanting to almost mentally shelter these "texts" from my ever-sharpening critical gaze. Unlike other texts I've slogged through this term, I didn't immediately look up reviews, articles, or other critical impressions of them to compare my own impressions to. In fact, I made a point of avoiding them.
Earlier this week I was part of a group that subjected Cormack McCarthy's No Country for Old Men to this treatment in an excoriating, viciously-critical, three-hour roundtable about every potential or glaring weakness of what I had considered easily one of the two or three strongest and most effective novel-reading experiences I've had in the past year. I left the class vaguely hating the novel, firmly hating the pedagogical format, and sharply hating the disintegrating effect that I perceived the critical gaze had on the text. I became immediately protective of my other favorite recent textual discoveries. Instead of wanting to say Hey, did you guys see Her? What did you think? I wanted to say, If you saw Her, I don't want to hear about it; I desperately want to know that there's a piece of literature or a movie or an idea out there that I can admire for more than ten seconds without someone pointing out how it manifests some abstract philosophical bias. I felt, in short, incredibly defensive of my prerogative to subject a text to critical analysis when and how I choose instead of uniformly, habitually, and compulsively.
So how do I reconcile this? Scholarship is about critical thought. Scholarship may even, on a reductive level, be critical thought. I'm not here to "like" things, which I could do for free with a decent library card and a lot of free time, I'm here to study them. Is there any benefit to uncritical approach toward texts in the greater effort to parse, examine, and explain them? I think the answer to this is yes, but how does one use an uncritical approach in a scholarly fashion?
I often wonder what it means that I was a creative writer first and an academic second. My primary interaction with literature before graduate school was a wide, self-directed reading list which was shaped almost wholly by what I "liked." I would give texts that didn't speak to me a chance if someone urged me, but aside from that my aesthetic and critical gaze were one in the same for decades before I ever separated them and sheepishly stuffed the former into a sock drawer for the duration of my degrees. I gained a new perspective on the texts I didn't like, for sure. I can read and evaluate almost anything now, with some degree of clinically-detached critical success, and I have access to a toolbox of analytical ideas that I had only the barest skeleton of before. But I feel like I lost something when that change happened, too, and if possible I'd like to get it back. When I look at the authors whose work I most admire--George Saunders might be a prime example--I can't imagine him subjecting every text or phenomena or idea he encounters to a withering battery of critical analysis. I suspect, like I used to, that he uses aesthetics as his guide far more than academia suggests is healthy for creative writers who are also academics.
I want to find a place for this sort of evaluation of texts among the new strategies I'm being constantly nudged to deploy. I want to believe that some toys are best left unbroken, at least for a while, even if you can see how they work when you break them.