ESSAYS Mousse 30

Criticism Hurts

By Jan Verwoert


01-bonifacio-veronese-mose-salvato-dalle-acque-1680-1Bonifacio Veronese, Mosè salvato dalle acque (Moses Saved from the Water), 1580.
Courtesy: Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan


Being wounded by particularly ferocious criticism is one of the most unpleasant, irritating human experiences. Jan Verwoert offers a surprising look at the vilest forms of judgement, shedding light on the close ties that exist between judge and judged, and going into details of the art world, where open critique is often sublimated in the glib expedient of gossip. How can we get beyond such baseness? Maybe the answers can be found in ancient Greece.



Criticism hurts. I mean the kind of criticism that spells out the one thing that you really don’t want to hear, not now, not in this situation, not at this moment in your life (on the night of the opening, right after the performance which you know didn’t go too well, right before you need to hand in the paper which you had serious doubts about, just when you step back from the mirror wondering whether you put on weight again, exactly on the weekend when peace and rest is all you were craving…). This is the kind of criticism that leaves you gasping for air, puts your body in fight or flight mode and makes you want to hurl equally harmful things (words, dishes…) back at the one who criticized you, so you have an outright argument, there and then. Yet, if you’re just too stunned and upset to respond, or good manners and social decorum forbid you to, it may also all only come out afterwards, on the way home, over breakfast on the next day, in a letter to the editor or maybe even in an elaborate plot of revenge that may take months, years or an entire lifetime in the making. And who wouldn’t secretly harbor such a thirst for revenge?

Perhaps Dostoyevsky was right when, in his Notes from the Underground he wrote the most painfully accurate (self-)portrait of the artist as a grudge-bearer (the first time I ever read the word “grudge-bearer” was in an interview with Johnny Marr, I believe it was, criticizing Morrissey for being the epitome of one): pathetically feeble in his mental disposition, yet all the more relentlessly self-righteous in his tone of voice, the first person narrator of Dostoyevsky’s novel elaborates in great detail, for pages on end, how he will go about revenging himself for insults suffered from a random stranger, or from false friends which, one suspects, he only sees for the sole purpose of receiving humiliations and hence new fuel for his fantasies of retribution and confirmation of his conviction that: “Suffering—after all, that is the sole cause of consciousness.”[1] Such irony! What a provocation! For the implicit criticism that Dostoyevsky thereby formulates by means of self-caricature—the rendering of the narrator’s voice is just too vivid for us to not imagine it to be based on the writer’s own inner discourse—is still global in scope: He suggests that, at the very heart of the creative process, the desire to take revenge (for an injury, a moment of humiliation, a painful criticism once received…) may be one of the most powerful driving forces behind the urge to write, to create, to make art.

And indeed, a traditional technique for teaching art and philosophy—still very much in use in patriarchally-dominated milieus and institutions—is to, as deliberately as unthinkingly, injure the souls of the next generation, to separate those who will back down and disappear from those who will come back for more (blows). It’s sick. And I swear I would never want to do this to anyone. Can I be sure though that I haven’t? And would I want to deny that a force behind some of my writing was the urge to throw words into the faces of people who did that to me? No. I could give you a list of names now. But what does it matter? Bearing grudges is pathetic. Period. But sometimes hard to avoid. Want proof? Try to write a really good love song to the person you are with! It’s the supreme challenge. Because it’s so much easier to live in the past and write songs of lament, remorse and accusation, after being left. Vengefulness is a powerful muse. Could you do without it?




2. WHY ME?

Still, hurtful criticism will always be passed between people. And what makes such criticism particularly difficult to stomach is the question: “Why? Why did he or she have to say it, like that?” It’s not that the answer would usually be too hard to find. We all have the required amount of kitchen psychology at our command to figure out the reasons why that person must have uttered the hurtful judgement. It’s the golden rule of criticism: Critics reveal as much, if not more, about themselves (their fixations, complexes and grudges) as they do about the object of their judgement. The trouble, however, is that—even though it’s usually pretty clear where the criticism is coming from and why it has more to do with the critic than with the criticized—the judgement still hurts. Especially the most obviously injust judgements in fact tend to have something about them, which somehow hits the mark. Then you can analyze, interpret and contextualize the criticism as much as you want, you still won’t be able to shake off the feeling that, despite its apparent untruth, the judgement might as well have disclosed the truth, and nothing but the truth. Why is that?

It seems to be because in the act of passing a judgement a bond is forged between the judge and the judged, a bond which is deeply intimate (regardless of whether the judgement is favorable or not) and from which it is hence hard to extricate oneself. The hurting proves that a connection has been established. “Why me?”, you rightfully ask yourself in the face of criticism that appears random, harsh and injust. But still you will also sense the forces of attraction at play in such gestures of rejection. Insults are forays into your psyche. Hence the eerie feeling of intimacy created by criticisms voiced even by a complete stranger (in a review in a magazine, for instance). It takes one to know one. This is the bottom line, scary as it is. If even and especially the most self-serving criticism—the kind which is plainly about the critic him—or herself—still hurts, this can only be because something in and about him or her also holds true for you. Psychoanalysis says this is how it works: Someone projects something onto you, which they don’t like about themselves, and then chides you for it. In doing so, that person can deny their own problems by blaming you for everything they fear to confront about themselves. Experience shows, however, that for this technique to produce its maximum effect, the target must be well picked. Not anyone will do, it has to be someone who will strongly respond, for good reasons.

For instance: If you feel a little selfish, and seek to state an example to exorcise the demons of self-doubt, pick a person who obviously cares a little too much about being perceived as generous and giving, then criticize that person for, deep inside, really being selfish and vain, step back and watch the charge explode. Well placed as it is, it will surely rip the other apart. Be it just or injust, there is logic to this. The canny inversion of a manifest character trait will most certainly touch on a latent trait that underpins it: Yes, generosity tends to be indicative of vanity, just as the desire to care will surely betray the denial of a need to be cared for, and so on. The crux is that both sides of the coin—head and tail, generosity and vanity, desire and denial—are equally real. What defines the genius of truly insidious criticism is that it tosses the coin high up in the air, so we can see it perpetually spinning and flicking back and forth between head and tail, truth and untruth, justice and injustice, projection and analysis, self and other, self as other, other as self. When you get caught in this spin, together with the one who spins the coin, you will see your personality and that of the other flicker on and off, merge and split. That flicker induces the dizziness you feel in the moment of insult—and sparks the desire to flick the coin yourself.

This is then why hurtful judgements feel so intimate: They take the critic and the criticized together into a twilight zone where what is projected and what is observed, what is imagined and what is denied, what is the one person’s fixation and the other person’s fault becomes undecidable. It’s a moment of shared schizophrenia in which everyone becomes the other of the other’s self. As such it has a lot in common with the moment of delirious intimacy experienced at the end of a relationship, in the situation of break-up. You know this is about you. It’s you that is being rejected, you, and no one else. And there is no way to avoid the consequences. Still—and, knowing the other, who wouldn’t be sensitive to this?—in such a moment the whole family of demons under the spell of which people execute break-ups, appear behind the executioner’s back, visible, not to him or her, but to you, grimacing at you, as if to say: “No, of course this is not about you. It’s about us. But, guess what, the feelings you stirred up summoned us. This is why, henceforth we are about you, too. You saw us. So you’ll have to go. But you won’t be alone. For we’ll come with you. To stay. Imagining things? Yes, you are. This is all in your head. And in your head we will dwell, to become as vivid as reality ever gets, yet as unverifiable as phantoms always will be”.




A culture in which we live exposed to the criticism of others therefore inevitably becomes a demoncracy, a culture in which we cannot but host the other people’s family of demons in our psyche. We don’t have much of a chance to turn them away on the doorstep. Because in the moment of judgement they already overstep that threshold and come walking in. The surprise visit of the demons might occur during an argument in a face-to-face encounter, or they arrive in a letter or review. But they also get to you from behind your back, through gossip. Gossip is the devil’s mainline. For via gossip big families of demons pass from one soul to the next and the next and the next, to take control of entire cities and scenes in no time at all. Before you know it, an entire social milieu will be illuminated by the flickering light of the anonymous, intimate, untrue, true, injust, just criticism of one of its members. And it could be anyone, provided that they’re visible enough for all others to identify with them—and thus indulge in an orgy of collectively performed schizophrenia: as all delight in finding fault with one person for the kind of corruption that, needless to say, everybody else could, most likely, equally be found guilty of. Especially in the key of gossip, criticism is therefore not a means to stop corruption but a way to practice and spread it, as people use it to draw each other into the intimate embrace of a shadow society where everybody talks badly about everybody else behind their backs.

In terms of how this general participation in social corruption is facilitated and structured through criticism, however, there are indeed different traditions. Openly hurtful judgement has to this day always been very popular in theatre-, opera- (and to a lesser degree also in literary) criticism. Here critics really like to play the butcher. In film and pop music criticism are usually complicated a bit more by the fact that some magazines depend on the movie- and music industry as their sponsor and provider of review-copies. Yet, criticism in art magazines, by comparison, has probably become the most polite of all. It would be wrong to assume though that this was primarily and only because the magazines financially relied on galleries paying for advertising space. The main reason for the polite tone in art criticism much rather is that—contrary to the distance that, for instance, separates the opera critic from the social milieu of the orchestra musician—art critics and artists mingle in the same milieu. There is no stage between them. It’s impossible to deny that you are part of the same living social community when the artist you just wrote badly about is also someone you are bound to soon run into again on the next opening in town (which is highly unlikely to happen with say Frederick Forsyth, Steven Spielberg or Lady Gaga). In the art world we know that one meets more often than only twice in a life. This awareness of our own entanglement in the social milieu in which we spread our family line of monsters has had a civilizing effect on art criticism and made a certain degree of empathy with artists and their work a social standard. I strongly believe that this is a good thing. The downside of polite criticism, ironically, lies in the fact that all the malice, which is brought out in public, then habitually comes to be channeled through gossip. Polite criticism in art in this sense becomes possible because people have another outlet for airing their family of monsters: the merciless gossip of (après-) vernissage chat.

It would be absurd to believe that this could ever stop. People will always take pleasure in talking badly about each other, since, in a demoncracy, demons never cease looking for family. And who could pretend to be above it? A saint? We know about the vanity of saints. So it would only take a well-aimed shot at the saint’s ego to bring him down from his pillar (Buñuel shows how it’s done in his amazing 1965 film Saint Simon of the Desert). In the end we may not even need a theory to explain how corrupt demoncratic cultures of criticism work. We know it. Because we create them. What we do need, however, to grasp the full range and depth of emotional consequences that creating monstrous cultures of judgement has is good novels. For this is what the medium of the novel, in its history, has excelled in: Novels can be very powerful at showing the spinning of the coin, when they portray how the truth (and untruth) about someone comes to be defined by the myriad, ever changing ways in which other characters perceive him or her. Some indeed acquire a particular critical dimension when they offer the reader no safe ground on which to judge any of the characters and instead plunge you into the web of entangled relations, so you have to make heads and tails of it—if only to acknowledge a painful sense of your inability to safely do so. So rather then fixed standards of judgement (i.e. a “morality”), what such novels give you is a good intuition of the conditions of fundamental interdependency that shape cultures of mutually exposed subjectivities. They, as it were, assemble people’s demons for a big family portrait. Then we see and feel the hurting of the social.

So could an ethics emerge from the immanent knowledge of the social that the novel opens up? If there is such an ethics, then it’s perhaps Hannah Arendt who explicates it most clearly. In her account of the origins of the public sphere in the way how social politics were conducted in ancient Greece, she lays key emphasis on precisely the question we have been discussing here so far in relation to the culture of judgement: How to respond to others exposing you to their demons in the moment when your demons too are exposed to them?[2] The Greeks, Arendt argues, understood that in everything we do when we engage in social exchanges with others (through, as she puts it, “speech and action”) we reveal who we are. This happens, however, without us necessarily being aware of—and therefore able to control when and how we do it, and what it even is that we disclose. Arendt writes:
“On the contrary it is more than likely that the ‘who’, which appears so clearly and unmistakably to others, remains hidden from the person himself, like the “daimon” in Greek religion which accompanies each man throughout his life, always looking over his shoulder from behind and thus visible only to those he encounters.
This revelatory quality of speech and action comes to the fore where people are with others and neither for nor against them—that is, in sheer human togetherness. Although nobody knows whom he reveals when he discloses himself in deed or word, he must be willing to risk the disclosure […]”.[3]

In the German Version of the text[4], Arendt adds that the temporal horizon within which the disclosure of the “daimon” occurs is not that simply that of a single moment or event, but rather that of the open duration of lifelong exposure to others in the social world(s) we inhabit, and grow old in, together. (And, for clarity’s sake, it should be noted that the Greek concept of the “daimon”, which Arendt introduces here, refers to whatever spirit defines who and how someone is, as a whole, and not just which particular monsters haunt them.) On the one hand, Arendt’s observation that the crux of the social lies in enduring the challenge of lifelong mutual exposure would seem to ask for an ethical codex akin to a social ecology: a keen awareness of the need to find some kind of equilibrium—to sustain the state of “sheer human togetherness”, of being “with others and neither for nor against them”—which allows for disclosures to occur and be witnessed; a state that may in fact not be too easy to preserve, given that, unwitting and uncontrollable as they are, the revelations of people’s “daimon”, will potentially retain a highly disruptive quality. On the other hand, however, precisely because the moment of disclosure on which Arendt’s ideal of social conviviality hinges, remains unintentional and uncontrollable, the codex that could sustain it can hardly be one of politeness or restraint: For there is no way of holding back what reveals itself regardless (if only via the awkwardness of anxious self-discipline or subservience to social decorum).

So if there is a codex implied in Arendt’s writing it might indeed have less to do with a calculus of (self-)restraint, and more with a sense of responsiveness, respect and not least: humor. This is because, even thought Arendt never explicates this, it would seem that an exemplary scenario for the unwitting social exposure of one’s “daimon” would indeed be the Freudian slippage or unconscious “faux pas”. An ideal social environment, premised on Arendt’s criteria, would hence be one in which slippages and “faux pas” were considered welcome as they epitomize the spirit in which that society convenes: A bit of a slapstick society this may hence be, not too precious about its conventions. Yet, unlike the slapstick performer (who will always get right up again when struck down) this society would in fact be sensitive to the pain that the exposure to “daimon” can cause, for the one who exposes it as well as to the unwitting witness of this exposition. A form of criticism expressive of this sensitivity would hence have to be mindful of the way in which we, artists and writers alike, vain and vulnerable as we are, parade around in public with targets on our foreheads. This form of sensitized criticism would also be attuned to the ways in which laughing with (rather than about) the others may sometimes be the most apt way to respond to revelatory moments. And it would even be alert to how forms of mourning—articulate silences—could at other times be the right medium to avow the particular ways in which, in disclosing ourselves in our demoncracies, we reveal that everybody hurts.


[1] Fyodor Dostoyevsky Notes from the Underground, Penguin Books, London & New York 2006, p. 39.
[2] Hannah Arendt The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1998; see p. 178 ff. pp. 179-180.
[3] Ibid., pp. 179-180.
[4] The Human Condition was first published in English in 1958. Arendt herself later translated it back into German—changing the title into Vita activa (Piper Verlag, Munich 1967)—and modifying details in the text in the process of translation.



Originally published on Mousse 30 (October-November 2011)

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