James Chandler, "Doing Criticism/Doing Without Criticism"

good morning everyone I'm Ann Walters robertson interim dean of the humanities division and it is my distinct pleasure to welcome all of you to humanities Day and this year's keynote address I wish you are rewarding an enlightening afternoon of intellectual discovery humanities day is both the celebration of the research that takes place within the 18 departments of the division of the humanities as well as a celebration of the humanities as a whole the incredible attendance here at this keynote address and each presentation reminds us that the humanities are not only relevant to contemporary life but are the basis of Education and development for us as thinkers the University of Chicago is committed to the practice of the humanities at the academic and personal levels we provide first-class research and teaching support for undergraduate and graduate students going on to careers in the Academy at the same time we know that most students will not go on to become professors and we are committed to supporting them as well humanities alumni have received training in primary source research and critical analysis their coursework requires them to understand complex theoretical viewpoints some of which might directly contradict one another and then synthesize that knowledge into original nuanced arguments that are responsive to the trajectories of their respective disciplines the professional world beyond higher education can benefit greatly from these skills and we are increasing our efforts to help connect students with job opportunities that make the most of their sophisticated abilities thanks to a recent grant from the National Endowment of the humanities we have launched a program of professional advancement for the training of humanities scholars or paths as it is called its mission is to help our graduate students establish themselves in morning careers across industries from corporations to cultural institutions like libraries and museums to the nonprofit or government sector this big-picture perspective on humanities education will be equally beneficial to those students who do go on to become professors lending nuance and depth to their future research and teaching in the division of the humanities we welcome opportunities to take a step back from the immediate concerns of a particular field the talk you are about to hear takes a similarly arch overarching approach to the nature of criticism itself the keynote address is an annual humanities day highlight this year it is my honor to introduce James Chandler the Barbara E and Richard J Frankie Distinguished Service professor in the department's of English language and literature and cinema and Media Studies he is also the director of our Frankie Institute for the Humanities and the Center for disciplinary innovation after earning his bachelor's degree at the University of Notre Dame in 1970 Jim pursued graduate study here at the University of Chicago and received both his masters and PhD from the same Department in English where he has taught since 1976 like myself then Jim is a University of Chicago lifer having spent his entire professional career here we often talk perhaps at times brag about our commitment to humanistic research that takes our scholars between and across traditional academic disciplinary borders Jim's research exemplifies this approach to scholarship he is at once an expert on English Romanticism modern Irish literature Cinema Studies and the history of humanistic disciplines Jim began his career as a scholar of English Romantic literature and poetry and his scholarship has moved out from those early interests his first book words were second nature a study of the poetry and politics published by the University of Chicago Press in 1984 analyzes the political views in Wordsworth's major works and traces the relationship of his views on human nature to the writings of Rousseau and Edmund Burke his second work England in 1819 the politics of literary culture and the case for romantic historicism also published by our press in 98 explores the ties between romantic and contemporary historicism this wonderful work won the University of Chicago presses prestigious Gordon J Lange award in 2000 his most recent work an archaeology of sympathy the sentimental mode in literature and cinema published by our press in 2013 deftly incorporates Laurence Sterne Charles Dickens Frank Capra and many more as he traces sentimental forebears to our contemporary cinema world he has also edited and co-edited a number of books including questions of evidence proof practice and persuasion across the disciplines the Cambridge companion to romantic poetry and the Cape new Cambridge history of English Romantic literature Jim's long-standing commitment to outstanding humanities scholarship has long been known to us on campus and to his colleagues around the world in recognition of his body of work he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2014 today's keynote address doing criticism doing without criticism draws on some of the persistent questions and issues in Jim's scholarship what is criticism and why does it matter early critics differentiated between film and literary criticism but I suspect as a scholar of cinema and literature Jim will offer some choice thoughts on that distinction we will be treated today to an early look at Jim's forthcoming book how to do criticism and I am certain he will provide us with a wonderfully lucid account of the historical roots of criticism and its relationship to contemporary life please join me in welcoming a brilliant University of Chicago scholar and dedicated humanities supporter ladies and gentlemen James Chandler thank you for those very kind words and I'm very happy to be here at humanities day it's a wonderful institution here on campus it's only 15 or 20 years old I think I've given many talks humanities Dave manatees they over the years and probably to some of you who are here today this is the first time I've had the chance to address so many of you at the same time and I'm very glad to have it thank you for coming and has anticipated my first question what is criticism the word some of you may know it comes from an ancient Greek word Canaan meaning both two separate and to judge yoked together in that way those two ideas provide a pretty good working definition to see the intimate connection between discrimination and evaluation in the critical act we can turn to a little anecdote from the 18th century philosopher David Hume in an essay he wrote aimed at explaining how criticism actually works the story is one that Hume borrowed from Cervantes Don Quixote and it is told there by Sancho Panza the Don Quixote sidekick about Sancho Panza skins men who were reputed to be great judges of wine two of my kinsmen were once called to give their opinion of a hogshead which was supposed to be excellent being of old and of a good vintage one of them tastes it considers it and after mature reflection pronounces the wine to be good were it not for a small taste of leather which he perceived in it the other after using the same precautions also gives his verdict in favor of the wine but with the reserve of a taste of iron which he could easily distinguish you cannot imagine how much they were both ridicules for their judgement but who laughed in the end on emptying the hogshead that was found at the bottom an old key with a leather thong tied to it the point of the anecdote for hume who's greek of course was very good means is to understand that analytic competence the capacity to distinguish elements in a composition supports evaluative Authority the capacity to judge well assessing the quality of something requires discerning its separate qualities this is why Aristotle in the poetics broke Greek tragedy down Brooke Greek tragedy down to its six component parts and singled out special kinds of moments in tragedy like reversal and discovery as crucial to his pioneering efforts in criticism now criticism we all know has sometimes been accused of pressing too hard with its analytic tasks the poet Wordsworth hints is much with some irony which is sometimes lost on his readers when he has one of his characters exclaimed we murdered to dissect in this same spirit some years ago my distinguished colleague and former teacher Wayne booth gave an address on campus for an occasion I think probably very like this one which he entitled with a simple question must critics kill lately though the news is more likely to be about the demise of criticism itself and that is another of my questions for us today what to make of the thought that we might do without criticism this prospect has been recently sketched in an influential and very readable book of 2005 by ronan mcdonald the death of the critic which means to offer a defensive criticism it's fair to say that there was a time not so long ago when only cultural conservatives made such defenses but recently even a left-leaning cultural warrior like the Shakespearean Marjorie Garber has advocated reviving criticism in her recent book the use and abuse of literature or consider the unlikely case of the Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton who now laments the near extinction of an intellectual practice that he looking back sees as formative in his own career after remember that Eagleton is irish-born like fetching or clog-dancing he says literary criticism seems to be a dying art it has been dying for at least two academic generations he says students don't learn it because their teachers don't teach it not having been taught it themselves in a moment of candor Eagleton acknowledges that the charge may seem pretty rich coming as it does from a literary theorists adding wasn't it literary theory with its soulless abstractions and vacuous generalities which destroyed a habit of close reading in the first place the question is rhetorical Eagleton does not finally think that theory threatens criticism and neither do I his connection of criticism with the practice of close reading of poem however is a key to understanding the current situation so next I want to look at how the idea of criticism in general was narrowed in many of our recent understandings to this idea of close reading a poem so let's remember first of all that like history and philosophy but unlike post enlightenment disciplines like anthropology or linguistics or biology criticism is an intellectual pursuit that has actually been around since the time of those ancient Greeks who coined the term criticism dates almost as far back in the Western tradition as the invention of writing and the institution of theater farther certainly than Aristotle's Poetics 4th century BCE which already makes reference to earlier ways of inquiring about poetic objects earlier even than those of his teacher Plato this fact alone ought to give some pause to those of us who expect its imminent demise now this by itself is not enough astrology and alchemy are very ancient disciplines that doesn't mean that they should be enshrined in the contemporary university it's also true that in English departments around the world a course in the history of criticism that begins with Plato and Aristotle and comes down to the present is no longer the kind of standard offering it was eighty or fifty or even thirty years ago so it might seem reasonable to speculate that criticism has undergone some change in status or at least in function within the last two or three academic generations yet altering its function is something that criticism has been recognized as doing for a long time certainly since Matthew Arnold's famous and wonderful essay of 1865 the function of criticism at the present time in that great essay you probably didn't know you're going to be treated to an argument of Matthew Arnold's here today and that wonderful essay Arnold argued that romanticism had decisively changed the game for those who called themselves critics it changed because romantic writers as he charged in their preoccupation with personal creativity had fed on the work of previous criticism and previous knowledge knowledge productions without replacing the sources Arnold's own time is not so distant of course but taking a longer perspective we can say that there have been moments when criticism has been more aligned with rhetoric as in the case of ancient Rome more aligned with poetics case of aristotle's grease or more interested in the rules of art as a neoclassicism we're more oriented toward the expressive author in the post Romantic tradition in the 19th century or finally more oriented toward the work itself and not another thing as TS Eliot said of criticism in his 20th century Eliot's phrase is actually the poem by itself and not another thing and it came to be a slogan for what is called the new criticism largely I want to suggest an achievement of an important early 20th century British thinker named IA Richards not the household word that Eliot is Richards boldly established odor a criticism at the center of an ambitious campaign to rehabilitate cultural value in post-war Britain and he established the study of poetry at the center of literary criticism the story of how he set out to achieve this goal is a familiar one in my circles English departments in 1925 he undertook some far-reaching pedagogical experiments at Cambridge requiring students to respond in writing to clusters of poetic texts from which all markings where dates of authorship had been removed he attracted to his project some of the best literary minds of the period William Empson Muriel Brad brick and in fact TS Eliot himself among them Richards poetry courses had such an enormous following that classes had to meet in the streets of Cambridge for the first time in centuries he eventually published his findings from these classroom experiments in his book practical criticism of 1929 one of the few genuinely influential works of criticism on a millennial scale I think since the 19th century with these books and through this group not least by the powerful force of his own charismatic example Richard's changed the way we studied he made criticism the primary activity of the field of English and he installed the notion of close reading at the center of that field the American new critics of the 1930s cleon's Brooks Robert Penn Warren and wk Wimsatt for example all acknowledged the leadership of Richards and showing the way forward there was a Chicago school push at this time too and it definitely got into the act in the 1940s but that's too long of a story for today in any case this enterprise of practical criticism would become a centerpiece not just of English departments but really of liberal education in America for decades and decades and one of the most important features of this program was that it implicitly identified itself as a kind of activity or doing for practical also divides dasari derives from a Greek word protein which means precisely to do now the remainder of my talk here today is going to fall into two parts in the first I'm gonna provide a sense of what it means to do criticism in the way that Eagleton intends which belongs to this tradition of that I think was established by I Richards and I'm going to do that partly by reminding you of what critical criticism feels like when to borrow a phrase from Keats it is proven upon the pulses and then I'm going to expand our horizon beyond the study of lyric poetry to suggest a path forward for criticism at the present time suggesting that doing without it is not only imprudent but also impossible a couple of days ago my great colleague Steve rings who's writing a book about Bob Dylan called me to say that he had a crew from wls in his office and they wanted to talk to an English professor and was I game and so I did talk to them and I found myself saying to them that one of the things that may have been signaled by this election of Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize was the sense that they were thinking of literature in a more expanded field in our age of new media and I actually think this might be a very salutary development so there's a certain sense in which in the second part of the paper I'm gonna be talking about literature in an expanded field but my shift is going to be toward cinema I also want to say that I've left the novel completely out of this paper maybe we might be wondering about that it's just that it's too complicated to deal with in one draft I had a close reading of a passage from Dickens but I took it out for reasons of space okay so in the spirit of Richards experiments and criticism then let us now attempt a thought experiment of our own imagine that you share a refrigerator with someone a sibling a roommate a partner a spouse a child one groggy morning you go to open it you find stuck to its door the following message which I'm going to now give to you in more readable form that is the Frankie Institute refrigerator that that message is magnitude onto by the way this is just to say I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox which you are probably saving for breakfast forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold it is a fair guess it is a fair guess that you might be a little annoyed by this note and perhaps a little puzzled why is the person who stole your plums telling you how good they tasted is this a confession a declaration an apology or a taunt the answers to such questions would probably depend upon the kinds of terms you're on with your sibling roommate partner spouse or child so would your general response the amusement irritation anger you might do something on account of this message you might steal your sisters yogurt confront your roommate ask your partner if you've done something to deserve this bizarre treatment scold your child you might even laugh it off but such a message doesn't call on you to do anything with it it doesn't call on you that is to do criticism now imagine instead that you open a standard anthology of poetry and you find this this arrangement of words 28 of them not counting the title asks for a different kind of response such words so disposed along with the context in which they appear ask you to do something with them they ask you to perform an act of criticism they do so furthermore by raising a different but partially overlapping set of questions why should so apparently plain and simple a statement be produced in a formal arrangement of nine lines and three stanzas is the title part of the poem or separate from the poem given the fact that the words seem to take the shape of a poem why does the title emphasize the idea of words reduced to their most basic message to be communicated this is just to say why is a simple statement given such an arrangement why does it include the detail about how good the pump the plums taste some of these questions might loosely connect with those that we might have asked ourselves if the note were in prose form and left by someone with whom we shared a fridge but the differences are important in this case for example we don't know who the speaker of these words is supposed to be we have to imagine both a speaker and an addressee because neither is given we don't know if the two are on good terms or bad in the Norton Anthology which I've taken this from the Norton Anthology of poetry the poem is identified with the name of an author William Carlos Williams we may or may not know that the author was one of the foremost American poets of the early 20th century we may or may not know that he is from Union City New Jersey there was a date of publication to 1934 which makes us think about this composition perhaps as belonging to a past moment in time that was the middle of the Great Depression when money was short and food was scarce especially luxury foods like plums does that matter to the way we respond to these words icebox in that light might seem thus to come less like a peculiar expression than our mother or grandmother would have used then perhaps a marker of the poems historical moment how might that sort of historical indicator figure in what we do with this form of words this thing that seems to be proposing itself as a poem the more we look critically at at the words this way the more we look at the words this way that is critically taking it as a poem the more we are likely to experience what the Germans call the fair femdom effect or defamiliarization and thus the stranger it's apparently simple message becomes the request to be forgiven for stealing the plums which seems to lie in the realm of ethical responsibility is followed by a description of what it was like to eat them which seems to belong to the realm of aesthetics or at least a pleasure is the description of the pleasure meant to explain the act of theft to excuse it to justify it I know I stole your pomp plums but all I can say is they were so good to eat is that implied all I can say in that sentence what the poem has just to say and then there's another range of questions if this is a supposed to be a poem are we to judge how are we to judge if it is a good poem how does its versification matter the fact that it is arranged in very brief lines and stanzas is there a logic to these lines and stanza breaks is the poems versification its management of rhythm handled well or badly when we posed such questions of words that we encounter in this way we are beginning to do criticism we are beginning to engage with words in the active process of analysis interpretation and evaluation the active process involves formulating questions and working out answers and this activity of posing and addressing questions has its own medium and form of expression in my case here that of English prose paragraphs as with other activities the more we practice it on such such objects in such a medium the more adept we become and with such a deafness comes the capacity to bring a new kind of value into being alongside the value of the object in question even when as must often happen we find fault with the poem if one wanted to identify a small Fault in this poem it might be that little switch in relative pronouns from that to which that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving where grammatically both should technically be that that's what a copy editor would say that's what my copy editors say I can think of possible defenses of this switch a deliberate performance of colloquial speech perhaps but none that I find very convincing we might define the switch as a sign of haste we know that William Carlos Williams was a practicing physician in his of Paterson New Jersey and that he sometimes dashed off short poems on a typewriter between seeing patients that would make a kind of sense of the inconsistency but it wouldn't explain it away or necessarily make it a better poem implicit in some of the questions posed in this rudimentary act of criticism is an assumption of some grounds for comparison something that lends further dimension to the act of criticism our friend David Hume strongly emphasized that practical criticism depends on well practice especially the practice of comparing works of one another suppose then we take another little thought experiment and imagine another piece of textural sprawl on an arguably similar theme now I don't think you'll be able to read this first one but this is the actual historical object so I'm going to give you now a version that gives you what you see it better forbidden fruit a flavor has that lawful orchards mocks luscious lies sorry how luscious lies the pea within the pod that Duty locks this piece of writing is also untitled like the one that was on the refrigerator like this is just to say it seems a bit messy and informal when we look at it we may also however be struck by some special features in the arrangement of these words we might notice first that the words here compose two independent clauses each consisting of exactly fourteen syllables these two clauses are marked I'm gonna cheat here there we go these two clauses are also marked by a certain rhythm and by a peculiarities of grammar that we might call syntactic inversion not has a flavor but a flavour has and not that machs lawful orchards but that lawful orchards mocks now we know that that second example involves an inversion though it might force us to read it twice because if we look carefully we see the inflected ending of the English verb to mock mocks must correspond to a singular subject we might therefore first imagine that the line involves a mocking of the flavor of the forbidden fruit before realizing that the grammar requires us to read it the other way around this is the sort of thing that can expose and test our routine assumptions about the world we might also detect the dominance of F sounds in the first parts of the poem and how they give way to L sounds in the second part with the interesting word lawful with its LF L sequence marking the precise pivot from the one to the other and some words you'll have noticed rhyme with others seeing all this we might conclude that this piece of writing that piece of scroll that I had up on the screen a minute ago is a poem even before we see it laid out in a book of poetry in this form perhaps the same book in which you've found the Williams poem thinking of these two poems together critically we might ask a new set of questions which is the better poem what is the difference between their treatment of the question of how sweet it is to taste the fruit that one is not supposed to be tasting how much does it matter to this that the second poem was published some 40 years earlier and composed well before that how much does it matter that it was written by Emily Dickinson is there an allusion to the book of genesis of the Dickinson poem is there an allusion to the book of Genesis in the Williams poem as we think about these two poems in an expanded field of reference other critical questions come to mind especially if we learn a little more about the authors one of Emily Dickinson's only so journeys behind her home in Amherst Massachusetts was for a brief spell in the nearby Mount Holyoke Holyoke Female Seminary does this piece of information matter to how we think of the poems relation to the book of Genesis Williams for his part was active in a twentieth-century movement that rejected a heavy reliance on poetic diction on simile and metaphor and on figurative language generally should this is just to say be paired with another famously elemental poem of his about a red wheelbarrow as part of his programmatic effort as he put it to clean off the words of American English now these sorts of questions will be familiar enough to anyone who has ever taken a fairly elementary course in the subject that we call English it has as I suggested at the start however become fashionable in recent decades to think of them as questions that are not particularly essential to the great issues of the modern world even to the hard work of getting on in life how to respond to this charge one might answer that engaging with Paul in this way is a pleasure in itself it is for me one might answer that it opens the mind and liberates the spirit I feel it does that for me think of how even in such miniature poems the question of value is so actively in play seeming to judge us even as we attempt to judge them one might argue that the sheer joy of articulate responds as we put our pleasures and our puzzles into words is already a great deal the film critic AO Scott in his own recent defense of criticism cites the great Yale Lincoln in just this connection what motivates the critic quote is no more or less than the simple desire to function freely and beautifully to give outward and objective form to ideas that bubble inwardly and have a fascination and allure to them to make articulate noise in the world having the articulate noises of a lyric poem to respond to certainly provides a word the occasion for this happy process thinking more broadly at the level of culture at large we might also want to say that a reading public that has developed a competence for doing criticism with say a lyric poem is likely to enhance the overall condition of the art just as a critically sophisticated audience for theater in a town like Chicago goes hand in hand with great productions and lively performances in this city here is one of my favorite formulations of this point by Northrop Frye the Canadian critic the fate of art that tries to do without criticism is instructive the attempt to reach the public directly through popular art assumes that criticism is artificial and public tastes natural behind this is a further assumption about natural taste which goes back through Tolstoy – romantic theories about spontaneously creative folk these theories have had a fair trial they have not stood up very well for the facts of literary history and experience and it is perhaps time to move beyond them here with this in 1952 some years ago do you all know Tom Lehrer very funny musical satirist musical Paradis and comedian he made the same point more starkly when he quipped the problem with folks as they're written by the people shocking I know but even some cases that seem to be exceptions to this rule actually prove it my friend Wordsworth started a revolution in English poetry around 1800 by attempting to return it to the sources in low and rustic life using the actual language of men but the enormous sophistication of this program of his and Coleridge's both drew upon what what these poets knew and what they assumed in their reading audiences and that's evident in the remarkable critical writings that supported and explained what they were doing not least in their own critical manifestos the same argument can be made for Bob Dylan watching the news this week I don't need to make this argument though because the Coen brothers inside Llewyn Davis already did with its portrayal of the Dylan characters emergence in the knowing world of the early 60s Greenwich Village there's a front page article in The Times today about Bob Dylan in New York which also makes the same point some of you out there might be thinking that all this is sounding a little shall we say modernists that is too committed to a notion of art defined as an elitist project supported by a equally elitist critical establishment a game played between alienated artists and the knowing few both sides deeply suspicious of the popular in the commercial Northup rise it happens anticipates this concern here is the rest of that paragraph from his Magisterial book the anatomy of criticism an extreme reaction against the primitive view at one time associated with art for art's sake thinks of art and precisely the opposite terms as a mystery an initiation into an esoteric ly civilized community here criticism is restricted to ritual Masonic gestures to raise the eyebrows and cryptic comments and other signs of an understanding to a cult for syntax this guy could write the fallacy common to both attitudes is that of a rough correlation between the merit of art and the degree of public response to it though the correlation assumed is direct in the first case an inverse in the other so I have to admit I like frauds double formulation of criticisms role mediating between populist or consumerist tendencies on the one hand an aesthetic mystification on the other now remember I a Richards I Richards was in fact writing squarely at the center of British modernism I already mentioned that TS Eliot was there in the classroom when he was doing these experiments and here is something that he wrote in 1924 in the book he wrote just before he launched his experiments in criticism at Cambridge for many reasons wrote Richards standards are much more in need of defense than they used to be it is perhaps premature to envision a collapse of values a transformation by which popular tastes replaces trained discrimination yet commercialism has done stranger things we have not yet fathomed the more sinister potentialities of the cinema and the loud speaker now it would be unfair to say that Richards was interested in sustaining modernist mystification as surpris suggest some modernist were it is certainly true however that Richards was relentlessly focused on the lyric poem as both bearer of culture and something still close to Matthew Arnold's sense and as the paradigmatic object of criticism Richards actually talks about cinema as if it were equivalent with and as he puts it bad art for Richards cinema represented the cultural problem for which the proper study of the lyric poem practical criticism in his narrow sense was the solution now to me it's astonishing that writing across the years of the transition from silent cinema to sound cinema with full fully three decades of cinematic art behind him Richards could treat cinema indiscriminately as though it were a proto-fascist source of mass manipulation and distraction I've got a whole list of films from the 20s which I'm not going to name here but I'll just mention Carl dryers a beautiful film Joan of Arc which was which came out the year before Richards wrote all this Jean Epstein in France was actually developing the notion of a poet ich to cinema poetics of film at about the same time but that idea of poetics doesn't seem to matter to Richard's in the 20s now the influence of Richard's founding practical criticism in academia on a deeply inimical conceptualization of poetry and symphony and cinema has had far-reaching consequences in the way the humanities have been practiced in the modern university when current current critics worry about the death of criticism their outlook tends to be limited to this view of the case but meanwhile critical interests critical energy seems to have spread in the cultures of film in the Moving Image even it as as it has been assumed to just subside in the study of lyric poetry it's just it's not that we now have thriving programs in cinamon media studies around the country and certainly not least here at the University of Chicago which is a fabulous program it's not just that dropped by any coffee shop or office lunch room or just pay attention to the transactions of daily life in and out of our universities in and out of our daily circumstances and you will find that film and television make for energetic ongoing critical conversation movie lovers gobble up extra features including critical commentaries on DVDs and blu-rays practical criticism isn't dead it's just showing more vital signs in some places than in others even or especially in scenes of everyday life in fact this point I'm making is registered with increasing prominence in the way motion picture media represent the world of everyday life certainly the cinema of the last 30 years has been fully preoccupied with dramatizing acts of criticism that range from the crudest possible judgments to more sophisticated ones at dinner with a group of graduate students from film studies a few months ago we compiled a list of more than three dozen such examples without a lot of effort and I finally enough come to seeing most of the ones that I didn't know before in the realm of music instances range from Ed and Shawn choosing which records to throw at the zombies and Shaun of the Dead Purple Rain know dire straits throw it to more considered preferences of aesthetic judgment of the sort offered in play in the John Cusack characters top 10 rankings in high fidelity and it ranges also to extended commentary and sometimes to even quasi academic commentary Woody Allen's bullets over Broadway is an example which as Paul Monti replaced the sophisticated gangster critic helping John Cusack with his screenplay but also Lisa Cholodenko is 1998 film higher art where a Brooklyn woman trained in critical theory delivers a commentary on her upstairs neighbors photograph based on Roland Bart's account of the punctum the figure of the critic has been fully embodied in the character played by Dustin Hoffman and stranger than fiction where Emma Thompson plays the author trying to kill off a character who's played by Will Ferrell who it turns out doesn't want to die because he's met Maggie Gyllenhaal the films of Quentin Tarantino and the television series like The Sopranos would not be what they are without their characters explicit and recur recurring acts of critical commentary on objects in a contemporary cultural scene in which these works themselves have come to gain a kind of iconic place of centrality constant references to the Godfather series for example in The Sopranos if there were time I'd left a trace for you a sequence sequel that runs from John the director Jon Favreau's appearance on The Sopranos where he's consulting with Christopher Moltisanti about what it's like to be a gangster for a film he wants to make back through Favreau zone filmed swingers and a central scene in swingers involving a group of men around a table criticizing Quentin Tarantino for stealing camera techniques from Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas the visual irony is that the sequence is swingers as you might guess is shot with exactly the same techniques as the ones the characters are accusing Tarantino of stealing from Scorsese in Louisville heat this sequence I want to start over again even as I move toward a close with the film that gives us like this is just to say a moment of critical reflection in a world of everyday consumption it's not exactly Williams's icebox this time but a site just as ordinary and also as it happens in New Jersey what could be more I'm from New Jersey that's why there's so much of Jersey in this talk I probably should explain that what could be more ordinary after all than a convenience store in the working-class community of Leonardo some 30 miles south of Williams Union City on the Garden State Parkway this some readers might recall is the setting of a pioneering independent film of 1994 clerks directed by Kevin Smith which is now something of a cult film but was noted chiefly in its moment for having been made on the extremely low budget of 270,000 dollars think about that the convenience store stands next to a video rental store a fleeting commercial institution of that era do you remember and both stores are staffed by young working-class men Dante in the convenience store and his friend Randall and the visual in the video store at one point in this day in the life Randall wanders into the convenience store and prompts a discussion with his friend about the relative merits of the second and third installments of the original Star Wars trilogy remember that in 1994 only three Star films had at that point been produced it turns out it's might be a little hard for you to adjust to the New Jersey accents and the sound quality in the beginning so I'll just set it up for you it turns out they agree blasphemy they acknowledge against the presumed critical orthodoxy that Empire Strikes Back is superior to Return of the Jedi Dante directs attention to how the two films end suggesting that Empire is superior because it's seemingly tragic conclusion is true to the tragic turn of the world his girlfriend's also just broken up with him Randall doesn't disagree but he has his own more detailed analysis to add along different lines so we might need some lights to go down please didn't you hear me Kaitlyn is really getting married what did you like better Jedi or the Empire Strikes Back Empire blasphemy I mean Luke gets his hand cut off finds out Vader's his father hand gets frozen take away by Boba Fett it ends on such a down I mean that's what life is a series of down endings Oh Jenna had was a bunch of Muppets there was something else going on in Jedi never noticed it till today they build another dead star right yeah now the first one was completed and fully operational before the rebels destroyed it incredible credits down and the second one was still being built when they blew it up compliments of Lando Calrissian something just never sat right with me that second time around I could never put my finger on it but something just wasn't right and you figured it out the first Death Star was manned by the Imperial Army the only people on board were stormtroopers dignitaries Imperials basically so when they blew it up no problem evils punished the second time around the second time around it wasn't even done being built yet who started construction so-so a construction job of that magnitude would require a hell of a lot more manpower than the Imperial Army had to offer but they brought independent contractors in on that thing plumbers aluminum ciders roofers not just appearance that were you getting exactly in order to get it built quickly and quietly they'd hire anybody that can do the job I think the average stormtrooper knows how to install a toilet main hose they know is killing in white uniforms all right so they bring an independent contractors why are you so upset in its destruction all those innocent contractors brought in to do the job or killed casualties of a war they had nothing to do it alright look you're a roofer some juicy government contract comes your way you got a wife and kids the two-story in suburbia this is a government contract which means all sorts of benefits along come these left-wing militants have blast everything within a three-mile radius with their lasers didn't ask for that you have no personal politics you're just trying to scrape out a living excuse me I don't mean to interrupt but what are you talking about the ending of Return of the Jedi my friend here is trying to convince me that any independent contractors who were working on the uncompleted Death Star or innocent victims when they was destroyed by the rebels well I'm a contract to myself I'm a roofer done already home improvements and speaking as a roofer I can tell your roofers personal politics comes into play heavily when choosing jobs like one three weeks ago is go for the job up in the hills beautiful house tons of property a simple reshingle in job they told me if I could finish it in one day I would double my price then I realized whose house it was Domenic bambinos babyface Bambino their gangster the same the money was right but the risk was too high I knew who he was and based on that I turned the job over to a friend of mine based on personal politics right and then next week the foressi family put a hit on babyface his house my friend was shot and killed didn't even finish free shingling no way I'm alive because I knew the risk involved in that particular client my friend wasn't so lucky any contractor working on that dead star knew the risk involved if they got killed it's their own fault a willful listens to this not as well this scene leaves this leads a steep of course into the world of Star Wars lore one parallel by the world created by Star Trek aficionados a rival that generated its own feature late length film about criticism called fanboys in 2009 it's also of course a world of male adolescents and a seemingly jejune obsession with trivia nonetheless I propose that Randall's analysis is an example of doing criticism not least for the way he supports a critical preference with a highly particular eyes and in its own way cogent account of its object true there may be something arche about the tone the language of this conversation verges on becoming a pastiche of academic commentary and I'm pretty sure that the actor who plays Randall is reading the script off off screen text because he probably wasn't able to memorize the lines it's also the case that the politics are those we might imagine a vaguely working class perhaps petty-bourgeois young men at Leonardo New Jersey with their special sympathy for the figure of the independent contractor the local family man struggling to save stay solvent as opposed to the left-wing militants who indiscriminately destroy them and perhaps against the left-wing follow Hollywood filmmaker who may not even be aware of their existence the critique like the judgment about which is the quote better movie is grounded not only in an aesthetic instinct something never quite sattell but also some moral and political reasoning for all its creative license then what seems powerful and true about the scene is that it captures a certain critical energy very much embedded in everyday life and it does so in an environment not distinguished perhaps for its cultural richness of or sensitivity the Jersey Shore where I grew up I can say that about the Jersey Shore because like they're people in the most ordinary circumstances do have arguments like this about what works they care about and the works that Dante and Randall care about are the three films in the first Star Wars trilogy it matters some that these films were actually not so recent in 1994 having a period between 1977 and 1983 in the lifetimes of Dante and Randall presumably young men in their early 20s this is no small gap in time Randall says that he has just seen Jedi again today presumably on the VHS player in the video store it is precisely the institution a video rental that provides a new library function for ordinary cinephiles in this period the 80s and 90s making it possible for Randall to rescreen a film for more than a decade earlier to get to the bottom of a critical instinct he has about it the point is that clerks conveys the sense that conventions like this one not only reveal what Dante and Randall care about evident in the detailed references they exchanged and readily recognize but also that such conversations enact a kind of caring and also a kind of meaning making even in a cultural zone like 1980s working-class New Jersey strip mall where such forms of care and meaning making may not be easy to come by judgments of the sorts they concur in here and arguments in behalf of those judgments such as the exchange here seem to carry a certain moral weight there is potentially some irony in the scene some gentle mockery of the pedantry of the analytic commentary Dante elicits from from Randall and as I say that accurate probably isn't even hasn't even memorized the lines but the irony is more enabling than undercutting without making these interlocutors sound vaguely academic I think would be hard to make the scene work then again it might also be tempting to view this exchange and dismiss the film merely as an event in American consumer culture what makes this dismissal awkward in this case is that the film so pointedly stages the discussion stages itself really in the heart of American consumer culture like much of the dialogue in the film this conversation conversation takes place with Dante behind the counter of the convenience store and in front of a wall that is chock-a-block with everyday things to buy especially products containing addictive substances like nicotine caffeine and sugar and these addictive products have their role in the way the scene plays out for example well the conversation with Randall is progressing a man steps over from the coffee maker and announces himself an independent contractor to lend an opinion in Randall's reading of Jedi drinking coffee moreover toward the end of the scene Dante and Randall are so caught up in their critical discourse that they fail to notice that their friend Jay who spends his days out in front of the store with his friend Silent Bob played by Kevin Smith is stuffing his mouth with hostess Twinkies that notorious junk food of that era variations on the psychology of consumption are run through several figures over the course of the film such as I can't show you these the milk lady who's always sorting through the convenience store cooler in search of the freshest gallon and the egg man who rearranges the eggs in hopes as Dante philosophically observes of making the perfect dozen so this is the conclusion we somehow seem to have returned to the poetry of the refrigerator – with which we began said against the background of such seems that the scenes of consumption Dante and Randall's critical discussion of George Lucas's trilogy seems to take on a distinctive cast if the milkman and the egg lady go beyond sure impulsive gluttony like Jays – something like an exaggerated form of seal activity Dante and Randall go beyond seal activity which movie did you like better – a developed and articulated response and in so doing they develop their articulated responsiveness herein lies an important if somewhat circular principle for the arguments and analysis involved in doing criticism criticism develops responsiveness to works that rewarded and it does so by the practice of responding to them articulately in Jason and Randall's exchange we have a fine example of minkins critical exuberance it is not only something wonderful to behold it is even more wonderful to undertake to do ourselves how I asked you could we ever imagine doing without it thank you

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