Fake Modesty in Criticism

Why do critics so often proclaim their lack of understanding? Are they being modest? Humble? Mostly not. Confessing that one doesn’t understand some niche philosopher or some piece of avant-garde art is easy. It doesn’t question the critic’s authority, and the critic knows this very well.

When a student or a layman does this, their capabilities become questionable. But when someone with intellectual authority acknowledges an inability to understand something, the clarity of its author becomes suspect. The advantage is undeniable. The uninitiated reader will feel the same way as the critic, so the critic can win the favor of the general public by acting confused.

It is an operation well known to salons like Madame Verdurin’s: ‘I whose profession it is to be intelligent, understand nothing about it; now you wouldn’t understand anything about it either; therefore, it can only be that you are as intelligent as I am.’ (Barthes, 1972, p. 33)

So why does this work so well? Because people believe that we must base ideas on common sense and feeling. If something is radically unorthodox, it must be absurd, incomprehensible, or nonsensical.

To be a critic by profession and to proclaim that one understands nothing about existentialism or Marxism (for as it happens, it is these two philosophies particularly that one confesses to be unable to understand) is to elevate one’s blindness or dumbness to a universal rule of perception, and to reject from the world Marxism and existentialism: ‘I don’t understand, therefore you are idiots.’ (Barthes, 1957/1972, p. 34)

Of course, there is no obligation for the general public to understand existentialism or Marxism. Everyone has the right to say nothing and to have no opinion on this or that subject. As Deleuze wrote, “It’s really good not having any view or idea about this or that point. We don’t suffer these days from any lack of communication, but rather from all the forces making us say things when we’ve nothing much to say” (Deleuze, 1977/1995. p. 137). But if you wish to say nothing, why criticize?

To understand, to enlighten, that is your profession, isn’t it? You can of course judge philosophy according to common sense; the trouble is that while ‘common sense’ and ‘feeling’ understand nothing about philosophy, philosophy, on the other hand, understands them perfectly. You don’t explain philosophers, but they explain you. You don’t want to understand the play by Lefebvre the Marxist, but you can be sure that Lefebvre the Marxist understands your incomprehension perfectly well, and above all (for I believe you to be more wily than lacking in culture) the delightfully ‘harmless’ confession you make of it. (Barthes, 1957/1972, p. 34)

To all such critics, I want to say that having nothing to say is not shameful. There is no need to proclaim your opinion on every popular topic.

What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying. What we’re plagued by these days isn’t any blocking of communication, but pointless statements. (Deleuze, 1977/1995. p. 129)

  • Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. Hill and Wang. (Original work published 1957)
  • Deleuze, G. (1995). Negotiations, 1972-1990. Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1977)

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