On Criticism (2)

Roland Barthes published Criticism and Truth [Critique et vérité] in 1966.  It is a short volume.  It is academic, but still very readable.  He advances a number of important insights, and anyone studying modern theories of criticism should consult it.

One important concept is “critical verisimilitude”.  Barthes adapts this from Plato‘s concept of verisimilitude, that is, the idea that audiences have limits on what they will accept as believable when interpreting an artistic work.  For Barthes, there are certain presuppositions of critical method that work in a similar fashion.  This is critical verisimilitude.  Certainly, Barthes was only articulating something that was already at least intuitively known about criticism.  Take something Amiri Baraka [formerly LeRoi Jones] said in a 1963 Down Beat article “Jazz and the White Critic” (reproduced in Baraka’s book Black Music):

“because the majority of jazz critics are white middle-brows, most jazz criticism tends to enforce white middle-brow standards of excellence as criteria for performance of a music that in its most profound manifestations is completely antithetical to such standards; in fact, quite often is in direct reaction against them.”

This is precisely what Barthes was concerned about with critical verisimilitude.  A counterexample might be found in Ayn Rand‘s The Fountainhead (1948), asserting that such things can “objectively” be defined apart from social context.  When critics insist that there be “clear writing and speech” they are really just reinforcing what is clear from the social position of the critic, which is always an arbitrary position.  From there, one can proceed to something like Pierre Bourdieu‘s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste [La distinction] (1979), which expands upon this point (a topic for another post).

Barthes makes plenty of other intriguing points too.  He lambasts purely “subjective” criticism that is more about the critic than the work analyzed:

“One usually understands by ‘subjective’ criticism a discourse left to the entire discretion of a subject, which takes no account at all of the object, and which one supposes (in order more effectively to attack it) to be nothing more than the anarchical and chattily long-winded expression of individual feelings.”

The importance of Barthes book is not only as one of the opening volleys in what would culminate in the May 1968 student uprisings, but that it opened up a debate over the question of who had the power to determine the meaning of an artistic work, and made important strides towards revealing possible critical biases tied to social standing.