Category Archives: Rhetorical Mastery

The Pleasures of Criticism

Good criticism ‘opens up’ our understanding of an object, idea or event: what its presence can mean as part of the human experience. 

                                 Paul Goldberger

The title here may be misleading.  I have no interest in selling the idea that harsh judgments are ‘fun’ to make.  That’s what “criticism” can mean.  But it isn’t what I think of when I use the term.  I’m more interested in its second and less common meaning: writing that combines analysis and assessment of the most interesting forms of expressive activity.  Criticism is a sustained and considered effort to understand a new project: usually the work of an artist or innovator interested in moving beyond the strictly utilitarian. Critics try to make sense of what these people have done or perhaps failed to do.  They may come from academic or journalistic organizations, or freelance on their own.

Almost every field–from architecture to food–has potential ‘appreciators’ who profess to use fresh eyes and ears to extend our understanding about a particular effort.  Criticism can be as accessible as reviews of new books, plays or music in a news outlet like the New York Times.  It can also be seen in the rarer video essays of Anthony Bourdain, Leonard Bernstein or Michael Tilson Thomas.  Some efforts stand as monumental and single works of sustained analysis, like like Alec Wilder’s American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950. (Oxford, 1975).  And some can be impressive panoramas that leave us richer in our understanding of a single kind of human enterprise. Among these, I’d count Michael Arlen’s fascinating assessment of television in the Vietnam era, Living Room War. (Viking, 1969).

                                  Joan Didion

Criticism ought to be a cherished kind of writing—not just because it promises incisive observation, but because good criticism ‘opens up’ our understanding of an event: what its presence can mean as part of the human experience.  To use a simple example, I will never eat in most of the restaurants that the New York Times’ food critic will write about.  But Pete Wells’ assessment of the food and the experience of a particular eatery is still interesting.  Wells isn’t doing a Yelp review.  His best reviews place an establishment in a timeline, and its food in a broader culinary tradition.  The food he samples functions as a kind of ‘find’ in an archaeological dig.  It’s roots are from somewhere else, but handed down and modified by whoever is in the kitchen.  And, of course, its New York.  So most restaurants feed strivers looking for sensations that are different and potentially better.  Who knew that Malaysian coffee can be so different?  How have Americans not understood the varied and fascinating textures of something as basic as rice?

      Robert Hughes illustration by John Spooner

Try any field of effort, and there are fascinating critics from the present or recent past to explore.  Many have been journalists: Robert Hughes on art, Alex Ross on concert music, Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael on film, Joan Dideon on the East and West coast life, Paul Goldberger on architecture, or Gary Giddens on jazz.  Whatever the work, we expect critics to be curious, aware, and more interested in discovering and knowing than judging.


Living in the thick of a culture requires sorting out and assessing the passing parade of ideas and artifacts that vie to make an impression.

I was trained as a rhetorical theorist and critic.  No shingle hangs out of my office to attract potential customers.  But with communication as my world I am never at a loss for subjects to explore and ponder. I and thousands of other academics are following in the footsteps of other rhetorical critics before us, including Wayne Booth, Hugh Duncan, Jane Blankenship, Richard Weaver and Kenneth Burke.  The names of these academics are perhaps not familiar.  Yet they have shaped what communication means in the American academy.  They are still read by flocks of undergraduates on their way to sharpening their critical and analytical skills.

                     Kenneth Burke

Burke wrote what many of us sometimes say in moments of exasperation: we are all critics.  Living in the thick of a culture requires sorting out and assessing the passing parade of ideas and artifacts that vie to make an impression.  The key difference is that our own ad-hoc judgments are usually personal: said without much prior knowledge and not very well worked out.  That’s why our opinions are usually less interesting than a gifted writer who is also a professional appreciator.


Phrases Ready for Retirement

 These mental cheats sacrifice accuracy for the rhetorical advantage of certainty.  And that’s more than we should accept.

It’s not unusual to catch someone’s thought in mid-flight that deserves an arrow that will bring it back down to earth.  Habits and overuse make it easy to overlook vapid phrases that pretend to pass as insights. In complex times like these they tend to do violence to the Truth, which needs much more context and detail.

Here’s a short list of some common offenders.

“It’s a simple as that.” 

We know when we say it or hear it that we’ve probably uttered a useless overstatement.  But its declarative certainty is attractive, and maybe a good way to foreclose debate.  But humans have grown smarter over the years about the complexities of living and interacting with others.  Einstein famously noted that “as our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.”  More knowledge makes us aware of a bigger spectrum of unknowns.  We are wiser by grasping the limitations of simple nostrums.

When someone issues this phrase it’s usually a hammer blow for subtlety. Imagine the phrase tacked on to these common thoughts:  People aren’t trying if their marriages don’t work. . .  Teens are obsessive about sex. . .  New Yorkers are pushy. . .  World War II was started by Germany . . . , and so on.  None of  these claims have earned the right to be worded as unequivocal.  We may not know everything these days, but we should know that the actions of humans and organizations are rarely explained with one dimensional understandings.

“This isn’t rocket science.” 

I’m guilty of saying this.  But, in fact, the task of accounting for human action is arguably harder than working with the predictable usually effects found in the physical sciences.  To be sure, we are right to be impressed with scientific achievements.  Many of us were stunned to see the three SpaceX booster rockets that went into space recently and then returned to land feet first on the launch pads where they started.  Wow.  (Here’s the clip, if you missed it.)  But the laws of physics and the behavior of machines usually make it possible to produce results that can be replicated.

Put another way, the sciences are assisted by unequivocal baselines.  And that makes events more orderly.  But try accounting for where a cat will light after circling a room, or why your Uncle Mort insists that raw celery is the world’s best food. In these realms we are talking about nearly infinite causes that may never be known.

“I remember it like it was yesterday.”  

In all likelihood, you probably don’t.  We’ve learned a lot about the natural fallibility of memory.  We may indeed “see” distant events or feelings with what seems like pristine clarity.  But memory research has advanced to a stage where it is sensible to call into question those things about which we remain all too certain.  For example, there is increasing evidence that eyewitness accounts in trials and routine police work are more inaccurate than we used to expect.  Or try this test: visit your old grade school, or a neighborhood  that was home several decades ago.  Putting aside various improvements, some features that seemed so vivid will probably be different than you may recall. The house I lived in as a pre-teen now looks so much smaller than what I remember.  And what happened to what I remember as a spacious back yard?  The question to my siblings is always “How did we all manage to fit?”

“What’s the story?”  

Cable news hosts are fond of turning to a fellow journalist on camera to ask this obvious question.  They are surely right to ask it.  But if postmodernism has taught us anything, it is to look for broader and multiple narratives.  The problem with the question as worded is its singular form.  Human events should  lead us to expect stories and alternate narratives.  Almost any complex human action is likely to produce different versions about was actually going on.  Facts and features of narratives almost always spring from selected elements, different perspectives, and points of view we are predisposed to confirm.

All of these phrases are mental cheats. They sacrifice accuracy for the rhetorical advantage of certainty.  And that’s more than we should accept.