Criticizing Criticism and The Blue Evangelization: A Rejoinder

Read this first. This post is about that post.

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It is not my first time being (mis)understood as a curmudgeon, provocateur, and a snob. I’m sure it won’t be my last and I am not proud of that. I’m actually quite ambivalent about it. Polemics are a refuge for me, I feel at home in a debate. It comforts me. But I also grow weary and bored of the routine. More than anything else, debate is a routine. At best it is a subtle dance, at worst it is an exercise in shame and humiliation — not unlike mixed martial art bouts. This is one reason why I try to write in a jagged, meandering style sometimes: it forces me to tell stories and jump around and avoid the direct impact of pure polemics.

I was a bit surprised that the “EWTN story” became the “EWTN story,” instead of “The story of Sam having dinner with three priests.” The parable was either unbalanced or it struck a different nerve than I intended. In the latter case it succeeds, in the former it fails. Maybe it was both. I was thrilled to find out that Katrina Fernadez has the same EWTN allergy that I do. But I suppose my own allergy is rather overstated, since I don’t own a tele.

There may be some outrage that I literally don’t know what I am talking about, but that would be to miss the point (and forget that I mentioned that my comment was not wholly true). Of course I don’t know, and rarely ever know, what I’m talking about! That is so obvious to anyone who reads me with any regularity that it hardly seems something worth justifying.

Google knows ALL. Not me. I am expert in not having an expertise.

I would argue that, in this particular case, I don’t need to know what I am talking about. I don’t really need to get into the particulars of EWTN when the droning sound of nuns praying the rosary, in what would otherwise make a hilarious Monty Python skit, is burnt into my subconscience. The point remains that, in certain cases, the aesthetic sensorium of a situation is not about the particulars so much as the general intuitions one has about it.

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Relativists who lack a sense of irony or humor are, frankly, stupid. I’ve grown tired of pointing out that the proposition “There are many truths” is only significant if it is taken as a singular Truth. There are other relativistic thinkers who can be quite interesting, who revel and struggle in the paradox of their position and don’t shy away from confronting its most difficult implications, e.g., is it true that the Holocaust occurred, can we deny the Truth of the Shoah?

The same lack of reflexive insight, I fear, was present in much of the ironic, negative feedback I received.

Mitch Hedberg, perhaps my favorite comedian, has a wonderful joke that is very apropos:

I’m against picketing, but I don’t know how to show it.

The joke is an analog to the criticism that was critical of my post being too critical — negative feedback about being too negative.

The performance subverts the content.

The only difference between my critique and the critique of my critique is that my own is under no delusions of not being critical. Here’s a tip for critics of criticism: next time you want to share your negative feelings about someone’s negativity, take a deep breath and cherish the circular absurdity of your position. Or, better yet, go one step further and put on edge on your criticism by being openly critical and negative about something other than generic criticism and negativity. Otherwise, there is something amiss, kin to those boring relativists.

Boredom is a serious issue for me. There is an aesthetic quality to boredom that I find toxic and bad for the soul and mind. I should give more detail, and perhaps I will some other time, but I want my protest of protestations against protesting to be as clear as possible: my own issue is not that it is illogical or poorly reasoned; my problem is that it is disinteresting, unimaginative, and very disenchanting — another way to describe the aesthetic dearth I see in EWTN et al.

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This leads to the next accusation: snobbery.

Again, this rebuttal fails to account for its own snobbery. There are, it seems, a great many anti-snob snobs out there today.

I’ve never understood how to combat school bullying without figuring out the best strategy for bullying bullies. It’s a mess, I guess, but the bully who only bullies bullies seems to be a preferable bully — a righteous, discriminating bully — to the one who may not even realize that she is a bully in the first place. I don’t know. It’s terribly complicated.

The same thing can be said about my pretension. Oddly enough, there were several responses that forgave the essay on the merits of my cinematic tastes. Once Upon a Time in the West was a big hit. This, of course, is the exact opposite side of the accusations of pretension. How arbitrary!

It strikes me that what we really mean when we accuse someone of being “pretentious” is nothing different than when we call someone an “asshole,” for whatever reason.

At the very least, if one takes offense of my preference of X to Y (as Luke did in comments), it is only because of one’s preference for the converse.

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Other, more perceptive and less defensive, readers seemed to understand that the point of the post was not about generic tastes, but, rather, about the desires that drive our tastes.

My essay was not about the acquisition of preferences; it was about the acquisition of desire.

The erotics of desire.

Marc Barnes really seems to get this in his open letter to Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State while I was a graduate student there, when he inverts and twists the common sense notions of love and hate. He argues, rightly, that there was love in Gee’s anti-Catholic jest and hate in the pious outrage from The Huffington Post. There can be love in hate and hate in love. I make a similar case for racist jokes as a form of social solidarity in this essay.

This gets to the core of the essay: the apophatic virtue of hate. The via negativa. The sorrowful way. The love that takes the form of hatred.

I hope to say much more about this, but suffice it to say presently that I sense a great deal of fear invested in the reactions against it, which strikes me as odd.

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The virtue of hate need not exclude joy. Just the opposite: there is a dark sort of kindness and warmth, that is often cloaked in humility or brokenness, that has all the trappings of ecstasy. The difference, I think, is that this joy doesn’t come cheap or easy and it may not promise us the rewards we want. This is because we do not know what we want and we often want what we don’t truly desire.

There is a pastoral and evangelical dimension to this. I would call it The Blue Evangelization. (Hopefully, in the not so distant future, Mr. Bad Catholic and I will co-author a short book on this topic.)

Speaking of books and the blues, some readers have challenged me to produce something that is not critical and negative. As wrong-headed as that challenge may seem to me, I do have something to offer in reply: buy my stuff, if you please.

If I need to put up or shut up, then the same standard hopefully applies in the other direction. Take a look at my new, illustrated book or listen to my music. I’m also working on a serious alternative to Maher-style devotional praise and worship music: Late to Love, a full-length studio album, rooted in the spiritual tradition of soul music, inspired by Augustine’s Confessions. I’ll need help raising funds for it, so if you want to support this creative project, please let me know.

Finally, I also hope to do something I think we are missing at Patheos Catholic: blogger interviews. Good ones. Over the next few months, and perhaps the next year, I’ll be doing lengthy interviews of our talented team of writers, sort of in the style of the Paris Review. Max Lindenman will kick it off.

There is so much to do and be and live! It is a pleasure and an honor to share it with you.

 

  • Zarchne

    This was a bit long and boring.

  • Steve

    Sam, I enjoy reading your stuff, but I can see why some people may see you as pretentious. I have a very hard time explaining it -I’m not exactly a literary type myself, but sometimes your writing style may seem… overly academic or perhaps fluffy. I think that some people wish that you might make your point sooner and clearer. But this is coming from an engineering student, a type of person not exactly known for eloquence.

    • SamRocha

      Thanks, Steve. You are very kind. I’ll try to be more clear, but I am very committed to not offering the usual blog fare here. No memes or rapid fire links or the rest. It’s fine to do that, I suppose, but its not my style. I’m an essayist at heart, or at least I aspire to be one, a good one, someday. One more thing about clarity: it is important, I think, to be clear about things that are clear, but it is also crucial to not clarify things that are themselves unclear. For instance, if I am painting a landscape in a foggy bog, I should not make it “clear.” It is not so. Likewise, in certain things clarity may in fact be a distortion of the thing in question. Then the burden shifts to rendering a foggy description “clearly.” Ha!

    • Petro

      You’re not pretentious if you’re really that smart.

  • Bob

    I agree that the post was a bit boring, but it is understandable. This post is for people who are here for the long haul. I am pretty naive about the place blogs hold in people’s lives. I don’t know how many random people troll across this blog, but for me it is more of a well-known spot I can return to. This post is the continuation of a conversation. A tiddying up that promises more. Please continue.

    I am very suspicious about you being bored with reiterating the irony of the truth claims made by relativists. Rocha, you are a teacher! The life of a teacher is reiteration! I struggled with this in college. For my first two years I argued A LOT over the same things with many different people. This helped me clarify certain issues pretty well in my mind. But then by senior year I basically stopped talking to people about these things because I sort of assumed it was as clear to everyone else as it was to me. This was way off the mark and I think I was very lazy to not share my thoughts with others. Keep the reiteration going especially with a new little girl on the way.

    This connects to my next point. Your boredom with reiteration seems to me to come from man’s more general boredom with the world and it’s simple beauty. This is the outcome of sin that Schmemann points out. You have lost your privileged place in the world as a priest, as one who can see the world not as the end but as the creation coming from the creator and in turn praise the creator for his work. You must imagine again the beauty of all these things. The beauty of truth and the world especially for your children. They will help you remember this more than anything else, probably.


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