The Invitation to Critique

“To build a prototype and expose it to critique is to make yourself very vulnerable…But you invite people in because you know that you can’t do the thing you want to do without their honest response…

…By contrast, Davey worked very hard on restoring that little Norfolk church, but he also sought help of every kind along the way. He gave up complete control of the project in order to draw friends and strangers into his endeavor. His motto seems to have been that great phrase from Wordsworth: “what we have loved, / Others will love, and we will teach them how.” He made a bet on mutuality.

That surely meant having to hear other people tell him “You’re doing it wrong” — something Justo, it seems, couldn’t bear to hear. But if we want to repair the world, or any part of our little corner of it, we’ve got not just to accept but invite that possibility. We have to discipline ourselves to welcome it. And we have to encourage those others to stick with us through multiple iterations of whatever we’re prototyping. 

-Alan Jacobs, “the invitation to critique.” ayjay..org. July 23, 2022.

This strike me as a skill that we all desperately need to cultivate. But, the challenges are often insurmountable.

As people, it is often difficult to admit that we are wrong, or even admit the possibility of it. Some of that is a function that so much of our modern lives are controlled by others. We want to feel, at least where we are making decisions, that we are in control. We are operating independently and that we are in control of our lives. We don’t want to hear criticism because criticism is everywhere. We have had our fill of it.

Further, I think “honest response” is a key issue. Often, in a social context, people are trolling. They are not giving an honest response, but one that is designed to serve some agenda, whether that is create social boundaries, create differentiation of status or what have you. There’s even the unintentional. There are people that are too busy thinking about what they are going to say next or trying to guess what you are trying to say that they are not even responding to you, but half formed conceptions or their own mind.

How does on open oneself up and invite critique when this is the social and cultural environments most of us live in?

And, it makes me remember this bit from John Cleese quoting another (below), “If people can’t control their own emotions, they they have to start trying to control other people’s behavior.” And, I think this points to a larger issue is that in order to open ourselves up to critique and in order for that critique to have value, everyone involved has to be both able to control their emotions and be invested in the improvement of whatever is the object of critique. Whenever you add in some other agenda, such as trying to control the behavior of others, relative prestige, or what not, you cannot have honest critique and their is no point inviting it.

The question is: how do we get to a place of constructive critique, or a constructive dialogue, with the people in our lives about the things we care about?

Refuse That Final Word

“The more authoritarian a social regime is, the more insistently it will simplify the possible responses—always converging on thumbs up or thumbs down—and demand the correct one. I don’t think we live in a totalitarian, or even an authoritarian regime—not even close—but in any given culture there are always authoritarian subcultures, and we have more of those than we used to, because our social media empower such attitudes and practices and demands. And to accept those attitudes and practices and demands is to undergo a diminution of personhood.

Someone who lived under a genuinely totalitarian regime, the great Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin, often wrote about what he called the “surplus,” a term he used in several ways. The one I want to emphasize is this: The surplus of any human being (me, you, my neighbor) is what exceeds description, what cannot be expressed in any sociological definitions of identity. In his magnificent essay “Epic and Novel” (1941), Bakhtin writes of the “surplus of humanness” that each of us possesses and that makes us—this is a numinous term for him—“unfinalizable.” No one can say the last and complete word about any of us. It is the ambition of all authoritarian regimes, social or political, to utter that final and definitive word about whoever comes within its orbit; it is, for Bakhtin, an ethical imperative to refuse that final word, whether uttered about myself or my neighbor.”

-Alan Jacobs, “You Are Not a Server.” The Hedgehog Review. April 26, 2022

I enjoyed this little essay. Then, I realized I follow the author. Alan Jacobs has a blog and a newsletter that is currently on hiatus. He focuses on Christian themes and is not always my cup of tea. But, it’s worth occasionally dipping in for pieces like this one. Other recent writing from him can be found at his website.

The Plural of Apocalypse

“Our resolution should be not simply to survive our present apocalypse and resume “life as normal.” Let us wake up to ways the world ends every day, responding with compassion when we encounter others going through one slow-motion apocalypse or another. But let us also not turn a blind eye to the grace-filled apocalypses of first steps, surprising kindnesses, and new possibilities. Just because a baby, for example, is a small and ordinary being doesn’t mean she is not also an apocalyptic prophet, tearing with tiny hands at the veil that keeps us looking only at what is and not at what ought to be.”

—Alexi Sargeant, “Small Apocalypses.” BreakingGround.com. November 27, 2020.

h/t Alan Jacobs.

The Work of the Three Minds

“We have three minds, I reckon, one of which is the body, while the other two are forms of mentation: daylight consciousness and dreaming consciousness. If one of these is absent from a work, it isn’t complete; and if one or two of them are suppressed, kept out of sight, then the whole thing — whatever it is you’ve created — is in bad faith. Thinking in a fusion of our three minds is how humans do naturally think, at any level above the trivial. The questions to ask of any creation are: What’s the dream dimension in this? How good is the forebrain thinking, but also how good is the dream here? Where’s the dance in it, and how good is that? How well integrated are all three; or if there is dissonance, is that productive? And, finally, what larger poem is this one in? Who or what does it honor? Who does it want to kill?”

—Les Murray, “Les Murray, The Art of Poetry No. 89.The Paris Review. Spring 2005, quoted in Alan Jacobs, “The Work of Three Minds.” Snakes & Ladders. June 28, 2019.