The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 16-JAN 17

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DEC 16-JAN 17 Issue
Critics Page

A Shelter for Shadows

Criticism, like life, but unlike a pear, is too big and too abstract a concept to be easily grasped by hands or intellect. The concept of friendship is possessed of this quality, too. Giorgio Agamben, a writer to whom I return in times of confusion or distress, tells us that “friends do not share something […] they are shared by the experience of friendship.” And what friends share—what together they make graspable—is life. So, if together we can share in the experience of reader-and-writer, we might be able to bookend criticism, to make it—like the pear—
somehow graspable.

Agamben reminds us of the impossibility to contemplate the present moment contemporaneously, for in each instant the present passes us by. But if we thought of the contemporary moment as if backlit by distancing stars in an ever-expanding universe, we would be able to view the present in the shadow it casts upon the past. To be able to contemplate the present in juxtaposition with the past is, in Agamben’s mind, what it is to be contemporary.

Let us now consider our specific moment in time, 2016. In the great internet shuffle, and in the way many of us now acquire information, it seems that historical time has been compressed and the linear narrative has been depleted. It is a time in which globalization has produced so many conflicting claims on modernity and truth. Moreover, there is now an overarching—at times justified and sometimes hysterical—skepticism of truth in general. Even this has been flattened and one’s options, which could be endless, are specifically catered to our interests, our likes and dislikes. Unless we put in the work to find it, truth instead finds us, quickly. Generally speaking, all of this and so much more have seemingly produced a lack of reflection and thus a certain homelessness of thought.

Building on Agamben’s metaphor: If we consider ourselves positioned somewhere within that ever-expanding universe, between us and those distancing stars would be objects, memes, reports, photographs of suffering and photographs of joy, works of art, and people, each casting their unique shadow upon our core. We are unable, even with the greatest will, to remove ourselves from this moment, because we are the sum of all their parts. We are the composite of those shadows that life casts upon our core.

If we could write the merger of the present moment’s shadow as it flickers on the past—if, as John Berger noted, we could “stand shoulder to shoulder with the dead”—while also reflecting on the unique arrangement of life’s shadows that shimmer on us, then we would posses the great potential to be thoughtful contemporary critics.

The writing process is and should be deeply personal. Criticism could be said to be at risk only if and when the personal is depleted from culture, when homogeneity has reduced personal reflection to zero and we are no longer able to be individually and singularly affected.

In this time of homeless thought, the one thing we can be certain of is the confusion, anger, and fear this rootlessness has inspired. And now, more than ever, no matter where a writer concludes his critique—either scathing or uplifting—his approach to the world should be one of profound tenderness.


Sam Swasey

SAM SWASEY is a writer and visual artist living in Brooklyn. He is the editor of books of photography and the managing editor of the online arts and culture magazine, The Forgetory.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 16-JAN 17

All Issues