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  • Waiting for Criticism
  • Cary Howie (bio)


Critical Attention

If it is often the case that so much of what we do, as writers in a certain idiom and profession, is to wait for criticism—in the form of peer reviews, book reviews, tenure reviews, and so many other kinds of review that one would not be wrong to characterize the profession as constitutively myopic, incapable of seeing anything without looking at it again—there may nonetheless be another sense in which to understand this work of waiting, this waiting for work, that comes to be called, more often than not, critical. In other words, what would it mean to think criticism as a mode of taking (and making) time? What if one of the most crucial things we do when we read and write—but also, and still more importantly, when we look at or participate in the world—is to wait? This essay aims to give space, and time, to the question of critical attention, even as it will become clear that aiming is really the last thing anyone can be expected to do while they wait.

What, then, could it mean to be critically attentive? That is to say, how might it be possible to give an account of those processes and states of suspension and expectation that lie within the moment or the sequence of critical attention? This question may seem less obvious—although there’s nothing wrong with the obvious—if we recall the resonance that attention has, in French or Italian for example, with certain words for waiting, with attente or attesa; if we take seriously how attending to something or someone may also be to wait for them. Critical attention, in this way, would put on hold—for a while if not necessarily forever—the evaluative and policing functions that so frequently attend what comes to be called critical; and it would do so precisely because it would take seriously what it means, and what it feels like, to attend.

For Martin Seel, this is a specifically aesthetic question: “It is,” he says, near the beginning of his Aesthetics of Appearing, “a basic characteristic of all aesthetic relations that in them we take time for the moment” [20]. To take time for the moment, as Seel puts it, is also, I’d argue, to give time; to inscribe a kind of waiting at the heart of that moment, to respond, capaciously, to the objects or persons who are convoked there. This encounter—or what I’m tempted to call this convocation—is bound up, for Seel, with the complex presence of the encountered object: “Aesthetic perception,” he writes, “wants to take something in this light, in this movement, in this tone, in this roughness and coldness, in this weather and taste” [34]. This sequence—and notice how Seel returns to that deictic pronominal adjective “this” again and again—shows at least two things: the extent to which aesthetic perception’s mode of “taking” is no mere appropriation, given the drawn out, the literally distracted, effect of the object on the perceiver; and how this deictic disarray, caught up in “this” and “this” and “this” and “this,” is fed and fueled by a kind of wanting. Aesthetic perception, in other words, wants to take; but it ends up being taken. And when it is a matter of wanting—indeed, when it is a matter of being literally for the taking—the question and the encounter become more than just aesthetic. “Attention,” Simone Weil says, “consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, [End Page 43] and ready to be penetrated by the object.”1 To wait for the world, for Weil, is to prepare to be entered by that (or perhaps another) world. The attentive position or disposition is also an erotic one. This preparation—about which more will be said in the second part of this essay—takes place not as prophylaxis but as seduction.

I’d like, accordingly, to ask how we, singularly and in common, may be taken or, in Weil’s words, penetrated by the objects and persons we attend to; and how they, more often than not...