In a journal--say, in Critical Inquiry's occasional article-response-response pairings--one likes to see an absolutely cool, faintly patronizing takedown of the misreader, one that gently suggests that the misreader has quite understandably made an error in her or his translation of the Latin -- yes, that would explain such a tragic misunderstanding. Every once in a while you might get a puerile yet awesome lashing out, like Michael Taussig's response [pdf, Wiley paywall] to Martin Jay's review [ditto] of Mimesis and Alterity, but the principle is the same. The misreader has transgressed.
In scholarship, it makes sense that a baseline level of comprehension is expected. Scholarship is usually quite sincere about the idea of communication. But it seems to me that that's also why it so rarely has room for understanding the critical power of misreading.
And that brings me to Dana Vachon's recent, amazing essay "Arms So Freezy: Rebecca Black's 'Friday' as Radical Text." The opening gives you an idea of the piece's brilliance:
Rebecca Black wakes somewhat too perfectly in the early scenes of her viral video, "Friday." Her eyes open exactly as the clock beside her bed flashes seven. She wears full make-up. Rare for a teen, she isn’t tired, longs not for any receding dreams.The piece is, of course, a travesty. It's a travesty of everything the "Friday" video is about (or isn't about), a reading thoroughly against the grain, a recuperation of the unrecuperable. In one fell swoop, Vachon parodies both Black's video and the serious pop culture criticism that generates miles of (you said it) fan criticism, and the best part is the glorious persuasiveness of it all, the thickness of the description, the way it forces you to concede that, after all, Vachon does have a point, and "Friday" really can be read as a radical text, which either tells you something terrible about criticism or something perfectly wonderful.
Her cultural debt is less to Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles than Evie Vicki the robot girl from Small Wonder, we realize, as in a voice controlled by Auto-Tune she enumerates the banalities of an anti-existence: “Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs, gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal… gotta get down to the bus stop.”
She offers the camera a hostage's smile, forced, false. Her smoky eyes suggest chaos witnessed: tear gas, rock missiles and gasoline flames. They paint her as a refugee of a teen culture whose capacity for real subversion was bludgeoned away somewhere between the atrocities of Kent State and those of the 1968 Democratic Convention, the start of a creeping zombification that would see youthful dissent packaged and sold alongside Pez and Doritos.
Vachon's piece isn't criticism, not exactly. Phil Nel's post is closer to what we'd normally call criticism. But as Phil rightly notes, Vachon's piece puts his to shame. It's a performance. It's the article's exuberance, its fearlessness, its sheer creativity that makes it so thoroughly exceed its abject object of study and become a little internet masterpiece in its own right. It commits to the project.
It's worth noting that the brilliance of the creation depends in part on the meagerness of the materials with which Vachon has to work. It's not so much that the hordes of fans have terrible taste and that's why they're all talking about Rebecca Black (or the news, or Céline Dion, harbinger of the end of taste). You autotune something banal, corporate, and content-free, like the news, not Bach's B minor mass. It gives you space to play, to create. That's why the criticism of enthusiasm need not be a form of appreciation. In this case, in the remix/appropriation logic of the internet, it's more like transfiguration. Travesty and love are intertwined in the criticism of enthusiasm. As is right and proper.
Jay, Martin. "Unsympathetic Magic." Rev. of Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses by Michael Taussig. Visual Anthropology Review 9.2 (1993): 79-82.
Taussig, Michael. "Michael Taussig Replies to Martin Jay." Visual Anthropology Review 10.1 (1994): 154.
Wilson, Carl. Celine Dion's "Let's Talk about Love": A Journey to the End of Taste. New York: Continuum, 2007. Print.