I’ve always thought Mark Kermode and Rowan Williams have a lot in common. The famous follicles, the worldwide following of rabidly moderate people, the complex institutional relationship with the ongoing legacy of the British Empire… Recently, though, I’ve been noticing the similarities in their discussions of judgement and integrity. This was made even more striking by reading Mike Higton’s A Theology of Higher Education, which shares several ideas in common with both writers. I’d like to trace this question of judgement through some examples of their writing, and relate it to the ambiguity of the “judgement seat” in the Gospel of John. They’ve all been large influences on my own work (not to mention my lectures), but beyond personal interest I think it’s worth setting their insights on this topic in dialogue.
Mark Kermode is a critic famous for the particular quality of his judgements, in a number of senses. His accounts of contemporary films are enriched by a very wide knowledge of cinema, allowing him to connect and explore films via criteria which seem less obvious to other people, such as who was their deputy Director of Photography, or which lead actor is actually recycling their first performance in Return of the Revenge of the Bride of the Blob (N+3) from twenty-odd years ago. Beyond providing information to draw on, this experience also builds up a critical sensibility, a hinterland of thinking and feeling about films which may not appear in particular judgements but certainly informs and enables them. For a style of criticism like Kermode’s, the reaction to a film and the subsequent evaluation of both film and reaction cannot be replaced by a set of information. It is not enough to place the new data alongside an array of past facts and responses, however wide and deep. The judgement is embedded in the critic.
This is most obvious in horror, where Kermode began his work and where having a “gut feeling” about a film can be much more than a casual metaphor. Opinions about a horror film can feel as if they are literally emerging from the viewer’s body, whether slithering around their viscera or exploding out of their ribs. But it’s also the case for many more kinds of art, where the emotion and the physical affect of going through the viewing or listening process mean that our judgements are linked to our experiences of ourselves and the world around us. Though we are capable of incredibly complex processes of rational thought and abstract speculation about art, we can only experience an artwork through our senses. One of the critic’s tools is their own body. Another is their memory, not as a system of data retrieval from which spreadsheets can be plucked and scrutinized at will, but as an ongoing process by which they make sense of their experiences and construct a narrative about the self which is going to watch that next film.
This might sound dangerously solipsistic, as if this critical mode was capable of nurturing an exquisite sensibility, in order to bring it into quivering contact with art, but might be less likely to provide the necessary articulation afterwards. It could sound as if we’re all endlessly looping around in our own experiences without agreeing any common ground upon which to talk about films. There are certainly moments of aporia in Kermode’s work, when the exchange of ideas breaks down into an assertion. But they tend to be – or be framed as – moments when honesty spoils a well-argued conclusion. “I can’t lie and say I didn’t like it” will be a familiar phrase to anyone who listens regularly. (And reflects rather more accurately Kermode’s actual practice than “Other opinions are available, they’re just wrong.”)
This is a relatively unusual occurrence, though, and the care to keep critical statements grounded doesn’t seem to inhibit an awful lot of discussion and debate without this kind of aporia being reached. In practice, the apparent solipsism doesn’t cut the watcher off from other people who’ve watched the same film. But it does try to keep them honest. Conversation only ceases because of the extent to which critical activity is embedded in the self, and cannot take place too far beyond the experience of the work. When articulated principles and personal aesthetic experience clash, one or other of them might need examination or adjustment. But acknowledging this tension when it happens, and agreeing the gap between people’s experiences, seems a very reasonable option, if only because it forces the critic to recognise the boundaries of the self that is watching the film.
It also suggests an unexpected analogy with Anselm of Canterbury’s description of theology as “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). Abstract principles are not given priority over the experience of faith, but neither is the fact of faith used to end the endeavour. It is not simply faith seeking articulation – a pre-linguistic encounter with the divine that needs to be transcribed in whichever suitable language and then marked as finished – but faith seeking an understanding of itself. An understanding which will certainly modify the life and practices in which that faith is expressed, leading to more reflection and a developed understanding. From this perspective criticism, like theology, does not seek to seal off the self from the consequences of the experiences and the judgements which it engages in. It accepts, and even welcomes, the complexity of a situation in which critical judgements can only take place when they are carried out by someone, but that someone may well be altered by the encounter, and has in any case been strongly shaped by a series of past encounters.
Indeed Kermode’s book Hatchet Job stresses the close connection of the critic with their judgements as a way of keeping them accountable to others.
Personally, when it comes to critics I want to know who they are, what they know, where they come from, and what they have to lose; an old-fashioned notion, perhaps, but one to which I find myself utterly wedded
He presents it as part of the critic’s duty to make it clear where they are speaking from, and to (rhetorically) remain there for at least as long as it takes to speak and listen in return.
I am not going to badmouth anyone and then disappear into the ether – on the contrary, I’m going to be right here, awaiting your response.
This emphasis finds an echo in Mike Higton’s description of learning in A Theology of Higher Education:
We only truly learn to the extent that, alongside all the other forms of learning in which we participate, we also open up our ways of thinking and acting to judgement, running the risk of discovering that we are deluded. Learning involves bringing the ways of thinking and acting that we have acquired up against the reality they purport to describe, or against the reality with which they claim to be engaged, and holding open the possibility that our ways of thinking and acting will be broken in the encounter. It is – as my decision to illustrate it with a personal narrative is supposed to suggest – an inherently personal process.
Higton’s account of being a student – and indeed a scholar – within the humanities hinges on the notion of being able to make well-formed judgements, and being open to judgement in return. For him, the point of carrying out scholarship thoughtfully and carefully is not to make it unanswerable or impervious to any criticism, but rather the opposite.
After all, if I am woolly enough and cut corners enough in this book, I may be able to render it all but invulnerable to critique. I may be able to make it spongy and elastic enough to allow me to ride any punch that reviewers can throw at me – spongy and elastic enough for me to trundle over any obstacle without noticing it. And all I need to do to promote such sponginess and elasticity is to settle back and not try very hard to think. Woolliness seems to be something like a default state for human conduct.
The critical labour is undertaken not to build a fortress which will withstand any counter-blast, but in order to render it vulnerable:
On the other hand, I will only say something worth listening to in this book if the proposals I make have enough content to them, and enough structure to them, to allow them to be criticized., to allow me to be called to account by having counter-examples, or gaps in my argument, or alternative ways of seeing things, or disastrous consequences of what I have said, brought to my attention.
The shape of Higton’s arguments here can be summed up by two of his pithier lines “Knowledge is what enables one to be wrong”, and – a slogan which sits comfortably alongside Kermode’s insistence on the specifics of history and film-making – “Only pedants are truly open-minded”. Its’ conclusion at this point finds a summing-up in the declaration that “Academic strength is directly proportional to academic vulnerability”. Vulnerability as a criterion of value is also central to Kermode’s arguments:
For a critic’s opinion to have value beyond the mere joy of the savage put-down for the well-constructed defence, I believe they must have something personal at stake, something about which they care, and are in danger of forfeiting.
It is not identified so closely with the process of criticism as in Higton, but it is there as a touchstone of integrity. He disdains the notion of an unattributed review by a reference to Erica Jong’s phrase “a zipless fuck”, linking accountability with both the intellectual/ emotional integrity of a piece of criticism, and the professionalism of the writer:
Whether praising or damning a movie, it is the risk to the critic’s reputation and livelihood which ultimately lends weight to their words and ensures the integrity of their review
His insistence that the critic be named is logically connected to the integrity of a critical method which can end frustratedly in “I can’t lie to you and say I didn’t like it”: they both involve the critic being honestly present to the audience:
Only if you have something to lose – something valuable, such as your heart, your reputation, or your job – does a declaration of love becomes anything other than talking dirty.
The close connection between critic and judgement might be sketched by borrowing some lines from Williams’ recent book on words and natural theology:
to use the famous Wittgensteinian example, the expression (smile or frown) is not a material feature of the face, yet can only be intelligible as the shape of a material face (with due respect to Cheshire cats)
The desire to have the expression without the face can be a toxic one for ethical or aesthetic criticism. “Objectivity” is an excellent ambition in many spheres, but often has the effect of erasing the social and material conditions under which judgements are made (as might be demonstrated by a cursory glance at the number of black winners at the Oscars or the percentage of women on the boards of multinational corporations). To rule out all human involvement in judgements, to yearn after a perfect abstraction, is too often linked with a desire to hold on to power. Doing so in a deeply unjust world can be an attempt to use the current material status quo as the measure of all life and all potential.
This might seem very far from the day-to-day practice of film reviewing, until we glance over at an adjacent field. It is not a coincidence that activists within the “GamerGate” movement demand totally “objective” reviews of video games whilst sending threats of rape and murder to women who question the gender and racial injustice in the industry. “Objectivity” in their case is the slogan of a desire to be unanswerable, to both install current injustices as the natural order of the world and end the conversation by appeal to irrefutable facts. The connection between critical judgements and power appears further in Higton’s own definition of “integrity”, which arallels Kermode’s:
In this context, integrity means ensuring that the justifications that one offers in support of one’s judgements fairly represent (as far as is possible) the reasons one truly has for those judgements, such that a critique that tackles those offered justifications is to the pint rather than wasted breath. Integrity is a matter of making sure that one is really made available, really exposed, by what one says. Such integrity is not always easy, and may be only very partially possible – after all, knowing one’s real reasons for a judgement is a difficult and complex matter. But aiming for integrity, and thereby aiming for vulnerability, is vital if one is to learn.
His account of integrity is indebted, as he points out, to a paper which Williams wrote in the late 1980s, entitled “Theological Integrity”. Williams locates much of what is distinctive about human culture in its involvement in an ongoing “conversation”, where people’s actions and words only make sense in relation to what has gone before or what will come after them. They are “answerable” in both the literal and moral senses. (Unlike ants, for example, who build intricately but do not have schools of architecture which develop or challenge each other.) And that “answerability” has a strong emphasis in his notion of integrity, which he identifies in speech which does not “conceal its purposes”.
Why is it so important that speech should not conceal its purposes? Discourse that conceals is discourse that (consciously or not) sets out to foreclose the possibility of a genuine response. By operating on two levels, one acknowledged and one not, it presents to the hearer a set of positions and arguments other than those that are finally determinative of its working. Thus the repudiation or refutation of the surface position leaves the body of the discourse untouched, since it will not engage the essential agenda. A two-level discourse is one which steps back from the risks of conversation – above all from those two essential features of conversation, the recognition of an ‘unfinished’ quality in what has been said on either side, and the possibility of correction.
As he points out, “Such a lack of integrity is manifestly a political matter. To make what is said invulnerable by displacing its real subject matter is a strategy for the retention of power.” In contrast, “[h]onest discourse permits response and continuation; it invites collaboration by showing that it does not claim to be, in and of itself, final”. That collaboration and response needs the speaker to be present in their speech, for the judgement to be “embedded in the critic”, as I suggested earlier.
The risk and vulnerability involved in judgement is a theme which has often caught the attention of Biblical commentators, particularly in one passage in the Gospel of John. In 19:13, there is a notorious ambiguity in the description of one part of Jesus’ trial:
When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he brought Jesus forth, and [he] sat [him] down in the judgement seat in a place that is called the Pavement, but in the Hebrew, Gabbatha
The brackets I’ve added indicate the uncertainty: in the Greek text the verb “to sit” is either transitive or intransitive, but it isn’t clear which. So Pilate either sat down in the “judgement seat”, or he sat Jesus down in it. Some have tried to resolve the issue historically, suggesting that this might have been part of the mocking of Jesus, alongside his crowning with thorns as “King of the Jews”. Others have focused on the ambiguity as part of the Gospel’s literary structure, seeing it as ambiguous in the same way that a line of Shakespeare or Keats might be. It ironically brings into question who is judging whom in this scene: Pilate is apparently passing judgement (though bunglingly and unwillingly) on his prisoner, but whilst doing so is in the presence of a much more powerful (and more righteous) judge. Given the discussion above about conversation and “answerability”, an earlier exchange between Jesus and Pilate in the previous chapter makes for striking reading:
“To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.”
Pilate saith unto him, “What is truth?” And when he had said this, he went out again
Those last few words were picked up by Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century, who began his essay ‘On Truth’ with the memorable line: “’What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” According to Bacon’s reading, Pilate’s failure was in his refusal of the conversation which should have followed his question, part of what Williams would call a “strategy for the retention of power”. In the next chapter, the verbal ambiguity over the judgement seat makes it clear that there is no such easy foreclosure of a response. Judging and being judged are part of the same thing in this line. The ambiguity does not suggest that judgement in this sense should never happen, and encourage the reader to abstain from it. After all, if the reader decides that this ambiguity renders the line meaningless then the text becomes opaque and nothing happens inside or outside the text.
On the contrary, it is part of the Gospel of John’s literary strategy to draw the reader into a relationship of judgement and discernment. The book’s stress on Jesus’ identity and the challenge it poses to the reader on the subject, make “judgement” both theme and function of the Gospel. It emphasis that this is a story which cannot work properly if the reader attempts to stand aloof and shut themselves off from involvement in the narrative and its implications. It demands the reader’s “judgement” in order to function, and then demonstrates that this requires the reader to be fully present, in ways which may then make them answerable and subject to change. In John, as in Kermode, Higton and Williams, the judgement seat is an uncomfortably vulnerable and exposed location. But that fact is central to their ideas of what true and honest judgement must be.