“On Not Forcing the Question: Criticism and Playing Along.”

In Poetic Critique: Encounters with Art and Literature, edited by Michel Chaouli, Simon Schluesener, and Jan Lietz (de Gruyter, 2020: 65-77). https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/9783110688719/html (Open Access)

“What would it mean to stay focused on the artist’s creativity, not ignoring the creations but understanding them as emblems of a process that should be allowed to be ongoing, not swiftly resolved into meaning? This is where Winnicott’s insistence on “not forcing the question” becomes his central technical contribution. To force the question – to require an answer to the question of whether this object is made up or found – is, finally, to over-value the object. It is to ossify it to the extent that it becomes an object in the interpreter’s own itinerary, like a baton being passed. But if the child or artist has passed the baton, he or she is no longer playing. In worrying about the ontological status of the object, play is suspended, or ruined” (70).

This essay grew out of a contribution to a Symposium on “Poetic Critique” in Berlin in 2018. Using D. W. Winnicott’s powerful ideas about the role of play in the flourishing of human being, I elaborate a model of criticism as “playing along,” that is, resisting the temptation to reduce the play of the text to structural or ideological determinations. Stanley Cavell and William Empson provide philosophical and literary-critical versions of “playing along.”