Problematizing is rapidly replacing criticism, and even reviewing, as the preferred mode of responding to literary texts, not to mention to visual art, at least since the 1970’s and 80’s.   In fact, problematizing has become so popular as a mode of, or replacement for, criticism that it has become a kind of automatism of both the art work and its reception.

One of the reasons problematizing has become so popular is that it is an easy, if not lazy and formulaic way of approaching/reading or experiencing a work of art, which is examined (and scolded) for what it hasn’t done, expressed, or celebrated; what it has excluded; or what remnants and traces of unacceptable power relations are evident in the text or the representation.  These techniques have long been nurtured in the English Department.  They were at first an exciting alternative to the ho-hum and blindnesses of aesthetic textual criticism.  Context and text merged.   Texts were politicized.  But who could have imagined then that today, literary texts are considered to be forms of actual behaviour, a transformation similar to the one that has turned corporations into persons in the legal sense.   Poets in the 1950’s would write to flatter the methods of their New Critics, but eventually the poets revolted with explicitly “confessional” poetry.  But even the New Criticism was a bower of lovely flowers and weeping willows and chirping birds and so forth, compared to the Gradgrindism problematizing is.  Problematizing proceeds by arithmetic and worry.  Problematizing assumes art is, unavoidably, a problem.

Manuscripts soon will be vetted by committees of problematizers before being accepted by a publisher—if that is not happening already, which it probably is.  Such vetting is, or will be, considered morally responsible and solemnly owed to the community.  Demands will be made for changes, according to progressivist and activist criteria, since writers can’t be trusted to consider all these necessary details themselves, their imaginations perhaps having gotten away from them.  Why not load all possible objections at the front end?   By this pre-emptive strategy, an acceptable text will ensue and be given prizes.  Julian Barnes’ book, The Noise of Time, about the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, would be salutary reading in this context.  Another consideration is what happens to the capacious imagination and sharpness of mind a critic needs, when the only morally acceptable mode of responding to a book—or to just about any utterance— is to problematize it according to ever-expanding rules and admirable national ideals.

— DR