Someone revealed to me that if my tongue could tie a cherry’s stalk into a knot, I would be good at French Kissing. I heard about it when I was in high school. Cherry was a common female name. French did not exist until the annual UN Day celebration. Kiss lingered as a rumor.
Or fiction—kiss extends bedtime storytelling. It is both maternal comfort and paternal security. A portable suite of nourishment and protection, sealed in a lunchbox. I carried one for four years of commuting to school: a circular, three-tier steel box with black vinyl close to its cover. Most of the time, I had no idea what was inside it, except for the rice in the bottom section of the package. My classmates always cared for the residue of stew or soup on the edges of the cover, drying as greasy stain on the sticker with my initials on it. That lunchbox marked an end to my puberty. I remember when I first held its handle because I refused to receive a kiss from my parents. But it was the same lunchbox that signaled a longue durée of desires to kiss and to be kissed.
I confessed my first kiss on the recto of a seatmate’s notebook. I described it as “stolen.” I didn’t elaborate on the details. Less than ten questions were finely written yet awkwardly punctuated and formatted to accommodate two sets of responses: from the local celebrity who appears on the cover and from an entrusted friend of the notebook’s owner. I wrote “stolen” under “TLW (True Love Waits).” I thought my answer was precise, but I couldn’t figure out why the artist (because showbiz personalities should now be conferred with a long overdue label – the artist) wrote something about love when we were asked to describe our first experience of kiss. Did I miss something?
I have been thinking a lot about criticism recently. Its abundance, over-articulation, regurgitation. I have also been thinking a lot about my first kiss. I pored over a speculative optimism: Can one possibly historicize critique through a history of the kiss? Consider for a moment the thrill running to your lips like how your pen landed on the line of a paper, or how the blinking cursor on your screen slowly disappeared when it produced your opening sentence. Was it full of life and fear? Imagine the risk, and how it suddenly turned into a feeling of a high that you wanted to sustain, capture, and explore. I was shaking, and I didn’t know how it would end. The first kiss and criticism.
Kiss and criticism grow in the same pot of seduction and resistance. A kiss starts in a tease. You pinch yourself and realize that the desire doesn’t subside. It annoys you as the force compels you to cross a boundary. Criticism revokes mutuality and consent. Kissing and criticism resemble a prophylactic procedure. You write to expel something that irritates your senses. You extract a foreign matter from your system. I wrote my first exhibition review as if I purged a bad taste out of my mouth. I gargled words. I didn’t brush my teeth after my first kiss. I wanted them to stay on my tongue for days. To memorialize kiss and criticism, they should mark in a cavity of the receiver’s or the giver’s: heart or mind for joy, love, anger, pain, lust, revenge.
These things are more complicated than we usually think them to be. Nostalgia infects how we reminisce. I refer to my first kiss and critical essay as events that matter, but that are still insignificant. They remind me of my productive bravado, a surplus of confidence or entitlement in a time when FOMO really conjured boldness. I am not dismissing them now, because I know better, or that I have had much satisfying smooching adventures, or have had compiled relevant criticisms since then. The problem lies in the fact that I always remember them to be good. Absolutely good as an act, condition, agency, performance, cause-effect. What would it actually mean to return to that kiss and criticism as a passage and outcome of assault or corruption? Was I a bad kisser and critic?
Expressing passion in kiss and criticism is a hookup to agency. You know as much as I do that these fields slither in the landmines of disappointment, exhaustion, and frustration. Good critics and kissers are the lucky ones. They enjoyed their childhood, hit puberty at the right time, went to the prom at their best, and interned in a proper network after college. Essentially, what I am saying is that they had an amazing first kiss. Good kissers are more likely to become good critics. Basically, no one has a shot at kiss or criticism (in/of life) if one started it with something sick, foul, or just simply weird. These terrains of desires nurture vitality, fight wretchedness, and delay disintegration. If a kisser believed that he had an amazing first kiss, he would be on a mission to recreate that in all of his future kisses. He would never achieve it again, but he would still commit to his image of a kisser capable of reproducing good kisses. The so-called good critic would do the same thing. Good critics and kissers follow their fiction, and they do it by revitalizing the myths around their first experiences.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating for hatred towards good critics and kissers. Neither am I proposing bad criticisms and kisses in our personal and professional lives. I know that we can’t extend affirmative action in these matters. I trust good critics. They are against everything and against themselves. Good critics keep my anxiety at bay. They maim their criticality by subjecting it to their erotic desires of nihilism. Everything is not fine, so you and I are not alone in this misery. To read a good critic’s works means to witness a first kiss on loop. The turn of phrases interlocks defense and offense; sharp words roll nicely on the tongue. Like the good kiss that you and I want, good criticism brings our lips to a territory of analytical bliss.
What I don’t want to happen is to live in a world imagined by good critics and kissers alone. My suspicion comes from a place that is not too deep: “It is too good to be true.” How reliable is the truth in a good kiss or good criticism? What is the truth of a bad kiss? I often hear people equate irresponsible criticism with poorly organized analysis and inadequate writing skills. I am not too sure about this convenient judgment. The consensus is bad writers do not have communicative purchase on the world of critique. For professionals, good criticism investigates the context, employs sharp and updated tools of analysis, and communicates positive and negative observations. These strategies assume that they all lead to responsible criticism. Bad critics need to demonstrate, beyond reasonable doubt, that their ill-formed documentation of experiences interprets events and things with integrity, in good faith, without malice and harm. It is a tall order and a miserable task. They can’t just rely on their inarticulate exuberance of dissent. Unlike good critics, they need to sustain their self-extinguishing desire until they are proven (not) guilty.
I know the danger in approximating the values of good and bad criticism. The latter is not a necessary passage to the former. Bad criticism permits us to move laterally from the axis identified by good critics. I would go as far as saying that bad criticism mobilizes risk while its opposite form tempers critique’s populist voluntarism. Their collaboration alleviates the precarious nature of critique by renewing the will to be interested. Ultimately, allowing them to appear together forces us, the readers, to intervene in the critics’ civic duty of forming critical attitudes and narratives for the public.
All criticisms and kisses deliver us to uncharted situations of detachment and attachment. A bad kiss or critique initiates sensitivity and intersubjectivity, too. It might be traumatic, but it exorcises the fiction in our tools and relations of sensing and feeling. I believe that criticism remains to be one of the forms of thinking and action that writes what else could be. There is untimeliness in it that privileges its exclusion from measures of truth. I think we should leave some room for a criticism that is wounded, disabled, insecure, or at its worst, dysfunctional. Giving bad criticism a chance locates the radical poverty of criticality as a practice, where all of us, kissers, can depart from.