Although I agree with Barrett Hathcock's conclusion that the kind of "cultural criticism" represented by Greil Marcus's The Shape of Things to Come "too energetically [mines its] material for the cultural rather than the aesthetic," I can't agree with the critical typology that underlies his analysis:
. . .The first level is the most base, the easiest, and perhaps the most valuable--the thumb. A thumbs up or thumbs down? This is the criticism of a friendly recommendation; this is the criticism of year-end lists, whether they're constructed by some blog or by The New York Times.
The second, slightly higher level of criticism is that of specific, aesthetic analysis. How does this particular piece of art work? How does it function as a radically constructed whole? (Or how does it not, and why?) This is, I'll admit, rather undergraduate-heavy--art seen through a lit seminar, where students pop open the hood of a sonnet to see how it works.
The third and highest level of criticism, in my radically simplified piñata here, is criticism as cultural interpretation, where a piece of art is situated in a larger cultural context, both compared to other pieces of the culture, and prism-like, made to shine in the various rays of that culture. I think this third type of criticism is the most complex of the three, the one that rewards the most re-reading, the one that soars above mere book reviewing (this was about that, and it was good), and speaks to what it means to be alive right now in this crazy, kooky world we live in, etc.. . . .
"Specific, aesthetic analysis" is only "slightly higher" in its effect than list-making and crude value judgments? I understand that the "recommendation" function of book reviewing is important to many readers, who want to know whether a particular book is worth reading in the first place, but the kind of judgment that can be expressed through the thumb hardly qualifies as literary criticism. Indeed, I'm not likely to take anyone's recommendation seriously at all unless it's accompanied by some "specific, aesthetic analysis" that reveals to me just why how and why the reviewer reached his/her conclusion about a book's thumbworthiness in the first place.
Thus, I'm going to have to take issue with the notion that "aesthetic analysis" is an act of pulling apart a work of art "to see how it works." To my mind, "aesthetic analysis" and "literary criticism" are synonymous terms. A literary critic doesn't so much "pop open the hood"--although something like this is probably inevitable when the critic tries to illustrate his/her responses to the text: this is what worked on me the way it did--as report on the aesthetic experience the work has provided. This may require some re-reading of the text to clarify what prompted the particular experience it provoked, but ideally "aesthetic analysis" is not an end in itself, something that settles once and for all how a particular work "functions as a radically constructed whole," but the means to another critical end: to provide other readers with an informed account of what the work is like, perhaps to encourage the reader to approach it with a sharper critical eye and heighten his/her own experience of it.
My biggest problem with Barrett's schema, however, is the privileged place it gives to "criticism as cultural interpretation." In my view, this kind of "criticism," at least as it is applied to literature, isn't either literary or criticism. As soon as a work of literature "is situated in a larger cultural context," what follows isn't likely to be about the work at all--about what causes us to call it literary--but about the "context." It will be sociology, not literary criticism, intended to illuminate the "culture" that produced the art, not the art itself. This may or may not be more "complex" than actual criticism (I myself don't think it is; "situating" art in its cultural context may give such a piece of sociological analysis a patina of learnedness or the appearance of sounding out Important Issues, but it's finally much easier to make broad generalizations about "culture" based on superficial comparisons than it is to truly engage in "specific, aesthetic analysis"), but it isn't finallly about what makes art or literature worth our attention to begin with. It isn't the literary critic's job to tell us "what it means to be alive right now in this crazy, kooky world we live in," although perhaps it is part of the artist's job to do so. The critic focuses on how the artist goes about that job in a particular instance, how the artist's work encourages (or doesn't) a singular aesthetic experience.
Barrett says he would "like Marcus to pay more attention to the second type of criticism in an effort to bolster the strength of his higher cultural criticism," but Marcus is obviously not much interested in doing so because he's not much interested in his objects of analysis as art. (Which is one of the more disappointing things about Marcus's writing after he ceased being a regular rock critic. His reviews of individual albums were often quite good.) Whether Marcus himself thinks he's doing "higher cultural criticism" rather than mere aesthetic analysis is debatable, but I surely don't know what's "higher" about it. I wouldn't necessaily call it "lower" than aesthetic criticism, but unless you think it's more important to understand the cultural currents flowing through David Lynch's work than to appreciate the work itself, I can't see why we would place it on such a pedestal.
Addendum: I also agree with Barrett's assessment of Roth's American Pastoral. It does indeed "work more as notes toward a novel, notes toward a novel about the fall of American innocence" than as an aesthetically satisfying novel in its own right. This perhaps makes it just as useful for Marcus's kind of cultural criticism, but it doesn't make it a novel I'd want to read again.