Do you ever wonder how figs get pollinated? It’s a fascinating process that involves male and female figs, male and female fig wasps, and a process called caprification. It’s a form of parasitism in which the parasite doesn’t actively harm the host. In fact, it’s a mutualism, because the fig and the wasp need each other to reproduce.
This process of mutualism is mirrored in the act of criticism. Criticism is a form of parasitism in which the critic burrows into the sweet, dark places of fecundity, into novels and paintings and poems and architectures, and makes them their own. They lay their criticism in little translucent eggs, pollinating novels to make more novels. It’s an act of commensualism, a form of parasitism in which the parasite doesn’t actively harm the host.
But there’s something else to this process of criticism. It’s an erotic act, one that involves wanting things and pollinating figs with other figs by means of our wasp bodies. It’s an odd but sensuous thing to want. And though the male-female figs exist, and the male-female wasps, the whole process is somehow queer. Criticism, too, is queer in this way, generative outside the two-gendered model, outside the matrimonial light of day way of reproducing people, wasps, figs, or knowledge.
The critical education is also an erotics. We learn to be an aesthete by honing everything out in some wilderness, where no one sees our missteps, our clumsy formation. We tell ourselves we are Achilles (or sometimes, Patroclus), we rationalize our world with these models, themselves parasitic on a tradition that we did not ourselves make. We learn to be by being them, by pushing into them and unfolding our wet wings. The critical gaze is also erotic; we want things, we are by a degree of separation pollinating figs with other figs by means of our wasp bodies, rubbing two novels together like children.
This displacement makes us shiver, a kind of longing by proxy. We learn to be a critic by inhabiting and bursting out of galls and personae like the psenes. It’s an education in this way that feels forbidden, queer, like an ekphrasis of somebody else’s kiss on somebody else’s vase. The remove makes it only sweeter.
So next time you bite into a fig, remember the queer process that made it possible: the mutualism between figs and wasps, between critics and their subjects. It’s a process that involves both parasitism and erotics, one that teaches us how to be both inside and outside our own human-ness.