IMAGE:  February 2004

LINK:  Features
Everybody's a critic  
Full Speed Ahead  
Theory: Still on the Table  
Moral Imperative
LINK:  Class Notes
Alumni News  
Alumni Works  

LINK:  Campus News
Chicago Journal  
University News e-bulletin  

LINK:  Research
Research at Chicago  

LINK:  Also in every issue
Editor's Notes  
From the President  
GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine


Everybody's a critic
By Mary Ruth Yoe
Illustrations by Steve Brodner

Select a critic:

David Brooks, AB'83
Roger Ebert, X'70
Thomas Frank, AM’89, PhD’94
William Grimes, AM'74, PhD'82
Dave Kehr, AB’75
Edward Rothstein, PhD’94
Susan Sontag, AB’51
Michael Sorkin, AB’69

Edward Rothstein, PhD’94

After award-winning terms as music critic for The New Republic and chief music critic for the New York Times, Rothstein is now cultural critic-at-large for the Times, writing in the Arts & Ideas section on culture, literature, music, intellectual life, and technology—in articles that move from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s Fab Five to Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School in two paragraphs.

Education. With a bachelor’s degree from Yale University (1973) Rothstein did graduate work in mathematics at Brandeis and earned a master’s in English literature from Columbia University. His doctoral dissertation for the Committee on Social Thought (cataloged under “music—philosophy and aesthetics, music theory—mathematics, and mathematics—philosophy”) was published in 1995 as Emblems of Mind: The Inner Life of Music and Mathematics.

Guiding lights. In the conclusion to Emblems of Mind, Rothstein defines the human attempt to understand music and mathematics in a way that defines the critical enterprise itself: “We begin with objects that look dissimilar. We compare, find patterns, analogies with what we already know. We step back and create abstractions, laws, systems, using transformations, mappings, and metaphors. This is how mathematics grows increasingly abstract and powerful; it is how music obtains much of its power, with grand structures growing out of small details.”

Rothstein’s ability to see music as metaphor has always influenced his criticism: “For most of my writing life,” he said in an April 14, 2003, interview on the WFMU radio program The Speakeasy with Dorian, “I’ve been doing music criticism, but all along I was relating music to other things that were going on.” And for much of the 1980s and 1990s, he continued, a recurring theme was “the dream of a perfect world,” a longing for utopia with which he took issue in a 2001 New York Public Library lecture, “Utopia and Its Discontents.”

The title’s Freudian reference, he told Speakeasy, was intentional: “Civilization is actually what we value as human beings. But the discontents are built into it. You can’t have civilization without discontents. There is no such thing as the satisfaction of all desire.” At the same time, he admitted that part of music’s power comes from being “a way in which utopian thought is felt and expressed and transmitted, providing a glimpse of what could be if things were different—in other words, if we were inhuman.”

On being a critic. “I don’t know too many critics who go out for team sports,” Rothstein confessed in a 1998 Slate electronic-journal entry. “We spend too much time determined to figure out everything for ourselves, shunning the dangers of groupthink, opposing the forces of fashion, the pressures of indebtedness, the obsequies of fandom. Whatever drummer this critical mass marches to, it is not often compatible with notions of teamwork, self-sacrifice, and submission to the will of a coach. We march to the spastic beats of self-conscious individualism—a perverse conformity.”

Short list. Emblems of Mind: The Inner Life of Music and Mathematics (Times Books, 1995); Visions of Utopia: New York Public Library Lectures in Humanities, with Harold Muschamp and Martin M. Marty, PhD’56 (Oxford University Press, 2003).



2007 The University of Chicago® Magazine | 401 North Michigan Ave. Suite 1000, Chicago, IL 60611
phone: 773/702-2163 | fax: 773/702-8836 |