The OF Blog: Sure, everyone can criticize, but who really bothers with doing criticism these days?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sure, everyone can criticize, but who really bothers with doing criticism these days?

Late last night, before going to bed, I saw a little Twitter discussion on an article in the UK paper The Guardian entitled "Everyone's a Critic Now."  Written by an American professor, Neal Gabler, the article presses all sorts of "hot topic" buttons that have been the rage for the past several years:  old guard, elitism, new trends, divides between high and popular culture, the emergence of a "new" populism, etc.  At first glance, it might seem as though the article puts into words what more and more people are feeling about issues of who ought to "control" the discourse on mass cultural elements such as literature and cinema promotion.

Yet if one looks beyond the glossy surface, Gabler's article is replete with generalizations that do not stand up well with someone, coincidentally enough, examines them with an *ahem* critical eye.  Here are a few excerpts from Gabler's article which I'll address:

And there was something else novel this time around. Despite the deafening ballyhoo, the critical consensus didn't seem to make much difference to the larger public. The Social Network did only "all right" business, not the sort of business one might expect for a celebrated cultural milestone; it has not yet broken the $100m mark at the box office and was the 29th highest grossing film last year, right under that blockbuster, Date Night. (The Coen Brothers' True Grit, by comparison, took $100m in just three weeks.) Similarly, Freedom just logged its 17th week on the New York Times bestseller list, after having fallen from the list before the holidays. It came 39th among the 100 bestselling books of 2010 on the USA Today list, despite the boost it got as an Oprah Book Club selection. And Boardwalk Empire began in September with a ratings bang of 4.8 million viewers, only to sink to 2.7 million by November. As Entertainment Weekly opined, it "doesn't seem to have the water cooler appeal" of The Sopranos or Mad Men. Critics were talking about it but ordinary people weren't.
Really... did he just go there?  There seems to be this sort of fallacy of connecting monetary success with value in this passage.  Yet if one bothers to consider the information provided in a different light, something else emerges.  If one has to take this view that critical praise does not correlate with financial success, then one would have to wonder at the benchmarks employed here.  Does a sub-$100 million grossing movie "fail" if it makes a profit and generates more interest than other movies of that type?  Since when is a book that appeared on the NYT list for 17 weeks and which was the 39th grossing book out of thousands of 2010 fiction releases a sign of anything other than it has at least some appeal to "ordinary people?"  Gabler's argument appears to be quite garbled here.

So if this was some sort of critical last stand, a desperate ploy by critics to display their power by circling the wagons, it seems to have failed. Even if The Social Network wins the Oscar as expected, Freedom the Pulitzer Prize and Boardwalk Empire the Emmy, it would only serve to confirm the breach that now seems to exist between the critics and the public. Once upon a time, critics could close that breach through a process close to cultural brainwashing. They could get people to see and love The Social Network, to read Freedom, to watch Boardwalk Empire. Now they can't.

Good Lord is his follow-up point ridiculous.  It sounds more akin to something that would have been produced by Soviet propagandists in the mid-20th century than it does anything akin to what has actually occurred in popular culture over the past few centuries.  See my above point on the thoughts of the "lack of success" of the works cited.  For God's sake, when I see Freedom sold in Krogers and Wal-Mart, I just can't buy Gabler's line of argument too readily.

The usual suspect in this immunisation is the internet. It is certainly no secret that the internet has eroded the authority of traditional critics and substituted Everyman opinion on blogs, websites, even on Facebook and Twitter where one's friends and neighbours get to sound off. What is less widely acknowledged is just how deeply this populist blowback is embedded in America and how much of American culture has been predicated on a conscious resistance to cultural elites. It is virtually impossible to understand America without understanding the long ongoing battle between cultural commissars who have always attempted to define artistic standards and ordinary Americans who take umbrage at those commissars and their standards.

Here he sets up a straw man.  What Gabler doesn't bother mentioning in this article, perhaps because it would dilute the thrust of his argument, is that for the majority of American literary history, both writers and readers alike did turn to a few sources.  For the first century of American independence, it often was English journals and the reviews found within that affected sales here.  American literature (not to mention the very language along the Atlantic seaboard) was heavily influenced by changing English customs.  Not that this would ever be mentioned in such an article, mind you.

Of course, some might want to argue that what I mention above could support Gabler's argument.  To that I would merely note that the so-called "cultural commissars" tended to be newspaper journalists who frequently came from relatively humble backgrounds.  Not too many university-educated people were proclaiming their views as if they were dictates to be imbibed immediately.

This is hardly a recent occurrence occasioned by the internet and other democratising elements. It actually began at the country's inception when political opposition to England bled into a form of cultural opposition as well. Europe was seen as effete, corrupt, supercilious and haughty. By contrast, ordinary Americans saw themselves as manly, honest, commonsensical and populist, and early on they tried to fashion a culture that manifested these characteristics – an American culture divorced from any European antecedents, a democratic culture.

This begins a few paragraphs' worth of vomit-inducing commentary.  Americans saw themselves in a variety of lights, which might be surprising to those who might take Gabler's opinion as being anything more than the recapitulation of a discredited myth which should have been taken out and shot behind the woodshed decades ago.

Not surprisingly, the conventional take on American popular culture by intellectuals is that it was the product of ignorance and a deficiency of good taste among the mass of American citizens. They had to bowdlerise culture because they couldn't appreciate the unadulterated thing.

That blasted indefinite "they!"  Would it have hurt Gabler to at least cite a few such "intellectuals," or is it much more convenient to paint with such broad tar streaks those who must be run out of town on a pole?

And yet even as they consumed high culture, they seemed to resent those who felt duty bound to impose it on them. Or put another way, it wasn't high culture they disdained so much as high culturists who, not incidentally, disdained them. Though it is impossible to prove with any certainty, it is likely that American popular culture, which is arguably the most ubiquitous and powerful culture in the world today, arose from this contrarian impulse: ordinary Americans would consciously create a culture that was everything the elitists detested. They would not only welcome the elitists' contempt; they would actively try to foment it. This was how America became engaged in its battle between high culture and low – not by accident but by design.

For someone who apparently is a professor of pop culture, that is a rather odd claim to make at the end, considering that "popular culture" has existed in some form or another for centuries, certainly since the emergence of the printing press helped accelerate the polarization of the literate and the illiterate yet folklore-heavy social groups.  This division into "high" and "popular" culture (which later morphed into "mass culture" in the late 19th century - another point Gabler fails to explore here) is not unique to the United States nor is this division a simple dichotomy of force/opposing force.  There certainly were interminglings of the "high" and "low" that created works that have moved critics and so-called "ordinary readers" alike; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and William Faulkner's works being just the mere tip of the iceberg.  Yet nary a thought given to that aspect of the evolution of American literary and cinematic cultures.

What this meant is that supposed stupidity didn't shape popular culture; rather, popular culture shaped supposed stupidity. At almost every cultural juncture – from travelling variety shows to vaudeville, which was like the English music hall, to movies to television to rock music to gaming today – the elites hectored the general public, shouting that the sky was falling. Everything popular, the elites proclaimed, would subvert American standards and values. Culture was under democratic assault. It couldn't possibly survive the masses.

Gabler's argument is becoming even more strained here.  What actually happened in the majority of the cases he cites was that sections of the "popular" culture revolted against certain developments.  It certainly wasn't the "cultural elites" who had obscenity trials for works by several authors, including James Branch Cabell, James Joyce, Henry Miller, or Vladimir Nabokov.  It certainly isn't the "elites" who campaign to ban books from local or school libraries.  How Gabler could make such an argument and not mention this is beyond me.

For a country that prides itself on its democracy, as America does, there is a long train of literature that is passionately anti-democratic, and not just from the unreconstructed right wing. Sometimes the enemy was democracy itself; sometimes the enemy was the system, as when the Frankfurt School expatriates and other neo-Marxians blamed not the masses but the mass culture industry through which devious capitalists manipulated people – dumbing them down. And sometimes the enemy was just plain obtuseness, which is why critic Dwight Macdonald coined the terms "masscult" and "midcult" to revile not only low culture but also a middle-class culture that had ridiculous pretensions to be higher than low. Today critics are less likely to excoriate popular culture as a whole than its various components – from reality TV shows to popcorn movies to Justin Bieber – but the sentiment remains. Culture needs gatekeepers to protect it from the hoi polloi.

I almost could agree with this, except I would counter by noting that several thinkers, such as Plato and John Stuart Mills (whose thoughts I excerpted in a post yesterday), have worried about the tyrannizing aspects of a democracy that devolves to simple majority rule, with the minority opinions being shut out.  Some might argue what culture needs are those dissenters who don't react in a knee-jerk fashion to latest developments and who emphasize cultural elements that run counter or at least perpendicular to mass cultural trends.  That is the real value of the critic, it seems to me.  Not to have someone rubber stamp an opinion (I do believe Gabler is correct when he notes further on that too often there appears to be too ready of a consensus among those who by dint of education or other status have earned an influential say in affairs), but rather to stop, look around, and question things.

Will the emerging fragmentation of criticism allow this to continue to happen?  That is the troubling question which Gabler's article really fails to address.  After all, the tyranny of mass opinion can be just as oppressive as that of a "gatekeeper's" if there aren't those who dare to consider things from a different vantage point and to urge others to consider those works which might run counter to mass/popular trends.  Innovation does seem to come mostly from those who take the road less traveled and that is just as true for cultural trends as for anything else.


Harry Markov said...

Does this have a point? I think he just babbles on and on. Maybe he should have kept it short and simple?

Larry said...

If that article had been cut in half and most of the points I raised in response had been addressed, it would have been a fine, vapid article. As it reads, it's a rambling, very vapid piece.

Harry Markov said...

I sometimes that people go for length as some sort of proof that they are smart and are making a point. The more people say in some instances, the stupider they sound.

Larry said...

That's in part why I rarely go beyond 1500 words in reviewing anything these days :P

James said...

I go on at length because I am a wordy bastard. I do try to limit my reviews to a thousand words (shorter than that makes me a bit sad), but my last couple have run a bit longer than I expected them to. Closer to two thousand words.

What I'm getting from this article is that this guy laments the critics' inability to brainwash the masses into conforming to their tastes and then goes on to bitch about the US. Am I right? I would see for myself, but I went to the article, saw that it kept going on and on, noticed that it was five in the morning, and decided that it wasn't worth it.

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