Reviews for consumption convenience

I understand what Jason Kottke is getting at in this post, but it still struck me as unsettling. He argues that the “new rules for reviewing media” are that reviewers should primarily discuss the convenience of consumption (what formats it is in, how easy is it to carry around, etc.) rather than the success of a work’s content, which he seems to regard as a pure matter of personal taste and not apparently not something reviewers of any sort — “citizen” or professional — would have anything useful to say about.

In the end, people don’t buy content or plots, they buy physical or digital pieces of media for use on specific devices and within certain contexts.

That seems to suggest that ease of consumption is the only thing purchasers care about; device integration has trumped aesthetic experience altogether, or worse, using your devices is the aesthetic experience. This seems like designer sensibility run amok. Kottke argues that “Packaging is important. We judge books by their covers and even by how much they weigh (heavy books make poor subway/bus reading). Format matters.” And that’s true. But one doesn’t need a critic to point those things out. And that doesn’t mean those concerns are not superficial; it’s not as though all texts delivered to Kindles are the same because the medium is the message. Format is not synonymous with form; in some ways format denotes the material aspects of a work the maker doesn’t ultimately control or care about when they are done shaping the form of a work. Discussion of form is interesting; discussion of format can be thoroughly exhaustive in a parenthesis under the title. The idea that I would want to read more about that in the text of the review itself seems nuts to me.

This may be a question of how the difference between reviews and criticism is evolving. If Kottke and his ilk have their way, reviews will be about the hydraulics of consumption — how fast cultural goods can be pumped through the media we have encrusted ourselves with and how well the goods will serve as lifestyle accouterments. Criticism will recede into recondite elaborations of personal experiences with the goods, as the idea of trying to capture a consensus view will have disappeared completely from public discourse. Public discourse itself seems sort of threatened anyway, subject to replacement by social networks. Lost will be that middle ground of critical reviews, which help establish a context of reception that makes our engagement with something far richer and more meaningful.