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The myth of critical distance

Morgan Meis, an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, wrote recently about the changing role of criticism in a world in which anyone can publish their opinions.

The blogosphere and social networking sites allow anyone to communicate tastes and opinions directly to those people with whom an outlook is already shared. Criticism is essentially bottom-up now, whereas it used to be practically the definition of top-down. The audience does not look to an external authority to find out what to think — it looks to itself.

In response, critics have become bemoaners. It seems that every week a new article comes out lamenting the state of criticism in field X, Y, or Z. The critics are bemoaning the state of their craft, bemoaning the state of contemporary culture, bemoaning the fate of the world. A few centuries ago the intellectual world trembled at the steps of Samuel Johnson. More recently, careers were ended by a few words from Oscar Wilde or Walter Lippman. A generation of Americans checked in with H.L. Mencken on a daily basis to figure out what they thought about any given subject. Most of these figures were angry and disdainful to some degree or other. But they were not bemoaners. They stood confidently atop the world and proclaimed. Generally they deemed most things worthless. On occasion, they would nominate a work or a person to greatness. A critic who tries to stand that tall today looks anachronistic and slightly foolish. No one is listening. No one cares who the critics are anointing or scorning.

This seems pretty indisputable, across the arts, though I still have a hard time fathoming why anyone would get worked up about it. Yes, old-style criticism, where middlebrow tastemakers anointed the greats with well-phrased encomiums that urged us into the warm bath of literary greatness, has been by and large replaced by hype and word-or-mouth marketing, which lets us know which cultural figures we should be developing an opinion about. And we should see this an awful triumph of philistinism, since hype is driven by commercial imperatives rather than the discriminating, independent perspective of the critic. But how independent are critics, ultimately? Isn't a large part of their game trying to monopolize the ability to make taste, to improve their own brand? And critics often try to remove themselves, absurdly, from the fray of cultural participation to burnish their claims to eternal objectivity. But as Meis points out, this has always been a dubious pose, a reaction to their irrelevance.

On the face of it, there aren’t many options. You can protest and wait for better times. You can try to hold the clock back as strenuously as you’re able. But this comes at a huge cost. It means, essentially, refusing to participate in the culture of your time. Critics have, traditionally, prided themselves in a certain amount of distance. There’s even a name for it: “critical distance.” To some extent this distance was always an illusion, the byproduct of a metaphysics that saw mind and world as fully separate and staring at one another from across an epistemological abyss. But more importantly, people believed that critical distance was possible and that they were achieving it. This self-perception was enough to fuel the practice from at least the early Enlightenment until some time in the middle of the last century.... The following years did not see a new race of giant critics so much as a slow withering. The critics today are a largely tremulous lot, beholden to popular opinion on one side or, on the other, to fancified jargon borrowed from the academy and applied to generally humorous if tiresome effect. Criticism thus finds itself parroting the opinions that everyone held anyway or spouting from a grab bag of “high theory” that invariably makes little sense and is but a desperate plea for legitimacy. A cry for help when all ears are deaf.

Trying to maintain critical distance today is thus a practice in self-alienation. The distance might as well be infinite. The proclamations might as well be made in outer space.

This is how I felt as a record reviewer, making these untethered pronouncements, anchored to no particular point of view in an effort to represent all possible ones. I felt my own perferences slipping away from me, and ended up despising just about everything. It all felt like a burden to have to process it all.

But writers starting out seem to take the fruitlessness of speaking for the world for granted now, and they write fully aware that their opinion will be aggregated, and that the goal should to be to condensate their opinion into one easily quotable line.

Meis suggests another alternative, that critical discourse become a parallel art form, that interpenetrates other works rather than worship works perceived as hermetically sealed.

Accepting the metaphor of closeness means accepting that this participation is a two way street and that art and criticism collapse into one another and interpenetrate all over the place. Moving from art to criticism and criticism to art is moving along a level plane. That's to say, you have to get excited about moving horizontally. The days of distance are behind us.

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