A critical confusion

Reports of the death of cultural criticism have been greatly muddle-headed.


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Credit: Ronnie Hackston

Perhaps it’s nothing more than pedantry on my part, but I’ve long been frustrated by that widespread tendency to conflate the words ‘critic’ and ‘reviewer’. I’m obviously on the losing side of this battle, since Thesaurus.com lists ‘reviewer’ as a synonym for ‘critic’.

Yet there is surely a crucial distinction to be made between the two terms. The reviewer offers a consumer guide, recommending or warning against the latest films, books, plays, etc. The critic, on the other hand, offers analysis and interpretation.

The essential difference relates to the audiences addressed by these discourses. The reviewer addresses a reader who is assumed to be unfamiliar with the work under discussion, and is wondering whether or not to seek it out. The critic addresses a reader who is assumed to be familiar with the work, and is interested in seeing what somebody else made of it.

Needless to say, the distinction is rarely clear-cut: all reviews involve an element of criticism, and all criticism is at least implicitly a review. Those texts that appear in Sight & Sound under the heading ‘Reviews’ seem to me to combine reviewing with criticism, and it is hardly surprising that readers frequently take the magazine to task for including ‘spoilers’ in this section.

Yet these complaints also suggest a lack of knowledge concerning criticism’s function. The objection made by certain individuals is not that they have encountered a piece of criticism where they might reasonably have expected to find a review, but rather that they believe criticism as a practice should limit itself to those elements which do not clash with the objectives of the reviewer.

Fundamental questions about the nature of today’s culture and our relationship to it are involved in this misunderstanding. Consider Will Self’s review of Mark Kermode’s book Hatchet Job, which appeared in the print edition of the Guardian on 12 October (and online three days earlier). Self complains that, although Mark Kermode realises how, “in the age of the internet and the worldwide web”, the critic’s role is changing, he is nonetheless “unable to grasp the full extent of the change”.

Self is eager to set us straight on this point, yet his remarks on the death of criticism (not to mention cinema, literature and music) are rendered more than a little problematic by the fact that he clearly isn’t discussing criticism at all. What he’s discussing is reviewing. One wonders if he has even heard of André Bazin, Noël Burch, Serge Daney, V.F. Perkins, Laura Mulvey, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Raymond Bellour, Nicole Brenez, Robin Wood or Andrew Britton and, if he is aware of them, how they relate to his apocalyptic theories.

For make no mistake, Self’s vision is an apocalyptic one. Although he doesn’t actually say “Après moi, le déluge”, he paints a strikingly vivid picture of what awaits us a few years hence, when the youngsters who “cannot read a text for more than a few minutes without texting… and who can sometimes find even cinema difficult to take unless it comes replete with electronic feedback loops” are running the show.

Of course, Self wishes to be perceived as ‘hip’ – he may no longer be a teenager himself, but he can still ‘get down’ with them – so he adopts a neutral tone in which his dire warnings pass as judgement-free predictions concerning the direction we are heading in. Perhaps, implies Self, all those texters with their Spacebook pages and Twittering accounts will ultimately create a culture different from, but not necessarily inferior to, our own.

Self mentions Kermode’s acknowledgement that “film criticism under the aegis of the web has become more a conversation than a series of declarations”, but takes him to task for failing to comprehend that “films also may become dialogic”.

‘Dialogic’ seems to be a term nicely free of negative connotations, though by preceding it with the words “may become”, Self makes me wonder if he ever watches anything screened outside the confines of his local multiplex. It is difficult to believe that he is familiar with the work of, for example, Jean-Luc Godard, who started making ‘dialogic’ films two years before Self’s birth. Films such as Godard’s Film socialisme (2010) and Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere (2010) are perfectly in tune with modern ‘dialogic’ sensibilities, yet also manage to suggest that ‘dialogic’ texts are not necessarily incompatible with the kind of unironic emotional commitment demanded by classical narrative works. And it is worth noting that both films were made by directors in their late 70s.

By comparison, and despite his protestations of neutrality, the relatively youthful Self sounds like a Scooby-Doo villain complaining that cinema would have been just fine if it weren’t for those meddling kids…

Self’s cultural ignorance is what ultimately renders his Grand Theory incoherent. Its flaws follow on logically from his initial error: that of equating film criticism with the output of whoever happens to be writing reviews for the daily newspapers. Which is to say that he is as seemingly unfamiliar with Bazin as he is with Godard, and can conceive of only two possible functions for criticism: either “[helping] us to discriminate between ‘better’ and ‘worse’ or ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ monetised cultural forms”, or “[telling] us if our precious time will be wasted”. He will undoubtedly be surprised to learn that many of us read criticism for precisely the same reason we watch films, listen to music, and read novels: because we hope to be given insight into and a better understanding of the world in which we live.

Self insists that criticism “will soon belong only to the academy and the museum”. While this might well prove to be the eventual fate of reviewing, it seems reasonable to assume that there will always be a readership for criticism, just as there will always be an audience for cinema. What, after all, is a great narrative work of art (whether ‘dialogic’ or not) if it isn’t a criticism of the culture that produced it?

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