Free radicals

George Cotkin in The Chronicle of Higher Ed wrote what amounts to an excellent counter to Sven Birkerts' essay on the worrisome differences in book reviewing vs. blogging (thanks to Flyover for digging it out). Whenever critics hold up the holy days of Clement Greenberg or Edmund Wilson as an ideal from which today's squabbling multitudes of mere reviewers have fallen -- as Mr. Birkerts did -- I begin to balk. In hindsight, for all their supposed influence, they actually held sway over what was actually a very small, New York-based intellectual world -- and not today's much more widespread, multivalent culture. When have any other critics held such influence in recent history? And why would we want such solitary authority again?

As for our supposed decline into nastiness, the vast ocean of reviewing out there is actually quite tepid; the snarkiness is relatively rare, small-Manhattan-pond stuff compared to the bland enthusiasm that prevails elsewhere (see "Hosannah in the lowest: an essay on book reviewing"). Mr. Cotkin, however, takes the opposite approach. Mean-spirited squabbling we've always had with us:

"But before we simply dismiss this bloodletting as part and parcel of an emerging Jerry Springer show of criticism, it might be useful to recall the petty squabbles that drew the circle around the Partisan Review crowd, such as the thunderstorm of controversy that Norman Podhoretz's Making It and Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself evoked years ago. Both works were condemned for announcing that the intellectual world was not immune from careerism, from the desire for success.

There are excesses aplenty today. Do we really need to know about the New Yorker critic David Denby's fling with pornography, as he notes in his confession, American Sucker? Does Nation critic Katha Pollitt need to confess about "Googling" her ex-lover, following his every move? In criticism, no less than in life, sometimes less is more.

Cultural criticism has certainly changed over the years. The old days of the critic who wielded unchallenged authority have happily passed. Ours is a more pluralistic age, one not beholden to a narrow literary culture. Today cultural criticism is alive and well, populated at the top by giants such as Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Richard Rodriguez, Morris Dickstein, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Frederic Jameson: all critics with differing perspectives and concerns. And cultural criticism, more than ever, is percolating up from below. Blogs and Amazon reviews are opening up the cultural space of criticism, offering new possibilities. The literature professor Michael Bérubé offers valuable cultural and political analysis on his blog to about 40,000 visitors a month. Terry Teachout, drama critic for The Wall Street Journal and music critic for Commentary, has a blog, "About Last Night," in which he daily elucidates the thinking process and concerns of the engaged critic of culture."

OK. No problem with all that, although book/daddy has some serious reservations about all those "possibilities" opened up by Amazon's "reviews." More importantly, Mr. Birkerts' main point -- that the different media of literary criticism (online v. print) change the nature of the criticism's effects -- still stands, I maintain.

For example, in his book,, Cass Sunstein cites studies that demonstrate "group polarization" increases online: the way self-identified groups (liberals, conservatives, fans, enemies) tend to shift to more extreme positions under the influence, not only of the more outspoken members of the group, but also the lack of countering voices, moderating evidence. Read the comments to any liberal blog and the "I hate Bush and the Iraq War much more than you" begin to prevail. Read, and watch as the comments rapidly descend into racist insults.

Mr. Cotkin's unexamined invocation of "more democracy" as a final flourish sounds splendid -- "But the solution to the problems of criticism in the present are best not discovered in the musty basements of nostalgia .... Rather the solution is to recognize, as John Dewey did almost a century ago, that the problems of democracy demand more democracy (against the corporatization of culture), less nostalgia for a golden age that never was, and a spirit of openness to what is new and invigorating in our culture" -- and, ironically, he turns to one of those old print authorities, John Dewey, for the line. But his attempt at a stirring conclusion settles for the now-standard webhead celebration of the internet. It brings us increased pluralism, unfettered self-expression, anti-corporate freedom, better hand-eye coordination, significant weight loss and all things good, true and beautiful.

In all this, one must ask, is "more democracy" really a principle to uphold in literary criticism? I'm not saying it isn't in some form, but to be persuasive, to succeed as critics, critics -- as book/daddy has argued -- ultimately must demonstrate a convincing authority. Else, what does a critic have? Why listen to him or her at all?

What's more, the internet itself is not a democracy, despite Mr. Cotkin's easy equation. It's a technology, a medium. It's just as easily a marketplace, a dating service, a swap meet, a rummage sale, a polling service, a pulpit for some pretty ugly ideas, a corporate marketing tool, a government surveillance instrument and so on. So much for all that's "new and invigorating" in our culture. To borrow an observation from Mr. Sunstein, the issue here is not a matter of being "blog positive" or "blog negative" (one of those polarizations that neatly demonstates his point). Those categories don't encompass what's necessary: understanding just what the web is doing to literary discourse.

August 20, 2007 9:50 AM |



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This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on August 20, 2007 9:50 AM.

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