Professional Critics vs. Participatory Culture

by on September 6, 2007 · 8 comments

Clay Shirky is one of my favorite commentators about the economic and social changes that the Internet is bringing to the media world. Last year I linked to his fantastic essays on the folly of micropayments. Last month, Shirky wrote this excellent post about what’s wrong with the Nick Carr brand of Internet old-fogeyism:

Prior to unlimited perfect copyability, media was defined by profound physical and economic constraints, and now it’s not. Fewer constraints and better matching of supply and demand are good for business, because business is not concerned with historical continuity. Fewer constraints and better matching of supply and demand are bad for current culture, because culture continually mistakes current exigencies for eternal verities.

This isn’t just Carr of course. As people come to realize that freedom destroys old forms just as surely as it creates new ones, the lament for the long-lost present is going up everywhere. As another example, Sven Birkerts, the literary critic, has a post in the Boston Globe, Lost in the blogosphere, that is almost indescribably self-involved. His two complaints are that newspapers are reducing the space allotted to literary criticism, and too many people on the Web are writing about books. In other words, literary criticism, as practiced during Birkerts’ lifetime, was just right, and having either fewer or more writers are both lamentable situations.

In order that the “Life was better when I was younger” flavor of his complaint not become too obvious, Birkerts frames the changing landscape not as a personal annoyance but as A Threat To Culture Itself. As he puts it “…what we have been calling “culture” at least since the Enlightenment — is the emergent maturity that constrains unbounded freedom in the interest of mattering.”

This is silly. The constraints of print were not a product of “emergent maturity.” They were accidents of physical production. Newspapers published book reviews because their customers read books and because publishers took out ads, the same reason they published pieces about cars or food or vacations. Some newspapers hired critics because they could afford to, others didn’t because they couldn’t. Ordinary citizens didn’t write about books in a global medium because no such medium existed. None of this was an attempt to “constrain unbounded freedom” because there was no such freedom to constrain; it was just how things were back then.

One of the core tenets of the “Internet is ruining culture” thesis seems to be that most people aren’t qualified to produce culture, and so they should shut up and consume what the officially recognized experts churn out for them. During the second half of the 20th century, Birkerts was a member of this exclusive club, producing the culture that most Americans had no choice but to passively consume. That position of influence and authority no doubt was a great source of personal satisfaction. Moreover, it was probably true that the Boston Globe performed a valuable filtering function, ensuring that (mostly) the best stuff got printed and the rest didn’t.

But as satisfying as it is to have a large captive audience who have to take whatever you dish out, I think Bikerts is mistaken to think that the world is divided into two classes of people, a beknigted few who like to produce culture and the great unwashed masses who only wish to consume it. Quite the contrary, there are a lot of people who enjoy producing culture (even not-very-good culture) of their own as much as they enjoy consuming other peoples’ culture. There are a lot of people out there who aren’t especially interested in opening their morning papers and reading about whatever book Bikerts happens to have read this week. They find the participatory culture of the web, in which they have hundreds of reviews to choose from, and can write their own reviews if they think the existing reviewers are missing the boat, much more enjoyable.

Bikerts’s complaint, at root, seems to be that he’s no longer the center of attention. He doesn’t say that exactly, choosing instead to talk about “the self-constituted group of those who have made it their purpose to do so.” But clearly one of his main objections is that the riff-raff are paying attention to each other’s opinions instead of those of him and his colleagues.

Now, it may very well be true that the average quality of literary criticism will decline as more people become amateur critics. But I don’t think that’s a problem. The good critics will still be out there, and anyone who wants to read them will be free to do so. However, as literary critics of all people should understand, the process of producing culture is at least as satisfying as the process of consuming it. Hence, the far more important result of the Web is that there will be a lot more opportunities for aspiring literary critics to find an audience, however small, and to experience the satisfaction of having others read and respond to your work. That increase in satisfaction for tens of thousands of amateur critics is far more important than the modest reduction in prominence suffered by professional culture critics.

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