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  The Death of the Critic
Rónán McDonald

Michael Savage
posted 21 January 2008

This is one of the best short interventions in the so-called ‘culture wars’. McDonald’s careful and engaged critique defends the idea of criticism through a historical discussion of the critics’ changing role, dealing on the way with the ‘democratisation’ of criticism aided by the internet, and its obscurantist elevation into self-reflection by post-structuralists.

The strongest and most distinctive contribution of this book is the claim that we all gain from a culture that respects criticism as vocation: ‘For all the supposed emancipation implicit in the pronouncement “we’re all critics now”, the loss of critical authority, of knowledgeable arbiters with some influence on public attention, actually diminishes the agency and choice of the reader’ (p17). He notes that the decline of professional criticism coincides with the promotion of a narrower range of popular hits by publishers and booksellers pandering to untutored tastes, and conversely some of the most creative periods of cultural production coincide with a more exalted respect for criticism.

McDonald offers a rich conception of criticism that resists caricature as an aloof and prejudiced activity. He notes that criticism reflects upon itself as well as its objects: ‘One important feature of criticism is its habit of considering its own proper agency and purpose, doubling back on itself to ask the question what it should be doing. This means that not only does criticism snap at other people, it can also readily turn on itself. Criticism has theory running through its veins, much more so than many of the refuseniks of modern “Theory” might like to think’ (p42).

It is a sophisticated argument that recognises the relative autonomy of the critical, rather than treating it as a mere adjunct to the creative process or handmaiden to the market. Criticism is part of a cultural dialogue; a strong critical voice is crucial in a vibrant culture, with writer and critic in a tense but symbiotic relationship.

McDonald shows a better understanding of the critical context than some of his allies, carefully distinguishing structuralism, poststructuralism and cultural studies, which are too often treated as the same thing, as a litany of nastiness that the civilised ought to avoid. But this strength segues into weakness when it diverts the book from its polemical purpose; McDonald is sometimes too brusquely dismissive of theoretical traditions whose depth and sophistication qualifies them for more careful treatment than they receive here.

Some shortcuts are needed in such a short book covering so much ground, but sometimes the cuts go too deep. His claim that art before Kant was ‘decorative’ (p60) is too controversial to pass without justification, and thinkers such as Habermas are summarised with too much brevity to add anything meaningful to the argument. It is also irritating that this critique follows the trendy but barbarous usage of ‘critique’ as a verb.

Sometimes McDonald is guilty of a certain myopia in his pursuit of evidence for decline. There is a crescendo of polemics on the culture wars vying for the most outlandish characterisation of the threats to civilisation, and the participants are too often guilty of an ecstasy of back-scratching when they review one another’s books. This uncritical adulation unwittingly makes McDonald’s own point about the virtue of criticism: that it spurs writers to greater achievement as an integral part of the cultural firmament. The reverse is also true; uncritical enthusiasm excuses oversimplified analysis and blunt argumentation.

McDonald’s is still one of the best books on the subject, but the line of decline that he traces is sometimes too firm for my taste. The claim that, 'Eliot and Leavis may have wanted to re-jig the canon somewhat, but the idea of objective or disinterested aesthetic value marked the study of the arts until the late 1960s' (p70) does not do justice to contestation of ‘objective’ value judgements that has always characterised aesthetic debate.

The absence of a Leavis or Tynan for our times also needs to be taken in context. Some periods are more conducive to the development of critical understanding than others, and there have been periods of great artistic achievement despite criticism being formulaic or non-existent. It behoves McDonald to say more about film and television criticism in particular, given that television has developed into a serious cultural form relatively recently. Moreover, important philosophers such as Stanley Cavell and Slavoj Zizek have also engaged in serious film and television criticism.

McDonald’s own recommendations, such as integrating literary criticism more into creative writing, seem anaemic and artificial. There is more to be said about certain positive signs in the critical firmament, and there is room for a more refined critique of the assault on critical authority. But as an impassioned defence of the critic’s worth, this important book is hard to beat.

 

     
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