Salon.com today has published a story on the recent book by Ronan McDonald, The Death of the Critic. I have not read the book, but I have some comments about the Salon.com story (or, more specifically, dialogue between its two main critics) and the topic in general. The primary thesis of the book seems to be that cultural criticism, and in particular postmodernism and its variants, have killed the literary critic because of their relativist attitude toward value. If a critic is not allowed to say that this book is better than that book, then the primary function of a critic is removed and of course the profession collapses.
The two critics at Salon, Louis Bayard and Laura Miller, explore other candidate culprits for this state of affairs. These include changes in media production and consumption patterns, such as the decline of the novel as a dominant medium, and in particular the decline of the modernist novel, which is hard to read and needs explaining from critics.
All of these explanations for the so-called death of the literary critic sound plausible. I have long lamented that literary studies has been shooting itself in the foot for decades by making the case for its own irrelevance in comically inaccessible language. That said, I also continue to affirm that ours is a society that needs criticism, and while my colleagues in literary studies sometimes drive me crazy, at least they still take criticism seriously and develop it theoretically and methodologically.
And this brings me to my point. If the literary critic is threatened above all because the value of literature in contemporary society (for many possible reasons) clearly isn’t as evident as it once was, there are works of culture whose value is. I am of course talking about works of design, and because I am in HCI, I especially focus on interaction design.
No one could doubt that interaction designs, such as Windows, Word, Excel, Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft, Facebook, YouTube, and Google have cultural value. Of course, “value” is a criminally vague word, but for the purposes of this post, I don’t need to engage with it. Whether value is cultural, economic, or social; whether a work’s apparent value is ultimately overwhelmed by socially benevolent or malignant implications; whether it quietly promotes the good of a dominant social or economic class; whether it is aesthetic (e.g., self-transcending, enlightening, etc.) or prurient; and so on ad nauseam: aren’t these exactly the judgments that critics and criticism should help us negotiate?
Yet criticism in interaction design is impoverished. Read (1) a review of a software application or video game alongside (2) a review of a work of serious fiction, and the difference is painfully visible. The former is largely objective–product features, bugs, polygon counts, load times, compatibility, frame rates. The literary review often includes a plot summary (and a disturbing recent trend overemphasizes this) but beyond that a sense for a thoughtful interpretive account of how that reader–an expert reader who has read thousands of books and thought about them–experienced that book, and how it became incorporated into her personal literary consciousness.
In doing so, the critic not only helps the reader (of the review) understand the value of the book as a work of art, but the critic also models the act of reading literature. Even expert readers of serious fiction read criticism; actually, I suspect expert readers read more criticism than anyone else. Many great critics are celebrated generations after their death–Johnson, Coleridge, Hazlitt, Leavis. The reason is simple: criticism, like literature itself, is enriching and enlightening.
Is there a discipline whereby experts cultivate, share, and theorize on their subjective experience of interaction designs? It certainly isn’t HCI, which struggles to get past task analysis and user satisfaction. What are the appropriate categories by which to judge the experience of a viral video on YouTube, a Second Life fashion line, an illuminating data visualization, or an entertaining World of Warcraft raid?
Ethnographers study software users, from Adobe Photoshop Elements to World of Warcraft. That’s great. They should. They help the industry understand how regular users use, experience, and ultimately appropriate these technologies. But ethnography and criticism, though both systematically and rigorously explore the subjective experience of culture, are not the same thing. Criticism, unlike ethnography, makes no effort to interpret members of a culture with the purpose of deriving an understanding or symbolic representation of that group or culture (though it often studies cultures to understand a work). Criticism is above all the act of a single expert to cultivate her capacity for literary experience through a profound encounter with a profound artifact. It is directed at anyone else who likewise is cultivating literary (or some other form of aesthetic) pleasure, from students to lifelong readers, in hopes of achieving that moment of illumination, transcendence, or empathy that art give us.
I’ve had that moment in World of Warcraft. But good luck finding about that at Gamespot, which is arguably the best video game review site anywhere. Its World of Warcraft review is long, well written, and generously substantive. But is it criticism? Not by a mile.
The professional critic may well be dead, but if so, it’s not for any particularly good reason. Instead, criticism has become overly bound to an arbitrarily small number of media (modernist novels, Hollywood film), and as technology and society move from one medium to another–as they always have–oddly this time criticism doesn’t appear to be moving along with them. Those of us with a foot in both worlds need to help change that.