Death of the Professional Critic (?) 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 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.


  1. iheartralphnad

    Perhaps the death of the literary critic as the literary critic has previously been defined is what’s doing the most dying: print mediums have obviously opted to save money by printing less reviews, which causes migration to the internet. But the migration to the internet transforms the “reviewiese” into more accessible language by nature of necessity. I myself struggle to find a balance between using the precise jargon I’ve learned and striking a readability balance, and blogging + the internet world makes a more liberal balance possible.

    So maybe it’s more like the redefinition of critic than death…

  2. Aaron H

    What occurs to me is something that was already touched on by the first comment, that the Internet is a different kind of medium, that people are not used to working with in the same way that they do literature, fine art, or other older media.

    Steve Krug in his book “Don’t Make Me Think” (the title itself should be a little telling right) uses the metaphor of a driving by a billboard at 60 miles per hour as a guide to desinging for the web. IF, in fact many web pages are designed that shallowly, how is one supposed to have a “profound experience with a profound artifact”?

    I am pretty sure I’m not going to have a profound experience with my bank’s website, but I do get pissed off by it (and I’m not just talking about my low balances) hence we want more usable services.

    A profound experience with YouTube? Perhaps, but is that because it is essentially another medium just barely mutated into a new form?

    I can see WoW as a profound artifact due to it’s immersive, socially constructed nature, but I’m having a hard time seeing regular web pages as such.

    I guess what I’m proposing is that as a medium many web pages simply aren’t worthy of the kind of criticism you propose. I also wonder about criticism of this kind with MSOffice, but I’d love for a counterexample.

    Overall I like this post as a call to action, a reason why interaction criticism is an important endeavor, but I’d like to see what you about which kinds of things are worthy of such criticism. Love your multi-part series on how to do it too.

  3. poststructuralism

    […] about the story or, more specifically, dialogue between its two main critics and the topi Structuralism is appealing to some critics because it […]

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