Bloggers, Hobbits, and Architectural Critics

Iker Gil of MAS Context forwards on this post from Shannon Mattern of The New School about the role of bloggers in architectural discourse. Geoff Manaugh (BLDGBLOG) and other bloggers come under fire again for being both outsiders (because they don’t do scholarship with primary materials) and insiders. (The editorial remarks are in the original.)

There’s no little [Ed., 11/14: okay, critique is not nonexistent, but it’s scarce] apparent constructive “critique culture” among architectural bloggers. Yes, bloggers can of course be critical of the stuff they’re writing about, but who’s launched a serious critique of the bloggers themselves or the blogging enterprise — or of all the other “other spaces” of design discourse: the peripheral publications and labs and collectives? We have an opportunity to be critical of the role that Manaugh and the Archinect folks and others play in shaping architectural discourse. We have an opportunity to look critically at the net politics of the cLAB / NetLab / Volume (all Columbia-supported; I’d love to take a peek at GSAPP‘s books!) / New Museum nexus. Yet all we get is boosterism. Fawning reviews. Beverage company-sponsored downtown gatherings in who-knows-how-they-can-afford-this? penthouse studios. Chuckles over the cleverness of it all. Critical comments (critical not only of the argument being made, but also of the blogging practice or platform) posted to one’s blog are typically immediately (and sometimes ungraciously) rebutted [Ed., 11/14: Manaugh actually called me a “xenophobic” “Gollum-like figure” — so we’re pulling out the Hobbit attacks, are we?].

Scroll down to find Manaugh’s response in the comments section, in which he clarifies his Gollum remark.

There are a number of issues at work here. None of them are unique to writing about architecture and design, nor are they particular to bloggers. The rise of online media has initiated a vast renegotiation of the contract between writer and reader. We’re a long way from settling those negotiations. (For a discussion specifically about architectural writing, see Javier Arbona’s essay in MAS Context.) Yet despite this upheaval, constants remain. Authority in writing still depends on access–to archives, to primary texts, to industry insiders, to readers, to the eyes and ears of one’s peers. Ideally, a critic would have free access to all of these sources of power, but as a practical matter, that’s never possible. Film critics, for example, know they gain access to industry insiders at the cost of the respect of their peers. Academics (and practitioners) may skillfully cultivate influence within their fields, yet they must depend on others to gain a readership.

Whether criticism is practiced by a staff writer or a university professor or a blogger, the role of criticism doesn’t change. Criticism as we know it arose in the eighteenth century, when artists freed themselves from the patronage system and entered the marketplace. Critics informed the public about which paintings were worth purchasing, which books worth reading, which design worth building. Not surprisingly, the reasoning and motives behind these choices were frequently questioned. Nevertheless, it’s not possible to dispense with critics. They’re necessary when everyone is a freelancer.

Squabbles over the sources of authority are as old as criticism. Arguments may be confusing or exasperating for readers, but they remind us that there are different kinds of critics with differing claims to authority. Argumentation is what keeps the whole enterprise vital. But I’m not sure that Hobbit attacks help very much.

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