Politics and Art in the Digital Age, Part 3: Ruthless Criticism

Part three of my discussion on criticism in the digital age. Check out parts one and two.

Recently New York Times film critic A.O. Scott published this lament.

Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, I’ve been waiting for “The Grapes of Wrath.” Or maybe “A Raisin in the Sun,” or “Death of a Salesman,” a Zola novel or a Woody Guthrie ballad — something that would sum up the injustices and worries of the times, and put a human face on the impersonal movements of history. The originals are all still around, available for revival and rediscovery and part of a robust artistic record of hard times past. But we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us.

What if the reason why we don’t have a Grapes of Wrath of our own is that we don’t have the means to recognize it when we see it? 

Scott is unsure where to look. "Should we be looking high or low? At sitcoms or science-fiction allegories or realist dramas?" In an age of digital reproduction, there are a lot of places to look. Digital culture offers a far greater variety of cultural objects for study, which is good. The problem is that variety doesn't offer a greater chance that we can find the book (or film or whateveer) that will capture the zeitgeist. Just the opposite. The essential text will always be the one we're not reading or watching or listening to at the moment. The essential text will always be a click away. 

We must learn to have the courage to stop looking elsewhere and take a hard look at what we already have. We need to become more like the critics of the Partisan Review. They never equivocated about what novels they thought were important. 

Although it was founded in 1934, the journal didn't find its footing until around the time The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939. The journal's founding editors, William Phillips and Philip Rahv, staked out a position against the middlebrow leftists who came to dominate liberal discourse in the late 1930s. The Partisan Review offered more bracing liberalism than the warmed-over Stalinism of the pre-war years, and after a cataclysmic—but now perplexing—dispute over the US’s role in World War II, the journal found its sweet spot in late Modernism and (somewhat) reconstructed Trotskyism. The journal’s peak years, roughly between 1941 and 1960, were distinguished more by a critical attitude than a concerted critical approach. The typical Partisan Review essay bristled with intellectual energy and political combativeness. Fighting for one’s ideas wasn’t a polemical stance, it was a reason for being. 

By the 1960s American popular culture had drifted leftward while New York intellectual culture lost some of its verve, settling into a Great Society moderation. Commentary stole some of the Partisan Review's political thunder, and academic criticism had a bigger toolbox. Quarrelsomeness had gone out of style. It ceased publication in 2003.

The Partisan Review critics were a faction that assumed a certain authority based on a political stance toward American culture as a whole. They didn’t traffic in listicles. They would have been appalled at the use of algorithms to map out culture. They had a coherent world view that you either bought into or you didn’t. They placed artworks in context so that one could see human suffering caused by economic forces. And they weren't afraid to say, "this book matters."

To be sure, not everything the Partisan Review critics did should be emulated. Their view of American culture was too narrow. They were not always wise about the fights they picked. Some people were put off by the way they had opinions about everything, but I think that was one of their strengths. To my mind the Partisan Review can teach us how to practice the best kind of liberal criticism, what Marx called "ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be." 

To return to my original question–how can Walter Benjamin help us understand digital culture?–I think the starting point is his seminal 1936 essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." I don't think there's any way to talk about digital culture without considering reproducibility. Like the Partisan Review critics, Benjamin was chiefly a literary critic. I have a PhD in English, so I'm prejudiced, but only literary criticism has the intellectual breadth to handle the prolixity of digital texts. Unlike the Partisan Review critics, Benjamin didn't overlook popular culture. Benjamin's allegorical criticism, his ability to draw correspondences between something in a litrary work and something else in economic history, is just as relevant now as it was in the 1930s. 

One aspect of Benjamin's criticism, though, strikes me as dated. He could be esoteric, especially early in his career. Partly that's because he was such a solitary thinker, and partly because he lived at a slower time that allowed for long ruminations on art. For better or for worse, criticism in the digital age has to take place in the public sphere. And it has to be fast–but not too fast as to get swept up by the wrong meme. We need a dash of Brechtian crude thinking to cut through the cruft of digital culture. And we can't be afraid to argue what's essential to our time.

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