Monday, 19 October 2009

Write your own review!

Somewhere among my collection of books is a copy of Alasdair MacIntyre's little study for the Fontana Modern Masters series of the life and thought of Marcuse (bear with me here). I don't remember anything about reading it beyond the fact that it actually belongs to a former college friend who I'm no longer - for uninteresting reasons - in contact with. And I remember that because of the comments he wrote all over it.
MacIntyre is hostile to Marcuse, declaring at the outset that basically all his ideas are "false", which probably isn't a helpful stance to take toward a thinker you're summarising and simplifying for an implied readership of amateurs and students. An introductory book like this doubtless requires a position of neutrality, real or assumed, in the specialist doing the presenting, since if Marcuse or another really is wrong it's going to be for complex and recondite reasons, and this isn't the forum to air those. But MacIntyre was writing in 1970, after several years of campus unrest enacted to a degree in the name of the theories of One Dimensional Man, and Marcuse's influence may have seemed so great and pernicious to him that he was unable to cite his theories without trying to demolish them.
My college friend, reading the book in the late 1980s, was almost inevitably more sympathetic to Marcuse than to he who had come to bury him. Consequently a chapter of MacIntyre's exegesis concludes with the scribbled comment, in pencil: "superficial rubbish". When MacIntyre describes Marcuse's style as incantatory and devoid of reasoning my friend scrawled in the margin: "if you are spiritually dead". And so on - you get the idea. The digimodernist point of course is that in the late 2000s there is no motivation or need to hunt for one's pencil: you go online and vent your spleen there. And it cuts both ways: if your mother or father once defaced their library books with the words "Great!" or "Love it!", these days you go on to Amazon and write a "customer review", describing the author's style and message, his/her background and qualifications for writing, and recommending that a certain kind of reader purchase it.
In the pre-digital age there was a clear distinction between the reader and the critic. The reader would read for pleasure and give up on a book that was proving a pain, and would keep their reactions to themselves (pretty much). The critic would read from professional duty, often trudging through tedious material, and would read in order to speak or write, that is, their reading would imply a spoken or written reiteration of the book's meaning or importance or qualities to be made at a later date. The digital age conflates the two roles: by commenting on blogs or reviewing for Amazon or the IMDb or Metacritic or by going on message boards to respond to newspaper articles, you are making yourself a critic in the latter sense, that is, you are investing your reading with the future option of critiquing or evaluating the text in question. However, the people who publish their textual responses in this professionalized manner tend to do so with the mind of readers: as a result, for instance, Amazon customer reviews mostly give the minimum or the maximum number of stars to their texts - in other words, they are ways of shouting either "supeficial rubbish" or "love it!", which are readers' reactions. In short, digimodernism creates the individual who reads like a reader and publishes their responses for the whole world to peruse like a critic. What do we call this new synthesis - a readic? a criter? Neither sounds very positive.
This development is different from the emergence of online reviewers like book slut who are allegedly driving print journalists out of a job. There is a fairly small number of such people, who turn their voracious reading habit into a self-publishing venture. What I am referring to is far more widespread, the sort of spontaneous and emotional declarations that my friend was inspired to by reading Marcuse vs MacIntyre, but unable to share with the planet.
This post then is self-referential, or textually narcissistic, since it relates in part to the comments that some people or maybe you (dear Reader!) can append or have appended to this blog. Every writer wants only positive feedback, or, in Martin Amis's wonderfully sarcastic phrase, wants "to be received like the Warrior Christ half an hour before Armageddon". But it is in the nature of a publication to receive criticism, as it is in the nature of a child to make its own enemies. As the author of Digimodernism, however, I feel I have the right to expect a certain dimension from online criticism, whether it be worshipful or contemptuous or anywhere in between. I can expect that it show a critical awareness of its own special textual conditions. You have the right to think that my book is rubbish, but by going online to say so you must realize that you are confirming or instantiating one of its arguments, which is not something that can be said of any of Amazon's 847 customer reviews of The God Delusion. Simply by placing your fingers on your keyboard you are engaging with what I call digimodernism, even if you despise Digimodernism. Your review, then, is foreseen by the text you are critiquing: your critique of it is, to a certain extent, what the book is actually about. For instance, in chapter 2 I describe the digimodernist text as typically characterized by anonymous or pseudonymous authorship, and as tending to invective or abuse as a result (try, if you feel up to it, YouTube's comments pages, unspeakable and seething cauldrons of bile and hate). You may think that I'm talking superficial rubbish, but taking a pseudonymous name and pouring out a lot of invective or abuse just confirms what I am saying, though in a rather worthless fashion. As a response it's structurally self-contradictory. If I'm wrong, you're going to have to try harder than that to show it.
What I'd like to see happen is this. Web 2.0 enables, as is well known, everyone to become a published writer, and the 21st century is the golden age of the self-appointed critic who is busy sending out his or her critiques and evaluations for the world to see. I would like the ideal spirit of the professional critic to come to inflect the writings of these readers-turned critics (and I say that knowing that much, perhaps most, actual professional criticism is scarcely worth using to wrap chips up in): knowledgeable, proportionate, judicious, contextualizing, fair, sympathetic (as much as possible), and so on.
I would also like to see a code by which all anonymous or pseudonymous criticism is treated as the digital equivalent of pressing someone 's doorbell and running away, as antisocial and immature. If you're not prepared to show your face, to put yourself on the line, then what you have to say is of no value. In the Milgram experiment carried out in 1961 volunteers who were ordered to by an authority figure (a scientist) willingly administered what they believed to be fatal electric shocks to unseen victims once they believed that they would not be held responsible for the effects. Milgram saw this, understandably in the aftermath of the death camps and at the start of the 1960s, as shedding light on the human tendency to mindless obedience to authority figures. However, it also suggests that a fairly large proportion of the population will happily carry out sadistic acts if assured that they will never be held responsible for them. The viciousness of much pseudonymous copy on Web 2.0 would seem further confirmation of this.
So write your own review! Every (wo)man a critic! But remember that those who judge are subject to judgment too.
I also fondly remember the college friend who confused Marcuse with Mark Hughes...

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