Criticism in the Internet Age

Recently Time Out New York published a special feature on the future of criticism. An assortment of critics, most of them fairly well known (at least locally), opined about the future of criticism in a universe overrun with bloggers. Music critic Alex Ross put it well:

Each [print and online] has its advantages and limitations; together they form a comprehensive picture. I adopt somewhat different styles on my blog and in The New Yorker; I enjoy the distinctions, and I believe it’s a mistake for print publications to try to sound “bloggy” or for blogs to ramble on at magazine length.

He’s right, but the matter goes deeper than style. This may sound counterintuitive, but serious criticism is not fundamentally about opinions. Criticism uses some earthly phenomenon – a work of art or scholarship, a trend, a political or social argument – as a starting point for an exploration of a matter (or matters) whose importance goes beyond the qualities of the material at hand. Endeavoring to shed some trace of new and persuasive light on something, the critic provides a lens, a focal point, for the collective public intellect. And because its ostensible subjects – the music and movies, the politics, the pop-psychology – interest large segments of the general public, criticism is the most important such focal point we have.

Always a fragile creature, the public intellect is presently under fresh assault from various fundamentalisms, pseudosciences, and abuses of power. While nothing new, these anti-thinking forces are potently aligned today, with Western culture under threat from a “foreign” and more violent fundamentalism than its own and from the consequent overreactions on the home front.

The internet is a double-edged sword – while it stimulates thought, it also makes it easy to magnetize large groups of samesayers (hence the Ron Paul phenomenon, among many others). But the internet’s inherently (if imperfectly) democratic nature might end up saving the world. Bloggers, citizen journalists, and enlightened, directed netroots movements are all contributing to a frothing primeval soup of ideas, from which some better-ordered civilizing force has the potential to emerge.

But internet discussion groups and the blogosphere can take us only so far. We need to be able to read, ponder, and discuss in tranquility, bringing our best faculties to bear. Tranquility is one thing the internet cannot provide. (Its very names sound schoolyardish and jumpy… Twitter. Myspace. Flickr. Blog. Feed.) Deeper criticism is a healthy and necessary counterbalance to all the online hustle and bustle. It’s like coming home to a quiet place after dashing through the city streets all day.

That’s not to say serious criticism can’t be found on the internet. Far from it. But it’s the shorter, sharper forms that thrive online. Blogcritics is a perfect example of a web publication that lends itself to this middle ground. Reading a long article, though, is much better done in print. It’s both relaxing and clarifying, something like what scientists theorize is the purpose of sleep – to impose some kind of calm sense upon the day’s maelstrom of chaotic stimuli. If we stop reading (and, of course, writing) any nonfiction that’s too long to comfortably fit in a blog entry, we will lose a crucial part of what makes us productive thinking beings. How can we absorb any nutrients if we don’t digest our food?

Blogging and online socializing, whether casual or intense, probably won’t, and probably can’t, supplant or marginalize serious criticism. Books aren’t going away – they’re more numerous than ever – and print magazines that publish long articles are still churning out the issues. The web is a fount of information, but it can also be a big distraction, and sometimes we need to get away from it.