A Very Strange Moment

Writing about the imminent shuttering of the TV show At the Movies, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott is a little anxious about the future of criticism:

Maybe criticism mattered once, but the conventional wisdom insists that it doesn’t any more. There used to be James Agee, and now there is Rotten Tomatoes. Rotten movies routinely make huge sums of money in spite of the demurral of critics. Where once reasoned debate and knowledgeable evaluation flourished, there are now social networking and marketing algorithms and a nattering gaggle of bloggers.

Thinking about the Internet and literary discourse, University of Chicago English professor Bill Brown is a little anxious about the future of criticism too:

I think one of the problems with digital access to information in general, and lots of people have said this, is it’s difficult to know, especially it’s difficult to know for the people not in a given field, the validity of the information that they’re in the midst of sifting through.

I say a little anxious because their overall tone is optimistic, and they share two reasons why (besides the fact that they’re both still gainfully employed): They’re not looking at criticism strictly as a fungible commodity, and what they mainly appreciate about criticism is how it creates a culture of discussion and argument. Scott admires the early iteration of At the Movies mainly for the squabbling between Siskel and Ebert; Brown admires literary blogs for the moments when they can foster collective concentration on a text. In some ways that’s a return to first principles, a reminder that, in the great mass of words published by newspapers and magazines in their glory days, reviews were still just lagniappe.

But it was lagniappe that once had a certain pride of place, which is why there’s a still that anxiety floating around Scott and Brown’s comments—if they both can feel proud of the work they do, they can’t be entirely positive now that anybody’s really listening. They inhabit an environment where everybody can play but fewer seem to want to. As Brown says, twice, “it is a very strange moment.”