I. Introduction: Are there any practical jokes about the critics?
I will start with a politically incorrect quotation from Adrian Anthony Gill, currently employed by The Sunday Times as their restaurant reviewer and television critic. His essays are known for their humor and satirical content, but have caused offence to various groups, including: the Welsh; Manx; Albanians; Germans; and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities (and, most probably, also to the critics or, even, the future inter-critics). The title of the article is: It’s curtains for the critics. And the subtitle: Where once we had the wit of Tynan and Levin, today’s theatre critics are a joyless, detached bunch. And it’s not only their readers who get a raw deal – culture is suffering too.
First nights are special theatre. These are moments when the creatives let go of the creation. There is nothing more to be done. Actors are the only artists who have to go on performing through a disaster, so there is particular electricity, an atmosphere in the theatre. Much depends on the first night. And, when it’s over and the audience applaud and cheer and, more than likely these days, rise to their feet for a standing ovation, you may notice a little gang of hunted characters sidle out of the stalls and scuttle up the aisle. They seem to be escaping, running away. Many will be dressed in old macs, shiny-buttocked suits and cheap, comfy shoes, and be carrying sagging briefcases and Tesco bags. They keep their heads down and don’t look back, and they don’t do applause. You might imagine they were rude, disrespectful philistines. But you couldn’t be more wrong.
These creeping things are the critics, keepers of the flame of theatre, the referees of the muse, and they’re running out not because they want to get to the bar first, but because they write their reviews overnight for the morning’s first editions. Well, they used to. (The Sunday Times, June 24, 2007)
I do not share his opinion, although many in the inner circle of the theatre world do, to some extent; and they like practical jokes directed towards critics and criticism.
II. Does criticism gets reduced to a mere consumer advocate?
What I would like to try to speak about changes in contemporary attitudes toward criticism and its place and importance within art and culture. Today we are witnesses to the co-option of the art practice to the commodified logic of capitalism, witnessed by the incredible power of the corporate sponsor in visual and performing arts. The theatre, unfortunately, increasingly serves the interests of the market. This situation provokes the following questions:
- Does this radically change the traditional image of the critic as arbiter of judgment?
- Does criticism gets reduced to a mere consumer advocate, advising the consumerist public only where, or even whether, to spend his time and money?
- What is the role and which are possible influences of criticism in today’s society, which is highly influenced by a crisis of corporate capitalism and the commodified logic of capitalism?
- How did the post-post-structuralist theoretical deconstruction, primacy of the third paradigm, the viewer, intertextuality, intermediality, mediatized culture change the very phenomenology of criticism?
It is more than evident that the turn in contemporary society as well as in theoretical approaches to art undermined tactics of the art critics, who have suddenly (as Benjamin Buchloh puts it) found themselves in a situation where there was no consensus on what criticism should be. And, even worse, in the second half of the 20th-century, room for criticism within the society has diminished radically. (Buchloh, “Critical Reflections”, 102)
Criticism along with other theoretical fields had to reinvent new responses to this newly created situation, characterized by a paradoxical or schizophrenic situation one could describe in the following sentence:
On the one hand we are witnessing a new methodological freedom, the use of a “mix” of different theoretical paradigms from semiotics to critical theory, poststructuralism, feminist and queer studies. And, on the other hand, critique and criticism is being declared as a relic of the past, as something that is far from indispensable.
III. The paradox of criticism
Of course, we all know that the Enlightenment idea of the critic as a discriminating authority on matters of art and culture became increasingly problematic. Therefore we have to question our role as specialized analysts of culture in favor of repositioning our academic inquiry as a kind of cultural participation in its own right. Or, to use the words of Jacques Rancière: We must grasp the position of the “emancipated spectator” who challenges “the opposition between viewing and acting”, by understanding “that the self-evident facts that structure the relations between saying, seeing and doing themselves belong to the structure of domination and subjection?” (Rancière, Emancipated Spectator, 13)
The criticism has to reposition itself: rather than being remote from that which we survey, we have to participate, become enmeshed, perhaps even in “creative” production of the cultural fabric itself. But we should also not forget Rancière’s alternative perspective on the effort to emancipate the spectator that could stand also for the situation of the critic:
We deliberately attempt to traverse the abyss that divides activity from passivity by asking “if it is not precisely the desire to abolish the distance that creates it”? (Rancière, 12)
This is the actual paradox that theatre and performing arts criticism shares both with the spectator and the dramatist.
In many ways what Rancière calls the “emancipated spectator”, and what we refashion as the “emancipated critic”, are nothing new. The transcendental figure of the critic has had its obituary read before, in the 1980s. As Gavin Butt puts it in his witty introduction to the book After Criticism: The Paradoxes of Criticism:
The transcendental figure of the Enlightenment critic – one placed at a special remove from society, from the object of criticism – has had its obituary read before at the height of postmodernism in the 1980s. The traditional authority of the critic, and his special dispensation to discriminate in the name of universal human values, was gladly bidden goodbye by postmodernists concerned to pay heed to cultural difference: Marxists and feminists critiqued it as an ideological form of class and gender privilege whilst post-structuralists deconstructed it as logocentric fiction. In the wake of such critiques of criticism then, postmodernists – particularly of the post-structuralist persuasion – quickly set about abandoning any absolutist statements of judgment in favor of reading artistic and literary texts deconstructively: to reveal the ways in which power might be seen as working both within and against them. (After Criticism, 3)
IV. The criticism has to reposition itself
And new series of questions appeared:
- Did not the abandoning of any absolutist statements of judgment, in favour of reading artistic and literary texts deconstructively, to a great extent eliminate the critical and political function of the intellectual in a society?
- Did not “there is no outside to the text” (“il n’y pas hors-texte”), as Jacques Derrida once famously remarked, result in there suddenly being no critical “position” as such to occupy?
And suddenly one did not feel at ease in this situation. We found ourselves in a situation in which hermeneutic tools we use in order to critique various forms of power and authority within cultural and artistic representations became a kind of authority of their own. Thus the very body of work renowned for its deconstruction of authorial value produced new forms of authority.
Let us think of a possible example of this new form of authority:
In order to underline our argument about the logocentricity of today’s theatre and its dangers, we would without any doubt quote Jacques Derrida and use the authority of his work in order to underwrite our analysis and critique. And this is just one in a long line of possible examples of a paradoxical situation of poststructuralist philosophy which, according to Gavin Butt, “operates both as criticism’s chief discursive enabler whilst simultaneously marking its limit point: operating as an authorizing meta discourse for contemporary critical manoeuvres, whilst simultaneously working to constrain the production of new concepts and/or methods of critical procedure.” (After criticism, 4)
V. Embodied criticism
Thus we are approaching the situation in which theory and criticism in particular itself became “doxa, the very state it set out to subvert.” How can we avoid this? One of the possible answers is the work of certain scholars that took very seriously the challenge to criticism. Let us mention Peggy Phelan, whose performance studies over the past decade experimented with how the conventional tasks of critical might be refigured or superseded by the productive attentions of the embodied critic, concentrating her or his inquiry either in making a judgment of quality or exposing the workings of power and ideology.
How did they do this? The simplest answer would be by addressing performance as a unique spatio-temporal event that is opposed to the art-historical object. Thus Phelan – similarly to Erika Fischer-Lichte and her aesthetics of performativity – has been exploring how critical writing might respond creatively to an art form that is eventual, singular and given to disappear. We can see her writings as an attempt to use the scene of writing “to re-mark again the performative possibilities of writing itself.” (Phellan, Unmarked: the politics of performance, 148) By focusing attention on the performativity of critical response, then, and the ways in which such responses might deviate from established modes of critical procedure, Peggy Phelan, Amelia Jones, Erika Fischer-Lichte and others seek to consider a critical practice situated, paradoxically, after criticism was deadened by the hand of capital and powers within culture and society.
And this is probably the most suitable redefintion of criticism we can provisionally get to: criticism or inter-criticism (in the sense of Barthes, Kristeva, Eco and their researches into intertextuality, as well as Patrice Pavis’s attempts to redefine theatre semiotics) should most probably concentrate on theatre as a phenomena embodying two concepts:
- Dynamic tour de force of singularity and plurality, the incarnation of the fact that there is no being without “being-with,” that “I” does not come before “we” (i.e., Dasein does not precede Mitsein) and that there is no existence without co-existence (Jean-Luc Nancy).
- Performative antipoetic feedback loop between actors and spectators, the event of the performance that provokes and integrates emergence and thus blurs distinctions between artist and audience, body and mind, art and life (Erika Fischer-Lichte).
VI. The Emancipated critic?
Of course, we all agree and should not forget that “criticism, understood in at least two of its guises, was always paradoxical in its mode of operation. Firstly, in the sense that it depended for its definition on departing from commonly understood beliefs and values; we should also not forget the following thought stressed by Gavin Butt:
Even the unreconstructed figure of the modern disinterested critic – much derided by postmodernists – distinguished himself by seeking to pronounce on the (aesthetic) value of that which had hitherto not been recognized as such, either by other members of the intelligentsia or by society at large. That the modern critic’s judgment of quality may have subsequently both transformed, and then passed into, a received set of values of a particular class or group within society -thereby becoming doxa – should not detract us from criticism’s important role in initially striking out from it. (After criticism, 5)
Nevertheless, we should take into account two concepts: Nancy’s ‘singular plurality’, which refuses to start with the opposition of same and other, arguing, instead, for a primacy of relation, the ‘in-common’ and the ‘with’; and Fischer-Lichte’s aesthetic of performativity, which traces the emergence of performance as ‘an art event’ in its own right.
Criticism has to be put into dialogue with these two concepts. It has to apply them to the stage phenomena and try to see them, not as fixed works of art, but performative acts with such qualities as: openness; hybridity; the change in priority from “I” (the artist, the spectator in singular) to “we” (the performers and spectators interchanging their traditional roles) …
And, furthermore, can we critics suppose that a performative act on stage unites singular and plural, textual and performative culture? Can we claim, as does Alain Badiou, that theatre creates a procedure of truth and therefore it is no longer a rival, because it provides material for philosophy; as it is no longer a supplement, because it carries its own self-sufficient truth? And can we, in parallel to what Derek Attridge claims for singularity of literature, also talk about the conception of the performative artwork and its occurrence as a particular kind of event to which he gives the name “performance”? Can we talk of a performative occurence in which we experience art less as an object than as an event; and an event that can be repeated over and over again and yet never seem exactly the same? Can we reposition criticism in order to become specialized in the area of analysis of cultural and artistic phenomena transformed into a special form of cultural participation, “performative” criticism, which will be detached from the authoritarian position of seeing something from the position of a completely foreign ‘afar’?
I do not have answers to these questions. But I do believe inter-criticism, or whatever we re-name criticism, has a role in providing the answers.
After criticism: new responses to art and performance, edited by Gavin Butt, Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
Attridge, Derek. The Singularity of Literature. London: Routledge, 2004.
Buchloh, Benjamin H. D. “Critical Reflections,” Artforum (January 1997): 68-9.
Fischer–Lichte, Erika (2004): Ästhetik des Performativen, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp.
Nancy, Jean-Luc: Being Singular Plural. Trans. Robert D. Richardson & Anne E. O’Byrne. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Phelan, Peggy: Unmarked The Politics of Performance. London: Routledge, 1993.
Rancière, Jacques: The Emancipated Spectator, tr. by Gregory Elliott, London: Verso, 2009,
Toporišič, Tomaž. »The essay on stage: singularity and performativity.« In: Primerjalna književnost. Letn. 33, št. 1 (2010): 217-232.
 Mladinsko Theatre, Ljubljana & Faculty of Humanities Koper (FHS), University of Primorska, Slovenia
Copyright © 2011 Tomaž Toporišič
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411
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