The Critical Genre and the Internet

by Mihály Szilágyi-Gál[1]



Some fear that in the age of online writing the former impact of the critical genre has been reduced and relativized. Online media are more inclusive, less costly and less hierarchical. Although the fragmentation of the public as an outcome of the spread of online media may reduce the broad impact of the critical genre both in art and science, the changes in critical attitudes, polemics and debates in general may not necessarily lose importance, because the internet re-defines rather than eliminates such forms of communication. The users of online media are also its producers and build rules together for reading and writing as a matter of common interest. This process of new rule creation transforms former media but partly relies on them and further maintains critical roles.

Criticism is one of the most straightforward genres of polemical writing. Be it art criticism, academic review or recension about published texts, artistic and other intellectual products, criticism is an essentially reconstructing and provocative undertaking. As such, criticism is a fundamental exercise of the free clash of views, reconstruction and debate. Its very name suggests the practice of the freedom to oppose ideas, make arguments and objections public for an audience. As the field of the public impact of information and argument it also carries the role of the social distribution of knowledge. In the following I examine whether the diminishing institutional impact of criticism published in print media necessarily undermines its normative social role.

Without some particular conception of the power role of criticism, its free dissemination would probably not be an important task. In terms of its moral, political and legal theory, the principle of free expression is based upon the conception that the legally free dissemination of knowledge is a public good. This public good is meant to entail both the rational demand of sharing and acquiring knowledge, as well as the justified individual self-display. The political assimilation of this idea is reflected in historical moments such as the first legal elimination of censorship in the English License Act from 1695, the Declaration of Human Rights that followed the French Revolution in 1789, the First Amendment of the American Constitution in 1792, as well as in similar legal warrants of the later waves of the age of European revolutions in 1848 in Prussia, Austria and Hungary. More specific regulations occurred in the twentieth century, meant to maintain the economic and political autonomy of the various channels of free expression. For example, the test of the “clear and present danger” elaborated by the American Justice Holmes in 1919, with the intent to specify the constitutional warrant of freedom of expression unless its use carries physical threat; the Hutchins report in 1947, according to which the informing of the American public was not supposed to fully depend on the commercial success of the information supplied as media product; as well as the referring passages of the West-German Basic Law from 1949 (Kunczik: 2001, 61-80). Even the recent wikileaks and NSA scandals illustrate the persistent dilemma of whether the public is entitled to possess potentially all information regarding the public itself, or certain information should be subject of state monopoly; further, the state monopoly of the information of public concern should be rejected on the assumption that it might lead to its un-transparent use by a power elite. Thus, the ultimate stake is whether the diminishing of the classical forms of critical genre also leads to the diminishing of the impact of critique as a fundamentally public attitude.

Consider the earliest related conceptions by John Milton and John Stuart Mill, meant to promote the principle of free expression of every member of the political community on the one hand, and by Thomas Hobbes’ conception of leaving the right of judgment for the sovereign (Lund: 1997, 449-450): who is publically entitled to speak and know? The more remote an argument is from the hardcore liberal approach, the closer it is to the view that the public dissemination and acquirement of information must be controlled by various power groups. The dispute over the public dissemination of ideas and the rejection of its formal permission have been directly related to the role of criticism and critical thought in general. The research on the perspectives of the critical genre can be located in this context.

The present falling of the print run of the press, and the overwhelming spread of online writing of all kinds, challenge the agenda-setting role criticism had played in classical media. The principle of the right to criticize traced above had been elaborated in an age in which the “media” (the early press of newsletters and gazettes) had been both technologically and politically controlled by the state. The technologically and mentally limitless signal supplied by the internet was obviously inconceivable at that time, but not even in the heydays of television. Given that the entire system of regulation of the media (at the beginning only of the press) starting in the late 16th century had been conceived in agreement to the legal system of a territorially more or less well-defined state (later the nation state), the general globalization of the media has raised fundamental dilemmas of state control (Price: 1995, 17, 155). The problem is that a significantly large number of media signals are not sent from the territory of the state where it is received. This problem had already occurred in the cable television era (Price: 1995, 18). With regard to criticism, the question is whether this ongoing transformation of the structural control and technology of the media also changes the classical role of critical genre or it only re-arranges it in a new media framework. There may be two main reasons why the wide accessibility offered by the internet might undermine the power of criticism and of critique in general: the disappearance of structural shortage (the internet is a virtually limitless space) and the free access of both the roles of authorship and readership. However it could also be argued to the contrary: the wide and cheap (virtually free) accessibility ultimately imply a harsher hierarchy precisely because it makes participation of both authors and readers depend less on material resources than on classical media. In other words, classical media had developed hierarchies strictly related to technology and costs of access. This had obviously implied strong barriers of who can “speak” and to whom. This was a vertical structure both in terms of material accessibility and hierarchy of content. Contrary to this, the internet offers a horizontal landscape where it is virtually more possible for anybody to “appear on the scene,” without the elimination of some existing hierarchy. Therefore the hierarchy among opinions may become even stricter in the age of the internet, exactly because there are fewer material barriers to accessing the audience, and vice versa.

The real crises of critical genre in the present seems to consist in the dilemma of specifying the place of qualified (reliable) criticism. This dilemma seems to be caused by the online media, because the online does not fit into our already existing institutional landscape. For example, in the pre-internet age it was a normal situation that even an anonymously submitted paper would more easily be published in a highly ranked review, because the apparently high-level of the elaboration of the paper better fitted the demands of such a review than a less structured paper submitted by a less trained author. Contrary to this, the internet does not establish any similar hierarchy between two such texts. This fact does not mean however that a new–internet-specific–hierarchy is not emerging and will not ultimately even replace the old one. This is my present hypothesis. What we face in the present is the incapacity to establish any hierarchy between the hierarchies rather than between texts. It is not very difficult to rank texts and intellectual products of various kinds within some well-established scale. The difficulty is to rank between rankings: to compare the criticism published in a prestigious review to a demanding comment in some major (or not major) online source, respectively to take a new online source just as seriously as the online version of an old, prestigious print source. Further, it is similarly difficult to rank between the critical value of comments publicized in different online sources in terms of their possible professional or larger public impact, style and overall quality.

New forms of criticism have also emerged through the internet. The various chatting programs, the comments and interactive pages which allow immediate access to exchange contents can all be seen as new forms or even a new critical genre. Although the classical media offer edited, professionally, usually reliable, contents, the information supplied by the hectic internet genre may compete with them in many respects (Massing: 2009, 29). Accordingly, although the internet would in many cases not serve us with professionally elaborated texts, in terms of authentic opinion, even bloggers may spread more valuable information than qualified critics. The eroding hierarchy of the established academic and other professional forms of criticism, and the increasing extension of non-professional critical reactions to intellectual products, result in an ultimately much broader scene of discussion: points and misunderstandings, biases and accurate details pro and contra, but discussions in the end. The inclusion of larger masses in artistic opinion formation at the price of a reduced level of intellectual production has been defended against the Frankfurt School almost immediately after its invocation (Schicha: 2003, 126-128). The main worry should not be the eroding hierarchies in the jungle of publicized critical views of highly different level. The main worry should be the fragmented presence of ideas on the internet: the sectarian drive of this enormous space that equally allows chat rooms about the producing of suitcase bombs, revolution, real scientific research, and literature of the highest quality.

In other words, the main danger of the decentralization of qualified fora is the disintegration of the public sphere. The internet offers space for many barely known, voluntary experts of various topics. They may be qualified and committed, but often one-sided. Some of them even want and manage to be invited into the professional media (Massing: 2009, 31). However, this particular feature of the internet as the forum of specialized “micro-interests” does not serve the cause of anything like a public sphere. The outcome is the existence of many parallel public spheres, often mutually isolated from each other. The outcome of this process for criticism is the increase of the parallel existence of even invisibly peripheral for a, as opposed to anything like a larger audience capable of following major battles of public and professional interest. With the diminishing of the larger audiences capable of paying systematic attention to the contents they are addressed to, the society-wide critical fora may also diminish. This may turn criticism as genre and critique as attitude into particularism, and of small scale interest.

However the extremely decentralized character of the internet displays also another development: “cooperation.” First of all, cooperation between the old and the new media (Deuze: 2003). This includes, for instance, the import of modes of editing from classical newspapers, amended with the open forms of the online space such as multimedia, hypertext and both active and passive modes of interaction (re-linking voice and image to text, web editing options for the reader etc.). Therefore, the aforementioned horizontal character, versus the old vertical one, opens up the chance for certain classical content producing modes to survive, but without forming ultimate centers. The genuine communicative hybrid of the internet might rescue the lost compass among its parallel centers. The negative outcomes of fragmentation may be tackled by a spontaneously emerging “learning by doing”–a kind of internet ethics, in which everybody is addressed both as potential reader and as potential author (Debatin 2002: 228-236). The ongoing formation of such a common interest in being taken seriously in one’s own currently chosen role as user leads to new normative practices of how to be a user, otherwise the user will be sanctioned by the net community. This situation may ultimately lead to the redefining of hierarchies. The “self-healing” dynamism of the internet consists in the unwittingly constant work of users as producers of this medium. The stake of this joint production is consent that may or may not form among the involved actors: primarily the user, the community and the government (MacKinnon: 2012, 83-99, 192-250).

There is no compelling reason to think that the spread of online media and the related erosion of older forms of critical genre necessarily undermines the role of critique in artistic and scientific comprehension. The transformation of the media space does not necessarily imply the defeat of critical stances in general and the natural hierarchy they may form.


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[1] Mihály Szilágyi-Gál (1971) is assistant professor at the Institute for Art Theory and Media Studies, ELTE University of Sciences Budapest. He studied philosophy and political science in Budapest, Debrecen, and Tübingen. His area of research is focused on topics in aesthetics and modern political philosophy.

Copyright © 2014 Mihály Szilágyi-Gál
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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