23 November 2005

The Charge of the Blogger

In the November 2005 issue of Prospect, Michael Coveney laments that drama critics are no longer as they were in the days of his youth, when the likes of Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson stalked the British press. I wonder if this complaint could be tracked back to William Hazlitt lamenting the glory of Samuel Johnson? (Actually, I don’t think Hazlitt liked Johnson, but you get the point.) Still, Coveney has some ideas about what used to, and arguably always should, make the work of the critic important. I wanted to highlight several because I’m still trying to understand blogging, and I suspect that the persona of cultural critic is an essential part.

“A critic is there to set out the reasons for an artist's claim on our attention,” says Coveney, and yet
the notion of the critic as a campaigner of any sort has died a slow death over the years. In a recent interview in the Stage, the playwright David Hare remarked that, “Since the days when Ronald Bryden 'discovered' Tom Stoppard via Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead on the Edinburgh fringe, there has not been a single critic whose name can be identified with a single writer in the way that Tynan championed Osborne and Harold Hobson supported Beckett.”

This recalls Aristotle’s characterization of perfect friendship (friendship of character) as the relationship in which one sees his friend’s virtues and strives to help express and fulfill them. Thus, the critic is supposed to be a friend of character to the artist. Having recognized his intellectual and moral qualities, he feels a responsibility to support him.

This advocacy of creative thinkers and their contributions is a function that the blogging community has taken up with vigor, as, for example, PZ Myers stands for Darwin against all comers. Bloggers go to bat for cherished intellectual endeavors that are poorly represented in the mainstream media. Who speaks for the virtues of Victorian literature? Miriam Burstein, for one. Chemistry? Michelle Francl. Medieval history? A Damned Medievalist.

Enthusiasm and affection for the subject is key. Coveney notes that, early in his career, Tynan described his writings as “enthusiasms, written by an aficionado, out of an almost limitless capacity for admiration.” And Orson Welles, in his introduction to Tynan’s 1950 book He That Plays the King, said “You, with your fine capacity for violent opinion, are solely needed out front… You know how to cheer, you are not afraid to hiss, you are audible (to put it mildly), and transparently in love.”

But substance is also needed.
I am not suggesting that today's broadsheet - let alone tabloid – press should come over all high-toned and learned when confronted with a new Alan Ayckbourn comedy or the latest drug-fuelled shocker at the Bush Theatre. But let's hear it once more for experience, knowledge and seriousness. What is sorely needed is a new group of younger critics who will combine the enthusiasm of the aficionado with the rigour of the informed taskmaster.

There is more ventured here than a display of erudition. Coveney cites Tynan, complaining to Hobson shortly before his death: “The trouble with our successors is that nothing seems at stake for them.” And Coveney embraces the larger import of the critical mission.
For it is surely the critic's task to funnel discussion of big issues through the mediating experience of the work of art itself.

Indeed, to think about it as largely as possible, Coveney quotes Australian Peter Conrad:
Critics are the means whereby society becomes conscious of itself, aware of the direction it is taking. There can be no culture without them.

In carrying this over from critic to blogger, I would also draw on the clear and invigorating vision in Edward Said’s analysis of the role of the public intellectual, in his 1993 Reith Lectures, Representations of the Intellectual:
[T]he intellectual is an individual with a specific public role in society that cannot be reduced simply to being a faceless professional, a competent member of a class just going about her/his business. The central fact for me is, I think, that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.

This does not mean opposition for opposition’s sake. But it does mean asking questions, making distinctions, restoring to memory all those things that tend to be overlooked or walked past in the rush to collective judgment and action.

This is heady stuff. For myself, I’m just striving for piquancy. I have been ever since I tried to refer to a correlation that I found in my thesis work as ‘piquant’. My advisor told me that ‘piquant’ was not a word for a scientific paper. I tried to substitute the dictionary definition – ‘engagingly provocative’ – but he wasn’t having that either. The old saying is that we often regret our speech, but never our silence. Yet I have always regretted that particular silence.

I think that ‘provocative’ is the easy part; ‘engaging’ is hard work, especially as it must not seem to be so. Edward Said again:
Witnessing a sorry state of affairs when one is not in power is by no means a monotonous, monochromatic activity. It involves what Foucault once called ‘a relentless erudition,’ scouring alternative sources, exhuming buried documents, reviving forgotten (or abandoned) histories. It involves a sense of the dramatic and of the insurgent, making a great deal of one’s rare opportunities to speak, catching the audience’s attention, being better at wit and debate than one’s opponents.

And Michael Coveney:
My generation harked back to Tynan so often not only because of his brilliance but because his best work was so supremely the best writing about any art form at the time. Tynan was our man, not because he was necessarily “right” about anything - though he was, and far more often than Hobson (the characteristic sound of a Sunday morning, said Penelope Gilliatt, was of Harold Hobson barking up the wrong tree) - but because he wrote so scintillatingly well and “into” our times and culture, and indeed age group. He made theatre matter, and he made it sexy.

Ah, sexy. Maybe I can do that.


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