You Have Chosen…Poorly

April 13, 2010

Sometimes I wonder if I suffer from a rare neurotic-ological disorder, one that might be termed Tom’sRestaurantaphobia — the fear of or inability to have a regular or favorite restaurant. Certainly there have been restaurants I’ve enjoyed very much and frequented over the years, each with 3-5 standby dishes I could happily and repeatedly select from based on my mood. But then something happens, and I start to fret about my patterns. Maybe I feel the staff starts to know me too well and looks down on my taste or lack of imagination. Perhaps I feel like I haven’t sufficiently explored the more esoteric corners of the menu where the really good food resides. Maybe I start to feel like too many other people start to like the restaurant as well, the experience just isn’t the same anymore, and it’s time to find something less defiled.

Or perhaps this isn’t such a peculiar condition at all. Perhaps I’m just…a critic!

Oh what a pitiful life I have wrought for myself.

Though, really, these behaviours I describe are characteristics generally ascribed to Critics — often as a few of the (manymany) given reasons people despise or denigrate such practitioners. A.O. Scott had a great apologia in the Times last week on the place of criticism and critics in the culture (“A Critic’s Place, Thumb and All”). Considering that it was syndicated and scheduled at 3 o’clock AM Sundays in many markets, you may not have heard that Scott was one of the team who took over a revamped “At the Movies” (the show Siskel & Ebert started). You may have been more likely to hear that the show has been canceled after its season ends in August. The associated post facto consternation and outpouring of appreciation has been fluttering around the internets lately.

Ah, the more things change, the more habits of mind stay the same.

Regardless, Scott is not bitter or complaining about the cancellation, rather he takes the experience, and the general demise of full time critics industry wide, and turns it into a clear statement of the Critic not as cultural definer/guardian of the gates, but as an inquisitor and conversation starter. In his view, critics do not create the canon; they use their training and skills to prompt further review, discussion, and assessment of cultural objects by the wider audience. Their opinions might stick and do some work, or they might be wholly singular and completely off base. Whatever the case, he makes a salient point that the myth of the master taste-maker has been overstated. Culture is a massive, invisible beast that no one person guides. The nature of our minds desires an identifiable causality, but the creature is participatory and collaborative in its movements.

Another reason this article stuck in my mind (the critic has done his work!) is that the, er, criticisms of criticism are similar to the worries people express about the selection process in archives or for prioritization in preservation. There is the ideal that everything must be saved because we don’t know what will be considered significant in the future (“How dare that critic try to tell me what’s of value or not”…), which is balanced by the reality that there are limited resources for doing the work of preservation that may be better used through strategic targeting (I will refrain from my own critical valuations of priority materials here and confine this to a resource issue.).

A major difference here is that if a critic’s positive valuation is initially ignored, it can always be re-evaluated at a later date as long as that object is still accessible for critique. What we select to preserve does have a clear causal effect on the development of culture because the work of criticism and dissemination cannot be done without the original materials/content.

I’m not trying to get (too) high and mighty here about how awesome archivists are, but I am trying to illustrate how important the work we do is to many sectors of society. The argument that archives and preservation should be funded because of some future good is correct, but it is a nebulous concept that does not present easily identifiable results. In order to establish the incentives for continued (and increased!) funding to archives, we need to be able to define more tangible or quantifiable results and our role in enabling those societal/institutional/monetary benefits.

And where might the answer lie for this? Well, I’m still letting the concept stew on my brain’s back burner to assess it further, but, then again, I did already tell you I’m a critic. Maybe I’m just trying to help the conversation along.

— Joshua Ranger