Cultural Criticism

26 Nov 2021 16:50

Draft of 6 July 1998

Cultural criticism is what is practiced by cultural critics, the intellectuals formerly known as moralists and publicists, before those became dirty words. That is to say, they are those who have taken it upon themselves to describe the conduct of their fellow citizens to their fellow citizens, taking conduct in a very broad sense, including prominently that part of it which concerns moving ideas from one mind to another; to judge whether and how that conduct is wanting; and to suggest more desirable states of affairs. No principled distinction can be drawn between cultural criticism and the writing of newspaper editorials, just as there is none between book reviewing and literary criticism; the main social difference is that people who say they engage in "foo criticism" are now more likely to be university professors than the op-ed writers and reviewers.

There are differences between cultural criticism and sociology, apart from the merely conventional ones made by publishers, tenure committees, etc. Sociology is not (overtly) normative, and at least claims to prefer statistics and data, and logical and methodological rigor, to personal impressions and arbitrary or conventional generalizations, and rhetoric and emotional appeals. In reality, of course, much sociology is just disguised cultural criticism, and much cultural criticism is just conventional wisdom --- that is to say, prejudice --- in distilled form.

To say all this is not to dismiss cultural criticism as unworthy of notice; we do need to decide what is to be done about various aspects of our life in common (and even our several lives in private, which are inevitably tied to the common life); and many aspects of society are simply beyond the reach of (good) sociology, at least for now. There is a genuine need for good cultural criticism, and it goes beyond demonstrating the writer's cleverness, and the writer's and reader's righteousness. (One of the most prominent sorts of leftist cultural criticism, the Frankfurt School of "critical theory," seems to meet only one need in addition to those two, namely paranoia; but that can be satisfied by reading Stephen King or watching the X-Files.)

Revisiting this in 2021, I don't see a lot wrong with it. Cultural criticism does live at the border between sociology and "praising virtue and rebuking vice". But I'd add that this sort of writing at first depends for its value on its currency, on saying something relevant about how-we-live-now. But different aspects of how-we-live-now change at different rates, so some cultural-critical writings can, paradoxically, remain current for a very long time (while others quickly seem antiquated). But then if they are old enough, they can develop another kind of value, as historical sources, a glimpse of how-they-lived-then... More exactly, a glimpse of how someone thought they lived then; I sometimes suspect enduring literary merit in this sort of writing is associated with skewed perspectives.