Can we come to some empirical understanding of cultural criticism today? In other words, has the explosion of outlets for commentary and critique given rise to the bravest new world of cultural criticism and public intellectualism that the U.S. has ever experienced?
I asked these questions remembering an H-Ideas forum I ran in 2005 and in light of a course I will teach at IUPUI in spring of 2014 American cultural criticism. The H-Ideas forum was called, “The Democratization of Cultural Criticism” and featured as its touchstone an essay from George Cotkin published in the July 2, 2004 issue of the Chronicle Forum. Responding to George’s essay were two other USIH stalwarts, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn and David Steigerwald. That experience carries special significance for me because it brought me deeper into the group that formed the core of this blog and ultimately the society. My interaction with George, Elisabeth, and Dave gave me and apparently other many folks a sense that a virtual realm could collapse not just geographic space (George was and still is in sunny California and I was and still am in cold Indiana), but also professional space–I never studied formally with any of the three participants in the forum but now had a chance to engage in conversations that were qualitatively different than what happens at a conference or even an email exchange.
The heart of the debate among the three centered on George’s contention that “cultural criticism has certainly changed over the years. The old days of the critic who wielded unchallenged authority have happily passed. Ours is a more pluralistic age, one not beholden to a narrow literary culture.” Elisabeth and Dave took issue with what they viewed as George’s unduly optimistic characterization of the culture surrounding criticism. As Elizabeth wrote in 2005: “Those who lament the current state of intellectual life have clarified up front that they do not mean there is no worthwhile intellectual work going on, but rather that the larger framework of understanding in which the public intellectual’s vocation made sense has nearly vanished.”
In calling attention to this forum and the exchange within in it, I don’t mean to hash out the differences between our interlocutors. Rather, I am curious about how this blog in particular and the culture in general that supports such endeavors appears to folks seven years later. We have plenty of evidence to suggest that people who write and read blogs think about the role on cultural critics, public intellectuals, and the audiences both engender–this blog being a prime example. However, I have always appreciated those moments when a journal, or institute, or a blog tries to take account of its influence or changes over time.
I am made more aware of the growth of this particular group when I see who attends the annual S-USIH conference. The blog has won an award for its writing and a Andrew Hartman was a finalist for another. Our twitter feed seems quite lively and our book review section is humming along. There are posts that generate dozens of comments (as well as posts that fail to get any). There seems little doubt that in the field of intellectual history, this blog has played a role in advancing popular as well as scholarly interest in the work of its practitioners. It also seems to be a way to read and read about those who are not at major research universities or who are in graduate school. Collectively, this blog seems to reflect what George cheered with the emergence of a pluralistic age of cultural criticism.
But Elisabeth’s point lingers: while we might argue that this blog and many others like it produce quality writing as well as contribute to the quantity of work being done, how do we know what it means? How do we measure the significance of work being done in this pluralistic age? While I am very happy that we have this blog and believe it functions nicely on its own merits, where does it fit among the many blogs like it and in a literary culture that no longer has benchmarks or gatekeepers? If you look at the forum I have linked to above and notice the number of “views” different discussions received, the volume is in then tens of thousands. Likewise, I know we often watch the number of views and “hits” our blog posts get–for example, a couple of months ago, Andrew wrote a post about Cormac McCarthy that generated more “views” than many posts combined. While I like Andrew’s writing a great deal, it seems it was the fact that McCarthy’s name appeared on our blog that boosted our exposure.
So by wondering how to measure or consider this blog’s (or any blog’s) popularity, I don’t intend to make a grand statement about the significance of the writing. We have ways of commending each other’s work and certainly the old structure to publish our research remains very much intact. What have we come to understand about our pluralistic age of cultural criticism?