U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Paradoxical State of the Public Humanities

Last week, the website (it preferred to call itself an online magazine) The Dissolve suddenly announced that it was closing down. Founded just two years ago by some of the most interesting and serious young critics – many of whom had previously been associated with the Onion’s sister site The A.V. Club — and funded by established online media player Pitchfork Media, The Dissolve was devoted exclusively to film criticism. It quickly developed a reputation among film fans and film critics as one of the most important places online for the discussion of motion pictures. The Dissolve reviewed the latest mainstream Hollywood movies, but it also discussed older films and indie and foreign cinema. And it did so in a voice that was serious and fun and always inviting, whatever ones level of film knowledge. And the site quickly developed an engaged, intelligent, and interesting commentariat. This was one of those rare sites in which you always wanted to read the comments. In its podcast and movie-of-the-week forums, it created spaces for the websites regular contributors – and occasional guests – to share ideas about films, past and present. And every day it presented a curated list of the best film writing around the web. Though there were some indications that the site was in trouble – most notably its letting co-founder Nathan Rabin go earlier this year – its closure came as a shock to most of us.

I have often said – on this blog and elsewhere – that I think we’re in the middle of an incredible renaissance of the public humanities. Criticism has become a central part of the consumption of films, television, books, video games and other media among the general public. Digital technology has altered both the way we consume these media (in the case of video games, it has created a medium) and the opportunity to discuss and analyze them. And the discussions in turn have altered the media themselves. The simplest and most ubiquitous version of this phenomenon is recap culture. But The Dissolve exemplified a more sophisticated aspect of the same general trend. Film criticism, even serious film criticism, has always been even more at home in the public realm than in the academy. But while the conversations that took place in journals like Cahiers du Cinema or Film Comment tended to take place among a fairly small set of cineastes and critics, The Dissolve’s reach – or at least potential reach – was much wider and more immediate. It was free. It could both respond quickly to film news and discuss longer-standing issues in cinema. And, thanks to the internet, it could often link to films and critics with which it engaged. Since it had a serious commentariat with which its writers actively engaged, it could also function as a kind of salon.  Of course, none of these things are very remarkable. Indeed, we take this kind of new critical space for granted. What made The Dissolve special was its quality. And that, in a sense, was the source of its problems.

The closure of The Dissolve itself became the subject of a lot of critical commentary. The site was nearly universally praised by those noting its demise. But nearly as frequently, commentators suggested that The Dissolve’s failure suggests the impossibility of such a site succeeding in the current media environment. Despite many unusual advantages, The Dissolve was simply incapable of generating enough views to make money. As co-founder Scott Tobias noted in an interview shortly after the site went under, “The economics of digital publishing are not encouraging. We had so many advantages going into this: A core group of writers and editors who had great chemistry and had proven themselves as a team at The A.V. Club; a lean and truly independent company that had only published on the Internet and been successful doing so; and a great deal of support from the media world. We executed the site more or less exactly how we drew it up, and we fell short. Probably way short. Draw your own lessons from that.” Clicks are attracted by clickbait – hot takes and the Hollywood scandal of the moment. Focusing on things helped make The Dissolve better than other sites devoted to film. But perhaps, Tobias and others have noted, the only way to survive online is to be just like everyone else in this regard.

And therein likes the paradox of the public humanities in 2015. The internet and other digital technologies have involved millions of people around the world in an often sophisticated, critical conversation that, in turn, has improved the quality of many of the popular arts. And yet the economics of those very technologies makes this conversation a financial deadweight. And this is not simply an issue for unusual sites like The Dissolve. Never has it been more difficult to make a living as a film critic.

I’m not sure how to resolve this paradox in a way that encourages, rather than kills off, the renaissance in the public humanities. But I think that we academic humanists have a real interest in the outcome. We are constantly told that there is a crisis in the humanities. And one of the origins of this crisis is said to be the fact that the skills that we humanists cultivate are not the skills that our economy needs. Certainly the paradoxical state of the public humanities reflects this fact. But it also reflects something that is almost never mentioned when people describe the supposed crisis in the humanities: there is an enormous public interest in and engagement with criticism, broadly understood. I remain convinced that cultivating that interest and engaging with critics outside the academy is one of the ways in which academic humanists can again make our social importance clear to the broader public.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben,

    This was post was interesting because I had never heard of The Dissolve. I wish that I had before it closed. But the fact that I had never heard of the site raised a couple of questions for me.

    Although I can’t say I am at the vanguard of new digital content, I read a fair share (more than a fair share) of stuff online on any given day. Like everyone else, I click through sites, and that leads to other sites, which in turns lead to others, and that is often how I find new stuff. The fact that I had never heard of the site suggests one of its fundamental problems that probably led to its closure.

    And then there was the other question, which your post raised at the end. You suggest that “there is an enormous public interest in and engagement with criticism, broadly understood.” But the rest of the post would seem to suggest the opposite. There is an enormous public interest in cat videos, listicles, and gossip about celebrities. There is not an enormous public interest, or enough of a public interest, to sustain an online magazine devoted to high quality film criticism. That seems to be the message from Scott Tobias in the interview from which you quote.

    Based on what you say, The Dissolve seems to have spoken to a niche audience, and this audience was not large enough to sustain the venture nor connected enough to the wider digital ecosystem–so much so that I had never heard of it. And that fragmentation of the humanities is, it seems to me, part of the wider crisis of the humanities in American public life. Sure, there is a small scale flowing of little, little websites devoted to their small slice of the cultural universe. But those sites are not really “public” in the same way that Life magazine was in the 1950s, or even the way that the New Republic was in 1914. Maybe they could be compared to the Seven Arts, but I’m not sure what vanguard of modernism they represent. They instead represent to me the dying of a tradition. They speak to a very small, very select group of people whose concerns are not shared by the rest of our commercial culture. And I worry that these concerns will become increasingly marginalized and inconsequential to the pubic in the future.

    How am I seeing this wrongly?

  2. I had also never heard of The Dissolve. I don’t look at very many sites on a given day (or in a given week for that matter), but I do read or at least look at a few blogs with varying degrees of regularity, and I’d never seen The Dissolve mentioned. In itself this doesn’t prove much, but it is another data point to add to the previous comment.

  3. The problem here is scale. According to Quantcast, which measures internet traffic, The Dissolve on average reached over 574,000 people a month. That’s a lot of people. But it’s far from enough to sustain a site, especially one that had very minimal advertising on it.

    But if I were trying to demonstrate the market for criticism online, I’d look elsewhere, at more successful (if not as consistently high quality) sites. Sticking with Quantcast figures, over six million people read content on the AV Club last month and a little more than that read content on Pitchfork.com (former parent site of The Dissolve).

    The problem, then, is that it takes a truly enormous readership to sustain a free-to-view, professional site. The AVClub, which has over ten times the readership of The Dissolve, is also much, much more advertisement heavy than The Dissolve was. So while The Dissolve had far too few pageviews to sustain a site with minimal advertising, its 574,000 readers each month dwarfs the circulation of, e.g., the New York Review of Books, which has a subscriber base of 135,000.

  4. Hi Ben,

    On the surface those are impressive numbers. But I wonder how much they really mean. There is always a problem of over-counting–I have my browser set to delete all cookies when I close it, so if I were to visit a site three times a day I would be counted as three separate visitors. Print doesn’t really have that problem.

    Then there is the quality of a reader’s engagement with an online source. It is not uncommon for a visitor to a site to read just one article, perhaps one that has been linked on Facebook or other social media, and then never to return for the rest of the month. You can see that phenomenon when you look up The Dissolve in Quantcast and note the number of page views, which are basically twice the number of visitors. Most visitors do not linger. They view two pages and then they move on. By contrast, I’d bet that a sizable number of readers read a good portion of each issue of the NY Review. It’s a much deeper engagement with magazine. So it’s hard to say that The Dissolve’s readership “dwarfs” that of the NY Review, because the readership, the commitment, and the appetite for their respective content is not quite the same.

    The other way to measure the public’s appetite for something is simpler: what are they willing to pay for? When I crack open an issue of the NY Review, I’m demonstrating a pretty large appetite for reviews of books and for intellectual discussion because I’ve paid $50 a year (or whatever it is) to receive a subscription. And because that core audience is so committed, advertisers (in the case of the NYR, mostly publishers) are eager to place ads to get at that core audience. Not true with The Dissolve (or most other forms of online media). It’s lack of subscriptions makes the readership more casual, the advertising less lucrative, and the model harder to sustain.

    The final point is about cultural presence. Looking at the site visits and comparing with print circulation numbers, you might think that The Dissolve has the cultural presence of, say, The Atlantic, which has close to half a million subscribers. But it clearly does not.

    My point is not just a defense of print or a lament for its decline, though there is some of that here. The Dissolve represents to me the crisis of humanistic discussion in American public life. A lot of the big clearinghouses that mattered–the New Republic comes to mind–are chasing Buzzfeed into triviality or are folding. There are small ventures, like The Dissolve, that are trying to do high-quality stuff but are unable to sustain it because they aren’t able to reach past a niche and cannot gain a committed or large enough readership.

    In short, I wish I could agree with you that there is an enormous appetite for humanistic discussion or criticism. I just don’t see it, but I do hope you are right.

  5. …that many-eared monster with no sense, the reading public… — Ezra Pound to Felix Schelling

    At first, the debate between Ben and David seemed to pivot on the crisis in the *humanities* and the resulting effort to broaden the scholarly study of the humanities to a larger “public.” The current urge in the academy to go public. Reference to stock market IPOs purposeful.

    But the more pressing issue lurking in the debate is precisely what this “public” is (or perhaps better said, publics are). I think that the public humanities (or the public intellectual or public history, etc.) as a field/concept/idea/project/goal has far more work to do in imagining what we mean by the “public.” The definition of the humanities actually remains fairly stable in all of this (even if always in crisis and under attack). It’s the public part that needs further understanding in the contemporary moment (and in the past for that matter): public as distinct from market, though overlapping; public as distinct from the masses, though not entirely unrelated; public as not quite the same as that amorphous concept of “the people”; perhaps public distinct from that much beloved (oh don’t we love them, want to speak to them, want to be them) concept of the “general reader” or the “educated reader.” This public in the public humanities remains a rather utopian adjective. In the sense that it is the ideal and a total fiction. I mean, what is a public, exactly? Is it 135,000 New York Review of Books readers? Or is it millions of page views? Does a public need to be commercially viable? Why can’t it be an utter failure commercially or even uncommercial? Is the public people in the street? Or is it voters at the ballet box? Or is it people all looking to or listening to the same thing, or to each other? Or is our public of the armchair variety (we writers and scholars would prefer Laz-E-Boy publics the most I suppose!)? This thing—res publica (and the word res does mean thing in Latin, yes?)—turns out to be rather speculative and elusive. And yet it counts for so much.

    And perhaps the biggest question with the renaissance/not renaissance in the public humanities is not so much figuring out what it is, but rather developing ways to support its flourishing as an amorphous yet essential thing. The biggest issue might be asserting the need for infrastructure that supports the fostering of publics—from commercial, philanthropic, educational, governmental, civic, maybe even religious sectors. That to me is the big dilemma that the public humanities faces. Not only to imagine what a public humanities is and could be, but also to legitimize the use of necessary resources to sustain its many faces.

Comments are closed.