On Amateur Cultural Critique

by Thomas Brett

In the Sunday New York Times magazine a few weeks ago there’s an article by Sam Anderson, “How Roland Barthes Gave Us the TV Recap”, that explores the pioneering work of French literary critic Roland Barthes (1915-1980) as well as the importance of consumer-generated cultural critique. Anderson writes:

“To my mind, the thing that’s exploding into relevance in our era is not mass culture but the critique of mass culture — the Barthesian dissection of everything, no matter how trivial. This happens everywhere now, often in real time. And this critical analysis is often as vital and interesting and consumable as the culture it discusses. Consider, for instance, the way the TV recap has evolved into a nearly independent creative form. So the critical analysis of pop culture has itself become a kind of pop culture. We seem to be approaching some kind of singularity — a collapse of creativity and criticism into one.”

I think Anderson has it right with his observation on the pervasiveness and importance of amateur cultural criticism in the mix of our everyday media consumption/production. Online it’s so easy to find communities of affinity for just about anything you have an affinity for, and there’s a lot of interesting blogs that do a fine job of sifting through cultural stuff and then feeding back on what it all means. And what makes amateur cultural criticism important is that first, it isn’t done for any reason other than the joy of trying to get something right, and second, this kind of enthusiastic writing-just-because-one-cares is a useful and accurate barometer of the value of today’s cultural stuff. After all, it’s in the talk about stuff that we recognize its social value. Whether it’s commenters on YouTube, bloggers, or participants in online forums, there’s a lot of critique and interpretation floating out there, ready for our further reading and thinking through.