Mark Greif on the Challenges of Contemporary Criticism

Mark Greif is the cofounder and a current editor at n+1 and an assistant professor at the New School. In the following excerpt from his essay, “All There is to Use,” published in The Critical Pulse: Thirty-Six Credos by Contemporary Critics, Greif explores the challenge confronted by critics working a a time when people consume books, films, media, in a different way than previous eras:

I think the new thing criticism ought to learn to do now is to grapple with the total aesthetic environment that has taken hold of ordinary life in our times, which criticism has not done all that well with—has, really, often been blind and deaf to—so far. From waking, when you put on one song then another to start the day in the right mood—while also listening to NPR (which is interviewing some writer or documentary filmmaker) and idly looking at the television or online weather—you can be environed by representations until you lie down again to sleep. Along the way you’ll take in several fictions: Law and Order at the gym, a romantic comedy on DVD in the evening, and pages of Proust before bed. It’s a matter for interpretation whether the “real” things you see (the news, reality television) also present themselves as fictions or art.

Criticism still deals primarily with single objects, and it separates aesthetic objects by their medium. Yet objects are not experienced singly today but in thousands, and often not sequentially but overlapping or simultaneously. There are people who put on music now to watch online pornography. No doubt someone, somewhere is trying to write a novel at the same time (during the dull parts). The archive becomes infinitely deep while new production foams the surface.

How can criticism possibly be alert to this? The temptation is to ask for an experimental practice, avant-garde in the manner of the modernist arts, collecting fragments of the aesthetic objects heard, read, and viewed, with the critic as a central, supersensitive reflector or perceiver. Yet one feels one has seen attempts at this collage—and nothing has been more miserable and narcissistic than these “experimental” attempts.

In fact, the subjectivism of such efforts to take in the diversity of objects through the single receiver have made clear just how much good “standard” criticism is impersonal and non-narcissistic, how firmly it turns away from the mere reflection of the self. It looks through the self to the object in its depths but also to the audience gathered round in similar position, imagined across great breadth….

In the era of vast distribution but private screening and listening (and still-private reading), we critics will have to figure out what it means to reconstruct the feeling of the audience around us, to feel again the public pressure and exigency of so many invisible eyes upon so much visible stuff.

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