Bill Brown
Professor of English & Visual Arts at the University of Chicago

Is the Web Killing Criticism?

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Is the nature of “the text” changing in the Web age? Are blogs hurting criticism? And could the growing interest in “thing theory” be a response to an increasingly virtual world?

Bill Brown

Bill Brown is Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor of English and the visual arts at the University of Chicago. His past research has focused on popular literary genres, recreational forms, and the ways that mass-cultural phenomena impress themselves on the literary imagination. He currently studies the intersection of literary, visual, and material cultures. His major theoretical work is in "thing theory," which borrows from Heidegger's object/thing distinction to look the role of objects that have become manifest in a way that sets them apart from the world in which they exist. He edited a special issue of Critical Inquiry on this subject, which won awards for best special issue of an academic journal in 2001. His books include "A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature" (2003).

Question: Has the Internet redefined what a text is for critics?

Bill Brown: Well, I would say it may not be redefining what a text is, but it certainly is generating lots of different conduits to a text, right?  For the time being, I'm going to make texts something that is more virtual than actual, so that any actualization of it, even if the actualization is virtual, if you will, isn't quite the text, right?  So, by which I mean to say, this is going to be long-winded, that the text, so if you take a Victorian novel, Dickens' Great Expectations, it is true that that is a different reading experience if you read it in a handy dandy Penguin paperback, versus if you read it serialized when it originally appeared in England, or serialized when it appeared in the US, when it was then illustrated, different also from the experience of somebody reading a Braille edition, different from somebody reading it online, right?  But we're still, most of us, I think, not some of the book historians maybe, but most of us are willing to say, that we're all reading Great Expectations, right?  And so that's the, and so I want to say we're all reading that text, even though they're in these many different manifestations of text.  And that's my long-winded response.

I think that it could be, I don't know, but it could be that literary critics will be the last constituency to recognize how vastly reading practices have changed.  Just because I think many of us, when we're teaching literature, still do teach books in like book format, like a bunch of paperbacks, that doesn't mean that we don't recognize that our own research has changed considerably and that our student's research has changed considerably, but I think that at least most of my friends in the profession still are very attracted to books as books, to the physicality of them, to the materiality of them.

One of the recent sub-fields within not just literary studies, but also within history, has been the history of the book, a tremendous amount of work and fascinating work.  Certainly one can imagine that the impulse to be writing the history of the book has everything to do with an inevitable disappearance of the book, or maybe not inevitable disappearance of the book, but with, you know, or experienced, or willed unconsciously, as it were, I mean, this is the sort of thing just happens.  I would say the same thing about thing theory more broadly speaking, that is surely a bunch of scholars in lots of different fields who are newly interested in the power of physical objects or interested in materiality, surely, in part, that must be understood as it responds to the digitization of everything, as some people would say.  And there are, well, there is one, there is an archeologist, Colin Renfrew, in England, who really demonizes digital technology and talks about the way it is virtualizing the real world and there's a lovely sentence of his that ends, "all that is left is the smile on the Cheshire cat," right?  I think that's overdramatized and I keep liking to believe, or liking to say, that we're experiencing a kind of melodrama of besieged materiality, that is everybody imagines that the material world is disappearing.  But you know, if you look around, there's still lots of objects to touch, it turns out that whatever computers are doing, they're not quite making the world disappear.  They are certainly mediating the world very differently from the way it was mediated in the past.  And I do think that they've had a powerful effect on scholarly interests, right?

And I think right now, this is getting back to this broad, big question of, why thing theory now?  Why an interest in materiality now?  Why object studies now?  I supposed the obvious thing to say would be to say that it could very well be the case that our most precious object, the earth, is dying, right?  And so that doesn't mean that there is a green dimension to all of this scholarship, but rather that in some cultural unconscious, it could be that it is in fact this recognition that this object that we're all sitting on may have a shorter lifespan than we thought, might very well be part of the drive.

Question: Is the democratization of criticism through blogging a good or bad thing?

Bill Brown:  I think the democratization of criticism for the most part is a great thing, I mean, I think blogs are a great way of making a different kind of public sphere in which literature say, or art, is part of a bigger, longer, in some sense, more complex, certainly much more rapid conversation.  There are certainly downsides to it and I think one of the problems with digital access to information in general, and lots of people have said this, is it's difficult to know, especially it's difficult to know for the people not in a given field, the validity of the information that they're in the midst of sifting through.

But that aside, I think, you know, somebody starting a blog on Great Gatsby and saying, okay, let's now have a conversation about, let's take and meditate a moment about the fact that Gatsby's father, when Gatsby is dead, comes back to Gatsby's house, and rather than looking at the house, looks at the photograph of the house that his son gave him, right?  So let's see a sort of conversation about that on a blog, that's wonderful.  You know, I mean, the fact that then lots of people inside and outside universities and high school might want to participate is wonderful.  And one can only hope that part of what's happening is that that particular moment in that particular novel is being thought with a much greater degree of concentration than it typically is.

You know, but I also do sometimes think, oh, well, is everybody's time going to be spent tweeting and blogging?  I mean, it's just, I mean, and what will happen to the book of literary criticism?  You know?  I mean, you were obviously talking about books such as, like a book of poetry or a novel, but it's certainly increasingly difficult to believe that you will actually have books like the books that I've written appear in book form.  And I was, the last time I was in New York, I was up at the Bard Graduate Center for design in the study of material culture and it was a symposium that was for a bunch of editors for a new book series that Harvard is doing, the University, at present, Harvard is doing, fascinating group of scholars, all of whom work on the material world in powerful ways, one person on textiles, one person on climate change in the 11th century.  But this is a book series that is going to be exclusively digital and universal access, right?  So the irony of that, that this book series entitled, The Cultural Histories of the Material World, is going to have a very, you know, different material manifestation than the sort of manifestations that are going to be part of the project.  It's powerful, I'm delighted that Harvard is taking it on and it strikes me as a very, very important publishing ambition that they have.  But it definitely means that the academy as we know it, the academy as I've inhabited, is going to disappear, something else will happen, and it's very difficult to know what.  Very difficult to know how you assess blogs, you know?

And in the world of art criticism, I mean, I don't know, I read probably more art criticism online than I do literary criticism, and it's difficult to know how to think about that in relation to reading your art criticism in art form as a magazine, right?  And I certainly miss some of the magazines that have left the world and miss some of the newspapers.  So it is a very strange moment, it's a very strange moment.

Recorded on March 4, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen