Is the Web Killing Criticism?

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

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?

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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)

In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.

Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.