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Friday, September 26, 2008

Critique With Legs

In "Education for Irrelevance," Kurt Spellmeyer maintains that print-based academic cultural critique tends to reach such a tiny audience that it has essentially no effect at all on the culture being critiqued:

Let's say it's still 1999, and you've just finished watching a movie, and your outrage is so great that you set to work on a critique--an 'intervention,' as we say, in popular culture. In your critique, coyly entitled 'Saving Ryan's Privates,' you demonstrate that Steven Spielberg's seemingly anodyne film is in fact deeply complicit with the same patriarchal ideology that undergirded the Third Reich. . . . By the time your intervention rolls off the presses, something like two hundred million people will have seen Spielberg's film at least once. Now consider the impact of your response. For the journal that prints your article, even a prestigious one like Cultural Critique or Social Text, the print run is about eight hundred copies, most of which lie moldering on library shelves until they get decently interred in microfiche. Assuming that most people don't read every article in every edition--and they don't, to say the least--then you can expect a readership of about a hundred or fewer. (80)

In short, Spellmeyer says that such solipsistic, self-indulgent and -satisfied academic writing "has no legs: no one will ever read it who is not actually compelled to" (82). Ignoring for the moment that the essay in which these claims appear exudes condescension and superiority, and ignoring also (if you can) the fact that almost every example of inconsequential academic work Spellmeyer offers involves feminism, Marxism, or a combination of the two (he ridicules "feminist recoveries of Hypatia" and "Marxo-feminist unmaskings of The Simpsons," and he discounts the importance of the "mere exposure of impressionable young minds to John Berger or Gloria Anzaldua" [81]), I would find these numbers compelling even if Spellmeyer had underestimated readership of academic journals by a factor of ten. And, for those of us who identify more with rhetoric than cultural studies, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to extend Spellmeyer's argument to rhetorical criticism.

So I am heartened by the fact that there are some very visible, and very good, rhetorical critics out there, even if they aren't academics:

Work Cited
Spellmeyer, Kurt. "Education for Irrelevance? Or, Joining Our Colleagues in Lit Crit on the Sidelines of the Information Age." Composition in the New Millenium: Rereading the Past, Rewriting the Future. Bloom, Daiker, and White, eds. Carbondale: SIUP, 2003.

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At 10:06 AM, Blogger bdegenaro said...

First, isn't ideological critique in part an intellectual exercise that fosters particular kinds of thinking. Yes, social change is a key objective, but to an extent anyway we think about the culture in order to...think!

"Feminist critiques don't have any effect on Hollywood" sounds a little like "why do I have to take geometry if I'm not planning to be an architect or engineer?"

At 2:41 PM, Blogger Lance said...

The other problem both of your observations point to is the notion that, if we ruthlessly apply criteria like immediate relevance, practicality, and efficacy, then we may cut off lines of inquiry that, sometime down the road, may be profoundly relevant, practical, and efficacious.

At 1:15 AM, Blogger chris said...

Your Daily Show clip illustrates perfectly the point I would have made: that immediacy - the absence of: opportunity to mull over, to think about, debate, carefully consider - is not always a positive attribute. Not only does immediacy deprive us of the ability to think about a topic in depth, it also prevents us from being able to articulate fully reasoned responses.

Immediacy is a dangerous way of operating when it comes to history-altering decision making. But instant-gratification through immediate action is not only a mindset at the highest levels of government; it's pandemic at the most basic levels of education. Abandoning print-based exchanges such as the one you're discussing in favor of instant critique dilutes and disempowers. The lengthy process of nurturing an argument/response as well as the painstaking process involved in understanding the conversation in which that argument is embedded fosters, as you say, a way of thinking. But, more importantly, if habituates a way of being.

At 9:29 AM, Blogger Lance said...

One person's "decisive action" is another person's reckless abandon . . .

Still, to the extent that critique is meant to effect positive change, even as it potentially enculturates us into ways of being and acting, it is worth considering how texts travel. That's the value of Spellmeyer's argument as I see it.

At 7:56 PM, Blogger Alex Reid said...

Lance, I have to say that I think the comments miss the point Spellmeyer is making. He isn't saying don't do Marxism or feminism. He isn't saying don't write essays. Instead, I read him as exhorting all of us to take up the challenge of making the humanities more relevant for a wider audience of people.

We don't all have to do that every time we write. But some of us must do this and all of us should at least give thought to the matter. Ideological critique might foster valuable thinking but only if someone reads it!

At 11:52 PM, Blogger Lance said...

I think you're right, Chris, that Spellmeyer wouldn't completely discount more narrowly-targeted writing (which is precisely what his essay is). But he is saying, or at least implying, that if you're interested in doing feminism or marxism, you're not going to write anything that more than a few people will ever read, even if you do want your work to find a wider audience. As I say in my post, I think Spellmeyer has a point about the need for (at least some of) our work to "have legs." But his holier-than-thou tone won't make many people want to listen to even this modest exhortation.

At 1:17 PM, Blogger Lance said...

oops. just came back to these comments and realized I addressed my last one to chris instead of alex. sorry alex. and chris.


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