//Criticism 2.0// Adam Kruk
Criticism 2.0 Adam Kruk
The democratisation of criticism on the internet lets us go beyond a reviewer’s single ego and sometimes even beyond words.
Today’s critic is an expert, quite often an anonymous one, who prefers to act collectively and from a distance. Mieczyslaw Porebski
The changes in the paradigm of culture, for the most part now grounded in the internet – both in terms of distribution and the evolving language (with linearity replaced by all-pervasive connectionism) – are accompanied by parallel shifts in criticism. The 2.0 internet should be construed as a forum for exchanging ideas and inspirations, where everyone becomes a critic of sorts. It is no longer just a virtual reality supermarket. The popularisation of social and microblogging websites has democratised the ways in which people can express their opinion. Every comment can now be published. On one hand, the internet has overcome the arbitrary compartmentalisation of criticism performed only by exclusive circles in printed press, hermetic universities and on TV, while on the other hand the flooding of voices (which Krzysztof Metrak distinguished in Krytyk jako trener) may oversimplify the approach to criticism. A critic-worshipper often changes into a thoughtless fan (♥♥♥), a critic–partner takes on the role of a usurper, a critic–vanquisher, or a hater in the message board lingo, just bashes everything, often resorting to hate speech. At the same time, a critic–coach lost any raison d’être as this role assumed a certain dialogue with the creator, and which artist today can find time to google everything that was written about them? Maybe a novice. Therefore, criticism 2.0, rather than being a creative, or at least a co-creative dialogue with the author, constitutes a set of independent, individual and collective forms of expression, a discussion among members of an extended circle of criticism. It is meta-criticism blown out of all proportion.
In his analysis of meta-criticism, which follows criticism (‘metá’ in Greek means both ‘after’ and ‘between’), Mieczyslaw Porebski applied the terms of game theory. The first move belonged to the artist, while the second (i.e. taking a position on the product in question) was made by critics. If a critic’s opinion is confirmed by the choices made by others, he or she wins. ‘In order to win, the critic needs to comment on and promote their choice, whereas the tactics applied to the choice itself and to the commentary may be quite varied’. Internet is therefore a perfect environment in which we can promote and verify our own opinion or intuition, as it offers various forms of commenting and does not depend on any invitation to discuss a given topic. All we need to spark a dispute or to participate in it are blogs, message boards and the ‘walls’ of social websites. This metaphor illustrates how technology has given the floor to those who, previously excluded from public debate, would otherwise be reduced to scribbling their opinion on the walls of buildings. Walls can be a both a venue of crude ‘hating’ and of merciless, non-institutional quality verification, both with regard to the work itself and to its critical reception. On the internet, meta-criticism is pursued by various, more or less influential communities. There are no centres and peripheries; in order to win, you need to convince others or at least attract their attention. Web users do it by pursuing quite original forms of criticism. Criticism was traditionally associated with the culture of word, and especially written word. ‘In pre-writing civilisations it had most probably been ritual and magical. In various literate civilisations, it had been theological, hermetic and normative. Only with the coming of the civilisation of print did it become individualised, personal, involved and poetic. In our separate civilisation, the audiovisual one, criticism becomes divided, hierarchical, anonymous, although it needs to be underlined that this process is due to technical requirements, not ideological or social ones’, says Mieczyslaw Porebski. The 19th century development of printing also reinforced its image as an emanation of the critic’s ego. Today, when McLuhan’s prophecy, claiming that print culture will be replaced by the culture of image, has been fulfilled, we may ask whether the set of traditional forms of criticism should not perhaps be extended; in other words, whether we can go beyond the word (does visual criticism exist?) and beyond the single ego (what is the potential of collective criticism?).
The expansion of collective criticism on the internet is connected with the decreasing importance of an individual reviewer’s ego which needs to be reinforced by an appropriate number of similar voices. The famous Polish Facebook group ‘Captions Under Pictures in MOCAK’ (‘Podpisy pod obrazkami w MOCAK-u’), whose fans deride the hermetic or downright romanticised manner of writing about art, is a proof to this claim. The group’s authors explain that ‘Works of art need art theory and criticism, and the pieces presented in MOCAK, as well as contemporary art as such, deserve to be introduced in a lucid and insightful manner. We are worried by the discrepancy between the “picture” and the caption’. Over two thousand ‘likes’ sparked a discussion on the form of criticism that went well beyond Zuckerberg’s social website. Collective criticism not only has much more chance to be actually heard but also makes the language of criticism less hermetic and, as a result, helps promote culture. There are a lot of such meta-critical collectives. In terms of film criticism, there is a Facebook group called ‘Jacek Szczerba of the day’ (‘Jacek Szczerba na dzis’), which criticises the texts published by the journalist in ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ by quoting, just like in the case of MOCAK captions, and sometimes adding malicious commentaries. However, such mocking groups raise some ethical/aesthetical doubts. Some members write reviews themselves and instead of publishing a serious polemic (even on their blog), they hide behind an anonymous mass of commentators. And since it is impossible to defend oneself against a virtual crowd, the only way in which the object of criticism can react is to ignore all such comments. In this manner, the previously open field of meta-criticism is simultaneously closing. Of course what we are dealing with are not only lampoons; social media are full of affirmative fan groups, which, in turn, often serve some marketing purposes, more or less concealed. It is noticeable even at the level of commenting – public relations specialists are paid to follow discussion threads and publish positive remarks about the product in question. However, it is not the first time that criticism and PR have been flirting. Even in the 19th century ‘the commercialisation of publishing houses and bookstore owners revealed more than ever the advertising function of literary criticism’, according to the Dictionary of Polish Literature of the 20th Century. Criticism always had to take the existence of the market into account. And vice versa.
What kind of critic earns the most? The one that seats on a TV talent show jury. In order to qualify, they must be famous, so that no one will question their competence; the sheer fact of their presence in the role of a reviewer turns them into critics (Clifford Geertz calls such a function the ‘I–Witnessing’). At the same time, television, which used to cement hyperreality and the omnipotence of the fourth power, gained its own zoil in the form of web users. According to Pudelek, a web portal which specialises in criticising TV pop culture (anonymously and most probably collectively), their representatives ‘would like to appear in the media in beautiful poses and perfect interviews and never have to read any opinions about themselves. They want to have a monopoly on opinion. Only admiration, no criticism. The internet destroyed that, it spoiled everything. Only ten years back, the world was so beautiful; they did not need to know what you thought about them. The simple option of writing a commentary under an article turned the media upside down’. Together with the comment, a new form of criticism was born: succinct, sharp gem of a sentence, with puns, anecdotes, paradoxes and sometimes venomous, personal slurs. An internet comment, sometimes confined to 160 characters, sometimes taking a form of a mini-essay, one can find talentless writing, brilliance and common sense, in equal proportions.
In contrast with pre-arranged TV appearances, criticism 2.0 is inclusive. Let us take for instance the increasingly social-media-like Filmweb, a portal that encourages its users not only to post comments but also to write their own reviews. Internet has completely changed the way in which pop music is evaluated – magazines such as the ‘Rolling Stone’ are no longer the ultimate authority, having been replaced by Pitchfork, a web portal, or in Poland Screenagers and Porcys, sites that grew out of mailings lists. At one point, Porcys built its brand around reviews written collectively by four authors. It relied on the social media rule that only collective criticism has the power to create and abolish certain trends. As Malgorzata Halber writes, ‘When we are dealing with extremely popular phenomena, it is considered in good taste to criticise them. A little while later, when everyone is starting to criticise them, you can let yourself publish such songs on you wall and people will treat it as irony. It really is difficult to make it on time if you do not have the courage to have your own opinion’. And this perfectly illustrates the ambivalent role of collective criticism – its power helps a given judgement ‘win’, but we no longer know who this judgement belongs to and to what extent it is dictated by lemming-like rush.
To go beyond the word
The ‘Captions Under Pictures in MOCAK’ group demonstrates yet another (apart from collectivism) feature of contemporary web-based criticism: departure from the word. Judgements are passed by publishing a photograph; the image ridicules the word. Te tendency of departing from traditional forms of expression is becoming more and more wide-spread. Reversing Baudelaire’s famous words that ‘the best account of an image could be a sonnet or an elegy’, criticism 2.0 shows that it is the image that can be the best account. For two years now, ‘The New York Times’ has produced short, mute videoclips with the best actors of the passing year. Although no word is pronounced, it is still criticism, thanks to the presence of the crucial element, the choice. In the feature section of Filmweb, articles are equally important as the Shortcut cycle, which present cinema classics in short video-essays. Two years ago, dwutygodnik.com launched the cycle My Favourite Bad Review, where writers (such as Sylwia Chutnik, Agnieszka Drotkiewicz, Jas Kapela) read reviews of their own works against a background of their own choice, thus reversing the role of the reviewer and the reviewed. The Shiznit website each year publishes modified posters of Oscar movies, offering both a caricature and a concise review in one. A treasure chest of such visual commentaries can be found in the blogosphere, where criticism sometimes assumes unexpected forms, such as Robert Sienicki’s The Movie or the Udlaw sie! (I hope you choke!), where the author reviews movies and publishes recipes that they inspired. Is this still criticism?
There are many new, more or less successful, ideas on how to open criticism towards image. This year, during the Plus Camerimage festival, a group of critics co-operating with RESTART organised a meeting to discuss how criticism, with its literary focus, could be encouraged to use not word but film. Of course this is nothing new. Jean-Luc Godard has been working in this trend for years now, openly admitting that he replaced articles with movie essays with elements of criticism. Similar experiments can also be found in theatre. Should we not interpret, for instance, Jackson Polesch in TR Warszawa in the same vein? Instead of telling a story, René Pollesch, the author, constantly analyses and comments the changes in the world of art and capitalism and discusses the books he read. It is an interesting strategy – instead of trying to court a critic (or ignore them), you can just take over their role.
Artists are no longer satisfied with having the first move in the game of meta-criticism, as can be seen on the example of recent attacks on critics launched by authors and producers whose films met with a chilly reception, like Kac Wawa and Big love. However comical or pointless, such incidents raise the status of critical discourse, showing that you still have to take into account the word, not only money. Half a century ago, Pauline Kael quoted intelligence, experience, sensibility, imagination, devotion and clarity of judgements as prerequisite to good criticism. Although criticism has made a long journey in the past fifty years, it still should try to meet Kael’s criteria. They remain unchanging regardless of whether we use a pen, a brush, a TV commentary or HTML. Or any other form of expression that may yet be developed.
 M. Porebski, Krytyka jako gra, in: idem, Krytycy i sztuka, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Krakow 2004.
 K. Metrak, Krytyk jako trener, in: idem, Krytyka – tworczosc przekleta, Przedswit, Warsaw 1995.
 M. Porebski, Krytyka jako gra, op.cit., p. 11.
 Ibid., p. 13.
 Cf. Slownik literatury polskiej XX wieku, A. Brodzka [et al.], Ossolineum, Wroclaw 1992, p. 450.
Adam Kruk (born 1983) – film scholar and critic, writes for, among others, dwutygodnik.com, Filmweb, ‘Film’, ‘Czas Kultury’ and ‘Hiro’. Editor of the show Flaneur kulturalny, publications Jan Nowak Jezioranski, Tutejsi and the Popvictims.pl blog. Co-author of Stanislaw Lenartowicz – tworca osobny, Coz wiesz o pieknem?, Polskie kino niezalezne.