Cultural Criticism after Trump

Midway through a story on the death of the literary hatchet job in the New Statesman, we find this.

For the critic, even the critic of the latest B-plus-level novel, has two audiences: readers who want something to entertain them for the next couple of evenings, and that much more exacting long-term judge, posterity.

There is nothing exceptional about this article. That literary criticism has lately become polite is a periodic theme of think pieces, and it could be extended to almost every form of cultural commentary, from movies to — yes — politics. But now, after the stunning failure of this critical regime to stop the unthinkable, such observations seem more urgent.

In Grand Hotel Abyss, the Frankfurt School group biography I referenced a few posts ago, there is a word that comes up in Adorno’s description of the bourgeoisie’s interest in art. He says this interest is merely “culinary.”

As an East Coast liberal urbanite — a member of “the creative class,” acutely aware of my complete implication in last Tuesday’s result — I find this word chillingly apt. Perceived from this culinary perspective, TED talks appear as tastefully prepared flights of modestly novel ideas; Brain Pickings reveals itself to be an artisanal butchery, serving self-help delicacies from the fringes of various thinkers’ actual thoughts.

Part of this culinary slide is practical, a strategy for avoiding facing our total spiritual bankruptcy. Who wants to work as a book reviewer in a world where all books are vacuous, or movies where all movies are … as they are now? Who wants to cover politics admitting to themselves and their audience that it is meaningless? There are powerful reasons to grade on a curve, and subtle pressures to do so, the most treacherous of which is the admonition to young members of the creative classes to “broaden your tastes.”

This now appears as chilling as the term “culinary.” It does not say, “pretend to like things that you don’t really like and produce and promote these.” No, it says, “change yourself,” modify your mind to include these.

Then, of course, we expect — no, demand — that the profession formerly known as journalism support and flatter our comfort. The first sign that something was truly amiss, I recall, was the complaint from a young, rising journalist that the New York Times had done something terrible by breaking the embargo on the latest Harry Potter book. These complaints came again, this time with even more seriousness and “credibility,” around the outing of the identity of novelist Elena Ferrante.

I would like to think these complaints could not appear this week, after Trump, as it should be clear by now that it should not be the job of the media to keep us rapt in our fantasies — that it does so at our peril.

We must do much better. Our comfort is gone. Obsession with self-care must go with it. We need a new, clear-eyed criticism, written for posterity — not the culinary reader. What will this look like? I don’t know, but we must find out.

To take a page from Brain Pickings, here is a quote from Kierkegaard that will not fit neatly on a branded social card.

Christianity is certainly not melancholy; it is, on the contrary, glad tidings — for the melancholy; to the frivolous it is certainly not glad tidings, for it wishes first of all to make them serious.

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