Critical Mass: Authority, Expertise, and Aesthetic Democracy

By James Jiang


“You don’t have to have read a book to have an opinion on it. … I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way, you get both the novelist’s ideas as well as the critic’s thinking.” So says Tom Townsend, the strait-laced Princeton undergraduate who inadvertently falls in with a group of New York debutantes in Whit Stillman’s preppy comedy Metropolitan (1990). No, he hasn’t read Mansfield Park, he confesses to the Fanny Price-like heroine Audrey Rouget, but he has read Lionel Trilling’s essay on the novel. He hasn’t read the Bible either, but when has that ever stopped anyone from having an opinion about it?

It’s hard not to be amused by Tom’s play at high-mindedness, which instead of impressing with its sober intellectualism shocks with its cynical appetite not so much for learning as being in the know. But the confession is also ringed round with a kind of pathos: Trilling has clearly become a substitute figure of paternal authority for Tom, who, in the same conversation, fails to face up to the indifference of a father who only deigns to see him for lunch when he comes up from school. What Stillman manages to dramatize in this tenderly revealing scene is one dimension of a crisis of authority that runs throughout the film and is shown to infect the very institutions around which these Manhattanites’ “UHB” (“urban haute bourgeoisie”) lives cohere: class, family, education, sex.

This episode is one which I habitually call up as someone both fond (perhaps a bit too fond) of reading the “secondary” literature and who has taken up a professional interest in the history of criticism from the nineteenth century to the present day. What strikes me about Tom’s attitude is its interesting mix of self-confidence and deference: if he lacks the courage to face Austen’s ironies on his own terms, he is at least certain of the authorities whose ex cathedra pronouncements he ought to seek out. The reference to Trilling is far from incidental in this context. As Stefan Collini has put it, Trilling was “one of academia’s most cherished culture-heroes, one of the few saints of modern literary criticism”, whose celebrated volume of essays, The Liberal Imagination (1950), sold over 170,000 copies—a number which very much suggests “a lost world” of cultural consensus and moral seriousness about the kinds of things books could be reasonably expected to deliver: beauty, wisdom, culture.[1]

Metropolitan is noticeably coy about its precise historical coordinates; the events are said to take place “not so long ago.” Stillman has himself suggested that the story unfolds in the fifties just before the countercultural turn of the sixties—that is, right at the tail end of what the poet-critic Randall Jarrell called in a wonderfully ambivalent essay “the Age of Criticism”. If Tom’s confession now seems quaint to us, it probably has less to do with his arriviste pretensions (his literary opinions are as second-hand as his evening-wear)—pretensions which are likely to elicit some measure of sympathy—and more to do with his untroubled subordination to the judgements of a court of higher taste. The self-declared Fourierist is far from anything so revolutionary in his cultural politics.

I had occasion to think about this scene again recently when I came across an interview with the film critic Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. When asked about the changes he had observed over his career, Bradshaw had this to say:

It used to be that people read the review and then saw the film. Now it’s the other way round: they see the film and then, on the way out of the cinema, get out their smartphones and read your review. And then they start vehemently letting you know what they think. You get reviewed! It’s been a sobering experience for all critics to realise that the one-party state of media and publishing … is over, and they themselves are in the firing line.

The case of the reviewer reviewed, an inescapable reality in these days of instantaneous online feedback, can only serve to make a serenely deferential attitude like Tom’s seem all the more arcane. When Bradshaw describes himself and his fellow critics as being “in the firing line” he is using a metaphor that might imply a kind of peremptory revolutionary tribunal or a figure for intellectual sparring (cf. William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line, a public affairs program which aired on PBS for 33 years; here’s Buckley vs Chomsky on Vietnam). Even more so than television, Twitter can be seen to have broken the “one-party” monopoly of print punditry in a way that makes criticism not only a more participatory enterprise, but also a more deeply polemicized activity.

The arc, then, that one can trace out between Bradshaw’s interview and Tom’s veneration of Trilling seems rather clear: it is one in which the critic begins as a privileged gatekeeper to consumption only to end up being simply another thing to be consumed. And the surest sign that criticism is being consumed is that it keeps getting produced and circulated in a demotic register—whether in the form of Tweets, live feeds, TV episode recaps, or Youtube reaction videos. But is the assertion of egalitarianism in revoking the paid reviewer’s privileges necessarily a gesture of cultural confidence? Or does the rampant desire to throw oneself into the critical fray suggest rather a lack of self-trust—an absence of faith in the significance and vitality of our own aesthetic sensibilities—for which only the visible commotion and polemical energies of social media’s publicity apparatus can adequately compensate?

No doubt, in speaking of criticism in general, I am conflating a whole spectrum of media and genres as well as the institutions of journalism and academia. But what seems hard to dispute is the loss of prestige suffered by the critic whose authority has been crowded out in a marketplace where consumer advice is as readily available as objects of consumption; metaculture as up for grabs as culture. It will be a long time before we see another critic as widely read and as highly esteemed as Trilling. But does the disappearance of the critic as culture-hero bring us any closer to aesthetic democracy?

I have borrowed this last term from Linda Dowling’s elegant and persuasive study The Vulgarization of Art: The Victorians and Aesthetic Democracy (1996), a book that addresses a similar set of concerns about the critic’s role in expanding the public reach of art, an expansion that entails the translation of the notion of equality from the realms of ethics and aesthetics into the sphere of politics.[2] For Dowling, the roots of Victorian liberalism were set down in the seventeenth century with the third Earl of Shaftesbury’s attempt to legitimize the post-Revolutionary settlement on the basis of a “natural moral sense” modelled on connoisseurial taste. The positing of a universal aesthetic sensibility, as Dowling shows in her chapters on John Ruskin, William Morris, Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, was thus at the heart of Victorian conceptions of democratic statehood.

The story The Vulgarization of Art has to tell is not a happy one: the respective attempts to accommodate what Dowling identifies as “the repressed paradox within aesthetic liberalism—of an aristocratic gift projected as a democratic endowment” end in frustration and, in the cases of Ruskin and Wilde, litigious scandal.[3] But the book provides, I think, some better news for those invested in the future of the humanities, disciplines which continue to provide some kind of institutional support for critics who write for and speak to a more than academic audience (Ruskin was the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, while Pater was a Fellow in Classics at Brasenose College, Oxford). It may be worth returning to the nineteenth-century moralists and critics examined by Dowling, writers who set the precedent for a Trilling, as practitioners of a style of cultural authority that constitutes an alternative to the technocratic knowledge and professional expertise that are widely acknowledged to be undergoing a moment of crisis.[4]

Apostles of a humanistic holism committed to the development of “personalities, many-sided, centralised, complete” (in Pater’s words) through what Elizabeth Helsinger has called a “democritization of imaginative perception”,[5] these writers arrayed themselves against “all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive”.[6] This is Matthew Arnold’s list of modifiers and it shows the ambivalent company that the word “professional” kept in the Victorian critical lexicon—a lexicon in which, as Dowling puts it, the word’s “disparaging connotations of a narrow, vendible expertise were reinforced by the implicit contrast to the ideal of the equally skilful but always unremunerated amateur in the social traditions of the English gentry and aristocracy”.[7]

A return to the authority of the aristocrat-amateur won’t cut much ice with the populism that animates the contemporary distrust of technocracy. But the sense that the critic may simply be another kind of amateur, who may come from anywhere, and who claims no other privilege than the experience of having paid sustained and loving attention to the things that matter to him or her is not only liberating, but turns what has been traditionally a weakness of the humanities into a strength. For what the humanities offer is a model for practising modes of perception so basic that they are either notoriously difficult to discipline or professionalize entirely, or that the advantages of conforming to disciplinary convention or professional decorum are never without countervailing costs of self-estrangement and deformation. (So much is apparent in my own field of English studies, which in recent years has become increasingly disenchanted with the kinds of affective responsiveness ruled out by the hegemony that paranoid or symptomatic modes of reading have exercised over the field for the last few decades.[8]) It seems to me that there’s another paradox worth considering if we are ready to think of criticism as a species of imaginative activity and of the humanities as critical precisely to the degree that they are imaginative. For insofar as imagination admits of no professional monopoly, we might say, then, that the humanities are best equipped to survive the crisis of expertise precisely because their claim on “narrow, vendible expertise” has always been the shakiest.



[1] Collini, Common Writing: Essays on Literary Culture and Public Debate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 101.

[2] Dowling, The Vulgarization of Art: The Victorians and Aesthetic Democracy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996).

[3] Dowling, 24.

[4] See, for instance, Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[5] Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 6; Helsinger, Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 206.

[6] Arnold, Culture and Anarchy and Other Writings, ed. Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 79.

[7] Dowling, 117.

[8] See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction is About You”, in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 1-40; Michael Warner, “Uncritical Reading”, in Polemic: Critical or Uncritical, ed. Jane Gallop (New York: Routledge, 2004), 13-38; Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).