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Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
Legitimation Crisis
I wrote this for this morning's closing session to the Experience Music Project's sixth-annual Pop Conference:
I want to talk about the general crisis in legitimation that encompasses journalism and academia alike. I think it is productive to think about the troubles that many of the people who write about music have been dealing with in terms of hierarchies of access, whether that access be to content -- reviewers and record station types used to have way more knowledge than most -- or to the means of making statements of taste preference that will be taken seriously enough to influence listening or buying practices. Although the path through Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" has been worn smooth in the cultural studies tradition, there are still ways of approaching it that make it useful for the present conjuncture. Extending the concept of "aura" to apply, not only to the work of art, but to the work of criticism permits us to see how the proliferation of opportunities to reach a public, however small, has had effects analogous to the proliferation of ways of copying the work of art that Benjamin discusses. To come back to the question of legitimation, the distinction between "real" critics and their amateur imitators becomes harder and harder to maintain when the opening up of access made possible by file sharing and blogging alike collapses the distinction between insiders and outsiders. In light of this development, the only means we have of distinguishing our work from the excess of content out there is for it to be more informed or better written. But figuring out what constitutes "more" or "better" in this case requires us to establish a stable position from which to pass critical judgment, reinscribing the hierarchies that technologically-mediated changes have undermined. We must insist on being a "we," in other words, in which membership is restricted. As uncomfortable as that demand may be to those of us who believe in the ideals of democracy, responding to it is the only way that a realm of critical expertise can be defended against the tide of a culture that is rapidly rendering the notion of expertise irrelevant. Otherwise, we will be like the reform-minded leaders who pushed the policies of Glasnost through an ossified Soviet bureucracy, making their contributions transparent in the process. Maybe that is the goal to which we should aspire. If it is, though, we need to have the courage to be clear about our intentions.
As it turned out, the format was not conducive to reading sentences of this sort out loud. There were too many people in the room and too little time in which to speak. So I improvised instead, playing off a comment that Picthfork's Amy Phillips had just made about the impatience of today's young people, who want their content right away and are not interested in wading through a large word count to get it. I argued that our understanding of what constitutes "legitimate" criticism seems to run counter to their understanding and that we -- the self-consciously restricted "we" I mention in the passage above was more or less the "we" of the people at the closing session -- need to be mindful of that in trying to adapt our work to the new realities of the cultural arena. Mind you, I don't necessarily wish to advocate border patrols on the outskirts of our "we." I wrote the passage to provoke a response, perhaps of the heated sort. In my experience, the free-for-alls at the end of conferences are far more interesting when someone is willing to be polemical, as Amy Phillips was today.

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4 comments or Leave a comment
kumaraka From: kumaraka Date: April 23rd, 2007 01:37 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Answering this qustion is probably more work than it's worth to you, but I have to ask: When it comes to music, what is the mark of "legitimate" criticism. Is there really nothing other than being more well informed? Is there a systematic effort to subtract, or at least recognize, the effect of music presentation from the quality of the music? Is it understanding a context that a well-listened-but-uneducated person might not be aware of?
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: April 23rd, 2007 04:18 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Well, that's the big question. I think, as what I wrote in this entry suggests, that there's an arbitrary quality to any attempt to separate the "legitimate" from the "illegitimate." Arbitary, that is, in that the people drawing the proverbial line in the stand get to decide on the criteria they will use for drawing it. But it's also the case that a good number of people can agree on those critiera, giving weight to the arbitariness of the distinction. For my part, I think it's primarily a question of experience. When you listen to more music and know more about the music you listen to, whether historically or musicologically, you're opinions about a particular record or performance are going to seem more legitimate in my eyes. Still, I recognize that there's also an "The Emperor's New Clothes" side to all this. Sometimes it's precisely the person who lacks knowledge and experience who is best able to perceive what is new and interesting in music.
jstgerma From: jstgerma Date: April 23rd, 2007 11:31 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Phillips ...

I'm a big fan of Amy Phillips'. When I read her reviews, I learn a lot about the music in question, which is more than I can say for many Pitchfork writers (some of their other reviewers make me wonder on what grounds, exactly, membership in that particular organization is restricted -- other than snarkiness and a nearly solipsistic sort of self-absorption). I would have liked to hear her speak.

I'm also curious to hear your thoughts on the other commenter's question re: legitimacy.

cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: April 24th, 2007 08:13 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: Phillips ...

She definitely means business. Her comments were bracing and made a number of people recoil. But they made the discussion more lively. I do agree with you about the quality of her criticism.

For my part, I still think that criticism is rendered more legitimate by having passed a certain editorial muster, though there are plenty of unfiltered pieces these days that certainly could pass such muster, if they had been routed that way. As Amy Phillips's bête noir Robert Christgau keeps saying, knowing how to write well is the foundation of all good criticism, whether in a journalistic or academic context. And experience, being exposed to lots of different material over an extended period of time, is also extremely important.
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