There have always been critics in society, those who explicate, analyse and comment upon other people’s creative efforts. They first went professional, I suppose, in the era of the first daily newspapers in the early 1800s: people like William Hazlitt (Michael Foot’s favourite essayist), and so on. The previous generation of critics had generally been published in pamphlets; writing for an intellectual audience, they included writers and thinkers from Adam Smith to Jonathan Swift. Further back, the critic can be seen in religious enquiry such as by St Thomas Aquinas, and all the way back to the philosophical debates of the Ancient Greeks. From the beginning, the critic has been a figure of intellectual authority, bringing deep knowledge of his or her field and authoritative judgement to the edification of their readers (or listeners, in the case of Plato and chums). This tradition worked across fields from film and music to politics to, I don’t know, queer studies and post-gender body dismorphia. (Completely off-topic: I once read a queer-studies analysis of William S Burroughs that is probably the best book on him out there – it totally makes his works comprehensible, if not, you know, that much better). Famous critics include Roger Ebert, Lester Bangs, and Noam Chomsky, to take three disparate examples. You’ll doubtless have a few favourites of your own: mine include George Orwell (90% of the time, a better essayist than novelist), Stephen Thomas Erlewine (of Allmusic fame – surely the best music review website on the internet), Jon Savage, Michael White and Paul Krugman.
With the internet making everyone a critic nowadays, it has thereby necessitated a change in the stance in the critic. While their essential function is still the same – they look at what other people have done and make observations, hopefully in an entertaining way – the way they present themselves and their information has shifted dramatically. This can be seen in two of the most popular critics to come from the post-2000s, namely Charlie Brooker (of Screen Wipe and the Guardian) and “Mr Plinkett” of the RedLetterMedia Star Wars prequels analyses fame. (See: The Phantom Menace, Attack Of The Clones, and Revenge Of The Sith; each one is about 70 minutes long).
With Charlie Brooker I actually wasn’t overly aware of his broader work until recently. Though I am a pretty devoted “Guardianista” (I curdle with shame at how I used to read the Independent, because I thought it actually was independent – it became intensely “Blair-lite” in the mid-90s, probably chasing market share), I only read Brooker’s columns and no more. I was in China when Screen Wipe was on, so missed it completely. I did see Dead Set, the zombie show he wrote, and Nathan Barley, a satire of the “Shoreditch Twat“, but found both far too heavy-handed to be genuinely enjoyable. The targets were too obvious, the humour too self-satisfied. But recently, freshly back in the UK, I watched several episodes of Screen Wipe, and found them to be extremely good. Their dissection of TV, media and popular culture is blisteringly funny, fiercely acute and scatologically profane – so the three things I enjoy most, then.
I can’t remember how I encountered the RedLetterMedia analyses – probably just through YouTube’s “Suggested Videos” sidebar. Their flaying of George Lucas and the prequels were just so absolutely dead on-the-money, though, that I recommend them to any fan of cinema, not just Star Wars fanboys. Laced with comic surreality and intense black humour, the reviews are some of the most intelligent takes on film I’ve read in a long time, when sadly the media has abdicated its critical faculties in the pursuit of advertising and movie star (imagine as a blinking gif – MoViE StAr!!!!!1!) access. This is even true of supposed “film journals” like Total Film and Empire. (This is even more observable in music media, from NME to Q to Mojo, where sycophancy runs desperate riot).
What do Charlie Brooker and Mr Plinkett have in common that I’ve lumped then together? They both take the traditional role of the critic, true – they analyse, dissect, observe, and pass judgement in an entertaining and enlightening way – but that’s not their USP. Both of them make repeated efforts to present themselves as idiots, even as deeply unlikeable. The stance of the critic, urbane, sophisticated and effortlessly knowledgeable (think Roger Ebert, Barry Norman, Frank (or indeed Mark) Kermode and Lord Kenneth Clark), is unsustainable in a world where any idiot with a computer can pass judgement. (Just look at me, heh-heh-heh). Those critics were better than us. Instead, Brooker and Mr Plinkett acknowledge the impossibility of being this kind of critic any more and – to show they aren’t superior to us – present themselves as deviants and plain misanthropes. Mr Plinkett has his voice slowed, making him sound almost like Buffalo Bill in The Silence Of The Lambs, while his creepily tongue-in-cheek asides present him as a abductor of women, murderer, and rapist. Brooker meanwhile contents himself with visceral hatred (of himself and all others), leering, profanity, and mimed (I hope) masturbation.
The democratisation of knowledge the internet brings has not, of course, led to a democratisation of insight, wit, or learning, yet the opening of access (to content) makes it harder to present yourself as an expert when there’s been no equal opening of access (to media opportunity). It’s not harder to be an expert these days, but it is harder to present yourself as one, when there are thousands of others out there who can claim to have better knowledge of your field. So if the social value of the critic is devalued by its inflation (just look at how many crappy blogs there are out there), best to satirise yourself first. The criticism of the critic extends first of all to themselves. There is, too, a touch of “get your retaliation first” about their stances – call yourself a sad, ludicrous prick before anyone else does, and you seem less aloof, and less vulnerable if anyone else does it. Brooker and Mr Plinkett therefore adopt the ironic stance of seeming as grimly pathetic as the rest of us – “sitting next to Mr. Waddilove, stinking of shit!” as Pauline from The League of Gentlemen says – to head off criticism, ingratiate themselves with the masses, and attest to the absurdity of their position in society.
So is the critic dead? No, he’s merely in his basement, cutting off someone’s head, or wanking off to low grade Albanian porn. Just like the rest of us, so we feel less patronised. But what does that say about us?