In the Absence of Criticism

Presented by Justin Macdonnell at the Apple University Consortium’s Create World Conference,
Griffith University, Brisbane on December 1, 2009

HG Wells in his novel The Time Machine depicts far into a post nuclear war future, a people he called the Eloi. They were a society that lived a simplistic and unconcerned life because they had, to all intents and purposes, lost their collective memory and lacking memory they had no capacity to create community or history or art or religion but existed entirely in state of a continuous present. They survived on the bounty of a parallel, sinister society amid the ruins of past civilisation and technical achievement knowing nothing of them and understanding nothing of them. Their ultimate fate was to be enslaved and devoured. Wells’ imaginary people were not the mythical "noble savage". They had belief and kinship, love and loyalty, war and peace even if they sometimes lacked a concept of futurity. The Eloi, by contrast, were simply blank.

I'm sure we've all watched in distress as loved ones faded or have had some association with dementia praecox, Alzheimer's disease or even strokes. We know what happens when individuals lose short term or long term memory and the impact of that on their reality. They too live in a state of continuous present and we’ve no doubt witnessed the anguish it causes them and those around them and the grief it promotes for what they had been and for that part of them that we have lost as a result.

Yet for all this, we seem to care much less that our entire society may have, in some fashion, entered that state of continuous present. Of course, one can claim that research has never been more active, publications on every conceivable subject fly off the shelves and the 21st century recovers and remembers the past with greater care and greater accuracy than any previous period in human history. Perhaps, for the moment that may be so. But how long can that continue if the evidence on which we base our judgment and our remembrance, even of the immediate past, is progressively eroded and we enter into an age of collective dementia?

Of course, I exaggerate for effect. We would all, I assume, agree that photography, film and the entire spectrum of electronic reproduction preserves what we are and have been more precisely and in greater detail than all the numismatics and epigraphy, paleography and pottery of bygone eras that have been the happy hunting ground of archaeologists and historians. Books and journals may well be entirely replaced by digital media and as soon we as get used to sitting in bed on a rainy night with a hand-held device rather than a paperback, what will it matter? Maybe not for the permanent, such as those things we think of as “literature” or “scholarship”, for they will always find a way to be preserved, but what about those that we regard today merely as ephemera? How will they fare?

After all, it is the detritus of an age which has often proven most enlightening and critical in its recovery. It has not always been the carefully considered work of art or learning, but what was thrown away as seeming of no importance at the time, that has shed most light on how such and such a people lived and what they thought. It is the rubbish dump or the midden heap of scraps and broken objects that has illuminated the past. Where shall we search for the digital midden heap? I mean, of course, the emails, the blogs, the Facebooks and Myspaces and whatever succeeds them, where the incidental record of our lives and increasingly our critical opinions are being inscribed and which are literally here today and gone tomorrow and which many predict will soon replace the more formal organs of record on which we have relied for over 300 years.

So how might society function which in effect loses those memories? We have become accustomed to the easy access and retrievability of the written record going back five thousand years. We can read Egyptian hieroglyphs carved on walls, Sumerian cuneiform on clay tablets, Hellenistic coinage and the poems of Homer, the plays of Sophocles, the Ramayana, the texts of Confucianism and the Mayan codices because they have been preserved in some solid and transmittable form. They may have been stored in tombs, caves, libraries, in someone's attic or simply tossed on a rubbish heap and recovered centuries or millennia later. But they are in some degree recoverable. For more recent recollection we can go to libraries and read 19th and 20th century newspapers and journals increasingly on microfiche but read nonetheless. These are all the organs of our collective memory; the deposit, if you like, of our research. In varying degrees, we have come to assume that somehow they are forever.

Yet it is astonishing how easily even these can be lost and from the most recent past. Film-cans can be mislaid, tapes reused, programs erased. How many realize that for all his years as Prime Minister, there is hardly any sound recording of Robert Menzies in the Australian Parliament because in those days the ABC still recorded on solid state and these like the daily news broadcasts were simply overwritten. I’m talking of the 1960s. Those of you who may have seen the recent re-release of the film, Wake in Fright remastered by the wonderful National Film and Sound Archives might have been surprised to learn that until recently it was believed lost. No reliable print could be found of this work which not only represents a key piece of Australian film culture with its savage yet sympathetic depiction of Australian bush society, but captures a critical moment in our recent history. By chance, one was found like the lost medieval manuscript, in a film vault in Pittsburg. Yet this was a film made only in the 1970s! .

This is not a Jeremiad against technology. Far from it. For someone of my generation I think I haven’t done too badly in adjusting to the new. What I have to say is merely intended as a cautionary tale about how fast we have moved and how hard it has been to design strategies to ensure that we don’t lose as we gain.

So, what are the organs of record in an increasingly web-based world and how far will we be able to rely on them in the future? How do we retrieve data in ten years time when the platform on which it was created may have disappeared? Web 2.0 came upon us apparently from nowhere. It can go as quickly. A few weeks back FaceBook pages across the world were invaded by hackers, it would seem, using them as a vehicle for financial scams of the widow-of-the-Nigerian-Minister-of-Finance-god-bless-you type. Might that vulnerability herald the end of all that narcissistic social network madness? I think not, but something will.

Who any longer has fax? One day it was in everyone’s office and home, the next it was gone. Not just the physical presence went, but even the consciousness of it. How odd we feel when some one today says: “or you can fax it” and you think: “how?” And while we’re on the subject, if you’ve ever had occasion to look back into old office files (and by “old” I mean ten years old) you will find hundreds of pages of faxes on paper of a type that has rendered them all but illegible. Will email go as fast? And all its records with it? Who hasn't been frustrated to discover that someone has sent an attachment in a version of Word or whatever that your computer can’t read? Oh sure, you can save and upgrade etc etc. These examples are merely intimations of digital mortality.

One day soon the USB will be as useless as the floppy disk - which already seems like a medieval usage – and along with it with will go the article or poem or short story you wrote that was kept nowhere else. Sure, you can get it converted, but for how much longer?

Who hasn't lambasted their bank or some other service and thought it was all better/faster/ more courteous before computers? Who hasn't waited at a hotel reception desk while someone inputted their “data” and longed for the days when they just took a key of a hook? Or contrariwise, who hasn’t rejoiced at online check in or at being able to pay a bill without leaving home or using an ATM on a Sunday morning. In short, we take the rough with the smooth recognizing that it is the way of progress and we and society adapt. But until recently such progress was all gain.

These are not idle questions. We have all been confronted by them but maybe we think they are just little personal irritations sent by Telstra to annoy us. Not quite. Some years back the US census bureau went into a panic when it realised that some of its data were stored in formats that were no longer readable because the technology was by then obsolete. Eventually and at great expense, they fixed the problem. It is rather like the moment you realise that you have nothing on which to play the favorite old cassette or LP , to say nothing of the reel-to-reel to you find in a shoe box on top of the wardrobe and wonder if some precious moment of your life was once recorded on it. Had it been a letter or a diary, however yellowed, you could have just sat and read. Not so the stretched and probably demagnetized tape. Tiresome though granny’s photo album could be at Xmas, at least the photos were there. Digital storage may be slim and efficient but it is very easy to delete. We applaud that many periodicals critical to research and teaching are now available digitally, but how many realise that if you stop subscribing to some, you lose access to the back numbers that you (or your institution) thought you owned. And while many a graduate student has been turned on to some arcane field of knowledge by browsing the periodicals stack, who now will be able to browse that reassure trove?

When we acknowledge that the web has been the greatest leap forward since the printing press, if anything we underrate its impact. Yet I suspect we also underestimate how it contributes to the erosion of communal memory. There is evidence that pre-literate and proto-literate societies even into the 20th century could commit to memory vast slabs of oral history, sagas, call them what you will. The great epics like Mahabharata, Ngal and the Odyssey almost certainty had their origins in these. Even in the pre- electronic era, people committed great slabs of the Bible and Charles Dickens to memory. My parents’ generation could recite The Man from Snowy River not to mention the ten times table and the begets and begots of the Old Testament without difficulty, because rote learning still ruled. Technology has replaced the need for such memory just as earlier printing had to a lesser degree. Rightly, we might say who cares? The limb which is not needed atrophies and drops off. Intellect adapts just like camouflage.

But in each of these great changes humanity developed new methods to cope. The three or four costly illuminated manuscripts were replaced by thousands of cheap books. Literacy spread. Pamphleteering and newspapers emerged and commentary was king and caused revolutions in faith and politics but all because people could remember not just what was said today, but what was said yesterday.

Those of us who had the benefit of some history in our early education know that there had been something bad called The Dark Ages. One moment there was the Roman Empire with roads and bridges going everywhere in Europe and law courts and hot running water and everyone speaking Latin from Libya to Hadrian’s wall and then the nasty barbarians came and it was back to square one. A few monks squirreled away some books but basically the lights went out for about four hundred years. Now we know that that was far from the truth and that societies constructed all kinds of devices to maintain and morph their culture. But we know that because we can still read the remains.

If, however, we woke up tomorrow or, if in any age, people had woken up to discover that the past was all written in a foreign language for which there was no key or that everything had been deleted and sent to the recycle bin, what would happen? Again, I don't mean novels and plays and text books. But I do mean the daily opinion piece, the review, the article. Indeed the opinion poll, what Mr. Howard said on election night or how people have reacted at the time to a million and one contemporaneous events?

That we live in a throw away world has long been apparent. Many of us aspire to work in a paperless office and are all familiar with the messages urging us to think before we print and email in the interests of preserving the forests. But where are 90% of the records if they are not printed and who takes care that in their digital form they survive? And who will care in five, ten years time, even if we can still retrieve them after we've reached Microsoft Version 23.6?

Where then is the research material? Who keeps drafts? Who writes letters? Where are those Rosetta Stones of our language or our culture? What will be the artefacts of our society in 100 or 500 years time? What maintains the memory of our culture is not just The Brothers Karamazov but also the letter that Tolstoy might have written to his sister about it.

And so, to come closer to home for me and I think for many of you, I ask: with the rapid decline of the traditional means of mass communication notably but not only newspapers what will be the platform for informed critical discourse for and about the arts?

And perhaps more importantly still: how do we judge the provenance of those opinions that are expressed in the emerging web world? Or have we already passed to a state in which anyone’s opinion on anything is as good and as respected as anyone else’s? It is interesting to note that the dreaded but compelling Wikipedia has closed off the universal self edit option in recognition of the fact perhaps that people still demand to know whence their information comes and with what credentials . But, in an increasingly blog-based discourse where anyone can have a “published” opinion and it may be said that anyone's views, however unreasoned, may be deemed the equal of any other, where do we look for critical standards, judgment and advice. In who’s FaceBook, as Mr. Shakespeare might almost have said, would we see “authority”?

Now, I hope I’m not naïve enough to believe that simply because someone is paid a few hundred bucks to write a concert review in “The Australian” or wherever, that in itself anoints their views as holy writ. But, at its best and over time, such acts created and sustained something approaching a specialised craft of criticism. That professionalism, if you like, has in the best of circumstances, ensured a quality and clarity of writing about the arts and gradually built up a body of critical opinion to which the reader could, however unconsciously, refer. It might have been as elementary a response as thinking "So and so thought it was good, so I guess I'll go". But it might have been that little extra: “That’s a recommendation’s worth having, I might take a punt”.

But more than that, it also contributed to positioning individual work in a bigger context, offering a vocabulary of criticism and commentary with which both aficionados’ and the general public alike might become familiar. It opened doors to understanding and even adventure, acting as a guide and stimulus simply because it was there in a responsible context which we had bought for a few cents and from which we expected quality opinion in return. That the influence of such criticism was occasionally malign (though more often in Hollywood movies than in real life) does not undercut the value of the practice as a whole. That it has sometimes been pedestrian and dull does not mean that the mere regularity of its presence and opinion did not have its use. And, wonder of wonders, sometimes it even led public taste through its very authority and stimulated attendance at events that might otherwise have been outside the normal tastes of a community.

Similarly, and beyond the critical appraisal of a single performance or exhibition, has been the capacity to evaluate what one might call the "state of the union" in an artform or an age. That is to say, such criticism in what was seen as a reliable and crucially recurrent medium built up a picture of activity and achievement over the years against which both artists and their public assessed themselves. Beware the artist who says: “I never read reviews”. It is like the politician who says that “the only poll that matters is the one on polling day!”

I do not deplore any of the trends to new technology. The future is with us now - as it has always been. Even oldies like me belong to a generation which has had its awareness and its self-awareness transformed by communication technology until we can barely think, still less express ourselves, in the old ways. Our children and their children have grown up in a world which will know nothing else (unless of course one day the lights go out). But that said, I wonder where it leaves us in our search for standards – and here I am assuming we still want standards. I wonder, too, who is concerned for it and how we might construct a new critical future out of the tools and practices we have now.

Do we care that in the future there may be no early ms or piles of correspondence for researchers to paw over? Does it matter? Or will research simply take another tack? Maybe it was just a lot of navel gazing anyway. We have the art itself. Does it matter that it may in the future be divorced from its immediate context? Are imaginations and our artistic practice richer or poorer for not having any idea what Shakespeare or Euripides thought of their own plays? There are no early drafts of the Iliad. Are we the worse for that? There are no letters by Su Shi to friends or relatives, though fortunately he did write some great travel books. Maybe the whole critical industry was really just a waste of effort.

But, happily, we do know what successive generations have thought (and in many cases why) about all sorts of things that were not the subject of great literature but of daily discourse. We know that Samuel Pepys, who did not disdain a good night at the theatre, thought A Midsummer Night's Dream "the silliest and most insipid play that ever I saw" and yet we value Pepys on much else and what a damn shame it would be today if he’d confided his thoughts to MySpace. We know a century later what Dr Jonson thought about the bard not just because he wrote a book about it, but anecdotally through his conversations with Boswell. And for more than one reason aren't we glad Boswell wasn't a blogger! What a nightmare he would have been on Facebook!

We know too what Shaw and Joyce and a myriad others have thought about Shakespeare because they wrote letters and through them we have a deposit of history and record and generational change in opinion which has all accumulated into our own.

So what might be the protocols of the web based world?

It was interesting to see Rupert Murdoch enter the fray about online content and how soon we would have to pay to read his newspapers online just as we pay for the hardcopy. Frankly, I was always rather surprised that we didn't. And it's easy to see in his little outburst an oligarch somewhat belatedly protecting his turf. But Murdoch loves newspapers both as media and as objects. And as an old newspaper proprietor I think he believes that even now when most things are globalised and the sub editors have long since been sent to the knackery, there is at its best a process of editorial judgment and overview, critical appraisal of content, quality of expression and processes of commissioning and placing opinion that is found nowhere else in the media. In the world of the sound bite and the spin these may sound hopelessly old fashioned but whether Mr. Murdoch practices what he preaches - and many of us would question that, I guess - these are principles which we are supposed to be about.

So I come back to my earlier question, in absence of all of these in any future blog based world who calls the shots? Who says this piece of criticism is lucid, literate and informed and worthy of attention?

I have long been disturbed by the gulf I see in the arts in this country between practitioners and the academy. To be fair, there is a scattering of university teachers who write in the main stream media on art, literature and performance. There is a smaller number who lurk dramaturgically in the theatre or curatorially in the museum. And bless those who do. But it is random and rare.

Yet, I would have thought that of all the organs of society that are well placed to harness new technology to the cause of maintaining a quality, peer-reviewed, critical dialogue with the public on the arts and creative communities it is the academy. You have or should have the authority of knowledge, independence and the long view. You have the skills and vocabulary to undertake the project and the institutional framework to ensure that it is ongoing and sustainable. And here I stress the words “with the public” not just with each other.

Ok, I hear you groan. Here's another burden to add to teaching and learning and research goals and administration. But I would point out that engagement in a positive and - though I shudder to use the term - outcome based way with "industry" is also a key goal of the modern university and in my assessment is that aspect that has been in the arts a dismal failure in the Australian academy. I would have thought, too, that it may not be so very far from some research agenda. Here, I am not talking about the learned periodical or a Griffith Journal, admirable though those things are. I am talking about the daily and weekly discourse on the arts with the public. Blogging, if you will, but quality blogs with provenance and authority.