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From Criticism to Conversation

Ghostbusters (2016), Columbia Pictures.

Ghostbusters (2016) has floated across the summer blockbuster landscape like so many colorful balloons of popular entertainment before it: an airy bauble destined to disappear. However, its ascendance into the box office heavens has been weighed down with some surprising (and unsurprising) baggage. Least surprisingly, like any reboot of a well-beloved franchise, it faced the expectations of fans devoted to the original, released some thirty years ago. The primary challenge to those expectations came in the form of recasting the four main ghostbuster men with four ghostbusting women. The ensuing controversy split in two strangely opposing directions. The first wave of criticism challenged the gender reversal in the lead roles, with some complaints blatantly sexist and derogatory. The second wave of criticism surrounded the decision to cast white actors (Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon) as the Ivy League educated, science-y, founding trio of ghostbusters who recruit a fourth member—a black MTA worker (Leslie Jones)—for her expertise in urban geography, as it were.

The decision to include Jones as the recruit mirrors Ernie Hudson’s turn in the 1984 original as a black, blue-collar “normal.” The pre-shoot script put Hudson’s character on equal footing with the others, but when filming commenced, the script changed: he shows up half way in, and his most memorable lines are about a paycheck and a Twinkie. Jones’s character rectifies the peripheral position Hudson was pushed into but doubles down on the low-brow relatability. Both are connected, for instance, to the modified hearse the quartet use to zip around the city (in the original, Hudson is the primary driver—or chauffeur?—while in the new film, Jones secures the car from her uncle, a funeral director).

One of the most telling aspects of these dual controversies is that they occurred well before Ghostbusters’s release. The trailer appeared online in March 2016, and quickly became the most down-voted trailer in internet history, now with over one million votes against it (compared to about 290,000 up-votes and 39 million views—a ratio of condemnation far exceeding other popular videos). The movie superseded the low expectations set by the early negativity—through enough positive appraisals from professional critics and a revamped marketing campaign—to reach revenues well above its production costs (around $208m worldwide box office to date, against a $144m budget).

The kind of critical discourse surrounding the film exemplifies the current state of criticism as a whole: ubiquitous, accessible, democratic(ish), disposable, and tightly bound to financial interests. When movies first started to dominate popular interest, theorists produced provocative predictions about how the medium would shape critical practice. Perhaps most famously, in the 1920s Walter Benjamin wrote a wide-ranging analysis anticipating the proliferation of criticism beyond elite and professional circles.[1] He observed the increasing presence of mechanical reproduction across all of the major domains of cultural production, but especially within the arts. The outcome of this shift was supposed to be the empowerment of critically engaged masses and the erosion of a mode of engaging art built around passive contemplation, with its dogmatic debt to tradition. Benjamin states that “the film actor lacks the opportunity of the stage actor to adjust to the audience during his performance, since he does not present his performance to the audience in person. This permits the audience to take the position of a critic” (259-260). He goes to claim that film, in particular, “encourages an evaluating attitude in the audience . . . because, at the movies, the evaluating attitude requires no attention” (269). With increased accessibility and representation in everyday aesthetic forms, absent the auratic pulse of a human person, the members of the working class was free to have an opinion of their own.

The mechanical model of aesthetic production has flourished well beyond anything Benjamin predicted, and popular criticism has, in a way, flourished alongside it; that is, if flourishing consists in the mere existence of a phenomenon. Whatever else it was supposed to do, for Benjamin, mass critical engagement was meant to be a platform for political revolution. The overwhelming impression today, at least in the U.S., is that criticism is mostly a catalyst for more, negative criticism (think: the internet “troll”). The shape of that critical engagement is likely to be politically impotent and intellectually thin. I have in mind the thousands of Amazon.com reviews praising Fast and Furious 6 (a four and a half star average over 2,516 reviews and counting). That is what critical discourse among the masses looks like.

Ghostbusters is a curious example. The critical dialogue surrounding it has clear political ramifications and has sparked some genuine debate. Yet, the very ease and accessibility of contemporary critical engagement, like the ephemeral cultural products it targets, often lacks substance, unable to sustain or engender thoughtful discourse for long. In the case of Ghostbusters, the movie’s success is ultimately measured against its economic viability. The dialogue and critical responses are subservient to this end. Then there’s the social media fallout involving Jones, who deleted her Twitter account because of the onslaught of abuse she received. Hackers later took over her website, filling it with private information and malicious, graphic content.

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott recently published a book distilling the virtues of a critical life, titling an accompanying commentary culled from the book, “Everybody’s a Critic. And That’s How It Should Be.” This title is perhaps more aspirational than descriptive. Scott remarks that in our popular discourse, “we are more likely to seek affirmation than challenge.”[2] He goes on, “We graze, we binge, we pick up and discard aesthetic experiences as if they were cheap toys . . . which they frequently are.” We should ask, then, is criticism alone a viable hope? Is it producing valuable dialogue? Just as post-postmodernism has spelled the return or reinvigoration of the aesthetic, there is an accompanying enthusiasm for criticism. Scott declares, “That everyone is a critic means that we are each capable of thinking against our own prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us”—emphasis on capable.

On the one hand, the world of social media, user reviews, and digital commentary testifies to the persistence of the modern, Western ideal of critical engagement. On the other hand, the vestiges of postmodernism have eroded aspirations toward neutral objectivity built on rational discourse, while solidifying and encouraging the subjective authority of the individual opinion-maker. Thus, the typical user review, which has a very low bar for entry and algorithmically shapes the creative cultural products of popular attention. This is criticism as consumer reporting (and art as consumer product). Criticism was always a practice in crisis, but perhaps it’s time to consider practices beyond criticism more seriously, for the sake of cultural engagement and for the sake of art.

To both curtail and contextualize criticism further, my suggestion is to take up a model of conversational engagement instead, both as a subject of theoretical attention and as a social practice. In his commentary, Scott likens critical dialogue to conversation: “It is an endless conversation, rather than a series of pronouncements.” I would like to bolster this idea of conversation and liberate it from its attachment to criticism. My preliminary sketch of conversational engagement involves three criteria: there need to be at least two participants, the participants need to share a language, and there needs to be genuine exchange.

A conversational model may involve criticism, but it doesn’t default to it. Conversation encourages a greater sense of shared territory between subjects (viz. shared language and exchange), as well as between subject and object—the work under consideration being one possible conversational partner. This is admittedly a broader framework for engagement than criticism. There are, after all, different kinds of conversations. Besides critical ones, our conversations may be formal, casual, serious, brief, intense, professional, wandering, focused, discursive, pragmatic, and so on. How then does a conversational model put a check on the shortcomings of criticism as it now exists?

Let’s focus on the third condition for a moment: that genuine exchange must occur. Criticism often dictates its terms to a work. We take up a favored evaluative lens and impose it on the work. In his monumental book, Truth and Method, Hans-Georg Gadamer states that “the more genuine a conversation is, the less its conduct lies within the will of either partner.”[3] This is consistent with the contrast Scott makes above, between a series of pronouncements and a conversation. Insofar as we criticize a work, this ought to be a mode of engagement that the work invites and that we take up at its invitation. Part of the problem with the early reactions to Ghostbusters lie in their insensitivity to the work and the discourse it could sustain. When we declare the movie a failure out of preexisting prejudices or assumptions, we fail to let the film shape the dialogue. Our critical “conversations” lack a participatory spirit and carry an air of finality. A conversation, on the other hand, always leaves open the possibility of rejoinder.

Herein lies the key difference between criticism and conversation. Where criticism aims at authoritative, reasoned judgments as the culmination of an artistic experience, conversation prizes open-ended responsiveness. Rarely do we revisit the subjects of our critical judgments, even positive ones but especially negative ones. A conversation by contrast is flexible and discursive, leaving open the possibility of renewed interest and attention. In this way, conversation better captures the way meaning and interpretation evolve with a work, audience, and context over time. If meaning is provisional and shaped by my engagement with the work, then a work’s meaning will necessarily change through my conversation with it. A critical conversation may be justified at some moments, but it is far from the only kind of dialogue a work may invite or reward. What Ghostbusters means today won’t be what it means tomorrow, and what it means to you isn’t necessarily what it means to me. There are provocative, worthwhile discussions in which the movie might partake (e.g., about the responsibility of bearing an artistic legacy, even if it’s the legacy of a piece of mass entertainment, or about gender and racial roles—is it possible or even desirable for a movie to remain “neutral” on issues of gender or race?). Criticism can have the effect of closing off such dialogue before significant interpretive work has had a chance to take shape. A conversation responds to such shifts or the possibility for such shifts in meaning and value.

One of Scott’s insights about the importance of mass critical engagement revolves around those moments where the professional critic gets it wrong, woefully wrong. He points to the early reviews of Moby Dick. However, it’s not clear that inviting the mob into the critical arena will function as a corrective for the erring professional critic. Everyone already is a critic, but the quality and use of that criticism is superficial and cursory. If, as Benjamin envisioned, the mechanical and mass arts encourage a more engaged populace, conversational engagement offers a more useful framework for responsible practice. The critical arena, by its very nature, encourages individual, independent evaluative pronouncements that easily let us talk past the work and one another.

What, then,do we stand to gain by shifting towards conversation? We gain a clearer, more equitable understanding of what a work is doing. We curtail prejudice and evaluative bias. We respond more sensitively to the context for our engagement. We ask more questions: Is this a setting where criticism is warranted or useful? Who are my interlocutors? What do they have to say? What do you have to say?


[1] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1940, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2003).

[2] This and all subsequent references from <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/31/sunday-review/everybodys-a-critic-and-thats-how-it-should-be.html?_r=0>. See also, A.O. Scott, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth (New York: Penguin, 2016).

[3] Hans-Georg Gadamar, Truth and Method, 2nd Revised Edition (New York: Continuum, 2004), 383.