TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT April 1992

CRITICAL REFLECTIONS

I DISLIKE THE MESSIANIC VIEW allowing critics to speak with confidence (or these days, sell endorsements) on every issue in social life, and I do not think that those who refuse are acting irresponsibly or evading a public role. In a much more complicated way, I am also uneasy with the puritan variant that requires us to rehearse, in exemplary fashion and no matter what the occasion, our difficulties and crises of confidence in having access to public speech. My first ethical principle—which, as a self-employed writer, I cannot always carry out—is to respond as a critic only to what engages me so deeply and directly that I cannot not work for as long as it takes to articulate my engagement.

Objects and practices framed as art rarely have that effect on me, and my own sense of critical responsibility is rarely engaged by the problematic of art. This is partly just a matter of temperament, and I think that critics too willingly confuse the limits of our own capacities with grueling conflicts of principle. On an average day, I love stories, talk, movement, the flow of language and images on television, and my ordinary mode of “esthetic” response is one of burbling enthusiasm. At the same time, I have a horror of the stillness of those mute, inscrutable norms that a part of me thinks of (despite the criticism I read and the living art practices I see) as “dead things in galleries.” I find esthetics proper—the critique of judgment—an emotionally baffling discourse. I don’t know why those problems matter, and so I am perhaps less irritated than I could be, as a feminist, with Jean-François Lyotard’s distinction between works as “cultural objects” and works construed as “art.”1 When Lyotard invokes an “art and beauty” that “do and will take place . . . because their place is not a place in the world,” I can say that my critical passion is unequivocally for cultural objects—and for practices of art that construe themselves as making a place in the world.

Of course, this temperamental response is also a product of history. I grew up in rural and then industrial parts of Australia where the white people told good stories and jokes but had no time or respect for “art” (and no concept at all of aboriginal art), where silence could be played like a musical instrument, lowered like a barrier, or wielded as a weapon, and where the radio and later the television would act as a lifeline that peopled differently the spaces of social existence. In bringing other voices and alternative values into our everyday lives, the media slowly helped to transform the terms on which we could struggle to change our social relations of race, gender, sexuality, and, more obliquely, class.2 This history inclines me at times to romanticize the popular media in Australia, and to react with an easy contempt to derivative forms of art-world commodity fetishism. So my second ethical principle is to keep both tendencies in check in all of my critical work.

For just as I know that TV is by no means generally a benign political force, so I know that in exactly those places of the world that have formed my sense of history—the parched wastelands, not of Australia, but of industry, modernity, and colonialism—the forces of impoverishment have sometimes shaped the work of great creative esthetes. So if I have no interest in esthetics per se, I have no critical mission to denounce or oppose “estheticism.” In the noisy, image-saturated places that I mostly inhabit now, the antiintellectualism and repressive intolerance of cultural elites right across the political spectrum seem to pose a much more alarming problem. While “estheticism” can cover a multitude of sins, the invention of what I take to be fictions of otherworldliness and transcendence is sometimes not an evasion or an illusion but a way of affirming both survival and the real possibility of liberation.

It all depends. This is the more equivocal premise of a criticism that does not work with the dichotomy between art and cultural objects, but that engages with cultural practices. Such a criticism is then immediately faced with a problem of defining its objects. We can certainly say that cultural criticism is itself a “practice” among others. But while this is the case (and while it is well worth putting this case to those who think that “criticism” and “theory” are activities not of this world), it is trivially the case if we ignore the institutional and social power relations that differentiate between practices (art, criticism, theory)—and that discriminate between practitioners. My view is that the role of cultural criticism cannot usefully be stated (except for polemical purposes) in general terms. It is a question that has to be asked and answered each time a critic undertakes a project, and each time a reader makes use of a work of criticism. This is not to adopt, as some critics have claimed, an extreme form of relativism that condemns us to a chaotic, unintelligible universe of infinitely dividing particles and proliferating specificities. It is simply to say that some questions may not be as sensible as they seem.3

In my own practice, for example, critical discipline is not a matter of addressing a coherent range of objects or their associated scholarly traditions (I work primarily with films, media events, poems, buildings in social landscapes, philosophy books, my own and other people’s memories), and it is not grounded by the protocols of any one academic field, political culture, or professional “world.” That is to say, my critical discipline does not generate my critical questions. It is, on the contrary, a way of answering questions that arise for me insistently in the course of my everyday life. Most of these I can only formulate at first as rudimentary, even infantile, personal “why?” problems—why could I watch Crocodile Dundee six times before I stopped laughing? Why do I feel so safe in this motel, and so sad in that shopping mall? Why does that awful politician make me feel like a kid with a crush on a pop star?4 These questions have to bother me enough to break down my burbling enthusiasm, and to drag me into the disciplined procedures of research, thinking, argument, and (worst of all) writing—ways of shaping a form of discourse that will, when I have finished, have freed me from the question.

There are many more sociable ways, I know, for a feminist to talk about criticism. I could, and usually do, derive the principles of my practice from the broad political struggles that have shaped my life and labors for over 20 years. I also can, and sometimes do, participate in political struggles in excess of my work as a critic. The fact is that in order to write criticism (rather than some other kind of socially useful text), I need to begin with a pressing, wordless feeling that I must work to render sociable—by writing out of it a cultural history that may serve a political struggle.

This fact is important to me in the context of the current cycle of debate about the politics of cultural criticism. In my view, politics and criticism may overlap and affect each other (and I accept that all criticism has, for the worlds in which it circulates, political consequences), but they can never be made identical. I think that while both must be more—but not other—than “personal” in import to have any social effect, the work of politics requires commitment to formal organizations. I also think that when we forget this, or reject the social goals it entails, our critical debates about the massive global conflicts of our time—conflicts of race, gender, class, morality, religion, nationality, and environmental responsibility—may end up having less to do with politics than with a ritualized theater of cruelty.

AGAIN, IT ALL DEPENDS. I am not sure what my views would be if I lived in the United States. Australian intellectuals often moan about their marginal social status, but we have relatively easy access to national media on the one hand and institutional power on the other. In a small nation constituted thinly across vast space—and still, in many ways, in the early stages of becoming a nation state—it is also difficult for dense professional milieus, insulated from each other as well as from the rest of society, to form. To say this, however, is to say that I take it as a general principle that the politics of cultural criticism are always produced relationally as well as provisionally. Cultural criticism has to take material as well as conceptual account of the heterogeneity of social forces and human aspirations that are now shaping the future of mixed societies. Paradoxically, I think that in practice this means paying scrupulous attention as critics to the specificity of our objects as well as to our audiences and communities. Only by doing this can I ever hope to make political sense of those questions emerging from a layer of my experience that I still call “ideology.”

Cultural critics work primarily as mediators—we are writers, readers, image producers, teachers—in a socially as well as theoretically obscure zone of values, opinion, belief, ideology, and emotion. This is slow work, and whatever political effectivity we might claim for it can only be registered, most of the time, by gradual shifts in what people take to be thinkable and doable, desirable and liveable, acceptable and unbearable, in their particular historical circumstances. In more peaceful or settled times, this can be cast by its enthusiasts as an intrinsically splendid endeavor. In fearful or turbulent times, it is easily denounced as trivial. In between, I agree with Margaret Morse when she says that "changes in shared fictions, values, and beliefs occur over the long term, slowly and incrementally, not merely because once shared values are discredited or may be no longer viable, but because alternative values and their constituencies have labored to mark themselves in discourse. I believe the criticism of television can serve cultural change when it keeps such long-term goals in mind.”5

To undertake such labor is necessarily to make a commitment to creating some sense of solidarity and continuity with others who are laboring in the present, and who have labored in the past. It is exactly at this point that I can begin to engage with the problematic of art, and to learn from artists and critics who are redefining by their practice the role of art criticism today.

Some time in the early 1970s, I told my friend Virginia Coventry—a feminist artist and teacher—that I had no idea what people were supposed to do with those inscrutable things in galleries. She took me on a tour of a National Gallery, and talked to me not about the photographs and mixed-media installations that I could understand and enjoy, but about my greatest horror—painting. I told her that the quiet and immobility of paintings reminded me of those parched and wasted places where the silence could be lowered like a barrier or wielded as a weapon. We stood in front of what I saw as a pointless picture of some flowers in a vase, and she played it like a musical instrument. Although I was by that time fluent in the Stalinist esthetic vocabulary of political criticism (and so an opponent of estheticism, relativism, pluralism, theoreticism, elitism, populism, and defeatism), I had never heard anything like the stories she told about the labor in the painting (by, I think, Margaret Preston). In ten minutes, I learned to see difference instead of monotony, gaiety instead of dullness, and the movement in a still life.

Virginia’s pedagogy had three interdependent elements that I still value—if often in a more abstract way—in the work of feminist art critics and art historians today. First, it was what I call “sociable”; it was not a self-referring display of erudition, but an act of creative understanding that made an experience available for someone else to develop. Second, it was community building; scrupulous about its audience as well as its object, it made possible a form of social exchange about comparable (if not “common”) problems that had not existed before. Third, it kept something alive—not only a moment of one woman’s labor in making a painting, but a sense of that labor’ s value and why remembering her work could matter. For me, these elements can properly count as political, rather than ethical, responsibilities of criticism.

Meaghan Morris is a writer who lives in Sydney, Australia.

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NOTES

1. Jean-François Lyotard, “Critical Reflections,” Artforum XXIX no. 8, April 1991, p. 93.
2. I talk about some aspects of this history and the problems it raises in “Panorama: The Live, The Dead and The Living,” in Island in the Stream: Myths of Place in Australian Culture, ed. Paul Foss, Leichhardt, New South Wales: Pluto Press, 1988, pp. 160–87.
3. See Paul Hirst, “An Answer to Relativism?,” New Formations 10, Spring 1990, pp. 13–23; and Paul Patton, “Marxism and Beyond: Strategies of Reterritorialization,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 123–36.
4. These questions underlie my essays “Tooth and Claw: Tales of Survival and Crocodile Dundee,” in my book The Pirate’s Fiancée: Feminism, Reading, Postmodernism, London and New York: Verso, 1988, pp. 241–69; “At Henry Parkes Motel,” Cultural Studies 2 no. 1, January 1988, pp. 1–47; “Things to Do with Shopping Centres,” in Grafts: Feminist Cultural Criticism, ed. Susan Sheridan, London: Verso, 1988, pp. 193–225; and “Ecstasy and Economics: A Portrait of Paul Keating,” Discourse, forthcoming, 1992.
5. Margaret Morse, “An Ontology of Everyday Distraction: The Freeway, the Mall and Television,” in Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, ed. Patricia Mellencamp, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, and London: BFI Publishing, 1990, p. 215.