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The New Sophistry
January/February 2010


Why does criticism matter? This is not just an academic question, to be mulled over in a chilly ivory tower. The main outlets of criticism on literature and the other arts are in the process of a dramatic shift: newspaper circulation is falling, the transition to the web proves challenging, and reading and viewing habits are changing. Much depends on what kind of space we allow criticism to have in this new intellectual world. Just how much became clear to me on a recent trip to Munich, where I attended a meeting of young critics from across Europe.

Arriving in Munich, enchanted by its harmonious elegance and splendour — it is so different from the chaotic jumble of architecture, people and lifestyles of Berlin, newly reborn as a Weltstadt — I wondered what the unspoken assumptions of this gathering were. 

Developments in Germany in recent years reveal an interesting paradox: the quantity of literary criticism in the media is increasing, but the perception of its significance is declining. "The reason for this is that entertaining the reader is now the main goal," I thought on my way to the conference. I was almost ready to continue down this path: "Gone are the times where a review meant providing an article according to the golden rules of the good old criticism, with its academic standards of judgment and sharp verdicts." 

But I wasn't quite ready to put on the well-worn hat of cultural pessimism. Not because wearing it would make me appear like a grumpy old woman, but because it would be to underestimate the power criticism  retains, for countless recent debates, particularly in Germany, have reflected on the limits of criticism. 

Whether such debates are an especially German preoccupation is as difficult to determine as it would be pointless, but they belong to a long tradition that begins with the Romantics (led by the Schlegel brothers, Friedrich and August Wilhelm) and ends with the 1968 generation. The aim of criticism, to put the broad consensus in a rather tiny nutshell, has been to shape the future, of our knowledge and of our society. Criticism, if done properly, could change the culture and hence the world.

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