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Product Placement

X-posted from Culture Rover #376.

cultural criticism in the age of social networking: from content and form to contexts and formats?

Rob Horning’s always fascinating columns explore the politics of consumerism. Horning charts a path between the usual camps of “consumption bad!”—”no, consumption good!” Recently, he has focused on the impact of Web 2.0 technologies, particularly social networking, on public life.

In “Reviews for consumption convenience,” Horning turns his attention to a recent blog post by Jason Kottke about developments in Amazon.com reviews, which increasingly focus on the formats of cultural products and the contexts in which they might be consumed rather than their actual content or form.

For Horning, the shift away from critical spaces for discussing content and form are troubling, but he uses the occasion not merely to issue a screed, but rather to ponder the place of cultural criticism in contemporary public discourse. Horning writes:

Criticism will recede into recondite elaborations of personal experiences with the goods, as the idea of trying to capture a consensus view will have disappeared completely from public discourse. Public discourse itself seems sort of threatened anyway, subject to replacement by social networks. Lost will be that middle ground of critical reviews, which help establish a context of reception that makes our engagement with something far richer and more meaningful.

It’s a nice description of what is so appealing, yet troubling about social networking: it is radically democratic, but does it fragment cultural criticism’s ability to achieve any sort of collective framework for shared understanding of cultural goods and experiences? There’s still “engagement,” as Horning points out, but no more “middle ground” of “consensus” and a “context of reception.”

Of course, consensus had its own historical shortcomings. Usually a small group’s opinions were mapped onto collective opinion. But, is it worth reconceptualizing what kind of “consensus” might be possible in the radically fragmented and decentered channels of Web 2.0? We’re probably not going back, so where does cultural criticism go now?

We still don’t know yet what the public looks like in this new zone of social interaction, and if at times it looks like a pseudo-public in which supposed consumer empowerment masks the profound inequalities and anti-democratic dimensions of corporate capitalism, at other moments, social networking seems to offer new avenues for cultural criticism as a more democratic encounter with “engagement” and all that it might entail.

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