for 15 August 1996. Updated every THURSDAY.



The New Criticism Sucks

When the New York Times called to
fact-check our reading habits, we
had to ask ourselves, "Why?" (After
we asked ourselves, "What?" - truth
be told, we don't read much
anymore.) All - or rather, most - of
our questions were answered when a
Suck mole secreted out this missive.
Unfortunately, he gave little
explanation. We suspect that it's a
rough draft of Michiko Kakutani's
"Culture Zone" column, but despite
our regular perusal of the weekly
feature, we can't tell if it's one
that has already run or not. Perhaps
it's a template of sorts. In any
case, we are honored to present:
The Way New Criticism by Michiko
It was Friday evening, and at 10 P.M.
pacific, 11 p.m. central and
mountain, couples and singles,
roommates and barroom acquaintances
were all tuned to MTV. They were
fractionally attentive to their
company, in conversation and out, as
they watched and listened intently
to a program they pretended to
eschew. They kept an ear out for the
one-liners they'd repeat later, not
to mention their favorite sound
effects, sound effects for sale,
recorded on a faux remote control
with push-button playback. They were
enrapt before "Beavis and
Butt-head," the loser cartoon teens
who reduce criticism to its essence:
flatulence and "heh-heh"'s.
An example nonpareil of the American
spirit of anti-intellectual
populism, Beavis and Butt-head
remind us of what we really look for
in a music video: cleavage, snatch,
well-painted lips, and a
thong-sculpted ass. Their
self-pitying message - that being a
guy means groping others with your
eyes and groping yourself when no
one's looking - has struck a deep
chord and in the process
reestablished that the height of
criticism in America today involves
discerning what will get a guy hard.
Featured on magazine covers from
Rolling Stone to POV, Beavis and
Butt-head are celebrated as symbolic
of the New Sincerity, of calling it
like they see it, telling us what
doesn't suck. But their base
sincerity comes at the expense of
true criticism.
Look around - Beavis and Butt-head
are just the more flagrant examples
of the new chic of media criticism.
Call it designer dis-content: media
crit has become a hot new fashion,
and a one-line dismissal of whatever
is on the cover of Wired is an
accessory as vital as painting your
nails Robin's-Egg Blue, sporting Dr.
Martens and wearing a secondhand gas
station attendant's jacket to a
supper club with a dress code. Mass
media is the disease and every
hipster with a modem thinks they're
To see just how bad it's gotten, just
compare Beavis and Butt-head with
their most famous antecedents,
Siskel and Ebert. (These venerable
names alone give you a warm, fuzzy
feeling, don't they?) In the classic
series, "At the Movies," Siskel, the
scanner for nuance, and Ebert, the
lover of pure movie-making, would
bicker brightly over the merits of a
film and give it a reliable
thumbs-up or thumbs-down. In "Beavis
and Butt-head" this bottom line has
been replaced by another bottom line
altogether, their infantile
discourse studded, like a punk
rocker's lobe, with cheap profanity.
Obviously some criticism that's
revolting is also great criticism.
Still, unlike the criticism of the
past, contemporary critics like
Beavis and Butt-head, Tired and
Wired, Howard Stern and Joe Klein
are just interested in controversy
for controversy's sake. Their peek
into the miasma of today's
accelerated culture isn't
interesting; it's just an excuse for
a self-congratulatory smirk.
The Old Criticism was then, and it
was deep. The Way New Criticism is
now, and smeared like somebody
stepped in it. The Old Criticism
probed for meaning and was much mo'
better. The Way New Criticism
details the effects, not meaning, of
media and is mo' meta. The Old
Criticism plumbed an artist's
motivation. The Way New Criticism
wants to know, Did you catch the
reference to Gilligan's Island? The
Old Criticism purveyed a Menckenite
ethic of autonomy and terrible
honesty. The Way New Criticism is an
infotoaster for stale content and
bad Internet metaphors and will say
nasty things about everyone -
including the sponsors.
The Way New Criticism is exemplified
by the mean people who work at Suck:
over-educated ne'er-do-wells weaned
on Entertainment Weekly and poisoned
by Tarantino nihilism. Gen X has
become the "Heh-Heh" Generation -
the logical progeny of hippie freaks
and rebellious squares, informed by
Reagan-sized myths of abstinence,
Robert Mapplethorpe's turgid flowers
and Karen Finley's feelings about
The Way New Criticism is the absurd
end product of those who watch Nick
at Nite with Barthes' Mythologies
bedside. It's the consequence of a
little well-disseminated McLuhan, of
too many college grads with cable
access, and of wannabes with a DIY
HTML guide who think that just
because they can crap, they can also
The Way New Criticism answers to a
public drowning in overcooked crap
that not only needs a yes/no
recommendation, but a punch line to
help them remember which it was. A
placebo for information sickness,
The Way New Criticism is undermining
the integrity of all but the
mightiest of media, like my
publisher, the New York Times.
Yes, sir. Time was when criticism
helped you to get down to the
nitty-gritty, helped you see the
trees in the forest and pointed you
clearly to the meaning of life.
Those were the days - days of wine
and roses and depth and things that
mattered and readers with brains,
back when criticism was Criticism.

[Zero Baud Archive]

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