Fuck You, Pay Me (One Way Or Another)

29 September 2016

Some brief thoughts towards a different kind of film criticism...

It was perhaps foreseeable that I would come to read advice-giving posts such as this, this, this and this with a certain trepidation. Making the most out of a film festival (or a conference, or a networking event, or an elevator ride with a commissioning editor) is one thing, but challenging the systemic ways in which film festivals demand and facilitate a particular kind of labour is quite another.

To be a critic is to be a workaholic. Workaholism is socially conditioned: viewed favourably by exploiters, it’s generally ruinous to a worker's mental health. When T.S. Eliot said criticism was as inevitable as breathing, he failed to mention that, respiratory problems notwithstanding, breathing is easy. Criticism is reflexive before reflective: to formalise/industrialise an involuntary instinct requires time, effort and discipline. The reason we seek remuneration, as opposed to the self-hatred of being a scab, is because all labour should be waged.

Reading Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future (Verso 2016) earlier this month, I was taken by its argument in favour of a universal basic income. Without getting into the complexities of UBI—much less the massive social, political and technological transformations that it would require—I want to write a little about how its implementation might impact film criticism.

Criticism, so the cliché by now goes, is dying. None of the panel discussions on its death agony, however—including those in which I’ve formally participated—come at it from the wider perspective that the problem surely needs. They defend the ways in which criticism functions in relation to the industry and to the public, but they fail to contextualise these relationships as defined by ultimately rotten and self-harming imperatives.

Criticism was a noble profession so long as only a few could practice it for money; when the field expands, as it has with a so-called ‘democratisation’ of our practice, those few lose their political power. Competition grows and markets are undercut: publications are naturally going to start paying less. Precarity is both cause and effect of a surplus workforce: the reason you’re only as good as your last article is because there are plenty of other folks who can write the next one in your place. The daily grind is: pitch, or perish.

But criticism, so a counter-cliché goes, is not dying. An irony: this is an elite sport that is no longer elite in terms of who is able to practice it, but in economic terms it’s clutching to a perverse and outmoded hierarchical structure. It’s more meritocratic than ever, now: which is to say it isn’t meritocratic at all. That’s a paradox in bad need of a resolution.

As things stand, for those making a career of it, criticism is the inevitable and often painfully counterproductive expression of systemic contradictions: it’s predicated simultaneously on individual honesty and an externally imposed need to be topical, relevant, and so on—things that in obvious and less obvious ways, compromise and complicate critical integrity. (Academics, meanwhile, are forced to evaluate their research outputs in terms of ‘impact’.)

But criticism, as I’ve said on previous occasions, won’t save itself—which is not to say a counter-hegemonic politics can’t or shouldn’t be its aim. If our craft is to be saved, the problems it faces need to be formally identified, contextualised and understood—but they can’t be grappled by transforming criticism alone, precisely because criticism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. To repeat: it is an expression of systemic contradictions. These are social, political, economic: historical, in a word.

For purely illustrative purposes—highlighting the ways in which criticism is made to dance increasingly to the rhythms of neoliberalism and the more debased tunes of journalism, I list here some of the ways in which UBI might transform it. To be clear, I take it to be no coincidence that the prose style, social rigour, overall politics, and textual and historical analyses demonstrated by many film critics are found so desperately wanting at a time of neoliberal crisis.

Advancing the following demands in the name of film criticism isn’t merely utopian: it helps to pinpoint the endemic currents currently destroying our craft. Put another way, rather than advocating UBI outright, I’m more interested in imagining its effects on criticism in order to identify present symptoms of an ongoing crisis. In general, each point should be inverted to identify a symptom, e.g. “Accommodate more time for research” identifies the lack of research time afforded to critics by publications (research time that is not paid; publications remunerate with flat fees or by the word), which can weaken, say, a critic’s historical understanding of her subject.

This is not an exhaustive list; adapted from a thread I originally posted on Twitter, the brevity of its bullet-points means some unpacking and further elaboration is required. A universal basic income would, with regard to film criticism:

-         Reduce the pressure to formalise first impressions
-         Reduce the economic power and function of clickbait
-         Free criticism from obligatory topicality
-         Accommodate more time for research
-         Result in more interrogative analysis
-         Allow and encourage experimentation
-         Lessen snark, bitterness, pettiness
-         Help fortify against heteronormativity, white supremacy
-         Enrich criticism as a transdisciplinary creative practice
-         Broaden access to and interest in criticism while also sharpening its merits and diminishing structural malaise of journalism
-         Significantly reduce the power of brand managers and publicists
-         Preserve a richer, pluralist, non-Eurocentric film history
-         De-stigmatise bloggers and unpaid writing while enabling a more meritocratic structure
-         Allow critics to broaden specialisms rather than be defined and pigeonholed by them; our publish-or-perish culture would fade
-         It would reduce ‘festival fatigue’ and/or the need to frame criticism through the performative logic of work ethic
-         It would make critical thinking central to training workshops, rather than have tutors embody the contradiction of teaching and advising on career/professional development while undercutting their own market (many tutoring roles are underpaid, if paid at all).