Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Glasgow School: Methodology

Having worked as a critic for the past decade, I have developed an ad hoc methodology for my engagement with performance. Because ‘popular criticism’ (that is, criticism intended for publication in local, national and online magazines and newspapers) does not have the same disciplines as academic writing - there is no need to substantiate opinions with direct references to existing texts, for example - it is less systematic and has been developed in response to the tasks of interviewing, reviewing and discussing in the public domain, usually to a tight deadline.

I have named this process Radical Subjectivity, signifying that my responses are based on a root recognition of the partiality of my personality. It insists that any particular opinion or comment - including apparently factual ones about the content of an artwork - emerge through the prism of the critic’s experience and, as such, are only provisional responses.

This strategy was influenced by the vigorous debates around the role of criticism in the age of the internet: in the context of film, both Mark Kermode and Mark Cousins have suggested that new styles and writers will emerge not through traditional publications but through the ‘blogosphere’, whilst simultaneously emphasising the importance of an informed opinion. Kermode defines the role of the critic clearly.

One of the things I did in The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex was attempt to do a definition of what a good review is… the basic things were: to describe the film adequately. You have to know where the film comes from and contextualise it properly. You have to assess it on its own terms – if it’s a comedy, did you laugh? And then beyond that, there is your reaction to it, that which you cannot change or be anything other than honest about. The worst thing you can do is attempt to second guess the audience because: a) you’ll always get it wrong; and b) you’ll regret it. It’s much better to be honestly, completely wrong than to be dishonestly closer to being ‘right’.

Radical subjectivity follows Kermode’s injunction to be honest, but baulks at the possibility that a critic can be ‘completely wrong.’ A review might be contentious, or in a minority, but if the critic has ‘assess(ed) it on its own terms,’ and been honest, it is still a valuable part of the ongoing discussions about the art. Or, Mark Cousins puts it ‘Karl Popper said, to paraphrase, ‘If I'm wrong, I'm right.’To borrow a term from theology, criticism becomes part of a ‘hermeneutical spiral,’ the ongoing discussion of an event that never reaches a conclusion, but recontextualises the event at different points in time and space.

The primary justification for criticism as a process rather than a product comes from Red Bastard’s invitation to his audience to realise that most of a performance’s meaning happens not on stage but in their heads. He concludes that if they don't like his show, it is their fault (Edinburgh 2013), but this echoes both Wolfgang Iser’s interest in the way that art ‘manifests itself to the consciousness of the reader in the time of the act of reader’ (Fortier p90) and reader-response theory, considered in Gerald Rabkin’s Is There A Text On this Stage? when he approaches dissident interpretations of Arthur Miller’s Crucible (Fortier, p91).

Iser (ed. Counsell and Wolf, 2001: p180) appears to be pessimistic
about the possibility of finding any definitive answer: for him, the impossibility of determining objective truth ensures that all analysis becomes an analysis of perceptions. It is this warning that has encouraged the first stage of my research: rather than attempt to look at the performances as texts, I decided to invite artists and ‘stakeholders’ in theatre to express their opinions of their relationship to Glasgow.

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