Theater of Cruelty

Criticism as a role-playing game?

The critic's ghost – about the art of passing judgments of taste in the 21st century
Forfatter: Eirik Vassenden
Forlag: Pelikanen Forlag, (Norge)
LITERATURE / The informal contexts where one could try and fail without having to stand up for every careless word have shrunk. In Eirik Vassenden's 229-page book about the critic, there are no fewer than 317 question marks. We also ask: Do literary scholars necessarily have any advantage when it comes to human knowledge, life experience or social understanding?


In his new book The critic's ghost Eirik Vassenden strikes a blow for literary criticism. Because when everyone can make up their own opinion and publish it, the traditional one loses criticone's authority. And not only that, criticism can even be perceived as hostile and undemocratic: "Neither the author nor the reader wants the critic to be present. She becomes an uninvited guest, or at worst a threatening stranger, a hater», says Vassenden in an interview (Klassekampen 11.09.23).

Criticism can be perceived as offense; someone has a different opinion than me and steps on my toes! Against this 'tyranny of intimacy', Vassenden relies heavily on the sociologist Richard Sennett's distinction between intimacy and social acting in The Fall of Public Man (1977). Role playing becomes the antidote to the violation hysteria because it works as 'self-protection technology'. Without social role play "are we all like hermit crabs who have lost their snail shells, where we crawl around with our soft personalities exposed to all the world" (p. 205). This is a good point as far as it goes. But social role playing has also increasingly become a problem.

The social roles are less defined than before, and the changes happen more quickly. We live more experimentally and later mature. Precisely because the public and the globalized media offer so many masks, the identity problems become all the more pressing. The need for indentityspolitics is increasing. The demand for self-realization has become more brutal than Finn Kalvik's attempt to "find his soul" in the last millennium.

Since the public and the globalized media offer so many masks, the problems of identity become all the more pressing.

Unnecessary self-absorption in people who think they are the center of the world can be corrected in other ways than through role-playing. And role-playing is not simply "deliberate and demonstrative inauthenticity" either. You can express your sincere opinion without being a privacy tyrant, and without being 'unprotected'.

The choice is therefore not between "showing one's innermost self" or playing roles. Feelings, thoughts, moods and assessments must be able to be formulated. The critic does not become redundant because his own experience of the work is perceived to be as good as anyone else's. Vassenden is right about that. One's own experience must be articulated in order to be able to compare it with that of others. But the expressions for one's own reactions are not role-plays, any more than language is. It is not necessarily a role-playing game to find the right word, the right characterization or apt wording that convinces the audience.

Frédérick Fontaine (Canada). Libex.Eu

The art of making taste judgments?

There is something antiquarian about the subtitle of Vassenden's book: The art of making taste judgments in the 21st century. Therefore, it is no surprise that "taste" refers to "a way of thinking that appears to more and more people as alien" (p. 207).

Is criticism "the art of passing judgments of taste" (p. 207)? In any case, this is an unreasonable description of the assessment of non-fiction, which was the central point in literaturecriticism in the age of enlightenment (ff. E. Tjønneland [ed.] 2014. Criticism before 1814). But even when it comes to fiction, which recent Norwegian criticism has concentrated on at the expense of non-fiction, criticism is not just a quality assessment, but includes description and interpretation of the work.

Whether a book is perceived as good, based on the sum of previous experience, on competence, gut feeling, instinct or 'taste', is linked to experiences in life and not just to literary theory. The literary scholar does not necessarily have any advantage when it comes to human knowledge, life experience or social understanding. Therefore, the literary scholar has no automatic authority in relation to the ordinary reader.

But that does not mean that any kind of criticism can only be dismissed as a subjective expression, as one point of view among thousands. Vassenden documents well that the traditional criticism is being challenged by bloggers, comment fields, podcasts and social media. Competition has become greater and the public more unclear and fragmented.

According to Vassenden, the acting community should be "the freedom that lies in being able to shape one's own public figure as one wishes" (p. 210). But this is impossible. Vassenden himself mentions that anyone who acts under a pseudonym online can easily be perceived as a troll (p. 211). How is freedom then?

Vassenden then also claims that taking literature seriously means "having a vocabulary for the various literary experiences, and enough knowledge to both contextualise and assess" (p. 220). Agreed. But what does this have to do with it Sennetts role playing to do? Public criticism must always be something more than expressing one's own feelings here and now. (In the so-called impressionist criticism, the work often became a pretext for describing one's own feelings and moods in an image-rich, 'neo-romantic' language.)

Being able to try and fail

Kjetil Røed designated in From period to colon (2022) that criticism should be "the translation from the private to the public" (p. 27). This translation disappears if the choice is only between intimacy and mask.

The public can become a surrogate for missing private conversations.

What one says about one Book in the chamber, is not what you write in the newspaper. It has nothing to do with dishonesty, but are different arenas with different conventions. Many of the conversations that used to take place in the chamber now take place on social media. It has become more difficult to speak directly from the liver: someone can use the mobile phone to record what you say! The informal contexts where one could try and fail without having to stand up for every careless word have shrunk. The buffer zone between public and private has become smaller. When you can't get out of your mouth in informal situations, you can Freedoma become a surrogate for missing private conversations.

Crampy RPG

The concept of role in sociology has developed from an objective meaning (civil status, occupation, gender, education, class) to also include more subjective perceptions of the self. Inheritance Goffman ga i Our role play on a daily basis the following example about the character Preedy from a novel: "He rolled up his bathrobe and bag so that no sand would get on it (Methodical and Sensible Preedy), stood up slowly and stretched his powerful body pleasantly (Cat-like Preedy) and threw off his sandals ( Skjødeløse Preedy, after all)" (Norwegian translation by Kari and Kjell Risvik, Dreyer 1974). When Preedy plays half a dozen different roles in a short time on a beach, the urge to 'show off' is urgent. Freedom is trumped by convulsive role-playing.

In social media, you can appear as anyone. Theatricality has increased. Many have experienced being enslaved by their own idealized profiles. The audience becomes an insatiable beast that must be constantly fed with new material. The result is burnout and self-splitting. The online addicts' role-playing game developed by psychiatrist Ronald D. Laing i It split itself (Norwegian translation by Daisy Schjelderup, Gyldendal 1968) called "the false self-system".

Common rituals are not plays either, but automated actions: You say "excuse me" if you accidentally bump into someone, "sorry" if you are late for an appointment, etc. Some of these rituals have disappeared. This can make dealing with strangers more difficult, as Sennett and Vassenden point out.

Critical role playing

But a book review is not a social ritual where you play off a conventional greeting: "Hello, long time ago! Nice to see you!" If such a ritual recipe for the review becomes too clear, the criticism falls into disrepute.

Would literary criticism benefit from more theatricality? It is unclear what this means in practice. When playing "the role of literary critic", it is nothing plays. One is limited by requirements for form, genre, number of characters and deadline. The critic's competence unfolds within these frameworks, but he is to a small extent an actor.

I had both pleasure and benefit from reading Vassenden's book. The book is open and questioning, and in many areas does not provide definitive answers. On 229 pages, there are no less than 317 question marks. But Vassenden has not explained how , literary criticism as critical role-playing should look like in practice. In recent Norwegian literary criticism, Arild Linneberg's play with pseudonyms and Per Egil Hegge's imitation of Solstad's chancellery style belong to the exceptions. Vassenden has not shown that this kind of criticism should become the rule.

Eivind Tjønneland
Eivind Tjønneland
Historian of ideas and author. Regular critic in MODERN TIMES. (Former professor of literature at the University of Bergen.)

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