How to Perform Theatre by Talking About It: Toward a Cultural Pragmatics of Drama Critics
Dept. of Sociology The Center for Cultural Sociology, Yale University New Haven, CT, U.S.A
The performative turn in the social sciences has had multiple implications of late, especially in cultural sociology. Drawing from the cultural pragmatics of Alexander, and from the work of Boltanski and Thevenot one could argue that the relationship between artists and publics gives rise to more complex networks of mediations. In this instance, states, associations, and all sorts of "hermeneutical powers" play an important role. More particularly, if theatre and social life are to mirror one another, this would prove to be impossible without the involvement of critics in the public sphere. It is thus our central argument that looking at critics' work should allow for a better understanding of how critical discourses evolve as a "competence" within culture and society. The quantity of critics in media has increased, driven by "liquid journalism" (Deuze), and the need for commercialisation, but this does not imply that criticism is "healthier" today. To the contrary, the new situation entails new problems, both practical and theoretical.
Theatre journalists form what Zelizer calls an "interpretative community" whereas the mechanism putting this community in motion could be best described as a "conflict of interpretations" (Ricur). Critics engage with artists, on the one side, and audiences, on the other, while the purpose of either negotiation is the struggle for their recognition. In this process, they display a series of justifications among which three are particularly noteworthy. First, critics constantly try to situate themselves in regard to the debate between high and low culture; and most often as the defender of the former. Second, it is important to look at the tension between subjectivity and objectivity, the use of metaphors, but also the need for clear standards. Third, one has to analyse where critics stand in the dispute over whether theatre should be considered for its fictional-aesthetic worth or its socio-anthropological value.
In the end, what is common to these three conflicts is that they are never able to provide any meta-criteria. Critical discourses remain normative and it is their deep meaning as well as their cultural and political consequences that have yet to be fully understood.