Sunday, May 1, 2011

Musings on the Culture of Misreading...

Occasionally I read reviews of books, CD's, and DVD's online at places like Amazon.com, Amazon UK, and a host of fan sites. As I read more and more of these reviews what I typically find is what I think is an unfortunate trend in online reviews, most reviews tell us more about the cultural and ideological biases of reviewers than they do about the book, performance, film, or TV show they ostensibly set out to review. They, in other words, skip exegesis and hermeneutics and go straight for the homiletic (polemics and apologetics) jugular.

Recently I came across a review of Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's critical study of Visconti at Amazon.com, a review which symbolises the tendency of many reviewers to skip exegesis and hermeneutics entirely and move to polemics. Lawrence R. Holben criticises Nowell-Smith's monograph for not being a biography of Visconti asserting that any book on the great Italian director must put any study of Visconti's work in the context of his life. The fundamental problem with this "review" is that it is, like what so many "reviewers" write these days, somewhat irrelevant in part because it misses the point. Nowell-Smith's critical study of Visconti's films, now in its third incarnation (if memory serves), does not purport to be a biography of Visconti. It is, as Nowell-Smith intended it to be a study of Visconti's films from a structuralist and post-structuralist perspective. As such any review must deal with Nowell-Smith's, or should I say "Nowell-Smith's", intentions and explore whether it accomplished what it set out to do or not.

One can, of course, after exploring authorial intentions and whether what was intended was achieved (exegesis), raise questions about the theory and methodology undergirding any critical study. If one feels that a biographical approach is essential to an understanding of say Visconti one can and should point this out and make an argument as to why and show how a biographical approach gives one a better understanding, a better grasp, of Viconti's films. This means, by the way, that one has to engage the many critiques of auteurism that are out there, note the problems associated with the death of the author approach, and note why these problems are problems.

Unfortunately, many "reviewers" never reach this stage because they begin and end with apologetics and polemics.

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