Wednesday, 15 September 2010

I am empiricist Anglophone, hear me roar

In the current issue of the London Review of Books there is a crit of a book about the French cinema magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. It begins thus:

In an essay on Avatar in the March issue of the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma, Slavoj Zizek wrote that, despite its superficial espousal of revolutionary action (by blue-skinned aliens rising up against earthling exploitation), the film was in fact entirely reactionary. In an interview in the following issue of Cahiers, Zizek cheerfully admitted that he had written his piece without actually seeing Avatar. Empiricist Anglophone critics were horrified, no doubt, but Zizek’s article persuasively made its point nonetheless.

I was a tad taken aback. The writer of the crit, one Jonathan Romney, rather deftly seems to be saying that expecting important and busy critics to actually see the film they’re criticising is not only unreasonable but downright parochial. Well, in the spirit of those activist groups in the ‘70s I am going to reclaim the negative vernacular and say loud and proud that I am an empiricist Anglophone critic and proud of it.

To make it worse, the critic in question not only is commenting on a film he has not seen, he is challenging the whole basis of it. He cares not if the makers say that it is about such and such, he has not seen it and so knows that it is not. And critics wonder why they are disliked in some circles.

For the record I have not seen Avatar, nor do I intend to as I disliked the director’s previous film, Titanic, so much. This means that my contribution to any critical discussion on it is limited to why I won’t see it and that seems fair enough. But then I’m an empiricist Anglophone and that’s what we’re like. Get used to it.

This thinking is not, I’m sorry to say, restricted to psychic critics like young master Zizek. It’s very common in the Anglophone literarti as well. In my bookselling days, many were the times that I was informed in a lordly manner that the Harry Potter books were terribly written or that The Da Vinci Code was awful by people who had read none of them. Any attempts at discussion would be waved away with a dismissive laugh. The accuracy of their opinions was, of course, unimportant. The point here was to ensure that everyone knew that they had impeccable taste and so had no need to read such vulgar and, let us be honest, plebeian books and would no more dream of doing so than they would dream of holidaying in Ibiza.

As it happens, I have read the Harry Potter books and The Da Vinci Code and, in my empiricist Anglophonic way, I believe the former to be flatly written, rather than badly written, and the later volumes scream out for heavy editing, while the latter is like a late-night kebab after a night clubbing in a number of surprising ways.


  1. Some of the best gig reviews I ever wrote were of bands I'd not even bothered going to see; Hothouse Flowers in Leeds May 88, Henry Rollins Newcastle 93 being two of my best examples.

    As far as cinema goes, I'm not an aficionado, but even I surpassed myself the other day by informing a class of Literature students that Ken Russell directed "Kathy Come Home" and "The Wind That Shakes The Barley."

    No bad thing really, as I've spent 2 days musing about "The Boyfriend" done by Ken Loach.....

  2. I'd definately watch Ken Loach's "Tommy" and Ken Russell's "Kes"