The Liminal Space of the Blogosphere

Karen Fricker [1]

Blogging is writing on the record – but it’s self-generated, self-edited, and self-published.[2] Blogging is putatively outside academic and journalistic systems of legitimation, such as the mainstream media, academic publishers, and peer review – but it’s nonetheless related to these systems, in ways that are still articulating themselves. In the context of theatre production, blogging sits between immediate phenomenological experience of a production and a formally written and published critical response. Pedagogically, it invites theatre students to express themselves in a mode between essay writing and embodied performance work. In short, the blogosphere is in our present moment a liminal zone, understanding liminality in Victor Turner’s terms as a space of the ‘ambiguous…. betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial’ (1969: 95). Liminality is precarious and potentially subversive: acknowledging the in-between throws binaries off-kilter, and can destabilize systems that depend on clear definitions and boundaries. In what follows I explore the ways in which theatre blogging is (productively) disrupting some of the systems by which journalistic theatre criticism functions – or, at least, exposing those systems as a set of conventions open to challenge and evolution. I draw my evidence primarily from the theatre and performance scene in London, UK, which has nurtured, since approximately 2007, a thriving online theatre criticism community.[3] I look forward to exploring in our discussions at CATR the ways in which these observations may apply (or not) in the Canadian context, to which I am a relative newcomer.

Internet theorist Geert Lovink locates in blogs a subversive potential because they ‘zero out centralized meaning structures and focus on personal experiences not, primarily, news media.'[4] The conventions of journalistic criticism – the avoidance of the first-person singular pronoun, for example – tend to present the critic’s argument as fact, or at least as common-sensical. The independent, amateur nature of the blog form, and the more relaxed and personal tone that many blogs take, disrupt these conventions, prompting questioning of how one point of view, by dint of the platform on which it is presented, becomes more legitimate or powerful than another. Criticism has always been just one person’s point of view; in the age of the blogosphere, this is increasingly hard to ignore.

And then there’s feelings. ‘Blogging appeals to a wide register of emotions and affects as it mobilizes and legitimizes the personal’, argues Lovink.[5] It is noteworthy that blogging entered theatre scholarship around the same time as affect theory: both challenge us to acknowledge the extent to which personal, emotional, embodied response is central to our relationship to the theatre, and the ways in which mainstream theatre critical and scholarly traditions have effaced this. Passions drive blogging: Given that bloggers are not remunerated, a deeply-felt affiliation to the chosen subject matter is a primary impetus for starting and maintaining a blog. The unlimited word count and lack of formal constraints allow bloggers to write expansively, foregrounding personal preferences and biases.

The extent to and mode by which these passions are shared is a key aspect of the blogosphere that differentiates it from journalistic writing in print. Bloggers write for and within communities in a ‘reciprocal cycle of mutual affirmation.'[6] The very foundation of the blog form, argues internet writing expert Jill Walker Rettberg, is the ‘link, building connections between related issues.'[7] Certainly, a notable aspect of the London theatre criticism blogosphere has been the extent to which writers link to each other’s reviews and commentaries, so that coverage comes to resemble a networked conversation. On a panel discussion about the future of criticism in late 2013, critic/blogger Matt Trueman celebrated the emergent era as one of ‘criticism as a team sport’ in which critics engage in a ‘reciprocal, conversational relationship with readers and other writers’ by writing ‘reviews that acknowledge and talk to and rely on each other.'[8] Theatre artists themselves are integrated into this conversation, by themselves blogging, writing on comment strands, and engaging critic/bloggers in their creative process via the emergent practice of embedded criticism.[9] Extending Turner’s theorization of the liminal, we might identify the current cultural moment in the theatre-critical blogosphere as one of ‘communitas,’ a reaction to the ‘blend of lowliness and sacredness, of homogeneity and comradeship’ (ibid.) that the liminal phenomenon of blogging enacts.

All of these qualities and the way they destabliise some of the largely unwritten ‘givens’ of existing theatre criticism systems render blogging somewhat suspect in the eyes of those invested in those systems. Take, for example, the reaction of Michael Coveney, former critic at the Financial Times, Observer, and Daily Mail, to Trueman’s comment about criticism as a team sport:

The critical act is not at all what Matt says. A critic is a critic. Everyone has an opinion and it’s great that the conversation continues, but the critic is entitled by his [sic] experience, his [sic] knowledge, and above all most importantly, he [sic] can write…. this is the only criterion by which critical writing must stand or fall.[10]

Trueman had not suggested that online writers might have any less skill or experience than traditional print critics; yet the very suggestion of a dialogic, horizontal (rather than hierarchal)[11] critical practice provoked in Coveney the need to tautologically re-assert the skilled, experienced, lone (male) voice as the location of authority in theatre criticism. Coveney’s resistance to current changes in theatre criticism systems is paradoxical, given that he currently does not have a mainstream print outlet, and writes almost exclusively online.[12] He is one of several members of the senior generation of London critics who cast themselves as gatekeepers of critical legitimacy, even as their ability to meet the criteria they uphold becomes increasingly tenuous.

We see these tensions further playing out in the shifting nature of membership politics in theatre critics’ associations and awards-giving bodies. I conducted an informal survey of four such associations as research for this piece, and found them struggling to adapt their policies and terminology to the digital age. As is the case with all four groups, the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) requires members to be ‘professional’, but ‘because of the nature of the industry these days, professional has more to do with a professional attitude than the necessity of earning money.'[13] For the Canadian Theatre Critics’ Association, ‘a professional is someone who has either gotten paid on some sort of a regular basis to write criticism that has been published, or who is recognized by peers as someone who writes seriously and regularly on theatre subjects.'[14] The American Theatre Critics Association ‘understands “professional” normally to mean you are paid for your reviews and there is some editorial or other supervision of your criticism.'[15] Admission to the UK (London-based) Critics’ Circle is by invitation only ‘to persons engaged professionally, regularly and substantially for at least two years in the writing or broadcasting (television, radio and internet) if [sic] criticism.'[16] It is surprising that none of these bodies mention data such as a blog’s unique page views as a consideration towards membership. Proving the existence of a readership does not seem to be as meaningful a criterion as having one’s writing vetted and validated by those already in the field.[17]

It is also questionable to what extent theatre critics’ associations delineate the field, and what work they accomplish. In all the theatre markets I surveyed and in which I have experience, there is no official relationship between membership in a critics’ association and access to complimentary tickets (or ‘comps’, a key perk for reviewers), though membership could help an emerging critic make a case for tickets, and could serve as a source of legitimization when making applications for grants and training schemes.[18] Arguably the most influential theatre critic in the Toronto market, the Star’s Richard Ouzounian, is not a member of the Canadian Theatre Critics’ Association, and this does not appear to affect his access to complimentary tickets nor his perceived legitimacy in theatrical and journalistic circles.

Some theatre bloggers position themselves as audience members rather than as critics, and do not seek validation via membership in critics’ organizations. A high-profile example in the London market is the West End Whingers, two theatre lovers who started a blog in 2006, identifying themselves only as ‘Phil’ and ‘Andrew’.[19] While their blogs usually cover much of the same territory as mainstream reviews (plot overview; comments on performances, direction, and design; overall assessment of the production’s aesthetic success or failure), they write as ticket-buying spectators and also include commentary on pre-show hype, seating plans and sightlines, and the quality of theatres’ wine. Because they pay for their theatre visits rather than receive comps, the Whingers do not acknowledge the convention of press-embargoed preview performances, and frequently write about previews. They leave shows at the interval if they do not feel sufficiently entertained, and privilege work and artists that corresponds to their personal tastes. All of these practices are, in terms of established practices of theatre reviewing, unorthodox; and the Whingers do not self-identify as critics. Yet respondents to a 2010 survey conducted by the theatre industry publication the Stage voted them the ‘most popular’ non-print source for ‘critical opinions’ about theatre.[20] The Whingers’ irreverently camp performance of theatre fandom effectively queers professional theatre reviewing by exposing it as a set of conventions.

The futures of blogging

For a young technology, blogging has already seen its ups and downs: after an initial heyday in the broader culture in the early 2000s, the end of that decade saw energies shifting towards social media. Lovink’s self-admittedly ‘cynical’ take on blogs is that their ‘sole purpose’ is now ‘to create a talent pool for the publishing industry'[21]; that is, bloggers blog to establish a voice and reputation, and those whose skills, values, and aspirations align with mainstream culture are eventually absorbed into it. The career trajectory of Matt Trueman bears this out: having established himself as a bright young talent in the London theatre critical blogosphere, he now writes regularly for the Guardian and Telegraph, both online and in print. For most journalistic theatre critics, the current challenge is how to best exploit and synthesize the multiple platforms available to them: mainstream outlets, one’s own blog, and social media including Facebook and Twitter. As the field further expands and settles, it will be interesting to see what conventions and systems emerge in response to the precarity that currently characterises the field, and how some bloggers’ voices will come to be heard over others. Group criticism sites are likely to gain in popularity and reach, given that they allow writers to work together to establish and maintain a profile; provide mutual encouragement via shared commitment to an editorial remit; and draw in sufficient readership to support advertising, as is the case with the London-based Exeunt (exeuntmagazine.com) and the German-language site nachtkritik.de. Academics and academic institutions may also continue to subsidise online critical work, as is the case with Critical Stages (criticalstages.org), the bilingual (English/French) web journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics, which is supported by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It is certainly the case that in an era of profound media transformation, critical systems too are changing, and blogging is on the move from its current liminal status to somewhere closer to the mainstream.

————————————

[1] Edited content from this piece will appear in an upcoming special issue of Contemporary Theatre Review, in an entry titled ‘Blogging.’

[2] I intend blog in this piece to mean a blogsite or website established and maintained by a single writer. A related phenomena are theatre criticism websites to which numerous writers submit reviews and other writings, for which they may or may not be paid. A further element of the theatre critical blogosphere are subject-specific sections of mainstream media outlets’ websites, which, in the case of newspapers’ websites, tend to include content from the print version augmented by web-only content.

[3] According to Haydon, the London theatre critical blogosphere emerged in 2007, ‘when theatre blogs appeared on the internet.’ http://www.nachtkritik.de/index.php?view=article&id=8662%3Aa-debate-on-theatre-criticism-and-its-crisis-in-the-uk&option=com_content&Itemid=60. Along with Haydon, other contributors to the London theatre critical blogosphere include Maddy Costa, Chris Goode, Dan Hutton, Fin Kennedy, Catherine Love, Jake Orr, Natasha Tripney, Matt Trueman, Megan Vaughan, Webcowgirl, and the West End Whingers (who I discuss later in this piece). The group sites A Younger Theatre and Exeunt are also important generators of online criticism. I was a witness, and sometime contributor, to this emergent scene from 2007-2012, while holding a faculty position in Drama and Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London. During that time, I served as deputy London theatre critic for the U.S. entertainment magazine Variety, occasionally wrote for the Guardian’s theatre blog, and convened and spoke in numerous live events about the changing face of criticism in the digital age.

[4] Geert Lovink, Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 2008), p. 1.

[5] Lovink, Zero Comments, p. 3.

[6] Stephen D. Reese, Lou Rutigliano, Kideuk Hyuan, and Jaekwan Jeong, ‘Mapping the Blogosphere. Professional and citizen-based media in the global news arena’, Journalism, 8.3 (2007). pp. 235-261 (p. 240).

[7] Jill Walker Rettberg, Blogging (Boston: Polity, 2008), p. 1.

[8] http://matttrueman.co.uk/2013/10/stop-surviving-start-serving-the-future-of-criticism.html. Of course, in any market where productions receive multiple reviews, these create a multi-vocal response; the contemporary difference is the level of reflexivity in bloggers’ acknowledgement of each other’s work, and the ease in cross-referencing that the internet allows. This point about the multi-vocality of review response was informed by a Facebook exchange with Matt Trueman on 22 March 2014, for which thanks.

[9] London-based critic/blogger Andrew Haydon first re-appropriated the term ‘embedded’ from war reporting to theatre writing in early 2012 in a post on his Postcards from the Gods blog. http://postcardsgods.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/embedded.html. New York blogger and arts advocate Andy Horwitz expanded on the concept and its possibilities in October 2012 on his site Culturebot. http://www.culturebot.org/2012/09/13258/re-framing-the-critic-for-the-21st-century-dramaturgy-advocacy-and-engagement/.

[10] http://www.theatrevoice.com/10311/the-critics-circle-centenary-conference-the-future-of-criticism/#.Uyx2uFye3-s

[11] Andy Horwitz proposes the concept of ‘critical horizontalism in the above-mentioned essay, ‘Re-Framing the Critic for the 21st Century: Dramaturgy, Advocacy, and Engagement.’

[12] Coveney is chief critic of WhatsOnStage.com, and writes obituaries for The Guardian.

[13] Mark Fisher, co-chair of CATS, email to the author, 14 March 2014. As Fisher clarifies in his email, CATS is not an organization or association per se, but an awards system with approximately a dozen judges.

[14] Don Rubin, president of the Canadian Theatre Critics’ Association, email to the author, 25 March 2014.

[15] http://americantheatrecritics.org/apply-for-membership/.

[16] http://www.criticscircle.org.uk/?ID=1.

[17] Another question hovering around membership in such organizations at present is what happens when an existing member loses outlets or otherwise ceases to fulfill existing criteria for membership. Is ‘professional’, in other words, a lifetime categorization?

[18] Many thanks to Diana Damian-Martin for these points about the legitimising potential of critics’ association membership. Diana Damian-Martin, email to the author, 25 March 2014.

[19] The Whingers’ site remains active at the time of writing, with Andrew ‘on sabbatical’ and Phil writing on his own. http://westendwhingers.wordpress.com.

[20] Alistair Smith, ‘Survey – critics still crucial to theatre.’ http://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2010/05/survey-critics-still-crucial-to-theatre/.

[21] Lovink, Zero Comments, p. xxiv.

6 thoughts on “The Liminal Space of the Blogosphere

  1. Karen (if I may),

    Thank you for this account of the London theatre blogging scene! I’m particularly taken by your use of liminality here, which, if I read you right, you identify as confronting the more ‘traditional’ critic (ie: Coveney’s institutional myopia corresponds to the ambiguity Turner associates with the liminal, an ambiguity those participating in these networks do not encounter).

    Can I ask, what is it that prompts the crisis which results in this liminal space? I don’t wish to read too far into what you’ve provided, but in my experience of these matters (which are actually more to do with the US than Canada, as that’s where I went to grad school) the crisis at issue is not precisely the particular technologies (though these of course shape the particular character of the emerging forms) but the ongoing corporate revisioning of academia and its attendant labour crises. Would I be right in seeing a suggestion of this in your discussion of the changing standards of professionalism? I found your discussion here recalling a not-too-long-ago blog post

    http://saideman.blogspot.ca/2014/01/are-blogs-inherently-unprofessional.html

    dealing with some of the same issues, albeit from a position in which ‘gatekeepers’ looked to reject blogging rather than adopting (co-opting?) it. If these sort of ‘market’ concerns are something you see as driving this liminal space, what role do you see for blogs or social media in negotiating these issues, particularly if they are indeed becoming mainstream?

    Thanks,
    Ashley

  2. Thank you, Karen, for undertaking to map the liminal terrain of the theatrical blogosphere in this essay, while also providing a fascinating case-study of the London scene. I found myself thinking of McLuhan’s obsolescence/retrieval laws of media as I was reading this–that is, the way in which an older medium becomes the content of a newer one (the classic example being old Hollywood movies shown on TV). In this case, it seems to me that as the blog review gains increasing legitimacy in critical circles, it also starts to mimic more and more the conventions of print reviews (notwithstanding the irreverent efforts of the Whingers and others). Or maybe I’m just betraying my own anxiety about what I’m now, after six years, doing in my own blog.

  3. Thanks Peter and Ashley for your comments, which follow on from each other, so I will answer them that way – incorporating a comment on Peter’s paper too:

    Ashley, you’re right – it’s not necessarily about (or at least not **all** about) the technology. Technological shifts are causing the field to change, which leads to changes in power dynamics, which prompts (perceived) crisis. And yes, that crisis is in the eye of the beholder. The overall mainstream critical response to current shifts in London theatre criticism is that it’s in ‘crisis’, whereas those who sit within the blogosphere or observe closely consider this a golden age of critical comment on London theatre and performance. Why is it scary and crisis-y to establishment critics? Because they perceive their agency, power, and livelihood slipping away. Because there is no established and market-proven model (that I know of) whereby online criticism can pay for itself, being a theatre critic is now perceived to be a dying art/craft in establishment circles.

    (ironic note – as I type this I get a spam email from “Hitbooster”: “No Matter what you are selling – Hit-Booster will send targeted visitors to your website!” Oh yeah, Hit-Booster? Can you fix the “crisis” in theatre criticism — or would we be your limit case?)

    So that leads us to your final question, Ashley, and into Peter’s thoughtful reference to McLuhan, as you both query the relationship between the blog form and the more established, recognizable print review format. If we agree that there is a value to the particular nature of blog writing (that is, its discursive, personal nature that acknowledges affect and embodiment; and the whole linking/team sport thing) how can we work to foster/retain this and not allow blogging to morph into a simulacrum of newspaper criticism? The London case strikes me as unique in that there are a sufficient number of voices in the blogosphere to make a culture of links possible in the first place. From your paper, Peter, it seems that such critical mass is lacking in Vancouver; and a recent colloquium on theatre crit I hosted at Brock indicated that the same is true in Toronto. So, a proposal/provocation: if we agree (do we?) that a vibrant blogosphere is a positive step in the development of a stronger theatre critical culture in Canada, what can we do as scholars with an interest in blogging to nurture this? — Karen

  4. I’m so excited by the questions asked in this post and in the comments section! I particularly look forward to discussing Karen’s provocation in her reply to Peter and Ashley about the role of scholars in nurturing a “vibrant blogosphere.”

    Karen, in response to Endnote 17, about what happens to a critic’s status when he/she loses his/her outlet, I wanted to point to the case of Lynn Slotkin, the former theatre critic on CBC Radio One in Toronto. Lynn has been publishing her Slotkin Letter for years–we might say she was a blogger before the blogosphere existed. She has also used her own blog to negotiate her role within the theatre community, for example by asserting her professional status when she lost her radio outlet on CBC (and later on UofT’s radio station)–indeed, in a public panel on theatre criticism that I chaired several years ago, Slotkin was very adamant in distinguishing between professional and amateur critics, and positioning herself in the former camp. When the Stratford Festival temporarily revoked Slotkin’s comps in 2012 because she was not a “fan/friend of the Festival”, she also used her site to mobilize support (http://www.slotkinletter.com/site/?p=1621); other bloggers took up her cause quite quickly, spreading the discussion through social media, and her tickets were eventually reinstated. Anyway, all of this is to say that she would make a fascinating Canadian case study for the perceived amateur/professional divide in criticism and several of the issues your piece touches on.

  5. Hi Karen!

    A few disconnected thoughts for you:

    Very excited to talk about this in a Canadian/Toronto context. I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head with your comment about blogging bringing different voices– making the dialogue horizontal, and perhaps destabilizing the hierarchy of the “lone (male) voice”. In Toronto, there is only one female reviewer that springs to mind, and that is Carly Maga, who writes mainly (though not exclusively) for the Torontoist. (http://torontoist.com/culture-page/)
    While of course there are other female critics present in the blogosphere, the Toronto Theatre Critic’s Awards is organized and run by men.

    Also, we might think about the benefit that the more ‘amateur’ blogs have in developing the indie theatre scene. When it comes to the smaller venues in Toronto (storefront, downstage, Unit 102, to name only a few), it’s not very often that the big critics can come out to the show. It’s encouraging that ‘amateur’ bloggers are there to give feedback, or start conversations. There are many such blogs in Toronto (My Entertainment World, In the greenroom, Mooney on Theatre, Charlevoix Post) that review it all. I think this is essential for indie theatre survival/development.

    Further, we might think about how these blogged conversations are also present through twitter/facebook/etc. We could turn to the Nestruck’s zero-star review of Conte d’Amour at the Harbourfront, which sparked a number of reply blogs, tweets, facebook updates, etc. How mutually dependant are these separate methods of reviewing (replying, updating, critiquing)?

  6. Pingback: The crisis in theatre criticism is critics saying there’s a crisis | The Mental Swoon

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