In the introduction to his The Function of Criticism (1984), Terry Eagleton writes :
“criticism today lacks all substantive social function. It is either part of the public relations branch of the literary industry, or a matter wholly internal to the academies.”
The problem, according to Eagleton, is that criticism is only of social use when there is a robust public sphere. A public sphere, according to Habermas, is an intellectual void in between the sphere of public authority (dominated by the state and the law) and the private sphere (dominated by the exchange of commodities and the market). In the sphere of public authority, the government and ruling elite speak with authority, determining values and the prominence of some ideas at the expense of others. By contrast, in the private sphere, this kind of ordering is done according to the demands of commerce. Criticism, according to Eagleton, currently lacks a social function, as the private sphere has come to dominate those matters that were previously considered to be exempt from the marketplace. The role of the critic still exists, but he has no constituency and no natural subject matter. An example of this kind of modern-day criticism can be seen in R. J. Cutler’s documentary about Vogue magazine The September Issue (2009). Anna Wintour is a private sphere Doctor Johnson : She takes it upon herself to decide what will be ‘fashionable’ in a particular season and the commercial interests that make up the fashion industry abide by her judgement. The same process exists in the sphere of public authority. When a problem affects the state, the ruling class make a decision and the apparatus of the state then enacts that judgement. While the members of the ruling class may be determined by democratic or aristocratic means and members of that elite may be more or less open to public opinion, the process is the same. The people no more get a say in the day to day realities of how the state is run than they do in determining whether purple or mauve will be the fashionable colour to be seen in this autumn. The process is just as autocratic as it was during the heyday of the 18th Century critic. As Eagleton quotes, the criticism of the time was characterised by :
“its partisan bias, the vituperation, the dogmatism, the juridical tone, the air of omniscience and finality”
Of course, the importance of the three spheres varies significantly over time. As I suggested in my review of Sidney Lumet’s The Offence (1972), the moral corruption of the state, the ruling classes and the church, mean that a form of moral public sphere has opened up. One in which rabble-rousing journalists compete with traditional intellectuals and people equipped with social networking tools to impart some kind of moral sentiment upon a supposedly individualistic and relativistic general public. Paul McGuigan’s The Reckoning, a cruelly over-looked adaptation of Barry Unsworth’s 1995 Booker-nominated novel Morality Play portrays a similar shift in spheres of debate : A moment in history in which the church and the state began to surrender their moral authority to a burgeoning public sphere.