Critique From HereNow
By way of Larry of OF Blog of the Fallen, by way of Jonathan McCalmont of Ruthless Culture, quoting from Mark of K-Punk, here’s a quote I want to get my pointy little teeth into:
“In many ways, the academic qua academic is the Troll par excellence. Postgraduate study has a propensity to breeds trolls; in the worst cases, the mode of nitpicking critique (and autocritique) required by academic training turns people into permanent trolls, trolls who troll themselves, who transform their inability to commit to any position into a virtue, a sign of their maturity (opposed, in their minds, to the allegedly infantile attachments of The Fan). But there is nothing more adolescent – in the worst way – than this posture of alleged detachment, this sneer from nowhere. For what it disavows is its own investments; an investment in always being at the edge of projects it can neither commit to nor entirely sever itself from – the worst kind of libidinal configuration, an appalling trap, an existential toxicity which ensures debilitation for all who come into contact with it (if only that in terms of time and energy wasted – the Troll above all wants to waste time, its libido involves a banal sadism, the dull malice of snatching people’s toys away from them).”
The most interesting features of this quote to me are actually the capitalisations of “Troll” and “The Fan”. All words are significant; but some are Significant. Like the Namings of the Enemy. These are the soft underbelly of polemic, the place where a well-aimed bite will bring you to the innards. We find something similar here, in another quote from the same K-Punk post — in the capitalisation of “Last Man”:
“Smirking postmodernity images the fan as the sad geekish Trekkie, pathetically, fetishistically invested in what – all good sense knows – is embarrassing trivia. But this lofty, purportedly olympian perspective is nothing but the view of the Last Man. Which isn’t to make the fatuous relativist claim that devotees of Badiou are the same as Trekkies; it is to make the point that Graham has been tirelessly reiterating – that the critique from nowhere is nothing but trolling. Trolls pride themselves on not being fans, on not having the investments shared by those occupying whatever space they are trolling.”
McCalmont challenges the expedient strategy of dismissing criticisms with the meta-argument that “they are in breach of the rules of proper engagement”:
In other words, not only is being a fan an acceptable state to be in, it is also the only meaningful position from which to engage with anything. To properly engage with a text, you must attack it from a particular theoretical and/or aesthetic position. To fail to possess such a position is to be little more than a troll.
I’m not sure I buy this rearticulation though. It’s a little ragdoll that I get the feeling will come apart at the seams with just a little shaking. There’s a simple case here after all: 1) Smirking postmodernity is a distinctively anti-fan position, characterised by an abjection of said fan as pitiable trivia-fetishist; 2) While pretending to a “lofty, purportedly olympian perspective”, this attitude is actually shallow and self-serving posturing; 3) The combination of argumentative critique and proud disdain for the emotionally-invested fan is the essence of the troll; 4) Critique born of this trolling, “critique from nowhere”, is worthless.
Fuck, you can just bite the head off this right away. It’s extending the argument to read this as saying that the only meaningful position is therefore to be a fan. This is to gloss over one simple alternative: not giving a flying fuck; being neither Fan nor Last Man. An argument that the anti-fan stance is wrong does not translate into an argument that the fan stance is right, not if we allow for a non-fan stance. This rearticulation turns the Last Man argument into a Straw Man: an argument that invalidates all critique but that of the Fan. Easy to torch.
The Ivory Watchtower
To be fair, of course, this Last Man argument has some problems in its own right. There’s a sweeping assumption at the last point there for a start. So the great white snark never picks a target that deserves the Darwin Award, eh? Doesn’t taste the blood, notice the ineffectual thrashing of the feeble swimmer way out of their depth? That hunter-killer critique can never be right? I could shore up that case a little, bolster it with an argument that the Last Man’s opinion is likely to be distorted by the prejudice associated with the abjection of the Fan, transfering that irrationalism to anything loaded with signifiers of fan appeal: but that would be me now extending the argument. Bollocks to that.
The case is flawed in another respect anyway. If I were to modify it would be to tear off the loose limb — the whole “troll” assertion. The analogy doesn’t sit comfortably, as McCalmont points out, with the academic’s consistent application of theory: “When an analytical philosopher attacks an idea, he does so whilst committed to certain theories and postulates.” Actually this is sort of implicit in Mark’s assertion on K-Punk, that “[t]he best critics do not pretend to offer value-neutral judgements from nowhere – as Nietzsche, Marx, Freud and Lacan have shown in their different ways, no such place exists, although the fantasy position of something like Analytic Philosophy is to pretend that it does.” The true troll has no such fantasy position, no high-rise hidey-hole of mock objectivity to snipe from; the troll is a grunt on the ground, running this way and that, chucking whatever wank grenade happens to be handy, through whatever doorway happens to be ajar. The troll’s critique is critique from everywhere and anywhere.
But if we chew off the fat of points three and four, maybe we are still left with a Last Man of sorts, defined by the first two points — the anti-fan, scorning the emotional investment of the devout, allowing that scorn to cloud their judgement. Critiquing from a “nowhere” that pretends to be a somewhere, a precarious construct of “theories and postulates”, a house of flashcards inked with empty signifiers. This is the latent myth of the Last Man, why it is capitalised like “The Fan”, because it is a symbol every bit as much as is the Fan. A bogeyman whose critique comes from the nowhere of nonsense, from the Ivory Watchtower of Academia, the Spire of Dreaming; it is a metaphor that pervades the discourse. There’s “investment” and there’s “investment”. That disavowal of the fannish emotional investment, that “posture of alleged detachment”, is not incompatible with an intellectual investment in that “fantasy position” of ironic oversight. It’s just that this mode of philosophical investment refuses the sincerity of sentiment, apes objectivity. Sounds like the old Reason versus Passion dichotomy to me. Head versus Heart. Rationalism versus Romanticism. Intellectualism versus sensationalism. Elitists versus populists. Last Man versus Fan. Maybe this’ll be more obvious with a bit of symbol flipping:
Sullen countermodernity images the academic as the snide sophistic Last Man, pathetically, defensively retreated into what – all good sense knows – is pseudo-intellectual flummery. But this ballsy, purportedly grounded perspective is nothing but the view of the Fan.
It’s juicy rhetoric from both angles, the Fan against the Last Man, the Last Man against the Fan. But let’s strip it to the bones.
So, the core of that K-Punk piece is a criticism of the “Last Man” attitude as a stance in and of itself. Not as the lack of a “correct” stance but as a stance handicapped by its prejudicial hostility. That stance is characterised by its disdain of investment, but the issue here is actually the “Last Man” treating this as “a virtue, a sign of their maturity.” In the context of the emotional nature of the fan’s investment, the Last Man’s affectation of distance can be seen as an intellectualist abjection of the sensational. This, the argument goes, is a form of investment in its own right, and a neurotic one, an abjection of the fan inside. How so? It is an “adolescent” affectation, “this posture of alleged detachment, this sneer from nowhere”. Why? “For what it disavows is its own investments; an investment in always being at the edge of projects it can neither commit to nor entirely sever itself from.” Map that “smirking” to the callow irony of a muso who derides a kick-ass rock band because they’re on the cover of NME, of a sophomore who thinks he’s “above all that” precisely because he’s bought into a solipsistic self-belief. Each is abjecting their own past naivety in an attempt to prove they’ve overcome it.
Is there anyone out there who doesn’t find that principle instantly recognisable, who doesn’t remember at some stage of their infancy or adolescence scorning the “childish” things they once cherished, abjecting them in a ritualistic disavowal of the embarassing naivety of that joy?
Does the Last Man exist within this subculture? It hardly seems likely that they wouldn’t, to be honest; why on earth would this subculture be any different? And rejecting that “posture” does not mean that the only valid response is the other extreme — the infantile investment of the fanatic, scorning all critique that denies his passion, even when it’s entirely reasonable. Not that I’m denying that extreme is one response. Does the Fan exist within this subculture? That’s another no-brainer as far as I’m concerned. But that doesn’t mean it’s either/or.
Of course, maybe I’m being too charitable in my reading of this Last Man argument. Maybe that is the contention — that it’s Last Man or Fan, and the Last Man is just a goddamn phony, so you have only one option if you want to be a good critic. If so, I don’t buy it. I don’t buy the binary logic that sets up the extremes of Fan and Last Man, disacknowledging anything between. Or more accurately, anything after. I do think these extremes are evident in the discourse, sometimes as Straw Men, raised up as symbols for the factions on each side, projected on to any disagreeable critique, but sometimes as actual positions. The dynamic seems a little like that of two siblings at times, the younger throwing infantile sulks because the elder derides their taste as childish, the elder aping adulthood but demonstrating their own adolescence in each callow disavowal. If I’ve been focusing on the latter in all the recent blather, by the way, it’s because I think the “you’re just a jealous poopy-head” balderdash is largely obvious and acknowledged, while the “meh, that’s so jejune” piffle is not.
Critique Going Nowhere
McCalmont’s post acknowledges the problem, in his references to academic training in critique that “gives birth to a belief in certain universal laws of not only logic but also argumentative discourse.” He has a highly pertinent comment, to my mind, when he notes that “[d]ebate in analytical philosophy is not directionless. Rather it stems from a belief in certain universal strictures.” As I commented in response — and as I touched on in the Ethics and Enthusiasm post — the key danger I see is of those strictures turning into a tick-list. Prescriptivism is a sophomoric mode of thought, the recourse to absolutism as the bolsters and barricades of an immature philosophy; it is a bedsit built of books, a safe haven in an uncertain world. And the tick-list is a crib sheet that makes the Last Man’s need for such stability apparent.
Ironically, the more methodical the review the more superficial it may look, even when it has substantive points well-argued, because it ultimately reads as critique-by-numbers, a ritualistic analysis in accordance with received wisdom learned by rote. Prose, setting, plot, character, theme, conclusion. Or drop “prose” and throw in “influences”. Drop “character” and throw in “eyeball-kicks”. Drop “theme” and throw in “kittens”. Says Johnathan: “Many is the paper I sat through which would be debated in terms of ‘simplicity’, ‘intuitiveness’ and even ‘cleanliness’.” Translate those to Populist terms like “accessibility”, “immersiveness” and “transparent prose” and it’s not hard to see how tick-list critique happens on one side of the fence, I think. Translate them to “verisimilitude”, “reflectiveness” and “rich prose” and you have a different value-set that’s all well and good but not necessarily the most relevant in reviewing a pulp fiction work for a pulp fiction audience.
But the point is not that it’s wrong to apply those values, not if you’re reviewing a work for an audience that shares them; rather that a tick-list critique on that basis, for all its literary standards, transforms those “universal strictures” into a formulation of a “good novel” every bit as blinkered as the philistine’s template of a “good story”. Even when the values are an individual’s own, their home-made aesthetic built from a ferocious interrogation of one’s own tastes, there is an air of convention to them. Another Hendrix poster on another bedsit wall. Another trafic cone in the corner. Another copy of Nietzsche, Marx, Freud or Lacan. You can smell the damp and dust of a rented aesthetics decked out in ornaments of individualism but still not really a home. Makes me want to cock my leg and piss in a corner.
But does this actually invalidate the critique? No, not at all. It can still be substantive, still be of value to the audience that shares those tastes. This is not critique from nowhere. The Last Man is not a troll. The targets picked from the Ivory Watchtower may be valid. The Last Man’s ruthless sniping may serve as a culling of the herd. And ultimately his aim may be true. But this does raise the questions articulated by McCalmont:
When we argue about the failings of a book’s prose style or the lack of narrative coherence or the weak characterisation or the poor structure, are we invoking an imaginary set of universal principles?
Yes, even if they are general conventions.
are we effectively attacking works from nowhere and with nothing?
No, because they are general conventions that mostly make sense. It’s just that in pulp fiction, with the exception of narrative coherence perhaps, these are often secondary to the dynamic qualities peculiar to that pulp idiom. The turgid prose of Epic Fantasy may be required for a thick weft of worldbolstering and worldbumphing. In the Romantic aesthetic of old school Space Opera, “strong” characterisation may be bold rather than subtle. And if you fail to consider factors like these it’s like treating a musical as a play, judging it with a tick-list of “acting”, “script”, “narrative coherence”. Which is fine until you’re addressing yourself to an audience that includes a whole lot of Steven Sondheim fans. “As for the experimentalist strategy of disrupting the narrative with song? The playwright is clearly striving for Dennis Potter style moments of rapture; sadly he achieves only a bizarre and unintentional effect of Pinteresque non sequitur.”
That may be critique from somewhere, but it’s critique going nowhere.
Of Pulp and Preachers
But here’s the key point:
are we being simply trolls?
No, but you’re going to piss people the fuck off if you can’t rein in a) the tick-list critique that takes academic method as formula b) the assumption that you know better. Because where that analytic mentality reads as utterly procedural thought, it serves as marker not just of sophomoric methods but of the stereotype of science fiction fanthink — that rigidity of thought locked into system — invalidating any air of superior nous. And then you get a critic who is, “in effect, attacking from the position of a fan even though he himself does not necessarily recognise that he is merely a fan or that his devotion to a particular position is all that he is defending.” You have someone who’s “attacking from the point of view that certain values are either actually universal or they should be.” You get the devoted, defensive advocate of dogma.
More to the point, you get a reader who knows fine well that what they’re dealing with is a fan turned aesthetic ideologue — turned demogogue actually, given that they have a platform, a pulpit — the balcony of that Ivory Watchtower from which one preaches to the masses. It’s not trolling, but it is a political act, where the reviewer is genuinely seeking to exert sway, where you are stepping into that Last Man role — or even where you just appear to be because your style of reviewing hasn’t matured yet, you haven’t quite found your voice, so the academic tone still echoes in your words. Maybe you’re not the Last Man. But that’s how the Fan is going to see you the second you curl your top lip into even a hint of a sneer at their taste. And this is what you’re going to be doing. As McCalmont acknowledges in a thread on OF Blog of the Fallen:
Book reviews are not just purchasing recommendations, they're also part of the fashioning of genre's identity and that feeds back into the books that the genre will produce in future.
And in relation to authors of works that don’t fit with the progressive agenda, authors of “core genre” works:
In fact, I don't actually think that critics should be in the business of patting those kinds of author on the head either. One of the roles of the critic is to stir the pot by situating works in a wider context and part of that stirring of the pot is saying "this is good... it moves stuff forward" even if it is down blind alleys.
Don’t get me wrong. Personally, I’m all for a peer-group discourse of mouthy opinionated bastards pushing their own idiosyncratic agenda. (Mea culpa.) I might ask, with a slight arching of the eyebrow and a wry smile, whether you think critics should be in the business of patting other kinds of authors on the head? I mean, the right kinds of authors? The ones that are good little doggies, walking to heel and feeling all toasty inside when the master rewards them with that pat? I might ask if you seriously don’t expect to get bitten by the feral mutts among us who are not interested in playing sheepdog in your fantasy of “shepherd of the genre flock”? By the readers themselves who are far from sheepish, when you try to steer them this way or that with a tap of your little stick? Even a breeze of the stick flicking past them, a glimpse of it in the corner of an eye, and they’re going to try and take it off you, snap it in two and ram it where the son don’t shine.
If you’re going to be an agitant, don’t for the love of Dog be surprised at the “baroque” accusations that result when you agitate people.
The people who disagree with your agenda are going to respond. Somebody telling you your tastes aren’t legitimate? That you should be enjoying something written on entirely different principles? When they’re apparently blind to their own fanthink? To most readers of pulp fiction that’s going to automatically read as just another example of the — how I hate this word — “elitism” of those devoted to the contemporary realist genre, to the exclusion of all else. And given the social qualities of that sort of interaction, it’s going to read as a mechanism of abjection. Sadly, the general autoresponse seems to be to come out, guns blazing, with the exact same strategies of dismissal and delegitimisation, but — also sadly — that’s entirely predictable and not really that unwarranted when you step into the role of Last Man.
Writing that reaction off as defensive groupthink is defensive groupthink. It’s a nice, safe, consolatory but ultimately self-defeating fallacy to dismiss that reaction as the irk of Fans invested in their precious precious, lashing out blindly in their sense of belonging to a community that’s under attack. No, it’s about the community belonging to them. Which is to say, it’s about the community not belonging to you, not as far as they’re concerned. So you apply for the post of genre gatekeeper, guardian of the ghetto, and they ask you, in no uncertain terms, who the fuck do you think you are? No shit, Sherlock. Suck it up. If you really, honestly want to effect change then you’re going to have to get over that cosy little fantasy of the “dumb” “ovine” “mob”. You’re going to have to recognise that some of them are foxes in their cunning, bulls in their belligerence, lone wolves in their individualism. You want to push the envelope? Get into their heads and figure out how to talk to them, how to treat them as people rater than sheep, so they won’t end up turning your Last Man stance into one big motherfucker of a Straw Man, swarming round it en masse, and putting it to the torch while you scream, “Oh, Jesus Christ! Oh, Jesus Christ!”
Otherwise you’re just bleating.
So saith the rabid dog Behemouth.