Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Assumption of Authority 2

Sacrificing Assumptions

If I write a review of an epic fantasy novel as someone who doesn't really care for epic fantasy and is looking to see whether this particular novel is significantly better and/or different from most epic fantasy novels, and thus worth reading even by those who don't care for epic fantasy, am I not serving the community of like-minded readers? — Abigail Nussbaum, comment on a previous post here

It is not absurd to hold Gattaca to the standards of CSciFiBlockbuster, but its aim is not to be an object of that class. Neither is it absurd to hold War of the Worlds or I Am Legend to the standards of CProperScienceFictionFilm, though neither have this as the standard they’ve set for themselves. It is simply that in doing so the critique becomes mere compatibility assessment. It may be functional, serving to tell the reader whether the film is of the class they’re looking for, but if we don’t assume all such reviews will appear in either Sci-Fi Explosion Monthly or The Journal of Proper Science Fiction, or if we don’t assume that these readerships are exclusive, that the audience for one can’t appreciate the other, then a review which dismisses War of the Worlds or I Am Legend on the basis that they’re not in the CProperScienceFictionFilm class is as worthless as one which dimisses Gattaca because it’s not in the CSciFiBlockbuster class. — Me, the Ethics and Enthusiasm post

The “mere” in “mere compatibility assessment” is maybe a bit dismissive, but I have tried to make it clear that conventional reviews are entirely valid. And you should theoretically be able to read into that quote above that given a “community of like-minded readers”, I’d absolutely see Abigail’s review of an epic fantasy as worthwhile. The If Not…Or If Not… Then… construction is kind of convoluted though, so it’s worth making explicit: If a reviewer for Sci-Fi Explosion Monthly, generally hostile to anything that wasn’t a Hollywood SFX Blockbuster, and particularly suspicious of independent movies (“fucking arthouse wank”) went to see Cube, they might well find that the high-peril drama made it significantly more to their taste than, say, Primer. Their review would be worthwhile. I can’t think of any Hollywood blockbuster that would actually work the other way round, but you get the point. Even the negative reviews would be worthwhile in warning the magazines’ audiences away from movies they wouldn’t like. SImilarly allowing for like-minded readers, Abigail’s review of an epic fantasy would be carrying out a perfectly valid function — whether it was positive or negative.

The “community of like-minded readers” is the core point here though. If those reviewers were writing for FutureVision, a new magazine dedicated to cinematic SF of all flavours, one might assume the majority of readers had wide tastes (else they’d stick to one or other of the established specialist magazines). The negative reviews arising from a wrong match of reviewer to work would be of little use. They might well have been told that both Gattaca and I Am Legend were “the worst movie I’ve ever seen”. I would be interested to know what percentage of Strange Horizons readers share Abigail’s (and my) general distaste for Epic Fantasy, and what percentage would be reading a review that was utterly at odds with their more eclectic interest if Abigail slated it for not being better and/or different in a way that she (and I) might appreciate, even though it was better and/or different in a way they would appreciate. In a venue like F&SF I would imagine there’d be a lot of readers who didn’t feel they were well-served.

That said, I’m not so much arguing for works to be allocated to reviewers likely to find them to their taste, as I’m arguing for reviewers to adjust themselves to the works — especially if they aspire to writing in-depth critique. The more capable a reviewer is to fit themselves to the work, the better they are as a reviewer, it seems to me, the wider their range; without that capacity, they may not be a bad reviewer within their tastes but I don’t think they’re ever going to be a good critic. It may sound counter-intuitive, but this suspension of taste can, I think, improve one’s critical skills immensely. It may be the only way to nurture an understanding of those aspects of the craft that are neglected in the genres you prefer — to learn to appreciate the different skill-sets at play in genres that you dislike. In my time served at the GSFWC, I think I’ve learned a lot from having to critique work that was utterly outwith my tastes — even when what I’ve learned has largely been the limitations of my own range. I still can’t, for the life of me, appreciate worldbumphing. But I try.

That does mean, I think, sacrificing assumptions, as much as is possible.

Every review starts with underlying assumptions about what constitutes a good or bad work, and to my mind a reviewer best serves their readers by stating those assumptions as explicitly as possible. I'm not sure how one would go about doing that without implicitly claiming legitimacy, or even universal legitimacy, for those assumptions, unless what you're calling for is a sort of Your Mileage May Vary boilerplate. But that strikes me as a question of niceness and civility, and not that I don't consider either one important, but they don't seem to justify distinguishing, as you did in your previous post, between different types of reviewing according to whether they claim authority.

I don’t disagree with much here. I agree with Abigail 100% that the stating of assumptions is valuable to the reader. I don’t see a problem at all in claiming legitimacy, even universal legitimacy, because an assertion of legitimacy is not an assumption of authority. And I’m not calling for reviewers to backflip through hoops of caveats and qualifications. But we’ll come to that.

The only thing I’d argue with is the first clause. I’d add to this that every reading starts with such assumptions and that the reviewer who can sacrifice these during the reading will most likely create a better review, but this is a tangential point. More pertinently, I’d ask a couple of questions: Can we really have assumptions about what constitutes a “good or bad work”? Isn’t “work” too vague to be standardised? Novels, short stories, movies, operas, punk albums, art installations, gigs, paintings, songs, and so on, ad infinitum — all of these, we might say, are of the class CWork. And surely we can only have assumptions about what constitutes a “good or bad work” of the relevant sub-class. This may sound picky, but there’s a point. We can have assumptions about what constitutes a good or bad object of the sub-class CNovel, say, but even here we have problems. In the late 18th century that book-length-narrative-fiction was divided into novel and romance. These were quite different forms, the C18thCNovel and C18thCRomance. The current novel inherits from both traditions, encompasses all book-length-narrative-fiction. Strictly speaking, I’d say we have a CModernNovel rather than a CNovel.

A problem arises: assumptions about what constitutes a good or bad CModernNovel are shaped by generations of argumentative discourse about what constitutes a good or bad CTraditionalNovel and what constitutes a good or bad CTraditionalRomance, much of it a discourse of abjection - the discourse of high and low culture, literature and pulp, “literary” and “genre” fiction. Readers of the strange fiction genres should be familiar with this discourse, most of having been on the receiving end of that abjection at some time or other, I’m guessing. In the early 20th century, the novelistic equivalents of CPulpMagazine emerges via dedicated genre imprints — CPulpNovel. Arguably, there’s a novelistic equivalent of CLiteraryJournal too, a CLiteraryNovel, that could be distinguished as another subclass of CModernNovel. But as the 20th century went on these converged (particularly within the field of strange fiction). And cross-fertilised (particularly within the field of strange fiction). Do we now have the CLiteraryPulpNovel (pulp goes literary) and the CPulpLiteraryNovel (literary goes pulp)? Either way I think there’s a strong case for having different assumptions for what constitutes a good or bad object for each of the subclasses we identify at this level. And then some.

Suppose we rearticulate that opening clause: “Every review starts with underlying assumptions about what constitutes a good or bad CModernNovel.” I’d be tempted to tack an “almost” on at the start, to allow for the possibility of radical (post)Modernist readers who consider the CModernNovel a completely empty class, its instances incapable of evaluation except with reference to the multiple genre paradigms they collage — but I reckon there’s at least a standard of interestingness even where there are no (or minimal) assumptions as regards conventional standards of plot, character, background, prose or theme. Anyway, why does this matter? Well, I think by scratching at that generalisation I can maybe articulate better my own issue with reviews. It seems to me that some reviews don’t just start with underlying assumptions about what constitutes a good or bad CModernNovel. They’re based on readings which start with such assumptions and refuse to sacrifice them. Not only that, but these are filtered through the lens of a subclass to the extent that the reader/reviewer is really holding the work up to scrutiny as an object of that subclass.

Because that’s what constitutes “a good novel”. They may even be applying another subclass — CLiteraryNovel or CPulpNovel — as the filter through which they define what constitues “a bad novel”. It’s here, I think, that the refusal to sacrifice assumptions risks turning into prescriptivism, when it becomes a refusal to recognise the legitimacy of not having those assumptions. That is a different sort of assumption — the assumption of authority.

Signifiers of Assumed Authority

I'm still not clear on how an authoritative review would differ from a non-authoritative one (this is the point where I'd benefit from specific examples, I think).

Actually, Abigail gives her own example, which sounds like a perfect case of the prescriptivism I’m talking about (though the Guardian Review that comes up on Google doesn’t seem to be the same one she’s talking about, so I can’t really say):

I'm thinking, in particular, of the Guardian's review of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, whose author claimed that the book failed as alternate history because, as everybody knows, an alternate history must deviate from real history in one and only one point, whereas TYPU deviated in several. But by making that determination, aren't I simply claiming authority for my own standards?

The way I see it, it’s the other way round. Abigail is making a legitimate personal evaluation in the face of a review which seeks to deny it, to assume authority. I’m taking for granted that her summary reflects the sentiment rather than the actual wordage per se, so this is a model of an example rather than an actual example, but taking her own phraseology, there are signals that can be used, I think, to distinguish prescriptive decrees from descriptive generalisations.

The epistemic modality of “must” is a key indicator, asserting necessity. Any description of that sort which carries an epistemic modality of necessity rather than contingency, a sense of “must” or “must not”, can be considered a prescriptive. The phrase “as everybody knows” reinforces that insistence on necessity with an appeal to the authority of common knowledge — “everybody knows”, so it “must” be true. Or rather, what you have is not an appeal to but an assumption of the authority of common knowledge, an assumption of the authority to speak on behalf of everybody. The reviewer is presuming that their expertise extends to a knowledge of what everyone else knows. They are affecting the attitude of someone invested with that knowledge. On the basis of this assumed authorisation, they are attempting to express a decree: (alternate history + x deviations) where x > 1 = BIG PILE OF HORSESHIT!!!

Actually, there is an alternative reading in which this modality can be read as honest prescriptivism, if we take “must” as a deontic rather than epistemic modality — the “must” of social obligation rather than theoretical possibility. It is still absolute, but it is open about the fact that this is an attempt to exercise authority, an attempted decree of the alternate history writer’s duty to abide by the prescriptions. This is the language of commands, the language of imperatives. Even if Abigail’s characterisation is just an informal summary, it’s these sorts of little details that are revealing. Modalities.

The modalities of “can only” or “cannot” carry the same assertion of necessity as “must” and “must not”. A contention that “an alternate history writer cannot deviate from history at more than one point,” is actually of the form “X can only be” rather than “X is (always)”. It is equivalent to “X must be” rather than an essentialist position that “X is universal”. It is in effect an indirect imperative that all others (particularly writers) recognise that “X is universal”. The prescriptivism should be apparent on an attentive reading, since the epistemic modality, by presenting the scenario as an impossibility, renders this assertion descriptively absurd. An alternate history writer quite patently can deviate from history at more than one point; the reviewer is criticising an example of the very thing they’re classing as an impossibiity. The only way to make sense of this is to stress the alternate history, perhaps capitalise it as Alternate History to signify genre label rather than descriptor — “an Alternate History writer cannot deviate from history at more than one point”. Which is to say, if they do so, they cease to be writing in the genre of Alternate History. So either this is an attempt to decree what writers can and cannot do within the genre, or it’s an attempt to decree where writers, readers and the world in general are to draw the borders around that genre. The two are functionally identical. The prescriptivism is clear. The reviewer is assuming authority.

Can and should such prescriptives be rendered simply descriptive? An “I firmly believe...” would frame this as the reviewer’s adamant stance, the acknowledged subjectivity transforming a conclusive review to a critical review. A “Conventionally…” would frame it as an application of genre standards, the assumption that these are shared transforming a conclusive review to a conventional review. These are not the same as a caveat that Your Mileage May Vary, which indicates subjectivity with respect to the substance of the assessment — that a different evaluation of how well the standards are met may be made by different readers. These are simply contextualisations that bind the standards within a frame, prevent the edict from reaching out in an unwarranted assumption of authority. And the additional wordage of these qualifications is, in fact, not even necessary.

Replace “must not” or “cannot” with the weaker “should not” and the injunction ceases to be absolute; it is permitted to do what one “should not”, just as it’s permitted to not do what one “should”. It is commendable to do what one “should” or not do what one “should not”, but it is not prescribed. The reviewer is still articulating their standards, still even expressing them as an exhortation to follow certain protocols in writing Alternate History. But this is an act of urging rather than commanding, and as such it’s entirely conventional in the peer-group discourse of equals advocating different agendas, in the argumentative to-and-fro of rival opinions, each holding to their own, even striving to persuade others, but ultimately recognising the legitimacy of dissent. If it is a directive, it is not an imperative. In fact, just as “must not” can be read as deontic modality rather than epistemic, “should not” can be read as boulomaic modality rather than deontic — the “should not” of desire rather than duty. It can be taken as an expression of entirely subjective preference.

This is one simple nuts-and-bolts way of parsing a review for prescriptivism. These epistemic, deontic and boulomaic modalities may not be explicitly articulated, but they may be clear implications, by which I mean not just that we may infer them from the text, but that the text articulates them indirectly, as assumptions required for us to make sense of it. The review referenced by Abigail might not have used the exact phraseology of her summary, but her summary may be an accurate representation of what the text is articulating indirectly. How then might we distinguish potential inferences from clear implications?

As suggested above, presumption and affectation may be considered components of “assuming authority”, and these are often, I’d say, bound to clear implications. They may take the form of a presumption/affectation of superior expertise. In cases where the reviewer is simply displaying conviction of their own literary skills and/or knowledge it may be difficult to distinguish confidence and over-confidence, but it is not impossible. The latter can be detected in any statement that asserts the illegitimacy of any contrary opinions. (With apologies to Chance Morrison for bringing this up again,) a statement such as “I want to know how the reviewer was bribed to tell me such lies”, is an attack on the legitimacy of any contrary opinions. Whether the intent was hyperbole or not, this translates as “I want to know what mechanisms resulted in such illegitimate evaluations.” Indirectly but clearly, this articulates an assumption that those contrary opinions must be illegitimate evaluations. “I want to know whether the reviewer was bribed to tell me such lies,” admits of the possibility they were not. “I want to know how the reviewer was bribed to tell me such lies,” assumes the necessity that they were. Thus we get the clear implication that these contrary opinions must be wrong, that Morrison herself can only be right, a presumption/affectation of expertise preeminent over all.

Alternatively, a presumption/affectation of knowledge may take the form of speculation on that which the reviewer does not and cannot know presented as a spurious assertion of “fact”. To take a recent contentious review as an example — but from a quite contrary approach to that which many reading this would expect, I imagine — Martin Lewis’s review of Nights of Villjamur speculates on the pace of production, asserting that “the book shows every sign of being written in a rush, not just from the state of the proof (at one point a viewpoint has been changed from third- to first-person without all the pronouns being fixed) but from the obvious lack of interest and care taken in certain passages,” but this is not presumptive/affected as it is clearly presented as interpretation by the phrase, “shows every sign of being”. His review of Vellum however, linked to from the Newton review, contains a flat assertion that it is “half a novel, a single work that has been arbitrarily cleaved in two.” This is simply inaccurate. Had the same “shows every sign of being” phrase been included here there would be no issue, but as it stands the review presents a speculation that Lewis does not and cannot know to be true — because it is actually false — as a spurious assertion of “fact”. (In actuality the structural decision to write a diptych of two novels was made after much deliberation, (rather than arbitrarily,) on aesthetic grounds that I considered to outweigh the potential for misreading to occur, (again, rather than arbitrarily,) and with the vast majority of the actual writing still to be done, (which is to say, before there was a coherent novel to be halved, a single work to be cleaved.) Factual error corrected, I’ll make no defensive claims here that Lewis’s impression of a sundered novel is rendered illegitimate by this actuallity. The author is dead. I won’t stink up the room.)

In what sense does this indicate prescriptivism however? It may be deemed a presumption/affectation of knowledge with regards to the creative process (or publication process, if the “increasingly common” is referring to the tendency of publishers to split long works in half for purely expedient purposes — which I think is a fair inference,) but it is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It does not assert a decree that this must not be done. Except that — and here I tread perilously close to defending the work — this presumption/affectation of knowledge is bound to an assertion that Vellum “is not a novel”. The causal relationship between “not a novel” and “half a novel… cleaved in two” is surface text. The clear implication however is that the division, and thereby the incompleteness, is self-evident in the text, that the narrative presented does not function as a novel because it is cleaved rather than “properly” ended: (novel - “proper” ending) = Not Proper Novel! On its own that statement would have a conclusive air to its flat assertion that this is just how it is, and its failure to specify the difference between cleaving and “properly” ending makes it circular, but it would stand simply as unacknowledged subjectivity and we can project into it a value of “proper” equalling resolution. With the presumption/affectation of knowledge of the creative process however, the assumption of authority is evident to anyone who knows different and may be suspected by anyone who finds it implausible, and this assumption of authority imparts an authoritative force: (novel - “proper” ending) = Not Proper Novel! becomes (novel - “proper” ending) = NOT PROPER NOVEL!!! And if we do project into that “proper” a value of resolution, this becomes an attempted decree running contrary to the individual evaluations many would make, that resolution =/= closure.

The position that (novel + closure - resolution) = Proper Novel is a controversial minority position, but it is a legitimate evaluation, and no reviewer has a mandate to decree otherwise. An exactly opposite evaluation is entirely legitimate, and I would probably say should be considered as a relevant conventional standard even in a critical review addressing the work by the standards it sets for itself, but to attempt to decree that (novel + closure - resolution) = NOT PROPER NOVEL!!! via a conclusive review is an invitation to challenge that assumption of authority.

In other words: you’re not the boss of what’s a novel.

To belabour the point of exactly what I’m taking issue with here, that I’m decidely not seeking to defend my precious flower, I’ll point to a far more scathing review of Vellum as an example of a non-prescriptive review, one that does not assume authority. As part an overwhelmingly negative review, Clute makes a somewhat similar but more systematic evaluation, praising certain aspects but judging that the work is completely structurally unsound, that it disintegrates to the point that it “shreds caring”. Crucially though, he refrains from applying his structural standards as a decree of what constitutes a proper novel. He does not decree that (novel - “proper” structure) = NOT PROPER STORY!!! Rather he explicitly articulates what he is measuring the book against: “A tale tooled to illuminate chaos without becoming chaos (which I take as a definition of any great work of art)” In fact, the context presents this as a standard apparently set by the book itself, a “promise” that “seems” (note: “seems”) to be made in the first 30 to 50 pages — which places this in the zone of critical review for me, whatever I think of his evaluation.

Anyway, there are, I’m sure, other points of distinction that could be made between conclusive reviews and non-conclusive reviews, if you dig down into the language. But are all these little details of modalities and implications merely a matter of tone, of style? On the contrary, I think, the fact that they’re not is why we use such a distinctive phrase as “assuming authority” rather than simply talk of “arrogance” and “condescension” (or more accurately in amongst all the talk of “arrogance” and “condescension”… and “pretentiousness” and “elitism” and “populism” and “bribery” and “stupidity” and “jealousy” and “spite” and any other ad hominem you can think of.) It’s not simply the wild-eyed stab of another great white snarkhunter, spitting their last breath at some mofo dick who left them hurting. Or rather if it’s used as such, that’s not to say all such accusations boil down to that, no more than all complaints of injustice boil down to “you’re infringing on my selfishness and I hate you for it,” because that’s what petulant adolecents mean by “it’s so unfair!” No, “assuming authority” is a specific charge, I’d say. Of authority — not legitimacy, not expertise. Being assumed.

And if two senses of the term “assume” — presume and affect — carry the idea of taking it for granted that one has authority and acting as if one has authority, part of the charge, I’d say, is that this strategy of assumption is an attempt to gain authority.

8. The ability to decree that X is universal -> the authority to decree that X is universal.

Towards the end of the last post, I made the point that an attempt to decree is not actually an exercise of authority if there’s no authority to be exercised. Pretending to have authority (to oneself, in the form of presumption; to others, in the form of affectation) is not having it. I can try and build an army of killer bees. I can buy myself a hundred hives, set them up in my Fortress of Wax and, from my Throne of Honeycomb Sweetness, cry out, “FLY!!! FLY, MY STRIPY MINIONS!!! I COMMAND THEE!!!” This does not actually mean I will have authority over an army of killer bees.

(Oh, but once Dr Arturo perfects the pheromonal command spray, I tell you, with an army of insects who can defy the very laws of physics — what? you think the wing-span to body-weight ratio story is an urban legend? pitiful fool! — then with my army of assassin apoids, bumbleberserkers every one of them, for whom to fight is to die, armed with their crossbows and their little gladiator helmets — I tell you, they can defy the very laws of physics! — then nothing, nothing, nothing will stand in my path! Once I have the pheromonal command spray…)

The thing is, all that is required for an attempt to decree to be successful is that it is accepted as a decree. If others can be made to submit, to accept the denial of legitimacy to their personal evaluations, then the pretence has been made real — the individual has been empowered to make decrees. With the abrogation of the right to decide for themselves, the subjects have authorised the individual as authority over them, bestowed the necessary mandate. Power becomes privilege. This is the assumption of authority in three other senses of the term “assume”: to accept (to take what is given); to acquire (to take what is simply there); to appropriate (to take what is not yours). It is the assumption of the mantle of authority, the assumption of the status of authority.

One might dismiss this as an unlikely occurrence, a fancy founded on an underestimation of the reader’s capacity to think for themself, or one that even if it were to occur on any measurable scale would be so trivial as to be unimportant. I would refer you back, in that case, to the historical precedents of linguistic prescriptivism cited in the previous blog post, to Johnson’s characterisation of Scots words as vulgar slang, and tell you that this attitude, assimilated wholesale into the Scottish culture, continues to the present as a marker — a mechanism even — of class privilege. Prescriptivist attitudes can have a higher uptake than you’d think. Privilege seeks to perpetuate itself, and it does so by denying rights. In a conventional review, one is writing for a (self-selecting) readership that shares the general standards of the genre or the particular venue, or the personal standards of the particular reviewer. In a conclusive review, one is invariably writing against any who do not share your standards, not just writers but readers, denying the legitimacy of their judgement, denying their right to like what they like. No, not just denying the accuracy of their judgement, which is fine; denying their right to make that judgement.

A more pertinent example? In the field of literature, contemporary criticism of sensation novels was, it rather seems, a misogynist rhetoric of hysteria, of fiction "preaching to the nerves instead of the judgment", fiction aimed "to supply the cravings of a diseased appetite". Not that all those women of the not-so-upper-middle class who made up the burgeoning readership could perhaps have a healthy appetite for such stuff, a legitimate taste for it. Oh, no. Those quotes are from H.L. Mansel, who also provides a fine heritage for the presumption/affectation of knowledge of creative process and commercial aims in his spurious assertions on Wilkie Collins: "No divine influence can be imagined as presiding over the birth of his work; no more immortality is dreamed of for it than for the fashions of the current season. A commercial atmosphere floats around works of this class, redolent of the manufactory and the shop". [my italics] The sensation novel was certainly lurid in subject matter and approach, dealing with, in the words of a more contemporary commentator, “the exposure of hypocrisy in polite society, intentional and unintentional bigamy, adultery, hidden illegitimacy, extreme emotionalism, melodramatic dialogue and plotting, and the brilliant but eccentric villain with gentlemanly pretensions.” And yet, to this litany of impropriety, “we should add the realistic and sympathetic investigation of individual psychology and an exploration of the female psyche in the manner of George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë.” (all quotes from this article)

The latter sounds rather worthwhile to me. Actually, I quite like the sound of the brilliant but eccentric villain with gentlemanly pretensions too. But clearly I must, as everyone knows, have a diseased appetite. Like my appetite for making hot homo fuck. Or so the prescriptivists would have you believe.

9. The assumption of authority =/= the assertion of legitimacy.

So long as I state my assumptions clearly, what is the harm in claiming authority for them (besides, obviously, making myself look silly a la the above-mentioned Guardian reviewer)? Isn't it up to the reader to grant or refuse that authority?

If we’re talking about authority and “claiming” it as I’ve characterised it here, that last question seems… disingenuous. If I can get away with it, what’s wrong with that? If I can bootstrap myself into a position of authority and legislate taste, write a review that leads readers away from all that I class prescriptively as “bad” (because to be authoritative about such things is to be prescriptive), if I can write a dictionary that systematically abjects a segment of the population, if I can use critique to scourge the vulgar / low / common fiction that might happen to speak to a segment of the population whose tastes I consider illegitimate, if I can have some people accept my mandate to do so even if those plebs baulk at it, what’s wrong with that? But I don’t think that’s what Abigail is talking about. Rather I read into those questions a conflation of authority and right, with maybe a dash of expertise. Rephrase those sentences with “legitimacy” in there and my answers are simple. So long as I state my assumptions clearly, what is the harm in claiming legitimacy for them? No harm at all. Isn't it up to the reader to grant or refuse that legitimacy? Absolutely. Because granting or refusing, here, simply means agreeing or disagreeing.

There’s nothing wrong with asserting the legitimacy of one’s opinion. What I’m arguing against is the assumption of authority, which is neither a decision that one has legitimacy nor its expression in a claim that one has legitimacy. We assert legitimacy all the time, every expression of a decision an exercise of one’s right to make a personal evaluation and therefore, as an exercise of a right, an implicit assertion of that right. An assertion of legitimacy. Even to back this up with an assertion of expertise is just part of making one’s case. This is only to assert greater cogency, greater efficacy, better foundations, sounder arguments, the wisdom of wider experience — which is, I think, what Abigail means by “claiming authority” for her assumptions, claiming the greater consideration due an expert. One is surely bound to do this at times without feeling the need to demonstrate there and then — to refer to one’s time served in a workshopping group, or susbtantial experience as a reviewer, or simply as a reader who reads a whole lot more than many. I think Abigail might characterise this as “claiming authority” but I see it as claiming justification as long as it admits of challenge.

It all comes down to authority as a privilege. Someone else may be equally an expert, or more so. Are you claiming authority over them, claiming that they must submit to your opinion because it is authoritative? Even if someone is not an expert, are you claiming that they must simply submit to your opinion without a right of challenge, because it is authoritative? Aren’t you, in most cases, simply claiming expertise on the understanding that a contrary opinion based on greater expertise is a legitimate challenger? Aren’t you actually claiming expertise on the understanding that a non-expert who asks you to prove it is a legitimate challenger? You’re asserting that someone should pay attention to you as an expert. When they ask why they should believe you, do you accept this as a legitimate challenge, employ that expertise, demonstrate the justification? If so, then at no point have you laid claim to a mandate beyond the natural right of making your case in a peer-group discourse of equals. At no point have you laid claim to a privilege of having your opinions carry more weight on the basis of your authorised status.

This assertion of legitimacy and expertise is not a claim of authority until it admits of no need to justify that expertise, until it asserts a prerogative, the very privilige of not having to justify oneself. Because you are the judge. Then the assertion of expertise is only a stratagem in the assumption of authority, a flashing of a badge, a finger pointed at a diploma. It does not say “you should subscribe to my view because I am correct,” but rather “you must subscribe to my view because I am authorised”.

“Should.” “Must.”

In an assertion of legitimacy and justification, that “should” leaves it up to the reader to evaluate your expertise, to come to their own equally legitimate evaluation as to whether they should accept your analysis as sound. The assumption of authority doesn’t leave it up to the reader to grant or refuse that authority. It assumes that the authority has already been granted and tells them what to think. Not only is the assertion of legitimacy not an assumption of authority then; it is in fact a challenge to any individual who is assuming the authority to decree, as they can only achieve this privilege by denying that right. The assertion of legitimacy and justification is a rejection of authority that puts its money where its mouth is. It brings its tools to the table, its greater cogency, greater efficacy, better foundations, sounder arguments. It slaps them down and calls shenanigans. And as often as not it is addressing the whole room, not just the authority, because it recognises the assumed privilege can be obliterated simply by persuading enough of this authority’s subjects to take back their right by exercising it. If the assumed authority is not entirely stripped from the empowered, the privileged, their bootstrapped mandate can be severely limited when enough individuals refuse to recognise it, exert their right of individual evaluation and say, “this goes beyond any remit you have.”

This is why I can make hot homo fuck with a hot twink and not get arrested.

For me, this is, I’d say, a potential additional function of critique, where it refuses authority, in that it reminds the reader that, hey, actually, they can decide for themself. Good critique can expose the presumptions and affectations of the authorities, show the man behind the curtain. In doing so it can be an invitation to the reader to exercise their own right. It can be argumentative, opinionated, advocate aesthetics via conventional reviews. It could even argue for the relevance of aesthetics in critical reviews; I think this is a path fraught with the peril of collapsing that review into compatibility assessment or prescriptivist dogma, but if that review still fundamentally takes the work on its own terms… well, it is a tight-rope walk that other critique might emulate. Critique can, I think, assert legitimacy and justification without the assumption of authority, and in doing so not simply avoid a potentially detrimental pitfall but improve itself, exceed the minimal expectations of compatibility assessment, the critic sacrificing their own assumptions and showing the reader how and where and why they might sacrifice their own and gain the benefit of it in the ability to engage with a work that wants to reward them, if only they will meet it on its own ground. Critique can do this, I think.

I sort of think it should try.

“Should”, not “must”.


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