[Reformatted from a Twitter conversation with John Thyer]
Over the years I’ve developed this reflex response: if the followers of a thing tend to agree on a point, then the opposite must be true. Example: I enjoy classic Doctor Who, but in a way that seems perpendicular to fan consensus. If there is a point of intersection, it is incidental and has little to do with the usual rationale.
Now. What this should suggest is little to no overlap between that consensus and my own view. Yet, my tendency is to use the consensus as a negative indicator: if the fans heartily approve of a thing, then my first impulse is to avoid it. If they hate it, I seek it out with interest. The stronger the consensus, the more strongly I skew against it. The problem is, this reflex imposes a linearity to the relationship that doesn’t necessarily map to reality.
I don’t know how much of my own perspective is real critical thought, and how much is contrarian push-back. My presumption in these cases doesn’t really come from a place of good faith; all other things being equal, I expect that people will strongly react to surface elements based on set expectations. Set that low bar, and you will be rewarded. For any set of responses, usually the loudest voices — those that set the apparent tone — will be the most reactionary: “I’m here to have my pleasure center scratched by something familiar, and this isn’t doing it. How dare the world.”
You can see the meta-muddle in this approach. If you sit and wait for facile responses, you’re going to find them in spades. Because, people. Mine is sort of a low-hanging set of expectations that ensures that I’m never disappointed in being disappointed. And skulking around, grousing that everyone just thinks wrong, is… basically the same kind of response that I’m grousing about.
So, for me at least it’s a tough road to get to an magnanimous place of critical assessment without basic judgment. Yet, there is something to be said about the failings of fandom and the merit of a critical response.
What good criticism can do is help to steer a response away from the sort of linear judgment behind my own dismissal, and provide an argument for another approach. This is the important part of criticism, I think: being able to deliver a considered rationale for a perspective. Criticism is a kind of meta-art, in that way: a well-argued perspective in regard to a typically more ambiguous perspective. It brings in relevant yet not necessarily obvious context for the reading of a work, that can, when given due consideration, broaden the ways that one may approach the work in question.
To get back to Doctor Who, at first The Power of the Daleks (the debut story of the show’s second Doctor, Patrick Troughton) bored the life out of me. I just read it as a typical, over-long base under siege. Then something clicked, and I didn’t just know but better understood that it was written by the show’s original script editor, David Whitaker. What had been an incidental fact became key to my understanding of the script and its probable meaning. As a Whitaker script, knowing everything that Whitaker tends to deal with in his writing, its decisions carry different weight.
Viewing the story through the lens of its creator, I now think it’s easily one of the best serials of its era. Viewing it without that context, with just the context of surrounding works, it feels tedious and unambitious. And yet, I know from many discussions over the years that its reputation is based largely on the latter context; that it’s considered one of the best-ever serials not because of its value as a text but because of how well it exemplifies a highly typical form.
This critical framework (or lack thereof) explains in part why it took so long for me to get around to framing the story in the context of its author — because prior to the writing of Philip Sandifer, this is something that I literally had never seen. We’re talking decades of essays on the topic. Which, considering that Power is invariably heralded as one of the highest points of the series, is kind of odd. The story is one of the touchstones of fandom, and it took nearly 50 years for someone to talk who wrote it?
The whole framework for the story’s adulation is out of reverence for craft, in correctly delivering a particular form. The idea that it might have something to say, based in the tendencies of its author, is totally beyond. This is the distinction between a critical framework and a framework of reverence, an architecture for which I have little patience.
After all these words, I think that’s really the disjunct that I have with fandoms and movements in general. I don’t easily get with reverence. I dole it out on an individual basis, depending on the perspectives in play. Any system of reverence (which includes negative reverence) gives me pause. Because this is an anti-critical view. Or, well — that’s my bias again. It’s not anti-critical. It’s acritical. Which almost can be harder to deal with. I view that kind of a response as an unpleasant noise, and I go running to avoid getting overwhelmed by it.
Fun thing: given that our entire knowledge of the world is based in a subjective means of input — our senses — we have no primary knowledge of an objective reality. Any assertion that we make is supposition based on our evidence — our evidence, of course, being our subjective foundation, which is the only objective reality that we can know. Any consensus that we can build, based on comparing our perspective with others, is still built on our subjectivity.
So although it helps in one’s journey to broaden one’s ability to read one’s world, all truth is subjective. To declare some objective, perfectly balanced statement of truth is to miss or deny the limitations of your perspective.
One of the more hilarious things to think about is how goddamned subjective science is, by nature and necessity. “This is what we’ve seen,” it says, “and the best explanation we can come up with it for now. It may not map to reality.” The problem comes when people use science in a prescriptive, declarative way. “This Is Objective Reality!” they say. Science says! Well, no. On the basis of what we’ve seen and can derive from that, science tells us that this is what we can probably expect.
Reality is about probability. Is anything possible? Hard to say. Probably. Is anything probable? Probably not. The more certain you get, the more you try to nail down what is objective, the less objective you become. It’s like Schrodinger’s Cat. There is a reason why higher physics is all about uncertainty.
The words we use, the ways that we use them, are unfortunate. It is with a great leap of arrogance that natural philosophy came to be called Science — Absolute Knowledge! The natural philosophers died out in favor of a new breed of Scientists — Those Who Know! They Know, and they speak of natural laws, suggesting that these things Have to Be! Which creates many problems. Yes, the scientific definition of a law is different from the common one, but the choice of words is meaningful. And the perceptual problems that it causes, both within and without the scientific community, plague us today.
It is abundantly clear from the workings of science, from the scientific method, just how little is nailed down. It has to be, because science is descriptive. We’re just using what we see to figure out what we may see later. Sometimes it’s predictive, according to the same notions. It’s not about some kind of Holy Writ. Yet in all its cloakings, science appears to be positioned as an objective Order of the Universe. So when the cracks appear, and it becomes clear that current science can’t account for everything, those in search for an objective reality tend to lunge.
“Ha ha!” they scoff. “You uppity jerks who think you know everything, you don’t know everything! Therefore you don’t know anything!” The positioning of science as this absolute set of answers allows in this kind of binary thought. Either it is or it isn’t — and it isn’t!
Yet, the world isn’t as simple as that. The universe doesn’t hand out yes or no answers, to pretty much anything. Which doesn’t mean you can’t make a solid effort at understanding it, within a useful probability, for many things — so long as you’re not obsessed with being right all the time, and maintain a certain curiosity and humility. Which is something that I think we all will struggle with to some extent, to our dying days.
I once encountered a young man with an absolutist view of morality. This was in a course on Gandhi. He was in over his head. Why bother being a vegetarian, he asked, if other people aren’t? Why try to conserve energy, when you’re already wasting so much? Why bother donating to charity, if you use the rest of your money selfishly? If you can’t be absolutely good, if you can’t be right all the time, then what’s the point of trying?
This is the logical end to reverence. This is the kind of sickness that we get from these religious notions of purity and original sin. This is what brings us abstinence-only education. Going by what I’ve read, AA reinforces with its notion of what an alcoholic is. One sip and you might as well just die, really. All of your work is over, and the best you can hope for is to start from scratch if you survive your fall.
This is the mainstream model of morality that our culture aspires to. This is what it means to be good: to absolutely good, or nothing at all.
This is what it means to succeed: to be the best, or to be a failure. And if you fail… well, you might as well take down the rest of the world with you. Or, depending on how entitled you feel to that success, maybe just punish those who are dragging you down.
Anyway. The search for truth is absolutely something that people should undertake, but with an understanding. With an understanding that there is no one absolute correct truth, but that you can always get closer to one.
No matter how much of the truth you command, your perspective will always be incomplete. Not wrong; just small. So, there will always be things that you won’t be able to see on your own, that you can use to see more clearly. This is the role of criticism: to dissolve the reader’s adherence to a single view on a topic.
So the Earth isn’t the center of the universe, and neither is the Sun. That doesn’t mean that either model is wholly wrong, or dumb. They’re both reasonable. If you state, “the earth seems to be the center of the universe” — well, yes. Yes, it does! If you say, “actually, if you consider this, the sun seems to be,” then, whoa. You know, yeah. It does seem to! These both are perfectly valid, indeed constructive, observations to make. The problem comes when you try to assert objectivity. Because then you will be wrong. The world isn’t objective.
Of course, I’m all for activist theater. If you feel like asserting something to make a point about mass presumption, then by all means. Present people with conflicting truths, to show the lie to their objectivity. Stating the objective truth of an unpopular reality can be a necessary means to demonstrate its validity.
Which is, again, where criticism can be very useful. And where reverence can be a great barrier to progress.