Thursday, February 20, 2014

On Gawker's "On Smarm"

First, read this. It's very well written. It's important thinking about our time and how we relate to each other. I disagree with most of it, but Tom Scocca makes at least one valid argument for the infusion of public discourse with backbone and substance. Which is more than enough.

Every statement of opinion has two phenotypes. It is either Positive or Negative and Critical or Superficial.

(We'll ignore the statistically irrelevant examples that are qualitatively neutral and exactly half over-generalizing).

People frequently mistake "critical" to mean "negative". It's this very type of connotative thinking that tempts us to skip details and use "Michael Bay" and "Nickelback" as shorthand for "shit".

("But what if I like far-fetched action movies with lots of explosions or throaty, four-chord cock-rock?") (Fuck you.)

"Critical" means important, or at least--for the purpose of this discussion--exploratory, cartographic, examining of contexts or simply attempting to explain. "Critical" can't have a positive or negative connotation because it is diagnostic by definition. A building inspector took an hour or so to look at the new house I'm buying, and he gave me a twenty-five page report of things that need improvements. At no point did he roll his eyes and say the furnace was garbage. (For the record, he actually said the house is in fairly good shape, and then handed me a warren commission on how I could really fix it up properly if I want to invest ten years and half a mil.)

"Superficial" attempts to summarize critical content and translate. It usually has to be shorter than a critical message and it's either negative or positive because it translates a given item to a perceived qualitative value. (I.E. the part where my building inspector said the house was in fairly good shape). Naturally, subtle deviations in peoples' values can create qualitative disconnects, unless of course you're talking to members of your cult.

As for "positive" and "negative", you already understand. Positive = I like it. / Good. Negative = I don't like it. / Bad.


In politics, the most important phenotype is Negative & Critical. Because politics are very important. Peoples freedoms and livelihoods are potentially at stake. Policy must be an architecture. Any element that doesn't help it, hurts it. Positive & Critical is a less important message; it's simply reinforcement of a preexisting condition. But it's still sorta important so that people know why to proceed in a certain direction. Positive & Superficial and Negative & Superficial are tied for last place. Generalizing has no place in public policy. The law is simply too important for self-evident truths.

Art is wildly different. Art is an experience, designed with all sorts of intentions. In art criticism, the most important message is Positive & Critical, because this message will accurately direct people towards the things that will make their lives better. Positive & Superficial is the second most important because even in a crap shoot, seeing a random movie, at worst wastes two hours, at best changes your life. The cure for bad speech is more speech and even a boring/annoying/offensive artistic experience will increase your reservoir of worldview, and widen your tapestry of experience. An under-specified endorsement still helps, even if you end up disagreeing. It helps you navigate future endorsements.

Art is not architecture, it's a canvas. Noisy color is still data; it has characteristics.

Negative & Critical is not particularly important, even if it's fun to write and read. Unless we're discussing seizure-anime, subliminal assassination orders, one-act "how to build a weapon" videos, or Two Girls One Cup... These all have non-subjective negative effects on society (with the obvious exception, unfortunately, of TG1C, although I admit I'm profoundly grateful to have been warned against it). These types of example are almost too rare to include in the conversation--and basically over-lap into politics so let's look at a common, poorly reviewed piece of entertainment.

The movie The Internship, mentioned in the article as a priori garbage, may have a review which discusses the elements of the movie thoroughly but with a disapproving interpretation. Even though it could be a really enjoyable flick for me--I may laugh heartily at lowest common denominator humor (which is to say, humor that everybody gets). But the critic doesn't like the way the movies fails to reflect modern values and drive our culture forward, he doesn't like that he finds the jokes tired and the acting forced so he drops a turd on it. Now I may end up skipping something that was gonna help me laugh away the remnants of my day-job but instead I end up seeing The Master, which I didn't get.

In defence of Negative & Critical, I'm not a movie-going machine, and time is money. I, hopefully, have the ability to receive critical information in a meaningful way, so this critical review with a negative summary might help whittle away my less exciting options and help steer me towards a better experience.

Finally, we get to Negative & Superficial, which is truly what nauseates participants in the movement against negativity--at which Scocca rolls his literary eyes. The Negative & Superficial is so vilified because, in such a functionally nihilistic world devoid of a priori values, the spirit of DIY authority has embodied the spirit of cynicism, as if cynicism itself is authority's fuel. Certain members of the left wing--seemingly Scocca, but I can't speak on his spiritual beliefs--wish to kill god but keep his objectivism. The two are inseparable.

In lieu of critical thinking, Negative thinking feels surefooted. Who sounds more stupid to you: someone who thinks There Will Be Blood is really over-rated or someone who thinks Fran Drescher's Beautician and the Beast is a misunderstood masterpiece?

They're both film students. They both got a B-.

(Neither one of them is myself, but I'll guarantee you've never watched Beautician and the Beast.)


I was going to go off on a bunch of specifics that I disagreed with from Scocca's column, but there's really no need for that. (It would be the second-least important kind of criticism.) He's right about politics. Where the law in concerned, politeness is unimportant. But he needs to separate the world of the important with the world of the unimportant. In the world of the important, any false steps fuck people over. But art can't ruin your life. It can only improve it. In the world of art, beautiful mistakes lead to Bob Dylan records. Led Zeppelin's ripped-off blues riffs didn't rob the original musicians of billions they otherwise would have had.  Eight unlistenable Phish records are more than worth it for three great jazz-fusion tracks on Junta and (my favorite rock album of all time) Billy Breathes.

The problem with hipsters is that they're overly pre-occupied with justice and equity. Nobody would shit on Nickelback if nobody liked them. Pop-culture isn't a fair trial.


The lone item for which I will lash out at Scoccia, mostly because tons of bloggers do this and it's probably the single rotting seed at the core of snark's apple:

Scocca discusses the hypocrisy of Dave Eggers, who went on anti-critical rants to students...
And now here is Dave Eggers 13 years later, talking to the New York Times about his new novel, The Circle, a dystopian warning about the toxic effects of social media and the sinister companies that produce it:

"I've never visited any tech campus, and I don't know anything in particular about how any given company is run. I really didn't want to."

Someone has come a long way from "do not dismiss a book until you have written one." But Eggers was never laying down rules for himself. He was laying down rules for other people.

The level at which ad hominem dictates peoples' thoughts and emotions is simply out of control. Hypocricy is a red herring. If a priest touches kids inappropriately and tells his congregation not to touch kids inappropriately... Is he wrong about what he has said? His actions and his words were opposites. THEY CAN'T BOTH BE WRONG.

Being a hypocrite isn't the end of the world, we all do it from time to time and I wish people would learn that this is just part of the human condition. If we can eventually eradicate it, great. If not, let's focus on the ideas instead of the distracting fucking people. When my nephews ask if it's okay to have two deserts before dinner, and I say "no", does that mean I'm full of shit just because I had three deserts yesterday? We're all unfortunate bags of friction and decay, the only way to transcend this status is through ideas and, yes, ideals.


As for snark vs smarm, Scocca will have you think that smarm is The Empire and snark is The Rebel Alliance. But what they both have in common is a dearth of critical thinking, and a leaning-upon of a given aesthetic as-though it were substance. Bitchiness and fighting are unpleasant: Necessary in politics, bullshit in arts and entertainment. Politics don't belong on Twitter, not enough characters. Assholes don't belong on youtube comments, we're not twelve anymore. Next time you have something to say, make meaningful connections, and back yourself up with examples. Do the work. I apologize for the thirty times later today that I'll forget this, and blurt out something lazy, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong.

Be critical, and if nobody's life is at stake, be fucking positive.

1 comment:

Chubbles said...

Just for the yell of it, here's a negative critical review of The Internship.