After getting irked by reviews of Oppenheimer, Adam Kotsko wrote a short thing that feels to me like it’s the missing piece to that Sam Kriss essay I excerpted last week, which has been—as the kids say—living rent-free in my head ever since.
Kotsko has an interesting and very valuable insight into “culture war” stuff, because he was raised in a hyper-evangelical environment. Which means I’m willing to take him more seriously than most when he says things like:
[…] all mainstream criticism — especially of film and television — is evangelical in form, if not in content. Every artwork is imagined to have a clear message; the portrayal of a given behavior or belief is an endorsement and a recommendation; consumption of artworks with a given message will directly result in the behaviors or beliefs portrayed. This is one of the few phenomena where the “both sides” cliché is true: left-wing critics are just as likely to do this as their right-wing opponents. The culture coverage in Jacobin is the worst and most intellectually deadening example, but it is absolutely pervasive. And I hate it.
He’s very right about Jacobin, to the extent that said organ’s reviews read a lot like the hammy parodies of Marxist critique that one used to encounter back in the Noughties: wooden, lecture-y, dogmatic beyond measure.
But it’s more widespread than that. The spaces I know best are those in which genre fiction is reviewed, and—as an admittedly minor and undistinguished combatant* in what are sometimes referred to as “the Blog Wars”—I will say with confidence that what we might call (after Kotsko) the evangelical turn in sf/f criticism came with good reason and from the best of intentions. I will also say that there are sf/f criticism venues which have a clear ideological position and nonetheless publish reviews which are informative about the text under review on the aesthetic level, and are also often quite enjoyable to read in and of themselves.
Nonetheless, there is also a lot of reviewing out there which amounts to little more run-throughs of checklists around representation or transgressions in plot and character. This sort of reviewing actually serves a genuine function for its audience as well as its producers: it prevents the audience from having to encounter works that they might find upsetting, or which might confront them with questions to which there is no clear-cut answer. And, y’know, that’s fine: no one should have to read things they don’t wanna read.
But the mainstreaming of this evangelical form of critique is, I think, the missing (or, perhaps more fairly, underdeveloped) social dynamic that completes and clarifies the more technologically-determined take from Kriss’s essay. If the nerd is a machine for liking things, it is also a component within a machine whose cybernetics are oriented toward comfort, and toward the preemptive negation of perceived threat.
Again, for the avoidance of doubt: it’s very understandable why this tropism for comfort and threat-avoidance might be a thing, and I’m not saying that anyone should have things which are upsetting to them shoved into their faces in the name of “toughening them up” or whatever else. I should also probably say (though it shouldn’t need saying) that I am very much in favour of better minority representation in art, and I also understand that we still have a long way to go on that front.
But it’s the strange conflation of that push for minority representation with a weirdly puritan rejection of characters and stories whose morality is greyscale rather than black and white that has been bugging me for a while—a phenomenon I’ve noticed cropping up in stories and novels themselves, in fact, as well as in criticism thereof. (See also the whole “puriteen” thing, the exiling of kink from Pride, etc etc; this is not just a skiffy phenomenon.) Kriss’s argument—that it comes from a rejection of discernment predicated on quality—feels right, but incomplete. Kotsko takes a different tack:
Obviously leftists do not have to be as paranoid in their quest for messages supportive of the status quo as Christians playing their records backwards in the hopes of finding Satanic content. Yet the very fact that the demand is so open-ended, that it is impossible to imagine an artwork that meets the (largely unstated and unarticulated) standards for the “right” way to portray, e.g., racial injustice, shows that something has gone wrong here.
Now, a reader with experience on either side of the critical arena might rightly counter-argue that criticism isn’t about trying to identify works that “get it right”, but rather about discussing the ways in which a given work “gets it wrong” in order to say something interesting about the work and the world in which it exists. My retort—and Kotsko’s too, or so I assume—would be to agree, but to point out that, in practice, the opposite seems increasingly to be the case.
I would struggle to come up with my own explanation of why that might be so, but Kotsko’s own answer is interesting:
Part of the reason that we cannot imagine the perfect “politically correct” artwork (by any standard) as a successful artwork is that political problems cannot be solved on the aesthetic level. Indeed, I would suggest it’s much more likely that people are consuming politics as a kind of aesthetic performance or as a way of expressing aesthetic preferences than that they are somehow reading their politics off of Succession, for example. (“Welp, I guess rich people are good now. Better vote Republican!”) And just as the reduction of art to political propaganda leads to bad art, the aestheticization of politics leads to bad, irresponsible politics. That’s because — wait for it… — aesthetics and politics are not the same thing!
Kotsko subtitled his post “a nuclear take”, but actually seems to have held off from the truly nuclear ending to this particular line of argument: he has not noted which political tendency is sometimes defined by reference to its reliance on the reduction of politics to aesthetics.
I’m not going to make that inference either—not because I’m afraid to, but because I genuinely don’t believe it to be valid in this case. But that such an inference is the only “logical” final move in this very zero-sum game-theoretical approach to culture is, I think, both indicative and affirmative of Kotsko’s point.
[ * — I will further say that I have probably contributed on some level to the establishment of the paradigm under discussion, given that minor and undistinguished combatant role already mentioned. Mea culpa. ]