Monday, June 4, 2012

An Essay on Criticism



It’s okay to not like things.
It’s okay, but don’t be a dick about it.
It’s okay to not like things.
Don’t be a dick about the things you don’t like.
These lyrics were set to an upbeat tune and uploaded to YouTube by user 808X in April of 2011. The 16-second video has been viewed over a million times. It is the national anthem of the well-adjusted, the beautifully condensed etiquette manual of Web 2.0. Those four lines tell you everything you need to know in order to navigate these confusing, trying modern times of ours.

In 1709, at the age of twenty-one, Alexander Pope wrote a 744-line poem in heroic couplets entitled An Essay on Criticism. It included the following passage:
But you who seek to give and merit Fame,
And justly bear a Critick’s noble Name,
Be sure your self and your own Reach to know.
How far your Genius, Taste, and Learning go;
Launch not beyond your Depth, but be discreet,
And mark that Point where Sense and Dulness meet.
Or: it’s okay to not like things, but don’t be a dick about it. Possibly as a result of having the ditty playing in my head as I reread the poem ahead of this post, it seems to me now that Pope was concerned with decorum to a far greater extent than with the substance or content of criticism. A critic should be tactful – he tells us – mindful of appearances and highly practiced in the art of dissimulation. ‘Speak, tho’ sure, with seeming Diffidence.’ When teaching, appear not to teach, but to remind the reader of something that they already know. In all things be
Not dully prepossest, nor blindly right;
Tho’ Learn’d well-bred; and tho’ well-bred, sincere;
Modestly bold, and Humanly severe.
And so forth. Even to the extent that Pope’s model critic must possess integrity and be willing to censure friends and ‘gladly praise the Merits of a Foe’, this too is a quality that matters so long as it is conspicuous and you are seen to be doing those things. And in the closing lines of the poem, what is that final precept, to be ‘averse alike to Flatter or Offend’, if not ultimately a social imperative, seeing as both flattery and offence are so intrinsically tied to social codes and perceptions?

In one other respect the video by 808X is the perfect update of Pope’s three-hundred year old poem, for the latter wrote – amongst many quotable lines – that
Words are like Leaves; and where they most abound,
Much Fruit of Sense beneath is rarely found.
Now what could be more succinct – therefore make more sense – than ‘it’s okay to not like things, but don’t be a dick about it’?


So what does it mean? The clues in the video are limited to some fairly basic drawings. The neutral person, above, who neither likes nor dislikes things, seems fairly contented. Then he or she dislikes something. This is okay.


Being a dick, by contrast, transfigures the person entirely.


Big lettering underscores the cautionary message, without much in the way of clarification.


Dickish behaviour is represented as a kind of rage, but I think this is more figurative than literal, and that the larger point is that being a dick makes you look bad and is unpleasant for those around you. However this still doesn’t quite explain what the behaviour consists of. YouTube user paintballingguy offered the following response:
It’s okay to not like things.
It’s okay, doesn’t mean that I’m a dick about it.
It’s okay to not like things.
It doesn’t make me a dick to have things I don’t like.
Which is all well and good, but takes us no closer to understanding what it is that makes you a dick. It just reiterates that disliking something is not enough to qualify. In logical terms we might say that having things you don’t like is not in itself a sufficient condition for being a dick, and may not be a necessary one either, meaning that it might be possible to like everything and still be a dick by means of some other transgression.

So is disliking anything at all bad in itself? Again it’s hard to say but there may be something of a clue in the first line of the song. ‘It’s okay to not like things.’ It’s not good or fine. Merely okay. We don’t really endorse it, but if you must, then at least try not to be a dick about it. Note how this is written in the way the core Web 2.0 applications operate. YouTube has like and dislike options for its videos, but it’s in the minority: Facebook has a like button, but no dislike button; Twitter lets you broadcast or favourite a tweet, not hiss or boo; Google, which owns YouTube, allows you to register agreement (+1), but not disagreement. These are the default behaviours, whereas not liking things is just okay. We know it can’t be completely designed out of the system, so for now it is tolerated. Just be mindful of how you go about it. Use decorum.

So again we must ask what does it mean to be a dick? What does it look like? I ventured before that it’s an unpleasantness, something that makes you look bad and makes others feel bad about themselves. All Offence and no Flattery, as Pope might have said. Unlike the ogreish stick figure in the video he literally was disfigured, by the way, as a result of Pott’s disease, and in addition to this he was a Catholic, which barred him from living within ten miles of London or Westminster and from attending regular schools. In describing at such a young age the social role and the social etiquette of the critic he might have had his opinions coloured by all of this. For our part, we might want to think about what it is that excludes people from the social networks of today. The overwhelmingly favourable reaction to the video posted by 808X, as documented by the first few pages of Google results, is a chorus of Yes! and THIS! and Like and +1 and subscribe, although in order for it to rack up such a prodigious number of views by far the most common reaction must have been simply people sharing the video amongst their friends and contacts. But why? In answer to what? Do many people really feel that the problem with the internet or society in general is people hating on the things that they like? Who does that anymore? Are there even any genuine snobs left? Are there cultural critics willing to argue that, say, reality television is bad for its public and for society, and that if you watch Police Ten 7 you just might be an arsehole? Or is it true on the contrary that even the most derivative or exploitative manifestations of mass culture have been almost universally subsumed under the rubric of taste, concerning which, as we have known for some time, there can be no dispute? As for the artistic and cultural legitimacy of what is popular, that is another battle that was won decisively some decades ago. Nobody but nobody is relitigating that.

So why all the likes for this video, why all the love? Unless it is precisely because it compresses into sixteen wonderful seconds an entire set of cultural attitudes to which most people subscribe. We only ask that we be left alone with our likes, and not unduly exposed to our dislikes. Isn’t that how Web 2.0, how consumer culture operates? Networks that create endless loops of positive reinforcement. Forums that allow us to devote to most authors and texts, obscure or otherwise, the kind of minute, maniacal attention that Pope prescribed for the study of the great ancient poets, producing a multiplicity of canons which are nonetheless still canons, therefore just as flawed as the staid ones that we inherited; and, most importantly, leaving no means to critique or bypass the mechanisms of that consumption.

Everything must pass through the social networks, therefore everything must be liked (or disliked in the calculated fashion of the shock-value piece, which amounts to the same thing). If all goes according to hype, soon there will be no publishers nor editors and so the logic of this social layer, that is to say of efficient consumption, will be alone in governing access to information and ultimately most forms of culture. It’s the future we bought, the future we agreed to. It plays in chunks of sixteen seconds to the sound of an upbeat tune.





35 comments:

Alex said...

An example of this same point is Charlie Brooker's take on the Rebecca Black phenomenon, where he tore into her terrible music, but also castigated those who felt the need to engage in "the world's largest ever case of bullying."

merc said...

"Everything must pass through the social networks,..."
Boredom + Time = Content

Giovanni Tiso said...

I think you may be seriously onto something there Merc.

merc said...

Further, it could be argued,

Moneytised blog + Free content = Being A Dick

And it follows that labeling a commenter as a dick may have something to do with controlling the moneytised message. They are not called software developers for nothing.

Stephen said...

Why you don't take soma when you have these dreadful ideas of yours? You'd forget all about them. And instead of feeling miserable, you'd be jolly. So jolly.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Are we pretending I even know what that is?

merc said...

" If all goes according to hype, soon there will be no publishers nor editors and so the logic of this social layer, that is to say of efficient consumption, will be alone in governing access to information and ultimately most forms of culture."
This is very interesting to me. The technology that was heralded to free the promulgation of information (go Tim Berners-Lee http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/t/tim_bernerslee.html)has been mutated into the controller of it. A poisoned water well.

Stephen said...

Sorry. It was a quote from Brave New World, and I guess an overly oblique way of saying that an effective way of suppressing dissent is insist that everyone be happy and agreeable, combined with my suspicion that the sedative nature of recreational online media consumption has something to do with all this.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Sorry, a feeble attempt at counter-humour on my part. I don't have a very firm idea about this, but my suspicion is that so long as criticism circulates along the same pathsways as the rest of the recreational online media, it cannot work as criticism. But if it circulates outside of those pathways, then who will read it?

merc said...

Huxley also said, the only truly modern thing, is speed. Thoughts once brought to consciousness, travel, faster than light, faster than time, regardless of the URL.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Merc: "The technology that was heralded to free the promulgation of information has been mutated into the controller of it. A poisoned water well."

That last paragraph notwithstanding, I'm not prepared to be that pessimistic yet, but that's mostly because I don't believe the hype.

merc said...

Ah, me either. The gatekeepers can't keep up with the need for speed. Love this quote from TBL,
You affect the world by what you browse.
Tim Berners-Lee

Ben Wilson said...

It's OK to not like people being dicks...

merc said...

Agreed Ben, the point is, who gets to call whom a dick and based on what criteria? One internet person's dick may be another's freedom fighter ;-)

Giovanni Tiso said...

I have a problem with the use of "don't be a dick" to regulate internet communities (on which, Lyndon has supplied these useful links: 1 and 2) but it's not quite what I'm talking about here. The particular dickish behaviour targeted by 808X seems to me to have been well and truly banished. So why bother to censure it? And why the enthusiastic cheers for the censor?

areanimator said...

"Do many people really feel that the problem with the internet or society in general is people hating on the things that they like?"

In short, yes. The most popular forums and imageboards, like 4chan, reddit, Something Awful and similar sites are full of bigoted, hateful comments. Look at an average 4chan thread on any topic and you will see people policing other people's behavior by shaming and bullying. Considering how popular such sites are, and how much content produced there permeates youth culture, the popularity of that video is easy to explain.

There is a lot of hate out there, and anonymity makes it easier to spew that hate towards anyone deemed a target. In such a climate, a message like "don't be a dick" is welcome.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"Look at an average 4chan thread on any topic and you will see people policing other people's behavior by shaming and bullying."

I can see that. But based on people's taste? It's just not something I have observed in a really long time, whereas it seemed to me to be very common in the days of usenet, almost ritualistically so.

merc said...

The internet performs the function of The Eater Of Filth, http://www.matrifocus.com/BEL09/key.htm
YouTube comments are spectacular in this way with the invariable hater comment and the equally invariable - why you be hatin' rejoinder. It's an age old ritual dance. The great thing for me about blog comments is that they can also vivify, maybe I am a dick, maybe I can live with that. As for you being a possible dick, I question myself as to why it should bother me.

b'art Homme said...

William Seward Hall … he was a corridor, a hall, leading to many doors. He remembered the long fugitive years after the fall of Waghdas, the knowledge inside him like a sickness. The migrations, the danger, the constant alertness … the furtive encounters with others who had some piece of the knowledge, the vast picture puzzle slowly falling into place.Time to be up and gone. You are not paid off to be quiet about what you know; you are paid not to find it out. And in his case it was too late. If he lived long enough he couldn’t help finding it out, because that was the purpose of his life … a guardian of knowledge and of those who could use it. And a guardian must be ruthless in defense of what he guards. And he developed new ways of imparting the knowledge to others. The old method of handing it down by word of mouth, from master to initiate, is now much too slow and too precarious (Death reduces the College
1
). So he concealed and revealed the knowledge in fictional form. Only those for whom the knowledge is intended will find it.

Burroughs

b'art Homme said...

Actually...

The real dicks are the dicks... the silence of the masses is due in part to the fear induced repression that the oligarchy holds over them. In the end the dicks are the ones in charge of income, lifestyle, food, shelter... the government, the bosses and an increasingly arrogant local(especially) government bureaucracy - willing and able to reduce the poor to little more than grateful slaves. Themselves enslaved to do so. Entrapped in an ever increasing and spirally velocity of modern life - there is so little time for the artists and visionaries to do their thing, the fractionated media further reduce real and meaningful communication/ audience... leaving ever increasing places for the oligarch to hide. So who's the dick? The system we have allowed to spread, I say be a dick, get in the critics and powerfuls' faces - as Duchamp said - "I wanted to throw the urinal in their faces." Toooooche

Ben Wilson said...

The particular dickish behaviour targeted by 808X seems to me to have been well and truly banished. So why bother to censure it? And why the enthusiastic cheers for the censor?

A vid about giving someone a mild warning for using caps lock too much isn't going to go viral.

b'art Homme said...

check out the enslaving of two Fijian women in Wellington by a wealthy business woman, Passports held, paid $40 a week this is the culture Monsieur sean Key wants to nurture? (Dompost this morning) Good on them being dicks with a whistle to blow.

Iguana Jo said...

"[…]It’s the future we bought, the future we agreed to. It plays in chunks of sixteen seconds to the sound of an upbeat tune."

Has anyone ever used "Cultural entropy" as a brief description of this trend?

"The particular dickish behaviour targeted by 808X seems to me to have been well and truly banished."

Sicuro?
Check this (just an example…)

Giovanni Tiso said...

“Check this (just an example…)”

I remember that. Actually, that’s not quite true: I remember your post. But I don’t think Davide’s post can be classed as “being a dick about the things you don’t like”, in fact it seems to me that he’s doing exactly what I have argued that the don’t be a dick video does, as indeed you noted in your comments to that post: namely, rail against a vague and possibly non-existent or at least exaggerated set of behaviours, and characterise all the people who don’t engage in it as right thinking (duly followed by a chorus of agreement in the comments). In fact I think in your post you lament the very thing I’m lamenting here – a fracturing of discourse and the retreat into the company of people who like what you like.

Iguana Jo said...

"The particular dickish behaviour" is the one of the inadequate critics Davide point his finger at.
You're right, his post "rail against a vague and possibly non-existent or at least exaggerated set of behaviours, and characterise all the people who don’t engage in it as right thinking".
Still I think Davide wasn't fully wrong, only too shy (or shrewd) to name his counterpart.
In the italian blogosfere the sort of dicky critic Davide mocks is quite notorious. That's why I linked his post: it is a good example of such a dicky behaviour still alive and kicking (from both side of the gun!).

(Or maybe I haven't quite understand what do you mean with the "dicky behaviour", which can be read with positive or negative meaning at the same time. Che il confine tra la critica rompicoglioni che pone il testo in primo piano e quella che invece è tutta tesa a esaltare il critico stesso è molto molto sottile. Sorry for the italian, il mio inglese è troppo lofi per provare a spiegarlo in lingua…)

SteamDave said...

I'm not overly keen on being called a dick "in absentia", so I thought I'll butt in, if you guys don't mind, and dispel any doubts about me being, possibly, a dick (or acting like one).
:-D

The incriminated post was not a specific attack on a single individual - despite its personal tone and its open letter format - but rather a rant against something I perceive as a growing problem in the Italian blogsphere: to wit, incompetent and often quite arrogant self-styled "critics" that are "educating" a generations of young readers with a cartload of absurdities about (in the specific case) genre fiction.

I have been a SF fan these last 35 years, and as a kid I was lucky enough to meet people that helped me form a personal taste (or lack thereof) and gave me a perspective on the genre.
I'd love to do the same.
On my blog I like to point out good books and good OLD books, because a good background helps us appreciate better what we are reading (and what we will read!)

Ergo, as a result of the current state of affairs, people popularizing rubbish about the genre do piss me off royally.

Just an example taken from real life, fresh off the web: "Ray Bradbury was a marginal and uninfluential author in the fields of fantasy and science fiction" (applauses and "likes" ensue).
Now this is plain rubbish.
This is _not_ an opinion, about which I might disagree but I am ready to respect and debate - this was offered as a non-debatable statement of fact, and is plainly rubbish.
You can love or hate Bradbury's stuff, but you just can't dismiss him as "uninfluential".
It is plain wrong. It's false.
It's a sign of ignorance.

Hence my referring to "inadequate critics" - if you want to talk seriously about a subject, I say, hell, get an education on the subject.

My post got some negative vibes from readers whose opinion I respect, but again, the vagueness for which it was criticized, is simply due to the fact that I am not compiling a list of bad guys - it would be too easy, and useles, and it could lead to accusations of ad personam attacks, which would derail any serious discussion, and this is not what I am interested in.
I do not care wether it's Tom, Dick or Harry popularizing rubbish.
Fact is, the rubbish is becoming the truth because too many people believe it.
It's embarassing.

And I did not perceive the _positive_ responses to my post as we guys ganging up to deal some rough justice or other stuff like that.
Quite simply, as Iguana pointed out, if you are into the genre in our country, you have met this sort of behaviour, from this or that individual, and you've kept mum - because calling these people dicks is considered dickish.
So somebody's rant, once in a while, gets a few applauses out of exasperation.
"About time!" one thinks, then gets back to his interests and stuff.

I'd prefer a serious discussion, like - what can we do to put a lid on it?
Is there something we can do?
Can we oppose good criticism/reviews to a bad form of criticism that is pushed with aggressivity, arrogance and no respect for the counterpart?

It would be an interesting subject for a serious discussion.

But most already know what to do - ignore the dicks and hope for the best, and maybe, once in a while, when some whiner rants about the dickheads, post a "Well said!" and then go back to whatever one was doing.

OK, here I stop - sorry for the long-winded, mostly off-topic and unrequired comment.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Ciao Davide
I’d begin by saying I’m pretty sure nobody called you a dick. To everyone’s relief, possibly, or at least mine.
You make valid points, but I’m still not sure that the “bad criticism” you addressed in your post is covered by “don’t be a dick about the things you don’t like” precisely because it is a form of criticism, with its own internal consistency and epistemological rules, and there is little that is off-hand about it. At least if I’m right in presuming that I know what you’re talking about. I met Giorgio on it.cultura.fantascienza which like most newsgroups of its kind had its share of tribal affiliations and a number of genre-specific critical approaches, which I’m actually quite fond of even though I personally shared few of them. People who try to measure “sense of wonder” in a science fiction novel are part of the history of the genre, which is a commercial genre, and therefore developed the kind of parameters typical of the pop review. Can some of these approaches be used to bludgeon people? Of course. And it did certainly happen on icf (the Heinlein tribe was always the hardest to expose to other ways of thinking). But does it even matter now that we all have our own blogs? Hasn’t the web changed in ways that make these behaviours both less frequent and no longer capable to derail conversations? And are we sure that this is in fact a good thing?
All that said, I think I could use examples, so if either you or Giorgio want to point me to some privately it might help me to figure out if I’m wrong about this. I promise not to share.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I will however share this, from an email correspondent: a very fine example in the haters gonna hate genre:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uz2jbCJXkpA&feature=player_embedded#!

SteamDave said...

Giovanni...

First and foremost, no problems with the "dick" issue - I put a smiley face after my opening because I was joking about it.

This said...
I think the point here is distinguishing between "free for all" opinion, informed opinion, and criticism.
It's basically a matter of increasing information and perspective.
My pet peeve is, you can't sell uninformed opinion as solid criticsm.

But anyway ... does it matter now that we all have our own blog?, you ask.
I think it does, if you consider that not all blogs are equal in terms of popularity, readership and perceived authority.

If through aggressive prose and rethoric tricks I can attract enough readers and convince'em that I know what I am talking about, what I am talking about becomes the truth - no matter how many serious, well documented, intelligent small, low-readership blogs are out there.

But here, really, I think I'm way beyond the "being a dick about what you don't like" issue.

As for live examples, I think Iguana will be able to supply a few - even though, being much more compassionare and fair than I'll ever be, his list of "notorious dicks" is probably shorter than mine.
Lucky guy ;-)

Giovanni Tiso said...

“If through aggressive prose and rethoric tricks I can attract enough readers and convince'em that I know what I am talking about, what I am talking about becomes the truth - no matter how many serious, well documented, intelligent small, low-readership blogs are out there.”

Bad criticism might help to sell bad books, but that’s the extent in which it can ever aspire to becoming “the truth” – that is to say a very limited extent. I don’t personally resent popular book blogs even when I find them mediocre (and not all of them are, far from it). I just don’t read them. So in a very meaningful sense their existence doesn’t matter to me, whereas when I used to have to ‘compete’ with similar opinions in forums like icf they mattered to me a lot more. What I’m saying is that I don’t see this change as a wholesale progress, even though it has led to my having more free time and fewer arguments. It’s not a good thing to just mix with the like-minded (pun intended).

SteamDave said...

My problem is not bad criticism selling bad books.
What I see is bad criticism creating bad expectations, distorting the taste of the new readers as they grow, providing a "quick and easy" (but ultimately false) set of parameters through which is should be possible to decide if the book is any good.
If the _author_ is any good!

The problem therefore is not bloggers pushing bad books, but bloggers claiming good, significant books are useless or forgettable, or "objectively bad" because they do not conform to some pretense of "objective quality".
A.C. Clarke being "unreadable".
Mike Moorcock having "no idea of what fantasy means".
Ray Bradbury being "a marginal and uninfluential author".
Jack Vance being "devoid of meaning and bad written".
Tolkien being "a rehash of old fairy tales".
Kurt Vonnegut being "without any style and boring".

Imagine a kid who just discovered the genre - be it through Harry Potter, some old Asimov anthology or whatever - and now looking around for some info, some ideas of what to read next.
He has a hard tibe because bookshops carry little good, entry level sf these days.
Maybe he needs some pointers - a simple "go to your library and check out October Country, or Tschai, or Elric or Dragonflight, then read on!"
Instead he chances upon such a character instead - someone implanting filters that spoil the fun of reading, and basically disavowing all of the back catalogue because it does not conform to "the rules".
Someone calling you a "retard" if you say you liked [insert author of choice here].

What we get are young readers who can't find pleasure in reading anymore - they are too eager to spot the flaws and the infractions to the "objective rules" to simply enjoy the ride.
And they lack perspective.
Their taste is stunted, is being deformed as it grows.
This is bad.

It does not touch me, sure - but it touches my community, of which I am part, about which I care.

The point is not hanging out with like-minded individuals - the point is hanging out with intelligent, informed individuals, not with zombies repeating very dubious mantras.

nnyhav said...

Back to the OP: Pope also worte "The Dunciad". The dick.

Giovanni Tiso said...

This is too true. All those coded references... If the Dunciad had had a comments section it would have run pretty hot I think.

One Geek in Gradschool said...

Is there a problem with people "being a dick" about things they don't like on the internet?

Well I know that a huge number of women on the internet who expresses opinions receive to get from a steady stream, up to a proverbial flood of anonymous rape threats.

I'm relatively sure that counts as "being a dick."

Giovanni Tiso said...

What kind of opinions? Are they opinions about Battlestar Galactica? Because I am referring to that kind of thing.

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