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.