Over the past year I have, out of instinctive habit, established a status quo of researching any idea I have a concern about. Every great essayist, past and present, has taught me that your own ideas aren’t enough to persuade people towards your opinion. Processing the efforts of others, in agreement and disagreement and neutral puzzling-out, is what elevates a discussion from casual to critical. Criticism basks in the glow of research, and better critics are almost inevitably marked by how much more they have read, and how much better they approach their studies. It’s a profession like any other – the harder you work, the more credit you deserve.
But there are some who believe too much in what they read, and some who believe too little. It’s easy to only find a discourse that fits your opinion and think you’re ‘researching’ into the depths of an issue, when all you’re doing is facilitating an echo chamber. Even easier to just tie your thinking to a single person you believe has ‘got it’ when everyone else hasn’t. Followers of That Anime Snob will swear by his every word, despite every new video he makes contradicting something he’s said before.
It’s difficult to discuss anything with such people, because conversation becomes no more than a checklist of ‘do you agree with X’? Some will berate you for suggesting anything against the gospel they swear by; they may even tie you to another individual and spin a rhetoric about you mounting their phallus, or something polite but equally as disingenuous. Critical discussion boils down to celebrity gossip. We might as well be arguing about Bieber and One Direction.
Among those who believe too little, however, we hear that one can make criticisms of something they have not studied at all. They tie together some loosely-defined terminology, with no regard as to how or why it was defined, and argue purely on the surface level of the logic they map out. It’s this approach that leads to articles on ‘objectification’ that incorrectly apply the term, and to even more aggravating ‘discussions’ than one might have with the former camp.
For an easy example, take the user ‘Kai’ of r/TrueAnime’s discord server. A subreddit purely for discussing anime, with a more fast-paced chatroom for the same purpose. About a week ago I had just begun to finish a fantastic conversation with another user on the ways we can perceive recent ’controversial’ anime that don’t play strictly by people’s rulebooks. I came to start thinking of Mayoiga, a clear example of postmodernist comedy in action, along the lines of Derrida’s maxim that ‘there is no outside-text’ – that is to say, there should be a debate as to whether conversation that Mayoiga spawned can be counted as part of its value as a work. As Pause and Select has noted, Mayoiga is valuable because it forces us, if we want to engage with it fairly, to question ‘value’ itself. This is the postmodern pursuit in a nutshell; to not apply value like a rulebook, and not reject the idea of a rulebook either – rather, to keep the ‘rules’ in constant debate. To never get too comfortable with what we believe are our standards.
After we played around with ideas of the Übermensch in relation to Re:Zero, Kai entered the conversation to state that he wished someone could explain to him why postmodernism wasn’t ‘bullshit’.
A very loaded request. But I wanted to register it. First, however, I had to know what he was responding to. The idea that ‘postmodernism is bullshit’ is already completely erroneous, because postmodernism is a fragmented and divided school of thought. He also posited that art is supposed to have a ‘message’, and that because postmodernism was only about ‘interpretation’, postmodernist art shouldn’t be called art at all. At this point I had a few thinkers in mind that I thought might have triggered these complaints, so I asked him if he had read Barthes, or Foucault, or Derrida; three canonical thinkers of the postmodern position of the author at work.
He didn’t respond with a yes or a no to any of them. He ignored the question, and treated it as irrelevant. When I pressed it again, and explained the importance of knowing what he had read and was responding to, he spun an argument together about how good ideas don’t need studying to be proven. A few other users along with him began to argue that because I was only giving ‘names’ and nothing else, I was ‘losing’ the argument.
Kai has not read any postmodernists. He’s likely read about them – yet, he has not read the actual thinking, as a rhetoric, that he has deemed ‘bullshit’. He’s only aware of a vague idea of postmodernism that only represents a fragment of the decades of discourse it covers. The worst part? His entry to the discussion was a request that ‘someone would explain’ to him the value of postmodern thought. Barthes is canonical because of his ability to do exactly that. Foucault likewise. Derrida’s a bit of deep end, but still a master of explaining his own ideas. And yet he agreed with another user that ‘he didn’t ask for a reading list’. In short, he asked for an explanation that would not require him to do any work himself. It’s the Oreki Houtarou method of criticism – the Houtarou we see as Hyouka begins. The bored and flawed boy who looks like he’ll never amount to anything.
It was argued that I had to simplify the work of these thinkers in order for them to be viable in the discussion. No-one accusing postmodernism of fault needs to read postmodernism – the people who defend it, after actually reading it, have to do all the work synthesizing it down for other people. If essays are the solid food of thinking, those who refuse to read them and demand them to be summarized are like children who need to be spoon-fed mush. Barthes’ Death of the Author is online – you can read it, right now, and you should if you want to make arguments about the identity and value of the author. It’s hardly that long. You read these things yourself so that you work out a summary. You learn from first-hand information, not constantly from secondary sources. And you read such critics before making statements about decades of thought being ‘bullshit’. Never claim an understanding of something you’ve never worked to understand.
‘Critics’ who read nothing but summaries of the academic discourse equate to the prisoners of Plato’s Cave. Wikipedia articles are the shadows of critical theory cast on the rocky wall. Those who live solely by them will believe they have sussed out an intellectual reality, but they are blinded whenever they try to approach the real discourse. They tend to treat thousands of words of precision immediately as bloviation. But Wikipedia, like the cave, shows where the light comes from. References and citations give you an immense capability to seek out an understanding far beyond what the article suggests is all there is to be understood. So many refuse to leave the shadows, however. They’re the kind that quote Nussbaum’s definition of Objectification from a Wikipedia article, but never read the essay the article synthesizes. And they fall foul of the important points that weren’t synthesized or summarized in the mush they were trying to pass off to themselves and others as solid food.
Einstein’s belief that ‘if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’ is often misused in a defense of ignorance. As Astrophysicist Eduardo Guerras Valera points out in one discussion of the quote, there are thresholds of simplicity:
…the best test of understanding is explaining and reworking the results from scratch for an ignorant person. But the more complex the concept, the bigger the amount of stuff that needs to be reworked from scratch, making some things practically very difficult to explain in a short period of time.
Plato made his allegories because they could be simplified to a great extent in timeless reiteration without losing their meaning. But the time it would take someone to lay out all of Barthes’ thinking without disrespecting the complexity of his discourse would be longer than the time it would take someone to simply read his essays; then they have the freedom to do as little or as much thinking in response to them as they like. The art of the essay itself lies in simplicity that explodes into complexity by causing a discussion around it. With a complex topic, you can only make complexity so compact before you start failing to make any progress because of the vagueness of your use of terms, logic or evidence, before you start talking only about the shadows of a discourse with the same terms academics use, but no understanding of the actual formation of the theories you discuss.
It’s fine to not read scholars and their essays. But when you don’t, you opt out of being entitled to comment on them and their field of theory. Or rather, you can comment on them, but no-one will take you seriously. You’ll look like a fool. Or rather, you’ll be a fool, by definition. Like someone denouncing quantum theory without knowing what a prime number is. Like someone denouncing postmodernism without having read any of the postmodernists.
The position Kai took was one of perverted entitlement. When someone’s studied the subject of discussion more than you and believes what they’ve read is important to the discussion, it’s up to them to decide whether it can be simplified without losing its quality of ideas, or whether it’s more productive to recommend that the discussion be suspended and recommenced once everyone’s on the same page. You are not entitled to an explanation of everything you don’t understand, especially if you refuse the one you’re offered.
If you refuse to acknowledge the value of studying something you find disagreement with on the surface, you’ll only be a pimple on the ass of whatever field of theory you’re ignorantly condemning. You’ll think you’re ‘winning’ every argument if you’re obtuse enough to ignore everything you should have tackled prior to making your claims, but you’ll lose all respect from anyone who dedicates any of their time to researching concerns they have regarding theory, so that every assertion they make is backed up with the work they’ve done into reaching that conclusion.
This kind of self-assurance could be easily correlated to Subaru of Re:Zero, who believed he was entitled to heroic powers and plot-lines, to ‘victory!’ every day, without any accomplishments in the real world he left behind. Not reading an academic discourse before you comment on it, and then vying to ‘win’ discussions about it, is tantamount to not building any heroic qualities and then, once thrust into the perceived comforts of a fantasy world (which chat rooms correlate to in many ways), expecting to ‘be the hero’, ‘get the girl’, and all other kinds of idealistic nonsense. You can still convince yourself you’re doing those things, like Kai has convinced himself he understands and can criticize postmodernism without reading any of it. But to anyone with their eyes open – to any of the prisoners freed from the cave, who live in the light of real critical discussion – you look like a moron, like Subaru has looked to everyone around him for so long.
If one can get past this position of entitlement, and into the humility of doing work in order to facilitate critical ideas, they will quickly find the merits of reading; of always reading. Below are the merits I have seen – though I have hardly walked in every circle of academia, and the more I discuss, the more exposure I will get to what reading has to offer. For now what follows is the foundation of my belief that every ‘critic’ should be on the same page as every academic – because every academic of art is a critic themselves – in that they should be regularly reading, as widely as possible, in order to never grow too comfortable with their own ideas, and to be always pushing for new boundaries of understanding:
- Remember the words of Ezra Pound: “never consider anything as dogma, but as the result of long contemplation, which, even if it is someone else’s contemplation, may be worth consideration. Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work”. Of course, don’t treat these words as dogma either. Be skeptical of them, of what you would call a ‘notable work’.
- You have no excuse to ignore citations made available to you. Wikipedia has a wealth of links to online articles, and google can take you to many texts too; many great books are available as e-publications for free. If all else fails and it can be bought, buy it. If all else fails and it can’t be bought, it’s not hard online to find someone in academia who can share notes on something less available that catches your interest.
- Art theory goes beyond mediums. In a recent interview, KyoAni’s Taichi Ishidate noted how he tries ‘to keep in mind that it’s important to experience all kinds of human expression, be it film, music, art, or plays’. A lot of theory, especially recent theory, has been dedicated to exploring what those ‘kinds’ of expression share. This was one of the strongest topic of conversation at a talk I attended with Derek Attridge, Professor of English at the University of York – what similarities are there between poetry and performance? Likewise, some studies of Old English poetry are incorporating modern theories of cinematography. Keep in mind that all kinds of literary theory can translate to cinema with the right focus of reading, and vice versa.
- Essays are a neutral territory, an everyman’s land. Whenever you use a term, if you’re aware of the discourse that came to cementing that term as valuable, and someone questions you on that term, you can direct them to the discourse. They are no longer just criticizing you, but a much larger academic history of thought. Meeting with critical skepticism over the ideas of Barthes when debating the role of the author is much more productive that playing ping-pong with only your own ‘logic’. You could at least assume that someone who’s been playing that game for decades longer than you might have something interesting to say.
- Respect that everything you haven’t read probably has something to teach you. If it’s canonical stuff, it definitely does. Be sensitive as you read to what new ideas you can pick up, not to what old ideas you want to latch onto. Critical reading is a skill you learn throughout your whole life – it’s not something you’ve optimized the moment you pick up an essay. Be careful with misinterpreting a discourse into the mush of a summary that misses out some vital points. Re-read anything you disagree with to secure exactly why, and take that as a prompt to look further into the discussion, not away from it.
- If you aren’t trying to make progress in your criticism, you aren’t accomplishing much as a critic. A reviewer can make reviews, make a checklist of their standards and measure everything against it. They’ll give ‘their opinion’ and ignore any discussion that doesn’t agree on their fundamentals. The ‘critic’, however should always be trying to tighten their standards, and meet theirs and others’ with skepticism, whether vocal or not. It’s important to read widely so that you’re aware, even if you are trying to encourage critical progress for your readers, of whether you’re marking out any new territory, or just echoing an old discourse. It’s also important because you’ll find it much harder to persuade anyone towards your position if they feel you’re operating from a point of research far away from theirs.
- In everything you do, read more than you write. And not the same things in new formats, the same thoughts in different fonts. Not ‘stale goods in new packages’, as T.S. Eliot warned us about. If a mode of thought starts to smell, if any cracks begin to show, don’t cover it up with semantics – delve into the issue and see what’s the matter. That’s what the modernists did, and what the postmodernists continue to do, with what came to be a hypocritical set of ‘objective standards’ the establishment clung to as dogma in throughout the 19th century. They didn’t reject the idea of ‘truth’ in art. They only, and rightly, conceded that artistic truth is a matter of perception and agreement, and that no matter how secure we feel about our values and what we value, we need to keep a critical, skeptical mind on everything we cover in discussion. Ideas can feel fresh because they sound new, but they keep fresh only if we keep re-evaluating them from new angles. So read many more professional perspectives than the one you put out yourself. Compare the thoughts of canonical critics to the blogger you follow for weekly episode reviews. It doesn’t even feel like work if you focus on the innate pleasure of dissecting ideas.
In the end, I fall on the side of many great critics and essayists of art before the postmodern era, who fall on the side of many great critics now working within it. Matthew Arnold, a great philosopher, essayist and theorist of the Victorian period, once wrote of Wordsworth that:
…surely the one thing wanting to make Wordsworth an even greater poet than he is,–his thought richer, and his influence of wider application,–was that he should have read more books, among them, no doubt, those of that Goethe whom he disparaged without reading him.
There are many things I haven’t read, but those are things I will someday endeavour to explore. A critic should never disparage the idea of reading and studying to sharpen or challenge their opinions on things. The ‘truth’ of art is not attainable at a glance; it’s the result of millennia of searching by the wisest minds of our race, and the essential aspect of art is that the struggle will never end. We can join the endless search, making progress for posterity. In a medium so fresh as anime, progress in theory feels even faster.
Or we can wallow in our own ideas and ignore an immense array of others. We can make ourselves unteachable and thus make our theories unbreakable in our perspective, and the more progress is made in theory, while we stagnate on our ‘standards’, the more stupid we’ll look. But then what will we leave behind other than our own self-obsession? Critics like Digibro have been known to disparage the academic discourse like many others (despite being a ‘ravenous consumer of every media form’), and I fear that the discourse will disparage them in turn. They will be famous in the present but forgotten in the future, because their foundation is the sand of self-assurance, and not the rock of the conversation raging around them, ignoring them and surpassing them, because they ignore everything it has to say.