My first experience of intense fan culture was with Phish. I rolled with the R.E.M. internet fan community in '95 and a bit earlier, but that was back when there were so few people that it was possible to know everyone (and I did: I used to have a demo tape sent to me by the woman who tabbed the internet's standard version of 'So. Central Rain'), and knowing everyone made it more difficult to engage in the behavior I'm about to discuss. Phish went through many incarnations but by the time I arrived on the scene ('99 or so), the community norm had been established: everything Phish did was transcendant or excellent or great. Very rarely quality might dip and something would be merely good. Criticisms of the band, however mild, were the fault of the mental state of the unsatisfied listener, and resulted in flame wars initiated by people who thought that criticism untoward. The reigning attitude was "whatever is, is right."

Adulthood has taught me this attitude is more widespread than I hoped. For anything out there, no matter what it is, there will be someone who insists that it is perfect and no criticism can possibly be leveled against it. Failing that, gentle criticisms might be leveled, but only by those who have proven their otherwise slavish devotion to the thing in question (and only if those criticisms don't run too deep). Those who criticize too much or too freely will find themselves exiled.

The disturbing aspect of this is the birther/truther element to opposing criticism: since one could not honestly, openly dislike the thing in question for comprehensible aesthetic reasons, the only possible reasons to dislike must be ignorance, or malice, or an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of those who do like it. That is to say: people are not free to disagree, and disagreement is a prima facie indication that one's intentions must be bad.

Thus reviews of The Hobbit, most of which suggest that adapting a children's book into a 9-hour movie might be overkill. Pajiba, as usual, gets that aspect of things correct. It's also an interesting cultural moment because it makes clear that "I like it" is both the reigning aesthetic category and also (apparently) the ultimate defense against criticism: if I like it and other people like it, it must be good. (I think of the punk phrase: "the only way to fill Madison Square Garden is with mediocrity")
It's easy to pick on this in fanboy circles, but it's true even at higher levels: much of conservative cultural commentary boils down to "I like it and other people have liked it," assuming in more substantive aesthetic categories but never explaining them. The cult of T.S. Eliot is a prominent example: you can find someone who will defend the least and least interesting of his works.*

The alternative view is, I think, to accept some limits and some measure of criticism into one's own aesthetic judgments. Better and worse count for more when they are applied more widely and more consistently.

*This also happens quite frequently with Dante and Dostoevsky, both of whom I happen to like: treating minor works as though they are functionally equivalent to the great works, and treating the great works as though they have no problems at all.

No comments: