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Always Lashing the Same Back

It continues to amaze me every day how completely and thoroughly we fail to understand our own culture.  It’s especially baffling considering that this country, really, only has pop culture going for it; having given up on the Supermanly troika of truth, justice, and the American Way, and having shipped all its manufacturing to places where the gap between wage slavery and plain old regular slavery isn’t quite as stark, the only things we make any more are wars and entertainment.  And yet we seem to have so little appreciation of both the way it’s made and the way it’s supposed to function, I’m left to conclude that constant immersion in popular culture no more makes you an expert on it than being a fish makes you an expert on water.

In the latest of this site’s ongoing and seemingly endless project of examining our critical relationship to the art we make, I wanted to talk about the concept of backlash, but I had trouble making anything coherent out of my thoughts, and then, just as I was hoping the goo of my random observations would congeal into the pudding of a thesis, the AV Club’s television editor Todd Van Der Werff wrote this, which has the advantage of not rambling as far afield as I normally do and thus saying much of what I wanted to say in a more concise manner.  Girls has provided us with a stellar example of backlash sociology, albeit complicated by the fact that the show — which I think is generally quite good — has some genuine problems beyond the phony ones ginned up by its knee-jerk reactionary detractors.  This, in itself, forms one of the problems inherent in backlash psychology:  it creates an oppositional dichotomy so polarizing that it leaves no room for honest critique.  People who genuinely dislike Girls for aesthetic reasons must spend most of their time pleading that their reasons for doing so have nothing to do with the sexist cretins who are assailing it out of pure misogyny.

At one point, the majority of cultural backlash stemmed from a reaction to excessive hype; audiences who were once a bit more distrustful of marketing and advertising could sniff out a fraud a mile away, and would often come to distrust anything they suspected of being a rickety shell that was supported only by a rolling engine of P.R.  This is unfair in its own way — excessive hype doesn’t always indicate emptiness at the core — but at least it usually came from a genuine and spontaneous populist resistance to being had.  Now, in the age of the blockbuster, we encounter the bizarre reversal of this tendency:  anyone who doesn’t immediately embrace the latest billion-dollar marketing campaign and the product around which it is built is viewed with suspicion, suspected of being a crank at best and an elitist snob at worst.  Because the backlash mentality hasn’t really gone away; it has simply been redirected at other targets, and gained an ugly reactionary quality along the way.

Overvaluing the alleged political content of culture can be a risky thing; too much of it and one becomes the kind of neo-Zhdanovite that litters the electronic halls of sites like Big Hollywood, judging every artistic creation on how greatly it appears to cling to this or that ideological doctrine.  But too little of it and you’re just allowing yourself to be blind to the tenor of the times.  Though you’d never know it from the aggrieved victimology of the doctrinaire conservative movement, we’re at a very reactionary time in America today.  The cultural mood is distinctly authoritarian, anti-intellectual, and militaristic, and our current form of populism and anti-elitism resembles that of the Know-Nothings more than that of the Progressives, with all the hostility directed at aesthetes and academics rather than genuine elites of money and power.  The election of Barack Obama and the mild diversification of the body politic, far from creating a “post-racial America”, has triggered ugly backlashes where racism, sexism and homophobia are far more openly expressed than they were ten years ago.

Thus we get, every single day, the expression of this reactionary culture in our headlines and inboxes.  Girls is savaged in language that could not be more blatantly misogynistic and patronizing towards women*, blotting out even the possibility of a measured conversation about its merits or failings.  A woman proposes a project analyzing the use of sexist tropes in video games, and before it even begins, she is inundated with thousands of vile misogynist and anti-Semitic attacks.  (I have said for a while now, based on my depressing nightly encounters with this site’s stats page, that the Internet does not allow you to retain many illusions, and Anita Sarkeesian’s story is proof of that.  Another, for the masochistically curious, is this article, in which an analysis of racist comments in on-line comments sections is met with thousands of racist comments in the comments section, is so drearily awful that it might just mark the eternal doom of the concept of situational irony.)  At the same cultural moment when the Angry Black Man stereotype is being revived**, the diversification of cultural product — the introduction of a female, gay or minority character in a role normally reserved for white men — is invariably met with rage.  (Some of those thus enraged have gotten wise, and frame what is perfectly ordinary racism, sexism and homophobia in the context of ‘tokenism’ — that is, they are not angry at the presence of a homo in their straight male fantasies, but the object to the pandering arbitrariness of it all.  It’s a nice dodge because it gives them a seemingly enlightened reason to never have any minority characters at all.)  As Young Adult novels exercise a tyrannical hegemony over the best-seller charts, the controversy isn’t over how remarkably white they are, but how occasionally white they aren’t.

Of course, at its heart, this is just simple run-of-the-mill sexism and racism, no different than we’ve ever had in America except to the degree they’re flexing their muscles after a period in which real gains were made for blacks, women and gays. (We may not have to put up with that strutting for long, as our government is fast at work trying to reverse those gains.)  What’s different right now is that the mechanism of the backlash has been harnessed and turned against the very functions that used to drive it.   Backlash culture is no longer a tool of popular revolt against racism and sexism in the media, but a means of defending them.  It’s not even a tenuously class-based mode of resentment against the cycle of hype; suddenly, the unstoppable engine of marketing is something to be respected, praised, even anticipated as much as the product it supposedly exists to serve.  I’ve already covered to the point of exhaustion the ressentiment against creators and the replacement of empathy for them with sympathy for their corporate masters, so I’ll leave that incomprehensible act of fealty aside and focus on other ways the script has gotten flipped in the new age of backlash.

Once, in what might be called the Heaven’s Gate era, it was considered a cardinal sin of the culture to spend an absurd amount of money on an ill-conceived and poorly executed piece of art and then foist it onto the public expecting accolades and rewards.  The punishment for this degree of hubris was a steadfast determination to stay home, sinking the movie into well-deserved debt and obscurity and giving the creator and studio some time to consider their contemptuous actions by at least temporarily scuttling their careers.  Now, in what we might call the John Carter era, a combination of anti-intellectual backlash at the audience level and self-flattering ambition at the critical level (where no one can ever admit that a movie was dull, a book pointless or an album unlistenable lest you cheat yourself out of a future ‘think piece’ in which you bully up your reputation with a ‘reassessment’ of its ‘underrated’ virtues) has led to the redirection of backlash not at the creators, who delivered a boring calamity of a film, or the producers, who sank hundreds of millions into its marketing, but the handful of stubborn jerks who refuse to admit how awesome it is.  Televised mediocrities whose omnipresent advertising and syndication is looked on as a fact of life are spared the rod, but fans of barely-watched cult shows of intelligence and craft like The Wire and Community are assailed as pretentious frauds trying to cram down the throats of a trusting public programs that barely half a million people will ever see.   Anything ordinary, expensive and attended by trains of PR drones strewing rose petals is considered worthy of our respect, while allegedly serious journalists wonder if it wasn’t perfectly understandable for people to ask for their money back after being forced to withstand the ordeal of seeing a movie with a slightly unconventional narrative structure.

The psychology and operation of the backlash has always been with us, and likely always will be, and it will no doubt assume different forms, both old and new, in the future.  But now, in its current state, it resembles less Jesus crafting a whip to cleanse the temple of its money-changers than it does a captain’s mate seizing the cat to make sure the crewmen aren’t asking any uncomfortable questions.

*:  At the risk of creating another expensive and unwieldy government bureaucracy, I’m afraid I have to suggest the formation of a new federal review panel. If they discover you have made a comment about Lena Dunham, and it consists of two of the three criticisms that she is (a) fat, (b) ugly and (c) unfunny, you must produce a picture of yourself, a picture of your significant other, and a joke you have written.  They will be analyzed by the panel, and you will then be barred from using the Internet for a period of time based on the degree of disparity between your criticism and your reality.

**:  Not to put too fine a point on it, but if there is anything shocking and disgraceful about black culture in 2012, it is that it doesn’t feature  more black people who are absolutely fucking furious.

Mirrored from LEONARD PIERCE DOT COM.

Comments

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fengi
Jun. 15th, 2012 03:36 pm (UTC)
I think generalizations can be a valid tool used correctly in a grounded way. And I get what is driving these posts, but a reductive narrative of the transcendent few vs. the ignorant mass sacrifices coherence and grounded persuasive argument for easy, dubious ranting against those doing it wrong. Instead of inspiring me to think about art in a more transcendent way, I'm provoked into picking at the bad faith flaws.

First, let me offer an example from Ta-Nishi Coates which addresses similar issues, but in a generous manner:
I've looked at the painting a couple of times at the Met. I'm always draw to the woman in blue--to the far left--being carried away. The painting always reminds of a very obvious truth: This era, where women (and some who are not women) are not taken as property, is such a recent innovation. The great charge of feminism has always been, to my mind, ensuring that we never go back.

So I just stumbled into a political point, without meaning to...Pousson could not have intended for me to write what precedes. The art I love is open, and I think this what we mean when we say "timeless." It does not foreclose the imagination. You don't need to have lived in Pousson's time to understand the horror depicted above. And what I see may not be what you see. I have no idea what he intended me to see. Does it matter?

When I go out and talk about my memoir, I'm always interested in other people's read. I made that book with some specific things I wanted to say, but with little thought of what I wanted you to hear. Once it was published, it no longer belonged to me. It probably was never mine in the first place.

This is the problem of didacticism. It is a dishonest selfishness. It pretends to give you something. But what it really wants is to make hostage of your imagination and march you at the point of a bayonet down some predetermined road.
Note how he observes all of this without railing against an imaginary strawman of the stupid mass who never every care for anything but didacticism.
fengi
Jun. 15th, 2012 03:36 pm (UTC)
Other criticisms, which I admit could use some editing: You write "Backlash culture is no longer a tool of popular revolt against racism and sexism in the media, but a means of defending them."

Activists have inspired backlash against racist/sexist art, but backlash has never been exclusively progressive. Conservative backlash is recognized from Susan Faludi's Backlash to "white backlash" describing support for George Wallace. Pop culture backlash can be very reactionary when the attack on allegedly undeserved hype, praise or affection involves race, class and gender (consider the Lana Del Ray backlash). It's unclear why "means of defending them" is linked to an essay praising feminist backlash against a sexist Catwoman illustration; what is the backlash defending racism and sexism - the catwoman picture? Isn't the backlash explicitly against that?

Despite decrying the backlash against the advances made by minorities, these meta-criticism posts mostly name and quote white guys. The two named critics who aren't white and/or guys, Michiko Kakutani and Stanley Crouch, are examples of failure and inadequacy. This dissonance is not present in other essays, and you promote female artists, so perhaps the simplifications of this meta-narrative makes it more reactionary than intended.

Consider Dan Harmon: in a well known AV Club interview, he admits a network executive force him to add women to the writing staff and this made him realize women could hold their own and made the show what it was, and in the next sentence denies there's a need for racial diversity. So Harmon's success depends on others making him not discriminate yet he still buys into the dominant mindset one could say informed the decision to drop him. This complicates the simplistic mythic vesion of auteur vs. the man as the auteur is also the man and used others to be an auteur. So perhaps a truly transcendent essay about Harmon's firing would move beyond the easy lionization of him as singular betrayed genuis, a trope spouted by many fanboys.

Consider the claim "allegedly serious journalists wonder if it wasn’t perfectly understandable for people to ask for their money back after being forced to withstand the ordeal of seeing a movie with a slightly unconventional narrative structure." which is linked to an article which doesn't really say that. It reports on, not endorses, the walkouts as well as describing the reality behind rumors about refunds: "Only two pairs of patrons requested refunds. Their anger at not getting their money back prompted the sign, Mr. Birnbaum explained Wednesday. (Still, he added, the film has “performed well enough that we just confirmed it will hold over for a third consecutive week.”)" It's raising a topic of discussion: "And those walkouts may not have seen this debate over slow films involving hundreds of readers and set off, in part, by Mr. Malick’s film." Not perfect, but not the embrace of ignorance claimed in the paraphrase.

Let us not be so ardent that we are untrue. There are plenty of people who said John Carter was poorly executed at many levels and plenty who agreed in thoughtful ways. I'm not sure what selective sample of internet discourse being used to claim "fans of barely-watched cult shows of intelligence and craft like The Wire and Community are assailed as pretentious frauds trying to cram down the throats of a trusting public programs that barely half a million people will ever see." but it doesn't reflect the reality that The Wire ran five seasons to near universal praise and is an ongoing success on disc. Nor are Community fans facing a backlash of this sort, rather dismissal of their numbers by network executives who arn't properly quantifying time shifting. Also, haven't later critics, like Nathan Rabin, observed that Heaven's Gate isn't the offense to art as deemed by the intitial response? Hasn't the backlash against Michael Cimino faded in contrast to other, far more mindless and tacky excessive flops? Wasn't such shifts kind of the point of my year of flops?
ludickid
Jun. 15th, 2012 04:22 pm (UTC)
Would you be willing to entertain my suggestion that your frequent citation of Ta-Nehisi Coates – who I love – as an example of how the art of criticism is thriving is just as broad a generalization as my frequent citation of a million other voices who suck as an example of how the art of criticism is stagnating?

Activists have inspired backlash against racist/sexist art, but backlash has never been exclusively progressive.

I did not say that it has been exclusively progressive, nor did I say that it has never been conservative. I said that it has been progressive in the past, and that it is currently quite reactionary. I’m getting pretty tired of defending myself on the basis of statements I didn’t make. Your problem isn’t that your criticisms need editing; it’s that you’re not reading very closely.

It's unclear why "means of defending them" is linked to an essay praising feminist backlash against a sexist Catwoman illustration; what is the backlash defending racism and sexism - the catwoman picture? Isn't the backlash explicitly against that?

The article linked addresses the backlash against the backlash – the thousands of people who attacked critics who found the picture sexist, and did so in a sexist way. I picked that article because it neatly groups together dozens of ways in which the defense was made, saving me the trouble of linking to a dozen different sites.

Despite decrying the backlash against the advances made by minorities, these meta-criticism posts mostly name and quote white guys. The two named critics who aren't white and/or guys, Michiko Kakutani and Stanley Crouch, are examples of failure and inadequacy. This dissonance is not present in other essays, and you promote female artists, so perhaps the simplifications of this meta-narrative makes it more reactionary than intended.

Here you’re just playing the counting game, which teaches us nothing. It’s pure sidetracking. (It’s also highly selective, almost to the point of dishonesty, since the same pieces you’re talking about also cite by name as “examples of failure and inadequacy” Harry Knowles, Sasha Frere-Jones, Peter Travers, and Erik Hayden – all white guys.) You and I both know that I could cite a hundred straight white male critics who display the problematic tendencies I talk about; picking out two that aren’t and using them to subtly imply that I’m a reactionary is nothing but a dodge. Let’s stick to the essence of the critique rather than the demographic makeup of who it’s applied to.
ludickid
Jun. 15th, 2012 04:22 pm (UTC)
So perhaps a truly transcendent essay about Harmon's firing would move beyond the easy lionization of him as singular betrayed genuis, a trope spouted by many fanboys.

Except that three of Harmon’s producers (one of them a woman) and six of his writers (two of them women) also quit the show in protest of his treatment, or were fired out of fear they’d show too much loyalty to him. I’ve never argued that Harmon isn’t an asshole, or that he is free of personality disorders, or immune to having bad opinions. But as a creator vs. bosses narrative, it’s hard to think of anyone who fits the bill better; and it’s hard to think of a recent time (outside of comics, anyway) when so-called serious critics were so quick to defend the bosses over the creator.

It's raising a topic of discussion: "And those walkouts may not have seen this debate over slow films involving hundreds of readers and set off, in part, by Mr. Malick’s film." Not perfect, but not the embrace of ignorance claimed in the paraphrase.

It’s a topic unworthy of discussion. If it’s one person asking for their money back because they think Malick is too artsy-fartsy or a thousand people who think movies are too slow these days, it’s just different measures of link-baiting bullshit. Neither of those things are news, and neither of them raises a single solitary interesting point in the framework of worthwhile criticism.

Let us not be so ardent that we are untrue. There are plenty of people who said John Carter was poorly executed at many levels and plenty who agreed in thoughtful ways.

Sure. But what’s the dominant narrative right now? It’s doing better on DVD and on-demand, so shut up, everyone who thought it was an overpriced dud. That’s not criticism; it’s accounting.

I'm not sure what selective sample of internet discourse…Nor are Community fans facing a backlash of this sort

You aren’t aware of these backlashes, apparently. That doesn’t mean they aren’t happening. I could waste both our times by linking to dozens of examples, though.

Also, haven't later critics, like Nathan Rabin, observed that Heaven's Gate isn't the offense to art as deemed by the intitial response? Hasn't the backlash against Michael Cimino faded in contrast to other, far more mindless and tacky excessive flops? Wasn't such shifts kind of the point of my year of flops?

You’re making my argument for me. Heaven’s Gate is no less an artistic failure or a financial catastrophe than it ever was, but critics have decided to ‘rehabilitate’ it – not because it’s any less of a disaster, but because it gives them something to talk about instead of writing real insightful criticism, and because “SPACEBALLS: Was it really a work of subversive brilliance?” gets more clicks than “Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s movies deserve your attention”.
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Leonard Pierce is a freelance writer wandering around Texas with no sleep or sense of direction. If you give him money he will write something for you. If you are nice to him he may come to your house and get drunk.

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