No Politics: Media and Identity

We’ve been hearing a lot of it lately, at least from the more gurgly and questionable-smelling corners of the internet – a demand for “objective reviews.” Reviews that leave politics at the door, and simply give audiences an untainted appraisal of some media property. If you read my stuff at all regularly, I’m sure you can take a guess as to my thoughts on the validity of this request – given how often I stress the variability of personal experience, art experience, and critical evaluation, it should come as no surprise that I find this demand pretty misguided. But it keeps coming up, and it actually reflects on a number of more interesting elements of both how we parse media and how media is constructed, and so I figured I’d take my own shot at the topic. So let’s get down and dirty with objectivity in criticism!

Which we will begin by debunking immediately. Sorry, but it’s only really possible to entertain the idea of “objective criticism” in an extremely small bubble, and once you start engaging with the history of actual criticism, that bubble pops in a hurry. On the most immediate level, every single person has their own tastes, and these tastes will meaningfully affect what media is successful or unsuccessful for them. And if you try to circumvent that by assuming some “objective system” of evaluation that separates good art from bad outside of our personal feelings, you’ll quickly run into the unfortunate fact that all such existing systems are limited frameworks. What kind of storytelling is effective or ineffective, what level of dramatic affectation is poignant or maudlin, and even what great art should be about are all questions with many answers, depending on your values, culture, and moment in art critique history.

Hotarubi no Mori e

The systems we develop to evaluate art can be very useful for critiquing it within the context of certain assumed priorities, but the priorities we choose are not objective – they are arbitrary, based on our cultural climate, aesthetic priorities, and personal experiences. Schools of criticism rise and fall in popular favor, and you can meaningfully criticize a show from multiple frameworks and arrive at a variety of very different but equally valuable conclusions. Which is good! Art would be far less interesting if there were actually a “correct answer” when it came to analyzing and evaluating it – the great power of art is that it brings together complex ideas to create intangible emotional resonances, and this power would be terribly diminished if art always provided an easy solution. Additionally, even beyond formal schools of criticism, the very purpose of media is different for different individuals – whether you want your media to entertain or validate or inspire or challenge is an open, personal question, and all of these needs are valid, and no critic can account for all of them. And in the middle ground between formal schools of criticism and personal media preference, we run into the central, overwhelming fact that none of us experience the “same” media, because each of us bring our own selves to the table.

There is no “objective reaction” to a piece of art – art is too complicated, and interacts in too many ways with too many of our own emotional/cultural/historical touchstones. A Jane Austen novel means something different to us than it meant to one of Austen’s contemporaries, because even though the text is the same, our very different position means different elements of the text are unusual, exceptional, worthy of notice. We can’t parse art that was groundbreaking at the time in the same way its first audiences did, because groundbreaking art tends to not stay groundbreaking for long – it’s the “Seinfeld effect,” where the immediate impact of Seinfeld is lessened due to our culture having absorbed so much of its humor as a given. And we can’t hope to recapture the cultural climate a given audience experienced a work in, which always informs assumptions that run from as small as how a joke works (since jokes generally rely on subverting assumptions that are reflective of specific cultural expectations) to who is noble or wicked in the text. The way art affects us will always be reflective of how our own experience, art knowledge, and personal priorities interact with the piece, and those variables are largely outside of our control. And this lens of personal, historical, and cultural identity doesn’t just apply to how we parse art. It determines how we parse the world.

Yozakura Quartet

Our selves interact with the world in such radically different ways depending on our circumstances that the idea of a single “correct” view of the world is an understandable but distant fantasy. If you grow up as a discriminated-against race in a racist culture, that will deeply affect your experience of the world – not only will your past experiences give you insights that people who see their culture as “neutral” would not, but your actual daily experience will be profoundly affected by the daily hurdles that affect you and not others. Things that people in the favored classes consider normal, like perhaps dealing with government bureaucracy being a boring but mostly harmless experience, will be fundamentally different due to the way society classifies you, and alters its behavior in subtle and unsubtle ways accordingly.

Just like how looking back on the frame of a book written by an author in the 1920s can give any of us insights into what was considered culturally and aesthetically normal at the time, so too do each of us have our own frame for looking at modern society, where our relative positions give us insights into some elements of “normal” while blinding us to other things we ourselves take for granted. There’s always a new 1920s, always a new set of assumptions, and the baggage and insight each of us brings to our perspective based on our race, class, gender, childhood, temperament, and everything else will all define the world we naturally see. We are all removed from society in some ways and mired in it in others, and our relative positions deeply inform the world as we see it and as it interacts with us.

Yuri Kuma Arashi

This is actually a fairly simple way to explain the concept of “privilege,” incidentally. Even if you’re not rich and successful personally, you still have a specific circumstance-based lens that attunes you to some things while blinding you to others. You don’t need to be successful or happy to possess certain kinds of privilege – it’s not about winners or losers, it’s about what your perspective and circumstances cast as “normal.” Any given person will be privileged on some axis (able-bodied, living in a developed country) and not on some others (racially stigmatized, few education opportunities). We all possess some “privilege” – it’s not a switch you turn on or off, it’s just the ways our natural positions in life make us unaware of certain assumptions of living we take for granted.

Which, bringing it back to media, means that when someone says “get politics out of your reviews/criticism,” what they really mean is “stop talking about things that I don’t see through my lens.” No one artificially “brings politics” to their perception of media – the things we take note of are reflective of the lifetime’s worth of living-as-yourself expertise we always bring to bear. If a particular piece of media reflects a worldview that consistently marginalizes some given group, your non-membership in that group does not make that element of the work not exist. Just like how you can’t really “unsee” mediocre writing or choppy animation, you can’t really unsee the attitudes and assumptions inherent in a work once you’re aware of them. And people don’t highlight those issues because they want to “attack” media – they highlight them because they want to engage with media more fully, and because the truth of the multiplicity of our lenses means that in the absence of critical discussion, things that are blindingly obvious to people with the right experience might not even enter the dialogue.

Occult Academy

And of course, the people talking about “getting politics out of reviews” are just as wedded to their own lenses, as well. Meaning that what people complaining really want is just criticism that’s reflective of their own lens, their own worldview. There is no “apolitical” position – every perspective is different, every position is a political one based on a specific accepted culture/frame, and thinking your position lacks a political dimension simply means you’re blind to your own biases. “Get politics out of my criticism” really means “match your own perspective to mine so closely that I can continue to be unaware of my own political position,” and “this work is apolitical” really just means “I agree with this work’s politics so closely that they are invisible to me.” Every person has a specific worldview – thinking your perspective is “objective” means thinking you’re the first person in all of human history whose perspective is not a product of their environment. What was quaint and racist in the 1920s relative to our current position seems clear now, but tomorrow’s critics will be equally probing in defining what arbitrary assumptions mark today’s worldviews.

But all of this doesn’t mean we just have to listen to people with experiences different from ours, and try to incorporate their insights into our understanding of media. That’s important, and it will lead to a richer understanding of how people and media interact (along with, you know, making you a better and more empathetic person), but it doesn’t just end there. Because that multiplicity of perspectives doesn’t stop at seeing what specific elements exist within media – media itself has a worldview, too. Just as the study of media can make you more attuned to storytelling and the implementation of theme, so too can you begin to see how any given work makes a thousand assumptions about what is “neutral” that together add up to an entire living philosophy. Shows are windows into creator worldviews, and those can also be engaged with or critiqued. In fact, this is often more all-encompassing than an intended thematic message, because while an author can care or not care about imparting some message, they can’t help but bring the way they see the world to their work.


Engaging with works as reflective of underlying worldviews isn’t just a more all-encompassing approach to criticism, it also offers its own array of new insights that wouldn’t make sense on a pure “purpose of the text” level. Once you begin to see the underlying assumptions that inform what a creator sees as “normal,” you can even start to make sense of themes in a grander sense. Things that were just individual quirks of narrative can start to assume a human color, as you see the perspective that lies behind them (something that is sometimes wincingly obvious, and other times a little more complex). The human hopes and fears of the author become a deeply rewarding element of your media appreciation, glimpsed in a million tiny details of assumptions that provide a fractured window into another person’s lens of the world. The more you become aware of the limitations of your own lens, the more you engage with others and develop a broader social consciousness, the more you will be able to see the quirks of human nature in all the media you love.

45 thoughts on “No Politics: Media and Identity

  1. Fantastic work on this Essay Bob!
    I do hope this doesn´t poke the bee´s nest that is GamerGate and all the people who call for “objective” reviews.

    • Thanks! If that happens, it won’t be by my doing. Hopefully this doesn’t get linked somewhere terrible

  2. I think there’s something interesting to add though. Saying something like “keep politics out of X” wouldn’t make that much sense or be so common if politics weren’t perceived as something inherently bothering, cumbersome, fun-spoiling. It’s not just about reviews. On one hand, there’s forums and Facebook groups that follow the “no politics and religion” rule for the sole sake of creating a “safe space” where people can avoid worrying about the kind of adversarial, incendiary discussions that those topics tend to spark (especially on the internet). On the other, discussing politics starting from a work of entertainment is often perceived as something “too intellectual” to fit the starting point. This does not mean however that the same exact people couldn’t actually recognize and discuss the same things; it is almost more a matter of language and form than of content.

    As an example, I would make an educated guess that you know about TotalBiscuit’s tweet that sparked a Twitter shitstorm some weeks ago. In the aftermath of that I actually checked out some of the guy’s videos out of curiosity. And surprisingly enough, I found his “WTF is… Papers, Please?” video. If you don’t know about it, “Papers, Please” is a game – almost a Visual Novel in fact – where you play as a border control agent in a fake but obviously Sovietic-inspired dictatorship. The whole thing is knee deep in late Cold War atmosphere and rife with political implications; one of its main features is putting the players in as uncomfortable a position as possible by forging them to make difficult ethical decisions. Well, guess what – TB totally loved it for that. The same guy who claims not to want politics in his games was perfectly okay with a game that was basically as explicitly political as you can get.

    Overall, I think this says something primarily about the degradation the very word “politics” has undergone lately. Whereas “politics” should embrace anything involving relationships amongst people and between people and institutions it has transformed into an umbrella dirty word that brands the worst excesses of organized political discourse: radicalization, antagonization and demonization of the adversaries, hypocrisy. So in the end when someone asks to keep “politics” out of something they are often thinking about what they perceive as the action of a specific organized faction. This is often triggered by specific uses of language and concepts, which are “property” of specific political parts and therefore prompt a defensive stance. The clash is then inevitable as once the entire thing is cast psychologically as a “them vs. us” situation it spontaneously tumbles down towards complete reciprocal lack of understanding and dialogue.

    • Yeah, I think this definitely speaks to the inherent tribalizing nature of internet discourse, as well as ideas on what “readers are owed” in writing. TB has said some frankly ridiculous things on twitter – deeply anti-intellectual statements, statements designed to rouse a new kind of conservative populism, etc. And that may well be partially due to the way internet engagement narrows our focus in the worst ways. I feel like the audience for such a piece would be too narrow (and it would seem too self-indulgent of me to write), but there’s definitely something to be said for how being a public figure in an online space makes it so much more likely you’ll end up acting as your worst possible self, both because of the voices that encourage you and because you feel your statements are justified by the completely unjustifiable weight of negativity any action incurs.

      • Actually, there’s something to be said about how TWITTER is specifically tuned to spark that kind of stuff – it always baffles me how this 140-character monstrosity has turned into the platform of choice for more political-inclined discussion whereas Facebook with its tolerance for humongous walls of text is mostly left to photos of parties, babies and dishes.

        And the bubble effect you talk about is something I feel is in fact a huge cause behind crazy lashing outs as the ones we’ve seen recently. Both sides are simply blinded to the reasons of the other’s perspective, and the bubble also encourages the development of languages so specific they become both a code and a flag, serving the doubly irritating purpose of signalling to the adversary the fact that one belongs to a certain “group” as well as obfuscating the actual meaning of what’s being said to any non-initiate. Identity effects are reinforced to the n-th power. There’s also a relation of the bubble effect with the concept of “safe space”: the feeling that one has the right to chill out in a space where your ideas will not be challenged and your patience not strained is okay, but it can lead to intellectual agoraphobia if one indulges in it too much. There is a world of challenging thoughts out there, and we have to either answer them in kind or understand where they come from if we want to grow.

        I don’t know much of what TB has said on Twitter, especially in terms of anti-intellectualism. While I do not like arguments like “if it’s too complicated a word for an 8 year old to pronounce then we most definitely don’t need it!” I can see a point in the complaint that sometimes we academics can get so wrapped up in our own cognitive bubble we fail to understand how to communicate with regular people, or even what actually matters to them. I say this as my field is extremely different – being a scientist – but there’s a huge communication problem for us too as far as divulging scientific knowledge is involved. Being “right” is completely worthless if you can’t get anyone to listen to you.

  3. Wonderful essay, as always. You’ve hit the nail on the head.

    I’m fortunate enough to be far removed from people who espouse the philosophies you’re criticizing here (largely due to my narrow field of vision when it comes to the internet), and I count myself lucky in that regard.

    On the contrary to a lot of what these people are calling for, I actually enjoy reviews more when the author explicitly gives personal insight into their experience with a work. I tend to follow people whose opinion I know I can trust – not because their world views align with mine, but because I know that whatever their opinion of a work, they’ll be honest about it and are able to explain why something does or does not work for them. Reading about how others engaged with a work helps me better understand my own thoughts on that work. I’m still trying to develop my critical eye, so to speak, and taking bits and pieces of others’ approaches as inspiration has helped me immensely to understand where my “neutral” is.

    That’s probably the cusp of what I want to say, really – finding that “neutral point” and coming to terms with it is a step that, as you’ve said here, I think a lot of people have trouble with (or refuse to aspire to altogether). But when we find that neutral point, we can then compare it to the neutral point of the media we’re engaging with and go from there.

    I love talking about this kind of thing with like-minded people, or even ranting about it to someone who is willing to listen with an open mind, but if I were ever to be confronted by someone who refuses to accept that there is no such thing as “objectivity,” I probably wouldn’t even bother trying to talk with them about it. I see you try your best to explain it to stubborn jackasses every day, though, and now you’ve even written this essay – so for that (and everything else you do) you have my respect and admiration.

    Thank you for helping me to better myself and the way I engage with the things I enjoy, and keep up the good work!

  4. You know, it still astounds me that the author of Bakuman would use two whole pages (and more) of the, what, eighteen pages of a Shonen Jump chapter just to make his character espouse thinly veiled misogynistic views that have little bearing on the plot itself. That’s not really very economical use of manga panels, when you think about it.

    Anyway, great essay, Bobduh! Lines up pretty well with all the other stuff you’ve written.

    • Yeah, I think it was actually four pages of monologue – there’s only so much misogyny I can fit in one example. Glad you enjoyed the piece!

    • That’s not really very economical use of manga panels, when you think about it.

      I think you got it all wrong. Look at Nisekoi to see what I mean.

      The goal of shounen jump authors isn’t to be economical, but the opposite, to stretch things as much as possible 😛

    • No bearing on the plot itself? Gender politics, societal expectations and how women are treated in Japan is a big part of Bakuman’s plot. One of the arcs is literally a girl slapping a huge misogynist in the face.

      • And Bakuman is an extreme example of your point.
        I’m nearly sure they don’t see themselves as mysogynists.

        They just have no idea how to make female characters. They are effortlessly empathetic towards their male characters, but girls are complete strangers for them.

        Their efforts are pretty awkward to watch.

        • “I’m nearly sure they don’t see themselves as mysogynists.”

          I think that’s how most misogynists are tbh

  5. Being objective is recognizing your own subjectiveness.
    Anyway, your post is excellent as usual.

  6. Great essay.
    I think the whole no politics thing also has a lot to do with people self identify with their favorite show. They don’t want to listen to criticism about their favourite anime, and unable to argue with the fact it has toxic message. So no politics is just away for those guys to ignore complaint and attack the reviewer.

    • That’s definitely a part of it, and something I address more directly in the “Your Taste is Bad” piece from a while back. Sometimes it’s hard to not see criticism as a personal attack.

  7. Who is noble or wicked in the text.

    An anthropological text from the 60s that’s available online, and is an enjoyable read, showcases this, “Shakespeare in the Bush” by Laura Bohannan, where a tribe from the African bush is presented with Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

    hows are windows into creator worldviews, and those can also be engaged with or critiqued. In fact, this is often more all-encompassing than an intended thematic message, because while an author can care or not care about imparting some message, they can’t help but bring the way they see the world to their work.

    Which is why the “best” Campaign Setting (for novels, for roleplaying campaigns, etc.) is the real world. No matter how many small details you create in a setting of your creation, they’d never measure up in amount and depth to those in the real world. This, though, means that anything you do bring into a fictional setting is even more pronounced as “normal”, as opposed to things you might disagree with in the real world but think of yourself as “merely reflecting”.

    Finally, although it is “obvious,” and you do all but say it out loud, if it were so obvious you wouldn’t write this piece. “Get politics out of X” is a political statement. It should be stated outright. It’s not just “I don’t see X”, or “I don’t see X as a problem,” or “I like seeing X,” but “X is the way things should be. X is the way things are.” – This is also the easiest thing to tie back to “objectivity”, because when people are saying to take politics out, they’re essentially saying, “The objective truth is X. Politics aren’t objective, so you’re wrong, and reality doesn’t support it.”

    • But doesn’t a fantasy allow you to focus and exaggerate real life elements that you wish to touch on and may be too subtle otherwise?

      • Yes, and part of what makes them stand out is the dearth of other details in a fictional setting, with things we “take for granted”.

        This was less about saying things, and more about “deeply detailed settings.” What you’re saying goes along with my point, in fantasy/sci-fi, one can argue that any detail is there as “hyper-relevant,” either to consciously draw attention to it, or point out what the author really holds as “part of the world.”

        The question is whether something was consciously or unconsciously brought about, and if consciously, to what point? Often it’d be the same message, even if from different directions. Either how things are (and should be), or how things are (and should not be).

    • I actually have read that piece before, a while back, and now I’m mad I didn’t link it. It’s perfect.

  8. First I agree everybody has different views of anything and anime is no exception!

    But lately there seems to be big difference in reviews and what the anime reviewer / anime fans thinks ! Heck even anime fans are split down the middle a lot!So don’t feel bad how about complaints because there is lot more anime fans than reviewers. So don’t feel as a group you are singled out. Go read the forums / do you do that? You might take a different view of the anime world!

    I find that two bloggers / reviewers are in the same mindset as me! And they take a lot of time to explain things. You are good too although I don’t always agree with you / you write it out well!

    Some of us anime fans have been watching longer than some of the reviewers so that gives a difference in thoughts!

    I just like when a reviewer critiques a show and does assumptions without looking into a shows background etc! A show sometimes needs to looked into as there is a wealth of information available!It’s almost like research is non-existent !There is one show you need to check out the music before you watch the show it’s as simple as that! That should be done before a new review is done not just watch the episode or check it after ! That’s just being lazy! It happens way too much! I got 40 shows + to watch this season and checked up on about 30 of them especially the top shows.

    Anime fans seem to be well informed and have answers / or differences explained by links Quotes etc.

    When I do reply I try to be polite and do point things out to say why I feel that way!

    And as much as I respect the reviewers / there are a couple who think they are right all the time!

    Finally common sense should prevail ! It’s how the anime affects you / and of course how it is presented!

    This was an open discussion and felt it was good time to rant too!

  9. Amen. I come here to learn and to be educated on a medium that for the most part I’ve passed on since Robotech. If it wasn’t for a case of insomnia and Evangelion 2.22 on AS; I would still be nodding off to re-runs of Family Guy.

    Politically, we wouldn’t agree on much; thankfully life is so much better than politics. Sitting down and watching Your Lie in April with my 14 year old daughter was priceless. She plays the double bass and is of the same age as Kousei and Kaori. The last episode was a wonderful bonding moment for us. That moment was far more precious than any review you have written.

    Again, I will remain a fan, no matter what your politics are.

    • Haha, glad to hear it. Always nice to know someone got something worthwhile out of a recommendation.

  10. While musing over Oregairu, it occurred to me one of the reasons Hachimans don’t find these kinds of essays that compelling. It’s gonna get a little rambly here, so bear with me.

    It started when I read this article. And the rebuttal is that those social outcast nerds think that the SJWs are a the new jocks and Snooty Girls, but actually, those people are also nerds who have to deal with all of the nerd-associated social ostracism they have — plus the systematic isms besides. A key sentence in the article is “For people who have never been real outsiders, who have never known what it’s like to sit in a room full of humans who treat you alternately as invisible and a target for nasty harassment, it’s hard to understand why the gamer identity matters so much.”

    That sentence shows how Hachimans can’t conceive of their experiences being not just non-unique, but not even at the bottom of the social ladder. They assume that their critics are people laughing at them from above, and not real fellow outsiders. They refuse to acknowledge the irony that there are plenty of people who know very intimately “what it’s like to sit in a room full of humans who treat you alternately as invisible and a target for nasty harassment” on the basis of their gender, sexuality, or race.

    Hachimans are convinced that they are the only people in their world to have had the epiphanies they’ve had about social behaviors. They believe that society is trying to suppress them from laying down these truths on to the sheeple, that their voice, that could bring the light to the darkness of ignorance, is being silenced.

    I get that feeling. Idol fandom is fucking weird, and just about every behavior associated with it has some really questionable implications. (“Why are you listening to shitty music? Why are you following talentless underage girls? Why are you not pursuing less skeevy hobbies?”) When the Minegishi Minami scandal broke internationally, (a girl went through strong enough dating rumors that she publically shaved her head in penance) a slew of articles went up condemning the Purity Complex and Waifu Complex and the Dating Ban and slut-shaming and all that jazz. And even though I hate all of those things, I had some seriously conflicted feelings about those articles! I knew that my fandom was weird and problematic, and suddenly all of these other assholes are horning in and acting like they know anything about how we fans think. It’s bad enough that the fan’s perspective is so rarely well-articulated, but now we’re all getting swept under the same rug like none of us have ever thought of this shit before? Fuck those guys. (From there, it’s an easy hop, skip and jump to Fake Geek arguments. “They haven’t put in the time or the money, they don’t have the right or the cred to tell me who I am and what I should do.”)

    Those are the same feelings Hachimans feel, on everything. They feel like their perspective isn’t given enough airtime as it is, because the other spaces are all so damn “political,” that their own perspective is being ignored. (Like the eternal complaining about ANN reviews not giving ecchi and harem and stuff a fair shake.)
    They don’t realize that the current wave of critiques are coming from people who have already lived and understood and considered and outgrown their perspective, not from outsiders. They thought that they were a level ahead of everyone, never considering that people like Hayama already know of the things they thought were revolutionary epiphanies, but have already further developed those ideas to know why they should continue to engage with society anyways.

    But that’s a terrible feeling. No one wants to realize that they’re living in the Truman Show, the rest of the world snickering at their unelightened state. So it’s much easier to imagine that we’re the execs in control of the show, or even better, that those schmucks out there don’t realize that living in the dome is a sweeter gig than they’ll ever have. Stop tearing my dome down, man.

    • In terms of Hachiman’s character, I think your analysis of him is misguided. His worldview is not narrow because he himself cannot see other perspectives; instead, he chooses to intentionally narrow his worldview and assume a stance of “everyone is terrible, including me”, thus shutting down all channels of valid criticism in and out.

      • Might be wording thing. It may not apply to Hachiman specifically, especially because Oregairu is about Hachiman slowly growing, which doesn’t apply to many of the most vehement harassers. But it was as a descriptor of people like him. “The Hachimans of the world.”

        Also, as you say, he shuts down channels of valid criticism in and out. That counts as willfully not seeing other perspectives.

        • Yes, I do agree that he chooses to ignore the perspectives of others. I believe the people you are referring to are actively asserting their opinion over others, which is one channel over none.

  11. These type of essays have the most impact on me and have been really helpful to my growth as a media consumer. <3

  12. Though it hasn’t exploded into any kind of internet culture war until recently, I feel like the sentiment (or at least one of the sentiments) that goes into the attitude of wanting to take “politics” out of reviews has been around for a while. It’s the thing Roger Ebert summarized as “it’s not what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it.” Of course, Ebert didn’t really mean that, he praised or criticized movies for what they were “about” all the time.

    And I kind of understand this viewpoint, but that’s only because it takes slightly more effort to find criticism that addresses formal elements of craft (although it really depends more on what circles you move with, in my experience). When I first really got into film it was hard to find criticism that went really in-depth on cinematography, editing, etc. It’s easy to see how that stuff can be thought of as more “objective,” but like you said, our priorities with regard to those things are just as arbitrary as our priorities about anything “political”.

    Do you think the people who call for “objective” reviews actually would respond better to something that addresses this kind of stuff though? That seems to be what people want in games criticism (though they’re not asking for it in good faith), where linking gameplay to the ideas they’re supposed to represent doesn’t yet seem to be a fully developed practice, but film (and therefore anime) criticism is developed to the point where it’s basically impossible to talk about images without talking about the ideas they represent. Do you think people who ask for “politics” to be removed from reviews want there to be no discussion of those ideas, or for there to never be any judgment of those ideas?

    I know I’m ignoring the fact that the reason this subject has gained so much prominence lately is because of people identifying with their media too strongly, so I guess what I’m really asking is if you think it’s possible to write criticism that disagrees with people without getting a response that tries to invalidate the criticism rather than engaging with it. Not to say that kind of criticism would be more valuable, I just wonder.

    • I guess the thing people really take issue with the most (I mean, asides the outright conspiracy nuts who think a secret council of freemason SJWs is plotting in the dark to sanitize the world) is not the discussing of political ideas themselves, but the fact that reviewers might take a moralizing approach to them. This spawns naturally from (A) a “strong” interpretation of media influence – where by “strong” I mean drawing a clear and unidirectional link between the ideas contained in a work and the message taken in from its users, standing at the exact opposite of “it’s just fiction” on a spectrum of opinions on the subject – coupled with (B) the systemic assumption that political ideas can be vehiculated by a work of art subconsciously beyond the author’s intent, and (C) that the dominant culture’s political ideas are fundamentally toxic. The logic consequence of taking each of these three assumptions at their strongest means that 1) any author who will not put an active effort into doing otherwise will insert toxic political ideas in their work, 2) said political ideas will have a straightforward, noticeable and unidirectional effect on the people on the other end, the viewers/readers/players, and thus 3) it is a moral imperative to discourage the use of such works of art, disregarding their other qualities, as doing otherwise would mean being accomplices of the spreading of intellectual poison.

      Of course, this is the extreme case where all three assumptions above are at their strongest. Different people take milder positions on either A, B or C. (C) is the easiest one to accept if we’re talking racism or sexism. (B) is also pretty obvious, though of course one might argue that this kind of subconscious insertions could have a negligible effect if they simply merge with the background noise of real life (for example, if someone writes a sci fi novel set in some distant future with lots of scientific innovation but doesn’t make an effort into trying to come up with social innovations as well and just portrays XXI century society with starships, is he actively participating in spreading XXI century societal assumptions, or wouldn’t it be exactly the same if instead of reading that book I was just, well, living, and therefore it’s basically just a zero effect rather than a positive effort?). The most critical point is (A) imho. On one hand, the “it’s just fiction” extremity of the axis assumes an ability of the human mind to separate inputs in sealed off compartments that sadly we don’t really possess. On the other, the strongest version of the assumption almost denies any agency and ability to interact on the user’s side, making them passive victims of whatever ideology is being spread by the work itself. I feel like this is a bit too strong of an assumption. I think the ability of a work to spread ideas, even on a subconscious level, is of course very real, but is not strong enough to give a true ethical value to spreading (or culling) all but the most raunchy, extreme works.

      For example, take a seminal work in comics, The Dark Knight Returns, which is also a strongly right-wing story. I appreciated it despite my left-wing leanings, and if I were to review it I could not just dismiss it as being undeserving of being read because of its ideological content. There are reasons why TDKR is a seminal work in its genre, and these, while not strictly speaking “objective”, can at the very least be agreed upon by a large number of people regardless of their political background. We should not be afraid of different political ideas anyway – building a thought bubble around us that protects us from hearing from anyone but people who agrees with us is a dangerous path. It leads to alienation from reality, radicalization of political divides, and internal struggles (as once the adversary is removed from sight, if not from the actual landscape, smaller differences tend to deepen and become the crux of political discourse. Wash, rinse, repeat, until everyone is just enclosed in their own small personal bubble).

      You mention that the problem is people identifying themselves “too much” with their media. But that is subjective too. How much is “too much”? And how weak does this identification need to be for strong attacks on the very ethics of spreading those media, and implicitly on the ability of people to enjoy them in a non-passive way. It’s not just the attack on the media, it’s that too strong a position on the (A) axis (as described above) makes people feel like they’re being treated as dumb children who simply take in everything that’s fed to them. And no one enjoys being patronized.

      • Sorry, I left this sentence incomplete, I meant:

        “And how weak does this identification need to be for strong attacks on the very ethics of spreading those media, and implicitly on the ability of people to enjoy them in a non-passive way, to just be shrugged off as inconsequential?”

        • I think in this context “too much” would be whenever someone identifies with something to the point where they take criticism of it as a personal attack. Where they think that if you say something is racist, you’re saying they’re racist by extension, and that there therefore has to be one correct way to interpret a piece of media, leading you to ask for “objective” criticism without “politics.” I realize I’m kind of repeating what you said, but I don’t see how or why you would quantify it aside from just looking at people’s actions

          But I’m going to say that’s all hypothetical, because I don’t want to make assumptions about how people form their identities. That’s why I initially framed my question as whether people would respond better to criticism that focuses more on aesthetic elements (even though if you really get down to it they can’t be entirely divorced from “politics” either).

          Also, I don’t think it’s too common for critics to express that spreading some piece of media is unethical, is it? Most criticism I’ve seen that addressed whether they thought something had offensive content (when they didn’t just say it sucks without making an ethical statement) didn’t go further than just asking people to be aware of the ideas in the media that they had a problem with.

          • I’m not entirely sold on the idea that you can actually say that a work is racist, or sexist, or stupid, without implying anything about its viewers though. You may say it’s about how people identifies too strongly, but there’s a precise line of thought – people identifies with some works because they see their pre-existent values reflected in them. In a way, having watched that show and NOT having found it sexist or racist could be an active choice: a reflection of the conviction that the problematic content isn’t in fact enough to warrant a callout. Now, this is a subjective matter of course, and I’m not saying we should stop discussing works being racist or sexist just because someone will be offended. Someone will ALWAYS be offended, no matter what, anyway – what I’m saying is, if you’re talking about things that people enjoys and loves, you can’t shy away from the fact that you are in fact also talking to and about people and their ideals. The definition of what is identifying “too much” with a work is basically defined by how many people identify with that work to begin with anyway. People all over the world identify strongly with the Bible, or the Quran, or the Capital, and that’s perfectly societally accepted, because there’s been a lot of very serious and important people who identified with those works and the systems of values they represent.

            You’re right that not much people actually discourages spreading a work because of its contents; what I meant is that following the reasoning above, depending on how much weight you attribute to the ability of a work to spread its ideas, your threshold for what constitutes a disgusting piece of work whose technical/artistic qualities you can’t appreciate anymore because they’re obfuscated by its despicable values is lowered. There’s little doubt that it’d be pretty hard to write a literary review of the Mein Kampf evaluating only its stylistic qualities, after all. I think this is the crux with requests for “objectivity” – a matter of priorities. To a public who doesn’t share the same kind of revulsion for the contents, a review that is so strongly influenced by them that they surmise everything else is of little to no use. And after all, reviews often have a very practical, down to earth purpose, namely to inform a potential buyer of what they are supposed to expect from a product and give them the tools to evaluate whether it’s worth their money or not. As such, the review must at least in some ways overlap with the tastes and interests of the reader, or it is all but completely useless from a strictly practical point of view.

          • Then I think that answers my question of whether something that focuses on formal elements of craft than ideas inherent in the work would be better received by the kind of person asking for an objective review.

          • Yeah, probably, though it’s not necessarily the be-all-end-all. I think discussing content would also work as long as too much ethical judgement baggage isn’t attached to it.

      • It’s not just the attack on the media, it’s that too strong a position on the (A) axis (as described above) makes people feel like they’re being treated as dumb children who simply take in everything that’s fed to them. And no one enjoys being patronized.

        It’s absolutely this that plays a large role. As my example above, I knew that I hated the Purity Complex and the slut-shaming and stuff that all went on in my idol fandom. On any other day, I’d be right there with cheering the condemnation of it. But there is merit to the Tone Argument. Suddenly I had articles being written by all sorts of people and all sorts of places throwing judgement at the idol system, often with shoddy fact-checking, and I felt beligerent! It felt like they were utterly dismissing something that had changed my life for the better, as if the idol fandom doesn’t run through a big debate over the Purity Complex every time a scandal pops up. There’s a sense of “shut up, you don’t even know anything.” I think 15FAN up there has a point when they talk about their feelings when they’re pretty sure they’ve been watching anime for much longer than a reviewer, and know a lot more context on the issue the reviewer is harping on. Like in this post.

  13. Of course, there’s no “objective” review in the sense of baring it down to something standing totally on its own. Even the selection and the words you use convey a certain preference and thus subjectivity.

    BUT. There are three big assumptions that you make, dare say axioms, that you don’t delve deeper and/or avoid to put on debate:
    a. Objectivity (only) means (for you)
    b. Everything is political. Every cultural frame is politics.
    c.”No one artificially “brings politics” to their perception of media”

    a. I think that objectivity can also include the notion of not reviewing through a twisted through money lens.
    b. Culture has to do with society of course, but not everything needs to be seen as deliberately play between groups in power and those who don’t have it.
    c. I disagree. Since a review is criticism and you structure it and highlight what you want to bring to the surface, of course you consciously decide what to include and what to omit.

    My problem isn’t if someone makes a post/article reading a story in let’s say a marxist view. I don’t mind rating scales of diversity in POC, body size and queerness either. What’s annoying is declaring a story totally not worthy because the author didn’t include this and that (when the whole other frame didn’t intend to make political statements). Such a way of opiniating would also go against your principle “judge a story by what it set out to tell”, imho.

  14. I think you are missing a big point behind why people ask for objective reviews and what an objective review is. You make good points about how it’s impossible to objectively review art, but so what? Why do we need to critique art in a review in the first place? It isn’t a requirement. I can review something that is a piece of art without critiquing the art. For example: It’s a sculpture. It’s 5 feet tall. It resembles the person who paid for it better than the last statue I looked at. It meets goals x y and z and so it gets a pass. Actually it doesn’t even need to get a grade to be objective. All of that said, critiquing art isn’t necessarily a problem inside an objective review! We can have more objectivity without removing subjective opinions. It’s just a matter of writing that way.

    What I usually see people asking for isn’t a perfect interpretation of art. In fact most of the people I know personally who ask for more objective reviews have very little interest in what a reviewer thinks of art. They want to know about the facts of a product they are potentially going to consume. Or in many cases they want a fair source to point to friends who are considering consuming the same product they have already consumed. I rarely see any evidence to suggest that the absolutes that can be objectively defined are undesired by the people who are complaining about these things and plenty to suggest they are. In most cases when I see objectivity come up what someone is asking for is the information to decide if they are interested in something or not. Calling for the complete absence of subjectivity is obviously a silly thing. Some people probably would like the opinions they don’t like to just go away. That doesn’t mean making “stupid” opinions go away is what got them there in the first place.

    I think if you were to poll the people asking for objectivity on which is more important, factual information or the removal of “stupid” opinions, more people would ask for the former than the later. Either way, my point is that both perspective exists. This whole issue isn’t summed up neatly by saying we can’t objectively critique art. Why? Because we can objectively review products. Fictional media ends up being both. We aren’t going to come to any acceptable solution without acknowledging that fictional media is not only art.

    I know for my own part when I read a review I fully intend to make my own decisions about it. I don’t have any particular respect for art critics for exactly the reasons you pointed out in this piece. Their opinion is very limited to who they are. I might be interesting in learning more about them, but only if they are also providing a factual review with information that helps me come to my own conclusions about a product. In most cases I’m more interested in looking for a reviewer I trust so that I can point them out to someone else. I haven’t been willing to trust most reviews for my own purposes in years.

    It’s very much possible to have an objective review that presents facts without insulting an audience and give them a subjective opinion on the quality of the artwork at the same time. For example: This game took me 50 hours to clear, it contains x y and z, but not w. It also sux. There we have it, objective information about a product and subjective opinion about art all in a nice container that is easy to digest. It’s not even particularly difficult to write that way.

    • It’s also something that most people instinctively do when writing reviews on, say, Amazon or eBay: “this did not work for me but if it’s your cup of tea…”, “I enjoyed this but I might imagine some could take issue with it…”. Subjectivity spans from one’s priorities, so acknowledging those priorities and how they may differ from other people’s allows to analyse our own opinions from different point of views. Of course it’s STILL tinted by our own subjectivity in a meta way, since we can never escape that, but it will still reach more people than the more unabashedly subjective approach. There’s no right way to do it really, it all depends on which readership one expects to reach. In some cases it’s just criticism for the sake of academic analysis and this effort isn’t very useful, in others it’s criticism of art as a commercial product and then it definitely is more meaningful.

    • In the past, yes, some of the objective facts were expected to be in the review, because prospective buyers had no other way to get the information. However, the existence of things like Wikipedia and the ANN Encyclopedia and other searchable databases may be responsible for the current movement of reviews towards complete subjectivity.

      When you shop for stuff online, they often have various specs/features tabs separate from the reviews tab. At that point, why would you want people regurgitating the objective facts in their reviews? You can get the objective stuff from press releases. That’s what they’re there for.

      Reviews are not news articles. They are, by definition, divorced from the objectivity standards that the former must be held to.

      • “You can get the objective stuff from press releases. That’s what they’re there for.”

        Press releases are often prone to be sponsored, hence biased, however.

        Really, I think the point is simply that there’s a reason to be for both things. A blog like this isn’t about getting people to pick anime, if someone reads it they already know what to expect; it’s about a more informal and personal kind of opinion and about academic musings on anime as an art form. An anime blog striving too much to be “objective” would be boring – huge chunks of the fun for me in following it come from the subjectivity, whether it means getting Bobduh’s interpretation of what we both deem a good show, reading him overthinking a bit one that I consider not-so-good, or simply bashing an unashamedly bad one (the SAO posts… those were the days!). I also like a lot that he manages to strike a good balance between having well-defined tastes and not becoming a snobbish hater – unlike other blogs which lean either towards being so accepting of everything it’s bland, or so critical it makes you wonder why are they blogging anime in the first place.
        But see, in a sense, a blog such as this is an extremely personal work, and in fact in a sense it constitutes an artistic performance on its own – only this time it’s Bobduh’s performance, his riff on existing material. Anime becomes little more than the topic of common knowledge, the cultural background that glues together this specific community, but the post veers away from the material itself to take a life of its own. Case in point, the SAO “pulp” fanfiction.
        On the other hand, I would expect a broader audience like the ANN one to have very different expectations, and it’s perfectly okay, because it’s a different context. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with demands of objectivity in that sense.

        • Yeah, the press releases thing is more applied to other industries. But still, most all of the specs for anime would still come from official releases. The stuff that ends up in their various encyclopedia entries.

          Sure, they can impose some structure in reviews that reviewers address certain aspects they wouldn’t on their personal blogs, but those evaluations in their reviews would be, by definition, subjective judgements, because any objective aspects have already been listed in the specs elsewhere.

          Some of this is website structure. The Cart Driver and RandomC list the specs at the beginning or ending of their preview guides because they don’t have an accompanying “objective aspects” database like ANN does. That’s why ANN reviews are more primarily subjective material, because they have the encyclopedia and news articles covering “the facts.”

          In which case, then I’m not sure why there’s any need to “demand” that reviews everywhere have both objective and subjective material in them. The content is exactly the same, but just sequestered and formatted in different spaces. I guess it’s just a desire for convenience to have the objective and subjective stuff stacked on top of each other instead of having to go to two different pages?

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