The Worst Filing System Known To Humans
Reload the Canons!
This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.
Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.
Tuesday, February 5, 2013
It's been about a month of peace. Sure, the bottles still haven't been cleaned up, but the bar is quiet, at least, and you have your chair all to yourself for once. And yet, something tells you that such idyllic tranquility cannot last. It is bound to be shattered by tragedy once more.
And lo and behold, today when you walk through the door you see a strange guy wearing broken sunglasses and gray body paint standing by your seat holding a sheaf of papers. And sweating. He is sweating quite a lot, actually. He hands you the papers and you sit down. And then he stands there. And watches.
After a few moments of this, you sigh and, giving in to the inevitable, begin to read.
I know it's been a while since my last post. A month's worth of graduate school applications (the ones I was beginning to work on during the last update, remember?) sucked up my time, and then as soon as those were complete I came down with some sort of hideous death cough that's plagued me for a week. The last few days have been, essentially, Magical Adventures In Attempts To Remain Upright.
But I have a decent body of drafts and guest articles, so I should be able to resume semi-regular posting during this week, barring further difficulties with my always tenuous health. Before we get back to the fun analytical stuff I like doing, though, I wanted to do an article addressing something I've been noticing more and more as I write. See, as I start to branch out from this blog's semi-regular readership more and more I'm confronted with a simple, huge problem:
A significant minority of people understand fuckall about how literary criticism works or what it's even trying to do.
(Fuckall is, incidentally, a technical term from post deconstructionist theory. I think Michael Foucault was the first to use it in his first major work breaking with Deconstructionist thought: "A History Of Dipshits Failing To Understand My Brilliance, Vol. 1: Your Ass Is Mine, Chomsky.")
Which honestly shouldn't get to me as much as it does. I watched a bunch of senior English majors in a theory class last year digging in their heels and refusing to accept that texts can convey meanings their authors didn't intend, which is pretty much the modern critical equivalent of, say, pronouncing "Wingardium Levi-oh-SAH" correctly. If that's how the purported highest level students in this field respond to unfamiliar thought, I'm pretty much screwed. I'm Sisyphus, here, rolling a giant stone bust of Foucault's shiny bald head up a hill in Hell for eternity while Reddit glares at me from its distance lake of ice, gnawing on Gloria Steinham or something. (And someone do let me know if these jokes are getting too opaque.)
But let me try to address one common error of thought, if only so that I can just hyperlink this article somewhere in the text of my other articles rather than having to give a big long disclaimer each time I try to sit down and write about whatever interesting notion has come to me at a given moment.
Here is my disclaimer:
Textual analysis is not trying to be 100% invariable, nor is it trying to be 100% comprehensive.
After posting that recent article on Homestuck and Gnosticism I got a bunch of what we might call "people" on Reddit scoffing at how ridiculous it was that I was saying the text could ONLY be read in a Gnostic way, and that Gnosticism was the ONLY important mythological reference in the entire 7000 page text.
Ha ha! How absurd!
But... I didn't say anything like that in the essay itself. What was going on there?
Well, part of me is tempted to say that people were just being cretins. I mean, I did make kind of a big bloody deal over the fact that saying one text shares important thematic properties with another text does not make them a one-to-one tautological equation with no room for anything else. I have to admit, part of the reason THIS article is taking me so long is because of the skulking sense of futility that inevitably emerges when you clearly lay out the groundwork of your argument and still end up dealing with people who didn't even understand that much of the article.
But let's be something resembling charitable and talk about why they fixed on that particular notion to the point of ignoring what was right in front of their faces.
I think people just have this notion beaten into them that there is One Right Answer, and that analysis is seeking to find One Right Answer, and that if you're asserting that you've found an answer, you are 100% confident in that answer to the exclusion of all else. I see it sometimes when I tutor science, math, or engineering students. When confronted with liberal arts questions these people are absolutely paralyzed because the kind of divergent thinking that analysis requires has been beaten out of them. Which... upon reflection is kind of worrying when it comes to engineers and scientists, since I would have assumed that divergent thinking was a boon in those fields... but there it is.
And to some extent, these students, for all the trouble they give English professors, aren't totally off base. Look, modern criticism begins with the ever-more-erroneously-named New Critics saying, A. meaning is going to come from the text rather than from some author's biography or history, B. we can find specific elements and structures within a text that tell us their meaning, and C. each text has a Theme--not just a subject like "creation" but a complex statement like "the flawed nature of creation at the hands of fundamentally flawed gods"--that speaks to the universal human condition. Formalism (the name for the New Critics that people came up with when they realized "New Critics" wasn't going to age well as a term) became popular in part because it was a procedural criticism that could be easily taught to students. Not a lot of leeway there, right?
Well... on the surface, sure. But the fact of the matter is that the Formalists bent their own rules all the time. Like, for a Formalist the Ending Is The Conceit (as FILM CRIT HULK, who has extremely strong Formalist and Semiotic preoccupations in his own analysis, is fond of saying). Typically, the beginning is granted a similar vaunted status. Those elements are then used to construct a theme, and you've got to START at the BEGINNING and END with the CONCLUSION, or BURN IN THEORIST HELL FOREVER (while Reddit glares at you &c. &.c).
...Except that sometimes you have a starting point or ending point that doesn't quite fit the theme. So what do the New Critics do? Well, they redefine "beginning" to be "real beginning." Oh, Herman Melville is going on about a sexy black sailor man for a few pages here at the start of his short story? Weeell that's not the REAL beginning. We'll just skip ahead to where the real main character shows up. (This is a real example, by the way--read "Billy Budd," then read early 20th century criticism of the text. A really remarkable number of authors jumps straight over that swarthy black dude to the "real" beginning, most without even mentioning it, despite how many sentences Melville spends drooling over him.) Can't find a way to make all that Weird Puzzle Shit fit your analysis? Eh, skip to the part where the Trolls get introduced, that's the REAL beginning.
So, it's always possible to look at a New Critical analysis and say "AHA! You've arbitrarily constrained your analysis to these particular elements and excluded others! Your analysis is fundamentally flawed!"
Which all seems very clever until you realize that Criticism moved on from that particular statement 100 years ago. People making this charge are literally a century out of step with the rest of critical theory.
Look, the fact of the matter is that any theory, just like any text, has gaps. And just as the space in a text is filled by what we bring to the text in the process of umwelt, in the gaps of a critical analysis there exist the possibilities for alternate interpretations. Every methodology has its benefits and failings and what methodology you choose has more to do with your particular concerns and interests than to the perfection of that heuristic. I could have chosen to take a more queer theoretical approach in the article I linked to above about lesbianism in My Little Pony, but I decided that if my purpose was to give a meta analysis of how criticism works, it was actually more useful to talk about Reader Response theory. I probably left some stuff out with that approach, but my point is that I consciously made that choice. I didn't just stupidly forget stuff, or arrogantly think I had the one and only answer, I accepted the imperfect nature of criticism in order to move forward and say something people might find useful, instructive, and entertaining.
Hell, once a text reaches over 7000 pages in length, it would astonish me if you could fit every single thing that happens into just one theme, or reading, or queer theoretical analysis, or whatever. If you have an ensemble cast, there's probably going to be an overarching theme but there will also be individual thematic arcs for particular characters that reflect and interact with the other themes but remain distinct. And certain elements of the text may be best served by different critical approaches, and it can be useful to break down those different elements into their own little notional space (like I did with Avatar: The Last Airbender, for example, or, again, My Little Pony).
I think this century-out-of-date, snarky response of "Well, this could just have easily been an essay about x y or z textual element" shows a real weakness of the imagination. It shows an unwillingness to take and expand upon the blank spaces in a theory--blank spaces that are practically begging for attention if we believe what Reader Response theory has to say about our process of textual closure (see, again, the Umwelt and Ambiguous Kiss articles, which both discuss this idea in some detail). Instead, the sub-critic is content to assert only that there are blank spaces without providing a functional use for them.
While we're on this subject, I'm willing to bet that if you took the other mythological references in Homestuck, if we can work with that example a bit longer, you wouldn't get the same kind of compelling results as I got. Feel free to try to prove me wrong, of course, but that's what I suspect--an argument that is based around comparing Homestuck's narrative to Greek myth conventions, as one person on Reddit suggested to me, is just not going to be as complete or compelling as a comparison to Gnosticism.
That's the flipside of the 100% thing, which is probably just as conceptually important and just as infuriating to deal with. It's not all or nothing--analysis is judged not by whether it is comprehensive but by how comprehensive it is, and how compelling the end result is. This demand that everything be all or nothing, 100% or 0%, just takes the whole sliding scale and reduces it down to a big, dumb, binary coin toss. "True" and "False" are actually idiotic values to apply to literary theory. That's not what it's trying to do, it's not going to give you interesting results, it's not going to increase your enjoyment or understanding of a text, and it sure as fuck isn't going to make you a better writer.
You see this flip side emerge in the opposite response to criticism: "My reading is just as valid as yours, because it's all subjective!" Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick I hate this meme. I'm not a huge fan of relativism in any form, and I find it particularly frustrating in areas of criticism, because it's so hard to teach nuance to a neophyte. I mean, sorry if this is coming off as arrogant, but there's a really annoying overconfidence to statements of moral relativism that gets in the way of learning, and I can't help but feel that this overconfidence should have its metaphorical kneecaps broken before the student runs too far down this particular track.
The lack of a 100% comprehensive form of criticism does not suggest the value of 0% comprehensive forms of criticism. Even if my analysis isn't perfect, that doesn't make your analysis that references the text twice and then just references a bunch of your own theories for the rest of the article totally valid too.
Umberto Eco talks about this a bit in some of his essays on his own novels, actually. I bring him up specifically because he's a semiotician and in the general school of reader response theory, but he's also a novelist so he gets to experience analysis from both sides of the aisle, as it were. One thing that he often points out to aspiring critics of his work is that it's not enough even to find a series of seemingly significant references within a work. Those references have to combine together to provide a new, interesting perspective on the text. They have to be enlightening in a way that still relates to the work without sort of wandering off into the underbrush and getting lost in tangential questions.
So, if we're going to kind of codify this, let's say you need to have a fairly high percentage of relevancy to a text; one that doesn't achieve 100% completion, perhaps, but one that still encompasses as much of a text as possible. It's much, MUCH more important for you to address the overall structure of a text than to be able to expound at length about one little detail on page 4578, and it's much more important that the end result provide something new and substantial to the text. (This is related to another kind of 100%ism: the obsession with plot holes and little fiddly details and so on. I won't dig into that here because Film Crit Hulk has conveniently already written an excellent analysis of why plot hole nit picking is just a straight up shitty mode of criticism that almost never leads anywhere productive.)
I almost want to compare this to the problem of certainty in science, where you're probably never going to be 100% certain that a theory is correct. People take that, and even the word "theory," to mean that Science is just, like, another way of looking at things, man, and their pet heuristic is just as valid. The problem with that is the way it takes the whole range of probabilities and collapses them into two options: CERTAIN and NOT CERTAIN. For all the grandstanding these people do about the complexity of the world and the human mind, this is a really simplistic attitude.
It's not quite the same for Criticism, of course. Science and Criticism have different aims. And yeah, yeah, "separate magisteria" is a bullshit concept and bla bla bla, but hear me out: Criticism isn't attempting to make reproducible statements about the world. You can't look at a book and say "If I rewrite this book, I can be x percent certain that it will have the same meaning." And while we can certainly broadly analyze how humans perceive sensory input, and how they process language and visual information, we can't say with absolute certainty what text emerges when the prime text and the reader's background collide.
But the two share that fundamental misunderstanding that everything should always be 100% certain, all the time, and if it's not then something of 0% certainty is just as valid as something of 99% certainty. It's absolutism and relativism as a perfect symbiotic pair of horrible, shitty failures of thought.
With all that in mind, it seems to me that the aim of criticism is not to find absolute interpretations but to facilitate dialogue while still allowing for personally resonant interactions with a text. So, you want to have ENOUGH accuracy so that you can talk with other people competently--you don't want to have a conversation where one person is barely even drawing from the main text at all or are picking and choosing isolated little elements and ignoring the whole, because that makes for a shitty, frustrating conversation--but you don't want TOO MUCH accuracy because A. it's going to be either totally garbled or totally contrived and B. that's just kind of an unreasonably arrogant stance to take. I mean, I don't think it's unreasonable to note, as I frequently do, the gaps and limitations of my own particular critical approach, while still taking some firm stands on certain general behaviors and notable misreadings.
And that's the spirit these articles are usually written in. I do want to facilitate thought on how fiction works, and I think, if the guest articles that I'm going to be posting in the next few weeks are any indication, I'm at least creating that kind of space where such thought can take place. (Spoiler alert: these articles are great. I'm so excited.) And yeah, some stuff I am pretty damn certain about. Like, no one is going to persuade me that My Little Pony isn't a very feminist show, that is in turn very important to the aims of feminism culturally. Not without making a very strong case, at least. But if someone uses a critical mode that I haven't, and comes up with some diverging conclusions, that doesn't mean I have to accept that I was wrong and they are right, it just means that we're using different methods and getting different results, and adding that information together will generate a more generally complete and nuanced understanding of the text.
That's the game I'm playing, and I welcome you to play along.
Join me next time when I continue this whole ascending numbers theme with an article on 101 Dalmatians. Except not really, because even I think that would be pushing the gag a bit too far. Oh, and do me a favor and give Equius a towel, the dude is going to ruin the carpet at this rate. You can follow me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeper or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. As always, you can e-mail me at KeeperofManyNames@gmail.com. If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.