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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.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

1: Storm

What is criticism good for at the end of 2020? At most, letting us pretend we can drown out the noise the coming storm.

Part 1 of 2

content warning: systematic doomerism.

Have you heard, have you heard? "Transgender Studies" is over! Or maybe not? Maybe it's just begun, flourishing in The Academy™ with many new adjunct positions available! Or maybe it's not here yet at all! It's such an exciting time, I gathered from reading an article in Transgender Studies Quarterly, to be in this field that may or may not exist and is presently furiously debating its own reality. 

And if I find this debate isolated from my own lived experience, bizarrely disconnected from the reality of transsexual political economy in 2020, if I find it hard to concentrate on the article I'm reading about it, well, surely that exposes the lack of intellectual rigor that kept me from succeeding in the meritocracy of academia.

In fairness the article, "Before Trans Studies", (which maybe out of some guilty self awareness is currently available online), was recommended to me cause it deconstructs this frustrating debate's premise. How can we talk about trans knowledge in the academy when the vast majority of trans people creating knowledge can't publish and have no institutional access, and our history so easily gets buried? When so many of us struggle under the grinding wheel of capital a scholastic debate prompted by the kind of trans person privileged enough, and ideologically transmisogynist enough, to be published in the failing New York Times, feels a little like... Like... Ah I don't know some sort of private party in the middle of a crisis, like...

Well whatever I can't think of a good metaphor right now.

It's not just academia that feels this way to me though. It's criticism in general and in fact a lot of my own work. I keep looking back at old writing recently (adding all those links to the ends of articles is hard work) and I have to say a lot of stuff makes me feel kind of, like, alienated from myself?

It's not just that the work is immature, though it often is. It's also the general sense of... having something to prove. Like, if it WAS some sort of crisis party, I'd be the critic looking at the weirdly monochromatic wall and explaining fervently that it's a big symbolic leap forward for chromatic representation. 

God damn I was trying so hard to make fandom squabbles and consecrations of mainstream media products into essential revolutionary work.

I've got good company at the party, mind. Lots of games and comics theory operates like this across the popular/academic range, and certainly tons of pop culture crit in general takes on this kinda posture. I mean, for goodness sake the big canonical text of english language comics theory is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics and that comic spends most of its page volume simply arguing that comics are worth talking about at all. 

I get it, I do! I was in The Academy™ and I felt profoundly alienated there, among people who could afford to go to biennial global art shows in Vienna and found my choice of focus mostly just like, bewildering I guess? There's a real element of class alienation and alienation from my cishet and allistic peers that I struggled with and I think the whole [gestures to the title of my damn blog] thing came from feeling that alienation acutely and wanting to prove that, no, I really AM worthy.

And when you're in that mindset all the time I think it becomes hard to admit that... uh... how to put this delicately...

Maybe the things you like AREN'T that worthy?

There's this argument I've been hearing for a long time and PROBABLY used myself more than once that sure, x thing is popular culture but you know what else was popular entertainment in its day? The works of William Shakespeare. Checkmate, elitists! This feels really insightful, which is why it spoke to me, and there's some merit to it, that something being popular doesn't preclude that thing from being great. But if you think about it, it's actually kind of a weird assertion. Like, the implicit logic seems to be that the popular culture of today will just... inevitably become the canon of tomorrow, and we don't need to make any argument for its canonicity NOW, we just have to project that future onto our present. It's not so much an argument as a way of sidestepping one, and in fact anyone who challenges the sidestep can be treated as the only thing standing in the way of today's pop becoming an increasingly near "tomorrow's" high school curriculum.

I see it applied often to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and I think its adoption in that fandom has led to some pretty bizarre arguments. Before realizing that actually I kind of hate superheroes and am sick of writing about them, I wrote a lot about the MCU. I can't look back at most of those articles without cringing, not because of their content (I... honestly haven't reread them I have no idea if they hold up) but because I placed a lot of weight on this franchise having something to say. But... Agents of SHIELD, Iron Man 3, Thor Ragnarok... how have my favorite narrative and thematic and worldbuilding elements of those stories held up? They've all been retconned, or reversed, or gradually forgotten as it became a plot impairment, or been massacred by a bowdlerized version of Thanos.

Taking the Shakespeare argument seriously means you have to convince yourself that Hamlet 2: Age of Fortinbras-

ok actually I can't figure out how to finish that sentence because every time I reread it I hit "Hamlet 2: Age of Fortinbras" and my brain just shuts down, but it's WAY too good to cut. Let's try again.

I think the Shakespeare argument sort of boxes you into doing increasingly frantic handwaving of the fact that if this product is canonized in the future it'll be despite literally everything that Disney is doing! All the evidence suggests that for Disney these are movie length commercials for further movie length commercials, and at a certain point pretending that they're something else because cultural history will inevitably vindicate you and Ant Man will have the same lasting power as Hamlet just feels like you're complicit in Disney treating you like a mark.

But we can reconvene in a half millennia and see whether or not I'm right about all this. I know where I'm placing my Moneros (Moneros are the only currency of worth in 3030).

The MCU is just one representative of a wider trend encompassing basically every god damn fandom on earth. Star Wars, Magic the Gathering, the MCU, the Democratic Party, basically every property that I've defended has repaid its audience by saying in no uncertain terms that no, actually, it is slop, and you hogs WILL accept that, or better yet will convince yourselves that actually it's... well, progressive, a lot of the time, actually. Not only is it artistically good, it's POLITICALLY good. You've noticed that too right? The hyperpoliticization of art, the rise of Your Fave Is Problematic and How This Background Homo Is Great For Representation, paired with its chud mirror, Trigger The Libs Lit, absurd "intellectual darkweb" defenses of schlock that ostensibly upholds Judeo-Christian Values against the tide of degeneracy, but like in a cool, edgy way. At the very moment that capitalist art has completely embraced its status as garbage produced by a fungible group of faceless deskilled workers, its purported "message" and "stance" is of hysterical importance.

It feels like another manifestation of insecurity--in this case the insecurity of realizing just how impotent critics and theorists are. Not even just impotent culturally but increasingly pointless to the modern media consuming public!

Take the critical genre of the review, for example. We live in a world where every media property is basically at our fingertips. This is the age of the demo, and we can watch, play, hear &c just about anything, sample it, see if we want to commit. And even if we can't, we have a whole social media sphere full of posts telling us what to think about a thing. What's the point of review scores in that context? Oh they're an ideological battleground to be sure, but if anything that just demonstrates their impotence: only valuable as part of an aggregate score. Individual opinions are a hindrance to that production of consensus for or against a product, which is why giving Cyberpunk 77 a middling score gets you a howling army of dipshits brigading you in protest. Reviews exist to either reassure you that your existing opinions are correct, or they simply do not exist at all. And certainly for the corporate ideas landlords, the individual reviewer matters only in who you're putting on a phone call with Gal Godot or giving an Exclusive Preview Card to--it just matters who you make the check labeled "access" out to.

One response to this might be that reviews serve to introduce people to unfamiliar art. I have the data though. What people predominantly click on is reviews that already confirm their beliefs about things they are already fans of, and even those fans are increasingly difficult to reach in the context of social media's dissolution of communities and increasingly algorithm-driven dashboards. The market has spoken, and it said: yeah, Disney, Netflix, &c are right, this is basically what we want!

An annoying way this manifests is a kind of reflexive distancing by the critic from their own opinions. Reviews are about the dance of building and adhering to consensus right? So, a film doesn't "fail to connect with me," it instead "will fail to connect to an audience", because "viewers will find it confusing". Just as other reporters are Polity Whisperers, never stating their actual opinions but laundering them through the "white working class" or the "silent majority" or the "suburban moderate voter" or the "Workington Man" or the "ba'athist coal miner", so too does the critic of the century-old "New Critical" tradition dissolve into fucking aerosols, a ghostly Blavatsky channeling the artistic spirit of the age, or a passive voiced positivist simply explaining the objective mechanics of the work of art.

This laundering of the critic's opinion through the imagined audience's proclaimed beliefs really gets on my tits! Say what you think, cowards!

Even the people who ostensibly do speak their minds tend to do this. Have you noticed that the "sins" types do this a lot? Hell it's a tradition going all the way back to things like Red Letter Media. These days for the most part I find negative discursive communities pretty unfulfilling. Shit I'm already coming down from the energy of my anger and shifting into the inevitable morose blue gloom. I don't know how you sustain the energy to be doing "How The Phantom Menace Raped My Childhood" takes 20 years on, honestly. Unless the critics doing that are full of shit and it's all just a dumb act.

I was going to talk here too about "Ending Explained" people but whatever. It's as boring and bad as it is successful and popular. It's a cheap trick, a sleight of hand, but it's not that different from any given New York Times opinion columnist doing legerdemain with a bunch of numbers to the astonishment of a bunch of gormless centrists who care more about seeming intelligent than having some sort of moral center to their world. There will always be a market for making people feel like they're the platinum card holder for knowledge.

That's not my Prestige, though. My sleight of hand was through defenses, or hagiographies even. Remember that time I wrote a big defense of Female Ghostbusters? God damn. Revisiting that article's a big part of why I'm writing this now, actually, reading over that through slitted fingers, mouth grimly set. It's not that my central argument--that the film intriguingly works with the films of the franchise to give them new meaning, and had an intriguing engagement with history--is wrong. It's just that... how to put this... the film is not, good? It's not a good movie! It's not even the kind of movie writing that I like, just full of the awful contemporary strategy of putting a bunch of SNL assholes in a room together and having them improvise a bunch of insufferable "uh, well THAT just happened" dialogue. Did you know the movie originally had a ton of incredibly inventive ghost designs all of which were axed? Bogleech called this "vapidly conservative" design and you know what he's fucking right.

Defending the few interesting bits that got through this production process was maybe worthwhile, in some sense, purely on the merits of having an interesting conversation about art. The film at its best is about a villain obsessed with resurrecting an imagined ideal past, with the heroes struggling ultimately to free the symbol of the franchise itself, this "something that could never hurt us", for their own use. But, to paper over all the things that don't work in the film, its garbage treatment of its sole black character, its sloppy writing and flat jokes and profoundly unimaginative production... what did that do for me or for the article? It positioned the article as a fierce strike in the culture war against chuds! ...and both dated the article horribly, and caused me to sell out my own genuine experience of disappointment with the film in the name of being on the Right Side. I felt so sure I had to do it, that I was taking a critical (hah) stand in the face of a reactionary turn. But what kind of hill was that to die on?

Well... an easier one than the hill I'd rather die on, one defending queer art. At least on the hill of hollywood schlock and bare minimum focus tested "representation", I'm surrounded by apparent allies. Defending the kind of fierce, difficult, messy art that really speaks to me, or taking an active role in saying that a piece of corporate art is good despite itself and only through my/our labor is likely to be a cold and lonely hill to die on. It is warm in the ivory tower and there is a storm outside and there is comfort in being able to debate what ultimately amount to points of scholasticism loud enough to drown out the wind and thunder. The consensus of criticism, even all the various forms of "rebellious" criticism, is that these things really do, really must, matter, despite all the mounting evidence that the storm broils regardless.

The consensus is being built every day, and the things I care about and want to create. and the people I care about and want to create with, are outside of its walls.

This Has Been


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