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2014’s Critic of the Year!

The Internet seems to have brought into being a new type of critic: The Millennial Literalist. A product of the 21st-century’s asphyxiating instantaneous reaction culture, the ML’s motto is Read then Rant. They’ve been trained to see immediacy as an unquestioned value. (Think about how anxious we get — even pissed off — when someone doesn’t reply to our text within ten minutes, especially since we always reply to them in like under a minute!) Why reread, reflect upon, and reconsider our reactions to a work of art, all of which take precious time and may lead to mixed-up feelings and queasy uncertainty, when we can trust — and immediately globally disseminate — our first instincts? “The now” of unfiltered passion always indicates authenticity, and that’s what the world needs more of, right?

Unsurprisingly, immediacy generates a number of casualties. When MLs go after an online comic, for example, they trample over the hard to describe, not always obvious qualities that make it art in order to reduce it to an easy-to-attack message. MLs often interact with a comic as if it’s an expository prose essay expressed in a neutral, legalistic tone. Since it’s hard to pontificate in the presence of ambiguity, the ML ignores complexity, irony, playfulness, narrative perspective, drawing style, tone, etc., flattening art into ‘mere rhetoric.’ If not quite art’s enemy, the ML is, at best, its fair-weather friend. If a comic expresses their opinions in the correct way — the way they want and need it to — they’ll hype it on Twitter. But if not, watch out, artists! (If you’re a non-Millennial, don’t worry. This practice really isn’t the province of any ‘demographic.’ In this new century, with computers always in our back pockets, anyone can be an instant literalist.)

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In comics criticism, 2014 was certainly the Millennial Literalist’s year. Witness the over-heated (yet half-baked) reactions to Matthew Thurber’s “Letter to a Young Cartoonist,” James Sturm’s “The Sponsor,” Lizz Hickey’s comic on crowd funding, and two  pieces by cartoonist Mike Dawson. Thurber’s essay was taken incredibly literally by many tone-deaf readers. How dare he offer advice they didn’t agree with! The nerve! (When did the young folk turn into finger-wagging Gladys Kravitzes!?) Ironically, those who accused Thurber of condescension responded to him in a pretty condescending tone themselves (funny how often that happens), and they willfully ignored possible meanings hovering over his careful and stylized language. I didn’t agree with many of his suggestions, yet loved the piece. It was witty, funny, thoughtful, and entertaining. If I only liked art that aligned perfectly with my lofty, erudite ideals, I wouldn’t like anything.

When MLs reacted to Sturm’s comic, they argued that there was only one right response: theirs! (See my fourteen responses to their responses.) Many instinctively latched on to that chestnut favored by the unimaginative and hated by literature teachers everywhere: a main character must speak for the author! (This move is an ML “best practice” because it makes authors easy to attack.) MLs were unwilling to go with Hickey, to identify with her frustrations, to look at the playfully erratic way she drew herself, to think about her verbal and visual TONE, etc. With unintended ML irony, they ranted against her for ranting! Even a few who sympathized nevertheless insisted she was delivering important messages that must be confronted head on. Seems to me like she was just blowing off a little steam in an amusing way. (If MLs were funny, and not so Mumford & Sons earnest, I’d cut them some slack.)

Likewise, in reactions to two of Dawson’s pieces, MLs went after the cartoonist personally, which makes a weird kind of sense: they acted as if his work exists for the sole intent of personally pissing them off! Dawson bravely deals with difficult issues (he’s extra brave given all the ready-to-pounce MLs), but rather than appreciate his honest self-doubt and self-critique, they decided to hold it against him! When they sniffed out a possible ambiguity, they quickly filled it in with the most uncharitable interpretation, nice folks that they are! MLs burst with insight about other people’s failings, yet seem blithely unaware of their own. (When I’m righteously convinced that someone else has committed a critical or artistic wrong, I ask myself if I have the same kind of problem. Usually I do.)

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MLs repeatedly tell us that they critique art because they want to expose bad ideology and make a better world, noble goals we should all embrace. And yet, I’m not sure how being jerkish online elevates the community. How many people refuse to enter the conversation because they don’t want to get an ML smack-down? (Why try to silence moderate voices!?) I wonder why MLs default to mean? Does the medium encourage disgruntled messaging? Does it have something to do with the screen’s repressive and tone-less role as an unsympathetic intermediary between us and the world? (Do we create a fiction that “the world” is literally on the receiving end of our urgent missive, giving our tweets the world-shaping potential of a neutron bomb?) If we imagined the faces of our interlocutors and the people behind the art we critique (faces sometimes lined with the humanity of self-doubt), could we so easily attack them? Does the internet make bullies of us all? I don’t know, I don’t even have internet at home. As I approach my twilight years and get my affairs in order (i.e., finally box up my comic books by publisher, genre, title, number), I think, perhaps nostalgically, that away from all glowing-beeping-multifunctioning devices, holding in our hands a mono-purpose book whose textured pages bear witness to its natural origins, that somehow, at least potentially, we can be re-humanized.

Or not. The Millennial Literalist, of course, isn’t an idiosyncratic expression of this new century’s technological fetishes and addictions. Time-travel back two millennia to 380 B.C. and we’ll find the ML’s father-figure and kindred spirit in Plato’s Socrates. In the dialogue Ion, Plato hides behind Socrates to deliver one of his many literalist attacks on art. Ion, who performs and interprets Homer, gets drilled in the unpleasant Socratic manner (he can be quite the bully and sophist). The philosopher repeatedly quotes passages from Homer that depict different skills, such as soldiering and chariot driving. He then asks Ion to say who is best able to comment on these lines: an expert, or a performer/interpreter like himself. Unable to see the man’s deviousness, Ion fails to interrogate the question’s faulty premise, giving Socrates just what he wants: agreement that the expert is really the only person we should ever listen to. The philosopher couldn’t give two shits (or even one) about Homer or poetry. Homer’s artistry — the hard-to-describe features that separate him from minor poets who covered the same subjects — is erased. Plato has zero interest in, and in fact fears Homer’s literary qualities. Art, like the devil, hides in the details. And we moralists want Satan to “get behind” us (Matthew 16:23), not reside in the comic in front of us.

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Like all absolutists, Socrates and MLs resist the multiplicity of interpretation. Cousins of the biblical literalist, they yearn for certainty, demanding a text be static, meaning only what they say it means. Because if it can legitimately communicate different, and even contrary things, then we can’t attack others for feeling differently about it. We might have to — and eventually want to — work with others to generate new understandings, the kinds of complex interpretations we could never generate on our own. And yet, I get the ML, I really do. It feels good to use criticism as an occasion to broadcast our aesthetic awareness and moral superiority (and receive the instant validation of “likes” and “favorites”). No matter what the price (to others, to ourselves, to art), the world will know this: We are Arty and Upright!

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Notes to MLs:

  1. I’m surprised you made it this far. Thanks for reading.
  2. I see a lot of myself in the above ‘psycho-portrait’ of the ML.
  3. I hope Note 2 makes me immune from criticism. I actually admire — and lack — the ML’s thick skin.
  4. The above images are panel details from Captain America #221 (Marvel Comics, 1978): script by Steve Gerber (with David Kraft), art by Sal Buscema, inks by Mike Esposito, and colors by George Roussos.
  5. New note, 1/8: I’m all for political criticism, as long as it’s done well. As I say above, we should “embrace ideological criticism.” I try to remind myself that critics who disagree with my political assessment of a work of art are likely decent people. I don’t think that political criticism requires the critic to be nasty.
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