An Essay on Criticism

The notion of the legitimacy of the critic has become a subject that garners vitriol and disdain among members of the anime community in a way that appears rather unique across the artistic landscape. For one, the antagonism towards even the necessity of criticism in anime and manga is of a much stronger and pervasive breed than what we might see in art, literature, film, or classical music. Not many contest the weight or influence of Roger Ebert’s writing, even if one may disagree with its final conclusions, or vehemently disregard the content of literary publications like The Paris Review. In contrast, the split of opinion and broader irreverence for some of the largest names among reviewers in animanga despite their growing social presence is not dissimilar from the, albeit rightful, ignominy of Piero Scarufi or Dan Schneider.

Yet, I am not suggesting that this disparaging is unjustified or that many of these critics do not enjoy great popularity, but critical functions at their best, wherever they arise, often serve to enrich and provide thoughtful discourse to those passionate about its subjects. In more recent events, however, even a critic’s ability to deliver meaningful material as opposed to just acting as supplementary entertainment has been called into question, and some of this criticism comes from and is acknowledged by those very critics. Therefore, perhaps some key questions need answers. What does the title of critic mean and what responsibilities does the critic have in the promotion of discursivity? Or perhaps an even more fundamental question should be grappled with:

Is there such a thing as a critic in the anime community, and does an apparatus for the critic to thrive exist?

The term critic is often used interchangeably with reviewer, but I believe there’s a significant distinction, in both form and authority. One must also be wary of the difference between a mere critic and the field of criticism, which is not solely to spew negativity. While a reviewer could be anyone writing a piece of questionable merit on some esoteric blog or a random corner of a major Internet hub like Reddit, the title of critic bears with it some semblance of an authoritative or professional voice, one who has either been trained or has become more experienced in the art of voicing a supposed esteemed or respected opinion whether in writing, or more recently, through video. It could be that this tacitly elitist view of the critic is what elicits such negative response, but again, I would turn to literary journals and their editors, or long time classical music reviewers at The New Yorker or The Guardian as examples of where the critic elsewhere thrives without great reproach.

It would be impossible to distill the history of criticism in a single essay, but it might be important to point out that much of early criticism was a product of artists and poets. The title of this piece is plagiarized from the English writer Alexander Pope, who contributed a poem by this name that acts as a piece of literary criticism, to inform of the literary exchanges of his time. Other famous writers and poets from Sir Philip Sidney to John Dryden to Percy Bysshe Shelley contributed both phenomenal poems to the literary canon as well as famous essays still read in English classrooms today.

This isn’t just exclusive to old English poets. The French filmmaker Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer and the Soviet legend Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time are examples of where 20th century artists entered the realm of criticism to provide insight into the nature of their art. The famed Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges published not just a collection of unforgettably profound short stories, but also a wide selection of criticism and review worthy of study.

Needless to say, this interplay between criticism and the artist is little to be seen in the anime community. Admittedly, it would be entirely unfair to expect the likes of Gigguk, Digibro, or ThatAnimeSnob, or anyone else of their kind to be involved in the production of anime and manga. The Western anime community simply has no access to the industry to that extent, given Japan’s cultural circumstances. However, this does reveal one of many fundamental drawbacks in the critical apparatus in the community, namely a very distinct lack of public criticism, positive or negative, from those who create the shows and movies we love. The most vocal acts of criticism from within the industry come from the likes of older figures like Hayao Miyazaki or Hideaki Anno, who just lament the state or impending decay of the industry. Yet, their complaints, no matter how veridical, are often tangential in interviews and  sound very anachronistic.

The reason why a relationship between criticism and art can be so crucial is that it assists in illuminating and recognizing what can make art, or anime in this case, great and profound. Alexander Pope encouraged criticism to promote thoughtful understanding with the often misquoted couplet:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring

Shelley and Sidney, both, wrote at length to defend poetry as an artform when poetry (imagine that!) was under attack. Surely, in a time where those within and outside the community have called into question the mechanical and commercialized elements of contemporary anime, its blatant degenerate nature, its presumed inherent failings compared to other “great” mediums, criticism can offer an alternative paradigm, outside of the Reddit hivemind or the mob dismissal by fans, that would produce something less elementary.

We saw a snippet of this recently, where director Mamoru Oshii enlightened audiences on his 1995 film, Ghost in the Shell, where he discussed the physicality of the titular main character Motoko Kusanagi, and how trying to frame the controversy of the 2017 rendition of the film starring Scarlett Johansson as an example of misappropriating the cast is missing some of the philosophical angles of the original film. While this was done as a means of alleviating outcries around the film and is by no means an example of extensive criticism, I think it sheds some light on where Oshii’s thoughts in the public sphere would be welcome to a discussion of the art that he has created. Yet, these examples are extremely limited and almost none of it can be found of the most popular titles in the last few years, even to titles like Shinsekai Yori or Mawaru Penguindrum, anime one might expect would galvanize a great deal of discussion and wonder at the construction of such interesting worlds and stories.

To be fair, the 20th and 21st centuries have given rise to critics who have not needed great literature strapped to their resumes. Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard represent various different schools of critical theory, yet are not known at all for any literary accomplishments. Theodor Adorno composed serial music, but is not recognized for it. Few know of Harold Bloom, one of the most outspoken and brazen literary critics today, as the author of The Flight to Lucifer, a gnostic novel and unofficial sequel to A Voyage to Arcturus. Harold Bloom despised his novel to the point of almost successfully destroying every available copy.

Surely then, does this mean that Digibro, or Gigguk, or GRArkada, or ThatAnimeSnob, or Bobduh or whoever else are also critics? One can peruse their material and see there are analytical pieces, reviews, in depth discussions, abstract writings on the industry, the nature of storytelling, and how to approach anime as a medium and artform. These all fall into the parameters of what a critic does.

But does that make them critics? Not necessarily, and some of the above names might even agree.

Michael Foucault’s essay What Is an Author? is relevant here, not because we are to discuss the authorship of the works of any of the above critics, but rather to address their place in the public sphere of the animanga community. I would like to emphasize that I do not mean to misrepresent or downplay the popularity, acclaim, or interest that the above figures have generated, but rather to contextualize them within the confines of the community, to illuminate why perhaps the community at this moment in time resists the notion of what I see as a major responsibility of a critic.

Foucault speaks of a special sort of individual in his so-called “author-function,” that he deems, rather emphatically, “founders of discursivity.” He describes that they:

made possible not only a certain number of analogies, but also (and equally important) a certain number of differences. They have created a possibility for something other than their discourse, yet something belonging to what they founded. To say that Freud founded psychoanalysis does not (simply) mean that we find the concept of the libido or the technique of dream analysis in the works of Karl Abraham or Melanie Klein; it means that Freud made possible a certain number of divergences – with respect to his own texts, concepts, and hypotheses – that all arise from the psychoanalytical discourse itself.

This is something sorely missing from the anime community, that there is no mechanism where a critic imparts something new that moves beyond its own discourse but can still be irrevocably called the critic’s own.

Notably, Foucault references Freud, who serves as a great example of where a critic can offer precisely such a possibility in the dissemination of knowledge. Indeed a psychoanalyst, Freud was also famous for providing one of the last great readings of Hamlet, whereby using his theories, determined Hamlet’s vengeful motivations in Shakespeare’s famous play as being driven by a sexual obsession with his mother. While certainly one of the less believable readings, its place in the history of Hamlet scholarship is still noted to this day.

Anime and manga are by no means a stranger to great and interpretative works, but where is the mechanism through which critical minds can impart upon us the means through which to see shows in a new light? There are perhaps hundreds of reviews of the infamous illusory Ergo Proxy, yet who among the critics have offered an enlightening reading or brave interpretation that stands out among the rest? Digibro himself stated to have no interest in what the show has to say, and many have simply written it off as pretentious. Ikuhara’s anime are known for their rich symbolism, but is there a “reading” of Mawaru Penguindrum or Revolutionary Girl Utena that people point to that dominates the public consciousness? If so, I am willing to see it.

There indeed are times where a single piece of criticism has found its place in the abundant milieu of discourse and becomes a standard bearer for the show; that is not in question. Many who have watched Texhnolyze, for instance, would be well acquainted with this piece on its art and architecture. No doubt there are also Youtubers who, if more paid attention to them, would inform discourse in ways previously not commonly attempted. The Youtuber Pause and Select, along with his four part series on the nature of disaster and apocalypse in various series is a prime example. However, these serve as rare exceptions.

Instead, much criticism in anime seems less interested in a proactive stance to formulate theory and understanding that fuels the engine of discourse, but rather reactive, kowtowing to the interpretative sensibilities of the public in a way that recycles ideas back and forth. Digibro’s rant on the lack of great Youtubers ironically demonstrates this precise example, as the very question of the legitimacy of anime Youtubers and reviewers has been in the public consciousness for years, and his voice merely lends itself to a larger echo chamber with no discernible input. Certainly, this example is not exactly related to anime, but it does highlight a significant trend, one where the critic has been dislodged from his or her responsibility to help guide discourse and is instead relegated to an entertainment mechanism that merely regurgitates a mass produced message of the culture industry that then is immediately welcomed by the community, for the very reason that it is the docile community itself that has already sanctioned its production!

A similar example can be found in Gigguk’s discussion on the Golden Age of Anime, where any critical dialogue of how one might evaluate a “Golden Age,” which has agreed upon definitions and parameters in Greco-Roman history, film, and even the comic book industry, is subjected to a ubiquitous “it all depends on you” methodology that undermines its own validity. Or look at Digibro’s discussion on the subversion of shounen tropes, a topic where his rhetoric and argumentation is as old and redundant as the tropes that he himself identifies. One can also witness the numerous banal attempts at trying to demystify what a “deconstruction” is, all repeating some previously written and accepted post on the community oriented TV Tropes and adding nothing more than a stamp of additional approval on definitions that only misconstrue an already accepted school of literary thought completely incompatible with its watered down and incomprehensible counterpart.

A particular example I think is relevant to this case is the ANN writer Bobduh’s essay Why Critics Are Always Wrong and the complementary piece Your Taste Is Bad And So Are You. On the whole, I have found Bobduh to be a decently sensible writer, albeit publishing so much content these days that the general quality of some of his writings is not up to par with his better essays, but I find the arguments he has made in these two pieces to be reductive, ironic, considering one of them attempts to demonstrate the highly complex and personalized aesthetics that corresponds to each individual (which disregards that artists write precisely to universalize the human experience). Bobduh is certainly correct in identifying no critic may claim an absolute truth, but he too easily dismisses knowledge and experience in favor of embracing the subjectivity of the viewer as the final arbiter of judgment. Here, again, is an example where someone who one might see as a critic abdicates from a responsibility of professional authority (note that I am not saying intellectual) to placate the fear that perhaps a critic holds a moral, aesthetic, or intellectual superiority over the average reader.

If that is truly the case, the famous adage “everybody’s a critic” should not apply to this community. In this community, there are no critics.

And this leads me to the conclusion that it is not the sole fault, necessarily, of the critic, but the very intrinsic nature and state of dialogue between the perceived critic and the perceived audience in the community. In many ways, I would imagine some Youtubers or writers see themselves as a member of the audience, and that should not be demonized. However, the community wide response, especially among some of these very reviewers or critics, to Digibro’s accusations, is evidence enough that there is belief that the role of the critic, or the reviewer, or the Youtuber is valuable enough to defend and justify. But if that is to be the case, the critic must be set apart from the community, and he or she cannot be identified merely as one who speaks loudest into his or her microphone.

The critic cannot merely be a mouthpiece from which similar opinions may be spoken, but must strive to impart a convergent and divergent discourse that can be inexplicably traced back to him or her.

In this action is not the interest of the critic, so naively feared as an amorphous representation of elitism, but rather the interest of meaning and knowledge.

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