Reductions: The Consumer and the Critic

I’m going to go ahead and post some more abstract notes, developing some ideas I’ve had floating around for a while. This is related to this post and this post, where you’ll find what I was then calling the Aspect Aesthetic (I think I need a better name).

This is a follow-up on those posts, doing the following three things:

  • elaborating on those basic points
  • expanding the argument to include the Critic
  • reducing some of my previous wordiness

Still, the big idea is the same: that these three roles are fundamental, especially when talking about aesthetics… and they can be applied to many areas of life where investment and appreciation meet reason, loyalty, identity, and faith.

This depends on a lot of premises that haven’t been proven, obviously… like, the idea that culture can be used as a guiding frame of reference for understanding humans and their relationship to the world, and that the more broadly you apply this frame, the more it seems to cover. You’ve started with culture and art and the creative instinct, and eventually, by talking about subjectivity and human nature and idealism, and the universe as a sensory phenomenon, you find yourself stomping clumsily through ethics and politics, and encroaching even upon history and physics and metaphysics.

Not that I necessarily mind that… I’m no analytic academic… but for now, we just have to start with the seed of the idea: the Consumer and the Critic. The Creator is a bigger construct, I think, and that will have to wait for a different day.

I. THE CONSUMER (Interiority)

The consumer lives in the work.

All works create an interior world, guided by certain patterns and assumptions, operating by certain rules, constrained in particular ways.

The world of the work is built according to the blueprints of its Creator, but it’s not limited thereby. There’s just as much input from history, context, collective memory, the subconscious, and the cultural preoccupations, as there is from the Creator herself, a small person with a limited purview and access to an disinterested creative force (the muse, the reservoir, etc… wait for the Creator entry for more on that).

The Consumer inhabits this world. They invest in it, accept its specifications, and make it real by acting as its observer.

The Consumer’s relationship to the work is I-Thou, as opposed to the Critic’s I-It.

The quintessential consumer is the Fan. If you’re not a Fan, your status as Consumer is precarious. The Fan is the person who not only chooses the work, but who also chooses to advocate for it… a form of Patriotism for the work’s conceptual territory.

The Fan has a shadow (the Jungian, or an archetypal video game Doppelganger boss, depending on your frame of reference). This shadow is the Anti-Fan, a genuinely weird creature — a Consumer who rejects the work outright — whose engagement takes the form of kneejerk denial. Anti-fans are the people who say, without any explicit reason, “This just isn’t my thing” or “I don’t really think I get it.”

The true Fan defines the work from the inside. They are a necessary part of the work coming into fulfillment. Lots of works have no Fans, which leaves them stuck in a sort of limbo, having no relationship to the world except through the anemic will and intention of their Creator.

Fandom is a sort of religious experience, and all religions are Fandoms. Christians are the most obvious example of this, being Fans of God’s word, His creations, and Jesus, His central character/principle/motif.

A crucial part of the Consumer role: it’s where freedom manifests.

The Critic may be free to focus on certain works and ignore others, but they’re always bound by the obligations of rationality. They make claims about works, and these claims are supported or unsupported. Criticism is a parasite that feeds on justification. Consumers are immune to this infection.

The freedom of the Consumer is not merely the negative freedom of not-being-forced… it’s the positive freedom of browsing and investing, the radical self-actualization of choosing something that defines you. Being a Consumer means you have this capacity… being a Fan means actually using it.

Fandom is the full exercise of freedom: sovereignty, choice, actualization.

II. THE CRITIC (Exteriority)

Criticism is exile.

It’s hard to imagine why anyone would choose to be a Critic, when there’s so much content around to get swept up in. Because Criticism is, by nature, a self-exile from the subject (i.e. putting your beloved pet, the dog named Culture, on the dissection table of discourse).

Criticism is I-It, contra the intimate, fully-involved Fandom relationship, which is I-Thou.

It may be the access. The Critic DOES have access to certain dimensions that the Consumer can’t get to.

For instance, being a Consumer means the loss of the economic dimension… and for the Fan, there is no economic dimension at all. In a way that’s denied to the Fan, the Critic can step outside the work and understand it in terms of precedent, context, relative quality, the field. “The Market,” as it were.

But the Fan could certainly argue that the Critic is denied a certain dimension, as well, and it may be the most important dimension of the work: the heart, the interior, the absolute investment that makes the work come alive.

The Critic has to acknowledge the possibility of the Consumer, but they can’t fully Consume. They have to appreciate the Fan, but they are not Fans. Anyone who claims to be a Fan and a Critic at the same time is misunderstanding one of those two roles.

If they’re truly a Fan, their criticism isn’t true criticism — it’s merely an intellectual engagement, broadening the scope of the work by doing internal labor. If they’re doing the difficult work of criticism — sorting out the pros from the cons, observing technical weaknesses, categorizing the work, questioning its motives and its internal coherence — they’re not really being a Fan. They’re being a Critic.

Perhaps they’re being a Critic who has eaten a Fan. This is relatively common, and frankly, Fans make the best food (other Critics are bitter and chafe the palate). So Fans make the best food, and eating Fans makes the best Critics.

The Critic eats Fans like Kirby eats his enemies. By eating the Fan, the Critic gains the short-term, provisional ability to ignore the work’s weaknesses and assimilate with it. Employed correctly, this can make the Critic’s criticism far more robust, and thus more persuasive. Criticism written from this perspective — from the post-prandial daze of simulated fandom — I would call “Criticism in the sympathetic mode.”

Still, this is an asymmetrical relationship. The Critic can temporarily effect Fandom because the Critic is outside the work, and has more freedom to operate in various modes in relation to it. The Fan can’t become a Critic in the same way, because the Fan is a creature of the interior. The Fan can’t survive outside the work, and they can’t see the work as a whole, which is required for any meaningful criticism.

One of the key postures that challenges the Critic-Consumer dichotomy is Ironic Fandom. This is a popular mode in postmodern discourse, and a key part of the Hipster project of illegibility.

The Ironic Fan seems to blur the line between Fan and Critic, but inevitably, the rule still holds: a Critic can act as a Fan, and not vice versa. The Ironic Fan is actually a Critic simulating a Fan, but leaving the signposts of simulation out to see. They are highly conscious of context: history, genre, and conventions. Their temporary Fandom consists in recognizing all the conventions and tropes and standard templates, and willingly inflating the value of these conventions in order to distort the appraisal of the work. Their Fandom is not sincere… it’s a game of superiority and obfuscation.

The Critic has other crucial roles in cultural production. These are related to those functions and dimensions that are the unique purview of the critical perspective: context, history, technical authority, status, independence, objectivity. These may be true characteristics, or they may be pretensions… in any case, they are crucial for the work of the Critic.

One role of the critic is Gatekeeper.

One role of the critic is Historian.

One role of the critic is Mentor.

The critic has many faces… almost as many as the Creator, and certainly more than the Consumer.


Originally published at benefitofthedoubt.miksimum.com on June 21, 2017.