Reply to Blog of the Fallen

This is a reply to this post at another blog; it wouldn’t fit in their comments, so…

Please note, incidentally, that in the following I’m not defending the handful of reviews that I’ve happened to post on this blog (what poor fool would be so lunatic as to do that? I’m under no delusions…), but rather a general style and purpose of reviewing (and thinking) which I happen to have attempted to enact here.


I think you have a fundamental misunderstanding. Repeatedly (both here and in your earlier post/comments), you deride the idea of quantification because what is being quantified is ‘subjective’; for instance, you say that “the mentalité behind these reviews may be a desire to organize, to quantify, to place into neat categories things that are subjective in nature”; but this is precisely the point!

These things are subjective; therefore, they can be organised, quantified, and placed into neat categories. Only in the realm of subjective experience do we have that authority, that power. The subjective is not some nebulous, intactile, air that shrouds our sight of the objective; the subjective is what is solid, is graspable, is manipulable. It is the objective that is illusory, the objective that is the impermissable shadow cast by our collective subjectivity.

That subjectivity is quantised. Or rather, subjective experience is divisible (ie can be divided by us) into the intentional and the phenomenal; that is to say, into what I think ABOUT a thing, and what I think OF a thing. It may be profitable sometimes to discuss what I think about a thing – the intellectual meanderings of my mind upon a topic – but we cannot ignore the fact that, however much I may like to think about it, I am also affected by it. It has an impact upon me; however impartial I may be in my thoughts-about, I will always have distinct and definite thoughts-of as well. This is true of all things, though my thoughts-of are often private, and because they are often unjustified or unpopular, I am averse to discussing them. They do not usually matter when discussing the topic in hand.

Art, however, is different. Art is fundamentally not an intentional, not a propositional, activity. Art is not science or philosophy, discourses on facticity to be accepted or denied, or rejected or incorporated or reformed. Art is distinguished from other occupations by its paramount emphasis upon phenomenal content. Art HITS us; the impression it leaves is its defining mark. If it leaves no impression it is merely second-rate philosophy, or unsubstantiated social science. [This is not to say that art may not provoke propositional reactions as well – and often, our propositional considerations, as of a concept particularly revolutionary or alien, may themselves have a phenomenal consequence]. And it is this dimension of experience, the phenomenal content, which is quantised. Feel free to test this: scratch yourself; now wallop yourself with a hammer. Here are two phenomenal experiences; and almost every element of them is a quantity. That scream as the hammer hits: that means “this is substantially more painful than the scratch was!”. MORE painful. Is the scream short, a brief little whelp? “The scratch was LESS painful, but it lasted LONGER”. Of course, after the pain of the hammer may be another pain – a dull, throbbing agony throughout your hand; and then you can say “this pain lasts LONGER, and is also LESS FOCUSED”. Put your hand into ice, and it may still hurt, but you may think “the pain of the hammer was familiar, whereas this pain of the cold ice is LESS COMMON in my experience.” Of course, pain is only one dimension of experience. We may imagine pains inflicted in combination with flashes of light; in which case we may say “the second pain was greater, but more acute, and more localised; but the light-perception that accompanied it was brighter, as well as longer, and further into the blue side of the spectrum”.

Just so when we are hit by a work of art. “I found this book more thrilling, but less intellectually engaging.” Two concerns to address: first, even a phenomenal reaction that is extremely complex and multifaceted may be ‘resolved’ into componant reactions in pre-specified dimensions. Even if a perfect expression would require infinite dimensions, the addition of dimensions to the description can come closer and closer to a perfect expression – and as the phenomenon is known only through the vagaries and inconstancies of memory, a close approximation is just as perfect as perfection (perfect accuracy in describing a vague position is only a turn of phrase). Secondly, you may think that these individual dimensions cannot be consolidated into an overall vector – but we know that this is false, because phenomenal experience is essentially practical in content. You may say “oh, I don’t know whether I prefered the long, dull pain or the the short, sharp pain” – but we can discover which you prefer by setting you the choice and watching how you act. To which experiences are you more greatly attracted? From which are you more powerfully averted? Consider an enjoyable meal, of your favourite foods, prepared exactly as you would like them; consider being torn apart by rampaging baboons. There is no doubt that most of us have a definite opinion as to which of these we would prefer. Now, it is certainly true that there are middle cases, where we find it hard to reckon a given particular against a given other. Fine – but this does not gainsay (as our broader case has proved)that experiences may be more or less attractive, only that attraction is a vague dimension in which the value given to things is not a point, but rather a margin of error.

You may think that this does not show that this spectrum of experience can be rendered with numbers, even if you accept that experience may be ‘more’ or ‘less’ attractive. But this is to misunderstand numbers. Numbers, you are right, fix things against a scale, but it is wrong to think that this scale is external; numbers fix things against each other. When we say “numbers”, all we mean is “trilateral comparison”. If I have two objects and rate them by size, I may say “more” and “less” large; but if I have three, then I invent numbers. Saying a pain is 1 hurt, a second pain is 3 hurt, and a third pain is 2 hurt… this simply is a quicker way of saying “the third pain is more intense than the first pain, but less intense than the second”. If (as is evident from the coherence of human activity) our rankings do conventionally approximate to transitivity (if I prefer having lunch to being eaten by a lion, and I prefer being eaten by a lion to being ripped apart by baboons, then I prefer having lunch to being ripped apart by baboons), then our rankings can by definition be expressed in a numerical scale – even though, or indeed precisely because, they are wholely subjective.

Of course, it may be said: “yes of course, they are quantifiable, but that does not mean we should quantify them”. Well, sometimes it is not appropriate to do so. On other occasions, it is appropriate. A review is one of those cases. You draw the analogy to reviews of appliances – fair enough. A book is an appliance. A book exists to be useful – even if the only use is our own enjoyment. Or our own unenjoyment; or a change in our views; or simply having our minds taken off other things. There are many possible uses of books, but books are never read for no reason. Even if you believe that art exists for art’s sake only – it still exists FOR art’s sake. It is therefore appropriate to say how useful the book turned out to be, if we are to say anything at all – and if we are to be useful to others we must either write entirely for an audience that has one use only for books, or we must hedge our bets and address many possible uses.

What else, after all, can we say about the phenomenal experience of art – that is to say, about the constitutive dimension of art as art? “It made me think about…” – no! That is only propositional. “It made me feel…” – how? How did it make you feel? You have only two options – a metaphor, or a comparison. To use a metaphor (“it made me feel like a flower touched by the first cold wind of autumn”) is itself a work of art, and places a screen of incomprehension between your reader and the work – unless they have exactly the same imagination as you, you tell them nothing at all, and are of no use to them. To use a comparison is fair enough – but once you use more than one comparison, you are (as explained above) using a numerical scale, even if you do not state the numbers yourself.

I do, as you say, feel authoritative when I review things – not because of some borrowed authority of Famous Critics (I know of none, care for none, and have need of none), or even, more respectably, of Famous Reviewers (a reviewer, unlike a critic, speaks only for themselves, and so their authority can hardly be borrowed by another) – but rather simply because I know that I AM authoritative. I am stating, with authority, absolute and objective facts about the text. How do I know this? Because I have considered my perceptions of the text, with patience and analysis, and do not believe I can currently better these statements. Therefore, who is to gainsay me? Another reviewer may say another thing – but he is not reviewing the same thing as I am. My perception of the text IS the text; there is no other thing, separate from our perceptions. All there is in ‘objectivity’ is a piece of paper with a series of marks on it – any number of stories may be read from that paper, some with only a passing similarity to others – just as the same story may be read from many series of symbols (this shouldn’t be so radical an idea to you, you who cite Borges as a critical influence). The work of art is entirely subjective – and thus entirely within the authority of the reader and reviewer. What use is there, then, for reviewing? None is vouchsafed, to be sure – what I review may be entirely alien to all other readers. Yet our ability to live together and to read together allows us to assume (some would say compels us to assume) a degree of commonality in our language, a degree of connexion in our responses. For that reason, a reviewer, notwithstanding that they would be wise to speak with caution and where possible largesse of interpretation, may be useful to others, because others may be sufficiently close as to share an interpretation. There are therefore friends of mine whose opinions on art I take most seriously, because I know from experience that their opinions often accord with my own. If they say they liked something, I will likely like it. But here, as always, numbers (or their encoded counterparts in language) are essential – I have little time and many books. He likes ten books – which should I read most urgently? Which should be read if I am in the mood for one type of experience, and which should be read if I am in the mood for another?

We no longer live in an age where media was an empire unto itself, with its own rulers, and its own pretences to authority. The internet is like the waking world, only larger and less limited by the exigencies of time. Here, we do not have to say “what authority do you have?” – because reviewing on the internet is not a zero-sum game. We are not fighting for the only slot on television, or for the limited space in a critical magazine. Here, authority is, as in the real world, based on usefulness. If your opinions on literature match mine (or, more importantly, can be translated into mine in a regular and predictable fashion – you may as well hate what I like, it is just as useful if it is explained and transparent), I will view your reviews as authoritative.

Or, to say the same more swiftly: you say that “virtually all ranking scales are unlikely to be “true” or “fair”.” This is the old Enlightenment error, the correspondentist myth – that there is always such a thing as being ‘true’ or ‘fair’ in our opinions, and it is a sin to fail to meet such aspirations. But what we are evaluating in art is subjective – there is no truth to it, or rather all the truth there is to it is what we, honestly and considerately, find and say there to be, for nobody but ourselves, and nothing but ourselves, not even the world in abstract majesty, has greater authority than ourselves regarding our own opinions – and there is nothing to art but opinion (/perception/experience).

You ask: “For some, this works. But what happens when the classification schema tries to relate what really might be apples and oranges in similarity? For example, if there is a review schema set up that tries to weigh a book in whole or part on its so-called “worldbuilding” (a term I still detest and will continue to place in quotation marks to indicate my distaste for the catch-all term), should such a schema be used to classify a religious document or a memoir?”.  This misunderstands. We are not electing the Pope – we are not looking for an absolute authority, whose word and method in all things is to be obeyed and infallible. We are pragmatic; we are looking for something useful. If a tool is useful in one case, we do not throw it aside because it may not be useful always. We determine our purpose, and find the tools to meet.

In your example: I would not use ‘worldbuilding’ as a criterion of evaluation, because within my purpose there are cases where the criterion would not be greatly useful. I might, for instance, want to review a book set in contemporary London – in which case, ‘worldbuilding’ would be useless. [I am currently, for instance, reading a memoir, and wish to review it shortly]. So, the criterion is not useful to me. But that man next to me – maybe his project is to review fantasy novels only. In that case, the criterion may be useful for him. What is useless to one man may be useful to another, and vice versa.

So, I don’t use ‘worldbuilding’. I use other things. Personally, I try to assess phenomenal impact directly through various phenomenal criteria (such as beauty (the aesthetic reaction), adrenaline (a particular physical reaction), thought-inducing-ness) rather than indirectly through features of the book. I make no judgement about which is best in general – I find mine more useful, but others may disagree. If, for instance, I were reviewing books by friends hoping to be published, perhaps a more technical review of plot and character would be more useful. It would be, as you observe, more limiting – but that just enjoins us to match our tools to our purposes (or vice versa). It says nothing to the value of the tools, or the purposes, themselves.

And I do not deceive myself that my criteria are by any means universal. A religious tract – how would I review that, by my system? My God, you’re right! I couldn’t do justice to such things at all!

Why should I be able to? I have a system by which I have set out to review the artistic value of novels. Am I to be shocked that I cannot review religious texts by this method? Why? I suspect I can’t review peanuts like this, either. Or cathedrals – my system is wholly inappropriate for reviewing cathedrals.

The trick, of course, is to avoid reviewing cathedrals, or, if the necessity is thrust inescapably upon me, to discover or construct some alternative method for so doing. It would be absurd to give Benedict 0/10 for worldbuilding – because it would be absurd to think that Caritas Deo was a fantasy novel! It would be absurd to think a good approach to fantasy novels was going to be appropriate for reviewing religious texts!

A tool that can be used in all cases is not a tool at all; it is merely the illusion of confidence.

This all said, of course, I do like this word ‘mentalité’ that you’ve given us. It appears to mean ‘superiority’. “That’s my mentalité” – “that’s me being better than you”. A less enlightened man might think “your ideas are all completely wrongheaded – I guess you haven’t read the right books, or argued with the best teachers. I wonder if I can convince you?”. With this new concept we can instead say “your ideas are all completely wrongheaded – I guess that’s because I’ve got a different mentalité. Oh well!”, or, to translate from your superior Romance language into the words of us buffoons and Anglish magazine-readers, “I guess that’s because I went to grad school and got taught by really cool guys and have an unblemished apostolic descent from Jorges Luis Borges himself… whereas you suck cock. Yeah, sucks to be you!”.

It certainly should be evident from all the foregoing that I have, as you said, been indoctrinated in my donkey-blowing ways by “mass media”; and in particular such magazines as “Entertainment Weekly” and “Rolling Stone”. How exactly this has happened, I’m not really too sure about, as I’ve never read either magazine. Indeed, I’ve never read any such ‘review’ magazine. I suspect this can all be blamed on the inferiority of Oxbridge and the British grammar school system – that’s probably where the plebeian know-nothings with their damnably accessible and useful views on recommendations infected me. And I have no literature degree at all! Indeed, the whole murky demi-thought of literary theory has quite passed me by, as I only studied Philosophy – so, please, go on educating me about the nature of the subjective and objective!

Because otherwise you can’t blame my disagreement on my differing ‘mentalité’, and may have to accept that other people’s views may well be well-considered and produced through reason and experiment, not mere enculturation and tradition, and thus may have to be addressed on a level playing field, not from the artificial heights of your elevated, educated, ‘mentalité’.


5 thoughts on “Reply to Blog of the Fallen

  1. Larry says:

    Err…I think you took much of what I said out of context there, mainly in the sense that I was intentionally lampooning notions of some “objective” form of “authority.” A mentalité isn’t an “authority,” but rather just a form of interpreting information. It is, by its very nature, subjective and prone to mistakes, or “blind spots,” I suppose.

    I would suspect a more apt reading of my piece would be that of me expressing a sense of bafflement over the claims of being able to establish some sense of “objectivity” rather than reading it as an “attack” on others who hold opinions different to my own.

  2. vacuouswastrel says:

    First: thanks for taking the time to read and reply.

    Beyond that… I think I must have expressed myself poorly (perhaps inevitable when we’re writing in such a summarised form). I don’t really see your reply as relevent to the points I made – and you introduced the word ‘attack’, not me.

    If you’re going too strongly on the last few paragraphs… well, I thought that given you own post on the topic you wouldn’t might some light-hearted mockery. My point at the end there is that you introduce ‘mentalite’ with the appearance of a concession, and of pluralism – but in your description of the two mentalities (you, educated and graduated and intellectual, tutored by giants and pressed by peer review… vs us, crudely imitating the highest form of criticism we can have experienced, Rolling Stone magazine) you make clear the bias that this seeming pluralism rebedizens.

    That, however, is not the main point of what I say, which is continuing to defend the idea of the quantified review.

    You express bafflement over claims of being able to establish a sense of objectivity. Well:
    – I can establish perfect objectivity… so long as I am only describing my own subjective experience.
    – Indeed, my description of my subjective experience is ALWAYS objective
    – This description is fundamentally numerical, even if I intentionally avoid describing it numerically
    – It is objective because I am the sole authority regarding it – thus it is a uniquely and supremely privileged (ie objective) description (though I may of course be lying).
    – The numbers therefore do not attach to the external world, but gauge themselves against each other – there is no place for them to fail to grasp hold of the world.
    – While some reactions cannot be described numerically, these reactions are propositional, intellectual, in content, and are thus concerned with a text as an intellectual repository or provocation, not with the text as art.

    In addition, you also criticise the inappropriateness of a numerical scale for reviewing – I point out that the inappropriateness lies not in the scale, but in its application in circumstances for which it was not designed.

  3. Doctor Slack says:

    “It would be absurd to give Benedict 0/10 for worldbuilding – because it would be absurd to think that Caritas Deo was a fantasy novel! It would be absurd to think a good approach to fantasy novels was going to be appropriate for reviewing religious texts!”

    Although… one could also say that interpretations of the world around us or of metaphysics and theology are themselves presenting world-constructions that convince through their internal consistency and rigor of construction. So, maybe it wouldn’t be quite as inappropriate as all that.

    “Rebedizens” is a great word.

  4. vacuouswastrel says:

    Yes! Yes it is. I like to enrich our language with new gems now and then.

    And yes, your point is quite correct.

  5. […] Anyone further interested in my reviewing philosophy, and in particular a defense of quantisation in reviewing, can see this post here. […]

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