Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Being "entertaining" is another of the catch-all dismissals of criticism. "So what if it didn't follow through on its themes? It was entertaining!" If something is "entertainment" and it is "entertaining" then it succeeds in its purpose: that's the argument. It's connected to the other refuges: "You're just being negative," and "Can't you appreciate what it is?" But what is "entertainment" and what does it mean to be "entertaining"? Let's be trite and use the Oxford English Dictionary.
Here's "entertainment":



  • a.The action of occupying (a person's) attention agreeably; interesting employment; amusement.

  • b.That which affords interest or amusement.

It seems fairly straightforward, does it not? Here's "entertaining":


2. Agreeable; interesting; now chiefly, amusing.

Let's put aside whether or not "entertainment" is a high virtue. Entertainment is an enjoyable pastime. If something is "entertaining" it is enjoyable. The problem is, what we find enjoyable is highly variable. People who try to shut down criticism of media simply on the grounds that the media was "entertaining" and therefore fulfilled its objective are making the mistake of assuming that entertainment is one thing to all people. According to this idea, everyone is entertained by the same things, a notion which is patently untrue.

What characterises a typical description of something being "entertaining," then? Hollywood films and Triple-A video games occupy this generic "entertainment" space: rapidly delivered bursts of sensory engagement, usually featuring motion and violent action: fast vehicles, explosions, combat, intense romantic passion and emotional experience, usually of anger or heartbreak, quick-fire humour. I won't go so far as to describe it as "shallow" but it is only a singular definition of "entertainment." "Entertainment" in this context is in fact referring specifically to a culturally dominant, and yet precisely engineered, form of impulse-driven sensory stimulation. I say "precisely engineered" because it is constructed as a profit-creating corporate model of consumer psychology: it is appetite-focused.

Yet this is hardly the only definition of what constitutes "entertainment." I do not always find chase scenes, explosions, gunfights, sex and witticisms to be entertaining. In fact I sometimes find them utterly dull. I am not a machine, and am perfectly capable of finding entertainment in certain kinds of this impulse-driven input, but I also find entertainment elsewhere. "Entertainment" according to the OED above also finds "interest" and "amusement" in its purview. "Entertaining" things are "agreeable." If that is the case, I find thinking to be entertaining. I derive entertainment from being introduced to new ideas, in seeking answers to questions, in trying to find connections between things. A difficulty already arises in the fact that "entertainment" in this context comes across as flippant: if something is entertaining, you do not take it seriously. The cultural connotations of "entertaining" suggest that something cannot be both enjoyable and meaningful, that if one finds enjoyment in meaningful activity they are in a sense not doing it correctly. It is, of course, more complex than that. I can simultaneously seek an answer to a question because I believe the answer will be enlightening or have practical benefits in some area and because it is enjoyable. Kant was critical of this view, arguing that any work which was simultaneously pleasurable was therefore selfish, but I don't believe that - in addition to the fact that that's only a problem in an outdated value system which sees self-interest and altruism as mutually exclusive. I rather see it as an added motivation.

The question of entertainment, then, I think refers back to what I was discussing in my previous post: insecurity. Insecure people are desperate for a sense of identity and a sense of belonging. They want everyone to find the same things entertaining as they do, so they give "entertainment" a single, simple meaning and expect everyone to conform to it. The safety of the herd diminishes the experience of fear. Why, then, do they find this particular impulsive form of "entertainment" so appealing, then? Other forms seemingly do not cross their mind. I would argue that it is because insecurity and absolute satisfaction with impulse-entertainment are both rooted in the instinctive mind. Insecurity is defensive, and related to hyperarousal, or the "fight or flight" response. Impulse-entertainment, as I am terming it, associates itself with similar emotional responses, albeit displaced through representation. Thus the audience fears for the life of a character in danger, thrills in fight-or-flight scenes of combat and chase, ponders with desire the romantic and sexual liaisons of attractive people, and generally experiences chemical, hormonal stimulation of an instinctive kind. It is entirely related to the stimulation associated with insecurity. Other forms of entertainment, which tend to involve themselves with more abstract levels of consideration of human experience than the immediate (and I stress here immediate) kind of stimulus regarding life, death, procreation and so on, operate on a less impulsive level than that of insecurity also. Hence the insecure mind is more likely to find entertainment in seeing characters in a fierce battle than they are in, for example, considering the situations in which war is justified. On the other hand, the latter form of activity can itself be an engrossing pastime to certain people.

My argument, therefore, is not to dismiss this kind of entertainment, but to reject the notion that this entertainment is the extent of entertainment, or that something being "entertaining" in this sense is thus objectively "entertaining" in the only sense that matters, and that therefore one ought to give a work a free ride for conforming to this rather specific and narrow definition of entertainment. There is more than one kind of entertainment, and just because something conforms to a particular mass-market or consumer-culture definition of "entertainment" does not mean that it is going to be equally entertaining to all people. It also means, importantly, that criticism cannot be shut down just by something being "entertaining," because if something is only "entertaining" according to one specific set of criteria, it is in fact not fulfilling the objective of being entertaining at all - what about all the other ways of being entertained?

Friday, May 16, 2014

"Don't Like, Don't Watch"

The single most useless and ineffectual response to criticism is "If you don't like it, don't watch it." I have a good reason for thinking that this is both useless and ineffectual. Let's render the sentence down into its psychological components, replacing the specific "watch" with the more general "consume." Why does the person saying this want the critic to not consume it? We must first of all dismiss the notion that this is out of altruism: "I'm telling you this for your emotional wellbeing!" Nonsense. Moving on. The person who utters this phrase has a motivation, a self-interest, in the critic not watching. Why? If the critic does not consume the media, they have no legitimate grounds on which to criticise it. You cannot justifiably criticise something you haven't seen. My article doing just this was intended to draw attention to this notion. The most I can do is offer remarks on why the concept does not appeal to me, why I've never started. I couldn't talk to a big fan of, say, the "Game of Thrones" TV show and tell them that it was rubbish. I haven't seen it, so I can't say that it's rubbish. I might give them a medal for how astoundingly original their taste in television is, but I could hardly criticise them for it. People who say "Don't like, don't watch" don't want something they watch, and presumably something they like, to be criticised.
Why not? I've been in conversations with people who say that Tolkien, who any regular reader might have gathered is my favourite author, was a bad poet, that he described the setting too much, that he "couldn't write." Over the years instead of throwing up mental earthworks and hunkering down I've taken on board a lot of these remarks, and it's improved the way I read the works because I can see why people have issues with Tolkien, even if they don't bother me personally. It expands one's understanding. I would never say to one of these people "Well you shouldn't have read the book in the first place." Why? Well firstly it would be an incredibly stupid thing to say because it's impossible to form an opinion of something without consuming it. We can extrapolate this, however, to serial fiction. Why do I watch these shows that I criticise on this blog? I watch them because I want them to be good. I want to enjoy myself. Sometimes I do, to a certain extent, as can be observed in most of my reviews. I'm generally willing to offer at least a few positives. If I don't watch it, how can I know either way? What if I miss something I enjoy? Maybe it's just a kind of Stockholm Syndrome where I'll watch anything with a particular name slapped on it. Even if that's the case, however, the criticism fulfils a purpose: expanding the sum of consideration on a work. Even if it's only seen by someone and it helps them understand the other side of the argument, or it helps them consider their own creative activities, or even if it gives comfort to someone who feels like bewildered with an opinion that differs to the norm, it has achieved something.
"Don't like don't watch" achieves nothing. People who say "don't like don't watch" just want to feel comforted. Allow me to explain this. As I've established, people who say "don't like don't watch" don't want something they like, a piece of media, to be criticised. For some reason it matters. Why? In enjoying this thing, they have identified with it, and in identifying with it they have over-identified with it. Therefore if someone criticises what they like, it seems like a personal attack. It feels like the critic is criticising them, not the work. Sometimes, of course, critics do level personal attacks at the people who like something. I myself have aimed a few low blows at fans of one thing or another, which of course is beastly behaviour not in the purview of professional criticism. Opinions Can Be Wrong is not a professional criticism blog, however, so there you go. It doesn't matter, however, because "don't like don't watch" isn't a response to personal attacks. It's a response to criticisms which turns them into personal attacks. It's in the same school as "make your own then." "Don't like don't watch" at a fundamental level just means "I am insecure."
I think any reasonable person would agree that one person's insecurity is no reason to shut down criticism, nor that it is the responsibility of people who consume media to protect the self-esteem of its fans by not criticising it. As a response, therefore, it serves no purpose beyond revealing that the person who said it lacks the psychological and emotional fortitude to handle criticism of things they enjoy and is not sufficiently mature to have a functional identity independent of media. Insecurity manifests as fatuousness, which is to say contentment in one's own stupidity in full knowledge of that stupidity. It's a passive-aggressive behaviour which tries to deny the power of consumers and reflects a willing enslavement to faceless corporate entities. I'll get to that at some point. This is, of course, a trauma which has been manufactured by the modern age where the increasing quality of life, as unlikely as it might seem that it is increasing, gives people more and more leisure time and more and more kinds of media. As such Western culture has become incredibly dependent on entertainment, but that dependence is not purely a commercial one. Entertainment has infected the Western identity, producing people who are simultaneously entertained and taken complete advantage of by the media they consume, because entertainment is responsible for both the fragility of the modern Westerner's identity and the very wobbly crutches which hold it up.
We live in a culture where self esteem is hard to come by. The media constantly assaults us with people who are living more exciting and more luxurious lives than that of the average citizen: celebrities, businesspeople, even politicians. Consumers feel as if they have not achieved anything - even if they have - and so they retreat to safe havens: hobbies and interests. The situation is compounded by their factor of monetary investment. But when hobbies and interests are all you've got, what are you going to do when the critics come knocking? No, criticism is not infallible, and yes criticism itself ought to be criticised. What serves no purpose beyond embedding people's neuroses, however, is trying to shut down criticism. Find strength in your own achievements rather than perceiving yourself as weak in comparison to others. "Don't like don't watch" is a useless phrase. People ought to take criticism of the things they like on board and consider them. Sometimes it can be annoying, but the point is to overcome that frustration and master self-control, not to be a creature of impulse who lashes out at the first sign of danger. Besides, the businesses who produce most hobbies and interests, be they shows or films, books or games or whatever, are generally listening to the money, not the critics, so it's not like a few people criticising will mean your toys are taken away. Criticise people, criticise things, criticise criticism, but don't stop criticism because criticism is healthy and necessary. What people should stop doing, however, is over-identifying with what they consume, and start having a little self-respect.