The Misguided, Unhelpful Christian Conversation Around Yeezus


Bad criticism raises my hackles. As a person who has spent the better part of four years writing criticism, including nearly a whole year on this outlet, I’ve begun to develop a keener voice and an eye for substandard work. My editor brought this issue to my attention, and I would not be writing this without his insistence. I have little-to-no connection to the Christian world other than through a few personal acquaintances. Look, most churches don’t take kindly to feline parishioners, and, sure, I may have devoured one or two incompetent organists. No one could blame me, though. My veins were pounding in protest. Because my editor reads Christian music criticism, mostly to keep tabs on a nascent attempt by some Christians to engage non-Christian culture more constructively, and he forwarded these reviews to me for my analysis. We had some conversations about the issue, and I agreed to write down some thoughts on these pieces.

Those who read this blog regularly probably know that I loved Kanye West’s latest album Yeezus. Its pared-down, brutalist aesthetic, precise and obscene lyricism, and deft use of vocal distortion, guest artists, and warped samples combined to make it a highly potent record. Critical consensus has crowned this another in a six-album long string of successes for West, and the only significant and consistent bloc of dissent has come from Christian sites. This begs the question: what is it about Yeezus that makes Christian critics cringe–and, more importantly, write bad reviews?

To my surprise, the most sensationalist piece of the bunch comes from Think Christian, a site with a decent pedigree and a track record of mostly insightful criticism and professional writing. Consider: the site’s editor is Josh Larsen, co-host on the excellent Filmspotting podcast. Having done some extensive reading of the site’s content for the piece alongside my editor, I concluded that Larsen was the best writer on the site by far, but the rest were certainly competent and, thankfully, tended to avoid excessive moralizing. Though it is run by the denomination my editor recently left, he normally reads the site expecting high-quality work from a perspective that is distinct from his and mine.

The writer of the Think Christian piece, John J. Thompson, has had a long and productive career. From running a Christian alternative record store to serving as the rock editor for CCM magazine, he has a large body of work both on Think Christian and elsewhere. His background is not in hip hop, which is not closely covered on Think Christian, but rather punk-ish Christian alternative rock and Americana. For instance, he lavished love on Mumford and Sons’ Babel, a record I personally can’t stand, and many other albums specifically marketed to Christians. Also, he has written a fair amount about indie rock bands, including reviews of Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City and Wilco’s The Whole Love. Some of his most pointed and common pejorative words: “nihilistic,” “postmodern,” and “clever.” His writing also tends to emphasize whatever parts of an album talk about God or faith, at points reading religious themes into the work more than out of them. Fair enough: I have no grudge against his tastes. What I do find distasteful is his approach to Yeezus. 

Let’s get to the heart of the problem. Thompson writes this paragraph:

“Musically, Yeezus takes hip-hop to new places, which many critics have praised. He gets credit for incorporating electronic dance music elements in ways that few mainstream rap artists have. Throughout these tracks, West offers the best alternative/techno/rap money can buy; Yeezus is innovative, creative and technically excellent. To accept it on that level, however, would be like buying a creatively executed painting of a pile of steaming excrement, a gorgeously designed propaganda poster in favor of human trafficking or a beautifully shot snuff film.”

This is the only paragraph he writes that talks about the album’s sound. Now, for my part, I think the way an album sounds, its musical form and quality, is far more important than lyrics in most cases. Music is also more subtle, subjective, and difficult to moralize. The result is that Thompson stumbles by bifurcating music and lyrics. “I like the music, but hate the lyrics,” is one of the most common responses to hip hop that conservative Christians have. If Thompson wants to rail against lyrics he perceives as offensive and misogynistic, he should note that. Yet a review of a whole album needs to consider how the music and lyrics work together. For instance, he takes issue with Kanye’s sexually explicit, arguably misogynistic lyrics. He fails to note, however, that many of the darkest lines are delivered with a sense of resignation, hopelessness, or fear, and that many of them are spoken in a distorted voice Kanye has used before to signify an awareness of his own monstrosity. Moreover, he fails to engage the work in anything other than outrage and condemnation, all but consigning it to hell in his final line. From what I could find, this is also the only hip hop album review on Think Christian.

That paragraph also shows a clear failure to appreciate art that might address unpleasant subject matter in a graphic way. Shock does not go over well with him. Derivative and false, but “spiritual” Americana-infused lite rock like Mumford is fine, but something provocative and intentionally abrasive like this flops in his eyes. I doubt he’s a fan of Francis Bacon, let me tell you. I think this signifies a lack of critical imagination and charity. Rather than giving the work a chance to provoke and disgust and then reflecting on that experience, Thompson assumes a position of overbearing judgment. It’s one thing to infuse a moral perspective into one’s work; it’s entirely another to make agreeing with your own moral principles the most important criterion for a works’ success. And this is another problem: a lack of consistency. In his review of Modern Vampires of the City, Thompson realizes that Ezra Koenig and company have some unflattering things to sing about Christianity and that they embrace a kind of postmodern uncertainty and unknowing in their music. Yet he lets them off easy, probably because, unlike Kanye, Vampire Weekend is willing to cloak and obscure, rather than let emotions and conflicts run at full bore. In summation: spiritual and uplifting and sincere lyrics matter more than musical effectiveness or the complexity of how word and sound interact. Hardly a fitting attitude for a music critic.

He also writes: “One listen and it’s clear exactly who Kanye thinks he is (a god) and what that entitles him to do (anything he wants) to whomever he wants (your wife.)” I find it incredibly arrogant that he seems to think that he can understand Kanye, whom he clearly has not listened to in any depth before (there is no contextualization of Yeezus with his other work in the review), after forty minutes of tsk-tsking in dismay. Thompson gives his theologically conservative Christian audience probably the easiest, most predictable, and least helpful review he could have. That’s a shame. Interestingly, though, Thompson has actually written a better review of Yeezus, and he did it in one sentence. He also mistakenly put it near the conclusion of his effusive Babel review. Just substitute Yeezus for Babel and see what happens: “The songs explore the effects of sin on the individual and on relationships with language and an intensity that is consistent with the brokenness they uncover.” So using intensity and potentially strong, even offensive language to show a bleak picture of brokenness that might hint at redemption or hope is fine for Mumford but not Kanye. Got it. I would like to politely ask: how much rap music has Thompson reviewed? His review is fundamentally ignorant and misguided, not including artistic context, an awareness of how, say, Justin Vernon’s and Chief Keef’s vocals on “Hold My Liquor” express unease and distress. Yeezus does not glorify Kanye’s ego but rather shows it to us as a pulsating mass of insecurity. Kanye has always been conscious of the warped morality of his tendency toward excess and hedonism. I wish Thompson were as self-aware and culturally savvy as West. It’s fine that he hates it, but I wish he could come up with better reasons than “it has a different worldview than mine” (of course it does) and “he says mean things about women” (more troubling, but also more complicated than just simple misogyny–see the excellent Spin roundtable of women critics on the album here).

The two other conservative reviews of the album, from Relevant and Christ and Pop Culture, have almost identical problems to a lesser degree. They also show more conscience of West’s previous work. Christ and Pop Culture even commissioned the review from someone with a strong résumé of writing about rap music. To their credit, they point out that he used to be more “conscious” in his lyrics. By that, I mean that he used to be less self-obsessed and more willing to specifically attack larger injustices in society. On songs like the remix of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” and “All Falls Down,” this was certainly true. There’s also nothing wrong with arguing that artists should prioritize social and political concerns. Except.

Relevant, on its list of the best albums of the year so far, put James Blake’s Overgrown, Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. None of those albums address broader social concerns. Timberlake’s album is just as obsessed with romantic angst and issues with devotion and ego before its artist marries and settles down. I suspect, no, I’m fairly certain, that the only reason Kanye gets raked over the coals for being self-obsessed when Timberlake gets away with it is that Kanye is a rapper. And, in white-dominated Christian music critical culture (secular criticism also being white-dominated, but less obnoxious about it), hip hop almost cannot be good unless it’s attacking racism or talking about “the black experience.” What about “black experience,” Relevant? Now, I’m a tiger with a white editor, and in no position to lecture people about being subtly racist. But I will dare to here. Why does the message matter so much more here than with Daft Punk? More than likely, it all comes down to explicitness, bluntness, and the fact West is rapping and not singing. I look forward to the Christian critical backlash against Bon Iver for always singing about heartbreak and “personal stuff.” When are you going to rail against the broader injustices of economic inequality and articulate the “white experience,” Justin Vernon?

To be fair, Kanye does make some deeply problematic and disturbing comparisons between the Civil Rights movement and sexual liberation, though the two were certainly not unrelated and originated in the same heady time. This deserves some real conversation though, as in the Spin roundtable, not knee-jerk damnation. No doubt West also paints unflattering, objectified visions of certain women. Again, that’s not a positive. It would be much better, in some ways, if Kanye could begin to work out his issues with women in more positive ways. However, a measure of charity and understanding should be extended to him, as well as a recognition of the gap between artist and work.

Because he’s rapping and not singing, and a solo artist and not in a band, it’s much harder for critics to distinguish between a real person and the persona they choose to present in their art. The person telling those horrible stories on Yeezus is not Kanye West, living being but Kanye West, poetic persona. There are connections and similarities between the two, indeed many more than usual because of Kanye’s outsize personality. But just like I don’t think Sufjan Stevens actually “punched [someone] in the head” while the person “laughed and “laughed,” I don’t think the unrelentingly id-fixated Kanye we see on Yeezus is a straightforward stand-in for the real man. Yeezus is creating a world that should feel unbearable and exciting, excessive and nightmarish. It’s the most incarnated, body-focused journey into the mind of Kanye we have had yet, and I understand why that puts people off. I wish that people would realize that an album you happen to dislike (even if, like Relevant, they admit they love the music, which is really confusing) isn’t just an excuse to be offended. It’s the product of a real person (whom you should not patronize with prayer requests) attempting to construct meaning, however fleeting, through art.

As for the article from the more liberal perspective, found here, I have less to say. I will say, though that this article, from a blog that just joined Patheos’ Progressive Christian portal, contains a clear contender for worst overall pair of sentences. After noting that Kanye claims to be “a man of God.”

“If you come from a more traditional evangelical or Black Church perspective, the blasphemy of comparison to God is enough to disqualify him. From a progressive perspective, his misogyny cuts him out of the running.” Face. Palm. Sorry to be so vulgar, people, but come on! There are so many layers of contextual ignorance, stereotyping, and poor assumptions in that sentence it makes me want to eat my tail. And, again, the article goes on for far too long about how it would be better if Kanye actually used the Civil Rights imagery to talk about the black experience and yadda yadda. At least it provides some historical insight. Still, despite being from a more liberal Christian perspective, it’s just as graceless, moralizing, and uncharitable as the others. My editor was ashamed to be a Christian reading these reviews. I’m still very proud to be a tiger, thank you.

Yeezus is replete with flaws, befitting its creator, a man who is utterly open and honest about all of his myriad personality defects. I would never want to spend a day with Kanye West, unless it were in the recording studio. No. But I have listened to Yeezus over a dozen times, and I think it rewards repeated listening. Once the shock and awe of the album’s sonic novelty wear off, you start to get a closer appreciation for its other virtues. This is music that is raw and that refuses euphemism. But it’s also valuable and praiseworthy in many ways, and this is what Christian critics should at least consider. Plus, you know, getting people who actually understand and listen to–maybe even like?–hip hop to review albums from now on.

I don’t ask critics from these outlets to like it. Just give it half a chance before you start calling it “demonic.”

Prosthetic Memory and Anime


Continued from a series of reviews and articles about Alison Landsberg’s Prosthetic Memory and Susan J. Napier’s Anime.

Napier’s chapter on two historical dramas, Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies, was tailor-made for reading in light of the concept of “prosthetic memory” as elucidated by Alison Landsberg in her book of the same name. Both films to differing extents support the victim narrative that was constructed for Japan after the war. By placing all war guilt on a few elites, the American occupiers hoped to allow Japan to blossom into a democracy without being haunted by the past atrocities committed by its soldiers and abetted and supported by much of its citizenry. The atomic bomb, as Napier suggests,
“[cancels] out responsibility for Pearl Harbor and simply [glosses] over the colonization of Korea and the previous ten years of aggression against China” (162). This idea, along with the country’s constitutionally-enforced pacifism, goes a long way toward explaining why the Japanese treatment of World War II has been so subdued, even muted. While on the level of international politics this has caused no end of conflict between Japan and Korea and China, it also surfaces in these two historical films.

Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies are both both works anchored more in collective memory than personal memory. Being fictional stories, they do not have obvious autobiographical tendencies and, considering that they are both mass-cultural products, their reception by the general public will involve both appealing to and manufacturing new collective memories. Memories that aren’t, of course, “naturally” gained but instead prosthetic or commodified. While this quotation from Landsberg addresses Schindler’s List films, it is broadly applicable to these films as well: “[These films’] impact was due to [their] publicity –a public sphere developed around [them]–and [their] visual power, [their] ability to elicit deep identification on the part of [their] spectators” (Landsberg 121).

In brief, Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies, like Schindler’s List, elicited the reactions and publicity they did because of their ability to make their audience identify with the suffering shown on screen. Grave of the Fireflies portrays its child protagonists as passive and pitiful victims of chance, stand-ins for Japanese citizens, and there is little-to-no discussion of the causes for their suffering. As Napier writes, “Grave of the Fireflies attempts to construct an ideology of victimhood and loss that allows for a national identity in which the loss of the war gives depth to the Japanese soul” (173). The prosthetic memories generated by the film, therefore, are meant to reconstruct the national memory of the war to make it both more specific and more meaningful. It also removes any sense of Japanese guilt or responsibility for the atrocities committed against the children. There is no broader critique of the society itself, so I think it can be safely said that this film fails to be as progressive as Landsberg believes mass media can be. Barefoot Gen likewise recasts the Japanese as heroic resisters, again eliding over the matter of Japanese war guilt and creating a story so personal and impressionstic that it lacks teeth as a criticism of the status quo.

Nevertheless, I do not mean to diminish the beauty and quality of the two films, both of which are transfixing in their depiction of suffering and horror. The shared memories of its audiences are not likely to be ones that glorify war, as both are creative and unrelenting, though there is at leas a hope for national renewal at the conclusion of Barefoot Gen. Grave and Gen both represent stories worth telling that have been told well. That said, by their very nature as art pieces and as fiction (though Grave is based on an autobiographical text), they must exclude some aspects of the actual war situation. In this case, they exclude several key bits of information that would have destabilized prevailing Japanese attitudes about their country’s role in World War II. If these films have introduced many to the realities of the Japanese home front during the war, they have become, as Landsberg puts it, “transference spaces,” where memories of one generation are passed on to the next. And the prosthetic memories they are imparting might be naturally simplified simply because of the utter horror of Japan’s defeat. I think the most hopeful interpretation to be had for these films is that these films, though mass entertainments with all the simplifications and pandering to preexisting assumptions that entails, have preserved fragments of a national memory of suffering, and, hopefully, engendered a resistance to the use of violence in its viewers.

The Ethics of Kickstarter: A Conversation

Conversation about the recent Kickstarter controversy. Very, very dear friend of mine engaging me on this one.

Critical Hit!!


Recently, a kickstarter project to create a ‘dating’ manual called “Above the Game” was revealed to come from a redditor who’s dating advice can only summed up as a manual for sexual harassment and date rape.

“Decide that you’re going to sit in a position where you can rub her leg and back. Physically pick her up and sit her on your lap. Don’t ask for permission. Be dominant. Force her to rebuff your advances.”

The above quote is from an archived reddit post of the kickstarter project’s creator. Kickstarter was first informed by a blogger Casey Malone, whose blog post began the flood of protest towards Kickstarter about the project. A petition that has now reached over 60,000 signatures was presented to Kickstarter yesterday, demanding that the funding be removed from this project. Kickstarter did not stop the project, giving this press release yesterday.

“This morning, material that a…

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Editor’s Note: Kickstarter Controversy Conversation


Recently, a kickstarter project to create a ‘dating’ manual called “Above the Game” was revealed to come from a redditor who’s dating advice can only summed up as a manual for sexual harassment and date rape.

“Decide that you’re going to sit in a position where you can rub her leg and back. Physically pick her up and sit her on your lap. Don’t ask for permission. Be dominant. Force her to rebuff your advances.”

The above quote is from an archived reddit post of the kickstarter project’s creator. Kickstarter was first informed by a blogger Casey Malone, whoseblog post began the flood of protest towards Kickstarter about the project. Apetition that has now reached over 60,000 signatures was presented to Kickstarter yesterday, demanding that the funding be removed from this project. Kickstarter did not stop the project, giving this press release yesterday.

“This morning, material that a project creator posted on Reddit earlier this year was brought to our and the public’s attention just hours before the project’s deadline. Some of this material is abhorrent and inconsistent with our values as people and as an organization. Based on our current guidelines, however, the material on Reddit did not warrant the irreversible action of canceling the project.”

However, after large public disapproval of Kickstarter’s decision, Kickstarter posted an apology today with information on what they are doing to make amends. This conversation arose between Jonathan Hielkema and I, exploring the ethical implications Kickstarter needs to face through their publishing platform.


Jonathan Hielkema: [In response to knowledge of various conversations I had about the subject.] What got you so [concerned] over this issue in particular?

Jacqueline Ristola: Well, the first blog post I [read and shared] was very virulent. That definitely got me riled up. The one about spinelessness. The Spine Blog, as [a friend of mine took to calling] it. Part of it is that there is no excuse. Kickstarter has stopped projects minute before their deadline before. They could have at least suspended it to think about it more. There were a lot of options. Choosing to do nothing was the worst.

JH: Yes.

JR: Part of my reaction (I think I read something about this in a some kind of published thing on psychology) is that because I had to defend my position, from two different people, I ended up being even more supportive of it. Getting more entrenched, though with more insight as to why, admittedly. It isn’t the clear cut case as I first thought, because crowdfunding sites are new, and the ethical implications are still being worked out. Which I am totally writing a blog post on. What do you think?

JH: To me, it seems more like moral responsibility for the manual lies with its creator and those who funded it. Kickstarter has an enabling role. The question is: what kind of metaphor do we use for Kickstarter’s role here? Is Kickstarter a pipe or a road or a stock exchange? Or is it more like a real agent in helping these schemes become a reality?

JCR: That’s the thing that’s difficult. [In a different conversation,] my friend and I were using metaphors a lot to get at the issue, or presenting alternative ideas [to grasp the ethics of it], because the actual site itself is difficult to name. Again, new thing.

JH: To me, Kickstarter has always seemed like an oversight board for financial transactions.

JR: But the site does have policies preventing hate speech and such from being funded. The project was permitted to be funded. Now, originally, Kickstarter did not know of the malicious intent hiding underneath the project. But they were well informed soon before the deadline. Kickstarter’s policies, such as not allowing projects with hate speech, indicate they decide those are bad, the ones that are allowed are good, worthy of being kickstarted. (I know, I know, binary…) [Ed. We are no scholars of Derrida if we are relying on binaries.]

JH: Now, I’m not a strict free speech libertarian. That said, I find it somewhat chilling that Kickstarter’s response was to ban an entire category of submissions.

JR: Though I wonder, if society is responsible for keeping itself in check, so to speak, couldn’t kickstarter have been a part of that? Saying no the project, etc. Instead of having the book being published, and then people having to react to that. I do think that instead of banning “seducing guides”, they just need more flexibility when it comes to issues like these.

JH: The guideline on their website simply says: “offensive material (hate speech, etc.)”

JR: Yes, needs more clarification. I would put a date rape manual under offensive material.

JH: The vagueness gives them more latitude in responding to complaints like this one. In other words, if it’s offensive, people will take offense. I think that it’s probably correct to err on the side of laissez-faire policing of projects and responding quickly when problems become apparent. This project isn’t exactly an artwork, since it was a nonfiction book/instruction manual that advocated immoral and misogynist behaviour, not to mention criminal. I imagine that some projects in the future could make the line between an offensive project and a work of art much blurrier.

JR: Yes.

JH: I note that they do not allow porn either. Oy. That is going to cause them issues in the future.

JR: Oh? You think so?

JH: Yes, especially if more fine artists start using it. Imagine that someone comparable to Andres Serrano (i.e. the creator of Piss Christ) enlisted Kickstarter to help fund a project. Suppose it pushed the boundaries of acceptability, and offended most people who saw it. Would Kickstarter be in the right to remove the project? If you’re going to use a category like “offensiveness,” there is going to be a huge human bias attached to that. I would guess that a radical feminist artwork or book would not get pulled down because the outrage would be coming from people Kickstarter doesn’t particularly want to associate with. But the offense is still there. In other words, Kickstarter can ban or leave whatever they want according to their present content guidelines. It all depends on whether it’s going to cause the RIGHT people to stop using their site. In other words, creative types–liberal-leaning for the most part–who want to fund projects there but could go to a competitor.

JR: Though the thing with kickstarter is that many of the projects only have concepts behind them, or do not have a full distinguished product yet. So kickstarter at first didn’t know the content of “Above The Game”, just a vague enough description.

JH: How does that change what I just wrote? Except that it means Kickstarter is in an information-poor situation? Now, the Kobe beef situation is different, because that was fraudulent. So Kickstarter intervening in that situation is analogous to the SEC busting a pyramid scheme. Whereas blocking a more creative project like an art work is more like censorship.

JR: You’re right. Though standing by an established artist would be easier than a seduction manual…..hopefully. Because of the clout.

JH: An established artist, yes.

JR: The trust in artistic ability.

JH: As the article you posted about the Kobe beef incident read, the community on Kickstarter is self-policing. In other words, they have to figure this stuff out.

JR: Or have it pointed out to them. Which, to reiterate, these situations aren’t typical [for Kickstarter.] But Kickstarter has the flexibility to deal with them effectively, they just need to use it.

JH: So, at the heart of the issue is the question: is Kickstarter morally responsible for the projects that get funded? And, if so, why?

JR: That is definitely the question at hand.

JH: At this point, I would say yes. Because they have chosen to be.

JR: I agree, because all projects have to go through some form of moderation, it does mean those that fail to qualify are rejected, whereas (I’m assuming the majority) are accepted as worthy projects for funding. There is a process there. When people of the internet community realized that is was not an appropriate project to fund and demanded for it’s removal, and it wasn’t, that was a problem. Kickstarter and other projects are different from, say, donating to a paypal account of a person who blogs hate speech. Or a donation to a paypal account of the redditor, for example.

JH: So Paypal does not equal Kickstarter. So you say. Why?

JR: Because there is no system of approval, no project presented to paypal. (I don’t know as much about paypal, but I assume they haven’t stopped accounts because of the actions associated with a user, for example.) The paypal user in question might post something, a project write up, asking for paypal donations.

JH: I imagine that the only way Paypal would shut down a user account would be a court order.

JR: Mmm. How would they even know [about a project with malicious intent], would be the thing. Aside from a court order.

JH: Kickstarter also provides a platform for publicity and outreach.

JR: Yes.

JH: And has placed itself as an arbiter of content.

JR: It’s all about specifically artistic development. Content creation. Other sites may use fundraising to pay desperate hospital bills, for instance. Or [community action programs, or charities. But Kickstarter has this specific focus.]

JH: It has taken responsibility for the trustworthiness and appropriateness of the projects, so it can be faulted for not following its own rules. Are those rules good?

JR: They are vague so kickstarter has the flexibility it needs, but apparently does not execute.

JH: If Kickstarter just said, “anything goes,” would that be better? They would be in a more neutral position in that regard.

JR: Mm, I don’t know if it would be better. One of their rules is no political campaigns, that is no oppositional projects against a political opponent. That’s something I discovered when researching, and I think that’s a good idea. There are enough super pacs, thank you very much.

JH: How about they just get rid of their “no offensive material” requirement?

JR: [I’m not sure what you mean.]

JH: I’m saying that, if they got rid of that requirement, they would no longer be moderating whether a work is offensive or not.

JR: Ah, [I see. That idea troubles me, though.]

JH: Now, they won’t do it for the sake, not of being moral, but of their reputation.

They don’t want to be the site associated with people funding amateur porn films.

JR: Uh huh.

JH: What puts them in a bind is that they have a strong brand identity.

JR: Yes, they do.

JH: They are a recognizable platform with a reputation to protect.

JR: They might be the biggest fundraising site [of their kind.]

JH: Which is the entire reason for that requirement. They make their money by people going to them for funding, because of that reputation. That is why they will intervene in these instances.

JR: Any why they’ll keep their oversight and rules. Because things would not go well PR-wise if they are profiting from amateur porn projects or stuff like this. They did not take their 5% cut, [by the way.]

JH: Right. Given their present rules, they should have intervened in this case. I’m more concerned about the vagueness of those specifications.

JR: Mm. it gives them jurisdiction to take down anything, which could be misused to be over reactionary in the future. [I suspect it] will.

JH: Actually, you know what kind of institution those guidelines remind me of?

JR: Hmm?

JH: Apple’s App Store.

JR: Oohhhhhhh.

JH: The same vagueness has gotten Apple in trouble countless times. Banning war satires. Sexist apps. Constant problems policing porn, even though the phones the apps are sold for have Web browsers. They’ve overreached a ton of times. Kickstarter here seems to be thinking of itself more like a retailer. Than a money moving platform. But what they’re selling is their reputation as a reliable method of getting projects funded.

JR: Hmmm, I wouldn’t stretch the retailer idea too far, because kickstarter main focus is “power to the people”, so to speak, through crowdsourcing. But kickstarter definitely brands itself as a innovator, a source for good. It’s not *just* “give us your money”, it’s “support this vision for better community, art, entertainment.” (Not that those are mutually exclusive.)

JH: They make their site look like a retail site. I’m not saying that they are a retail company, only they rely on some aspects of online retail to advertise and define themselves online. They have a staff picks section like a bookstore. Their website advertises products brightly, almost like finished products. It’s not a retail outlet, but it acts and looks like one in some ways in order to make it simple for people to understand. And most funding platforms do not have content guidelines. It’s a minor point, but I think it helps give us some insight into why they have guidelines in the first place. It’s not too different from how Wal-Mart and other brick and mortar retailers won’t stock NC-17 movies on shelves.

JR: Ah, I see. I think you’re right in how they market themselves, at least somewhat. In terms of design, they may rely on established tropes in retail, when [Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites] are a new, different thing, with no precedence for it. There is no model that Kickstarter can [follow], so they take at least some elements from retail.

JH: Correct.

JR: Or at least elements that retail uses as well.

JH: I just checked. There are crowdfunding platforms for porn. So Kickstarter’s restrictions generate alternatives.

Jr: Whoa.

JH: Mm. Anyway. I’m not sure I have much more to say about this.

JR: [This is] good for now. We got at the heart of the matter.

Kanye West: Yeezus


Yeezus leaked over the weekend, an agreeable arrangement. It’s the product of an artist whose most famous public moments have been framed as outbursts, his persona characterized as brilliant but sub-rational. An unintentional leak fits all-too-well into the Standard Model of Kanye, the carousel of tropes that the media brings out whenever he charges back into the spotlight. Not that West discourages these perceptions, deliberately throwing off constraints and confounding respectability at every turn. This is to his personal disadvantage and his work’s advantage.

Critics, even feline ones, admire audacity. Audiences revel in spectacle. Tigers, to their bones, pursue the thrill of the hunt.  And Kanye, self-obsessed and obsessive for detail, knows and internalizes our love and our loathing of him. What comes out, though it might be viscera or bile, justifies its horror by being frighteningly resonant with our own taste. He is a talent and a terror, and Yeezus is his dark twisted fantasy–now shorn of beauty or ornament.

The closest compatriot this album has in pop music history, to this tiger’s ears, is John Lennon’s first solo album. Plastic Ono Band saw the former Beatle rejecting flourish in favour of directness and catharsis. This was rock music stripped of euphemisms, and with only guitar, drums, and bass produced with an acidic crunch to fall back on, Lennon’s voice carries the work. It creates an uncomfortable intimacy, a sense that the artist is pushing too much of himself onto the art, in the process alienating both himself and his listeners. It’s a pop music realization of the Hedgehog’s Dilemma, where, as intimacy increases so do pain and distance. Lennon, who like Kanye suffered from egomania, compared his musical group favorably to Jesus, and had a troubled history with women, was capable of such rawness precisely because of his disregard for social constraints.

What we get in Yeezus is something so pared down and aggressive that it is paradoxically excessive. At ten songs and forty minutes, it prizes precision over elaboration. From “On Sight” to “Bound 2,” the album shudders and groans under its own weight. Beats rarely settle into pleasing repetitions, and most are icy and visceral, even dehumanizing. In sharp contrast, West uses a number of soulful singers and samples that resolve tracks like “New Slaves” in a melancholy haze. Justin Vernon lends his distorted voice to songs like “Hold My Liquor,” where he joins Chicago hip hop upstart Chief Keef in singing addled verses over a beat heavy on sub-bass. The only other instruments featured are a screeching synth sounding like an alarm and a sickly guitar. Yet, when considered as a whole, this disconcerting mixture of voices and Kanye’s profane, self-lacerating rapping, it presents a strange grace. Later tracks feature more Autotuned singing, reminding one of 808s mutated by the dark turns modern electronic production has taken. House and trap music inhabit many of the beats, with Daft Punk producing several tracks. When considering these tracks next to their almost excessively nostalgic Random Access Memories, we see a helpful contrast.

Where that album lovingly recreates an idealized past, this is an album of the present and of presence. Kanye emphasizes his own identity and embodied pleasures and pains, the tribal beats forcefully buoying verses about racial tension, romantic despair, and the cynical detachment he has from the very luxuries he pursued. “Black Skinhead,” “New Slaves,” and “Blood on the Leaves,” address issues of blackness in an America scarred by privatized prisons and racism. All three, however, also spend more time gazing back at their creator, who never forgets how talented, wealthy, and lonely he is. Everything here is intensely personal even and especially when it is critical and political. Those looking for a bracing take on American racism from one of the world’s biggest music stars will be unsatisfied. That element of social critique is never unalloyed by private demons. None of this is news. At this point, though, it would be refreshing if Kanye could try to peak out of his increasingly unstable cocoon and see that his ego might have limits after all.

As it is, this is a startling work, at once fully at home with the Kanye we know and at odds with his previous tendency toward maximalism. There is excess and virtuosity of a different sort at work here, meaning this album, for all its brevity, feels just as definitive as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which was nearly twice as long. Yeezus is a perfect portrait of imperfection, which knows better than to ignore its flaws. Instead, it, and, dare I say? its artist, incorporate them. They’re the detail work in this looming shadow, and I look forward to stalking this predacious music for a long time more.

Bonus Post: Regular Show and Adventure Time Musings

Less money, more problems, surreal solutions.

Editor’s Note: this post recounts a brief conversation between my friend, the tiger Alexius, and Mr. Harold Zo’s partner in the band, Quivver. They wonder about what makes Regular Show as good as it is, and compare it to another Cartoon Network show that has gained a passionate following in recent times. Enjoy.

Alexius: You make a good point about how Regular Show and Adventure Time are both relatively sparse and cheap in terms of their animation, and yet make a virtue out of being cartoons. Do you think it’s safe to call them cartoons? We both take animation pretty seriously, unlike some people…

Quivver: I think both of them qualify as cartoons if you take that to mean animated shows that are intended to be humourous. Me, I think the word is taboo except within circles that are already interested in animation as an art form. There it makes sense. No one is going to use it to put a show down by calling it a cartoon if there’s that trust. I mean, I don’t think there’s any other proper word for something like Looney Tunes. We would be losing a rich word, but I would avoid using it in normal conversation because it gives the wrong idea.

Alexius: Good point about that. Just to flesh out your idea with an example, if we were to call Regular Show a cartoon, we would be alienating a whole group of people who would think it’s just for…

Quivver: For kids.

Alexius: For kids, yes. I’d appreciate fewer interruptions, since it makes me trip up. Now, where was I…OK. The reason why Regular Show works is that it presents a kind of inviting fantasy world. This is a world that people, especially young adults who are stuck in dead end jobs or kids who feel alienated at school, can gaze at and say “wow, I wish I lived there.” I want a world where there is a magic keyboard that can manipulate people to your will.

Quivver: Don’t be so sensitive, first of all. Sorry. No, really. (Drinks glass of water) There is a difference–I want to keep talking about how the word “cartoon” fits Regular Show if you don’t mind–

Alexius: Go ahead.

Quivver: Cartoons, to me, are all about joy in some way. About the joy of warping reality and mining comedy from the crazy stuff you can do because of the medium. Regular Show isn’t a gorgeous piece of work. Adventure Time is a much more visual show. I think that cartoons are all about a kind of spectacle. Almost like a riot. You get to see things comedically taken apart. Still, by the end of every Regular Show episode, everything has settled back into this dismal reality. I mean, Mordecai and Rigby are depressing characters.

Alexius: They are, but they’re entertaining and we root for them because they have not lost their spirit. Even if that spirit, that drive or desire to succeed, is channeled in bizarre or self-destructive directions, we see a genuine verve for life in them. That is even more true in Adventure Time, where, although Finn and Jake are arguably more “free” and live in a “better” situation, they also live amidst a giant nightmare of post-nuclear destruction.

Adventure Time: nuclear holocaust turned into mutated fairyland of wonder.
Adventure Time: nuclear holocaust turned into mutated fairyland of wonder.

Quivver: I think the basic format of each show differs in other important ways. Regular Show takes place in a world that, gumball people and talking raccoons aside, is still recognizably our own. Bills need to be paid, Rigby doesn’t have a high school diploma, chores need to be done. That means the surreal digressions that form the basis of each story have to be resolved by the end of each episode, or that normalcy and reliability is messed up.

Alexius: It would be destabilizing, and you’re saying Regular Show relies on that.

Quivver: Whereas Adventure Time is much stranger and in a way more radical. Its fundamnetal tie to our world is a devastatingly sad one. Our world is gone, and it’s the horrible sins of man that have produced the candy-colored fantasy world we lust after. I mean, we talk about Adventure Time being something of an escapist or nostalgic fantasy, but it has a very dark core.


Alexius: When I think hard about it, I have to ask: would I pull the trigger and destroy humanity knowing that what will emerge from the plutonium soup is in many ways a wonderful place?

Quivver: There’s an awesome chasm there. It’s at the same time beautiful and cheery, and we love Finn and Jake because they have such a beautiful bond and want to bring peace and righteous ass-kicking to the world. But also horribly sad, and the show has not been afraid of examining that loss, especially as it’s gone on.

Alexius: This is way too intellectual for this conversation…

Quivver: Such modesty.

Alexius: (Laughs) But hear me out. I think Adventure Time could serve as a metaphor for a person’s movement through a critical desert. I think it’s Paul Ricoeur who wrote about there being a first naivety that passes through the desert of criticism but, ideally, emerges with a second, wiser enchantment on the other side. Adventure Time is about how human evil utterly disenchants the world. Modern science leads to the utter devastation of all life, and the planet’s reaction is to generate this world that is a celebratory riot of the irrational and surreal and the pre-modern and childlike. It’s a dark, dark fantasy, but the humanity of the characters, even those that are technically mutated freaks, makes the show so sincere and heartwarming that it’s only in certain moments that you notice how crushing it is.

Quivver: And, to bring it back, Regular Show puts the emphasis on our own time. Our own time is bleak and depressing and mundane. So we escape into these transgressing fantasies. But they end. That’s why I think the title of the show is brilliant, because it not only speaks to the subversion of the show in an ironic way (it’s anything but…) but also the actual circumstances of the show. It’s clever.

Alexius: And Regular Show is in some ways the more conventional show. It’s a stoner comedy without weed. What makes it seem so weird is that it’s on a network ostensibly meant for children. I’m not sure that’s really ever been entirely the case, though. I mean Seth McFarlane worked on Johnny Bravo ten years ago or so. It’s always been a channel with a split audience.

Quivver: Regular Show has some heart, though, which I discovered slowly. While its characters are far less noble than Adventure Time’s leads, they also struggle with problems that are more literally relatable. Instead of dealing with giant monsters or ghosts or magic men or Martians–though those do enter sometimes–they have problems like how to afford rock concert tickets or getting the hot girl. They’re normal problems, sometimes even Seinfeld-level absurdly meaningless problems (like trying to be player 1 in a video game) that are (re)solved with ridiculous means.

Alexius: So which is better?

Quivver: I think I prefer Regular Show, but only as an…uncanny representation of how I actually thought when I was in my early twenties. I swear half the tracks and songs I made at that time were the same kind of thing. I think if Regular Show were actually on an adult channel or in a block like Adult Swim, it might be even better and more transgressive. Where I give Adventure Time credit, and I do love that show too, is that it is a perfect show for the channel, for the kind of show it is. It’s ridiculously creative and warmhearted, and I don’t think it would be improved at all if the characters swore or had sex. Regular Show could thrive better with fewer restrictions, though restrictions do make people creative. That’s a hard question.

Alexius: Yeah, it is. I think I prefer Adventure Time, for exactly the reasons you stated. Well, I have to get working on my Prosthetic Memory review.

Quivver: It’s been awhile. I’m glad I could talk to you.

Review: Prosthetic Memory by Alison Landsberg

Ask most Americans what they “remember” about the Holocaust, and this film will probably come up. This is the phenomenon examined by Alison Landsberg in her book.

Memory can be understood in a number of different ways. When someone asks me what a memory is–a rare but possible occurrence–I often struggle between a few options. I could go the easy way and point my hopefully friendly inquisitor to the nearest dictionary or Wiki page. That might deter the less curious. A more insistent person might push me further. At that point, I get somewhat tense. What is a memory? The trouble with finding one definition is that there are a number of ways that I think about memory and remembering. From a psychological standpoint, remembering is a function of interlocking neurological systems in the brain. Memories are traces, patterns of emotional and sensory response that the brain records. There are memories we consciously remember and memories that are recorded automatically. Memories that build blueprints of places, that allow us to feel a continuity and a progression from the past to the future. Memory is where we keep our grudges and our debts, our entire pasts as we perceive them.

These memories are trickier than they might first appear. All of them are influenced and sometimes twisted by emotions–both the ones you had at the time and the ones you feel now–and some are completely artificial. They aren’t “false” exactly, since they have a material impact on your life, but they don’t accurately represent what happened in a historical sense. Every person has their own private history, one that does not respect facts nearly as much as we expect it to. Nostalgia represents the pleasure of remembering; there is also great pain and, even worse, a dark shadow over our past.

Physiological/neurological/private memories are not the ones that Alison Landsberg primarily addresses in her book Prosthetic Memory. Rather, the work investigates collective memory, the kind of memory that is not held by an individual but by groups. She is especially interested in the kinds of memories shared by those teeming masses, the products of the industrial entertainment and mass culture complex, the audience. Her book examines how mass cultural works, especially films, create and instill memories in their audiences and how those memories come to stand in for real ones. They are, in other words, prosthetic. These are not natural or organic or historical memories, but rather constructions of culture (or at least more fully constructions of culture than “normal” memories), thought that is not their most defining feature. What gives these kinds of memories their potency for cultural change, Landsberg claims, is that they are commodified, portable, and malleable. In other words, they are memories bought for a fee and not restricted to any specific person or cultural group. While there is great danger in relying on these sorts of memories, Landsberg believes that mass culture, rather than merely a negative symptom of an alienated industrial age, can do productive, progressive, and even radical work to improve society.

Landsberg has a rather more optimistic view of commodities than many other authors of her persuasion. She especially castigates Western Marxist critics of commodification for what she considers a view of commodification that lacks nuance. Of course there is something lost in the rapid movement toward commodifying anything and everything in an unbridled capitalist economy, she admits, but there is also a great deal to be gained. Moreover, she considers that, in this era of unrestricted and universal capitalist dominance in the world, it is more useful to find what the post-industrial consumer culture can give would-be subversives rather than searching for nonexistent portals out of the system. By better understanding and utilizing this capitalist mode of producing memories for consumption through mass cultural events, progressives and radicals can exploit the system to improve or overturn it.

The reason she feels that this is an urgent matter that deserves more attention is laid out throughout the book. Her first main theme chapter, covering the birth of the film industry and the early 1900s, focuses on how prosthetic memories and mass art had an unfortunate impact on American society. By perpetuating hegemonic narratives about “melting pots” and the benefits of dissolving into the American mainstream, mass culture in its infancy helped to reinforce American norms rather than challenge them. She digs into archives of stories about immigrants giving up their languages and cultures in exchange for their new opportunities. They adopt “prosthetic memories,” memories of a common (white, European, Christian) American heritage that displaced their “natural” or “inherited” memories. But rather than seeing this as liberating, Landsberg sees these narratives as constraining and homogenizing, eradicating cultural difference for the sake of justifying and expanding an oppressive American norm of assimilation. In other words, prosthetic memories are neither good nor bad, but, because they are commodified and portable across cultural lines, can serve any number of agendas.

Having set forth a cautionary tale, partially designed to warn her readers about the dangers of ignoring or outright dismissing the power of mass culture to shape societies, she spends the rest of the book going through different examples of how different pop culture artifacts create and reinforce certain memories that are shared by audiences. To cite one example, she examines how the popular culture industry’s treatment of the Holocaust allowed Jews to transmit their “natural” memories of near-extermination through films and books like Maus to non-Jewish audiences. This transmission helps non-Jews attain prosthetic appreciation for this history and, in Landsberg’s argument, builds empathy between disparate groups. The fact that these wide-audience spectacles like Schindler’s List are pitched to a broad populace and only discriminate their audience in terms of consumers means, for the author, that they can be useful in helping to build political alliances that transcend “natural” tribes. Though I have my own problems with the Spielberg film in question, some of which she addresses (such as the fact that the film focuses on presence rather than absence and places a Gentile at the centre, though she makes a compelling argument that the latter choice is instrumental in the film’s didactic power) better than others, she makes a compelling, if imperfect, argument for the value of the flattening and commodified nature of prosthetic memories.

Landsberg offers in her book a useful concept for thinking about mass culture’s effects on the audience, and hints at how artists and critics might enact progressive agendas not by denying or attempting to reverse commodification but by taking advantage of it. While I don’t’ share the author’s same optimism, and think she could have spent more time outlining the potential risks of participating so closely in pop culture, I found this book valuable in offering a new and more comprehensive view of how popular culture affects how people act and think. Approach critically, but engage thoughtfully. I also feel that the book, because it was published before the advent of social networking (2004) and digital distribution for media, lacks a certain edge in an age where the popular culture landscape, rather than flattening and dissolving tribal boundaries, is recreating them. These are important problems to think through, but I plan on using the concept in some later writing of mine.

Next time, we’ll see how Landsberg and Napier’s books can be read together. Specifically, I will be asking: how does the idea of prosthetic memory shape what we think about how anime creates national identity in Japan.

Note: another question that might be asked is how the commodification not just of people’s memories but also of their entire identity through personalized online advertising platforms could affect her view of commodification. I wish the book had spent more time talking about how digital media might shape prosthetic memory as an idea, since there is little to go on in the book and I would like to appropriate the term for my own use.

Review: Anime: from Akira to Princess Mononoke by Susan J. Napier


In 2000, when Palgrave published Susan J. Napier’s Anime, anime was nearing its peak of visibility and popularity in North America. Canadian and American children were being raised by Pokémon and Digimon, and late-night blocks dedicated to Japanese animation were being established, making what had been a pursuit relegated to enthusiasts more accessible to a [more] mainstream audience. By the middle of the decade, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠しwould have won an Academy Award, the 1996 Disney distribution deal with Ghibli would begin to pay off in droves, and anime adaptations from Naruto to One Piece to Death Note would achieve varying degrees of high-level publicity in North America.

At this point, with the increasing marginalization of network cartoon blocks for kids in favour of cable channels and the waning of the anime market, most of the mainstream hype for anime has disappeared. This means I have received Napier’s book in a time where the apparent urgency to formulate a Western, English-language critical response to anime has decreased. Most major series still get distribution to the United States, and this has become increasingly easy with the advent of streaming services like Crunchyroll and the one hosted at Funimation’s website. These are often able to simulcast episodes with their Japanese premiers. Fan communities are just as fervent as ever. But the atmosphere has changed, become less electric and exciting. I hear few claims anymore about the advent of Japan as a new center of post-industrial cultural capitalism, and as their home market shrinks and companies increasingly cater to that decaying centre, anime, like video games and many other topics around Japan, seems to be controlled by a decline narrative.

Nonetheless, while the specific shows and films this book covers have become less relevant to the contemporary conversation about anime, the story the book weaves is still largely true. Anime is worthy of critical consideration, and it not only opens a space for collective fantasy and escape but reflects, twists, and even subverts those norms and social constructions that produced them. While anime is a product of an advanced technological and capitalistic enterprise, Napier argues, as well as a culture steeped in a dominant but paranoid patriarchy, it is not wholly supportive of those systems. Rather, it is deeply in tune with its culture’s own anxieties about itself, she argues, and to substantiate and systematize her point she develops a kind of hermeneutic triad for interpreting different works’ response to their culture: festival, apocalypse, and elegy. The first temporarily flattens and overturns social norms in a frenzy of excess or celebration. Apocalypse is more obvious: it sees a fundamental lack in the present world that can only be addressed with obliteration and, depending on its perspective, a possible renewal or final collapse. Elegiac anime, on the other hand, engages in meditation on real or imagined loss.

While this triad might be used as a crutch in place of deep engagement with specific works, Napier largely avoids pigeonholing any of the works she considers as merely one of those three. In her treatment of Akira, for instance, she recognizes an intersection of festival and apocalypse. The former can be seen in its reveling in the destruction of social boundaries and ideas of  “normalcy,” while the apocalyptic mode predominates in its obsession with the corruption of adult society and the devastation wrought on Neo Tokyo by the events of the film. Other works are examined with the same set of tools, though in different ways. In her chapters on the body, for instance, she considers works in the mecha genre, pornographic work like La Blue Girl, and the aforementioned Akira with an overriding focus on how the nature of the animated medium makes it an ideal site for examining and physical transformation. Other chapters, including those on the magical girl genre, the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and more elegiac war films like Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen (the chapters on national memory and war films will be key to the intersection of this book and Prosthetic Memory) cover different material in different ways. All of the chapters show sufficient depth of engagement and critical attention to detail to merit this book a look from serious fans of animation or visual media more generally.

Nothing in Anime: from Akira to Princess Mononoke redefines cultural criticism in any explicit way. By making room for more serious English language criticism in anime, however, it has served an important role and continues to be a valuable resource for perspectives on this vital art form. Especially as a primer for fans looking to take their appreciation of these works to a deeper level, this book comes highly recommended.

Note: this review considered the first edition. 

Preface: Prosthetic Memory and Anime

I have a human friend, whom I met a few years ago before all the celestial upheaval I encountered, who likes to walk around reading books. Over and over, I have explained to him in occasionally gruesome detail what kind of consequences he should expect by continuing to do so. Sadly, my mind blanked once and I resorted to the lawnmower scene from The Happening as an illustration. God will forgive me, if God cares.

I try to be stationary while reading, preferably lying down in a comfortable Chesterfield while my tongue lolls out and my body (almost) visibly atrophies on the spot. Despite this–perhaps eccentric–preference, there is an indisputably active component to all reading. This is because the book is not just offering itself up like a little black raincloud. To offer an inexcusably dramatic simile, it’s more like a high-pressure glass tank of those chemicals that give people superpowers. In other words, it requires constant monitoring and an aptitude for recognizing when something is about to turn for the worse. Every book is not just a “gift” or something we unwrap and receive, but also a receptacle, something that demands much more from us than our time. Literature has this way of prying its way past our defenses when we least expect it, and, unfortunately for those who want only to take and use books, there is not much we can do to avoid being changed by what we read.

Reading books together is one of the best ways to come to a better understanding of texts. I plan to do just that. For the next couple of weeks, I will be documenting both my critical perspectives on two books and the places where they overlap and can be brought into dialogue. This partnership, if you will, came about more by simple happenstance than design. Synchronicity, if you will (will what?). I read one book, picked up the other, and found remarkable resonance between them. Closeness of both time and ideas. They address different cultures and conversations in different ways, but, as I hope to convey in my series, even these seemingly disparate texts can enter into and reshape one another in fascinating ways.

The two books are Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke by Susan J. Napier and Prosthetic Memory by Alison Landsberg. I will review the first, then the second, all the while intending to write a further pair of articles showing how the one can be read into and through the other and vice versa. I am excited for the possibilities.

And, Mr. Harold Zo, if you dare touch my manuscripts again, I will eat your limbs. And I am not aware that that can be read other than literally. Then again, human creativity has no reasonable bounds. I may get to taste him yet.

Taste Is Captive to Context

Ignoring Mitch Hurwitz’s most recent advice, I decided that, considering the jigsaw-puzzle structure of the new season of Arrested Development, it would be advantageous for me to view the episodes in reverse order. Four episodes into that venture, and I believe that it is paying dividends. So far I have seen it  as a fragmented spectacle of failures, a complex, almost labyrinthine entity whose coherence is enforced only by the fiat of omnipresent voiceover narration. Further, and wandering into more dangerous critical territory, I have to admit that I have not laughed once during my entire time with the new season.

At the risk of seeming obvious, I believe that there is nothing wrong with critical uncertainty, especially about such a convoluted art/entertainment piece and at such an early stage. Perhaps by the time I reach the end of the first episode the comic aspect of the show will be more accessible to me. However, while I can recognize the intricacy and density of the show’s dialogue and narrative construction, none of it has struck me as primarily funny. This is what threw me for a loop. My memories of the previous seasons are fast eroding, since it has been a long and strange few years since watching them, but I remember them being hilarious and daring. I still see the willingness to push boundaries, but I think it has been removed from the comedic plane and nestles in the formal aspects of the show. It’s still absurd, it’s still layered and masterfully planned in spots, but the laughs have not come. Often, though the episodes are whirlwinds of cuts and shifting times and places, individual scenes have draggy, almost dreamlike pacing, running dialogue and situations in loops and meandering into obscure corners where I’m often either too depressed by the plot events or admiring of the structural oddities to laugh.

Comedic taste is a subjective and delicate matter. And I’m not even human, so there is an additional barrier to appreciation. Tigers, as a rule, are initially baffled by human comedy. Call us simpleminded or snobs, but we see it as lacking in guile and intrigue. I would prefer to emphasize that, for felines, human comedy is an acquired taste, like eel or escargot (though those will depend on your cultural situation). While perplexed by the first three seasons of Arrested Development at first, I slowly clawed my way toward a more nuanced understanding of the show and the reasons for its post-cancellation success and endless rewatchability.

It has been my experience, and I believe that science can back this up, that laughter is more likely to erupt in social situations. Watching the show alone, therefore, might be an inhibition, and the truth of this supposition might soon be tested. I suspect that even more specific situational constraints are at work here, and it has been in pursuing these that I have realized, more explicitly than I have before, that taste is fleeting. My lack of laughter at Arrested Development might be compared to my editor, who failed to enjoy several films when he was a child because he was ill with influenza when watching them. Now, I might suspect that his negative opinion of the animated Hobbit musical might stand up to another, less hallucinatory viewing. It still seems, however, that taste is, in large part, if not in whole, situationally constructed.

Taste is formed, essentially, through experience and situations. There are certainly personality traits that are formed early in life that persist consistently through our lives, and these help to form our preferences. Still, we cannot escape the situated-ness of each encounter we have with art. Each time we watch a film we are not doing so in the depths of deep space, unaffected by the entire universe save for the images flashing on the screen and the sounds in our ears. And, after all, even if we were in deep space, we had to have been born somewhere. I’m not sure how far I am willing to stretch this metaphor, but I would suggest that viewing a film even as innocuous as Madagascar in deep space would be a more profound experience than seeing it in a day care surrounded by screaming children you are being paid too little to tend to. As we are watching a film, reading a book, or listening to music, we are not only employing our taste as a tool to evaluate the work, but offering it up to the work. We are taking who we were before the experience and opening ourselves to change. This opening varies by degrees, and it can be more or less conscious, but I doubt that any experience, perhaps artistic ones most of all, can leave any person wholly unaffected.

Pain and pleasure alike can originate in this particularity of experience. My viewing of Arrested Development would probably be more pleasurable if I weren’t suffering from confusion and a minor spasm of depression due to being separated from some of those I love. Tigers don’t have many family reunions. These temporal, situational conditions are molding my perception, and this means that, as my situation changes for better, worse, or simply different, my view of the show will also change. Here is where the pleasure comes. It is this constant experiential and situational flux that allow us to return to a work of art not as an artifact of a cryogenically frozen past but as a living reality, renewed with each visit. Our tastes are perpetually metamorphosing, being deconstructed and reconstructed with each passing second.

Tastes are still worth defending, and though they might be plastic and essentially changeable, they are still, in some way, indispensable to the art of criticism. Or any art. What impoverished lives we would have if we had no tastes at all~! Art would cease to be meaningful, at least in a way we can recognize as meaningful. I would like to reclaim taste as an essential, as a basic part of what goes into engaging with art. Yet essences are malleable, because they are essential to changing beings. It is better to be humble, to view one’s tastes as contingent, even suspicious. They can lead us right or astray, and it is in attentively experiencing art, in thinking criticism, that we begin to understand what our tastes are and where they have led us so far. Are they leading us right? Or onto more and more treacherous territory? Of course, as soon as we discover where we have gotten, we will be somewhere else. This can be exhausting or exhilirating, depending on our ability to, in the words of an archaic cliché, roll with the punches. Arrested Development Season 4 may well become more hilarious as it goes. Indeed, my opinion of the show is very different from when I wrote the first words of this post. Questions like this are the ones that keep this tiger up at night, dreaming of a world that transfigures even as the sun rises.