Negative criticism—its utility, ethics, and cultural politics—is one of those subjects that keeps on giving to essayists and newspaper columnists.
I know this because that’s how a column I wrote ten years ago for the Globe and Mail started off. Since then I’ve been asked on several other occasions to write at length about “going negative.” It’s a debate that some of us need to keep having. But while we’ve all been here before, in Hater, culture critic John Semley does advance some new arguments for being against so much.
But why? Why do we have to write apologies for bad reviews in the first place? Why should the exercise of critical judgment need to be defended?
In part it’s just a function of the sheer volume of media that modern life confronts us with. If, as Theodore Sturgeon’s classic formulation had it, ninety percent of everything is crap, this means we’re drowning in shit every day. Why pretend it’s all good, or ignore what’s bad? Who does that benefit? Certainly not the consumer.
“The function of criticism”—Semley is writing a manifesto and so is quick with categorical statements like this—“should be to jam a spanner in the works.” Or: “If, as a quote commonly attributed to Picasso goes, ‘art is a lie that tells the truth,’ then mass culture is a lie that tells a lie. Criticism that does not speak truth to this lie only serves it.”
This talk of jamming the works, the lie that is mass culture, and the need to speak truth to power gives you a good idea of where Semley is coming from. Very much a student of the Frankfurt School, whose leftist critique of the culture industry valued “negative thinking” in resisting dominant ideological paradigms, he emphasizes the political value of being a contrarian, of raging against the corporate-capitalist media machine. Adopting Marx’s youthful call for “the ruthless criticism of all that exists,” he sees arts criticism as a necessary training ground, a “sandbox, in which the hater can play and grow before moving into the harsh concrete jungle of realpolitik.” Semley writes, “The aesthetic dimension is the space, the abstracted realm, in which one learns how to consider, how to admire, how to disagree and undermine, how to think for oneself.” From there the early exercise of our critical muscles will help us develop not just in a political but a personal sense.
The specific words Semley uses are important. Critical judgment should not be seen as “negative” but rather as oppositional. The true hater is not a troll but a radical non-conformist, a freedom fighter, a revolutionary. The hater is also progressive, recognizing that civilization can only advance by constantly challenging the status quo and that our species thrives and evolves through conflict and interrogation. Semley doesn’t want to just tear down the existing order; he wants criticism to be productive, inspiring, elevating, and emancipating.
The language of emancipation and of undermining the dominant culture gives the analysis a political bent beyond what Semley derides as the present vogue for socially conscious criticism. His politics are more essential to his approach than is suggested by the tag of being “woke.” He isn’t using art to advance an agenda—the cultural is the political on a level that elides superficial party distinctions. We should by now have given up on trying to find a difference between the manufacturing of consent by the right or the left, in the arts or in politics. To take an obvious contemporary example, the cult of celebrity and its machinery operates the same way whether the name you’re branding is Taylor Swift or Donald Trump.
Being a manifesto informs the style in which Hater is written and the form it takes. It’s a short book with the flavour of a public lecture, peppered with highly quotable rhetoric. Like a lot of manifestos, it’s also a passionate broadside, a clarion call to wake the sheeple from their slumbers. This is because the opposite of constructive hate is not love but passive indifference. “Against the creeping malaise of a post-critical culture of consensus” or, more poetically, our “drowning in the deluge of damnable sameness,” Semley argues for contrarian “dissensus.”
Also typical of the manifesto form is the way it sticks to generalities. One of the more frustrating things about Hater is that it draws so lightly from such a wide range of sources—from classical -philosophy to critical theory to pop music—-without digging deeper into the various bullet points it raises. Despite extolling the virtues of hating, it’s rarely clear what is to be hated. Utter disagreeability can’t abide agreeability, but as we move on from this tautology there are few concrete examples of a particular enemy or “other” in Semley’s critical crosshairs. What is to be resisted is the culture industry in general and its construction of mass consensus. Specific examples of what we are supposed to be directing our hate toward are thin on the ground.
A good example of both the strength and weakness of Semley’s argument is his chapter on what the internet has done to criticism. It’s why the message of a book like Hater is more important than ever, but it’s also a line of argument that finally leaves us up in the air.
The impact the internet has had on book and film reviewing is now pretty well known, with print space for reviews either shrinking or disappearing entirely in just the past several years. I know young authors who are amazed to hear me talk about the days when even local newspapers had weekly book pages, or when stand-alone book sections in major newspapers were common. It was blogs, we were told, that were going to fill the gap when print died. That didn’t happen. What we got instead was the review aggregator: the reduction of criticism to a score distilled from the wisdom of crowds and posted on Amazon, Goodreads, Metacritic, or Rotten Tomatoes.
The upshot of all of this has been the weakening of independent criticism and the triumph of the hive mind (just think of the internet headlines that tell us what “we” can’t get enough of, or what “we” are amazed by). Semley writes, “Instead of thoughtful argumentation or engaged conversation, instead of thinking and, in turn, encouraging readers to think, criticism in the age of Big Data has mutated into a consumer scorecard.” A scorecard, I would add, that tends to leave everything stranded in a mushy middle of three-and-a-half stars out of five, effecting a vast levelling that sees everything as pretty much the same, with “taste and opinion and discernment…conflated with scientific consensus.” This is the passionless nowhere land of Semley’s nightmares, where nobody loves or hates anything. It is “a drive toward simplicity, and a dangerous reduction.”
What’s behind all this is mob rule and the corporate bottom line. Hashtag justice is meted out to critics who stray too far from the groupthink of poptimism, while every “like” and upvote can be used to make a cash register ring. Amazon owns Goodreads while Rotten Tomatoes is run by Fandango, an online box office that sells movie tickets. As Semley concludes, “Any daylight between consensus and commerce has been effectively blotted out.”
But it gets worse. It is the nature of the internet to reproduce existing attitudes and biases and drive consensus by herding us into silos of the like-minded. This is done by way of various mysterious operations that Semley dubs the Algorithm, a media bubble-blowing machine. And the Algorithm doesn’t just give us Transformers movies. It gave, and continues to give us Donald Trump, served up daily on Twitter and Facebook feeds. Any daylight between entertainment and politics has also been blotted out.
If there is an at least somewhat tangible enemy in Hater it is this Algorithm, whose effect Semley is very good on:
The Algorithm functions to drive toward accord and preclude divisiveness and contrarian chirping. It has created a new, dangerous standard of agreeability. We respond to content that appeals to our biases. We like and click and share in search of consensus. And not only with some perceived bloc to which we might belong. We desire consensus with ourselves—an internal accord.
This is the frame of analysis that makes Hater’s message new and worth attending to. And yet, what is the Algorithm? Is it the culture industry? Capitalism? Some technological fix for our need to be connected to others, even if it comes at the price of our critical conscience, our utter -disagreeableness?
This brings us back to the question of locating specific targets for our hatred. “Indifference is the enemy,” Semley concludes, but then what is it we are supposed to care about? The Algorithm has to take some form for it to be challenged, some soul to be damned or body to be kicked. The need to question all that exists and accept no truths as self-evident is a solid place to start, but we can’t remain long in a state of radical doubt, thinking “I hate therefore I am.” It’s unclear whether Semley has in mind a dialectic process where oppositional thinking is, consciously or not, directed toward some future goal that can’t as yet be ascertained. Instead, as dreadful as it is to contemplate, I find his Algorithm has an end-of-history feel to it, and his consensus consumer, indifferent and unthinking while he scrolls and clicks, has the appearance of the last man.