Monday, 22 December 2014

The Myth of Objectivity *Updated*

Only one of these applies to fiction

There are a few words and phrases I’d like to see removed from comic-reading community’s vernacular. I’ve spoken about some of them- “anti-hero”, for example is one (it’s not an angry hero- it’s a villain that we follow as though he were the hero. Ergo, BATMAN, SCARLET SPIDER, THE NEW 52 JUSTICE LEAGUE AND AGENT VENOM AREN’T ANTI-HEROES!), “real fan” is another (it’s normally shorthand for “people who agree with me” and is inherently elitist).

The worst one, by far is “objectivity”. It’s one that, like “real fan” gets used to “win” an argument. The comment usually goes something like this; Guardians of the Galaxy is an objectively better film than Man of Steel- that’s not just my opinion, its fact. I can prove this by…

Someone tried to use this as "objective" proof... Kill me now.
 
And then follows a rather pretentious list of everything the fan believes makes Guardians of the Galaxy an objectively more entertaining film. Box office numbers, ratings on Rottentomatoes.com, their favourite bits of Guardians compared to their least-favourite bits of Man of Steel and, that pinnacle of argument-winners; the gif. The idea seems to be that, presented with the evidence, the other side should shut up.

But, of course, the other side never shuts up.

And why should they? They loved the Man of Steel and found Peter Quill’s dance-off to be a little ridiculous.

Yes, please shut up.
The objectivity argument fails to hold water for a number of reasons, but the biggest one is that what many arguers take for “evidence” isn’t actually evidence at all. Box office numbers, for example, only refer to how much money a movie made. That seems like as good a piece of data as any, because it’s an actual number and they don’t lie, right? But box office numbers DON’T tell us a number of things. It doesn’t tell us how many tickets were sold. They don’t tell us how many people went to see it a second time, reducing the amount who actually saw it, or how many saw it once and considered it not worth their time. It doesn’t tell us how many saw it in an IMAX or in 3D- which is a far more expensive ticket. And it doesn’t tell us how many people actually liked the film.

Critical acclaim is another one that the objectivity trolls like to refer to. If lots of people liked the movie that means it’s good and you should like it too, right? Conversely, if lots of people hated the movie, you’d better hate it too or risk being ostracised by the cool kids! Unfortunately, critical acclaim also doesn’t tell you anything more than that this particular critic liked the movie; it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll like it (for example, look at these three very different reviews of Justice League: Throne of Atlantis).

But the ultimate flaw in the objectivity argument is the idea that the quality of a narrative can be objectively determined. See, reading or viewing a narrative is a deeply subjective (that is, non-objective, for those dumb enough to argue objectivity) experience. When we read or view any story, we bring our own thoughts, feelings and experiences to the narrative. Naturally, some stories are going to resonate well with you, some aren’t- but that’s not because of some concrete notion of “quality”; it’s because your thoughts, feelings and experiences have led to closely relating to, or becoming excited by that story. That’s something you can’t qualify or quantify, and it definitely isn’t something you would call “objective”.

From a geriatric Batman/Superman, to a shoehorned
fight between the two characters, to half the book
being given over to talking head newsreaders, there were
many things that didn't appeal to me in this book. It
might be your favourite, though.
I realise, of course, that I’ve worked myself into a corner, here. As a reviewer, I’m “expected” to write objectively. But that expectation is misguided. I’m expected to call things as I see them. If I see, say, The Clone Saga (one that I haven’t read yet) as an entertaining tale that tells a story that I find compelling, then that’s likely what I will write in my reviews. If I see The Dark Knight Returns as a overdrawn, confusing, mess (I’ve read it, and see it as just that), then that’s what I’ll say in a review. You’re experience of either story may be totally different. You may love the constant news anchors talking to each other in The Dark Knight Returns- that’s fine. It doesn’t, however, make my review less valid any more than my review makes your opinion less valid.

Overall, reading is a deeply personal experience. Quality, as such, is highly subjective. Instead of trying to prove “objectively” that one narrative is better than another, we need to know what we like, and just get down to the business of enjoying that thing.