How We Talk About Anime: The Limits of Subjectivity

Answering the question of whether something is “good” or not is far more troublesome than you’d think. If you’re ever asked this question about a particular piece of media, I recommend holding off for a few years before giving an answer. If you’re lucky, maybe the inquirer will have forgotten their question by then, and you can return to living your life in peace.

Seriously. When you take a step back and identify all the steps involved, you come to realize you’re doing in incredible amount of intellectual labor. First, you have to collect your experience of a work of art into a fine judgement. Well, even before that, you have to decide you did, indeed, experience a work of “art” and analyze it in that context. You have to make the choice, consciously or unconsciously, how you interpret that art. This is already tedious cognitive work on your end. How dare someone put such a burden on you with a question so casual and inoffensive sounding as “Was it good?”

You see a lot of different approaches to media criticism in the Animanga-sphere, but what’s interesting about that is the fact we’re simply repeating debates about media criticism that have been going on for well over a hundred years. For most viewers, how they evaluate an anime is as simple as whether they liked it or not, which usually comes down to how the show made them feel.

Literary critics around the mid-twentieth century weren’t super thrilled with that kind of approach. Their school, dubbed “the New Criticism,” thought such an approach lacked rigor and took attention away from the “text” itself. They called it “the affective fallacy” – subjective emotions shouldn’t guide appraisals of art, but an objective analysis of how a work’s textual elements came together to create a cohesive whole would reveal greater insights and enhance our appreciation (or more finely detect the failings) of a text’s inner workings. It wasn’t a math equation about isolating and counting up individual pieces either – which is, incidentally, the way you see reviews on MAL most commonly structured (“Story 10, Music 5, Art 5 = Final Score 6.6666…”). The important thing was how the parts resonated with each other to produce the effect of ever-increasing complexity and richness (“Every time I watch this show I get something new out of it”).

The New Critics thought of art as a self-contained object as opposed to a transmission from author to reader or the result of societal forces puppeteering the author’s hand. It didn’t matter to the New Critics what the author meant when they made certain choices in the work – this was “the intentional fallacy.” All that mattered was the work itself, and the value of the work was in its sense of unity, aesthetic functionality, and ability to speak to universal human truths. Postmodern critics would later come along and make a mockery of the idea that art could achieve any stable meaning or that universal truths existed, but the problems raised by the New Critics stand the test of time, and they’re the reason it’s still important to base your critiques on evidence from the work itself.

Before this dives into a full-blown lecture on the history of literary theory, let’s refocus on the topic at hand: how to determine whether something is good or not. The issue we keep bumping up against is whether it’s possible to judge art objectively or if it is unavoidably subjective. I remember about a year ago I posted two “top five” anime lists on twitter. One of these lists included five works I thought spoke to the best of the medium’s artistic merits, and the other list included the five works I found to be of greatest personal value. Some folks expressed shock that I could divorce the two, but I was only doing my best to navigate the thorny question of objectivity and subjectivity in media criticism. We’ll return to this in a second, though.

The New Critics weren’t wrong about the problem of reducing all art to subjective critique. Without some manner of agreed upon methodology, there’s no way we can come together as a community and decide what we edify and what we condemn aside from popularity contests. The fact is, we already do this, and we all agree it’s terrible. Just look at the MAL top ten. Forget erecting a canon. Forget having constructive discussions. We wouldn’t even be able to have a dialogue. We kinda don’t.

This is where the Reader Response critics come in. I love these folks. In the 60s, these critics found a pretty savvy way to walk the tightrope amidst all these intellectual tensions. If you imagine a big diagram where text, reader, society, and author are all points on a square, in the middle you find the word “meaning” in all caps. The question here is, “Which point is most important?” If the New Critics said “text” and the postmodernists said “lol,” then Reader Response critics channeled their energies into studying how the reader fit into the equation. One of the biggest ideas from this school is the concept of “interpretive communities.”

When you ask a batch of people what a text means, whether it’s good or bad, et cetera, you’re going to get a distribution. Rather than having unique perspectives, we tend to arrange ourselves in groups of thought. For example, some people will say Sword Art Online is a subtly brilliant exploration of how online spaces are crucibles in which we find, forge, and express our true selves (okay, maybe I will say that). Other folks will decry it as a pubescent, misogynist power fantasy with shaky plotting and an exasperating pace (I say this when Eugeo and Yuuki are offscreen). Others will shrug and say it’s fine (wow, I am just all over this spectrum). What you won’t see people saying is that it’s about how giraffes are the superior mammal. If someone were to espouse such a ludicrous interpretation, we would be very confused as to how they reached that thesis. Just because there’s no ultimately correct way to interpret a work of art doesn’t mean that every interpretation is valid. Context is the almighty determiner of validity and meaning. There are degrees to which we can accept certain readings based on well-presented reasoning, but it still has to be demonstrated in the text itself. Subjectivity in art does not mean that anything goes. Whether they’re adhered to or not, most stories do suggest “preferred” ways of reading them after all.  

And the thing is, we already have a language for rating visual storytelling, one we’ve been cultivating for as long as film has been around. These methods of evaluation may not be universally true for every viewer and critic, but they aren’t grasped out of thin air. This is where the idea of interpretive communities helps us better understand our limitations and bridge the gap. Different circles value different aspects of anime: some are happy with a work as long as it does what they want it to do and it makes them feel something. This is why genres exist, to invite consumers into a contract with a story to fulfill (or upend) their expectations. Some of us are participating in the refined but transparently artificial practice of serious media criticism based on the evolution of its discourses over the past several centuries. Some of us hyper-focus on singular elements, such as the sakuga community’s dedication to impressive showings of fluidity and craftsmanship in animation. Most of us are strewn between multiple communities, which are themselves divided into even smaller and furtherly diverse interpretrive communities, each with wildly different tastes and values.

This brings us back to my “objective” top five list, which, you’ll notice, I never touted as being objective in the first place. My evaluation was based on my years of studying narrative media from both aesthetic and contextual/political frameworks. These perspectives are deeply influenced by my experiences in academia. I own up to my own artistic sensibilities. This is why I can separate the works that make me feel most human and the works I think are best from my understanding of what makes a story good. You can say it’s my subjective attempt at an objective critique. That’s not a contradiction. It’s simply an awareness that this is all much, much more complicated than my own gut feelings toward a piece of media. To claim your takes are entirely personal is to assert some impossible independence from the world around you, and the same goes for the opposite notion.

Don’t think I’m asking you to change how you go about watching cartoons. I will not hunt you down for listing all your favorite shows as 10s in your AniList spreadsheets. I think, though, if you want to be intellectually honest – if you want to expand your ability to appreciate the medium and extend your enjoyment of it – you’ll have to reckon with the dilemma at hand. Whether it’s learning new vocabulary, acknowledging opposing perspectives, or digging into the production side of the anime industry, there are no downsides to acquiring new ways of appraising art. Becoming more knowledgeable will only make you a sharper viewer. This is especially important for well-publicized critics or anyone seeking to enter that realm of discourse. No matter who you are, humility and open-mindedness will always serve both yourself and those you interact with.

In conclusion, learning is good. I’m going to keep doing it.

6 thoughts on “How We Talk About Anime: The Limits of Subjectivity

  1. During my first dive into postmodernist art critique, my brain was still on “THERE IS SUCH A THING AS BAD OPINIONS” fuel, and after speaking with some literary critics, I came away with the safe belief that ‘no opinion is automatically invalid, but there is such a thing as a strong reading and a weak reading’. Which is something you touch on with the giraffes example – you might read sword art online that way, but unless you can make a compelling case for it in conversation with the work, then no one is going to follow you.

    And to an extent I still believe in that, I just don’t think it’s the pinnacle of criticism anymore. Sure, you might walk away from a work with a weak reading if you haven’t done much work to justify it, but it being a weak reading really only matters if you’re looking to convince others of your takeaways from it, and that’s a pretty personal decision. One that I become less and less infatuated with the more I engage with art.

    I think our interactions with art are inherently transformative, and that kind of gets forgotten when we talk about visual media (film, television, animation) as opposed to more obvious examples you see at modern art galleries (e.g. works that change shape based on where you stand). Even something as innocuous as watching an anime on a small screen with crappy audio can alter your appreciation of it, and that’s before we get into bigger subjects like how disability might change our perspective (e.g. how does some who is colourblind navigate a film that uses heavy colour symbolism?). Which is why I don’t really advocate for less criticism in one focus, or more criticism in another. I don’t really subscribe to the MAL way of breaking up anime into separate components, but I love that it exists and I want it to stick around. Not only because it clearly provides value to people, and the format is accessible to people without a background in media criticism, but also because I’m a junkie for that transformative experience. I want to hear how someone who compartmentalizes art appreciates it, just as much as I want to hear the giraffe take, and the perspective of someone who watches anime at 1.5 x speed. A truly comprehensive view is impossible to achieve, not only because of how much learning that would require, but also because so many ways of viewing clash with one another, so I’d rather just let criticism run free and see where it leads me. Agreement with every take I come across isn’t really a requirement let alone the goal, when instead I can just think about how it might inform my own perspective, or even just be entertained!

    You bring up this line “To claim your takes are entirely personal is to assert some impossible independence from the world around you” and I’d be disagreeing with it were it not for the choice wording of “entirely”. We basically all bring some shared cultural or physical sensibilities when we engage with media in any capacity, but we also bring a ton of personal experience to the table, and even how we interpret based on those cultural and physical aspects can lead to a near infinite degree of unique understandings. Though our unwillingness to keep our experiences personal does lead to a lot of community approved takes, which I personally find to be a net negative, even if I have the self-awareness to know that not everyone shares my overtly artisy sensibilities.

    At the very least I feel that questioning whether or not a piece of art is “good” is rarely the most productive endeavour, let alone the one with the most fascinating answers. But I won’t stop people for chasing it, because me telling people how they should interact with art would not only be self-serving, it would likely come with unintended consequences that limits the scope of what criticism can be, and who is allowed to give it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve never read something and simply agreed wholeheartedly. Even trying to wrap my head around any problems I might have with this, insignificant or otherwise, I think everything written here matches exactly my feelings on the subject. Bravo, friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve got to say that this was an extremely liberating article to read, thank you for writing it. My engagement with the artform of Animé is really coloured by my preconceptions and as a result I am afraid to engage with it, even though I am a lecturer on an animation course in Higher Education in the UK.

    But reading the article it has assured me not to be afraid of doing so and to realise that what other people celebrate or put down they can (and should) stand on a merit whose personal judgement is only influenced by more and more engagement.

    I am keen, now to begin properly steeping myself in it.

    Really really great, and thank you again.

    Jim

    Liked by 1 person

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