The Witcher and Star Wars IX; tempora cum causis (10)

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With the release on the same day (Dec. 20th 2019) of both the Netflix adaptation of The Witcher and the final installation of the new Star Wars trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker, this week we got an object lesson on how cultural criticism works on a mass scale. Before we dive in to either of these, I want again to invoke Jia Tolentino’s analysis of social media as a commercially driven organ, designed to privilege negative or otherwise emotionally provocative content. In Trick Mirror, Tolentino writes that over time, personal lives transforming into public assets via social media meant that “social incentives — to be liked, to be seen — were becoming economic ones” (2019: 6). She goes on: “Twitter, for all its discursive promise, was where everyone tweeted complaints at airlines and bitched about articles that had been commissioned to make people bitch” (2019: 7-8). Looking at the internet as an exercise of performativity (one that extends and magnifies the natural human performativity of the offline world), Tolentino writes that “the internet is defined by a built-in performance incentive” (2019: 8). In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell (2019: 18) discusses social media too, drawing in the remarks of Franco Berardi: 

“Berardi, contrasting modern-day Italy with the political agitations of the 1970s, says the regime he inhabits ‘is not founded on the repression of dissent; nor does it rest on the enforcement of silence. On the contrary, it relies on the proliferation of chatter, the irrelevance of opinion and discourse, and on making thought, dissent, and critique banal and ridiculous.’ Instances of censorship, he says, ‘are rather marginal when compared to what is essentially an immense informational overload and an actual siege of attention, combined with the occupation of the sources of information by the head of the company.’ [Berardi 2011: 35] It is this financially incentivized proliferation of chatter, and the utter speed at which waves of hysteria now happen online, that has so deeply horrified me and offended my senses and cognition as a human who dwells in human, bodily time.”

The commercial incentive of online interaction is what particularly disturbs Odell; the communities and networks of social media are one thing, the design of such platforms to fulfill a capitalist purpose is another. Odell continues (2019: 60):

“Our aimless and desperate expressions of these platforms don’t do much for us, but they are hugely lucrative for advertisers and social media companies, since what drives the machine is not the content of information but the rate of engagement. Meanwhile, media companies continue churning out deliberately incendiary takes, and we’re so quicky outraged by their headlines that we can’t even consider the option of not reading and sharing them.”

All of this has a bearing on what happened this week. When Netflix dropped The Witcher last Friday, it was met with some noteworthy and negative reviews. Darren Franich and Kristen Baldwin’s “Netflix’s The Witcher is nakedly terrible: Review” (Entertainment Weekly) gave the series an F grade, with a 0/100 on Metacritic. These reviewers immediately, and justifiably, came under fire themselves given that they admitted that they did not watch the series in its entirety. Reponse to The Witcher has been divided: critics hate it, the public loves it. So is The Witcher any good? One of the barriers here is the general distaste for “genre” pieces. Some might avoid science fiction, fantasy, or romance just because it is labled so. Ursula K. Le Guin took on this problem in her essay, “Genre: a word only a Frenchman could love” (reprinted in Words are My Matter, 2019: 10):

“So we have accepted a hierarchy of fictional types, with ‘literary fiction,’ not defined, but consisting almost exclusively of realism, at the top. All other kinds of fiction, the ‘genres,’ are either listed in rapidly descending order of inferiority or simply tossed into a garbage heap at the bottom. This judgemental system, like all arbitrary hierarchies, promotes ignorance and arrogance. It has seriously deranged the teaching and criticism of fiction for decades, by short-circuiting useful critical description, comparison, and assessment. It condones imbecilities on the order of ‘If it’s science fiction it can’t be good, if it’s good it can’t be science fiction.'” 

In the preface to her (critically acclaimedThe Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin had already drawn attention to the fact that science fiction, like any literature, is about its present, not the future (1969/1999: xvi):

“All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life — science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of those metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.”

The Witcher is not actually “about” magic and monsters; it’s about the relationship between storytelling and reality (Jaskier’s song vs. Geralt’s action), about the pain of isolation (Yennefer), about trying to live your life despite tempestuous circumstances (Geralt); it’s about assembling strange families, when biological ones fail (Geralt, Yennefer, Ciri). Assigning an F to The Witcher because it successfully engages with its own genre, one which you, the reviewer, do not know or care enough about to situate the object of your critique within, removes the rich layers of cultural entanglement which may make such a show worthwhile to a viewer like me. Le Guin continues (2019: 10): “If you don’t know what kind of book you’re reading and it’s not the kind you’re used to, you probably need to learn how to read it. You need to learn the genre.”

I’m not coming at this from a neutral perspective, since I voraciously played and replayed, and loved Witcher 3. But is Netflix’s The Witcher “objectively bad”? No, it’s not. It has haunting performances from Anya Chalotra (Yennefer) and Henry Cavill (Geralt) is perfection. The fight scenes are incredible. And it’s beautiful to look at. Yes, they say “destiny” too many times. But, look, it’s a romp!

On to Star Wars, then. Since we kept up our tradition of seeing the newest Star Wars on Christmas eve, I was aware of an enormous amount of critical disappointment and fan anger regarding the latest installment before I saw the film itself. You know what? It was fine. Yes, it had a very fast pace, and it wasn’t seamless with the trilogy’s own self-mythologizing. The Star Wars universe is full of holes because of the method of its composition; to some extent the writing, and overwriting (if you think that’s what J.J. is doing) resembles the process of story development in the oral tradition of the Greek epic canon, and in its reception. Consider Odysseus in the Iliad vs. Odysseus in the Odyssey vs. Odysseus in Sophocles’ Ajax. Indeed, the empty spaces projected by Star Wars are part of its charm: it’s a perfect landscape for imaginative rethinking, whether in the form of fan fiction, fan art, or roleplaying games like Edge of The Empire. That Star Wars captures the modern imagination so strongly is somewhat ironically reflected in the strength of the vitriol against it (and in the fan art. Peruse #reylo only if you dare).

All of this might be fine if it really were so simple. The emotional economy of the internet has a role to play here, but in this case we end up in a different place than we did with The Witcher. Anthony Breznican of Vanity Fair recorded J.J. Abrams’ public response to the backlash against TROS :

“After a screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Friday, I [=Breznican] asked Abrams what he would say to those who are unhappy. Are they not getting something? Is there a problem in the fandom? ‘No, I would say that they’re right,’ he answered quickly. ‘The people who love it more than anything are also right.’ The director had just returned from a global tour with the film, where he also fielded questions about that mixed reaction. ‘I was asked just seven hours ago in another country, ‘So how do you go about pleasing everyone?’ I was like’ What…?’ Not to say that that’s what anyone should try to do anyway, but how would one go about it? Especially with Star Wars.’ With a series like this, spanning more than four decades, nearly a dozen films, several TV shows, and countless novels, comics, and video games, the fanbase is so far-reaching that discord may be inevitable. ‘We knew starting this that any decision we made — a design decision, a musical decision, a narrative decision — would please someone and infuriate someone else,’ Abrams said. ‘And they’re all right.'”

You can see how the viewers’ response to Star Wars might be taken as a reflection of contemporary political and cultural life in the US. In the New York Times, Annalee Newitz affirmed Le Guin’s view that cultural artefacts, sci-fi or not, are reflective of the society which produces and consumes them:

Star Wars became a new national mythos; it rebooted America’s revolutionary origin story and liberty-or-death values using the tropes of science fiction. Now, however, the movies no longer strike the same chord. Just as America’s political system is falling into disarray again, our cultural mythmaking machine is faltering as well.”

How and why we critique Star Wars may well reflect some deeper truth about the times we live in, but there’s another dark side to all this (get it?). To some extent the divided criticism is irrevelant, given that TROS earned an enormous amount of money. Indeed, the controversy only helped bring in the dollars (not to mention all the baby yodas hiding under the xmas trees this year). We entrusted our storytelling to a capitalist behemoth, and it’s disconcerting that cultural criticism has no impact on its forward march. Some have suggested that the F rating which Entertainment Weekly gave The Witcher was motivated by a desire to get more eyeballs (and more $) by artificially stirring up controversy. Given that the internet runs on divisiveness and ire (these are our social currencies), that might have been an economically shrewd move. But was it good cultural criticism?