There is a curious phenomenon that you see many times in critical circles, a dogma if you will. This dogma is maintained with near fanatical certainty by some, and among more leftist critics especially (re: most critics) it is VERY popular.
The dogma: There is no such thing as objective quality. Every opinion is subjective. It is impossible to judge whether something is good or bad objectively, only your personal opinion of it. If somebody disagrees it merely means they aren’t as good at justifying their opinion as you and can’t justify a show’s good qualities.
Naturally, this is total nonsense. And everyone knows it.
It is impossible – literally impossible – to be a critic and not believe in objective quality. Every time, without fail, no matter what, every single critic HAS to speak as if they have discovered objective qualities that make a piece of media better or worse than another. If they didn’t it would be impossible for them to talk about anything.
What is objective quality though? Well, I’m no Aristotle, and I didn’t write Poetics. I can only submit a few basic guidelines:
Maybe these guidelines aren’t exactly right. Maybe I’m way off. But even so, let’s apply it to two works – the original Star Wars film, now “A New Hope”, and “The Last Jedi”.
Did “The Last Jedi” entertain? It was a big hit, but as time has gone on it seems a growing group has come to the conclusion the answer is “No.” Certainly it entertained far, far less than “A New Hope”.
Was it attempting to execute a certain thing, but failed to do it? I’d imagine it was trying to avoid glaring plot holes, but it had them. So, without even going through the rest of the film, the answer is an immediate “no”. “A New Hope”, on the other hand, has plot holes, but due to following the structure of the fairy tale its plot holes are far less important than its structure, which it executed almost flawlessly – and those plot holes, if they even exist, are very minor.
Does it attempt to capture the sorts of qualities that have made works last the test of time? The answer with “The Last Jedi” is “Absolutely not”. In fact it is specifically attempting to do the opposite – to deliberately avoid those sorts of qualities in favor of complete deconstruction. “A New Hope”, on the other hand, is a fairy tale, a Hero’s Journey, and it intentionally invokes those timeless qualities in constructing its story.
Does the audience “The Last Jedi” was aimed for appreciate it? No. Even the die hard Star Wars fans were at best lukewarm, in aggregate. Meanwhile, the public loved “A New Hope”.
Does “The Last Jedi” attempt to communicate truth or lies? The answer is “lies”. The character assassination of our childhood heroes and the attempted lifting up of morons and losers to replace them is a lie. Meanwhile “A New Hope” shows the true power of heroism and true heroes and the triumph of good over evil. “A New Hope” tells the truth.
So what does this mean?
It means “The Last Jedi” is bad.
Obviously I am vastly oversimplifying. Again, I’m not Aristotle. I’m not trying to come up with a full theory of beauty here. And sometimes a work is only trying for certain specific things and deliberately neglect other aspects in order to make a good work. “Gurren Lagann’s” plot makes absolutely no sense, but that’s because it’s focusing on going as big and as over the top as possible knowing that this wouldn’t gel with a perfectly intelligible plot, and so chose to make that sacrifice. And sometimes the stuff a work does well it does so well that you’re more willing to overlook it’s flaws. “A New Hope” is about as cheesy a film can get, but who cares, it’s awesome!
And everybody knows this. The subjective factor is when, for some reason, somebody likes a work that is objectively bad, or for personal reasons dislikes a work that’s objectively good. “Cowboy Bebop” is a masterpiece but I know people who don’t like watching it because of how dark it gets. Alternatively I know factually that the early seasons at least of Pokémon are objectively terrible, but I like them anyway due to nostalgia. Nostalgia, however, should never be used as an excuse to avoid admitting a word is bad.
“But wait. You think Tolkien is a greatest fantasist ever but I don’t. What does that mean?”
It can mean a few things. First, it can mean that we disagree and one of us is actually wrong, though we haven’t come to a consensus on which one of us it is. Or it can mean that one author does things exceptionally well but other stuff not so well and vice versa, and each of us values something different about the work. This is where you get into real subjectivity, and the debate gets tricky – but this does not mean objective qualities of good and bad don’t exist.
And everybody HAS to speak that way, because if they don’t they can’t communicate their views properly. What does that say about the world? Is the concept of “good” or “bad” media truly so difficult to qualify that it is actually almost impossible to speak with language that doesn’t give a value judgment? Is that truly the most plausible explanation for what’s going on here?
The best argument I have seen contrary to this point of view comes from Digibro. I will warn you that even the title of the video contains strong language, so I’ll give you some space to scroll past it if necessary if you’re watching this at work or on break at school or something like that.
Digibro’s argument is, to my eye, quite bizarre. He tries to argue that because we don’t know all of the rules of reality and can conceivably be living in the Matrix to mean it is impossible to know anything about objective truth. In way of comparison he brings up the (true) fact that we don’t perceive every spectrum of light.
This is quite true in itself, but the overall point is absolutely wrong. The very rules of logic and reality mean that there are certain things that MUST be true, and using those rules we can deduce other things about reality. For example, something cannot be both true and false at the same time (we’re not talking about a trick of language here, we’re talking “I am typing in this universe at this very moment” cannot be both true and false). Aquinas reasons to the existence of God not from observations about reality but rather unbreakable rules of logic. These things will always exist, because without them, nothing would exist.
Digibro, funnily enough, denies that he can even know his hand is in front of him, because he “cannot reason for absolute truth”. This may be true, but he CAN know that it is impossible for his hand to be both in front of him and not in front of him.
So why do we assume that “Good” or “Bad” in media is not something that can be deduced from logical principles?
Is it POSSIBLE we are wrong about what we are talking about? Technically, sure. But so what? That’s what discussion is for. That’s what debate is for. The whole point of criticism is to make the argument that something you like is good or bad. If that isn’t the point of criticism then criticism has no point.
To explain what I mean, Digibro himself explains at the end of his “Asterisk War” series (link to the first video later) that the point was to help people try to understand the difference between a “1 and a 3, or a 3 or a 5” (I’m paraphrasing) on a 10 point scale. But why should he care? If the majority of people think “The Asterisk War is Great” then to them the show is a 10 and Digibro’s point is irrelevant. His whole series is reduced to navel-gazing meant for people who agreed with him in the first place.
Digibro goes on to say that it is impossible to say whether him HAVING a hand is good – that there is no metric that can be used to decide good or bad. It is remarkable that Digibro has managed 3 minutes and 10 seconds into his video to completely ignore the tradition of Natural Law morality that would argue, in fact, from logical first principles, that having a hand is, in fact, good. And if that is the basis of his video, it all falls apart; there is littler left to discuss. To see more of THAT argument, read the works of Dr. Edward Feser. His blog posts are short and easily digestible, and will help you get a primer on this sort of thinking if it is new to you.
There is little else to say about Digi’s video. He goes on to state that the metric for figuring out a definition of “Good and Bad” can only be understood if you “Know what God thinks of the world”, which is at best highly debateable and at any rate irrelevant if you believe that God actually does exist and can be proven by first principles. He has no understanding of the vast philosophical history about this very topic and as a result undermines his entire career. I suppose it helps lolicons feel better, though.
And all of this would be excusable if it was something in the realm of complex philosophy we could never expect regular people to truly grasp. Except that my position is not new. It was – really, is – the historical norm of western civilization for millennia. It was understood something like objective beauty existed, and this has been the basic assumption underpinning the creation of media throughout the entirety history of western thought. To throw it aside because you don’t understand it is a variation of the Chesterton’s Fence paradox – if you’re going to throw something as fundamental as objectivity away you better be sure you knew why people believed it in the first place.
This is all very unfair to Digibro, who is himself just one very small symptom of one very, very large problem. He has a lot of good stuff. Check out his Asterisk War series if you haven’t. Plus I’m essentially punishing him here for having the clearest video on this topic from his perspective that I’ve seen, which is in some ways a compliment. Still, this is no small matter. An issue this important, especially to a critic, cannot just go unaddressed.
Whew. This video has gone off into the weeds a bit. Now we’re in highly esoteric territory. Let’s steer into our conclusion:
Good and bad do exist, they can at least debatably be proven from first principles, and even if you don’t think that the very structure of society assumes that it does, and this includes media criticism.
Have an (objectively) great day, folks!