In a piece about the concept of “relatability,” inspired in part by Ira Glass’s dopey complaints about Shakespeare, Rebecca Mead writes:
to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.
Relatability is indeed a somewhat troublesome lens through which to look at art, and given that Glass’s take on Shakespeare was the hottest of hot takes, I’m happy to read some criticism of both. But this is odd. Selfies are the opposite of solipsism; they are the creation of a perspective that is entirely alien to the person taking them. None of us can naturally see our own face. We build mirrors precisely to get outside of our own perspective. We use the camera to put ourselves in the position of other people. Call that what you’d like, but it isn’t solipsistic.
Complaints that we’re all self-obsessed are evergreen, but I think that they badly miss the point in our current technological moment. Rather than being obsessed with our own point of view, I think we are instead in an era in which we are obsessed with the gaze of others. Yes, we are watching others watch us, and so there’s a second order sense in which we are still the subject of our own drama. But rather than being uninterested in the point of view of others, I think we have constructed an immense digital apparatus to focus on little else. There’s the obvious culprit of social media and blogs (like this one), where the opinions of others are fed to us in an endless stream. But there’s also Most Emailed lists, Netflix and Amazon recommendations (based on “people like us,” whoever that might be), algorithms that measure popularity or “virality,” online reviews, crowdsourcing…. All of this, I think, has consequences for what it means to be a person, and I am afraid not that we’re too much ourselves but that we’ve forgotten how to be, without instantaneous information about how other people are.
In a piece on the internet phenomenon that is performatively hating Zach Braff, Noel Murray writes:
I think the phenomenon Fritz is describing is just an unfortunate byproduct of how the cultural discourse has developed in the Internet age. Even though we live in an era of fragmentation, where people can more easily seek out and enjoy their own niche entertainments or opinions, the conversation online often seems to presume—or to push for—a monoculture. It’s almost as though we’re all anxious for some certainty: a point of view shared so widely that dissenters are singled out as freaks or morons. Often that means that movies most people don’t feel strongly enough about either to defend or dispute get defined by a passionate few, who want to make sure that the default position on a film like Garden State is that it’s an abomination.
Of all of my many petty complaints about online culture, this is the one that bums me out the most: that a set of technologies that enable limitless diversity in tastes seem to push towards numbing consensus. Take, for example, the phenomenon of the perfect “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the people who punish critics for spoiling one. I find this totally bizarre: critical unanimity on any piece of art means that criticism has failed, because a critical establishment that does not represent a diversity of opinion must be one that has systematically excluded a particular point of view. And any artwork that everybody likes must be, in a certain deep sense, toothless and unthreatening. More and more, I find that the middlebrow projects that receive the most unified, unbroken praise are fine but boring, crafted to be critic-proof, beautiful but safe.
Undoubtedly, human beings paying attention to what other human beings think is a good thing. Perhaps this type of chronic obsession with the hive mind is a necessary precondition of a new era of empathy and consideration. If so, I’ll gladly make the trade. But I worry about what it means to exist as a thinking individual when the subtle conditioning of other people’s opinions is a constant. And I’m worry about these passionate young writers who seem deeply uncomfortable with being disliked, when being disliked is a natural consequence of writing things worth reading. What I think is possible, and worth fighting for, is a culture where we strive to understand one another, but can achieve that understanding, recognize disagreement, and live comfortably with the mutual rejection of someone else’s opinion.