DIY Hype

My recent study of Adorno has me looking at popular culture and everyday interactions through Adorno-shaded lenses. One phenomenon that jumps out at me is the tendency toward spurious “ranking,” that is, the expression of personal preference as an objective feature of the work. We don’t hear that our friends really liked a given album, for instance — we hear that it’s probably one of the best albums of the year. Even on purely personal measures, there’s a tendency toward ranking, as when one declares a given film their “favorite movie of all time.”

Why do we talk like this? Certainly learning that Ulysses was declared the greatest novel of the 20th century by some authoritative source doesn’t tell us anything concrete about the book. Such lists rarely include any discussion of the methodology or standards employed to reach the listed judgments, and they certainly don’t include any extended discussion of how the works in question concretely met those standards. At best, rankings serve as a kind of advertisement for the books on them. When you see that Ulysses or Citizen Kane or Beethoven’s Ninth is “the best,” you think to yourself, “I should check that out, or at least feel guilty for not doing so.”

I’d say the same applies for purely personal declarations: they are quite literally “word of mouth advertising.” They are structured exactly like an advertisement. The declaration that a book is surely one of the best of the decade, for instance, could be seamlessly transplanted onto the back of the book as a “blurb,” and the hipster’s passionate endorsement of the best album of the year would not be out of place in a full-page ad for the album in a music magazine. (In this respect, one could read Zizek’s famously exaggerated book blurbs — recently I read one in which he declared Adrian Johnston the greatest political philosopher of all time — as in line with his recommendation to undermine the dominant ideology by taking it as seriously as possible. We’re supposed to reduce scholarly works to consumer goods with the language of marketing? Alright, then let’s really do it!)

Certainly the superabundance of cultural production, which has not been matched by an increase in our available attention, makes advocacy and prioritizing inevitable. Yet these rankings become a kind of black hole of attention and debate. Very rarely does a ranking prompt discussion of the actual expressive content of a work — the debate almost always remains on the level of the ranking itself (“What kind of fool could think Citizen Kane is more important than Breathless?”).

Our discussion of cultural goods implicitly endorses their reduction to competing commodities, so that when we’re talking about Joyce vs. Proust, we might as well be talking about Coke vs. Pepsi. And the only alternative I can think of is the notion that serious criticism, which tests the quality of the work by demonstrating the degree to which it sustains and rewards the scarce attention we devote to it, would really be the best possible advertisement for a work.

16 thoughts on “DIY Hype

  1. At first I thought this was going to be about the explosion in do-it-yourself television programs and internet sites. What would Adorno say about that? I watch the heck out of those shows.

  2. I only watch those shows when visiting my family during holidays, but does it seem to you that they are almost always remodelling the house in order to increase its resale value? Rather than, for example, to enjoy their house more?

  3. I really enjoyed this post, and I think this line is where you really nail the problem: “Certainly the superabundance of cultural production, which has not been matched by an increase in our available attention, makes advocacy and prioritizing inevitable.”

    I wonder if tracing out the use of phrases like “the best” “one of the top” or “of all time” in advertising (maybe among urban newspapers and magazines) could help trace out this tradition a bit more and lend insight. For instance, when do we imagine this “ranking” culture emerged? How closely tied is it to industrial product and the rise of the middle class?

    Again, great post. I think there’s a lot to dig into!

  4. I wonder if what you describe here is a degraded form of what Kant sees as our desire that aesthetic judgements be more than merely ‘subjective’ judgements of taste?

  5. Love this post. I think the notion of alternative criticism here is lacking, however, as though the “degree to which [said media] sustains and rewards the scarce attention we devote to it” is an important factor, I think the more important factor is the quality of attention said devotee has. “Word of mouth advertising” does nothing to the objective value of a work in and of itself, but it rather tells us about the value of the person in relation to the work being criticized. I know this sounds ‘de-subjectifying” – but it remains that there are certain subjects one considers more or less valuable in a given context (i.e. I wouldn’t want a symphony musician to do my dental work*). Naturally, then, when your 12 year old nephew critiques the essay on Hegelian dialectic you sent her for review and says, “I didn’t understand anything. It doesn’t make any sense” you won’t throw your arms up in the air and think to yourself, “Damnit! If I could only have sustained and rewarded her fleeting attention span! Beat out by Hannah Montana again!” So then, we must have a way to understand and compare the value of one’s “ranking” to another.

    (*unless said symphony musician is also a dentist).

  6. Why don’t you mention the fact that people are ranked, not just works of art? Ranking works of art is just one expression of a human tendency to rank. I don’t know that it becomes easier or harder to talk about once we admit this, but there it is.

  7. I think one could add that the ranking of philosophy departments likewise “implicitly endorses their reduction to competing commodities”. The ranking, after all, is to be used by the prospective student purchasing an education now become a commodity, and from the other side is marketing for favoured departments now run largely as corporations. One implication of which is that methodological disputes over which types or schools of philosophy should be taken into account in ranking move on a terrain no less dominated by exchange value.

  8. “recently I read one in which he declared Adrian Johnston the greatest political philosopher of all time”

    Could you tell me which book? I need to see this.

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