Monday, May 7, 2012

That Good Old Time Whedon Religion: Criticism as Faith

Call me Diogenes. Call me Sherlock. Call me Anya. Call me Sarah Lund. Just don't call me Miss Bourgeois Congeniality...

As you, dear unreaders, probably know by know I am fascinated by the ideologies underlying and under girding film and television criticism and intellectual and academic culture in general. As you may also know I have long been a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other things Whedon particularly Firefly. What you may not not know is that while I consider myself an auteurist, though with a materialist bent, I also agree with Andre Bazin's famous critique of his auteurist colleagues at Cahiers du Cinéma, namely that not every film by an "auteur" is of equal "value". Nor do I mistake my aesthetic passions, and I do have them, for empirical facts.

What you may also not know dear unreaders is that the work of Joss Whedon, work sometimes caricatured and stereotyped as the opium of nerd or geek tween crowd, has had an significant impact on those who normally reside within the ivy towers of the academy. Today there is an academic Whedon Studies Association that is, as the Association says, "devoted to the study and works of Joss Whedon and his colleagues". The WSA, which compares itself to scholarly gatherings devoted to the study of Dickens and Flannery O'Connor, fine company indeed, was founded in 2009 by those associated with the online journal Slayage, the Journal of the Whedon Studies Association.

As someone with an academic and aesthetic interest in the work of Joss Whedon I have read a few of the articles in what used to be called the international online journal of Buffy Studies, Slayage, and I attended the third international Slayage conference in Henderson, Arkansas in 2008. Slayage first appeared in 2001 as a result of work on what would become one of the first academic books in Buffy and Whedon Studies, Fighting the Forces: What's at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Rowman and Littlefield). Fighting the Forces was edited by David Lavery and Rhonda Wilcox, the so-called father and mother of Buffy Studies, Whedon Studies, and Slayage and contains essays on music in Buffy, gender in Buffy, and Buffy and postmodern politics among other topics.

Another book on Buffy and its spinoff Angel edited by prominent science fiction and fantasy critic Roz Kaveney appeared the same year Fighting the Forces did, Reading the Vampire Slayer: An Unofficial Companion to Buffy and Angel (Tauris). Reading the Vampire Slayer consists of essays that were originally submitted to Lavery and Wilcox for Fighting the Forces but were among those not accepted because of the too large number of submissions Lavery and Wilcox received for that book, 140 in total. Reading contains essays on Buffy and politics and acting in the Buffyverse among other topics.

Other academic books on Buffy and Joss Whedon soon followed including tomes on morality in the Buffyverse (Gregory Stevenson's Televised Morality), the culture of aesthetics in Buffy (Matthew Pateman's The Aesthetics of Culture in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), faith and choice in the Whedonverse (Dale Koontz's Faith and Choice in the Works of Joss Whedon), and most recently the almost 500 page Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion from PopMatters, an online journal of cultural criticism. Today there are some twenty academic books on all things Whedon available in the publishing marketplace.

Buffy, of course, wasn't only of interest to academics. The show also generated what the press loves to call a devoted cult fan base among non-academics out there in TV viewing land. This means, of course, that though Buffy wasn't watched by a lot of viewers particularly in comparison with television shows on the major American television networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) it did garner a very devoted fan base, a devoted fan base that hit some of the demographics the networks Buffy was broadcast on,the WB and later UPN, were after. As a cult hit Buffy generated a number of books, not to mention websites, Buffy came on the air in 1997 just as the World Wide Web was hitting its early stride, aimed at Buffy's cult viewer demographic. These more popular analytical tomes included the "official" Watcher's Guide by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder published in 1998, the first of three volumes. Other fan guides followed including Kathleen Tracy's The Girl's Got Bite (Renaissance Books), Nikki Stafford's Bite Me: Sarah Michelle Gellar and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (ECW), Lawrence Miles, Lars Pearson's, and Christa Dickson's Dusted: The Unauthorized Guide to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Mad Norwegian Press), and Keith Topping's The Complete Slayer: An Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Every Episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Virgin), a compilation of three previous fan guides Topping had written on the show. There's even an online shrine of sorts to Whedon and all things Whedon called Whedonesque

I mention both the academic fans and non-academic fans of Buffy because Buffy and Whedon Studies has always been a hybrid of what some scholars call scholar fans and fan scholars, academics who are fans of most things Whedon and fans who engage in "scholarly" analysis, most of it online, of most things Whedon. This hybrid nature of contemporary Whedon Studies can very clearly be seen in the Facebook page of the Whedon Studies Association.

Recently there has been a flurry of activity on the Whedon Studies Association Facebook page thanks to the delayed release of the Whedon and Drew Goddard--Goddard was one of the writers on Buffy--penned Cabin in the Woods and the release of the latest in a long line of big budget superhero films Marvel's and Disney's Avengers/Avengers Assemble directed by none other than the totem of Whedon fan clan Joss Whedon.

As a member of the Association and a one time "liker" of the Whedon Studies Association Facebook page I recently posted several journalistic reviews, most of them positive, of The Avengers/Avengers Assemble on the Whedon Studies Association Facebook page. The reaction, a reaction which interests me the observer, while not unexpected, has been fascinating to watch.

The review that I put up that has garnered by far most of the attention from the admittedly few in number of posters on the Whedon Studies Association Facebook site has been the negative review of the film by A.O. Scott, one of the leading if not the leading critic for the newspaper with probably the largest cultural capital clout in the United States, the New York Times. Before I get to the reaction of the Facebook Whedon Studies Association page to Scott's review it is worth noting that while most of the reviews of The Avengers/Avengers Assemble in the US and British press have been positive--35 of the 42 reviews at Metacritic, the online web review site that brings together reviews of films from US, Canadian, and British newspapers, are positive or moderately positive--that Scott's negative review of the film has not been the only negative one out there in criticland. Rick Groen of the Globe and Mail, Karina Longworth of the Village Voice, Rene Rodriquez of the Miami Herald, Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal, Andrew O'Hehir of Salon, and Ben Sachs of the Chicago Reader have also been critical of the film. Even longtime defender of the Whedon faith, Stephanie Zacharek, is lukewarm about the film in Movieline.

When I posted Scott's review I put up a quote from Scott's review in the make a comment Facebook box which I thought nicely and elegantly summarised Scott's take on the film: "Mr. Whedon’s playful, democratic pop sensibility is no match for the glowering authoritarianism that now defines Hollywood’s comic-book universe. Some of the rebel spirit of Mr. Whedon’s early projects Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Serenity creeps in around the edges but as detail and decoration rather than as the animating ethos". Reactions to Scott's review on the Whedon Studies Facebook page were varied. Most posters condemned Scott for not understanding the Avengers Marvelverse on which the film was based (scholar fan Ensley Guffey, fan scholar Troy Mills, who claims to have written his Ph.D. on Marvel, scholar fan Dale Guffey) and for not getting that Avengers/Avengers Assemble was a critique of the American military-industrial-political-capitalist-complex not a celebration of it (Guffey, Guffey, scholar fan Kristen Romanelli). Criticism as apologetics and polemics? Others posted that they largely agreed with Scott's review only to change her mind after reading other reviews (Laurel Bowman). Still others tried to tease out and explore Scott's more general argument about the social and cultural contexts of the film, Avengers/Avengers Assemble in the service of political and capitalist power (David Kociemba, Ronald Helfrich).

There is one thing, I think, that undergirds and overdetermines the posts of those critical of Scott's review, a mashup of the aesthetics of value and some empirical referents. Those who raised their voices loudest against Scott seem to be among the staunchest defenders of the Marvel and Whedon faiths. This is not unexpected since ideologies of faith, as a general rule, determine scholar fan and fan scholars reactions to a film by one of their favourite auteurs.

One of the more interesting arguments against, or so I presume, Scott on the Facebook Whedon Studies page is that of fan scholar David Koceiemba. Kociemba, in a series of posts, explores the culture of New York Times criticism. What he claims to find there is a culture of Whedon criticism in which New York Times critics initially dislike a Whedon television programme or film only to to praise it once the next Whedon television programme or film comes along. According to Kociemba this pattern of Whedon criticism endlessly repeats itself at the Times. The problems with Kociemba's analysis are multiple. First, Kociemba's analysis is based on a reading of reviews of Buffy, Firefly, and Serenity by different critics at the New York Times, different Times critics who, as he admits, are not A.O. Scott. If one is going to generalise about the culture of Whedon criticism at the New York Times one needs to find this pattern in the criticism of most Whedon critics at the New York Times (a conspiracy theory). Second, the fact that Kociemba doesn't find this pattern in Scott raises questions about the relevance of his observations to a discussion of A.O. Scott's critique of The Avengers/Avengers Assemble. Third, assuming that this culture of dismissal and then praise of Whedon's works exits at the New York Times, and that is a big assumption since not every New York Times critic has written about Whedon's work as far as I can tell, the question has to be posed as to whether this culture or pattern of criticism exists only for Whedon at the Times, only at the Times, or in human culture beyond the Times. Do humans, in other words, tend to judge a film or television programme they have just watched by reference to something else by the same person they saw earlier (auteurism), something similar in structure they saw earlier (genre), or something similar in theme they saw earlier? There is some support for such an argument. Many Buffy fans, for instance, who weren't and aren't paid film critics did the same thing when, as one can see in the comments on Dollhouse at Whedon devotee Nikki Stafford's Nik at Nite online web site, compared the new Dollhouse to the old Buffy and found the former wanting. Most humans it seems tend to revel in the mnemonic joys of repetition, of the already familiar. So if the way criticism is done at the Times is how humans in general do criticism it has to be admitted that the criticism that Koceiemba sees as characterising the Times is simply an aspect of general human behaviour and is not part of a conspiracy against Joss Whedon or part of a conspiratorial critical practise at the Times.

In a later post Kociemba makes the argument that the point of his analysis of Whedon criticism at the Times is that the New York Times, as an "establishment" newspaper is, as he puts it, "behind the times" (pun presumably intended) when it comes to popular culture criticism. Whether Kociemba's argument has some merit, and I think that is arguable whether it does or not and that historical context must be taken into account when debating it, it has to be noted that Kociemba's argument hinges on ideological notions of value not on empirical analysis. It assumes that one, presumably himself and other Whedon fans, can determine what is ahead of the times and what is "behind the times". But since not everyone in the known universe would conclude that Whedon's work is prophetic or even that it is "good" it is not clear how such a critical position could be valid unless one resorts to and relies on an elitist conception of criticism in which only the critical priesthood (the priesthood that has a monopoly on the Du Luc cross of critical analysis?) has the ability to determine what is progressive and what is not.

Speaking of notions of progressivism another fan scholar poster at the Whedon Studies Facebook page, Alyson Buckman, uses Kociemba's analysis to make the argument that the New York Times criticism Kociemba references, criticism that is initially negative but becomes positive once a new Whedon product appears in the marketplace and so on and so forth in a critical time loop, shows that Whedon, as she puts it, "is ahead of the curve AND likes his audiences intelligent enough to get what he's doing." I am not sure how Buckman gets, empirically, from the supposed culture of New York Times Whedon criticism to Whedon the progressive nerd who makes nerd product for his "intelligent" nerd audience and I certainly don't agree with her none too subtle jibe at the limited intelligence of New York Times critics or, presumably, anyone else who might disagree with her positive assessment of The Avengers/Avengers Assemble but what is clear here is how aesthetic notions of what is beautiful and what is of value link up in her discourse with ideologies of progressivism and intelligence to produce an ideology of Whedon the ahead of his time nerd and of Whedon's devotees as intelligent strivers trying to keep up with their auteur yoda. Needless to say Buckman's argument shows once again how ideology creates reality even among academics.

This circling of doctrinal wagons by some to protect the Whedon faith and this notion of Whedon as nerd messiah to the nerds is why some Whedon criticism seems akin to the faith that is at the heart of most if not all human meaning systems. Meaning systems, after all, with their constructions of truth, beauty, good, evil, sacred, and profane are at the heart of human identity construction, human identity formations, human community construction, and human community forms. And that is what is really going on on the Whedon Studies Association Facebook page. Whedon fans are looking for other Whedon fans so they can revel together in the joys of how wonderful it is to be an intelligent and progressive lover of all things Whedon. Criticism as hero worship, criticism as constructor of identity, criticism as constructor of community, criticism as maintainer of identity, criticism as maintainer of community. No outsiders, no dissidents, no heretics, wanted. Only conformists to the cult of Joss and those who don't raise questions about the ideological underpinnings of Whedon Studies discourse apparently need apply for as Durkheim famously noted those who create communities sacralise or make holy the communities they create and are not particularly fond of those who profane sacred taboos.

Postscript:
One poster whose discourse I commented on and critiqued in this blog post has accused me of "attacking" posters on the selectively public Whedon Studies Association Facebook site. I beg to differ. An attack goes something like this: Metcalfe is a butthead. This attack, by the way, is an actual ad hominem attack aimed at Brent Metcalfe editor of a book collecting a number of critical essays on the Book of Mormon by polemicists and apologists at FARMS, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, one of the main contemporary defenders of the Mormon faith. I made no such ad hominem attack on any poster on the Whedon Studies Association Facebook page in this blog. I simply analysed, empirically I might add, the discourse of Whedon Studies Association Facebook page posters in the time tested manner of practitioners of Cultural Studies, Semiology, Structuralism, Textual Analysis, and Deconstructionism. What I am doing here, in other words, is discourse analysis, a discourse analysis that is not that different from what others have done when, for example, they have explored the discourse of television and film criticism at, say, the New York Times.

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