Contrariastry

The internet, after all the cats are cleared away, is built on porn. And, when people are done with porn, it’s built on contrarianism. Designed, built, and populated by people who were generally rejecting the conventional ideas of what it was to be successful in the first place, there remained a certain cachet that came with a willingness to argue against what other people were saying for the sheer fuck of it1.

And that’s fine. I come not to bury contrarianism, but to praise it. Or rather, to praise actual contrarianism. I’m not saying that contrarians are ever right – they generally have the very weakest of reasons for not liking things, after all, since they made the opinion before they actually considered the thing they’re against. But the accomplished ones2 end up good enough at it that they learn how to back-form arguments, and that at least changes the angle in which you see the thing that’s praised.

But in the last week or so, there’s been a rash of minor-ass semi-contrarianism that isn’t actually even presenting an argument. This Slate article, framed as though it’s praising Rob Liefeld (spoiler: actually, it’s praising Rob Liefeld eseentially for not drawing his own books anymore), this AV Club article about how Frank Ocean may not, in fact, be R&B’s lord and savior (spoiler: it’s because the writer likes Lee Field more3), and, more egregiously, this Gawker article about how George Saunders will never be a great writer unless he writes a novel.

These are three established, high-profile havers-of-opinions, and at least two of them (Adrian Chen and Rob Sheffield) are also generally pretty good at contrarianism (Noel Murray just…isn’t. He’s great at liking things, and he’s good at talking about why he likes things, but even a cursory run through that article will reveal that he’s sort of out of his league when he’s running specifically against someone else’s opinion). And yet the best they can do is this “here’s a thing you’re probably inclined to disagree with in the headline4, but that I’ll spend the body text backing away from.” For the remainder of the piece, I’m going to refer to this as “contrariastry”, after Ben Jonson’s “The Poetaster,” about artistically irresponsible, bad poets.

This is, on the face of it, a minor-seeming issue. But as more and more reportage is pulled from opinion pieces (which is fine, and neither good nor bad in and of itself), the problems with using the wrong tool for the rhetorical job become increasingly major. Each of these pieces illustrate one of the following problems with contrariastry.

1. It’s argumentatively weak
Nobody who bought Channel Orange bought it and then said to themselves “Oh boy! Now I don’t have to go buy that stupid Lee Fields album!” And, indeed, nowhere in the AV Club piece does Mr. Murray say that this is the case. And yet, when you put those things together, that’s still exactly what you’re doing. It’s presented as a case that, because Noel Murray doesn’t listen to the Frank Ocean album, that he’s not “great,” which is fine – critics are literally in the business of doing that sort of thing, and it’s not a system I find any fault in – but, ultimately, it leaves him in the position of having to suggest what he does think is “great,” and that’s where things get a little silly. I own, and kind-of enjoyed that Lee Fields album. I won’t even argue that he’s one of the greats, and that he’s making good records at present. But I have and own Faithful Man, and would never argue that the course of R&B is being shaped by it

But this particular article is an example of the more insidious quality of the whole thing: he not only spends the entire article backing away from his headline, but he actually pretends to be backing away from every assertion he makes (or narrowly avoids making). “I hestitate to tbring up the ‘This >>>> That’ construction that’s so popular on Twitter, but throughout 2012, I kept wishing that Fields’ Faithful Man were getting even a 10th as much attention as Channel Orange.” Indeed. I hate to use my cat as a napkin, but I can’t help but think every time I eat a pizza how soft his fur would be against my face.

All of which is to say, it’s not a “weak argument” like Lil B’s diss track aimed at Joey Bada$$ is a “weak” diss track. I mean that it’s actually, argumentatively, bad. Some of the reasons in that article against Frank Ocean are perfectly valid – it is possible that he could plateau with Channel Orange, and that would leave him no living up to the early hype, it’s true. But even he is reduced, by the end of a piece in which he’s arguing something, to explaining his own history, which is basically the argumentative equivalent of pulling the “my brother died of cancer, so you don’t know nearly as much as me about it” card, which is beneath both the writer and the very idea of the argument.

If he’d left the hedges out, none of that would have happened, and he would have been in a much better position.

2. It’s rhetorically irresponsible
First of all, I realize that that is, like, the eightieth time I’ve used the word “irresponsible,” and that it’s a loaded word that’s basically impossible to use without looking like you’re superceding your own authority. Nevertheless, I’m sticking with it because I don’t know a better word for it. Rob Sheffield, in his Slate piece, is arguing that the very idea of lauding Rob Liefeld is so far-fetched that even if, as it turns out, it’s for, y’know, doing something laudable, it should still be a reason to pick your jaw up off the floor.

Without putting too fine a point on it6, this is telling people that a person whose work is bad is therefore so close to incapable of doing good things that it might as well be functionally impossible. Don’t get it twisted, Rob Liefeld is one of those rare instances of someone who was so terrible, and so popular, that people actually ripped off his terribleness, and that it became the de facto style for years. This is not a case of simply not liking Rob Liefeld. Rob Liefeld hate is not like Nickleback hate, where it got caught in the internet resonating chamber and rattled around until it was basically the echoes and overtones of its original self, with none of the substance. Hate for Rob Liefeld is mainly hate for the fact that he actually dragged the quality of his medium down with him. Well, at least, the most popular sector of his medium. But in the case of comics, the bulk of people’s exposure is still due to superhero comics, and that meant that, for a good many years, the bulk of people’s exposure to comics was through the style of a man who literally held his own work in contempt. And frankly, if he couldn’t muster up enough respect to get it right, why should his work be deserving of the respect to defend it?

And that is where Sheffield starts from, and yet, it is still not fair to say that Rob Liefeld, the man, is incapable of ever doing anything laudable. Actually, in this case, it’s inconceivable that someone would scoff that he’s farming work out. The entire point here is to keep him from ever picking up a pencil again, and, lo and behold, he’s actually not drawing. Let’s go ahead and keep this one up.

And so in addition to (irresponsibly) scoffing at the very idea of someone who’s bad at his job being a decent person, we also have this idea that it isn’t good enough. And, without going too far in this direction, that’s essentially the idea that there is an “us” and a “them,” and that Rob Liefeld is forever a “them,” even when he’s doing things that are good for “us.” (NB: this is actually kind of an editorial feature of slate.com, and it’s part of what makes them so obnoxious, but, again, I’m not doing this right now. Get me drunk and ask me about it some time. I have opinions.)

Even worse, though, is that it’s essentially taking pot shots. Do you see that paragraph up there where I’m basically foaming with barely-restrained rage at the idea that Captain America was drawn like a bookcase for the better part of a decade? That is the opinion of someone who has not had anything invested in superhero comics for fifteen years, and never as a mature adult. And that is the degree to which the man is bad at what he does. Which is why it’s easy to generate the pageviews with the “dog bites man” story of “elder comics guy ends up shipping work to younger talented people.” And if you have a word for it that’s different from “irresponsible,” I’m perfectly willing to hear it.

But behind the last door is this:

3. It really is only making you look silly
Noel Murray genuinely doesn’t have a high opinion of Frank Ocean, and made that low opinion swim in a lot of signal that it couldn’t really push its way through (not unlike Frank Ocean’s voice in the Eagles sample of Nostalgia ULTRA’s “American Wedding”). Rob Sheffield, for everything else, may in fact think that people are genuinely surprised that an old figure in comics gives jobs to young figures (hey, if you don’t know a lot about major comics publishers, it’s absolutely likely to be surprising, and who am I to say differently), and managed to couch it in a thick sheath of smarm. But Adrian Chen’s “George Saunders needs to write a novel” piece is basically a parody of contrarianism.

This one is also the easiest one to swat: if you’re going to argue that a writer needs to produce a novel in order to be taken seriously, or popular (which are sometimes the same thing and sometimes totally not the same thing not even related what are you talking about omg over the course of the piece), then you should probably not make those arguments about someone who is pretty universally-beloved, and also extremely popular (as far as people who write literary fiction go, which is, admittedly, a pretty small pond). But George Saunders sells enough books to keep him in that woodland chateau, and if ill will were gasoline, he wouldn’t really have generated enough to power an ant’s motorcycle off the edge of the ponderous breasts of a Rob Liefeld drawing.

The meta-heading here is the “I want this thing, so I’m going to argue that it’s in the best interest for everyone,” and, when it somehow manages to ever work, it can be an actualy, honest-to-jesus problem. American political punditry is full of this kind of mindset – in fact, I can’t think of a major political commentator who doesn’t do it. But this is entertainment journalism, and there are such things as scale and context, so this is merely silly. No writer (or at least, no writer whose work I’d be at all interested in reading) is making their artistic decisions based on what a blogger thinks – a blogger is, at best, a commentator, not a driver. And if Adrian Chen wants a George Saunders novel, that’s his thing7, and certainly as the resident “writer for Gawker that people can generally name conversationally,” he’s got a pretty good outlet for that idea. And a pretty good contrarian idea. But it’s not because it would be better for George Saunders, or better for the general public, but because it would be better for Adrian Chen.

And that’s just it, at the end. No matter which of the Three Major Problems a contrariast’s argument falls under, it’s ultimately not advancing anything. At the risk of “#3”-ing myself here, it’s actually bad for contrarianism. Pretty girls get eyeballs – praising Lee Fields, hating Rob Liefeld, writing about George Saunders. Grizzly Bears get eyeballs – disliking Frank Ocean, praising Rob Liefeld, complaining about George Saunders. But these articles – and the ones of their ilk – are neither a grizzly bear nor a pretty girl. They’re a grizzly bear in lipstick and a dress, trying to prance around for anyone’s benefit.

And who the hell wants that?

1 Now, this is different from the traditional, Menckenian “if everyone is doing something, it must be bad, because people are dumb,” for reasons that have everything to do with the lack of a singly-reported set of cultural ideas to hold that kind of position in people’s estimation. I’m not really going to talk about any of that, because even I’m not that dull. Basically, when there stopped being what’s wrongly-called a “monoculture,” the idea that you could just like the stuff that the stupid sheep-people didn’t as a shortcut to actually developing taste and opinions was no longer a valid idea.
2 who are almost never full-time contrarians, actually. Generally some high-quality contrarianism comes from people who are good at being enthusiastic at other things.
3 and not, as you may be thinking, because The Weeknd is actually R&B’s lord and savior. That’s another point of contention that will be handled later.
4 actually, quite often the culprit is a bomb-throwing headline attached to a nothing-special story, but that’s actually a different-but-related thing.
5 whose name is not only difficult to spell consistently, but also quite close phonetically to “Rob Sheffiled.” MAYHAP THIS EXPLAINS EVERYTHING? Mayhap it does. Mayhap.
6 a phrase which, here, means “I’m about to put too fine a point all over this bitch”
7 George Saunders is a beautiful writer, responsible for some stories that have made me very happy, but the longest of them have a tendency to be a little leaden. A novel, then, would likely be a little too “quiet” to be as enjoyable as his short stories, most of which crack along for their short length and leave you with the precise amount of their version of the world.

5 Things that I don’t care if they never happen again after 2012

1) Trap beats
2) Every single video game being “Skyrim with ______”
3) Mixtapes released as part of a series1
4) People whining about other people being offended by blackface2
5) Chris Gore

1 admittedly, this set in with SFF novels and never went away, so I’m not hopeful about this one.
2 also, “blackface,” but it’s so embarrassing that I’d even have to type that in 2013 that I feel like I have to bury it in a footnote.

The Best Albums of 2012

presented in descending order of greatness, without further comment

Swans – The Seer
Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Xiu Xiu – Always
Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Emeralds – Just to Feel Anything
El-P – Cancer for Cure
Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker & Yim Yames – New Multitudes
The Big Sleep – Nature Experiments
Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, M.a.a.D. City
Pinback – Information Retrieved
The Dirty Three – Toward the Low Sun
Cadence Weapon – Hope in Dirt City
Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
Dan Lopatin & Tim Hecker – Instrumental Tourist
Death Grips – The Money Store
Nadja – Dagdrom
Machine Death – Machine Death