So what we have in Part 1 and Part 2 of this piece are two different case studies in how a creator is treated by an interpreter. What these two stories have in common 1 is that the audience is treated as a bloc (or even a block, honestly), and anticipated and scolded, rather than being treated as the other unit in the collaboration. A speaker cannot exist without a listener, an artistic endeavor cannot exist without an audience, and thus the audience’s act of interpretation is the final step in the thing’s existence 2. The assumption on the part of Michael Streeter (the interpreter of the Albee play) and the Marvel Executives (the controllers of the rights of Captain America) was assumptive of people’s reactions 3 – specifically their stated beliefs that it’s the audience’s job to wait for the racial slur (or the mention of hips), and it’s the audience who is meant to put up with the perceived Naziism or shut up.
The reason these assumptions are so bizarre is that in these two cases specifically, the underlying assumption appears to be not that these are things that are going to be consumed by people that are familiar with/enthusiastic for the material, but rather by a random selection of people. Someone that goes to see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is vanishingly unlikely to be just some schmo who bought one of the 35 seats in The Shoebox to see a play – it’s probably going to be someone with a relationship with/feelings about theatre, and, almost certainly, at least a passing familiarity with the work, not to mention the knowledge that the script did not get rewritten to include racial slurs. Someone that is currently buying Captain America monthly is someone who has actively decided to do so for any number of reasons, pretty much none of which is liable to be “I tripped, fell, landed in a comic book store, and decided to wave five bucks around until someone handed me an issue of something.” They are, therefore, someone with their own ideas about the character and the book in which he appears, and those ideas are going to come, inevitably and unavoidably, with feelings and a difference of opinion in at least some cases.
When the response is seriously addressed at all, it is addressed by other audience members, and generally in a way that expresses a disbelief that the person on the other side of the argument is even familiar with what they’re talking about at all – the idea being that a “casual” could have a response to something in and of itself without a deep familiarity with that thing 4, which is a way of intentionally diminishing the idea of an audience response. It is true that my experience with Captain America and Nick Spencer contributes to my reaction in a way that makes it different from the experience and reaction of someone with less or different experience. It’s also true that knowing about the way things were communicated in plays in 1962 will help unearth some things about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf 5 , and the way that it communicates. Neither of those things interferes with the fact that someone who just now chose to buy a comic book or go to a play also has a reaction and has the ability to make that reaction plain, and that that reaction is no less valid for it coming from a place of unknowing 6. At the very least, there should be access to a panoply of people having variegated and stimulating reactions, and we the audience should be able to discuss those options without trying to first prove that the reactions are worth having in the first place.
Ultimately, however, there were two that were decided upon as expressable, and this is sort of how it always boils down. In the examples to hand, the reactions that are echoically decided upon are that the Estate of Edward Albee is a bunch of racists vs. the idea all things must serve the creator and none should gainsay, or that Captain America should never be a Nazi and making him one is deeply insulting to the audience and creator vs. it’s a fun comic book and also obviously he isn’t. There is lots of space between these things, of course, but you’ll have a hard time finding anyone espousing them, especially the higher up the visibility chain you go. If the creators and interpreters are guilty of expecting the audience to behave in a predictable pattern and not allowing for human reaction among them, then the audience is also guilty of responding in a way that doesn’t always make it clear that they are having a human reaction. There’s room to agree with none or all of the positions above, plus positions not stated here at all, rather than just agreeing to add our drop to whichever bucket is the most like something we feel we should think (or think we should feel).
The thing is, this happens all the time. The forced-binary, hive-mind backlash/anti-backlash current has been a part of the discourse since lo the dawn of the comment section 7 , but it has really become a topic of discussion in the last couple of years. I chose these two examples because they are about things that are close enough to me that I feel I can speak on them in a reasonably-informed way, but I could’ve done this any month in the last, oh, 24 or so and gotten just about the same result. I could’ve done this 8 with Suicide Squad, or Lil Uzi Vert, or PewDiePie, or Girls, or Last Man Standing, or Taylor Swift (again), or Milo Yiannopoulis, or Chance the Rapper, or…you see what I mean. Some of them I am strongly against the creator, some of them I am strongly against the interpreter, some of them I am strongly against the product, and with at least two of them I am against all three 9.
Even leaving aside the specific examples that I didn’t write about, the relationship between creator and interpreter (in the form of distributors, professional organizations and award-granting bodies) has inflected the things that I’ve written about Kazuo Ishiguro and genre fiction, The Grammy Awards, the Academy Awards (twice!), and the entirety of a Considered Look at the Best-Selling Records of All Time. It will also come up (at least tangentially) in upcoming pieces about Harry Potter, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Hugo Awards 10. This stuff is everywhere, is what I’m saying, and I’m using these two model cases to stand in synecdochally for the whole general sort of mish-mash that is the relationship between purveyors, creators and audience in 2017.
The upshot, then, of this happening all the time (like all the time all the time) is that it is clear that the creators and the interpreters are simply not going to make room in their thing for the audience, so we are going to have to do it ourselves. The audience is the only group whose best interest is the audience, after all. The creator – whatever the medium, whatever the motivation – is serving the creator’s best interest 11. The interpreter is serving the interpreter’s interest – whether it’s the artistic motivation of the collaboration itself, or the money, or whatever. That means it’s up to us, the audience, to serve our own interest, and to make sure that our act of interpretation is an active one.
In these cases the audience did have their reaction – it happened where it always does, when everyone divvied up sides and chose their picket-line shouts. And that’s fine. It had its effects, and that’s probably good for the world. The audience is not to blame for the dumb shit that is done in the name of entertainment. It was, however, a little disappointing to see that the reactions in both cases were so atrophic and limited, and it probably does go some way to explaining why it’s so easy to dismiss, at least among the interpreters. Because while it’s true that Streeter has to go on to do another play and that Captain America is losing sales, it’s also true that we missed two opportunities to have a much more interesting argument here.
The place for the audience is at the end of the act of creation/interpretation/distribution/performance – the place of the responder is at the end of the text – but that is still a part of the chain, and the role of the audience is to help interpolate the work itself into whatever portion of the cultural discourse/memory/context that it’s going to take up. It’s weaving the tapestry of shared cultural and artistic experience by small degrees, and the discussion about the role/type/degree of reaction in that process is an important discussion.
Changing the discussion to one about, somehow, what creators are owed by people who are working with their materials (Spencer writing a Simon/Kirby character, Streeter producing an Albee play) and how that is, itself, modified by corporations that intercede or don’t on behalf of the originator or the interpreter (Disney/Marvel or the estate of Edward Albee) is completely obviating the fact that without an audience, none of that matters after the moment it exists. Obviously in both cases the audience spoke up, and that matters – Captain America’s sales are flagging, and although the tangible effect on Streeter and his work is much more nebulous, it certainly isn’t because of a lack of stated opinions (specifically the same two opinions stated over and over again) – but it spoke up in a very specific, proscribed way that, ultimately, is unlikely to benefit anyone except the people for whom no publicity is bad publicity (see above vis-a-vis the buckets and whatnot).
Ultimately, that’s what I’m doing here 12. That’s what the posts about the music industry, or awards shows, or aggregates of things that people like, or any of that kind of thing are about. That’s why the focus of this space has generally been on popularity, and specifically on the presentation and machinations thereof. Because the people that are in charge of shepherding the things that become extremely popular in the world have, as their goal and vocation, a set of things that does not require the audience to be anything in particular, merely present. Each audience, however, is composed of individuals whose reaction is their own, and a part of their lives, and are therefore worth considering, at least from the point of view of another audience member.
That’s why it’s important to consider things, and the most important thing to consider is the validity of your own reaction. It’s one thing to not know a bunch of stuff about the thing you’re reacting to – I would wager that the majority of things that anyone reacts to, in an artistic sense, are things they don’t know very much about – it’s another thing entirely not to know your own reaction. Consider why you’re reacting that way, and what it means, and where it comes from. It doesn’t take long – you can probably process your reaction to a thing in less time than it takes to experience the thing, for the most part 13. Remember that this act of interpretation – your response to the thing presented – is the final step in the existence of the thing artistically.
Otherwise you’re surrendering your role in the thing’s place in your own mind, let alone in the outside culture at large, to other people (who are also probably surrendering that thing’s position in their mind to other people) for the sake of the security that comes from agreement, rather than the security that comes from filing away your own thoughts on the matter yourself.
And if that means you think the estate of Edward Albee is racist, or that Nick Spencer is a Nazi sympathizer, or that Michael Streeter is a conceptual genius, or that comic book writers should be allowed to do whatever they want, that’s all fine. If you think everyone involved in the Albee case is a big dumb dummy and that that whole thing is more an embarrassment than an asset, culturally speaking, and that while Nick Spencer’s heart is in the right place it probably still isn’t a very good way to get his point across, especially as it involves a cosmic cube, which is almost always dumb 14, then that’s fine.
The thing that’s important is that whatever we owe creators and interpreters/distributors, the thing that we owe ourselves is to not diminish our role in the thing, and instead of treating the argument itself as the thing, to treat our reaction as the point of discussion, and to take that seriously and, in so doing, to force the people that sell us these things to also take it seriously, which would go a very long way to avoid boondoggles like the ones we have here.
Obviously nobody expects anybody to meditate all day on something they experienced the day before, just to consider where your reaction comes from and what you know about the other reactions you’re hearing, and it should all come out fine. That way the next time Captain America is a Nazi, you’re free to agree with reason (the best way to agree!) rather than just joining the chant.
- and in common with dozens of stories that happen in the entertainment media all the time. ↩
- For more on this, see Jan Mukarovsky’s On Poetic Language, which is dense and also translated, but from which the sentence above is paraphrased pretty directly. For more on the idea, you can also see Norman Holland’s 5 Readers Reading, C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism, or, if you can find it, the work of David Miall. Most writing in the reader/response field focuses on the role of the critical response on the criticism rather than the place of the audience as the last part of the work, but the latter is the necessary extrapolation from the former, especially as outlined by Holland. The Lewis is there because it focuses on Paradise Lost, a book everyone has read, and is written by a popular-fiction writer, and so is less- (although not entirely non-) academic in tone and word. ↩
- respectively that the audience for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was not going to expect what they saw when they saw WAOVW and that the readers of Captain America did not, in fact, have feelings for Captain America. ↩
- This is cross-media, and happens all the time and all that (see following), but honestly theatre people and comic book people are both groups that are especially prone to this kind of exclusionary bar-setting weirdness. ↩
- there is a major plot point that isn’t worth revealing here but that is worth pointing out goes alongside a heavily-coded (now, although it was more obvious then) set of references to Honey (the wife of Nick, the character who is canonically and proclamatorily Not Black) having had an abortion. ↩
- the reaction is no less valid, but it is also up to the person reacting to the reaction – once again, the reader’s response is inextricable from the text itself – to decide how much weight and/or seriousness to give it. This never stops going deeper – every level of reaction comes with its own decisions and level of response, until the last person on Earth hears that Captain America is a Nazi. ↩
- although the internet did not invent this thing – old reviews and journals and things are full of this kind of stuff – it did make it easier to contribute to, and meant that more people were doing it publicly. Which is also true of more-or-less 100% of the other stuff that happens on the internet; the internet is an enabler, not an inventor. ↩
- admittedly with a different angle – those wouldn’t all (although some of them would be) be a creator/interpreter sort of story, but that is what made this set of pieces worth writing to me in the first place, and is very much why I’m doing this now instead of then. ↩
- this is part of the other reason I didn’t do some of these things: I find it hard to have anything interesting to say when my real thoughts on the matter are “I hate basically everything about it and would be glad to see it gone,” it contributes very little, and frankly, if you need to see someone explain why he doesn’t like Milo Yiannaopoulos, there are a lot of people doing a better, more incisive and more entertaining job of that than I would’ve here. ↩
- actually, the Hugo Awards is an even better model for the relationship between material, artist and audience, given its institutional behavior in the last couple of years. It’s come up before, and I’ll probably address it directly in a couple of months when they actually happen. ↩
- I believe, generally speaking, that the act of creation is at its best when the creator doesn’t consider the audience at all. Creators can really only be assured of pleasing themselves, after all, and they have to live with it for a lot longer than I do – a bad work is a part of their life’s work, and it’s a part of my afternoon. I realize that I’m positing that a life is longer than an afternoon here. I hope you can bear with me. ↩
- like, on this website. Not existentially. ↩
- this is abetted by the fact that most people’s reaction to an overwhelming majority of things is “I neither like nor dislike this particularly”, which is a pretty easy reaction to parse. ↩
- This sentence contains my actual editorial opinions on the matter, saved for the end here. ↩