Depiction and Endorsement in 2018 (or, how to criticize Blade Runner 2049)

blade_runner_2049_screenshot-30

I first envisioned this post as a “New Year’s Resolution,” but I got too bogged down with other stuff in January to post it then. Better late than never, though.

Now that Blade Runner 2049 is out on video formats (meaning that I can take some lovely screenshots of it), I wanted to revisit the critical reception the film was greeted with back in October 2017. Partly, this post is about Blade Runner 2049, and its legitimate faults. But I also consider the film’s reception to be emblematic of trends in political criticism that were ascendent in 2017. I personally consider these trends to be leaning in a direction that is, shall we say, unproductive. Buckle up.

Within 72 hours of its release, a backlash had solidified against Blade Runner 2049. Feminist critics didn’t like its treatment of women. New York Post critic Sara Stewart established the trend early with her October 4th article “You’ll Love the New ‘Blade Runner’—Unless You’re a Woman.” By October 9th, this particular gripe had spread like wildfire, spawning think pieces like Rosie Fletcher and Sam Ashurst’s “Can We Talk About Blade Runner 2049’s Problem With Women?” and Charolette Gush’s “Why Blade Runner 2049 Is a Misogynistic Mess.”

These headlines are clickbait-y. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they were written by an editor, with no say at all on the part of the author. The actual articles beneath the headlines are more nuanced. Still, though, let’s be realistic. It’s the late 2010s. Plenty of people share articles on social media, hit “like” or “angry face,” offer up their own hot takes, and draw lines in the sand based solely on clickbait headlines, without ever reading the articles in question. It is impossible, in this day and age, to truly separate out the quality of the criticism in these individual pieces from the realities of the ecosystems in which they circulate.

Anyway, within days, lines had indeed been drawn in the sand. (At least on my social media feed.) Blade Runner 2049 was proclaimed to be problematic. It had “iffy politics” that “aren’t that futuristic.” That is to say: it didn’t imagine a future that was particularly progressive. Blade Runner 2049 quickly became a Bad Object, something that no one was willing to defend, less they themselves be labeled “problematic.”

I am not going to defend Blade Runner 2049 in this post. In fact, I am going to criticize it. (Quite harshly, at that.) But, along the way, I’m also going to criticize the dominant forms that cultural criticism had begun to take in 2017. I think that those forms are bad, and I think that we can do better in 2018. Prepare yourself: this is going to be a long post.

blade_runner_2049_screenshot-47

First, for rhetorical purposes, let’s just imagine two interlocutors, having a fairly typical conversation about Blade Runner 2049.

Martha: Blade Runner 2049 is problematic! It imagines a future where human men have decided the world would be better without human women.

Billy: Well, yeah, duh. It’s a dystopian future. It’s not supposed to be progressive.

Billy’s response to Martha is glib. It confuses the mere act of inhabiting a genre (dystopian science fiction) with using that genre well. It confuses addressing a subject (the erasure of women from society) with actually having something to say about it. It defends an imagined version of Blade Runner 2049, which was better than the one we actually got.

But just because we recognize the glibness of Billy’s response, it doesn’t follow that Martha’s criticism is a model of insightfulness. No matter how poorly constructed a piece dystopian fiction may be, any criticism of it should still acknowledge the fact that it is dystopian fiction. To do otherwise is to skirt bad faith.

blade_runner_2049_screenshot-01

To their credit, nearly all of the critics who took issue with the film’s gender politics acknowledge the fact that it was supposed to be dystopian. Even Charolette Gush, who called the film “eye-gougingly sexist,” openly acknowledges that the filmmakers probably intended to portray “misogyny [as] part of the dystopia.” She just thinks they failed at this task. Since, in Gush’s view, Blade Runner 2049 has nothing coherent to say about the subject, it ends up simply depicting misogyny, without adequately critiquing it.

But this nuanced point gets mangled when it runs up against the paucity of language used in clickbait headlines. Calling out a movie as “misogynistic” or “problematic” makes for a highly sharable headline. But the unfortunate truth of the matter is that calling a dystopia “problematic” invites the exact glib response we see above.

(This is as good a reason as any to for us to strip “problematic” from our vocabulary. I know it’s not going to happen any time soon. But, really, the word is awful. It is used for one purpose and one purpose only: to get out of actually naming that which you are speaking out against. It is pure cowardly obfuscation, distilled into potent lexical form.)

blade_runner_2049_screenshot-42

Levels of overtness in critical dystopias

At this point, I would like to pose the question: From the perspective of our imagined “Martha,” how could Blade Runner 2049 have been improved?

I don’t think Martha means to argue that dystopian science fiction can never grapple with matters of biopolitics and the patriarchy. (I’m going to give this fictional personage the benefit of the doubt, for rhetorical reasons.) Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale premiered a few months before Blade Runner 2049. It presents a nightmarish dystopia in which patriarchal power structures have re-asserted themselves with newfound forcefulness in response to a fertility crisis. And it received no small amount of critical praise, on feminist grounds.

I think my made-up Martha would probably have liked The Handmaid‘s Tale, despite the fact that the gender politics of its imagined future are considerably more horrific than those of Blade Runner 2049.

Why? What’s the secret ingredient that The Handmaid’s Tale had that Blade Runner 2049 lacks?

blade_runner_2049_screenshot-04

When confronting dystopian narratives, we can draw a boundary between the broad genre of dystopias, and the more precise genre of critical dystopias. The category of “critical dystopias” has been most deeply investigated by Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan (though they did not themselves originally coin the term). Critical works of dystopian fiction exhibit the usual pessimism of the genre. But they retain at least one in-universe example of political resistance, a ray of hope. In so doing, they “negotiate the necessary pessimism of the generic dystopia with a militant or utopian stance.”[i]

Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale pretty clearly falls into this lineage of critical dystopia. The dystopian society it presents is logically coherent. It persuasively lays out how we might get there from our current political moment. (I found the show’s flashback sections showing the gradual rise of Gilead and its rules to be its strongest part.) And it carefully critiques the dystopia that it sets up, in such a way that these critiques extend and double as critiques of contemporary society. It wastes not time in giving viewers a ray of radical hope, introducing an organized political resistance network in its second episode.

Not only does Handmaid’s Tale fit in this lineage of critical dystopia, but it is also very overt in how it handles its critical element. To be clear, I suspect that Handmaid’s Tale got a pass from so many cultural critics because of how overt its critique was. The character who provides our point of entry into this world is a woman, and we witness her bearing the full brunt of this world’s dystopian horribleness. Handmaid’s Tale depicts treachery and misery in ways that are anything but subtle.

Hulu_Handmaid's_Tale_screenshot
ARE YOU NOT REPULSED BY THE PATRIARCHY?!

Personally, I have to say that I was turned off by the overdetermined overtness of Handmaid‘s Tale. I thought its over-the-top style threatened to devolve into self-parody. In this matter, though, my personal tastes obviously don’t align with the majority of television critics. (I’ll admit that I have a low tolerance for depictions of people suffering through intense psychological torture. It puts me off of Von Trier’s melodramas, Haneke’s satires, and Bigelow’s Detroit.) In this era of call-out culture, I think most of us like our dystopias to clearly and cleanly call out what’s wrong with their depicted world.

Whatever its faults, Handmaid’s Tale does this. And whatever it’s strengths, Blade Runner 2049 most definitely does not.

blade_runner_2049_screenshot-52

In which I criticize Blade Runner 2049, in my own manner

I think that, like The Handmaid’s TaleBlade Runner 2049 wanted to be a critical dystopia. The late-film introduction of the replicant freedom movement was an attempt to inject some revolutionary politics into this universe. But I think the film fails.

Partly, the film fails because it tries to follow up on the original Blade Runner‘s philosophical themes of questioning what it means to be human, which prove to be a poor fit for its attempts at political commentary. Ultimately, the social mechanics of this universe fall apart at their foundation. It doesn’t present a politically plausible dystopia, based on what we know about US history. Blade Runner 2049 cannot be a successful work of critical dystopian fiction, because its dystopia is incoherent, and fails to connect with what we know about our own culture.

The basic premise of the film is this: As in the original Blade Runner, the economy of Earth and its various space colonies runs on the labor of “replicants,” vat-grown genetically engineered slaves. Apparently, one Tyrell-manufactured replicant, Rachel from the original film, succeeded in giving birth a biological child. (Deckard, the blade runner from the original film, was the father.) This was quite an event, as Tyrell-brand replicants were thought to be sterile, and subsequent generations of replicants manufactured by the Wallace Corporation have continued this trend of sterility. The resulting child was hidden away by Deckard and some close replicant associates after Rachel died in childbirth.

Niander Wallace, the titular head of the Wallace Corporation, wants to find this child, so that he can add the ability to procreate to his own breed of replicants. Wallace says that his company can “only make so many” replicants. He thinks that humanity needs larger quantities of slave labor, so as to fuel more ambitious space exploration. “We need more replicants than can ever be assembled,” he announces, providing his motivation for the chase for replicants that can reproduce.

blade_runner_2049_screenshot-23

Our protagonist K, meanwhile, is a replicant working for the LAPD. His commanding lieutenant, Joshi, tasks him with finding and killing the replicant child. Joshi is convinced that if the possibility of replicant reproduction became widespread knowledge, it would disrupt the existing social order. Joshi insists that the world is “built on a wall” that “separates kind,” and that the biological questioning of that wall would result in a “war, or a slaughter.” The idea seems to be that the foundations of replicant slave labor are built on a precarious foundation of biological difference: if replicants can breed, they become indistinguishable from humans, which raises the possibility of rebellions and abolitionist movements.

blade_runner_2049_screenshot-14

Okay, now, onto the problems.

First of all, to get the obvious out of the way: as Rosie Fletcher points out, the economics of Wallace’s position are head-scratching. There’s a reason Monsanto would absolutely love to unleash the terminator gene, making plants infertile. The pesky biological reality that farmers can plant seeds harvested from the previous year’s yield makes the selling of seeds less profitable than it otherwise could be. Monsanto would absolutely love to close that loophole. There’s nothing they’d like more than a world in which agricultural flora couldn’t reproduce on its own, outside of a lab. Purposefully creating a product that can reproduce itself is getting things entirely backwards, from a business standpoint. The sterility of replicants works in your favor. Why would you undo it?

Despite Wallace’s instance that humanity needs more slaves “than can ever be assembled,” based on what the film shows us assembly production looks a hell of a lot more attractive than human-like birth. Replicants slide out of their pods in fully adult form, ready to work. Why deal with 9 months of gestation, followed by the hazardous live birth of a baby, followed by 16-ish years of feeding a replicant until it has grown to the point where it can do adult labor? Just build better factories, dude. Improve your supply chain for raw stem cells, or whatever it is you currently grow these things from.

blade_runner_2049_screenshot-17

So, there’s one failure. Blade Runner 2049‘s basic science fiction conceit doesn’t connect to economic reality as we know it. But beyond this, it doesn’t connect to the historical social realities of the US (where it is quite explicitly set).

The overall social stakes of the events that that transpire in Blade Runner 2049 are laid out by Lt. Joshi. Joshi establishes biopolitical status quo (replicants’ sterility psychologically feeds in into humans’ ability to treat them as less-than-human), a disruption to that status quo (replicants that can breed), and a possible outcome of that disruption (all-out war between the groups). Her speech to K forms the backbone of our understanding of the political balance of this film, so, as viewers, we’re not really motivated to question it at all. In fact, Joshi’s basic predictions match up with the rhetoric of the replicant resistance movement we see later. “I knew that baby meant we are more than just slaves,” intones Freysa, one of the key revolutionary figures who explains things to K. “We are our own masters. A revolution is coming.”

blade_runner_2049_screenshot-51

This prophesied disruption of the status quo serves a storytelling function. But it doesn’t map onto human behavior, as it has been historically documented.

The chattel enslavement of humans was legal in the US from the nations’ founding until 1863. For 55 years, from the enacting of the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in 1808 until the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963, the Transatlantic Slave Trade was banned, meaning that all slaves bought and sold within the US were the descendants of prior slaves. For 55 years, human slaves were a commodity that was strictly produced by means of human reproduction. Yes, abolitionism existed as a political force, and eventually won out. But the historical record quite clearly shows that the mere ability to bear children is not enough to disrupt a system based on the denial of personhood.

Historically, Americans have been very adept at finding creative ways to deny people personhood, and enforcing that lack of personhood with every means available. Slaveholders had been busy for decades prior to the 1808 ruling, laying the psychological groundwork for the perpetual enslavement of a people. Racism, in its particular American form, did not spring from the ether of nature. It was invented. Historians Karen and Barbara Fields have dated its invention—quite persuasively, to my mind—to the 1660s, when economic and social conditions shifted to make enslavement for life economically sound, and to make white indentured servitude politically impractical.[ii] By the time the Transatlantic Slave Trade was banned in 1808, the US had already been steeped in over a century’s worth of ideology about Blacks as an “inferior race” that were better off enslaved. This provided the psychological and moral justification for continuing to enslave their descendants in perpetuity. The ability to reproduce never once disrupted the calculus that denied slaves their personhood.

(This isn’t, of course, to say that slaves in the US at this time questioned their own personhood, as it is insinuated that replicants regularly do. But that just proves the point even more: an enslaved population, fully convinced of their biological and moral personhood, still didn’t have the ability to break the state-backed apparatus of slavery.)

It is for this reason that Blade Runner 2049 fails as a critical dystopia (for me). It fails to point a dark mirror upon contemporary society. If anything, the mirror it points at US society is flattering. Joshi believes—indeed, dies believing, in her attempt to guard the status quo—that fertility defines humanity, and that replicants’ ability to reproduce would make chattel slavery ideologically untenable. That doesn’t reflect any historical reality that this nation has ever seen. The biopolitics of this universe, as communicated to us by Joshi, are fanciful and incoherent. Perhaps Wallace has a more coherent, ruthlessly realist understanding of this world’s biopolitics. But he can’t announce it in a way that makes sense, because the economic logic of his quest is fundamentally broken. Blade Runner 2049 understands neither racism nor capitalism. And you can’t make a US-set movie about biopolitics without understanding those things, because biopolitics in the US has long been about both racism and capitalism.

blade_runner_2049_screenshot-08

By extension, it is for this reason that the movie’s gender politics don’t really work (for me). If tied to a more plausible dystopia, I think they could have worked. “Imagining a future where human men have decided the world would be better without human women” is not, in my book, an inherently bad thing. It could be the basis of some very rich critical dystopian fiction. But in Blade Runner 2049, the gender dynamics of this dystopia are “fruit from the poisoned tree,” so to speak. They’re broken not because the depiction of dystopian mysogeny is inherently “problematic,” but because the foundation they are built upon is too rickety to hold up to scrutiny.

Anyway, that’s my take on Blade Runner 2049, its biopolitics, and its gender politics. Visually, I found it to be a rapturous experience. But it was also much more plot-heavy than the original Blade Runner. And this plot-heaviness worked against it, because it exposed this world’s logical weaknesses. Blade Runner 2049 invites nitpicking, because its plot specifically foregrounds details that were more elegantly handled in the background of the original film.

For instance—and, fair warning, this has nothing to do with the further themes of this post, so feel free to skip ahead if you prize thematic unity in writing—Blade Runner 2049 built on Blade Runner‘s conceit of manufacturing fake memories for replicants. K, for instance, was given fake memories. But K also knows he’s a replicant. What is the benefit of endowing replicants with fake memories, if they know they’re fake? In Blade Runner, Tyrell Corporation was interested in creating replicants that could pass the Voigt-Kampff test because they didn’t know they were replicants. Hence, the fake memories (and endless speculation about if Deckard is human or replicant): it all ties in to a very Dickian theme of not knowing who you are, because you don’t know what is “real.” Endowing K with fake memories makes no sense. What purpose do those memories serve, if not to trick K into believing he is human? (Answer: they motivate the red herring of K’s unfounded suspicion that he is Rachel and Deckard’s offspring. But they serve that narrative function without making sense according to in-universe logic.)

When it comes to speculating on the possibilities of false memory imprints, Blade Runner 2049 fares worse than Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (Paul W. S. Anderson, 2017). (How’s that for a hot take?) In The Final Chapter, the capitalist oligarchs who deliberately destroyed the world populated its ruins with clones of themselves. This creates unique challenges for morale, and the implanting of false memories is a response to those challenges. Every clone thinks that they are secretly the original, and that the others are lowly imposters. This endows them with a stronger self-preservation instinct than they would otherwise have. It also keeps them from plotting with the other clones against the aims of the mission. In The Final Chapter, false memories are imprinted to manufacture a sense of individualism, so as to stave off the potential for solidarity and collective uprising among disposable foot soldiers. This is actually really interesting! The Resident Evil franchise may be trashy schlock, but The Final Chapter gives us a deeper, more motivated dive into a science fiction scenario than 2049 does. (You heard it here first, folks.)

blade_runner_2049_screenshot-40

The drift toward literalness

Blade Runner 2049 is flawed. But much of the critical conversation that flowed around it back in October was also flawed. Critics and naysayers spent a lot of time and energy criticizing the movie’s “problematic” politics, the fact that its future wasn’t “futuristic” (read: progressive), the fact that women were sidelined in this horrific world where we have re-instituted chattel slavery. But not much time was spent discussing how Blade Runner 2049 could have been a better work of dystopian fiction, toothier and more critical. There was some muttering about how it shouldn’t have been directed by a man, or shouldn’t have had a man as its main character. But, for the most part, progressive audiences were content just to label it a “bad object,” and move on.

I am concerned about this tendency.

Politically-minded cultural criticism has a long and storied history, one that has granted us wonderful new toolboxes for thinking about cultural objects. Sure, sometimes it could go too far in condemning objects (see: Adorno’s totalizing disregard for jazz). But for the most part it was benign, and sometimes it was superb.

Current trends in political criticism of popular culture have me worried, however. I’m worried that we’re currently witnessing a decay in our ability to appreciate and parse fiction, one that seems to be hastened by our current political climate.

The same weekend that Blade Runner 2049 came out, the podcast Chapo Trap House released an episode guest starring Patton Oswalt. The discussion meandered over to the then-recent announcement of a corporate crossover tie-in event, in which “superheroes” from the real-life defense contractor Northrop Grumman would appear as guest stars in selected Mavel comic titles. Oswalt and the Chapo hosts mused about how, in explicitly thematizing superhero comics’ defense of the military-industrial complex, this corporate branding maneuver rendered the old distinction between text and subtext obsolete. This lead them into an extended rift on the hyper literalism of Donald Trump, and the death of abstract thought in 2017. The bit starts at the 47 minute mark here, and here’s a transcript of the relevant part:

Virgil Texas: Some lefty cultural critic who just handed in his big manuscript showing the propaganda value for empire of modern comic books is just so pissed right now. Just threw it into a fireplace.
Patton Oswalt: Wait, hang on. Sorry, I might have been wrong earlier, when I said that all of this post-capitalism economic anxiety is defined in our pop culture. I think: no. It is the lack of abstract thought. Trump—and you talked about this, that he has no abstract thought—
Matt Christman: If they say we need transparency in the White House, he thinks we mean we can look through the walls.
Amber Frost: Yeah. He’s a hyper literalist.
Patton Oswalt: So maybe that is what’s going to happen. There will be no more irony, or meta-distance to anything. It will just be right there.
Matt Christman: Yes. That’s really what I’ve felt since he won. Is just the dissolving of metaphorical language. Allegory … all of that is dead. We just have this weird, concrete background.
Patton Oswalt: “Well, yeah. I mean, it’s oval, so you can’t really …”
Matt Christman: Oh god, that one! I still think about that one sometimes! George W. Bush said you’ve got nowhere to hide. [slipping into Trump impression.] “Well, yeah, there’s no corners or anything …”
Patton Oswalt: “But if there’s somebody out in the window, then I guess I would sit—” “Well, he meant it all comes back to you.” “I understand that!”
Matt Christman: It’s sort of like The Invention of Lying. Only, instead of we can’t lie, we cannot use any kind of abstract language.
Patton Oswalt: Yes. The Invention of Metaphor.
Matt Christman: Right. We’re all Amelia Bedelia.
Patton Oswalt: Oh my god! I’m reading those to my daughter right now. She loves those.
Matt Christman: Well, get used to it. That’s the future.
Patton Oswalt: My god, I’m preparing her …
Matt Christman: It’s going to be like Pontypool, only you’re just going to lose all of your metaphors.

Does Trump’s hard-headed hyper-literalism signal a new era of anti abstract thought on the right? Does Disney-Marvel making their support for the military industrial machine mean that there’s no need for our corporate overlords to bury their ideology in the subtext anymore? I don’t know. These are just comedians and podcast hosts, making jokes.

But when it came out, the sentiment on display here did strike a nerve for me, because I’ve been increasingly concerned that the political left is divesting itself of its ability to appreciate metaphor, storytelling, and abstraction.

Increasingly, in call-out culture, depiction is taken to mean endorsement. That is, if you depict a bad thing—even for the purposes of then critiquing that bad thing—you run the risk of being immediately accused of endorsing said bad thing.

Now, to make it clear, we shouldn’t assume the opposite, either. We go too far if we do a text’s work for it, and just assume that its depiction of a bad thing is necessarily critical. There is a lot of lazy fiction out there, gesturing vaguely towards political critique but flubbing the specifics. As I’ve said throughout, we shouldn’t confuse Blade Runner 2049‘s nominal inhabitation of the critical dystopian genre with actually using that genre well, to make coherent political points. And god knows there’s a lot of lazy Seth MacFarlane-style humor out there that spits out racist jokes under the guise of “making fun of racism,” without actually bothering to do the hard work of critiquing racism. That way lies 4-chan dwelling “ironic Nazis” turned non-ironic Nazis.

This is a tricky issue, but thankfully most of what I want to say was already said back in August 2017, by the always-insightful Film Crit Hulk. I will leave him to pinpoint exactly what it is I am noticing and criticizing, with all of the required qualifications:

I’m not trying to dismiss the very valid conversation about how despite many films’ intentions to criticize, they can absolutely fail and end up condoning those messages…. Nor am I trying to dismiss films that haphazardly use charged and problematic tropes…. Nor am I trying to dismiss that there are a lot of filmmakers who back up their ugly, horrible, amoral movies by lamely saying it’s satire or “just a joke,” without understanding how to actually make that shit clear. In short, there are many broken forms of depiction that absolutely are inadvertent forms of condoning. No, what I’m saying is that sometimes the most passionate and political minded of us, who often understand a great deal about the sensitive nuances of culture and the power of social messaging, sometimes do not bother to dive into the same level of nuance with narrative semiotic understanding.

Throughout his post, Film Crit Hulk mentions a of a bunch of small incidents in which leftie cultural critics seemed to assumed that “a film always needs to show how the world should work, and that coming at it any other way is messaging that condones the behavior.” I think some of the criticism that Blade Runner 2049 attracted falls into this trap. Obviously, I don’t think that the film is perfect. But I also think that, in much of the conversation that surrounded the film, there wasn’t enough care given to the question of how dystopias should be approached, from a politically critical standpoint. Dystopias are are powerful genre of fiction. If political criticism is going to have any utility and efficacy, it needs to find ways to account for films that don’t show the world as it should be.

The most startling example of this trend toward literalism, about immediately condemning a work of art for the mere act of depicting a politically “problematic” world, came not from the world of criticism, but from the world of young adult literature criticism. I admit that my knowledge of this corner of mass culture is pretty minimal, and I can only hope that this article by Kat Rosenfield of its excesses is exaggerated and sensationalist. Because the type of behavior it reports on is truly chilling: well-meaning, politically-minded teens being drafted as a Cultural Revolution-style Twitter army to officially label a book a Bad Object. I haven’t read Laurie Forest’s The Black Witch, which apparently attempts to weave a political tale of a witch who begins to question and rebel against her racist and chauvinistic upbringing. Perhaps it’s daft and lead-footed, fumbling its attempts to critique its subject matter just as much as Blade Runner 2049 does. But whatever the book’s merits, the spectacle of authors insisting that books should effectively be banned immediately upon being labeled “problematic” by absolutely anyone, and that “problematic” objects should never be viewed, ever, even for the purposes of study and critique, turns my stomach. Definitely makes me want to find a copy of The Black Witch to read for the annual Banned Books Week.

Tristina_Wright_don't-read-problematic-books

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing over the past few years about free speech on campus. Most of the conversation has centered around things like trigger warnings and high-profile student protests against right-wing provocateurs. Honestly, though, it’s this slide toward literalism that worries me. This idea that “problematic” things are like Weeping Angelsun-depictable, because any depiction is as dangerous as the thing itself, if not worse—is one of the clearest motivations for censorship that could ever be formulated. And given youth Twitter’s embrace of call-out culture, this is gradually having an effect on college students. I’m not teaching right now, but the friends I have who are have increasingly voiced concerns recently. Once upon a time, a student calling a film “sexist” was an invitation, an opportunity to analyze its perniciousness in great detail, introducing the class to formative thinkers such as Laura Mulvey, Mary Anne Doane, Molly Haskel, and Kaja Silverman along the way. Some teachers are finding their students less willing to plunge into this kind of analysis than they once were. “This film is sexist” is increasingly the end of the conversation, rather than the beginning of one.

And, often, it is an accusation: that the instructor should have avoided placing said film on the syllabus, and that they should expect a negative course evaluation later on as retribution for this transgression. Given the fact that almost everyone I know is in a precarious non-tenure-track position, this insinuation carries dire weight. This is a situation I can’t imagine that college administrative types are itching to rectify. They have, in fact, a vested interest in not rectifying it. After all, it’s always the managerial class that benefits when factionalism erupts among those with less power. If students and teachers are at each other’s throats, well then that works out nicely.

So, a humble resolution for 2018: Let’s put the breaks on this. Let’s slide out of literalism. Let’s learn, once again, to thoughtfully critique works of art that fail in their attempts to politically critique their subject matter, without making the depiction of certain subject matter Verboten. Let’s let fiction be fiction again. As Margaret Atwood wrote when she herself ended up on the receiving end of call-out culture, “Fiction writers are particularly suspect because they write about human beings, and people are morally ambiguous. The aim of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity.” Look at that! I complained above that I don’t find Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale to be ambiguous enough. I thought it was over-the-top in its overtness! But I agree with Atwood on this one. Let’s listen to her.

[i] Baccolini, Rafaella and Tom Moylan. “Introduction: Distopia and Histories.” In Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. New York: Routledge, 2003. Pg 7.

[ii] Fields, Karen E. and Barbara J. Fields. “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America.” In Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life. New York: Verso, 2014.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s