One of the most common spurious defences against #Gamergate’s appropriate concerns about censorship is to dismiss those concerns as ‘Criticism isn’t censorship’. Now, technically, that is true, but the trouble is that what most people understand by ‘criticism’ is now what your ‘SJW’ means by it.
As most of us would understand the term ‘criticism’ we would think of it in terms of ‘The analysis and judgement of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work’. So a film critic watches a film and gives their assessment of its plot, cinematography, storytelling prowess, acting, set design and so forth. We might also think of this in terms of ‘constructive criticisms’. Offering reasoned, valid analysis with the hopes of making things better.
Art is parasitic on life, just as criticism is parasitic on art.
– Harry S Truman
Literary criticism, by contrast, is ‘The study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature.’ While it’s called literary criticism, it can be applied to many different art forms including games and films. The emphasis is on interpretation. The trouble with literary criticism, and the related field of literary theory, is that it is all completely subjective – sometimes wilfully so – and as such its interpretations are only really true for the individual applying it. They can tell you essentially nothing about the work itself, only about the person doing the interpreting.
Literary theory is essentially a set of ‘lenses’ through which literary criticism can be applied. A literary critic using feminist theory, for example, might subject a piece of art to examination based on the Bechdel test or unsupported hypotheses such as objectification. Obviously, to use these lenses it to deliberately and wilfully invite a huge amount of subjective bias, something not normally invoked in any serious study or academic discipline, which usually strives for objectivity – insomuch as is possible.
Literary criticism need not be entirely useless. It may be able – in aggregate – to help us understand how people interpret different symbols, metaphors, similes, music, palettes etc, but in individual cases it remains largely useless (save for understanding the critic) and relies overmuch on the arrogant conceit of ‘death of the author’.
Isaac Asimov repeated in several places an anecdote based on this: He once sat in (in the back of a large lecture hall, so semi-anonymously) on a class where the topic of discussion was one of his own works. Afterward, he went up and introduced himself to the teacher, saying that he had found the teacher’s interpretation of the story interesting, though it really wasn’t what he had meant at all. The teacher’s response was “Just because you wrote it, what makes you think you have the slightest idea what it’s about?”
Critical theory is defined (OED) as: ‘A philosophical approach to culture, and especially to literature, that considers the social, historical, and ideological forces and structures which produce and constrain it.’
As with literary criticism (to which critical theory is in part related) the problem with this is that it tells you more about the critic (or the ideology they are using) than the subject of the criticism itself. This philosophical lens that they apply is distorting to such a degree that it can only really tell you something useful about a product that derives from that same philosophical basis.
Critical theory is also steeped in Cultural Marxism, stemming as much of it does, from the Frankfurt School of sociopolitical thought. As such it was originally predicated upon the idea that fictional and cultural constructs are operating tools of oppression that shape a culture, rather than deriving from it. In cases of cults, closed societies or propagandist totalitarianism this may be valid, but in a pluralistic media landscape it’s clearly nonsense.
Modern critical theory, at least as applied by activists, applies the same idea to a wide variety of different causes and ideologies and takes it further. Any examination or attempts to understand the topic in question are to be ‘deplatformed’ lest they cause damage.
True, actual, criticism strives for objectivity and distance. It assesses an artistic artefact on its own terms and adjudges its success. Some of these matters are subjective, some are objective (especially when it comes to games).
Literary criticism is entirely subjective and as such can tell you little or nothing about the artefact or product in question – and a great deal about the critic. Literary criticism is not ‘this is…’ but rather ‘I think…’ or ‘this made me feel…’ This has no real place in a consumer review and is of the quality and type you’d get in a small conversation with friends.
Critical theory only tells you about the ideology of the critic, not the quality, intent, execution or true nature of the artefact being assessed. It’s literary criticism writ large. Of the three literary criticism is probably the most ‘problematic’ (to coin a phrase) as it relates media content to real social problems, apparently as a means of justification for not liking something. As such it transmutes a matter of taste into a matter of policy, which is then used to justify censorship, control and limitation.
Lit crit and crit theory have their place in commercial product assessment – in editorials. If you want to know about the actual product, stick with those who simply and purely are critics.