Objectivity vs Subjectivity

Okay, so a topic that has been kicked around a lot over the past decade (and generally forever) is the concept of objectivity in reviews or critiques of works of media. There seem to be two sides, the side that wants all critique of media to be objective, based on verifiable facts about the work of media (which you might typify as MauLer), and the side that wants to use media as a lens for interpretation of ideas, and doesn’t care so much about the contents of the work so much as what it represents (which you might typify as modern art critics).

Of course not everyone is so far to one side or the other, there’s a lot of people in the middle, a more common position from the subjective people is, “this review is my opinion, therefore it’s subjective. Anyone else’s review is their opinion, and therefore subjective.” and a more mediated position from the objective people would be, “I think based on evidence of the work that the work is this way, and we agree that these criteria in a work are generally good, and thereby we can agree this work meets or does not meet those criteria if my assessment is correct.”

To make things simple, I’m going to call our sides objectivists and subjectivists. Please don’t mistake objectivists for Ayn Rand Objectivism, which is not objective at all and is generally kind of a joke.

Objectivity is the idea of something being true independently of someone’s perspective. Subjectivity is the quality of being based on an individual’s perception.

We have a dilemma: by all accords, there is a physical universe that exists outside of ourselves that we can all independently verify facts about, but each of us must perceive it individually and cannot directly share those perceptions, called qualia in philosophy, we can only communicate about them, which then itself needs to be perceived and interpreted.

Objectivists want more objectivity in media criticism. I would count myself as one of those people. I think in the domain of video game reviews, we could use less fluffy interpretation of subject and themes, or vague description of how game mechanics feel and instead describe games more precisely and home in on objective qualities of gameplay.

about 10 years ago, there were a lot of jokes about Objective Game Reviews. Jim Sterling released a poorly received review of Final Fantasy XIII that many people criticized as not being very objective. In response to this, he released an “objective” review of FFXIII, which plainly stated facts about the game and did not give it a score. The implication is that any objective review cannot be critical and his review, nor any review, is at fault for being biased.

Of course a decade later we’d see a reviewer like MauLer pop up, who does “objective” reviews, but unironically. His reviews are a summary of facts about a movie or game, with barely any critical or opinionated commentary. As a result, they barely have anything to say, and are extremely long and difficult to get through. He sums up all his comments and from that labels the review subject objectively good or bad. And therefore his position is that this judgment is impartial and unimpeachable, despite the contents of his reviews frequently being asinine.

So of course this raises a rather basic issue with the idea of objective reviews, can you make a review that’s impartial and unimpeachable, that everyone has to agree with and can independently verify? To claim that your reviews have this quality is arrogant. Reviews aren’t a science where anyone can follow the same steps and always get the same results, and even in science, many results are not beyond reproach further down the line. People may not agree with your criteria, your methods, or that those even produce the results you claim they do.

On the opposite end, there’s a lot of youtube reviewers I admire that aren’t very objective, they play around with their subject matter and use it as a lens to find meaning and discuss more general subject matter rather than concern themselves with the validity or value of the work itself. In this way they extract a lot of ideas and meaning about the world and about the significance of art, but it’s also very removed from the more formalistic pursuit of art as a type of value in-of itself.

However I’ve always considered myself a formalist, even as I’ve opened up to the values of non-formalist interpretation. I think that art has inherent value, not just value through what it means, and the conflict through history has frequently been over whether art is valuable for what it is, or what it means. For example, I really admire Every Frame a Painting for its formalist approach to film criticism. I think formalist critique opens up new avenues for us to appreciate art, and gives us new tools for creating art and I want to see that in video games.

Art can have a message, but art can also be something to be enjoyed. It can change the world for the better, and also give us something to enjoy about the world in the absence of a struggle. Some of my growth has been me becoming more socially conscious, me caring more about what does good for people instead of being good in-of itself. There’s nothing stopping art from being both at the same time, but both are also independently valuable and cultivated independently of each other.

I’ve personally always seen the subjectivist view of art as a type of solipsism, a belief that there isn’t really a shared universe out there, just what each of us perceive. I see things that are beautiful, and I want to quantify that and recreate it. Creating things like that takes a massive amount of effort and dedication. It takes skill to fool the eyes, and it may be difficult to appraise what constitutes skill or how much a person has, but the difference between an expert and a beginner is obvious. The expert can create everything the beginner can, but the beginner cannot do what the expert can.

Subjectivist reviewers claim that if you are limited only to indisputable facts about a work that all you can do is rather banal summaries of the subject matter, rather than pointing to any type of quality, because that’s a subjective judgment. All you can do is point out details, not claim they’re good or bad, because that’s subjective. You can however pick criteria, a rubric of quality, and evaluate details relative to that, saying that closer alignment with the rubric constitutes quality.

Ideally this rubric should be in alignment with qualities that many people enjoy, a human ideal of quality. It should be agnostic to genre, subject matter, or production method. It should be based on what can be independently verified, not an individual’s preference. An objective critic should be able to recognize when a work of quality is not their taste, or when something they like a lot is not necessarily good. If a reviewer equates what is good 1:1 with what they like, then they’re not being intellectually honest or objective (MauLer).

Of course, one person’s attempt at being objective is not beyond reproach, someone else could cite some different evidence and argue for a different conclusion. It could be argued that different criteria apply. This is similar to scientific attempts to discover truth, even if art is a lot more open to interpretation.

In short, objectivity isn’t a binary, it’s something that one can approach, get closer to or be further from. Someone can be more objective or less objective, and they can try their best. A counterargument might be that if objectivity is a matter of interpretation, then it’s subjective. I’d say that it’s more of an ideal. The real world is a matter of interpretation, as we see frequently in politics, yet across testing certain facts can be independently verified. We can create a picture of the world that is more accurate to the world. Science is a pursuit of what’s true about the world we share, and it too has missteps, but determining shared truths about reality is what allows us to build new technologies, or accomplish changes that affect the world in the ways we desire. I believe that by taking a similar approach to art, we can make the skills involved more concrete and learnable, enabling us to more easily realize our creative visions.

The reply to all that might be, “well yeah maybe a universe exists outside of ourselves, but our only contact with that universe is through our senses, our mind’s intepretation of those senses, our faulty memories, and mental shortcuts and biases we possess either inherently or developed through experiences, therefore can we really rely on any type of interpretation claiming to be objective when there are all these walls and filters that stand between us and direct experience with the universe?” And sure, all of that is true, but we can honestly try our best and come up with results that are reproducible for other people

So I’ve said a lot that’s cool about objectivity, here’s some stuff that’s cool about subjectivity. Sometimes I’ve found that I have an experience with something and it triggers an emotional response in me of a certain type, and the original experience is actually completely false or unreliable, yet my story about that experience still has a grain of truth in it, despite the premise being false. The meaning of something isn’t something we can lay out objectively.

A lot of art isn’t about the thing in front of you. People attach a strong significance to what things mean that has nothing to do with what a thing is. Priceless artifacts are priceless not because of what they are, but because of what they represent: a history. And that value is very subjective. You might be able to seemlessly reproduce a famous work of art, but a copy is worth the labor, the original is worth a lot more in ideas.

And frequently, you have a personal perspective, you’ve had experiences, and these relate to what the work is depicting. Based on the combination of your perspective and the work itself, you might have an insight that is valauble to you, or which you think is valuable to others. I really like the channel RenegadeCut for interpretations of media along these lines. I think he’s really good at getting directly into the meanings and implications of media in a way that makes sense more broadly. It might be a matter of interpretation, but those interpretations can give me a lens for understanding the world more broadly, and that’s valuable to me; which is good in a way that analyzing the cinematography or story structure of the work in a formalistic way isn’t (and infinitely more valuable than anything MauLer has ever done, or ever will do).

So yeah, there’s value in both styles of analysis. Both are pretty fucking cool when they’re not being handled by incompetent dipshits like MauLer.

3 thoughts on “Objectivity vs Subjectivity

  1. Johan November 16, 2019 / 6:20 pm

    “If a reviewer equates what is good 1:1 with what they like, then they’re not being intellectually honest or objective (MauLer).” I saw something from MauLer where he gave a different score for how good something was and how much he liked it, so I think he does have a separation, even if that isn’t communicated generally.

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  2. Random November 22, 2019 / 11:03 pm

    I think that your characterization of objectivity is still just a more refined version of subjectivity.

    “I see things that are beautiful, and I want to quantify that and recreate it”

    Isn’t that like what exists for years now? In all arts we have defined numerous techniques and whatnot in order to enable artists to create whatever the hell they want with much easier time. But that doesn’t make a given technique or result coming from using it objectively good or bad. Chekhov’s Gun is one of the basic and most frequent techniques used in writing but even then it was mocked by Ernest Hemingway who really liked to add inconsequential details to his stories and yet people praise both Chekhov and Hemingway as great writers despite being in opposite camps when it comes to such basic and important thing. I think that subjectivists would agree with you here (I do). I also like to quote my music theory professor who said something along “Of course I can teach someone that there is an extra skill set necessary to compose counterpoint within a restrictive system and someone may appreciate it but he doesn’t have to and he can even dislike it, in the end it relies on taste”.

    “You can however pick criteria, a rubric of quality, and evaluate details relative to that, saying that closer alignment with the rubric constitutes quality”

    You can but that is still reliant on taste and is ultimately arbitrary. Everyone is epistemically binded by “this movie’s plot is more complex than plot of movie B” as that is a matter of fact but no one is in any way binded by “and this is a good thing”.

    “Ideally this rubric should be in alignment with qualities that many people enjoy, a human ideal of quality. It should be agnostic to genre, subject matter, or production method. It should be based on what can be independently verified, not an individual’s preference. An objective critic should be able to recognize when a work of quality is not their taste, or when something they like a lot is not necessarily good.”

    That’s kinda problematic given the state of our philosophical knowledge. When it comes to objectivity in aesthetics liking and quality are not separate things. In objective aesthetics we all should have the same, correct response to every given aesthetic element. Liking something that is bad is a rational mistake, you can’t do that. If objectivity in aesthetics is real then it should not be based on something arbitrary which “many people enjoy” is as that is not really objective, intersubjective at best. It’s all about whether aesthetic properties like beauty, sublime or gaudiness are mind-independent, real properties existing in our world. And if they do then they sure as hell wouldn’t be only relative to humans.
    Also that conception of quality would be totally useless as it holds no normative power and normativity is a pretty important thing to objectivity. You can’t really expect all people to conform to something like that just as our rubric for truth isn’t that most people think X is true so you must think it is too or rubric for morality that many people are OK with X so you must be too. It’s either all agents are “affected” and all are able to take part in that whole project or there’s no objectivity.

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  3. RDI December 7, 2019 / 5:01 pm

    Ah, I remember when I used to like MauLer. Good times.

    Like

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