A. O. Scott and the Role of Free Will in Criticism

The following piece was completed on May 23, 2016. I do not recall why I chose not to post it at that time, but I am posting it now in its original state (aside from minor edits, like changing “last week” to “last year,” due to the delay in publication):

On March 11, 2016, I had the pleasure of seeing New York Times film critic A. O. Scott talk about his new book, Better Living Through Criticism, at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge (an event organized through the Harvard Book Store). During the Q&A portion of this event, Scott fielded not one, but two questions about the role of free will in film criticism. On hearing the second question, Scott even quipped about whether or not there was a Calvinist convention in town. What sticks with me, however, is not the answer Scott gave on this particular night at the Brattle (in which he responded that free will may, perhaps, have a role to play), but the answers that Scott gives in his book, a book in which Scott claims quite early that criticism—the act of passing judgment—is something that humans do out of necessity. As Scott writes: “We can’t help it.”

The free will debate, long relegated to the halls of academia, has been gaining much mainstream attention as of late. Sam Harris published a slim volume on the subject in 2011. More recently, James B. Miles published his thorough and carefully researched The Free Will Delusion. And just last year, in The Atlantic, we saw a piece entitled “There Is No Such Thing as Free Will.” So it’s not surprising, then, that people would be curious about whether free will can exist within the creative arts, despite the mounting scientific evidence to the contrary. And it’s not surprising that A. O. Scott would actively wrestle with the question in his work.

Early into his book, Scott discusses the job of art, which he sees as being “to free our minds.” The job of criticism, then, is “to figure out what to do with that freedom.” Scott even states that “we are each of us capable of thinking against our own prejudices.”

Can art truly free our minds and unshackle us from our prejudices, remove us from the chain of cause and effect to which we all belong? The answer is yes, maybe, if we are already predisposed and open to the possibility of art changing us. But art itself then simply enters the chain of cause and effect, becoming, in the process, something else to which our present state is beholden. A better wording might be that art does not free us so much as change us. And criticism is our attempt to account for the change (which occurs unconsciously) in rational, communicable terms.

The capacity for change, as well as the change itself (whatever it might be), is also predetermined by one’s taste—the acquisition of which we are also helpless to control. Of taste, Scott writes:

Taste, we assume, is innate, reflexive, immediate, involuntary, but we also speak of it as something to be acquired. It is a private, subjective matter, a badge of individual sovereignty, but at the same time a collectively held property, bundling us into clubs, cults, communities, and sociological stereotypes.

All of this, to my mind, is true. Taste is acquired but involuntary; it is subjective but collective. More specifically, it is predetermined. The circumstances of a person’s life (the previous art to which he or she has been exposed, the society in which he or she was raised, the education which he or she has been fortunate enough to receive, etc.) will determine the person’s taste.

But Scott seems to deny this. If taste were predetermined, he writes, it would be “a matter of prejudice and conditioning and therefore not really taste at all.” Scott fails to make clear, unfortunately, why taste would be devalued as taste if it were predetermined (which it is). But he does try to account for his own taste. He writes:

It would be foolish for me to deny the determining facts of my generation, class, education, and background. I don’t make the mistake of supposing that my feelings and perceptions are either uniquely mine or somehow untethered from influence and circumstance. Nobody floats above the common run of tastes, plucking only the most exquisite posies on the basis of pure intuition. It’s always contingent, always relative, always a matter of who and where you happen to be.

Thus, Scott does recognize the extent to which his tastes have been predetermined. However, he continues:

Of course, we’re all determined beings, made by circumstance beyond our control. But we’re also changeable creatures, highly susceptible to the influence of accident, free agents with the power to invent ourselves.

How can determined beings also be free agents? Here, Scott attempts to adapt a compatibilist view of free will, though it remains unconvincing. We can see this again as he continues:

Sometimes we react the way we do because of birth or conditioning, sometimes because of a more mysterious force, sometimes by the operation of our will.

I appreciate that Scott is trying to address the question of free will in his book, but I find it hard to look past the obfuscations (mysterious force?) and contradictions. For example, even though he brings up the “operation of our will” in the above passage, Scott once again, not many pages later, seems to find himself adopting the determinist position:

We can’t, after all, escape from the facts of language, geography, class, gender, and belief that condition what we see, any more than we can will ourselves into another time.

Because of statements like this, I cannot help but view Scott’s position as anything other than softly determinist, despite his compatibilist leanings. With that in mind, I think we can see that there is no actual role for free will in criticism.

To highlight an example, I will turn to Ratatouille, as Scott himself does at the end of his book. At the end of the film, when the food critic Anton Ego eats Remy’s titular dish, something happens to him. He is transported back to his childhood, where he would eat the same dish in his mother’s rustic kitchen. This singular moment from his childhood determines Ego’s reaction to Remy’s dish. Ego’s immediate judgment, therefore, is involuntary, subjective, and predetermined by his past. Free will plays no role in Ego’s judgment.

But what of his criticism—the measured, rational response that he writes much later, after his meal has already been digested? Can Ego distance himself enough from his immediate experience to offer up an impersonal and objective assessment of Remy’s ratatouille?

It is worth noting that Ego does not mention his involuntary transport back to his mother’s kitchen in his review of the dish and the restaurant. Why? Because criticism remains a post hoc attempt to account for something to which we have no control, to rationalize a response hitherto devoid of reason. Can free will play a role in these rationalizations?

Again, the answer is no. Because even our ability to craft criticism, our authorial voice, our skill with words, and our personal and creative motivations—these, too, have all been predetermined, bound to us by a past to which we remain forever, inescapably, and sometimes unfortunately, tethered.

Further reading:

In Defense of Heresy in Criticism

Full English Breakfast

Once a week, Criticwire asks a group of film critics a question and compiles their responses.  This week’s Criticwire Survey seems to have caused a bit of a stir.  Here is the question posed by Matt Singer:

What movie widely regarded as a cinematic masterpiece do you dislike (or maybe even hate)?

This question and its responses were promoted under the incendiary headline: “Overrated Masterpieces.”  Needless to say, this provoked some outrage, both in the comments and across the web.  Only one critic, Glenn Kenny, appears to have left the proceedings unscathed.  The reason for this is that he refused to name a film:

I find this question especially dispiriting, as it’s really just a form of bait, and a cue for individuals to come up with objects to snicker at, feel superior to, and all that. I’m sure many critics will have a blast with it.

Kenny follows this with a passage from Richard Hell’s autobiography where Hell writes of an encounter with Susan Sontag in which she laments the fact that she has opinions because, as Hell puts it, “opinions will solidify into prejudices that substitute for perception.”

On Twitter, New York Times critic A. O. Scott singled out Kenny for praise:

watch @Glenn__Kenny enlist Susan Sontag and Richard Hell to smack down glib link-trolling pseudo-contrarianism

First of all, I would argue that Kenny himself is using this opportunity to “snicker at” and “feel superior to” his fellow critics.  Second, I would argue that the point of this particular survey is to counter popular opinions that may have solidified into prejudices, not the other way around.  Finally, I think that it is Scott who is being “glib” in his dismissal of the exercise as “pseudo-contrarianism.”

Each individual critic (Kenny included) will have points of divergence from the critical community with which he or she belongs.  This is only natural; individuals have individual tastes (e.g., likes and dislikes) based on individual life experiences.  But here is an unsettling fact: many people will accept that certain films are sacred—sometimes irrationally and without having actually seen them—for the single reason that the films have been blessed with critical approval and labeled masterpieces.  The critics who answered the Criticwire Survey are simply challenging this automatic acceptance, some even going so far as to offer rational and articulate defenses of their opinions (the opposite of pseudo-contrarianism, I would say).

Interestingly, James Ramsden, a food blogger at The Guardian, wrote a piece last week called “The Great British fry-up: it’s a national disgrace.”  The article comes with the following blurb:

The full English breakfast is the most overrated of British dishes – even the name is shuddersome. How did we become shackled to this fried fiasco?

Just as with the Criticwire Survey (and perhaps again due to the word “overrated”), Ramsden experienced a lot of backlash.  He felt compelled to write a response (published only a day after the Criticwire Survey): “Which well-loved foods do you hate?”  In this piece, we learn that Ramsden received accusations similar to those received by the film critics.  For example, he, too, was accused of trolling (maybe by the A. O. Scott of the British food blogging world).  However, Ramsden understands where the attacks are coming from:

I understand it because I’ve felt it too. It is perhaps not a rational reaction to a subjective aversion […], but we feel strongly about food and are thus oddly offended by someone vehemently opposing that which we cherish.

Yes, and people apparently feel strongly about film as well and will oppose subjective aversions to well-loved films with equal vehemence and irrationality.  Ramsden, after providing a long list of similar aversions from some notable chefs and food critics, ends his piece by stating:

The common denominator with all of these dislikes is the mutual conviction that the other person is a loon, even a heretic. There are certain aversions – anchovies, haggis, balut, kidneys – that are entirely understandable (you don’t often hear cries of “you don’t like kimchi?!” except perhaps in certain foodish circles), but when it comes to dissing curry, fish and chips, pasta, or indeed a fry-up, it turns out people are, at best, going to think you very odd indeed. Still, can’t blame a man for trying.

Glenn Kenny chose not to name a film on which his opinion differs from that of the masses.  Does that mean he holds no such opinion?  That no such film exists?  Hardly.  As I said, he used this opportunity to elevate himself above his fellow critics under the pretense that criticism has loftier goals than this sort of muckraking.  I think that he just didn’t want to get his hands dirty.  I prefer the “loons” and the “heretics” who are unafraid of their own subjectivity.  On a related note, I believe that Pauline Kael would have loved this week’s Criticwire Survey.  Especially the word “overrated.”

Further reading:

Hume, Kael, and the Role of Subjectivity in Criticism