The Tension Between: Emotionalism and Criticism

Ostensibly for anime critics; theoretically for everyone.

Re:ZERO

Let’s start with a quote:

Point me a scribe writes ’emotionless crit;’
All I shall see is a liar or halfwit.

—William Shakespeare

Criticism inspired by passion is great; criticism informed by passion is a bit of a double-edged sword. My favorite anime bloggers are the ones who are entirely barefaced about the inclusion of emotion in their writing (see AJtheFourth’s tremendous post on Orange‘s sixth episode or illegenes’ wonderful One Piece post) or who have, through what I can only assume is witchcraft, melded frothing love with intellectual approaches (ghostlighting comes to mind). Personally, I think I fall somewhere in the middle—I struggle to articulate emotion at times and can wind up leaning into colder analytical prose. More on that later.

I thought about titling this post “Emotionalism vs. Criticism,” but that’s a false dichotomy. Emotionalism and criticism are not at war with each other; in fact, practically speaking the idea of separating them is impossible. To paraphrase Shakespeare, we cannot honestly separate our emotional reactions to the things we encounter from the ways in which we discuss them. Humans are emotional beings, and this goes doubly true in a media culture, community-created or otherwise, heavily reliant on emotional reactions. (see the proliferation of the term, “feels”).

New Game!

So, to define terms:

  • Emotionalism: when we watch things, we have emotions about them
  • Criticism: we like to talk about things using intellectual terms

Perhaps the titular tension I’m proposing here is obvious already, but the risk we critics (and, really, anyone who talks about the stuff they watch) run is using our intellectually filtered criticism to justify our emotional realities, rather than to explain them. It’s a fine distinction, but the difference in what’s being said goes like so: “I felt this, therefore…” versus “I felt this, because…” And so now we’re into another binary, justification versus explanation. The former is, um, probably bad. I think. Or at least it leads quickly towards things like defensiveness and nastiness of rhetoric. The latter is illuminative in nature, both of the speaker and of the piece itself.

But the tendency is to justify while waving the flag of rational criticism, as if we can just shrug off our emotions and spit out arguments like robots. If you believe anime, not even robots are completely impartial.

I’m mentally referring back to my piece on dropping Re:ZERO at this point, recalling how many times I had to make double checks on where I was coming from when I made particular arguments. That piece probably falls somewhere in between justification and explanation, but I give myself points for at least being aware that I was trying to dissect a fundamentally emotional reaction and piece together the other parts of the haystack that the “last straw” fell on top of. This is typical of me, I feel.

Heartcatch! Precure

All of this is doubly true with emotionally charged (or emotionally motivated!!) topics, posts, and tweets. It is comforting to wrap the vulnerability of having emotionally connected (and thus reacted) to something within the defenses of intellectually posited rationales. We critics have it especially tough because we’ve generally created an expectation of intellectualism for ourselves (campaigning again anti-intellectualism and all!). Poor critics (note: not-poor critics?), careerists of illusion-making. My theory about “feels” is that it is a popular term because it’s vague enough obscure vulnerability while still communicating a definitive experience. It’s symptomatic.

Anyways, the takeaway here is: don’t hide your emotionalism (you have it, get over it) behind the guise of criticism. You are not as rational as you’d like to be, and neither am I. Learn to acknowledge that your emotions are going to drive your impressions of things and beware of couching subjective emotional ideas within the confines of intellectual arguments. Anti-intellectualism is bad; emotionalism masquerading as rationality is worse. Probably. If you seek to justify your emotional reality, you may succeed, but you will have also have constructed the most fragile dollhouse possible for your feelings to live within. And then you will be angry when other people come to play in it, because they’ll probably start knocking on the walls.

That’s enough weird metaphors, let’s continue this in the comments if you’d like.

Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto

13 thoughts on “The Tension Between: Emotionalism and Criticism

  1. Only thing I’d question here is your definition of ‘criticism’. If we set it against ’emotionalism’, having feelings, criticism is the investigation of why we had those feelings. Sometimes with ‘intellectual terms’. Sometimes requiring none of those.

    Ultimately the critical attitude is the scepticism of thought. So the tension between it and emotionalism, for me, is defined by connecting the struggle to understand one’s emotions towards at with the struggle to present and share those emotions with others.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Whoops, I forgot to put back in the part where I said “criticism” is a huge misnomer for the concept I’m talking about here, but I think it works anyways because criticism is often the format through which all this is played out. And criticism has A Form.

      To me it’s more about self-awareness and honesty. I can take or leave skepticism of thought. Maybe you mean the same thing but I prefer my phrasing if you do.

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      • To connect the two, self-awareness to scepticism, it would be saying that the concern of criticism is the process of the questioning of thought (of one’s self and of others) rather than any answer you make for it. The act of criticism is in the questioning, and it suspends when you settle on an answer, and behind again when you question the answer anew.

        I’d phrase it like this because while honesty and awareness can someone be illusions, and question is most certainly a question.

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  2. I find it onjectionable that you apparently have this filed under “nonsense” when such could be no further from the truth, this post is full of the sense making.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your point, but will mention (the rather obvious fact) that people live by justifying their actions to themselves, it’s a hard button to turn off, more so if you’re used to accurately explaining yourself rather than just feeling stuff. But I dont want to start parroting portions of your own work back at you.

    Thank you for this post.
    PS. Feels timely, you write this all out today? wow if so.

    Like

    • As I phrased it to Bobduh earlier, it’s embarrassingly half-baked and so I will stand firm in my categorization of it!

      And yes, this is a tendency that we all struggle with, as I catalogued here. However, I think it winds up being more sinister with couched in critical/intellectual terms because it gives the impression of detachment and logic, weaponizing them. I think it’s dishonest and often turns self-congratulatory in very poor ways.

      And I read Twitter! These ideas didn’t come out of a vacuum. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Let’s think about this issue from a reader’s perspective:
    If you share your emotional reactions, what will a reader think?
    If they had the same reactions, they will rejoice–“omg this esteemed critic is fanboying about Kumiko and Reina too!”(an example, of course)
    If they didn’t, they might not react much–“oh hey this guy’s fanboying about moe again”
    If you eloquently explain what triggered your emotional reaction, a reader may see your perspective evenid they disagree with it. Idk, at least that was my experience. I was lukewarm on many of hyouka’s scenes but changed my mind when I saw things from your perspective as you gushed about hyouka in your posts.

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    • Well, again, the issue here is not so much about how the criticism is being delivered to the audience as it is about how it is being used by the writer. It’s less about sharing emotional reactions versus sharing intellectual thoughts as it is about veiling emotional reactions behind the guise of intellect.

      To use the Hyouka example you brought up, what I tried to do there was allow a more analytical tone to unveil why I was reacting emotionally, rather than to make apparently unbiased claims about the show’s quality. It sounds like you understood pretty well that I loved the show and where I was coming from when I explained things with more critical language, so in that sense I succeeded in not hiding my emotionalism even though I was writing in a more academic voice.

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  4. Interesting post, but I find the argument a bit.. confusing? I still not really sure what the piece is about. Of course emotion is important, we care about media because we have emotion. However, I think criticism is more than just explaining your emotion. It’s also about using your knowledge to give readers different perspective about a piece of media.

    For example, a person who’s knowledgeable about Japanese culture will be able to understand Concrete Revolutio from a historical and cultural stand point. He or she can share this knowledge through reviews and analysis. For visual medium, I learn quite a bit about cinematography and filming from Roger Ebert’s reviews. Through criticism, you can promote a school of thought or ideas. Isn’t that also intellectualism?

    Then of course there’s the quality of writing in criticism. Writing a good review is intensively difficult, arguably harder than writing a scientific article. You need to interest readers, while still clearly explaining your reasoning. Too much sarcasm and jokes and it will feel like you are insulting readers. Too dry and detailed and you lose audiences’ interest. Even if you manage to explain the reason why you feel a certain way, that alone does not make a good review. There is an art in criticism, and like every art, your emotion will influence how you write.

    Sorry if I’m completely off the mark about what you are discussing. I’m sleepy as hell but I want to comment now.

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    • I’m not surprised you found this a bit confusing! I was really struggling to get my thoughts out and I frankly think the whole article is a bit half-baked. But it’s a starting point that I hope I can build on in the future.

      Perhaps it helps to know this is something of a reaction to certain lines of argumentation that I’ve seen in blog posts, on Twitter, on forums, etc., which are couched in very critical-analytical language in a way that seems intended to produce an air of detachment from topics and arguments that are fundamentally emotional. I find that kind of writing uninteresting at best and rather ugly at worst.

      Maybe that helps! Look for a continuation sometime, hopefully!

      Like

  5. Love the thought that went into this article. Echoing Jeko up there, I find that my best criticism tends to stem from understanding the emotions I feel when watching an anime and endeavoring to discover why I feel that way, what that says about myself, and how I can articulate my findings. The rub lies mostly (for me) in presentation: how can I present my emotion without falling into the pitfall of passion-fuel opinions? How can I convey an efficient critique without being completely cold and unattached? The dichotomy is what makes blogging (and writing in general) a fun challenge. 🙂

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  6. There was a great essay written by Matt Zoller Seitz a couple of years ago where he made an impassioned argument for the importance of discussing form in film and TV criticism. You can read the whole essay at
    http://www.rogerebert.com/mzs/please-critics-write-about-the-filmmaking
    but the thrust of his argument is that while an emotional response to art is perfectly valid, in film and television the emotions you feel are being evoked by the images that you’re watching on the screen, and the choices that the director makes of lighting, framing, transitions, etc., and it’s part of the critic’s job to explain how those choices affected his or her emotional response. I feel like you’ve generally kept that in mind; I think back to your Hyouka posts in particular, which did a great job of using form analysis to underscore your emotional reactions to each episode.

    Part of the broader problem, I think, is that criticism has become in some ways too democratic. Anyone can post their opinion about anything on the internet, and while that in an of itself isn’t a bad thing – I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t be allowed to speak their minds! – most of the people who review media on the internet have little to no understanding of the actual art and science of criticism. So 90% or more of the “reviews” on MAL and other social media sites are really emotionalism that the writer confuses for criticism, glorified personal essays sharing the writer’s opinion, with little or no discussion of actual form and content beyond vague statements like “it gave me feels” or “the animation was average.” Their inability or unwillingness to present anything concrete that might substantially explain their opinion gives rise, in turn, to the frustrated commenter who disagrees with the reviewer’s opinion of the show but has nothing to rebut besides those vague feelings, so the only way they can find to express their dissent is to hypocritically complain that reviews are supposed to be “objective.” Nobody actually wants a truly objective review – I’ve never once seen a commenter on any review who said, “I 100% agree with your overall opinion of the show, but you should frame your arguments more objectively!” People who read reviews before they’ve watched a series want enough substantial information to give them a sense of whether or not they’ll enjoy it themselves, and people who read reviews after they’ve watched a series are often either looking for a review that validates their own opinion of the series, or that helps them process their feelings about certain aspects of the show where they can’t quite sort out their own thoughts yet. Emotionalism bereft of intellectual analysis might satisfy the readers who only care about validation, but it’s not going to help the other two groups of readers much, and it’s going to inflame readers who had an equally strong but opposite emotional reaction to the series and aren’t allowed to understand why the reviewer had a different opinion.

    Like

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