The Truth Conditions of Cultural Criticism

After my recent brush with cultural commentary, I’ve been thinking about the business of art and media criticism. Sometimes I wonder whether a philosopher ought to be in the business of diagnosing the Zeitgeist. Nonetheless, I keep finding myself drawing general conclusions from cultural trends, predicting an uncertain future or analyzing something as grandiose and amorphous as the American psyche, while at the same time I find most of the pronouncements people make along these lines tiresome. Remember the ‘death of irony?’ How’s that working out?

Yet I hope I come by it honestly. As a consumer of culture and popular entertainment, I can’t help but develop opinions and attempt to ground them in my professional expertise and sometimes to make connections between apparently related concerns. Perhaps at times I can help model the philosophical enterprise in these playful moments, for those who are more interested in suspense than sorites paradoxes. And so it seems that we should start with the essential question: what are the truth conditions or rules of evidence for cultural criticism? How do we distinguish true claims about, say, Tony Soprano or Dexter Morgan, from false ones? For instance, is it ‘true’ that Dexter is a sociopath whose appetites have been reigned in by his father’s youthful discipline, or was he actually completely sane until his father’s training regime corrupted his boyish innocence? Is Ferris Bueller a playful con-artist and well-meaning trickster trying to help his friend Cameron break out of his shell, or is he a Tyler Durden-like hallucination, the whole film a fantasy of the fevered Cameron, until he bashes in the front of his father’s car?

Such questions are about the ontology and truth conditions of fictional entities. Does the fictional Harry Potter really have a scar on his head? How can a fictional character have a real scar? That’s not so hard to rectify: the fictional Harry Potter fictionally has a real scar. Okay: but is J.K. Rowling the only one who can say what’s true about her characters? For instance, is she the only authority on the claim that the fictional Albus Dumbledore fictionally is really gay? Consider Star Trek fan fiction, sometimes called ‘slash’ fiction (Kirk/Spock fiction, for instance) in which two characters who have always been written as heterosexual are entwined in a homosexual relationship. Is such fiction false, because those characters are really straight? Is the Kirk who fellated his second-in-command the same Kirk who cheated the Kobayashi Maru scenario? And (for those who have seen the recent film) is he the Kirk whose father died the day he was born, or later? Science-fiction that plays with possible worlds gives us the answer: Kirk himself has possible worlds, so there are possible worlds in which he is gay. But is there a possible world in which James T. Kirk is bitten by a radioactive spirder and falls in love with Mary Jane? Probably not, but I haven’t yet figured out why: it seems like that would just be an oddly named Peter Parker.

Of course, that’s only one level of the inquiry. Insofar as the social sciences can study correlations between social facts, we can ask questions about, for instance, the connection between watching 24‘s Jack Bauer and approving of torture. Which means we can start offering hypotheses for other kinds of investigations, about which a demographer or a social psychologist might be able to produce conclusive statistical evidence.

In this mode, I imagine cultural commentators as the assistants to social scientists. By necessity, their work is less rigorous, but it is still aiming for accuracy and hoping to supply the hypotheses that will spark further study. Where social scientists are obligated to write only propositions that are based in objectively verifiable facts, using experience and reflection to arrive at true propositions about the world, cultural commentators are hypothesis-generators, forgoing careful inductive experimentation for what C. S. Peirce called abduction. Abduction allows us to generate hypotheses by moving directly from a set of experiences to the most likely explanation, without following a deductive path, and without concern for induction-busters like black swans. Without abduction, scientists would have no hypotheses to test. The early results of abduction can often be disproven through more rigorous testing, but this does not negate the value of the earlier hypothesis-generation. On the abductive model, the goal of cultural criticism is to provide us with insight, not truth. Some critics jump from unproven assumptions to unproven explanations: when I’m being irresponsible or speculative, I’ll do this too. However, I’d prefer to start with questions and draw implications of possible answers. My goal in such moments is to ask questions in a way that makes my readers want to test hypotheses they had never before considered.

In the blog posts and my conversation with Noel Holston, I asked questions like: “Are vampire movies more popular during periods of economic expansion?” “Do people prefer television thematically related to their political concerns?” I think these are testable questions, and if you care about torture, you’ve got to be asking yourself the same set of questions: “Is 24 propaganda?” “Does violence on television promote violent crime or legitimate state-sanctioned violence like war or ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’?”

Lately, I’ve been asking some new questions, ones I’m less certain can be adequately tested: “Is our decades-long love affair with the police procedural drama a cause or an effect of the fear of crime and erosion of trust in American communities?”  “What impact did 24‘s fictional black president have on the 2008 presidential election? What effect do stereotype threats have on viewers’ prejudices?” “Is television bad for us? Can we know the answer if we don’t have a theory of human flourishing?”

Some of these questions suggest hypotheses about social facts for which the demands of metricians cannot be met. That’s not the same thing as equating them with bullshit. We see this same problem in science, for instance, when string theorists propose accounts of the nature of matter and the universe that could only be proven using techniques and instruments that won’t be available for centuries, or worse, that would require computers the size of the universe itself. So my claims about antiheroes might simply be beyond the realm of testable hypotheses, a trivial kind of string theory, or they might be just as trivially wrong and provably so. That said, I remain convinced that the questions themselves aren’t trivial. We inhabit a world that is shot through with fictions and narratives that are modeled on fictions. As Heidegger and Arendt would say, art constitutes our shared world: the work of art is the concrete remainder and mark of the human activity of world-making. The same words that weave a film’s plot into an entertainment can be rewoven into a political speech or a declaration of war. In short, we can’t afford to ignore fiction just because it isn’t real.

2 thoughts on “The Truth Conditions of Cultural Criticism”

  1. I really love this post. I often have a hard time justifying to myself my fascination (obsession?) with pop-culture, and an even harder time explaining why I think that my philosophical training might actually give me a kind of leg-up on other "critics." You do that brilliantly here. I also appreciate your straightfoward acknowledgement of the fact that some of the products of such critique cannot be "tested"– much to the dismay of x-phi enthusiasts I'm sure. So, you've really done double-duty here with your argument: on the one hand, you've separated what we do from the "metricians" (who really can only ever make descriptive claims, right?) and, on the other hand, you've also distinguished our work from the garden-variety, cocktail-party conversations (where everyone has an opinion, and everyone's opinion is equally valid).

    In short, I agree with you that good cultural criticim is not just about crunching numbers, nor is it about broad-speculation-unencumbered-by-evidence. It's more something like informed and structured speculation: informed by the same data sets that the metricians use, yes, but still involving speculation, and speculation that is structured in a way that lends itself to stronger justificatory arguments than you can get from your average Joe Dive-Bar Philosopher.

    So, you've hit the nail on the head, I think, when you say: the goal of cultural criticism is to provide us with insight, not truth. Well done. That's way better than anything I could come up with before breakfast. 😉

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