There’s a book I like by this French philosopher and literary critic named Gerard Genette, called The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence. Basically, the idea is that with any work of art, you’ve got both its irreducible, thingy-ness — the physical shape and form and variation that’s “immanent” to our particular experience of however it was originally made or (especially) gets encountered by us — and this other ideal, imagined, almost Platonic form of the thing that “transcends” all of those particular experiences, but at the same time seems to hold them all together, too.
Weirdly, this distinction actually holds up better with modern artworks that get endlessly copied and translated and remade than with old-school plastic arts. I mean, with a painting like the Mona Lisa, or letters written in Lincoln’s hand, we have a sense that these things, the physical objects are unique, they have a particular location in a museum or private collection or whatever — they might have been cleaned up or dinged over the years, but they’re basically the same things that the artists originally made. They are “the real thing,” everything else is a copy, and if you can go and see these things on display, immanence and transcendence basically overlap and dissolve.
But what about a work of literature? What about a musical score? A manuscript autograph copy of either might be rare and special, but we don’t think that the novel or the symphony is IDENTICAL to those things, or is contained in them. Nor is it ever completely in the copy we own, the one we first read, the performance we loved the best. After all, it’s also in every other copy of the book, every other performance of that concert, every version and interpretation in countless variations and permutations. It’s there and it isn’t. All of those philosophical conundrums about Platonic ideas of chairs versus actual chairs, Descartes’s body/soul dualism, or Hume’s paradoxes about being the same person through an infinite succession of new experiences (biological and psychological), or every theological aporia about Jesus being fully God and fully human — even when you’ve moved past them as metaphysical problems, they pop back up once you start talking about media in the modern age. It’s crazy, but it’s true.
This is a very long philosophical frame for what could be a simple practical/cultural problem. In an age when consumers can choose among more variations than ever of a “single” artwork, in different media, formats, editions, how do we keep straight when we’re discussing aspects particular to those different “immanent” forms and the ones common to all of them, that actually stitch that “transcendent” ideal artwork together? Or should we even try?
The flashpoint for all of this is Amazon — who not so coincidentally, and unlike most retailers in history, deals in nearly ALL of the different media variations possible at the moment. Here’s a snippet of a terrific post by Jason Kottke, “The new rules for reviewing media“:
[T]raditional reviewers… focus almost exclusively on the content/plot, an approach that ignores much about how people make buying decisions about media today. Packaging is important. We judge books by their covers and even by how much they weigh (heavy books make poor subway/bus reading). Format matters. There’s an old adage in photography: the best camera is the one you have with you. Now that our media is available in so many formats, we can say that the best book is the one on your Kindle or the best movie is the one on your iPhone.
Newspaper and magazine reviewers pretty much ignore this stuff. There’s little mention of whether a book would be good to read on a Kindle, if you should buy the audiobook version instead of the hardcover because John Hodgman has a delightful voice, if a magazine is good for reading on the toilet, if a movie is watchable on an iPhone or if you need to see it in 1080p on a big TV, if a hardcover is too heavy to read in the bath, whether the trailer is an accurate depiction of what the movie is about, or if the hardcover price is too expensive and you should get the Kindle version or wait for the paperback. Or, as the above reviewers hammer home, if the book is available to read on the Kindle/iPad/Nook or if it’s better to wait until the director’s cut comes out. In the end, people don’t buy content or plots, they buy physical or digital pieces of media for use on specific devices and within certain contexts. That citizen reviewers have keyed into this more quickly than traditional media reviewers is not a surprise.
Sorry, Jason’s “Packaging is important” is making me tail back to Genette for a second. Another great idea he introduced is that of the paratext — all the writing around the writing in a book (e.g., the cover, the title and copyright pages, acknowledgments, indices, etc.) that we don’t usually think of as “the text” itself, but which actually identify the text (in a transcendent sense), that make it a “book” (in an immanent sense). It’s all part of it. If you’re a collector or a bibliographer, it turns out to be tremendously important.
Now I should note: the one case that I can think of where newspaper/magazine/traditional reviewers DO clue in to these experiential/media distinctions that Amazon reviewers have flagged and that Jason rightly thinks are important is with new translations and re-editions. This is where reviewers really do get a chance to say, yes, this new edition really is/isn’t worth your time, this translation is a lot more readable, this collection of essays just repacks stuff that’s already mostly available in another book. But it’s all content-driven. It doesn’t really get to the physicality of your experience with this media, which has always been taken more seriously with film and music, and I think is beginning to be taken more seriously as books and magazines and newspapers and other reading material find themselves being likewise split asunder into a half-dozen or more readily available editions or formats. Literature even has new problems with older, out-of-copyright books — why should I spring for a new trade paperback of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience if I can download a PDF or EPUB of one or more free 19th- and early 20th-century editions on Google Books?
So why is Amazon the flashpoint for this, and not Google? Again, Amazon sells in every format: print books (in hardcover and paperback) , digital books, audio books, as well as movies in DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital download formats, so they’re the most likely place for people to compare between different media experiences. But more than that, Amazon has built its own reputation and that of the products it sells on the strength of its reviews and recommendation engine. And when folks don’t like the immanent side of their experience with a particular kind of media, they take it out on the review — which in turn jolts the transcendent artwork, in all its forms.
The most well-documented case of this are Kindle readers, many of whom have taken to Amazon to savage new books whose publishers have delayed Kindle editions until after the hardcover is out. The most recent case of this is Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, but he’s far from the only one.
But it’s not just Kindle users. Merlin Mann notes with dismay how many reviewers of the new Blu-Ray releases of The Godfather Trilogy have harped on its grainy visuals, especially compared to newer releases:
Too dark, too overexposed, too red, too yellow, and waaaaaaaaaay too grainy, waaaaaah!!! complain a phalanx of disappointed 1080p fetishists, whose gold standard for cinema seems to be the director’s cut of Speed Racer…
Not to be a meta-snob, but I’m getting the impression that Blu-ray’s giant format and astoundingly clear resolution has begun breeding an aggressive new species of insane home theater nerd. With philosophical crazy uncles in our previous generations’ hi-fi hobbyists and reel-to-reel pedants, some of these folks seem way more into a good demo than a cohesive piece of art. And their dipshit reviews reflect that.
In the case of the early Godfather movies, the visual quality of the restoration is a combination of the film being older, the original negative and several early workprints being treated like crap, and cinematographer Gordon Willis having intentionally shot the movie dark as all hell. But this is context that many of the negative Amazon reviewers either don’t have or wouldn’t care about.
I think this signals, though, what the real problem is. There is a mismatch between what some people (a subset of shoppers and amateur reviewers) are doing and what other people (another subset of shoppers, and most retailers) expect. Some people — and I think Alan Jacobs articulates this POV excellently — think that a review should be, above all, an intellectual and aesthetic engagement with the transcendent work, removed as much as possible from the immanent details of the attendant capitalist transaction. And I would say that this is a whole, established, totally legitimate, and culturally valuable genre of the review. It’s just that now it’s banging up against this other thing.
Print media has hosted lots of other kinds of reviews, too. It used to be pretty typical for a reviewer to comment on the moral effect (or danger) of a work — it’s less common now, but hasn’t gone away. And of course, there are the cheerleader, “I loved it/I hated it,” star-laden reviewers that don’t exactly probe deeply into a film’s texture, or show you how a film that everyone’s praising for its superficial virtues actually harbors deep flaws.
Over time, we’ve learned how to distinguish between these different kinds of reviews, and tailor our expectations accordingly. In the new regime of exploding media, where we find ourselves reading a review for a format that we can’t even use, that we’ve never even seen, where the recommendation algorithms haven’t figured out how to make distinctions quite so sophisticated, and where we still have this whole immanence/transcendence problem that’s dogged us for centuries to boot —
— Well, is it any wonder that we are all just a bit confused?