9.06.2013

Quality Shmality

Increasingly, we consume media from the interweb — from blogs and tweets, Facebook and YouTube. And yet there is still a dominant prejudice that social media is somehow silly. A so-called real book — a printed book — is inherently of greater quality than a mere tweet, post, or eBook. (It’s a refrain in HBO’s “Girls” that Hannah has a book deal — well, an eBook deal.)

Why this prejudice? Presumably because published media is vetted for quality. And yet this kind of publishing is dying a rapid, merciless death.  People are content, it seems, to find their content on their own, direct from the keyboard of the writers themselves, with no editorial vetting. They vet for themselves.

It’s a cultural refrain that the death of publishing is the death of quality is the death of culture. Look at reality TV! Look at the nonsense people post on Facebook! Look at the ridiculous number of cat videos! The implication is that if we still had experts who knew quality from shite, we’d avoid this demise. We’d all be reading quality books and watching quality television and, in turn, be quality people.

But why the success of bottom up media? Is it, as some suggest, that people are stupid and hence prefer nonsense to quality? Or is it something else entirely?

People are moved, or not, by the things they experience. One sees an Alt-J concert and swoons with delight; another finds it interminably boring; and still another likes this and that of it but finds certain moments excessively ponderous. By whose standard is Alt-J quality or not? And, more importantly, what difference does it make?

Quality is an appeal one makes to persuade somebody else. You should like this because it’s quality. No doubt, one can build standards and criteria of quality — a certain degree of complexity; of emotional resonance; of rhythmic grace. Still, that doesn’t mean the other person is going to enjoy it. 

Quality is a moral term meant to ground a rhetorical appeal. You should like this. Why? Because it’s quality. We could even substitute quality with good and see the moral component more conspicuously.  Quality is not just an observation; it’s implies a moral imperative. 

It is of course possible to feel something is quality and still not enjoy it — Frank Sinatra may be an inarguably great singer but that doesn’t mean I enjoy listening to him. In this instance, the appeal to quality allows me to let others listen to Frank Sinatra without my passing judgment.

But quality is not the only appeal to facilitate difference of opinion. In fact, quality as a moral imperative effaces difference of opinion, demanding that something is good in and of itself. I may or may not like Frank Sinatra. I may or may not feel it is quality. But what do I care if you listen to him? What do I care if you enjoy him?  What’s it to me? I can not only tolerate you enjoying Frank Sinatra, I can affirm your enjoyment and still feel Sinatra is shite.  How? Because I affirm the difference of people, of taste. I affirm that what motivates and inspires and moves me is different than what motivates, inspires, and moves you.  Who cares if it’s quality or not?

Now, as a creator, quality does matter. Artists — writers, painters, chefs — have to believe in quality. They have an ethical obligation not to introduce crap into the world. The artist stands before her work and must ask, tirelessly: Is this good for the world? Needless to say, what’s good for the world may be ugly, nasty, radical, mean.  Still, the artist stands in a different ethical position than the enjoyer.

And none of this is meant to disparage publishers. Presses and imprints — of music, books, whatever — need not be guardians of quality. They can be purveyors of taste. Think of the great music label 4AD or the book imprint, Semiotext(e). They don’t always publish quality material — whatever that is — but they proffer a taste, a spin, a perspective.



To me, what makes labels and presses such as Semiotexte and 4AD great is not that they publish quality.
It's that they publish a taste.

And taste, finally, is more interesting than quality. Taste is particular to a body. It is what serves and drives, what nourishes and inspires. I may believe your taste is terrible; you may feel the same of mine. I may even doubt your very character because you enjoy reading Heidegger or think "The King's Speech" was anything more than a steaming piece of shmaltz shit. But I can judge you without appealing to quality. After all, Heidegger may or may not be quality. What do I care? Quality shmality. I just can’t trust a person who enjoys reading that arid drivel. 

The question of taste is not a question of quality. It’s a question of resonance and health, of perspective and affirmation: I enjoy this because it propels me. To appeal to quality is to try and go over the head of particular taste, of the difference between bodies and say: This is good and so you must enjoy it.  That is just moral nonsense.

To be clear, I am not saying that everything is equal, that the stupidest cat video is equal to the greatest Cassavetes film. By privileging taste over quality, we are not leveling the cultural playing field. In fact, taste proliferates the differences between things, making the world more interesting, more complex, more resonant, of higher quality.

With the rise of interweb publishing, the filter of cultural authority has broken. There’s no one to rely on, no one to trust. The onus is now on all of us individually: What do you enjoy?

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