Nature isn’t magic, it’s just a mystery to us

I went to see case/lang/veirs last week, basically just out of loyalty to one particular part of that equation (go on, guess). It was a solid show, especially for being the second time they’d ever performed. The differences in their vocal styles filled out the songs really well without feeling superfluous. Also someone threw a bra onto the stage. They surprised me by doing “Man,” which is a little harder than I thought they were going. The band really nailed it, though, and that song has some extra significance coming from a collaboration of women.

They also covered “People Have the Power,” which definitely has some extra significance re: recent events. It’s not like the best Patti Smith song or anything, but it has its merits. The more I thought about it, though, the more I felt like this whole understanding of progress being a matter of “the people” standing up for themselves is getting to be rather behind the times. What we’ve been seeing recently is actually the opposite: successful populist movements are the ones fucking everything up. The people really do have the power, and that’s the problem. Sure enough, I was awakened the next morning by a text message from my sister, informing me that a populist movement in Britain had voted in favor of racist nationalism.

The standard evasion here is that things like this happen when “uninformed” people are “mislead” by “demagogues,” which isn’t exactly wrong, but it’s pretty facile to pretend like this is a real explanation. It’s actually the bad kind of conspiracy theory: an explanation so totalizing that it doesn’t explain anything. All bad decisions are made by evil shadowy elites; all good decisions are made by virtuous ordinary people. This puts you in the anti-analytical and very convenient position where the things you support are the things the people really want, while people who vote for things you don’t want are “voting against their own interests.” The irony, of course, is that this ends up becoming a populist argument for elitism: the people can’t be trusted to make good decisions on their own, so they need the right kind of people as their leaders.

(Sanders fans have been fucking up pretty badly on this front by refusing to accept the fact that their candidate lost in a fair fight. I really don’t think anyone was “mislead” into thinking that Clinton was more liberal than Sanders was.)

The Brexit decision is a pretty clear demonstration of the problem. It’s an instance of the people throwing off shackles that were placed on them by the elites for the purpose of global economic management, but the actual motivation for it was a confused mix of biases and half-baked theories, and the only reason it was even at issue in the first place was because of politicking, resulting in an unnecessary decision that almost everyone agrees will ultimately be harmful if not catastrophic. I mean, it’s kind of obvious that people don’t generally know what they’re doing, but this isn’t a fucking Dilbert comic, it’s a real political problem. Almost everyone takes it as an article of faith that “the people” are the only valid source of moral justification, and I think we have to confront the fact that this probably isn’t true.

Pro-Brexit voters had a number of different motivations. The most obvious was racism via anti-immigrant sentiment, but there were also leftists who supported it as a blow against neoliberalism, and there were even people who didn’t actually understand that they were voting for a real-world action to take place. So the question is: why does this slight majority composed of conflicting and nonsensical motivations have any moral significance? What is the actual justification for the claim that society should do whatever 50.1% of the population thinks it should? There’s nothing magic about a majority. In America, amending the constitution requires 2/3rds support, because it’s “more serious” or whatever, but there’s nothing magical about that number either; it’s exactly as arbitrary as 50.1%. And everyone actually knows this: the filibuster is an American tradition that is respected because it is blatantly anti-democratic; it prevents an issue from being decided by a straight up-or-down vote. That is, it’s respected when it’s our side doing it. We’re fine with claiming moral authority when 50.1% of the population is on our side, and we’re just as comfortable claiming it when we’re the virtuous underdogs battling an ignorant majority.

Gay marriage was opposed by a majority of people until it wasn’t; the answer to the moral question didn’t change over that period of time. When the great state of California voted to ban gay marriage, it was widely regarded as a perversion of the democratic process. At the same time, polls showing majority support for gay marriage were leveraged as an argument in its favor. So, like, which is it? Do the people rule or not? Scalia’s buffoonish Obergefell dissent raised the objection that nine people who had followed one particular path of elite development were deciding the issue for the entire country. Obviously, this was hypocritical as fuck: Scalia wouldn’t have been whining about the tyrannical power of the court if it were on his side. But that’s just it: the only reason we got gay marriage is that the court happened to have the right composition at the right time. In fact, what happened was considerably worse than that. The actual direct cause of the Obergefell decision was that one fickle mushhead wanted to go down in history as having written a big important civil rights decision, and this is actually what everyone had expected all along. After learning about Brown v. Board in history class, we all assume that the Supreme Court will take care of civil rights issues for us, overruling the annoying prejudices of the unenlightened populace. But Scalia was inadvertently much more correct than he knew: court decisions are ultimately as arbitrary as anything else, and no one really cares. When the elites are on our side, they’re representing the will of the people; when they aren’t, they’re Machiavellian schemers.

(Extra credit pro tip: Brown is a terrible example of justice-via-judiciary, because it didn’t work. Schools are still segregated.)

The “people vs. elites” framework omits at least one important part of the scenario, which is expertise. Lumping rulers and experts together as “elites” is a significant analytical failure; there’s huge difference between people who happen to hold power and people who actually know what they’re doing. Unlike rulers, experts actually matter and are necessary. It’s not possible for anyone to know enough to make an informed decision on every issue. And something like Brexit is complicated enough that its consequences are not really understandable by ordinary people, so even in a “real” democracy, there’s no reason to expect that people would be able to figure it out. Of course, the real killer example here is global warming. The expert consensus is quite clear, and it is largely being ignored by the ruling class because it has inconvenient implications (i.e. capitalism sucks). But pawning this off as a problem of the “elites” is too easy, because the rest of us aren’t actually doing our job either. Even now, with the projections widely known and the effects beginning to be felt, people aren’t going to give up their cars and their lawns and their two-day shipping. We know for a fact that a majority of people just doing what seems right can literally destroy humanity. I shudder to imagine the results of a world referendum on global warming.

But simply putting the experts in charge, a theoretical arrangement which is commonly referred to as “meritocracy” or “technocracy,” is less of a solution than it is an evasion of the problem. Experts can, ideally, be trusted on knowledge, but not on values. In fact, the very process of attaining expertise accrues bias. This is most obvious in the case of economists. Expert economists are experts in the operation of the current economic system, capitalism, and are therefore necessarily only going to be interested in working within that system, making their abilities useless to anyone opposed to it for moral reasons. They can warn you about all the terrible economic consequences, but a vote against Brexit is still a vote in favor of neoliberalism, even if it is better than the alternative.

So the idea is supposed to be that these problems are balanced out by a separation of roles. The people express their values, which are then administered by the rulers, with the experts informing them as to the best way to get it done. But all three of these roles are based on fallacies. The part that everyone knows is that rulers are not disinterested administrators, they’re rulers; their goal is to increase their own power; their relationship to the people is purely rhetorical. The technocrats’ blind spot is that fact that expert knowledge is not neutral; all knowledge is contingent on ideology. Expert recommendations are not simply pearls of wisdom to be taken or left; they are formed with embedded assumptions and motivations. And finally, the real problem: “the people” aren’t any better at morality than any other idealized grouping. Racism is currently undergoing a renaissance as a populist phenomenon that the elites are actually trying to resist. Of course, the elites aren’t actually on the right side here; they’re still trying to maintain white supremacy. But their current goal is to promote inclusiveness as a bulwark against systemic change, and that’s a damn sight better than mass deportations and refugee crises.

Back at the show, they also did “Margaret vs. Pauline,” which k.d. lang introduced as the song that made her fall in love with Neko Case. Which is understandable; it’s a probing and deeply sympathetic piece of work. It’s a song about privilege: about the invisible lines that divide the lives of otherwise similar people. Two girls ride the Blue Line and walk down the same street, but one of them leaves her sweater on the bus while the other loses three fingers at the cannery. But it’s important to avoid the trap of romanticizing oppression; losing those fingers does not impart any particular political wisdom. Those invisible lines are as arbitrary as they are vicious; the horror is not simply that some people are fated to live under the gun, but that their suffering is meaningless. The real conclusion, then, is that nobody has a privileged epistemic position on anything; each person is merely an idiosyncratic mess of random experiences and pointless prejudices; there is no such thing as “the people.” Obviously, the phrase is primarily a rhetorical device, but if this is true in a substantive sense, then popular consensus is a phantom, and the concept of democracy loses its meaning. Putting things to a popular vote does not result in a consensus opinion, it results in an arbitrary decision chaotically determined by a writhing mass of misinformation and prejudices. It’s literally worse than nothing.

I may be a conceited motherfucker, but I’m not quite arrogant enough to pretend like I have a real answer here. But there’s a line from “People Have the Power” that struck me: the idea that remaking society involves “redeeming the work of fools.” This conception of the ruling class as “fools” cuts against the usual narrative, whereby rulers are hypercompetent master-planners whose problem is that they’re “corrupt.” In fact, rulers are mostly just a particular type of nerd, ambitious but otherwise boring, and for the most part they really do think they’re making the world a better place. The catch is that being embedded in systems of power has a severe distorting effect; what looks good from the inside tends to look pretty fucked up from anywhere else. Their foolishness lies in their inability to understand their own perspectives as limited. Meanwhile, the myth of “the people” is that true goodness lies in the decency of reg’lar folk with no particular hopes or dreams. In fact, the opposite is true: ignorance and myopia are not conducive towards morality; the people we respect from history are the ones who went against the common sentiments of their times.

I really hate to say this, but rich fucks are people, too. They aren’t actually a different species; they are vicious lizards, but so are the rest of us. The structures of oppression were not created by anything outside of humanity; we did it all by ourselves. They’re in our blood. Specifically, oppression is naturally occurring, it’s how people organize themselves by default. Most people will vote in favor of a society that doesn’t work for most people. Fixing this is not as easy as getting rid of the bad influences and going back to the good old days when everything was fine. There were never any good old days; justice is an undiscovered country. A just society will be something new, something that we have to invent, and then build, using the tools we have available right now.

Which brings us to the corresponding ideal of “redemption.” Despite its many, many crimes, our society has created a lot of things which are important to people. Things like amphitheaters where people can see music they care about and transportation systems that can take them there. It’s no good to aim for some kind of ideal revolution while ignoring what makes the world worthwhile in the first place. This is addressed in a couple of the new case/lang/veirs songs. “Down” points out that there’s beauty even in something as banal as driving down the highway. Indeed, there has to be: if the basic experience of day-to-day existence isn’t worth it, then nothing is worth anything; ideals can only exist as instantiated in mundane reality. But this does not license us to ignore the larger issues. “I Want To Be Here” addresses the bifurcation between the things we care about and the practical operation of society, asserting that the grind cannot quell the flame: “surely they can’t ruin everything.” This is true in general, but not in specifics: economics really does kill people; every day is the end of the world for someone. “Being here” may be what we’re truly aiming for, but if just being here were enough, we wouldn’t have to fight.

So the things we care about have to be preserved, but more than that, they have to be redeemed. A concert stage can also be used to distract people, to placate with cheap escapism, or to sell shit, and we really shouldn’t be allowing any of that to happen. But it’s not as easy as just doing the right thing, because we’re in a situation where things have already been organized incorrectly. The right motivations acting within the wrong structure can be just as harmful as explicit evil. We have to maintain the content of society while changing the structure to point in the direction of right things rather than wrong things.

Again, you tell me how this is actually going to work. There shouldn’t be anything impossible about synthesizing expertise and populism while eliminating the ruling class, but relying on “the people” isn’t going to get us there.

Download your emotion, baby

Why does no one understand anything about the internet? Serious question. Look at this nonsense:

Freed from the anguish of choosing, music listeners can discover all kinds of weird, nettlesome, unpleasant, sublime, sweet, or perplexing musical paths.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I encountered a howler as blatant as claiming that choice is now less important because of the multiplicity of options offered by the internet. Obviously, the opposite is true: choice is now so omnipresent as to have become tyrannical. It used to be that you were justified in just listening to whatever was on the radio, or whatever the officially-licensed music weirdo at the record store recommended, or whatever bands happened to be playing at your local venues, because you didn’t really have any other options. Now you have all the options; you have to choose. At every moment of every day, you must choose the one thing out of an infinity of options that you will spend this portion of your finite human existence on, and you must do so with the full knowledge that you are damning yourself to miss out on all the things you didn’t choose, forever.

I think that much is pretty obvious. But here’s the important part. This:

These paths branch off constantly, so that by the end of a night that started with the Specials, you’re listening to Górecki’s Miserere, not by throwing a dart, but by following the quite specific imperatives of each moment’s needs, each instant’s curiosities. It is like an open-format video game, where you make the world by advancing through it.

is also wrong. (Also this is a typically terrible video game analogy made by someone who has no idea what video games are actually like, but one thing at a time here.) Just because you have theoretical access to every song ever made (which is not actually the case, but seriously, one thing at a time) does not suddenly transport you into an unfettered wonderland of pure personal choices. In fact, the author cites a rather strong piece of evidence against himself: Spotify carries about four million songs which have never been listened to, by anyone, ever. So it is clearly not the case that people are freely venturing into heretofore unexplored terrain. Indeed, the fact that internet discourse is crammed full of nostalgia suggests that people actually aren’t seeking out new experiences at all. You may have noticed that, post-internet, pop stardom and celebrity are bigger industries than ever. The paradox of internet culture is that a practical infinity of choices makes people more likely to stick with what they already know. Except that’s not a paradox at all, because of course that’s what’s going to happen. The internet does not magically remove society’s existing constraints. On the contrary, by strengthening people’s ability to engage, the internet enables people to cleave more strongly to the things that they were already into. Ergo, Beyoncé’s Twitter mob.

This part makes the failure of analysis pretty clear:

Just five years ago, if you wanted to listen legally to a specific song, you bought it (on CD, on MP3), which, assuming finite resources, meant you had to choose which song to buy, which in turn meant you didn’t buy other songs you had considered buying. Then, a person with $10 to spend could have purchased five or six songs, or, if he was an antiquarian, an album. Now, with $10, that same person can subscribe to a streaming service for a month and hear all five or six songs he would have purchased with that money, plus 20 million or so others.

What’s missing here is very obviously the non-monetary component of opportunity cost. A person has only so many hours in the day to spend listening to music. So yes, it’s great that money is less of a constraint now, but the more important constraint, the issue of what you’re actually going to choose to do with your finite human existence, is as strong as ever. In fact, it’s stronger: there is now more nonsense to engage with, more to attend to, more demands on your attention, and hence less time to make these supposedly free choices we’ve all been gifted with.

These factual inaccuracies point us to the deeper philosophical problem, which is that choice is not simply a matter of the raw number of options you have. Having more options makes it more likely that your choice-set will include good choices, but it also makes it harder to find those choices amidst the noise.

Think of it this way: imagine all the songs on Spotify were unlabelled. All you could do was listen to songs at absolute total random out of its entire catalog. Total horrorshow, right? But this is the maximum amount of free choice: it is totally unencumbered by any kind of bias, including your own. Now imagine that the songs were all labelled, but there were no other discovery tools. This is better, because you can at least find things you’ve already heard of and check out new songs with interesting names, but it’s still pretty hard to discover stuff. Now consider the internet as it currently exists, where you’re constantly being barraged with recommendations and promotions and soforth. This is both more constrained and better than any permutation of the above examples, because you actually have stuff to go on: you can find recommenders you trust and branch out from things you already like and etc.

What’s happened here is that our choices have gotten better as they’ve become more constrained, and the reason this happens is because the constraints are operating in the correct direction: towards things you might actually want to listen to. There are, of course, also constraints that operate in incorrect directions; the reason most of what’s on the radio is garbage is because it’s selected based on what executives think will make money rather than what actually sounds good. So, naturally, there is a situation better than the current one, which is one where all of those recommendation engines and music bloggers and soforth don’t have ulterior motives in the areas of commercial appeal and popularity. This is, of course, an additional constraint that removes things from your search queue that got there because of advertising or whatever, and it, again, makes things better. Choice is a false idol; freedom isn’t free.

And this is a good thing, because if your choices really were totally unconstrained, they would be essentially random, which is to say chaotic, which is to say meaningless. Remember that bit above about “each instant’s curiosities”? Yeah, that’s nihilism. If you’re seriously just going off of your pure momentary whims, you’re an animal. Whereas when you do things like check out formative artists in genres you like, or explore the various bands that were part of a scene you’re interested in, you are engaging with the structure of reality and making choices that are actually connected to the things you care about. While there is a real and important distinction between coerced and uncoerced choices (and lack of options can be a form of coercion), a choice has to be based on real-world conditions in order to be meaningful; the concept of an “unconstrained” choice is oxymoronic. It’s only by being attached to contingent circumstances in the real world that your choices have any chance of being worth a shit.

Indeed, this “free choice” framing betrays a disturbing assumption: that any experience is just as good as any other. If the pure number of options you have is what’s meaningful, that can only be because the content of the options themselves is not meaningful. Which, if true, would mean that all experiences are meaningless. This, for example:

When I hear a song for the fiftieth time, I remember the wall color of my studio apartment on Mt. Vernon Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1996, and I remember how cold the awful landlady kept it, and I remember her shivering whippet scratching at my door so that he could come in and curl up in the hollows of my giant furry Newfoundland.

is nothing but the worst kind of banal egoism. If the only significance of music is that it reminds you of some arbitrary shit from your past, then music is meaningless. It might as well be a scrap of paper or an oddly-shaped rock.

Luckily this is a lie, which is obvious when you consider why this is wrong:

Play the songs you heard on February 2, 2013, in the order in which you played them, and you can recreate not just the emotions but the suspense and surprise of emotion as it changes in time.

Dude has literally never heard that a person cannot step into the same river twice. What makes music powerful is the fact that its substance emerges out from particular experiences, not that it is buried within them. Contingency and temporality are what make existence meaningful; without them, you are a portrait and not a person.

Oh and by the way all of this actually has dick to do with the internet. Internet technology enables all of this, but the actual power sources behind these dynamics are political and psychological, just as they always have been. The basic failing of almost all writing about the internet is that it assumes that the same old patterns of behavior somehow assume an unprecedented radical significance now that they’re happening On The Internet.

So, okay, let’s hit this. The first part is easy: the reason people want their experiences to be permanently frozen in time and eternally retrievable is because they don’t want to die. Tough shit, friends. Your name has not been written in the book of life. You’re going to exist for a while, and then you’re going to stop existing.

Moving on, the choice fallacy is a clear outgrowth of consumerism. The idea that picking your very own very special choice from the largest possible menu of options is the ideal situation is a fantasy concocted to sell shit in supermarkets. If contingency matters, then goods are not fungible and capitalism loses its claim to meaning. Which is of course the case; even under the most charitable interpretation of capitalism, what it’s good for is producing enough goods to give people the opportunity to do things that are actually meaningful. Taking economic growth itself as a goal is a blatant capture of the ends by the means. In the same sense, to assume that having the largest number of possible options for which music or movies or books or whatever to experience is what matters is to forget what makes these things worth experiencing in the first place.

The last piece of the puzzle is why everyone constantly talks about The Internet like it actually has its own agenda, rather than simply being an amplifier (or a suppressor) for existing motivations. This is pure ideology. The internet just happened yesterday, so it’s easy to take it as an explanation for everything that’s happening right now and thereby avoid any examination of the underlying forces. Because those forces are not the lizard people and the reverse vampires; those forces are you. The actual conspiracy is the one inside your head, constantly arranging everything you experience to serve its invisible ends. Aggregating data ain’t going to get you out of this. You’ve got to fight theory with theory.

Get the cuts you need

This ranking of Tegan and Sara albums is a remarkably comprehensive argument against the idea that ranking things has any value whatsoever.

The first and most obvious issue is that The Con isn’t at the top, seeing as it’s clearly magical. When Robert Mapplethorpe was taking pictures of Patti Smith for the cover of Horses, he looked at one of the shots and said to her, “this one has the magic.” There’s nothing really remarkable about the image, it’s just a lady wearing a suit and looking at the camera, but it is, in fact, magic. Anyone who’s seen it has it permanently burned into their mind; it has a transcendent itself-ness that gives it an insistent significance; it communicates in a primal language that creates its own understanding; it’s the kind of thing that you feel in your heart before you even know what it is. The Con is the one that has the magic.

This seems like a slam-dunk argument that it’s “the best,” but it doesn’t actually hold up on reflection. The characteristic of magic is precisely that it does not obey the normal laws, so it’s incoherent to say that something is the objective best because it’s magical. On the contrary, the whole point of rankings, it would seem, is to get around vague notions of “specialness” and down to brass tacks.

So, I mean, fine. If you’re trying to rank things, you need to ignore magic and just focus on the things you can measure. This is already pretty suspicious, since we’re ignoring what seems to be the most important thing, but we can at least see if it works. The specific claim made by the listperson is that So Jealous is cohesive while The Con is all over the place. This is certainly true, and it’s also obviously intentional; you don’t follow “Hop A Plane” with “Soil, Soil” because you’re trying to provide a smooth listening experience. But there’s a critical missing step here, which is the argument that a consistent album is better than one with extreme emotional ups and downs. To me, this is clearly backwards: the album that pulls off greater emotional range and more diverse songwriting is the better one.

But the issue isn’t whether I’m right or the listperson is right; the issue is that neither of us is. That missing step is actually just nonexistent: there is no argument you can make as to why one mode of expression is “better” than another. This is professionally known as the is/ought gap: even an exhaustive description of reality does not imply any standard or metric for evaluating that reality. You can spend all day making correct, incisive observations, but everyone still has to decide on the actual value of the underlying content for themselves. So there’s all sorts of analysis to be done as to what an album does and what it’s about, but even after you’ve done that, tacking a number onto it is still completely arbitrary.

So the first two problems with rankings are that they can’t capture transcendence, and that they don’t add anything to the analysis they’re based on. You can just talk about music without sticking numbers next to it. But surely the problem is that we’re splitting hairs between great and greater albums, right? There are certainly some albums that can be said to be better than others, so ratings do have a proper and properly limited utility. For example, Under Feet Like Ours is clearly the worst Tegan and Sara album. They’re pretty much the exact opposite of the band that comes right out of the gate with a fully-formed sound and then struggles to move forward with it: their first record is jittery and awkward, all ideas and no form, and every album after it takes a huge leap in a new direction. The comparison is made extra simple by the fact that This Business Of Art contains many of the same songs reworked to be more fleshy and coherent, making it easy to see it as a strictly superior album.

But what does it actually mean to call something the “worst” album? Does it mean that you shouldn’t listen to it? I mean, maybe; it depends on how worst it is and whether Tegan and Sara are the sort of band who are good even when they’re bad (or when they want to be bad). So even if we take this ranking to be straightforwardly correct, it still gives us no relevant information. After all, we’re talking about the album that has “This Is Everything” on it, which is definitely something I would recommend experiencing (not to mention that that song is itself about transcendent value overcoming practical failure). This is the paradox of aesthetics: being worse doesn’t actually make something worse, so rankings are wrong even when they’re right.

At this point I should probably clarify that I am aware of what the actual purpose of ranking things on the internet is. Rankings are supposed to be bad and wrong, because they’re outrage bait (arbitrary lists of nonsensical rankings are a running joke on Gawker, the internet’s premier source of self-incriminating mockery). What I’m meant to be doing here is ranting about how putting Sainthood in the bottom half of basically any list about anything is blatantly pathological behavior. But the fact that rankings are guaranteed to generate strident disagreement is just more evidence that there’s no substance behind them. If, for example, I were inclined to make a (much) better version of this list, how would I handle Sainthood? The album is fucked up six ways from Monday, from the awkwardly staggered lyrics on “Paperback Head” to the way “Sentimental Tune” crescendos itself off a cliff. “Arrow” bristles with big, gaudy effects, “On Directing” piles up multiple layers of self-reference, “Red Belt” is placid to the point of pain. Are these good things or bad things? Should I just give in to idiosyncrasy and order the albums however I feel like, or should I try to restrain my own impulses as much as possible and put them in the most defensible order? Which of these approaches is less dishonest? The fact that there’s no answer to any of this reveals the fundamental problem: there is zero connection between the score someone gives an album and the actual experience they had listening to it, i.e. the thing that actually matters. The usual distinction is between subjective feeling and objective facts, but actually, neither of these things has any correspondence with rankings.

The reason this is important, the reason we shouldn’t just let these things be stupid and find something better to do (although we should also do that), is that there’s a reason they work, a real insight that underlies their cynical conception: people like rankings. It’s not just internet lists, the basic concept of giving something a numerical score necessarily implies a ranking order. So if it’s so obvious that no one cares which number some hack sticks next to something on a list, why are lists and scores and rankings all over the place?

If you’re reviewing like dishwashers or whatever, some of them actually are going to work better than others, and numerical ratings are a sensible way to represent that. The key, though, is the word “work,” which implies a defined function: the better appliance is the one that accomplishes its intended task more effectively. Some aspects of this will be subjective or situational, but by doing multiple carefully controlled tests and aggregating the results, we can arrive at an assessment that will be broadly applicable in most circumstances, one that is “objective” in the colloquial sense of the term. This process is what we generally refer to as “science.”

And you can’t apply this to art, because art isn’t functional. It is susceptible to analysis; you can focus like a microscope and make all sorts of substantive observations, but none of that is useful until you cross the is/ought gap and start valuing things. And once you’ve done that, you have left the realm of objectivity, turning any kind of rank or score you want to assign into a category error. Subjective experience isn’t just hard to get at, it’s absolutely inaccessible.

Why, then, would anyone get upset about a rating being “wrong,” given that it has nothing to do with how anyone feels about the work in question? The specific feeling at issue is invalidation. When someone gives a low “objective” score to something you care about, you feel like your experience is invalid. And the opposite feeling is the reason people like ratings in the first place: a high “objective” score means that you’re right to like something, that the way you feel is true. But such a source of validation can only be described as cowardice. Certainly, the person who embraces things only after they have been deemed permissible by the appropriate cultural gatekeepers is a coward. But the same is true of any external source of validation: the safety of objectivity is a refuge from the responsibility to determine one’s own values.

Music is one of the less extreme examples here, since the appeal of music is generally understood as idiosyncratic anyway. The most prominent example is, of course, ethics in games journalism. The extreme stupidity of that, uh, “debate” is somewhat offset by the fact that it’s drawing the battle lines very clearly. Some people think games are basically appliances that you plug yourself into in order to be “entertained,” in which case assigning them an objective numerical score according to how entertaining they are makes perfect superficial sense. Others think that the point of games is to create new experiences, which requires engagement with the real world and active acceptance of subjectivity. So the one nice thing about this is that is provides a convenient sanity check. If you find yourself on the wrong side of an argument this obvious, you’ve gotta back it up.

Subjective experience is inherently desperate. It contains within itself the understanding that it cannot be verified or transmitted, that it is a pure moment, that it seems on reflection to not exist at all, even though it’s the only thing of any actual importance. Art is largely an attempt to get around this, to turn subjectivity into something more substantive than simply raw feeling. At a live show in particular, it’s easy to imagine that everyone else in the room is feeling the same thing you are. But the attempt to reify subjective experience as something externally valid is no kind of solution, because this creates only a hollow shell, bereft of the animating spirit that made it matter in the first place. The only real option is to embrace the horror, to hold transience without shaking.

But we have to be careful not to back into reverse nihilism. If everyone just likes what they like, then nothing means anything. There’s no substantive distinction between hearing a symphony and watching paint dry. So it seems like we need a way to preserve objective orders of rank without muffling subjectivity.

The one rating system with a subjectivity-respecting justification is the two-point thumbs-up/thumbs-down system, because it implies nothing other than an answer to the actual question: should I spend time on this or not? But if you accept that, you’ve accepted the idea that there are objective standards that can be applied to art, and that would seem to open the floodgates. Any other rating system, no matter how convoluted, has the same theoretical justification. A rating of 3 stars out of 5 could mean “check this out only if you’re a fan of the genre”; 28.6 points out of 100 could mean “worth it only on a rainy day when you don’t feel like doing anything else.” So it seems like accepting the validity of analysis requires us to countenance every nonsensical rating system that anyone comes up with, and we’re stuck disagreeing with every Bad Opinion on a case-by-case basis.

This is a false dichotomy based on the idea that analysis requires a number as its output, and anything else is just personal feelings. It is not only possible to combine subjectivity and analysis, it is vitally necessary. If you only have your own subjective experience, then there’s no room for any kind of conversation or collaboration; everything is just, like, your opinion, man. And if all you have is analysis, you’ve just got a big convoluted structure that doesn’t mean anything; it might as well just be a big rock.

In fact, it’s perfectly easy to do everything valuable about analysis while ignoring the dumb numerical part. For example, consider this review of Sleater-Kinney’s discography (eMusic used to have a lot of good music writing, but it apparently got run over by the freight train of progress at some point). It has the same album-by-album format, but even as it makes judgments, it doesn’t pretend to be any kind of ranking, and this clarifies the underlying analysis. Actually, the reason I chose this example is because it’s moronic. The person who wrote it thinks that Janet Weiss joined on Call the Doctor, so he disses Lora MacFarlane’s drumming on the first album and then praises it on the second, without realizing he’s talking about the same person. The real problem, though, it that he thinks The Hot Rock was “Sleater-Kinney on an off day,” which I honestly can’t even begin to address. I lack the ability to inhabit the mental space where this is a comprehensible statement. But because the album isn’t “ranked,” there’s no fake argument about whether the ranking is “right” or whether it’s properly “objective” or what the fuck ever. We can just accept that this guy has terrible taste in music and get on with our lives.

What we need to do is to split the concept of ranking along its fault line. As mentioned, it conflates two distinct things that don’t have a real connection: there’s analysis, and then there’s putting a number on that analysis. And what putting a number on something actually means is establishing a hierarchy. Hence the phenomenon of the internet ranking list: a list of which things are better than which other things.

Hierarchy has its uses, but our society has established a hierarchy of people, and this surely ranks among the greatest possible crimes against existence. Its function is to justify the dominance of the ruling class by positing them as the “best” people, and to justify the direction of our development as progress toward a higher goal. People want to feel like they live in an ordered universe, but there are different types of order, and some of them are dispreferable to chaos. Recognizing that there is no real apotheosis, no greatest hit, reveals our society’s horrors as the chosen project of our rulers – a project that we have the freedom to oppose. This is the cure for our crimes.

There’s an old saying, which I thought was Chinese but am completely failing to source, that perfection arouses the envy of the gods. I mean, everything is an “ancient Chinese proverb,” but I genuinely thought that this was a Chinese or Japanese concept. There is, for example, the Japanese term “wabi-sabi,” which expresses the idea that flaws can make something better. But this isn’t like mystical wisdom or whatever; it’s a very practical concept that doesn’t have anything to do with spirituality or metaphysics. What it means is that perfection is impossible not because it is the asymptotic limit of quality, but because it is a self-defeating concept.

If there actually were a perfect album, something that literally every person agreed was the best, that could only mean that no one had an individual reaction to it. If one person were to feel something about it that no one else did, that opens up the possibility that someone else could have such a reaction to a different album, meaning the perfect album is not perfect. In order to actually be perfect, it would have to provide all possible experiences to all people, which is to say it would have to do nothing. The only way to speak to everyone equally is to remain silent. Actually, even that’s not true; 4’33” is one of the most divisive pieces of music in existence. Anything that actually exists is necessarily rough, flawed, divisive, incomplete, and wrong. Perfection is logically impossible.

In a more practical sense, this means that nothing can ever meaningfully be said to be “the best” of anything, even when the category is as simple as 7 albums by the same band. Even on a strictly personal level, this is why it doesn’t make sense to have favorites. Casual conversation is one thing, but seriously conceiving of your values in terms of “favorites,” as a hierarchy, is ridiculous. More than that, it’s a concession to a social schema which is actively trying to kill you, a subordination of your subjectivity, the thing that makes you actually exist, to a fake, boring god of rules and lines. America has a very particular problem with being unable to comprehend quality in any sense other than being “#1” or the “Mattress King” or whatever. Hence certain of our current political problems.

And Tegan and Sara are actually one of the best examples of why this whole idea is dumb, because they don’t make albums that are trying to be better versions of albums they’ve already made. They make different albums. Following up Sainthood with Heartthrob was a good move, even from my perspective, where Sainthood is the kind of music I like and Heartthrob is, uh, less so. The only thing worse than changing is not changing. In the words of Kathleen Hanna, we don’t want to hear you making the right decisions, we want to hear your voice. You might write something that someone might want to read, someday.