How I Failed Axiology 101

Objectively not great, but emotionally 3x better than any other AMV.

The (dis)connection between love for anime and anime’s good quality is something that’s been bouncing around in my head for a while, and Demian’s recent post on ‘Liking Bad Anime’ (hopefully to be followed in the future by Baka-Raptor on ‘Hating Good Anime’) was all the provocation I required. Yes, my post is a sterile piece of amateur thought and no, you don’t have to read it.

An apology is in order, as I don’t normally permit myself to write this kind of entry. Normally I try to briefly explain any necessary jargon, but I’ve just forged full steam ahead here, because I imagine readers who are interested will either understand any jargon that there is here (I’ve trimmed as much as I can), or look it up. I should probably also apologise for muddled thought, but there’s not much to be done about that.

* * *

I draw a sharp distinction between our subjective positive emotion and anime’s objective good quality. It’s relatively easy to detect and evaluate our feelings about what we’re watching, since we’ve easy access to what goes on in our own heads. I don’t think there’s necessarily any connection between how we feel about any given anime, and that anime’s objectively measured quality: there aren’t many anime which I would have the courage to condemn as definitely bad, but Kaibutsu Oujo is one of them, and I loved it. Quite a lot of tangles ensue if we confuse our emotional attachment to what we’re watching, and our assessment of its quality.

To make matters worse, I have not found a way to directly perceive quality, or even to prove once and for all that it exists. I’m going to use the unwise analogy of causation here: I’ve no proof that eating reduces my hunger – all I can say is that whenever I’ve eaten in the past, my hunger has lessened (good enough for a scientist, but not for a sceptic). Were I a biologist I could of course provide a more detailed account, but if (in a manoeuvre familiar to Theology 101 students and two-year-olds) you questioned me for long enough I’d either admit to not knowing exactly why Process A causes Process B or resort to ‘a wizard did it‘. Causation may be out there, or it may not be. Good quality has so far been similarly undetectable.

[Note that I am in no way suggesting that good quality causes enjoyment. Maybe it does, but that's not the point: the point is the similarity between causation's epistemological status and quality's epistemological status.]

Once we reach this point, we can choose, if we so wish, an entirely subjective aesthetics. Should you have a list of anime (as with users of MAL), you can feel free to assign numbers purely on sentimental grounds. Personally, I find purely subjective – purely hedonistic – aesthetics, like pure moral relativism, to be not untenable, but unpalatable.

Thing is, we behave as though causation exists. There’s an assumption of a connection there in our minds: I eat when I’m hungry because it’s worked in the past and I assume it’ll work in the future (tapeworm excepted). Similarly, we behave as though quality exists. Long arguments flare up over the quality of anime (usually with a fair bit of sentiment mixed in). If we decide that objective quality doesn’t exist and retreat into purely subjective aesthetics, or decide that we can’t decide one way or another on quality’s existence and use that as a justification for purely subjective (purely hedonistic?) aesthetics, then we’ve nothing to say to one another:

‘How was TTGL?’

‘I loved it, infinity/10.’

‘Well, I hated it. -1/10.’

‘. . . so, um, did you do anything fun last weekend?’

There’s nothing to discuss, really: the purely subjective is the purely personal, the solipsistic – the analytic and tautological, always unchallengeable but never useful (and rarely interesting). There’s little mileage in discussing how much we each enjoyed or failed to enjoy something.

For we seem to need discussion, as usagijen pointed out when she reviewed Library War:

The interaction between these anti- and pro- factions will always bring in a new light on things, because the varying insights of these factions is what brought them to such opposing ends of the spectrum to begin with. There are things which the cynics can’t see, and the zealous T[oshokan] S[ensou] fans can, and vice versa.

This is significant because she obviously has a considerable emotional attachment to the show, but instead of writing directly about that attachment (and what could one write about that? surely it would boil down to ‘I liked it’?) she’s using it as fuel to power her search for demonstrations of the show’s objective quality. Those demonstrations, and the counter-demonstrations of the show’s detractors, have some kind of value. We must persist in our Quixotic quest for anime quality – the universal, synthetic, always doubtful but somehow useful – however impossible it seems. Maybe it’s good for us, in some Reithian way.

* * *

All the above is rather dubious for various reasons (I’m sure intellectual laziness on my part is one), but one of the most pressing is that anime is, by-and-large, commercially-produced entertainment. (Adrian begins his comment on Demian’s post by stating this.) Haibane Renmei is good (I think), but it’s hardly the bloody Laocoön, is it? Entertainment’s about fun, and fun’s quite closely connected with emotional attachment. This is probably linked to what Demian says about anime’s inherent subjectivity.

(Now, I have a suspicion that all media start out being about fun, and that the elevation of certain media (like poetry) to the world of good and bad quality is a recent, unwelcome development caused by disinterest in the general population (we can has οἱ πολλοί nao?) and emotional atrophy in academia, but I won’t go into that: life is too short.)

The greatest problem I have with what I’ve written here, however, is that I don’t obey it. As we discovered a while back, I don’t revel in flair, if I do make qualitative assessments I make them brief and I spend (waste?) most of my time writing rather dry lumps of light analysis (directed at things I love). Reviews are not my forte, because I lack confidence in my ability to accurately perceive quality and then wrap that accurate perception up in pretty words.

* * *

And, after all this, can we like bad anime? Of course – in fact, it’s a non-question, as we undoubtedly do like bad anime. So long as we observe our emotion and avoid letting it tangle up our attempts at objective analysis (while still expressing some feeling in our reviews – a tightrope, really), this shouldn’t be a problem. I suppose.

I tend to follow the dictates of emotion in my own watching habits myself: if not entertained, drop in haste (without asking for arguments about quality) and repent at leisure. As with my last post, guilt happens, but then guilt’s irrational.

Afterthoughts

If He exists, an omniscient and omnipresent God presumably acts as objective quality’s guarantor much as He kept the world going by perceiving it for Berkeley. Unfortunately, I’ve no proof of His existence in the first place, so despite that speculation we’re no closer to reliable objective assessments ourselves.

Actually, focusing on analysis is rather liberating, as it lets me write about whatever I want, regardless of its quality. Anyone who thinks I prefer mecha, at the moment, out of a belief in its higher quality or moral worth is sadly mistaken. (The very first shot of Heavy Metal L-Gaim is a pantyshot, remember?)

Further Reading

  • Apologies are due to Scottish Dave, as I probably misrepresented him something terrible here – but it can’t be helped now. All I can do to make up for it is recommend him.
  • Anxiety about ratings. (Leaving aside the numerical out-of-ten ratings on my anime list, I personally sort shows into the three imaginatively-titled categories of ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘average’.)
  • Within anime, the difference between emotion and quality is best encapsulated by the opening scenes of the forty-fourth episode of Hayate the Combat Butler.

26 responses to “How I Failed Axiology 101

  1. I think this is one of the reasons why it is important to write why you think a series is good/bad. By analyzing your methodology, a reader can decide if he/she agrees with your methods and make a decision about the accuracy of your rating. Very interesting read, and I also look forward to B-R’s to-be-penned thesis on Hating Good Anime.

  2. I totally get what you mean. After all, just because an anime is really ‘good’ doesn’t guarantee that you’ll like it. Like everyone else, I have trouble separating my liking of an anime from it’s actual quality.

    One example I’ll use is Allison To Lillia; I love it to bits although I know it’s got more plot holes than a Malaysian road has potholes.

    So, yeah, enjoyment shouldn’t and probably doesn’t ensure quality. Although, being the horrible cynic I am, criticism on my part tends to swoop in fast and hard.

  3. I used to lack faith in my own reviews because I usually find myself falling into the trap of reviewing emotionally… until recently with all these epiphanies.

    But really, have faith in your reviews! What you have written here just goes to show how capable you are of assessing quality, subjectively and objectively. It’s always great to see someone who maintains a balance of emotionally-biased and objective sentiments on what they’re watching. Loving an anime, while being able to accept how it can be objectively bad in terms of “quality”, is what I deem to be the ideal (and mature?) way of assessing shows. You already are practicing that, I still have a looong way to go :)

  4. Kabitzin put it well. The review is written for the “why”, not the score at the end, because the score is a somewhat (if not completely) subjective measure used by the author.

    A good reading.

  5. ‘. . . so, um, did you do anything fun last weekend?’
    both: ‘watched gurren lagann.’

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    Despite your own self-deprecation I think it’s an eloquently put argument. Certainly better than my mere examples and a summation. Reviewing an anime is always the hardest thing for me to write about; there’s so many factors to consider. I suppose we’re all a long way off from the ideal objective viewer, but if we were all objective what would be the point of our little blogs in the first place?

  6. Strangely enough, I just had a discussion with someone and we were talking about the same thing.

    And while I am very tempted to share my thoughts, I think it is more suitable to just say….

    I HATE THIS POST.

  7. interesting…very interesting

    I know little to nothing about aesthetics

    Im curious to know how you suggest we go about disconnecting our subjective experiences from our heads long enough to do anything, let alone create a decent standard for judging anime

    Also what criteria makes an obectively “bad anime” to you?

    I suppose the only truly objective review could be “This is TTGL its about people and a mecha they happen upon” Which presupposes the existence of humans and their intellect in creating a mecha.

    which is….well… rather boring

  8. I would weep;

    So many hifalutin words for a mundane, if dross issue; the root cause is some people’s inability to discern their enjoyment apart from everything else.

    All of which can be resolved if we share a little bit of humility, I think.

  9. Well on top of the whole people reviewing emotionally and not providing any valid reasons for why they like or dislike an anime, I think it’s important to touch on another point I think IKnight raises. That a lot of people tend to have extreme opinions. Either it’s the greatest goddamn anime ever made, or the worst piece of trash on the planet depending on who you ask but rarely do we have ever have a nice inbetween anymore.

    In reviewing episodes I’ve deliberately drawn a distinction between subjective and objective ratings of anime. In my opinion one cannot give an objective rating of a single episode of an anime (even if people claim to try on MAL aka “Fanboy Central”) and thus I make it clear that the number at the end is just an enjoyment scale. When I do full episode reviews however I try to be more objective. I include as many basic reasons as I can on why I think a section or overall anime desrves the rating I give it and try to look at individual visible qualities (because in my opinion there is no single one overall “quality” that can be defined and if anyone uses it they are just using a buzzword) and shortcomings as I do it. It’s not easy though.

    Just to close, I find that the more popular a show is, the more extreme and emotionally based peoples opinions and “reviews” on it tend to be.

  10. What’s with all this hype? I said “I ought to” write the post, not that I actually would. And I don’t always do what I ought to. For example, I’m at work right now…

  11. @ Kabitzin: Indeed, and this may be one reason why I struggle to write reviews: my decision making process is simple and rather boring, and based more around ‘Oooh! Explosions!’ than ‘The scalpel-sharp characterisation combined with the careful attention to detail in this scene’s animation to leave me floored.’ There’s a limit to the number of readers who are interested in explosions.

    More generally it’s an excellent principle. I’ve read negative reviews which have – by explaining the reviewer’s methodology and accurately describing the anime concerned – convinced me to watch the show concerned, which is perhaps another meaning of ‘fair review’.

    @ rroknedaj: Having read Martin’s post picking apart the holes in Allison to Lillia, I can see how you could enjoy the ride while ignoring the flaws. It has biplanes, after all.

    @ usagijen: Thank you for the compliments! I do my best, but, as I suggested to Kabitzin above, I have a separate problem because I like shows for utterly unfathomable, irrational reasons. Still, maybe I’ll try my hand at a few more traditional style review posts in the coming months. Anything could happen.

    As for having a long way to go, I suspect that in some slightly paradoxical way, knowing that you have a long way to go is half the battle. Or journey. Or something. (I wonder if I could make a career writing self-help books?)

    @ Kadian1364: Since we’re on the subject of travel, is this then a case of ‘it’s the journey not the destination’?

    @ Demian: Hmm. Maybe, as with Kadian’s comment, the writing/reading process and the personal touch of a blog is more important than I thought.

    Incidentally, a list of examples is a pretty good way of launching an argument, or at least I think so. Long words and dry speculations aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.

    @ The Sojourner: But you know it’s good, too, right?

    @ berkles: Well, we can’t disconnect our subjective experience long enough to create an objective standard. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, because we obviously have a need for objective debate just like we need to believe in causation to function. And who knows? Every now and then, a review might line up with objective reality by some miracle. (Cue apt TTGL quotation.)

    ‘Bad anime’? I’d start with basic storytelling rules – it’s permissable to break them, but you need a good reason – and move on to characterisation, animation, pacing, agenda (if any), role-in-genre, music &c. But this is really just a list of things which ought to be good and won’t be if the anime’s bad, isn’t it? I sense an infinite regression coming on,

    I’d suggest that the review you propose is more like a precis, and even that’s putting a spin on the story (do they ‘happen upon’ the mecha, or is it destiny?)

    @ omo: Well, I warned you about the hifalutin’ language. A few sentences would suffice, but that wouldn’t suffice as a blog entry, would it?

    If the subject’s poorly chosen, it is at least one which is potentially of interest to anyone who’s watched any anime, regardless of their location. I can think of some other mundane issues, regular grist for anime blogs, which don’t even have that saving grace. (And I had fun writing this.)

    Humility’s all well and good, but it’s impossible to talk about it, at least if one wants to aim for it oneself.

    @ Kaioshin Sama: Extremity of opinion – maybe it’s the effect of the internet itself? You’re definitely right that popularity is a polariser, from curmudgeons like me, who are turned off by popularity to die-hard fans who will proclaim their latest idol to be the second coming of Christ (in that regard at least Haruhi has the virtue of being a story about a deity).

    Also, I like the idea of ‘Fanboy Central’. Though I love MAL despite (or because of?) that.

    @ Baka-Raptor: Ah. An is/ought gap? Regardless, the popular demand has now been created.

  12. I never let length or word choice stop me from blogging; the shitty way my posts transform from thought to language (if one could call it that) is not something I am proud of…

    Much like, I imagine, how you feel about this post.

    And I think that struggle is essence of the subject matter–it’s a joy to be a bringer of good news. We enjoy sharing what’s enjoyable but we also enjoy what’s enjoyable. The fundamentals of the mechanics of fandom is a function of the human nature to praise of what is good, whatever defines good to be. It’s what compels my blog to keep going and me keep putting stuff in it, and I imagine much of that is a joy all on its own, detached from any particular nuggets of objective desirability of any particular anime.

  13. IS THIS A POST ABOUT SHAKUGAN NO SHANA?! IT SOUNDS LIKE A GODDAMN SHANA POST.

  14. As far as reviews go I think Kabtitzin is right that we should list our reasons for liking or disliking a show, nevertheless given the prevailing state of the internet agreement over reasoning will remain elusive. For the most part i think the best we can do is just post about why we liked a show or why we were disappointed. Given our anonymity it is hard to attach any authority to back a review. So if your tastes align with one blogger’s then its not far off that the shows they recommend will be to your liking. If you have had serious disagreements in the past with a blogger then one should not put too much stock into whether or not a series is enjoyable by their word alone.

    I wrote a post on perspective a while back, but suffice to say reviewing anime is like making a tactical assessment in the wake of the Battle of Battle of Guadalajara. We can all see the same series yet we all walk away with a different sense of what occurred. We are not necessarily right or wrong, but circumstances can aspire to in the coming times vindicate or discredit some of our assessments.

    I much rather prefer not reviewing at all and get by with merely recommending a series. I have not desire to up hold objectivity as I see it as a pipe dream unattainable so long as we care. It’s sort of like video games if animation quality is in the dumps we automatically know that series is nigh unwatchable, however assuming animation quality is decent and the stories and art design are all that distinguish one series from another it become hard to rate one as being better than the other. We may be more partial to one genre over another, for instance.

    Grading and reviewing all assume we are measuring by some sort of set standards, however outside of animation quality there isn’t much standardization when it comes to rating something like a story. For instance say we were tasked with reviewing Lord of the Rings vs. Dune we can agree that both are superbly written but do both works deserve to share the same grade or score? Is one a greater work than the other? If so how and why?

    That is a problem I don’t think we can every really solve given the richness and variation within anime. It would be like comparing Turn A Gundam to Card Captor Sakura, both have there merits but it would be hard to say one were better than the other. Moreover coming up a grade scale that would apply to both equally is a task I don’t think many bloggers can attain. However we can always recommend Turn A to a mecha fan or CCS to a shoujo fan and state that both are good representatives of their respective genres. Out side of that it be kind of hard to successfully argue that Turn A deserves an 8.0 while CCS gets a 8.3 by means of a standardized scale.

    Depending on the person a song can be good or bad. I never liked country, but I know plenty of people who do. Hence why even rating music in anime is still a hit or miss thing.

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  16. I see where you’re going. I myself classify numbers to different shows on my MAL, but I don’t ever believe those numbers are really the best method to acknowledge what I believe to be the measure of quality of that particular anime series/movie. I believe the best way to look at a series in an objective manner, or in a manner that would befit any of your friends seeking recommendations, is to classify an anime in terms of its enjoyability as well as the sort of motifs, themes, settings, and storyline elements that the show possesses. I can obviously say an anime like Spice and Wolf, for instance, is excellent, but I don’t believe that anyone who likes slow animes about economical mishaps and transactions mixed with some romance might agree with me. It’s all very relative to the content of the show, and not just its quality.

    Good post!

    ~Alexius

  17. Well, the idea of good quality vs. bad quality only being a more recent development isn’t exactly valid – people have argued for the ages about whether specific things are objectively ‘good’ or not – an example would be how what is now considered ‘classic’ American literature from the 19th century was at the time considered to be garbage. There are also numerous examples from the art world, as evidenced by the sheer amount of artists who starved to death, only to have their works suddenly sell like hot cakes ten years later.

    All said, I enjoyed this post, and am a bit jealous as I have been meaning for a while to do a similar post – you totally beat me to it!

  18. @ omo: I frequently let my word choice stop me from blogging. That’s why I delete so many drafts.

    @ 21stcenturydigitalboy: No, but if I ever get round to writing a GARO post you can consider it as a Shana post, given how they’re so similar.

    @ Crusader: Absolute objectivity’s unattainable, true, but as I said in my post, I don’t think that means we should stop striving for it. The striving process itself is useful, plus now and then we might accidentally line up with the truth. You never know.

    Recommendations, rather than reviews, are rather good, true. I can come up with some good reasons for the superiority of Turn-A over CCS (of which more below) but since quality’s disconnected from enjoyment there’s no shame in recommending CCS over Turn-A – in fact, I think I probably would.

    (Why is Turn-A better, though they’re both well-executed anime? Its concerns are less quotidian, it has a sense of humanity, it has a great ending and it is an exercise in promiscuous intertexuality. Do these things always make a show superior? I believe so, yes, because of my underlying system of absolute values.

    Also, The Lord of the Rings is better than Dune.)

    @ Alexius: The numbers actually have descriptors attached to them in the drop-down box available on MAL – I think 6 is ‘fine’, 7 is ‘good’ and 8 is ‘very good’ – and I just use gut feeling and harsh mental criticism to assign a number. I don’t have much confidence in my ratings, though, which is why my list itself is set to private.

    I think there’s a big gap between objectivity and the kind of viewpoint of what to recommend to your friends. To go back to Kaibutsu Oujo, objectively it’s pretty bad, but I can think of some friends to whom I would recommend it: they’d enjoy it, like I did.

    @ adaywithoutme: True, value judgement presumably goes back at least as far as Plato. I think I was trying to talk about the way that, in some media at least, commercial success and fun are the goals until some stuffy academics arrive and ruin the party for everyone else. (Which is why we’re cursed with authors like Joyce.)

    Good point about paintings, though. I suppose some media were never really entertainment in quite the same crash-bang-wallop style in the first place.

    And write your own post, do! It’s an interesting subject – or at least I think so – and I’m sure my post isn’t the last word on it (this is one of the few things I am sure of). I think Kaiserpingvin was thinking of writing a post on the same subject too.

  19. True enough! And yes, I see those little descriptors now. I tend to classify my anime ratings both on enjoyability (which tends to be quite personal) and quality, and even then I find it difficult to weigh story and character and the other elements of quality in such a manner that procures a fair mark. It’s difficult.

    ~Alexius

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