On Clueless Criticism

There are these wasabi rice crackers available at my local convenience store. They’re great… provided you know how to eat them. One or two at a time, they’re not particularly spicy: they taste pretty good, they have only the faintest kick, and a small serving more than sates my appetite for snacks.


Of course, if you eat more than three at a time, well, then they’re insane: the pain, the panic, the dizzying wasabi fumes pouring up into your sinuses, the flailing for the nearest cup of anything to dilute the wasabi and cut short that incredible pain. I should know: I have, many times, inflicted that pain on myself when snacking while distracted.

So why do I keep eating them, if they hurt?

Because those episodes of pain… they’re not a result of some flaw in the crackers. Eaten the way they’re intended to be eaten, there’s no pain at all. When that wasabi hell explodes in my mouth, send me scrambling for a drink, it’s because I’m eating them wrong.

Sure, sure, there is no objectively wrong way to eat them. Some people don’t feel the burn, and can eat as many as they like at one time. Some enjoy the burn, and out to eat a lot, I guess. Some people don’t like the taste even when they eat them slowly, or are turned off by even mild wasabi. Some people are even allergic to (fake) wasabi. Some people just can’t seem to break the habit of eating snack foods a handful at a time, and decide to avoid wasabi crackers. Some people are trying to eat fewer snacks altogether.

And of course, it is possible to find bad wasabi snacks on the market. For example, a company habitually using low-quality rice or sesame to make the base cracker, and then slathering on a ton of wasabi to cover for the poor quality. There are some wasabi peas at my local mart that are like that: you can tell the peas were bottom-grade before they were dehydrated, and the ton of wasabi applied to them only sort-of covers it the terrible quality; saying, “Yeah, those are over-spiced because the quality is bad. Avoid them!” is just plain sensible.

So I’m not saying that one cannot criticize, or cannot reject something; criticism sometimes involves rightly pointing things like that.

But if you’re eating these particular wasabi crackers by the handful and the pain hits, and you then decide to react with a self-righteous lecture on the dangers of over-spicing food, or blame the Mizuho Brand snack manufacturer for reminding you of the traumas of your past, when you ate buffalo wings in a bar one time that were horrifically spicy your underwear caught fire before you even managed to get home?

Uh, nah, in that case, you’re eating these here wasabi crackers wrong, and your criticism is just clueless. 

And for the record, no, I’m not talking about any particular criticism of my own work. I’m actually responding to this frustratingly US-centric (and US-racial-politics-centric) criticism of Snowpiercer by diversity advocate Daniel José Older.

I’m not sure whether I’ll respond to it at any greater length, though. We’ll see.

2 thoughts on “On Clueless Criticism

  1. I think a part of it is that the mainstream of any genre / medium is still dominated by (often white) Americans, but the internet has a way of making the little guy’s voice heard (not loudly enough, but louder than before), and now the intelligentsia are like, “oh crap, dem menlanin-unchallenged people are THINKING.” This also coincides with an increased sequestering of said American intelligentsia into their own little bubble, where big issues like global warming and ebola and corporate outrages against developing nations can’t disturb their preoccupations with “material culture” and “cultural sensitivity”.

    (On a side note, I find it interesting that discussions of what it means to be “culturally sensitive” generally tend to be framed not in the question of “what are the cultural implications of imperialism?” but in the question “what do we (whiteys, again) have to do to grab more of what we want from this other exotic culture?” The more things change…)

    1. Hm. Not quite sure about how the first sentence relates to the second, or to my post generally. Unpack?

      My sense is that Older’s mostly known as an advocate for racial diversity in publishing and particularly in SFF (see here: I agree with “avowed racist” but “terrible wordsmith” is laughable; I think changing the award is fine but can’t see why it should be Butler… or any author specifically).

      But in this review at least, Older spectacularly fails his saving throw against the stupefying effects of American cultural privilege and ends up fighting cultural diversity. Which is ironic since, if he actually grasped what I’m pretty sure Bong is up to in the movie, he might actually appreciate it and get a new (and useful) perspective on what ultimately is another front of the same damned fight that he himself is fighting. (Because, from what I can tell, Bong and Older are actually sort of fighting the same fight against white supremacy in narratives. They’re just doing it in very different narrative languages.)

      And really, panning a Korean director for making a typical white-racist movie, rather than pausing and asking himself whether maybe he missed something back there, or maybe the Korean director was up to something else? That’s fail-worthy in itself. That’d be like reading Swift and asking “But why does Swift make Gulliver such a buffoon? Is he really so hateful of the Great Britain?” or reading Flaubert and asking, “But why does the man want to give the impression that French women are such intractably selfish whores?”

      For me, the great irony is that Bong is tackling the same issue that Older wishes he’d tackled (white power oppressing everyone else), from a radical progressive (anti-white-supremacist, anti-white-American-hegemony) angle. Bong just did it in a particularly Korean way, under the influence of Korean history and politics, Korean radical progressive ideology, post-dictatorship realpolitik, and so on. The film is shot in English, but it’s not shot in American, narrative-wise or referentially. It’s the kind of film that emerges by a filmmaker whose childhood was literally lived out in a society where the strongest criticism of dictatorial cronyism many people ever dared was to mutter, “각하 시원하시겠습니다!”

      Which is to say, understanding Bong’s movies takes work. And, well, that’s what cultural/entertainment diversity looks like in a world with American hegemony: if you’re American, you might need to remind yourself that not everyone else is, and might actually have to think a bit harder or might do your homework to grok what someone from someplace else is saying. Instead, it feels to me like Older’s grumbling, “Speak American,” at Bong here. As I say, the painful irony is that Bong is actually attacking the same damn white supremacist dragon Older claims to be fighting, and he’s doing it very cleverly.

      But then, I can’t completely fault Older for missing that. Bong realizes most people are too lazy to do their homework, so his films generally all have a very effective honeytrap to catch the suckers and feed them a very “easy” and entertaining cover story. Snowpiercer‘s only different because the suckers are self-absorbed ignorant white American popcorn munchers, instead of reactionary Koreans. So Older fell for the sucker’s honeytrap, is all… and so his criticism is a sucker’s criticism. But the honeytrap isn’t quite enough excuse: Matthew Cheney didn’t fall for it, for example…

      I dunno. Maybe a paper in some online journal would be better use of my time than blogging it, though. Hm. I’m pretty sure I have about ten interesting things to say about Snowpiercer and Bong (beyond what’s in my forthcoming article) that might help Western film critics be a little less clueless when it comes to Bong’s movies. (Because overall cluelessness seems to be the rule, not the exception.)

      Oh, I should say, this is all presuming that the same cut was screened in the US as I saw here in Saigon. I think it was, though. (I seem to recall reading Bong succeded in his saving throw against Weinstein’s +4 razors of film stupefaction, right?)

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