The Objectivity of Reviewers

I’ve been listening to a lot of music over the past year, and what’s interesting is that, if I go back to music I listened to a couple of years ago, it often sounds different to me. What I previously perceived as structureless noise not seems much more ordered and interesting (e.g. Jesus and Mary Chain) and what I previously considered challenging and interesting now frequently seems dull and mundane (oh, Red Hot Chili Peppers). Some bands have been immune to this process (White Stripes).

Note I’m not saying that I appreciate the music differently: I’m saying I hear it differently. There must have been some neuronal remapping going here. What I could not perceive before, in the more complex works, I now can. Dan Levitin in This is Your Brain On Music has some interesting things to say about this topic.

It’s not surprising: for example, consider what driving felt like as a learner, compared to how it feels if you are an experienced driver. You certainly perceive the road differently now. In the same way, it’s not surprising that if you actively listen to music your perception of it will change in time.

For what it’s worth, the same thing has happened to the Margaritas in TGI Friday’s over the last 10 years or so.

Which leads on to the point: reviewers’ perceptions must change over time, as well, as they get exposed to more and more material.

Accordingly, isn’t it the case that a reviewer who is constantly immersed in a particular genre or medium actually experiences each work differently from much of his or her audience? Maybe this isn’t a problem. Maybe we just seek out reviewers whose perception tends to match our own.

Reviewers’ perceptions also get skewed in other ways. I obliquely know Cory Doctorow, and I love his books, but I’m reluctant to recommend them to other people unreservedly, because I know that my tenuous link with him colours my view of him: on the one hand, I am a little more indulgent to him that I otherwise would be; and on the other, because I know a little more about the way that his brain works than someone who hasn’t met him, then I can interpolate passages in the books in the ways other readers perhaps cannot. Reviews of authors by other authors (whom they may well know) are very common, and are likely to be skewed for this very reason. (Also, they are also likely to be skewed for a third reason: namely that no author will want to diss another author who has a fighting chance of reviewing his own book).

A review of “Yo La Tengo” aimed at people who like Indie music (and whose perceptions are therefore tuned into its textures, patterns and rhythms) is likely to reach a wider audience than a review of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom aimed at people who obliquely know Cory Doctorow.

But, to paraphrase Harper Lee, it’s important that when reading a book/appreciating a piece of art/listening to a piece of music, that you try to stand in the other guy’s shoes, and realise that what you see/hear may not at all be what the other person perceives.

And, consequently, it is also the case that you can learn to appreciate different forms of art, in two different ways. One, by cerebrally understanding the language of it (for example, by understanding the symbolism in renaissance religious art), and two, by having your brain re-wired so that you perceive it in a different way.

This has interesting ramifications for cultural relativism, because there’s a one-way street here (short of neuronal destruction). I’m pretty sure I can’t go back to enjoying Freixenet Cordon Negro (or A-Ha) in the way that I currently enjoy Jacquesson (or the Fuck Buttons or Hawk and a Hacksaw). Some relativists would put Freixenet on a par with Jacquesson, which is clearly nonsense. Other relativists would put Freixenet on a par with Carlsberg, and Jacquesson on a par with Cantillon Geuze (which is a fascinating sort of Belgian beer), which is something I have no objection to. There is something in relativism, but only if it’s applied with discrimination, and there has to be some recognition of the learning (in both senses) which is required to reach an appropriate level of appreciation.

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