Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Problem with Goodreads

Previously, I argued that bad art is caused by a mixture of poorly constructed art with poor critical thinking from the audience of said art. I was inspired by comments on book blogging and perceived limitations in the critical discourse when book blogging is in its infancy. Parallel to this issue with book blogging is the ubiquity of social media.

Social media has entered hegemonic status for multiple reasons: the constant sharing of information fits into the pleasure principle as well as the instantaneous access to all things at all times. The world is easily grasped through the construction or observation of social networks. The sheer intelligibility of the planet is increased when the web of interconnection becomes visible through social media.

Proof of social media's status as a major paradigm in contemporary society is the legitimization of the media through academic journals (eg Social Networks) and an award-winning film about one site's inception (ie The Social Network by David Fincher).

Due to the rapacity of capitalism, different social media are constructed around different markets. Facebook, the supreme network that eclipses all others by a huge factor, is organized around interpersonal relationships. Twitter is organized around brief "bits" of information traded at instantaneous speed.

Goodreads, among others, is organized around books. While ostensibly about the discourse of sharing books, Goodreads tends to mirror other more dominant forms of social media in its shallowness and capitalist methodology. Goodreads, I would argue, serves to flatten books into consumable commodities by the very structure that allows it to exist.

The site's success is in allowing for a diverse group of complex individuals from across the globe to trade and share book recommendations and reviews as well as quantify books into numerical ratings. I've argued previously that numerical ratings are inherently reductive, but in this case, I'm going to expand on this in a bit. Goodreads' success is due to the increased intelligibility and accessibility of a diverse and infinite system of knowledges (aka books). It is an archive that is seemingly infinite and the numerical ratings and ability to share information by recommendations, discussions, and ratings helps the user navigate and thus organize the impossibility of understanding the totality of Goodreads' archive.

Goodreads is positioned as an alternative and more interactive system of understanding books than the culturally dominant forms of literature, such as the New York Times Review of Books and the Paris Review. Instead of being controlled by market forces, editorial boards, corporate synergy, and academia, Goodreads is the vox populi. It allows the users to generate the content (similar to Wikipedia) and generate the numerical rating. This allows for a decentralization of power. No longer will the old rich white men control the archive of what is literature and what isn't, via the proliferation of newspapers and periodicals.

One Goodreads user writes that:
the "superficial" nature of the reviews is also what I actually do like about this place: I like it that the reviews are written by "normal people" that just want to share their opinions briefly without turning them into something pompous and pretentious, something that I think the more professional literary reviews tend to be.
While not representative of the entirety of Goodreads (that's the point: decentralization of power), this is surely indicative of the ideology operating within. A dichotomy is established between "normal people" who are not literary and thus not privileged and the pompous and pretentious literary elite.

Goodreads establishes an alternative model to the snobbery and exclusion of the literary elite by total inclusion. Everything is included within the archive and thus no violence is done to that which is excluded.

Fundamentally, the navigation of Goodreads is built around connections between books. As for Facebook and people, Goodreads operates by building bridges between books. Thus, its method of navigation is in true Internet fashion, the hyperlink. Unlike a footnote that directs you to another work, the hyperlink propels you to the other work. Hyperlinking provides the ability to read everything that is connected, but rather, the constant "skipping and skimming offer[s] the 'illusion of action and decision' but [is] really an insidious form of paralysis" (Reynolds 73). The subject is constantly learning about the existence of other books, but is rarely reading those other books.

Reading fiction, some critics bemoan, is slowly dying due to books' inability to compete with the visual media of film and television. We live in a society of spectacle that is visually based. This is not a new idea, as Guy Debord has written a book on it, among others. Neil Postman in his seminal work Amusing Ourselves to Death, writes, "discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation of images, not words" (7). We respond to advertisements that deploy hieroglyphic brands that are visually based rather than complex sentences and words.

In his short story "Paintwork" in the titular collection, Tim Maughan posits a future where advertisements on walls and billboards have been replaced with QR codes that when scanned deploy augmented reality to advertise the products. The initial QR code that the protagonist is defacing (with another QR code!) leads to an image of the Coca-Cola brand and an Asian cowboy. That is to say that visual hieroglyphic images are actually signifiers for more visual hieroglyphic images. It's a signifying chain of spectacle.

Books have to compete with the hegemony of visually based culture, and they are not winning the battle. Add to this the complexity of books themselves. They cannot be fully grasped in one sitting, usually, and function by postponement. Plus, the accumulation of the past has created an impossible amount of books to get through in one lifetime. There are literally too many books to read for one person.

Goodreads battles these three things in one important way: it reduces books to a picture and a numerical rating. All books on Goodreads have a numerical rating and are accompanied by a picture, either of the cover of a particular edition, or a picture proclaiming there to be no picture of a cover. Each book's numerical rating is an average based on the ratings from the users. Thus, the content is user-generated.

Each book has its own individual page. On it, the picture, the numerical rating, a synopsis, and user reviews are offered. As well, there are other books by the same author and other books read by readers of that particular book, which reinforces the hyperlinking of books together.

The synopsis is often taken from the publisher, and rarely generated by user. It serves to increase the intelligibility of the book in question by reducing it to a plot summary or a provocation to read the book. Additional information about the book's character is provided by similar books in tone or content as well as "reviews" from Goodreads users who wish to go further than a numerical rating.

In my previous essay on "Good Art versus Bad Art" I produced an example of a Goodreads review that reduces the complexity of the novel down to a qualitative judgement on the characters and plot. It is decidedly not literary criticism but rather a reducing of the book in order for the next user to determine if the book is "worth their time".

A book review, by necessity, is telling us whether or not something is "worth the time". As aforementioned, there are too many books to read. This contributes to the anxiety of choice, which posits that there are too much freedom in choices which actually creates a lack of freedom in choices. A choice always means a loss (you didn't choose B but you chose A) and thus there's always guilt. The flattening of commodities (the reduction of a book into a numerical rating/review) helps assuage that guilt and then turns it back to the subject. The review serves to quantify the book so that we can make the decision of reading it or not. Thus, to me, a review serves to reduce a complex work of art into a consumable commodity.

Unfortunately, that commodification of the book as container of time is necessary. There are literally too many books to read for one person's lifetime, so we rely on reviews to help sort and organize books into categories ("to-read"/"ignore"). But surely it's ultimately a reductive practice.

It strips the book of meaning and casts it as a consumable product. That serves the very logic of Goodreads' system of book recommendation rather than literary criticism.

And this, of course, is the problem. Why argue about a lack of depth with a system that's very intention is to flatten everything? What is the point of fighting against this system that hopes to and helps increase accessibility?

Goodreads is a capitalistic measure. It helps inform the consumer and allows for "informed" choice. But there is no choice. Each book is reduced in order to increase intelligibility but this paradoxically decreases the complexity. Books are complicated things that have generated thousands of years of discourse. They are not easily grasped and that is exactly why they continue to exist in the cultural discourse. If books were easily grasped and more tenable, then we would not have written millions upon millions of pages of criticism about them. In order to make sense of the sheer impossibility of books, Goodreads simplifies them, which exhausts them of their usefulness.

The site is essentially a market that serves to highlight already known books (success feedback loop) and serves to revitalize exhausted commodities in the form of forgotten books. The previously known books have been exhausted of their complexity by constant recirculation and promotion. They no longer have complexity (and thus usefulness) because they are endlessly reduced by thousands of numerical ratings. The forgotten classics are ruthlessly colonized by the market in search of unexplored realms of possible capital. Their usefulness is exhausted by the books being made into objects of collection rather than containers of information. The forgotten book's success is simply because of its forgotten state, not for its content.

Thus, the market recirculates exhausted commodities over and over, reducing their complexity and creating stagnation, a slowing-down of forward momentum. And because the market is so successful in recirculating these exhausted commodities, Goodreads can be seen as a microcosm of capitalism. In his book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher writes that there is,
the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.(3)
Goodreads' discourse of flattened consumable commodities presents itself as the only possible system of making sense of the complexity of the world of literature. Recall the quoted Goodreads user who prefers the simplification of books. Literary analysis is too complicated and too intimidating. If Goodreads is capitalism, then literary analysis is regarded as Communism.

Fisher writes,
The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value.(4)
Monetary value is totally equivalent to numerical rating. A book needs to be "worth" one's time, and the only way to understand its worth is to reduce it to a value, a quantity. Each book is reduced to being an artifact within an archive of "equivalence" thanks to Goodreads' implementation of the capitalist system. The reader wanders from book to book as if in a museum, simply observing the works rather than engaging. The spectating inherent in this system is even lionized in the capitalist system. Indeed, it is the virtue of capitalism in comparison to other economic and social systems. The user comfortably trades lack of engagement for the protection from other more insidious things such as books sneaking their ideology through by reading.

Thus, we reach the ultimate problem with the flattening of books into consumable commodities. Everything is mediated through ideology, including books. When one reads a book, one enters into an exchange of ideology. The book offers its ideology for the reader to confront, challenge, disagree with, think about and cogitate on. By reducing books to simple consumables, whatever ideology is present within the book or its subtext is being presented whole-cloth to the reader.

More often than not, those ideologies being consumed by the reader are in the interest of maintaining the political status quo, as per Adorno's formulation of what he calls the culture industry. Fredric Jameson writes about this in his seminal book, The Political Unconscious. The subject is ignorant of the ideology being presented, and of course the ideology is part of the dominant social structure. Jameson writes that there are master narratives embedded within texts.
The idea is, in other words, that if interpretation in terms of expressive causality of of allegorical master narratives remains a constant temptation, this is because such master narratives have inscribed themselves in the texts as well as in our thinking about them; such allegorical narrative signifieds are a persistent dimension of literary and cultural texts precisely because they reflect a fundamental dimension of our collective thinking and our collective fantasies about history and reality. (34)
This should echo what Mark Fisher has written about Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, which I previously quoted: the master narrative offers itself as the only possibility and that there are no alternatives. They are the metanarratives that have totally consumed individual subjects. The primary metanarrative of course being the success and continuance of capitalism.

This perhaps sounds like a paranoid conspiracy theory in which I cry out that capitalism's success is in embedding its message of totality in works of fiction. However, it's not a conspiracy in the sense that there is a malicious or even conscious intent. One of the tenets of neoliberalism is the decentralization of power, the very thing that Goodreads espouses to do. There is no villainous head of the corporation of "capitalism" that is directing the insertion of capitalist ideology within the fabric of culture. Rather it is like a conspiracy thriller without a real conspiracy, without a real centre. Despite our awareness that there is no real centre (no Big Bank that controls the other banks etc), we still search for that centre. The centre is lacking in order to disavow responsibility.

Goodreads cannot be blamed for the problems of Goodreads because there is no centralized power. There is no specific person to point to and say, "you are to blame". Rather, the success of Goodreads and its ability to escape culpability is to disperse power and content among its users. Namely, the individual subjects with usernames, pictures, shelves and ratings that generate the content that makes up Goodreads. The site becomes a structure without a centre, and to blame this structure for its failings is to miss the culpability of the super-structures above it, namely capitalism, etc. The structure "contracts out its responsibility to consumers, by itself receding into invisibility" (Fisher 66) so that only the subjects, the users of Goodreads, are responsible and culpable for the flattening of literature.

Even books that espouse an ideology of anti-capitalism are still reinforcing the logic of capitalism. While this might seem contradictory, Žižek helps us navigate this. He writes in his book How To Read Lacan about the concept of "interpassivity":
The obverse of interacting with the object (instead of just passively following the show) is the situation in which the object itself takes from me, deprives me of, my own passivity, so that it is the object itself which enjoys the show instead of me, relieving me of the duty to enjoy myself. (Žižek 24)
Works of art that are "anti-capitalist" are helpfully performing the feeling for us so that we might continue to consume without guilt. This leads to "the notion of false activity: people not only act in order to change something, they can also act in order to prevent something from happening, so that nothing will change" (26). Books that are anti-capitalist, that criticize the capitalist regime, are taking the power of political change away from the subject. Thus, even the subject is no longer responsible or culpable for the apparent flattening of literature and perpetuation of the dominant ideology.

I can only point to Fredric Jameson's reading of Andy Warhol's "Diamond Dust Shoes, 1980" as characteristic of the flattening of things in the cultural logic of late capitalism. Jameson writes that the emergence of the postmodern has seen "the emergence of a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind superficiality in the most literal sense" (9). Instead of Van Gogh's affecting peasant shoes, Warhol's shoes are a silk screen, a flat copy of pictures of shoes, specifically, of reproducible shoes. The art is no longer about the shoes. Instead, postmodernism is about the shoes as commodity.

Goodreads' participation in the cultural logic of late capitalism suggests that all books are part of a system of equivalence. They are flattened and simplified in order to be easily reproduced (ie easily accessed in the form of webpage) and easily grasped. There is nothing more to Warhol's shoes other than the easily reproducible nature of the shoes and of the piece of art itself. Thus, there is nothing more to the books to be discussed or analyzed or open to interpretation because the mechanism of Goodreads has flattened everything within its archive. Thus, the pan-inclusion in the archive produces a flattening violence to all that is included. Gone is the sheer complexity of James Joyce's Ulysses when it can be slotted comfortably next to a YA dystopian novel with the same numerical score, and no doubt more numerical ratings as well.

In his essay, "Embedded Memories", Will Straw writes that "the relationship of the Internet to the past is typically talked about in terms of remediation, a process by which new media come to enclose the old" (3) which is to say that Goodreads (and the Internet) serve to reinvigorate the past and invests it with value through recirculation. Goodreads' relationship with "classic" novels is based on establishing the preconditions for their "perpetuation as material culture". Goodreads flattens, simplifies and packages the old within the framework of the new as marketable commodities. It refashions the past classics "within the languages of the present, so that vestiges of the past may be kept alive" (4). Straw argues that culture derives from movement so that new forms and new ideas can be produced in a society of movement. A stagnant society, Straw writes, produces stagnant culture, which is to say the constant recirculation of the past within the new. No new idea can flourish when up against the accumulated weight of the past. Imagine a ship weighted down by the vast amount of barnacles attached to its hull.

Straw's essay is particularly helpful in imagining how the constant recirculation of the past, and capitalism's "frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to airplanes), at ever greater rate of turnover" (Jameson 4) has contributed to the colonization of the past by the present.

Goodreads' flattening of the past has enabled the present to essentialize the past and thus understand it. It's a system of deferral by which the present is able to understand and access the past by recreating it through the language of the present. That is to say that present fiction promoted by Goodreads (through advertisements and even professional authors on Goodreads) has "nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles" (Jameson 17-18). The archive of Goodreads enables the past to accumulate, like video cassettes littering the aisles of Blockbuster until "this storage may block processes of innovation or commercial turnover within the cultural field" (Straw 7).

This would help us understand why YA fiction that deploys previously seen genre tropes (steampunk, vampires, dystopia) has entered into hegemonic status within Goodreads. The primary demographic of Goodreads appears to be young adults and teenagers, judging by their votes for the "Best Books Ever":

Here we can see Twilight (vampire fiction), The Hunger Games (dystopian fiction) and Harry Potter (paradigmatic fantasy fiction) to completely and utterly dominate the top five. The first book of The Hunger Games trilogy has 1,061,852 ratings (as of 03/10/2012) while James Joyce's Ulysses has 34,135 ratings (as of the same date).

Of course, it's logical to point out at this point that my rubric of comparison is based on the same thing. Both The Hunger Games and Ulysses ruthlessly colonize representations of the past. The former uses a mash-up of classic dystopian while the latter deploys Homer's Odyssey. I could have used any other example of "classic" fiction, but I went with what is considered by many to be one of the best novels in the English language. Goodreads' simplification of Ulysses through numerical rating, which by the way, is lower than The Hunger Games (4.48 versus 3.72!), allows Ulysses to be easily circulated. Its stylistic innovations and formal experimentation are stripped from it, leaving only a number, a cover, and a helpful synopsis. Ulysses becomes equivalent to The Hunger Games (which is subject to the same process of flattening) and thus consumable.

To summarize, Goodreads is a complex archive built on the foundation of social media that serves to connect and simplify works of art, containers of knowledge called books. Goodreads proposes to be a vox populi alternative to rigorous (pretentious) literary/academic discourse that includes all books, fiction and non-fiction and does not sustain elitism by exclusion. However, the inclusion of everything does a violence to the books by simplifying them in order to increase their accessibility and intelligibility. This process is symptomatic of the commodification of everything in the cultural logic of late capitalism to the point that Goodreads can be metonymic of capitalism itself. Goodreads, while ostensibly an alternative to literary discourse, offers itself as the only possibility because of its accessibility and intelligibility, just like capitalism offers itself as the only possibility. This commodification/simplification process that every book goes through in order to enter the archive of Goodreads is fundamentally negative because it encourages a simplified reading of the book itself (commensurate with the process). This simplified reading in turn encourages a lack of engagement with the ideology or metanarrative present in the books. Since the books are made within the cultural logic of late capitalism, the ideology they espouse is self-fulfilling. The very circulation of books within late capitalism reinforces the hegemonic status of capitalism, including criticisms of capitalism. As with the logic of capitalism, the frantic waves of producing new products forces the present to reach back to the past, which is ever accumulating due to the nature of the all-inclusive archive. This causes the past to be spoken with the voices of the present, stagnating the forward momentum of cultural production in a stagnant system of curatorial practices.

But what does this all mean?

Goodreads is problematic but it is hegemonic. As I've argued previously and as Walter Benjamin has argued, reproducible art has the possibility of political power. Benjamin writes, "Since, moreover, individuals are tempted to avoid such tasks, art will tackle the most difficult and most important ones where it is able to mobilize the masses." Fascism, something that directly effected Benjamin's life and career, could be scary enough to rouse the public through reproducible art. He closes his famous essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" with a rousing and invigorating statement that the self-alienation of art has reached such a high degree that it can aesthetically enjoy its own destruction. Only Communism, Benjamin argues, can politicize art and awaken the masses.

I'm not sure if Communism is the answer, but surely offering an alternative model to capitalism can be interpolated into the conversation about Goodreads and its flattening of literature. Only the politicization of book blogging and of literary discussion can hope to struggle against the hegemony of Goodreads and its dangerous paradigm. Only a constant and loud battle cry can help destabilize the metanarrative that "reading for pleasure" means reading without consciousness, with interpassivity.

There should always be an alternative. There should always be the asking of "why" - whether this be at the microcosm level of the individual work of literature or at the macrocosmic level of structures like Goodreads and Facebook. The question should always be WHY is this the dominant ideology and what are my alternatives?

Works Cited

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. Ropley: Zero Books, 2009. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. New York: Cornell University Press, 1982. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. Print.

Maughan, Tim. Paintwork. London: Smashwords, 2011. eBook.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.

Reynolds, Simon. Retromania. New York: Faber and Faber, 2011. Print.

Straw, Will. "Embedded Memories." In Charles Acland, editor. Residual Media . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007, pp. 3-15.

Žižek, Slavoj. How To Read Lacan. London: Granta Books, 2006. Print.

1 comment:

Jonathan M said...

Excellent piece.

You cover a lot of ground here and so I almost feel as though I am doing you a disservice by picking up one particular point but I agree that there is something really quite disturbing about places like Good Reads.

If you read Terry Eagleton's account of the history of criticism, you'll see that criticism is largely a product of a public sphere that opened up with the emergence of the middle classes. Trapped between the world of the rich and the world of the poor, these people initially relied upon critics to guide the discourse and police the boundaries of what should and should not be discussed.

The public sphere has taken a hell of a battering in recent times as the shape of public discourse is now in the hands of commercial concerns who, naturally enough, want everyone to be positive about new product.

Places like Amazon and Goodreads have opened up areas of proprietary public space where the owners of the means of cultural production can pull reviews without having to explain themselves. What Goodreads and the recent Amazon scandals have shown is that you can't trust these types of company to keep a public sphere honest and you can't have critics or gatekeepers running the show when the show takes place on private property.

For me, the great tragedy of the 21st Century is that of cultural enclosure as open and accessible platforms such as blogs have given rise to dubiously controlled platforms like social media.