Wimsatt & Beardsley: The intentional fallacy

Back in 1946, two gentlemen named Wimsatt and Beardsley published a short text on literary criticism. Its title, designed to draw readers as well as perhaps spark the sort of mild controversy that only literary critics can muster, was the Intentional Fallacy. These words were chosen with care, so as to pinpoint exactly where the contentious issue is to be found. There is a fallacy, increasingly common, and it has to do with intention. Specifically, critics spent too much time focusing on whether an author intended this or that, making cases either way using the critical tools at hand. This in itself is not the problem – such cases can be made, and they can be made well, in ways that illumine the analyzed works in interesting and useful manners. The fallacy consists not in caring what an author may or may not have intended, but of making authorial intent the main locus of one’s critical endeavor, the metric with which success is measured. The purpose of criticism is not to provide an exegesis of what an author intended, after all, and accuracy in this regard should not be the thing that distinguishes adequate critics from excellent ones.

If this seems a rather subtle point, then it is because this is a very subtle point indeed. At the core of it lies the distinction between two related but very different questions: “what did the author mean?” and “what does the text say?”. This might seem a very semantic point, but the methods one would go about finding answers to these questions differ greatly.

The first question suggests a method of biographical and historical analysis, which compares the particulars of a text to various ideas and sentiments floating about in the general environs of the person holding the pen. Such an analysis can, as mentioned above, be performed to great effect, but it requires a very careful hand and an even more careful eye for detail; reconstructing past mindsets is a skill rare indeed. Most of it comes down to sentiment, a thing that can not be proven definitively one way or another, but which through the effort of skilled criticism can be conveyed. The authors themselves can, of course, simply opt to tell us what the whole idea was, were we but to ask them.

The second question is more immediate, and easier to get to work on in a methodological fashion. In essence, it consists of empirically analyzing the words of a text to see what they do, and how they go about doing it. This, too, requires a keen awareness and attention to detail, especially when it comes to those aspiring to critique a poem, where placing a word this way rather than that can imply a world of difference (and different worlds). The poem performs this intricate dance of implication as it is written, and a careful critic can tease out what’s what by means of looking very closely.

The fallacy, according to Wimsatt and Beardsley, lies in conflating the two questions and ending up dismissing the efforts to answer the one by reference to how they would have answered the other. Which seems abstruse in the abstract, but by virtue of the 70 years of popular culture taking place after the date of publication, we have the advantage of a very concrete example to straighten the whole deal out. The time of Rowling has come.

Rowling, famously, proclaimed that Dumbledore (benevolent headmaster and dubious pedagogue) was in fact gay the whole time. This is a clear statement of intent, solidly and unequivocally answering the question of what she meant Dumbledore to be. A careful reading of the books, however, finds scant evidence of the proclaimed gaiety, to such an extent that there is no textual evidence whatsoever to be found. Which actualizes the second question in a very dramatic fashion, and forces us to confront the fact that author and text say different things.

One option would of course be to simply accept the proclamation and read Dumbledore as gay from now on. A straightforward solution, but one that lacks the quality of being critical, or (given the lack of in-text occurrences where it would have made a dramatic difference) of even being meaningful. Accepting the oracular proclamation answers the question, but it does not further our understanding of anything. Critically, it is a dead end.

A more interesting option would be to interrogate the significance of a character being written in such a way that their sexuality does not seem to matter in the slightest, to such a degree that it can flip-flop back and forth without anything changing. This, I reckon, is a more interesting question to ponder, and one which furthers our understanding of (among other things) representation in popular media. By sticking to the text as written, we can get to work on the important stuff.

There is more to the intentional fallacy, however. The fate of criticism itself hangs in the balance. If a critic, after painstakingly walking us through a body of work, concludes that it says something very specific, something which fundamentally contradict the professed values of the author, then this conclusion should stand on the basis of the critical demonstration that lead to said conclusion. It is a question of the second type, answered by a methodology suited for that kind of question. Given this, the author should not then be able to make the whole thing go away by simply saying “no it doesn’t”.

Such a state of things would render the whole critical endeavor meaningless. Which, as fallacies goes, is a big one.

Wimsatt & Beardsley: The intentional fallacy

McLuhan: Understanding media

Not very many know this, but McLuhan is an inherently funny author. Especially if you take him at his words and think in terms of media as the extension of man. Not only does this center the human being as the locus of analysis (if something extends something else, then the characteristics of this something else become of vital importance to understanding what is afoot) it also makes media a very bodily experience. Television is an extension of your eye, and allows you to see really far. A car is an extension of your legs, and allows you to run very fast. A book is an extension of your memory, and allows you to precisely recall things on demand. A house is an extension of your skin, and allows you to stay warm and cozy. Everything becomes very useful all of a sudden, and thinking about media this way centers just in what way it is useful. Depending on which bodily part it extends, its usefulness by necessity takes on different forms.

When McLuhan said that the medium is the message, what he meant was that because it extends your body, you necessarily form yourself around whatever the medium might be. Watching television means facing the set, often sitting down for extended periods of time. Driving a car means being in the car for the duration of the ride. Reading a book means entering into the complex negotiation between eyes, hands and various other body parts who struggle to make themselves relevant as the pages turn. And a house only works as a second skin for as long as you are in it; going outside means you’ve stopped engaging with it as a medium. Whatever is going on content-wise, your body contorts to suit the demands of the medium. This is, in the most direct of senses, the message.

Once you get into the habit of thinking of objects as media, and media as bodily extensions, it’s hard to get out of it. Sofas are extensions of our backsides, keyboards are extensions of fingers, flutes are extensions of our lips, – everything is an extension of something, and knowing the specific something of an object allows us to think about it in a clearer manner. if nothing else, it allows us to understand what we are doing all day. And, possibly, why we ache in places we’d seldom think of otherwise.

This only goes so far, however. Being centered around the human body is refreshing and all, but eventually you will run up against something that is not an extension of an individual human being, and the whole thing breaks down. Parliamentary democracy, for instance, does not extend any particular body part, in as much as it is a form of collective decision making. It is by definition a group of human bodies coming together, which is something else than extending any one of the individuals present. The whole is greater the sum of its parts. We can only run with it so far; eventually, other metaphors and ways of thinking will be necessary to complete the picture.

Having encountered a limit to the usefulness of a line of thought does not obviate said usefulness. As with everything else in life, it just means we have to use it in moderation, applying it when it might garner useful insights and picking up some other concept when it does not. A screwdriver does not a complete toolset make, but a toolset would do well to include at least one screwdriver.

This central limitation can spark our imagination in interesting directions, though. If there are things that are not extensions of the human body, then just what are they extensions of? What non-human entity is the intended user of these strange devices and artifices which have sprung into being? Are they friend, foe or utterly indifferent? How are we to think of these non-humans amongst us?

When gazing upon a great piece of machinery, far beyond any single human being in size and mechanical complexity, this is a humbling thought to have. And it is a thought that forces us to question just who it is for. If it works beyond human scale, without human intervention, along trajectories utterly orthogonal to the human form – have we not built ourselves out of relevance?

The medium is, indeed, the message.

McLuhan: Understanding media

Lachman: Turn off your mind

We are living in strange times, where everything seems to be getting stranger every day. All that is solid melts into air, and everything we take for granted turns out to have been a temporary coincidence imprinted upon us by the accident of being impressionable at a certain place at a certain time. Kids these days don’t know the first thing about the most obvious of topics, while the old ones (the supposed fount of established wisdom) are profoundly ignorant about what’s what these days. Strangeness is afoot, and thus there is a need for some stable, familiar, non-controversial comfort food for the soul.

What, then, could be more comfortable than a potted history of the Age of Aquarius, the psychedelic 60s, the explosion of occult mysticism into the mainstream culture? Surely, by now, this is the most familiar footing to be found, if such a thing is to be found anywhere.

And, indeed, it is strangely comforting to read Lachman’s who’s who of the occult 60s. There was magic in the air, most of which eventually boiled down to the trifecta of sex, drugs and a perpetual need to keep enough of a media buzz rolling to ensure sufficient funds were available to keep the magic lantern alight. It should come as no surprise that rock and roll was one of the primary means of ensuring positive vibes and cash flows, but it was far from the only means of keeping it up. Just as the Beatles incorporated superficial elements of Jung and eastern mysticism into their musical works, psychedelic evangelists on the lecture circuit pushed the virtues of turning on, tuning in and dropping out, with the briefest of hand gestures towards ancient spiritual practices. The goal being not so much to shepherd the lost souls of the post-war generation towards enlightenment as it was to secure another gig or another book contract. Or, as the case might be, scoring another hit. All of this was profoundly new and profoundly strange at the time; the alchemy of time passing has turned it into a well-worn familiar cultural touchstone. The UFO arrived, and we were on it.

The comfort of familiarity is at odds with the stated premise of the book, to expose the dark side of the flowery 60s. Beneath the peace, love and understanding lurks a vast subterranean architecture of (distinctly non-spiritual) drug abuse, non-consensual sex and brainwashy cults with varying degrees of manslaughter attributed to their names (or to the names of their invented deities, who sometimes coincided with the personage of the cult founder). Far from being harmless wishy-washy mumbo-jumbo, the new age inherited a legacy of depravity to rival anything the old age could throw at us. Indeed, the frequent and explicit reverent depictions of past nazi occult practices (actual or imagined) hints that the new age might very well be a not too subtle continuation of the old age, albeit in slightly more flowery prose. And yet, the familiarity is all-encompassing. The mood is one of high weirdness, but it is weirdness that has been around for so long that imagining a world without it would be a more herculean effort of reconstructive archaeology than simply accepting the presence of a third eye or astral body. The Age of Aquarius did not come to pass, but its failure to materialize brought it about as firmly as any immanentization of the eschaton ever would.

What did come to pass between the publication of the book in 2001 and now was twenty years of accelerated weirdness. Some of this acceleration can be attributed to the passage of time and the opportunity to get used to the ideas, – time being the great alchemical cauldron – but the internet is to be blamed and/or praised in equal measure. Getting the word out in the 60s was an ordeal, meaning that the words that did get out had overcome the challenge of effort; while not impossible to do, this ensured there would be less verbiage overall. There was a Crowley, a Lovecraft, one set of Beatles, and any set of derivatives or combinations would have to effort to get heard beyond their immediate physical surroundings. High weirdness it might be, but it was also high weirdness with a manageably low rate of iteration; given enough library time, a person could eventually catch up. To be contrasted to the faster pace of today, where being offline for a week means certain portions of occult developments are simply unavailable to you, the iterations having morphed so fast that retracing the steps becomes both impossible and meaningless. By the time the latest doge purveyor has turned out to be a milkshake duck, four new distracted boyfriends have taken their place. There is simply too much strangeness afoot to catch, let alone keep, up.

Part of the familiarity emanating from the book, I suspect, comes from the eternal recurrence of the same motivations then as now. A 60s mass producer of somewhat coherent neo-spiritualist gobbledygook (goo goo g’joob) aiming to pay the bills is eerily similar to the present day mass producer of “content” (goo goo g’joob) aiming to pay the bills. The words, frames of reference and amounts of drugs consumed might be different (might), but the overall aim remains the same. Gotta pay the bills, man, and the capitalist system allows you to do so whilst raging against the very selfsame man.

What, then, might the familiar dark side of the present be? Readers of Turn off your mind will not be enlightened in this regard, but they will end up thoroughly introduced to the weirder aspects of contemporary counterculture. Which, all things considered, is not a bad thing to be; time being cyclical, these things are bound to return again and again in different forms, gently nodding in recognition to those in the know.

Lachman: Turn off your mind

de Beauvoir: the Second Sex

With some books, reading the table of contents is sufficient. Merely by knowing the topics that are covered within the bounds of a book, an educated person can glean the kinds of arguments made, the overall gestalt of the discourse. Some books are quite explicit about this, while others require a more subtle reading between the lines. Sometimes, it is a mixture between the two, where a retroactive glance (perchance to find a specific section) reveals that it was all there all along, plain for everyone with eyes to see. Some books are meant to open those eyes, and the Second Sex is definitely one such book.

To be sure, “The point of view of historical materialism” might not strike the casual reader as a key heading at first glance, but retroactively it stands out as a significant keystone. So too does the headings listed under the keyword “situation”: The married woman; The mother; Social life; Prostitutes and hetaeras; From maturity to old age; Woman’s situation and character. The instant, intuitive takeaway from this string of words is that this is a book about women. The retroactive, even more intuitive takeaway is that this is a no-nonsense, materialist book about women. And about how everything else is not about women.

Reading de Beauvoir – the aforementioned chapter in particular – is a tour the force introduction into gender dynamics. A marriage is not just something that happens once a young man finds a suitable woman to settle down with; it is quite literally the determining factor with regards to how one’s life trajectory will shape itself over the coming (possible remaining) decades. Becoming pregnant is not just a cute period of time preceding parenthood filled with anecdotes about ice cream; it is quite literally a matter of life and death, where complications could prove fatal to mother and child both. The following period of being a mother – at home, unpaid, isolated – is not an unproblematic given either. At every stage of life, de Beauvoir takes womanhood to task and shows it to be a constant struggle under unfair conditions against the full brunt of social expectations. All this in a no-nonsense, straightforward way which would require more effort to misunderstand than to comprehend.

The key to understanding the significance of the Second Sex is to know that this – any of it – was simply not done before she did it. Like any other thing that is simply not done, it had been done with regularity and alacrity since time immemorial. It had also been swept under the rug, like so many other embarrassing official secrets one simply does not speak about. Everyone knows it, everyone does it, but no one speaks about it. Until now, in unequivocal terms. Now there is a book which documents it all, for everyone to see. The cat is firmly out of the bag.

The key to understanding the backlash to the book – and indeed to feminism in general – is to see it as an attempt to get the cat into the bag again. To return to a state of blissful willful ignorance, where women’s issues were pushed aside and delegated to those it belonged: women. Women’s issues were private, personal issues, and therefore it was categorically wrong to seek public recourse to solve these problems, no matter how systematically recurring they were. Things were fine the way they were, when women grinned and bore it in silence. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Definitely don’t voice your long-held discomfort using the new vocabulary gained from having them formulated in a book.

Things have gotten better since the book’s publication in 1949. Some progress has been managed in the seventy years since then. But it would be a mistake to think this dynamic a solved issue. Even now, gender studies is seen as an optional extra, something one does above and beyond the actual work, the things that matter. Bringing up the very real material consequences of actually existing policies that primarily affect women is still seen as a minor speed bump, an inconvenience. An embarrassment, albeit a publicly known one. Everyone knows it, everyone does it. But to speak of it?

That is simply not done. Not even in 2019.

de Beauvoir: the Second Sex

Lefebvre: Notes on the new town

The city I live in is in an expansionary phase. At every turn, new construction is afoot, and it has happened more than once that I have turned a corner previously at the edge of town only to discover that there now is a brand new set of buildings there, unapologetic in their materiality. To be sure, these buildings were not unannounced, and with a bit of research it would have been very possible to not have been surprised by their appearance. But a person can only spend so much time keeping up with municipal developments; at some point, developments will overtake phenomenology. The city is, by definition, bigger than any one individual within it.

These new parts of town are at once free of history and overdetermined by it. On the one hand, the physical location they occupy used to be nondescript fields and marshes up until the point building began; the city happened until it didn’t, here being the point it stopped happening. On the other hand, these same locations are continuations of the city, and therefore inherit a plethora of administrative, aesthetic and phenomenological dimensions from the built environment it extends. There are no local traditions yet, in the overspecific sense of the word ‘local’ connoting this very spot; nevertheless, slightly less ‘local’ local traditions will inevitably impose themselves and terraform the cityscape into more of itself with time. For new students moving in to attend university, this part of town promises to be just like any other, in the absence of personal memories to anchor local identity.

Lefebvre, in writing Notes on the new town, ponders these same tendencies, albeit writ large. My city is a 21st century boom town, firmly entrenched in the later stages of modernity. Lefebvre’s new town is a 20th century new construction, designed townscapes specifically meant to break with the old order and upgrade the living conditions of ordinary people to modern standards (i.e. electricity and running water). Out with the organically grown, gnarled, unplanned chaotic messes that were old towns, in with the rationally planned, carefully ordered and functionally specialized architectural beacons of modernity. If changing the physical conditions wherein humans dwell, then these new construction projects were the epitome of social engineering; from these ordered homesteads, modern humans would emerge fully formed.

There is a grammar to these new towns. They can, in a sense, be read by those who know the linguistic and architectural twists and turns embodied by the buildings themselves. Nothing is hidden, there are no secrets here; everything is planned and designed to be understood at a glance. To quote:

Every object has its use, and declares it. Every object has a distinct and specific function. In the best diagnosis, when the new town has been successfully completed, everything in it will be functional, and every object in it will have a specific function: its own. Every object indicates what this function is, signifying it, proclaiming it to the neighbourhood. It repeats itself endlessly.

Thus, there are housing units, where you house, shopping units, where you shop, and playground units, where children play on or with the ground. There can be no confusion as to which is which, seeing as any given part can only ever do the thing it was designed to do. Indeed, it would be a grave breach of social order should someone attempt to use the built environment at cross purposes; nothing attracts the authorities faster than a homeless person taking a nap in the playground. Whether children actually play there on a regular basis is beside the point – every object has one and only one function, to the exclusion of all others.

Implicit in this totality of vision and comprehensive planning is a sense that the built environment is not actually built for human beings. Rather, it is an extension of the logic operating in modernity as a whole – functional separation leads to more efficient usage, increasing productivity overall. The immediate objection that it is difficult to quantify the effectiveness of a dwelling or a playground is pushed aside; in Lefebvre’s new town, an argument can be made that running water, television sets and washing machines constitute the sought after increase all by themselves. It might even be true, in the short term. But as anyone know who has ever been bored in the suburbs (this most functionally separated of architectural units) with nothing to do and nowhere to go, efficiency on its own does not provide for a good home. The city is, by definition, an amalgamation of different things, who all have to be accessible to make it livable. Reduced to a single function, apathy and boredom sets in. Thus, it becomes imperative to connect the functionally separated dots. To quote:

Consequently, the intermediaries between these disjointed elements (when there are any, which is always a good thing: means of communication, streets and roads, signals and codes, commercial agents, etc.) take on an exaggerated importance. The links become more important than the ‘beings’ who are being linked. But in no way does this importance endow these intermediaries with active life. Streets and highways are becoming more necessary, but their incessant, unchanging, ever repeated traffic is turning them into wastelands.

The streets turning to wastelands is an image I think most dwellers in these new towns can relate to. Nothing happens in the streets except traffic, either by car or by foot. This space, too, has its own separate and unique function: to move from A to B. Attempts to utilize these spaces for something else are frowned upon and, if deemed necessary, stopped – be it in the form of children playing football or citizens assembling in collective action. Intermediary functions, i.e. neighbors sharing the same physical space and socializing as they happen upon one another in their daily walkings around – have been delegated to their own functionally specialized architectural units, and thus have no business taking place in the streets. The new towns frown upon spontaneous gatherings, unexpected encounters and people just hanging around doing nothing in particular (but socializing ever more naturally because of this lack of purpose). The logic of the new town is the logic of modernity: either you are busily and efficiently occupied with your assigned task, or you are redundant. It is a working metaphor built into the physical environment, as inescapable as it is worthy of being criticized.

Lefebvre: Notes on the new town

Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium

Finitude is the natural state of things. All things, things in general. All things end, and leave only the faintest of memories behind, detritus of history. Good old Ozymandias, whose grand statues were famously reduced to a mere fragment and an imperative to despair, serves as a reminder of this: even the largest, most elaborate constructions fade into nothing, given time. Nature reclaims every thing.

This is the proper mindset to be in when reading Sailing to Byzantium. On an intertextual level, it responds to Shelley’s famous poem, not least in the quite unsubtle byz/oz pairing. For poets, this is what passes for being on the nose. On a thematic level, the two poems both poke and prod at the passage of time and the inherent futility of all attempts to resist or reject it. Time will come, and it will claim its due; it is the nature of things.

Given this starting point, a reader might be surprised to find out that Yeats goes full cyborg. Ozymandias is comfortably familiar in its fuzzy particulars – nothing remains except this one fragment, and we are left to infer all manner of ancient civilizations once inhabiting the sand-swept nothing that remains. Fantasy provides us with all the necessary details, free of charge. It is familiar, safe, cozy. And then, wham! Yeats hits us with the following motherlode of exposition:

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing

Careful readers will notice the two mentions of nature: first as a negative, being out of it, and second as a refusal to adopt its forms. It is not specified just what exactly it means to be “out of nature”, but somehow during the course of the poem, this natural state of things has been escaped. No longer bound by finitude, post-natural beings can take any shape they so please, and it would appear that some hitherto unimagined unnatural form is desired. We have left nature and embraced cyborghood, without regrets or remorse.

Indeed, regret and remorse are precisely the things left behind. These are narrowly focused states of mind, which contemplate what has been done and how it has affected things relating to the limited time between life and death of natural entities. “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies”, and from the perspective of those unburdened by death, it all amounts to naught. Finitude is the natural state of things, and thinking about it only makes it worse; we did not effort hard enough to overcome the passage of time. Everything will be forgotten, no one will remain to remember.

Thus, the imperative to get out of nature. This whole death and oblivion business is not the cheeriest of outcomes, prompting the desire to evade it. What if we just skipped that part and kept going, went on, stuck around for the aftermath and transcended into a point of view that didn’t have to feel all those pesky death-related feelings? Just say no to nature and do something else, forever. Stop being “fastened to a dying animal” and instead transmogrify “into the artifice of eternity”. Level up both physically and metaphysically.

An unintended side-effect of stepping out of nature is also stepping out of time. Mortals organize everything around time, even when they do not think about it – the mortal body itself is scarred by each passing moment, every breath a tiny movement towards death. Oxygen, the very thing that powers our bodies, also ever so gradually degrades it. Oxygen-based metabolism is life, but it is also death; such is the nature of these things. Stepping out of nature would, presumably, involve a transition into something more comfortable and permanent – once out of nature, metabolism becomes sustainable. Whatever unnatural form it might take, it will be able to keep at it indefinitely, orthogonal to the passage of time.

This raises the question of what to do with all the extra time allotted. Merely existing in general seems a waste of potential, but just what exactly one does upon attaining immortality is not an easy question to answer. Indeed, there is not even any particular rush to answer it – doing anything now is as good as doing it later, seeing as there is no existential time limit to contend with. Everything, in the most general of terms, will still be there whenever the decision to spring into action is made. Having stepped out of time means not being in a hurry. Ozymandias may come and go many times before the first move is made. But just what might this move be?

Yeats, seeing this coming, invokes Byzantium for this very reason. Byzantium is old news, history, long since faded from contemporaneity. When the future becomes an indifferent extension of the present, the only remaining temporal direction worth mentioning is the past. History becomes the building material of the present, but not in the same way as for mortal beings. Mortals have to deal with being situated in time by virtue of being mortal; it goes with the territory. Immortals, however, can pick and choose their time period at will, regardless of grammatical tense. Thus, Byzantium will do just as well as any other point in time – the future is indifferent, the present arbitrary, and the past a catalogue of equally compelling available options. Thus, aloof, disinterested, Yeats’ cyborgs contend themselves to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018)

One of the most difficult tasks of doing criticism is choosing what to write about. Or, rather, which aspects of a work to zoom in on once the writing gets going. The choice is seldom obvious or straightforward; more often than not, there are several interesting things going on in parallel, and the logistics of writing gets in the way of covering them all. Out of the many possible critical points of entry, some must be chosen and others left unexplored. Art is long, life is short – between the two, criticism.

The choice is further constrained by considerations of what would be interesting or relevant to read. Unless the act of criticism is an exercise in writing for its own sake, there is usually some sort of point to be made. While there are many ways to arrive at any one point, some are bound to be more effective and resonant with the current moment than others. The critic thus have to sort through the many possible options and make an estimate of the various pros and cons, such as the ease of conveying the significance of one aspect versus the critical potential of a less obvious aspect. The former would tend to be easier to write, but its obviousness might lead a reader to wonder why it needs to be said at all; the latter would make for a more difficult writing process, but if successful it might end up being a more engaged and insightful critique. Whether to go for the one or the other, as always, depends.

Take, for instance, the new televised incarnation of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. There is something to be said about the initial expectation of this new incarnation being anything like its 90s predecessor, and having it dashed by the realization that this new version is about as far from that as it is possible to get without switching media format entirely. This state of things might be indicative of some sort of shift that has taken place between then and now, a shift which can be fruitfully explored through comparative efforts. A critic might also use difference between versions as a basis for expressing their opinion – be it that the 90s version was better, or that the new direction is a bold but successful move. It is an obvious point of entry, affording many quick write-ups which may or may not remain interesting as time goes on.

There are also individual scenes which could serve as focal points. One scene in particular involves three witches ganging up on titular teenage witch and threatening to hang her from a tree, just as women of yore were hung during the time of witch hunts. As the threat looms closer to being realized, the noose quite literally tightening around the protagonist’s throat, she turns the tables by enlisting the aid of a number of local ghosts to counterhang her tormentors in invisible (but seemingly quite effective) ethereal rope. After letting them dangle for a while, the ghosts release the witches from their ghastly hold, alive. The scene ends with Sabrina making it clear that nothing like this will ever happen again, by virtue of the ghosts doing everything in their considerable power to ensure this outcome. It is a powerful scene, which establishes that the new Sabrina is someone who does not fuck around, and who is not afraid to fight fire with fire.

A critic might do any of several things with this scene. The obvious being to use it as contrast between the different incarnations of the series – the 90s version most decidedly did not include these kinds of violent happenings, and definitely not with such frequency. It can also be used as an example of character development, as in the previous paragraph. A third use is to zoom in on the fact that one of the tormenting witches happens to be a person of color, and that Sabrina turning the tables by use of a ghost mob technically qualifies the scene as a depiction of an old style lynching, with all the racist connotations that go along with it.

This third reading has the potential to be interesting. In light of the 90s version being an extremely white series, implicit racism is very much a relevant aspect to bring to the fore, if and where it occurs. As an attention-grabbing moment, however, this reading combines all the elements for a hot take – it is relevant, juicy and has the potential to generate a whole lot of social media heat. With a little effort, it can be ever so gently packaged in a way that suggests the lynching was the explicit point of the scene, rather than an unfortunate side-effect of the setting. Ramp up the phrasing, crank up the confidence and press send, then enjoy the immediate attention that comes from exposing the new hot series as racist.

Unfortunately, such a course of action would not be the most interesting thing a critic could do with this source material. To be sure, the immediate attention might generate a retweet or two, but when the dust settles, it does not add to anyone’s overall understanding of anything, least of all the issues this series has with regards to representation. As a critical intervention, it is severely lacking in every respect.

Thus, we are back where we began, with the question of choosing what to focus on. It is always tempting to go for the low-hanging fruit or the hot topic of the day. When the two combine, it might even seem like an inevitability. Over time, however, making a habit of picking such convenient aspects to write about tends to lead to piles of uninteresting writing, even as it allows for great productivity. Hot takes can only remain hot for so long, after all.

As to the series itself, it remains to be seen if this bold new move into the spoopy horror genre will stand a second glance, or if it will become as formulaic as its 90s counterpart tended to be. Bobunk notwithstanding.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018)