The conflict between good and evil is good business: superhero narratives, the Harry Potter and Star Wars leviathans, role-playing games, the majority of horror films, that is, the most valuable intellectual property right now promulgates moral paradigms that are dualistic and assumed as objective. Our fantasies take place on a military plane; as protagonists, we imagine ourselves incarnating good and creating utopias built upon the carcasses of the evil we have annihilated. It's tempting to believe that good pitted against evil has no genuine alternative but moral relativism, thought of as a doctrine that ranges from dunderheaded, sugary pap for the privileged to the sort of emptied out logic that skids right into justification for genocide. Of course, if we're honest with ourselves, most of the moralities by which we attempt to abide are relative, simply because otherwise we are positing ourselves in a vacuum, a hardly imaginable human state.
Magic, whether it's called the Force or a superpower, is the instrument of our fantasies, a weapon. Sometimes magic becomes a synonym for love or a sign of God's favor, but only if wielded by the hero. Is a vicarious belief in magic some kind of vestigial clinging, a childish regression in response to the traumas of modernity? Such is the framing we usually give to tarot card and psychic readings, even as we gorge on these stories of good and evil, and, more significantly, draw lessons from them. Why are these stories so valuable to us? Defenders (though heaven only knows why they need defending, given that their detractors are decidedly in the minority) argue that these stories teach us how to behave and how to define ourselves. They're supposed to galvanize us into taking action. In other words, they are didactic and inspirational.
For, despite a current allergy to the word 'didactic' (if I could only claim a dollar for each book or film review I've read of late that praises its object as not didactic, only to delineate its message, or what it teaches us), fantasy narratives, whether optimistic or pessimistic, are responded to as parables, stories that teach us how to be. This is why audiences get upset, for instance, if a protagonist says something flippant about a marginalized group. It's a problem not because the thing was said, but because we assume we're being taught to say it.
What would happen if we stopped searching for lessons or messages, stopped trying to decode a morality or ideology from our fantasy? I'm not arguing against analysis, but against analysis that presupposes that stories function first and foremost as instructional fables. The difference between art and propaganda can be difficult to parse and the line between them can be crossed and crossed again (for instance, in the case of Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi films or Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin), but propaganda is generally supposed to yield only one interpretation. If art does that, it's bad art. The strongest case to be made that pop culture has an artistic dimension, and isn't merely consumerist entertainment, lies in a refusal of didacticism. Thus, instead of evaluating the message of a film - usually a bromidic generality, such as 'be true to yourself' (every Pixar film's motto) - as either correct or incorrect, morally speaking, the critic would try to understand what good actually means in the context of the book or film, what evil means, what it means for a protagonist to be assumed as the character that aligns with good, why we assume that the reader or viewer only relates to the good characters, what it means that violence is so often evoked as a means to peace. A deeper analysis could yield lessons, but lessons aren't much use if the complexity of reality demolishes their meaning as soon as one attempts to enact them in our daily lives.
For instance, Pixar films, when interpreted didactically, usually yield up the lesson I cited above: 'be yourself and you'll be happy and fulfilled.' This is a lesson we like as a culture; it doesn't threaten capitalism - Buy this product and you'll be happy! Not happy yet? Buy it again! - and it falls into line with identity politics. But what the heck does it mean to 'be yourself,' even assuming there's such as a stable, discrete self? What if 'yourself' is a bully? What if 'yourself' is selfish, or prone to violent tantrums? And further than that, what does a happy ending look like for living, breathing people? The credits don't roll as soon as we've hit peak happiness. Politically engaged criticism, especially of pop culture, has fallen into a shallow evaluation process that evades questions of real import and displaces responsibility for moral progress onto works of art, letting people on the ground off the hook. Evaluative critical practice lets us believe that seeing a film about a woman superhero in the theatre somehow strikes a blow for feminism. It doesn't. An empowered female character in a film, or novel, or game, might make us feel better for a while, but her existence doesn't alter the gendered power dynamics that are active in our own lives. The real magic is the magic we perform on our own minds, a magic that deceives us into believing that finding the right lessons in our entertainment is the same thing as enacting those lessons in the world we live in. The Italian anthropologist Ernesto de Martino, in his extensive work on magic and ritual in the Italian South defined the practice of magic as a means of coping with a negative that cannot be overcome by the individual. If the deception we're practicing on ourselves is our liberal, 21st century, American magic, the unfortunate corollary is that we're doing it because the negative in our lives cannot be overcome by each one of us as individuals.
If the work of criticism is to have positive political repercussions, it has to start examining how art confronts the negative, not merely re-enacting the battle of good versus evil by dropping each book, movie, game, song, and so on, into a box marked either good or evil. If art merely teaches, and doesn't complicate, indoctrinates, and doesn't question, intones, but never sings, then it's no art at all. As critics, we can choose not to read didactically. We can choose to think rather than consume and reason rather than agree (or disagree).
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