While we of the critical classes (critical masses?) have long played the parlour game of constantly assessing the worth of cultural thingies, the rise of the blog-arena has not just “democratized” the means of declaring something genius or crap, it has established an overwhelmingly dominant method for making such judgments. More and more, we base our reception of a book or movie or art show (or, seamlessly, a restaurant or vacuum cleaner or phone) against the perceived body of other receptions. Does it meet the hype? Was it as good as Rotten Tomatoes said it was supposed to be? Did you like it as much as that woman at the Times? Was it overrated or underrated?
We don’t judge anymore. We compare judgments.
Increasingly, nuanced justifications of our evaluations are rare as sushi in Swift Current. Instead, we make our assessments according to a two-step formula: 1) What does the Machine think of it?, and 2) Do we like it more or less than the Machine? In the name of attempting to position ourselves outside the dominant opinion-making machinery (you know, the people who aren’t you and your two or three super-smart closest friends, the zombie-like hordes of numbskulls who do what the marketing departments tell them to do), we can reassure ourselves that we’re better than that, we haven’t been tricked, we’re of our own minds. I thought The Avengers was way over-rated. See? Nobody can tell me what to think!
The problem with making Over/Under the only game in Culture Town is that it relies on a fallacy of the “mainstream” (and how we can choose to be “outside” it). How a given work is assessed by the rest of the world is a moving target, and depends on where you look and for how long. But what’s even more limiting is that saying a thing is over- or underrated just doesn’t say very much. Reacting to reactions divorces us from our experience of the work itself, leaving us as falsely rebellious voters casting our ballot in order to alter a snapshot poll result instead of expressing a belief of our own.