On the Pleb Filter
Perhaps if we lived on a crest, things would be different. We could at least see.
A pleb filter is a piece of art which, by virtue of its impenetrability, "filters out" people with bad taste. What makes the pleb filter such an entertaining addition to online Discourse is that it's a ready-made kafkatrap, a perfect concept for trolls and shitposters to weaponize: once an artwork has been declared a "pleb filter"—no matter how absurd the claim—any disagreement instantly labels you an unsophisticated rube, a pleb who has been filtered.
Thus one may find oneself in futile internet conversations trying desperately to explain that, no, Ishtar really is quite bad, that Ringo is not the best Beatle, and that Joel Schumacher's nipple-Batman is not actually a sublime work of misunderstood cinematic genius. The troll choices are virtually infinite, but work best when applied to creations that are universally agreed to be terrible: the prequels, St. Anger, or the oeuvre of 6ix9ine.
There are fake filters, like Tarr's Werckmeister Hamornies—art which tries to be challenging and hints at great depths while actually being quite shallow. A picture of a pool drawn on a piece of paper, and often frustrating because they are a pleb's idea of a pleb filter. Still, some (like The Magus or The Recognitions) have their charms.
Finally we have the actual pleb filters, works which are both brilliant and inaccessible. Trout Mask Replica, Michael Mann's Miami Vice, Faust Part Two, Enter the Void, the Paradiso, Season 2 of True Detective, Fanged Noumena, the Iliad's catalogue of ships.
The IQ of Shitposters
To proclaim the genius of Hamlet is commonplace; to successfully defend The Two Gentlemen of Verona as Shakespeare's greatest play takes some serious intellectual firepower. Defending the indefensible is a great signal of brainpower: a recent study finds that "bullshit ability is associated with an individual’s intelligence and individuals capable of producing more satisfying bullshit are judged by second-hand observers to be more intelligent". The pleb filter is not just a fun tool for trolling, it also offers a great opportunity to show off one's smarts.
It is genuinely challenging to truly appreciate the talent and artistry that goes into bullshit—Armond White (perhaps the greatest bullshitter of our time) is himself a pleb filter, perhaps the ultimate one. Some are liable to react with horror, but I think it's a game worth indulging in.
At the same time, there's a countersignaling game being played. On the barber pole of intellectual status, the highbrow will adopt lowbrow tastes in order to signal that they're not midwits. Thus we get fancy restaurants serving mac and cheese, and big-brained shitposters defending Showgirls. It is no coincidence that the very idea of the pleb filter was invented on a website whose users are famous for being very smart and pretending to be very stupid.
Sometimes isolated communities spiral local status markers into overdrive, creating unintentional bad pleb filters, with wild signaling and counter-signaling battles cascading downwards, leaving outside onlookers utterly bewildered. The famously unintelligible world of high fashion offers a memorable, and sometimes beautiful, instance of this phenomenon.
Criticism and the Anxiety of the Filter
The pleb filter is also a formidable force in the realm of art criticism: the critic must always maintain a position of superiority over his audience, for it is this stance which gives him the authority to dictate what is good or bad. He must therefore never be filtered, and even more importantly never appear to be filtered. Thus he will praise formulaic "high culture" garbage, lest he be mistaken for someone who doesn't get it.
When a critic encounters a work that eludes his understanding, something that may surpass his grasp, the anxiety of being filtered becomes palpable—and he often reacts to such works in an extreme way by denigrating them. This is why so many of the great classics were initially met with unfavorable reviews: The Thing, Moby-Dick, Lolita, half of Kubrick's movies. Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles's best film, was savaged when it came out and barely got distribution due to the terrible advance reviews. The anxiety of the filter is to the critic what the anxiety of influence is to the artist.
The Case of Michael Thomas Green
The most interesting pleb filters are those that lie exactly on the line between being a troll pleb filter and a real pleb filter: Speed Racer, Love Exposure, the Book of Numbers, the Metal Gear Solid series, perhaps Dhalgren—works where powerful arguments can be made in both directions, works stuck in the limbo between stupidity and genius. Who can forget the iconic image of Sean Connery in the red trunks from Zardoz? There's a particular form of failure that is borne of great ambition. Take Southland Tales, for example, an utterly bizarre work of deranged grandeur. It is bad beyond belief. And yet there's something there, something alluring, something that pulls you in and props you up and keeps you watching.
In 2001, Tom Green wrote, directed, and starred in Freddy Got Fingered, a stupid yet brilliantly fearless comedy about a failed cartoonist and his relationship with his family. The critics hated it, filling their reviews with adjectives like "embarrassing", "witless", "vile", and "sad", but the film maintains a dedicated following to this day. Some have described it as a surrealist masterpiece, others as a $14 million dollar prank on a movie studio, others as a film before its time. Nathan Rabin writes that "studios exist precisely to keep films this audacious, original, and transgressive from ever hitting theaters", while Lindsay Ellis calls Green "the Orson Welles of our time" and describes Freddy as a film of pure insight into the soul of its creator and a "dadaist masterpiece".
Freddy offers a perfect example of the anxiety of the filter: Ebert gave it zero stars, but in his infamous review he compares Tom Green to Buñuel, and declares that "the day may come when "Freddy Got Fingered" is seen as a milestone of neo-surrealism." 16 months after his initial review, Ebert was still thinking about the inscrutable genius of Freddy, writing in his review of Stealing Harvard:
Seeing Tom Green reminded me, as how could it not, of his movie Freddy Got Fingered, which was so poorly received by the film critics that it received only one lonely, apologetic positive review on the Tomatometer. I gave it—let's see—zero stars. Bad movie, especially the scene where Green was whirling the newborn infant around his head by its umbilical cord. But the thing is, I remember Freddy Got Fingered more than a year later. I refer to it sometimes. It is a milestone. And for all its sins, it was at least an ambitious movie, a go-for-broke attempt to accomplish something. It failed, but it has not left me convinced that Tom Green doesn't have good work in him. Anyone with his nerve and total lack of taste is sooner or later going to make a movie worth seeing.
Ἐγὼ δ ̓οἶδα μὲν ὡς αἱ ὑπερμεγέθεις φύσεις ἥκιστα καθαραί
Longinus, in his essay On the Sublime, observes that mediocre artists don't make mistakes: their works are faultless because they stay within convention and take no risks. Perfection is an merely artifact of insufficient ambition. Errour is the purview of the Great!
Is it not by risking nothing, by never aiming high, that a writer of low or middling powers keeps generally clear of faults and secure of blame? Whereas the loftier walks of literature are by their very loftiness perilous? [...] Though I have myself noted not a few faulty passages in Homer and in other authors of the highest rank, and though I am far from being partial to their failings, nevertheless I would call them not so much wilful blunders as oversights which were allowed to pass unregarded through that contempt of little things, that “brave disorder,” which is natural to an exalted genius; and I still think that the greater excellences, though not everywhere equally sustained, ought always to be voted to the first place in literature, if for no other reason, for the mere grandeur of soul they reveal. [...] Would you rather be a Homer or an Apollonius?
Bolaño plays with this notion in the famous passage on the bookish pharmacist, but I find the most striking echo of this idea is found in Flaubert's final novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet. He spent nearly a decade working on it, but did not manage to complete it before his death. It is a strange, repetitive work teetering on the brink between comedy and tragedy; ostensibly a work of social criticism, it is really about Flaubert looking inwardly. And it was a radical departure from anything that he (or anyone else) had written before. He writes in a letter:
At times, the immense scope of this book stuns me. What will come of it? I only hope I’m not deceiving myself into writing something goofy rather than sublime. No, I think not! Something tells me I’m on the right path! But it will be one or the other.
He even places some self-relferential meta-commentary on just this topic within the book—
He was assailed by doubts. For if mediocre minds (as Longinus observed) are incapable of faults, then faults are committed by the masters—and we should admire them? That’s too much!
And for critics, it is exactly this ability to appreciate something great and flawed, as opposed to something small-souled and perfect, that separates the plebeian from the noble taste.
...We Yearn, Nonetheless...
What unites these works in the interstice between the goofy and the sublime is a reckless ambition that goes against all standards of good taste, no not even against but beyond, powered by some unprincipled eruption of creative élan, and not due to some misguided contrarianism but because the old standards are simply incapable of containing the artist's vision which, pushing out against its own limits, bursts like a star. They are a dive off the edge, a rejection of any interpolation between known points, a heroic leap beyond the confines of the billion-dimensional latent space of ideas, riding exotic vectors into unknown territories, vectors invisible to to all but their discoverer—what Bolaño had in mind when he was writing about those "great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze a path into the unknown".
Perhaps this ought to be our attitude not just toward our artistic creations, but also the sculpting of our life and character and even our beliefs.
Great philosophers and artists have always endeavored to chart their own path, to avoid recapitulating the shackles of their social conditioning, to find new vantage points that will allow them to see farther and more clearly. Is this not what Plato was after when he sought out the Pythagoreans in Italy? Is this not what Herodotus was looking for when he was interviewing the sages of Egypt and the Scythians of the Don? Is this not what Nick Land was reaching for when he was "lying on the ground, croaking into a mic while Mackay played jungle records in the background"? It doesn't always work. But one must at least try.
"There are two kinds of scientific progress," declares my old pal Prokhor, "the methodical experimentation and categorization which gradually extend the boundaries of knowledge, and the revolutionary leap of genius which redefines and transcends those boundaries. Acknowledging our debt to the former, we yearn, nonetheless, for the latter." We yearn indeed, but what dear old Prokhor has omitted is that the leap is risky, and the risk usually fails to pay off. Make no mistake—this is a perilous path. Tradition is Smarter Than You Are, so striking out in your own direction is almost always doomed to fail. Rapid change is almost always for the worse. Human beings are almost constitutionally incapable of taking ideas seriously. Virtually every gene in our body militates against it. "The more people have epistemic learned helplessness and less they trust extreme ideas, the more they'll just default to playing Civilized American." But the Romantically low odds of that heroic action have a bewitching appeal, and our social epistemology works only to the extent that brilliant people are able to ignore it.
This all converges on liberalism, which postulates that ideas are not to be taken seriously.2 All true masterpieces bear within them an implication of extremism, a deep conviction in the importance of some new, radical idea, an implication that this singular point of view really does matter, and has the strength to overcome all others. Every great artwork is a fascist revolt—a form of revolt that, alas, does not fit very well into our æra.
Freddy Got Fingered can be streamed on Amazon. Why not check it out tonight? Perhaps you will catch a glimpse of the sublime in the scene where Tom Green jerks off an elephant and sprays his father with a pachyderm-penis firehose of sperm. You're not a...pleb, are you?
- 1."A sophistical rhetorical device in which any denial by an accused person serves as evidence of guilt." ↩
- 2.Cowen's conversation with Knausgård features some interesting comments on the relation between liberalism and the aesthetic impulse. (ctrl+f "exhausted") ↩