Folding Ideas’ “Thermian Argument”

So, while reading the comments on a post about the new female Doctor, someone linked this video from “Folding Ideas” about the “Thermian Argument”, which is in its roughest form an argument against criticizing part of a work because it is consistent with the universe that it is in. As you might expect, the main examples are of typical Social Justice type situations. The specific example used in the beginning is that someone is watching an anime and finds the constant depictions of Orks raping and brutally murdering female characters disturbing, especially given the presumed frequency of those scenes and how long those scenes go on for. The reply is that the Orks were established as being like that, and so the work is just showing us what their established behaviour is, and I will go no more into what the typical response would be because the original video doesn’t really do that and it’ll be more important as a counter later.

So, let me go into the video’s actual argument. The argument is that things like consistency and purity aren’t relevant to fictional worlds because they are fictional, and thus don’t really exist. For all of the time he spends talking about it, what he never manages to do is, well, make this an actual argument that has any heft to it whatsoever. Yes, fictional worlds are not real worlds, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have rules and that it doesn’t establish any kind of “objective truth” that writers need to hew to. To take his example of how to kill a vampire, he at the start asks how to kill one, and then at the end insists that it is irrelevant because vampires are fictional and so there is no objective way to kill them. Which is in some sense true, as different works may use different means to kill them. However, what we are talking about is consistency in-universe, and in-universe there will be established means to kill vampires. If the writer wants to suddenly make one of those means not work on a particular vampire, they are going to need to explain why in this case it doesn’t even though it was established that it would, indeed, kill a vampire. If it doesn’t, then what we have is a hack writer who is essentially “breaking the rules” in order to tell the story they want to tell, but can’t either find a way to make that work given those constraints or isn’t willing to compromise their vision in order to be consistent with the universe they’re writing in.

But, the reply can go, does that even matter? Well, yes, it really, really does. In order to get engrossed into a work, we have to accept that the events in the universe are, in fact, really happening. Part of that is understanding how, in fact, the universe works, which means knowing what the rules are. Thus, the writer needs to set expectations for us so that we can, well, know what to expect and so don’t start questioning everything that happens. So if a writer wants to have magic, they need to establish that magic exists in the universe, and ideally wants to set up as much as possible — without boring the audience with technical explanations — what it can do so that the audience doesn’t spend their huge dramatic character moments wondering if magic can really do that. Once we understand the rules of magic, anything consistent with that will be just ignored, allowing for the writer to just presume that we accept it and then be able to use it to drive things like plot, drama, and characterization. This even — and perhaps especially — holds if there are no set rules. If that’s established, then we stop looking for rules and just accept that anything that needs to happen will happen, and that it won’t happen when it needs to not happen. Since this still tends to kill drama — because the audience will simply expect a solution to appear when it needs to and so won’t be wondering if the hero can get out of this jam — it has to be handled very carefully as well.

What this all means is that if a writer starts breaking the established rules of a universe, people will notice. This will break immersion and require the writer to have a good explanation for why the rule was broken before they can be re-immersed into the universe. What a writer really wants to avoid is for the audience to start evaluating their work from a third-person perspective and opposed to feeling like they are observing an actual world. And in order to do that, they need to establish expectations and avoid violating those expectations without proper reasons and set-up. To return to the Ork example, if the expectation is built up that they would act that way, showing them acting differently would break immersion. That being said, that reply wouldn’t work against an argument that stated that they don’t need to spend so much time showing that, since we aware of it and will write it in if it isn’t explicitly shown, and that time might be better spent establishing other things.

At any rate, the main issue here is that in his Ork example the initial and more reasonable response isn’t the one he cites here. It is instead a simple “The maybe this work isn’t for you and you shouldn’t watch it”. If a work wants to be brutal and so focus on brutality in many scenes, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that some people are not going to want to watch that sort of thing. And that’s fine. But we see in the video that he describes the real criticism as being a criticism of the choices the writers made, and here we can see the real objection in his example: he thinks that showing this brutalization of women is really there for no other reason than to brutalize women, which is bad. But this, then, takes the counter-argument to a completely different place than he accepts and argues against. The counter-arguments, in general, for such things — if made properly — would be along the lines of arguing that either a) this is a brutal universe and brutalization is shown consistently (implying that his objection is only to the brutalization of women for out-of-context reasons and, likely, personal ideology) or b) that the scenes are necessary to establish and remind the audience of just how brutal the Orks actually are. Both of these can be debated, of course, but none of them can be debated by arguing “This is a fictional world so we don’t need to follow the rules of the universe!” All of them require looking at the work and what the writer was trying to do and show either that what the writer is trying to do is wrong, or that they are going about what they are trying to do the wrong way. So, yes, you can criticize the choices of the writer, but doing so isn’t as simple as the video makes it seem. You can indeed invalidly criticize the choices of the writer, and the video’s defense of doing so doesn’t work for any of those cases.

This is essentially Sarkeesian’s comment that the world is fictional and so the writer can do whatever they want, which is a really bad argument, because the writer can’t afford to violate expectations too often without ruining the work. If the writer is trying for historical accuracy, then criticizing them for not including minorities in roles they would never have had in that timeframe is criticizing their goal, which is almost always not valid. And this holds even if they add some fantastical elements to their work; just because some parts don’t conform doesn’t mean that the parts that do can be simply changed without consequence. While the video insists that talking about consistency shuts down discussion, the reply actually does that even more so, because it refuses to engage with the universe at all and instead puts all of the discussion outside of the work itself, allowing no arguments that it would hurt the work itself or wouldn’t fulfill the purpose of the work. That it’s actually at best incomplete and at worst invalid is just the icing on the cake.

Yes, a simple reply of “This is consistent with the universe” is not enough to invalidate a criticism of a problematic scene. But a reply of “Fictional works don’t have to be consistent” is not enough to invalidate that defense and is in fact entirely false.

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2 Responses to “Folding Ideas’ “Thermian Argument””

  1. natewinchester Says:

    Ah folding ideas… there’s a reason Dan has his own board on kiwifarms.

    Anyway, this, this, a thousand times – THIS! It’s been especially relevant to me since one of my favorite shows which was REMARKABLY consistent had a new show runner come in that was completely ruining all the hard work of the previous seasons and I had several newer fans defending it with this post-modernist B.S. argument.

    I liken fiction writing to a magic trick. Yes, technically you can do a magic trick any way you want to, it won’t be against the law or anything (unless you literally saw someone in half). But if you do something like make the wires visible or demand the audience to close their eyes for a disappearing trick, nobody’s going to consider it a GOOD magic trick and you’ll pretty much have no audience. Likewise, if you want to make it a GOOD story and have a large audience, work on maintaining immersion and follow some simple rules of storytelling.

    The goal of every magician is to make you believe in magic. The goal of every storyteller is to make you forget they’re telling you a story.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      And even with magic and storytelling, you can break the rules as long as you are aware that, yes, you’re breaking the rules and so are going to be doing something different than traditional magic or storytelling.

      I think this argument comes both from postmodernism AND scientism, though. It’s essentially an argument that fictional universes can have any rules they want, so there’s no way to talk about the rules or that they violate any of them. The postmodern argument is that nothing has any rules at all that they can be held to and that trying to do so is being too conformist, while the scientistic argument is that fictional worlds don’t have objective empirical rules and so they all must be completely and totally subjective. Both are wrong.

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