[personal profile] lhexa
Reading today's XKCD comic reminded me of a criticism I wrote of it back in 2008, prompted by Nick. Here it is. I think I went too far in a few places, but in others I made good points. There's much I could say in praise of the comic as well, but I think other people have that covered.

Considering the uneasiness I often feel when reading XKCD, which I've only managed to partly articulate, I'd love to see such a critique. Maybe we could tag-team the thing.

I'm definitely curious... I suspect the things that rub you the wrong way are the same things that do me.

Okay, I'll give it a shot. Of course, there's much positive that I could (but won't) say. *pulls snark muzzle off*

First, something that may matter far more to me than you: the author's naive attitude toward science. He seems to be unaware of one of the biggest shortcomings of science, the fact that only a practitioner of a science can accurately judge its strengths and weaknesses. This comic displays that well. Here's a rather arcane problem that arose within science, a problem whose derivation would (even nowadays) require graduate-level E&M and statistical mechanics training, based on a measurement that's way beyond the capabilities of any undergraduate lab. So, practically speaking, if you pursue a career in physics you have to take both the fact that a crisis existed in the first place, and the fact that the measurements of blackbody radiation gave unpredicted results, on authority. (You could look up the derivation and the data, but what good is that without understanding?) I have to resist the urge to make a parody of that comic which reads, "Science: If you had six-plus years of specialized training you'd know that it works, bitches."

However, the broader problem here is that Munroe speaks from a standpoint in which science is ideology. That standpoint allows him to write comics like this, complete with imagery that's Nietzschian in its arrogance. His is a worldview in which creationists and conspiracy theorists are deadly foes in need of battling, rather than comparatively unimportant manifestations of a much broader (culture of) ignorance. It's a worldview whose inhabitants can find this satisfying as a comic. This gets on my nerves because I think it's bad to turn science into ideology.

Oh well, I can at least get some smugness from the fact that I know more math and physics than Munroe does. (Seriously, his most sophisticated math jokes are about Laplace transforms. That's not even graduate level.)

Maybe I should gripe about the art some. It seems like Munroe actually tried to expand his abilities as an artist in the early stages of the strip, but nowadays he's content to pump out another shaded mountain every few months to keep the apologists fed. Although gender ambiguity being a fearful thing even in a stick-figure comic, you can recognize women by their hair.

As far as his sense of wonder is concerned... the best way I can summarize it is that it is safely confined. In XKCD, wonder is not something capable of transfiguring (revealing a new aspect of, renewing the beauty of) the everyday, but something that occurs away from the world, something that leaves it behind and thus leaves it (or rather its standing description and/or (mis)understanding) unchallenged. It's the wonder of a grade-school child, who builds a fantasy world inaccessible to adults, yet unknowingly populates that world with nothing but the tropes and archetypes built by those adults' preoccupations... a child who shows his affection for his heroes by turning them into ninjas and spies. (There's much more that can be said about XKCD's childishness... its frequent return to juvenile taunts as a subject in need of undermining, for instance.) It's the wonder of waking up before the dawn, admiring the sunrise, then spending the rest of the day exactly as anyone else does. It's the wonder of building a ball pit in your room in which to trade quotes from pop culture. It's the wonder of a person for whom a lack of philosophical introspection is scary, but taking that introspection seriously is scarier. Munroe is honest enough (and he's very, very honest, I think) that "ha ha only serious" moments frequently show up in which wonder appears, is given its minute, and is then put back into its drawer by the punchline: here and here are two good examples. I think it's rather telling that the comic's single most profound vision occurred as a sketch drawn in boredom... as the extra title is quick to tell you, as though Munroe were trying to excuse himself.

Wonder, like love, does not flourish within ideology.

Date: 2010-12-22 12:10 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] brokenbokken
My biggest problem with it is that it isn't very funny. Which might seem like a lazy criticism, but it's a lazy comic. Though it sounds extremely odd, I'm one of the easiest people in the world to make laugh, and stick figures regurgitating jokes that were funnier the first time around just doesn't do it. I mean, I even laugh at "your mom" every now and then, but the setup and timing really has to be impeccable and inappropriate for a joke that old because any humor in it will be ironic. Like the stick figure art would be if it weren't actually the best he can do, or if he used the simplicity of the art for comedic effect (like Acid Zen Wonder Paint). If science jokes are going to be funny to the public, they have to be accessible, and his aren't. If they're going to be funny to scientists, they have to be accurate, and they aren't. If you're going to appeal to childlike wonderment to arouse innocent laughter, you have to frame your comic with beauty (the art in Calvin & Hobbes comes to mind), but he doesn't.
I think XKCD's a lot like caviar in that people will pretend to like it because they're afraid that if they don't, they'll look stupid to people whose opinions don't matter.



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