For as long as some have been doing, others have been criticizing. Unfortunately, one of the downsides of life as social animals is that no matter what we do, there will always be someone waiting to give their two-cents. Somewhere along the way giving your two-cents became an actual profession, and since then it seems we are no longer capable of determining quality on our own. The critics now carry the burden of determining and deciding for us, and in this day and age you can find critics for just about any realm of entertainment, including books, movies, music, and even food.
Of all the critics, though, none is quite as unnecessarily praised as the sommelier. The zenith of snobbism. To think that someone can come along and convince us that we need them for their tasting abilities, should really make you wonder how much autonomy we have given up. Let us explore how we might have arrived here.
It would not be absurd to assume that the professional critic arose, at least in part, from a lack of free time on the part of consumers. This is perfectly understandable; considering the hundreds of thousands of movies and TV shows, and the millions of books and songs now in circulation, most working people simply do not have the time or energy to sift through these endless options until they find the “best” ones. It is much easier to make an enjoyable selection based on the opinion of someone who has already sifted through the various options and evaluated them based on some general factors. It is easier, but there is no reason we should be placing as much trust as we currently do in the opinions of strangers when deciding what to like, or what is good quality.
This all begs the question: were we ever really able to decide what to like for ourselves?
One man may have found the answer to this question in the early 1960s. When René Girard was a professor at Johns Hopkins University, he published his first book, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (or, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, in English), in which he began exploring the nature of human desire and presented the early foundations of his theory of Mimetic Desire. After having studied the most famous works of literature (Cervantes, Flaubert, Dostoevsky etc.), Girard had recognized and pinpointed common structural properties between them, and had come to the conclusion that our desires do not arise by themselves, in a vacuum, but that they are actually always provoked by the desires of another person. Girard calls this other person the mediator of desire, and outlines a triangular model of desire by which an “object” is desired by a “subject” through the mediator — and it is actually the mediator that it being sought by the subject. One of the examples that Girard cites is the romantic heroines that Flaubert’s character, Emma Bovary, bases her desires on, where by wanting the all same things as them, she is essentially trying to be them.
So even if we actually are more or less incapable of deciding what to like for ourselves, does this mean we should rely solely on the critic’s word as gospel? There are, no doubt, some objective criteria to consider when evaluating the quality of a film or book, for example whether there was a clear narrative or whether the acting was convincing. Or when deciding on a good bottle of wine there are, of course, qualities that even the most uncultured barbarians would pick up. At a certain point, however, when we are then looking through the countless number of books that have been published, films produced, and wines bottled that are considered “good” because they meet these objective criteria, the whole exercise becomes a matter of personal taste. It should not be up to a critic to dictate how one feels when certain flavours hit their taste buds, yet it happens — and there may just be laboratory evidence to explain why.
Around about the same time that Girard was developing his Mimetic theory, there was other exciting work going on in the field of psychology that may give us some insight into the coercive side of desire, and help further explain the power that critics wield over consumers. In July 1961 the psychologist, Stanley Milgram, began conducting his infamous “obedience” experiments. The experiment, advertised as testing memory, consisted of a “teacher” (a volunteer being paid for their time), a “learner” (an actor who was in on the experiment), and an “experimenter” (an authority figure who in charge of the experiment). The teacher and learner were placed in separate rooms where they could hear, but not see, one another, and the learner was attached to a machine that would supposedly deliver electric shocks on the teacher’s command whenever the learner answered a question incorrectly. With every wrong answer the teacher was meant to increase the voltage of the electric shocks, which ran from slight shock to fatal shock. When the teachers would become reluctant to continue the experiment after hearing the fake screams of the learner with each increase in voltage, the experimenter (the authority figure) would calmly insist they had to continue saying things like “the experiment requires that you continue” or “it is absolutely essential that you continue”.
The results of the experiment were shocking (no pun intended). Milgram and his team found that 65% of the subjects had administered the lethal voltage, and that all of the subjects had gone up to 300 volts, which was the Extreme Intensity Shock just one level below Fatal Shock. The important takeaway from this is that it only took an authority figure in a lab coat calmly prodding these unwitting subjects (who were otherwise nice, normal people), to convince them to forget all of their convictions and essentially commit a murder. Given all of this, how hard would it then be for a critic, a person who has somehow established themselves as an authority figure for a particular domain of entertainment, to convince us that what we already like is not the right thing or the best thing?
As it goes, it seems we already have little or no control over our desires and what we like. Now throw this into the mix. Between the mimetic nature of desire and our predisposition to obey, we don’t stand a chance. It should come as no surprise that when the sommeliers put on their sommelier hats most people will blindly agree with whatever recommendation they make and forget their own tastes.
The final lens through which to contemplate how we arrived at this point of non-autonomy, with critics dictating our personal tastes, is that of the intransigent minority rule. This idea is attributed to the statistician Nassim Taleb, who points out that once an intolerant or intransigent group makes up around 3–4% of the population, it reaches a critical mass where the whole population has to submit to their preferences. He cites several examples of this such as Kosher products, where even though less than 0.3% of the US population actually abides by Kosher laws, almost all drinks and most foods are Kosher. According to Taleb, the logic behind this is that since non-Kosher eaters are not banned from eating Kosher, it is much simpler to appease this one intransigent group than to have to distinguish between the Kosher and non-Kosher everywhere and create separate inventories in supermarkets and restaurants. Interestingly enough, we can think of critics in much the same way. Although they only make up a very small portion of the population, most people end up submitting to their preferences — or rather, accepting what they deem “good”. In the case of the critics, however, it is not because they have some moral or physical obligation preventing them from enjoying other options, but that they simply prioritize their own supposedly superior tastes.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, this is not a diatribe against sommeliers or any other type of critic for that matter. In many ways the sommelier can actually be thought of as a mark of the progress achieved in the West (although there are surely equivalents in the developed countries of the East), in the sense that we have reach such levels wealth that we need no longer focus on the essentials, and that the economy can accommodate professions built on indulgence. In many ways the sommeliers, as well as other critics, are even doing a public service by attempting to ensure that we are giving our limited time to only the best products.
This is merely a suggestion that the critics’ notions of what the best products are may not always align with our own and that, while we can take their recommendations into account, we may actually be better off deciding for ourselves what entertainment to devote our time to. Even if our decision-making may be distorted by things like our susceptibility to obedience, the effects of mimetic desire, and the power that intransigent minorities have over production, I do believe that we still have enough agency in the matter to make some basic decisions about what we choose to consume. We should, at the very least, be taking the time to seek a wider variety of mediators, as Girard would put it. After all, if you can give up your freedom to decide on something as basic as entertainment, what other freedoms can you give up?