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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

Problematic's Problems

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Hello. I’m an arts worker, and today I’m going to complain about people who are broadly speaking on my side.

Because that’s what we do.

So today’s blog is about problems I have with the term ‘problematic’.

A Brief Overview

‘Problematic’ is a slippery term. I would broadly describe it as an adjective to say “not quite comfortable in relation to the speaker’s ethical values.”

It is most commonly used to describe pieces of media, from novels to video games to films, but can also be applied to philosophies, people (especially their views), and technical equipment (“the problematic history of Kodak film”).

Usually, it alludes to a work being sexist, racist, or otherwise not-in-line with the values of groups concerned with social justice.

Five Correct Examples Of Usage

1. “Austen is problematic.”

2. “Emily Brontë is problematic.”

3. “Schiele is problematic.”

4. “Lovecraft is problematic.”

5. “Griffith is problematic.”

Evidently, it is a wide-ranging term.

Those Who Have Gone Before

I found two resources especially helpful when doing post-planning research for this.

The political theorist Bejan says a problematic thing “is objectionable in some way, that it rests uneasily with our prior moral or political commitments”. The term has its origins in Althusser’s Marxist conception of a theoretical system through which ideas are processed, usually applied to works of art.

Via academic usage, often to insinuate a problem rather than directly naming it, it became mainstream. After all, to an in-the-know audience, it should be clear what the problem is. Thus (according to Bejan), the problem with the vague use of ‘problematic’ is that it creates an exclusionary effect to the out-group, more out of laziness than malice.

After all, ‘problematic’ allows us to evade specifying the problem clearly, which can reduce the burden of precisely demonstrating that there is a problem to a potentially hostile audience. It just does so by trading the ability to sound righteous, rather than reflecting on how to be right.

Urban Dictionary corroborates this via internet foulness. Many of the definitions there reflect a sense that, in reality, ‘problematic’ is used to judge without actually being able to justify judgement.

While we do not need to appease the trolls, it’s worth noting them.

Unproblematic Precision

I broadly agree with Bejan for one of my critiques of the term. ‘Problematic’ can be a useful shorthand to describe a sense that a work is, well, problematic.

It can be especially useful as a starting point in good company.

However, it is also lacking in precision; it allows us to judge without naming why we judge.

To use her vivid example, Althusser was not just ‘problematic’. He was misogynist and violent, as shown by him murdering his wife Hélène Rytmann.

Going no further than ‘problematic’ avoids interrogating the problem. Thus Bejan suggests we always ask those who use the term ‘problematic’ the question “How so?”

Five Correct Examples Of Usage [with specific details]

1. “Austen is problematic; [she shows a sexist world in which women must marry.]”

2. “Emily Brontë is problematic; [Heathcliff and Cathy have a deeply unhealthy relationship.]”

3. “Schiele is problematic; [he repeatedly paints people under 18 naked.]”

4. “Lovecraft is problematic; [his works often centre on horror of miscegenation or from xenophobia, and are explicitly racist.]”

5. “Griffith is problematic; [he is overtly in favour of the Ku Klux Klan and contributed to its resurgence.]”

By being specific, it helps us identify the problem.

That way, we are better-placed to work out what to do about it.

From Aesthetics To Ethics

‘Problematic’ almost invariably implies a moral judgement of the work.

We would not, for example, describe poor vocal setting in an opera as ‘problematic’, but we might describe its sexist characterisations as such.

By shifting discussion of a thing into a moral spectrum, an interesting thing happens.

We move from an aesthetic arena where we are broadly comfortable having disagreements (I like Mozart, you like Wagner) into an ethical one where the social stakes are higher (I believe art should help reform society, you are an antiquated, sexist boor, I am a judgemental prick).

This is often a good thing.

A core foundation for many who use the term ‘problematic’ is that art has an ethical responsibility, for it reflects, shapes, and reinforces social values.

Thus it is valuable to say when a work is ‘problematic’, because it flags that there are ethical questions to be discussed.

It can also be valuable to say something is ‘problematic’, because it can function as a shorthand for “In this group, I do not want to deal with that right now, and do not want to spend the time precisely articulating why, for I am not in a university seminar but my workplace/community group/party.”

Particularly in organisations working with or composed of marginalised groups, such a term is very useful. It is often not the right time to force people to clarify their thoughts.

There are three problems.

The first is that it can be unclear what the moral judgement entails. Should we ban this work? Not seek it out? Only engage with it with proper context? None of the above?

The second is that it can add much more heat than light, shutting down conversations as a way to cool them down.

The third is that it diminishes aesthetic discussion in favour of an often-simplified ethical one.

1. Judgement Without Resolution

When discussing injustice, an important step is almost always “and what can we do about it?”

The murderer gets imprisoned.

The hungry one gets fed.

The Nazi propaganda film gets a large amount of contextual information placed in front of it.

The vagueness of ‘problematic’ means that it is very easy to use it as a judgemental term.

It also means that the judgement is ‘boo!’ without clarity about what the boo-ers demand.

Naming the bear helps us work out that it is the teeth and claws we are concerned about, not the fur.

Five Correct Examples Of Usage [with specific details and resolutions]

1. “Austen is problematic; [she shows a sexist world in which women must marry.]”

Yes. That is a thing that happened. She is aware of it. But that was the world in which she lived; the claim here is that Austen’s world was problematic, and not (presumably) that her work is problematic for depicting the world in which she lived. There are few more innocuous artistic endeavours.

You are right to note her world; it can inform a mindful reading.

2. “Emily Brontë is problematic; [Heathcliff and Cathy have a deeply unhealthy relationship.]”

Yes. I do not hesitate for a second before suggesting that Brontë is very aware of the fact that the person who digs up a corpse to lie next to it is maybe not entirely healthy in his feelings, nor the one who may or may not be coming back as a ghost. I will permit myself the only sarcasm in this blog: yes, you have indeed almost understood the point of Wuthering Heights. Now gaze into yourself and think about why it’s interesting that they are nonetheless enthralling characters.

More sincerely: you are right to note this, and it may be wise to note it to other people for whom this might be particularly distressing.

3. “Schiele is problematic; [he repeatedly paints people under 18 naked.]”

Yes. This is a much more difficult one, isn’t it? Out society is currently going through something of a reckoning when it comes to paedophilia. It’s something that we might look at within the values of his time (still broadly condemnatory, though the age of reaching social adulthood was lower).

It’s certainly something we would hope a curator would note clearly. Do we then remove those paintings from the gallery? Do we keep the ones of other subjects?

4. “Lovecraft is problematic; [his works often centre on horror of miscegenation or from xenophobia, and are explicitly racist.]”

Yes. Lovecraft is the old curse at the heart of cosmic horror. Readily granting the explicit problems in much of his work, what of work where there is a fear of the unknown in remote regions like Antarctica, or the recently-discovered stars? Is that also rooted in his xenophobia?

There are many works we might not recommend without providing context that, even by the standards of his own time (long after the US Civil War) he was extremely racist. He is certainly not an author one can uncritically recommend. Equally, given his lasting influence on genre fiction, how should we engage with him, if at all?

5. “Griffith is problematic; [he is overtly in favour of the Ku Klux Klan and contributed to its resurgence.]”

Yes. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation is important to film history, and black community organisations tried to ban it almost immediately as it stoked racial tensions. It is the only work discussed here I have not seen, though I have read about it when studying film history. For it is unequivocally racist.

So beyond providing context, should we ban it outside certain contexts for stoking racial tensions? Should we prevent it being shared without academic context on the film, the problems in it, and why film historians value it aesthetically? For it most certainly is not a film we’d want to share without highlighting its faults, and perhaps one we should not share at all.

In short, there is a gulf between “you must remember to look at the values of the time”, “this one may be significant in its aesthetic field, but needs ethical/historic context”, and “for heaven’s sake, that’s the entire bloody point, we can talk about nasty things sometimes.”

Problematic Means ‘Eww’

Sometimes, ‘problematic’ is a very useful starting point, or a shorthand for a useful things.

Sometimes, however, it serves as an ending point: “this is problematic, and [I believe] there is no further discussion to be had.”

Sometimes, it serves as a shorthand: “this is problematic, and thus any who speak for it, or claim it might have any merits, are also problematic.”

Yes, I paraphrase Bad Internet People from a disparate tendency. #NotAllPeopleWhoUseProblematic.

In these cases, ‘problematic’ is often being used to mean ‘eww’.

A thing is unpleasant, and therefore should only be spoken of in the negative, or be removed to make the world more pleasant.

There are certainly cases where that might be appropriate. For example, Triumph Of The Will should not (to my mind) ever have a commercial screening, for all that it is interesting as an artefact of film and political history.

There are ways to engage with it well, and there are ways to engage with it poorly. This is one of the reasons why we train historians and film students, and why historians and film scholars are very alert to the line between “this is a significant film that can tell us things about the Third Reich and 1930s filmmaking” and “yeah, I just… the underlying point, y’know?”

There are pieces of Nazi propaganda (for example) that are only of interest to historians, and are rightly buried in archives. It is not that they are difficult to access, just that they are not given any especial prominence.

Most people, I would assume, agree that these works are problematic (overtly fascist, racist, sexist, ableist…) but not wish to remove them entirely. The benefits of scholarship in the field as a way to ensure things are not forgotten are demonstrable.

It is when we get to cases like Schiele and Lovecraft that the discussion gets more difficult.

For each contributes a great deal to their field, but their work reflects their values; it is difficult to extract certain strands of painting and literature from those legacies.

So it is reasonable to suggest that those working in those fields, and those interested in those fields, might well wish to engage with their works, and thus to defend them in specific ways.

If ‘problematic’ is used to mean ‘you are a bad person for admiring this at all’, it seems very odd, especially when tied to efforts to push people towards more ‘unproblematic’ works.

There are many less problematic works than those of Lovecraft and Schiele. That does not mean, necessarily, that they should be prioritised.

This is where we get to the interesting bit of the blog.

Aesthetics Is Not Ethics

The interesting tensions above almost all circulate around a core concept: how should we weigh ethical and aesthetic claims against one another?

For often, ‘problematic’ has come to mean ‘ethically flawed in ways that suggest rewriting or removal is the best course of action.’

Not always - of those who consider Austen problematic, I suspect few would want her removed so much as contextualised.

But I wish to briefly mount a defence of aesthetics over ethics, starting with a critique of the school of ‘problematic’.

A Critique Of The Ethical Aesthetics Of ‘Problematic’

The ethical school behind ‘problematic’ is often very basic. Being a decentralised digital tendency, it has no real core texts, so I shall call it the Tumblr School for want of a better term.

While within the Tumblr School there is very sophisticated thought, in general it easily slips into a tickbox culture of “is there racism/sexism/ableism/transphobia/homophobia [plus a few more, depending on the writer]?”

These are all important fields. But I do tend to find that the School tends to neglect highlighting, for example, class, imperialism, authoritarian, or ecocidal tendencies (within a left-wing framework), and above all, actually deep structural or critical analysis.

These things are, perhaps, the preserve of academia and professional critics. But I believe popular forms of analysis deserve rigorous engagement.

Where there is a deeper ethical frame towards, say, liberation, it can be a remarkable approach. But when ‘problematic’ is used within an ethical frame of “more good, less bad” it becomes a less useful tool of critique, and a better stick to beat people with.

There are four flaws that make much (not all) analysis using ‘problematic’ less convincing:

First, the way in which the Tumblr School has a habit of hyper-focusing on details, rather than a broader picture of a work (or confusing “noticing a metaphor” with “critical engagement”).

Second, it is a school that has no interest in the Intentional Fallacy (the idea that an author’s intention is irrelevant to their work). Instead, authors’ biographies are often taken to be reflected in their work until proven otherwise.

This is very dull. While it is certainly true that, say, Kipling’s imperial service shaped his work, I am less convinced that the generation of male post-WWII writers were all writing about their wartime service, let alone when we come to authors about whom we know very little like Homer or Shakespeare.

Third, it is a school that is simultaneously in love with Death of the Author (for how else can one reinterpret work so freely?) and rejects it (by constantly connecting work to authorial goals). While the language of ‘problematic fave’ does create some room for this, it is a difficult tension.

Finally, ‘problematic’ often blurs the line between the author, the ‘text’ of a work, and the world from which the work comes. There are key distinctions between ‘the author holds admirable/deplorable values’, ‘the work supports admirable/deplorable values’, and ‘the world of the work was admirable/deplorable’.

And above all, this highlights my problem with the ‘problematic’ school, for all of those flaws assert that the ethical values are more important than any other.

Aesthetics Over Ethics

For my own part, I sincerely believe that there are occasions when beauty outranks ethics.

I believe in beauty. I believe that something happens with art that is wonderful and human. That is not to say that ethics cannot be weighed against that aesthetic value - as I have said, there are times when it must - but that we cannot presume that the ethical value of a work is more important than its aesthetic one.

It is deeply disheartening to see conversations between well-intentioned people pivot from a shallow consideration of the aesthetics of a work, to an enthusiastic piñata-bashing of its ethics, all using a rather basic form of ethics the speakers treat as complex.

Basic ethics are easy. I suspect that is part of their appeal. It requires very little effort to memorise the list of ‘good’ opinions (and they are good opinions! We should not be bigoted or perpetuate social inequality! But many people do not dive into the schools of thought behind these opinions and modes of analysis!).

It is, however, very hard (and I say this as someone who does it for a living) to articulate aesthetics well.

I adore Mozart’s operas. I cannot explain how the music functions, I can hobble my way though an explanation of their dramaturgy and libretti, and I can describe their underlying aesthetic and ethical philosophies pretty well.

These things are hard. But it does not mean we should not do them.

Let us gaze at Lovecraft. We can see his aesthetic tendencies plainly: how he builds tension, how he feels the horror of the unknown and unknowable (human and environmental), how his language slithers across the page.

We can then analyse that; we can consider where it simply reflects his own terrible bigotries, but we can also learn from it. He can create nightmares like few can, even as I am one of the mixed-race horrors he writes of.

I would never demand that anyone engage with Lovecraft. But equally, that he is ‘problematic’ must not mean we cannot learn from him, and admire his aesthetics in particular ways.

That great jousting against the progenitor of cosmic horror is most delightfully done in Jemisin’s The City We Became, which I wholeheartedly recommend.

And in some places, as he gazes out towards the mocking stars, we might share in it for a while.

And if we do not, fine! A lot of Lovecraft is bad writing!

If we only talk about the ethics of a work, and not about its aesthetics, we forget why we value it in the first place.

That is, for me, the first great concern with the ethical aesthetics of ‘problematic’.

Aesthetics Is Ethics

This is getting long, but in many of the examples I used above, the aesthetics and the ethics were the same thing.

By focusing on superficial ethics (the charismatic and brooding Heathcliff dug up her corpse!) we forget that the creators of these works are not creating works of ethics.

If they were, they’d be philosophers directly.

Charles Dickens’ moralising chapters strike a very different tone to his literary ones.

These are aesthetic works. The ‘problematic’ school often forgets to contextualise the text of a work within the context of its aesthetics.

Heathcliff provokes complex feelings. That is part of the delight of Wuthering Heights. He gives us a richness and confusion that challenges many things we might find ‘normal’.

And he fails to get what he wants; in the end, he fails to achieve his central goals.

To analyse the work ethically, hyper-fixating on certain incidents, is to forget that it is meant to exist as a whole.

It is also to forget a hundred other wonderful things about it: how its environment wildly thrives and dances, how its narrative perspective shifts, how we must not quite understand so much of what is going on, and that ambiguity of others’ love and obsession is delightful.

There are works by Lovecraft that are not explicitly racist and xenophobic.

Yet in them, his aesthetics once again are his ethics; we can see what inspires his revulsion, while also studying how he captures and conveys it. We can be more aware of how those strands that have inspired those who inspire us are coloured by a noxious view of the world, and thus wonder about how we might best diverge from it.

For the aesthetics are the ethics; they are part of what the author wishes to say. We ignore them for pure ethics at our peril.

This is my second concern: that ‘problematic’ excuses us from deeper reading of what lies at the heart of a subject.

I Can Touch Fire

This is the final problem I have.

I think much of the ‘problematic’ school relies on a false claim: that we dare not touch the fire, for fear we shall be burned.

That we are not to touch that which is tainted, or else we shall be impure.

It stretches from its initial roots in giving notices to ensure safety and informed reading to a strange inversion of itself, seeking to advance the cause of justice by putting pressure on the exercise of liberty (to an extent in no way comparable to the atrocities of overt censorship by state and state-aligned power).

It is a dim view of people; one that believes they are not capable of reading that which is unethical without being swayed by it to a dangerous degree; one that privileges simplistic reading for fear of the intangible effect of many beautiful things.

True, some work is cunning propaganda. But in the end, very little of it is.

Lovecraft mostly tried to transcribe his nightmares. He is not trying to manipulate people into seeing the mundane world as he sees it, even as his works do reflect his evils.

It is not like Griffiths, actively trying to build an alternate vision of the history of the USA - and even then, we can see his work and not be tainted, if we are wise.

This dim view of people seems to believe that it is only by reading the most wholesome works that our beliefs can be strong.

It can be seen in some output aimed at LGBTQ+ audiences recently: far from the grungy, biting alternate society envisioned in 1980s work, challenging the very heart of heteronormativity, it is a cosy place with personal tragedy, and no teeth.

While ethics has always been a framework for creation, it is becoming a default one.

Others have written before me about the puritanical aspect of some areas of modern discourse, and I merely nod at them here.

My soft conclusion is that, even if we disagree with a work, by reading it we remind ourselves of why we hold our beliefs (following J.S. Mill).

But my hard conclusion is this: we must touch the fire. We have named the bear, and now let us touch fire, because it is beautiful, and bright, and burns.

We need not fear that we are too weak.

We should fear that there are some among our number who think we are, for some of them believe that living ethically means living inaesthetically, and that means running from parts of us that are far too fucking human to ignore.

It creates a bizarre tension: one where we can constantly talk about media, but never engage with it as media.

But a sunset is not ethical. A storm over the Yorkshire Dales is not ethical. It just is.

And when that storm is but a description in a book, and nothing more than that: it will still move you. To fear that is to fear a part of yourself.

A philosophy that leads to that is not a philosophy that I like to subscribe to.

I can touch the fire, because the fire makes me human.

Towards A New Romanticism

I have taken most of the hours of daylight to write this epic essay, and I thank you for joining me.

I have finally realised where it is taking me: in my own strange way, to call for a new Romanticism.

For currently, the reaction to the ‘problematic’ school loathes what is good in it, believing that its fault is in minimising offence and triggering the traumatised.

This is incorrect. Its flaws is in the lazy evasion of aesthetics, for fear of what might be part of being human. The belief that seeing monsters makes us less free of them, when in fact seeing, comprehending, and even being monsters can be a path to liberation.

There are times we are right to fear. There are times it is wrong.

So I will think a little more and return to this subject, but I hope the above has been a useful discussion.

Until then, dance with me on the path to Wuthering Heights, wander the streets of sunken Ry’leh, and above all: touch fire.


A person in a long black trench coat with long blonde hair throws their arms outward, holding a dagger, a light shining behind them.
Macbeth: An early 'problematic' character.


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