Rachel Z. Arndt

Searching for subjectivity on Amazon

If a cat doesn’t like the furniture you’ve bought for it, you have two choices: blame the furniture or blame the cat. (Never blame yourself for raising an ungrateful cat.) Most Amazon reviewers choose the former, steering clear of inquiry into the hairy world of cat taste or into whether animals are fickle by nature or nurture: they just slap single-star ratings on the trees and castles and scratching posts that don’t delight their pets as promised. “This product must have something in it that cats don’t like!” they write. “Our cats wouldn’t touch it, our friends [sic] cats wouldn’t touch it, and their friends [sic] cats wouldn’t touch it!”

I know all of this intimately, unfortunately. For half a year, as a researcher for a start-up incubator, I was tasked with trawling Amazon for some insight into what people like and don’t like. I’d sit—back to the window and face to the screen, sunlight bouncing off Lake Michigan’s corduroy waters and onto my shoulders, an occasional horn twenty floors below piercing the murmuring air conditioning—and I’d click. For breaks, I’d browse books and music on the site, something I’ve been doing since I was fourteen or fifteen, when I’d just discovered Iron and Wine and couldn’t believe there were similar bands out there, let alone that a website could tell me who they were. I’d study strangers’ wish lists and click through “Customers who bought this item also bought” recommendations until they led me back to where I’d started. In the background, I’d download the albums on LimeWire, watching the progress bar slowly fill in as I scratched and scrubbed my pre-calc homework into a neat, orderly record of the steps I had taken and where I had gone wrong.

Cat furniture is not art, no matter what reviewers suggest. But online it is sold alongside art—that is, music and books—and rated on the same scale. “That a site like Amazon sells virtually everything tends to blur or flatten things,” writes Tom Vanderbilt in You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, a book that draws on experiments, studies, interviews, and historical texts to trace our tastes to their hazy origins, from the personal to the communal, showing how what we like both is and isn’t up to us. If Vanderbilt can be said to reach a conclusion, it’s that we may know what we like, but we rarely know why. “We are, in effect,” he writes, “strangers to our tastes.”

So we turn to others. And when we do, our grasp of what we like is mediated by algorithms—increasingly so, as our consumer and artistic habits both hew toward society’s insistence on measuring everything, subduing it into objectivity. When I buy something on Amazon, I get the benefit, or the downside, of having my purchase generate the information to which Vanderbilt’s title alludes: what I might also like. In other words, what I may buy next. (According to Amazon, customers who bought Vanderbilt’s book in hardcover also bought Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, by Dan Fox; Vanderbilt’s previous book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says about Us); and Jessica Helfand’s Design: The Invention of Desire.) My purchase is valuable not just because it makes Amazon money but also, and more important, because it points in the direction of another purchase.

The more art is packaged by the “recommendation” cottage industry, the more it risks becoming the avenue to enjoyment rather than the endpoint. Thanks to our algorithmically driven online economy, we may enjoy art only when it serves to reveal other art we might enjoy; we can enjoy art only when an algorithm makes it objective that we should, or at least assures us that it conforms to our preordained genre loyalties. There is a tension, therefore, between the subjective and the objective, between experiencing and rating the experience. On Amazon, it can be easy to lose sight of the intrinsic feeling of art, to become a consumer of art focused on seeking it out rather than actually spending time with it. Off Amazon, the same threat remains, both because of the ever-dwindling number of things not available on Amazon and because the relentlessly quantitative mind-set of the site has seeped into everything around us.

Even so, when we look at art to figure out which art to look at next, the point remains the same: to experience subjectivity. It’s how we reach that subjectivity that’s changing. Before, we allowed our tastes to remain mysterious, or at least unquantified, which tended to reinforce them. “It is striking to realize how strongly we stand by our likes and dislikes given how open they are to distortion and manipulation, as much by our own brains as by outside influences,” Vanderbilt writes. “Perhaps we instinctively sense the fragility and arbitrariness of these preferences, and so cling to them even harder.” And yet numbers, far from exposing that fragility, allow us to hold on even tighter. We expect a lot from numbers; we expect them not to raise questions about our tastes but to answer them. Vanderbilt confesses that he once “rigorously trained” his Netflix algorithm because he “wanted it to know not just that I liked something but why I liked it. I wanted more than it could give.”

That is, he wanted to uncover his own subjectivity through objective means. The tension is the same: as I search, I both do and don’t want Amazon to be able to pin me down. I want to know my tastes, but I also want to be able to be as surprised as I was when, in fifth grade, I found myself endlessly replaying an Alanis Morissette CD despite being sure I didn’t like women singers. I want to know what book to read next, but I want to stop thinking about it while I’m still reading something else. I want to be sure of what I think about art—that the woman in Nighthawks makes me cry and that there’s a particular beige that Matisse often used that makes me want to throw up—but I want that art to trigger subjectivity, even ecstasy, a feeling that precludes art serving any purpose other than getting me to live in the moment, if you’ll forgive the cliché, rather than in the self-conscious experience of the experience, where I’m too busy categorizing and surveying to actually notice that I’m happy.

It would be naive to suggest that the solution is to consume art offline, far from reviews of cat furniture. It would be naive, too, to suggest that there’s a solution at all, that this is something that even needs to be solved. Art maintains itself by reinforcing the viewer’s subjectivity, even when that viewer insists on measuring and reviewing—even when she turns into a consumer. Perhaps we wrestle with this duality within ourselves more than ever before. But tastes change: in fact, as Vanderbilt points out, this is one of their surest characteristics. And art is too unruly to be reined in. We see the triumph of art over algorithm every time our tastes—“fleeting,” Vanderbilt calls them—morph into new ones, no matter how sure we were of our most recent five- or one-star rating. May we keep failing to produce indelible measurements, may we turn to our cats to opine purely when we don’t know how, and may the tension remain taut between the measured certainty of recommendations and the unmeasured uncertainty of our reactions.

Rachel Z. Arndt

Rachel Z. Arndt's essay collection, Beyond Measure, is forthcoming in 2018 from Sarabande Books. She received MFAs in nonfiction and poetry from the University of Iowa, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow and the nonfiction editor of The Iowa Review. Her writing has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Quartz, Pank, Fast Company, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago.

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