Return Maximization

Before I write, I pull a small lump of metal, no larger than a thimble, melted and dimpled and deformed, from the windowsill. According to the Sedona Crystal Vortex shop in Sedona, AZ it’s a meteorite, capable of activating Kundalini energy plus simulating the third eye and/or crown chakras. I rub it between my fingers, feeling its weight, its material strangeness. I don’t believe in the New Age but I like the idea that this thing  may or may not be from outer space, that I could have been scammed and it doesn’t even matter, that everything’s from outer space if we’re being technical and it’s the sort of technicality that mocks any attempt at de-vagueifying the unshapen.

You may mock me but I’m making the attempt anyway. Return maximization is a ridiculous critical approach, sharing with Plato’s Republic a kind of authoritarian, hijinking-the-masses-for-their-own-good ethos that runs equal parts impractical and tasteless. But maybe something can be squeezed out of the concept, if only as a theoretic mode of reading.

The pr(e)(o)mise of return-maximization is improving outcomes in a population, and we might as well call the quality of improving outcomes “value”: here, the desired effects as a ratio to undesired effects (in econ-speak, cost-benefit). Value must take into account collective subjectivities and also a subjective collective: that is, preference variety, inbuilt irrationality, and human universals. Value is not experiential pleasure. Experiential pleasure (the prioritization of hedonistic consumption) is a part of value but far from all of it (see “life enrichment”).

Return maximization looks a bit like distribution times personal value, where personal value comprises some factorialesque sum of the spectrum between in-the-moment experiential reward and long-term life improvement. If you’re into math, you can throw it into a formula:

[experiential pleasure*x]+[life enrichment*y]=personal value

distribution*(personal value + [social good*z])=sum value

…where social good is something like emergent effects, benefit rub-off, behavioral reformation, etc. I’m tempted to add “worldview development” or “learning” to the category of social goods, but views and information only alter the world insofar as they are means to the end of modified behavior, shape actions, decisions, outcomes.

We can think about return maximization at different levels of grain. At a hermeneutic level, we might erroneously believe that the author’s intended meaning, or a reader’s understood meaning, or the amalgam of all readers’ understood meanings, or some formal property of the language constitutes a book’s “true” meaning. Similar claims held up the development of lit-theory for some three decades despite operating off a map-territory error, the belief that “meaning” is some inherent, objectively definable quality of a work, rather than merely a term which signifies anything we assign it to. So then there are many meanings, and if none can claim supremacy in an inherent sense, we can at least choose among meanings and hermeneutic approaches on consequentialist grounds, There are no true meanings, but there are meanings with smaller and larger sum values.

Some in the rationalist community, like Julia Galef and Gwern, have mentioned patching plot holes as satisfying “apologetics” (aka “fanwanking”), a para-artistic practice that increases the sophistication of unsophisticated media and which more critics ought strive toward. Neither is necessarily wrong, but I’m wary of rationalist utilitizing of art: prior attempts have prioritized ease over complexity or rigor, have acquiesced to low and middlebrow sensibilities, have understood the maximization of good as the maximization of pleasure, and used this understanding as a defense of sloppy artistry, short-term thinking, or else an attack on the avant-garde.

A truly utilitarian or return-maximizing critic would have to care about the effects of art production in the short-term. And it would have to care about the effects of art production in the long-term.

In what we want out of art, what comes to mind first are the empathogenic effects of (and say what else you will about it) A Little Life. I’m thinking about the meaning generativity of strong narrative. I’m thinking about art-as-role-model vs. art-as-reflection-of-human-nature.


In the world of literary theory, return maximization has no room, time, or patience for questions like, “What is the meaning of the text?” “What did the author intend?” or “Is it a good work?” Interpretation and its angles — formal, experimental, empirical, reader-response, traditional — are means to ends in a return-maximizing framework, ways of getting value out of a literary work, ways of making a text do work. There are no truths, only instruments, echoing Bloom’s “what is it good for, what can I do with it, what can it do for me, what can I make it mean?”

Caring about returns means caring about consequence. Caring about consequence requires a shunning of deontology. Cartographic veracity (distinguished from something “feeling true” or “resonating” at a gut level) is important in fiction only so far as deception and falsehood can distort the world in desirable ways.

Distortive interpretation is, as an occasional practice and presence, already part of the critical landscape. Critics will ascribe more credibility and intentionality to authors than is probably “true” or “the case,” and over-patternicity results. We are as gods and might as well get good at it.

Miller’s Law for Aesthetics: First accept a work is good, then figure out how and why that might be the case. In other words, generosity is a prerequisite of appreciation. Gabe Duquette can believe return maximization is the equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome: Stockholm Syndrome is the equivalent of love.

Update 2021—from Aloysius’s excellent Neon Scream review:

Virgil Thomson said that the purpose of music criticism is “to aid the public in the digestion of musical work”. The word “digestion” is key, because it implies that there’s more to the task than simply casting evaluative judgement, or relaying accurate information. The critic has done their job only when they have helped other listeners get more out of the music. A lot of my favorite music writing–e.g. Energy Flash and More Brilliant than the Sun–does this by bringing the visceral thrills of new developments in populist music styles to listeners who are disconnected from all the vernacular excitement, vaguely aware of the music but not yet grasping what’s so revelatory about it. Kit Mackintosh’s Neon Screams is very much in this lineage, both in aim and quality.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: