Sunday, March 14, 2010
A Defense of Literary Studies Anyone?
During the first minute or two of the clip below, Alec Baldwin gives an impassioned brief for the fundamental importance of acting, his craft. Has any humanist recently defended the humanities this unequivocally? Has any literary scholar defended the academic study of literature with like passion and conviction? And I mean the academic study of literature, not literature itself, that’s different.
I just want to note that I have considered “coffee is for closure!” and found it wanting.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t being sincere… he was just acting.
Oy, talk about apples and oranges. It’s like saying, “This cancer doctor can justify his work. Why can’t scholars of Victorian woodcraft?”
Actors have *always* been more popular than critics—more popular, probably, than writers, too. So it’s quite easy to defend one’s craft qua craft when it’s assumed that billions of people in the world appreciate one’s craft and are willing to spend craploads of money to see it in action.
And then, of course, The Valve is far more interested in actors, films, and TV shows than in, say, literature. If I were someone who strongly believes in the study of the humanities, I’d be coy around here too. OK, maybe not me, but others perhaps.
I’ve seen impassioned defenses of the humanities, but they’re usually in a textual medium, or in the classroom. Even more often, they’re discipline-specific. (Marjorie Garber’s Manifesto for Literary Studies springs to mind.)
I do have to admit that I would love to see a professor in the humanities passionately defending the broad span of humanities scholarship on youtube, but something tells me that it wouldn’t get as many hits as the actor who plays Jack Donaghy.
The Valve is far more interested in...
The Valve is many things and many people with many interests, yours and mine included.
It does seem to be the case that there is more shared knowledge / experience / potential for discussion around films and TV shows than around literature--perhaps because (as others have pointed out to me) it’s just less likely that any two people are currently reading the same book at any given time than that some number of people have seen the same newly released film or are watching the same season of an ongoing show. So more “literary” posts can (feel as if they) fall a bit flat. But there have been quite a few of them lately, I thought, including Adam’s on Bolano, mine on Vikram Seth,etc.
For impassioned defenses of the humanities, there’s this. Not on YouTube, mind you. But you can find all kinds of humanistic treasures on YouTube including poetry readings, film clips, and so on...much of the actual content there seems to me a kind of implicit defense of or acknowledgment of the value people place on the arts and humanities.
Luther is a long-time Valve commenter and has earned the right to troll. But that doesn’t mean that each individual trolling comment should be taken seriously. What were we doing when we read Adam Bede? Watching it on YouTube? Or when we read Villette, were we discussing which actors were suited to their roles? When we discuss SF—wait a minute. That’s not literature, right?
Rich, it’s odd that any critical statement on a blog can get labeled “trolling,” but hey, that’s part of the fun of blogs.
In any case, of course The Valve is interested at some level in literature. But the trend recently is toward animated films, television shows, films in general, and comic books. And the unspoken assumption is that these media are far more relevant than Great Books—which is, in my mind, an unspoken claim that the humanities as traditionally understood are no longer relevant.
And no, sci-fi as a whole is not literature, any more than historical fiction or poetry or drama is literature. This is not about popularity but about depth of ideas, depth of emotions, intensity and seriousness of purpose, and rigorous perfection of craft. The humanities’ study of culture should be different than the social science study of culture precisely according to those sorts of standards. So to defend the humanities passionately would seem to necessitate a passionate stand in the name of the greatness and beauty of a very limited set of cultural achievements. Otherwise, why not passionately let the humanities die and take up arms in the name of the sociology of written works, movies, comics, etc.?
The distinction between critical statements and trolling sort of depends on approximate length and justification of statement vs. sweeping nature of claims. In this case the characterization “the trend recently is toward” seems to ignore a whole lot of posts on Great Books.
And sci-fi as a whole may not be literature, but some individual work of sci-fi are literature, just as some individual work of poetry are literature. For that matter, some comic books may be literature. Rejecting a sociological view of works does not mean that the low-culture genres have to be rejected wholesale.
“Troll” is a catch-all pejorative that’s only used with any consistent justice, I’ve noticed, in comment threads and chat rooms where “STFU”, “PWNED” and “ROFLMAO” are standard bites of expression. On The Valve (and loosely affiliated sites), it’s too often a fairly effective (and irritatingly sanctimonious) means for shutting down a dissenting opinion. A comment can be examined or ignored… what’s the utility in ad homming someone who obviously has an actual point to make (whether or not the point is popular)? Ideas are being treated as a pathology when you reach for the T-word.
The tribal dynamic of online “communities” (eg, hanging out) always threatens to overwhelm the intellectual activity (eg, critical discussion). I’d go so far as to make the point that not-exactly-deep (ie, taking the material at face value) discussions of Pop *is* a tribal dynamic (the pleasure of shared values) and not really much of an intellectual activity.
Treating Hollywood product like single-artisan artifacts (eg, buying the “vision” myth), for example, is already pretty lax, critically, though easily understood (suddenly) as a tribal pleasure; a higher form of chatting about the weather or sports.
Is The Valve robust enough to take that kind of criticism into consideration and discuss it (or not) like any other *idea*, without resorting to defensive tribal maneuvers?
But the trend recently is toward animated films, television shows, films in general, and comic books. And the unspoken assumption is that these media are far more relevant than Great Books—which is, in my mind, an unspoken claim that the humanities as traditionally understood are no longer relevant.
Or, perhaps, that the former are a) newer and b) less well-studied, and so it’s easier to say something novel and interesting about “The Hurt Locker” than it is to say something novel and interesting about “Robinson Crusoe”, in the same way that you’ve got more of a chance of finding a new species of butterfly in Papua New Guinea than you have in Dorset.
Going a bit further, think about how a work ends up on a list of Great Works: in part, because it’s been giving rise to interesting thoughts for a long time. So saying that analysts should be concentrating on Great Works is mistaking the process - it’s like saying that farmers should concentrate on the grown trees and ignore the seeds.
"So saying that analysts should be concentrating on Great Works is mistaking the process - it’s like saying that farmers should concentrate on the grown trees and ignore the seeds.”
Your presumption being that the chief categorical difference between Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is one of age...? You can put Hurt Locker in a time-capsule for a century: it won’t age into a masterpiece (though it may well ripen into a cultural indictment). Has *Speed* gotten much better over the years? (Comparison deliberate).
Wouldn’t more of a remedy for Luther’s complaint be something along the lines of discussing actual *Art* (quite a few films/songs out there aren’t just normative swill)? Bill mentioned Sita Sings the Blues a while back… isn’t there a case to be made that there’s a certain laziness in letting the Dark Knight/Avatar/Name-Your-Next-Steroided-Release push “smaller” films out of the frame of discussion?
Film is not, automatically, Pop; neither is music. And there are degrees of Pop. But the Pop-ish stuff that tends to get an airing hereabouts often has the least (beside market saturation) to recommend it. I mean: won’t someone take on something *interesting*, like “Anti-Christ”, from time to time? I still can’t see how the Avatar/Hurt Locker discussions turned up much.
Well, ajay, if the humanities is simply about “saying something new,” then we’re all screwed.
And sure, Great Works become Great Works by being discussed. But not by being discussed in any old way. I’m amazed again and again at a certain repeating form at The Valve: this film isn’t great, but it raises some interesting issues about [insert hip topic here]. So no, *The Hurt Locker* isn’t going to become a great work because it gets us talking about the Iraq War. It’ll be considered great when someone dares to posit its greatness.
I’m with StevenAugustine here.
I’d be willing to posit The Hurt Locker‘s greatness if that was necessary—things being as they are, I instead only found it necessary to posit the greatness of Son of Paleface—but I’d rather do so on a movie scholars’ site, where my criteria for “greatness” would not seem so alien.
Ray, please, by all means, let’s hear about the greatness of *The Hurt Locker*. Films are, for me, things to put on while grading homework, so it’s always good to be in the presence of great art while explaining for the hundredth time why titles of entire texts are underlined while titles of parts of texts are put in quotation marks.
"Son of Paleface"--Never saw it, but I’ve a soft spot in my heart for “Paleface.”
Well, ajay, if the humanities is simply about “saying something new,” then we’re all screwed.
Of course they are, and there’s no “simply” about it. People spend their entire careers as (say) scholars of Tang Chinese poetry attempting to say something new about (say) Tang Chinese poetry. A scholar who just repeats what someone else has already said isn’t a very good scholar.
No, ajay, you mean “the way a small minority of elite research institutions approach the humanities.” For professors at many colleges, and for teachers of K-12 humanities, and for many arts organizations, the humanities has nothing to do with someone’s ability to say something new about something.
Well, heck, then, here’s my Son of Paleface piece—including real archival research! And compare-and-contrast with Andrew Marvell! Despite the latter, I wouldn’t really consider it appropriate for the Valve; it would’ve been appropriate for the Auteurs Notebook, but that site started after I began serializing the essay.
Luther, since The Hurt Locker won all those Academy awards (first really good Academy award winner since Silence of the Lambs), it’s hard for me to put much effort into coming to its rescue. I made the basic points at Aaron’s post: this is a good solid war movie made at a time when good solid movies of any genre are rare and precious (albeit not based on a novel on Sapphire), with all the war movie virtues and some smart (if riskily understated) formal innovations. Of course no movie can take the place of a good journalistic or historical or sociological analysis, but presumably we can all still read. And of course any artifact can be examined as a symptom of its makers or its audience, and that examination might be valuable in its own right.
For professors at many colleges, and for teachers of K-12 humanities, and for many arts organizations, the humanities has nothing to do with someone’s ability to say something new about something
a) You’re not a very good professor if you aren’t saying stuff that’s new to your students.
b) Remember the distinction between “doing humanities” and “teaching humanities”; how many lecturers in civil engineering spend their time building bridges?
c) Which are these arts organisations that don’t value originality?