Welcome to The Valve

Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom


Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.



About Last Night
Academic Splat
Amardeep Singh
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogging the Renaissance
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Ferule & Fescue
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Planned Obsolescence
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
Say Something Wonderful
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
What Now?
William Gibson

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Discipline: The Aesthetic and the Ethnographic

Posted by Bill Benzon on 02/07/07 at 06:20 PM

Scott Eric Kaufman’s recent post about the graphic novels issue of MFS Modern Fiction Studies got me thinking about disciplinary matters. On the face of it, as Scott noticed, the special issue seems concerned about canonical legitimacy, hence the prominence given to a Pulitzer-winning text, Art Spiegleman’s Maus. My initial impression - after reading Scott’s post, the first and last articles in the issue and abstracts for the rest - was that there was nothing about manga in the issue. Since, as far as I know, manga constitutes the single largest body of graphic narrative in the world, that absence seemed rather glaring.

But, I suspect that my interest in manga (and anime) is rather different from the interest the MFS authors have in graphic narrative. I’m not terribly interested in claiming lasting canonical legitimacy for this or that manga. It’s clear that some of these materials seem intended for pre-teens, others for young teens, older teens, adults, males and females, and so forth. And some of them may well deserve a place in some high-art canon. But at the moment I’m not interested in arguing those distinctions. I treat manga as examples of human culture, and that’s why I’m interested in them. Through studying them we can learn something about the mind and about culture.

It’s a matter of how one frame’s one’s inquiry, of how one justifies the range of texts open for consideration. For the purposes of discussion, I’ll use the terms “aesthetic” and “ethnographic” for these two stances. Note that this distinction is not necessarily about the methods one uses in studying a body of work. 

The Aesthetic Critic

The aesthetic critic is concerned to study those texts which are the best a given culture - or all humankind - has produced. It seems to me that the academic study of literature has traditionally chosen its objects of study from the aesthetic point of view. It is the study of a so-called canon of texts that have passed the test of aesthetic excellence.

The nature of that test is not very clear. As I said in the comments to Scott’s post:

I think that judgments about good and bad literature are arrived at on an intuitive basis and communally negotiated in terms of richness, complexity, reflexivity, and so forth, while quoting appropriate passages here and there to illustrate what’s being talked about. But, such examination and discussion are applied ONLY to those texts judged to be good. It is simply assumed that the bad ones do not measure up on those rather vague standards.

One of the standard cliches is that good texts can support many readings; that’s a measure of their goodness. And, what do you know, we have many readings for the good texts. That’s because the community that believes this doesn’t bother to provide readings for bad texts.

As for the value of these readings, my guess is that it has more to do with the critic than with the text or texts being criticized.

What we do not have anywhere, as far as I know, are explicit criteria applied to a wide variety of texts with the evaluations being done in some way that permits objective comparison between valuations.

The work thus done, the preservation and promulgation of a body of cultural material, of texts, seems to me necessary and valuable one. But one might have questions about institutionalization - I note, for example, Daniel Green’s recent series of essays (starting here and continuing here, here, and here) about how the primary winnowing of modern fiction into a canon has deserted the journalistic sphere in favor of the academy. But I want to treat that as a secondary issue.

Given this, how has this cultural enterprise proceeded? On the face of it, broaching such a topic in the space of a brief blog post is absurd, with the absurdity multiplied by the fact that I’ve read little of extant literature on the professionalization of literary studies. Nonetheless, I want to float some informal observations.

In the first place, explicit aesthetic evaluation is not and has not been a major part of the academic literary disciplines. We do not spend a lot of time arguing for the excellence of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, or Thomas Mann. We simply assume it.

In the second place, and more importantly, we have done and continue to do various kinds of work around and about the canonical texts. There is literary biography, various kinds of literary history, source and influence study, study of tropes and imagery, and so forth. However this work is framed and justified, there’s a great deal of accumulated knowledge about how these canonical texts relate to one another, to external events, to the human mind, and, for that matter, to non-canonical texts. While the selection of a universe of discourse may be steeped in mystery, the profession has had quite a bit to say about that universe that is not so mysterious.

The Ethnographic Critic

The ethnographic critic is not focused specifically on the sublimely beautiful. If the text is a human one, then it is within the scope of study. Thus the range of texts within the purview of the ethnographic critic is much larger than that within the purview of the aesthetic critic, which is a proper subset of the ethnographic critic’s range. In fact, the range is so large that it may be crippling, an issue which Franco Moretti faced in Graphs, Maps, Trees, in which he espoused “distant reading” in which individual texts figured only as data points in a statistical distribution. I’ll return to this issue shortly.

As you might have suspected, I think of myself as an ethnographic critic. I am interested in the human mind, the brain, and culture; and how they interrelate. In particular, I have spent a great deal of time with the cognitive and neurosciences and so find even very simple texts - such as those created for children - to be absorbingly complex. When you look at culture in cognitive and neural terms, phenomena which are beneath the purview of the aesthetic critic all of a sudden seems almost hopelessly complex. That is to say, I don’t need the richness of Coleridge or Dickens to hold my interest. Conversely, I haven’t the foggiest idea of what it would mean to account for a Shakespeare play in cognitive terms, nor does this cause me any anxiety.

But that’s incidental. I don’t think one needs to be interested in the cognitive sciences to work from an ethnographic point of view. One simply needs to be interested in culture wherever and however it is. I would think that students of popular culture and of cultural studies have adopted the ethnographic point of view - though there may be some aesthetic anxiety that is assuaged by reading popular forms as existing in opposition to (evil) high cultural institutions.

It seems to me that one of the most troublesome issues that arises within the ethnographic stance is how to choose just what to study, for it would be impossible for study everything within the very generous scope of the ethnographic perspective. The anthropologist doing fieldwork in a small-scale society faces a daunting task; but one might imagine that a team of anthropologists might “cover it all” over several decades. But the huge multiplicity of texts generated by complex modern cultures, how can one possibly study everything? And if one doesn’t study everything, how do you pick just which texts to study? Obviously, one has to sample the universe of discourse - as students of popular culture have been doing.

By way of comparison I would like to suggest an analogy with biology. The number of different species is in the millions I believe, but biologists have not given all of them equal attention - not to mention the millions of species that have not yet been identified. I imagine that most species haven’t been studied beyond what is necessary to situate them in the overall taxonomy. But some few species have been studied in considerable detail. We study the great apes because they are our close biological relatives. We study fruit flies because their short life span makes it easy to study genetics over several generations. We study wheat and rice because they are important food staples. We study rats because they are both representative of mammals and relatively convenient to work with. And so forth. There are ways of selecting objects of study.

Biologists, of course, have their objects of study organized into a well-developed taxonomic system, though the organizing principles of that system have come under considerable pressure in recent years. Neither literary studies in particular nor the general study of human culture has such a taxonomy, nor is it obvious that one is possible. This bears on the question of just what to study. If one has a coherent organizing system, then one can study a typical member of a category in great detail; much or most of what you learn about that example will apply to the entire category. Literary genres are not so well organized.

The Two Together

As far as the ethnographic critic is concerned, the works meeting the approval of the aesthetic critic are just some among the many works available for study. I do not think this implies, however, that the work of ethnographic analysis can or should replace that of aesthetic appreciation and preservation. Not at all.

As I conceive the distinction, that cannot happen. For the aesthetic critic has a place in an institutionalized literary system as it functions in complex industrial or post-industrial society. The ethnographic critic stands outside the system and examines it from that vantage point - or, at least, attempts to do so.

Further, as far as I can tell, one and the same individual can operate from either of these stances. When I wrote an article on ring structure and ontology in Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis I did so as an ethnographic critic. When I posted a blog entry on Disney’s Fantasia as Masterwork I did so as an aesthetic critic. The assertion that Fantasia is a masterwork is an aesthetic one.

Finally, I wish to return to the question of methodology. I introduced the distinction as one about choices of objects for study. Does the distinction also imply a difference in methods of study? If we use Franco Moretti as an example of an ethnographic critic, then we have one example of something that is natural to an ethnographic critic, but not an aesthetic critic. More generally, we have the idea that the ethnographic critic stands outside the literary system, while the aesthetic critic does not. I do not think this is a simple matter of will and desire. It is also one of method. How is it that the ethnographic critic stands outside?

One could, of course, argue that “standing outside” is not possible. I do not believe that. Nor do I believe that the arguments and methods are simple and self-evident. There is much work to be done.


It seems slightly odd to refer to this as “The Aesthetic and the Ethnographic”.  Can you really have ethnography without fieldwork?  I don’t think that the study of texts alone can really substitute for the in-depth study of a culture.  I’m not trying to be picky about word choice; I think that it’s a symptom of a certain overstretch in the project.  You write “Through studying them we can learn something about the mind and about culture”—well, sure, in one sense the study of any text can tell you something about the mind and about culture.  But there seems to be an implication that sufficently broad study can lead to some kind of general cultural or cognitive rules, derived from manga, that extend past the generic boundaries of manga, which I don’t think is true.

Opposing this to “the aesthetic critic” is troubling in a different way.  Not much of contemporary literary studies really appears to be concerned with aesthetics.  As Scott says in a Long Sunday thread, “The first problem, as Graff noted in Professing Literature, is that English departments were constructed such that they could absorb and compartmentalize dissonant areas of study”.  At this point, it appears to me that non-academic critics mostly seek to match texts with audiences for commercial purposes, and academic critics write about a constellation of issue areas that is not easily describeable except by reference to the history of what academic critics have talked about.  The literary / non-literary distinction no longer, it seems to me, maps into a distinction between aesthetic and cultural study.

By on 02/07/07 at 08:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, this is a very interesting division. It’s one that struck me as I began to move from an exclusively canonical approach to one that incorporated lots of popular culture (a change that itself was accelerated by blogging).

That said, I find myself now at the position of arguing for something like “the addition of cultural relevance to the set of criteria for canonization.” Furthermore, it turns out that the criteria for that relevance are rather strict, because it is easy to exaggerate the ethnographic importance of certain cultural artifacts.

In other words, a very important work of high aesthetic value can be ahead of, behind, or alongside its times, and thus it can leave us still wanting to perform other kinds of analysis on more popular art.

However, not all popular art does what it claims to do, or what its marketing team claims it does, or what its initial fans say it does. I’ve seen a lot of well-intentioned efforts in cultural studies go astray because the ethnographer took literally somebody’s claim that “this is very important to me” or “this is my favorite.” Nowadays, terms like “favorite,” “important,” “popular,” “sleeper,” and so on are deliberately manipulated by advertisers. We have to look for the densest, most revealing pieces of popular art, which ends up being an aesthetic judgement, even if that judgement rules out some kinds of art that are good but not the Zeitgeist.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/07/07 at 08:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich—Forget manga, it’s just an example. I could as easily have mentioned police procedurals, hip hop, or graffiti. As for aesthetics, when (intellectual) conservatives complain about English departments, one thing they complain about is that “the classics” aren’t taught any more; the standard reply to this is that, yes, those texts pretty much are still being taught. Whatever that is that’s at the center of that little exchange, that’s what I’m talking about. If you don’t like the word “aesthetics,” then choose some other word.

The discipline of English isn’t what it was 40 years ago. But as far as I can tell, there’s been no Copernican revolution, just a bunch of new cycles and epicycles around the same old center.

* * * * * * *

Joseph—I think it’s all pretty much a mess. But it does seem to me that if we’re ever to understand how culture works we’re going to have to move beyond a relatively small set of works chosen according to some criterion of beauty or liberatory potential. We might, in the end, want to give more attention to such works, be we need to understand how they all work.

Though I’ve read quite a bit about jazz and related musics, I’ve not read all the much cultural studies. My impression is that cultural studies is a move in the direction I’ve called ethnographic, but it’s still yoked to some sense of what culture is best for us.

By Bill Benzon on 02/07/07 at 10:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I totally agree with you, that we can’t narrow things down to beauty or “liberatory potential.”

I suggested terms like “density” because of the constraint on our time; I was thinking specifically of an argument I had with a friend about The Day After Tomorrow, in which the friend was arguing for its cultural significance, and I was arguing that it would be forgotten...the day after tomorrow. It’s funny to give that example, since I’ve just been writing about apocalyptic art, but still the best I can say about The Day After Tomorrow is “as well this as any other.”

In some ways, cultural studies has the same problem as certain biased forms of anthropology. We assert that something is significant, the populace moves on, and suddenly we’re left holding the bag (especially since what we really enjoy reading, personally, is Shakespeare, or John Grisham, or etc.). In extreme cases, one finds the outsider scolding the person inside the other culture (or the “other” of mass market culture) for abandoning their heritage.

I wonder if all art works the same way. Surely works in the same medium are processed in some of the same ways, but I wonder whether differences in quality create differences in (for example) cognitive processing. (Not something I will be able to test as a graduate student in English, of course, and I would be very wary of trying to duplicate the loaded studies of the “Mozart effect.")

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/07/07 at 11:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, you’re raising a genuinely difficult conundrum for your field. My impression is that folks trained in literary criticism and allied fields are, some of them, so imbued with the “aesthetic” approach that for (some of) them even to consider any alternatives is disturbing (as exemplified by our recent discussion of manga here on the Valve, and as exemplified by “Darwinian” aesthetics in evolutionary psychology, e.g., the work of Joseph Carroll). My impression of Carroll is that he wants to “naturalize” the aesthetic canon as a body of work that has received an implicit imprint of excellence from evolution. Yes, he is doing many other things as well, but as the sacred status of the canon is challenged, e.g., by feminist critics and by Afro-American critics, its status is being bolstered in Darwinian aesthetics by what amounts to mythological means by referring it to “evolved constraints on the mind” a la Tooby and Cosmides.

I agree that the ethnographic approach has a methodological problem you identify neatly: if evolution or intuition do not privilege one text over another, then what shall we study? I’d suggest that the history of biology, geology, chemistry, and astronomy (but physics far less) provides one answer: one studies whatever one wants, and with enough people, eventually a robust body of knowledge arises. As the range from astronomy to chemistry suggests, there need be no detailed methodological similarities among people creating this “robust” body of knowledge; I doubt if Moretti’s methods (sensu strictu) would of great use to you for studying the structure of Coleridge’s “The Lime Tree Bower.” Using manga and anime as examples, I think we are seeing something akin to the development of such a robust body of knowledge from work of scholars as varied as Susan Napier, Patrick Drazen, Paul Gravett, Brian Ruh, and, of course, Frederik L. Schodt in the Anglophone tradition, and Mari Kotani, Ueno Toshiya, Setsu Shigematsu, and Tatsumi Takayuki, among many others, in the Japanese language tradition.

So it may well be that as more and variously trained scholars find the ethnographic approach appealing, we will see great variation in methods and approaches and yet also see convergence towards some general methodological principles. Their exact form is not yet fully clear, and perhaps will not be for several centuries. But— and I find this heartening—at least they are clear enough for you to make a good case for recognizing them as significantly different from traditional methods for studying an already identified “literary canon.”

By on 02/08/07 at 12:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, a more general question—what maintains the elite literary canon in place? Clearly, new stuff is added as time passes, but I’d imagine that the canon is growing more slowly than the rate at which new novels (say) are published. That suggests that gate-keeping mechanisms exist to prevent an elite canon from being swamped by new non-canonical stuff, but it also suggests that the canon is preserved more or less intact from the past, that is, there are mechanisms that prevent old stuff from being lost. By “preserved,” I don’t mean the physical preservation of books, but a system of social memories that acts like an Almanach de Gotha for Noble and High Works of Literary Art. But that’s only a metaphor—what actual mechanisms are at work?

One reason to ask is that the ethnographic approach you’re discussing seems to escape the power of these mechanisms to influence or determine what is/should be studied and what is not/should not.

By on 02/08/07 at 01:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting question, Tim. When I was in secondary school we read a lot of “the classics” in English class, sometimes in abridged versions. I assume that something like that still goes on; so there’s one institution. Those teachers, of course, got trained in colleges and universities where they took courses in literature and, as they were career teachers, in the teaching of literature to secondary schoolers. But even college students who aren’t destined to become teachers take literature courses; and those courses—despite much sturm und drang over the canon—are still based on the classics. A few texts have been added, some removed, but it’s still pretty much the same.

Now, who teaches those undergraduate classes in the classics? Why, people with degress in literature, that’s who. But the range of texts one reads in graduate courses is, on the whole, wider than that taught on the undergraduate and secondary school levels. One will read minor texts by canonical authors and one will read secondary and tertiary authors from days of old. Still, things are pretty much oriented around the canon.

And then there is cultural studies, which is not, despite the name, the general study of culture. It’s rooted in (British) Marxism and so is somewhat political in emphasis. It is also much more interested in popular culture. That hadn’t really pulled together until after I’d left teaching in ‘85 so I don’t know how it’s become institutionalized at the undergraduate and graduate levels. It seems to me that this is a move toward the ethnographic stance in that it wishes to take account of cultural expression beyond that of the high-art tradition. But the politics that comes with it seems to tie it to the aesthetic stance as an aesthetics of opposition.

So, the educational system carries the main burden here. Outside that you’ve got book clubs, reading groups, libraries, and stuff—make a movie of a classic novel and you sell paperbacks on the side. But this all seems secondary.

And then there is theater, which is a bit different. Of course, plays are most often taught simply as texts to be read. But there’s also a complex world of performance venues for theatre.

And that, in turn, prompts me to think of classical music. You still have the educational system—though I’ve got the impression that there isn’t nearly so much music appreciation taught in the public schools these days as there was in my youth. But you also have a network of not-for-profit performance venues and organizations, symphony orchestras, opera companies, and so forth. Some are modest community orchestras with volunteer players (I played in one in Bennington, VT, for two or three years) while others are renowned international institutions with endowments, boards of wealthy benefactors, and corporate sponsorship. This entire system is subsidized by private charity and government grants. It is also present in higher education, which trains the musicians, teaches the music to undergraduates, and sponsors research in musicology.

And then there is ethnomusicology. And now we’ve got jazz studies. And so on.

But the general question you ask, Tim, is very much one about the institutional mechanisms of cultural memory and maintenance. I tend to think that the natural institutional home for my cultural ethnography would be the Martian Academy for the Study of Third Planet Culture. Those Martians might be disinterested students, or they might be gearing up for conquest, but in either case I think they’d be interested in all culture, not just that certified by an elite group.

By Bill Benzon on 02/08/07 at 02:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is akin, then, to the so-called “Great Books” tradition in librarianship. It’s a traditionalist view, dating back to at least to when Andrew Carnegie was endowing libraries across small-town America around the start of the 20th century, which holds that libraries have a public moral purpose of preserving and lending “good books” to library patrons. Good books are those that teach morally uplifting lessons, that support the eternal verities, that uphold received religion and marriage, and that put forth the God-given goodness of values of the American economic and political system, especially as favored by men like Andrew Carnegie. In brief, no anarchists, tracts on free love, stories of rebellious girls, or essays by French radicals of any kind.

It was later opposed by the “Library Bill of Rights” vision, which holds the view that public libraries—not merely dusty academic libraries where single copies of “bad books” are safely in the hands of conservative professors—but tax-supported public libraries have the duty to make available ALL books whatever to public library patrons, whether or not those books were “morally uplifting.” That includes not only anarchists and French radicals of all kinds, but novels like “Catcher in the Rye,” the single most objected-to book in American library history.

There were/are architectural correlates to these two visions. The first kind of library, as a temple of morality and rectitude, was housed in a building with a Greco-Roman facade, big columns and marble stairs, with stacks guarded by vigilant librarians devoted to preventing anarchists, rebellious girls, and French radicals from entering. The stereotype of the lynx-eyed lady librarian with a bun and glasses comes from this tradition. Modern libraries, which widely adhere to the “Bill of Rights” vision, are by contrast housed in new glass and ferroconcrete buildings with well-lit atria and signs telling patrons to ask a librarian if they can’t find the book they want and announcements of readings of Beat Generation poets.

These aren’t stereotypes as much as they are archetypes and visions of an ideal society. So I’d suggest that the “aesthetic” vision you’re discussing can be understood historically and ethnographically as deeply rooted in one, but *only* one, part of American culture.

By on 02/09/07 at 05:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Speaking (quickly) as a self-described aesthete, I would call your first critic a “Canonical Critic” or an “Establishment Critic”. As you say, not that much effort is actually spent on “aesthetic evaluation” of canonical works, any more than in times past much effort was spent on showing that canonical works were actually more “morally improving”. Beauty is wilder and wider than a canon, and so the aesthetic impulse is often canoniclastic: “I don’t know Art but I know what I like.” Most comics fans from across the spectrum would probably agree with me that this emphasis on “Maus” can only be justified canonically (or ethnographically, if the culture being studied is the Anglo-American academy), not aesthetically.

I think word choice especially matters in the sort of empirical research that interests us both, since, as I’ve written before, a characteristic flaw of many attempts to study the arts scientifically has been to define “art” as “conservative canonical art.”

By Ray Davis on 02/09/07 at 04:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting comments, Ray. Would you elaborate on Maus? Though I own it, I’ve not read it. Are you saying that, despite it’s canonical status, it’s not aesthetically strong?

* * * * *

Interesting about libraries, Tim. I looked up “Library Bill of Rights” in the Wikipedia and found that the American Library Association passed the first version in 1939, on the eve of WWII. That’s a rather obvious time to be concerned about the availability of written materials to citizens in a democracy.

Also, your earlier remark about Carroll’s use of evolutionary psychology. I think that’s right, and he’s not the only one. There’s an aweful lot of nostalgia for the good old days and some hope that if only we find the right methodology we’ll be able to nail down the meanings of these (canonical) works once and for all. Trouble is, “meaning” is not a well-defined notion, which implies—to me at least—that no conceivable methodology will nail down those meanings once and for all. That’s not how the literary system works.

By Bill Benzon on 02/09/07 at 04:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Are you saying that, despite it’s canonical status, it’s not aesthetically strong?”

I’m afraid my opinion’s pretty banal—thrilling start, especially in those big noisy issues of RAW; slack at the climax—but that’s not the point. The point’s that Maus isn’t aesthetically central to any comics-aware individual or community I know. I’ve met intellectuals who’ve centered around “Peanuts” or Carl Barks’s ducks; superhero scholars might champion Kirby’s “Fantastic Four” or Miller’s “Dark Knight”. Outside domestic provincialism, the adult competition’s fierce, and I don’t imagine Maus seems primary to Francophones or anyone familiar with the various manga traditions.

Among comics readers, Maus likely matters most to the middlebrow American types who buy from Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly. Conveniently, we were surveyed in 1999. Repolled now, there’d be many additions; Jaime Hernandez’s collected “Locas” and Gilbert Hernandez’s collected “Palomar” would save them from competing against themselves; Kim Deitch might be boosted by recent publications and publicity; I suspect Maus would rank lower. But certainly “Krazy Kat” would hold onto the Citizen Kane spot.

Maus‘s overwhelming dominance in the NYTBR and English departments isn’t due to its importance to art or its merit as judged by experts over time, but to how well it meets institutional needs. It’s

* a memoir
* about the Holocaust
* which deploys unsubtly self-conscious technique. (Note the Paul Auster tie-in in MFS.)

Given those entry cards, Maus could’ve been much worse aesthetically and still attained its token status.

Less ambiguously, inclusion of two essays on the wretched Shadow of No Towers can only be explained by Spiegelman’s canonization.

I confess, though, I don’t think I’m adding much to SEK’s original post and (early portion of) comment thread....

By Ray Davis on 02/10/07 at 10:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Maus‘s overwhelming dominance in the NYTBR and English departments isn’t due to its importance to art or its merit as judged by experts over time, but to how well it meets institutional needs.

That’s more or less what I had suspected. It’s convenient vehicle for exploring the sorts of thing the well-equipped pomo critic wants to talk about.

* * * * *

BTWW, in calling one stance the aesthetic stance my intention was more modest that you seemed to think it was. My point was simply that the choice of texts is justified by the (largely unargued) belief that those texts are the best. Whether or not that’s true is a different matter. One can certainly prefer non-canonical texts on aesthetic grounds.

By Bill Benzon on 02/10/07 at 11:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I understood that, Bill, and I doubt that I would’ve brought the matter up if it weren’t that we share an interest in empirical techniques and that this particular loose usage has ruined so many attempts to study aesthetic experience. Selecting what the contemporary academic canon (or rather the academic canon of the researchers’ childhoods) agrees is “the best” means that they’re not so much studying “engagement with art” as “memories of the classroom”. Such distortion is an inherent, perhaps inescapable, problem when attempting to produce criticism from within a literary or art history department. But I’m not so sure it has to be accepted in psychological, sociological, or biological research.

By Ray Davis on 02/10/07 at 12:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I expect that you’re right, Ray, that “Maus” isn’t especially central either to many comics readers or comics scholars. Maybe it should be, but like many graphic narratives it is still treated as marginal merely by virtue of its medium. I recall a very pained discussion I had quite a while ago with a friend who accused “Maus” of falsifying his Eastern European Jewish grandparents’ experiences with both Nazi and Stalinist anti-semitism. “We weren’t mice,” he kept saying, “That’s what *they* said. The camps weren’t comics.” It felt empty to “explain” what Spiegelman was trying to do, especially since my own (grandparental) background is Russian Jewish.

So once again we encounter history and culture when we try to define the “aesthetic canon.” Now, it seems to me that Bill’s point is broader than merely the medium used to spin a yarn (logographic or pictographic or both). The point has to do, among other things, with the **acceptability** of a story to various institutional groups (the academy, libraries). Bill, when I was reading your comments I kept thinking about Disney’s “Fantasia” (one of your interests). What were the reactions of various critics to “Fantasia”? And what meanings do you think “Fantasia” contains, either implicitly or explicitly? Are there meanings that “Fantasia” *cannot* contain solely and purely because it is an animated cartoon?

By on 02/10/07 at 01:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The characterization of what academic critics are up to is all over the place in this thread.  If Maus has been canonized, it’s not because of dimly remembered classes from the youth of professors, or because critics think it’s “morally uplifting”, or because the critic is a “conservative canonical” one (those, I think, would have trouble with any comic book), or particularly because they are “pomo” (really, those would like that Butlerian analysis of Sailor Moon a lot better), or because (here I agree with Ray) that they are aesthetic critics who findMaus to be aesthetically exceptional.

As for it being a memoir and being about the Holocaust, those surely helped.  Note, though, that similar factors don’t seem to have helped Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen) much.

The central irritant that makes Maus canonical, I think, is the unsubtly self-concious technique.  The use of mice, cats, etc. does two things at once: it represents an implicit self-criticism of the narrator, who (as Luther Blissett says) clearly has been inflicted with handed-down stereotypes, and it links the high or at least middle culture of what Maus is trying to do with the low culture of drawn mice, cats, and dogs going from animated children’s cartoons all the way back to Krazy Kat.  It is thus both pleasantly controversial and referential in a way that makes it a useful gateway comic towards academic acceptibility.  Compare those aspects to Sandman or Lone Wolf and Cub, both of which lack a sort of political escalator that brings in the history of comics that U.S. critics are likely to be familiar with.

By on 02/10/07 at 03:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray, on studying aesthetic experience, perhaps the best empirical work is being done by researchers interested in music. Some of the work is pretty informal, just asking people to describe music they like and how they respond to it. Other involves more controlled responses to music selected by experimenters—and there is probably a bias in favor of Western classical music here. I know in some of the brain imaging work subjects have beena asked to pick what music they want to here. The reasoning here is that, if you want to see how the brain responds the emotionally potent music, you better be sure the subject is listening to music that moves them. And they know that better than you do.

By Bill Benzon on 02/10/07 at 05:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, no insult intended toward the good stuff, Bill. Based on my none-too-rigorous skips through the journals, problem definitions have sharpened lately both in reading and in listening studies. The older material was what I hit first (since I was hitting it a while ago) and there was more of a “Mozart = Music” / “What makes Shakespeare great?” bias back then—disappointing and not very informative. Over the last decade or so, I wouldn’t be surprised if such distortion’s become more common in journalism and popularizations ("Listening to Mozart makes your kid smarter") than in research.

By Ray Davis on 02/10/07 at 05:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the Mozart effect is pretty much over as a research topic, Ray.

* * * * *

Fantasia is a tricky case, Tim. As far as I know it hasn’t received the kind of academic commentary that Maus has, for example. It was, of course, reviewed by movie critics and music critics when it first came out. I’ve read one or two of those reviews and have seen quotations from many more. And the film gets written up in various guidebooks and such (e.g. you’ll find a nice appreciation of the film at Roger Ebert’s site). And I’ve read an article or two on the music in Fantasia.

Now, as you may know, Disney studies is a minor academic industry, an industry that’s about all things Disney, not just the cartoons—the live action films, the nature films, the TV show, the theme parks, the collateral goods, and the corporate empire. You’ll find discussion of race, gender, and ethnicity in the cartoons, and of how Disney moulds those fairy tales and children’s story to fit his vision of the world, but these discussions don’t have much to say about Fantasia because it’s hard to get a purchase on the whole film in terms of those themes.

It’s hard to get a purchase on the whole film in well-understood thematic terms. Unlike almost all feature-length fictional-imaginative films, Fantasia is not a narrative. It doesn’t tell a story. If we take the episodes one by one, only The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has a conventional narrative; other episodes present sequences of events, but none of those sequences is shaped from beginning to end by the intentions of the characters in them. As you may know, I’ve argued that the very diversity of the film is the point; Disney is presenting an encyclopedic view of the world by “sampling the space” of things we know and experience. While I like that idea, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered to post it here, it’s not something I’ve explored thoroughly and so I’m still a bit tentative about it.

Even if we assume that’s a reasonable approach to the entire film, that still leaves us with the problem of analyzing each of the episodes. And there it’s almost as though one has to invent a different critical idiom for each one. It’s not simply that each has different content, but each has its own formal devices and animation style, which is not surprising as each was created by a different team. So I’ve been watching the episodes over and over, sometimes stepping through things frame by frame, and observing. My observation is guided both by my knowledge of cognitive and perceptual psychology, and by whatever aesthetic sensitivity I’ve acquired over the years.

Most recently, for example, I’ve been thinking about the Dance of the Hours segment, the ballet with ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators. The notion I’ve been exploring arose when it suddenly struck me that Ben Ali Gator wasn’t just pretending to be pursuing Hyancinth Hippo, he wasn’t just acting the role choreographed for him; he was really after her. What could that possibly mean? How does one argue such an idea? This led me to the more general thought that what’s driving this whole segment is a tension between the roles in which these animals are cast and, well, their animal natures that just lose it every once in awhile causing them to drop out of role. So now I’m stepping slowly through the episode and taking notes on what’s happening, an particularly about deviations from role, and I learn that that may get me through the ostriches and the hippos, but the elephants and their bubbles are a whole different story. And that starts me to thinking about gags (a term of art, as you know) and their use in cartoons; for this segment is certainly a virtuoso sequence of gags. And so forth and so on. But, if that’s what this episode is about, well, isn’t that one of the central problems of being human, a tension between our “higher” nature and our animal nature?

* * *

I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think that 1) Fantasia was an important film, and 2) there’re interesting things to be learned about the mind by observing how Disney achieves his effects. The first, of course, is an aesthetic judgment, one that many people have, but one the whole it’s marginal in the academy. The second is in part a consequence of the first, but not completely so. And, as I think of it, there may be a strong influence from 2) to 1). I didn’t think Fantasia was so hot when I saw it in the theater in 1969; it was OK, but that’s all. My conviction about the film comes from what I experienced a couple years ago, when I bought the DVD. And by that time I’d spent a great deal of time thinking about the mind and culture from the standpoint of the newer psychologies. In that context—what a thing for a mind to do!

Of course, it wasn’t one mind that made the film; it was 50 or 60 or more—and twice that many hands (a very significant motif in the film, BTW). But that doesn’t diminish the achievement at all. For, however the film was made, it’s enjoyed by one mind at a time.

By Bill Benzon on 02/10/07 at 06:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray, I understand what you mean by your claim that *Maus* isn’t central to many comic readers’ sense of the field.  Still I’d have to disagree. 

By fulfilling certain institutional needs, *Maus* also opened up a far greater audience for comics than before.  Before *Maus* comics were for children (*Peanuts* and superhero work); deviants (adults who continued reading superhero work); and arty types (Crumb, early Spiegelman, Sandman, etc.).  After *Maus*, a huge mainstream audience, along with a large snob-intellectual audience, became interested in comics.  Note the reissue of *The Peanuts* or *Calvin & Hobbes*; note the popularlity of Zwigoff’s films and Clowes comics; note the reisssues of *Krazy Kat*. 

So while hard-core comics fans might not be too impressed by *Maus*, all producers of smart comics who are currently making more money than ever before are thankful for *Maus*, even if they often express resentment about its popularity. 

I’d make the same argument about *Maus* as I made about Radiohead in the past: nothing original, but by bringing marginalized musical ideas into a genre categorization available to a wider audience, both Spiegelman and Radiohead changed the face of their fields.  Spiegelman wrote a long comic strip and called it a Holocaust memoir; Radiohead does second-rate experimental electronic pop but called it rock’n’roll.  But after each, those working in the marginal areas found themselves with a much larger audience. 

It’s interesting to me that this isn’t the case in today’s poetry.  Jorie Graham, Anne Carson, and Carolyn Forche all produce poetry informed by the avant-garde but manage to market it to a more mainstream poetry audience.  And yet their great popularity hasn’t opened up any oppurtunities for the real avant-garde writers (in the way that, say, Radiohead can be given credit for rejuvenating Damo Suzuki’s career).

By on 02/10/07 at 07:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One implication of Bill’s discussion of “Fantasia” is that whether or not it is part of a canon anointed by anointed (academic) experts, it can be analyzed in meaningful details. By “meaningful,” I mean non-trivial - the content, at the overt level of what we see, is not simple. And (I agree with Bill’s viewpoint here) what it “does” in the brain of the viewer is going to be even more complex!

The conclusion is important for discussing the literary and artistic canon because (it seems to me) there is an implicit claim in saying that canonized Works of Art are superior to other, lesser things. It’s a claim not made by people who work in what you’re calling the Ethnographic Mode (my capitals). That claim, made I suspect repeatedly over decades for canonical works, is that they are self-evidently richer, more complex, subtler, and more moral and more uplifting than “mere” cartoons, comics, pulp fiction, chick lit, shojo manga, popular novels, and, of course, most television and most movies. In brief, it is claimed by the guardians of high morality in art that canonical art has MORE things of value than the garbage devoured by the great unwashed masses and the gammas - things of value that we of the elite of course (a) recognize innately and (b) appreciate in our art.

However, if the analysis of “Fantasia” (say) can reveal complexities of the order you are discussing, then boundaries between “mere cartoons” and “high art” start to become porous. I am NOT suggesting that analysis in the Ethnographic Mode is motivated solely or primarily by desires to poke holes in boundaries; I take it as a truism with high face validity that such scholars want to understand works such as “Fantasia” in their own right, regardless of canons of excellence set forth previously or presently. But one result surely has been an increasing recognition that it has become harder and harder to dichotomize art into Work of High Aesthetic Value (elite art) and Work Beneath our Notice (what the gammas like, as in saying “Of course XYZ is popular - it’s the only thing that the great unwashed can understand!”). But some extremely subtle issues are raised by the interaction between characters under the forms and stage masks of Ben Ali Gator when he pursues Hyancinth Hippo. The crux, it seems to me, is that **those issues are not the unique property of canonized or “elite” art.** But by the criteria of what we study as they are set forth in the Aesthetic Tradition, those commonalities have escaped our attention until recently. What’s at stake, in part, in the differences between the Aesthetic and Ethnographic Modes is who has the anointed right to define quality.

By on 02/10/07 at 08:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The comments seem to have moved on a bit, but to turn again to Bill’s post, the aesthetic/ethnographic distinction seems to me more meaningful in terms of what brings individuals to study texts in the first place.

The critics of the “aesthetic” variety are drawn to their work by some kind of delight or fellow-feeling inspired by literature. One might say they love it. This love inspires them to spend as much time as possible with the object of their admiration. They want to get to know it better, either to break the spell or to heighten the pleasure or both. Yes, in the work of criticism itself they are more than likely not dealing with an “aesthetic” question. But perhaps their work is always a comment on or an insight into or a reconsideration of the causes or qualities or implications of the aesthetic experience that made the text seem worth the time in the first place.

To draw another analogy, one might compare the work of the critic to the work of one of the musicians Bill mentioned. It is a common (mis)conception that music is reified in the performance while a text lives on the page. The text on the page is of course just ink without a reader, and the reading of a text is in fact quite like a musical performance. Like a musical performance it requires technique, can be difficult for some and easy for others, can involve mistakes(?) not just of technique but of interpretation and is finally unique to the performer.

The point of this analogy is that, like a musical performer taking on one of the canonized classics, the critic has the delightful experience of (and these are messy phrases) getting inside or occupying or bringing to life a canonized text. And this is not a coolly aesthetic experience, but a kind of coition with the loved object.

I have less that strikes me as interesting or likely accurate to say about those who are attracted to texts by ethnographic questions. I will say simply that I have my doubts about how many there are who don’t in fact start out in the “aesthetic” category, who don’t in fact stay there throughout, continuing to study texts not because they are typical (who can read enough of any culture’s production to know what is typical?) but because the texts appeals to them and they want to spend more time with these appealing texts. There certainly are few masochists studying, say, any given literary mag’s reject pile, which I suppose is much thicker and more representative than the pile of accepted work.

I’ll finally say that academic textual criticism as I’ve pictured it is clearly an extremely priveleged activity. In other words, a great gig. It is even more priveleged than the work of the professional musician, because the majority of a musical performance is shared with the listener, while the reader of a piece of criticism is likely to miss out on much of the critic’s reading, which in its original mental form included the entire text.

By Thomas Munro on 02/11/07 at 06:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, I don’t think we disagree, unless you call being “thankful for making more money” an aesthetic reaction.

Obviously, my attempt to clarify did anything but! Maybe people were misled by the triviality of my point: I thought Bill’s terminology didn’t do justice to the body of his post. His title’s binary opposition conflates at least three axes of literary scholarship—canonical to inclusive; intratextual to extratextual; subjective to empirical—which combine in different ways: a word-distribution study is intratextual and empirical; some current biographies are canonical but extratextual; John Clute’s criticism is subjective and noncanonical; my Emily Dickinson piece used an empirical study of noncanonical texts to suggest a subjective interpretation of a canonical text....

In particular, I wanted to disambiguate subjective dynamic experience from canon formation and revision. Both can be studied empirically, but not, I think, if we assume they’re one and the same. (Or, as Bill wrote, “the nature of that test is not very clear.") Something other than prosody explains why we have more copies of Virgil than of Sappho. For years, the Japanese comic I most saw mentioned in print and shelved in grown-up bookstores was “Barefoot Gen”; I suspect that’s not because it was truly the best-crafted Japanese comic at the time.

It’s true that the aesthetic value of a canonical text is assumed. But that doesn’t mean it’s defining, or even always that evident—if it was, would students need to be taught to perceive it?—or all that’s assumed. The Bible is considered morally improving, and historically significant, and a marker of cultural identity, and beautiful poetry. The Good Book’s whatever “good” is.

By Ray Davis on 02/13/07 at 10:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, I see now, Ray. You’ve begun thinking about how one might go about the ethnographic and empirical study of the disciplines of literature. That, of course, is a legitimate question, and one I wanted to avoid for various reasons. On the one hand, I’m doubtful of my knowledge of what actually happens in literature departments. It’s not so much that I’ve been out of the biz for awhile as it is that lots of the things actually happen and it’s not at all clear to me that there is any simple way to characterize that—forgetting about the teaching of writing and foreign langauges, which are rather different instructional activities that happen to take place in literature departments.

On the other hand, I suspect that the category of “the beautiful” is a mess. Informally, we talk about it as though it were one dimensional: text M is better than text Z is not so good as text Q, and so forth. We could gather all the texts together and arrange them in a continuum from best to worst. The moment I articulate such a notion it seems transparently ridiculous. So maybe “the beautiful” is multidimensional. But what could that possibly mean? That strikes me as being the sort of thing empiricists could hash out and perhaps get somewhere, but it’s more than I want to take on.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, it’s occurred to me that Disney is an interesting case in point. Beverly Lyon Clark devotes the last chapter of Kiddie Lit to Disney, pointing out that he had a high reputation in intellectual and artistic circles in the 1930s. He was awarded honary degrees by Harvard and Yale and a variety of folks thought highly of his cartoons, including Mortimer Adler, Mark Van Doren, René Clair, Walter Benjamin, Sergei Eisenstein, and Sergei Prokofiev. But this approbation collapsed in the 40s and 50s.

But then, after WWII attitudes toward cartoons changed in general; they became strictly kids stuff. And comic books were subjected to moralizing crusades in the 50s that resulted in severe restrictions in content. So it wasn’t just Disney. Something had changed across the culture.

By Bill Benzon on 02/13/07 at 05:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The contents of a canon are made when one is sixteen, (if you don’t grow out of them, perhaps because the contents of the canon are truly beautiful). But they only become Canons when you force some other group of sixteen year olds to read them for reasons institutional, peer pressure-y, or preachy. And usually years later when you’re passed it.

(I’m not precious about the actual age. Pick any age you like, I understand musical preference is acquired just before puberty, but what this might have to do with literary canons, who knows???)

Advocating a canon’s contents is aesthetic drive we all have, studying how things are added or lost from a list is cultural studies, and wondering about the process of Canon change itself (especially if the rate of change changes), is ethnography, anthropology, sociology, economic, commerce, all those people things. If you don’t like change, and maybe think it’s not beautiful then you will pretend that beauty is all there is, and change is ugly. Cure change and you will cure ugly.

This is what a canon is for. Curing ugliness and immorality.

Whereas I think that beauty is youth, and youth beauty.


Also note that such a beautiful Canon will be more stable when different generations have fewer choices and so are more likely to read (and fixate on, or fetish) the same works as their older cohorts at a similar stage in their life had access to. It will be less stable when there are many more works available to be read than just the Bible and the Confessions, and maybe Jane Austen.

One can advocate a list, but its imposition, in order to cure some ill, makes it a canon, if not a bible.

The availability of texts to be read will be partly a function of technology, thus a stabler Canon (I’d predict) would reflect a simpler technology and thus a simpler economy. (Note also that fundamentalism’s attractiveness rises in times of change and ultimately prefers Canons to be a single sacred text.)

Now look, I don’t (at 40) get Harry Potter at all, but if I was 16 I might well be _so_ over Potter altogether, like totally, but still regard the fellow as part of a canon when I have to look, years later, for suggestions to give to my grumpy 13 year old grand-daughter whose staying over for the holidays.

And ‘Catcher in the Rye’?


By meika on 02/16/07 at 10:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:



Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: