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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

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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

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

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Unalienable Rights

Posted by Daniel Green on 02/21/07 at 04:26 PM

Perhaps John Holbo will identify with this, from Jonathen Lethem’s recent Harper’s essay on “intellectual property”:

. . .We consider it unacceptable to sell sex, babies, body organs, legal rights, and votes. The idea that something should never be commodified is generally known as inalienability or unalienability—a concept most famously expressed by Thomas Jefferson in the phrase “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . .” A work of art seems to be a hardier breed; it can be sold in the market and still emerge a work of art. But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity. I don’t maintain that art can’t be bought and sold, but that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising. This is the reason why even a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift; i.e., it’s never really for the person it’s directed at.

For “merchandising,” I would also substitute “theorizing,” historicizing,” and “politicizing.” All three are ways of “selling” art in the academic marketplace, depriving it of its status as gift and ignoring “the person it’s directed at.”


Comments

He gets off on the wrong foot with this:

The idea that something should never be commodified is generally known as inalienability or unalienability

This dictionary says, “inalienable: unable to be taken away from or given away by the possessor.”

More seriously, “the person it’s directed at” is quite often dead, or unknowable, or clearly irrelevant.  I think his argument has no purchase. 

Is that your point in throwing in those other verbs?  Surely theorizing, historicizing, politicizing are all just attempts to frame discourse about the art.  Perhaps there’s no distinction to be drawn between the art “in itself” and the “talk about the art”; but even if so, none of these -izings can seriously inhibit future talk, they can only add to it.

By Vance Maverick on 02/21/07 at 06:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I will give him points, though, for cleverly bolstering his bogus argument by claiming it accounts for an empirical observation I would love to see well justified—the inferiority of advertising to “real art” however defined.

By Vance Maverick on 02/21/07 at 06:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Maussian nostalgia.

By on 02/21/07 at 06:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"More seriously, “the person it’s directed at” is quite often dead, or unknowable, or clearly irrelevant.”

The person it’s directed at is always living--the reader, the listener, the viewer--quite knowable, and the most relevant part of the artistic interchange.

By Daniel Green on 02/21/07 at 06:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmm, I sense a gap.  In your sense, who are the “Master” Letters directed at?  Or the Venus of Urbino?

By Vance Maverick on 02/21/07 at 07:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that this is disproveable by counterexample.  I sometimes will write amateur criticism of some text and send it to the person who wrote the text.  Admittedly, this is not part of the “academic marketplace”, but it does often theorize, historicize, or politicize insofar as I am capable of these activities.  And the person sometimes seems to regard the criticism as a sort of gift; a gift of attention.  As such, I don’t think that my whateverizing the art is a process that removes it from the exchange of gifts.

Now, if I were paid to do this and/or got professional status thereby, I don’t think that would magically change the process.  Advertising is intended to sell products; criticism is intended to examine art.  Whether you get rewarded for it or not doesn’t seem to be the important variable.

By on 02/21/07 at 07:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"This is the reason why even a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift; i.e., it’s never really for the person it’s directed at.”

These lines are directly plagiarized from David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do again,” footnote 39. Where are the fact-checkers on this stuff?

By Carrie Shanafelt on 02/21/07 at 07:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, footnote 38, not 39. If you have the DFW book, it’s on page 289. Did I miss some quotation marks somewhere?

By Carrie Shanafelt on 02/21/07 at 07:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh I see, nevermind, he’s plagiarizing on purpose. He does cite a different Wallace essay later, but forgets to cite him here.

By Carrie Shanafelt on 02/21/07 at 07:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Arg! He does cite him there! Nevermind. I’ve been had, I guess, and just because it got my hackles all up before I figured out what was happening. I hate what a dupe I am.

By Carrie Shanafelt on 02/21/07 at 08:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I sometimes will write amateur criticism of some text and send it to the person who wrote the text.”

Criticism is not the same thing as theorizing or historicizing. Not as I understand it. It can be a gift, not to the author but to other potential readers of this text.

By Daniel Green on 02/21/07 at 08:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The *whole essay* is plagiarized.  That’s its point, I think.  It’s an interesting essay on a lot of levels.

Does Lethem implicitly support Steven Knapp and W.B. Michaels’ notion of “meaning” as identical to “intention” (as articulated in “Against Theory")?  Is such a notion necessary to interpret this essay in the first place?  Or is Lethem arguing for a kind of scriptor-dead-author relationship to his own tissue of quotation? 

If the former, then he’s with Wallace’s communicative (gift-giving) notion of the definition of the work of art.  If the latter, then he’s going against Wallace, which puts us as readers in the paradoxical position of reading his intentions as ironic or counter to Wallace:  in other words, we’re deciding he’s in favor of writer-as-scriptor and against intention specifically by reading his intentionality from a tissue of quotation. 

Based on his affiliations--with the McSweeney’s crowd and the whole DFW project of postirony--I’m guessing he’s agreeing with Wallace here, and using what might otherwise be understood as postmodern pastiche to make his point.

By Lee Konstantinou on 02/21/07 at 09:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmm—then I don’t understand what you mean by theorizing, historicizing, or politicizing.  Let me take as an example my essay, somewhere on Acephalous, on Adam Roberts’ book _Stone_.  In that essay, I theorize that SF authors are productively symbolized as Demiurges, and that this is a good way to understand how the author-function works in these texts; I historicize the book by placing it in its context of reference to Iain Banks, whose works in turn I’ve related elsewhere to the crisis of the left around the fall of the USSR; I politicize the book by relating it to the larger body of political scepticism about utopia.  Are these functions of criticism that are not really criticism, or do they pass as criticism only if I’m not doing them right?  (I can’t help but recognize, after reading this blog so long, that I’m equivocating on theory-vs-Theory.  Is that what you mean?)

By on 02/21/07 at 09:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dan, I don’t think you can generalize that the Intended of any work of art is the living reader/viewer/listener.  Many are the work of art that were never intended for us today: say, all Greek tragic drama, which was written for an audience for whom these stories (and their performances) held ritual significance.  Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia”—while not art, really, but artful nonetheless—were never intended to be read by African-Americans. 

The author’s imagined, ideal audience would therefore be the only “real” audience.  The rest of us are mere overhearers.  I severely doubt that Pound would want Billy-fucking-Collins reading his work; that is, I severely doubt Billy Collins was an Intended receiver of Pound’s “gift,” whatever that is.

If anything, ads always meet their audience, given the sheer amount of demographic testing that goes into them.  And when ads don’t find their audience, they *make* their audience by producing within people the desire to purchase the item or service being advertised.  Works of art more often fail to find their audience, and their audience can completely disappear for several generations before reappearing later.  *Moby-Dick* is an excellent example of a book that had to wait a good while before its audience was even born. 

Then there’s all the art that *was* basically a commodity: the portrait, for instance.  There’s no significant difference between the portrait of a Duke hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London and an ad for Minolo shoes in my recent issue of *Interview* magazine—in fact, I find high fashion ads far more artful than most portraits and landscapes.  Scarlett Johannson’s (spelling?) ads for Louis Vuitton are stunning.  The overflow of her beauty, the luminous texture of her make-up, the shock caused by her expression, and the classic design of the Vuitton purse itself all contribute to significant form. 

Finally, it’s outrageous to say that historical criticism is simply a commodification of art in the academic marketplace.  By the same logic, all this talk of “the gift” is simply a currency exchange of $$$ for cultural capital: Bordieu on taste?

By on 02/21/07 at 09:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: I can’t really comment on your essay before reading it.

By Daniel Green on 02/21/07 at 10:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s just an example, Dan.  The point is that theorization, historicization, and politicization are extensions of what appear to me to be parts of ordinary criticism.  It’s difficult to say when a line has been crossed at which a response to art becomes an instrumental use of that art.

By on 02/22/07 at 12:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Since I’m ASCII-spacing, all I can contribute is a link to Rich’s essay.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 02/22/07 at 01:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, Dan went further than that—he wrote that these various acts “depriv[e art] of its status as gift”, i.e., actually change it, denature it.  (If this were a blog I would allude to its precious bodily fluids.)

Dan, maybe you could pick one of these claims you’ve thrown out and defend it a bit.

By Vance Maverick on 02/22/07 at 01:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Lethem starts with “Art...is received *as* a gift is received” (emphasis added) = experiencing art is *like* experiencing gift exchange (from the point of view of the recipient). 

He then moves very fast to “But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience” = art *is* a gift .

Sleight of hand.  Of course, even in cultural contexts in which gift exchange has more salience than it does in ours, criticism can still be still about the use of the work for competitive self-advancement.

E.g. “As in the game of problems and solutions, the putative object of blame - the ‘wise’ poet - was a stalking horse: the one being tested for wisdom was the performer who had to defend a threatened ‘correctness.’” (Andrew Ford: http://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/ford/110602.pdf)

By on 02/22/07 at 04:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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