Welcome to The Valve
Login
Register


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

Articles
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

Comments
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

XHTML | CSS

Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

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

 


Blogroll

2blowhards
About Last Night
Academic Splat
Acephalous
Amardeep Singh
Beatrice
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogenspiel
Blogging the Renaissance
Bookslut
Booksquare
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cliopatria
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
CultureSpace
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Fernham
Ferule & Fescue
Ftrain
GalleyCat
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
Idiocentrism
Idiotprogrammer
if:book
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
Kitabkhana
Languagehat
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
MadInkBeard
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Moo2
MoorishGirl
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Philobiblion
Planned Obsolescence
Printculture
Pseudopodium
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
ReadySteadyBlog
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
S1ngularity::criticism
Say Something Wonderful
Scribblingwoman
Seventypes
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Splinters
Spurious
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
Uncomplicatedly
Unfogged
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
Waggish
What Now?
William Gibson
Wordherders

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Burden of Criticality

Posted by Daniel Green on 12/07/07 at 12:06 PM

Johanna Drucker sums up her argument in her book, Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (University of Chicago Press, 2005), as follows:

. . .the critical frameworks inherited from the avant-garde and passed through the academic discourses of current art history are constrained by the expectation of negativity. Fine art should not have to bear the burden of criticality nor can it assume superiority as if operating outside of the ideologies it has long presumed to critique. Fine art, artists, and critics exist within a condition of complicity with the institutions and values of contemporary culture. (247)

According to Drucker, artists of the 2000s (representatives of which her book discusses in some detail), no longer see “complicity” with mass culture as an evil to be avoided. These artists use mass culture to create dynamic, visually arresting works the ultimate ambition of which is to be aesthetically pleasing. No requirement of “criticality” is necessary for ideological correctness: the purpose of art is to be aesthetic, and contemporary artists are exploiting the aesthetic possibilities of mass culture to create “fine art” that doesn’t pretend to an inherent “superiority” over that culture. Complicity is ok, as is taking sensory pleasure in art.

I’m ultimately fine with this argument, although it’s unfortunate that a defense of aesthetic value in art has to in effect make common cause with mass culture in order to ensure that “art” survives as a viable endeavor to begin with. (It’s the devil’s bargain that’s unfortunate, not popular culture, or at least particular productions of popular culture, some of which I enjoy just as much as the next guy.) And why is it necessary to equate autonomy in art with a claim of “superiority”? Earlier in the book, Drucker tells us that the high modernist view of art as in its separate sphere actually did damage to the aesthetic claims of art:

By appearing to be entirely aesthetic (its forms and expressions entirely contained in the visual appeal to the senses and lacking in any prescribed or circumscribed purpose), fine art sustains the concept of value as a notion by pretending to be autonomous. The “value” of a work of art is never to be accounted for in the costs of materials and labor or in the investments in production. Fine art appears to be far from the crass worlds of commerce and remote from the real of factory production. Fine art distances itself from the systems that in turn exploit these myths to advantage. Art is not a shell game or a poker bluff, but an assertion of the symbolic basis of value production. . . .

It seems that Drucker is reciting the oft-told story of how modernist art took itself to be free of complicity, innocent of ulterior “purpose,” by “appearing to be entirely aesthetic” and “pretending to be autonomous” but really wasn’t after all, blather, blather, blather. It’s an article of faith that academic criticism clings to like piranhas: art can’t assert autonomy or singularity, can’t carve out an aesthetic space beside the “crass worlds of commerce,” because all expressions are socially or culturally or historically determined. Works of art can be studied alongside tv shows and pop albums because they’re just as inevitably a part of “culture” as any other commodifed object.

I say this is an article of faith because although it is true that all human beings creating works of art are subject to the prevailing assumptions of time and place, this does not seem to me to be a very profound observation. It amounts to saying that living artists are, well, alive rather than dead. (Or that deceased artists lived on this planet rather than on one in some adjacent solar system.) Yet is is held as an unassailable truth in post-New Critical academic criticism that literature must be historicized, that the unavoidable fact that writers put the fruits of their influences into “circulation” means that culture authors texts to the extent that the notion of aesthetic autonomy is just a nefarious illusion.

But why does the fact that any artistic work can be seen to one degree or another as illustrative of cultural forces rule out the possibility it might also be granted a kind of autonomy? If your goal is to show that all cultural expressions are subject to the historical mediation demanded by a properly Marxist view of culture, you can certainly do so, and arguments about the “autonomy” of certain excluded expressions would correctly be dismissed as incoherent. But they would be incoherent only when considered from within this interpretive framework, which is being posited as the only acceptable way of making sense of works of art or literature.

However, if this particular way of making sense of artistic and cultural expression has the virtue of being “true"--albeit in the trivial sense I have indicated--it can hardly claim exclusive rights to truth since its own investment in it rests on the underlying assumption that truth is relative. If literary texts cannot claim to embody universal or unmediated or noncontingent truth because everything is an artifact of incidental human activity, I cannot see any logically disallowed reason why one such activity could not be the study of literary texts for their posited “literary” qualities conceived as separate from their status as cultural representations, congeries of historical forces, conduits of sociological information, or whatever else works of literature can be considered good for. To object that such an approach to literary study (or the study of any of the arts) presumes itself “outside of the ideologies” is either irrelevant--since all critical approaches must scramble to the “outside” in order to speak authoritatively about the “inside"--or just wrong. The “autonomy” game does not presuppose itself outside the rules of relativism; it simply solicits recognition as one game among the others. “Pretending to be autonomous” is good enough for those who think this particular aesthetic game yields interesting insights. “Appearing to be aesthetic” is, in fact, to be aesthetic.

Thus the real question at issue is not whether autonomy is a valid concept in art/literary criticism but which concepts are to be accorded primacy in academic criticism. If the notion of the “autonomous object” is accompanied by close and accurate reading that results in a coherent account of a text or work of art , it can hardly be dismissed as fallacious. It can be assigned a lesser significance in the critical heirarchy, deemed less “serious” in an environment in which the merely literary and the merely aesthetic are identified with a dandy-ish formalism and can be marginalized safely enough while real scholars get on with the business of interpreting history, explaining culture, and intervening in politics. It can be made the scapegoat for all the shortcomings of the previous generation’s critical assumptions and duly assigned its own historicized place in the critical, and curricular, past. In the struggle for dominance in that small part of academe originally (if reluctantly) set aside for “literature,” the proposition that poems, stories, and novels are best regarded as wholly unlike other, more transparently discursive verbal texts, self-enclosed, formally intricate, autonomous, and that the critic’s job is to advance ways of reading such textd that enhance the reader’s experience of them, has clearly lost out. It is unlikely to make a comeback, although periodic efforts like Drucker’s to defend aesthetic pleasure will no doubt still persist.

Although it does seem to me that a debate about terminology, about the conventionality of the critical lexicon, is still in order: When the powers that be in literary study want to show they have not entirely abandoned the old critical order, they like to point out that much current academic criticism is underpinned by what they want to still call “close reading.” But this term has become so overstretched through misuse that, at best, it now merely means “paying attention” and at worse means “interrogating” the text vigorously enough that you finally do find there what you wanted to find. “Close reading” for the New Critics was a reading adjusted to the contours of the text, a reading that seeks to conform itself to the demands made by the text itself and doesn’t demand that the text conform to the critic’s preconceptions. It does so by, indeed, assuming the work’s autonomy.

“Literary criticism” is still identified as the task undertaken by academics who study and write about literature. But academic criticism often seems to have little use for the “literary” as a subject of inquiry except when it can be shown to be illusory, or elitist, or a prop supporting various evil hegemonies. Since it is clear enough that many academic critics would rather be engaged in cultural criticism, ideological criticism, or sociological analysis--anything but the lowly explication of literary texts--perhaps the term “literary criticism” could be turned back to those who do have an interest in exploring, even “appreciating” the possibilities of the literary when considered as an autonomous practice.  I’m really not sure why cultural studies scholars and historicists would want to hold on to the designation, anyway.

Then there are terms such as those used by Drucker: “negativity”; “complicity.” By the first, Drucker seems to mean the incorporation of images, motifs, and sensibilities from mass culture only to “subvert” these references by using them to implicitly critique the insipidity of mass culture. This has been a common response to the encroachment of mass culture on high art, and Drucker is right to suggest that sometimes high art simply borrows from popular culture and that such borrowing is not always an attempt by the artist or the writer to “say something” about culture. That this move attributing “criticality” to works is so familiar only reinforces (for me) the extent to which criticism of art and literature has become wholly fixated on the something said at the expense of the forms of saying (and how form itself mutates straightforward “saying"), but I’m not sure why she needs to use “complicity” as a description of the act of avoiding negativity.

The term only reinforces the notion that artists and writers must be judged by the sociopolitical consequences of their work. Drucker wants it to be acceptable for them to refuse the “burden of criticality,” but to be inevitably “complicit” with cultural practices and attitudes expressing sometimes dubious “values” can’t help but suggest there is a lack of integrity in the art work found complicit, a lack of purity that makes art and literature questionable allies in the fight against temporal Power.

For me, that they are weapons of questionable efficacy in this ideological skirmish is the mark of their most indispensable value. In their excesses and frequent ungainliness, their refusal to submit to the expectations of ordinary discourse, works of art and literature manifest an a-temporal power that compels succeeding viewers and readers to consider them anew (sometimes to enlist them in ideological skirmishes), to regard them as representations informed by their origins in historical circumstance but not bound by them, however culturally complicit they ulimately must be. If this is not quite metaphysical “autonomy,” it’s also not an illusion. 


Comments

Daniel, thanks for this.

I half agree, half disagree with what I take you to be saying, but it’s certainly an interesting topic. I’ve just been rereading Robert Warshow’s 1946 essay “The Legacy of the 30’s” which (though you wouldn’t necessarily know from the title) touches on similar themes. Warshow is a partisan of High Modernism, but he feels compelled to take ‘mass culture’ seriously. (I’m interested that you use the term ‘mass culture’, too. Does Drucker? It seems to me it sort of went out in the 60’s, in favor of ‘popular culture’.)

Warshow’s brief explanation of the connection between ‘the burden of criticality’ and ‘mass culture’: “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” That is, he’s a High Modernist who concedes that his lack of autonomy is showing. (Not only does he live in our solar system, he also goes to the movies!)

Anyway, he diagnoses what he takes to be a crisis of communication. “The modern intellectual, and especially the creative writer, thus faces the necessity of describing and clarifying an experience which has itself deprived him of the vocabulary he requires to deal with it.”

Why? Mass culture, that’s why. The serious, contemporary creative writer will have to be engaged with the ‘experience’ of mass culture, but then it’s hard not to talk about it in a mass cultural way, which is inherently inadequate to the task. (I’m not saying I agree with this.)

“In modern poetry, the problem has been solved most frequently by a persistent use of irony. By employing the vocabulary of mass culture in a more serious context, the poet expresses both his rejection of mass culture and the difficulty he faces in trying to transcend it, while at the same time this irony, by a kind of negative connotation, can also convey some of the quality of fresh and meaningful experience - or, more accurately, it can indicate what fresh and meaningful experience might be like if there existed a context and a vocabulary for it.

This is a possible solution as far as it goes, but its limitations are obvious: a whole literature cannot be built on irony. In addition, this ironic use of language is necessarily so indefinite that it easily slips over from the “negative” to the “affirmative,” and the moment that happens it becomes a part of the mass culture from which it has tried to escape. The use of irony for purposes of “affirmation” is usually a device for stating banalities indirectly and tentatively and thus concealing their lack of real content; it is a technique of falsification.”

The relation of this passage to what you are discussing is, I admit, a bit oblique. He’s saying that what Drucker describes going on is inevitable. In a culture like ours, art is going to make its peace - affirmatively AND negatively - with ‘mass culture’. He doesn’t like that because he think it oscillates between insufficiency - ‘irony’ - and a different sort of insufficiency - ‘banalities’; which are related to the ones you complain about. (Nor does irony PLUS banality make enough weight.)

Not that you would agree with Warshow. (He’s too determined that literature should have a serious ethico-political purpose for your tastes.)

[Well, at this point I should write an essay. Or at least a post. This is enough for a comment.]

By John Holbo on 12/09/07 at 01:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Daniel and John,

Excellent discussion. For the reasons you’ve both very well explained, I stopped taking literary criticism (very) seriously about a decade ago. The theoretical impulse, to some degree at least, is a totalizing impulse, and what gets posited usually is done so in ways that are exclusionary. What we get left with is the notion that whatever our notions are now, they won’t be the same as those of future generations. Whose views get privileged? Whatever views currently are being advocated, of course.

The value of criticism, to me, is that it can shake dogmatic foundations, but the danger is that it usually it does so only in order to lay new ones. And in an age where it can be difficult to wholeheartedly believe anything, these new foundations are undermined as they are being constructed.

My favorite critical theory professor used to say, “We’re playing a game. Never forget that.”

The whole game would be dispiriting except that, always and everywhere, artists keep on creating.

By on 12/09/07 at 12:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John: Thanks for the reference to Warshow’s essay. I haven’t read it, but will. (I’ve read other of Warshow’s pieces on popular art and have admired his own effort to bridge the gap you describe.)

By Daniel Green on 12/09/07 at 05:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A fascinating read. This article hit a note, because I have long sensed that pop culture no longer can be avoided and dispensed with in contemporary art discourse.

By Elijah on 12/10/07 at 11:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Daniel, I think a real Marxian critic—such as Fredric Jameson—would disagree with your pragmatist recovery of the aesthetic here.

Marxists are not relativists.  There’s a huge difference between the idea that all ideas are expressions of economic base and the idea that all ideas are equally valid depending on one’s point of view.  Marxists themselves admit that their own view of how base and superstructure work might be colored by ideology.  But this doesn’t mean that Marxists have given up on the idea of truth.  The truth for a Marxist art critic is that shifts in art are—to some degree, depending on the critic—tied to shifts in the economic base.

Still, Jameson’s approach is admirable, for it takes the so-called aesthetic sphere seriously.  Jameson has always been an astute analyst of style, voice, technique, and so on.  What sets his work on genre or postmodernity apart from many other critics is his finely tuned sense of the artistry—and then how he connects artistic form to social and economic change. 

As a non-Marxist, I see nothing wrong with a strictly aesthetic analysis of a work of art.  The question is: given two works of criticism—one that deals strictly with aesthetics and one that deals both with the aesthetics and the broader social connections—which is the more important work?  Provided the connections between the art and social are well-observed and supported with evidence, that analysis will have gone further than the strictly aesthetic analysis.

That is to say, let’s imagine two critics who write the same excellent account of the formal, stylistic, and thematic features of Blake’s “The Tyger.” Then let’s imagine that while critic 1 stops there, critic 2 builds on that account and shows in clear, well-supported terms how these features connection to biography, cultural history, economics, etc.  In that case, critic 2 has clearly added something that critic 1 cannot offer.

But I’m not sure we can say, “They are simply looking at two different aspects of the art work, and each is equally valid.” Then we’re in the territory of bullshit relativism, and we’ve falsely divided the art work into separate bits.

By on 12/11/07 at 12:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"critic 2 builds on that account and shows in clear, well-supported terms how these features connection to biography, cultural history, economics, etc. In that case, critic 2 has clearly added something that critic 1 cannot offer.”

Perhaps, if you’re more interested in biography, cultural history, and ecomonics than in art. I’m not, so the critic who provides such an account does nothing for me.

By Daniel Green on 12/11/07 at 03:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But insofar as art, biography, cultural history, and economics are themselves all rather arbitrary divisions of one seamless, interconnected social world, the critic who teases out the threads and shows how it’s all knit together is, in the end, saying *more* about art than critic 1.

By on 12/11/07 at 10:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m sorry, but the division between art and economics is far from arbitrary, and the connections between them far from seamless.

By Daniel Green on 12/11/07 at 11:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s right, because what humans produce and how they work and how they exchange products has absolutely nothing to do with humans producing one sort of thing in particular and creating and disseminating that thing.

To restate my example:

If critic 1 points out water imagery, while critic 2 proves that the imagery is there because *The New Yorker* will only publish poems with water imagery, then critic 2 is saying more about the poem as a poem than critic 1.  For poetry, as poetry, is something made and traded, bought and sold, written for an audience and published by businessmen.

By on 12/11/07 at 11:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not that I think you guys shouldn’t be fighting, but perhaps the following would be agreeable: art and economics are distinguishable but, from the fact that you can distinguish two concepts, it hardly follows that one can segregate, in practice, the human activities concerned. Luther is emphasizing the latter, rightly, but going a bit over the top with ‘rather arbitrary’. Surely our concepts of art and commerce, etc., are somewhat contingent. But it hardly follows that the distinction between them is arbitrary. Likewise, Daniel is leaning too far back in suggesting that a critic’s interest in biography, history, politics, etc. must always be something of a distraction from art itself. Since, in practice, the activities of art making and art reception are bound up together with these others - though, of course, conceptually distinct - there is no presumption that an interest in these things is absent-minded, art-wise.

Now, get back to fighting among yourselves.

By John Holbo on 12/12/07 at 12:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"If critic 1 points out water imagery, while critic 2 proves that the imagery is there because *The New Yorker* will only publish poems with water imagery, then critic 2 is saying more about the poem as a poem than critic 1”

I don’t see why that’s the case at all. I could understand the poem perfectly well without ever knowing about The New Yorker’s editorial policy. Nothing significant is added to my assesement of the poem as a poem by knowing where the water imagery came from.

By Daniel Green on 12/12/07 at 01:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s what I say on aesthetic autonomy at the end of my article on literary mortphology:

Consider the following diagram, which depicts, in a highly abstracted fashion, the relationship between biology, culture, and the features—components of form and content—of literary works:

Figure 11: Biology and Culture in the Literary Work (note: there’s no obvious way to bring this figure over to The Valve)

     On the left I have indicated the various biological and cultural factors acting on the artist while the various features of literary works are on the right. One can think of this either as depicting the factors involved in producing a particular work or as depicting the factors involved in producing a body of work. At this level of abstraction there is little difference between the two.

     The important part of the diagram is the middle block, the artist’s brain. What is important is that the biological and cultural factors do not map on to the features in a simple manner. Each trait is subject to multiple influencing factors, both biological and cultural. To be sure, in King Kong, for example, there is the Empire State building. It is pretty easy to relate that particular trait to the real thing in the world. But I don’t think anyone is going to argue that that real building has exerted any causal force on the movie. Literary and other works will have many such features. But not everything about a work can be accounted for in such a fashion. In particular, form cannot be so explained.

     How then can we account for the traits of an individual literary work, or a body of works? The writer’s brain, that is what is directly responsible for those works. Everything that acts upon and through the writer is somehow present in the writer’s brain. But that brain consists of trillions of neurons, each of which is linked to thousands and tens of thousands of other neurons. Such a system is complex beyond our comprehension and understanding. Given that complexity it is not unreasonable to think of the artist exercising autonomous powers of imagination. These powers are not etherial, disembodied, and outside history, but they cannot be accounted for in any simple way. The brain is irreducibly complex. That it is the brain that is complex does not somehow mean that it is “outside” or “other than” the person. It is, the person.

     That person is at the interactive nexus of cultural and biological forces. The cultural forces are the cumulative result of historical processes extending back into the past a million or ten million years ago, where they vanish into biological forces extending billions of years back to the beginning of life on earth. Though each person’s brain is subject to cultural influence, it nonetheless bears the forms and processes of events that that are much older. That biology is ever available to resist, to sidestep, moribund and oppressive cultural forces. It is thus precisely because human aesthetics is grounded in human biology that it has a means of resisting and eventually working around oppressive institutions.

     Thus, there is no danger that a biologically-informed criticism will succumb to simple-minded genetic determinism, as many humanists seem to fear (cf. Ehrenreich and McIntosh 1997). On the contrary, such a criticism may be our best prospect for redeeming Said’s faith in art and the imagination. I believe, and have argued in my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture, that only a biological approach to the arts will allow us to understand how the shared pleasures of aesthetic activity are the foundation of our humanity. Those pleasures are grounded in the intrinsic dynamic patterns of the human nervous system, in its capacity for pattern and design. Literary works are the product of those capacities as well and literary form is their direct trace.

By Bill Benzon on 12/12/07 at 09:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But Daniel, if the only reason the poet included the water imagery was to get published in *The New Yorker*, then you do NOT understand the poem if you do not know that information.  Instead, a reader would probably make up some nice sounding reason for the water imagery that has nothing to do with its presence in the poem. 

It’s like claiming to understand Melville’s *Pierre* without knowing how Melville and his editors hacked the novel to death to make it suitable for publication.  Or knowing what Zappa’s up to in *We’re Only In It For the Money*’s backwards lyrics without knowing that the backwards lyric is “Don’t come in me,” and it’s only backwards because the lyric was censored.  Or like claiming to understand old portraits without knowing that their colors tend to be somber and dark because they have been stained by smoke.

By on 12/12/07 at 09:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The poet’s reasons and intentions are absolutely irrelevant. I can understand the Pierre that actually exists perfectly well without knowing its genesis, as well. If another version of the novel more closely representing the novelist’s “intention” were to be available, I would have to assess it separately.

By Daniel Green on 12/12/07 at 12:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But Daniel, there are ‘formal’ features of a work, such as whether something is original or a cliche, which can only be determined by a knowledge of ... well, whether the author is original, or just trend-sucking a lot of other water-imagery poems. You may say you don’t need to know. But I think you need to, at least possibly - in just the way you have to be able to tell whether a metaphor is alive or dead.

I think you are holding out for the possibility of a certain sort of ‘New Critical’ hermetic attention to ‘the work itself’. (Well, I know you are. Because you are also saying so, in no uncertain terms.) I get that. But it seems to me a mistake to defend that possibility by trying to hold an implausibly large swathe of ‘necessarily it will work to do this’ territory.

By John Holbo on 12/12/07 at 12:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wonder if anyone has looked carefully at how authorial intention is actually invoked in critical argument. It’s one thing to quote authorial statements explicitly about a given work, a different but related thing to quote authorial statements about this, that, or the other that seem relevant to a given work (but aren’t explicitly about the work in question), and something altogether different to invoke authorial intention in a general way but without reference to any authorial statement other than the work itself. In the abstract I would rather image that all three are done, but in the case of the last, it seems to me “intention” is mostly a proxy for “a whole lot of things we don’t really understand, but want to invoke anyway.” In that case, I think it’s high time we start learning about those other things instead of offering hand-waving statements about authorial intention.

As for the other two cases, I don’t think such evidence can be taken at face value. And reasoning from such evidence would benefit greatly by paying more attention to what we have been learning about the mind and brain since, say, 1900, or perhaps 1950.

By Bill Benzon on 12/12/07 at 01:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Daniel, I guess I’d want to know more about what you mean by “understanding” a work of art.

What are you understanding when you read *Pierre* if you don’t know that the book often makes no sense only because the editors screwed it up?  Especially if you think those moments of opacity are brilliant proto-modernist strategies of estrangement?  What are you understanding if you talk about the effects of the somber colors of old portraits if you’re not aware that those colors are only somber because rich people smoked too much around them? 

I suppose this is all a variation on the “Wordsworth on the Beach” dilemma.  What are you understanding if the thing you think is a poem is really just a random assortment of words?  If the monkeys type *Hamlet* without meaning anything by it, what are we understanding if we read it?  If Borges’s character re-writes the text of *Don Quixote*, is it the same text or a different text?  Do we understand the two texts differently knowing that they were written by different people at different times for different purposes? 

Or, as Daniel argues, is there nothing outside the text that affects how we should understand it?

By on 12/12/07 at 03:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here are a few examples of how hard it is to sustain unswervingly “the study of literary texts for their posited “literary” qualities conceived as separate from their status as cultural representations, congeries of historical forces, conduits of sociological information.” They are quoted from Daniel Green’s work at http://noggs.typepad.com/the_reading_experience/

“[Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach] seems almost designed to reinforce the most banal stereotypes of both class and gender in pre-"Swinging London” Great Britain. Its own post-dramatic denoument, taken together with the sexual histrionics of its core narrative, serves to complete an allegorical tale that reveals mid-century English men and women to be, well, class conscious and sexually repressed.”

“In my view, readers are more likely to return to a text like Shining at the Bottom of the Sea to try to piece together even more coherently the underlying story of Sanjania and Western colonialism, to align the selections that make up this faux-anthology into an even more comprehensible whole.”

“Grisham and King are “accessible” because their novels are written to be movies.”

“I was unable to fully appreciate the humor [in Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown] (too much of which is, in my opinion, created by the rather cheesy use of anachronism) or the prose and its evocation of voice because I didn’t understand the context in which the jokes were supposed to be funny.”

And finally, Daniel’s rejection of autonomy from his contribution to “Framing Theory’s Empire”:

“Derrida’s work should have been welcomed because it actually gave added credibility to the notion that all unitary, totalizing readings are mistaken.”

By on 12/13/07 at 08:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Check out the latest post on Tom Paulin’s analysis of Keat’s To Autumn at Novel Readings. Then go to my site and click on what I call a reasonable analysis of the same poem.

One stays with the text and cites written evidence. The other stays with the text, cites written evidence, and is pure conjecture. One is literary criticism, the other imposes social, economic, political guess-work on literature. One is the work of an honest critic, the other, though not un-useful, is the work of an ideologue.

By Nigel Beale on 12/16/07 at 01:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Nigel, one example of a half-rate poet’s bad criticism does not invalidate an entire approach to literary study.  I’ve read plenty of tedious close readings in which I was able to guess the “big idea” quite early in the essay: this poem is ambiguous, but the ambiguities are held together by the form of the poem.  If by “ideologue” you mean “a critic who sets out to prove a point with or without the evidence,” I think you’ll find such folks all around.  A certain breed of close reading leads to a certain breed of cliched pseudo-insights. 

There is interesting and accurate criticism, and there is boring and wrong criticism.  I don’t think close reading is a sufficient condition for the former, and I don’t think a political focus is a sufficient condition for latter.

By on 12/17/07 at 05:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Good point Luther and I agree with it. Being interesting and accurate is key. Making persuasive, evidence-based arguments is too.

Something vital goes out of criticism if there isn’t an imperative to entertain, that’s why so much academic writing is boring.

Less vital I suppose doesn’t necessarily mean less insightful…but if the average intelligent reader is left clueless and asleep, who benefits?

Criticism that doesn’t make a persuasive argument in favour or against anything, is insipid criticism. Ironic that academics will swerve violently off text to discuss social, political, economic influences, and won’t park anywhere near the ranking of greatness. Won’t articulate and rationalize taste because it’s relative, ‘indisputable.’

The thing that offends me most about Paulin’s piece, and others like it, is that the links made between text and intent and meaning are much too tenuous. Not that it lacked interest, not that it wasn’t written in plain language, not that attention wasn’t paid to the text...just that the argument was weak; based on pure conjecture.

By Nigel Beale on 12/18/07 at 07:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:

Name:
Email:
Location:
URL:

 

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: