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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Tony and Emma

Posted by Jonathan Goodwin on 05/10/05 at 04:08 PM

Steven Berlin Johnson writes

And secondly, I’d point out, pace Carrie and her comment about TV not being a substitute for literature, than the long-format, multithreaded TV drama—when viewed as a single narrative spanning several seasons, and not as isolated episodes—is an incredibly rich platform for precisely the literary values Dave celebrates. We don’t have a lot of opportunities in culture to tell a story that lasts a hundred hours, but that’s exactly what we’re taking in on The Sopranos or Lost or Six Feet Under. I feel totally confident that those shows will stack up very nicely against Madame Bovary a hundred years from now, if not sooner.

I haven’t seen Lost or Six Feet Under. I have, however, watched The Sopranos fairly carefully. It’s a fine television program, often very funny and observant. It’s not something completely other and brilliant--like the Lynch-directed episodes of Twin Peaks, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, or Sealab 2021 (the latter two being, I would argue, the most intellectually sophisticated shows ever to air on American television)--but it’s certainly more complex than Dallas. We don’t have to invoke the Flynn effect, which seems to me an amusing mass psychometric psychosis, to explain this. Bearing repeated viewings is a must for something to be shown on HBO, I think we could agree.

But will it last as long as Flaubert? I don’t think it’s possible to say much of anything sensible about the politics of cultural reputations a century from now. Instead, I want to talk about the present. Would anyone deny that there are differences in the nutritional value of Madame Bovary and The Sopranos?  Will there be, in whatever trans-simulatory nuevamedia you’d care to imagine, a century from now a work that is to David Chase as Flaubert’s Parrot is to Flaubert?

If someone could come up with a content-neutral way of quantifying the complexity of a cultural object, would that be a reliable measure of its current and future cultural capital? 


I’ve seen only the opening episode of The Sopranos—seemed fun but cute in a way strongly reminiscent of Chase’s Northern Exposure.  But since I haven’t seen what followed, I’ll only take up your final question.

In my own field, contemporary “classical” composition, lots of people have pursued complexity for its own sake.  (In Milton Babbitt’s vocabulary, for example, the word “complex” is unambiguous praise.) But I don’t think many people outside that narrow circle of consensus would agree that mere complexities measure even current (let alone future) cultural capital.  Some further spark seems to be required.

By Vance Maverick on 05/10/05 at 06:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You mean like Wayne Booth?

By Jonathan on 05/10/05 at 07:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was actually taking notes for a post about something in this area but it didn’t go anywhere. Here goes. I realize you are being a bit whimsical when talking about ‘quantifying the complexity of a cultural object’ but bear with me while I play straight man for once. It is true that there is - or used to be - a habitual rhetoric of praising literature as ‘complex’ or ‘the most complex use of language’; stuff like that. I don’t have footnotes (would anyone care to provide stock footage of someone praising literature in this vein?) It seems to me significant that this is not just wrong but wrong in a ‘you keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means’ kind of way. Googling up a quick definition of complexity:

“Algorithmic information theory is a field of study which attempts to capture the concept of complexity by using tools from theoretical computer science. The chief idea is to define the complexity (or Kolmogorov complexity) of a string as the length of the shortest program which outputs that string. Strings that can be produced by short programs are considered to be not very complex.”

Now obviously going this rout would get me denounced as a philistine by the folks who praise the ‘complexity’ of literature, not least because I go on to point out that a .txt complete Shakespeare needs a lot less space to store than all the episodes of the Sopranos. So the latter is clearly far more ‘complex’, the former really ‘not very’ at all. But really the technical definition, apart from the presently needless precision, is not far off from our ordinary notion. (Certainly if we want ‘content-neutrality’ - formal complexity - we cannot leave the spirit of the definition entirely behind.) Put it this way: the reason Shakespeare is more compressible, data-storage wise, is that the plays are not staged. They are just blueprints for stagings. That means they are open - things left to the imagination of readers and directors. The Sopranos is every color in every corner and every little sound and etc. This brings us to another way of praising Shakespeare that really cuts across the complexity line. He is open to endless interpretation. Open-endedness is a blank page waiting to be filled, and it is precisely this that makes Shakespeare ‘less complex’, in a formal sense. An algorithm for a blank page is simple.

I’m oversimplifying pitifully and ignoring nine arguments about essence, but - to come to some sort of point - I think that when people praise the complexity of literature, they really mean either nothing at all or something like: it is the cause of complexity in others. And now we have another analytic problem, and probably a fresh misuse of ‘complexity’. (’Complexity’ doesn’t mean ‘needs refinement to process,’ let alone ‘makes the processing machine itself more refined in the process of processing.’) That’s enough for one comment.

I’ve got the feeling you probably won’t be surprised to hear I don’t think there is any algorithm for proving Bovary, a book, is more complex than Sopranos, a DVD. After all, you did say ‘cultural object’ rather than text. That may well include the audience, depending how you count.

By John Holbo on 05/10/05 at 10:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I saw this from a link over at Carbon mOnoxide’s.

What happens there as a community happens inside everyone’s head when they <<read>> a <<text>>.

By Jonathan on 05/10/05 at 10:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let me add, lest the conversation take a turn I would find tedious: please feel free to point out how what I wrote above begs a lot of questions, but give me a little credit for being aware of that. Just seeding the discussion.

Short version of my point: questions about formal complexity of information structures must be in the same semantic ballpark with questions about algorithmic compressibiliy. Claims that formally complex works are superior to other, or that literature is more formally complex than other stuff, is not in the same semantic ballpart with claims that it is more resistant to algorithmic compression. So what ballbark are we in, with the literature talk, if it isn’t the formal complexity ballpark?

Here is one mistake not to make: say that Holbo is missing the difference between the complexity of strings of characters and the complexity of what those character strings mean. The question of data storage concerns only the former. Your .txt. complete Shakespeare is so small precisely because it doesn’t contain the complex meaning, you might say. But obviously those who praise the complexity of literature are eyeing the complexity of meaning, not of character strings. If you think this is a problem for what I said in my first comment, I leave the discovery of why you are wrong as an exercise, if you are an interested reader.

Jonathan, that is a very weird link you posted.

By John Holbo on 05/10/05 at 11:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And I realize long comments may be a conversational turn others find tedious. Sorry.

By John Holbo on 05/10/05 at 11:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Complexity has always been an important aesthetic category in Western criticism.  We can start with Aristotle’s Poetics, where he contrasts the simple plot with the complex plot and recognizes that the complex plot produces greater aesthetic pleasure. 

But it would be wrong to view complexity as an isolated or absolute quality.  Rather, as Aristotle argues, the superior work of art structures the complexity of narrative detail into a larger harmonic unity. 

I am not sure which critics are truly guilty of valuing complexity for its own sake.  If we look closer, we will probably see that they value complexity insofar as it allows the author to create ever more elegant narrative structures. 

There is no per se reason why TV cannot compete in creating elegant narrative structures, in shaping complex plot and characterization into harmonic unities.  However, I think TV and the novel are such different media that comparing the two will not be very satisfying.

By on 05/11/05 at 03:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh yeah. Aristotle. Good point. Obviously you are going to have to distiguish good and bad complexity. Clutter does not make better, but clutter is maximally complex. Before I try to look more closely, as blah suggests, I should probably go off and find some actual examples of critics seeming to stump, implausibly, on behalf of the absolute value of complexity, and the absolute superiority of literature - qua linguistic usage - along this axis. (So I have something to look more closely at. Yep.)

By John Holbo on 05/11/05 at 03:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Chess analogy: you could store a chess game (or the ‘staging directions’ for one) on a small .txt file; however, I can easily imagine two different chess games stored thus, taking up the exact same amount of memory, and yet we might, in some cases, say one was more ‘complex’ than the other.

By on 05/11/05 at 05:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Most obliging of you to read my mind, Uri. Here’s a first draft from a while back. The tie in is a bit loose, but maybe you’ll like it.

Having cluttered this thread while most all of you slept, I recommend the piece Jonathan links. It’s interesting.

By John Holbo on 05/11/05 at 07:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s what I wrote in Mr. Johnson’s site:

Why *Sopranos*, *Lost*, and other contemporary television shows? What about all of the other television shows of the last five decades? And why U.S. television shows? What about programs from other countries? Say, Decalogue or Zatoichi? And do documentaries count, e.g., *World at War*? How about musicals, like one that featured kundimans and was shown for many years in the Philippines?

As for “rich platforms”, I always thought storytelling and the human imagination were the richest platforms available. Everyone has and owns them, and they can take place sans electricity, television sets, cable subscription, and so forth. Even better, devices as cheap as paper and pen allows us to record these stories.

By ralfy on 05/11/05 at 08:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, thanks for the dialogue. Those are things that have been on my mind for a while now. Speaking of Nabokov: I think I once heard the interesting factoid that he published mate problems in a poetry book- though perhaps this is just another trap (I’ve never read any of his poetry; not even sure if he published any).
I do think, though, that while ‘beauty’ may be found in chess, I would hesitate to call it an ‘art’ like music or literature. Perhaps you could tell me the difference in terms of the types of emotions each calls up (horrible generalisations are, of course, welcome). Could you find a poem that would be more rightly classed as a chess problem?

By on 05/11/05 at 09:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One more thing: my field is Classical Studies, and so I’m delighted to be able to point out another similarity between ‘The Immortal’ and literature: several versions. Apparently, just as many manuscripts containing different versions of the same text may be found, so are there different versions of ‘The Immortal.’ Maybe one day will see the rise of the ‘chess-philologists.’

By on 05/11/05 at 09:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Are there any TV series from 30 years ago that don’t look incredibly dated right now?

Where language may become old fashioned, or the drama described unfathomable, books are not alone in this. Films and TV series have all that, and so many other noticeable things that make them age rather quickly. The way people look or their houses; their transport or how they relax. Even the way they move [dances]. The music score, the pacing of the scenes. 

Books are more abstract by nature, and therefore more open to new interpretations.

Another question is why only so few books survive.

By ijsbrand on 05/11/05 at 11:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Are there any TV series from 30 years ago that don’t look incredibly dated right now?

The Twilight Zone?  (Episodes without robots only.) Monty Python?

By ben wolfson on 05/11/05 at 12:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d say not Monty Python but Fawlty Towers. The content is slight, but it’s really well put together. On second thought, the Manuel schtick is a throwback to a less-enlightened time.

By on 05/11/05 at 12:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Complexity in this context would be a requirement that the viewer hold a lot of information simultaneously in mind, and perhaps require fewer overt markers or explanations of what is going on.  Extremely formulaic and simplistic t.v., like “Walker Texas Ranger,” would be less complex by this measure, but is it “dumber” than a soap opera with a dozen main characters to keep track of? 

Jonathan Mayhew, trying to avoid confusion with other Jonathans on this site.

By Bemsha Swing on 05/11/05 at 12:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Think you’re asking what might be an interesting question, but the way you’ve put it has scared everyone off. “If you think this is a problem for what I said in my first comment, I leave the discovery of why you are wrong as an exercise, if you are an interested reader.” Come on, John, that’s not nice. Let’s not say Holbonic, def 2, but…

What if you put it like this:

When we say a work of art is complex we generally mean what Webster’s suggests complex means: “hard to separate, analyze, or solve.” We mean that this work of art is not easy to understand - that it is potentially productive of multiple interpretations, readings - perhaps divergent, even contradictory interpretations.

But what if we applied another, more technical definition of complexity? Strings that can only be produced by long programs are more complex than strings that can be produced by short programs. (or whatever...)

Same complexity or different? How so? To what end?

Multiple interpretations vs. bandwidth.

Or feel free to put it another way. Just saying that there’s a reason no one’s answering your possibly interesting question…

By cultrev on 05/11/05 at 01:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan’s comment from way back linking to Star Wars Phantom Menace was an excellent example of a show that evokes a byzantinely complex response from its viewers without itself being what we would think of as high art or even interesting popular art.  And that kind of response is typical of your average, successful genre-based television program (think Star Trek) - i.e., it produces its own universe of fan-based fiction, speculations, etc.

Maybe a better way of specifying “complexity” would be whether a show works against genre-based expectations in order to explore human situations in a more nuanced and interesting way.  This seems characteristic of much great literature as well as television programs and films with higher standards.  I.e., it’s what separates Six Feet Under from your average t.v. drama.

By on 05/11/05 at 01:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think there’s another way to cast the complex ways that complexity is used as a term of aesthetic judgment.

One, as John mentioned refers to a kind of taste prominent in mid-twentieth century literary criticism.  (I don’t think he’s imagining that.  Like irony, it was briefly a term of high value.) But another is a stand in for something like sophistication or accomplishment.  When we say the Sopranos is a complex mobster story in this manner, I think we’re not referring to strings that can only be produced by long programs, nor necessarily to the richness of reader response.  We’re referring rather to the extent to which the show makes the fullest possible use of the expressive potential of its form.  A simple work from this vantage is one that is limited by its ambitions or by the talents of its creator.  It just doesn’t do much with its material.  A complex work is one we admire because it does a lot with the generic and formal resources at its disposal.

By on 05/11/05 at 03:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To my eyes Monty Python looks even fresher than contemporary tv. The basic patterns of television programming are parodied on a fundamental level. Those patterns remain in use; the longer they do so, the fresher Python looks.

Works can endure for this kind of effective structural critique, but also for “backing the right horse” in cultural evolution. The Bronte sisters thought women were interesting enough to make particularly good fictional protagonists; eventually, women were politically emancipated and those novels acquired extra interest for their prescience. Generally an enduring work will have some of each, which encourages people to argue at cross-purposes.

An extreme version of cultural prescience causing endurance would be Harold Bloom’s assertion that it’s Shakespeare’s cognitive world and we’re all just livin’ in it. An extreme version of pattern insight causing endurance would ... explain that shaggy dog stories are critiques of fundamental social courtesy the same way Monty Python is a critique of television.

By pierre on 05/11/05 at 04:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Uri: Poems and Problems, 1970 (hard to find; mine long ago went walkabout).

By on 05/12/05 at 12:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, and as to your last request:

magic won the tourney’s quintain
the knight’s sheer determination too
detouring only when facing six
completing the circuit though outnumbered
and skewering the anchored ring

By on 05/12/05 at 12:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, nnyhav, you’re going to have to give me the answer to that one.

By on 05/12/05 at 01:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

cultrev has a point.

By John Holbo on 05/12/05 at 10:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment


The apparation of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Pound’s of course. Almost no bandwidth at all to send it to you. So - the way I’ve always thought of it, it’s a tiny little poem about metaphor, right? It’s “about” the leap over the semi-colon, the leap from one line to the next. What happens between line 1 and 2? Lightning strikes, the poet enters - what you will. A photographic negative of the poetic act - this leap from the faces to the petals. 

So it’s complex, if by complex you mean more than the sum of its parts. The 14 words (or 20 if you count the title) get more done than 14 words usually can get done.

(Wait: the work the produced string or the program that produces the string? Important question, isn’t it?)

But then again, is the “more than the sum of its parts” anything more than a sort of faux-asiatic nirvana type thing (Pound was all over the faux-asiatic...) A gong gonging? What exactly the content of the produced complexity? Or the complexity’s production? Just a projection on my part? Even an empty projection of emptiness?

Are we back to 14 words (or 20) plus a large dollop of magic?

Or are my comments (and everyone else’s) the produced string?

Anyway, the New Critics were all about the “complexity” of the work. They like their poems to be complex machines - but complex machines that inevitably broke down. The complexity manifests itself in the breakdown… If Pound produced the missing stuff between lines 1 and 2 - not so good.  In the mind of the N.C.’s, he’d turn into Whitman.

Anyway, a start…

By cultrev on 05/12/05 at 11:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

the way I’ve always thought of it, it’s a tiny little poem about metaphor, right?

I always thought of it as a tiny little poem about a crowd at the metro station.

(Wait: the work the produced string or the program that produces the string? Important question, isn’t it?)

There are more than two possible answers to this question. I’d say, produced string! But then I’d say this produced string is an eternal gestalt that multiple people can enter into, rather than a summation of reader-responses.

That’s intutitively understandable (even if you don’t accept it) for a little poem, but does it work for something lengthy like a tv miniseries? Yes, there is likewise a gestalt or “haeccitas” in which all the parts participate. Lengthy works have multiple points of contact with the regular world, which tiny poems do not. Thus the need for more elaborate substructures within the lengthy work to define the gestalt at all points against the regular world. Commonly these substructures occupy all the attention of the critic, but if a work hangs together, these parts function as trees (of various kinds) in the forest.

I seem to be babbling, just go along without me ...

By pierre on 05/12/05 at 11:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that’s a good example, cultrev.  Pound bragged that all the work in making the poem was in stripping it from thirty something lines to two (took months, if I remember).  And, as anyone who’s ever been desperate for an intro to english classroom exercise knows, it’s capable of producing manifold interpretations really fast. How is the apparition of faces in a crowd like petals on a wet black bough?  Let a classroom of kids count the ways.  They’ll amaze you.

But in the vain hope of trying to rescue my earlier intuition, let me suggest that Pound, in his self-promotional zeal, made an important point: what a reader might see as complexity in this case depends on her awareness of the alternative, less artful possibilities Pound passed up.  Complexity in this sense refers neither to the bare features of the artifact, nor to the diversity of possible interpretations it might produce (Jerry Springer can produce a diversity of interpretations, but we don’t refer to him as aesthetically complex), but from our imputation of artfulness to Pound’s efforts.  We see the poem as rich or complex because we are aware of the tradition of lyric poetry Pound’s working in and we can see the range of significance and expressive power produced by his innovation with it.  A simple, two line poem, in this sense, can be more complex than a complicated thirty line one because it makes fuller use of the possibilities of the form.  (Keats said load every rift with ore.  Even if there’s only one rift, from this perspective, when it’s loaded it will be richer than a rift that’s left empty.)

Presumably, if the work is the string, and the program is the series of operations necessary to produce it, a program that was actually capable of running through all the various considerations Pound could have measured in producing “Station” would have to be--if it were not to be just a device to produce arbitary combinations--a long program indeed.

By on 05/12/05 at 12:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

what a reader might see as complexity in this case depends on her awareness of the alternative, less artful possibilities Pound passed up.

The haikus of Basho create similar brief, evocative juxtapositions, but do not represent any break from tradition. Do they lack the complexity of Pound’s poem?

Did the poem become more complex decades later when Pound decided to support Mussolini?

By pierre on 05/12/05 at 01:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s not a break from tradition that’s at issue, but the fullest possible use of form and material.  Basho is celebrated, I imagine, for doing what seems to be the utmost with the the haiku.  An incautiuous, but not unfamiliar use of terminology might well call that complexity.

Did Pound’s poem become more complex decades later?  I would say no precisely because in my view reader reception isn’t the major factor.

By on 05/12/05 at 02:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, that’s the right way to take it. (I love teaching the poem to, by the way...) One way to understand the complexity of the act of literary creation - of art in general - is to remember all that isn’t there. Since the creation of the literary work is (in a limited sense) a gratuitous act, it inevitably brings to bear the “something rather than nothing” question. A question that has to be answered first, before we get to the question of what string is produced. The unsaid just as “there” as the said. Pound’s poem brings this home…

And this is the first reason why John’s information theory definition doesn’t quite work for literature. Literature is not (just) information, or if it is information, it’s a very special type of information. Information that calls attention to itself as information, calls attention to the fact of its presence - as well as what’s not present.

The first thing that a work of literary art says is “this is not the everyday” - no matter the everydayness of the contents. Inevitable, invisible quotation marks.

Then the question becomes - is this negative space in some sense within the work itself or only in the mind of the “educated” reader. I’d say both…

By cultrev on 05/12/05 at 02:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, thanks for that! So let me see if I’ve got this straight.

The question of how to measure the cultural capital of a work of art—practically defined as the major factor in its “endurance” over time—depends upon how we answer the question of where the cultural capital is located. In the content of the work? In the form of the work? In the reception of the work? Some combination?

The “computational” metaphors seem to me like a clever dodge. (I’m putting words in everybody’s mouth, I know, this metaphor hasn’t been explicitly made, only skirted so far.) We want the benefits of saying that the cultural capital resides in the work, but we want to avoid the bad old Platonist sinkhole of worries about the ontological status of the work’s content. (Which in my view is the only reason for rejecting the otherwise completely natural interpretation of things in terms of content.)

So we say that the work contains no essential content, but rather consists of a “program” that can be evaluated on purely formal grounds. Yet this program works by generating reactions in a succession of audiences.

If one program can be more beautiful than another, why not just say some aesthetic expressions are more beautiful/real/etc. than others? Conversely, if programs are judged on the reactions they generate, then doesn’t reader reception become the major factor?

So I don’t think analysis of Form gets anywhere, it will always resolve to one of the other options. I think.

By pierre on 05/12/05 at 02:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Pierre - I’m more worried about the break from ordinary language than the break from tradition.

The question about Pound’s fascism is a little tougher.  To reduce the poem to an emblem or enunciation of fascism would reduce one’s sensitivity to its complexity, would it not.

I guess my first try on the relation between complexity and politics would be that they don’t really get along. The more complexity, the more political ambiguous, ambidextrous the work of art is. Just my first stab though… Let me think about it a bit. This is, of course, the propagandists’ biggest problem… Tough to write a complex leftist novel or poem. The world always looks more than a bit flat and dull in the propaganda poster…

Must. Grade. Papers. Stop. Valving.

By cultrev on 05/12/05 at 02:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think any attempt at a General Theory of Cultural Endurance is pretty much doomed.  Of course, we will rightly say that works of superior aesthetic value will be those that tend to endure.  This requires analyzing the work in terms of its formal content.  But we will inevitably need to look at the various historical and sociological reasons why particular works continue to endure and others do not. 

I do not believe these contingent historical and sociological reasons are susceptible to a general theory.  And there is not always going to be a bright line separating the historical/sociological from the aesthetic, because our aesthetic values will in part be determined by those same historical and sociological factors.

By on 05/12/05 at 03:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Uri—spoilt beans:

magic won the tourney’s quintain
the knight’s sheer determination too
detouring only when facing six
completing the circuit though outnumbered
and skewering the anchored ring

Consider as an instruction set operating upon itself. Without excessive parsing, then ...
Quintain, defined as (1) jousting contest, tilting at fixed target (2) 5-line poem.
This particular 5-liner has 5 words per line; a matrix, if you will. Identifying numeric homophones:
xx 01 xx xx xx
xx xx xx xx 02
xx xx xx xx 06
xx xx xx xx xx
xx xx xx xx xx
1-2 are knight’s move apart on torus (aka anchor-ring; attach left & right edge, top and bottom likewise), establishing direction.
Continue numbering until running back into starting point; 6 is knight’s move away from 5:
xx 01 xx xx xx
xx xx xx xx 02
xx xx 03 xx 06
04 xx xx xx xx
xx xx xx 05 xx
With this pattern established, fill in the rest of the grid:
12 01 20 09 23
16 10 24 13 02
25 14 03 17 06
04 18 07 21 15
08 22 11 05 19
Result is knight’s tour on torus that resolves into a magic square. (Anticipating objection, “only ... six” is true mod 5. Including 25-1.)

In 25 words or less, a fair bit of complexity/abstraction, but hardly a lasting cultural artifact.

By on 05/12/05 at 04:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t have any big ideas about cultural capital, Pierre I just wanted to say that I think in most cases when people refer to complexity in cases of aesthetic judgment what they really mean is something like making impressive use of its potential.  (By the classic definition of the term, I’m not sure it even makes sense to say that a work of art has cultural capital?  For Bourdieu, isn’t it something that people possess, and doesn’t it amount to something like the ability to turn savoir faire into status mobility?) Does this mean assuming there’s a content to the work of art and possibly falling into a platonic sinkhole?  I’m not sure I understand the second half of the question, but I guess the answer to the first half is yes.

I agree with you cr that John’s information theory doesn’t really work for literature.  I didn’t think he was really that serious about it to begin with. If I understand John, I think Pierre’s right: he’s just redefining the work of the artist as a computer program.  But the interest for me in wanting to redescribe complexity as something like accomplishment-with-a-form is that it actually helps to lower the (in my view overformalized) boundary between art and other things.  From this perspective, it makes perfect sense for people to refer to a no-hitter or a beautifully designed motorcycle as a work of art.  What’s being recognized there and the kind of recognition involved seems to me not qualitatively different from what’s involved in admiring a sonnet or a perfect three minute pop song.

By on 05/12/05 at 09:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Quick point in response to cultrev: “John’s information theory definition doesn’t quite work for literature”. Just so you are all clear: I wasn’t seriously proposing that this definition was any use. The point was more or less a reductio on the hypothesis that it was any use.

By John Holbo on 05/12/05 at 10:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Assessing cultural capital (via madinkbeard) (puts PoMo Pooh to shame).

By on 05/12/05 at 11:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK. Questions for discussion.

Pound’s poem discussed above will endure, because crowds at train stations are mysterious and beautiful. Yes, no, maybe? What follows from this?

“The Phantom Menace” will endure, because the death of Qui-Gon Jinn is glorious and noble. Yes, no, maybe? What follows from this?

While both can be admired, can discussion of content have any connection to discussion of technical proficiency?

By pierre on 05/13/05 at 12:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t know about what will endure, Pierre, and, like the issue of cultural capital, I think that involves lots of factors beyond what I’m personally talking about.  All I’m saying is that when people praise a work of art they are generally saying that something has been expressed unusually well and, yes, that what’s being expressed is significant.  I’ve never seen Phantom Menace and probably won’t rush out to see it soon, but I assume that, if its endurance looks unlikely, one reason will be that many people thought it didn’t meet either or both of those tests.

By on 05/13/05 at 11:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve decided to bypass Johnson’s last question, and focus instead on the following: “But will it last as long as Flaubert? I don’t think it’s possible to say much of anything sensible about the politics of cultural reputations a century from now. Instead, I want to talk about the present.”

For starters, many television viewers have probably not read *Madame Bovary*, so they should in order to make comparisons. That means less time to watch TV and more time to read (which contradicts Johnson’s claims).

Next, given the fact that we will never know whether *Sopranos* will last as long as *Madame Bovary*, then why bother watching *Sopranos*? Why not just read *Madame Bovary*, which we know has lasted for at least a century? And what about *Sopranos*? How about waiting for, say, thirty or forty years before watching it?

Finally, why insist on just talking about the present and, given that, speculate on the future? How about seeing the present as something that borrows from the past?

By ralfy on 05/15/05 at 10:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Novels playing chess.

By nnyhav on 11/07/09 at 01:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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