Friday, July 30, 2010
“The poem, if it be a true poem, is a simulacrum of reality…an experience rather than any mere statement about experience or any mere abstraction from experience”
That’s a quote from his chapter on “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” in The Well Wrought Urn in which Brooks puts forward an idea of art as a thing which has to be actively experienced. He’s working to combat the sense that criticism’s job is just to reduce a work of art to its meaning, its essential core, the kind of reading where Heart of Darkness becomes Racism, Moby Dick becomes Obsession, and The Scarlet Letter becomes Puritanical Prudery. Repeat ad infinitum.
I’m switching from poetry to novels, here, for no better reason than its because it’s easier. But I think the point remains: the problem with reducing a massively complex novel to a few words, Brooks might suggest, isn’t simply the scale of complexity that’s being lost, but the experiential structure of both its composition and the active way we render that complexity meaningful. However much there might be a kernel of truth to each of those one-word summaries, they erase something vital about the works they purport to describe, and less because they summarize badly than because they summarize at all, thereby misplacing the thing that’s important about the aesthetic object, which, as Brooks, might say is not what we abstract from or paraphrase a poem, but how we experience it. Here’s how he does say it, in fact:
The essential structure of a poem (as distinguished from the rational or logical structure of the ‘statement’ which we abstract from it) resembles that of architecture or painting: it is a pattern of resolved stresses. Or, to move closer still to poetry by considering the temporal arts, the structure of a poem resembles that of a ballet or musical composition. It is a pattern of resolutions and balances and harmonizations, developed through a temporal scheme.
It’s interesting how close this comes to the definition my friend Dan offered for a sense of video games as Art (though he admitted to being uninterested in actually making that claim). As he quite nicely suggested, we could put video games
“…in roughly the same category as sculptures that are about modifying the space of display and conceptual pieces that expose or distort the ecology of spectatorship. The core artistry in game-design lies in building complex interactions out of relatively simple rules and behaviors, in establishing spaces that carry some kind of genre-specific decorum. When they are a vehicle for narrative, the story itself becomes secondary to the way that it conditions the gameplay.”
They’re not quite the same, of course; being the kind of critic he was, Brooks was interested in one particular form of poetry—harmony and balance being key terms—while Dan, being a Melville and media guy, seems more interested in the kinds of video games and sculpture that work to make easy distinctions like text-and-reader or game-and-player more and more difficult to sustain. Just as sculpture is something you experience in space, the kinds of video games he was talking about insert you into the space they produce, producing an experience, perhaps, not completely dissimilar from what Marina Abramovic was doing with her “Imponderabilia”.
Anyway, I’m saying all of this to call attention to the tension that I think we find, in all of this, between, on the one hand, the idea that an art form’s reality is its experience (and, thus, a thing irreducible and resistant to paraphrase, or maybe even commentary) and, on the other, the idea that art requires or benefits from some kind of discursive supplement, whether that be explanation, criticism, or interpretation. A video game is something you play, in a way that makes video-game commentary seem sort of stupid or perverse (though also oddly fascinating; watch some Starcraft 2 youtube videos to see what I mean). At the same time, if you think of a movie as an immersive experience, it starts to make sense why we would talk about “spoiler alerts” in the way we do (while “spoiling” a novel or poem seems, to me, sort of counterintuitive); as Nate Freeman nicely describes, we understand, on some level, that talking about a movie ruins something central and important about the experience. Which, of course, tempts me to irresponsibly speculate that part of Ebert’s stake in this debate might be that it’s a version of a debate within cinema-discourse that sort of strikes at the heart of what he more or less defines himself by doing: if we were to privilege the immersive and unmediated experience of a movie—rather than the kind of experience one has when the canon of film history is seen as a necessary contextualizing frame—then what need do we have for film critics?
I’ll resist that temptation, though; Ebert’s tendency to note that he’s seen a lot more films than you have is actually pretty muted compared to his more general attitude of it’s-good-if-you-like-it. And I’m less interested in Ebert and his argument anyway than in the kinds of questions the example helps us think about. Which brings me to the thing I started writing this post thinking about, the kind of film criticism that proceeds not by consuming, digesting, and re-processing but by replicating, in real time, the experience of the viewing itself. I’m thinking, for example, of Jezebel’s live-tweeting of Sex and the City 2, or, to put it even more broadly, a review composed like Millicent reading The Fantastic Mr. Fox or Subabat’s series of tweets about Inception:
I’m not sure what to say about Inception. Great visuals. Nice gravity-less fighting scene. Cillian Murphy troubled, pouty, and wet.
Ellen Page with three facial expressions: stunned, concerned, stunned concern. All appear the same.
The premise is disturbingly rudimentary and clinical in its conception of dreams and memories vis a vis reality. And!
The only subconscious worth exploring was the tortured subconscious of a male. The ideal woman is quite naturally beautiful and dead.
Also, being dead, she is a blank slate of loveliness; tortured male can thereby project EVERY DAMN FUCKING THING onto her. Excellent.
I find something really attractive about the way a particular critical burden is quite pointedly not being taken up here, the way these responses to the movie don’t try to contain, within themselves, the movie itself. Traditional criticism, after all, often has a problem of voice; too much of the critic’s own voice and you feel like you’re getting Ebert rather than the movie (which, with some critics, is what you want), but too much of the movie and you feel like you‘re just reading a synopsis, or being “spoiled.” In contrast, each of these three twitter and twitter-esque responses to the experience of watching those films outlines a kind of framework of questioning without imposing it on you; to the extent that they are simply subjective, the opposite of authoritative claims to objective analysis, they offer an approach into the film that is simply available if you need it, something much more like tools for experiencing. They produce certain blinders too, of course. But by refusing to paraphrase the actual movie itself, there’s an interesting way in which they manage to retain (and reinforce) the experience as the central thing.
I wonder how television recaps figure into all of this, specifically recaps like those at Television Without Pity. Episode recaps of that type include both criticism and synopsis, but the best of them, in my opinion, still “reinforce the experience as the central thing.” In fact, the recaps seem to form an extension of the initial experience. (As a friend of mine said, “I never realized how much fun it would be to read a description of something I’d just watched.")
Frequently, that’s what I’m looking for in the movie and book reviews I read as well. I may read one or two reviews before watching or reading, but I often seek out much more after, as a way of both extending the feelings and reactions I had to the work, as well as analyzing them.
Great post! I’ve always been a fan of the “aesthetic object as experience not statement” approach (Brooks, Rosenblatt, et al.). As you rightly point out, the question then becomes: what is the place of criticism, other than just to point mutely in the direction of the artwork?
The mistake I think many critics have made is to think that their job is to “extract the message” (shudder); I agree with you that this essentially renders them redundant, since the aesthetic experience has nothing to do with messages. But I think there are still two reasonable paths for critics to take.
The first is to follow a suggestion of Iser’s: Iser says, quite beautifully, that something happens to us during the experience, but we don’t know what it is. (By the way, I think this applies to novels just as much as to movies—and I hate having novels spoiled for me!) Criticism—and conversation of various kinds—then becomes a way to understand what happened to us.
The second is to talk about the experience of the work—not “meanings,” not “context,” not “ideology,” not “discourse”—in such a way that (ideally) others will have their experience enriched. That’s certainly how I feel when I read a great film review (by A. O. Scott, say). You want to go back and watch the film again, just to see it the way that critic saw it.
I don’t think we need to choose between experience and meaning when it comes to aesthetics.
Consider a great football game: the pleasure of the game is in the experience of watching it, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t meanings generated. Choices made by coaches and players and referees can turn a game into a lesson on all sorts of things.
The same would go for music, which would seem to be the least discursive or statement-oriented art form. The experience of the music is one thing, but the ideas and feelings triggered by that experience have a sort of discursive content.
As Douglas Hofstadter writers in *Godel, Escher, Bach*, the essential mystery of art, like that of biology and math, is the way that dead things come to life through increasing layering, reflexivity, complexity, etc. All art is the odd alchemy of meaningless stuff—sounds, colors, textures, gestures, movements, shapes—somehow taking on meaning (either the artist’s intended meanings or the meaningfulness that an individual experience with the art conjures).
The meaning/experience dichotomy is like the mind/body dichotomy. The mind, according to Antonio Damasio, emerges from the complex mapping of the body and the experience of those maps, and the reflections on those experiences. At all levels, it’s bodily, but at higher and higher levels, the effects seem more disembodied. Same goes for experience and meaning: meaning seems to me a particular after-effect of experience, a particular part of the experience of any aspect of life.
“spoiling” a novel or poem seems, to me, sort of counterintuitive
Really? A novel? It doesn’t seem intuitive that you shouldn’t tell someone, “he dies in the end,” or whatever? I very much doubt you’re in the majority on that.
I could care less about knowing how it’s going to end. Nor do I understand this “spoiling” concept, though, I suppose, I’ll make an exception for The Crying Game.
As for this basic conversation, why do we keep having it over and over and over and over?
Do we learn nothing?
I suspect that one difficulty is getting away from a “this is the important thing about this text” subtext that informs so much criticism. Almost no one explicitly says any more that they’ve just explained the meaning of the text (or maybe they do, I’m not sure), but the rhetorical mode of a lot of criticism does tend to suggest it anyway. And that narrowing of the mind down to the one thing that a movie or novel is about does seem to be of a piece with the notion that one can spoil a novel or movie; one can only spoil it, after all, if you’ve revealed the one thing its about, which presumes a kind of single-mindedness in how we understand a text to function that is its own kind of stultifying.
As for Iser, by the way, I did have the experience, the other day, of not at all getting what was going on in “Me, You, and Everyone We Know” until discussing it in such a way that pieces started to fall together and I *got* it. Which is the sort of criticism that attracted me about that series of tweets, for example, the suggestion of an approach to the film, an intention or and an attitude, rather than an *explanation*. One of the best pieces of advice for reading I’ve ever gotten was when a professor of mine said, simply, to remember when reading Kafka that it’s a comedy, that he’s always laughing. That’s certainly not a complete account of Kafka, but it’s the sort criticism that opens up the text in so many ways without really *revealing* anything at all.
* * *
Bill, who do you mean by “we” in your comment? Seriously. People will talk about the things it makes sense to them to talk about, if that’s ok with you, and if you don’t find the conversation compelling, you’re free to ignore it. I, for example, find your notion of cultural evolution to be not useful in approaching the kinds of intellectual questions I’m interested in, but it doesn’t bother me that you find them useful for the kinds of questions and projects *you’re* interested in. We are doing different things, you and I, and that’s ok, you know? Which is why the “we” in your comment, however hastily it may have been written, bugs me. On the one hand, you say that “we” have been having the same “basic conversation” for years, a tendentious claim which you haven’t substantiated or specified, and on the other, the “we” of the “Do we learn nothing?” is classic jeremiad rhetoric attacking the community for failures which you, by pointing out, absolve yourself of. If you want to add something to a discussion you didn’t initiate, feel free to. But it’s hard to have a conversation with you if your baseline presumption is that everyone else’s intellectual work is busted/bullshit, and unless you clarify your contempt more than you have here, it‘s hard to read that comment as anything but a generalized pox on all “our” houses.
The “we” is the profession, and the conversation that keeps happening over and over in slightly different forms is experience vs. criticism. Criticism will never ever be the experience of the text. No matter what the critic claims to be doing, no matter how skillful they may write, whatever they write is always, by definition, something other than the experience of the text or texts they discuss.
Why can’t “we” just stop the worrying and get on with whatever criticism one wants to do?
’ Criticism will never ever be the experience of the text.’
Bill Benzon, you are my hero! How far must we get from that tug in the gut before someone says ‘enough, already’?
You can teach criticism but you can’t teach someone to feel. Trite but true.