Actually ... this post is probably going to get shunted in to the blogging year 2017 rather than 2018, but so it goes.
One of the topics regular readers will notice has been a focus of attention for a few years here has been the arts and educational culture and arts criticism. These domains overlap so often it's a bit difficult to keep them distinguished. As reports of declining enrollment rates and concerns about a crisis in fine arts funding continues, alongside concerns about the blame neoliberalism should get for this stuff, there's less discussion about the nature of criticism in the last thirty years having a place in this. Not that it has no place or that anyone doubts it has a place, really. What I'm trying to say on a weekend is that we're living in a period where A. O. Scott actually called one of his books Better Living Through Criticism. Scott Timberg can lament that arts critics at newspapers keep losing their jobs.
As someone who never even broke into that job market where someone like Timberg has kept losing and getting and losing positions part of me is slightly envious and part of me thinks Timberg doesn't quite appreciate the possibility that in the era of the blog and in an era in which skepticism about the polarized nature of media coverage may be at a high ebb, criticism is reaching a crisis point not unlike what Adorno said art had in Aesthetic Theory as he was writing it out half a century ago, that if art won its autonomy from religious dogmas and cultic rites it did so at the expensive of gaining a wholesale crisis regarding the legitimacy and necessity of its very being. Adorno wrote a lot, and a lot of it I disagree with or only partly agree with, but one of his axioms was that it is the nature of the philistine to regard or disregard art solely on the basis of whether or not he could or could not read himself and his interests into the characters and plot points of a narrative work. Translated into contemporary art-critical idioms, those most focused on representation may be the most philistine of arts critics. Not that people are whistling Schoenberg quartet riffs on the streets these days ... like I said, I've got more than a few issues with Adorno's ideas but this blog post isn't the place where I plan to unpack those.
What I can still appreciate about what he tried to do is to highlight that in a post-Romantic era we can't forget that there's a left brain to the right brain of artistic creation and interpretation; there's also something to be said about the warning that what often passes for art criticism is not engaging the content of the artwork itself so much as a subjectivist process of projection onto an artwork that is passed off as interpreting the work itself. One of Adorno's complaints about where criticism had descended to in his era was that sort of trend. So, reading Aesthetic Theory it's possible to imagine that when people lament the narcissistic tendencies of the first-person industrial complex or the confessionalist industry that these trends go back in Western letters quite a way.
A while back I was writing about the problems of the first-person narrative piece and its connection, as some journalists were discussing it, to last year's election. The quick and dirty conclusion that was reached by me and others was that the basic failing of the first-person industrial narrative was not so much the first-person part, it was the failure of those pieces to be actual journalism.
I couldn't find enough willpower in myself to finish A. O. Scott's Better Living Through Criticism. The title had already put me off the inspiration to read the entire book. I'm more sympathetic to the idea espoused by Alex Ross that critics must remember that arts criticism is still ultimately some form of journalism.
I'm sort of sympathetic to Noah Berlatsky's proposal that criticism makes art art to begin with, if only as a necessary antidote to an art for the sake of art art-religion that posits that great art somehow "inherently" demands attention. If that were true no Anglo-American musicologists or music journalists would have ventured that sonata forms and fugues are "obsolete" based on a global survey of the explosion of polyphonic cycles in 20th century keyboard literature. None of that is to say all those cycles are "good music", just to note that Berlatsky's polemic has in its favor an insistence that criticism is in some sense a first-draft of art history. I'm less sympathetic to the idea of interpreting the 2017 remake of Ghost in the Shell as a parable of Jewish assimilation because Scarlett was in it. I don't think the worst problems in the ill-advised remake were even about her playing the Major but I am low-energy in the writing department compared to where I was even three or four years ago.
My blogging approach, in its aspiration, is in most respects antithetical to a "hot take" approach. If it is admittedly a bit clinical and hypercognitive that's partly by disposition and partly by choice. My feelings are for friends and family while my thoughts, some of them, are for posts at this blog.
Having seen over the last decade how professional Christian media figures have had their numerous issues with "bloggers" while themselves insisting on blogging I've had plenty of years to think about what on earth is up with the sort of person who uses his or her public blogging platform to denounce bloggers who don't have the same level of institutional or branded leverage. A guy like Mark Driscoll could blog about a lack of platform or opportunity to address social issues in spite of being a megachurch pastor as an opportunity to introduce what was in 2011 known as Pastor Mark TV. A Samuel D. James could vent spleen at Patheos about Christian bloggers blogging about people. Doug Wilson could blog about people losing it over stuff he regarded as simple observation as part of the publicity stunt train going from station to station to keep his base animated. On the one hand I get that when you open a channel of mass media, as Driscoll put it around 2013, you feel a sense of obligation to keep doing something with it. On the other hand, when a Joe Carter blogged about "pseudo-events" as if it weren't the business and advertising norm for not just the Christian industrial establishment but everything in the contemporary Western world, that seemed specious.
Yet at length it seems to me that it's too easy to blame "everyone" for doing what has probably been a production trend in Anglo-American and particularly American writing for generations now. I don't know if I'm going to get far into Mark McGurl's The Program Era before I have to return it but we've had so many generations of the axioms "show don't tell", "find your voice" and "express your view" that we may not stop to think about how deeply our literary/cultural ethos has been manufactured by the educational culture we have in place. Particularly in a Trump era the temptation on the part of academics and those with higher education is to imagine that "we" can be part of the solution. In the post-Mars Hill years as I've returned to reading arts criticism and arts history and getting back to music and film stuff I've begun to have a lot of doubts as to whether or not we who have been in the arts scene are just as much a symptom as partisan hacks and spin-masters.
There are points at which in order to express an idea you have to share a story, and here's the point at which I do so. When I left Mars Hill in the 2008-2009 period one of the things I shared with a friend that I concluded that the sins people said I had issues with in how I treated people didn't seem to be the sorts of sins I could really effectively repent of if I stayed at a place like Mars Hill. I said that I needed to observe my social and spiritual life in a way that did not simply scapegoat Mars Hill for my own problems in how I related to people. To put it another way, I was not interested in diagnosing a spiritual or social or intellectual disease within the community of Mars Hill of which I myself was not a primary symptom. My concern with people who had left Mars Hill and had become ardently activist against it was that I was convinced that they were symptoms of the problems in the spiritual and social dynamics of that community without recognizing they were perpetuating its vices. My perspective on this has not only not changed, it has been confirmed over the years. People who left Mars Hill because they felt they needed to confront problems of who they were could leave Mars Hill and critique it with an understanding that they helped to create that empire. People who left Mars Hill out of a sense of personal betrayal and who did not step back and consider that they may have embodied its vices themselves tended to double down on a new allegiance without significantly changing much of anything about how they handled things.
The troubles with a Better Living Through Criticism approach to criticism are roughly as follows: firstly, criticism is predicated on consumption and consumption is predicated on surplus. The sorts of people who believe that better living comes through cultural consumption is that they can believe that the toys they purchase are indicative of their moral fibre. They probably don't usually say this out loud but they are apt to believe it in their heartsand out of that overflow we get film criticism, for instance. But I am cynical enough at this point to not assume that someone is a better person for geeking out about the Three Colors trilogy instead of a Michael Bay Transformers film. Why? Claire Dederer wrote a charmingly cynical observation that Three Colors goes down pretty easily when the headliners are Julliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob. Julie Delpy could just show up and showing up is half the battle. Dederer's joke was that the highbrow hotties are still cinematic eye candy of the first order, regardless of the arthouse cred they might have.
Last year James Cameron could declare that his character Sarah Connor was more of a strong female character than Wonder Woman ever was. Right, because someone who gets Stockholm Syndrome and decides to have sex with and gets impregnated by her crazed from-the-future kidnapper who says she will birth a son who saves humanity from the machines is at every level a stronger female character than a beauty queen playing a character given superpowers who goes to do battle against Ares. Cameron doesn't seem to get how wildly retrograde the entire narrative arc of Sarah Connor is when you put it on the page. Her whole life amounts to becoming pregnant with a son she is promised will save humanity. But then one of the uses of criticism can be comparative study. There are clearly people from Cameron's generation (not just Cameron) who think that Sarah Connor's story arc somehow constitutes an empowered female character when everything about the mechanics of her narrative is a surrender to a foretold fate. "There's no fate but what we make" is merely an ideological declaration of what the audience is supposed to take out of every plot point and relationship dynamic that hammers away at "destiny!" even more ostentatiously than the often misinterpreted first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey may be bunk as comparative folklore but what if, just to be impudent on a weekend, there's a highbrow correspondence to that monomyth? It's easy to make fun of the self-importance of a lowbrow "no fate but what we make" bromide, but that's because it makes its point too obvious. When Dwight Macdonald lambasted Our Town he mentioned that there was an axiom, that deep down there is something divine inside of every human being. Macdonald remarked that if you stated those eleven words as a creed he could agree with every word but that as a journalist and arts critic he would fight to his death against the right of a playwright to express that specific point of view in that bluntly literal and direct way. Thus, Masscult and Midcult.
And if artists, poets, and playwrights and musicians got to the point in the last century where they saw themselves as the seers and prophets and visionaries whose ideals could be the foundation of a new society, well, why couldn't critics join that club?
Thus in our meta-critical meditation we finally prepare the way for an old review of a book, one that Bradley Bloch was complaining about decades ago in "The Critic as Hero", featured among a few links and things at The New Criterion this year.
As we all know, criticism has undergone a crucial transformation since the advent of structuralism, semiotics, deconstruction, and post-structuralism. Oddly, although these methodologies might have been expected to reduce criticism to a purely impersonal, even scientific, exercise, they have had the opposite effect of turning a generation of critics into cult figures. The reason is not hard to find. If, as Harold Bloom proudly claims, literary criticism today “has the same status as lyric poetry or narrative writing,” then the critic has the same status as the poet or novelist—at least in the eyes of other critics. For the generation that has followed Bloom’s, such thinking has given rise to a new creature: the critic as hero. [emphasis added]
The extent to which this view has taken hold is illustrated by Criticism in Society, a book of interviews with literary critics conducted by Imre Salusinszky, a tutor in English at the University of Melbourne. His subjects include many of the stars of the literary-critical firmament: Jacques Derrida, Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, Frank Kermode, Edward Said, Barbara Johnson, Frank Lentricchia, and J. Hillis Miller. Although there is much that is interesting—and horrifying—in the comments of the nine critics interviewed, the true cautionary tale of Criticism in Society is to be found in the questions posed, and not posed, by Salusinszky. For it is the outlook of Salusinszky and his peers, now making their way out of graduate school and onto university faculties, that will set the tone for literary discussion in the years to come.
In an earlier day, the critic felt it was his responsibility to illuminate the work, and sometimes the life, of the artist, not of himself. Edmund Wilson, among other things a critic with far more lasting significance than most of those now practicing the craft, had a pre-printed postcard declining requests for interviews. Times have clearly changed; now that the critic occupies center stage, the life the critic studies most closely is his own. [emphases added] Salusinszky came of age in this environment, and in his interviews no personal detail is too inconsequential to be discussed. Frank Lentricchia, a critical theorist at Duke University, goes on for pages about how his grandparents’ lives in Southern Italy affect the way he reads literature, while Harold Bloom relates how a mid-life crisis, followed by five years of intermittent analysis, may or may not have helped lay the foundation for The Anxiety of Influence. Barbara Johnson illustrates the relation between Bloom and Paul de Man by telling a story about Bloom’s guess that her dog’s name was “Nietzsche.”
The vicious circle of critical self-reference which pervades Criticism in Society was encouraged by the strategy of allowing the subject of each interview to read the transcripts of the earlier interviews in the series, so that each critic might be “invited to insert his or her own voice into dialogue with [the others].” The purpose of this, stated on the book’s jacket, is to reveal “criticism with a human face.”
In light of the result, one must ask if it might be better for criticism to be a bit more anonymous. Such a remedy seems unlikely, however, in the face of the celebrity status which critics now enjoy. In his last question to Derrida, Salusinszky asks how Derrida’s “great fame” has affected his work: “I suppose,” Salusinszky says, “this is partly a voyeuristic question, but I ask it on behalf of all those who will read this interview: do you think your work is affected by the reality of going about everywhere and seeing your work, your name, in discussion?” A far more pertinent question is the effect of Derrida’s fame on the work of Salusinszky and his contemporaries, now in their first years in the literary-critical field. Visions of fame were once the luxury of writers and artists—the sort of people critics used to study; now they can be seriously entertained by critics themselves. [emphasis added]
While fame is not possible in every calling, when it does become so, the environment of that pursuit is irrevocably altered. Debates over principles and issues begin giving way to talk of colleagues receiving media coverage; one thinks less about the advancement of ideas than simple advancement. Northrop Frye, commenting on the quality of contemporary critical essays, says, “One feels that the reason for their existence is simply to get [the author] on a dean’s list, and that the notion of the pursuit of a structure, or of knowledge, so that it gets clearer in the mind, is just something you haven’t the time for.” In his reply, Salusinszky lays the blame on society, which “cuts back funding to the universities.” Although it might be more painful, the critical establishment would be better off looking to itself in order to understand how this predicament came about. [emphases added]
I suppose I should mention, seeing as it may be inevitable in our time and place that criticism has some personal element, that I have been frustrated by how frequently criticism is inextricable from personal narrative. I appreciate that if you love or hate something in the arts there are always going to be personal reasons for it, but we live in an era in which it's possible to formulate interaction with artworks chiefly and primarily through the prism of personal narrative. Dana Stevens writing about her process of no longer liking Louis C. K. in light of his admission that allegations were true comes to mind. Stevens' piece did not do what Claire Dederer did in admitting her affection for films by Polanski and Allen, which was to admit that she liked films made by guys who she regarded as moral monsters, with some dry joking about how she worried alternately that she was not monstrous enough to e a great artist on the one hand and on the other worried that maybe she wasn't monstrous enough to be a writer of any significance.
What elevated that musing above mere, if you will, personal narrative, was the humor with which she deployed the mythology of the art monster in critical and popular imagination and played it out as a joke about identity crisis predicated on wanting to find the Goldilocks level of monster to be a significant "artist" but someone her husband and kids could still somehow live with. If the idea of a joke about what the "Goldilocks" level of monstrosity is to be both a serious writer/artist and a live-with-able human being doesn't sound funny to you in any way then Claire Dederer isn't going to be a writer you'll enjoy.
Which, maybe just to be a little bit of a punk this weekend, we could say in 2018 a few years after the demise of Mars Hill that for all the shtick, Mark Driscoll had a B.A. in Communications from WSU and a Master's in Exegetical Theology. As powerfully popular as it will be for a certain strata of liberal to disown the very idea that Mark Driscoll could reflect the molding influences of our educational-industrial establishment he was not some uneducated rube. Sometimes the creepy discoveries we can make are that those we would wish to define as inherently "not like us" are like us. The Unabomber turned out to have manifestos and ideas that were not as far afield of conventional Romantic bromides against industrialization and modernity as we might have preferred. It didn't stop him from being a threat to public safety, obviously, but the more salient point is that sometimes the people who are most creepy mirror back to us the most frighteningly distilled and unmediated excesses inherent in our formally held ideals.
Richard Taruskin proposed that what made John Cage so creepy was not his formal rejection of Beethoven but that the ideals his music represented was more Beethoven than Beethoven, with the artist as philosopher, seer and challenger of the known. In a faintly parallel way, a Mark Driscoll could be a symptom of what the education industry of the United States has been capable of producing. If, as I've been proposing over the last two years, Mark Driscoll is better thought of as a propagandist than as a pastor, he participating in a higher educational system that trained him to be the kind of propagandist he became. Given the trajectories of workshop creative writing regimes a Mark Driscoll may be a symptom there, too.
One writer, such as Bloch, is one writer. Still the observations from 1988 were interesting because it has seemed more and more to me in the last five years that it is useful to notice the extent to which the first-person industrial complex, as some call it, traffics in a set of intellectual vices that rely on narrative to emotionally manipulate when a presentation of ideas might fail. But I'm also at a point where just blaming the masses also seems wildly insufficient and probably incorrect. We may want too quickly to blame the cadets for simply doing what their drill instructors trained them to do, and if that could be so then who were those drill instructors? Bloch's admonition was that the critical establishment might benefit from arriving at a "lesson" about things that was more self-implicating than to merely scapegoat "society". So, unsurprisingly, as I've written a few times about Mars Hill and its decline, if the great "lessons" you have to share about it are self-exonerating lessons you didn't learn anything, you've just got something you want to sell us.
Among the coterie of vocational arts critics it's a lofty and sacred discipline but even as a cub reporter for a mere college-based student newspaper I got to find out in the proverbial trenches what people thought about coverage of arts events, free advertising. That didn't mean I didn't enjoy covering arts events, I loved the arts beat. I still do, basically, as you can probably tell from all the years of blogging about arts stuff. But it's possible for arts criticism to be a cultish devotion and also free advertising.
It's also possible when we survey the weaknesses of the "first-person industrial complex" to regard all those writers as emblematic of a generational narcissism rather than considering that by and large they are also all probably just doing the kind of writing they were explicitly and implicitly taught to write.