Saturday, July 20, 2019

Francis Schaeffer's failure to fully understand the history of the total work of art in modernism; the Wagnerian legacy of art religion; and the rise of Joseph Campbell's monomyth

Half a century ago Francis Schaeffer published the first of a trilogy of books that came to be influential in American evangelical circles. I read them in my teens and was impressed with them.  Here in middle age I am ... less positively impressed by them.  I can admire the curiosity Schaeffer displayed in the sheer variety of what art, music, film, literature and philosophy he was willing to interact with while finding his master narrative of a Western world gone wrong since the rejection of a generally implicitly low church Protestant Christian "worldview" took place as he understood it to be ... doubtful.   

More particularly, Schaeffer's description of new forms of "total art" suggests that he was not as conversant with the idea of the total work of art.  In Schaeffer's day there was little, if anything, by way of English language scholarship on the total work of art, so what Schaeffer wrote is understandable within the context of his time.

The God Who Is There

copyright (c) 1968 by Francis A. Schaeffer
Published by InterVarsity Press (U.S.A. and Canada)

Escape from Reason
copyright (c) 1968 by Francis A. Schaeffer
Published by InterVarsity Press (U.S.A) and Hodder and Stoughton (Canada)

ISBN 13:978-0-89107-561-5
ISBN 10:0-89107-561-5

page 41
The 1960s was the time of many powerful philosophic films. The posters advertising Antonioni's Blow-Up in the London Underground were inescapable as they told the message of that film: "Murder without guilt; love without meaning." The mas of people may not enter an art museum, may never read a serious book. If you were to explain the drift of modern thought to them, they might not be able to understand it; but this does not mean that they are not influenced by the things they see and hear--including the cinema and what is considered "good," nonescapist television.

No greater illustration could be found of the way these concepts were carried to the masses than "pop" music and especially the work of the Beatles. The Beatles moved through several stages, including the concept of the drug and psychedelic approach. The psychedelic began with their records Revolver, Strawberry Fields Forever, and Penny Lane. This was developed with great expertness in their record Sargeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in which psychedelic music, with open statements concerning drug-taking, was knowingly presented as a religious answer. The religious form was the same vague pantheism which predominates much of the new mystical thought today. one indeed does not have to understand in a clear way the modern monolithic thought in order to be infiltrated by it. Sargeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was an ideal example of the manipulating power of the new forms of "total art" This concept of total art increases the infiltrating power of the message by carefully conforming the technical form used to the message involved. [emphasis added] This is used in the Theatre of the Absurd, the Marshall McLuhan type of television program, the new cinema and the new dance with someone like Merce Cunningham. The Beatles used this in Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by making the whole record one unit so the whole is to be listened to as a unit and makes one thrust, rather than songs being only something individually. In this record the words, the syntax, the music, and the unity of the way individual songs were arranged form a unity of infiltration.

That art was proposed as something that could be above what Francis Schaeffer called "the line of despair"; providing a transcendental experience in lieu of deeper metaphysical meaning, is clear enough in Schaeffer's overview of Western history.  He fumbled the period in which the total work of art began to be theorized and produced but he got the key idea that there were movements within modernism that sought to explicitly propose that art could be the new religion.  

Theorizing about the total work of art in revolutionary and religious terms goes as far back as the writing of Richard Wagner. The quest to recover a Hellenistic conception of civic religion fused with art was a popular theme in European thought.  We could roughly sketch out that there were revolutionary and reactionary forms of such an impulse.  It wasn't until the concept of the total work of art migrated into the United States in a postwar context that the total work of art as a civic religious cultic experience affirming a contemporary status quo may have emerged but that's a deliberately provocative suggestion that, were any academics ever to have a reason to read this blog they could chime in but this is just some person writing a blog post on a weekend. 

Now Francis Schaeffer understood humanism to be the philosophical premise that man is the measure of all things.  Advocacy for such a view and advocacy for art to do for religion what religion could no longer do found one of its most vocal exponents in Richard Wagner, who was prolific enough a writer to be able to speak for himself (via translation, of course):

Richard Wagner
Prose Works, Volume 6
translated by William Ashton Ellis
Second Edition
Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd.

page 213

One might say that where Religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for Art to save the spirit of religion by recognizing the figurative value of the mythic symbols which the former would have us believe in their literal sense, and revealing their deep and hidden truth through an ideal presentation. Whilst the priest stakes everything" on the religious allegories being accepted as matters of fact, the artist has no concern at all with such a thing, since he freely and openly gives out his work as his own invention. But Religion has sunk into an artificial life, when she finds herself compelled to keep on adding to the edifice of her dogmatic symbols, and thus conceals the one divinely True in her beneath an ever growing heap of incredibilities commended to belief. Feeling this, she has always sought the aid of Art ; who on her side has remained incapable of higher evolution so long as she must present that alleged reality of the symbol to the senses of the worshipper in form of fetishes and idols,— whereas she could only, fulfill her true vocation when, by an ideal presentment of the allegoric figure, she led to apprehension of its inner kernel, the truth ineffably divine. To see our way clear in this, we should have most carefully to test the origin of religions. These we must certainly deem the more divine, the simpler proves to be their inmost kernel. ...

Art and Revoluion

Richard Wagner
Prose Works, Volume 1
translated by William Ashton Ellis
Second Edition
Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd.

page 57
Let US glance, then, for a moment at this future state of Man, when he shall have freed himself from his last heresy, the denial of Nature,—that heresy which has taught him hitherto to look upon himself as a mere instrument to an end which lay outside himself. When Mankind knows, at last, that itself is the one and only object of its existence, and that only in the community of all men can this purpose be fulfilled: then will its mutual creed be couched in an actual fulfillment of Christ's injunction, " Take no care (or your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on, for your Heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things." This Heavenly Father will then be no other than the social wisdom of mankind taking Nature and her fullness for the common weal of all. The crime and the curse of our social intercourse have lain in this : that the mere physical maintenance of life has been till now the one object of our care,—a real care that has devoured our souls and bodies and well nigh lamed each spiritual impulse. This Care has made man weak and slavish, dull and wretched; a creature that can neither love nor hate; a thrall of commerce, ever ready to give up the last vestige of the freedom of his Will, so only that this Care might be a little lightened.

When the Brotherhood of Man has cast this care for ever from it, and, as the Greeks upon their slaves, has lain it on machines,—the artificial slaves of free creative man, whom he has served till now as the Fetish-votary serves the idol his own hands have made,—then will man's whole enfranchised energy proclaim itself as naught but pure artistic impulse.

So the idea that art could do for religion what religion could no longer do was hardly new.  Schaeffer grasped that art for the sake of art was taken as able to replace religion, but he was fuzzy about the details as to how far back this idea went in European modernism and did not much address the work of those who played the most significant role in developing the concept.  For a brief overview of English language books that discuss the total work of art that weren't available in Francis Schaeffer's time:  

The Ring of Truth
 by Roger Scruton (on Wagner’s ideas about art and humanity)

Dialectic of Romanticism by Peter Murphy and David Roberts
At this point it should suffice to observe that Schaeffer overlooked the influence of Wagner in his trio of books.  That is hardly difficult to establish.  What Schaeffer also overlooked, that we can observe better in our era, is that Joseph Campbell came to have a significant influence in American popular culture.  If Theodore Adorno was the German philosopher and cultural critic who began to observe there was a "culture industry" that was willing to sell an illusion of freedom in the form of vicarious life distilled into popular culture, Francis Schaeffer began to articulate what he saw in the total work of art as an experience that could stand in for more traditional religious experience.  I suggest that Adorno so "what" the culture industry was and how it worked while Schaeffer was more attuned to what it was selling.  Adorno may have seen clearly that what he called the culture industry was selling mass and popular culture with emotional content on the cheap and that all this kitsch was to numb people to their own unfreedom.  Schaeffer, arguably, saw that too but saw it in terms of a more traditional conservative Protestant assessment, that this culture industry was an idol factory.  

Adorno may have observed what the culture industry was selling as he understood it but the formula had not yet been refined in his era.  The process of refining what the culture industry would sell required a thinker who was capable of surveying all religious and mythic tropes available and summarize them in the form of a schematic that could plausibly claim universality.  Americans may very well know who that person was, Joseph Campbell.

Schaeffer doesn't demonstrate any awareness of Campbell's work or ideas but here in the twenty-first century we cannot escape the influence of Campbell's work just by way of Star Wars, never mind all the other forms of popular culture informed by his work.

original edition copyright (c) 1949 by Bollingen Foundation and published by Pantheon Books
ISBN 978-1-57731-593-3
ISBN 978-1-57731-593-3
page 1

Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eye witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mysterious Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizzare Eskimo fairy tale; it will always be the one, shape-shifting, yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.

pages 1-2
... For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.

pages 30-31

The cosmogonic cycle is presented with astonishing consistency in the sacred writings of all the continents, and it gives the adventure of the hero a new and interesting turn; for now it appears that the perilous journey was a labor not of attainment but of reattainment, not discovery, but rediscovery. The godly powers sought and dangerously won are revealed to have been within the heart of the hero all the time. He is "the king's son" who has come to know who he is and therewith has entered into the exercise of his proper power--"God's son," who has learned to know how much that title means. From this point of view the hero is symbolical of that divine creative and redemptive image which is hidden within us all, only waiting to be known and rendered into life.

page 135
The good news, which the World Redeemer brings and which so many have been glad to hear, zealous to preach, but reluctant, apparently, to demonstrate, is that God is love, that He can be, and is to be, loved, and that all without exception are his children. Such comparatively trivial matters as the remaining details of the credo, the techniques of worship, and devices of episcopal organization (which have so absorbed the interest of Occidental theologians that they are today seriously discussed as the principle questions of religion), are merely pedantic snares, unless kept ancillary to the major teaching.
page 196
Not everyone has a destiny; only the hero who has plunged to touch it, and has come up again--with a ring. 

page 219

... it appears that through the wonder tales--which pretend to describe the lives of the legendary heroes, the powers of the divinities of nature, the spirits of the dead, and the totem ancestors of the group--symbolic expression is given to the unconscious desires, fears, and tensions that underlie the conscious patterns of human behavior. Mythology, in other words, is psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology.

page 231
Mythology is defeated when the mind rests solemnly with its favorite or traditional images, defending them as though they themselves were the message that they communicate. These images are to be regarded as no more than shadows from the unfathomable reach beyond, where the eye goeth not, speech goeth not, nor the mind, nor even piety. Like the trivialities of dream, those of myth are big with meaning. 

page 239
The enduring substratum of the individual and of the progenitor of the universe are one and the same, according to these mythologies; that is why the demiurge in this myth is called the Self. 

page 275
Jesus, for example can be regarded as a man who by dint of austerities and meditation attained wisdom; or on the other hand, one may believe that a god descended and took upon himself the enactment of a human career. The first view would lead one to imitate the master literally, in order to break through, in the same way as he, to the transcendent, redemptive experience. But the second states that the hero is rather a symbol to be contemplated than an example to be literally followed. The divine being is a revelation of the omnipotent Self, which dwells within us all. The contemplation of the life thus should be undertaken as a meditation on one's own immanent divinity, not as a prelude to a precise imitation, the lesson being, not "Do thus and be good," but "Know this and be God."

page 337
... Not the animal world, not the plant world not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery. Man is that alien presence with whom the forces of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be crucified and resurrected, and in whose image society is to be reformed. Man, understood however not as "I" but as "Thou": for the ideals and temporal institutions of no tribe, race , continent, social class, or century can be the measure of the inexhaustible and multifariously wonderful divine existence that is the life in all of us. 

The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding.  "Live," Nietzsche says, "as though the day were here." It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal--carries the cross of the redeemer--not in the bright moments of his tribe's great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.  

Joseph Campbell's influence on American popular culture is by now probably incontestable and yet Schaeffer, due to an accident of his time and place, never significantly addressed Campbell's work.  And why should he have?  After all, the rise of Campbellian influence wouldn't begin to happen until Star Wars came along. In failing to address the ideas of Richard Wagner it's arguable that Francis Schaeffer botched his efforts to engage with European modern philosophy in a way that has largely rendered his attempts to engage with the intellectual currents of his time mostly irrelevant and even, at times, wildly wrong.  

Situated as he was within American culture and living as he did through the Cold War, Francis Schaeffer could be perceptive but his perception was constrained by the Cold War context within which he lived.  He seems to have been alert to the possible threats to an American way of life that, however deistic its founding thinkers often were, could be presented and thought of as vestigially Christian; yet he presented the rejection of the Christian worldview mainly in narrative terms that presented the most overt attacks on a Christian worldview as coming from Europe. He could see that the idea of the total work of art could be manifest in a Beatles album but seemed less alert to its existence within the United States.  

It may be useful to add a caveat to all of these observations and suggestions, Schaeffer published the first book of his trilogy in 1968.  That meant that the 1967 controversy surrounding the discovery that the CIA had been backing arts and intellectual movements would have been too new for him to meaningfully address if he knew of it.  For some monographs on the CIA's involvement in bankrolling American and European avant garde art and intellectual activity two readable books are Frances Stonor Saunders' The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters and 
Hugh WIlfords  The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America.  To try to sum up things in lay terms, Schaeffer may have seen a lot of modernist art as ugly and therefore a reflection of the loss of the Christian worldview as he saw it, but what was really going on in geopolitical terms was the United States was secretly funding the kind of art that was designed to aggravate the Soviet bloc and do so in a way that was presented in Cold War propaganda terms as proof that the West celebrated freedom in general and freedom for artists and intellectuals in particular.  So even if we grant that Schaeffer's ideas can make more sense within his Cold War context there's room to criticize his work even within that context--he was so set on seeing modernist art of the European variety as a sign of the decline of the West he didn't seem to have stopped to ask whether that decline was a reflection of autonomous currents within European traditions or whether it might also have emerged with help from American influences. 

Perhaps Schaeffer's work was more compelling within the context of the Cold War but after the Cold War ended a good deal of his narrative about the demise of the Christian West as he understood it can unravel.  The roots of Christendom in a basically Catholic cultural legacy are not that hard to keep in mind, even among regions that embraced the Protestant movements, yet Schaeffer needed that Protestant moment to salvage the West from being entirely the result of a Catholicism that, as a Protestant minister, he could not entirely regard in positive terms.  

Take Jake Meador's comments about Schaeffer from a while back.
Schaeffer did not exile himself in an evangelical bubble in the way that a Carl Henry or Harold Ockenga could be accused of doing. He (often regrettably) got sucked into those intra-mural debates when he was back in the States, but from his perch in the Swiss Alps he was one of the few evangelicals watching the films of Bergman and listening to Pink Floyd. Indeed, his appearances at Wheaton in the 1960s in many ways set the stage for what is now a comparative golden age of Christian film and television criticism. At a time when Wheaton students weren’t allowed to attend movies Schaeffer showed up talking not only about film, but about avant garde filmmakes like Bergman and Antonioni. And here’s the thing: The members of the 60s counter-culture noticed. Some even went to L’Abri to meet him.
The first thing that comes to mind is Francis Schaeffer was just described as interacting with pop culture.  Pinkfloyd may be thought of as art rock but Dark Side of the Moon still sold a lot of copies and has been one of my favorite rock albums.   If there are cases to be made to reject pop culture then cases to reject pop culture might need to include a statement as to why Francis Schaeffer had to have wasted his time and thought engaging with popular culture in his apologetics writings.  Maybe he really did just waste time and, if so, what's the case to be made that Francis Schaeffer could be considered intellectual if he was a clergyman who read some highbrow stuff while managing to also participate in the popular culture of his day? 

The second thing that comes to mind is what D. G. Hart wrote in response to Meador's post.

I wasn’t reading Time in 1960 but fifteen years later I was reading Schaeffer and the better description of the apologist is not as missionary to intellectuals but missionary to would-be intellectuals. That is, Schaeffer was great for kids who had lost their faith and wanted to talk about the films of Bergman or the novels of Camus. Schaeffer was even more effective for young believers like me for taking the lid off subjects not so much forbidden as ignored. All of a sudden, Schaeffer seemed to make it possible for evangelicals who were so culturally marginal never to have heard of C.S. Lewis to entertain ideas about the arts and sciences, movies and trees, and even politics (DOH! That’s where it all breaks down). In other words, Schaeffer inspired as neo-Calvinists so often do. But when it came to the contents of his arguments, chances are that intellectuals weren’t impressed because Christian professors (who might qualify as intellectuals), the ones who grew up inspired by Schaeffer (like mmmeeeEEEE) weren’t so impressed with the scholarship that underwrote Schaeffer’s arguments.

Once again we're back to Francis Schaeffer being the clergyman who did not ignore the popular culture of his day or regard it as something that might not say something about the metaphysical views on offer in "the marketplace of ideas".   Schaeffer was, to tie his apologetics back to his ideological and religious opposite numbers in the Frankfurt School, aware that there was a culture industry and observant enough to recognize that what was for sale by that industry was alternately an illusory notion of freedom (above the line of despair) or an ugly resignation to the idea that we are mere beasts (below the line of despair).  

If Hart was right to say that Francis Schaeffer was the patron saint of would-be intellectuals the emphasis is, perhaps, on the will rather than the ability.  But in my experience observing how the work of Francis Schaeffer's work has been invoked by conservative Christian authors his work is not unlike what Theodore Adorno said about popular music and its consumers (which I've discussed elsewhere)--just as popular music feels for the listener, Francis Schaeffer's work thinks for the Christian would-be intellectual.  He read Kant so you don't have to is how people who tend to name-drop Schaeffer so often seem to use his work.

That's not to say there's no potential benefit in reading the books of Francis Schaeffer here in 2019, it's saying that Schaeffer got enough important things wrong that he is a role model in relationship to culture more by the example of his wide-ranging and omnivorous cultural curiosity than he is an example in the carefulness or accuracy of his thought.  He was a clergyman rather than an intellectual.  If Christians were to shake free of pop culture that, in Adorno's scathing critique, was manufactured to feel for the consumer, they will also need to shake free of what in intellectual terms would be a pop culture equivalent, which would be reading the work of Francis Schaeffer, which in so many ways aimed to think about intellectual and cultural trends for those low church Protestants who themselves had not bothered to keep track of what was going on in the mid-twentieth century.  Schaeffer could have even said "amen" to Adorno's harsh assessment of the impasse that art faced in the twentieth century.

Aesthetic Theory
Theodore Adorno
Copyright (c) 1997 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota

ISBN 0-8264-6757-1

page 1
It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist. ...

page 2

As a result of its inevitable withdrawal from theology, from the unqualified claim to the truth of salvation, a secularization without which art would never have developed, art is condemned to provide the world as it exists with a consolation that—shorn of any hope of a world beyond—strengthens the spell of that from which the autonomy of art wants to free itself. ...

Schaeffer could agree with this assessment by way of saying that whatever the divine voice was that a John Cage invoked, that divine voice was impersonal and had nothing to say.  But evangelicals, by and large, don't know who Adorno is and haven't engaged with any of his ideas in most respects.  

And yet, there was a Christian write who made a point of discussing Adorno's writing on the arts back in the early 1980s.  

Jacques Ellul
Copyright (c) 2014 by Papadakis Publisher
translated by Michael Johnson and David Lovekin
ISBN 978-1-906506-40-7

page 58

... Adorno has summed up the situation especially well in his Aesthetisch Theorie by showing that modern art is placed between two contradictory orientations without being able to choose either one. Every work that seeks to change is revolutionary, but it is, as such, immediately vitiated. If one protests complicity one is reduced to silence, which is another form of complicity.

Ellul would go on to say that what Adorno anticipated was that popular art would devolve into more or less explicit propaganda, while the highbrow would evolve into an esoteric formalism that would be impossible to understand without participation in the art community and academic/critical establishment.  The options were lowbrow agitprop or art so highbrow as to be opaque to the masses. In such a context as this Francis Schaeffer may have read the big philosophical books but never attained the level of interacting with the big ideas in those books at the level at which they were thought.  He could place writers above or below the line of despair for the sake of his larger narrative of Western culture, but that doesn't necessarily mean he really understood what John Cage was trying to say.  Schaeffer might have had a more helpful legacy interacting with the arts if instead of attempting to grapple with Hegel or Kierkegaard he had stayed more at the level of engaging the ideas presented by Richard Wagner, maybe Jung, and Joseph Campbell.  

It's one thing to take after Francis Schaeffer's example and attempt to engage with currents of thought and art as a Christian.  It's another thing altogether if Christians take Schaeffer's master narrative of the decline of Western Christendom defined in peculiarly Protestant terms within an emphatically Cold War context as if it were relevant to us now.  Schaeffer's activism could be seen as a misread response to his observation that the West had become a post-Christian society.  Schaeffer did not live to see the end of the Cold War and his admirers within Western Christendom seem to have said little by way of reassessing the relevance of Schaeffer's overall understanding of arts in the West in light of that geopolitical change.  A good deal of the American culture wars surrounding the arts can be understood in terms of the conflict that erupted when American national arts policy, defined almost entirely in terms of a Cold War era ideological conflict with the Soviet Union, faced a crisis of purpose with the fall of the Soviet Union.  American art policy had been so defined in terms of an Atlanticist anti-Soviet policy that when the Soviet Union collapsed the question as to what American arts policy entailed became a hot button issue, thus the battles over the NEA and what it funded.  

Even if Schaeffer got his history right we have not lived in a Cold War era for a couple of generations. If he got his history wrong then attempting to understand contemporary art, whether high or low, in light of the categories he provided might be a waste of time by itself.  On the other hand, if we set the work of Schaeffer alongside the work of Adorno and compare how these two ideologues dealt with art and the philosophy of art within the context of the Cold War their respective criticisms of what Adorno called the culture industry might actually give us some useful things to think about despite the Cold War having been over for decades.  

Willa Paskin on the way Game of Thrones became a pretext in journalism to discuss current events and was more its journalistic reception history than the thing itself

Game of Thrones was the ideal text on which to practice and then perfect a new sort of extra-textual relationship to TV. Theorizing about the show, which increased season over season, was so dense that it trickled out to viewers who weren’t reading the books at all but learned of fan theories as they were explicated on the internet or repeated over the watercooler. A certain degree of sleuthing—be it by osmosis, Wikipedia, or accidental spoiling—became part of the Game of Throne experience, just as it is a part of the robust genre Game of Thrones helped spawn: puzzle TV, which includes shows like WestworldStranger ThingsMr. Robot,and Making a Murderer, and has followed antihero shows as the most reliable mass-buzz format of the moment.
In addition to prestige and puzzle TV, Game of Thrones was also a part of a third trend: the political show, although that was not apparent when it first premiered. It arrived around the same time as Homeland, The Americans, the first season of Parks and RecreationHouse of CardsScandal, and Veep, a group of series that deposited the antihero, and increasingly the antiheroine, into explicitly political settings. All of these shows hewed, in some ways, closer to reality than Game of Thrones—they were set in America, for one thing—but they also skewed further from prestige TV conventions, simply by being comedies or melodramas or just about women. In its early seasons, Game of Thrones seemed more like The Walking Dead, another hugely popular series about the disintegration of civil society and the zombie threat, than any of these political series—but then our politics intervened, turning the show into a scrim upon which, it sometimes seemed, every real-world crisis could and would be projected.
That politicians wanted to be associated with Game of Thrones couldn’t make more sense: It’s hugely popular! It’s relatable! It’s cool! But in using Game of Thrones to lighten themselves up, they lent a gravitas to the show. Game of Thrones exists in a moment when the heinous political environment makes pop culture a genuine escape, but that escape can feel so frivolous that pop culture is constantly trying to justify itself in political terms. Game of Thrones was entertaining and escapist, while permitting us to feel that we weren’t quite escaping. At this particular moment, that is a beguiling combination.
One knock-on effect of the fragmentation of the entertainment monoculture is that what we’re left with is politics: It’s the story—even though it’s not just a story—that everyone is following, and it pulls everything into its tractor beam. Game of Thrones, over its run, tracked a shift in prestige TV’s center from the antihero show, with its aesthetic and moral innovations, to the political show—not necessarily a show about politics but a show that is doing political work or can be leveraged for political uses. Game of Thrones—absurdly, given the racial makeup of its cast—came to exist on a continuum with shows that, by expanding diversity and representation on television, are understood to be political because of their larger goals and concerns. Unlike these series, Game of Thrones did not have grand ambitions to change how the entertainment system operates (unless it’s to ensure we’ll be living with expensive GoT knockoffs for the next five years). It’s “work,” if you can call it that, was to make us feel that in thinking so much about it, a fiction, we were studying the real world.
There are many reasons I tend to be skeptical about the skepticism a strand of conservative Protestants have about "engaging culture", pop culture in particular.  For a group that can be as set on defense of timeless and ever-relevant truths you would think that they would have no reason to write new books.  That's sarcasm, of course, but the point is, I trust, clear enough.  A truth timeless enough to always be relevant may not need to be reformulated in ever new ways as often as happens in popular level publishing.  There are those selling books in the here and now who would denigrate the reading of old dead guys as a reflection of a "father wound" but that dubious sort of punditry can be read as an opportunistic shill for "buy my book, which is coming out in a few months".

If there's a case to be made that you can safely ignore a great swath of popular culture the most compelling argument I've seen in a while is summed up by Willa Paskin's riff on the significance of the insignificance of the final season of Game of Thrones.  It can serve, by example, as a kind of argument for the value of reading contemporary criticism more than you go out and consume cultural goods yourself.   Paskin doesn't make the case directly, though, she makes it by way of describing how journalists and other writers discussed Game of Thrones.

The monoculture, whatever that is, has not really gone away.  Journalists can recognize what the new forms the monoculture has been taking in the last twenty years and they resent it.  When you see, read, or hear someone complaining about superhero films they're complaining about the new monoculture, the new post-Disney/Marvel/Star Wars monoculture that is supposedly the disaster for culture writers at The Guardian might make it out to be. Game of Thrones was the pulp genre franchise that dealt with political and social topics in such a way that journalists decided it was "significant" and used it as a way to discuss all kinds of things.  They could have done this about Marvel films, too, but they very often didn't because somehow a show on HBO with T&A and bloodletting is more "real", even with dragons and magic, than shows that deal with similar topics that could in any way be tied to toy lines or get mentioned at something like a Sand Diego Comic-con.

It seems most pertinent in the wake of the end of GoT that what made it "important" was that it was something on to which writers could project their existing interests.  This may be one of the key distinctions between prestige middlebrow and non-prestige middlebrow.  When a journalist or critic can springboard from something in an episode to "the way we live now" commentary the work is higher prestige.  If the moralism in the story is so overt there's no need for critical mediation then, well, it's not prestige television.  This verdict can be handed down even in cases where a television show might hit all the right notes for positive, moral messaging that journalists might otherwise like. 

In other words, journalists would find themselves obliged to suggest people should be watching Steven Universe or Adventure Time at all because cartoons are for kids, because mainstream American and British arts journalism presumes that cartoons are not "art" in the "serious" sense of the term even though it's literally art in every frame.  A Richard Brody can be dismissive of the entire Star Trek franchise not because he really belittles the ideological moralizing of Star Trek, few people might embody it more than Brody, but because the pulpy nature of the genre is beneath the dignity of the ideals he would like cinema-as-art to espouse. 

Despite regular protests that Christians of a sufficiently conservative sort should not do Netflix, or whatever it is, there can always be some moment in which  someone registers a complaint about a trope in popular culture that has become unavoidable enough that it has already been taken down in more progressive circles but is nevertheless written about as if it were new.  The easiest example that springs to mind was Alastair Roberts on the "strong female character" at Mere Orthodoxy.

Now I agree with Roberts that Miyazaki films are more compelling and interesting cinema (I own nearly every film he's made) than some of the more recent "strong female character" films.  But ... it would be hard to find a more emblematic case of a conservative British writer writing at length about a trope presented in a trailer as a pop culture moment that reveals what's-wrong-with-society.  It's not even that that case can't be made, it's that it's the sort of case that gets made years earlier by someone less conservative.

I've been thinking about cases against consuming popular culture that conservative Christians make to other Christians and one translation of such admonitions is something that can be invoked by example--don't bother because odds are pretty high you'll come up with an argument about the implausibility and psychologically inert nature of a cliche that was made by a more progressive author about a decade earlier that you'll not know about because you're busy writing about sex and politics or sexual politics or politics influencing sex.  In that sense conservative Christian discussions of trends in popular culture might be likened to conservative Christian bids at rock and roll, ten to thirty years behind what's already happened depending on the rate of innovation in a field. 

I found The Last Jedi exasperating for the way the Force is revealed to have basically forced Rey to become hugely powerful.  It seems like a simple observation that the trouble with TLJ is that the script gave Rey a whole lot of power but in a way that sacrificed her agency, basically entirely sacrificed her agency, not as an ass-kicking heroine but as a person wielding the Force.  For the most part I haven't come across authors with progressive sympathies who have made a point of highlighting the serious chasm between Rey's power and Rey's agency in learning and acquiring the ability to use the Force.  Conservatives, of course, noticed immediately but their objects tended to fixate on appeals to gender stereotypes rather than highlight the aforementioned gap between power and agency as a problem of scripting in its own terms.

As Charles Mudede once put it, the Force has this whole crazy New Age theology that goes with it and it seemed that was being brought back.  The trouble is that in TLJ Rey's powers are given by dint of the Force forcing itself on her and not as part of a spiritual discipline of the sort Luke gets by way of the hectoring of Yoda and Yoda's training exercises after Ben Kenobi inducts Luke Skywalker into the basics.  In other words, for those not conversant in Star Wars lore, if you go through half a dozen movies saying that there are spiritual and emotional disciplinary prerequisites to wielding the Force and then a new character is given seemingly limitless power the problem is not really that Rey has that much power in and of itself, it's that she is given that power in a way that conspicuously ignores decades of world-building and established rules for how and why characters developed power. We're not given any evidence she was conceived by the power of the Force and brimming with midichlorians, for instance, nor are we given any indication that by dint of believing the Force is real and that she can wield it she's a new Luke Skywalker who was on a spiritual path to observing a bigger and more mysterious universe than the one he thought he lived in.  Rey got a power up and a level up in a video game she didn't realize she was playing and that's about the best way to describe it.

This kind of thing is not just an issue in Star WarsLegend of Korra, the follow-up series to Avatar: The Last Airbender, decouples the acquisition of the power to manipulate earth, air, fire and water from the traditions of "bending" as a tribal and spiritual discipline of peoples in favor of powers being gained at a more technical level.  Korra is consistently shown as having no spiritual interests or disciplines yet is continually shown seeking and gaining power and this despite the fact that Aang is shown as having a lot of power but struggling to enter what's called "the avatar state" because of emotional and spiritual issues.  Aang eventually learns how to control his powers but it takes three seasons of spiritual discipline, going on quests, and a lot of humiliating trial and error.  Korra is literally just given the power to voluntarily enter the avatar state by her predecessor as a scripting trick, a plot device.  At length she gets to save the world and she gets Asami Sato as her trophy girlfriend for saving the world enough times to have, by dint of those acts of power, demonstrated she's the worthy world-saving heroine who deserves a trophy like any James Bond style character would.  If this was progress it's a dubious sort of progress, since Korra went through the series with no particularly demonstrable spiritual disciplinary inclinations of the sort that the previous series showed us were necessary prerequisites for Aang's ability to gain and wield power. 

That's not the kind of observation and criticism of contemporary genre fiction that a conservative Christian could make without actually watching a whole lot of cartoons and odds are many who self-identify as conservative Christians in Anglo-American contexts don't or won't watch cartoons.  The observation that in genre fiction of the pulp variety strong female characters are given massive amounts of power without any connection to traditions of spiritual discipline "could" be made by such a Christian writer but it doesn't tend to happen.  What seems to happen more is a blanket admonition to not spend so much time consuming popular culture as if it were in some way its own reward. 

That in the pulp genre tales kids grow up watching they are presented with story after story in which someone is born to be a "chosen one" with potentially unlimited power and this granted by way of a figuratively or literally divine birthright and against which the strictures of traditional spiritual disciplines are seen as superfluous at best or hindrances at worst it might not be that difficult to anticipate that when American kids are given enough of that diet of entitled-by-birthright ideas about what powers they should have to change society that one of the criticisms of genre fiction would be that, well, there should be a wider range of representation.  Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces had better have a thousand faces or justice has not been obtained.  If conservative Christians simply repeat bromides about how its the bros who are discussed in Campbell's monomyth rather than point out that the entire monomyth can be regarded as predicated on a distinctly American form of exceptionalism and that the monomyth and cosmogonic cycle as described in Campbell's writings paradoxically embody the American exceptionalist/colonial/imperial project he thought he might have been writing against, well, that isn't on the table because if the Roberts piece is an example of how conservatives respond to the strong female character trope it's more to suggest that Campbell was describing the male journey than to point out that the Campbell style monomyth has doomed genre fiction to a one-size-fits-all narrative. 

For a time Game of Thrones subverted enough of the genre cliches to make journalists take it seriously. I watched season 1 and was impressed by Peter Dinklage.  I found Tyrion interesting and Arya was interesting and Sean Bean was going to die because he's Sean Bean but I didn't bother to watch the rest and I don't get a sense I missed out on anything, really.  But I read writing about Game of Thrones with some interest because it showed that there are shows that become popular with journalists because there is so much room for them to treat it as a pretext or springboard for discussing almost any and everything else in the current moment that they want to discuss. 

Game of Thrones and Marvel films may demonstrate, whether journalists like it or not, that there is still some kind of monoculture and it skews toward all of the genres that they were told weren't art in college or grad school and that were not worth discussing. A friend of mine from college said that it's as though the "nerd culture" that would have been scoffed at thirty years ago has become the inescapable juggernaut of contemporary popular culture.  What was scoffed at back in the 20th century has turned into the contemporary mainstream.  That Game of Thrones ended up "having" to mean more than its end could possibly actually mean that was thanks to journalists imbuing it with the halo effect of being important TV, perhaps in response to HBO's marketing. Journalists found themselves watching the show in a way they might not have found themselves doing for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World because there was not, as a writer once put it, a tendency to review the audience as a stand in for the film itself.  This was not the kind of thing they expected of the genre or of the genre based on what they thought they knew about fans of that kind of genre and they got hooked.

Much like the end of Lost made me glad I didn't bother watching it to begin with, what I've read about the end of Game of Thrones makes me glad I didn't stick with it past season 1.  Wagnerian style art-as-religion civic religions like Game of Thrones can form cults of discussion that might be of literary interest but the great thing about criticism as a literary art is you can read it without killing days of your life watching the stuff being discussed.

Washington Post has update on Crystal Cathedral, which reminded me of when Driscoll surprised a few people by speaking there

A friend of mine who's an RCA minister once said that the most famous RCA minister is the one who is probably least likely to be thought of as characteristic of the denomination.  That is, dear readers ....

The Washington Post article describes the Crystal Cathedral as a monument to televangelism and California kitsch, which is now about to become a Catholic church.  That part is, frankly, old news, but that there's a headline about the cathedral reminds me of something.

I am reminiscing about how Mark Driscoll startled a few of us in 2006 by saying he visited Schuller and got a chance to preach at the Crystal Cathedral.

I was also surprised by the freedom I was given. When Dr. Schuller asked me what I would be preaching from his pulpit, I told him, and he simply said he was glad to have me and welcomed me to speak from my convictions without reservation. It is not uncommon for a man of his stature to censor what is said from his pulpit and I was honestly taken aback by his willingness to be vulnerable and trusting.

As we spoke, I believe I gained some insights into Dr. Schuller’s thinking. He explained his background of reformed theology and appreciation of the Heidelberg Catechism. He then articulated some of the sadness he experienced among discouraged, pessimistic, and even angry Christians, which helped prepare him to embrace the positive thinking principles of such men as Norman Vincent Peale. As he spoke, I became deeply convicted. I consider myself a fairly reformed Bible preacher with a deep devotion to sound doctrine. But, some young men in my church at that time had grown extreme in their reformed theology, arrogant in the judgment of anyone who even slightly disagreed with them, and disrespectful toward me and the other elders at our church. Some of the young buck Calvinists who had become like a rock in my shoe were complaining that I prayed for God to actually do things and asked people to repent of sin and trust in Jesus every Sunday, stupidly saying it undermined God’s sovereignty and election. I wondered if Dr. Schuller had not gotten burned out on the worst kind of nitpicking, systematic, reformed dunderheads that loved to quote Paul but never lived like him, similar to those I was trying to push out of the colon of our church body. 

It's striking here in 2019 that Mark Driscoll's rumination on how nitpicky and critical the reformed young bucks in his church were did not stop so much in this piece to consider that they may have been displaying imitative behaviors.  Note that Driscoll considered himself a fairly Reformed Bible preacher.  

Now, of course, Driscoll has said the five points of Calvinism are garbage but, looking back on Driscoll's willingness, perhaps even eagerness, to accept an invitation from Schuller it might be a reminder that even when he regarded himself as fairly Reformed he, as he put it, was open to networking with preachers and theologians with whom he had disagreements.  He was not a Calvinist early on, for isntance, but he was open to embracing Calvinism and endorsing Reformed theology in the wake of a partnership with the PCA minister and church planting leader David Nicholas.  In the later years of Mars Hill there would be a shift to screen mediated preaching aka videology, and so in many respects Driscoll became a televangelist preacher through the multisite model.  

Now that Driscoll is poised to have another book published through Charisma House and is ... maybe a bit of a pariah in the Reformed scene, it might be useful to recall that even when he was considered a prominent figure in the young, restless Reformed scene he was surprising some people with his eagerness to form connections and network with figures that were not in his "tribe".  Although Driscoll claimed in 2006 to have been chastened by and learned from the example of Schuller, Driscoll would nevertheless go on to say the following year that there's a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus and that Paul recognized that sometimes you had to put a guy through the woodchipper.  In light of those kinds of statements it seems more plausible to suggest that Mark Driscoll didn't learn much so much as was pleasantly surprised to find he was considered important enough of a preacher to get an invitation from Schuller.  


for those who were curious about this situation, apologies sent to Roger Scruton from Secretary of State (UK) and New Statesman for earlier article

I've been reading Scruton's work on music over the last few years and while I admire his desire to defend the Western art music traditions as something that can continue I am not really sympathetic to his Wagnerian approach to art.  He hasn't sold me on the idea that if art will do for religion what religion no longer does in modernity that that art religion has to be highbrow.  If anything the sheer power of lowbrow and pulp fiction in cinema suggests that the lowbrow art religion in the form of stuff like Star Wars or superhero films or detective fiction or westerns has had more market power.

I've been browsing piano sonatas by Hummel, listening to string quartets by Ben Johnston, starting into Kyle Gann's Hyperchromatica and starting up an old academic monograph on Haydn's "Farewell" symphony (Haydn's one of my great musical heroes alongside J. S. Bach).  So when I suggest that the problem with an art-religion ideal of the sort Scruton seems to endorse I'm not suggesting people can't enjoy things that are popular or attempting to suggest I'm not doing something like trying to go through the Heinrich Schutz narrative works this year (I am, actually, working on doing that). 

Someone like Scruton can admit to being an elite with elite concerns, which is more than can be said for Justin E. H. Smith, for instance.  When traditionalists defend what they regard as elite artistic traditions they're not being inconsistent.   I think the trouble is that, as Dwight Macdonald once put it, the high and low interacted more in the past and that the mass market that emerged in the wake of industrialization and capitalist dynamics severed that synergy.  That is, at any rate, a fairly standard leftist reading of how and why popular culture stopped being artistically valuable.  Religious conservatives have wasted a lot of time reinventing wheels that were developed more articulately by the secular left and, perhaps most embarrassing of all for them if they had any sense of embarrassment on this issue, Anglo-American religious conservatives don't see any need to read people like Adorno.  But they still want to know where the Christian intellectuals are or may be in our time and place.  Not in evangelicalism ... although as Alastair Roberts put it, the Christian intellectuals of the mid-20th century early Cold War era were never in what we'd call evangelicalism anyway, they were in what would have to be called the mainline denominational traditions.

So in lieu of evangelicals having any ideas worth discussing about the arts to begin with, it would seem, there's a habit of invoking Roger Scruton's work.  Which is ... he's a capable writer and thinks about aesthetics and I can appreciate that ... but as I've written before, he's had half a century to figure out how one might arrive at a musical tonal language as expressive as George Rochberg's that has some ties to a more vernacular or popular level musical language, too.  Now I'm preparing to study the Caprice variations because there's a lot I like about Rochberg's work, but I'm willing to say up front that I think Rochberg was daring enough to consciously introduce code-switching into his compositional language during a time when serialism and atonality were regarded as "the" style in academic composition of music in the United States. 

All the same, as brave as that stance was, Rochberg's code-switching in the Third String Quartet does not seem like it convinces me.  The shifts are abrupt and can seem, well, arbitrary.  I'm sure if I had time to study the score again in more detail I'd find gestural anticipations, callbacks and foreshadowings but I don't have that score on me.  I think that code-switching and stylistic ambiguity work better when they exist in a closer relationship to each other in a spectrum of styles.  To give a specific example, code-switching at just the level of harmonic organization works well in "Living for the City" because the code-switch happens at just one level of musical language.  Rochberg shifted tonality and rhythmic organization across movements.

But Rochberg's writing on music is valuable and has been helpful to me for thinking about the concepts of musical time and space.  I think he has a point in proposing that tonality in and of itself does not have inevitability to it but tonality cements the human mind's ability to remember and anticipate.  There's room for accurate prediction and the possibility of surprise when the language in a musical work is presented at the start of a work.  Any shift that happens along the way can be abrupt or foreshadowed but I'm digressing here.  Blog post for a weekend.  I get to be a bit improvisational.

I'm not sure there's any "lessons learned" from what has transpired with Scruton's interview and how the New Statesman handled it.  Advocacy journalism (which, depending on your convictions, is another way of saying an openly and unapologetically activist press institution) has become normal, it was always the norm, but it's more openly and self-recognized a norm. 

Goetz Richter pointed out that Scruton anchors a lot of his ideas music in terms of substance analysis.

That sound and tone are not the same is, at one level, a simple and obvious point.  As Scruton has been working to define "sound" and "tone" it may be useful to explain that "sound" is what it is you hear at a physical level and "tone" is how it is audited by the mind.  I'll come back to this distinction in a bit.

Now Scruton's welcome to argue that someone like John Cage is a charlatan.
Art achieved a new importance during the Romantic period. As religion lost its emotional grip, the posture of aesthetic distance promised an alternative route to the meaning of the world. For the Romantics, the work of art was the result of a unique and irreplaceable experience, containing a revelation, distilled through individual effort and artistic genius, of a meaning unique to itself. The cult of genius gave art a new place at the centre of intellectual life, with academic subjects such as art history and musicology arising alongside literary criticism and the study of poetics. Together they lent credibility to the fine arts as subjects of study, as well as gateways to another kind of knowledge — knowledge of the heart. Important in all this was the sense of the artwork as an original gesture, a revelation of a unique personality, who had broken through all conventional forms of expression to provide a direct experience of the inner self.

The cult of genius therefore led to an emphasis on originality as the test of artistic genuineness — the thing that distinguishes true art from fake. Alhough it is hard to say in general terms what originality consists in, examples such as Titian, Rembrandt, Corot, Matisse and Gauguin; such as JS Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, and Schoenberg; such as Shakespeare, Diderot, Goethe and Kleist enabled both critics and artists to grasp the general idea of it. The one thing those examples ought to teach us is that originality is hard: it cannot be snatched from the air, even if natural prodigies such as Rimbaud and Mozart seem to do just that. Originality requires learning, hard work, the mastery of a medium, but most of all the refined sensibility and openness to experience that has suffering and solitude as its normal cost.

Here we are in the twenty-first century, a couple of centuries away from the Romantic era and academics with stated axes to grind have pointed out that the era of the Romantic was an era of colonialism and imperialism in which Europe sought to annex as much of Africa and Asia as possible.  If it were to be suggested, let alone declared, that there were practices in North American and South American native populations that would be considered inhumane by contemporary Western standards that might go over badly.  Since half my lineage is Native American from the Pacific Northwest I will say that I'm glad that the practice of slavery among the Pacific Northwestern tribes was phased out.  There were attempts to make it illegal but that didn't cause the practice of slavery to go away, changes in market and trade dynamics made slavery of that sort impractical.  Depending on how we want to define slavery it hasn't so much gone away as it's mutated into a different financial system.  But that's another topic for another time.

Instead, let's go to John Cage, a composer whose work has been a topic of consideration this last week or so here at the blog.  Scruton writes the following:

Another pertinent example is the American composer John Cage. With a singular skill for self-promotion, yet no prior evidence of musical competence, Cage made his reputation with his celebrated piece 4’33” (1952) — a happening in which a pianist in concert dress sits silently at the piano for exactly four minutes and 33 seconds. On the strength of this and a few similar pranks, Cage presented himself as an original composer, ‘putting in question’ the entire tradition of Western concert music. Critics hastened to endorse his high self-opinion, hoping to share in the glory of discovering a new and original genius. The Cage phenomenon quickly became established as part of the culture, able to call upon subventions from the cultural institutions, and recruiting a raft of imitators for whom, however, it was too late to cause a stir as Cage had done, by doing nothing.

Scruton has made a case that there isn't a "semaphore test" for music.  Whatever music is, it cannot be or isn't defined strictly in terms of convention.  This is more asserted than proven and Scruton's assertion that Cage has been some kind of charlatan highlights a difficulty in Scruton's attempt to delineate "sound" from "tone".  Cage's legacy included developing and articulating a philosophical stance in which the cognitive act of interpreting something to be "tone" in order to appreciate sound as sound can be presented in a way that casts off all the conventions of Western music that, if Scruton's position were more carefully argued, might concede brings with it an element of a "semaphore test", i.e. Scruton's attempt to treat sound and tone as distinguishable seems to run into some obstacles in the case of a John Cage if we take as given that there is no conventional element to music.

Goetz, in the article on Scruton's Aesthetics of Music linked to above, argues that Scruton's argument:
The crucial question in relation to Scruton's analysis is his reliance on investigating music and musical meaning through an investigation of 'substance' ('Our world is a world of substances - things, organisms, and people; events and processes are what happens to those substances' [p.IO)). This investigation is the result of the interpretation of the question of what music is in traditional metaphysical terms. (Not surprisingly, philosophers who have emphasised the importance of music most have also been most critical of 'substance' metaphysics, like Nietzsche, Heraclitus, Heidegger, and to a certain extent Schopenhauer.) As has been shown, music understood as 'action' and as determined by the ontology of listening makes these terms questionable. Some of Scruton's own characterisation of music as 'dance' indicates this (pp. 354-7). It appears that the question of what we hear and understand, and the corresponding theories that explain this 'what', need to be further investigated by referring to the fundamental characteristics of the making and hearing of music. This would transform the question of what music is into the question of how music occurs.
Scruton has been skeptical about attempts to develop an understanding of music on the basis of cognition and cognitive processes.  He's welcome to be as skeptical of that as he wants to be but this might be the point at which he has failed to adequately deal with categories raised by Adorno in his Philosophy of New Music.  Adorno can be as wrong as the day is long about whether atonality was a path to a new and compelling musical future while still being right to observe that since the dawn of the twentieth century modes of musical cognition have broken apart in some way or developed in different directions.  I've seen Scruton talk about the lack of "argument" in popular music and I've seen Ethan Hein write about "groove" but both of these modes of musical cognition were described in a preliminary way by Adorno.  Adorno was wrong about a lot of stuff but he was wrong in useful ways. 

The relevance to Scruton's comments about Cage here is if Scruton is measuring Cage's competency in musical convention on the basis of one form of musical cognition rather than another, say, the mode of musical cognition Cage himself said he was attempting to cultivate, then Scruton's criticism of Cage would be on the basis of a series of conventions Cage kept saying he was not attempting to observe.  That doesn't mean I necessarily even like most of Cage's music, I'm just highlighting that Scruton writing in the abstract about what music is and isn't seems at tension with Scruton on Cage as an incompetent self-promoting charlatan.  As Leonard B. Meyer put it, if we're discussing Cage purely in terms of the ideology of Romanticism, nobody was more of a Romantic than John Cage. 

All of this is to say that there are all kinds of ways to disagree with claims Scruton has made without pulling a New Statesman on him.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Ross Douthat on the stoicism he sees at the core of the Toy Story films

Unlike Armond White, who flatly declares the Toy Story films just promote consumerism (and who keeps asserting that the last twenty-five years without providing a particularly clear or compelling reason why the Pixar films are this way) Douthat proposes that there is a stoic philosophy at the heart of the Toy Story films and he makes an interesting point of comparing these films to The Velveteen Rabbit to show how there is a kind of non-apotheosis at the core of the Pixar film series.

I am not the first person to notice that in this sort of catechesis, Pixar is inviting the parents who probably buy most of the tickets to these movies to identify with Woody and the other toys — as beings who are essential in a kid’s life for a time, but who must love their children while accepting that time and chance and adolescence will tug that love away from them. 

The absence of any Velveteen-style apotheosis, though, makes this message a resolutely secular call to familial duty. As in other Pixar movies — most starkly in the recent Coco, where the souls of the dead wink out of existence if the living forget them, a premise that quite understandably traumatized my six-year-old — the meaningfulness of life rests in transient memories and perishable moments, and we are expected to do the right thing for their sake and their sake alone. Leaping into the trash is for weak souls; imagining a greater reality than toyhood is for fools and lunatics. Pixar offers nursery stoicism, not nursery magic. No matter how many children a toy is lucky enough to cycle through, there is no ultimate reward for getting old and torn and broken, and only the bonfire is waiting at the end.

Still, I suppose parents should be grateful that alongside a repetition of that harsh toy catechism, the new sequel also offers, for the first time, an alternative understanding of a toy’s purpose, in the form of Bo-Peep (Annie Potts), a Woody love interest who has become a “lost toy,” likes the lifestyle, and wants him to join her in a footloose, childless life. 

This alternative is presented positively, as a reward after years of loyal service, a chance for Woody to see the world instead of lingering in abandoned playrooms or being consigned to daycare centers. The Pixar cosmos may be fairy-free and godless, but at least, Toy Story 4 suggests, a parent — sorry, a toy — who serves long and honorably might deserve a few RV trips and cruises with his squeeze before the end.

That there may be a tension in the subtext doesn't get explore, to put it another way, if in the Pixar Toy Story films toys have life for as long as they are played with by a child and not cast aside how do the toys (notably in this new entry) have life and awareness who, so to speak, have not come out of the box?  Ducky and Bunny are alive but have not yet been played with.  Stinky Pete the Prospector in Toy Story 2 is alive within the story but not because any child has played with him.  What gets passed over in more mainstream film criticism or also in conservative film criticism (a la guys who write for National Review) are questions about internal consistency in world-building.  Armond White can just declare that the new Spiderman film is a failure because that's the kind of thing Armond White writes.  

Instead of just declaring that the films promote consumerism ... a peculiar thing for a film critic to charge since critics are journalists whose employment is founded upon cultural consumption ... it might be possible to point out that what the "lower" genre films can do in something like Toy Story is go for what some more trollish people on the internet call "the feels".  If the Pixar franchise were consistent about following its own rules Stinky Pete couldn't have been alive to be the main antagonist for Toy Story 2, could he?  Unless of course the rules of a narrative world don't have to be that rigid, since toys in boxes are made to be played with and the imagination of a child, in this series, can imbue a toy or a even a spork with toy-life.  The central existential crisis of whether a toy has or retains a soul based on whether or not it is played with by a kid becomes more nebulous when you attempt to map out the practical rules.  That the Toy Story films can be thought of as parables or allegories about how adults relate to the children in their life is just one level or mode of interpretation.  The films are more versatile than that and perhaps that's because, the deeper you try to burrow into the world-building aspects of them rather than the character arcs, the more fuzzy things get.  But that's something that can be expected of art, even a type of art that film critics of the Armond White or perhaps even Ross Douthat variety might not be inclined to consider art.