Notes from the Underground

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I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

This piece from Morgan Meis in The Smart Set struck a chord with me:

"Criticism isn’t powerful anymore. It doesn’t drive anything, it doesn’t define what is good and bad in culture. Surely this has mostly to do with all the changes in the media landscape over the last few decades. Basically, culture has been democratized. It has been flattened out and multiplied. There are no longer real distinctions between high and low. There’s just more... The blogosphere and social networking sites allow anyone to communicate tastes and opinions directly to those people with whom an outlook is already shared. Criticism is essentially bottom-up now, whereas it used to be practically the definition of top-down. The audience does not look to an external authority to find out what to think — it looks to itself...

Critics have, traditionally, prided themselves in a certain amount of distance. There’s even a name for it: "critical distance." To some extent this distance was always an illusion, the byproduct of a metaphysics that saw mind and world as fully separate and staring at one another from across an epistemological abyss. But more importantly, people believed that critical distance was possible and that they were achieving it. This self-perception was enough to fuel the practice from at least the early Enlightenment until some time in the middle of the last century... Trying to maintain critical distance today is thus a practice in self-alienation. The distance might as well be infinite. The proclamations might as well be made in outer space. So we need another metaphor. If criticism isn't about distance anymore, maybe it can be about closeness....

Pleasingly, a version of this argument was made by George Nathan, the co-editor (along with H.L. Mencken) of the original version of The Smart Set back in the early 20th century. Nathan wrote a little book called The Critic and the Drama. It was, I think, ahead of its time in setting up the dilemma of criticism in an age of too much art and suggested some ways to deal with it. Here's the crucial paragraph:

If art is, in each and every case, a matter of individual expression, why should not criticism, in each and every case, be similarly and relevantly a matter of individual expression? In freeing art of definitions, has not criticism been too severely defined? I believe that it has been. I believe that there are as many kinds of criticism as there are kinds of art. I believe that there may be sound analytical, sound emotional, sound cerebral, sound impressionistic, sound destructive, sound constructive, and other sound species of criticism. If art knows no rules, criticism knows no rules — or, at least, none save those that are obvious.

That last sentence is particularly crucial. Art, Nathan is perfectly willing to accept, has no rules. Another way to say this is that each work of art generates its own set of rules. The only way to deal with any individual work, then, is to read out that set of rules, to discover something about its own internal logic. A criticism that wants to step away, to achieve distance in order to apply a set of external rules and to make judgments, ends up stepping away from the only criterion available: the criterion there within the work. Nathan doesn't use the metaphor explicitly, but he is talking about closeness versus distance. He is talking about a kind of criticism that stands there right alongside the work of art, participating in it rather than holding it at arm’s length.

Going a little further into the metaphor of distance and closeness brings us inevitably to the grand master of critical distance, Immanuel Kant. It is simply impossible to talk about the modern critical attitude without addressing the sage of Königsberg. A central component of his aesthetics is the idea of disinterest and then of universality. For Kant, when we make genuine aesthetic judgments we do so with the implication that they are not made 'for ourselves' but with the implicit idea that they stand on their own, that anyone else would make the same judgment, that the judgment ought to be universally true even if that cannot be proven. This is how Kant puts it:

For if someone likes something and is conscious that he himself does so without any interest, then he cannot help judging that it must contain a basis for being liked that holds for everyone. He must believe that he is justified in requiring a similar liking from everyone because he cannot discover, underlying his liking, any private conditions, on which only he might be dependent, so that he must regard it as based on what he can presuppose in everyone else as well.

In contrast, here's a comment by William Hazlitt, an anti-Kantian in terms of aesthetics in every bone of his body: I hate people who have no notion of any thing but generalities, and forms, and creeds, and naked propositions, even worse than I dislike those who cannot for the soul of them arrive at the comprehension of an abstract idea…They are for having maps, not pictures of the world we live in: as much as to say that a bird's eye view of things contains the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

It's always seemed to me that the idea of universal standards of taste was an obvious absurdity; any such standard wide enough to encompass Perec, Dante, Orwell and Rabelais would be so generalised as to be meaningless. There's often something quite unpleasant about aesthetic demagoguery of critics; Ruskin's praise of gothic architecture and Pre-Raphaelite painting was predicated on a dismissal of Whistler's painting or architects like Cuthbert Broderick who disdained the gothic revival. Leavis praised Eliot, James, Lawrence and Conrad in The Great Tradition while dismissing the experimental on the one hand (Woolf, Joyce) and the gothic or sensational (Dickens, Bronte) on the other. Both essentially make the mistake of conflating their own predelictions with the universe and do so on grounds that are often moral or political. In either case, it's doubtful that many of us would agree with them now. In many respects, the idea of someone whose sole function is to tell us what to think about art or literature seems a form of impertinence.

When I was first introduced to the ideas of Barthes and Derrida, it seemed to me that much of the basis for criticism as a specialised function had been demolished. If literature was less the product of a single individual writing at a specific historical period and more the product of an endless play of differance in the mind of the reader, then meaning became a subjective affair. Sceptical even then, I'm less attached to either Barthes or Derrida now, but I do still think this view holds. Matters of interpretation or hermeneutics arose out of religious exegesis, the assumption that there were transcendent meanings encoded in texts that could be divined. I suspect I'd still agree with Derrida that such concepts have become untenable. Criticism as a professional activity might do well to be based on Moretti's sociological techniques or exploring reception theory through study groups, but the idea of interpretation as a valid function is one that probably should be discarded.

If there is a problem with the argument outlined above, it's less likely to be an aesthetic one and is rather more likely to be a political or social one. For example, Matthew Arnold's Kantian defence of criticism is partly due to his desire for a set of universal aesthetic standards to replace universal religious standards. Since criticism is derived from the study of religious texts and operates in a similar fashion, Arnold presumably saw the critic as an ideal replacement for the priest. A lot of this assumes that art is a form of individual expression and that the response to it is equally individual. Morgan's arguments are the perfect ones for an atomised, individualistic post-traditional society where consumption is as much a matter of individual preference as it is one of collective identification. But there is something rather ahistorical in this view and it does seem to me that there's a good case to be made that art if an expression of collective mores. That might be why particular genres tend to cluster in certain places at certain times. Labels like Greek tragedy, Restoration comedy or the nineteenth century novel are undoutedly generalisations but they do nonetheless exist for a reason; the works in question did not orginate in a vacuum.

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posted by Richard 2:57 PM