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Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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04/09/2004

Comments

Jeff

One person's conservation is another person's ossification.

As both an artist and a literary scholar, I was appalled by the essay. I mean appalled with all the nuances complete-- it made me turn white, and left me chilled to the bone.

I attended a lecture a few weeks ago by Cynthia Selfe of Michigan Tech who argued that the ability of children to follow complex textual instructions on how to "cheat" at their favorite games sort of shoots the whole "the kids today have no attention span" argument in the ass.

I agree with Selfe, not Paglia. This sort of "the sky is falling" argument from cultural conservatives, the argument for the reinstatement of traditions (whose traditions?) is self defeating and ludicrous. Chicken little has laid an egg, in my opinion. I admire Paglia's writing on many issues-- just not this one.

If the arts and literature are in trouble, it is only because we have insisted that they be treated as "separate" from life, rather than a part of it. It is indeed a "radical act" to insist that there is a fine art tradition that is more valuable to them that they lack adequate tools to cope with, when the young people of today, in my opinion are genuinely engaged with producing vital art all their own.

They aren't on their own. There is a rich tradition of artists who wait to be studied that are relevant to them, from the Stone Age forward, just as Paglia suggests-- People who didn't surrender to the hatred of their own cultural conditions, but rather worked with and against them to create great art and literature. It is by making connections with that, rather than freezing past moments as touchstones, that the best work will be done. Cultural loathing, which amounts to a thinly veiled self-hatred, gets us nowhere.

Jeff

Oh, I did forget to mention that I do teach, and have been teaching literature in my composition classes for the last 2 1/2 years. I do not share your underestimation of my students. If the teacher is engaging, the students will become engaged. All of my literature teachers were, and that is why I ended up in the field. Most of them did stress the role of literature in society, rather than literature's role in the museum.

So did my Art teachers twenty years ago. They encouraged me not only to look at it and talk about it, but to make it.

Daniel Green

Jeff,

If you think Paglia was calling for a return to "tradition" (clearly a horrible thing, in your estimation), then you didn't read her essay very well.

Jeff

I beg to differ. What, for instance, does the passage I quoted say?

--
To maintain order, the choice of representative images will need to be stringently narrowed. I envision a syllabus based on key images that would give teachers great latitude to expand the verbal dimension of presentation, including an analysis of style as well as a narrative of personal response.
--

If this isn't canon-formation, in the same sense Mathew Arnold argued for at the end of the 19th century, I have clearly not read what isn't there as explicitly as you have. Just because Paglia has argued in the past for a certain attentiveness to popular culture (admirably, I think) doesn't mean she's arguing for it here. I'm merely basing my comments on what she actually said.

Pagila's argument is "new traditionalism" in the same sense that Arnold's argument was (in its own time). That's why I called it a call for conservatism, rather than tradition. She envisions creating a new tradition, composed of a recast version of the old one (key images), just as Arnold did as he felt the sands of England slipping away beneath his feet amid Victorian decadence. Somehow, I believe that England is still there, and richer for his reaction to it. But this essay isn't Paglia's "Dover Beach"-- it is venomous and ridiculous, as far as her scholarship goes.

"Literature is news that remains news." I think it was Pound that said that. Literature isn't great because it is a part of the "tradition" envisioned by Eliot. In that sense, yes, I do think ossified traditions are horrible. Dynamic ones, however, are a great thing. Even Eliot was forward thinking enough to realize that.

A narrowed "syllabus of key images" does not go anywhere near promoting a vision of art as a vital and important thing.

Daniel Green

Paglia has nothing to do with Arnold. In most ways, they couldn't be farther apart.

In the passage you quoted, she's trying to help her students more effectively see what's in front of them. She's trying to help them pay attention.

"Key images" has nothing to do with a "canon." This is a red herring.

Jeff

A canon of texts, taught by a university, begins as a list of texts on a syllabus. There isn't time to teach everything, of course, so a teacher picks representative examples. The negotiation of those examples is how canons get formed.

That is precisely what Paglia is promoting. She italicizes key images, as a matter of fact, knowing what she is doing. Of course, compared to Arnold she is not promoting a qualitative choice, merely a narrowing of images from a field dominated by images. When images (like those in Art history books) are chosen as representative of a type of visual expression, they become canonical. It's that simple, and that insidious.

Obviously, that has been done for years, and continues to be done. Her suggestion is neither radical nor new. Nor do I have an alternative proposal, other than cultivating a sensitivity to all texts and images, including the commonplace. Arnold argued for it in this way:

--
Indeed, there can be no more useful help for discovering what poetry belongs to the class of the truly excellent, and therefore do us the most good, than to have always in one's mind lines and expressions of the great masters, and to apply them as a touchstone to other poetry. (from The Study of Poetry, 1879)
--

It is the "do us the most good" that I apply Paglia's comments, rather than Arnold's notion of excellence. The root idea is much the same-- to pick out images worthy of contemplation (not necessarily based on their excellence) and to contemplate them and keep them with us. I object to codifying them, not contemplating them. That's where Paglia's use of the word syllabus is telling.

A red herring is a fish. Creating syllabi is the first step to canonization.

But a more serious point of confluence between Arnold and Paglia (in this essay, not as a general rule) is her contention that ordinary students do not have any ability to locate what is "good" or "deep" in imagery. Not to attempt to lecture you on Arnold, but...

---
So immersed are they in practical life, so accustomed to take all their notions from this life and its processes, that they are apt to think that truth and culture themselves can be reached by the processes of this life, and that it is an impertinent singularity to think of reaching them in any other. (Arnold, The Function of Literature at the Present Time, 1864)
---
In other words, the "context rich" environment they live in makes them unable to sense the greater context of artistic practice and cultural truth. That, in a nutshell, was Paglia's argument. That was also Arnold's argument. If you can't see that, I might suggest that your education in literature was lacking.

Jeff

Oh, and I heartily recommend reading some more of Arnold's criticism, because it seems to fit quite well with your point of view in the latest published essay in your repertoire.

Arnold was a smart man, but fearful of change. I enjoyed studying him years ago, and I also enjoyed revisiting these essays. I think we owe him much-- the discipline of English literature as we know it, as a matter of fact.

Regardless of this, though, his cultural panic (and Paglia's, and yours, from what I've read) is overblown and hysterical. The same adjective you applied to me. We'll have to agree to disagree.

Daniel Green

Jeff,

In her essay, Paglia writes: "Knowing how to 'read' images is a crucial skill in this media age, but the style of cultural analysis currently prevalent in universities is, in my view, counterproductive in its anti-media bias and intrusive social agenda."

Her goal is thus to help her students more efficaciously interpret all images, maybe especially those they are most familiar with. She thinks she has chosen some vehicles that will get her where she wants to go. (Others may choose different vehicles.) Do you have a problem with the cave painting? Pre-Columbian art? That you keep harping on "key images" and "touchstones" is beyond me.

As to the second quoted passage from Arnold: I don't know whether Paglia would agree with it. I do. It seems to me patently obvious. If the study of literature is not, first of all, a retreat from "practical life" (to be returned to it later), then what is it?

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