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

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04/19/2004

Comments

James

"...all writing — all human endeavour — is political in one way or another. It could not be anything but, as we are all political creatures who exist in the world."

This view is so perniciously entrenched in literature departments and it is so vacuous in its reductiveness. By that logic, as you point out, everything is also biological, historical, psychological, etc. All explanatory power is lost in this "all or nothing" game. True, everything is *somewhat* political, but everything isn't equally or only or even mostly political. Some things are so minutely political that politics is really irrelevant. Politics is important, but it's not the only game in town.

The biggest irony here is that in no small part, the motivation to make literature a question of politics was an attempt (well-intentioned for sure) to bridge the gap between art and society--to make literature 'relevant' to the world. But, in fact, the efforts have brought forth the precise opposite result than the intended one---literature has truly become 'irrelevant.' And it's not hard to see why given that it is supposedly "all politics" anyway. If literature is just a vessel for politics, then the vessel drops out of the picture. Who needs it and why should we even bother with it if that's the case? Just skip the pretense of being a "literary" scholar and become a "political" scholar.

If literature qua literature is to have ANY chance of surviving, we need to re-direct our intention to the features, form, history, and, yes, aesthetics of literature, filtering discussions of culture and politics through these literary features and allowing a more dialectical relation between the "literary" and the "political" to evolve.

Oh, and nothing pisses me off more than the ridiculous presumption that to speak of aesthetics or literary form is be ipso facto disdainful of politics.

Nice post. I'm truly enjoying your blog. Keep up the good work.

Trent Walters

Amen, brother.

kevin holtsberry

Despite our disagreements I largely agree with you. If I think politics are involved in runs the other way - politics as a reflection of culture and thus art not the other way around. But this is far removed from overt politics that can be simplified in Republican/Democrat or even left/right terms.

Despite my occasional interest in things political, art for art's sake is my gut feeling.

andru

I agree that when discussing or analyzing literature one should focus on the "the features, form, history, and, yes, aesthetics of literature." Politics would only enter into the equation if the content specifically addresses politics as commonly understood.

However, when I read something like "...all writing — all human endeavour — is political in one way or another. It could not be anything but, as we are all political creatures who exist in the world," I understand it as a reference to Aristotle for who claimed that human beings, as political creatures, always exist as part of the polis, as part of the social system. In Aristotle's view, people cannot exist alone, without the support of and interaction with his (or her, to update Aristotle) fellow citizens.

Perhaps most people who use the phrase don't know the phrase "political creature" comes from the Nichomachean Ethics, but I can't hear it without assuming this entire Aristotelian underpinning for the claim, which in that formulation seems unassailable.

Understood this way, the statement becomes completely innocuous rather than pernicious. Certainly, literature can lack any explicit political content (back to the specific, English meaning rather than the Aristotelian), and one can disdain the political with impunity. This, too, seems unassailable to me.

pete

Thank you. It's nice to see someone in the blogosphere writing more from the artist's perspective than from the critic's/pundit's. As an artist, one of the most disappointing things is when a critic/pundit reduces a work of art to a political/sociological conclusion. It's even more disappointing when an artist buys into the myth that political = relevant and anything "personal" is somehow "self-centered." If there's a definite way to strip something of its complexity, append a political cause or label onto it.

James

"Understood this way, the statement becomes completely innocuous rather than pernicious."

The statement itself is innocuous, however, the effects (within the academic literary world anyway) are pernicious. In so much that academics are rarely (if ever) using the phrase in the purely Aristotelian way you understand it. They use it to justify politicized interpretations of "texts" as the only "proper" interpretation. It is frequently used to justify an agenda in a way Aristotle never intended.

Alan DeNiro

...final in its judgment as to safely keep anyone who wishes to study literature rather than its political exploitation

Why is this an either-or choice? Why can't they be accretive? (Although I might not have used the word "exploitation"). Don't, say, Patricia Highsmith novels reward multiple approaches, even though they aren't overtly political? How about Blood Meridian or Sarah Canary? Certainly McCarthy and Fowler are interested in a polis. I also think that this is an entirely different issue than theory (in the sense of critics "doing" theory), but thinking about art in political terms at certain times gets conflated with irrelevant professors sitting in their ivory towers postulating, etc. etc. It's a nice, tricky little reversal of what is "relevant" or not.

It's all well and good to have aesthetic and political choices in different baskets, I guess, and I know that you'd probably say that this type of multiple reading is not contradictory to what you said. But the slippery slope is (as Ray Davis said on his blog in a different context) that "the knowledge that art is personal has been diverted into a fantasy that the individual is the point of art...Art isn't politics. But bad art and bad politics have this disengagement in common." That is the crux of it, I think--brilliant writing in of itself tends to be transformative. It doesn't lend itself to easy sloganeering, but neither does it allow itself to dwell in the easy hermeticism of a pure aesthetic realm. It likes muck of some form or another, and that muck can't help but involve people and their politics, sublimated or no.

Dan Green

I'm inclined not to intervene and to just let commenters comment, but I will say this: I don't believe that "the individual is the point of art." Art is the point of art. If anything, I tend to agree with T.S. Eliot that art is "an escape from personality."

Alan

How is "art is the point of art" any less essentialist than "all art is political"?

I guess this is what I'm trying to say: Any reading or writing process can have value. They're technologies. Their worth is highly fragile and situational. Intensely political art? At times. Negative capability? Sure, why not (although history and time already do the escaping from personality routine rather handily, they have it down pat). At times. But these technologies are only valuable so long as they achieve a project--a project that the writer or reader themselves might not be consciously aware of, or only in flickers. Perhaps that project has a panoply of layers--readerly pleasure, changing people's minds, personal need to drive away demons or play with words, whatever. But I want as many tools in my toolkit as humanly possible, because there really isn't enough time to read or write everything I want. It's inescapable that we are all vulnerable, and foolhardy, and we try to scavenge what meaning and pleasure we can. But no aesthetics is pure. John Clare's poems aren't pastoral dioramas with bows on them; they are little blog entries in sonnet form about madness, lost love, and Enclosure Acts. Keats was never the "stricken fawn" that Shelley made him out to be; he cut up corpses in med school and knew he had TB right after he started coughing blood. Celan, Tiptree, Desnos, whoever--what makes their art great and, sure, beautiful, was that the world (and at times a literal political system) was loaded with bear shot and it took a shot at them. And so they fired back in the only way they knew how. Not for art's own sake but for theirs. And ours.

This is getting rambling, so I should probably go to bed.

mjones

I said my piece over on my own blog, but I just wanted to wade in here about the definition of "poliitcal": I wasn't thinking of Aristotle's polis specifically, but yes, of a broad definition of the political well beyond the U.S. party politics mentioned by Kevin Holtsberry (and not just because I am Canadian). Perhaps "political" is not the best word; it seems like the proverbial red flag. I like what Alan DeNiro wrote: "That is the crux of it, I think--brilliant writing in of itself tends to be transformative. It doesn't lend itself to easy sloganeering, but neither does it allow itself to dwell in the easy hermeticism of a pure aesthetic realm. It likes muck of some form or another, and that muck can't help but involve people and their politics, sublimated or no." This seems exactly right. Though I would quibble with the word "muck" and its implication that history/the world/"politics" is dirty/debased/lesser than, while the aesthetic realm is "pure." How about "matter"? Less evocative, but to my mind more accurate.

James

No one (I don't think) is arguing that literature doesn't involve "people and their politics" (politics here loosely defined). Of course it does. But this writing about people and their politics is told through literary features (language, narrative structure, character, poetics, etc). The engagement is in the *way* literature represents and explores people and their politics. This means through its use of literary features.

To use a Burkean argument, why do people look at and enjoy a Monet painting? Is it to learn about water lilies? Somewhat. But if you just want facts and information about water lilies you can go to an encyclopedia, or read an article about botany. It is the form and aesthetics of the painting and they way in which it represents and engages with the world (ie, with water lilies) and with the spectator that keeps people coming back.

I think most people would find it odd if an art critic wrote an article about Monet's Water Lilies and only talked about the botanical aspects of water lilies without talking about the painting itself. Most would say, well that article is not about the painting, it is about plants. Why is an art critic writing it?

The same holds true for literature.

mjones

James, you seem to assume that critics who are interested in "people and their politics" are necessarily ignorant of (or at least, ignoring) the literary qualities of texts. I would respectfully beg to differ.

Alan

"Matter" definitely works for me too.

>>

But it might be interesting to write about Monet's own ponds and how it relates to the painting. Not that that they would be exact mirrors of each other by any means.

Also, I don't think it's the same with pictorial representation as with writing. Language tends to lean away from purely abstract, sensory experiences. The vernacular--the language of daily concourse that we grew up with and speak all the time--is going to inflect the reading or writing of a text. I'm using "vernacular" very very loosely. This isn't a call for a poetics of mere sincerity and clarity. But even Language Poetry has the ghost of syntax hovering about.

We might be talking about two different things or even agreeing with each other on parallel tracks.

Great discussion, btw.

James

Mjones: Actually, I don't assume that at all (though I admit I was putting forth a *strong* version of the case--a bit of a straw man).
I don't think critics/scholars interested in politics "necessarily" ignore the literary features, however, a good number do. Or if not ignore, then severly downplay.

(And I would counter that many assume that those interested in "literary forms/aesthetics" necessarily ignore "people and their politics" which is equally false.)

A case in point, I sat through a lecture from a fairly prominent literary scholar who was ostensibly giving a talk on Shakespeare's "The Tempest." The scholar took one line from the play (the "your vile race" line) and then spent 45 minutes discussing sociological theories about racism and how Kant was racist, etc. I didn't necessarily disagree with the content of his talk (well, some of it I did), but it certainly wasn't about "The Tempest" or literature. It was purely about sociology which would be fine if it was a sociology department.

This is the kind of thing I am arguing against.

Alan, I don't disagree at all that it might be interesting to discuss the actual ponds around Monet and how they relate to his paintings, but nothing I said goes against that kind of scholarship. As long as the paintings don't disappear from the discussion altogether.

I also agree that pictoral representation and language are not the same, but I'm not sure how that argues against what I was saying. The Burkean argument is one of "content" (or, information) and "form." I'm not posing a strict delineation between the two (both are necessary), however, we don't read novels in the same way we read, say, a newsletter (at least I would argue as much) despite the, mostly, common language between the two. It is the literary features that make a novel a novel. I just think it's a mistake to ignore them.

I think we are all basically on the same page here. I'm not arguing a pure formalism that has no connection to people/culture (I don't even think that's possible). I'm just trying to emphasize (perhaps over-emphasize) the existence of a more dialectical relationship between "culture/politics" and "literary features/aesthetics." If I lean towards aesthetics/form, it is because I feel it is too often ignored in a manner that is negatively affecting the field of literary studies (ie, it is about everything *but* literature).

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