Monday, July 9, 2012


I apologise for the lack of updates lately. The work that I get evaluated on/paid for has to take precedence over this blog sometimes. I do have a few long things in the offing, though, that will hopefully go up within the next week or so, and I'm working on a few reviews to have up in the meantime. For now, I'll offer some food for thought about criticism, via a few passages that have me thinking about what it is I'm trying to do here and why. 

The first, from Robertson Davies' excellent novel The Rebel Angels,  is Arthur Cornish's statement of his ambitions to Maria Theotoky:
"I am going to be a patron. . . . Of course Uncle Frank put some money in the hands of living artists, and spotted some winners and encouraged them and gave them what they want most--which is sympathetic understanding--but he wasn't a patron on the grand scale. . . . [which is a] great animateur; somebody who breathes life into things. I suppose you might call it a great encourager, but also a begetter, a director who keeps artists on the tracks, and provides the power--which isn't all money, but any means--that makes them go. It's a kind of person--a very rare kind--that has to work in opera, or ballet, or the theatre; he's the central point for a group of artists of various kinds, and he has to be the autocrat. That's what calls for tact and firmness, but most of all for exceptional taste. It has to be the authoritative taste artists recognize and wants to please. . . . You're taken aback because I lay claim to exceptional taste. It's queer what people are allowed to boast about; if I told you I was an unusually good money-man and had a flair for it, you wouldn't be surprised in the least. Why shouldn't I say I have exceptional taste?"
The second comes from Giovanni Tiso's blog Bat Bean Beam (a real treat if you haven't checked it out before), the obviously applicable "An Essay on Criticism:"
So is disliking anything at all bad in itself? Again it's hard to say but there may be something of a clue in the first line of the song. "It's okay to not like things." It's not good or fine. Merely okay. We don't really endorse it, but if you must, then at least try not to be a dick about it. . . . 
Do many people really feel that the problem with the internet or society in general is people hating on the things that they like? Who does that anymore? Are there even any genuine snobs left? Are there cultural critics willing to argue that, say, reality television is bad for its public and for society, and that if you watch Police Ten 7 you just might be an arsehole? Or is it true on the contrary that even the most derivative or exploitative manifestations of mass culture have been almost universally subsumed under the rubric of taste, concerning which, as we have known for some time, there can be no dispute? . . . 
Everything must pass through the social networks, therefore everything must be liked . . . If all goes according to hype, soon there will be no publishers nor editors and so the logic of this social layer, that is to say of efficient consumption, will be alone in governing access to information and ultimately most forms of culture. It's the future we bought, the future we agreed to. It plays in chunks of sixteen seconds to the sound of an upbeat tune.
The final comes from K-Punk, perhaps most clearly articulated on his site in this post (and from which I'll quote for not having another source handy), but more fully developed in the final chapter of his book, Capitalist Realism:
Nothing could be a clearer illustration of the famous failure of the Father function, the crisis of the paternal superego in late capitalism, than a typical edition of Supernanny. . . . 
Rather like many teachers or other workers in what used to be called "public service," Supernanny has to sort out problems of socialization that the family can no longer resolve. A Marxist Supernanny would of course turn away from the troubleshooting of individual families to look at the structural causes which produce the same repeated effect. 
The problem is that late capitalism insists and relies upon the very equation of desire with interests that parenting used to [be] based on rejecting. In a culture in which the "paternal" concept of duty has been subsumed into the "maternal" imperative to enjoy, it can seem that the parent is failing in their duty if they in any way impede their children's absolute right to enjoyment. . . . The parental disavowal of this role is doubled at the level of cultural production by the refusal of "gatekeepers" to do anything but give audiences what they already (appear to) want. The concrete question is: if a return to the paternal superego--the stern father in the home, Reithian superciliousness in broadcasting--is neither possible nor desirable, then how are we to move beyond the culture of monotonous moribund conformity that results from a refusal to challenege or educate? . . . 
Late capitalism certainly articulates many of its injunctions via an appeal to (a certain version of) health. . . . But there are limits to this emphasis on good health: mental health and intellectual development barely feature at all, for instance. (When will there be a Channel 4 programme called "You Are What You Read?") What we see instead is a reductive, hedonic model of health which is all about "feeling good." To tell people how to lose weight, or how to better decorate their neo-liberal burrow, is acceptable; but to call for any kind of cultural improvement  is to be oppressive and elitist.
While not necessarily identical, and while not necessarily always in agreement with each other, these three examples point to an important function of criticism, one that I'm increasingly feeling that I could do a better job pursuing in my writing here. I can't make claims to exceptional taste--if I could, why would I have not only bought, but enjoyed the soundtrack to Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (and I can't even lie and say it was because of Madonna's awesome "Beautiful Stranger;" I wanted to hear R.E.M.'s cover of "Dragging the Line")--but I can probably do more talk about the wider implications of the cultural objects I discuss and review. After all, as Lukacs notes in "Class Consciousness," in the undeveloped proletarian consciousness, issues of culture "occupy an almost wholly isolated position in the consciousness of the proletariat; the organic bonds connecting these issues with the immediate life-interests of the proletariat as well as with society as a whole have not even begun to penetrate its consciousness." If what I write on here is to do any good, obviously I need to start pushing beyond my own isolated position.

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