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Category: Theory

Self-Indulgent Grousing on Taste and Kitsch

Edited to correct tags

I wanted to join in on the high/low discussions I found through David’s post (Dave? Curse you inconsistent nicknamed folks, and that goes double for you, Steven!) but I found myself unable to look away from Michael Blowhard’s Thread of Death, which is ostensibly about the distinction between movie people and book people, but the comments are only about books and about how everyone who reads the blog is better than book people. Since I was already grouchy from much meanness and nonsense at work, this thread has only worsened my mental state.

The basic argument I see is that movie people (and by this Michael Blowhard initially meant people involved in the movie biz, although I’m not sure this remained a consistent definition) like artsy, incisive stuff as well as the homespun lowbrow fun that packs them in at the local multiplex. They love the worlds of high art and trash, although perhaps they adhere to their own form of the Law of the Excluded Middle. Book people (ditto as appropriate w/r/t professional status) like pretentious stuff that no one reads except to get status points, the ideal being a book that’s obscure but not so obscure that namedropping it would be a waste of effort. Book people laugh at Stephen King and his silly bestsellers, apparently.

Now, there’s probably little doubt that were I to work in the publishing industry I’d be a book person. As it is now, I just get annoyed at the silliness. I mean, come on, people! “I’m so adventuresome and not at all prudish because I’m really proud to read books with explicit sex!” (and the sex theme annoyed me the most) “Trashy books are great!” “I love lots of YA authors whose names I can’t spell!” I don’t like anti-intellectualism ever, and it was even more annoying for me to see all the ad hominem attacks against literature professors. I didn’t take lit classes in the English department, but I hung out with the teachers, and they were all mixing in graphic novels and memoirs and all sorts of non-stuffy works. In the one English class I did take, I had to do a literary analysis of a romance novel, in part so that none of us could ever again say, “I’ve never read a romance novel.” (Mine was The Moon Lord, and I’m happy to expand on the fascinating sexual politics involved. I’m not kidding.)

I guess where I’m having trouble following all these people is the idea of reading things differently. I’m a fast reader, and always have been. I read three books last weekend and will probably finish another tonight, and that’s just during baths. This has never seemed like a big deal to me. And so I’m always less than impressed by people who read it in a single sitting! I realize that other people aren’t like this and I’d already been thinking about it this evening because of a classmate of Steven’s last semester who’d said of some book they were assigned that maybe she should read it “like a textbook” instead of a novel, and that that might make it more acceptable. I generally read textbooks just like novels. They’re still stories, and a good one should be gripping and have the same flashes of poetry. This is certainly true in the fields where I read most — classics, Islamic studies, anthropology, cultural criticism… (And since I mentioned Islamic studies, I deserve some sort of prize for not making any “People of the Book” jokes until now.) I don’t read knitting patterns the same way, or crossword puzzles or shampoo bottles, but I go into most books looking for the same things, ready to be impressed or inspired by the language and what lies behind that. Some comics thing online (The X-Axis? Maybe Gone & Forgotten?) made an “outside of a dog” pun and I swooned. I got just as excited translating (SPOILER!) Dido’s death (Ok, you can look) in The Aeneid and realizing there was a lovely allusion to some Greek lyric poetry.

Maybe I should file this under “Meta,” since I fear all it’s doing is making me look like the thing I hate, someone who thinks I’m better than everyone else. I actually think most people have an advantage over me, becuase my visual/image skills are really not great, although improving at last. The point is that I don’t want to be an arbiter of taste and I really don’t want people who don’t realize what pure cliches they are putting themselves in that position either. I like lots of things that are considered highbrow Big Culture, and also plenty of things all down the spectrum. I’m picky and I’m (probably rightly) considered a snob, but I do sample. I just want to be able to have fun with At Swim, Two Boys, which I bought and enjoyed after reading a New York Times book review that stuck with me for years, and with Joan of Arcadia (more on this later, I fear!) and Akiko and X-Statix. Reading texts of all sorts is fun, or at least fun for me. I’m just completely lost with this whole supposed dichotomy, since no one ever adheres to it. Of course, that’s the point of dichotomies, right?

At any rate, thanks to David and all the other people who are being reasonable about this. And, really, to all the people who commented on the Blowhards thread. There are a lot of fun books recommended there. I’m just being cranky and letting myself get annoyed, but if there’s one thing that really upsets me (outside of a dog, and certain coworkers’ habits) it’s the idea that criticism is bad, that taking anything apart destroys it. The point of texts (used loosely to encompass the domains of movie people and book people and still more other people) is that they live in an unkillable way, that the metaphors of live dissection just don’t hold. I realize there’s a related trope that innocence can’t be regained, but that’s just how things work because we work like texts, to get back to one of my current themes.

As an example the YA lovers can appreciate, I reread Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Changeling and, reading about the hints at one character’s homelife thought, “Whoa, she’s being molested!” I’m not saying this was “the right” interpretation, and maybe it’s because I don’t believe in such ideals that I can take texts apart and see what they look like when I put them together in different ways. But I couldn’t read the book without that question, even though it didn’t cross my mind to elucidate the abuse she suffered when I read it as a nine-year-old. What I don’t see is why anyone would want to go back to have fewer thoughts and less awareness and lack history and knowledge of life and the world. If anything, it made me happy that I had appreciated the book but that maybe it would have had special meaning to another child who understood that particular pain or to readers with interpretations I haven’t yet considered. Polysemy is not a curse. Words have meanings and meanings have meanings.

Somebody stop me before I reply to Peter David’s thoughts on the new Peter Pan or I make people stop reading this blog altogether. I will sleep, and in the morning I will be happier and then at 7 am I’ll be at work. And the story could go anywhere from there.

Theory is as dead as irony

Cultural theory is dead! (Link from David Fiore.)

In this age of terrorism, he [Terry Eagleton] says, cultural theory has become increasingly irrelevant, because theorists have failed to address the big questions of morality, metaphysics, love, religion, revolution, death and suffering.” … The postmodern prejudice against norms, unities and consensuses is a politically catastrophic one,” he writes.

Now this is apparently a standard criticism of postmodernist theory, that it rejects norms and consensuses. You so crazy, Terry Eagleton! What postmodernists reject norms and consensuses? Stupid ones, I guess? I don’t. I say, as a postmodernist, we have nothing but norms and consensuses. But see, (some) non-postmoderists seem to think something like, “If we see a consensus among humans, that’s probably indicative of some kind of absolute or truth or something like that.” But postmodernists, or postmodernists who think like I do anyway, think more like, “Well, we have this consensus, so we’d better deal with that and not worry too much about whether it’s a universal absolute truth or whatever.” See how that’s different than a rejection of norms and consensuses consensi? It’s a loving embrace of them.

Derridean D&D!

Bruce Baugh uses Dungeons & Dragons to illustrate some very basic concepts of deconstructionism. I think I don’t like the term “deconstructionism.” I think deconstruction is a fine critical strategy, but I don’t see that it needs to be elevated to an ism. I mean, it’s a pretty basic and obvious (to me, anyway) concept—meaning is unstable, hierarchies and oppositions in texts are unstable and deconstruct themselves. Actually deconstruction doesn’t destroy stability of meaning, it shifts the site of meaning creation from the text to the reader. Well, meaning is not so concrete… meaning is not objective. Shall we say it is subjective? I say no. After all, there isn’t one Reader of a text, but many, readers who analyze and critique and discuss. Stanley Fish’s idea of interpretive communities. Meaning is a social construct. That is a central concept of postmodernism as I think of it.

Which is not to say I think there’s any problem with Mr. Baugh’s blog post. That’s a great little essay, I hope he writes much more.

Prolegomena to a theory of why I like stuff

I watched more movies in 2003 than any year before, and that seems to be a continuing trend. I’ve never been good with movies, neither an ideal nor indulgent viewer, but I have strong views and tastes. I’m still not sure I can explain or excuse or codify these, but I have a new way of looking at it. When thinking about what I would teach in a film studies course, I thought I’d focus on the creation of self through narrative, and I realized this would be a way for me to fit in basically all my favorites.

I’d start the course with one of my 2003 finds, Capturing the Friedmans (registration required), which collects personal testimonials from participants in a child sexual abuse scandal of the 1980s. Memory is fickle, and we get to see stories change, move towards or away from verifiable “truths” in different tellings, and that doesn’t even include all the places where truth can’t get in, real and imagined and reimagined motivations.

A police detective describes stacks of pornography strewn around the house where police photos show there were none. One student speaks of suffering extreme, public sexual abuse, while a classmate denies witnessing or experiencing any of this. Then there’s the family of the accused, trying to figure out what went wrong and where and how, and how to allocate and accept guilt. It quickly becomes clear that no one has the whole story, no one is a totally sympathetic character. Yet everyone is presumably being honest and forthright and trying to make a public record of The Truth from their perspective. This messy conglomerate gets closer to any sort of truth or understanding than any single narrative could.

I was thrilled with the film for several reasons, but mostly because it makes its postmodern unease so natural and inevitable that no one watching can hope to figure out what really happened, since that whole idea has become nonsensical. Instead, it’s a story about how the characters decide for themselves what happened, based on what they experienced and also what they want or believe or need to think to keep living as they do, and the audience is complicit in this endeavor. I would like to think even reticent students would be inspired or tempted to continue such evaluation in their own worlds.

So we are the stories we tell, both narrator and protagonist, as well as (un)written product. We are what we see in ourselves and what we refuse to see. I prefer art that acknowledges this, evaluates it, extends it. This trend and focus is antithetical to the Oedipal trajectory, the Hollywood happy ending. Being a creating/created subject means not giving in to that closure, not accepting closure at all. After watching a movie this summer (and I won’t give away its name for fear of too much spoiling, and because it basically doesn’t matter) I’d said that every human story ends in death. What I meant by this in that particular case was that it should never be a surprise that death comes to a character, only when it does. Beyond that, there can be a rightness to a story’s conclusion, but no certainty, no predestination.

As a counterbalance, we watched Paycheck last night, perhaps a mistake. Ben Affleck is Michael Jennings, a reverse engineer of the future (in this case, December 2003) who, awakening with his memory wiped, realizes he’s sent himself clues to destroy the world-rending machine he’s created, not to mention stopping the Evil Corporate Executive who set him up, as well as Getting the Girl. It was painful to see all the clues available, see how long it took the characters to make banal and obvious observation and then wait for the inevitable conclusion. I laughed a lot, and did not stifle it as well as perhaps I should have. This was a movie with no narratives at all, really, just a mess of cliches, and certainly with no selves to the characters. Because of this (and other things, including truly inept dialogue) I found no way in, nothing to care about, no way to invest myself in the characters or the story or anything at all except the movie’s (be/a)musing pseudoclockwork.

I’m not sure I’ve gotten at what I like or what I mean, but I’ll come back to it later. I like my plots tight, my writing literary or sharp, but most of all my protagonists self-aware. I sometimes take “self” loosely and am not even sure this covers everything I like, but it seems like a good start and a safe barometer so far. At least I have some nascent theoretical explanation for my snobbishness now, and a new year in which to develop and test it.