Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ideological Critique

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn uses the word "nigger" over 200 times. The Merchant of Venice depicts the humiliation and ruin of a Jewish villain at the hands of a Christian majority; Othello, a negro who strangles his perfectly innocent wife. The famous first line of Pride and Prejudice can be read as a blatant formula for prostitution, if one so chooses. The women of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight inspire and manipulate their men, but don't engage in any decapitating contests themselves.

It's relatively easy to point one's finger at a work of art, especially challenging art, and denounce it as ideologically unsavory in some way. Anyone can (re)apply this or that political formula (e.g. the "Woman in the Refrigerator," or any of the dozens of other ways to reduce a story to who's-doing-what-to-whom) and bandy about the -isms of the day in a denunciatory fashion. There are people with tenure right now who have made entire careers out of little else. It's a lot harder, however, to make a sincere effort to participate in an artist's world view, to try to give him or her the benefit of the doubt, to make an honest and uncompromising critique that nonetheless adds value to the world rather than merely taking it away.

I'm talking about imaginative generosity, not apologia. And I'm not always great at taking my own advice--I talk more lazy, cheap, snide, cynical shit than a lot of people I know. I'm just saying I'd rather watch Othello than Gothika.

(Image from mincer.en.alibaba.com.)

10 comments:

Troy Camplin said...

The only reason you're defending such trash is because you too are a racist, sexist, ethnologicophallocentric bigot engaging in Western imperialism against, on, in, and involving repressed minorities. Take your masculinist, fascistic orientalism elsewhere!

Jan said...

One of the best profs I ever had - the recently deceased John McKendy - told his classes to do exactly this. He said we had to read something with belief and disbelief in our minds, because both are vitally important to evaluating and learning from a given piece of work. It seems simple enough, but it's surprising how profound this lesson truly is.

John said...

Troy: it's ethnophallogocentric, thank you very much. And you realize that by writing in English you're tacitly condoning LINGUISTIC GENOCIDE (unless, of course, you're doing it subversively like I am)

Jan: I think you're right.

IMO post-'68 critical theory has rendered the "belief" part problematic--"belief" is either a metaphysical chimera, or an imaginary relation to the means of production, or an auto-oppressive product of a particular regime of power and knowledge or whatever. Ideas meant to inform a healthy skepticism have become sour and cynical, and are mistaken for the whole story rather than half of it.

Troy Camplin said...

Subversive -- please -- all my English usage is done ironically.

Anonymous said...

PoMo is just a phase. I think PoMo was invented by sad and lonely critics, because all it does is trash everything. Everything is bad because . . . Not a glass have full amoung them. But after 200 years of optimism, you have to have a short period of pessimism. It took a 30+ year war to finally get pessimistic. I'm optimistic that things will change. Although my optimism is likely rooted in the things Mr. Camplin describes.

Lumberjack

John said...

I agree, Lumberjack--it is just a phase, but it's a particularly nasty one and the better part of 3 generations of educated people think (or fear) that it's the whole story.
If you like Troy's stuff, you should check out Frederick Turner's books--Culture of Hope, Natural Religion, Shakespeare's 21st Century Economics, Tempest Flute and Oz, etc.

Von said...

I personally find it quite hard to cope with, say, H.P. Lovecraft in any other way. One has to accept a certain degree of future-loathing racist elitism in the man's worldview simply because the things that horrify him are the source of horror in his fiction, especially since the vast, intimidating cosmic horrors that lurk behind his uneducated New Englander backwoodsmen/repulsive, degenerate foreigners/ancient modernist architecture are inevitably "indescribable", "unutterable" or some such get-out. He's trying to frighten us with the same things that frighten him, and some of those are easier to work a scare out of than others.

I'll start on the vacuous cynicism of the PoMo Critic next time I can be bothered to upgrade my own blog, I think, since it'll be a timely wrap-up to the Key Issues stuff I've been diligently working on (and not writing about), but suffice to say that I share Lumberjack's contempt and your concern that the blind alley has trapped far too many of us.

John said...

Von: I agree with you about Lovecraft's politics, I just don't think they're the whole story. Much or all of his racism can be traced back to a zero-sum misunderstanding of biology and miscegenation. Besides the unutterable, unspeakable whatever, there's a distinct nonlinear, fractal, biopoetic motif that runs throughout Lovecraft's oeuvre, and I think one could argue that it links up with his modernist positivism and thermodynamic pessimism to create an almost carcinogenic aesthetic that (I think) is a sort of "skeleton key" to his work.

Von said...

"Carcinogenic". Good word in its own right, and yes, quite appropriate to Lovecraft - there's that idea of infection/degeneracy (racial and social, which I assume is the "thermodynamic pessimism" you talk about), and the more I think about this the more I see his rampantly anachronistic qualities associating with it too (part of the cure or part of the disease, to extend the metaphor even further?).

John said...

Indeed. I'd like to do a closer study of Lovecraft and this idea, but it would require extensive reading that I don't have time to do right now. I'm sure you know how that feels :)