23 December 2017

Against The Literary Imperative

literature/the novel: "a lie that tells the truth"


=pre-industrial infotainment?!
e.g. when the latest trove of freshly leaked government records is not nearly entertaining enough to hold the attention of an audience whose record keeping is not quite so thorough. instead, storytime! ergo the collective appointment of mandarin technocrats to digest the proverbial federalist papers on our collective behalf. ergo the offense taken to such appointees, drawing as they do equal attention to our own deficiencies as to any justly-sounded alarms. down with the mandarins! unless they entertain us! (and unless we may continue to reason anecdotally! especially if we are 'oppressed'!) thus is the political colonized by the aesthetic and the aesthetic colonized by the political; thus are the minds and souls of the people conquered, in their own names, so as to preserve psychic domicile over a dead land mass; thus the suddenly-old saying about 'letting the terrorists win' metamorphoses from talk-radio zinger to supremely useful figure of speech to the master narrative of our time; etc., etc. so no more art for art's sake k? cuz that is a lie that just plain lies. and we won't stand for that any longer.

...perhaps more specifically...

=victorian infotainment?!
i.e. for those tough household spills wherein The Truth in its unadulterated form is simply unspeakable. in its place, a little white lie! just this once! for your own good! hence a privileged position for literature among The Arts, the lesser castes aspiring half-heartedly to do what literature does vis-a-vis Great Big Truths and Little White Lies. all hail literary thought, the bounty paper towel of the left, soaking up spilled grape juice a whole glass at a time while the leading national brand just turns to grapy pudding. don't make grapy pudding, kids! make art!


this place of literature in The Arts and in Society can (and should) (and must) be deconstructed in the best sense of that term. perhaps owing to the impenetrable language in which this has been undertaken by academics, word seems not to have reached the (wo)man on the street that sometimes (or, uh...perhaps most of the time??) a lie is just a lie. less excusable yet is the effect of such "privileged positions" on the internal political dynamics of the professional art world: as in the wider political and social world, a subclass of Limousine Liberals emerges, an art-ontological Bourgeoisie who not only wield the greatest explanatory power but know it too. hence more is more: more narrative, more amplitude, more ethnicity, more mixing of media, more shouting over each other just to be heard; and yes, ever more consequentialist mendacity in purported service of deferred truthtelling. whew!! damned if you don't have to deconstruct just to get through the day!! damned if a profusion of Little White Lies isn't the most effective concealment of one Great Big One!!

hence the guiding rejoinder to the given truism:
"If truth-telling is so important, why not just do that? What are all these indirect paths we keep hearing about and what is lost/gained by way of each one?"
the aestheticist 99% demand answers.

...to wit...

=an aesthetically nihilist (or at least agnostic) social imperative for literature (and its imitators, all the other Arts)

that is, an imperative to address itself (themselves) to social matters which demand corrective Truth-Telling on account of a prevailing Lie which is presently doing more harm than good. (this is nothing like the Little White Lies that literature tells! those we are proud of!)

but of course there are *other* socially valuable functions for art and literature, and there are *other* aesthetics which have prospective value/potential but which necessarily are at odds with this narrow social imperative. further, wider social imperatives necessarily beget value systems, and any value system grown up around such concerns is bound to reinscribe itself on the narrow internal value systems of artists and artmaking. this, then, becomes the opposite of the liberationist gesture which activist artists would like to posit for it; rather, it clutters the social world of critical and popular reception with arbitrary proscriptions and inhibitions, above all a deep distrust of the ineffable which is anathema to so many extraliterary artistic traditions in so many ways.


Stefan Kac said...

Jacqueline Rose
The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children's Fiction (1984)

"children's fiction has tended to inherit a very specific aesthetic theory, in which showing is better than telling: the ideal work lets the characters and events speak for themselves. This is a 'realist' aesthetic which shares with Rousseau's theory of language the desire for a natural form of expression which seems to be produced automatically and without mediation out of that to which it refers. What it denies precisely is language—the fact that language does not simply reflect the world but is active in its constitution of the world. ...

"It is no coincidence that the development of children's fiction has followed that of the novel which has been the main repository, in adult writing, of this theory of representation. But what seems to have happened in recent discussions of children's books is that, in response to the breakdown of this aesthetic in the modern adult novel, writers have been arguing with increasing vehemence for its preservation in writing intended for the child.

"Increasingly, children's writing is being talked about in terms of 'tradition'...'culture'...'trust'... Although these may seem to be neutral enough terms...once again they carry a very specific ideology of writing and its function."

(pp. 60-61)

Stefan Kac said...

(Rose, cont.)

"My point here is not to pass judgment on the relative moral or aesthetic virtues of these different forms of writing—this would be to accept the very terms which I am trying to question. What I want to stress, rather, is the recurrence of a set of terms (cultural preservation/decay) and the remarkable consistency with which one particular aesthetic is being laid on the child, and associated with children. It is an aesthetic which takes its reference from the nineteenth-century novel... When this criticism refers to twentieth-century writing, it returns it to this same aesthetic judgment by insisting, for example, that objects should only be represented if they can be unambiguously placed in the context of the narrative... Nothing must obtrude, and no word must be spoken, in excess of those which are absolutely necessary to convince the child that the world in which he or she is being asked to participate is, unquestionably, real. ...

"There is a related assumption that children's fiction has become more progressive
for children in direct proportion to its advance into this type of writing. This is because the development of narrative in children's books has gone hand in hand with an apparent reduction in its pedagogic function and an increasing stress on the child's own pleasure. However, given the way that this form of narrative is almost always described in terms of its ability to secure the identification of the child with the story, and the corresponding emphasis on a threatened cultural inheritance which we have seen so often before, the idea that narrative is progressive per se seems to me to be highly questionable."

(pp. 61-62)

Stefan Kac said...

(Rose, cont.)

"The writing that is currently being promoted for children is that form of writing which asks its reader to enter into the story and to take its world as real, without questioning how that world has been constituted, or where, or who, it comes from. Even if it is not the intention, it is the effect of writing which presents itself as 'realistic' that the premises on which it has been built go largely unnoticed, because it appears so accurately to reflect the world as it is known to be. In relation to this type of writing, children are valued because of the ease with which they slip into the book and live out the story. ... Children become the natural object par excellence, which can be effortlessly captured by writing, with no distortion or intrusion from language or, indeed, anything else. Innocence of the child and of the word ('no dishonesty', 'no distortion')—yet again the child is enthroned as the guarantee of our safety in language.

"Once it is viewed in these terms, children's fiction starts to return to the arena of pedagogy and learning which it was meant to have left behind... It is not just that children's writing is seen as the repository of a literary tradition under threat of disintegration in the adult world. It is also that narrative fiction starts to be assigned a supreme status in the process of education itself. ... Fiction becomes a central tool in the education of the child, and it should be taught to the child according to a notion of competence or skill. This may well be correct—the idea that narrative is the most efficient way of imparting information, and of making absolutely sure that the child takes it in. But, if this is the case, it is precisely because narrative secures the identification of the child with something to which it does not necessarily belong. And it does so without the child being given the chance to notice, let alone question, the smoothness and ease of that process."

(pp. 62-63)

Stefan Kac said...

Daniel Kahneman
Thinking Fast and Slow

"It is the consistency of the information that matters for a good story, not its completeness. Indeed, you will often find that knowing a little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern."
(p. 87)

Stefan Kac said...


"The ultimate test of an explanation is whether it would have made the event predictable in advance. No story of Google's unlikely success will meet that test, because no story can include the myriad of events that would have caused a different outcome."

"Like watching a skilled rafter avoiding one potential calamity after another as he goes down the rapids, the unfolding of the Google story is thrilling because of the constant risk of disaster. However, there is an instructive difference between the two cases. The skilled rafter has gone down the rapids hundreds of times. He has learned to read the roiling water in front of him and to anticipate obstacles. He has learned to make the tiny adjustments of posture that keep him upright. There are fewer opportunities for young men to learn how to create a giant company, and fewer chances to avoid hidden rocks... Of course there was a great deal of skill in the Google story, but luck played a more important role in the actual event than it does in the telling of it. And the more luck was involved, the less there is to be learned."
(p. 201)

This encapsulates, in more decorous language, Taleb's case against reading the newspaper. But Taleb also proudly claims to stock novels in his home emergency kit. Hmm...

Stefan Kac said...

Bianca Batti and Alisha Karabinus
A Dream of Embodied Experience: On Ian Bogost, Epistemological Gatekeeping, and the Holodeck

(via Eron at https://videogametourism.at/content/virtual-reality-skeptics-reading-list)

If we’re going to attempt to excise stories from games, we might as well stop making games. Waypoint’s Patrick Klepek started down this road, saying, “The problem is that it doesn’t matter: games have no choice but to tell stories,” but abruptly veered away from the most obvious follow-up to that statement: games have no choice but to tell stories because they are made by humans, and humans think in stories. Precisely how that happens is debatable, and has been debated around theories like the narrative paradigm, but we order things and seek structure. We played Pong, assuming a wider world of players on a court or at a table, rather than just playing Move Ball With Physics (and even that can be argued as a narrative structure, i.e. the ball begins here and then goes there. Also, it was never literally a ball at all; that is its own story). This is admittedly reductive, but let’s be honest here: so is resurrecting the narratology vs. ludology debate in 2017.


Tom Battey, in his response to Bogost’s article, underscores the gatekeeping nature of Bogost’s contention that games are better without stories by asking what he says he usually asks “when someone claims one form of media is ‘better’ than another; better for whom?” Indeed, Battey contends that Bogost’s judgments regarding so-called “good” and “bad” (and “better”) types of storytelling are based on the “insidious idea of ‘worthiness,’ that some types of story are worth serious consideration while others are not based on some arbitrary content definition.” What seems insidious, though, is the ways this idea of “worthiness” impacts whose stories are deemed worthy of telling (and by whom). What seems insidious, then, is whose embodied experiences are deemed worthy of being represented. Whose bodies are deemed worthy of being known. And whose bodies, then, are deemed illegitimate. Peripheral. Marginal. Which makes it political.

Stefan Kac said...

(on Batti and Karabinus)

Dean McCannell's quip that anti-essentialist feminists can often be found hiding in one of essentialism's back rooms is apt here, specifically regarding such mystifying rhetoric as "people think in stories." Indeed we do! And Jesus Christ yes is this a reductive statement! As one incisive commenter pointed out, one may not simply drop this grenade and run from it.

In light of recent popular works by Kahneman and Taleb, one particular corollary seems unavoidable: when we narrativize, we reduce, we distort, often in self-serving ways, but more to the point, in predictable ways. "Embodied experience" is always to some degree unique, though it may overlap significantly among members of the same social groups. The ways people narrativize based on this experience, meanwhile, are not unique at all. Narratives are formed to be consonant with our existing beliefs about the world and about ourselves, whether or not those beliefs are justified. (I don't care how you define "justified." This is still a problem.) Examining those beliefs is hard work and usually unpleasant; in other words, it requires a special effort to guard against cognitive distortions. (Same disclaimer re: "distortions.") Spinning narrative, on the other hand, is easy and pleasant. There are no distortions in the realm of narrative, just different versions of reality (see L. Chevalier below). The proverbial "ten percent inspiration" is quite a bit less even than that. Hence narrative sacrifices the Critical posture at the altar of the self. It turns the Critical eye on everything and everyone but the person telling the (their own) story, a story which is psychologically facile and pleasant for them tell even where the content is brutal and traumatic. It is pleasant because it is their story, because it is consonant with their beliefs and self-concept.

Stefan Kac said...

(on B&K #2)

Along these lines, the social construction of "worthiness" can indeed be informative as a rule-of-thumb measurement of current power relations: I have my worthies and you have yours; one of our stories is consonant with the gatekeeper's self-narrative and the other grates on it like sandpaper; one of us is greenlit, the other writes a bitter weblog about why we never get greenlit. Meanwhile, all concerned remain secure in their various narrative distortions, convinced of their own worthiness, willing to question everyone's but their own. As much art throughout history "reproduces something absent" (O. Rank, "Art and Artist"), so those deemed unworthy by the gatekeepers go about reproducing that which is for them, at that moment, most conspicuously absent from culture: themselves. They abandon "judgments regarding so-called “good” and “bad” (and “better”) types of storytelling" and insist that anyone who makes such judgments must have it out for the people whose stories are thereby deemed to be "bad." You are your story and your story is you! But your story is not you! It is a predictable collection of self-delusions and distortions! Doubling down on story is precisely the way to become too sure of yourself, to stake out a rigidly fixed, masterly subject position, as opposed to what Haraway ("Situated Knowledges") has called "nonisomorphic" subject positions, to stop questioning yourself, to stop evolving, to die inside. It is to elevate one's unwitting delusions and distortions to an outward-facing identity in society and an inner self-concept. We all harbor delusions, to be sure, but we need not all elevate them in this way. Doing so is the pathway via which, ultimately, the initial oppression which once was perpetrated from without becomes internalized and self-perpetuating, becomes a part of who a person is, a part of their story rather than a distortion in a story others tell about them.

And so for narrativizers, pointing any of this out is "political" not because it threatens some narrativizers more than others but because it threatens to reveal all y'all to operate on exactly the same arbitrary, unreflective, bull-headed psychological principles. Everyone knows by now that the cultural gatekeepers are just like Taleb's colleagues on the trading floor: Fooled By Randomness. But they do, alas, guard something else of real material value, ill-gotten though it almost always is. The oppressed narrativizer, meanwhile, is a gatekeeper without a palace. They guard only their own defensive, evasive, inflexible relationship with the outside world. If it is not fair to expect more, perhaps it is fair to expect a tad less reductionism and a trifle more introspection. These things would go a long way.

Stefan Kac said...

(on B&K #3)

I think these authors are absolutely on to something when they observe the correlation between "privilege" and a skepticism of narrative. But because they neglect to unpack the notion that "people think in stories," they can't make the next step: it is itself a privilege not to think in stories. Now I too am open to the charge of grenade-dropping, so let me explain what I mean. Social, psychological, behavioral, reproductive patterns all are affected by degree and type of material security, by the particular means by which a group seeks to meet its basic needs, by a group's social and class position within a larger society, etc. David Riesman's seminal work, e.g., was based on a tripartite division of population patterns which was thought to correlate (largely if imperfectly) with three general phases of development, and by extension to three broad personality profiles. Airtight theories of causality are bound to be elusive here; initially it seemed as if they had eluded Riesman quite badly (but it made for a good story!), and now that too is somewhat less clear (storytime is over). Such theories are unwieldy in the breadth of their underlying assumptions and cannot account for individual variation. Still, the general idea of a causal nexus is fairly easy to accept, and it seems to me that this basic observation can safely be extended to a few areas which are a bit less fraught than reproduction and population. One of B&K's main points is that leveling judgment about these sorts of differences of behavior without considering the overarching power dynamics leads ultimately to the furthering of extant oppression. That point seems perfectly fair to me, as far as it goes. But the (curious) matter remains that the authors have, in defense of narrative, rather forcefully made the same point about narrative's different value to different groups that I would make in arguing that, if oppression is eventually overcome, the affinity with narrative is likely also to be "overcome" right along with it. It is of course highly questionable that the order could be reversed. But there remains the potential for oppression to become self-perpetuating, which is precisely what is evinced by desperate denials of the fact that different artistic mediums are better and worse at different things.

Stefan Kac said...

N.N. Taleb
Antifragile (2012)

"you need a name for the color blue when you build a narrative, but not in action—the thinker lacking a word for "blue" is handicapped; not the doer. (I've had a hard time conveying to intellectuals the intellectual superiority of practice.)

Stefan Kac said...

Nancy Isenberg
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016)

"For [Charles] Murray, an authority in the minds of many, the large and fluid society of 1963 was held together by the shared experiences of the nuclear family. When they watched The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, average Americans believed they were seeing their lives on the small screen.

"Nothing could be further from the truth. Even in its innocent youth, television caricatured people by class types. ... Everyone who tuned in understood perfectly well that Ozzie and Harriet's world bore no resemblance to Ralph and Alice Kramden's. Parody was one way Americans safely digested their class politics."
(pp. 3-4)

Sure...but does this platitude actually drop us off in a more constructive location than we were before it was uttered? It is from here just a rhetorical/procedural formality to apply Reverse Engineering, the conceit of which is most always a drastic overreach; then the bookworms can take over, sliding comfortably into their privileged position as cultural interpreters, interrogating everyone's unearned privilege but their own. This has been going on long enough that elite intransigence is no longer our only problem; in fact Americans hardly "digest" class politics through literary license, but rather pass the judgment like a kidney stone.

[from a post-it, 2017]

Stefan Kac said...

Louis Chevalier
The Assassination of Paris (1977)
trans. David P. Jordan (1994)

from the foreword by John Merriman:

"Professor Chevalier defended "qualitative" sources, especially contemporary literature." (x)

...reflects Chevalier's insistence that only contemporary opinion—above all, the novel—reflects historical reality." (xi)

from the text:

"Left to her own genius history would forget... The thick novels, on the other hand, full of emotions, punctuated with portraits, solidly built up out of sentences and literary devices, reawaken the passions, recapture feelings and behavior, orchestrate scandals, those character assassinations in which the public takes so much pleasure." (15)

"As a historian I have observed that literature, whether simple or sophisticated, often unknowingly registers social change long before the best observers have noticed it." (77)

[My notes say:] True enough...but unfortunately for everyone, once such an observation is made and accepted widely, this magic can become prescriptive.

[Now:] Quick Nassim, gimme that mouse. How much of LC's confidence here is based on simple hindsight? He cannot possibly have read Zola without much hindsight! Where is his "contemporary" clairvoyance? "The best observers" when it comes to "registering social change" are bound to be the same as anywhere else: those who have the most hindsight. This has nothing to do with novels. I really do dare the current crop of lit-critters to test their powers of registration the empirical way rather than the literary one. Prove it motherfuckers. Work your magic without History giving you the answer first. Post it to the internet with a time stamp and then let's see what your success rate actually is. (Good luck finding a "contemporary" novel that is also "thick.")

"One of the charms of Parisian literature is that it is full of such ideas."
That is, those which
"only express personal ideas, a bit ridiculous perhaps..." (166)

[My notes say:] I guess this is the closest LC will get to entertaining the minimum of skepticism due literature and its conceit to authority. "Personal ideas" which may or may not apply out in the world, and which may or may not be "ridiculous," nonetheless retain their "charm." Perhaps the more ancient, mystical, dangerous sense of this word is more informative than the contemporary genteel one which the context here would indicate was consciously intended.

Stefan Kac said...

(Chevalier, The Assassination of Paris)

"...the problem of history and the novel, or rather of that indeterminate territory that lies between the two... Individuals, their nature, their careers, their interests, their passions, their worries...in a word their lives—history hesitates to get involved in such a subject although it holds the key to its secret." (185-186)

[My notes say:] Pausing here to attempt a literal parsing, this passage gets stranger the further that task is pursued. [Now: Ok, the multiple ITs threw me here.] If such personal/biographical concerns are not properly the domain of History with a capital-H, then it might simply be most advantageous to revert to the lower case, wherein such a blanket statement is less reasonable yet. Of course most of the exemplorum gratia point towards psychohistory, the very concept of which one can imagine LC being dubious of, with this passage as a strong indicator in that direction. ... [But] This is a rather flimsy rationale for the intervention of another discipline, especially when that discipline is something as fraught with additional detours as any art form. In that respect, at least History and the other Capital Letter disciplines furnish some concreteness; not to say there is not also slippage there, but I think passages such as this are helpful to accept the notion of degrees of slippage, which vary widely among disciplines, as opposed to a (now-familiar) flight into constructivism.

History is fascinated by the ease and ambiguity of the novel, which creates character by small borrowings, petty thefts, fragments and bits and pieces, thus making reality from artifice and truth out of error and lies—or rather its version of the truth. But history loathes this very ambiguity, especially when it has to describe people who appear more and more difficult to judge as more and more is known about them. (186)

[My notes say:] The latter truth is a broad (universal?) reality which should be informative about all Hard scholarship, which History here could be read to be collectively standing in for. Knowledge and certainty are in this sense inversely proportional, and perhaps this is the greatest ontological problem with "judgment" per se.

As phrased here, the notion of "making reality from artifice" points to the great ontological problem with literary thought, i.e. that if enough people believe in a piece of artifice, it can then be counted upon to become reality. As dime store deconstructionism would have it, this is a matter of (socially-patterned) reception more so than of absolute merit.

[notes from post-its, 2018]

[Now:] This book was a deep-in-the-weeds indulgence after I had already waded about as deeply into the Situationist question as any sane non-Situationist ever should. But damned if casting a wide net doesn't reel in some curious catches from time to time.

Stefan Kac said...

Stephen Eric Bronner
Modernism at the Barricades: Aesthetics, Politics, Utopia (2012)

p. 24—on Lukács' literary theory, esp. realism
"Lukács maintained that the great realists reflected the social order of their time as a "mediated totality"... What counts is how a writer provides an "objective" rendering of his epoch for a reader, who can then clearly see how real social forces and institutions [affect lives]... It is the attempt to rationally comprehend reality as an "ensemble of social relations," as Marx put it, that supposedly offers the critical insight."
"On the one side are the forces of democracy, reason, science, and progress. On the other side are the exponents of subjectivism, intuition, irrationalism, and chaos."
p. 25—"...if reality is not understood in objective, rational, and historical terms, it becomes a chaos whose meaning will be arbitrarily determined through merely experiential means. Modernism gives just such a fundamental epistemological primacy to intuition and direct experience, and precisely for this reason, Lukács considers it a form of irrationalism."

[My notes (2018) say:] Objectivity/rationality generally, and access to its intuitions specifically, is of course something of a privilege as things stand in the global north; hence the underprivileged and their allies tend to defend quite aggressively the "epistemological primacy to intuition and direct experience" simply because it is all (or most) of what they have. But this cuts both ways, as [professor-friend-of-a-relative]'s story of "her Trumpite" demonstrates.

Interestingly, SEB's account here points to an affinity/constant between Modernism and Postmodernism, namely the affinity between this "irrationalism" and a radical decentering, multiplicity, fragmentation, etc.

I certainly do not immediately associate Modernism with subjectivity, since High Modernism tends toward the dry and (hyper-)rational. Hence the point is well-taken re: early modernism/the modernist impulse more generally.

[Now:] Good lord, Bronner dates the beginning of "modernism" to "roughly fifty years prior to the rise of Hitler in 1933." (26) I should probably give up using this word and give up trying to understand how other people understand it.

But then,

"Modernism embraced a utopian outlook from its inception. It was vague, arbitrary, and often self-referential. But it expressed the longing for an alternative—any alternative (for better or worse), so long as it was total. This was the glue that bound modernists to one another in spite of their differing political attitudes. The point was to be in opposition. Abstract and indeterminate understandings of politics became intertwined with very concrete experiments that projected new ways of hearing, seeing, and portraying the world. Thus a perspective emerges with which to assess the continuity and discontinuity that characterizes the relation between modernism and "postmodernism."" (27)

Indeed, and while Bronner often courts disaster with his glibness, many of the above points hit their target. Those aspects which Identity Politics can make use of ("any alternative," "the point was to be in opposition") have continued apace, while those which it cannot make use of ("abstract and indeterminate understandings of politics" leading to "very concrete experiments") have become art-political hot potatoes.

Stefan Kac said...

(Bronner, Modernism at the Barricades)

"Where modernism sought to explode immanence in favor of transcendence, however, postmodernism also denies transcendence. It rejects the possibility of depicting either a narrative account of reality or a liberating alternative." (28)

[Now:] Obviously "narrative accounts of reality" can be problematized from a "modernist" perspective too.

""Essentialism" may or may not deserve, using Gayatri Spivak's phrase, "strategic" support. Either way the ethical ability to distinguish freedom from license is compromised [by pomo]. Solidarity becomes an instrumental rather than a moral aim, and it is the same with reciprocity.


I have another post-it stuck to these pages...

pp. 28-29—"Postmodern interpretations of subjectivity..."
—"This leads such interpretations to conflate culture and politics, identity and solidarity, subjectivity and resistance, and enables them to turn intuition into a criterion of truth." (28)
—"...categories and discursive formulations can only prove partial with regard to their truth content." (28)
—"Distinctions between fact and value ring hollow. (28)
—"...this kind of activity is only possible in terms of privileging an experiential desire beyond political exigency and discursive rationality." (29)

[My notes say:] Beyond these things, or short of them? This all describes the Collins-Bilge Intersectionality primer as well as it does any more narrowly culture-oriented school. Perhaps "intuition" is therein not so much elevated to the status of a truth claim as much as "Totalizing narratives and scientific rationality" broadly are dragged down to the level of mere intuitions/anecdotes.

[Now:] And so, pomos and others, remember Taleb here: "no lawyer would invoke an "N=1" argument in defense of a person, saying "he only killed once"; nobody considers a plane crash as "anecdotal."" (My god, especially consider the "he only killed once" line re: police violence and civilian hate crimes. We really cannot afford either radical uncertainty or radical formalism. It only seems like we can afford these things when we live in the art orbit for too long at a time. Making art "about" the current events betokens a degree of certainty that would make a positivist blush. Many who are rightly on the side of justice and peace are nonetheless very wrong about this part! And it shows!)

"Modernists did not proceed in this manner. When they did engage in philosophical justifications for their cultural experiments, by and large, they sought to ascertain the "ground" of experience in what might be considered a phenomenological or quasi-phenomenological manner. Postmodernists, however, often pull a philosophical sleight of hand. Even though they deny the existence of essentialisms or categorical absolutes, they still accept the totally traditional perspective that such a foundation can alone provide the justification for a truth claim. In rejecting the absolute, therefore, postmodernists lack notions of historical tendency, or what John Dewey called "warranted assertions," and therefore wind up being defined by the very essentialism that they oppose. (29-30)

Stefan Kac said...

(Bronner, Modernism at the Barricades)

A new political aesthetic should at least prove skeptical of claims that the assertion of subjectivity necessarily constitutes a privileged form of resistance against the existing order. Art is predicated neither on narrative nor on pedagogic aims. Its subversive quality should not be inflated. Art has no predetermined or immanent purpose to serve, and its content remains indeterminate until criticism situates it within a project of resistance and liberation. Situating the work within a complex of interests and principles depends on the degree of objectification that the genre or style allows in terms of discursive categories. It thus made sense for thinkers like Arthur Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, who emphasize intuition and the "reality" behind discursive forms, to insist on the primacy of music. While it is useless to create a hierarchy of forms, still, there are differences in the "political" possibilities that music, painting, and literature can project. The degree of objectification serves as the degree to which any work is open to political interpretation. It therefore makes no sense for a progressive aesthetic to subordinate aesthetics to politics, or vice versa. The interest in resistance and liberation can neither be philosophically turned into an absolute of art nor mechanically identified with any genre—and its articulation always occurs with respect to the work in question.

"... it is no longer sufficient to remember Walter Benjamin's aesthetic injunction to "never forget the best." The best still needs to be created—and in different ways, that is the fragile and elusive point of intersection for a radical understanding of culture and politics."

Amen, brother.

Stefan Kac said...

Daniel Boorstin
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961)

"The danger to our sense of reality is not that movies should be made of novels, and vice versa. But rather that we should lose our sense that neither can become the other, that the traditional novel form continues to enlarge our experience in those very areas where the wide-angle lense and the Cinerama screen tend to narrow it. The danger is not in the interchangeableness of the story, but in our belief in the interchangeableness of the forms. We have lost our grip on reality when we have let ourselves believe (as we are eager to be reassured by movie-makers and their press agents) that the movie can ever give us the nub of the matter." (148)

Incidentally, Boorstin dates the use of the word "nonfiction" to 1910. (144)

[I have a note (2017) that says:]

And indeed, the radical wing of the arts-as-humanitarianism contingent seems intent on reclaiming the blurring of such lines as some sort of metaphorical rejection of Western dualism, Binary thinking, the White Male gaze, etc. I've never been able to understand why "interchangeableness of the forms" has this potential; and so perhaps by the same token its potential for good is also easily overestimated. I suppose the proof is in the proverbial pudding, i.e. the forms (and contents) themselves. But clearly there is less agreement than ever as to how to parse them for this purpose.

The "nonfiction" issue appears on this note rather incidentally, but come to think of it, here is a NEW distinction, a new binary, sprouted from the age of Pseudo-Events. So it is not strictly a question of dismantling binaries, but also of a realignment, i.e. of those erected anew, perhaps in place of old ones or perhaps independent.

Stefan Kac said...


"Robertson conducts a large and varied cast through a long time and a complex plot with great skill to a most satisfactory click of closure. But, Hames argues, the difficulty of integrating the characters' lives with a political history that mostly consisted of tiny conventicles and ceilidhs in literally smoke-filled rooms and debates in widely unread periodicals, and that now and then took public form as 'set-piece' events in parliaments and streets, can defeat even the best novelist – even though Robertson was himself on those marches and in those rooms. It's a problem familiar in science fiction: one reviewer cited refers to Robertson's 'info-dumping', a term from the lexicon of SF criticism."