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Posts Tagged ‘post-modernism

Bad Art

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I used the term ‘bad art’ – isn’t it disgraceful?!
Surely ‘art’ cannot be ‘bad’ as this assumes an absolute ‘good’ and an absolute ‘bad’ and as right-thinking post-modern thinkers this is just unacceptable!
Art isn’t ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – it all depends on the frame of reference, the critical theory, the person doing the looking.


But don’t stop there.

If the theory stops there, we have a situation like the following:
Danny is a total tool. He is a really hot guy and he goes about seducing girls, using them then dumping them.
“What a dick,” his latest, Janet, reflects. “You are a tool, Danny, and I am breaking up with you. Do you know why?! Because you are a dick. Think about it.” And she dumps him.
Danny, hurt by this unflattering assessment of his character, momentarily reflects: Who is she to call him a dick? These are just words. They are just subjective judgments. Danny is not of course literally a dick (though he may have one), it is simply a matter of opinion – it depends on the frame of reference, the critical theory, the person doing the looking.

Danny stops here. Thus assessing the relativity of judgments, he banishes such thoughts from his mind and continues his womanizing ways. In other words, he fails to learn anything.

It is precisely in this way that “post-modernism”, “post-structuralism”, “deconstruction” suggest we should view the world: fixed and definite meanings are impossible and futile; meanings are always shifting, multi-faceted and ambiguous; no one is capable of dispassionate judgments.

The result of this is: “You can’t tell me what to think!” and *shrug* indifference. But of course both of these attitudes are only useful against poorly considered, badly thought-out judgments, in situations requiring water to slide of the duck’s back. For example:
Two months later, Danny sees Janet at a party. “Hey,” he says, sidling up, “You still being a bitch?”
Janet reflects: Who is he to call me a bitch? These are just words, etc. It all depends on the person doing the looking – and puts his insults out of her mind.

Such indifference may be a mature response to a dickhead. But applied to all situations, we have a stunting of personal growth, the inability to learn, arrogance and the sense that life is meaningless.

Danny is right that he is not literally a dick. He is also right that the insult is only Janet’s opinion. BUT what is Janet’s opinion worth? 

This is the step the post-modernists seem reluctant to make: all right ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion’ but is such an opinion RELIABLE? Is the person to be trusted, or, more importantly, what data, what thinking is it based upon?

Janet is not a stranger and Danny knows that Janet is not a moron. In fact, Janet is probably both intellectually and emotionally smarter than him. Furthermore, they were going out for 3 weeks and spending a lot of time together. Janet has both an excellent sense of judgment and plenty of multi-faceted evidence about Danny’s character. Of course this means that what she said is not law, but it is still extremely reliable. Maybe, Danny might consider, maybe I might like to reconsider some of the ways in which I behave…

pollock-paintingSo the sequence goes like this:
1. Judgment
2. Step back from the judgment to realize the relativity and unreliability of all judgments, in an absolute sense.
3. Don’t stop there. Now assess the perspective from which that judgment is valid. Is such a perspective an important one? We must assess the source of the judgment and the basis of the assessment. Is it reliable?
This last, all important step (step 3), seems to have flummoxed the modernists, who seem transfixed by the existential crisis of the non-absoluteness of judgments (step 2). This suggests they secretly miss, cannot cope with, cannot endure a world without such absolutes. At least, it is unendurable to the extent that they stop there.

The modernist laments the directionless fragmentation and disorientation of modern life while the post-modernist celebrates it. Neither of them seems to want to do anything about it (aka., progress to step 3).

So instead:
Post-structuralism: we decide to reject complex structures (clearly all ‘lies’) and study instead the unstructured, the incidental, the plain. This is expressed by Danny when he says: “How dare she be smarter than me! I’m going to stick to dumb, disoriented girls in future who I incidentally meet at parties and never see again.”
Post-modernism: we ignore cohesive ideas and study instead the disordered, meaningless and cynical. For Danny: “How dare she make sense! I’m not going to even attempt a real relationship again – I’m just for the sex and the joy of manipulation.”
Or, we can read everything from a black-and-white political perspective: vis-a-vis Marxist Criticism, Lesbian/Gay Criticism, Cultural Materialism, Post-Colonial Criticism, Ecocriticism, Feminism, etc. Danny: “Well it would be just like a Bourgeois/hetero/old school/exploitative/fossil-fuel-burning woman to say something as totally dumb as that!”

Notice that these attitudes are equally unhealthy even if Janet were to think them about Danny. Janet should be indifferent to Danny’s taunts because she has assessed his claims, and knows them to be nonsense – not because:
Post-structuralism: “All opinions have a merely relative structure, therefore even Danny’s opinion is worthless.”
Post-modernism: “All is meaningless so I am cynical of anything Danny (or anyone else) tells me.”
Or: “Well it would be just like a Bourgeois/hetero/old school/exploitative/fossil-fuel-burning man to say something as totally dumb as that!”

Step 3 (the assessment of the pertinent reading of the situation) is not the reinstatement of a step 1 absolute judgment. It is the making of a judgment from a relative but appropriate point of view. The post-modernist argument seems to be that finding the appropriate point of view is so difficult, it is impossible or at least, not worth even trying. The idea is related to, not just an over-interpreted idea of Einstein’s theory of relativity, but the reality of the modern ‘global’ world, in which many races, cultures, religions, people are all mixing and intermingling to an extent never before experienced in the history of humanity. It is as if we are two alien tribes meeting for the first time, except everywhere and all the time. But what did we do at those earlier meetings, where there was no common language, no common culture or understanding? We tentatively and cautiously took some clumsy mute attempts at communication, at reassurance on a common ground. This seems to me to be the appropriate course of action – not the definitely right one of course, but, as post-modernism keeps insisting, there is no absolute right so, post-modernists, quit your whinging and get a grip.

I agree the situation is not easy and is not ideal, but I think encouraging people to take those tentative steps to communication, not just to find bland ‘new’ hyper-individualistic (“You can’t tell me what to think!”) forms, but to reconstruct and re-use old structures, orders, cohesive systems, old understandings with fresh insight, would be a lot better, a lot more appropriate, than celebrating indifference, inhumanity, fragmentation, disorder and the hopelessness of going on. This is the difference between stepping into the unknown with a shaky confidence versus cowering in a corner and giving up.

Not just literary criticism, but art that does the former and not the latter is truly ‘good’ – ‘good art’ – at least for this moment, in this global situation, but probably (shock! horror!) for all time – for what situation would not require a meaningful, ordered critical but uncynical reflection on life?


Written by tomtomrant

15 June 2013 at 12:40 am

Literary Theory (1) New Criticism Reviewed

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I’m not much interested in literary theory but a recent traumatic university assessment experience has forced me to peer into its bewildering world of arcane verbiage and idiosyncratic intellectuality and attempt to distinguish the proverbial head from tail. The unfashionable schools of Formalism and New Criticism seem to me to make a good deal of sense, although we must overlook some deficiencies of method and update elements of old-school language. My brief comments below were inspired simply by the Wikipedia page, but I thought I would share them.  

New Criticism

Such Formalism looks promising:
New Critics often performed a “close reading” of the text and believed the structure and meaning of the text were intimately connected and should not be analyzed separately rather than analyzing the literary text itself.” = non-separation of content and style.
Content by itself = ‘information’ and everything this could entail (not necessarily having anything to do with the arts), i.e. history, culture, opinion, news, etc.
Style by itself = abstract art (not usually very engaging) or ‘the mode of presentation’: the notepaper, empty stage/screen/Powerpoint slides, etc. In sum, meagre offerings with limited potential.[1]

But Formalism seems less promising in the negative:
“New Critics focused on the text of a work of literature and tried to exclude the reader’s response, the author’s intention, historical and cultural contexts, and moralistic bias from their analysis.”
I would add the words: “unless the text itself, or the method of critical examination, explicitly calls for these.”

“For Wimsatt and Beardsley, the words on the page were all that mattered; importation of meanings from outside the text was considered irrelevant, and potentially distracting.”
This is fair – we are studying literature. To read more into a text than reasonably occurs to one while reading is like neurosis: seeing shadows which are not merited/are based on one’s own personal idiosyncratic character or context.

But we can’t HELP being in a social-political context surely?
This is true but:
1. if the work is contemporary, we are currently IN that context and if the context is relevant it should occur to us naturally when reading. (It is also possible that the cultural character of the current age is not something we can see clearly while living in that age and it is problematic (and off the subject!) to be theorizing about this.)
2. if the work is NOT contemporary, or it is from a context which is strange to us[2] (set in distant lands, concerning a subject we know little about), it is fair to say that the context is then relevant provided it is made explicit that we are interpreting it from a relative standpoint. (It is quite possible to analyze an ancient work as viewed through modern historically-unenlightened eyes.)

This is also a bit of a worry:
Wimsatt and Beardsley also discounted the reader’s personal/emotional reaction to a literary work as a valid means of analyzing a text.
If you discount the reader’s reaction what exactly is the point of art? …I have subsequently done more reading on this and it seems that this sentence is a little misleading. It is not any emotional reaction that is to be discounted but an excessively personalised one (see above). Also, writing about emotion in ‘paint-by-number’ categories, e.g. this bit makes us happy, this bit makes us sad, is not enlightening and over-simplistic.

Criticism of New Criticism:
“Terence Hawkes writes that the fundamental close reading technique is based on the assumption that ‘the subject and the object of study—the reader and the text—are stable and independent forms, rather than products of the unconscious process of signification.’”
1. The subject and object of study ARE stable forms – from a particular perspective. When the particular perspective is ‘white Caucasian academics’ it is true that custom has made it assumed rather than specified. This assumption confers a stability which is merited provided we bear the assumption in mind.
2. The subject and object of study ARE NOT independent forms – I am in agreement with Hawkes here; however are the New Critics really saying the work and reader/context are independent? (See the first and last points on this page.)
3. An unconscious process cannot properly be expressed in words. Not addressing such an area (the unconscious) is usually the practice in other academic criticism: for example, one is not to employ theories of the unconscious when discussing Greek myth or, say, the history of the French Revolution – unless specifically asked to do so. Looking into the unconscious nakedly and constantly creates the kind of morass of messy contradictions and heated debates which is the landscape of current literary theory. Unconscious signification is just that – unconscious. We can hazard vague suggestion of it (and signification methods are illuminated by a greater awareness of the perspective from which we are viewing things) but in the end, digging into the unconscious will only take us off the subject. As per Carl Jung: “Only the material that is clearly and visibly part of a dream should be used in interpreting it.”

“For Hawkes, ideally, a critic ought to be considered to ‘[create] the finished work by his reading of it, and [not to] remain simply an inert consumer of a ‘ready-made’ product.’”
This is the chicken and the egg. A work requires the reader, and a reader requires the work. To assume there is only one side of this is the problem.

A salient point from another New Critic:
“to put meaning and valuation of a literary work at the mercy of any and every individual [reader] would reduce the study of literature to reader psychology and to the history of taste.”
This is largely what indeed has happened.

The idea of target audience is fine if you mean ‘audience from whose perspective it may be beneficial to interpret (or create) this work’. It is problematic if you then suggest that all target audiences are equally sophisticated in their readings, which is no more true than that all people are equally happy, or wise, or intelligent. There is a perspective from which there is no target audience: just me – the personal individual idiosyncratic reading – but this is not usually the vantage point of literary theory which is, if anything, collective to some degree.

[1] Note exception for music where the content is the melody = ‘aural sentence’.

[2] Or we are in a context that is strange to the work

Written by tomtomrant

6 June 2013 at 8:16 pm

Life Is A Dream (Theatre is Unrelenting Torment)

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There’s not a lot to be said about this theatre production which I saw at the Store Room Theatre in North Fitzroy last Sunday.

The play is supposedly about the horrors of repression and the unbridled dictatorship of some Polish king or other at some time but reading the programme notes gives the false impression the show has a plot.

We were subjected to a stuffy half-demolished room in which a team of actors sat around having half-mumbled arguments with each other that eventually escalated into violence and blood-shed in a gradually increasing series of crescendos interspersed with boring lulls. The play had obviously been choreographed at great length so that there was constant movement and overlapping action which was mildly diverting for about 20 minutes but given the show was 1hr and 20 min long, attention soon waned.

I don’t want to go into this show in any more detail – mainly because it was meaningless anyway (it’s one of those post-modern productions in which lots of weird shit happens and ‘anyone’s entitled to their opinion’ as to what the heck any of it means). But I do want to ask why we subject ourselves and our audiences to such demoralizing works?

The works are all the same – one-set plays in which miserable characters sit around tormenting each other in one way or another and then it ends without anything having happened. (I have a theory that it’s all about economics – it’s nice and cheap to make one-set shows where nothing much happens and it poses very few writing or acting challenges either.)

The show was definitely ‘affecting’ – in that one is inclined to think about it later – but so is a car accident. In other words, the trauma was moving but I could have done without it thank you. I have to ask why we subject ourselves to such harrowing experiences and call it ‘art’ or ‘entertainment’. I cannot see any benefits brought about by such an experience.

You could say it is ‘catharsis’ – “purging of emotion” – but catharsis is a misunderstood concept. Catharsis is not simply expressing or engendering in the audience some emotion for its own sake. We don’t need to be “purged of emotion”. (The modern pop-psychology-basis for this theory is Freud’s outdated and naive theories no longer supported by most practicing psychologists but still touted out by artists who like fanciful melodrama.) If we needed to be “purged of emotion” we could all just go in for a good spanking every week and purge ourselves of all that pent-up subjection or whatnot. Every story has conflict – indeed the power of a drama is found in the grave and universal problem at its core – but what about the reprieve? How do our characters escape their torments? The valient fight of our hero expresses pure unbridled humanity. There is none of this here.

In tragedy of course our characters often do not escape their torments but instead they and we achieve a state of catharsis. When all else fails, how do you hang on – how do you keep living? Strangely (for logic/political theorists), when all else fails, something beyond logic opens up – a void into nothing – a force beyond the opposites of time. The hero learns that the secret cause of all his problems has been himself, that, astoundingly, Fate was leading him here the whole time. This Fate engenders wonder and astonished awe. This is what catharsis is – astonished awe and wonder is a profoundly healthy experience.

Now compare shows such as this one. No character stands out as doing or experiencing anything but torment and disinterestedness. We, as audience, are subjected to anguish and emotional torments but not in aid of cleansing awe – no character experiences an epiphany; no character even reflects (no one is sure what is going on!). We are subjected to torment and then we gratefully escape the theatre. We are chagrined and disheartened, firstly, because someone has told us basically, “Life is meaningless, pointless and tormenting”, which is an oversimplified narrow-minded lie; secondly, we barely even reflect on the unlovable characters or heartless events but instead feel a sense of anger and blame at the unlovable and heartless actors and producers that tormented us, the audience, and took our money for the sake of such a worthless exercise.

The experience conditions theatre audiences not to come back.

Written by tomtomrant

5 December 2009 at 10:19 pm

Posted in the arts

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