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Tangential Point to What Would Have Been An Untenably Long Posting

*Cf. previous post for evidence of tangency

The enemy was not this side or that one; it was the abstraction of rhetoric itself.

Modern academic criticism’s meaningless erudition has gone far past the boundaries of useful discourse. While it is certainly admirable to have read more than any other human before you (and there is always more to read†), we do not necessarily benefit from a majority of the terms used being self-referential, taken as reconstituted truth from the million-and-one literary criticism manuals of the past hundred and fifty years. Is it necessary that one have committed to memory every recondite treatise inventing a term for an already-named idea? Whatever happened to pairing things down to the good stuff, revising and summarizing? Most everything has been said—one need not say it more but only say it better.

It seems to me the best cultural and literary criticism at present is delivered to us via magazine or newspaper periodical, i.e. journalistically. Economy of style, of which Camus was a fine predecessor, is of great interest in the articulation of just about everything (excluding this blog, naturally, of course), theory and criticism included. In this, Gopnik and William Deresiewicz are two of my favorite contemporary practitioners.

Here is an opening from Deresiewicz that demonstrates this point:

An iron law of American life decrees that the provinces of thought be limited in the collective consciousness to a single representative. Like a poor man’s Noah, we take one of each. One physicist: Stephen Hawking. One literary theorist: Harold Bloom. One radical social critic: Noam Chomsky. Before her death, we had one intellectual, Susan Sontag, and one only. (Now we’ve dispensed with the category altogether.) We are great anointers in this country, a habit that obviates the need for scrutiny. We don’t want to have to go into the ins and outs of a thing–weigh merits, examine histories, enter debates. We just want to put a face on it—the logic of celebrity culture—and move on.


†I am not alone in this. Cf. Zadie Smith (always cf. Zadie Smith) that the required canon is suffocatingly large, and that nevertheless we are still susceptible to that very high-minded suffocation. Ms Smith, however, must be a faster reader than I am—maybe she has a kindle?—and any actual comparisons (which I am not interested in making) should take into account her level of erudition (high) over my own (low).


From → Readings

  1. Grant permalink

    Regarding your point on the specialized language and elitist jargon of academic criticism (which I deplore):

    “Art’s authority is perpetuated by specialized terminologies derived from philosophy, history and sociology. Specialized vocabularies are helpful tools for specialist thinking but, almost by dint of their dazzling technicality, they also imply consensus models for talking about art. Working for a contemporary art magazine, I get sent a vast amount of press material each day, almost all of which employs a strikingly similar tone of voice. Most common is the one of academic solemnity infused with a barely veiled aggression, as though art were engaged in some cultural ‘war on terror’. Words such as ‘forcing’, ‘interrogating’ or ‘subverting’ occur with incredible frequency. Boundaries are ‘broken down’ and ‘preconceptions challenged’ so often as to make subversion and radicality seem like a mandatory daily chore rather than a blow to the status quo. They perpetuate old-fashioned notions, such as that of the artist visionary liberating the masses from mental enslavement by bourgeois values. Overuse has made these words sound strangely toothless, for what’s at stake in the art is often less important (but not necessarily without value) than the language suggests. This may seem like nit-picking when global capital is collapsing around our ears. Sure, the follies of art-speak are easy to laugh at, but often criticism of it begins and ends with a dismissive chuckle – which ignores profounder problems. Why should academic terminology be the default vehicle for discussing art? Why is there such an emphasis on newness, schism and radicality? Even when the art itself may be enjoyably throwaway, language pins it to deathlessly auratic registers of exchange. This suggests a subliminal fear that, if the subject in question is not talked up as Big and Culturally Significant, then the point of fussing over it in the first place might be called into question, bringing the whole house of cards tumbling down…. How should artists behave? How should we discuss art, build venues to show it in, tell people about it, try and support artists? There is no single answer: each situation demands a different solution. Perhaps, as we are hit daily with dire economic news, what is needed is to remain sensitive to the details, those small elements in the art world that cumulatively exert their own pressures on the ways in which people behave or relate to the making of art.”

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