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November 24, 2004

Comments

David Fiore

needless to say Marc, I agree!

I also agree with J.W.'s point about criticism that aims to "decode" (or, even worse, to "unmask"!!)--although I am saddened by the fact that he placed me in that camp!

If anyone ever gets the feeling that I don't love the things that I'm writing about, then I'm really doing something wrong! I got obsessed with Mulholland Dr. for a whole week, and the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated it! (and Lynch's film is a perfect example of the type of work that winds up coming under fire for "pulling the viewer out of the moment"--check out the Amazon reviews if you want to see some of the lazy criticism you describe!) Maybe you can kill a painting by trying to analyze it--I wouldn't know about that... But narrative is just begging for close-reading! And if it succeeds in spurring me to do some, then colour me "immersed"!

For me, the highest form of appreciation is analysis! You're saying: "hey! I find this work so fascinating that I'm going to obsess on it for a while, until I've got what I have to say to you off of my chest--and I'm not even going to bore you with any ideas about where it fits into an aestheric hierarchy either, I'm just gonna jump right in and apply a coat of critical gloss!" And it's not about ending the discussion by making the "definitive" statement about what's going on in the text. (or what's "behind it") It's a personal excursion. And the more detailed it is, the more personal it becomes!

Dave

J.W. Hastings

Dave: I don't doubt that you love the stuff you write about, but you generally seem to like stuff because of what it says--its contribution to an ongoing philosophical and political conversation--and because the stuff happens to be beautiful, moving, pleasurable, etc.

Marc: I haven't read the JLA book in question, but I'd say that using the "took me out of the story" criticism on it suggests that the critic (a) just didn't get it or (b) meant something else, but, as you suggest, was being lazy.

Also, I'd guess I say that it's not so much the academic analytical critic becomes unable to experience art aesthetically, but that they are trained to ignore the aesthetic experience and immediately start to analyze the art work in terms of some theory. I'd compare this to the kind of criticism that starts by articulating the critic's aesthetic experience and then builds any interpretation on top of that.

I'd be a lot kinder to the academic variety (a) if I didn't see its influence everywhere--having a trickle down effect on all kinds of criticism--and (b) if I didn't think this theory-driven analysis seems to have completely replaced the kind of basic, nuts-and-bolts technical analysis, boring but useful, that used to be the focus of scholarship.

In general though, I have nothing against interpretation of art that grows out of an actual aesthetic experience of the art work and builds on a solid understanding of the technical-craftsmanship involved in the work's creation.

However, I don't have much patience for proponents of any kind of "false consciousness" theory, i.e. the idea that most audiences are dupes and don't even know that what they're really watching is propaganda and that it is the duty of the academic to illuminate the truth. (I've seen a lot of this in recent internet discussion of The Incredibles).

Finally, I think that this focus on interpretation and analysis privileges (sorry for the jargon) the kinds of art work that invite this kind of theoretical analysis at the expense of art that doesn't. The academy has built up a kind of "canon" that has nothing to do with aesthetic value of the art works in question, and everything to do with writing interesting papers on said art works. And "interesting papers" are generally those that use theory to portray the art work as having a certain political or philosophical position.

But that's really all nit-picking: More to the point, Steven and Dave weren't simply calling out a critic because they thought he was lazy, they both talk about being unable to understand what being "taken out of the story" means--not just is that specific instance, but in general.

Jon

To rephrase what David Kubal said about modernism in literature:

"The [critic's] duty to instruct lovingly has been replaced in modern [criticism] by the responsibility to ridicule and embarass the decent man for his banality, incompleteness, and impurity."

Steven Berg

In fact, my original point was to complain about people writing critically/analytically (as well as students who are supposed to be doing so but despise it as a fun-killing exercise in academic overthinking, but I suppose J.W. may sympathize with such them) who lazily rely on unclear clichés, although the conversation ended up going in lots of other directions as people commented. I'll also note that, in my original post, I pointed out my own deliberate obtuseness in claiming not to understand what people mean by "took me out of the story" and similar phrases. I also admit, though, to a failure of clear language in my own complaint about failures of clear language.

matt rossi

This wasn't engaged towards me at all, and up to now I haven't been involved in this conversation, but I have to react to this:

I don't doubt that you love the stuff you write about, but you generally seem to like stuff because of what it says--its contribution to an ongoing philosophical and political conversation--and because the stuff happens to be beautiful, moving, pleasurable, etc.

...and?

What in God's name is wrong with liking stuff because of what it says, or because it happens to be beautiful, moving, pleasurable, etc? That's the strangest damn thing I've ever seen. Should we not enjoy those things? Are we expected to only enjoy a narrative because... well, have you left anything?

Seriously, and not trying to provoke an argument here, what purpose is there in enjoying a work if not for those reasons?

Michael G. Switzer

doesn't anyone just want to talk about batman?
he has in recent times been portrayed as hyper-competent in the JLA books, right?
just as the bat resorts to magic when he has to I didn't doubt for a minute that he'd have a warehouse full of gadgets to deal with dimensional/time travel...
if he hadn't prepared for absolutely everything he wouldn't be the bat, right?

oh, and just so the comment will fit in...
horheimer
adorno
and
habermas

Marc

Matt: I presume there's a missing "not" there. Nevertheless, I fail to see why content or theme can't be as legitimately pleasurable as any other aspect of a work.

Michael: Yes. I know it's just a tangential point in the larger discussion J.W. et al are having, but the complaints seem wildly out of place.

Much more to say on this, but as I'm in the midst of Thanksgiving weekend it'll have to wait. Discuss among yourselves, and I'll be back later. Happy Thanksgiving, Marcuse Benjamin.

J.W. Hastings

Matt: Whoops, I should've better proofed my comment: what I meant to write:

I don't doubt that you love the stuff you write about, but you generally seem to like stuff because of what it says--its contribution to an ongoing philosophical and political conversation--and not because the stuff happens to be beautiful, moving, pleasurable, etc.

Marc: My argument is not that "meaning" can be as pleasurable as anything else, but just that when Dave deals with art he focuses on its philosophical/political "message" at the expense of everything else. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, per se, just as I don't think there's anything wrong with, say, R.C. Harvey being more interested in the quality of a cartoonist's line than any emotional dimension in the cartoonist's work.

matt rossi

Marc, J.W. : Okay, that makes a lot more sense. It was phrased so that my brain just didn't see it as a typo. Stupid brain.

David Fiore

JW,

Just a word in my own defense!

I don't think I that I focus on a work's "message" at all! I don't believe in things like messages, or "real meanings"... In this respect I think we are closer than you imagine. I would liken the works I write about to brick walls that I've just run into--and the "criticism" that emerges from the encounter is just me staggering around searching for my bearings... Does Frank Capra have a political message? Certainly not a good one--if stick to the surface sloganeering (As most critics, most sickeningly Robert Sklar, have, in fact. Believe me, I hate them for it!) Or Hawthorne? Again--I despise his politics... the guy remained a committed Democrat in the 1850s and wrote the "campaign bio" of asshole "Doughface" Franklin Pierce... At the heart of everything I write is an attempt to interface with the essential humanity of whatever it is that happened to move me to speak.

Our disagreement comes down to this: you liken De Kooning's work to a great meal, while I would liken it to a great conversation. That's my theory of aesthetics in a nutshell. Art is an invitation.

Dave

Jon

Our disagreement comes down to this: you liken De Kooning's work to a great meal, while I would liken it to a great conversation. That's my theory of aesthetics in a nutshell. Art is an invitation.

But what happens when you aren't able to "liken a work" to one or the other--wouldn't that cheapen the "aesthetic appreciation" of the work. Being able to understand (and here I don't just mean verbally/analytically understand) a work is a qualitatively different experience from being able to be immersed in a work.

Sometimes there's a need for silence rather than conversation. I think this might be something performering artists, constantly using bodies, can appreciate. What's not said (and here I'm being intentionally ambiguous and obtuse) can lead to a different understanding (and perhaps different questions). The linguist Jackendoff has noted that our ("iour" meaning the "West's") usage of terms like "irrational", "emotional", and "expressive" to characterize music and dance just underscores the West's prejudice against non-linguistic thought. Academic Scholarship seems to subtley reinforce that bias.

Since immersion is as much, if not more, of a bodily state/process (rather than a neural or cognitive state/process), it makes more sense that verbal analysis/thought and discourse will get in the way of experiencing it. And no, I'm not sayng immersion and analysis are mutually exclusive, it just isn't probable for both to happen simultaneously (for physiological reasons).

David Fiore

Jon wrote:
Sometimes there's a need for silence rather than conversation. I think this might be something performering artists, constantly using bodies, can appreciate. What's not said (and here I'm being intentionally ambiguous and obtuse) can lead to a different understanding (and perhaps different questions). The linguist Jackendoff has noted that our ("iour" meaning the "West's") usage of terms like "irrational", "emotional", and "expressive" to characterize music and dance just underscores the West's prejudice against non-linguistic thought. Academic Scholarship seems to subtley reinforce that bias.

Sure, but how do you discuss "silence"? More importantly, how do you not discuss it? Can you really become so immersed in anything that you aren't at least thinking "look at me--I'm IMMERSED!"?

"Silence" doesn't really exist on this side of the grave, as far as I'm concerned--the best we live 'uns can do is gesture toward it! Is my point of view "too Western"? Very likely. But then again--even Boddhisatvas can't seem to resist the temptation of coming back from nirvana and telling us about their journey! Is that pure philanthropy on their part--or do they need their interlocutors to validate their experiences just like the rest of us?

Dave

Jon

"Silence" doesn't really exist on this side of the grave, as far as I'm concerned

Right Dave, and I think that's part of the point (or "non-point", as it were). Non-conversation need not be "irrational", "dumb" (as in mute), "unintellectual", nor non-analytical.


Can you really become so immersed in anything that you aren't at least thinking "look at me--I'm IMMERSED!"?

I think what Will was describing here

I sometimes have a similar experience while deeply engaged in a programming project. It's sometimes called "flow," or being "in the zone," and it's a remarkably pleasant state. I say "remarkably" because the pleasure is only obvious in retrospect--being a state of unselfconsciousness, you can't only reflect upon it without leaving it.

So what happens when the author "takes me out of the book"? Simply, he has done something in the text which causes me to remember myself as myself, sitting and reading his book, where before I was fully engaged in his world and not thinking of myself at all.

captures the experience in a sense. Another way of looking at it might be by using Gelernter's notion of different types of cognition and focus being at points along a spectrum.

I often do that while performing. Verbal thought just gets in the way (at the very least it impedes the performing process). When I get "taken out of the piece" I'm performing it's usually after that point that I really fuck up (whether that means missing notes while playing music or dropping lines while singing or acting, or just tripping over my feet while doing a movement based genre).

This is one of two reasons I mentioned performing artists as being a group of people that might be intimately familiar with the immersion process. The other reason is because performers have to engage the audience in real time. Authors, composers, choreographers and directors never have to worry about that since their audiences are not present at the time of creation. And Dave--lecturing in front of a class is also performance, so I know you have some performing experience, and I know that sometimes that can be one of the toughest performing situations of all.

However, I'm not so sure that immersion is quite the same process as Flow. I do believe the two (as well as meditation) are intimately related, but immersion happens during reception while Flow happens during action. I'm not saying that the two are entirely disjoint though.


But then again--even Boddhisatvas can't seem to resist the temptation of coming back from nirvana and telling us about their journey! Is that pure philanthropy on their part--or do they need their interlocutors to validate their experiences just like the rest of us?

You're guess might be as good as mine, though the first Buddhist schism is traditionally viewed as a way to move away from the Hinayana Arhat which the Mahayanists seemed to have viewed as almost as a selfish escape from having to really say anything.

But the Boddhisatva issue does bring up a point.

David Fiore

I certainly do have some experience as a performer--as a lecturer, doing readings of my novel, acting in plays, etc... but I'm not sure if I ever immersed myself in the way that I know you mean... I think this comes back to music again... musicians qua musicians (if you could separate out their "musicality" from their songwriter-ness, or the singing/performing-for-the-audience aspect of their art) have always been a mystery to me!

When I've done readings especially, I've certainly gotten very excited about what I was doing, almost drunk on the laughs or the right kinds of looks from the audience--but that's just it, my performance is never sufficient unto itself;i.e. I'm never fooled into a feeling of "oneness" with the world--I'm participating in a relationship with it...an exchange is going on... Actors make a lot of sense to me--their art is absolutely 100% dependent upon others... they can't ever alienate their art from themselves (well, I suppose they could do it with a mirror, but that's kinda lame!) the way a writer (by writing it down) or visual artist (by creating a material object that corresponds--more or less--to their idea) can...

but music... it's the autotelic art... (it's more than that, of course!) This goes back to the strange properties of sound and the way it enters our consciousness... you actually can grab a musical instrument and just bask in the aural environment that you are creating for yourself, without giving any thought to an audience... this changes, of course, as soon as you add lyrics to the mix... and, of course, you need the instrument! (Humming to yourself isn't the same thing at all...) So, even here, in the heart of "flow" country, there's a machine in the garden!

Dave

Jon
When I’ve done readings especially, I’ve certainly gotten very excited about what I was doing, almost drunk on the laughs or the right kinds of looks from the audience–but that’s just it, my performance is never sufficient unto itself; i.e. I’m never fooled into a feeling of “oneness” with the world–I’m participating in a relationship with it...an exchange is going on...

One of the reasons I enjoy jazz concerts is just because it’s a context where the performers are participating in a relationship with the audience. The audience is allowed to clap after solos, or clap to the beat during especially invigorating rhythmic portions, or hoot and holler if something sounds especially pleasing. This type of audience interaction is even more pronounced in a rock club setting, bar or stadium.

A lot of African derived music contexts are similar in these respects. In a sense, there really is no separation between audience and performer. Having been part of a small group that was coached (just before a performance) in the rudiments of some West African Dancing, I was hardly an expert when ushered out onto the stage to perform with the musicians, but that hardly mattered since the audience was, for all intents and purposes, part of the performance. While doing a workshop in Brazilian Capoeira, there were no spectators, just those who were in the Rhoda singing, clapping to the beat or playing the instruments, or the pair who were in the center of the Rhoda “dancing” the Jinga. I don’t think a lot of people appreciate how much “exchange” happen in non-western/non-verbal genres.

Actors make a lot of sense to me–their art is absolutely 100% dependent upon others... they can’t ever alienate their art from themselves (well, I suppose they could do it with a mirror, but that’s kinda lame!) The way a writer (by writing it down) or visual artist (by creating a material object that corresponds–more or less–to their idea) can...

I’m not so sure what you mean by this. I mean, I have a sense of where you might be going with it, but I think I take “Actors” a little more broadly than you do. Actors, to me, act–i.e. perform actions–whether those actions are “speaking a role” as in most conventional Western drama or cinema, or dance, sing or mime their role as in a lot of traditional Eastern Drama (e.g. Kathakali, Khon, Peking Opera) and Western genres (e.g. Ballet, Mime, silent cinema and any number of experimental theatre troupes). I have a hunch that it’s verbal action about which you’re talking (or at least some sort of rarified verbal analysis)–at least that’s what you seem to be saying in this blog post:

My position on texts is not that they exist to be explicated, but rather that they (and me and you and the lamppost) defy explication!!! Which doesn’t mean we can’t talk about them! In fact, talking about them in as detailed a fashion as possible is my definition of appreciation. What else could appreciation be?

It seem that you’ve given some conditions that might be fatal to appreciation of non-verbal genres (or even verbal ones) through non-verbal analysis/thought without necessarily demonstrating that the conditions are exclusive to verbal analysis/thought or exclusively used by a verbal genre.

Or maybe we’re just talking here! :)

but music... it’s the autoletic art... (it’s more than that of course!) This goes back to the strange properties of sound and the way it enters our consciousness... you actually can grab a musical instrument and just bask in the aural environment that you are creating for yourself, without giving any thought to an audience... this changes, of course, as soon as you add lyrics to the mix... and, of course, you need the instrument! (Humming to yourself isn’t the same thing at all...) So, even here, in the heart of “flow” country, there’s a machine in the garden.

Well Dave, one of the reasons I qualified really fuck[ing] up with “whether that means while playing music or dropping lines while singing or acting, or just tripping over my feet while doing a movement based genre is just because my immersive/flow performance experience include acting, lecturing and reading my own texts. I didn’t mean to imply that ALL of my performances have been immersive or have occurred in “flow” country (otherwise I might never have missed notes, dropped lines, or tripped onstage).

Singing Operatically, or within a Western art music context is a whole hell of a lot different than singing in a rock club with a mic for amplification. The amount of bodily control of the former as opposed to the latter can be like the difference between a using your legs for a roundhouse kick as opposed using your legs to take a step. The aural experience is a whole lot different when your body and head become a part of the resonating chamber for the former as opposed to hearing what is generally an external resonance from the acoustics of the room and amplification of the latter (I still get a little disoriented hearing more of my voice outside of my head while performing at clubs or bars).

Language differences also create a subtle shade of meaning and feeling–the liquid quality of singing in Italian contrasts sharply with the brusqueness of German (or even English) or the very tonal and “sing-songy” feel of Thai (personally, I’ve never enjoyed singing in French despite the fact that all of the vocal compositions I’ve written have been settings of French text).

And all bets are off when I’m using my voice for “made-up” languages (such as in the case with Phonetic music or Phonetic Poetry), purely Western Tonal singing (I once killed my voice singing in a performance of Terry Riley’s in C), or aleatorically constructed texts (e.g. the works of Jackson MacLow, John Cage or some of my own texts for performance art works).

I guess the question I might ask is can someone who doesn’t have or can’t have what seems to be a rather ubiquitous response (e.g like immersion is for many people) to a “work of art” give a meaningful analysis or critique that has any relevance to anyone outside of a minority community of academics? I think you would probably reply yes, and actually so would I–but I think we would do so for very different reasons.

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