Ideology, the aesthetic, and the difficulty of reality

CHICAGO, IL. – My first post from outside Berlin. I’m currently sheltered in my graduate-housing “unit”. Blog-writing has dried up recently, which is more than I can say for the weather.

I’m on exchange to the US, paying my dues to the Empire whilst getting the full Campus Grad School Experience at the University of Chicago. The CGSE is pretty much what I expected from PHD Comics: most of the day in the library, wonderful academic conversations in either of the two local bars, and regular emails from security detailing the Week in Gun Crime. All this has helped me focus on my doctoral work, and I’ve hardly even distracted myself reading fiction since I got here. Hopefully when I’m back in Berlin some more balance will be restored, but until then, here’s a post inspired by thesis reading. It has very little to do with my thesis.

David-Antoine Williams, in Defending Poetry, makes some intriguing remarks about the current state of literary studies:

The vocabulary of the ‘other’ comes to replace that of objective and eternal truths, but the basic position is the same: that mimesis fails on its own account to represent accurately, or faithfully, or ethically; that the aesthetic sense of ‘representation’ exists in permanent tension with its democratic sense. As it was for Plato, the preferred method of inquiry for practitioners of theory is not the aesthetic but the rational theoretical mode, which they call ‘critique’. It is only when paired with the continuous critique of texts, with the constant deconstructing of them and disclosing of their inscribed violence to the other, that these texts can be permitted on political grounds. Understood this way, the ethical value of literature is realized negatively in the exposing of its own natural corrupting force, the uncovering of the self’s ineluctable tendency to subsume the other.
– David-Antoine Williams, Defending Poetry: Art and Ethics in Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill (Oxford: OUP, 2010), p.9

I like the comparison between Plato’s totalitarianism, expelling the poets for their commitment to imitations, and the war on evaluative criticism waged by disciples of Foucault and Bourdieu. Placing ‘criticism as the critique of power’, or whatever you want to call it, next to Plato really shows up its tendency to expel the literary dimension of texts from the field of study – even to view the category of the “literary” as a threat, a culinary lure away from revolutionary duties. The critic, debunker of ideologies, replaces the artist as craftsman. Since I believe that aesthetic distinction is Actually A Thing, I like the polemical thrust here.

Yet, I’m not sure that Williams’ comparison quite holds up, or does full justice to the possibility of integrating judgements concerning aesthetic and intellectual quality with a “critical” attitude. The break occurs around the category of mimesis. Plato believes that mimesis itself is dangerous – a triple removal from the truth – and thus prefers a rational, discursive mode to an imaginary one. On the other hand, ‘critique’ is directed at the ideologies lurking behind any text, mimetic or otherwise. Indeed, the whole point of so-called “discourse analysis”, as I understand it, is to flatten the differences between literature and, say, medical treatises or popular novels: these are all texts, and all reflect historically-contingent ways of organizing knowledge. I don’t think that “mimesis” is posited as the enemy here in quite the same way it is in Plato: it is not by virtue of being mimetic that a text fails to represent “accurately”, rather by virtue of its being a text at all. Every claim to knowledge, on this model, is seen as distorting.

Instead, mimesis can be counted as an enemy when it is deployed as an evaluative category, within criticism. Critics who resurrect the category of mimesis (or more appropriately, who employ any categories proper to aesthetic judgement) are themselves seen as producing ideologically-distorting texts. In trying to claim that certain features of a work are aesthetically distinguished, I am, implicitly, invoking forms of social distinction, and hence contributing to oppression. (This is a false inference, and I will explain why later.) The problem with the Plato–critique analogy is that critique does not target mimesis as such, as it occurs in artworks, but instead sweeps the issue aside, implying that invocations of mimetic criteria by readers are a sign of naïve, biased criticism.

One problem with such an approach is that it ignores how mimesis can serve the practical end of critique. If we ignore the formal features of a text entirely, we cannot describe how those features lend themselves to progressive, critical thought. One way to look at this would be the kind of formal analysis favoured by the likes of Adorno and Benjamin. Another, more in keeping with poststructuralism’s “egalitarianism” (scare quotes because how egalitarian can you be when you write in an obfuscatory, jargonistic mode requiring four years of higher education to penetrate?), can be found in Linda Hutcheon’s excellent account of postmodern parody as a critical tool. In both cases, though, if critique is the desired end, and the means are aesthetic, then presumably aesthetic distinction is possible in terms of how well those means serve that end. I think this is particularly true in Hutcheon’s case. There is good postmodern art that uses collage, citation and irony to make forceful political points (right now I’m thinking of bits of Agnès Varda; Kara Walker’s silhouette art is another great example). On the other hand, there is bad postmodern art that falls into the kind of ahistorical, hedonistic confusion decried by Jameson in his Postmodernism (Tarantino, Wes Anderson – das ganze Hipstertum!). There are important ways in which, from a critical standpoint, the evaluation of artworks in aesthetic terms is very much possible.

Before I sound like Harold Bloom harping on resentniks, I should add a few qualifications. I think that suspicion, in the full “hermeneutics of suspicion” sense, is an essential, liberating movement of thought. The “objective and eternal truths” that Williams characterizes clearly hold no philosophical water. Thus, various strands of poststructuralist critique directed against such lazy, transcendent conceptions of value are, in essence, sound. The problem is that they are also knocking down straw men, and it’s a shame that Williams, in setting up his analogy, seems to identify aesthetic criticism with pretensions to revealing such “absolute” truths. There is plenty of evidence from the way that F R Leavis talks about “Life” and literature’s moral worth that he was not particularly suspicious of the contingent nature of such concepts. Bloom writes in a similar vein. Both seem to posit some kind of essential notion of the human. Nonetheless, my own suspicion leads me to think that we need a notion of the evaluative criticism that appreciates aesthetic judgments as contingent, intersubjective, and nonetheless valid, rather than as mere bearers of ideology. Whilst I believe that it is important to understand literature historically, and have nothing against discourse analysis, Jamesonian “depth reading”, etc., per se, we need also to look at the interplay between aesthetics and ideology without reducing the former to a simple epiphenomenon of the latter. This could imply a kind of anti-essentialist humanism. Furthermore, when it comes to judgements that some artworks are better than others, I think hostility reposes on a misunderstanding of the category of ideology, which potentially leads to relativism, as well as on false inferences of the sort “My judgement is only comprehensible within a certain social group ⇒ I mean to exclude and oppress other social groups”. I will try to elaborate these thoughts in relation to Williams (and with no reference to any significant writers on the theory of ideology – from Marx, Gramsci and Althusser right up to Zizek, I will not mention a single one. But I will talk briefly about Cora Diamond).

I think, on a certain level, the Williams analogy does hold up: the feud is between an allegiance to the aesthetic/appearance, on the one hand, and critique/reality on the other. The question is, can we elide this category of “appearance”, by which Plato understands mimesis as a distance from the truth, and the modern category of “ideology”?

Here, I feel it necessary to distinguish between two possible uses of “ideology”. The first is neutral, and perhaps weakens the force of the word. On this understanding, ideology means simply a set of beliefs and practices that provide the conditions of possibility for forming a coherent view of the world. Such beliefs and practices can be shared within communities, and thus provide the grounds for judgements to be valid, and agreements possible, within those communities. Yet, these beliefs and practices are historically contingent and open to change, sustained by a combination of convention and efficiency (that is, irrationality is brought into check via internal coherence, and coherence with the world, but some irrationality remains). This is perfectly sound, but does not seem to me to get at anything specifically ideological. It could equally well be a gloss for what Wittgenstein calls a “form of life”. This understanding allows for no real judgement as to the content of that form.

A second, critical understanding of “ideology” is more important. In this sense, it must be seen as going hand-in-hand with the notion of false consciousness, a belief both (i) false or distorting, and (ii) that helps perpetuate a form of social organization. This second, political element is differently construed in Plato than in ‘critique’: poetry corrupts the polis by distracting it from the truth, and the politician should thus expunge it for a healthier civic life. Poetic “appearances” are thus not essential to anything. For the critic of ideology, on the other hand, ideology constitutes the possibility of there being a polis in the first place. It is hence the tool of the politician, in achieving and maintaining domination, and the object of the critic, exposing instruments of oppression. I will dub this “normative” ideology critique, as it seeks to distinguish between inferior and superior forms of social organization, based on a normative conception of justice.

Williams’ analogy stands or falls depending on the sense of “ideology” in play. For both Plato and ‘critique’, a certain kind of “appearance” is exposed by reason. Plato seeks to bring us closer to the real. However, what is left once ideology is debunked, given that it is not an appearance behind which reality lurks, rather a necessary constituent of social reality? We cannot just subtract it, for reality then collapses. Ideology critique is, first and foremost, concerned with exploring the regimes of power within a given constitution of reality. But does it get us closer to “reality” as such? Does it speak from a privileged position, with a better grasp on the ideals of social justice, and if so, does this allow us to view ideology critique as a move towards “reality”, away from appearances? Or are the ideals of social justice equally ideological?

If ideology is, as I suggested in providing a critical or “normative” definition, false or distorting, this implies that it is defined against something more true or undistorted. On the other hand, it is possible to take a relativistic position and claim that all interpretations are distortions, and then think that once they are exposed as such, our work is done. This is more in line with the “neutral” understanding. Ultimately it issues in relativism: we expose the important myths of whatever societies we choose, and find this activity an interesting and illuminating end in itself. We do not use the tools of critique to get us closer to “reality”, but instead can content ourselves with a certain transcendental understanding of ideology as constitutive of social reality.

Nonetheless, this “neutral” form does not account for the clear normative force that much ideological critique possesses. Critique serves social justice: we expose some form of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. If we thought that our liberal identity politics were mere ideology, to which we could only commit ironically (in Rorty’s deflated, detached, thoroughly unconvincing sense), then what kind of binding, motivational power would they have? What would stop us turning our suspicions back on ourselves? Why would we be carrying out this critique in the first place? Emancipatory politics are, in a sense, the result of healthy suspicion. And ideology critique makes powerful normative claims when the structures it exposes are understood as manifestations of social injustice: not merely tools for the perpetuation of a certain order, but for the perpetuation of an unjust order. Within “normative” ideology critique, I may believe that my opposition to homophobia helps perpetuate a certain social order, but I cannot also take that opposition to be a distortion. That is, I cannot classify my own beliefs with the same label – “ideology” – that I place upon those I expose. I can accept transcendental arguments about their constituting my world, but I also see them as being more correct than other sets of beliefs. I hence believe that only some representations are distortions.

The difference between these two forms of critique is inscribed in the first person. The first, “neutral” form expresses an understanding of the constitution of beliefs in general: they are all contingent, distorted, etc. The second, “normative” form involves me making claims about the superiority of some sets of beliefs over others. If I am to be a true relativist, I must renounce the ability to make any kinds of claim. If I commit to normative ideological critique, I cannot view my own beliefs as purely ideological: I accept certain arguments about the ideological structure of belief in general (I see my beliefs as constituting my world) but I also hold that that there are certain good reasons for my holding them. One cannot adopt both positions simultaneously. One either makes claims, or one does not. And we are, of course, consistently bound to make claims.

This is a totally unoriginal and very standard response to relativism. Ultimately, it shows that relativism is not so much untrue as unthinkable or impractical. I do not find this a weakness in the argument. Rather, I feel this constitutes its philosophical depth. If the task of philosophy is to describe our conceptual world, then attending to the ways in which our beliefs grip us in daily life is an important part of that task. The unthinkability of relativism gets to the heart of our condition. Relativism issues in a performative contradiction.

I’ll try to run over this part of the argument again, and then add a more properly normative interpretation. It could be objected that it’s ultimately a matter of perspective whether I label a belief “ideology” or not. As such, are we not returned to a “neutral” standpoint in which everything is held as ideological? What I mean to claim is that no such “neutral” perspective is possible, because our beliefs grip us in such a way that we cannot but make normative judgements in some cases. That is, it ultimately becomes impossible for us coherently to view our own beliefs, critically, as pure “ideology”.

Consider how liberal identity politics can be – in fact, often are – co-opted by the ideology of neo-liberalism, focusing our attention on individual identity and self-definition, rather than issues of labour laws and the distribution of wealth. In this sense, “emancipatory politics” can be classically ideological, contributing to the perpetuation of a certain order via a systematic blindness to the social relations pertaining within that order. There are certain forms of identity politics that can be characterized as ideological in their prioritization of individual subjects over collectives, which serve the integration of these subjects within a late capitalist society. Yet, when I make this critique, I am clearly speaking from a Marxist perspective and laying claim to the notion that such perspectives incorporate myths about the role of subjects within society, and about acceptable modes of self-realization (eg. by consumer choices) – myths that I see as supporting a fundamentally unjust system of power relations. The stories with which I would replace these myths would have the same constitutive role, but I would see them as truer, insofar as they would help build what I consider a more just society.

At the same time, my perspective could easily be criticized as ideological in its own right by someone who holds very different ideas about social justice from me (for instance, by someone who considers it unjust for citizens unequal in intellectual ability to receive equal shares of the collective wealth). There is no simple fact of the matter to decide which of our conceptions of social justice is correct. In this sense, it is tempting to describe them both, from a “neutral” perspective, as “ideological”. Our arguments do not derive from nature, but from conceptions of justice embedded in our everyday lives, with rich histories of their own. I can hope to bring my interlocutor round to my point of view by pointing out inconsistencies that follow from his perspective. He may show me that my own perspective is incoherent, in which case, I will have to revise something in my beliefs. But at a certain point we reach a bedrock of justification, after which fundamentally different forms of persuasion become necessary. Could we label such a bedrock as “ideology”?

I do not feel that such a neutral perspective is something that anyone, speaking in the first person, could actually express. So long as I stick to my original set of beliefs, so long as I let them structure my world, I clearly cannot allow that they are a “distortion” of anything. And neither, apparently, can my interlocutor. I cannot come out and say “my beliefs are ideology” without weakening the sense of “ideology” I originally deployed to that of “form of life”: I might claim that there is some contingency in my beliefs, that they have a role in constituting my world, etc., but I could not go all the way and claim that they are distortions. Theoretically, one could, as a Rortyan ironist, only contingently take to the streets in support of gay marriage. I’m just not convinced that this doesn’t, in practice, issue in cognitive dissonance. I don’t feel that my beliefs grip me in such a contingent fashion. Someone else may describe them as “ideological”, but this does not mean that I can step back out of myself and suggest that “ideology is just a matter of perspective”, because to do so would be to stand in performative contradiction to my whole Tun und Machen.

What is more, this argument can be carried further in a more properly normative sense. I’m thinking in particular of Cora Diamond’s views on vegetarianism, expressed in ‘Eating Meat and Eating People and, more broadly, her definition of  “the difficulty of reality”. Yes, our beliefs may grip us in such a way that they structure our world, and this may lead to perceptual gulfs between subjects who could label each other’s views as “ideology”, but when I wrote above that “there is no simple fact of the matter to decide which of our conceptions of social justice is correct”, I did not mean to exclude facts, or reality, from the discussion altogether. As Diamond argues, certain practices or beliefs seem to involve ignoring difficulties in reality that should be obvious: the suffering in the slaughterhouse is one such example. Jonathan Lear, in an essay on Coetzee, has described such beliefs as relying on “motivated structures of not-seeing”. Philosophical belief systems are often erected in such a way as to blind us to other, normative demands placed on us by empathy. Arguing over whether animals have consciousness, or for that matter, rights, is a way of avoiding the actual difficulty of encountering a being who seems at once so fundamentally separate from me, and who at the same time ought clearly to place some kind of empathic demand on me. Not to be horrified by such a being’s suffering is to shield oneself via conceptual arguments from what ought to be in plain sight. In the same way, we could adapt Diamond’s argument to consider the way in which right-wing economists might use rational choice theory to call for the abolition of the minimum wage: why should I pay someone €10 when his labour is only worth €5 – won’t this lead to unemployment? This involves a motivated blindness to that person as deserving a certain standard of living, a failure to recognize them in a basic, human capacity, since they are instead recognized solely through the distancing framework of a particular theory. I cannot believe that the equations of economics express “reality” in the same way that those of physics do. They posit no fundamental objects, and thus make no ontological claims. Appealing to them as a form of “reality” hence strikes me as a particular kind of blindness, interposing theory between oneself and one’s experience in relation to other living beings.

Now, it could be responded that such arguments based on the “difficulty of reality”, which impels us to a certain normative, empathic response, are still ideological: these forms of empathy are not universal, and remain contingent on myriad factors. This response would claim that it is not so much structures of “not-seeing” at work here, but structures merely of “seeing differently”. To which there is an obvious reply: why do so many of our practices clearly involve attempts to avoid seeing things? Why should there be such a gap between the industrial farm and the meat counter? Why should the residents of One Hyde Park need such extensive security?  Anyone who believes that “not-seeing” is really a species of “seeing differently” is, by these lights, a psychopath. They may protest and claim that such distances are simply the consequence of “rationality”, but I feel what is lacking in these accounts is an appeal to experience – and experience as ideological: full of fears and repressions and structures of “not-seeing”. Any philosophical account that tries to circumvent the way in which certain beliefs may grip (or horrify) us strikes me as impoverished. Reality is too difficult, and ideology, on this understanding, is an attempt to sweep it away.

I have argued, then, both that relativism issues in a performative contradiction (I must hold certain beliefs to be true, hence I cannot equivocate), but also that some views of the world clearly are more realistic, less ideological, than others. This is not by virtue of their conforming to abstract concepts of social justice, but because “ideological” views allow their concepts of justice to lead them into confusion, distortion – blindness – regarding difficult facts that really are there.

So, to return to Williams from this long excursus: his analogy is sound in the case of normative ideological critique, which ultimately claims that certain views are more correct than others, but unsound in that of relativistic, “neutral” critique. If you’re a real relativist, you can’t play at being Plato. But I guess you wouldn’t want to do that anyway.

The point of this lengthy excursus, however, was to lead back to the question of aesthetic judgements, a robust concept of “ideology” in hand. Now, it seems to me obviously correct that the criteria by which I judge a work to be “good” – by standards of linguistic mastery, or intellectual density and depth – do not exist in some “objective, eternal” transcendent domain. Furthermore, I’m not sure what is to gain by attempting to enumerate such criteria. Our conception of “beautiful” surely incorporates more meanings than simply “pleasing to the eye”, and our evaluations of artworks involve all sorts of factors besides local, easily defined instances of pleasure. The complexity of judgement is one justification for evaluative criticism.

Yet, whilst I hold that breaking things down to such a level is quite beside the point, I feel that certain atomistic judgements – for example, “Dan Brown is a bad writer because he doesn’t know how to use the word precarious” – are both true, and easy test cases in a discussion of ideology. I hope to claim that such a judgement is not ideological in any robust sense, and furthermore, that it is not predicated on any beliefs that actively participate in oppression.

Firstly, it should be clear that there is social contingency involved in such a judgement: we could be people who really got off on awkward catachresis. But is such contingency ideological? I don’t think so. I am not so naïve as to think that these “atomistic” judgements exist in isolation from other factors. In the case of misusing words, it is obvious that certain forms of linguistic competence mark membership of certain social groups. Whilst, to all intents and purposes, Dan Brown should know better – he is not the voice of the oppressed, underprivileged masses – it is clear that gaining competence in writing requires a degree of education not necessarily available to everyone, questions of talent aside. Furthermore, the association of fine style with ‘literary fiction’ and Dan Brown with ‘popular literature’ also carries with it the implication of snobbery: one literature for the intellectuals, another for the masses. I may not mean to define myself as superior to another group by criticizing Dan Brown’s prose style – I may simply wish to say that The Da Vinci Code is badly written – but in doing so, I inescapably align myself with a certain social group. There are numerous ways in which even such simplistic judgements are obviously caught up with ideological factors.

Yet, it is important to unpick whether such judgements, understood as fully embedded within a social context, are robustly ideological. Do they involve forms of self-deception, and serve to perpetuate the social status quo? Or do they merely contingently reflect social distinctions? What is more: is my belief that Dan Brown is bad writer fundamentally incompatible with other beliefs about enfranchisement and social justice?

It seems to me axiomatic that good writers know how to use words correctly. Whilst creative uses of language imply uses of words in novel contexts, there are further (implicit) normative criteria that establish when such uses are successful or not. The point is that being susceptible to any of these criteria – that is, seeing why a certain catechresis works, and another doesn’t (ie. seeing when a word truly is used in an incorrect context) – involves a lengthy process of education, of initiation into a specific community. The ability to acquire certain kinds of education is socially determined. Hence, one’s ability to discern criteria – for example, to say that some works are good, others bad – often reflects, retrospectively, the kind of education one has had, and in turn displays a correlation with social distinction.

Two questions follow. 1) Does this not mean that one’s aesthetic taste can function as an important symbol of social distinction? 2) Does this mean that making such judgements implies a commitment to the preservation of social distinctions?

The answer to the first question is, unfortunately, yes. Clearly Bourdieu is right about the appropriation of certain cultural objects by the bourgeoisie as markers of distinction. “Cultural capital” does designate a noteworthy phenomenon. What it does not account for, however, is the kind of aesthetic false consciousness at work in such appropriation. It attributes a motive on the basis of surmise, and does not entertain the idea of experience – of correct or incorrect (ideological or unideological) ways of responding to things in the world. Bourdieu’s approach seems to suggest that marking distinction is all aesthetic judgement does. Yet, logically, this does not rule out the possibility of making aesthetic judgements – however dependent upon one’s education they may be – that are not intended as symbols of distinction. Taste may be an index of certain social factors, but this is ultimately contingent. Taste cannot be reduced to an expression of these factors.

This leads to the second question: do judgements of taste seek to perpetuate the social distinctions they, contingently, express? This, I believe, is obviously wrong. It relies on a false inference of the sort “My judgement is only comprehensible within a certain social group ⇒ I mean to exclude and oppress other social groups”. I can think Dan Brown is a bad writer because he misuses the word “precarious” without wishing to exclude and oppress those who do not have the background to regard this as a solecism. Indeed, I can wish that such an education were universally extended, and I do. Where is the contradiction in my holding a certain aesthetic judgement, and wishing that others enjoyed the same privileges that allow me to arrive at that judgement? I can perceive both social and aesthetic distinctions without believing that claims in one domain are necessarily pretensions in the other.

This argument only works so clearly in the case of certain atomistic judgements. If we were to debate the worth of a book as a whole, things would become rather more complex. In fact, I find the idea of listing criteria for “good writing” a rather tiresome exercise, as these are the sort of things one learns holistically, from one’s whole reading experience. What is more, I find that this focus on the narrowly aesthetic (“a good sentence”) misses the point. When I claimed earlier that I think aesthetic distinction is Actually A Thing, I’m not talking purely about the aesthetic dimension of texts, but the moral and conceptual dimensions intertwined with it. If I think a book is great, this isn’t because it’s just beautiful – it does something else, far more powerful than simply delight me.

Literature is thought. It may even represent the deepest thought of which we are capable. To ignore the literariness of literature, the peculiar depths of thought through which it can lead us, is to lose sight of the only motivation that drives anyone into literary studies: they like reading. If we forget what is peculiar in the reading experience, as a mode of knowledge, then the discipline is dead, and the question of who should or should not be in the canon is academic. If your sole interest in literature is as the object of discourse analysis, exposing whatever structures of power support the texts you read, then you need to get back in touch with your adolescent self when you first read Kafka. Are we really so afraid of the ways literature can wound us, of how it can shake up our world? And all that on account of aesthetic features of its form. The broader, more complicated case here – the case that goes way beyond claiming whether individual sentences are well-written – is a defense of literature’s cognitive value under the name of the “aesthetic dimension”.

Throughout this, I am nonetheless rather perturbed that my argument might be taken the wrong way: as a desire to enforce colonial/patriarchal/whatever standards. Again, I think that relies on a species of false inference – all I’m asking for is that we talk about literature as literature, rather than merely as “discourse” –   but I appreciate the importance of debating the canon. I’ll have to come to this in a future post, where I’d like to review that controversial volume The Politics of Liberal Education. It is deeply troubling that, even if our aesthetic (or cognitive) criteria may not themselves be directly exclusionary, the contingency that lends them this appearance has manifested itself throughout history such that, for example, fewer women found themselves in a position to excel as writers. This means that when reading the canon, there are areas of human experience not given due attention. And that is a problem. I don’t believe that we should read texts irrespective of quality, but I also don’t know if giving central syllabus places to Marie de France, Aphra Behn, La Fayette, Bronte, Bronte or Bronte is enough. And yet, we do not read them just because they are women. To do so would be an insult to their craft. If that craft really is there, then artificially expanding the canon in the name of “representation” will never fool anybody: some texts just will not do as much for us as others. Better to focus our attention onto Austen, Eliot, Stein, McCullers and a host of other wonderful women writers than read forgotten writers simply because they are women. Now, forgotten writers who are really good – that is another question. I can only hope that more, both male and female, continue to emerge from the woodwork.

I’ll conclude with some more remarks on aesthetic distinction. Something is clearly missing if you cannot tell the difference between Dan Brown and Proust – if you wish simply to claim that they are different. This may not be a difficulty of reality of the same order as those discussed above, but replacing every difference in degree by a difference in kind strikes me as leaving oneself open to all sorts of ideological blindness. Radical pluralism in matters of judgement potentially leads to a totally uncritical, unsuspicious and obedient attitude. If anything, there is more submission to ideology involved in ignoring high literature than in reading it.

On this note, I will finish by citing Keston Sutherland, in a recent interview, getting the business of exclusiveness and “elitism” absolutely right on:

[…] I suspect that by ‘exclusive’ something else might be meant too. That this poetry [experimental poetry published by Barque] is very difficult, and that readers can’t take to it and be satisfied that they know exactly what it’s doing at first sight, or eighteenth. For me this bears on the nearby concept of elitism, which is one that I hear often invoked, particularly in unthinking and reactionary dismissals of difficult or anti-capitalist poetry by readers who seem already to have satisfied themselves with that impregnable satisfaction of the philistine that they know what poetry ought to be about and why it isn’t. And ‘elitist’ is usually used to mean something like the following: that the poet is looking down sarcastically from some kind of contrived eminence, by default of ivory, and that he feels such contempt for the so-called common or general reader that he can’t abstain from indulging in the very malevolent and childishly exciting pleasure of talking jargon over their fragile heads, reducing and exposing them to their own failures of competence and in general just knocking on people’s vulnerabilities and insecurities.

I think this is a very toxic concept of elitism, and one which has a very reactionary function. It’s often invoked by people in positions of real economic authority and power. It’s invoked by the editors of major presses, it’s invoked by reviewers in the national press, writers in the TLS, people who in fact have very comfortable and coveted positions within the literary establishment, whose way of protecting their own jobs and power is by constantly giving people a reason to feel distrustful or suspicious of other people who are autonomously mucking around at the fringes with the means of production.

As far as I’m concerned, real elitism in our society is films like Avatar or Titanic. Real elitism is where the greatest concentrations of capital and power are, and where the greatest concentrations of capital and power are exercised over peoples heads, whether people enjoy being indulged as the objects or playthings of that exercise or not. Enjoyment, it seems to me, is probably inessential to the meaning of elitism. Elitism is first of all about power, to me. Elitism is not unintelligibility, or whatever is incomprehensible. Plenty of things are incomprehensible in life. Try death.

I hardly think that Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde meet to interpret Ulysses.

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3 Responses to Ideology, the aesthetic, and the difficulty of reality

  1. ovaut says:

    first, ‘the difficulty of reality’– i can’t help being reminded of ‘God / is distant, difficult.’
    2nd, i like your ‘culinary lure’. i recall rob horning had a caustic, stingy post on the category of the literary, amounting to ‘it’s evil and i’m against it’. but aren’t we just as likely to be snobs *because we are disenfranchised*?
    3rd, relativism. i used to think the relativist self-refutation could be circumvented by going around saying, ‘relativism is, i think, sometimes true’. but i realised that the true root of the untenability of relativism wasn’t in the ‘saying’ as such, but in what saying had as its inevitable complement. we can’t think we’re just ‘manifesting’ relativism rather than stating it, because we are always accessible to ourselves to the extent that we know either that we believe it or we don’t.
    i may seem to want to reduce EVERYTHING to the question of solipsism, but that is where i am, philosophically. i think the subject-object binary is the fundamental binary. and i think the unbelievability of relativism is connected to the unbelievability of solipsism. all of our statements are potentially objects of perception, but they are only objects if we believe there is an objective or ‘absolute’ that exhausts us, and if we believe there is such an objective we cannot believe it is ununified, so we must believe there is a ‘way things are’. relativism is really the doctrine that the infinite divisibility of the subject is everything there is — that the subject is not contained in its entirety in the objective. it reduces to solipsism, which is something everyone can entertain but no one can believe. i won’t go so far as to say that no one believes it because it is false: that would be a religious statement.
    there is an answer to the question, how could a doctrine that denies there is a true state of things reflect the true state of things? it could reflect the true state of things if i was the world, and the world was as divisble (and uncontained and non-one) as i am, without the world. does that then mean that the unbelievability of relativism *does* reflect the true state of things? that ‘The unthinkability of relativism gets to the heart of our condition’? i don’t know. the question i prefer is this: even if relativism was true, why on earth would you say so?
    4th, i saw wenders’ wrong move yesterday and i rather liked it


  2. D-AW says:

    I’m glad that bit of the book gave you food for thought – and good thinking too. (The point on mimesis is well taken, though I still would want to limit my discussion to mimetic [rather-artistic] texts as a matter of prudence and basic interest – i.e. I don’t really care how theory treats other discourses).
    I think what I was trying to get at however with my critique of ‘critique’ in the restricted sense is that, like the Platonic criteria (pre-eminently Truth, but not only that), it imposes its preferred method for thinking about everything (derived from a politics, perhaps, or in some cases an ethics, though these are too often confused) onto artistic texts, instead of approaching them with, say, an ethic of vulnerability and generosity, an admission of difference and multiplicity. Doing so would not, I don’t think, commit one to relativistic subjectivism in criticism any more than in life [it’s crucially not a matter of taste, or cultivated subjectivism], nor to the label of patriarchal or whatever other politics you fear you might attract.
    Why, I wonder, should we suspect texts any more than ourselves, unless in service to an “ideology” in the marxian pejorative sense you describe? Talk of the ‘other’ in this context is an astounding irony.
    I’m intrigued that you return to topical political questions in your working out of these ideas. Of course to say that not all literature is political (as I do) is not to say that no literature is political, or that literature can’t teach us about the political somehow. But a common trait of the three/four poets I treat in the book is a tendency to resist or deflect topicality, to approach politics obliquely, or treat instead the profound ethical problems that underlie politics (and other human interactions).

  3. I could go on, but I’ll try to make this brief.
    Plato wrote dialogues; his main character is a man named “Socrates”.
    Words are not the world; the world is not made of words.
    The “aesthetic” is our ordering of our impressions according to our preferences; shoes or sneakers, work boots or wingtips, blondes or brunettes.
    Ideology is preference without irony.
    Academic philosophers defend a culture of “Baroque specialization”, and Keston Sutherland’s poetry (I hadn’t heard of him until I read your post a week ago) is being referred to as “radical formalism”.

    Radical formalism is mannerism, as avoidance of emotion and fear of the vulgarities of emotionalism (and Schoenberg was terrified of becoming Korngold).

    From Stanley Hoffman’s review of Distinction
    —But if “using rare words and tropes in place of common words and phrases” is a strategy of “deliberate transgression” of the norms of clear prose characteristic of the dominant classes and is opposed to “the hyper-correction strategies of pretentious outsiders,” then Bourdieu is a master strategist. Words such as lexis, allodoxia, chiastic, askesis, espace hodologique, hysteresis, and of course habitus (and, indeed, hysteresis of habitus) are scattered throughout the text.6 That a work of social science should—”unlike the sometimes illuminating intuitions of the essay”—require an effort on the part of the reader is fair enough. Here, however, reality disappears into the hypertrophied rhetoric of the Ecole Normale.—

    Have you ever read Bourdieu on art? He reads like a 12 year old prude, the favorite student of the village priest. He’s the son on a postal clerk, and it shows.

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