Saturday, July 29, 2017

Advanced-Pop Criticism

That sounds very promising, doesn't it? "Advanced-pop criticism?" This is a phrase from a New Yorker piece on poetry and pop music: Can Poetry Change Your Life?
Advanced-pop criticism would be criticism premised on the belief that you can talk about cultural goods loved uncritically by millions in terms originally developed to talk about cultural goods known mainly to an overeducated few. Advanced pop is Boethius and Springsteen, Artaud and the Ramones, and it yields sentences like “I assume that what Burke”—the literary theorist Kenneth Burke—“says about poetry applies, mutatis mutandis, to the songs of Def Leppard.” It’s erudite but caj, geeky and hip, alienated and savvy—on the inside of the outside.
That's just so ... twee. After much pondering, I decided that the mysterious word "caj" was actually a hip abbreviation for "casual." This is where diversity has led us: to sentences that contain both the Latin phrase "mutatis mutandis" and Def Leppard. I also heave an internal sigh over the phrase "cultural goods." What they mean, of course, is "aesthetic objects" but you can't say that any more because it implies the existence of aesthetics. "Cultural goods" is appropriate because we have turned aesthetic objects into consumer products and no longer even recall that they were ever anything else.

The New Yorker essay is actually a book review of Michael Robbins’s new book, “Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music” (Simon & Schuster) and the act of writing tweely about a book that has its own tweeness issues results in passages like this:
There’s only one full-dress essay in the book, and it’s much more heavy-duty than the rest. The subject is the poetry of Frederick Seidel, and the essay handles a familiar critical problem—the morality of bad taste, the Jeff Koons–Michel Houellebecq–Bret Easton Ellis problem—expertly if not entirely originally. The essay does include observations like “The death drive is figured here as the desire to literalize the trope of the subject’s dispersal.” When I hear the words “literalize the trope,” I reach for my remote.
The real problem with this kind of stuff is that it is semi-educated: all sorts of clever references are semi-correctly referenced. Take this, for example:
“Listening to most rock and roll now involves remembering what it used to do for me that it can’t anymore,” Robbins says. And, in fact, a surprising amount of pop-music criticism is bottled nostalgia, owls that fly at dusk. In preparation for writing about “Equipment for Living,” I got a copy of “Shake It Up” (Library of America), an anthology of fifty years of pop-music criticism, “from Elvis to Jay Z,” edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar. I figured I would dip into its pages and refresh my recollection of the field of play. Many hours later, I had to force myself to put the thing down.
There is some truth there in that as we grow older and listen to the popular (and classical) music that we adored in our younger days, we hear it with a different perspective. Our tastes have developed and the rawness or triteness is evident to us now, but we still recall the excitement with which we listened to the music before. But notice the tossed-in reference to Hegel: "owls that fly at dusk?" Educated people will vaguely recall this quote, something about the owl of Minerva only flying at dusk. So we get a little frisson of pleasure: "I'm reading someone who can make clever allusions!" The thing is that the allusion butters no parsnips, it is just a meaningless genuflection to learning. The quote is from the preface to Hegel's Philosophy of Right and the meaning is that philosophy, wisdom, only understands reality after the event. It does not mean anything like "bottled nostalgia" which has nothing to do with understanding, but is merely an emotional residue.

It is all too often the case that as soon as we actually look closely at this kind of so-called criticism that we see that it is all smoke and mirrors, clever but faulty allusions, sneaky hip turns of phrase and wayward conclusions. Poor criticism, in other words. In good criticism, I suspect, you are always going back to the details of what you are critiquing in order to examine it more clearly and to check your interpretations. If the post-modernists are correct and everything has a near-infinity of interpretations, then the conservatives are also correct that most of them are useless and farfetched. Criticism is about good interpretations of aesthetic objects. It ain't "erudite but caj, geeky and hip, alienated and savvy—on the inside of the outside." Whatever that means!

And I would be willing to bet actual currency (not a lot, but some) that the author, Louis Menand, has not actually read Boethius.

Let's have a musical envoi to clear the palate. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was an exact contemporary of the German/Austrian composer Ludwig van Beethoven so let's listen to his Concerto for Piano no. 3, op. 37, composed in 1800. The pianist is Mitsuko Uchida and the conductor Seiji Ozawa:


Will Wilkin said...

Bryan, you are a bit of a hero to me but also a bit of a tragic figure who I have sympathy for. That's because you wade into popular culture and the commercial intellectuals who address popular culture, whereas for me that is a vast wasteland, occupied by people I love and care about, but people who don't want me to criticize their diet of "cultural goods." I couldn't do it, it is too frustrating and painful and maybe just useless. I have turned my back on pop culture almost completely, having no television and watching almost zero movies and abandoning commercial magazines and just reading books on science and history and music and trying to teach myself to play early music, however badly and slowly I "progress." I'm not saying I'm any "smarter" or "refined" than the consumers of cultural goods (hell I'm definitely one of them every time I download another kindle book or buy another cd), its just I have a different aesthetic sense, a different sensibility that guides my choices.

The market will always be a rough and dirty place, just like the Darwinian scratching of survival out of a competitive and uncaring natural world will always be, however insulated many people are by "civilization" so as to lose touch with our continued competition and symbiosis and unstable balances not just amongst ourselves but all species and inorganic conditions. The timeless and universal (or at least emotionally elemental) qualities of art are like angels taking up a fleshy existence, the mix doesn't compliment the nature of art (or angels) but is nonetheless essential for those who must eat real food derived from earthly things. "Cultural goods" are the obvious result, usually the art in them is less than timeless or at least not fully appreciated by the "consumer."

I have never much liked literary criticism, usually because I haven't read all the same books being "criticized," but also because I don't usually find much value in other people's opinions about works I can just read for myself. The critics are rarely famous, they are almost parasitic, making a living by reference to genuine genius or artistry. There have been times in my life when I tried to read some criticism, mainly because I felt I must be missing something, but the only criticism I ever actually enjoyed was Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae, which covered a lot of books I had never read (but some I have), but which itself had its own grand thesis and narrative that gave the book an integrity or presence of its own.. In the end I came away knowing much of it went over my head, feeling under-read and therefore under-educated, yet loving her and the excitement I got in her almost Freudian sense of the primal sex in all nature, the way these primal roles and identities are felt in the earth and sky, in the gods and goddesses of the earthen and celestial objects, and in the humans that feel and write from the experience --consciously or not-- of being in this bigger game of Apollo and Dionysius, of what Schopenhauer had called Will and Idea (or at least those are the English words in the translation I read. But Paglia (and Schopenhauer) were read by me decades ago, so all that is left is impressions and the emotional memory of the thrill I got reading them long ago, in my youthful 20's (Schopenhauer and Freud even a few years earlier?). Now I avoid criticism as a waste of time, though I might skim a review to see if the original work might seem interesting enough to get on my list that is already much longer than any life could be.

Marc Puckett said...

Don't recall ever seeing the 'faire words butter noe parsnips, verba non alunt familiam' expression actually used-- good job! And I'm glad you immediately proceeded to figure out 'caj' because, while I guess after the explanation it's fairly obvious, I was puzzling....

I don't know if I'd take your bet about Louis Menand and Boethius, although 'credentialed ignorance' is certainly widespread; people do a semester of French and one of Latin in grad school and are thereby become equipped to pontificate about 'Late Antiquity and its Echos in Racine's Ph├Ędre'-- that sort of thing. Have a vague recollection of something of his called 'Metaphysical Club', 'Metaphysical Society', about US philosophers-- very vague-- and I read it, too: just not much interested in pragmatism. And he is old enough that his education may antedate the state of affairs that makes 'LAECFP' and similar travesties so prevalent.

Am become mad about lutes, tsk (was commenter Steven's blog post about theorbos that started this particular bout of enthusiasm); luckily, they are expensive and there aren't any lute teachers advertising their services in Eugene. The Lute Society of America will rent me a lute, however, and you can hire someone's services online for weekly tutorials, via Skype or whatever. I expect I will come to my senses before committing myself.

Anonymous said...

Such a strange post. I had read Menand's piece earlier and didn't recognize much from your commentary.

You write: "This is where diversity has led us: to sentences that contain both the Latin phrase "mutatis mutandis" and Def Leppard."

And what exactly is wrong with that? You need to make your point or else all we're left with is an attitude. You say: "What they mean, of course, is "aesthetic objects" but you can't say that any more because it implies the existence of aesthetics." You can't say that? Menand's piece is peppered with references to aesthetic experience, aesthetic life, etc. The whole essay is about aesthetics: what counts as good, as bad, etc. Did you actually read it?

When Menand invokes the "Jeff Koons–Michel Houellebecq–Bret Easton Ellis problem," anyone who follows the intellectual scene will know exactly what he means. To call him "semi-educated" is odd. Menand has an endowed chair of literature at Harvard and is one of our most erudite scholars. As a 19th c. expert, I can assure you he knows his Hegel inside out. And I wouldn't bet much money on his ignorance of Boethius.

Menand reflects on the theme "Can art change your life?" You can agree or disagree with his ideas, but ignoring the substance of his arguments while taking cheap potshots, honestly, what's that about?

Bryan Townsend said...

Somehow I almost feel that the fact that my post prompted three such fascinating comments in itself justifies it. But perhaps not. Anon, your critique is appreciated. I was in a bit of a cranky mood when I wrote this, which was really just a reaction to the first part of the essay. I do have an attitude, which is that the public intellectual space is full of credentialed dolts who know how to write clever jazzy prose with little real learning behind it. Yes, it is likely that Louis Menand is not one of those, but there were some indicators that I mentioned in the post. Another, that I didn't mention too much, was the dissonance created by the use of odd metaphors. Sample: "There’s only one full-dress essay in the book, and it’s much more heavy-duty than the rest." The phrases "full-dress" and "heavy-duty" clash with the surrounding prose. But maybe that is just a trivial detail. I suppose my only good defence of what was, perhaps, an unfair commentary, was that it was a sincere response, if rather wayward!

Will, that was quite a remarkable comment! You may not be a credentialed thinker, but you are certainly an educated one! Reminds me of a conversation I had with an old friend who has a doctorate in philosophy. I was reading the Platonic dialogues through for the second time and he off-handedly commented that 80% of professors of philosophy had likely not read them all! The problem with our credential-obsessed higher education is that it forces everyone to be a narrow specialist. You have to choose a narrow furrow and plow it very deeply. So people with advanced degrees are often surprisingly unacquainted with a lot of our cultural heritage. I did not become familiar with all the Beethoven piano sonatas until I studied them myself, years after leaving graduate school. The Beethoven piano sonatas! In years and years of theory courses we never analyzed a single one!

Marc, I am astonished at the depth of your learning! I knew the phrase "butter no parsnips" but I had no idea where it came from: John Clarke, Paroemiologia, 1639, I find, from Google. The lute is a seductive instrument, indeed. I spent a summer studying the lute in an early music course and it influenced my guitar playing ever since. If you do decide to dabble a bit, I suspect you will suffer no harm but instead discover new enjoyments.

Marc Puckett said...

'Depth of my learning', indeed, ha; thanks for the compliment but I just searched for that phrase because I had no recollection of having seen it used, out in the wild. My ancestors on both sides of the family disembarked from the Old Country straight into the depths of Appalachia and if I had paid attention to such things when I was a child (or had my great-grandparents & grandparents lived longer) I'll bet that a study of their linguistic resources would have been great fun.

It occurs to me-- sometimes I can be quite dense-- that, while the lute may be the goal, I ought to begin with a different plucked string instrument for which (this may come as a surprise...) there are, mirabile dictu, scores, if not a score of scores, of instructors here in town and which is comparatively easy to acquire/inexpensive... you know where this is going. There seem to be several mandolin instructors in these parts, too. Hmm.

Jives said...

I get the feeling, from a couple of eye-rolling asides, that the essay author is mostly in agreement with Bryan. He was much more engaged by the "Shake it Up" book than the one he's reviewing. The essayist lays out the gist of the book's ideas, but doesn't seem very impressed. This may be an honest attempt at tracing cultural through-lines from antiquity to the present, in cultures high and low. However, I'm surmising from the excerpts that the book itself is more superficial, and yet another example of the Great Cultural Flattening to warm Post Modernist hearts. Roman philosophers like Boethius and 80's hair metal like Def Leppard, it's all just "cultural goods" these days. And he'll convince us of that by ladling on some wan philosophizing. And while I'll admit that Def Leppard was good at what they did, and made engaging popular music. I won't have it equated with and given the same esteem and attention and import as Boethius.

Jives said...

I'm about 25% through Sexual Personae right now, wonderful book! I'm also concurrently reading a book which was a great influence on Paglia, The Golden Bough, by James George Frazer, which I would also highly recommend to someone of your interests. It's an exhaustive survey of the anthropology of religion from myriad cultures, global in scope. You'll see some of the germs of Paglia's ideas in there, which she extrapolates into her fascinating vision of human life and culture.
great stuff.

Bryan Townsend said...

Apparently I should write more cranky, wayward posts as they provoke a remarkable amount of commentary!

I read Sexual Personae decades ago, but I guess I should read it again. Let me quietly mention The White Goddess by Robert Graves, which is quite an interesting book about the relationship between mythology and poetic inspiration.

Jives, I think you are right. Taking a less-hasty look at the essay, I suspect I ought to have appreciated it more. I just was put off by the opening which was probably written to pull in the usual New Yorker reader.