main: February 2010 Archives

My last column yielded a kind of editorial statement from The New Inquiry -- and then, in response to that, a note from Geoffrey Kruse-Safford on where aesthetic categories belong in the ongoing cultural conversation.

So a good week, all in all. But I need to clarify something. In regard to the column, Geoffrey writes:

Scott praises Warhol's mimesis, yet also cites without criticism a review of one of his early short films that calls Warhol out for nihilism.

Actually I don't really praise it so much as emphasize it. Or rather, to be more precise, note how Danto emphasizes it -- in part because this stress intrigues and puzzles me given Danto's larger argument, which is that Warhol's work is the End of Art in some more or less Hegelian sense.

It is the point in art history at which the problem of what constitutes the artwork, or the artworld, is posed in a radical way that exhausts the question while exploding the range of objects or practices so designated.

So says Danto, as I understand him. And this leaves us back at mimesis-gone-wild? A situation in which it becomes more or less impossible to distinguish between critique and celebration? What a long strange trip it's been. Was it worth it? I'm not sure. Danto's argument feels plausible but that is troubling.

So the fact that I then went on to quote -- without dissent -- a very negative commentary on one of Warhol's films (assessing it in a very un- or anti-Danto-esque manner) is, in large part, a matter of being awfully ambivalent about both the artist's work and the philosopher's interpretation.*

To begin to work out a lucid account of the terms of that ambivalence would require an essay, at least. With hindsight it feels like I have been avoiding that effort for about twenty years, ever since Phyllis Jacobson invited me to write something on postmodernism for New Politics. (My response was to go try to read every single thing published on the subject, which was impossible even in 1990.) The effort would also involve revisiting Sontag.

Oh hell, this is getting complicated. Anyway, it is good to have readers who catch the moments where you've tried to drive certain complications into hiding.

* Another aspect being that I try to explore the flexibility of the column form as such. The article on Warhol in an underground newspaper from 1966 came to my attention by chance as I was writing the piece. It wasn't research, just luck, that this happened. Likewise with the passage from Edmund White quoted near the start.

On the one hand, I do as much long-term planning as possible with respect to topic, subject, and method (interview, review. etc.) -- and any given column involves a lot of revision and rewriting. On the other hand, I do want to leave the process as open as possible, both to unanticipated developments and to the voice of someone besides the columnist. 
February 28, 2010 9:58 AM | | Comments (4)
Karl Marx saw Glenn Beck coming. Check out Marxist Marginalia for the details.
February 27, 2010 5:29 PM | | Comments (1)
Arthur Goldhammer notes that the Botul affair has done no damage to BHL's mutual-admiration consortium, to judge from (not-really-socialist) Socialist Party candidate Ségolène Royal's recent bit of logrolling:

Her paean in Le Monde is not to be missed. The strength of her piece derives from her absolute identification with her subject: like him, she is soi-disant persecuted and oppressed, and like him she was blessed with the favors of that eminently perceptive fisher of men and women, François Mitterrand. This is a piece of Royal rhetoric to treasure. Vladimir Nabokov had a word for this sort of writing: poshlost ....(punningly: "posh + lust"). Poshlust, Nabokov explained, "is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive."

Well yes, that does about cover it.

BHL's silly Left in Dark Times opens with a protracted account of the telephone call in which he broke the news to Sarkozy that he would be supporting Royal. We must now breathlessly await more poshlost on this front.

* Yes, it is.  



February 27, 2010 11:38 AM | | Comments (1)
A productive week: I wrote a review of the new Arthur Koestler biography for a newspaper in Abu Dhabi, a column on Andy Warhol, and finally a short item for NBCC about one of the finalists. Then, this, afternoon I set up the new DVD player. I feel like a Renaissance nerd.

It's good to see that my column inspired an interesting commentary at The New Inquiry, which I agree with pretty much all along the line. I must admit that linking to that New Criterion piece on Sontag was a bit of an inside joke. Friends will have some idea just how high is my opinion of Kimball. (He's smarter than Jonah Goldberg, but talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations.)

Another footnote to the column: I recently got four issues of The Rag, the underground newspaper from Austin started in 1966, and was glad to be able to quote an article from it on Warhol. In short order, I heard from Thorne Dreyer -- the editor of the paper and author of said article -- who points out that there is now a website where you can read a number of issues.

He also says that there was reunion of Rag alumni in 2005 that drew 75 people, and that the paper has been revived, sort of, as a blog

February 26, 2010 4:51 PM | | Comments (0)
Sound advice from Tim Howard:

Writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, so make sure you wipe down your chair every so often.
via Henry

February 25, 2010 3:03 PM | | Comments (0)
Two things I want to point out now before sinking under the next wave of work:

(1) The New Inquiry is a group blog that is very close in spirit to what I would do with Quick Study if I were putting any effort into it at all. (Which pretty clearly is not the case. Sorry about that.) Anybody still hanging around this place might want to check it out.

(2) A recent item published by my erstwhile employer discusses "The Big Lie About the 'Life of the Mind,'" and anybody under the impression that they will be the lucky one to get a tenure-track job might do well to have a look -- though seriously, people, the writing is on the wall, so read the wall first. I only mention the piece because it generated some interesting comments, along with a few that seem deranged, but so it always goes. One comment in particular, number 75, signed with the name "dcbetty," caught my eye.

It is very close to my own sense of the world, and I want to pluck the text out of the comments section and paste it up in this digital scrapbook:

One problem is when students and faculty think that the only way to HAVE a "life of the mind" is to go to grad school. I suggest prospective grad students start hanging out with writers and artists. In my experience, ideas that in academia are treated as revolutionary are in fact concepts that artists and writers outside academia often explored literally decades earlier (and without a PhD). Academia is indeed a fantastic place to explore the life of the mind-- but it is also often conservative, derivative, and uncreative in its thinking, even among those who fancy themselves radicals.

Scholars might as well go be with the artists, for becoming a credentialed intellectual (by going to grad school) now has a high likelihood of landing people in the exact social and economic situation experienced by artists and writers -- no, or very little payment for your "real" work, and little interest or even notice shown by the rest of the world. The difference is that writers and artists usually have few illusions about their moneymaking prospects, so it's totally acceptable for artists to have "day jobs" that no other artist would ever fault them for having so that they could continue to do their work.

Academics, on the other hand, tend to be much more mainstream and narrow in what kind of moneymaking work is acceptable, and a lot more worried about social status. (What else can you say about a profession in which teaching high school, or publishing an essay in the New Yorker or a book aimed at the NPR-listening public, is seen as evidence of unseriousness and will, in all likelihood, be detrimental to your career?)

These days, though, scholars, like writers and artists, must accept that what they do, they must do for love (because no one really gives a damn about it except your peers), and persevere even if they have to work at Whole Foods during the day to do so. In the world outside academia they can find a fascinating group of people living an often far more adventurous "life of the mind" then you will find in a university. (and believe it or not, some in this group will be reading the same books you are, and have interesting things to say about them)

The cost is that such scholars will have to give up on the idea of upper-class social status, and know that mainstream academia will now consider you a loser/crank and probably never let you back in. The benefit is that you can work free of intellectually-restrictive career-ladder restraints. And that might produce work so interesting that you could become a professor someday after all -- especially if/when the current academic model finally destroys itself.

To whoever wrote this, all I can say is: Thank you. There is something to say for knowing that somebody out there actually gets it.

But of course the message will not be understood by most of the people being overtly addressed by dcbetty -- for the "fantasy of professionalization" very effectively destroys the ability to imagine any other order of things.  
February 15, 2010 6:50 PM | | Comments (9)
I drafted this week's column on Monday -- but given the publication cycle it only appears now, after lots of other places have covered the egg on Bernard-Henri Lévy's face.

On reflection, it would have been worth making clear that this is by no means the first time that the architecture of BHL's "thought" has been shown to be constructed out of toothpicks and paper mache. The classicist Pierre Vidal-Naquet listed any number of howlers about ancient history and philosophy from one of his books in the late 1970s. It turned out that BHL's major source was a survey book used by high-school students.

Then again, that interview with the editor of the Caribbean Review of Books last month was 3000 words long. This time I wanted to bend the stick towards brevity.

PS. Thanks to Henry for the post at Crooked Timber. A couple of months ago, someone at CT quoted my Nation piece, which said of BHL that "his books are so stylish, and his haircuts so thoughtful." I was taken to task for making fun of his appearance. How do you respond to someone who so utterly misses the point?
February 10, 2010 6:32 AM | | Comments (5)
My column about Howard Zinn has drawn a protest from Ron Radosh, who claims that I called him a fascist and accuses me of McCarthyism. (It is the ninth comment on said column, just pointed out to me by a third party.)

I am, of course, shaken to the core. But it's hardly my fault that Radosh has spoken well of Franco's regime. One can see where he might not like having that pointed out. In any case it is not the same as labeling him a fascist, which I have never done.

What really rankles, perhaps, is that I did not think very much of his autobiography, and said so when reviewing it for the Washington Post some years ago:

Nothing in Radosh's memoir conveys the painful ordeal of dis-illusionment, in the strong sense: an ordeal, a crisis, in which one faces not only the morally repulsive consequences of beliefs and actions but also the qualities of willful self-deception and ideologically compulsory blindness that have sustained one's previous commitments.

Instead, we get a chronicle of complaints and alibis. It is a commonplace that leftist dogma can be a way to avoid unpleasant realities about oneself. Commies makes a pioneering and rather daring use of right-wing rhetoric for the same end. When Radosh's first (and by his own account quite miserable) marriage finally disintegrates, this is because his wife was influenced by the women's movement. A few pages later, he finds himself having sex with an alcoholic girlfriend on top of Mount Rushmore. "I now don't understand why or even how I did such things," he writes. "Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of too much marijuana." So much for personal responsibility. It was all the Zeitgeist's fault.

At last report, some ten months back, Radosh was getting a leg up on Lyndon LaRouche by suggesting that Obama is a fascist. He is now calling me both a charlatan and (here the irony gets so thick it starts to congeal) a McCarthyite. Well, I'll live. But it's hard not to notice that the man is not getting any more cogent with age.

February 3, 2010 4:34 PM | | Comments (6)
My column last week was an interview with Nicholas Laughlin, who is, among other things, the editor of The Caribbean Review of Books.  We used the news from Haiti as the occasion for a discussion of how the crisis is being understood within the region, and went on from there to consider the question of where the center of gravity of Caribbean cultural and intellectual life is now. The exchange went extremely well, covering a lot of ground; and I found it rewarding, given that it moved my own understanding of certain things forward from what I had picked up while reading C.L.R. James over the years.

The interview was noted at Critical Mass; as it happens, a CRB contributor also a finalist for this year's NBCC award in fiction. The column also generated a little bit of Twitter attention. But that was all; otherwise it didn't provoke much discussion. No doubt I was naive to think it might. The whole point was that the Caribbean is (and for centuries has been) tightly connected to the rest of the world -- and is not growing any less so. This seemed like a good time to consider that reality, if ever there were one. But that's not really the dominant perspective, for which the Caribbean is of interest chiefly as a place for tourism, reggae, and philanthropy.

Well, so it goes. You do what you can.
February 2, 2010 7:14 PM | | Comments (3)

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