Monday, December 11, 2006

Inapposite Art

An intriguing conjunction of paragraphs, culled from my Sunday reading. First, from Robert M. Stein's very good book Reality Fictions: Romance, History and Governmental Authority, 1025-1180:
I suggest in this book that provocation to romance writing is the same as the provocation to history: they grow out of the same cultural need and intend to do the same cultural work ... I am writing about a political process [state formation] and its connection with literary innovation ... I intend ... to deal directly with the pressures on modes of representation that are correlative to changes in the structure of political power. Above all, I do not see the political process as a static or knowable factual context in which to situate artistic change in order to explain it. To paraphrase what Marx refers to as the guiding idea of all of his inquiry, it is the sphere of culture in its largest sense in which people become conscious of changes in their existence and in which these changes are fought out.(2)

Stein's linking of romance to history through changes in governmental structures and ambitions is a highpoint of his study. I want to point out, though, its deployment of a doctrine that historicists taught us long ago to accept: art is intractably enmeshed within the culture that generates it; art (here, historiography and romance) performs labor; art does cultural work.

Compare Stein's point of departure to Helen Vendler's swift application of the emergency brake when critics perform this kind of politically-minded reading. Rachel Donadio writes in "The Closest Reader" (NYT Review of Books):
[Vendler] can be harsh about those she sees as subordinating literature to an ideological agenda. In a review of David Denby’s “Great Books” (1996), the film critic’s account of how he returned to college, immersing himself in Columbia’s core curriculum, Vendler wrote, “Seeing the Columbia course use Dante and Conrad as moral examples is rather like seeing someone use a piece of embroidery for a dishrag with no acknowledgment of the difference between hand-woven silk and a kitchen towel.” In 2001, again in The New Republic, her main venue in recent years, Vendler took the critic James Fenton to task for his interpretation of Robert Frost’s 1942 poem “The Gift Outright,” a version of which was recited by the aging poet at the Kennedy inauguration in 1961. Fenton, in her view, had imposed a mistaken interpretation on a poem as much “about marriage as about colonials becoming Americans,” because “his politics has wrenched him into misreading it.” (Some argued Vendler herself was misreading the poem by choosing to ignore its subject matter.)

I'm guessing that most (though certainly not all) medievalists will find their sympathies more drawn to Fenton and Denby and Stein than to Vendler. We work in a discipline which stresses historical context so heavily that it is difficult for us as critics to play the "impassioned aesthete who pays minute attention to the structures and words that are a poet’s genetic code." Sure, we can and do look closely at prosody ... but seldom do we detach such analysis from a social context that we argue is either much like our own (the Middle Ages as threshold of the Same) or very different from our own (the Middle Ages as hopelessly or chastely Other).

I wonder, though, if either model really does much for art. It's not so much that one or the other model need be chosen (as always the truth no doubt resides between the extremes), but rather that there seems something in art that is inapposite, extraneous, not capable of being reduced to pure aesthetics or pure politics. One of my favorite books by one of my favorite neglected theorists, the surrealist biologist Roger Caillois, argues that art is not possessed only by humans or by animals: it is a superfluous beauty that is made as much by stones as by hands. His book The Writing of Stones is a stunningly illustrated tour of nonhuman art: lithic sculptures offered for no particular audience to admire, the petrification of a universal impulse to produce beyond utility, the thing that unites the human to what had seemed until Caillois looked so intently upon it to be the inert.


Gabriele C. said...

Ouch, the quotations are in such a tiny script I can't decipher them. Any chance to get them a tad larger?

J J Cohen said...

Is that better? The blog was just updated to "blogger beta" so everything is kind of wonky.

Karl said...

What a rich post; I'm glad you had a moment to write. A number of impressions:

* A recent 'medieval conversation' at Columbia between Helen Barr and Paul Strohm in which Barr all but--or in fact did--call for the abolition of the word 'context.' Her point, as exciting as I found it, is perhaps too abstruse for me, right now; but it seems that she was calling for a stronger awareness of the interplay or even inextricable connection between expression and its situation. We must be aware that the 'context' doesn't only produce the work, but the work also produces the 'context'; and that it is (or should be) impossible to isolate the context from the work by declaring "here is the context" and "here is the poem." I'm sure there's more to what Barr was up to than this, but I'd have to find my notes....but I wonder what we get if we try to dispense with "context" or "background" and instead think things more strongly in an "interpenetrative" mode. What would that mode of criticism look like?

* A recent conversation I had with a senior faculty member (not a medievalist) in which he asked me what Par Lagerqvist's Barabbas and Inferno had in common. "The possibility of redemption," I said. He shot back, no, everyone's in Hell in Dante, so no redemption. I could have taken the easy route of citing Purgatory, but what, perversely, occurred to me first was the work itself as Dante's attempt at redemption: he was (I like to imagine justly) exiled for mishandling Florentine funds, and this work, an attempt to chart how Florence and Italy might find peace and power, was (in part) his attempt to redeem himself before a city he loved but had mistreated. Once more, the professor shot back that I was diminishing the poem by, I suppose, 'reducing' it to its politics, and then I was reminded of my students' complaint, after my standard 'politics of Northern Italy c. 1300' lecture, that they didn't understand why anyone still read Inferno if that's what it was about. Now, there's two responses: 1) there's more to it than that; 2) as true as #1 is, I don't much like that answer, because it doesn't treat Dante on his own terms: to understand Dante we have to understand what Florence meant to him. Declaring his love of Florence irrelevant or distracting is a kind of interpretative selfishness or even solipsism.

* but rather that there seems something in art that is inapposite, extraneous, not capable of being reduced to pure aesthetics or pure politics.

And, as my example with Dante shows, I hope, even if we apprehend Inferno as "pure politics"--a strong temptation, but as bad a misreading as ignoring its politics--pure politics, like anything (supposedly) pure, are so caught up in desire that, like all desire, can never be pinned down into something free of contradictions or free of the desire for desire. More on this later perhaps when I think it through more deeply.

J J Cohen said...

[An odd, inappropriate and likely spurious comment about Karl and the job market has been removed.]

Gabriele C. said...

Yes, it's easier to read now, thank you. The Beta jumps is prone to give you some surprises. ;)

Eileen Joy said...

JJC writes of Caillois's observations on the preying mantis, in the essay he hyperlinks under "Roger Caillois," that,

"There exists in the praying mantis, he writes, an innate lyricism . . . an irreducible superfluity."

Such might also be an apt description for some of the ways in which Dante's "Inferno" resists political or new historicist-type readings, and for the idea, expressed by JJC, that art always possesses a certain "superfluous beauty" that can even, on occasion, be completely non-human [or rather, can assist us in opening ourselves to what is not-ourselves and irreducible to our traditional meaning-making systems]. Although art may be, as JJC points out by way of Stein's new book, "intractably enmeshed within the culture that generates it," it also retains [possesses? expresses? gestures toward?], when it is very good, a certain unassimilable structure, shape [even, aura], or kernel of Real-ness that is, finally, uniquely unhistorical, even ahistorical. It can serve as one of the very rare paths to a type of pleasure that cannot be found anywhere else. It can be dangerous, overly sensual, senseless.

Countering Karl just a little bit, while also agreeing with him that it would be a bit daft to separate Dante's "Inferno" from its initial historical *location* [the Florence of Dante's own time], I want to argue that it is important for us to also understand the artwork as more portable than that, even ahistorical at times. This is not the same as arguing against new historicist-type approaches in favor of a return to a sleekly stripped-down "new critical" aesthetics that somehow supposes the perfect self-containment or beautifully transhistorical transcendence of certain languages. It is, however, to say that when I teach a play like "King Lear" [which I do pretty much every year], I might say something to my students about how the play reflects certain post-Elizabeth political anxieties, but I'm more interested in asking the students how the play might be lifted out of its original historical context and applied to, say, the Bush White House's war on terror, or to Russia under Stalin? I have also taught it alongside Woody Allen's film "Crimes and Misdemeaners" as parallel texts on ethical philosophy. I have taught it aongside Sartre's "No Exit" as parallel texts on existentialism. And so on and so forth. I suppose I'm still contextualizing, though, aren't I? I'm still lapsing into readings with my students that are always situated in some kind of social context. It's just that I think really good works of art, like "King Lear," possess certain energies--of language, gesture, scene, etc.--that can be deployed beyond, and even against, their so-called "original" historical contexts. Stephen Greenblatt writes about this a little bit in his book "Shaespearean Negotiations"--the ways in which the plays "circulate" certain aesthetic and social energies of which even the playwright is never fully in control of. But now I'm back to new historicism, aren't I? How could I read "King Lear" with my students as a form of cubism, or even surrealist art?

I'm not quite sure how we could approach a literary text in the same way that Caillois approached the preying mantis, or the image of an insect mimicking its environment [for which act of mimickry that insect might still be eaten, showing that, perhaps, the act of imitation was undertaken for the pure aesthetic pleasure of the act], in which mimickry, as JJC writes, "whether animals becoming their worlds, or humans imitating their surroundings magically or aesthetically," Caillois noted that there "is a succumbing of body and subject to the lure of space." We have to talk of beauty, then, a vexed subject, to be sure, because being good postmodernists, we have to say that there is no notion or understanding of beauty that is not somehow culturally over-determined. Although I personally don't buy that this is true in all instances--which is to say that I think there are certain instances when the term "beauty" can be used to denote an encounter with an aesthetic object that defies understanding but which enchants/entrances/induces a state of wonder. Beauty is something that can take you by surprise because you have no means for translating it into anything other than what it is, but I think it is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. I'm not sure about those stone or lithic monuments arranged, accidentally, for no one to admire, because although a thing of beauty can be produced non-intentionally, I don't know how it can be perceived without seeing/feeling. Beauty is even predicated, to a great extent, I think, on a certain predisposition to *seeing* in a certain way--a predisposition someone like Caillois clearly possessed in spades. Persons who are particularly adept at perceiving beauty [of forms, colors, language, sounds, shapes, etc.], and even at manipulating/creating it, have something in them that leans toward, as JJC has also written, explicating Caillois, the "dispossession" of one's own center, or bounded being [this actually reminds me a little of some of Edmund Burke's writings on the sublime].

JJC is opening up a conversation here that is actually very close to a lot of my own work on art and ethics, and I could probably go on and on and on, but won't. But I think it's fruitful, for sure, to ask ourselves whether or not, especially lately, as JJC writes, "We work in a discipline which stresses historical context so heavily that it is difficult for us as critics to play the 'impassioned aesthete who pays minute attention to the structures and words that are a poet’s genetic code.'" As Karl wrote in another post, we "all too often treat all things in our field as pathological: the crisis of this and that, everything and its discontents, and so forth. It's as if what we study merits our attention only in direct proportion to its danger: it must threaten everything we know and are, it must keep its world under control only by strenuous disavowal," such that we cannot, often, *enjoy* ourselves and our subjects' [perhaps] unintentional provocations to wonder and subversive humor. My tentative response to a seemingly intractable problem [between, say, being an artist or a scholar, or between givng oneself over to the pleasure of the aesthetic versus remaining vigilantly above that experience as its historical reporter], it that we should somehow try to steer a particular hybrid course, in which we recognize our social [and ethical] responsibility to try to articulate the ways in which a medieval work of art "did cultural work," while also striving to reanimate, as it were, the ways in which that artwork might have been ahistorically pleasurable and non-correlative to anything.

J J Cohen said...

Great responses, Karl and Eileen: thank you for both. There is so much to chew over that I doubt I can reply today -- other than to say that this vexing interrelation of beauty, history and meaning seems to me one of the pleasures of being a medievalist. There's not one term in the triad that we can do away with.

Karl Steel said...

Lovely stuff, EJ.

A few responses, but not to the beauty stuff, just yet:

* I'm inclined to 'push back' historically when what I'm reading isn't historical, and to push back in the other direction--whatever that is--when what I'm reading is too historical. I think my work on animals does this, to a degree, since so much of what has been written on animals made claims for change over time in discourses of the animal. I didn't see that change. Maybe I wasn't looking close enough, but it struck me that it was time to give this work a push in the other direction. Instead of "always historicize," I'm inclined towards "always unsettle";

* But my arrangement of history v. 'other stuff' is highly suspect on its face. We should know that that other stuff is also a part of history. I've found that historical readings can evince a belief that once determining the historical 'context' will bring everything into place. The work ceases to possess superfluity; it's been pinned down; and while we're still caught up and produced in our historic moment, at least we've mastered theirs.

But if we're doing things right, there's always something excessive in a historical reading. To come back to Dante, there's of course the contents of his work itself, since the Comedy would hardly be the most efficient tool for civic redemption. More interesting to me right now, however, is the irreducible, ultimately incomprehensible motivation of Dante's patriotism, his desire for a home in his city.

There's something in Dante's work, even or especially as understood in its moment as a product of Dante's civic longing, that cannot be completely grasped no matter how deeply we immerse ourselves in quartocento politics; and, in fact, the more deeply we immerse ourselves, the more irreducible stuff we discover in the historical moment itself. When I suggested that the Comedy is in part an attempt by Dante to redeem himself before Florence, I also thought of the way the damned eternally recapitulate their sins. The similarities between Dante's refusal to reenter Florence except under his own terms and of the damned to seek grace and to admit their humiliation suggest that the historical motivation of the Comedy is far from reductive. For who can fully understand the diseased, uncomprehending pride of the damned? Who can understand their desire? Certainly not the damned themselves, but not us, either. So too with Dante's desire for Florence.

J J Cohen said...

or who can fully understand the diseased, uncomprehending pride of the damned? Who can understand their desire? Certainly not the damned themselves, but not us, either. So too with Dante's desire for Florence.

I just want to say that these are beautiful, haunting lines. It seems so much of the writing here at ITM has been on comprehending the desires of the dead ... or not being able to know those desires, and how these desires might relate to those of the living.

Well put, Karl.