January 17, 2010

Hollywood and the Holocaust: Critical Theory, the Box(ed) Set


One of my favorite studio audio inputs is the BBC Radio 4 program In Our Time with Melvin Bragg. The French Revolution, Camus, The Social Contract, Kierkengaard, Materialism, Newton's Laws of Motion, Godel's Incompleteness Theorems, Simon Bolivar, Thoreau and the American Idyll, Swift's 'A Modest Proposal', The Waste Land and Modernity, The Measurement Problem in Physics, The Sunni-Shia Split, Leibniz vs Newton, Schopenhaur, Sparta, The Dreyfus Affair, The Samurai... this being a short list of my long list of favorites that I cannot bring myself to delete from my iTunes podcast folder.

This week features The Frankfurt School. Oh, so exciting! If you have attended art grad school, you have been introduced to Critical Theory, a longstanding staple of higher education, a state of the art... which seeks to question art and post WWII culture in general. It has grown long in tooth and many generations of artists have cut their teeth on this set of ideas. Critical Theory still is an animating spirit in our capital "D" dialog, and yet there is a sense in which this spirit is becoming a ghost and is evaporating into thin air (a plug for Marshall Berman and his wonderful book that introduced me to Faust when I was a pup).

I stumbled across an amazing set of links that encapsulates Critical Theory in a discrete set of links. This comes from a blog by an American expat living in Japan, Behold My Swarthy Face. Here is the description from their site:

Behold My Swarthy Face。』 is a collaborative web journal founded and edited by Beholdmyswarthyface (aka パパ). It focuses primarily?but not solely?on modern Japanese culture, history, and literature. Of miscegenated and common birth, Beholdmyswarthyface grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, and attended university in California. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Tokyo.

To give you a sample of the blog, here is a recent entry that I found delightful:

Until recently, I was never able to understand the Japanese obsession with makoto(authenticity, truth or genuineness) in the arts. You see, I come from a culture where the concept of sincerity is derided as artless and naive, while its opposites-- irony and artifice-- are regarded as requisites for high art.

However, recently I've come to realize that my prejudice toward makoto was the result of a failure to see how the binary relation between "art" and "life" functions differently in Japan. In Japan, life is what is artificial. It seems, no doubt, that there is at least some truth to the stereotype that Japanese social behavior is ritualistic, and that, in many cases, one's pre-written life-script is simply handed to him. One's social interactions, career choice, political affiliations, even personal relationships seem to involve very little of what we in the western liberal democracies like to call "choice." (Whether our "choices" are any "realer" or more available is, of course, debatable.)

At the risk of overgeneralization, there seems to be a common understanding among the Japanese that life itself is false, or at the very least, a performance; and thus it was perhaps inevitable that art would become a kind of refuge into life's opposite, makoto. This is the exact inversion of our (mis?)perception in the west that lived experience is what is natural and real, and art is what is, by definition, artificial.

Behold My Swarthy Face, aka Ryan, has ostensibly written a letter to his mother in a blogpost: (Or, Crash Course in Modern and Postmodern Literary Theory Using The Most Comprehensive Hyperlinked Glossary Ever Assembled). Here are the complete set of links, bookmark them -if you please- for your (re)reading pleasure:

Cluster 1 through 3.

Cluster 4 through 6.

Cluster 7 through 10.
(see comments for cluster 10)

If you are not a product of art school, imagine rolling into a grad program with only a smattering of philosophy and history courses under your belt and then being presented with a drip-drip-drip of the texts linked above... and then to realize that you would have had to have read a significant amount of background material to contextualize the stream of arguments presented to you... and then, if you had learned -as mentioned in the In Our Time podcast- that these thinkers were emulating art (a Nietzschean turn, apparently), and that their apparent prose was a kind of quasi-poetry... far, far too much for a two year studio program, don't you think? Pardon me please, if EST springs to mind. If your duck is force fed with a funnel, don't be surprised if p?t? de foie gras is on the menu.

You don't hear much about Critical Theory anymore, either in the street or at art openings nowadays. Traffic in these ideas is increasingly becoming restricted to small and smaller coteries, much to the increasingly visible distress of those who have been invested in seeing this becoming the operating system of culture, popular or otherwise. Personally, I think that the gauntlet of Critical Theory is indispensable for art school (see Critical Theory is like boot camp). I also think that it is not the sine qua non of philosophy, and that it has been positioned to be so is the idiot light on our intellectual dashboard that tells us that something is amiss. I believe that art students should be exposed to Critical Theory and a critique of Critical Theory should at least be tolerated, they should judge for themselves if this set of ideas are sufficient for our time and into our immediate future. The idea that Critical Theory should be canon in absolute terms is abhorrent and an insult of the best of the animating spirits of the philosophers who formed this body of thought in the first place.

To temper our presumptive canon, we just might have to dance with the devil ...or as it would appear to our high minded cohorts. I would suggest reading into the ideas that configure the free market such as Adam Smith or Hayek. For a contemporary pop cultural retort, Tom Wolfe's In the land of the rococo Marxists: Why no one is celebrating the second American century (originally published in Harpers), a link that I can find readily in my bookmarks at this moment. These few straws would be only a start, but it might be a good one.

Why not think in stereo?

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(ps: You'll have to listen to Melvin Bragg's In Our Time/Frankfurt School to understand why I headed this post with Judy Garland.)

Posted by Dennis at January 17, 2010 9:12 AM

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