The Pen is Mightier than the Word

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Of all the sad things in the world, none possess the poignant absurdity of self-described radicals defending the status quo. Like squeezing lemons over a razor cut: it’s just too stupid to be really painful.

Sorry guys, I know this is small fry stuff (compared to the latest fare), but… This is the newspaper I read.

Russell Smith, my favourite arts columnist at the Globe and Mail, has offered yet another defence of the literary status quo, this time on the societal value of “snarky snobs.”

We need snarky snobs, we love them, we look to them with interest even if we’re not going to slavishly follow their proclamations: We want at least to know what the snarky snob position is.

I actually agree with a great deal of what he says in this article, with a number of crucial provisos. So long as, for instance, you consider his ‘we’ in the above quote to be royal–or limited to his particular ingroup–I entirely concur. Russell Smith is nothing if not social display conscious: he also writes for the Fashion and Style section after all. Odds are, someone who’s keen on what people are wearing in Milan will also be keen on what people are reading in New York.

I also agree with his argument from analogy: literary critics are indeed like fountain pen geeks. They are a dedicated group of enthusiastic specialists who think their criteria are the criteria. Now if literature were just another commodity like fountain pens, one where the commodity virtues of reliability, ease-of-use, and stylishness (social display value) reigned supreme, then the argument would be a real zinger.

Of course, like an angry ex, he reaches for the tried and true buttons. He explicitly claims that those who rail against the ‘Gatekeepers’ are basically just jealous. He implies their ignorance and ingratitude at almost every turn. But, I can forgive him that. As a long time writer for the Globe and Mail, I imagine he finds spinning criticism into flattery almost effortless.

It’s his final statement that gets my goat: “I will continue to think the role of the educated critic is to pull the gates of art wide open.” Question-begging, anyone? The criticism is 1) that the ‘educated critic’ has actually forgotten what art is, that they use parochial ingroup yardsticks to measure the world; and 2) that they belong to a much larger societal apparatus that has monopolized several crucial institutional bottlenecks, perpetuating a set of values and exclusions that have a number of negative social and political consequences.

With reference to (1), what he should have said was that the present role of the educated critic is to pull open the gates of what they think is cool open. I’ll grant that they know what they think is cool better than I do any day. But to say that their present role is to pull the gates of art open, well then, I think we need to debate the changing nature of art in the information age, because what you call ‘art’ looks an awful lot like upscale Entertainment to me…

Or worse, fountain pens.

With reference to (2), what he should have acknowledged was that the ‘educated critic’s’ role is institutional through and through. His failure to do so makes me think he isn’t all that, well… educated. The literary critic’s role is to discharge numerous institutional requirements and obligations, including, securing ingroup prestige, conserving socio-institutional capital, reasserting identity claims, and the long, long list of dodgey things we all do all the bloody time. Since Russell seems to know next to nothing about the human animal, he takes the literary critics claims at face value. I imagine he thinks that self-righteousness and unconscious social agendas are something that only social conservatives suffer. But like Chomsky is quick to point out in his institutional critiques, the thing to remember is that slave-owners were generally nice people. Most everyone is generally nice. Most everyone ‘just’ wants to ‘help’ people. Yes, even God-fearing slave-owners had ‘good intentions.’

Parachute nice people into problematic institutions and no matter how innocuous their small sphere of activity seems, they simply become another cog in a socially pernicious machine. They assimilate their norms to the institution’s norms (toothless bitching is often one of them) because that’s what humans do in the quest for economic and social security. They also confuse agreement for intelligence, and so take pride for surrounding themselves with ‘intelligent’ people, those who only dare debate the details. And the next thing you know, they encounter agreement almost everywhere they turn, including in what they read. All those intelligent books!

Insofar as every formally organized institution in the history of the human race falls under this description, I’m not sure there’s much to debate. Even if you don’t agree with the specifics of my critique, I hope you can at least see that Russell is making a clear cut claim to institutional authority, saying that you should defer (with hip cynicism doubling as genuine skepticism, of course) to his definition of art. Thus the fountain pen analogy: no one has problems deferring to the authority of a fountain pen geek. By simply analogizing literary culture to the fountain pen industry, he implies that it is harmless and friendly. That the authority at stake is trivial.

And this drops us into the lap of the real dilemma: which is that literary culture has stopped asking what literature is supposed to do. Instead, it has circled its wagons around a family of historical resemblances and traditional exclusions, a covert literary essentialism. Never has the human communications environment changed so radically in such a short time, and yet the blithe, comforting, and privilege-conserving assumption is that the literary animal has no need to adapt to its crazy new habitat. There’s no need to look, let alone debate. The old modernist morphology need not worry about context to accomplish its goal. Which is… what? Alienate the larger outgroup community? Ornament itself with prizes and galas and trusts? Religiously avoid any baseline cultural appeal? Gratify the values and attitudes of its readership?

To make matters worse, literary culture has become ideologically defensive and conservative–as Russell typifies, I think. It seems to have lost the capacity to even honestly consider outgroup criticisms (‘they’re just a bunch of jealous manques’), let alone be anything remotely approaching the ‘self-critical institution’ it pretends to be. Too many mortgages. Too many privileges. Too many smiles in the mirror.

So, Russell… you… look… marvelous