Against the grain

by Henry on April 7, 2009

This essay on The New Criterion by George Scialabba (not our own Scott McLemee, thank you very muchmisattribution now corrected) has been getting some recent attention because it says harsh things along the way about cultural diversity. Although Scialabba certainly doesn’t like the culturalist left very much, his discussion of its problems are a class of a diversion on the way to the main argument of the piece, which concerns the problems of the cultural conservatives who criticize them.

the New Criterionists sometimes boast that they and not the multiculturalists are the true democrats, applying to themselves Arnold’s words in Culture and Anarchy “The men of culture are the true apostles of equality. [They] are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of the society to the other, the best ideas of their time.” But it is a hollow boast. Arnold freely acknowledged, as Kramer and Kimball do not, the dependence of spiritual equality on at least a rough, approximate material equality.

in these and other passages Arnold demonstrated his humane moral imagination and democratic good faith. Kramer and Kimball have yet to demonstrate theirs. Finally, there is the complicated matter of disinterestedness, or intellectual conscience. That both Kramer and Kimball would sooner die than fake a fact or twist a quote, I do not doubt. But disinterestedness is something larger, finer, rarer than that. To perceive as readily and pursue as energetically the difficulties of one’s own position as those of one’s opponent’s; to take pains to discover, and present fully, the genuine problem that one’s opponent is, however futilely, addressing—this is disinterestedness as Arnold understood it.

Arnold thought he had found a splendid example of it in Burke who, at the close of his last attack on the French Revolution, nevertheless conceded some doubts about the wisdom of opposing to the bitter end the new spirit of the age. …I wish I could imagine someday praising Kramer and Kimball in such terms. But alas, I know nothing more un-New-Criterion-ish.

This, and other essays, are collected in Scialabba’s new book, which is just out (I got my copy yesterday), and which I can’t recommend highly enough. This bit, on Robert Conquest, has the quality of the best aphorisms:

It may be a delusion, as Conquest repeats endlessly, to imagine that state power can ever create a just society. But one reason some people are perennially tempted to try is that private power is generally so comfortable with unjust ones.

I’d enjoyed Scialabba’s essays very much when I read them individually, but to be properly appreciated, they should be read together. NB also that Scott, while entirely innocent of the essay quoted above, did write the introduction to the new volume.

{ 57 comments }

1

Michael Bérubé 04.07.09 at 6:26 pm

Ah, I remember that essay well, having read it in Dissent back in the day. I especially remember the sentence, “In its crusade against the politicization of contemporary culture, The New Criterion is — on the whole, in the main, and not to put too fine a point on it — right.” This was just two years after the Atlantic Monthly had declared that Dan Quayle was right, and by that point I began taking bets on which left-liberal publication would step up next and admit that Patrick Buchanan was — on the whole, in the main, and not to put too fine a point on it — also right.

More seriously, the mistake in judgment involved here is the mistake of believing that the New Criterion was (or is) really engaged in a crusade against the politicization of contemporary culture. You would think that someone capable of seeing through Kramer and Kimball’s claims to disinterestedness wouldn’t make that kind of mistake, right at the very outset of the essay and all.

2

Henry 04.07.09 at 7:03 pm

Michael – it’s pretty clear that you and Scialabba are going to be in disagreement here (although Scialabba may also have changed his mind on some of these things in the intervening fifteen years), but I don’t think that the essay is saying quite what you imply (one of the benefits of reading the volume is that some of these arguments and concerns are fleshed out better in different places). What I read as the underlying political claims of the essay are something like this.

(1) The idea that culture and politics form a continuum is wrong. While cultural education has crucial civic benefits, those benefits are best preserved if we treat culture as being mostly autonomous from politics, and matters of taste as not necessarily dependent on political judgements.

(2) The cultural turn led the left to pay _far_ too much attention to cultural issues of diversity etc, and not nearly enough to bread-and-butter politics.

(3) But the right wing counterattack against culturalist lefties is itself disingenuous and incoherent because it glides over the ways in which cultural equality of the kinds that they claim to praise must necessarily rest on material equality if it is to be meaningful.

(4) Furthermore, polemicism etc etc.

Now this may be right or wrong. I personally think that Scialabba’s dismissal of cultural politics goes way too far – when reading these bits of his argument, I was mentally constructing an imagined dialogue between you and Scialabba, thinking about the ways in which you’d likely argue back, and (my mental model of) Michael Berube probably won on points. But I don’t think that it is obviously pernicious, or at all equivalent to an embrace of Patrick Buchanan. To have ‘conservative’ cultural tastes, and to believe in a certain kind of high culture isn’t at all necessarily politically conservative. And I do think that Scialabba clearly recognizes that many (although surely not all – was Guy Davenport a right wing jihadist?) of the New Criterion crowd were in it for the politics rather than the culture.

What he seems to me to be doing is twofold. First, being as intellectually generous as possible, looking at your adversaries’ arguments on their own terms, and showing ever so politely that they are still full of it. This is, in its own quiet way, perhaps more devastating to its targets than the usual polemic. His essay on Isaiah Berlin in the book is a small masterpiece of this genre (and his essay on Said considerably less successful in my view because he can’t find much generosity in his heart for his target). And second, calling by implication for a different critical approach to culture which would start from a pragmatic and democratic foundation and call for (to the extent possible) radical cultural transformation in directions quite different than those of the cultural turn left. Again, you can like this or not like this, but it seems to me both to be a coherent position and one that is not about capitulating to the enemy.

3

Michael Bérubé 04.07.09 at 7:40 pm

Thanks, Henry. I think your characterization of the essay (and of Scialabba’s modus operandi in general) is quite right, and of course I agree that conservative cultural tastes don’t map very neatly onto conservative political tastes. That agreement, in turn, rests on a much larger agreement about culture’s autonomy from politics. (Or, more accurately, an agreement that culture should be autonomous from politics.) So sign me up for point (1). As for point (2), this is Ye Olde “two-lefts” debate, which kept us occupied all decade long, trying to determine whether the politics of recognition were distracting everyone from the politics of redistribution (and/or whether, as Scialabba charges, some — actually, he says “most” — forms of cultural politics are “misguided and counterproductive”). Chapter 5 of the even-closer-to-forthcoming-than-ever (almost at copyediting stage!) The Left At War rehearses that debate, so I’ve got way too much to say on this and should restrain myself. But I think the counterargument was made quite well by Ellen Willis in her review of What’s the Matter with Kansas? (pdf).

As for (3), I’d say instead that the New Criterion’s counterattack against the politicization of culture by culturalist lefties is itself disingenuous and incoherent because, a few outliers like Guy Davenport aside, the New Criterion’s ideas about culture were and are political through and through. And that Scialabba knows this very well, hence

(4) w/r/t polemics, he knew he was doing that “contrarian” and “against the grain” thing by opening his essay by declaring Kramer, Kimball and Co. to be “right.” Especially in the pages of Dissent, where one might be expected to file a more (how do you say) partisan review. Which is a fine rhetorical strategy unto itself, and conductive to much good argument (hence my reply that it is mistaken about the aims of the New Criterion). By invoking the Quayle-and-Buchanan context, I was just remarking on how depressing it was, at the time, to read about the essential rightness of the culture-war right in places where you’d expect people to know better — not, I want to make clear, suggesting that Scialabba was embracing either one of those two jihadists.

4

Henry 04.07.09 at 7:46 pm

Speaking of “The Left at War,” when I was looking through Scialabba’s website in preparation for writing this essay, I came across this rather remarkable debate, which sadly appears to have disappeared from Dissent‘s own website, but which Scialabba himself has preserved for posterity. I feel it deserves its own post rather than a mere mention in the comments section, but am not quite sure how it should begin or be titled – ‘Michael Walzer, Dishonest Prick or What?’ has the virtues of brevity and accuracy, but doesn’t quite set the tone we try to set around here.

5

Patrick Appel 04.07.09 at 8:43 pm

I fixed the name. Sorry about that.

6

dsquared 04.07.09 at 9:43 pm

‘Michael Walzer, Dishonest Prick or What?’ has the virtues of brevity and accuracy, but doesn’t quite set the tone we try to set around here.

for some values of “we”, perhaps …

7

Henry 04.07.09 at 10:55 pm

I should maybe add that even if Scialabba underestimates much of what the cultural left has done (imo there is a lot of useful thought that comes e.g. from Raymond Williams and those influenced by him), that I think that his measure (pragmatic usefulness) is exactly the right one to adopt.

8

Keir 04.07.09 at 10:58 pm

They haven’t, and they can’t. But then, they needn’t. They need only muddle along, employing and occasionally articulating the criteria that have emerged from our culture’s conversation since the Greeks initiated it, and showing that what used to and still usually does underwrite our judgments about beauty and truth is inconsistent with giving Robert Mapplethorpe a one-man show, or Karen Finley an NEA grant, or Toni Morrison a Nobel Prize. More than that, no one can do.</i<

But, er, from the intrinsic merit point of view, surely the fact that Mapplethorpe was a very good photographer argues that he should have got those one man shows. It’s the political element that the New Criterion don’t like. Defenses of Mapplethorpe don’t have to be cultural leftism, they can just be good old formalism. (That is to say, Mapplethorpe created beautiful photographs (and in some ways offended against a certain modernist orthodoxy) and the reason that the New Criterion dislikes him isn’t because of intrinsic merit, but rather the eact opposite.)

(Formally beautiful homoerotic imagery? Arnold might not have approved, but somehow I think that the Greeks might have been a bit more accepting.)

9

Bryan 04.08.09 at 12:08 am

Where has that essay been getting attention recently? Links?

10

Maurice Meilleur 04.08.09 at 12:19 am

I also thought Scialabba had the upper hand with Walzer. If the hijackers had flown their planes into buildings in Amsterdam and Stockholm, then you could have told me it was a religious attack on the scourge of Western secular humanism, gender equality, sexual freedom, and civil liberties and rights. And telling me the attacks were motivated by evil is like telling me an automobile rolls because of its ‘motive power’; it gives me no explanatory leverage at all.

But the flaws of the ‘two lefts’ debate aside, I think it’s clear that the pathologies of both flavors of the academic left were distractions in the aftermath of September 11 by way of an insistence on the purity of ideological vindication the attacks represented, and, probably concomitantly, the narcissism of small differences.

What I had the pleasure of witnessing in the months after the attacks, and the buildup to the invasion of Iraq–and, because I was a visiting professor of political science at Antioch College in the fall of 2001, I had a front row seat to this circus–was that very few on the left were trying very hard at all to make the attacks any form of teachable moment, indeed to engage in a ‘politics’ of the left at all with fellow Americans of different ideological stripes who were shocked and dismayed by what had happened and whose political values and beliefs made it hard for them to make sense of it. No, what mattered was that Chomsky and Zinn were right, goddammit, and Americans who didn’t immediately start memorizing passages from Year 501: The Conquest Continues were just fools for not seeing the burning jet fuel on the wall.

I also got to see the sniff-testing that went on among members of the anti-war left and their potential allies: who was pure enough to join the protest? Who subscribed to every last perfectly critical tenet of the gender-sexual-racial-ethnic-cultural-global-‘left’ (as defined authoritatively by whoever’s car was the one being driven to DC)? You? Then you have a seat. Not you? Well, you might as well want to fly the first sortie over Baghdad yourself. Michael Lerner, for example, got to sit ANSWER’s protest in California out, remember? (And yet somehow Scott Ritter made the A list in some crowds.)

Sure, it’s true: it wasn’t as if the bloodthirsty ‘freedom fries’ crowd and the televangelists blaming everything on dykes and godless savages were making things easy for the left. But we might have tried, no? We might have tried to ally ourselves with conservative critics of the war, libertarian critics of the war, right? But instead too many people wasted all their energy arguing with Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens over what the proper response of the left should be, and deciding whether you got to hold up the effigy of Bush if you were just GLBT-friendly and not GLBTQ-friendly. It’s as if living in the margins was so deeply inscribed in the self-image of the left that we couldn’t have it any other way. Whether you agree with every jot and tittle of Scialabba’s critique of the multi-culti left or not, surely here is precisely where his test of pragmatic effectiveness should apply.

11

Maurice Meilleur 04.08.09 at 12:22 am

I have no idea why that passage in my post is crossed out. Maybe it was my conscience trying to tell me I’m being too bitter.

12

Righteous Bubba 04.08.09 at 12:43 am

Well, boo-hoo that Michael Lerner couldn’t speak. He didn’t ask to.

13

Maurice Meilleur 04.08.09 at 12:55 am

‘Join the protest’ and not ‘speak’ was what I wrote, RB. But thanks for the link, because (1) it corrects my mistaken belief that Lerner would not have been allowed to march, which was probably a stupid belief anyway, because how could they have stopped him and why would they have wasted time trying?, and (2) because–assuming its facts are accurate–it provides a wonderful little anecdote illustrating precisely the sniff-testing I was talking about. It’s like the People’s Liberation Front of Judea vs. the Judean People’s Liberation Front, but with more players and a whole lot less funny.

14

Jonathan Mayhew 04.08.09 at 12:57 am

Yes, the cultural right of the culture wars gets to be quasi-Arnoldian, almost but not quite achieving that praiseworthy standard of Olympian detachment, simply by muddling along with traditional criteria of truth and beauty. The New Criterion and Commentary are in opposition to the politicization of culture?, when they are far more tendentious than Representations or October? Surely Roger Kimball would never “twist a quote” to make a disengenuous argument!

I’ll take Houston Baker and Edward Said over Richard Bernstein and Camille Paglia–as long as I get to keep Guy Davenport on my side.

15

Righteous Bubba 04.08.09 at 1:03 am

‘Join the protest’ and not ‘speak’ was what I wrote, RB.

Fair enough: “speak” was my assumption because I couldn’t imagine some sort of Lerner blockade. But – also assuming the link shows the correct story – Tikkun is the splitter: the ANSWER folks didn’t want speakers who’d criticized its coalition members, which is fair enough at a unity-against-the-war march, isn’t it?

16

Maurice Meilleur 04.08.09 at 1:39 am

I guess I should have picked another example, and looking back at my post I could see why someone might get the idea that I’m carrying a brief for Lerner (I’m not). The problem wasn’t the substantive disagreement between Lerner/Tikkun and ANSWER, or whose fault it was in the end; it’s that the disagreement itself existed and took the form that it did: Lerner criticizes different groups in ANSWER for criticizing Israel’s human rights violations and not Iraq, China, &c. (the will-you-condemn-a-thon move); then ANSWER and its allies respond by blacklisting Lerner; then Tikkun and The Nation rush to Lerner’s defense and try to pressure ANSWER to let him speak at an anti-war rally, even though he didn’t ask to (thanks again, RB); ANSWER’s allies accuse Tikkun of being traitors to the left and a front group for Ariel Sharon; rinse, repeat.

Two groups that ought easily to have found common cause against a stupid war–and invite others similarly inclined into the fold–arguing over who broke whose rattle, who’s an anti-Semite or a traitor, and on and on and on. My point is to agree with Scialabba that people calling themselves ‘left’ ought to be better at things like perspective, big pictures, thinking through conflict in different ways to understand it better and maybe get around it. In other words, a collection of political movements ought to be better at politics. And the pathologies of marginalization among both the ‘old left’ and the ‘new left’, the ‘economic/political’ left and the ‘cultural/political’ left, get in the way, as they did especially after September 11.

17

George Scialabba (aka geo) 04.08.09 at 3:02 am

Michael @3: “the New Criterion’s ideas about culture were and are political through and through”

Perhaps. But the magazine’s criticism (especially the selection under review) wasn’t political through and through; viz. (from the essay in question):

“Much of it is simply very good critical writing: John Simon on Nabokov; Joseph Epstein on Cavafy; Guy Davenport on Gertrude Stein; Brooke Allen on Shaw; Brad Leithauser on Housman; John Gross on Beerbohm; Samuel Lipman on Walter Gieseking; James Tuttleton on Frederick Douglass. In one of the book’s more programmatic pieces, Hilton Kramer calls for a return to connoisseurship i.e., “the close, comparative study of art objects [and literary texts] with a view to determining their relative levels of aesthetic quality.” It is a cogent formulation, which the above-mentioned essays and others in Against the Grain well exemplify.”

Michael, what do you think of this formulation of Kramer’s? Are judgments about “relative levels of aesthetic quality” inescapably political, and if so, why?

18

Righteous Bubba 04.08.09 at 4:44 am

I guess I should have picked another example

Sorry for the prickliness. I nevertheless don’t know how much influence spats between elements of the left have on anything. Most of the people who knew Iraq was a stupid idea don’t read Tikkun or The Nation and most people who think health care needs fixing aren’t much interested in wonk A or wonk B. The much-advertised disaffected Hillary voters weren’t disaffected (if you buy the Democratic party as a leftist concern, ho ho) and so forth.

19

Maurice Meilleur 04.08.09 at 12:04 pm

RB, that’s my point. The spats get in the way of having wider influence, and I really do think that too many groups on the left (the academic brand in particular) live on the spats, the splitting of hairs, the guarding of ideological boundaries, at the expense of reaching out and doing politics. That certainly does not mean that there aren’t other significant external obstacles to an effective left politics, or that people didn’t and don’t try to get around them. But maybe, if the left hadn’t spent so much time and energy fighting with itself over this petty crap–if we could all have held our agendas and actions to something like the test of pragmatic effectiveness that Henry extracted from Scialabba’s arguments–we might have come up with better ways to talk to the people who don’t read Tikkun or The Nation or In These Times or Mother Jones.

There was a window of opportunity after the attacks when many people’s beliefs were shaken up, when a critical mass of informed and thoughtful folks who really know how to communicate could have tried to frame a constructive discussion of what to do now (and an effective critique of the really stupid ‘what to do now’s the Bush Administration came up with). Knowing how the political establishment and the news media work in the US, it would have been a hard slog. But spend all your effort arguing over who gets to sit on the podium, and by the time you get to the mike, all you’ve got for the people who need your message are slogans and gestures. If we’re going to fail, at least we could try to fail nobly.

20

Michael Bérubé 04.08.09 at 12:20 pm

Michael, what do you think of this formulation of Kramer’s? Are judgments about “relative levels of aesthetic quality” inescapably political, and if so, why?

Hi, George! Well, over at my blog we sometimes have what are called Arbitrary but Fun Fridays. They started out as “Arbitrary but Fun Value Judgments,” in which people would argue about whether such and such a cover song was better than the original, which movie contains the best Christopher Walken cameo, best opening sentences of novels, etc. One special installment was very Arbitrary indeed. I tended to post them on Fridays, hence the famous ABF Friday series. And let me tell you, brother, if anyone had appeared in those threads arguing that a love for X’s cover of the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen” was “inescapably political,” we would have sent him (or her!) right on over to the neo-Zhdanovite blog where they do “Objectively Grounded and Inescapably Political Value Judgments.” Because when I talk about the relative autonomy of the cultural sphere from the political, I mean both things: the relative part, sure (following Mukarovsky’s fascinating monograph, Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts), but also the autonomy part (because aesthetic judgments can’t be reduced to politics). Which is where the fun, or the pleasure, or the aesthetic experience (if you like) comes in.

Now, as for that New Criterion. Sure, occasionally K&K published people who could write, and weren’t hard-bitten ideologues. You may know that I have a fondness for conservatives who aren’t hard-bitten ideologues and who take arts and letters seriously; I miss them the way I miss Republicans who understood economics. But when Roger Kimball writes, “As Thomas Short pointed out in an excellent anatomy of radical trends in the academy, one result of the academic feminist agenda is a situation in which ‘every course will be Oppression Studies,'” and

One could not help but lament the fact that [Butler’s] gifts are wasted pondering such subjects as “the lesbian phallus.” . . . It is important to stress that the issue raised by these panels has nothing to do with “homophobia.” It has to do first of all with the kinds of things that are appropriate subjects for a public scholarly discussion of literature. I submit that neither “The Sodomitical Tourist” nor “The Lesbian Phallus” is appropriate. This is not because I suffer from “homophobia” but because I believe the chief attraction of such topics is prurient. Panels devoted to homosexual themes often have the air of rallies for the initiate.

–then yeah, he’s being political through and through. The first of these reads like a dispatch from Wingnut Central (cf. “as the astute writer Mark Steyn points out, Obama will eat your children”), and the second . . . well, what does one say about the idea that “homosexual themes” are not appropriate subjects for a public scholarly discussion of literature? I say it’s the judgment of a hard-bitten ideologue who clearly skips over the passages in literary works that make him feel kind of squicky inside.

21

Michael Bérubé 04.08.09 at 12:38 pm

Oh, and Maurice, about the ANSWER/ Lerner spat, I hear you, but I wish you wouldn’t do the pox-on-both-your-spatty-houses thing. Some of us who criticized ANSWER on that score did so not because we cared about the arrangement of chairs on the podium (or who sat in them) but because we sincerely believed that having an antiwar movement led by a neo-Stalinist fringe sect was a Bad Idea, as Bad Ideas are measured by that there “pragmatic effectiveness” standard. Some people, like me, thought it was all well and good for neo-Stalinist fringe sects to be part of the antiwar camp, since every mass movement has its assorted wingnuts, and we’re certainly entitled to ours. But having ANSWER control the rallies meant, as RB notes, that no one who had criticized ANSWER would be allowed to speak, and remarkably, the other three groups that organized the SF rally agreed to this. RB, if you don’t see what’s wrong with that — and with the fact that Lerner was singled out by ANSWER (regardless of whether he himself asked to speak) even though his “criticism” of them didn’t even mention them by name — then we’ll just have to disagree about who the malefactor was.

But never mind Lerner. The point is that, as Maurice says, the left had “a window of opportunity after the attacks when many people’s beliefs were shaken up, when a critical mass of informed and thoughtful folks who really know how to communicate could have tried to frame a constructive discussion of what to do now.” And who stepped to the fore? A tiny sect who used antiwar rallies as windows of opportunities to harangue the Amerikkkan sheeple about Mumia, about the Cuban Five, and about how Palestine must be free from the river to the sea.

22

salient 04.08.09 at 12:49 pm

Panels devoted to homosexual themes often have the air of rallies for the initiate.

If only to maintain my own sanity, I have to call Poe’s Law on that.

23

Maurice Meilleur 04.08.09 at 1:41 pm

Michael, I was trying to say something about the narcissism of small differences on the left without drifting into the pox-on-both-houses stance, (a) because that’s lazy criticism and (b) because I live in both houses, from time to time at least, and I don’t want me no pox.

As far as criticizing ANSWER goes, I’m with you; having Stalinists in charge is a bad idea and worth criticizing, and perhaps ANSWER contributed more than others to the (further) marginalization of the left after September 11th. (Not that I’m a big fan of Lerner’s, either; he’s no neo-Stalinist, but that’s not a very high bar.) Yet perhaps you’d agree that having your attention drawn down by intramural arguments can be like greatness: some people are born distracted, some people learn to distract themselves, and some people have distractions thrust upon them.

A tiny sect who used antiwar rallies as windows of opportunities to harangue the Amerikkkan sheeple about Mumia, about the Cuban Five, and about how Palestine must be free from the river to the sea.

You must have met some of my students. (Not all of them, thankfully.)

24

Righteous Bubba 04.08.09 at 1:55 pm

RB, if you don’t see what’s wrong with that—and with the fact that Lerner was singled out by ANSWER (regardless of whether he himself asked to speak) even though his “criticism” of them didn’t even mention them by name—then we’ll just have to disagree about who the malefactor was.

I do see what’s wrong with it as a particular act – and I’ll note again that he was asked to speak at a previous rally and said no – but not as anything that made any difference at all to anybody’s feelings on Iraq (no evidence presented of course, but some rallies often outdrew Tikkun’s subscriber base). Anyway I should stop picking at particulars as it wasn’t really Maurice’s intent to autopsy one.

And who stepped to the fore? A tiny sect who used antiwar rallies as windows of opportunities to harangue the Amerikkkan sheeple about Mumia, about the Cuban Five, and about how Palestine must be free from the river to the sea.

I agree that it was a turn-off to some and it was hardly a tool for recruitment to split the focus. But, uh, them rallies were often very large and impressive affairs. People I know who weren’t up on whatever chemtrails the patchouli set were following went and felt good and strong in their opposition.

25

ben a 04.08.09 at 2:04 pm

To Michael Brube:
As usual, you are being very funny but in this case somewhat unresponsive. Let’s just stipulate that K&K are ideologues. With this stipulation, however, their critique of the of the largely left politicization of culture can still be accurate. To put a fine point on it, you say the NC’s critique of the politicization of culture by the left is disingenuous and incoheren, but in fact only demonstrate the first, not the second. And you rather to think that the NC’s rhetorical excess and association with ideologues is itself a demonstration of such incoherence. It’s not.

26

Anderson 04.08.09 at 3:28 pm

Is “I read The New Criterion, but only for the reviews” the modern liberal equivalent of reading Playboy only for the articles?

Guilty!

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George Scialabba (aka geo) 04.08.09 at 4:20 pm

Hello, Michael

Pretty dreadful stuff you quote from Kimball. If most of the magazine and/or anthology were like that, they would be worth nothing more than an occasional citation on your Fun Fridays. But the essays I mentioned and hundreds of others in The New Criterion strike me as very good criticism. They may be — usually are — political at the margins, but not “through and through.”

What about that formulation of Kramer’s, that the essential purpose of criticism is to make judgments about “relative levels of aesthetic quality”? I ask again not to press a debating point but because it’s a fundamental issue , about which I’m still of somewhat divided mind.

28

GK 04.08.09 at 5:13 pm

‘Michael Walzer, Dishonest Prick or What?’

Tone aside, this doesn’t strike me as fair. Henry (or others), where in this debate do you think Walzer was actually dishonest?

29

Anderson 04.08.09 at 6:03 pm

where in this debate do you think Walzer was actually dishonest?

Walzer: America, in the eyes of Islamic zealots, is the Great Satan, and it is satanic because it is, however imperfectly, secular, democratic, and liberal–and also, of course, because it is powerful: Denmark is not the Great Satan.

This in express rejection of Scialabba’s point that terror vs. the U.S. was motivated in part by anger at U.S. foreign policy. Walzer completely rejects that point. We are “satanic” not because of anything we’ve done in the Middle East, but because we are secular, democratic, liberal, and powerful — period. We could have those qualities, never have had a CIA operative or a Marine set foot in the Middle East, never have sent a dollar to Israel, and the Islamic terrorists would still be attacking us.

That’s either dishonest or just plain stupid — hence, “Dishonest Prick, or What?” Henry thoughtfully left open the possibility of just plain stupidity.

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Henry 04.08.09 at 7:13 pm

Tone aside, this doesn’t strike me as fair. Henry (or others), where in this debate do you think Walzer was actually dishonest?

In claiming that Scialabba makes three ‘recommendations’ which he very obviously does not, for starters. I do Professor Walzer the courtesy of assuming that he is capable of reading plainly written sentences in the English language. If one ‘debates’ someone by repeatedly claiming that the other person is saying things that he simply and obviously is not saying, then one is debating dishonestly, and in bad faith. The ‘prick’ part is when Walzer suggests that Scialabba has an ‘informal alliance with [the terrorists].’? I’d have been disgusted to see this coming from the mouth of David Horowitz. I’m doubly so when it comes from someone like Walzer.

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Michael Bérubé 04.08.09 at 7:15 pm

What about that formulation of Kramer’s, that the essential purpose of criticism is to make judgments about “relative levels of aesthetic quality”? I ask again not to press a debating point but because it’s a fundamental issue , about which I’m still of somewhat divided mind.

No, I didn’t think you were pressing a debating point. It’s a great question, and I’ll try to do it justice in a way that befits the space of a comment thread. First off, I’m allergic to statements about “the essential purpose of criticism,” because when I first read F. R. Leavis saying that the essential gesture of criticism is to say this is so, is it not?, my response was to reply, no, criticism also says wait, it’s more complicated than that. That said, making judgments about relative levels of aesthetic quality is certainly one important function of criticism, which is what I was trying to get at in the ABF series — namely, that we do it all the time even w/r/t popular culture. But like everything else about criticism, it has a history. Yesterday I heard a lecture by Dave Hickey, in which Hickey argued that the aesthetic comparison of like to like (which he regarded as indispensable for criticism) had its origins in the early modern period, when, as in the Italian Renaissance, you had a bunch of painters all doing Annunciations and Crucifixions and Nativities and Flights Into Egypt, and the distinctions among artists had nothing to do with their subject matter (since they were all depicting the same things) and everything to do with the degree of their technical skill in handling materials (oil, marble, ceilings etc.). This seems right to me, and I have to say that it confirms the sense I got upon visiting the Sistine Chapel ten years ago, where I got the impression that commissions were doled out according to a very precise determination of artists by rank — such that the 17th best painter of Jesus’s baptism gets the fifth floor stairwell, and Rafael and Michelangelo, winners of their respective brackets, meet in the finals, where one gets the tapestries and the other gets the ceiling. And rightly so.

Then, too, there’s the famous bit from Raymond Williams’ Marxism and Literature, where he notes that criticism used to be about telling artists how to go about the business of making things utile et dulce but now confines itself to making judgments about relative aesthetic quality: “The replacement of the disciplines of grammar and rhetoric (which speak to the multiplicities of intention and performance) by the discipline of criticism (which speaks of effect, and only through effect to intention and performance) is a central intellectual movement of the bourgeois period.” But now that we’ve historicized that function of criticism, I still think it’s something we simply can’t do without. As to whether it is the essential function of criticism, I remain agnostic.

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Michael Bérubé 04.08.09 at 7:26 pm

As for everyone else (and I do apologize, Henry, for jumping all over this thread — I will go buy George’s book now):

Maurice @ 23: Yet perhaps you’d agree that having your attention drawn down by intramural arguments can be like greatness: some people are born distracted, some people learn to distract themselves, and some people have distractions thrust upon them.

First I laughed (out loud!), and then I agreed. Thanks for both.

RB @ 24: them rallies were often very large and impressive affairs. People I know who weren’t up on whatever chemtrails the patchouli set were following went and felt good and strong in their opposition.

Quite true. It all depended on whether anyone paid any attention to the speakers. At the NYC rally I attended, I wasn’t within two miles of them, and my party had a great old oppositional time. And just as most of the attendees weren’t readers of Tikkun or the Nation, they couldn’t care one way or another who Michael Lerner is. But as a matter of strategy, it seemed to me exceptionally foolish to try to alienate progressive Jews in that way.

ben a @ 25: As usual, you are being very funny but in this case somewhat unresponsive. Let’s just stipulate that K&K are ideologues. With this stipulation, however, their critique of the of the largely left politicization of culture can still be accurate.

True enough. But whenever they claim to be against politicization as such in the course of arguing for politicization from the right, that is indeed disingenuous and incoherent both.

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GK 04.08.09 at 8:11 pm

Anderson: That looks to me like a genuine disagreement, not dishonesty. (Whether or not Walzer’s position is “just plain stupidity” is a question I’ll leave for others.)

Henry: I agree with you about the rudeness of the “informal alliance” bit, but the “three recommendations” bit seems to me a case of overeager reading between the lines, which is a debating error but which isn’t a moral failing like dishonesty.

Walzer overreaches here (as he did in his “Decent Left” essay of around the same time); I don’t dispute that. If I read the debate with an eye toward who won it, I have to agree with Maurice and others that it was Scialabba. But reading this sort of thing now, several years later, I’m less interested in scoring the debate points than in remembering how hard it was at the time to strike the right balance among several things that were important to do all at once. Walzer’s underlying worry seems to have been that people on the American left have a history of feeling alienated from our country and that this habit threatened to make us less capable of responding to the September 11 attacks in a way that was simultaneously principled and political and, well, decent. There seems to have been a kind of “let’s not be fools now” panic on the part of Walzer (and Paul Berman, and others) that led them into some unwise statements from time to time–here, for instance, since Scialabba’s argument was eminently decent. Sure, we should be able to recognize those unwise statements, but at least to me they seem less important now than the continuing relevance of that underlying worry, if we can extract it from the panic that surrounded it in the fall and winter of 2001.

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lemuel pitkin 04.08.09 at 8:46 pm

There seems to have been a kind of “let’s not be fools now” panic on the part of Walzer (and Paul Berman, and others) that led them into some unwise statements from time to time—here, for instance, since Scialabba’s argument was eminently decent.

The thing is, when I think back to 2001-02, this exchange seems eminently representative. Walzer and Berman were arguing with phantoms — the real anti-war left was composed overwhelmingly of people like Scialabba (altho obviously not as articulate.) I have no doubt that Noam Chomsky, if Walzer had ever been willing to debate him, would have been just as “decent”.

reading this sort of thing now, several years later, I’m less interested in scoring the debate points than in remembering how hard it was at the time to strike the right balance

Again, personally, as someone who wasn’t even really opposed to the invasion of Afghanistan, I didn’t find it hard at all to be appalled by Walzer’s “Decent Left” article. He and those like him simply abdicated their responsibility to take a critical view of America’s role in the world, at a time when they were desperately needed. I don’t think it’s just scoring points to remember that now.

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Anderson 04.08.09 at 8:51 pm

That looks to me like a genuine disagreement, not dishonesty.

Hm. Perhaps it’s a matter of “relative levels of aesthetic quality,” then.

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james 04.08.09 at 9:58 pm

It is also reasonable to suggest that America is the “Great Satan” simply because it is both not-Muslim and very powerful. With belief systems there is a short hand definition for the way the world works. Pointing to something that violates the accepted order of the world and calling it evil is a basic concept.

Allowing ANSWER to define the anti-war rallies was a huge mistake. The rallies only purpose where to increase the influence of the organizers among the group of believers showing up. Outsiders view “others” as a monolithic entity. From that perspective, the anti-war rally where run by Communists. The fact that other groups where involved or that there was an honest concern is completely irrelevant. If the purpose of the rallies was to influence the rest of the country, the face of the movement would have been respected political moderates. Preferably with a military service record. Exactly the type of people who would be rejected by the organizers.

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Keir 04.08.09 at 10:10 pm

In one of the book’s more programmatic pieces, Hilton Kramer calls for a return to connoisseurship i.e., “the close, comparative study of art objects [and literary texts] with a view to determining their relative levels of aesthetic quality.” It is a cogent formulation, which the above-mentioned essays and others in Against the Grain well exemplify.”

But isn’t connoisseurship an inherently political way of looking at art? Especially the turn of the century Berenson stuff, it’s inextricably bound up with the idea of relative worth in not just an aesthetic sense, but also a monetary sense — that is to say, the idea that one can put a price, in principle, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Further, the people doing the judging tend to smuggle in a bunch of hidden assumptions (normally based on the greatness of a particular period of Italian art) and then cast them as impartial statements about intrinsic merit and such.

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Anderson 04.08.09 at 11:06 pm

It is also reasonable to suggest that America is the “Great Satan” simply because it is both not-Muslim and very powerful.

China is not-Muslim and very powerful. It’s not much plagued by Muslim terrorists, except for Uighurs … who have longstanding territorial issues w/ China.

Russia is not-Muslim and very powerful. It’s not much plagued by Muslim terrorists, except for Chechens … who have longstanding territorial issues w/ Russia.

It is not seriously defensible to argue that Islamic terror against the U.S. is NOT AT ALL MOTIVATED BY our policy choices re: the Middle East. Despite my quip above, it’s not a matter of whether you prefer the original or the cover of “Soul Kitchen.” It’s a question of facts.

When people try to tell me that the South really seceded over tariffs or “states’ rights,” I cite them to, among other things, Mississippi’s written proclamation of secession, which puts slavery first and foremost.

If you look at the declarations of al-Qaeda and other terrorists, you find *political* motivations front and center. It’s question-begging to dismiss these as deceptions meant to cloak purely religious sentiments.

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George Scialabba (aka geo) 04.08.09 at 11:35 pm

Keir: isn’t connoisseurship an inherently political way of looking at art?

I’m not sure. Suppose you found yourself asked to discuss whether Anna Karenina was a better novel than Princess Daisy. Couldn’t you compare their “relative levels of aesthetic quality” without considering politics at all, or scarcely at all?

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Keir 04.09.09 at 1:49 am

Well, you’d have to discuss the genre status of romance novels, which turns into politics pretty quickly, even if approached from quite an old fashioned critical perspective. (A refusal to consider that status is clearly also a political act privileging a certain dead white male perspective.)

If you were just to isolate the two objects off from all other considerations, then sure, you could discuss intrinsic merit all you like, but the resulting discussion would be about as useful as Mongols vs. Romans.

Also, connoisseurship tends to have a stronger meaning than just `relative levels of aesthetic quality’* — it has strong overtones of ordering and ranking painters (often in order to put a monetary price on them); it doesn’t normally result in great art history. (As opposed to the purely technical aspect of attributions, which are valuable but not really fascinating or of general applicability.)

* Which is dodgily universalising — can you really fairly compare the “relative levels of aesthetic quality” of the Sistine Madonna and an Avdevo figurine? I don’t think so, but both fall within art historical purview, and can certainly be discussed together.

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LFC 04.09.09 at 2:12 am

@33: “Walzer’s underlying worry seems to have been that people on the American left have a history of feeling alienated from our country and that this habit threatened to make us less capable of responding to the September 11 attacks in a way that was simultaneously principled and political and, well, decent.”

Unfortunately, Walzer chose to express this worry in an essay whose title — “Can There Be a Decent Left?” — was both patronizing and self-righteous, and whose tone (as I dimly recall it) was for the most part similar. So on this particular point I agree w/ l. pitkin.

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George Scialabba (aka geo) 04.09.09 at 6:03 am

Keir: If you were just to isolate the two objects off from all other considerations, then sure, you could discuss intrinsic merit all you like, but the resulting discussion would be about as useful as Mongols vs. Romans.

Again, I’m not sure about this. Isn’t there plenty of interest in discussing style, character, imagery, structure, symbol, irony, and other aesthetic matters?

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Keir 04.09.09 at 7:05 am

Isn’t there plenty of interest in discussing style, character, imagery, structure, symbol, irony, and other aesthetic matters?

But you have to understand genre to discuss formal considerations, and you have to place the works in context to read them correctly, no? (Duccio/Giotto has to also consider Siena/Florence and the role of the Madonna and so on.)

Also, I wouldn’t say there’s no interest, just not as much interest as in a broader discussion. Who’d win Mongols or Romans is interesting, just not what I expect military historians to spend a great deal of time on.

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George Scialabba (aka geo) 04.09.09 at 2:12 pm

Maybe we should get down to cases. Consider James Wood’s essay on Tolstoy in the New Yorker several months ago. Nothing much about politics but brilliantly illuminating on how the novels actually work. I find the same sort of illumination in most of Wood’s criticism; also in my other favorite critics: Sven Birkerts, Randall Jarrell, Guy Davenport, Edmund Wilson, Samuel Johnson, et al. All these people doubtless have political views, just as they doubtless have religious views, but one doesn’t need to know much, or anything, about either to get the benefit of the criticism.

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Anderson 04.09.09 at 4:06 pm

Isn’t there plenty of interest in discussing style, character, imagery, structure, symbol, irony, and other aesthetic matters?

As someone who dropped out of a Ph.D. English program, my answer is, “no, unfortunately not.” I went to grad school hoping to learn the technical skill of studying how literature works. A big, naive mistake.

My personal, prejudiced theory is that many people prefer politicizing literature because they would rather talk about politics than about literature. It also has the advantage of being easier. You don’t have to read the entire book (indeed, a professor can conduct a two-hour seminar without once opening the assigned text), and everyone already thinks himself knowledgeable about politics.

Agree or disagree with what Paul de Man thought English departments should be doing, I think it’s hard to disagree with his characterization of them as “large organizations in the service of everything except their own subject matter.”

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james 04.09.09 at 6:08 pm

Anderson at 38 – Last I checked, China was still working on becoming a world power. Hard to be the ‘Great Satan’ if your number 2-8.

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Henry 04.09.09 at 6:30 pm

George – when reading the book of essays, I wondered at one point whether or not you had written anything critical on Jarrell. I had always assumed before reading his diaries that he was a moderate conservative of sorts, and of course discovered that he was anything but. That said, I think that there is a kind of thematic unity between his criticism and his politics (and indeed, Pictures from an Institution at least), and that it had quite a lot of shared ground with your own perspective.

GK – I’ll maintain that Walzer was actively intellectually dishonest in this exchange (I don’t know what George thinks, beyond what he has written, and don’t think it fair to ask him). It isn’t that George wins the debate on points; it’s that there is one person who is interested in having an actual debate here, and one person who is not. I will be writing more on this I hope soon.

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geo 04.09.09 at 8:51 pm

Henry: no, I haven’t written anything about Jarrell. Truth to tell, I haven’t read all that much of his criticism; it’s just that what I have read has impressed me a good deal. And of course “Pictures from an Institution” is immortal.

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Anderson 04.09.09 at 10:14 pm

Last I checked, China was still working on becoming a world power.

Considering that they hold about a trillion $ of U.S. bonds, I’m reminded of the riddle, “What do you have when you hold two little green balls in your hand?” Answer: “Kermit’s undivided attention.”

Hard to be the ‘Great Satan’ if your number 2-8.

Well, they can be the Great Asmodeus, or Great Beelzebub. Hell hath its hierarchies.

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Keir 04.09.09 at 11:33 pm

But, to go the other way, there’s an awful lot of good politicised* criticism — Diderot, Krauss, Berger, Nochlin, the New Art History, that sort of thing.

I think that good formalist criticism is important, but it has the weakness of tending to universalise particular political views under the cover of a supposedly objective methodology, and it is especially weak when discussing objects produced outside the native culture, or discussing ways in which objects participate in the culture generally, which is an important area of criticism. Especially, I think a purely formal apolitical analysis of artists like Jacques Louis David or Orwell is utterly inane, and likewise a purely formal analysis of say, Primitivism.

Further, anybody who doesn’t think Mapplethorpe is a good photographer is applying more than just formal apolitical criteria.

* In the broad sense.

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Z 04.09.09 at 11:50 pm

Suppose you found yourself asked to discuss whether Anna Karenina was a better novel than Princess Daisy. Couldn’t you compare their “relative levels of aesthetic quality” without considering politics at all, or scarcely at all?

A consistent disciple of Bourdieu might say that such hierarchic comparison make sense only in an autonomous field (or in a relative formulation, that the more the field is autonomous, the more theses comparisons make sense). The way I see it, literature is a not very autonomous field, so that if you want to compare two novels, and if you don’t want to give the impression your judgment ultimately rests upon matters of personal frivolous taste, you’ll have first to establish some kind of autonomous foundations establishing the value of your criteria, and in doing so you almost inescapably bump into political considerations (if only political considerations within academia).

This is why, for instance, the choice of the Nobel prize in literature is invariably criticized, whereas the Nobel prize in physics very rarely so, and the Fields medal has never been (to the best of my knowledge).

But if my (or rather Bourdieu’s) approach is correct, then there is hope, as it could be that the field of literature is getting more and more autonomous. I would say (but I wouldn’t really know, being too far from this field myself) that the efforts of homosexual, women, cultural, you-name-it studies have had on the whole, in the main, and not to put too fine a point on it a positive influence towards more autonomy.

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geo 04.09.09 at 11:58 pm

I agree that there’s a lot of good criticism that pays close attention to the writer’s or artist’s politics. Though I can imagine someone arguing that Orwell’s novels are good or bad without saying anything about his politics. In this week’s New Yorker, for example, James Wood has a long essay about Orwell, mostly political, but with a few comments in passing about the novels. Here’s one of them: “But, even if Orwell worked at his journalism like a good novelist, the strange thing is that he could not work at his novels like a good novelist. The details that pucker the journalism are rolled flat in the fiction.” And he gives some convincing (to me) examples. I think this is a very useful insight into the “aesthetic quality” of Orwell’s novels, and I think someone of any political persuasion might have made it. “Objective” is a tricky word. I don’t believe in absolute or metaphysical objectivity, but I certainly believe in relative, practical objectivity, meaning simply that you allow yourself to see what’s there, even if it’s politically discomfiting.

You’re right, no doubt, about Mapplethorpe. I suppose I was out of my depth.

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geo 04.10.09 at 12:12 am

An intriguing comment, Z. But instead of considering a priori whether the status of literature with respect to autonomy allowed one to rank Anna Karenina and Princess Daisy, you might have noticed that there is no difficulty whatever in ranking the two novels, and then drawn some conclusions about the degree of literature’s autonomy.

There are lots of interesting arguments about relative merit in literary criticism that don’t seem, to me at least, to have much of anything to do with politics. How good a poet is Shelley? Is Daniel Deronda better without Daniel Deronda? Is Dostoevsky a genius, as most of us think, or a hack, as Nabokov thought? Are Henry James’s final novels a supreme achievement or a dreadful mistake?

“Personal frivolous taste” — you’re not suggesting some necessary correspondence between these two adjectives, are you?

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Keir 04.10.09 at 12:15 am

Though I can imagine someone arguing that Orwell’s novels are good or bad without saying anything about his politics

But don’t you think that would miss some interesting information — if I wanted to learn about Orwell’s futurism, or about the role of the novel in British society, or the connections between the modern SF novel and the British Left, or –, which are all surely legitimate areas of literary criticism?

I just think that purely formal criticism is quite limited.

I don’t, by the way, think that only politically Left criticism can be good criticism; I could imagine very good Tory criticism or Catholic criticism, and I certainly don’t think that political criticism in the sense of making everything about the bourgeoisie or the Republicans or the patriarchy is good criticism.

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geo 04.10.09 at 12:50 am

all surely legitimate areas

Yes, certainly. But remember where this thread started out: with the question of whether criticism was necessarily political “through and through”; that is, whether judgments about “relative levels of aesthetic quality” were possible, never mind useful. All I’ve been arguing for is the possible relative autonomy of aesthetic criticism. And of course I’ve also been asserting, without arguing, that that kind of criticism can be pretty interesting too.

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Keir 04.10.09 at 1:58 am

But I think that the idea of imposing relative worths on cultural objects is kind of nonsense; really, how can you meaningfully talk about the relative aesthetic quality of the Sistine Madonna and an Avdeevo figurine?

I also think that historical role of connoisseurship in turning art into a type of capital shouldn’t be underestimated; I don’t think that kind of criticism is politically neutral, given that the fundamental goal is that you should know how much a given art object is worth, which tends to reduce to `how much would it be worth at auction’, or possibly `how much should it be worth at auction’? (Clearly not ideologically empty questions to ask.)

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james 04.10.09 at 10:53 pm

Anderson at 49.

Yes China is an economic power. So is Japan and the Netherlands. With out a deep sea navy and significantly more troop transports, China is only a regional military power. Don’t worry they are actively working on both limitations.

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