[8 February 2007]
At academic blog the Valve, Joseph Kugelmass has a post that seems relevant to what I was trying to get at yesterday—the problem of having to seem unaware of your calculating signalling in order to for these signals to seem authentic and succeed. For this, Kugelmass cites master semiotician Björk (emphasis below is mine):
“I don’t really know why I’m obsessed with swans but, as I said, everything about my new album is about winter and they’re a white, sort of winter, bird. And obviously very romantic, being monogamous. It’s one of those things that maybe I’m too much in the middle of to describe. When you’re obsessed with something, you can explain it five years later, but in the moment, you don’t know exactly why. Right now, swans seem to sort of stand for a lot of things. I see a picture of a swan now and I go [takes a deep gasping breath], but two years ago it didn’t do that to me.” —from an interview with Bjork by Donna Karan, Interview, Sept. 2001
Bjork contradicts herself remarkably here. She begins by giving a series of revealing, thoughtful interpretations of her own decision to wear an ungainly swan dress to the Oscars, after decorating her album Vespertine with images of swans. She then immediately disowns these interpretations by claiming that she’s “too much in the middle of” the phenomenon to describe it. In other words, she does what she can to preserve the aura of the symbol of the swan, by protecting it against the corrosive process of becoming conscious of its meanings. However, by doing this, she is actually giving in to us. As everybody knows, the dress Bjork wore to the Oscars was criticized far and wide for being incredibly ugly. It did not look like a dress—it looked like a ridiculous swan costume.
If I interpret this right, Kugelmass argues that we demand a dog-and-pony show from artists in which they disavow their own awareness of what they are doing so that we can all believe they are doing it for reasons both we and the artists would like to assume are real. We want them all to fit the stereotype of outsider artists, working from an untutored and ambition-free impetus. This keeps the artist’s ego and career investments from spoiling our aesthetic experience.
Kugelmass cites this in response to a debate amid academic blogs about the invocation of theory in blogging, and his post nicely performs the method it simultaneously intends to scrutinize. (He invokes some pop culture references—Björk and Daniel Johnston—to elucidate some high-theory-like insights about praxis.) I like it when the form an argument takes reinforces its content, even though it can sometimes seem like a flashy trick—which brings us back to the question of how calculation and spontaneity play into the perception of sincerity. Should academics work like Daniel Johnston, whose mental instablility frees him from the accusation that he is being too calculating in his choice of motifs and topics, and allows us to appreciate them without fretting about how clever Johnston must think he is for coming up with them? (Kugelmass seems to argue that just as we don’t discredit Johnston for logical inconsistency, heterodox use of tropes or choosing ideas that don’t entirely cohere, so we should not dismiss theory for similar sins but seize such criticism as opportunity for clarification. That he can imagine a comparison between what he does and the art Johnston makes implies an equation of criticism with art itself, another can of worms.) I found Kugelmass’s conclusion a bit unhelpful: “As somebody who does theory, I’m obliged to respond that the success of the performance is the truth of the author’s faith.” But what about when the success is being measured in terms of how truthful it seems? The nature of the problem is that we have a hard time separating success from the good or bad faith of the performer—this has been true since moral virtue became a spectator sport in the 18th century. Maybe I’m misunderstanding.
Something other than the ideas themselves always seem to be at stake in discussions of capital-T theory, namely what it is that humanities study is supposed to accomplish. Upon coming across an lit-crit article that foregrounds “trendy” social or literary theory, some reactionaries (me included, at times) assume that it has been forced in to show what a smarty-pants the author thinks he is, that it is not organic to the argument, and thus the writer is making a “bad-faith” argument and is engaged in an intellectual exercise rather than a sincere, impassioned argument. But trying to assess how organic the rhetorical elements of an argument are seems impossible to determine, if not beside the point—it’s applying a piece of critical dogma (literary works should be unified and “organic”; evaulating organic beauty is what we should do in English class) to something it’s not equipped to process. If that line of attack seems too facile, a skeptic will perhaps provoke a definitional skirmish (e.g. what “real” feminism is, what counts as a novel, when the consumer revolution really occurred, etc.) that is less about the subject of the paper than it is about policing academic turf and perpetuating the professional viability of a particular interpretive approach. Perhaps the scariest thing that every graduate student in literature must confront is that, given how subjective the parameters and goals of the field are, every disagreement can be seen as a kind of ego-bruising, academic turf war—how one continues to fight the good fight after having stared into that abyss is the mystery that separates PhDs from ABDs.