Sunday, September 25, 2011

On What is Objective and What is Subjective in Value, (with a nod to fashions)

It is one of the highest marks of a worthy maturity to grow into the ability to detect in culture that which is personal bias and that which is objective truth. It is harder, but equally important, to know what might be fleeting fashion and what might be more permanent.

There are certain objects in the world of culture that admit of objective value. For Christians, for example there is their Bible or good book. Read as a work of poetry, (poetry being that variety of "news that stays news" or convenient lies or fictions that reveals latent or transparent truth) they are correct to see objectivity in it. But read as a truth claim competing with other "good books" from other religions, The Bible becomes a more subjective affair - at least subjective for the communities that follow it.

There are objects in the world of culture though that not only make no discrimination, that admit of no partiality, but that are potentially for all people at all times. Shakespeare's sonnets and plays are an example. Miles Davis' quartet from the sixties is another. The dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is yet another. People that miss the truths in these and similar "warhorses" are as spiritually impoverished as a poor person would be materially impoverished were there to be no food and water.

Every society has its mode. I have written of this before. The mode may be most excellent, may even admit of a certain objectivity, but nevertheless may be a bias and a fashion at one and the same time. The bias of a mode usually consists in what it eliminates, what the mode implicitly or explicitly rejects, critiques or works against. Each age has a largely unconscious bias in favor of its mode.

The cultural or artistic bias of the contemporary period is a bias that makes a taxonomic distinction between the unreal, the counterfeit, the deceitful, the dishonest on the one hand, and the authentic, the natural, the honest, and so on, on the other. Clearly the latter column is to be preferred. On a surface reading of those terms, that might seem to be a distinction involving improvement over other ages, a change that is certainly unobjectionable, if not virtuous.

But things, alas, are never that simple. This myth of the natural/artificial and real/deceitful distinction was brought painfully home during a curious, peculiar, emotionally satisfying and yet frustrating experience on an experimental indie film set.

During the course of the filming I got into a serious argument with several other participants/performers: of course the argument was filmed and maybe to be included in the final cut of the film.

Two problems were in great evidence during the verbal fight. Firstly, my interlocutors were considerably younger than I and this fact seemed to be of little or no importance. That is, they treated me and talked with me as if I were simply a peer and my age was of no significance.

The second problem was that all of us agreed on the status or value of a particular film. Sometimes agreement can be a real problem because easy and unconscious assumptions set in about the nature and and implications of such agreements. The film in question was Robert Kramer's Milestones. Milestones is a hard film to summarize, its greatness is in part its resistance to narrative summary. It is a practically four hour saga of ex radicals and hippies trying to make a life for themselves in the 1970s. The film ends with the birth of a woman in a communal setting, shot in real time, among everybody in the film we had seen throughout the previous hours of film time.

To say it is a moving experience would only begin to chart its considerable virtues.

Now all of my interlocutors on that day of production and I agreed about Milestones. Yet, perhaps because of this we disagreed about nearly everything else. That is, they, I think, wanted every other work of art to be made rather like Milestones. They believed in a kind of myth of raw reality and had an innate suspicion of artifice.

What started the fight was the book group we were filming. This book was the fictional narrative of a couple having phone sex in the early 1990s, VOX by Nicholson Baker.

VOX, some didn't really didn't like. Not because of the sexual content, or the usual Feminist objections. (VOX by the way, was the book Monica Lewinsky gave to President Bill Clinton during their affair, doubtless for his or their masturbatory enjoyment - at least I hope!)

No VOX was a failure because, in the words of one of the young film theorists, "the artifice of story and narrative structure was too exposed, was too much at work".

This was when I became ruthless with the room. I said that the "conceit of narration of two people talking on the phone in Baker's novel is in no way a mark against the novel. It says nothing about why we should dislike or reject the novel. It is a non-argument. You have not proven yet to me why the novel is not a good novel".

"I thought it was uninteresting" he exclaimed.

"You have only told me about your own particular preferences not about the value or lack thereof of the book," I continued.

I said that I found three critical categories close to useless. One was gratuitous, the other was that something was depressing and the third was that something was "pretentious".

They resorted to the usual charges against this novel VOX: that it is false, or invented, that it doesn't show people in all of their immediate purity.

I said that the novel VOX, like the movie Milestones was nothing but a tool. Their complaints told us nothing about the efficacy of the tool.

I said that Milestones' decision as a film to use real locations and nonprofessional political activists as the actors in no way guarantees either a good, great or terrible outcome, anymore than The Harvey Girls' decision to use period costumes and elaborate sets insures a better or worse outcome. I said to think of such things as a toolkit or like colors in a palette. In one experience we deal with a relatively unaltered experience of scruffy everyday bohemians in the 1970s; in The Harvey Girls we deal with colorfully costumed and brightly lit stars who sing and dance and act in a more remote and "stylized" way.

I told them that I loved both the The Harvey Girls and Milestones. They are like two different cuisines or foods. Each gave us a different feeling, radically different, and that perhaps we needed both in some form.

I would concede their point that, in the long scope of history, or in terms of spiritual enrichment, Milestones might have a slight edge, but that was a function of those two films in particular and not a function of whether there are stars in glorious technicolor, or "regulars" in natural and direct light. All of these tools could be used for the greatest or the worst of ends. They were confusing the tools with the end result and they were making a category confusion about various styles. While the nature of the tools surely does contribute to that result, an inquiry into the tool itself is insufficient, at best, to tell us anything about the value of the result. Various styles are different from one another precisely in order to create that difference.

At that moment I confess I wanted to force a viewing of The Harvey Girls upon them. I insisted, in the most earnest way possible, that a viewing of The Harvey Girls could teach them something about their own daily lives in the here and now as anything else of value they could encounter.

I also said that many of the great writers of more than three centuries used clever and conscious narration for the greatest of results. We see what is at work in Fielding, in George Eliot, in Proust and Beckett. I said that, looked at in this way "all is a narrative contrivance".
When I said that a writer who creates a fiction in revolt against narrative contrivance, that in itself is always already dealing with some kind of narrative.

Let me not be misunderstood. I hate - with the greatest passion - the recent and fashionable fetish for the virtues of narrative. I think it does a great damage to our lives, to our politics, and doesn't help much our literature either. Because I see narrative as one tool among others. And I see narrative as providing the structural precondition for an overcoming of narrative.

Thus, in Nicholson Baker's VOX the unreal contrivance of getting two people to talk on the phone and make a whole novel out of that is itself made possible by the entire history of literary art, going back at least to epistolary novels of the 18th century.

It is not narrative or plot that is the enemy. It is the assumption that plot or narrative, in its most simple form is necessary for a "good read".

Indeed, I have no sympathy for the current project to resurrect narrative, either under the auspices of an argument from natural science that narrative is simply human nature, nor the argument that there is some essence to narrative that insures a more "entertaining" or effective outcome.

You might say that I both agreed and disagreed with the room on that day. I might agree with the virtue of certain aesthetic achievements but I disagreed that rebelling or discarding anything of the past is a guarantee of achievement. Surely not any more or less than a slavish repetition of the past is a guarantee of failure.

In the end it is a question of how it is done.

In any case different styles exist for the very reason that different kinds of people exist. It would be an impoverished world were it to consist of a single mode. Indeed, because of the fact that reality is of necessity always partial, always from a particular point of view, we need this difference in order to begin to properly get a sense of anything of a whole.

We do not know it now, but, perhaps, in another twenty years, if we are still around, is it possible that we will look upon our current assumptions regarding the virtue of what we call the real in exactly the same way many of us now regard silent movie acting: as just as much an arbitrary assumption of what matters as anything else?


  1. Thanks for these comments! I may be one of the few people today for whom THE HARVEY GIRLS resonates more directly than many more "naturalistic" movies, as I place great meaning on certain types of visual codes. But of course I see the value in the other - it's just, as you say, a different animal, a different sort of experience or pleasure or mode of communication. Regarding your last idea, that styles now might be regarded as being as quaint as silent movie acting someday, last night I watched Chaplin's THE CIRCUS, and found it more exciting, current, funny, and moving than anything I've seen that's been made in the last 30 years. But that's I think to do with your other idea, that certain artworks such as Shakespeare and Miles Davis (and of course Chaplin) transcend time and style. Likewise, certain contemporary films often already seem dated, quaint, and artificial to me, even in their own time. You are right that great art doesn't date, and that style is only a tool.

  2. I think one reason that older movies often resonate more with me is that it's all been gone over and most of the junk has already been weeded out - that is, the movies that have been preserved and handed down to us are usually the best of the best. Once something is "vintage" we can more clearly see its qualities. That is, we can judge it along with everything else of its time and see how it tells the truth about something or gives an experience more or less effectively than something else. Sometimes though one sees something current and gets that rare feeling of seeing great art, and that's the most exciting feeling, because it connects you with your own time as well as with great art. I think that people often hope that if they work in the style of a master or a film they like, then some of the magic will rub off on them. It really is like magical thinking. I suppose it must work sometimes, but there has to be an organic idea there first, and the style has to fit the idea. Style without an idea never creates much of anything interesting.