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Postmodernism Is Good, Actually
1. J R
After lugging the book around with me from country to country for decades, I finally committed to “doing the work” and have just finished reading William Gaddis’s J R, the American author’s 770-page glossolalic masterpiece, which first appeared twenty years after his 1955 debut, The Recognitions.
I don’t think I should try to summarize the work. There is a collaborative online concordance that I have consulted throughout my reading of it, and I admit that at many points I would have been completely lost without this resource. It will suffice to relate that the story revolves around the titular J R, a middle-school kid somewhere in Long Island (Gaddis’s own Massapequa, we may plausibly speculate), who takes a field trip with his class to Wall Street, gets hooked on the vision of American life on display there, and proceeds to build a massive business empire of his own, at the age of twelve, by using the school payphone (first recording his voice on tape and playing it back to his business-world contacts at a slower speed and thus deeper sonority, simulating post-pubescence), as well as the services of a desperate and underpaid composer, Edward Bast, who had temporarily been employed to prepare the kids for a school production of Wagner’s Rheingold, of all unlikely things.
The primary concern of the book is to explore all the ways that our incessant pursuit of money corrupts, perverts, and often simply negates our deeper and truer imperative to create things of beauty in this life. Bast is condemned to juggling numerous “side-hustles”, as we would call them today, not only the one spearheaded by the fanatical junior capitalist, but also some undignified project of coming up with theme music for a promotional film for an industrial magnate who would like to release hippopotamuses and zebras into the American heartland so that trophy hunters will no longer have to go to Africa.
The novel is made up almost exclusively of dialogue. There are no real descriptions of the characters, neither of their visible physiognomies nor of their inner lives, and almost everyone speaks by using just a handful of catchphrases and repeating the same stunted half-thoughts over and over again. Jack Gibbs, the failed alcoholic writer, announces his arrival each time by saying “God damned” again and again; the homeless drug addict Rhoda says “man”; J R himself is known through his signature “hey”, “this here”, “holy”, and “holy shit”. Entire pages are given over to talk about redeeming dividend coupons from defunct mines, to freestyle accounts of the ins-and-outs of a career in the wallpaper wholesaling industry, and other such soul-crushing, art-crushing matters as these.
Gaddis himself worked for the twenty years between The Recognitions and J R for such capitalist powerhouses as Pfizer and IBM, and his own character seems to be distributed across at least four of the characters in the book: Gibbs with his “God damned”; Bast himself; Schramm, who early on commits suicide by shoving a pencil into his eye and jumping out a window; and Tom Eigen, who is in some sense the most normal of this group, who continually tells Gibbs to cool it with his nihilistic and hilarious tirades, and who seems to have written a masterpiece of American literature some years before that positioned him as a “genius” even if it sold extremely poorly — when Eigen is told his first book is being read all over the country in college classes, he replies that they must all be sharing the same copy.
If I may compare this work to a more familiar and accessible entertainment, although much of J R takes place in at least a semi-real New York City, with frequent rides on the LIRR back to a somewhat more thoroughly fictionalized Massapequa, the universe of the novel looks somewhat like the Springfield of The Simpsons, where the same finite cast of characters keeps crossing one another and finding their lives spontaneously and chronically interconnected in profound ways (Lisa Simpson with a framed photo of Apu the convenience-store guy by her bedside, for example), and where in spite of these depths every individual proves to be obdurately two-dimensional — where identity turns out to be just the meager collection of dumb catchphrases we cling to for dear life —“Eat my shorts”, “Doh”, or even just “Ha-ha”— for fear of the void that should be left if we ever stopped reciting them.
In a critical review of the work, Don DeLillo somewhat resents, but nonetheless understands the rationale for Gaddis’s artistic choice to flatten human souls out into jabbering broken caricatures: “[I]t seemed to me at first,” DeLillo writes, “that Gaddis was working against his own gifts for narration and physical description, leaving the great world behind to enter the pigeon-coop clutter of minds intent on deal-making and soul-swindling.” The characters are flattened in this way because the world we live in flattens us in this way. Postmodernism is a sort of realism.
There are a few perfectly sublime moments in J R that seem to rise up like rare surges of haut-relief from this flattened landscape, that seem to speak to the possibility, even under current conditions of universal immiseration and philistinism, of the triumph of art. One is when Gibbs has a sexual encounter with Amy Joubert, who throughout the novel somehow seems to be the only human being whose living soul continues to glow and to make itself known even in the midst of all the pigeon-coop clutter. This appears to be the only successful sex act in the entire novel, alongside countless abortive ones; it leaves fingernail grooves on Jack’s back, and momentarily brings about a suspension of what we might call the “catchphrase economy” that is the general rule of human interaction, which is felt most movingly when he attempts to say to her: “I love you” (though she seems not really to hear him). One is reminded here of the single instant in Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), a film that consists entirely in still images, except for a single moment when the woman, on whom the fate of the world depends, is lying in bed and her eyes, like a hallucination, visibly come to life and we see her blink.
The other great rupture in the novel is the one that begins perhaps 80% of the way through with the excruciatingly long scene that plays out in the dingy, cluttered East 96th Street apartment that Gibbs has rented, under the alias Hyman Grynszpan, that Rhoda is using as a flophouse, that Bast is trying to use to compose an opera or a cantata, that J R has set up as the de-facto headquarters of the J R Family of Companies, and so on. The scene plays out with these and other various characters coming and going, deliverymen with indoor golf equipment (which J R thinks Bast needs to train himself up on in order better to represent him in the corporate world), SEC agents with subpoenas, picturephone installation servicemen with weed.
The whole apartment appears to be cluttered nearly to the ceiling with unopened mail; the bathtub and the sink are both broken and the water is constantly flowing; there’s a radio somewhere announcing news of the shake-up J R Corp has brought about in the markets; and there’s even a piano hidden somewhere under all the cartons of Mazola and 2-ply toilet tissue, and all the unopened mail. Rhoda keeps starting to have sex with all the men who come by, or indignantly refuses to have sex with them. Jack comes from the hospital and tells the others he’s been diagnosed with leukemia and only has months to live. Eventually Bast returns from some unnamed western state, where J R had sent him to negotiate with an unnamed Indian tribe for land-use privileges, a mission that resulted in a hostage crisis; and finally J R himself shows up in a limousine, having slipped away from a school field trip to the Museum of Natural History.
The whole slow unfolding of this scene reminded me of nothing so much as the single-shot fight sequence in Oldboy (2003): exhausting and magnificent, it is a pure distillation of the essence of the work as a whole. The scene finally winds down when Bast gets into J R’s limo, still in his feathered “Indian costume”, and the two are driven to Penn Station and from there get on the train back to Long Island. They’ve absconded with some of the clutter of the apartment, including numerous tape recordings of the past months’ phone calls, which, J R thinks, they’re going to need to review in anticipation of the SEC investigation. But Bast has recorded Bach’s Cantata BWV 21 over a key bit of dialogue, and at some point during the train ride he gets the idea to compel J R to listen to it.
The two spill out at their destination and discover it’s too late for taxis, so set off on a walk across empty fields that repeats the scene early in the novel in which the young entrepreneur had first pressured his music teacher into working for him. Bast is suffering from pneumonia and fatigue and, for the first time in the novel, is fighting back. Up until now Bast has been the only character without any clear catchphrase, but who has consistently been too meek and put-upon ever to finish an entire sentence before someone else smothers his intention with a catchphrase of their own.
So, sitting down in the open field, as it begins to rain and Bast sinks into delirium, conversation with the boy, on page 694, finally takes a new turn:
—No but holy shit Bast! this here tape was…
—I don’t care what it was! I didn’t know I had it I forgot I’d even sit still! Now listen. Once, just once you’re going to listen to something that…
—No but ho…
—And stop saying holy shit! it’s all you, you want to hear holy you’re going to hear it wind the tape back, just once you’re going to keep quiet and listen to a piece of music by one of…
—No but look hey I’m cold I mean how can we sit out here in the dark and lis…
But Bast forces the kid:
—[L]isten all I want you to do take your mind off these nickel deductions these net tangible assets for a minute and listen to a piece of great music, it’s a cantata by Bach cantata number twenty-one by Johann Sebastian Bach damn it J R can’t you understand what I’m trying to, to show you there’s such a thing as as, as intangible assets? what I was trying to tell you that night the sky do you remember it? walking back from that rehearsal the whole sense of, of sheer wonder in the Rhinegold do you remember it?
So they listen, and when it’s over J R of course asks:
—Is that all?
And Bast pushes him to relate what he has just heard, but J R hesitates, and when Bast asks him why he is afraid even to try we are given a brief glimpse of the boy’s fragility:
—Because you’ll get mad I mean you’re already mad! I mean I, everything I say you get mad somebody gets mad I mean how come everybody’s always getting mad at me! What am I sup, hey wait I thought you’re going to sit here a minute I mean just because I …
—It doesn’t matter!
—No but wait up hey! I mean all this stuff, I…
—Leave it there what good is it!
—No but if they subpoen it I mean I have to get it back in my locker at school for this here whole…
Bast is marching away, and the kid feels terrible and tries his best to say what he’s heard:
—Okay okay! I mean what I heard first there’s all this high music right? So then this here lady starts singing up yours up yours so then this man starts singing up mine, then there’s some words so she starts singing up mine up mine so he starts singing up yours so then they go back and forth like that up mine up yours up mine up yours that’s what I heard! I mean you want me to hear it again?
—See I knew you’d…
—Never want you to hear it again I never want to hear it again myself! you, everything you ruin everything you touch!
Again, to simplify things, Bast represents art and beauty, and J R represents America, capitalism, our contemporary situation, etc. But he’s also a kid, and his failure here is utterly heartbreaking. Up until now only the beautiful, humane Amy Joubert has been touched by whatever tragic impulse has led J R down the path of monomaniacal greed — as J R relates to Bast now, out in the field, she had at one point grabbed him,
to make me look at the sky where she’s pointing see back there? that top of that like round white thing lit up back of those trees back there she’s holding me against her tit pointing at it so I can’t hardly breathe telling me see the moon over there coming up? is there this millionaire for that?
J R had been explaining to her excitedly that, for everything you see —lockers, payphones—, there’s a millionaire behind it. Even pressed against the warmth of the lovely Amy Joubert’s bosom J R could not appreciate the moon (in a similar situation at the age of twelve, I myself would not have been thinking about the moon either, but neither would I have been thinking about lockers and payphones), so there was just no way in hell Bast was ever going to awaken any appreciation for Bach’s cantata and the soprano who sang “Ach, nein”.
The kid’s soul is simply unreachable — he only wills one thing. But there’s purity in that, as Kierkegaard understood, and one finds oneself in a queer state of suspension throughout the novel, never quite willing to throw it all in for the art-and-beauty team, and always feeling, uneasily, that J R himself, and plausibly J R itself, is among the greatest artistic creations one could imagine, and that any system as soul-crushing as the one that produced him/it does not so much kill the soul as channel it into deliriously perverse pursuits, of which both J R and J R, both American capitalism and great American art of the late twentieth century, are the strange perverted fruits.
2. The Interpretation of Cultures
Is there anyone stupider than the right-wing online culture-warrior who has no other language for criticizing the current illiberal deviation among elite political progressives than to call it “postmodernist”? There is nothing postmodernist about our elite’s current fondness for identity-mongering, and if dimwitted opportunists like James Lindsay and Christopher Rufo knew just a tiny bit about the words they were using, they would be embarrassed at the realization of how much more they would still have to learn in order to use them competently.
In fact, I would say, this tendency that Lindsay and Rufo are bemoaning with their inarticulate moos, that has taken over our elite cultural institutions in the course of the past decade, is really just a further development of the same sinister forces of neoliberal capitalism that J R was stoking, and J R was lampooning, a half-century ago. Is there any more vivid expression of the reduction of lived reality to two-dimensional catchphrases than the one conveyed in a sentence beginning with, “Speaking as an X …”? Our entire social reality is built up out of catchphrases now, and the people who really ought to be criticizing this nightmarish condition have instead abnegated their duty as intellectuals and have taken on the task of enforcing the repetition of certain catchphrases and of muffling other ones. And there is really no one left to perform that last doomed heroic gesture of Bast’s, and to force us to hear something truly beautiful through all the noise, incessant and insane, of the Discourse.
A week ago I published a little trifle of speculative metafiction, as I do sometimes, satirizing one small strand of the Discourse, the one that seeks to compel us to believe in one or the other rigid dogma about human gender identity, to allow ourselves to be impaled on one or the other horn of a patently false and unnecessary dilemma. I prefaced this little creative-writing exercise with an entirely non-fictional quote from the great American cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, whose The Interpretation of Cultures appeared in 1973, two years before J R. This work, while not avowedly postmodernist, nonetheless was representative of a turn in American anthropology that emerged in parallel to French poststructuralism — in the American context the “postness” of it could remain relatively muted, since there had never been an American counterpart of Lévi-Strauss to make the thing that came before quite so hegemonic. But the shared spirit with poststructuralism in anthropology, or with postprocessualism in archaeology, or any other local inflection of the broad turn to postmodernism in the culture, was clear enough: Geertz saw language more as a “play of forces” than as a vehicle for the exchange of contentful information. We’re all a bunch of jabbering caricatures; the trick is to figure out why certain social actors come to inhabit the caricatures they do, and others others.
So Geertz pushed in favor of a method of “thick description” in ethnography, one that seeks to unravel the subjective meanings of terms as used within a given culture, rather than focusing on the framing “structures” that motivate these terms, as an earlier generation had done. For a thick-descriptionist, the point is not to “take at face value” what an informant from a given culture says about that culture, but it is nonetheless to seek to decipher that culture by starting from its expressed values, from the way it generates its own significances.
Today this approach to understanding culture —taking seriously, and respecting, what you do not necessarily take as true— is virtually absent, and desperately needed. Whether you are observing a Balinese cockfight or a Wall Street board meeting or a sexual-harassment-prevention training session at an American university, you will find people saying and assuming all sorts of crazy things about what is going on, about human nature, about which social actors are supposed to be doing what. It’s the duty of the intellectual to take everyone in these settings seriously, to value them as human beings, and at the same time to do our best to figure out what is really going on that has brought them all together to talk and act in precisely this way. That duty is betrayed whenever a would-be intellectual begins to take any of these settings for granted.
I thought the framing of my fiction would be enough to make the spirit of it clear — if “the Nocturnals” were in fact to appear on the scene, I would be into it! If the Manis and the Pedis were to come along and start jamming our ordinary procedures for things —such as how we take our ID photos— by publicly questioning the primacy of the face in its power to condense and to convey a reliable signal of our personal identity, I would say: Well done! It’s good whenever people come along and complicate things, for the baseline assumptions with which they are dissatisfied are in fact always baseless. Culture is always a web of individually untenable beliefs, which generally work just fine until anyone stops to notice and interrogate them.
The fiction did not make any significant waves, as often happens, but the trickle of muted responses I received generally took a similar grave tone, and told me in chorus-like harmony that the very idea I was bringing forward —that the current gender discourse in elite Anglophone progressive settings is by no means the final definitive discovery of the true way of thinking about gender identity, but only a contextually and historically contingent, and almost certainly ephemeral, response to a rapidly shifting material, economic, and technological landscape, and it is selected from among infinitely many possible ways of conceptualizing our embodied existence and the differences between different forms of embodiment— that this very idea, I was saying, was a “cancellable” transgression against prevailing norms. What can I say? Up yours?
Honestly, the fact that our culture is currently so preoccupied with the masculine and the feminine, the gay and the straight, the cis and the trans, is the direct result of a particular history, which only comes into focus over the course of the nineteenth century, with Kraft-Ebbing’s discovery of “sexual psychopathology”, and soon enough with Freud’s discovery of the libidinous subconscious. The twentieth century would seek to undo the theoretical frameworks built on these notions —indeed all the various “posts” we have already evoked were often focused on overcoming these purportedly timeless structures in favor of submerged and more difficult-of-access narratives of self-constitution. But these “overcomings” generally had more the character of radicalizations, and into the twenty-first century we seemed unable to escape the presumption that sexuality is “where it’s at” when it comes to identifying the locus of our identity, of what makes us who we are in this world.
One might argue now that the prohibition on exploring a possible connection between autogynephilia and certain experiences of trans identity marks a final break with the Victorian era’s yoking of identity to desire. But this is mostly an arcanum, and overwhelmingly in our present era we remain within a framework that takes the ultimate question of who we are to be intimately connected to the cluster of attributes surrounding both our sexual orientation and our gender expression — more intimately, it often seems, than, say, the God we pray to, the class habitus that shaped us, the sort of animals we dream of at night, or the way we feel when we look at the moon. But again, it didn’t have to be this way at all — our current preoccupations are entirely contingent.
As far as I can tell, Foucault’s analysis of the history of sexuality is basically correct. For one thing, while there was certainly a lot of sex going on in the seventeenth century —just read Samuel Pepys—, there was vastly less theoretical reflection on what it is that’s going on when people are having sex, let alone when they are engaged in more abstract or higher-level forms of public presentation of the self that seem to have something to do with sex even if it is difficult to say exactly what (e.g., in our own era, wearing patent leather boots, or an earring in this or that ear rather than the other). We could instead have ended up in a situation where the Discourse had become singularly preoccupied with difference of opinion as to the precise location in the body of the locus of personal identity, or we could have seen a broad social movement preoccupied with making the nighttime equally suitable as the day for human thriving. That’s all I wanted to suggest in the little story, and if that’s cancellable, my friends, well then I might as well jam a pencil into my eye socket, for we really are, all of us, quite screwed.
What often happens, in this general condition of abnegation of duty on the part of intellectuals, is that they end up producing work that has the external appearance of “getting to the bottom of things”, of analyzing concepts and figuring out what’s really going on, while in fact only helping to buttress the normative commitments of the community to which they already belong and whose presumptions they share on a priori grounds. In this respect much moral and political philosophy, in particular, is, as Brian Leiter nicely puts it, really just the production of handbooks of bourgeois etiquette (I disagree with Leiter’s tactics of debate in profound ways, even as I sometimes must concede that he is right about certain things).
I won’t name names here, because, well, I’m not Brian Leiter and I really, sincerely do not like antagonizing other people, even when I think they’re dead wrong, but I was recently struck by the argument of a piece co-written by two prominent philosophers on the pragmatics and ethics of gender ascription. I was struck, as I often am, by the total anthropological illiteracy of philosophers, which systematically transforms our culturally specific preoccupations into universal problems for humanity as such. At one point in the article the authors ask us to imagine a hypothetical village where there is no institution of adoption, and the only conceptually available notion of a parent-child relation is the one that is grounded in conception and parturition. So in this village we are asked to imagine the following dialogue:
Villager: Wait, so these are not your parents?
Child: Yes, these are my parents. (Parents agree [!].)
Villager: No, they are not your parents. They took you in but they are not your real parents.
Child: They are my real parents! I am their child!
I simply could not hold back from inserting that first exclamation point in square brackets: notice that here the authors have simply presumed the correctness of the definition of “parent” that prevails in our culture, the one that recognizes both adoptive and biological parenthood as parenthood simpliciter. An approach such as this would not have got Geertz very far. If he had landed in such a village, and heard someone insisting on the exclusivity of biological parenthood, he would have asked: Why? What does this reveal about the village as a whole? What does the world look like to this villager? The authors of this article don’t care what the world looks like to him; they are simply here to tell you that he is wrong, and they know better.
In reality what the anthropological record shows is that our own culture is relatively more averse than many or perhaps most to adoption as a path to parenthood. But many among these other cultures have procedures for adoption that, to be blunt, would make the abduction of Elizabeth Smart appear perfectly above-board by comparison. In the wars that long raged between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Hurons, a standard form of social reproduction was the “adoption” of prisoners of war, but in order to be fully integrated into this new tribal and kinship affiliation, a captive had first to undergo an elaborate and grueling phase of ritual torture — getting roasted on a spit, having his or her fingers broken one by one, and so on. Many died, the ones who did not became family. What if the authors of this paper were to encounter a person who had been adopted in this way? Would they be prepared to ascribe parenthood to the former torturers? If not, why not? Do they know better than the Hurons?
But what most struck me in this article was another throwaway allusion that was surely meant by the authors to passer inaperçu, even as it seemed to me to reveal the whole underhanded plot. “We are claiming,” they write, “that calling someone a man is more like calling him a friend or saying ‘I bet you five dollars’ than it is like calling him tall.” The idea here is that affirming friendship with someone is not a matter of identifying an attribute that preexists within them, but rather of actively generating and maintaining the relationship of friendship by means, at least in part, of the utterance. So, “You are my friend” is an irreducibly social thing to say, and it would be preposterous for a third party to seek to deny the claim by inspecting the properties of the person of whom it is said, and the idea is that “You are a man” works somewhat in the same way. Fair enough.
Let’s forget about the five-dollar bet, but what now about calling someone “tall”? It is not at all hard for me to imagine a human culture that makes a sharp distinction between, let us say, metrical height on the one hand, and social height on the other, and that does so in such a way that for all practical purposes a “socially tall” person may be recognized as “taller than” a person who is metrically taller than he is. Let us suppose this culture is one where people are constantly having to line up from shortest to tallest. An ignorant outsider who might arrive could be expected to say, at first: “You guys are doing it all wrong! The person at the tallest end of the line-up is significantly shorter than some of the ones in the middle! What’s wrong with you people!” Then, on further investigation, perhaps using the method of Geertzian thick description, it would little by little become clear that other criteria are in play for the ascription of the predicate “tall” to a person than simply their metrical height: their social “standing”, for example, or perhaps whether they have had children, or been struck by lightning, or speared a pregnant elk. The possibilities are endless.
I’m not saying it’s good or sensible to approach height in this way, but only that, from behind the veil of ignorance, if I were a disembodied culture-independent intellect who had no greater familiarity with twenty-first-century Americans than with seventeenth-century Hurons, or with the culture that distinguishes between metrical height and social height, I would see absolutely no reason to put “is tall” in a different category of predicates than “is a man”. It’s all social! And because it’s all social, there is simply no point in trying to free up certain predicates, but not others, from their anchorage in reality on the grounds that, unlike with these others, reality is irrelevant.
The problem is not that there simply is no reality to anchor language, or that language is entirely free-floating and indifferent to reality, but only that as culture-bound humans we will continue to find infinite variations from one group to another as to which concepts are in urgent need of anchorage, and which by contrast we may use to indulge our inventivity. So I’m just not going to play along and talk as if invention is discovery (though curiously many European languages run these two notions together), and as if we may be confident in expecting that the “discoveries” we have made recently that have led to significant transformations in the way our culture talks about gender identity may be expected to perdure indefinitely.
I’m sorry, but if human beings are alive a few centuries from now, they are not going to be identifying themselves as “ace/aro” or whatever. They probably won’t be thinking in terms of “gay” or “straight” or “cis” or “trans” either. There’s a good chance they won’t even be thinking in terms of “human” and “animal” and “machine”. Things are going to change, radically. I think almost everybody knows this, and acknowledges it at least sotto voce. But the general rule in our current elite circles is to maintain a grim face of what might be called “performative realism”, as if political justice for marginalized communities depended on our acting as if the language currently used to describe those communities tapped into fundamental reality.
So again I’m sorry, but I just don’t think that’s what intellectuals should be doing. For one thing, it’s based on a false premise — you secure political justice for marginalized communities not by strong-arming everyone into affirming the same account of what those communities are, an account that often fails to rise above the level of caricature, but by fair legislation and by improving their material conditions. But beyond these practical considerations, it is simply dishonest, and to permit a culture of dishonesty leads, over time, to far greater injustices than the ones we currently believe we are battling.
So I find myself in this weird predicament of being an old-fashioned social-constructionist Foucauldian postmodernist, having constantly to hear the word “postmodernist” misused by dumb-ass right-wingers, and having constantly to stand by and watch self-described political progressives curdle and harden into what I take to be the most rigid sort of unplayful hyperrealists (whether this is how they think of themselves or not) about at least certain varieties of language use.
I understand that those who share the outlook of the authors of the article I’ve cited know how to beat a strategic retreat, and to insist that they are not concerned with “the metaphysics of gender”, but only with political justice. But this doesn’t exactly help us to understand why so many low-information normies from traditional backgrounds, who mean well but keep saying the wrong things, say, about the timeless differences between men and women, and the natural givenness of the evidence for these differences, are so consistently and ruthlessly excoriated by the new vanguard. What those normies are saying is very close to what you would find in, say, eighteenth-century Yakutia, or in pre-contact Huronia: just sort of the default binarism of human societies in almost all times and places (see Rodney Needham’s excellent Right and Left: Essays on Dual Symbolic Classification (also 1973), if you don’t believe me). Give them a break.
3. “How it’s done”
Until recently intellectuals knew what to do with ambiguous material. This knowledge was often very effective in combating the thick-skulled dogmatism of the right. Thus when some provincial yahoos somewhere were up in arms about a Mapplethorpe exhibit that showed a man urinating into another man’s mouth, the philosopher and art-critic Arthur Danto (one of my long-ago Columbia mentors and inspirations) could look at the work and calmly observe that its triptychal structure and other subtle visual cues placed the “pornographic” image in a long line of religious iconography. He made the same ingenious move with Andres Serrano’s notorious Piss Christ — what a moving and powerful work of Catholic devotional art! was the general tone of Danto’s review.
There’s nobody making this sort of move today, as far as I can tell. In part this has to do with the near total disappearance from the radars of the progressive left of any interest in what might be called the avant-garde. The left is almost entirely absorbed in critiquing and bickering about the most inane industrial productions of popular mass entertainment, just like everybody else. One way of seeing this is, again, as the culmination of the process that J R was stoking fifty years ago — the forces that J R was lampooning won, decisively and permanently, and nobody even thinks anymore, to listen, but really listen, for the beauty that can still squeak through the tubes of even the most spiritually impoverishing new technologies.
Another prominent philosopher could recently be spotted on Twitter praising the pop star Lizzo for her willingness to alter a new song’s lyrics upon learning from her fans that she had unwittingly deployed the ableist term “spaz”. Hardly our era’s subtlest cultural critic, but with a strong and evidently settled sense of which norms deserve enforcement and which do not, this philosopher took to social media to declare her telegraphic approval.
“How it’s done”, the philosopher wrote, as she quote-tweeted Lizzo’s own big announcement: “I’m proud to say there’s a new version of GRRRLS with a lyric change. This is the result of me listening and taking action.” More recently, Taylor Swift has been compelled to remove an image from her new music video for “Anti-Hero” that was deemed by the online swarm to be “fat-shaming” (it concerned her own struggles with body dysmorphia), and even “Queen Bey” herself has been pressured into altering her lyrics to better accommodate contemporary sensibilities, which if nothing else calls into question the legitimacy of her claim to the throne.
Is this in fact “how it’s done”? It is, perhaps, if you think of your artistic work as something that can be crowdsourced. It is not, if you see your role as an artist as one that involves saying what you mean, and only what you mean, in the first place. Have you not felt out the full connotative range of the words you’re using, but must wait until the artwork that includes them is already out there in the world to be judged, and to be modified as needed in order to fit with the ever-mutating cluster of normative demands among the people who supposedly “follow” you, which is to say in order to fit yourself to the fickle demands of the marketplace?
That is one way to go about your career, I suppose, but it constitutes such a radical break with the ideal of art as to amount, for me, to a simple change of subject. It is not that there were not gross bowdlerizations in the past, or that Frank Sinatra did not at one point have to sing “Some like that perfume from Spain” when what he meant was “Some get a kick from cocaine”, but only that today the market has managed to streamline the process by convincing performers to self-bowdlerize, and even to believe that in doing so they are working in the service of our moral betterment.
You will find far, far worse than the word “spaz” in J R, and this really just follows from the fact that this novel is a work of art doing what art does: picking at open wounds.
I gather from the internet that many of my American peers have strong, if likely fleeting, opinions about Barbenheimer, which half of this beast deserves the greater part of praise, which is “problematic”, and so on. I might watch Barbie on an airplane at some point, and I might even come away with the conviction that Greta Gerwig has achieved something at least modestly akin to what Gaddis was after: a demonstration of the massive challenge of bringing something beautiful into the world under such shitty conditions of ubiquitous product placement, algorithms, financial maximizing, in short the ideology incarnated by young J R.
I will not see Oppenheimer, as I can tell just from the previews that it is yet another of these middle-brow vehicles of the sort I first noticed with the deplorable 2002 film The Hours, that tells us exactly what to feel at each second by the use of heavy-handed visual cues and over-the-top theme music. I can just tell it’s stupid, and like the abominably dull Joker (2019) succeeds mostly by giving middle-brow viewers multiple opportunities to congratulate themselves on their own knowingness. I know I’m being particularly blunt today, and I’m sorry about that, but again I just don’t think these are the sort of creations intellectuals should be paying attention to.
We eggheads used to understand that art is the best hope we have in this low world for a truly autonomous sphere, and that this autonomy is nowhere pushed further than in the productions of the avant-garde. Accordingly, avant-garde artists rejected mass entertainments, or at least did not engage with them as if they were the best thing on offer.
In fact the sorry truth is that they may well be the best thing on offer, simply because the forces that produced them have absolutely bulldozed the last surviving hopes for art as a sphere of autonomous creation. But if that’s the case, well, then at least we have an archive of how things used to be, of postmodern novels from the late twentieth century, for example, which we are still free, for now, to go back and consult at our leisure, in order to remind ourselves how irreducibly complicated, and ultimately insaisissable, artists and intellectuals once knew the world to be.
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In other news, I was delighted to make my first appearance (I think) in Vogue, not as a ravishing model, alas, which of course would have been preferable, but, again, as an egghead, in the very thoughtful Maya Singer’s recent piece on Ozempic, algorithms, and all kinds of other stuff.