Is there anything more grating than an interpretation whose language slips and innocently anoints its analysis with the status of a fact?
I’m sure I noticed this pattern in the letters to the editor in this week’s New York Times Book Review because they were complaining about Laura Kipnis’ review of Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty.
Kipnis’ review started off with a wonderfully bracing slap to that most tedious kind of middlebrow NPR-listening muddled complaint against mass culture: “Well-meaning laments about violence in the media usually leave me wanting to bash someone upside the head with a tire iron. To begin with, the reformist spirit is invariably aimed down the rungs of cultural idioms, at cartoons, slasher films, pornography, rap music and video games, while the carnage and bloodletting in Shakespeare, Goya and the Bible get a pass.” Kipnis continues, “Low-culture violence coarsens us, high-culture violence edifies us. And the lower the cultural form, or the ticket price, or â€” letâ€™s just say it â€” the presumed education level of the typical viewer, the more depictions of violence are suspected of inducing mindless emulation in their audiences, who will soon re-enact the mayhem like morally challenged monkeys, unlike the viewers of, say, ‘Titus Andronicus,’ about whose moral intelligence society is confident.”
If I could fit that on a tattoo, I’d get it put on my arm, just to save time the next time I want to say roughly the same thing, which my friends and colleagues can tell you is about once a day.
It’s just about as predictable that after saying it, you can expect some kind of rebuke from purveyors of the conventional wisdom, often one that speaks past rather than to the original critic.
When I’ve been on panels about media-effects arguments, I’ve always been a bit amused at the gentle chaos that articulating a critique like Kipnis’ tends to sow among researchers or audience members who follow the standard line. They’re ready for dramatic self-righteousness if by some chance an executive or producer from the culture industry should happen to show up and disagree, but not for zooming off in a more perpendicular direction, such as a more academic dismantling of the methodology or conclusions of long-standing media-effects work, or Kipnis’ point about how much criticism of violence in mass media is rather open in its pimping for high-culture snobbery.
As an example of what that gentle chaos can lead to, Josephine Hendin’s response to Kipnis is a really prime example of the aforementioned rhetorical transposition of an act of interpretation with a statement of a fact. Moreover, because Hendin talking about violence, art and popular culture, she does a pretty fair job in two paragraphs of demonstrating why there was a scholarly revolt against limiting the subject of literary study to high-culture works.
Hendin complains that Kipnis “does not clearly distinguish” between valuable artistic uses of violence and “shock value”. I’m sorry, were literary critics the people who were supposed to be especially skilled at close reading? Because as a starting observation, this leaves me a bit confused. Kipnis starts off her book review rather clear on this point: she thinks this distinction is bollocks. So perhaps Hendin meant to say, “I don’t agree with Kipnis: I’m going to argue that there is a distinction”. See, speaking of distinction, I think there’s one between saying, “I don’t agree with you” and “you didn’t make my argument and made your own instead, so I think you’re being unclear”.
The rest of the letter has the same problem: interpretations are converted by some invisible table into empirical data. I understand, it’s a two-paragraph letter, and not a monograph. But it’s not that hard to find monographs by literary critics that make the same rhetorical slip for hundreds of pages, refusing to characterize or imagine a claim as an interpretation and instead stating it as something which is. “Much of pop culture is about endemic desensitization to anything but the action of violence”. Much? Well, what have you got in mind? Tomb Raider and Andy Warhol, really? Not what I’d call major foundation stones of contemporary popular culture, but that’s how these arguments usually work: highbrow critics and audiences reach out desperately for the one or two pop culture texts or properties that they have some paratextual familiarity with, maybe from a panel four years ago at the MLA or from their teenage child’s unrefined cultural consumption.
“Does not clearly distinguish” is of a rhetorical piece with some of my least favorite repeated phrases in undergraduate papers. For example, the venerable favorite: that the author of a text “forgot” to make an important point in that work. For some reason, my students think this is a gentler, fuzzier way to say that the author is wrong on some important point, while also hoping that they will keep me from noticing that they don’t really have a fully worked-out understanding of what is wrong with the author’s argument. What I point out to my students is that this is both a more condescending characterization than simply saying that they disagree with the text (I’d rather be argued with than have it insinuated that I didn’t do my work properly) and it calls attention to rather than disguises a lack of command over the issues.
I agree that direct and declarative language is a good thing, whatever the length of an analysis. But it’s important to use language that always recalls what interpretation really is, and what it’s not. One of the requirements of that language is self-awareness. By all means generalize, but know that it’s you that’s doing it.