Out, Out Damned Spot

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 — let’s just say it — 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.

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6 Responses to Out, Out Damned Spot

  1. chris y says:

    If I could fit that on a tattoo, I’d get it put on my arm

    Some years ago a Guardian TV reviewer expressed this thought as “Titus Andronicus would be a video nasty if it wasn’t Eng. Lit.” I’m sure you could get that on your arm.

  2. Jerry Hamrick says:

    I wonder about “media-effects.” Not so much because I think that violent video games lead to real life violence. I have no idea if they do, but if it could be proved that they do, then there would be no debate.

    But I do wonder about the investment of time. The youngster’s brain is growing and what it spends its time doing must have a effect on its growth, complexity, efficiency, whatever. So what is the best way for a growing brain to spend its time? Playing video games? or something else?

    Once the brain is “grown,” it is too late to change it. There are things that just can’t be reversed and reconstructed in better ways.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Actually there’s research showing that the brain can be retrained or reoriented to a pretty significant extent. But this question of what’s better is subject to the same kind of externalized tests. Was the world better (or human beings better) when the brains of youngsters were doing something else? Is it better where children mostly don’t play video games? Don’t really see any evidence for that–not more efficient, not more moral, not more creative. What we’re left with is people who are convinced that they personally are more moral, creative, efficient or something else because they didn’t or don’t play video games, and guessing that the world would be better if more people were just like them. This is a guess that requires extraordinary evidence, not just self-confidence.

  4. Jerry Hamrick says:

    The idea of retraining brains reminds me of the ideas of I. W. Charny. He is a practicing clinical psychologist, a professor of psychology and family therapy at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, executive director of the Institute on Genocide and the Holocaust in Jerusalem, and president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars. In the first paragraph of the Introduction to his book “Fascism & Democracy in the Human Mind, A Bridge between Mind and Society,” he has identified two general types of human minds.

    He likens their development to computer software in which we are given a certain version of mind software at birth and our life experiences act upon that original software and shape it into one of the two types of minds. Charny also asserts that psychotherapy can convert one type of human mind to another. His two types of human minds are: Fascist Mind and Democratic Mind.

    Charny describes how psychotherapy can be used to convert a Fascist Mind to a Democratic Mind. I hope he is right. But even if he is, I don’t think that such conversions will ever have much impact upon society at large. There is no doubt that there are many humans who have fascist or tyrannical tendencies and it would take thousands of psychotherapists, working over many years, to change millions of Fascist Minds into Democratic Minds. Unless and until some fast, reliable mechanism for preventing or changing Fascist Minds can be developed we need to focus on getting it right the first time.

    So again, I ask, how should the developing brain spend its time?

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Semi-seriously, I answer: however it wants. Up to a point. I don’t really buy that there are fixed types of minds, etc in the sense that you describe. If there are, video games (or violent representations in general) don’t have much to do with their production: there have been periods in European cultural history where cultural representation was extraordinarily violent in its content that didn’t seem to be particularly given over to mass authoritarianism (in fact, arguably one of the periods where certain kinds of violent texts spread rapidly was associated with the appearance of modern democratic movements, and certain kinds of heavy bowdlerization and censoring of cultural representation, including violent content, coincides rather notably with the rise of modern fascism.)

    As far as developing minds go, I think children are pretty resilient, and that violence is a pretty powerful part of their lives, even in societies with low levels of criminal or military violence. I think there are bullies in Sweden, too. Video games in particular may create a different culture than the culture of television or radio or pulp magazines or chataquas but different isn’t bad unless, again, you’re overly convinced that your personal moment in time is and must be the very best that there was or could be.

  6. Jerry Hamrick says:

    Charny described the two minds, not me. And I shouldn’t have mentioned violent video games at all, I can see now. I am not asking the question personally, nor am I answering on that basis. Perhaps you are. Do you play violent video games?

    My question is not a personal one. My question is one about education. How should a developing mind spend its time? Asked another way, can such a brain spend too much time on the wrong things? In other words, does the way a developing brain spends its time matter enough that we, society, should focus on that? When I was trained as a teacher a half-century ago, such a discussion was not known.

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