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Because YOU (well, Charles) Demanded It!

In the comments-thread attached to my post from a couple of days ago, Charles R. asked (and there’s some backstory to this in the preceding comments):



It’s irrelevant whether there’s an infinite amount of possible interpretations. There’s not an infinite amount of existing ones that apply equally well for evaluating all particular readings. Otherwise, you’ve no grounds to say some readings are less valid than others. You’ve already eliminated the text (“the only limitations on a text are the ones put there by readers”), so there must be some extratextual basis for rejecting some interpretations as being inferior to others. Why must there be? Well, why would anyone give 2 squats about taking a course from you? Hell, why would you even care to teach a course where every student is just as right as you are or has every ounce of value in his initial interpretation that you do on your seventh reading. Maybe, you teach to expose them to even more interpretations (“they will have been forced to deal with my ideas concerning them”), but that’s not a justification, only some impulse existing in you. And why these texts? When all texts apply no limitations of there own, any is as good as any other for proving whatever ideological point you’re forcing your students to encounter. Hell, why not just tell them your ideological stance, write a public essay on it without the nuisance of references? It’ll save a lot of time that way. But, then again, no one would be able to determine what point you were trying to delimit with the essay, so scratch that. Ah well, you catch my drift.

But really, David, assuming some moral analogue between an individual who gets god-like power from red light and a kid from Urban Detroit, who just happens to be impoverished in the confines of the last remaining superpower is fatuous at best. You might have something of a valid point if you were teaching the Bush twins or the Hilton sisters, but I doubt it.



here’s my reply

Charles,

I think it’s VERY important to remind Americans (including middle or lower-middle class kids from suburban Detroit!) that they ARE privileged, and that it’s not just George Bush and his cronies that are fucking up the world, it’s ALL of us… Every realization of this fact constitutes an “origin story”, of sorts. There are so many ways to build upon that fundamental analogy, and if you’re interested to know what I’ve tried to do with it in the past year, the archives are to your left!

on the question of my choice of texts–well, if you can explain to me why you think these texts are banal, THEN we can have a conversation, but it’s not possible to do it this way! Is it only because the people that published them hoped to make money on the deal? Do you take a similar position vis-a-vis Hitchcock or Dickens? If so, don’t tell me! That would be FAR too depressing! From what I recall though, you’ve tended to argue that you “couldn’t slog through” superhero texts (even Grant Morrison?!!), and that’s fine… However, in that case, you owe it to the world (and the texts!) to suspend your judgments of them! I don’t write about things that, for whatever reason, don’t engage my interest, because I fully believe that it’s MY FAULT that I can’t rise to challenge of thinking seriously about them… What makes you any different? I need hardly add that it is my sincere belief that, if you can’t see anything interesting in Watchmen or Animal Man, then it’s because you’ve been reading with “this is pop crap” blinkers on. In case you haven’t noticed, an imperative of my scholarly project (as opposed to my literary project, which is quite different!) has been (and continues to be) to expose the shallowness of Americans’ understanding of their own most deeply fascinating (and characteristic) cultural products–like superhero comics, Hollywood romantic comedies and “weepers”!

You’ve said a mouthful about academia (Charles is “disgusted” by the thought of kids reading “corporate comics” in the hallowed halls!), but what do you really know about it? Are you a professor or grad student? If you are then could you please explain to me how you made it so far with such strange ideas? Will I merely be standing up there declaring my views? Of course! That’s what all professors do! That’s what I’m doing this semester with Emerson and Frederick Douglass and Margaret Fuller. The proviso is that I must use the texts to illustrate my points, and this gives students the leverage to disagree with my interpretations, and to come up with their own. It’s all happening in front of their eyes–and I have NO WISH to appear “objective”.

This is an experiment–I’m searching for ways to force the students to become more conscious of their involvement (and mine!) in the interpretive process. We’ll set up a list-serve to which students will be responsible for writing “letters” concerning individual issues (I will stand in for the “editors”–a nice way of acknowledging the privileged position of the instructor), and everyone will be responsible for considering the ways in which this interplay affects their developing sense of what’s going on the texts!

I’m still thinking all of this through (the syllabus isn’t due until late December!), but Charles certainly hasn’t succeeded in dampening my enthusiasm. Anyone else have any thoughts on these matters?

Good Night Friends!
Dave

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5 comments

  1. You’ve no wish to appear “objective” but yet you’re disagreeing with me. On what ground, that you’re saying we’re both equally correct while I’m saying that only I am? Unfortunately, that doesn’t work, because you’d be claimining an actual difference based on the truth of our positions (I’m only half correct, because I exclude your position, while you’re completely correct, because of including both of our positions). Unfortunately, we can’t both be right here (because we clearly have opposite opinions regarding your position). Aieyiyi, on to the rest of your post!

    Regarding your moral analogy: You can call our moral imperative to be involved in the political system whatever you want, an origin story, a social contract, etc., but there’s not much connection between a supernaturally charged being and the concerns of the poor in America (even if life doesn’t suck as bad for them as for the poor in the 3rd world). “With great power comes great responsibility” is, as I argued a while ago on the tcj boards, kind of dumb. People without any real power are still morally responsible. Morality doesn’t come with being rich, or owning a gun, or getting bombarded with gamma rays. Perhaps the number of people affected by your decision will change with increased power, but your moral duty doesn’t. There’s nothing about gaining the power itself which impells one to take on more responsibility than another without power. No, the real difference is in how the powerful morally relate to others (lest you’d want to say that the poor can never affect a great number of people).

    Why these comics? I suspect you’d not let anyone say, “as art, FRIENDS isn’t as worthy of academic study as BROTHERS KARAMAZOV” without a detailed blow-by-blow comparison. Of course, doing that effectively commits one to legitimatizing certain cultural waste. Thus, I don’t feel it’s necessary nor even productive to go that route with the majority of superhero books. Besides, you’ve already stated you’ve no intention of being objective, so you’ve presumably chosen these comics at random or by happenstance (they were just what you’ve been reading lately). To admit that these comics are better than others at dealing with your purported ideological mission would entail a hierarchy. But once you’ve started talking aesthetic hierarchies, you’re allowing for the possibility that Grant Morrison, despite being an enjoyable, intelligent writer hardly measures up to the truly great. But communication between us becomes difficult here, since you see no intrinsic qualities to art; it’s all the reader (but who structures him? How would Watchmen apply here?). Perhaps you’ll say that you’re not arguing for all superhero comics as art being studied as seriously as the particular books you’ve mentioned. In which case, I’d ask why choose these comics if you’ve no objective reason for doing so?

    I’d implore anyone to think critically about all cultural information received, and I love reading Cavell’s analysis of screwballs as much as the next fellow, but there’s a real problem with making no distinction between establishing the requisite skills for such criticism and teaching any and everything in a formal academic setting. Just because everything is worthy of criticism doesn’t mean that everything is equally valuable to critical learning. I’m, however, far from having my mind set on why some screwballs or superheroics, but not others. Is it Cavell’s writing that’s worthy of academic study or his subject matter, and without his commentary, are most of the screwballs he refers to worthy of study as art? Formally, yes, but he doesn’t exactly analyze them solely in terms of their form. I’m tired (so excuse the lack of editing) and I’m driving cross country in a few short hours (for the 2nd time in a few months), so I’ll have to return here in a few days.

  2. Charles,

    <>
    you’re absolutely right to bring Stanley Cavell into this (have you read Ray Carney? He’s just as interesting!) But again, I can’t see why you want to make everything a question of intrinsic worth. What does it matter whether Cavell’s subject matter is worthy of the brilliant treatment you admit he gives it? You ask if I just chose these texts at random, and I must tell you that I most certainly did not. It’s not that I want to establish them as objectively “better” than other texts either (to tell you the truth, on a gut level, I hate DKR and Kingdom Come and I’m ambivalent about Watchmen and even Squadron Supreme–although it is true that I do LOVE Animal Man , and, in moments of weakness, I can be goaded into arguing in favour of its “greatness”!–ditto for Emerson, Emily Bronte, Hawthorne, Melville, William Dieterle, Henry James, Dashiell Hammett and Frank Capra), it’s just that they happen to act upon my mind in such a way that I find myself saying the kinds of things about American culture that I think need to be said… the interpretation is a chemical reaction between me and the books, and I don’t really care who’s structuring whom! Interpretations may be infinite, but persuasion is everything, and you have to excite yourself first before you can hope to have any effect upon other minds!

    Drive safely my friend!

    Dave

  3. You’ve no wish to appear “objective” but yet you’re disagreeing with me. On what ground, that you’re saying we’re both equally correct while I’m saying that only I am?

    This strikes me as an incredibly myopic statement. Declaring a lack of obectivity does not equate to embracing all outlooks as equally valid: while I am subjectively involved in the affairs of my nation, I still condemn white supremacists and any and all ideologies that contain an element of ‘intrinsic superiority of a racial group’ without cavail. He’s not saying you’re both equally correct: that’s not what subjectivity means. He’s saying that he’s aware that his perspective is his own: in essence, he knows he sees things through the lens of his own senses, experiences and ‘the textual self’ that he’s developed. (Well, he might not be saying that last bit.) Subjectivity doesn’t automatically embrace all things as equivalent.

    Unfortunately, that doesn’t work, because you’d be claimining an actual difference based on the truth of our positions (I’m only half correct, because I exclude your position, while you’re completely correct, because of including both of our positions). Unfortunately, we can’t both be right here (because we clearly have opposite opinions regarding your position).

    It only doesn’t work if you deliberately misinterpret what subjective viewpoints mean. There’s an actual difference in viewpoints based on percieved differences in viewpoint, as circular as that sounds. As far as I can determine from reading what you’ve written, you’re equating holding a subjective view with assuming that all interpretations are valid, and while that may or may not be true in Dave’s case (I shouldn’t speak for him) it’s certainly not true for me: I hold to a subjective view in that I understand that my life, my experiences, my tastes etc etc influence my reading of a text and that there are many possible readings while I still believe it’s possible to come up with a reading that is more ‘accurate’ than another: arguing that War and Peace is a metaphor for beagles with ringworm would be a less accurate reading, as one example.

    Regarding your moral analogy: You can call our moral imperative to be involved in the political system whatever you want, an origin story, a social contract, etc., but there’s not much connection between a supernaturally charged being and the concerns of the poor in America (even if life doesn’t suck as bad for them as for the poor in the 3rd world).

    Neither is there much connection between a young jewish carpenter with miraculous healing abilities and a rhetorical gift who was executed by Roman officials and a man who works as an accountant in America. Nor is there much connection between the wanderings of the king of Ithica over a decade while hounded by witches and angry sea gods and the fifteen year old who will be forced to read about him in high school. Yet one can still take home moral lessons from these stories. We read tales of the fantastic for many different reasons: they don’t all have to directly equate to our own situation. In fact, exercising the imagination to contemplate the impossible is instructive on its own terms and in terms of allowing you to learn better how to step outside of your own limited personal subjective view of the world and try and see it through other eyes… like the eyes of that poor kid living in Detroit, who I am not and will never be.

    – Matt Rossi

  4. “Perhaps the number of people affected by your decision will change with increased power, but your moral duty doesn’t. There’s nothing about gaining the power itself which impells one to take on more responsibility than another without power.”

    Thought expirament: A and B are watching C drown. A is a strong swimmer and could save C with little risk to himself; B is a weak swimmer, and risks almost certain death trying to save C. Neither A nor B make any effort to save C. Is the morality of this decision the same for A and B?

    Also, I’m totally unclear on how, if “the real difference is in how the powerful morally relate to others”, this is at all different from the GP/GR formulation; if power is a factor in evaluating moral agency, then, then GP might not equal GR, but that relationship is surely possible.

    Apologies if this is covered in your TCJ posting. Don’t stop by there very often.

    Dave

  5. Thanks to both of you for thoughtful responses. If you’re still interested:

    Dave,

    I haven’t read Carney, but I ordered his Capra book after you mentioned it on tcj.com (I buy any good books about screwball directors I come across — I know that’s not all there is to Capra, but it’s what I prefer). “Intrinsic worth” is a tricky situation, and I don’t want to get too literal about it when putzing about on the web, but there does need to be some concern, in the stricter confines of academia, for tradition, in terms of establishing and/or continuing one. It’s going to happen regardless of how anti-canon a professor fancies himself, because the function of higher learning will legitimatize the concern for whatever subject matter is going to be studied. And, presuming you’re not teaching a sociology course on media representation or some such, literature courses shouldn’t legitimatize a study of trivial subject matter where the setting connotes ‘literary art’. I remember some comment from Sartre where he was bitching about modern students wanting to be taught all this stuff that used to be what his generation would use to rebel against the former generation’s theories, rather than learning the tradition thoroughly and then applying this knowledge to novel subjects. Really, I’m not an essentialist about this stuff, but I think people would be much better prepared to learn how to think through more tried-and-true authors, applying criticism to pop ephemera on their own. Canons should always be dynamic, but I kind of doubt WATCHMEN or even ANIMAL MAN will ever be in it or should be.

    Regarding: “Thought experiment: A and B are watching C drown. A is a strong swimmer and could save C with little risk to himself; B is a weak swimmer, and risks almost certain death trying to save C. Neither A nor B make any effort to save C. Is the morality of this decision the same for A and B?” as it applies to my formulation “the real difference is in how the powerful morally relate to others” vis a vis The Man’s “GP/GR”

    What I’d say is that with the ability to help comes the responsibility to help. This isn’t as fun as Lee’s formulation, but it’s more apt to real moral concerns. Take Spidey’s origin: Peter could’ve helped out even without any superpowers by simply tripping the burglar, but what we get is an ethic based on power, based on Peter’s faulty reasoning (“I chose to use my spider powers only for myself and look what happened”). The lesson learned from the story would’ve applied equally well to anyone without the supernatural elements — i.e., greed and concern for oneself is wrong — but Lee and quite a few superhero writers developed a world where the only ones really responsible are the powerful. I think the best response and analysis of this faulty reasoning is in Gaiman’s stint on Miracleman where he develops a world of the supernaturally powerful concerned not with themselves (supposedly), but with the functioning of others, which results in a utopia where freedom and, consequently, responsibility are myths. I suppose that one could use the superhero as a metaphor for the powerful nation states, but it fails there, too, since it tends to simplistically reduce complex social relations to character virtues and flaws (psychologizes the social).

    Matt,

    Subjectivism is a corrosive idea that ruins any ability to come to any understanding or agreement on anything. It’s also impossible to confirm its truth, since any arbiter would only have internal standards of what someone else says and the truth value of what’s said. Furthermore, one couldn’t even be sure of any consistent meaning in one’s own solipsistic world, because the only criteria for such a judgment would be just as subjectively ad hoc as the original meaning one is trying to relate to the current meaning. For example, how without someone else’s input can I know whether I’m accurately applying the term ‘dog’? How do I know that I’m not constantly changing my references? You need at least something akin to objectivity, whether it turns out to be constituted by intersubjectivity or a correspondence to the Real World. Shakespeare doesn’t have correspond some Platonic Idea of Literary Worthiness, but he does correspond to a tradition of same. Subjectivism would mean that the racist worldview is just as worthy as your own nonracist one (each ego-pole gets one vote, and always wins). You set up rules in a baseball game, and granting perceptual accuracy, one either wins or doesn’t, strikes out or doesn’t, makes it to first base or doesn’t, etc.. Who would want to play ball with a subjectivist? Just because the rules aren’t written in Heaven doesn’t mean that there is no intersubjective standard for following the rules. Granted, literay worthiness isn’t as agreeable as baseball, but it’s not due to subjectivist complacency that everyone (including, if one still exists, any radical subjectivist) continues to fight over canons. Regarding your War & Peace and biblical examples, are they equally good metaphors for everything, or are there limits? Or, even worse for the subjectivist, are they literally about anything? A subjectivist can’t make a distinction between metaphoric and literal readings. It’s a philosophically incoherent position.

    Charles R.

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