Monday, 26 October 2009

Well, what do you know

Two new-ish things:

An article in the Guardian on "twitterfiction", where authors experiment with narratives in 140 characters. I fear they haven't thought this through: Twitter isn't some OULIPO-esque kind of arbitrarily constrained writing (i.e. limited in scope) but another way of defining authorship itself, among much else. Still, it's interestingly digimodernist:

And Edexcel, the exam board, have sent out their new 2010 GCSE specifications, which include - in the field of "English" - three options: English; English Language and Literature; and English Studies: Digital Literacy. Tellingly, the digital now ranks twice as heavily as the literary. It is also, perplexingly, defined against the literary. Hm.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Write your own review!

Somewhere among my collection of books is a copy of Alasdair MacIntyre's little study for the Fontana Modern Masters series of the life and thought of Marcuse (bear with me here). I don't remember anything about reading it beyond the fact that it actually belongs to a former college friend who I'm no longer - for uninteresting reasons - in contact with. And I remember that because of the comments he wrote all over it.
MacIntyre is hostile to Marcuse, declaring at the outset that basically all his ideas are "false", which probably isn't a helpful stance to take toward a thinker you're summarising and simplifying for an implied readership of amateurs and students. An introductory book like this doubtless requires a position of neutrality, real or assumed, in the specialist doing the presenting, since if Marcuse or another really is wrong it's going to be for complex and recondite reasons, and this isn't the forum to air those. But MacIntyre was writing in 1970, after several years of campus unrest enacted to a degree in the name of the theories of One Dimensional Man, and Marcuse's influence may have seemed so great and pernicious to him that he was unable to cite his theories without trying to demolish them.
My college friend, reading the book in the late 1980s, was almost inevitably more sympathetic to Marcuse than to he who had come to bury him. Consequently a chapter of MacIntyre's exegesis concludes with the scribbled comment, in pencil: "superficial rubbish". When MacIntyre describes Marcuse's style as incantatory and devoid of reasoning my friend scrawled in the margin: "if you are spiritually dead". And so on - you get the idea. The digimodernist point of course is that in the late 2000s there is no motivation or need to hunt for one's pencil: you go online and vent your spleen there. And it cuts both ways: if your mother or father once defaced their library books with the words "Great!" or "Love it!", these days you go on to Amazon and write a "customer review", describing the author's style and message, his/her background and qualifications for writing, and recommending that a certain kind of reader purchase it.
In the pre-digital age there was a clear distinction between the reader and the critic. The reader would read for pleasure and give up on a book that was proving a pain, and would keep their reactions to themselves (pretty much). The critic would read from professional duty, often trudging through tedious material, and would read in order to speak or write, that is, their reading would imply a spoken or written reiteration of the book's meaning or importance or qualities to be made at a later date. The digital age conflates the two roles: by commenting on blogs or reviewing for Amazon or the IMDb or Metacritic or by going on message boards to respond to newspaper articles, you are making yourself a critic in the latter sense, that is, you are investing your reading with the future option of critiquing or evaluating the text in question. However, the people who publish their textual responses in this professionalized manner tend to do so with the mind of readers: as a result, for instance, Amazon customer reviews mostly give the minimum or the maximum number of stars to their texts - in other words, they are ways of shouting either "supeficial rubbish" or "love it!", which are readers' reactions. In short, digimodernism creates the individual who reads like a reader and publishes their responses for the whole world to peruse like a critic. What do we call this new synthesis - a readic? a criter? Neither sounds very positive.
This development is different from the emergence of online reviewers like book slut who are allegedly driving print journalists out of a job. There is a fairly small number of such people, who turn their voracious reading habit into a self-publishing venture. What I am referring to is far more widespread, the sort of spontaneous and emotional declarations that my friend was inspired to by reading Marcuse vs MacIntyre, but unable to share with the planet.
This post then is self-referential, or textually narcissistic, since it relates in part to the comments that some people or maybe you (dear Reader!) can append or have appended to this blog. Every writer wants only positive feedback, or, in Martin Amis's wonderfully sarcastic phrase, wants "to be received like the Warrior Christ half an hour before Armageddon". But it is in the nature of a publication to receive criticism, as it is in the nature of a child to make its own enemies. As the author of Digimodernism, however, I feel I have the right to expect a certain dimension from online criticism, whether it be worshipful or contemptuous or anywhere in between. I can expect that it show a critical awareness of its own special textual conditions. You have the right to think that my book is rubbish, but by going online to say so you must realize that you are confirming or instantiating one of its arguments, which is not something that can be said of any of Amazon's 847 customer reviews of The God Delusion. Simply by placing your fingers on your keyboard you are engaging with what I call digimodernism, even if you despise Digimodernism. Your review, then, is foreseen by the text you are critiquing: your critique of it is, to a certain extent, what the book is actually about. For instance, in chapter 2 I describe the digimodernist text as typically characterized by anonymous or pseudonymous authorship, and as tending to invective or abuse as a result (try, if you feel up to it, YouTube's comments pages, unspeakable and seething cauldrons of bile and hate). You may think that I'm talking superficial rubbish, but taking a pseudonymous name and pouring out a lot of invective or abuse just confirms what I am saying, though in a rather worthless fashion. As a response it's structurally self-contradictory. If I'm wrong, you're going to have to try harder than that to show it.
What I'd like to see happen is this. Web 2.0 enables, as is well known, everyone to become a published writer, and the 21st century is the golden age of the self-appointed critic who is busy sending out his or her critiques and evaluations for the world to see. I would like the ideal spirit of the professional critic to come to inflect the writings of these readers-turned critics (and I say that knowing that much, perhaps most, actual professional criticism is scarcely worth using to wrap chips up in): knowledgeable, proportionate, judicious, contextualizing, fair, sympathetic (as much as possible), and so on.
I would also like to see a code by which all anonymous or pseudonymous criticism is treated as the digital equivalent of pressing someone 's doorbell and running away, as antisocial and immature. If you're not prepared to show your face, to put yourself on the line, then what you have to say is of no value. In the Milgram experiment carried out in 1961 volunteers who were ordered to by an authority figure (a scientist) willingly administered what they believed to be fatal electric shocks to unseen victims once they believed that they would not be held responsible for the effects. Milgram saw this, understandably in the aftermath of the death camps and at the start of the 1960s, as shedding light on the human tendency to mindless obedience to authority figures. However, it also suggests that a fairly large proportion of the population will happily carry out sadistic acts if assured that they will never be held responsible for them. The viciousness of much pseudonymous copy on Web 2.0 would seem further confirmation of this.
So write your own review! Every (wo)man a critic! But remember that those who judge are subject to judgment too.
I also fondly remember the college friend who confused Marcuse with Mark Hughes...

Friday, 9 October 2009

Roman Polanski and Brooke Shields

Two recent incidents, both involving children and their putative sexual exploitation, highlight changes in the prevailing conception of the “artist” and his/her sensibility.

The first, and more internationally notorious, was the arrest of Roman Polanski in Switzerland on a charge of drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old girl in California in 1977. The judicial move, which occurred when Polanski had travelled to a film festival to pick up a lifetime achievement award, was instantly and roundly condemned by the French government: Frédéric Mitterrand, the Minister for Culture, described the arrest as “absolutely appalling”; Polanski had for thirty years been protected by the French state, and had been granted French citizenship. It was tempting at first to interpret this indignation as an expression of the fondly and widely held belief by which France, the “beacon of civilization and art” resists America, the “philistine and puritanical bully”; Polanski, then, would supposedly become the cultured and Gallicized martyr of the brutishly Yankee Satan. However, the French response was quickly echoed by an international battalion of filmmakers, many of them American, who signed petitions of protest calling for Polanski’s release. Polanski had, it is worth noting, already pleaded guilty to the crime, and had fled America before he could be sentenced and punished. Juridically, the nature of the offence and the extent of his guilt have never been disputed, least of all by the director himself.

It seems likely that this defence of Polanski – and indeed his protection since 1977 – is generated by the vestiges of a Romantic conception of the author or artist. The expressions of outrage repeatedly referred, for instance, to Polanski being a “great director”, even a “genius”; his “originality” and “daring” were evoked (Agnès Poirier even accused the US of never forgiving Polanski for his maverick tendencies when in Hollywood, as though the arrest were some bizarre form of long delayed film criticism). And yet these epithets do not stack up. The longevity of Polanski’s career is indeed remarkable: this is a man who made exceptional films both in the early 1960s and in the early 2000s; and so is its geographical scope, since he made enduring films in Poland, Britain, America and France. However, his forty-odd-year career does include about a quarter of a century during which he made nothing of artistic value and his continuing fame depended on his newsworthiness as a fugitive; and thematically his work, which returns endlessly to sexual torture and rape, is hardly separable from his queasy private life. And even his best films pale by comparison with those of his contemporaries and peers: Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby or Chinatown are both conventional and second-rate when placed alongside the work of Losey, Coppola or Altman. In short, Polanski’s “greatness” appears to have been invented as a necessary element of the martyr narrative into which, under the aegis of a Romantic ideology, Polanski was plunged by his defenders. By the terms of this ideology – with Byron as an early example – the Artist is troubling, disturbing, unconventional, bohemian, he (probably he) breaks the rules, shocks the bourgeoisie, outrages the puritans, and produces dazzling works of breathtaking originality and greatness. His alcohol and drug-taking and illicit sex and weird dress are part of this story, as is his persecution by a hypocritical and brutish society. It seems evident that this prefabricated identity has been transferred on to Polanski: not only, then, is it no big deal that he raped a child (though it would be, were he not an Artist), but it guarantees the greatness of his Works (which cannot be located in his actual works) and the injustice of his prosecutor (though this, save for procedural issues, has not been demonstrated).

Interestingly, the response in cyberspace was very different. Online polls and message boards in France and indeed worldwide rang with fury against the defenders of Polanski, and with calls for equality before the law. The Mitterrand/Poirier/Woody Allen position was revealed as narrowly based. It is clear that digimodernist authorship, which is multiple and anonymous, does not square at all with the Romantic image of the exceptional, suffering Genius. The French government soon retreated from its anger, while the Swiss tellingly refused Polanski bail. What the fall-out from this episode suggests is the obsolescence, beyond an institutionalized and self-interested elite, of a certain conception or ideology of the artist. Ministers and other creators may still afford it some credence, but in cyberspace the screams of the victim take precedence.

The second incident involved the removal by the British police, before the exhibition it was due to feature in had even opened, of Richard Prince’s Spiritual America from the walls of Tate Modern. Prince’s piece, which dates from the early 1980s (the heyday of formulations of postmodernism) reproduces and refracts a photograph taken of Brooke Shields for Playboy when she was ten years old: she is naked and wearing lipstick and turning a “sensual” shoulder to the camera. In short, this is a work of art distancing itself from and commenting on but nonetheless reproducing a paedophilic photograph. The police seem to have found the element of the work contained in the last four words of my previous sentence decisive: their action was, in a sense, a work of art criticism. In defence of Prince’s work, one might argue politically, in libertarian or liberal manner, that the police have no right in a free society to decide what galleries may display. The legal retort to this is that the public display of an indecent (i.e. both nude and sexualized) image of an actual child appears to be a criminal act; morally, and in support of this, it must be noted that Shields had unsuccessfully fought as an adult to have the picture suppressed. More specifically, and in defence of Prince, a surprising number of commentators retreated to a decrepit model of authorial intent demolished (at the latest) by Roland Barthes in the late 1960s: that Prince meant the work as a socio-cultural comment not as paedophilic titillation so that must be what it really is. The notion that the meaning of a text is not contained in its author’s stated or imagined “intention” seemed to have passed such commentators by.

Nonetheless, the removal of the piece caused relatively little fuss. This stands in need of some explanation. My sense is that the art-critical scaffolding erected around the paedophilic photo in order to transform it into Prince’s comment on our sexualized culture no longer stands up. For, to justify or validate or explain Spiritual America it is to the discourse of postmodernism that we must turn: the piece is a cultural détournement or recuperation, it is meta-representation, an image of an image, an image about the making of images, it is depthless, affectless, a reflection on a media-saturated hyperreality where images refer only to other images and the “real” is dead (or her suit is dismissed), it is an ambivalent response to a culture of desire and representation and exploitation; it’s a simulacrum, an art of the exhaustion of art, a commodified artwork refracting a commodified photo, it’s the logic of Warhol’s Marilyn at its most extreme. One could go on and on. Defenders of Prince accused the police of philistinism: hadn’t they read Jameson or Baudrillard? Certainly they hadn’t, but the general sense seems to have been that all that theoretical apparatus, that barrage of abstract discourse which Prince relies on and adds to, is no longer interesting enough to redeem the public display of an undoubtedly exploitative and paedophilic photograph. In 2009, all one feels is that here is a vile image passed through and subjected to a certain art-critical discourse. But if the last ten words of my previous sentence no longer refer to something people care about, they fall away and leave only the nastiness of the image. Prince is not (one assumes) a paedophile and nor are (most of) the spectators of his work, but he is the postmodernist redeployer of paedophilia, and when “postmodernism” loses its currency, its potency and heft – as I suggest this episode shows it has – all that is left to the viewer is the paedophilia itself. For me this betrays the weakness of the piece: in contrast to Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, which also invites, depends on and enriches a postmodernist discourse, Spiritual America does not walk artistically by itself.

So if the Romantic notion of the artist as shocking but all-justified genius no longer has general currency, neither does the postmodernist conception of the artist as the recycler of images from our commodified hyperreality. In each case the sexually assaulted child prevails. What, then, of the sensibility of the artist in the digimodernist age? It is socialized, not asocial; it is not the creature either of our continuing media excess. It moves between these two poles.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

News flash

Two bits of news: Digimodernism is out in the UK (I believe - I haven't actually seen it in the shops, but that's what I've been told). And a paper proposal of mine has been accepted for an international conference on 21st century European literature to be held in September 2010 at St Andrew's University. I'll be speaking about the various theories of culture after postmodernism, and while my own will obviously figure prominently my paper won't especially plead the case for digimodernism. It's called "The Inheritors", an apt enough title I think.