Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘criticism

S.F. Documentary on the Intertubes

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I’ve been sitting on some bookmarks of s.f. lectures and documentaries for the last few weeks, waiting till I had the chance to take them in. That day was, at long last, yesterday:

* At Cynical-C, Isaac Asimov on the Golden Age of Science Fiction;

* At Boing Boing, Neal Stephenson on problems of genre and criticism in contemporary s.f.;

* Via MetaFilter, A Day in the Afterlife of Philip K. Dick;

* And also via MetaFilter, the Sun Ra documentary Brother from Another Planet.


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July 30, 2008 at 11:00 am

Smacking Theorists in the Face, As Always

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Via The Valve, Wilfred McClay responds to Stanley Fish’s slacker “defense” of the humanities in Wilson Quarterly.

The humanities, rightly pursued and rightly ordered, can do things, and teach things, and preserve things, and illuminate things, which can be accomplished in no other way. It is the humanities that instruct us in the range and depth of human possibility, including our immense capacity for both goodness and depravity. It is the humanities that nourish and sustain our shared memories, and connect us with our civilization’s past and with those who have come before us. It is the humanities that teach us how to ask what the good life is for us humans, and guide us in the search for civic ideals and institutions that will make the good life ­possible.

The humanities are imprecise by their very nature. But that does not mean they are a form of intellectual ­finger-­painting. The knowledge they convey is not a rough, preliminary substitute for what psychology, chemistry, molecular biology, and physics will eventually resolve with greater finality. They are an accurate reflection of the subject they treat, the most accurate possible. In the long run, we cannot do without ­them.

But they are not indestructible, and will not be sustainable without active attention from us. The recovery and repair of the ­humanities—and the restoration of the kind of insight they ­provide—is an enormous task. Its urgency is only increasing as we move closer to the technologies of a posthuman future, a strange, ­half-­lit frontier in which bioengineering and pharmacology may combine to make all the fearsome transgressions of the past into the iron cages of the future, and leave the human image permanently ­altered.

The mere fact that there are so many people whose livelihood depends on the humanities, and that the humanities have a certain lingering cultural capital associated with them, and a resultant snob appeal, does not mean that they are necessarily capable of exercising any real cultural authority. This is where the second sense of burden comes ­in—­the humanities as reclamation task. The humanities cannot be saved by massive increases in funding. But they can be saved by men and women who believe in ­them.

So far so good—but it wouldn’t be an article about the humanities or literature if literary theorists didn’t get smacked in the face along the way.

It utterly violates the spirit of literature, and robs it of its value, to reduce it to something else. Too often, there seems to be a presumption among scholars that the only interest in Dickens or Proust or Conrad derives from the extent to which they can be read to confirm the abstract propositions of Marx, Freud, Fanon, and the ­like—or Smith and Hayek and Rand, for that ­matter—and promote the right preordained political attitudes, or lend support to the identity politics du jour. Strange, that an era so pleased with its superficially freewheeling and antinomian qualities is actually so distrustful of the literary imagination, so intent upon making its productions conform to predetermined criteria.

Isn’t it time somebody wrote one of these articles about the dangers of reducing literary theory to “something else” through the same, endlessly recurring, prefabricated critique playing paean to the fantasy of an ahistorical and absolutely autonomous aesthetic realm? I think I might like to see an article do that.

‘It Stinks!’

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David Bordwell talks film reviewing and criticism at his blog.

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May 27, 2008 at 4:47 pm

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Links for the Heroes

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It’s Memorial Day, so these links are for the heroes.

* Freeman Dyson has made a lot of people upset with his invent-our-way-out-of-it environmentalism-is-the-new-religion piece in this week’s New York Review of Books. Real Climate dissects it, point by point, and my friend Alex Greenberg gets his shots in too.

* Outgoing Observer literary editor Robert McCrum gets nostalgic over the last ten years of books.

* Hanif Kareshi says your writing program breed maniacs.

Kureishi, himself a research associate on the creative writing course at Kingston University in London said, “One of the things you notice is that when you switch on the television and a student has gone mad with a machine gun on a campus in America, it’s always a writing student.

“The writing courses, particularly when they have the word ‘creative’ in them, are the new mental hospitals. But the people are very nice.”

* And did blogs kill the literary critic? Let’s hope not.

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May 26, 2008 at 4:20 pm

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not a rumination on the ravages of age, though early in the movie it briefly pretends to be. Nor is it an examination of the Cold War’s culture of paranoia and suspicion—though it has a little bit of that too—nor is it about the way power ultimately looks the same whatever uniform it happens to wear or which flag it claims to fight under, nor about Chariot of the Gods and saucer men from Mars. In the end, it’s about being an Indiana Jones movie, which is to say it’s all about car chases, booby traps, clever in-jokes, and the sheer, unstoppable force that is Harrison Ford’s charisma.

And it does this job quite well.

Now, if I were inclined to look at Indiana Jones with anything like a critical mind, I’m sure I’d find plenty of negative things to say about this movie, from a story that’s strikingly light on character or emotional depth (even for its genre) to more than a few embarrassingly silly plot moments to a characteristically Lucasian overreliance on CGI. (Don’t even get me started on politics, postcoloniality, or heteronormativity.) El Dorado is a good MacGuffin, but it just doesn’t pack the same mythic punch as the Lost Ark or the Quest for the Grail—and while I thought the alien stuff was pretty well-handled overall, fundamentally there’s a style mismatch here that approaches the level of category error.

And of course on some pure plane of aesthetic valuation it must be said that Lucas and Spielberg should have resisted the temptation to mess with perfection and let Last Crusade stand as the proper ending to this story it’s always been. In this sense Crystal Skull is actually worse than superfluous—the need to return to Indy, 20 years on, undercuts and arguably destroys entirely the narrative arc that somehow took the cartoon hero of Raiders and turned him into a human being. Last Crusade didn’t need a sequel; the trilogy was already a complete story, not Episodes 44-46 in the 108 Adventures of Indiana Jones.

Phantom Menance betrayed us right up front, and was pretty noisy about it. What Crystal Skull does is quieter, subtler, and perhaps ultimately more devastating to its franchise: it takes that human being from Crusade and turns him back to a cartoon again.

If I were inclined to look at Indiana Jones critically, I’m saying, I think I’d have a pretty ambivalent view of Crystal Skull. But tonight I’m not at all inclined to do any of that—I watched Indiana Jones tonight as I always do, with the spellbound eyes of my twelve-year-old self, and he liked the movie just fine.

Professional Deformities

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“Great writers can be impatient, quirky, rudely iconoclastic literary critics,” he says. “It is almost a professional deformity. They achieve greatness through a stern commitment to sharply individual visions of the world.”

On criticism’s vocabulary of cruelty. In the Guardian.

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May 20, 2008 at 2:10 pm

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‘What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Movies’

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This backlash follows a perfect storm of anti-intellectual prejudice: Movies are considered fun that needn’t be taken seriously. Movies contain ideas better left unexamined. Movies generate capital in all directions. The latter ethic was overwhelmingly embraced by media outlets during the Reagan era, exemplified by the sly shift from reporting on movies to featuring inside-industry coverage….

This disrespect for thinking—where film criticism blurred with celebrity gossip—has resulted in today’s cultural calamity. Buyouts and dismissals are, of course, unfortunate personal setbacks; but the crisis of contemporary film criticism is that critics don’t discuss movies in ways that matter. Reviewers no longer bother connecting movies to political or moral ideas (that’s was what made James Agee’s review of The Human Comedy and Bosley Crowther’s review of Rocco and His Brothers memorable). Nowadays, reviewers almost never draw continuity between new films and movie history—except to get it wrong, as in the idiotic reviews that belittled Neil Jordan’s sensitive, imaginative The Brave One (a movie that brilliantly contrasts vengeful guilt to 9/11 aftershock) as merely a rip-off of the 1970s exploitation feature Death Wish.

If the current indifference to critical thought is a tragedy, it’s not just for the journalism profession betraying its promise of news and ideas but also for those bloggers. The love of movies that inspires their gigabytes of hyperbole has been traduced to nonsense language and non-thinking. It breeds a new pinhead version of fan-clubism.

“What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Movies”: Armond White argues that film reviewing in America has gone completely off the rails.

What we don’t talk about when we talk about movies these days reveals that we have not moved past the crippling social tendency that 1990s sociologists called Denial. The most powerful, politically and morally engaged recent films (The Darjeeling Limited, Private Fears in Public Places, World Trade Center, The Promise, Shortbus, Ask the Dust, Akeelah and the Bee, Bobby, Running Scared, Munich, War of the Worlds, Vera Drake) were all ignored by journalists whose jobs are to bring the (cultural) news to the public. Instead, only movies that are mendacious, pseudo-serious, sometimes immoral or socially retrograde and irresponsible (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Army of Shadows, United 93, Marie Antoinette, Zodiac, Last Days, There Will Be Blood, American Gangster, Gone Baby Gone, Letters From Iwo Jima, A History of Violence, Tarnation, Elephant) have received critics’ imprimatur.

That there isn’t a popular hit among any of these films proves how critics have failed to rouse the moviegoing public in any direction.

There’s a little too much of Matthew Arnold here for me, and anyway I think he’s misread There Will be Blood (actually very good) and World Trade Center (actually pretty pernicious) at least—but I can’t disagree too vehemently with anyone who gets this out there:

Critics say nothing about movies that open up complex meaning or richer enjoyment. That’s why they disdained the beauty of The Darjeeling Limited: Wes Anderson’s confrontation with selfishness, hurt and love were too powerful, too humbling. It’s no wonder that the audience for movies shrinks into home-viewership; they also shrink away from movies as a great popular art form.

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April 24, 2008 at 1:11 pm

Novelists, Go Comic

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“Why so sad, people?” Julian Gough takes on the morbid and moribund contemporary novel. Via Austin Kleon.

No, the novel has not, in general, been able to seize its freedom—it has not gone comic. This has consequences. An unnecessary tragic bias, in something so powerful, will cause a great deal of avoidable suffering. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, with its revoltingly sentimental suicide note, depressed a generation and caused a wave of fashionable suicides across Europe. (They even dressed in the same blue frock coat and yellow waistcoat.) Autobiographical novels are particularly revealing of the bias in the culture: in real life Goethe felt no need to kill himself after his heart was broken, but when he wrote a book about it, it had to be a tragedy and the hero had to die. A comedy would have been far more suitable. It might even have led to a cheerful late 18th-century Europe. But no, he gave us the furrow-browed Romantics.

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October 11, 2007 at 2:01 am

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It’s really no surprise who I get nearly every time I take an online Muppet personality test.

Some people were just born to criticize.

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August 15, 2007 at 4:05 pm

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When Fish suggests that we give up trying “to alter the world by forming moral character, or fashioning democratic citizens, or … anything else,” he implies that no answer is needed to the question of why, if we merely did the work before us instead of offering society something it wants, society should continue to spend good money on us. It’s as if there always have been academic jobs, and there always will be jobs. So why worry? But since universities in general and literary study in particular are not self-sustaining Platonic essences but social institutions requiring a social mandate, the real question is not whether we should aim to change the world or not. Whatever our political preferences and commitments as individuals, collectively speaking we cannot afford not to make claims to some sort of social value or purpose and to back up those claims as convincingly as possible. The question that must be debated is which claims — which legitimizing statements or strategies we scholars should choose to adopt, which of these extremely different projects of change deserve or deserves our allegiance.

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June 5, 2007 at 2:37 pm

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