Monday, September 30, 2013

Ethical Criticism in the Wild

As even casual users know, the world-wide web is jammed with commentary on pop culture and, for that matter, high culture covered as well, but not so extensively. It seems to me that an ethnographically minded critic might be interested in examining this activity and that the tools of corpus linguistics would be useful here. What could you find by trolling through millions of words of fan commentary?

There’s so much of this material that it’s hardly necessary for me to give specific examples. But I will, in part because much of this discussion tends to go on over time and among people who’ve come to know one another, if only online. These groups thus form what Stanley Fish called interpretive communities (a term he introduced in 1975 in “Interpreting the Variorum”, one of the essays included in Is There a Text in This Class?). First I look at a single-topic website devoted to popular culture, then to an academic group blog that covers various topics.

Buffy Rules

The Phoenix Board is home to group of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans who found one another on Salon’s Table Talk and then, in the TT diaspora (when TT went pay-to-post and most people left), regrouped at their own website, The Phoenix Board. I followed these discussion quite closely on TT (when Buffy was still running and I was watching the series myself). Real-time commentary on current episodes was common. When the show took a commercial break people would go online to make short comments.

I never read anything like a full-dress interpretation of an episode, but there were scads and scads of interpretive comments, and disagreements, and the use of various moves to keep disagreements from erupting into flame wars, thus preserving civility within the community. Much of the commentary treated characters as though they were real people and involved speculations about their motives and desires, guesses about coming actions, and speculations about slices of their lives never actually depicted in any episode. Such speculation thus shades over into fanfic, fan-produced fiction about the characters in the Buffy universe (the Buffyverse).

I stopped following conversations here some time ago, although board still seems to be active. I just took a quick peek and there are recent comments.

Great American Novelists

And then we have Crooked Timber, an academic group blog that’s mostly about the social sciences and current affairs. But there’s also quite a bit of cultural commentary there as well. CT is one of my regular hang-out spots on the web and I comment there with modest frequency.

Late last week and continuing through the weekend there was a raging discussion about The Great American Novel. The discussion started with a post by John Holbo on 21 September, Here Comes Everybody – And She’s Karl Kraus!, about Jonathan Franzen. It currently has 332 comments, the last on 26 Sept. It’s probably dead.

Belle Waring offered a post on 21 Sept, Drink the Haterade, which contained this sentence: “Now I will speak my part, and then fall silent, except for the part about where we get into a huge argument in comments because I think pretty much all the Important Male Novelists of the mid to late 20th-century are such sexist dillweeds that it is actually impossible to enjoy the books.” Waring turned off comments to this posts so that comments would continue in Holbo’s thread.

But that wasn’t enough. On 23 Sept. Waring posted, It May Interest You to Know, But If Not, There Is a Scroll Feature, which began:
Is it really the case that pretty much all the Important Male Novelists of the mid to late 20th-century are such sexist dillweeds that it is actually impossible to enjoy the books, for many intelligent people? That would be a bummer, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Best suggestion for contemporary author of well-rounded female characters, from Tom: Kim Stanley Robinson. I LOL’ed. Shall we consider together?
It’s currently at 379 comments, the last of which was made yesterday, 29 Sept.

On 26 Sept. Waring continued that discussion with the oddly titled, There Are Men Eating Menstrual Pads. It’s currently at 576 comments, with the most recent ones today. I doubt that it will make 600. [As of 1 Oct. the count stands at 605.] As for that odd title, it’s a phrase from an interview Waring quoted in her post, an interview with one David Gilmour, who teaches at University of Toronto. He’s talking about teaching literature:
There’s an even dirtier one that I teach, by Philip Roth, called The Dying Animal. I save it ’til the very end of the year because by that point they’ve got fairly strong stomachs, and they’re far more sophisticated than they are in the beginning. So they can understand the differences between pornography and great literature. There are men eating menstrual pads, and by the time my students get to that they’re ready. Roth has the best understanding of middle-aged sexuality I’ve ever come across.
The comment count currently stands at 576.

Bits and pieces of THAT discussion have continued in a post John Holbo put up on 28 Sept., Raiders of the Lost Ark, a Pretty Good Film. The comment count currently stands at 260.

Ethics is About the Future

This ongoing discussion in thoroughly ethical in Booth’s sense. Some of the discussants are degreed academics, some are not, but it’s hard to tell who is in which category. The discussion itself is, however, informal. At times it can be fairly sophisticated, but it can also be pretty stupid.

Off hand – I’ve not been counting – I’d say that people are by and large defending their own personal preferences – many comments explicitly asserted that I liked this or that sucks – but the defense is often asserted in universal terms, it’s good/bad. And the discussion often careens into assertions of how the world is, how men and women are, and so forth.

What’s going on here? One aspect of THAT is about the various topics under discussion. But another is about how the discussion unfolds, how these people (of which I am one) interact. And THAT aspect extends beyond these particular discussion threads as these people participate more generally in discussions at CT.

In the end it seems to me what’s important to these people is: Where do we go from here? What’s being discussed are novels and novelists (but also films and recordings and other stuff) from the recent past and the present. People care about that because they want to know how to live going forward, how to guide their children and grand children.

That’s what ethical criticism is about. That’s a topic I take up in another post.

* * * * *

This post’s title is a play on Cognition on the Wild, a 1995 book by Edwin Hutchins. The first paragraph of the MIT Press blurb:
Edwin Hutchins combines his background as an anthropologist and an open ocean racing sailor and navigator in this account of how anthropological methods can be combined with cognitive theory to produce a new reading of cognitive science. His theoretical insights are grounded in an extended analysis of ship navigation -- its computational basis, its historical roots, its social organization, and the details of its implementation in actual practice aboard large ships. The result is an unusual interdisciplinary approach to cognition in culturally constituted activities outside the laboratory -- "in the wild."
It’s a fascinating book. Perhaps the most fascinating section is his account of how the bridge crew of a naval cruiser handles navigation while bringing the ship into port (just before the GPS era).


  1. "details of its implementation in actual practice aboard large ships."

    Interesting topic. I will go off topic as it is related directly some of you're other work on U.S./ Japanese visual culture. The only relation ship it has here is the bad joke and fictive relationship I make in my mind between the great American novelists and big fish culture.

    Show American and Japanese adults an underwater scene with a big fish swimming among smaller ones. The Japanese have a tendency to start with a general description of the scene which includes multiple statements concerning the relationship between objects. Americans are more inclined to focus on the big fish and generally make 50% less comments than Japanese viewers on the relationship between objects.

    When shown the same big fish in a different scene Americans have a far higher tendency to note that it is the same fish.

    Interpersonal and cultural factors would seem to be the key to understanding the differences. But the way these internal/external structures must be made to correspond is fascinating.

    For me the 'big fish' side of literary criticism makes me want to bang my head of the table or in the case of the great American novel fall asleep. I cannot connect with such an alien cultural perspective.

    1. I'm familiar the research you report. The Great American Novel seems to be a post-WWII literary desire. I wonder if it came out of the same ethos that had Henry Luce (proprietor of Time, Inc.) proclaim the 20th Century to be the American Century?

  2. Date range is interesting, its a subject outside my comfort zone but the development of a modern literary hierarchic in my backyard seems to stem from people who would have come to adulthood during the Fascist conflict in Spain (formative event for many). But to my shame I really did not pay much attention in class on this.

    I should pay more attention at some point, my partner is closely related to my countries 'greatest' modern poet (fits in the date range you note). Rural working class family but with very strong literary links dating back to a relationship with Walter Scott, James Hogg. Rather complex inter-married tight knit kindred. The fame plays no or little part in modern identity within the family as far as I am aware; this I find unusual, wonder if its down to class difference as these relationships are often exploited and commented on generally.

  3. I looked up "The Great American Novel" in the Wikipedia and the phrase dates to right after America's Civil War. So it's much older than I'd guessed. But I still think there's something about the post-WWII period.

    The argument Waring is making is that the prime candidates for tGAM all have a certain woman-blind sensibility. That's what interests me.

    And another thing, Melville's Moby Dick is a candidate for tGAM honors. It dates back to 1851 and so is before the term was even coined. It has no female characters to speak of. But, as Gregory Jusdanis points out in this post, there's an early chapter where Ishmael hops in bed with Queequeg, it being the only bed available in the inn, and it's as though this were the most natural thing in the world. Which, according to Jusdanis, it was at that time and place. If that scene were to happen today we'd assume that they were gay or the author would be scrawling "no homo" all over the place and we'd be scratching our heads: WTF?

  4. I would agree. When you mentioned it the thought did cross my mind that its an age old thing but the mid 20th century date range still seems relevant.

    "would be scrawling "no homo" all over the place and we'd be scratching our heads"

    Someone just sent me a link to this site Sociological Images in relation to Irish apes but this article The Secret Life of Vintage Lysol Douche Ads deals with out of context assumptions and reading and the underlying message behind the concept of "Feminine Hygiene" and badly smelling genitals. Rather nice take on the subject.

  5. "So it's much older than I'd guessed."

    A useful term here I think is 'Historical Horizon.' British culture (referring to the ancestor of modern welsh) selected a date in the late 6th century to start its history. It also selected Northern Britain/ Southern Scotland as the ancestral environment in which good kingship the arts and culture were formed. North British poets and poetry form the start of this history, they are viewed as the originators of its song and identity. Its termed the historical horizon of British history.