Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The New as the Remit for Ethical Criticism

As a reviewer of books she would often pan, Virginia Woolf thought one of the pleasures of reading contemporary novels was that they forced you to exercise your judgement. There was no received opinion about a book. You had to decide for yourself whether it was good. The reflection immediately poses an intriguing semantic puzzle; if, on reading a book, you enjoy it, then presumably it is good, at least as far as you are concerned. This is not something you have to “decide.” If you have to decide whether a book is good, does that mean you don’t know whether you enjoyed it or not, an odd state of affairs, or you don’t know whether your enjoyment or lack of enjoyment is an appropriate response?

This sounds rather complicated, yet we know perfectly well what Woolf is talking about. A new kind of book might offer pleasures we haven’t yet learned to enjoy and deny us pleasures we were expecting. Rather than fitting in with something we are long familiar with, it is asking us to change. And how many people are genuinely open to changing their taste? Why should they be? One of the curiosities of Joyce’s Ulysses is how many reviewers and intellectuals changed their positions on the book in the ten years following its publication. Many swung from hating it to admiring it—Jung comes to mind, and the influential Parisian reviewer Louis Gillet, who went from describing it as “indigestible” and “meaningless” to congratulating Joyce on having written the great masterpiece of his time. But many others turned from adulation to suspicion. Samuel Beckett went from believing that Joyce had brought the English language back to life to wondering whether actually he wasn’t simply pursuing the old error, as Beckett had come to see it, of imagining that language could ever evoke lived experience. Faced with something new, we may take a while to arrive at a settled response.

That, incidentally, is one of the reasons I spent a couple of years investigating manga and anime, I had to make up my own mind about the material.

The interesting thing, as Parks notes, is that we often don't know what we think. And it's not just books, either. All the arts are like that. And part of the process of deciding whether or not we like something, and why or why not, is discussing the text with others. When we finally settle on an opinion, a week, a month, a year, or a decade later, our decision isn't merely a private decision. It reflects our interaction with friends, family, and even strangers, perhaps even those strangers we know as professional critics.

That's why I like to read critics on the movies – and it's mostly with movies that I've down this – I've seen. They help me figure out what I've just been through. They help me figure out how to calibrate my response and so how I will encounter similar works in the future. Critics have had to think their way through 100s of titles, and write about them in the process. I would rather imagine that they too are in dialog with others, their friends and family, other critics, even their readers. So critics become nodal points in society-wide discussions of new texts.

And now, w/ the internet, we have various aggregating services, at least for movies. Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic tally what the critics say, IMDB tallies viewer likes – Interstellar is #11 with 123,294 votes [6:04 AM 12 Nov 2015 Eastern DST] – and links to reviews. And all the fan sites, Wikipedia (which, of course, has an entry for Interstellar, started on 11 Nov 2014), and so forth. All of this apparatus for sharing views on cultural "stuff," on Cultural Beings, as I'm now calling them.

The net effect is that what we end up liking is not our own decision. And when we read "the classics" we're receiving decades and centuries of judgment as well, but our judgment in real time also reflects the judgments of our peers. But, as Parks observes, however we react to an old book, it's coming from a world that is not only strange to us in some degree, it's a world we don't have to live in. When we read new texts, those writers are reacting to the world in which we have to live:
The excitement of tackling the new novel that dares to recount the contemporary scene is always galvanized by these questions: How is it that someone sharing my world wrote this book that I perhaps find strange and difficult? What is he trying to tell me about it, about the way I perceive it? Is it a useful difficulty? Could I, too, perhaps, react to our times in this way, and would it make sense if I did so? 
Yet, in what sense is a novel out of contemporary Japan a novel about my world, here in northern New Jersey? A novel out of contemporary Egypt? Out of Argentina? Out of India?

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