A Journal Of The Dark Arts
There has been much lamentation and gnashing of teeth about the Decline Of Western Civilization (a perennially popular topic), much talk about the Death Of The Critic, the decay of literature, and many other apocalypses. While this may all be true, it neglects the fact that we have more opportunities to be creative and to educate ourselves than any other time in history. We just have to make the most of it.
There is an intimidating amount of information out there, which is a large part of why Forestpunk exists. We sort through the dusty stacks and report back on what we find. In that way, it can be seen as part archive, part criticism, part autobiography, part metaphysical spew.
For this week’s installment of the Invisible College, we bring you two outstanding lecture series: continuing on with last week’s look at Paul Fry’s Introduction To Theory Of Literature.
Yale’s open course on the Theory Of Literature is an extensive look at 20th century literature, and the changing role of criticism. It is an essential investigation into why and how we read (and listen).
The second lecture in the series is the conclusion of the introduction, in which Prof. Fry investigates the decline of authorship and authority in the 20th century, as we succumb to subjectivity, postmodernism and deconstruction.
In the first lecture, Prof. Fry introduced the concept of skepticism in literary theory, which is expanded upon in volume 2. He talks about how we are all influenced and affected by our history and our society, and in this, the author is NOT an authority, but rather a byproduct. In this, when examining a work of art, you can read it with a number of big theories: feminism, post-colonial, Marxist, Freudian, Darwinian. He postulates that, when criticizing or analyzing a piece of art, that we are looking for the human beneath the work. “When the author has been found, the work has been “explained” – a victory to the “critic”. When this occurs, a text can be “closed”.
Fry mentions a critic (the name escapes me at the moment), who wrote an entire, sprawling book based upon a short story by Honore De Balzac. Speaking from the vantage of a student, he states:
“”I don’t want to be told that I could sit here for the rest of my life just sort of parsing one sentence. Don’t tell me about that. Don’t tell me about these complicated sentences from Balzac’s short story. I’m here to know what things mean. I don’t care if it’s policing or not. Whatever it is, let’s get it done.”
Alas, alack! The game is afoot!
This cuts right to the heart of why these lectures are posted amidst obscure noise artifacts and mind-melting esoterica.
As i mentioned last time, when i was getting into trying to write album reviews, the criticism of the time was extremely theory-heavy, mostly from the good Mssrs. Simon Reynolds and K-Punk, during the hauntological heyday (which has never really died or gone away, which is another integral reason this blog exists). I mean, i was just trying to learn how to learn how to describe (and ultimately, play) bitching guitar soloes and plasticine breakbeats, and instead, i was heaped under stacks of Derrida, Walter Benjamin, Hamlet, and 20th-century history!
I’ve been going it alone, with nothing but the library, a hungry mind and passionate ears to guide me.
Which is part of why i’m so glad to have series like Paul Fry’s, and the emerging MOOC scene.
For anybody who’s ever tried to describe a piece of music or a book, learning to “close the text” is the specter in the room. Would that i could be ignorant enough to merely describe the high-hats, or how a band has progressed from their last album (if i could even remember, or if i knew in the first place), but every time i strap on a pair of headphones, i’ve got the weight of the western world on my shoulders. It even begs the question, “should an album be “closed”/”explained”? The moment an album has become codified and analyzed and filed away, it ceases to live, and you start to forget about it, unless yr looking for nostalgia or comfort.
But there is a centre, a black hole, in every piece of art; something ineffable. I call it its ‘visionary quality’; what you think that artist is trying to say, and what it makes you think/feel.
These big theories also add an interesting element to art appreciation, as it is actually a moving picture of history and larger forces at work. There are as many big theories as you can think up, and you can find them in nearly every piece of art you look at. Like, examine The Shining or The Amityville Horror, and speculate on the betrayal and dissolution of the nuclear family in the ’70s.
To summarize, let’s look at one last quote from this lecture:
“Well, it’s all very well to consider a textual field, the workmanship, but at the same time we want to remind ourselves of our worth. We want to say, “Well, gee, that wasn’t produced by a machine. That’s not just a set of functions–variables, as one might say in the lab. It’s produced by genius. It’s something that allows us to rate human ability high.”
We are searching for the human. We are looking for to be inspired, to show what we are capable of. I have ceased thinking of criticism as the points and rankings battle, but rather as a collaborative effort, with every human that has ever lived hacking away at the puzzle, and every angle is unique.
It is actually a battle cry for the critic, or the theorist, or the afficianado, and especially the artist.
Part of all the woe-speak is the feeling that art is valueless, meaningless, or even worse, a trivial distraction, a new opiate for the masses. And its true, in many respects. Its something i struggle with every day. I have a voracious mind for ephemera, and i have dedicated my entire life to listening to albums and reading books, towards the goal of making excellent music and writing good books myself, one day.
So it all boils down to what you use it for. What role does art/music/literature/cinema play in yr life? It can be the holiest of the holiest, or the slimiest of slimes.
By taking the time to peruse a course like Paul Fry’s, it’s taking a moment to step back, to analyze and appreciate. To see clearly and more finely!
Tune in next week, when we’ll get into hermeneutics!