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Wednesday, March 24, 2004
While I'm ranting...

I just re-read this old e-mail from Pitchfork's Chris Ott. It was in response to a letter I wrote about two Repeat posts (remember that?) before I started this blog. You can find them here, although the link at the bottom there doesn't lead to the reviews in question anymore, I believe. (You can find them here.) At any rate, let me paste in Chris' response, which I don't think needs any context for what I'm going to address in it:

Have you ever considered that "culture" is merely a nice word for a given society's prejudices?

I don't think we see eye to eye on the utility of ironic expression; for me true irony simultaneously communicates tacit understanding of an incongruous situation and invalidates or at least undercuts the reasons for that situation via insightful contradiction. In my opinion, whites have never seen an incongruous situation, as they've made the rules since long before pop music existed.

I replied; there was no follow-up. (Upon checking my archives: whoa, I replied at length. I seriously needed a blog.) That's not that important. But rereading this now, it triggered some thoughts.

The most engaging cultural criticism, and especially arguments about cultural criticism, happen at a very low level, and about very concrete things: this album, that TV show, those incidents. It gives us something we can get a handle on, and if nothing else, we can always revert to the "I liked that / I didn't like that" kind of commentary, which is fine too. But when cultcrit ventures into more abstract, purely theoretical things, I think it's harder to capture readers, even when you do refrain from using the annoyingly distancing language that so much criticism uses these days.

I'm not really interested in decrying that phenomenon--honestly, it's quite understandable that not everyone is as grabbed by that sort of stuff, given current methods of cultural education and the generally horrible writing style that seems to inevitably accompany pureish theory. But what does seem problematic about that particular dynamic is that it's essentially masking a very important--vital, even--political argument. I think an anti-sellout argument, for instance, is essentially an anti-capitalist argument. An argument against something being "merely entertaining" is, I think, meant as an argument that it only dulls people's sense and lessens their intellect, thus reducing the possibility of mass change.

The Ott thing is more direct about this, which is why it's interesting: I made a grounded, classically liberal argument, and he's making what we'll call a classically radical argument. It engages with almost nothing of what I actually said, but simply spouts a kind of chapter and verse, referring me to something without actually telling me anything. I replied; no response was forthcoming. Why?

This phenomenon seems particularly pointed when we get to arguing what I think is the point at the heart of a lot of lefty[1] cultural criticism that irks me: the validity of revolutionary change as a method of political action. The thing that particularly saddened me about the whole kiddie-porn debacle was that not only did we not have an actual discussion about my justifications for the post, but we didn't even address the legitimate political issue that I did make a wholly unironic post about, as you can see here,[2] and the heart of that was exactly the point that hoping for revolutionary change is an invalid political philosophy.

Now, there are valid reasons for trying to sidestep this argument. Maybe it's just like religion, where you can't really resolve the disagreement, and you know that already from past experience. Maybe you can see where the argument is going, and you don't think it's productive. Maybe you don't have the energy to engage with it. Were I being ungenerous, I would suggest that when we do start arguing about the underlying issue, it's pretty much indefensible, since given the past 250 years of world history, you can't really justify a reliance on revolutionary change with anything other than blind faith unless you're a sociopath.

But I honestly don't know what the reason is, and I'm also honestly not suggesting the ungenerous interpretation. But I just as honestly think there are some pretty unjustified political opinions underlying the particular moral calculus a lot of my peers use to make their cultural judgments, and I can't help noticing that whenever I start to talk about it, I'm either ignored or referred to someone else. This is one of the things that really bugs me: so much of this stuff is referential, and always to one place. I'm not sure there's any one thinker that's wholly right, and I'm much more interested in hearing your synthesis of the various ideas out there instead of a referral to something else.[3]

What seems to happen to a lot of people I know, including myself, is that you're given this particular worldview by your parents and education, and then something comes along--Howard Zinn, Adbusters, Rage Against the Machine, whatever--and disrupts it. The problem is that we (and, again, I'm including myself here) tend to take this partial disruption as a whole one, and cling to the new doctrine wholly just as you now wholly distrust what came before. The problem is, as I say above, that no one point of view is wholly right, and if there's one thing that really pisses me off about our political educations, it's the way it produces this extremely unproductive reactionary effect in our yoot.[4]

And then, of course, it extends--people don't break out of this mindset, and it actually becomes a functioning political philosophy. But it's not, and I think the way that it seems to feed into this cultural morality is revelatory of this--it's more of an aesthetic philosophy, more of a social thing. Nowhere is this more clear than in the anti-advertising stuff:

"Down with ads!"
"Because I don't like them!"

So not only do we have this fairly basic disagreement, but we then proceed not to discuss it. This is particularly a problem because it's not like disagreeing with a Republican where you're actually working toward opposing goals; with the people I'm really trying to engage with, we basically want the same things, we just disagree about how to get there. And as long as we ignore that, I think we're working at cross-purposes. When Naderites think that we can just sabotage the Democrats so that the country becomes a right-wing hell and a leftist revolution inevitably springs up, I think we're going to have a problem, you know?

And so that's all I'm saying: I'm saying let's talk about it. I might be wrong; I very possibly am. But let's at least give each other a chance to disagree about it rather than rehashing whether Liz Phair's new album is a moral wrong or not.

[1] So we don't end up going through this in comments, I'm a lefty, just not that kind of lefty.
[2] Although someone's seconding of my points here was replied to, and the thing I never caught about that was apparently folks thought I meant it as a publicity stunt. Whuzza? If I wanted a bigger readership, I would post MP3s, or have contests, or post naked pictures of Gavin Friday, or something. I'm quite happy with my readership, and I'm not sure how someone who does post his fair share of overblown, long-winded, abstract theoretical screeds, and who has largely refrained from using his stock of offensive jokes in this particular forum, can honestly be said to be doing this for publicity--thus the whole "read the rest of the damn blog" thing. What I was saying with my "no one replied to it" thing wasn't that I wanted more readers, but that I wanted comments. I wanted people to argue with me. Prove me wrong! I'd be happy to admit it! But don't just ignore it, or dismiss it as wholly invalid, as was done. I guess it was a big misunderstanding. Like a sitcom plot! Oh my god, and with hilarious consequences! Um, sort of.
[3] Incidentally, definitely do not, as Chris does, assume that I'm not familiar with this arguments or thinkers. I am. And this will get me really, really mad.
[4] Were I the radical conspiracy-theorist-type, I would suggest that this is actually a planned effect to get folks not to vote, since it "makes no difference anyway," but I'm not a radical conspiracy theorist, luckily for y'all.