Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I've been extremely busy this week hurriedly finishing an article on Ingmar Bergman's film The Serpent's Egg (1977) for a forthcoming (UK) book publication titled European Horror Cinema, and I haven't been able to focus as I'd like on a couple blog topics that I've been desperately wanting to write. (The article I agreed to write for that publication is already a month overdue.) Rather than fail to post at all, however, I thought I'd post instead an essay I wrote recently in response to an article that was widely circulated in a newsletter on my college campus. While you do not have the opportunity to read the article to which I was responding, I think you can nonetheless piece together the gist of that article's argument based on my copious references to it. I should tell you that I was told in person by the individual to whom I was responding that I didn't "get" his essay, but with all due respect, I think I did "get" it, loud and clear. I hereby post my response, I suppose unfair to the writer of the original article because you don't have in front of you his article to which I was responding. I hope you enjoy my essay anyway--it stands on its own merits. There's nothing like reading other people's mail. What follows is the original text I sent to the editor of the newsletter: what was eventually published, in a subsequent issue of the newsletter, was substantially cut. Here, finally, is the original version of my essay, for all the world to see.

Dear [Editor]:

Sorting through the several issues raised in your article, "Literature No Longer Matters" (The Examined Life 15:4), I conclude that you believe there's literature and then there's Literature. "[M]ost Americans do not read" Literature, but rather "literature," that is, the pages of "Sports Illustrated, People, and Time" (p. 1). You, one who teaches Introduction to Ethics classes, should know better than to formulate an argument based on a false dichotomy between ill-defined concepts. Literature is produced by "Dostoevsky, Hugo, Shakespeare, Dante, Eliot, Dickens, Chaucer...whoever wrote Beowulf...[and] Phillip [sic] Roth" (p. 3). Given other names you reference in the article, I assume to this list one should add Plato, Aristotle, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn, Tolstoy, and Kierkegaard. Those who produce "literature" are (by inference) journalists (all of whom one assumes would be much younger than Philip Roth, whom you've placed among some pretty august company, I might add) and the unnamed author who may write "a novel about a character whose movements are determined by his genetic makeup and his chemical reactions to the environment" (p. 2). Since no author or title is named, I assume this is merely a caricature of a fictional fiction–again pointing to a severe flaw in your argument, namely that both "Literature" and "literature" remain ill-defined concepts–just as do the collocations you employ later on, "good fiction" and "bad fiction." You write, "Good fiction is heroic, revealing the struggles of a contemplative soul overcoming himself and his environment" (p. 2). Given this formulation, what would you make, for example, of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, in which Jim's final heroic act is also deliberately suicidal, an attempt to erase his earlier act of cowardice? Jim "overcomes himself," true, but I can conclude that only because the term (category) "overcoming" contains enough qualities to be sufficiently broad (transitive) in application. Likewise, it is also possible to say that suicide is a way of "overcoming" oneself. It can also be said of Jim that he "overcame" the theological injunction against suicide as well.

In contrast, you claim that "Bad fiction is anti-heroic, depicting sociological characters who lack an imagination and a will, being simply a reflection of society, a cheap product of the environment" (p. 2). Again you provide no examples or illustrations and omit any definition of "sociological characters," whatever they are, meaning that once again you have omitted the evidence essential to the logic of your argument. I would agree with you that there are some poor books out there, but this is neither a new insight nor a profound one, nor a feature peculiar to our age. I'm inclined to agree with Oscar Wilde: "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written," thus avoiding the problem(s) of using moral categories to talk about the content of a book. (Translation: Since certain books contain knowledge that you do not value, what they contain doesn't count as knowledge at all.)

The other issue you raise, and which I find is a rather important one, is that of a putative opposition between word and image, or the opposition between verbal art and visual art, again revealing your tendency to lure your reader into dichotomizing traps. As many intellectuals interested in the history of art and literature have observed, this opposition between word and image is based on the so-called "metaphysics of presence," that is, the Word is more proximate to the Truth than the Image (which is debased, and trivial, and deceptive, and so on, which your use of the parable of the Cave as an example emphasizes). This conceptual opposition is expressed in your article in several ways: Literature vs. TV, Literature vs. movies, Literature vs. the computer screen, and also in a very specific way in an anecdote about the movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings vs. Tolkien's novel The Lord of the Rings. "As good as the movie is, my fourteen-year-old daughter [omitted] said the book [of The Lord of the Rings] is better [than the movie]. Why? 'Because the book has the characters' thoughts.' That is right: the mind is quicker than the eye, the reader's imagination is richer than a movie producer's images...." (p. 2). Using this logic, you therefore would discourage [omitted] from reading any dramatic literature because dramatic literature–and certainly movies are a form of dramatic representation–demands that the reader/spectator make inferences about characters' thoughts and motives rather than employing a narrator to provide explicit statements about them. If this were so, you would have her avoid a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet, for example, because the reader has no direct insight into Hamlet's motives. Not true, you might say: Shakespeare uses the device of the soliloquy, in which the character externalizes his or her thoughts. Rightly so, but then why have generations of readers puzzled over the character of Hamlet? Perhaps because there remains a contradiction between what he says and what he does, so we're back to square one: since we lack any direct insight into his motives, we have to rely on other ways to uncover them. Likewise, I assume you would not condone Greek dramatists, and no modern classics such as Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons, Tennessee Williams's A Glass Menagerie, or Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Certainly you don't believe this, nor have you told [omitted] to avoid Shakespeare or any of these authors. Since it is clear that you can't take this part of your own argument seriously, neither can I. However, the effect of all this is that your discussion of The Lord of the Rings boils down to the proposition that the book is better than the movie, an assertion so painfully banal that I can't believe you actually made it. Anyone familiar with the literature of deconstruction will recognize this "logocentric" opposition, founded on the notion of "presence." Pitting the book against the movie is yet another version of the opposition that pits original against copy. But I am not interested in demonstrating the untenability of the authentic/conventional (pure/popular) opposition. I don't wish to recapitulate what has become the most standard sort of deconstructive reading.

Your insistent denigration of vision and of the visual, however, is of great concern to me. (I'll neglect pursuing your rhetorical slight-of-hand when you substitute "the world of appearances" for "images" [p. 1]). A revealing moment in your essay occurs during an off-hand remark, presumably intended to be humorous, that "Bad fiction edifying as watching a colonoscopy" (p. 2). I assume you had at least two purposes for making this remark: to juxtapose the categories of bad fiction and excrement (nothing new there), while also, simultaneously, referring to the historic moment when Katie Couric had her colonoscopy televised nationally (March 2000). It was, perhaps, a rather bold and audacious event, certainly unique, which invites a number of readings: that of the prurient "spectacle," that is, of mind-numbing mass entertainment that invokes associations with the Roman coliseum. For some, no doubt, the experience of watching one of America's sweethearts having her colon examined proves once and for all that nothin's sacred–yet another indication of our hopelessly degraded culture, typical of any argument, such as yours, that employs a rhetoric of degeneration. Such arguments chart social trends as a downward course, relying on readers to decode such a journey Platonically, as a deviation from the Good. Of course, one might argue, on the other hand, that she, Katie Couric, had the general Good in mind, to raise public awareness of colon cancer despite the general squeamishness on the subject. Her concern is justifiable: colon cancer is the second biggest cancer killer after lung cancer. Current statistics show that about 76,000 people die from it a year. In fact, Couric's husband, NBC legal commentator Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer a couple years before her broadcast, so it is probable that she had personal reasons for calling attention to the virtues of preventive health care technology, which took precedence over any "sensational" aspects of the broadcast.

Your incidental remark about a colonoscopy thus belies an issue suppressed in your discussion, namely, to avoid any mention or reference to the value of vision and seeing in the sciences, particularly the medical sciences, a discipline in which the word/image antithesis, that so animates your essay, is simply not applicable. Certainly you wouldn't claim that the establishment of the study of microscopy in the eighteenth century, which led to the discovery of microorganisms and the formation of sciences such as dermatology, was just an uncritical preoccupation with the "merely" visual, or "the world of appearances" (p. 1). Of course, it is true, as Barbara Maria Stafford points out, that while microscopy became a scientific enterprise in the eighteenth-century, moral concerns quickly came into conflict with "exploratory curiosity" (Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images, p. 180). She observes:

Our contemporary interest in playful learning, in computer sketchpads, and in video games relying on children's fascination with electronics was already predicted in eighteenth-century interactive technology.... Lurking beneath the surface of various attempts to make scientific training graphic and attractive was the much broader polemic concerning the right or wrong presentation of information. Long before the onset of nineteenth-century Positivism, arguments were mustered for severing enjoyable watching from exacting observation. This dichotomy was promoted by the rise of the logocentric critic as rational censor, external to the inferior sensory field of inquiry being judged. (180)

Thus, over two-and-a-half centuries before Katie Couric's broadcast, moralists had already raised the aesthetic issue of the proper presentation or exhibition of empirical observations.

Yet Henry Baker's controversial vivisection of frogs, during which "the skin of the belly was slit from the anus to the throat and stretched with fish hooks in front of the microscope" in order to demonstrate the circulation of blood (Good Looking 181) is a far cry from a televised colonoscopy, despite issues that could be raised regarding the right or wrong presentation of information. Perhaps Philip Roth wouldn't find it edifying, but it is reasonable to assume that if his doctor (does he have one? does he have one who reads literature? who uses a computer?) found some symptoms indicating that he, Philip Roth, may have colon cancer, he would order his patient, Philip Roth, to have a colonoscopy. Assuming that Philip Roth respects his doctor's opinion, and assuming he values his life, I think that he would consent to having the exam, that is, to allow a prosthetic device to microscopically expand the range of human vision in order to confirm or deny the nature of the symptoms. Edifying or not to the patient, what the doctor could see would provide him knowledge.

As you can see, I read Roth's remark differently than you do. I see it as a statement occurring within a larger discourse. Like any industry, the publishing industry has a discourse, organizing itself around certain naturalized oppositions. Publishers organize their product around categories of legitimacy. By way of analogy, so, too, does the American institution of higher education, via The Chronicle of Higher Education, in which is published every year a list of Ph.D.-granting institutions, a list arranged according to the legitimacy of the program(s), figuratively named a "ranking." I say that publishers have a "product" in the sense that the book was first invented (the cover and binding, the leaves or pages, and its divisions: the title page, the table of contents, the chapters, the index) and like any human invention is therefore a form of technology. (It also happens to store information, like a computer's hard drive or a CD-ROM, although its storage form is alphabetic rather than digital.) Like any technological apparatus, the book is manufactured and distributed and obtained through institutions (primarily bookstores, which may or may not have a "Starbuck's" [p. 1]) that are organized around categories of legitimacy, for instance, "Romance Novels," "Art/Photography," "Popular Music," "Classics," "Cliff's Notes." The point is that the institution itself has sanctioned the antithesis that holds that "authentic" books are something distinct from "commercial" books, though both categories remain ill-defined. This authentic/commercial antithesis is sufficient to generate the real/fake distinction that informs your essay. Like Roth, you understand the history of literature as a series of authentic Literary moments that have deteriorated into conventionalized (popularized, vulgarized) expressions (literature, movies, TV), transforming the history of Literature into a field of "commercial" or debased imitations of some real thing, and thus you have organized Literary history around the proper names of acknowledged masters of the book (p. 3), dismissing the rest.

For these reasons, I don't see Roth's statement as particularly insightful; rather, it expresses his irritation that the authority for the transmission of culture has shifted from books to TV and the movies, that is, to what Walter J. Ong, S.J., in Orality and Literacy, calls "post-typographic" or "electronic" media, which Roth perceives to be illegitimate means. Why this is cause for such alarm or lamentation I'm not sure; perhaps he feels that he no longer has the Pharisee-like control over ideas–proper ideas–that he once had. Alternatively, perhaps time has shown that he isn't an acknowledged innovator on the order of Chaucer or Shakespeare. I also think that his argument is just plain wrong. My experience, which apparently contradicts yours and Roth's, is that there are not only more and bigger bookstores now than ever before, but bookstores which in fact have several floors in them, such as the Borders bookstore on Dodge Street in Omaha. How you arrive at the conclusion that "We have cycled back to the dark ages" or that "Literature No Longer Matters" (p. 1) in the face of such empirical facts is beyond me. Literature, and the book, is alive and well.

Therefore, when you claim hyperbolically that "no one has sat down with them [our students] to read literature" (p. 2), you can't really believe that they haven't read a work of literature in their college career. What you're really saying is that the students are not reading the literature you think they should, that what they're reading is illegitimate or conventional, that they are reading books which contain knowledge that you don't count as knowledge. Personally, I think some of the students in your "control group" of 25 were "pulling your leg," to use a colloquialism. At any rate, it may be that they are poor readers, and need to become better readers; on this point I think we'll agree, and you and I can do something about improving this ability. But this is a different matter than claiming they don't read literature–or rather, Literature. Just so the point can't be conveniently neglected, the late Cliff Hillegass, who began Cliff's Notes and named the form eponymously, acquired his rather significant fortune because teachers across the country were teaching canonical literature–check out the titles available as Cliff's Notes. I suspect that there are very few of these titles you would say fall outside the recognized body of canonical Literature. So don't tell me Literature isn't being taught; I know better, and the fortune Cliff left behind confirms it. Whether students are actually reading the assigned books is a different issue entirely, unrelated to the question of whether Literature still matters.

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