Archive for the 'Criticism' Category

The Carters at the Louvre

Flanööri asked me to write about the new video by the Carters. I am not a fan of their music. I’m completely the wrong person to write about the topic, but that might make this interesting. The song sounds like it follows the common theme of bragging about how much money and stuff the artists have, which I don’t find interesting at all. Of course, all this has very little to do with music and everything to do with the video shot at the Louvre. So, I’ll put the new Death Grips album on and have a closer look at the visuals.

carters 1It begins with a very nice panning shot of the ceiling paintings in the Galerie d’Apollon. They look great in fancy lighting. We get a few close-ups of paintings I do not recognize, and then move to the Mona Lisa room with the Carters. They are dressed wonderfully throughout the video and play their part as celebrity royalty very well.

They change into white costumes and there is a wonderful shot of the Nike staircase with dancers lying on the stairs. Then, there is dancing, tilted shots of a few paintings and a bit more ceiling art. And many shots of the Carters who look very defiant in most of them.carters 2

There is more dancing and singing in front of Napoleon’s coronation, Nike and the Sphinx. There is a quick shot of David’s Sabine Women, after which the Carters take another meaningful look at the camera. I don’t know what they are trying to convey, but they look like they mean business.

carters 4Overall, there are not that many instances where our stars interact with the paintings and sculptures in a meaningful way, but I do get some of the points Sarah Huny Young writes about in her piece in Elle: that blackness is an art form in the video. There are a few shots where we see people mimicking the actions of statues, and a strange image of a man standing on a horse that somehow reproduces a Géricault painting. The latter looks interesting, because it obviously carnivalizes the original image of a Napoleonic officer. The man’s clothing mimics the stars and stripes, he’s wearing a cowboy hat, and he is standing on his horse. It would probably be my favorite image in the video were it not for another one that occurs a bit earlier.

carters 3It’s another David, his Portrait of Madame Récamier. Reclining on the floor under the painting, dressed in headgear that echoes the madame’s dress, are two women who also seem to recreate the symmetry of the strange sofa of the painting. There is a morbid parody of the painting by Magritte where the madame has been replaced by a coffin. I would have loved to have seen it in the background instead of the original. In any case, the Neoclassical dress and general setting of the image point to an idealized version of Ancient Greece, the socialite madame to contemporary ideals of beauty. The two ladies point to something else.

The Carters’s strange poses, defiance, intentional vulgarity (the song is called “Apeshit”) and all the rest of it seem to be aimed at creating a new standard of beauty through a commentary on European aesthetics. The plan still rests on the tradition it criticizes, but the critique does remind us of everything that has contributed to it, and of the fact that it’s still an ongoing tradition. The pieces in the Louvre are not preserved in the past. They are here with us in the present.

I guess that’s what I take home from this: aesthetics is never a theoretical exercise and always entangled with history. To quote Death Grips: “It’s a shitshow.”

What Is It Like to Teach a Course on Nihilism?

nothingnessI noticed some time ago that my Kindle was filling up with books on nihilism. These were mostly related to philosophy and literature. The philosophical works covered topics like anti-natalism and suicide. The literary studies discussed a range of literature from French existentialists to Lovecraft. Among my books I found the following:

There were a lot more. It was interesting to see so many books, many of them quite recent, discuss the meaninglessness of life. Some of them analyzed nihilism into different kinds or types: theological nihilism, political nihilism, semantic nihilism, epistemological, alethiological, metaphysical or ontological, ethical or moral, existential or axiological nihilism. Oddly enough, what I thought was a taboo subject had become the centerpiece of modern philosophy and art. Nihilism also showed a surprising taxonomical richness. If life really was meaningless, it seemed like this fact was immensely interesting and meaningful to a lot of people.

There is a history of nihilism in literature as well and it can be traced for the purposes of an English literature course. Many works have to be excluded, but that always happens. One can begin with the decadents and the fin de siecle hellraisers, go through Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner and Beckett. One can read popular writers like H.P. Lovecraft, William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, and the more recent American Psychos and Fight Clubs. And one can end with the criticism of David Foster Wallace and the dystopian glory of Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Ligotti. That’s precisely what we did.

The history traced the ways in which artists and thinkers dealt with the disenchantment created by modernity. Again, immensely interesting and meaningful works of literature. Going through this rich vein of bleak poetry and prose, students often began their comments with “I know nothing really matters, but …” One could see Western thought turning in on itself, trying to wiggle itself out of the abstract hell it had knotted itself into. We knew something like that would happen, but it was nevertheless fascinating to witness. There are two more lessons to go and that’s a shame, because it has been one of the most rewarding courses I have taught in my almost ten years of teaching literature. Something can come from nothing. Quite a lot, actually.

The Stagnated Rhetoric of Political Extremism

m_90621Helsingin Sanomat published an odd story about a Finnish neonazi group this Sunday. Apparently, the reporters infiltrated an online forum where members, several whom were doxxed and had their names printed in Finland’s largest newspaper, discussed the group’s planned propaganda campaigns. The London Review of Books published Slavoj Zizek’s piece on the Charlie Hebdo attacks where he concludes that “we have to abandon the idea that there is something emancipatory in extreme experiences, that they enable us to open our eyes to the ultimate truth of a situation.” He calls this perhaps the “the most depressive lesson of terror.” Tariq Ali has been promoting his new book The Extreme Centre: A Warning where he seems to go Russell Brand on readers who have become totally apathetic with politics. Prince Charles expressed his concerns about the radicalization of young people on the BBC.

Warnings about political extremism have become a tool for established politicians and media personalities to promote their stale ways of thinking and to maintain their hold on power. An unthinking person might jump to the conclusion that to refuse to participate in this circus is a suggestion to join an extremist group, but this would be missing the point. Politicians have recruited radicalism and extremism to serve their own ends. Anyone who embraces extremism, it seems, will only be a useful idiot to those already in power. The discourse has been appropriated into the system and resistance seems futile. What, then, is to be done when the possibility of a revolutionary vanguard has been pre-emptively neutered by the clammy hands that guide the media?

Perhaps the first thing we could do is to recognize the stagnated rhetoric of political extremism and the even more foul-smelling use of the rhetoric of extremism by those already in power. Politicians who claim to be the only bulwark of reasonableness between us and extremism are not there to keep us safe and spotless. Their job is to get into office and their rhetoric does not essentially differ from the propaganda of extremist groups. Extremist groups, on the other hand, are hardly an option for most people who like to think themselves sane.

We should remember that great old William James quote: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” We should recognize that what is being presented to us instead of thinking are thinky toys© which we are then expected to play with, preferably in the privacy of our own heads. Their use in journalism and the media to sell papers and books should be made more obvious to everyone. Eventually, the media might do it all by itself just by producing more lazy journalism and spouting tired rhetoric as news. If the ruse becomes grotesquely obvious, people will notice, get bored with them and finally resist them. That’s a big “if”, but where there is banality, there is hope.

A Spectrum of Misery

A little while ago, I wrote a short article about Thomas Ligotti’s book on nihilism and H. P. Lovecraft for the Finnish philosophy journal niin & näin. It should be published in the next issue. Usually I put the piece out of my mind as soon as I submit it, but something about this one stuck with me.

Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2010) seemed to skip over skepticism, pessimism, cynicism and cross over to nihilism. At least that was my unacknowledged little hierarchy of -isms that I used to read him. What I did not make clear in the article was that I do categorize and file away authors according to whether they think like skeptics, pessimists, cynics or nihilists. What the actual qualities are that make someone fall into these categories is not quite clear. It is perhaps the forcefulness of their doubt. Skeptics and Pyrrhonists doubt relatively reasonably, pessimists doubt that there is no reason to attempt anything but doubting, cynics do nothing but doubt and the nihilists’ doubt is transcendental. Or perhaps the spectrum could be organized according to hope: little hope, very little hope, no hope, the negation of hope itself. Or it could be organized according to belief, certainty, motivation or reasonableness. Ligotti’s book is somewhere at the bottom end, whatever the scale is or how it really functions.

I usually reach for Richard Popkin’s History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle (2003) when I start to think about my favourite miserable philosophers. Popkin’s book is probably the best account of the history of skepticism, and it’s also quite clever. He thinks of Descartes, for example, as the “conqueror of skepticism” instead of the man who founded western philosophy on a ridiculously overamplified doubt about everything. By doing what he did after his skepticism had been inflated to absurd proportions, Descartes saved western thought from imploding. Or that’s what Popkin thought. We may need another conqueror fairly soon for our postmodern irony-saturated culture. This time we need someone to save us from nihilism, but it is very difficult to bet on a nihilist to do anything that would serve common ends. Ligotti does what he does brilliantly and it is difficult to read the book without being entertained by his bleak philosophy, but he’s probably not our man.

Because the book is so entertaining, I came to think the supreme quality of my spectrum of misery may in fact be aesthetic. To categorize philosophers as either skeptics, pessimists, cynics or nihilists by using beauty as a tool of measurement sounds too strange to work, but it’s the best answer I’ve come up with thus far. There is beauty in the destruction of thought. It is like a dance that pulverizes the edifices erected by the reader in order to protect himself or herself from the world. After they are gone, the philosopher takes a bow, leaves the stage and he or she is left with nothing. That’s the one thing I now regret: I wish I could have found a way to say his book was beautiful.

Je suis Charlie

je suis charlie
In the spring of 2013, I was nervously putting together a defense for my dissertation on satire. I had played it safe and written a study about eighteenth-century satire, but I wanted to link what I had to say to contemporary issues in a little speech. There was no shortage of ridiculous attempts at censorship by anal bureaucrats and there were many examples to choose from when it came to moronic retaliations against those who had taken the piss and succeeded rather too well. Today, we have seen yet another retaliation far more hideous than the ones I had to choose from. Fine (and sometimes crude) wits and people around them have been shot down in Paris by monsters who have disgraced themselves and their cause in an unimaginably cruel attack.

It’s an attack that will fuel the fires of extremism, be it Islamic fundamentalism or the hardcore right-wing xenophobic cause. It’s an attack that will “accelerate history”, as the author Michel Houellebecq put it in a recent interview. He was referring to his own book, but the effect of the attack will be the same if not more dramatic. The faces of extremism are more or less identical, especially when two sides are engaged in furious battle. And this is how the catastrophe unfolds: two sides locked in a life-and-death struggle. Bad journalism will make it worse. It’s our time to grow up as a multicultural Europe, but try saying that to a bunch of immature children with guns and antiquated political ideals. What we should never forget in this affair is that there are not two sides to the story. There are at least three, and the representatives of one of those parties are now dead.

In the seventeenth century, one of the great men of the country I currently call home wrote wise words about the role of the satirist in society. The poet, playwright and critic John Dryden had absorbed the best lessons from those Greeks and Romans who were foundational for Western culture. One of their lessons was that a common culture was a fragile creation. The Greek notion of paideia was created to keep it healthy and strong. What is not always emphasized enough is that not only Greeks could take part in its maintenance. If you were part of its sphere of influence, you were a true participant in its creation. No matter where you came from or where you had been. Dryden, musing on these issues, noted that one of the tests of its health and soundness was satire. Satirists were the people who held in their hands the instrument of determining how mad we had become. When the satirist was persecuted, we could be sure that there was something gravely amiss.

Now, brave satirists are dead because of their work. They are dead because they did their civic duty as satirists. In the grand scheme of things, they were not part of the opposition or the status quo, right or left, West or East. They were the minders of our sanity, as satirists have always been. Now, more bravery and more satire is desperately needed. More ideological rebellion, more fuck yous, more determined piss-taking, more mockery of those who would bring all of us to our knees. Make fun of that pompous idiot in a dress who wants to tell you how to think. Make fun of the corrupt politicians who want to tell you how to act. If you do that, great things may happen. If you don’t, they’ve already won.

Notes From the Academic Trenches

According to legend, Charles Bukowski wrote his first novel in mere weeks, as he said, “out of fear.” My experiences with my doctoral dissertation have proven him right as far as I’m concerned. It is indeed fear that spurs you on, but he never mentioned the despair. Writing has alternatively driven me to despair and brief spells of hope. I’m used to the ups and downs by now and the fear that gnaws me at the moment is that I’m numb to them and can’t adjust to the numbness. After a night of punching in 600+ footnotes, the whole operation seems irrational and futile. The finished product is a mediocre effort at best and as I get ready to write the concluding chapter I can’t help thinking that I’ve said very little in far too many words.

Academic stuff has always been most exciting for me to read and write when the argument shakes and rattles and is about to crumble. Now, everything seems too solid and the problems are of a different nature. People tell you you have to write and argue clearly, but what they mean is that you have to write just clearly enough, otherwise you spell out truisms that put them to sleep. On the bright side, I’ve solved the problem I set out to solve.

It has not helped that my materials involve debates between critics and satirists. This has been a project where I have had to read stuff that insults me as well as the work I’m trying to do every day. But it has been fun. Too much fun, even. I can’t believe people have actually given me grants to do this. Now that unemployment looms again, I have to figure out what I can do with the degree. Probably not much, and it’s not yet even sure if the dissertation qualifies for one. But I did complete what I set out to do. The secrets that drove me to do this are now inked on the pages of the dissertation for all to see.

All in all, the university system has been a way of squeezing out the last drops of naive optimism from my system, not that there was a lot to begin with. And not that it is an entirely bad thing. I know now why H. P. Lovecraft thought everything since the eighteenth century seemed to him unreal and illusory. I know why Coleridge thought the metaphysical poets with their outrageous conceits and figurative language seemed to him much more transparent in their meaning than Alexander Pope and the Augustans. I know why we can’t mean what we say anymore. I know why the moderns love Beckett and Wittgenstein. Now the problem is to find someone who cares and the frightening thing is that I have to count myself out.

On Fairy Stories

Because I study literature and languages, people often ask me for recommendations as to what they should read. Usually, I don’t give a straight answer, because different people look for different things in literature and my own interests are professional and hence a bit strange compared to most tastes. But something can be said about the reasons why one should read literature in general. And by literature I mean mostly fiction, although strictly speaking one should not exclude things like Ruskin’s criticism or Newton’s Principia, for example, from the category of great literature.

One of my childhood favorites, the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft once reportedly said: “I’ve always had [the] subconscious feeling that everything since the 18th century is unreal and illusory.” This is something I’ve come to believe as well, not because of any subconscious feeling but thanks to study. When one studies literary history, especially that of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, what one finds is something akin to rhetorical bootstrapping of literary registers. This has to do with the political theater of the court and many other things too complicated to go into here, but something like the final destruction of the link between res and verba seems to have occurred. That is, in some sense polite culture did become unreal and illusory.

Things like this happen in literary history once in a while. Something like it happened with Dante and with Shakespeare. The title of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human gives a hint of what happened with the latter. In the eighteenth century, however, this phenomenon — whatever we want to call it — happened on an industrial scale. With the Restoration, the English found themselves emerging from an Hobbesian world where the interpretation of the actions and words of men became more than an art. Rhetoric was no more mere ornament, it was a battlefield that required skills of skeptical reading and careful interpretation.

Dwelling on the subject for a few years will heighten one’s awareness of the doubleness of people and their words. It’s something close to paranoia if one does not keep it in check. Puritan critics of the Elizabethan period were still able to call for transparency in language and romances were one of their main targets. Moral improvement was for them the primary function of literature and what silly fairy stories did to readers was dangerous. And, in some sense, they had a point in their Platonic objections to poetry of this kind. It does make readers immoral in the sense that it will familiarize the reader with a different register that may overtake the plain speech the Puritans preferred. The unreal and illusory infect the register of plain speech and one has to deal with a new type of register that is morally dubious.

On the other hand, studying literature may also familiarize one with fiction in a way that enables one to recognize bullshit when one sees it. Romantic literature, for one, is notorious even in our time for installing silly ideas of romance into the heads of people who will look for transcendent love as if they were the heroes or heroines of cheesy novels or, more likely nowadays, soap operas. The Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope was once asked what the point of his novels was, to which he replied that they helped young ladies decide on marriage. He was a great admirer of Jane Austen and she of course is widely recognized as the greatest writer of his genre. Every man contemplating marriage, I would say, should read Austen just to see how carefully the young ladies in her books weigh their options and pay special attention to the role money plays in their decisions. Austen, despite her reputation as romantic fluff, is fantastically brutal in the way she destroys whatever fairy stories one may have heard of marriage. She is one of the most unromantic writers I’ve come across and well worth reading, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to recommend her to anyone. Perhaps next time someone asks I will, because she teaches skills in ruthless judgment that might save lives.

However, where to begin one’s reading if one is interested in something else besides reining in one’s hormones? The one answer that I’ve given a couple of times and been happy with is that one should start with the ancient dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. In this at least, my education in literature didn’t really differ that much from eighteenth-century schoolboys — although I didn’t learn Greek as a boy in order to read them. They show the lengths to which human beings are able to go and what they are willing to do in order to survive, to love, to exact revenge or to defend what is theirs. They also show that since the ancients people have struggled with problems related to distinguishing illusion from reality. They taught me that if you are willing to assume that everything you know is wrong, you are on your way to finding answers. It will probably not be a pleasant experience, but at least it gets you a little closer to something like the truth.