A soothingly middlebrow silence

This post starts with two paragraphs of back story which if you are a thoroughly post-modern Millie, feel free to skip; it’s included for readers who wonder which planet I hail from.

How we look at literature (or any other type of art or object) changes from era to era but it revolves around three things.  The person who made the thing, the thing itself – and the person who is reading or looking at the thing.  The ‘real world’ outside doesn’t – at least in current thinking – enter into the discussion, and the ‘thing’ is called a text – whether it’s Shakespeare, an oxo packet or even a chair.  (It’s called ‘Critical Theory’ and you can study it.)

The top dog of these three – maker, text, reader – is currently the reader.  This makes sense if you consider the secular consumerist nature of current UK society.   For writers (and other makers), it means that the most important critics of the writer are the readers.   On the surface, this isn’t problematic:  surely works that are recognised to be popular will survive and be judged on their quality – or what the writer was seeking to achieve?

Writers have the freedom to make observations that are uncomfortable and poke into the dark places of the human condition without syruping them over; seeking after truths is one of the most important contributions they can make.  (And, to anyone who thinks all the research money should go to science, the humanities are  all the more free to make these uncomfortable observations since they are not as bound as science is to method and tradition – if you think this is a bad thing, go debate it with Aristotle.) 

Readers themselves, I think, are fallen into seeing themselves as consumers, judging texts purely in terms of their own reaction and even extrapolating their singular experience to be general.   

Work that may shock or offend – no matter how well justified the observations are – should be censored.  This is why Harper Lee’s to Kill a Mockingbird is still on banned books lists, and an author feels the need to defend her choice of words for her character’s dialogue. 

The desire to protect others from offense is the invidious tenor of our age – as Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times notes, that which is middlebrow has won.

Rich individuals and corporations are naturally gleeful; this approach means they can act with impunity – the attempt to make it illegal to offend the religious, silence legitimate news reporting, and the punitive libel laws are examples that come readily to mind.   

There may be a mood for change – particularly once consumers lose their pocket power.  Until then, redacted is a word for our times.

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3 Responses to A soothingly middlebrow silence

  1. Colin says:

    What do you think of Dr Johnson’s view that nobody but a fool ever wrote anything except of money? And surely what the reader makes of it is ultimately the most important thing?

  2. The quote is, I think “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Subtle distinction – but I read this as meaning that the leisured classes who wrote, unpaid (as they didn’t need it) were idiots. Skimming Wikipedia it seems that lack of money may have been a constant in his life. Various people have spent time trying to pin down the few big themes that all plots contain – money is said to be one of them (sometimes it’s a proxy for power).

    Writing is indeed, currently, valued as what the reader makes of it – and the myriad readers will find different meanings in the same piece and even the same reader at different times of their life (ever gone back to something you’ve read as a child and understood it afresh?). It’s not the same thing as saying anything means anything – it would be difficult to argue that Johnson is writing about, say, blue cheese. It isn’t hard to make a case that sneering at the idle aristocracy is what that quote is about.

    Whether or not Johnson meant that – who knows? He’s not around to ask and all the stuff on theory of the mind and whether there is such a thing as a coherent stable self enters into theory ideas too (the science/humanities duality has more to do with how human beings use comparisons as a means of thinking – there’s a couple of classical studies papers that are interesting in that respect. Humanities needs to make its case strongly that it isn’t the icing after science has done the real work – it’s a part of working out research paradigms and questioning assumptions. It is being rather pants at doing this though.)

  3. And the reader hasn’t always been the most important. The maker/text/reader focus moves around – we focus on the reader because of the times we live in.

    Broadly speaking…classical and medieval/renaissance times the focus was on the creator – the muse, God expressed through the artist (huge amount of sacred art/texts, very little secular). Then came C18 (in music, confusingly this is ‘classical’ period) which is about the aesthetics and form of the work. Then comes Enlightenment and Romanticism and ideas about self expression (ie essentialist thinking that replaced God with man – and man it was too.) and the form of the work was less important – and less high falutin too, finally the less elite were more appreciated. Then we’ve got modernism (early C20), which is back with the text (lots of engineering/mechanical developments influencing this) etc to where we currently are.

    The maker is currently least appreciated I think – cf all the stuff we expect to get for free. I don’t know what comes next.

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