Night By Night: More On Taste

Dear readers,

Since I just posted a huge comment over at the Valve, which contains a lot of my thinking about “taste” and arguments about taste, I figure I’ll reproduce it here and, if you want, you can feel free to read it as a stand-alone. You can read the Valve comments here.

Adam, the dynamics of pleasure you are talking about is a Nabokovian version of pleasure. Nabokov conceives of “refined” pleasures in a way that makes them very unstable, and likely to “topple over” into kitsch or bodily pleasure; the character of Lolita stands both for philistine culture (Lo loves pop trash) and for sexual pleasure.

All this means is that a certain kind of aestheticism loathes itself, and produces curious sorts of pleasures and irony. Pleasure as it is produced in Jane Austen, or in Montaigne, does not have the same qualities. (It is my guess that a Nabokovian is much more likely than an Emersonian to tolerate somebody else loving ABBA, because Nabokov loves to define things as muck and then wallow in them, via lust or incessant slander. Nabokov and “camp” were made for each other.)

I don’t think that we should fall for the idea, beautifully portrayed in Requiem for a Dream, that “everyone has their high,” with that being Rimbaud for some and “Mama Mia” for others. Taste is not synonymous with pleasure, and pleasure should not be abstracted from the whole experience of the world in which it arises. Just as, in the post on Bérubé’s book, I wondered about the role of abstracted “intelligence” in protecting the status quo, I wonder about the role of “pleasure” (or “entertainment”) in making challenging works of art into purely passive, evanescent highs.

Scott, is there any reason to label narrative/plot as base and common? You’re doing that while still professing your love of narrative, which I share without thinking of it as base. Actually, I think it is the desire not to be base and common that produces the best readings. The other day Scott and I were talking about the band The Replacements; a critic who loves The Replacements has the job of proving that they are different in kind from Maroon 5, and they do that by producing interesting and detailed analyses. The good reading comes out of the possibility that the work is unreadable, either because it is ordinary (The Replacements), monstrous (Lolita), or obscure (Finnegans Wake). That is why we need to have antagonists, to keep things from going stale.

Rich, I agree that cultural surplus has become a major problem. You and Yglesias seem to be very much in agreement. Recently, though, I’ve begun to think that the worry over surplus is just as much of a problem. While it is possible that important works aren’t getting enough exposure, there has never been an era so hospitable to indie film, indie music, diversity of authorship, and high concept writing for television. One of my major projects as a blogger has been asking “what is being done with the work?” rather than “is the work being seen?”

Also, note that I am very critical of the identitarian moment, for the very reasons you describe: it is solipsistic, and it is also contingent in a troubling way. I happen to know Ace of Base very well because it was heavily marketed at a moment when I was discovering music. I don’t still find The Sign rewarding, though once every six months or so I listen to it for the sake of amusement and nostalgia.

I don’t write about pop music out of a feeling of obligation to hipness; I write about it out of a feeling of obligation to worthwhile, provocative artworks. It’s true that pop culture has burst onto the scene of serious academic debate; this is analogous to the moment when the novel became a subject of academic concern.

Luther, I sort of agree that Nabokov is overrated, in the sense that his definitions of refinement, pleasure, and so on tend to dominate over those of other writers of quality. But I don’t think it is productive to dismiss him; as Bill notes, he produces good readings from admirers and detractors alike. I wouldn’t know how to define “manhood” or “America” such that his irrelevance to these discourses would become immediately clear. Rather than ranking Nabokov, I want to say the following: “Nabokov’s problems do not often line up with my own, but I do consider him an excellent cartographer of a particular sensibility that others share.”

This is how I get at the question of “objective” versus “subjective” quality to which Bill refers in his discussion of Milton. Bill saw that Milton could be analyzed complexly, and accepted Milton’s place because of a direct experience of another’s interest. For my part, if I found Milton unappealing, I would want to attack his worldview while simultaneously asserting the worth of it having been articulated. D. H. Lawrence does a good job of this in late analyses of Thomas Hardy and Marcel Proust.

Returning to Luther’s comment, I have trouble seeing how the resignation you describe squares with your newfound respect for Steely Dan. It seems like the debate over taste does produce, for you, valuable new avenues of enjoyment. I don’t make assertions of value (which sometimes turn into arguments about taste) in order to have my insecurities soothed. I do so in order to be understood, and to invite a response that helps me understand another person. I do so in order to articulate social and personal enigmas, to reveal possibilities for happiness, and to order and recollect the past. A good piece of criticism is the spectacle of the critic doing all those things, and yes — as Joyce indicates through the “Humpty Dumpty” plot of the dismembered father/author in the Wake — it veers close to cannibalism.

I agree about the narcissism of small differences; I don’t care about where to draw the line with Radiohead either. (I also happen to agree that the new Pynchon is being misread all over the place, and will post about it when I’ve finished reading.)

However, the inability to resolve small differences and inability to even discuss large ones boils down to the same thing: the dominance of the solipsistic model of the inarticulate, personal absolute of pleasure. The reason people who like Bach can’t talk to people who like Britney Spears has everything to do with this absolute replacing the articulation of a response to the work. Rather than articulating, in a detailed fashion, what is appealing about the music, people just resign themselves.

You certainly can dance to Bach; that is what people did when Bach was alive. You can also listen to Britney in your room, which I guarantee you thousands of people are doing right now. If somebody is writing about Bach without granting him the wonderful vitality that made so much of his work suitable for dance, they’re doing a bad job of it. And if somebody is dancing to “Baby One More Time” without thinking about what, exactly, that song and video means, they are missing a chance to think through a fascinating piece of American culture.

The related emphases on fandom (“I’m a Bach fan”), scene (the dancefloor versus the leather-bound Chair of Contemplation), and de-contextualized “worth” all detract from the truth, which is that art has multiple uses, and good art deserves thoughtful treatment. Rather than retreating to the mechanical, pre-fabricated processes of enjoyment that separate Bach lovers from Britney lovers, but put both in the racks at Borders, we ought to be writing the best stuff we can about both artists.

Troll of Joy, I don’t think Beloved is the best novel of the last 25 years either, in any “objective” sense. Do you agree that readings of Beloved have helped some critics to articulate problems of race, memory, family, and violence? I do, and I also think a lot more good critiques of the novel could be written. For example, I like some of the criticisms Walter Benn Michaels makes of the text. The text (and the history surrounding it) is large enough to contain both.

I’ll conclude by clarifying the sentence in bold: “Differences in taste ought to be preserved, but preserved as differences of problematic.”

For most of the people I know who really love Nabokov, the problematic is this: “How do I reconcile my desire for pleasure, with my love of order, refinement, and control? Pleasure seems to dissolve all those things.”

For the people who really love Sylvia Plath, the problematic seems to be quite different: “How do I realize my desire for escape, given that at present I am owned by others in a way that I feel, in my very body?”

If neither of these sounds much like your examined life, then either you’ve discovered another version of these authors, or you’re more interested in somebody else. In any case, you can imagine how another person might have a lot invested in these questions. Hopefully there is a clear distinction between asking and trying to answer them, and simply falling in love with the continual re-statement of the question, which is the phenomenon of “being a fan” and the basis of imitation.

Listening to Steely Dan means realizing that they only thing standing between you and Being-Towards-Death are bad sneakers and a transistor radio. Listening to them means you have suddenly realized you do not actually like Pina Coladas or getting caught in the (frozen) rain. Being a fan of them means you like the music they play at the dentist’s office.