Thursday, October 15, 2009

Let's Talk About Taste: Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Meta (or Not)

Garth Risk Hallberg finds it necessary once again to justify the Millions Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) list, or at least the concept of the list. I don't mean simply to re-hash the argument I made about the list (or the subsequent contretemps with Edmond), but there are a few additional points I'd like to make which I hope will expand rather than just extend the conversation.

First of all, Hallberg takes the "we started a conversation and conversations are good" line of argument. I would offer that there is an important distinction between starting a conversation and hosting a conversation. By its actions, The Millions was clearly hosting a conversation, and therefore had some additional obligations to uphold. More than just kicking things off and seeing where they rolled, I feel that there needed to have been more of an effort at engaging voices from different sectors of literary activity—not just writers and critics, but translators, booksellers, librarians (a group I didn't even think of in my first post), academics, and publishers. So, yeah, it's great that some conversations got started, but that could have been done with a single-line post: "Best Book of the Millennium: discuss." By assuming the authority of a host, The Millions needed to do more than get people talking.

Secondly and maybe more significantly, Hallberg takes issue with what he calls "the Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes? school of criticism," which he ties to Bourdieu, although it could probably be more generally tied to the "hermeneutics of suspicion," a fellowship which also numbers among its members Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Here's what Hallberg finds aggravating about it:
As Carl Wilson notes in Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, there’s a tendency among the commentariat to view aesthetic experience through the prism of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction – to assume (brace yourself: I’m about to vulgarize this) that people mostly love the things they love for what loving those things says about them. This may be true, in a sense broad enough to be almost tautological. People who responded to The Corrections – people who were, yes, moved by it – may have been united, among other things, by their desire to be united by an a novel that moved them, and moved by a novel that united them. But to push this anodyne observation into an accusation of illegitimacy or blindness is to fashion it into a boomerang: it redounds upon the one hurling it, and promptly plants itself in her forehead. That is, it makes her appear far more attuned to where a work sits on the popularity-backlash curve – and far more anxious about what her own position thereupon may say about her – than the reader who simply allows herself to be, or not to be, seduced.

To put it another way, the Bourdieuvian [sic] posture – I’ve come to think of it as the Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes? school of criticism – may may be as much an infection as a diagnosis. It seems to have invaded, unexamined, online discourse about books, movies, music, and art. And it seems to prompt the very flocking pattern – hype, backlash, counterbacklash – it purports to expose. At any rate, insofar as it annihilates its own object, it is transparently poor ground for any debate about value.
As much as I dislike the plumped-up "I know you are but what am I" tone of the argument, let's just take a step back and ask what really happens when a critic attempts to account for another person's taste by means of situating them within specific social formations. Hallberg's argument for how to account for taste is not exactly coherent (it reduces to a sort of "if I say I like it, I just like it, okay?"), but his assumption that the Bourdieusian stance is primarily a way of setting up an "anything you can do, I can do meta" game seems to be a common one, and a difficult feeling to shake off.

First of all, there is buried in Hallberg's argument a deep resistance to thinking of taste as anything that we consciously manipulate (or try to manipulate), an assumption that all manipulation is beady-eyed calculation. We are "moved" by some art, and the set of unmoved movers forms our taste; I find this a fairly narrow view of appreciation. The effort to comprehend a work which does not initially appeal to me often leads to a deeper integration of that work into my way of thinking; wrestling with its lack of appeal or mixed appeal is, I think, stronger grounds for what could be called "enjoying" it than an automatic rush of pleasure when I first encounter it. Taste is absolutely a conscious process because it is precisely how we discern between things that are unappealing and things that are bad which forms what we mean by taste, and the only way you can make that discernment is by active conscious manipulation.

Secondly, the resistance to an idea of active manipulation of one's taste leads directly to a fear of the unconscious self-manipulation of taste—the idea which he thinks Bourdieu is trying to get across, that some unconscious or half-conscious desire to look good guides all our decisions about what to like and what to dislike. (Bourdieu's is considerably more complicated than this, but I was hoping to post soon on a section of Distinction I just read for a class, so I'll get back to what's in fact more complicated in a bit.) The "Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes?" posture he says characterizes this mode of criticism is just this: a fear that my conscious rationales for my taste aren't accurate, that "your lying eyes" see what I cannot—my unconscious attempts to like only advantageous things.

There is certainly a malefic cross-pollination which sometimes occurs where a critique of taste gets spliced with good old vulgar-Marxist thunderings about "false consciousness"—the "you only like that because you're deluded" argument—but I think that Hallberg assumes that this splicing always happens and is, in fact, more of a feature than a bug—for him, it seems analyzing the way that taste is formed is always an accusation of false consciousness.

But I think you'd only think that way if you do believe that taste has got to be something entirely visceral, something you don't (and don't want to) consciously manipulate. Otherwise, false consciousness doesn't need to come up—if I think of taste as something that I work on or work over, is a critique of my taste an accusation of delusion or a commentary on the work I've done? Obviously the latter.

I think of the judges on The Millions panel as active participants in the formation of their taste. Obviously some structural boundaries are placed on what they're exposed to (and to some degree the manner or timing they are exposed to it), but I assume that they are just as active in working on and over their taste as I am. It is just that in a fairly homogeneous group (like the panel), there aren't going to be so many different ways of working on/over taste represented. Writers, in part because their structural boundaries overlap to a substantial degree (being subject to similar situations and possessing similar goals), are going to work over their taste in broadly similar ways—the space of the workshop shows them one way, the market shows them another (or maybe the same way), and many of them accept one or both. That was what I was pointing to in flagging the number of hybrid-fiction books and the number of short story collections on the list; the members of the panel had largely worked over their taste in a similar fashion and had produced a specific kind of list, one suited to that fashion.

Critiquing taste isn't about trying to ride just ahead of the wave and looking back to tell everyone behind you that they're just pathetically trying (consciously or unconsciously) to be cool. Analyzing how taste is formed isn't an aesthetic Ponzi scheme; handled correctly, it produces real dividends, even if some people are unhappy seeing it work.


Garth Risk Hallberg said...

In the interest of conversaton: Well done, for the most part, Andrew. I learned something, which I don't often.

In the interest of nailing down what's nail-downable, though, a few quibbles, if you care to read them (and apologies for vulgarizations and liberties taken throughout; I'm a bit tired and have to carve a chicken and grade papers and you're obviously better read in Bourdieu than I am):

1) Perhaps symptomatically, I think (?) you've got "Me or your lying eyes?" backward. (Maybe it's a regionalism.) "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?" is what I'm imagining my imaginary (phantasmal?) quasi-Bourdieuvian (Bourdieusian?) blog person saying to the person who's made a statement of taste with which he (the qBbp) takes exception. Not the other way around. Maybe this misunderstanding (if it is one) affected your reading of my tone.

2) But of course the reason this would be symptomatic is that the statement can cut both ways. To take off the table the ability to point out the reflexive properties of certain arguments strikes me as arbitrary. I stand by my suggestion that the ideal type of blog/taste discourse I'm constructing (e.g.: You can't possibly have "worked on" taste that affirms the value of culture industry darling The Corrections [not a charge you've ever leveled, but the one I was complaining about, and which I'm trying to argue is symptomatic (a bug, rather than a feature)]) reflects exactly the unprocessed Distinction anxiety that is the gravamen of that accusation. Not really debatable, I guess, as I'm the one constructing the ideal type, but I wanted to reaffirm what I see as my right to call it like I see it. Though I'm not going to touch "plumped-up" with a 10-foot pole.

3) W/r/t the ideal type: I think there's common ground here - you're calling it the "malefic cross-pollination which sometimes occurs" and I'm trying to argue it (too) often occurs. Posting a Top 20 list is one not automatically intellectually rigorous way to generate web traffic; insisting that the popularity of [x] is founded on mass self-delusion is another. This is why I find the term "posing" to be useless, in about five different ways. And why I'm suggesting taking it off the table.

Perhaps you feel the same about what you're calling "I know you are but what am I?" but I don't yet quite understand why. [More to follow]

Garth Risk Hallberg said...

4) Is "If I say I like it, I just like it, okay?" really not coherent? It's not interesting, maybe, or thoughtful, or cogent, or hospitable to further discussion - nor is it exactly my definition of taste - but I'm not sure I see the incoherence. Circularity, yes. Is this distinction, if there is one, important? Maybe.

5) There's what I'd identify as an either/or fallacy here, or maybe a couple. Surely there's some way that taste can theoretically be both "worked on" and arising from an intuition. In fact, if I were smart enough to formulate a definition of taste, it might have to involve both. I'm guessing the same is true for you.

6) There's clearly something or -things about the project that pissed you off. You've been explicit about one and semi-implicit about the other up until this post. But by kind of jumping in before the series had run the course we forecasted in the introduction, I think you really have reached a misapprehension about the homogeneity of the balloting, and thus of the panelists. Based on the books they voted for, they just weren't that homogenous. I mean, I guess that depends on how you define homogenous...but not as homogenous as you're making them out to be.

7) Where the homogeneity comes in is that the democratic process will necessarily produce a sort of average of people's taste. And you could take most any group of people who are going to name Austerlitz and American Genius as best books of the last decade and bet your sweet bippy more of them are going to say The Corrections was, because more people read it and (having read it) cared for it. I'm certainly open to the idea that our method was a poor way to construct this sort of poll. Which was, I think, Helen DeWitt's argument. And to the idea that "Top 20ing" - though a good idea whether you're hosting or starting - is contributing to bad critical tendencies or thinking about taste, in that it almost ineluctably will lead to The Corrections unless you put together a panel precisely engineered not to. Which was, I think, Edmond's. But if I wasn't eager to kick the ball and see where it goes, I wouldn't be writing for a blog. My intuition tells me to continue to kick the ball and see where it rolls. It pleases me. In fact, I'm doing it right now.

Anyway, thanks for the good conversation, even if The Millions only started it rather than hosting it. I'm starting to see those dividends, and look forward to learning more about Distinction.

Andrew Seal said...

1) You're right to point out there is something confused about my handling of the "lying eyes" bit, but I did read it the way you meant it, I just phrased my response unclearly. What I meant to do was to invert the perspective and describe the effect of the "lying eyes" kind of statement on the person addressed. The cocksuredness of the "who're you going to believe" pose sows doubt, and this doubt focuses on the worry that the observer does not have lying eyes, but ones that see what I cannot--my inner rationales. When I re-quoted "your lying eyes" as referring to the observer, I meant it ironically, but I realize I didn't do anything to indicate that.

2) The reason I tried to turn the phrase around was precisely this question of reflexivity--I don't think that there exists this "unprocessed Distinction anxiety" as often as you suggest, or at least it drives a lot less of the kind of criticism you are objecting to. Some people are just snobs and dismiss The Corrections without anxiety of any sort, but some--the type that is actually interested in the questions Bourdieu, for one, raises--don't have the anxiety you describe because they are very much interested in actually doing the work of asking what makes The Corrections the plurality choice of a panel like yours. Doing so isn't the same thing as saying, "how can you like that?" and it isn't the same as saying, "the culture industry brainwashed you into liking it." In bringing in the culture industry, I think you re-make my point about the conflation of vulgar-Marxist ideas of false consciousness and Bourdieusian analysis--while the tones of each can sometimes get mixed up, they're not really supposed to, and they're definitely not the same thing.

3) I assume you're referring to the first post I made? I did take back the "posing" bit in a subsequent comment which you may not have seen, but I think this demonstrates where there may not be common ground between us on what a critique of taste entails. By 'posing' I certainly did not mean (as I think you took it) that your list was "founded on mass self-delusion," I meant that The Millions rhetoric of being about the readers seems to me to be at odds with the heavy focus made on young American writers (and the writers beloved by young American writers). To me, being about the readers means promoting a much more diverse array of authors than I get from The Millions, and having the focus I observe seems like it benefits the writers more than your readers.

But I certainly wasn't calling you deluded--'posing' was meant as active, as something you were trying to do, not something you couldn't help yourself from doing. It was unfair--I generalized from my reactions (which was inappropriate) and didn't realize the extent to which you are in fact addressing your readers' interests. Your readers seem to have the same tastes, broadly speaking, as you (pl.) do. There's always a question of self-selection, but it was ridiculous of me to push that question as far as I did.

Andrew Seal said...

4) I don't think it's coherent because it doesn't admit for any grounds on which to contest it--the fact of utterance is its own proof (and its only proof).

5) I'm not sure I'd go along with you on intuition--I'm not sure what you mean by it exactly, and I am skeptical of what is generally meant by it--a sort of visceral response. I am interested in what you mean by it, and I think that could be a rich discussion.

6/7) I'm not sure what I've been semi-implicit about--I've tried to be explicit about what I found lacking about the process, and about what I think would have made it a better process. I do think that maybe you're reading me a little more strongly than I intend about "homogeneity" (a word I didn't use in the original post--in fact, the only time I used it was in this post to refer to the membership of the panel). I have never meant that there was a broad consensus on individual books, that I thought everyone had the same five books in mind. What I meant was that the books were by and large books writers would love, and because of the shared experience of writing programs and of the market, this is a fairly distinct taste, one not shared by other literary types, perhaps. There is a common expression for writers who are selected by this taste--the "writer's writer"--I was extending that to types of books.

I think we often acknowledge that certain books will appeal to critics, or to judges of book awards--there is a type of "big, ambitious novel" that we recognize as awards-bait as surely as there is an Oscar-bait type of film. What I was saying was simply that this is true for writers as well, that there are types of books (I identified two) which are going to appeal to writers as a body like there are types of movies (epic dramas, biopics) which appeal to Oscar-voters as a body. The presence of so many writers on your panel dictated that there would be a preponderance of these kind of books.

Garth Risk Hallberg said...

Andrew: Good, good, and good, and I appreciate your measured and thoughtful response. All points well-taken. The disagreement that remains, I guess, is the extent of the conflation you identify - it tended to be pronounced in the comments on our Corrections piece and the L.A. Times Jacket Copy coverage of same. I thought Wilson and also the guy in the current N+1 (reviewing a European philosopher of some sort) were on to something. Finally, I'd just note that some books writers love a lot of other people love. (I don't think it adds anything to the debate, but is more in the spirit of clarification.) I guess the question of "why" is the one I and my imaginary qBbp interlocutors would be debating. More on intuition maybe when I have a chance to think about it more & go back to my bookshelf. I'm out for now. Looking forward to Distinction.


Garth Risk Hallberg said...

P.S.: I meant, "I don't often [learn something] online" - not as a general statement. It's probably not true even then, come to think of it.

Andrew Seal said...

Unfortunately, my subscription to n+1 ran out so I can't read all of Nick Dames's article; I may wait on posting about Bourdieu until I have, though--the lead-in which n+1 excerpted sounds like it might prove a pretty good place to start.

But in regards to the responses to The Corrections (the comments and the Jacket Copy), I have to say that I don't find the kind of suspicion and rancor that you do, or at least not more often than any thread of such length tends to bring out. There are quite a number who absolutely affirm the choice, and there are many who simply say, "not the book I would have chosen." Then there are some who reject it as a bad book. I think those are just to be chalked up to "de gustibus non est disputandum."
There is one who suggests that hype is all that keeps Franzen afloat atop your list, but he doesn't exactly make much of an argument for that view.
But overall, it seems to me that the choice was pretty well accepted as understandable, if not exactly celebrated as inspired. I mean, there are people who questioned Ulysses as #1 on the Modern Library list--I just don't see how the reactions were more severe than would normally be expected.