Thursday, May 03, 2007

Mama Tells Me to Study Lei Feng

The jury’s still out on whether postmodernists can be held responsible for the Virginia Tech Massacre. But there's little doubt that they’ve launched a War on Shakespeare:

In the post I lamented the disappearance of the study of Shakespeare from the teaching of literature in American universities (due largely, I believe, to the repellant force of the addled, jargon-ridden rhetoric of antiquated postmodernists….
A couple of quick points. First off, the groundless, hyperbolic theorizing seen daily at most NRO blogs makes Jean Baudrillard sound like Euclid.

Beyond that, I’d argue that the only thing that makes, say, The Corner remotely entertaining is the fact that it’s an essentially postmodern project (cf. its squirrelbrained, motormouthed superficiality; its playful, improvisatory approach to truth; and its moderately inventive attempts to “subvert” cultural artifacts by “reinscribing” them as inherently conservative).

For all its mandarin earnestness, it’s basically an online game of Calvinball, whose players can go from scolding postmodernists for failing to take Western culture seriously, to sneering at Al Gore for reading Stendahl, in less time than it takes Jonah Goldberg to eat a stick of butter. To paraphrase a gag of Erik Satie's, they may reject postmodernism, but their work accepts it.

Now, I’m perfectly willing to accept that the stereotypical postmodern approach to Western culture can be superficial. But it’s seldom as superficial as the conservative defense of Western culture, which generally communicates as little about art and literature as a poster of Stalin astride a tractor communicates about agriculture. Scrape away the dreary, blood-and-soil sentimentality about Western Civilization, and you’re likely to find that Shakespeare is little more to the conservative imagination than a stick with which to beat up on political opponents. Granting my own biases, it seems to me that identity politics - as typified by the content-free, question-begging form of “respect” for culture favored by scheming blowhards like Bill Bennett - is at least as likely to prevent people from reading Shakespeare as the machinations of "antiquated" French theorists.

Carol Iannone approvingly quotes Allan Bloom to the effect that Shakespeare “shows most comprehensively the fate of tyrants, the character of good rulers, the relations of friends, and the duties of citizens.” She then goes on to fret about the horrors that might be visited upon us if “Shakespeare is taught as exposing the injustices of white male racist sexist colonialist society.” The irony, oddly enough, seems to be lost on her.

She also claims that “conservatives…believe along with Richard Weaver that ideas have consequences.” A daring philosophy indeed, and one I’m sure Foucault and Derrida would find incomprehensible. But I’m not sure how she reconciles this notion with the equally daring conservative claim that ideas - like, for instance, the Bush Cult's belief that "existential threats" must be met with massive firepower, and the law be damned - can have unintended consequences.

No one could accuse Victorian England of failing to hold Shakespeare in high regard, but his teachings on "the fate of tyrants" didn’t pose an obstacle to the Chinese Opium Wars, or the Black War, any more than modern conservatism’s regard for Hayek has prevented it from embracing surveillance without oversight and indefinite detention without trial. If anything, cultural highmindedness may’ve enabled these crimes, by confirming the aggressors’ status as defenders of civilization.

The problem with art – for ideologues, at any rate - is that it’s not a reliable method for producing social change, or social stasis, or anything else except art. Which is why it drives them so crazy.


Anonymous said...

You are so The Man.

olvlzl said...

She also claims that “conservatives…believe along with Richard Weaver that ideas have consequences.”

And a consequence of that idea is that conservatives avoid at all cost having any.

So, Shakespeare is claimed as the intellectual property of conservatives. Isn't there anything they won't put their thieving mits on?

This is a fine piece of thinking and writing, Phila. I'm taking a lesson.

olvlzl said...

And for relevant stories about decaying empires and the societies under them, you could do worse than read Lu Xun

Anonymous said...

This is a fine piece of thinking and writing, Phila. I'm taking a lesson.

indeed, bravo.