Oct 122004

A.C. Douglas writes, not unreasonably:

Listen up!, son. Are you coming back to the cultural blogosphere any time soon, or not? I mean with like, you know, cultural postings, not that tiresome philosophic shit, on an at least biweekly (every two weeks) basis? If not, I’m gonna de-list your ass, much as I love you.

A.C., I suspect, is not alone in his sentiments. It is only fair to my dwindling readership that I explain exactly what I’m about.

I used to write a good deal about art, though not for a while, as A.C. intimates. I found that my supposedly devastating arguments, which never fail to convince me, never convince anyone else who didn’t agree with me to begin with. The culture bloggers, much as I love them, tend to begin in the middle of the argument insofar as they argue at all. I sympathize. Conclusions are fun and premises are such a drag.

A recent brouhaha over “literary value” illustrates the problem. Bachelor #1 wrinkles his nose at the notion that literature ought to deal in extra-literary considerations at all, arguing that if you want to make a political or ethical argument, you ought to write a treatise, not a novel. Which obliterates the distinction between “dealing in” and “making an argument.” One may as well say that the mechanic does not deal in physics when after all he is only repairing your brakes. Consider two sets. The first consists of all people who believe the novelist is exempt from ethical matters on the grounds that he is “doing literature.” The second consists of all people who believe the businessman is similarly exempt on the grounds that he is “doing business.” How large do you suppose the intersection is?

Bachelor #2 recognizes that there is at least one antecedent question — “what’s art for?” In fact there are many but I’ll settle for what I can get. He then asserts that art is no use at all, and throws us back on “a fascination with making use of its uselessness,” a formulation that I suspect contains a contradiction, though I cannot prove it offhand, since I suppose one could be “fascinated” with, say, time travel into the past. What I can say for sure is that it does not advance the argument.

Bachelor #3 asserts that he likes literature that “returns” him to the world, and criticism that returns him to literature. These prejudices can be justified but are not. They are simply aired. Bachelor #4 begins promisingly, accurately remarking that “as long as all I have to say in favor of my pleasure is ‘I like to read instead,’ then I cant very well complain about the fact that reading literature is a marginal activity.” Unfortunately that turns out to be all he has to say in its favor, and he soon derails himself in a jeremiad against reality television. All contestants retire to their respective corners and congratulate each other on a job well done.

I am not picking on any of these gentlemen. They are all highly intelligent and some of them have the good taste to read me into the bargain. Neither am I picking on the culturati in particular; the polibloggers are the same way, only more so and less politely. I’m not even picking on their arguments, really, although most of them are bad. I’m picking on their method. Everyone plunges in at a different stage of the argument, no one states his premises, and no minds are changed. What we have here is a terminal case of in medias res. As in software — I begin to think that everything is like software — raw brains profit you less than a correct approach.

That tiresome philosophic shit of mine is aiming toward a universal maximization function, a formula for all biological entities, human beings not least. It will explain, I hope, why people engage in art and a great deal else besides. The very short answer to the question of “literary value” is that it lets you explore state spaces on the cheap. (Bachelor #1, oddly, and against the main thrust of his argument, approaches the right answer when he writes of “the good that [literature] can do on a purely experiential level.”) But since I haven’t yet explained what a state space is, or what use it is to explore them, this would not be too enlightening. Which is why I have to wade through that tiresome philosophic shit.

My maximization function may be wrong. Very likely it will be. But its entire derivation will be public, and anyone who takes exception to its conclusions will be able and obliged to point out the flaw in its premises. I therefore beg A.C. Douglas’s further indulgence, and yours.

(Update: Bachelor #1, Daniel Green, misunderstands, I fear, my analogy between “doing literature” and “doing business.” He writes, “If the novelist is not exempt from the businessman’s charge to carry out his activities in an ethical way, this can only mean, given the terms of the comparison, that he should go about his own business in an upright way: do your own work and don’t steal from others; don’t hurt people (when real people are models) by portraying them unfairly; pay your typist a fair wage. Be nice to your agent. Thank your publisher.” I’m all for courtesy to agents and publishers; but such dealings are business, not literary, activities. My point was that ethics precede literature — and business, of course — in exactly the same way that physics precedes auto repair.)