An Editor Has His Say


“Culture, in the true sense, did not [in the past] simply accommodate itself to human beings; but it always simultaneously raised a protest against the petrified relations under which they lived, thereby honouring them.  In so far as culture becomes wholly assimilated to and integrated in those petrified relations, human beings are once more debased.”[1]

—Theodor Adorno

“So one might say I’m looking at history not as an antiquarian, who is interested in finding out and giving a precisely accurate account of what the thinking of the seventeenth century was...but rather from the point of view of, let’s say, an art lover, who wants to look at the seventeenth century to find in it things that are of particular value, and that obtain part of their value in part because of the perspective with which he approaches them.” [2]

—Noam Chomsky

“The intellectual today ought to be an amateur, someone who considers that to be a thinking and concerned member of society one is entitled to raise moral issues at the heart of even the most technical and professionalized activity as it involves one’s country, its power, its mode of interacting with its citizens as well as with other societies.” [3]

—Edward Said

“There is no doubt that the art lies in bearing what is unbearable.” [4]

—Thomas Bernhard

Criticism largely misses the point.

Questions of some interest to human beings at a particularly fraught moment in history are often shoved aside in favor of less interesting projects.  It is perhaps too much to ask of any one discipline in our age what used to be asked of philosophy (what is the right way to live, what is the best way to organize a society, what sorts of actions are moral, what is to be said for human happiness, and so on), but it is equally true that it is not too much to ask criticism to fill some of the void left by philosophy’s diminishing profile in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

It is with a broad, but necessary, brush that much academic criticism (or “theory,” as it often prefers to be called, though it might just as easily, and more accurately, be termed “careerism”) can be daubed as concerned with not much more than fashionable language games, opaque and insular and insignificant analyses, the narrowest possible investigations into even narrower questions of identity; and an abiding confidence in the superiority of the critic to the work of art, or artist, under consideration (when terms such as “art” and “artist” are even allowed to enter academic discourse).  It is not that academic criticism does not sometimes take up interesting questions, it is that it so often treats them in so useless and/or arcane a manner that the end result is, at best, unintentionally comic. 

Take one representative example.  Susan McCabe’s 2005 volume Cinematic Modernism claims to attempt to link the work of Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, H.D., and Marianne Moore to the aesthetics and practice of early, silent, often non-narrative film.  The engagement these poets had with film, McCabe claims, informed their writing, much as Stein’s admiration for Picasso’s art also had an influence on her work.  On the surface, this seems plausible enough, for, as McCabe writes, “early cinema…was not a primitive phase in a teleological movement, but subverted aims of continuity and coherence for particular effects.”

This is good as far as it goes—the last clause might easily be applied to modernist poetry—and could reasonably be expected to lead to some useful analysis, especially when McCabe goes on to aver that “the four poets enjoy[ed] the resources of popular culture and appropriate[ed] it for avant-garde purposes.”  But the prose soon becomes diffuse, unfocused, and unproductive (Derrida, are you smiling?), the half-baked Freudian clichés more frequent (you are laughing too, Monsieur Lacan, n’est-ce pas?), and what begins promisingly enough soon devolves into cascades of stupefying paragraphs like the following:

The mechanisms of the hysteric and fetishist intersect through their emphasis upon part and partiality.  But where the hysteric’s topography of paralysis, anesthesia or contortion encrypts a psychic occlusion, the fetishist is more outwardly absorbed with searching for, examining, collecting, and cutting out objects, supposed substitutes for the missing phallus. [5]

As Pauline Kael might have written, the modernist hysteric seems to have lost it at the movies.  Meanwhile, we are left with an argument that goes nowhere and does nothing to illuminate, say, the predicament of, and opportunities for, the modernist (and, by extension, post-modern) artist in the context of mass culture; or the ways in which popular culture informs works of “serious” art; or the ways in which popular mediums themselves are sometimes able to operate on a “serious” level.

More popular forms of criticism, meanwhile, fall short in other ways.  Newspaper and magazine reviews of films and plays and books often (especially in the case of the former two) evince aesthetic standards that are relaxed to the point of feckless and mealy-mouthed compliance.  They are serving their masters, after all.  And so the worst commercial film usually gets respectful, if shoulder-shrugging, treatment, even if the judgment is ultimately against it.  And in glaring cases of meretricious outlandishness, where the minimal standards of contemporary journalistic criticism require an actual critical intervention of some puissance, there is often work that is left to be done.

Take the response to Disney’s Elton John musical Aida, for example, which opened on Broadway in 2000 and had a touring production which began traveling the land shortly thereafter.  Some reviews were favorable.  Some (including the The New York Times) were so-so.  Many were scathing.  But even the least favorable failed to address Egypt’s strangely redacted place in American culture.   Of course, works like John’s Aida ought to be attacked for the poverty of their aesthetic and intellectual vision, and some critics (to their credit) did this to a greater or lesser extent.  But consider, too, these excerpts from an informative 2004 article by Charles Levinson on America’s supposed reevaluation of its aid to Egypt:

…All told, Egypt has received over $50 billion in US largesse since 1975.


In the past, issues like democracy and economic reform were of secondary concern to policy makers looking to shore up a friendly government.  Support for Egypt jumped after it made peace with Israel in 1979.

However, US policy has changed since 19 hijackers demonstrated that bolstering stable, pro-American, but undemocratic regimes in the Middle East affected America’s security. [6]

Here is some interesting smoke, and much of the fire beneath it would have been available for an interested critic to discover before Aida opened.  Why, for example, a popular critic might have asked in 2000, does autocratic, undemocratic Egypt receive the second-largest amount of US military and economic aid, and yet, as a contemporary entity, remain strangely invisible in American cultural life (Steve Martin’s comic "King Tut" song and the Bangles’ "Walk Like an Egyptian" are artifacts which reference ancient Egypt).

Why does a representation of ancient Egypt, no matter how multifariously bankrupt, fail to occasion any critical mention of the oddness of contemporary Egypt’s (nonexistent) place in American culture in light of its (prominent) place in American foreign policy?  There is an important way in which these reviews, even one which described Disney/John’s Aida set as a “Las Vegas arcade that…pass[es] for ancient Egypt”[7] (along these lines, a stay at the ancient-Egypt-themed Luxor in Las Vegas is not recommended; a stay at the more expensive Mandalay Bay right next door has potential; exploration of The Strip’s north end might also yield intriguing results), work seamlessly with a work like Disney/John’s Aida to amplify the legitimacy of representing ancient Egypt for American audiences without any connection to, or concern for, contemporary Egypt (which remains entombed and unheard beneath its ancient pyramids), and so help to maintain the status quo (that is, the silence) vis-à-vis discussion of Egypt’s important and not altogether healthy place in the foreign policy of the United States.  (Incidentally, fiscal year 2006 found Egypt again receiving the second-highest amount of US military (1.3 billion) and economic ($495 million) aid “provided,” said the bill signed by President Bush which released the money, “that Egypt undertakes ‘significant economic and political reforms which are additional to those which were undertaken in previous fiscal years’”[8]).

The point in all this is not to dismiss all criticism outright, though much of it is bad.  The point is to advocate for a certain type of cultural analysis which is able to address issues of importance without imploding in incoherence, or engaging in a dereliction that results in blithe and capitulatory blindness.

To the extent that The Straddler can be said to have any sort of guiding principles, this is one of them.  As for having more…well, concretized guiding principles are a recipe for trouble (just ask Charles Foster Kane), and here Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous (and by now, cliché) admonition, available on any internet page of collected quotes, is useful: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

The epigraphs I’ve adduced above as an introduction to this statement point in a general way towards the direction in which we’d like to see The Straddler go, but perhaps what Jerome Murphy-O’Connor writes at the end of the preface to his book on the Apostle Paul (Paul: A Critical Life) makes for a more interesting introduction to the critical work we hope to see done: “I make my own what J.A.T. Robinson said in the conclusion to a much more challenging work, ‘all the statements in this book should be taken as questions.’” [9]

Questions invite responses which themselves create more questions, and in the best circumstances, this leads to an expansion, or a deepening, or both, of understanding.

The editors of The Straddler each have his/her own favorite critics, essayists, poets, fiction writers, and dramatists.  Their lists are not identical (Emerson is not on mine), but the one thing upon which they undoubtedly agree is that the culture in which they live, and which is being daily exported, is problematic, worthy of attention, serious discussion, productive inquiry, and, to the extent possible, corrective action.


[1] Adorno, Theodor.  “Culture Industry Reconsidered."  The Culture Industry.  Ed. J.M. Bernstein.  New York:  Routledge, 1991.  100.

[2] Davidson, Arnold I., Editor.  Foucault and His Interlocutors.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.  112.

[3] Said, Edward.  Representations of the Intellectual.  New York: Vintage, 1996.  82-83.  [my emphasis]

[4] Bernhard, Thomas.  Three Novellas.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.  116.

[5] McCabe, Susan.  Cinematic Modernism.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.  9, 12, 192.

[6] Levinson, Charles. "$50 billion later, taking stock of US aid to Egypt." Christian Science Monitor 12 Apr 2004: 7. http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0412/p07s01-wome.html [my emphases]

[7] Brantley, Ben.  “Destiny and Duty, Nile Style.”  New York Times.  24 Mar 2000: E1. Academic Universe. Lexis-Nexis.  Northeastern University Libraries. 21 Apr 2007. <http://web. lexis-nexis.com/universe>.

[8] McConnell, Kathryn. "Bush Signs $20.9 Billion 2006 Foreign Aid Spending Measure." Telling America's Story. 15 Nov. 2005. US Department of State. 24 Jan 2008. http://www.america.gov/st/washfile-english/2005/November/20051114154933AKllennoCcM0.9979517.html

[9] Murphy-O’Connor OP, Jerome.  Paul: A Critical Life.  Oxford: 1996.  v.


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