Monday, May 01, 2006

Politics and Literature, a slight return

My brain is rather fogged over today, so apologies for any undue incoherence. I anticipate that my previous post will be the first in an irregular series in which I plan to discuss various topics related to the intersection of politics and literature. Last time I tried to expand on the definition of "political" literature (as supplied by Dan Green here) while also asserting the primacy of aesthetics over politics in art and questioning the rhetorical effectiveness of some of the sallies made in this debate by Tony Christini. Tony has replied to my post here. He makes some good points about artists not being “fully aware of the political messages their work inevitably sends” which he expands on in the comment section, largely by providing some (admittedly interesting) quotes from other thinkers.

In my comment to his post, I admit that I am working through these issues. I am indeed genuinely interested in art that engages with radical ideas and politics. But propagandistic and didactic art makes me uneasy, and often seems clumsy. He asserts that "To a certain extent, all art is didactic or propagandistic." Perhaps. I'm not so sure. I had asserted that the aesthetic experience of art was "by far" the most important. Tony refers me to the work of Kenneth Burke (for example, in The Philosophy of Literary Form) on the intertwining of aesthetic and moral qualities as instructive, suggesting that it may compel me to reconsider at least the "by far" in my assertion. This question is among those I hope to consider in more detail. I'll grant, for example, that it's far from certain that my own response to a given novel has been primarily to its apparently aesthetic attributes. Consider T. C. Boyle's World's End. The first half or so of this enjoyable novel is, in part, a fascinating fictional account of some of the struggles faced by American radicals in the early part of the 20th Century. The second half seemed to me to be a let down--was this because I felt that it didn't follow through politically, or did the story peter out for other, structural reasons? Can they be separated? Was the distaste I felt towards Ian McEwan's generally acclaimed Saturday a result of its politics or its aesthetics? Can the aesthetic failure be explained in terms of its politics? I well remember John Banville's negative assessment, in which he referred to the book as having "the feel of a neoliberal polemic gone badly wrong" and continues to say that "if Tony Blair [...] were to appoint a committee to produce a 'novel for our time,' the result would surely be something like this."

In this vein, Tony makes another point worth considering: "Similarly, much mainstream art that is often called apolitical is actually often heavily imbued with the radically unjust status quo." He augments this with this quotation from Terry Eagleton:
Radical critics [and, one might add, novelists]…have a set of social priorities with which most people at present tend to disagree. This is why they are commonly dismissed as ‘ideological’, because ideology’ is always a way of describing other people’s interests rather than our own.
Certainly in the West, the alleged virtues of neoliberalism have been so normalized as to render any other outlook virtually impossible for many to imagine. Economic elites, while waging an ongoing, virulent class war, continually decry the mildest of left-oriented class-based politics. Politics is what happens to other people. Is it simply easy for those of us doing ok in the West to lament the presence of obvious politics in art? Does the general inability of people to see the current political reality as it is affect their ability to recognize the political content in art? If so, in what ways? I don't know. These are among the questions that I hope to address in future posts.

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