were a slippery slope?
—How do you feel about outright censorship
of what can be said in class?
(A Postscript to the Previous Blog Page)
The best advice I can give you is to beware of the two prevalent critical roads to hell: one characterized by terminological obfuscation and mystification, and the other by a series of mechanical simplifications that translate the work into cultural, historical, sociological, and ideological categories and systems. They may sound like opposites, but they’re really the same thing insofar as, in both cases, the critic explains away the fundamental mystery, complexity, and elusiveness of a work of art—either by turning it into terminological incense and blue-smoke-and-mirrors, or by reducing it to a series of abstract, superpersonal cultural, social, ideological patterns, structures, schemes, and systems. In my experience, both ways of proceeding can be incredibly seductive to a student, since they both seem to do the impossible: They make intrinsically difficult things easy to understand by translating them into easy-to-understand (terminological or formal) formulas. The only problem is that the work of art is lost in the translation.
Another extremely common and fashionable critical fallacy is to treat art as if it dealt with social and cultural externals—the outsides of life—systems of power relations; social and economic issues; questions of race, class, and gender; ideological, political, and social systems of relationship; etc. Generalizations about history, culture, and society become the meaning of art. This treatment of art can be incredibly appealing to a student because it gives works of art a stunning degree of power in society. The problem is that it’s not true. In fact, it’s so ridiculous it’s laughable. These professors don't understand the first thing about art. Art has no power of that sort. The power-obsessed, power-hungry critics (many of them in gender and multicultural studies, all the more unfortunately) are utopians. They want to change human nature; they want to abolish fundamental sexual, emotional, and cognitive differences between men and women; they want to reform the world. They think their kind of art (and their kind of criticism) can change those things--that it can change gender values and the nature of society. They are worse than wrong. They are in denial--in denial of fundamental truths about human nature and culture. They think their kind of art (and their kind of criticism) can change the world. They want art to fight a gender war and lead a multiculural crusade. But art makes nothing happen. And it is about insides not outsides. In fact, it understands the unimportance and irrelevance of power as a definition of human relationship. It creates and celebrates heightened imaginative states; it cultivates feelings; it builds consciousness. It does not change the world. Sorry, guys: Works of art can neither oppress nor liberate the masses. Neither art nor criticism has that kind of power—nor should you want them to have it—unless you’re Hitler or Stalin.
If you want a positive statement of what art is, of what these writers should be grappling with, should be tracing and describing, the best I can do is to tell you to ask yourself whether they are spinning their wheels espousing politically and ideologically progressive positions (the utopian view)—or are describing the situation of being a human being as you and everyone around you actually experiences it. Are they grappling with the excitements—and also with the limits, the stupidity, the wastage, the foolishness, the whole messy, confusing, sad tragedy and comedy—of life as it is actually lived and felt, and as it will always and forever be lived and felt; or are they functioning as visionaries who want to condemn and deny what life really is and turn it into something else—something actually less interesting and more formulaic, something more politically correct and boring? Do they use works of art to affirm the power of historical, economic, sociological, and ideological forces over us (how awful this would be if it were true, but fortunately it is one of those ideas that is so stupid only a professor could believe it)—or do they understand the power of the human soul to break free of these structures, to drop beneath them, to imagine its way out of them? Do they write about culture and society as if they were the ultimate reality, or about the indomitability of the individual imagination, the glory and tragedy of individual consciousness, the painful beauty of suffering and self-sacrifice, the ineluctability of loss and death, and the importance of the interior life as the source of all of the most important meanings and values? If the critic you are reading is doing the first thing and not the second, slam the book shut and run the other way, intellectually speaking, as fast as you can. They don’t acknowledge that you have a soul—the capacity imaginatively and spiritually to swerve away from any and all deterministic material conditions—and that that fact is the most important thing about you. (They wouldn’t even understand what the preceding sentence means. And if they did, they'd object to the understanding of life that it embodies.)
“Saying what needs to be said. Bravo! Your blog post should not be for the eyes of [blog readers only] … What about giving it out [in class] as a handout? It is so well written and articulated that it [would be an] invaluable educational aide.” --[name withheld to protect the writer’s identity]
For anyone who is interested, the preceding three paragraphs criticizing prevalent critical approaches to film are the kind of ideas I was formally told (in several cases, in writing) by the Boston University Legal Department, the Boston University Provost, the Dean of the College of Communication, the Chairman of the Department of Film and Television, or the Director of Film Studies that I was not allowed to tell my students in class ("too controversial") or to publish on my faculty web site ("casting the department in a false light"). These were not casual, idle, or passing threats. In terms of the first prohibition--on what I was and was not allowed to say to my students in class--specific students were deputed (without my knowledge of course) to spy on me and file "reports" with my Dean about anything I said in class that might be considered "controversial," so that I could be called on the carpet for having said it--with my pay and evaluations negatively affected of course. (As I note this spying policy was adopted and carried out in secret, without my being warned that such reports were actively being solicited and filed about my classes.) My views on race, class, gender, ideology, art, and criticism were politically "incorrect," and political incorrectness is not only prohibited but punished at BU--with the full knowledge and approval of the university Legal Department. In terms of the second prohibition--the one censoring what I was allowed to publish on my official university web site, which in the end completely withdrew my right to have a faculty web site at all at Boston University, I was explicitly told that if I didn't agree to the complete censorship and withdrawal of everything that I had posted on the site, the university would take two specific actions to destroy me professionally and financially. The first was that BU administrators would make a public posting on the university web site designed to undermine my reputation and standing (destroying me professionally); and the second was that university lawyers would be brought in to tie me up in legal maneuvers that would bankrupt me financially if I chose to fight them and resist the censorship policy. For detailed descriptions of the lengths to which these particular Boston University administrators and others were willing to go to stop me from saying or publishing these sorts of ideas and financially and bureaucratically punishing me for having said them, see the introductions to three other earlier blog pages (available in the side menu): "Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats--Being Banned in Boston," "Making a Living or Making a Life--The Purpose of an Education," and "Losing Consciousness--Losing Invaluable Ways of Understanding." (The introductions to the first and third pages in this list have the most detailed descriptions of some of the techniques of torture Boston University administrators have come up with to enforce their censorship policies against me and my ideas.) A fourth blog page, posted in November 2013 and titled "The Thought Police," also contains a narrative account of the actions of BU administrators to attempt to control and suppress my publications and punish me, financially and bureaucratically, for having expressed the opinions I had.
[For the interested blog reader, there is more than you -- or I ! -- want to know about the preceding university actions, policies, and attitudes on earlier blog pages. See the side menu for more information. It's not a pretty picture, but it is the world I and many other Boston University faculty members, including many who are no longer at BU because they have quit in disgust or been forced out against their will in the past three decades, have lived in for many years. (So much for the value of tenure at Boston University; your life can be made so awful by the administrators over you that you can be forced out even if you have it.) Needless to say, the institutional suck-ups, sycophants, organization men, and time-servers have not felt the sting of having their words and ideas monitored, controlled, and censored, because they have not said or written anything the administration has disagreed with and disapproved of. Administrative control has been reserved for faculty members who have ideas. Who have minds of their own and dare to speak them. People like me and others who have been forced to quit. Shame on them. Shame on me.]
[I’m not allowed to] distribute it in class. I post things on the blog because that is a personal, private space (the lawyers tell me) that the university can't claim to control or police. [Re-read] the paragraph that follows the posting on the blog. Believe it or not, this policy [i.e. Boston University’s censorship policy and assertion of its right to control faculty speech] is still in effect and has never been revoked or rescinded. I am still operating under the force of this policy! "The horror, the horror," as Conrad put it. — Ray Carney
How can BU call itself a university and espouse those kinds of ideas?