Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Summer Reading: Theory and Criticism
Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction. Although it discusses a lot of fascinating books (and is great for compiling a reading list), Roberts’ account of the commonly accepted history of science fiction (essentially from Shelley and Poe forward) doesn’t add that much new and exciting, and The Cambridge Companion of Science Fiction is still a better book for that general overview. And Roberts’ understanding of gender and science fiction is somewhat weak in comparison to the Cambridge. What’s great about this book though is the convincing case it makes for exploding the belief that science fiction didn’t begin until the 19th century. The survey of science fiction among the ancient Greeks, the disappearance of it during the ascendence of Catholicism, and re-emergence in the 17th century was fascinating and informative. I also felt convinced by his detailed argument about how science fiction re-emerges in the tension between Catholicism and Protestantism, which is not exactly the same as the tension between belief in the heavens as metaphor and belief that outer space is a real material reality, althought the two tendencies are undoubtedly closely related.
T. J. Clark, Farewell To An Idea. There were a lot of things I loved about this book, especially its thoughtful detailing of painting as aesthetic practice that’s also always tied to cultural and political history. I found theoretically persuasive (partly because I’ve long believed it myself) Clark’s claim that painting always struggles both with a relationship to the world and a relationship to the fact of its own manipulable materials (that is, in both cases, the unavoidable problem of the representational status of any constructed art work). For Clark, there’s no such thing as a painting that’s solely about painting or that can unproblematically picture the rest of the world. The historical context he brought to bear on various painters was also fascinating and insightful. The best chapters were the earliest ones on Jacques-Louis David, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Cezanne. The chapter on El Lizzitsky and Malevich and the development of Russian communism was also brilliant. Diminishing returns for me started in the chapter on Cubism and grew larger in the chapters first on Pollack then on Abstract Expressionism more generally. What in the earlier chapters had been fascinating re-visiting of the significance of these painters became increasingly tendentious, more determined by the biases of his (genuinely complex) Marxist theoretical perspective. Clark is ultimately not quite capable of developing a convincing case regarding the history of 20th attempts to move beyond conventional representation, tending to see them as isolated moments that end up being dead ends, rather than as part of a whole history of such paintings, one that far from being dead continues to be ongoing. The idea, by the way, that’s being said farewell to in the book’s title is the idea that (fine) art has an important role to play in politics and social change. According to Clark, modernism emerges in the tension between art, politics and culture but also often finds itself saying goodbye to actual stakes in social change while simultaneously reflecting a nostalgic belief that there was a historical moment when it lost this power. Modernism according to Clark is thus often about its own defeated attempt to become socially relevant, and by relevant I mean something that forms a significant partnership with actually political practice and actually foments social change. I did find fascinating the idea that Modernism always dreams of a (past) time when art mattered, but I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by it. I also got a kick out of the fact that Clark tries to re-write the value of Abstract Expression by describing it in ways that, to me, make it out to be a kind of proto-flarf. Clark argues that what makes AE still fascinating is not its ideas about representation but its cheap, gaudy vulgarity that thumbs its nose at the tasteful. Convincing, I don’t know, but eye-opening, sure.
Michael Azzerad, Our Band Could Be Your Life. Much more than a fan account, although it’s that too, Azzerad’s book is best at being a cultural history of the 1980s American underground punk/post punk bands that are now called Indie Rock (but were not at the time), beginning with Black Flag and going up through the alt-lifestyle revolution heralded by Beat Happening. The historical moment where the book ends is just prior to the commercial explosion of Nirvana, the creation of the concept of alternative rock, and a new world in which anti-mainstream alternative bands really could make big bucks in a way that had been unthinkable for bands like The Minutemen: a world, that is, in which the idea of “mainstream” and “alternative” became intermingled. Azzerad’s work covers that earlier decade when everybody thought they knew the difference. I was particularly fascinated by the story of what happens when communities create themselves in the hope of being genuine alternatives to the political and cultural repression of mainstream America. Not all the bands discussed here who were part of the environment shared that idea of community; some just wanted to take drugs, get drunk, and play music that ripped apart notions of the acceptable, not to mention more than one eardrum. There’s a lot to be learned here about the possibilities and limitations of imagining such social alternatives and really trying to put them into practice. The book suggests that the pitfalls are many, while also seeing real value in the kinds of communities created by bands like Fugazi who, as in many other accounts, are described here as genuine counterculture heroes as well as sometimes perhaps overly straitlaced moral preachers. Azzerad describes an era I lived through intimately, during the time when I was first publishing my own writing, record reviews in on campus and beyond campus publications in Washington, DC. I realized again how formative for me many of these bands were on the subject of how (and how not to) write about history, culture, and politics. In fact I’m tempted to say that it’s the lessons of this era that make my consciousness (and that of many writers I know) about politics one that seems so at odds with those writers whose came of age in and just after the 60s.