Tuesday, March 31, 2009

relativism

Go Jenson!

My word, Tom. You really are a mine of useless information.

Look, Dad, Kids Eat Free!
Ah-ha! I hope you're not going to make quite such a mess of it as that little girl. (laughter)
No we're not!
Yes, I am Dad, I'm going to make a great big mess!

I am not a huge fan of folk music, but these guys were really good.

...120 bpm which then slows down to 116 bpm, and on the whole I found the album very poor value for step fans. (from a review of Prince's "Sign o the Times" in Aerobics and Jogging magazine)

Never judge a book by your own standards.

In each of these cases the Q1 version crudely damages the tone and mood of the earlier scene by confusing it with the later: so Capulet becomes impolite, the Nurse a tippler, the light poise of Romeo prosaic. .... The middle of the sppech in Q1 is not Shakespeare; for his still impatient and headstrong Mercutio, suddenly caught by spasms of physical agony and anguished thoughts, Q1 substitutes pedestrian hack-writing in regular dull rhythm, concluded with a dismally banal sententious couplet. ... (Brian Gibbons, 2nd Arden edn of Romeo and Juliet, 1980)

Every so often I jot down materials for an essay about - in fact, a defence of - critical relativism, but I'm sure I'll never write it. That's partly because I suppose that everything in my Defence must have been said about a thousand times already, and perhaps refuted a thousand times too, but I can't really be bothered to check because that kind of writing bores me. I like the idea of writing it, though. And whatever may have been said before, it's obvious that an unrelativistic view of art continues to flourish fiercely in some parts of the poetry world where plodding schoolmasterly chastisings and furious line-by-line tu quoques are clearly intended seriously by their authors.

I would have mentioned Fish's "Is there a text in this class?" as the only book on the subject I've ever willingly read (and I think basically I just agreed with it).

I would have quoted that bit in Borges' "Tlön Uqbar Orbis Tertius" about how no argument is considered complete until its refutal has been completely worked out.
(that would amount to fully understanding why each of your favourites might seem like shit to someone else, and why all the things you hate might seem wonderful to someone else...).

I would have written about "hard cases", where the relativist argument might seem counter-intuitive: for example, that there exists a possible understanding of the world, not necessarily yet instantiated, but no more nor less correct than our own, in which

the "Bad Quartos" of Shakespeare's plays are more valued than the good;

or

Mozart's juvenile symphonies are rated above the Six (or how about this one: Beethoven's "Battle Symphony" above the Nine?)

or

the money-spinning gestures of Wilkie Collins' terribly ill later years seem more interesting than Armadale...

(I sometimes get so absorbed in this matter that no sooner have I thought up some unthinkable reversal of our consensus, than I try and work out the kind of way you'd need to see the world in order to believe these things. Surprisingly often, this procedure leads me to a mental place that is both sensible and revelatory. Surprisingly often, a little inspection reveals that the opinion I once considered so outrageous is in fact not just defensible but already widely held, and my supposed consensus depended on a highly selective sample of the earth's inhabitants.)

In fact these are not really such hard cases. The necessary perspective for a simple reversal of canonical judgment is often quite easy to imagine. For example, "All Shakespeare's plays are wonderful" is a common canonical view, but far more common is the inverse judgment, "All Shakespeare's plays are boring". Such judgments never exist in a void. Thus the latter view commonly exists within a larger framework of "All old plays are boring", "All old books are boring", "Books are boring" etc. -all views of the world that there's no disputing. Thus, if we try and imagine a context for the view of Mozart proposed above, the easiest solution is to place it within a larger belief about youth - in effect, a denial of the values encoded in the very word "juvenilia". That wouldn't really be very hard to conceive - views about youth have been through many well-documented changes in the last few centuries. Like when you look at a sheep field and reflect that the skipping, curious lambs seem a whole lot more intelligent than their stodgy parents.

A really hard case might be something like: "All Shakespeare's plays are deadly bores, with the shining exception of the absorbing Two Gentlemen of Verona." This is an opinion that is tough to imagine being held, because its sole exception seems to imply literary values that, you'd think, would be bound to find something to admire in a few other Shakespeare plays as well. What could you value in the Two Gentlemen that you couldn't also find reasonably executed elsewhere? So perhaps it might be possible to construct composite and artificial judgments of this sort that are really impossible to hold, inextricably mired in self-contradiction? (I am far from conceding it.)

I would also have written about the basic differences in character between inner and outer views of some category of artefact - as rather neatly summed up in that "I'm not a huge fan of folk music" remark.

And I would have talked about the secrecy of artefacts, why audiences can never understand them nor authors come out and sit among their own audience.


[One reason I won't ever write this essay is that its cultural moment has passed... There's a faded, period feel to arguments that (even hypothetically) discuss the ranking of Shakespeare's plays. In practice everyone knows that we relativists have already won the argument, even if we've never really had it...]

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