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Great Art

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Apr. 9th, 2011 | 04:45 pm
music: Pearl and the Beard - Voice in my Throat | Powered by Last.fm

Often I'll start writing a post about newspaper articles I think poorly represent their topic, or blog posts I find irritating, or what have you. Few of these make it to completion. This is largely because I'm rarely motivated to respond to what I read until I feel that saying "Oh, fuck you" would be more time and regard than the piece deserves, but a blog which mostly linked to other people's thoughts and called them stupid without elaboration would be unpleasant to read, unpleasant to write, and look a lot like childish jealousy, so I'm left writing about something I don't think is worth while.

Freddie DeBoer's response to this piece in Slate, however, deserves attention. I have been on the internet for most of my life. I trolled the comments sections to Yahoo! news articles in the early 2000s, and remember fondly the xenophobic and paranoid outbursts of lax_ride. His rants had none of the sophistication of SirMustapha at the xkcd fora or the wonderful shamelessness of Gaia Online's cigarette, but they possessed the same charm as Vaudeville melodramas: simple and to the point. I say all this so that my credentials in Troldom are clear and, when I pronounce DeBoer's glib and unreflective jab at Slate Great Art, the reader does not think the judgment comes from a novice or mere hobbyist in assholery.

Here is the entirety of the masterpiece:
Is Ulysses overrated?
It is a work of incredible genius?
Does its critics resorting to the old "you don't really like this" canard demonstrate the emptiness of their critique?
Has Ulysses endured?
Will it continue to endure?
Will it still be read 100 years from now?
Will anyone remember its many critics 100 years from now?
Is that a fair and relevant question?
It's the only question.
Like many of the great works of trolling, you can see DeBoer's post isn't really about anything save invective, but disguises itself under the superficial trappings of a coherent argument. Note, for example, he does not identify one thing about the work Ulysses which makes it praiseworthy. His responses, excepting the last, are single-word, yes/no answers which produce the illusion of methodical analysis, while the last sets the illusion tight by saying this pseudo-analysis is the only relevant procedure for determining aesthetic merit.  His glibness in conjunction with this imagined rigor allow him to simultaneously write as if he is giving exhaustive treatment and dismissing the Slate article out of hand. Admittedly DeBoer was handed a real blessing that Rosenbaum, the author in Slate, chose to use a question-answer format after Joyce in his article, but DeBoer is ingenious in taking advantage of the opportunity  presented.

Underneath all this is nothing. Is DeBoer motivated by a Hume-ian theory of consensus in aesthetic sentiment? Then how do we explain his pronouncement that the work is already genius despite its critics? Is he an objectivist about the value of art? Then how do we explain his appeal to Ulysses' future status? It is not that the aesthetic claims implicit in DeBoer's work are irreconcilable, so much as they suggest a nuanced and muti-faceted theory of aesthetic value, but reveal nothing in particular about the details of this theory. In response to criticism DeBoer may adopt whatever view suits him, or claim over and over again that the critic has wrongly presumed he believes in aesthetic views he does not. (The critic, of course, must presume or there is nothing of DeBoer's view to criticise).  

The crowning accomplishment here is DeBoer's hypocrisy. Observe how DeBoer complains that Rosenbaum fails to engage with the literary virtues supporters of Ulysses put forward (the "the old "you don't really like this" canard" part). Now try to find a point where Rosenbaum reduces his opponents' criticism to a single sentence. Or consider that DeBoer's own argument of "pretty soon all you philistines who don't appreciate this will be dead and history will laugh at you", in addition to being a canard in itself, isn't even remotely clear -- H. L. Mencken thought little of Ulysses then, as some do now, and he has certainly not been forgotten in the intervening ninety years, and I doubt he shall be forgotten in the next ten. If Ulysses has not made it a hundred years without a crowd of detractors yet, why should it make the next hundred? But I am straying into arguing against DeBoer, which misses the purpose and beauty of trolling. Compounding this hypocrisy is DeBoer's own oft-stated, never supported, view that pundits say what makes them appear clever, and what conforms with their own "brand", rather than what they believe or what is true. Political bloggers may well be merely signaling and negotiating a popularity contest when they hold an opinion. Suggesting someone claims to like Joyce to appear intelligent is a canard. I could go on, but really you should read the Slate piece, scroll back up, and appreciate DeBoer's genius. I have no reservations about calling this the most sublime piece of trolling I have ever encountered.

Or at least I wouldn't if DeBoer weren't dead serious and hadn't managed all this, not by artistry, but by sheer bad temper and lack of reflection.

EDIT: To be clear, I don't endorse the article in Slate at all. I just think that, as I said, Mr. DeBoer simply so glib and dismissive as to deserve recognition.

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