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Groundwork for the Long Boring Aesthetics Entry

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Jan. 26th, 2011 | 04:13 am
music: 10,000 Maniacs - Hey Jack Kerouac | Powered by Last.fm

Conveniently posted a whole week after the long boring aesthetics entry.
Except, of course, when a person reads what I do share they don't have any knowledge of what went into its creation. S/he can't see where I stopped and revised and revised and revised until a phrase was -- at last! -- to my liking, s/he (probably) can't guess at my particular psychological states when writing this paragraph or that. What appears to him or her is the literal meaning of a finite sequence of words, and whatever inferences s/he makes from that finite sequence. Those inferences will be influenced by who and what else he or she has read, what sort of mood he or she is in, and that background for his or her inferences is as invisible to me as my actual writing is to him. What I made, and what a reader makes of it will probably be similar, but they aren't the same thing.

This paragraph does an extraordinary amount of heavy-lifting in the previous post and probably deserves its own explanation.

I linked, back when I was still babbling about Harry Potter (more on that to come), to a piece at The Awl by Maria Bustillos which argues -- well it argues a lot of stuff, and doesn't lend itself to concise (charitable) summary, you should probably just go read it. Since I must give it a one-sentence summary, Bustillos says Harry Potter adheres to a highly classist narrative. I've already made it pretty clear I really, really don't think Bustillos makes much sense, or relies upon enormous misunderstandings of key plot points in the story, but I bring it up again because the comments to that article have a particularly instructive example.

@barnhouse: [...]

Again, I'm not saying that Harry Potter isn't a product of our particular culture, or that it doesn't resonate with a particular cultural mind-set. If it didn't, it would hardly have garnered enough attention for us to be talking about it! But that's not the same as saying, "Oh, it also implies all these other things." Because in real life, yes, one could very likely make a case that Dumbledore was dominating the Muggle world in an insidiously subtle way. But Dumbledore is not a real person. He is a metaphor. And the fact that he is a metaphor for a certain type of real-life authority figure does not mean that all other qualities historically observed in such authority figures actually obtain in him. It just means that he's essentially a one-dimensional construct (as nearly all fictional characters are) meant to convey a necessarily limited set of ideas. To say that the presence of that set of ideas must necessarily signal the hidden presence of a bunch of other ideas to me misses the point of stories, which is partly to mimic the real world in service of focusing on one or a few key themes. [...]

(None of which is to say that the stories don't imply some things — uncomfortable or unpleasant things, even — about our culture. They must! Because there are uncomfortable and unpleasant aspects of our culture, and the stories do a pretty authentic job of reconstructing a slice of that culture.)

[ Barnhouse:]
@Moff: If we were in the same vicinity and supplied with a decent bottle of wine, maybe I would try to inveigle you into a poststructuralist discussion. But as matters stand, I'll just say that I disagree profoundly with the idea that "nearly all" fictional characters are "one-dimensional constructs." Even second-rate characters in fiction have to evoke enough complex human characteristics to compel the reader's trust.[...]

A large part of the argument between Bustillos and a horde of indignant commenters stems from the interpretive weight given to not just the tropes a story uses, but those tropes' cultural baggage. Harry was chosen, and in many cases stories about chosen ones carry some quiet and awkward anti-egalitarian notions that some people are just naturally better or more special than others, so therefore Harry Potter must carry that same subtext. British boarding schools are giant hives of class privilege in fiction, so Hogwarts must be some sort of similar hive of aristocratic privilege. Never mind that the prophecy about Harry isn't some innate wonderful Harry thing, rather Voldemort himself accidentally Chose Harry, and it's explicitly said in that HBP that, even were Harry not chosen, he'd still be off hunting Horcruxes and the like.

I feel a bit like I'm punching a strawman -- no one (well, no one save Maria Bustillos) seriously advocates just ignoring plot details and substituting cultural baggage to interpret stories, but I think that too often we acknowledge the capacity of cultural baggage to give a story meaning without looking at what exactly is going as we interpret a story. Namely, words, characters and plots appear so frequently for a particular function, or in association with other words, characters, and plots, that the very appearance of one by itself begins to suggest its associates. If some author were to, say, write about wizards at a boarding school, and in the particular country where these totally hypothetical novels were set, if people outside certain social classes appeared in boarding school stories, it was only in a subservient role, it might be that the mere invocation of boarding school would bring criticism on the author for classism.1 You know. Hypothetically.

To put this back in the context of Marilyn French's essay, when French says a particular work is sexist she means either 1) "the work explicitly argues for the inferiority of women" or 2) "the work contains a collection of tropes, themes, characters, symbols, and other miscellaneous literary whatcha-ma-call-ems that 2.1) are pervasive throughout storytelling and 2.2) taken together, suggest the inferiority of women, even if any one individual work on its own wouldn't necessarily suggest the same."2 with the result that the frequency of the misogynist tropes reinforces the patriarchal assumptions that brought them about and creates a body of literature hostile to (some) female readers.3 What I think gets forgotten in some criticism is the contingency of the second kind of sexism on external conditions. I think, in the second cases calling a work misogynist. That what we're facing is a collective action problem in which to get literature that's better for a society we need to ask authors to give up particular habits which they may be very attached to and which, if writing is a deeply personal activity, it's not clear we can demand of them. And I think words as loaded as misogynist and patriarchy aren't really suited to collective action problems.4   

1. Other critiques along a similar theme exist, though were left out here because of they did not specifically cite objections to HP being set in a boarding school. See e.g., Ilias Yocaris, Harry Potter, Market Wiz N. Y. Times, July 18, 2004 for one of the best known of these critiques.
2. French's critique focuses upon the general preference for the masculine in literature (and corresponding depreciation of anything feminine), with the rigidity of gender roles sort of pushed into the background of her argument. It's tempting to cast the statement of "this work is sexist" in terms of conformity to rigid gender roles, which has the benefit of being more inclusive, but it would not be a fair summary of French's argument which focuses specifically on misogyny in literature.
3. See excerpt from Is There a Feminist Aesthetic? in previous post.
4. Your willingness to believe this probably depends on your willingness to believe it's morally acceptable to not get involved in the cause of particular strains of feminism. Or more accurately, for one's writing to not reflect involvement in the cause.

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