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Sunday, November 13, 2016

Value Judgments

Everything we do in the humanities entails a value judgment.  Sometimes these value judgments are covert, and sometimes overt. The values can be cultural, political, aesthetic. By writing on a particular author or topic, we are conferring some value: this is something especially worthy of paying attention to.

Many arguments are framed in terms of legitimization and hierarchy. For example, I heard a keynote at the MACHL by Ignacio S├ínchez Prado last week that argued for the legitimization of Mexican literature in relation to schemes of Comparative Literature that privilege German and French. He wanted Mexican literature studied as a whole, rather than piecemeal (picking out a few authors out of context). He had valid points, but it was an argument about academic politics in the US, essentially. If arguments get reduced to questions of legitimization, then a self-reflexive tone creeps in to the debate.   The humanities become about justifying their own existence as such. But, I would point out, we can only justify their own existence by being humanities, not mere proxies for other kinds of hierarchies.


Hence my resistance to anti-elitism. It seems to me that what the elitism / anti elitism debate does is to frame the question of legitimization in wretched ways.

So (position 1) the elite cultural product is better (elitism) because it is elite. That is, oriented toward a smaller, more selective, more educated group of people.

Or: because elitism is bad, this kind of product is to be denigrated. Anything popular (anti-elitist) is good simply by virtue of resisting elitism.

It is easy to see the crudeness of this thinking. An elite poem could be bad in its own way, because it could require a vast amount of literary culture to understand but still be quite bad in other ways.

A popular song could be good because it is good (not because it is popular). In other words, the value of the poem / song has no relation to the social value given to it by elitists (or elites) and anti-elites.

Ortega y Gasset praised the avant-garde because it was elitist, and thus had the useful function of separating the elite from his dreaded masses. He even says at one point in his essay that he isn't actually fond of this form of art, that it has not produced much of artistic value yet.

What I'm suggesting here is that aesthetic value is actually a more progressive and subtle instrument to use than the superimposition of political values onto the aesthetic.


On the bad poetry front, I've purchased a used copy of a Rod McKuen book. I'm planning an hommage.

1 comment:

Thomas said...

"I detest having to think of a writer by his politics first. It's like thinking of people by way of their anus." (Norman Mailer)

Your post reminded me of a post of mine from 11 years ago, which turned out to be a reflection on a post of yours.