Sunday, December 9, 2007

Some Versions of Subversion

Re: the subversion question, here's a choice little nugget from Carl Wilson's new Céline Dion book, which I've been treating myself to this weekend:

"Even in the ostensibly more serious realm of academia, notably Cultural Studies, the idea of 'resistant' reading — that audiences make self-empowering, anti-establishment reinterpretations of mainstream culture — can be merely a reverse justification of personal taste. An academic who likes Kelly Clarkson will find cause to claim she offers more recoupably resistant material than Britney Spears. It may be that, as Bourdieu believed, aesthetics are mostly a disguise for political relationships. But to then use politics as a further disguise for your aesthetics is to build a hall of mirrors." (126)

This is a pithier way of saying what I was trying to say about Gavin Jones' book in our dissertation seminar and on the blog: that the exact political terms we use to criticize or defend artworks (e.g., "subversive," "radical") tend to get smuggled in for rhetorical reasons rather than strictly political ones, and are perhaps closer to subjective aesthetic valuations than we want to admit. Seen this way, Jones' predicament seems like an all-too-common one: he likes dialect literature, or at least thinks it's interesting enough to write a book about; dialect literature has a bad name because an earlier generation of leftist critics have convincingly attacked it; so the only way to claim it again is to say yes, there was some hegemony going on, but some of the dialect literature (the "better" examples?) resisted it. All this does is weaken the original political point ("well, the hegemony must not have been all that totalizing if so many literary texts were able to resist or subvert it"), devalue the work of individuals who actually are working for radical change of some kind, and set you a difficult artificial problem which will often involve bringing anachronistic criteria to bear on a text you respond to for other reasons. But why wouldn't it be interesting to write a book about dialect literature that made no apologies for its repressive political effects, but considered them alongside other elements that make the texts interesting to you? By arguing a priori that what you happen to like is "subversive," you've taken your aesthetic tastes and put them into a "political disguise" in a way roughly coeval with how repressive political doctrines don an "aesthetic disguise" in the bad cases of ideology and hegemony we're talking about.

This does not mean we shouldn't be talking about politics at all, or should be treating art as an autonomous zone of values, or what have you. That really is reactionary, really does throw out the twentieth-century critical baby with the bathwater, and leads ultimately to a very sterile kind of formalism. The important point is this: if you think that society exerts a dominating, hegemonic influence on the products of culture — and certainly it's not outlandish, or radical, or "academic" to think so — you do not necessarily owe an account of your favorite artworks' resistance to that hegemony. "Since power is a dynamic that permeates even the most microscopic interactions," Wilson rightly says, "you can find submission or resistance in any cultural figure or artifact if you look; but it can be misleading to do so selectively, and break pop culture down into quiescent versus subversive blocs" (126-127). The not-breaking-down part is crucial, to my mind. If we're serious about the notion that politics has very important effects on all literary works, then we shouldn't valorize the works that subvert or rebel against political domination, still less those that secretly subvert or rebel (because then the credit redounds to us as critics for illuminating the subversion in the text — a subversion now at two removes from the hypothesized political situation). To do so may even reveal a latent desire for the political character of art to be neutralized, as if once we've established that the work we like takes the right position — the anti-hegemonic position — then its general aesthetic character is safeguarded, "it checks out," and we can enjoy it, guilt- and politics-free, at last.

(For another, no doubt clearer formulation of this distinction I'm trying to preserve, see Raymond Williams on the "rebel," the "subject" and the "servant" in his 1961 essay "Individuals and Societies," about which I realize I've already mouthed off here.)