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[JANUARY 2010.]

With Friends Like These

From my underground vantage, it seems suspiciously neat that the “ethical turn” sweeps the humanities just as the humanities are inducted into a losing battle to justify their existence. We’ve come a long way from when I got on the train, and the old canon-war arguments about the construction of syllabi seem positively Arcadian against arguments about who’s got the nickel to photocopy the syllabus sheet. Regular readers of academic insider rags (perhaps of the trade press generally) will recognize the Defense of the Humanities as an upstart genre of polemic, pitched to a wider audience than the ethical-crit tomes but tripping on the same fallacies, since it’s been given the same losing case to plead: show, against all evidence, that encounters with the creative imagination will make us better. What could be worse, except the argument’s facile flipside making a virtue of uselessness: Oscar Wilde with none of the charm, tickled a complacent pink over his gifts from the gods?

On aesthetics, Kant and Bourdieu have already divided the world between them, but I do have the temerity to think that “the generosity of ‘Take what I make... or not.’” is exactly right, and that artworks are gifts. I would even follow the Levinas-Derrida line far enough to admit that gifts are puzzling, though this isn’t to say that they come out of the ether, or that they’re especially virtuous. Gifts can be given cynically, to seduce, to propitiate kings or gods, to salve bad consciences; they can be in horrid taste, causing the recipient great embarrassment (must I swallow what’s been prepared for me?); they can be rejected, causing hurt feelings all around; opportunities abound for pettiness, cattiness, showoffery, spite. What binds these cases to each other, and to happier ones, is only that they occur outside economies—which is to say, in the language of rational choice theory, that they’re undertaken for no good reason. (That certain artists and scholars have done very well in certain economies is an epiphenomenon that I’m delighted to ignore.) The absence of rational self-interest receives lofty names in the philosophical tradition: Freiheit of course, and the more plausibly technical Autonomie. But one would expect a gift to make sense only in social contexts with established etiquettes of gift-giving: love poetry, court poetry, coteries. Outside these warm zones, one ends up with gifts given only to oneself (the Billy Budd manuscript, left in a tin breadbox) or with Romantic/modernist bluster about giving gifts to the world, which is probably the same thing. The uncreated conscience of the race is a more comfortable thought than the created conscience; the unacknowledged legislators of the world, if ever acknowledged, would make the U.S. Congress look like Solon.

I don’t have the longevity to say whether universities, or anyone else, used to take gift-giving more seriously than they do now. I do know that thousands in my generation are willing and excellently prepared to give, and that for lack of an etiquette, they will be thrown back on an economy. That is to say: for lack of life’s needs they will fail. The value of these lost gifts, as with any gift, is a matter that etiquette forbids prying into. If the gift is congenial, it is good to receive, and if the soul is receptive, it can be good to see how others have given. On whether and how to give oneself, one could do worse than Jesus in a rare moment of tact: enter into thy closet, and do not sound a trumpet before thee.

Have you read The Gift, by Lewis Hyde? It explores some of this territory. Great book.

Why I have not!


The Culture That Made Avatar

Praise or blame don’t attach to the makers of blockbusters; they dip their cups into the wells of our dreams and give us just what we deserve. Our dreams of the primitive are bandages for the wounds we’ve inflicted on ourselves. Of the wounds we’ve inflicted on others, they say nothing. But if the bandages don’t take, if they chafe, if we peel them off and find the wounds still pulsing, then resentment is easy.

A lot of smart people worked hard to make a sellable dream, and it would be easy to say that they only wanted sales. But of course they wanted to be priests and confessors in the bargain. We know that the sublime in nature is a happy surrender, and where Avatar’s technology puts on the mask of nature, surrender feels good; when is it not good to be surpassed by the inhuman world, to know that man is an ant? And it ought to end there, since in or out of the movies it makes no sense to be told that ants are stronger than they know, that in the aggregate, over decades, through the wholly unspectacular medium of a colorless gas, they are pulling the world apart. This fact is so offensive and incomprehensible to the heart that we’d give anything to find it untrue, and if the beasts of the wild were to rise up, as in Avatar, to destroy us for our sins, we would welcome it—at least in play.

Why point out that it’s a lie to show it happening? Why point out all the other lies: that primitives are holy children, that empires can be made to walk away from money, that we haven’t already lost the world we know, though it will take a lifetime to be taken from us? Why did I want to weep behind my 3-D glasses? Only because I was in a climate-controlled theater in the heart of the city, plugged into the municipal power grid, and outdoors the mindless lights kept shining, the engines kept cycling, the wastewater tunnels drained out to the acid ocean. It wasn’t the expense of the show. It was the cheapness of the lie.


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