Some Thoughts Relative to Relativism

It seemed to me that the chapter “Culture” of The Theory Toolbox tended towards a very deflating relativism. I got this impression particularly from the authors’ attack of the imposed division between high and popular culture, posting the observations of Allan Bloom as a sort of quintessential example of conservative misconstruements of the very concept of culture. While I agree that there can be no doubt that the demarcation between high and low culture is suspect, it seems to me that the authors have failed to answer the question of what standards remain for distinguishing which things are more and which are less worthy of being studied.

At face value the question seems already presupposing; one might bluntly answer that nothing is inherently more worthy of being studied than anything else, the operative word being inherently. However, following this maxim to the letter would not only leave Allan Bloom disoriented and helpless, it would do the same to the writers of The Theory Toolbox, as well as any other person for that matter. What perhaps might help to illustrate this point would be to consider the ways in which one could, without contradicting the strict cultural relativism of Nealon and Giroux, justify that a sonnet of Shakespeare’s is more worthy of having books and books of critical commentary on it than is a YouTube comment selected entirely at random.

I would think that everyone would readily admit that such is the case, that the sonnet is right to receive significantly more attention (to put it mildly). Yet, assuming the stance of Nealon and Giroux, I find myself hard-pressed to justify this sentiment. In truth, both the sonnet and the YouTube comment are cultural artifacts; they are texts to be interpreted relative to a certain cultural context; they bespeak social and cultural conditions, not because of their particular content, but necessarily by the sheer fact of being texts. Perhaps, if I were the relativist, I would say the answer is simple: Shakespeare has had more cultural and historical impact (again, to put it mildly) thus justifying his being a more worthy subject of scholarship. This answer, while not inconsistent with the relativist’s position, clearly does not capture the full integrity of the original sentiment which prompted us to ask the question. None of us seriously believes that if the YouTube comment were to be substituted for the sonnet as being the one with the more salient historical effect (is this even conceivable?) that this would then lead to the comment being worthy of more critical attention that the sonnet.

Anyhow, the point I want to express is that I feel as though The Theory Toolbox is leaving its reader drastically ill-equipped to adopt evaluative stances. The exhortation to be skeptical of everything has been ingrained, but what is left outside of this skepticism besides an almost worshipful impression of the omnipotence of culture is still very unclear.

I want to reiterate that I’m not advocating for the traditional distinction between high and popular culture, but I do think that there must remain certain evaluative standards, such as those which inhere within the discipline of science, that regulate the humanities. There is no doubt as to there being a distinction between good science and bad science, despite the fact that distinguishing the two is none too simple in practice. Similarly, I think standards must be set with concern to which texts are substantively “literary,” thus justifying literary analysis (which is to say a greater amount of and more in-depth of literary analysis). That is to say, the standard would be relative to the discipline; those texts which are the most literary ought to be those which are most conducive to the enterprises of the discipline of “English” or “literature.” Thus the standard is not ultimate or “transcendent” yet it is still a standard; it does not permit the static anarchy of crude relativism.

What might such a standard look like? Well, just thinking of a quick example for a potential criterion for “literariness” off the top of my head, one might say that all texts that are substantively literary—literary, again, being defined relative to the discipline of English—must be sophisticated. By that I mean they must contain instances of, say, formal, generic, or conceptual ingenuity. So, in the case of Shakespeare’s sonnet, it would perhaps adopt the use of metonym in an unprecedented way, while subverting the pre-established conventions of the love sonnet, and it might challenge certain presuppositions of religion so as to expose previously unacknowledged dogmas that inhere in the very concept of religion, etc. Meanwhile, the YouTube comment would likely not exhibit a hundredth of the ingenuity of the sonnet, justifying its marginalization within the discipline of English.

A last thought: to return to the issue of high and low culture, I think that approaching evaluative standards in this way could be genuinely helpful for resisting prejudices against certain forms of art and expression in one of two ways. The first would be for it to enable people to argue that the standard of “ingenuity” as I’ve called it, or whatever other standards one might use, is in fact satisfied in a certain unduly ignored work of art, so that, for example, the complexity and generic self-consciousness of a video game could be demonstrated in order to justify its being subject to in-depth scholarly criticism. The second would be for people to inaugurate new disciplines to compete with, rather than colonize, more traditional disciplines that would themselves set unique standards of evaluation, standards that would perhaps be more inclusive to popular forms at the expense of more elitist forms.

It seems to me again, as with the issue of the canon, Nealon and Giroux have staged the question as that of outdated metaphysical transcendentalism versus postmodern liberal progressiveness, so that the latter comes out as the obvious choice. But the question is not so stark; after we admit values to be historically contingent, what is left?

2 Responses to Some Thoughts Relative to Relativism

  1. youngdw January 24, 2016 at 11:01 pm #

    I really liked your penultimate paragraph about how certain forms of art can overcome prejudices and be taken seriously by scholars. One videogame I know of that could certainly be taken seriously is Bioshock: Infinite. It was the first first-person shooter I ever enjoyed, but it wasn’t the gameplay that drew me in. It was the story and setting. The main setting of the game is the fictional floating city of Columbia in the early 1900s, governed by the Prophet Comstock. In this city, which separated from the United States years earlier, whites were the only true citizens. Scots and blacks were heavily discriminated against and forced to do the labor that no one else wanted. The main character is Booker DeWitt, a white male in his thirties who has to navigate through the city to find a young woman for an employer who will erase his debts. All of the historical and religious ties in the game made it more interesting, along with science fiction elements that made the gameplay thrilling.

  2. Prof VZ January 25, 2016 at 12:58 am #

    Great reflection / interrogation here, Anthony. I can’t respond fully before class, but I agree that their contextualization of “high” and “low” is rooted too firmly in relating those interested exclusively in studying and protecting “high” art to a certain extreme conservatism. Alternately, their investment in popular forms of expression relies much on the idea of pedagogical value: popular media is so pervasive, it necessarily has effects, and we can and should study those effects.

    One way to explain what would seem a very limiting relativism in the context of English studies is to say that their audience is not an English-studies community, or even a humanities community, but a broader social science & humanities community. Therefore, the threat of a youtube comment (or video that has been viewed a million times) displacing Shakespeare–or of low culture colonizing high culture, or game studies colonizing English–isn’t a shot at some fusty English community that will never get rid of their Shakespeare scholar for someone more plugged in, but rather a broader recognition of the kinds of culture that are worth exploring in various fields, many of which are interdisciplinary. So in a sense, they write from the perspective of those broader disciplines and emerging you mention that do in fact study these things. The argument still holds that that 1980s version of Bloom or that other character they mention from the 90s would question the relevance of less established forms of cultural production, regardless of the field.

    N&G might note that as you seek a more stable and sensible position beyond cultural relativism, you also set up a sort of perch beyond the fray: some place where things like “sophistication” and “ingenuity” hold inherent meaning, or at least are not so complicated by their social entanglements. Both concepts are rooted in Western aesthetics, an appreciation for complexity and ambiguity and refinement, and both could blind one to the values of certain artworks.

    In a way N&G complicate their own argument when it comes to the high/low distinction. Earlier in the chapter they write that “exclusion… is very often a sinister or hateful operation, but it is also, we have to admit, a practical necessity in the postmodern world. If things don’t signify in-themselves or universally–if there is only “meaning” within certain contexts–then those contexts need somehow to be narrowed” (57). Would that apply to distinctions we make between high and low culture, or what qualifies as a viable text to study in a given course? They’re very clear in the chapter on ideology as well that one must make distinctions, and that disciplines themselves are composed of such distinctions. They don’t regret that, but they do encourage vigilance about one’s own discourse community and the assumptions it makes about what constitutes high art or low art, and what effects those exclusions categories we might come up with to make those distinctions have.

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