Friday, August 08, 2014

The Legacy of Group Thinking, II

“Probability, Community, and Criteria”

1.      This is an addendum to my earlier “The Legacy of Group Thinking,” which goes through some of the major issues I find at work in trying to think through our inheritance of the Culture Wars—in particular, through our inheritance of David Bromwich, Richard Rorty, and Stanley Fish as they negotiated the cultural-political landscape of the ‘80s and ‘90s. In the earlier piece, I didn’t talk much about Fish, but he appears in Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means a couple times getting the sharp end of a point. The main reason Fish is singled out the way he is—in particular for aiding and abetting a myth about the history of literary criticism (which I’m not sure he did)—is because, after Fish became chair of Duke’s English department, he assembled the most star-studded faculty of its time, vaulting Duke into a position of prominence. In particular, the faculty became a hotbed of the kind of cultural criticism that Bromwich takes aim at in his book.

Somehow, Fish is identified by Bromwich as a “right-wing pragmatist,” which I’m not sure is true. Fish’s politics are notoriously difficult to pinpoint, and he delights in hiding them. [1] However they may be, it is something like a lesson from Fish’s playbook that I applied in “Legacy.” My attempt to reframe the merits of multiculturalism in terms of the historical psychology of autonomy (see sec. 5) is basically just the application of Fish’s main point against neoconservative claims of “reverse racism.” He makes this during a debate tour he took with rising-star neocon intellectual Dinesh D’Souza in 1991-92. [2] Neoconservatives were gaining a lot of ground against affirmative action by claiming it was just racism against white people. Fish, in his prepared remarks (collected in There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech), cites President George H. W. Bush’s admonishment of the United Nations for equating Zionism with racism, for the equation forgets history—ignored, as Fish glosses the logic of the argument, “is the historical difference between them, the difference between a program of genocide and the determination of those who escaped it to establish a community in which they would be the makers, not the victims, of the laws” (60).

2.      There is another point at which Fish’s pragmatism, particularly as it is articulated in that book, seems relevant to Bromwich’s argument, and it is this I wish to work around to in this addendum. The first chapter of Bromwich’s book, “The New Fundamentalists,” attempts to outline the problems he sees at work in the implicit agreement the left- and right-wing seems to have had to focus on cultural issues, and mainly group identity. He goes through several examples taken from “the headlines,” [3] and his reading of them is always smart, but one section made me wrinkle my brow.

Bromwich takes up two cases about acting. In the first, he relates the story of Miss Saigon’s trip from West End to Broadway. Wildly successful in England, when the producer took the musical to America, he took two of his leads with him—however, one of them was Jonathan Pryce, who created the role of the half-Vietnamese pimp, and is white. There was an outcry from The Committee on Racial Equality of the theatre actors’ union, Actors’ Equity, who “voted to bar Pryce from performing the role on the ground that a special search had not been conducted for Asian-American actors who might act the leading role” (11). Bromwich takes the brouhaha to make the point “that in art, the suitability of person to role is a matter of strength of imagination—only that” (12). The entire idea of artistic creation is that something that wasn’t there is made to be there. What is an acting role but a cavalcade of thoughts and attitudes and behaviors that the actor has to make appear? So if you can manifest those things, what else should matter qua acting?

This, I think, is a good point. Bromwich says these controversies compose themselves as tensions between culture and art, and that cultural genesis or identity is given priority when in conflict. The idea Bromwich is suspicious of is that being an X gives you a “natural” authority over expressing an X. It is the “natural” we should be suspicious of—Emersonians make the good point that some people just aren’t good at expression. But the Committee on Racial Equality has another argument: “In an ideal world … any artist can play any role for which he or she is suited. Until that time arrives, artists of color must fight to retain access to the few roles which are culturally and racially specific to them” (qtd. 12). Bromwich calls the last sentence “sophistry” on the grounds that “the only index of having truly obtained access on this scheme is to obtain the role,” but I think that’s narrow. This is the arena of affirmative action, and Bromwich’s correct point is that statistical analysis of what races have gained what roles would not tell you whether or not they deserved the roles. And yet, Bromwich seems to be posing naïve here—I find it doubtful that casting agents uniformly disregard race or ethnicity when making their decisions for roles that call for this or that specifically. Until they judge based purely on acting “merit”—more about which in a moment—then I think it is perfectly justified for a group to demand first consideration for their small cross selection of roles. And, I might add, I suspect that the only reason a casting agent wouldn’t disregard race or ethnicity is not because they are racist, but because audiences aren’t ready to judge purely based on acting talent.

Think about it: push the underpinning of the “natural authority” argument to its limit, and in a biopic the only person who would be suitable to play, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson would be the very dead Ralph Waldo Emerson. Wouldn’t he have the most authority to express himself? (There’s a hidden conundrum about identity here: what gives him that authority? After all, isn’t the old Emerson different than his younger self? So why would the elder have authority over expressing the younger?) Yet, push Bromwich’s point to the limit, and wouldn’t audiences struggle with a black Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1840s Concord? Could you blame them?

3.      The previous issue, however, is a point about our current sociopolitical milieu (then as now). I want to ignore that issue to take up Bromwich’s good point that will lead us into his second casting case. Bromwich’s point about artistic creation or expression, I think, is solid. It is about the “strength of imagination” one needs to manifest a pattern of thoughts, attitudes, and behavior. Because this ability to manifest—expression—is necessarily independent of what one is, there is a tension between the desire for better expression and for equality of opportunity. That is how the “tension between culture and art” plays out on that score.

Conceding that expressing is necessarily independent from being, though, is it completely independent? To put it another way, if the idea of expression requires it not to be dependent on what one is, does it follow that there are no connections between the two?

Bromwich’s second case takes August Wilson’s 1991 op-ed as its text. Wilson “brought before the public his case for finding a black director to make a film of his play Fences” (13). Wilson didn’t want a black director merely because he was black, but he also did want a black director. Bromwich characterizes Wilson’s choice as between talent and race. He quotes Wilson saying,
At the time of my last meeting with Paramount, in January 1990, a well-known, highly respected white director wanted very much to direct the film. I don’t know his work, but he is universally praised for sensitive and intelligent direction. I accept that he is a very fine film director. But he is not black. He is not a product of black American culture—a culture that was honed out of the black experience and fired in the kiln of slavery and survival—and he does not share the sensibilities of black Americans. (qtd. 14)
Bromwich notices an ambiguity here in the word “sensibility.” On the one hand, it is functioning as a consciousness-term, as meaning the “experiential sensitivity of a black person” (14), which is, in an important sense, incommunicable. On the other hand—as Wilson’s use of it in “sensitive and intelligent direction” indicates—it also functions as a term of aesthetic judgment. The more sensitive you are in this sense, the more likely you are to catch the nuances and gradations of texture in an experience because you are more imaginative. This second notion of sensitivity, however, must be communicable if it is to function as a criteria at all in one’s ability to produce art. It is on this basis of the distinction between the two on the score of communicability that Bromwich says “something changes … as one passes from a call for life-experience to a call for art-experience” (14).

4.      Bromwich’s sensitivity to words is keen here, but I think Wilson might have expressed his point better. Bromwich characterizes sensibility in the art-experience sense as when “a secret comes to be known by many who were not originally ‘in it’” (14). The experience of the product of art is the communication of something the artist put there—the artist created the possibility of one’s experience of the artwork. Notice that Bromwich has left out of his characterization the crucial moment as one passes from life-experience to art-experience—the moment of art-creation. Bromwich is right, as a function of his point in the Miss Saigon case, that creation is independent of experience. But isn’t the real issue here who is more likely to create the art-experience that communicates the life-experience?

Bromwich avoids this issue of probability, and in part by avoiding the issue of whether or not the artist wants to communicate a life-experience or create a new experience entirely. We can desire artwork that does one or the other, or both. But the former is a matter of accuracy—and who gets to judge the accuracy of an art-experience to a life-experience? For the same reason of the independence of imagination from experience housed in people’s varying levels of sensitivity to texture and nuance, we cannot say only those with the life-experience get to do the judging—but it’d be weird if only white people were judging the accuracy of movies about black people to the experience of black people, right?

Part of this weirdness comes from our awareness of the history of stereotypes—we have a lengthening history of inaccurate assessments of one group by another group. And Euramericans seem to have had an egregious problem with this. [4] Technically there’s nothing at odds with one group judging accurately another group. And the judged-group could all meet to get their story straight in order hide any perceived “faults” of the group. But what are the odds? Might you not be increasing the likelihood of creating an art-experience that is accurate to some sort of perceived black life-experience by having someone who has had a black life-experience?

There are innumerable problems here—for example, not all black people have had the same life experiences. But this is why Bromwich’s choice in example is so interesting in highlighting the issue—he’s telling the artist who he should hire to create his product. Who is Bromwich to tell Wilson who should direct his movie? Not because Bromwich is white and Wilson black, but because Wilson is the artist and Bromwich the viewer. Bromwich seems to have a notion of “strength of imagination” as like a magical elixir that allows you to do anything equally well, transcending limitation. But that’s like thinking “athleticism” has the ability to make a Michael Jordan as good at baseball as he was at basketball. Would you rather have Jordan in right field than me? Sure, but it seems clear that you’d also rather have Darrin Jackson, who you’ve never heard of, than Michael Jordan.

Wilson’s judgment about who he wants to select seems to me this—when you hire someone to create an artistic product, just as when you hire anyone for a job, you are making an initial assessment on the probability that they will later be able to fulfill your expectations. That may not have been precisely what was on Wilson’s mind, but it’s how you defend the validity of the practice against Bromwich’s argument. Wilson’s judgment of the well-known white director seems perfectly reasonable if Wilson has suspicions that the black life-experience he would like to see portrayed might be more likely actualized be someone with those life experiences. The reason the Wilson case is different from the Miss Saigon case, on this score, is because the white Jonathan Pryce had already (presumably) successfully portrayed the half-Vietnamese pimp—so if you are just concerned about portrayal, why not go with the high probability of previous success? [5]

5.      The ideal world the Committee spokesperson was referring to in the Miss Saigon case in section 2 was the one in which there was already equality of opportunity. Bromwich, I’m sure, does not believe that that is not an issue in the world. So while calling the “access” claim a sophistry is too strong, what Bromwich is thinking of is true enough: how do we tell when there is equality of possibility when the only way to tell is through who actually gets what?

This is a version of the very real and very problematic question I closed “Legacy” with in section 7—who are you to tell me when my trauma is over? Who decides when there is equality? This is where affirmative action policies come from—they are an attempt to install additional criteria of relevant merit so that communities can weigh all the considerations they should attend to. This, of course, sounds weird—is it meritorious to be black? This weirdness is what Fish responds to in There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, particularly in the introduction. Fish’s master argument for his theoretical pragmatism—what drove him from reader-response criticism to interpretive communities to his interventions in politics and law—is that criteria are relative to the communities in which they are applied. So, for example, there’s no such thing as free speech because what counts as speech—or is it gibberish?—is always up to a community, so ipso facto what counts as free speech is likewise constrained by the community. (The most obvious example in American First Amendment law is Holmes’ citation of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater.) In the case of affirmative action policies at universities, the complaint is that they put a backseat to “merit”—Fish’s point is not only did the policies not do that, but wasn’t it also the right of the community (in this case, the university and/or federal government as representative of the American people) to decide what package of criteria it wants in order to create the kind of community it wants?

I think this can be applied to an artist creating the kind of art that is communally created—anything that requires the participation of people other than the artist. There’s nothing special about being black or Vietnamese or poor or tall or athletic or pretty—except for all the myriad ways that those attributes change a person’s experience of the world. This is just another way of saying that every person’s experience is unique. That doesn’t mean everyone will be able to produce great art, but it does mean that the materials that could be drawn from by a person’s strength of imagination are going to be different.

The irony I found in this thread of argument in Bromwich’s book is that, not only do I know that Bromwich treats with some reverence the autonomy of the artist from having “responsibilities” to anything other than the vision the artist hopes to articulate—and of which I’ve suggested he runs somewhat afoul of—but this idea of having different raw materials upon which to work the imagination is ultimately an Emersonian idea of experimentalism. [6] Bromwich’s argument, when thought through, erases all of that material in favor of the blank power of imagination—but no creation is ex nihilo. What precisely makes art so interesting is to see that power wielded upon and out of so many different kinds of material. The texture of art is variegated because every person is different, and the apotheosis of imagination one finds in romanticism only works with a proliferation of artists with which to have the space to perform. There isn’t just one standard called “great acting” to which Jonathan Pryce or an Asian-American cleave to, nor one called “great directing.” A white director might make different choices than a black one, and it is the hope of some producers that, given the chance, those black directors might make something never seen before. And isn’t that what we really want? [7]


[1] This particularly comes through in The Trouble with Principle, where at the end he does disclose some substance political stances.

[2] I don’t really think D’Souza is an intellectual, but I feel bad that the neocons don’t really have any respectable ones. Bromwich, for example, makes short work of George Will. Are we really going to count William Bennett? But maybe I’m a little blinkered in this regard. There are always the Straussians, like Allan Bloom and Harvey C. Mansfield. Or how about Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama? (Though, Fukuyama had the decency to come to his senses about the Iraq War, the scales falling from his eyes about his friends in the Bush II administration.)

[3] I talk about one of them, with my own gloss on the event, in “Legacy,” footnote 6.

[4] I refrain from saying why because I’m not sure. My experience in the world and with books has given me a good sense that every group develops stereotypes about other groups—it’s not just white people. There’s more to be said about the conceptual underpinnings of that, but I also don’t think that the nations and cultures of European descent are often singled out, as I have here, simply because they’ve conquered so many other cultures, and so are more in the air—as if, had other cultures simply had more guns and beat back European colonists, it would be more clear that every culture would be on a par when it comes to its stereotyping behavior. I think there is a link between imperialist tendencies and greater stereotyping. But since a lot of bad writing and inferences have gone on with this topic, there’s nothing short to be said about it. The best I can do is to suggest reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958). It was the first international best-seller by a native African, and it is one of the most sensitive representations of the moral dilemmas of cultural friction I have ever encountered. At its center is the initial encounter of the Igbo with European civilization, in particular through the encounter with Christian missionaries. But what isn’t easily clear is that the Christian missionaries are wrong in all of their convictions—for one of the practices of the Igbo is to throw twin babies into the forest to die because they are abominations. One of the leitmotifs of the book, though, is the Igbo’s relationship to other cultures and how different it is from that emblematized by the Christian missionaries.

[5] There is a theoretical underpinning to what is happening here. Robert Brandom’s account of normativity suggests how, while normative behavior is not reducible to natural behavior, it is rooted in it. His Sellarsian account of natural events as “reliable differential responsive dispositions” allows him to distinguish between, in his favored examples, iron rusting in the presence of water or parrots squawking “Red!” in the presence of red, on the one hand, and a person saying in English “hey, that table is red” in the presence of a red table, on the other, on the basis that the latter is within “the game of giving and asking for reasons,” which means the person is reliable and correct, whereas the parrot is simply reliable. Given that is the case, people’s responses to the world can be judged according to reliability—like always responding “4” when asked “What’s 2 + 2?”—which is how we can construe a certain class of artistic expressions.

[6] The former is an Emersonian attitude in Bromwich’s argument as well, and came out in my earlier “Legacy” argument as “Who are you to tell me what words to use?” See the end of section 3 to section 4.

[7] Apropos my conclusion, and running in the other direction, I recall Gabriel Byrne once saying (I think in an extra feature for The Usual Suspects) that his acting technique, in complete contradistinction to method acting, is to play a better version of himself. This strikes me as interesting because I have friends that consider it a damning indictment of an actor that “they’re just playing the same thing” (say, Johnny Depp for the last ten years or Robert de Niro for last twenty). Variety is wonderful, but must the variety be in each actor? I’m vexed by the question of whether acting power should be determined by flexibility or not. Isn’t it like asking Jordan to be a great baseball player as well? “Oh, Tiger Woods—he’s a great golfer, but terrible at baseball. Did you see his swing?” Why can’t we praise Woods or Depp for doing whatever it is they’re doing really well? Sure, you might get bored with golf or Depp’s performances, but is that the same thing? At the core of this problem, I think, is the distinction between the Good and the New, which do not dovetail.

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