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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, January 30, 2012


In Part 1 I extrapolated from George Bataille's formula, in which he described two types of economic consumption, a pair of opposed desires that appear with particular clarity in literary endeavor: "the desire to conserve and the desire to expend."  Bataille expressly considers that the reality-oriented aspect of consumption, "production and acquisition," to be of "secondary character" in relation to expenditure, the desire to pointlessly but satisfyingly expend one's energies. I agree with Bataille that what I call "the desire to expend" is at the heart of art, though I'll reserve my opinion regarding all the other "sumptuary" activities he describes in "The Notion of Expenditure." 

In contrast, many critics, and possibly most if not all teachers in the U.S. secondary education racket, often harp on art as being superior when it serves some utilititarian purpose.  Said purpose may be a very specific call-to-arms against social injustice, as with Upton Sinclair's THE JUNGLE.  In some cases the "purpose" can be extended into a looser program of socialization, as I noted in this essay on the work of Bruno Bettleheim vis-a-vis the alleged purposefulness of fairy tales.  Where secondary educators are concerned, the "usefulness" criterion is perhaps inevitable.  How else can teachers sell kids on the social datum that MACBETH will possess some long-term value for their lives that simply can't compare with TWILIGHT?

Another way of expressing the antinomy between the "desire to conserve and the desire to expend" might be seen in my opposition of two themes-- or more properly, supra-themes-- that govern art as a whole: "realism" and "escapism," which I introduced back in THEMATIC REALISM PART I

Of "thematic escapism" I wrote:

Coleridge's example of the Arabian Nights tale is, like the JUSTICE LEAGUE story I critiqued, not especially concerned with morals as such-- or at least, not to the extent that the ANCIENT MARINER is. Both tales are, in a formal sense, "escapist," though I note that I use the word non-pejoratively. Neither Gardner Fox nor the Arabian Nights scribe existed in a time before fiction had been used for didactic moral purposes, of course, but both stories can be fairly regarded as "vacations from morals." It is not that the protagonists of the tales do not perform actions that the reader considers "good" rather than "bad,"but that there is not a true moral dialectic as such.

Then of "thematic realism:"
By contrast, a tale like Coleridge's MARINER, or (to give a superheroic parallel to the JLA tale) WATCHMEN, are clearly tales that are much concerned with analyzing the ways mortal men deal with the moral elements in life, no matter how fantastic their situations... there is in comics-fandom a considerable prejudice toward a belief opposite to the one Coleridge expresses: that a narrative is *always* superior because it addresses specific dialectical moral issues

Morality, it should be obvious, serves as a conservative force.  Even if one lives in a community that encourages the young to steal from each other and eat their dead, that species of morality is promulgated with a perceived utilitarian end of promoting societal advantage in some way.  In contrast, a "vacation from morals" serves no purpose except that of pure recreation, of expending one's energies, no matter how actively or passively one may choose to do so.

The most prominent problem with emphasizing only the moral orientation of art is that it too usually winds up serving the ends of a particular group rather than of humanity as a whole.  In DEFININING PSEUDOFEMINISM PART 1 I demonstrates how two individuals, Dave Sim and Evie Nagy, evinced utterly polarized opinions on the value of a particular type of female-oriented fantasy, and yet backed up their respective opinions by caviling against images they found non-responsive to "reality" as each perceived it.

Any number of other examples are possible.  One might consider that William Faulkner, to the extent that he described the degradation of black people in the United States, attempted to show the reality behind racial myths.  Yet a racist writer like Thomas Dixon (author of the book adapted as BIRTH OF A NATION) surely thought that he too was representing reality in expressing his horror at mixed-race unisons.  Even many of the aforementioned Shakespeare's works-- MERCHANT OF VERNICE, MEASURE FOR MEASURE, and MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (just to stick with the "m's")-- are muddy in terms of their morality.

Perhaps the reason that even the Bard's morals can be suspect lies in the fact that art is never purely about moral compass; that it always incorporates aspects of escapism alongside the grimmest realism, a sense of play even in the dullest workaday art-worlds.  In THE BURNING FOUNTAIN Philip Wheelwright advances this fascinating analysis:

In expressive language... statements vary in respect to the manner and degree to which they are susceptible to affirmation and denial, ranging all the way from heavy assertorial tone, which characterizes the literal statement, the proposition, to light assertorial tone, which consists in an association or semi-affirmed tension between two or more images or other expressive units. 
I'm impressed enough by Wheelwright's discernment of these differing tones that I'm tempted to quasi-steal his insight: to say that my "works of thematic realism" are characterized by a greater degree of *assertorial gravity* than the opposing kind, while "works of thematic escapism" are characterized by a greater degree of *assertorial levity.*  Thus, one might say that while Shakespeare approached the sin of killing kings in MACBETH with a great deal of "assertorial gravity," he has less gravity (or knew that his customers would have less) regarding the right of Jews like Shylock to keep their religious persuasions.

But in standard moralistic criticism, there can be no separate principle of "assertorial levity," and so such a critic can only accuse Shakespeare, writer of the "Hath not a Jew" speech, of either being an anti-Semite or playing to anti-Semitism-- a dubious and over-ideological reading at best.

Returning to Bataille: if we start out from the presumption that Bataillean "expenditure"/recreation is the basis of the arts-- perhaps given some finessing via Cassirerean "expressivity" and Wheelwright's thoughts on different aspects of language-- then the tendency of human beings to desire "vacations from morals" can be better understood as the primary phenomenon that gives rise to art, with the use of art for rhetorical purposes coming in a close second, at least in a historical sense.

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