One of my favourite stand-up comedians, as I may well have mentioned before, is the late Bill Hicks. As with many things, the fanbase surrounding Hicks and his work can often get a little over-zealous, proclaiming him as a comedy messiah or preacher, and reciting his lines to the extent that a lot of people frown at the acolytes and understandably feel a bit wary of looking at the work in question. I’ve often averred that fans are the worst advert for their passions, and I think that this is pretty easily demonstrated – your average Rocky Horror Show fan, or the chap who quotes Monty Python sketches in the pub (as John Hannah does in ‘Sliding Doors’ much to the delight of those around him, which is at odds with anything I’ve ever seen) is unlikely to attract people to the subject matter.
But I digress, as the reason I refer to Hicks is that, probably a couple of decades ago now, he said “I’ve noticed a certain anti-intellectualism in this country”, and as a fan of both Hicks and the idea that we should use our brains wherever possible, I always feel a little uncomfortable when saying things which have the ring of anti-intellectualism about them. And the following definitely has that, so please bear in mind it’s written with a distinct feeling of ‘is it just me, or ..?’ about it.
For a while now, I’ve been wondering about things like literary theories and critical approaches, and keep coming to the semi-conclusion that, well, really, they don’t add a great deal to the sum of human knowledge. There seem to be a variety of ways of analysing a ‘text’ (and this word appears to apply to films as well as the printed word, oddly enough), many of which seem to relate to the issue of Cognitive Relativism – a theory which basically suggests that the veracity of something is relative to an individual or group. One theory, known as the Intentional Fallacy, states that the author’s intention is irrelevant when it comes to assessing the literary or aesthetic merits of a text. These are simplistic examples, I’ll freely admit, and you can easily find much more involved theories and approaches – here’s an example – but I want to be honest and admit that I’ve only dabbled in the shallowest ends of this big pool of thought; possibly because – see above – a lot of the advocates of these theories frankly scare me with their choices of words and ferocity of conviction.
The problem I have with all these approaches is one which can be summed up in another quote from Bill Hicks, and which sums up my feelings in four words: “Yeah, and so what?”
My feelings on this clearly go back a long way, as I recall a conversation at college where my then-girlfriend told me about her English course:
ME: But … but we don’t need any more critics. We need creators.
Subtext and metaphor and irony and the like are all very well indeed, but they have to be the cream on the cake or the sizzle on the steak; there needs to be a story (or, at the very least, series of events) for these to rest on. I’ve nothing against considering the possibility that Hamlet fancies his Mum as the reason for his hatred of his uncle, but that has to be a side issue compared with analysis of actual, specified events within the play. The danger of Cognitive Relativism is that, taken to its logical conclusion, it allows pretty much any interpretation of any piece of art to have equal merit and weight when compared with the opinions of the creator, which is odd at best, and strangely rude at worst.
Theorising run amok – and on this occasion overlapping with the world of science – was flagged up (and to my mind brilliantly skewered) by the physicist Alan Sokal in 1996. He felt that a lot of modern critics and philosophers were quoting scientific material (especially in relation to quantum physics) sloppily, and without regard to whether it actually made any sense. So, to see how true this might (or might not) be, he wrote a paper called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, basically cobbling together a whole load of science and philosophy to lead to a daft conclusion, albeit one phrased convincingly.
Sokal submitted it to a cultural studies journal, Social Text, who published it, despite it containing bizarre assertions such as “It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical “reality”, no less than social “reality”, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct” (as Sokal commented when revealing the hoax, “anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. [I live on the twenty-first floor.]”).
Suffice to say, when revealed, Sokal’s prank was not entirely popular with the people he was parodying and poking fun at, and I suspect this is more than partly because he pointed out to them that much of what they do is, essentially, of limited value. Indeed, there’s an old – and surprisingly knowing – joke that the politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low. Though if someone’s effectively pointed out (as Sokal did) that your academic stance is bogus, it might put your livelihood in jeopardy, which does make the stakes rather more real, and substantially higher.
(Aside: Sokal’s book following the inevitable brouhaha, Intellectual Impostures, is an even more comprehensive demolition of sloppy theorising, but I must admit my brain started aching after several chapters, mainly because of the insanity of the ideas that Sokal and his co-writer were dismantling; if you want a more readable book on this theme, I highly recommend How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World by Francis Wheen.)
As one who’s keen to make his living from the written word, I may well be slightly jealous of those people who are able to do so more as a result of commenting on or theorising about existing works, but I truly and sincerely believe that the time and effort expended in training the next generation of critics would be much more profitably pointed in the direction of the creation of new material.
Simply put, would you rather be Samuel Johnson or James Boswell?