by carl wilson

Mao Now, Brown Cow?

Simon uses me as a test case in his passionate argument for a Nietzschean "strength" (as opposed to pussyish Last Man hall-of-mirrors historicism), saying my Celine Dion project is a doomed exercise in "fretful self-cancellation" and that "at the end of his investigation Carl might find himself back where he started: repelled by Dion's music and, despite his better intentions, thinking less of her fans." Celine's crappiness, he says, is "an assumption worth leaving unexamined." To examine it is to send yourself to the aesthetic equivalent of a Maoist reeducation camp.

John kindly comes to my (and his own) defence. (And, later, Dave goes at it too.) I can only say that Simon isn't finding the flaw in my experiment, but precisely its theme. It cannot "fail" because I am at least as attracted to the outcome that Celine Dion's music is irredeemable shit as to the outcome that it's not. (What's oppressive about Maoist re-education and auto-critique is that there is only one acceptable answer.) However, I am unhappy about the gulf between those aesthetic reflexes and the opposite reflexes of millions of other people to whom I don't consider myself superior (many cultural cues to the contrary), and who never, despite the most articulate persuasions I might muster, will agree with me. And yet there is the axiom: "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything." Aesthetically I'm not so bothered by the idea of "falling for" (falling in love with) just about anything. However, I have grave concerns about the prospect that, "If you'll fall for anything, you can't stand for something."

There are many things I love beyond life in the realm of art, and am compelled to champion. There is very little that I have ever loved artistically that I do not still love, with the exception of some adolescent-boy clever-clever stuff that turned out to be rather hollow. But I have had the experience again and again of realizing that when I disliked things it was because I just didn't get them. And then realizing how rich and wonderful they were. Country and disco being my two signal examples. I have had the experience of my aesthetic instincts being wrong over and over again. So how do I know when they are right? The answer is probably that I can't, so for a period of time I want to immerse myself in that not-knowing with some concentration. My hypothesis is that whatever the outcome this immersion will be like tuning an instrument, like playing scales for hours a day, like sitting meditation. But I am not afraid, when the exercise is over, of returning to a provisional, pragmatic practice of going with my instincts and my beliefs, of loving what I feel compelled to love and objecting to (but, sorry, not hating) what I don't. But I don't see any honorable or authentic course other than to follow the line of critical thought where it leads, and this radical uncertainty is where it's landed me. I find no heroism in choosing the unexamined life, no value in blindered white-light-white-heat. (This is a poem called Why I Am Not A Punk.)

But I call bullshit on this complaint: "anti-rockism is the attempt to remove an aesthetico-moral framework from music discussion." Only literally true: It's an attempt to remove one aesthetico-moral framework, entirely on aesthetico-moral grounds: It posits that rockism has boring aesthetics and inhabits a social fantasy that is in fact morally dangerous, in which visionary Supermen are meant to lead the masses, who are distracted by their corrupt bodies (bodies that are too young, too old, too female, too gay, too repressed, too sexual, etc.) from true engagement with the pure rebel mind - with the help of the Superman they may be shown the way to enlightenment. It precisely is modernist vanguardism. The 20th century has provided us with all the experiments we need to know what is morally wrong with modernist vanguardism, despite its notable aesthetic triumphs. (And its even more frequent, misguided, pathetic aesthetic messes, which litter every bohemian scene.) Though I share the thrilled shiver that comes from hearing it, I am no longer "on the side" of the rhetoric of hanging Peter Frampton from a lamppost, even symbolically - partly because killing a symptom is no kind of a cure, partly because humanity has proved rather adept at literalizing its most vulgar symbologies.

Unfortunately this critique doesn't offer a positive program, a set of critical yardsticks to substitute for the old warped one. This is a problem which it has in common with the left, more broadly; politically, the only plausible responses that have emerged have been those that employ a range of analytic tools in a contextualized dialectic to aim at best guesses at what will produce the most desirable outcomes, or "good enough" outcomes, to use the psychoanalytic catchphrase. The abandonment of any all-purpose formulae. And we all agree there's something unsatisfying about this. In the pro-pop traffic with populism, in its retreat into subjectivism, and so on. It may simply be that a broadly workable aesthetico-moral framework is yet to come. But to take a stance for the sake of taking a stance - that is, to take up an aesthetico-moral framework because it makes you feel better to take it up - is wanking off, with a very weak relationship to critical or political responsibility.

I share Simon's worry that it is difficult to write well without such a grounding. But in myself I recognize it as a status fear - that I will lose critical power (status and success and money and all that shit) if I'm not aggressive and sarcastic and definitive and annihilating. Luckily, there's a wealth of good writing in philosophy and criticism and most of all in literature (let's start with Kafka) that tells me you can write from uncertainty. You don't have to posture on some fictional knowingness in order to write beautifully and justly and wisely. And beauty, justice and wisdom, much more than power - these are the qualities that fucking move me.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, June 02 at 2:25 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)



There's no avoiding the fact that everything one does has some self-interest and status-seeking attached to it, though I do hope to be frank in the book that I am *not* that open-minded, but that I'm not sure what to make of the strong aesthetic biases I do have.

(And sure, the readers I care most about don't respond to superficial flashiness, authority demonstration, etc. But then there are those other readers or potential readers who would - that itch to reach a bigger audience with one's message or just for more recognition. Again, not impulses I'm necessarily proud of, but they exist.)

I don't want to go too much into the other points, but yes, the book would be sociological to a degree, and will involve audience research. But it's also not an academic treatise - I don't feel the need to *prove* anything irrefutably, just to advance the conversation. The fact that different people like different things - no shocker. But in terms of critical or music-aficionado claims of aesthetic knowledge and insight, it poses this basic problem, of aesthetic and social subjectivity. The goal isn't to defeat the problem but to explore ways of addressing it.

Posted by zoilus on June 6, 2006 6:22 PM



Hey Carl,

I keep coming back to this post/subject!

> However, I am unhappy about the gulf between those aesthetic reflexes and the opposite reflexes of millions of other people to whom I don't consider myself superior (many cultural cues to the contrary), and who never, despite the most articulate persuasions I might muster, will agree with me.

This is a big stumbling block for me about this project. Maybe Iím just complacent by nature or something, but the fact that millions of people might dig something that a much smaller number of other people consider worthless doesnít strike me as an especially puzzling, notable, or interesting phenomenon.

For example, itís hard to imagine a literary critic deciding that they need to do a year of soul-searching in hopes of coming to terms with The Da Vinci Codeís popularity.

(And yes, thereís a recent tradition of scholarly scrutiny of the least-respected bits of our culture, but it tends to be sociological in its focus, not aesthetic, right?)

One thing I'm curious about: do you plan to try to identify, in some methodical way (ie surveys, interviews, etc.), what exactly it IS those millions of Celine fans are getting out of Let's Talk About Love?

I also find that this bit keeps nagging at me:

> a status fear - that I will lose critical power (status and success and money and all that shit) if I'm not aggressive and sarcastic and definitive and annihilating.

It's hard to believe that the readers whose opinions you respect the most actually expect those things from you. And in fact one could argue that the Celine project looks just as much like a seeking of status as a rejection of it: "You want to talk open-minded? I have the openest mind of all!"

I'm not trying to question your good faith or anything, I'm just curious as to how much this has crossed your mind.


Posted by DW. on June 6, 2006 5:30 PM



I'm not sure, Peli. To my mind the anti-rockist argument is that rockism's values are too narrow and exclusive, not necessarily wrong as far as they go. That's the tedious aspect of the ongoing argument. It's not about polar opposites. It's not about making rock music the enemy - it's that (some) rock fans have misidentified their enemy. Some people want to make more of it than it can bear.

Posted by zoilus on June 5, 2006 12:31 PM



HI Carl,

What I find to be problematic about Mild Anti-Rockism (The Rock-fan's Anti-Rockism), posited as a moral rather than purely aesthetic paradigm, is this: It challenges the act of considering people who have rejected certain social behaviours and crafted others (Rock Idols, let us call them) to be leading a superior creative life, without attempting to defend the values Rock Idols are hailed for rejecting, or attack the values Rock Idols are hailed for supporting.
What I'm trying to get at is that as far as the ethical side is concerned, when Rock people denounce Rockism without completely changing their outlook on life, they don't actually change their value judgements, only their value judgements regarding having these value judgements.

In an attempt to paraphrase more cleanly: If one attacks Rockism (he uplifting of those who manifest Rock values) without attacking the Rock values, one really just ends up with a coy and self loathing elitism instead of a wider outlook. I don't think that's the case with you at all, and I don't think the Anti-Rockism case isn't valid, but I think some explication in that area is missing to make the thread of though you present solid.

Posted by Peli Grietzer on June 4, 2006 6:43 PM



Good question, DW. Of course it happens. But as I say, very little. There was a Floyd/Zappa period right in that 14-15-year-old period, and I now find that stuff incredibly tedious, ditto a couple of things like Robyn Hitchcock solo stuff (I still love the Soft Boys though). I was overdevoted to Salinger, but I still like him. Surrealism in general. (These are all incredibly typical examples, no?) I was a ridiculously serious aesthete as a teenager. But overall I've been lucky to have some excellent guidance at the right moments; more often, I've rediscovered things I became overcritical about in my young adulthood, and realized I was closer to being "right" about them the first time around. However, I often value works to different degrees and for different reasons in different times (including nostalgia, which I'm less and less "guilty" about). Perhaps I am overly forgiving, but I find that a richer experience than the reverse.

Posted by zoilus on June 4, 2006 5:21 PM



Hey Carl,

This part amazes me (and I mean "amazes" in a non-challenging, totally value-neutral way):

> There is very little that I have ever loved artistically that I do not still love, with the exception of some adolescent-boy clever-clever stuff that turned out to be rather hollow.

You've really almost never listened to something you loved back in the day & wondered what you saw in it? Or realized that you no longer value the things you did see in it?

Posted by DW. on June 4, 2006 2:07 PM



Hey Carl,

Been reading Zoilus for some time--and thoroughly enjoying it. I'm very much looking forward to your Celine experiment. One of my colleagues in the English Department here at the University of Detroit Mercy advocates for reading "against the grain"; for trying to figure out the general ideology of a text (Huck Finn, say) and positioning yourself against the way that text pushes you. Not rejecting it, but not falling into step with its worldview. Finding those spots where the text wants you to nod in silent agreement and resisting that.

I don't think this is exactly what you're up to with Celine, but I love the idea of reading against our own passions, our own likes and dislikes. The best music, books, movies, etc. have, I think, these sort of gaps built into them that allow us some space to embrace them, even if we hate them. Or to reject them, even if we love them. That's what's so sweetly sad, for me at least. The things that I love the most (for instance old De Palma films) have these blind spots or blank spaces or gaps that allow me to mount an attack on them, no matter how close I feel to them.

Anyway, looking forward to the book.

Posted by Nick on June 3, 2006 4:12 PM



read Simon's piece, and I thought: cool, I like this, I can see why you need something more than bland poptimistic hoohaw...

read yours, and remembered why I like your criticism! Passionate and honest (from this side, at least) about your own aesthetic experiences, and still willing to examine them.

Posted by andrew on June 3, 2006 2:44 AM




If you only knew how much I'm stealing from your site comments for my next novel you'd demand a point or two.

Posted by Brian on June 3, 2006 12:57 AM



I will have to return to this when it is not 2am (then again, is there ever a better time?), but your last paragraph made me think hard, and in silence, for long starlit moments.


Posted by Sean on June 2, 2006 7:59 PM



Lovely - talk about aesthetic morality! Thanks for that post Carl. I commented on it on mine today.

Posted by Ali on June 2, 2006 6:42 PM



Ditto that. I wish I had time to respond to both j-shaw and Simon. But I don't.

Btw, saw Frog Eyes the other night. Pretty cool.

Posted by j-lon on June 2, 2006 5:42 PM



Great post, Carl. My "defense" of you was hasty & general. By saying I'd thought you'd succeed, I didn't mean to say that you would necessarily succeed in loving Celine's music; only that you would succeed in doing interesting thinking & writing in the process, and succeed in not scorning her fans. The first being a "critical" success, the second being a -- more important -- "human" and even "political" success.

Posted by john on June 2, 2006 3:49 PM



Hey, Carl. Very interesting. I'm curious. Do you know of any critic in another discipline who's attempted a similar project to your Celine one? Say, a re-consideration of Harlequin romances as literature? While I'm not prepared to say that any assumption is "worth leaving unexamined", when it comes to listening and writing about to Celine Dion... well, better you than me, Carl.

Posted by Nick on June 2, 2006 3:41 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson