"That's just stupid-butt, and everybody knows it."

by Carl Dyke

This is the shorter version of what Rachel told me when she read the ideology, pt. 2 post on how to write and place academic articles. She kind of went on a stomp about how Graham’s advice looked pretty good to her and maybe if I followed it rather than picking at it, I’d get more of my smartness out into the world; which she is kind and partisan enough to think of as an unqualified good.

We talked quite a lot about the world of art, which is also full of crap pumped out on the theory that getting stuff out there is the way to get stuff out there. Rachel doesn’t like looking at buckets of landscapes in lurid purple acrylic any more than the next guy. She especially doesn’t like the awkward polite conversations with those artists when they want to go on about how great their stuff is. But she noted that there’s a large market for bad landscapes, and that it’s part of what enables a smaller market for good art. She talked about the status dynamics of connoisseurship, which is always dependent on a contrast space in which what’s good becomes evidently so only in relation to what’s bad. She was partly mollified on these points by my second post in the series.

Gamely trying to wiggle me into shape, Rachel pointed out that good stuff doesn’t get done unless you’re doing stuff in the first place, to which I had no good reply. She agreed with Graham that what he calls ‘alibis’ and we call ‘getting in your own way’ are always available in paralyzingly high quality standards. I agreed from ample personal experience, but objected that there’s no reason to believe in an alchemy where a recipe for crap suddenly produces a gourmet delight, nor that the world is a better place with more crap in it. She talked about painting landscapes as part of a process to master the craft. I pointed out that artists who are going to be good later very quickly stop painting ‘just’ landscapes; their mastery of the form involves questioning and putting twists on it right from the start. She had to agree with this.

Granting finally that Graham was offering a paint-by-numbers for philosophical landscapes, Rachel pondered the propriety and utility of saying so. She’s polite about other artists’ landscapes as a matter of professional and human courtesy. I pointed out that Graham was not just practicing a style, he was offering to teach it to others. If the style is objectionable, all the more so its propagation. Rachel admitted that she knows some very bad artists who are quite successful teachers, to the general detriment. But she doubted that their eager students would have received a better instruction successfully and supposed that talent will eventually find its outlet.

Continuing on the theme of critique, its utility and grounds, Rachel noted that no one is so reviled in the art world as an art critic (warning: incredibly tasteless Kliban cartoon) who can’t actually do art. She wanted to distinguish doers from thinkers about doing. I pointed out that like Graham, what I do is think, so if thinking doesn’t count as doing we’re both hosed. Nevertheless, I’m vulnerable here since one of my objections to Graham’s paper recipe was that it depended on a kind of ultimately arbitrary and self-referential thinking about thinking about thinking, which means all I’m doing is thinking about thinking about thinking about thinking.

Chastened but not defeated, I held out for the utility and propriety of critique even in such rarified atmosphere, on the grounds that if standards are available at all, less bad is good. I suggested that there are four main ways of identifying and publicizing the good, the first two involving critique (understanding a full critique to include both criticism and appreciation, as I learned from Marx and think was the case in my post): critique of others’ methods; critique of others’ content and conclusions; pointing at something better; doing something better. And while I grant that the latter two are by far the best, they’re not always immediately available or well-targeted. Marx never did finish Capital.

Rachel and I didn’t exactly agree in the end; she still thinks I should be writing and publishing more, by any means necessary. Which would be fine with me, I’m just not drawn to pumping out crap and fortunately I don’t have to. But writing these posts did cause a stimulating discussion with a delightful smartie, not to mention the great online commentary; so for me, that purpose at least has been well served.


5 Responses to “"That's just stupid-butt, and everybody knows it."”

  1. Great insight into a discussion, and I really do like the comparison to a making works of art. I think there is something to be said here in regards to the illusion that either paper generates (gee, those are rather interesting and signfiicant points, how did you come up with them), or a painting produces (wow, I see that part of the world differently). There are techniques for instance on how to make fabric look like fabric, or how to give space a certain construction, or the human body a kind of naturalistic ratio, things you can pass down to students (though I recall that Van Gogh bucked the first time when told at a painting academy that hips simply aren’t drawn “that way”, he didn’t last long). But I think you pointed this out, Carl, in your criticism of reading techniques. When one ends up “thinking through” your techniques, your easy methods of production, suddenly your compositional sensibility starts to lean towards what is achievable in your techniques. When you think, “What is it I should paint?” the answer becomes quickly confused with “What is easy to paint?” Soon, your techniques are painting for you, picking your subject matters, filtering out what is less clearly obvious. And if you receive reward for this system, all for the worse. And verily much of this does occur unconsciously. But I think that there is even greater danger when you start to identify with the smartness of your techniques, you esteem them in their own right, and come to identify yourself with them.

    But what is the worst of this is that the very success of such techniques, such shorthands, prevents a crticism of the system or conditions that make them successful. They are accomodations, and can dull the reason why one thinks/paints in the first place.

    Techniques can be wonderful things, something that frees the hand to a certain autonomy wherein it can create within an expected framework of action. But when there are merely techniques for how to give the illusion of deep and significant thought, the shorthand for the marks of experiences. I’m not sure that something good comes there.

    I mean Zizek complains all the time that he cannot even write the kind of books he would like to (the get no recognition), and Woody Allen has become a tireless trope, grimace and yuk machine. Hemmingway began to write like a hack. Are philosophy classes to becomes like Rodin stuidios, but without the majesty? Artisan houses of text production: How to write a review of books? How to mix your talk in with a the reading for a coming paper? How to draw a connection between a contemporary and Classic thinker?

    In any case it is good to see your continuing thought process on the topic. Thanks.

  2. Addendum thinking, perhaps compare Graham’s advice for how to produce a philosophy paper, with Latour’s examination of the “aura” of originality in the age of extremely accurate digtal reproduction of works of art:

    “The Migration of the Aura – Exploring the Original Through Its Facsimiles” (2008)

    Click to access 108-ADAM-FACSIMILES-AL-BL.pdf

    Latour makes the Benjamin-friendly point that it is the change of intensity of labor, and the gap in techniques or processes, that renders a copy as only a mere copy (and engenders a sense of the “original”). Interestingly, if all students were armed with some of Graham’s techniques and rapidly producing texts of a quality of ease, by the same logic of value, the very sense of original thought, that is thought that would inspire copious reproduction and influence, would seem threatened.

    This has some indirect comment upon your artist friend’s thinking. One wants to produce something worth copying, worth imitating, worth imitating, worth reproduction. Something copious. When it is techniques that are copied, one has to ask, just what is being reproduced.

  3. “… if standards are available at all, less bad is good.”
    i’ll be quoting this at some point… or *stealing* it…


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