Culture Clash

Thumbs Up for “Three Masters”

My latest film criticism, “Three Masters: Spielberg, Anderson, Haneke, and Their Audience,” excerpted in the previous post, is recommended reading for the week at If that doesn’t get you to read, I don’t know what to do with you. (But I’ll think of something.)

A further excerpt:

In Saving Private Ryan, the film’s ultimate sentimentality, which sets it apart amid all of the hyperrealistic violence that is one mark of the anti-sentiment of the anti-war film,9 is Captain Miller’s dying charge to Ryan to “earn this.” Though Ryan expresses doubt in the final moments by asking his wife if he did, the audience has little doubt of the judgment. It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan, its raison d’être – it serves not a personal artistic vision but a social good – to validate the suffering and sacrifice of the World War II G.I. and claim that they all “earned it.” It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan in its public role to “redeem the horror of what [the American soldier] experienced — and, perhaps, as well, participated in — in patriotic honor. This is the purpose of the (pro) war film. Spielberg chose to present war more graphically than any (pro) war film ever had before and still declare that the right, good cause can justify it and expiate the essential human crime of it.”10

Among the minority who vociferously dissent from the general acclaim for Schindler’s List, the objection, beyond other particulars, is to the same sentimental closing affirmation, even about the Holocaust. Most viewers, perhaps some part of almost any viewer, wish to believe that even in the face of the Holocaust, life can be meaningfully renewed, that the full realization of the Holocaust’s occurrence can be integrated into a human existence the moral worth of which does not need forever to be doubted. Even after all that, and that kind of barbarity and death, we – not just we but actual survivors from the list, including Oskar Schindler’s widow Emilie – can pass in procession before his gravestone to the exquisitely emotive music of John Williams, drawn from the violin by Itzhak Perlman, and place a commemorative stone in profound grief and honor and – and what? Have learned? Be deeply moved and made better?

Read the rest here.

Enhanced by Zemanta
Culture Clash

Three Film Masters

My latest film criticism is available now at Bright Lights Film Journal. “Three Masters: Spielberg, Anderson, Haneke, and Their Audience” addresses the question, as the tag line has it: “Is the filmmaker tyrant, aesthete, ringmaster, or hermit?

It is commonly claimed by artists that they create for themselves. Wrote Stanley Fish, to whom I respond,”If a reader feels consoled or comforted, that’s all to the good, but it’s not what writing is about.” Fish called the consolation and comfort of art a “rationale for the act that was not internal to its demands, a rationale that could take the form of an external justification.”

“Of course,” said Fish, “the words refer to events in the world, including events I may have witnessed or experienced, but to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.”

I challenge this stance, here particularly with regard to three filmmakers whose consideration of their audience is discoverable in their filmmaking. Spielberg is a filmmaker commonly charged with pandering to his audience. Anderson and Haneke may be characterized, peculiarly, by antagonism to their audience. When an artist claims to create only for himself, yet sets his work before a public audience, what is one to make of that? Is it contempt? Is something more complex at work?

An excerpt:

The notions of “external justification” and “effects” are complicated by the thought that the reader, viewer, or listener is the artist himself. I think, of myself, for instance, that I write for an ideal reader, and that ideal reader is me, with my sensibility, only smarter, someone who can read – decode – without knowing, as the reader, everything I as the writer write, or encode, and more. I wish, then, to consider with regard to three modern filmmakers and their most recent (at this writing) films – Steven Spielberg and Lincoln, Paul Thomas Anderson and The Master, and Michael Haneke and Amour, all released in 2012 – where they stand, as filmmakers, in relation to “I write because making things out of words is what I feel compelled to do” and “to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.” Because the relationship of the filmmaker to his artistic act and also to his viewer is my focus, I wish very briefly to begin with their relationship to my viewership.

Remarkably, for completely different reasons, all three films are works I do not imagine ever viewing in their entirety again. Lincoln is a film I simply do not regard highly enough. I anticipate encountering it on television in the future and pausing to enjoy particular scenes, mostly for the pleasure of watching Daniel Day-Lewis’s extraordinary act of possession. I do not believe in the future that the film will be especially esteemed for more, though certainly its supporting performances are very fine too, and Tony Kushner’s screenplay offers a vivifying extraction of the personalities and politics.

While I have been an admirer of Anderson and think There Will Be Blood a magisterial achievement, I found The Master almost unbearable and nearly impossible to sit through, which I managed only out of cineastic duty. Despite the nearly universal critical encomia, I do not personally know a single individual who did not hate the film.

Of Amour, I can say that my disinclination ever to sit through the whole film again is based tellingly and contradictorily in Fish’s observation that “to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.” Toibin’s admiring readers had been profoundly touched by his artistic realization of their painful experiences, which is to say moved both by the artistry of the realization and by the painful fulfillment of the art’s effect. They did not separate the two. Nor I with Amour. My response to its artistry is refined to a form of admiration beyond only aesthetic pleasure, in which the bleakness of the emotional response is inseparable from the “value of the [filmmaking].” The aesthetic pleasure resides in the artistic compulsion of the craft, which is precisely to seek its “external justification” in the profound and painful verisimilitude of its effects.

Whatever Haneke is compelled to do with an image, with mise en scene, in for instance the closing shot of Isabelle Huppert’s Eva entering the apartment of her now dead parents and feeling their absence, the unsentimentalized empty space of their having vanished completely from the world, that compulsion is unfulfilled if the bleakness of Eva’s realization is not stunningly visited upon the viewer just as it is upon her.

Read the rest here.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Wrong on Both Counts: Academic Boycotts and Israel

boycott(An earlier version of this essay first appeared in the Algemeiner on December 30, 2013.)

Now that the American Studies Association has passed its resolution calling for an  academic boycott of Israel, universities and fellow academics all over the country are denouncing it. These and other critics of an academic boycott of Israel generally resort fully only to one of the two arguments that can and should be made in response to these calls. The first argument is principled, the second substantive, and one argument offered in the absence of the other deprives Israel of the ethical force of the full condemnation that those who traduce Israel in this way deserve.

There are those who restrict the anti academic boycott argument to addressing, in Stanley Fish’s words, “a limited, guild notion of academic freedom … the freedom to pursue scholarly inquiry, not the freedom to advance justice and equality on university time.” Fish begins in the right place, in citing “the freedom to pursue scholarly inquiry.” That freedom, like so many in so free a nation as the United States, is often taken for granted, its significance and origins lost, in this case, to the non-scholarly, the unscientific, or the anti-intellectual. Yet history’s most famous attack on intellectual freedom – the conviction by the Roman Catholic Church of Galileo Galilei for heresy, for propounding heliocentrism – should serve for all time as the sole necessary reminder of the importance of the principal. The freedom of scholarly and all intellectual inquiry is instrumental to the advance of civilization and was critical to the advent of the Enlightenment. It is basic to the intellectual activity that developed into academic guild work, into that merely, it might seem, professional work of the academic.

But Fish’s “limited guild notion” is just the workaday action of a more profound and, indeed, political idea.

Fish observed that his own critics, often in defense of academic boycott, were emphasizing the element of “freedom” over that of the “academic.” The latter does name the professional parameter, and that is where Fish wants to contain the argument. “Freedom” accentuated, on the other hand, is the leverage boycotters and activists use to bring the weight of their academic work to bear, as through a boycott, on political matters external to their actual scholarly fields. However, it is academic freedom, the two words emphasized equally together, that names neither the professional nor a possibly shifting political interest, but the greater political ideal instead, of individual freedom exemplified by mental freedom, of freedom of speech at the intellectual apex of thought and speech, and of independence from authority and authoritarianism.

To claim, then, that academic freedom is best conceived as a non-political freedom is fundamentally wrong. No advocacy of freedom can be non-political. To advocate freedom, as liberty, is to promote a political idea. The question is what are those politics? What do they fully stand for? What ends do they pursue? What methods do they use? With whom are they aligned, against whom opposed?

Conceiving academic freedom in this way, it will be difficult ever to defend an academic boycott. In the most closed and repressive conditions, the free mind, in sight of an opening, will seek its freedom. As no body is freed by imprisonment, no mind can be opened separated from other minds. Yet the American Studies Association has argued in its statement proclaiming the boycott that it “represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.” That is to say, as a political tactic to achieve a social end, the ASA advocates the restriction of a right (now, among some people) in advancement of the ideal goal of its greater enlargement (among others in the future). Restricting the academic freedom of some will expand the academic freedom of others.

This represents, of course, as a belief and a methodology, the purifying utopianism of twentieth century totalitarianism, in which dictatorships of the proletariat now would lead to human liberation later, terror in the present would found the stateless, classless society of the future. Such a concordance of practice is not surprising, as many of those driving the ASA’s activism, both from without and within the association, do think out of just that tradition of theoretical critique elevated above actuality, and of restrictive tactics in the name of a liberating ideal. Advocates of boycotts and the more general BDS effort have consistently manipulated the process and limited access during organizational efforts to pass anti-Israeli resolutions, they limit the notice of and the time for debate and voting, and they make available to potential voters information promoting only anti-Israel, pro-boycott arguments. These practices were pursued in the ASA effort, too. They are practices themselves that violate the spirit of intellectual freedom inherent in the idea of academic freedom.

Academic freedom thus understood, like all intellectual freedom, is not narrowly apolitical – it is the essence of the political. It is not a mere procedural norm, stripped of the history of intellectual striving that produced it; it is the representation in practice of that striving and of the history and values that gave rise to the principle.

The question, thus, as always, is not whether those values are political in nature, but whether they are the right politics – free thinking, egalitarian, just, and socially progressive politics. It was, indeed, the desire to promote just such values that directed the one boycott now raised regularly as our ethical exemplar, that against apartheid South Africa.

In truth, however, the boycott of South Africa, both economic and academic, was always controversial, if not, among most people and nations, regarding the justness of its intent, then for its effectiveness and potential for greater harm. We have the example of Cuba for how futile even the longest-term economic sanctions can be in opening a society to the free intercourse of people and ideas. We have the example of North Korea for how a nation may turn itself into a virtual prison for its own population and survive for decades as a closed society.

Still, not every act, we may sometimes feel, need be productive of an end. Some acts are properly symbolic. We stand for and against some things, and we will be known to do so, even if we see no reason to hope we can soon change them. So many people came to feel this way about South Africa.

We may usefully ask, though, why – why South Africa and not, for instance, the Soviet Union or China?

Certainly both nations oppressed and destroyed the lives of many more people. In sheer numbers of deaths and the magnitude of the inhumanity, those two nations far exceeded South Africa. Why were they not the objects of a now historic organized and global demonstration of worldwide opprobrium? The explanation is clear. Whatever their true tyrannical and totalitarian natures, both the Soviet Union and China professed principles of social equality and justness. They claimed to seek a new, greater human freedom of mind and body. They lied, of course, (as do lie all the decades-long Arab foes of Israel, including the Palestinian Authority, in invoking the vocabulary of human and civil rights in their political campaigning against Israel) but in the manner observed by Oscar Wilde, their hypocrisy was  the homage vice paid to virtue. The difference in South Africa’s was that its white, Afrikaner regime was avowedly racist. Institutionalized apartheid professed and enacted a belief and a policy of dehumanization against a discrete group within its population. By doing so, it openly declared South Africa a moral outlier among nations, fit thereby to be outcast.

For this reason, South Africa became the target of the contemporary world’s one great global boycott. While the USSR and China long had their allies, and defenders of their communist vision, no one defended South African apartheid.

In all these considerations we find the grounds for opposition in principle – with one clear and circumscribed exception – to academic boycotts. If one has no great interest in Israel, is even highly critical of Israel as a political actor, but retains a clear understanding of what academic freedom most profoundly means, then the argument in principle will serve and satisfy. But from the perspective of all who recognize the historicity of the Jewish people in Israel, who know the full history of Jewish willingness to compromise and accommodate competing claims to the land, and who know, too, the contrary history of Arab rejectionism and rank anti-Semitism, who are not blinded by animus to Israel’s vibrant democracy, in contrast to the utter illiberalism surrounding it – for all such people, an argument in principle cannot be sufficient, and is even a dereliction.

A boycott against Israeli academics and institutions is wrong not just because academic boycotts are very nearly always wrong, but because the argument for such a boycott applied to Israel is a moral outrage. While none actually argued in defense of South African apartheid – supported the philosophy or policy and upheld the moral character of the regime – free, good, and honest peoples all over the world recognize the free and democratic nature of the Israeli state. The know the historical background of its creation, and they offer moral support against its foes.

It is in the nature now of those swept along by the kinds of political currents that so often rush over the intellectually fashionable not to recognize what it must mean that Israel, even beleaguered, and so far from a South Africa or any of the true repressive states of the world, has its true defenders among the democratic and free.

It is no matter of happenstance that Israel’s traducers have adopted, among a variety of slanderously false epithets, that of  “apartheid state.” They seek with characteristic dishonesty to tie Israel linguistically to that sole justifying historical precedent. Among the many deceptions embedded in the lie is the analogously false suggestion of any institutional nature to the separate treatment of Palestinians that boycott advocates claim. It is, to the contrary, otherwise well known that the twenty percent minority Arab population of Israel is the freest Arab population in the Middle East, as free as any people in the world – free, too, to emigrate were it truly so that they find themselves persecuted.  In contrast, in the years after Israel’s recreation, nearly eight hundred thousand Jews fled Arab lands, leaving them now nearly absent of Jews; on the other hand, it is the expressed intention of Palestinian Authority leadership – in contradistinction to another great lie, demographically refutable, of ethnic cleansing by Israel – that a Palestinian state would be, as the Nazi’s called it, Judenfrei.

The boldness of these lies, the magnitude of their deception, stuns the imagination not only of Israelis and Jews, but of all honest and informed people, and what follows are only more lies and deceptions, without limit. The deception, for instance, that where Palestinians do confront impediments to full autonomy, it is not within Israel, as an institutionally separated and oppressed population as was present in South Africa, but on disputed territories captured in war, as a belligerent foreign population that has refused, amid a near century of massacres, wars, and campaigns of terror, ever to make peace. The deception aht the organized campaign for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, with whose U.S. arm the ASA now allies in mutual support, has as its most well known founder Omar Barghouti, who is equally well known, in full academic freedom, to have earned a masters degree in philosophy from Tel Aviv University.

That Barghouti, far from seeking resolution to conflict, opposes any negotiated settlement to it and supports the elimination of Israel as a state.

The campaign of lies to which the American Studies Association has now allied itself only begins with these examples. As the world’s current prevailing example of the infamous “big lie,” this iteration’s provenance is the same, and now three American academic associations, of which the ASA is the largest, serve as purveyors of it. Influenced, in part, by theoretical constructs that have become, in application, completely untethered from reality, these academics add now not their scholarly contributions, but their measure of ill to the world. To counter this foolish contribution, this signal misguidance, it is no longer adequate to argue only from principle, however great we think that principle to be, that academic boycotts are wrong. It is necessary to argue firmly and clearly that an academic boycott of Israel is wrong. It is important to know and to state, without faltering, why it is wrong.


Enhanced by Zemanta
Culture Clash The Political Animal

Perspective, Ideology, and Academic Freedom

Immanuel Kant developed his own version of the...
Immanuel Kant, Image via Wikipedia

In an essay at The New York Times online, We’re All Conservatives Now, Stanley Fish seeks to reconcile the concerns of both Right and Left about the American university. Contrasting the complaints of the right wing David Horowitz to the the left wing visions offered in the recent “Academic Freedom in the Post-9/11 Era” (edited by Edward J. Carvalho and David B. Downing, and bringing together the righteous and the repellent), Fish finds a commonality of esteemed virtues.

What this means is that despite the point-counterpoint accusations of betrayal, corruption and anti-intellectualism (charges hurled by each party at the other), the left and the right are after the same thing, and it turns out to be just what Immanuel Kant urged in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” (1784) when he answered his title question by declaring that “enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity,” an immaturity marked by his reliance on the pre-packaged guidance of others as opposed to the exercise “of his own rational capacities.”

Mankind, says Kant, must constantly labor to “expand its knowledge . . . to rid itself of errors, and generally to increase its enlightenment.” No one in the Carvalho-Downing volume or on Horowitz’s side of the street would dissent.

This is, unfortunately, a little too easy. Sure, it is to the good that both sides can agree at this level of generalization. There are, in fact, extreme elements on the Right, still, who find intellectual virtue in pre-Enlightenment religious doctrine and in the volk. There are extremes on the Left, rationalizers of the Islamist critique of the West, who now challenge Enlightenment principles. But it is in the application of these general principles of education that the two sides disagree, and it is at the level of application that we live. Fish offers, insufficiently examined, the perfect example.

But the right is right to point out that the faculty who work within these ever-more-pinched spaces are predominantly liberal and have over the years created “new inter-disciplinary fields whose inspirations were ideological and closely linked to political activism” (Horowitz, “Reforming Our Universities”). (Of course, the fact that a course of study was born out of ideological/political concerns doesn’t mean that instruction in its materials is necessarily ideological and political; any subject matter, whatever its origin, can be taught from an appropriately academic perspective.)

What exactly is meant by “new inter-disciplinary fields whose inspirations were ideological and closely linked to political activism”? Most obviously, this would mean various distinct fields of cultural study, e.g. African-American studies, Latino Studies, and gender studies, but also, more generally, culture studies itself and postcolonial studies, as well as literary and critical theory. Fish is right to make the point that “the fact that a course of study was born out of ideological/political concerns doesn’t mean that instruction in its materials is necessarily ideological and political” – but what exactly does it mean for the instruction in a field of study born of ideology not to be taught ideologically? In the most neutral sense, this might mean that instruction would acknowledge the ideologically contested nature of the field and present a course of study that explored the range of contested issues. That would be a perfectly legitimate approach, though it is difficult to imagine at the college level an instructor sufficiently trained and expert in the field of gender studies, for instance, who would not, by that virtue, be someone who embraced rather than disputed or was even neutral regarding the field’s inciting ideas.

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883)
Image via Wikipedia

Here is a different sense of instruction that is not, in Fish’s words, “necessarily ideological and political,” that can be offered “from an appropriately academic perspective.” I have made the point a number of times recently that one need not be, strictly speaking, a postcolonialist – in the most commonly expressed, fully ideological sense of the term – in order to recognize a range of historical truths about the colonial era and the necessity of a postcolonial understanding and vision of world affairs. One does not need be a Marxist (despite the simpleminded propagandizing of a Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh) to recognize a range of legitimacy in the Marxist critique of capitalism. One can even still be a capitalist. Neutral does not mean without perspective. The truth is a perspective, in contrast to the lie; perspective does not necessarily mean bias or completely subjective relativity. It is a fundamental error of journalistic practice to believe that reportorial “objectivity” requires that the political corruptions or falsifications of the tyrant – or even of the democratically-elected sanctioner of torture – be reported on an equal basis with the known truth, without “perspective,” or without pointed contrast to established and well-supported political and moral virtues.

It is the political argument – the ideological argument – of the Right, to claim that only the fields of academic study that existed before some imaginary demarcation in time are non-ideological, representative of a halcyon era of  pure education. To claim that the special nature of specifically African-American history and culture in the United States – previously unintegrated into general study outside of its marginalization in victimhood – does not warrant, therefore, a specialized field of study by virtue of that prior exclusion, and the reasons for it – that is not to oppose ideologically-driven education. That is too promote it. The opposition to so obviously, conceptually well-founded a field of study is itself profoundly ideological. The pretense by the Right that the world, the academic world, before the 1960s was non-ideological is ideological.

Diagram over ideological standpoints and the p...
Image via Wikipedia

Does the arguably ideological nature of both sides of the divide mean they are equal – merely self-limiting perspectives without any claim to truth? No. These are the disputes of mere decades. The history of civilization has included combat on the field and the contest of ideas. The very fact of the contest does not make both sides the same or equal. The judgments of reason and experience will be made over time. Once, to be black in this country was to be discounted and inferior. Once, to be gay was to be hidden from view and inferior, in the military too. As of yesterday, that is no longer so, and never will be again, though there will always remain those who contest these changes and claim therefore they are not true – that those who seek not to stand still, but in Kant’s words, to rid the world “of errors, and generally to increase its enlightenment” are ideological.


Enhanced by Zemanta