3 mar. 2010

Gerald Graff makes an argument in the 2008 or 2009 issue of Profession that it doesn't matter what we read so much as how we read: in other words, texts of little or no intrinsic value lend themselves just as well to formulating acceptable academic-style arguments as works of great literature. He develops a rather trivial argument about Vanna White's autobiography in order to prove his point. He does concede that trivial texts cannot serve the purpose of learning to make such arguments. In other words, literary critics can make sophisticated arguments about trivial texts because they have first learned to make sophisticated arguments about sophisticated texts.

Now anyone who knows how I think will predict that I will disagree strongly with Graff. The main point is not to make an argument that might count as acceptable to the academic community, but to transform our reactions to the best products of the human intelligence into meaningful arguments that actually contribute to the appreciation of these products. In other words, it's what we read, or listen to, or look at, that is fundamental. Almost any serious reception of a great work is worthy of being transformed into a scholarly argument. It doesn't matter *how* we read in this sense, as long as we follow the general principle of receptivity: being available for the work to make an impact on us. Works of art teach us how to receive them, so we don't really have to worry about how we read at all.

We do have to worry about how we construct our arguments about our reception in order to make them meaningful and convincing in the academic environment--or wherever they are received. In other words, we can't just appeal to the meaningfulness or our response. As scholars, it is our responsibility to articulate these things.

This is not an argument for studying or not studying any particular thing. The ethos of receptivity entails a potential openness to everything. It does mean, however, that the value of the work is in the response to the work itself--not in the trivial fact that you can develop an argument about a work while conceding no value at all to it. Otherwise, literary criticism is just an exercise in making arguments about anything, or nothing in particular.

This is the difference between cultural studies that views its products as shit, essentially, but argues that there is relevant information to be found in this shit (there is nothing wrong with this approach, except that it leaves the hierarchy between high culture and popular shit wholly intact; It's Hamlet or Vanna White) and the approach to popular culture that is actually receptive to the aesthetic value of popular culture.