josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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19 Jan '13 08:40:27 AM

One of the things I learned from coming into contact with so many good critics—many of them amateur, at the time—in the late 90s and early 00s is just how hard good criticism can be; how much knowledge, obtained at the cost of both close and widely scattered attention, it takes just to be able to really hear or see something well enough to be able to put into words what is being attempted, let alone to be able to say anything useful about what this means or what its failure or success means.

At the time, just while I was first being inducted into 'professional' life, and thinking much more about aesthetics and criticism and how they're done in the academy, this difficulty of doing criticism preoccupied me especially because I also thought a lot about high/low and art/popular divides. Resented them, even. Not so much on behalf of anything I loved (though I did), as on account of the shabby neglect that usually backed the reflex disdain or condescension toward anything 'popular'. This was the sort of neglect that precludes thought, reflection on one's experiences, or even openness to having or admitting to the experiences. I remember sitting at a conference in a large meeting of philosophers, aestheticians (!), where to make a point the speaker tried to insist that Prince (we were in Minneapolis) might very well be better than Bach, and the reaction that predominated in the room—in the mood, I guess—was something like, be serious.

But don't serious people talk it out? Don't they have a look at what can be said? Don't they explore, if words are lacking, how one might put into words experiences for which words haven't yet been found, or perhaps for which the need has not yet been thought pressing enough?

I'm thinking about this because of something that's been on my mind lately, preoccupied by my unsuccessful life. I have found one reason, at least, for my resentment, which is otherwise liable to bleed out onto other aspects of life, other objects, for I suppose understandable reasons. That is the feeling that if I fail, if I can't survive the wait for work that suits me, if I can't teach, my life will have been wasted. Not—I think—in the sense that I will have spent time and energy, invested myself, for nothing, to no return. I've liked a lot of what I've done with my time, my life, since I was a kid. Or it seemed natural to me, or I didn't too much mind the grid of academic incentivizing laid over it. No: it will be that my culture will have wasted my life, that what it could have gotten from me will have been squandered, thrown away.

I don't mean the self-aggrandizing tone that that seems to carry with it. I doubt that I am going to 'contribute to culture' and it seems pretty suspect to want to try anyway. (I think you should just do what you do, and if anything comes of it, it comes of it.) But isn't the whole point of this intensive focus on ideas, on words, on works, on oneself, that it can lead to growth? And growth for one can be growth for another. It needn't be. But isn't that one of the premises of the interest in 'culture' that our educational institutions take? To meet the past to meet the future. To see what we can do with what we've been given. (At a certain level, at a certain point, who gives it? Books and teachers.)

One of the reasons I'm not successful is that I divide my attention, my time, my self, too much. If I had the particular sort of ambition called for, if I could stand the unwavering focus or could make it fruitful for my purposes, then sure, maybe I could just spend every spare moment of the next six months on one of my unfinished papers on Schopenhauer or Nietzsche or Cavell, as (my academic friends counsel) is required for success in such a hyper-competitive market. And maybe if that was how it worked; but I really don't think it does. That sort of idealized monomania might be effective, even fruitful, for intellectual partisans who feel some need to defend or defeat, and for anyone driven by private fixations to pursue their embodiment in the form of 'a publication'. But once, at least, we weren't meant to be laboring; we were at leisure, we thought at leisure. I need time to take things in, let things strike me, gather my thoughts over a long period of time, let them come into contact with others, let myself be reminded of contexts in which the thoughts might have some value. To read a book like it's a book, and not a bible, and then to read it so carefully that it might as well be a bible, and then give myself time to shake off the distortions introduced by doing that. To have time to read it because it interests me, for what interests me—or to discover what I might be interested in—and out of earshot of what is said to be important, interesting, worth the time of serious people. To read like a person.

Good critics read like people; look, watch, listen, like people. What they have to do in order to do that is, like I said, difficult; it bears lots of resemblance to what academics or scholars have to do as a matter of course. One of the reasons I'm not successful is that I want to bring what they have to do into my life, into my practice. I want to know what the good critic knows, know how to do what good critics know how to do. It seems to me, so far, that this is often something that lies off at an angle to the work done by teachers, by philosophical researchers. Something one needs time for and something that one would like to preserve or protect from any immediate requirement that it be channelled into papers, thinkpieces, 'applications'. So I spend—need to spend, want to spend—an awful lot of time just taking things in, finding out what's out there, thinking about how it relates to what else is out there, thinking about how it works, thinking about my relation to it. Too much, I know—admit. My discipline is erratic, my direction usually not at all clear. It remains hard for me to think that anything in particular, any accomplishment or creation, may come of my watching TV or listening to records. My commitment is to thinking; my wish is to think about what's around, about what's going on, about my life, about our lives. Reading the Groundwork is only going to take you so far before you have to think about actual stuff again, and most other people who might be willing to talk to you are probably going to want to talk about actual stuff and not the Groundwork.

So here's an example of something I think a good critic knows. It's something I wish I knew better. Last year Aaron Sorkin got press for his new HBO program, a backstage drama (or dramedy, probably) about television news production. I think Sorkin is very good to think about, for people who think thinking is good. Not for the usual reasons, like his supposed quality or idealism or endorsement of liberal or American values. I think that the extent to which his programs have given us those things is generally wildly overestimated and poorly understood by the low-information TV viewers and the self-congratulatory liberal enclave dwellers who seem to be Sorkin's main stans (and thus, I suppose, by people who don't care for him, since the stans set the terms of the discussion, or they are set for them by the most superficial and obtrusive features of Sorkin's programs). The opportunity for thinking comes from the fact that Sorkin's programs are good, at some things; and that they do perform a kind of engagement with values and ideals which is overtly out of step with a lot of other popular entertainment pitched at about that level, at a mass (aspirationally, at least) audience. But they do so in a way, they succeed in ways, that seem to make it difficult to think about how they work and what they are doing. Or, if that's too much of a compliment: for the most part most people simply don't think about how Sorkin's programs work and what they might be doing. It's as it was above: there's something to talk about, something to explore how to talk about, but for whatever reason we set the opportunity for thinking aside before it starts.

That's one situation that a good critic can be helpful in. As the first couple episodes of Sorkin's program started leaking out and then airing, I found myself frustrated by the level of discourse around them—by both viewers and professional critics. By this point the received view on Sorkin's flaws circulated about as widely as the received view on his virtues: flat, uniform characterization, sentimental idealism, self-importance, troubling and embarrassing attitudes toward race and women, an unaccountable tendency toward self-recycling, a substitution of speechifying for… anything and everything. I don't know—you name it. He makes it easy. So the critics on either side thought. My frustration was that everyone—including those like Denby (who has Sorkin as a moralist) and Nussbaum (Sorkin patronizing toward audience, unconfident in storytelling) and Maciak ('formalist') who seemed more perceptive and informed, with Maciak better than most—seemed to proceed by hardly trying to describe what it was we were seeing. Most often, by picking out the good or bad features needed to make a point. Supposedly a critic will make those choices on the basis of her perception and experience, so that the choice of mere features needn't be prejudicial. But I couldn't help but feel that we were getting reactions, not readings.

This is what I sat down to write out, momentarily vexed by the state of criticism, after I watched the first couple of episodes. (I'm quoting myself and an interlocutor.)

'It isn't a show about what people believe but that they (intensely, admirably) believe. Nothing's getting unpacked or explored.

It's not about their believing, it's about their having trouble believing. Namely in their ideals (or 'verities', like I saw one reviewer call them), and in themselves (e.g. enough to do what they think they should be doing, or say what they think they should be saying).

The Emily Mortimer character goes around praising Will because the idea is that people in this setup depend, for their belief in themselves, on whether some particular other person believes in them. A lot of the action—I don't know if you want to call it unpacking or exploring, but I don't think Sorkin is really going to try to show you anything but what he thinks of as timeless truths, not extremely content-specific insights into institutions like the news (tho some of that, so far as he picks out some of its structural features accurately) or into the present historical moment or whatever—a lot of the action comes in the characters trying to avoid or refuse accepting the belief others show in them.

In the case of the leads that has partly to do with their relationship past, recovery from which is probably going to be spun out for a while as various incidents bring them closer to or drive them farther from being able to fully acknowledge the past (e.g. in the second episode we find she cheated on him, but she says she only found she really loved him when she did; but she intimates that there was something about him that made him not quite lovable that drove her to cheat; that's probably not accurate or fair at this point, but it's a sign of what will get spun out as Will eventually opens himself up enough to being pegged by what she has to say that she ventures to say it.).

I assume that part of it is also that there's some ambivalence about accepting an affirmation of belief in yourself from someone else insofar as these people define themselves by their ideals and their visible, public pursuit of them. You're not supposed to do it just for another person, not just because he or she says you're right, that you're doing right, but because your beliefs are right, or your judgment is right, or because you're on the right side of the issue. This is a setup that tends to repel personal affirmations as mere personal attachments. But it's in tension with the tendency of public pursuit of an ideal to be tempted by, corrupted by, or confused with conformity, pandering, absence of principles or integrity. When the atmosphere is idealistic enough that tends to drive the protagonists back toward looking for the affirmations of the only people who could possibly release them from their bind: other people of sound judgment, strong belief, etc.

One option on the table there is that you could simply withdraw if you're satisfied enough that you know what's what even if you might not be fully pursuing the realization of your ideals in the world (which is where Will is, immediately before the first scene of the pilot). Part of the allure of someone else believing in you, believing that you're right, for these sorts of characters would be the prospect of finding someone whose belief in you took the form of love. So the action of the pilot partly turns on Will's avoidance of that knowledge, that someone loves him. At the beginning he can't see straight, isn't even sure he's seeing her. After he gets offstage he has to ask, 'what did I say in there?'. Her words, on her sign, literally brought out something in him he didn't know he had in him, couldn't recognize.

And he is still avoiding recognizing her at the end of the pilot. He brushes her off (by the terms of their current relationship, which come up again: one hour owned by her, because she says so, and he concedes under the auspices of the job since she's his EP; and a week-to-week contract according to which she's at the mercy of his whims, temper) and assumes this eminently composed attitude (compared to the outburst at the beginning, which was an exception) to tell her a story about a time he displayed composure (when he was really drunk) because of his love for her and/or respect for her parents (cf. the bad EP pressuring the Emily Mortimer counterpart Alison Pill to help him lie to her parents), which story easily disturbs her composure. When he peeks his head into the control room to thank the (wrong) staff, saying that he's no longer going to not tell people what their importance is to him, he's getting it wrong while turning his back on her. Then as he's leaving in the elevator he makes as if he's revealing something to her—taking back the lie he fabricated on the night of his outburst, about vertigo medicine—by saying that it was that he thought he saw her even though he couldn't have, telling her that he couldn't have recognized her rather than making it a question and letting her tell him that she did recognize him. (Letting himself admit this would also mean admitting that she had gotten him right, known what to say to him, that she had brought out the revealing outburst, etc.)

For me if it isn't about the role of the news, it should be kinda more a procedural, or if it is about the news then it should be more nuts-n-bolts, less lofty bullshit. How do you feel about it so far? You have a much better recall of the nuances & significance of the various turning points of the plot—like shit that whole elevator thing—do you think it's succeeding?

I don't know if it's succeeding. That depends an awful lot on what Sorkin does with a season's worth of episodes. I kind of find myself hoping he uses the shorter season to force himself to write an arc that integrates this kind of relationship-logic with the initiating event.

But I was very disappointed by the reviews I've read. Studio 60 did seem kind of ill-advised to me at the time, but I would've thought that with all the recap nerds out there now parsing glances and dress colors and stuff for Mad Men and speculating about Gus's motivations on Breaking Bad there would have been some better watching/interpreting out there on the internet for a Sorkin joint. I've always found the self-congratulatory viewers he attracts distasteful, but particularly because they cloud the question of what's any good about Sorkin. Like, the question of whether he really has any ideas, or really is writing intelligent TV or whatever. He's written some good-sounding monologues, but I think too many people get distracted by the blustery features of his dialogue and then think that what they're supposed to be doing is deciding whether they're hearing good arguments, or whether people really talk that way, or whether it isn't just speechifying on the writer's part, or whether he is or isn't right to be sticking it to x idiots. I think it's pretty clear that as a writer he invests a big part of his thought in the dramatic structure. When he loses his shit and when he's working at a really high level that can be obscured (because the structure falls apart or because there's so much going on thanks to it that you don't notice it all working), but it seems like the contrasts between the characters across the episodes, what they say and do, admit and don't admit, etc., are very clearly drawn in these first two Newsroom episodes. Clear lines.

What I wonder about, though, is how formalist he is going to be about it. It strikes me that he seems to have purified some of the elements from past shows. Like, it's a workplace drama. And a backstage workplace drama. And the main relationship is one that bridges the onscreen/control room divide. And the job is one that is defined by its being public, in the public's interest, for the good of the public. And letting your personal life manifest itself in your job is considered to be bad in all kinds of ways (as well as just unprofessional re workplace drama when it's ratcheted up to Sorkinian hyper-competency levels). But to excel at it you have to have the kind of strong personality that is liable to overflow and show up in your work, i.e., in public. The set is kind of like the Sports Night set, but more starkly split between public/private visible/hidden: Will has an office, the office, and though Mackenzie has one you don't see it until the second episode; there's a conference room for group-dynamic scenes and for looking into from outside when there are arguments and trainwrecks, there's a massively public open office (where the lower-level characters have to play out their conversations and become exposed, and where the upper-level characters are constantly going to be storming in and out of to try to conceal themselves and their conversations), there's the news desk (facing dangerously out into the public—like in Mackenzie's threat to assert her control over Will when he's there) / control room combo… compare that to the warrens and the compartmentalization of the West Wing, where a lot of the particularities of the relationships between characters were developed with the use of their offices and their access to others (Josh and Donna, Toby signaling by throwing the ball at the window, Leo, not to mention Margaret and Charlie and Mrs. Landingham, as intermediaries to the president).

The main relations to the outer world seem more simplified/purified here too. Being in the White House made the relation to the outer world complicated on West Wing. On Sports Night, there was the relation to the network, and the question of ratings and such, intra-network competition ('10:00' versus whatsername the overnight anchor on the in-show Sports Night), but they kind of had to puff themselves up, or slip off-topic, a bit to get plots that hit a Sorkinesque level of idealism since they were basically just doing sports news. On The Newsroom the idea of the public point of the work seems less contestable, which is kind of why I was attracted to that 'believing in' talk. On The West Wing to try to realize their ideal they had to fight among themselves, fight with their own party, the opposing party, deal with the citizenry, deal with the events of reality, all of which could involve competing claims from the other parties about what exactly they were all up to. Here it seems like people know what is called for in doing the news, it's just that well-known forces (inner and outer) conspire against doing it.

That tends to make me think that there isn't that much to say about meeting this ideal, in terms of 'what the news is'. And a procedural made out of that would be pretty boring on Sorkiny terms; he can't do the week-to-week novel story that a police procedural or a medical show can do (just because he can't make himself / pull it off, i think—he needs a story idea that his structure lets him intensify or clarify, more than one that he can try to detail finely or poignantly; and there's something about the repetition involved in the crime procedural or the medical investigation that seems repugnant to him). Which is another reason I found it interesting that he drew the dramatic lines, as they connected with the relationship-and-ideals lines, so clearly. It seemed like a good reason to trust him when he says that he just does relationship stories about people who do the news.

The question will be how or whether he lets the history between the characters that happens in the episodes accumulate and come together in ways that throw any of the relationships into question. I think almost every reviewer has rightly seen that it would be cheap to do this with romantic relationships, and they see the potential for doing it (especially with Maggie and her bad-boyfriend/good-senior-producer triangle, but I wonder about who they're going to throw Olivia Munn's character up against, Will seems way too easy). Sorkin certainly hasn't been able to resist that in the past, but it's hard to recover from. Big historical relationship-changers on The West Wing were Bartlet's lying to his staff about MS (contrasted with the public), and his concealing his assassination of dude from his family. I don't know about smaller ones. Sorkin tends to effect relationship/history-changing things like that by having the characters fuck up somehow and become ashamed / temporarily lose the faith of their peers or betters. I suppose 'making compromises to get the story / quash the story' is the main well on The Newsroom.

Another way that Sorkin could fill out the very formal framework is with some reality. That seems pretty dangerous. He has a really conflicted relationship with it, I think. (That's partly why all the facts, as if to prove that he is writing a show that is about reality, i.e. that the ideals the characters pursue are realizable). Bartlet getting shot, pretty good reality (one of the better dividends: its effects on Charlie and on his relationship to Zoey). 9/11, good stimulus in certain ways. The 'rescue my kidnapped brother from terrorists or whoever' arc in the second half of Studio 60 seems like the biggest, most improbable failure to add 'reality' to a show ever. From the start he has a constrained relation to 'reality' with the 2010 Newsroom stories, which kind of makes me expect him to reach for showbiz/corporate intrusions into the proper-newsworld. (I hear there's going to be a tabloid/scandal story?)'

My interest here isn't in Sorkin. I hear the rest of the season was a wreck; I'd like to see sometime and find out. My interest is in how we think about what we spend our time on, and how we talk about it. My observations about how this TV show seems to work—seems set up to work, however well that is handled or not—were not that costly to acquire, at least in terms of watching a couple of episodes of The Newsroom. I saw something, thought about it, rewatched some things, and wrote down my thoughts. But obviously I did have to draw on a lot of prior thought and prior experience to be ready to see what I saw, and prior practice at talking to have a way to talk about it. My concern, my frustration, is that people are obviously capable of this sort of seeing, and saying, but that it seems so rarely to be put into play, to be expressed, to be part of our talking and thinking. We rarely give ourselves the time, or care to try and talk it out. And I suspect that there's no one way to get it, to know what a good critic knows. Each new thing, each new artist, each new style or genre, brings something else that you can completely fail to get, have no feel for. You will always be a newcomer to something. The sheer variety of what we can do will always stand as a rebuke to any settled confidence that your cultivation is final.

And I can't let go of that. It seems like something a philosopher ought to be impressed by, and something that ought to inform any teacher's work.

So I've got these stacks of books all over the place.

19 Jan '13 02:58:08 AM

(Or: if a musician feels the music, Connie Britton obviously doesn't.)

19 Jan '13 02:53:47 AM

Actors perform and musicians perform; but playing the part of a musician will hardly make your performance the performance of a musician.

19 Jan '13 01:55:17 AM

You could say that the whole point of doing philosophy is to eventually become a person who can always say, whenever they should meet another person: 'Say, I was thinking the other day…'.

17 Jan '13 10:53:23 PM

I'm sitting in my office.

In a couple of hours I won't be, because I will have moved out, and because it won't be my office any more.

I've been teaching, lecturing, at my graduate school alma mater, my old department.

I moved from graduating, to a visiting professorship at a small school, to being unemployed and living with my parents again, to returning to the Twin Cities for work offered to me, a couple of summers back, at nearly the point when I had run out of unemployment benefits, money, and hope.

I suspect that I owed the opportunity almost wholly to an administrative assistant who works in my old department, normally involved with the job searches of graduates and with the semester-to-semester teaching assignments of the graduate students. I'm not sure that anyone else paid that much mind. To anyone but her, there was just a slot to be filled, and any way of filling it would have worked.

My hopes were heightened at first, like they always are with a new semester. My year starts in August, not January. I was teaching under new conditions that challenged me to improve my work, and I think I did. I also got to see old friends and do some thinking with them.

The job market is a sink for hope. It drains hope. It barely permits reasonable thought; if you do badly, it's hard to know why, to assess yourself or your prospects.

I have a pretty good idea why I haven't done that well so far. This hasn't prevented me from feeling frustration, shame, resentment, anger, despair, from year to year.

So it went that first year back, and then again that spring, hunting for fall work. Again, I had almost no prospects and experienced rejection that frustrated understanding. Again I was saved at the last minute by the kindness of the same assistant in my old department; and by the accident of a peer scoring a full-time job that led him to vacate another one.

Now the work has dried up, or I haven't hustled enough to secure any. It's hard for me to maintain the sense that I have a future—that anything I do could carry forward. That doesn't stop me from acting as if it will. Turned down for a job teaching an ethics course, I nevertheless keep reading Kant, who I otherwise don't care that much about, and think about the syllabus for that course. It's just that this kind of habituated practice proves fragile, borders on unintelligible, owing to the turns of my moods.

Since I started writing here again I've thought a lot about how best to integrate my various interests and aspirations, how to fashion a written voice for myself, after too long having confined myself or only allowed myself expression in limited ways: talking with friends, teaching, writing with the vain hope of professional success, writing because I have something to say. But especially, writing about my life, which since graduating has been dominated by the fact of professional dissatisfaction and failure. As much as I wished to be myself, it vexed me: how could I write about this kind of disappointment in public, knowing or fantasizing that I would be read by prospective employers, colleagues, without casting my moods, my self-regard, my attitudes about my discipline and my career all out of proportion?

It's not right that someone whose job, or whose vocation, it is to think would not be able to think truthfully and openly about that job, about that vocation. Nor is it right that teaching, or doing philosophy, as kinds of paid work, could be in such a state that I should have to bear these thoughts, to weather the moods that seem to be the condition of intellectual life these days.

I hear and read affirmations like that, or denunciations I guess, plenty. And I can imagine others. But I don't think the readiness of anyone to issue them has much to do with whether people will in general have much time for the frustrations of unsuccessful academics. Everyone has their work, their pay, their teaching load, their papers to write, their colleagues to ingratiate themselves to or perhaps impress. And when they think about adding someone else to work alongside them, whatever criteria it is they use to make those decisions, they pertain pretty much not at all to my frustrations.

But why shouldn't they?

17 Jan '13 04:44:16 PM

Larry Johnson aka 'Ernest Mann', an 'urban Thoreau' and father of the zine movement.

17 Jan '13 09:28:42 AM

In Groundwork I and II, a link between analysis and purification.

17 Jan '13 08:23:03 AM

You're never meant to speak to just one other when asked to 'say a few words'.

16 Jan '13 10:37:07 PM

2012 Pazz and Jop ballot

(and overall and individual statistics)