Sunday, 23 August 2009

Pop journalism and the passion for ignorance

‘What sucks is when metal is co-opted by wannabe academic nerds’.
Chronic Youth

The hostility to academic commentary on popular culture that unites conservatives with pop journalists and bloggers everywhere surfaced again with knee-jerk predictability at the prospect of a Black Metal Theory symposium in Brooklyn this coming December. Both positions assume that either popular culture does not deserve critical inquiry or does not require it. Theory is either redundant or it misses the point which can only be grasped in authentic, inexpressible experience. See also here and here.

All this is jolly good fun and publicity for the event (so thanks again, guys) but I do feel professionally obliged to point out the irony that this hostility is precisely informed by (theoretical) assumptions that are themselves academic, though of a 19th-century Romantic variety. For example, Ben Jonson’s trenchant criticisms of his contemporary, Shakespeare, that he a) ‘knew small Latin and less Greek’ (hence his plays were one big Gothic mess), and b) ‘never blotted a line’ (and could therefore have done with some serious editing), were taken by the Romantics as evidence of Shakespeare’s Natural Genius. True artists must always be essentially unreflecting, intuitive, natural, and art always ‘beyond the last instance of criticism’ (Frank Kermode). All this does is to empower the Romantic critic who somehow knows (even better than the artist) without having to demonstrate or account for that knowledge, or indeed place it under scrutiny. I assume that this form of criticism is routinely trotted out by pop journo-jocks (often wannabee academic nerds themselves) because it is self-empowering and self-pleasuring. The discourse of the master: ‘I want to know nothing about it except that it gives me pleasure’.

Yes indeed it is about enjoyment and authority (and the enjoyment of authority) that is erected on the basis of the bizarre fear that academics might steal it. The fear is strangely paradoxical because, on the one hand, the cloistered ‘wannabee nerds’ can only press their noses up against the window of authentic experience, and on the other hand, there’s the threat that they might ‘co-opt’ it. The journalist must stick his fingers in his ears and shout it down, or present some caricature. This fear of the academic is completely imaginary and simply (re)produced in order to bolster the journalist’s authority and passion for ignorance: passion for the ignorance of the artist, for the incomprehensibility of the work, and the ineffable authenticity of his experience about which she wishes to know nothing except that she experiences it. But that’s cool, it’s important to be passionate about stuff.

Academics are fans too and can say just as many dumb things as anybody else, not necessarily because they are fans but usually because their discourse has become formulaic and predictable. As such academic discourse can be very boring indeed, especially if you compare it to the popular cultural objects that it talks about (although boredom is often, paradoxically, the interesting marker of a limit). Popular culture, which can also be incredibly boring, is informed (even or especially Black Metal) to varying degrees by academic discourse (art, literature, philosophy, religion etc. etc.), more or less interestingly. Whatever the use artists make of theory, academic discourse can only become interesting if it is modified and changed by its object in some way and is engaged by readers on its own (modified) terms.

This is what we are looking for: Black Metal fucks up academic discourse SHOCK! Now that would be a headline.