Right-Wing Anti-Intellectualism (Gene Shalit Test Edition)

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There's a nice example of right-wing anti-intellectualism in today's Washington Examiner, in which Charlotte Allen dubs Duke University the "worst university press" in America en route to declaring they all stink ever since they stopped being "dull but useful" by publishing "monographs on soybean production, treatises on the rise and fall of the water table in Vanuatu and statistical summaries of the frequency of garbage collection in Midwestern suburbs."

Exhibit A in Allen's fright-fest is Francesco Casetti's Inside the Gaze: The Fiction Film and Its Spectator, whose jacket copy reads:

"In what way does the film address its spectator? How does the film prefigure the spectator? Is the film aware of its orientation toward its spectator? And to what extent does it posit itself as the spectator's lead?"

To which Allen musters her best Gomer Pyle and avers: "Duke bills Inside the Gaze as a 'film theory classic [that] brings semiotics and psychoanalytic concepts to bear on the film experience.' But most readers won't get past Casetti's impenetrable lingo. And this is supposed to be a book about going to the movies, for heaven's sake!"

Her whole thing here.

C'mon, does it really take 25 years of book-larnin' to get through that copy? And is it so eggheaded to ask how moviemakers make assumptions about their audiences (or to call it "film" or "cinema")? Is it wrong to engage in film criticism that is a bit more demanding than the latest Leonard Maltin guidebook or Gene Shalit review?

As someone who sat through enough grad seminars in literary and cultural studies at the height of the "theory" period, I've been exposed to more than my share of bad academic writing and gratuitously jargon-filled prose. But pace Allen, who writes at the Independent Women's Forum Inkwell blog, academic books that use difficult language and/or technical terms are not necessarily "dull and useless." Yeah, most readers won't make it through Casetti's book–it's for a specialized audience. But that's exactly why it's being published by a university press such as Duke's. And it's worth noting that university presses, far from alienating readers by producing "produc[ing] thick tomes of bloated pontifications upon the trivial and the ordinary," are enlarging their readerships outside of traditional academics thanks to book superstores and an increasingly educated readership.

And props to Duke University press for years publishing Reason contributor Tom Peyser's Utopia and Cosmopolis: Globalization in the Era of American Literary Realism, which is (warning!) full of nickel-, dime-, and even quarter-sized words.

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  1. How dare they publish something that requires anything above a 6th-grade education! From here, it’s just a slippery slope all the way down to publishing books on the statistical relationship of pirate populations and global warming…in sanskrit!

  2. Evan,

    Radley’s reference this weekend, introducing me to Pastafarianism, was the highlight of my weekend.

  3. “How dare they publish something that requires anything above a 6th-grade education”

    Sixth grade is an ideal cut off point. You’ve read “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “Tom Sawyer”, and “Huck Finn”. You’ve not yet entered the postmodern way of interpreting everything, demonstrating nothing. 🙂

    ha ha. jest kiddin.

    but it’s funny how people do get threatened by “college”. and most of what one learns in college isn’t classroom stuff. remember the bride’s brother from the first wedding in “Four Weddings”? “I didn’t see the point”.

    And Evan, would you like that statistical study to be non linear, too? grin.

    “happy” monday,
    drf

  4. MP: Yeah, I saw the FSM on BoingBoing awhile back. Brilliant!

    drf: no, it could be linear. In fact, the pastafarians have already done such a study—and it has clearly demonstrated that breeding more pirates would slow or eliminate global warming.

  5. I think she raises the entirely valid point that so much social-science writing today seems to be nothing more than a high degree of polysyllabic megacontructionist bovine excrementation.

    Writing for a specialized audience is fine. Using a precise vocabulary is fine. But much of this writing really does appear to use unnecessary vocabulary to rehash common sense, or to say nothing at all. Bad writing is bad writing, period. Toward a progressive transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity, indeed.

  6. Come off it, Nick! There’s erudite film criticism, and there’s postmodernist flapdoodle. Example of the former: Anthony Lane, writing for the New Yorker. Example of the latter: The author of this: “How does the film prefigure the spectator? Is the film aware of its orientation toward its spectator? And to what extent does it posit itself as the spectator’s lead?”

    You don’t have to have ended your education at the 6th grade as I did to wonder how a film, an inanimate object, can be “aware” of anything, or what on earth “posit itself as the spectator’s lead” might mean.

  7. perhaps it would help to read that as “was the film created in such a way that…” because i sincerely doubt the author is trying to anthropomorphize movies.

  8. Evan Williams: LOL!
    🙂

  9. “C’mon, does it really take 25 years of book-larnin’ to get through that copy?”

    Er, yes, it does. I’ve had 18 years of book-larnin’ and I still have no idea what the hell that jacket copy means. Maybe another seven would do it, but I doubt it.

    “In what way does the film address its spectator?” Perhaps, “hello, Phil, thank you for coming and I hope you enjoy watching me.”

  10. You don’t have to have ended your education at the 6th grade as I did to wonder how a film, an inanimate object, can be “aware” of anything,

    You’ve never heard of “self-conscious filmmaking?” Or seen reference to “a movie whose characters appear to know they’re is a movie?” Nobody is trying to say that movies have heads and brains and think of things.

    or what on earth “posit itself as the spectator’s lead” might mean.

    It means, “Is the camera the audience? Or is it acting in some other manner?”

  11. OK, dhex, let’s de-anthropomorphize and rephrase the question as: “Are the makers of the film aware of its orientation toward the spectator?”

    Isn’t the answer to that: “Duh, yes”? That’s why there’s this thing called “cinematography” and people get Academy Awards for excelling at it. Film is a visual medium, and any filmmaker who didn’t “orient” his film to the “spectator” would soon be out of a job.

    But you can’t fill up an academic book restating the obvious, so you instead dress up the question in arty-sounding obfuscation: “Is the film aware…?” and give your book the pretentious title “Inside the Gaze.” Then you go to a trendy outfit like Duke and get it to print it for you.

    Or did I miss something when I dropped out of school in the 7th grade?

  12. Phil: “Is the camera the audience? Or is it acting in some other manner?”

    One hopes that it’s acting as a camera–or you’ve got a big waste of celluloid. One also hopes, or rather, assumes, that film directors have a larger audience in mind than their cameras. Even the “self-conscious” types hope that someone besides themselves will get the smug irony.

  13. I think the paper is more about how the director/cinematographer makes nods towards the audience and acknowledges that the audience exists in film. Like in a bugs bunny cartoon where he mugs at the camera and makes a comment to the audience, it creates a meta-narrative (haha, I can use fancy prefixes as well) that involves the audience with the movie while taking them out of the actual narrative of the story. Not a ground-breaking comment, but sufficiently dressed up with nice words it’ll get you some kind of degree.

  14. “Or did I miss something when I dropped out of school in the 7th grade?”

    mostly high school dances.

    i’m not really into all this stuff – hell, i don’t really like movies to begin with – but having more outlets isn’t a bad thing, even if they’re narrow, jargon-filled and seemingly obtuse on purpose.

  15. OK, dhex, let’s de-anthropomorphize and rephrase the question as: “Are the makers of the film aware of its orientation toward the spectator?”

    That isn’t, actually, the same question. At all. Unless you think that — all po-mo theorizing aside — the author’s/director’s intent is the be-all and end-all of the POV a completed artwork ultimately takes.

    Phil: “Is the camera the audience? Or is it acting in some other manner?”
    One hopes that it’s acting as a camera–or you’ve got a big waste of celluloid.

    Ah. My mistake. I thought you were actually asking whether anyone wanted to see whether there was a serious intent behind the questions.

  16. Can’t one object both to pretentiously jargonized but hollow academic prose, and also to “gee whiz” quotes like Allen’s above, which seem to assume that any worthy analysis of the apparently simple in culture (going to the movies, tra la la) must itself be simple and widely accessible?

  17. Randolph, not only that, but getting into, say, all the movie-within-a-movie things we’ve seen over the decades. When we, as movie viewers, see the crew of the fictional “movie” shooting that movie, then we see what that camera’s crew would actually see while shooting that movie, the camera (to the extent that there even is a “the camera” in that situation) is performing a more complicated function than just taking the place of an audience member sitting in front of a proscenium.

  18. If only there were some way for Ms. Allen to determine what argument the book is making other than reading the jacket copy. Perhaps someday science will bring us such wonders.

  19. Aren’t the right-wingers the ones who like to crow about “the dumbing down of America”…

  20. In many gonzo porn flicks, the characters very obviously know they’re in a movie. They routinely violate the fourth wall, among other things.

    Just sayin’.

  21. They routinely violate the fourth wall, among other things

    So that’s what the kids are calling it these days.

  22. I cheerfully admit to being “right-wing,” if that’s what you are if you criticize trendy po-mo flimflammery and chin-pulling political correctness. But I don’t understand why it’s “anti-intellectual” to expect academics to communicate their ideas clearly. Louis Menand, Simon Schama and Camille Paglia do that all the time. And if you think Menand, Schama and Paglia are mere “popularizers” and don’t count, what about Peter Brown, Caroline Walker Bynum, V.A. Kolve, and Mary Lefkowitz (to name only a few), who write beautifully and eruditely for an audience that usually consists only of their fellow scholars?

    As for dramatic characters’ awareness that they’re addressing an audience, that’s a technique as old as Greek tragedy, not a hot new “gaze” discovery. As for book-jacket copy, authors are obliged by their publishers to review it and so must be held responsible for it. With academic books, the authors often write the jacket copy themselves.

  23. Ms. Allen writes:

    As for book-jacket copy, authors are obliged by their publishers to review it and so must be held responsible for it. With academic books, the authors often write the jacket copy themselves.

    Someone is fighting the premise of the question “How can you fairly criticize a book you haven’t read?” awfully hard.

  24. So what, alkali? I was reviewing the press, not the books. I had enough trouble wading through hundreds of blurbs without having to read all the books as well (God forbid!). Duke markets its po-mo books via po-mo blather–and so do the rest of the “worst” university presses I cited.

  25. I’ll bet Charlotte’s four year old could paint just like Jackson Pollack, too.

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