Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Alfred North Whitehead once wrote: "Our knowledge of the particular facts of the world around us is gained from our sensations. We see, and hear, and taste, and smell, and feel hot and cold, and push, and rub, and ache, and tingle. These are just our own personal sensations: my toothache cannot be your toothache, and my sight cannot be your sight."

What mathematics does, Whitehead explained, is create a public world that's the same for everybody. Mathematics imagines a world "as one connected set of things which underlies all the perceptions of all people. There is not one world of things for my sensations and another for yours, but one world in which we both exist."

Can film criticism, or any kind of criticism for that matter, discover one world that underlies all of the perceptions of all people? And does it matter if it can or not?

Mathematics is essential to the science of bombs, and vaccines, and medicines. It makes architecture and engineering possible. That these things matter is obvious. But do things like films and what we make of them matter in the same way? And to whom do they matter?

Tom Wolfe famously pointed out that without the theories of Rosenberg and Greenberg -- Red Mountain and Green Mountain -- le monde, the little world of artists, dealers and collectors in the Fifties and Sixties, was unable to see. Until you grasped the theories, you saw something all right, but not the "real" paintings. So what? Rosenberg and Greenberg didn't even have the same theory about what they were looking at. They weren't even seeing the same things.

Physicists sometimes think of light as particles. Sometimes they think of light as waves. Neither particles nor waves by themselves explain all there is to know about light, but taken together they do. And that matters. Because the bomb blows up.

What matters about criticism is that it should be useful somehow. A modest goal for a critic might be to make something accessible to a viewer, or listener, or reader, that wouldn't be accessible to them without the critique. And my thought is we should do that without going overboard about the importance of the work we're talking about. We should talk about art the way we talk about mushrooms on our lawns, keeping our heads straight when we swim, finding our way home after a night on the town, or whether we prefer one-egg or two-egg omelettes.

The only things I can make accessible to anyone is what I see, hear and think when I watch a film.


Tom Manoff said...

A Gesamtkunstwerk (translated as total work of art,[1] ideal work of art,[2] universal artwork, synthesis of the arts, comprehensive artwork, all-embracing art form, or total artwork) is a work of art that makes use of all or many art forms or strives to do so.[3] The term is a German word which has come to be accepted in English as a term in aesthetics.

Billy Glad said...

Now you've done it. Seems like we were just talking about Wagner the other day. I think I had just read a New Yorker article about Wagner that talked about Wagner and Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer, the ascetic, was disappointed with Wagner's libertine lifestyle, while Wagner, reading Schopenhauer, came to believe that Wotan, renouncing authority and power, was the central figure in the Ring. I said I thought the Woe Wotan/Brünnhilde relationship was the most important aspect of the Ring. Siegfried is in way over his head. I was writing that in the context of imagining Siegfried played by a teenager instead of an old man -- and never for a moment connected it to my own project in which Siegfried is, in fact, an old man and Brünnhilde is the girl who will bring down the gods. I wonder if I would have gotten as far as I did if I had been aware of that all along.

I've always believed that almost any story could be deconstructed, but that the universal, the timeless stories or myths are the ones that actually resolve -- in the sense of containing them in both meanings of the word -- life and death oppositions that can never completely be solved. And yet, I've only personally recognized a couple in my entire life. Certainly, Wotan's dilemma is one of them.

Anonymous said...

This comment a tangent to your thread guys, but just in response to the post itself....

No, of course it can't connect to any "one" world that underlies all. As best I understand it, human understanding is so weak, and so diverse, that that's right out of the question.

But... it doesn't actually matter. At all. I mean, so what if we have to rough out a few estimates? So what if the map's drawn in pencil on an old napkin? When did that ever bother you inn real life? So what if somebody just hums the tune, or forgets a few words and has to wing it? That's part of what makes it great, right?

It's like this. It all depends on how far we think we humans are from God. How close to knowing it all. How close to being omniscient and eternal. If you think we're at the 78% mark.... then you'e probably gonna believe we have to aim for that 1:1 correspondence, and you'll likely believe we're damned close.

But if - like me - you think we're about 0.00738% of the way there, then.... you don't sweat it quite so bad. Human life becomes more like... finding yourself on a distant planet, with only your bare hands, and a couple of friends to talk to... and the planet is covered with dense tropical forests and deep oceans and incredible mountains and 17 moons and 3 species of creatures smarter than us.... and your entire life is committed just to walking across it, making it across the planet alive, wearing whatever rags you can pull together, and grubbing up some grub from day to day, and having a few laughs at the incredible impossibility of the whole thing... a magic trip, one you want to go on forever, but something you'd never, ever, imagine was a time when you knew it all and had it all nailed down and understood.

So, ummmm, yes. Criticism is meant to be useful. And maybe give us a good laugh form time to time. A couple of insights would be grand. But otherwise, giving us a heads up, a clue, a hint - that's good enough.


Billy Glad said...

Are you trying to introduce a note of sanity, Q? How funny! I wonder if Wagner was crazy too.

Quinn the Eskimo said...

It's always important that someone lay down the humourless baseline, that way it gives people something to play off.

My new role in life - straight-man. Or maybe it's always been my role, and I just never knew it.

Billy Glad said...

Back in the Sixties, I had a friend, Mike, who had a couple of friends in Austin, a couple of the 13th Floor Elevators I think, who flipped out and went wandering around naked, chanting, things like that. In those days, it was a lot easier for the police to get the crazies off the streets, and one of them ended up in a psych ward, called Unit D in Galveston. The name says it all. Mike decided he could lead his friend back to sanity by dropping acid and paying him a visit. The idea was that as Mike came down from the acid his friend would follow him back and they'd walk out of Unit D together. I'm sure I don't have to tell you how that turned out.

Quinn the Eskimo said...

I've been reading the Greeks lately. Thucydides and the war between the Athenians and the Spartans. That sort of thing. Never had done much with them before. Quite something, these guys. Here I'd been taught for years that the Greeks and the Hebrews were two different worlds, two different minds, reason versus revelation and all that. Turns out that the Greeks are just Scots or Indians or Hebrews with a better climate. They're tribal as hell, coming down out of or running up to hide in the hills, they run around betraying one another and shouting about honour as they go to war and then ransack and burn and kill everything, they cross-dress and wander hand in hand with their favourite boy (and/or girl), they set up colonies and then fight their own colonists, they row their boats, endlessly, they make long run-on speeches of the grandest kind, which then all result in more killing and rapine, and at the end of each chapter, they put on a damn play.

Plus, they do it in skirts.

Tell me how these people aren't Scots?

Maybe this is what the world's always been. I'd need some sort of structural analysis done though, to see if the Scots, Indians, Hebrews and Greeks are actually all in the same column or not.

But to me? Humans... they all look alike.