This week, I was talking about the distinction between critics and artists in my novel Poker Tales.
This is one of those things that concerned me when I was an academic. As a literary critic, I thought it was my role to come in after a work had been written and explain more thoroughly the reasons that had guided the author in the choices they had made. This division of labor sets up a competition between forward-looking authors on the avant-garde, who are good at creating artistic things but who very frequently have no idea why what they do works, and critics, who are better at explaining why things work but who often are at a loss to explain the future of art. This is why Arthur Danto sets himself up as a gatekeeper of art, but it is also why he cannot predict the future of art.
We can see the phenomenon in Homer, who sets up two different approaches to the Trojans—keepers of the truth—and Achean Greeks—who bring false things and thereby are able to win the Trojan War by means of Odysseus’s guile in putting a Trojan horse into Troy.
By the mid-90s, literary critics had lost sight of the difference between their concerns and the concerns of artists, as several critics announced that their work was creative and not merely reactive to the concerns of others after the fact. While understandable, I thought that critics had lost sight of their purpose and so a lot of their authority. In Poker Tales, I was trying to regain some of both.
The flight of truth before the falseness of Odysseus is one of those classic academic concerns. He is a creator of artistic value, but he is also a liar. This is the sort of thing that I loved when I in academia. But, of course, I recognize that no one cares about my academic concerns with things like poetry and Odysseus. My defense of my concerns comes from the fact that my narrow academic concerns have greater breadth than it appears.
For instance, we can view a video called ‘Forgot About Dre’ by Dr. Dre and Eminem and find the same concerns as we find in the Iliad and Odyssey over the different sources of critical and artistic value.
The song’s lyrics revolve over the difference between kids who buy CDs and creators of those CDs. Dr. Dre is a creator of artistic value, and from thence he derives his value. The weakling kids better bow down to him
You better bow down on both knees
Who you think taught you to smoke trees
Who you think brought you the o’ G’s
Eazy-E’s Ice Cube’s and D.O.C’s and Snoop D O double G’s
And a group that said muthafuck the police
Gave you a tape full of dope beats
To bump when stroll through in your hood
But now his album sales aren’t doing that well, and the kids have abandoned him:
And when your album sales wasn’t doin too good
Who’s the doc that he told you to go see
Ya’ll better listen up closely
All you niggas that said that I turned pop
Or the Firm flop
ya’ll are the reason Dre ain’t been getting no sleep
He tells them where to go:
So fuck ya’ll all of ya’ll
If ya’ll don’t like me blow me
Ya’ll are gonna keep fuckin around wit me
And turn me back to the old me
The most interesting thing (to me) is his threat that if the weakling kids don’t bow down to their master he will turn “back to the old me,” by which he means a gun-toting and dangerous man. As it is, he has been tamed by success into not becoming a violent killer. But he can still imagine being a violent criminal.
Dr. Dre is a creator not only of art, but a new form of art. We might call it gangster rap. Here’s one of the videos he’s talking about when he talks about Ice Cube and the group ‘that said muthafuck the police.’
I love that song, and so did a whole bunch of people. This invention caused outsized monetary resources to flow Dre’s way in Pareto fashion, and he is proud of his wealth. He is an inventor of something that ‘little people’ cannot understand. They keep coming up to him and asking for their share of the pie, rather than creating their own art. After awhile, there are so many people coming to him asking but not creating, that he begins to believe that he’s really special. But he’s not going to give them any charity, because they turned on him when he was down.
Eminem chimes in over Dre’s skill at putting words together:
Nowadays everybody wanna talk like they got something to say
But nothin comes out when they move they lips
Just a buncha gibberish
And muthafuckas act like they forgot about Dre
Everybody wants to have ‘a voice,’ but only the creators of artistic value have ‘something come out.’ The two creators bond over their skill. They are performing to an audience of the voiceless, who can only repeat second-had the words that Dr. Dre and Eminem have written.
This sets up a cultural divide between the over-confident creators of art and the followers who scour the self-help sections of bookstores looking for their ‘true’ selves (the ones that are thought to lie beneath in Britney Spears’ ‘My Prerogative’). And yet, just as in Britney Spears’ video, the barriers between artistic expression and living the life you sing about, can go terribly wrong if you take yourself too seriously (as Britney does). Just like Shelley, who steps back from the beckoning Keats rather than following him in death, ‘where the eternal are,’ Dre steps back into the safe seat of art.
Dr. Dre’s Over-Determination of His Own Value
I have no problem with his pride in having invented something and then starting a company to produce albums when the mainstream music labels had shown no interest in his product. He did it, and doing was difficult. But there is an element of overweening pride in his statements, as well. Did he really teach us to ‘smoke trees?’ (a reference to marijuana use). In my case, my drug years predated the arrival of Dr. Dre and his Cronic album. He’s taking too much credit for his accomplishments. This is what we used to call in graduate school an over-determination of individual value.
When people like Dre overstep their bounds, it is up to the critic to remind them of their place in the universe. He was not the first person to urge the ‘smoking of trees.’ In fact the practice goes back to the birth of modern American music in the jazz of Louis Armstrong ‘Muggles,’ a reference to weed smoking, and Cab Calloway.
This behavior is something I am familiar with on account of my academic experience, where it is known as flyting. Flyting is…well, I’ll let Wikipedia tell you what flyting is:
The word flyting has been adopted by social historians following the example of Walter J. Ong from Scots usage of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, in which makars (makaris) would engage in public verbal contests of high-flying, extravagant abuse structured in the form of a poetic joust; the classic written example is The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie, which records a gloriously scurrilous contest between the poets Walter Kennedy and William Dunbar. (Wikipedia)
Now I know who Walter Ong is. He was a student of Marshall McLuhan who became interested in Ramus after his mentor, Marshall McLuhan had no interest in his original topic, the sprung rhythm of Gerard Manly Hopkins (What!? I know; what kind of a monster was Marshall McLuhan that he wasn’t interested in the sprung rhythm of Gerald Manly Hopkins?)
He wrote one on my favorite books that I read while I was in graduate school, Ramus and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason. I first read it when I was writing my paper on Anne Bradstreet’s ‘Contemplations,’ but I read is at least twice after that.
And I know a lot about William Dunbar. You probably don’t know very much (if anything) about Ong, Dunbar, or Ramus. And that’s okay. That was my job for fifteen years. I was supposed to know. That’s what makes me an expert in my field.
My point is not to vaunt my expertise, but to point out that people like you who do not know what I know can still function without such important (or useless, depending on your point of view) information. The over-determination of academic expertise is one of those things that makes me absolutely crazy. Knowing more is always better in the academic’s mind. Those who know less are unworthy. But at the same time, the worthy often make mistakes in their estimation of the situations they confront.
Their remedy is to deny (Danto-like) any authority to the weak-minded to have any answers to questions and to stand as gatekeepers to forward progress. But, just like the mainstream record companies that denied Dr. Dre entry into and beyond their well-protected gates, Dr. Dre went around them and did it on his own. And he was right; and being right in a Pareto universe, he reaped the rewards. The gates erected by authority are not as solid as those authorities suspect.
The Charms of Flyting
Flyting has its charms. It is fun to sing along with Dre and Eminem as they sing about how they invented stuff that they didn’t invent and boast about ‘turning back to the old me’ that they will never turn back to. The danger comes from believing what they are saying. And here, the lyrics of Eminem will come in handy. I chose this song because it features another of my favorite fltyers, Kathy Griffin:
Flyting exists in a culture of individuation. We each want to be known for ourselves alone. Eminem is no exception. The humor of this video stems from the fact that, while the nurses are calling for the real Slim Shady to please stand up, he is the only one who remains seated. The message is clear. He is different than his followers.
And during the course of this song, he reveals that he was not always such a big fan of Dr. Dre, who (in the spirit of flyting) he declares is ‘dead’ or ‘locked up in my basement.’
After this bit of posturing, he starts singing about the differences between himself and those who listen to his rap:
I’m like a head trip to listen to
cause I’m only givin you things
you joke about with your friends inside you livin’ room
the only difference is I got the balls to say it
in front of ya’ll and I aint gotta be false or sugar coated at all
I just get on the mic and spit it
and whether you like to admit it (riiip)
I just sh** it better than 90% you rappers out can
then you wonder how can
kids eat up these albums like valiums
His claim to fame is his honesty in a world of cowards. This is why he sings about how he is better than 90% of those rappers out there, and he wants some respect from ‘those girl and boy groups’ who just annoy him. And this is why in the end he has made his peace with Dre over their being on the same side of the 80/20 (here, 90) Pareto divide. It’s an us-versus-them world.
The Dangers of Flyting
This individuation process gets caught in the man made divisions of people, and Eminem participates in those divisions. He is a creator, while others are followers. Now this a is a challenge for people who want all people to be equal; for, despite the fact that Eminem and Dre can be accused of being snobs, they are correct in their division between themselves as creators of art and those in their audience who sing along with them. Should we dismiss such an arbitrary division that separates and elevates a few artistic creators over the vast majority of non-creative people?
This is not an easy problem to solve. But Eminem tries in his ‘Not Afraid.’ This song passed 200 millions hit this week. That’s not too shabby.
In the lyrics to ‘Not Afraid’ Eminem declares that he is not afraid to take a stand. It is up to the his 200 million followers to follow in his avant-garde footsteps.
The 60 Minutes Interview with Anderson Cooper
In a recent episode of 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper interviewed Eminem. He expressed his astonishment that a kid who failed out of school likes words and reads the dictionary. Apparently, in Anderson’s mind, only geeks read the dictionary. But that isn’t true. I, too read the dictionary when I was out of school. And for the same reasons: I wanted to have intellectual resources at hand after realizing that, however disappointed I was in college, I realized that I couldn’t read a copy of Time Magazine after I came across the word ‘gerontocracy’ in this article. I spent five years looking up every word I didn’t know in the dictionary and memorizing them until there were no more words that I didn’t know (this excludes scientific terms but does include outdated words like ‘whilom’ and ‘neuralgia’; that is one of the reasons I like to read new scientific texts; they are a perennial source of new words in the English language; okay, it could be that Anderson Cooper is right about geeks reading dictionaries for fun).
Eminem’s reasons for reading the dictionary were slightly different than mine were. He was involved in a flyting culture, and having all the words in your head and the resources for rhyming words that others could not—“you just have to figure out the science to breaking down words,” he says in this interview—gave him a leg up on the other, ‘lesser’ 90%’ whose mouths are working but ‘gibberish’ is coming out of. This state of affairs gives Eminem the power to ‘take a stand’ in his song, ‘Not Afraid.’ Others buy his albums to feel what they themselves are too timid to experience for themselves.
This is something that I address in my Introduction to Poker Tales when I talk about the archetypal approach to literature taken authors like Steven Pressfield and Bernard Malamud. They think that gaining access to the archetype means getting closer to the truth. But in fact, I say that such an archetypal approach to literature relies on a fictional construct that is satisfying to authors but leaves others looking in from the outside for validation of the interior that is available to the select few. This is the same critique I leveled at Elton John when I was talking about his privileging of his artistic experience that ‘the little people’ could not relate to. It’s not that I don’t love Elton; I do. But I am extremely skeptical that he knows things as a songwriter who struggles with alcohol and cocaine that a level-headed critic who studies a lot and doesn’t do drugs like myself doesn’t know.
Like Elton, Eminem is probably comfortable with this state of affairs, because he has 200 million hits on this video, and who am I? And I’m okay with allowing him to have his way with his artistic/literature production because I really like Eminem, but as far as what’s really going on, he has missed the mark. He and Dre are both relying relying on ends rather than middles to construct his place in the universe.
What Does That Mean?
They, like my academic colleagues, are relying on the ends of their experiences to situate themselves over others. They have traveled to the ends of experience, but others have not. And yet, it turns out that in ‘Not Afraid’ that Eminem has not actually figured things out as well as he thought he had. He says so here:
It’s a game called circle and I don’t know how, I’m way too up to back down
But I think I’m still tryin to figure this crap out
Thought I had it mapped out but I guess I didn’t, this fuckin black cloud
still follows, me around but it’s time to exorcise these demons
My academic colleagues would ‘tear the balcony down’ as a result of their realization of this, just as Eminem is trying to tear down the balconies of those who look down on him: “And all those who look down on me I’m tearin’ down your balcony.”
He has made his reputation on albums like ‘Infinite,’ but
His gift is a curse, forget the Earth, he’s got the urge
to pull his dick from the dirt, and fuck the whole universe
In other words, he wants to pull his dick from the earth and ‘fuck the whole universe’ (okay, those are the same words). He’d ‘shoot for the moon but I’m too busy gazin at stars.’ He’s looking even higher than the moon. That sounds a little contemptuous of the ‘little people’ who are too shy to pull their own dicks out of the ground a proceed to fuck the universe themselves but rely on Eminem to fuck the universe for them. It seems to me (but who am I?) he wants to shoot for the stars without suffering the fate of Antaeus, who suffers a loss of strength after Hercules lifts him of the ground.
And what’s more, Eminem seems unsure of exactly why he lost control of the ends that he thought he had control over. He starts on a rambling and largely incoherent explanation of his individual fate after he has fallen:
It was my decision to get clean, I did it for me
Admittedly, I probably did it subliminally
for you, so I could come back a brand new me you helped see me through
And don’t even realize what you did, believe me you
If this makes sense to you without any sort of mediating metaphor, could you please explain to me what he’s talking about (you can’t; don’t try)? From my position as a man who understands logic, he has misunderstood his power in the first place.
His power does not in fact come from his mystical bond with the universe, but from his (surprising to Anderson Cooper) education in the power of words. This is a matter of innate talent combined with a lot of hard work. It’s no accident that he has been able to rise to the top of his universe.He works hard to achieve mastery of this aspect of his universe, but it has nothing to do with his archetypal view of the ends of his experience; it has everything to do with his toiling within the limits of science.
The Moral Limitations of Flyting
This is how I explain the severe moral limitations of following Eminem and Dre into their naturally conceived world. They are two people who have staked their claims on their contact with the infinite. And in their pursuit of the infinite, they have gotten off track. Dre has produced art that people turn away from. Eminem has gotten involved in his ‘natural’ depression (his ‘black cloud’). And he’s staking his claim there: he’s not afraid; perhaps he should be (but who am I?). In my humble opinion, he should go armed with his education, not with his naturally-based talent that he cannot explain to himself or to others. That is the end of the reliance of Eminem and Dr. Dre on their own metaphysical superiority.
They would be much better off in the domain of reason, which is a world of give and take where a person delivers a good and the marketplace responds by buying or not buying the offered product. If Dr. Dre thought about the universe that way, then he would have to go back and calibrate his mental universe with the external universe in order to deliver a better product. As it is, he oversteps his bounds and demands that people bow down on one knee and worship him.
That almost never works, and when it does work works for reasons that elude the producers of artistic value. Producers of artistic value should recognize that their value in the marketplace comes from their ability to deliver better scientific content that is more in line with the minds of their audience than their competitors do.