I’m a contrarian, so I’m always surprised when anyone understands what I understand about the world; but it appears that Bryan Appleyard has written an article that aligns so closely with my feelings on the history of aesthetics that I thought I’d it review it here. It appeared in the Intelligent Life supplement in the October 29, 2011 issue of the Economist. The article is called “A One-Man Market” (it can be read in its entirety by cliccking on the tirle) and deals with the art of Andy Warhol, whose work, the header of the article (which it appears Mr. Appleyard did not write) says, “accounts for 17% of contemporary-art sales” before asking “Is he worth it?”
The notion that Andy Warhol’s work accounts for 17% of the modern art market is so astonishing to me that I can’t quite believe it. But when the author thinks about the reasons why, he makes a lot of sense.
The starting point for any assessment of Warhol’s legacy is his instant accessibility: nobody need ever be puzzled by a Warhol—his lavish colours, his epic simplicity and, most of all, his famous subject matter. “Andy always painted famous things,” says the artist Michael Craig-Martin, “whether it was Liz Taylor or a Coke can.”
Artists can imitate his work without knowing anything about his underlying models.
’Even children love him,’ says Gul Coskun, a Warhol specialist dealer in London. ‘They stop their parents outside my shop. His pictures are big, colourful, they are not taxing academically.’
Not being academically taxing, his works are easily appreciated and even imitated by children and adults alike; and this is what makes them so imitable by the younger generation that has made an art of external tattoos that show us their unchanging desires, hopes, and opinions rather than a deeper and opaque depth that some thinkers like Jacques Derrida believe is ephemeral in the first place. In this depthless universe, Andy Warhol reigns supreme.
Unlike my academic colleagues, I have no problem with the lack of depth in the universe. To each his own, I say. Some of us are plumbers; others (like me) are authors. But I do have a problem with the superficial level at which people stop their inquiry into to the universe. Rather than exploring the universe for differing opinions (whether you position them on the surface or underneath in the depths) that might contrast with mine of so require me to remeasure my opinion against different opinions that cannot be reconciled with my opinions without leading me to contradict myself, reason, which requires of each of us to pose our opinions and meet with other contrary opinions on it middle ground, has been eliminated from the universe. In reason’s place, each of us exists as a Leibnizian monad, each with the ability to express our opinions to the world without fear of contradiction by others.
Academic Analysis of the Warhol Universe
Andy Warhol is king of this monadic universe. And here I must side with Mr. Appleyard, who does not stop at the surface but goes looking for causes of Warhol’s behavior that leads him to the core of Warhol’s appeal. As he does this, he is able to “see” what those who are mindlessly imitating Warhol’s art apparently cannot: that Warhol’s moment “is indeed over.” This is one of the benefits of academic analysis: the academic can see what others cannot. And I agree with Mr. Appleyard that “seeing” is better than not seeing and that the use of the intellect, which increases as we age if we apply ourselves to the growth of the mind, is better than “instant intellectualism,” in which we use only our our more fluid intelligence, which fades quickly well before we reach the age of thirty and well before that if we don’t practice its use (see this article on fluid and crystallized intelligence if you don’t know what I’m talking about).
In his academic analysis, he touches on figures from AbEx—I love such terms, because they are the touchstone of insiders; see my post on mos and pomos—championed by Clement Greenberg, a man who I talked about in the section “Unlimited Postmodern Art“ in my post on Poker Tales: In the City That Never Sleeps.”
He also refers to most of the thinkers that I think of when I, who have written a book called Art in the Age of Talk Radio—not not politics, which I despise because it despised me—think of the art world, including Fredric Jameson, Arthur Danto (one of my favorites, who I refer to here in the section on “Arthur Danto’s Skepticism” and here in the section on “Power”), Heidegger, and, of course, Marcel Duchamps, who I refer to here in the section “Into the Warhol(e).” (Art in the Age of Talk Radio is scheduled to be published on March 1, 2012).
In his article, Mr. Appleyard shows the causes that allowed Andy Warhol to have become a colossus in the art world by showing how he intersected with many of the trends that have come to the fore in the more general culture. Therefore, he writes of Christopher Gaillard’s reaction to Warhol’s work:
Warhol is a global commodity now. His work is certainly supported by some key players we read about in the papers, but it’s my belief that this is much more far-reaching than that. Warhol is the most powerful contemporary-art brand that exists. I think Picasso is another, it’s about sheer, instant recognition and what comes along with it is a sense of wealth, glamour and power.
Artworld insiders praise Warhol for delivering them such a powerful message for the first time in history. Mr. Appleyard opens his piece with a testament by “Sara Friedlander, the 27-year-old head of First Open Sale at Christie’s in New York” who actually dismisses the art of the 19th century, the art of the 18th, and “the first three, four or five decades” of the 20th century on account of its being too ‘elitist.’”
More penetrating critics like Mr. Appleyard step back from such blind enthusiasm for the age they live in. They complicate issues that seem so easy on their surface that they require no further explanation by historicizing Warhol as the product of causes that can be found (but only if one is looking). From his position as critic, Mr. Appleyard views Warhol as the product of construction of artifice, which can, according to Derrida, be deconstructed on the basis that artifice does not get back to the ontology (‘realness’ in the words of more than one of my students) which underlies our experience. When one engages the artworld of Andy Warhol in Mr. Appleyard’s critical piece, we find a critic who is uneasy about the ultimate value of Warhol’s status as one who stands as the last word in art, at the end of history, and thus as an out of this world “genius.” Instead of playing along, Mr. Appleyard announces that Warhol’s moment, even at the height of his fame which has delivered 17% of the modern art market to the sale of his works, “is in fact over.”
Stepping Out of the Past
This stepping out of the arena of active ideas to point out flaws in the vision of the universe that ‘lesser’ minds take to be complete and unproblematic is the role of the critic in the world today. But like Arthur Danto, who is a very smart man and who has identified the unique aspects of the art of Andy Warhol (as well as much else), Mr. Appleyard does not have a picture of what comes next. This is a function of his taking the critical posture that says that his experience is worth more than the naïve experience of ‘lesser’ readers who have not taken the time to learn about this (and often any) subject. Mr. Appleyard’s reading of Warhol places too much emphasis on the past, while not thinking as clearly about the future. That is fair, but the fault with Mr. Appleyard’s construction of his universe is that he doesn’t see that there is any problem with his backward-looking view of the world. Like Arthur Danto, he knows that the universe of learning will flow through his critical hands and not through the hands of such ‘lesser’ (because uneducated) readers.
My problem with Mt. Appleyard’s and Mr. Danto’s position is that is not always so. I never would have encountered this if it hadn’t been for the systematic exclusion of my opinions by people who thought that they already had settled solutions to the problems that we were collectively attacking in academia. The only solution that my teachers had was to yield some of their power to me, but none of their position. I was to fall in line. But I did not because I had been raised in a different environment that raised different intellectual solutions to the same problems that Derrida and Michael Bérubé (who, though I hardly knew him when I was at the University of Illinois and who surely doesn’t remember me, gave me one of the two best piece of advice I ever got while I in graduate school) and not (I would insist because I was stupid; but then who am I to judge myself in the face of so many contrary opinions). But the only solution that my academic colleagues could offer me was to follow them or they though I must have a screw loose that they thought that a little yelling at me could fix (predictably, it did not).
The process of fixing boundaries builds the walls of the Ivory Tower between those who know and those who don’t. The question is whether those who are left outside should be excluded from conversation, as I was excluded when I was in graduate school, for a broad agreement on the outlines of knowledge into which ‘lesser’ minds must be indoctrinated before being allowed to participate. This sort of protective behavior is the sort of things that grand inquisitors levied against the birth of the new in order to keep themselves in their secure place earned through their education into the status quo.
The traditional solution to entrenched power has been to overthrow the old order for a new. This is the basis of the rise of the historical model of Petrarch and his literary contemporary, Boccaccio. The rise of Petrarch’s historical model, which he and Boccaccio were the only progenitors of in 1349, had overtaken the scholasticism that had ruled the schools since the 11th century in a historical blink of an eye, so that by the 15th century the victory of humanism was complete and by the end of the 16th century, the death of scholasticism was also complete, leaving room for the rise of modern philosophy. And to this day, scholars still think of their mission as being derived from humanism, not failed scholasticism. (see Roger Scruton’s A Short History of Modern Philosophy).
Removing the Barriers of Entry to Understanding
I would take a different tack than that of Scruton or Mr. Appleyard, both of whom I respect. Both men have written conservative assessments of the sad state of the arts and society in general, Mr. Scruton in his Meaning Of Conservatism and Mr. Appleyard in his Culture Club: Crisis in the Arts. As far as their assessment of the past, I find both right on the mark. But I differ with them (respectfully) on their assessment of the future, or rather I should say on their lack of vision about the future of art after Warhol loses his 17% of the modern art market and art travels somewhere or to someone else.
I was a conservative in the English Department from c. 1992 to 1994. I was driven to that position by the same forces that drove Mr. Appleyard to reject the leftist notion of art in 1984. I was able to finish my doctorate by hiding in plain sight in a world in which one’s political affiliations were paramount. As such, they trumped my intellectual accomplishments. So occasionally, I’d get called into someone’s office and they would grill me (or scram at me) about my intellectual leanings. I quickly learned that no one was interested in my intellect, but I also learned that no one was interested in my politics; so I learned to offer to show up for as long as it took to demonstrate my fealty to the cause. My being eager was enough to defray any interest in following up on my political positions, so I was allowed to continue with my intellectual pursuits unimpeded by political interference. And although I couldn’t really get a fair hearing within my academic department, I was able to send out conference proposals, which got accepted (I have to this day never been rejected), and I was able to boost my reputation in the English department by having presented more papers (10 original papers in 2 years, if I’m not mistaken) than any other graduate student and more than all but a few professors.
But this convinced me by 1994 that the details of my political beliefs was not all that important, and while I enjoyed listening to Milt Rosenberg on the radio railing against the liberal left’s control of academia, I realized that he had no answers to the problem of the future of art. Politics was not for me if if didn’t lead to answer that I had to questions that I had been asking since I dropped out of school looking for answers the question of the location of Joseph Campbell‘s “word behind words” in 1981. I changed my focus away from politics to what was wrong with the art world, which was supposed to capture the whole of human experience and not just those aspects that agree with their notion of what the world should hold and which it had held in an imaginary past (for my though on conservatism, see the section “What I Did to Combat PC” in which I talk about Cochrane’s assessment of the Roman folly of building a future on Livy’s idealized past in the section in a previous post). I thought I could do better.
Rather than fomenting a revolution against Mr. Appleyard and Mr. Scruton, and putting a new regime in their place (as conservatives attempted and failed to do in the 1990s when I was in graduate school), I think we should examine the building blocks of the avant-garde itself to see if the bricks which build walls that exclude ‘lesser’ minds are in fact real or whether they are themselves unacknowledged constructions by critics who want to keep themselves in power at the expense of “others” (I’ll give myself away, here; I think that they are).
The division of labor as constituted now leaves the critic on one side of the debate—whether the critic is on the inside or the outside is a matter of one’s perspective; there is no stable position in this universe). In my post on Lana Turner, I maintained that academics had separated themselves from lesser mortals by erecting a non-deconstructable Ivory Tower, entry to which was was restricted to those of superior intellect who had PhDs. This leaves insiders like Sara Friedlander not feeling any need for any wider perspective than that bestowed upon them by their position in the world. Yielding anything to people like Mr. Appleyard, who has expressed his reservations about people like Ms. Friedlander as long ago as 1984 in his Culture Club: Crisis in the Arts would only reassert the elitism that her generation—those who have not, like Mr. Appleyard (who’s 60) and myself (49), yet reached the age of 30. After all, in the critical insider’s universe, the critic has absconded from the world of active men (who are presumably searching for equality that Ms. Friedlander seems to have found immediately without all the rigamarole of history that Mr. Appleyard brings to the problem of art). This puts Ms. Friedlander in the position of immediacy, while Mr.Appleyard is in the position of bringing useless stuff to the table that would upset her perfect and equitable world should she allow Mr. Appleyard’s position any foothold in it.
So she does to him what my professors (not all) did to me when I was in graduate school: the excluded him and his ‘elitist’ art (all art preceding Andy Warhol) in order to save her hold on equality. But by a curious effect of my having abandoned politics in the construction of my aesthetic universe, I found that both Mr. Appleyard and Ms. Friedlander competing for ownership of the common ground of metaphysics. This is so common in the universe of aesthetics that many aesthetes don’t realize that art has not always been associated with metaphysics (see the table of contents of The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (Routledge Philosophy Companions) if you don’t believe me.
From this metaphysical position—the one that I had such a difficult time with in 1981 that I decided to go it alone and drop out of college rather than submitting to professors who knew no better than I the solutions to the problem of ultimate meaning but seemed far too eager to foist partial and so unsatisfactory solutions on their students from their position of power—Ms. Friedlander is left arguing that Mr. Appleyard’s position is not immediate enough, and she is willing to declare the whole history of art dead in order to sustain the integrity of her immediate metaphysical position. Mr. Appleyard is put in the position of defending his more holistic position as being better than Ms. Friedlander ‘s partial (and surely wrong) position.
So, in the situation of aesthetics, I am left with the question of which “partial” solution I should follow here: the young fresh insider who is fighting for equality but without the insight to realize her position in a larger tradition, or the old guy who is trying to reassert his power but who leaving the world of art entirely by tying Warhol himself to a tradition of inequality (and so of oppression of minorities and other underdogs). To hear Mr. Appleyard tell it, we should take the critical position, because only then can we achieve that status laid out by two thousand years of aesthetic thought (as outlined in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics) by which art is tied to the metaphysical reality that underlies changing experience.
But, as I just noted (and have noted elsewhere and often), there is no secure foundational place from which anyone can make final judgment on art or on anything else. And this is why (I suspect) Ms. Friedlander doesn’t believe in stepping out of her private preference for Warhol to a public place in which things which we believe in our heart of hearts can be argued about. It is she who is upholding the true status of aesthetics by referring art back to the only thing we can know with any metaphysical immediacy: the contents of our minds, while Mr. Appleyard is threatening her status as a creator by insisting that she is not as smart as she thinks she is at 28. But once again, I’ll lay my cards on the table and say that I agree with him. But the answer is not to travel back to the font of history, as I feel that Mr. Appleyard does in his soon to be published book, The Brain is Wider Than the Sky, which is available here but not on Amazon, US.
and try to recover the metaphysical aspect that Warhol has captured without the interference of social interaction of any kind, or severing ourselves from the active community of artist by traveling aaway from the immediate world of experience, I decided to change the terms on which we believe that aesthetic systems themselves operate in spite of 2,000+ years of aesthetic history.
The General Case for Including ‘Lesser’ Minds
Rather than giving an answer to such a knotty question as to who is right (insiders or outsiders), I would raise a question about why the division between insiders and outsiders persists in Derrida’s universe in which so much else that is constructed can be deconstructed. Why should this one division remain when all else in the public space has been eroded in favor of a private (and equal) aesthetic vision? It was to answer this question that I wrote my novel Poker Tales. In it, I began my plan to realign aesthetic systems with “partial” science rather than “totalizing” metaphysics. And despite what you’re thinking (c’mon, I know you are), my system makes a lot of sense.
The origin of my idea was conceived after I left academia as a profession but continued to teach ‘lesser’ students in community and technological colleges part time on the basis that I enjoyed it (which is just selfish) and on the more important (to me, anyway) that I felt a moral obligation to teach others the skills that I had mastered. Even though I only taught writing, I did it off an on for 20 years (I quit after having had a stroke at 42, and even then I went back for 2 years before realizing that it was too exhausting for me to keep up). And because I had such a terrible experience in grad school and because I truly do enjoy teaching, I wrote a book on the subject, which I called Writing for People Who Hate Writing: A Book for the Rest of Us in order to appeal to those people who are typically left out consideration by “experts” like Arthur Danto and Ms. Friedlander, who write my ‘lesser’ students off because their thought, which they probably think is no thought at all, doesn’t agree with what their expertise tells them they should expect the arts to tell them.
I have more faith in my ‘lesser’ students than Arthur Danto has. But I have learned to recognize that ‘lesser’ readers don’t see the value of the past in an American society that has put its emphasis on the creation of new value by the imaginative use of the mind (in the words of Steve Jobs) to “show people what they want,” because only after one invents something truly new can one profit on the difference between what one knows in depth and the weaker knowledge of those who need your services but aren’t all that interested in learning how to fix pipes, as such an exchange would take away from their profitable time working as literary critics. (see ‘Why Fido Can’t Drive’ in my Writing for People Who Hate WritingSteve Jobs has delivered us into a consumer world of selfish individual monads who are willing to express their opinions but who have no idea how to compromise with others without losing sight of their principles (Mr. Appleyard is one of the lone voices that agrees with me, here). I believe that the world could use a reconfiguration of its principles so that cooperation between competing parties will be available again in the middle domain of reason, rather than the lonely domain of absolute metaphysical self-assurance. Unfortunately, the road travels over the corpse of Arthur Danto, Steve Jobs, and, yes, even Bryan Appleyard on its way back to the lost road of metaphysics. I made my case, first in my “Why Fido Can’t Drive” in my Writing for People Who Hate Writing. I continued it in my second book, the fictional work of Poker Tales. In the latter book, I attempt to show that the walls on which the Ivory Tower are built are not as real as those on the inside think before proceeding to break them down.
I then made the case for ‘lesser’ minds in the central tale (literally the tale that comes in the middle of the book; as a student of the Middle Ages, I follow Dante’s principles of story construction, which is based in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy on which I have also written part of another scholar’s work) in the middle tale of my work of fiction, the tale I call ‘Four Parisians.’
The ‘Lesser’ Artist in the Tale of the ‘Four Parisians’
In the Tale of the ‘Four Parisians’, I start out giving an account of a scholar who lives in the town destroyed by war, Boulogne-sur-Mer (‘Boulogne by the sea’ for those of you who do not think, as Goethe seems to have, that translation ruins the meaning of an artwork). I attempt to show how important history and culture are in France, as opposed to ‘present’ France, which has been destroyed by war and has been rebuilt in the Brutalist style of architecture, a cold unfeeling style that lacked the grace and elegance one associates with French seaside villages but was instead the product of cold and calculating capitalists (I know, yuck, right?).
Not that you need to know this, since it doesn’t make any difference in your reading of the story I am telling you, but I searched for a city in France that featured the same style of architecture that was suggested to me by the Brutalist architecture of the NIU arts building (where I went to school for my Master’s Degree and in which I had some of my favorite moments in spite of the unfeeling architecture that surrounded me there) and by the Brutalist concrete walls of the last community college I worked at (where I loved teaching amidst the Brutalist architecture that surrounded me there). It turned out that Boulogne-sur-Mer fit the bill. What sealed the deal for me was the presence of Godfrey of Boulogne in the city’s history. This allowed me to have the hero of the piece, Claude Pecullier, believing that his father, Jacques Pecullier (for those of you who think, as Goethe seems to have, that names matter), was not making up his son’s heritage out of whole cloth (as I had made up Claude and Jacques). Unfortunately, it was not true; and when Jacques died interred himself in the concrete he was building the replacement city out of, the only legacy he gave to Claude was his completely fabricated history of his descent from Godfrey himself.
Once again, I am drawing on my own genealogy, which ties me back to some Danish or Anglo Saxon king or other. I don’t have the Clarkson Genealogy with me, but I like to think that it’s Harold Bloodaxe. It isn’t, but it seems as likely as the actual king they tied me to. There seems to be a mania for this sort of thing in an age that puts so much emphasis on using the past to pave the way for the future (Livy-like). So Harold Bloodaxe it is.
I apologize for getting dragged slightly off my original point. You see how easy it is to get dragged off your point if you adhere to closely to supposed history, which doesn’t matter in real history.
As a result, Claude Pecullier grows up wishing more than anything to live in the past, and he flees the rebuilt Boulogne for historical and culturally rich Paris, as people have been fleeing the provinces for the city of lights ever since the birth of the modern age friends in the modern nation.
The Lack of Irony in the Tale of the ‘Four Parisians’
The tale the ‘Four Parisians’ revolves around the upbringing and subsequent life of Claude Pecullier, who grows from his perfect childhood looking out at the sea, where he dreams of things lacking in his own life the city of his birth. I tried not to use irony in my description of Claude’s relationship with his mother or his relationship with ideas. Like Claude, I respect ideas. But unlike Jacques Pecullier, I do not believe in closing the hermeneutic circle with tales of origins, which, being false, can only further hide the truth of the world from his son Claude.
The subsequent life of Claude Pecullier is therefore built on a lie, and this means that one could deconstruct both Claude and his work if one wanted to. But if deconstructing the work of Claude Pecullier on the basis of its lack of ontology (‘realness’ in the vernacular of the lesser students that I have been teaching for 20 years) is our only option, then why would anyone ever want to? For in spite of its lack of ontology, Claude has written 14 books in 14 years, and these would have to be deconstructed, as well.
This, too, comes from my experience as an educator. I am very wary of deconstructing education on the basis of it’s not being involved in ontology (‘realness’) in spite of my student’s belief that what is not immediately apparent to them is useless makework. And this is why I am writing this article in conjunction with Bryan Appleyard’s critical piece on the art of Andy Warhol. I like Mr. Appleyard’s approach to the past; it is his lack of vision about the future that I have a problem with, and the is easily remedied with a little tweaking rather that a full-scale revolution that would make all learning about past approaches, built on relative values of habit rather than permanent features grounded in ontology (‘realness’), useless. Sometimes the things most worth learning are not immediately apparent.
In my reading, not just in Poker Tales but in general, there is always an element of imagination that comes between our mind’s construction of things and ontology. In Paris, Rousseau had decided that we had been sundered from on our ontology by mechanical construction. Rousseau’s solution to this was to go back to line ourselves with nature, ontology, for those not afflicted with lesser minds). But I believe that people like Steve Jobs, who invent things and then present them to the public through marketing that they’ve never seen before, operate on the principles of imagination, while, in my chapter on the Old-Timer’s tale of his own origins in 1972, which I entitled “Reykjavík” for reasons that Mr. Appleyard is old enough to appreciate, I note that most people who make a ton of money are not the inventors, but the marketers who have the imagination to connect people’s minds with the products they have found a need for. And this is a function of the “middle space” of my precious reason, and not of Andy Warhol’s precious metaphysical realm where, it turns out, one doesn’t need any learning at all; all one need to have is one’s own being.
America, it turns out, has been the leader in innovation in the 20th century, giving the world inventions that have driven modern era like the lightbulb, electric lines, the telephone; the production line; the automobile; the airplane; the television; the transistor; the rocket ship; the computer; and all of Steve Jobs’ innovations, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. This series of remarkable and thoroughly American is the basis of my belief that culture has traveled from Paris to America. It’s on the basis of the non-foundational structure the Claude only believes that he’s reached the end of in his approach to ‘realness’ though history, but in fact he has not. America, with its kitchy art and false marketing of things we don’t need, is even less committed to science than Claude Pecullier, mandarin literary doyen of one of the most famous schools in France, is.
Imagination in the ‘Four Parisians’
Rather than attempting to crowd out the role of imagination in the world of construction, I revel in it in my Poker Tales. This reveling in imagination also accounts for the chief difference between the two oppoents in the book: Kid of 21 who flies to Las Vegas on the day after his 21st birthday, and the Old-Timer who reprts that he has been coming to Las Vegas since 1970 or 1972 (the author is not perfectly clear on that detail). When the ‘Four Parisians’ starts, the Kid has heard what the Old-Timer has been telling him about poker being a game mastered by experts in the tale of ‘Yeller.’ He takes him to mean that the Old-Timer doubts his natural natural talent and that he should go back to school to learn more of accessible reason and not let himself become distracted by his desire to win big or die trying (an American trait if ever there was one). But the Old-Timer tells the Kid that he is mistaken, that everyone is subject to superstition, even the most famous professors. This leads him to tell the story of the ‘Four Parisians’ in which they are overconfident and are thus overtaken by as ignorant an American there ever was, a man named ‘Belcher’ Owens.
The ‘Four Parisians’ come to Las Vegas with a disdain for the lesser concern with money. They come to view Las Vegas as the destination of the worst of the worst, something I dealt with previously in my post on Neil Postman. The four Parisians travel to Las Vegas because the culture of Las Vegas is the opposite of the culture of Paris, despite the fact of their similar names as the City of Lights (this small detail argues for my way of looking at the world through the mechanism of habit taking great ideas from others rather than inventing new ideas out of the whole cloth of total revolution). And so they come to Las Vegas, not to enjoy it as it is, but to enjoy it from the safe intellectual distance of the Pop Max, a postmodern conference held in Las Vegas precisely so that scholars can laugh in the face of ideas that they hold dear as representing ontology (‘realness’), but which are present in Las Vegas only in the 50-foot cardboard statues of unreal chorus girls. From this safe intellectual distance, they come, they judge, and judging believe they have conquered.
The Joks’s on Them
The problem with this and every other hermeneutic irony is that, like everyone who comes to Las Vegas, they deign to gamble, and it is then that they meet ‘Belcher’ Owens, a man as unlike Claude Pecullier as one (or at least I, the author) can imagine. When asked about the origin of his name, ‘Belcher,’ “never wordsmith himself, demonstrated his prowess in the eructative art.” This is enough to dismiss ‘Belcher’ from serious consideration for inclusion into the in the universe of Claude Pecullier.
Now this makes for an interesting problem, because ‘Belcher’s name is actually derived from one of my favorite Shakespearean characters named Toby Belch. This observation not signaled in the text. So the question becomes whether the four Parisians, who take great pride in the fact that they know more about Shakespeare than ‘Belcher’ Owens does (he vaguely remembers Shakespeare as his father’s plumber). But would it matter if the four Parisians had had that bit of meta-irony available to them? I submit that it would not. So the more important question than whether they know this is what does it mean that the author constructs Claude Pecullier and his friends; Etwas Papier (this was from the first lesson I ever had in German from James W. Marchand, the person who I dedicated my book to; it means ‘some paper’ for those of you who are not fluent in German, but need a translator); Karl Erbrechen-Schopfer (whose name is derived from Google translator, where I put in ‘vomit creator’ and got back ‘erbrechen schopfer’), and the one American who always wanted to have the gleam of intellectual achievement and so has traded in his status as a writer for television for the status of marginally ‘respectable’ writing of the Blaireau Lentement series of books, Follower Rhymes, without that bit of knowledge that ‘Belcher’ Owens is relevant to their sense of themselves as knowers of all, or whether they have been duped by the very sense of depth and historical principle that they take so much pride in? [The answer in my book is yes. In short, they are duped by believing their own press.]
This gives us various perspectives on the literature on display here. On the one hand we have creatures who are within the text. The Kid has shown up in Las Vegas because he’s rebelling against his parents who want him to go to college and have a nice happy life as an accountant. This makes him completely uninterested in Claude Pecullier. But, through a somewhat ironic irony, Claude is lashing out against the world of order (particularly capitalist order) along the lines of Derrida, a famous man who wants to destroy the old (fictional) order to rebuild the new on firmer ontological grounds (‘realness’). So in a sense, the Kid is on the side of Claude Pecullier who is on the side of Jacques Derrida despite the fact that the Kid himself doesn’t know it.
On the other hand, the Old-Timer has more control of his situation. Unlike Pecullier within his story and Derrida without, who operate as though there is nothing outside the text (hors de texte, for those of you who believe as Goethe believes that translation is something that eliminates (not just suppresses, as Derrida holds) meaning from the text), the Old-Timer is a storyteller who hides as much meaning as he reveals in telling his stories. The various perspectives on experience make it mandatory that everyone in the book investigate their experience, not against their own individual experience or against the collective community, but against the larger world. But it exactly this that not only the Kid—who let’s face it is not as bright as he thinks he is—but also Claude Pecullier and Derrida, intellectual and critical giants in the world of France, believe.
It is for this reason of his blindness to his own blind side that Claude Pecullier fails to beat ‘Belcher’ Owens in a game where the rules are not as he thinks they ought to be. And rather than going back to the drawing board and rethinking his strategy according to the (albeit relative) rules of the game that change over time, as we see in the next tale called ‘His Last Wife,’ he decides that there is something wrong with those who play such a silly game and not with his own metaphysical and aesthetic stance of distance on issues that he brings to the poker table. This is the same strategy followed by the Old-Timer’s Soviet compatriots in the “Reykjavík“ tale, where the Old-Timer opted out of the balanced position held by the press and politicians for a more profitable strategy of finding suckers who knew less about what was going on at the poker than he did. This change in strategy changed him forever to one of the 20% of winners.
In my view (and in ‘Belcher’s) there is no metaphysical strategy involved in his world after he breaks free of balance for a world of individual freedom. ‘Belcher’ devotes himself to feeding his enormous appetite, and never realizes what an intellectual giant he is confronting. And while I myself enjoy art as recreation from the world of everyday back and forth of experience, it does not dismiss artist from looking at the world as it is by allowing them to declare themselves in control of the universe on the basis of their having taken a privileged and so non-deconstructable position of aestheticism and not of their having looked at the world as is.
At the same time, the world opens up to the Old-Timer as one of the 20% for whom the world holds possibilities of success. That is not to say that he will be guaranteed his success, for even the best starting hand in Texas Hold ‘Em has a 15% chance of losing. This throws the balance that has been at the heart of educational experience since Plato (and probably much longer than that) into disarray, as men with the wherewithal to study the world as it actually operates will be in a much better position to profit from their better knowledge of the way the world works than those who hold onto deeper ideas that depend on a false sense of balance.
This is an idea that first occurred to me after I got out of school and got my first job at the age of 33 and learned for the first time of the Pareto Principle, which says that 80% of peas come from 20% of pea plants, and that 80% of land is owned by 20% of the people. This throws the entire premise on which my whole education was based into disarray. And this, again, is why ‘Belcher’ Owens can beat the poor Claude Pecullier at this “silly game.” He has a marginal advantage in his understanding of how the world actually works that Claude Pecullier lacks, despite all those years of studying the the way things have been in the past.
This construction of the universe is where I disagree with Bryan Appleyard, for it seems to me that he is working (as everyone is working on both sides of the political aisle) with the notion that nature is in some way balanced and not instead a ruthless picker of winners and losers in an unfair game that human beings nevertheless cannot stop playing just because we don’t like the rules (quitting is death). But as I said earlier, rather than throwing out the baby with the bathwater, I believe that my “art” raises questions about the path before us in the time-honored tradition of raising new points that are sticking places in an otherwise smooth status quo tradition (see my article on ‘Knowledge’ in Writing for People Who Hate Writing). Unfortunately for Mr. Appleyard, I waise my flag in precislely the area where he attempts to rest: in the metaphysical still point, which I don’t believe exists without an imaginary metaphor that stands between the mind and the “truth.”
And, to be sure, I have managed to “stay away from audiences,” as Mr. Appleyard also advises on page 14 of his Culture Club, though more because I am shy and I have not yet attempted to market my work yet than that I think it won’t be a fabulous bestseller one day.
The question I raise in my book have to do with the incompatibities of the two separate systems for looking at the same evidence. In my view of the universe, there is more than enough room for Claude Pecullier’s way of thinking. It is only from his aesthetic perspective that he is incapable of reconciling his desires to the outcome of the tale. In the end, he writes his fifteenth book—after Ovid’s final book of the Metamorphoses, if anyone’s interested (and, c’mon, you and I both know nobody is)—which, though it sold the least of all of the books that the four Parisians write, earns him the Moynton Prize, which earns him a seat on the prestigious (if you live in France) Académie française as one of the Immortels appointed by the Académie française, which is all that M. Pecullier ever really wanted in the first place. So everybody wins; ‘Belcher’ wins money, and Claude wins immortality, even if in the end the author who created him out of whole cloth (that’s me) knows that it is built on a fiction.
My Art and (a Different) Andy Or Ruptures in the Experience of the (War)hol(e)
I consider the loss of balance the price of saving intellectual endeavor from the likes of Andy Warhol, who delivers a more immediate and therefore more accessible experience that nevertheless hides a substantial part of the experience of even the wisest of us—not me, who slaved away in community and technical colleges, but people like Claude Pecullier and Jacques Derrida—from us.
My chief argument in favor of my position is derived, not from a random thought that popped into my head, but from two of the most complicated arguments available to me from graduate school: the notion of a rupture épistémologique and the notion of simulacra, derived from postmodern thought of Gaston Bachelard and Jean Baudrillard (both not uncoincidentally Frenchmen ). When I think of such things, which I do more often than I ought, I wonder that Bachelard and Baudrillard exempt themselves from the possibility that their own thought is subject to rupture.
It was when I was thinking about this problem in terms of Pareto inequality, where winners continue to win while losers continue to lose, rather than the balanced nature of things that I was taught in school, that I decided to test the assumptions when they were everywhere, not just in the “other” world of folks who get left out of the picture because they don’t agree with what everyone who matters (in the world of literary criticism) knows. When the Old-Timer says to the Kid in response to his mystified questioning of something that hasn’t occurred to him (because he’s never heard the terms before) “It doesn’t matter,” the Kid should not rest content with things because he hasn’t heard them before and so ignore them and continue on his way. Instead, he should learn to confront the world, because it might not be as he (in his too passive state) thinks it is.
And this is my answer to Bryan Appleyard. I don’t want to argue with him. I want to build on his insight with insights of my own, thus saving the world from revolutionaries who overthrow accumulated and hard-won knowledge on the basis of their historical understanding that nevertheless does not reach the bottom of the assumption pile before getting turned over by people who have not even learned what people from previous generations knew until the point (where we are now) that hard-won leaning doesn’t matter in the face of much easier because much more accessible experience. That path is the path of Steve Jobs consumers, but not of Steve Jobs the producer, who works himself and others to get a product right before he introduces if to the masses for their consumption.
I want to point out that that Mr. Appleyard’s historical position will give him insight into what is missing in the lives of others but will not give him insight into what is missing in his own life. And I want to make it clear to Mr. Appleyard (on the basis of my recent experience with some of my Facebook friends) that I do not exempt myself from not knowing all and so elevating myself above others on that basis as certain rappers do. No one in the world has complete knowledge that would allow them to control my (or his) choices, not even Derrida or Eminem.
Mr. Appleyard should seriously consider my version of Nature, in which she is not balanced but instead rewards winners as those who can overcome their dispositions of how they want her to be and instead take her as she is (as an unfair mistress against whom human beings build their equitable communities in opposition to). His failure to consider my argument will not make Nature go away or make her travel down the path in which she is balanced on the basis of our human disposition that she should be so or on the basis that so many in the past have thought so.