Saturday, December 20, 2008

Notes on the Career I Have Chosen

A couple days ago I turned in my dissertation. My advisor happened to be in his office when I dropped it by, so we planned a date for my defense, and we talked about Tarkovsky, the subject of my work, Tarkovsky scholarship and the state of things in academia. I’m still a bit shaken by the way our conversation ended, because it was one of those moments you may have had with a teacher/mentor figure of your own, where everything is moving along pleasantly, and then he starts to give you advice that makes you want to scream, because you find it offensive, and you feel sick that someone you respect so much, someone that has been your teacher and helped you open our eyes to so many important things, is now advising you to do something you find morally reprehensible.

Basically he was advising me to engage in dialogue with mainstream film criticism in respectful terms, and this is something I find myself completely unable to do. Because I think it is irresponsible. I am supposed to be writing a review for an on-line journal for a book entitled: Frames of Evil: the Holocaust as Horror in American Film. 100% academic bullshit. I sent a letter to Ray Carney about it, and he posted it in his mailbag. Go read it: http://people.bu.edu/rcarney/aboutrc/letters79.shtml. When your done with that, read some more stuff at his site. Particularly in the mailbag, Dr. Carney has been writing about something that he has only touched on from time to time in his books and essays, namely, the notion that art is a form of resistance. Real art is a form of reistance, not just the agit-prop that quasi-activist academics like to praise. Go read, The Difference between Fake and Real Emotions in Life and Art: http://people.bu.edu/rcarney/carncult/emotions.shtml. It’s short but maybe the best primer for thinking about art I can think of.

If you read these two sections you have a good sense of the problem. Part of it is that academics are playing games with each other. They write crazy things about bad art and leave good art alone, because writing about good art is no way to build a career. The other ingredient is that the so-called liberals in academia have turned the revolutionary aspect of art into a single note populist maxim. They have dumbed it down and reduced it to its shallowest manifestation without no regard for how this action plays into the hands of power brokers. The hegemony wants academia to be about esoteric minutia that no one would understand but an academic. That way they get to call us elitist. All the cultural studies brand deconstruction in the world will not so much as make a dent in the fa├žade of hegemony. If you are a film scholar and you write wacky things about how Spielberg uses horror frames more familiar in Hitchcock as a code for evil so that the audience can make some unconscious connection between real horror and their experience of horror in film, and you think that this is an act of resistance, you are fooling yourself in a most profound way.

This brings me back to my advisor’s suggestion that I give these people the benefit of the doubt. There is only so much doubt I can allow before I become morally irresponsible. My critique of their ideology already grants their purity of heart. I have been in college since 1992, and I know for a fact that it is widely considered professionally acceptable (and what’s worse, economically viable, when a scholar should never in a million years have to think about how much money he can make from his writing) to be the first to make a case for something. That is just insane. You don’t say something because no one else ever said it before; you say something because you believe in it. That this attitude is fostered and perpetuated tells us a lot about what is wrong with academia. We are more concerned about building careers than coming up with good ideas.

In short that’s why I have to disregard his advice. The people who want to talk about representations of gender or representations of blackness or representations of “the other” in movies and me – we aren’t writing about the same thing. Even if we both write about Tarkovsky, we aren’t writing about the same thing. I’m writing aesthetics, they are writing sociology. Why would I read them? Why would I engage in dialog with them? Besides there are plenty of folks writing about film as art that I can argue with. I’ll save my debate for the formalists, the amateur sociologists aren’t worth the time.

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