Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

There's No Prescribing Prescriptivism

I’m bringing this response to this comment to the front page, because it’s too long for a comment and worth addressing here anyway, I think. So, S Johnson says:

Forbidding the critic to prescribe is itself a prescription.

Which is why I have not attempted to do so. I have simply argued, and will continue to argue, that there are different modes of critique identifiable according to whether they apply — or refrain from applying — certain distinct strategies. This is an attempt at a descriptive model. It does not exclude prescriptivism as a potential strategy, does not say that the presence of prescriptivism renders critique “no longer critique” — which would indeed be a prescriptivist strategy, a (re)definition of critique that prescribes a limit, paradoxically setting prescriptivism outwith that limit. Instead the model explicitly includes prescriptivism. I have said that prescriptivist critique can and does exist. See my posts on “The Assumption of Authority” for specific examples I argue exhibit prescriptivist strategies. I've said it doesn't need to exist, that it is not a necessity of critique, and that one can identify critiques where it's absent.

At no point have I said we must expunge it. I have only suggested that we should avoid it as much as possible. Note the modality.

I have argued that there are practical detriments to applying prescriptivism — descriptive assertions — but I have also acknowledged that it can be enjoyable to read and that I recognise the tendency to apply prescriptivism as a fairly natural trait, one I am by no means immune to (c.f. my comments on Fringe or Tolkien). I have repeatedly emphasised that my valuation of critique by this strategic model is orthogonal to any valuation of critique in terms of argumentative substance, that others may well value substantive prescriptivist critique over superficial non-prescriptivist critique. I have at no point prescribed them from doing so, simply argued that the practical detriments of applying prescriptivism are a damn good reason to value critique on the basis of mode as well as on the basis of substance.

Repeat: At no point have I said we must expunge it. I have only suggested that we should avoid it as much as possible. Note the modality.

Where you trivialise the effects of prescriptivism in critique, I consider this highly naive in light of its socio-political uses in linguistics. Again, see my “The Assumption of Authority” posts for more detailed arguments. I can, if you want, try and make my case more explicit however.

I would point to the empowered prescriptivism of obscenity legislation and decrees of “suitable subject matter” within the Hollywood studio system and network television, historically and in the present. I would point to homosexuality as one subject matter that has been prescribed as obscene in legislation and/or as “unsuitable” in commercial television. I would point to the absence of gay characters in any of the Star Trek franchises, and to the various statements by Rick Berman that lend credence to rumours of this being a matter of prescriptive policy: that gay characters were not to be represented as a matter of principle. I would suggest that this prescriptivism reflects the prejudices written into the mores of society at large, is in fact enacting those prejudices, reifying them if not reinforcing them. I would point to the fact that the first gay kiss on British television only took place within my lifetime (Eastenders, 1986) because representation of homosexuality in so “graphic” a manner was hitherto decreed improper. I would point to the fact that a more recent gay kiss (Eastenders, 2008) sparked moral/prejudicial complaints from audience members who still deem such subject matter improper, complaining specifically that it took place before the nine o’clock watershed -- i.e. that it transgressed a prescription of "proper" prime-time viewing. I consider this, and other such reactions, hard evidence that prejudicial prescriptivism is pressured for by prejudiced audiences.

I would point to predictable critical reactions to such transgressions of propriety, how they are invariably deemed “gratuitous”, “indecent”, “offensive”, “vulgar”, how aspersions are cast on the motivation of creators with arguments that they are simply being “controversial” in order to gain commercially from the resultant publicity. I would suggest that such reactions were demonstrably present in reviewers’ reactions to the first Eastenders gay kiss in 1986 and that they articulated and validated the widespread homophobia brought to the surface by the emergence of AIDS. I would suggest that it was not only tabloid reviewers that reacted in such a way but that the same moral/prejudicial prescriptivism and projections of base intent were present in broadsheets with a conservative agenda. I would point to the TLS review of The Naked Lunch and the letters to the editor in support of it from Victor Gollancz and Dame Edith Sitwell (published in an appendix of the 1988 Paladin edition) as evidence that such attitudes persist among reviewers and readers who are far from “shallow”. I would assert that prescriptivism in such instances is not just born of but is also pandering to prejudice. Where you trivialise the consequences of such prescriptivism on the grounds that reviewers have no “genuine power” to prescribe and that “even the shallowest reader is easily able to read the critique/review critically, i.e., reject it,” I would say this is a level of dismissive complacency I have to strive not to over-react to.

Prejudice begets prejudice. A prescriptive condemnation born of prejudice also panders to it, validates it with (assumed) authority, the prejudice thereby reifying and reinforcing itself. Prescriptivism is a mechanism whereby such prejudice seeks to establish itself as unofficial but conventional, the default paradigm — normative and sanctioned by both public consensus and expert opinion. Where it succeeds in establishing itself thus, (often because the prescriptivism is pandering to a pre-existing and widespread moral/prejudicial attitude to a scapegoat group within society,) as the default paradigm it propagates. People are not born prejudiced but acquire their prejudices through the persuasive force of peers and authority figures. Conventionality is itself conventional, many if not most individuals, I would assert, unconsciously accepting whatever default paradigm they are raised in, even accepting changes to that default paradigm as and when they occur. Were this not the case we would all be living in utopias entirely free of prejudice, as there would be no counterforce to the efforts and abilities of individuals to dismantle prejudice, in themselves and others, as and when they recognise it as unjust. It is simply, I would argue, a complacent pretense to imagine that rhetoric is ineffectual, a pretense disproven by every demagogue in history. The prescriptivist rhetoric of propriety has effects in all domains of peer-group discourse and to argue otherwise is, I’d say, untenable.

While the aesthetic standards applied prescriptively to fiction in the present day might seem of little socio-political import — the critique under discussion not tending to impose blatantly prejudicial prescriptions like those regarding the representation of homosexuality (though I can assure you that I’ve read reviews of Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains which, in over-stressing a few depictions of gay sex and projecting a political agenda on the author’s part, indicate to me that the prejudice itself persists, albeit in a milder form of… hypersensitivity to that which is normally absented) — I would again point you to the posts on “The Assumption of Authority”, in particular to the example of critical responses to sensation novels. The segregation of these novels out as fundamentally not proper novels but as a debased form of fiction, characterised as “feminine” and dismissed as commercial hackwork, “redolent of the manufactory and the shop”, binds a prescriptivist quality aesthetic to a deeply misogynist discourse of hysteria. The socio-political import of this was clearly disregarded in a climate where such misogyny was the default paradigm. Those who are not themselves the abject are often blind to the discourse of abjection, often even unwitting participants in it.

I would point to the terms “elitist” and “populist” as markers of two rival discourses of abjection that are as inextricable from socio-political prejudices as that surrounding sensation novels is inextricable from misogyny. The rhetoric of prejudicial disdain is meted out, on the one hand against the “hoity-toity”, and on the other against the “hoi poloi” -- against the “snob” with complex tastes and the “pleb” with simple tastes. The high culture / low culture divide may no longer be as tightly bound to the class structure of society as it once was, but one should not underestimate the extent to which these rhetorics still reinforce class divisions by rendering abject those perceived as “getting above their station” or as “uncultivated proles”. Prescriptivism in the strange fiction genres is ideally situated to act as carrier of anti-intellectualism and classism, with advocates of more commercial fiction decreeing complex works “improper” and advocates of more complex fiction decreeing commercial works “improper” , each opponent of “elitist wank” or “populist trash” ironically engendering a counter-response that abjects them as a “pleb” or a “snob”.

I would suspect that many within the community accreted around the strange fiction genres will have first-hand experience with both types of prejudice: as the bookish “nerd” abjected by anti-intellectuals for their interest in literature (and in the science and history that fuel these fictions); and as the fannish ”geek” abjected by intellectuals for their interest in these genres of fiction deemed capable of no more than crass commercial pulp. I would say I’m staggered that the discourse within the community replicates both prejudices, but I’m not suprised at all really; those who are abjected often abject others in turn, as “white trash” will abject members of another race or religion — blacks in the US, Catholics in Scotland.

I am however fairly passionate that we should reject such discourses of abjection wherever they rear their ugly heads, and I think prescriptivist critique is no less powerful a conduit for reifying and reinforcing prejudice than most others. Again, think of the misogyny written into the criticisms of sensation novels, think of the homophobia in any decree that The Naked Lunch isn’t a “proper” novel but just “filth”, think of the working class kid who’s sneered at by his housing scheme peers for actually liking books and looked down on by middle class idiots whose Daddy and Mummy have raised them to read the “proper” type of books. Do you really not think that attitude is perpetuated by prescriptivist critics who damn a serious book because it’s “not fun” or damn a fun book because it’s “not serious”, and as everyone knows, to be a “good” book, a “proper” novel or a “proper” story, a book simply must be this and never that? Really?

Shenanigans! I say. I call shenanigans!

And yet, again, I stress, all the above is a descriptive model of the adverse effects of prescriptivism as I see it. It asserts that prescriptivism is there, and that it is of dubious worth and demonstrable detriment. I make no attempt to forbid it, to prescribe a “proper” mode of critique. I have no mandate to do so. I simply challenge prescriptivism.

Repeat (till blue in the face): At no point have I said we must expunge it. I have only suggested that we should avoid it as much as possible.

Note the modality.

3 Comments:

Blogger S Johnson said...

Unhesitating acceptance of popular prejudices, deliberate adherence to conventional wisdom as the touchstone, deliberate pandering to the powerful are all, by my lights, hallmarks of uncritical thinking. These attitudes do not examine the evidence, the logic or the consequences of the positions taken. Also, the positions taken by default flow from uncritical acceptance of what is. But what I see as uncritical, you call prescriptivism. We personally have considerable agreement on values it appears.

But all the terrible things you talk about are sort of beside the point. A tactful doctor can gently phrase his prescription for good health as suggestions for improvements. That doesn't mean he avoids prescribing. As near as I can make out, by your notions of critique, anyone can adhere to all sorts of nonsensical, reactionary positions so long as they are diplomatic and provide a foliage of "reasoning."

My notions of critique commit the sin of prescribing notions of right and wrong reasoning, which idea you disdain. Possibly because I have a naive faith that correct reasoning explodes most of those horrible reactionary ideas we don't care for? At least, if critics and reviewers were expected to adhere to standards of reasoning, you could tell when a reviewer is blowing smoke about why he likes or dislikes something.

In other words, the sticking point on your rejection of prescriptivism is that it defines the notion of right and wrong as invalid, instead of answering the hard questions of knowing right and wrong.

I think the issues are clear enough that I can stop scaring away the interesting posts!

3:27 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

As near as I can make out, by your notions of critique, anyone can adhere to all sorts of nonsensical, reactionary positions so long as they are diplomatic and provide a foliage of "reasoning."

Well, of course they can. They can write whatever nonsensical, reactionary, undiplomatic and spuriously reasoned critique they want. All such features will render the critique of little value to you, me and probably a good many others — it will make us judge it bad critique in that respect — so I would hope they try a little harder. But I’m not the boss of them, so I won’t say what they cannot do (i.e. must not do), only what I think they should not. I don’t include being undiplomatic in that, as this would cover snark and vitriol that may be valid, and I’m only concerned here with the particular attempt to gain power/privilege that constitutes assumption of authority. Being reactionary is disprefered in so far as moralistic reaction short-circuits ethical critique (see “The Absence of the Abject” post). The dispreference of nonsensical and spurious reasoning is such a given I’d have thought it hardly necessary to state that the analysis and abstraction I’m talking about ought to be sound at all levels. Still I have explicitly stated that my suggestion is “to value critique on the basis of mode as well as on the basis of substance”. A large part of what I’m arguing is, in fact, that prescriptivism is the source of nonsense (moral/prejudicial assumptions), and that argument on the basis of such is precisely what renders the substance mere “foliage”, as it ceases to be descriptively sound.

4:48 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

My notions of critique commit the sin of prescribing notions of right and wrong reasoning, which idea you disdain. Possibly because I have a naive faith that correct reasoning explodes most of those horrible reactionary ideas we don't care for?

Your naivety or my cynicism? Who can say? I will say that my point above is that “correct” reasoning may fuel those ideas precisely by refusing to admit that they could possibly be incorrect. And that you may be reading an absolutist stance into my existentialist subjectivism that isn’t there, reading a rejection of prescribed notions of essential, intrinsic, objective right and wrong as a rejection of the very ideas of right and wrong per se. I’m all for applying these as tools on the understanding that they’re arguable. I’m all for arguing them, in fact, advancing descriptive models that seek objective relevance but stand or fall by their utility, by how they fit the evidence, because ultimately I think the scientific method is applicable in the domain of critique. As I said to Matt Cheney:

I could make an argument that I’m applying technical standards of quality that are actually about creating a functional narrative, probably with some sort of reference to a Todorovian equilibrium model. I could argue that Moore flouts these with his cop-outs, the deus ex machina, the expediently inconsistent behaviour of characters like Starbuck and Tigh, that the result may be serviceable but it is still Just Plain Bad in terms of craft, like bad code that runs but is ridden with bugs. Like a program that only doesn’t crash if the user doesn’t do any number of things — things that any user would expect to be able to do. My instinct is that narrative dynamics can be evaluated on those terms, that it may be too complex a system to be as objective about as program code, but that a work can be deemed technically dysfunctional, badly crafted. It is an empirical claim; it’s just that the judgement is highly subjective, based on informal testing. It’s not conclusive, not authoritative, but it is a legitimate contention. This is, however, as I say, my instinct. Without a well-formed theory of narrative dynamics to back it up (hell, even with that theory,) all such judgements require to have their contingency recognised.

Part of why I value pure critique is its aim (or potential aim, at least, my aim when I’m going about it,) of developing that sort of “theory of narrative dynamics” with as little presupposition of aesthetic standards as possible. My approach does not, I’d say, define the notions of right and wrong as invalid. Rather it says we should (always “should”,) attach a “practically” before them — practically right and practically wrong — both in the sense of “almost” and in the sense of “as part of a working methodology”.

5:06 pm  

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