Chronically disapproving as these thinkers were, they were not disengaged from the culture of their day. In order to dissect it, they bent over it. One great contribution that they made to the art of criticism was the idea that any object, no matter how seemingly trivial, was worth a searching glance. In the second volume of the Harvard Benjamin edition, covering the turbulent final years of the Weimar Republic, Benjamin variously analyzes Mickey Mouse (“In these films, mankind makes preparations to survive civilization”), children’s books and toys, a food fair, Charlie Chaplin, hashish, and pornography (“Just as Niagara Falls feeds power stations, in the same way the downward torrent of language into smut and vulgarity should be used as a mighty source of energy to drive the dynamo of the creative act”). You often feel a tension between the intensity of the scrutiny and the modesty of the subject, as if an electron microscope were being used to read the fine print on a contract.
…One way or another, the Frankfurt School mode of criticism—its skeptical ardor, its relentless scouring of mundane surfaces—has spread far. When online recappers expend thousands of words debating the depiction of rape on “Game of Thrones,” or when writers publish histories of sneakers or of the office cubicle, they show intense awareness of mass culture’s ability to shape society.
…These implacable voices should stay active in our minds. Their dialectic of doubt prods us to pursue connections between what troubles us and what distracts us, to see the riven world behind the seamless screen.
Postmodernism—which was smart, stimulating, ridiculous, and objectionable by turn—has left us in the lurch. Having discredited the centrality of the humanistic enterprise, the postmodern ethos of inversion has forced us to acknowledge that culture and all that culture once meant is not a thing apart but simply the semiotic expression of society’s need to sustain those in power. So hierarchies had to be dismantled; and onto the leveled playing field came poets who couldn’t tell an iamb from an apple, painters who couldn’t draw an apple, and conceptual “artists” like Damien Hirst who openly and cynically promote and sell non-art. Sheer frippery for the gullible.
The not-so-wonderful irony of the postmodern program was that its theoretic rigor and forceful determination to get to the bottom of things precipitated a great falling off in cultural life. Although we can’t quite return to the “innocence” of modernism (never mind its many supple and complicated byways), we’ve also lost our appetite for locating hidden modalities in art and literature. Yet art and literature still have a place in our lives. How to explain it without resorting to the assumptive modes of criticism that the postmodernists did their best to undermine? This perceived stasis of nowhere-to-go is leading humanists back to old-fashioned methods of relying on the hard data and empirical certainty of scientific research.
If questions of art, beauty, morality, and value continue to engage us, the answers, so it’s said, must lie in our genes. Or in our frontal cortices. Or in our innate capacity for wonder, which makes us adapt better to the wonder of existence. It’s anyone’s guess. It seems only that by ceding such questions to biological and cognitive science we have made peace, at least for the moment, with the ideas that used to make intellectuals reach for their pens and sometimes their guns. It’s hard to know exactly what this concession means, yet one can’t help but reflect that by placing too much faith in the human brain, we may be relinquishing the idea that the mind might one day fathom the human condition.
I found both of these articles enthralling and thought-provoking. Exactly which thoughts they’ve provoked in me, though, I can’t really say. They occupy that intellectual sweet spot where I feel like they’re really on to something important, even if I lack the perspective from which to articulate it and the wisdom to add anything to it. I share the sentiment that postmodernism’s and critical theory’s insistence on ruthlessly exposing the ignoble, ideological underpinnings of “higher” culture is a form of reductionism gone too far, but I don’t feel they can be summarily dismissed as regrettable intellectual detours into falsehood, either. Either way, I appreciate being forced to have to think about it. Two thumbs up, highly recommended, give both of them a read.