Monday, June 25, 2007

Accommodating Other's Tastes, or, Arguin' with Eddie

Eddie Campbell and I have had some back-and-forths about comics and their definitions of late, first in comments at my blog, and then later (part one) at his (two). (Short version: he thinks that "comic books" are best understood as a genre; I think that "comics" are best understood as a medium. (The difference in the nouns matters, I think, since it signifies something about our disagreement.) If you want to know why I think I'm right, well, follow the links.)

The most recent round is here. But in this case I found myself making general points that were fairly far removed from our past discussions... so I thought I'd repost them here. The opening quote in italics is a quote from Campbell's comments on his own blog (I've made it a bit longer than in his comments section, just for contest). The only other context you need is that Campbell's post was a response to an excerpt from Douglas Wolk's forthcoming book, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.


Okay, this struck me as an odd question:

"And I wouldn't want to spoil aybody's pleasure. If i raised a question it was 'How far can we expect the person in the street to accomodate one's fannishness?" (I'm presuming the book aspires to an audience outside the fan market, given the Salon promo, the non-comics publisher, the taking pains to explain terms that the fan would surely take for granted..."

Aside from the obvious stuff that I presume I don't need to defend here (e.g. not censoring stuff), in what way should any person in the street accommodate any interest, enthusiasm, aesthetic taste or anything remotely like that? What would it even mean?

The only answer I can think of is this: we can expect (well, in the normative not empirical sense of the word) intellectual honesty -- not to pass judgment on material one's unfamiliar with, for instance.

Thus, if the person in the street dismisses Wolk's book on the grounds that comics aren't any good or worth paying attention to, the chances are high that it's an intellectually dishonest judgment. If the person has read all (or, generously, a majority) of the works that Wolk discusses, and then makes that judgment, then, fine. Others may disagree. (I don't agree with the old maxim de gustibus non est disputandum (one can't argue about taste) -- as Kant points out, we ourselves don't quite agree with it, since we make judgments about taste in a form that has applicability to others, not just ourselves -- but clearly these are matters about which consensus is unlikely to form).

This is not to say that a person, in the street or anywhere else, has an obligation to be interested in Wolk's book or the material it contains. We all perforce make uninformed judgments about what's worth our time. But it's important (again, for reasons of intellectual honesty) not to confuse those with judgments that are more firmly grounded, i.e. our opinions about books we've read, art we've seen, genres we've read widely in, etc. (That last too is, of course, contested: how widely? is not a question everyone will agree on in every case.)

Thus I personally would never say of Tomb of Dracula that "only a 'fan' could possibly think that's worth talking about" [also a Campbell quote - ed.] because I haven't read it. Nothing has particularly made me want to -- I've seen no positive reviews from people whose tastes I trust, for instance. (Maybe if and when I read Mr. Wolk's book that will change; maybe not.) But saying that I'm suspicious enough of its quality (based on various external factors) not to want to spend my money or time on it is necessarily a provisional judgment; and not a judgment that seems extendable to say that something's not worth talking about, full stop. For that you have to have read it. (Certainly I don't think that the word "Dracula" is sufficient to dismiss it; anyone who thinks that... probably shares few enough beliefs with me to make the point not worth arguing.)

Of course, I'm an academic, by temperament as well as profession, so that I tend to think that practically everything is worth talking about. But if one substitutes "worth reading" (and obviously not everything is worth reading), the same judgment applies. Yes, it's a paradox: the only person who can justifiably say that something is not worth reading is one who's read it. But what alternative would you suggest?

How far should a person go to accommodate any interest? Only as far as they're interested. But don't confuse one's lack of interest with an aesthetic judgment of any intellectual standing.

Of course some people have been immersed in a cultural arena and then decided that it's not worthwhile -- it seems that our esteemed host Mr. Campbell is in that category with what he calls (misleadingly in my view, but never mind) the "genre" of comics. That's a judgment that is at least based on sufficient evidence. But, as I said, in matters of taste we're unlikely to reach consensus.

I have the sneaking suspicion the implication here is that in other areas a person on the street is obliged to accommodate people's interests -- in, presumably, art that some other person thinks is worthwhile. Well, I simply find such arguments weak at best. It's one thing to say "here is a thing that will give you great pleasure and delight, you should try it": that's very reasonable. It's simply another thing to say "you ought to respect this": the usual claim by any representative of high culture, usually met with the scorn it deserves. I like a lot of things from high culture, and a lot of things from popular culture (and dislike plenty of things in both): but I don't think that the former has any greater a priori claim on other people's respect.

Update: Eddie Campbell replied to this comment, and I replied again, in comments at his blog; I think I won't repost those here, since they're too tied up with the overall arc of our ongoing debate. But go there and read them if you're inclined.

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