quinara: Sherlock Holmes thinks porn is boring. (Sherlock porn is boring)
[personal profile] quinara
So, this was just going to be a reply to [personal profile] rahirah in a conversation we were having, but it got a bit long, so I thought I would put it here. It's meta-esque, but I don't claim that it actually says or argues anything effectively... It's mostly just a ramble about literary theory and Mark Watches.

I said: There is something interesting to be said, actually, about the way Mark's analysis works with postmodern/post-structuralist ideas - he basically approaches things in a dogmatically moralising nineteenth-century way, but he defends that approach, from what I can tell, through a twisted application of Foucault's ideas about discourse... But I have a feeling fandom doesn't care about that.

And [personal profile] rahirah replied: If you won't write it for fandom, write it for me!

Hee! OK, well, doing this properly would involve reading a lot more Mark!wank than I can quite bring myself to (and that's my caveat for anyone coming across this who wants to contradict me: this all depends on whether my general impressions are correct or not, and is more just to express the idea than anything else - plus I rather brutally abridge and probably conflate theoretical developments of the last century), but I can give you a vague chat-in-a-pub version... (To speak from the future, also, I change my mind a little on the specifics of what Mark's doing.)

Basically, what it seems to me about Mark's views on Smashed (not least going by his reactions to people afterwards) is that it should and has to be read as Spike abusing Buffy because Buffy verbally sets her boundaries by telling Spike to go away - and it's Spike therefore who first crosses the line. This is backed up by the narratives of social justice that Mark adheres to, which say that men should not cross verbal boundaries set by women (because this is tied into a spectrum of men ignoring women's boundaries which ultimately ends in rape).

Why he can argue that I think possibly requires a quick and dirty potted sketch of the history of literary criticism, starting with the Romantics at the end of the nineteenth century. Their theory saw creative work as the expression of the author's genius and really put an emphasis on originality as being the proof of 'good' work (this is how we ended up with copyright law, as what is valuable in the work becomes what can be parcelled up as 'original' to the author); because of this it was possible to say whether a piece of art was 'moral' or 'immoral', because it was so much a reflection of the author's mind. But this idea was kicked out by Modernism in the early twentieth century and 'New Criticism' / aesthetic criticism, which held creative works as self-contained contructed devices, which could be looked at on their own terms without judging the author morally for what they've created (this shift in thought is pretty much why Oscar Wilde's preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray is so provocative, and one of the very cool themes played with in the story). With things like The Waste Land or Ulysses, you respect the work for doing clever things rather than its ethics - and still respect the author for creating something clever.

After that people push things a bit harder and you get this shift in thinking from the idea that clever devices reflect on the author to looking at them on their own, so (for example), instead of seeing references in The Waste Land to, I dunno, Paradise Lost or something as Eliot making clever 'allusions', you think about it as 'intertextuality': it's a point of connection between the two works, rather than Eliot standing there with a fishing rod and reeling in a bit of Milton to do his bidding. On the back of other social theorising, you also get this idea that texts aren't self-contained aesthetic objects, but that they're connected to society as well and as much as they're connected to other texts, so you can only understand a text by understanding the society it's written in - not to pass moral judgement on the author, but to understand why stuff means what it does. (This ultimately leads to attacks on 'canon' as a list of the world's most valuable literary works, because people start to argue that the main reason white Western men think white Western books are so clever and deep is because they're the things where they 'get' the intricacies of what's going on.)

There are hangovers from pretty much all of these movements still around today and backlashes etc, but a lot of social justice stuff depends on the philosophy of the mid-twentieth century, as Mark's does. Foucault's sense of 'discourse' is one idea in that, which says that language always reflects power relations (ie. its society's power relations) and equally (on the back swing of that) has the power to shape, influence and construct those power relations (because it constitutes them). Becuase of that, texts can be/are dangerous: stories of victimised women actively work to disempower them in real terms. Which is both why someone like Mark might say that Smashed has to be read against real-world power relations (because it reflects them) and why it's perhaps so outrageous to see (because it has the potential to reinforce victimisation).

Where I think it gets interesting (and this is slightly different to how I pitched it upthread, maybe) is how Mark then moralises about other readers' interpretations. Because in another locus of post-structuralist thought you have Barthes saying that the confluence of associations and social influences you have to consider when looking at a text aren't the author's (necessarily), but the reader's, because it's only through reading that words on a page mean something to wider society (whatever meaning there was which originally inspired their creation and placement on that page). I could talk all day about people's mistreatment of Death of the Author and how it is peposterous to say the argument is that people can approach texts and read them however they want - but nonetheless the important aspect of this is the idea that the reader has influence on what a text means, and so what part it plays in whichever particular discourse.

When Mark (or whoever) talks about a 'disturbing reading' (or whatever the various actual lines were), it seems to me that you end up with this weird twisted throw-back to the nineteenth century, only shifted onto the reader. Because we're far enough along that Mark doesn't think it's disgusting that Joss and ME can produce a story he finds distasteful (as far as I'm aware), but it becomes disturbing that people can 'create' (receive) a version of the story in their heads as readers which differs from and comes into friction with Mark's understanding of how the story fits into society and the ethics of the situation it's depicting. It's like the act of their reading is as dangerous as Oscar Wilde producing a lewd book seemed to its first critics, because, I don't know, people saying Smashed is hot is as influential a part of the discourse around violent sex as something like a piece of violent pornography. It's like that reading has become the equivalent of the creative act in the nineteenth century, something that can be judged as an expression of morality.

Does that make any sort of sense at all? It's all a bit tangled up and it's not really saying anything that people haven't already said, but the irony of how he's made various points of critical theory relate to one another amuses me.
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(no subject)

Date: 30/07/2012 05:07 (UTC)
verity: buffy peeks between the blinds (Default)
From: [personal profile] verity
YOU ARE AWESOME, and this is such a helpful breakdown of the whole situation.

(no subject)

Date: 01/08/2012 22:18 (UTC)
stultiloquentia: Campbells condensed primordial soup (Default)
From: [personal profile] stultiloquentia
First off, this is a wonderfully plain-spoken summary of some key movements in critical theory. I like it. Thanks.

Your last paragraph reminds me of a line of discussion I've seen over and over about Fifty Shades of Grey: "Oh noes! Naïve women might read this, believe it depicts a healthy, desirable D/s relationship, then go out into the Big Bad World and find themselves in a world of trouble!" There's so much angst about the intellectual powers of all these fabled innocents, but even more, the supposedly paper-thin line between reading and acting. You see that in Mark, in the Fifty Shades concern trolls, talking heads trying to blame violence on Batman and Marilyn Manson, video game activists, LJ banning people's Harry/Snape watercolours....

The problem is they're half right: of course texts have immense power. Lately Foucault even has science on his side: just a few weeks ago I read about a study showing how people mirror protagonists they relate to. But the matter of where, why, and whether the rubber ever hits the road is hopelessly idiosyncratic.

What's Mark judging? My acts of reading, interpreting and enjoying, or his own reading of what he thinks these things reveal about my superego? Where, precisely, is the locus of his indignation?

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