Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Meeting My Quotä

In this exciting new feature of my already too cumbersome weblog/journal I will periodically, perhaps even daily, post a quote from the reading I'm presently doing for work or play. If I'm feeling chipper, I might append a commentary on the quote as well.

Today's comes from Jean-François Lyotard's piece "The Sublime and the Avant-Garde," initially presented in Germany in 1983, translated into English for Art Forum #22 in April, 1984 and included in the collection The Inhuman (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991):
When it comes to the sublime, major obstacles get in the way of a regular exposition of rhetorical or poetic principles. There is, for example, wrote Longinus, a sublimity of thought sometimes recognizable in speech by its extreme simplicity of turn of phrase, at the precise point where the high character of the speaker makes one expect greater solemnity. It sometimes even takes the form of outright silence. I don't mind if this simplicity, this silence, is taken to be yet another rhetorical figure. But it must be granted that it constitutes the most indeterminate of figures. What can remain of rhetoric (or of poetics) when the rhetorician in Boileau's translation announces that to attain the sublime effect "there is no better figure of speech than one which is completely hidden, that which we do not even recognize as a figure of speech?" Must we admit that there are techniques for hiding figures, that there are figures for the erasure of figures? How do we distinguish between a hidden figure and what is not a figure? And what is it, if it isn't a figure? And what about this, which seems to be a major blow to didactics: when it is sublime, discourse accommodates defects, lack of taste, and formal imperfections. Plato's style, for example, is full of bombast and bloated strained comparisons. Plato, in short, is a mannerist, or a baroque writer compared to a Lysias, and so is Sophocles compared to an Ion, or Pindar compared to a Bacchylides. The fact remains that, like those first named, he is sublime, whereas the second ones are merely perfect. Shortcomings in technique are therefore trifling matters if they are the price to be paid for 'true grandeur'. Grandeur in speech is true when it bears witness to the incommensurability between thought and the real world
I'm doing lots of reading in the history of aesthetics for my book project on punk and my subsequent and, with luck, more sublime project on taste in general. What interests me about Lyotard's parsing of the tradition here is that it clarifies one of the ways in which the do-it-yourself ethos of punk might be perceived as getting closer to sublimity than, say, prog rock. Imperfections in technique are just what the doctored order if you wish to show how Lily Briscoe can never really capture her vision on paper.

This train of thought brings me to the Hauptbahnhof, where I will transfer to another one concerning modern education. I don't think much has been written about what the punk attitude towards craft, or the lack thereof, might tell us about the viability of Rousseaudian pedagogical ideals in a postmodern world. But something certainly should be written on that subject. The idea that it is better to do something yourself instead of entrusting the task to those with the proper training converges in interesting ways with the sort of educational reform that gave us unstructured art and music exploration for pre-schoolers on up as a cornerstone of personal growth. The fact that the American educational system -- systems, really -- has swung so violently back towards tradition and standards in recent years at the K-12 level shouldn't blind us to the fact that a great many parents are still comfortable with the idea that pre-school is a great place to "be creative" without worrying about mastering a specific body of knowledge.

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