Fluxing miscellany. If you're looking for top 10 film lists, click here.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Guilt/pleasure

We were just here a few years ago but let me briefly run through the umpteenth rendition of this never-ending "guilty pleasures" thing. The "against guilty pleasures" broadside is a hardy perennial you can count upon encountering every now and then, certainly much more than its presumable opposite ("in favor of guilt and shame"). It's also a far more popular essay than one that would just get on with the work of case-by-case critical analysis, the same way that it's far easier to get money to write an essay decrying crappy web content and calling for better work than getting the editorial go-ahead for actual better work; once you've read and nodded along, you can feel better without expending any intellectual energy.

It's broadly understood that movies are (or can be) art, that formerly disreputable comic books, rock or disco, et al., are all defensible, reclaimable and up for integration into some kind of canon. The latest round of Sunday belligerence on Twitter was triggered by an Adam Sternbergh article which uses Proust and Moby Dick as shorthand for "high culture." (One day I'd love to read a version of this article that gets aggrieved instead about, say, people yelling at you to read Hermann Broch.) Rather than feeling guilt, he asks if we can instead "instead envision a world in which the person struggling through (but enjoying!) 'Remembrance of Things Past' and the person tearing through (and enjoying!) 'Gone Girl' can coexist on the same strip of sand"? (Don't they already? This seems like an argument torn from the foulest imaginable internet comment board.)

The whole "guilty pleasure" concept is obviously contained within the sphere of cultural consumption; it's always "I should be perusing this rather than this," not "I should be participating in my community and trying to effectuate ways to end structural inequalities rather than watching 'The Good Wife.'" Within that framework, policing the high/low artistic divides seems like an incredibly archaic concern. Maybe this is because I don't know enough assholes who berate others for watching trash TV or not spending sufficient time contemplating Kant or whatever; pretty much everyone I know understands that a balanced high/middle/low intake (however we'd define those brows) of whatever is pretty crucial to maintaining equilibrium (as well as acquiring a broad-spanning vocabulary that allows you to run from the demotic to the self-consciously rarefied, which helps keeps things lively).


If you're interested in cultural consumption on some kind of serious level (prose, music, movies, whatever), then yes: a certain amount of guilt should ensure if you find yourself constantly drawn to what's widely understood to be garbage without any kind of critical engagement. Things don't need to be good to be culturally significant, unconsciously reflect broader concerns, et al., but that's clearly not what your average Da Vinci Code, Vince Flynn et al. reader is up to. If you're invested in a medium, you need to acquire a certain level of expertise. That means inevitably that you're going to be able to make meaningful distinctions about (at the very least) the level of craftsmanship on display. The problem with The Da Vinci Code isn't that it's pretty much recycling the idiocies of The Passover Conspiracy; the problem is that Dan Brown can't write, and if everything you read is badly written, that means you can't write either — and if you believe that writing is a good way to organize your thoughts, then you're kind of screwed.

The idea that you should enjoy whatever you're consuming, instantly, is just such a lousy metric for deciding whether to engage with something. Works which are harder than other works — movies which eschew narrative for seemingly endless tracking shots of silent trudging, books with sentences that trail for pages (this is my kind of arena) — will retrain your brain; eventually you'll learn how to consume them, and they'll stay with you. And so yes: feel guilty sometimes. Don't feel too guilty: we all get tired, too tired to deal with difficult material. And not everything Difficult is Good, and not everything Enjoyable is Garbage, propositions I hope all adults eventually understand. But I don't think people need more encouragement to consume what they enjoy consuming on a mass scale, and if you're going to really Engage with — dissect, understand, articulate your interest in or distaste for — a given object (the proposition Sternbergh ends with), you've simply got to put some time in more difficult material.