Courtney, courtesy and conversation

Earlier this week I found myself in mild disagreement with a colleague about the infamous “Social Text affair” and some of the subsequent follow-ups — in particular Sokal and Bricmont’s book Intellectual Impostures. My colleague’s argument is probably more subtle than I understood (he is about three times smarter than I am), but the essence of it, I think, is that Sokal and his followers were guilty of overextending their attack on (post-)modern philosophy. He argues that some contemporary philosophers — he instanced both Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek — are embroiled in genuine engagement with very difficult problems, and that to deny them the right to be at times vague or pretentious is to deny them the space that they need in which to manoeuvre.

I’m not competent to contest his judgement of either Badiou or Žižek, but — to move the topic onto safer ground — it did remind me of a discussion I had following Courtney Pine’s Europa gig at the Old Fruitmarket in Glasgow this summer. I admire a lot of Mr Pine’s work, including some parts that are not initially easy on the ear, but for my money he wasn’t quite on song that night. Some solos I managed to follow for a minute or so; others escaped me almost immediately and seemed to degenerate into random noise. Presumably it made musical sense on Planet Pine, but it left me — and, I suspect, a fair portion of the audience — more battered than engrossed. Nevertheless I found myself trying to defend the performance to a sceptical friend in much the same terms my colleague used to defend modern philosophers: allowing an artist occasional excursions into self-indulgence is the price one pays for allowing them to be creative.

Despite this, I maintain a firm belief that there is such a thing as pretentious bullshit in the world, and that there is such a thing as a time for pointing this out. I don’t think this is something I can justify on essentially intellectual grounds; but looking at my own reactions to the sort of things that give me an urge to shout “bullshit!”, I think it’s a matter of good versus bad manners, or what I’ll call (as much for the anachronistic tone as anything) “courtesy”.

I’ll borrow a term from Michael Oakeshott and refer to “conversation” rather than “discourse” or “artistic development”, in an attempt to keep what I’m saying grounded in the everyday. For a conversation to keep going, an element of courtesy is required. I don’t mean this in the sense of formal etiquette — a Parliamentary debate can be laden with etiquette yet fundamentally discourteous, whereas two old friends may converse quite happily in tones of the warmest personal abuse — but in the sense that certain mutual accommodations between the speakers are taken for granted. It’s necessary that all speakers assume that others are trying to participate in the conversation on roughly the terms it has currently established, whether that be as a scientific discussion, a public flyting or an exchange of drunken anecdotes. To quote Oakeshott,

Every entrant is taken at its face-value and everything is permitted which can get itself accepted into the flow of speculation.

Similarly, it’s necessary that all speakers make a sincere attempt to participate in this manner, rather than, for example, treating the conversation as an opportunity to advertise consumer goods or score formal points. And it’s necessary that all speakers recognise each other as people — the start of bad manners, as I’m sure I recall being told as a child, is to start treating people as things.

That last point is important, because I think it’s at the root of my visceral dislike both of “death of the author” theories of literature and of historical or philosophical discussions of science that seem to deny individual scientists any agency. There frequently are interesting things to be discovered about a poem, say, by refusing to take at face value what the author claims about it. When it becomes a doctrine, though, that the author has no privileged position — that the “text” exists solely for critics to gratify themselves by imposing their own endless interpretations on it — this seems to show a fundamental lack of courtesy towards the poet who presumably had a reason for writing the poem, and without whom the critic would have nothing to discuss. If we accept that one of the social crimes that pornography commits is to treat other people’s bodies solely as objects for sexual gratification without acknowledging the people they belong to, then this species of criticism is a kind of pornography of the intellect. It’s certainly equally discourteous, and I suspect equally carries the danger of damaging one’s ability to form meaningful relationships — be they with sexual partners or with poems.

Returning to the Social Text business, by Sokal’s own account his main reason for writing the spoof article was to combat a betrayal, by his notional allies on the Left, of their duty to combat real (not “ ‘real’ ”) suffering and inequality, because they had ceased to accept that anything real existed. In his Afterword he quotes Noam Chomsky:

George Orwell once remarked that political thought, especially on the left, is a sort of masturbation fantasy in which the world of fact hardly matters. That’s true, unfortunately, and it’s part of the reason that our society lacks a genuine, responsible, serious left-wing movement.

To put it in the terms I’ve been using: if the conversation one is engaged in is that of progressive politics, it is a profound discourtesy, both to the terms of the conversation and to the representatives in it of those who are genuinely disadvantaged, to lose one’s grip on the fact that their disadvantages are real. It was this sense of a discourtesy already committed that convinced Sokal it was acceptable to engage in deception and thus, as he explains in his Lingua Franca article, to violate the trust that underlies professional academic conversation. It’s telling that in that article he uses the word “arrogance” to describe the subculture and genre he was satirising. Arrogance may not be an intellectual crime, but — as an attitude that systematically undervalues the contributions of others — it is certainly a crime against conversation.

To return to Courtney Pine: what earns him the right to apparently violate the trust of his audience by treating them to an evening of squeaks and gibbers? Some jazz fans, following Philip Larkin from whom I nicked that phrase, would argue that nothing does:

My critical principle has been Eddie Condon’s “As it enters the ear, does it come in like broken glass or does it come in like honey?”

(All What Jazz, 1970; introduction.)

I’d argue that the conversation that Pine has been holding with his listeners for twenty years is one in which we are expected to accept that he’s searching for new ways to make genuinely beautiful music, even if there are bumps along the way; and he repays our trust by delivering, often enough to be worth the ticket price, genuinely beautiful music. (I’ve now listened a dozen times or so to the CD of Europa, and much of it qualifies as far as I’m concerned.) Matters would be different were he to show signs of losing that courtesy to his audience and revelling purely in being “original” or “difficult”. I’ll agree with Larkin that this does happen with some artists, and agree with him also that it’s especially a danger when art and the appreciation of art are externally subsidised so that an artist can ignore his or her audience and forget that a conversation is going on. (There is room in the world, I guess, for a conversation to be held entirely between an avant-garde artist and the Scottish Arts Council, but I’d rather such a conversation wasn’t supported by my money as long as there are richer fools in the world who might pay for it instead.)

So: as a listener, it’s courteous to assume that a musician is at least trying to create something beautiful (and if he or she isn’t, there are plenty others out there who are). As a reader, it’s courteous to assume that the writer has something to say both in and about his or her work — one may disagree with this, even robustly, but the really serious discourtesy is to treat the writer behind the writing as a complete irrelevance. As a writer, meanwhile, it’s discourteous to one’s readers to ignore them — to quote Norman MacCaig, “poems which are wantonly or carelessly obscure (not difficult) are bad art and bad manners” (Chapman IV(4), 1976). When one is speculating about someone else’s scholarly discipline, be it science or history or philosophy, it’s courteous at least to attempt to learn the meaning of the language that discipline uses, and to assume that underlying it is a genuine attempt to say something meaningful — and equally, it is courteous to try to say something meaningful oneself in return.

And if the conversation breaks down, because one party either can’t or won’t behave themselves — because they treat other participants with contempt, or refuse to contribute anything serious to a serious conversation or anything frivolous to a frivolous conversation, or because they simply sit there chanting catchphrases in a silly voice like some of the blood-boilingly irritating people I shared classes with in high school — what then? I was taught in school that, contrary to all appearances, a sharp bop on the nose was not a courteous and civilised response to this behaviour, and I should just walk away. This works as a response to musicians I don’t like, and I can always put down the paper or change the TV channel when it becomes apparent that somebody in it or on it won’t play nicely. But on the occasions when the irritant can’t be walked away from — when they insist on following you around the playground chanting, or when they keep bobbing up in the media saying things about your poem or your discipline that are simply discourteous and untrue — then I still feel there are worse responses than the sharp bop on the nose: that is, a brisk act of overt discourtesy that ends the parody of conversation and creates a break after which a new one can begin.

And let there be no sulking afterwards, on either side. That really would be rude.

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