Les Miserables and Irony

Anne Hathaway as FantineThe following is a few snippets from a great article by one of my favorites, Stanley Fish, on why the film Les Miserables is “good” and why critics say it’s “bad.” (read in the quotes my disdain for being forced to categorically call a movie good or bad, and my further disdain for the equivocation of statements of personal taste and value judgments like “good” or “bad”)

“I may have missed it, but I don’t recall USA Today devoting a full one and three-quarters pages to a movie, never mind a movie that’s been out for some time now. But there in the Life section of the Weekend edition was a lengthy discussion of “Les Misérables,” or, more precisely, a discussion of the furiously negative responses the musical epic has evoked from a gaggle of critics who simultaneously trash the film and express an incredulity verging on outrage at fellow moviegoers who don’t share their view.

. . .

The artist who deploys irony tests the sophistication of his audience and divides it into two parts, those in the know and those who live in a fool’s paradise. Irony creates a privileged vantage point from which you can frame and stand aloof from a world you are too savvy to take at face value. Irony is the essence of the critical attitude, of the observer’s cool gaze; every reviewer who is not just a bourgeois cheerleader (and no reviewer will admit to being that) is an ironist.

“Les Misérables” defeats irony by not allowing the distance it requires. If you’re looking right down the throats ofthe characters, there is no space between them and you; their perspective is your perspective; their emotions are your emotions; you can’t frame what you are literally inside of. Moreover, the effect — and it is an effect even if its intention is to trade effect for immediacy — is enhanced by the fact that the faces you are pushed up against fill the screen; there is no dimension to the side of them or behind them; it is all very big and very flat, without depth. The camera almost never pulls back, and when it does so, it is only for an instant.

. . .

Endless high passion and basic human emotions indulged in without respite are what “Les Misérables” offers in its refusal to afford the distance that enables irony. Those who call the movie flat, shallow, sentimental and emotionally manipulative are not wrong; they just fail to see that what appear to them to be bad cinematic choices (in addition to prosaic lyrics that repel aesthetic appreciation, and multiple reprises of simple musical themes) are designed to achieve exactly the result they lament — an almost unbearable proximity to raw, un-ironized experience. They just can’t go with it. And why should they? After all, the critic, and especially the critic who perches in high journalistic places, needs to have a space in which he can insert himself and do the explicatory work he offers to a world presumed to be in need of it. “Les Misérables,” taken on its own terms, leaves critics with nothing to do except join the rhythms of rapt silence, crying and applause, and it is understandable that they want nothing to do with it.”

Read the entire post here.

Stanley Fish on the Constitution

From Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There Meaning in This Text:

Fish takes Rorty’s pragmatism and applies it to the project of interpreting texts. Like Rorty, Fish eliminates the distinction between interpreting texts and using them. In particular, he rejects the notion that ‘getting it right’ in interpretation means recovering the author’s mind or intention. The idea of the author is useful for some purposes, but we should not be fooled into thinking this concept corresponds to something in the text, nor should we think that everyone should use texts in order to find out something about their authors. We read books for many different purposes: for instruction, for entertainment, for encouragement, for escape. pp. 55-56

Fish avoids a thoroughgoing solipsism by locating the ‘authorizing agency,’ the center of interpretive authority, not in the author, the text, or even the individual reader, but rather in the interpretive community. p. 56

To say that we must read in order to recover the intention of the author is, for Fish, authoritarian. How dare you tell me what to be interested in or what to do with a text! p. 57

Where readers reign, reality recede. Fish’s pragmatist creed is briefly stated: “I now believe that interpretation is the source of texts, facts, authors, and intentions.” Literary knowledge is for Fish a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: readers will see what they are encouraged and taught to see. The literal meaning is the one the institution permits; the ‘natural’ sense is the one nurtured by the community. pp. 169-70

If all appeals to the text-in-itself are ruled out, and if all argumentation is relative to the norms of each interpretive community, then the only way to resolve interpretive differences is through majority rule. Fish is aware of the problem: ‘Does might make right? In a sense the answer is yes, since in the absence of a perspective independent of interpretation some interpretive perspective will always rule by virtue of having won out over its competitors.’ p. 170

Either a) Fish’s views have changed, b) Vanhoozer has misunderstood him, c) Vanhoozer has deliberately misrepresented him, or d) I have misunderstood both of them. Read his latest op-ed piece in the NY Times:

Why is Strauss trying to take the Constitution out of the constitutional interpretation loop? Because he wants to liberate us from it as a constraint. He repeatedly invokes Thomas Jefferson’s remark that “The earth belongs to the living and not the dead” and expands it into a question: “What possible justification can there be for allowing the dead hand of the past . . . to govern us today?”

That is like asking what justification is there for adhering to the terms of a contract or respecting the wishes of a testator or caring about what Milton meant in “Paradise Lost” or paying serious attention to the items on the grocery list your spouse gave you. In each of these instances keeping faith with the past utterances of an authoritative voice — the voice of the contracts’ makers, the voice of someone’s last will and testament, the voice of the poet-creator, the voice of the person who will make the dinner — is constitutive of the act you are performing. And not keeping faith raises the question of why we should bother with the Constitution or the contract or the will or the poem or the list at all. Why not just cut out the middleman (who is not being honored anyway) and go straight to the meanings you want?

The incoherence of what Strauss is urging is spectacularly displayed in a single sentence. Given the importance of common ground, “it makes sense,” he says, “to adhere to the text even while disregarding the framers’ intentions.”

I am at a loss to know what “adhere” is supposed to mean here. According to the dictionaries, “adhere” means “to stick fast to” or “to be devoted to” or “to follow closely.” But you don’t do any of these things by “disregarding” the intentions that inform and give shape to the text you claim to “honor”; you don’t follow closely what you are in the act of abandoning. Instead, you engage in a fiction of devotion designed to reassure the public that everything is on the (interpretive) up and up: “The Court could take advantage of the fact that everyone thinks the words of the Constitution should count for something.” Here “something” means “anything,” as long as it hooks up with what everyone thinks; and the advantage the Court is counseled to seize is an advantage gained by pandering. If this is what the “living Constitution” is — a Constitution produced and reproduced by serial acts of infidelity — I hereby cast a vote for the real one.