After a somewhat involved conversation, I returned to reading W.J.T . Michell’s “The Rhetoric of Iconoclasm” and found some things that seemed worth noting in the light of the recent article by Camille Paglia. Mitchell dissects Baudrillard’s characterization of mass media as channels of “non-communication,” and the museum as a “bank.”

The question is, how can these truths be brought into some coherent relationship with the fact that the museum is (sometimes) the site of authentic aesthetic experience, the media (sometimes) the vehicle of real communication and enlightenment? How can the rhetoric of iconoclasm serve as an instrument of cultural criticism without becoming a rhetoric of exaggerated alienation that imitates the cultural despotism it most despises? (204)

Good question. Baudrillard advocates a return to archaic methods (marches, graffiti) to overcome the problem of “non-communication,” and though Mitchell doesn’t explicitly say it, Baudrillard advocates exposing the fetishism implicit in Western art. The ritual magic of modern fetishism is a central concern to Baudrillard, a fact that Paglia has to be aware of, though she claims that “postmodernism do[es] not understand magic or mystique.” Mitchell suggests a completely different approach than that advocated by Paglia— one that I more completely agree with:

What we need to realize is that the concrete concepts of fetishism and photographic “ideolotry” are in themselves dialectical images—“social hieroglyphs,” ambiguous syntheses whose “authentic” and “inauthentic” aspects cannot be disentangled by a question-begging invocation of the “real social process” or our “essential nature.” The essence of the dialectical image is its polyvalence—as object in the world, as representation, as analytic tool, as rhetorical device, as figure—most of all as a Janus-faced emblem of our predicament, a mirror of history, and a window beyond it. (205)

Paglia’s key images might as well have been the golden arches of McDonalds, or the NBC peacock. It is the displacement in time that I feel is not essential to connect with modern students. Even Socrates used contemporary social examples to his interlocutors to establish his points. Why key images? Pick an image, any image, and there is similar work to be done. The skills are still the same—it is the hallmark of the examined life, the life that cannot be successfully extracted from its context. As Wordsworth remarked, must we “murder to dissect”?

A tip of the hat to hysteria. I haven’t had a good excuse to read Matthew Arnold again in a long time. Goes to show you why I don’t comment on other people’s blogs much. I get myself in trouble, though sometimes it is fun.

The Dover Bitch: A Criticism of Life
by Anthony Hecht

for Andrews Wanning

So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl
With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them,
And he said to her, “Try to be true to me,
And I’ll do the same for you, for things are bad
All over, etc., etc.”
Well now, I knew this girl. It’s true she had read
Sophocles in a fairly good translation
And caught that bitter allusion to the sea,
But all the time he was talking she had in mind
The notion of what his whiskers would feel like
On the back of her neck. She told me later on
That after a while she got to looking out
At the lights across the channel, and really felt sad,
Thinking of all the wine and enormous beds
And blandishments in French and the perfumes.
And then she got really angry. To have been brought
All the way down from London, and then be addressed
As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort
Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty.
Anyway, she watched him pace the room
And finger his watch-chain and seem to sweat a bit,
And then she said one or two unprintable things.
But you mustn’t judge her by that. What I mean to say is,
She’s really all right. I still see her once in a while
And she always treats me right.
We have a drink
And I give her a good time, and perhaps it’s a year
Before I see her again, but there she is,
Running to fat, but dependable as the come,
And sometimes I bring her a bottle of Nuit d’Amour.

Also, a tip of the hat to THE GIRLFRIEND for calling my attention to this one; I hadn’t read it before.