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That's Offensive!

December 15, 2010

Late last month, following a protest by House G.O.P. leader John Boehner and the Catholic League president William Donohue over its imagery of ants swarming over a crucifix, the National Portrait Gallery removed a video called “A Fire in My Belly” by the late David Wojnarowicz from an exhibition. (See this report in IHE.) Over the past week, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles painted over a mural it had commissioned from an artist named Blu; the mural showed rows of coffins draped in dollar bills. MOCA explained that the work was “inappropriate” given its proximity to a VA hospital and a memorial to Japanese-American soldiers, but has invited the muralist to come back and try again.

All of this in the wake of last spring's furor over the cartoon series South Park’s satirical depiction of Muhammad (or rather, its flirtation with that depiction). I didn’t pay all that much attention to the controversy as it was occurring, since I was still getting angry e-mail messages from Hindus who objected to a scholarly book for its impiety towards their gods. It felt like I had absorbed enough indignation to last a good long time. But there’s always plenty more where that came from. People feel aggrieved even during the holiday season. Actually, just calling it “the holiday season” is bound to upset somebody.

So it may not make sense to use the word “timely” to describe Stefan Collini’s new book That’s Offensive! Criticism, Identity, Respect (published by Seagull and distributed by the University of Chicago Press). The topic seems perennial.

A professor of intellectual history and English literature at the University of Cambridge, Collini is also the author of Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (2006) and Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics (2008), both from Oxford University Press. His latest volume is part of a new series, “Manifestos for the 21st Century,” published in association with the internationally renowned journal Index on Censorship. As with his other recent work, it takes as its starting point the question of how criticism functions within a society.

The word “criticism” has a double meaning. There is the ordinary-usage sense of it to mean “fault-finding,” which implies an offended response almost by definition. Less obviously tending to provoke anger and defensiveness is criticism as, in Collini’s words, “the general public activity of bringing some matter under reasoned or dispassionate scrutiny.” Someone may find it absurd or perverse that there are critics who think Milton made Satan the real hero of Paradise Lost, but I doubt this interpretation has made anyone really unhappy, at least within recent memory.

Alas, this distinction is not really so hard and fast, since even the most dispassionate criticism often involves “a broader analysis of the value or legitimacy of particular claims or practices.” And it is sometimes easier to distinguish this from fault-finding in theory than in practice. “Such analysis,” writes Collini, “will frequently be conducted in terms other than those which the proponents of a claim or the devotees of a practice are happy to accept as self-descriptions, and this divergence of descriptive languages then becomes a source of offense in itself.”

Not to accept a self-description implies that it is somehow inadequate, even self-delusional. This rarely goes over well. An artist showing coffins draped with dollar bills, rather than flags, is making a polemical point -- in ways that a scholar analyzing the psychosexual dimension of religious narratives probably isn’t. But offense will be taken either way.

Such conflicts are intense enough when the exchange is taking place within a given society. When questions about “the value or legitimacy of particular claims or practices” are posed across cultural divides, the possibilities for outrage multiply -- and the problem arises of whether critique amounts to an act of aggression.

Let me simply recommend Collini’s book, rather than try to synopsize his argument on that score. But it seems like a good antidote to both clash-of-civilizationists and identity-politicians.

“Criticism may be less valued or less freely practiced in some societies than in others,” he writes, “but it is not intrinsically or exclusively associated with one kind of society, in the way that, say, hamburgers or cricket are. And anyway, different ‘cultures’ are not tightly sealed, radically discontinuous entities: they are porous, overlapping, changing ways of life lived by people with capacities and inclinations that are remarkably similar to those we are familiar with. While there are various ways to show ‘respect’ for people some of whose beliefs differ from our own, exempting those beliefs from criticism is not one of them.”

As a corollary, this implies cultivating a willingness to listen to critiques of our own deeply embedded self-descriptions. No easy thing -- for "so natural to mankind," in the words of John Stuart Mill, "is intolerance to what it really cares about." Amen to that.

 

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