“A response to Richard’s post at The Existence Machine:
“Chomsky himself is not extolling the virtues of political fiction [in his remarks about literature giving great insight into the human condition]…. In fact, on several other occasions it has become clear that he keeps his reading of literature separate from his political reading.”
Quite true. However, I refer to Chomsky’s remarks about literature giving great insight into the human condition because, among other reasons, they are concise and powerful, in my view, in pointing to the great potential insight to be gained from fiction/literature. That’s surely reason enough to cite them when one wants to underline this capacity of fiction. I don’t cite them to “extoll the virtues of political fiction” but to point out the potential power of insight of literature.
And although Chomsky has strongly cautioned about not mistaking fiction for fact, he has also noted that fiction/art has great powers to heighten people’s perceptions about the world around them and that it has a great influence on people in many ways. He has noted repeatedly the racist stereotypes coming out of the culture industry, Hollywood (and elsewhere), of Arabs and others, and how much damage this does. It surely follows that if racist art can have such a damaging influence, then progressive, even revolutionary art can have a liberating and otherwise constructive influence. Again, Chomsky has repeatedly pointed this out.
There’s nothing unusual about using fiction, poetry, cartoons, film, art generally to attempt to effect change, or to maintain the status quo. It’s done all the time, by the establishment, as well as by progressives, and others, and by the greatest of artists throughout history, for that matter.
There’s nothing odd about denials of this either, since a lot of effort is expended trying to cover up or distort or ignore these basic facts.
When you say Chomsky “keeps his reading of literature separate from his political reading” you may be thinking of the following comments of his:
“I’ve been always resistant consciously to allowing literature to influence my beliefs and attitudes with regard to society and history.” “There are things I resonate to when I read, but I have a feeling that my feelings and attitudes were largely formed prior to reading literature.” “Look, there’s no question that as a child, when I read about China, this influenced my attitudes–-Rickshaw Boy, for example. That had a powerful effect when I read it. It was so long ago I don’t remember a thing about it, except the impact. And I don’t doubt that, for me, personally, like anybody, lots of my perceptions were heightened and attitudes changed by literature over a broad range–Hebrew Literature, Russian literature, and so on. But ultimately, you have to face the world as it is on the basis of other sources of evidence that you can evaluate.” “If I want to understand the nature of China and its revolution, I ought to be cautious about literary renditions.” “Literature can heighten your imagination and insight and understanding, but it surely doesn’t provide the evidence that you need to draw conclusions and substantiate conclusions.” “I can think of things I read that had a powerful effect on me, but whether they changed my attitudes and understanding in any striking or crucial way, I can’t really say.” “People certainly differ, as they should, in what kinds of things make their minds work.” “I don’t really feel that I can draw any tight connections [personally].”
Be “cautious,” he sensibly notes, about the social and historical impressions you get from fiction, because it’s necessary to turn to “evidence that you can evaluate,” facts not least. That’s why I so value heavily fact-based fiction, well researched.
Also, I’m no more writing for Chomsky than I am for Dan Green. Chomsky says he “can’t say” whether or not literature “changed my attitudes and understanding in any striking or crucial way,” but he also notes, “People certainly differ, as they should, in what kinds of things make their minds work.” I’m writing mainly for some of those people who differ in that way, not necessarily for Chomsky or Green, while trying to do the sort of work that Chomsky and others do in nonfiction, as I note. Fiction had a big impact on me in regard to public and private issues both, as it does on others. (After all, the “personal” – fiction’s strength – is composed of the “private” and the “public” both.)
Furthermore, Chomsky himself has tried to employ Swiftian satire to do his work. He wrote a Modest Proposal type satire before the US invasion of Iraq, in which he argued that Iran should be the state to invade Iraq because if the US invades, especially to democratize Iraq, as it claimed, then naturally the majority population in Iraq, the Shia, would want to ally with the Shia of Iran, which would be real democracy in action. So why not let Iran do the work? This is a basis for potentially great satire and it’s a very informative piece of writing. Unfortunately, totally unlike Swift’s Modest Proposal, Chomsky’s piece turns out to be a lousy piece of satire from an aesthetic viewpoint. Chomsky has acknowledged that he has no talent for such satire. But Swift’s masterpiece provides evidence that fictive satire can be informative, effective, and aesthetic (among numerous other such works of art even in the dominant media – e.g., see the best editorial cartoons). And Chomsky has asked, “Jonathan Swift, where are you now?” He has noted further:
“Caricature can be very well done. Swift is marvelous, for example. Animal Farm is pretty good, in my opinion…. Caricature is an art, and not an easy one. But when well done, a very important one. As for dealing with Orwell’s problem, I try to do it in the ways I know how to pursue; 1000s of pages by now. No doubt there are other ways, maybe better ways. But others will have to find what works for them.”
See the weblist of articles and excerpts at my political novel site for some articles on quality art that is politically engaged, accomplished, and effective (scroll down to Views by Art: Society and Politics) .
“Second, the remarks strike me as highly unlikely to persuade anyone. Certainly not Dan Green, whose position on the matter is clear.”
It should be obvious that I’m not trying to persuade Dan Green of my views anymore than two debaters try to persuade the other of their views, as opposed to some audience, in this case the public. I’m entering a public discussion about matters of some importance in a public arena, for the sake of explaining my views and understanding in public, to whatever public there might be.
“…it strikes me more than a little odd that one would continue to cite Chomsky (or for that matter, Howard Zinn, as he has also) in this context. It amounts to little more than an appeal to authority, and it does not further the debate.
I’ve cited a variety of thinkers at Dan’s blog, let alone elsewhere, and I purposefully often cite figures like Zinn and Chomsky because they are widely known as progressive workers. This helps further understanding, in a concise or shorthand way, of what I mean by progressive art. So in this way, citing these figures especially when they speak of art is highly useful, and quite appropriate, for purposes of clarity and brevity not least.
Here’s more of what Chomsky has to say about Orwell’s fiction and the importance of culturally critical novels (with some key passages that I put in bold):
“About Orwell’s 1984, I thought, frankly, it was one of his worst books. Could barely finish it. Some parts (e.g., about Newspeak) were clever. But most of it seemed to me–well, trivial. The problem is not a very interesting one; the modes of thought control and repression in totalitarian societies are fairly transparent. In fact, they often tend to be rather lax. Franco Spain, for example, didn’t care much what people thought and said: the screams from the torture chamber in downtown Madrid were enough to keep the lid on. It’s not too well known, but the Soviet Union was also pretty lax, particularly in the Brezhnev era. According to US government-Russian Research Center studies, Russians apparently had considerably wider access to a broad range of opinion and to dissident literature than Americans do, not because it is denied them but because propaganda is so much more effective here. Orwell was well aware of these issues. His (suppressed) introduction to Animal Farm, for example, deals explicitly with ‘literary censorship in England.’ To write [in a novel…] about that topic would have been important, hard, and serious–and would have earned him the obloquy that attends departure from the rules….
“If Orwell, instead of writing 1984–which was actually, in my opinion, his worst book, a kind of trivial caricature of the most totalitarian society in the world, which made him famous and everybody loved him, because it was the official enemy–if instead of doing that easy and relatively unimportant thing, he had done the hard and important thing, namely talk about Orwell’s Problem* [as pertains to England and western states], he would not have been famous and honored: he would have been hated and reviled and marginalized.
“Caricature can be very well done. Swift is marvelous, for example. Animal Farm is pretty good, in my opinion. But 1984 I thought was a serious decline from his best work. Caricature is an art, and not an easy one. But when well done, a very important one. As for dealing with Orwell’s problem, I try to do it in the ways I know how to pursue; 1000s of pages by now. No doubt there are other ways, maybe better ways. But others will have to find what works for them.”
Furthermore, you might see my ZNet essay Orwell’s Problem and Partisan Fiction for further elaboration. Also you might see my other ZNet essays, Progressive Political Fiction and A Few Notes on the Literary Establishment and additionally my other essays on the topic here. The essays would help show how you’ve misinterpreted and/or misunderstood my various blog comments.
“I should reiterate that I agree that the aesthetic experience of art is what is of foremost importance, by far.”
That’s fine if that is your preference, but it’s certainly not everybody’s, especially not in every case, every situation, all the time. Far from it. Many church services are works of art, intentionally and elaborately constructed, yet what is of “foremost importance” to the designers and other participants is usually not the “aesthetic experience.” This is commonly understood.
In a different vein, Kenneth Burke for one (along with many others) has done some interesting work on how tightly intertwined are aesthetic and moral qualities, which might make you reconsider your qualifier “by far” at least. See in particular Burke’s brilliant and important book, The Philosophy of Literary Form, excerpted at my sites and in some essays.
“I agree that attempts by artists to intentionally send political messages with their art most often fail to succeed as art.”
It could just as easily be said that attempts at art with no intentional political “messages” by artists more often fail to succeed as art, and that they fail more often than intentionally political attempts because the artists are not fully aware of the political messages their work inevitably sends.
Or, what your statement might indicate is an indirect acknowledgement that intentionally political art is more difficult than other sorts of art, maybe simply because more is intended, more is attempted, there is more to deal with. If so, it’s an imbalanced playing field for evaluation. It could also be an indication that successful intentionally political art is a greater — because more complex, at least — accomplishment than non-intentionally political art, or so-called apolitical art.
“I wouldn’t try to convince someone, Dan Green in particular, by quoting vague remarks from Noam Chomsky.”
Again, neither would I, nor do I. Chomsky’s remarks that I quote are brief, not vague.
“I think that when a writer’s primary goal for creating a work of fiction is to “debunk harmful propaganda and taboos” and “help energize, motivate, and inspire” then that work of fiction is highly unlikely to succeed as art.”
Again, of course you give no evidence for this, because it’s scarcely possible. Or even likely, as I suggest above. Quality editorial cartoons and plenty of quality films and corporate-broadcast songs, etc, that take care not to upset too many apple carts are clear indications that the social and political intentions and effects of art can be quite carefully crafted and controlled, as they are on a regular basis.
“(Note, also, that here again Chomsky is anyway not talking about fiction himself.)”
Nor do I remotely claim or imply that he is. Clearly and explicitly, on the main page of my Imaginative Literature and Social Change site I explain that what I work at via fiction is similar to what Chomsky and others work at via nonfiction. My site reads: “In its own way, fiction can accomplish something similar to what Noam Chomsky and many other progressive workers try to accomplish through nonfiction: the creation of works that clarify and better the world socially, politically, culturally….”
“Unfortunately, it appears that Tony Christini does subscribe to Dan Green’s definition of political fiction, as demonstrated, for example, in his same comment to Dan’s clarifying December post (where, again, the words of an authority [Michael Hanne] are provided):[…]“
Richard, I appreciate your patient analysis of my thoughts (unfortunately only drawn from blog comments apparently), but this remark is especially bizarre, I’m afraid. I don’t “subscribe to Dan Green’s definition of political fiction,” or any definition of political fiction, whatsoever. Such a concept is impossible to define because in certain ways everything and anything is political. See, for example, my response to the first question of this interview with Mickey Z.
Also, what is the problem, again, with referring to the research and thoughts of knowledgeable and relevant figures?
“…this passage does nothing to further the argument that fiction can be both politically motivated and literary.”
Not only fiction but many types of art are both “politically motivated and literary.” Not least a lot of art that is designed and crafted to reinforce the status quo, whether unconsciously or consciously motivated.
Also, if you’re serious about critiquing my views of political fiction, then it’s appropriate to critique the formal essays I’ve written on the subject, rather than turning to brief blog comments and quick excerpted references to the work of others that, in any event, you are taking far out of context. My book of criticism, The Novel and the Public, will be out later this year. In the meantime, a number of my formal critical articles and chapters are available here.
“I don’t think Tony’s comments, in the vein quoted above, further the discussion either, or indicate that he’s been paying attention to what Dan and others say.”
On the contrary, as I’ve again demonstrated above, I’ve dissected what Dan and others say in detail, even on the blogs, and more so in my formal articles and essays.
“It would be more interesting to read an actual demonstration of the political elements of a novel enhancing its aesthetics or not hindering them.”
I’ve done this in extensive detail in my formal writing. Again, I refer you to what’s available online and to my forthcoming book of criticism. Also, for such theory/analysis underlying potential critique of specific novels, there’s no shortage of criticism available historically. Again, I document and excerpt much of this at my sites.
(To that end, I’m interested in taking a look at his own explicitly political novels, which are available through Mainstay Press, which he co-founded.)
That would be great. Also, you might see some of my short explicitly political fictions online at my weblog A Practical Policy and elsewhere.
(One note of possible confusion: I see at the Mainstay Homefront Trilogy page that the types of works are not indicated, unlike on the main page, which probably should be corrected. That is, as regards the trilogy: Homefront is a novel. Glory is a novella. And Washburn is essentially a long two part story.)