Tag Archives: Joan Didion

The Visibility of Violated Norms

It’s now easier to notice a population on edge, disappointed, and even enraged by the behavior of others.

A friend returning from a trip to South America recently commented on her impression of returning to what seemed like a very angry country. Being away in a culture with a more courtly pace reset her expectations. Coming home sharpened her impression that people here seemed on edge and unusually short-tempered. Indeed, many Americans also recognize the same dynamic of a nation disappointed and even enraged by the behavior of other Americans. You can pick your issue: people refusing or faking COVID vaccinations, narratives of magical thinking about government intentions, a coup attempt by a former President who fanaticizes that he is still in power, or more tentative medical recommendations than our binary thinking usually tolerates. This national stance of annoyance is sometimes directed to self-promoting “professionals” who have used social media to offer fantasy solutions to problems already on their way to being managed.  Think of self-styled health experts on the margins of mainstream medicine getting more media attention than their views warrant. Established standards of competence and credibility no long seem to apply to the noisiest and most opportunistic.

Writing in roller-coaster 1960s, the sharp-eyed Joan Didion noted that our national convulsions over Vietnam and racial violence meant that “the center will not hold.” The years of the Trump interregnum have similarly soured the nation on many within it. Too many seem to have strayed far from the norms of institutions they represent. Consider the former Secretary of Education’s outrageous preference for private over public schools, or the lies the Attorney General now admits he told to placate the President, or the President’s own dissembling regarding the pandemic or the 2020 election. And then there are the everyday norm violations that traditionally fill our news sites: instances of sexual predation from religious, business and school officials, violence against innocents by deranged and armed people beyond the reach of limited social services, or police who pose a threat to those they are supposed to protect.  All feed the threatening rhetoric of armchair revolutionaries broadcasting their weirdness on social media sites. Even seditionists are sometimes normed, like the 18-members of the Texas congressional delegation who have paid no price for trying to nullify the votes of citizens in four other states.

Some of these forms of violated social norms have gained more traction not because they are new, though some are, but because we now more aware of them. And the costs seem greater for kids forced to attend school without long established and nominal protections against an endemic virus; for voters who once had a high degree of trust in reliable systems of election security; or for African American communities again facing state legislators determined to discourage widespread electoral participation. We can add parents or nativist school boards intent on undermining various best practices that have evolved as part of the American curriculum, Supreme Court decisions that have trashed carefully enacted voter protections, and the wealthy who have escaped the requirement to to pay their fair share of taxes. The effects are real for a country that physically self-segregates, even while it finds common ground in sharing media reports about our apparent dystopia.

Social Norm Deviates Undermine Confidence

All of these factors and more undermine faith in the fairness of the “system” and the idea that everyone needs adhere to the glue of the social contract that holds a society together. The contract is real:  for example, when we agree not to run red lights, or promptly pay others what we owe. Most of us also act on the contract when we share our wealth with others who cannot manage on their own. These routines are still strong, but almost never news. Because of more varied routes for taking the national pulse, we see more social norm deviates.  Their visibility makes us angrier and less confident about the nation’s foundational principles.

The Pleasures of Criticism

Good criticism ‘opens up’ our understanding of an object, idea or event: what its presence can mean as part of the human experience. 

                                 Paul Goldberger

The title here may be misleading.  I have no interest in selling the idea that harsh judgments are ‘fun’ to make.  That’s what “criticism” can mean.  But it isn’t what I think of when I use the term.  I’m more interested in its second and less common meaning: writing that combines analysis and assessment of the most interesting forms of expressive activity.  Criticism is a sustained and considered effort to understand a new project: usually the work of an artist or innovator interested in moving beyond the strictly utilitarian. Critics try to make sense of what these people have done or perhaps failed to do.  They may come from academic or journalistic organizations, or freelance on their own.

Almost every field–from architecture to food–has potential ‘appreciators’ who profess to use fresh eyes and ears to extend our understanding about a particular effort.  Criticism can be as accessible as reviews of new books, plays or music in a news outlet like the New York Times.  It can also be seen in the rarer video essays of Anthony Bourdain, Leonard Bernstein or Michael Tilson Thomas.  Some efforts stand as monumental and single works of sustained analysis, like like Alec Wilder’s American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950. (Oxford, 1975).  And some can be impressive panoramas that leave us richer in our understanding of a single kind of human enterprise. Among these, I’d count Michael Arlen’s fascinating assessment of television in the Vietnam era, Living Room War. (Viking, 1969).

                                  Joan Didion

Criticism ought to be a cherished kind of writing—not just because it promises incisive observation, but because good criticism ‘opens up’ our understanding of an event: what its presence can mean as part of the human experience.  To use a simple example, I will never eat in most of the restaurants that the New York Times’ food critic will write about.  But Pete Wells’ assessment of the food and the experience of a particular eatery is still interesting.  Wells isn’t doing a Yelp review.  His best reviews place an establishment in a timeline, and its food in a broader culinary tradition.  The food he samples functions as a kind of ‘find’ in an archaeological dig.  It’s roots are from somewhere else, but handed down and modified by whoever is in the kitchen.  And, of course, its New York.  So most restaurants feed strivers looking for sensations that are different and potentially better.  Who knew that Malaysian coffee can be so different?  How have Americans not understood the varied and fascinating textures of something as basic as rice?

      Robert Hughes illustration by John Spooner

Try any field of effort, and there are fascinating critics from the present or recent past to explore.  Many have been journalists: Robert Hughes on art, Alex Ross on concert music, Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael on film, Joan Dideon on the East and West coast life, Paul Goldberger on architecture, or Gary Giddens on jazz.  Whatever the work, we expect critics to be curious, aware, and more interested in discovering and knowing than judging.

 

Living in the thick of a culture requires sorting out and assessing the passing parade of ideas and artifacts that vie to make an impression.

I was trained as a rhetorical theorist and critic.  No shingle hangs out of my office to attract potential customers.  But with communication as my world I am never at a loss for subjects to explore and ponder. I and thousands of other academics are following in the footsteps of other rhetorical critics before us, including Wayne Booth, Hugh Duncan, Jane Blankenship, Richard Weaver and Kenneth Burke.  The names of these academics are perhaps not familiar.  Yet they have shaped what communication means in the American academy.  They are still read by flocks of undergraduates on their way to sharpening their critical and analytical skills.

                     Kenneth Burke

Burke wrote what many of us sometimes say in moments of exasperation: we are all critics.  Living in the thick of a culture requires sorting out and assessing the passing parade of ideas and artifacts that vie to make an impression.  The key difference is that our own ad-hoc judgments are usually personal: said without much prior knowledge and not very well worked out.  That’s why our opinions are usually less interesting than a gifted writer who is also a professional appreciator.