Elsewhere in this issue, readers will find a moving memorial by David Pryce-Jones for John Gross, the great critic, editor, writer, and anthologist who died last month at seventy-five. John, a former editor of The Times Literary Supplement, was a dear friend and frequent contributor to The New Criterion. Longtime readers will remember his percipient reviews, essays, and London Journals. Anyone who knew John will fondly remember his companionable wit, seemingly endless erudition, and trove of anecdotes and delicious gossip. We will miss him.
The sad news does not end there. On December 28, we heard that Denis Dutton, the founder and editor of the indispensable Arts & Letters Daily website, had died. He was only sixty-six. Denis, too, was a friend of the editors and, through Arts & Letters Daily, he was a conspicuous friend to The New Criterion as well. Many essay and reviews from our pages have featured on his widely read and influential site.
Denis was American, but he had lived and taught philosophy in Christchurch, New Zealand, for many years. The miracle of the internet made Arts & Letters Daily possible. Nearly every day, he and a small team of colleagues scoured cyberspace for items that delighted, amused, instructed, or infuriated. These he congregated under the rubrics “Articles of Note,” “New Books,” and “Essays and Opinion,” where he provided a brief but provocative teaser and a link to the essay or review in question.
Like many stunning innovations, it seems so simple in hindsight. But first you had to have the idea. And then you had to have the wit to execute it effectively. Denis not only had a knack for writing those ensorcelling twenty-five-word teasers, he also was adept at nosing out good material. The internet is often deplored as a demotic intellectual jungle where half-digested fragments of knowledge compete with lubricious distractions for the attention of the unwary. That is half right. The internet is a jungle. But Denis showed that it was also a fertile source of intelligent and provocative things.
Among his other talents, Denis had a connoisseur’s nose for balderdash. In addition to running ALD, he also edited a magazine called Philosophy and Literature, one of the glories of which was its Bad Writing Contest. Some of the academy’s most celebrated charlatans were winners. Fredric Jameson, for example, one of the academy’s make-believe Marxists, won with this gem, from Signatures of the Visible:
The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination; thinking about its attributes becomes an adjunct to that, if it is unwilling to betray its object; while the most austere films necessarily draw their energy from the attempt to repress their own excess (rather than from the more thankless effort to discipline the viewer).
We haven’t kept up with Professor Jameson’s career, so we couldn’t say whether he is still sowing confusion and bad English among students at Duke University.
There were many other excellent winners of the Bad Writing Contest. If we had to pick an ultimus inter pares, though, it would have to be the specialist in “queer theory” Judith Butler who burns with an even ghastlier light than F. Jameson in the academic firmament. Professor Butler won in 1998 for this sentence from an article in the sometime scholarly journal Diacritics:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
There you have it: perfect unintelligibility seamlessly married to a minatory, mandarin rhetoric. No wonder Butler has scooped up every prize and fellowship a grateful academic establishment can bestow.
Denis was of a mildly libertarian disposition, conservative in an undoctrinaire, politely skeptical sort of way. At some point, he fell under the spell of Darwinian theories of cultural explanation, not least as they applied to explaining the origin and development (we won’t say “evolution”) of art. Why is it that certain landscapes, those with a bit of water, open spaces in the middle-distance, some low-branching trees and other greenery, and an animal or two beat all comers in the popularity sweepstakes? Such scenes decorate calendars and greeting cards the world over. They have also inspired innumerable great paintings by innumerable artists. Why?
Doubtless there are many plausible answers. But Denis patiently put forth the Darwinian answer: down through the ages, art has been adaptive, recalling the African Savannah—“the habitat” that hominids evolved in—such art helped mankind survive and reproduce. Like language, Denis argued, art hones “imaginative and intellectual capacities that had a clear survival value in prehistory.” Denis elaborated on his ideas in The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution (2008). Those susceptible to Darwinian explanations of cultural phenomena will find Denis’s argument convincing. He makes the best possible case for the contention. The rest of us may enjoy the book for its wit, passion, and common-sense polemics.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 6, on page 2
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com