I frequently marvel at Bérubé’s ability to mix his smarmy missives with intelligent, spot-on analysis. And once again he delivers:
you know, I’ve always been puzzled about why there is so little “conservative” historicism in the humanities. Why, exactly, should the division of intellectual labor have fallen out this way, in which the intellectual left says, “let’s try to understand how feudalism, mercantile capitalism, industrial capitalism, post-industrial capitalism, etc. inflected the production and reception of works of art,” and the intellectual right says, “no! works of art are timeless, timeless, timeless”? And then the intellectual left says, “but aren’t you curious as to why some works of art survive and remain powerful for centuries, whereas others gradually drop out of sight, and still others are acknowledged only long after their creators are dead?” And the right replies, “there’s nothing to be curious about! Some authors are great and some aren’t, that’s all.” In this as in other schools of cultural criticism, the intellectual right hasn’t brought anything to the table in decades. Instead, they’ve met each new school of criticism and theory since the advent of structuralism by singing that immortal Groucho Marx tune from Horse Feathers, “I’m Against It.” Why they think this suffices as a mode of intellectual exchange, I’ll never know. But as far as I’m concerned, if we’re going to use terms like “modernism” and “postmodernism”—or, indeed, if we’re going to talk about historical periods at all—it only makes sense to try to determine what makes one period distinct from another, and how art responds (and contributes) to historical change.