Monday, August 30, 2010

This Sunday The New York Times published "Plato’s Pop Culture Problem, and Ours" on it's online-only opinion blog, aptly named Opinionator. The article is by Alexander Nehamas, who draws a cogent parallel between Plato's proposal to banish all the poets from his ideal republic and a law California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed fining stores that sold games with “sexual and heinous violence” to children. Both the former Terminator and Plato were convinced of the corrupting effects of representation, and neither got his wish--people (a handful at least) still read Homer, and a California court struck down the Governor's law.

And as much as I like being told Classics like Plato's Republic are still relevant, Nehamas omits a crucial fact when he describes Plato and his works, the most crucial, I think—Plato's suspicion of representation is suspicious because he uses representation to illustrate all his best points. Plato didn't write The Republic or anything else from his own perspective, rather he made Socrates his mouthpiece, and Plato's Socrates is not particularly historically accurate. Plato’s puppet Socrates does—later—soften his position on poet-banishment, saying the republic could let artists back in if they agree to tow the party-line, but because Plato bashes representation so thoroughly, while representing someone else, it's hard to tell what he really thought.

I'm not sure if Nehamas and the Times are trying to hoodwink us the way Plato tried to hoodwink his readers, but this is always the way it is with art: we're okay with representation, just not all representation. The Terminator movies, okay. Heinous violence in video games, not okay. (Actually, I like Terminator 1, 2, and 3, and hate video games, so I find this an acceptable argument, but if I must stand on principle) I share Plato’s suspicion of representation. I saw a Special K commercial the other day where a woman sits down to mimic a tea party with her very small (4 or 5-year-old) daughter. They are using the daughter’s tea set (also very small and complete with table and chairs) and when the woman stands up, the chair come with her. So she walks to the kitchen, pulls out a box of Special K, and pours herself a bowl. The announcer then tells you how to diet using Special K. Kellog is—in effect—saying, "Ladies, you should diet if you don't fit everything your 5-year-old fits." Only it’s less offensive than if the company just came right out and said that. This is the danger of images, and of poetry, too, although fewer people interact with poetry these days than they do with commercials and video games. You see—hahaha—images and representations communicate to us directly and subversively.

Some art is always going to be nutritious, some will always be junk-food, and some of it is poison. I’m not going to end by saying, “Listen to your gut.” I’m not going to end by saying, “Stop if you feel sick.” The only thing more noxious than representation is someone telling you what to do.