Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 18, May 2004



Vittorio Frigerio


Post-modern Bogeymen and the Alibi of 'Good Taste':

A Reply to Porton



Richard Porton

'Vagaries of Taste, or How 'Popular' is Popular Culture?: A Reply to Frigerio'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 57, December 2003


I have only recently discovered, with some surprise, that my review of Porton's book _Film and the Anarchist Imagination_ [1] has elicited a rather lengthy response. Its tone, as well as some of its content, has convinced me of the utility of offering some brief clarifications.


Porton complains that I do not specify clearly what I mean by 'popular literature' and its relationship to 'high culture'. It seemed obvious to me that a book review is not the place for an inevitably lengthy theoretical discussion of that kind. My views on the matter can be found in the articles 'La paralittérature et la question des genres' and 'Cui prodest? Réflexions sur l'utilité et l'utilisation de la théorie des genres dans la culture de masse'. [2] They are quite different from those Porton arbitrarily attributes to me.


Porton imaginatively 'suspects' that my position may be representative of a supposedly excessive and unquestioning interest in popular culture on the part of some trendy, post-modern, and politically correct academics who 'fetishize' the popular. I feel I am not worthy to take upon myself the weight of the sins of this entire category. Most of all, I entirely fail to see where in my review Porton may have got this rather peculiar idea. There is quite a difference between 'fetishization' and the desire to study a cultural phenomenon objectively and independently from any prejudgment. Certain critics dogmatically refuse to examine some aspects of cultural production deemed by definition to be organically inferior. Porton seems to want to adopt this strategy, but he makes the mistake of assuming that I am a Mr Hyde to his Dr Jekyll.


I do apologize for apparently mistakenly capitalizing the 'd' in the name of Dwight Macdonald. However, I fail to see why my statement concerning him ('This critic, perhaps best-known for his book _Against the American Grain_ . . . offered what is conceivably the most extreme denunciation of the evils of 'masscult', and one of the most direct assimilations of 'high brow' avant-garde artistic creation with 'high art'') would be 'unhelpful'. It is certainly not 'uninformed'. Quite the contrary. It is simply a statement of fact. For a critique of Macdonald's and the Frankfurt school's position on popular literature, please see Umberto Eco's _Apocalittici e integrati_.


Nowhere do I suggest that 'popular and mass art [is] supposedly antithetical to 'art films''. I do say, however, that they are two different things, each worthy of being examined in its own right. This is the main misunderstanding in Porton's reply. He assumes that I view these forms as antithetical simply because I say that his analysis would be more complete if it took more fully into consideration 'popular' forms, instead of almost exclusively 'high art', and he instinctively understands this as an attempt to replace the one with the other. I do not try to establish an inverted hierarchical relationship between the two. Neither do I want to devalue 'high art' as he tends to devalue 'popular' forms. I see them as complementary.


As for Zola's and naturalism's influence on nineteenth-century French anarchist aesthetics, I do contend that it is indeed extremely significant. It is simply not possible to limit, as Porton does, Zola's relationship to anarchism to his portrayal of Souvarine in _Germinal_. Indeed, many if not most anarchist commentators did not see Souvarine as the 'vicious personification of anarchism', as Porton asserts, and adopted the character as a shining incarnation of absolute and intransigent revolt. Apart from _Germinal-_, Zola's last two trilogies, _Les Trois villes_ and --_Les Trois évangiles_, treat events and themes very close to anarchist concerns and were the object of generally glowing reviews in the French anarchist press of the period. Zola's involvement in the Dreyfus Affair attracted the attention of the anarchists and led to a complete re-evaluation on their part of his work and his figure. Articles on Zola, in practically all anarchist publications of the late 19th and early 20th century, are almost too numerous to mention. [3] More generally, naturalist aesthetics with a 'popular' bent is very obvious in the numerous short stories published by practically all anarchist papers. Prolific militant authors such as Brutus Mercereau or Mauricius (two particularly representative names amongst many) are clear examples of how a naturalist style can be combined with melodramatic conventions to create a mythologized image of a certain class. It is easy to fall back on the cliché of anarchists never agreeing upon anything -- a cliché Porton rightly denounces but uses nonetheless. It would certainly be excessive to state that 'there was some aesthetic consensus among nineteenth-century anarchists', as Porton thinks I do. In my review I stated that 'sentimental romance, swashbuckling adventure, and melodrama form an important part of the fictional arsenal with which nineteenth-century anarchists viewed themselves and their situation'. An 'important part' of a 'fictional arsenal' that also contains other weapons. The naturalist point of view is one of them, as well as one of the most easily observed in late-nineteenth-century anarchist publications.


Porton's appeal to 'faculty of taste' is perfectly legitimate, and his book -- as I have stated before and would like to repeat (the jam now comes at the end) -- is extremely interesting and worth reading. My point is that the author's chosen 'faculty of taste' limits the scope of his investigations and prevents him from identifying some characteristics of anarchist aesthetics that, in my view, are nonetheless worth studying. In my review I have attempted to point out what strikes me as an underlying ideological assumption in Porton's book, that leads him to prefer works somewhat related to 'high art' or 'avant-garde' (elastic as these concepts may be) and to devalue works marked by a 'popular' tone or 'genre' conventions. This does not constitute a 'hatchet job'. It constitutes the identification of some preferences clearly expressed throughout his work. Ideological assumptions are inevitable in all forms of criticism, no matter how objective they claim to be, and Umberto Eco (in _Superuomo di massa_) has pointed out how this is true even in that most scientific of all schools of criticism: structuralism. Porton seems to have chosen to take this statement of fact as a personal attack. It is unfortunate, and quite typical of that ailment common to most academics, be they 'elitist' or 'politically correct': thin skin. But his rebuttal fails to offer convincing arguments against my reading, and his insistence on trying to include me in an hypothetical cabal of post-modern academics endowed with debatable taste, seems to me to do quite a bit to prove my point.


Dalhousie University

Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada





1. Vittorio Frigerio, 'Aesthetic Contradictions and Ideological Representations: Anarchist Avant-Garde vs Swashbuckling Melodrama -- Porton's _Film and the Anarchist Imagination_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 53, December 2003 <>.


2. 'La paralittérature et la question des genres', in _Le Roman populaire en question(s)_ (Presses Universitaires de Limoges, 1997), pp. 97-114); and 'Cui prodest? Réflexions sur l'utilité et l'utilisation de la théorie des genres dans la culture de masse', _Belphegor_, vol. 3 no. 1, December 2003 <>.


3. For a more detailed description of Zola's relationship to various anarchist figures, see my upcoming 'La réception d'Emile Zola chez les anarchistes', to be published by the Université de Rennes II.



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2004



Vittorio Frigerio, 'Post-modern Bogeymen and the Alibi of 'Good Taste': A Reply to Porton', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 18, May 2004 <>.



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