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There is an episode of The West Wing that irritates me greatly. It's called 'The US Poet Laureate', it takes place somewhat over midway through the third season, and as part of a spectacularly ill-judged swipe at fans and fandom it contains the following gem, stated by the US Poet Laureate in resounding Authorial Voice:
"You think I think that an artist's job is to speak the truth. An artist's job is to captivate you for however long we've asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky, and I don't get to decide what truth is."

Sorkin is disavowing responsibility for his fans. "Don't read too much into what I'm writing," he's saying, "I'm just here to entertain." It's a remarkable statement to hear from any artist, still more remarkable to hear it from a man who created a series so intimately concerned with Substance and Message as is The West Wing. And my reply is simply: Take some responsibility.

Then today in the Guardian, there's this piece by DJ Taylor:
And so here I am a dozen years later trying to establish - an exercise that seems to demand a great many thousands of words - what I, who know nothing but what I read in the newspapers and see on television, think about Iraqi corpses and slaughtered British military policemen. There is, it hardly needs saying, no point, just as there is no point - to descend a little further down the activist scale - in writing a letter to your MP. All you will get back in answer to your reasonable request for information - a recent missive to Charles Clarke bore this out in excelsis - is a sheet of platitudes.

In an environment where art has lost all formal influence, all the writer can do is to keep on writing, in the hope that somehow he or she can make an impact at bedrock, on the series of individual moral sensibilities that read books.

Now, we already knew that DJ Taylor was an idiot. And two data points emphatically do not make a trend, particularly when the points are separated by somewhat more than twelve months, and there are certainly others out there as vociferously active as ever (stand up, China Mieville) - and in any case Taylor doesn't seem as far gone as Sorkin; at least he thinks artists should try, even if they can't actually achieve anything. But then I think, and I wonder whether maybe there is something of a general artistic ennui settling. Maybe it's a product of the same forces that have homogenised and monopolised 'popular music' over the last ten years, and maybe it's starting to happen to the rest of the arts.

I don't really think it is; or at least, I certainly hope it isn't. But to see a piece such as DJ Taylor's in a paper such as the Guardian...well, it bothers me, is all.
 
 
 
 
 
 
I'm troubled by your use of the word "artist". If Aaron Sorkin is in artist, why not the writer of Eastenders? I prefer the term "creator" myself but perhaps that's just my familiarity with the tropes of comics discussion showing.

Anyway, creators have no responsibilty to the those who consume their work. They never signed a contract to us. If all they want to do is tell a story and pass our time for x minutes/pages, then they can do that. This is not a new concept.
I'm troubled by your use of the word "artist". If Aaron Sorkin is in artist, why not the writer of Eastenders?

Sure, they're artists too. They just suck. :)

If all they want to do is tell a story and pass our time for x minutes/pages, then they can do that. This is not a new concept.

It is, however, immature and irresponsible. You don't have to be an activist, and you don't have to make the promotion of a Message your primary goal (or even a goal at all), and god knows you don't have to answer to every fan who worships at your shrine (crazy sarin-spreading folks reading Foundation, please stand up) - but stories have meaning; art in general has meaning.

It's the same as the argument for the moral neutrality of science: In principle, you might believe that you can hermetically seal one aspect of our culture away from all others, but in practice you can't. And I say that it's bad practice for anyone to pretend that you can.

(But then, I can't really believe that Sorkin thinks he's working in a vacuum, which is why I wondered if maybe he had a dose of DJ Taylor's ennui, instead, and whether he'd just got fed up and wanted to get people off his back.)
You might be right about Sorkin - I can imagine that he has a lot of people after him thinking he's the second coming because of his apparent political ideals. Of course, he doesn't have all the answers, but they think he does. Maybe that was his way of saying "just because I'm a visionary doesn't mean I have the solution".
Quite possibly. Well, as possible as any baseless speculation, anyway. And after all, he has now left TWW entirely... :-(
He has? Oh, poo. (I don't have Space Telly so am usually The Last To Know About Anything, although groolover is very sweetly taping me the current series on E4). Any word on the quality of the series, post-Sorkin?
Season 5 hasn't started yet, so I guess we'll see. Certainly not placing any bets on the writing quality being up to scratch, though..
No, I'd save your pennies for the Terrorism Tombola...
http://www.thefutoncritic.com/cgi/gofuton.cgi?action=newswire&id=6091
-- The network also outlined its post-Aaron Sorkin strategy for "The West Wing's" upcoming fifth season. In addition to executive producer John Wells (who will write the season’s first two episodes), the producing/writing staff is set to include Eli Attie, Debora Cahn, Carol Flint ("The Court"), Mark Goffman, Alexa Junge ("Friends"), Peter Noah ("War Stories"), Lawrence O’Donnell ("Mister Sterling"), Paul Redford, Josh Singer and John Sacret Young.

Also see the badly-spelled http://tv.zap2it.com/tveditorial/tve_main/1,1002,271|82473|1|,00.html

Eli Attie has been credited as co-writer on some S4 episodes, including Swiss Democracy aka the one Sorkin didn't write, and so has Deborah Cahn. And Lawrence O'Donnell has been there since the start, and is now back since Mr Sterling got cancelled. Carol Flint has written some decent ER episodes.

So I'm being optimistic about the fact that no one but Sorkin has ever written a good episode, and attempting to ignore the presence of John Wells entirely due to my residual ER bitterness.
I got the impression in one of the S1 episodes of WW that the message, if any, was that we should never give up trying to make things better. I think it was the moment when they finally decide to shift gear, forget about re-election, and just make a difference. But I don't think Sorkin was providing an answer, just saying that being human we should always go looking for one.
I don't think there's much point in discussing this as you and I clearly not only see things in different lights, we see different things entirely.
I don't think it's at all clear how much responsibility an artist should take, though.

Should Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino have taken responsibility for the acts of violence which were inspired by 'Natural Born Killers'? If so, how much?

Should Tim Minear have at least shown that he cared that people found certain aspects of 'Billy' offensive, instead of telling them to shut up?
Should Tim Minear have at least shown that he cared that people found certain aspects of 'Billy' offensive, instead of telling them to shut up?

But he did SO well with ODC!
Should Tim Minear have at least shown that he cared that people found certain aspects of 'Billy' offensive, instead of telling them to shut up?

Yes. :)

Well, he didn't have to care (although maybe artists should have a social conscience about the effects of their work, I dunno), but he shouldn't have told 'em to shut up. 'Cause in amongst the hysteria? Valid points. He and/or Joss tried to do something worthy but didn't have a complex enough grasp on the issue or were just rather careless so they fucked up a little bit. Bad writing. Happens to the best of them, so just cop to it, guys, and move on.
Bollocks. They clearly had a grasp of it and presented both sides of the argument.

However, people chose to focus on what Lilah said, not Fred.
No. They did fuck up. Because Fred's position wasn't presented strongly enough and it was possible to interpret Lilah's position as being backed up by Wesley own hands-on experience (this wasn't my own, I hasn't to add, and you can google my defence of 'Billy' threads if you want). This is the bit at which I think the bad writing came in. Keep 'primordial' if you must but either take out 'primal' or bolster Fred's take.

If it had been about an issue that was less of a hot potato, I'd agree with you, but as it was to not cover their bases more carefully was playing with fire and a bit naive.
Fred was given the last word in the episode. Just becuase Lilah used bigger words doesn't mean her case was put forward as stronger. It's Lilah's (and only her's) take. That's utterly obvious to anyone. It's good they didn't feel the need to have everyone sit down and put forward their view in a little speech (Matrix Reloaded, I'm looking at you). Or can we only have characters who voice the opinions of their authors? Should Lilah have forgiven Gavin because it was something that was done to him? Does that sound in character to you?
Please, have the entire 'Billy' debate on my journal. No, really. Go on. :-)

(I think I'm even with Christy here: Great episode, a teensy bit flawed. "Niall in not loving episode 100% shocker!")
Well, wwe can have That Vision Thing thing if you like.

I'm still waiting on you explaining the plot behind Lord of the Rings Angel S4. :P
That's one for this weekend, then. Although I'm not sure I get the LOTR reference.
It's big! It's epic! It doesn't make a lot of sense!
It's good they didn't feel the need to have everyone sit down and put forward their view in a little speech
In the cases of Lilah and Fred, isn't that pretty much exactly what they did do? If we had much more to go on than one word against another, then the controversy might not have happened..

They could have shown that it was something that was done to them, or not, but they didn't, at least in part because I think they wanted to leave it ambiguous.
They could have shown that it was something that was done to them, or not, but they didn't, at least in part because I think they wanted to leave it ambiguous.

Perhaps backed up by the fact that in the shooting script, Billy does a glowy-eye thing whenever her puts the whammy on someone.
Does the last word always by default give the biggest impression? I don't think that's so.

Here, at least, it's offset by the viewer's perception of the character. Yeah, Fred's smart but she's girlish, unsure, faltering in her delivery, and only just at this point been shown getting over her Pylean pyschological issues ("Fredless" being only the week before may unintentionally have left a greater impression of an unreliable commentator than would have been otherwise). To have Fred's voice alone (and how does she know how Billy's power works? Lilah certainly *seems* to know much more about the Blims) putting forward the 'done to' angle seems to lack authority.

Lilah is, of course, a scheming untrustworthy evil lawyer type with a possible case of misandry, but she certainly knows how to convey authority. An underappreciation of this, I feel weakens the impression of balance the writers may have intended to leave with the audience.

Hence, either dial down Lilah (or make her personal anti-male agenda more obvious in this episode) or dial up Fred's with a stronger (impartial?) opinion. Anvils? Perhaps, but otherwise people seem to have taken the wrong message. A lot of people, which suggests a flaw somwhere.
Not that I'm one of those who found it terribly offensive, but...

In even presenting both sides of the argument, they were suggesting that both points of view were legitimate. Fred may have contradicted Lilah, but it wasn't actually demonstrated which of them was correct, and in fact the evidence points towards Lilah. There is most definitely significance in the fact that Joss decided the Slayer should always be female, so it's not too great a leap to think that Billys power only affecting men was significant, and if it was, then why? They chose to tell a story about male violence towards women, and 'primordial misogyny' is the only attempted explanation.

But whether the offence taken was justified or not doesn't really have anything to do with whether Tim Minear should have told those who were offended to shut up, which some might say is the very definition of immature and irresponsible, even if it was at least partly in jest..
But whether the offence taken was justified or not doesn't really have anything to do with whether Tim Minear should have told those who were offended to shut up, which some might say is the very definition of immature and irresponsible, even if it was at least partly in jest...

Oh, I could so see that one coming. :-)

For the record, it was entirely immature, and whilst it was entertaining there is a part of me that wishes he'd taken the commentary a little more seriously...but he's talked about the episode (and others) seriously elsewhere, so I don't think of him as irresponsible.
Another way of reading that West Wing quote is not as a disavowal of responsibility, but a display of humility. Saying that no, the artist isn't qualified to speak the truth nor is it their job to do so, but that doesn't mean they're not searching, or that they won't occasionally find it. You just shouldn't expect it of them.

In fact, I'd be very suspicious of anyone who claimed that they did, or could, speak the truth, and it's most certainly not why I watch the West Wing.
Saying that no, the artist isn't qualified to speak the truth nor is it their job to do so, but that doesn't mean they're not searching, or that they won't occasionally find it. You just shouldn't expect it of them.

But that's not what the episode says. The quote is Tabitha's capitulation: That Toby and co. are the professionals, that they know better than her, and that she shouldn't be searching for the answers.

I have no problems with the idea that artists don't make the truth. I have some problems with the idea that they shouldn't be trying to comment on the truth - whatever truth they want, from the trivial to the vital. If they've got nothing to say - if they're deliberately trying not to say anything - then in what sense are they artists?

In fact, I'd be very suspicious of anyone who claimed that they did, or could, speak the truth, and it's most certainly not why I watch the West Wing.

Aw, c'mon. It's blatant left-wing fantasy, and we all know it. :)
I'd forgotten the details of the episode, to be honest.

In that context, it seems somewhat ironic, really..
I'd forgotten the details of the episode, to be honest.

Oh, I wouldn't worry about that. I'm sure if you rewatched it our opinions would still differ. :-)
Well, I've just skimmed the episode transcript and noticed it was the same episode that had the LemonLyman thing, so I'd say your 'spectacularly ill-judged swipe at fans and fandom' is pretty much right. That quote does look somewhat different when it's out of context, though. :)
"there is no point - to descend a little further down the activist scale - in writing a letter to your MP."

DOLT. No wonder he's feeling degage. Sorry, dégagé. There's a word for the day.

But, what I'm more interested in, is how do you feel about that from the perspective of your writing (commercial or creative)? Do you hit truth when you're down there?
But, what I'm more interested in, is how do you feel about that from the perspective of your writing (commercial or creative)? Do you hit truth when you're down there?

Interesting question, since we're talking about two very different types of writing.

My commercial writing is all about Fact; if I'm writing a manuscript, I need to emphasise these key findings, or those. And they have to be true statements, but it's hard to see how they could be truth - they are, after all, only one perspective, and it seems to me that truth probably has to emerge from a multiplicity of viewpoints (although not all viewpoints will carry equal weight).

In my creative writing, I wouldn't be so egotistical as to say I've articulated any truths. Fumbled for, perhaps; I think Sorkin is right in that aspect of things, at least. But I do feel I should be somehow trying, even if the truths I'm aiming for are small and mundane.

There's another wrinkle, just brought up by a colleague: It is generally agreed that artists often don't know what they're saying. Or they're trying to say one thing, and end up saying something entirely different. So is an artist's value determined by external consensus? And if so, how does that affect how an artist works?

Damn. Need to go to the bank before my lunch hour ends. More later.
Artists (not talking about factual writing although this can also be a craft, of a sort) work from an impulse to *create*, and a vision. Art is subjective, I believe entirely so (it requires context - the artist may have in mind a context of their own but this is frequently not appreciated by their audience until a wider context is apparent - all those 'unappreciated in their own time' genius-types).

An artist's value is, I think, entirely determined by external consensus. This is, IMO, largely arbitrary. Which is not to say that it's impossible to spot talent, but if I write, or paint, or sculpt, or sew something, my context is going to be very different from yours. Maybe you'll 'get' it, or maybe you won't - maybe you'll see it in the context of your *own* experiences and it will blow you away, far beyond what I had in mind.

The thing is, I don't think there *is* truth (just as I don't think there *is* art - what may be interpreted as truth, or art, is totally subjective). When Aaron sorkin was writing The West Wing, I assume he had a vision to which he tried to be faithful. We are lucky enough to share the context in which he was working, which is why I guess it's so popular. But we know it's only a vision and will never be real, no matter how strongly it appeals to our core values. I think it might be unfair of us to criticise Mr Sorkin for being self-effacing about any "truths" that he may or may not have uncovered. We're complicit in the illusion that he has created (not least in the fantasy that political government could ever be that black and white), and that's why we enjoy it - and it's also why we checked our right to call his bluff at the door.

[/wank]

Go on then, hit me. Apologies for any/all philosophical inconsistencies in this, it's a bit off the cuff really.
Could be -- but what about the impulse to *understand* (subjective, objective or otherwise) acted out physically, with materials -- then, the creation -- that's almost a byproduct

-- which sometimes (or more often, if you're doing well) intersects with other people trying to understand and creates a momentary view of truth

/artsywank ;)
I don't set out trying to communicate truth because at the beginning of what I'm writing I generally really don't know what I'm looking for. At the end sometimes, too. (Doesn't seem to affect quality, that, but then I'm not sure that the writer's understanding of their work is more valid than anyone else's.) Writing for me is more like a process of exploration ... if it ends with revelation, that's an exciting bonus, but I don't know where that revelation lives; in you, the work, or between somewhere.

I'm loath to separate out writing into art and crafts -- thinking that maybe the information writing I produce follows the same process except that here the "truths" (banal as they are, they're still relevant) aren't so unknowable -- when talking about say, the health issues of smoking for young people you're groping for something you should be able to find in the dark with both hands tied behind your back ....
I'm seeing in my head a sort of black scaffolding structure with a light shining out from inside.

Quite pretty, looks like a Durer engraving.

But is it a distinction or just snobbery?
But is it a distinction or just snobbery?

Oh, goody. Semantics!

There's a difference in how I use them, at least. 'Facts' are morally neutral, 'truths' are not. 'Facts' are more specific, and 'truths' are more general. It is a fact that genetically modified crops can provide higher yields than natural crops; it is a fact that there is a small but quantifiable risk of the same crops cross-breeding with the natural crops and upsetting the local ecology. But is it a truth that GM crops are a good thing or a bad thing? Hard to say, either way.

This is also what I was getting at when I was talking about truth arising from multiple perspectives.

Of course, whether anybody else uses these words in the same way is open to debate... :)
Okay, so it's snobbery, then.

I don't see a distinction between propositions like "genetically modified crops can provide higher yields than natural crops" and those like "GM crops are a good thing (for some definitions of 'GM' and 'good')". We happen to know that the former example is true, but not the latter, but that's not a property of the propositions; both have a real, objective truth value, even if we don't know what it is. Unless you don't believe in the existence of a consistent physical universe outside of human consciousness.

Moral neutrality? What do you mean by that? Clearly, the propositions themselves can't have moral character, as they're not agents; they can't choose to do one thing or another, and so can't be good or evil.

The specific/general thing is a red herring: there's a continuum of specificity; you could construct propositions whose generality was greater, less than or intermediate between that of the two propositions above, which means that the line between 'fact' and 'truth' is either fuzzy, in which case it's not a useful distinction to make, or you have to draw an arbitrary line somewhere (which is always a strong sign that you're wrong).

As for multiple perspectives: are you saying that the way that a proposition's truth-value is determined affects the kind of proposition it is? Is there some intrinsic difference in the knowability of the two kinds?

Sorry, call me a rude, retrograde rationalist, but i think you're talking bunk here.

-- Tom
I don't see a distinction between propositions like "genetically modified crops can provide higher yields than natural crops" and those like "GM crops are a good thing (for some definitions of 'GM' and 'good')". We happen to know that the former example is true, but not the latter, but that's not a property of the propositions; both have a real, objective truth value, even if we don't know what it is.
No they don't. You can't define 'good' in objective terms, it's a value judgement.

Moral neutrality? What do you mean by that? Clearly, the propositions themselves can't have moral character, as they're not agents; they can't choose to do one thing or another, and so can't be good or evil.
But they can make an assertion about the moral character of something else.

The specific/general thing is a red herring: there's a continuum of specificity; you could construct propositions whose generality was greater, less than or intermediate between that of the two propositions above, which means that the line between 'fact' and 'truth' is either fuzzy, in which case it's not a useful distinction to make, or you have to draw an arbitrary line somewhere (which is always a strong sign that you're wrong).
Or that the judgement you're making is subjective.

It's really not a big deal. 'Fact' and 'truth' are synonymous, and if Niall feels he wants to use one in preference to the other when he feels like it, he's perfectly entitled to. I can see where he's coming from simply because if the US declaration of independence had said "We hold these facts to be self-evident..", it would have sounded weird. :)
/me throws hat into the ring

FWIW, I would say that fact and truth are equally subjective notions, but I think that "fact" has overtones of scientific method whereas "truth" has moralist implications (you certainly don't hear scientists talking about truths. Not within earshot of Dawkins, anyway ;o).

Maybe facts can be proven false (for example in light of new scientific breakthroughs) whereas truths will forever be subjective.

Wow, we're well into semantics here.

No they don't. You can't define 'good' in objective terms, it's a value judgement.


Yes you can. Certainly, there's no one single agreed method for doing it, but there are a number of objective ethical systems - utilitarianism, Kantian deontology, and others that i understand even less. That's why i said "for some definition of 'good'".

Or that the judgement you're making is subjective.


What's that got to do with it? Funniness of jokes is subjective, but that doesn't mean i can draw a sharp line between funny and unfunny jokes; there's a continuum.

'Fact' and 'truth' are synonymous, and if Niall feels he wants to use one in preference to the other when he feels like it, he's perfectly entitled to.


I absolutely agree with you.

"We hold these facts to be self-evident.."


I'm not terribly familiar with that document, so i had to re-read this before i actually noticed what was wrong! Now, if you'd said "Just the truths, ma'am.", i'd have been with you :).

Reminds me of Prak (http://pcbo.dcs.aber.ac.uk/hhgttg/hitch3/node34.html) in 'Life, the Universe and Everything'.

-- Tom
.... ye-es, certainly everything you say here is very sound in the argument, but your argument that they are interchangeable is neatly shot down by the caveat (for some definitions of 'GM' and 'good') which instantly suggests that under some circumstances you believe they are certainly not a good thing.

In fact suggests that you don't want the responsibility of saying it. Think that the statement might do damage. And that's where (practically, in reference to my own work) I have to draw the truth-line. And you're right, it is fuzzy, but if you prefer, I could expand it out into a clearer area of doubtful truth, which is complemented by a second area of truths which do damage.

Let's play the considering statements game again, this time on (oh, GM just isn't controversial enough!) abortion facts:

Having an abortion is legal in the United Kingdom.
Many people feel that having an abortion is wrong.
After an abortion you may feel depressed.

The first statement, though it looks like a clear fact, isn't. Under some circumstances it's untrue. You need to surround it with a bunch of qualifications and conditions. Then it's true, but without them, it isn't. But it's about as close to fact as you're likely to get in the muddy mess of language.

The second statement is also a clear enough fact. Punch up the stats and you'll find a lot of people in this country alone (and we're quite good about it) who think it's wrong, wrong, wrong. However, this is a truth which does damage. It might stop the young person asking for help, it might make them (god forbid) try to keep it a secret. That said, though I'd think hard about including this, it is is a fact and it is important. But without qualification (eg. Many people feel that having an abortion is wrong, but many do not.) it is on its own a damaging statement and therefore not for inclusion.

The third statement is squarely in the area of doubtful truth. While it's certainly true that some women do (just as they do after a miscarriage) equally they may not, and actual clinical depression (as opposed to feeling sick and down for a while) is rarer than post-partum depression -- and may have more than one cause even if it did happen after an abortion. It's a damaging statement and open to question.

Alternatively: your model of argument is wrong. You need to include more factors.
DOLT


So there is a point? Could you tell me what it is?

-- Tom
(sorry if this comes in a bit late for you to see, work was a bit dense yesterday afternoon)

The arguments frequently raised against voting, writing a letter to your MP, protesting or other forms of personal political expression are that the individual voice or action can do nothing to change the world. There is an amount of truth in this; the single vote is unlikely to sway an election, the MP will send you a stock letter, the most a protest is likely to do is stop the traffic and smash the window of your local MacDonalds (which could be seen as a net positive result but is hardly the societal change you may have been demanding).

However, as people who live in a democracy, we are not attempting to sway progress to the will of the individual. In fact, if that's happening, something is going wrong (and it's time to start protesting again). We are attempting to bring about collective change to the governing nature of the country (society, injustices, whatever). The only way to do that is to raise general awareness (protests, journalism, public statements eg. graffiti, billboards, advertising) specific awareness in decision makers (this is where the letter to your MP comes in, but also letter-writing and email campaigns, pressure on companies and company directors -- as we are living in a capitalist society) and censoring (denouncement, withdrawing of vote, prosecutions, exposes).

This process is also a filter; theoretically, at least the loony-toons get filtered out and the most important issues survive the process of rising up from being just another issue to be an important issue. Unfortunately, crazies, evil exploiters and religious nuts have a heck of a lot of staying power, more than your rational, sensible type.

And that's why there's not just a point in writing to your MP, it's absolutely crucial you do so. Being discouraged because your letter gets platitudes and a stock reponse is mistaking a gust of wind for the climate. One letter doesn't make any difference. 100,000 do.

I know this one because I was on their lists, Geneva will know others -- but Oxfam successfully stopped Nestle from demanding some ridiculous quantity of money ( £10m ? ) from the Ethiopian Goverment through an email/letter writing campaign. Crucial among these letters were the letters sent to politicians to win their political will towards achieving this.

That's the point. I'd also add, change is slow. Change should be slow. Fast societal change does damage.