RARA-AVIS: Re: Definitions

From: Mark R. Harris ( brokerharris@gmail.com)
Date: 07 Dec 2007

Mark wrote:

> No, I'm not trying to reignite the debate. However, I'm currently
> reading Geoffrey O'Brien's Sonata for Jukebox (one of these days
> got to read his Hardboiled America) and I ran across this line
> defining rock and roll:
> "Any attempt to nail the music down is too restrictive for a
> whose whole point is to find out what happens when every form of
> restriction is removed."
> An artisitic form cannot be pinned down as long as it remains
alive and
> vital. If it still has an ability to evolve, it cannot be
> contained (which may be why some are so meticulous in narrowing
> to very precise, specific time periods and titles), since any
> would have to break through the existing boundaries. The only
place it
> can be thoroughly dissected is on the autopsy table, in retrospect.

I thoroughly agree with what you say here. A point I have made elsewhere is that "film noir" and "rock and roll" and "jazz" and "science fiction" mean, first, the works that people commonly and by consensus speak of as being such. There are of course always fringe and arguable cases, and consensus is not absolutely everything. Nonetheless, a definition of "film noir" that leaves out Kiss Me Deadly or Laura or The Asphalt Jungle is not a common sense linguistic definition, because those films are among the first hundred that most people mean when they refer to film noir. Those who would have it otherwise tend to be Platonic essentialists; they believe there is some sort of "essence of noir" that they have identified and that forms an absolutely determinative test for members of the "film noir" class. This may have very little to do with the way that most people talk about noir, but from the eseentialists' position, that is so much the better; arcane knowledge is quite sexier than general knowledge. I wouldn't wish to deny them their pleasure or their conceptual sandbox, but I do think that they have gotten into the realm of private definitions, as I stated in an earlier email. They have in turn accused me of not having a rigorous definition with which to challenge theirs, but of course that is just the point; I am arguing for the more sloppy way that people actually use terminology. I think it's truer.

Best, Mark

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