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Cyclist Lance Armstrong's decision to stop fighting allegations of doping by the United States Anti-Doping Agency has re-animated an ongoing cultural conversation about the place of drugs in sport.
On the website of National Public Radio, sports commentator Frank Deford argues that "Doping Diminishes All Athletes". On the same website, however, philosopher Alva Noë contends that we should be "Making Peace With Our Cyborg Nature" rather than making a fuss about Armstrong's drug use.
What does the debate about drugs in sport have to do with the practice of criticism? To makes his point, Deford draws an analogy with the arts. He begins by talking about painters and writers and goes on to compare athletes to opera singers. Noë mentions "the arts" only in passing — though, if you like, you can listen to him being interviewed about "Art and Human Nature" here.
What does all this have to do with your paper assignment? One of the questions we're pursuing in this course is "Why study literature?" To answer this question, we have to consider what literature can offer us that seems valuable. Deford's view of art-as-performance represents one view of that value proposition:
Imagine if there were a drug that could improve a tenor's or a soprano's voice, so the notes were purer. That would devalue all opera because the art would be false, the cognoscenti unable to trust what they would be hearing as true human beauty.
For Deford, the value of art in general apparently lies, to a large extent, in the authenticity of the artist's achievement. Though he distinguishes between art-as-public-performance (opera) and art-as-private-act (writing, painting), it's hard to see why the distinction is relevant. Imagine there were technological means to make the tenor's voice purer in a recording of opera. (In fact, of course, the means exist.) Don't we face the same problem of "trust" that we face in the performance hall? What if, after reading my collection of brilliant poems, you found out that a computer had generated all of them? Same problem again.
So here's your assignment: Enter into conversation with Deford on the question of "authenticity" as a source of value in art generally, and literature in particular. By "conversation," I mean the kind of written engagement that Graff and Birkenstein describe. (That is, don't write an actual dialogue.) By "authenticity," I mean unaided, unmodified human performance: pure human achievement.
Here are some guidelines and suggestions:
- Begin with a summary of Deford's take on "authenticity" (as defined above) as a source of value in art.
- You can agree with this take, disagree with it, or agree to some extent but seek to modify it.
- You may want to draw on the assigned readings on "practical criticism" and those by Sontag and Frye to formulate other ways of valuing literary art as alternatives to Deford's.
- You may want to draw on Noë's piece about Armstrong and the interview with Noë to formulate an alternative view of what constitutes "authentic" human achievement broadly speaking (even beyond literature and other arts). The pieces on Dan Deacon on the NPR and New York Times websites may be helpful in this way, too.
- You must use some of the works of poetry on the syllabus to ground your discussion of what we find valuable in literary art. Whatever claims you contribute to the conversation about literary value must be supported by pointing to your chosen poems as examples. This means you'll have to be able to explain what gives value to these works, and therefore to explain why studying them is valuable.