The Labor Cost of
Academic and Artistic Talk
Why is the propagation of artistic commentary through artistic influence any less negative than the secondary and tertiary academic commentary that Steiner loathes so much? A simple reflection on the physics of human expression will move us towards an answer to this question. According to Steiner, "Anything can be said and, in consequence, written about anything....Every other human instrument and performative capability has its limitations". (Steiner, p. 53) It takes more work to produce Hamlet as a performed play than to talk about said performance. It takes more of a person's attentive work energy over the course of a life to make themselves able to write a symphony worth talking about than it does to talk about one's opinion of the symphony in a review. Even a quality reviewer (academic or otherwise), who may have spent much of her attentive work energies engaging music in a way that puts her closer to the artist, will still spend less energy on writing the review than the composer spent writing the symphony.
Those who create works of art worth talking about must spend significant energy, but those who have only words with a mouth to speak or a keyboard to write can endlessly propagate the cycles of talk in a labor cost efficient fashion that vastly exceeds the human capacity to artistically create and perform. Thus it is that "of the making of books on books and books on those books there is no end". Talking about the talk about talk is very efficient. It is simple physics that binds artistic creation and performance to be more costly in terms of the human labor needed to manifest art and allows academic talk to bloom so freely. This is not to say that academic writing does not take real work. However, the ergonomic efficiency of a work environment that focuses on talk, particularly with academia's tremendous capacity to self-reference through footnotes and bibliographies, will out produce artistic creation most of the time.
This idea of the value of comparing the amount of labor in artistic creation/performance v.s. academic writing is connected to the most extraordinary exaggeration in Real Presences. At the beginning of Part II, The Broken Contract, Steiner starts speaking of language in infinite terms. He speaks of language as having no conceptual or projective finality, and of there being no grammatical constraints to what we can say. It is my view that we are stunningly limited in our ability to conceive and speak. Language does have enough unwieldy complexity and enough easily accessible possibilities of expression to take Steiner's point seriously. It is that this exaggeration is connected to what appears to be a false hierarchy of the value of the primary republic over the secondary city, of artist over academic, that first called me to question the unwieldy complexity of Steiner's speaking in Real Presences.
Steiner's Real Presences deals with the issues of meaning in language and art in a way that communicates a flavor of the opposing ideas of the counter-Platonic republic of the primary v.s. the secondary city. Whether this was Steiner's rhetorical intent or if the language of Real Presences just makes it easy for the reader to construct this flavor, his book makes it very easy to feel a hierarchical tension between the primacy of artistic creation/performance/reception of art and the secondary character of the jargon filled, self-referencing, abstractions of the academy. His writing takes the reader by the hand to see a value (whether reader constructed or of authorial intent) of the artist over the academic. One of the significations in this is the comparative amount of labor given to the creation of art and academic talk.
That many academics put as much energy into their commentary as an artist makes this criterion not very useful to me. Even Steiner grants exceptions of admittance to the republic of the primary. In spite of such exceptions, it is true that much of the standard secondary derivative wordsmithing that populates a lot of academic writing does fit this criticism in full. For a significant amount of academic writing, talk is cheaper than the artistic creations talked about. My ability to connect with the flavor of the value of the artist over the academic and to tell the difference between the republic of the primary and the secondary city was further damaged when I started reading Real Presences through my own artistic experiences. The first of these experiences I will discuss is my experience of interpreting a Rachmaninoff composition.