The OF Blog: Mentalité and recent discussions

Friday, September 11, 2009

Mentalité and recent discussions

Thirteen years ago, I was enrolled in a graduate school history class called Foundations of Graduate Study of History. It was by far the hardest history class I ever had (I passed, but my average was far below my norm in my major), but it is one that has stuck with me the most over the intervening years. One part of the class that I remember most vividly is having to give a presentation on the Annales School and in particular, to explain Jacques le Goff's views on mentalité.

For those who are unfamiliar with this French word, it simply (simply?) means the mindset or shared means of understanding the world around that is held by a specific group over a specific amount of time. It encompasses religion, art, social relations, politics, war, geographical understanding, agriculture, language, literature, etc. It is a shaper of understanding as well as an interpretative tool by which a scholar can come to understand facets of an historical culture's development and conflicts.

Why am I thinking of mentalité now? I've been following a few arguments on other sites (links not necessary, since in many respects, it's the same story retold by different fools) about the priority placements for elements of a "good story," as well as the one I discussed in a snarkish satire the other day and its fallout. The interesting thing about those arguments is not who is "right" or "wrong," but rather (for me at least) is the mindset that underlies some of these tiffs.

Primacy arguments are telling, not because of what is being argued, but instead for how these arguments come into play. If one wants to argue that Plot ought to have primacy over Characterization, then the argument shifts to how this "ought" to be. Why is Plot considered by some to hold primacy over Characterization? Is it a universally-held opinion? One that can be traced to specific antecedents in other arguments, or is it something more localized? What does the argument tell about the Person(s) involved and the relative values assigned?

The same goes true, I believe, with the review discussion lately. I've made several posts over the past couple of years on reviews and elements that I prefer. It is part of a mentalité that I adopted (was assimilated into?) during my formative university years and my first several dozen short reviews of non-fiction historical works. It is very difficult for me to conceive of a good review that does not contain at least some elements of an academic critique: well-structured prose that has an introduction that not only sets up the points to follow, but which frames a question for the reader to consider; strong "talking points" or theses that are supported with relevant evidence; an informed opinion that acknowledges dissent when logical before explaining why a point was chosen; and a conclusion that draws upon the literary journey outlined in the previous parts to create an ending that reflects back on the Introduction and its framing question(s).

But there are times that my own reviews fail to address each of these parts; I'm no saint, nor am I extremely rigid in my approach. However, such an approach can also incorporate so many elements that each individual reviewer/critic chooses to insert into the review Text. My review style contains elements from my university days (including the oh-so-lovely workshopping days where grad students get to read each other's research papers for shredding purposes later on in the week), as well as ideas on style cribbed from noted critics like Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco (just to name a couple who also happen to be excellent writers) or from personal experiences that might shape my approach. The writing of such reviews often creates a sense of Authority, not because of received wisdom from the past, but because in the crafting of such reviews, critiques, and other related essays, there often is a sense of some unifying thread that connects one reviewer/critic (in this case, myself) with others, some of whom might be famous (see the aforementioned writers/critics).

But the key to mentalité is to remember that often things are different for others. In the same of the review "scoring" debate, I suspect part of the issue in play might be related to recent cultural influences. For those who did not partake of the university grad school critiquing workshops, it may be that mass media, in the form of magazines ranging from Electronic Gaming Monthly to Rolling Stone to Amazon to Entertainment Weekly, have helped shape opinions. In each of these publications, reviews are generally broken down into specific categories, with numerical, letter, or star ratings used to indicate qualities of each. The mentalité behind these reviews may be a desire to organize, to quantify, to place into neat categories things that are subjective in nature. Rating an emotion might be unquantifiable beyond a certain general level (after all, isn't my love for another "more" than your love, since I give the "better" gifts and say the "right" things more often?), but some believe that within a general parameter, measurements such as stars, letters, or numerical values may be assigned in a way that helps the reader to classify, label, and then sort in a hierarchical fashion which is "best," "good," "OK," and "poor."

For some, this works. But what happens when the classification schema tries to relate what really might be apples and oranges in similarity? For example, if there is a review schema set up that tries to weigh a book in whole or part on its so-called "worldbuilding" (a term I still detest and will continue to place in quotation marks to indicate my distaste for the catch-all term), should such a schema be used to classify a religious document or a memoir? What about cases in which the author chooses not to tell a linear plot-driven story? Can a 5, 10, 100, or 69.69 scale "work" in these cases? For myself, it would not, in large part because I cannot wrap my mind around the idea that concepts and ideas can be weighed like produce at a supermarket.

But others can. How, I barely can comprehend. It seems so fraught with errors to judge a work by such a "ranking," especially since virtually all ranking scales (being charitable here, since I suspect none can truly exist in the fashion I will attempt to describe) are unlikely to be "true" or "fair" in cases of trying to shove that square, lyrical book into the round, plot-based review hole. But yet that's just my mentalité speaking, no? After all, I'm going to be influenced by my formative experiences to choose what I've been "trained" to see as most likely. Wouldn't it be likely that others are influenced by their own mentalité?

So how would one go about evaluating the twain? That's the million dollar question. Just depends what questions are asked in reference to what the original question's answer is. But for myself, reviews depend upon the reviewer being self-aware and to a degree conscious of the perceived audience. Whether or not being conscious of this perceived audience ought to influence the reviewer is beside the point. A good reviewer, I suspect, will manage to return the review in many cases into a window into that reviewer's wrestling with the text. I just don't think that wrestling will be graded by a team of judges (with the East German judge always giving the lowest score), but that's just my mentalité speaking, no?


Unknown said...

It's written mentalité.

Unknown said...

Strange. Thought I had typed it that way. Will correct when I'm back home after work.

Anonymous said...

I would like to comment - but I'm aware that the purpose of this little comment box ('purpose' may be too strong a word - and I assume it's the coders not the blogger that's to blame) is to enter in no more than a sentence or two of praise or blame. I've tried commenting properly before!

So, I wrote a comment out anyway (why not?), and for want of anythin better to do I've stuck it up on my own blog.


I don't imagine you or anyone else will read it, but there you go. If you want to reply to it, feel free to do so either here or there. Here probably makes more sense.

[unless somebody is trawling through your archives and wants to argue with me many months after the fact, in which case they should comment on my own blog, where I'll actually notice it]

Sorry for the length of this non-comment comment. My thanks for your patience, and your time.

Lsrry said...

I'll read it in a little bit, after I finish writing my review of Terrence Holt's In the Valley of the Kings. Won't promise if I'll comment or not, but I will read it.

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