Category Archives: Primary Concern

“Or Else”

Bad Lip Reading does Rick Santorum

Over the long hiatus I gave some thought as to how the blog portion of the site might be improved. The encounter with current events from a Frygian perspective is rewarding enough, but perhaps occasionally too fleeting. My strategy has increasingly been to bring current events to Frye rather than the other way round. That’s why I’m attempting to run a lot of threads simultaneously to provide some sturdy terms of reference. I hope to get better at that, and perhaps keep the focus a little tighter than I have sometimes managed.

The American election cycle, for example, has become a grotesquerie more fit for a dystopian satire, thanks to the Republican primaries which have featured a parade of cranks and nincompoops, and appear to be approaching the pitch of mass hysteria with Rick Santorum, of all people, as the current front-runner. Mitt Romney, a sociopathic liar and reptilian opportunist from whatever angle you approach him, remains everybody’s fifth choice, and it may be enough to get him the nomination once the kamikaze portion of the process has finally consumed itself.

The Republicans appear to be the vanguard of the collapse of “conservative” ideology, which has more or less devolved into a kind of casino capitalism where the house always wins and the public are rubes to be stripped of their assets by whatever tricks are available to convince them the game isn’t rigged. As Frye observes, when an ideology becomes decadent enough, it ceases to have any reliable external reference, or even to possess internal consistency. At that point, it may become murderously dangerous. Incidents of political violence in the U.S. have come from the far right for the last couple of decades at least, and has more recently been preceded by escalating rhetorical violence by supposedly authoritative and respectable public figures. If you call political opponents “traitors” long enough, someone’s going to figure out that traitors should only get what they deserve, and that will eventually be served up by some maladjusted simpleton who’s been convinced by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News that the Kenyan-born-Muslim-Nazi-socialist Barack Obama is coming to take away his guns.

The madness isn’t new. It’s just developed a more insidious pathology. Here’s a an excerpt from “Fear and Loathing in New Hampshire,”  one of many dispatches from the 1972 presidential campaign trail by Hunter S. Thompson, then chief political correspondent (that is, only political correspondent) for Rolling Stone, published forty years ago, almost to the day:

Meanwhile, I am hunkered down in Washington — waiting for the next plane to anywhere and wondering what in the name of sweet Jesus ever brought me here in the first place. This is not what us journalists call a “happy beat.”

At first I thought it was me, that I was missing all the action because I wasn’t plugged in. But then I began reading the press wizards who are plugged in, and it didn’t take long to figure out that most of them were just filling space because the contracts said they had to write a certain amount of words every week.

At that point I tried talking to some of the people that even the wizards said were “right on top of things.” But they all seemed very depressed; not only about the ’72 election, but about the whole, long-range of politics and democracy in America.

The absurd consequence of this demoralizing trend is this convocation of  idiots, most of whom at some attention-deficited moment or other have enjoyed front-runner status: Michelle Bachmann, Donald Trump, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, in a rarefied example of Republican cognitive dissonance, remains the presumptive nominee, even though he is intensely disliked for good reason by just about everybody, including most Republicans. These people represent an ideology of greed and predation that was always dubiously articulated at the best of times, and is now so hollowed out that it cannot even pretend anymore to have any relation at all to the public good. It is merely rationalized thievery crafted by bandits.

It is a misconception to say that Frye is anti-ideological, a misconception Jonathan Hart dispels in Northrop Frye: The Theoretical Imagination. But Frye does certainly recognize that ideology is subordinate to the primary concerns whose primary expression is the mythological basis of literature, and therefore the foundation of a genuine social vision liberated from the fatal cycles of panic and complaisance most of human history seems to amount to. As he warns in Words with Power, “primary concerns must become primary, or else.” When our political class is made up of rapacious dolts who promote unregulated markets and deny global warming in the face of all evidence to the contrary in both instances, we have a particularly urgent priority to set it straight, to ensure that political power is an expression of the best interests of society at large and not the caprices of those who don’t know up from down but can blindly nose their way up to the feeding trough replenished by corporate malfeasance. History tends to be cruel at moments like these, and nature is always unforgiving. The institutionalized corruption that almost exclusively characterizes both our politics and principles of governance must be addressed, or else. There are no excuses not to, because, with so much at stake and our situation already precarious, we are all Romanovs now.

“Fundamental Freedoms”

Frye in “The Analogy of Democracy”: “Law is the expression of temporal authority; justice is law informed by freedom and equality.” (CW , 176)

The headline in yesterday’s Toronto Sun bellowed, “MAKE ‘EM PAY!”, referring to the Occupy Toronto demonstrators assembled on public land.

In case there is any doubt in anyone’s mind, here, in its entirely — all thirty-five unambiguous words of it — is section II of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms:

Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
(d) freedom of association.

Frye, of course, identifies freedom as one of four primary concerns in Words with Power.

Frye Quote of the Day: “Peace, dignity, and freedom”


Rush Limbaugh on the “greed” of Occupy protesters and college professors.

With the Occupy and Keystone XL protests in mind — as well as the right-wing response to them — here’s Frye in Words with Power:

The second half of the century has seen a growing distrust of all ideologies and a growing sense of the importance of primary concern in both bodily and mental contexts. We now see protests in favour of peace, dignity, and freedom rather than an alternative ideological system. Such protests are called counter-revolutionary or whatnot by those who hold power and are determined to keep holding it, power being for them something that, in Mao Tse-tung’s phrase, comes out of the barrel of a gun. If the human race cannot come up with a better conception of power than that it is clearly not long of this world. (CW 26, 54)

Frye and Popular Culture


Hole, “Olympia.” Why it’s Hole, why the song is “Olympia,” and why this version of it is amateur hand-held video of a 1993 performance, is clarified below.

Last Saturday night I put up a brief post to note the passing of R.E.M and the twentieth anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. The next day I posted some observations by Amanda Marcotte on Nirvana and Third Wave feminism, and added a comment to expand a little on the rise of the riot grrrl phenomenon which, like Nirvana, had the same improbable hometown of Olympia, Washington. Tomorrow night I’m putting up more video featuring riot grrrl bands, partly because the movement is so closely associated with the emergence of the Third Wave, but also because the music and the culture around it are interesting on their own.

Whenever I post anything having to do with popular culture, especially if it is music that may be unknown to or disliked by many people, I do the same gut check: is this Frye-relevant?  In this instance I’d say, as I say every time, yes it is, even though it is obviously not for all tastes. This time, however, I thought I’d sketch out my reasons for thinking so.

Frye once observed that soap operas never rise to the condition of fully realized romance because the endless narrative of serial adventures cannot reach a dialectical crisis of identity. It’s tempting to take this sort of comment as licence to dismiss popular culture generally. But Frye himself does not do this. He in fact says that there is no real distinction between high and low culture, and that any imposed distinction is about bias rather than anything intrinsic to the art itself. I have three main reasons to suggest why works of popular culture, whatever their appeal to taste, ought to be of interest to Frye critics.

The first is the assumption of imaginative value. Even the aesthetics of mass produced and distributed cultural phenomenon — particularly music, movies, television — have their own implicit value that can be tapped by critical engagement. The more consistently we are imaginatively engaged, the greater our potential for creative imaginative response. Mass produced culture has the advantage of ensuring mass circulation but introduces the danger of mass conformity. It has, however, also always been a cause for resistance and “counter-cultural” reactions. As long as this continues to happen, it is more likely to provide enough variation to prevent a debilitating decline into cliché and the kinds of reflexive response that undermine a liberated imaginative response.

Second, in much if not most of our popular culture (especially in that element with resistant counter-cultural origins) the dialectic of identity is strongly manifested in the prevailing archetypes of concern. Our only recently developed youth culture has a notably stubborn streak of resistance (which corporate interests, contrary to the conventional wisdom, do not entirely erase, but also search out at street level as the resistance reinvents itself). The lyrics of popular songs can easily be seen to be some expression, however occasionally naïve or fleeting, of discontent driven by something more like what Frye calls primary concerns: “making a living, making love, and struggling to stay free and alive,” as he puts it in Words with Power. This dialectic of identity those primary concerns represent is not much different from other “higher” forms of imaginative expression; the concerns are universal and their expression is recognizable in recurring archetypes.

Finally, there is what Frye refers to as the local and decentralizing aspect of culture. The universal is best perceived through the particular, which is why, as he once put it, William Faulkner could set his novels in a fictional county in Mississippi and still win a Nobel Prize for literature. The principle is in no way restricted to white American males; it is in the nature of the imaginative dimension of literature and all of the other arts. This fact ought to be more readily appreciable today when there is increasing evidence of the potential for a globalized popular culture, in which just about any aspect of any culture can be transferred and enjoyed anywhere else. It is typically picked up by another small, localized community and eventually transposed into the wider culture. Not surprisingly, the trend is most conspicuously present in music, which always has a massive international appeal, and therefore lends itself to innovation and synthesis. Thirty years ago a designation for “world music” came into wide use, and the increasingly hybridized nature of the music that falls under this heading has only become more obvious. It is almost a certainty these days that just about wherever there are discontented youth challenging local authority, there will be rap and hip hop: this is as true of large parts of the Muslim world, for instance, as it is of Israel.

Local culture therefore has a decentralizing effect on the more widely shared culture, and there is observable movement between the two. This makes it easier to understand why there is a cultish aspect to any counter-culture, especially among young people: these cultish communities are decentralized in the sense that they make a deliberate point of being as far away from accepted standards as they can manage, and they are local in the sense of exhibiting a sensibility and outlook assumed not to be widely shared, even if the community is international and held together by the ability to communicate through electronic media. But today’s cult always has the potential to be part of tomorrow’s culture.

Riot grrrl, for example, to end with the subject of tomorrow’s post, began in about 1990 in Olympia, Washington, which, again, was also the home of Nirvana, and quite remote from any source of the North American musical mainstream. The members of the Olympia music scene made their own music for their own enjoyment, and in a remarkably short period of time Nirvana’s local brand of grunge (an amalgam primarily of heavy metal and punk rock) became an international phenomenon. Meanwhile, the riot grrrl movement introduced a renewed expression of feminist attitudes into the alternative music scene, and that in turn allowed it to catch on just about anywhere it went. Like punk, with its anti-corporate orientation, the music is stripped down, the outlook is crankily dismissive of the status quo, and the lyrics are often profane; but the expectation tends to be hopeful, in the sense that there is anticipation, as there is throughout all of the arts, that things really could change for the better by confronting the world as it is with some sense of the way it ought to be. The fact that the perspective also tends to be ironic is, of course, not a problem because our universally shared concerns are, as Frye points out, what makes irony ironic.

Relative simplicity does not exclude a work of popular art from being imaginatively relevant or from having transferable value. It can render the dialectic of identity as reliably as any “serious” work of art, although, admittedly, with less range and nuance. But what the consumer of art does with any particular work of art is a matter of choice and discretion, and there the potential remains limitless. One of the most pleasantly surprising things about the punk movement when it first began to appear in the mid-1970s is that its indignation is typically motivated by passionately advocated concern. Because that concern is ironically expressed, it can yield a lot of wit and even unexpected tenderness. A much loved but long defunct riot grrrl band from Olympia, Bikini Kill, has a song called “I Like Fucking.” The title and the content are provocative, and, like most punk, there is a conventional épater la bourgeoisie involved. But the more localized context is, once again, what would soon become known as the Third Wave, including an energetic push back against male privilege, as well as a declaration of freedom and gender identity that is more fluid, self-confident, and defiantly sex-positive. However offensive some might find the presentation, the expectation is always reassuring if reassurance is what we are expecting to find. Approached on its own terms, this kind of music has its own authority, an authority that, like the best in all art, invites and does not compel.

I’ll hedge my bets a little by acknowledging that a lack of “range and nuance” in popular culture may be an issue worth considering in much more depth than I have here, and for some people it may be a deal breaker. I also do not address Frye’s critical but prescient observations about the youth culture of the 1960s because I think the culture has much deeper roots now. Because I teach, I am fortunate enough to be continually surprised by the sophistication of students, despite the needless compromises that have been introduced into their formal education through cutbacks and chronic under-funding. Their worldview is remarkably liberal, and it has certainly not been encouraged by the diminished opportunities we have provided them compared to their baby boomer parents. They seem to pick it up where they can, and the most obvious place to look is the culture a significant number of them seem to feel is not simply there for them to consume, but to engage to the extent their own concerns will carry them. In a society currently under seige by a plutocratic class which appears to be set upon stripping away wealth from whatever source it can find, our popular culture is a means to keep alive the determination to prevent the powers that be from being the powers that will prevail.

Previous posts on Frye and rock ‘n’ roll here, here, and here.

Casting our net a little wider on the issue of popular culture, posts on Charlie Chaplin here, here, and here; on silent movies here; a list of every movie Frye alludes to seeing here; on the New Yorker here and here; on television here; on popular art forms herehere, herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here; on popular music here; on John Lennon here; on the Beatles here; on Bob Dylan here and here; on the ’60 youth movement here; on Andy Warhol here and here; Frye’s comments on a number of movies here.

This is by no means a comprehensive collection. This is just the stuff we’ve pulled together so far.

Primary Concern as a “caring and responsible attitude to nature”

Harperworld’s heartland: Fort McMurray, Alberta

Picking up on our thread involving Stephen Harper’s intention to turn Canada into an “energy superpower” by churning out increasing amounts of the world’s dirtiest oil, here’s something from The Double Vision:

In the twentieth century, with a pollution that threatens the supply of air to breath and water to drink, it is obvious we cannot afford the supremacy of ideological concerns anymore. The need to eat, love, own property, and move about freely must come first, and such needs require peace, good will, and a caring and responsible attitude to nature. A continuing ideological conflict, a reckless exploiting of the environment, a persistence in believing, with Mao Tse-Tung, that power comes out of the barrel of a gun, would mean, quite simply, that the human race is not long for this world. (CW 4, 170)


What we accept as beautiful or attractive or in accord with the way we want things to be has some connection, however indirect, with the satisfying of these concerns, and what we call ugly or dehumanized — air choked with pollution, land turned into waste land by speculators, infernos created by technologies from Chernobyl to Exxon Valdez — with the frustration of them. For a long time the established powers that be have looked at their civilization and said, “Probably much of it is very ugly, but that doesn’t matter as long as we make profits out of it, and certainly nothing is going to be done about it.” When it becomes clear that the ugly is beginning to mean dangerous as well, however, the point of view may slowly change. (191)

(Image: Peter Essick, National Geographic)



A feature length documentary on the disaster, the whole thing available at the above link

Today is the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in Pripyat, Ukraine.

Frye refers to it to illustrate a point about primary concern in The Double Vision:

What we accept as beautiful or attractive or in accord with the way we want things to be has some connection, however indirect, with the satisfying of these concerns, and what we call ugly or dehumanized–air choked with pollution, land turned into waste land by speculators, infernos created by technological idiocies from Chernobyl to Exxon Valdez–with the frustration of them. For a long time the established powers in society looked at their civilization and said, “Probably much of it is very ugly, but that doesn’t matter as long as we make profits out of it, and certainly nothing is going to be done about it.” When it becomes clear that ugly is beginning to mean dangerous as well, however, the point of view may slowly change. (CW 4, 191)

Primary Concerns, Democracy, and Conservative Ideology


The Hour: Stephen Harper and U.S. style media control

Bob Denham`s article on Frye and Kierkegaard, recently published in our journal, shows the importance in Frye’s later work of the Danish philosopher’s emphasis, among other things, on concern. Frye first develops the idea in terms of the tension or dialectic between freedom and the myth of concern, as most fully worked out in The Critical Path. There it is argued that the imagery of literature is ultimately the language of concern. This insight becomes the basis of his later formulation of primary concerns in Words with Power, where he makes the distinction between primary human concerns and secondary or ideological ones. One of the books of Frye`s now famous Ogdoad (famous at least among amateurs of Frye) is entitled Liberal, and it strikes me that this indicates another source of Frye`s concept of concern, and in particular his formulation of the distinction between primary and secondary concerns.

It would be of great interest to examine this idea of primary concerns as a genuine contribution to socio-political thought, specifically liberal and social democratic thought. Certainly there have been essays touching on the liberal humanism of Frye`s critical position, or what I would prefer to call his critical “vision.” It is often a stance he has been attacked for. More sympathetically, Graham Good, for example, has a particularly discerning article on the subject. Years ago I presented at a conference a very preliminary stab at such an examination, but I have not had the opportunity yet to follow it up. Involved in such a study would have to be a comparison, ultimately, of Frye`s concept of primary concerns with such theories as John Rawl’s idea of basic goods, and even more with Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s idea of basic human capabilities. These ideas are a different way of talking about human rights and are very close to Frye`s primary concerns, focusing as they do on those universal human needs and wishes that can be regarded as essential to the dignity and fulfillment of every human individual. It is worth emphasizing that it is this kind of thinking in the liberal and social democratic tradition that has given us, among other things: universal health care (now severely threatened); legal access to abortion; gay marriage; serious efforts to ensure gender equality and protect minority rights; a less punitive system of law and order aimed at restoring the incarcerated to reentering and contributing to society; a more welcoming policy to refugees fleeing persecution or unimaginable hardship in their own countries. The list could go on.

These great benefits have derived from an often invisible or inarticulate social norm, not in the normative sense, but as an ideal the departure from which makes irony and the grotesque ironic and grotesque. This ideal is “the vision of a more sensible society,” of a world that actually makes human sense. Such a vision works outside literature among individuals in their daily lives and workplaces, giving meaning to their work and actions beyond any need for a pay-cheque. As Frye writes: “one can hardly imagine, say, doctors or social workers unmotivated by some vision of a healthier or freer society than the one they see around them.” The same could be said of any member of society who contributes in a meaningful way, who has, in other words, a social function, this being, as Frye views it, the real significance of the democratic ideal of equality. In a true democracy, everyone is potentially a member of an elite, and no-one`s social function is more worthy of respect than another’s.

This idea of a social vision, ultimately the vision of a world of fulfilled primary concerns, is particularly useful in defining the issues we face in the current Canadian election campaigns. Any genuine social vision of a healthier or freer society is precisely what the program of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are devoid of. It is telling that Harper almost always speaks of the economy, never of society. It is as if it doesn’t even occur to him. Contrary, however, to the famous tag-line, it’s not the economy, stupid: it’s society.

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Tunisia and Egypt: Primary Concern and Ideology

A young Egyptian woman demonstrating in Cairo

Whenever we see something like what is happening now in Tunisia and Egypt — and what was brutally stifled in Iran two years ago — it is heartening to recall Frye’s observations on the liberation movements in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  There are no guarantees when it comes to the triumph of primary concern over ideology, but there is always hope.

In conversation with David Cayley:

Cayley: Partly what I’m trying to understand are the political or real world implications of your thought.

Frye: The political implications are, again, in the direction of what I’ve called primary concern.  What has thrilled me about the movements in Eastern Europe is that they are not ideological movements.  They are movements for fundamental human rights to live and eat and to own property.  The authorities there, insofar as they are opposing these demands, are no longer saying, “We are conducting a certain course in the interest of a higher socialist identity.”  They are saying, with George Orwell, “The object of power is power, and we’re going to hang on to it as long as we’ve got the guns to shoot you with.”  The protest is made in the direction of something which breaks out of the ideological framework altogether. (CW 24, 1029-30)


slave scars

Today provides a number of important anniversaries in the history of African slavery across more than two centuries.

On this date:

In 1619 the first African slaves arrived at Jamestown, Virginia.

In 1834 slavery was abolished in the British Empire by the Slavery Abolition Act.

In 1838 non-laborer slaves in the British Empire were emancipated.

In 1840 laborer slaves in the British Empire were emancipated.

Frye in conversation with David Cayley:

What man wants always is slavery or mastery.  That is, he wants mastery first, and if can’t have that he’ll settle for slavery.  (CW 24, 98)

Frye in “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision”:

Primary concerns are those common to the whole human race: concerns about food, shelter, and survival: a freedom without anarchy, a social order without slavery, a happiness without misery. (CW 3, 253)

Our earlier post on the Canadian Act Against Slavery (1793) here.

Frye and Apocalyptic Feminism

On this date in 1913, militant suffragette Emily Davison was struck by King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby.  She died four days later.  She ran out onto the track (as you can see from the footage above) with a suffragette flag, which she evidently intended to attach to the king’s horse.

One of Frye’s entries in notebook 44 consists of this single sentence: “I don’t think it’s coincidence or accident that feminism and ecology should become central issues at the same time” (CW 5, 206).

A modified version of the phrase appears again in chapter six of Words with Power, “Second Variation: The Garden”:

Here we are concerned with the oasis-paradise of gardens and fountains that derives from the Biblical Eden and the Song of Songs.  It may be an impossibly idealized vision of a very tame aspect of nature, especially when in Isaiah it extends to a world in which the lion lies down with the lamb (11:6 ff.).  But it is the beginning of a sense that exploiting nature nature is quite as evil as exploiting other human beings.  Admittedly, the Bible itself has done a good deal to promote the conception of nature as something to be dominated by human arrogance, for historical reasons we have glanced at.  Contact with some allegedly primitive societies in more modern times, with their intense care for the earth that sustains them, has helped to give us some notion of how skewed many aspects of our traditional ideology are on this point.  But even in the Bible the bride-garden metaphor works in the opposite direction by associating nature and love, and I doubt if it is an accident that feminism and ecology have moved into the foreground of social issues at roughly the same time.  (WP 225)

As a matter of myth manifesting primary concern, the equalization of the sexes is implicit in biblical typology.  As a social and historical development, of course, it is all too often an ugly business typical of issues pertaining to power.  But the equalization of the sexes also has an apocalyptic dimension, as Frye’s rendering it in chapter six of Words with Power suggests.

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