Poetry, Uncertainty, and the Uncertainty of Certainty II

Peter posted the following, very reasonable question in response to the first post:

Ron: did you see this on Jonathon Mayhew's blog:

"I guess what I keep coming back to is a poetry that doesn't have any "hook" in the reader. That actively discourages any kind of engagement outside the purely poetic--however that is defined. A poetry that's almost impossible to talk about, because it doesn't offer a point of entry, a selling point. Imagine a book with no blurbs, almost no "premise." No crutches."

I think it captures a bit of what you are meaning? Or not?

The shorter answer is no because that sounds like aestheticism to me, as if the work should exist in a world of its own. If poems are things in the world, they're in the world, not in a separate universe. But I think aestheticism is more an approach to work than an operative element of the work itself.

The longer answer is a little more complex because, frankly, Peter's question stopped me cold. It stopped me because as I got to thinking about it, I wasn't sure I had anything more than an aesthetics of suspicion (or, less charitably, paranoia). I think I do, but we'll see. And I'm not sure that this idea of the work as a thing-in-the-world integrates with it. It's something I've had in the back of my mind that's been drawn out by reading Barthelme's essay, "After Joyce."

Lets go back to the late 70s and early 80s. At that point, I was very much in the "reading determines meaning" and "reading conventions are culturally determined" camp. I was reading a fair amount of Marx (mostly the early, more humanistic Marx) and Marxist theory. The most discouraging thing I read at the time was Althusser's essay "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." In the universe of Althusser's essay, everything was determined by ideology and ideology was determined by the structure of late capitalism. In this totalizing picture, it's hard to see anywhere where there's a crack in the system, a chance for something outside of the dominant ideology to exist. (The careful reader will note the implication that I believe that late capitalism, in its American form, was not all that it could be and is, in many respects, deeply de-humanizing. I still believe that though I remain, as I always have, in the reformist, social-democratic end of the socialist spectrum.)

It was a relief to come across Raymond Williams's Marxism and Literature. In the strictly deterministic version of Marx, the mode of production is the determining factor. Culture—literature, film, the whole ball o' wax—is an epiphenomenon, a superstructure produced by the mode of production. Williams rejected this, arguing that, no, the cultural sphere could also act against the hitherto all-determining base. It was a structure of interaction, not one of determination by the material base.

At around the same time, I had the pleasure of being in a seminar taught by Charles Altieri who now hangs his critical tools at Berkeley. The seminar was the opening salvo in Altieri's attempts to create an expression-based theory of literature. I think that's incredibly wrong-headed, for multiple reasons.* But one idea of Altieri's intrigued me, the idea that literature, as it comes down to us and as we make it, represents a repertoire of possible selves, of possible ways of being in the world. These days, I wouldn't say that literature gives us so much selves as possible modes of consciousness about that world. And we need every possible mode that we can find.

We need all the modes we can lay our hands because it's never entirely clear what has been or is about to be co-opted or what shapes what. A few examples.
  • Jonathan Culler has an extended essay about Freud's analysis of a patient popularly known as the Wolfman. What Culler points out in his essay is that, after a certain point, it's impossible to distinguish in Freud's writings about the Wolfman what is determined by Freud's perceptions of the patient and what is determined by Freud's expectations of narrative structure.
  • A television commercial: "What the World Needs Now Is Love" plays in the background, a group of people run through a field from the left, in a second scene a group of people run through a field from the right, music continues, camera pulls back and both groups are running toward a Mercedes dealership.
  • Another commercial: A man proclaims "I'm in control!" and then reveals that he now has not one, not two, but three choices of dipping sauce for his chicken nuggets.
We live in a society that is willing to colonize for profit our sense of direction in our lives, our innermost sense of individuality, and our very notions of love, that is willing to restrict all of those things to the straitened rails of product choice. And it's very, very hard to recognize what is being done when and the extent to which we are complicit in those acts.

For me, those things that are most likely to be complicit in this making of "good" individuals are the mainstream. I suspect that many forms of mainstream novels and mainstream poetry are the most likely to support or acquiesce in this restriction and/or colonization of what human beings can be.

And so, I suspect, those works that are most conscious of their ground are likely, in the long run (for shaping subsequent practice if not of immediate use) to provide the sorts of consciousness that give us the possiblity of being fully, rather than commercially, human.

This is also, I suspect, why I have so little patience with people who want to draw lines to define what poetry or literature is or isn't. (I also think it's because I find some of those folks to be incredibly lazy readers. Joan Houlihan, for example, is a phenomenally lazy and obtuse reader.^)

If you've read this far, thank you for your patience and indulgence.


*Wrong-headed because
  • It must rely on some notion of individuality. Once one moves beyond the biological fact of separate bodies, who or what is an individual is historically variable and socially determined.
  • An expression theory needs to distinguish between intended and unintended self-revelation and there is nothing that can make this distinction consistent and reliable.

^ "Lazy and obtuse" Houlihan's argument against language poetry consists solely and only of the accusation that language poets write obscurely because they are in love with obscurity. The language poets, however, have written extensively on what they wrote, why they wrote it that way, and what they hoped to accomplish. Honest arguments with language poetry can be made disagreeing with their project, that they failed in their aims, that their aims are not signigificant or culturally important, etc. The one argument you cannot honestly make is that they are obscure because they love obscurity. It is a stupid, lazy, and dishonest argument that requires deliberately ignoring the writers' widely expressed and detailed intentions; even in an undergraduate survey course, it would get an F.


Blogger Peter said...

"These days, I wouldn't say that literature gives us so much selves as possible modes of consciousness about that world. And we need every possible mode that we can find."

Yes. This feels true.

6/1/06 21:42  

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