Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Bad science, bad economic theory and... poetry

Some of the recent discussions you-know-where about you-know-what have been inflected by interpretations of philosophy and economics, and some of the poetics of the movement(s) being debated arise from various scientific principles. Much of this comes off sounding poorly digested and ill-understood. Science, philosophy, and economics are problematical enough in the hands of scientists, philosophers, and economists, let alone in the grasping digits of poets. Usually, this is harmless enough, in the sense that poets don't necessarily do or believe what they say they do, and their best work only uses these very raw materials as a starting point (or, to use a perfect example of the risk, Eliot's word: "catalyst").

I've just been reading a diligently researched new book that documents in amazing detail how fashionable scientific and economic theory can get entangled in the politics and poetics of writers, who are quite vulnerable, as history has proved since Plato, to ideology. The book is Michael Golston's Rhythm and Race in Modernist Poetry and Science. No matter how much one thinks one knows about the culture and prosody of Modernism, it's a revelation that much of Modernist prosody and even subject matter is owed to long-forgotten ideologies of rhythm and race. The book, which focuses on Pound, Yeats, and Williams, grew from the author's dissertation, directed by Marjorie Perloff.

The epigraph is this, from Lyn Hejinian's The Cell:

All the mortalities merge in
the definition of "rhythm."

I'll say!!!

7 comments:

Bobby said...

Dear Don,

Maybe it's merely the lack of specificity in your post that's troubling me—seems to me it's only fair to name names if you're going to make this kind of accusation, lest all 95 of us presume ourselves tarred by the same brush.

But your other point is worrisome too. Sure, I agree that it's annoying when people assume, e.g., that there's an easy correspondence between Einstein's theory and philosophical relativism or Gödel's theorem and philosophical skepticism. But your post makes it sound like the history of science is a clear pool that poets dip into and sully with their own political interests. I suspect you know very well that science has repeatedly shown its own manifest vulnerabilities to ideology since the beginning as well. I've had formal educations in both engineering and biology and I feel pretty secure in saying that we'd be very foolish to leave science in the hands of the scientists and wait for the results to pop out the other end. That's true a fortiori with economics, which in most of its academic forms hasn't been an empirical endeavor for decades.

But maybe I'm pushing this too far. Maybe your point was simply to say that some of the interpretations of philosophy and economics in the comments are wrong, or that the scientific principles on which various movements base themselves are outdated or irrelevant. If that's the case, though, it would seem more useful to come right out and say that, rather than suggesting that poets ought to know their place.

All best,
Bobby

Don Share said...

I apologize for the lack of specificity, but I'm really making a general point (which I believe in even if it's only general), and also trying to avoid anything remotely resembling name-calling, which wouldn't be the point. I certainly wasn't suggesting, either, that poets ought to "know their place." I'm just observing that, as is well-documented by Golston, poetics are (no surprise) influenced by fashion and the Zeitgeist - and permutations of those things. Unhappily, I think you've misunderstood me, though that's my own fault. Mostly, I hope people might read Golston's illuminating book; Pound, Yeats, and Williams are among my heroes, and I learned more from reading this than I expected to.

Yrs. apologetically,

Don

P.S. I deleted my comment above because of a type, corrected here, not because I'm a mad comment-deleter.

Don Share said...

Er, typo (see?)!

Anyway, thanks for your comment, Bobby.

D.

Bobby said...

Hi Don,

Thanks for the reply. Your restated general point is fair enough, but I'm still not sure where it leaves the "bad science" and "bad economic theory" of your headline. Anyway, I don't want to harp here, so feel free to ignore this. I do appreciate the notice of Golston's book.

All best,

bb

Bobby said...

Hi Don,

Thanks for the reply. Your restated general point is fair enough, but I'm still not sure where it leaves the "bad science" and "bad economic theory" of your headline. Anyway, I don't want to harp here, so feel free to ignore this. I do appreciate the notice of Golston's book.

All best,

bb

Bobby said...

Hi Don,

Thanks for the reply. Your restated general point is fair enough, but I'm still not sure where it leaves the "bad science" and "bad economic theory" of your headline. Anyway, I don't want to harp here, so feel free to ignore this. I do appreciate the notice of Golston's book.

All best,

bb

Don Share said...

By bad science I mean things I mentioned a while back here on the blog, e.g., TSE's possibly faulty chemistry in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" [his figure of the catalyst] all the way up to some of Christian Bok's fascinating random poetry exhibits [including Swift!] posted on Harriet. Bad economic theory and philosophy - again, I can afford to be less explicit here because you'll find examples on the Harriet thread linked in my post without my needing to list them or single anybody out. Caveat emptor. But by all means harp away!