Conceptual poetry has gone mainstream, a good thing or not, depending on how you look at it (and certainly old news): buy your airplane tickets and pay your registration, and you're in! (You can even upload your own YouTube video, which must be the new sine qua non for being the same as everyone else.) I mention this because being a radical experimentalist in my spare time (as well as both a plain old reader, and a guy whose job involves looking for something actually new under the sun), I've been appalled for ages at how old the new is. I remember foolishly spouting off in an awkward conversation with Geoffrey Hill years ago about some poets I thought were doing "new" things, and to my then-amazement, he dismissed them all as "Symbolists." At the time I was mystified; I mean, I'd read Arthur Symons and all that stuff... so what was he talking about? I knew it was a moral judgment, but couldn't fathom it. Like, I thought, everybody else for the last hundred years, I was totally on board with la disparition élocutoire du poète, Eliot's "escape from personality," and Barthes' "death of the author." I'd been a student of Robert Scholes and though never an English major, took his course on Semiotics, and I even took a course on Structural Anthropology. Gee, who on earth didn't want to displace, disperse, erase, and/or withdraw their subjectivity?
Rosanna Warren's forthcoming book of essays is called Fables of the Self. In the preface, she talks about "the mischievous overstatements of Roland Barthes" in "The Death of the Author;" Barthes, like the rest of us, was pretty much stuck in the late 19th century and took off from Mallarmé - as Barthes put it: "In France, Mallarmé was doubtless the first to see and to forsee in its full extent the necessity to substitute language itself for the person who until then had been supposed to be its owner."
But, as Warren (or somebody we suppose to be her) writes:
"Barthes' replacement of the author with the 'scriptor,' and of 'expression' with 'inscription,' leaves one in a moral void, a disagreeable situation made more disagreeable by the arrogance of the scriptor-critic: 'Having buried the Author, the modern scriptor can thus no longer believe, as according to the pathetic view of his predecessors, that this hand is too slow for his thought or passion and that consequently, making a law of necessity, he must emphasize this delay and indefinitely 'polish' his form. For him, on the contrary, the hand, cut off from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin - or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins.' The physically violent metaphor of cutting off the hand and the cultic claim of purity combine in a dangerous and sentimental absolutism."
Warren makes the case that we need a notion of selfhood "not founded on, or confined to, the psychological ego," the "documentary ego heavy with its pedantry of doings and injuries," but one which answers urgent questions arising in our current climate of "aggressive literalism and therapeutic self-proclamation" - and which takes into account the fact that "the imagined self behaves and means differently from one era and one literary culture to another." One needs, she argues, "some notion of selfhood, or else one abolishes the realities of love, guilt, acts of conscience, and dying."
Like Levinas and Ricoeur, who've influenced her, Warren is (to use her phrase about those two) "not naive about the contingent nature of the self." But if literature is, as Warren describes it, "the symbolic space in which we make formal, imaginative verbal experiments in consciousness and conscience (both contained in the rich French word conscience)," then newness is not just an aesthetic necessity, but is the locus for "moral knowledge and moral agency," and "art can (though does not necessarily) lead toward that knowledge."
OK, back I go to some lecture comme une pratique désespérée.