Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Who am I to argue with cultural forces?

Kent Johnson said this over on Digital Emunction the other day:

"Cul­tural forces are to large extent imper­sonal in their ide­o­log­i­cal oper­a­tions, in any case, the choices and ambi­tions of actors in the field more like indexes or effects of the flows and con­tra­dic­tions of those forces than any­thing else, much as it feels (hap­pily so) like we’re totally in con­trol. (I sup­pose that makes me sound like Lacan, who went bonkers in the end.) And canons and cul­tural hier­ar­chies have their pro­duc­tive func­tions, to be sure, one of which is that they pro­vide some­thing to con­test, which keeps things moving, for­wards, side­ways, and back­wards. So there is no point in being against them in 'principle.' Some people end up on the inside, or in the orbit of their pull; others end up on the out­side, to con­test. (Some­times people on the inside pre­tend they are on the out­side. This is a strat­egy and also a symp­tom, clas­si­cally emerg­ing in peri­ods of rapid recu­per­a­tion and 'avant-garde' crisis. Like the present.)"

Except for the part about "'avant-garde' crisis," which I don't get - crisis, what crisis? - what he's saying is perfectly familiar, and intelligent, warm, decent, and fun people have been making such a case for yonks; but (and this is not an attack on Kent)... being myself a "symptom" and/or bit of flotsam carried here and there by forces way larger than myself, etc. etc., this kinda stuff makes me bonkers.  Right, so who am I to argue with "cultural forces" and "ideological operations" and "canons" and "hierarchies?"  In theory, and this is the apparently delicious appeal of such things, their existence and operation is inarguable.  Nevertheless, and maybe I was raised on too many episodes of The Prisoner (a must-see, regarding inside vs. outside) I absolutely resist this formulation.  If I did not, I wouldn't read or try to write poems, which could by law have neither distinction nor hold any interest; I'd simply let the forces, the laws work on as, no doubt, they must.

Law, say the gardeners, is the sun,
Law is the one
All gardeners obey
To-morrow, yesterday, to-day.

Law is the wisdom of the old,
The impotent grandfathers feebly scold;
The grandchildren put out a treble tongue,
Law is the senses of the young.

Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
Expounding to an unpriestly people,
Law is the words in my priestly book,
Law is my pulpit and my steeple.

Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,
Speaking clearly and most severely,
Law is as I've told you before,
Law is as you know I suppose,
Law is but let me explain it once more,
Law is The Law.

Yet law-abiding scholars write:
Law is neither wrong nor right,
Law is only crimes
Punished by places and by times,
Law is the clothes men wear
Anytime, anywhere,
Law is Good morning and Good night.

Others say, Law is our Fate;
Others say, Law is our State;
Others say, others say
Law is no more,
Law has gone away.

And always the loud angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.

(Speaking of Auden, the inexorable, and the relationship of individuals to poetry and society, see my swell new Harriet post here.)

I'll tell you what I think, with no qualifications whatsoever to make the case (and who knows, I might just change my "mind"):  I think that, as Thomas Nagel describes Galen Strawson's view, "all conscious experience is experience for a subject," that "there cannot be thinking without a subject. The character of an experience or conscious thought is what it is like subjectively for someone or something to have it, and this is as true for sea-snails, if they have experience, as it is for humans."  As a subject, I have existed approximately since I was born, and have the lovely and no doubt short-lived illusion that I am a "self" reading and writing equally illusory verse.  Call me a snail, if you like, call me an "I," or call me an Elizabeth.

The following bits are from Isaac Rosenfeld, "The Party" (ca. 1947)

I can laugh myself blue in the face, for all the good self-irony does me.

Failing to attain a worldly goal, they turn inward, retreating to their own idealism, and think that they have thereby conquered the world.  They do not suspect it is the world which has conquered them.  Therefore one may say that it is the young who are corrupted, they are spoiled by the comfort they take in their own disillusionment.

How is it that the mimic so relieves our terror?  The only answer I can think of is that these faces and these poses confront us with our own divided attitude toward the party, and we escape through the division.

... in a group so small as our own, where not only the obvious traits but also the innermost secrets of the members are at once found out, a certain discretion must be exercised, even in the use of faculties which it is otherwise our right to use freely.  Let me not look too closely; let me shut my ears, not to the truth, but to the bad name which the truth can acquire in a circle so close as ours.


Bobby said...

C-LS, Tristes Tropiques:

"And yet I exist. Not in any way, admittedly, as an individual: for what am I, in that respect, but a constantly renewed stake in the struggle between the society, formed by the several million nerve-cells which take shelter in the anthill of the brain, and my body, which serves that society as a robot? Neither psychology, nor metaphysics, nor art can provide me with a refuge; for one and all are myths subject, within and without, to that new kind of sociology which will arise one day and treat them as severely as has our earlier one. Not merely is the first person singular detestable: there is no room for it between 'ourselves' and 'nothing.' And if, in the end, I opt for 'ourselves,' although it is no more than an appearance, it is because unless I destroy myself--an act which would wipe out the conditions of the decision I have to make--there is really only one choice to be made: between that appearance and nothing. But no sooner have I chosen than, by that very choice, I take on myself, unreservedly, my condition as a man."

Don Share said...

Perfect, Bobby: thanks.

Here's my own favorite bit of the book:

Man is not alone in the universe, any more than the individual is alone in the group, or any one society among other societies. Even if the rainbow of human cultures should go down for ever into the abyss which we are so insanely creating, there will still remain open to us -- provided we are alive and the world is in existence -- a precarious arch that points toward the inaccessible. The road which it indicates to us is the one that leads directly away from our present serfdom: and even if we cannot set off along it, merely to contemplate it will procure us the only grace that we know how to deserve. The grace to call a halt, that is to say: to check the impulse which prompts Man always to block up, one after another, such fissures as may open up in the blank wall of necessity and to round off his achievement by slamming shut the doors of his own prison. This is the grace for which every society longs, irrespective of its beliefs, its political regime, its level of civilization. It stands, in every case, for leisure, and recreation, and freedom, and peace of body and mind. On this opportunity, the chance of for once detaching oneself from the implacable process, life itself depends.

Farewell to savages, then, farewell to journeying! And instead, during the brief intervals in which humanity can bear to interrupt its hive-like labours, let us grasp the essence of what our species has been and still is, beyond thought and beneath society: an essence that may be vouchsafed to us in a mineral more beautiful than any work of Man: in the scent, more subtly evolved than our books, that lingers in the heart of a lily; or in the wink of an eye, heavy with patience, serenity, and mutual forgiveness, that sometimes, through an involuntary understanding, one can exchange with a cat.

Kent Johnson said...

Though none of that would mean that "decisions" and actions therefrom don't impact upon the structure! Or that some "agencies" of the structure are not more "autonomous" than others. It's not a mandala; it's more like chess...

I "think." In a string of quotes.

Desmond Swords said...

Yes JK is reversing the polis polarity with his conceptual brilliance, as actor in the field more indexes and effect, flowing con­tra­dic­tions of what forced ebbing con­trol, I sometimes


makes JK sound Lacan like, totally bonkers,

we went bonkers in the end

with canons and cul­tural hier­ar­chies with their pro­ducing factions and functional surities pro­viding some­thing to con­test, something which keeps us moving all-ways for­wards, side­ways, and back: to make no point about being against, in principle, 'some' orbital pulley in people, who end up inside Charon's boat, going to Teach Don, at the other end of poetical pre­tending we are on the right well, out­side reflecting within and nothing but Strat­egy and symp­tomatic clas­si­cally emerg­ing peri­ods of hot, floating airs of a rapidly boring avant-garde, in the present crisis of 'like' 'dislike'.

Alas, no more, tis not the yore
well in which to motion a turn

in the Styx, burbling of earth
gods and goddesses, taupe hue

golden straw patina of it all

Michael Robbins said...

Dunno who "JK" is, but as it happens I'm writing about the very experience you describe, Don, in my dissertation (the experience of being a subject for whom all experience is experience for a subject). But that doesn't mean (I know, you more or less recognize this in the above, but I want to stress it) that there are no ideological forces that shape the ways in which that experience gets processed by the subject. Let's change the subject!

Don Share said...

I agree, MR, natch. You can't put the cart before the horse if there isn't a horse, after all.

Bobby said...

as it happens I'm writing about the very experience you describe, Don, in my dissertation

Must be something in the water at the Reynolds Club: this is what my novel's about, too.

mark said...

JK is two letters, KJ - reversed.

poetically enough Michael, my real name, being Kevin and my middle name beginning with a J; Kent Johnston and I share the same initials. But whereas KJ the midwife to those poignantly conceptual Hiroshima 'witness' poems, is a fifty something community college author doing incredibly in an area that - depending on the Truth - could be construed as amazingly important, or a living definition of the word 'irrelevance.'


I who am also called KJ, myself, under one's own intellectual and creative steam, as a voodoo jockie making the Foetry happen in American Letters today, am unconcerned either way, because it doesn't really matter who wrote what or why or when or anything at all, in terms of the Cosmic scale Kent Johnson and Kevin John Desmond who is 'I' the author of whatever appears under that KJ brand of relevance, are both connected by a random quirk of linguistic fate. By sheer random chance, there can be two KJ's when i am talking about the poet KJ.

'like' 'dislike', 'I' the K John author, grand-son of Cornelius Desmond from Macroom in the heart of michael collins country, where the very able and feted star female poet of the moment on the island for that West Cork verse

Leanne O'Sullivan.

Buy her books. She is the star, and funnily enough, I have a few lines of verse that came out of first witnessing her star, at the joint launch of the 2005 Selina Guinness anthology of the, New Irish Poets, and Leanne O'Sullivan's first book, that was frightningly good and an astonishingly 'there' ability of being the 'real' thing from a very early age. She 21 when I first met her at the launch she was at with her very proud parents.

The poetry in her first book, came out of her teenage experience of extreme eating disorder and being shunted in and out of the shrinks. The poems are quite brilliant and there is good reason for her holding a spiritual gravity that knocked out Billy Collins when he discovered her, in Cork, when he was there with a cohort of America's finest poetry trainees experiencing summer school in Ireland with America's finest light verse academic and top clown.

It was an Irish faery tale of the true kind and this is the verse.


What O'Watts imagines is she may fly
as Fintan flew, if she attempts to launch
like the old Irish poet flock, who thought
themselves as birds and made her realise
how wings are crucial to succeed in flight
as a shapeshifter.

So now she knows all
her slim options she decides to try
out her wings, with no cutting quips or wry
observations, by flying in the form
of an elegy to the dark one who caught
her imagination's ember alight.

Western star gathers with the druid spawn
in full blather wear, making well worn
anecdotes of one another and lies
before their surety in tongue, to find
hanging from the mythical branch were the pure
milk fruit of a poet's toil are torn,
Abharach's raiment in ancient straight cry

'You've now found your soul, so sing all
your song, as fear and doubt cannot haunt
where you belong. Your flesh fits and my
measure's this gift. Go, weave the thread of life's
ageless truth twining timeless within your
spirit, and tell of what is to all
those yet to cross your ever wide
path from this moment onward.'

And in tall
dreams with future high hopes for all
those men and women who urge their love
not to hide
O'Watts imagined.

mgushuedc said...

If it's not too late: