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
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.
Labels: the law