Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Essentialism Redux

David Wolach, a writer in the Olympia, Washington area, and co-editor of the forthcoming journal Wheelhouse, writes me the following question:

"I've been writing about justification and art, as part of my collection "The Million Monkey Manifesto." You've written that the existence of art needs no more justification than the existence of persons. This has shaped my thoughts on matters writing, teaching. I wonder, though, if there is a non-collapsing difference between justifying existence and justifying behavior. We might appropriately question another's behavior and expect reasons (not explanations) as (perhaps always insufficient) answers. Do you think that the behavior of a poem, say, is a relevant comparison here? Undermining things, itself too, seems to me morally requisite of any decent work. But if this is so, we may want to give reasons for this--reasons that are always partially self-undermining. So much infinite regress! the conservative analytician would say. So be it, I'd say.

The proviso is this: my query isn't one regarding "justification" in the very conservative (or typically American liberal) sense. When I say "justifying a poem's behavior," I'm talking about the function (or lack of function) of poetics, criticism."

Thanks for this question, David. My claim that poetry “no more needs a reason to exist than a person needs a reason for being alive ” from my essay “Reasons To Write” in Haze has an essentialism about it that might seem troubling in any number of ways. But I stand behind it, while at the same time believing very much in the value of poetics (let’s define one area of poetics loosely for the moment as theories and criticism of poetry).

I think that poetry (which I’m going to define as the basic art of language) and art more generally is not a luxury, but a human necessity. There are the more familiar members of this category: food, clothing, shelter. Yet the list is oddly incomplete: for instance, I’d place sexuality (understood as an activity) on it as well.

As necessities, though, they’re not all necessary in the same way. I’d grant that each human individual does not need literary art in the same way that all of us need food. And sexuality is particularly tricky here: there are celibate individuals, but how many, really, and how many of them have never engaged in sexual activity at any time in their lives?

But even if it becomes specialized in some cultures, something practiced by only a few people, the fact is that the art of language, and using language as art, seems to be a basic component of all human social contexts. Octavio Paz, for instance, talks in his essay “The Few and the Many” about the role of such activity in early human cultures. Poetry is a realization of our capabilities for language that we need to explore and develop. When we become alienated from that possibility, human life withers. And I don’t mean that “in the name of the future.” I mean it hurts us right here, right now.

But the idea that poetry, and art more broadly, is a necessity is one that has been under siege in many ways and many times. As you know, Plato thought poets harmed his idea of The Republic. One essential contemporary example is the war against serious art that globalist neoliberalism has been undertaking fairly relentlessly in the last 25 or so years. Of course, the good news is that neoliberalism can’t win that war. But it sure can cause lots of misery in the meantime (and of course its war on art has hardly been its worst source of misery).

So yes, my insistence is an essentialist one. Human beings can’t do without outlets for expressing their capabilities in language. The attempt to force all language to conform to globalist corporate norms amounts to a war against human possibility and complexity.

But absolutely there remain good reasons to question the specifics or, as you say, the behaviors of a given poem. We all need to eat, but that doesn’t mean that the way we eat is beyond criticism. Food habits are shaped by cultural and individual preferences, and are affected by large scale geographical and social forces. What we choose to eat and how we eat it have meaning, and that meaning is subject to criticism and change.

I have criticisms of contemporary poetics; for instance, how much of it still consists of an insistence that one’s own aesthetic, political, cultural preferences are absolutes. But I’ll save that problem for another time. Without question, having a developed criticism of poetry is crucial to a developed poetry.

And just as a p.s., in the hopeless hope of forestalling misunderstanding: sexual behavior is not a necessity because of procreation. It too involves a series of human potentials in the here and now that, like poetry, have often been under siege. And I know too that some kinds of poetry have non-linguistic elements; these comments are not a subtle dig at vis-po or Neo-Benshi or any other cross-disciplinary art.


Ann_Bogle said...

What a lovely statement -- written in clarity. It's interesting to link literary criticism & how people eat food.

David Michael Wolach said...

Essentially I agree. Although I think there are non-essentialist reasons to resist justification in the arts generally, poetics specifically. I’m reminded of Wittgenstein’s note in CV: “You might say: the work of art does not aim to convey something else, just itself. Just as, when I pay someone a visit, I don’t just want to make him have feelings of such and such a sort; what I mainly want is to visit him.” There is a Kantian argument here, that is: poems needn’t justify being—they are ends not means. If we go the route of justification we are playing into the hands of instrumentalists, the cabal of crude liberalists who champion the ideology of poetry as Beauty or poetry as serving a civic good, etc. So I suppose there is an argument from autonomy that I see to be very closely related to your essentialism, but somewhat different. Part of the difference may lie in my view that as poets we should attempt a relinquishing of all desire for power in our works, that our works at their best can point, as Adorno might have said, to a world that isn’t but could be, languages that aren’t yet but will be, and that this world (among potential others) would be one where art is defetishized, or at any rate on a par with all the work we do outside of our poetic endeavors that we are perpetually alienated from and therefore find no pleasure in. But the reason why justification interests me is not just that it’s used as a weapon against inventiveness—hence, freedom and possibility—but that a lot of us have slinked away from the power struggle of the every day by generating such syntactically alien tropes that academic posts (often conservative institutions in themselves) are the only places we feel we can hide and do our work in peace.

It’s funny though, that both of our arguments are, to some degree, justifications. In a negative sense to be sure, but that silence simply won’t suffice in the face of very real threats in this world points to a schema that poetry alone might, even in its dynamic relation to the every day, be overtaken by.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for your support, Ann, and David, thanks for continuing this conversation. I'm finding your thoughts very useful.

It seems like we're dealing with two essentialist notions of the poem here. One: that the poem is a unique object that is absolutely itself, and therefore any criticism about it, or paraphrase of it, can only be something ELSE. I immediately think of Clark Coolidge, among others, as someone who has made this kind of suggestion. A poem may not get us anywhere except back to the poem.

And then there's the other notion, which was more or less along the lines I was thinking of: that poetry is a fundamental fact of the human ability for language, and while any particular poem may be subject to criticism, the attempt to deny people their need for poetic language not only causes a lot of harm but is ultimately doomed to failure.

The first one does seem true to me, to some extent. Poetry isn't unique in that regard, of course, any more than in the case that I was arguing. Wittgenstein's quote shows us that a visit, and therefore many other human events and objects, can also be an end and not a means. Also, my sense is that poems (and some more than others) often do have a use value other than the poem itself. I'm thinking here of protest poetry, which wants to call attention to some particular social crisis and play a role in enabling change. Poetry can never create change solely on its own, but it can often be part of an array of active responses. Poems have often played a fascinating and important role in anti-war or pro-labor demonstrations, just for two possible examples.

And you're right, we were both justifying poetry! I guess the point in my original essay would be, though, that poets are always having to justify poetry because of the kind of world we live in; we shouldn't have to justify it, but we do have to. Sadly, it's not the only necessity that ends up being that way. Kaia Sand's poem "Acquifer" ends with the pointedly shocking line "let the market decide/who drinks water." It turns out that in some places, as we too well know, people are denied their rights to eat and drink.