Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Aesthetics of Cultures and Cultures of Aesthetics

Lately I’ve been noticing, particularly on the Harriet blog but elsewhere also, a number of writers suggesting that aesthetics and cultural studies are opposites. Even more than opposites: enemies.

Given that it’s blogworld we’re considering here, the terms themselves are rarely explored in much depth. Still the implication seems clear that the academic field of cultural studies has no interest in aesthetics, and aesthetics are what makes a poem valuable.

I understand where these concerns come from. Anyone who has spent any time in the world of literature departments has come across people for whom aesthetics don’t matter or matter only minimally. If you care about poems, that lack of interest can be frustrating, although as much as I hate to admit it, there are other things worthwhile to do in English programs besides talk about poetry.

That said, not only do I think the opposition is false, I also think it indicates some things about the culture of contemporary poetry that need further consideration.

First the obvious: all poems have aesthetic elements and all poems say something about the world. How these two elements operate in any poem is certainly not a given. How we discuss form and content or pick apart the binary of form and content, how we discuss the content of the history of form or the form of the history of content, how we differentiate between terms like aesthetics and style and form, or content and meaning and culture, all remain ongoing and at least sometimes intriguing questions. Further, whether we’re considering a sound poem that provides contrasts to existing languages or reading the most introverted poem of personal feeling, the question of culture is always open for reinterpretation but only because it’s always present. A poem always carries traces of its contexts.

So what then would be the point of pitting aesthetics against culture, since they are elements present in all poems? Further, since all cultures have aesthetics, and all aesthetics are developed by the cultures invested in them, we can never talk thoroughly about either culture or aesthetics without talking also about the other. So why separate out the two as implacable opponents?

The answer has to do, I think, with contemporary cultures and how those cultures view aesthetics. Some cultures values aesthetics more openly than others, obviously, although even those others still have aesthetics.

It’s not possible to create a poem that says nothing about the world, but at times I feel that’s almost what I’m hearing people say they want: a poem about the pleasure of language, about an interplay of images and words that can’t be analyzed for political content, for traces of class, race, or gender, or for the social position of the poet who writes it. A poem, that is—and a poet?—freed from the burden of social context and not required to have any significant relation to what is otherwise going on in the world. A poem of play, entertainment, excitement, verbal prowess, a poem which when read has no messy relationship to anything other than itself and creates a moment of pleasure fully reveling in its own energy which then disappears, only to re-emerge when considered by the next person who experiences it.

Are there really people who would like a poem of this kind if it was actually possible to write one? Are people trying to write this poem right now: a poem of linguistic pleasure without social content? A poem that purely is while meaning nothing? What would a poem that wanted to play with language while saying nothing about the world look like, especially given that it would inevitably end up saying something about the world? And why would somebody want that? To be freed from the burden of meaning? To avoid responsibility for things they have said or be safe from the judgements of others? To be protected from an analysis that might say “I’ve read your poem and know who you are and where you come from”? More generously, I think we can see here a desire to counteract the unfair judgements of others: to prevent poems (and people) from being treated as nothing but chunks of information, to stop the complex dimensions of poetic language from being reduced to canned positions in a political debate.

As might not be surprising then, blogworld oppositions between aesthetics and culture are less failed theoretical approaches (since on some level they’re not even trying to be theoretical) than indications of a power struggle between poets and scholars, or even more broadly between poets and anyone who views language as purely instrumental. What makes a poem valuable turns out to be a question of who values it and for what and to what extent, and how the values of those people disagree or even openly conflict with other people and their values. It turns out to be a matter of who says what from what social position, and what kinds of power and resources are associated with that position. Many poets feel that aesthetics is right now simply too neglected even in the few fields that actually discuss poetry. And I agree.

Still, fetishizing aesthetics is not the answer. Nor is claiming that aesthetics is untouched by culture and power. Aesthetics, culture, and their relation to power, in the academic world and beyond, remain issues that poems are always taking up and cannot escape, no matter how badly the writers of them might want either more power or to be outside the game of power entirely. And to try to claim importance by claiming that ones’ poems exist outside conditions of power is hardly a new move. In fact it’s the poetry world equivalent of arguing for the divine right of kings.


Dan / Daniel Gutstein said...

I think if it were left up to the management of English or "Humanities" departments, well, then, everyting would be broken, and nothing could be taught, so we'd have classes, ostensibly, on subjects, but there would be frequent apology by the students (broken) to and from the teachers (can't be taught) and vicey versey. A tone poet I've heard of, King Curtis, maybe you've heard of him, too, once argued for the divine rights of despots, in this and/or other contexts. To tie this all together -- we live in The Associative Era; you can't even sit in a waiting room next to someone without being accused of sympathizing with that (stranger's) Value Set; therefore, "divorce" in general is impossible -- be it a discussion of Kings and King Curtis / poetry and Dysfunctional Academic Units / and aesthetics and context, if that makes any sense. Ain't Fetish a river in Syria? ----BA

Jordan said...

Are there really people who would like a poem of this kind if it was actually possible to write one? ... A poem that purely is while meaning nothing?

Have you looked at the literary journals of America lately? I'd say about 40% of what gets published fits that APB.

Anyway. You're correct to call "position-taking." I think, though, that you are assuming much greater stability for culture -- that it is a monolithic entity that comes in many local flavors -- than will help the discussion. And I hope you don't mind my taking your provocations as my cue when I say that conflating a preference for the aesthetic frame with restoration politics is silly.

What would make more sense, if you really are interested in a hybrid aesthetic-cult.stud approach, is to show how any two poems (randomly chosen examples by the neighboring Charleses North and Bernstein, say) might each be aesthetically and culturally conditioned...

If the point is to shoot Franz Ferdinand, of course, history is on your side. Isn't that centennial coming up?

mark wallace said...

Thanks for your comments, Dan and Jordan.

Jordan, I'd be interested in hearing you elaborate on that 40% at some point. I've seen them too of course, if maybe not as many as you have. But what I would be suggesting here is that those poems always do end up meaning something: they give away all sorts of clues to their cultural and literary context.

Franz does indeed look silly, and in choosing him I was indeed being silly. Can't be too serious all the time. That said, I don't think he's an example of any kind of pure aesthetic desire: as we can see from the picture, aesthetics, culture, and power are all being marked by his amazing standard of dress. So to my mind he's an example of how you can't have one of these things without the others.

As to your final suggestion, of course I've been writing essays and reviews for years that examine poems from some combination of a cultural and aesthetic framework. I'd be glad to send some of them to you if you're interested.

Dan, I keep being amazed at how much is broken and how much so many of us prefer it that way. It's a good thing this next presidential election is going to solve all that!

mark wallace said...

Oh, also, Jordan, I put up a broad description of "culture" on my blog a few weeks back, on March 9:

Dan / Daniel Gutstein said...

Oh, I mean, I was thinking about a particular situation that's close to my own work environment, these days. I mean, maybe our definitions of "broken" would differ, initially, anyway, although I bet that you and I would both enjoy certain "broken" qualities of the academy and then scoff -- hawkup -- violently at others. There's more to learn these days on commuter rail than in some places that I can think of. (Don't mean that about your school.) ----BA

mark wallace said...

If a student and a janitor switched places, which would learn more?

Dan / Daniel Gutstein said...

Depends on the student. The student. Mostly. BA