Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Glass Ceiling

I received this press release in my email today (from Amy King @ VIDA: Women in Literary Arts) about gender bias in the literary world. I've read a few articles recently that addressed this study, and thought the press release would be worth sharing.

"We at VIDA are gratified to hear the response that has recently surfaced in the media based on the numbers we gathered in our 2010 count. But we also understand that these statistics are simply the beginning of a conversation we believe is necessary—not an end point, but a way to think about the more nuanced questions such numbers beg to be asked.
While The Count seems to quantify what many women have privately suspected for some time—that male writers take up most of the space in established literary venues in the States and in Britain—the much thornier question our literary community needs to ask is why. We at VIDA know these numbers bring up a complicated set of issues that deserves much more than a superficial response.
A number of people commenting in newspapers and blog boxes around the country wondered how many women are actually submitting work to these magazines. So far, what we know about rates of submission is anecdotal. A good number of editors have spoken to VIDA board members directly, some telling us of their often frustrated attempts to solicit work from women writers, some telling us that they see women submitting work in goodly numbers.  So the issues are not black and white and not ones that a handful of pie charts can fully explore. That work is left to the women and men who care about women writers’ clear marginalization in relationship to our on-going literary conversation.
Because VIDA as an organization doesn’t have access to the numbers for individual magazines’ rates of submissions, and because much of what is published in high visibility magazines is often solicited by their editors, we will need help in moving this conversation forward. We ask that the editors of all literary magazines—large and small-- begin to count for themselves. A simple database program, a good-hearted intern—either will get the job done simply enough. And for those editors out there who do decide to count, VIDA will be happy to share your numbers and your thoughts on how this process has affected your thinking about gender, publishing and the other myriad observations such a process is likely to reveal. We look forward to the opportunity."

Articles on The Count 

1.)  The Lack of Female Bylines in Magazines Is Old News - Katha Pollitt @ Slate

2.)  Being Female -- Eileen Myles @ The Awl

3.)   How To Publish Women Writers: A Letter to Publishers about the VIDA Count -- Annie Finch @ Her Circle

4.) 'Numbers don't lie': Addressing the gender gap in literary publishing -- Jessa Crispin @ PBS

5.) On breaking the literary glass ceiling -- Jessa Crispin and Michael Schaub @ PBS

6.) Why There's Gender Bias in Media-and What We Can Do About It -- Margot Magowan @ MS. Magazine

7.) Women in Publishing: What's the Real Story? -- Kjerstin Johnson @ Bitch Magazine

8.) Women Get Published and Reviewed Less Than Men in Big Magazines, Say Red-and-Blue Pie Charts -- Jim Behrle @ The Hairpin

9.) Bitches Be Trippin' -- Roxane Gay @ HTML Giant

10.)  The Sorry State Of Women At Top Magazines -- Anna North @ Jezebel

11.)  Gender, publishing, and Poetry magazine -- Christian Wiman @ Poetry Foundation

12.)  VIDA: The Count Roundup @ The Rumpus

13.)  Why It Matters That Fewer Women Are Published in Literary Magazines -- Robin Romm @ Double X

14.)  Women at Work -- Meghan O'Rourke @ Slate

15.)  The Numbers Speak For Themselves @ Women and Hollywood

16.) Do četiri puta manje tekstova žena! -- BROJKE NE LAŽU @ Kultura (in Croatian)

17.) Submitting Work: A Woman's Problem? -- Becky Tuch @ Beyond the Margins

18.)  On Gender, Numbers, & Submissions -- Rob @ Tin House

19.)  A Literary Glass Ceiling? --  Ruth Franklin @ The New Republic

20.) Research shows male writers still dominate books world -- Benedicte Page @ The Guardian

21.) Gender Balance and Book Reviewing: A New Survey Renews The Debate -- Patricia Cohen @ New York Times Arts Beat

22.) Tickets to an Awesome Future Are Free: Gender, Literature, and VIDA’s Count -- Carolyn Zaikowski

Monday, February 21, 2011

Dada du jour: Hans Richter (1888-1976)

"Chance became our trademark. We followed it like a compass."
--Hans Richter

Rythmus 23 (1923)

excerpts from Dada Art and Anti-Art (Hans Richter, 1965)
Dada's propaganda for a total repudiation of art was in itself a factor in the advance of art. Our feelings of freedom from rules, precepts, money, and critical praise, a freedom for which we paid the price of an excessive distaste and contempt for the public, was a major stimulus. The freedom not to care a damn about anything, the absence of any kind of opportunism, which in any case could have served no purpose, brought us all the closer to the source of all art, the voice within ourselves. The absence of any ulterior motive enabled us to listen to the voice of the "Unknown"--and to draw knowledge from the realm of the unknown. Thus we arrived at the central experience of Dada.
Dissatisfied with a drawing he had been working on for some time, Arp finally tore it up and let the pieces flutter to the floor of his studio on the Zeltweg. Some time later he happened to notice these same scraps of paper as they lay on the floor, and was struck by the pattern they formed. It had all the expressive power that he had tried in vain to achieve. How meaningful! How telling! Chance movements of his hand and of the fluttering scraps of paper had achieved what all his efforts had failed to achieve, namely expression. He accepted this challenge from chance as a decision of fate and carefully pasted the scraps down in the pattern which chance had determined.
The conclusion that Dada drew from all this was that chance must be recognized as a new stimulus to artistic creation. This may well be regarded as the central experience of Dada, that which marks it off from all preceding artistic movements ...

               Jean (Hans) Arp, Tristan Tzara, Hans Richter (Zurich, 1917) 

... the new experience gave us new energy and an exhilaration which led, in our private lives, to all sorts of excesses; to insolence, insulting behavior, pointless acts of defiance, fictitious duels, riots--all the things that later came to be regarded as the distinctive signs of Dada. But beneath it all lay a genuine mental and emotional experience that gave us wings to fly--and to look down upon the absurdities of the 'real' and earnest world.

Ghosts before breakfast (1927)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dada du jour: Jean Arp (1887-1966)

"The morality of idiots and their belief in geniuses makes me shit."
--Jean (Hans) Arp

Kaspar Is Dead (1912, trans. Ralph Manheim)

alas our good kaspar is dead.

who will now carry the burning banner hidden in the pigtail of clouds to play the daily
          black joke.

who will now turn the coffee mill in the primaeval barrel.

who will now entice the idyllic deer out of the petrified paper box.

who will now confound on the high seas by addressing them as parapluie and the winds
          by calling them keeper of the bees ozone spindle your highnesss.

alas alas alas our good kaspar is dead. holy ding dong kaspar is dead.

the cattlefish in the bellbarns clatter with heartrending grief when his christian name
          is uttered. that is why I keep on moaning his family name kaspar kaspar kaspar.

why have you left us. into what shape has your beautiful great soul migrated.
          have you become a star or a watery chain attached to a hot whirlwind
          or an udder of black light or a transparent brick on the groaning drum
          of jagged being.

now the part in our hair the soles of our feet are parched and the fairies lie half-charred
          on the pyre.

now the black bowling alley thunders behind the sun and there's no one to wind up
          the compasses and the wheels of the handbarrows any more.

who will now eat with the phosphorescent rat at the lonely barefooted table.

who will now chase away the siroccoco devil when he wants to beguile the horses.

who will now explain to us the monograms in the stars.

his bust will adorn the mantelpieces of all truly noble men but that's no comfort that's snuff
          to a skull.

Fleur Marteau (1916)

excerpts from Dadaland (1938/1948, trans. Ralph Manheim)
"The Renaissance taught men the haughty exultation of their reason. Modern times, with their science and technology, turned men towards megalomania. The confusion of our epoch results from our overestimation of reason. We wanted an anonymous and collective art. Here is what I wrote on the occasion of an exhibition we put on in Zurich in 1915: These works are constructed with lines, surfaces, forms, and colors. They strive to surpass the human and achieve the infinite and the eternal. They are a negation of man's egotism ... The hands of our brothers, instead of serving as our own hands, had become enemy hands. Instead of anonymity there was celebrity and the masterpiece; wisdom was dead ... To reproduce is to imitate, to play a comedy, to walk the tightrope ...
"I met Tzara and Serner at the Odéon and at the Café de la Terrasse in Zurich, where we wrote a cycle of poems: Hyperbole of the crocodile-barber and the walking cane. This type of poem was later baptized "Automatic Poetry" by the Surrealists. Automatic poetry issues straight from the entrails of the poet or from any other organ that has stored up reserves. Neither the Postillion de Longjumeau nor the Alexandrine, nor grammar, nor aesthetics, nor Buddha, nor the Sixth Commandment can interfere with it in the least. It crows, curses, sighs, stammers, yodels, just as it pleases. Its poems are like nature: they stink, laugh, rhyme like nature. It esteems foolishness, or at least what men call foolishness, as highly as sublime rhetoric, for in nature a broken twig is equal to the stars in beauty and importance, and it is men who decree what is beautiful and what is ugly."

 Jean Arp in his studio (photo by Ida Kar, late 1950's, National Portrait Gallery, London.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Wide ranges of correspondence

an erotic compulsion
a prolonged moistening
beautifully expressed
crawling up walls
mad, androgynous, ecstatic
musical symbolism and mathematics
the brain chemists
the familiar strutting posture
the Land rumbling
the microcosms and the macrocosms
the myth of invariance
the option of multiple fates
through word of mouth
transparent and non-existent

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tinariwen: Cler Achel

What it is like to be a bat

This poem partially describes the ongoing effort to home-build a JW-03 Luxury blender. You may read it as an illustration of the brilliant things people do in their spare time, but I also hope to encounter a few readers who will attempt to wag their pistols–or are doing so already–and wish to complicate their credibility by building on my own success as a dissociative model.

If you found your way down to this stanza, you probably know what std(X) is, but I want to elaborate: if X is a matrix, std(X) returns a row vector containing the standard deviation of the elements of each column of X. If X is a multidimensional array, std(X) is the standard deviation of the elements along the first non-singleton dimension of X, meaning 'you,' or a close approximation of 'me' describing 'you.'

The trick of this equation is to measure 'space as a verb' (for the purpose of determining the erectile function of a hairy-legged bat) by calculating the rotational heat capacities for NH4+ and ND4+ in NH4PF6. This of course leads to prurience, but when male genitalia are introduced to their female counterparts, the subsequent tunneling frequencies reverse their thermal expansion loops, thus resulting in a state of 'soft modernity.'

Our results suggest that the D.ecaudata penis is under directional sexual selection and is a reliable indicator of male phenotypic quality. Satisfying these dependencies in advance (as much as possible) will greatly ease the pains of building your own Luxury blender. Fortunately, recent studies indicate that the instinctual inclination to not view 'penises' as 'poor nucleophiles' is mediated by our capacity for mixed metaphor.

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Note: If the idea of generating kitchen implements that spawn sexual phenomena via ionized ammonia does not appeal to you, you will probably find this poem too exciting. Still, if you've never attempted to mount a peizo-stepping device inside a glass-rod frame, I suggest hanging the frame/mount device via rubber bands from a tripod on the White House lawn.

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By reading this poem you agree to the following terms: 1) You MAY NOT use this poem for your own pleasure, nor may you relate it to the works of Abū Rayhān Bīrūnī. 2) You MAY NOT redistribute the elements of this poem (for example, in a blender) without written permission from the Nantong Ronghui Machine Co., Ltd. 3) You MAY link this poem to any delusional model you wish, but ONLY if it is NOT wrapped in cellophane. 4) You WILL abide by any philosophical statement inserted into this poem at a later date, regardless of logical coherence or uropatagium. 5) Online payment via credit card is the preferred method of subscription to this poem. Payment is due in advance for access to premium services.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

An (untitled) divide

So far in my cursory study, I've probably given disproportionate weight to the social production of artistic ideals while ignoring the legitimacy of a well-formed sense of aesthetics. However, the key word here is ideals, and by this I mean the differing criteria by which opposing schools of thought divide on the nature and accomplishment of art, both historically and in the current era.

What I’m struggling to express revolves around the implications of Dada's “anti-art” and the supposedly universal judgement of aesthetic value explored by Immanuel Kant and exemplified by traditional canons of art and literature. In my last post on this subject, I counterposed Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy with Marx’ and Engels’ The German Ideology in a brief attempt to examine class privilege as it relates to the evolution of Western aesthetic and intellectual ideals. However, I think I need to balance this approach by engaging Kant a little further. Still, the different ways of thinking about art intrigue me.

I don’t have a problem with canons per se or the work they celebrate, but I do have a fascination (and a problem) with the ways in which traditional aesthetics are sometimes invoked to challenge the legitimacy of innovative practices derived from a non-aesthetic point of view. What fascinates me is the divide between opposing definitions of “art” and the limitations that emerge when we discuss (and “perceive”) the quality of work that develops from different sets of creative criteria. And by “creative criteria” I mean the structural difference between the logics of conceptual and aesthetic forms of visual art and poetry.

Returning to Kant’s analysis, the term “aesthetic” refers specifically to a non-conceptual, subjective perception of “the beautiful” and “the sublime” that is asserted not as a particular preference but as a universal quality to which everyone ought to agree – even if they don’t. Frequently they do, so from this perspective if art is considered only as an aesthetic endeavor (a common assumption) then work which ignores, violates, or challenges aesthetic criteria cannot be regarded as meeting formal standards of artistic (i.e. aesthetic) merit. Hence, the application of  terms like “anti-art” or “anti-aesthetics” to artworks which challenge or ignore traditional standards.

But what interests me specifically (as a poet) is the way in which influential institutions of visual art have embraced a broader definition of art that celebrates wildly innovative practices of conceptual complexity, while influential institutions of poetry seem to prefer an aesthetics reliant on clearly-stated verbal imagery that evokes an apolitical, emotional response from its reader. For instance, if you note the staggering difference between what is displayed in a typical museum of contemporary art and what is generally published in an issue of Poetry (or any other prestigious journal) then you might agree: institutions of contemporary art resist what is "merely" aesthetic, while institutions of contemporary poetry resist a poetics that foregrounds conceptual structure while ignoring aesthetic demands.

For me, this difference between visual art and poetry is puzzling.

I like a "disinterested" criteria in which restrictions are viewed with suspicion, and innovation is judged by standards that extend beyond aesthetic expectations. Of course, if I were a talented painter of beautiful landscapes, I might deplore the current turn of events in the world of visual art. Which leads me, finally, to a wonderful movie I saw the other night, referred to in the image at the top of this post.

(Untitled) tells a story about a struggling composer of atonal music, his brother (a commercially successful painter who can't land a gallery to exhibit his work), and the owner of a gallery that sells the brother's paintings from "the back room" while exhibiting cutting-edge, conceptual art in her featured exhibits. Circulating amidst this milieu are corporate buyers, private investors, gallery owners, and a variety of artists who exhibit a wide range of pretensions, dysfunctions, hopes, dreams, frustrations, and cravings for recognition that add a genuine sense of life and humor to a movie I enjoyed from beginning to end.

I found this at my local video store and was pleasantly surprised at the very effective way it hits on the nature of my "aesthetic/conceptual divide" in a truly wonderful and human way. It even weaves intelligent and nuanced examples of disinterested judgement throughout its dialogue, juxtaposing these against the different types of human self-interest that make the social dynamics of the contemporary art world so … well …. interesting. And, not least amongst all this, the filmmaker does a fabulous job of subtly inferring the largely unconscious (and thoroughly unrealized) inspiration that drives the musician/composer at the center of this story.

I highly recommend this movie, especially if you are that rare (and probably fictional) person who actually read all the way to the end of this blog post. As for the remainder of my aesthetic exploration – and a critical consideration of Dada – I'll get to that later.

For another perspective on issues of the contemporary arts, check out this short opinion piece from the Huffington Post: What Is Wrong With the Arts?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Critique of Pure Reason

Dear Mr. Kant,

Having finished our initial scan of your most recent ballast froth, I would like to take this opportunity to wiggle your tweezers and, in so doing, offer some bog myrtle of my own. While I must admit that I’ve rarely seen bean dip of such lucid corrugation (even in these baggy trousers!) I still believe there remains a sub-panel of skeet we need to fluoridate.

For instance, when you say “intuitions of space and time constitute one of the factors required for solution of the general problem of Transcendental Aesthetic,” are you really intimating that Jack Squat is not a general concept but rather a pure form of diced pigeon? And if this is so, what is the crossword of tea? Or toe fungus, for that matter. My colleagues have expressed some difficulty concerning the Eye of Horus as well, but that’s just human entrails in a wooden bowl as far as I’m concerned. Even so, please consider appearances, as they cannot exist in themselves, but only in pickle brine.

Second, you’ve made the observation that “a singular judgement can be treated like the universal, but in respect to quantity it stands as unity to infinity and is therefore essentially different.” Is this really a matter of syllogism or is it actually more akin to a two-bit bohemian donkey? As concerns unity, the vaginal curd of a wrinkled toad cannot possibly dissemble lest the modalities of time become shrill. And by that I mean wombats tinkle in my fruit loops. This is insupportable.

Finally, I know you are merely saying that the “simplicity of substance is intended to be only the schema of this regulative principle” and is not presupposed as being the actual hare lip of a one-eyed dwarf, but my congenital peach dumplings mutate, vociferously, and I’m really thinking you could lather a chimney sweep, at least in the fulcrum. Does this make sense? Further, your categories of Quantity and Quality are entitled mathematic principals. Isn’t this really a case of too many zerks and not enough squid? That said, I look forward to your appendectomy.

Grammatically Possible,

Rupert Murdoch

Friday, February 11, 2011

Matthew Arnold and "The German Ideology"

Today I wanted to turn my thoughts to Marcel Duchamp and Dada, but to do so effectively, I need to develop a fair amount of background. In my last post, I tried to briefly juxtapose contemporary theories of “the anti-aesthetic” with a quote from Marcel Duchamp, all within the alleged frame of Kant's critical examination of aesthetic judgement.

I wasn't prepared to explore what Kant wrote because, well, Kant is Kant - his work is difficult to follow, but it is also foundational to the modern understanding of aesthetic judgement as a cognitive phenomenon relevant to art. To understand the “force” behind current aesthetic norms and values, it is important to understand the role played by Kant in a much larger discourse that pre-dates his own involvement and takes some interesting turns as it further develops in later years.

Why does any of this matter when discussing poetry? For many poets, it probably doesn’t. For someone like me, it might just be a fascination that stems from a serious consideration of what other people value in poetry as opposed to what they dismiss. We frequently say (perhaps rightly so) that it all boils down to issues of “taste,” but where does taste come from? Is it socially developed (and institutionally maintained) or is it something which is inherent and related to human sensual experience?

Historically, distinctions have been established by which “art” (and everything that falls under its jurisdiction) is valued in ways different than other, more utilitarian artifacts produced by Western societies. The motivating force behind this special sense of aesthetic value is generally regarded as a higher (more noble) attribute of human aspiration encompassed by the historical derivation of the word "culture." Hence the term "high art" and the cultural value it signifies concerning our appreciation thereof.

To relate "culture" to “aesthetics” in a vaguely historical manner (via the suspect relevance of citing the first thing that pops into my mind) I'll turn to Matthew Arnold and his collection of essays, Culture and Anarchy (1869). I’ll then compare Arnold’s thought to the thought of Marx and Engels, as developed in The German Ideology (written in1846, published in 1932). The challenge I present to myself, in so doing, is to accomplish this comparison in a relatively brief fashion. But the point of the comparison is to examine an ideological divide relevant to the emergence of Dada and the attempted dissolution of aesthetic norms as a determining force in art.

Matthew Arnold (distinguished poet, critic, and Professor of Poetry at Oxford University), writing from the perspective of a distinct era and locale (Victorian England) saw "culture," (i.e. the cultivated appreciation of fine arts, literature, philosophy, etc.) as a practical means toward achieving a classless society in which all participants have been emancipated from baser manifestations of self-interested human existence. In the process of elaborating this idealization, he presents what can only be described as a highly-biased caricature of existing class structures and the problematic attitudes endemic to persons of each class. In this fashion, he develops the case for cultural enrichment as a solution to serious problems evident in the world around him.

It’s worth noting that Arnold’s use of the term "anarchism" in the title of this book refers specifically to the manner in which identifiable segments of the English working class (in his terminology, "the populace," i.e. the most ignoble of his three class-based characterizations) were actively working to achieve a measure of economic justice and political clout. Which is to say, he didn’t think very highly of uppity laborers and their brazen protests. Here’s an example of his “analysis”:

“… raw and half-developed, [the populace] has long lain half-hidden amidst its poverty and squalor, and is now issuing from its hiding-place to assert an Englishman's heaven-born privilege of doing as he likes … marching where it likes, meeting where it likes, bawling what it likes, breaking what it likes …”

Despite reserving the brunt of his disdain for activist workers, his characterizations of the aristocracy (i.e."barbarians") and the bourgeoisie (i.e. "philistines") are only marginally better, presenting generalized character traits in a less than favorable manner. The reason Arnold developed these caricatures was to demonstrate that class-based attitudes were the source of social unrest in Victorian England. Which is to say, social dissent (and the threat of anarchy) was on the verge of upsetting civil society, and Arnold somehow failed to identify economic injustice as a cause for this turmoil.

The source of the problem, he surmised, was a serious lack of “culture” in the population as a whole. And if this was the cause, then the solution was to instigate a mass-immersion of England’s population into a refined world of cultural and aesthetic appreciation, i.e. “sweetness and light.” Today, we would probably call this a liberal arts education, and anyone who has been on the receiving end of this might consider Arnold’s social analysis to be naïve at best. But we continue to value a liberal arts education and despair at what appears to be its current decline - there are many good reasons for this. For one, it is oftentimes the first place in which we encounter the actual writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels take a distinctly different view of the supposedly pure source of aesthetic and intellectual enlightenment. They also view social unrest as a necessary derivation from imposed material (i.e. economic) relations. Marx was as much a social activist as he was a philosopher. A foreign-born resident of London, he actively organized workers in a revolt against power while simultaneously working to analyze existing paradigms of social and economic reality. Engels, for his part, financially supported Marx and his family throughout this struggle.

Similar to Arnold's formulation of class-dependent character traits at the root of social unrest, Marx and Engels asserted that "the nature of individuals depends on the material conditions determining their production". But where Arnold glosses over institutionalized forms of economic inequality, Marx and Engels focus on the ideological structure that maintains class relations as the determining factor in the historical development of intellectual and aesthetic values. Not surprisingly, Engels was unable to find a publisher for their book.

Like Arnold, Marx and Engels sought a better world, but they also examined the imposed economic conditions that pre-ordain an individual's ability to participate in "culture" and concluded that the ideological roots of these conditions were thoroughly entangled, via economic privilege and interest, with the cultural ideals of high art and philosophy. In other words, relevant to my own thesis, the historical development of aesthetic ideals (and their philosophical support) are inseparable from ideology in general. Or, as Marx would say, inseparable from the social relations of material production.

Concerning "culture," Marx and Engels viewed the established criteria and accomplishment of art, literature, philosophy, etc., as being derived from the perspective of a politically and economically dominant leisure class to whom was afforded the opportunity to create and patronize art, literature, philosophy, etc. In other words, what is valued as “high culture” is primarily, in this view, the reflection of a powerful (and influential) segment of human society that is unselfconsciously concerned, first and foremost, with itself and with the maintenance (and celebration) of its material conditions. Which also means, keeping everyone else in line, as the following quote elucidates:

The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationship which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.

From this perspective, art and its related aesthetic criteria - which further relate to “high culture” - are historically derived from the ideological structure of class relations. From which I might conclude (in a slightly more apolitical sense) that aesthetic ideals are socially determined and not intrinsic to any universal quality found in art. In other words, aesthetic criteria are open to debate - if ideological conditions so allow.

But seriously, what does this have to do with discernible qualities of art and poetry? Well, we all presumably know that there is such a thing as aesthetic “quality” developed by “craft” when it comes to producing art, but how do we understand art which purposefully violates dominant norms of aesthetic criteria, even denying these norms as a definitive quality inherent to art? Is it still art, and, if so, why? And does this apply to poetry too?

All this finally leads me back to Dada. But unfortunately I’m sick of writing.

More later.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

I think, therefore I am confused

I spent the better part of yesterday alternating between Kant's Critique of Judgement and several essays (by current writers) that explore, among other things, the aesthetics of anti-aesthetics. In fact, what occupied much of my time was an essay by that name: The Aesthetics of Anti-Aesthetics, written by David Myers of Loyola University.

Here's an extended quote:

... as a recursive function, this anti-principal is self-similar and must exist both inside and in opposition to the boundaries of its own determination. That is, the anti-function may operate with or without any formal argument other than itself.

These two basic characteristics – self-similarity and formal independence – make the anti principle paradoxical, and, for good or ill, incapable of conventional normative evaluation. Indeed, when looked at from within some normative context (i. e., from within some pre-existing structure yet to be ravaged), the anti appears little more than dysfunctional: random, chaotic, and incorrigible.

Yet so does play appear.

Hmmm. I like the idea of play. This morning my wife came home from an exasperating meeting and said, "I think, therefore I don't know." I immediately seized on her statement and replied, "I think, therefore I am confused." We both laughed, each in our own pertinent (frustrated) manner. Or maybe we laughed not out of frustration but because we felt like laughing, particularly over something that was playfully destructive.

And the moral of the story is ...

... I don't know anymore. Now that Kant has helped me identify the phenomena of human judgement as it operates in and between the two separate realms of "understanding" (nature) and "reason" (freedom), I neither understand judgement nor use it in a reasonable manner. For instance, this blog post: is there any point at all?

Probably not. But here's a final quote to chew on, from Marcel Duchamp:

This Neo-Dada, which they call New Realism, Pop Art, Assemblage, etc., is an easy way out, and lives on what Dada did. When I discovered the ready-mades I sought to discourage aesthetics. In Neo-Dada they have taken my readymades and found aesthetic beauty in them, I threw the bottle-rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.

Understanding why Duchamp sought to discourage aesthetics, and why he presumably thought artists like Andy Warhol or Yves Klein had missed the point, doesn't really help me at this stage. Not that it’s difficult to understand – especially within the context of visual arts, the artworld, and a capitalist economy that distorts and subsumes existing notions of value – but I seem to have lost my way in this study of aesthetics. In fact, I don’t even know why I went down this path.

Incidentally, Kant's Critique of Judgement is a real page turner. [I can't wait to find out how it turns out.]

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Of the infinite intonations

Everything–even Borges's pen.
Only in the sharpened act of reading writing lives.
I won't guess why in this infinite moment I'm so perplexed
By these words that I've barely eaten.
The library at the center of time, its absurd
Shelves of perpetual books resolved
Into polyglot palettes of ink and spine. Into a book
Of sand strokes his pen–undecoded.
The metaphysical pen. Its eyes have been smudged out,
And of the blinded hand whose meticulous
Pleasure was to write, nothing remains
But some bones and the shifting labyrinth
Of a fearful sphere. Can words that drift and mutate
Imagine this name: Jorge Luis Borges?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A chain of thought that always leads to Borges

When thinking about modern poetry, especially the writers I most enjoy, the first work that comes to mind is Of Being Numerous by George Oppen. When I think of Oppen, I usually think of Carl Rakosi, too. And when I think of Rakosi, I remember how much I enjoyed Ex Cranium, Night.

Whenever Ex Cranium, Night pops into my head, the first thing I recall is its wonderful story about the time Rakosi met Jorge Luis Borges. But when I think of Borges - and read his work - I usually stop thinking about other writers.

An hour ago, I read Borge's The Book of Sand for a third time. It's available online here. Click on the link and see what you think.

Friday, February 4, 2011

CSA: The Confederate States of America

I just finished watching an occasionally brilliant "mockumentary" called CSA: The Confederate States of America. Imagining 150 years of hypothetical history, it addresses a serious topic that the filmmakers handle with intelligence, acumen, and a brutal sense of parody. In fact, it had me rolling on the floor with uncomfortable laughter.

I highly recommend it.

If, on the other hand, you're someone who is currently promoting state rights and a politicized strain of traditional values, this movie might not be your cup of tea. In fact, after watching it, you might feel like you've just been skewered.

On another note, I don't think I can stomach addressing any more of Adam Fieled's screed on contemporary poetics. I did, however, begin reading a collection of his essays called Disturb the Universe, available from Lulu as a free download. I'm about half-way through and, unlike the above mentioned movie, I can't recommend it. Though I understand the aesthetic position Fieled is coming from (and appreciate his passion for accomplished poetry) these essays just don't make a very compelling argument.

Or maybe I'm just a typical "post-modernist," hindered by a head full of politically-correct theory. Who's to say?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Aesthetics, Poetics, and "The Conspiracy Against Poems"

I've been brushing up on the history of aesthetics lately. Which is to say, I'm reading various overviews of critical and philosophic thought that investigate why art creates an aesthetic response significant both to individuals and to the societies in which they live. As a multi-textured subject of inquiry, developed over hundreds of years, this body of discourse can be overwhelming, especially if I try to relate it to contemporary discussions of art, poetics, and literary culture.

In other words, I have encountered more concepts than I am prepared to address in a blog post. But the reason I'm studying aesthetics is that I recently revisited an essay by Adam Fieled at The Argotist Online - "The Conspiracy Against Poems" - and it clashed significantly with my own way of thinking.

In fact, I wanted to take Fieled to task on what I saw as a number of poorly supported assumptions and a terminology that was ill-defined in the context of his argument. But what led me to reacquaint myself with the history of aesthetic concepts in the first place was that I suspect, in more ways than one, that an argument like Fieled's (though not directly stated in the course of his reasoning) largely concerns how we approach the writing of poetry from an aesthetic standpoint.

And, phrasing it as such, I realize that I'm not sure how to fully support what I want to say. But here are a few assertions and remarks in Fieled's essay that got me going:

  • Currently "a majority of poets" are "more grounded in and more stimulated by theories than by the poems they bolster"
  • "Poetics" (implied by Fieled as both subject and object of the aforementioned "theories") is a "nebulous entity"
  • Poetry generated from this practice is primarily focused on an academically inspired quest for "novelties and political-correctness"
  • "This insidious addiction to novelty cuts off poetics from a serious engagement with poetry’s history"
  • "[P]oetics configures a conspiracy against poems" by dividing poetry into two opposed realms (poetry and theory)
  • And theory (as one of these realms) demands "poems should serve theory and not vice versa."

All of this comes from Fieled's opening paragraph and constitutes a thesis for his argument, well-reflected in the title of the essay. While reading the remainder, I found that if I look beyond the hyperbole of his assertions, he does hit on what for some are problematic issues. For instance, when he writes that the "conceit of post-modern poetics is that there is no such thing as 'quality'," he refers to a contestable notion that troubles many who are concerned about poetry and what is presumed to be its diminishing relevance in American culture, i.e. that the quality and popularity of contemporary poetry is being undermined by the inaccessible, elliptical nature of sub-standard practices.

But is the type of practice addressed by Fieled's essay really sub-standard, and does this appraisal (not to mention the practice itself) apply to "a majority of poets"?  Both assertions are highly debatable. In fact, he never specifies a particular practice or example to illustrate his point, but instead asserts generalized assumptions that fail to address or explore any of the issues he ostensibly raises. As an essay, "The Conspiracy Against Poems" is more like an agitated screed than anything else, asserting its conclusions as support for an argument that fails to critically engage any of the issues it rails against.

Still, there are "realms" of contemporary art and literature in which the primary significance of a work generates from it's purposeful (and frequently contrary) placement within overarching categories as an artistic gesture of critical defiance that explores the conceptual territories (and constraints) of traditionally defined practices that, in themselves, further relate to society in general. And there are texts which reflexively build from specific problematics derived from diverse branches of social theory.

Work of this character, with a conceptual frame that extends beyond the limitations of aesthetic control and traditional expectations, may even require a significant amount of knowledge and thought (not to mention curiosity) if it is to be effectively received and appreciated to its full potential. But is a culturally-engaged, experimental approach to poetry really a fetishized conceit, or do these artistic structures build from a significant logic intrinsic to their own emerging forms and thus merit more aesthetic legitimacy and lasting import than Fieled is willing to concede? Do they have quality?

Again, I bump up against what has become a troubling word - aesthetic - particularly as it applies (or doesn't apply) to a so-called "post-modern poetics." More precisely, what exactly defines "quality" in a work of art, literary or otherwise? What criteria determines (and limits) its legitimacy and potential significance within the broader field of a given practice?

More often than not, the answer to these questions involves time, discourse, and general acceptance. Which is to say, historic definitions of quality flow from the interrelated phenomena of human institutions, practitioners, historians, audiences, and critics in the continuously unfolding field of specific human societies. And these definitions have a genuine impact on our perception of quality in art.

While I don't believe that "experimentation for experimentation's sake" is always the best way to write a "quality" poem, I certainly don't see experimental poetics as being a detriment either. My own belief is that the practices to which Fieled takes exception can also work to expand the availability of verbal and conceptual tools necessary for good, even exceptional, poetry.

Contrary to Fieled's assertion, poets who engage theories of language and society don't necessarily ignore traditional skills or the time honored body of accomplishments from which those skills ultimately derive. They do, however, extend the palette of tools available for writing exceptional poems - even if (as is typical of poetry throughout history) a good deal of what's being written falls short of "exceptional."

More simply, "quality" takes care of itself. There will always be gatekeepers, and some (for better or worse) will always have more influence than others.Which, of course, leads me right back to the history of aesthetic inquiry. Here's a relatively recent quote on the Institutional definition of art (lifted from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) that, for some, might throw the value of intrinsic quality into a thoroughly postmodern sense of disarray:
The Institutional definition of art, formulated by George Dickie, is in this class: “a work of art is an artefact which has had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by the artworld.”
Pretty simple, no? The definitive "quality" of art and poetry is whatever we collectively decide it to be - over a period of time - but institutions (formal or otherwise) frequently sit in the driver's seat when it comes to determining the influence of poetry that comes up for critical and popular appraisal. And, I might add, these institutions - collective subjects that confer status on objects of art - are not just academic, nor are they entirely "disinterested." ("School of Quietude" anyone?)

Food for thought, if nothing else. More later.