Saturday, 23 November 2013

A Benthamite Defence of Conceptualism

There are two common reasons for objecting to the conceptualist tendency in poetry. The first concerns the grandstanding antics of its prominent advocates, Kenny Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, et al, finding them guilty of hypocrisy (they claim to be against the idea of the author as individual genius, but pursue a careerist agenda that seems to reaffirm it) or false claims of novelty (they're doing nothing that Duchamp wasn't doing a century ago). A second, more fundamental objection is that the conceptual approach undermines traditional literary craft: instead of toiling away to produce finely shaped verses, they present ready-made lumps of found material that take no more than a few minutes to assemble.

It is this latter objection that I wish to examine. It relies on what might be called a labour theory of cultural value: artworks are judged according to how much effort and hard-earned craftsmanship are perceived to have gone into them. This is the default attitude of popular aesthetics: think of such indignant stock responses to modern art as 'My dog could do that', 'My three-year old could do that', etc. If the artist does not display a mastery of some recognised technique, he or she forfeits the right to applause, and it follows that any group of people who claim to appreciate such work must be charlatans or idiots. This is the attitude taken by the irascible Don Paterson in his 2004 T.S. Eliot Lecture, in which he tries to undermine 'the avant-garde' by suggesting that it lacks quality control and is therefore too easily impressed to be taken seriously:
On the other side we have the avant-garde so desperate for transcendence they see it everywhere: they are fatally in the grip of an adolescent sublime... The Norwich phone book or a set of log tables would serve them as well as their Prynne, in whom they seem able to detect as many shades of mindblowing confusion as Buddhists do the absolute.
This is intended as a reductio ad absurdum of course, but I want to take it at face value. What if there are people out there who might derive as much pleasure from the recitation of a phone book or a log table as they would from a Prynne poem, and if so, what would be the problem with that? The irony is that the most sincere devotees of 'their Prynne', who tend to be committed to hermeneutic modes of reading, would actually side with Paterson on this point: a phone book is not a poem, and pretending that it is demeans the serious intellectual labour of real poetry.

Here, of course, I wish to invoke our old friend Bentham, whose concept of utility was rooted in subjective gratification. His response would be that if you enjoy reading a phone book more than a sonnet, then there is no problem at all; all other considerations are secondary. It is on these Benthamite grounds that I would wish to defend conceptualism: if some people derive pleasure from Goldsmith's weather reports, or Place's legal briefs, then that pleasure (or utility) is surely of equal value, biochemically speaking, with the pleasure others derive from more formally traditional poems.

Marxists, particularly of an Adornoite inflection, are likely to bristle at this assertion. They will argue that utilitarianism is merely the crude supply-and-demand logic of the market, according to which the customer is always right, and the most commercial output of the culture industry generates the most utility because it sells the most copies. Certainly, I do not personally subscribe to the extreme populist implications of utilitarianism (i.e. that a book or record that sells 10,000 copies is 1,000 times better than one that sells 10), but I think it retains its value at the individual level as a pragmatic rule of thumb. It is worth bearing in mind that the ultimate reason for reading poetry and attending poetry readings is that one derives some sort of utility from the experience, however that utility is subjectively conceived (as aesthetic, political, communal, spiritual, etc). Without it, all of the critical debates and polemics, the power struggles and position takings, amount to little.

Doesn't this argument fail on its own terms, though? Since conceptual writing is found boring even by some of its own practitioners (Goldsmith's boast), surely it will only afford pleasure to a minuscule group of people? This is difficult to assess without some data on audience responses. The fact is that the global audience for experimental poetry is already tiny, for some of the reasons that Paterson mockingly raises: it does not focus on accessibility or intelligibility, and thus appeals principally to people who value the opposite of these qualities (obscurity, 'mindblowing confusion'). Even within experimental circles, there are still many differences of aesthetic opinion (page vs performance, sound vs sense, seriousness vs humour, etc), with the result that the likelihood of any particular poem being enjoyed by any random audience member is probably quite low. In this context of limited popularity, conceptual work stands as good a chance as any, as confirmed by the generally enthusiastic reception of Vanessa Place's UK readings.

The defence I have offered is a minimal one. One is free to discard all of conceptualism's more dogmatic claims: it has not rendered anything else obsolete, and it will never become the dominant literary mode. Nevertheless, as a potentially pleasurable form of writing that makes use of the masses of found material now at writers' fingertips, it has its place in the contemporary poetic ecology.

Postscript: An obvious problem with utilitarian doctrine is that it does not clearly distinguish between short- and long-term pleasures. A case can always be made that an immediate pleasure should be avoided if it will lead to predictable harm later on (e.g. smoking), or if a more sustainable pleasure can be obtained by abstaining (the serenity of the ascetic). In this sense, Marxism is arguably a species of utilitarianism, albeit one which believes that the greatest utility can only be obtained in the wake of a proletarian revolution. Thus, conceptualism could actually be criticised on utilitarian grounds if one believed that it was having a corrosive effect on the cultural or political solidarity of poetic communities. However, I do not find this latter argument convincing. One might also choose to invoke Schopenhauer contra Bentham, and observe that it is in fact counterproductive to talk of pleasure at all in a world of relentless suffering, but then one is free to redefine utility as the momentary relief from suffering, which even Schopenhauer found in music.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

On Poetic Value

Suppose we reject Bentham’s conflation of cultural value with subjective pleasure, but are also sceptical about the notion of ‘inherent’ value. Where does that leave us? An answer furnished by the social sciences is that value, like meaning, is socially constituted. Paint and canvas, paper and ink (or pixels on a screen) are physical phenomena; ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ are not. A cultural ‘scene’ is a kind of institution in which all the members have come to a rough consensus (or behave as if they have) about what to find valuable; at the minimum, they have decided to invest their time in one set of activities or practices instead of another. The extent to which that consensus can bear scrutiny is open to question.

Take a regular audience at a poetry reading series: it may be assumed that they all have some degree of enthusiasm for the material being read, at least some of the time, but this is not necessarily easily separable from an attachment to the social occasion of the reading (nor, indeed, in the British case, from some kind of incidental physical addiction to ethanol). Individually, they may have widely differing, even barely overlapping conceptions of literary value; their estimation of poetry in general may range from ‘an amusing enough way to pass the time’ to ‘the most vital of human creations’. In keeping with Bourdieu’s model of the field of cultural production, they will probably tend – as consumers of an economically marginal art – to place a high value on the ‘uncommercial’ (the ‘fit audience though few’), although this will take different forms in ‘mainstream’ and ‘avant-garde’ circles.

An interesting question is whether experimental writing, which tends to eschew semantic transparency, is therefore more elastic in the range of values that can be ascribed to it. Thinking about this, I was reminded of some remarks made last year by Andrew Duncan in an exchange with Joe Luna. Duncan expressed an anxiety about Luna’s critical enthusiasm for the work of Jonty Tiplady:
This is the worry with Tiplady - that you identify with him so intensely that you aren’t interested in the words. Would this poetry survive if it was pitched into a space, a group of people, where nobody knew anything about the ‘cultural placing’ and only had the words to work with?  
Meaninglessness is the ‘soft area’ where this kind of emotional identification soaks in and shows up as a stain. It’s a sort of void where insiders see perfection and outsiders see only perplexing failure to articulate. It takes on the colouration of delicate signals which otherwise would not be picked up at all. It allows collusion. It is like the ‘la la la’ in a pop song - it is either seductive or irritating, depending on whether you like the song.
These remarks seem pertinent, even if they are effectively a variation on the populist ‘emperor’s new clothes’ argument. Duncan’s worries may be misplaced, though. If we take the statement that ‘insiders see perfection and outsiders see only perplexing failure to articulate’ and generalise it to the formula ‘insiders see X, outsiders see not-X’, then it could be applied more or less accurately to any minority pastime, subculture or special interest group (skateboarders, toad breeders, bronies, collectors of Nazi memorabilia), where ‘X’ is whatever peculiar tenet or obsession separates the members of the group from the wider population. If one accepts this point, then the main things left to worry about, were one so disposed, would be the social composition of the membership, the necessarily limited potential for expansion, and any threats to the group’s ‘survival’ in a world of competing entertainments.

An analogy can be made with money. As the philosopher John Searle discusses in his dry yet conceptually interesting book The Construction of Social Reality, money is a social fiction. Rectangular pieces of paper with coloured markings are accepted as units of exchange in a particular territory because they are backed by particular institutions (central banks, shops, etc) and are underwritten by a collective social agreement to attribute symbolic (but effectively literal) value to them. The value of particular currencies is not stable, and may evaporate in periods of hyperinflation. Similarly, cultural institutions could be said to operate their own ‘currencies’ (whether in the form of artworks themselves or the conceptual vocabularies used to evaluate those artworks), which may have value only within their own confines.1

Since members of a cultural institution – particularly a small one such as a poetry scene – have a vested interest in maintaining and reproducing it, they will generally be concerned with ‘boosting’ its internal value by acts of affirmation: attending events and clapping at the end, buying books and reviewing them (if at all) favourably. There may be plenty of behind-the-scenes bitching and a bit of polemical jousting, but this can be absorbed. There are, however, limits: since small scenes rely on an appearance of inclusive camaraderie, aggressive and public attacks on the work of individual members or their revered forebears (Prynne, O'Hara, Stein, etc) risk exposing faults in the institution itself, reminding the disputants that their sense of shared aims and values is precarious, and, ultimately, fictional. This is theoretically acknowledged in arguments over gender representation, over whether it is acceptable to flirt with 'mainstream' publishers and venues, and over the value (or lack thereof) of ‘militant’ politics. Most members are willing to suppress their differences, though, because of their personal investments in the institution.

Outside, beyond the fringes of academia, the upstairs rooms of pubs or other 50-capacity venues, and a few corners of the internet, no-one is likely to be listening; those who hear anything more than a ‘perplexing failure to articulate’, an irritating ‘la la la’, have, for the most part, no particular incentive to care. They are not wrong. Nor should this perturb us. 

Franco Berardi has also written on this topic recently, but makes effectively the opposite argument.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Reflections on Bentham on Poetry

I recently had cause to turn to a well-known remark about poetry by Jeremy Bentham, noted stuffed corpse and robotic utilitarian philistine. The passage in which it occurs, in The Rationale of Reward (1825), seems sufficiently interesting to merit a more extended commentary. For those personally involved in poetry (or literary studies), its conclusions, if one doesn't reject them as nonsense, are potentially troubling. I will try to give them a sceptical shake, and see what falls out.

Bentham begins by applying the utilitarian principle of value to art:
The utility of all these arts and sciences,—I speak both of those of amusement and curiosity,—the value which they possess, is exactly in proportion to the pleasure they yield. Every other species of preeminence which may be attempted to be established among them is altogether fanciful.
Since this is the cornerstone of his philosophy, it is worth pausing to consider. Utilitarianism holds it to be rationally true that 'pleasure' (or 'happiness') is the ultimate criterion of value. While this remains a popular position with a strong case to be made for it, it is not susceptible to empirical verification (judgements of moral value being outside the province of science), regardless of whether it turns out that human pleasure can be quantified in terms of neurotransmitters. If, by 'fanciful', Bentham means 'made up', 'in the head', then utilitarianism is surely no less fanciful than any other system for determining 'preeminence'. In the case of art, common alternatives to pleasure as units of value would include truth or verisimilitude, beauty (conceived of as some objective property), and more nebulous concepts such as 'political significance' or 'spirituality'. In the absence of a higher authority, one's choice of unit is a matter of personal preference.

Next comes the crucial sentence:
Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either. Everybody can play at push-pin: poetry and music are relished only by a few.
Push-pin was a children's game in which 'each player pushes or propels a pin with the object of crossing that of another player' (OED), which sounds like a sort of inverted pick-up sticks; the point is that it stands for the simplest and least elevated form of amusement. At first, it might seem that if one rejects the utilitarian's hedonic calculus, then there is no reason to accept this argument. However, the burden of proof is on anyone who would argue otherwise. Why should poetry – we'll leave aside music – be considered any more valuable than push-pin or its contemporary equivalents (Jenga, table football, Street Fighter IV)? A poet or critic might respond by claiming that poetry engages with 'higher' themes, is a more intellectually 'profound' activity, gets closer to the 'truth' of human nature or social reality, etc. Any of these claims would have to be worked out in much more detail; none of them is self-evidently true. Moreover, they express the natural 'prejudice' of those who have a personal investment in poetry.

With the 'relished only by a few' jibe, Bentham prefigures Bourdieu's sociology of distinction. Anyone who asserts the value of a minority pursuit over a more popular one is liable to the charge of elitism. Let us imagine a hypothetical Street Fighter addict who, after some reluctant exposure to an Archive of the Now sound clip in between rounds, says: 'This is boring, pretentious shit.' Could anyone prove him wrong? Why should they want to? A Marxist might argue that video games are part of the capitalist Spectacle, that those who play them are subject to 'false consciousness', and that 'radical' poetry might assist in removing the scales from their eyes. The problem with this argument is that it is either meaningless or obviously false to anyone who does not recognise the authority of (a particularly idealistic interpretation of) Marx. The most radical implication of Bentham's argument is its subjectivism: no single aesthetic ideology is able to claim the high ground. 

At this point, though, Bentham reveals his own biases and goes on the attack: 
The game of push-pin is always innocent: it were well could the same be always asserted of poetry. Indeed, between poetry and truth there is natural opposition: false morals and fictitious nature. The poet always stands in need of something false. When he pretends to lay his foundations in truth, the ornaments of his superstructure are fictions; his business consists in stimulating our passions, and exciting our prejudices. Truth, exactitude of every kind is fatal to poetry. The poet must see everything through coloured media, and strive to make every one else do the same.
This seems obviously unfair, and has the ring of an earlier puritanism about it. It is not clear why poetry should be uniquely duplicitous, at least compared to other varieties of creative or rhetorical writing. However, if we deny that 'between poetry and truth there is natural opposition', we should also concede that between poetry and truth there is no natural affiliation. If we are materialists, we must acknowledge that such truth as exists is reconcilable with an understanding of the material universe as discovered by the natural sciences, and that, while such truth can be expressed in words, the particular resources of poetry (metre, rhyme, lineation, metaphor, etc) are chiefly aesthetic, and have no inherent 'truth function' (although they may be a spur to original thought). The notion of a uniquely 'poetic truth' (i.e. one that would resist any form of translation or paraphrase) is frankly mystical.

Bentham is no particular friend to poets, then; indeed, one might well describe him as an enemy. For that very reason, though, his remarks are a useful corrective to inflationary, messianic claims for poetry's importance. Of course, the 'prejudice' that he chastises is both inevitable and necessary (a 'noble lie', perhaps?): the vitality of the Romantic movement depended on an overreaching, illusory faith in the transcendent value of art, and traces of this spirit can still be found in even the most phlegmatically relativist of corners.