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.

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