Wednesday, 29 July 2020

depolarisation, 2: mutual respect

Depolarisation (2). Where did I put those blocks?

The urge for premature definition sweeps aside vagueness at the cost of introducing fundamental error. It is fitting for critics to struggle with areas of art that haven’t resolved yet. It is fitting to devote time and effort to artists who, in the end, turn out to have been a waste of resources.

My guess is that what people want from cultural critics is to locate the watersheds, the lines where one faction divides from another. This location would expose unconscious blocks to understanding and allow us to debate and perhaps eventually remove those blocks. It seems likely that Rosenberg has identified one of the blocks. See blog of 31 May 2020 for details on this.For Rosenberg, the avant garde wants to consign every part of existing art to landfill.

Rosenberg describes the institutionalisation of the avant garde, and wrote about it even in 1964. This institutionalisation, at one level, justifies the vangardistas in thinking that they are Superior Beings. But, at another level, it points to problems with claiming political status for innovative art. This is a different problem from the battered chronology of the modern vanguard. So, if you want to promote the new poetry of the 1970s as representing a breakthrough, it is surely a problem that this poetry is now almost fifty years old (and that its poets are hoary and venerable, if not decrepit). In fact, dealing with the collective estate of “modernism” is like trying to get agreement from a board of directors of whom some date to the 1920s, some date to the 1970s, and some to 2020. They barely understand each other, but any statement has to accommodate the relationship between those three areas. So in fact futurist art is dominated by the past. It is produced by people who have succeeded in the academic world by demonstrating expertise in the art of classical modernity. Their ability to start from zero is effectively nil. (That Partisan Review symposium on a "new conservatism" supplied one of the ideological bases for PN Review, when it was starting out.)

Arrogance is a factor in the scene subject to reform. But the problem may be in defining the splits as “blocks”. From another point of view, they are not “blocks” but “components of my personality”. You can’t have some poet say “the reason you don’t like my work is that your personality is defective and you have unconscious blocks which prevent you from realising how brilliant I am”. Because the next step is “a brief and inexpensive course of surgery will modify your personality so that you DO realise how brilliant my poetry is”. Rather, everyone has to concede that disliking a volume of poetry is everyone (else)’s civil right, and that it is not subject to being defined away by the PR of some faction or other.
Quite a lot of the discourse around culture these days is based on a deficit theory, whereby someone you disapprove of is suffering from unconscious blocks, and you can see what these are (although they’re invisible), and offer a cure. It’s great to feel that you are culturally healthy and everyone else has terrible disabilities. There is no better feeling. But this whole domain may be based on a fallacy. Just because you have a goal, of promoting the artists you approve of, does not mean that you have a valid theory of why other people find them uninteresting and not worth laying out money for in a book-shop. Indeed, if there are a thousand poetry titles on the shelves of the Waterstone’s in Nottingham (I didn’t count, so it could be fewer), then leaving almost all of them behind is going to be a feature of most trips to the book-shop. Cultural customs are going to be based on that physical fact, if on nothing else. You do have the right to say no.
I am really doubtful that you can see inside someone else’s mind and produce structures which they aren’t consciously aware of. I know a lot of “legitimated knowledge” depends on that, but it seems flawed and risky as a concept. In reading a poem, you have easy access to the conscious intent, the strands or paths which the poem is organised around. Other levels are a puzzle and may not actually be there. Under the surface, there is no light and no sound and you effectively don’t have access. All this may be a conjuring trick to cover the fact that you are suppressing the conscious message of the other person. By defining their desires, pleasures, preferences as a “binary myth” you are effectively saying that you have the right to speak for them and they don't have the right to speak for themselves.
Five thousand poets have an investment in saying that part of the market has an unreasoning block resisting their excellent work, and critics are motivated to follow in line and search for those blocks, and turn out sketches of them. But perhaps the breakthrough is in recognising that these blocks don’t exist. The reasons for not reading a volume are many, most likely that it is hidden behind all the other volumes on the stand, but may also be rooted in cognitive preferences which are part of how someone deals with the world. (5000? could be more!)

Let’s say that people's consumer choices in art are guided by the memory of past pleasure. This gets away from “deficit theory” and also identifies a domain where criticism can be useful: I record my pleasure, in a verbally explicit way, and people who read what I say then have an “acquired memory” of pleasure, and this extends their aesthetic range. Most proposals about depolarisation offer to wipe out divergence in a malign way. But we are only going to get closer to each other by being friendly and respectful.

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