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Ed Baker, John Bloomberg-Rissman and Conrad DiDiodato

What is Literary Criticism? What is a Literary Critic?

A discussion between Ed Baker, John Bloomberg-Rissman and Conrad DiDiodato.

Editor's note: This is an extended version of a discussion with started on in the comments stream of the Litterbug blog.

Conrad DiDiodato:

I just saw this line (at John Latta's blog)William Carlos Williams to Zukofsky:

"The only thing that has ever seemed to me to be important is never to yield an inch of what is to the mind important—and to let the life take care of itself".

And so the difference between a good and bad critic: the good ignore the bad spelling.

John Bloomberg-Rissman:

You quote WCW to LZ:

"The only thing that has ever seemed to me to be important is never to yield an inch of what is to the mind important—and to let the life take care of itself".

I don't understand this. Why is it important to never yield an inch etc if it has no effect on the life? (Of course WCW always did get a little wacky when writing to LZ ...) I think we have a lot of great literary critics, by the way. It's just that they're not literary critics. They're philosophers, affect theorists, film studies people, etc etc. I can name names.

Conrad DiDiodato:

Actually, I took Williams's quote as being illustrative of a 'mindfulness' property of poetry that seems to be lacking today. As for your second point, I must draw a distinction between 'criticism' and academia: in my view, the two have nothing in common. Literary criticism is a thing unto itself. Affect theory is affect theory, not criticism, in the sense that it cannot give the full contour & character of a literary
work (however ingeniously) without also peddling affect theory. Academic theory is a good thing but it's neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of good criticism The only thing that counts as proper literary criticism is 'literary criticism', and we have plenty of theorists to sample, from Aristotle to Arnold to Silliman. I suppose I lament the loss of the literary critic the way I lament the non-existence today of the 'public intellectual', something young people once actually underwent years of academic discipline to become. It's curious to me (but not surprising) that the two have virtually vanished off the face of the planet (well, the North American side of it).

Ed Baker:

off center a bit but now that you mention LZ and WCW
you know

that Manhattan group who after the phacht of their doings
became known as The Objectivist School
that
Ted [Enslin] was a 'member' of that group?

I got a picture (in a book) around here

sitting in a sort-of circle of chairs

there is on the left Ted Enslin and to his left
the Usual Suspects:

Rakosi, Zukofsky, Reznikoff, Oppen (and as I recall) Williams also there.

looks like they were meeting in one of those cold basement rooms
of a church.... maybe St.Marks?

John Bloomberg-Rissman:

FIrst, one of my favorite aspects of the WCW/LZ correspondence is the way WCW was actually utterly mystified and tongue-tied in the face of LZ. He tries SO HARD, but clearly doesn't get him, tho he knows that LZ is important in some way. I think the good doctor is intimidated ... especially when he has to comment on just about any of LZ's writings ...

But anyway:

I doubt a literary critic is any more able to give the full contour of a work of literature than is an affect theorist, after all, a literary critic pushes "literary criticism", doesn't she? Emphasis on **full contour**.

I believe the reason for the interest so many (in and out of) academia have for artworks is that they can NEVER be fully unpacked. Therefore a Lauren Berlant, say (affect theory) or a Lyotard (many writings) may have as valuable insights into a work of art as a strictly "literary" critic.

[Cute story interlude: read a piece yesterday by Alan Davies, on Emma Bee Bernstein. "Charles has from-time-to-time-over-the-years reminded me of something that happened at a poetry reading that I gave at the Ear Inn. Emma was perhaps five or six at the time. After I had given my reading Emma turned to Charles and said — I think I understand Alan Davies. She evidently said this in seeming earnestness / and it was doubtless in response to what I had just read. So it was a considered and a serious response."]

Let me ask what I think might be a fruitful question:

Since you distinguish between "literary criticism" and all other genres, how would you define the strictly literary?

Ed Baker:

well
since you asked

I would (conditionally" de:fine "strictly literary"
as being
snake-like
absent any

metaphorical
symbiosis

in other words
the "straitly literary" is
rather

obtuse

 

& is only known

1. after the phacht
2. when seen by The Blind Man

I just did another painting.
Put my second "snake" in this piece.
am calling the piece : Nagini: hissssss

what does this mean?
what does anything?

Conrad DiDiodato:

I suppose I'm committed to giving a 'genre' description of 'literary criticism'. But I won't do it in the way, for example, that an art critic puts forward, for example, representationalist criteria of what constitutes artwork. I can say, to begin with, what literary criticism certainly isn't. To discuss art by the type of artwork it's defined as being, whatever the name, is only to do part of the work of giving the 'thing' itself. The failure of even contemporary “Speculative Realist Literary” theory to get clear about what it means by the literary artifact itself (as seen in this recent Larval Subjects discussion) is a case in point. Since academics, by the nature of their work, are restricted to offering critiques by the use of similar types of names & characterizations only (and there’s no shortage of names out there : SR, OOO, affect theory, systems theory, cybernetics, network/media studies etc.) true literary criticism necessarily eludes them. Lyotard is a brilliant culture (not literary) critic. To fail to appreciate this difference is to fail to appreciate Weinberger's lament for the real literary critic to whom, as he says, ”readers can turn for significant ideas.” Academics can clarify problems and introduce useful distinctions; what seems to be required, however, is a kind enlightened 'generalist' perspective with its own benchmarks and exemplars. Or a sense of received traditions that accord aptly with a distinctive style of writing (and talking) about literature & art.

John Bloomberg-Rissman:

Conrad, what you offer is a "negative theology", so to speak, whereby the literary critic is only known by what she is not. I don't know how one can extract difference from a negative theology, I'm not claiming one can't, I'm simply saying I don't know how ...

So when you write "To fail to appreciate this difference is to fail to appreciate Weinberger's lament for the real literary critic to whom readers can turn for significant ideas" all I can say is ***at this point*** in our discussion I do indeed fail to appreciate it. Because I still don't know what a "real" or "pure" literary critic is. I am, of course, making the assumption that you're not proposing we return to the well-wrought urn thing, and the New Criticism ...

Lyotard is actually a brilliant art critic as well as philosopher/cultural critic. (By the way, his newly translated Discourse/Figure is all about the inability of discourse to engage with the totality of nonlinguistic representation ...)  Given what you say, how account for Foucault's utterly brilliant reading of Roussel, Lacan's utterly brilliant and justly famous reading of The Purloined Letter, Deleuze on Proust, Heidegger on Holderlin, etc etc??

I realize that these last two paragraphs are potentially somewhat besides the point, since I'm still not sure what a "pure" literary critic is, or why you don't want to include the folks named above in that category. So I'm willing to discard these potential red herrings ... I do think that academics / theorists / whatever do two kinds of work: one is the very specialized kind of disciplinary work that might be represented by a certain kind of analytic philosophy. The other is much more interdisciplinary as they say, which really means sans-discipline, and which leads to good work.

Do you think Rachel Blau DuPlessis is a good literary critic? (She's an academic) What about Barrett Watten? (ditto) I could list a million of em ... even Ashbery has been teaching for many years, and his books of prose on other authors (what's it called? The Other Tradition or something?) is really good.

Notice, all I'm really doing is suggesting that valid and useful and important literary criticism can a) come from within the academy and b) come from philosophers, theorists, etc.

Conrad DiDiodato:

Well, let's look at modernism or, at least, how it was needlessly usurped by the poststructuralists. There was no inevitability about it: it consisted of a series of well-placed strategic moves (after Foucault, Barthes, Lyotard) that banished meaning from an authorial center, to the peripheries of language & convention.  Levi Bryant’s “object-oriented” approach to literary theory is among the most current poststructuralist reformulations of the ideal of the literary artifact as a ‘thing’ made rich with interpretative meanings only after it’s been unmoored from the past. The death of the "great critic" seems to coincide with the death of language or, inversely, the rise of the New Sentence. I'll make the even stronger case that the death of the "lyrical voice" coincided with the experimentalist poetries of our day. There's no need to go into the details: you know where I'm going with this.

We can't time-travel back to Eliot's day and so I'll propose a "altermodernist" version of the "well wrought urn" tradition more attuned to our contemporary poetic sensibilities. I'm using a term Marxists Hardt-Negri coined in Commonwealth to talk about capitalism not as an absolute limit but rather a horizon for locating significant "resistances" to a capitalist totality. Brooks read paradox and ambiguity--significant ruptures from the past-- into the text but kept the text as a significant 'referent'. Ruptures from the 'great book' seem to be tolerated, giving rise to many interesting poetries, but not without referring to actual benchmarks & exemplars. The intellectual, here as in Hardt-Negri, is not the privileged transmitter of 'esoterica': s/he will be one among many theorists (like us)and writers compelled to leave and breathe in the “commons”. It’s a move in the direction of “despecializing” the specialist (at last).

The literary critic, in this "altermodernist" sense, is not the expert writing good literary one-offs (Foucault on Roussel. And wasn't his critique of "Las Meninas" brilliant!). I envisage more the interdisciplinary than purely theoretical: the writer who, like Assouline's view of Baudelaire in a recent blog article, rather mixes his genres, throws off the censors or critics and makes a literary career of looking for originality in the most unexamined places ("ailleurs"). Baudelaire’s the writer in whom the poet and critic are practically indistinguishable. But I don't like the interdisciplinary model either since it's too closely tied to poststructuralism, and has recently evolved into the stupidities of Perloff's "unoriginal genius" and Goldsmith's "creative plagiarism". I can't comment on DuPlessis but as for Watten, he's everything my poet-critic can never be.

John Bloomberg-Rissman:

OK, Conrad, I'm beginning to see where you're coming from. In the first place, I think we have different views of poststructuralism. I don't think it needlessly usurped modernism (without claiming for it any sort of inevitability). I think poststructuralism is modernism stripped of its utopian aspects, so that when Lyotard writes of the end of the grand recit, he's really saying the end of the utopian grand recit. That's my interpretation, and I certainly won't argue with a different one. (I wouldn't be "postmodern" if I did!)

Now to a second point where I think we see things differently. You write: "Brooks read paradox and ambiguity--significant ruptures from the past-- into the text but kept the text as a significant 'referent'." Well, I keep waiting to read some poststructuralist/postmodernist who doesn't, but I've yet to find one. Admittedly, a Derrida has a lot more "fun" with a text than a Brooks, but he never really strays far from it, and he's the usual suspect.

I see the postmodern/poststructural in TJ Clark's terms: a freaked-out (as in "don't take the brown acid") modernism under the horrific and paralysing sign of a reasonable complete modernity, made possible by a digitized and financialized global tho uneven economy. You write: "The intellectual, here as in Hardt-Negri, is not the privileged transmitter of 'esoterica': s/he will be one among many theorists (like us) and writers." I don't see ANY of the figures I've mentioned, and I don't see academics either, as "privileged transmitters of 'esoterica'. But you'll have to forgive me here, I've worked on a university campus for almost 25 years, I read Hegel for fun, etc so what do I know from esoterica? You will just have to forgive me my myopia. (I hope you will forgive me). You write: "The death of the "great critic" seems to coincide with the death of language or, inversely, by the rise of the New Sentence."  Well, coincide, yes, but not cause and effect. The period in question is the 1970 and into the 80s, which is when the new neoliberal-fascist state began to stir (and I use fascist in Mussolini's sense, to describe "the corporate state" under which we now live (something much like Negri & Hardt's Empire). Remember those years? Reagan-Thatcher, the fall of the so-called-tho-not-really communist states, the rise of petty nationalism and the resurgence of tribes, fundamentalist religions, AIDS, etc etc ... I'll return to this later. Lyotard's Postmodern Condition is, I think from 78 ...

We all know how much the corporate state likes intellectuals. Look at France, where the big intellectual star is Bernard-Henri Levy (not Assouline). Or look at Italy, where Berlusconi owns the media. But: I think there's plenty of good thinking and writing about literature these days, but it's on the margins now, because of politics and economics. Jacket, and now Jacket2, have good essays. So does How2. John Latta (whom you mention) makes me think (I believe he inherited Edward Dahlberg's vocabulary!). Brenda Iijima makes me think. So do you. Without attempting flattery, you seem as interesting as any of those old guys.

And where it's not in the margins, it's in academia, because academics are among the few who are paid to think. Whether or not she's a strictly literary critic, is Lauren Berlant a public intellectual? Well, she does blog, and it is a good blog ... does that qualify? Finally, you write, quite eloquently, "I envisage ... the writer who, ... rather mixes his genres, throws off the censors or critics and makes a literary career of looking for originality in the most unexamined places ("ailleurs"). The writer in whom the poet and critic are practically indistinguishable." For the reasons listed above, I don't think there's a space for such a career in the Anglophone world these days ...

[JBR note 22 Dec 011: I should have added “except outside the margins” and “within academia”]

Conrad DiDiodato:

I think Alice Oswald is a poet with the right idea about the nature of poetry (and so a candidate for literary-critic: I'll ignore the irony of her withdrawing from the T.S.Eliot prize. I think the poor man's memory's been unjustly mired in UK politics):

"..for me, poetry is the great unsettler. It questions the established order of the mind. It is radical, by which I don't mean that it is either leftwing or rightwing, but that it works at the roots of thinking. It goes lower than rhetoric, lower than conversation, lower than logic, right down to the very faint honest voice at the bottom of the skull. You can hear that voice in a letter written by the 16th‑century poet Thomas Wyatt to his son: "No doubt in any thing you do, if you ask yourself or examine the thing for yourself afore you do it, you shall find, if it be evil, a repining against it. My son, for our Lord's love, keep well that repining"  (The Guardian, 12th December 2011).

I like that "voice at the bottom of the skull", just where I seem to hear most of my own literary chatter. And I record it unfiltered, unmediated by the current Canadian "literacy by bureaucracy" standards. I calls 'em as I sees 'em. It's the source of the poem, not affect theory, paid sabbatical leave, government research grants, "official verse culture". It's the voices on the margins that matter.

People who are paid to think about 'poetry' are, by definition, charlatans & fakes: and so very few academics can actually write good poetry. So very very few (Berryman, Wright perhaps).It'd be nice to ignore them except (as you know) they control the "means of literary production" through university presses and editorial boards, and hold their own students hostage to prescribed course texts. Their stranglehold on the literary imagination is, in my view, as pernicious as that of the
banks, hedge funds and financial institutions in the arts community. It's time to call them out and hold them responsible for the atrocities committed against language and the lyrical self: they’ve literally snatched out from under all of us both 'world'& 'word'. It’s perhaps for this reason that the present generation of literary theorists, like Levi Bryant, Eileen Joy, Niklas Luhman, each have to give an ‘ontology’ of the thing they’re going to address. And I applaud them for that.

John Bloomberg-Rissman:

You write:

"People who are paid to think about 'poetry' are, by definition, charlatans & fakes:"

Samuel Johnson: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

It might have been a bitter moment for him, but nevertheless he did get paid for his writing, and I think (I think) we would both agree that the world is better because his "Lives of the Poets" is in it.

" ... and so very few academics can actually write good poetry. So very very few (Berryman, Wright perhaps)It'd be nice to ignore them"

Two responses:

1) I think we will need to define what's meant by good poetry, not just in this context. I for one don't particularly care whether poetry reaches any heights. I'm more interested in it because it a way of making sense of the world, and since I'm interested in people, I'm interested in the sense they try to make ...

2) Even before we define good poetry, time has a way of effacing the poetry that's unnecessary, so, again, "what thou lovest well remains / the rest is dross".

" ... except (as you know) they control the "means of literary production" through university presses and editorial boards, and hold their own students hostage by putting their works on courses of study. Their stranglehold on the literary imagination is, in my view, as pernicious as that of the banks, hedge funds and financial institutions in the arts community." I too have problems with authority, whether it comes from academic, TS Eliot prizes, big commercial publishing houses etc etc. Which is why I'm rather anarchist about poetry. And prefer 1,000,000 poems a day from 1,000,000 people to any notion of good poetry. After all, the notion of "good poetry" is itself a form of authority. But now I get why you have this visceral thing vis-a-vis academia. To me, academics are just like civilians, for the most part, just going to work each day, ... but that's cause I work with them. It probably does seem like some behemothic tyrant from the outside ... (forget for a moment that behemothic probably isn't a word (or wasn't til a moment ago).

"It's time to call them out and hold them responsible for the atrocities committed against language and the lyrical self: literally snatching out from under all of us both 'world'& 'word'."

I don't care about “their” “atrocities against language”, or, better, poet's atrocities against language are so far down the list of said atrocities that they barely register. I am much more alarmed by media's atrocities, politician's atrocities, capital's atrocities, religion's atrocities, science deniers' atrocities, etc. Poets won't sink the ship; these other folks will.

But I think we FINALLY come to the meat of the WHOLE discussion when you write "atrocities committed against ... the lyrical self: literally snatching out from under all of us both 'world'& 'word'."

Would you like to have a discussion about "the lyrical self"? If yes, Alan, if you're still reading, would you like to join us? If so, where should we conduct it? Is this the appropriate place?

I think it would be a very important discussion to have.

Conrad DiDiodato:

By 'lyrical' I mean the restoration of authorial presence: i.e the capacity of a work's internal structures (whatever they may be: from traditional rhythm, figurative devices, to more contemporary flarf, appropriation techniques, etc) to draw a reader's attention to capacities for engagement & absorption. It's a minimal condition that the work's individual properties be appreciable as parts of a whole, which means I ought to be able to see the type of writing it presumes to be. However, it's a necessary ('formal') condition that the reader be critically responsive to the way properties take us to form.

By my formulation of the 'lyrical' even the view of poetry as "multitude" you instance ("1,000,000 poems a day from 1,000,000 people") can be considered 'formal' or 'lyrical'. Since something like a notion of 'authorial presence' is obviously preserved and offered as a poetic model, the validity or appropriateness of a "multitude" ideal(after Antonio Negri’s Art and Multitude)will also have to arrive at some sort of literary threshold. Even the 1.000,000 poems a day can be considered substandard & fail formally, in which case the poem subtends a 'lyrical'notion that's quite different from current avant-garde poetics that denies serving any measurable yardsticks at all, eschewing them, in fact, as modernist "tyrannies". (My rough definition of 'lyrical').

Ed Baker:

"Lyrical Poetry"
&, yes I am 'listening'
to the beat-beat-beat
of the tituhnabulating of the bells
bells bells
and am jus a-bout to re:trace my steps

count syllablells
,meter
,stanzas
&pay
all
due attention to rhythm
& spelling!

but/hoever I must
first

! get the chile-from-scratch going
2. learn French so's I can
follow

in the origin; cadences, meanings &
inyourenddos

-Badio,Foucault (especially his chapt-her:
Scienttia Sexualis), and (when I master The German
get me some of that Goethe 'stuff' down pat &

On The Way To Language (via Heidegger

Hell,
Lyrical Poetry?

it s All about relationships, sex, and ring-around-the-
rosy kitchen hearth!

wrll

now that I am
a-listening/reading/writin?

I best pay attention to spelling
& punckchewation...

or
as I stole this from Nanao :

sing
dance
leave

anyway

let's count syllables :

one
two
buckle-my-shoe

three, four
shut the
door

John Bloomberg-Rissman:

I have no objection to this morphing into a Litter discussion, Alan, if that appeals to you. And I have no objection to either yours or Conrad's definition of lyric. Tho I am having a great deal of trouble figuring what poetry would be excluded from lyric as so defined. To get some clarity, tho, on something else you say, Conrad ("threshold. Even the 1.000,000 poems a day can be considered substandard & fail formally, in which case it subtends a 'lyrical' notion that's quite different from a contemporary notion of art as serving no measurable yardsticks at all, eschewing them, in fact, as modernist "tyrannies"):

I wonder if the formal threshold that creates the possibility for failure you mention is political, or aesthetico-political (meaning there's no way to disentangle the aesthetic from the political). I mean, there are "multitudes" ... and then there are "multitudes", the difference between them being some kind of ability/inability to meet an aesthetic/political standard. What if the formal threshold creates what Berlant (!) (you'll have to forgive me, Conrad) calls Cruel Optimism. That is, what if the formal threshold promises one thing (positive) but delivers another (a kind of horrible life)?

So we may have to define our yardsticks. The second half of your quote reads: "...a 'lyrical' notion that's quite different from a contemporary notion of art as serving no measurable yardsticks at all, eschewing them, in fact, as modernist "tyrannies" OK, assuming we just say Fuck Your Modernist Tyrannies, is it still possible to find a yardstick that doesn't serve some other form of tyranny? That question assumes nothing, by the way. I ask it openly, not rhetorically. But of course if I have to ask it I leave open this possibility: What if there isn’t?

I think we need (I need) to get specific on two things: what kind of poetry is excluded from the lyric as you define it, and what non-tyrannical yardsticks can we find. As Frank O'Hara said in Personism, this is getting good, isn't it?

Conrad DiDiodato:

I can't exclude any poetry since poetry, by my 'lyrical' definition, can't be excluded by anything: and that includes appropriation, chance-directed, restraint-based, fragments (Watten), 'Sentences'(Grenier) etc. To say that it must is circular. The Language poet Ron Silliman, for example, likes to refer to 'formalism' as the school of Quietude. Though he claims his new 'sentence' is also a new method of literary analysis", his 'new sentence' is actually a death-sentence.

To the 70s iconoclasts (whose influence til the present is still strongly felt) I say there's no escaping the "thresholds" or "benchmarks" against which even Silliman's deliberate "sly and carefully-honed incommensurabilities" have to be judged (I'm always amazed at the traditionalist terminology Silliman employs, like ‘quantity', 'measure','structure', 'syllogism', when he tries to dismantle traditional verse).
Anyways, I attribute the Language phenomenon to its strong academic affiliations only.

I like the 'aesthetico-political' idea, one that certainly jibes with my own ideological impulses. Any 'poetics'(aesthetics in general) that seeks to overturn & exclude, even resorting to this Sillimanesque name-calling--or is certainly administered in some such language--is political to the nth degree. If Heidegger can make his ontology a Nazi propaganda tool and all but eliminate his Husserlian adversaries, well...Yes, yardsticks in the wrong hands can serve "other tyrannies". But it was the postmodernists who used this sort of language in the first place to condemn modernism and its patrician poetics. Remember the outrage over Derrida's defense of De Man who accused the oppressed holocaust survivors of using a language of the oppressors themselves? David H. Hirsch wrote "Deconstruction after Auschwitz" as reply.

Politics and poetry (literature, philosophy, etc) can easily turn combustible. Language atrocities may be far down the list but it still does count as one, with recognizable causes, agents and tendencies. Was the Egyptian slogan-couplet not a powerful antidote to the Mubarak tyranny? A rhyming revolution. So (in response to your twofold request): (a) nothing is excluded by a true 'lyrical' poetry that's radically person-centered (whether 1 or 1,000,000, single poet or the "multitude") and attentive to 'form', and (b)yes, yardsticks can turn tyrannical unless safeguarded by attention to strictly 'cultural' (old school) narratives of style, genre and literariness(most of which can also be linked to national identities).

John Bloomberg-Rissman:

So what you're basically saying is at least in large part Blake's "Poetry fetter'd fetters the human race"?? I'm 100000% with you if that's it. That's my position at least. I had a t-shirt once that said that. If I'm wrong about the Blake, then you'll have to help me out. You'll have to help me out anyway, because I want to understand what you mean by standards or yardsticks if everything's in. Or is the really important thing to you a humanism? If you're a humanist, I can see the problem with postmodernism etc ...

Or??? Help me out, Conrad, I think I'm getting close to getting it.

As for "Remember the outrage over Derrida's accusing the oppressed holocaust survivors of using a language of the oppressors?" I don't, actually. This is not disingenuousness. Where did he do that? I believe you, but I find it hard to reconcile with his very eloquent and sympathetic work on Celan.  Oh, and I forgot to ask, when you write about "safeguarded by attention to strictly 'cultural' (old school) narratives of style, genre and literariness (all of which can also be linked to national identities)", how do these safeguards work?

Conrad DiDiodato:

I most definitely am a humanist, in the tradition of Matthew Arnold (I say unabashedly!). I'll reflect more on the 'humanist' thing this weekend. And I'll make clearer what the 'benchmarks' amount to. I forget the details but you'll have to read Hirsch's book where he makes no bones about his linking 'deconstruction' to a great moral evil. I'm not taking sides here: just a reminder of how 'political' theory can get. I just heard Hitchens died: there was a guy with guts (defending Rushdie back in the day) and intellectual integrity (whatever you thought of his views). A great 'public intellectual' too.

John Bloomberg-Rissman:

At least I got the humanist thing right. Hopefully I was close with the Blake. There's nothing wrong with being a humanist, I should think, as long as it's a nuanced humanism, meaning one informed by humanism's not always savory politics - I'm thinking how humanism was used to justify a certain kind of imperial and racist system in the c19. But I'm not advocating throwing out the baby with the bathwater, just learning from the past's mistakes.

 

I think the same could be said for big T Theory. I now recall what you're talking about: the whole De Man controversy. I remember Derrida's essay in Critical Inquiry. When I read it I thought: weak, very weak. And his response to its critics was wrong-headed and also weak (not that it could have been strong - not that kind of weak).

[JBR note 22 Dec 011: I remember thinking that what Derrida was really saying was “he’s my friend; fuck with him and you fuck with me.” Which would have been fine, if he had just come out and said it. But he didn’t. And that’s why I thought “weak …”]

But that doesn't mean e.g. Derrida or Theory can be *reduced* to "only that kind of thing" any more than humanism can be reduced to its bad points. That would be like claiming that Deleuze and Guattari were anti-Palestinians because the Israeli Defense Forces made (conscious) use of their notions of transversality and the war machine in their Gaza invasions. Personally, I am a humanist posthumanist romantic classically-oriented conceptualist jazz langpo beatnik ironic object-oriented mystical holistic cynical Wobbly Enthusiast Enlightenment figure with strong libertarian anarcho-socialist Social Democratic tendencies, and I make no apologies for it. I look forward to learning more about your humanism and benchmarks and everything.

Conrad DiDiodato:

I suppose I'll have to defend my 'humanist' defense of poetry (after Matthew Arnold) along some such lines as the following: in his "The Study of Poetry" Arnold says poetry ought to (a)provide models of the 'best'(& that can mean anything from tanka to flarf), (b)adhere to twin ideals of "truth and seriousness" and (c)employ key stylistic components of diction, rhythm, etc. with a view to creating a distinctively poetic medium.

The humanism of it derives from Arnold's remarkable claim that "Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry." It's this last line I've kept with me since my youth: and is probably the reason I write poetry instead of theology and philosophy. I honestly do believe that poetry is the only real human language there is. My beef with Langpo is that they've managed, within the course of about 30 years, to subvert these venerable 'humanist' principles.

Am I friggin nuts? Am I living in Victorian England or something? No: in fact, nobody is likely to defend more passionately the writings of Derrida, Deleuze & Barthes than yours truly. I can't speak highly enough, in particular, of Deleuze and Guattari's Thousand Plateaus, a work I credit with having freed up my own poetic energies. It wasn't too long ago I contributed reams to the old online Deleuze-Guattari "Spoon Collective"(University of Virginia) whose archives can be still viewed. A crazy radical sort of online forum where "lines of flight" daily collided with politics, poetry, psychoanalysis culminating in the wildest thought experiments I'd ever encountered.

So here I am: a strange modernist/postmodernist hybrid who believes in their active syntheses, & actively works towards showing them in my own stuff. So, for example, how do I reconcile the Arnoldian ideals of "truth and seriousness" to experimental poetries? To begin with, the 'experimental' has always resided in 'formal' poetries anyways,(as tangential properties which weren't much talked
about). I’ll look for and can expect to find them anywhere, in even the most post-avant productions, such as John B-R's "Zeitgeist Spam" project which is certainly a compendium of the most salient contemporary ideals of art & culture. I suppose if placed on some literary continuum in true formalist fashion "In the House of the Hangman" could be placed closer to Silliman than anything I write, which probably lies somewhere between the lyrical brashness of an Irving Layton or Charles Olson, or even closer to bpNichol than I’d care to admit. There’s something nicely inclusive in my “altermodernist” poetics that restores the poetic voice & literary tradition to their rightful places.

And I rather like the idea of that “continuum”.

John Bloomberg-Rissman:

I don't think we disagree about much of anything, really. It's just a question of getting familiar with each other's vocabularies/frames of reference, etc.  As you explain them, I think ZS and In the House of the Hangman definitely reflect Arnoldian sensibilities of seriousness and truth. And it should be needless to say I always try my hardest to do my best, so that should qualify as "the best".

ITH (“In the House of the Hangman” – JBR’s long poem) is dedicated to my grandsons, by the way, my daughter's 9-month-old triplets. They're going to inherit a rather fucked-up world, and I want them to say, "Well grandpa had his eyes open, he did what he could, and he was on our side." How much more humanist can it get, really? I don’t think you're nuts. The work of D&G, Derrida, etc etc also exemplify these values, tho they would use different words to describe them. After all, what is deconstruction but an attempt to reveal that we all always stop short of truth and seriousness? Why else pursue nomadic lines of flight except to live and fight for those values another day? When Derrida says that these are values we can never actually reach, I wonder whether Arnold would agree. I haven't read his poetry recently, but I think he might, at least on occasion, else why write a poem like "Dover Beach"?

You write: "My beef with Langpo is that they've managed, within the course of about 30 years, to subvert these venerable 'humanist' principles." I actually don't think they do, tho its a large and varied "they'. I think language poetry is quite humanist in the sense we're discussing. I think that Langpoets **tried** to subvert a kind of limiting humanism by making space for a more human relation to language and experience than the humanism they were “subverting”. At this date, virtually all Langpo seems quite human-written to me. But maybe we ought to discuss why we think what we think about Langpo ... I think the only problem with "humanism" is when it falls into "the wrong hands" and an antiquated version of it is used to justify iniquities and inequities, which often happens. But that need not bother a true humanist one bit. I know I’m using the word a bit eccentrically.

Ed Baker:

    being either

    "qualified" or "Unqualified to
comment/add to

    any thing has

    never stopped me !

    These two guys swamp me that's why I continue along
almost alone
drawing/paintin and poeming about

    (What's her name) !

    every thing else is b o l o g n a

    especially religion, politics and philosophy

John Bloomberg-Rissman:

No, Ed, "drawing/paintin and poeming about / (What's her name) !" ***is*** religion, politics and philosophy! (Just not all of it)

 

PostScript

by John Bloomberg-Rissman, 21st December 2011

JBR postscript, 22 Dec 011. I suppose I should explain what I mean by humanism. I do not mean anything like anthropocentrism. I take it for granted that there is in fact a democracy of objects, and that humans are just one among the myriad of objects, and that objects are composed of other objects, and compose other objects, and that there’s no measure that’s the real measure (in Graham Harman’s terms, no overmining or undermining allowed!) Nevertheless, none of the above reduces in any way the importance of human existence – if it did, what would be meant by democracy in “the democracy of objects”? In a flat ontology, everything – including us – has equal rights. Or, to put it in the language of my younger days, “do whatever you like, but don’t bring anyone/anything else down.”

Now, I’m a human, so human life is important to me. I’m a political human (just ask Aristotle!) so maximizing the possibility of “the good life” for all humans is important to me. I think I follow Badiou in this. Therefore I’m a humanist. Because what else would I call myself? Besides, religious people hate humanism, which makes it a kind of badge of honor to be a humanist.

Now, I’m not an Erasmian or Arnoldian humanist, because historically humanism has placed certain limits on the ability to maximize the good life for everybody. But there are forms of humanism that do not place these limits, e.g. some of my humanism is related to “the early, humanist writings of Karl Marx, especially the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844  … generally speaking, Marxist-Humanism defines itself in opposition to “objectivist” tendencies in social theory, reflected in orthodox interpretations of “historical materialism”(See for example Stalin's Dialectics and Historical Materialism, 1938), in which the agent of history is not human beings, but either abstract entities such as “laws of history” or inanimate entities such as “means of production.” <http://www.marxists.org/subject/humanism/index.htm>

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that “objectivist” / sructuralist thinking is all wrong, just that it’s not the whole story. I believe there’s a me, however constructed (genetically, socially, etc etc) that is in struggle against all those things …

Let’s talk about Anti-Humanism for a minute. According to Anti-Humanism.com’s FAQ:

What is Humanism?

Humanism is the mental habit of looking at the world as if it existed only for human beings. If there’s a forest, you consume it. If there is land, you use it. If there was other stuff on that land, it’s Too Bad, because you’ve just gotta have that 4×4 truck, color television, and sprawling suburban home, if you’re a wealthy first worlder. Or maybe you simply want another patch of land for subsistence farming and slash-n-burn agriculture, if you’re a third worlder. Either way, you’re not thinking of anything except yourself and other humans. It’s like the whole rest of the world doesn’t exist.

What is Anti-Humanism?

Anti-Humanists recognize that without our environment, we die. For this reason, we can no longer think of humanity in terms of individuals and what individuals want (color TVs, slash and burn agriculture, “freedom”) but as an organism inside of an environment. Humanity is one single mass, and we are but its cells. Our individual wants and purchasing power are not as important as the health of the whole in the context of its environment, because if the environment dies, the whole dies, and then the individual is nothing.

According to that definition, I’m an anti-humanist. At this point in history, only an insane person wouldn’t be. But I think it’s possible to argue that Matthew Arnold would be an anti-humanist in terms of that argument, too, because it’s become obvious that without an environment, there’s no flourishing, all we’d be doing is standing on Dover Beach, listening to those ignorant armies taking us all down (kinda what we’re actually doing, really …)

When I look at the U. Minnesota blurb for Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism, a posthuman looks a lot like an antihuman:

Can a new kind of humanities—posthumanities—respond to the redefinition of humanity's place in the world by both the technological and the biological or "green" continuum in which the "human" is but one life form among many? Exploring this radical repositioning, Cary Wolfe ranges across bioethics, cognitive science, animal ethics, gender, and disability to develop a theoretical and philosophical approach responsive to our changing understanding of ourselves and our world.

OK, so I’m an posthuman, too. What about the Kate Hayles’ definition of posthumanism? Wikipedia (why not?):

Hayles understands “human" and "posthuman" as constructions that emerge from historically specific understandings of technology, culture and embodiment; "human and "posthuman" views each produce unique models of subjectivity. Within this framework "human" is aligned with Enlightenment notions of liberal humanism, including its emphasis on the "natural self" and the freedom of the individual. Conversely, Posthuman does away with the notion of a "natural" self and emerges when human intelligence is conceptualized as being co-produced with intelligent machines. According to Hayles the posthuman view privileges information over materiality, considers consciousness as an epiphenomenon and imagines the body as a prosthesis for the mind. Specifically Hayles suggests that in the posthuman view "there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation..." The posthuman thus emerges as a deconstruction of the liberal humanist notion of "human."

While I’m certainly not a liberal humanist – it seems braindead obvious to me [tho it may not seem that way to everybody] that our “selves” are “constructed”, our “freedoms” are “constructed”, and that we are and have always been assemblages and androids – I do not privilege information over materiality (recall Harman’s under- and overmining!) – it’s just as easy, in fact it’s easier for me to conceive the mind as a prosthesis for the body.

What am I getting at here? That my humanism is nuanced in ways that make anti- and post-humanisms ways to fully conceive the human, what we’re doing, how we should live, etc. I take it for granted that these nuances will see crude and un-nuanced to future generations, should there be any.

SO: I’m a humanist because I want a good life for everybody. My humanism knows that “everybody” has to include the whole realm of non-human objects. That the whole “environment” sinks or swims together  … etc etc. Tho I suspect that right now, the rocks are laughing …

 

 

Copyright © Ed Baker, John Bloomberg-Rissman, Conrad DiDiodato, 2012