Monday, February 07, 2005

Mike Snider is such a decent, intelligent guy that I'm constantly surprised by how catastrophically wrong I think his judgments are. It's difficult to tell from his latest attack whether he's more interested in slamming literary and critical theory as such or its (bad!) influence on poetry. He writes that "Most contemporary theory begins with the completely noncontroversial observation that there are large parts of the world we cannot experience at all, and that what we do experience is manipulated and filtered in various ways by our bodies, previous experience, and language." But the whole point of critical, theoretical thinking is to make this observation controversial, because as soon as you bring it to bear on actual trends, institutions, periods, and structures you start discovering more than meets the eye—a "more" that these structures have a stake in concealing. I'm not particularly interested in defending "French theory" as such, except insofar as the texts of Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, et al often do the same work as poetry for me: they estrange the familiar and help me to see it anew, without in any way really "destroying" the familiar (this, the greatest threat conservatives see in postmodern theory, is actually its greatest weakness). And the means of this defamiliarization is language. The difficulty of this language is partly just that (and I will admit it often verges on self-parody, particularly in its American versions) and partly the difficulty of wrenching your mind out of its usual "common sense" track for a while. Theory and poetry are both great cultivators of negative capability, which I happen to believe is one of the most valuable human faculties and which couples courage and humility with the imagination—a combination in sadly sort supply these days. Theoretical constructs like Freud's unconscious, Derrida's differance, Deleuze and Guattari's rhizomes, etc., may not be accurate in any scientific sense—that is, unlike the laws of physics, they can not and should not pretend to transhistorical value (I realize that this distinction is often ignored). But they are modes of truth in Heidegger's sense of aletheia or revealing. There may not be a literal "unconscious," but Freud's idea succeeded in defamiliarizing processes of the mind and libido for his time in such a way as to render them freshly visible to us. The truth-content of Freud's theory may have faded with the passage of time and the movements of history (though I don't think so, not quite yet), but that just means that new theories are called for if our thinking is not to become impoverished. I don't think cognitive science, as fascinating as it is, is anywhere near ready to replace Freud as a way to understand the intersection of consciousness and lived experience in a way that gives us more of ourselves than common sense is able to access.

I am much more willing to defend critical theory in its Frankfurt School manifestations on its own terms as something which does give us powerful tools with which to discover truths about social, political, and economic formations and institutions. (For example, I think Frederic Jameson's concept of "the postmodern condition" holds more water than Lyotard's.) But we were talking about poetry, right? I don't understand why the teaching of theory, to my mind an invaluable tool for teaching critical thinking and negative capability (they are similar but not identical), should negatively impact the teaching of poetry. It may do so in English departments that don't require their students to study actual literature, but if that actually happens it probably has more to do with petty politics than with any intrinsic contradiction between the two areas of study. Of course poets and PhDs and English majors should bloody well read "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (I'm not so sure about Maya Angelou), and Milton, and Marianne Moore, and all the other poets that there is still, in spite of everything, a critical consensus about when it comes to their value. But that's no argument against theory, only an argument for the allocation of resources. When it comes to hardcore theory, my own experience sort of confirms the Jewish prohibition of Kabbalah study to all but mature men (minus the sexism, of course): I managed to graduate from Vassar College with honors in English without reading word one of theory and only encountered the stuff in graduate school. So I already had a solid grounding in the ol' Western Canon by the time my eyes were opened to the pleasures and difficulties of counterintuitive thought. If I were running an English department, I'd probably forbid theory courses to freshmen and sophomores and require them to soak up actual literature instead. On the other hand, I'd certainly require at least an "Intro to Theory" course before they graduated, and literary theory would be one of the subject areas you could do a senior thesis in if you wanted.

The last part of Mike's post is an attack on the "cushy" academic lifestyle and resorts to good old-fashioned American anti-intellectualism that hardly seems worth commenting on, even as it's the part of his post that makes me feel the most personally threatened and intimidated. "Who needs another close reading of the Pisan Cantos?" Who needs another Wal-Mart or redesigned atomic weapons? Who needs another episode of Desperate Housewives or another Dan Brown novel? Who, in short, needs more of the same, in poetry or anything else? There are bad and meretricious poems in the post-avant fold, which is large enough to contain multitudes. But at least they're trying to extend their consciousnesses and the consciousnesses of their readers beyond the confirmation of the status quo that is found in 99.99999% of American cultural production. And beyond all of this is the fact, the simple bedrock fact, that there is a passionate readership for this stuff. I may not have persuaded Mike to take pleasure in my Grood Poets, but I hope at least I've persuaded him that I take pleasure in them.

Since I continue to believe that pleasure is its own best defense, I'll be getting to Grood Poet No. 4 shortly. But right now it's time to shelve some books.

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