Saturday, October 27, 2007

Autonomous Me?

In an hour I'm hopping on the train and heading downtown to join Chicagoans Against War and Injustice; it seems important to stand up and be counted. The efficacy of these protests, I've come to feel, is less political than spiritual and imaginative: it seems pretty obvious that our political leaders aren't listening, but everyone in today's march will be making visible and apparent an alternative way of thinking and feeling about the war machine we are so smoothly assimilated to so much of the time. It's water for the grassroots, and it's also at least potentially the inculcation of a local community that can stand against and offer resistance to the violence of globalization. So with mingled hope and heavy heart I'll be a marcher again.

Lunch yesterday with my colleague Bob Archambeau, the author of a recent blog post titled"Classical Music Between Adorno and Bourdieu, has me thinking about that old modernist bugbear, autonomous art, in which I've made investments I'm not quite prepared to liquefy. I've read the New Republic article by Richard Taruskin to which Bob refers and whose argument I likewise recognize as applicable to the question of the crisis in poetry—a crisis in which not all of us are obliged to believe. The article, and Bob's discussion of it with the historian D.L. LeMahieu, is refreshingly free of the heavy-handed shorthand that characterizes most of these discussions. On the one side, there's the strangling populism evoked by such book titles as "The Trouble with Poetry" (Billy Collins) or "Can Poetry Matter?" (Dana Gioia), or in apologias for the MFA establishment (I wrote about one such by D.W. Fenza last year). On the other side there's Ron Silliman, or the Adornian counter-institution that's come to be known as "Ron Silliman," whose single most influential intervention since blogging became popular remains the sometimes invidious distinction between the School of Quietude and the Post-Avants. Between or under or to one side of these two cartoons, the signifier Collins/Gioia and the signifier Silliman, a great deal of careful, authentic, and important thinking and writing goes on—and as Bob points out, if the monthly readership of Salt actually outstrips the monthly readership of Harper's (or, it's probably safe to say, the circulation of The New Republic itself), then the death of poetry and its readership has been greatly exaggerated.

Nevertheless, the debate has caused me to re-examine some of the Adornian articles of faith that Taruskin pillories mercilessly in his article. I think he's right to point out the limitations of the autonomy model of high art—it's worth requoting the pertinent paragraph, which Bob also quotes:
The main tenet of the creed is the defense of the autonomy of the human subject as manifested in art that is created out of a purely aesthetic, hence disinterested, impulse. Such art is without utilitarian purpose (although, as Kant famously insisted, it is "purposive"), but it serves as the symbolic embodiment of human freedom and as the vehicle of transcendent metaphysical experience. This is the most asocial definition of artistic value ever promulgated. Artists, responsible to themselves alone, provide a model of human self-realization. All social demands on the artist--whether made by church, state, or paying public--and all social or commercial mediation are inimical to the authenticity of the creative product.
Postmodern poetry, more specifically Language and post-Language poetries, refurbishes this high Romantic ethos for its own purposes: as disinterest is a means to transcendence in the Romantic model, so transcendence is a means to critique for its postmodern doppelganger: the ground of given discourses, both poetic and political, is deprived of the normativity that makes it look like ground in the first place. All that is solid (in poetics, in rhetoric) melts into air, and the reader is putatively freed to pursue new, non-hierarchical pathways of meaning. I still find this appealing, though perhaps I'm addicted more to the vertigo of transcendence itself as the poem momentarily defies social gravity. But the hard-won transcendence of art must have a context, whether or not you intend that context to wither, and that context can be framed as "social demands on the artist," which cannot simply be wished away, or made to shrink in the face of mere authenticity. The authenticity of art, it seems to me, is entirely dependent on its means of attaining leverage on the social—a leverage that can never be fully Archimedean. It's your attitude toward mediation, your approach to the problem it presents, that matters—the denial of mediation in art is mere snake-handling, a spectacular gesture that reassures the faithful but is likely to bite you back in the end.

So I believe in autonomy, and in authenticity too—it's just that I think these will always be partial and mediated states of being, and experiencing them demands continual efforts of new creation. You free yourself from something just enough to get a new perspective on it; in the next moment you are reabsorbed, but the velocity of your inquiry may be sufficient to fling you free of the next context (the artist as elliptical orbiter). What fascinates me is the continuum that this conception of artmaking suggests: one can be preoccupied with the moment of (partial) liberation itself (ecstatic negativity, or—does it amount to the same thing?—formalism), with the sensation of contact with a new configuration of the real (the divine), or with the critique and dissolution of the context that had seemed so unshakeable prior to your intervention (materialism). Is it possible to treat all points on this compass equally, or is it in our dispositions to prefer one or the other? There I go mapping and charting again, but it's how I make sense of what it is I seem to be about.

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