Thursday, May 25, 2006

For Whom and To Whom: Poetics of National Identity -- Or: What We Talked About in Hyde Park

What's that you say? You couldn't make it to the symposium on my "The Poet as American in the Age of Identity Politics" paper at the University of Chicago, and you're going to hold your breath until I tell you all about what happened? Really? Get outta here. No, really? Well, if you insist. It went something like this:

I took the train down to Hyde Park early, to lurk in the wonderfully comprehensive and architecturally ghastly Regenstein library and scoop up a few books and articles on Swinburne (don't ask -- that's a whole different project). After a few hours of late-Victorian poetry and poetics and some serious caffination, I legged it over to Rosenwald hall, where Lee Glidewell took me up to the seminar room. The event, he explained, would be sort of like a creative writing workshop, only it would be my critical writing under discussion. And so it was -- their exagmination round my fructification, to wax Joycean about it (though I should probably be waxing Poundian, as I spent the whole ninety minutes with a larger-than-life bust of Ezra Pound looking on from just behind my right shoulder).

I'd sent about 40 pages on the cultural situation and critical reception of Robert Pinsky's An Explanation of America to the participants about a week earlier, in which I'd argued something like this:

1. The movement toward identity politics in the 1970s was coincident with (and to a degree causal of) the development of various kinds of identity-poetics movements, in which editors, publishers, critics, poets, and readers established new poetries and new communities for poetry based on various previously disempowered identity affiliations (notably in versions of gender, sexuality and race).

I don't suppose this is a particularly original or surprising point, or a controversial one, but I could be wrong about the latter. One thing the blogosphere has taught me is that everything is controversial to someone, and that the someone in question can find my email address faster than his or her blood pressure can return to normal. But I digress.

2. This development did a number on those white heterosexual male poets who weren't so complacent as to be unable to really register what was going on. For such poets, certain questions came to the fore in ways they had not done before the rise of identity politics. "To whom do I speak?" was one such question. "For whom do I speak?" was another.

There were all kinds of fascinating developments here. In my paper I mentioned two of them, both examined by Peter Middleton in his whip-smart essay "1973," which you can find in Mechanics of the Mirage. Middleton maintains that the decline of Robert Lowell had a lot to do with his inability to navigate a discursive environment in which it was no longer easy for a white male member of the American ruling class to assume he spoke for, and to, the nation. Middleton also maintains that Language Poetry, with its examination of the means of communication and the creation of reading publics, came about in no small measure due to the shattering of assumptions about audiences by 70s identity politics. (Oren Izenberg, one of the profs at the seminar, disagreed with Middleton about both of these theses, especially the Lowell thesis. I'd like to hear more from him in this regard sometime).

One idea I've been toying with, but didn't mention in the material I sent to the symposium, is that some of the signature stylisitic devices of the New York School poets of the seventies could be explained with reference to identity politics' disruption of the poetic field in the seventies. The New York School conflation of public and private spheres, for example, could be seen as a very productive attempt to answer the question of who one speaks to/for, by reconfiguring the public sphere as the local scene (of course the second law of social science would apply to this, that law being "it's more complicated than you think, bub"). But I digress.

3. Robert Pinsky offers a response to the discursive situation wrought by identity politics in many poems, most notably the book-length An Explanation of America. Here, he defines American identity in a way that isn't too rigidly essentialist. In fact, he defines it as something that looks very much like the self of modernity as defined by Jonathan Freidman in his “Cultural Logics of the Global System” (Theory, Culture and Society 5, 1988: 447-60).

For those of you who haven't yet committed the late-80s issues of Theory, Culture and Society to memory (that is, everyone except for Joshua Clover), Friedman's piece says something like this: there are four fundamental orientations toward subjectivity possible under the current system of global capitalism. I'm too lazy to type them out this afternoon, so here's a chunk of the paper I gave -- a bit longwinded, but what the hell:

What is this idea of a ‘self of modernity’ that informs Pinsky’s work? We can come to an understanding of it best through the cultural anthropology of Jonathan Friedman. In Friedman’s model of cultural logic, there are four kinds of selves: the selves of modernity, primitivism, tradition, and postmodernity. The self of modernity is a self addicted to the idea of more, and cannot allow itself a moment of restful wholeness. It is self as bildung, self as continuous accumulation of all things: wealth, knowledge, experience, what have you. It is, in Friedman’s words, “an identity without fixed content other than the capacity to develop itself, movement and growth as a principle of selfhood.” .... It is a notion of self necessarily opposed to the primitive, which Friedman defines as the kingdom of infantile desire. Primitivism “harbors all that is uncontrolled: the confusion of eating, sexuality, aggression and pleasure…but also the impulsive and compulsively superstitious relation to reality; [and] religious fetishism…” .... Traditionalism, which the self of modernity also disowns, consists of a culture that is “defined as a system of rules and etiquette pegged to a totalistic cosmology that provides an ultimate meaning to existence” and defines humanity’s “place in the universe as well as the significance of all activities.” .... The self of modernity must also reject postmodernity which, in Friedman’s definition, consists of a kind of return of both the primitivism and the traditionalism repressed by modernity. This celebration of primitivism in this sort of postmodernism involves “the confusion of the sexes, the liberation of infantile desire and its capacity for merging with the other, the expression of immediate feeling.” ....

While the self of modernity is also “the dominant or ‘normal’ identity of capitalist civilization,” it is vulnerable to crises. It is a version of selfhood that “depends on expanding horizons, the possibility of individual development, mobility and liberation from the fixed and concrete structures of surviving non-capitalist forms” such as “family, community, religion.” This expansiveness, in turn, depends on an expanding modern sector of the whole global system, a growing “hegemonic center.” When the center goes into decline, modern selfhood becomes difficult to maintain, and other types of self — the primitive, the traditional, and the postmodern — rise to fill the gap. “Modernist identity,” writes Friedman, “dominates in periods of hegemonic expansion and trifurcates in periods of contraction or crisis.” The European crises of the first part of the twentieth century can, in this view, be seen as the decline of the self of modernity and the rise of traditionalism and primitivism in forms particularly virulent and deadly.

The late sixties and early seventies certainly presented a similar crisis for the self of modernity. 1968, for example, was the year of the rise of a traditionalist threat to modernity in the form of George Wallace’s populist presidential campaign, a campaign popular not only in the south, but in those areas of the rust belt where the ever-expanding economic horizons of modernity had seemed, suddenly, to contract. And examples of the self of primitivism challenging modernity in the late 1960s are legion, ranging from the Yippies hurling handfuls of dollar bills down onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (a reversal of modernity’s accumulative imperative), to Country Joe leading the crowd at Woodstock in a chant that went “Give me an F, give me a U, give me a C, give me a K, what’s that spell!” (a public unleashing of the infantile and sexual impulses sublimated by the self of modernity) (documented in Michael Wadleigh’s film Woodstock). French Prime Minister Georges Pompidou even described the student/worker uprisings in his capital as a moment in which “our civilization is being questioned — not the government, not the institutions, not even France, but the materialistic and soulless modern society.” To Pompidou this was no mere workingman’s agitation or student demonstration. It was a world-historical event, one that threatened to put an end to modernity itself...

In this contextt, Pinsky affirmed the embattled self of modernity, and makes it central to what American identity is all about. In a way, he became the consoling poet of the threatened self of modernity.

4. I put together a demonstration of this vision in Pinsky's poems, and rounded out the paper with some claims about Pinsky's rise to national prominence having a lot to do with offering this vision. And don't go doubting his prominence in the 1990s, folks. Not only was he a three-time poet laureate: he was the only living poet ever to appear as a character on The Simpsons.

So that's the gist of the essay. The assembled scholars weighed in with all kinds of good points, the highlights of which (for me) include the following:

Liesl Olson pointed out that Pinsky's emphasis on a shared national identity had its corollary in his reading style, the affect of which tends to be very regular-guy, and very oriented toward an identification with the audience, or an invitation for them to identify with him. She also pointed out that it was hard to tell if I was advocating Pinsky's view, criticizing it, or had no opinion. This last bit was particularly astute: I'd written the essay as part of a book on the last generation of Yvor Winters' students, and had tried very hard to seem disinterested for two reasons: firstly, Yvor Winters' readers tend to be very partisan, and I didn't want the book to get reduced to a footnote in the little bush war (can a bush war have footnotes?) between Winters' acolytes and his detractors; and secondly, because his students represent a range of poetries (Pinsky to John Peck), and I wanted to treat them all as social phenomena, as actions in a field of possibilities, rather than as teams for which one might root.

Robert Von Hallberg made a host of contributions, not the least of them being his recommendation of a really good soul food restaurant nearby for post-seminar hanging-out. Of more direct pertinence to Pinsky was his demonstration that Pinsky loves surprising juxtapositions for their own sake, and that my paper, if not read carefully, seemed to imply that Pinsky advocated an ironing-out of these differences that he in fact did not advocate.

In response to some comments about how Pinsky's view of American identity didn't address issues such as the redistribution of wealth (I didn't catch this guy's name), Von Hallberg pointed out that there's an interesting class angle on Pinsky, in that Pinsky has made what seems like a very deliberate decision to distance himself from the ideologies most prominent in English departments (variable forms of tenured radicalism) and affiliate himself with the kind of cultured liberalism prevalent among the American professional classes. Pinsky's move away from university presses, Von Hallberg pointed out, could be seen as part and parcel of this distancing. I was instantly convinced: Pinsky's long poem "Essay on Psychologists," for example, is in many ways a poem of affiliation with the liberal, urbane professional classes. The guy who'd grumbled about redistribution argued that Pinsky's views were determined by this class position, and Von Hallberg pointed out that it seemed quite likely that the grumbler's views had also been determined by class position. It was an interesting moment, and handled tactfully by Von Hallberg and deftly by Lee Gidewell, who chaired the discussion.

Oren Izenberg introduced another line of inquiry, in which he raised the crucial question of whether, in Pinsky's view of American identity as a matter of modernity (in Friedman's sense), one could actually go around believing what one believes. That is: if Pinsky postulates that to be American is to be an open parabola of subjectivity, always taking in and accreting new cultural influences, can he accommodate people who have particular beliefs that they don't want to see absorbed into some other tradition.

The question is important, not just for Pinsky but for navigating through a pluralistic culture: while Oren described the problem, I thought of a converation with a Muslim student here at Lake Forest College a few years ago. She was upset because the College's interfaith center, where she'd been invited to pray, had the emblems and icons of many religions on display. While she was a very broad-minded and tolerant person, she didn't want to pray in a room that represented her tradition as a part of some generalized spirituality: she wanted to pray in a space devoted to her particular tradition, in which she belived. Oren made some good points about how one accomodates such things institutionally, and raised some good questions about whether one can accommodate them in poetic enunciation.

This raised all sorts of good questions, and led me to see that I'd failed to make a crucial distinction in Pinsky's treatment of American identity: that between an idealized American Self and particular American selves. What I mean is this: in many of Pinsky's poems, the individuals he presents don't think of themselves as part of an ongoing process of cultural synthesis. They don't experience themeslves as modern selves in Friedman's sense of the word. They may even think in the sort of essentialist terms of Friedman's traditionalist selves. But despite their inability to cognize their modernity, they embody it.

I admit that the second half of that last paragraph was not my most glittering prose, so let's try an example by way of clarification. Consider "Memoir," a poem from Pinsky's book The Want Bone. Here Pinsky gives us an image of traditionalism first as a prison, then as a kind of false-consciousness for those who are actually living through a kind of modernity. The poem begins with an image of religious orthodoxy of the kind Pinsky grew up with as a version of traditionalism, defining one’s place in the cosmos and the significance of all activities. It’s rigidities are presented as confining rather than comforting:

The iron cape of the Law, the gray
Thumb of the Word:
Careless of the mere spirit, careless
Of the body…

The “sealed words” of traditional religion make an unequivocal assertion in the poem: “It was like saying: I am this, and not that.” But the absolutism and exclusivity of traditionalism are, at the end of the poem, doomed to failure, where we return to a synagogue changed beyond recognition:

The sandstone building converted now
To a Puerto Rican Baptist church,
Clerestory and minaret.
A few blocks away, an immense blue
Pagan, an ocean, muttering, swollen:
That, and not this.

Not only has traditionalism been displaced; it has been displaced by the syncretic culture of modernity, where traditions mix and accrete. The building now combines its original synagogue architecture with a Baptist service, a congregation of converted Catholics, and an Islamic minaret. The final line — “That, and not this” — undoes traditionalism’s emphasis on eternal sameness, and revels in modernity’s xenophilia. But the crucial thing is this: the people attending the church aren't going there for some kind of modern Catholic-Protestant-Jewish-Muslim fusion spirituality. They're going there for the Baptist version of traditionalism. So they falsely conceive of themselves as traditionalists, but what their actual experience, lived rather than cognized, is of the kind of accretive, syncretic, open-and-evolving modernity that Pinsky so loves and celebrates. The individual selves they experience cognitively are one thing, but the collective self they embody is another.

Dustin Simpson, a comp lit guy working on a thesis on modern French poetry, observed that time plays a crucial role here, even a redemptive one. Narrow traditionalisms melt away in the ongoing, fruitful processes of modernity. That they do so at a level beyond the consciousness of those experiencing them is interesting -- that the processes can only be seen by the poet is doubly interesting, at least for me. I mean, I'd always thought of Pinsky as a kind of modern-day Augustan poet, committed to plainspokenness, essayistic verse, and an Augustan reasonableness, all learned from Yvor Winters during Pinsky's grad school years at Stanford. But suddenly here was a Romantic Pinsky, a poet-visionary with a specially disclosed prophetic sense of the nation. I suppose I should have grasped this side of Pinsky earlier, when I read an interview in which he said he “was conscious of Whitman as he wrote every page, sometimes every line, of An Explanation of America."

The guy whose name I didn't catch (he who grumbled about Pinsky not addressing the redistribution of wealth) was a bit upset by this line of discussion. He didn't like the idea of someone proposing a telos to history, and said a few words about the "laughable" historical vision of Karl Marx. Von Hallberg countered by saying that anyone who wants to rise above the level of particular observation to speak of trends has to do something of this kind. Oren Izenberg weighed in by saying some interesting things about the limitations of any line of thought that prohibited positive affirmation or teleological assertion, causing my ears to prick up a bit. It all seemed very much like what Robert Baker had to say about the limits of language poetry in The Extravagant: Crossings of Modern Poetry and Modern Philosophy, a fascinating book of criticism that came out last year and that I'd only just got round to reading. "Have you had a look at Robert Baker's..." I began, but before I could finish, Oren gave a quick nodd, and finished for me: "The Extravagant. Right." He carried on, while I felt the warm glow of connection -- the two of us almost represented a quorum of that book's readers in the Chicago metropolitan region.

The pertinent business from Baker's book, which Izenberg used as a kind of refutation of the guy whose name I didn't catch's rejection of Pinsky, is probably best encapsulated in this passage (bear with Baker -- the quote is torn a bit roughly out of context but comes around in the end):

...the feature of this history [of modern poetry and philosophy and their critiques of instrumental reason] that I believe has been insufficiently thematized is the emergence over time of an increasing emphasis on the force of a disclosive negativity.... [M]odern poetry and philosophy ... at certain moments come to trace an indirect return to those 'de-ontologizing' discourses developed in the margins of religious orthodoxies. At any rate, many adventures in modern poetry and philosophy, in blowing open wooden conceptual idols and fixed representational schemes, begin to sound like ghostly versions of some vanished negative theology... Indeed, the languages of unmaking and undoing, of dislodging and decentering, of negativity and indeterminacy seem to have become important languages in a broad range of artistic and philosophical discussions over the last century. This is a significant long-term tendency that I would like to thematize and interrogate throughout this book in part because it is my sense that this curiously expanded reverence for the negative may have backed us into a predicament in which we devote our energy to celebrating our fear of our own constructive and transformative powers.

Baker's got a good chapter devoted to these issues, and he gives real depth to the critique of poetic indeterminacy so many people have been interested in lately.

Anyway, the pitting of Pinsky's bardic-romantic-positive-teleological vision against the sort of negative-dialectics vision of the guy-whose-name-I-did-not-catch was particularly interesting, in that it proved to be yet another iteration of a kind of class-oriented difference of opinion, pitting the professional class view (Pinsky's) against the postmodern-professorial class view.

One of Oren Izenberg's questions still haunts me from the seminar: "is Pinsky a serious poet?" He raised this in conjunction with the question of how Pinsky reconciles the syncretic, modern view of culture with the views of those who cling exclusively to particular traditions and beliefs. Inasmuch as Pinsky's poetry raises the issue (which, one could argue, is central to modern culture, from Locke to the whole interest-vs-disinterest debate of the 18th century, to postmodernism), one can at the very least say that Pinsky is a poet deeply concerned with serious things, and that he takes them up from a perspective outside those most readily celebrated in English departments.