Friday, May 14, 2010

Poetry and the Challenge to the Public Sphere

A few years ago I wrote an article that said (along with some things about Surrealism and Aestheticism) that the more extravagant claims for the political power of language poetry were a bit overblown. While I heard some nice things from the comparative literature crowd, the article was greeted, quite rightly, with a shrug of indifference from langpo quarters. It hadn’t, after all, said anything about language poetry that, say Geoff Ward or Charles Altieri hadn’t said earlier and better. I suppose I expected a similar indifference to “Public Faces in Private Places,” the article I wrote about the experimental poetry associated with Cambridge. Such expectations, though, weren’t met: I’ve heard some praise, and I’ve heard some passionate blame. But I’ve also found myself accused of saying things I didn’t say. One responder (who admitted he hadn’t read the essay) told me that what I really meant was that poets have to give up on poetry entirely if they wish to be serious about politics: “you implicitly criticize poets like those of the CS [Cambridge School]” he wrote, “for their refusal to accept that the minimal condition for realizing restructured social relations is the relinquishment of poetry.” I’ve also been told that my essay “shaded … into an exercise in bureaucratic control.” On a few occasions I’ve tried in my bungling, defensive way to point out that what I wrote was that there were a few specific claims about the political power of the poetry that I found unsupportable. One of the responses I’ve had, when I took that tack, was to be told that no one actually makes any grandiose claims.

For the most part, the claims I engage in the essay have to do with the purported power of a specific kind of experimental poetry to make an impact on the public sphere. The Cambridge History of Twentieth Century Literature, for example, claims that this kind of poetry sets out to be “capable of challenging the public sphere.” And David Shepard has said that such poems “recombine a language fragmented into technical jargons,” incorporating the vocabulary of specialized discourses into the poetry and thereby “return[ing] this knowledge to the public sphere from its sequestration in the ivory tower.” N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge (whose book on J.H. Prynne's poetry is generally quite admirable, even indispensable) claim that poetry this kind “collide[s] with the powerful instrumental discourses of the culture” with the effect of “smashing them into pieces.” They also claim that, in bringing together different kinds of language and placing them in contexts not normally their own, the work “break[s] out of the institutional space allotted to poetry and literature in late-capitalist culture.”

To assess these claims about how the poetry has challenged the public sphere, I suppose it would help to have some sense of what such a challenge looks like. To begin with, then, we need to remember that the public sphere is a set of conditions for communication. It is unlike the private sphere, which is the realm of the home, or any other area where the individual enjoys a high degree of autonomy, removed from institutional authority or the pressure to conform to standards set by others (a publication here might be a post-it note you put on the fridge to remind your spouse to buy more bananas). It is also unlike the sphere of public authority, which is the realm of state power and regulations (a publication here might be an internal memo of the Internal Revenue Service). In contradistinction to these places, the public sphere is the place where we meet not as members of a family, or functionaries/beneficiaries/victims of a state, but as (in Jurgen Habermas’ phrase), “private people come together as a public.” What does this mean? It means that the public sphere is where we communicate not in any special capacity as members of a household or as officials with authority, but without respect to status (the idea of the coffeehouse is a classical one in illustrating the public sphere: we come there to talk to each other, and meet on a kind of neutral ground, where the fact that you are a Deputy Minister of Finance or Chief of Police or Associate Professor of New Media Studies doesn’t mean anything, doesn’t confer on you any special status to overrule the next guy simply by virtue of your title) (the idea of a journal open to letters from readers is another classic example). The notion at work here is that, again in Habermas’ words, “the issues discussed became ‘general’ not merely in their significance, but also in their accessibility: everyone had to be able to participate.”

One common criticism of the public sphere in some of its manifestations — and often a valid one — is that it doesn’t live up to the ideal. Many people aren’t able to communicate in the allegedly public media such as newspapers, journals of opinion, radio, television, what have you (the internet’s impact of the public sphere is still being sorted out. I know a guy who’s job it is to be on top of this, and he’s perpetually frazzled by the enormity of the task). Certain opinions are shut out, and at times whole classes of people are silenced. Sometimes specialized knowledge becomes inaccessible, and this too can be a problem for the public sphere. And authority of various sorts (“I’m an expert, and you’re not”) can distort the ideal of equal participation, as can the power of money to trumpet some views over others. There are, in short, plenty of reasons to challenge the way the public sphere is organized in any particular place and time.

So challenges to the public sphere are important. But what do they look like? Well, they have to threaten to change the existing network for the public expression of ideas, opinion, and information. The first example that comes to mind is one cited by the historian J.H. Plumb, when he wrote about the organization of radical political opinion in England during the period between the American Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. He begins by discussing Edmund Burke’s anti-revolutionary writings and the exclusion of radical writing from the established channels of communication, and goes on to describe the enormous effort that went into challenging the (at this point restrictive and reactionary) public sphere:

In some ways Burke himself was largely responsible for the growth of these radical clubs. Thomas Paine, an active and violent supporter of America Independence, had replied to Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France in his Rights of Man, in which he had proclaimed the necessity for universal sufferage and the sovereignty of the people. He denounced monarchy and aristocracy as useless archaisms. His book was immensely popular. It was welcomed by the Society of Constitutional Information, formed in 1780 by earlier radicals to further the cause of Parliamentary Reform; and in 1792 almost every town in England and Scotland had a club for Constitutional Information or its Society of Friends of the People. Most of their members were drawn from the working or lower middle classes, with a sprinkling of educated, professional men. The general aims of these societies seem to have been twofold: to spread Paine's ideas by reading his works, and to impress the government with the strength of public opinion favorable to France. At the same time they kept up an adulatory correspondence with the National Assembly in France and with various Jacobin clubs. This movement was given a clear organization by the formation of the London Corresponding Society, which, under the energetic leadership of Thomas Hardy [no, not that Thomas Hardy — (Archambeau)], a working man, acted as leader for the provincial societies. Two general Conventions were held at Edinburgh and at the second, in 1793, the British Convention of Delegates of the People, a number of emergency resolutions were passed which provided for secret leadership and meetings in case the government took repressive action. A revolutionary organization was in the making and the government took steps to thwart it.

So that’s what it takes to challenge the public sphere — you make possible new channels of communication for a broad public; you make public, and not just to a handful of people, ideas and information not otherwise available; and most importantly you include otherwise silenced classes of people in public discussion. Many people’s life-works went into the effort described by Plumb, but it was a real challenge to the existing public sphere at the time. The proof that it was a real challenge, of course, is that it incurred real repression. We’re not talking about snide dismissiveness, we’re talking about state power, violence, prison, and the like. I mean, in one sense a challenge is easy to make. I can say “I challenge Mike Tyson to a fight” right here. But a real challenge is one that is heard as a challenge, and met as a challenge (and Mike Tyson’s not reading this blog. Even if he did, he wouldn’t experience my “challenge” as a challenge). A challenge to the public sphere is, to quote an American politician of no small repute, “a big fucking deal,” and it doesn’t come about that often.

As for the claim that the British experimental poetry associated with Cambridge has “challenged the public sphere” — well, I’m not convinced it has, not if what we mean by the public sphere is anything like what Habermas meant. Which is not to say anything more than that. To say this doesn’t imply that poets should give up on poetry as the minimum condition for being political (Tom Paine, the heroic challenger of the public sphere Plumb cites, wrote poetry — some people still read his poem “Liberty Tree”). Nor does pointing out the over-grand nature of these particular claims imply that poetry should submit to bureaucratic control (I'm not even sure what that would look like). Nor does it mean that there’s no politics to poetry. But it does mean that the effects of British experimental poetry on the public sphere have, in these particular instances, been overstated. The public sphere in Britain continues much as it would have otherwise, and I don’t think it is aware of any threat from the vicinity of, say, J.H. Prynne. (Note that Prynne hasn’t made any claim to such transforming power, just some of his more zealous advocates, as quoted above).

I should say that I do think that the way much of this poetry has been distributed and read has often occurred at an interesting angle to the public sphere. For decades, Prynne and those associated with him often published in the kind of micro-press world that’s familiar to many poets: self-publishing, free distribution to a small network of those who are interested, tiny journals, etc. This seems to me less like a challenge to the public sphere than a withdrawal from it into something that sits somewhere between the private sphere of family and friends and the public sphere. But an alternative — a good thing in itself — isn’t the same thing as a challenge. (It is also, I might add, exactly “the institutional space allotted to poetry and literature in late-capitalist culture,” not a breaking out of that space, as Kerridge and Reeve maintain).

Anyway, what struck me, and what gave my essay its title, was the strong public-spiritedness of the poetry, combined with the non-public-sphere methods of distribution it had for many years. It called to mind Auden’s phrase about “public faces in private places” being “wiser and nicer than private faces in public places.” I don’t think of this as hypocrisy, or in any way negative. I did, and do, think it is different from a returning of knowledge to the public sphere, or a challenge to the public sphere. If you think that's an obvious point, so do I.


In unrelated news, Marcela Sulak (whose new book, Immigrant is out), recently arrived in Tel Aviv from Washington, D.C. and points west, and has started "Writing from Israel", her new blog on poetry and other things.


  1. While I understand that you disagree with my criticism of your response to Andrea, Bob, it amazes me that you have now misstated that criticism both times that you have tried to summarize it. For the record (and for the last time), I in no way argued that “what [you] really meant was that poets have to give up on poetry entirely if they wish to be serious about politics.” Anyone who is interested in what I said can read it here.

    Two things more: first, as I have said repeatedly, my response to you followed from what you wrote in CLR, your blog, and your comments at DE. I will have to read the essay in question to know what else to say about the particular claims you’re talking about in Intimate Exposure.

    Finally, as a side note, I think it is (at the least) very disputable whether your description of the public sphere is accurate, even on Habermasian grounds. It is far from the whole story to say that the public sphere is “unlike the private sphere, which is the realm of the home, or any other area where the individual enjoys a high degree of autonomy, removed from institutional authority or the pressure to conform to standards set by others… In contradistinction to these places, the public sphere is the place where we meet not as members of a family…” As Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and others have shown, Habermas actually relies on the home and the bourgeois family in order to theorize the emergence of the public sphere as distinct from the state and the church. There is, as Dillon says, “a recursive loop between privacy and publicity in which the intimate sphere ‘prequalifies’ certain subjects for participation in the political public sphere, and in which the public sphere in turn produces the very privacy understood as the predicate of public sphere participation. The public sphere produces privacy insofar as it looks to the intimate sphere as both origin and end of freedom…” (The Gender of Freedom 35). Moreover, it might not be a bad idea to think about these questions in relation to those who have theorized counterpublics and/or the limits of publicity. Michael Warner and Jodi Dean, among many others, come to mind.

  2. Robert - what I wrote was

    "It shaded, for me, into an exercise in bureaucratic control: get real, stop making these absurd claims, behave like a responsible C21 poetic citizen."

    Which, subjectively of course!, it does.

    Still, isn't there something erm shading into the bureaucratic about your demarcation of private & public spaces?

    "To begin with, then, we need to remember that the public sphere is a set of conditions for communication. It is unlike the private sphere, which is the realm of the home, or any other area where the individual enjoys a high degree of autonomy, removed from institutional authority or the pressure to conform to standards set by others."

    " 'We' need to remember ...." Oh, OK. We'll make a note.

    "removed from institutional authority or the pressure to conform to standards set by others."

    Is there really a "private sphere" that works like that? I'd suggest that marking the boundaries is a strongly political act: you can be public here, private there, but don't get the two mixed up.

    "No pressure to conform to standards set by others." Really? I think that's extraordinary. No pressure to conform in, say, "the home"?

    On the other hand there's "a kind of neutral ground, where the fact that you are a Deputy Minister of Finance or Chief of Police or Associate Professor of New Media Studies doesn’t mean anything."

    The Chief of Police would just chill out & stop being the Chief of Police?

    All the best,

    Simon (not the e-mailing one who hadn't read your article!)

  3. Hey Simon,

    The definition of the public sphere (and its others) is a pretty standard one from Habermas, not mine alone. As I said, the most common criticism is that actual manifestations don't live up to the idea. You are not alone in taking issue with it (I believe I made a note on some of the reasons for finding Habermasian public sphere ideas problematic).

    I understand that you felt my essay shaded over into some kind of call for bureaucratic control. To be honest, I don't think that there's much in the essay, if anything, to base that on. Of course you felt what you felt, but perhaps the reaction says more about you and those concerns that animate you than it says about the essay. If you want to show me that there's something in the essay that calls for the bureaucratic control of poetry, I'm open to seeing it. I certainly don't think of myself as calling for such control.


  4. Hey Boyd,

    I think we disagree about a number of things (such as what I meant, and what you meant), which is okay by me.

    As for counter-public sphere theory, I have thought about it a bit. In fact, I was jawboning about it with the frazzled media theorist I mentioned not long ago. I imagine the kind of discursive space carved out by micro-presses and the like is likely to fall within some definitions of the counter-public sphere. But this is different from challenging the public sphere: it is moving elsewhere. So: yeah. I think the counter-public sphere is a better way of describing things than the idea of challenging the public sphere. So you're on to something there.


  5. Oh! And I should add, Boyd, that the criticism Elizabeth Maddock Dillon makes of the public sphere seems to me entirely right. I was hoping to gesture toward this sort of thing in the paragraph about reasons to be critical of the public sphere.

  6. Finally, Boyd, if you can show me where I say one must give up poetry to be political, I'd appreciate it, because it is certainly nothing I believe, and I'd hope not to have said it. The closest thing I can find in the response to Brady to such a position is the quote from Reginald Shepherd, who didn't suggest (in his words or actions) that one had to stop writing poems to be political. He did say "those who wish to change society might better turn their energies toward society itself," which I take to be a statement to the effect that if one's main goal is to change the world, poetry wasn't the best way to do it, which does not imply anything like stopping writing poems (consider the Tom Paine example). Shepherd does describe Oppen's temporary hiatus from poetry, but this is not held up as the only way to operate. Maybe we disagree here, and read Reginald's paragraph differently. I take it as a statement on the limits of how much poetry can accomplish politically compared to other forms of intervention in the world, not as a statement about how one must stop writing poems if one wants to be political. Reginald's career (writing poems up to the end of his life, and being incisive about politics) argues against the latter interpretation.

    I suppose we've both reached a point where we're sensitive about feeling misrepresented.

  7. Robert

    "I take it as a statement on the limits of how much poetry can accomplish politically compared to other forms of intervention in the world ...."

    Even if you are 'right' about the limits of what poetry can achieve in the world, why so important to insist upon it? Or to quarantine poetry in this way?

    Why can't poetry be part of a series of actions, interventions?
    Or does poetry belong in a different "sphere" to a demonstration or an occupation or a political campaign?

    What is poetry's proper sphere? (As I said in a response to an earlier post, poetry is rich with visionary claims, proclamations. What's useful about continually decrying them?) You seem, somehow, to be obsessed with limiting poetry. As if it's somehow not quite decent to claim the wrong things for poetry.


  8. Hey hey Simon,

    I do not think it is wrong to point out in an essay the inaccuracies of claims in other essays.I don't see it as objectionable to do so. Nor is it the main thrust of the essay -- it's just the part by which some people have been bothered.

    One might ask not just why I would point to the falseness of these claims, but why some people have made such large claims for poetry in the first place. I assume their motives are good.

    As for being obsessed with limiting poetry: well, no. I've written quite a bit in the last few years. Small parts of two of my essays claim that some poetry doesn't accomplish what some people say it does. I've been more obsessed with a number of other things (the history of the idea of the aesthetic, Belgian Surrealism, John Matthias' poetry, the career trajectories of a generation of poets who came of age together at Stanford, any number of things).

    Nor do I try to say anything about how poets shouldn't try to accomplish anything.

    If you're looking to argue against someone who thinks poetry should be limited, you'll have to find someone else: I fear I am inadequate to your needs.


  9. It is no exaggeration to say that we disagree about a number of things, Bob. (Even so, as I stated earlier, we do agree that poetry is a weak means of being politically effective. And perhaps we do agree that the claims you confront in the essay are misguided. I’ll find out when I read it. Nothing I’ve said was meant as a statement on your essay one way or another.)

    There is absolutely no need for me to show you where “[you] say one must give up poetry to be political” because that is not my argument. The quote of mine that you pull (which leaves out half my point anyway) says exactly no such thing. The “relinquishment of poetry” which serves as “the minimal condition for realizing restructured social relations” in my quote coincides with poetry’s distance from ideology, which is one of the poles that I suggest you oscillate between without explicitly claiming. It is possible, in other words, to believe, as Reginald did, that poetry’s human (and even, on its own terms, political) potential is identical with its distance from ideology without that distance’s being in any way coterminous with the critique of or struggle against ideology and the instituted order that perpetuates capitalist relations. Your summary of my position merely repeats the mistake of your distinction (which confounds on one hand what it distinguishes on the other) “between existing around others, or expressing/embodying/sharing a position about existing around others…and making…a significant intervention in the field of power.” You’re not really following my claims, which is not surprising, since you and I obviously disagree radically even about how to interpret Reginald’s stance on the relationship between poetry and politics. (I think the take that J provides of Reginald’s position at DE is correct, and you, clearly, don’t.) I don’t have anything else to add, and, while I look forward to reading your essay, I feel no responsibility to try to convince you in these comment boxes of a position that has been apparent and that, from your point of view, exists not at all.

  10. This is all very interesting. I've spent quite a lot of time over the last few years researching poetry in public spaces. Michael Warner in Public and Counterpublics proposes a useful--and more up-to-date--reading of the public sphere than the usual Habermas reading. Warner situates the conversation within contexts of circulation--which I find interesting--though he privileges texts as opposed to other types of symbolic acts. And he largely dismisses lyric poetry as a private voice overheard. The topic of poetry is essentially private, even when received in public space. My interest now is in how the Internet has drastically increased circulations of all kinds and in different ways. A recent book might be of interest (and I have a chapter in it co-written with UT communication prof Josh Gunn). It's called Public Modalities: Rhetoric, Culture, Media and the Shape of Public Space (Tuscaloosa: U Alabama, 2010). Boyd's new magazine also has good words on this topic. I'll cite it over at possum ego sometime this weekend.

  11. Hey Boyd,

    We may have to come down to each believing that the other misunderstands us. You did say I made two criticisms of the CS (to use your shorthand). I haven't talked about the first, because it seems to me an accurate portray of what I tried to do.

    Here they are:

    1. "you to criticize (rightly or wrongly) claims that celebrate the political achievements poetry has already made"

    I think you're right about that. (Is this the other half of the two-part point you mention? It seems to me that it is).

    2. "at the same time that you implicitly criticize poets like those of the CS for their refusal to accept that the minimal condition for realizing restructured social relations is the relinquishment of poetry"

    I don't think I do this. I don't think I criticize anyone, implicitly or otherwise, for refusing to think that one must give up poetry to restructure social relations. If I do this, I'd like to see where, so that I can amend it for the next appearance of the essay as part of a chapter of a book I'm working on.

    Clearly we understand the issue differently. I hope we do so with no animus.



  12. Thanks, Dale. And I'm sure your right about the significance of contexts of circulation -- it seems to me something we in English departments don't study enough, for all our talk of moving beyond formalism and the text.



  13. Bob, the missing half is indeed the one you cite.

    My point about relinquishment, which you are clearly caught up on, is not obscure. I don’t mean, as I keep repeating, that you’re saying poets like those of the CS should give up poetry—as though I’m suggesting that you’re arguing that, say, Andrea Brady should stop writing poems (or political poems). I mean, as I said at DE, that “you neutralized the claims of some poets by oscillating between criticism of their particular claims and criticism of their refusal to recognize poetry’s distance from ideology.” The point is this: if you believe that there is distance between poetry and ideology and if that distance is meant in no way whatsoever to participate in a critique of or struggle against social relations, then it follows that the minimal condition for realizing restructured social relations—which minimal condition would also be impossible to distinguish from its conflict with ideology—is the relinquishment of poetry (even if you kept poetry around for other things, like its potential for preserving human freedom or whatever).

    I am suggesting that that position is precisely one Reginald held (see the full post that you partially cite in your CLR letter, for instance, where RS criticizes Jameson for believing that “art is useful as a mode of oppositionality, social struggle conducted by other means… the drive to make poetry ‘relevant,’” RS says “is a concession or a surrender to instrumental values, to the imperative of use and functionality: poetry had better be good for something.”) And I am suggesting that that position is precisely one pole between which your claims (at least the ones I’ve read) oscillate. Obviously it doesn’t matter what evidence I provide for the latter suggestion if you already disagree with me about the former.

    No animus. Best, B

  14. Ah. I think what we have had, then, is a different understanding of what the word "relinquish" means. I'd been thinking of it as "renounce" (one of the synonyms) or "to desist from" (in my dictionary's definition of the term) which would preclude the "even if you kept poetry around for other things" part of your point. But clearly that's not what you were after, exactly. So. There we are. Much ado about semantics!


  15. No, relinquish as in to abandon or leave behind—at least for the purpose of realizing restructured social relations. Of course, for Reginald (as I read him), the condition for social transformation could never oppose or even threaten poetry anyway, since poetry enjoys an “independent existence…that…has no place in our culture…[I]ts uselessness marks out a space not colonized by or valued by capital.”

  16. I can see how your sentence can be read either way. I think that accounts for all our mudslinging. So: we're more on the same page than we'd thought.