Sunday, February 22, 2009

Beyond Margin and Center

I think it must have been the most recent issue of that bible of literary hipsterism, The Believer, that got me thinking about the strangeness of the margin-vs-center paradigm as a way of talking about poetry. I'd picked the issue up in no small measure for an interview with John Ashbery, but had been a bit flummoxed by some of the comments made in the introduction to the interview. I read, there, about how Ashbery had won just about every prize American poetry had on offer; about how he has legions of imitators; about how his social life in Manhattan involved dining out with other prominent poets, and so forth, but the introduction asserted, nevertheless, that Ashbery (who, I should add, is the only living poet to see his work published in a definitive Library of America edition) is an "outsider" in the field of poetry. If Ashbery's on the outside, I thought, we need another word for the all-but-100% of poets who are more outside than he.

Of course the label "outsider" was intended as a kind of honor. I suppose this has something to do with poetry being itself a kind of marginal art in America (compared, say, to the movies: people would be much more impressed if I had a vote on the Oscars than they are by my ability to vote for the National Book Critic's Circle Awards). There's a kind of homology of one's position within the poetic field and the position of the poetic field within the field of culture as a whole, right? I mean, if you're a central figure in a marginal art, you've somehow betrayed the art, or so the thinking goes. And if you're a marginal figure in a marginal art, you somehow embody the virtues and essence of the art. Think of punk rock, here: Green Day is a big band, and therefore suspect to many in the punk subculture, to whom their prominence and popularity as best-selling punk act is a dishonor. Whereas, say, The Minutemen, who never sold and never will sell any albums, are somehow of the essence of punk. (I'm not advocating this view: I'm just saying that I think this kind of thinking is out there, and is the probably-inevitable outcome of the kind of position both punk and poetry occupy in our culture).

Anyway. I began to wonder how we could make the paradigm for poetry subtler than a simple dichotomy of margin vs. center. The answer seemed clear enough, and it lay in the ideas of sociologist Neil McLaughlin. I ran into Neil once when he was down at Lake Forest for a conference on public intellectuals a few years ago. I didn't actually attend the conference, but when I stumbled into a local bar after a long day of jawing about Schiller and Blake, I had the good fortune to find Neil seated at a table of conference attendees and ended up hanging with the conference crowd while they drank and ate onion rings — the kind of setting where all the really good talk at a conference tends to happen anyway.

One of Neil's great contributions to the sociology of intellectuals comes in a Sociological Quarterly article called "Optimal Marginality: Innovation and Orthodoxy in Fromm's Revision of Psychoanalysis." It's a case study of Erich Fromm's strange position in the field of psychoanalysis (at the fringes of the respectable, institutionalized center, but nevertheless in a position to be taken seriously). But it also introduces a set of terms for analyzing one's position in a field of intellectual inquiry, terms which, I think, can help us expand on our tired old center/margin dichotomy. Here's the abstract of Neil's article (don't you love the way social scientists provide abstracts to their articles? I wish the practice were less sporadic in the humanities):

The sociological study of intellectual innovation has long been polarized between romantic notions of the creative marginal intellectual and competing accounts stressing the benefits of national, organizational and network centrality in the production of knowledge. I offer the concept of "optimal marginality" as an attempt to move beyond this longstanding but increasingly stale debate. The relationship between a certain type of marginality and intellectual creativity is discussed in the context of a case study on innovation within psychoanalysis. German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm's contributions to the modern revision of Freudian theory is highlighted to illustrate the conditions under which marginality is likely to lead to innovations within theoretical systems and intellectual organizations. What types of marginality lead to innovation? Under what conditions does marginality lead to insight, and when does it lead to marginal ideas? Four ideal types are outlined and a research agenda is called for that operationalizes and tests these theoretical ideas in the context of comparative sociological analysis of intellectual creativity.

This is great stuff, and really does add another dimension to the tired binary of margin and center. I mean, Neil literally adds another axis to the chart, giving us optimality and suboptimality as well as marginality and centrality. So we end up with four possible positions in a field of intellectual endeavor:

  • Optimal Marginality
  • Suboptimal Marginality
  • Optimal Centrality
  • Suboptimal Centrality

These categories have nothing to do with whether an intellectual or other positions are any good: they address questions of whether one's positions are considered prominent and legitimate by people in the field. If we need a figure who shows the marginal as more objectively valid than the central and "legitimate" set of ideas, we need only think of Galileo. He was a marginal figure in cosmology during his lifetime, forced by the central powers to recant the heretical notion of the earth going around the sun.

Here, very briefly, is a breakdown of the four positions:

Suboptimal Marginality

This is what it sounds like: a fringe intellectual position whose adherents are not well positioned to disseminate their ideas. As McLaughlin puts it:

Contrary to a recent tendency to assume that insights flow almost automatically from the borderlands, suboptimally marginal intellectuals have inadequate economic, cultural, institutional, network, and personal resources to carve out unique and powerful innovations in dialogue with centrally located intellectual traditions. Marginality can sometimes lead to sect-like behavior and increasingly bizarre ideas.

The extreme version of this, one imagines, would involve the sort of guy who lines his hat with tin foil so the gubment can't hear his thoughts, which, in all probability, consist in large measure of elaborate theories about how the nation that controls magnesium controls the world. But there are also more high-functioning groups in such positions. In poetry, I think of the Wintersians: people who adhere strictly, even cultishly, to the ideas of Yvor Winters, and who don't have access (or perhaps don't desire access) to the networks that would allow them to disseminate those ideas more broadly. (Again, this doesn't speak to whether those ideas are good or bad, merely to where and how they are received, and how far they travel). Some of the most fascinating stuff in British poetry — the Cambridge School around Jeremy Prynne — could also be seen as suboptimally marginal, even deliberately so. I mean, Prynne didn't even want his work published through the ordinary channels — there's a kind of insistence on suboptimal marginality at work. All that's started to change, I suppose, with Jacket magazine, the Bloodaxe edition of Prynne, the support of Cambridge poets by Salt Publishing, the Cambridge emphasis of Chicago Review, etc. But you get the idea, right? A group unable or unwilling to propagate its creed beyond a small, relatively unrecognized circle.

Optimal Marginality

If you occupy a position of optimal marginality, you stand outside the established institutions of a field, but you've got enough mojo, for one reason or another, to be taken seriously by what the Dude of Big Lebowski fame calls the "square community." In fact, said community is going to cherry-pick the more acceptable of your notions, and you may find that you serve as a (probably unacknowledged) conduit between the cultish suboptimal marginals (who are beyond the pale, for those in the center) and the mainstream of your field. Neil McLaughin lays it out thusly:

...optimally marginal thinkers often help transfer ideas from the creative margins to the center of intellectual and cultural institutions and traditions, creating external pressure for intellectual innovations within a tradition. Optimally marginal intellectuals have access to the creative core of an intellectual tradition, while avoiding organizational, financial, cultural or psychological dependencies that limit innovations.

So optimally marginal types aren't total outsiders: often, they've got credentials of the kind revered by the center (doctorates, say), and even though they've gone off the reservation, one kind of has to take them into account. Erich Fromm, to use McLaughlin's example from the field of psychology, wrote bestselling books and had a large popular following, so even though his ideas excluded him from the Freudian establishment, there was cause to keep an eye on him, and to hear him out. A poetic analogy, I think, would be Amiri Baraka in the 70s: after he changed his name from LeRoi Jones and ditched the downtown New York scene, he developed a following in African-American circles, among people who weren't otherwise hooked up to the literary scene. In cultivating a new kind of writing and a new kind of audience, he became someone to whom those closer to the center paid (cautious) attention. And through actions like his, identity politics moved from a marginal position to something that gets more than mere lip service from the more prominent institutions of poetry (is that about right? I think so...). Oh: Ron Silliman is the blogosphere's very own prince of optimal marginality. He's not really part of the center (no big prizes, no fancy post in academe, etc.), but the sheer number of people who stop by his site every day makes him someone with a source of clout, someone on the radar of those in positions of optimal centrality.

Optimal Centrality

Here lie the movers and shakers of the square community, the people who sit atop the most empowered institutions, the people with access to the resources to not only generate, but to propagate, ideas. As Neil puts it:

... optimal centrality .. allows access to core resources, intellectual and cultural traditions, and emotional energies while allowing freedom from cultural, intellectual, and institutional orthodoxies. Optimally central thinkers have the networks, cultural capital, institutional leverage, and personal abilities to create paradigm shifts that cannot be ignored within a tradition, discipline, or school of thought.

If you are Helen Vendler, or in a position analogous to hers, you know what it feels like to be optimally central in the field of poetry. This doesn't mean you're right or wrong — it means that you're in a position to do some thinking and to see that thinking turned into an orthodoxy, or something like it. Grad students bearing your ideas will occupy professorial, critical, and editorial positions, and people seeking prizes will do so with your taste (and the taste of your epigones) in mind.

Suboptimal Centrality

This position is a sad one, somehow. It involves those people who are attached to the central traditions and institutions of their field, but aren't empowered within those traditions and institutions. McLaughlin describes this crowd thusly:

Intellectuals, scholars, or cultural producers in a space of suboptimal centrality are stifled by the norms, institutional pressures, and privileges rooted in their relationships to core societal and organizational structures and personal opportunities.

I mean, think of it: here are the guys who want, or need, to get published, and end up stifling whatever wild-ass ideas they may have had in order to produce something that they think will meet with the norms of the prominent journals. Or they write what they think their profs will like, what they think will get them the residency prize or the teaching gig, or the published book. This can be a conscious self-limitation or an unconscious one, but it's real enough. Top dogs have a freedom to generate new ideas, or to import them from the margins, but these poor saps (the judgment is mine, not Neil's — he's a social scientist, and above crude judgmentalism) are convinced they have to play by the rules. Oh, the humanity!

McLaughlin's article calls for a series of case studies examining how ideas move from the margin to the center of a field, and I think we could do worse, in thinking about poetry, than to follow his model. I like to think it would be a fruitful thing to do: if nothing else, it would give me a great justification for having elbowed my way into a crowd of hard-drinking sociologists.