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.