Critical Situations

Just a not-so-brief (& probably wayward) response to Joseph's recent post from Vietnam (Situations). His travel report seems like a parable of the relation between poetry and its social/ethical ground. And as such, it is relevant to Michael Theune's latest post on the ethic of the middle.

Joseph paints a picture of the tentativeness of the stranger in a foreign place - the heightened awareness of the role of social forms, the mutual process of recognitions and mis-recognitions - the sort of happy/tense apprehensions of both traveler & host. & then he recognizes this as an experience of the context which saturates & informs art and poetry. Poetry's "forms" (stylizations) can be seen as isomorphs of social customs.

There's an implied warning here, about an over-emphasis on novelty for its own sake. The exaggerated focus on technical innovation obscures the context of complex social forms already in play. It sets art off in a world of its own, of merely technical specialization & sophistication.

One can imagine the experimentalist's retort : social context is the very ground and motive for our innovations! We're doing it to fight the oppressive boredom of conventional art - on behalf of social and artistic freedom!

Recently I've been trudging my way slowly through a monograph by British thinker Gillian Rose, on the 19th-cent. German philosopher G.F. Hegel (Hegel contra Sociology). Very rough sailing. But I think I understand some of the very basic aspects of Hegel's Aesthetics. Hegel's "severe", critical philosophy of history is built on notions of human alienation from, & mis-recognition of, a true comprehension of "absolute Spirit" (the source of creation & history), and the ethical bases of (ideal, normative) human mutuality and freedom. (Writing in Prussia, around 1800, his universal history appears to give little weight to the new democracy rising across the Atlantic.)

What does this have to do with our "situation"? As philosopher, Hegel stakes out a perspective somewhat outside (& critical of) the sphere of art & poetry itself. Artistic forms are "epiphenomena" (my quotes) determined by more general & basic social formations, undergoing the historical process of realization and self-recognition. (One can see why Marx took Hegel as his theoretical template.)

For Hegel, there are only 2 types of art : "classic" and "romantic" (not to be confused with "romanticism"). His "classic" art is equated with ancient Greek epic and tragedy. The art is rooted in the self-reliant, organic freedom of Greek democracy : law, culture and art are one whole (as opposed to both Oriental & Roman societies, where law is allied with dominating administrative power). Neither politics nor religion are alienated from this self-determining community. And Greek art expresses this cultural context : "beauty has for its inner meaning the free independent meaning, not a meaning of this or that but what means itself and therefore signifies itself [my italics]." According to G. Rose : "The classical form of art is a unity of meaning and configuration [ie., content & form]. Meaning and configuration are distinct but not separate; configuration does not re-present meaning but presents it." Rose relates Hegel's example of Greek tragedy, in which real ethical conflicts (between the authority of family vs. community - ie. Antigone, or the Oresteia) - recognized by the whole community - are ritually & dramatically - & severely, simply - presented in the theatre.

Hegel does not merely idealize Greek art & culture. He describes the role of slavery & violence in creating the Greeks' "concrete" forms of democracy. But the "classic" offers a kind of template for integral, "non-alienated" art : art which presents a unity of "meaning & configuration".

In later historical eras, art & poetry reveal themselves to be a sort of index of the distortions of freedom present in society at large. "Romantic" art - emerging from societies in which both religion and the state have been removed from free consciousness & self-determination, and turned into forms of illusion & oppression - becomes strictly sidelined, irrelevant to the inner workings of those societies (except as further forms of illusion). They become "subjective" : mirroring the private concerns of deracinated individual "subjects", or representing art's own processes in a solipsistic hall of mirrors. For Hegel, "romantic" art has lost touch with both reality and beauty : strictly speaking (in his terms), it is no longer art at all.

Clearly this is a grim & "severe" perspective indeed. On behalf of a supreme abstraction of historical world-process, Hegel slights the (partial) ethical integrations of both the medieval & modern eras, and characterizes them as a wilderness of error (a learning-process, nevertheless, for the historical World-Spirit). Greek art is idealized, while contemporary democratic culture & its arts are outside the analysis. The individual is described as "subject" to the inescapable illusions of larger, determining historical forces...

So what does this have to do with us? Hegel's underlying argument - that art is a reflection of the social forms (& inhumanities, injustices) of the culture from which it emerges - applies a critical lens to contemporary debates about the role of poetry & its style. & his characterization of the "classic" - as a harmony of "meaning" and "configuration" - parallels the Plumbline notion of the norm or the middle. We are circling around this recurring concept of the dual aesthetic/ethical "golden mean".

Of course, some strains of sophisticated contemporary poetry incorporate social theory into their stylistic forms & processes. Postmodern, NY School, "Language", elliptical, "investigative"... all of these styles offer some self-conscious critiques of poetry & art themselves. Various more-populist styles also offer examples of both social and artistic protest. Does this mean, by evoking an admittedly very primitive notion of Hegelian social critique, we are offering here merely an amateurish and anachronistic re-delving of an over-worked ground?

Possibly, I don't know... but in response, I would suggest the following :

1) The ancient, vernacular forms & customs of both poetry and culture-at-large tend to be very hardy & long-lasting. The forms are (sometimes, as Joseph suggests) tools for consciousness - which outlast or partially repeal the deformations of oppressive social structures.

2) Hegel's template of the "classic" (as a harmony of meaning and configuration, or theme and form) is only possible where art is simultaneously free & contextualized : both aesthetically integral & socially engaged. Art, on the other hand, which depends on theory - which reflects a critique which negates art's independent validity - seems to be ultimately self-cancelling. It fulfills its own prophecy.


Joseph Hutchison said...

"Hegel's underlying argument - that art is a reflection of the social forms of the culture from which it emerges...."

It seems to me that Hegel is clearly right, but "social forms" are not "social norms." Isn't the NY School but one American social form? The same with Beat writing, Language, etc. The problem with trying to define a norm or a "middle" is that each of us views poetry from within our social form. Can any one of us presume to know what "the golden mean" is?

Joseph Duemer said...

Joseph, sitting in the coffee shop here in HCMC this morning, I would conjecture that while we may not be able to pin down the golden mean exactly (it's a moving target), we can make pragmatic judgments about its general location. We can triangulate on the stars to discover its (and out) general location.

I'd like to say more about this (and will), but as I say I'm in a coffee shop on Pho Nguyen Trai this morning.

Henry Gould said...

Joseph H., good point - & far be it from me to try to regulate or standardize variety. But I'm thinking a lot lately about architecture.

Imagine the analogy to poetry of an architectural competition for a public building or monument. An enormous variety of wonderful designs come in - all of them having their strong points. But the judges have to choose the ONE design that seems to offer the most fitting, appropriate, & beautiful solution to the "problem" at hand. For the architect, this involves applying vision, materials, & technique to a particular place and occasion and purpose.

Now imagine poetry in a similar context. There are infinite possibilities. But what we are engaged with has to do with evaluating how well the poet unites materials, medium, theme, and form. The work itself may not foreground some midpoint or "golden mean" in any obvious way. But we - in our role as critics & theorists here - are applying the "mean" as a kind of "heuristic" tool in order to (possibly) bring some of these values into play.

Joseph Hutchison said...

I see what you both mean and might even take up the cudgel against my own argument if push came to shove. I still wonder from what vantage point we can legitimately identify the "golden mean," and then what the aim is in doing so. If we're being descriptive, OK; if we being prescriptive or attempting to make a claim for validity or value based on proximity to the mean, I'd have to say no—or at best "well, maybe."

I like your analogy with public art, Henry, in part because it partly makes my point. A key element in winning a public art commission is public acceptability. I don't know whether such acceptability makes for great architecture or great poetry. I tend to share the view implicit in James's post today over at ursprache, because I worry about the "golden mean" being mistaken for a measure of ultimate value.

Joseph Duemer said...

That I cannot make universal claims to knowledge or value does not, I think, prevent me from making useful, pragmatic, and local judgements of value that are relatively stable. To extend Henry's analogy: The public library built in the 19th century served well for a long time, even if it needs to be upgraded or reinvented for the 21st century. But its function as a library still needs to be met.

I'm certainly not suggesting any universal golden mean -- I can't even imagine what such a thing would be -- but I think that within any particular local system of judgment that one might prefer the meaningful middle to the extenuated extremes.

Henry Gould said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Henry Gould said...

Joseph H., I think the trouble with reducing the architecture competition analogy to "acceptance", is that it projects the issue of taste and value away from ourselves and onto an undefined "public".

In the case of poetry, we ourselves are the judges and the public. The analogy was meant to emphasize a quality of objectivity in the finished poem. The poem, like the building or monument, addresses a particular situation & setting. There are many potential approaches to that situation. One way to evaluate the relative effectiveness of those various artistic "solutions" (or works of art) is to see how they balance their materials with their means and ends (or arguments, or themes).

This balance - or fusion of "meaning & configuration", to use Hegel's terms - can be considered an expression of PROPORTION (of which the "golden mean" is a familiar symbol).

As Joseph D. suggests, it would be impossible to apply the "golden mean" like a measuring tape to make prescriptive judgements of good or bad poems. Meaning & configuration are not separable "things" in an artwork : they are analytic distinctions WE make about an integral art-object which has fused them together. Such fusions are inherently surprising, original & unique. It is their very fusion, or "conjunction of opposites", which creates a kind of magnetism which draws our attention.

This, by the way, is a partial explanation for Aristotle's empirical method : you can't apply an a priori set of values (form/content) to a work of art : you can only discover them LATER, in the work's original configuration of same. This approach lends itself to descriptive, not prescriptive judgements.

Joseph Hutchison said...

Thanks for the clarification, Henry. As you describe, I think I'm on board!

Henry Gould said...

Glad it makes some sense, Joseph. I know there are still some ambiguities there. The proof is in the whatchamicallit - as in Mairi's review of "Life Under Water" :