“I FEEL FOR YOU”: MOVING THROUGH POETRY’S AESTHETIC DILEMMA
By T.C. Marshall
“I feel for you.” We say it all the time, and know what we mean. When poetry says it, as it does in some way in nearly every poem whether avant-garde or old hat, it means “sympathy” and something much more complex. Poetry’s aesthetic power presumes to be able to feel for us, guiding us into more feelings and perceptions. It works on the basis of the poet’s own perceptions, whether they be about capitalism or flowers or the workings of language itself. This is the basis of aisthesis that we have given to the arts in our society. That old Greek term for “feeling-perception” has ruled our arts for so long we’ve “got to callin’ it home.” It may be time now to call it “burnt out.”
A recent blurb for a book recommended by SPD shows that the language of feelings is still predominant in our field: this book is said to “put 27,000 rays of light into your body and then take you through the ‘sads’,” while it takes you on “an exploration of love—in its many incarnations—in a world of violence, distraction and inevitable disappointment.” This kind of aesthetic praise is applied even to works said to be advancing our art beyond old ways. So far, though, we are advancing without advancing our critical vocabulary much beyond the aesthetic. We need to get a grip on what we’re doing, so we are looking for concepts that might help.
There are a few key writers who are opening pathways to a fresh approach. French philosopher Jacques Rancière has put a historical framework on the progression of the focusing modes employed by the arts through the ages, from poiesis to mimesis to the current aisthesis. Poetry exemplifies this quite well, but any of the arts can show how we have moved through and accumulated techniques from those three basic modes: the iconic, the dramatic, and the aesthetic. These core three include naming and image-making power, the force of dramatic action imitated from the world or from imagination, and personal feeling-perceptions being given form. Whether we are reading a Rothenberg anthology and admiring Native American naming songs collected by Frances Densmore or following Keats “Lamia” or Rukeyser’s report of the library fire, we participate in one or more of these approaches and absorb the insights in the words. As we participate in reading, we sense what the Ojibwa poet saw in the white-tailed deer, we sympathize with the lamia in imagination, and we get the great effect of the burning building on anyone who knows and loves the city and its art. Each of these poetic stances works with the others to shape further feeling perceptions. We have grown in our art as we have developed writing and reading techniques to allow perceptions to do their job in different ways.
The challenge today, though, is to move beyond these modes in the direction of something new that poetry and other arts have been developing. It appears throughout collections of recent performance and installation art like that anthologized by Anthony Downey. The roots of that work go back to dada and cinema and what Downey calls “changes to both subject matter and forms of engagement” in our increasingly politicized times (10). For at least a century, thinkers and writers have been questioning the possibilities of the aesthetic approach and framework. Terry Eagleton has written a study focused on the way that the aesthetic is linked to bourgeois ideology. For those who wish to move beyond the bourgeois form of society or to describe how society is already doing so, a new concept of art is needed. There are those, like Bifo Berardi and Rancière himself, who wish to use the concept and terms of the aesthetic to indicate and energize the way forward. This is partly because we have let the term “aesthetic” come to represent all of art’s efforts. The historicization provided by Eagleton and Rancière, however, indicates how aisthesis was moved into position by the rising bourgeoisie to meet certain ideological needs. Just as aesthetics arose “naturally” from poiesis and mimesis with the addition of a new focus, something new is now arising from the self-limitations of the aesthetic as we increasingly feel the need to critique bourgeois ideology. That personal focus on feeling-perceptions once affirmed the social power of individual insights; these were to be gained from properly aligning one’s energies and attention with the hegemony or with “the truth.” Even in later periods (like Romanticism, etc.) of critiquing the “powers that be,” the individual artist became the new star recognized by the bourgeoisie. We still mostly have it that way, but a few such stars have begun critiquing the whole shebang and opening a new framework.
That framework hasn’t got a name yet, but there is one parallel to the other modes that describes this new work well. Work that does or inspires critical thinking and goes beyond aesthetic expression of feeling-perceptions could be called “noetic.” Noesis is the old Greek term for the complement of bodily feeling-perception that comes from engaging instead the critical faculties of the mind (noos). This does not deny or exclude or defeat the aesthetic, but it helps open the direction that much performance art and some poetry has begun to take in the last couple of decades. This work is greatly about under-cutting personal insight with social and historical perspective, and exposing the cultural contradictions in our usual perceptions and the expressions of them in everything from conversation to art and politics.
It is the “politics” side of things that has moved art in this direction. Serious as that may be, there is often quite a bit of humor in this shift--though not just spoof or sarcasm. To push beyond the self-seriousness of the aesthetic takes the kind of outside perspective that humor uses. Freud has shown us that humor is, like poetry, an art of condensation and an energy-saving way of “working through” contradictions. The need to work out the tensions of social contradiction has affected both “high” and “low” art in our time. Popular artists from Frank Zappa to Whoopi Goldberg make us laugh even as they make us see what we’ve accepted too blithely. The premiere artist along these lines is one a little less popular than those two but just as grounded in both pop idioms and avant-garde ideas and practices. His name was Herman Blount till it morphed into Le Sony’r Ra and then Sun Ra. His practice was exemplary because it boldly shows how an artist can have fun, present effective critique, and politicize at the same time. The musician and composer Sun Ra did it with costumes, performance styles, improv, and supplementary writings and drawings. He was always already one more thing than you thought he was. He played the early Bob Dylan’s game more thoroughly and necessarily than Robert Zimmerman ever did. If Ra thought you might think him one thing, he added another thing to that in an inseparable combo that was designed to bend your mind. This fellow was a “Negro” American, but he might be also a spaceman from Saturn in a costume reminiscent of ancient Egypt where Blacks ruled as America can’t seem to let them. Ra spread facts and hypotheses about the deep and powerful history of Black peoples, but he also put them in contexts where they bent the standard thinking and even liberal generosities meant to help them. Breaking open our perception is the game here, not emphasizing the insights of feeling perception; “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it” –(attributed often to Bertolt Brecht, but probably from Trotsky). This shaping may be as serious as the highest achievement of aesthetics, but it may also be as funny as Ra or Whoopi as it reaches beyond the aesthetic. It works by emphasis upon the conflicted contexts combined in our readings of our world.
This art of noesis appears in the work of many of our poets today, as their aesthetic means reach beyond themselves and capture those contradictions. We may have to begin to use our tools to determine, though, which are the sincerely noetic works and which fall back upon the merely aesthetic. We are always free to enjoy any art we like, but we can be ready to see which works serve us most effectively. When Claudia Rankine or Mark Nowak pitch their poetry with a visual-art complement, we can look at it to see what this doubling of contexts allows us to focus upon that was not there for us before. When Karen Weiser puts poems on the page in a fresh and almost un-voice-able way, we can ask what it does for our critical thinking--and not just for our feelings--about the ambiguities in her perceptions. When Scott McFarland picks up the call-and-response of the human microphone from Occupy, we can look at how much the poems problematize that form in taking it from its original context onto the page. When Rae Armantrout turns a common phrase inside out, we can ask if the new angle troubles the old stance of simply snarky wisdom. When Jeff Derksen tries new applications of older forms for social stance and expression, we can ask if the contexts and vocabularies from Fordist times (for example) actually produce different readings of “our own stake in the present” post-Fordist era (125). Noetics is a new tool, but its future has been forming in the last few decades of our poetic past.
So far, aesthetic liberalism rests content with the contents of the world we have known for awhile. If Rankine’s pictures are just more aesthetically selected illustrations (as her readings recently have suggested), if McFarland isn’t knocking down the individual voice the way Occupy did, etc., then we can say what they have failed to do. However, if we can see a doubled context at work in these works to shift the ground of thinking and feeling, then we can use them to move forward. What a poem cancels is as important as what it asserts. As one poet once said, it all must happen “slant.” This is not because direct truths are too bright for our eyes, but it is because direct statements cover their own contradictions too easily. These can be expressed only slantwise. And that keeps us from standing too firmly for them. Noesis can re-introduce the dialectic tensions in any thought; it may do so through performance, expression, extra imagery, or what Ra called “myth-science” as he brought “the future” to bear on the present. Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire, “The social revolution of the 19th century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future.” Noesis is the future that’s already happening. It rises naturally from the aesthetic regime (as Rancière calls it) and its contradictions.
The grounds for such an approach to the future appear in many places, with a particular focus in the theoretical concepts of homi bhabha. In a book explicating his idea of a “third space” where cultural opposition arises “beyond” cultural belonging, bhabha quotes Frantz Fanon who says: “… the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence” and “it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate my cycle of freedom” (qtd. pp. 8 & 9). Professor bhabha sees this as using the future to approach the present, and he suggests an “unhomely” thinking to reach beyond the “fetishism of identities” and the concept of “roots” (9). He aims at “the study of the way in which cultures recognize themselves through their projections of ‘otherness’” (12). Through such thinking, we can show both “how historical agency is transformed through the signifying process” and “how the historical event is represented in a discourse that is somehow beyond control” (12). This risky “beyond” is an unlocated space where binary contradictions are exposed in an “interstitial intimacy” that “questions binary divisions through which … spheres of social experience are often spatially opposed” and displays the “double edge” of “hybridity” necessary to “bridging the home and the world” (13). Underneath his fancy professor-talk, bhabha is exposing the actual “hybridity” of thinking and speaking or writing. His “third space” is neither here nor there. He calls it “unrepresentable” (37), meaning that it cannot be directly or simply represented. This is the major challenge of our poetic task, presenting both the “is” and the “isn’t” of things—including our very own stances or positions. For bhabha, the “third space” is called that because it is not the position of the speaker or that of the hearer. He shows how the very structure of language creates such a space that presents their contexts “beyond” each of them. The professor also shows how that can emphasize the lack of fixed cultural meaning and the possibilities of re-reading and re-historicization focused upon by “third world” writers like Wilson Harris of Guyana in his concept of the “assimilation of contraries” (qtd. in bhabha 38).
A.J. Greimas revived Aristotle’s four-square logic as the Semiotic Square to show how contraries and contradictions blend in such critical thinking. His project was focused on how we develop meaning and express it through such doubled sets of contraries and their contradictions. He meant to help scholars of linguistics and semiotics to express a dynamic view of meaning and its slippages, enjoyable enough for poets too, but the Greimasian Square also opens a way to embrace contraries and contradictions together in an unresolvable sort of sense. The most famous example outside Greimas’ own writings is in Molière of all places. Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, dit Molière, wrote a spoof of The Bourgeois Gentleman of his time who was using his newly minted wealth to buy lessons in culture. In it, the student asks his tutor to teach him the difference between poetry and prose. They are defined in a way that foreshadows the doubled logic of the Square; each is what it is by being the opposite of the other, and the bourgeois gentleman is content to know that poetry is all that is not prose and prose is all that is not poetry. Ron Silliman made some use of this humor and intelligence in “Towards Prose,” but missed the simplicity of its blunt tom-foolery. Where the basic contrariety is the standard cultural one of poetry/prose and the extrapolation of its meaning goes into the matching pair of not-prose/not-poetry, the real difference is in how you apply the terms to any specific instance and how you deal with the contexts for each assertion. It may seem like another professors’ game, but it helps with thinking about contraries or their contradictions that are culturally constructed and have no absolute fixed basis—like poetry/prose, or black/white in the racial sense. Greimas simplifies the questions by emphasizing the arbitrary logic and the slippage between contexts that is involved. This opens the way for a description of work like Ra’s or Whoopi’s or the similar moves in poets’ works, the “assimilation of contraries” and critique of their contradictions.
As we watch Whoopi Goldberg flip back her hair with a blonde-surfer-girl shake of the head as she utters a phrase in surfer-ese, she is for us both “black” and at least “not-black” if not “white,” though she is clearly “not-white” in her person and that’s part of what makes us laugh and admire her talent for “willing suspension of disbelief.” It is not simply “irony” at work here. It is a matter of doubling the truths of what one tells or at least how one tells it. If there is “identification” going on, it is not with either the character or the actress except as she has chosen this doubling out of her own life’s dilemmas. Where poetry attempts to raise sympathy, through identification or other means, it falls back into the “feel for you” mode and succumbs to the weaknesses of the aesthetic. Where poetry merely mocks the hegemonic language and thinking that empower aesthetic distances and sympathies, it also falls short of critical ability. The Aesthetic has become an institution, like The Bank or The Stock Exchange, and it has obscured other modes for art so thoroughly that we now use this term for art itself. If we want to deconstruct that ignorance and assumed hegemony, we need a fresh articulation of what art can do. The concept of the noetic is designed to create this ground-clearing, not by erasing but by adding possibilities and recognitions that expand the space for thinking. Opening the noetic space can un-do the self-limitations of aesthetic practice by making them tools in our critical thinking.
What we can look for as we expand into the noetic space, taking the aesthetic with us, is greater depth of meaning because of greater questioning of contexts. Rancière has stopped short of this questioning while bhabha opens it but hands it back to aesthetics, but our poets have followed their noses beyond them both. We have many practitioners of delimited doubling, finding or creating ways to multiply critical angles in a kind of cubism of intellectual perspective. It is, at least, “bifocal” and gets its depth like the eyes and mind do. We all can benefit from shaping a way to talk in noetic terms, either as readers and critics or as writers. We can benefit from examples of how noetic work is already being done and from alignment of the concept with what we have had and gotten too used to during the aesthetic regime. My review of Or, The Ambiguities by Karen Weiser and Still Dirty by David Lau in this issue of GR attempts to unfold their noetic questioning. They make use of poiesis, mimesis, and aisthesis as part a basis for a practice of noesis. In poiesis, with its emphasis on shaping, we get imagery for all the senses along with sound patterning and the commemorations of naming. This is the basic set of functions for poetry claimed by everyone from Plato to Gertrude Stein. Here, poets ask readers to envision and celebrate the images we create. In mimesis, with its imitations of worldly action, the image is broadened to include an unfolding “moving” picture. We get likenesses and characterizations as the basis for story and its conflicts. Readers are asked to follow and “identify,” sometimes simply by awakening stories stored in us culturally, as we observe the struggle for values. In aisthesis, feelings become the basis for our perception of values and truths that we “get.” Readers give themselves to experiencing thought through the form that a poet has given it, and they have an adventure-in-meaning parallel to that of the writer. Where the critical thinking of noesis enters, we ask readers to undergo their own process of thinking-through our social contradictions. Together, we put values and assumptions into question by doubling their contexts. This practice leads us into “unendliche analyse” and often to humor with its almost inexpressible insights. Weiser and Lau’s latest books serve to show each of these elements at work as they open the depths of thinking, with dead seriousness or with sharp laughs, this way.
Such depths are also found in a variety of other contemporary writers who have been led to question the aesthetic approach. Eileen R. Tabios’ work with materials from her adopted son Michael’s school studies makes brilliant use of re-framings that keep the context shifting and meanings slipping. The integration of her work “Orphaned Algebra” with pieces spinning off from it by j/j hastain goes even further. My early review of this work attempts to detail some of that. Tabios’ subsequent 147 Million Orphans (MMXI-MML) also invites other writers to engage with this material and the haybun form. The variety of angles achieved this way serves to open contexts and readings even as each haybun unfolds a haiku of words taken from Michael’s studies. It is simply elegant. In a more abrupt and occasionally abrasive way, Heriberto Yepez creates an opening by attacking the conventions of art in his “Notes on art’s crap” as part of his work Against the Police Concept of Art. Statements 6 & 7 in his list of 11 align perfectly with Rancière’s concept of social “policing.” It was this insight into how an aesthetic mode might move its audience to police its own attitudes that actually led Rancière to frame the historical progression of modes up through a questioning of the aesthetic. Yepez’ sentences are much more blunt in their accusations about art’s function in hegemony. “Police is the ruling concept of art” and “Works of art are part of the pacification apparatus” join other bits like “Every element of art polices the others” and “Aesthetic contemplation is counter-insurgency in the form of delight.” These bold statements recontextualize art as a reactionary force and lead to claims like “Art will not change the world.”
That is the point. To change the world, the ways of reading the world must change. Our minds must change, not just in what they think but in how they think. Eagleton has explained the place of the bourgeois aesthetic as “a contradictory, double-edged concept” that “figures as a genuinely emancipatory force” while also involving “a kind of ‘internalised repression,’ inserting social power more deeply into the very bodies of those” who practice it (28). As it clings to aesthetical ways that can’t help but fulfill those two sides of their bourgeois function, art plays a part in slowing or suppressing social change. Yepez is looking at this when he pushes the idea that the “transformation of the world will involve the destruction of every form of art,” and comments that “Art’s self-destruction is not enough.” I’m going to take impetus from that ferocious angle to suggest that art’s function as aesthetics has trapped it in a cycle of its own inevitable self-destruction. Our way is now clear for moving our art forward, past what has been “itself” in its aesthetic conception. We can now ask our readers to add the space in their thought for enacting the dialectics of contradiction and its resolutions in an unending analysis. There is every chance that this will play out as a kind of humor complementary to the seriousness of the thinking involved; Zizek has reminded us about how Marx, in The Eighteenth Brumaire, insisted that historical tragedy often repeats itself as farce “so that mankind may part happily with its past” (1-2). As we raise the tragic absurdities of our times not just before our senses but in our overall sense of things, we can also start to have a lot more fun than just absorbing sentiments and nodding at their correctness—personal or political.
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The Rev. Dr. T. C. Marshall studies French and Slovenian Philosophy in the redwood forest with salamanders and mushrooms all around. He also teaches in town at a college that struggles to serve the community of yuppies, farmworkers, surfers, and aesthetes in Santa Cruz County. There is a safety pin on each of his jean jackets now.