Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Adam’s McRib

I can help feeling there’s been a certain slippage in the recent discussion of pleasure among Josh Corey, Eric Selinger, & YVT, attributable perhaps to a too rigid dichotomy (damn those Manicheans!) between the “immersive” experience of popular/genre/middlebrow fiction and the “anti-absorptive” rigors of contemporary alt-poetry. A couple of thoughts, mostly in response to Eric’s recent posts:

1) Josh is right when he reads Eric as saying, in essence, that “all pleasure is equally valid and anyone who says otherwise is deluded or a snob” – in arguing for the equal validity of all readerly pleasure. But I suspect he’s just as irritated as I am when Eric starts playing the old anti-elitist class card – “culinary” or “cultural-positioning” responses “don't let you feel smug or self-approving in your scorn for NASCAR and McRib sandwiches” – accusing us of being somehow insensitive to the pleasures of watching powerful cars go in circles or savoring boneless gestures towards American vernacular cuisine. Yes indeed, M. Bourdieu is right when he shows that a preference for Beckett plays & pad thai over NASCAR & the McRib is pretty inevitably aligned with a particular class distinction – but so what? If one values cultural productions – & I’d like to think that as poets & university teachers of poetry we do – that we’ve got to make some choices about what we pay attention to, what we take pleasure from. I know how much pleasure you take in deflating the pretensions of your friends & colleagues, Eric (& G-d knows that I don’t wanna deprive anyone of pleasure), but until you send me the poetry syllabus that focuses entirely on amateur slams, hip-hop records, prison workshops, and Hallmark greeting cards, I wish you’d stop pretending to be Mike Gold. More heat than light. (“That shirt cost more than my mother makes in a year.”)

2) When Eric talks about the “moral” pleasure of tackling difficult poetry as being a kind of ex post facto figleaf we lay over the naughty bits of our more basic pleasures – & this bears more discussion – I think he’s rightly pointing to what Bob Archambeau has written about on a number of occasions as the “aesthetic anxiety” of late Victorian to contemporary poets. But – & this is the crucial point – it still begs the question of whether those ethical effects actually exist. EG: I love arugula for its bitter taste and wonderful texture; I rationalize to myself that I eat arugula because it’s good for me, tho I don’t have any hard evidence one way or another; but it’s good for me anyway, objectively. (This is a counterfactual supposition – me, I hate arugula.)

Josh & I say the ethical element of “hard” poetry is there: we feel it in our bones, tho we can’t argue it in a universally convincing fashion. (We need to try harder…) Eric says “show me the money, & until then I’ll just consider the pleasures of ‘hard’ poetry as one choice on the menu, not necessarily to be preferred to the McTaco.” (Yummy poem, by the way.)
***
But those were preliminaries: What I really meant to write about was the “slippages” in discourse that seems to be happening here. This will sound like a laundry list:

•I think we need a more nuanced, more “thick” description of the experience & the pleasures of anti-absorptive texts than just a foregrounding of language or “speed bumps” in the way of immersion. Those things indeed happen, but a great deal else – varying widely from text to text – happens as well. Josh gestures towards this – & I image he’s doing a lot more than gesturing in his dissertation – but before we can talk intelligently about anti-absorptional writings as being somehow more valuable than something else, we need some sort of encyclopedic tracing of the pleasures of bafflement, allusion both external and internal, dictional shifts, fragmentation, indeterminacy, polysemy, and so forth. (This has probably been written, but hey, I’ve been in a cave writing a biography for last 7 years.)

•No, it’s not just a contrast between ways of reading: there are fundamental differences between mass market immersive fiction and “difficult” poetry. Yes, we can bring to bear on the former some of the tools useful for the latter, and to interesting effect. But that’s a matter I think of more general literary-critical methodology, rather than things specifically crafted for the sort of poetry Josh is talking about. There are skill sets and there are skill sets, & some of them overlap, & some of them don’t. I may read a romance novel thru the lens of Northrop Frye & Patricia Parker on the classic romance, thru Mulveyan notions of the gaze, & thru various post-Freudian theorizations of the “other” – all ways of resisting “immersion” – but how do those skill sets help me with Susan Howe’s “Bibliography of the King’s Book”?

•I don’t think the pleasure Josh & I (& you too, EMS) take in an anti-absorptive poem really bears much resemblance, aside from the fact that it’s work rewarded – which applies just as well to a crossword puzzle, building a sukkah, or washing the car – to what undergrads in an intro to poetry class feel in working thru the “‘immersive’ first person lyric.” Some of the same elements are there (pleasure in the sound of language, pleasure in “decoding” what seems initially unclear, etc.), but there are other faculties being drawn upon, other muscles exercised. (Maybe we should shift governing metaphors from cuisine to exercise: immersive work as a morning jog; anti-absorptive work as yoga?) And here one needs to go two bullets back up, which takes us back to the big unwritten – the Geertzean description of alt-poetry reading that will in turn perhaps (?) facilitate the convincing ethical description that will convert the reprobate Selinger to the True Church of Painful Difficulty.

15 comments:

E. M. Selinger said...

Mark! I'll take up (and take on, and possibly take down) your many points on my own turf, although not for a day or two, perhaps. Just to set the record straight, though, I don't at ALL think of your (and my) '“moral” pleasure of tackling difficult poetry as being a kind of ex post facto figleaf we lay over the naughty bits of our more basic pleasures." Not at all--what I said, or tried to say, was that the moral pleasure is a true pleasure, but an additional one, an added one, which may or may not accompany other pleasures we take in difficult work. A case in point: Ammiel Alcalay's long poems "the cairo notebooks" and "from the warring factions" offer me a range of pleasures, displeasures, and difficulties. Among the pleasures I take in them, even as I read their most painful passages, is a moral one, deriving from the way they engage me with Alcalay's politics vis-a-vis Palestine, Bosnia, and other vexing parts of the world.

That moral pleasure isn't a fig leaf or facade; it's real, and comparable to the moral pleasure I find in reading an "immersive" piece of history and memoir like Sandy Tolan's "The Lemon Tree." (There's also a pleasure of self-approbation: I like being the kind of person who reads such work--but that is, again, a slightly different thing from the pleasure of sympathy.) I'm just trying to distinguish the moral pleasure from the other ones our Gazeteer will name.

The 18th century must have some discourse helpful here. Something about sensibility? "The moral sense" is an 18th c. term, no?

Glad you liked the taco belle poem!

E. M. Selinger said...

Oh, one more thing! (As long as my soup is still a-brewing.)

You get irritated, I know, I know, when I play my "anti-elitist class card." My point this time, though, has nothing to do with class, or even with aesthetic preference. I'm just saying that aesthetic preference, what you take pleasure in, has very little, maybe almost nothing to do with your moral quality. Good people like crap all the time: crappy food, crappy movies, video games of all kinds (they're all crap, in my book), truly horrible music, and so forth. Lousy people like interesting art, good food, and so forth. We'd like to think otherwise, but I can think of too many counter-examples, on both sides.

My point is that you can make a positive case for the moral or ethical pleasure to be found in reading certain kinds of poetry, but you can't say there's a moral or ethical deficit to blame when people don't enjoy such poems.

I am not a morally better person for finding NASCAR and the poetry of Maya Angelou mind-numbingingly boring. I may be a more aesthetically sophisticated person (I think so; others will differ), but I am NOT a morally superior one, and the minute I think I am, I'm being smug and deserve to be called on it.

That's my point, not the class one, this time.

Ray Davis said...

Because the subject's interested me for a while, I keep wanting to join in this blogversation, but since the subject's interested me for a while I keep realizing I've already posted what I wanted to say. That's the down side of being on the web so long. Anyway, a third self-quote, complete with food metaphors, this one originally occasioned by a controversial story:

I'm sure I hope that a certain flexibility and a certain suspicion of narrative patness are healthy for the species. But is it necessary to be flexibly suspicious all the time? About everything? Would Franklin D. Roosevelt really have achieved more as President if he'd spent his free time reading Proust instead of gobbling murder mysteries like candy? Would you vote for Harold Bloom? Heck, I wouldn't even vote for Ralph Nader!

To return to the dining room, some people find it unappetizing to have their attention drawn to the food they're eating, and others find it unappetizing to ignore the food they're eating. One might guess that the latter type of person is more likely to become a cook, and one might therefore call their approach to dining "cookly" as opposed to "eaterly," and think them handier in some circumstances, but that's about as far as my value judgments could stretch.


As for the class card, after all these years, I still owe M. Bourdieu a response. Briefly, though, even he doesn't show an "inevitable" alignment of class with taste -- just an inarguable alignment of class with taste, which is to say, a relationship which can't (with intellectual integrity) be refuted or ignored. But Bourdieu doesn't replace a simple analysis ("taste" is a virtue blind to economic "class") with a different simple analysis ("taste" and economic "class" are one). I liked pad thai the first time I ate it despite my early diet of Campbell's Soup casseroles, but I wouldn't have had access to pad thai so early if I hadn't gotten a scholarship to an upper-class area.

"a more nuanced description of the experience": Some social/cognitive psychology research has been done on the pleasures of complexity and confusion, but not as much as I'd like. Looking for "attention" studies is a good bet.

"There are skill sets"..." Yes, part of what we're talking about may be the ethic/pleasure of developing new skill sets and switching between them. I like the way you put it in the next paragraph: exercising different muscles.

Ray Davis said...

Second thought, better thought: Pad thai's not that far removed from Campbell's Soup casserole, cross-culturally speaking. (Regarding another collegiate food thrill, I think of Hsiang-Ju Lin's Szechuan servant who found anything without hot peppers inedibly bland.)

And although basic knowledge of poetry may be class-associated, I wonder if a taste for so-called difficult poetry is. When I first took to Zukofsky it's not like either of us were well-off, although obviously someone more comfortable must have been involved in the mediation. And when I got to that upper-class college, I found some professors who still thought of James Joyce as someone who was trying too hard. The establishments are more interested in keeping everyone in their place than in exercising new muscles. The wealthy, surprisingly enough, tend to be far more worried about being defrauded than interested in using their freedom to experiment. Back when I couldn't afford books, a hard book always seemed like the best investment: it lasted longer. And the sound of words? Talk about the simple pleasures of the poor....

rodney k said...

Hi Mark,

Enjoying your thoughts on this subject. One pleasure of the 'anti-absorptive' for me is the context it asks for; you're not just reading "this work," sealed off, but placing it in a network of similarly challenging texts, with the poetics and filiations and shared concerns it carries with it. The anti-absorptive text for me rarely ends in itself; it adds to a larger sense of the contemporary that other works participate in as well. The text, in effect, ends in another text, one that you're better prepared for having read this one.

It's the difference between observing a single baseball game and going as a devoted fan, knowing the coaches and stats and trade histories. It's fun--for a certain type of person anyway--to build up that kind of specialized knowledge.

If a moral attaches to this variety of (shamelessly geeky) pleasure, maybe it's an expanded awareness of how any event, person, speech act whatever forms part of a complex world that's larger than itself. Roots, not bud.

(The "immersive" text comes with roots and context too, of course, but often unconsciously.)

E. M. Selinger said...

I like how this conversation is developing. The baseball analogy may be particularly useful.

Mark, I hope both you and your readers will you'll swing by Say Something Wonderful; I'm curious what you'll think of my response, and my own suggestions for how to move this conversation forward.

Re: 'immersive' texts and their contexts, I think we often underestimate how conscious those texts (and their fans) can be. Certainly my own nascent scholarship in popular romance has introduced me to non-academic readers who bring that sort of "expanded awareness" to the new books they read. (Not all of the readers, but more than you might expect.)

I'm less a "class" man than a "taste" one, by the way: Adorno's (and Wordsworth's) reducer of aesthetic preference to mere culinary preference. Count Stevens on my team, then:

Table Talk

Granted, we die for good.
Life, then, is largely a thing
Of happens to like, not should.

And that, too, granted, why
Do I happen to like red bush,
Grey grass and green-gray sky?

What else remains? But red,
Gray, green, why those of all?
That is not what I said:

Not those of all. But those.
One likes what one happens to like.
One likes the way red grows.

It cannot matter at all.
Happens to like is one
Of the ways things happen to fall.

Archambeau said...

Mark,

I've chimed in on the discussion over at my blog, and while I didn't get to this new post in time to include it, I have unearthed a rare archival photo of you in which you look even more badass than usual.

Bob

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