Monday, December 04, 2006

Make Mine Spicy, Please

Two of my favorite blogspherians, Josh Corey & Eric Selinger, have started a discussion on an old subject – pleasure & difficulty in one’s reading material. (So open a new browser window here and here.) Josh contrasts the “absorptive” or “immersive” pleasure of your average well-written novel (the “vivid continuous dream” evoked by John Gardner) with the more thorny pleasures offered by “anti-absorptive” poetry – writing in which the language does not “disappear” from the page, to be replaced by an evoked or described world – writing, in short, that foregrounds its own materiality as language, that won’t let us forget that we’re after all reading. Josh:
All this is antithetical to the pleasures I seek from poetry, or from fiction that foregrounds the language through the beauty or ugliness of its sentences. Most readers (on airplanes or elsewhere) are after the infantilizing dream-state, and yet I can't blame others or myself for wanting to be nurtured by certain reading experiences rather than pricked into greater consciousness. A healthy diet, so to speak, probably requires both. But isn't the moral content that creeps into my language here interesting? Immersive fiction as trans-fats, innovative writing as leafy greens. I am loath to become a scold, urging children to read Language poetry because it's good for you. Is the pleasure of anti-absorptive writing simply the masochistic pleasure of self-denial, of anorexia? Is it a "higher" pleasure because further from the pleasures of the flesh? And yet the anti-absorptive is closer to the body of language than immersive fiction is: we savor the materiality of phonemes and syntax and sentences, provoked into the kind of apperception that requires us to look up from the book now and then and figure. One type of reading is active and closer to writing; the other is passive and demands our submission—there's a masochism for you.
Now Eric has much to say in response to this, only some of it scoldy, but all of it sharp. For one thing, he’s anxious to argue (rightly I think) that an “immersive” reading experience by no means precludes being aware of, & paying careful attention to, the texture of the language one’s reading. Maybe one’s toggling back & forth between thinking of Stephen Dedalus as an incorrigible ass & marv’ling at the balance of the periods in which his asininity is presented, but both of those moments are present for me in the same reading experience. And Eric’s also concerned about the notion – which I hear all too often as well – that “immersive” reading is somehow “passive”: “it only feels that way because the skills it takes come so easily to you, have been so naturalized, that you no longer notice you're deploying them!”

This all seems like an old argument to me, if only because I feel like I’ve been batting around some version of it with Eric for 15 years or so now, ever since we were in junior high together (er, well, maybe we were a bit older than that…). It all comes back around to pleasure, it seems, & pleasure gets figured in no more than a couple of ways: as sex (vide Josh’s active/passive & “masochism” business) or as eating (“Immersive fiction as trans-fats, innovative writing as leafy greens”). Of course, according to Freud, the latter resolves into the former as one sort of arrested sexual development. But I very much want, following Eric, to call at least a temporary halt to the Freudianizing of readerly pleasure “in order to draw the sort of precise, useful distinctions Josh (and I) are looking for. Any other vocabularies out there for us to draw on?”

Josh, it seems to me, is preaching from the same set of sacred texts that have been batted around in the alt-poetry world for three decades now: the Russian Formalists on poetic language as “defamiliarizing”; Roland Barthes on the distinction between the “readerly” and the “writerly”; Veronica Forrest-Thomson on poetic artifice; and the various LangPo redactions of these scriptures, most notably Ron Silliman’s “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World” and various essays by Chas: Bernstein. Interestingly enough, all of these texts are written by figures who have a state in the success of particular avant-garde literary formations (which is also true of Alban Berg’s student Adorno; why, as a dissenting voice, don’t we hear from Georg Lukacs on realism?).

But what I love about Josh’s post is his sensitivity to the “moral content” of his distinction between the immersive and the anti-absorptive, what I like to think of as the “scold factor” in alt-poetics (cf. “School of Quietude,” passim). It’s understandable why Silliman mercilessly flogs the reader of Peter Benchley in “Disappearance of the Word” – after all, he’s got his own anti-absorptive poetic movement to promote. Now, 30 years after the lean years of LangPo, it’s hard to hear the same rhetoric being deployed – in a poetic landscape where Michael Palmer’s just won a 100K prize and Nate Mackey’s gotten the National Book Award – without sensing some puritanical defensiveness – of which Josh is keenly aware.

The question, that is, is why ought I to prefer "anti-absorptive" texts to "immersive" ones? It's in the "ought" that the rub resides, no? for the question of why do I prefer such texts to other sorts of texts ends up boiling down to either a question of biographical taste (Adorno's dreaded "culinary" approach to art) (eg I like late modernist poetry because I have a disposition, nurtured on bales of densely detailed Richard Scarry books and crossword puzzles and so forth, towards the complex and open-ended), or to a Bourdieuesquely-mapped position within the field of production, consumption, & distinction (which, if you're deeply committed to poetry, is a pretty depressing perspective from which to view matters).

The deus ex machina here is to invoke a political or (which often boils down to the same thing) moral argument: that anti-absorptive work is somehow better for you, or that it somehow works to change the world (not immediately, not directly, not vulgar-Marxistly) by altering the way you or your readers conceive the world.

In my bones I believe that these arguments are more or less right, tho I have yet to see them stated in a way that I find more than temporarily convincing. I want to believe wholeheartedly, but I'm still skeptical. And it does ultimately come around to the issue of pleasure: what I want is a convincing account of the pleasure of what's difficult – perhaps analogous to the pleasure I take in a 100-proof habañero sauce on top of a plate of black beans & rice, a pleasure that involves two minutes of searing pain & buckets of sweat – an account that won't (disregard that last analogy) fall back upon the culinary, try to convince me that reading My Life is like a good bout of S/M, or preach to me about the virtues of asceticism like the aged Scottish Covenanter penguin in Happy Feet.


Steven Moore said...

My mother recently went for allergy testing and found that various foods that she adores are bad for her: tomatoes, mushrooms, bread, etc – the usual culprits. I spoke to her about it and she observed that even though she loved the taste of those “bad” foods, she's always known deep down that they are not good for her, and what's more she knows before she puts them in her mouth.

Ray Davis said...

"what I want is a convincing account of the pleasure of what's difficult [...] that won't (disregard that last analogy) fall back upon the culinary, try to convince me that reading My Life is like a good bout of S/M, or preach to me about the virtues of asceticism"

Well, try to talk about any aesthetic pleasure without falling back on food or sex. (Bubblebath vs. full Swedish spa rotation? Nah, not much better.) It just shows how bizarrely disattached standard critical terminology is from the hedonic. 400 years of Defense of Poesie left us with a permanent scowl.

The pleasure's real enough, though. "Science Measures It!"

Kevin said...