There is a great deal wrong, nowadays, with literary criticism, poetry criticism, and the culture of workshopping critique. About that, if about nothing else, many are in agreement. But what I perceive as one of the main problems seems so endemic to the culture of criticism that it is an uphill struggle getting anyone to notice it. It's just as bad, or worse, in the political arena (which I will dip into later by way of example although I usually avoid discussing politics here) as it is in the literary arena.
To lay the groundwork for my own position, here are some short excerpts from For Argument's Sake; Why Do We Feel Compelled to Fight About Everything?
by Deborah Tannen:Everywhere we turn, there is evidence that, in public discourse, we prize contentiousness and aggression more than cooperation and conciliation. Headlines blare about the Starr Wars, the Mommy Wars, the Baby Wars, the Mammography Wars; everything is posed in terms of battles and duels, winners and losers, conflicts and disputes. Biographies have metamorphosed into demonographies whose authors don't just portray their subjects warts and all, but set out to dig up as much dirt as possible, as if the story of a person's life is contained in the warts, only the warts, and nothing but the warts.
It's all part of what I call the argument culture, which rests on the assumption that opposition is the best way to get anything done: The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate. The best way to cover news is to find people who express the most extreme views and present them as "both sides." The best way to begin an essay is to attack someone. The best way to show you're really thoughtful is to criticize. The best way to settle disputes is to litigate them.
It is the automatic nature of this response that I am calling into question. This is not to say that passionate opposition and strong verbal attacks are never appropriate. In the words of the Yugoslavian-born poet Charles Simic, "There are moments in life when true invective is called for, when it becomes an absolute necessity, out of a deep sense of justice, to denounce, mock, vituperate, lash out, in the strongest possible language." What I'm questioning is the ubiquity, the knee-jerk nature of approaching almost any issue, problem or public person in an adversarial way.
Smashing heads does not open minds. In this as in so many things, results are also causes, looping back and entrapping us. The pervasiveness of warlike formats and language grows out of, but also gives rise to, an ethic of aggression: We come to value aggressive tactics for their own sake—for the sake of argument. Compromise becomes a dirty word, and we often feel guilty if we are conciliatory rather than confrontational—even if we achieve the result we're seeking.
. . .The roots of our love for ritualized opposition lie in the educational system that we all pass through. Here's a typical scene: The teacher sits at the head of the classroom, pleased with herself and her class. The students are engaged in a heated debate. The very noise level reassures the teacher that the students are participating. Learning is going on. The class is a success.
But look again, cautions Patricia Rosof, a high school history teacher who admits to having experienced just such a wave of satisfaction. On closer inspection, you notice that only a few students are participating in the debate; the majority of the class is sitting silently. And the students who are arguing are not addressing subtleties, nuances or complexities of the points they are making or disputing. They don't have that luxury because they want to win the argument—so they must go for the most dramatic statements they can muster. They will not concede an opponent's point—even if they see its validity—because that would weaken their position.
This aggressive intellectual style is cultivated and rewarded in our colleges and universities. The standard way to write an academic paper is to position your work in opposition to someone else's. This creates a need to prove others wrong, which is quite different from reading something with an open mind and discovering that you disagree with it. Graduate students learn that they must disprove others' arguments in order to be original, make a contribution and demonstrate intellectual ability. The temptation is great to oversimplify at best, and at worst to distort or even misrepresent other positions, the better to refute them.
. . .Staging everything in terms of polarized opposition limits the information we get rather than broadening it. For one thing, when a certain kind of interaction is the norm, those who feel comfortable with that type of interaction are drawn to participate, and those who do not feel comfortable with it recoil and go elsewhere. If public discourse included a broad range of types, we would be making room for individuals with different temperaments. But when opposition and fights overwhelmingly predominate, only those who enjoy verbal sparring are likely to take part. Those who cannot comfortably take part in oppositional discourse—or choose not to—are likely to opt out.
But perhaps the most dangerous harvest of the ethic of aggression and ritual fighting is . . . an atmosphere of animosity that spreads like a fever. In extreme forms, it rears its head in road rage and workplace shooting sprees. In more common forms, it leads to what is being decried everywhere as a lack of civility. It erodes our sense of human connection to those in public life—and to the strangers who cross our paths and people our private lives.
I am struck by how pertinent Tannen's analysis is to the general tone of discourse in the world of poetry criticism in specific, and to the world of literary criticism in general. The distinction that Tannen makes between legitimate disagreement and ritual combat is an extremely important one that is mostly overlooked. It's never wrong to state your disagreement with someone's comments—such as sweeping generalizations, outright untruths, and things that touch on social justice issues including civil rights and hate speech—but how
we respond, the style with which disagreement is undertaken, matters a great deal.
There are poets and critics who I generally like as persons, whose opinions and judgments on literary matters I often agree with. But I can't talk to them anymore, can't dialogue with them, can't engage with them, because they will relentlessly pursue their position to absurd lengths in order to be In The Right. They can’t let go of an argument. They pursue fine details, they pounce on others' irrelevant inconsistencies while denying their own, and they refuse to let go until they are the last voice standing—like a rat terrier that will not stop shaking the rat it's been given until the rat submits and dies. Such inveterate arguers cannot concede any points, even ones they have in other discussions stated their agreement with, because conceding a point somehow seems weak to them; sometimes you can get a factual correction, but even if the facts contradict the argument, they find a way to spin it. (Tannen’s examples of academic arguments, and lawyers arguing, are the model here.) This ends up making them look bizarre, because in different discussions they have openly contradicted themselves, leading to the appearance of inconsistency at best, and irrational extremism at worst. Such critics are arguing for the sake of arguing: argument has become their dominant and only style. It is with regret that I say I can't talk to them anymore, because I used to enjoy doing so; yet as their discourse gets ever more and more strident, ever more heated, ever more personal—since, when a position is shown to be hollow, the personal insults usually kick in—I have had to back away. You can’t call these people on their bullshit without risking a violent repercussion. As in the schoolyard, the biggest, loudest bullies usually win, since after awhile no one will talk back to them.
This is no way to live. It's also no way to become famous in the literary world, unless one wants to be known mostly as a gadfly and arguer rather than a deep thinker with some worthwhile ideas to contribute. Yet it has become one very dominant style of discourse within lit crit.
I am not saying that one should not stand up for a good cause when one finds one. I have never said that. There is always good reason to speak out against injustice and hatred, including hate speech. As Abraham Heschel once said, A prophet interferes with injustice,
often by speaking out against it when all others seem afraid to. Talking back to the bullies is sometimes unavoidable because keeping mum is worse.
But not every encounter requires anger and an aggressive response. You don't have to turn every
statement you make into militancy. There is room, in critical discourse and in general human relationship, for conviviality and cohesion, for compromise and agreement. It doesn't all have to be disagreement for disagreement's sake, and it doesn't always have to be stated aggressively from the very start.
The problem is that when you see the world through only one mindset, you oversimplify the world, and in the end respond inappropriately, because you’ve lost your discrimination. When you’re a hammer, all you can see are nails, waiting to be hit down. Argument for its own sake is a trap. It can alienate rather than win over the reader. When you always state things aggressively from the very start, even when no one is disagreeing with you, you create the very climate of disagreement you claim to be reacting to: you create what you expect, and the Universe being accommodating, you get it back, thus creating a feedback loop or vicious circle.
When I read a critical essay or book or movie review in which the writer has assumed from the start that anyone who disagrees with him must be an idiot, I have no incentive to respond, to be in dialogue, or to reply in any way. I have every incentive to move on, silently, because this style of discourse projects the impression that the critic's mind is already closed, and discussion with them not only won't get anywhere, it will likely devolve into personal attacks almost immediately. "Attack my position, attack my person" is the trope when an essayist or poet cannot bear contradiction. Domination is the name of the game, as though literature were mud wrestling. Then again, based on a great deal of literary criticism I've skimmed of late, lit crit is
mud wrestling—except wrestling has rules.
It should be obvious how this style of argumentative discourse, when it becomes the default style—when it becomes so commonplace that no one even seems to notice it—only aggravates the polarizations and oppositions, political, social, literary, artistic and personal, that are already in place. Rather than seeking to find common ground so that practical actions can be undertaken, politics for example has become so completely polarized that the mere attempt to find common ground with the opposing political party can get one labeled a traitor. This became blatantly obvious during the neoconservative push, after 9.11.2001, which has eroded a great deal of civil rights and turned democracy towards totalitarianism, in comments from the administration that labeled all disagreement as treason. But politics is only one arena in which this argument culture exists; although don't expect the media to notice it, because they are complicit and highly invested in it, as Tannen points out.
As Tannen observes, one casualty of this climate of argument is purely civil disagreement. Everything has to be a battle, rather than a discussion. Gleeful demolition of the opposing viewpoints is the goal, rather than rapprochement.
But another casualty is nuance, subtlety, slow reasoning towards thoughtful conclusions. When everyone is shouting at each other, there is no time for reflection or balance. When's the last time you read a genuinely balanced, nuanced in the details, essay review? If it's been a while, you might ask yourself why.
A side-effect of argument culture is its mirror-inversion: preaching to the choir. A great deal of discourse, when it isn't argumentative, is sycophantic. We see interviews in literature and politics alike wherein no disagreement or questioning is allowed, but only fawning praise. Reviews tend to be either promotional pieces or demolitions. Rarely is there a measured, nuanced book review that points out a book's strengths as well as its weaknesses, or vice versa. When such review essays do occur, the dominant discourse dismisses them as soft, as waffling, as mere opinion. Having a strong response to a book, a strong opinion, is no bad thing, even if you don’t think it’s a great work of art, the Great American Novel, or the Beast Poetry Ever. Merely having a strong response is suspect when criticism itself has become polarized into a ridiculous either/or us vs. them mentality in which a more subtle both/and approach is dismissed out of hand.
This state of affairs has also run rampant on the online poetry critique boards: everything has become polarized into either attack or support-group-style praise. Where in this is there room for genuine criticism, especially constructive criticism that is meant to help the writer do better next time? Nowhere, it seems. Discourse is mostly personal, rather than focused on the poem itself.
When argument has become the dominant style, and contentiousness the normal mode, it's wearisome, even when you agree with most of the criticisms. When the logic of one's position is shown to be weak, or incomplete, or inconsistent—that is, when one's argument is shown to fail—that's when the vicious name-calling begins. And a great deal of critical argument, especially in poetry, is disguised name-calling.
Of course, the heated rhetoric serves only to remind the dispassionate observer that, really, there isn't anything at stake here. In poetry criticism as in academia in general, the less something matters the more vicious the arguments tend to be become. They run in opposite proportions.
•Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they're yours.
—Richard Bach, from The Messiah's Handbook
in his novel Illusions: Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah
There is another mode. That mode is to supersede argument culture and just state one's own truth. What ever happened to simply stating one's truth, and not caring if you beat someone into submission with it?
But, you might say, what good is that? How can you get anyone to listen to you, if you don't win them over? The economic argument: How else can you convince them to buy your books? The marketing argument: How can you get them to notice to you if you aren’t at least as loud and obnoxious as everyone else?
Granted that contemporary culture and media are very strident. Granted that the signal-to-noise ratio is very weighted towards noise. Granted that shouting is something that seems increasingly necessary, just to be heard. Those who remain silent are always overlooked, the conventional (advertising) wisdom goes. Those who push forth themselves and their work, who are relentless self-marketers are the ones who succeed, despite the quality of their wares, because success in the mundane world is measured by popularity, by exposure, by celebrity, and by money. One might list a few writers who have become notorious celebrities because they're gadflies, not because anyone will publish their work. When does lit crit become gossip columnists' fare? That's a tricky edge to negotiate.
Again, these are all marketing and economic arguments that have nothing to do with literary merit. They may in fact all be true arguments. But is it a world you want to live in? A world of relentless self-marketing and self-display?
There is another mode. It is indeed a quieter mode, and indeed perhaps it will not be a conventional success in terms of marketing, of egoistic artistic radical self-expression (the problematic word there being "self"), and indeed might not make you rich and famous. But it is a valid mode nonetheless. It is the spiritual mode—one of many spiritual modes, actually, but one that many wise teachers over the years quietly mention again and again. It is the mode of quiet self-respect, of self-interest without ego-inflation. It is the mode of self-esteem rather than instant gratification. It is the mode of nonviolent resistance.
The simplest way to resist argument culture is to refuse to participate in it, or glorify it, or engage in it as the default mode of discourse.
Again, this doesn't mean one must be silent, or that one must never speak out against injustice or untruth. But it does imply a refusal to engage on the level of argument for argument’s sake.
The interesting thing to observe is how many determined arguers make fools of themselves when it has become obvious that they really have no reason to be so aggressive, since no one is arguing back. They shoot themselves in the foot and prove themselves to be fools be the simple act of being unable to understand any other kind of discourse, up to and including silent disagreement. They know they’re not wining over the crowd, but they don’t know why, and they begin to flail about, searching for a good fight.
Talking past them really upsets them, too, because by refusing to engage with them directly, you mock them, or so they think. Determined arguers take disagreement very personally.
Yet it has always been possible to change the rules of discourse mid-flight. A reply from a different direction or attitude is still discourse. It's just that you've refused to play by the given rules, and have changed them to suit yourself, or your analysis of the situation.
The truly flexible mind understands this.
Argument culture is sandbox culture, it’s schoolyard bully culture: when being right is more important than finding the truth or reaching agreement, mutually and together, than you know you're dealing with the infantile bully. The truly flexible mind, dare one say adult mind, is capable of finding the right style of discourse for each occasion, of developing an appropriate response rather than an aggressively knee-jerk response.
To the truly flexible mind, argument is only one palette of discourse among many, and one is free to choose which style of discourse is appropriate to the moment.
Having only one style of discourse, as Deborah Tannen implies in her analysis of argument culture, is stifling rather than illuminating. It is inherently self-limiting, as is any unitary style. Having a range of options is always better than having only one.
Labels: bullying, criticism, Deborah Tannen, poetry criticism