Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Literary-Critical Thoughts at Semi-Random

1. Keep an outsider's perspective. No one is more defensive than a critical "insider."

I once wrote a paper in grad school, about being an insider/outsider: one who straddles more than one position. In the ethnographic disciplines they used to call it being a participant-observer. One does not remain aloof and try to be an objective all-seeing-eye. Rather, one participates in the daily lives of those people one is studying, while also observing and making notes. In terms of ethnomusicology, which was what my grad school focus was upon, this means learning to play the music of the culture one is studying, by immersion as deeply into study as one can. Insights come both from breaking through to understanding what one's native teachers are passing on, and also from one's position of partial-outsider.

Of course, my paper on insider/outsider musicians within the culture I was studying was also autobiographical. My entire life has been a procession of situations in which I have never been a total insider, or a total outsider, but always someone who straddles boundaries, who sees more than just one viewpoint. Of course this experience is not sequentially narrative, or a linear procession of singular events, but rather a lot of similar patterns always going on, in relative force, all the time. One notices the patterns of one's life, if one learns to pay attention. And those patterns give us clues as to what we don't know that we believe. So I've noticed, many times, how I often seem to have one foot on one side of a fence, and the other foot over on the other side. Makes walking interesting, some days.

2. Critical thinking as the dominant discourse of daily life has got to go. Or at least to expand.

We've gotten into this habit, now, for more than a century, of thinking critically as the dominant mode of analysis and discourse. Who relies on "feel" anymore? Well, a few do, but they're often hooted down or forced to sit in the back of the class.

There are two ways in which the outsider status becomes part of discourse. First, one is often labeled a dissident if one has an alternative viewpoint, even if one is not particularly interested in the local politics of dissent. Second, the habit of critical analysis has become so ingrained that one really sees folks just sit, stop, shut up, and appreciate the roses.

There is something past critical discourse. It might be labeled "appreciation," or it might be labeled "gestalt." Perhaps it's gestalt in that one clusters one's thoughts by association, rather than thinking purely sequentially. I've known for years that my mind tends to go "off on tangents" that in fact are tied to the thread of a conversation, but locate other angles or axes of interpretation. I find myself often looking at things "sideways," while everyone else seems unwilling, or unable. I've found myself more than once labeled a dissident merely because my style of discourse was non-linear, rather than typically linear-critical. This did not go over well in college, for example. Perhaps it's an instance of poet's mind being more rooted than expert's mind.

The reason critical thinking needs to expand is because it rarely takes into account non-intellectual, non-verbal modes of being in the world. Critical thinking was a mode of discourse developed 300 years ago, during the so-called Enlightenment. (It was called that by its founders, not by its detractors.) This was the flowering of logical, rational thinking in the 17th Century, at the end of the Renaissance. At the time, it was a bold, necessary move, a cultural step away from mental tyranny towards free-thinking. But what we have now is its final flowering. We've come to the end of that trail, and it's time to discover where the trail meets up again with other modes of discourse. Logic and faith no longer need to be at war; it's time to re-integrate what has been splintered. Truly responsible humankind needs to be able to reunite people of faith, people of intuition, and people of pragmatic reason.

Zen training demolishes critical, analytical thinking by refusing to play its game, and coming at it from completely shocking directions. A central tactic of Zen training is to short-circuit critical, analytical, rationalistic thinking in the student so many times that they have a breakthrough, eventually, when the knots they've tied themselves up into must be cut through, or collapse under their own weight.

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!"

"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

3. People like to argue. It's generally better to resist playing along.

No kidding! The familiar quip goes, The reason critical arguments about poetry are so very vicious is precisely because there's so very little at stake. (One might readily substitute "within academia" for "about poetry" with no significant change in one's observational results.) Really, this is scholasticism: arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin while the pantry is being emptied by burglars. It misses the whole point of living.

I suppose many people like to argue because it gives them something to care about, to get passionate about, which makes them feel alive. I suppose some people like to argue because they care very much about being right, and/or proving everyone else wrong.

Here's a simple tip from game theory: No game is so entrenched that you can't change the rules mid-game. If you respond to a provocation on someone else's terms, on their ground, following their rule-set, it's much more difficult to make headway. I find it far more fun and interesting to come at entrenched positions from a completely different angle, rather than buying into someone's basic assumptions that set the parameters of the argument, the rules of the game. Of course, thinking sideways on one's own part often leaves those minds most deeply entrenched either baffled or feeling insulted, or both. But if there's one thing the founding Dada artists were all very good at, it was the mind-opening, scenario-expanding joke.

Q: How many Dadas does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Fish.

4. People correcting each other on the style of their discourse is fundamentally condescending.

This is often an attempt to impose a rule-set on the game. If I can get you to argue your case based solely on my terms and assumptions, it's easier to knock you down. Whenever I see critics telling each other how to make their points, how to argue their viewpoints, it sends up a red flag: because this is not an actual response to a point being made. What it really is, is an attempt to discredit the other viewpoint on purely technical grounds. (Sometimes that's useful, even valid as a tactic: It's a tactic I've used occasionally to point out how incoherent and incomprehensible an argument is, when faced with someone who is ranting ideologically rather than making a valid argument. One asks very politely for clarifications that one never expects to receive—or, if they are proffered, to make no sense at all. Sadly, one's expectations in such cases are rarely disappointed.)

In other words, this is an ad hominem attack, which has nothing to do with the points actually being made. It doesn't actually respond to the points one's opponents has made. It attacks the means rather than the content. (Again, sometimes this is a legitimate and defensible tactic to pursue. If the points one's interlocutor has made are bizarre and illogical in the extreme, pointing this out is not unethical.)

5. I am less likely to be convinced of an opinion if there's nothing given to back it up.

It's fine to have an opinion. But if there's nothing to back it up—no examples, no evidence, nothing to support one's position—then it cannot rise above being an opinion, and in fact may sink down towards being merely a prejudgment.

To be clear, I am putting logic above all else, here. Logical argument is good, but an intuitive, feeling-based argument can also be very compelling if it's well-expressed. Critics may argue passionately for their gut reactions and be convincing, if they can convey why they had such a strong reaction. A sound psychological argument can be as compelling as a sound rational argument. Many great critics are able to convey their viewpoints in all of these modes of discourse. (This is one reason I like to read what writers have to say about writing, artists about art, poets and poetry, etc. It's very telling when a poet is able, or not, to discuss poetry well; and not only about matters of craft, but also matters of experience, and the very visceral responses that art can convey to the reader, or viewer, or audience.)

I like it when people tell me why they think or feel the way they do. Of course, one doesn't get that all the time—or even most of the time. There are many critics who demonstrate little self-knowledge; or, if there is self-knowledge present, small ability to articulate it. One might be aware of one's own biases—yet if one does not disclose them, they can unconsciously reveal themselves in ways that undermine one's own position. People shoot themselves in the foot a lot, when they lack awareness of their hidden agendas and underlying motivations.

Always check your motivations. Knowing why you're doing something, even if you don't articulate it to anyone, gives you a head start towards being internally consistent—which is a marker of personal integrity. Be deliberate about it, rather than knee-jerk. And yes, it's okay to be deliberately inconsistent. Emerson once quipped, A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Some people use Emerson's comment as a justification for being completely irrational; but in truth, the key word in that quote is "foolish."

6. What's foolish about most literary criticism is that it takes itself way too seriously.

Does any of this really matter? Not really. Does any poetic theory or school really matter when it comes to making poems? Not really. Does any argument around poetics really resolve anything, or change anyone's mind? Unlikely. Does anyone but me care how seriously I take my writing? Not bloody likely.

Keep that in perspective. Which means: Argue for the joy of bumping ideas together to make them clearer and more potent, more relevant. Argue for the pleasure of being engaged in conversation. Argue knowing full well that it probably doesn't mean anything, and probably won't resolve anything, but meanwhile keeps the mind sharp and the wit honed.

Argue for all the right reasons, and none of the wrong.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

1. I think "a participant-observer" is a good way to describe most poets. We like to think we're standing at a distance but mostly we're up to our armpits in what we're trying to write about.

2. Yes, Thought does seem to have got the upper hand over Felt at the moment. I got a review copy of a book yesterday and my initial response what to describe to my wife how it felt in my hand and then how beautiful the cover was. And these thought will be a part of my review because I think they're important. If something feels nice in your hand you are already positively inclined towards the words inside. It can't hurt put it that way.

3. I hate confrontation. I hate it, hate anything resembling an argument. I can discuss a matter till I'm blue in the face but as soon as the tone switches then I'm climbing the walls to get out of there. Winning isn't important. That said, when I play games I play to win and I hate people who don’t play by the rules or just play "for fun". I've never even played a single hand of cards with Carrie since I met her.

5. Opinions are like beliefs – they don't need to be true and they don't need evidence to back them up. I'm with you though, I like things to be proved: Demonstrate logically please why I you hold that position. I hate people who, when asked why they like/hate a thing answer with something like, "I just do."

6. Yes. And please never let me get so full of a sense of my own importance that that charge be levelled against me. I believe – strongly – that there is a place for respectful criticism. What's wrong with so many Web forums is that all they want is to be praised and all they do is praise back. People react to criticism. As the Bible says (at least I think it's the Bible): "One man sharpens himself off the face of another." Artists need and benefit from another pair of eyes/ears. It can – and should – be a good thing. But nowadays I see so many critics who thing it's their raison d'être to lambast whoever comes before them in the most creative way they can. And what good does that do?

4:56 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Prompted by your responses, and the fact that it's morning, when sometimes things become more clear after sleeping on it, I've added a bit of text to points 2 and 5 above.

2. I'm glad you include the sensual aspects of holding a book in one's hand, in your assessment. That's exactly what I mean by other modes. In recent literature, as in cyberspace, the critical bias has become increasingly gnostic, based solely on the content of the disembodied text. Speaking as an occasional book designer and typographer, I can attest to how important the sensuality of the reading experience can be. Good design and typography can add to the reading experience, enhance it, make it more powerful—and it can, if thoughtlessly done, kill the experience entirely.

5. One point I added above is that psychological reasons can be compelling and convincing, too.

I've run around the critical ballpark a few times, in the past two years, about why I think Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" is a bad novel. This has been in part a reaction against the novel being praised for all the wrong reasons. I also had a gut response to it, as badly-written and derivative. But then I was able to muster arguments as to why I felt that way. Some of these were historical, about the history of apocalyptic fiction. But I also agreed with several other critics and reviewers that the book (and perhaps the writer) has some deeply-rooted anti-life biases that emerge as writing that treats both the characters and the book's readers sadistically and manipulatively.

6. I don't worry about you on this front, Jim. You're good at taking the mickey out of yourself. (The Aggie & Shuggie routines are brilliant at that, for example.)

And you're right about people confusing "criticism" with lambasting or despising whatever they encounter as their default mode. I find that really problematic in criticism: as though, to be an honest critic, one must accentuate the negative. I think both overpraising and routinely vilifying miss the mark, because these are the extreme poles of criticism, and the balance-point lies some place between them.

(For example, I can acknowledge that McCarthy's prose style owes a debt, in a good way, to Beckett. I can acknowledge that he has a flair for original metaphor and evocative description. And at the same time I can say that what his often very good prose style serves is unworthy of praise.)

9:31 AM  

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