Monday, April 16, 2007

Axes of Interpretation

A poet friend recently listed the following criterion, among some few others, as one of the things he expects from poets who critique poetry: Does [the critic] understand a basic law in a relativity-captioned universe: that there are no priveleged positions from which to view the whole, no outside vantage point? That could stand as a one-sentence capsule summation of postmodernism.

One of the hallmarks of the postmodernist viewpoint is multiplicity of viewpoint: as every street cop knows, getting witnesses to agree on what actually happened can be a lost cause. Everyone has their unique viewpoint. The more viewpoints you have on an event, or a work of art, the more complex the field of discourse, and the postmodern dialectician must be responsible for addressing (responding to) as many of those multiple viewpoints as possible. It does make the job of literary criticism more difficult.

So why does literary criticism still maintain such a linear, narrow-focused, either/or perspective? Could it be that it is still stuck in the Modernist mindset, and hasn't figured out how to deal with multiplex, vs. simplex or complex, viewpoints? Very likely. Modernism, after all, still maintained that post-Cartesian, "outside" vantage point: the classic "floating disconnected brain" viewpoint that pretends to look upon Nature with objectivity as a non-participant. Modernism still believed that social ills could be engineered: fixed, by the proper application of artistic, cognitive, and politically-positioned resources. Most of the usual criticisms of postmodernism that I read, in various places of discourse, often boil down to one thing: it ain't Modernism. We don't what it is, but it ain't Modernism. And you're making our brains hurt by asking us to think in too many directions at the same time.

Here, then, is a modest proposal: It is time to expand the cognitive presentation of literary discourse. It is past time to expand from linear, simplex reasoning, to incorporate multiplex, multivalent, even mulitkulti reasoning. And here's one way to do it:

Consider each spectrum of discourse—each binary-polarized critical dichotomy—as a separate one-dimensional axis within multi-dimensional phase space. If you recall from your old geometry lessons, a line was described as a one-dimensional space; when you cross the line with another line at a perpendicular angle, you then have described a two-dimensional space, with two dimensions of measurement. If you draw a new line at yet another perpendicular angle to the first two, and going through the same vertex, you have a representation of three-dimensional space. (On the two-dimensional surface of a piece of paper, this is fudged by using special notation: the new line appears at a 45-degree angle to the vertex, with arrows or thicknesses representing that it is in reality extending out in back and front of the plane of the paper. This is how we represent the unrepresentable within our limited means. Sounds like poetry, doesn't it?)

That's how you keep adding dimensions: add right angles to the existing complex of intersecting vertices. Multi-dimensional phase space can be visualized as a three-dimensional representation of a multi-dimensional hypercube, with numerous extra vertices, sides, and angles. (I grant that not everyone can quickly summon up the imagery in their minds.) If that makes your brain hurt, try just thinking of it as adding right angles; even if you can't visualize it, you can still conceptualize it.

Thus, in poetry criticism, it might be easier to remember to keep separate axes of interpretation that are in fact different, but which tend to be conflated via sloppy uni-dimensional thinking. I get tired of so many critics constantly framing every issue as an either/or, us/them, binary polarity. The world is so much more complex than mere two-dimensional binary polarities. There is almost always a third option, and a fourth, and even fifth.

And therefore, in herding one's thoughts into coherent discourse, if one were to remember that many qualitative issues in aesthetic discussions are lines that touch at a vertex, but in fact are not the same axes of interpretation, one might hopefully become less prone to lazy discourse built on stupid conflations of attributes that are not unitary. (And if you don't like complex multivalent sentences, you're probably also not ready for The New New Sentence in poetry. But I digress.)

For example: the axis of difficult poetry vs. easy-to-understand poetry is not the same axis as good poetry vs. bad poetry. They are two separate axes, and plotting their qualities in phase space becomes quite clear when you remember that a difficult poem can be either good or bad, and so can an easy poem. Far too often, difficulty is either praised as good—if I can't understand it, it must be great poetry, right?—or vilified as bad, simply because it takes more work to get through it than your average bit of doggerel. Both of those positions are useless to criticism, in that they tend to be snap judgments without a lot of thought or perception behind them.

We could list numerous other axes of interpretation that are not the same, but perhaps we just need to remember that, in post-Einsteinian space, which is governed by relativity, there are no priveleged positions from which to view the whole. There are no absolute criteria, and no absolute qualitative determinisms. (This is not to say that there aren't numerous attractors in our posited conceptual phase space; for example, it is demonstrable that the overall statistical spread of good vs. bad poems is not a bell curve, but that the bad far outnumber the good, in any given genre.) What that means, then, is that multiple interpretations of a poem are possible, and that diverging opinions can be equally valid, and true. It is all relative to where you, the observer, stand in relation to that hurtling object, the poem.

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