Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Benjamin’s grave, Portbou, Spain

So what role might theory play today, both for poetry and in the broader world?

There is no such thing as a poem without a theory. Or one might reverse that and say that all poetry embodies theory, but not in the manner of a proof. Rather, theory is – when it is done intelligently – a statement of the assumptions that are being made, the underlying forces that are at play, the interplay between the potential of a poem & its actual existence in the world. When a writer says that he or she “has no” theory or just simply writes whatever they may be “given” to write, it does not mean that there is no theory, but rather that they refuse to look at these things, and that that is a critical, indeed foundational, part of their own theory, i.e. their own practice as poets.

I’m of course interested in that writing that explores the potential of these dynamics to an intense degree, which puts me somewhat on the other end of the spectrum, although I also will invariably write “what I am given” & worry about its implications later. But I try to be awake to these things, both in the moment of writing & later.

Right now it feels to me that poetry is in a particularly interesting – if precarious – position in that the relationships between writer & reader are changing simply because of external (or, if you will, social) forces. A nation of 10,000 poets is very different from one of 500, particularly if the overall population of the former is just double that of the latter. And soon enough we will be able to look back and say how a nation of 10,000 poets were the “good old days,” when there weren’t so many poets about. So those changes are setting a whole series of dynamics into play and I don’t think anybody – surely not me – can tell yet quite what that all means.

But some people seem to me to working very hard diving into the question, whether or not they even think that’s the question they’re addressing, and I have enormous admiration for them. This seems to me the essence of flarf, frankly, the whole idea of asking what is “appropriate” is to suggest that the definitions thereof might be in flux. Do I think they have the answers? Not yet, I don’t. But I don’t see anybody else asking the most important questions any more sharply than this. And so I think it’s something we would all do well to heed.

There are hundreds of poets, indeed hundreds of types of poetry that proceed along as though nothing has changed, is changing, will change. And yet it has, it is doing so, and will even more tomorrow. Some of this work is terrific, but it now enters into a different world, perhaps even than the one the poet had suspected. It’s interesting to watch where and how it goes. But I worry that these poets leave themselves open – perhaps too open – to being buffeted by the winds of history without thinking through the risks and implications. I sometimes worry that this is where I’d put my own poetry today if I really thought about it hard.

In the larger world than just poetry, it seems to me that theory without a social movement is severely reduced in what it can do. The theoretical orientation of western Marxism seems to me never to have been surpassed – capital continues to be the most powerful social force in human history – even as the practical utility of Marxism has shown its limitations. Marx himself was able to see quite perceptibly into the future up to, say, the age of automated manufacturing, but once capital ceased to be based on manufacturing as a primary engine of wealth creation, it was able to move well beyond the reach of unionized labor. It bothers me no end to realize that Marx, who was the first true advocate of globalization, would cringe to see the various forms of protectionist thinking that are taking place today without regard of political orientation. The fight to keep jobs in the U.S. is not wrong, as such, but it is no different than the desire to build a wall to protect us from Mexico, that instance of profound xenophobia.

But what do I mean by globalization in that last paragraph? Simply the evolution of a single world market, both for goods & services, raw materials & finished products, such that company X in nation A cannot flee to nation B the minute the workers get uppity. We are still far from that day in a world in which the majority of the world’s citizens have never heard a dial tone. But we are moving in that direction quite rapidly.

Marx himself appears to have imagined globalization as being immanent in the late 19th century. We know this from the fact that he saw it as a necessary precondition for working to create real change. Stalin’s “socialism in one country” was the next century’s attempt to get around that fundamental principle, and the result was mass starvation. North Korea has replicated that experiment, and that result. To call what became of those nations socialism is to make a mockery of that word. But the deeper question isn’t semantic. It’s the age old What is to be done?

I don’t see anything approaching a movement that could provide the sustaining force to a new generation of theory approximating anything even remotely as rich as that which rose up in Europe in the wake of the two world wars & which flourished for a time in the U.S. after 1968. The environmental movement is the only one that strikes me as even having anything even remotely approaching a global potential, but it is dispersed & fragmented & easily distracted. Tho the reality is that we will have to address the limitation of natural resources question before we have achieved globalization.

In such a time one thing theory can do – one secondary social role it has long fulfilled – is to function as a guilty conscience, a nag, a doubt. Any historic marker that what exists now is neither inevitable nor permanent, that it was different once & will be again. Whether we like those changes or not.

Two things do seem to follow from this. One is a bias on my part toward work that more closely approximates the best of Walter Benjamin. In & around the work of art, I am tempted to call this a sociology of form. Those are two terms that sit very uneasily near one another, and that discomfort is I think a primary dynamic. A lot of what I try to accomplish on this blog amounts to poking one or the other of these terms, trying to push each into some interaction with the other, to see what turns up.

The second is a commitment of theory toward use. What I mean by that is that one has to ask, repeatedly, how does this connect to practice? Both to those social formations who are struggling today for peace, justice, change, the reclamation of the planet itself, and with regards to art to the actual creation of new works. Theory that is content to fixate on the 19th century novel is, by definition, useless. We’re just not there anymore. And haven’t been, by my watch, for over 108 years. Unless it can explain, or deepen our understanding, as to what befell the serious novel, a genre that is all but extinct even as poetry grows & grows & grows.