Tag Archives: bourdieu

Simon Jarvis, Adorno and complicity

This is the second attempt to do some kind of justice to “Lessons and Carols” from the recent ‘Eighteen Poems’ collection. In view of the response to the first attempt, I think I should reiterate that what follows is entirely provisional and that I am likely to change my mind as time goes by.

This particular poem is ‘about’ many things but one of the centralish threads would seem to be that we participate in the current ways of doing even though we deplore them and, in turn, deplore ourselves for knowing this and continuing to participate. Before taking this any further, I think that I should present some evidence for this bold assertion:

    All that I feel for them floats in an ether of foolish
      half-waking conjecture, cutting the circuit short just
    where thought might become painful, might tell me how to wake up.

The ‘them’ refers to the gifts that we buy for family members at Xmas and I’m currently reading these as a kind of metaphor for all the products of the free marketplace- a place that lulls us into this kind of anaesthetized thoughtless folly. This is accomplished stuff in that it covers a lot of ground in just three lines and carries a couple of deft phrases. This ‘half-waking conjecture’ in which feelings float is effective but I’m not entirely sure that it can be described as ‘foolish’ – the point for me is that my participation in this bauble-driven world is anything but foolish, I am fully aware of the compromises that I make and tell myself all kinds of stories (at least I’m doing something, I try to live an honest and decent life etc etc) to make this reasonably bearable.

Just after writing the above paragraph I fell across (in a big book about Gerhard Richter) a quote from Adorno which may inform some part of this theme:

Whilst thought has forgotten how to think itself, it has at the same time become its own watchdog. Thinking no longer means anything more than checking at each moment whether one can indeed think….The socialization of mind keeps it boxed in, isolated in a glass case, as long as society is itself imprisoned.

Jarvis is probably this country’s strongest Adorno advocate, his ‘Critical Introduction’ is an incisive endorsement of all aspects of the Adorno project. Coupling this with Jarvis’ view that poetry can ‘do’ philosophy really well and it is possible to read ‘Lessons and Carols’ as a working through of what Richard Haidu describes as Adorno’s ‘testy pessimism’.

I don’t share this pessimism although I can see that the analysis behind it has some merit. I’m more convinced by the gauntlet that Bourdieu throws down in ‘Distinction’ which points out that all forms of creative expression are fundamentally tied to the prevailing economic order. I’d like to think that most of my adult life has been spent finding ways to act/intervene that make small but incremental changes to this dynamic. If I didn’t do this then I’d probably remain in the Slough of Despond for a Very Long Time.

So, this poem offers both an ideological and personal challenge that asks questions about the current Bebrowed strategy for changing the world. It also further undermines my view that poetry and ideology don’t mix. Jarvis’ work over recent years has moved me closer to a grudging acknowledgement that poetry that ‘does’ ideology can be successful in both arenas.

This is an accomplished and adept poem but it sometimes goes over the top in making its point. The second ‘might’ on the third line quoted above is an example of (to my ear) too much emphasis being given so that the ‘message’ is diluted.

The other aspect that springs to mind is the use of the first person to make the wider point- he presents his own situation as being compromised by ordinary things and thus gently suggests that the reader should consider the extent of compromise in his/her own life. This is of course well worn device but Jarvis gives it a final twist:


    May the bereft state continue its care for our welfare
      there in the dark, where its artless security shines!
    I shall go walking back home, while these measures and lines
      borrow some part of their tune from the fictional spirits.

I’m not usually a fan of the self referential in poetry. There was a time when I thought it was clever and daring but now I find most of it to be too knowing and mannered for its own good and this is probably a reasonable example. The theme has already been spelled out with some aplomb but is somewhat undermined by this ending which seems to say that only ‘some part’ of the poem is bound up with society’s imprisonment whilst Adorno and Bourdieu would both say that all of creative expression is thus fettered.

I also need to confess that I don’t understand the exclamation mark which seems simply inept but Jarvis is too accomplished to succumb to this level of naffness.

This is a provisional reading that’s in some kind of progress, on the next occasion I want to tackle the more complex nature of the spirits and the gifts.

Keston Sutherland interviewed. At length.

I am now going to write about an interview with Keston Sutherland which appeared on the literateur site last year. I’m going to do this because he’s an important poet and critic and he says some things that I’d like to unpack and throw around.

Before I do this, I need to add that the people at literateur (I do hope that the name is playfully self-referential) have quoted me, in arduity mode, in their introduction at the top of the page. I didn’t notice this, it was pointed out to me by Keston Sutherland. The problem with writing things is that sometimes you’d quite like to change or delete what had been written with such sharp precision but a few months ago. Caroline Bergvall’s site is now sharing with the world my desire to be Steve van Zandt- for example. I’m reasonably happy with this particular quote although I’d have preferred the inclusion of the next sentence- “No-one can doubt either his commitment or skill and everyone should (must) read him.” as well. I then noticed that someone in the comment thread had taken issue with the assertion which the good people at literateur were then keen to distance themselves from. The temptation is, of course, to intervene, defend my position and to pour scorn on everyone else concerned but I won’t because anybody can click on the link, read the rest of the carefully crafted and elegant piece and come to their own conclusions.

The Keston Sutherland media management machine is more effective than that of any other ‘innovative’ poet but there are times when it comes unstuck. In this instance, someone should have thought for longer than three seconds about the photograph which does nothing for Sutherland and even less for the promotion of poetry. In fact I could go on for a very long time about how this kind of stupidity, together with garbled or badly recorded readings continue to undermine the product- and poetry is a product.

The other problem with this particular interview is one of tone, I have been critical of the current Jacket site for giving Bergvall a very free ride in a recent interview but this seems to be more of an issue here because of Sutherland’s talent and his quite central / pivotal position in the scheme of things and because he does set himself up for more than a degree of controversy.

The ‘feel’ of this conversation is a little too cosy for my taste and allows Sutherland to get away with a lot without being challenged.

I’m about to list some of the missed opportunities but I also need to acknowledge that Keston is amenable to challenge and has responded to most of mine at length and with good grace, even when he’s wrong.

Let’s start with the guff about language in the second paragraph-

But it is language which nonetheless is throughout always committed to mining the echoes and resources and repercussions of ordinary and everyday language.

The obvious response is ‘no, it isn’t’ combined with a carefully selected slew of foreign phrases that cannot be in anyway thought of as the echoes, resources and repercussions of ‘everyday’ language. We’d also like to know a bit more about what ‘repercussion’ might mean in this particular context. It might also have been useful to probe the apparent contradiction contained in the third paragraph of this answer.

Then there’s this-

So for me, right now, the most important political responsibility—and I positively identify it as a Mayakovskyan responsibility for the poet—in an event like that, is to walk around and to discover in the vernacular of protest and anger the means to produce a complex, perceptive account of underlying social contradiction that can on some level be intelligible to the people who were on that march and that will properly reflect back part of the experience of being there—that rather than any kind of de rigeur intensifying climax or amplified poetical outburst which screws up into a ball and perfects its energy at the peak of its intensities of violence.

There is an argument that goes that the invocation of Mayakovsky is not something that can pass by unremarked, most of us will want to know who Mayakovsky was and why Keston is using him in this context and why this identification is said to be ‘positive’. Not everybody reading this interview will have read Keston’s ‘This is not a metaphor’ and may therefore need to know what this kind of responsibility might be.

The nature and function of the truly political poem is also worth unpacking – I now have this image of the poet on the picket line, in the kettle accumulating the words, phrases and gestures of those around him so that these can then be sifted through and elements reformed as a poetic ‘reflection’ of the social reality of the kettling moment. I am trying reasonably hard but I can’t see how this gets us away from the cultural dilemma so accurately described by Bourdieu.

The last sentence in this paragraph is a bit of a mess because I’m not sure whether Sutherland is conceding some value to the vacuous posturing of the bourgeois poet – apart from the fact that it isn’t revolutionary and I’d also like to query the relationship as described by him between the bourgeoisie and the means of production.

I also fail to understand why this contrast needs to be made, Sutherland’s position remains that of the aspiring social realist and the distinction between this and other positions should be rather obvious by now.

I’d also need to query Sutherland’s apparently straightforward understanding of all things bourgeois because I’m of the view that, even from a social realist perspective, the changing face of the upper middle classes make things a little more complex and nuanced.

Much time is spent on the transition from verse to prose but I’d have like more on the transition from imperialism to sexuality and sexual identity. I remain of the view that the latest Odes represent a major challenge to the rest of us in all kinds of ways and I’d like to know a bit more about the motives for taking this quite courageous leap.

There is a debate to be had about just how overrated John Coltrane’s ‘late’ phase might be and whether the ‘Impressions’ album is the only one that makes any kind of musical sense but a conversation about poetry isn’t the place to have it- unless of course late Coltrane is felt to be an influence on the work in which case I’d need to know a lot more.

The refutation of elitism is the sort of thing that you would expect from a Marxian poet who has allied himself to all things Cambridge but it’s not a valid refutation, there needs to be some concession to the privilege bestowed by an Oxbridge education whilst at the same time defending the use of what many would consider to be elitist tropes and phrases. The ‘life’s incomprehensible’ quip is a lift from Geoffrey Hill and not worthy of either of them. I’d far rather stick with the ‘it is what it is (read the fucking words)’ honesty espoused by Pound and Philip Roth without the ‘Try death’ sneer which is simply offensive.

A finalish thought, just how compatible are the social realist and wrong poetry strategies? Or, is this another example of hedging the bet?

As ever with Sutherland, there are lots to think about and I am going to return to Mayakovsky and ‘This is not a metaphor’ and think about the difference between circulation and publication and whether we need to throw this into the web 3 mix…

Pierre Bourdieu and the self-taught

I’m not sure where I want to begin with this and even less certain about what it is that I want to say. Bourdieu looms large in my personal pantheon in that he wrote with enormous clarity and I can’t argue with most of what he said. Most people would accept that ‘Distinction’ is his finest work in that it relentlessly tears apart any notion of the autonomy of personal taste. The tome is packed with the results of research which points irrefutably to that our class position determines what music we play, what food we eat, what clothes we wear and what books we read. I can’t argue with this, I see the evidence for this in all aspects of the media every day. I’m also immensely amused at the distaste and exasperation of the bourgeoisie every time the working classes try to rise above their appointed place.
I consider myself to be largely self-taught in that I didn’t attend college and I come from a petit-bourgeois background. In my head this has a number of advantages in that I can read across disciplines as I wish safe in the knowledge that my oddly enquiring mind hasn’t been ‘polluted’ by a university education. So, I can read poetry, history, geography, politics etc. because they interest me and keep my scurrying brain occupied.
This is important to me because, like Keston Sutherland, I find the world to be impossible and need to better grasp the nature of this impossibility. I’m also aware that my tastes betray a kind of inverted snobbery that belies the chip on my shoulder- I’ll always be much keener on the obscure and elitist- especially those modes of expression that offend the established order (Prynne, free jazz, slow cinema et al). This does not mean that I don’t ‘like’ mainstream stuff, it’s just that it isn’t very interesting to me- my boredom threshold is very, very low.
Apart from this I’m also bipolar and it’s bad for my mental health not to be interested but not too interested because that usually means tipping into mania which is unpleasant.
In ‘Distinction’, Bourdieu addresses the self taught (autodidacts) and points out that we’ll never gain full access to the cultural heights because our knowledge is always going to be partial and not in any way sanctioned by the dominant class. I’m going to quote at length from his section on education and the autodictat and then try to make a personal response-
“So it presents no paradox to see to the autodictat’s relation culture and the autodictat himself as products of the educational system, the sole agency empowered to transmit the hierarchical body of aptitudes and knowledge which constitutes legitimate culture, and to constitute arrival at a given level of initiation, by means of examinations and certificates.
Because he has not acquired his culture in the legitimate order established by the education system, the autodidact constantly betrays his very anxiety about the right classification, the arbitrariness of his classifications and therefore of his knowledge- a collection of unstrung pearls, accumulated in the course of an uncharted exploration, unchecked by institutionalised, standardised stages and obstacles, the curricula and progressions which make scholastic culture a ranked and ranking set of interdependent levels and forms of knowledge.”
There I was thinking that I was foot-loose and fancy-free, completely outside a system of sanctified knowledge that is profoundly suspect. To have this illusion of personal autonomy shattered is not a comfortable feeling and has caused some soul searching. It emerges that I am aware of gaping chasms in my knowledge base, I know virtually nothing of linguistics and my familiarity anything scientific is very, very distant. The gaps with regard to literature are more technical in that I don’t know enough about the various forms that a poem can take and I’ve never read anything from the Classical world.
I wish I knew more about the above but I’m very pleased that nobody made me read either Marx or Hegel mainly because they are very, very boring. Perhaps experience of academia would have enabled me to see the flaw’s in Eliot’s poetry earlier than I did and may also have introduced me to the glories of Hill and Prynne.
I think I accept that I am actually just another product of the system and that my kind of quietist cultural autonomy is a contradiction in terms. I therefore have the choice whether to continue ploughing this particular furrow or whether I should go to college.
Incidentally, I quite like the unstrung pearls metaphor as it seems to fit the impossible times in which we live.