Tag Archives: distinction

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, wrong poetry and the cultural game.

I’m reading Sutherland’s ‘Stupefaction’ which contains an expanded version of the ‘Wrong Poetry’ essay that I wrote about some time ago. In that post I made a comment in response to Vance Maverick about ‘wrong’ poetry being a potential means of escape from Bourdieu’s ‘iron cage’.

Sutherland addresses the Bourdieu dilemma in a way that I’ll attempt to explain shortly but first I’d better give my take on the nature of the cage. For those who don’t know, Bourdieu was a Marxist sociologist who undertook a comprehensive study of cultural taste and practice in France. The results were published in ‘Distinction’, a landmark book that spelled out the bad news for those of us who clung to the notion of the (at least) partial autonomy of the artist. Bourdieu showed that all forms of artistic endeavour, even the most radically subversive, are structured and determined by the economic order and that all creative interventions were just further moves in this ‘cultural game’

I first read this in the mid-eighties and would have loved to have written it off as yet another piece of simplistic, reductive Marxist polemic but for the fact that is the greatest postwar sociologist with an impeccable body of work and ‘Distinction’ put forward such a comprehensive and well researched picture of how things are that I just couldn’t argue with it. I really wanted to find some flaw but couldn’t and still can’t although his description of the auto-didact is too simplistic and insufficiently researched.

So, my predilection for innovative and subversive work doesn’t spring spontaneously from within me but is essentially a product of the economic order which ‘allows’ such work because it perpetuates rather than challenges the established order of things. This is a variation of the Situationist analysis except it has the facts and figures to back it up.

Let’s try and be clear. There is absolutely no escape from the way in which all forms of creative endeavour are the product of the economic order and to pretend otherwise is both naive and stupid. I am not at all pleased to arrive at this fact, nor do I think it any way vindicates the rest of the marxian analysis.

‘Wrong Poetry’ starts on page 91 but only really begins with its subject on page 119 having spent many many words on matters Hegel, Marx and Adorno. I’m sure that this kind of intense abstraction is attractive to those of a dialectical ilk but it does stand as a significant barrier to the rest of us who might be concerned about the current state of poetry.

There is then this as a proposed route out of Bourdieu-

“The difficult thing for a poet who knows this is not to make art that compels cognitive transformation but that avoids being a plaything in the ‘game of culture’; in a capitalist society, pure art like that is just as profoundly bourgeois as theatricalised suspicion itself. In fact, it is an idol of that suspicion. But neither can radical art just smilingly catalogue itself under the heading of this antimony. The truly difficult thing for the poet is to make a poem that pronounces the antimony in the most sociologically eloquent and cognitively strenuous form imaginable.”

He then goes on to describe the life of a line from Wordsworth’s ‘The Thorn’ which was negatively received because of its absence of poetry-

I've measured it from side to side
'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.

Sutherland quotes from a variety of negative reactions before giving us his view that this couplet is, in fact, the best part of the poem. He then uses this to attempt a definition of ‘wrong’ poetry- “It is poetry that cannot fulfil the concept ‘poetry’ and that is illiteral.” This comes with two caveats – that ‘can not’ does not mean ‘will not’ and illiteral does not mean ‘incapable of literalisation’.

Regular readers will know that about once every six weeks or so I have another failed attempt at diagnosing poetry and the poetic and that I have come to the conclusion that (before we begin to think about Bourdieu) poetry, in terms of production, dissemination, cultural framing, class profile and ah-me ness, is the fundamental problem with poetry and anything that encourages more of us to try and address this central problem is a Very Good Thing.

I’m not at all clear that my recent interest in machine generated data and/or the way in which data is structured/framed presents any kind of alternative but what I do know is that you really can’t have your cake and eat it. The only point of the Bourdieu thesis is that there nothing outside of the cultural game, i.e, that even the most self-consciously subversive intervention is just another move in the game and that the components of the game cannot change the structure of the game because these are determined by much larger and more powerful economic forces. So, sociological eloquence and strenuous cognition aren’t really going to enable the poet to stop acting as a ‘plaything’ of the economic order.

There are a couple of clarifications that I think that Sutherland glides over. He confuses the conversation that poetry has with itself with the conversation that poetry has with the rest of the world and attempts to apply the ‘rules’ of the former to the latter. This doesn’t work, the social world in which we all make our way is not in anyway perturbed by the nature of Wordsworth’s couplet and is incredibly likely to be equally unperturbed by many more conceits of this sort. The second piece of clarification is that poetry quite likes being poetic and has little or no interest in genuine (as opposed to affected) innovation.

This is not to say that wrong poetry can be ignored – we need to respond to the gauntlet by embarking on an objective discussion of who may be producing it now, Sutherland cites Prynne and Wilkinson but I’m not convinced, of the borders between the wrong, the strange and the (merely) odd and whether Prynne’s head on collision is the right / best means of approach.

Before any wrong poetry can have effect it might be as well to try and understand the frame within which poetry currently operates- the role of education, the influence of new technologies, the effect of reduced production costs, the ways in which the form is presented and talked about in the wider discourse{s} etc etc. Only then, when we have some real data, does wrongness have any chance of challenging even the most peripheral elements of the game.

As a final interim thought, which of the following could be described as wrong or strange or odd-
1. The last line of every poem in Prynne’s ‘Word Order’;
2. The length of some digressions in Jarvis’ ‘The Unconditional’;
3. The verbatim use of court material in Place’s ‘Statement of Facts’;
4. Jonty Tiplady’s mix of the abstract and the demotic;
5. Keston Sutherland’s inclusion of Black Beauty in ‘Stress Position’;
6. Simon Jarvis’ use of the cross in ‘Dionysus Crucified’.

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.