Tag Archives: stupefaction

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’.

Keston Sutherland on Beckett and embellishment

I’ve just bought Sutherland’s ‘Stupefaction’ which contains four long essays. I haven’t yet read any of these but there is something in the introduction to the ‘Wrong Poetry’ essay that I feel I need to respond to. I’ve written about a shorter version of this and will be interested to see the direction that the longer one takes.

The introduction starts with Hegel on knowledge and goes on to attack Yirmiyahu Yovel’s 2005 translation of the preface to the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t care about Hegel and am remarkably relaxed about this, Hegel is not one of those thinkers that causes those feelings of inadequacy in this auto-didact that Bourdieu describes so acutely. I can however share in the anger that is felt when a translation does a disservice to the original. I remember my sense of violation on reading a recent and very bad translation of ‘Orlando Furioso’ and I continue to despair at the plaudits that John Felsteiner received for his skewed translation of Celan. So, I can understand this kind of getting cross especially when Yovel states that he has ‘followed the letter of the original Hegelian text….using straightforward contemporary style and avoiding literary embellishment’ and goes on to tell us ‘I broke Hegel’s long sentences or simplified their structure, I also omitted his italics’. You don’t have to care about Hegel to comprehend the monumental stupidity of such a strategy in any context. It is therefore reasonable that Sutherland should scathe but he does so (in part) with this- “Every reader of Beckett will know that literature is not so easily avoided, and that nothing embellishes like simplification and ommission”.

The first piece of unpacking that needs to be done with this is about the sneer that lurks within. I’m fond of the ‘anybody’ device, my current favourite being ‘anybody who has thought about this for longer than thirty seconds will know….” because it implies that the object of my scorn either hasn’t given this much thought or that he or she is actually incapable of reflective/analytical thinking. Throwing something specific into the mix does raise the stakes however because it is creating a specific coterie (readers of Beckett) who are in some way especially aware of these two specific points.

It just so happens that I’m a current and attentive re-reader of Beckett and neither of these assertions spring immediately from the page. I readily accept that there are many different Becketts doing many different things in many different ways but I’m struggling to square either of these with the Beckett that’s in my head.

Let’s start with the avoidance of literature (which is different from the avoidance of “literary embellishment”- something which Sutherland neatly overlooks). I take it that Sutherland intends us to know that Beckett is an example of a writer whose apparent rejection of literary conceits and devices still results in great literature. I don’t think that Beckett does reject or avoid literature, I think the large body of his work from 1945 on over demonstrates an intensification of literary strategies rather than an avoidance of them. There are far too many examples that I can produce to underline this but I’ll try just three. This is from ‘Not I’:

…for her first thought was…oh long after…sudden flash…brought up as she had been to believe…with the other waifs…in a merciful…[brief laugh]…God…[Good laugh]…first thought was…oh long after…sudden flash…she was being punished…for her sins…a number of which then…further proof if proof were needed…flashed through her mind…one after another…then dismissed as foolish…

(The bits is square brackets are Beckett’s stage directions which are in italics in the original.)

This is how ‘Company’ begins:

A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.

To one on his back in the dark. This he can tell by the pressure on his hind parts and by how the dark changes when he shuts his eyes and again when he opens them again. Only a small part of what is said can be verified. As for example when he hears, You are on your back in the dark. Then he must acknowledge the truth of what is said. But by far the greater part of what is said cannot be verified. As for example when he hears, You first saw the light on such and such a day. Sometimes the two are combined as for example, You first saw the light on such and such a day and now
you are on your back in the dark. A device perhaps from the incontrovertibilitv of the one to win credence for the other. That then is the proposition. To one on his hack in the dark a voice tells of a past. With occasional allusion to a present and more rarely to a future as for example, You will end as vou now are.

Finally this is from ‘The Lost Ones’:

The truth is no searcher can readily forego the ladder. Paradoxically the sedentary are those whose acts of violence most disrupt the cylinder’s quiet.Fourthly those who do not search or non-searchers sitting for the most part against the wall in the attitude which wrung from Dante one of his rare wan smiles.

The first thing that I ever understood about Beckett (and here I’m getting quite protective) is that primarily there is a distillation and compression going on rather than an avoidance, that whatever he is doing (like Rothko) is saturated in the practices and effects of what’s gone before and, I would argue, this is what ‘any’ reader should and does know. The above examples aren’t carefully chosen but are from the things I was reading yesterday, my point would be even easier to make if I used any of the longer plays or novels- as anybody who has read Beckett would know.

I’m now going to address the use of ’embellish’ which the OED defines in the following ways:

  1. To render beautiful;
  2. To beautify with adventitious adornments; to ornament;
  3. Now often with sense to ‘dress up’, heighten (a narration) with fictitious additions;
  4. To brighten (in feeling), cheer.

I’m taking it that both parties are using the first part of the third definition. I have absolutely no idea whether Hegel resorted to literary dressing up but I am firmly of the view that (if he did) these should be included- the sentence structure must be retained and the italics left in purely for reasons of obtaining as clear as possible an understanding of what he meant at the time of writing.

Harold Pinter (Nobel prize winner and leading Beckett disciple) once said that he always returned to Beckett because he knew that Beckett would always rub his nose in the shit. I wouldn’t go quite as far as this because there are many more dimensions to Beckett than this. What I would take issue with is whether any of Beckett results in the kind of dressing up that Sutherland implies.

I could go on about this at much greater length- it is remarkable how much stuff Sutherland gives me to think about and argue with and ‘Stupefactions’ will no doubt trigger off a whole load of thoughts.

Finally, I wonder if Beckett is being used to add cachet to the argument, it strikes me that either Joe Luna or Vanessa Place are much more appropriate examples….

Stupefaction is available from Amazon for £12.

A Response from Keston Sutherland

Since this was posted, I’ve had the following response from Keston-

“I’m grateful for your post on that remark in my book _Stupefaction_. I
think our wires may be just a little crossed. Perhaps you remember that
in _Molloy_ Beckett writes “it is not at this late stage in my relation
that I intend to give way to literature” (something like that, that’s
almost but not quite verbatim). His joke is that literature has until
now been successfully altogether avoided and that he means to keep it
that way. Of course the truth is that is was never avoided for a moment.
My point about embellishment is a riposte to Yovel, whose word that is;
but it is also the suggestion that Beckett understood, painfully and at
real cost, that you can’t avoid addition simply by means of subtraction:
in the context of my criticism of Yovel, the point is that every
omission, levelling, normalization into familiar idioms, etc, is in fact
a positive addition to the text, or if you like a “literarization” of
it. Yovel claims that literariness can be trimmed and expunged; I
counterclaim that the trimming and expunging is itself a modality of the
literary (and that no-one understood that fact so well as Beckett). In
any case I certainly didn’t intend a “sneer”. The chapter “Marx in
Jargon” which precedes “Wrong Poetry” and sets the stage for it is an
investigation into the meaning of the idea that “anyone” or “everyone”
could know something, so that when I make that remark in “Wrong Poetry”
it is from a theoretical basis already established earlier in the book.”