Monday, February 09, 2004
some comments on community
A colleague sent me Charles Bernstein's discussion of his "Community and the Individual Talent" and his ideas on virtual communities. I know this interview has been discussed for years, but am intrigued by a few statements he makes. I like what Steve Evans and Amiri Baraka have said. Such a confession concerning my critical perspective will no doubt shed light on how I see--or listen to--the conversation at all and allow me to jump right in. I preface my few comments merely to create a burdened bracket for, oh, the too many points that need to be made...I am, if anything, respectful of those speakers I will not address:
It cannot be overstated that public conversation is more about censorship, constraint, confinement, and proscription than about allowing for a community of difference to speak differently about similar issues. Rousseau fears theatre because of its public display of disdain for ordinary order; he prefers public meetings because of the etiquette and the imposition of traditional form. Theatre is always on the verge of devouring tradition because of its performative characteristics based on an individual artist's interpretation of culture (the individual author), text (the individual actor), and its own performance (the individual audience member). Rousseau's preference for public meetings may allow participants to consider common needs and the constitution of social space; nevertheless, public meetings are not considerate of common participation. Such a consideration is a pose and more a signifier of the too narrowly understood distinctions between private and public space(s)...that's for another post.
Public meetings in our society are shams: mock-ups of what democratic institution might look like: too often, an acceptance of half-assed struggle rather than doing and being: the public sphere is purely ideal--it is alive, in this way, as an ideology that represents the best of what we can achieve if we were to work together at creating a common tradition. The old "out of original social difference", the old "from one many", the new "me and the others". The ideal is: We always can, if we can utter "If we were to do..."
For authors, selling books has a lot to do with this, certainly. But more than marketing for profit and the exploitation of labor that accompanies such exchange, selling public discourse communities has become vital. Students are quite skilled at talking "the talk" to illuminate imagined associations they want to possess. Most don't even read any more.
In addition, virtual communities allow former (and potential, unfortunately) radicals to hide away yet appear public at the same time--allow for the artifice merely rather than a realization as a social good. Supposedly, a fortunate circumstance of technological advance.
Consider that much poetry is now written with these flaws in mind. Form and appearance over substance and meaning; moreover, poems that construct the look of significance and tradition merely. Our best critics resort to finding publishing communities that cultivate a middle-ground between useful- and useless- ness. Steve Evans' discussion of Fence comes to mind. And writing for the look, I argue, sucks the life out of the performance of human being in poetry. In other words, I see an active acceptance of a passive state of being that capitalist production of poetry promotes in building community and cultivating, maintaining a poetic tradition. Many of our poets like to rest on the safe maxim that "There is no market for poetry in the United States." This FACT, imagined because interpretable, allows their entrance into the public conversation about poetry. Rather than taking, making, producing our own poetry and poetics, we are encouraged to be content publishing within small circles of like-minded writers. Nobody is going to read it anyway, right? And how true they are: most don't even read the journals they submit to. How did we get to be on auto-pilot? And the answer is not: THE MARKET IS TO BLAME.
Speaking of institutions rather than communities and contrasting institutions with associations--as if this were all something of the market. I should resist complaint for a concrete point.
So here goes, my utterance, a shot in the dark:
Bernstein writes: "If I resist the idea of a literary community, while working to support the 'actually existing' communities of poets among which I find myself, it is because I want to imagine reading and writing, performing and listening, as sites of conversation as much as collectivity. I want to imagine a constellation of readers who write, to and for one another, with the links always open at the end, spiraling outward--centrifugally--not closing in."
A list of important phrases from CB, emphases mine:
I resist the idea ;
I want to imagine;
sites of conversation as much as collectivity;
constellation of readers; links always open. . .not closing in.
Implied, consciously or not, absorbed: the idea wants sites, constellations, links. What about the poet? What about the person? The labor, the real work? What of the reader?
I believe, as readers and writers, we must not position our struggle to cultivate our communities and conversations in an ideological landscape. We are not resisting IDEAS. Putting the poetry in context with architecture might help. You cannot build a house out of ideas; though, a house begins as an idea in conversation with a set of ideas referring to a tradition. Many folks build a house. And so, many build a poem. And to refuse this is to resist a poetic form; therefore, to resist poetry.
Also, simply resisting ideas never got nobody nowhere--wait, not true, resisting ideas creates a real and measurable, truly quantifiable, distance between the individuals resisting. In this manner, actual communities grow apart and into virtual communities. Such a strategy of resistance is a move underground and not in effort to "go under to get over" but a distinct entrenchment, a digging in and fixing, a vanishing from the public meeting place.
The links in virtual communities are not open at one end. Such a line of flight may be a line of flight but it is not necessarily useful. And worse: Virtual-ly, exclusion is simple, effortless, and UNreCOGNIZED too often. A constellation carries with it the sense of permanence not in going to be around for awhile but in that it is recognized as a specific FORM that has the staying power of an ordered interpretation of history. Constellations don't recognize contemporaneity, aren't heterogeneous.
Constellations don't spiral outward,
sit constant, solid, defined--
constellations are simply lookers.
I am in a position, now, as an author and scholar, "I find myself in". But now that I have found myself in a position, the question for me is: What ought I do?
I am reminded in my arguments with my colleagues, many of whom explicitly refuse to cultivate communities because of the ease with which the virtual communities associate and thrive
STOP: I am aware of the irony, btw; I am actively writing and conversing "out here"; I am not arguing against it; I am, however, claiming we need to actively criticize our associations in a way that overcomes the safety any public meeting insists exists.
CONTINUE: I am reminded of Hegel's concept of the "beautiful soul": the belle ame projects its own disorder onto the world and works to cure it by imposing its law of the heart on everyone else. For Lacan, the beautiful soul fails to recognize his raison d'etre in the disorder he denounces in the world. In other words, we may foster the virtual, celebrate it, hope for the best with our "actually existing" communities and STILL contribute to the confinement of access to the public conversation.
Constellations may contain space but the form of the constellation is always already defined.
Such definition purposefully excludes specific people for the sake of form itself. And this is important for anybody considering the reformation of poetics, doing poetry, writing in general. Even attempts to deform rely on reformation.
When Dora complained of men treating her as an object for exchange, she wasn't allowed a claim in the discourse about the treatment of women. Instead, Freud begged her to consider her own complicit participation in her exploitation. It is safe to ask those seeking refuge to consider their own guilt, to exploit their need to participate in a useful manner in a way that justifies our own positions...this is one very nasty aspect of absorption.
It isn't enough to find a way to build yet another community, virtual or actual. It isn't enough to problematize the public sphere, to critique associations and institutions, all nexuses of fevered egos and capitalists. An attempt to locate a valuable first-person plural--that's what I desire.