Monday, February 07, 2005

a few golden ears (for exploration)

Laura Carter tempts me back to Foetry, and I find Robert Creeley engaging nameless critics. Is democratic discourse--a conversation that develops out of original social difference, that drifts from that difference towards, though never reaching, consensus and so always allows for difference and a strong drift towards consensus--can such discourse exist when its strongest proponents rely on anonymity?

Naming names while remaining anonymous is snitch activity. We don't need snitches. I offer my opinion at the beginning of this post, because I want the snitch to understand the dagposition before he or she stops reading. On with the post:

I am soon-to-be-engaged in a bit of discussion about the market and its importance to scholarship with a colleague or two (in response to my earlier post on oppositional poetics); just to say, this matter is on my mind.

Creeley questions critic-anonymity on Foetry's message boards in his own words. I admire his response. His patience. It is adequate enough, I think, to accompany the seeking writing accomplishes with a bit of solid ground upon which to cultivate a healthy community.

Are we so tied to an ideological market (an imaginary representation of the actual market and its conditions) that "the market itself" becomes simply relative? We participate in many formal economies every day: departments, household, rush hour, political, academic, etc. The market economy is different than these for many reasons that I will leave out of this post but will certainly engage should I be pushed in that direction.

Amalgam of theories regarding the market economy; ours, ideally:
1. The market is not a place; it is not an entity; it is not a thing. The market is a process.
2. The market is insensitive to the shared values of fraternity we so cherish because the market is want-regarding not need-regarding.

This is basic stuff. I must say I am inclined to agree with Creeley (citing Ginsberg.) We should think about our audience. Who do we write for? At this moment, who is my audience? I cannot see you all, but I do have an image of you. I am always inclined to shun a for in favor of a with. I reflect, often to my great pain as colleagues will testify: Who am I writing with? "Who am I writing for?" always serves my own purposes and often only on the level of base desire--I can answer the for question in a way that makes me feel better without having to engage myself and others in any real work. My work is in conjunction and cooperation with many other writers, possibly readers I do not know. Yet, an image persists. Whose image persists? (We're getting somewhere here--a "who" always after my own looking for an audience might be a good start to an complicated answer.) Yet, we will always write for some reason or another, regardless of who our audience is or should be.

Is it more valuable to favor an audience who reads my writing because the work appears in a journal or is published as a result of being chosen as the winner of a contest? Should they read it only because it may be associated with other authors who were published there? The easy answer: Some people are overly-concerned with fame. I don't buy this, though. Certainly people like to be recognized. I happen to think that the real problem is located in how we are taught to find value.

Value is taught to be universally equivalent for all things, for all people, for all places, at all times. Value is taught to be found only in formally recognized exchanges where parties exchange what they value less for what they value more, at any given time. This defines the Value of value. Value is not relative to people, places, and things. It may be relative to time. But time like value is measured through market processes; even family- or victorian- values. We count value like we count time: on both hands, and then through multiplication. We like to increase it exponentially in short periods of time; we abhor settling down to learn how to maximize value over longer periods of time. We count fast, in other words, rather than deliberately through habit.

I just received Noah Eli Gordon's The Frequencies and The Area of Sound Called the Subtone (the latter a prize-winner.) Amazing stuff. I am going to write about the works in the next few posts. I read both in one sitting. I don't know how everyone will or has responded to Noah's work; I am working on a project for my dissertation in the same tone as his--sound and form. There is an affinity--formally we write alike. I was shocked, actually. I read The Frequencies and felt right at home. This cannot happen for every reader. He'd be a fool to attempt such a feat. The value of his work though is not relative to the worth assigned to it reader from reader, either more or less deficient or excessive, etc etc. The value of his work is that value we assign it together as author and readers. There is a potential sum-total that is worth more or less to a critic but remains persistent, constant, and concretely unknowable for any one reader at any given time. Noah cannot estimate it, readers cannot count it. It is what it is. Abstractly, then, his work (that sits next to me as I type) is worth more to me than to other readers (or less, had I disliked it.) How could I have expected him to recognize that quality in me? How could he have expected me to look for that in him? Impossibilities we should hope not to solve.

Then why should we feign objectivity in our approach to publication? We shall publish what we want to because that is all we know how to do and, quite frankly, we cannot help ourselves. Are some people going to "cheat." Sure. Let them. I will ask a question sure to get a horrifying response. But I do this with the fake horns on: Who cares? Who does it harm, really?

Anyway, the value of the writing is not in my liking or disliking it. The value is always to be later determined while discussing it. (I think I could choose to discuss the value of the market as a means to distribute Noah's books, for example; as a necessary means. But I find that discussion to serve little purpose for the moment.)

My exploration here has led me to this question:

Is it important to be gifted with publication?
If so, how so? If publication as a result of winning a contest (the gift in question) is significant, what makes it meaningful? Is it the gift itself, publication, that holds the only value or is the gift a return for something? And what do the many possible forms of return signify about us, about the market? We can consider exchange as well: is the publication rewarded worth as much to the author as the work received is to the publishers? Or are we tempted to value the work according to different standards than we value the publication or opportunity to publish? If so, should we allow that disparity in values and standards?

I don't see how a gift of publication through contests (fees paid as a risk taken against the chances of being rewarded with publication) can ever be considered a fair return for the total invested labor of all contestants (creating a work, submitting to the rules for entry, paying fees and postage, waiting-with-patience, etc.) There happens to be a surplus value created and often wasted or never rewarded; I don't want to get too complex or abstract. To the point: the gift is not in publication, but in the submission. (And I mean the word in all its painful complexity.) When writers submit to contests, they labor for the cause regardless of a fix.

What is the cause? Nothing more and nothing less than keeping the market, what there is of it, alive. And I should say that the value in keeping the market alive is that the market activity is often the only visage the discourse community is allowed in public. These economies are not equivalent, but they do reveal one another. As for the gift of submission: the return will only ever meet the expectations of one and that expectation must always be measured against the sum of expectations of all those who submitted and lost. Does it really matter who is chosen? Certainly nobody should stake a life of work on a contest win. Although, depending on the contest, a writer may become a valuable commodity. Once again, I insist for the sake of argument, that value is determined not by what it means to win for one but by what it means to lose with the all the others, participants or not.

If we are going to use the market as a meaningful indicator of value, we must realize that we are looking forward to something, some value, as a return for work completed that is never going to be fully realized. Of course, there is always self-publishing. Regardless, we are in a culture that devalues the work in self-promotion. The typical critique against self-promotion is that such behavior devalues community. Whether or not a contest is fair or unfair, contest winners do not hurt the community. The writing community, through its many shapes and shared discourse(s), persists not so much regardless of publication but independent of and alongside it.

Foetry's repeated claim that publishing contests are little more than mail fraud is laughable. Theirs is nothing more than an attempt to locate a complaint in the market, actually concretely plant it or lodge it, as opposed to formally debating it within the discourse community. There is no promise of just publication; there is no way to prove "fair" reward; there is no definition for the most deserving work. Unfortunately, "I know this work and admire the author more than the others" is equivalent to "I found this work to live up to its potential better than all the others."

Thinking John Rawls here for a moment. A contest cannot promise that each contestant is to "have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others" other than to allow everybody who wishes a liberty to enter a contest. A fee, like tuition, is one way to show a willingness to participate in a specific tradition. With tuition, scholarship; with entry fees, contestant-ship. The following questions, while significant in determining outcomes in notorious contests, do not hamper the liberty to submit: Where did you go to school?; Who did you write with?; Who does this remind me of? Furthermore, worthwhile writing is never anonymous. Readers recognize work in the breath if not the name. Even if it were possible to promise blind-judging, readers are going to like specific poems, stories, and essays more than others and often evaluate out of habit. What should the standard be? Is any standard for judging fair in every circumstance for all time?

I can return to Creeley's complaint now. How can a just critique of this milieu, then, be argued anonymously? I can point to every editor, as an individual, and publication, as an entity. What good does it do to publish if my concern is merely for the ability to be-published? A name-less venture if there ever was one is "I want to see my name in lights." Because once there, nothing named can be accomplished. Good thing for beauty that the sublime is hanging around, or else we'd all write beautiful poems without affect. What good does it to complain if I am not willing to offer it a body? I doon't know where I am going with this...back to point: I hope I am making it clear that I see a distinct connection of the body and the work. Not in the sense of ownership as much as concrete position.

To the beginning: we might submit that a market is a process in which ideas as trends compete for space in which to --what? Well, it is not the place where discourse occurs. It is not the place in which dwelling occurs, dwelling in poetry or in prose. It is not a language once learned that promises access to others speaking in kind. The market is not the thought about what is significant enough to be recognized as valuable enough to publish. The market is sensitive only to private transactions; it subordinates rather than coordinates; it allows a participant in the process entry and access only; it does not operate through voice. And the latter might be the most important point. So many academics attempt to establish a useful connection between a public sphere and a market. As if merely radicalizing one leads to the radicalization of the other.

The market can care less for discourse. It has in its character to care less for reasonable claims. The market process works against our best judgment, and flies in the face of reason. The market functions regardless.

Let's attempt to be honest about this process. From where we approach the market is significant. Where does a poem go when it is published? In one sense, it is merely published in exchange for something else. On the other hand, a poem goes from the author to the reader. Often, written work simply goes elsewhere. What is exchanged in the market is not what is exchanged between author and reader. The market economy is a process which limits an individual's access to books. This may be unjust. Controlling for access, the conversation between writers and readers and writers and writers must take place outside of the market. I am not denying other claims exist, worthwhile claims, reasonable claims, that take opposing positions. I wish only to argue that a dependence on the market working in a manner that best serves authors and readers is an unhealthy and unfortunate habit because such a dependence willingly ignores one of the more persistent and powerful market characteristics. That the market is insensitive to needs.

But the market should (does, actually) serve a purpose. What do we depend on the market for? Simply put: a market is a process through and in which to practice opposition. And this should be added to my response to A Waldman's essay the other day. But it should be nothing more for us. It should represent our battle to put our thoughts out there even though language cannot quite get our thoughts right. Our thoughts--those hopes and needs-- are expressed in a language carved out of the work that occurs in the market. It would be disingenuous to claim that the market is where where we exchange our work in order to become recognized and to share recognition and, in additon, that place where our work becomes significant. Again, the market is not a place. Nevertheless, we should discourage thinking about it being that without which we cannot do our work.

Our work is significant as it appears and becomes more or less known in the market. And you may choose to work within the market or outside of it. Exit is always a choice. But as for our voices. Well, the market is deaf. And so we speak always alongside it operating.

Try having that meaningful discussion
about your work
with all your friends
in every place, they
listen to your voice
from a distance
through telephone
you must utter it
all the while counting
minutes as syllables
and then your talking
market talk and selling
that discussion
on the cheap
out all the difference
try making your voice
sound the same, no really
mean the same for
every person listening
and all those who chose
not to
try making it work for
the absent always present
make it mean the same thing
say it
make it the same thing, every time
no ideas but in values

try swallowing a wave
lapped atlantic mouthful
salt and all. if any
thing of moment occurs
they'll complain about it.

the market is a process that is insensitive to our needs. We need poetry, folks. Don't you feel it? I don't want it; I need it. That is opposition number one. A persistent tone. My ability to project into our community is not maintained nor cultivated in the market but through a formal cooperation between readers and writers within actual locations. The market has no landscape for us to walk throughout or within to get to the other side--no margins, then. The market satisfies our wants and useful exchanges of goods and services. I suppose we should be happy that it satisfies such wants without our having to insist. With writing, we must insist.

Anonymity is useful in the market; it helps one understand what occurs during exchange. You do not need to know the buyer or the seller. Anonymity is useless to an author in the market and to the reader as well. (I am not making claims about the need for the ability to remain silent or anonymous.)

I learn many things from my students. In my creative writing classes are good readers and good writers who feel they cannot read not write yet do so anyway. It's absolute torture for many of them. I respect their efforts. But I fear where their anxiety issues from: the notion that a certain kind of person writes and writes well; a certain kind of person reads and reads well. What is it about them that fails to meet the criteria? How do they not look the part? Who restricts them? It isn't the publishers. Certainly they are hard on themselves, often their own worst enemies, but we kill it in them by specializing it, fetishizing it, making it more than what IT is and making it embody a look.

--And anyway, what is next at Foetry? Will they be wanting a gratuity?


Daniel Nester said...
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Daniel Nester said...

Geez this is great. Usually I just get drunk and go to public computers and put insults on all the discussion boards, then get thrown off. Call it therapy. But you're going at the FoMos with salient, critical thoughts. And good critical thoughts at that. That Mr. Creeley goes on the boards sounds so sad, for some reason.

Laura Carter said...

Sorry to tempt you there.... They do bring up good questions, but go about them all the wrong way. I think the "Neo-Shakespearean Bloodbath" is the funniest thing I read.

I get a whiff of unhealthy Libertarianism in the rhetoric: kind of like the husband of a colleague of mine who kept coming back to my blog because he paid taxes and felt he had a right to know (and protest against, in right-wing fashion) what I was doing, because I was a member of the grad student listserv....

I'm planning on using the same tactic to check criminal records out of the police station, since I'm a taxpayer and all. They let you do that, right?

Laura Carter said...

They are also accepting donations, as many "non-profit" websites do to keep running.

I too love Gordon's work; when I read him for the first time, I felt as you did, I think.

Jake Adam York said...


Yours is a large and complex post, so I may not respond to it in its entirety, but I want to engage your comments about anonymity in civic dialogue, certain of your arguments about the nature and value of publication(s) and the "gift," and perhaps value in general with regard to the contest and publication "scenes."

First, the issue of anonymity. I do tend to agree with you, by and large, especially after reading Creely's posts at Foetry. He shows up, names himself and his history. Yet, the moderators of the discussion board participate in a very marginal and authoritarian way in the discussion, founding their authority on their anonymity rather than on their specific history. So there is a differential that cannot ever fully resolve itself into a difference of opinion or intellectual position: the asymmetry in the conversation prevents commensurability on some level. So, to the extent that the discussion is instigated, by Foetry, and engaged, by Creely, in the interest of understanding, the nonymous v anonymous conversation is ultimately unsatisfying if not altogether assured of failure. Therefore, I wish, in the interest of a fair, open, and ultimately more useful dialogue, that the Foetry folk were not anonymous, for then we'd know they weren't pulling punches, withdrawing information in the service of withdrawing identity. Foetry serves two masters here, one more effectively than the other.

On the other hand, as the Foetry writers seem to feel victimized by the system, even as the champion the victim, the desire to remain anonymous is perfectly understandable and perhaps unavoidable. I know this started well before the Ward Churchill thing blew up, but if ever a case illustrates the tendency for controversial positions to inspire not dialogue but retributive action, the Churchill case is it. And while there are fewer stories (apocryphal or not) about poets being criminated for their disagreements with systems or communities, they are nevertheless there --- take for example the supposed banishing of Gabe Gudding from the Buffalo Poetics listserv --- so it's understandable why some would believe anonymity the only course (and yes, I am aware of the weakness of my Gudding example, since he fought back in with his "A Defense of Poetry").

I think we try, when we teach Creative Writing, to preserve a student's anonymity from time to time, bringing work suddenly and without announcement before the class to illustrate a point. In such cases, the student whose work is in question studiously maintains his or her anonymity, in most cases, in order to avoid ridicule. The idea that your friend may be the person in question keeps you, the commentator, kind --- though one hopes this does not keep one from being honest.

Now, beyond these general reasons for preferring anonymity, I think the anonymity of the Foetry folk is part of their general argument (and here I get down to the issue of value, as well). Foetry seem to assume that one wants a fair contest because the contest is worth something --- and it would be understandable to assume that the contest is worth something because someone respectable, i.e., the judge, authorizes and envalues your work by his or her choice. This last assumption is a reasonable and, I think, widely held one (more on this below). The basic complaint of Foetry, based on these premises, would then be that the determination of value, which was supposed to be determinable in some abstract and absolute sense, has been avoided or that poetic value (the value of the poems' craft, &c) has been substituted by personal value. The protest involves the divesting of all names and identities in the hopes that poetry, like argument, can be evaluated without interest in the person.

(The moment on the Foetry discussion board in which one of the posters and then the moderator reverence Creely is evidence of the power of recognition.)

I only wish this were taken a bit further --- as far as you are taking it, Gary --- into an investigation of the mechanics of literary value. For, it seems to me, if one wants to question the worth of personal value, one would eschew contests altogether --- not just the allegedly unscrupulous ones --- since the whole business of judgment, the identification of the evaluator, brings the system of personal value into play again, thereby rendering impossible on the part of future readers the pure literary judgment the Foetry folks seem to desire.

I would like to see this talked out, for it would get to the root of the bias against self-publication (though not against self-promotion of any kind). University communities seem to thrive on resting the onus of judgment elsewhere ---as in tenure reviews or job searches in which the external review becomes at least as important if not more important than the internal review --- and self-publication frustrates the search for external validation that indemnifies the local community against mistake. (It's just a matter of time before those complaining about Churchill's tenure at CU bring this up, but they cannot recover the external letters used during tenure review without violating tons of privacy concerns.)

At the same time this discussion (especially within the Foetry forums) needs to become more explicit about the question of the location of value and the specific value of the contests, the discussion also must get clearer on the issues of money and the gift.

Money. By and large, folks assume that a dollar is a dollar is a dollar, and an equal payout procures not an equal chance but an equal product. When one puts money in at casino or the OTB, one gets a proportional chance at the odds, though not a guaranteed equality of outcome and not a guarantee that the odds will remain constant through the contest. The field shifts and one's sure bet becomes a sure loss. You have to remember in such a situation that you are not buying a product or an entry into the pure operations of chance. You are paying for the evaluation, for the act not the outcome, so you have to abide by the decision or show your own desire to be for your own validation. (This is why I find ridiculous the Foetry call for the "no judge shall be bound" clauses to be stricken.)(And there's more to be said about this w/r/t the Churchill thing.)

The gift. Gifts are parts of exchange economies, but, as Lewis Hyde showed in his book The Gift, a gift is illegitimate if it is proffered in payment for previous receipts or favors. You hope for a gift, the offering that cannot by its nature be paid, at which point you become obligated not to repay the favor but to give another and different gift (Hyde again). I think the concern that judges are somehow repaying their friends belies the complexity of any gift economy --- if one could prove that mutual gift obligations interfere with the judgment (see the interesting comments at Foetry on whether or not Komunyakaa knew one of the folks he chose as the winner of a contest) or a conversation.

Creely rightly points out that, as a judge, one's own sense of values comes into play very seriously --- this is why the judge is engaged, right? --- so one shouldn't be surprised to see the results of a contest reflect interests of the judge that may be evident elsewhere --- in personal or professional association, for example. The idea that people agree with one another without recognizing or even reaching out for their sympathizers is just ignorant and proven so by Foetry itself, though their requests for recusals seem to wish for just such disinterested and disconnected judges.

To summarize (and I'm sure I've left something ragged here), I understand the motives of Foetry, though I think they complicate themselves in ways that make the fulfillment of their own motives impossible. If there were a reason to come out, so to speak, the interest in a frank and open system would seem to be the best reason.

If I come to any other ideas, I'll post them in one of my blogs and link back to you.

Thanks again for a quickening post.


Daniel Nester said...
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Laura Carter said...

I also think we ought to be worried about Ranger West's Literary Renaissance.

Some of this stuff rivals the jim side for funny!