notes on lyric 5
|Context does matter. Someone writing a poem in a luxury apartment in a great city at the center of a military empire does create a different intentionality from the singer composing with community members, expressing the group’s marginality, loss, and defiance.|
New paragraph. The emphatic “does”es suggest that JK thinks someone would deny all this, though he doesn’t say who or why. What does context matter for? Seemingly, for an evaluation of the ethics of the poetic act. The puzzling hypostasis of “intentionality” recurs. One could gloss this flatfootedly as “Someone writing….has different intentions,” but this suggests a stronger view of the autonomous or “inner” character of intentions than I think JK wants to convey. He has in mind, perhaps, a view (related to Anscombe’s and Wittgenstein’s) on which intentions, like “meanings” (Burge and esp. Putnam) “ain’t in the head” are partly constituted by the social and linguistic background against which they occur.
So there are two possible readings: (1) The intentions with which a poem is written are important (for whatever project), and the social position from which the poem is written is a guide to these intentions. This is a kind of “common-sense” picture. It does make one want to ask whether context is an infallible guide to intention. (2) The intentions with which a poem is written are important, and the social position from which the poem is written is partly or wholly constitutive of that intention. I think JK wants something more like this. Note that the harder one leans toward the “wholly,” the more the fallibility issue will fall away.
The two cases given occupy extremes; they do not exhaust the field. We are told the expressive intention of the “marginal singer” but not that of the imperial apartment dweller (read: New Yorker), but the implication is that the latter, by contrast, expresses privilege and complicity rather than loss and resistance; also, one would think, obliviousness and guilt or shame, as they case may be. (Reading (2) aside, this can’t be the whole story: what if the apartment dweller is a temporarily fortunate housesitter, on a student visa from a poorer country?) This contrast is rhetorically strengthened by the fact that the marginal figure gets to be a “singer,” while the other is merely writing a poem. Curiously, the wording “the singer composing with community members” (compare “the song collectively composed by community members”) suggests that JK can’t get away so easily from a view on which poetic meaning is tied to the text’s production (or stewardship?) by an individual.
Even though these sentences can be picked at, the stance if not the exact account is clear enough – looking ahead, though, it doesn’t seem that JK does much to tie this stance to what’s said in the rest of the paragraph (which jumps around a lot).
The expression “avant-garde” is military in origin, be it from Napoleon’s shock troops or dredged out of Mallory.
Usually “Malory.” Apparently (I had to look this up and don’t have a quote), Morte d’Arthur used the French term in its customary English sense in the late 1400s. Other than that, this is a commonplace. Progression from previous sentence not immediately obvious. Let’s go on.
The modernist avant-garde, and the avant-gardes that have emerged out of modernities, have worked to challenge a status quo, or assert their differences in perception.
Modernism challenges the status quo (literary, social); beyond its specific techniques, it does this (if we can tie in the previous sentence) in part by occupying an “advanced” position. This much is, again, commonplace. (One could muse further on the relationship between an avant-garde and the “regular” troops – an occupying force? – for which it clears the ground.) “Avant-gardes that have emerged out of modernities” is reasonably precise, and consistent with previous discussion; JK is, again, not unduly troubled by a distinction between modernism and post-modernism. There’s no good reason, though, for the capital to have fallen off the first “modernism,” which is supposed to refer to the historically specific, “heroic” avant-garde.
One can state the means by which this challenge is made in terms of “differences in perception”; however, if JK thinks that one of the things that brings about modernism is the “pressure” placed on “the certainty of observation” why would differences in perception be of special interest as something to insist on. I’m exaggerating the position, but if perception were merely subjective, one could draw few if any further implications from such differences.
A more just way of expressing, or expression comes into play.
“Way…of expression?” Very odd. Perhaps: “…way of expressing, or mode of expression…” I prefer “expression” in this formulation: “expressing” wants an object. Expressing one’s perceptions, presumably? The modernist/avant-garde mode of expression is not just distinct from that of the status quo, but more just! The choice of word links representational accuracy (again, what can this amount to for JK?) with ethical probity. If this claim were made on behalf of the marginal/community singer, it would have a straightforward political content. The same claim on behalf of modernist avant-gardes is not unusual, but does make one hope for some detail about what makes its mode of expression (its way of representing experience in language) more just than some other.
It’s to do with “seeing”, and conveying the politics of that seeing.
(I sort of like the donnish offhandedness of “It’s do to with”) “Seeing,” as elsewehere, is just a metonym for perceiving. One would think that what would be most salient about (M)odernist lyric would be how what is observed is represented in language, but for JK, a difference in perception itself is prior, and seemingly primary. Note that it isn’t that the modernist thinks differently about what is perceived; JK would like the difference to be less intellectual, more fundamental. That said, there are certainly issues here about the extent to which perception, as opposed to mere sensation, is underwritten by learned or innate cognitive processes [Kant; Dretske on “simple seeing”; Gregory’s Eye and Brain; my associations date me]. JK doesn’t expand on these, and I’m not well-equipped to tease them out.
The idea of different “politics of…seeing” is a fascinating, even seductive one. But: how does it come about that modernists not only write and think but “see” so differently? If this is just a compressed way of describing that one might make different (more or less “just”) ethical judgments about what one sees, it becomes rather less interesting.
The relationship between the poet and the tools of expression, and the tensions between experience and expression, are highlighted.
The suggestion here is simply that the difference lies in the modernist’s greater self-consciousness about the various relata and relationships in the I/world/word nexus. Fine: one can argue that this kind of caution or problematization is more conducive to making “just” judgments distinct from those associated with the “status quo” than a view which takes these relationships as transparent or otherwise untroubled. Great, except that sounds more intellectual than perceptual. Perhaps this modernist eventually internalizes a new, less stable conception of those relationships, such that the appropriate kinds of perceptual/cognitive/linguistic acts become “second nature.” (I don’t mean to make fun of this idea; it’s the flip side of the contention that the “status quo” mode is also only apparently “natural” in a strict sense. I think that some claim like this is almost certainly what a poet like Leslie Scalapino would have made about her own writing. I once heard her say: “I want it to be oppositional all the way down.”)
Language is of the user, but the user is also a product of language.
I’m perfectly happy with the notion that the relation between language-user and the production of meaning is dynamic. The second clause is a casual allusion to a Heideggerian strain, though the thought is also present in various forms of externalist and causal semantics. (Polemical note: the idea that linguistic meaning is not produced autonomously by language-users is a point of consensus between continental and contemporary analytic philosophy, though few on either side recognize the points of contact – beyond invocations of late Wittgenstein.) It’s not obvious, though, why this point is made at this particular point in the paragraph: I take it that it’s an example of something that is to be “kept in mind” (and eventually internalized) by the modernist.
This paradox informs the desire to make of poetry a weapon to challenge a “false” or “deceptive” status quo.
I think of what JK calls a paradox as a dynamic; it’s only an insoluble problem if one insists one a certain kind of origin story for linguistic meaning (i.e. Adamic, individualist)
“False” and “deceptive” are the worst scare quotes yet. At least, they confuse me about JK’s actual position. Does he think that alternative representations are more just, or more “just”? Perhaps he’s meaning to distance himself from these modernist commonplaces more than I’ve been able to recognize.
On the face of it, I would think that “the paradox” – and more generally, the view of the relations among self/world/word as opaque or troubled – would be just as likely to lead to doubt or despair as to the capacity for the language to represent alternative judgments as to produce the “desire” JK describes. Now, I think the historical record shows that it does produce this desire, sometimes but not always accompanied by an undercurrent of doubt about the expressive adequacy (not to mention instrumental efficacy) of both modernist and “transparent” poetic techniques – but it’s still puzzling why this should be the case.
Finally: A good deal of Modernist and modernist poetry (written out of the concerns, difficulties, and explicit and implicit politics JK has in mind) been written in luxury apartments, or at least infrastructurally functional ones, by first-world standards. JK’s first two sentences, especially on the strong (anti-individualist) reading of “intentionality” would lead us to doubt that this work can do much to avoid complicity with the context in which it is generated. Something else for the well-to-do imperial modernist to “keep in mind.”