Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Revision of Solitude?

According to Susan Blum, academia is beholden to an "eighteenth century model of the self and author [which assumes] a singularity and essence that [is] fixed, unchanging and in some ways isolated (unaffected by others’ influence)." But she and her fellow anthropologists have been questioning these assumptions, noting that recent technological developments render them obsolete and should have us rethinking our basic approach to higher education. Shaped by social media, "our students have become folk anthropologists, speaking out about the impossibility of singularity, the shared quality of discourse, the reality of fragments of texts incorporated into every utterance (or written document) and the collective nature of cultural creation." As Jonathan Mayhew has pointed out, this sort of thing has become pretty orthodox in the social sciences, travelling under the banner of "postmodernism". He's not exactly impressed.

As I was reading Jonathan's post, a remark about Rosmarie Waldrop's use of the "I" in her introduction to Curves to the Apple came to mind. "This 'I'," she says, "has lately been confused with the expression of unquestioned subjectivity and identity. But it simply indicates that language is taking place." She doesn't say who "has lately been confused", but it may well be those anthropologists and their students, who think that demanding "originality" of authors is tantamount to requiring them to be "geniuses". Now, Waldrop is a poet and her remarks resonate nicely with those of another poet, Tony Tost. He also doesn't say exactly who he has in mind*, but he seems to be correcting a common misconception when he says, "One is not condemned to a perpetual present, nor to the immediacy of seemingly random, unconnected signifiers. In summary, one is here because one has remembered to be here. In conversation, one discusses what rises" (Invisible Bride, p. 46). There's something distinctly postmodern about the "immediacy" he rejects. But, like Waldrop, he suggests that we should just keep talking. Perhaps it's just language.

Allen Grossman, a poet of Waldrop's generation (b. 1932) who recently died, also seems to hold an "eighteenth century" notion of the "in some ways isolated" self. Explicitly so, in fact: he invokes Descartes, the godfather of the "isolated subject". In his postscript to Descartes' Loneliness he tells us that "We, each one of us alone, think in our solitude about our own mind and about the world, in language—and each finds out thought about the self, about other persons and their claims upon the self, speaking and answering by means of language." There it is again—language. Grossman, if I recall, is one of Tost's influences, and perhaps we see a bit of it on the same page I already quoted: "Talking becomes a conscious stammering not in one's language, but in how one thinks," he writes; "a conversation represents not so much a break with solitude, but a newer form of solitude, a revision of the logic of solitude."

I became aware of Tost's work back in 2003, when I read a poem that, interestingly enough, was made by patching together materials found on the Internet by searching for variations on the phrase that constitutes the title, "I Am Not the Pilot". It had a profoundly liberating effect on me. The poet, as I've noted elsewhere, is rejecting the sort of "competence" that is demanded of him, and is performing that rejection precisely by plagiarising every word of the poem. (This "Google sculpting" has since become the hallmark of so-called "Flarf" poetry.) I have never held this against him. He remains my favourite living poet.

I'll continue this soon. There's an obvious tension here between the poetic sense of self and language and the anthropological one. At the same time, Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot" is perhaps a sign of a "revision of the logic of solitude", the logic that is characterized by Grossman as "Descartes' loneliness". That revision may be, as Blum suggests, driven by technology. That doesn't mean that we are, to use Tost's word, "condemned" to lose ourselves. What was it William Carlos Williams said? "When I am alone I am happy."

[Update: I just googled his phrasing to find his source. It can be found on page 93 in Pamela Odih and David Knights' "Just in time?", in the anthology Knowledge, Space, Economy, edited by John Bryson, Peter Daniels, Nick Henry, and Jane Pollard (Taylor & Francis, 2000.) It turns out Tony has patch-written this line! This is not surprising given what we know about "I Am Not the Pilot".]


Presskorn said...

Good point. Even if today's undergrads - with some legitimacy, I would add - think of themselves as mere DJs of various sources from the curriculum as well as great library called "the internet", there is still a hint (or grade) of originality consisting in how you combine and comment on these (fully referenced) elements.

The following strikes me as a good counter-analogy to Blum's view:

If you making a mixed tape, you're not a composer (not "original" in the caricatured way) nor you are pretending to play the instruments (not plagiarising). But there can nevertheless be original or inventive way of making the mixed tape (a graded or scaled "orignality").

Consider the way in which Roland Barthes (who is presumably an almost exact negation of the 18th century model of an author) wrote S/Z: He would have 80 quotes from Balzac's Sarrasine written up on different small cards. And then he would mix the cards up in random piles and force himself to write commentaries relating these randomly assembled quotes into a unified commentary/narrative. Barthes, in one sense, leaves nothing to his own "(speldid) isolation" or "authority" and yet there is significant *grade* of "originality" to his analysis as well as an impressive display of literary craftmanship.

Jonathan said...

I think that Cartesianism has become a straw man too. Descartes was a great genius and just dismissing all of this with a sweeping gesture of "now we know better" is very foolish.

Thomas said...

Yes, there's a difference between coming to terms with Cartesian doubt and simply dismissing him. I have to admit that I have at times been dismissive. But I like to think my position is somewhat sophisticated.