Monday, April 3, 2017


What I’m after is a form of autobiography via criticism, or vice versa, or both. The specifics of my life as the basis for my access to the ideas I promulgate, but those ideas, taking their reference from the world around me—via reading, listening, watching—become a critical encounter with how art shapes a life. Not as an artist, but as audience. How collective that achieved view will be may be the problem, for most readers. The unique position of the speaker must include the reader in the thought, even if never consciously speaking for her at least necessarily speaking to her. Let’s call it, as a joke, a “speaking likeness,” for my words—in a manner of speaking—will shape my thought and my thought will, if well-expressed, find its “likeness” in a listener.

What has long been clear to me is how lazy I am. To work at something doesn’t suit me much. The “one-on-one” relation has always engaged my sensibility best. I like an audience but I don’t trust its collectivity. A roomful of individuals is hard to conceive—hard to address—as “one.” And yet—in teaching—that’s what comes to hand: the points to be imparted have to assume minds ready to receive them. And yet most of my necessary learning was gained by reading, not listening to the oral explanations of others. Though putting things into words, mostly in exchanges between or among a very few, played a significant part in the later stages of my education. What set me apart, in college, was that I was older and had already made up my mind about many critical matters, based on my own exposures, and wasn’t solely taking my cue from or repeating the teacher. Also, I read more—had read more—than was assigned. It’s hard to find an audience of such ready youth today and yet one must imagine it, if only to break silence and speak.

I hope I’ve got past seeing criticism as “somewhere to dump all my negativity” (though sometimes I am still tempted). If so, that began in earnest in college, when I wrote with a will to the intelligence of the professor of the course, and continued into all the critical writing I’ve done since. And, yes, sometimes I presumed myself to be explaining something even the prof—to say nothing of a general audience—missed or failed to appreciate. In the writing found in literary journals there is much that is too glib or too personal to suit my taste and yet there is much good writing and many good ideas. The trick is to avail oneself enough of the collective voice so as to get a hearing but without simply uttering the same ideas already received. It’s not novelty one wants so much as necessity. But that’s hard to account for if one’s only real struggle is against time. “Necessity” in such a case may stem from nothing more than wanting to put the record straight, to have one’s say, to color the air while it lasts. So be it.

Which, of course, pretty much describes my sense of the lyric, of poetry as simply a way of saying. The necessity of poetry—of poetic speech—has always been, for me, an approximation of a state of being—more than a state of mind—a way of knowing what is happening “where the meanings are,” as Dickinson has it. But the meanings, as my voice will have it, are always struggling to be indicated. There’s no simple task of calling a spade a spade because language is already fabric or sound or machine or wave; it’s never just a tool or a task. We inhabit it, we wear it, we imbibe it. We put it to uses, but those uses, in poetry, become highly selective, furtive, questioning. But questioning is no way to write a lecture or essay or review. One must use language for the task of clarifying and rendering, of explaining and arguing, of defining and making distinctions, of, maybe, charming and amusing, but not remaking the terms for the sake of wayward intention. Still, something in the waywardness of intention is what I would keep in my essays and, now and then, when a work merits it, in my reviews. Sometimes—and I want to trust this more and more—it’s the leap one makes from a given jumping-off point that matters, not the path one took to arrive there.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


When I think back on different regions of time, it becomes a task to differentiate each in terms of the “standard feeling,” “the overall dimension,” “the primary cadence,” “the leading mood.” I don’t know what should be the exact phrase because I’m not sure exactly what I mean. The easy assumption is that what I am aiming to differentiate is primarily biological, that it has to do with “age”—but what, precisely, is age? If I could answer that—a tendency, a consciousness, a feeling, an appetite, an affection, a supposition, an awareness—then I might get closer to what I mean. I know that the limited perspective that shapes “a time” exists “for a time”—that’s perhaps a tautology except that the difference between the two uses of the phrase “a time” is at stake. “A time” is une durée—a period, which might be suggestible by received ideas, such as “adolescence,” “maturity,”—but such “times” have no force of lived character; they are empty formulas. “A time” is some wrinkle in the surface, some grasp of a space between two whiles, maybe a before and an after. A way of saying that “the time” of first understanding emotional life as inflected by Shakespeare exists for a certain period in youth and no matter how many times “Shakespeare” is returned to, or re-encountered, in later life, the “time” of Shakespeare dates from, and takes impetus from, those first encounters.

To follow that sense of “a time”—the time of first love, for instance—and for “a time”—the time of the space between high school and something like adulthood, the “time” of some months in 1978, for me. Bearing in mind that to elicit that “time” requires attention to what was present in the world at that time. To my thinking, which has never been particularly concerned with the particulars of “the times,” with the fashions and the fads and the “best of” the year, “a time” takes its form from how it is shaped by the passing show. Thus no slavish sense of what was popular or immediately recognizable, but still some sense—which should become more crucial as time passes—of what was inescapable, what was necessary. The point, in selecting cultural markers, is to make them speak to each other and to one’s personal “time,” not simply in the generic tones of the culture at large. We are dealing with episodes, events, “acts” which, as with theater, must be staged with a certain setting. For each moment, its necessary dramaturgy.

I do have a tendency to think in decades, to look for tendencies that are observable for “a time” –roughly 5-10 year increments. But to make more of the lived characters of such “events,” the duration is shorter, more focused. So rather than give in to my “spanning” nature (always useful for a critic), I have to concentrate on more discrete increments. The building blocks of the psyche. So, in each case, fidelity to the “event” puts it in a time for “a time.” It’s not about retrospect, ultimately, I’m just realizing, and this is key. It’s not about shaping this “me,” this speaker, by means of what has gone to build it, an edifice of the self. It’s more a question of isolating moments that would be isolated, that must be acknowledged, analyzed, unfolded, unpacked, explicated, as being moments in the “before and after and during.” At such “a time” it was necessary to feel or see according to x. At such a time, that became the causal basis of what must follow, at least “for a time.” The dialogue between moments or acts, then, is the all-in-all. It’s not to arrive at denouement but to remain “in dialogue,” and, at times,  “in camera.” To remain in place, in a time, for all time.

This, if achieved, is something other than “a history” or “an autobiography.” It is an auto-critique, perhaps, or a lyric critique. But why waste time labeling it? The object is not more attainable for being named. The requirement is a conception, is conceiving a perception, a point of view as a position arrived at via time, not static and determinate, but shaped by the pressures of memory and reflection. “Lyric critique,” though, because the process of articulation is not explanatory but evocative, not a telling but a rendering, an inhabiting, a display. Yes, a composition, as in a tableau or scene. Playing live, like a lecture. A reading.


Thursday, March 2, 2017


“And so a mood is created in which all decisions seem inevitable and in which people speaking of different solutions seem remote and impractical. It is a mood of submission, under the pressures of an effectively occupying power.”

Thus Raymond Williams, writing in 1960 in “Advertising: the Magic System.” The “occupying power” is advertising, particularly the role that advertising’s appeal has begun to play in TV land and, by extension, in politics. It’s 1960, the year that historians often point to as the moment that television affected the outcome of a presidential election, with the televised debates between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. Williams doesn’t refer to that, but the timeliness of what he’s saying gains force through the confluence of moments. Williams sees that, in time, all will submit to advertising, and he sees that submission as giving up a certain kind of liberalism. Mainly, the liberalism of public policy, of public control of important institutions of social life. The almighty buck is having its way and that bodes ill for democracy, to say nothing of any political agency formed of those with nothing—neither money nor status nor influence. Corporate interests determine what we see and what gets said.

Williams writes of the “social failure to find means of public information and decision over a wide range of everyday economic life,” a failure that results from “allowing control of the means of production and distribution to remain in minority hands.” In our terms, it’s about privatization, and its effects are already clear to him: “political parties considering how to sell themselves to the electorate, to create a favourable brand image; education being primarily organized in terms of a graded supply of labour; culture being organized and even evaluated in terms of commercial profit.” 

This is the world I was born into—in 1960—and it’s worth traveling back in time with Williams to see, in the Trumped times we live in, how the tendency was already more than apparent. He points to the “evident fact, in the years we are living through” of the “emergence and elaboration of a social and cultural form—advertising—which responds to the gap between expectation and control by a kind of organized fantasy.” Those years are the years depicted in the popular TV show Mad Men, when the logic of advertising, as Williams sees, begins to dominate other cultural forms, like art, and to supplant them.

And, reading Williams now, it’s not really possible to overlook the extent to which government has become “organized fantasy” predicated on the control of information in a way that advertising pioneered. Advertising, like just about everything Trump (and many other politicians) says, is lies. But we live with the lies of advertising as simply the price of letting those vested corporate interests, with their incessant ads, bring us the mindless entertainment we seek. And there’s not much disjunction between the false claims of ads for detergent and the false claims of ads for campaigners. This was evident in the Sixties and became more and more so, till, in the Eighties, the Reagan presidency was nothing if not a scripted show, as far as the networks were concerned.

I found myself reading Williams not simply to remind myself of why it was nearly impossible to have any sense of art in the times of my childhood—TV, movies, comic books, pop music, yes, art, no—and why I have long abhorred commercial TV, but to find some sense of an alternative to consumerism and commodity culture. Certainly, he glances at the ubiquity of the latter: “Since consumption is within its limits a satisfactory activity, it can be plausibly offered as a commanding social purpose. At the same time, its ambiguity is such that it ratifies the subjection of society to the operations of the existing economic system.” And all effort is aimed at maintaining the existing economic system by those whom it benefits. Our participation is to consume and to mimic the satisfaction that hired actors display in using “the only available choices.”

Which brings me to what I’m trying to get a handle on, for my own purposes. And that’s the question of how one makes use of those social elements Williams calls “formations” and “structures of feeling” to arrive elsewhere, intellectually, creatively—politically? Perhaps we can’t go so far. One has not dropped out, however much one might feel oppositional. Though the trajectory I want to delineate, based on certain objects of “consumption” (if one must so term it), promotes a kind of self-formation that, as Williams stresses again and again, is social—deriving from the subject’s economic status, education, location, period, race, gender, and inherent biases—but is also “aesthetic,” as in: based in perceptions derived from exposure to certain fields of creative endeavor that open up possibilities not generally acknowledged by the utilitarian and egalitarian aspects of the culture at the time. In fact, certain social and professional satisfactions are definitely foreclosed, but not imaginative satisfactions. And that becomes the point of poetry, of writing that has no aim other than to be a record of a process, or rather let’s say of “a music.”

“Practical consciousness is almost always different from official consciousness, and this is not only a matter of relative freedom or control. For practical consciousness is what is actually being lived, and not only what it is thought is being lived. Yet the actual alternative to the received and produced fixed forms is not silence: not the absence, the unconscious, which bourgeois culture has mythicized. It is a kind of feeling and thinking which is indeed social and material, but each in an embryonic phase before it can become fully articulate and defined exchange. Its relations with the already articulate and defined are than exceptionally complex.”

He goes on to say that “no generation speaks quite the same language as its predecessors.” The point being, for my purposes, that “writing” and “reading”—which means sometimes (often) “not writing” as well—is “a matter of relative freedom or control,” and that it is “alternative” to what is “received and produced” (and sold for consumption), and, while I don’t necessarily endorse “embryonic” as any kind of useful metaphor in this case, is, at least in theory, on its way to “fully articulate and defined exchange.” What is always wanting, however, is the social and material occasions for that exchange. For the notion that there is still an intelligentsia—such as I would recognize its merits—is largely defeated by the Eighties, when I come of age. Williams is looking askance at what the Seventies will be (the afterword of the advertising essay dates from 1969), but lord-a-mercy in the Eighties.

And yet, as I’m trying to see now, the occasions for those complex relations from the Sixties to the Eighties—the period of “formations”—may well be worth articulating. To say nothing of the ensuing periods in which—well beyond anything that could be called “embryonic”—I still find myself at variance with the social and material habitus that would make my “useless and pointless knowledge” an economic asset. So reading Williams—Culture and Materialism (1980) and Marxism and Literature (1977)—not only illuminates the moment of my starting out through the views of a canny critic of the capitalist status quo, but adds ammunition to a deep dissatisfaction with “literary studies” as having any kind of purpose, other than antiquated, and with “the literary” in general, as a failure of the schoolmen. In other words, Williams takes me back to the ways in which those terms—as cultural markers—were already beside the point. And that helps me to see how the assumptions of commodity culture were there from the start, even if only as the primary antagonist. That agon, I’m afraid, is the defining one, after all.

I heard the Sermon on the Mount
And I knew it was too complex
It didn’t amount to anything more
Than what a bit of broken glass reflects
When you bite off more than you can chew
You got to pay the penalty
Somebody’s got to tell the tale
I guess it must be up to me.
--Bob Dylan, “Up to Me” (1974)