Tuesday, May 26, 2015

World Factory -- A Play

Audience participation is a rare, but not unheard of, tool in the playwright's toolbox. One of the more famous -- especially, perhaps, for readers of this blog -- is Ayn Rand's play Night of January 16th, in which members of the jury are selected from the audience, and two different endings are available, depending on the verdict.

There is a new play in which this level of audience participation is utilized, titled World Factory. This play puts you in the role of corporate board member, and your job is to make decisions about wages, layoffs, etc. In a certain sense, it is a staged game. Which means, there are programmed rules. And that is where the trouble potentially starts.

The most interesting thing, to me, would be to know what rules are being used to drive the decision-making of the participants. The rules of the game matter. Are the rules the real rules we find in real economic situations, or are the rules what the creators imagine capitalism to be? There is nothing wrong with the latter, so long as we don't pretend that the game represents the real world. There is nothing wrong with What If and alternate scenarios. That is what literature is all about, after all. But it becomes problematic when, as we see with the author of the piece, the fiction is mistaken for reality.

This play creates some interesting possibilities for the creation of new kinds of plays. The uniqueness of performance is certainly heightened, since one cannot script audience members' decisions when they are participating. Here we have the possibility of creating general rules and turning the playing within those rules into art. The line between art and games is here being blurred -- something we are not unfamiliar with, given the advances made in graphics. I have several times already thought I was watching a movie preview, only to find out it was an ad for a video game. Yet this adds another level of verisimilitude in the fact that we are watching people playing a game, and the outcomes of that game are what are of artistic interest.

Art always requires interpretation. The audience is viewing, interpreting the actions; but the participants are also interpreting their own actions. What is -- or should be -- of equal interest is what kinds of thinking was going on in the participants' minds. Where the audience is seeing greed, the board members might be thinking that unless they keep the company running and profitable, there will be all of these people out of work, and far worse off for it, unless hard decisions are made. Isn't it better to have your wages cut than to be unemployed entirely? And there is that aspect missing as well. How many in the audience are truly aware of the conditions of the factory workers in places like China before they could get those factory jobs?

There are complex social dynamics going on which are being simplified. That is what we would expect in a game, and that is what we would expect in a work of art. So long as we remember that that is what we are seeing, there is no problem with it. Play with the rules. Find out what happens. The problems arise if and when the audience walks away thinking they have seen how the world truly is, when they forget that art is a lie -- it may be a lie that lies like the truth, but it is always a lie. And this play is no different in that aspect.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

How a Poem Is Produced

How does one write a poem? Or any work of literature, for that matter? But let us take poems, since I am a poet, and I can speak about how it is I came to write the poems I have written.

Or, let us be less broad still. How did I come to write this poem?

That poem, On Censorship, is a Shakespearean sonnet. Well, we call it the Shakespearean sonnet, although the form was invented by Surrey. And Surrey modified Spencer, who modified the original Italian sonnet, invented by Petrarch. So, the form of the sonnet I chose was due to the influence of Shakespeare on me, but we can see that there is a tradition of that particular form going back to Petrarch -- and not just going back, but into another country, language, and culture.

Further, the Shakespearean sonnet is somewhat different from the other sonnet forms. While the Petrarchan sonnet's form creates a tension in the two quatrains that is released in the sextet, the Spencerian sonnet's form creates a tension between the emotional and the analytic,  and the Shakespearean sonnet's form creates a a tension between thesis and antithesis that gets resolved in the couplet and is thus more analytical/intellectual. Form informs theme, and vice versa. Thus did the Shakespearean sonnet form suggest itself in the writing of the poem. (The topic chose the form; I did not, in any conscious way.)

I of course became exposed to the sonnets of Shakespeare -- and any number of more recent sonneteers of more recent vintage -- in high school and college. Even though I only started writing poems in the last of my undergraduate years, and although I only started writing formal verse on any sort of regular basis after meeting Frederick Turner while working on my Ph.D., I was certainly not unaware of the existence of sonnets, and there is little doubt that there was influence from those sonnets even before I wrote my first sonnet -- or began writing them regularly.

Of course, all of the poems I have read over the years have helped to direct my general poetic tastes and tendencies -- toward and away from particular styles, topics, etc. And not just poems, of course. My interests have developed in fictional prose, epics, essays, nonfiction books, etc. My interests in social issues, in complexity, in economics and governance, in human nature, in neuroscience and psychology, in philosophy, etc. have all contributed to the content which appears in any number of my poems. One would have to trace the genealogies of each of those interests to me to understand the context in which I write.

And not just that. There are contexts not only of what I have read, but of my experiences and of my culture itself. My frustration at the degree to which the literary arts in general, and poetry in particular, are not considered to have much value in this culture, for example, is expressed in the poem. A recognition that there is a belief that poetry doesn't "do anything" by people in this culture -- meaning, since they don't think it does anything, it doesn't and cannot do anything -- is also there. Further, there is an understanding that there are obviously culture who think the arts do in fact do something -- why else would they have censorship laws? A question of whether it is our long history of freedom of speech which has thoroughly defanged literature.

And yes, our literature has become thoroughly defanged. Poetry is dominated by kitsch -- it is primarily self-congratulatory in nature, demonstrating how wonderfully anti-racist, -sexist, -etc. one is to others who are very proud of their own PC credentials. There is nothing truly shocking or edgy -- everything is only mock-shock. "Look, I have the word 'penis' in my poem!" -- knowing looks all around. Blah-blah-blah-boring.

You know that this poetry isn't shocking because everyone who writes it is sitting around, as cool and comfortable as cucumbers in their plush offices, not in the least bit concerned that someone might read it who could threaten that comfort in the least.

If you write something that truly matters, you'll truly rile people up. Who is writing that poetry?

These are the thoughts -- the contemporary thoughts, embedded in our contemporary American culture, in light of the fact that there are other cultures in which poets live truly dangerous lives -- that underlie this poem. So we not only need a cultural context, but a comparative culture context, a global context. We have to understand my interests and concerns. We have to understand my world view and understanding of human nature. We have to know my poetic genealogy. All of which I have, quite frankly, dealt with superficially here. To truly write about the context necessary for the poem in question to have been created, one would need to write a book.

And that gets us to the true complexity of a work of art like a poem. To understand a poem, you have to not only understand the person in question -- at the time of the writing of the poem -- but also the social context that helped to create that mind. That is, we have to understand the mind as extended beyond the emergent processes of the embodied brain in action. We have to understand all of the spontaneous orders involved, and the particular subnetworks within each that lead to the emergence of the poem from the poet.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Why Should Westeros Have a Central Bank?

Adam Ozimek at Forbes has an article asking Why doesn't Westeros have a central bank? The article makes it clear that Ozimek believes a central bank to be a good thing, but he does not provide any reasons why. There is just an assumption that a central bank is a good thing, that the world of Game of Thrones would be better off with one.

Most laughable is the claim that the central bank is dedicated to the public good. In a utopian world, perhaps one could find a central bank that was dedicated to the public good, but in the real world, they are dedicated to the government and to cronies. Perhaps Ozimek ought to familiarize himself with Public Choice theory. Then he would dispel any notions of the public good being served.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Dickens' Love of Money

Few truly understand the degree to which Dickens was pro-market. He rather quickly learned to become an astute businessman, and he became quiet wealthy as a result.

Too many falsely interpret his criticism of the institutions of his day as being anti-market. However, being critical of government-run institutions and the way businesses were being run (all too often with government protection and subsidies) in no way makes one anti-market. And I think there is little doubt Dickens favored free markets. He says so himself, and his descriptions of markets are simply beautiful. Certainly just because someone is critical of particular aspects of something, that does not mean you oppose the thing itself. It is like saying that because someone doesn't like the work of O'Neill that they hate theater.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of the Novel

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Max Weber famously argued that there is a connection between the rise of Protestantism and the rise of capitalism. Certainly Protestantism arose and modern capitalism rose shortly thereafter, and no doubt the breaking of the central power of the Catholic Church broke ground for the rise of secularism and the separation of church and state, church and art, and church and economy. Thus, regardless of whether one finds the source in the Protestant ethic or in the incredible changes in Western European culture that resulted from the rise of Protestantism, there is little question that Protestantism was important for the rise of the Modern Era.

One of the things that emerged with and from the Modern Era is the modern European novel (which includes those novels influenced by the European novel, including the American novel, the Latin American novel, the postcolonial novel, etc.). The modern novel has been called bourgeois art, which in many ways admits the connection between the rise of the novel and the rise of the bourgeois class that was only possible with the rise of capitalism. Might the novel, then, be a product of Protestantism as well?

Such is the thesis of Joseph Bottum. He argues that the strength of the novel has followed the same arc as the strength of Protestantism. As Protestantism rose, so did the novel. As Christianity, including Protestantism, has weakened, so has interest in the novel. It may be that similar processes are affecting interest in Christianity, including Protestantism, and interest in the novel together, but this would only reinforce their connectedness. The renaissance period of the Modern Era saw the final proliferation of the novel, a bang of final experimentation before the novel fell out of favor.

This may imply there is a style for each era. Perhaps there is. Film for the Postmodern era. The novel for the Modern/Enlightenment era. The romance for the Medieval era. Tragedies during transitions. Comedies, poetry, and epics scattered throughout (though epics are the statement of an era during its peak, the affirmation of an era's world view). Whatever art form will arise post-Postmodern era one cannot recognize or know until after the transition to that era is at its peak and the the seeds of the new era are already fully planted. But it will be tied in with the cultural forces affecting the structures of the economy, governments, scientific inquiry, philosophical inquiry, technological innovation, etc.

I am myself unsure what the new genre could be or look like. I feel drawn away from novel writing (what I originally wanted to write) and toward writing tragedies. I write a great deal of poetry. But I haven't found the big new genre quite yet. It's not likely I will. I'm probably, at best, a transitional writer (but so was Kafka, Faulkner, Shakespeare, Racine, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, so I'm in good company). Discovering the new genre will likely be the purview of others. But that new genre will arise, and it will replace film as the dominant narrative form. That won't mean the death of film any more than film was the death of the novel, or the novel the death of romance, but it will mean film and television will become as minor as the novel has become in the past half century or more.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Love of Literature and the Literary Order

Studies such as “Loving Literature: A Cultural History”  by Deidre Shauna Lynch, as discussed by Joshua Rothman, can provide part of the story of literature as a spontaneous order. The literary order is of course made up of writers reading other writers, but it is also made up of readers who are reading those writers for a variety of reasons. What is viewed as the dominant reason to read has changed over the years, decades, and centuries, just as the ways people have experienced literature has changed with changing technologies. Most experiences with literature involved oral storytelling prior to the printing press and the subsequent push for widespread literacy. And things changed yet again with the development of cinema, television, VCRs, DVDs, and the Internet. With the ability to record and watch TV shows over and over, TV shows have become increasingly complex in their storytelling, for example.

Something that particularly jumped out at me was an institutional change that had widespread ramifications for reading. Lynch argues that people used to take a more "rhetorical" approach to reading, insofar as people read to learn how to write and speak well. One read poetry for information and arguments, for a good quote on a topic. But eventually, this changed.
The invention that disrupted this rhetorical world was the canon. “Canon formation,” as literary historians call it, started in the mid-eighteenth century for all kinds of reasons, among them a rising interest in taste and connoisseurship, and, in Britain, a rethinking of copyright law. (In 1774, in Donaldson v. Beckett, British judges rejected the system of perpetual copyright in favor of the “public domain”; one consequence was a new notion that the great, enduring books belonged to all Britons.) The growth of the canon changed how people related to literature. It shifted the temporal focus of literary life from the present to the past; it made reading intrinsically nostalgic.
There was, of course, a canon before this time. There was a literary tradition, after all. There were writers the educated would of course read, and there were writers that other writers in particular read. Homer was in the canon before this conscious development of the canon. But the historical development of it in a more conscious way is itself interesting, particularly in its relationship to the rejection of "perpetual copyright." By freeing certain books from copyright, more books could be published, meaning more books could be read. The cost of books decreased, meaning people could now afford to read for leisure. And this led to love of literature.



Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Genius and the Need for Social Networks

After writing this post on the death of the genius, I recently read a little about the role of Richard Wagner's social network was central to his creativity. His wife, Cosima, was particularly important in this regard, as she wrote letters and arranged meetings and any number of other things for him.

In fact, if we think about the vast majority of creative geniuses during the Modern Era, during which time the cult of the genius was popular, we see enormous social networks around them. We can see this to be true for Goethe, for example. When you find out what Goethe's social calender was like, you wonder that he created any literature at all -- let alone contributed significantly to optics and biology as well. But in fact, these social connections helped him to be even more creative. And the social support system that existed in which his genius was supported -- in no small part because people expected it of him -- was central to his development as a genius.

If we look at the networks Randall Collins lays out in The Sociology of Philosophies, we see that the most creative and most productive philosophers were the most connected ones. There seem to be a few exceptions -- Nietzsche being an obvious one -- but if you take a look at Nietzsche's social networks, you will see that he was quite connected over time, even if those connections were not primarily to other philosophers. Nietzsche was also primarily ignored during his working lifetime, and became popular only after his breakdown. That popularity was in no small part due to the fact that culture was becoming increasingly globalized and that writing could become as influential as face-to-face interactions. Indeed, one could argue that the fact that our culture is much more "scholarly" in the sense that we read more than we talk to each other has contributed to the death of the genius. And I'm not sure that our internet culture is improving matters.

It thus seems to me that for "genius" to exist, there has to be a supportive social network around that genius. That would range from supportive institutions to supportive colleagues, friends, and spouses. In a sense, there needs to be a willingness for people to act as support for the genius, subverting their own needs to those of the genius (which is almost certainly one of the reasons why Nietzsche and Wagner ceased being friends before too long, since Wagner expected such subversion to him, while Nietzsche was increasingly loathe to do so as he himself began to self-identify as a creative genius in his own right). With increasing egalitarian attitudes, the support for the genius fell apart in a variety of ways. The most obvious thing is the fact that identifying someone as a genius is hardly egalitarian in nature. Marriage equality results in spouses being loathe to completely dedicate their lives to their creative genius partners. Institutions become less supportive of genius, including the social networks in which people do not mind the creative genius essentially using everyone for inspiration. Now people become resentful if they find someone in their group is using them for inspiration for their own creative ideas. The attitude of "get your own ideas" is anathema to the development of new ideas (since new ideas only emerge in networks and are not created ex nihilio) and, thus, to genius.

It is not impossible that the genius could return. But the idea of the genius will come back to us transformed. That doesn't mean we shouldn't in the meantime, in this postmodern culture, lament the genius' loss.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Role of Current Institutions on the Content of Literature

Mark Hubbard has an interesting post on his blog that addresses the ideological state in which we find most contemporary literature. A warning: it is long, and it is stream-of-consciousness/associative in nature. That having been said, it is definitely worth the effort.

Hubbard makes note of the fact that literary production is a spontaneous order (though he doesn't use the term):
State funding of the arts is leading to the stultification of western literature under the reactionary establishment of Left-Liberalism, also called Progressivism, which has largely captured the means of production via the agents and publishers, and quietly indoctrinates the authors toward a homogenised literature via creative writing courses in progressive saturated tertiary institutions. Ours is no literature that will seed Le Guin's resistance and change, or that can be 'disturbed by power€™,' as Solzhenitsyn feared, because it'€™s a literature which embraces the ethic of that power, the supremacy of the state over the individual, and incredibly for the arts, a collectivism over individualism, with at its base, the tax take which funds a complacent publishing channel, while eviscerating our private lives, our digital innards disemboweled and served up in the offices of government officials.
While here in the U.S., we don't really have all that much state funding of the arts, the institutionalization created by our universities is more than doing the job. Consider my post on The Institutional Role of Creative Writing Programs and my post on Institutionalizing Everyone With College. For those who believe in Zeitgeists, it may not be entirely coincidental that I have come across three people saying essentially the same things about the role of government-funded institutions (especially universities) in the creation of homogeneous outcomes in either college graduates or the content of our works of art and literature.

Let me note that Hubbard makes essentially the same points Jaswinder Bolina does in regards to literary production being a spontaneous order, and the effect of particular institutions on that artistic production, particularly on the content. Both identify literary production as spontaneous orders, and both are arguing that our particular dominant institutional structures within that order are having an effect on content. I am not sure that Hubbard and Bolina would agree with each other on politics (I don't know Bolina's, but I do know the education he received), but they have still managed to come to similar conclusions about the state of literature and the reasons for that state.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Institutional Role of Creative Writing Programs

Jaswinder Bolina has a great discussion about the institutional role of graduate creative writing programs at The Poetry Foundation. If we consider the fact that the creation of poetry is part of a literary spontaneous order (which necessarily includes readers and writers of literature), then institutions within that order are going to have an effect on the content produced by that order. Certainly graduate creative writing programs are having and will have an effect on the content of that order.

I'm certainly a product of this particular institution. I have a M.A. in English, with a focus on fiction writing, from the University of Southern Mississippi, and I have a Ph.D. in the Humanities, with a focus on Aesthetic Studies, from the University of Texas at Dallas (I originally went there to study fiction writing, but ended up doing a scholarly dissertation and being influenced by Frederick Turner to write primarily formalist poetry). In the best cases, I saw people in these programs greatly improve their writing from the feedback of their peers and professors (I think I was one of those, particularly when it came to fiction writing), but in the worst cases I saw a push toward conformity and the erasure of stylistic differences that were quite often quite interesting. Which may be one of the reasons postmodern writers all sound the same, when Modernist writers all sounded so different from each other.

Bolina notes that this institutionalization of creative writing creates gentrification. This, of course, affects content. We end up with poems by elitists, for elitists, which can only be appreciated if you have the right kind of education. One often needs an hour lecture introducing the work before one reads it, so one can come to understand the references, social context, etc. involved in its creation. One shouldn't need a professor of literature to accompany you every time you pick up a poem.

Now, this isn't to say that literature shouldn't have various references, social contexts, etc. involved in its creation. Quite the contrary. It should. But the greatest literature has always been written such that one could read and enjoy it without knowing much at all going in, while also being open to even greater understanding if one were to do the scholarly work. But with the gentrification of literature into postmodernism, we see less and less of this, and more and more requirements one have a Ph.D. in literature to understand what the work is about.


Thursday, August 21, 2014