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

Napoleon in America

Readers may be interested in my review of Shannon Selin's novel Napoleon in America.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Effect of Magic on an Economy

At Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, Kevin Vallier has done an analysis of The Great Stagnation in Westeros. He is, of course, doing an analysis of the economic situation of the fictional world created by George R. R. Martin in his A Song of Ice and Fire novels.

He concludes that the presence of magic in the world is what has stagnated development in that world for years. Now, since we live in a world without magic, one might wonder exactly where an economic analysis of such a world gets us? Other than it being an insight into Martin's ability to understand the economic cause-and-effect of magic, suggesting a keen understanding of human nature (as the popularity of the books and the HBO series also demonstrate), what might we learn from such an analysis? I have my own ideas, but I would be interested to see what others thought.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Subjective Artistic Value at LibertyChat

I am now periodically blogging at LibertyChat. This week's posting is on Subjective Artistic Value.

Many artists are leftists perhaps in no small part because, as an artist, the labor theory of value just seems right. You finish a work, and you are outraged that people don't value it as much as you do. You, after all, know how hard you worked on it. You put in all that work over the years, gaining experience. You put in all that thought. You paid for your supplies and worked so long on your project. If there is anyone who wants the labor theory of value to be true, it's an artist.

But it's simply not true. It's simply not.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Economics as a Science of Choice and Literary Production

If economics is a science of choice, there is certainly a strong argument for using it to understand literary production -- or artistic production of any kind. When an artist creates a work of art, that artist has to make a variety of choices. Since this is a literature blog, let us focus on literature.

What sorts of choices does a poet, for example, make?

The poet will have to decide what sort of rhythm in which to write -- whether that rhythm be a formal rhythm or a "natural" rhythm. Will there be rhyme? If so, what kind of rhyme? If end rhyme is used, what rhyme scheme? Will it be formal verse? If so, what form?

What will be the poem's topic? How will the poet deal with the topic? What images and ideas will the poet deal with? What words will be used? What effects does the poet want to create?

The poet will be making all of these choices. Some of these choices will be made consciously. Some will be made in light of the language the author is using. Some will be made in light of the culture in which the author is writing (sometimes in conscious opposition; sometimes in unconscious cooperation). Some will be made with the conscious use of rules; some will be made using the kind of tacit knowledge that comes about from writing many poems (if the poet has been writing poetry for many years and has internalized the rules).

The poet will use tacit knowledge, personal knowledge, local knowledge, cultural knowledge, knowledge of the language, historical knowledge, literary knowledge, etc. All of these kinds of knowledge will contribute to the creation of the exact poem(s) the poet will write. This makes him akin to a Hayekian/Kirznerian entrepreneur.

If we view economics as a science of choice, much opens up in its use in understanding the creation of art.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Individualism vs. Collectivism -- Culture Affects Wealth Creation

Individualist cultures are wealthier than collectivist cultures. Of course, the literary themes within a given culture greatly affect that culture -- and of course the culture affects the themes. Literature that reinforces collectivism is going to thus contribute to economic stagnation, while literature that reinforces individualism is going to contribute to economic growth and the creation of wealth. Of course, as Hayek noted, the kind of individualism also matters. There are kinds of individualism -- solipsistic, radical individualistic individualism -- that give rise to collectivism, meaning the literatures that promote such an individualism will themselves contribute to the creation of a collectivist culture and, thus, to economic stagnation. Anyone want to list literary works that promote radical individualism, social individualism, and collectivism? I would not be surprised if we found geographical patterns.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Patterns of Literary Misery Match Economic Misery

Big data does in fact bring some interesting insights. A pattern of literary mood and societal mood created by economic conditions correlate, with a 10 year lag on literary mood. Paul Ormerod, an economist and coauthor of the piece, argues that, "The results suggest quite clearly that, contrary to post-modern literary theory, literature serves a purpose. It informs people about the human condition, and the content adapts to the conditions of the time." We should not be surprised at the lag, given the fact that artists have to first process the emotions, then write the work, then get the work published. All of this is a multi-year process -- apparently averaging out to about 10 years.