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.