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.