Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What is Poetry?

I've always found the sort of thing that Michael Rosen says in this video about poetry very unsatisfying.

Poetry Basics

What is poetry? Well, it's hard to say. Why do people write poetry? To express themselves. Now, to his credit, he doesn't quite leave it at that. But wouldn't it be refreshing if he simply said, "I don't know what poetry is and I'm the wrong guy to make this video. I just can't give you a straight, informative answer." After all, some of the best videojug contributions are precisely those where the presenter confines himmerherself to what heorshe knows well enough to say simple, declarative sentences about.

What would I say in such a video?

Poetry is the art of writing emotions down. A poem is an emotion that has been (more or less) precisely noted. We can then go on to define "emotion" in contrast to "feeling" without at any point having to say, "That's a difficult question."

Why do people write poetry? In order to make an emotional situation more precise, which just means intensifying it. (Compare a conceptual situation, which you make precise by clarifying it.) We can begin with the simple case of a man in love with a woman. His situation is emotionally imprecise because, while she may have smiled at him or returned a glance, it is unclear how she feels. This makes feeling love for her difficult to handle. In writing a poem, the troubadour is hoping to intensify the positions (him-her) at either end of the emotion. She may then, of course, simply reject his advances, but that is more intense than the ambivalence we began with.

All this also applies to Rosen's "big grand things, important things, political things, aspects of nature, the eternal aspects of the sky, the universe or whatever". One may suffer the emotional imprecision of gender (like, say, Sylvia Plath) or those of race (like Amiri Baraka). One may even (like Ezra Pound) try to deal with our monetary emotions, which may be, as they are to today, in something of a disarray. (I made a quick vaguely flarfy attempt here.)

I don't think (as Rosen does) that a good poem needs to offer something "new" or "surprising". After all, a very old poem, read for the hundredth time, is no worse than when it was first written simply because you, the reader, have become familiar with it. A good poem is just emotionally precise; it does not impart feeling, but it intensifies it. It makes you feel better. It makes you better able to feel. I do dare say that this makes the poem good.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Two Questions

(the not-at-all-difficult-to-discover answers to which might change the way you think about government.)

Why is pot illegal?
Why did we invade Afghanistan?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Two Rackets

This movie about cannabis prohibition is worth watching. It rehearses all the major arguments for legalizing "the safest drug on the planet". Along the way, it brings up the problem of private prisons in the U.S. That's a really good point. If it is possible to make money by running a prison, then there's a natural (in the sense of economically rational) basis for a lobby for criminalizing all sorts of activities and, of course, for tough sentencing of offenders.

There is a of course a similar problem with another human activity: war. A great deal of policy today is being shaped by lobbies who have direct economic interest in crime and war. For some, it is economically rational to start wars and criminalize activities that many people like to engage in. The interest is there regardless of any strategic advantage or disadvantage that a war might bring about or intrinsic harm that the activity in question may or may not cause. There are people who have their own reasons to warmonger and to criminalize.

I'm not making any accusations. I'm just noting, objectively, that those interests exist. The solution is quite simple: put corrections and munitions in the hands of the state. Accept the inefficiency that this might involve in order to avoid constructing this kind of interest.

PS: This argument can also be made in the case of medicine and finance, by the way. And countless other things no doubt. There are certain problems that a society should not let its members profit from solving, because, if they do, members of that society will have an interest in producing the problems themselves.

Friday, January 15, 2010

On Music

"[Music is] the cause of everything that's gone wrong in the world. The dirty music. The young are violent because they have no inner life. And they have no inner life because they have no thoughts. And they have no thoughts because they know no words. And they know no words because they never speak. And they never speak because the music's too loud." (Quentin Crisp)

I remember reading this statement many years ago, excerpted in Harper's Magazine. I think, at some level, it has shaped my views on a great many things. But I do like the music loud sometimes. I'm just not sure it's good for my inner life.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Obscurity and Violence

Many thanks to Thomas Presskorn for solving the puzzle of the last post! Obscurity is to violence as knowledge is to power, as intuition is to institution. Violence is "done to" someone in undoing them. Darkness is "seen as" something in not seeing it. In obscurity, we experience something "as dark"; in violence, we experience someone "to hurt" them.

We may oppose clarity to obscurity, but clarity is already homologous with intensity. That is, clarity is to obscurity as intensity is to violence. Opposites? Is intensity the opposite of violence? Well, clarity is not really the opposite of obscurity. It is light, not sight, against the dark, after all. But there is actually a sense in which the intensity of a boxing match or hockey game can degenerate into violence. It becomes violence when the tension between the subjects is lost.

A fight is not always violence. It is often a contest. Violence eradicates the position of the subject. Darkness conceals the object.

New problem: Light is to dark as ________ is to hurt. Hint: ________ will also be to power as light is to knowledge.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Intuition & Institution

This year I will make an effort to post formal pangrammatical exercises more often.

Keep in mind that "the pangrammaticon" is the general likeness of articulations of knowledge to articulations power. A pangrammatical exercise consists in completing the general formula "_________ is to knowledge as _________ is to power".

Here's one that occurred to me over the Christmas break. First, some background:

The world produces, reproduces, and transforms intuitions. This is a natural process. An intuition is a sensation that is immediately "seen as" something. Without intuition (immediate seeing), no perception (mediated seeing). Intuition constitutes our experience of objects (determined whatnesses).

History produces, reproduces, and transforms institutions. This is a cultural process. An institution is a motion that is immediately "done to" someone. Without institution (immediate doing), no action (mediated doing). Insitution constitutes our experience of subjects (determined whonesses).

Now, it seems to me that there is a kind of doing-to-someone that is necessarily immediate and eminently fundamental: violence. It is by holding back from violence that properly "institutional" experience and subjects in the usual sense can emerge. If all doing were violence, experience would probably not be possible.

So what is the corresponding ("homologous") seeing-as-something? _________ is to intuition as violence is to institution. If violence is a kind of deed that we must refrain from in order to engage, properly speaking, in "action", then what sort of sight must we avert ourselves from in order to have proper "perceptions"? One hint might be that violence is to "the social" as _________ is to "the material". Violence is an immediate experience that affects our mediated experience of who "we" are. We are looking for an immediate experience that likewise affects our mediated experience of what "stuff" is.