Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Academic Freedom

From my position of University Senate President the issues are clear. I am in favor of academic freedom without reservations. That means freedom for positions I disagree with.

The Salaita case is interesting for several reasons. We find people lining up behind Salaita because

a) they share his politics

b) they stand for principles of academic freedom and basic contract fairness

c) a and b

People opposing Salaita might do so because

d) they oppose his politics and / or don't think much of his scholarship and don't care deeply about academic freedom, or think academic freedom is for me but not for thee

I would love to talk about how abhorrent some of his twitter posts are, or might seem to many, or my misgivings about him being hired in a department of American Indian Studies. I won't do that because I am in category b.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Yet another attempt

I left this comment on a previous post, but maybe it deserves a blog post of its own:

I guess you could say the purpose of a painting is to cover a stain on the wall. That might be true for any given painting and wall. It might also be true that the entire debate makes little sense (Vance) or that not everyone shares the existential wonder about the very existence of music or poetry. In fact, my experience in academia shows me that my own position is not universal even among people who devote their lives to that study. I fear I have fallen into "Mayhew's fallacy" again: the fallacious universalization of my own experience. Curiously, I am most prone to this fallacy when I am trying to arrive at statements that are completely bland and non-controversial, like "the purpose of poetry is to be wonderful poetry."

Poem-like things & Conceptual Art

One way of looking at a poem is to see what poem-like things are going on therein. People don't agree completely about what poems are better than others, but I think they do agree about what poem-like things might look like, in general terms. These are things like rhythmic structures, figurative language. A poem doesn't have to have irony but irony is a poem-like thing, because we expect someone adept in poetry to understand it and how it works.

Language has poem-like things in it already. A given language, for example, has a linguistic prosody. Irony and other tropes exist outside of poetry. We might think of dance. Ordinary body-movements are not wholly separate from dancing. Dancers walk, jump, move their bodies in ways that other people do too. Music is sound, and sound already exists outside of music. We still expect music to be organized in music-like ways.

John Cage had a brilliant idea: why not listen to sound as though it were already music?

People don't agree about how much and what kind of poem-like things they want in a poem. You might think putting in a lot of everything would be good. That's what Keats might have meant about loading "every rift with ore." But it is not a quantitative thing. Not everyone wants to write like Keats, even if they had the talent.

In the North Carolina poet-laureate controversy, the poetic community could not accept the poetry of a woman because of a kind of credentialism: she didn't have degrees in writing and didn't teach writing in a university, her books were self-pubished, she wasn't part of the community, she was probably Republican. Yet her poems are ok, in my book. They have stuff going on. The professional poets, with their credentials, who had been laureates before, are often just as amateurish in their actual poems.


Back to Cage. Well, he is one of the founders of conceptualism. What is this? Conceptual art makes a point about the status of art itself, often by playing with the frame that separates the ordinary activity (walking, moving about) from the specialized artistic version of the activity (dancing). Once you do that then you can draw a frame around anything and call it art, or poetry. After a while, people started doing conceptual things that did not even problematize the distinction between art and non-art, but simply called attention to some political point. I could film myself shaving every morning for a year, for example. If I came up with a proper narrative to explain that, then it would be art. In essence, the artist's statement replaces the art itself, because I wouldn't have to actually do this. Having the idea to do it and explaining why is the creative act. That's why it's "conceptual." This is a pretty shopworn artistic endeavor, though popularized more recently in poetry by Goldsmith. You might want to think about Duchamp, Warhol, and Cage; about the late great poetic movement called "flarf."

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Weird Trick about the Autonomy of Art

A Martian came to earth and wanted to know the "purpose" of music. He went to a musical performance or two and got some answers:

An economist explains that music is an economic exchange. Why do musicians play? To get paid.

No, actually musicians are expressing themselves, says the psychologist.

The evolutionary psychologist explains that music is a sexual display. The males play in front of the females to prove their worthiness as mates.

Well, of course music is a way of praising the gods; music is really just ritual.

Or of sticking it to the man, destroying fascism, expressing ethnic pride.

It accompanies movies (but what are movies for?)

By now the Martian is getting really confused about these different explanations. Of course, they could all be partially correct, or relevant for some but they don't really get to what music really is, he feels. He lacks the sensory organs to be able to "hear" music, but he suspects that something else is going on.

Finally, he comes to my office at the University of Kansas. I explain to him that there are some objects whose purpose is to be really good examples of the type of thing they are. The purpose of the musical performance is to be wonderful. He asks me about the other explanations he has heard. I cannot dismiss them, of course. Music has many functions and uses, secular and sacred, economic to medicinal. All those uses, however, depend on its being music first.


The Martian goes down the hall and talks to some other professors. They explain to him that Mayhew's explanation is a Western idea that doesn't apply to most artistic phenomena. The autonomy of art only arises late in human history. Before that art was always bound up with other human activities. So music really is just a sexual, ritual, economic, or some other thing. Pure music is the exception.


So the Martian comes back to my office again and gives me the cultural studies line fed to him by my brilliant colleagues. He is right that music is not "pure." But there is a weird internet trick I show him. It is true that the tribal drummer or potter does not have a modern Western sense of art being autonomous or pure. But it is also true that these creators of culture do not have a "utilitarian" view of art as simply being "for something else." This utilitarian idea in fact only arises as a reaction to the same dynamic that produced the idea of autonomy. So to say an ancient potter made a pot so that the Pharaoh would have an object to take into the other world is true enough, but that's like saying the rock drummer drums so he can get laid.

The purpose of a poem is to be wonderful

"The purpose of a poem is to be wonderful."

That's the statement that Andrew Gelman attributes to me (by implication, and as a summary of a post I wrote). Let's first assume that I agree that that sentence represents my views. I think it does, in fact. Let's break it down a little more.

Andrew thinks that this excludes other uses of poetry, so to speak, other purposes. I would think that in order to fulfill these other purposes, it first has to be a poem. In other words, it has to be that before it can do anything else. But does it have to be wonderful?

Obviously not. For example, there are lousy poems that fulfill other functions, and quite well. In fact, a propaganda poem is probably going to fulfill its purpose not so well if it is a wonderful poem.

So this leads us to a strange usage, in which we only want to call poems those that are "wonderful" as poems. Suppose I have a pencil case, but not a good one. You might say, "You call that a pencil case, that's not a pencil case, it's a piece of crap!." You would be wrong, because even bad examples of the category still belong to the category.

With poetry, though, the idea is that not every random utterance will be a poem, but that a poem will be language heightened in some way. Something has to be going on in the language for it to be called a poem. A poet might ironically write a poem that has nothing going on, to make a point. We call this "conceptual poetry," in fact. That is, to make a point about how it is no longer possible to write poems with a lot going on, rhythm, metaphors, etc... This conceptual poetry (or the branch of it that does this or similar things) does not disprove my contention that poetry is language where something interesting is going on. In fact, it proves my point, since it is making a meta-literary point based parasitically on the more traditional definition.

A math professor and I were talking about what he did last night, at a faculty reception. He said he counted stuff. I'm sure it's more technical than that, but basically he told me that his branch of mathematics involved counting things and comparing results, looking for patterns.

So, to be super non-technical here, the study of poetry is the study of "what's going on" in the language of poetry. How it communicates emotion, meaning, how it is structured, etc... The purpose of the poem is to be a poem, wonderful or not, and then also do whatever else any poet or reader wants it to do, like change the world, or win the heart of a lover. Since language is used for many other purposes, then it follows logically that we want poetry to do something extra special, not covered by those other uses.

There's an implicit Poundian ethos in this viewpoint. What I mean is that Pound said that poetry was language charged with meaning. Language + some heightened or improved elements. We are all Poundians, in that everyone more or less agrees that interesting rhythmic structures, or concrete images, etc.. provide the shortest route to making a poem wonderful. It seems like Andrew, whose blog I greatly admire by the way, shares this ethos, because he is able to find these poems mediocre in a similar way as I do, pointing to clichéd language, for example. I don't particularly care if anyone agrees with my particular judgments about poems or poets, since those judgments will always vary anyway.

A poem that's not wonderful is still a poem trying to be more wonderful than it in fact is. When we read a bad or mediocre poem we want it to be better than it is, more fitting with what the purpose of the poem might be. It's no different from what the purpose of an Eric Clapton guitar solo is. It's purpose is to be a great solo, right? Or do we want to say that it's purpose is to fill up 16 measures?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Paragraph of the week

I submit this to you
More broadly, some members of the profession will be less likely to identify intelligence in someone with an unpolished social manner — though on the other hand others are more likely to expect smartness there. (Another race in which I have a horse, though one emphatically not ready to be put out to pasture: aren’t colleagues more likely to describe people their own age, rather than significantly older, through these and related positive epithets?) As these instances suggest, both judgments on “smartness” as well as other monolithic overall evaluations may screen other, less savory evaluations, whether or not the person making them is aware of that.
What's wrong with this writing? It is verbose, awkward, and doesn't really make a strong point. We might think rude people are also less intelligent (yes), but others think rudeness is associated with intelligence (maybe?), and we might think people much older than us are dumber (??). The parenthetical sentence awkwardly combines two idioms (having a horse in a race, and putting a horse out to pasture) in a confusing way. Why "though" instead of "and." The author is a professor of "poetics" of all things.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

No, syllabi do not average 15 pages!

A recent article on Slate alleged this. A facebook thread in which I'm participating says that syllabi range from 3-6, with 15 being the high end of the scale. To get there you would have to copy and paste the entire academic integrity policy into the document. I just link to it.