Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Puzzling over value #6 The Institutionalising of Legitimacy. Wheeler's 'Meme'

According to Pierre Bourdieu,  what characterizes the artistic field, and what gives it its history, is the struggle of succeeding movements or individuals for legitimacy, which is gained by supplanting the existing dominant forms by the revolutionary new.
This definition-Who can legitimately be called a writer? What is legitimate literary practice?-is one of the key stakes of symbolic struggle in the literary field, and failure to understand it often results in the blind acceptance of the dominant definition of literary legitimacy. (Bourdieu.1993, p.12)
According to Bourdieu (1993) there are three competing Principles of legitimacy:
First, there is the specific principle of legitimacy, i.e. the recognition granted by the set of producers who produce for other producers, their competitors i.e. by the autonomous self-sufficient world of “art for art’s sake”. Secondly there is the principle of legitimacy corresponding to ‘bourgeois’ taste and to the consecration bestowed by the dominant fractions of the dominant class and by private tribunals, such as salons, or public, state guaranteed ones, such as academies, which sanction the inseparably ethical and aesthetic (and therefore political) taste of the dominant. Finally there is the principle of legitimacy which its advocates call ‘popular ’i.e the consecration bestowed by the choice of ordinary consumers, the ‘mass audience’. (Page 50/51)

There was a time when Eliot could be validated by all three. Pound scorned the second (‘it hits me in my dinner invitations’, he wrote) and the third (which he was fond of calling The Mob) and was only interested in the first, but the other two certainly existed in his day. Before Pound began his career in London it was possible for Elkin Mathews, who would later be Pound’s London Publisher, to publish Admirals All and Other Verses by a then unknown Henry Newbolt in his ‘Shilling Garland’ series and for it to go through thirty reprintings, selling 30,000 copies by 1910 (Nelson, 1989, p.47).  Such an action today, in Australia, is difficult to imagine. The problem facing the modern poet is that legitimisation has been institutionalised. And those with power, have power, because they are employed by the institution.

The shift within the field of poetry in the past 100 years means that currently those with the power to confer legitimacy tend to be employed by academic institutions, especially since the burgeoning of creative writing courses in Universities . But these people are employed because they meet the requirements of the institution for employment. This does not mean they are not good at what they do or should not be there, it just means that like any employee they operate within the mandates, traditions and practices of the institution In terms of creative writing it is almost inevitable that institutional needs, processes, and what is required for external justification, will be in conflict with the kind of freedom Graves celebrated (See here: http://ladygodivaandme.blogspot.com.au/2013/09/graves-on-poets-freedom-and.html )

Attempts to justify creative practice in terms of existing definitions of academic research are bound to alter the process of writing, and since literary theory is in fashion, its application to creative writing, regardless of how appropriate that might be in other terms,  is one inevitable consequence.

Assessment has to be based on criteria that are as objective as possible, must be reportable, must be fair and comparable across cohorts, across time and across institutions. If genuinely new poetry is radical and revolutionary because it challenges the existing orthodoxy, how can this happen in a setting where orthodoxy is institutionalized and therefore a requirement for recognition and achieving grades?

This is not a criticism of the institution or the people in it. But for the writing of poetry and the effect on the Domain, the results of this institutionalizing of legitimacy is problematic beyond its tendency to emphasize content and to police ideology. Firstly because being within the institution, the reading practices and the academic thinking fashionable within the institution are going to affect it. The kind of political or theorised readings, based on assumptions about poetry and its social and cultural and political role, become the ground on which the poetry course or the creative writing course might operate and on which the poem will be criticized. Secondly, as Bourdieu says, the game is to change the field without disturbing the ground of its existence. Refusing to play the game according to the rules calls ‘into question not a way of playing the game, but the game itself and the belief which supports it. This is the one unforgivable transgression” (P81).

I can see no other reason except for the institutional processes outlined above why something like this following piece gets published. In a book by a ‘prize winning’ author, who at the time of publication taught at Princeton University where she was director of the creative writing program, in a book bearing the sticker “National Book award Finalist’:

wait I’m not done fucking wait I’m not done fucking wait
I’m not done fucking wait I’m not done fucking wait I’m
not done fucking wait I’m not done fucking wait I’m not
done fucking wait I’m not done fucking wait I’m not done
fucking wait I’m not done fucking wait I’m not done fucking
wait I’m not done fucking wait I’m not done fucking wait

(p74. This is all there is on page 74.)

(From Meme: poems by Susan Wheeler.University of Iowa press, 2012.)

When you’ve got over the cute way it reads the same way downwards at the ends of the lines and the first and last lines what are you supposed to do with this?  You could replace ‘fucking’ with any two-syllable activity, and what difference would it make? (Ok, so I admit I had fun reading it with a pause after done, but that was my desperate attempt to find something to keep myself interested).

 What am I, as reader, supposed to do with this? Why did anyone think this was worth charging dollars for?

No comments: