The Emancipated Spectator and the Plague Ground

by on Feb.06, 2014

As most readers of this blog know, one of my pet peeves about contemporary poetry discussions is the “too much argument”: some critic or poet (usually with a strong reputation that allows him or her to address the rest of poetry from an elevated position) denounces contemporary poetry for being “too much.” We have heard this critique from Kenny Goldsmith and Marjorie Perloff, but also from Tony Hoagland and countless conservative types.
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As Joyelle described it in her reframing of this debate, “The “Future” of “American” Poetry:

“Too many books are being written, too many books are being published by ‘inconsequential’ presses, there’s no way to know what to read anymore, people are publishing too young, it’s immature, it’s unmemorable, the Internet is run amok with bad writing and half formed opinions, there’s no way to get a comprehensive picture”. Exactly. You just have to wade through the plague ground of the present, give up and lie down in it, as the floodwaters rise from the reversed drains, sewage-riven, bearing tissue and garbage, the present tense resembles you in all its spumey and spectacolor 3-D.”

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Right now I’m reading Jacques Ranciere’s wonderful book The Emancipated Spectator, in which he takes issue with the idea – very prevalent in American poetry and leftism – of people “passive” spectators in a society of the spectacle, the idea that they have to be made active, that the images have to be overcome.

In one section he gives a kind of historical background to this kind of thinking, a background that links the “too much” criticism to the “society of spectacle” rhetoric, and links them both to a very old-fashioned form of elitism. He find the root of both of these rhetorical tropes in the second half of the 19th century – with science’s discovery that the brain worked by nervous stiumuli, not through a soul, and also with the simultaneous proliferation of mass produced images.

Notice how the criticism Ranciere calls attention to seems to be almost the same as the one heard in today’s poetry discussions:

“It was in this context that a rumour began to be heard: too many stimuli have been unleashed on all sides; too many thoughts and images are invading brains that have not been prepared for mastering this abundance; too many images of possible pleasures are held out to the sight of the poor in big towns; too many new pieces of knowledge are being thrust into the feeble skulls of the children of the common people. This stimulation of their nervous energy is a grave danger. What results is an unleashing of unknown appetites producing in the short term, new assaults on the social order; in the long run, exhaustion of solid, hardworking stock. Lamentation about a surfeit of consumable commodities and images was first and foremost a depiction of democratic society as one in which there are too many individuals capable of appropriating words, images and forms of lived experience. Such was in fact the great anxiety of nineteenth century elites: anxiety about the circulation of these unprecedented forms of lived experience, likely to give any passerby, visitor or reader materials liable to contribute to the reconfiguration of her life-world. This multiplication of unprecedented encounters was also an awakening of original capacities in popular bodies. Emancipation – that is to say, the dismantling of the old distribution of what could be seen, thought, done – fed on this multiplication. Denounciation of the misleading seduction of the “consumer society” was initially the deed of elites gripped by terror at the twin contemporary figures of popular experimentation with new forms of life: Emma Bovary and the international Workingmen’s Association. Obviously, this terror took the form of paternal solicitude for poor people whose fragile brains were incapable of mastering such multiplicity. In other words, teh capacity to reinvent lives was transformed into an inability to judge situations.” (pgs 46-47)

I think this historical background also explains why the “too much” charge inevitably seems to go together with a denounciation of poetry that does too much – that has too many images or too much “I” or too many metaphors or whatever. To have taste – to be elite – means not being overcome by stimuli.

The paradox that Ranciere exposes is that what is now a left-wing critique starts out as a conservative, elitist defense.

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