Thursday, May 16, 2013

Send Me a Poet :: Open Thread

[General] Carpenter snapped up his intercom. "Send me a poet," he said.

He waited, and waited...and waited...while America sorted feverishly through its two hundred and ninety millions of hardened and sharpened experts, its specialized tools to defend the American Dream of beauty and poetry and the Better Things in Life. He waited for them to find a poet, not understanding the endless delay, the fruitless search, not understanding why Bradley Scrim laughed and laughed and laughed at this final, fatal disappearance.

"The Disappearing Act," by Alfred Bester (1953)

Sixty years ago the science fiction writer Alfred Bester predicted a 22nd-century, very lengthy world war being fought by America in which the atrocities were so severe that more and more soldiers returning from battle not only withdrew into an autistic world within their own minds, but could literally physically disappear for periods of time into a fantasy world of their own creation, full of people, places and things anachronistically collected from their dreams. They would physically vanish from their secret hospital ward (Ward T) for hours and then days and then weeks at a time, leaving their doctors and generals behind scratching their heads about this disappearing act, this human telekinetic evolution. 

Once they thought they understood this new power somewhat, their attention shifted toward the potential it might give the military to get the upper hand in the seemingly endless war to protect our cultural commitment to "beauty and poetry and the Better Things in Life" (by transporting American troops back in time to defeat the enemy then).

The problem they had in understanding the soliders' power well enough to actively harness it was they no longer technically understood the process for creating dreams. In order to win this war to protect our way of life, the country had forced everyone into specialized fields of study, ensuring the generals could call on experts on any practical topic at any moment to respond quickly to the unpredictable progression of the war.

The hell these disappearing soldiers had to live through before this ability came to them is left to the reader's imagination, but the hell awaiting those people who were unable to figure out how to travel into their own private American Dream, whether to win the war or escape it, was hauntingly imagined by the short story's end. In the story, General Carpenter, who was leading the war effort, called back from prison a rogue historian (Bradley Scrim, imprisoned for pointing out that the effort to save the American Dream was actually killing it) to help him understand how and/or why these soldiers were disappearing. Scrim, rather bitter for being imprisoned and fully aware of Carpenter's militaristic designs on this new power, is here explaining to Carpenter what he was able to determine by examining the soldiers in Ward T:
“The concept is almost beyond understanding. These people have discovered how to turn dreams into reality. They know how to enter their dream realities. They can stay there, live there, perhaps forever. My God, Carpenter, this is your American dream. It’s miracle-working, immortality, Godlike-creation, mind over matter... It must be explored. It must be studied. It must be given to the world.”
“Can you do it, Scrim?”
“No, I cannot. I’m a historian. I’m noncreative, so it’s beyond me. You need a poet...a man who understands the creation of dreams. From creating dreams on paper or canvas it oughtn’t to be too difficult to take the step to creating dreams in actuality.”
“A poet? Are you serious?”
“Certainly I’m serious. Don’t you know what a poet is? You’ve been telling us for five years that this war is being fought to save the poets.”
“Don’t be facetious, Scrim, I—....  

"Send a poet into Ward T. He’ll learn how they do it. He’s the only man who can. A poet is half doing it anyway. Once he learns, he can
teach, your psychologists and anatomists. Then they can teach us; but the poet is the only man who can interpret between those shock cases and your experts.”
Scrim's joke on Carpenter, of course, is that he knows there are no poets left in this highly professionalized society.

Two things I've read recently have made me remember this story (which I had first read in high school). One was Anton Vidokle's provocative essay on (among other things) the professionalization of the contemporary art world, "Art without Market, Art without Education: Political Economy of Art."

In discussing how Warhol had masterfully bridged the business and art worlds toward his own individualist ends, Vidokle concludes:

Warhol’s economic independence seems to have been misunderstood. The independence that came from his bridging of the bohemian sphere and the sphere of day-to-day commerce has been converted into a vast proliferation of so-called artistic practices that treat art as a profession. But art is not a profession. What does being professional actually mean under the current conditions of de-skilling in art? We should probably be less concerned with being full-time, art-school-trained, professional artists, writers, or curators—less concerned with measuring our artistic worth in these ways. Since most of us are not expected to perfect any specific techniques or master any craft—unlike athletes or classical musicians, for example—and given that we are no longer tied to working in specific mediums, perhaps it’s fine to be a part-time artist? After all, what is the expertise of a contemporary artist? Perhaps a certain type of passionate hobbyism, a committed amateurism, is okay: after all, we still live in a reality largely shaped by talented amateurs of the nineteenth century, like Thomas Edison and so many others. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to work in some other capacity in the arts, or in an entirely different field, and also to make art: sometimes this situation actually produces much more significant work than the “professional art” we see at art fairs and biennials. Ilya Kabakov supported himself for decades by being a children’s book illustrator. Marcel Duchamp worked as a librarian and later sold Brancusi’s work to make a living, while refusing to be dependent on sales of his own work.
but the other thing I've read recently that reminded me of Bester's cautionary tale, was the chapter in Douglas Rushkoff's brilliant new book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now on the "collapse of the narrative." He begins his explanation of why he believes we are living through the collapse of traditional narrative with a very compelling description of the importance of storytelling:
As a medium, stories have proven themselves great as a way of storing information and values and then passing them on to future generations. Our children demand we tell them stories before they go to bed, so we lace those narratives with the values we want them to take with them into their dreams and their adult lives. Likewise, the stories and myths of our religions and national histories preserve and promote certain values over time. That's one reason civilizations and their values can persist over centuries.

Rushkoff's basic argument as to why narrative is collapsing is that the values and collective goals our stories have until now expressed and preserved and (and therefore communicated forward to successive generations to guide us in moving forward) have relied on our culture being "future-focused,"  and yet, according to him, we no longer are:
When people stop looking to the future, they start looking at the present. Investments begin to matter less for what they might someday be worth, because people are no longer thinking so much about "someday" as they are about today. A stock's "story"--the rationale for why it is going to go up--begins to matter less than its actual value in real time. What are my stocks worth as of this moment? What do I really own? What is the value of my portfolio right now?

The stock market's infinite expansion was just one of many stories dependent on our being such a future-focused culture. All the great "isms" of the twentieth century--from capitalism to communism to Protestantism to republicanism to utopianism to messianism--depended on big stories to keep them going. None of them were supposed to be so effective in the short term or present. They all promised something better in the future for having suffered through something not so great today. (Or at least offered something better today that whatever pain and suffering supposedly went on back in the day.) The ends justified the means. Today's war was tomorrow's liberation. Today's suffering was tomorrow's salvation. Today's work was tomorrow's reward.
Rushkoff argues that these stories worked for a while in the US, they "helped us construct a narrative experience of our lives, our nation, our culture, and our faith. We adopted an entirely storylike way of experiencing and talking about the world." And that the act (or art) of storytelling became a valued part of our culture itself.  

He quotes Aristotle, though, who said: "When the storytelling in a culture goes bad, the result is decadence."

Indeed, here in the US, after the turn of the century, Rushkoff argues things began to move so quickly we lost our collective future-focused patience (the "discontinuity generated by the 9/11 attacks should not be underestimated" in understanding this, he notes). With that lack of patience, we also seem to have lost the time we're willing to dedicate to traditional, linear storytelling. That art form takes a certain degree of patience to endure the set-up, the character development, the story arc (from introduction to crisis to climax to conclusion).

I know myself that during and in the aftermath of 9/11, I was not consuming information patiently enough to endure such time-consuming constructs. I wanted to know what was going on now! because I was convinced our very survival, and the survival of "the American Dream of beauty and poetry and the Better Things in Life" depended on us having access to that information now

Indeed, since then, even when we told ourselves we simply must relax, we increasingly did so with DVD or online libraries of stories and, very importantly, remote controls! that enabled us to skip over the boring parts, skip the development if we wanted to, essentially, skip the narrative and live entirely in the now of our favorite bits...the crisis...the climax. Instead of spending an evening relaxing, surrendering our minds to another person's carefully crafted story, we could construct our own faster-paced diversion, channel surfing from crisis to crisis, climax to climax. No commercials, no painfully slow traditional narrative...and, taken to this practice's logical conclusions, eventually no reason for anyone to create the more traditional vessels to carry forward the experience of our lives, our nation, our culture and our faith. I highly recommend Rushkoff on this. I've been obsessed with it lately.

In fact, my previous, admittedly strange, post was an experiment in traditional storytelling from a post-narrative-collaspe point of view. What I mean by that, is it intentionally begins by acknowledging time constraints (under-edited, raw prose, choices I realized were probably wrong, but which were left in anyway because developing the replacement transition would take too long); and yet still acknowledging the role of stories to convey values (lest we lose them entirely); doing so via the time-tested role of universal (i.e., project-able) stereotypes, motifs, and symbols; and yet conceding through a Sloterdijk-esque admission that even though there's something off about our "hero's" motivation, he's the best we got, so we might as well move forward with him, because our Beckettian sense of self tells us that move forward we must, at all costs.

All of which is not designed to launch a new career in literature, but more humbly to simply open up a more in-depth discussion of the role of story-telling in a post-narrative culture. Consider this an open thread on that topic.


Blogger George said...

Um, I don't buy into the post-narrative culture idea. Things are changing in a more profound way just now and any envisioned future is just the sum of our hopes and fears. Things are just like they always were, only different.

5/16/2013 02:35:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm not sure I've given much thought to an envisioned future lately...too consumed by trying to make sense of the present. To be honest the last time I thought I had a grasp on the future was before 9/11.

Can you point me to what you considered significant envisioned futures, particularly ones that work like a traditional narrative (i.e., if we do this, we'll end up there)?

5/16/2013 02:42:00 PM  
Anonymous chris Jagers said...

Sci-fi is usually a thinly veiled comment on our present circumstances, as your example shows. And this take on our loss of narrative is interesting because it suggests a deeper problem than simple lack of attention span.

I have been wondering (mourning) about the current state of our discussions around beauty (and truthfulness). And I think it is related. It is like modern relativism has diminished about ability to believe in a set of shared values, and therefore our diminished certain kinds of patience.

Dave Hickey repopularized discussions around beauty and narrative that happens within pictorial space, but he did it with a completely "deceptive" interpretation of beauty while side-stepping truth altogether. I have felt a similar burden to write about this:

5/16/2013 03:21:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Well to start, we not only changed centuries but also entered a new millennium, research indicates that people fixate on round numbers, something like birthdays. This was made more complicated by the year 2K fears and then devastated by 911. As important as they seem, I think these events just tended to blur the more significant changes occurring in society.
The Modern Era, the dream of 'progress' has its roots in the Industrial Age which started in the early 19th century. The Industrial Age can be characterized by urbanization, the agrarian exodus into the cities. This was followed by true industrialization, iron and steel, skyscrapers, boats, trains, planes and bridges etc. This all led to what we view in the arts as Modernism (inc. PM which is just anti-formalism)
Modernism ended at the end of the 20th century as we transitioned into the Information Age. The internet is only 20 years old, cell phones the same, social sites like Facebook less than 10, and we can now Google anything. This radically changes how we interact and how we can access information.
Additionally I have suggested (see link below) that there is a roughly 50 year bi-generational cycle in the culture ( 1860, 1910, 1960, 2010) I started think about this 20 years ago thinking that rock and roll was getting long in the tooth and that we were ready for something new. When I wrote the blog post in 2008, popular music was still one of my unresolved points but after getting an iPad and iTunes an a bit of research (since confirmed by younger musicians) I realized that the guitar (which replaced the trumpet or sax in 1960) was finished and has been replaced by the synthesizer. New music leads the way into the future.
In painting which is my primary concern, I feel that Modernism completed its linguistic or stylistic definition (assimilation of the abstraction idea) and that what could be logically expected would be to freely utilize the stylistic language in service of a visual narrative which resonates with the culture. Most painters are still stuck in the 20th century, but in 3-4 years there will be a new group of artists which have always lived in the Information Age - that will be a hoot.

5/16/2013 03:44:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Like Paul Krugman I also read SciFi, I would note that Bester's short story was written in 1953 when I was 10 years old (turned 70 last Sat) I remember this period, in grammar school 'duck and cover,' hiding under my desk, was a regular event — the threat of nuclear annihilation was very real reaching its peak with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. All this was very scary and rooted in the culture, the creative narratives responded to it. Of course most of their visions were wrong, or imperfect, but that is what I would expect.

5/16/2013 04:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Dennis said...

I certainly don't mean to sound apocalyptic, but I think that our narrative today is one of survival/sustainability or decadence. Unfortunately, decadence appears to be winning out - art (with regard to the market)is a perfect example of this. I am way more self-absorbed and obsessed than I would like, but I want to partake in a little of the decadence myself before there may be no more left to be had. I suppose, in feeling left out, I am projecting, but to me everyone seems a little self-centered - perhaps moreso now than at any other time in history. Artist's have always been consumers of the self, but it seems as though everyone is participating in this saturation and overexpression of the self. Viral videos and Ryan Trecartin accurately sum up the Narrative of the day...heres a little quote from Trecartin that puts it to words quite nicely "Am I overexisting or over existing?" I'm not sure how to answer this paradoxical question, but it does seem to address the anxiety/confusion of even needing a narrative at all.

5/17/2013 01:28:00 AM  
Blogger Hans Heiner Buhr said...

The art work developed from an eternal icon into a mobile status update.

With the decrease of the general attention span, that is available for the enormous rising amount of images, goes the devaluation of the single art image - I fear.

The art piece lost it's former magic, and the artist became an ordinary person.

The art as we know it, is finished, but there comes something new on it's place.

5/17/2013 08:25:00 AM  
Blogger A Rose by any other name... said...

"The art as we know it, is finished, but there comes something new on it's place"

Please god, let the Vampire obsession be finished already.


I think narrative opportunities emerge around us in small and large ways all the time. We just have a need to tell themselves stories to make sense of things.

Some settle on superficial explanations, others create elaborate back stories and (thus future stories). The larger the story teller's mental stock (knowledge, experience, and exposure to the world) the more complex, multilayered and open-ended the story becomes. And the really great narratives dare us to dream such stories for ourselves.

But I will stop now, and go read a link or two.

5/17/2013 11:34:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Rushkoff isn't arguing that traditional narratives are not possible any more, simply that our culture is evolving to where were not slowing down long enough to consume them even if they are...he's also arguing though that we no longer have much interest in the Aristotelian narrative arc (which was best ever explained, in my opinion, by David Mamet, who boiled it down to : you have a protagonist, you have what the protagonist wants, you have what stands between the protagonist and what he/she wants, you have how they go about getting around that thing, and you finally have the result of that effort) Usually, in popular fiction or Hollywood, they get what they want, but it doesn't matter if they don''s the effort that we're in the story for.

Only now, as Rushkoff argues, with the advent of infinite (computer) games as our culture's dominant form of electric entertainment (i.e., more than TV or movies), the effort...the the entire point...we no longer care about the arc, which takes too long and requires us to care about the protagonists future...a climax or resolution to the protagonist's story is the last thing we want, because in gaming, WE are the protagonists...we simply want the game to go on infinitely (which is as unsubtle a metaphor for our quest for immortality as I've ever heard, but...)

5/17/2013 11:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

yet isnt it more that instead of hearing stories, we want to experience the stories?

The protagonist is I.

A no longer "identify with" but "be". Which still leaves room for the arc. Short attention spans it might appear to be, just until the I finds teh opening to become the protagonist - people have died for their addicition to playing gaming, they can't stop, that's focus and duration. It's wrong yes- but maybe it shows the short attention span is only a sympton of not finding a way to be the protagonist. I mean what was American Idol all about?

maybe its more a shift from 'identifying with' to 'believing we are' The modernist movements of 'experience this'?

5/17/2013 12:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My first time in Las Vegas. Jimmy Carter was president, The Casino operators handed out free Heineken's as you walked down the sidewalk. So Im in Binions Horseshoe downtown having a blast on a roll. I am at the roulette table and a announcement from the federal government comes over the P.A .

The feds are going to detonate a massive underground nuke right outside of town and don be alarmed if the ground shakes. shortly there after the casino went pitch black the power went out few seconds.

Ill never forget that.

I also played Baccarat with a bunch of Asian High Rollers . Back then the minimums were very small so the poor people could mix with the rich.

America is a Tripp.

A true American lol.

5/17/2013 01:06:00 PM  
Blogger A Rose by any other name... said...

Thanks, Ed, for the timely link to e-flux. I've lately been thinking about Jane O'Brien's
"Putting a price on the value of art" (BBC News Magazine. Feb 18, 2013), and really appreciate the mental stretch provided by Mimesis of the Hardened and Alienated”: Social Practice as Business Model

Relating all of this to the idea of narrative, the question then becomes what collective narrative can we discover that will allow the poets to flourish?

5/18/2013 11:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

Some numbers on why I believe the concern should be not on a too long narrative, but on playing the role of the protagonist and not empathizing with the protagonist.

"In the first six months of 2012, according to Publishers Weekly, drawing on data from 1,186 companies, the Association of American Publishers reported that trade sales increased 13.1 percent, to $2.33 billion" so say 4.66B$ /yr

"Movie theaters sold an estimated $10.84 billion worth of tickets domestically in 2012"

"US$16.3-billion was spent on the video game industry"

"Visiongain has determined that the value of the global military simulation and virtual training market in 2012 will reach $9.03bn."

Immersing oneself as the protagonist has become the norm for learning and play and entertainment. Now imagine a world where it isn't so much that you empathize with another, (which the narrative & art has always given us) but you are the other - how xenophobic will our culture become when we identify only with those like us - that can be either good - we identify with everyone, or we the other becomes a stranger.

Scarier yet, is all of this digital role playing is becoming how we LIVE our lives. Wifi, cell towers, we walk among the computer, instead of opening a book, going to a theater, turning on a computer, devices such as google glasses, cloud storage and such means our lives garner meaning only when we are connected - so we risk blurring the line between our paradigm of being, and our paradigm of dreaming. Without being able to hold another paradigm (other then our lives) we risk losing play, sports, comedy, and the arts. For without juxtaposing two coherent paradigms, we cant learn and inspect our accepted paradigm. We can only live it as a flux, and not stand back to say, if this other paradigm means such, then ours means thus. We utterly need to hold two distinct paradigms to understand our own - art has always operated on this premise, it is one of the identifying features of being human.

Role being- immersed within a digital environment,- instead of emphasizing or disagreeing with a character in another paradigm (literature/narrative/art) risks our utter humanity.

But then: Every generations greatest strength is its weakness, and every generation can readily see the next generations weakness the clearest. Lots is at risk now, but so it has always been.

5/19/2013 07:34:00 AM  
Blogger A Rose by any other name... said...

Gam, I think we are in agreement about the basic issues at stake.

What I LIKE to think is happening is that we are re-conceptualizing our protagonist's role in the Grand Narrative, in a POV shift from first person I to first person I-thou. And perhaps, daring to shift our place in the narrative from the destined conclusion of the third act, to the wide open potential of the early second act.

5/21/2013 11:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The answer to all of this is Thomas Hirschhorn

5/23/2013 07:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Aaron McMasters said...

"But art is not a profession." -Vidokle

"Profession" is a reductive description of any ritualized activity involving money. Warhol's pronouncements about art and business reveal this by reductio ad absurdum; "business is the best kind of art".

But if art is not a profession, is it just a "vocation" or is it a Vocation? If your Vocation has no place in society, then you are probably just nuts - an egomaniac, a lone wolf, afflicted with antisocial personality disorder; the idea of a calling is deeply flawed, easily derided, commonly debunked and a very cool idea to the protean, the angst ridden inner maggot, striving for meaning in a cold world filled with chilly people without souls. artists are alive! The only ones left! The sole hope for humanity, boarded up in galleries, duct tape and plastic around the doors of their studios!

Is art just a spectator sport where rich and poor alike enjoy a voyeuristic thrill while some nutty starving artists do the dance of death, turn themselves into clowns, or ape shamanistic pretentions of otherness and magic in order to escape the creeping death? Are artists just actors, courtesans, interior decorators, designers priests professionals? No, artists are interdisciplinary creators with managerial skills and money to give the interns a stipend. They fear boredom, change, routine order and chaos.

Even the common cold can be taken seriously, when seen collectively, as a colossal waste of mental energy. Or individually, as a scourge of the elderly. And art is a white sand beach, every grain a different sickness. Think of how many things could be said instead of the trillions of "bless you's" squandered on a sneeze? How many more projects could be completed if, instead, art handler/artists were freed up by a fashion for ephemeral, infinitely reproducible art? Let my people go, he said.

just give them the money with out making them move your heavy bulky complex shit for you.

How selfish the Richard Serra's of the world? How controlling, how masochistic. How pedagogical.

As a card carrying populist (but with particular tastes for myself) I see no crisis - only a mass of excluded individuals with tastes (or dis-eases) that Vidokle will never tap. Perhaps my vision of art is too broad, too inclusive to be meaningful. I think that is the danger of saying art has no particular medium. I need to qualify by saying Visual Art, or Concept Art, or always with reference to a specific object so that we are anchored in reality, even if the words are just approximations of the truth that no category is complete.

When you think of objects as anchors, idols, "hypersigyls" "totems" or one of a kind luxury items - they all have a narrative attached by their owners. These narratives may be totalized, hegemonic, closed systems, linear dead ends, root bound pots of clammy death, but in the end, every pot can be broken and every iconoclast has his day.

Speaking of iconoclasm - dropping out (filtering) is an option, and that's what "counterculture" is supposed to do - like giving birth in a swimming pool instead of a tie died macrame hell. Or is that design? Maybe I'm just a Philistine.

5/25/2013 10:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was a baby rattlesnake on the porch last month the snake got trapped on the concrete from the cold waiting for a rodent. I put the snake out in the sun light and he eventually warmed up and went on his way. Everytime I see a Rattlesnake I think of Greg my old pot dealer from the 1970s . We called Him Pollock Greg.

Like the rest of us from back then his Grand Parents came thru Ellis Island and couldn't speak a lick of English. See Greg collected Rattlesakes he would hunt them in the evenings and mornings in the summer. Greg always had the best weed the choices were limited to Maui wowi , Thai sticks dipped in opium , you Cant function on that shit those are for couch surfing and listening to Pink Floyd. Columbian Gold or Michoacan was the best Balance. Gregs wife was from Mexico, He had two small children , and 2 bedroom apartment full of rattlesnakes. There were Terrariums everywhere Full of pissed off snakes. The snake were fairly quiet until a stranger came over and then they would go off, all it would take would be one to start Rattling and then the would all go off like some crazy smoke alarm.

5/25/2013 12:32:00 PM  

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