Thursday 26 March 2015

Styles of writing, modes of thought and logic versus poetics

By way of response to my previous post on the seminar that she organised, Penny Newell writes (with terrific kindness!):
It's great to read the write-up on your blog Philip, and, having browsed the press release for the Reset Modernity! exhibition, I really see how it all links in to the anomalies series. I feel compelled to say something. One thing I really love about your blog is your ability to say that you simply do not know, or that you might know, at some point, but perhaps not everything, just yet. I actually think this in itself is how I think modernity should be 'reset'. It blows syllogistic logic out of the water, allowing you to speak meaningfully, truthfully, rigorously, with an quality of erudition that I think is truly important, in ways that allow your reader to slow down; allows your ideas to resist the finitude of conclusive statements. Put simply: I can't extract what you say from how you are saying it. Maybe you don't intend this, but it's there (and it's actually, in my opinion, really in keeping with the Stengers piece you sent to me - not that I am calling you out as an 'idiot'... merely that I feel you resist the 'and so' of writing). 
Bit of a tangent, but just yesterday I was reading a piece by Constantino Marmo, referenced in Eco's work on metaphor, entitled, 'Suspicio: A Key Word to the Significance of Aristotle’s Rhetoric in Thirteenth-Century Scholasticism'. It sparked an interest in me as Marmo posits the 13th c. (esp. Albert the Great / Aquinas) as a (mini-)paradigm shift toward subtended various modes of thinking within logic, such that Aristotelian rhetoric and poetics became subsumed within the rationalis scientia; opening the way to reading poetics as and through a methodological modus sciendi. This is fascinating! (though I need to explore in more depth just how much I can make the following claim...) as it seems to me that part of the task of resetting modernity should be to reclaim rhetoric and poetics from logic; or at least to position them alongside it. My open question is: if we do so, what happens? What happens to the task of criticism within the field of poetics, if we consciously, just-so-slightly, nudge logic to one side? Does it reveal that works such as the Poetics are somehow subordinate to the Organon? Does it show that we're trying to be too logical in our readings of those works? What does it say about a whole field of Arts and Humanities, which owes so much of its thinking to thinking substantial things, drawing substantial conclusions, about poetics and rhetoric? I feel (or at least, I try in my work to practice the possibility that), if we shift the positionality of the Poetics, away from logic, it becomes a document that we can just write through, away from the rationalising project of modernity, towards, well, not much ... perhaps just away from an 'and so'. Perhaps just towards a 'perhaps'.
I hadn’t thought about it in that way but I suppose that I do work with a degree of ‘idiocy’ (in the technical sense!). I feel utterly unimpressed by modes of thought that always have a pre-fabricated answer for everything. ‘Well,’ they say with a half-stifled yawn, ‘this is, of course, just a case of [xyz].’ Such boredom infects and infests everything it touches (it’s the boredom of someone who’s already had every idea they’ll ever have...). The most important thing I ever learned was how to be productively and creatively perplexed (rather than merely bored) by things that I didn’t understand. It took me a long time to figure that out. I feel like I’ve been making up for lost time ever since.

Self-certainty is good for defending hilltops; exploring forests is another thing altogether. How this translates into a writing style is tricky. I do give a lot of thought to the relation between style, mood, rhythm, structure and argument. And I do find them to be inseparable. Of course, this is not a new insight. However, acceptance of the mere fact of performativity tells us nothing with regard to how that performance should be carried out. And that is something that doesn’t get thought through enough. (Most academic and intellectual ‘styles’ are just copies of copies of copies.)

Regarding poetics and logic, that all does sound very interesting! I suppose if we want to think about ‘resetting’ some dualistic aspect of modernity then we would have to begin by acknowledging or finding the value of both sides of the equation. We might want to save poetics from the stolid strictures of logic. Okay, but if we are to flood this particular valley we need to adequately re-house both villages. If the modernist settlement makes logic an enemy of poetics then we should have some sympathy for the logicians too! They also have no choice but to act as though logic is exhaustively defined by the abstract, the austere, the ‘whether-you-like-it-or-not.’ To quote one Freeman Lowell, “now, what kind of life is that?”

However, it is not a question of adopting a 'neutral' position. A diplomat will never attempt to arbitrate a dispute as though it could be resolved by technicality. A diplomat is necessarily ‘biased’ (or, better, committed) to one side or the other. However, a diplomat will also sometimes say to their side ‘now hold on, they won’t accept that; no, no, that won’t fly.’ Even militants can be diplomats if they are able to slow down momentarily in this manner. So, to militate for poetics against logic is fine and understandable (goodness knows we are all tired of having our poetic daisies stomped on by jackbooted yawn-stiflers!) but the situation, to my mind, becomes truly interesting (in every sense of that word) when we take on the agency re-distributions necessary to do justice to both sides. It becomes interesting when we start to say ‘now, hang on….’

And, in that respect, I think an historical approach is really crucial. A kind of diplomatic history in the sense of a history of disputes becomes extremely fecund when we are able to recognise ourselves as inheritors of these disputes. We may not share the problems that these disputers were grappling with but we have often inherited their solutions.

So, in other words, we should ask not only what could poetics be if it was not browbeaten by logic but also what could logic be if it was not burdened with having to browbeat poetics? A far harder question, I admit!