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Saturday, March 18, 2006

The War, Scale, Dialectics, and Poetry

Reading yesterday that “U.S. and allied forces” just bombed part of the so-called Sunni Triangle “on a scale not seen since 2003” has sent my thoughts on a few different courses.

First, of course, I think of the Iraqi civilians who are bound to be killed, or injured, or will have their houses bombed and their villages destroyed, because they live in a region said to be central to the activity of “insurgents.”

Then I think about scale.  That word and its various meanings has interested me for some time now, and will probably come up repeatedly on this blog (a recent post talks a bit about it).  In this case I was surprised by the emotional effect of the switch from “occupation” back to “war” in the framing of the assault on Iraq.  The occupation seemed like something ongoing, and for me to contribute to efforts to get American troops out of Iraq, to help prevent U.S. corporations from taking over its resources, and to encourage opposition to the Bush administration in whatever ways I could, seemed like a series of activities stretched out in time, always necessary but somehow elongated.  The bombings changed the temporal sense of what was happening; it’s characterized again by an urgency, an immediacy of events (even more than immediate—a sense of “too late,” “not again”).

But what can this “immediacy” mean, when I’m so far from Iraq, when these events are taking place on a scale that’s more or less inaccessible to me, even if I can read about it in the news?  The global scale of contemporary life, if one’s paying attention, can be paralyzing; many activists and progressives talk about their sense of helplessness in relation to the horrors happening so far from them.  Though focusing on one’s own self-doubt can’t do much to help the people being killed for the business interest of western elites, it’s still a necessary problem to deal with if you want to continue caring with the energy to try to figure out what you can do, what would help the most, and to do it.  

And what do I do as a poet when confronted with this situation?  I want the art I make to be touched by it.

Seeking the best way to think about these problems brings me back to dialectics.  When I use that term, I’m not thinking about a deterministic pattern with a harmonious result, predictable by the right Hegelian thinker.  Brecht’s least-resolved texts and Adorno’s Minima Moralia and Negative Dialectics probably come closest to the kind of dialectics I find useful and necessary, but it’s even less attached to anything doctrinaire.  Dialectics is not a system or pattern to be imposed on things, and I don’t view it as inherent in the world either; it’s a way of thinking, where thinking is thought of in terms of movement, an activity or practice rather than a collection of thought-possessions.  This activity is characterized by a back-and-forth movement between contradictory systems, positions or frameworks.  It involves the recognition that no thought ever exhausts the thing it’s thought about, that all positions are partial—but it refuses to settle for a nebulous relativism.  The whole point of dialectics is to allow for the establishment of a position without getting stuck in it.  To keep one on one’s toes.  To prevent the extremes of dogmatism and nihilistic despair.  

I co-designed a class for first-year students at The Evergreen State College a few years ago in which we focused on questions of scale in making art.  The final assignment was to create a “ballad” (very loosely defined to include performance art, video and theater as well as poetry and song) about “modern colonialism” (loosely defined to include large-scale urban planning as well as water privatization by the Bechtel corporation), and the question was, “how do you take something immense and put it in a small container without robbing it of its particularity?”  Even a large piece of art—and even a long life—is a small container when confronted with consciousness of global events.  I suggested dialectics as one useful tool.  Take the relation of me, an observer in the midwestern United States, to someone in a significantly different culture in another part of the world.  I want to comprehend the relation between the two cultures in the context of a given political problem.  No matter how fair I attempt to be, no matter how carefully I attempt to see the other culture on its own terms, my very way of defining a “cultural term” and the proper route to avoiding parochialisms is still determined to some extent by my culture.  That partiality has to enter into my thinking and alter its scale.  The attempt has to include the outline of a view I can’t have, one in which it’s precisely my cultural standpoint that’s missing: the point of view of someone in the other culture.  And then it must include consideration of the relationship between these two points of view, the one that belongs to me and is thus partially invisible because it can never be seen from the outside, and the one that’s partially invisible because everything I can see about it is seen from the outside (my inside).  Or, rather, the juxtaposition of the two situations is to be thought about, since to speak of a relation here implies a “whole” whose possibility is denied by these contradictions.  I can then think of the situation of these two one-way, unequal trajectories of consideration as a system… but again that determination of it is conditioned by the partiality of my standpoint; the system looks so different from each of the points of view within it (say, that of someone in a bombed-out city in Iraq and someone about to go sing at an anti-war protest in the aggressor nation) that to call it a system seems false, and the “outside” view of that system is one that can’t be fully achieved except through imagining a second system (say, a different society) in which the specific contradictions of the first don’t exist, or have different meanings.  And so on.

Parataxis finds a place in dialectical thinking of this kind.  Since there is no step-by-step logic that can adequately address the situation, the juxtaposition not just of elements (facts, interpretations) but of entire systems (which include views of a system, languages, categories of what seems significant, cultures, economies, distinct partialities, etc.), and the significances generated by those juxtapositions, can perhaps provide ideas, ways of thinking, points of view and possibilities for practice that could not be reached via other routes.  Simply placing two things next to one another can allow for considerations of the meaning of that placement that might be missed if one starts with  a predetermined notion of the kind of relation one’s seeking.

The danger of a paratactic, non-synthetic dialectics: instead of engaging in a movement that carries me back and forth, with new “back-to’s” and “forth-to’s,” and hopefully a catapulting into something else, being stuck in the middle as the contradictory movement swirls around me. Or getting nowhere because landing always means taking off.

Art seems like a good place to practice this.  I’m hoping to do that in a large poetic project focusing on juxtapositions of different ways of treating differences in scale, from extreme disparity between individual sentences to contrasts between large sections (where one might be highly narrative, or monotonous, or didactic, while the one next to it might be disjointed, or widely varied, or lyrical), between topic areas, between different notions of what scale is (a temporal term, a spatial one, the locus of a bunch of puns, a quality of thought…).  A bit of the draft introduction to this project is on my other blog.  My hope is that it becomes a catalog of ways to attempt a dialectical poetry, one whose form (the way of thinking it embodies and creates) and content are motivated by problems such as those I’ve sketched all-too-abstractly here.

For now, I’m going to prepare for tomorrow’s rally against the occupation of Iraq.  That the questions presented here haven’t been answered is no reason to refrain from contributing to the end of a regime so unfriendly to all but the worst solutions.

2 Comments:

  • At March 30, 2006 at 2:11 PM, Blogger Lady Jane said…

    Scale. Dialectics.

    Getting down to brass tacks Andy...well...

    IF Americans had supported this invasion in the first place, the Arabs would have deposed the gov'nor and it most likely would have gone much more smoothly. The Arab street picks up so many cues from Americans (they love us actually, know our true 'relative' authority and ethics). But that didn't happen and it is becoming increasingly clear to me that the media and whoever has their hand on that spigot WANTS this to be a civil war and Bush is no more than another pawn.

    Some time ago when the big mosque was hit...I said then and there that this was going to collapse. Kirby squawked about my warnings (as if I was making direct threats). The fact is, without a thorough understanding of the underlying problem between the Sunni and Shia sects, it is impossible for Americans to make an informed choice. And now, it is too late to make one.

    My guess is that America is going to pull quietly out once civil war is in full swing and let those folks massacre each other.

    If only Americans had sent support for the idea initially...this would have turned out much differently. Back in the beginning, if you remember, Jay Leno was having the Marine Choir as his musical guest spot (ala Bob Hope/USO) and now? Bush is basically a laughingstock.

    This has been a long range plan Andy. Not much you, me or anyone else can do about it now. But the thing is..there is an even bigger plan that a 'believing' muslim can see and that is the separation of hypocrit from non. That is always the 'big guy's' plan anyway, isn't it? All the way back to the Saducees and Pharisees...the other civilizations in the dust...well we can only guess about their demise.

    Will this be the last conflict? Hard to tell. The Shia clerics are trying their damnest to stem the tide of hatred at Sunnis. But I'll tell you what, the younger generation Shia are not what us old folks are...they have been fed a diet of Western media i.e. violent movies, terrorist plots, etc. and they are ANGRY Shia. Angry Shi'ism is never pretty...and when a Shia believes something needs fixing..well. They will fix it violently. They aren't supposed to of course..it goes completely against the doctrine of Shi'ism which dictates a person 'suffer' patiently and quietly..literally, take it in the arse. But times have changed and there are more variables than there were at the Battle of Siffin.

    :)

    What hurts is the waiting.

     
  • At March 30, 2006 at 2:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Scale. Dialectics.

    Getting down to brass tacks Andy...well...

    IF Americans had supported this invasion in the first place, the Arabs would have deposed the gov'nor and it most likely would have gone much more smoothly. The Arab street picks up so many cues from Americans (they love us actually, know our true 'relative' authority and ethics). But that didn't happen and it is becoming increasingly clear to me that the media and whoever has their hand on that spigot WANTS this to be a civil war and Bush is no more than another pawn.

    Some time ago when the big mosque was hit...I said then and there that this was going to collapse. Kirby squawked about my warnings (as if I was making direct threats). The fact is, without a thorough understanding of the underlying problem between the Sunni and Shia sects, it is impossible for Americans to make an informed choice. And now, it is too late to make one.

    My guess is that America is going to pull quietly out once civil war is in full swing and let those folks massacre each other.

    If only Americans had sent support for the idea initially...this would have turned out much differently. Back in the beginning, if you remember, Jay Leno was having the Marine Choir as his musical guest spot (ala Bob Hope/USO) and now? Bush is basically a laughingstock.

    This has been a long range plan Andy. Not much you, me or anyone else can do about it now. But the thing is..there is an even bigger plan that a 'believing' muslim can see and that is the separation of hypocrit from non. That is always the 'big guy's' plan anyway, isn't it? All the way back to the Saducees and Pharisees...the other civilizations in the dust...well we can only guess about their demise.

     

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