Saturday, 26 December 2009

Hazard Adams, The Offense of Poetry (2007)


I'm working my way round to writing an Aesthetics of SF monograph, though I'm some way away from being ready to do so. Some of the conceptual pieces are in place. Here's one: I have already written stuff about the metaphor being central to SF (often formalised: the spaceship; the robot; the time-machine; sometimes not), and about the way this does more (pace Delany) than determine a mode that seeks to represent the world without reproducing it, it also (pace, er, me) makes SF essentially a poetry, built around the eloquence of the image, often oblique, fascinated with transcendence (the sense of wonder; the motion up from reality into higher reality, as at the conclusion of Childhood's End; the apocalyptic sublime, as in the 'Nine Billion Names'), and at its best actively corrosive of reality (Dick). It is, to use Jakobson's terminology, a literature that uses metonymic extrapolation from the everyday in order to enable radically disconnected (transcendent) metaphoric effects. So, here's another conceptual component of my thinking on this topic: SF as a small-world subculture, as in the Golden Age, dominated by a rational 'literature of ideas' aesthetic has been superseded by SF as the single most important cultural mode of today, dominated by cinematic and televisual visual excesses. Fans raised on the former often deplore the onset of the latter (roughly: Star Wars and all that followed its success), but I don't. This is not because I especially love Star Wars, but because the written SF I most value has shared that imagistic, often visual spot-of-time intensity that, I'd say, has achieved a kind of glorious florescence in the last forty years. For me the Platonic Form of SF is the bone thrown in the sky that transforms instantly, amazingly, eloquently into a spaceship. (There's yet another conceptual component, about SF Music, and about SF generally being much more a literature of a particular affect, and much less a literature of cognition, estranged or otherwise. But I'll keep that for another time). This is one reason why taxonomies of the genre, or any of that Structuralist nonsense, seems to me peculiarly ill-fitting to the topic of study. But I would say that, wouldn't I.*

Now, one consquence of this theoretical approach to the genre is that I'm always interested in interventions into general poetics, less on their own terms, and more (against the grain, as it were, for SF is almost always the last thing on the minds of critics who write such studies) for what contemporary poetics can usefully say about Science Fiction. Hazard Adams' new book is more than just a really neat title; although it is also a really neat title, a splendid rejoinder to the many Defences of Poetry that have been constructed.

Here's what the University of Washington Press page for the book says about it:
There is something offensive and scandalous about poetry, judging by the number of attacks on it and defenses of it written over the centuries. Poetry, Hazard Adams argues, exists to offend - not through its subject matter but through the challenges it presents to the prevailing view of what language is for. Poetry's main cultural value is its offensiveness; it should be defended as offensive.

Adams specifies four poetic offenses - gesture, drama, fiction, and trope - and devotes a chapter to each, ranging across the landscape of traditional literary criticism and exploring the various attitudes toward poetry, including both attacks and defenses, offered by writers from Plato and Aristotle to Sidney, Vico, Blake, Yeats, and Seamus Heaney, among others. "Criticism," Adams writes, "needs renewal in every age to free poetry from the prejudices of that age and the unintended prejudices of even the best critics of the past, to free poetry to perform its provocative, antithetical cultural role."

Poetry achieves its cultural value by opposing the binary oppositions - form and content, fact and fiction, reason and emotion - that structure and polarize most understandings of literature and of life. Adams takes a position antithetical to the extremes of both abstract formalism and the politicization of literary content. He concludes with an appreciation of what he calls the double offense of "great bad poetry," poetry so exceptionally bad that it transcends its shortcomings and leads to gaiety. He reminds us that Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, identified angels with the settled and coercive and assigned the qualities of energy and creativity to his devils. According to Adams, poetry, in its broad and traditional sense of all imaginative writing, may be identified with Blake's devils.
That's right, broadly, I think: Adams emphasis is not on 'offense' as 'outrage' or 'harm', or even as 'attack' (though all those have their place); but in what he identifies as the word's 'root sense': 'stumbling block' or obstacle. According to Wallace Stevens, 'poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully'. Science Fiction even more so, I'd say.

Adams breaks poetry's 'offense' into four categories: gesture, fiction, drama and trope. This latter is basically metaphor and apostrophe: A is B on the one hand (as it might be: 'reality is a gigantic consensual hallucination engineered by malign machne intelligences') and 'be thou X!' on the other (something I'd say SF addresses to Reality, particularly in its Utopian or Dystopian mode); and I find Adams' reading of 'offensive' poetic troping very congenial to what I want to argue. Adams take on 'gesture' in complex, and a little involved; but I've a mind to appropriate it as a way of approaching SF Fandom, and the positive, creative urge it manifests not only to consume its favoured genre, but to perform it: which is to say, to engage in everything from fanfic to cosplay. Drama, as Adams parses it, is another way of talking about this performative function.

I particularly liked the chapter on fiction, which rehearses the many argument against fiction as 'lying', and the counter-arguments in favour of it. The neat thing about this line of critical approach is that if a regular novel (about, say, a social worker living in Hackney) is 'a lie', then an SF novel (about a religious messiah on a desert planet) is doubly a lie: not only because Hackney 'actually' exists where Arrakis doesn't, but because Sf predicatively prioritizes the fictive: the mainstream novel is fiction; SF is a fortiori fiction. This also has an inside-the-tent-pissing-out aspect to it: Hard SF purists, instead of embracing this fictionality, attempt to reintegrate the genre back in the mainstream by insisting it adhere to 'actual' Science. To them, as to those who knock SF from the outside, I would repeat Wilde's "The Decay of Lying" dialogue, which Adams quotes several times, in which 'Vivian argues that nature fails to accomplish what art does and ... goes on to condemn "careless habits of acciracy". His conclusion is that "Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art".' [129] We need more of that in the genre.

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*Structuralist approaches to SF overwhelmingly dominate the secondary literature about the genre, I suppose because people have this wrong-headed but fixed idea that SF is all about 'science', or 'the scientific mindset', or 'taxonomy' or something. Although patently it is not so. Or perhaps the ubiquity of Structuralism reflects the fact that it is easy to do, and so appeals to the many amateur critics who have been drawn to this field: I mean that it makes a virtue of wide reading, and tickles the pattern-recognition node in the brain, to line up your collection of thousands of space operas and separate them into neat little piles dependent upon the gender of the main protagonist, or the colour of the books' spines, or whether the author was over six feet tall, between 5'5" and 6', or under 5'5" and so on.

There are some other aspects to my maggotting, or nascent, Aesthetics of SF about which I am a little less sure, but which will probably find their way in. One of these is a sense that the preeminence of SF's 'epiphanies' (those moments of sense-of-wonder Sublime, those transcendings of reality, and rational signification) also entails a preeminence of laughter, as a physical response that similarly breaks through rational cognition into a place of glorious jouissance; such that Douglas Adams seems to me as significant, or possibly more significant, a writer of SF in the 80s than William Gibson. But this could equally be me projecting my own personal crotchets onto the genre.

It's also worth noting that I may never get around to this project; since, despite the fact that I'd quite like to write it, it's possible that publishers, and readers, would have no interest in it.

11 comments:

JT said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JT said...

Mr. Roberts,

Check out the essay 'The End of Poetry' by David Solway. Particularly the 'concluding remarks' which discuss similarities between SF and poetry.

The concluding remarks begin on page 45, but the whole essay is worth reading. In fact, the whole book is worth reading. Even if you don't agree with everything he says, I think you will enjoy the way he says it.

Here you go:

JT said...

I'm trying to post the link, but it's not coming up properly. Just search Google Books for 'Random Walks' by David Solway

Rich Puchalsky said...

Hi again. Still working -- may be done in a few days -- but characteristically for me I'm going to start arguing with a footnote and go outward from there. Douglas Adams a more significant writer of SF of the 80s than WIlliam Gibson? Well, I don't know what "significant" means, exactly, but that seems wrong. Douglas Adams may well be a better writer than Gibson, but Gibson seems to me to be a more significant SF writer.

Why do I think this is worth arguing with? Because I think that, as a critic, you rather systematically undervalue cyberpunk, and that in turn affects your overall conception of SF, and SF-as-poetics.

How does Douglas Adams start his most well-known series? By blowing up the Earth. That's a classically outward SF transcendent gesture: ordinary life is gone, and although Dentarthurdent may keep returning to it, each return is only the start of the next outward voyage. He carries his ordinariness inside him into the extraordinary.

In cyberpunk the transcendent gesture is inverted. Our ordinary lives become the locus of transcendence. The office worker's normal tools -- the PC, the Internet, the Walkman -- all become divine invasions through which it is revealed that ordinariness is gone, mutated, not coming back. I'm purposefully using a rather Dickian phrasing, because cyberpunk is in many ways heir to that.

Is that more important than what Douglas Adams did? Yes, I think so. More of an affront, more of an offense, or however you want to put it.

I think it's difficult to see now because cyberpunk is so thoroughly dead, dead in a way that Adams' work isn't. It was so much of its time that when that time passed, it did too. But the form of its transcendence appeared more powerful, to me, than the standard SF spaceships-and-travel one, precisely because it brought strangeness home.

Farah Mendlesohn said...

I don't quite understand how you come to regard reading five hundred or so books and thinking about them as "easy".

Me, I have a problem with people who think they can write aesthetic comments about science fiction based on the "reading" of one book or movie per chapter.

I will look forward to your first true attempt at structuralism. One which understands it has very little to do with lining up "your collection of thousands of space operas and separate them into neat little piles dependent upon the gender of the main protagonist, or the colour of the books' spines, or whether the author was over six feet tall, between 5'5" and 6', or under 5'5" and so on."

Andrew M Butler said...

Adams's work (Douglas, not Hazard) is a product of the 1970s, not the 1980s, in that radio series and book appeared in 1978 and 1979, after which it was all recycling. And is it Offence or Offense as a title under review?

Adam Roberts said...

JT: thanks.

Rich: hard to disagree with what you say, although I'd be tempted to suggest that it might make more sense to go to the source, and see your inverted transcendence (which, I agree, is very significant) as fundamentally Dickian, rather than fundamentally cyberpunkish. Don't you think Adams has a more vigorous and widespread cultural existence today than cyberpunk? That the latter seems dated in ways Adams doesn't? That many people are familiar enough with Adams to be able to quote him exstensivley, where only a hardcore fan could so much as name the protagoninst of Neuromancer now? I'd concede that in the 80s cyberpunk seemed huge; but then so did Duran Duran. And Flock of Seagull haircuts.

Farah: it's hard to judge the tone of voice of internet comments, but you seem peeved ... I did not mean to make you so, and apologise if I did. I certainly didn't intend to aim a barb at you individually. Perhaps your "I don't quite understand how you come to regard reading five hundred or so books and thinking about them as easy" comment is after the manner of a rhetorical question, but to take it at face value, and to repeat myself: I come to regard it as 'easy' in the sense that it makes a virtue of wide-reading in a favoured genre (which for most fans, and certainly for me, is an index of pleasure rather than anything else) and that it tickles the pattern-recognition node in the brain. There are, it seems to me, harder, more challenging and more rewarding modes of criticism. I accept that you wouldn't accept the last of those three terms, even if you accepted the first two (and you may not); but this wouldn't be the first time we had agreed to disagree. I might add that I intended the statement 'Strcuturalist approaches to SF overwhelmingly dominate the secondary literature about the genre' to be neutrally descriptive of the state of affairs, not loaded with any snark; and that I genuinely do not consider 'amateur' to be a pejorative term. Amateurs (that is, critics who come from a background of love for the genre, rather than a background of institutional training in the history and practice of literary-theoretical critical discourse) constitute, by any benchmark, including my own, the best critics working in the genre: Delany and Clute perhaps most notably.

'Me, I have a problem with people who think they can write aesthetic comments about science fiction based on the "reading" of one book or movie per chapter.'

Fair enough.

'I will look forward to your first true attempt at structuralism. One which understands it has very little to do with lining up [texts by whatever selected similarities].'

I don't follow this, I'm afraid. I tend to believe that any attempt by me at 'Structuralism' would be a misshapen thing. If 'true' structuralism has little to do with those things, then I wonder what it has a lot to do with?

Andrew: 'Offense', yes, of course you're right. Embarrassing for me; thank you.

You're also right about the transmission dates of the Hitch-Hiker's radio shows; though I'd still suggest that the show didn't become widely culturally disseminated til the 80s.

Farah Mendlesohn said...

You are being disengenous. Reading a large number of texts is standard practice for historians and as a group we do indeed make a virtue of reading a large number of texts in order to test our ideas against as much material as we can find. I am not sure why this is not a virtue. The emphasis on this virtue is one reason why historians tend to do their greatest work late in life. It does not mean there is no virtue in other methods.

I do not understand why you feel the need to dismiss so rudely a methodology you do not enjoy or wish to practice. Why do you think some modes of criticism are harder and more challenging? Explain that point, defend it. Define what you think is hard and why. Explain also why "hard" and "more challenging" applies to the mode, whoever the scholar is, given that people's talents often lie in different areas.

While you are at it, you also need to defend that comment about structuralist modes dominating. Evidence please? Perhaps an assessment of all the criticism published in a given year? You could even do a structural break down, but of course, to do that you'd have to categorise.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Does Douglas Adams have greater cultural existence than cyberpunk? Well, maybe, maybe not, depending on whether you consider The Matrix to be cyberpunk. But I don't really think that's a good standard of comparison. There are still people who can quote Monty Python scripts word for word. Comedy is appreciated by a lot more people than appreciate SF, and it's as comic writing that Adams' work is remembered. He's starting from a larger base, as it were.

I've written about the death of cyberpunk before. As I wrote there, I don't think that it was a fad that passed: what killed it was that it was a form of SF, very much about the near future or present day, that took as one of its tenets that social / governmental control of a certain kind was unimportant. When it became clear that that was wrong, suspension of disbelief no longer worked. The cyberpunk saying "the street finds its own uses for things" just doesn't seem very impressive when the larger sources of power in society are busy with their own legal bricolage.

Why do I think that its effect is cyberpunk-ish rather than Dickian? Because it is impersonal. "Dickian" can become an adjective easily, like Lovecraftian, because it is a particular author's vision, now adopted as source material for others. When doors and cabs negotiate for money is Dick's work, it's surreal. Cyberpunk instead used elements that actually existed in the world of its readers, in a much more rationalized-and-explained way. That makes Dick a greater writer, of course -- what we really remember in SF is individual visions. But it does give cyberpunk a claim to penetration into ordinary life that Dick's work doesn't quite have.

Adam Roberts said...

Rich: "Comedy is appreciated by a lot more people than appreciate SF, and it's as comic writing that Adams' work is remembered. He's starting from a larger base, as it were."

Indeed. My point (which I didn't, I think, put over very well) was an attempt to line up the petit-transcendence of SF's 'sublime' (sense of wonder etc) with the irrational leap into laughter.

Adam Roberts said...

Farah: "Reading a large number of texts is standard practice for historians..."

You put it very well. That's how to do history. But we're talking here about writing literary or cultural criticism, and in that case we need to focus on the interpretive and evaluative critical functions.

"I do not understand why you feel the need to dismiss so rudely a methodology you do not enjoy or wish to practice. Why do you think some modes of criticism are harder and more challenging? Explain that point, defend it."

Hmm. I wasn't intending to be rude (my manner tends, I know, sometimes to the irreverent, that's just my manner ... honestly). I apologise if I came over as deliberately rude. That said, I do think that reading lots of books in a genre one loves, and spotting patterns, is a relatively easy thing to do; the 'why' here is that doing something one loves is no chore, and that pattern recognition is hardwired into the human brain, we do it all the time from and early age. Beyond that, you're asking me to rehearse all the long and often immoderate critical history from the 1970s-90s when -- in English, Cultural and Media studies across Western campuses -- poststructuralism challenged and, broadly, supplanted the Structuralism than had hitherto dominated (and which itself had supplanted the prior Leavisite liberal-humanism 'great books' tradition).It still seems to me that Structuralism is ideologically suspect in ways it does not concede to itself: that it is essentialist and tends to the procrustean. I still thing it tends to smooth over the gnarly specificities of texts, when it is those very specificities that interest me. I'd also, with respect to SFF, say that an interest in the unusual, the marginal, the a-systematic is what first drew to the genre, and that it seems to me to miss the point to want to impose order the glorious splurge of genre textual production (and fandom). But the main problem I have with Structuralism is that it doesn’t seem to me very eloquent about the way texts actually work.

For example: we could say ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and Alvin and the Chipmunks II : the Squeakuel are both texts about talking animals’. That’s true, as far as it goes. But saying so doesn’t shed any light at all on why one of these texts is so resonant, influential and powerful, where the other is disposable crud. Interrogating that question needs more than the accumulation of large databases.

"While you are at it, you also need to defend that comment about structuralist modes dominating. Evidence please? Perhaps an assessment of all the criticism published in a given year? You could even do a structural break down, but of course, to do that you'd have to categorise."

I honestly don't see that I would. 'Dominating', in this context, is a function of influence, not of bulk. Clute & Nicholls is a far more influential critical text than a thousand scholarly articles published in the myriad scholarly and academic journals. I say this not to be snippy about academic journals, in which I have personally published a good deal, but because it seems to me empirically the case. The fact that Rhetorics won the BSFA award is one index to the fact that is very influential; personally I think it was much more deserving of a Hugo than Scalzi's collected web-journalism, precisely because it's a serious scholarly work with which scholars and general readers are presently engaging. You don’t think that an enormous amount of critical energy in SFF culture continues to be expended upon definition and taxonomy, particularly on variants of the ‘is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable’ style question: does this particular novel/story belong in the box marked ‘SF’ or the box marked ‘Fantasy’?