Are Writers Afraid of the Dark–Part II: Salman Rushdie’s contradictory views of censorship

A brief follow up on my post from earlier today responding to Tim Parks’s notion over at the New York Review of Books that literature is actually characterized by fear and withdrawal from life rather than engagement with us.  Later in the day I read Salman Rushdie’s post at the New Yorker on Censorship, a redaction of his Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture delivered a few days ago.  Rushdie brings out the idea that, indeed, writers can be afraid, but it is a fear born from the fact of their writing rather than their writing being a compensation for it.  Censorship is a direct attack on the notion of the right to think and write and Rushdie brings out the idea that this can be paralyzing to the writers act.

The creative act requires not only freedom but also this assumption of freedom. If the creative artist worries if he will still be free tomorrow, then he will not be free today. If he is afraid of the consequences of his choice of subject or of his manner of treatment of it, then his choices will not be determined by his talent, but by fear. If we are not confident of our freedom, then we are not free.

via Salman Rushdie’s PEN World Voices Lecture on Censorship : The New Yorker.

Rushdie goes on to chronicle the martyrs of writing, who have had a great deal to be afraid of because of their writing (a point made in responses to Parks’s blog as well).

You will even find people who will give you the argument that censorship is good for artists because it challenges their imagination. This is like arguing that if you cut a man’s arms off you can praise him for learning to write with a pen held between his teeth. Censorship is not good for art, and it is even worse for artists themselves. The work of Ai Weiwei survives; the artist himself has an increasingly difficult life. The poet Ovid was banished to the Black Sea by a displeased Augustus Caesar, and spent the rest of his life in a little hellhole called Tomis, but the poetry of Ovid has outlived the Roman Empire. The poet Mandelstam died in one of Stalin’s labor camps, but the poetry of Mandelstam has outlived the Soviet Union. The poet Lorca was murdered in Spain, by Generalissimo Franco’s goons, but the poetry of Lorca has outlived the fascistic Falange. So perhaps we can argue that art is stronger than the censor, and perhaps it often is. Artists, however, are vulnerable.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/05/on-censorship-salman-rushdie.html#ixzz1vMorpS00

This is powerful stuff, though I’ll admit I started feeling like there was an uncomfortable contradiction in Rushdie’s presentation.  Although Rushdie’s ostensible thesis is that “censorship is not good for art,” he goes on after this turn to celebrate the dangerousness of writing.  According to Rushdie, all great art challenges the status quo and unsettles convention:

Great art, or, let’s just say, more modestly, original art is never created in the safe middle ground, but always at the edge. Originality is dangerous. It challenges, questions, overturns assumptions, unsettles moral codes, disrespects sacred cows or other such entities. It can be shocking, or ugly, or, to use the catch-all term so beloved of the tabloid press, controversial. And if we believe in liberty, if we want the air we breathe to remain plentiful and breathable, this is the art whose right to exist we must not only defend, but celebrate. Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it’s a revolution.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/05/on-censorship-salman-rushdie.html#ixzz1vMpu97Bt

It remains unclear to me how Rushdie can have it both ways.  If Art is going to be revolutionary, it cannot possibly be safe and it cannot possibly but expect the efforts to censor.  If there is no resistance to art, then there is no need for revolution, everything will be the safe middle ground, and there will be no possibility of great art.

I am not sure of which way Rushdie wants it, and I wonder what my readers think.  Does great art exist apart from resistance and opposition?  If it does not, does it make sense to long for a world in which such opposition does not exist?  Does Rushdie want to be edgy and pushing boundaries, but to do so safely?  Is this a contradictory and impossible desire?

You can also listen to Rushdie’s lecture below:

Mark Sandel–The commodification of everything

I’ve enjoyed listening occasionally to Mark Sandel’s lectures in philosophy via iTunes.  He has an interesting new article in the April Atlantic focusing on the ways in which nearly everything in American life, at least, has been reduced to a market value.  Despite the admonition that money can’t buy me love, we are pretty sure that it can buy everything else, and that we are willing to sell just about anything, including body parts and personal dignity, for whatever the market will bear.

Sandel somewhat peculiarly to my mind traces this to a post-Cold War phenomenon.

WE LIVE IN A TIME when almost everything can be bought and sold. Over the past three decades, markets—and market values—have come to govern our lives as never before. We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.

As the Cold War ended, markets and market thinking enjoyed unrivaled prestige, and understandably so. No other mechanism for organizing the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful at generating affluence and prosperity. And yet even as growing numbers of countries around the world embraced market mechanisms in the operation of their economies, something else was happening. Market values were coming to play a greater and greater role in social life. Economics was becoming an imperial domain. Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone. It increasingly governs the whole of life.

The last gasp Marxists I studied with at Duke had a word for what Sandel sees and descries, commodification, and it didn’t mysterious just come upon us in the 1980s.  Commodification, the rendering of every bit of life as a commodity that can bought and sold, is the central thrust of capitalist economies in the 20th century, perhaps the central feature of capitalism per se.  The essential act of commodification is at the center of Marx’s understanding that the worker in some very real sense sells him or herself through selling his or her labor power.  Thus, human beings were commodified well before people became willing to sell tattoos on their foreheads to advertise products.  So Sandel’s perplexity and astonishment at this state of affairs in our contemporary economy strikes me as the perplexity of someone who has only recently awakened from a dream.

On the other hand, I do think Sandel is on to something.  It is the case that despite this thrust of capitalist economies (and, to be frank, I’m not sure that Marxist economies were all that different), there have been sectors of culture and their accompanying institutions that resisted their own commodification.  The edifice of modernism in the arts and literature is built on the notion that the arts could be a transcendent world apart from degradations of the social world, including perhaps especially its markets.  The difficulty and density of modern art and literature was built in part out of a desire that it not be marketable in any typical sense.  Modern art was sometimes ugly precisely to draw attention to the difficulty and difference of its aesthetic and intellectual properties.  It was meant not to sell, or at least not to sell too well.  Remember that the next time a Picasso sells for millions.  Similarly, the church and in a different way educational institutions retained a relative independence form the marketplace, or at least resisted the notion that they could be reduced to market forces.  Whether claiming to provide access to the sacred or to enduring human values, religious institutions and educational institutions served–even when they were corrupt or banal–to remind the culture that there was a world apart, something that called us to be better than ourselves, or at least reminded us that our present values were not all the values that there were.

Sandel rightly notes that that residue has all but disappeared, and the result has been an hollowing out of our public life, and a debasement of our humanity.

In hopes of avoiding sectarian strife, we often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. But the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics has had an unanticipated consequence. It has helped prepare the way for market triumphalism, and for the continuing hold of market reasoning.

In its own way, market reasoning also empties public life of moral argument. Part of the appeal of markets is that they don’t pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy. They don’t ask whether some ways of valuing goods are higher, or worthier, than others. If someone is willing to pay for sex, or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is “How much?” Markets don’t wag fingers. They don’t discriminate between worthy preferences and unworthy ones. Each party to a deal decides for him- or herself what value to place on the things being exchanged.

This nonjudgmental stance toward values lies at the heart of market reasoning, and explains much of its appeal. But our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a heavy price: it has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics afflicting many societies today.

Sandel wonders about a way to connect to some kind of moral discourse to inform public life, something that will reach beyond the reach of markets, but he clearly despairs that such a connection can be found.  I think there’s good reason.  Rapidly our educational institutions have become factories that shamelessly advertise themselves as places where people can make themselves in to better commodities than they were before, and which build programs designed to sell themselves to the highest number of student-customers possible.  Our religious institutions are floundering.  Only today I read in Time magazine that the rise of so-called “nones”–people who claim to have no religious affiliation–is one of the most notable developments in our spiritual culture.  Such people often seek to be spiritual but not religious on the grounds that religions are dogmatic and inflexible.  I have come to wonder whether that dogmatism and inflexibility points to the hard won truth that it is not good enough to just go along to get along.

One wonders, in fact, whether a spirituality based on getting along really provides a hard point of resistance to the tendency to see everything in life–whether my beliefs or my ethics–as an investment that must pay off if it is to be worth keeping.  I wonder, too, whether our educational systems and institutions are up to the task of providing an education that isn’t just another instance of the market.  As for art, writing, and literature.  Well, who knows?  Modernism was not always commodified, though it very quickly became  so.  I do find it intriguing that this point of hyper-commodification is also a time when there has been an explosion of free or relatively free writing and music on the internet.  There is a small return to the notion of the artist as a community voice, with musician and poets producing work for free on the internet, and making their living through performance or through other jobs–escaping or at least partially escaping the notion that we produce work primarily to sell it.  This is a small resistance, but worth thinking about.

I wonder if there are other ways our culture is equipped to resist in a larger collective fashion, the turning of our lives in to the image of a can of soup?

Uncreative Writing: Kenneth Goldsmith and Liz Laribee on Originality in the Digital Age

Professors have endless angst over the new possibilities for plagiarism and other forms of intellectual property theft in the digital age.  But according to Kenneth Goldsmith in the Chronicle Review, such anxiety misses the point that we long entered a new age of uncreative creativity, a fact to be celebrated rather than lamented since it points to our having gotten beyond simplisitic and romantic or modernist notions of the creative individual.  Of course, Goldsmith is promoting his new book, which I guess he would to take to be some kind of act of creation and for which I’m guessing he will gain his portion of individual profits—though if he wants to share the profits with all those from whom his ideas derive in an uncreative fashion, I’m sure they will oblige.

My snarky comment aside, I think there’s something to Goldsmith’s ideas, encapsulated in his title “It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing.’”  As Goldsmith puts it.

The prominent literary critic Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term “unoriginal genius” to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of the genius—a romantic, isolated figure—is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined another term, “moving information,” to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today’s writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.

Perloff’s notion of unoriginal genius should not be seen merely as a theoretical conceit but rather as a realized writing practice, one that dates back to the early part of the 20th century, embodying an ethos in which the construction or conception of a text is as important as what the text says or does. Think, for example, of the collated, note-taking practice of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project or the mathematically driven constraint-based works by Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians.

Today technology has exacerbated these mechanistic tendencies in writing (there are, for instance, several Web-based versions of Raymond Queneau’s 1961 laboriously hand-constructed Hundred Thousand Billion Poems), inciting younger writers to take their cues from the workings of technology and the Web as ways of constructing literature. As a result, writers are exploring ways of writing that have been thought, traditionally, to be outside the scope of literary practice: word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriation, intentional plagiarism, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, to name just a few.

I really do think there is something to this notion that there is a mark of “creativity”—sanitized or put under erasure (to use that hoary old theoretical term) by the quotation marks—in the ways in which we appropriate and redeploy sources from other areas on the internet.  We create personae through citation, quotation, sharing, and commentary rather than through creative acts that spring fully formed from our minds and imagination.  What we choose to cite and how we choose to comment on it, who we share it with, what other citations we assemble together with it in a kind of linguistic collage.  On one level this is old stuff, as Goldsmith points out, stretching back to a particular strand of modernism and even beyond.  Indeed, to go with a different reference to Benjamin, the figure of the storyteller is one who is best understood under the sign of repetition and appropriation, retelling stories that take on new meanings through their performance within particular contexts, rather than creating novel stories that exist on the page in the effort to create their own context.

Good behavior is the proper posture of the weak. (or, Jamaica Kincaid)

I’m reminded in this of some of the work of my friend and former student Liz Laribee, whose art I find visually provocative and surprisingly moving on an emotional scale, made up out of assemblage of leftovers.  About her work, Liz says the following:

My work almost always involves the repurposing of something else, and it’s in this process that I am trying to find meaning. Here, I used discarded bits and overlooked scraps of this bookstore to continue telling stories. The authors I’ve chosen are layered in my life in ways I can’t even quite tell you about. The dime novel poems force a new meaning to make room for a cheekier, sleuthier past

I’m not exactly sure what Liz means by a cheekier, sleuthier past, but what I take from it is that detritus, the schlocky stuff our commercial culture seems to vomit out and then shovel in to a corner is not something to be lamented so much as it is to be viewed as an opportunity, an occasion for a new kind of creativity that takes the vacuous surfaces of that commercial culture and creates a surprising visual and emotional depth.

Goldsmith thinks we are still too absolutely captive to old forms of doing things and thinks writing and literature has descended into irrelevance as a result.  He advocated for the development of a writing machine that moves us beyond the cult of personality and intended effect and into a realm of fortuitous and occasional affect.  Students need to be forced, he thinks, not to be original in the old sense, but to be repetitive and find whatever newness there is through this act of what Liz calls “repurposing.”

All this, of course, is technology-driven. When the students arrive in class, they are told that they must have their laptops open and connected. And so we have a glimpse into the future. And after seeing what the spectacular results of this are, how completely engaged and democratic the classroom is, I am more convinced that I can never go back to a traditional classroom pedagogy. I learn more from the students than they can ever learn from me. The role of the professor now is part party host, part traffic cop, full-time enabler.

The secret: the suppression of self-expression is impossible. Even when we do something as seemingly “uncreative” as retyping a few pages, we express ourselves in a variety of ways. The act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as our story about our mother’s cancer operation. It’s just that we’ve never been taught to value such choices.

After a semester of my forcibly suppressing a student’s “creativity” by making her plagiarize and transcribe, she will tell me how disappointed she was because, in fact, what we had accomplished was not uncreative at all; by not being “creative,” she had produced the most creative body of work in her life. By taking an opposite approach to creativity—the most trite, overused, and ill-defined concept in a writer’s training—she had emerged renewed and rejuvenated, on fire and in love again with writing.

Having worked in advertising for many years as a “creative director,” I can tell you that, despite what cultural pundits might say, creativity—as it’s been defined by our culture, with its endless parade of formulaic novels, memoirs, and films—is the thing to flee from, not only as a member of the “creative class” but also as a member of the “artistic class.” At a time when technology is changing the rules of the game in every aspect of our lives, it’s time for us to question and tear down such clichés and reconstruct them into something new, something contemporary, something—finally—relevant.

I think there is something to this, although I doubt traditional novels and stories will disappear or should, any more than the writing of novels did away with storytelling in the old sense in any absolute way.  But I do think we need to think through, and not only in creative writing classes, what we might mean in encouraging our students to come up with their own original ideas, their personal arguments.

How might this notion change what we are doing, recognizing that we are in a period in which creative work, either artistic or academic, is primarily an act of redeploying, distributing, and remaking, rather than being original in the old sense of that word?

Intellectual Praise

I really like this bronze from C. Malcolm Powers, an artist I don’t really

Intellectual Praise--C. Malcolm Powers

Intellectual Praise--C. Malcolm Powers

know much about, but then I don’t know much about contemporary artists at all.  I like how the arms are books, suggesting that intellectual work is a kind of praise, and it has a kind of angelic feel to it.  May be somewhat grandiose, but I like the notion that reading can be a form of praise.

Body of Knowledge

Since getting started on this blog I’ve been thinking a lot about how we image reading, and more broadly knowledge. The classic picture of a man or woman, body slumped in a chair or reclining on a bed or laying under a tree, head inclined in to a book. This is our sense of what reading is, and in a larger sense of how knowledge is gained and demonstrated.

It’s a difficult image in some respects because, in fact, we can’t really tell whether reading is going on at all simply from the fact of its physical representation. For all we know the person who seems as if they are half-asleep may in fact be half-asleep. Think of the association of reading fiction with being in dream worlds. The act of reading itself, especially silent reading, is in some respects unimage-able. We can’t see the translations that occur between marks on a page that become letters and words and then are associated with meanings in the mind. We accept on trust that the student with her book open in the back of the room is, in fact, reading, rather than drifting into a half-world as we lecture on at the front of the room.

I think working on the blog has made me acutely more interested in the physical image of reading. How could I choose relevant images for a blog taken up with something so ethereal as reading? My avatar came from a library at Upsala University (I think, I can’t remember). I was lasande_man.jpgtaken by the classic image of the hunched body at the desk, but also that it was obviously a middle-aged man, somewhat monkish. Finally, that you couldn’t see the face—which seemed to me to be something about reading and something about what I wanted the blog to be. Reading is a kind of facelessness, a kind of disappearance of the self that is itself enriching and expansive. This is why I think all the focus on reading as creativity and self-assertion among so many poststructuralists—people like Roland Barthes who want to turn reading in to an alternative form of writing—is missing something that’s relatively essential and important. The disappearance of the self in reading is precisely what we desire. The loss of self is goal, not dread outcome of the process of reading.

One thing that struck me in searching for an appropriate avatar—which I pursued by searching Google images—is that images of reading are almost exclusively associated with books. Reading means, so far as the visual imagination is concerned, reading books. I sifted through a couple of dozen pages of images and came up with not one image of a computer or a computer screen. Indeed, realizing that I was interested in pursuing the conjunction of reading and writing, I thought it was a little ironic that my wordpress template has a pen at the top. Of course, I have the option of putting in a computer keyboard, and tried to find one, but perhaps the point is made. In our imaginations, reading and writing is still a matter of pen and paper. As I said yesterday, my colleague is not even certain that what we do on things like this blog is properly called writing. Why call it blogging if it is writing plain and simple. Similarly, we surf the web, we don’t read the web. It’s a new and different process, for which we don’t have adequate visual images.

My same colleague objects that we won’t go with electronic books because we like the physicality of things. Well…I didn’t point out to her that, in fact, Kindles and Sony readers and my 17-inch Macintosh computer screen are all physical to a fault. But somehow we imagine that computers have no physical presence. Without physical presence they cannot image that most insubstantial of things, the reading process. In actual fact, I think that we have constructed a certain kind of “physicality” that we associate with books, while we are only beginning to develop a sense of the physicality of computers.

Along these lines, our library at school is hosting a very nice work of art by a couple of our students. A book with reading glasses. I’m having trouble optimizing this to fit on the page, but you can access ” Vision of Knowledge” by clicking on the title. My general sense is that computers make both books and reading glasses anachronistic. We can read on the Internet, and if the text is too small, who needs glasses. Just hit text zoom.

The other interesting thing about this image is the text itself, which, of course, we read. “A vision of knowledge.” My general sense is that despite the tremendous emphasis on the Internet as a resource for knowledge and learning, we continue to imagine, to have visions of knowledge primarily through our cultural repertoire related to books. Again, a quick google search for images related to the word “knowledge” called up dozens of pictures of books, various diagrams of the brain, and a lot of variously dull and variously interesting charts and REading Womengraphs. One thing that didn’t come up were images of computers. I scrolled through about 100 and some odd images before I got to any image of a computer at all.

I’m not sure that there’s any great lesson to be drawn here. However, I think that if we can’t picture something, this means that we don’t quite know what to do with it, that we don’t quite know what it is, at least for us. The digital world is inescapable, but at least with regards to reading and knowledge we still don’t know exactly what it means, how to imagine ourselves as a part of it.

Side note: There’s a lot of stuff out there on the gender of reading, of course. There’s an absolutely fabulous book of images entitled “Reading Women” that I recommend highly. At one point I thought ALL images of reading were women, though this, of course, isn’t true at all.