Poetry, Power, and the Arrest of Thought (Part One)

We must always be seeking better rituals and conventions; but we moderns tend to gag at these as stifling to freedom. So we Romantic moderns, especially we Americans, tend to see the issue as simple: rituals and conventions are likely bad, as they are almost certainly not good. Cowboys like things to be so simple. At some level of our common cultural judgments, inherited from our dual heritage stemming from both Puritanism and the Enlightenment, we see ritual and convention as oppressive Catholic priestcraft, or else as either Monarchical or Aristocratic elitist oppression. It is simply in the water here — even if one were to be an American Catholic Monarchist.

Plato was also quite wary of rituals and conventions of a sort that he called “poetry” (ποίησις, from ποιέω “to make, to show, to put/place”), although he practiced a form of it. Although his concerns about convention and “poetry” come from a different place than our concerns about convention and ritual, there are important lessons for us both where his concerns overlap with ours and where they do not overlap.

We are not ourselves terribly troubled by what we call poetry — which we see as perhaps an expensive or eccentric taste at worst, and as a liberating possibility for the human spirit at best. For us, it is decidedly not conventional, or ritual. For Plato, however, Poetry was something very different; when we translate the word ποίησις as “poetry” we collude with an infelicitous conflation of two very different enterprises. We consider “poetry” as part of the “arts”, but the ancient Greeks didn’t have a word to designate the group of disciplines and activities that we would call “art”. Instead, they had the word “τέχνη” (“skill”), which would cover the range of “τέχναι” from medicine to ship-building to masonry to cooking to farming to dancing to making love to poetry, &c. [1] Disambiguation is helpful. Were we to first trace some of the historical backdrop that occasioned Plato’s concern, we might be in a better place to understand Plato’s Socrates, only then later to see an overwhelming number of analogues in our own world.

Before we look at Plato, then, let us sketch a few outlines of the nature of “poetry” prior to him.
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Excerpt #6 — Thomas de Zengotita on the Word “Like”: One Effect of Media Penetration on the Moulding of Speech

I wish I could so recommend Thomas de Zengotita’s book Mediated highly enough to make you all go out and buy it this instant. Sadly, it’s unlikely I could pull this off. Continue reading

An Example of Historical Distance & Difference: Πειρασμός, Historical Drift, and Reappropriating a Mutation as the Original

In an earlier post, we looked at the Greek word “χάρις“, namely, the way that the historical sense of this word is bound up in a very stratified social setting, and how translating it almost always ends up becoming a proxy war for different confessional agendas (I should add that it is difficult it is to think past these agendas, because they are rooted in a history of interpretation generated by reflection on the original word through various cultural contexts and historical epochs).

Perhaps I should also add: ignoring this history-of-interpretation ignores some of the latter fallout of this word, ignores at least part of the history of its effects, and so neglects to treat properly the word itself.

Here we shall look at another Greek word: “πειρασμός”, nearly ubiquitously mistranslated as “temptation”. Continue reading

Excerpt #5 — Walter Benjamin on Film

Benjamin on film and theater (&c.):

XI. The shooting of a film, especially of a sound film, affords a spectacle unimaginable anywhere at any time before this. It presents a process in which it is impossible to assign to a spectator a viewpoint which would exclude from the actual scene such [233] extraneous accessories as camera equipment, lighting machinery, staff assistants, etc. — unless his eye were on a line parallel with the lens. This circumstance, more than any other, renders superficial and insignificant any possible similarity between a scene in the studio and one on the stage. In the theater one is well aware of the place from which the play cannot immediately be detected as illusionary. There is no such place for the movie scene that is being shot. Its illusionary nature is that of the second degree, the result of cutting. That is to say, in the studio the mechanical equipment has penetrated so deeply into reality that its pure aspect freed from the foreign substance of equipment is the result of a special procedure, namely, the shooting by the specially adjusted camera and the mounting of the shot together with other similar ones. The equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology. 
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Laboratory Music

In 2012, I would often work at my mother’s house in the late evenings until early morning, trying to finish the first of what are now four bookshelves. There is and was simply not enough space at our rented house to work on it, but I could then occupy both a barn and a workshop at my mother’s.

There is an old radio in that workshop which turns on whenever the lights do. It is in an inconvenient location, and the antenna is super-finicky, so I simply end up listening to whatever station it’s tuned to when I’m not in the barn. Back then it was Pop music. My musical diet is fairly strict: I make it a point of largely only listening to Classical, Folk, and some British/Irish stuff (Radiohead, etc.). I’d forgotten what Pop was like. So I thought: this was another chance to examine it anew.

Of the many things I’d wished to write about after the dozens of hours listening to Pop radio in those months, after looking at my notes, three main points emerged. Continue reading