Saving Globalization from the Poets

18 Jun

Jeremy Schmall has a post over at HTML Giant that argues that poetry’s larger cultural irrelevance makes it a useful site of resistance against globalization.  Schmall’s description of globalization (and capitalism in general) however, is mostly caricature bolstered by some hand-waving and talk about the power of imagination.  The central mistake is, I think, an attempt to define “true culture” against market exchanges:

The crucial point here is understanding the difference between a consumer market and true culture. A consumer market is based on what kinds of people buy what kinds of things, i.e. how to make money by selling what to whom. True culture is the spread of what is critical to people, beyond the control of corporate manipulation, and without regard to profitability; culture is precisely how humanity itselfunderstands humanity itself. Capitalism seeks to manipulate this process by producing its own manufactured meaning; if it can control the endpoints, it can control the means to achieving those endpoints, e.g. if you want to be a “hip enlightened nerd,” here’s your type of shoe, TV show, soft drink, and automobile.

As a categorical tool for thinking about these different relationships, the cultural/market (Geminschaft and Gesellschaft) are, in the abstract, useful.  But Schmall defines “true culture” as that which is “critical to people,” and then cites poetry’s continued existence in the face of overwhelming forces that poetry must be critical to people while neglecting all of the other things we consider “critical” that are part of market exchanges.  As someone who values and writes poetry, I’ll readily agree that poetry (in whatever form) had be deemed important, across cultures and historical epochs. But what about the most critical resources and goods like food, clothing, and shelter? We consider these part of cultures (and often leave their distribution to the market, with some controls and exceptions).  There are many creative, cultural products and traditions that are part of market exchanges and the result of market forces (think of something as simple as French toast or stews in cooking; both use leftover or day old ingredients as a creative response to limited resources).

Moreover, Schmall’s description of capitalism oversimplifies things to the point of distortion:

A consensus has emerged that our current place of existence—severe economic crisis and pervasive paranoia—can be blamed on poor management, that with a few tweaks—tighter regulations, less leveraging, more honest accounting—the catastrophe unfolding before us could’ve been avoided; but what has really been revealed is a crisis of our collective imaginations. It’s been revealed that we were incapable of imagining a world without a receding economic horizon that must be sped toward at an increasingly rapid pace, despite the fact that the faster we sprint—the longer we work with increasing productivity—the faster it recedes; that we failed to imagine our lives without consumer electronics, name brands, oversized homes, green lawns, shopping malls, and automobiles; that we failed to imagine for ourselves a world we could truly thrive in.

How has increasing productivity lead to “a receding economic horizon”?  I’d argue (or agree, as the case may be) that increasing income (the result of increasing productivity) shouldn’t be the only measure of welfare and flourishing in a society, but the list of consumerist evils (name brands, shopping malls, oversized homes) is simple hand-waving.  How do any of these things prevent us of from thriving (the argument that we don’t pay the true costs of these–the negative externalities–is a valid one, but one that has a market/government solution, but Schmall rejects these in favor of improving our “collective imaginations”)?

Finally, consider also that “true culture” can be restrictive in ways that inhibit flourishing and reduce welfare (whether material or something more abstract).  There are many cultures that have cultural practices, dress codes, mores, and roles that aren’t the result of the market, but tightly inscribe what women should do and wear, or what jobs a certain ethnic or religious sub-group may hold.  These are real restrictions on flourishing (women can’t earn a living not provided by a man, can’t be educated and improve their own understanding) that have nothing to do with the market.  Contrary to what many of globalization’s critics argue (or assume about their work of economists and other proponenets of markets) there isn’t a single market policy or process of liberalization that a country must persue (see Dani Rodrik”s work).  But what Schmall is describing is a caricacture of capitalism, a caricarture with little explanatory power.

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5 Responses to “Saving Globalization from the Poets”

  1. Michael James June 19, 2009 at 3:04 am #

    I think, maybe, what is meant by ‘How has increasing productivity lead to “a receding economic horizon”?’ is this:

    By increasing productivity, the awareness of certain cultural points, such as the arts, is reduced. By increasing productivity, the output of your production, and that which it garners (capital), is what is most important. You then formulate all your decisions around that, even at the cost of safe procedures that keep the economy stable, by ripping out the guts and replacing them with paper mache, because you must continue the increase of your productivity, otherwise, things are, somehow, “failing”. Which is how this increase led to a receding economic horizon. Everyone was working hard to up their capital, and in turn, decreased the economy stability as a whole.

    And ‘(name brands, shopping malls, oversized homes). How do any of these things prevent us of from thriving’ is this:

    Singularly, they kind of do not prevent our thriving. But this is a macrocosm connected to the other facets which do prevent us from thriving. With increased productivity comes the illusion of more money which then leads to these things. But also, name brands overtake a market and make it more difficult for other items to garner attention. It can be said that a good item is a good item, and people will realize this. But that is not what companies do. Some name brands aren’t as good as lesser known brands — and even when people realize it, they do not go to the lessers usually, they move onto to another name brand. These things are signals of excess. I mean, I do not mind these items (name brands, oversized homes etc), but it is their misconstrued importance to the overall culture that is bothering. When these things become more important than, let’s say, another human, it is a problem.

    Can there be two distinctions of culture?

    Culture and then “true culture” (and can we one day have the latter without quotes? Dunno. Let’s see)?

    Culture being what is prescribed, as it is nearly all pervasive and intrusive (such as prescribed clothing for woman, prescribed jobs, etc), and true culture, that which is critical to us. The use of poetry has invaded most of the experimental/innovative fiction spanning the length of literature. Same with screenwriting. Same with nearly all writing endeavors. Down to advertising. The way people speak. When things turn bad, they turn to poetry. Such as when Sept. 11 hit. Or at graduations. Or at a mother’s funeral. Or for mother’s day (yeesh, thank’s capitalism? Not sure). This is true cultural. This is critical to the people. As is their culture of life. Their country, their everyday. But poetrys affect is one not often seen as being a part of that, although it very much is.

  2. Robb St. L. June 19, 2009 at 12:55 pm #

    I think you’re right on about this, Corey.

    The distinction being made between market and culture is, frankly, sort of boring. Sort of like a less useful metaphor than base/superstructure–like the goal is to be fuzzier, rather than clearer, while at the same time attributing motives to an abstraction.

    I don’t see how anyone that’s at all involved with the enormity of contemporary poetry or fiction could think that these are somehow a protected zone, away from all that dirty ‘market’ stuff. Literary publishing is simply capitalism done poorly. No more, no less. And that includes the internet.

    That poetry still exists in the volume that it does in our society, I’m afraid, may have more to do with its usefulness to market forces than it does its irrelevance to them; for instance, the MFA industry, though not quite as profitable a scenario for universities as the unsupported MA or Master of Humanities had been, is a way for the university to pay very low wages (a stipend and subsidized tuition) while increasing the number of instructors, and decreasing the number of tenure lines available. Think of the savings difference between having two tenured professors (salary, benefits, etc.) vs. having 8 MFA students (stipend, subsidized tuition).

    Not much happens socially that isn’t determined somehow (not wanting to go into conversation about determination and economic bases); to suggest that culture is ever free from that (ie, “true”), is just being willful in one’s worldview. That we even have such a notion as ‘culture’ is itself historically and politically determined. And history has borne out the fact that for the most part, ideological interventions into the superstructure of society via cultural works tends toward conservative consequences, rather than leftist ones, despite all intentions.

    I’d go even further, here, too…to protest that I’m a bit concerned whenever I see an argument about something that they see as self-contained where this is read as a virtue. Self-containment doesn’t tend toward growth, and often means exile.

    • Michael Martin June 19, 2009 at 6:33 pm #

      Man, you are so right about the MFA structure. I hadn’t even really seen it as a kind of super minimum wage labor. That’s an ingenious observation. It’s almost making me reconsider an MFA… almost.

      What about self-publishing? If you take the decisions into your own hands, does this not change the dynamic of capitalist vs. artistic purpose?

      With poetry, it seems, most publishing houses tend to agree — poetry doesn’t make money. So it ends up, supposedly, being heart oriented dedication. The common poetry book isn’t viewed as a selling product, therefore, it seems as a necessity, right? I mean, they do it because of the long history of poetry and feel it is a requirement of society to keep it going…, no? Dunno.

      I also dunno if culture is always politically determined. Or historically. Well, no, I’m wrong, likely yes historically. But put people on an island, away from current societies, and they will create their own culture. Although… I guess you could say we have natural societal politics within our communities… so maybe you’re right… I’m not sure… how does this change anything I’ve said previously?

  3. paxamericana June 19, 2009 at 3:39 pm #


    Increased productivity is not necessarily “producing more”; its doing more with fewer inputs. I’m also not sure how this reduces awareness of poetry (or other cultural products). I’m assuming that you mean people are working longer to make more money, and that money has greater cultural importance (replacing things like poetry). But we consume lots of cultural products (whether we pay for them or read/watch/download them online), so its hard to argue that the desire for greater productivity and capital has lead to the decline of art (or arts). In fact, I’d argue that greater productivity has given us more time to make and enjoy art.

    The definition of “true culture” as “that which is critical” doesn’t really help define it against “regular culture” because there isn’t a good definition of what is “critical.” I get the sense that “critical” has something to do with something much deeper, closer to “understanding humanity” which Schmall mentioned in his post. But here we run into the multiple and contingent definitions of the individual, communities, and what they value and consider critical to “humanity.” The definition does nothing but push the explanation onto another, ill-defined concept.

  4. Michael Martin June 19, 2009 at 6:24 pm #

    Mmmm…. I can agree with this, “But here we run into the multiple and contingent definitions of the individual, communities, and what they value and consider critical to “humanity.”

    Opinion and perception will always equal to ones perceived reality. Although I tend to think, even if we all contribute to a large perceived reality, there is an “all pervasive” reality. (That’s kinda something else entirely…) Some people just don’t like poetry. Period. I remember a friend of mine in Jr. High, when I told him I wanted to be a writer, told me writing was stupid. I said it wasn’t. He said it was. Then I left it at that.

    I’m having trouble envisioning “…its doing more with fewer inputs.” I don’t know why. I’m not trying to be a jerk, I strive to understand what people mean, no matter if it proves me wrong or not. That understanding, to me, is of upmost important. So… what does that mean? Is it like… you don’t have a lot of money (input), so you increase your productivity, by multi-tasking, doing a bunch of side jobs, so that you can survive? If so… it seems that no matter what, by sheer definition, to increase anything, is to produce more. Perhaps not on the first level, but someone along the line… you got to.

    I can’t agree that greater productivity allows us time to appreciate art more. The system of capitalism (as it exists in America, that is) survives on debt. Land owners purposely finagled things so that their tenants grew more and more into debt, and wouldn’t issue solid coin money so they could keep them infinitely in debt limbo. This system still exists today. And the majority of people work insane amount of hours, trying to lift themselves out of debt, those with the time to appreciate art are usually the ones who began in affluence, rose up to affluence, or no matter social status, always enjoyed art. This is a side-track… sorry.

    But yeah, I think I’m really agreeing with you on there is no good definition for what is critical… When I think about it, maybe the only -critical- are emotions. And the ways we express those emotions. Even during the heyday of poetry, there were people who couldn’t give a shit about all this poetic hooplah, right?

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