Antinomy, the great ladder of inferences, and the burning

by Laura McCullough on March 1, 2011

Antinomy is when two or more things held to be true can’t possibly be true if the other “truths” are so. In o ther words, the incongruous, the paradoxical. Kant was big on antinomy, and though I am not a Kant scholar, his thinking about space and time is a good example: he used logic to “prove” that time is both infinite and also has a start and end, and for those of us who are only moderately acquainted with the long history of ideas in Logic and Philosophy, time is a good one to start with because most of us have a good sense of what it means to live inside time: our days are linear; they have a start and end point; we are born; we die, and we can imagine the beginning of time, but then wonder, well, what came before time began, which leads us think about infinity, which most of us have a hard time imagining. Thinking about the phenomena of univers e(s) is similar: what’s at the end of our universe? At the end of the next one? The next? How space and time are perceived by us is one reality; what is possible about the natures of space and time that we do not perceive may, and likely is, another matter or matters.

This, too, brings up the difference – still drawing on Kant — between phenomena and noumena, the former being what we can observe and experience, the latter being what we know without knowing how we know it, or rather knowing something, but not through the senses, or, even, not knowing at all, but… something else. Kant says we can’t actually know “the thing itself,” but if we think we know something, it gets called a noumena. The reason I am thinking about this is because it seems to me related to what poets do, and example being how we use metaphor (of course, not only poets use metaphor, and in fact, not only writers; we use metaphor in communication all the time. A very important book to the development of my thinking about language and its power was Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By) to say something that couldn’t be said any other way; indeed, maybe it is a way to convey noumena.

I am taking the time to establish this because it is clear to me that many very good and smart and serious and thoughtful people have been trying to unpack the collision of the minds/work of poets Tony Hoagland and Claudia Rankine, and I will assume if you are reading this, you know those details, and have perhaps done some of your own unwinding or participated in my or other blog or FB discussions about it (if not, and you want the details, see my previous post or hit Facebook; or troll google for tons of bloggers chewing on this).

The discussions boiled down to this for me:

  1. The recognition that the divergent views on the event and the TH poem itself are based on two things: 1. The way Claudia Rankine initiated this at AWP and a number of interesting questions about the techno-historical moment we are in, notions of privacy and communication, what is a reading, an essay, and more (all interesting concerns) and 2. The actual poem and people’s readings of and responses to it. I am only at this point considering the latter.
  2. That the prevailing views seem to divide between those who think the poet is racist or not; those who think the poem is racist or not; those who think the poet’s speaker is racist or not; those who think the poem deals with racial issues and isn’t racist per se; and then there are overlapping areas. Set theory in math has actually been helpful to me in this debate, and this is where it first enters the scene in terms of ordering my thinking. Imagine overlapping sets (as in a Venn diagram: those different views lay over each other and intersect in certain points, a model for organizing thought I am going to come back to shortly) of those readings, and then imagine the people in them.
  3. The Venn diagram doesn’t house people by race or by affiliation. What started to emerge for me was that they may be broken into sets based on critical view, and that we might be, in some cases, maybe many cases, not making the critical view apparent in our discussions or even being aware that we were perceiving and creating arguments through a critical lens at all. (Recently, I took exception to a literary critic’s review of a book based on evidence that he was privileging a modernist critical lens without making that apparent. In other words, I was responding to what he had to say by thinking about how his thinking came about, what’s it’s logical and critical foundation and architecture was)
  4. I tried to apply the same thing to the Venn Diagram of responses to the TH poem, and it seemed as if New Historicist vs. a New New Critical lenses might be further “sets” at play here (I will talk more about this shortly) and that
  5. A discussion of rhetoric in poetry, specifically in relation to the speaker of the poem (I will come back to this shortly, as well), might create another “set” that could further clarify the complex and impassioned responses to the Hoagland poem while also
  6. Dealing with specific elements of the poem itself (the thing itself that is some kind of noumena, one we can’t seem to agree on, thereby giving us some phenomena – -elements of craft—to concretize our shared perceptions of the poem, and maybe bring our experiences of it into some alignment which might
  7. Reduce the polarization that has occurred, and the very sad, and unfortunate negativity that has been directed at both Hoagland and Rankine.

Okay, now that I said all that, I will try to get the various “set” I have set forth into closer connection and expand on things I said I would return to.

First, to “make your thinking processes visible” is an idea used sometimes in Basic Skills classes, but I first came across it in Peter Senge’s work (another book that has informed my thinking about the power of language is Senge’s The Fifth Discipline on systems thinking), and it is a view that asks the communicator to be meta cognitively sensitive to our own tendencies to unexamined assumptions, to bring them to the forefront, to make our reasoning and the scaffolding of that reasoning clear to others: we go up and down a “ladder of inferences” and if we’re unaware we are doing so, we fall, first in our own thinking and then in the communications process. Even though Senge’s applications were really for organizations, it is useful in rhetoric.

What I am trying to do is make my thinking processes visible, the rungs on my ladder of inferences and consider other inferences. I know my “training” came from a poet who came out of the New Critics. The focus is on the poem not the poet, not the gender, race, nationality etc. of the writer. The phenomena of craft: technique, strategy maneuvers, control of effects – regardless of aesthetic school – these are the things with which to make assessments, judgments about the poem.

This went out of favor and was replaced in large part in “The Academy” with New Historicism  which combines (overlapping sets) elements of a number of other literary critical approaches, but perhaps most notably, or at least what I am focusing on here, is the idea that many things come into confluence in apprehending a poem: history, technology, race, gender; economics; what is considered the “artifact” of literature is not much different than any other “text” we might consider.

Now, I am not a literary critical scholar, and I am being highly reductive, and skimming over several decades of both philosophy and literary critical thought and lenses, however, both of these views still have deep roots and agency today in the poetry world, and in many ways the New Critical approach is the main paradigm still alive in creative workshops and MFA programs, and yet New Historicism has profoundly influenced most graduate level literature programs and affects the way we talk about literature in part because it offers scholarly and aesthetic underpinnings to what some call identity politics.

My assertion is that the “sets” that the responders to the Hoagland poem break down into are what could be seen as those with a New New Critical approach, and those with a New Historicist approach.

From the former, the set I believe I am in, I look then for elements in the poem itself—an element of phenomena – that I can discuss, rather than a noumena, or a perception about what the poem is above and beyond itself. For me that thing is the speaker.

Here is where rhetoric comes in. I began by thinking about “the voice” of the speaker, then of the speaker’s “authority,” two metaphors for something we don’t know fully how to define or perceive, and so those two ways of encapsulating that noumenical element of the phenomena of the actual language in the poem (because we separate the created “speech act” of the poem from the actual speech acts of the writer/poet, but once the poem is written, it has “life,” agency just as if it were a real person’s speech act, but who to assign responsibility to? Accountability? This is part of the slipperiness of the logic as it is both the poet and not the poet, though in my New New Critical stance, the control of one’s effects is, in the end, absolutely the responsibility of the poet/creator, and even begins to take on what might be called a kind of moral mandate—more on that) didn’t seem sufficient suddenly.

The issue of trust and the “trustworthiness” (OVER authority or voice, and this is an idea I am borrowing from another poet I’ve been in conversation with and trying to expand on it) is crucial, and the ending of “The Change”  is too ambiguous to retro-actively (as often happens in a poem, when, say, the close of the poem makes a title or the opening take on new meaning or resonance) establish trust. I am talking specifically about the end of the poem, the last line. I’ve asked people to comment on this, and no one has.  Here’s the line

and we were changed. (italics mine)

I think maybe so much of the problem with the poem is revealed in this line. Who is the “we?”  Most of the poem has been in first person with a reference to the friend in the bar. But this switch to “we” about the speaker? Can’t be. If it were “and I was changed” how would the poem read? Would we feel differently about the speaker, and indeed, would we actually believe he was changed? And as it is, it is a “we.” Who? The guy and his pal? Too simple? White people? The whole culture, whites and blacks? What is being inferred?

My initial readings would have defaulted to a more positive one, changed as in “less racist,” but the more I read the poem, and the more I try to grapple with good, smart people — both black and white and somewhere in between or outside those “colors” — having deeply emotional reactions to the poem, the more I have to question the “trustworthiness” of the last line. If the speaker in the poem is to be heard as aware of his own racism and is changed, why not say so? If the speaker is a persona who is a “dinosaur” headed to extinction, but not self-aware, then what actually has changed? Not him. What if it ended, “and nothing had changed,” or “we weren’t changed?” And what was not “put back” before “the change?” Literally, the pronoun refers to “the twentieth century,” but the inference is far more slippery: is it power, race power? Is it race relations? Is it “the black person?”  I’m uncertain, and where did it “belong?”

So my first question is whether we can bring a New Historicist view into alignment with a New New Critical view to parse through the effects in the poem (or not?). For example, some have objected to the way the speaker observes details about the black tennis player in racially bald terms (and other discussions have examined the highly gendered way in which both female tennis players are described), but it has been a signature Hoagland strategy to pare the profane against the sublime (a quick reach inward, and I think of his poems, “Lawrence” and “Adam and Eve,” both of which employ provocative gestures against more “sacred” as in an elevation, epiphany, etc. In both of these poems, the discovered moment would be simply too didactic or veer too close to the sentimental had they not been “texturized” by the more tonally divergent moments earlier in the poems), yet it is precisely that language that is meant to lead us to the closing gestures of the poem. And yet, many of us are reading the ending very differently.

If the discussion devolves simply to who reads better or more closely, or which critical lens is more appropriate, I think we miss the point, and that is why I have gone on so long trying to make as many rungs on the ladder of my inferences visible. Yes, we need to read closely, and yes, the poet needs to be in control of his effects, but what effect exactly?

He has not established sufficient trust with the reader, or, another way to look at that is that he has invited in a smaller portion of possible readers in his framing of this poem than with other poems. In both “Lawrence” and “Adam and Eve,” the speaker says he might just punch someone in the mouth – party going defamers of literary heroes or women who don’t respond predictably and amiably enough (reductive, I know, on both counts, but bear with me), but no one actually thinks the poet himself is in danger of cutting loose with any punches any time soon, and the interrogation, in “Adam and Eve” of discomfiting male-female gender relations has not set off the fire storm of response that “The Challenge” and (some of the) other poems of TH’s that concern themselves with race.

And here is where the various sets I have set out finally seem to come together:

Hoagland failed to understand the audience and did not establish trust and empathy in them, in part because of choices he made in the poem, but also because he didn’t bring to the table that race relations is still an untrustworthy arena in the larger world (New New Critics and New Historicists collide). Hoagland privileged the Aristotelian logos over pathos (the poems “Lawrence” and “Adam and Eve” each accrue in their logos based effects to pathos in their closings) in “The Change,” but more importantly, he didn’t manage ethos.

Ethos, and I am just trying now to understand this myself in my emerging thinking on this matter, is the relationship between  character and language, it is somehow, the collusion of phenomena (whether in speech or writing) and noumena, but in a spiritual/ethical way.

No matter how much some of us New New Critical types want to take apart the poem and only talk about the poem, the “others” (I sound now as if I am on a crazy episode of Lost, yes, the lost episode of Lost—oh, was there a poet on the island? If so, they got killed off first thing) whether they think of themselves as New Historicists or resist my attempt to identify them, these others “sense” something they can’t identify precisely, but they hold it to be true. And no amount of saying, wait, wait, let’s talk about this line or word, or the ambiguity of this pronoun or that is going to change that.

Antimony. I’ve gone up and down this ladder.  My legs are tired. So are yours if you’re crazy enough to still be reading this, and we’ve all been talking about this for a month.

But where does that leave us? Kant’s discussion of time and space doesn’t make me live outside temporal linearity– My alarm is going off at 6:45 am tomorrow like it or not. Do we just except paradox, or does awareness of paradox have power?

For me the power here is in awareness, and there is power in thinking about the ways we think, in examining our own assumptions, in being willing to be uncomfortable as we try to step into those other “sets” of world views and seeing how they feel.  And that takes empathy, which has never been one of the craft elements, techniques, strategies or maneuvers taught in creative writing or in MFA programs, and yet, I suspect it may be precisely (a word I have avoided until now) what some readers feel is missing in “The Change,” and yet it as also been notably missing in some discussions people are having about both the poet and the speaker in the poem, the latter, whether he is trustworthy or not, is on his way to becoming extinct; he is emblematic of a dinosaur. And the notion of “tribe” is shifting daily and is only another word for a kind of “set” anyway. The poet, Hoagland, still belongs to the “set” of poets and writers, and if this one poem has a speaker who resists ethos, the body of Hoagland’s work certainly has ethos, and the bonfire of the vanities, this burning of poems and poets leaves us all lessened.

Hoagland’s poems burn because, as the closing couplet of “Adam and Eve” reads: Until we say the truth, there can be no tenderness./ As long as there is desire, we will not be safe.

It is not safe to write poetry; it is not safe to think and rethink and question and query; it is not safe to confront the painful and ugly; it is not safe to muck around in the mud of truth. We all get dirty, and none of us, none of us have a lock on truth. Phenomena and noumena, somewhere between these, with ethos, logos, and pathos, we poets ignite ourselves, and use the light we make to try and see our way through the dark spaces and the oppression of time. Rankine is trying to do this, as well. Here is a poem of Rankine’s that ignites and burns, and it’s a fine place to end my long meditation on:

THE ROOM IS A FOUNTAIN IN EXPERIENCE

Though a previousness, cushioned by dark, aggregates the room
(for there is no disparity),

a room is brought into existence, the activity of–

Here Liv is letting herself feel as she feels, her will yielding to
streams, the lyric field of her everyday depths.

Her presence is. It’s come along, is lost, is loss, is wallside
reconciling: can I love now please?

Or in inclusion she bursts into a hood of tenderness: the body’s
anguish and flesh and all reflected in the absorbed atmosphere
soaking her being,

then the self feels deeper the depicted insistence engaged, its
essential nest, its scape–

And always and each contiguous thought, approaching the
distance, augments. Viewed against, the mind reshapes and here
is refuge without its tent.

All that’s resolved plots against her dividing self, binding her as
if any intervening space is recess for

her grave, an equivalence overlaying presence. Can I love now
please?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

michael burke March 2, 2011 at 6:24 am

Kant’s concern on our ability to know, the pheno/nou -mena, allowed much in science to go forward, and science has thrived in this mind-set-understanding of the world. Kepler’s ten year search for what turned out to be his explanation [and surely one of the greatest discoveries] for the elliptical nature of orbits, the two-centered
orbit, came from the noumena capacity of Kepler’s being; and it is here where we can see the Thomas/Kant break in the idea of “being”. Thomas thinks all phenomena come to us through the senses, and our being is built to understand through the initial experience, as it is embodied in the fire of reason. He, too, won’t stand for antinomy. Our perception, like in astronomy, that orbits are not really circles [Bruno] but ellipses, became almost the death of astronomy: how could newton’s law keep the planet in a ellipse, instead of the circle? Well, answer was two centers, not the one of a circle. {Astronomy is a lot easier than poetry !}.
Thomas sees no bifurcation in the two ‘parts’ of knowing of Kant; and so we spend time now talking about the poet not the poem, as if each of us did not have a psychology, history, blah blah, and, that because we do, it is all about us, not about what we perceive. Thus the poem gets lost.

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Laura McCullough March 2, 2011 at 7:02 am

Michael, thank you for your very considered response. Two things: one, can you help me understand ellipses more fully? My understanding stopped at how we use it as a device, but now I see I might think about its larger linguistic meaning/application. And “ellipse” as a noun. Second, can you clarify your last graph? I’m not sure I understand if you’re simply acknowledging the paradox or asserting a position about it. Thanks, and you know I always love a glimpse into your mind!!!

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Matthew Merlino March 2, 2011 at 9:00 pm

I think it’s misleading to posit an antinomy between New Historicism and New Criticism. There’s no necessary logical contradition in thinking of them in a both/and rather than an either/or way. In fact, the New Critical erasure of the author — which effectively displaced anything like the classical emphasis on the rhetor and her intended and achieved effects — and the New Critical attempt to see affect as a fallacy — which makes any attempt to consider elements such as appeals to pathos or logos or ethos into an impossibility, once the reader’s experience and the author’s intentions are ellided — are twin forces that make New Historicism possible. The next step, of course, is the Foucauldian notion that a text is not unified, that it is the product or intersection of multiple social discourses converging at one of many historically conditioned sites.

This is why, for me, no New Critical distinction between poet and speaker really matters. The New Critic can no more speak of Hoagland’s intended meanings than the New Historicist would even want to. In fact, both would simply agree that the poem deploys a certain racist discourse quite common in late 20th century American culture.

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