Thursday, December 04, 2008

Michael Palmer: On the Sustaining of Culture in Dark Times

On the Sustaining of Culture in Dark Times
Michael Palmer
Golden Handcuffs Review

" When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun."
--Joseph Goebbels

I haven't been asked to give a keynote address before, nor do I think poets are often invited to do so, at least outside a strictly literary context. Perhaps our " notes" and " keys" seem a little too aberrant, too " off," too " blue" for most occasions. It's equally possible that our modes of thought would appear too given to errancy and vagabondage, too committed to non-reason, to be entirely trustworthy in most contexts, and there may well be some justification for that assumption. I trust, at the very least, that I'm not entirely trustworthy. In any case, as a novice in this area, I'd like to begin by examining some relevant terms. Let's see after that where " poetic reason," however oxymoronic, may take us regarding the sustaining of culture at a fraught and contentious and corrupted moment in our history. And please allow me to speak with you from a certain muteness and impossibility, since words certainly don't come easily, or why else would there be poetry?

" Synergy" seems a rather blowsy word these days, with its implications of corporate merger for profit-enhancing capacity right alongside those that should most concern us here. I would like to define it for our purposes in its early sense as simply a kind of " working with," an interaction, from the Greek sunergia, " cooperation," in turn derived from sunergos, " working together." Its opposite then would be " working against," or less negatively, " working apart." All of us in our lives at one time undoubtedly have worked with, have worked against, and have worked apart. " Keynote" in musical terms is the tonic of a musical key, the first note of a diatonic scale. It is this for which we are searching, hoping the notes will ascend from there in a play of harmonies and disharmonies, freeing the measure. (As a gesture toward synergy, by the way, I'll be occasionally interlarding my paragraphs with quotations from my friend Eliot Weinberger's article, "What I Heard about Iraq," just published in the London Review of Books, Vol 27 No 3, 3 Feb 2005.)

In February 2001, I heard Colin Powell say that Saddam Hussein 'has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors.'

In July 2001, I heard Condoleeza Rice say: 'We are able to keep his arms from him. His military forces have not been rebuilt.'

For the word " culture," I turn to Raymond Williams' important book, Keywords. Williams first confirms our suspicion that it " is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language." Interestingly, its root Latin word is colere, which " had a range of meanings: inhabit, cultivate, protect, honor with worship." From colere derives cultura, hence our " culture," a noun of process " for the tending of something, basically crops or animals." Around the 18th century, its multiple modern meanings begin to emerge and evolve, but the ancient resonances, I would suggest,

never entirely disappear. They linger as faint echoes in our contemporary word " culture," reminding us that " culture" must be mindful of the earth and of husbandry, and that without a spiritual dimension, a dimension of reverence if you will, it is empty. (We should note too the parallel that has often been drawn between the plowing or cultivating of a plot of land and the movement of lines of verse across the field of the page, a field that may be open or closed, regular or irregular. The word " verse" of course comes from the Latin versus, a turn.)

On 11 September 2001, six hours after the attacks, I heard that Donald Rumsfeld said that it might be an opportunity to 'hit" Iraq. I heard that he said, 'Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.'

The sustaining of culture is an issue of particular urgency in these times that I have called dark, when language itself seems under daily assault, and when the living arts are declared suspect or more frequently simply ignored by those in power. The assault on language, its communicative and truth functions and its acknowledgment of the other, is a necessary prerequisite to the assaults on the environment, civil rights, women's rights, the Constitutional separation of church and state, social programs, education, science, international treaties and, quite explicitly, reason itself, post-Enlightenment culture itself. The list goes on. The war, and the systematic propagation of fear in the populace can certainly be viewed as both emblematic of, and bogus rationale for, all or many of these things. It represents the triumph of a kind of phantasmatic medievalism, a hubristic turning away from the actual lessons of the past, from cultural memory, from the founding values of the Republic, toward a fevered and one-dimensional pseudo-messianism, a relentless " working against" the many for the few, the other for the same. It has about it an air of nihilistic fantasy, a fever-dream of empire founded on air by those awaiting the Rapture, when the Elect will be assumed into the eternal, celestial Reich of the pure of blood and spirit, while the rest of us experience Armageddon here below. What need to preserve resources or suffer questions or acknowledge others when fired by such visions of time's end?

Demagoguery, deceit, and denial of the other, such crimes against language are the grounds of despotism. And all in the trusted name of " liberty," " freedom" and " democracy," repeated mantra-like as death and mutilation reign down on untold (and unacknowledged) numbers. Yet, for brazen and blatant lies to work, there must be people to believe them, or choose to believe them, or simply be indifferent. Recently, my attention was drawn to a passage in Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, which reads:

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true...Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

I don't mean in the least to suggest precise historical parallels here, merely to raise questions that must be asked in time and then asked again, lest we reach a point where questions may not be raised.


We work in the company of others (philosophers and farmers, artists and scientists, as we variously require), and we work in the dark. The historian Daniel Boorstin has remarked that ignoring the past in making decisions is like trying to plant cut flowers. Likewise, to ignore the future, when " we'll all be dead," is to ignore the present. Here perhaps, at this gathering, we can at least aspire to that alternative space I've been addressing, one that is at once inside and outside, a part and apart, much like the workings of our various arts, a space of circulation and exchange. In opposing the profoundly destructive designs of those presently in power, we might consider the architecture of what the poet Robert Duncan once called the " symposium of the whole," a site where the other is addressed and not demonized, and where reason and imagination conjoin. Maybe that is the tonic from which the scale will arise.

Thank you.

To Read the Entire Address

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