Softening up intractable issues for a fresh rethinking: ten examples from the humanities and arts (resent)

I understand why there are all those tracts “in defense of the humanities and arts.” But the direct relevance of the humanities for policy and management has always been obvious, irrespective of the critics and defenders. Here are ten examples from my own practice:

1. Climate emergency parsed through a poem by Jorie Graham

–I liken one of our complexity challenges to that of reading Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain” as if it were still part of the news (it had been written less than two weeks after the sinking of the Titanic).

So too the challenge of reading the first sequence of poems in Jorie Graham’s Fast (2017, Ecco HarperCollinsPublishers). The 17 pages are extraordinary, not just because of pulse driving her lines, but also for what she evokes. In her unfamiliar words, “we are in systemcide”.

–To read the sequence—“Ashes,” “Honeycomb,” “Deep Water Trawling,” and five others—is to experience all manner of starts—“I spent a lifetime entering”—and conjoined ends (“I say too early too late”) with nary a middle in between (“Quick. You must make up your/answer as you made up your//question.”)

Because hers is no single story, she sees no need to explain or explicate. By not narrativizing the systemicide into the architecture of beginning, middle and end, she prefers, I think, evoking the experience of now-time as end-time:

action unfolded in no temporality--->anticipation floods us but we/never were able--->not for one instant--->to inhabit time… 

She achieves the elision with long dashes or —>; also series of nouns without commas between; and questions-as-assertions no longer needing question marks (“I know you can/see the purchases, but who is it is purchasing me—>can you please track that…”). Enjambment and lines sliced off by wide spaces also remind us things are not running.

–Her lines push and pull across the small bridges of those dashes and arrows. To read this way is to feel, for me, what French poet and essayist, Paul Valery, described in a 1939 lecture:

Each word, each one of the words that allow us to cross the space of a thought so quickly, and follow the impetus of an idea which rates its own expression, seems like one of those light boards thrown across a ditch or over a mountain crevasse to support the passage of a man in quick motion. But may he pass lightly, without stopping—and especially may he not loiter to dance on the thin board to try its resistance! The frail bridge at once breaks or falls, and all goes down into the depths.

The swiftness with which I cross her bridges is my experience of the rush of crisis. I even feel pulled forward to phrases and lines that I haven’t read yet. Since this is my experience of systems going wrong, it doesn’t matter to me whether Graham is a catastrophizer or not. She takes the certainties and makes something still new.

–I disagree about the crisis—for me, it has middles with more mess than beginnings and ends—but that in no way diminishes or circumscribes my sense she’s right when it comes to systemcide: “You have to make it not become/waiting…”

2. Finding value through different genres

–Capitalism, imperialism, militarism, racism, nationalism, atavism: with that line-up, who’s got a chance? Isn’t it better to start at the other end and answer: “What really-existing political conditions and cultural practices allow for the expression of fallibility?”

Why so? Because we want the practice of finding value in things to continue.

–What is finding value ahead? It’s less like a prediction than, pace modern cosmology, a report from a distant planet, wholly like ours except its present has fast forwarded in a way that remains unignorable for ours.

No wonder, then, rapid change isn’t ignored and utopians want something more. No wonder poems matter, since poems favor words many people don’t know and new words can be new worlds. Including worlds uncolonized by our very own historically-contingent “ism’s.”

3. What Shakespeare’s missing lines tell us about war

The playhouse manuscript, Sir Thomas More, has been called “an immensely complex palimpsest of composition, scribal transcription, rewriting, censorship and further additions that features multiple hands”. One of those hands was Shakespeare–and that has contemporary relevance.

–The authoritative Arden Shakespeare text renders a passage from Shakespeare’s Scene 6 as follows (this being Thomas More speaking to a crowd of insurrectionists opposing Henry VIII):

What do you, then,
Rising ’gainst him that God Himself installs,
But rise ’gainst God? What do you to your souls
In doing this? O, desperate as you are,
Wash your foul minds with tears, and those same hands,
That you, like rebels, lift against the peace,
Lift up for peace; and your unreverent knees,
Make them your feet to kneel to be forgiven.
Tell me but this: what rebel captain…

The last two lines, however, had been edited by another of the play’s writers (“Hand C”), deleting the bolded lines Shakespeare had originally written,

Make them your feet. To kneel to be forgiven
Is safer wars than ever you can make
Whose discipline is riot.
In, in to your obedience. While even your hurly
Cannot proceed but by obedience.

What rebel captain….

What has been effaced away by the deletion is, first, the notion that contrition is itself a kind of war and a safer war at that.

–According to the Arden Shakespeare, “The act of contrition might be described as wars because the former rebels would enlist themselves in the struggle of good and evil, and would fight against their own sin of rebellion.” In either case—contrition or rebellion—obedience is required. Actually, nothing was less safe than rebellion whose “discipline is riot”.

What has also been scored out, in other words, from Shakespeare’s original passage is the clear accent on contrition and peace over continued upheaval.

–But the absence of contrition by those involved in the formulation and implementation of war policies is precisely what we have seen and are seeing today.

For to prioritize contrition would mean refocusing obedience from battle to a very different struggle in securing peace and security, a mission in which our ministries of interior and defence are notably inferior, be they in Russia, the US, China or elsewhere.

4. Global Climate Sprawl

You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet. . .It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.

I want to suggest that Global Climate Change isn’t just a bad mess; it’s a spectacularly, can’t-keep-our-eyes-off-it, awful mess of getting it wrong, again and again. To my mind, GCC is a hot mess–both senses of the term–now sprawled all over place and time. It is inextricably, remorselessly part and parcel of “living way too expansively, generously.”

GCC’s the demonstration of a stunningly profligate human nature. You see the sheer sprawl of it all in the epigraph, Philip Roth’s rant from American Pastoral. So too the elder statesman in T.S. Eliot’s eponymous play admits,

The many many mistakes I have made
My whole life through, mistake upon mistake,
The mistaken attempts to correct mistakes
By methods which proved to be equally mistaken.

That missing comma between “many many” demonstrates the excess: After a point, we no longer can pause, with words and thoughts rushing ahead. (That the wildly different Philip Roth and T.S. Eliot are together on this point indicates the very real mess it is.)

That earlier word, sprawl, takes us to a more magnanimous view of what is going on, as in Les Murray’s “The Quality of Sprawl”:

Sprawl is the quality
of the man who cut down his Rolls-Royce
into a farm utility truck, and sprawl
is what the company lacked when it made repeated efforts
to buy the vehicle back and repair its image.
Sprawl is doing your farming by aeroplane, roughly,
or driving a hitchhiker that extra hundred miles home…

This extravagance and profligacy–the waste–are not ornery contrarianism. For poet, Robert Frost, “waste is another name for generosity of not always being intent on our own advantage”. If I had my druthers, rename it, “GCS:” Global Climate Sprawl.

5. War

–I finished reading the Collected Critical Writings of Geoffrey Hill, which discussed a poet I don’t remember reading before, Ivor Gurney. Which in turn sends me to his poems, which leads me to his “War Books” from World War I and the following lines:

What did they expect of our toil and extreme
Hunger - the perfect drawing of a heart's dream?
Did they look for a book of wrought art's perfection,
Who promised no reading, nor praise, nor publication?
Out of the heart's sickness the spirit wrote
For delight, or to escape hunger, or of war's worst anger,
When the guns died to silence and men would gather sense
Somehow together, and find this was life indeed….

The lines, “What did they expect of our toil and extreme/Hunger—the perfect drawing of a heart’s dream?”, reminded me of an anecdote from John Ashbery, the poet, in one of his essays:

Among Chuang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. ‘I need another five years,’ said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.

It’s as if Chuang-tzu’s decade—his form of hunger—did indeed produce the perfect drawing. Gurney’s next two lines, “Did they look for a book of wrought art’s perfection,/Who promised no reading, no praise, nor publication?” reminds me, however, of very different story, seemingly making the opposite point (I quote from Peter Jones’ Reading Virgil: Aeneid I and II):

Cicero said that, if anyone asked him what god is or what he is like, he would take the Greek poet Simonides as his authority. Simonides was asked by Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse, the same question, and requested a day to think about it. Next day Hiero demanded the answer, and Simonides begged two more days. Still no answer. Continuing to double up the days, Simonides was eventually asked by Hiero what the matter was. He replied, ‘The longer I think about the question, the more obscure than answer seems to be.’

I think Hiero’s question was perfect in its own right by virtue of being unquestionably unanswerable. In the case of Chuang-tzu, what can be more perfect than the image that emerges, infallibly and unstoppably, from a single stroke? In the case of Simonides, what can be more insurmountable than the perfect question without answer?

–Yet here is Gurney providing the same answer to each question: War ensures the unstoppable and insurmountable are never perfect opposites—war, rather, patches them together as living: Somehow together, and find this too was life indeed.

Ashbery records poet, David Schubert, saying of the great Robert Frost: “Frost once said to me that – a poet – his arms can go out – like this – or in to himself; in either case he will cover a good deal of the world.”

6. Intertext as the Anthropocene’s long run

I’m first asking you to look and listen to one of my favorites, a short video clip of Anna Caterina Antonacci and Andreas Scholl singing the duet, “I embrace you,” from a Handel opera (the English translation can be found at the end of the clip’s Comments):

Antonacci’s performance will resonate for some with the final scene in Sunset Boulevard, where Gloria Swanson, as the actress Norma Desmond, walks down the staircase toward the camera. But intertextuality–that two-way semi-permeability between genres–is also at work. Antonacci brings the opera diva into Swanson’s actress as much as the reverse, and to hell with anachronism and over-the-top.

–Let’s now bring semi-permeable intertextuality closer to public policy and management. Zakia Salime (2022) provides a rich case study of refusal and resistance by Moroccan villagers to nearby silver mining–in her case, parsed through the lens of what she calls a counter-archive:

My purpose is to show how this embodied refusal. . .was productive of a lived counter-archive that documented, recorded and narrated the story of silver mining through the lens of lived experience. . . .Oral poetry (timnadin), short films, petitions, letters and photographs of detainees disrupted the official story of mining ‘as development’ in state officials’ accounts, with a collection of rebellious activities that exposed the devastation of chemical waste, the diversion of underground water, and the resulting dry collective landholdings. Audio-visual material and documents are still available on the movement’s Moroccan Facebook page, on YouTube and circulating on social media platforms. The [village] water protectors performed refusal and produced it as a living record that assembled bodies, poetic testimonials, objects and documents

What, though, when the status quo is itself a counter-archive? Think of all the negative tweets, billions and billions and billions of them. Think of all negative comments on politics, dollars and jerks in the Wall Street Journal or Washington Post. That is, think of these status quo repositories as a counter-archive of “status-quo critique and dissent.”

–So what?

A genre notion of the status quo as counter-archive means that today’s counter-archive is also to be thought of as semi-permeable and in two-way traffic with other genres. Intertextually, today’s status quo not only looks pretty good, it is pretty good compared to the past times of Genghis Khan (think: history as a benchmark genre) and in comparison to post-apocalypse (think: sci-fi as a benchmark genre).

This raises an interesting possibility: a new kind of long-run that is temporally long because it is presently intertextual, indefinitely forwards and back and across different genres.

For example, if the climate emergency is violence and the Big Polluters are culprits, then violent resistance against them is a form of violence reduction if the resistance succeeds. This means the “violence” and the “resistance” are difficult to evaluate, let alone predict, because the long-run over which they are to unfold is itself a current but changing intertext. As in: “the varieties of revolution do not know the secrets of the futures, but proceed as the varieties of capitalism do, exploiting every opening that presents itself”–to paraphrase political philosopher, Georges Sorel.

7. “Ridicule is the only honourable weapon we have left.” Muriel Spark, novelist

I can’t quote them because Heidegger was a Nazi, Pound a Fascist, Sartre a Maoist, Eliot an anti-Semite. I don’t read Foucault because he didn’t care if he infected guys and I don’t read that mystery writer because she’s a convicted killer. I don’t go to baseball games because of the players’ strike way back when and I refuse to watch that man’s films because he’s said to have messed with his own kid.

I don’t buy Nike because of the sweatshops, listen to Wagner because he was a Jew-hater, or have a TV because it makes children violent. I can’t eat tofu because of genetically modified soybeans or cheese because of genetically modified bacteria. I don’t listen to Sinatra because he was a nasty little man or Swarzkopf because she was a collaborator. The U.S. government’s been screwed since Johnson and the Great Society (no, since FDR and the welfare state (no, since Lincoln and the Civil War (no, since Jackson and the Trail of Tears (no, since Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase (no, since Washington and his plantation slaves…)))).

I don’t trust Freud because he didn’t understand women, Klein because she couldn’t get along with her daughter, Bettelheim because he’s said to have hit kids, or Laing because he too wasn’t nice. I think we were never further away from nuclear war than during the Cuban Missile Crisis (only afterwards did Brezhnev insist on nuclear parity). Plus it’s a good thing Japan has lost decades of economic growth or they’d’ve been re-armed by now.

From time to time I’ve wondered if Socrates could go to heaven. Speaking of which, why is Adam painted with a belly button, where in the Bible is the turkey that keeps showing up in those pictures of Eden and Noah’s Ark, and for that matter why do shadows first show up in early Western art only? Do you really think historical Jesus worried about who licks what where?

Dying means my total annihilation: Too bad for eternity, I say—it doesn’t know what it’s missing. It’s only when I’m dead that I become “will always have been.” Still, little gives me quite the exquisite pleasure as knowing my secrets die with me.

Which makes me wonder: Other than the streets, where do squirrels go to die? And whatever happened to pineapple upside-down cake and Saturday drives? I have to wonder, did Wittgenstein read Rabelais: “Utterances are meaningful not by their nature, but by choice”? Can there be anything more mind-numbing than beginning, “In hunting-and-gathering societies. . .”? (Maybe, “We as a nation,. . .”?) And just who did say, Freedom is the recognition of necessity (Hegel, Engels, Lenin, who)? E Pluribus Unum: Isn’t that Latin for “Follow the dollar”?

Whatever, every morning I wake up and thank heaven I wasn’t born a minority in this country. If I had a magic wand, I’d solve America’s race problem by giving everybody a master’s degree. I’d make sure they’d all be white, married, professionally employed, and own homes. (BTW, every adult in China should have a car; with all that ingenuity they’d have to come up with a solution to vehicle pollution.)

But then again, I’m quite willing to say that the entire point of human evolution is there hasn’t been any worth speaking of. As for the rest, I suppurate with unease. It’s probably—possibly, plausibly?—wise not to think too much about these things.

8. Reflection and sensibility

–During her last years, artist Joan Eardley (1921-1963) painted seascapes at Catterline, a fishing village on Scotland’s coast. I especially like her The Wave (1961), Seascape (Foam and Sky, 1962), and Summer Sea (1962). What intrigues are the recurring smudges of light and cloud—center or just off center, at or above the horizon. (In other paintings, her glimmers are recognizably moon, sun, blue sky, or sea-spray.)

Four examples give an idea of what I’m talking about (mindful here of the variable quality of digital reproductions):

Summer Sea
A Stormy Sea No. 1
The Wave
Seascape (Foam and Blue Sky)

My eye locks on the rush and scatter of waves, but I’m distracted by those lit clouds above.

I end up thinking about these smudges and glimmers, where the thinking is itself a distraction—in this case the distraction of leaving the painting too early. I stay awhile. From where I look, the clouds are luminous and I wonder, what kinds of reflections do they cast on the seascape below, or on me, out of sight?

–My hesitation is less indecision than a sensibility, I think. It’s not quite the Coleridgean willing suspension of disbelief or a Keatsian negative capability (“when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reasons”).

This version of sensibility needs to be pushed further than that. It’s more like the matrix of conscious connections that would not have otherwise been made were it not for the distraction and an attentiveness to that distraction. Out-of-sight reflection at its best?

–Let’s see if we agree and if we can push the point further.

Below are links to three brief performances. The clips show performers and music taking place on stages of sort, with instruments of sorts. I wager you’ve not seen the clips before and that if you have seen something like them, you’ve never imagined them in this sequence.

I’ve chosen them because the individual pieces seem to reflect–and reflect on–one another, e.g,, Kyung Namchul’s fingers moving across the strings parallel the hands and feet of Denis Matvienko and Leonid Sarafanov moving across the floor parallel Lin Yi’s fan and body flicking together.

Please watch each in its entirety. (As above, I claim no copyright privilege over the below.)

While the performers are known in their own right, the sequence serves as one intertext: Sarafanov plucks floor and air, Kyung flicks the strings, Li dances the fan. Each is inscribed onto the music. Each illuminates the other, and each-together reflects back onto me, its out-of-sight viewer.

That sensitivity feels very much like a sensibility to me, while cognitively the resonance is very much like reflection. Refracted through the collective palimpsest, it is difficult to tell if what’s written is “live” or “love,” “hype” or “hope,” “could” or “would.”

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