Lucy Ives

Interview with Susan Stewart

Susan Stewart with Lucy Ives

Poet and scholar Susan Stewart responds to questions from Triple Canopy editor Lucy Ives on the difference between subjectivity and sensing, thinking for its own sake, and the poem as occurrence, instance, or object.

Lucy Ives: Though I am posing these questions in the context of an issue of Triple Canopy related to objects and objectivity, I want to begin with the notion of the subject and, more specifically, what you have termed, in your early book on nonsense, “our appurtenance to one another.” In reading your criticism, I am often struck by your attention to language as a social event—as well as to the role, or roles, of literature and works of art in the social production of meaning.

I’d like to ask you how notions of intersubjectivity may have changed in your criticism over time. Where did you begin, as a critic and scholar, in your thinking around the connections between ethics and aesthetics, and where are you now? What has the role of conversations within the academy been in shaping such notions? Of conversations held outside the academy?

Susan Stewart: The notions of “subjectivity” and “intersubjectivity” have indeed changed in scholarship during my lifetime, and these changes have had particular consequences. When intellectuals sustain a word like “subjectivity,” or use terms from the secret police and the military—“interrogate” a subject; or “deploy” a method—they produce effects in the “real world.” So far as I can tell, the concept of subjectivity originally had a perspectival and psychological valence, then acquired its political meaning within ideology critique, and later moved into literary study as a strange amalgam of psychological and political determination.

It’s a vivid historical fact that many people have been, and indeed remain, reduced to the status of a subject in nearly every sphere of their lives. But at least in Louis Althusser’s analysis of ideology, science and art are domains that can evade the totalizing determinations of what he calls ideological apparatuses. Here I have always thought Althusser follows Immanuel Kant’s distinction between reflective and determinative judgments. Determinative judgments are those efficient, necessarily unthinking decisions we make all the time in order to get through our days; because they are unthought they are most likely to be “subject” to the powers that be. But not every aspect of our lives and not every possibility of our wills is encompassed by such a “subject position.” In the case of science, reflective judgments are capable of creating new categories of understanding, and in the case of aesthetics, our judgments can move entirely beyond our categories of understanding. These are important openings that enable ideology critique and indicate the possibility of living beyond ideology.

As you mention, I have used the terms “subjective” and “intersubjective” in my own writing: “subjective” when I have felt that I wanted to distinguish, in the earlier sense, between individual and “objective” points of view; “intersubjective,” when I have wanted to underline the mutuality and sociality of being. Yet, influenced by the poetics of Allen Grossman and the philosophy of Derek Parfit, among others, I turn to the word “person” when I am accounting for actions that are intended, volitional, and creative.

My most sustained try at thinking through the relation between aesthetics and ethics is my essay “On the Art of the Future” [included in Stewart’s 2005 collection The Open Studio]. There I take up particularly the aesthetics of Kant and the ethics of Emmanuel Levinas. My interest in this relation stems from my sense that both fields of action are prior to other cultural determinations. Because the practice of art involves hypothetical terms and reversible consequences, art can be a tentative, impermanent ground for exploring intersubjective relations. The ethical acknowledgment of the “in and for himself or herself” of other persons is in turn prior to any terms of aesthetic address, or of any other form of address.

The viewer or listener or audience of an artwork is a living, sensing being. The artist is communicating with, not shaping or forming, that being. For this reason I eschew the idea that art is “experimental,” for I do not believe in experimenting upon persons. Nor do I see any reason to seek to replicate the results of our actions as artists. Art forges, creates, moves ahead of the rest of the culture—some of it disappears and some of it “takes” (place, effect).

LI: I’m curious about how your doctoral studies in folklore may have shaped your work. What did this departmental affiliation permit you—as a critic, scholar, and writer—that other ways of proceeding in the humanities might not have? Do you have a sense of how this particular formation may have shaped your understanding of what constitutes a significant “unit of analysis” within literary studies?

SS: As an undergraduate, I was drawn to literature, anthropology, and visual art, and these were fields much influenced at the time by new methods in semiotics and structuralism. At the same time, the New Critics, and especially the tastes and judgments of T. S. Eliot, were also tremendously important. Every English major came to know the metaphysical poets and the Jacobean dramatists very well, and our sense of modernism was heavily dependent upon French Symbolism.

Meanwhile, Claude Levi-Strauss became particularly important to me, for I was drawn to his ideas about phenomena as “good for thinking” (rather than conceiving of thinking as a means to phenomena/reference). In other words, Levi-Strauss seemed to restore the priority of thinking for its own sake.

In graduate school I continued to study various issues in aesthetics and the philosophy of literature, eventually completing an MA in poetics at Johns Hopkins and a PhD in Folklore Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. At Johns Hopkins my studies coincided with the advent of poststructuralism; my teacher Richard Macksey organized and edited The Structuralist Controversy, the important collection of writings addressing this paradigm change. The Folklore Department at Penn was a deeply interdisciplinary program, and I was taken particularly with the microanalyses of the sociologist Erving Goffman and the kinesics of the anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell, as well as the Slavic Department’s work in Russian Formalism—especially the methods of the literary and cultural critic Mikhail Bakhtin.

Folklore and the avant-garde were two poles of literary production that became quite close in that period (for example, the interest in folk and fairy tales on the part of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Italo Calvino, Angela Carter, and my later friend Kathy Acker). As folklorists, my classmates and I were trained as ethnographers, and we became deeply engaged by the connections between everyday aesthetic practices—stories, jokes, riddles, proverbs, mourning rituals, lullabies, ballads, ornaments—and their often archaic origins. A sense of the continuity of all art forms and a radical appreciation of the reach of their histories was an important legacy of that education.

I had written poetry since childhood. In graduate school I began to see how I could use my prose writing as a kind of ongoing notebook to address problems in art and aesthetics that interested me in my creative work. I wrote my dissertation on “nonsense” out of an intuition about the hyperrational systems on the border of rationality, and my study On Longing grew from consequent concerns with issues of scale, memory, and value.

LI: I wonder if you could say a bit about your early theoretical and critical allegiances.

SS: The questions and debates of the time have remained central to my thinking and writing: Is there a poetic language distinct from “ordinary” language? If so, what are its characteristics? If not, what is the role of metaphor in everyday language and the role of the imagination in culture? Are there universals of human consciousness and universal ethical values? Why are we both drawn to binary thinking and compelled to go beyond it? Is there a way to evade the traps of dialectic? What are the alternatives to materialism, to metaphysics? How are human beings the makers or creators of themselves?

LI: I wonder if you would maintain that many or all of your critical works are, at base, about poetics. It’s a category I find myself constantly unpacking and discussing, both in public and with colleagues and in more private moments. Do you have a working definition of this category and/or a sense of its particular significance for contemporary thought? What should one say to a person who understands the terms “poetics” and “poetry” to be synonymous (or who does not care that there might be a difference between the two)?

SS: Since my early studies in anthropology and literature, I’ve been much influenced by Giambattista Vico’s notion of verum factum—that the truth is made and that we can analyze its causes and effects. This is not a matter of relativism or “social construction”; we are bound by those truths, and their consequences are inescapable. Central to Vico’s philosophy is the notion that poetic making, particularly the work of metaphor, is vital to processes of thought and, at a later stage, to the formation of institutions. Metaphor remains a resource both to sustain and transform the world.

It seems to me problems of definition—What is poetry? What is poetics?—arise in specific contexts of translation or intelligibility. In all of the traditions I have come to know even superficially, poetry is characterized by certain formal features having to do with its relation to time and space. It is composed in patterned, often measured, lines that have distinct beginnings and endings; even when written, poetry thus has rhythm. What is measured can be stress, sound, or visual marks. The resulting work has an articulated form; it is an occurrence, an instance, or an object, and it is possible to refer to it. Because of the quality of attention we bring to it, poetry is endowed with intensity and value. Because it can be made or performed well, poetry accrues to individual makers and performers. Because it can be fictional, poetry carries us beyond lived experience. Because it is both governed by internal rules and beyond the force of external law, poetry is a source of speculation and freedom.

“Poetics” is a term that, like “poetry,” is derived from the Greek word for making, poiesis, yet it indicates the study of the production of forms, including the art form of poetry. Many poets, from Horace to Alexander Pope to contemporary L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, have explored poetics within the medium of poetry itself, but poetics is a matter of analyzing and considering the features of any made form and can be expressed just as easily—in fact much more easily!—in prose. Aristotle’s Poetics, with its concern for the defining features of tragedy and their rhetorical and somatic effects, remains the obvious template for all later work in poetics.
I would agree that my prose writing is largely concerned with poetics. Even so, my most concerted effort in this domain can be found in my paired recent books: Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, which addresses the reception of poetry, and The Poet’s Freedom, which addresses its production.

LI: If there exists an ongoing tension between art and philosophy, or art and criticism—if, as you write in The Open Studio, “philosophy’s constantly renewed announcement of the death of art can be read as a response to art’s unstated assertion, by means of its animation of sense particulars, of the limits of philosophy”—how might you, personally and professionally, navigate this détente? Do you consider yourself a philosopher or a literary writer or both—or is the distinction unimportant? Is it possible that you see some significance in a refusal to remain in just one sphere?

SS: This is a question I’ve thought about a great deal, yet I’ve concluded it doesn’t seem especially vital on the level of practice. Philosophy in the United States is largely concerned with problems of the analysis of concepts and sentences—problems already central to every aspect of the poet’s work. My own training was not in this kind of analytical philosophy but rather in what used to be called “literary theory.” (My own children refer to it somewhat ironically as “’70s theory,” and by that they mean Continental philosophy.) Except for my endeavors in poetry as a scholar of the history of the form and as a poet, I often have worked at the margins of disciplines, including aesthetics. But the professional status of my orientation doesn’t preoccupy me so much as the question of whether or not I am “getting somewhere” in my thinking.
That said, it is true that the “ancient quarrel” between poetry and philosophy, regardless of Plato’s motives in claiming it, has some genuine basis in the very means of production of each form. Metaphysics particularly must remove itself from the constraints of individual voice if its claims are to be universal, yet the central tenets of metaphysics remain authored and achieve much of their authority from institutional recognition. Even so, the central questions of metaphysics—questions of knowing, the problem of an exterior world, the question of materiality, the nature of life, the relation between the soul and the body, the possibility of liberty, the question of other minds, the origin of Being, the existence of God—have as well been central not only to the themes of poetry, but also to its methods. We could reframe this list readily from the perspective of poets, for poets, too, have been preoccupied with the subject/object problem; the representation of nature; the materiality of language; the organic sources of form; the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of a practice of poetry; the bounds of traditions and the possibilities of free creation; the intelligibility of poetry for those who receive it; and a sense of ultimate purpose in creation.

In the end, poets and philosophers alike must take a stance against the mere “drawing of conclusions,” or they will betray what is made possible by their open practices. Creating poems and pursuing truth are human activities that are inseparable from our humanity itself—these actions separate us from other species that can make, but, so far as we know, cannot judge or contemplate their making.

Despite its roots in prophecy, lyric throughout its long history has rarely been written in the future tense or concerned with the future as a theme. Even so, perhaps this persistent absence indicates something deeper about the free practice of lyric; this very openness may indicate that futurity is nowhere in lyric deixis because it is everywhere. What Charles Baudelaire called “the spirit of the lyre” awakens us to our relation to nature, and to our own natures, and calls us to remember and consider and judge. The fact that our imaginations enable us to picture the future, and the future of our species, roots us more particularly in the sources of life and the possibility of its continuity.


Date: December 23, 2013

Publisher: Triple Canopy

Format: Web

Link to the interview.

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