The origin of this criticism is affirmative: it is because Pope believed unshakably in the inherence of truth in nature, that he could express so negatively his anxiety at seeing it debased. Nature was for Pope the visible origin of truth, and our relation to nature is ideally a kind of freedom: freedom from error. This is a negative definition of freedom: we are free when we are capable of not distorting the experience of truth.
In his arguments with Ernst Bloch over the value of expressionist art, Georg Lukács proposes another negative definition of freedom. We are authentically free only when we can together achieve “freedom from the reactionary prejudices of the imperialist era.”[note 2] Both Pope and Lukács, two very different thinkers, suggest that the freedom of subjective immediacy, and of the language through which subjective preoccupations are given expression, is not really freedom, but is rather the pleasure of being irresponsive, or perversely responsive, to the objective material environment.
Pope seemed also to believe, like Lukács, that “the highest degree of unconsciousness, the crassest form of ‘false consciousness’ always manifests itself when the conscious mastery of economic phenomena appears to be at its greatest”;[note 3] though Pope would not have objected to the mastery of economics per se , it was during the first great period of financial speculation, following the establishment of the Bank of England, the National Debt and the introduction of paper currency in the 1690s, that his “Golden Rule ” seemed to have become universally and unconsciously admired. What Lukács calls “the highest degree of unconsciousness”, Pope satirizes in literature as “bathos”, the lowest degree of diminutive poetical description, or unconsciousness of truth in nature.
What are the specific features of poetry that Pope considered bathetic? Bathos is commonly thought to mean ‘the reduction of the sublime to the ridiculous’. This is one of the effects he singles out, when for example he ridicules the description in Blackmore’s poetry of God as a recruitment officer, or as a baker.[note 4] But also he recommends satirically that to achieve bathos poets ought to make their language more difficult or obscure; that they should write about valueless or repulsive objects, what he calls “the Dregs of Nature”; that they should introduce “Technical Terms ” to the lexicon of poetry, searching among the tiniest details of mechanical arts and science for an esoteric vocabulary; that they should consider “Vices” as translatable through the rhetoric of subservience into “Virtues”, itself now a category of behaviour linked inseparably with politics and commerce; and that in general the natural and social environment of the writer should be represented in such a way that it is difficult to recognize, or such that it appears denatured and offensive to common sense. Bathetic poetry should be reproducible by anyone, and read by anyone without the anxiety of exclusion from a class of practiced readers. It should be consumed freely, as evidence of the democratization of literature as a form of labour, and should be indemnified against the criticism of a leisured elite.
In 1689, shortly before the introduction of paper currency and the establishment of the National Debt, schemes later developed under George I and Robert Walpole in order to finance the sustenance of an imperial army to support English commerce overseas, John Locke published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Like Pope, Locke was profoundly disturbed by the common misuse of language; though for Locke, the misuse of language in philosophy, science and public affairs was infinitely more pernicious than any failure of the imagination judged by discriminating artists. Locke believed that everyday (or “civil”) communication, as well as specialized discourses and the rhetoric of diplomacy, was corrupted by imperfect speech. He could see no prospect of a total solution, since the imaginable perfection of language would require not only an immense labour of systematic explication, but an immense effort of good will and mutual understanding between communities inclined to distrust and injure each other. Ideally, the general recognition of linguistic abuse would lead to a greater probability of true knowledge, and so of peace between citizens and between states. Locke thought that this imperfection was in some degree presently inevitable.
He also thought that the communal abuse of language was intensified and prolonged by what he called “Wilful Fault[s] ”[note 5]. We are guilty of degrading the chance for peaceful coexistence, and of obscuring that chance, when we use language in certain particular ways. These faults include the use of “signs without anything signified”; the use of language of “an affected Obscurity ”; the free production of neologisms; the use of esoteric words without providing their definitions; and the use of words ambiguously, to denote or connote a range of objects, without some clear indication that the sense of the word has been altered deliberately.[note 6]
This was a complex objection, since Locke recognized that freedom from error is not a kind of freedom which many people desire. He writes: “...’tis vain to find fault with those Arts of Deceiving, wherein Men find pleasure to be Deceived.”[note 7] As commerce came gradually to be identified with culture, so the idea of freedom would become indistinguishable from freedom to choose. Or rather, freedom could be distinguished from the freedom to choose only through virtuous negative arguments that would appear increasingly authoritarian in the same measure that people became habituated to the pleasures of free choice. The idea of freedom from error now sounds like a slogan either for religion or for totalitarianism; instead we have come to value its contrary, freedom of error , more and more unequivocally. It is a prerogative of the continuing Romantic imagination, as described by Friedrich Schlegel in reaction to the prevailing analytical and systematic thought of Kant, that we can assert the value of being almost right, of having not been accurate or comprehensive, of having fallen short, and more generally of being free to celebrate the effects of error in thinking and in language.
Pope’s treatise on bathos brings the politics of Locke’s linguistic philosophy into a discussion of art. If men “find pleasure to be Deceived”, then deception is a problem proper to aesthetics. Pope also extends the critique of wrong language, showing how it is not only the things which deceive us that are myriad and can be chosen freely, but that the ways to express that pleasure in being deceived are themselves infinitely variable. We are free to be wrong as soon as we conceive that there is no limit to the number of things we can desire. As Mandeville had written shortly before Pope’s treatise, and in reaction to the same revolutionary growth in commerce and speculation through financial credit, “...if the wants of Man are innumerable, then what ought to supply them has no bounds.”[note 8] For those who believe in it, the freedom of error means that there is no “right” way to make poetry, unless the right way is to act on the instincts of our own pleasure, or to achieve commercial success. We are unbounded, able to write without any imaginable restriction or reserve, free to avoid all use of speech that seems generally intelligible, and free to research, throughout our instincts and beyond our habits of rational thought, the very depth and impossible base of abstract sensation.
The historian J. G. A. Pocock has described the period in which both Locke and Pope published their objections to the misuse of language as “the era in which political thought became engrossed with the conscious recognition of change in the economic and social foundations of politics and the political personality, so that the zõon politikon took on his modern character of participant observer in processes of material and historical change fundamentally affecting his nature...”[note 9]
His nature: the word is ambiguous. What is our nature? Is it the nature we live in, which in some feasible Romantic sense belongs to us? Or the nature of ourselves, which in some creditable Enlightenment sense is the unchanging though impressionable core of our thoughts and actions? If we are still, here and now, “participant observer[ s] in processes of material and historical change”, is this because we can agree with Merleau-Ponty that discourse, our use of language, is never an historical epiphenomenon but is the very fabric of real history itself? Do our words participate in what changes?
The features of bathos described by Pope, and the features of imperfect or erroneous language described by Locke, are without exception celebrated and uncontentious features of current experimental poetry. During the first rise of State administrated credit plans, the introduction and proliferation of paper currency as a form of credit and contract, and the consequent expansion of English military power through the financing of a permanent, professional army to replace the former militias led by aristocrats — that is, during the first great revolution in venture Capital — these were features of language use that seemed not only ridiculous, but harmful to the prospects of uncorrupted and peaceful civic polity. They are now the features of language use which we most admire.
We are now in a period which is described as the final triumph of eighteenth century political economics, the irreversible success of liberalized trade as prophesied by Adam Smith and criticized by Wordsworth. Globalization is (by left and right wing observers) commonly supposed to be unstoppable, unless destiny succumbs either to the inept interference of national governments who ought to accept their relegation to the status of municipal councils, or to the apocalypse of Capitalism necessitated by its own inner contradictions. Barring either of these natural disasters, the future seems clean and well-lit: globalization, the deregulation of transnational trade through coherent transnational economic policy, and the eventual total autonomy of corporations without any fixed national identity, will prevail naturally.
Smith used the word “nature” throughout The Wealth of Nations , as a code for the inevitability of economic liberalization. So too we hear now, through our T.V.s and the ears they flesh out, that the disappearance of state socialism and communism is fatal and necessary, and that it would be ridiculous to traipse after outmoded ideologies in the face of incontrovertible change in the structure of commerce worldwide.
Where are we? Is it possible now to ask a big question, without seeming ridiculous or incompetent? Is it possible not to desire the wrong things.
There are never first things to say. Husserl could not see that the concept of inherently earlier and inherently later acts of cognition is absolutely presumptuous; or perhaps he was too confused by the idea of an ultimately desirable kind of certainty, to be able to admit that presumption. The first thing to say about globalization is that it is mythology. The summary I have given, that we are destined, beyond the meaning of consent, to create a barrierless world of trade, is mythology. It cannot be anything else. Olson predicted rightly that it would be the free prerogative of the individual, in liberal democratic societies, to mythologize his own existence in history. But Olson was profoundly wrong in his belief that this freedom would be something we could accomplish , through research, poetry and radical historiography.
The truth is, we cannot possibly resist mythologizing ourselves. We have no alternative but this very freedom. To recognize this is not to escape it. The position from which we can observe, describe, criticize, hate, ignore or admire globalization is a position of literal ecstatic compromise. We stand outside of what we see; we are excluded fundamentally from the knowledge which, however, we are free to believe that we possess; we are totally compromised in that exclusion, not only by our literal inability to influence or properly to comprehend the sovereignty of liberal economics, but for a more profound reason. This reason is to do with what we mean by (and what we can do with) the word “ideas”.
We can help contrive this problem about “ideas” by discussing more closely the relation of contemporary poetry, and of contemporary poetics, to bathos. I propose, I have the idea that, we should discriminate between two different ways in which poetry is bathetic.
There is possibly a third way, but all I shall say, here, about this third way to be bathetic is that it is known generally as the “mainstream”, and that the imperfection or misuse of language in such poetry is overdetermined by mere market forces, rather than by the greater and total trend of globalization as we know it. This essay will present ideas about the two other kinds of bathos.
The two kinds of bathos in innovative poetry are related to two different attitudes about what poetry is for. On the one invisible hand, there is what we could call the commitment to bathos. A person who feels this commitment, who feels that she has been committed to bathos, might recognize what Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson have called “the pathology of overdiminished expectations.” For Hirst and Thompson, who are critics of political economy and not of literature or language, “the pathology of overdiminished expectations” is “the political impact of ‘globalization’”.[note 10] The commitment to bathos would involve feeling acutely how such a pathology does and can exist, while feeling also that “overdiminished expectations”, though pathological, are the only kind possible; it would be a commitment to the idea of freedom from error. Poetry of this kind tends to be thick with registrations of its own inadequacy not simply as language but as mere culture. It evinces an overdiminished but nevertheless inexpugnable desire for moral as well as ethical rectitude.
The second attitude, on the other invisible hand, could be called the affirmation of bathos. A person who wishes positively to affirm the presence of bathos in poetry, so that poetry can be written without the claustrophobic anxiety caused by the idea of ‘perfect’ or ‘adequate’ language, has several arguments to hand. It can be argued, as Nietzsche playfully said, that the way to confront “great tasks” is through “play”.[note 11] It can also be argued that if poetical language can reach a bottom, depth, furthest point or non plus ultra of abstraction from any material environment, then that furthest point ought always to be desired and attempted.
This is also a way of saying that the controversion of any general belief about reality is never in itself materially harmful. We can tighten the lens of Pope’s microscope until the world disappears completely, but there is in this no possibility of ideological sabotage, because we are free to interpret the disapparent world however we choose; and furthermore, it is only through such acts of radical and free interpretation that we are able to apprehend, if not totally to enjoy, real freedom. Abstraction is for this kind of poetry an encouragement to the freedom of error. This poetry tends not to regret, but to celebrate the idea of its inadequacy, and to reject the desire for moral rectitude which seems implicit in the very idea that language might be adequate.
Both kinds of poetry are acknowledged to be inadequate. For poetry produced by writers who feel a commitment to bathos, this is a treacherous fact to be resisted, perhaps by what J. H. Prynne has called “the intense cultivation of dialectical consciousness”. Prynne seems to regard the use of ideological language as an index of our exclusion from history. He writes: “All bystanders are by definition imperfectly observant, and mostly assuage this imperfection by climax outbursts of sanctimony. The complicity with bad consciousness is universal, though it may be argued that societies with more power to elaborate fanciful domains of individual freedom and purity of heart ought maybe to carry more of the guilt for their own self-deception.”[note 12]
For Prynne, whose most recent book Triodes is absolutely saturated and incandescent with bathos, the concept of the freedom of error is elaborate and fanciful, a kind of “deception”, as Locke also called it, which writers may enjoy freely. Already in Brass (1971) he had written: “Now freedom from care deflects the care itself.”[note 13] “Complicity with bad consciousness”, of which the bathos in his own poems is both a direct index and an expression of ideal resistance to which he is and has been committed, is inescapable for Prynne; the question of how we might produce an adequate poetic response cannot however be suppressed or abandoned, since it is a question whose problematic insolubility is the condition for our true apprehension of what it means to be complicit. If we cannot feel the insolubility of that question negatively , as a problem, we are liable to desire only the freedom of error. Which is in any case a freedom we are totally unable to refuse. In Prynne’s poetry, and in some poetry which evinces a similar commitment to bathos, the value of abstraction is therefore primarily negative. We are ourselves abstracted from real sovereignty, and can never hope to escape that condition of estrangement, and so abstraction is itself a necessary and compelling part of how we use language; but it is fundamentally that condition of being abstracted, and of needing to write abstractly, that makes hope something not to be felt, but only to be desired.
The inadequacy of poetry in which bathos is affirmed, is something not to be regretted but to be celebrated. People who feel an affirmation of bathos might also feel more hopeful about the ways in which poetry is able to create freedom, without having to feel compromised by the problem of linguistic inadequacy.
What, after all, is poetry supposed to be inadequate for ? We no longer believe in the idea of ‘nature’ as the visible source of truth, with which our relationship can be vitiated by mistaken acts of imaginative description. Neither do we believe that the contradictions of global politics and everyday life can really be damaged by inaccurate speech, since that would be simply to mystify the real domination of capital over the lives of subjects whose language-acts are necessarily inconsequential to the progress of capitalism. Without anything to vitiate, or anything to impede, how are we expected to believe that we can use language wrongly?
Charles Bernstein has written, “I start with the senselessness of the world and try to make some sense with it...”.[note 14] The world is not there to be replicated, or in any sense through language to be adhered to, except insofar as we might feel instinctively or by the pleasure of reflection some desire to adhere to it. Abstraction is primarily positive; it is how we convert the visible world out of its present image, and so transgress both symbolically and materially the historical predicament to which as language-users we must otherwise be confined. The way to achieve this, is not to worry about the problem of how to misdescribe the world in a useful manner, but to focus instead on the element of social reality from which we can never be excluded: language itself.
Bernstein says, “My point of departure is poetry that is aversive to conventions of literary or expository or spoken language.”[note 15] Through transgressing, exceeding and complicating our relation to prior and current acts of language, we can show that language itself is the reality we have instead of ‘nature’, and which, unlike ‘nature’, we can vitiate and impede in ways that are negative only from the standpoint of authority, since they are genuinely expressive of individual freedom. Bernstein again: “Words so often fail us. They do so little and they are so disappointing, leading us down blind alleys and up in smoke. But they are what we have, what we are given, and we can make them do what we want.”[note 16]
On the one hand, commitment. On the other, affirmation. The idea which is contentious, and which we can desire should be at stake, is the idea of freedom. Are we free from the imperative to be intensely aware of how our language is complicit with bad consciousness, and with real acts of imperial oppression, or is it merely pleasurable to think so? When Charles Bernstein says that “the poem is like a heat-seeking missile that finds its target but refuses to detonate”, is this a playful encouragement to reimagine the dynamics of readership, and a kind of freedom from the imperatives described positively by Locke and negatively by Pope? Or is it a kind of flippancy, a mere capitulation to the fact that our language is without real political consequence? Is it evidence that the supposed freedom of misdescriptive language-acts is objectively a form of collusion with the dominant culture of liberal democracy, since it serves only to palliate the violence of misdescription and so trains us to accept and palliate the violence of misapprehension in general? Does this kind of language make us understand the news more circumspectly, or does it help throw a wadding of irony against even the most circumstantial forms of misinformation?
Schlegel’s Romantic irony was a reaction to the systematic thought of Kant. Nietzsche’s insistence on ‘play’ was a reaction to what he called “reason, seriousness, mastery over the affects, the somber thing called reflection, all these prerogatives and showpieces of man.”[note 17] Both concepts emerged at moments in history at which they were countervailing, perverse, and against the dominant and accepted trends in thought. Now that they are themselves dominant within contemporary poetry, how is their meaning and value different? This question, too, would separate the commitment to bathos from the affirmation of bathos.
What do you think about carbon sinks? Locke believed that “untruth” is “unacceptable to the Mind of Man”. Through the lens of present bathos, we are free to see this backward: that now it is truth which the mind finds unacceptable, since the language adequate to express truth is a fantasy beyond the limits of total bathos. And is untruth now unacceptable? Or does the second negative need simply to be trimmed, so that untruth is in fact acceptable as the patent reality of human relations worldwide?
Again the question is bound tightly to the problem of linguistic inadequacy. If untruth is unacceptable, then inadequate language could be accepted only when we are deceived. I believe that untruth is unacceptable, and of course that it is acceptable, since every day of my life I do accept it. I believe that my acceptance is indeed a kind of deception. I could write poetry that expresses my repugnance toward being deceived. I could also write poetry that celebrates my deception negatively, by contrasting it with my own resources for creating beautiful and disinterested untruths.
Bathos entered the language during massive financial upheaval. We are now at the crest of that history, the mythic triumph of liberalization. Every feature of language identified by Pope as bathetic, is now a defining and admired feature of our poetry. What more can we ask for?
In Plato’s division of intellective capacities in The Republic , ideas are at the top of the ladder. The attitude in which we are able to comprehend ideas, is the finest of all attitudes. Ideas are knowledge, or episteme. At the bottom, or depth, or very non plus ultra , are conjectures, or eikasia. A conjecture is a weak form of intellection. Most crucially, it is not the kind of thought which can run a city. And now we have the ladder upside down. What are our ideas? What is our capacity to understand arguments of extraordinary abstraction? Bernstein says, “words are what we have.” On the contrary: ideas are what we have. The managers of liberal democratic sovereignty have words. What they do not have is ideas; or rather, they do not want ideas, since the great trend of liberalization is toward the definite exclusion of ideology not only from economics, but from politics also. Ideas are what is left to us. The split is complete and undialectical: the power of economic domination does not need ideas, and the so called power of intellectual community among the people who are dominated does need them. Bathos is the livid fact and outrage of that split, the infection of all idealistic content in language with its own excluded position, its own existence as an ecstatic compromise. We take up ideas as a window on polity, and see through them only the engineered façade of a program set to run on liberal autopilot. If we come up with the right answer, will the U.S. lift sanctions on Iraq? Is bathos a kind of honesty, or a kind of capitulation? Is there in fact such a thing as persuasion, other than for us ? This is what I mean by mythology. How can we believe anything else? And how can we both care about other people, and also avoid becoming objectively stupid?
What we have is conjecture, the useful surprise of a grammatical mismatch, the thrill of syntactic breakdown, the wild happiness of a solecism typed into Microsoft Word and printed out by Packard Bell. This is all bathos, the deliberate misuse of language in deliberate vitiation of our relation to truth, whether we think that truth is rotting away in the tree trunks of tropical South America, or that truth is unacceptable to the mind of man and can be swapped playfully for untruth. We live in the universal mediation of capital. That is where and how I can wake up, how the complexity of my instincts either to hurt myself or love myself can be so estranged as it is; and the truth or untruth of my estrangement, which however is certainly real, whether true or untrue, is precisely the privilege of having ideas. Ideas are the index of my exclusion from a sovereignty I despise: the more passionately I can express my ideas, the more conspicuously am I excluded. In poetry, ideas are now possible only where they are sunk by the light innovations of formal conjecture, the ways in which we make technique a form of manageable repression, so that we come to prefer not having to agree about their existence. Is this poem about the decline in Afghan exports during the Reagan administration? Is it about me? Who can say? Or, What do you mean, about ? In any case, the lines are materially distraught and their rhythm, the pure conjecture of noise free of ideas, continues sometimes to make me happy.
I believe that there is no edge to exceed in poetry. The desire to go further, not to give up with going further, is falsely considered a kind of ultimate desire. I think that Bernstein is wrong to celebrate the transformation of university literature departments into cultural studies departments, because that is already to capitulate before the establishment of ‘culture’ as an exitless quarantine for ideas; literature departments should be no more interested in culture than they are in economics, which according to the present mythology would be culture’s opposite. I find it difficult to accept, with Prynne, that the cultivation of intense dialectical consciousness is the best way to apprehend our complicity with what we hate, because, through a false acceptance of yet another ultimate desire, I do desire ultimately that we could see even such dialectical consciousness as an unnecessary concession to the dominant economic repression of idealism: I want to feel hope, and not only to desire it. I think that my current poetry is an effort not to get beyond bathos, since I do not believe in the positive modern concept of ‘exceeding’ present literary trends and practices, but to make bathos itself seem estranged, alien, and affective viscerally, such that the thickness and onrush of bathetic language can vitiate the relation to truth in a way that seems wrong.
There is a fundamental difference between making an art new, and making it strange. I want language neither to repress nor to liberate ideas by means of formal perversity and conjecture, but to make the intrinsic bathos of ideas seem suddenly alien. I want poetry not to be like reality, but to be as impossible as reality.