Friday, December 04, 2009

Kent Johnson’s “The Question of Attention Span

A Wall

[If I occasionally grouse mightily how mere (and readily evident) sycophancy (and its devil dog, study’d and rigorous “power-silence”) drives what’s “discuss’d” in the “community”—Kent Johnson (a useful and necessarily pesky fly to have at anybody’s sit-down self-celebratory “brunch”)’s got here a more finely-comb’d and consider’d study of it—resolutely focussing on Steve Evans’s annual round-up of titles at Attention Span. Questions. Why doesn’t Steve Evans duck the Oz-rôle of impresario, step out of the curtain’d corner and, he, too, entre en jeu, toss in a bet in the form of a list? Why doesn’t the “Marooned on a planet of slackers” roger-dodger and self-styled caller of winners Ron Silliman offer up a list? Mute-complacency of the hits-collector? Why doesn’t Jennifer Moxley, or Ange Mlinko? Why doesn’t Jordan Davis? Why doesn’t everybody? Why the tendency—exacerbated by Evans’s culling of top “vote-getters”—to treat the annual assembly as a “best of” delivery system and not as an exploratory bibliographical tool, a “suggest’d readings,” an opening of the field as opposed to what’s become, effectively, an instrument of its narrowing? Replies, and replies to replies welcome. Or, consider commenting here. My own list is here. —JL]

The Question of Attention Span (At Bourdieuian Angle)

Steve Evans is justly regarded as a talented critic, and his Third Factory blog is a long-standing, ongoing record of the seriousness of his own reading in innovative poetry. That record of Evans’s reading reflects a decided aesthetic bias, to be sure. I’ve no doubt he would readily admit to the selectiveness of his concerns.

On Monday, November 16, Ron Silliman devoted his post to a quick recap of the 2009 Attention Span book rankings, an influential “post-avant” survey Evans has been overseeing, on an annual basis, for seven years. For the latest Attention Span episode, sixty readers had listed their ten (sometimes more, sometimes fewer) favorite books of poetry (or criticism) for the year. It is possible to prepare what is really a balance delicately hung on a thread of quartz, and to see that when a ray of light plays on one side of it, at once the balance turns.

The complete results (from 633 total items) were, as always, tallied up by Evans and precise numerical breakdowns made, i.e., which single title was mentioned by ten readers, which two titles were mentioned by seven readers, and so on, all the way down to the forty-two titles that were mentioned by two readers. [Nota interesante: Keith Waldrop’s Transcendental Studies, which has just been named winner of the National Book Award, is in this trailing group.] The rest—those titles mentioned only once (almost 90%)—are not listed in the final wrap-up, and one has to read all sixty individual submissions to know what and by whom they are. In any case, the quantitative logic and drive of the total project is a dream made in heaven for the famously number-crunching Silliman. It is strange to know that the early experiments for ballooning were actually made with soap-bubbles. “Impeccable” is what Silliman deemed the sixty-person line-up of selectors presented by Evans—nearly all of them good-pedigreed and well-connected names on the “post-avant” scene—about two months before the final results were offered.

Like other such statistical rankings, the project’s results exude an undeniably axiological air. In fact, it’s possible to say Attention Span has become something like a crude Nielsen Ratings of “post-avant” poetry, a sort of index of who is read and who is not, who is up and who is down, who counts and who does not. The name of the project, even, vaguely suggests the measurement systems and outcomes of Nielsen research: When all the attentions for all the shows are added up, which shows most often fall within the preference span of the sampled group? And, like the Nielsen ratings, the Attention Span rankings have a built-in, self-reinforcing dynamic: The top-ranked programs (poets) will stand a better chance of continued viewing and advertising (reading and critical regard), at least for some measure of time. If we went up in a balloon above the clouds, we should find ourselves in brilliant sunshine, even when it was almost as dark as night to the people on the earth below. People’s attention spans are to some extent driven by the previous rankings; buzz is created and inertial capital is accumulated by the winners.

But I think that’s as far as the analogy goes. Because the Nielsen project, after all, is assiduously impartial and demographically far-reaching in its sampling criteria and practices. And the participants from whom the results are drawn are quite uninfluenced by personal connections and cultural debts that might lead them to lend more attention to this or that show, or to withhold it from this or that other one. Indeed, the Nielsen’s reputation and relevance is premised on the statistical breadth, disinterestedness, and objectivity of its methods and results. If, for example, houses seem crooked above a street fire, it is because light is bent by the various things through which it passes.

None of that, it should be clear, is the case for Attention Span. As Evans himself has noted, the core of his sample pool, shaped in the late 1990s, when the venture was in its formative phase, is purposely drawn from a closely connected group: poets he has been actively in touch with, who know each other, who praise each other, and who share a general but discernible poetic predisposition. The sea was first made by the water that was in the air falling into all the deep places on the earth. And truth is, I’ve been wondering (with a stress on the “wondering,” for I offer what follows in a hypothetical spirit) if Evans’s “popularity spreadsheet,” in all its earnestly positivist packaging, is possibly about something quite other than an innocent, helpful, “accurate measurement” of aggregate esteem—assuming, that is, the sense of “accurate measurement” is taken as a set of results flowing from methods meant to control for favor-seeking advances, compensatory transactions, or retributive exclusions. Though I realize Evans might well say such “position-taking” effects are of secondary concern to his project . . . In point of fact, in a comment under the aforementioned post by Silliman, he does suggest as much.

And not that those orders of behavior can in any way be fully evaded, for they deeply inform the habitus that is shared, at base, by actors in the literary field. They are, as Pierre Bourdieu has pointed out (I’ve already been using some of his key terms), both immanent in and constitutive of the agonism that is the life force of cultural production, and all who enter the literary field’s operations are subject to them—as addresser or addressee—in fluctuating degrees. The world is full of mysteries and of wonders, and there is no need for us to puzzle ourselves by making any that do not really exist. The adversarial animus that informs the behaviors is not a matter, in the end, of bad faith or “moral” failing on the part of these or those individuals. It is the ontological matter, rather, of the system proper. As Bourdieu stresses, “[I]t [the result or sum of these operations] has nothing in common with that emanation of some human nature which is ordinarily assigned to the notion of interest.”

Bourdieu doesn’t mean by this that cultural actors are without agency, as if they were something like ciphers of difference with no positive terms. Anything that is stretched is apt to be thrown into vibration, or made to tremble, by the force of the air blowing against it. Actions of individual and communal “interest” do inflect the conditions of the larger field. But the configuration of those “interests” and the range of choices for their expression are, as in a game of Go, primarily given, circumscribed by structural pressures at work in first instance, beneath the tangle of moves that is the daily, habitually euphemized stuff of cultural commerce.

Assuming there may be something to that general Bourdieuian idea, therefore, and because the novelty of the Attention Span project seven years on has arguably begun to dull into seasonal rite, I think it may be relevant and useful to ask: What is the meaning and purpose, really, of a “self-selecting survey pool”* pointing up its more favored denizens—while pointing up through dearth and absence its less favored ones—fall after fall, in such obsessively quantifying ways? Might the measuring act in fact represent a kind of structural excrescence of those above-named interactions the community claims, in moments of propriety, to “morally” abhor: a collectively unconscious means (however modest the device) for their rationalization and extension—a kind of instrumentalist prosthesis, as it were, to enable the more efficient unfolding of the essential competitive energies and tensions of a subfield? Two Frenchmen, brothers, made balloons of silk and linen and filled them with hot air and smoke, and after making balloons which carried animals, they persuaded some men to be carried in this way.

Very possibly so, I think. Bourdieu, again, is suggestive in this regard. I’ll offer, a bit in allegorical spirit, some extended quotation here from his classic Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field:
[The] struggle about the boundaries of the group and conditions of membership is by no means abstract . . . It follows that any enquiry aiming, for example, to establish the properties of writers and artists at a given moment predetermines its result in the inaugural decision delimiting the populations to be subjected to statistical analysis. . . . The struggles over definition (or classification) have boundaries at stake . . . and, therefore, hierarchies. To define boundaries, defend them and control entries is to defend the established order in the field. In effect, the growth in the volume of the population of producers is one of the principal mediations through which external changes affect the relations of force at the heart of the field. The great upheavals arise from the eruption of newcomers who, by the sole effect of their number and their social quality, import innovation regarding products or techniques of production, and try or claim to impose on the field of production, which is itself its own market, a new mode of evaluation of products.
It would be thought-provoking, I think, to consider Attention Span in that light of “boundary defining” and “entry control.” What if the project, in light of the “self-selecting” make-up of its membership (participants and ideal audience alike), were grasped as a kind of collective-reflex attempt to maintain order and rank against the productive overplus inherent in the set—a symbolic excess and redundancy which constantly threatens to overwhelm, even, the value of its aspiring cultural capital and the very rationale for its management? After all, as Bourdieu points out elsewhere, relatively “marginal” literary groups require, for the successful promotion of their members within the ever-recycled struggle for position in the larger field, an assimilated sense, however abstract and unresolved it might be, of internal order, rank, and worth. Many brave men in fine ships went into the gloom and silence of the frozen regions in the hope of discovering the Poles. Techniques for the rationing of entrance assist such control.

A couple pages later, if on a slightly different tack, Bourdieu extends his discussion of literary groups and their internal competitive drives, presenting one of his key conceptual tools, “illusio”:
The struggles for the monopoly of the definition of the mode of legitimate cultural production contribute to the continual reproduction of belief in the game, interest in the game and its stakes, the illusio—of which the struggles are also the product. [my emphasis] Each field produces its specific form of the illusio, in the sense of an investment in the game which pulls agents out of their indifference and inclines and predisposes them to put into operation the distinctions which are pertinent from the viewpoint of the logic of the field, to distinguish what is important (‘what matters to me’, is of interest, in contrast to ‘what is all the same to me’, or in-different). But it is just as true that a certain form of adherence to the game, of belief in the game and the value of its stakes, which makes the game worth the trouble of playing, is the basis of the functioning of the game, and that the collusion of agents in the illusio is the root of the competition which pits them against each other and which makes the game itself. In short, the illusio is the condition for the functioning of a game of which it is also, at least partially, the product . . .
A bit later, Bourdieu discusses “acts of credit,” and though his examples here pertain to the visual arts, it is easy enough to take them as analogous to common practices in poetic politics:
The collective belief in the game (illusio) and in the sacred value of its stakes is simultaneously the precondition and the product of the very functioning of the game; it is fundamental to the power of consecration, permitting consecrated artists to constitute certain products, by the miracle of their signature (or brand name), as sacred objects. To give an idea of the collective labour which goes to produce this belief, it would be necessary to reconstitute the circulation of the innumerable acts of credit which are exchanged among all the agents engaged in the artistic field: among artists, obviously, with group exhibitions or prefaces by which consecrated authors consecrate the younger ones, who consecrate them in return as masters or heads of schools; between artists and patrons or collectors; between artists and critics, and in particular avant-garde critics, who consecrate themselves by obtaining the consecration of the artists they champion . . .
And consecration accumulated, in the latter case of “avant-garde critics,” perhaps, by the creation and supervision of competitive ranking “games” (these assume various forms, and Evans’s project would be but one, albeit industrious, example), through which a subcultural community engages in the labor of mutual credit-exchange as a function of proto-canonical production—an activity Bourdieu analyzes as a hallmark feature of “avant-garde” group-identity formation and joint position-taking. The boys and girls who lived long ago, in Athens or Rome, were just as fond of stories as the children of today.

Some of this is getting a tad wordy, I suppose. But the chief, more specific point, as anyone reading this far has probably intuited, would be this: Regularly gathering poetic lists, scoring their results, and archiving them in rigorous, statistical array will tend to seem natural, practical, and innocuous enough. A kind of public service, some might say. And on one level, indeed, it will be all those things. No one, again, is up for any fault. But it is those things (if someone like Bourdieu has anything to offer on the topic) because it is always and already something else, too: a clustering of effects, like proverbial filings taking form above a magnet, out of a deeper field of ideological force. This was found out last century by John Tyndall, and you would never guess the reason. That such arrangements are taken as “natural” is, of course, precisely to the point, purpose, and meaning of the ideological. The consciousness may be false, but it helps people make sense of their world.

Be that as it may, more detailed evaluations of the Attention Span project in light of sociological and psychological dynamics informing such hierarchical lists might be pursued by others better trained in such topics than I. Indeed, we are finding out a great deal about early times by the opening up of many tombs underground, especially in Egypt.

In the meantime, onward and upward, one could say, with our “post-avant” chariot races . . . Some of the most remarkable events in history have been due to mistakes of this kind. There is no stopping them, as Bourdieu suggests. But so long as we’re here, fans and players as we simultaneously are, more reflection on the Rules of the Game can’t hurt the finer understanding, or even the pleasure, of the spectacle. For if you take a card with a gate drawn on one side, and a person upon a horse on the other side, and spin it, you will see the horse jumping the gate.

—Kent Johnson

* The term is used in a comment by Jordan Davis, under the post by Silliman cited above. Passages by Pierre Bourdieu in the post are taken from the chapter “The Author’s Point of View: Some General Properties of Fields of Cultural Production,” in The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, trans. Susan Emanuel, Stanford, 1992.

Steve Evans


My ascendancy camber’d
to dip down
like a pole
bent by a
sturgeon the size
of a skateboard,
or a meal-
worm sized frown,
oh my immutable
Omaha, my Aeschylus, my
grillwork! The highly
cumber’d back flat
where the stage-
hands work feverishly
to crank up
the deucèdly god-
like machina of
my proscenium-arch’d
fuck with a
gigantic white swan
“hat” obscuring my
entirety, orange-enamel’d
prick-antics included.
So randomly down-
I go, plotting murderous
little nothings, Birnam
Wood dress’d in
its company outfit,
Samarkand a scrim-
lower’d desert off.
Dour and diffident,
a rabbit corner’d
by the snarling
rapacious dogs of
the uncollapsible physical
world. Occasional hay
fever Claritin-controll’d
and a desire
to bring down
the fourteen-point
buck of my
brain-pang, that
tinny-sounding “receptacle.”