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Entitlements: Post-Modernity, Capitalism, and the Threat to Poetry's History 

 

 

by 

 

 

Adam Fieled

 

 

It is a topos that needs to be revisited periodically: capitalism is only a problem for those who have no capital. The brighter bits of Marxism reinforce and attempt to resolve this: a redistribution of goods and material wealth to level societies whose material facets have been skewered towards a chosen few. But the problem with poetry is not factory owners; with so little capital invested in poetry, “ownership” as such is more a spiritual than a material issue. The problem with poetry and poets is that you can’t feel the sting of capitalism unless you have no, or little, capital; if you attempt to live off of your poetry (or even as a low-ranking academic) this will almost certainly be the case. Not too many poets have the material shrewdness to earn, through their own efforts, vast amounts of capital; what does happen is that people enter poetry (and the other arts) and are able to do so because of the capital they have inherited. This is more problematic than it appears to be at first—if you can’t feel the sting of capitalism (its’ greed, lack of justice, spiritual entropy), but have had to expend no effort in casting off the shackles that capitalism imposes, your relationship both to the arts and to society itself becomes so ineluctably warped that you might as well be an alien. In America, we call these folks “trust-funders.” Whatever they are called, the attitude they tend to adopt in relation to poetry is one of entitlement; that they are entitled to deem their creations (however meager or nonce) poetry, to adopt an attitude of totalized complacency (without having earned it through genius or innovation), to turn workshops into exercises in egotism and readings into travesties. The attitude of entitlement fits snugly into a post-modern ethos—that art requires a minimum of effort, that any hokey contrivance can, will, and does pass for art, and that the only absolute is simple: capital can and will buy status. That’s the post-modern spirit (which is, of course, a blatant oxymoron); to the funded go the spoils. Marxism works for many poets because they’ve never had the experience of having no capital, so they don’t see or feel its dark edges—conspicuous consumption has engendered an ethos of complete indulgence. Entitlement means that, no matter what these poets create, it has to be as good as anyone else’s creations: they’re as good (of course) as Keats, or Yeats, or Eliot. Post-modern capitalism looks in the check-book rather than the history books to see what the balance is; high numbers take the place of high thoughts.

 

So the approach that many poets have to Marxism is twice-removed from Marxism in its pure state: by a surfeit of capital, and by a self-satisfaction that accepts and encourages the existent capitalistic system (implicitly, if not explicitly). Poetry becomes a business like any other—if you do good business (manifested in book sales, reading attendance, blog numbers, Google hits, or votes on Goodreads), and if what is quantifiable works in your favor, you are entitled to assume parity with anything or anyone. What is a poet (or an artist) legitimately entitled to? Not much. If you are serious about what you do, if you are not caught in a welter in which post-modern and capitalistic ethos creates a bogus sense of validity, you know that genuine imposition can only be created by history (assuming you are not imposed upon too much be material circumstances). History, if viewed properly, takes back entitlements. The flimsy history created by post-modernity contrives to impose an intimidating veneer; but a lack of real engagement with history creates a sense of the ephemeral which, if not embraced, (and post-modernists do express consonance with the “ephemeral” as such) must be rejected absolutely. Many post-modern equations are simple: “incorporate or perish” is one. What, beyond creating an imposing veneer, constitutes post-modern “incorporation”? Nothing. Post-modernists, for what’s often an obvious reason, feel entitled to stop at the surface; the reason is that a persistent sense of entitlement inhibits and destroys human depth. Deprivation often engenders depth— if you have never been deprived, it is difficult to imagine a need for depth. And if you espouse and embrace Marxist levels of material engagement, but fail to connect them to your own existence and begin to take some personal responsibility for it, you become a kind of sham factory owner. Anyone in the arts who has not inherited funds the way that you have becomes an underling. Underlings can be brushed aside; what begins as warped Marxism becomes straightforward Darwinian obduracy. Simply put, the arts aren’t fair, and they never have been. What post-modernity imposes is a context in which there is not only no justice in who “gets in,” there is no justice in what they feel they are entitled to do when/if they do get in. What do they feel entitled to do, more often than not? 

 

Post-modernity often seems to represent an infinite regress towards oblivion; a plummet that never ends, and in which any kind of ascension becomes the butt of arrogant laughter; if history and art don’t matter, and if you happen to be an artist, satisfaction arises not from what you create but in the sense of entitlement that justifies creating nothing. As much as Marxism is embraced, senses of base and superstructure in this grow confused; there can be no modes of production if what you produce is an acknowledged nothing. One gist of post-modernism is that there is no base— because, we are told, the idea of a “base” in art is a hokey contrivance, and there is no point in actually producing anything (except to preserve appearances.) So why be an artist at all? The reason is simple: because it’s easy. Entitlement, if taken to an extreme (as it often is) negates a sense of responsibility. Do whatever you want; who cares? As the flush ethos dictates, check your numbers, throw out some more red herrings, everything’s fine. But the depth engendered by deprivation has a difficult time accepting this— and post-modernity, like every other paradigmatic movement in the history of the arts, must end. While there is no sure sign that a nascent depth is going to permanently erode the foundations of post-modernism, it is doubtless that different eras require different artistic modes of production to hold a mirror up to dynamic circumstances. In Western life today, a sense of anti-dynamism, of stasis, has been put in place by harsh economic circumstances. It is likely that the post-modernists will respond to this in the same manner that they responded to fin de siècle entropy— with more acknowledged nothings, bolstered (at times and only in bits) by theories that dictate the shrewd and compelling nature of nothings, to reflect back the nothingness that will have been imposed on us if we have borne the brunt of these circumstances. In other words, post-modernism’s potency and efficacy are crippled by the complete material security that enfolds many of its’ constituents. We need something new right now.

 

Are any of us entitled to a new movement that evinces more depth and more engagement on more levels? We are not. But to the extent that one seed may be put into place (and with the hope that the seed may grow), I will say that what we need is to move upwards, towards some kind of affirmation, rather than towards new and greater levels of oblivion (born, more often than not, from obliviousness). Those who have inherited money often inherit nothing from history; those who have to create their own lives may create something worthy to be inherited, that has consonance with the more developed moments in art’s history. In this context, the important thing is that nothing is to be closed, and what is created is a mystery that each artist must resolve for him or herself. No one should be entitled to anything but the right to create; the world owes none of us anything, not even this. That the right to create should be earned is something that post-modernity has completely lost touch with; that material wealth is, itself, a red herring where the arts are concerned is something that needs to be looked into. But if something is to rise, and shortly, from the ashes of a fading post-modern regime, let’s hope that when/if we have earned our places, it is because we know that in art, there is no way to earn anything but through intense and devoted labor.

 

 

 

 

copyright © Adam Fieled

 

 

 

 

Adam Fieled is a poet, critic, and musician currently based in Philadelphia. He has released three print books: Opera Bufa (Otoliths, 2007), When You Bit... (Otoliths, 2008), and Chimes (Blazevox, 2009), as well as numerous e-books, chaps, and e-chaps. His work has appeared in journals like Tears in the Fence, Great Works, Upstairs at Duroc, Cake Train, and in the &Now Anthology from Lake Forest College Press. A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he also holds an MFA from New England College and an MA from Temple University, where he is finishing his PhD.