Sunday, October 08, 2006

Poets and empire

Herewith a meditation extracted from the catacombs (i.e., footnotes) of my forthcoming article, Poetic Justice:

Kenji YoshinoIn The Poet and the City, 114 Yale L.J. 1835 (2005), Kenji Yoshino argues that law, as a truth-seeking enterprise, must resist literature's inherent "falsity, irrationality, and seductiveness. The law's disciplinary function, as it were, must banish the poet from civic governance because the poet is inimical to the functions of the state.

Professor Yoshino thereupon distills Plato's philosophy on the relationship between poetry and politics into a three-pronged "Platonic paradigm" for evaluating the merger of literature with the law:
  1. Poetry will not be permitted with the core functions of the state.

  2. Poetry cannot evade being held accountable to those functions by asserting the defense that it is ineradicable.

  3. Poetry will only be permitted if it can affirmatively show that it can fulfill state functions. Often this affirmative showing takes the form of a demonstration that poetic virtues and doctrines are the same as or better than those of the state.
Tiger, tiger, burning bright: one of the fundamental projects of literary analysis is to demonstrate "fearful symmetries," or structural similarities across literary idioms and genres. What hermeneutics might call cosmological convergence goes by the name of consilience in scientific circles.

Robots and EmpireSo it is here. The three tenets of Kenji Yoshino's Platonic paradigm bear an uncanny resemblance to Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics":
  1. First, a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

  2. Second, a robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

  3. Third, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such orders would conflict with the First or Second Law.
In Robots and Empire (1985), Asimov subjected these three laws of robotics to a "zeroth law," namely:
A robot may not injure humanity, or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
Asimov's three (or four) laws of robotics have been subjected to deep, useful analysis in realms one degree closer to their original context. For our purposes here -- to wit, the enterprise of reconciling poetic seduction with civic governance -- it suffices for the moment to declare a zeroth law of poetics:
A poet may not injure the law, or through inaction, allow legal interests to come to harm.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yet Plato's critique of art was not, in the end, on behalf of either the state in general or law in particular, but for purposes of (his) moral philosophy. The irony of course being that Plato 'is a great artist attacking what he sees as bad and dangerous in art' (Iris Murdoch). We forget the dialogues are a literary form, not at all like the mode of contemporary professional philosophical exposition and analysis in Anglo-American philosophy. The problem with the poets was their apparent refusal to acknowledge the primacy of the Good, indeed, that truth and beauty are bound up with the Good. Murdoch elaborates:

'Life is a spiritual pilgrimage inspired by the disturbing magnetism of *truth*, involving ipso facto a purification of energy and desire in the light of a vision of what is *good*. The good and just life is thus a process of clarification, a movement toward slefless lucidity, guided by ideas of perfection [the Forms], which are objects of *love*. Platonic morality...involves the whole man and attaches value to the most "concrete" of everyday preoccupations and acts. It concerns the continuous detail of human activity, wherein we discriminate between appearance and reality, good and bad, true and false, and check or strengthen our desires.'

So, it's the capacity and willingness of the poets to orient themselves to the Good, to contribute to this process of purification and discrimination that is fundamental, not their loyalty or fealty to the ends of the State or law (or, better, the polity). Of course to the extent that the polity is serving these moral values....

10/08/2006 5:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yoshino's article, from what I can tell from a skimming perusal, is yet another unfortunate effort by a scholar with no evident special literary ambitions or enthralments to appropriate the aesthetic goods of literature and subordinate them to legal or other disciplinary aims. The very notion that literature has a burden to "defend" its purported ubiquity to law is ludicrous, but that's one of the supports for his argument. Of course, pragmatically speaking, which is emphatically how Yoshino is speaking, we know a poem when we see one. But when will literature qua literature ever "conflict with a core state function" and thereby demand banishment? I suspect never, except when core state functions assume a mantle of authority vis-a-vis literature.

I also suspect that Terry Eagleton would not approve of the way Yoshino characterizes his work. Eagleton has never pursued a "deconstructive approach" of analysis of literature. He has been among the most skeptical and critical readers of Derrida, De Man, and the like. Nor, for that matter, did the finest writing associated with deconstruction simply sweepingly proclaim all writing to be literature. Much of it focused on the philosophy and poetry of Romanticism, a fairly particular domain of literature.

The discourse of law has been historically and functionally informed by rhetoric, and the "deconstructive approach"--that is, if I get the gist of Yoshino's referent--proposed to take seriously the pervasiveness of rhetoric. It was rhetoric (figures of speech, strategies of persuasion, excuses, etc.), not literature (poems, novels, belle-lettres, etc.), that was seen by the so-called deconstructors to be insinuated in peculiar ways even throughout legal texts. They did not see all texts "as" literature.

Yoshino wants to dispose of literature in legal affairs in a "case by case" manner so as to avoid acknowledging the facility with which this seeing "as" takes place, compelling him to confront another iteration of literature's ineradicability. We can with little imagination see law "as" literature, as sport, as culinary art, as fashion show, and so on, just as Yoshino sees victim-impact statements as literature. The move serves a heuristic purpose at best, and it may even be unavoidable, but the conflict of a core state function will not arise out of the literature, actual or imagined. It will arise out of the work performed to elaborate the analogy and the uses to which it is put. Yoshino concludes by urging us to view such work and uses in legal terms, i.e., as "cases," but he generalizes when he imputes their effects to literature.

10/08/2006 6:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Poets, of course, in the words of Yeats, as quoted by Heaney in his Nobel acceptance speech, being the unacknowledged legislators of the word.

(Auden, however, in his poetic eulogy of Yeats, observed that "Poetry makes nothing happen.")

And then there are the words of the assassinated Algerian poet, Tahar

Silence is death
If you are silent you are dead
And if you speak you are dead
So speak and die.

10/09/2006 3:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Actually, it was Percy Bysshe Shelley who first said poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

10/09/2006 4:49 PM  

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