Sunday, March 22, 2009

If the Art of the Possible Meets the Unacknowledged Legislator, Will the Universe Implode?

I posed a question online the other day that stimulated some amusing responses: When will university departments decide they must have 21st-century specialists on their faculties, and how can we prepare to market ourselves as such? The question was tongue in cheek, but there is a vital issue behind it.

Social engineering has for a long time been in serious disrepute almost everywhere. The fall of the Soviet Union stands for many--thinkers and non-thinkers alike--as emblematic of the failure of humans to be able to apply social theories to social realities. Best leave the thing to run itself, one line of thinking goes; it is self-regulating like a natural system.

But the collapse of the Bush Doctrine appears as decisive an emblem as the collapse of the USSR. Left to themselves, it seems, people run to Ponzi schemes and other forms of outright theft. And so it falls, in the US, to Barack Obama to reify the "progressive" model of social engineering. Whether or not he succeeds in getting his plans through the defensive line of the opposition party, with all the cheerleaders shouting "Socialism," the genie is out of the bottle again. And so the question arises: where are the 21st-century specialists? Can we identify effective engineers of the future among us now?

In the March 19, 2009 issue of Nature, Thomas Homer-Dixon reviews a brace of books that deal in different ways with this subject. Homer-Dixon observes:

In a world reeling from surprise, where once-in-a-lifetime events seem to happen every month, two things seem to be constant. The first is the inadequacy of expertise. Although the people we have anointed as experts might not admit it, they are as bewildered by the world's turbulence as the rest of us. They are also little better at predicting what is going to happen next. The second constant is a pervasive feeling of insecurity. The things we assume to be bedrock truths around which we can organize our lives — scientific theory, moral precepts, political institutions or perhaps the timeless rhythms of nature — seem to be increasingly under assault.

Expertise fails us, it appears, because the nature of our circumstances are so unique and so complex that it is beyond--what? present levels of training and education? human capacity per se?--even to make sense of the present, much less predict and prepare for the future. We need 21-century experts, it appears, though there is not enough 21st century in place for anyone to know what that means.

Homer-Dixon's review evaluates two works of political science, neither of which satisfies him: ". . . both books ultimately disappoint," he says, "for reasons that say less about the books themselves than about the largely unrecognized gravity of humankind's current predicament." Homer-Dixon has his reasons for coming to this conclusion; I would go a step further and say that any "expert's" book on the subject of the speculative shape of the 21st century and beyond is bound to fail. It appears that we need prophets, not experts, for there is and never has been any expertise of the future sufficiently reliable to shape a culture.

And yet cultures have shape. They always have, and as long as they endure, they always will.


The future: we have no idea even what we mean when we say that word. We don't shape the future; we lurch into it--individually as fragile vehicles of flesh, collectively as a work of art: the body politic, the necessary fiction, never finished, forever a work in progress.

The shape of a culture is the shape of the body politic. We shape the body politic as best we can to be able to survive the brutality of the "future."

And who gives shape to that chimera? All of us do, through our collective effort to live. Occasionally an individual brings forth, through luck or grace or genius, some idea or work that is so powerful we cannot ignore its influence. The author(s) of the Old Testament fall into that category; Buddha and other "holy" men and women; Thomas Moore, perhaps; Thomas Jefferson perhaps; Marx perhaps. But in making a canon of this kind--based on effect on the shape of the body politic--dare one ignore Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickinson, or Whitman among obvious Western examples? Dare one ignore Mozart, Matisse, etc.--add all the names of all the great (or not so "great") artists you can think of. Not only have they played a part, they have often led the way.

It is precisely the artist's job to imagine the body politic. It is precisely the artist's job to negotiate, in ways available to no one else, between the individual body and the body of the Leviathan, the giant we create and sustain who then contains and carries us forward.


We live in Plato's Republic precisely to the extent that the artists have been banished from the center of pragmatic cultural imagination. Relegated to the sidelines, to the slums of power (real power, the power of the spirit), artist are forgotten at worst and infantilized at best. And the worst part of it is that many artists have accepted and embraced this situation. It can be pleasant to be infantilized; the "grownups" are engaged in the "real" work of the Republic; the infant is free to scorn real work. This is not to say that artists do not work, but even they are seduced into disbelieving in the true power of their own vocation, and to celebrate that situation. I think it is fair to say that my own generation of poets, by and large, has failed to live up to its full responsibility in this regard; we have been distracted by a large array of non-essentials.

I am not making a plea here for a social realist art, for a utilitarian art, for a pragmatic art. Art should be many things to many people; it should, in fact, be a form of play. But play can be terribly serious.

I am also not making a plea for artists to rise up and take over the government. Picasso would have been a terrible president. Artists without political scientists, without economists, etc., would make the worst kind of botch of the world, and though it might be highly entertaining to watch them do it, I don't suspect any of us would have the stomach for the realpolitik that would result.

What I DO want to suggest is that artists have, in this country at least, been left out of the equation for far too long. What artists do, what they offer, is at least one of the missing ingredients in the situation described by Homer-Dixon. There IS no expertise that will predict the future. But we must, every day we live, create and revise the body politic, which must not be allowed to become too weak to carry us, but also must not become muscle-bound, or too big (like the dinosaurs) or too inflexible, or too invested in being this and not that. It must be an effective shape shifter, ready to become whatever is called for.

Artists, perhaps, are not the best bureaucrats. One hopes not, at any rate. And we need good bureaucrats; I am not one to scorn a brilliant bureaucrat. We need diplomats, and numbers crunchers, and policy wonks.

But who among us knows the most about creating and revising? The particular expertise offered by artists and their creations is essential to the health of any body politic. But our body politic seems to have forgotten this fact: not only the politicians, not only the rank and file of our citizens, but even the artists have forgotten this part of their job--forgotten it, or given up on it in disgust.

None of us can afford that gap, that loss.

Artists: step up. You have a place at the negotiating table, around the council fire. If the other councilors ignore you, refuse to be ignored. If the other negotiators deny you, insist on your right.

How do you refuse, how do you insist? By making art that knows its right in this regard. By making art that will not be denied. Art will shape the body politic in any case, whether politicians or the public, or artists, acknowledge that fact or not. But what will that body look like? What will it be? That question cannot be answered except with the paradoxical observation that, while its nature is unpredictable, its being is in our hands; and if we don't do our jobs properly, keeping firmly our purpose before us, that unknowable and unpredictable creature--which is nevertheless not unimaginable--will be a botch, a Frankenstein's monster, a blob.

Shelley famously, or notoriously, observed that poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Rarely has he been taken seriously. But our future may well depend on our understanding what he meant, and enacting it.

1 comment:

  1. The Mississippi Arts Commission picked the Daniel Pink book, A Whole New Mind, as their book of the year. Blessed are the right-brainers, for they shall inherit the digital age. It's that whole Thomas Friedman, flat-world economy idea that it will be the creative edge and only the creative edge that makes it worth doing business here rather than in countries with cheaper labor pools. Then you have the books attempting to define the "Digital Natives," and how young people growing up on technology simply think in different ways.

    I worry about that angle, here in Mississippi, teaching the rural kids. How many kids coming out of Noxebee County could call themselves digital natives? How many of them even have broadband internet?

    For them, I think the MAC has a point. It's the privileging of creativity that will make the difference. If they can imagine, they can make their way in the world. If they can't, they can work the chicken houses and the Walmart distribution centers.

    Maybe that's true to some extent for everyone, not just the underprivileged or the rural, but when people start asking for definitions of 21st century, I wonder where that places those kids who live out in areas with "No Service Available" on the Blackberries and iPhones.

    Just a random rambling...and I'm glad you found the comments on your original question amusing.