Friday, 26 January 2018

I'm With Her

The poetry world is apparently split because the poet Rebecca Watts has dissed the poet Hollie McNish, among others, for her "denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft" in favour of "personality". This tale is interesting because of the parallels with the recent fuss over the high-profile French pushback against the #MeToo "movement" (or #BalanceTonPorc, "call out your pig", as it is more assertively styled in France), in which various grande dames of literature, cinema and academia protested against what they see as a new puritanism that casts women as victims. While the liberal media have mostly sat on the fence over Watts's entertaingly acerbic diatribe, they have tended to condemn the Frenchwomen for letting the side down and have done so in terms that are unapologetically ageist: "Although there is a range of ages represented among the women, there is something of a generational tinge to the discussion. They object to the imposition of new rules on established figures". Of course, what this really points to is a clash between an establishment and its challengers.

The victims of Harvey Weinstein were predominantly younger women in Hollywood, but it was noticeable how quickly older, more established women joined a campaign that at its heart is concerned with the abuse of economic power and status. This may have been prompted by solidarity, but it may be counter-productive. As the scope of the investigation into sexual harassment rippled out across the film industry, we were faced with another spin of its "greatest hits", including Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Kirk Douglas. The result was to obscure the issues of power and institutional connivance behind tales of individual wrongdoing or the collective failings of a gender (#NotAllMen was unironically adopted by equally established males who sought to signal their virtue). What was telling in Meryl Streep inviting Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance as her plus one to the Golden Globes was the way that an institutional failing had been promptly institutionalised. That the glittering event culminated in Oprah Winfrey being promoted as a future President of the United States was beyond parody.

Such a co-option hasn't been as evident in France, partly because of historic divisions within French feminism centred on a distrust of America. This has produced the air of a generational stand-off, but one centred on a substantive disagreement over both the nature of harassment and how it should be tackled. That this has been presented in the anglophone media as a cat-fight is inaccurate but predictable. A similar gulf in worldview appears to be operating in the small world of British poetry, but this one is more geared to class than age. Watts, who is in her 30s, is an Oxbridge alumnus who writes technically accomplished poems that display her thorough familiarity with the established canon, from Dickinson through Auden to Heaney. Though she emphasises the art, her criticism of the likes of Hollie McNish and Kate Tempest is also political, which she makes explicit with a comparison to Donald Trump: "Like the new president, the new poets are products of a cult of personality, which demands from its heroes only that they be 'honest' and 'accessible', where honesty is defined as the constant expression of what one feels, and accessibility means the complete rejection of complexity, subtlety, eloquence and the aspiration to do anything well".

The "cult of personality" is a strange target to choose when you consider its centrality to the Romantic poets, or indeed the way that later confessional poets, like Sylvia Plath, have been turned into cults. The sarcastic reference to honesty and accessibility hints at the plain-spoken and the humdrum, which is just a round about way of saying working class. As the tenuous association with Trump makes clear, this is a criticism of vulgarity. Poetry has always been vulnerable to the incursion of the common sort, largely because the means of production and distribution have been more accessible than other art-forms. This has led to a long history of working class or lower middle-class poets tolerated as tragic exceptions or amusing eccentrics, from John Clare to John Cooper-Clarke (the publication of Mark E Smith's Collected Lyrics is surely imminent). That Robert Burns has been anachronistically accused of being a "Weinsteinian sex-pest", largely on the basis of his bawdy language rather than his abuse of power, shows that propriety is in a ceaseless struggle with prosody. In dismissing the unschooled, Watts makes the now standard plea for the value of expertise: "If we are to foster the kind of intelligent critical culture required to combat the effects of populism in politics, we must stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry".

The title of Watt's article is derived from Andrew Keen's 2007 book, The Cult of the Amateur, which decried the democratisation of social media (or Web 2.0, as it was then called), accusing it of undermining expertise and excellence as the cost of the means of artistic and critical production fell (here's an earlier summary of his argument). Keen saw this as a fulfilment of Marx's Utopian vision of a society in which everyone could pursue their preferred and multiple interests: "to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic". Keen didn't see this as a good thing. In his view, the creative self-realisation of social media was a seductive fantasy and a form of narcissism that was dangerous for the vitality of culture. This isn't a novel critique. The idea that society depends on an order in which we each have an allotted role goes back beyond Plato. In its modern incarnation, the party of order does not necessarily insist on the fixity of roles (precarity has its advantages for employers, after all), so long as there is a recognisable hierarchy that maintains privilege (see the President's Club etc).

Keen uses the word "amateur" to describe someone who is unqualified and lacking in accomplishment, which means ignoring that in its original sense, in the late 18th century, the word connoted privilege. You needed independent means and free time to pursue the love of a particular subject. As the 19th century progressed, and as the means of cultural production and dissemination were commoditised, the salaried middle class were increasingly able to cultivate the sort of amateur interest previously limited to the rich, hence the explosion of artistic and scientific societies. As the working day shortened and surplus income grew, this process extended further down the social scale, blurring the distinction between the amateur and the hobbyist, which explains why the former took on an increasingly pejorative meaning. What was notable was not so much that the means of artistic or professional production had been democratised (most remained out of reach for the majority of people) but that the social role of the amateur had been demoted. It was a loss of privilege.

The middle class fear of the Internet combines a number of traditional themes: the suspicion of an intrusive state (surveillance), the fear of social disruption (the loss of middle class careers and the erosion of professional status), and the fear of the lower orders (dumbing-down, mob-rule, lack of emotional restraint). The conservative roots of this are evident in the air of nostalgia, harking back to a better time before we were corrupted, hence the flexible meme "we have lost the ability to think/read/communicate", and in the burgeoning panic over the damage that smartphones are supposedly doing to fragile young minds. For all his concern about the hollowing-out of the middle class, Keen is primarily concerned with maintaining the privileges that he considers are due to excellence. This has become ever more explicit in his pronouncements. Today he insists that "When you do away with curation you undermine truth", a claim that shows how his aesthetic distaste for amateurism has hardened into a philosophical defence of elitism. His prescriptions, outlined in his new book, How to Fix the Future, are regulation, competitive innovation, consumer choice, civic responsibility, and education. In other words, muscular neoliberalism.

That Watts' and Keen's calls for curation and excellence are finding a receptive audience among liberals as much as conservatives is because of a longstanding fear of vulgarity, not just because of the structural erosion of the privileged print media by digital upstarts over the last two decades. The emblematic importance of Steven Spielberg's film The Post lies not just in its nostalgic evocation of a powerful press imbued with civic responsibility but in its choice of protagonist. Richard Nixon was famously the most crude and profane President prior to the current incumbent. The story of Katherine Graham is as much about noblesse oblige as the battle against everyday sexism and political mendacity. That Catherine Deneuve - the face of Marianne, no less - has been criticised in France for her #MeToo scepticism is a sign of cultural health. That Meryl Streep has become the public face of the #Resistance in the US is a sign of cultural sclerosis. That one little-known British poet has criticised another, essentially for the wrong sort of felt experience expressed in the wrong sort of language, is a sign of how increasingly marginal and petty the UK is.


  1. Yes, we should hardly be surprised that the result of the Weinstein scandal has been an emphasis on individual morality and virtue rather than ending the kind of institutional power structures and abuse of wealth that create the potential for Weinsteins in the first place.

    The lesson for sexually harassed low-waged women is therefore to find yourself a nice boss rather than to join a union.

  2. Herbie Kills Children5 February 2018 at 17:33

    Let us hope in this brave new world actresses will be a lot uglier, that would be a sure sign that things had changed.

    After all Hollywood is a place where actors are judged on appearance and nurturing the 'talent' is an afterthought.

    I mean the sky news line up looks like it was procured by Harvey Weinstein himself. I can almost see them thinking, will the guys at home be wanking when they see this presenter.

    When our TV screens are filled with uglier women and the attractive ones are looking for work at the local supermarket I will know progress has been made.

    In many ways Weinstein is a natural outcome of a system that trawls neighbourhoods looking for tits and ass. He is as much a victim as the unfeasibly (and enhanced) attractive young women they pick out from the crowd. I mean what did they think was going to happen?

    I am not saying economic power and status are not issues here but there are other dimensions at play that the puritanical feminists always run away from.

    And some people who says they have been abused 30 years ago when someone brushed their knee should get over themselves or next time make the complaint in a more timely manner.