Thursday, October 14, 2010

Senses of Collaboration

In nature, we now know from studies in ecology, that the earth is a crucible of evolution, that living things have evolved over time in concert with each other. The earth is composed of a variety of habitats, but the same forces are at work in all of them, and these forces may be divided into classes of co-existence:
Commensalism is a class of relationship between two organisms where one organism benefits but the other is unaffected; 
Mutualism where both organisms benefit; 
Competition where both organisms are harmed; 
Parasitism one organism benefits and the other one is harmed.
Socialism grew out of the theory that human evolution was primarily a process of development of types of group behavior and formation. Thus the improvement of man could be foreseen as a series of adjustments to the organs and customs of society, gradually becoming more perfected.
The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau [1712-1778] proposed an organization of society based upon the ideal of the greatest freedom for the individual. He believed freedom to the "natural state" of man, and regarded societal institutions with skeptical suspicion, as abbreviating this freedom. Rousseau's principles were instrumental in inspiring the French Revolution, and in turn, in informing the American Founding Fathers' notions of governance and conduct. 
Locke [1632-1704] was instrumental in providing the theoretical foundations for American democracy, asserting that man's inclination to mischief should be controlled through civilian law, limits to accumulation, and separation of powers. 
But none of the theoretical foundations of modern parliamentary democracy, or socialistic alternatives, over the last 250 years, take into account what we now see as the naturally inter-related condition of earth-bound life. Our attempts, for instance, to enhance our own comfort, or feed our avarice, by the over-exploitation of resources, or by exploiting others, may be seen in a larger context as part of the growing competition in the face of increasing scarcity.
From an ecological standpoint, the holding capacity of the earth must be regarded as a constant, whose precise value we may not yet have accurately estimated. We do suspect, based on what we know anecdotally, that humankind's condition cannot be regarded with optimism whenever severe imbalances between resource, space, and unsettled arrangements occur. The exploding human population promises to cancel out all other mitigations, and the rate at which such eventualities are approaching is itself increasing. Capitalism is showing clear signs of failing to address these emergencies, since it is based not on real tendencies and conditions in the biosphere, but on synthetic applications of presumed "value" which inaccurately measure the true effects and consequences of consumption.
I've been thinking lately about the concept of collaboration in the arts, and how this concept plays out in the aesthetic dialogue between different types of artistic production. We know that modes of artistic production are never static, though they may occasionally seem so, given the resistance and aggregation of authority. The "biosphere" of relevance has been exponentially expanded with the development of the computer chip, but this has had no effect whatever on the gaunt fact of limitation--both real and imagined. Progressive theories about the fulfillment of human potential bump up against natural boundaries. 
One way of looking at the production of literature, is as a shared pool of interactive data, which has flowered with the advance of systems of exchange, culminating in the present intermedia capacity. Ted Berrigan used to say, mostly in jest, that literature is everywhere, that it belongs to no one, and that it is not "fixed" by notions of value and property and control. Ted "stole" freely, it was one of his primary artistic principles. His Sonnets may be regarded as the prime demonstration of the use and meaning of this idea. 
History is both a record and a resource. Almost everything we know is the consequence of the residue of the past, the saved data of time, the content and syntax of civilization. Recorded literature survives in the forms of its material realization. It is fixed in that context, but not in the aesthetic sense. We cannot NOT know the past. The past and its matter, its examples, its artifacts, are material to ransack, to exploit, in the same sense, really, that the raw materials of the earth are available for the taking. They belong to all of us. The present is a collaboration with the past, just as a work of literature is a collaboration between the author and the text, or between and author and his reader(s), or between a contemporary text and the history of literature--a dialogue, conducted, consciously or not, among participants, both living and dead. 
There are those who would argue that no text exists independently of its context, that no text is the creation of a single individual mind, that literature is a shared phenomenon in which our dependency upon each other, and upon previously made examples (artifacts), is verified and reinforced by our practice. There is thus no such thing as an individual genius, since the whole setting in which literary creation occurs, requires the presence of both the maker and the audience, an interdependency which is the syllogism of artistic process. 
What of collaboration on a single object? If no voice is complete and entire to itself, in what sense is a poem, or a novel, for instance, any less integral if "written" by two voices, than by a single head? To what extent is friendship and familiarity a generator of creative enterprise? If Eliot's The Waste Land was a "collaboration" between two poets, one spinning out the text, the other blue-pencilling its raw structure into the now-familiar form, in what way might we regard it, as readers, as a provisional phenomenon, one version of something that each of us, in our way, might think to revise. Every reader comes to every text differently, even if only by minute degree of difference. 
As time passes, each age revises its sense of the meaning of pre-existing texts, re-interpreting and re-defining their meaning, purpose and effect(s). Each age adds to, or subtracts from, the accreted data-base of historical examples. Writers, and texts, "talk" to each other. Creeley "talks" to Wyatt and Campion, Olson "talks" to Pound, Douglas Crase "talks" to Ashbery, Ronald Johnson "talks" to Clare, and so on. These dialogues may in one sense seem imaginary, but the possibility of such communication, back and forth across time and space, is one way we escape the limitations of dimension, share knowledge and pleasure, and refine our sensibilities.

Is there, then, a relationship between the collaboration between species, among species, in nature--defined by Darwin, and later theorists, of genetic inheritance and natural selection--that could be said to correspond to a sense of collaboration among artistic media and participants (or progenitors)? The joker in the pack--accidental mutation--might be regarded as the unexpected innovation in artistic terms, the formal (linguistic) discovery which appears without apparent antecedent, and is incorporated into the historical process.  
Literature evolves, but the means by which this evolution occurs tends to be transmitted through individual consciousness. The process of the formation of language does not occur as a common activity: Writers can't "think" together at the same time, the self can't be "blended" with another to produce a shared media, in language. In music, combination and collaboration happens all the time (particularly in jazz). Artists and writers may collaborate in a plastic media. But the writing of a novel, or a poem, or a short story, or a play, seems to exclude the possibility of a collaborative process. The glue which holds individual works of literature together seems possible only through the unifying discipline of a single consciousness. 
Our dependency upon history, and pre-existing artifacts, within the context of participation, is at the level of the individual consciousness, though society, and posterity, has also a generalized registration of the meaning and value of those artifacts. If we were to attempt to codify the kinds of collaboration which may occur in the arts, could we use the same kinds of terms as those used in ecology (above), to describe what happens when a writer creates a text? Is it possible to "steal" from history, without sinning against originality? Can one make the claim that since art is a collaborative phenomenon, no one individual can fairly take full credit for the creation and existence of a work? Is it possible for an individual writer/artist to be effectively isolated from society, and/or from some segment of history itself? Is the de-facto isolation of the creative writer a crucial condition, placing him/her in a negative position with respect to the dominant forces of the present?  
Does art exist for the good of society? Or is art a criticism of history, of society? Is art the individual's response to historical trends? To all of these questions, I could respond with a qualified "yes."   
All these questions are relevant to a consideration of the notion of collaboration. What of the thesis of a limited natural sphere (as in biosphere) compared to the limited sphere of literary artifacts? The human brain has specific limitations, just as the biosphere does. Just as the resources of the planet are limited, it may be that the range of possible forms and variations of literature itself may also be limited. Is there a natural limit to the degree of collaboration, just as there are limits to literary form? 
The individual consciousness may be said to speak directly into the Void, even as we presume that this voice can only be apprehended by others. Each man may speak for humanity (on its behalf), though in the moment of that speaking or writing, he/she is isolated. The contrast between that sense of isolation--and the collaboration with history, with others, and with other texts--is the crucial tension in all artistic endeavor, at least for me. 
I've never thought of myself as belonging to anything. Perhaps this is a consequence of my upbringing, of the lack of a continuity in the lives of my parents, who were refugees from the Midwest of the 1920's and 1930's, alienated from their familial backgrounds, and from the society at large by their inaptitudes and anti-social attitudes. It was a crucible for alienation, in which the profile of the artist as misfit seemed the only available mode. I could never imagine that society should, or could, recognize the value of anything I might do for purely artistic ends. And pure art always suggested to me something that was unmistakably my own, even though--or in spite of the possibility that--I might exist, artistically, in a complete vacuum.
But nature abhors a vacuum.                    


John Olson said...

Excellent essay. Very well stated. I think there may be something analogous between the "joker in the pack" and the clinamen to which Lucretious refers in De Rerum Natura, the "swerve of the atom." It is what makes combinations not only possible, but infinite. Steve McCaffery has an essay about this. I'm paraphrasing here, but he says something to the effect that letters, conceived as atoms, and being perpetually volatile, introduce deviance as the basic rule of grammar.

It also strikes me as supremely ironic that poets, working in solitude, and working hard to achieve originality, are working in the most public and social of all mediums.

Craig said...

My guide to the Forbidden City said her name was Red. She thought the Hall of Clocks was a waste of time and seemed peeved that I spent half of my time on her tour there. I didn't ask her if she'd read Mason and Dixon or The Island of the Day Before. She didn't speak much English.

J said...

The exploding human population promises to cancel out all other mitigations, and the rate at which such eventualities are approaching is itself increasing. Capitalism is showing clear signs of failing to address these emergencies, since it is based not on real tendencies and conditions in the biosphere, but on synthetic applications of presumed "value" which inaccurately measure the true effects and consequences of consumption.

Malthus nearly predicted as much and was hated by capitalists and Marx (one of the sons of Rousseau, arguably)--both sides of the dialectic depend on the myth of progress.

Peak oil will put a big dent in economic Reality. IT's already arrived, really--US oil production fell off starting in 70s. Even the fiendish Marx would remind us that the owners/executives will continue to grow obscenely wealthy as the resources dwindle--to a certain point. The BP disaster was a sign of Peak Oil times, as well--though demopublicans still demand offshore drilling.

Alas, at times the situation seems more Sci-fi like, that p-etic--PK Dick's bad futurist dreams, however pulpy or boring. the Banality of....... kipple.

Kirby Olson said...

I think they all overlap and none are mutually exclusive. Many organisms begin separately or antagonistically, and then become mutual, and then end up incorporating one another, and end up as the same mechanism. Rhizomatically speaking, that's how entire ecosystems work.

And economics works like that, too.

When it's in someone's interest to play ball with another person, a compact of sorts appears.

Even in our mutual blog comments, it helps that we're out of different paradigms, or there'd be no reason to comment.

That's what Ron and Kim Jong-Il didn't understand.