The Cult of Self-Expression

Perhaps nothing has been less fruitful, less artistic, less interesting than the cult of self-expression in the arts. The arts are not and have never been about self-expression. Unfortunately, most people believe that art is almost exclusively about self-expression. But to the extent that an artist or writer believes this, that person is not engaged in an aesthetic enterprise. Their work is anti-artistic, and the degree to which they are engaging in self-expression actually undermines the work as a work of art.

What does it mean to “engage in self-expression”? I’ve seen its most extreme version in creative writing classes with students who would say things like, “I don’t read poetry because I don’t want to be influenced by anyone else in the way I write or what I write about.” The funny thing is that every single poem by every single person who ever said something like this all sounded exactly the same. Somehow, the “self” they were all trying to “express” was identical in nature.

Your pure, unadulterated “self” is pretty much identical to everyone else’s. In other words, you’re not all that interesting or even unique. To become interesting and unique, you have to have experiences with other people, which includes reading a great deal of poetry if you plan to be a poet. Your poetic voice will never emerge by avoiding poetry any more than your actual voice will ever emerge without hearing anyone speak. Your poetic voice can only ever emerge if you immerse yourself in poetry, read poetry obsessively, try to emulate your favorite poets, adopt forms and styles, write in meter and use rhyme, consonance, assonance, and other poetic elements.

The choices forced on you by meter and rhyme, for example, force you to make different choices than what you would have made “naturally.” More often, better and more interesting choices. The choices you would have made without the restrictions of meter and rhyme are your “self-expression,” and most of the time they aren’t as interesting as the forced choices. Now, to what degree can “forced choices” be “self-expression” if they have been imposed from the outside?

If you read about the great artists, you won’t find a lot about their self-expression. What you will find is a great deal about whatever artistic problems they were trying to solve. The Renaissance artists were interested in solving artistic problems around the emergent idea of point perspective. The Impressionists were trying to solve problems with capturing light in different ways. The cubists too were trying to solve artistic problems in trying to capture movement and in trying to render unseen portions as seen in a 2D painting.

Shakespeare wasn’t trying to express himself (thank God!) in his plays, or even in his series of sonnets (there was an artistic problem he was trying to solve in creating a coherent set of sonnets without a narrative holding them together). Shakespeare to varying degrees expressed his society, culture, etc. in his plays, transforming works by Roman playwrights into Elizabethan stories, and sometimes Shakespeare reinforced that world view, and sometimes he challenged that world view, but he always did so through the portrayal of his characters, who spoke with their own voices, who only expressed themselves rather than being avatars for Shakespeare.

Today’s movies are very popular in no small part because the massively collaborative nature of film making makes self-expression nearly impossible. We can always tell when a film has self-expression, because we tend not to like them for being so self-indulgent. And that’s what everyone says about your work when you engage in self-expression: they say that it’s self-indulgent. And self-indulgent work is egotistical and boring.

Of course, much poetry especially is egotistical and boring. Poetry is especially prone to this because there are few market forces working to keep poets honest. Nobody’s paying for poetry anyway, so why not drivel on about your boring self? If nobody is paying, nobody cares, right? But that’s not necessarily true. People are paying–in time. When you write a poem, you are supposed to be trying to communicate with that person. Have you ever had to sit with someone who droned on and on and on about themselves and nothing else? If your poetry reads like that, don’t be surprised if nobody wants to read it. Probably nobody wants to sit with you, either.

I’m certainly not saying I haven’t written poems about myself. I have. Most poets have. But hopefully I’m trying to communicate something to you that goes well beyond self-expression, and in fact has nothing whatsoever to do with self-expression. I’m trying to communicate my experiences in a way that they are universal and universalized in their particularity. My very best poems have been those where I have avoided self-expression entirely. If I have communicated to you beauty, that’s enough. If I have made you think, contemplate, meditate, or want to turn a line or two into a mantra or a koan, all the better. If I have helped you see something you’ve never seen before, or something you have seen before in a new way, I’ve done my job as an artist. But none of those things require self-expression. More, self-expression is the surest way to get in the way of accomplishing these things.

Matt Ridley has recently talked about “ideas having sex.” A true artist’s brain is the bed where these ideas are having sex. For a poet, all of the poems you have read, all of the ideas you have read, all of the facts filling your head are having sex and reproducing in the form of new poems. Your artwork will have the DNA of all the forms, ideas, and so on of everything you have read, experienced, and seen. Self-expression, on the other hand, involves only yourself–and its outcome is sterile and only of interest to the person involved in that self-expression. Art, like sex, is only interesting to others if more than yourself is involved.

The best thing that could happen to the arts would be for everyone to do away with the self-indulgent cult of self-expression. Go out and solve some artistic problems. That’s the one and only way to be any kind of artist at all.

The Devil Speaks That Which Cannot Be Spoken

I think everyone should read Mikhail Bolgakov’s The Master and Margarita — a Soviet-era Faust story. In chapter 1 an editor, Berlioz, and a poet, Bezdomny (the poet’s pseudonym, which is itself telling, since he is writing for an approved literary journal) are discussing the non-existence of Jesus when the Devil appears. The chapter is full of interesting things, but the thing I want to bring out in particular would seem to have nothing to do with theology, even if it starts off with a theological point– a point made immediately after a discussion of the weaknesses of the rational proofs of God’s existence.

The Devil/unknown man/stranger asks: “But this is the question that disturbs me—if there is no God, then who, one wonders, rules the life of man and keeps the world in order?”

‘Man rules himself,’ said Bezdomny angrily in answer to such an obviously absurd question.

‘I beg your pardon,’ retorted the stranger quietly, ‘but to rule one must have a precise plan worked out for some reasonable period ahead. Allow me to enquire how man can control his own affairs when he is not only incapable of compiling a plan for some laughably short term, such as, say, a thousand years, but cannot even predict what will happen to him tomorrow?’

‘In fact,’ here the stranger turned to Berlioz, ‘imagine what would happen if you, for instance, were to start organizing others and yourself, and you developed a taste for it—then suddenly you got . . . he, he . . .’ at this the foreigner smiled sweetly, as though the thought of a heart attack gave him pleasure. . . . ‘Yes, a heart attack,’ he repeated the word sonorously, grinning like a cat, ‘and that’s the end of you as an organizer! No one’s fate except your own interests you any longer. Your relations start lying to you. Sensing that something is amiss you rush to a specialist, then to a charlatan, and even perhaps to a fortune-teller. Each of them is as useless as the other, as you know perfectly well. And it all ends in tragedy: the man who thought he was in charge is suddenly reduced to lying prone and motionless in a wooden box and his fellow men, realising that there is no more sense to be had of him, incinerate him.

‘Sometimes it can be even worse: a man decides to go to Kislovodsk,’—here the stranger stared at Berlioz—‘a trivial matter you may think, but he cannot because for no good reason he suddenly jumps up and falls under a tram! You’re not going to tell me that he arranged to do that himself? Wouldn’t it be nearer the truth to say that someone quite different was directing his fate?’

In this seeming theological discussion of whether or not man is the master of his own fate — or if it is rather God directing all — we have the Devil arguing against the very possibility of economic planning. Note that the Devil specifically uses the terms “plan” and “organizer” — the very things socialists believed, at the time (1938), were possible. Note too that the argument isn’t about whether any particular person can rule him/herself, but rather whether or not man, as a collective, can rule, plan, and organize himself.

But the Devil points out something: in order to plan such that man rules man, man would have to be able to predict with perfect precision everything that will happen, including accidents. Mere accidents throw off the plan, meaning man cannot rule.

More than that, he points out that for all of the rhetoric about organizing for the collective good, all the altruistic organizer has to have happen is a heart attack for him to suddenly become quite concerned about his own personal well-being and to then ignore all of his efforts for his fellow man. More, under stress, the Devil points out that man will not only make rational choices — the doctor — but will even make increasingly irrational choices in order to save his own life. Thus, man is not ruled by reason alone — nor will he ever be. And no man will work for man as a collective when his own individual life is at stake. The fact of self-preservation belies the dream of self-sacrifice for the collective –or of the possibility of the pure rule of reason.

One can imagine the publishing atmosphere in the Soviet Union in 1938, when this novel was finished. Bulgakov had been publishing (not without controversy) for years, and he no doubt expected this novel to be published as well. He thus puts all approved and appropriate views into the mouths of Berlioz and Bezdomny, while criticizing the very foundations on which Soviet rule was made though the mouth of the Devil. The Devil, of course, is the most evil of all evil; the Devil doesn’t even exist, and is proof of the irrationality of man the Soviet Man was overcoming. To put these ideas into the mouth of the Devil was, therefore, safe. One could criticize the ideas on which Soviet central planning was based so long as that criticism was out of the mouth of an irrationally-based, nonexistent metaphor for evil. And more, the Devil is the adversary of God — and if the Adversary is enunciating anti-communist ideas, does that not make him the adversary of the communists? — and does that not suggest Communism has replaced/become God?

Ah, the wonders of literature! The wonders of metaphor — compact or extended! One can say so much, and say so many dangerous things, and pretend innocence of it all. Especially in satire. Just give the Devil the words, and you can communicate them with plausible deniability. If you see the Devil appear in a work of literature, be on the lookout for him to speak what cannot be spoken.

Against All Hate

Behold, the vicious misanthrope,
The hater of the differences in skin,
The hater of the differences in kin,
The hater of what others would believe,
The hater who would hate without reprieve.

Behold, the vicious misanthrope,
The hater of the greatness man achieves–
When faced with man-made beauty only grieves–
The hater of the makers and the wealthy,
Who’s only happy when you are unhealthy.

Behold, the vicious misanthrope,
Who sees man as a plague upon the earth,
Denying humans have inherent worth,
Repulsed at all mankind has built–
Who wants us to dissolve in shame and guilt.

The ones who want us full of guilt and shame,
Inventing reasons humans are to blame–
From poverty to wealth and exploitation
To laziness, defenders of the nation–
This is the vicious misanthrope.

The nihilist denying life has meaning,
That value, values are a lie–those leaning
On nothing for support would dare deny
All beauty, justice, truth–say they’re a lie–
This is the vicious misanthrope.

You lovers of mankind, the rich and poor,
The individual–open the door
Of greatness, creativity and life–
Deny life’s haters, creators of all strife–
Oppose the vicious misanthrope!

Altruistic Racist Warriors vs. Selfish Tolerant Pacifists

In the Vol. 318, 26 Oct. 2007 issue of Science there is a fascinating article on pg. 636-640 titled “The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War” by Jung-Kyoo Choi and Samuel Bowles, with an accompanying review article on pg. 581-2 by Holly Arrow titled “The Sharp End of Altruism.”

Using computer simulations, Choi and Bowles show that if you create beings with the following traits: either altruistic (A) or non-altruistic (N) and either tolerant (T) or parochial, or anti-stranger (P), you end up with two stable populations, depending on the conditions. Under peacetime conditions, you get “a society of selfish but tolerant freetraders” (Arrow, 581), but under wartime conditions, you get “a warrior society in which people help one another but are hostile to outsiders” (581). The other two combinations — selfless, tolerant people and selfish racists — seem to be unstable combinations, though more stable under peacetime conditions than under times of war. The researchers observe that one doesn’t even need war to be that common for the PA combination to quickly dominate.

These conclusions make a lot of evolutionary sense. Without making the mistake of thinking of behavior as simply a choice between P and T genes, as behavior is more complex than that from both a genetic point of view and from a social point of view, by treating them as overarching behaviors that can be selected, we can see, nonetheless, that certain behaviors are more adaptive than others. Part of this has to do with territorialism. All land vertebrates are territorial to varying degrees. This allows individuals and groups to have enough food and water to continue to live. Protecting territory protects food. So we should expect species to protect their territory — which they do. Now, if a species is going to protect its territory, it must confront those who wish to intrude on or take that territory. Various rituals have evolved that allow many confrontations to end without violence. But sometimes that breaks down. And more, in chimpanzees, we see an outright preference for attacking and killing members of other groups when the balance is in favor of the attacking group. This assumption was used by the researchers, and it led to the creation of a preference for racist altruists — those that will sacrifice to protect family and tribe, but who hate and will attack those not in the tribe. Tolerant groups are less likely to attack first, meaning the racist groups are more likely to both attack first, killing the tolerant people of other groups. The end result is that the human race has evolved to be racist altruists.

Now, the fact that we evolved to be racist altruists who love war in no way excuses such behavior. But it seems that this combination is the most stable one under conditions of periodic war. The other combination is predominant under periods of peace: the TN individual. These people are tolerant of others and are willing to engage in interactions with people from different groups, yet are selfish. This is the paring most associated with Americans — and it is no doubt because America’s isolation from the rest of the world, keeping us out of constant wars, encourages the development of TN behavior. Does this mean PA is completely replaced? The authors don’t say, but let me expand on their research a little with some thoughts on my own. It seems likely that wars may have resulted in natural selection for genetic PA’s, though behavior, being complex, can still have other kinds of attributes built on it by society. So in the U.S., for example, while people may be more likely to be genetic PA’s, we have adopted the TN meme, and use it more often than we do the AP genetic tendencies we’re born with. But as the Japanese learned in WWII, it is not difficult to awaken the “sleeping dragon” of PA behavior latent in people.

It seems, though, that so long as there are wars, the PA genes-memes will continue to dominate. However, the bad news for many of the peace activists on the Left who are TA’s is that peace will not produce more of them. Rather, it appears that it will be more likely to produce more TN’s — people who are more and more likely to believe in and engage in free market economics. My guess is that Ayn Rand would be one of the few not surprised by this outcome.

A Story of Emergence

Suppose you were a conscious amino acid. The material world consists, for you, of fellow biochemicals, and you know too that you are made up of atoms, and that those atoms are made up of electrons, protons, and neutrons. You go about your business, acting as an individual amino acid, sometimes joining into larger groups (proteins), and then separating out from them. You wander around your society of biochemicals, imagining that this is all there is.

And then one day, a nucleic acid comes to you and tells you that you are part of this larger entity, that your mind is not entirely your own, but that there is this thing out there, this “cell” of which you are a part, that comes in and influences your actions. All that you thought were your choices or merely random events is in fact run by this higher intelligence known as the “cell.” It is not that you don’t have choices — you can be in this or that part of the cell, you may attach yourself to a tRNA, to a protein, to a short polypeptide, etc. — but you are now informed that there is a greater purpose involved, that you are part of this larger cell, and that your actions help to keep this cell alive.

Now, from the point of view of the amino acid, the cell will seem, in relation to you, “immaterial.” It will make no sense from your material point of view. It will seem very strange indeed. You may believe in the cell, or not (and be an atheist). There will be discussions among your fellow biochemicals regarding the nature of the cell. Is it material? That is, if it even exists. The “cell” theory does seem to make a lot of things make more sense — but it is nonetheless troubling. If it is not material in the same sense as a biochemical, is it really material? From our more complex, emergent human perspective, the cell seems to be just as material as as its constituent biochemicals. While, on the other hand, our “mind” appears to be just as immaterial as the cell is to the biochemical.

Let me tell a short story of emergence.

In the beginning was pure information, or pure energy. Information is inform, yet gives form. It is the foundation of all things. (In the beginning (archae) was the word (logos).)

As the universe expanded and cooled, that pure energy crystallized out into quantum particle-waves. It became more material.

Some of those quantum particle-waves combined to form emergent atoms with greater complexity. These atoms were more material than their constituent particle-waves.

Some of those atoms combined to form chemicals (more material than atoms) — and some of those chemicals were able to interact in complex cycles to give rise to cells with emergent complexity. These cells were more material than their constituent chemicals.

Some cells were able to develop complex interactions such that multicellular organisms were able to emerge, giving rise to greater complexity and more complex interactions. These multicellular organisms were even more material than their constituent cells.

One species of animal evolved a highly complex brain with an emergent intelligence. This brain resulted in more complex social behaviors, the evolution of language, and the emergence of complex culture and religion. It was so complex that it was able to contemplate itself and the universe (thus, the universe became complex enough to become self-aware, to be able to contemplate itself). It seems that there will soon be 10 billion members of that species, with brains so complex that the minding function of that brain has given rise to the appearance of permanence (the same way that while each of the lower levels that constitute it are in fact always in flux, always in time, they nonetheless gain more appearance of permanency). This species has more time and more time experience, more material being, than do all the levels below it that constitute it (there is a nested hierarchy — a new Great Chain of Being). And that mind is much more material than the brain that gave rise to it.

Humans are not the end of the line. New levels of complexity have emerged in the past, and they will continue to do so in the future. And there will be fewer examples of those more complex levels that emerge (the same way that there is more energy than quantum particle-waves, more particle-waves than atoms, more atoms than chemicals, more chemicals than cells, more cells than organisms, and more organisms than humans). The emergentist evolutionary world view thus gives you emergence of tue universe to God — who is the most complex, highest level of emergence, with the most time. Thus, God is also the most material.

This story derives from Darwinian evolutionary theory, combined with information theory, complexity theory, chaos theory and fractal geometry, the theory of emergence, and self-organization theory. This combination is able to give rise to both ethics and God.

Some Comments on Postmodernism

The exclusively digital approach to aesthetics, ethics, and politics is better known as postmodernism, pluralism, and multiculturalism (this last a strange kind of digital-collectivism, where everyone in a given society are the same digit). While this approach has been a necessary corrective to the analogical world view, if we take the digital view to its logical conclusion, and reject the analogical as a constituent part of the world, all it can do is create alienation—among different races, different cultures, between men and women, and, if we take Quine’s view that we never actually understand one another, among each and every individual. If we take what Quine says in a very limited way, he has a point, but an extreme view makes the mistake of thinking that if there is any noise—ambiguity—in communication, we cannot communicate; whereas information theory says we need noise if we are going to have any communication at all.

An analogical view may lead us to collectivism, including communism, but an exclusively digital view leads to the alienation found in postmodern radical individualism. The consequence of this digital world view is postmodernists telling us we cannot understand one another. Men cannot understand women, and vice versa. Different races and cultures cannot understand each other, we cannot understand anything that happened in the past, and there is the suggestion that we cannot really understand each other. The consequence of this is an increasing fragmentation of society, creating warring factions (men vs. women, minorities vs. majorities, secular vs. religion), and increasing distrust among people.

Many postmodern theorists have observed that one of the features of modern Western culture is its increasing fragmentation and alienation, a favorite theme of many Marxists. But it is this alienating ideology that creates these conditions. And it is further ironic that some of these same critics are the very people making the problem worse. If we cannot understand one another, we are incapable of projecting ourselves into another’s situation. While this is literally true in a factual sense, it is in another sense not true at all. We can and do have empathy for others, basing that empathy on related experiences. While I may not understand perfectly an intellectual woman’s complaint that most men do not take her seriously as a thinker, I do understand the sting of not being taken seriously, especially when I know I know more about a subject than the person who is not taking me seriously as a thinker. Only if we can place ourselves in another person’s situation can we develop the empathy needed to be moral or to effect any sort of positive social change.

Studies show orangutans, a distant cousin to humans, can putting themselves into others’ minds. If food is placed out of reach of a caged orangutan, and a person is brought in with a bucket on his head and placed near the orangutan’s cage, without hesitation the orangutan will take the bucket off the person’s head and physically point the person in the direction of the food. The orangutan knows the person cannot see the food if he has a bucket on his head. How could the orangutan know this if it could not project itself into the mind of the person with the bucket on his head? This is a cognitive feature of the great apes, including humans, whose ability to do this developed even more with the advent of language. “One of the common ancestor species of all the living great apes and humans was the first in which individuals realized that others had viewpoints and knowledge different from their own, and could build up novel sequences of actions” (Richard W. Byrne, Tree of Origin, 169).

This ability is why were are capable of telling stories—including fiction. To say we cannot (or should not) do this is to say we are (or should be) cognitively less complex than the other great apes and place us on the cognitive level of monkeys. This attitude goes beyond being merely anti-human, to being anti-great ape. It is anti-language since “Evolution of language would be impossible in a species in which individuals could not imagine that other individuals know things that they do not know themselves” (Byrne, 172). The consequence of this anti-theory-of-mind view for literature has been the creation of a shallow sort of minimalism that avoids letting the reader know about anything more than the actions of the characters, on this theory that we cannot know what others think – so the author should not bother to tell us what his characters think, since he cannot even know. If they think at all.

Postmodernism creates social ruptures—it is anti-social in nature. It puts up barriers between men and women. Postmodernism’s radical individualism says there is an abyss of difference between men and women. The collectivism inherent in the Franco-German individualist tradition, whose egalitarian individualism attempts to eliminate all difference, suggests there is no difference between men and women. Specifically, women have been told they should be more like men. This has created an identity crisis in many women. They are told by their culture (which has been influenced by the pro-masculinizing gender feminists) they should be one thing, and by their biology and psychology they should be something else. I fear American women will soon face a tragic crisis, which can only be headed off if women are allowed by this culture to be women in the fullest sense, and not made into either men or relegated into some sort of submissive role, as we had in the past, and as we still find in many cultures around the world.

Postmodernism, far from being a solution to this crisis, only makes the problem worse. And gender feminism, by insisting that there are no fundamental behavioral differences between men and women, only reinforces the prejudice that differences are inherently bad and unequal. It is those feminists who perpetuate the belief that femininity is inferior. Despite what they think, it is not. American culture in particular is sorely lacking in femininity—not the cultural myths we once held about how women should act, but natural femininity, which can come about in a more inclusive, open culture – this lack is primarily the fault of the gender feminists, who insist that our genetic differences make no difference. This is creating the groundwork for a tragic situation, where women are pushed by culture to go beyond their own physis without even trying to understand their physis (vs. the myths of their physis). One hopes we learn the outcome through works of literature, including plays and film, rather than within society itself.

This anti-social element is found not only in relations among men and women, but among races and cultures too. I welcome the emphasis on multiculturalism, as it creates the potential for a much richer, more complex American (and world) culture, but the way postmodernism practices it creates a number of problems. What are we to do with a culture that practices clitorectomy? Or oppresses women? Or practices genocide? Are we to just consider these a legitimate part of the rich tapestry of humanity?

Postmodernism’s insistence that we cannot judge anyone—particularly other cultures—puts us in a serious dilemma in considering these situations. I think there are few who support genocide, but how can one come to say genocide is wrong if one does not make some sort of judgement, or insist there is some sort of universal we should be guided by? I asked Cynthia Haynes (a self-identified postmodernist) this question, and she told me the only thing she does not tolerate is intolerance. But isn’t the intolerance of intolerance itself a universalizing view? One assumes she (and other postmodernists) wishes everyone was intolerant of intolerance. But if one wishes for such an overarching view, one’s entire postmodern world view collapses (of course, the very fact that postmodernism is a world view and, thus, a grand narrative, makes it collapse, imploded by its own hypocrisy).

Postmodern multiculturalism will not work. But we should not return to a “melting pot” view either. Why not a mixture of the two, maintaining cultural identity while integrating everyone into, for example, the American (or, better, world) culture? This view presumes there are more than two societal levels—the individual and the culture/state—which goes against the Franco-German philosophical tradition leading to postmodernism. It is possible—I would say preferable—that there is more than just the individual and her culture. Why can’t a person be an individual, a member of a family (nuclear and extended), a member of a community, a subculture, an organization (if not several), including churches, clubs, schools, etc., an overarching culture, and a citizen of a state, a country, and the world? If there are this many levels between an individual and the government, the government’s power over that individual is weakened, and the influence of that government (and any who wish to influence that government, the culture of a country through the government, etc.), is greatly weakened—which may explain why many pro-statist postmodernists oppose this view.

Postmodernism’s anti-social view of humanity makes it anti-human. Humans are a social species, like all the great apes (even the apparently solitary orangutan will socialize when food is abundant), most monkeys, lions, elephants, dolphins, and wolves. Social species are different from and have more complex behavior than herd or schooling species, like antelope, sheep, or sardines, in that there is little to no bonding among the members of the herd. Individual members are less likely than social animals to aid unrelated or distantly related members of the herd. It seems postmodernists wish to make us act more like herd than social animals.