Issue 56 |
Winter 1991-92


I am honored to serve as editor for this issue of
Ploughshares, but with this sense of honor comes an interesting perplexity. The magazine has presented issues on special topics, issues on issues, and issues devoted to specific genres. For a number of reasons, I decided to offer an installment that was as generous a selection of contemporary writing as I could collect. I was fortunate in the work that came across my desk: it is a rare privilege to be able to choose from such submissions, to be able to include writers as diverse as Odysseus Elytis, Charles Simic, James Merrill, Quincy Troupe, Bobbie Ann Mason, Fanny Howe, and James Tate. I also received interesting work from lesser known writers, and with some of these I had to rely on what seemed to have little formal justification -- that is, on taste. We no longer live in the eighteenth-century milieu which could claim that taste was an abstract and universal sense, like touch, only more refined. Taste in our time seems more than a little elitist. It bears the mark of connoisseurship, inequality,
and aesthetic hauteur. I wanted to do justice to the best in contemporary literature, not produce what was merely a chronicle of my likes and dislikes.

Taste is therefore a difficult point for Americans, especially now. In the past decade, we have seen remarkable energy in the academy devoted to showing that the Arnoldian pieties of "sweetness and light" might well hide a violent politics of exclusion. We have been shown that value in literature is contingent, that the impartiality of taste is vitiated by personal, professional, and class interest. Such studies, taken out of context, could lead one to the despair of Walter Benjamin's brilliant dialectical claim that the documents of civilization are testimonies to repressive barbarism as well. From here it is a short step to iconoclasm, to a shattering of all the idols, both sacred and profane. But Benjamin's indictment of civilization must also be taken in the context of his messianic dream of a redemptive literature, a culture read against the grain so as to spark a light against the darkness of fascism. So Benjamin shows us that we must not get rid of the idols, but re-view them,
exhume from them more humane values, and then struggle for a more human world. The problem, then, is not value per se, but the fossilization of value, the erection of norms that do not keep pace with our best hopes. Our greatest critic of the antiquarian, Nietzsche, called not for the abolition of values -- for that, he showed, was impossible. He called for their transvaluation.

It is very popular in certain circles to decry the decline of values. Such laments see this decline as a moral failing, as the inability of administrators, principals, and pastors to show will and instill the correct sense of how things should be. Such critiques are invariably conservative. But one could mount a progressive critique of the decline of value and taste as well. It is easy to forget how much of Theodor Adorno's work concentrated on the problem of taste. For Adorno, the bureaucratized world of our modernity had occluded all discrimination, all sense of good and bad. Instead of critical, resistant thought and intelligent choice, we were doomed to the equivalency of all works and all actions. What Herbert Marcuse would come to call one-dimensional society eliminated all discussions of moral and aesthetic ends. It granted importance to the notion of sheer novelty while tempering our consumption with a nostalgia for the familiar. From this matrix emerged the hell envisioned by Adorno and
Benjamin: absolute stasis, the infinite repetition of what merely exists in all its pain and inequities. No progress, no gain.

So taste is central to a politics of hope, although as Adorno's work shows, we no longer have room for the traditionally beautiful. In this way, the Platonic dyad of the Good and the Beautiful is sundered. The Good will have to find a new aesthetic home. Tradition is no guide to what is interesting in art, according to Adorno. For all his love of Beethoven and Goethe, Adorno is quick to claim in his
Aesthetic Theory that the "canon" is really a "canon of prohibitions," a series of outmoded restraints. No, our judgments of art will need to change constantly. As the pattern of social differentiation continually shifts, so will our patterns of resistance.

Adorno's stress on resistance does not mean he was in favor of the "committed" in art. Quite the contrary: the sheer existence of the aesthetic sphere, with all its guilt and social privilege, still showed that there was at least one place in society that had not been fully colonized, reduced to the sound bite and the advertisement. Although I am deeply indebted to committed literatures, I cannot limit my taste that way. For there is an abundance of work pointing to a viable future that does not aim to be partisan. Resistance to suffering might body itself forth in a line break, in a cadence, in a turn of character or phrase. Our stress should locate these moments in the full richness of our contemporary literature.

So taste should be a problem: to argue about taste is to argue about ends, not means. Literary taste will always be tainted with elitism and inequity: our educational system is not as generous as it might be. But taste, if it can free itself from merely antiquarian delectation, can learn to discriminate against the socially discriminatory, can learn to uncover the traces of human struggle and desire. Americans frequently want to dismiss taste as a question of unmediated subjectivity, as untouchable and undisputable. The theory and the practice of literature and theory over the last ten years have put these platitudes under severe interrogation. Taste is learned and it changes. It changes through exposure to the new.