Here’s a review I wrote of a book on modernist art by Charles Altieri. Of interest because Altieri is a vigorous opponent of the notion that art can be directly political, even as he offers a distinctive vision of what art does have to offer us in the way of resources to reflect upon and act within the present moment. The review appears in symploke Vol. 30, Nos. 1-2 (2022) ISSN 1069-0697, pp. 335-341.
Review of Charles Altieri, Modernist Poetry and the Limitations of Materialist Theory: The Importance of Constructivist Values (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2021), viii + 280 pp.
What can modernist art offer the present? Over the past thirty years, many readers have sought to mine that art for insights into the conditions of modernity and the forces that shape those conditions. Art represents or reflects the society in which it is produced—and thus enhances our understanding of the world and (perhaps) offers alternatives to taken-for-granted prevailing modes of existence. More recently, this brand of political materialism has morphed into a “new materialism” that purports to replace sociology with ontology. The world is replete with active forces whose interaction produces specific situations. Capacious art works capture the constant flows and surprises of the dynamic scenes we all inhabit.
In both cases, critics look to the descriptive power of the arts to deliver insights into the world. In his new book, Charles Altieri sees this “descriptive, epiphanic” mode as dominant within contemporary poetry specifically and in what literary studies generally looks to the arts to impart. Altieri’s goal is to offer a strong alternative, one that depends on an allegiance to the non-representational work done by the modernist artists (Braque, Picasso, Malevich, Pound, Moore, Stevens, Eliot, Ashbery, and Geoffrey O’Brien) he calls “constructivists.” These artists explore how “objects and persons might be able to display the force of their presence, and they establish a range of subject positions for which finding the appropriate concepts was less important than imagining how a responding consciousness might cooperate in making those modes of presence emerge. This imagining had to orient itself toward a questioning of who members of the audience might become by virtue of participating in what the making elaborates as possible distributions of subjectivity” (22). It is what the arts can create, the possibilities that they can open up, rather than any report about the way things are that is important.
Not all artists are constructivists; it would be foolish to deny that many works of art do aspire to some version of realism, to tell us something about the world. (In what follows, then, take every statement about “art” to only apply to constructivist art.) But Altieri thinks we lose perhaps the most valuable and distinctive thing the arts can do if we neglect how the arts can exemplify and celebrate the creative powers of the imagination. In addition, the arts display the various subtle ways that self-consciousness registers its encounter with the world and its experience of its own capacities. Political materialism, he believes, is mired in an inescapable ironic dissociation from a world identified as cruel and unjust, thus missing the affirmations that art can offer. Here is Altieri at his most exalted and most inspiring: “Poetry as a theory of life involves demonstrations that the imagination is not an evasion of the real but a way of complementing it by aligning it with our most intimate structures of desire. Such demonstration has to replace interpretation by celebration, or, more accurately, by the performance of celebration that aligns our capacities for affirmation to the world of fact” (150). Against the world-weariness and despair generated by our political obsessions, Altieri wants to offer the triumphs of art’s engagement with its materials and its successes in constructing those materials into works that astound and delight us even as they invite us to join in the creative process.
The new materialism, with its focus on activity, might seem more aligned with Altieri’s constructivists. Certainly, in the current debates about “critique,” writers like Bruno Latour and Rita Felski mobilize the new materialism to distance themselves from the kinds of political criticism that Altieri also wants to decenter from prevailing critical modes. But Altieri argues that the new materialism is reductive. It simply has no vocabulary or theoretical armature to handle the intricacies of consciousness and self-consciousness. No third person scientific account can capture “the phenomenal awareness of what it is like to be in a given state” (231); “what is known [on the basis of that phenomenal awareness] cannot be reduced to the result of a cognitive judgment” (233). We enter deep waters here—and I will only cite Altieri’s allegiances rather than detail the arguments he advances for them. He is committed to the view that the arts can deliver experiences that are not well understood if we try to assimilate our “take away” from such experiences to models or modes of cognition. And he is committed to a base level humanism: we cannot do justice to human experience if we do not attend to “how the mind can structure what it confronts” (230) and how consciousness can experience phenomenally the emotions and pleasures that its structuring exercise generates. Furthermore, the artist can then develop modes of expression that display that structuring activity, modes that invite an audience to participate in that structuring, and that call self-conscious attention to the emotions, pleasures, and difficulties that accompany that activity. These human expressive and conscious capacities are not shared by creatures or objects that do not produce art works. Any materialism that does not take into account what art displays about these capacities fails the test of inclusiveness. There is a vital part of human phenomenal experience that such materialisms miss.
Wisely, Altieri devotes himself almost exclusively to elaborating his alternative instead of getting mired down in polemics against materialism. (The polemics are offered only in the Introduction and the Epilogue.) What the reader mostly gets is a bracing and thrilling articulation of an aestheticism that aims “to model the force of self-conscious affirmation” (154). Where many contemporary readers turn to the arts for a denunciation of modernity and all its works, Altieri looks to the arts to mobilize powers of imagination that simultaneously celebrate human capacities and “enable us to participate in establishing a full sense of the real” (155). The encounter of selves with “the necessities of living” (154) is the scene for a poiesis that activates emotions and apprehensions that the artist composes self-consciously into a relationship to the non-self (the real and others). “[T]he imagination becomes simply a means of attending to possibilities inherent in observation and dwelling on them as opportunities for adjusting one’s sense of an inner life” (155). Through this second-order artistic exploration of the meeting of self and non-self, both are articulated, are intensified, come into focus.
Crucially, for Altieri, this exploration is dynamic and open-ended, manifested as a process not a product in the modernist works he cherishes. In displaying this process, the work invites the reader/audience to participate in it. The work does not deliver a message; it explains nothing. Rather, it displays or exemplifies modes of relating selves to otherness (of all kinds)—and offers the satisfactions of what those modes enable in the way of felt emotions and/or the pleasures of activating, putting into practice, our imaginative powers. “Construction must elaborate fields of relation that can align imaginative labor with what would be without it utter poverty” (166). Art vivifies the world and the human in that world, thus providing the grounds for affirming the world and our habitation in it. Constructivist artists highlight “the satisfactions of a freedom of mind seeking to play a fuller part in how the world emerges” (167).
If all this sounds vaguely (or even precisely) Hegelian, that’s because it is. Altieri clearly believes that the non-human only comes to realization through the apprehensions of consciousness. His explicit invocation of Hegel comes in a somewhat different register. The modernist artists he calls “constructivist” “dramatized the power to make meaning” by foregrounding “’the powers that do the forming’ rather than ‘the final forms themselves’”(74; the quoted passages are from Paul Klee). “And these modes of significance depend in turn largely on how the work invites self-conscious identification with the force of that making” (74).
Altieri mobilizes Hegel’s concept of “inner sensuousness” (from Hegel’s Lectures on Fine Arts) to capture this focus on the mind’s activity of composing the work. What constructivist artists do is try to make concrete, try to embody in apprehensible forms and images, the invisible work of mind, of imagination, of self-consciousness. Such art makes “the process of reflection both the subject and sensuous object that we produce as readers” (205). We might want to think of “objective correlatives” here, but that would miss just how “sensuous” Altieri finds the exercise of mental capacities and the emotions that such exercise unleashes. Inner sensuousness is achieved by a work when that work “so embodies the activities of the maker that the making itself takes on a concrete objecthood available to all those willing to participate in how the work organizes its energies” (44). The great pleasure and great triumph of Altieri’s book comes in his intricate and thrilling readings of selected paintings and poems, his way of tracking the artist’s way of organizing energy and the ways in which the artist invites us to participate in that work of organization. What those readings invariably impart is the full glory of stretching oneself to the limits of one’s abilities. The poverty of a life in which one doesn’t participate in the making of meanings and the elaboration of possibilities shadows the exuberance of the play in which artists engage.
In his eleven previous books, most of them focused on twentieth-century poetry, Altieri has amply demonstrated his ability to illuminate even the most difficult material. Stevens might be called Altieri’s lodestar, bringing out his best, while surely no commentator makes a better case for Ashbery’s claim on our attention. In his current book, to accompany Altieri as he reads Moore’s “A Grave” is to follow a master in slow motion so as to savor every move. The characteristic Altieri reading identifies what the poet is striving to attain, and then explains the poem’s twists and turns in relation to the obstacles that must be overcome to achieve the desired end. Of course, not all poems get what they want, but their dynamism, their energy, the logic of their unfolding rests in their striving, and readers best enter into the poem when they follow the path of those efforts while identifying (if only provisionally) with its aims. When he turns to Eliot, Altieri eloquently shows how Eliot’s religious poetry aims to make “Christian principles visible as concrete states of self-consciousness, despite the domination of secular attitudes toward what constitutes experience” (116). The “post conversion poetry and plays” foreground “the capacities of self-consciousness to establish relational fields responsive to something other than any natural order shaping the contours of experience” (117). Hence Eliot partakes in the more general dilemma of the limits of a stringent naturalism. Nature gives us hurricanes and cancer, so it cannot itself serve as a standard for what one values and what is good. But developing other grounds for judgment is not easy and, under modern conditions, does not yield any stable foundations. The poet must work his way to his values laboriously and tentatively—and the reader is invited along on the journey. Altieri’s chapter on Eliot made at least this reader more open to the strivings of the portentous Four Quartets than ever before.
The “high modernists” (Frank Kermode’s term) Altieri finds inspiring have not had a good run lately. They are accused of a multitude of sins, some of which they actually committed, and attention has shifted to less canonical figures or to readings that don’t take the high modernists on their own terms. And Altieri’s brand of aestheticism can look both all too familiar and depressingly inadequate when posed against the challenges of our bleak time. His insistence that art should eschew “practical understanding” can look like Auden’s defiant insistence that “poetry makes nothing happen”—a position that can seem to doom art to ineffectual irrelevance. Certainly, many modernist artists and (arguably) most contemporary literary critics are trying to secure art’s practical significance, not its non-practicality. Altieri insists that “we submit to practical understanding only at a substantial cost” (11). We lose art’s ability to “disrupt” the “smooth flow from particular to concept to action” (11). An art that doesn’t aspire to “guide action” is always throwing sand in the gears, endeavoring to get us to attend to what in the situation might not “fit our conceptual schemes” while also inviting self-conscious attention (and possible revision) of “guiding attitudes and investments” (11). Art of the kind Altieri favors makes us pause, makes us re-think and re-evaluate and reconsider our received opinions and feelings. Art’s distance from the practical can make what seems “poverty . . . become a virtue if the poets produce modes of attention to how language might fuse with experience to provide momentary senses of liberation from our fate as social beings” (181). We can wriggle out from under—if only momentarily—the weight of received meanings and attitudes.
Hardly a satisfactory formulation of art’s political impact if you say you want a revolution. I think Altieri’s book strongly implies, without ever explicitly stating, that asking art to be directly politically effective is to court inevitable disappointment. Contemporary literary studies wants the wrong thing from art—and thus misses the wonderful, precious things art can deliver. But there are moments when Altieri hopes for something more from art than momentary liberation. In stressing the way that the works he discusses invite “participation,” Altieri reprises another familiar modernist concept that can be traced back to Eliot: “impersonality.” Despite their concentrated attention to the self’s (to a particular mind’s) encounter with the world, Stevens, Eliot and the others he discusses, in Altieri’s view, reach for articulations that cross the boundary between self and other. They do so by “treating the work as involving participation in the activity of the maker” (17).
“Impersonality” limns a desirable politics in two ways. First, the imperative of impersonality is embedded in any artist’s need to use forms and materials (words, color, canvas, poetic forms etc.) that pre-exist her and are socially (i.e. non-individualistically) possessed. The purely private can make no claim on an audience’s attention—and certainly will have great difficulty in inviting that audience’s participation. It seems fair to say that all the modernists Altieri celebrates were “devoted to displaying how the private in fact can become a public force” (96). Thus, Marianne Moore’s use of quotations in her poems offers “a striking emblem of sociality, since the world experienced is a world held self-reflectively in common with numerous other commentators” (99).
The second point is related to what we might call the problem of “uptake.” If the poet activates meanings that depart from practical and received understandings, will those alternative meanings be picked up by readers? Once taken up by others, those meanings are no longer personal or idiosyncratic. Because he emphasizes so strongly the co-production of meaning by writer and reader, Altieri builds in a model of how the arts might create new social relations. Altieri touches very, very lightly on this possibility, as if nervous of making too extravagant a claim about art’s powers at a time when we commonly ask the arts to do too much. His modest account of how poetry might be political comes through his discussion of Geoffrey O’Brien’s method and aspirations. O’Brien writes of an “’immaterial commons’ in which ‘we read not of things but of dispositions toward the thingly.’” Altieri comments: O’Brien “sees himself facing two antagonists—a capitalist social system that wants to repress the effects of inequality by treating injustice as written into something like historical necessity, and an engaged poetry that makes promises of political effectiveness it cannot sustain. Poetry might be able in the long run indirectly to influence social change because we can find in that commons the sense that our cares and responses to those cares have a great deal that is shared. And we find in this space the possibility of celebrating one another’s freedom because these freedoms are grounded in this group awareness” (210).
Poetry, then, can contribute to the creation of a commons, to the establishment of a magnanimous sociality, only by being impersonal and intersubjective—not the word handed down by the poet, but in the words co-created by poet and reader in a process of coming to meaning. It is not what the poet tells us (hence Altieri’s resistance to seeing art as representative and to approaches that emphasize art’s cognitive benefits for understanding the world), but the activities to which the poet invites us.
Put that way, Altieri’s vision seems anything but modest, even if it is not directly or particularly political. He is at one with the most exalted modernist aspirations to re-word the world even as their work would re-establish basic social relations on an entirely new basis. This project lies somewhat buried in Altieri’s book because he slides from “meaning” to “value” occasionally, but never takes up their relation explicitly. I think, however, that basically he believes that what we find meaningful, what we deem worthy of attention and appreciation, is what we affirm as valuable. The invitation that the modernist poets offer us, in his view, is the opportunity to self-consciously consider our values and the processes (pleasurable in themselves) by which we create those values. And the hope is that participating together in those processes will lead us to recognize what we hold in common and to cherish/promote the goods required to make participation available to all. We don’t need artists to tell us the world is unjust. We have ample evidence of that fact all around us. We need artists to introduce us to the joys of exercising our imaginative capacities and, through that exercise, to discover our deep connections to, and care for, others with similar capacities.