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                   > Leigh Davis' Place > Art Knowledge > Notes on Yes and No
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Section 1 - Notes on YES and NO

1.0    A philosopher talked of what makes something recognisable. Of how it is that we recognise the subtle gestures of human faces but we have difficulty with the recognition of squiggles. In a lecture on aesthetics he (Ludwig Wittgenstein), was recorded as saying:

   4. The importance of our memory for the expression of a face. You may show me sticks at different times – one is shorter than the other. I may not remember that the other time it was longer. But I compare them and this shows me that they are not the same.

I may draw you a face. Then at another time I draw another face. You say, “ that’s not the same face.” – but you can’t say whether the eyes are closer together, or mouth longer…or anything of this sort. “It looks different somehow”.

This is enormously important for all philosophy.

5. If I draw a meaningless curve [squiggle- S) and then draw another later, pretty much like it, you would not know the difference. But if I draw this peculiar thing which I call a face, and then draw one slightly different, you will know at once that there is a difference. “


Emily Kngwarreye


1.1     When Wittgenstein says that something is “enormously important for all philosophy” one pays attention. What can this something be? : that there are categories of things (faces are one such but sticks and squiggles are not) with which we are so familiar that we can detect subtle differences in those things even though we cannot positively compare and contrast them at the time. We know about them even though we cannot point to some internal relation. Of these things we can have the feeling of knowledge even though we cannot always say what the particular content of this knowledge is. Things in this category are language-like. There is a language of faces, for example (but not one of sticks or squiggles), that allows you to “know at once” that it is this sort of face or that.

1.2    Wittgenstein’s story of faces1 is a reference to the operation or effects of mediation. Mediation is what an audience (“you”) has and does when it is reading. It is a population’s process of recognition, of making and weighting sense. It makes something individual – an artwork, say - come to be seen as standing in the presence of something general.

1.3    New Zealand poetry is a kind of face and not a kind of squiggle.

1.4    It was invented over the course of the second half of last century. It was best described and edited by Allen Curnow, or at least, it is mostly through the work of Allen Curnow that the portrait achieved its clearest shape and argument. New Zealand poetry has both an historical and present character. At this point in these notes it is the historical that is discussed. The present character is addressed at a later point.

1.5    New Zealand poetry used to be a literary category of moment.  The term aspired to be a technical one, and it guided editorial policy for some important anthologies. It was not intended to be casual or vague as “the New Zealand way of life”, say, is casual and vague. We should call this mid-twentieth century conception New Zealand poetry. It is not part of regular conversation about poetics now that I am aware of. That is both a good and a bad thing.

1.6    On the bad side; distinctive shifts in representation - New Zealand poetry’s aspiration – are usually achieved by networks (“schools”) not individuals. Network hubs occur where artists meet each other, physically, virtually, or both. That artists find themselves talking and competing under a common product label and labour upon meaning, where there work can achieve a critical mass, causes both an art and an art audience to emerge. It is an effect reminiscent of a rule for the establishment of restaurants: you are best to do it in the restaurant district.

1.7    On the good side: it is important that there be something like the death of New Zealand poetry. The category probably dragged representation’s fullness down. The writer’s and the readers’ eye was set in search of misleading objects. New Zealand poetry appears now to have repressed writing’s distinctive complexity of signs, consigning this property to invisibility, by allowing it no conceivable home.

1.8    One can guess reasons for New Zealand poetry’s retreat from relevance. The category was vague at source. It was on the wrong side of art’s history.
It was too easily appropriated into political debates about nationhood or identity.

1.9    Taken strictly, the two terms – New Zealand and poetry – form a conflicting language-game in their common senses. New Zealand is a set of things which are geographically bounded and unique. That is, it is the name of a specific legal identity and system, a specific system of government; a distinctive flora, fauna, and landscape. It has a specific narrative of the past; and a distinctive economy comprising a particular pattern of markets, firms, and statistics describing their performance over time. And so on. It is a reasonably specific thing. And poetry is a distinctive use of language. So you have a name for a specific country which has no dependency on poetry for its meaning, and a name for a specific art form which has no dependency on country likewise, put together. But a curious confusion of sense takes place in this conjunction. The terms are incommensurate but this does not at first seem apparent. In the conjunction, either New Zealand is made vague or confused by being joined with the word poetry, or poetry is made vague or confused by being joined with the words New ZealandNew Zealand poetry is like saying southwesterly rectangle.

1.10    If there was a theory of this poetry it comprised two propositions that were regarded as logically necessary. On the surface these grew out of the powerful narrative of nationalism. They also grew out of art realism, with a compressing together of poetry and geography. It was as though a new hybrid could be made out of a sheer fusion of terms. The bruising of common senses resulted. This process was raised to a point of formality in the 1950s and 1960s by Allen Curnow’s anthology introductions, and the writing of others. The first of these two propositions was that good poetry is an accurate report on experience; and second, that good poetry written in New Zealand must therefore catch up a New Zealandness into it thereby creating a New-Zealand-in-poetry, because of this quality of accurate reporting. And there was a roundness to this thought, such that you could say, by finding this New Zealandness you were finding good poetry, since nothing else could be written by local authors.

1.11   It is like the old phrenological theories of temper or character type. In these theories, if your head was shaped like this, then your character type was that. There was supposed a natural, physical link between physiology and temper. How could you tell someone’s character-type? Inspect the dimensions and contours of their heads. What you could see and measure was held to be a sure guide to what you could not see and measure, a sure guide to what was more subtle and elusive. We could say that skull-shape came to mediate temper. That is, skull-shape came to be regarded as an imitation of temper. It was supposed that there existed a necessary logic of evolutionary nature according to which such and such a temper was manifested by such and such a skull shape. This is to argue by means of resemblance. Importantly, it was to create a sameness: this was the same as that. Observations that disproved the theory, which argued on the basis of difference, were rendered actually inconceivable and invisible. Strangeness was both unwritten and could not be written. Phrenology was a brutal, generalised fancy. It was also a general confusion.

1.12   Mid-twentieth century thought about New Zealand poetry was like phrenology in that art’s temper was held to mimic place. By this means all rectangles come to be read under the aspect of their southwesterliness.

1.13   A poetry came to be looked at for its New Zealandness.

1.14   Charles Darwin tells the following story of one of his journeys in Chile:

 “ In the evening we reached a comfortable farm-house, where there were several very pretty senoritas… They asked me, ‘Why do you not become a Christian – for our religion is certain?’  I assured them I was a sort of Christian; but they would not hear of it – appealing to my own words, ‘Do not your padres, your very bishops, marry?’ The absurdity of a bishop having a wife particularly struck them; they scarcely knew whether to be amused or horror-struck at such an enormity” (2)

New Zealand poetry, in this way, could be negatively revealed, by its capacity to reveal enormities.

1.15   New Zealand poetry cannot claim the prestige of an imitation of reality. New Zealand poetry has only the prestige of a distinctive representation of the world.

1.16   What was the telltale aspect by means of which this unique body of writing could be recognised and asserted? By what bare obviousness was the subtle body of country revealed? This quality came to be seen first in texts that use distinctive New Zealand words, being place-names or vernacular terms or phrases. It also came to involve distinctive stage-settings and theatrical events. (One of these is the one I have called “occupation ritual”).

1.17   If I wrote a poem that shaped thoughts encountered on a New Zealand beach, but did not name the beach, would it be an exhibit of New Zealand poetry? If in this same poem I cast the central “I” in the figure of Abelard, who was a thirteenth century French lifetime scholar and sometime outcast for teacher/pupil love, would it be a French poem?

1.18   We say of some things – a play in sport, say, or of some execution of a complex organisational task – that they are “poetry-in-motion”. This is a common word picture. We use the term when we see something that is surprising in context, where something apparently effortless and fluid occurs that we didn’t see coming, marking a state change in an activity, often fleeting, that produces some decisive shift or breakthrough in the recognition of events. We can say that some New Zealand thing is poetry-in-motion, but what have we added to this sense of poetry-in-motion? Isn’t this sensation a quality of action, any action, and (like a wave is separate from the sea) separate from the complex of events in which you find it? That it occurs in rugby, say, at Carisbrook, or kite-surfing on Takapuna Beach, may tell us something about how this was once poetry-in-motion, or how that was, but it is with a special sense only that we can say that this property of action was unique to Takapuna or Carisbrook. The theatre and props can be specific to New Zealand, but the attractiveness in the play, and therefore its defining characteristic, is likely not.

1.19   But someone else can say (with Curnow) that the attractiveness in the play is never revealed outside of a specific context of events. It is always revealed in some specific theatre that has specific props; otherwise it has no sensuous form.

1.20   This is the yes and no nature of this problem. Yes; poetry-in-motion can occur anywhere and what is important is that it is poetry-in-motion. We do not use the word indigenous of this property, ordinarily. No; it is never just poetry-in-motion, it is always poetry-in-motion somewhere in something, and where this is generally recognised to be in New Zealand, it is poetry-in-motion-in-New-Zealand. We might use the word indigenous of this property.

1.21   The same yes and no applies to the representation of poetry-in-motion. We can equally exclaim of a verbal picture of poetry-in-motion on Takapuna Beach “Look at that, it is of poetry-in-motion!”, and “Look at that, it is of Takapuna- poetry-in-motion !”

1.22   But unless the location reference is a significant one in context, (for reasons other than it is Takapuna, say; for reasons other than it is Takapuna viewed auratically) it does not add to the meaning. Takapuna is not a component in the meaning by itself. The location is a placeholder term.

1.23   Is there a New Zealand poetry? Yes and no. We must equivocate.

1.24   There are two definitions of New Zealand poetry that slide over each other in common usage. In the first, there is New Zealand poetry, which asks to be read as something written by its environment, as a mimetic art. I have called this conception the southwesterly rectangle one. I have also called it phrenological . In the second, New Zealand poetry is understood as a distinctive kind of representation.

1.25   In the first the reader is expected to let her gaze rest on this or that object of art’s attention regarded as a metonym for a nation-state. One looks to the literature to see the environment. Something that is called by a national name is seen to operate upon the art so as to make it indigenous. The artwork is seen to be an infusion of the world’s categorical prestige.

1.26   The second is a place in a discourse. One looks to the environment to see the literature.

1.27   The first is a reification and confusion of the second.

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