I have reprinted below a shorter version of the author’s text referred to in the review above. Though I disagree with many of the points made by macdonaldlarry I think that his review is, on the whole, admirable, and that his points are very interesting and informative.
On Certain Species of Writing
by Colin Koopman
Of the many excellences which I perceive in the order of our State, there is none which upon reflection pleases me better than the rule about poetry: the rejection of imitative poetry, which certainly ought not to be received.
–Plato, The Republic Book X, 595a (cf., Plato's Attack on Poetry -JD)
I. Poetry and Philosophy as Two Distinct Forms of Writing
Is a text always governed by the laws of a certain and specific discourse? Is writing always written according to the rules of its genre? What are the functions of concepts like “genre” and “discourse” in our understanding of texts? Where do we situate, for example, the border between poetry and philosophy? And, what are the political implications of these borders? Is the border between poetry and philosophy mapped with sufficient assurance so as to justify a condemnation of one species in favor of the other? Is Plato’s condemnation of poetry in his Republic the sort of political maneuver we want to allow or encourage as residue of our classification and genrification of texts? Should we allow these specifications to become sufficiently entrenched so that one class of writing can be properly elevated over the other, or be considered more primary in the course of human activities?
I will here consider Plato’s distinction between poetry and philosophy and, therefore, the concept of species of writing in general. I shall look at this common distinction from the point of view of the familiar divide between these two species of texts: “fiction” and “nonfiction”. For example, within the context of narrative writing we have, on the one hand, “fictitious stories” and on the other we have “histories”. Or, so the story goes. Exploration of the distinction between the more general genera of poetry and philosophy via examination of the more particular species of fictitious and historical narrative is still located squarely on the line dividing their genetic parentage. The distinction between a mere imitation (mimesis) and an accurate representation of knowledge (episteme, techne, or nous) is, after all, what founds Plato’s distinction between poetry and philosophy, his derision of the former before the latter, and his political estimation of both.
What concerns me in regards to Plato’s argument (and modern adaptations of it) are the ethical and political ends to which the distinction between poetry and philosophy is put. In Plato’s argument there is not only the moral claim that poetry is less useful than and didactically inferior to philosophy, but we are confronted with something of greater significance. A distinction between poetry and philosophy is used to effect and justify a political apparatus that rejects the poetic tradition on the moral, psychological, ontological and epistemological grounds that supposedly guarantee the clean and unambiguous distinction between these two species of writing. Certainly, we must be careful in our rhetorical distinctions should the result be of this great a political magnitude.
In what follows, I shall attempt to show that this distinction is in fact not as clear and distinct as is commonly supposed. This, however, is a rather unexciting point. We are all, today, generally aware of the fuzzy borders that might exist between a poem and an historical account. Upholders of the distinction between poetry and philosophy often offer as a rejoinder a weak form of this bifurcation. I believe that this weak form also has a number of problems that its proponents fail to identify and account for. Of course, we must accept some weak form of the distinction if we are to organize our theories of reading and the poetics that guide our writing; at the very least we need some comprehendible methodology for shelving our books at the library other than the alphabetical. The question, ultimately, is: how weak a form of this distinction should we uphold?
I suggest here that, given the political implications this distinction can engender, we should seek to be as ironic as we possibly can about it. In many cases (the interesting cases, that is) political and ethical considerations will outweigh the utility of any normally-useful distinctions in our textual ontologies. In cases of such urgency, we must abandon the Platonic metaphors that generally inform these textual ontologies. If a distinction between poetry and philosophy is most useful merely as a guide to reading and organizing, we have to be ready to let go of this distinction when a text is an object of political or ethical consideration.
II. The Strong Form of a Distinction amongst Species of Writing
III. The Weak Form of a Distinction amongst Species of Writing
IV. A Politics of Creativity
We all probably agree that any negative criticism of a text that extends beyond mere interpretation (and even many cases of just this) toward a recommendation regarding the proper social place of the text or an indictment of the author or the textual content is going to need some pretty solid backing up. It is my opinion that in most cases this sort of political violence won’t be justified by merely citing a distinction between poetry and philosophy and a high moral estimation of the value of philosophic knowledge. We’re going to need more than what is merely a distinction of organizational value to back up a criticism of a text that supposedly undermines certain portions of our extant base of knowledge and information. Perhaps, however, we shouldn’t make political decisions such as these on the basis of a suspect and ancient distinction. If the distinction between fictional and historical discourse is one of degree, and not one of kind, perhaps our location of that degree should be made according to the political consequences of that location. That is, perhaps the classification of writing into distinct species or genres should be secondary to our political consideration of these writings. I’m not saying that there won’t ever be other grounds on which we can criticize texts. In many cases, I’m sure that there will be. I’m only saying that we shouldn’t do political violence to a text without something more than this old distinction that already assumes the answers to all of the important political questions.
Certainly this debate is at the root of a great number of philosophic and poetic conflicts. Settling it probably isn’t done at the level of argument. It isn’t my hope to here present a determinate theory situating our rhetorical approach to the interpretation of texts. What I do want to encourage is that we see this rhetorical option as a political choice and that we treat this politics with the gravity it deserves. I can here only hope to suggest that there is a lot at stake in the disapprobation and censorship of a text. I can only hope to suggest that we be as charitable as possible in our readings of texts, and that we don’t discount them merely on the grounds that they employ a bag of rhetorical tricks traditionally germane to one of the ‘lesser’ disciplines. I can only hope to suggest that we probably have a great deal to learn from texts that push the borders, that erase the distinctions between genres, and that (of necessity) can’t always come out and say exactly what it is they want to say.
I am urging, then, that we proffer the weakest possible form of a distinction between different ‘species’ of writing. Any stronger insistence upon this distinction may engender an act of ethical or political violence that more than exhausts the utility of the species metaphor.
We must always be very careful when criticizing texts that are situated on borders, on the shore between two traditions or disciplines, on the lines of their own genres and institutions. Writing is the realization that something new needs to be written. Writing has the power to create a new textual space, open up a new area in which words can be written and have meaning. Such originality is, of course, all bound up in matters of great political importance. It is no surprise, then, that those writers interested in some form of political liberation are often writing on all sorts of borders and edges. Often it is those who have no voices at all who we refuse to hear. Has our widespread social disparagement of fiction in favor of more scientific forms of discourse caused us to ignore a wide range of social problems that are only given a voice in fiction and certain other discourses which are always marginalized in our judicial, legal, and scientific proceedings? What, for example, have Americans neglected to notice about the situation of Native Americans by not taking their mythological fictions seriously? What, for example, are we currently neglecting by paying more heed to the corporate media’s clean presentation of government-sponsored facts than to the isolated accounts of Palestinian refugees or Latin American writers in exile? What, for example, are we assuming when we insist that the biography of Nietzsche represented in the historical archive is always of greater value than a fictional reproduction of Nietzsche’s aphoristic style? What political choices do we take for granted when we categorize Luisa Valenzuela as fictional rather than as political, as she who imagines things rather than as she who describes a political reality? What is the source of magic in Latin American literature? Is it only the inspired dreamings of creative genius? Or is there a political reality that enforces the sublation of reality in preference to a mythology of disappearances, sorcerers, and superhuman saviors? (I am, of course, certainly not original in asking these questions about Latin American literature, and I offer far less in the way of answers than those who have written before me. I can only here borrow a few of the rhetorical questions that have inspired a great deal of this excellent scholarship so that I may inscribe (between the parentheses) the hope that you may take their stories to heart, and learn from them, and learn to love them, and learn to love.)
Thanks to the author’s website (http://colin.untext.com/phil-frames.htm) and author's permission for reprinting sections of the copyrighted text here. MacDonaldLarry has notified me of an apocryphal version of the complete text that has been reprinted in Discourse, May 2003. My patent and copyright attorneys are currently investigating the validity of this reproduction.