Thursday, July 10, 2008

Paradigms and Poetry


As I continue my desultory reading of the philosophy of science, I am getting reacquainted with ideas from Thomas Kuhn, specifically his notions of "paradigm shifts" and "theory-laden data." The latter notion is meant to disrupt the idea that data can be neutral, just sitting there waiting to support this or that theory. ("Just the facts, ma'am.") Kuhn suggests that the way the data are gotten or placed or shaped springs from theory. It's not so much that, like Disraeli ("lies, damned lies, statistics"), Kuhn is mocking or dismissing data; he's just pointing out, I think, that data are never innocent ("theory, damned theory, and data").

With a paradigm-shift, I reckon a way of putting the idea is that one overarching way of looking at the world is replaced by another one. One of the most dramatic paradigm-shifts in my lifetime, I think, has been the one shaped by feminism and its effects. Not that long ago, it used to be unthinkable for women to hold a huge spectrum of jobs they now hold, and even people who remain allergic to the word "feminism" accept women in these roles--because the paradigm has shifted.

Two paradigms that simply will not, apparently, stop butting heads are so-called Evolution and Creation.

Bush took a bit of LBJ and a lot of Nixon and created a paradigm by which the president is an elected dictator, as well as a compulsive gambler. He seems to have put about as much thought into invading and occupying Iraq as a drunk does when he decides to hit on 15 at the blackjack table in Bordertown, Nevada. I exaggerate, but I wish I were exaggerating more. Even his former press-secretary, Scottie the Wonder-Dog, referred to Bush as "a gut player." That's quite a paradigm-shift.

In a minor key, the paradigm-shift can be useful for poets. You can get stuck writing one kind of poetry--first person, semi-autobiographical free verse remains a dominant paradigm, for instance. But then you can glance at Randall Jarrell's "Death of a Ball Turret Gunner," to pick just one example, and realize you can write from the perspective and in the voice of someone different from you, relate an experience you have not had but can imagine, and, by the way, have a dead person speak. Or, like Hopkins, you can look at the dominant "music" of your contemporary poetry and decide, "Gee, I think I'll blow that up." With sprung rhythm, he blew up the monotony of iambic pentameter. Dickinson ignored so many paradigms and seriously bent others that it's hard to keep track of them. Surrealism was once a scandalously new paradigm. Now it's pretty much a dominant one, as is the image-devoted poem.

I think poets are naturally comfortable with the idea of "theory laden data"; or at least they sense that all that stuff we encounter and perceive out there is laden with something. Often it's laden with our desire to write a poem about it. That summer's day didn't know Shakespeare was going to write about it and show why it shouldn't, in fact, be compared to his love; and those plums didn't realize that a) Williams would eat them and b) that he would then write a poem in the form of a note apologizing for having eaten them. They were cold, delicious, and poetry-laden data, those poems.
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