Against the Flow


review by Rob Watson



Against the Flow: Education, the Arts and Postmodern Culture
Peter Abbs
Routledge Falmer 2003
173 pp. Pb & Hb
ISBN 0-415-297915 (HB); 0-415-29792-3 (PB)


When I met Peter Abbs in the 1970s he had recently begun working at Sussex University, where he is now Professor of Creative Writing. Within months he had invited me to contribute to his journal, Tract; subsequently he invited me to write a chapter for one of his books on the arts in education, and this led to my writing the volume on film for the Falmer Press Library of Aesthetic Education. He has drawn a number of writers into creative collaborations in this way and, in addition to the central achievement of a body of poetry far more rewarding than the work of better known contemporaries, Abbs has been an indefatigable polemicist, arguing across several decades now for a vision of education in the arts which has not dimmed yet remains to some extent unrealised, despite the many teachers he has inspired.

There have been several periods when the educational value of the expressive arts seemed to be accepted, but instrumental goals would inevitably act as a critical counterbalance. Abbs, in any case, perceived the limitations of placing too great an emphasis on creative free expression. His position, while seeing the making of art as crucial, shared a living historical sense of the tradition with writers like T.S. Eliot. He wanted, and still wants, the profound experience of and engagement with great art to enable students to find forms of expression which are not merely personal and self-indulgent outpourings, but whose form and content may achieve a more significant level of observed and felt truth. If, as Matthew Arnold suggested, art can take on some of the functions previously in the domain of religion, then the creation of artworks may become a profound undertaking, and I think the potential of this connection, however tenuous it sometimes appears, runs vividly through Abbs' work and gives it an urgent radical edge while simultaneously appearing almost conservative - which it isn't.

The paradox is probably inevitable: we write in the present and towards the future, but unless we know how to value the past we are bound to trivialize what we do, consigning our efforts in advance to that moment before they too recede. But if we only look at what has been done before, we risk losing that unique opportunity each of us has to make new sense of the world we're in. Without a context that extends beyond our immediate contemporaries we are battling at the least with an unnecessary ignorance of appropriate styles and techniques, and the result will too often be work which repeats clumsily what was done elsewhere and better. Axiomatically, if we hope to discover the genuinely new form appropriate to our voice and time, we must assimilate modes of expression which have preceded ours - the new is perceived by that which it develops from, like other organic forms.

Against the Flow is structured less as an attack on postmodern culture than as a defence against what Abbs sees as its potentially dehumanizing aspects, and thus it is an affirmation of 'that active movement from diffuse self-consciousness to articulate self-awareness'. One of its most striking features is the use of autobiography: each of the book's eight chapters begins subjectively, with a memory. This is not at all what one expects to find in academic discourse, of course, especially when several of these 'preludes' have a powerful poetic resonance, but that is the point - they remind us of the power of non-academic language to articulate experiences which cannot otherwise be communicated. 'I have chosen,' Abbs explains, 'a poetic and philosophical language to pit against the anodyne and functional language of current educational discourse'. And again, 'this book is written to defend the Socratic play of meaning, the power and pertinence of ethical judgement and aesthetic discrimination'.

At times while reading Against the Flow I found myself not exactly in disagreement but anxious to state my enthusiasm for what Shklovsky called 'the junior branch' - my own conviction would be that one is nourished by all sorts of things, including some of the products of mass culture, and that what they communicate is mediated essentially by what one brings to the experience. There might be a fundamental temperamental difference between the magpie inclusiveness - at times indiscriminate - of the novelist's appetite and the precision and exclusiveness of the poet's eye. But maybe we meet in autobiography or, rather, in a shared concern with the problems of articulating an empirically based conviction in such a way as to overcome the limitations of the merely personal. I think anyone concerned with questions of meaning ('What should art serve? What is culture for?' - Abbs' questions - might be extended to 'What am I for? How can I say what needs to be said?') will find useful approaches here.

As a novelist and a teacher of writing I confess I have found much literary theory over the last thirty years or so painfully inadequate to my needs - too little is written for or from the perspective of the developing creative writer, and most novelists are, after all, too engrossed in their work to explain what really matters for its composition. Several sections of Against the Flow have a succinct clarity that provides sudden and rewarding illumination. Everyone's familiar enough with the Joycean epiphany, for instance, but the way Abbs re-states it as a form of wisdom revives and makes it something the artist can more readily work with. Similarly, the Socratic elenchus becomes - with quotations from Emily Dickinson - a means of purifying thought, not merely as a dialectic of refutation but also by emphasizing the unexpectedly positive position attained through learning that one does not know.

The chapter on wisdom and ways to reach understanding is followed by one which offers a 'cultural map of autobiography' from Heraclitus to Roland Barthes. The implications clearly outlined within the modest scope of this section are staggering for all character-based narrative writing. I was already aware of ways in which the integrated, consistent sense of self and identity had been exploded in the latter part of the last century, but by presenting his summary historical review Abbs provides a forceful reminder of how dependent the very concept of individuality has been on constructions in language made at various points across more than two millennia.

...before Heraclitus...the concept of self was essentially epic and tribal and... Heraclitus marks a key stage in the dramatic emergence of the self, as does the later work of Plato and Socrates and the long 500 year tradition of the Stoics. This classical concern was then deepened by the passionate Christian quest for salvation. It was the Hebraic tradition, in confluence with the Hellenic, which gave birth to the genre of deep subjective autobiography in the form of Saint Augustine's Confessions...until Rousseau's work...radically changed the pattern of narration and interpretation. This pattern was psychological in manner and it opened the way to a psychological reading of human experience...and culminated in the twentieth century in the birth of psychoanalysis. Finally, towards the end of that century we witness a crisis in identity, a questioning of the very notion of self. In this crisis the psychological reading of human life is put in radical doubt... Postmodern writing...set out to systematically destroy what was seen as the comfortable illusion of a continuous identity.

Heraclitus, Saint Augustine, Rousseau and Barthes are presented in more detail, naturally, and the argument about what to do in face of this crisis is carried on through the book, but the fragmented passage above should suggest why Against the Flow is the kind of work teachers of writing should be armed with. By placing the moment when our students are beginning to write in a context just dense enough to isolate its major challenges, Abbs helps to focus and direct their attention to ways of creating work that may see them through.



Rob Watson is a prize-winning novelist. He runs the MA in Creative Writing at University of Leeds, Bretton Hall Campus.


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Vol 7 No 2 October 2003
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady