Open or Closed? Allen Ginsberg and William F. Buckley Jr.

This is Ginsberg’s appearance on William F. Buckley Jr’s debate programme ‘Firing Line’. And there is a warning here about wrapping yourself in rational debate, as I am about to do.

Ginsberg comes onto a programme to try to spread his message about state violence, media, hypocrisy and human freedom, and the kind of psychic state of America as a nation across this time. But, as he is aware, the media is against him. The television is not an ‘arty medium’ as he says, ‘it is a censorship on the spontaneity and delight of actual language’ and his whole point is that television does not seem to be a medium that has any real value; it is not able to communicate, except in a ridiculous and fictitious way. It is in a sense a hallucination.

Ginsberg sits there with the weight of the authoritarian structure leaning over him. The pressure of William F. Buckley Jr.’s ‘knowing’ status, conferred onto him by his position as the host, the studio environment they are in – and by the viewers position of watching itself – and by Buckley’s sceptical and analytic attitude and approach. Buckley is a very smooth figure, his movements, his embodiment of his whole mindset in his actions, his sly jibes; it is his appeal as a ‘rationally-minded’ or ‘discerningly analytic’ human being that cannot help but start to illicit in you the old signs of authority and correctness.

But analysis is an addictive state of mind and is very useful for condemning other people’s ideas. It condemns anything that is different, or outside itself – you can see this kind of scepticism used in all the arguments that attempt to counteract ‘new’ forms of behaviour: race, gender, sexuality, alongside issues like environmentalism, spirituality, and freedom of thought or expression, anything that involves reaching out the hand of care, of opening yourself up, of becoming more sensitive, becomes vulnerable to this form of denigrating criticism, which its exponents term as ‘being realistic’.

Looking at it this way it becomes clear that there are actually other factors at play behind the organisation of their words. In a sense, the words themselves are almost interchangeable. For example even exponents of Buckley’s point of view would have to concede some changes to the picture since then. Only the most extreme now advocate the purest, strictly catholic repression of sex, gender and race. And even if they do, the specific facts are unimportant; it is actually an emotional position that characterises these points of view. And I think one of the strongest emotional factors behind Buckley’s argument, and this position in general, is fear.

Looking at this debate as a new viewpoint confronting the old, as was happening across this period on a major political and social scale, Buckley reacts to this potential for new ideas, for change. Either change is a cause for fear as you try to cling on to old conceptions of yourself and keep them in tact, or you move fluidly with change accepting new points of view, listening, allowing them to be told to you in their own form, without trying to impose something on them before they have even entered your mind. The part of the mind that best describes and explains this process and reaction is the ego. Buckley in a way, prides himself purely on his ego, on what he stands for in rational argument and discussion. Ginsberg is looking for something outside of that, outside of the idea that thought and analysis are the only ways of interacting and seeing the world. But the difficulty of the ego is that it never wants to stop.

We build our rational and analytic positions on emotions and feelings – just as my argument is to an extent built on an emotional reaction to Buckley’s criticism – the emotions and feelings come first and then our thoughts create a structure building upwards and placing together sticks of argument that have their foundations firmly placed, firmly rooted, in the original emotion. Now does that mean all rational discussion is invalid? I am still writing this article, Ginsberg is still talking on the show. But there has to be some awareness of the position a person is taking before they start arguing, and in the case of Ginsberg and Buckley, of the structures in place that limit what it is possible to say.

But Ginsberg is aware of this. Throughout he uses all different types of communication to convey ideas in ways that are outside of and not subject to the same kind of paradox as that of the purely rationalised discussion that Buckley is attempting to put his ideas into. Buckley is only capable of using analysis – one particular type of thought pattern or position – and whilst he uses others – his body language for example, they are in the pursuit of his one goal. It is a debate programme, yes, but is that distinguishable from its political or more broadly existential effects? At points he looks almost like the figure of a trickster devil, his eyes flaring, as he attempts to thwart the expression of Ginsberg’s ideas by tying him in restrictive multilayered analytical knots. But even then, as the comments in this video discuss, Buckley is moved by Ginsberg’s poem.

To go into the philosophy of it for a moment:

Buckley’s real argument seems to be this, that everything can be stated rationally and be seen as self evidently correct, in the course of rational argument – that there is nothing, effectively, outside rationality and particularly, his rationality – even when that argument is, as it is here, leaning to a particular side by the limitations of the media and the other structures that are imposing themselves on the alternative position. And finally that the only way to discover this kind of knowledge, is through this same process of rationality.

The point of poetry is that it is not rational, it is a type of communication that we understand often at a deep level, that does not have to use rationality in the same way, but is able to communicate things that no amount of rationalisation could. Ginsberg also uses body language, as he points out, but in a conscious way to convey what he is trying to express and so that he can communicate much more clearly what might be lost in the complexity and confusion of words. He uses chants and mantras and music as other ways to get through to Buckley, and by proxy, to the audience that may be following his point of view and watching at home. They are universal human methods of communication that don’t use the same kind of division that Buckley uses to prove his truths. Analysis is a kind of division or separation, looking at the parts of something, rather than feeling or sensing or seeing the whole picture. The only state that cannot take on something new is analysis or critical thought. It can use information after it has been received. But if used constantly, it distorts information before it has even arrived. And an entire reliance on rationality? what does that say for the picture a person builds up of the reality they exist in?

Ginsberg does succeed in communicating something across the boundaries of television and scepticism, but like with any new thought it’s only for those that are open to it, and the medium and the circumstances are creating an environment where new information is not easily acceptable. And you can’t help thinking that those at home sitting in the picturesque carpeted middle class houses of businessmen, going to schools in which they advocate Buckley’s brand of politics and scepticism, separated by the screens where fear, judgement and the accepted codes of behaviour hover in the fuzzy edges of the screen, that they remain unconvinced and are as likely to use the word hippy at the end of the broadcast, as they were at the start.

Or at the edges of the computer screen. Broadcasting in a certain way, in a certain digital and immersive environment with its own set of rules and conventions, a television programme originally broadcast in 1968. Media is now even more involved in people’s lives than before, people still watch television, they still take in all types of information without the thought, or the wider perspective of how they are taking that information in and what effect it is having, at that moment in time, on their picture of the world. And if that picture is judgemental, critical & limited to only certain types of thought & certain types of expression, what does it say about the predominant use and effects of that kind of medium. Or is that just the picture as I see it? Is it possible to see even these mediums from the kind of transcendental perspective that Ginsberg is talking about, to see them with the kind of harmony and love that it takes to see through negatives, including those that seem so entrenched into the pixels of the facebook logo.

Perhaps there is hope in that by stepping outside of and noting these effects – in a sense separating yourself from them, coming to them new and fresh – it may be possible to use these mediums to advocate good, without that good losing its meaning. And with a constant awareness of their limitations and what we are missing when we use them, to make practical use of these technologies in a way that is itself useful and understanding of the ways we think without them. To remember that this is just an argument, constructed in an essay, using the rational point of view, and using that perspective, that method of communication to point towards something outside it.

Beau William Beakhouse