iPhone Haiku and The Poetics of Scientific Representation

consumer crowds throng
news reports average Joes’
lines for new Apples

That’s my Apple iPhone haiku. I found another one here written by a consumer who said:

resist temptation
need corp email while mobile
i fear i am not strong

It’s interesting that consumers are writing poetry about their “temptation” by new technology. Everyone in the blogosphere and their sister is writing about the incredible lineups and excitement over the launch of the Apple iPhone. The identity projects, the life themes, the ramifications for our understanding of consumer culture are all fascinating. Why, it’s like another Phantom Menace/Star Woids thing. Another Halo 2. Another PS3….hey, wait, aren’t those the same people in line each time? But I’m not going to go there. Not today anyways.

Today, I’m going to use these blatantly poetic representations of consumer techno-desires to introduce a topic near and dear to my heart: representation in the sphere of marketing science. As marketers, we are constantly being asked to be innovative and creative. Yet marketing science uses a fairly limited set of tools to represent its findings.

As I’ve written about earlier, debates continue in the marketing world about what forms of reality should be presented as “science.” A part of this debate that is only beginning to heat up in marketing (although it has been going strong in anthropology and sociology) is the so-called “crisis” of representation. How should we represent the complexity of our “truths” to one another? Can emotional truths be conveyed scientifically, or must they necessarily be channeled into the realm of “Art”? Even the sub-field of CCT (Consumer Culture Theory) is split on this difficult question.

I want to begin with a citation from an article in JCR that I consider to be very important in this regard. The article was written by John Sherry and John Schouten (two of my favorite writers in the field) and published in 2002. I removed the citations for greater readability, but left all their other language intact.

To communicate the essence of some of our most meaningful consumer experiences, the precise, linear language of science and academia may be, in and of itself, unsuitable. Poetry redresses the “expressive inadequacy of prose” in our yearning to “represent an otherwise eluding clarity of experience”. What is called for may be what Maslow describes as “rhapsodic communication…a kind of emotional contagion in isomorphic parallel.” To clarify his meaning, he reverts to more poetic language, referring metaphorically to: “…a tuning fork (that) will set off a sympathetic piano wire across the room” . Perhaps emotional “truths” are best communicated emotionally. Perhaps we know certain things are true or valid because, like good poetry, they resonate within us and somehow expand and enrich our consciousness. The visceral impact of good poetry is undeniable.

Perhaps because of its paradoxical ability to communicate parsimoniously certain aspects of human experience, and to condense the polyvocal nature of that experience in such a manner that it threatens to explode with additional meanings upon every (re-) reading, poetry is elbowing its way out of its traditional place in narrowly read literary publications and into the realm of science. Even in such “hard-science” disciplines as medicine and mathematics education practitioners have discovered (or re-discovered) the power of poetry to deliver with economy what normal speech, scholarship, or pedagogy can do only with greater difficulty, if at all. Noting that such mainstream medical journals as Lancet, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and Annals of Internal Medicine all publish original poetry, Forster describes instances where poetry by both physicians and patients “puts us in touch with the layer of feeling and meaning and sheer life that lies beneath the surface of our daily interactions.” Platt describes the case of a 70-year-old patient who, when asked by her doctor to describe her symptoms of hyperventilation, returned the following week with a poem that, according to the physician, described her experience “better than any doctor-patient interview ever could.” Similarly pragmatic, Curcio et al. invoke poetry in the teaching of mathematics. They observe that, “many poems — through rhythm, rhyme, story, and interesting word choices—evoke situations that engage children and can serve as a basis for mathematical problem solving.” This is because, as Graves (puts it, “numbers are always more than numbers,” implying that beneath a study of mathematics lie real people with real problems. Not too different, perhaps, from consumer behavior.

Imagine that we apprehend “reality”—which Nabakov believed to be one of the few words in the English language that should always be placed in quotation marks—as a layering of seeings, or tastings or touchings or hearings or smellings…or synaesthetic reverberations. If, like Oakeschott, we accept that the task of science is to accommodate disparate voices, and attend to the polyphony of science, then poetry is a viable vessel for the conveyance of research experiences. Science and poetry are kindred enterprises. For Frost, poetry is the pleasure of ulteriority. For Bourdieu, science is the revelation of that which is hidden. A common pursuit, undertaken in different keys. Perhaps former Poet Laureate Rita Dove’s belief that poetry makes “the interior life of one individual available to others” can serve as a rationale for the rapprochement of art and science in consumer research.

Poetic language as a part of science. Descriptions having the weight of abstractions. Resonance as a type of validity. What would this rapprochement look like? As a field, we’ve been experimenting tentatively with poetry. With incorporating visual research. With videography. With combinations of these methods. And some have been experimenting with alternative hybridized forms of writing. Over the next series of postings, I’m going to share some of my experimental writing in this area, and then return to discuss it and the role or resonant representations (a term Russ Belk and I used for our video-text hybrid special issues of the academic journal Consumption, Markets, and Culture) in the field of marketing and consumer research.