The entire caste system of our literary life (from publisher to the humblest reader, including bookseller and critic) has no choice but to oppose the unknown form which is attempting to establish itself. The minds best disposed to the idea of a necessary transformation, those most willing to countenance and even to welcome the values of experiment, remain, nonetheless, the heirs of a tradition. A new form will always seem more or less an absence of any form at all, since it is unconsciously judged by reference to the consecrated forms....
The stammering newborn work will always be regarded as a monster, even by those who find experiment fascinating. There will be some curiosity, of course, some gestures of interest, always some provision for the future. And some praise; though what is sincere will always be addressed to the vestiges of the familiar, to all those bonds from which the new work has not yet broken free and which desperately seek to imprison it in the past.
For if the norms of the past serve to measure the present, they also serve to construct it. The writer himself, despite his desire for independence, is situated within an intellectual culture and a literature which can only be those of the past. It is impossible for him to escape altogether from this tradition of which he is the product. Sometimes the very elements he has tried hardest to oppose seem, on the contrary, to flourish more vigorously than ever in the very work by which he hoped to destroy them; and he will be congratulated, of course, with relief for having cultivated them so zealously.
Saturday, November 25, 2006
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Not to pull a cop-out, but another perspective on my earlier post about the unpoetic, etc.: I'm just temporarily disenchanted with "legitimate" poetry in almost any contemporary form. It's, you know, a phase.
Nevertheless, like all phases, it won't pass without effecting some permanent transformations in my previous habits. Those transformations may not be as dramatic as my little jeremiad would suggest, but sometimes you have to exaggerate in order to get a clear idea for yourself of exactly what it is that you're exaggerating. Plus, disillusionment can reverse itself, but rarely into full ... um, reillusionment.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
I'm increasingly ambivalent, even apathetic, toward much of contemporary poetry. My interest seems to be narrowing, along lines that are perhaps predictable to anyone familiar with the general direction my work and that of my most immediate community has taken in the past few years.
At the same time, I feel that I've increasingly relaxed my attitudes toward a larger set of poetic practices and styles for which I once expressed disdain. I no longer find it very useful to maintain an us/them distinction along "experimental" vs. "mainstream" lines.
Increasingly, there is simply poetry I find interesting and poetry I don't. And the latter category, as I've said, is growing.
I find it increasingly difficult to become invested in work that takes either a "traditional" approach to form, tone, theme, imagery, voice, etc., or a traditionally "avant-garde" approach to the same. There are exceptions, of course. But for the most part, if it looks like poetry as such, I'm bored with it. (Note that I'm talking here about contemporary poetry; I still, for whatever reasons, hold most of the same opinions now about poetry up to, oh, 1990 or so, that I've held pretty consistently all along.)
Increasingly, most of the poetry that affects me (I said this would be predictable) is poetry that is in some way conspicuously "unpoetic," a description that no longer has any real meaning in relation to most work which announces itself as experimental, avant-garde, procedural, etc. Stein's famous remark about outlaw and classic literature still holds; there is simply not much that is "outlaw" about a great deal of the current writing that sees itself as following in that tradition.
As MFA programs increasingly refashion themselves to accommodate newer, "edgier" styles, including styles that signal a clear debt to Language and other fairly recent historical movements, the gestures associated with those styles lose their meanings, even when the writers in question perform them in good political conscience (interpret that however you like).
I'm increasingly uncomfortable when my own students find out about my work on the internet and turn in "flarfy" poetry. Not that there's anything wrong with it in and of itself--much of it is quite inventive and funny. But part of me thinks that classroom activity should remain distinct from living practice, that students' time in a workshop is better spent learning to write in meter, for example, or imitating Dickinson/Pound/Coleridge, than in making sestinas out of porn spam. This is partly because I still believe somewhat in the conservative old saw that one should learn figure drawing or whatever before one is qualified to paint abstractly, and partly because when flarf simply becomes another item on the craft-based academic menu (this actually seems to be happening in some places), it loses a large part of its reason for existing.
Academia per se, I maintain, is not the problem. Academia is good. It teaches people stuff. The problem is the unholy alliance between academic creative writing programs and the publishing/arts-funding mafia(s). To the extent that programs offer students palpable knowledge and skills, they are good. To the extent that they are used to groom them for advancement in a spurious hierarchical network of career insiders, they are bad. One might reasonably object that few people would be likely to enroll in any academic program that didn't offer at least the possibility of getting a job out of it. Got a point there.
But back to the unpoetic. What does this term mean? For me it means in part a willingness to fly in the face not so much of general notions of poetic tradition, which are safely petrified anyway, but to resist the stifling influence of self-appointed Guardians of the Ideological Purity of the Experimental Contemporary. An irony here is that those stiflers are usually not, as one might expect, members of a senior avant-garde, such as the Language Poets, but instead, their frustrated generational would-be successors. Or maybe this isn't an irony at all: these are often the same persons who resent the Language Poets' primacy of influence, and who therefore reject outright certain modes and techniques they associate with the Langpos (disjunction, collage, non-referentiality, etc.). As if modes and techniques in themselves could be tethered unproblematically to a single movement or aesthetic.
Since few people besides poets read contemporary poetry, it stands to reason that the readers you are most likely to piss off are other poets. You can't piss off anyone else, because they just don't care: they already hate all poetry in the first place, or they assume that whatever you're doing must be just great because what do they know about it? Furthermore, the gesture of pissing off "mainstream" poets is pretty much exhausted. Most mainstream poets have either provisionally embraced certain aspects of postmodernism, or are so cranky and retrograde that no one takes them seriously anymore. What this all ought to amount to is a sense of complete freedom for poets to write whatever they want; what's surprising is how few poets seem interesting in taking this freedom.
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
The Richard Kostelanetz Memorial Building: Flarflist Collective Headquarters in Billings, Montana
Chief Flarfologist Michael Magee Demonstrates Symptoms of Digital Epidermal Corrosion as a Result of Prolonged Google-Sculpting
Rigorously Trained Avant-Garde Operatives Work Long Hours Collating Google-Derived Text for Use in Poetic Communiques
A Troupe of Eager Flarfist Thespians Rehearsing Backstage at the 2006 Flarf Festival in New York City
Sunday, November 05, 2006
The highlight for me of Bill O'Reilly's "Outrage of the Week" segment with Bruce Andrews Friday on the Fox News Channel was Bruce's stiletto-like pronunciation of "justificatory." They didn't show O'Reilly's face at that moment, but my guess is that it temporarily spun around to the back of his head, showed up back in front upside-down, then righted itself with a little wobble.
UPDATE: The exchange is now on YouTube.
Saturday, November 04, 2006
I Love You, 2006
What ultimately does irony negate? No more than the possibility of faith in the rhetorical consciousness upon which it is founded, and to which it stands as the extreme, self-cancelling period.
This faith is a faith in correspondences. That to my infant apprehension of the world as object, there corresponds a translation, a metaphorical emergence of clarity which takes the form of a separate gloss; that to my emerging awareness of self, there corresponds a macrocosmic accommodation, a synecdochically climbable hierarchy which extends its paternal links to me like a ladder; that to my moment of disillusionment at the split between self and world, there corresponds the ascendance of a new illusion, a space of metonymy in which I may stand at least as master of my own alienation. Irony masquerades as the last correspondence, the correspondence that is no correspondence at all. I am not what I am, or I am what I am not, or I am, not or I am not.
Michael Jackson and "Bubbles," 1988
porcelain & ceramic
Thesis: Irony negates wonder in favor of cheap cynicism.
Antithesis: Irony negates cheap rhetorical shorthand, predatorily tendentious manipulation of the emotions. The cynicism of irony does not emerge from a vacuum. It is a reflection of the bad faith displayed in the materials under scrutiny.
Synthesis [sorry about the hackneyed Fichtean triad]: Irony, when not tethered to the objectives of polemic, takes on a floating relation of "cynicism" in relation to whatever topic it may adopt as its host. The most obvious example is the effect produced by putting "scare quotes" around a word or phrase without any contextual indication of what the affective force of the irony might be, as when store owners misuse punctuation: e.g., Please "wipe your feet" before entering showroom. This is not what is usually meant by "blank irony," but I would argue that it might be presented as a special variety ("blunk irony"?).
It would be a mistake, however, to consider any instance of blank irony [was Jameson the first to use this phrase, or did he borrow it from existing criticism?] impotently cynical on the grounds that the object of the irony is in some way occluded or incoherently framed.
Jeff Koons' famous sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee is a reasonably useful example of blank irony. Is Jackson's grandiose celebrity what is being ironized? Perhaps in part. Art that persists in claims to high seriousness? That too. But neither of these in and of themselves are sufficient to raise the sculpture's ironic stance above the charge of banality.
On another level, Koons' sculpture ironizes the artist's and/or viewer's confidence in his or her ability to separate brute aesthetic response from critical reflection. The "bad taste" of the object is only a conceit, a placeholder. It enforces the suspension of evaluative judgment rather than directing such judgment to a conclusion. Or, if a conclusion is reached, it is by way of the viewer's predisposition to reject the aesthetic experience offered by the object, not through any "readable" content available to the viewer therein.
The "blankness" of Koons' irony, then is not a poverty of commitment to some moral ideal, not a failure to "take a position." It is a calculated leaving-empty within the coordinates of an imaginary field. The parts of this field that have already been "filled in" seem to invite a continued filling-in, leading toward an inevitable completion of a figure. But there is no way to complete such a figure without encountering irremediable contradictions that ultimately prohibit the possibility of a realized figure at all.
I am speaking, of course, not of a spatial figure, but of an ethical one. It may be that aporetic contradiction is in the nature of all ethical figures, and that it is irony's signature quality to limn this aporia.
There is nothing categorically different about the "wonder" generated by Koons' blank irony from any earier mode of aesthetic awe-inducing. In fact, if the root value of wonder as a human gesture is to hold the rational faculties in abeyance, then irony is simply the aspect of that gestural impulse that acts self-knowingly in the absence of illusions as to the power of tropes to effect correspondence.
Popular cultural products often advertise their ability to elicit a "sense of wonder," a childlike (if not childish) abandonment of mature sobriety for a lulling, uncanny dementia. This is sometimes, to be sure, displaced onto seemingly unlikely contexts: I remember that the print advertisement for the 1980s television movie The Day After depicts a Kansan farmscape with a small human figure watching the ghostly trails of ICBMs sail across the sky, accompanied by the tagline "Beyond Imagining." It could as well be a scene of extraterrestrial visitation, a la Close Encounters. What is ostensibly offered as a grim cautionary vision reveals itself from another perspective as an intriguingly un-Real manifestation of Spectacle.
Wonder, in short, is often relegated to the desperate or conniving purview of empty reassurance or fantastical supposition. It is one of the most well-known historical means of exercising control and non-resistance.
We might ask about the extended uses of a "negative wonder," an ironic staging of the ideological strategies that characterize wonder as conventionally deployed. Clearly some such concept is at play in Koons' sculpture, as well as in much modernist and postmodernist art, literature, music, etc. More generally, to say that irony negates wonder may be saying little more than that wonder as an aesthetic phenomenon will always, in time, play itself out negatively--culiminating in its inverse condition of cynicism. Blank irony has its own limitations, of course, but one thing it does is anticipate this inevitable cynical inversion and head it off at the pass. The question is what is then put in the place of both the original wonder and the cynicism that ordinarily succeeds it. If the inversion of negative wonder is negative cynicism, does crude wonder then again fill in that empty space? Do we achieve something valuable by activating infinite regress?
Thursday, November 02, 2006
2. Evaluate this statement: "Your answer to question 1 will determine whether you are a) a literalist; b) a pragmatist; c) a structuralist; d) an asshole."
3. True or False: "Irony" is a "mode" that one can "choose" to "inhabit" as a "way of life." T ___ F ___
4. "Scare quotes" enable one to express meanings that would otherwise be unavailable. It's just obvious, right?
5. Write a short paragraph about how impoverished human society would be without the aid of irony as a conceptual, poetical, and dysfunctional whatsis.
6. Is it even possible to locate irony as a discrete function anymore? I mean, beyond basic instances of rhetorical or dramatic irony? Or, from another perspective, is it even possible for someone living in the present world to renounce irony? Isn't our existence so mediated by irony at every level that the most we can do is counter dull, tired irony with fresh, interesting irony? What do you mean you find that a depressing suggestion?
7. Isn't a lot of what has been called irony over the past decade or two really more of an attempt to rehabilitate a specific strain of cultural cynicism? For example, if one derives "ironic" enjoyment from a Brady Bunch episode or a Kelly Clarkson song, is that true irony in the sense of asserting a false positive? Isn't it rather a semiheroic refusal to succumb to a blightedly Adornoesque crankishness?
8. "I didn't like that novel, its style was too..."
b) reliant on superficially recycled gestures of late twentieth-century postmodernism
c) what the hell's the difference?
d) the fact that you can't tell the difference is the real problem here
9. I'll tell you what I find depressing: the prospect of a totalitarian sincerism in which any attempt at ethical nuance or irreverence toward the Great Straight Face of righteous resistance is met with anxious scorn and ostracism. Wouldn't that world be even more fucking fun to live in than the lovely garden party we've got going right now?
10. Isn't a good thing that, as poets, we're all so sophisticated and full of negative capability that we appreciate irony as a complex, multivalenced phenomenon, and thus none of us need worry about perceiving ourselves depicted in the kinds of reductive caricatures flouted above?