Sunday, July 23, 2017

Poetry and the Alphabet



Years ago, Ron Silliman wrote an essay called "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World," where he claimed that popular fiction sought to make language disappear, putting words together so innocuously that they disappeared, letting a kind of movie play in the head of the viewer (his example for this, if I recall correctly, was a novelization of the movie Jaws).  There's something to this line of thinking, and I tried to push it a bit further in an essay on the use of letters (alphabetical letters, not epistolary ones) in poetry. It's called "Immigrants and Kings: The Letter in the Empire of Poetry." Here's how it starts:


The writing of letters is an art as old as any other, and came to us, if Berossus, Priest of Marduk in Babylon is to be believed, when Oannes, a great fish with the head and feet of a man emerged, speaking, from the Erythraean Sea. Oannes taught the ignorant people of Chaldea not only how to write, but how to build houses, found temples, compose laws, collect fruits, and distinguish between the seeds of many different plants.
As venerable as writing was in the tale told by Berossus, it is more venerable still as described in the pages of the Sefer Yetzirah, the first great work of Jewish esoterism. Reading this ancient work we find that God created nothing—not mankind, not the seraphim, neither the earth nor the heavens nor seas—until he first created the alphabet. “Twenty-two letters did he engrave and carve,” we read, “he weighed them and moved them around into different combinations. Through them, he created the soul of every living being and the soul of every word.” The letters, fixed on a wheel of 231 gateways, precede and give birth to all else in creation.
We don’t know exactly when poetry began, though we have, from a few surviving totems and similar relics, a sense of when symbolic thinking came about—some 70,000 years ago—and we can surmise that poetry, in the form of ritual incantations, funeral rites, and tales of tribal origins, emerged around the same time. Writing, even in its most primitive forms, came about many thousands of years later, after the agricultural revolution created a need for contracts and tally-sheets for merchants in grain and cattle. Only later still did writing become sophisticated enough to record poetry.
All of this is by way of saying that letters come late to the great and ancient kingdom of poetry, a kingdom that accepted them begrudgingly. 
The whole essay is in the Ilanot Review, and you can read it online here. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Revolutions Reviewed!




The always-interesting journal Galatea Resurrects has been kind enough to run a review of my recent book written with John Matthias and Jean Dibble, Revolutions: A Collaboration.  Ralph La Charity says some kind things.  He understands the relationship between the historical source in Mandalstam's poetry, Matthias' reworking and riffing on those poems, Dibble's prints reaction to Matthias, and my own commentary, and concludes by saying:
Throughout REVOLUTIONS the beholder is treated to a many-angled banquet of effects.  As elusive as any one effect might be, it is in the mixing of all those effects that the book achieves itself.  The poet achieves grace for his terrorized forebear, the visual artist achieves a poetics of sighted sound, and the critic takes us into an orientation we receive as grandly utile in its breadth and particularity both.  And yes, the book manifestly rewards re-reading and re-apprehending, since I have managed to give but a teasing hint as to how its complexities meld into a variegated whole that is, truly, sublime. 
La Charity also calls me a "a speculative unraveler par excellence," which may be my favorite epithet ever.

The review can be read online here.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Politics of Stupidity, or: The Prescience of Pierre Bourdieu



In the last years of his life, Pierre Bourdieu turned with increasing urgency to political questions.  Seeing in globalization an ever-greater concentration of all forms of capital—financial, educational, symbolic, and so forth—he called for a true internationalism, a set of reforms at the European and, ultimately, global level to rein in the forces that would reduce everything to a commodity, and render up all commodities into the hands of the few. Speaking to an audience of students in Berlin in June of 2000, he said a few words about the nature of the emerging global elite that resonate particularly well with today’s grim political picture. Those words go a long way toward explaining the nature of the kind of resentful populism—and in some cases, fascism—that we see rising around us.

He speaks of the unequal distribution of cultural capital, including the kinds of capital (advanced educational degrees, international travel, familiarity with the keywords of prestige fields like economics or the sciences, readership of intellectually challenging books and media, etc.) amassed by the elites of the emerging global economy. To be clear: this is an elite broadly conceived—not merely the 1% we railed against at Occupy, but the professional and managerial classes.  I, and most of those reading likely to be reading this, are members of that class, whether we care to admit it or not.
The ruling class no doubt owes its extraordinary arrogance to the fact that, being endowed with very high cultural capital (most obviously of academic origin, but also nonacademic), it feels perfectly justified in existing as it currently exists… The educational diploma is not merely a mark of academic distinction: it is perceived as a warrant of natural intelligence, of giftedness.  Thus the “new economy” has all the characteristics to appear as the “brave new world.”  It is global and those who dominate it are often international, polyglot, and polycultural (by opposition to the locals, the “national” or “parochial”). It is immaterial or “weightless”: it produces and circulates weightless objects such as information and cultural products.  As a consequence, it can appear as an economy of intelligence, reserved for “intelligent” people (which earns it the sympathy of “hip” journalists and executives).  Sociodicy [the means by which a society justifies itself] here takes the form of a racism of intelligence: today’s poor are not poor, as they were thought to be in the nineteenth century, because they are improvident, spendthrift, intemperate, etc.—by opposition to the “deserving poor”—but because they are dumb, intellectually incapable, idiotic. In short, in academic terms “they got their just deserts”…
There’s a kind of smugness, Bourdieu says, to the widely-held belief among elites that we got here because we’re smart, and others ended up where they are because they’re stupid—a smugness based on an almost willful blindness to the barriers to the development of human capital faced by the majority of the population, and a on a discrediting of forms of knowledge other than those held in esteem by elites.  But so what? Well, there’s this, when Bourdieu continues:
The victims of such a powerful mode of domination… are very deeply damaged in their self-image. And it is no doubt through this mediation that a relationship—most often unnoticed or misunderstood—can be traced between neoliberal politics [the deregulated, financialized, and internationalized world of globalization] and certain fascistoid forms of revolt among those who, feeling excluded from access to intelligence and modernity, are driven to take refuge in the national and nationalism.
Tell people they're stupid—even if it's not spoken except through a thousand micro-aggressions—and they won't forget it.  “America first,” they'll say, or “France for the French,” or "Build the wall!" or “Brexit!” They'll simmer with resentment, feeling that they are looked down on by a worldly elite as nothing more than idiots, or a basket of deplorables.  And here they are, angry to the point of violence, giving us (as Michael Moore put it) "the biggest fuck you in human history." They've been had, of course—preyed on and manipulated by the cynical people who have taken power and seek only their own personal ends. We are right to oppose them, but we would be wrong to say we did not, to some degree, provoke their rage.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Arks & Covenants: The Poet as Aphorist & Essayist



Poussin's paintings, Shakespeare's epitaph, Thom Gunn's existentialism, and many other things animate the elegantly written essays in Alfred Corn's new collection of prose, Arks & Covenants. As fascinating as the essays are, though, my favorite part of the book is its collection of aphorisms. There have been times and places when collections of maxims and bon mots have been expected from writers—but our time and place is not one of them.  This makes me love them all the more. Here's what I said about Corn's aphorisms in an essay called "Without Trumpets" that serves as an afterword to the book:
Corn’s own eccentricities include his commitment to the aphorism as a literary form. The aphorism, of course, has an ancient and distinguished tradition: for centuries, any French writer without a book of maxims would have to make excuses for the omission. But, as Corn points out in the introduction to the collection of his own aphorisms included here, the form has passed from fashion, and has difficulty finding a publisher and an audience. Corn’s aphorisms certainly deserve an audience for their exemplary mondanité. For the present context, though, it is interesting to note how many of his aphorisms turn upon observations on the same themes around which his criticism revolves. When, for example, Corn writes this observation about dogs, we are back in the realm of cultural influence and transformation: “Dogs outside their masters’ houses at night inspire each other to ‘speak.’ One bark sets off another, and so on until all within earshot wake up and join in. The same with literary folk.” Similarly, when Corn writes ““Insofar as the author’s task is to find speech capable of communicating what can’t be said, writing resembles the Incarnation, in which ineffable deity becomes visible flesh and audible word” we are returning to his obsession with Christian forms of the sacred. And how can we read “Humility is not the same thing as humiliation, but if you’ve never been humiliated you probably won’t attain it” without feeling Corn’s compassion for the social outsider?
Arks & Covenants is available here. 


Monday, May 08, 2017

Laureate Poets and Heretic Poets in the TLS



I've always romanticized the Grand Old Literary Newsprint Journals—the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and, best of all, the Times Literary Supplement. It's not often I've encountered references to my own work when flipping through the TLS (three times, not that I'm counting), so I was delighted to run across Stephen Burt's "Laureates and Heretics" in the May 3 issue—an article that takes its name from a book of mine that came out several years ago.

Burt's essay isn't about my book: it's a review of two books of essays by contemporary poets, Alan Shapiro's The Self-Forgetful Perfectly Useless Concentration and John Matthias' At Large.  But—noting that both Shapiro and Matthias studied in the considerable shadow Yvor Winters cast at Stanford (Matthias under the man himself, Shapiro under his disciples)—Burt chose to use Laureates and Heretics as a means of understanding the two poets.  My book, after all, was about Winters' last generation of students, and the poetic careers they went on to have.  Burt gives a good, quick sense of the book in his introductory paragraph:
In 2010 the Illinois-based poet and critic Robert Archambeau published Laureates and Heretics, about “six careers in American poetry”: those of Yvor Winters (1900–68) and five of Winters’s last graduate students at Stanford University. Of those, Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass became US Poet Laureates, while John Peck, John Matthias and James McMichael (the heretics) found small, loyal, contrarian audiences for their drier and more obviously learned poetry. Archambeau showed that Winters’s astringent yet charismatic pedagogy, his early modernist experiments and the severe doctrines of his later years – against raw emotion and modernist uncertainty, in favour of reason, control and inherited rules – could generate sharply divergent poetic programmes. He also showed how a particular way of reading, indebted to Winters’s poetic tastes and touchstones (including Ben Jonson, J. V. Cunningham and George Herbert’s “Church Monuments”), could persist for generations, even as its acolytes diverged.

Burt goes on to use the notion of "laureate" and "heretic" poetics to describe Shapiro and Matthias, respectively:
Shapiro’s fourth volume of prose. Most of its nine essays recommend, persuasively and movingly, what Archambeau might call a laureate programme: personal but guarded, never opaque, fiercely committed to the double notion that poetry can be read by everyone, and that it requires hard work to write. Shapiro may never become US Poet Laureate, but his moderate, democratic, inviting prescriptions fit Archambeau’s laureate frame.... John Matthias remains one of Archambeau’s heretics, and he writes for readers who have already read a great deal, or in some cases for readers who have read every issue of Notre Dame Review, the literary journal that Matthias co-edited in the 1990s and 2000s.
There's something in that critical distinction.  And there's something special in it for me: it's always good to encounter one's own paradigm put to use.

The article is available in print, and online, here, to subscribers.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

On Rhyme Out Now!



Rejoice! David Caplan has edited a collection of essays called On Rhyme, with contributions from a host of interesting people. Here's the table of contents:

Rhyme in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry

Stephen Burt – Cornucopia, or, Contemporary American Rhyme
Robert Archambeau – Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Rhyme in Contemporary American Poetry
Maureen N. McLane – Divigations on Rhyme: For Rhyme, or Rhyme
Roi Tartakovsky – Rhyme Random: Robert Creeley's Sporadic Rhymes.

Rhyme Across Time Periods

Simon Jarvis – Why Rhyme Pleases
Anthony Madrid – Seventeen Quotations with Commentary.

Rhyme in Earlier Poetry

Christina Pugh – Emily Dickinson, Rhyme, and Sonic Ambivalence
Michael C. Clody – The Matter of Rhyme in Tudor Poetics
Peter McDonald – Boundaries and Ways between: Rhyme and the Hermetic
David Scott Wilson-Okamura – Spenser's Drone.

Poetry Portfolio

Charles Bernstein – "Fare Thee Well" and "What Makes a Poem a Poem?"
Maureen N. McLane – "On Not Being Elizabethan"
Jennifer Moxley – "The Bittersweet Echo" and "The Poetry Lesson"
Albert Goldbarth – "Migration Song"
Michael Robbins – “Sonnets to Edward Snowden”

Hip Hop and Rhyme

Natalie Gerber – Stress vs. Syllable Timing: Global Englishes, Rhyme, and Rap
David Caplan – The Inheritors of Hip Hop: Reclaiming Rhyme

Rhyme in Other Texts

H.L. Hix – Identical Rhyme and Multiplicity of Identity
Marjorie Perloff – Afterward: What the Ear Demands.


Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Revolutions: A Collaboration — Or How to Write in the Age of Trump and Putin


How to write in the time of Trump and Putin? In words and images, John Matthias, Jean Dibble, and Robert Archambeau give you an answer to consider: find the muse of amusement and the reality of facts and twin them: you will arrive at "Revolutions," which instructs us on the possible meanings and uses of poetry in an Age of Emergency. These collaborators sing of methods of representation and ways to make new. Visually stimulating, linguistically innovative, this is work of invention and innovation to help us survive. From eidolon to Eisenhower, from Eiffel to Eichmann, the leaps keep us on our toes. There is much consolation in the anxiety of forms.—Maxine Chernoff



That's the jacket copy got Revolutions: A Collaboration, a book I co-wrote with John Matthias, with images by Jean Dibble. It's just out from Dos Madres Press and looks great. But what's it about? There's no easy way to say, but I'd start with this: it takes scenes from the life and works of the great Russian poet Mandelstam, crosses them with events from the life of John Matthias, and bends everything toward a fictive realm, all the while commenting on the nature of cognition, memory, and the (possibly redemptive) imagination.  Here's an example of one of John's poems with my commentary (the "HIJ" is a fictive character based on the three consecutive letters of the alphabet H, I and J, and the poem uses words from the entry for those letters in the dictionary based on a kind of Oulipo-derived formula):






From THE HIJOFIT

 

Poems by John Matthias, commenatry by Robert Archambeau     


1. Haphazard


            is the method of the new hussars;
the tsar’s unhappy; bless him

and applause aplenty bring to his tsarina.
All bells toll this inauspicious hour.

Peasant absentee shuns orthodoxy of
the Bishop of Pah. It reigns down from clouds

O hallelujah crowd and ever after: Winds blow
across the steppe, the messenger

caught up in mass and mission
fails in the individual soul: Everything’s for sale,

especially oil, soil.  Ahph!  Our brother’s pipeline
sabotaged by cabbage claims.  Borsht!

Poetics is no longer worth a pension
even for a splaygirl in from Budapest. Anapests –

the three red accents on her breasts.
Hazard me a guess, dauntless guest of hap-

penstance drinking vodka at our happy hour.
That was the moment. That was the power.

Hapax Legoman was his love, who
drove a nine and twenty for her dower.

-->

H is for Haslam’s History

            Who are they, then, these new hussars? And who’s the windblown messenger caught up in mass and mission? Who, also, is our brother, and who the splaygirl come from Budapest? “Hazard me a guess,” we hear. I’ll hazard this: they’re all from Haslam’s History, or close enough. Dull critic that I am, I won’t mimic Matthias, no. No, I’ll explain.
            Silas Haslam’s History of the Land Called Uqbar exists only in one place—or three, depending how you count the reality of immaterial things.  For the most puritanical of enumerators, it exists only in a story by Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” The hero of that story comes across a mention of Haslam’s History in the bibliography appended to the last article of a stray volume of the fictitious 1917 Anglo-American Encyclopedia, an imaginary illegal reprint of the eminently real Encyclopedia Brittanica of 1903. This imagined version of a real book is, in fact, the second place, other than Borges’ story itself, where Haslam’s book stakes its tenuous claim to reality. But the encyclopedia article that mentions Haslam faces great challenges in its claim to existence: besides being a construct of Borges’ imagination, it is apocryphal even within the story born of that imagination. There, it exists only in the possibly unreliable testimony of a secondary character—some copies of the encyclopedia lack the article, and we have only the testimony of this character to indicate that at least one copy does indeed contain four extra pages describing Uqbar.
            Strangely, Haslam’s History has a greater claim to existence than the encyclopedia article in which it is mentioned, as characters in the story discover it mentioned in the catalog (the third place of its existence) of a bookshop. To be precise, they discover it in the catalog of Bernard Quartich’s bookshop—a real shop, opened in London in 1847 and open there still. Whether Haslam’s book ever existed in the catalog of the venerable Quartich’s, I cannot say. Doubts abound, but scholars have yet to assemble the catalogs of Quartich, dispersed as they have been over the globe for a hundred and sixty years and more. So we just don’t know for sure.
            But H is not just for Haslam’s History, nor for “Haphazard,” or “Hij,” or “Hijofit.” H is also for “Hermeneutic code.” Of the five communicative codes described in Roland Barthes’ S/Z, this is the one that most frustrates and satisfies readers. It refers to those elements of narrative that are not explained, that raise enigmas and set us hunting for answers. Sometimes, as in the detective story, we find those answers, our hermeneutic hunger satisfied with a great “aha!” But sometimes an author—wily, sly, or incompetent—frustrates us in our search. Sometimes they make us fall into what Barthes calls a “snare”—an enigma refusing to be resolved.
            We might say that the reality of Haslam’s History in Borges’ story is a snare. Except that Borges is more wily still. His story isn’t just about the dubious existence of things–it is about the influence of nonexistent things, their propensity to multiply and become real. Through machinations too arcane to articulate here, artifacts not of Uqbar, but of Tlön—a fictitious realm from the literature of Uqbar—begin to manifest as actual objects in the real world of Borges’ story. What was caught in the hermeneutic snare is unleashed in the world itself.  If you don’t believe it, try Googling “Uqbar” or “Haslam’s History.” You’ll find they’re mentioned, now, not in one place, or three, but many thousands. Borges sent them from the narrow valley of the unsubstantial to the broad fields of ubiquity.

            Who, then, are Matthias’ hussars? And who’s the windblown messenger? We don’t know who they are. But we know where they are: they’re in three places. They’re caught in the poet’s snare–from which none of them shall escape to make a horseman’s charge, or deliver a messenger’s missive. And they’re in an artist’s image, in colors they never knew or wore. And they’re in this commentary, now. They are snared and stuck forever, and they begin to travel.

Here are some of Jean's images:



The book can be ordered at the Dos Madres Press site, at Amazon, or at SPD.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Flash of Up: Reading Eric Elshtain



Here’s a poem called “Shawl Dance.” It’s by Eric Elshtain, from his 2015 book This Thin Memory A-Ha.

The sky of it causes
harmony in the bending
as a bird maneuver
creates a flash of up—

she starts to sing—the young
Lakota in a high school gym—
to reverse the history
of the crowd’s shout—.

And since, no sky is like
the kind that caused us
under the act
of a single dance
to be all too created

*

The referent is a very particular thing—the shawl dance, something performed by tribal groups of the Great Plains and the Canadian prairies.  In its way, it is an adaptation to humiliation and defeat.

Starting in the 1920s, it became illegal for Native Americans to perform traditional religious and ceremonial dancing. In response, they developed new dances and costumes, a collection of movements and sartorial signifiers that went under the name of “the fancy dance.” It was a way to get around the laws that were meant to stamp out Native American cultural identity, to mutate old forms and let them survive, shorn of much of their old significance.  The dances, while not religious, became rituals of identity, and so gained a different kind of dignity—even when they were commodified, and performed for tourists during the Depression, when plains tribes were harder pressed even than the homesteaders of the dustbowl.

The shawl dance was a particularly female element of the fancy dance, and represented a butterfly coming out of a cocoon.  Rebirth, a perennial theme in all human cultures, takes on a particular resonance in the context of the fancy dance, born from the murder of old religious forms, and born as art, and beauty.

I like that in Elshtain’s representation of it, the shawl dance forms a harmony that is also a sky: it is the rebirth of a universe, of a cultural world that might have disappeared.

I like, too, that it takes place in a high school gym—that it is a moment within a larger, encompassing culture that speaks back against the history that brought that encompassing culture to dominance on the plains (Elshtain adds a note, “South Dakota, 1998” indicating the location of the depicted events).

And speaking of larger cultures, there’s an elegant, if oblique, reference to Christianity at the end of the poem: there is no sky, we read, like the kind under which we were all created—or, more specifically, under which we were “all too created.”  That’s the fall we’re talking about—how we came into being with the potential to sin, to be expelled from the Edenic harmony prepared for us into a world of suffering and (oh Cain, oh Abel) violence.  Eden only exists for us now in dreams and artifice, in the harmony to which we can feel we  ascend, just momentarily, in the “flash of up” flights of art.

*

The referent is compelling, but it is presented somewhat obscurely, a little sideways, a little odd of angle.  When we hit the first line, it takes just a moment to be sure the “it” is the shawl dance of the title.  And we don’t read “The Lakota girl, in the traditional dance, casts her shawl up in a birdlike motion to create a kind of artificial shawl-sky above her.” We read something that asks us to make a bit of a leap.  And I’m still not quite sure how to take the part of the second stanza about the crowd’s shout.  I mean, I understand, or think I understand, about the dance reversing history, given what I know about the history and meaning of the fancy dance tradition of which the shawl dance is a part.  But in this scene, is what we see a call-and-response from a crowd that is on the girl’s side? Or are they somehow hostile? I can guess, but that’s really all I can do, given the way things are depicted here, with such economy and obliquity.

Even the notion of human falleness is handled with utmost economy—take the words “all too” out of the last line and it vanishes.  That’s compression. Or maybe it’s better to say “that’s a light touch.”

It’s not an abstract poetry at all—no more than certain types of Cubism are abstractt art.  Think of “Shawl Dance” as a verbal equivalent of something like Braque’s “Violin and Candlesticks.” It depicts something, but what it depicts comes to us less immediately than it would in a traditionally perspectival painting. It takes a moment to emerge from all those chiseled planes. And it isn’t really more important than the planes from which it emerges: the planes are as much the point, or more so, than the referents. That’s true of Braque’s painting, and of Elshtain’s poem, too.

Elsthtain pushes form forward in front of his referents, just as Braque does. But why? On the one hand, I don’t think this requires an explanation any more than does any other convention, including the poetic convention of anecdotal realism. On the other hand, I love explanations, especially when they forego any claim to exhausting their subjects, and I have neither the intention of exhausting, nor the ability to exhaust, Elshtain’s poem. And I think one explanation for the way he presents his referents obliquely comes in the title of the book in which the poem is to be found.  This Thin Memory A-Ha is, after all, not just a title but a poetics. It declares something about what a poem can be: a thin little thing, surrounded by white space on the page; a memory of an experience (perhaps of a shawl dance in South Dakota back in 1998); and a quick, delighted moment when delayed understanding becomes realized understanding.

That is: the oblique presentation allows for a moment of delay before the perception snaps into focus.  It allows for an a-ha.

The shawl dance, like the Cubist poem, allows for the sudden creation of its own world, where there might have been none.  The sky of it suddenly becomes real in a flash of up.



Saturday, April 08, 2017

In Which I Am Interviewed By The Huffington Post



The good people at the Huffington Post have interviewed me about what’s going on in the poetry world. Here’s a snippet:
I’ve always thought the most uninteresting thing a critic can do is say “thumbs up!” or “thumbs down!”—at least if its just a matter of holding a book up to one’s pre-existing set of critical standards and seeing if it conforms. I’m always most excited when I encounter a book that either leaves me baffled or seems entirely at odds with what my instincts tell me poetry ought to be. This can be avant-garde work, of course, but it can also be things that are the poetic equivalents of mammoths unfrozen from the polar ice—as if they’d dropped in from another time.
The rest is available here.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

When Revolution Was Sexy, or: Tania, Ché’s Woman in Bolivia



Not long ago, as I was shuffling my way through the local used bookshop, I saw a pristine copy of the November 1968 issue of Evergreen Review. William Burroughs! Céline! Nat Hentoff before he slid rightwards! The Chicago police riot! Something called “Tania: Ché’s Woman in Bolivia,” for which the only appropriate response is to shout “how was this not turned into a movie with Dennis Hopper in heavy makeup and Jane Fonda with a brunette dye-job?” And speaking of Jane Fonda: an ad for Barbarella on the back.  Hell yes I bought it. For a fiver, too.

Reading around in the thing—the articles and letters, but also all the ads and paratext—made one thing absolutely clear to me: the revolution was eroticized.  I mean, half of the ads for books are for sex-themed reading, the ad for the Village Voice is a kind of callipygian parade, and you’ll see headings like “How about those kookie nudists?”  Of course it’s nothing new to note that the revolution that stuck, from those heady days of wide bandwidth rebellion, was the sexual revolution. It is striking, though, to see how hooked into other forms of rebellion it was. Revolution—the word, the concept, the display on the street.

What’s amazing about this element of the 1960s is how it sits vis-a-vis some of what that great guru of the sixties, Herbert Marcuse, had to say in One-Dimensional Man. One of his better inventions was the notion of repressive desublimation. One element of the theory of repressive desublimation takes the form of a contention about libidinal energy.  Once upon a time, when we were all jammed up Victorians in tight corsets and high collars, goes the story, we couldn’t simply follow our erotic urges, so we attached them to higher ideals of one kind or another. Think Tristan and Isolde yearning for one another—the idea of erotic fulfillment becomes attached to something grand, something set in an imagined historical elsewhere, where passions are immense, where actions are significant, where we are heroic. It’s all very Madame Bovary, isn’t it—this sense of a better literary elsewhere as criticism of this world, and of that elsewhere being charged with eros? (Bovary is, in fact, one of Marcuse’s examples). From our perspective, of course, this kind of celebration of tragic and romantic love, “appears,” as Marcuse said, “to be the ideal of a backward stage” of development.  Good riddance to whalebone corsets and virginity-until-marriage!

But wait. That better or idealized world we’d suffused with eros functions as a kind of critique of the world we live in: Marcuse calls it “The Great Refusal”—and it’s desirable, juiced up, because we’ve made it the sexy place. It’s where our sublimated sexual energies went.  When we stop sublimating, and decouple the erotic from the ideal, those other worlds lose their drawing power, and we miss the force of their implicit critique of our own world. Instead, we all just fuck—or, as Marcuse put it, we find our satisfactions “rigidly reduced” to “a localization and contraction of libido, the reduction of erotic to sexual experience and satisfaction.” We’re not freer and more happy than those Victorians who sublimated their erotic energy into dreams of other, better worlds.  “The Pleasure principle,” Marcuse writes, “is reduced—deprived of the claims which are irreconcilable with the established society. Pleasure, thus adjusted, generates submission.” And that’s why desublimation—which sounds so liberating—is, in Marcuse’s view, repressive.

So what to make of the attachment of eros to the idea of social and political revolution, as we see it in the Evergreen Review? What to make of Tania, Ché’s woman in Bolivia? It’s a remarkable combination of desublimated eroticism, and an attachment of the erotic to an ideal that refuses the world as it is. Some of it, of course, is just marketing: there’s that ad for Barbarella to consider.  And the overwhelming majority of it, in the November 1968 Evergreen Review, caters to heterosexual men, and doesn’t seem to have any second thoughts about the male gaze and the objectification of women and a host of other things we have—slowly, falteringly, inadequately—begun to criticize. But it’s also something that seems to have moved beyond the binary of a liberating sublimation and a repressive desublimation.

It’s been a while since revolution has seemed sexy. But the way our politics has gone, it’s looking more attractive all the time.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Resist Much/Obey Little, or: Here Comes Everybody, and They All Hate Trump



Remember how the anti-Trump demonstrations were so vast they sent our president running to his phone to squeak out some angry tweets? I'm hoping the vast list of contributors to Resist Much/Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance will do the same. I've got a piece in the book, and so do these people:

Nibaldo Acero Nancy Agabian Andrés Ajens Youssef Alaoui Rosa Alcalá Charles Alexander Will Alexander William Allegrezza Caitlin M. Alvarez Joe Amato Bruce Andrews Robert Archambeau Bob Arnold JoAnn Balingit Barbara Barg John Beer Ana Belén López Rosebud Ben-Oni John M. Bennet Steve Benson Jay Besemer Stephen Bett Richard Blevins BLUNT RESEARCH GROUP Andrew R. Boettcher Kathy Bohinc Charles Borkhuis Dianne Borsenik Michael Boughn Kent Bowker John Bradley Susan Briante Alan Britt Christopher Brown Lee Ann Brown Laynie Browne John Burns Melissa Buzzeo Don Byrd Anthony Cappo Xánath Caraza Brenda Cárdenas Jessica Wilson Cárdenas Kristen Case Hayan Charara cris cheek Chin-In Chen Maxine Chernoff Abigail Child Wendy Chin-Tanner chiwan choi Andres Cisneros de la Cruz Franklin K. R. Cline Norma Cole Victor Coleman Ed Coletti Matthew Cooperman Michael Copperman Joshua Corey Paul Corman-Roberts Lydia Cortes Ricardo Cortez Cruz Curtis L. Crisler Garin Cycholl Lyle Daggett Beverly Dahlen Pedro Damian Bautista Chris Daniels Ruth Danon Jill Darling doris davenport Michael Davidson Jenny L. Davis Jean Day Terence Degnan Ian Demsky Lynne DeSilva-Johnson Reed Dickson Linh Dinh Dante Di Stefano Thom Donovan Johanna Drucker Andrew DuBois Alice O. Duggan Denise Duhamel Patrick Dunagan Rachel Blau DuPlessis Marcella Durand Patrick Durgin Tongo Eisen-Martin Stephen Ellis Clayton Eshleman Carrie Etter Amy Evans Tanya Evanson Jim Feast Robert Fernandez Crystal Field Guillermo Filice Castro Bonny Finberg Annie Finch Norman Finklestein Norman Fischer Kass Fleisher Lewis Freedman Lisa Freedman Ru Freeman Bill Freind Philip Fried Gloria Frym William Fuller Kelle Grace Gaddis Matt Gagnon Forrest Gander Edgar Garcia Drew Gardner Joseph Gastiger Galo Ghigliotto David Giannini Robert Gibbons Daniela Gioseffi Judith Goldman Larry Goodell Nada Gordon Noah Eli Gordon Jaki Shelton Green Peter Milne Greiner Myla Grier Whit Griffin Rosemary Griggs Gabriel Gudding Jeff Gundy Eduardo Guzmán Chávez Rob Halpern Janet Hamill q.r. hand jr., Daniel Y. Harris Roberto Harrison Carla Harryman Quintus Havis Marwa Helal Michael Heller Jeanne Heuving William Heyen Matt Hill Owen Hill Brenda Hillman Jack Hirschman Andrea Hollander Bob Holman Darrel Alejandro Holnes Christopher Howell Detrick Hughes Brenda Iijima Alan W. Jankowski Lisa Jarnot Edgar Artaud Jarry Paolo Javier Brooks Johnson Judith Johnson Kent Johnson Patricia Spears Jones Pierre Joris Janine Joseph Fady Joudah Michael Joyce Judy Juanita George Kalamaras Eliot Katz Vincent Katz Tim Keane Douglas Kearney Burt Kimmelman Basil King David Kirby Davy Knittle Robert Kocik Ron Kolm Anja Konig Irene Koronas Dean Kostos Dee Dee Kramer Sean Labrador y Manzano Mark Lamoureux Susanna Lang Ted Lardner David Lau Patrick Lawler Mercedes Lawry Ruth Lepson Ken Letko Andrew Levy erica lewis Susan Lewis Genny Lim R. Zamora Linmark Joan Logghe Janice A. Lowe Brian Lucas Nathaniel Mackey Steven Manuel Filip Marinovich Al Markowitz Shelly Marlow Jack Martin Valerie Martínez Paul Martinez-Pompa Siwar Masannat Farid Matuk Syreeta McFadden Rubén Medina Caits Meissner Miranda Mellis Edric Mesmer Philip Metres elena minor José-Luis Moctezuma Juan Morales Laura Moriarty Sarah Morrison Andrew Mossin Erin Moure Laura Mullen Eileen Myles Sawako Nakayasu Joe Napora Uche Nduka Paul Nelson Murat Nemet-Nejat Richard Newman Brian Ng Joey Nicoletti A.L. Nielsen Joseph Noble Urayoán Noel Linda Norton Nita Noveno Jules Nyquist Gabriel Ojeda-Sague Peter O’Leary Adrienne Oliver John Olson Sergio Ortiz Gordon Osing Alicia Ostriker Maureen Owen Joe Pan Tamas Panitz, tr. Soham Patel Julie Patton Ted Pearson José Peguero Michelle Peñaloza Craig Santos Perez Emmy Pérez Michael Peters NourbeSe Philip Wanda Phipps Wang Ping Robert Podgurski Julien Poirier Tina Posner Robert Priest Patrick Pritchett Chris Pusateri Ruben Quesada Alicia Jo Rabins Charles Rammelkamp Margaret Randall Amanda Ngoho Reavey Tennessee Reed Margaret Rhee John Rigney Marguerite María Rivas Sherry Robbins Mg Roberts Kirk Robinson Kit Robinson MaVi Robles-Castillo Lasantha Rodrigo Luis J. Rodriguez Ruben J. Rodriguez Pilar Rodríguez-Aranda Linda Rogers Michael Rothenberg Julie Rouse Joe Safdie Lisa Samuels Edward Sanders Larry Sawyer Jared Schickling Jason Schneiderman Danniel Schoonebeek Ilka Scobie Hugh Seidman Jesse Seldess Anis Shivani Larissa Shmailo Evie Shockley John Shoptaw Laura Shovan Ron Silliman Sandra Simonds Jonathan Skinner Austin Smith Gerard Smyth Megan Snyder-Camp BJ Soloy Alan Sondheim André Spears Dani Spinosa Eleni Stecopoulos Julia Stein Winifred Celeste Davis Stragand Chris Stroffolino Terese Svoboda Eileen R. Tabios Nathaniel Tarn Ken Taylor t thilleman Lorenzo Thomas John Tipton James Tolan Edwin Torres Rodrigo Toscano KC Trommer Keith Tuma Matt Turner Arysteides Turpana Peter Valente, tr. Kevin Vaughn Lisa Vihos R.A. Villanueva María Villatoro Moisés Villavicencio Barras Lina Ramona Vitkauskas, Fred Wah Anne Waldman Lewis Warsh Joshua Weiner Marjorie Welish Donald Wellman Ross Wheeler Frederick Whitehead Walt Whitman Charles Whittaker Tyrone Williams Morgan Grayce Willow Suzanne Wise Lissa Wolsak Heather Woods Jeffrey Cyphers Wright Anton Yakolev Daniel Zimmerman Marilyn Zuckerman

The 740 page outpouring of patriotic dissent can be purchased here.