Monday, February 23, 2009

The New New Criticism

I've yet to see a copy, but judging from the email I've been getting from people who've read my contribution to the issue, the latest Pleiades is out. My piece is an essay called "The New New Criticism," which takes the occasion of the appearance of Garrick Davis' anthology Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism as an opportunity to reflect on the nature of that oft-maligned, generally misunderstood movement. One of the things that happened when I sat down to read through Davis' anthology (and, after he got me hooked, a host of the main New Critical documents) was that I realized most of what I'd learned in grad school about the NC was wrong. The New Critics weren't, for example, all about formalism, nor were they, for the most part, ahistorical, nor were they particularly apolitical. I've heard people blast them for these qualities at the MLA convention, and heard people praise them for the same qualities at the ALSC convention. But they merit neither praise nor blame for qualities they don't really possess. The piece in Pleiades trots out some examples to show this, but here's the basic thesis (an edited-down version of the first couple of paragraphs):


I’m not sure who’s done more damage to the New Critics: their detractors or their defenders. Detractors condemn the New Criticism as a formalist movement, ahistorical and unconcerned with ethics or politics. Defenders generally don’t disagree with this depiction of the New Criticism—they just value it differently, hoisting it high as a tattered banner under which to rally the scattered remnants of the pre-identity-politics, pre-continental-theory literary intelligentsia. As in so many fiercely fought debates, though, beneath the clamor the two sides really agree more than they differ: both, after all, see the New Critics as formalists, and set them up against a set of politicized, post- 1960s approaches to literature. But does the consensus lying beneath the squabble offer an accurate view of the New Criticism? The challenge in reading the New Critics again is to try to see them without any of the preconceptions that underlie the debate between their detractors and their defenders. When we meet this challenge, we see in the New Critics a more diverse, less strictly formalist movement than we find in the distorted version so often invoked by both sides of the debate.

It may be of some service to us, as we attempt to wipe several decades worth of preconceptions off our critical lenses, to remember that the New Critics never actually saw themselves as locked in battle with the nascent forces of deconstruction, cultural studies, and identity politics... New Critics weren’t a rearguard action, but an advance force, launching raids against a host of other critical movements. Although the New Critics are often taught at the beginning of the literary theory seminar, as a kind of point of origin for modern literary theory, they didn’t emerge in a vacuum, but in a battlefield. The New Critics turned their critical artillery, first and foremost, on early-twentieth century academic scholarship, which they saw as a dull and dutiful business of the establishment of context: all dusty philology and dry bibliography. The New Critics fought, too, against the impressionistic criticism found in the journalistic world.... But it wasn’t just against the practices of the academics and the journalists that the New Critics struggled. Although all-but-forgotten now, colossi of literary theory like Max Eastman and Irving Babbitt towered over the literary scene in the early twentieth century, their tomes promulgating psychological and moralistic approaches to literary study, respectively. And the 1930s wasn’t only the period in which the John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren and company, their Vanderbilt apprenticeships behind them, set out to reinvent criticism: it was also time haunted by the specter of Marxist criticism, the decade of Christopher Caudwell and the young George Orwell, voices heard on both sides of the Atlantic. Emerging as it did in the context of more established, competing theories, it’s understandable that the New Criticism put polemical emphasis on its differences from historical, impressionistic, moralistic, and political approaches to literature. But we do a disservice to the New Criticism if we see it as turning its back on the insights offered by these approaches. Indeed, the goal of the New Criticism, more often than not, wasn’t to spurn history, politics, ethics, or psychology, but to bring these things back into contact with the specific formal qualities of the literary work. Synthesis, rather than aesthetic separatism, was the main project, a fact too often overlooked by both the defenders and the detractors of the New Criticism.


In other stuff-I-wrote-appearing news, the British journal Tears in the Fence features a dialogue between the present humble blogger and rising literary impressario Adam Fieled.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Beyond Margin and Center

I think it must have been the most recent issue of that bible of literary hipsterism, The Believer, that got me thinking about the strangeness of the margin-vs-center paradigm as a way of talking about poetry. I'd picked the issue up in no small measure for an interview with John Ashbery, but had been a bit flummoxed by some of the comments made in the introduction to the interview. I read, there, about how Ashbery had won just about every prize American poetry had on offer; about how he has legions of imitators; about how his social life in Manhattan involved dining out with other prominent poets, and so forth, but the introduction asserted, nevertheless, that Ashbery (who, I should add, is the only living poet to see his work published in a definitive Library of America edition) is an "outsider" in the field of poetry. If Ashbery's on the outside, I thought, we need another word for the all-but-100% of poets who are more outside than he.

Of course the label "outsider" was intended as a kind of honor. I suppose this has something to do with poetry being itself a kind of marginal art in America (compared, say, to the movies: people would be much more impressed if I had a vote on the Oscars than they are by my ability to vote for the National Book Critic's Circle Awards). There's a kind of homology of one's position within the poetic field and the position of the poetic field within the field of culture as a whole, right? I mean, if you're a central figure in a marginal art, you've somehow betrayed the art, or so the thinking goes. And if you're a marginal figure in a marginal art, you somehow embody the virtues and essence of the art. Think of punk rock, here: Green Day is a big band, and therefore suspect to many in the punk subculture, to whom their prominence and popularity as best-selling punk act is a dishonor. Whereas, say, The Minutemen, who never sold and never will sell any albums, are somehow of the essence of punk. (I'm not advocating this view: I'm just saying that I think this kind of thinking is out there, and is the probably-inevitable outcome of the kind of position both punk and poetry occupy in our culture).

Anyway. I began to wonder how we could make the paradigm for poetry subtler than a simple dichotomy of margin vs. center. The answer seemed clear enough, and it lay in the ideas of sociologist Neil McLaughlin. I ran into Neil once when he was down at Lake Forest for a conference on public intellectuals a few years ago. I didn't actually attend the conference, but when I stumbled into a local bar after a long day of jawing about Schiller and Blake, I had the good fortune to find Neil seated at a table of conference attendees and ended up hanging with the conference crowd while they drank and ate onion rings — the kind of setting where all the really good talk at a conference tends to happen anyway.

One of Neil's great contributions to the sociology of intellectuals comes in a Sociological Quarterly article called "Optimal Marginality: Innovation and Orthodoxy in Fromm's Revision of Psychoanalysis." It's a case study of Erich Fromm's strange position in the field of psychoanalysis (at the fringes of the respectable, institutionalized center, but nevertheless in a position to be taken seriously). But it also introduces a set of terms for analyzing one's position in a field of intellectual inquiry, terms which, I think, can help us expand on our tired old center/margin dichotomy. Here's the abstract of Neil's article (don't you love the way social scientists provide abstracts to their articles? I wish the practice were less sporadic in the humanities):

The sociological study of intellectual innovation has long been polarized between romantic notions of the creative marginal intellectual and competing accounts stressing the benefits of national, organizational and network centrality in the production of knowledge. I offer the concept of "optimal marginality" as an attempt to move beyond this longstanding but increasingly stale debate. The relationship between a certain type of marginality and intellectual creativity is discussed in the context of a case study on innovation within psychoanalysis. German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm's contributions to the modern revision of Freudian theory is highlighted to illustrate the conditions under which marginality is likely to lead to innovations within theoretical systems and intellectual organizations. What types of marginality lead to innovation? Under what conditions does marginality lead to insight, and when does it lead to marginal ideas? Four ideal types are outlined and a research agenda is called for that operationalizes and tests these theoretical ideas in the context of comparative sociological analysis of intellectual creativity.

This is great stuff, and really does add another dimension to the tired binary of margin and center. I mean, Neil literally adds another axis to the chart, giving us optimality and suboptimality as well as marginality and centrality. So we end up with four possible positions in a field of intellectual endeavor:

  • Optimal Marginality
  • Suboptimal Marginality
  • Optimal Centrality
  • Suboptimal Centrality

These categories have nothing to do with whether an intellectual or other positions are any good: they address questions of whether one's positions are considered prominent and legitimate by people in the field. If we need a figure who shows the marginal as more objectively valid than the central and "legitimate" set of ideas, we need only think of Galileo. He was a marginal figure in cosmology during his lifetime, forced by the central powers to recant the heretical notion of the earth going around the sun.

Here, very briefly, is a breakdown of the four positions:

Suboptimal Marginality

This is what it sounds like: a fringe intellectual position whose adherents are not well positioned to disseminate their ideas. As McLaughlin puts it:

Contrary to a recent tendency to assume that insights flow almost automatically from the borderlands, suboptimally marginal intellectuals have inadequate economic, cultural, institutional, network, and personal resources to carve out unique and powerful innovations in dialogue with centrally located intellectual traditions. Marginality can sometimes lead to sect-like behavior and increasingly bizarre ideas.

The extreme version of this, one imagines, would involve the sort of guy who lines his hat with tin foil so the gubment can't hear his thoughts, which, in all probability, consist in large measure of elaborate theories about how the nation that controls magnesium controls the world. But there are also more high-functioning groups in such positions. In poetry, I think of the Wintersians: people who adhere strictly, even cultishly, to the ideas of Yvor Winters, and who don't have access (or perhaps don't desire access) to the networks that would allow them to disseminate those ideas more broadly. (Again, this doesn't speak to whether those ideas are good or bad, merely to where and how they are received, and how far they travel). Some of the most fascinating stuff in British poetry — the Cambridge School around Jeremy Prynne — could also be seen as suboptimally marginal, even deliberately so. I mean, Prynne didn't even want his work published through the ordinary channels — there's a kind of insistence on suboptimal marginality at work. All that's started to change, I suppose, with Jacket magazine, the Bloodaxe edition of Prynne, the support of Cambridge poets by Salt Publishing, the Cambridge emphasis of Chicago Review, etc. But you get the idea, right? A group unable or unwilling to propagate its creed beyond a small, relatively unrecognized circle.

Optimal Marginality

If you occupy a position of optimal marginality, you stand outside the established institutions of a field, but you've got enough mojo, for one reason or another, to be taken seriously by what the Dude of Big Lebowski fame calls the "square community." In fact, said community is going to cherry-pick the more acceptable of your notions, and you may find that you serve as a (probably unacknowledged) conduit between the cultish suboptimal marginals (who are beyond the pale, for those in the center) and the mainstream of your field. Neil McLaughin lays it out thusly:

...optimally marginal thinkers often help transfer ideas from the creative margins to the center of intellectual and cultural institutions and traditions, creating external pressure for intellectual innovations within a tradition. Optimally marginal intellectuals have access to the creative core of an intellectual tradition, while avoiding organizational, financial, cultural or psychological dependencies that limit innovations.

So optimally marginal types aren't total outsiders: often, they've got credentials of the kind revered by the center (doctorates, say), and even though they've gone off the reservation, one kind of has to take them into account. Erich Fromm, to use McLaughlin's example from the field of psychology, wrote bestselling books and had a large popular following, so even though his ideas excluded him from the Freudian establishment, there was cause to keep an eye on him, and to hear him out. A poetic analogy, I think, would be Amiri Baraka in the 70s: after he changed his name from LeRoi Jones and ditched the downtown New York scene, he developed a following in African-American circles, among people who weren't otherwise hooked up to the literary scene. In cultivating a new kind of writing and a new kind of audience, he became someone to whom those closer to the center paid (cautious) attention. And through actions like his, identity politics moved from a marginal position to something that gets more than mere lip service from the more prominent institutions of poetry (is that about right? I think so...). Oh: Ron Silliman is the blogosphere's very own prince of optimal marginality. He's not really part of the center (no big prizes, no fancy post in academe, etc.), but the sheer number of people who stop by his site every day makes him someone with a source of clout, someone on the radar of those in positions of optimal centrality.

Optimal Centrality

Here lie the movers and shakers of the square community, the people who sit atop the most empowered institutions, the people with access to the resources to not only generate, but to propagate, ideas. As Neil puts it:

... optimal centrality .. allows access to core resources, intellectual and cultural traditions, and emotional energies while allowing freedom from cultural, intellectual, and institutional orthodoxies. Optimally central thinkers have the networks, cultural capital, institutional leverage, and personal abilities to create paradigm shifts that cannot be ignored within a tradition, discipline, or school of thought.

If you are Helen Vendler, or in a position analogous to hers, you know what it feels like to be optimally central in the field of poetry. This doesn't mean you're right or wrong — it means that you're in a position to do some thinking and to see that thinking turned into an orthodoxy, or something like it. Grad students bearing your ideas will occupy professorial, critical, and editorial positions, and people seeking prizes will do so with your taste (and the taste of your epigones) in mind.

Suboptimal Centrality

This position is a sad one, somehow. It involves those people who are attached to the central traditions and institutions of their field, but aren't empowered within those traditions and institutions. McLaughlin describes this crowd thusly:

Intellectuals, scholars, or cultural producers in a space of suboptimal centrality are stifled by the norms, institutional pressures, and privileges rooted in their relationships to core societal and organizational structures and personal opportunities.

I mean, think of it: here are the guys who want, or need, to get published, and end up stifling whatever wild-ass ideas they may have had in order to produce something that they think will meet with the norms of the prominent journals. Or they write what they think their profs will like, what they think will get them the residency prize or the teaching gig, or the published book. This can be a conscious self-limitation or an unconscious one, but it's real enough. Top dogs have a freedom to generate new ideas, or to import them from the margins, but these poor saps (the judgment is mine, not Neil's — he's a social scientist, and above crude judgmentalism) are convinced they have to play by the rules. Oh, the humanity!

McLaughlin's article calls for a series of case studies examining how ideas move from the margin to the center of a field, and I think we could do worse, in thinking about poetry, than to follow his model. I like to think it would be a fruitful thing to do: if nothing else, it would give me a great justification for having elbowed my way into a crowd of hard-drinking sociologists.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"She's So Cute!" The Aesthetics of Parenthood

"She's so cute!" I've been hearing a lot of comments like this lately from people who've seen my two-week old daughter Lila (that's her on the right). On the one hand, I totally agree: Lila's about as adorable as they get, and anyone who sees that makes me happy. On the other hand, the uptight prof in me wants pull out a pen, reach up into the big speech-bubble over the comment-maker's head, circle the comment about cuteness in red ink, and write "tautology!" in the margin. I mean, it's not just that babies can be cute: there's a real sense in which they are the Platonic ideal of cuteness, and everything else we think of as cute is cute only inasmuch as it resembles a baby. It's not that my baby is cute: it's that cuteness is like my baby. Cuteness is a manifestation of what she is, not the other way around. "Cute's so her!" would probably be the appropriate exclamation.

There's a biological basis for all of this, and thanks be to the gods of Google I was able to dredge up a vaguely-remembered New York Times article by Natalie Angier on the Darwinian core of cuteness from a few years back:

Scientists who study the evolution of visual signaling have identified a wide and still expanding assortment of features and behaviors that make something look cute: bright forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face, a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs and a side-to-side, teeter-totter gait, among many others. Cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, scientists say, and attending to them closely makes good Darwinian sense. As a species whose youngest members are so pathetically helpless they can't lift their heads to suckle without adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire.

So sure. One can certainly see how natural selection worked in creating our affection for the cute. I mean, those who don't have a strong, positive response to the aesthetics of cuteness (who don't, to cite the lyrics of the Talking Heads song "Stay Up Late," respond to "little feet-feet, little toes") probably didn't show much enthusiasm for the fluid-spewing, squeal-making products of their procreation. In disproportionate numbers they stalked out of the cave, leaving their offspring to the mercies of the saber-tooth tigers, thereby removing themselves from the future gene pool.

But moving from biology to aesthetics, one wonders just where cuteness fits in the great scheme of things. Edmund Burke's Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful comes to mind as good a place as any to start, at least if you're too groggy from late-night baby feedings to feel up to dealing with Kant. Chief among the virtues of Burke's book is a handy comparison and contrast of two types of aesthetic experience: the sublime and the beautiful. It goes something like this:

The Sublime

-Is vast in scale. (Ever stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon? That sort of thing).
-Appears rugged and negligent. (I think it's the idea of immense force that matters here: again, think of the Grand Canyon).
-"Loves the right line, and when it deviates it often makes a strong deviation." Think of the gravitas of Mies van der Rohe's architecture: there's no whimsy here, no Frank Gehry crazy curves.
-Is dark, gloomy, solid and massive. (Again, think Miesian school architecture. All those classic Chicago buildings in the Miesian mode are big, black, imposing things).

The Beautiful

-Is comparatively small (with reference to the sublime).
-Is smooth and polished.
-"Should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly" (you know, the serpentine curve and all that. The eighteenth century engraver Hogarth actually wrote a slightly nutty treatise on how the serpentine curve was the very essence of beauty).
-Is light and delicate.

If we can generalize about the difference between the sublime and the beautiful, it's that the sublime is in some sense superior to us: it is bigger than us, stronger than us, has more gravitas than we do, and embodies forces that could destroy us, if they bothered to take notice of us. The beautiful, though, we meet on more equal terms. It pleases us, without overwhelming us or trying to be ingratiating. But where would the cute fit in this scheme? On this point Burke is silent. But not me! Here's how I see it:

The Cute

-Is tiny.
-Is soft and possibly a bit squishy.
-Is rounded or even pudgy, rather than elegantly curving or austerely straight.
-Is vulnerable, or at the very least non-threatening. Even perky.

It's just a step further down the continuum that led us from the sublime to the beautiful: if the sublime is superior to us, and the beautiful our relative equal, the cute is in a meaningful sense inferior to us. It is no threat to us, like the sublime: in fact, it calls out for our protection. Not awe so much as "awwww!"

So someone like Nicole Kidman is (no surprise here) beautiful: delicate, exquisite and all that. And someone like Renée Zellweger is more cute: big round forehead, big eyes, a little vulnerable-ish. Although for the full-on pure cute, you'd have to go more Shirley Temple: the cute and the juvenile go hand in hand. One wonders if people can actually be sublime. I mean, sublimity is superior to us, and so one thinks of it as belonging to the gods, or to nature, or to grand creations. It must, says Burke, excite "ideas of pain and danger." Maybe some kind of dominatrix, though certainly not Ms. Kidman as Catwoman. There's too much kitsch in that character, and, while failed attempts at the sublime often end up being kitschy, there's no kitsch in the sublime proper.

While the sublime, the beautiful and the cute are ideal types, as actually embodied they can, of course, be mixed. As Burke puts it, "In the infinite variety of natural combinations, we must expect to find the qualities of things the most remote imaginable from each other united in the same object." One thinks here of the movie Amélie, in which two characters (actually two figures in a photograph who suddenly start talking — the movie's trippy that way) debate whether the eponymous heroine, played by Audrey Tautou, is "belle or "jolie" (that is, whether she's beautiful or cute). They can't quite come to a conclusion, no doubt because Tatou (especially when done up as Amélie) embodies elements of both the beautiful and the cute. I mean, there's something elegant in her jawline, and something grave in her coloration, that offsets the big eyes and perky haircut that argue for cuteness. Let us savor all this a moment. Ahem. Yeah.

So anyway: what about the possibility of a cute/sublime hybrid? Could such a thing exist? I can't think of a lot of artists who go for this effect, except maybe for Mark Ryden. I mean, he combines big space, the idea of the vastness of time, vaguely religious iconography and the like with chubby cheeks and big eyes. Does it work? You be the judge. I've got to get things done so I can go home and play with my baby's feet. They're the very essence of cuteness.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Louis Scutenaire: More Belgian Surrealism!

My unhealthy obsession with Belgian surrealism continues! In between hanging with my new daughter and writing an essay on the future of manifestos I've been translating the maxims of Louis Scutenaire (that's him in the foreground, with the poet Paul Colinet standing behind him). "Louis Who-tenaire?" you ask. Ah! Louis Scutenaire was an interesting guy. Lawyer turned surrealist, communist turned anarchist, friend of Magritte and namer of Magritte’s paintings, Scutenaire was active in the Belgian surrealist scene during its most vital years. His works include several volumes of “inscriptions,” or maxims, which give us a strong sense of his socially conscious but ever-skeptical ironist’s mind. Anyway, here are a few of my favorites:

It’s regrettable, for the education of the young, that memoirs of war are always written by people the war did not kill.

An angry cop: the usual, only more so.

Life will be good when work, for everyone, becomes a luxury.

To cry “Long live life!” is like shouting “Long live ice cream!” in a house that’s on fire. Shout all you want: you never know what may come of it.

I own up, absolutely, to the things that keep me a slave.

He who would enrage his neighbors charms their children.

Workers of the world: I have nothing to say to you.

There are a lot more. But they're like Valentine's Day chocolates: better when you don't wolf them all down at once.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Lake Forest Literary Festival Wrap-Up

Although I had a hand in putting together the list of readers for the just-completed Lake Forest Literary Festival, I had to be out of town for the events themselves, so I'm experiencing them vicariously, mostly in Josh Corey's blog (where they are reported in two parts including video of Christian Bök performing), but also from this article by Lake Forest College's very own Kristin Kojarek (from Lake Forest's campus newspaper, The Stentor). Check it out:

Poets Pounce on the Annual LFC Literary Festival

By: Kristin Kojzarek

The poetry seemed to leap from its pages during Lake Forest College's fifth annual Literary Festival this week as authors used hypertext, computer programming, sound performance, and other collaborative experiments to demonstrate how poems can function in realms beyond print.

One of this year's visiting artists, best-selling Canadian poet Christian Bök, collaborated with a group of students to perform poetry through a spectrum of sounds in the Lily Reid Holt Memorial Chapel on Wednesday evening. "Writing is a skill just like any other skill," Bök said. "It's a type of technical engineering."

This year's artist-in-residence, winner of the Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer's Prize, Jessica Savitz, performed a reading from her latest book, Hunting is Painting, for the first time. Savitz is the first recipient of the Plonsker award and her book will be published by Lake Forest College Press/ & Now Books.

Showing off another route of creative writing, Chicago-based poetry group Gnoetry and computer artist and hypertext poet, Stephanie Strickland, used computer programming to demonstrate how poetry can be combined with technology to create a new type of art.

"This encourages readers to look at art in more than one way. Hypertext does things rather than says things," Strickland said. "Poetry does not necessarily need to be stacked up on a page," Bök claimed.

Strickland used a Flash player to demonstrate poetry synergized with digital images in the Meyer Auditorium on Tuesday afternoon. A large gathering of students and faculty remained transfixed on Strickland's poems as she moved the mouse across digital constellations and waves of sand where her printed words blended with the visuals. Some text was printed over backgrounds of different types of moving water where the words wavered and became obscured by the ocean waves. When the text became more clearly distinguishable it often faded again. "This brings the reader to the brink of deciphering words," Strickland said. "There is an inter-relationship between the objects and the words, which can also appear as 3-D objects."

Some of Strickland's poems did remain as static text onscreen with a white background or were juxtaposed by a simple design or a picture such as MTA transit card. Every so often, a digital leaf floated across the screen or a flock of butterflies flew down from an upper corner and circled the page. Strickland explained that using moving images with text requires the reader to use new approaches to reading and focusing on poetry. "It is using a new medium to create a new poetic experience. Reading images while watching text requires new reading skills," Strickland said.

When asked how she first became involved in electronic art Strickland said she always had an interest in literature and science. One day, she attended a seminar where she learned about hypertext from electronic fiction writers. "It was around 1994, when we were on the edge of the Internet and I was exposed to many new and exciting things," Strickland said. Realizing that forms of art besides fiction could be used with technology as well, Strickland began hunting for images to complement her poetry. "There is no end in this type of work, but there are multiple beginnings," she said.

The Literary Festival first evolved from a lecture series founded by Professors Davis Schneiderman and Robert Archambeau in 2004 called On the Run. "We named it On the Run because we had no money and did everything on a shoestring, so we were literally on the run," Schneiderman said. However, a year later when Schneiderman and Archambeau decided to try hosting an annual Literary Festival, people were supportive of the idea and helped fund the event.

"[The festival] is a really nice way for students to have an annual event where they can read the work of an author in one of their classes, then meet that author and have a wonderful experience," Schneiderman said.

Junior Ashlee Norton said, "I was really looking forward to meeting Christian Bök after learning about his book, Eunoia and I liked being introduced to Stephanie Strickland's new and innovative ideas."

Senior Leah Scull said, "I really liked Stephanie Strickland's presentation because I admired the way she was able to mesh technology with poetry inspired from nature and science. The way she used a magnet in sand as part of her piece "The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot" was beautiful and inspiring."

Concluding the festival, poets Brian Teare, Karen Leona Anderson, and Richard Greenfield, will read from their work in Meyer Auditorium tonight [2/12/09] from 7:00 p.m.-8:30 p.m.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A Good Day

Lila Elaine Archambeau, born this day.

For me nothing. But that the child
    Walk in peace in her basilica,
The light there almost solid.
—Ezra Pound, Pisan Cantos

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Just a Modern Guy: Iggy Pop and Minor Literature

So there I sat this afternoon in some coffee dive near the University of Pennsylvania, cooling my heels and thumbing around in my newly-purchased copy of The Deleuze Dictionary, when Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” came on the sound system. It’s not my favorite piece in the Iggy oeuvre, people, not by a good long howl. But it was a welcome relief after what I think must have been the world’s worst acid jazz album. Anyway, the conjunction of music and theory was instructive, if by instructive we mean “it sent me running around the joint begging for a pen so I could make some notes on my damp and crumpled napkin.” Now, hours later, I’m back in my hotel and deciphering the feverish cuneiform napkin notations of the caffeinated Archambeau. The main point (underlined not once but thrice in green felt marker bleeding into fuzziness at the edges) is this: “IGGY = MINOR LIT/DELEUZE & GUA… [illegible].” (Poor Felix Guattari, even here finding himself smooshed into the margins by his illustrious co-author). And I think, post-caffination, I can still stand by the point: Iggy Pop’s song “Lust for Life” performs some of the most important functions of what Deleuze and Guattari call “minor literature” (which, as we should all recall from Miss Starchington’s homeroom lecture on postmodern French critical theory, is a tremendously important form of literature — don’t let the name fool you!).

Are you in a hurry? No, me neither. I mean, there’s no Tivo in this hotel, and I can’t bear to watch commercials any more, so let’s take the scenic route to the main point, starting with some of the lyrics to the song. Here are the first and second verses, along with the chorus, of "Lust for Life":

Here comes Johnny Yen again
With the liquor and drugs
And the flesh machine
He's gonna do another striptease
Hey man where'd you get
That lotion? I been hurting
Since I bought the gimmick
About something called love
Yeah something called love
That's like hypnotizing chickens

Well I am just a modern guy
Of course I've had it in the ear before
'Cause of a lust for life
'Cause of a lust for life

I'm worth a million in prizes
With my torture film
Drive a G.T.O.
Wear a uniform
All on a government loan
I'm worth a million in prizes
Yeah I'm through with sleeping on the
Sidewalk - no more beating my brains
With the liquor and drugs
With the liquor and drugs

Well I am just a modern guy
Of course I've had it in the ear before
'Cause of a lust for life
'Cause of a lust for life

So how does this connect up with Deleuze and Guattari's idea of minor literature? Ah, well, it's simple. It's all in the — what? What's that you say? Yes, you, there, in the back, with the degenerates and ne'er-do-wells. What? You say you weren't paying attention in Mrs. Starchwell's class, and you need a refresher on the concept. You embarrass me, sir. I mean, I'm in Philadelphia, and without my copy of Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. I'll have to make do with the internet, and The Deleuze Dictionary (no, there's no Guatarri Guidebook — ol' Felix gets screwed again!). But okay, here's the deal. For all of you back-row reprobates.

It goes like this: minor literature, for Deleuze and his sidekick Guattari, doesn't necessarily consist of — what? Another interruption? What is it this time? Oh. Yeah. Well, sure. The song is music, not literature. So I guess you're right. Except I'm only going to discuss the lyrics, so it's sort of like teaching the text of Macbeth in a literature class, rather than studying a production of the play in a theater class. Okay? Okay. All right, then. And I see that spitball, Davis. I'm keeping my eye on all of you. So no funny business. Right, then.

So. It goes like this: minor literature, for Deleuze and his sidekick Guattari, doesn't necessarily consist of the literature written by ethnic, sexual, or any other kind of minorities. As Ronald Bogue puts it in (ahem) The Deleuze Dictionary,

What constitutes minorities is not their statistical number [sic], which may in actual fact be greater than that of the majority, but their position within asymmetrical power relationships that are reinforced by and implemented through linguistic codes and binary oppositions. Western white male adult humans may be outnumbered worldwide, but they remain the majority through their position of privilege, and that privilege informs the linguistic oppositions that define, situate, and help control non-western and non-white populations, women, children, and non-human life-forms. Minorities merely reinforce dominant power relations when they accept the categories that define them. Only by undoing such oppositions as western/non-western, white/non-white, male/female, adult/child. or human/animal can minorities change power relations. Only by ... blurring categories can new possibilities for social interaction be created.

Yeah, I know, I know. That "only by blurring categories" is a bit much. Bogue, at least here, seems to be kind of a "heroic theory" guy. But let's let it slide. Anyway, don't blame me for it, Davis. I can see you getting ready to fire off that spitball. The point is this: minor lit takes the terms used in the normative language of those in power and short circuits them, making them untenable in their old form (if not for everyone, then at least for the people to whom the piece of minor lit speaks most effectively and immediately).

Verena Conley, also writing in that most venerable of texts, The Deleuze Dictionary, puts it slightly differently. Speaking of D and G's use of the term "minor," she states: "The term is often developed in connection with language and the 'order-word,' that is, a pass-word that both compels obedience and opens up passages. In this sense Deleuze argues that language ... is fundamentally political." So: language, in this view, doesn't just describe. When used by the empowered majority (which, again, could consist of a numerical minority — Deleuze and Guattari define "majority" as a power-status, not a numbers-status), it is normative. It orders us to act in certain ways. This can be tremendously enabling, but it also forecloses on certain possibilities. Take the word "man." If you're a young guy, and you're told to "be a man," there's a command there to be, say, strong and brave and stoic and all that macho hoohah. And you experience the command all the time, not just when the coach is yelling "be a man, goddam it, Archambeau, you big girl's blouse! Man up and take the hit! If you're going to be a lineman you're going to have to take the goddam hit, already!" (uh, sorry — flashback time). And you experience the injunction to be those things the word "man" implies in its dominant usage all the time. But along with all the enabling stuff (you do learn to take the hit, to push the car out of the snowbank, and all that jive), other things are disabled. You know, like emotional expressiveness. Or whatever.

Now, what do you want to know about next? The way minor writing works, or the secret catch to the whole majority thing? The secret catch? Okay. You got it. The secret catch to the whole majority thing is this: there is no majority status. Or, rather, majority status exists, but only as an abstraction or an ideal. Nobody actually corresponds to that ideal entirely. Here, again, is Verena Conley on the issue: "Majority is an abstract standard that can be said to include no one and speak in the name of nobody." So: nobody actually embodies the ideal of "man" in its majority-usage as an order-word. Or, to move away from the language of "ideal" with all its Platonic weight and toward the terminology Deleuze and Guattari use, no one actually has a subjectivity that corresponds exactly with the territory demarcated by the word "man", without deficiency in some area or excess in some other. (And this goes for all order-words). So: major literature, and majority language in general, gives us terms that embody imperatives of how we're (insert scare quotes here) supposed to be. And minor literature works to fuzzy up those terms and all they stand for. Verena Conley's prose gets a bit godawfully algebraic when she deals with this, but she does know what she's talking about. Minority language "is characterized by the presence of connections," she says, "that is, by the additive conjunction 'and' and the mathematical sign '+': a minoritarian language is 'x + y and b + traits a + a and...'" Alrighty. Deep breath. What she means is this: minority writing takes a term like "man" and refuses to accept it on the terms of the empowered majority group. Instead, minority writing adds significances to the term. The term now isn't reducible to the set of meanings it once had. It now takes us outside of the territory once covered by the term. In one of Deleuze and Guattari's favorite terms, it becomes "a line of flight" out of that territory.

So, then. Iggy Pop.

"Lust for Life" works as minor literature in the way it reworks the meaning of what it means to be "just a modern guy." It's worth lingering a bit over what the phrase "just a modern guy" means in the song. I think the "just" (as in "only" or "merely") is important, because it really does make "modern" seem less like it means "up to date" or "of our time" and more like it means "ordinary" or "regular" or "not unusual." I mean, it's a matter of nuance. But "I'm just a modern guy" here does seem less like it means "I'm a guy who is neither affiliated with the past nor the future" than it means "I'm not unusual: I conform to the standards of our time and place." There's a kind of "you and I share a common subjectivity, that related to our time" vibe to it, and a lot of the vibe comes from the "just." So there's a kind of normality implied here, and Iggy tells us he accepts and embodies that normality. "Modern guy," then, is a kind of order-word, and Iggy seems to be following along. Being a modern guy. Just that. Nothing fancy. Nothing abnormal. Nothing out of the norm.

Nothing, that is, until the next phrase, the qualifier of the normative "just a modern guy": "of course I've had it in the ear before." As an article in Slate put it, it's a surprising lyric to find in a song once used to promote cheap Caribbean cruises: "I don't know what, exactly, Iggy means when he says that he's 'done it in the ear before,'" says the Slate write, "but I'm sure Royal Caribbean won't allow it on their cruise ships." Did you notice the slip-up there? The Slate guy says he doesn't know what Iggy means by having "done it in the ear," but the original lyric is about having "had it in the ear." So I think the slip-up actually indicates that the Slate guy has a pretty good idea what Iggy means: that he's (figuratively) had sex using the least likely of orifices, and that (implicitly) he's done things sexually that the ordinary, average guy, the guy who is "just a modern guy" hasn't done, and by which such a guy would claim to be appalled. There's lots of corroborating evidence for this theory in the song (the "flesh machine," and Johnny Yen's promised striptease, for example). And there's plenty of corroborating evidence from Iggy Pop's life to indicate that he knows whereof he speaks, here. His own adventurous, polymorphous bisexuality is the stuff of legend (Seriously! Have you seen Velvet Goldmine?). So: Iggy gives us what seems to be a kind of normative order-word (his particular usage of "just a modern guy") and then immediately blurs things. I mean, he doesn't say "I would be just a modern guy, except for the fact that I've had it in the ear before." That would be accepting the meaning of the normative term, and saying he doesn't fit into it. Instead, he says he is just a modern guy. But there's a kind of escape from what that term means in majority discourse. That idea of a uniform-wearing, government-loan having, gory movie watching regular guy? Iggy's not excluded from it. But he's also not contained by the boundaries of what it means to be that guy. His subjectivity covers all that territory, but exceeds it, too, in certain sexual areas. Or, to put it in slightly gaudier terms redolent of Deleuze's terminology, Iggy (or, rather, his autobiographical character "Johnny Yen") isn’t entirely contained in the territory designated as normative — he flies out of it, bursting its boundaries on the wings of his splendidly freakish libido. (Forgive me. “Lines of flight” and “deterritorialization” are my favorite Deleuzian terms, and I really want use them to invoke an Iggy-Johnny figure as a kind of winged Icarus. Maybe I do deserve the spitball for that. Fire away, Davis).

Monday, February 02, 2009

Michael Greenspan on the Grumbling of the Wordsmiths

Although it seems like it was about a million years ago, it turns out it was only last November that an essay of mine on poetry and politics came out in Poetry magazine. A few echoes still seem to be reverberating. Michael Greenspan, for example, has a letter in the February issue of Poetry in which he wonders if I'm familiar with the ideas of Michael Golblatt and Robert Nozick about the grumbling disposition of wordsmiths. I think I did read the Nozick piece, but had never read Goldblatt.

Greenspan's letter is interesting for many reasons, but to me the chief one is this: he finds my ideas similar to those of Nozick, a libertarian free-market guru, whereas the last guy to write in to Poetry about the essay more-or-less accused me of being a communist. The accusation of communism made me feel like I'd stepped into the wrong decade, and was dodging the House Un-American Activities Committee, smoking Pall Malls, and driving around in a Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz with tail fins the size of Gidget's surfboard. Which, come to think of it, doesn't sound all that bad, provided the Caddy keeps me one step ahead of Joe McCarthy's boys. The Nozick thing makes me feel like I should be shredding my files and hoping Obama doesn't send the federales after me for my part in the destruction of the American economy. Although, given the way things seem to be done in this country lately, if those federales do catch me they'll probably just park a wheelbarrow full of cash in my Wall Street office suite, explain that it's my part of the bailout, salute, and be on their way.

Am I grumbling? Well, I do I aspire to wordsmithery. Ask Nozick and Goldblatt about the connection.