Tuesday, November 30, 2010

C.S. Giscombe's Emancipation of the Dissonance

The latest issue of Cincinnati Review is out, and it includes my essay "Emancipation of the Dissonance: The Poetry of C.S. Giscombe."  The essay surveys Giscombe's career, and starts like this:


The title of C.S. Giscombe's book of prose poems, Prairie Style, calls to mind the school of architecture that first fluttered to life in the Midwest at the end of the nineteenth century; reached its flat-roofed zenith in Frank Lloyd Wright's work during the First World War; and passed out of favor after the mid 1920s. But if the title makes us try to draw an analogy between Giscombe's art and Wright's, it misleads us. A better analogy comes if we look to what the more advanced musical talents were up to while Wright was drafting blueprints in Oak Park. Consider Arnold Schoenberg's reflections, from the 1926 essay "Opinion or Insight," on the direction classical music had taken for composers of his generation. "Until our own time," wrote Schoenberg, "composers were always extremely cautious about how the succession of harmonies were arranged, at times even carrying things to the point of using only harmonies whose relationship to the tonic and their 'accessibility' to it (further underlined by convention) was easy to grasp." Harmonies were always structured in relation to a dominant pitch, and the attentive, or even semi-attentive, listener could hear the coherence of the music. Over time, though, "the proportion of elements pointing to the tonic became ever smaller, as against those pointing away from it," ultimately leading to what Schoenberg called "the emancipation of the dissonance" — that is, to a kind of atonal composition where dissonance "came to be placed on an equal footing with sounds regarded as consonances." Giscombe's Prairie Style is, in some significant sense, as atonal as the music of Schoenberg: it creates moments of coherence, but also welcomes moments of dissonance, when the expository eloquence of sentences and paragraphs falls apart.

Musical audiences often want to know just why a composer would abandon tonality, and composers in the atonal tradition have given a number of answers, many having to do with the hatred of cliché and the need to renew conventions. A deeper answer, though, and one more analogous to what I take to be Giscombe's motives, comes from one of the last great atonal composers, Karlheinz Stockhausen. Stockhausen said that his refusal to give his compositions clarity, wholeness, and accessible coherence by subordinating the parts to a dominant tonality was in essence a reflection of his ethical stance. To take the elements of music and "use them all with equal importance," rather than subordinating some to others, was nothing less than "a spiritual and democratic attitude toward the world." Stockhausen would no more subordinate musical parts to the whole than he would sacrifice individual lives to an abstract cause, or expropriate one person's labor for the benefit of another. For Stockhausen, the emancipation of musical dissonance is, at a formal level, a kind of parallel to the emancipation of the oppressed in the world. It doesn't actually free anyone, of course, but it exemplifies a way of thinking that could have larger ethical implications.

Giscombe's emancipation of narrative dissonance has goals similar to those of Stockhausen, and gains a great deal of weight and significance by addressing questions of race via unconventional means.


The rest of the essay (ending with a Duke Ellington quote I've wanted to use for years) is available in Cincinnati Review Vol. 7 #2, Winter 2011.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Nasty, Brutish, & Short — but Funny: Hobbes on Comedy

The leaves are dying, people, but the semester itself refuses to die, sprouting new, snarling dragon-heads of academic minutia like the Hydra of Greek legend just when I think I've finally put the beast down.  What to do, in such a situation?  Grade the papers, correct the galley proofs, and haul oneself to the meetings?  Hardly.  My usual plan involves popping on my noise-cancelling headphones and listening to bootlegs of old Mitch Hedberg comedy shows.  Maybe it's because of this that I've been thinking a little about the theory of comedy.  Or maybe it's that I'm scheduled to speak in February on a panel about wit and contemporary poetry at the Louisville conference on literature since 1900 (Joyelle McSweeney will be there talking about Harryette Mullen, and Mike Theune will have something to say about wit and poetic form, so don't let my presence put you off coming).  Whatever the reason, I've been thinking about the nature of humor, and have been having bit of a disagreement with that most unlikely theorist of humor, Thomas Hobbes.

Most people who talk about humor theory seem to break the field down into three different areas: incongruity theory, relief theory, and superiority theory.  Incongruity theory is pretty much what you'd expect it to be: the idea that humor comes from strange, unexpected juxtaposition.  Kant is one of the bigwigs in this area, claiming, in The Critique of Judgment, "everything that is to excite a lively laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction)."  You know this sort of thing: since we’re talking about philosophers, let’s use an example involving that soft-handed tribe: Monty Python’s famous skit involving philosophers playing soccer:

You know: there’s no why to the juxtaposition: it’s just weird, inexplicable, and incongruous, and the understanding, questing for an explanation for the juxtaposition, can find no satisfaction.  I’m actually not sure the skit holds up all that well, since between the filming of the skit and our own time there’s been a considerable diminishing of the notion that crossing high-culture with pop-culture involves incongruity.  So if you didn’t laugh, you can blame postmodernity.  But you get the idea.

Much of Mikhail Bakhtin’s thinking about laughter also involves incongruity, albeit of a somewhat more specific kind: his famous notion (propagated by his best advocates, Peter Stallybrass and Allon White) being the idea of “transcoding” — of juxtaposing the high or sacred with the low or profane, especially when the low and profane involve bodily functions. 

Relief theory is probably best exemplified by Freud, who argued that humor involved violating social taboos, giving us a sense of relief by letting us say the unsayable.  Lenny Bruce-style profanity falls under this category, as do many gender or ethnicity jokes, which allow the presentation of forbidden stereotypes in the special context of comedy.  This sort of thing can, of course, go badly, badly wrong, as it did in Michael Richards’ career-ending n-word gaffe of 2006.  It’s because of the potential for it to go so badly wrong that I’m restraining myself from adding a couple of my favorite examples (one ending “but it’s always money with you people” and the other ending “no, man, I never found the head” and both bound to offend someone, that being the nature of taboo-shattering humor).

Thomas Hobbes looks at things differently: the author of Leviathan was the pioneer of the superiority theory of humor, which maintains that comedy and laughter are found in the “sudden glory” we feel when we experience “some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others.”  There are certainly plenty of instances when this is true.  I remember taking a bunch of my student on a field trip to Chicago’s Millennium Park (it was for a class on the art and literature of Chicago I was co-teaching with an art prof, and we were doing a unit on public sculpture).  A couple of students took advantage of the early-September heat to walk into the reflective pool of Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain, a very postmodern, interactive piece of public art that encourages such things.  As the first student stood in the pool, she was blasted by one of the small jets of water that suddenly shoot up from the pool, getting pretty wet in the process.  Her friend thought this was hysterically funny — and it was, in a very Hobbesian way: suddenly, the observer, in her dryness and prudence, was superior to the soaked friend.  Just then, though, the laughing student got doused by one of the cascades that come from above, ending up much wetter than her pal, who hooted in appropriately Hobbesian derision at the fate of her hapless former mocker.  The unexpectedly superior position is the position from which we laugh.

Hobbes extends his theory a bit, too, saying that we can feel a “sudden eminency” not only with regard to others, but to our former selves: so, for example, if we were trudging along down a slippery, muddy hill, and suddenly started to slide down, but managed to maintain our balance and arrive quite suddenly at the end of the slippery slope, unsullied and no longer having to trudge tediously on, we’d laugh at our sudden unexpected superiority to our former position.

This is all well and good, but it’s far from exhaustive.  I’d like to propose an amendment to the Hobbesian theory, an amendment I’m deriving from two things that happened to my wife, Valerie, yesterday, both of which she found hilarious, and neither of which can quite be accommodated by the Hobbesian theory.

First, there’s the matter of Valerie’s morning commute.  She takes the mighty Metra train into Chicago every morning, but yesterday, due to some weird mechanical fiasco, the trains on her line were running very late.  She stood in the cold waiting for her train to arrive, but when it did, it didn’t stop.  Instead, in some attempt to get the commuter rails back on schedule, it blew by her at incredible speed, actually blowing her hat off her head.  This left her late and laughing at her predicament, with an emotion that could best be described as “well, fuck me, then.”  Something similar happened later in the day, when she returned home.  The sunroom in Stately Archambeau Manor is equipped with old-school blinds, the kind that roll down, and can be a bit temperamental, wanting to roll back up rather than stay where you’ve put them.  Valerie took a long time to carefully adjust and balance the blind so it would stay at the exact level she desired.  Then, as she turned her back and began to walk away, the blind rolled up at incredible speed, made a kind of Don Martin of Mad Magazine series of sound effects (FWAP FWAP FWAP, among others) and somehow, in defiance of the laws of God and physics, tore itself loose from its bearings, unrolling all the way to the floor like some kind of red carpet laid in front of a visiting dignitary, and finally cut loose from its roll altogether, drifting elegantly to the floor.  Shortly thereafter, the wooden roll itself dropped from the window, hitting the ground with a clunk and frightening the cat.

From my perch on the sofa this all seemed quite hilarious, in a strictly Hobbesian way: I hadn’t just invested my time in setting the blind just-so, so I was superior to She Whose Labors Had Come To Naught.  But Valerie laughed even harder than I did, once again feeling the humor of “well, fuck me, then.”

So here’s what I think was going on.  I think there’s a strange, pseudo-Hobbesian effect that comes into play when we experience a sudden sense of superiority not to someone else, and not to our former selves, but to ourselves in the present moment, a kind of doubled-consciousness.  Maybe the best way to get at it is to turn not to Hobbes, but to Jung.  Jung argued that one of the ways people deal successfully with difficult situations is to gain a certain detachment from their situation, without losing their sense of being within that situation.  Of the emotions produced by problematic situations Jung said “one certainly does feel the affect and is shaken and tormented by it,” but, he continues, “at the same time one is aware of a higher consciousness looking on which prevents one from becoming identical with the effect, a consciousness which regards the affect as an object, and can say ‘I know that I suffer.’”  So there’s the part of you that is upset at having fallen on your ass into the mud, with everyone looking on and laughing.  But, if you are able to develop a little distance, and not just suffer, but watch yourself suffer, you participate in the same Hobbesian sense of superiority, and laugh along with the giggling observers.  Sure, you’re humiliated.  But you’re also aware of your humiliated self as if from the outside, and you feel superior to the humiliation even as you experience it: you play a kind of emotional chord, with one note of suffering and one of the “sudden glory” of Hobbesian superiority.

We might call this the “well, fuck me, then” effect.  And, as a habitual faller-out-of-hammocks and dropper-of-meatballs-down-the-front-of-my-shirt, I can assure you, developing the doubled consciousness of the “well, fuck me, then” effect is a skill well-worth having.  It even got me through the second half of a speech I was giving in front of several hundred people after my glorious academic robes had been shat upon by an errant seagull.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Poetry, Politics, Obscurity

Despite what the picture may lead you to believe, I haven't been interviewed by Ed Murrow.  No, people, it was Johannes Göransson who did the interviewing.  Johannes is an interesting guy, and I think we're the only two people concerned with contemporary poetry who have lived in both Lund, Sweden and South Bend, Indiana.  He asked me about poetry, the public sphere, and the politics of obscurity, among other things.  Anyone fool enough to want to read my answers can do so over at The Argotist. They also have more interesting interviews, with Charles Bernstein, Iain Sinclair, Marjorie Perloff, and Andrea Brady, among others.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hothouse Gorgeous: Two New Books!

Rejoice, people!  Simone Muench and Philip Jenks' Disappearing Address, a book of collaborative poem-letters, has just hit the bookstores.

Here are the comments I wrote for the book jacket:

“Dear Leatherface,” “Dear Danger,” “Dear Film Noir,” “Dear Chanteuse of the Abattoir for Young Girls” — if you loved Simone Muench’s Orange Crush as much as I did, you’ll recognize in these titles from Disappearing Address the return of her great animating idea: femininity excited by danger.  Muench collaborates with Philip Jenks here to return to the theme in a series of letters to villains from horror films, to abstractions, to icons of pop culture like Morrissey or the high school dance.  The exploded syntax of the letters makes for a kaleidoscope of the sublime and the mundane — Coca-Cola, Pop Rocks, and the Day of Judgment jostle one another in a kind of phantasmagoria.  There’s wit here — “Dear Nothing” begins “why’d you have to cut out & make everything come back,” “Dear Obtuse” begins “Be straight with me” — but the best of the poems revel in novel images and a diction for which the only possible term is “hothouse gorgeous.”
And here are some comments from various Distinguished Worthies:

As darkly luxurious and ferociously driven as either Jenks or Muench is singly, this hydra-headed address is passion squared, an uncanny vesper "scribbled to the abyss” intoned in a duet so tuned as to create a third even more intense, even more longing, even smarter, even sadder, even scarier voice. Though the Gothic cast — Morrissey, Michael Myers, a vampire, a deer on the North Dakota highway that appears like a recurring nightmare “jut-rotted…luring us to the wilderness,” — is glared at with fierce knowing (parlor games put the fun back in funeral here), the attention is sharp, without camp, and soul-piercing. —Robyn Schiff

This collaboration feels entirely seamless, as though it were not a collaboration at all but the work of a single, virtuoso poet with a very broad range of imagery and a finely tuned sense of how diction can coalesce varied materials.  There is some of the surreal bounce we expect of collaboration but very little in the way of bi-polar diffusion or poetic ju-jitzu contending egos can produce.  This is wonderfully contemplative work, and though it's hard to tell when Muench might begin or Jenks end, there is throughout, but particularly in the sequence addressed as letters to poets, a broadened set of concerns about poetry, especially, that these two poets seem to have negotiated in the act of joint (or should I say, mutual) composition. A genuinely wonderful collection.
—Michael Anania

Two poets not only challenge each other 
to write a poem, but challenge each other for the voice of the poem as well as its place and possession – speech and location being the double meanings of address. This vibrant, loving book opens with “Dear Dear,” an introductory address to each voice acknowledging the presence of the other in the poem and, through the collaboration, the action of each in the other’s processes and practice. The book then proceeds in a collection of epistles through numbered sections called “Rooms,” in which the poets confront or accommodate their co-existence. Collaboration is only one of the issues challenging the poets. Ronald Johnson’s epigram on the opening fly pages to “invite the eye/ invade the ear” sets the objective of an inextricable bond between eye and ear. The poets persuade each other whether the poem is going to be for the eyes, a descriptive narrative, or is the poem to be a performed event of itself, or will it have both?  The collaboration’s passage through seduction, co-existence, stand-off and outright hostility is echoed in poems about relationships, poems of loss, institutionalization, and some wonderfully fun bitchiness. This makes an exciting poetry of wild and rapid changes for the reader. The only poem without an addressee is “Haptics, Not Optics.” This is the best statement of both their arguments in one poem, and both artists perform his and her case slyly, beautifully as one. A moment that, for all its sadness, foreshadows the conciliatory calling of the names that ends the work and the address, “I”, reveals its fragments answering to the name.
—Ed Roberson

In other news, John Matthias' Trigons, from earlier this year, is now available in the United States.  Here's what Shearsman Press has to say about the book:

Trigons  derives its title from an obscure Roman ball game mentioned by Petronius in Satyricon. The word also has meanings in the fields of music, astrology, gemology, architecture, poetics, and comic book illustration, all relevant to this book that is sub-titled "Seven Poems in Two Sets and a Coda." Trigons shares something of the same spirit as Matthias's two most extravagantly inventive experimental sequences, Automystifstical Plaice and Pages: From a Book of Years. In an essay on Matthias's cycles and sequences from the 1970s through the present, Mark Scroggins has said thatTrigons explores the poet's "usual historical and literary obsessions, this time revolving much around the Second World War" through a series of surprising juxtapositions like that between the Nazi Rudolph Hess and his contemporary the English pianist Myra Hess, or the discovery made during the book's composition of yet another John Matthias, this one a British composer and neurophysicist" who becomes a shadowing doppelgänger in this book in which both music and neurology play a highly significant role. Trigons "shows no lack of the high spirits that have underpinned so much of Matthias's work, but its puns, jokes, and intentional incongruities are underpinned by a deep seriousness, a pervading sense that while history continues to produce connections in inexhaustible richness, it does so in counterpoint to a continual savage, tragic wastage of life and potential. Trigons moves quickly—indeed, leaving behind the careful concern for closure that has marked Matthias's earlier 'pocket epics'—and the poem seems at every moment to be on the verge of shaking itself to pieces with its own concatenated momentum, like one of Jean Tinguely's self-destructive kinetic sculptures. And this is not a quirk of Matthias's poetics: as the Englishman Haines says in Ulysses, 'it seems history is to blame.' Experiences of grace, of happiness, are ephemeral moments in the relentless, remorseless, temporal succession of heterogeneity that is human life and culture." In the end, the book manifests a "fierce impatience, a barely-concealed rage at the all-too-rapid movement of the human spectacle."

Both books can be dialed up on Amazon.  You know you can't live without them!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dancing Like David Byrne: Apollo Performs Dionysus

A while ago I went a bit overboard in examining the phenomenon of the hipster in terms derived from Nietzsche's study The Birth of Tragedy. Long story short, my argument was that the hipster was, at the core, an Apollonian rather than a Dionysian figure — that is, a figure devoted to self-possession, critical distance, and individual identity, rather than being devoted to the loss of selfhood in an ecstatic fusion with others. The hipster doesn't want to, or is unable to, join in with large groups. He or she just can't quite surrender the self to the whole. But at the same time, I argued, the hipster also wants camaraderie and a sense of group-identity — wants, that is, some measure of Dionysian experience. This is why there is a recognizable hipster look, and recognizable hipster music and neighborhoods. But the hipster position is unstable: wanting to be part of a group but hating giving oneself over to a group is a complicated, fraught place to be. This is why we find hipsters hating on other hipsters for being hipsters: they yearn for group identity and despise it at the same time. Or so my story ran.

Today, though, thanks to some comments from Lina Ramona Vitkauskas, I've been thinking about a happier fusion of Apollo and Dionysus, a fusion to be found in the music of a band that meant a lot to me back in the 80s, Talking Heads, and the dancing of their frontman, David Byrne.

I've never quite been able to put my finger on the exact nature of the curiously affectless nature of much Talking Heads music. Certainly much of it comes from Byrne's singing, which is almost a kind of talking. He does little to give emotional quality to his delivery: dynamic changes are muted, there's little or no tremolo, and he doesn't run notes like an R&B singer. The flatness of delivery really stands out when you listen to the Talking Heads' cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" after listening to the original: Al Green glides into and out of falsetto, purr-growls like a cat, holds back and then releases energy, lets his words blurr at the edges, to where they become purely emotive sound. He even lets loose with a little James Brown at the end. In contrast, David Byrne mostly sort of narrates, with a slightly breathy quality. When he does go into a kind of falsetto, it isn't driven by passionate intensity, as in Al Green's falsetto of barely-controlled ecstasy. Rather, it seems like Byrne's read an instruction saying "insert falsetto here," and followed it, for no compelling reason. I don't mean that this is a bad thing — the affect of affectlessness is the genius of the band. This affectlessness comes across in the arrangement and instrumental performances, too. Talking Heads keep the tempo slow and steady, and you could pretty much set your watch by the drum beat.

But you didn't want to talk about music. You wanted to talk about dance. Okay! Consider Byrne's dance in the video clip above. The person who posted it to Youtube considers it "funny," and I suppose it is, in that there's a kind of incongruity to it, and incongruity is at the root of a lot of humor. But I'm interested in the particular kind of incongruity. On the one hand, the dance signals "performance" and "rock show" mostly by the largeness of the movements. This is stage stuff, giant, choreographed, and meant for a big crowd in a big venue to notice, focus on, and collectively get into — good Dionysian stuff. On the other hand, there's a kind of distance between the dancer and the dance: Byrne moves as if he's not emotionally committed. There are no Freddy Mercury operatics, there's none of that Mick Jagger sex-chicken strut. There's a sense of performance, but not performance of emotion. The excessive symmetry of the movements, their regularity, and the relative lack of energy all create a sense that the dancer stands above the dance, rather than enters into it and emotionally commits. All of this combines to put the idea of performance in quotation marks.

There are a number of ways one could talk about this. "It's defamiliarization," we might say, echoing Victor Shklovsky, "it's a way of highlighting convention by tweaking it a bit." True enough. But it's more than that. It's also a matter of taking a Dionysian ritual — the rock concert, where the audience sways, butt-shakes, and sings in unison, enjoying its togetherness and unity-in-fandom — and combining it with a kind of Apollonian self-reserve. We don't just lose ourselves in the performance, because the performer himself hovers a little above his performing self, and asks us to do so, too. We enjoy the loss of ourselves in the crowd and the music, but we also watch the front man hold himself back, and we emulate that. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the weirdness of this holding-back in the Dionysian context of a concert takes us a little out of the moment, and we stand back and analyze it, even as we participate in it. We get to be Apollonian observer-critics even as we also get to be Dionysian participants. It's no wonder Talking Heads was the intellectual's rock band: they let us worship our usual god even when we're in the realm of his rival, Dionysus.