Saturday, October 30, 2010

Situationism and the Green Party

As someone once said, it's not easy being green, at least not in the United States.  Even here in Illinois, where the Green Party has had enough support to be an "established party," theoretically on a par with the Republicans and the Democrats, you run into all kinds of logistical difficulties when you try to support your party.  I'm not just talking about how difficult it can be just to get a yard sign from a party that has no money and few personnel.  And I'm not talking about the eye-rolling you get from Democrats who blame the Green's Ralph Nader for being the spoiler for Al Gore (for the record, I voted for Gore that time out).  And I'm not talking about the snickering of Republicans who figure you're some kind of birkenstock-clad deep-woods tree-hugger (my feet are too ugly for open-toed sandals, people, and I admire nature mostly on the Discovery Channel).  Nope.  I'm talking about the difficulties one runs into at the actual polling place itself.  Even with the Greens officially established in Illinois, and election officials legally bound to ask you whether you want a Republican, Democratic, or Green ballot, problems continue.  On several occasions  I've been told by election judges that there was no such thing as a Green ballot (not true).  Once, when someone behind me overheard this and asked the judge if the Greens were a real party, the judge told her that they weren't.  I don't think this was malicious: I think it just didn't compute, for this person, that there were more than two parties on the ballot.  I mean, a lot of people actually believe that the two-party system is constitutionally ordained, a permanent (if perhaps not always satisfying) part of the American political landscape.

And this brings me to why I think voting Green is a Situationist act.

Situationism — the movement we tend to think of as starting with the Guy Debord and the Situationist International in 1957 — had its roots about a decade earlier, in Sartre's essay "Pour un théâtre de situations."  Here, Sartre argued that what theater should do is, one way or another, to show "simple and human situations and free individuals in these situations choosing what they will be.... The most moving thing the theatre can show is a character creating himself, the moment of choice, of the free decision which commits him to a moral code and a whole way of life."  That is, theater, ideally, exists to break our sense of complacency and limitations.  It exists to kick us out of our sense that our hands are bound, and expand our sense of freedom and agency.  It's sort of down the same street as Brecht's thinking about theater: Brecht saw his own "epic theater" as something that, by breaking down narrative and the wall between the players and the audience, could wake people up from their spectator-stupor and make them active.  Sartre was a more conventional playwright than Brecht, but the goal was the same.  I mean, think of that moment in "Huis Clos" when the characters, who have been locked together in a room in hell, pull on the door and find, despite all their expectations, that it pops open.  They don't leave (out of fear, out of various psychological weaknesses that bind them to one another) and we, the audience, are infuriated.  We want them to go, and we're angry at them for refusing their own freedom.    We leave the show exasperated at their weakness and bad faith, and (ideally) we feel more fired-up about our own freedoms and possibilities.

That's the idea of the "situation" — it is the moment when we realize we are freer than we thought we were, and have more options than we thought we had.  This can be something very small ("I don't have to put up with that guy at work's bullshit anymore") or something large ("the King isn't really ruling by divine right — let's storm the goddam Bastille already!").  And whatever their disagreements with Existentialism may have been, the Situationists took the idea of creating such situations — not just in the theater, but in daily life — as fundamental.  Their main techniques were designed to take us out of pre-fabricated ideas and a sense of passive spectatorship. Consider détournement, in which one takes an existing cultural product (a comic book, say) and modifies it (replacing the dialogue with lines from Nietzche or something): we're clearly meant to get the sense that we are not mere consumers of culture, but can intervene in it.  Or consider the Situationist dérive, a kind of boundary-crossing ramble over a built environment, without respecting the prescribed uses for the various kinds of space.  This is meant to help us realize that we don't have to follow the ordinary paths, and use things as we are implicitly and explicitly told to use them.

So.  For me, voting Green is less about expressing a desire to save the trees and keep the water clean (though I believe those are good things to do) than it is about a desire to keep the Green Party on the ballot (you need 5% of the vote to do that in Illinois).  It's about creating an environment in which one realizes that the way things are now is not the way they have always been and must always be.  It's about creating a sense of expanded options.  It's about creating a situation.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Modernism and the Market

“He is one of those tormented spirits who seek in art the solution, not to the problem of success, but to the problem of their own being.” So said the critic Tadeuz Boy-Żeleński, writing about the great Stanizlaw Ignacy Witkiewicz. I know what you're thinking: “the great Stanizlaw Ignacy What-kee-what?” No, Witkiewicz isn't some hoax, or the latest literary persona projected by Kent Johnson's fervid imagination. Witciewicz — who also went by the name Witacky, as well as Witkas, Witkrejus, St. Witacky à la fourchette, Vitcatius, and Mahatma Witkac, among others — was a Polish modernist writer and painter, a prolific playwright, essayist, portraitist, and novelist, and a kind of eastern European Aldous Huxley, pioneering new explorations in drug-fueled consciousness (his specialization was peyote). Under-appreciated in his short lifetime, which ended with a tragic suicide while Hitler and Stalin were dividing Poland, he became an important figure to Polish intellectuals when he was rediscovered in the 1950s. If this were the 1980s, I'd say Witkiewicz was best known to American readers via Czeslaw Milosz's book The Captive Mind, which takes its premise about a magic pill that reconciled Europeans to the decline of their civilization from Witkiewicz's novel Insatiability, but since the end of the Cold War The Captive Mind seems to have slipped out of our collective consciousness. So I'm guessing Witkiewicz's works are terra incognita, even for people into the freakier forms of modernist literary and artistic expression. He was little more than a name to me until I started pawing through Daniel Gerould's Witkiewicz Reader, which has been sitting unread on my shelves for God knows how many years.

One of the best-known pieces in the book (if we can describe any of them as well-known outside of Poland) is the wonderful "Rules of the S.I. Witkiewicz Portrait-Painting Firm," a 1928 document lying somewhere in the territory between manifesto and business contract — a strange and little-visited country indeed. It's fascinating, because in it's strange, farcical way it shows the contradictory position of the modernist artist caught between two apparently irreconcilable forces: the power of the market to determine the nature of cultural production; and the assertion of the artist's necessary autonomy from all things save the dictates of his own imagination.

Even the title of the piece raises questions about the relation of art to the marketplace: a painter, after all, is meant to be an individual sensibility, but here the painter is presented as a firm, a collective business enterprise. In the text itself, we read about certain behaviors of the clients putting the firm in a bad mood, though, so there is some confusion about the nature of the business enterprise: is it a single, moody genius, or is it a business operation? It is both — because of the conflicting demands of artistic autonomy (be a genius! paint out of individual inspiration!) and of the marketplace (paint to order! produce something that sells, preferably on a large scale, and by systematic methods so as to guarantee quality and consistency!). As Witciewicz/Witacky/Witkas/Witkrejus/St. Witacky à la fourchette/Vitcatius/Mahatma Witkac knew, identity had to be plural and even contradictory under modern conditions!

The rules of the firm are quite precise, and include the following descriptions of the sorts of portraits produced:

The firm produces portraits of the following types:

1. Type A - Comparatively speaking, the most as it were, 'spruced up' type. Rather more suitable for women's faces than men's. 'Slick' execution, with a certain loss of character in the interests of beautification, or accentuation of 'prettiness'.

2. Type B - More emphasis on character but without any trace of caricature. Work making greater use of sharp line than type A, with a certain touch of character traits, which does not preclude 'prettiness' in women's portraits. Objective attitude to the model.

3. Type B + s (supplement) - Intensification of character, bordering on the caricatural. The head larger than natural size. The possibility of preserving 'prettiness' in women's portraits, and even of intensifying it in the direction of the 'demonic'.

4. Type C, C + Co, E, C + H, C + Co + E, etc. - These types, executed with the aid of CHO5 and narcotics of a superior grade, are at present ruled out. Subjective characterization of the model, caricatural intensification both formal and psychological are not ruled out. Approaches abstract composition, otherwise known as 'Pure Form'.

5. Type D - The same results without recourse to any artificial means.

6. Type E - Combinations of D with the preceding types. Spontaneous psychological interpretation at the discretion of the firm. The effect achieved may be the exact equivalent of that produced by types A and B - the manner by which it is attained different, as is the method of execution, which may take various forms but never exceeds the limit(s). A combination of E + s is likewise available on request.

Type E is not always possible to execute.

7. Children's type - (B + E) - Because children can never stand still, the purer type B is in most instances impossible - the execution rather takes the form of a sketch.

So there's the range: from Joshua Reynolds-style "prettified" idealizations, in the manner of the patron-driven world of eighteenth-century art, to the more "subjective" work of the contemporary genius, who offers us less mimesis and more of his own (sometimes drug-fueled) idiosyncratic vision. From Augustan prettiness to Romantic opium-dreams to Modern quasi-caricature, it's all there. But the important thing is that it's all a menu, a market-based system of ordering. The market makes all styles are available, even those of the self-absorbed dreamer, the figure we think of as ignoring the market. It's not the case that the producer of the paintings is totally disempowered in this system, though: in fact it is he who is dictating the terms of the contract.

Those terms include clauses designed to protect the delicate sensibility of the artist — a trait we think of as inimical to the demands of the marketplace. Here, for example, are some later clauses:

Any sort of criticism on the part of the customer is absolutely ruled out. The customer may not like the portrait, but the firm cannot permit even the most discreet comments without giving its special authorization. If the firm had allowed itself the luxury of listening to customers' opinions, it would have gone mad a long time ago. We place special emphasis on this rule, since the most difficult thing is to refrain the customer from making remarks that are entirely uncalled for. The portrait is either accepted or rejected - yes or no, without any explanations whatsoever as to why. Inadmissable criticism likewise includes remarks about whether or not it is a good likeness, observations concerning the background, covering part of the face in the portrait with one hand so as to imply that this part really isn't the way it should be, comments such as, 'I am too pretty,' 'Do I look that sad?', 'That's not me," and all opinions of that sort, whether favourable or unfavourable. After due consideration, and possibly consultation with third parties, the customer says yes (or no) and that's all there is to it - then he goes (or does not go) up to what is called the 'cashier's window', that is, he simply hands over the agreed-upon sum to the firm. Given the incredible difficulty of the profession, the firm's nerves must be spared.

Asking the firm for its opinion of a finished portrait is not permissable, nor is any discussion about a work in progress.

Inadmissable criticism likewise includes remarks about whether or not it is a good likeness, observations concerning the background, covering part of the face in the portrait with one hand so as to imply that this part really isn't the way it should be, comments such as, 'I am too pretty,' 'Do I look that sad?', 'That's not me," and all opinions of that sort, whether favourable or unfavourable.

The firm reserves the right to paint without any witnesses, if that is possible.

So we've got the isolation of the autonomous artist, alone with his genius, enshrined in the terms of a market-based contract: art is both autonomous and heteronomous (that is, based in a market system). Witkiewicz is out to have it both ways, or at least to point out how difficult the position of the artist becomes when he's supposed to be both autonomous and able to succeed in the modern marketplace.

Further clauses indicate the difficulty of the artist's circumstances under the double regime of autonomy and the market. Consider the following, and then consider how likely any client would be to agree to them, especially from a painter without great reputation:

The portrait may not be viewed until finished.

The technique used is a combination of charcoal, crayon, pencil and pastel. All remarks with regard to technical matters are ruled out, as are demands for alterations.

The firm undertakes the painting of portraits outside the firm's premises only in exceptional circumstances (sickness, advanced age, etc.) in which case the firm must be guaranteed a secret receptacle in which the unfinished work may be kept under lock and key.

The firm will, it seems, come to you. But only if you can replicate the private conditions of the autonomous genius, free from distraction, free from any input on form or medium, and any expression of desire for revision. You're the boss, Mr. Customer — just so long as we understand that the artist answers to no one.

In the end, there's an admission that the artist is not as empowered in the market as he might wish to appear: "Lacking any powers of enforcement," says Witkiewicz, "the firm counts on the tact and good will of its customers to meet the terms."

How, then, is the conundrum of autonomy and the market resolved? The artist becomes a kind of Blanche Dubois, and depends on the kindness of any stranger entering the studio with a checkbook.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Notes on the Origins of French Literary Radicalism

During my first hour in the Hôpital X I had had a whole series of different and contradictory treatments, but this was misleading, for in general you got very little treatment at all, either good or bad, unless you were ill in some interesting and instructive way…. On the other hand if you had some disease with which the students wanted to familiarize themselves you got plenty of attention of a kind. I myself, with an exceptionally fine specimen of a bronchial rattle, sometimes had as many as a dozen students queuing up to listen to my chest. It was a very queer feeling — queer, I mean, because of their intense interest in learning their job, together with a seeming lack of any perception that the patients were human beings. It is strange to relate, but sometimes as some young student stepped forward to take his turn at manipulating you he would be actually tremulous with excitement, like a boy who has at last got his hands on some expensive piece of machinery. And then ear after ear — ears of young men, of girls, of negroes — pressed against your back, relays of fingers solemnly but clumsily tapping, and not from any one of them did you get a word of conversation or a look direct in your face. As a non-paying patient, in the uniform nightshirt, you were primarily a specimen, a thing I did not resent but could never quite get used to.
— George Orwell, “How the Poor Die”

I’m not sure what Zachary Bos has to do with “Republics of Letters,” the blog Dan Edelstein writes over at Stanford, but Zach recently included me in an email promoting Edelstein’s recent posts. In one of those posts Edelstein took up a position I usually endorse wholeheartedly — arguing that the idea of teaching literature as a national phenomenon is deeply flawed and limited. Edelstein’s got a point: I mean, teaching American Transcendentalism as if it were solely the product of American conditions (I’ve heard various codgers discuss Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” in exactly these terms) has always seemed terribly blinkered to me. Certainly Emerson and Co. were just as much a late-blooming, provincial version of European Romanticism and German Idealist philosophy as they were the pure products of the American soil. Yet we persist in teaching French literature in the French department, and English lit in the English department where, generally speaking, it occupies a different wing of the curriculum than the American, postcolonial, and other Anglophone literatures. (One wonders if Edelstein’s solution — that English majors come over to the French department where he teaches for some courses — may be in some measure inspired by the frisson of fear running through language departments lately, a fear well justified by the recent philistine axing of all language departments other than Spanish at SUNY — Albany).

Anyway. While I generally endorse the position Edelstein has taken, I came across the piece at an unpropitious time. I read it over about an hour after getting off my commuter train, where my casual reading had been George Orwell’s
Decline of English Murder and Other Essays, which includes the powerful little essay “How the Poor Die,” an account of Orwell’s 1929 stay in a French hospital for paupers, where he’d sought refuge during a particularly nasty episode of bronchitis. The essay makes much of the differences between the way English and French hospitals of the time functioned, and in it Orwell argues that all the advantage lies on the English side. The nature of the institutional differences seemed to amount to a difference in the degree to which individual idiosyncrasy was respected. Orwell could be quite critical of English institutions, but here he notes a sort of fundamental English decency, compared to a French institution where treatments were doled out in a one-size-fits all manner, by a medical staff that treated patients as standard units to be processed by a standard procedure administered by certified experts whose job was to go through the procedures, not tend to the individual needs — hence the feeling, expressed in the quote above, of being a specimen, not a person. The sense of disempowerment at the hands of a rigid, regulation-ridden system administered by merciless functionaries starts even before one enters the hospital ward, and is, to Orwell’s mind, distinctly un-English: “The clerks put me through the usual third-degree at the reception desk,” he writes, “and indeed I was kept answering questions for some twenty minutes before they would let me in. If you have ever had to fill up forms in a Latin country you will know the kind of questions I mean.” (That the current hideous corporate fiasco we call the American medical system has become similar to this is worth discussion, but I’m headed in a different direction, and have had too much coffee to pause now).

What, you ask, does any of this have to do with the idea of national models for understanding literature? Well, this: while the idea of national literature is as full of holes as a rusted-out ‘67 Chevy truck fender, it does in some cases have merit. And this merit isn’t limited to the idea of a continuity of literary traditions within a nation (what Edelstein, giving due props to the idea he’s about to reject rejects, describes as the idea that “one must read Dante to understand Boccacio, Corneille to understand Racine”). No indeed. I mean, we can understand a great deal about a literary tradition by placing it in the context of the evolution of national institutions and cultural norms — norms of which I was reminded by Orwell’s piece.

In the case of French literature — and I’m speaking very fucking broadly here — I think we can only really understand the longstanding prominence of rebellious, experimental, and avant-garde literature with reference to two phenomena more prominent in French history than in the history of any other Western European nation: centralization and systematization. (Not that these are the only pertinent phenomena, but they’re big. Really big).

I suppose that if I had to live up to the standards of laying out a reasonably clear thesis to which I hold my students, I’d say my point is this: that much of the most canonical French literature since, say,
Les Fleurs du Mal has been produced by people who assume all or some of the following: that culture and consciousness and subjectivity are so thoroughly governed that one must deliberately reject all structures and institutions to be free and authentic. I’d add, too, that the scale of this oppressive sense of things being governed comes about because of France’s particular social and political history (I know I first arrived at this thesis during one of my two-hour phone conversations with the poet Michael Anania, but I don't know which of us came up with it — probably that hybrid creature Archambnia).

Perhaps I can be forgiven for going no further back than the seventeenth century in my attempt to Explain All This in a Single Blog Post. It was in that century that Louis the XIII (well, really Cardinal Richelieu) began a series of reforms aimed at creating, from the patchwork of feudal realms, something like a unified political unit that could be called France. The process bore fruit during the 72-year reign of Louis XIV, who succeeded in forging a powerful national unity by reducing the near-independent feudal lords of France to his powdered and bewigged house-monkeys, gambling and tittering in apartments of Versailles while royally-appointed officials governed their lands and the King and his advisors crafted truly national policies that dominated the continental political scene. The situation couldn’t have been more different than what occurred in England at the time, when the English Civil War, the Puritan Interregnum, and the Restoration of a chastened monarchy began a long process of devolving power away from centralized institutions (at the end of the period English financial reform, and the canny advantage aristocrats took of those reforms, led to a hybridizing of landed and financial elites utterly unlike anything that occurred in France, where centralized control of the aristocracy kept them much more separate from the bourgeoisie, with whose interests they eventually, and disastrously, clashed).

Anyway. We begin with French centralization — of politics, sure, but of other things as well. The black-hole level of gravity generated by the centralized court at Versailles meant that French institutional life, as well as art, letters, science, and much else became concentrated in the Versailles/Paris corridor. When the revolution came, it didn’t undo this centralization and return power to the provinces. Instead, the revolution meant the Englightenment-izing of centralized power: the rationalizing, encoding, systematizing, and standardizing of already centralized institutions. France became a highly regulated place under the revolution and, especially, under the Napoleonic regime, with its seemingly endless proliferation of petty officialdom, which was connected to the putting of the country on a long-term war footing, if I remember my lunch with the guys from the history department correctly. So you get highly regulated professions, standardized law, a continuation of the old, centralized royal way of administering art.

I’d offer, by way of an example of all this, the 1725 evolution of the old
Académie de Peinture et de Sculpture (which served Versaille) into the famous Salon de Paris, which morphed in the 1880s into a professional outfit (i.e., an organization policed by approved experts in the field), the Société des Artistes Français. First came royal centralization, then an increasingly administered, standardized, and professionalized institution, which produced the (now generally sneered at) academic painting against which so many of the artists we now revere rebelled (by exhibiting in the then-reviled Salon des Refusés).

We can already see in the
Salon des Refusés the spirit of rebellion against centralization and administration. There was, of course, a Royal Academy in England, but the painterly rebellions against it often took place within it (think of the Pre-Raphaelites, grubbing for R.A. wall-space and recognition while grumbling about the old guard). In this, as in so many other areas, English institutions tended to be less rigid, less theorized, and less powerful than their French counterparts. It takes (along with many other factors) a lot of constriction to produce an explosion like the one that occurred in French painting in the last decades of the nineteenth century. England — generally for better, but in this instance for worse — just didn’t have it, not to anything like the degree France did.

But we were going to talk about literature.

Okay, then. A few things that come to mind include:

— If you want to think about presciptivist poetics and the age of French absolutistism under Louis XIV, consider
L'Art Poétique, by Nicolas Boileau-Boileau-Despréaux. This was the big, prescriptive thesis about how one ought to write poetry in Louis XIV’s France. In fact, he wrote it shortly after the sun king summoned him to Versailles to be the example for other poets. It had authority, people, of the sort you can’t get without the endorsement of a powerful and centralized political center behind you. Try being prescriptive about poetry in America today and see how far it gets you.

— The great nineteenth-century French littérateur Hippolyte Taine’s observations on the difference between English and French poetry in the mid-nineteenth century in his big-ass Histoire de la Littérature Anglaise (four ponderous volumes, 1863-4). “The favorite poet of a nation, it seems, is he whose works a man, setting out on a journey, puts in his pocket,” opines Taine (in the van Laun translation). “Nowadays it would be Tennyson in England, and Alfred de Musset in France.” What’s significant about this? For Taine, it’s a matter of Tennyson being a poet of social consensus, and de Musset being a poet of rebellion against, and alienation from, a very different kind of society than that in which Tennyson found himself. “Does any poet suit [English, middle-class, capitalist] society better than Tennyson? Without being a pedant, he is moral; he may be read in the family circle by night; he does not rebel against society and life; he speaks of God and the soul, nobly, tenderly, without ecclesiastical prejudice… he has no violent or abrupt words, excessive and scandalous statements; he will pervert nobody.” Indeed, for Taine Tennyson’s poetry “seems made expressly for those wealthy, cultivated, free business men, heirs of the ancient nobility, new leaders of a new England. It is… an eloquent confirmation of their principles.” In contrast, Taine describes de Musset as writing in a country where all cultural life is centralized in the capital (in the French countryside “there are plenty of noblemen’s castles,” but “we do not find amongst them, as in England, the thinking elegant world,” which is exclusively in Paris). De Musset’s impetuous, sometimes scandalous, work, was loved by the alienated bohemians of Paris, shut out from the regulated professions. His “inner tempest of deep sensations” gave vent to their frustrations. Tennyson was a creature of his society; de Musset a rebel against his.

— Remember everything Walter Benjamin said about Baudelaire as an
apache, at war with the wilderness of his city? That’s rebel stuff, from a man living on the margins of society. Baudelaire is haunted by religion (and needs to reverse it with his Satanic gestures); Baudelaire flirts with right-wing and left-wing modes of rebellion, and yearns for a space “anywhere out of the world.” His is outsider-rebel stuff, a turning against respectability and order. Tennyson he is not.

— I don’t think it’s an accident that Naturalism — the literary movement most dedicated to showing us how our actions are determined by social and biological forces larger than we generally know — has its greatest theorist in Zola, and its most consistent achievements in the French novel. These are people operating in an environment where one feels the squeeze of such forces reinforced by the power of systematic, regulating institutions.

— Rimbaud. Rimbaud. Rimbaud. I mean, the desire for a systematic derangement of the senses comes from somewhere, right? If you read Rimbaud’s very early verse, you’ll see it’s all about the restrictiveness of life, of schools, or church, or small town life, of his father’s military discipline. The running-off to peddle guns in Africa is really of a piece with the poetic derangement: it’s a
Drunken Boat-like escape from rules, norms, and regulations.  I think the fact that so many in France felt a similar resentment of the governed nature of life accounts for his near-apotheosis in that country.  And for his popularity with young people everywhere (who tend to be subjected to power — until they get older and become both agents and objects of power, and drift from Rimbaud to The Wall Street Journal).

— André Breton’s Surrealism, with its identification of imaginative liberation and political liberation, shows us the urge to escape from social restrictions, and also the urge to escape from the restrictions of the alternative society proposed by the Communist Party. Watch him tapdance, in “Legitimate Defense,” trying to maintain the revolutionary stance of a party-line Communist
and the notion that the imagination can’t be bound to the regulations of the Party:

Here… is the essential question he [the local Party czar] puts to us: ‘Yes or no — is this desired revolution that of the mind a priori or that of the world of facts? Is it linked to Marxism, or to contemplative theories, to the purgation of the inner life?’ This question is of a much more subtle turn than it appears to be, though its chief malignity seems to me to reside in the opposition of an interior reality to the world of facts, an entirely artificial opposition which collapses at once upon scrutiny. In the realm of facts, as we see it, no ambiguity is possible: all of us seek to shift power from the hands of the bourgeoisie to those of the proletariat. Meanwhile, it is nonetheless necessary that the experiments of the inner life continue, and do so, of course, without external or even Marxist control.

Total revolution, revolution within the revolution, without end: this is the position of a man who has come to feel that the world is too governed, and the true and authentic life can only be found in the rejection of all institutions and all norms or forms or regulation.

— Jean Genet’s
Thief’s Journal — there’s a book where the only authentic people seem to be those who drop out of society utterly, the scavengers and beachcombers and lowlifes. When Genet imagines his mother as a detested beggar-woman, it’s a kind of abject-as-sublime moment: the outcast endures without (meaningless) status or (hypocritical) morals, and so becomes a figure for the one true fickering light of real humanity in the bogus and bullshitty world. Also, Genet likes showing us people in uniforms being corrupted — the revenge of the authentic outcast against the representatives of what is taken to be the falseness of an overly-policed society.

— I’m pretty sure we can see much of the formerly-fashionable French theory that so thrilled American grad students in the 80s and 90s in this light: Foucault analyses the invasive power of institutions; Kristeva dreams of a chaos bubbling up to disrupt language; Derrida seeks the contradictions of apparently regular systematic thought; Deleuze writes of “lines of flight” out of orderly thought (and of the superiority of Anglo-American literature, which he sees as less structured than France’s more philosophical literature).

Is that enough? Too much? Well, you get the idea. It’s not that other countries don’t have their of experimental, anomie-heavy writers, but there’s a particular preponderance in France, and I think that preponderance can be explained, in large measure, with reference to the combination of two phases of French history: the absolutist monarchy and the institutionalization of the Enlightenment in the wake of the revolution.

Someday I hope to get around to writing about the whys and wherefores of those moments when segments of the English and American literary worlds turn to the French tradition of anomie for inspiration (the English 1890s; the American academy of the late twentieth century). But it won’t be today. I have a train to catch, and some Orwell essays to read.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Avant-Garde for Beginners

My colleague Josh Corey has been temporarily felled by some dread illness, and I've just been told I'm going to be pressed into service tomorrow to cover a class session introducing the idea of the avant-garde.  Thank god I'm an old bastard, now, and have a general storehouse of notes on all literary topics.  I'll be bodging something together out of sections of two old essays of mine, "The Death of the Critic" (from Louis Armand's book Avant-Post, now viewable in its entirety online) and "The Avant-Garde in Babel," which appeared in Action Yes (you can find it online, along with the much-superior essay to which it responds).

I've cut down some passages and done some re-arranging of bits and pieces. Here, in the event you're interested, they are.

Modified Passages from "The Death of the Critic"

1. The Avant-Garde as Linguistic Skepticism

A classic definition of avant-gardism, one that seems to serve as a kind of accepted folk-wisdom among experimental poets in our time, was articulated by Renato Poggioli in his 1968 study The Theory of the Avant-Garde.  Poggioli’s idea of the avant-garde, which is essential but not sufficient for my purposes, proposes that avant-gardism proceeds from the assumption that languages and systems of expression are, by their nature, entropic.  Avant-garde writing is, in this view, an inevitable reaction to “the flat, opaque, and prosaic nature of our public speech, where the practical end of quantitative communication spoils the quality of the expressive means.”  For Poggioli, the “conventional habits” of expression in a bourgeois, capitalist society are subject to a “degeneration,” and the role of the avant-garde must be renewal.

This idea does not originate with Poggioli, but derives from a long tradition of thinking about experimental art, much of it from the era of the historical avant-garde itself.  Much of what Poggioli has to say, for example, was already present in Victor Shklovsky’s seminal article of 1917, “Art as Technique.”  Here, Shklovsky presents the problem of linguistic entropy as a problem of ever-decreasing experiential returns: “If we start to examine the general laws of perception,” he writes,

we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic.  Thus, for example, all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic; if one remembers the sensations of holding a pen or speaking in a foreign language for the first time and compares that with his feeling at performing the action for the ten thousandth time, he will agree with us.

In this view, ordinary life in modern society is inherently a matter of alienation, not merely from one’s labor, but from one’s every action: “ is reckoned as nothing.  Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.”  If, as Shklovsky claims, “the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known,” then the technique of art must be “to make objects unfamiliar, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception...” 

2. Historical Examples of Linguistic Skepticism Predating the Avant-Garde

One irony of Victor Shklovsky’s status as a kind of patron saint of the avant-garde is that the examples he chooses to illustrate his idea of art as the defamiliarization of experience are not drawn from the powerful currents of avant-garde practice that flowed through Russia in 1917. Instead, Shklovsky derives his most extended and convincing examples from classic nineteenth-century Russian writers such Tolstoy and Gogol.

Also, skepticism about language’s ability to remain fresh and retain meaning was already present in the late eighteenth century (ix), the period in which Schiller and Goethe wrote:

All dilettantes are plagiarizers. They sap the life out of and destroy all that is original and beautiful in language and in thought by repeating it, imitating it, and filling up their own void with it. Thus, more and more, language becomes filled up with pillaged phrases and forms that no longer say anything...

3. The Avant-Garde as Institutional Skepticism

Some thinkers hold that if the avant-garde is to be understood as something distinct from the artistic and literary traditions that preceded it, it must possess some quality or propose some project other than defamiliarization and linguistic regeneration.  Jochen Schulte-Sasse follows the Peter Bürger of Theory of the Avant-Garde when he maintains that this quality is to be found in the avant-garde’s questioning of the institutions of art.  Schulte-Sasse begins with the premise that the late-nineteenth century Aesthetic movement was predicated on notions of aesthetic disinterest and autonomy.  While the movement constituted a kind of critique of the bourgeois, utilitarian world, it was a dead-end in that it removed art from the world of power.  Art became otherworldly, incapable of intervening in civil society, and its critique of capitalist values became a matter of an impotent refusal rather than a force for active intervention.  As Schulte-Sasse puts it,

Aestheticism’s intensification of artistic autonomy and its effect on the foundation of a special realm of aesthetic experience permitted the avant-garde to clearly recognize the social inconsequentiality of autonomous art ...  For [Peter] Bürger, then, the development of the avant-garde has nothing to do with a critical consciousness about language… [F]or him the turning point from Aestheticism to the avant-garde is determined by the extent to which art comprehended the mode in which it functioned in bourgeois society, its comprehension of its own social status.  The historical avant-garde of the twenties was the first movement in art history that turned against the institution “art” and the mode in which autonomy functions. 

The avant-garde, in this view, turned against the institutions of art (literary forms of publication, art galleries, museums, good taste and conniseurship, etc.) and the theory of art (autonomous art for art's sake) that underwrote those institutions.  It is in this respect, Schulte-Sasse says, that the avant-garde differed from Modernism:

Modernism may be understandable as an attack on traditional writing techniques, but the avant-garde can only be understood as an attack meant to alter the institutionalized commerce with art.  The social roles of the modernist and the avant-garde are, thus, radically different.

The carefully unpurchasable, deliberately unbeautiful nature of much avant-garde work can be taken as signs of the Bürger/Schulte-Sasse thesis in action.

A Passage Adapted from "The Avant-Garde in Babel" 

The Bäckström Schema

The four or five terms for experimental art and literature that Per Bäckström refers to in his essay on the different forms of experimental art and literature in different national traditions are modernism, avant-gardism, vanguardia (and its variants in the different Romance languages), and postmodernism.

Bäckström sees modernism as a term used in the Germanic and Anglo-American traditions to indicate an aesthetically experimental kind of art that defines itself by its rejection of popular culture’s kitschiness and clichés.

The avant-garde, in the precise usage of German theorists like Peter Bürger, refers to a movement that combined aesthetic and political radicalism, seeking to regenerate life by eliminating the boundary between art and life.  In this view the avant-garde is less worried about maintaining a distance from popular culture than is modernism.

Although there has been much ink spilled in arguing over the definition of postmodernism, Bäckström finds its most useful definition to be one based on its complex relationship to modernism and popular culture.  Postmodernism contains within itself the formal experimentalism of modernism, but it also refutes modernism’s distaste for pop culture.

Vanguardia and its variants are terms from the Romance languages that refer to a range of experimental literary and artistic activity, including both anti-pop-cultural forms and politicized forms.

The overall field depicted would be that of artistic experimentalism in general, and one could plot the co-ordinates of the movements designated by the Bäckström’s terms thusly:

Friday, October 08, 2010

Wit and Experimental Poetry

Nester’s Complaint

Daniel Nester first became a minor god in my pantheon back in 2003, when his book of poems about the legendary glam/anthemic rock band Queen came out.  Last year he blew off the dust that had been collecting on his angelic wings, when his essay about getting out of the (fucking awful) New York poetry-scene came out in The Morning News.  A couple of days ago, he further burnished those wings when he complained on his blog about the narrow range of topics discussed in the demimonde of contemporary American poetry, a list that includes, among a few other things, “the literary feud news peg editorial” and “MFA hand-wringing."  “Can we all assign ourselves a topic to write about?” he asked, yearning for a little range and variety in discussion. 

When I read Nester’s post, I’d just emerged from a seminar room where I’d been talking about Coleridge’s aesthetics, which meant, among other things, that I’d been tossing around some of those grand old aesthetic categories — the beautiful, the sublime, and the picturesque.  One of my students had observed that no one seems to talk about poetry in terms of the particular kinds of beauty it pursues, a comment that rang true.  So I dropped an idea into Nester’s comment stream — why not talk about some of the effects of contemporary poetry in terms of some of the old aesthetic categories?  The ones that seemed appropriate to the dominant poetic modes of our time didn’t seem like the big ones (beauty, the sublime), and while I’m convinced there’s a huge body of work that is, essentially, picturesque, this isn’t really a body of work I can get excited about.  But another set of terms — Joseph Addison’s categorization of the different kinds of verbal wit — seemed pertinent enough to some of the more interesting currents in contemporary American poetry.  Why not see how contemporary poetry looks through the old Addisonian telescope?  There followed a comments-stream silence, people (perhaps unsurprisingly — I mean, one thing you can kind of count on in contemporary poetry is people not caring about the history of literary criticism and theory before, say, the middle of the twentieth century).  But I’m intrigued enough to give it a try myself.

True, False, and Mixed Wit

Addison sketched out his schema of the varieties of  wit in the the May 11th,  1711 issue of  The Spectator.  Addison took inspiration from a distinction he stumbled across in the writings of John Locke between judgment and wit: judgment, for Locke, was the capacity for discerning fine differences, whereas wit was a capacity for finding similarities.  Hence, Locke concluded, the tittering wits of London were unlikely to have much good judgment; while the sage and sober men of judgment were unlikely to crack a smile at a bon mot — the latter being a prospect I find just a little bit terrifying.  Addison praises Locke, then elaborates on the notion of wit as the capacity to find similarities, telling us that there’s more to it than just noticing that one’s mistresses’ eyes, being bright, are like the sun:

his is, I think, the best and most philosophical account that I have ever met with of wit, which generally, though not always, consists in such a resemblance and congruity of ideas as this author mentions. I shall only add to it, by way of explanation, that every resemblance of ideas is not that which we call wit, unless it be such an one that gives delight and surprise to the reader. These two properties seem essential to wit, more particularly the last of them. In order therefore that the resemblance in the ideas be wit, it is necessary that the ideas should not lie too near one another in the nature of things; for where the likeness is obvious, it gives no surprise. To compare one man's singing to that of another, or to represent the whiteness of any object by that of milk and snow, or the variety of its colors by those of the rainbow, cannot be called wit, unless, besides this obvious resemblance, there be some further congruity discovered in the two ideas that is capable of giving the reader some surprise. Thus when a poet tells us, the bosom of his mistress is as white as snow, there is no wit in the comparison; but when he adds, with a sigh, that it is as cold too, it then grows into wit.

It’s a pretty good definition, as Addision himself isn’t too shy to mention, saying it “comprehends most of the species of wit, [such] as metaphors, similitudes, allegories, enigmas, mottoes, parables, fables, dreams, visions, dramatic writings, burlesque, and all the methods of allusion: as there are many other pieces of wit (how remote soever they may appear at first sight from the foregoing description) which upon examination will be found to agree with it.”  John Donne’s famous extended comparison of two separated lovers as the two arms of a compass, in “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” certainly fits the bill as a poem of wit.  Here, the center, unmoving arm of the compass represents the woman left behind, and the other arm represents the man who returns.  The surprising resemblance is that found between the compass and (shall we say) a certain physiological effect of the prospect of reunion on the returning, male lover.

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as it comes home.

The Motion Picture Association of America might label a film of the poem PG-13, but Addison would apply the far more civilized label “wit.”  Or, more precisely, he’d label Donne’s poem a piece of “true wit,” since wit, for Addison, can be either true or false.

True wit, in this view, involves a substantial resemblance of ideas (the drawn-in compass really does have a similarity to the man’s anatomy), while false wit involves only a resemblance of words, or other verbal elements.  “As true wit consists in the resemblance and congruity of ideas,” says Addison, false wit takes many forms: “sometimes of single letters, as in anagrams, chronograms, lipograms, and acrostics; sometimes of syllables, as in echoes and doggerel rhymes; sometimes of words, as in puns and quibbles; and sometimes of whole sentences or poems, cast into the figures of eggs, axes, or altars.”  So: if the John Donne of “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” is a true wit, the George Herbert of “Easter Wings” is just some kind of asshole.  So are punsters.  I think I’m with Addison on puns — I mean, no one likes the guy who steps to you at the coffee machine and says “You know why mountains hear all your secrets? Huh huh?  Because they have mountaineers! Get it? ‘Mountain’ ‘ears’? Mountaineers! Haw haw haw!”  (This actually happened to me, and no jury would have convicted me if I’d hurled a cup of scalding java at the man).

There’s a middle ground, too, of middling worth, as far as Addison is concerned.  Between the resemblance of ideas in true with and the verbal resemblances of false wit lies “mixed wit,” a species of wit combining resemblance of ideas with verbal resemblance.  Such wit, says Addison, “is a composition of pun and true wit, and is more or less perfect as the resemblance lies in the ideas or the words: its foundations are laid partly in falsehood and partly in truth: reason puts in her claim for one half of it, and extravagance for the other.”

Wit and the English Compromise

Why, one wonders, does Addison, in 1711, hold up a wit based on ideas, reason, and resemblance of things in life over a wit based on verbal or phonetic cleverness without reference to the truth of the resemblance in life.  Long story short, one can find the explanation in the social role of journals like The Spectator in eighteenth century England.  More so than in any other European nation (with the possible exception of the Netherlands), the English were seeing a rise in trade, commerce, and finance, and a consequent rise of a bourgeois class without ties to the old landed aristocratic families.  At the end of the seventeenth century England was developing a mercantile society as vibrant as any in Europe, with fortunes being made in the trade of textiles, paper, and metals, but it was the Financial Revolution of the 1690s that really allowed a new elite group, based on trade and finance rather than land, to emerge.  The 1690s saw the founding of the stock market, the Bank of England, and the national debt, the last of which gave unprecedented power and influence to investors in public credit.  There was a new branch of the elite out there, a sober bunch of people who’d clawed their way up through prudence and calculation.  In this, they were unlike the bon-vivant aristocrats, inheritors of privilege.

Fortunately for England, there were no real legal barriers to the mixing of this new elite with the established one, and soon enough an amalgamated elite of bourgeois and aristocrats were in mixing together (what happens when such a mixing doesn’t occur, and the vital interests of new and old elites clash, can be seen in the events in France at the end of the eighteenth century).

The role of Addison’s various journals in this context was, essentially, to find a cultural ground in which these different elites could forge something like a common identity.  This is why so much of Addison’s energy is spent defining taste (and why the eighteenth century is sometimes called “the age of taste”): if bloodlines no longer marked out elite status, something else had to, and taste was eminently suitable: it was exclusive, but could be acquired with effort and expense.  Despite its gatekeeper-of-elite-status function, taste seemed neutral enough with regard to what had been the divisive issues of history.  I mean, the essays on Milton in The Spectator are all about form, and tasteful lines — they’re devoid of mention of the whole Puritan/Anglican/Catholic contretemps that so animated Milton's imagination.  In this context, the idea of true wit can be seen as a kind of compromise between the rational, hard-nosed, distrusting-of-mere-play viewpoint of the early commercial and financial bourgeoisie, and the more playful and aesthetic world of the hereditary landed classes.  It’s all more complicated, but that’s the basic outline, and I’m guessing no one really wants to hear much more about the amalgamating social elites of England circa 1711 anyway.  So: on to contemporary poetry and the forms of wit!

Wit and Experimental Poetry

I’m really in no position to make a claim as large as I’m about to make, but that’s not going to stop me from making it.  The claim is this: the more likely a poet is to be identified with experimentalism, or linguistic innovation, the more likely he or she is to be a poet of what Addison would call false or mixed, rather than true, wit — because the poet is more likely to be drawing attention to language as language, and less likely to be oriented toward statements about the resemblance of things in the world.  (Mixed wit points in both directions at once).  I don’t mean to say that I take Addison’s valuation of one kind of wit over another at face value.  In fact, I think most mixed wit tends to excite me a lot more than most of what Addison would call true wit, in the form of metaphors and the like.

One poet I admire immensely, Harryette Mullen, is often described as both experimental and as witty (by, among others, me).  But what would Addison think?  Surely he’d look at many of her lines as examples of false wit, as word play with no larger point behind it.  The line “as silverware as it were,” say, from the poem “Wipe that Simile Off Your Aphasia” gives a witty phonetic resemblance between “silverware” and “was it were,” but doesn’t make much of a statement about anything in particular.  But what about the verbally playful prose-poems for which she is best known?  Here’s one, in its entirety:

Of a girl, in white, between the lines, in the spaces where nothing is written. Her starched petticoats, giving him the slip. Loose lips, a telltale spot, where she was kissed, and told. Who would believe her, lying still between the sheets. The pillow cases, the dirty laundry laundered. Pillow talk-show on a leather couch, slips in and out of dreams. Without permission, slips out the door. A name adores a Freudian slip.

So what have we got, wit-wise?  Well, there’s the pun on petticoats “giving him the slip” — where slip refers to lingerie and to a kind of escape.  This is followed right away by the reference to “loose lips,” which is bound to the previous statement loosely, with only the similarity in sound between “slip” and “ship” (an absent but implied word here, as it is loose lips that sink ships).  We then get another bit of verbal play in the reference to the place “where she was kissed, and told,” in which we can hear a reference to the old saying “don’t kiss and tell.”  This is reinforced by the notion of the “Pillow talk-show,” a kind of portmanteau-ing of “pillow talk” and “talk show.”  So we’ve got quite a bit of verbal resemblances between phrases in the poem and platitudes/sayings outside it.  But does is there anything that Addison would see as a resemblance in idea, anything like Donne’s compass arms?  There’s some sort of implied statement lurking here about the making public of private eros, but the poem isn’t really referential enough to deal strongly in those resemblances in ideas that Addison thought of as essential to true wit.

Another one of Mullen’s prose poems, “Denigration,” takes on weightier issues, and does so with wit, for sure.  But what kind of wit?  Here it is:

Did we surprise our teachers who had niggling doubts about the picayune brains of small black children who reminded them of clean pickaninnies on a box of laundry soap? How muddy is the Mississippi compared to the third longest river of the darkest continent? In the land of the Ibo, the Hausa and the Yoruba, what is the price per barrel of nigrescence?

The verbal resemblance between “niggling” and “nigrescence” (and, for that matter, of the title word “denigration”) and the most denigrating term for African-Americans is clear enough, and there’s the play on “picayune” and “pickaninny” — so we’re reminded, by analogy with the resemblance of words, of how racism manifests itself even in those places where we least expect it.  The comparison of the Mississippi to the Niger river (the river near which the tribal groups Mullen mentions live) is important in this context, in that it reminds us that there are places where Africans are identified by tribe, not by race, and are certainly not identified by the denigrating American term for their race (the “price per barrel” business brings in the whole question of the Nigerian oil economy and the neo-colonialism it fosters, so the poem’s world is more complex than a simple Edenic Africa/fallen America dichotomy).  Here, the verbal play is the most noticeable part of the poem, but it connects more strongly to issues beyond the poem than does the “Of a girl, in white” prose poem.  In Addisonian terms, we’re in the realm of mixed wit — a rather politically pointed mixed wit.

But Why?

The emphasis on false and mixed wit, as opposed to true wit (loaded terms, but I try to see them as neutral, descriptive concepts) in experimental poetry cries out for some kind of explanation.  My guess is it’s to be found in the very different situation poetry inhabits now, compared to the Eighteenth century.  In Addison’s time poets were part of a general discourse about things, and published their work side-by-side with all kinds of prose.  No such thing as a poetry magazine existed.  The writers of poetry weren’t even poets, in the sense of having a professional specialization, still less in the sense of being special, sensitive souls in the mode of Wordsworthian Romanticism.  One wasn’t a poet, really, the way one is today, bearing credentials to certify the fact. Poetry was an activity, not an identity.  It was something one did, not something that defined who one was.  I mean, gossip for a guy like Addison — who wrote plenty of poetry, as well as the play, Cato, that made him famous in his day, and the essays by which we know him — wasn’t literary gossip, because there really wasn’t a literary world separate from other spheres, not in the way we know it today.  You have to wait for the nineteenth century for that (you can still get the cream of nineteenth century literary gossip from the journals of the Goncourt brothers — no similar document exists for the eighteenth century).

This, of course, brings us back full circle, to the world about which Daniel Nester complains, where the poets spend too much time talking about themselves and their feuds, and where wringing one’s hands about the ongoing dominance of professionalization and the MFA programs is a disease and contagious and pervasive as the common cold.  And try as we might to run from it, into fields as seemingly remote as eighteenth-century aesthetics, it catches up to us eventually.