Monday, June 25, 2012

History, Totality, Silence

Here's the text of the paper I'll be giving at the National Poetry Foundation's conference on the poetry of the 1980s later this week.  In the event you'd like to quote from it, here's the MLA citation format:

Archambeau, Robert.  "History, Totality, Silence." National Poetry Foundation Conference on Poetry of the 1980s.  University of Maine, Orono, ME.  30 June 2012.

History, Totality, Silence

Since the title of our panel is “Gnostics, Mystics, and Heretics of the Reagan Years,” I thought I might begin by proposing a kind of parlor game, in which we take each of the three figures under discussion today—John Taggart, John Matthias, and Laurie Anderson—and ask ourselves under which of these categories they fall.  I’m not sure if my co-panelists will want to play, but I do.  And I’ve got it on good authority that the subject of my paper, John Matthias, has heretical tendencies.  Here’s what Robert Duncan said about Matthias in an undated letter from the early 1970s:

Matthias is a goliard—one of those wandering souls out of a Dark Age in our own time… carrying with him as he goes in his pack of cards certain key cards that come ever into his hand when he plays: the juggler (as he was to be portrayed later in the Tarot), the scholar whose head is filled with learning and of amorous women and the heretic remembering witch-hunts yet to come.

A goliard! Already Matthias is in trouble, the goliards being clerical students of the middle ages who affirmed the flesh and derided the corruption of Mother Church.  And not just any goliard, but a goliard Duncan associates with the juggler of the Tarot (in esoteric decks, a figure for the magus who masters dark arts) and with the heretic seeing into a future of persecutions.  We may as well call in Torquemada’s inquisition and get this heretic burning over with.  But Duncan is talking about the Matthias of the sixties and early seventies, and thinking of Matthias’ political radicalism and of his early obsessions with alchemy and witchcraft.  What of the Matthias of the 1980s?

To ask about the Matthias of the 1980s is really to ask about three long poems that form a poetic suite: “An East Anglian Dyptich,” “Facts from an Apocryphal Midwest,” and “A Compostella Diptych,” written between 1984 and 1990, and published collectively as A Gathering of Ways.  The general project of the poems indicates a turning away from the Matthias described by Duncan: they are attempts of coming to terms with what Matthias called his “post-activist consternation” and alienation from American life.  “An East Anglian Dyptich” is Matthias’ attempt to make a psychological home for himself in England, and “Facts from an Apocryphal Midwest” represents a similar home-making project in America.  This is no longer the radical wanderer, but the poet in search of stability.  Indeed, “A Compostella Diptych,” takes as its subject the ancient pilgrim routes across France and Spain to Santiago de Compostella.  It’s an attempt by the post-activist Matthias to come to terms with, and possibly make himself at home in, both the history of the West and the dominant spiritual tradition of the West, Catholicism.

But to what terms does he come? If I were to try to sum up them up, I’d say this: in “A Compostella Diptych,” Matthias attempts to present a totalized history of the West and of Catholicism.  But he fails to find a happy totality, and this drives him toward an otherworldly yearning, a yearning for a world beyond history, an eternal world of free of violence.  This is essentially a Gnostic yearning for some eternal, infinite elsewhere of light, a yearning from which he only escapes at the very end of the poem.

When I speak of a “totalized history” in “A Compostella Diptych,” I want to use the term “totality” in a vaguely Levinasian sense: as something finite, in which diverse elements are reduced to “the violently pacified empire of Same” or “the counted-as-one” (to use Dominic Fox’s glosses for Levinas’ “totality”). With regard to history, we can think of totalization as the opposite of an unending series of discrete events— the opposite, that is, of Henry Ford’s version of history as “one damn thing after another”— or perhaps we can think of it as the hammering of such discrete phenomena into something whole, in which apparently disparate parts are in fact manifestations of a single force, or repetitions of a single pattern. We’re on the same page about this if you’re thinking of one of the most famous passages in the works of Walter Benjamin, which reads:

A [Paul] Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.

This is a vision of history as total, and as total disaster.  And this very much the vision of history that Matthias gives us in “A Compostella Diptych.”

It doesn’t seem that way at first, though.  “A Compostella Diptych” begins with what seems to be a happy of the many pilgrims who have trodden the various routes through France and Spain to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostella.  There’s a barrage of proper names of people and places: some 41 different proper names in the first 45 lines of the poem.  On the face of it, this doesn’t seem like the writing of a man who would present history as a totality.  Nothing, after all, insists on irreducible specificity more than a proper name.  Indeed, proper names will be very significant at the end of the poem, when Matthias shakes himself free of a totalized version of history—but I’m getting ahead of myself.  The point I want to make here doesn’t have to do with proper names, but with a collective pronoun, “they.”  Unlike proper names, collective pronouns reduce the many to the one, and what we see happen in the opening of “A Compostella Diptych” is a reduction of the people of different European nations and centuries into a single, collective, “they”—a trans-historical subject for the people of Catholic Europe.  Here we have the multitudes “counted-as-one.”  It doesn’t seem, at first, to be anything but a joyous affair, a holy journey uniting the many.  But this all changes a few pages into the poem.  After Matthias gestures toward the song of the pilgrims, he adds this:

And there was another song—song sung inwardly
to a percussion of the jangling
manacles and fetters hanging on the branded

heretics who crawled the roads
on hands and knees and slept with lepers under
dark facades of abbeys

 the west portals of cathedrals…

There is a dissonance in the happy totality of history: those who do not fit, those who are expelled, despised, oppressed. This is a vision of the violence of the totality, and soon the history his poem recounts becomes a history of crusade, jihad, and inquisition, while a small minority yearns for an escape into timeless peace.  Indeed, history becomes totalized in a new way—as Benjamin’s totality of “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.”

Matthias creates a sense of this catastrophic historical totality through four main techniques. I call them coincidence in place; rhyming actions; musical refrain; and musical reprise.

Coincidence in place presents history as total catastrophe by giving us a series of almost archeological sections in which the same geography hosts similar events over time.  For example, Matthias shows us Charlemagne’s minions slaughtered during a crusade in SpainThese events coincident in space with later massacres of the Spanish Inquisition centuries later, and with still later massacres perpetuated by Napoleon in the Peninsular War.  We dig into the history of particular places, and, like Benjamin’s angel, see only wreckage piling upon wreckage.

By “rhyming actions” I mean historical events that Matthias presents as essentially parallel.  Notable among these is the fate of the cathedral bells of Santiago.  Early in the poem we see these hauled away by the conquering armies of Islamic Spain under Almansor, who hangs them upside down in his great mosque and uses them as candelabra.  Much later in the poem, and in history we see Alfonso VI of Castile sack the mosque and take the bells back to Santiago, installing them in the cathedral for their original use. The effect of these actions, which echo one another, is to remind the reader of conflict, and of the hubris of conquerors, as the constants of history.

There are many refrains in “A Compostella Diptych,” but among the most resonant refrains is the phrase “darkness fell at noon.”  We hear it at many moments in the poem when political disaster falls.  The refrain not only serves to unite these moments—it also connects those moments to more modern disasters.  Darkness at Noon is, after all, the title of Arthur Koestler’s novel about the evils of Stalinism.

Musical reprise is a technique quite common in opera and musical drama, but unusual in poetry: the passing of the same lyrical part from one voice to another in different contexts.  A number of different passages get a reprise in “A Compostella Diptych,” but the most insistent one is Charlemagne’s dream of war, an 18-line passage lifted from the Chanson de Roland.  We’re first given it as a prophetic dream in the mind of Charlemagne, but we hear it again, in whole or in part, in the voices of other characters (notably Aimery Picaud, the chronicler of the pilgrim routes, and John Moore, the English general killed while fighting Napoleon’s armies at Corunna), or with reference to other conflicts, including modern acts of terrorism by Basque separatists.  The effect of the reprise is to make all of history into Charlemagne’s nightmare of war—a nightmare from which we seem unable to wake up.

Not that some characters in Matthias’ poem don’t try.  Accompanying the long nightmare of history recounted in “A Compostella Diptych” is another story, a story of Gnostics who long for a world beyond this broken, bruised, and evil one in which we seem perpetually imprisoned.  This group includes the historical Gnostics and heretics of the times and places covered by the poem (Cathars, Albigensians, and the like).  But Matthias interprets Gnosticism broadly, and includes in it the Eleusinian mysteries, the practioners of the medieval Trobar Clus, and the Sufi mystics of Islamic Spain.  He even includs Ezra Pound, wandering as a young man through the south of France, and dreaming of a light beyond the nightmare and wreckage of history.

There is much in “A Compostella Diptych” to indicate that Matthias would join with the Gnostic tradition, especially in the poem’s final section.  Here, Matthias presents us with a moment where we seem to leave history, and indeed this world, behind, in an intersection of the timeless with time.  The occasion for the intersection is the explosion of an enormous Spanish armory, an explosion that shakes foundations and, from many miles away, creates shockwaves that ring the Santiago cathedral bells, the same ones that had been hauled away by conquering Moors and hauled back by crusaders.  Now, we’re told


whose job it was to ring them stood
amazed out in the square & wondered if this thunder
and the ringing was in time for Vespers

or Nones or if it was entirely out of time…

As it turns out, it’s the latter: the explosion is followed by a stillness that Matthias identifies with the silence before the existence of time. We are taken to a place of stillness “As it was…in the silence that preceded silence” when “there were neither rights nor hopes nor sadnesses to speak of,” where “in the high and highest places everything was still.”  We’re outside of time, and certainly outside of the totalized, catastrophic history with which the poem has presented.  Indeed, inasmuch as we are in some boundless place, we have escaped totality, and encountered the infinite.

Another kind of poet would end things here.  Indeed, a properly modernist poet would end things here—gathered into the artifice of eternity (as in “Sailing to Byzantium”), or purged of worldliness by fire (as in “Little Gidding”).  But Matthias doesn’t. Instead of turning from the world of history, he returns to it—in fact, for the first time in the poem, he enters history by name, appearing with his wife Diana on the pilgrim trails.  Here’s the passage:

Towards Pamplona, long long after all Navarre
was Spain, and after the end
of the Kingdom of Aragon, & after the end of the end,

I, John, walked with my wife Diana
down the Somport Pass following the silence
that invited and received my song

It goes on, in prose saturated with more proper nouns—29 in 21 lines—to describe John and Diana “blest and besotted” in Spain, and in their moment of history.  Escape to a timeless realm would be the Gnostic’s happy ending, but the true spiritual tradition informing “A Gathering of Ways” turns out to be something rather different, the best analog for which is the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas.  For Levinas, the encounter with the unbounded or infinite is not an end in itself: rather, it returns us to experience with a sense of both wonder, and an invitation to enter into dialogue with the world.  And this sort of return and invitation is what we get in “A Compostella Diptych” when Matthias appears in the historical terrain of his poem, and when the silence “invite[s] and receive[s]” his song.  The encounter with the infinite releases him from a sense that history is catastrophe and nothing more.  Moreover, by inviting Matthias' particular song, the infinite shows it welcomes proliferation, rather than the reductions of totalization: Matthias' song is just one voice in a boundless infinity, not the total summation of all things.

It’s important to note the role of proper names here, because it underlines a slight difference between Matthias and Levinas.  For Levinas, the encounter with the infinite comes about through confronting a human face, in all its particularity.  For Matthias, though, the encounter with the infinite is with something still and silent and beyond us.  But the effect of that encounter is to return us to the world of specific people and places, the world of proper names—and to show us that this world is not reducible to some totalized history of catastrophe.  Particularity trumps totalization at the end of the poem, as a litany of proper names unassimilated into a grand pattern of catastrophe leaves us blessed and besotted.  In the end, it is this return that prevents Matthias from being a Gnostic.  As much as he is fascinated with that tradition, he can’t join it: he is too much in love with all of us who can be named.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Academization of Avant-Garde Poetry?

Some come to praise, some come to bury, but all the poets and critics have come to comment on Jake Berry’s thorny, problematic, provocative little essay "Poetry Wide Open (Fragments in Motion)."  Berry’s essay appeared some time ago in The Argotist, and now we have a host of responses—some 16 in all—by poets and critics from both sides of the Atlantic and all over the spectrum of poetics.

Here are a few highlights from the commentaries:

Norman Finkestein:

Breaking away from established forms is not in and of itself a virtue: Berry does not escape the still commonly held fetishism of “make it new.”  But I do agree with Berry that most of the poetry produced in creative writing programs is indeed “a reproduction or reworking of the original works and methods.”  The development of a poet as an “individual talent,” as T. S. Eliot understood the term, is tremendously difficult, given the dialectic of tradition and originality which Eliot describes in his classic essay.  My sense is that such growth is not made any easier, and may well be stifled, in most creative programs. To be sure, there are gifted teachers in many programs who nurture their students’ talents without imposing a party line. But it is in the nature of creative writing programs, within an academic system that emphasizes professionalism and career advancement, to inculcate one or another aesthetic ideology to which students are encouraged to conform, in order to get published and secure a teaching post. Given the explosion of online publications in recent years, the former goal may be somewhat easier to reach. Given our current economic situation, the latter is far more difficult.

Marjorie Perloff:

Publishing today is extremely eclectic and—with exceptions like New Directions, which has a certain trademark--one can never tell who will publish what, where, and when. It’s a pretty open and fluid situation. Just when you label Princeton as quite conservative, they publish Andre Codrescu. Columbia has just published Kenneth Goldsmith’s critical prose Uncreative Writing. It seems that the real contrast is between “experimentalism” 1980s-90s style and that of the present. Historical change is certainly important to consider. But Berry’s dichotomy between Iowa and Language seems to me a false one. Bear in mind that some of our leading Language poets attended the Iowa Workshop: for example, Silliman, Bob Perelman, and Barrett Watten.  But such contemporary poets as Craig Dworkin, Uljana Wolf, Cia Rinne, Caroline Bergvall, Vanessa Place are quite outside the Iowa orbit and yet they do get published, even if, for now, at smaller presses. 

Dale Smith:

Private audiences tend to embrace the coteries and in-groups that acknowledge contexts outside the mainstream. For some, there’s a certain fierce pride in developing consumer practices outside of mainstream cultural production. Aficionados, amateurs, and those experienced and engaged in the loose affiliations of poetry often seek out art that is decisively outside the domain of mass culture. In many ways, this private concern for poetry enables an “Otherstream,” even as it is buried under an enormous veil of mass concerns stemming from commodity culture...

Henry Weinfield:

Berry will probably be criticized for oversimplifying the current situation—that is, for locating the poetry of the academic mainstream in terms of only two, diametrically opposed positions, those of the Iowa and Language Schools. I myself have no quarrel with this representation because it seems to me that contemporary poetry, cut off from its roots in the tradition, continues to oscillate between polarities of this kind, even if the Iowa and Language Schools have given way to other tendencies. Neither is capable of producing lasting poetry, in my view, because both are based on a fragmentary conception of the art. (At the end of his essay, Berry seems to abandon the very possibility of poetry lasting, and I shall have something to say about this later on.) The term “language poetry” is a tautology, as has often been said, because all poetry worthy of the name is language poetry; that is, its medium of expression is as much its message as what it conveys. The very fact that the Language School adopted this name suggests that most mainstream poetry for many years has been written as if language were not important, as if the poem could be reduced to a speech-act of some kind. Indeed, most of the poetry that comes out of the Iowa School poetry has no music and no language. This is poetry that fetishizes the “individual voice,” as Berry observes, which is ironic because most of the poets who work in this mode sound alike. Their work is based on what Jack Spicer called “the big lie of the personal.” So, the poets of the Language School were quite right to attack the Iowa mainstream, though wrong in the way they went about it, and ultimately part of the same futile enantiodromia (Jung’s term, borrowed from Heraclitus, for the violent shuttling between opposites).
Thanks to Jeffrey Side for putting together what amounts to a small symposium on the state of poetry (and apologies to him for not having the time to take part, except as an enthusiastic reader).

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Knowledge in Chains: The Fate of Expertise in a Market Society

What do these things have in common?

1. Scientists discover that a gigantic corporation has consistently violated environmental regulations, and is introducing certain chemicals into the water supply at dangerous levels.  The corporation commissions an in-house study saying that we must lower our environmental standards.  A regulatory agency staffed by experts but placed under the command of a political appointee accepts this study, ignores the evidence against the corporation, and the chemicals continue to enter the water supply.

2. The girlfriend of a Russian oligarch decides to renovate an old building in Moscow, making it into the kind of fashionable art space one finds in London or New York.  She commissions a leading architect, to whom she gives guidelines about how the space should function and what its social role should be.

3. A well-respected, longtime university administrator is appointed president of a major university and guides the restructuring of that institution.  Two years later, a billionaire hedge fund manager who sits on the board of the university’s business school decides he wants the president removed.  He works with other wealthy members of the university’s board to have the president dismissed, and is successful.  The reason given for the removal of the president is the existence of “philosophical differences” with the board, though the nature of these differences is not specified.

What is the common thread?  Well, firstly, they’re all things that you’re likely to have stumbled across in the media recently. The first item is a partial summary of the J.R. Simplot Company’s history of releasing selenium into the rivers of Idaho at dangerous levels, and influencing politicians in efforts to reduce regulation of their emissions, a history recently covered with wit and brilliance by The Daily Show.  The second item refers to a Newsweek article on Dasha Zhukova, girlfriend of Roman Abramovich (a multi-billionaire former smuggler and convict whose fortune comes from having bribed politicians to acquire Russian public oil interests far below their value), who has hired architect Rem Koolhaus to implement her plans for a new cultural space in Moscow.  The third item is a brief précis of a Slate article on the ousting of Teresa Sullivan as president of the University of Virginia, at the urging of former Goldman Sachs partner and hedge fund billionaire Peter Kiernan.  But these aren’t just stories in the news: they illustrate the increasing subordination of experts (in environmental safety, in the arts, in education) to property holders.  There are all kinds of elites in the world, including elites of knowledge and elites of property.  In our time, more than in any period in recent history, the elites of property have come to a position of overwhelming dominance.

But what, exactly, is this elite of knowledge?  What does it do, and does it matter that it has come under the thumb of property?  The most important thing to note is that it doesn’t contain all people who have knowledge (everyone knows something).  Rather, it consists of those people who serve knowledge first, rather than putting knowledge at the service of something else.  The distinction is as old as the ancient Greek distinction between the philosopher, who sought knowledge for its own sake, and the sophist, who deployed his specialized rhetorical knowledge as a kind of mercenary.  And the distinction is as new as the distinction between a research scientist who uses her knowledge to determine the safe level a chemical byproduct of industry in the water supply and a public relations professional who offers to use his special knowledge to convince the public that the research scientist is wrong.

Hegel was one of the earliest theorists of the elite of knowledge, who wrote of it as the “universal class” in his Jena lectures of 1805 and 1806.  There, Hegel describes a class consisting of “completely indifferent universal people” — indifferent, that is, to any claims beyond those of what they knew.  They were to be objective, disinterested people—and for Hegel, their natural habitat was the state sector.  It was right and proper, Hegel thought, for people in business to pursue their private interests, but someone had to mediate conflict, someone had to have “no vested interest in business” and these people would staff state regulatory agencies and the justice system, as well as the police and the military.  They would work not on behalf of their personal well-being or for the profit of their employers, but “for the existing whole” of society.

The notion of a “universal class” was one of the grand ideas of the nineteenth century, and we see variations on it everywhere.  If Hegel saw it in typically German statist terms (he lived in the shade of the first great bureaucracy, invented by Frederick the Great), others saw it in terms drawn from their own national traditions.  In France, the Comte de Saint-Simon took things to a revolutionary extreme and argued that “savants” in science and the arts should displace property owners as the rulers of society (for this he invented the word “technocracy”). Later in the century Matthew Arnold would follow the British tradition of moderation and argue, in Culture and Anarchy, that a cultivated class of people with no vested interest in any particular social class should serve as the umpires of society, mediating between existing interests.  These people could come from any class, but their education would make them “aliens” to their backgrounds, allowing them an impartiality they would not otherwise have.

Americans get hold of the idea in the twentieth century, and take a wide variety of positions.  Lionel Trilling was generally sympathetic to Arnold, but noted that there was something fishy about the idea of an umpire class, since a class was defined by its interests: no umpire, Trilling thought, could ever be truly disinterested and guided by pure knowledge.  This notion was elaborated and exaggerated by a host of neoconservative thinkers in the late 1970s, many of whom looked askance at the increasing role of the public sector in American life after 1945.  Unlike those who saw those decades as a period of unprecedented prosperity, increased social, class, racial, and gender equality, they looked at their times and saw mostly darkness.  B. Bruce Briggs of the conservative Hudson Institute, for example, argued that the rise of what he called “the new class” threatened to convert “a system of privilege via family property to one of privilege via formal education” — a very bad thing, from his perspective.  As far as he was concerned, the knowledge-based elite was no less self-interested than the property based elite.  This view has become tremendously powerful in certain American circles: indeed, it has been absorbed into the worldview of Fox News, where climate scientists are dismissed as figures who only purport to believe in global warming in order to get their hands on more research funding.

Other American thinkers see things differently.  Alvin Gouldner, for example, argued that intellectuals have a high degree of insulation from market forces, and, not having to sell their knowledge for their personal material self-interest, are able to offer a relatively disinterested and objective assessment of phenomena.  Thinking in particular about those involved in education, Gouldner says that such people “come to be defined, and to define themselves, as responsible for and ‘representative’ of society as a whole.”  That is: they look at things not with an eye to how they can use them for their own gain, but with an eye to whether these things are good for society in general.  Gouldner is aware that absolute objectivity or disinterest is impossible, but he doesn’t move from this awareness to a collapsing of all difference between the relatively disinterested person and the completely self-interested person.  For Briggs (and Fox) there’s no difference in objectivity between a climate scientist and, say, the CEO of a company that produces huge quantities of greenhouse gases; for Gouldner, one of these people is in a position to be relatively more objective.  The knowledge elite (which, like Briggs, he calls “the new class”) has an important social role for Gouldner, as it did for Hegel. The difference, though, is that Gouldner doesn’t see the state sector as the exclusive home of the knowledge elite.  It can find its home in many locales, including nonprofit foundations (which, one might add, were the initial source of environmental reports on the dangerous activities of the J.R. Simplot company).

People like Briggs felt, in the late 70s, that the knowledge elite had become too strong in America.  Indeed, it became an article of faith among right-wingers: Robert L. Bartley, who for 30 years edited the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal, followed the economist Joseph Schumpeter in believing “the inability to control the critical impulses of intellectuals would prove the ultimate undoing of the capitalist system.”  Few, I think, would share this fear of the knowledge class in 2012.  Although the financial crisis of 2008 was precipitated by the private sector, it is the public and nonprofit sectors that starve and weaken across the whole of the West.  And 2008 was only an intensification of trends that go back to the neoconservative resentment of the knowledge elites in the 1970s.  Indeed, there is much evidence that we are moving from a society with inherent checks and balances to a kind of social monoculture based on the rule of property elites.  Once, we had a rich combination of market values and other values.  But according to Harvard’s Michael Sandel, we’ve stopped being a market economy, and become a market society.  A market economy, according to Sandel, is a great thing—“a valuable and effective tool for organizing economic activity.”  But a market society is “a way of life where market values seep into almost every sphere of life, and sometimes crowd out or corrode important… non-market values.”  In this brave new world, scientists who warn about pollution are overturned by agencies whose politically appointed leaders bow to the influence of moneyed corporations; great architects work not for their own visions, but at the whim of those who orbit kleptocratic billionaires; and professional administrators with strong academic backgrounds can be cast out of the universities at the whim of hedge fund managers, whose donations to universities have become vital due to the gutting of public funding.

It is not that the knowledge elite has no privileges and no influence.  The world we live in is complex and integrated and requires such people to function.  But the knowledge elite has become what Pierre Bourdieu called “the dominated part of the dominant class.”  They (or should I say “we,” since anyone likely to be reading this is either part of a knowledge elite, or aspires to be) work in foundations and universities and research centers and state agencies, and offer what, to the best of our (fallible, human) knowledge, is the disinterested truth.  And then the elite of property either takes these attempts at disinterested truth into account or doesn’t, depending on whether they feel such truths represent a threat to their material wellbeing or not.

Of course what this means is that a small, hyper-privileged class increasingly does as it wishes, without constraint or remorse.  Sometimes what it wants to do is to offer a sop to the knowledge elite (the museum in Moscow is such a gesture) to keep them happy and docile.  Sometimes it is mysterious why it wants what it wants (the expulsion of the university president is an incident of this kind).  And sometimes—too often— what it wants is to enrich the few at the expense of the rest of us.  They don’t call this class war.  Except when we fight back.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Good, The Bad, The Unforgivably Canadian: Notes on Contemporary Cartoons

“You’ll need this!” read the felt pen letters scrawled, next to a thumbprint in what could have been blood, but was more likely marinara sauce, on a manila envelope someone had slipped beneath the door of my secret backyard writing dojo.  I was puzzled for a moment, but when I tore the envelope open, half afraid of what I might find, I saw immediately that there was no cause for fear.  It was a manuscript from my long-lost former colleague, Raskolnikov P. Firefly, last seen fleeing the greater Chicago metropolitan area in the wake of the double scandal wrought by his radical analysis of the sociology of the rich idiots of the North Shore and his dissertation on the fashion sins of academics.

What I needed, apparently, was Rasko’s guide to toddler television.  There’s something to this.  Since the birth of my daughter some three years ago I’ve been immersed in (no, bombarded by) all manner of cartoons, puppet shows, and costumed storytelling on cable, Netflix, Youtube, and other tentacles of the great gelatinous octopus that is the culture industry under American capitalism.  But Minerva’s owl flies at midnight, people — wisdom comes too late!  Rasko’s report, typed out on an Olivetti portable with a missing ‘n’ key, dusted with the ashes of his unfiltered Winstons, would have done me good years ago, when I was first dragged, kicking and spitting, into the world of kindertainment.  It would have saved me countless hours of exposure to saccharine sanctimony and high-minded mind-numbery.  It’s too late for me now, but please, those of you with newborns or with munchkins imminent— heed his words.  Heed his words and save yourselves!

The manuscript, titled “The Morphological and Ideological Dimensions of Contemporary Cartoon Discourse, with an Additional Inquiry Into Live Action Children’s Television: What is Good, What is Evil, and What is Unforgivably Canadian.”  I will omit his methodological introduction, exculpatory preface, and the little sketches (often obscene) he’s doodled in the margins, and offer only the conclusions of his five main chapters.  They follow forthwith.  I have compensated for the missing 'n' key, and added my marginal annotations in brackets.

Chapter One: Concerning Undersea Adventure

The Good: Octonauts

So there’s this octopus bookworm who lives in an octopus shaped undersea ship/base (not unlike that of James Bond’s nemesis Dr. No, though sadly the show lacks any cartoon equivalent of the young Ursula Andress rising like a white-bikined Venus from the sea).  The octopus has a kind of Professor X function as advisor to a group consisting of a polar bear, a penguin, a one-eyed cat, a rabbit, and some kind of anthropomorphized carrots or something.  The polar bear sounds like Matt Berry, which makes up for a lot (such as the fact that the bear is the same size as the penguin).  They travel the seas saving creatures, and the show ends with a “creature report” where we’re told all about the creature in question, which is generally a sea slug or a deep sea tarantula or some other disgusting oddity about which you will be unable to answer your child’s questions without resorting to Wikipedia.  Which means you’ll have to learn something new for a change, you complacent Cheeto eating bastard.  [Rasko has underlined this passage twice, adding “THIS MEANS YOU ARCHAMBEAU” in what I hope is red ink.  Next to this note is, the first of his obscene doodles, an inexplicable vulgarity indicating advanced male fertility].

The Evil: Bubble Guppies

The premise here is that these little mermaid-mermen kids float around having adventures or something undersea.  But it’s not undersea.  Or rather, it is undersea, in that their teacher at school is a fish and they meet whales and whatnot, but EVERYTHING LOOKS JUST LIKE IT WOULD IF IT WERE ON LAND.  That is: even though they float like they’re under water, there is both land and sea, and there are cars and ships and airplanes, and when they play basketball the laws of physics that obtain above water are in effect.  WHY DID THEY PUT THIS UNDERWATER?  WHY DID THEY FEEL THE NEED TO MAKE THESE KIDS INTO MERKIDS AND HAVE THEM FLOAT AND HAVE TAILS?  WHY DID NO ONE STOP THE PRODUCERS FROM PRODUCING THIS ABOMINATION WITH ITS DEFIANCE OF THE LAWS OF GOD AND MAN?  WHAT CAN BE DONE NOW? AFTER SUCH KNOWLEDGE WHAT FOREGIVENESS? [These last lines have been typed with such fury that one can feel the indent of the letters on the page.  And one must ask: is that a tear stain in the margin?]

Chapter Two: Representing Cultural Diversity

The Good: Dora the Explorer

So you want your daughter to grow up as a fully actualized human being, rather than one of those self-objectifying hootchie princess types, batting her eyes and waiting for some guy to whisk her away to an expensive piece of real estate somewhere?  [Do not judge Rasko for his bitterness: not until you’ve met his first two ex-wives.]  What’s not to love about Dora?  She’s independent, caring, capable, analytic, she’s good at Spanish and orienteering, she’s got a pet monkey, and she can dance.  You wanted something else in a role model?

The Evil: Little Bill

Fuck Bill Cosby.  I mean, he was great.  He was funny (like, back in the seventies).  He invented the show Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, from which I, in my childhood, learned that you could hang out in a dump, make saxophones out of old vacuum cleaners, and play a game called buk-buk where the heft of the big man counted as an insurmountable advantage.  But now he’s produced this sanctimonious pile of authoritarian moralizing goo.  And even though it depicts a flourishing middle class African-American family, with a jazz aficionado father and a kindly matriarch, there’s a strange way in which it does a disservice to its audience.  Whereas Dora the Explorer is an independent operator, empowering herself through her ability to break tasks down into parts (those maps always have three challenges that she needs to memorize and solve: “troll bridge… forest… yellow mountain!” etc.), Little Bill is never encouraged to act on his own.  He waits for Wisdom to be Dispensed from Above.  Grandma knows best (and her Attila-like power is right there in her name “Alice the Great”).  This is no way to show kids how to operate.  This is a way to produce servile milquetoasts.  I condemn Cosby for betraying the glory of his early career.  There’s a special vestibule in hell for people like that, and it has a television that only shows Little Bill.

Chapter Three: Canadian Anthropomorphizing Animal Shows

The Evil: Franklin

This is a show about a sniveling wretch of a turtle, and it is at least as stifling of autonomy as is Little Bill.  Here’s the format: Franklin does something.  But it was bad and wrong to do something.  So he apologizes to his parents, gets a lecture, and is reduced to conformity.  The National Film Board of Canada considers this demeaned and dependent state a thing to celebrate.  For this they will join Bill Cosby in hell.

Also Evil: The Berenstain Bears

The art is so ugly I can’t make myself watch it.  Another Canadian letdown!  Get it together up there, people — make me proud to be from Winnipeg!

Chapter Four: Live Action Shows

The Good: Yo Gabba Gabba

This is the best thing on television, and I mean television overall, not just kid’s television.  You’ve got a DJ in an orange jumpsuit and a psychedelic fake-fur version of the hats worn by the guards at Buckingham palace.  And he carries around a magic boom box in which he keeps the de-animated bodies of four mutants and a robot, who come alive in their own private universe.  While teaching valuable lessons such as “don’t bite your friends” they meet guests like Questlove, Jack Black, Andy Samberg, Rachel Dratsch, and (I repeat because I cannot emphasize this enough) Questlove.  When Timothy Leary instructed us to “tune in, turn on, drop out” I’m pretty sure this is what he wanted us to turn on.  [The video clip at the top of this post comes from Yo Gabba Gabba.]

The Evil: The Fresh Beat Band

Okay, first of all, I object to the fact that everybody is reasonable and cool except the white male, who is an impractical doofus.  I know we white guys are the dominant group and everything, and that that’s not right, but can we lay off kicking the whole demographic around at the outset of one’s television viewing life?  Also, the show, which purports to be about music, serves up a steaming soup bowl of suck chowder, musically speaking.  It’s the worst sort of sub-bubblegum pop, and could lead your child to commit such future atrocities as downloading Katy Perry songs.  It’s a huge underestimation of the musical sophistication of the under-four set.  I mean, Yo Gabba Gabba has had The Roots on, and the equally splendid puppet show Jack’s Big Music Show (omitted from the present study due to lack of research funds) has had whistling freak-folker Andrew Bird, Afropop genius Angélique Kidjo, and Chicago Blues immortal Buddy Guy.  In a just world, the producers of The Fresh Beat Band would be forced to wander from city to city clad in burlap sacks and covered in birdshit, whacking themselves on the head with boards as a sign of penance for what they’ve done to the musical taste of America’s once-proud future.  [Rasko’s marginal sketch here, depicts the members of the Fresh Beat Band with their musical instruments being put to the most unsavory and unmentionable purposes.  Sometimes I worry about a guy who could even dream this stuff up.]

I’d love to summarize Rasko’s scene-by-scene statistical analysis of the various shows, but he’s scribbled angry obscenities over most of the charts, and it’s almost time for Dora,  so — vamanos!

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

American Poetry: The State of the Art

My essay "The State of the Art," about American poetry in 2012, is out in a special issue of VQR, along with a great selection of new poetry (from Kim Addonizio to B.F. Fairchild to Charles Bernstein) and essays on the state of poetry by a number of critics.  It's not up online yet, but the print issue is out and looks great.

Here's the beginning of my contribution:

The year is 1712, and the state of the art of American poetry is, in a word, provincial.  The best-known and best-selling American poem remains Michael Wigglesworth's The Day of Doom: A Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgment, written some forty years earlier and currently in its fifth edition.  A bumpy, ballad-meter ride through Calvinist theology, it will remain popular for decades. When Francis Jenks writes about it in the Christian Examiner in 1828, he'll remind his audience how much this strange, homespun work once meant to our countrymen.  It was, says Jenks, "a work which was taught our fathers with their catechisms, and which many an aged person with whom we are acquainted can still repeat, though they may not have met with a copy since they were in leading strings."  It was, moreover, "a work that was hawked about the country, printed on sheets like common ballads," and it presented, in language often graceless but equally often vivid "the common theology of New England at the time it was written."
The Day of Doom represents a kind of poetry at the service of religion, written by men who do not consider themselves to be, first and foremost, poets. Wigglesworth, having turned down the presidency of Harvard, held the title "teacher at Malden Church in New England," and saw himself as a man of God who happened to write poetry, not as a poet who happened to believe in God.  When he died in 1705, there was not much by way of American institutions to support poetry, and his work found its way to readers through the primitive market for written works, carried by peddlers down the roads and river valleys of the land.
It goes on from there, looking at the state of the art in American and English poetry in 1712, 1812, 1912, and 2012, with a glance at the social and aesthetic circumstances behind the poetry.

Many thanks to VQR poetry editor David Caplan for commissioning the essay and editing the issue!

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

New Work at The Cultural Society!

Great news!  The new issue of The Cultural Society is available, with work by:

Dan Beachy-Quick
Joel Bettridge
Norman Finkelstein
Michael Heller
Pam Rehm
Mary Austin Speaker
John Tipton
Mark Scroggins
Tyrone Williams

and more, including an essay on William Blake by Peter O'Leary, as well as three prose poems by the great midcentury Belgian Surrealists Gabriel & Marcel Piqueray, translated by Jean-Luc Garneau and some guy named Archambeau.

Many thanks to the redoubtable Zach Barocas for putting it all together!  Here, by the way, is Zach on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, playing the drums in his band Jawbox.  Note the Cultural Society hoodie:

Jawbox - Savory (Late Night With Jimmy Fallon) by HightowerAndJones

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson's Lost Children

Christopher Orr, writing for The Atlantic, says that Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson’s best feature film since Rushmore, in no small measure because, like Rushmore, “it takes as its primary subject matter odd, precocious children, rather than the damaged and dissatisfied adults they will one day become.”  It’s an interesting claim but, I think, completely misguided, in that it misses the central fact of Anderson’s work: there is no meaningful distinction between his children and his adults.

There’s a curious equality between Anderson’s characters, regardless of age, as we see in, for example, the relation between the Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman characters in Rushmore.  The adults are lost in a world they cannot quite seem to master, and so are the children, whose precocity puts them in adult situations (seeking self-reliance, or projecting long-term plans, or yearning for romance), but who find themselves no more master of the situation than Anderson’s adults.  Indeed, Anderson’s vision of humanity is of a set of lost, gifted children, even if those children have lived long enough to appear to be adults.  Dignan with his elaborate life plans in Bottle Rocket is a figure of charm and pathos because he is clearly not entirely up to the challenge of the world; the grown-up child prodigies in The Royal Tennenbaums are still fundamentally juvenile, as is their father; the grown sons in The Darjeeling Limited never transcend their childhood; and Schwartzman’s Max in Rushmore is a boy, but his actions, ambitions, and desires are like those of an adult. When we see him on his journey what we’re really seeing is the hopeful, bewildered, and slightly sad child that Anderson sees within every adult — the situation is just made more visually explicit because of the age of the character.

Anderson’s adults are just kids who have been around a while, accumulating disappointments and trying to maintain some semblance of control.  This yearning for control appears in all of the lists, flowcharts, and plans characters come up with, as well as their maps and collections.  When Anderson shows us children as protagonists, the sense of precocity comes from the fact that they essentially undertake adult actions.  But in a way they’re not children, they’re what Anderson sees when he sees adults: people whose ambitions and plans and hopes are charming but also frail, people around whom hangs a slight aura of pathos.

We see this child/adult conflation everywhere in Moonrise Kingdom.  Many scenes we’re familiar with from war movies—the ambush of the protagonist, the uniformed scout who rallies his peers to defend one of their own, the fumbling romance between the 12 year old male and female leads on the beach—are just defamiliarized adult moments, in which the age of the characters makes us think of the vulnerability of the characters more than we would had they been played as adult scenes.  We get a sense, too, of the playing of roles, of people aspiring to be what they wish they could be, and this is something fundamental to Anderson’s characters regardless of age. 

Anderson’s much-praised visual sense is connected to his sense of the essential identity of adults and children.  Just as his treatment of children as adults allows him to show us slightly overmatched people, whose innocence and optimism come already paired with a little pathos and tarnish, Anderson’s visual sense constantly combines a kind of gee-whiz coolness with the faded, the obsolete, or the broken.

When Anderson has the budget, everything in his movies is designed deliberately.  This deliberateness is what Anderson loved about the stop-motion animation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox— every coffee cup and pencil had to be made deliberately, nothing could be taken for granted.  In Moonrise Kingdom, everything comes out of a period ethos, and is meant, says Anderson, to look like it could come out of a Norman Rockwell print.  But it’s not just a matter of period detail, or of Rockwellian Americana: everything is tweaked just a bit to make it not quite elegant or awe-inspiring.  Uniforms come with too-short trousers; the cut of a winter coat is slightly clumsy; the fabric of a dress looks a little faded.  It’s not Rockwell, strictly speaking: it’s as if Norman Rockwell had a yard sale for all the things that had become just slightly too shabby to keep.  This is significant: it shows us that what Anderson is after isn’t a kind of nostalgia for innocence; instead, he wants to show us innocence already tarnished, already touched by disappointment or pathos.  Just like his children, who are always as damaged as they are precocious, the objects with which Anderson fills the screen are always already scuffed and not quite adequate to the demands of life.

This touch of pathos is particularly present in when Anderson trots out technology.  The old record players and cameras and tape recorders in Moonrise Kingdom, like those in The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, are often things that would, when they were new, have been high end gadgetry—but as an audience, we can’t help but see them as things that have been outclassed or rendered obsolete, even when we’re watching what is notionally a period piece (Moonrise Kingdom is set in the 1960s, but really exists in Anderson’s ahistorical fantasy space).  It’s that touch of pathos again, that sense that we’re all just the left-overs from some unreachable innocence.

The sense of lost innocence comes into play in the final scene of Moonrise Kingdom, where we see our romantic leads, Sam and Suzy, together again.  Sam is painting an imagined recreation of the one place where the were closest to happiness: an island inlet so insignificant it has only a number, not a name, where, on the run, they’d camped out for a moment.  It was a place where Sam put all of his scouting skills, all his little tricks to control the world, into play, but the would-be Eden they created there was doomed from the start, and destroyed twice over: first by the authority figures who capture them, then by a storm so violent it wiped the inlet away.  This is the always lost innocence, the hopeless, pathos-ridden attempt at Eden that haunts Anderson and his characters.  In Sam’s painting, he’s able to recreate the lost world that never quite was, and he’s even able to give it a name, “Moonrise Kingdom.”  But of course the real innocence never quite came into being, and is lost forever, and the painting, naïve and amateurish, is no substitute, despite Sam’s best attempts.  This sense of loss, and of our fundamental lostness and weakness, is at the core of Anderson’s art, and at the bottom of his sense of adults as lost children, and children as already-lost adults.

Friday, June 01, 2012

The Battersea Review Has Arrived!

Rejoice!  Thanks to the tireless efforts and editorial bravado of U.S. Dhuga and Ben Mazer, the inaugural issue of The Battersea Review is up online (and soon to be available in print).

Contributors include:

Marjorie Perloff on Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and Duchamp!
Adam Kirsch
Nora Delaney on Philip Larkin!
Stephen Burt
Todd Swift on poetry of the 1940s!
Ben Mazer's long, adventurous poem "The King"!
Philip Nikolayev
Stephen Sturgeon
Gerard Malanga (the original bad boy of Andy Warhol's Factory)
Jeet Thayil
John Hennessy
Joe Green
Greg Delanty
M.A. Schorr
Kathleen Rooney
Mario Murgia
Ailbhe Darcy
Previously uncollected work by the late, great Weldon Kees!
Also... Robert Archambeau (a few poems of mine have found their way into the issue).

According to the opening editorial, "The erudite Robert Archambeau is struggling in the most positive sense between the polarities of modernism and post-modernism, with a firm eye on our times" — I can't speak to my alleged erudition, but I think Dhuga and Mazer nailed it about the struggle.  Reading that sentence, I feel exposed in the same way I did when a critic wrote that my poems were haunted by a powerful father figure.  It's something I'd never noticed, and then suddenly, unnervingly,  saw to be true.

The Battersea Review has announced itself with a bang.  This will be a journal to watch, people.