Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Reading Bürger's Theory of the Avant-Garde again today. The artwork, or in my case the poem, provides a space in which an otherwise unavailable fullness of being for both writer and reader is realized in the imagination. One is heard; one is appreciated. The individualistic mode of production/reception is one of the guarantees of the imaginary nature of this satisfaction. The desire for a more complete satisfaction manifests not as an attempt to break through this wall but through a repetition compulsion. One more poem, one more book.... The glamor of the author (celebrity) is the fantasy of readers: you will be the representative of our dreams (specialness that is an exaggerated form of dignity, basic personhood). The dream matters more than its representative, of course. How difficult it is for the artist to remain conscious of this, and to refuse the fatal imaginary glamor. Celebrity in its purest sense reflects the division of labor: bearing the image of libidinal satisfaction is the celebrity's sole function. But fame is tempting because it reactivates the sociality that writers in particular feel estranged and insulated from. At the same time, the unknown isolato has an inverse glamor of her own: the emptiness and partialness of satisfaction that all people are subject to under advanced capitalism is projected upon this figure. Who is not secretly laboring unappreciated and underfed in the garrett of what we used to call the soul?

And when I post this on my blog I'll be looking for confirmation of my own personhood through the highly mediated sociality of the Web. Which has reduced somewhat my sense of lonelienss; but which has also made my sensitivity to the imaginary nature of my libidinal satisfactions (Bürger lists these succinctly: "humanity, joy, truth, solidarity") more acute, and made poetry-as-usual seem increasingly insufficient. I may not be avant-garde, or "post-avant" either (a parenthetical in this regard: is choosing to be published by a commercial press, assuming one is given that option, choosing glamor or simply hoping for a wider readership, and is there a difference?). But my dissatisfactions are similar to those of the historical avant-garde. And like them, my dissatisfaction is predicated by a period of aestheticism—a personal period that has not yet come to an end—taking aestheticism to mean a rejection of the means-ends world we were born into in favor of homemade satisfactions, from the crude (yet highly social) fantasies of Dungeons & Dragons to the savoring of lyric individuation (an insistence on the auratics of style not too far off from glamor, from fetishizing the author and authorship). This romanticism lingers in me, though I have become altogether disillusioned with lyric experiences distilled too obviously through a given class and/or commodified as sweet-and-sour slices of the life no one is actually allowed to lead. (I am thinking here in particular of the working class tragicomedy I associated with Richard Hugo and James Wright as well as the deflated middle class yearnings of Robert Hass and Billy Collins.) Which is not to say my experience of lyric is classless; far from it. Rather, I'm drawn toward poetry that expressly and reflectively manifests its filiation with a group or class that I sympathize with or belong to: leftist intellectuals, feminists, ironic humanists. These groups share a sense of estrangement from the praxis of life under capitalism and produce poetry implicitly or explicitly critical of that praxis. In the experience of collectivity (real but fleeting) flickers the possibility of a new life praxis not built around competition or the accumulation of capital, cultural or otherwise. But that praxis remains entombed in the artistic autonomy of authorship that I am as yet loath to sacrifice, for fear of discovering I've given up my imaginary satisfactions with no real ones materializing to take their place. Without putting too much pressure on the concept of the blogosphere, I do feel that its capacity for non-hierarchical voluntary association offers me something like an oppositional poetic praxis worthy of the name, realized in and through a living community.

The artist only seems to have direct control over the conditions of intent and production (Bürger 50-51), though surrealist and Oulipian techniques do offer an indirect attack on the means of reception, potentially turning readers into writers (I have always thought that turning readers into writers was the Holy Grail of poetry: imagine a writing that actually created or expanded Negative Capability in the reader! But generally writers have influence over reception through activities other than writing: teaching, curating reading series, etc.) The emphasis on collectivity I see happening through poetry blogs suggests that production is the most accessible site for avant-garde activity: any gesture toward abandoning one's rights and demands as an individual author still seems to have radical potential in an artform designed to expand the rights of subjectivity. Taking part in a group or circle or school, however provisional (the more provisional the better, perhaps) diminishes the “lone genius” expectation we as a culture still seem to have of artists, and redistributes glamor (from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs?). The stronger alternative, as Bürger relates, is “the radical negation of the category of individual creation.” The practice of hyperauthorship is thus the most prominent avant-garde practice that I am aware of still in circulation today. But even as dedicated a practitioner as Kent Johnson risks being re-absorbed into the institution of poetry—he can’t count on idiotic and out-of-touch literary reactionaries to keep him fresh forever. Our vociferous defense of his practice only goes to show how hyperauthorship is becoming one more tool for the poet's toolbox that we don't wish to be denied access to. Perhaps I overstate the case. I honestly don't know if I'm prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to be avant-garde—and I do think it's more a matter of being than doing (or rather, of writing by itself alone). The sacrifices are real. The sacrifices anyone makes to be a poet are already considerable. Whatever I do, it can't be for the sake of "street cred" or in support of any sort of claim for authenticity. That's just inverse glamor once again. How to get out of glamor and into personhood? How to kick the aura habit? How much of it is the writing, and how much the parawriting? Yes Roy Batty said musingly, amusingly. Questions.

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