Saturday, December 04, 2004

Speaking of Peter Bürger, he offers two useful general categories which might help untangle what Chris might call the difficulty vs. impossibility question. The serious vs. unserious dichotomy is beginning to seem more flawed to me now that I'm reading Bourdieu; according to him, "seriousness" primarily represents one's investment in a given social game. So my irritation with the "unserious" poets may simply be based on the fact that they're invested in a different game than I am, and their game is the one that most people recognize as "poetry." Maybe I should just say that I'm interested in "advanced" poetry, as some Germans are not afraid to call it. Or maybe we should look to another general dichotomy, Bürger's notion of the "organic" versus the "nonorganic" artwork. While avant-garde movements are characterized by wanting to reintegrate art into life, their works, according to Bürger, are formally recognizable by their use of fragmentation and montage. Organic or symbolist works are recognizable by the unity of the parts with the whole: each part is subordinated to that wholeness and is only comprehensible through/in it. The notion of art being a mirror to nature is one of the premises of organic art, which might also be the source of the "aura" Benjamin locates in artworks prior to our age of mechanical reproduction. By contrast, in the nonorganic artwork the parts do not form a unity: it is an assemblage of pieces between which cracks are visible, and the pieces have some degree of independence from the unity of the total work. The more minimal (or the less intrusive) the structure of the whole is, the more independence the parts have, and the "harder" the poem is likely to be—the Andrews poem Chris quotes is a good example of this. But they never achieve total independence, or fall into chaos; much of the language of Andrews' poem is recognizable as the detritus of pop culture mixed with a little theory, and a savage humor acts as the gel in which the individual pieces float. What Andrews hopes to achieve, I think, is expressed in this sentence of Bürger's: "In the avant-gardiste work, the individual sign does not refer primarily to the work as a whole but to reality" (90). In organic poems, each moment of the text refers you back to the poem, no matter what its actual content: "In the organic work of art, the political and moral contents the author wishes to express are necessarily subordinated to the organicity of the whole. This emans that whether the author wants to or not, they become parts of the whole, to whose constitution they contribute" (89). This, for me, explains the failure of most political or identity-based poems with conventional forms. But when I read Andrews, or Silliman or Watten, I find myself constantly referred back to the conditions of the text's production: the overlapping networks of cultural, political, and commercial speech that constituted its moment. Such a poem, even a "monstrous" one like Andrews', addresses the present with an urgency that I don't find in organic poems, which however forceful are always already enclosed in a perfect past. (As Homestar put it this week, "I say there, monstrosity! Do you know the times?")

So I think we're starting to answer the immediate question raised by the nonorganic text: how to read it? Bürger provides some answers. Speaking of the automatic writing of the surrealists, he writes, "It is true that at the surface level, automatic texts are characterized by a destruction of coherence. But an interpretation that does not confine itself to grasping logical connections but examines the procedures by which the text was composed can certainly discover a relatively consistent meaning in them" (79). This is another way of saying that "progress" in art has generally tended toward greater independence of means—for example, in action painting the paint is no longer primarily a means toward representation but is itself the star of the show. Bürger sees this happening at least as early as the 17th century: "It is true that Baroque art makes an extraordinary impression, but its connection with the religious subject has become relatively loose. This art does not derive its principal effect from the sujet but from the abundance of colors and forms" (41). Which is not to say that you can really separate, say, the beautiful forms audible in Bach's St. Matthew Passion from the subject of the Gospel story; but the fact that Jews like Zukofsky and myself can let ourselves be overwhelmed by this work of art might have something to do with the relative independence of its means (the spectacular effect of the double chorus, for instance) from the end of celebrating Christ. "The avant-gardiste work does not negate unity as such (even if the Dadists had such intentions) but a specific kind of unity, the relationship between part and whole that characterizes the organic work of art" (56). (The tricky thing here is that Bürger seems to intend organic/nonorganic as formal categories, while the avant-garde is very much a historical category that he at least has relegated to the past. Which means it doesn't make a lot of sense to call Bach avant-garde, but it might make sense to say that the general tendencies of post-avant writing are baroque.) Anyway, you can see how this would feed into my desire to see poetry become a field in which all recipients are also producers, since the act of reading such works directs you not to some organic unity ("this is a poem about spring," "this is a poem about the war") but to the elements that still have traces of their multitudinous contexts imprinted upon them (this is the fullest expression I know of of Pound's logopoeia, the dance of the intellect among words). The pleasure of this poetry comes from feeling these disparate contexts rub up against each other in a unity not guaranteed by the poet's intention, a received tradition, or the subject matter (all facts transcendental to the text) but by the fact of the poem (the agreement "this is a poem" conferred by the contexts of reception: a given writer, a given magazine, a given reading space, etc.) or by the fact of the person (this position is best expressed in a recent post by Nick Piombino).

Bürger's most provocative conclusion is that because the avant-garde failed in its historical mission (nothing less than utopia), the organic and nonorganic artworks are equally (in)valid for the present (or at least the late seventies, when Bürger's book was first published in Germany). The organic artwork is inadequate because it offers a false reconciliation—"The man-made organic work of art that pretends to be like nature projects an image of the reconciliation of man and nature" (78)—by seeking "to make unrecognizable the fact that is has been made" (72). The avant-garde artwork is inadequate because it has not achieved the avant-garde intention (the gap between work and intention is one I need to explore more to understand) of destroying the ghetto art is normally consigned to and so destroying the inhuman dichotomy "perfection of the life or of the work." A functional post-avant-garde would learn from the example of Brecht, who sought not to destroy the institution of art but to change it into "a new theater whose central category is fun" (89). If I understand this unfortunately unelaborated idea of Bürger's correctly, I think a number of Language and post-Language poets have grasped the idea of "fun" in a Brechtian way: they turn the poem into a three-ring circus where each ring of activity remains distinct and yet overlapping, where your attention is free to shift to the clowns on the left or the tightrope walker up above, yet there is still a kind of gestalt, "circusness."

Now I will admit that I take more pleasure from nonorganic texts whose individual components give me sensuous, lyrical enjoyment—I prefer Cirque de Soleil to Ringling Bros. But I'm interested in at least trying to experience any text that in some way foregrounds its artifice and involves or implicates me in meaning-production. And I'm much quicker to reject bad or even good organic work than I am nonorganic writing because I feel like its form is a lie that won't admit it's lying. (I'm speaking of modern and contemporary writing, of course; I can love Keats without making any claims for his inorganicity.) I'm not entirely willing to give up on the avant-garde intention; at the very least, I'm interested in writers or writing who do call our attention to the institutions of art and canonicity; that's what makes reading Bourdieu so fascinating and uncomfortable, because he really focuses your attention on art as cultural economy. Also, Bürger has given me another perspective on what I might mean by "avant-garde pastoral": what would an inorganic pastoral look like? Given how often pastoral is condemned or dismissed for its artifice, one could make a case for its having become a fundamentally nonorganic mode: a representation of reconciliation between man and nature that you can't actually believe in. It might then function to keep the wish for such reconciliation alive, providing an image of beauty and comfort that is also a palpably "false surmise" which does not therefore compensate for your dissatisfaction, but heightens it. Not such an inconsiderable feat when you consider the pressures capitalism puts on us to give up on such reconciliation (most baldly by consuming and destroying natural resources, most intimately by insisting we accept the false reconciliations and compensations offered by consumer culture).

That's another log on the fire. Now, lunch.

3 comments:

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