Monday, May 09, 2005

Still feeling kind of ill, but better than I did this weekend. Taunted by flawless weather: Ithaca has been doing its best Southern California imitation the past three days.

Here's another e-mail from Reginald Shepherd and my response, after which I plan to give the whole avant-gardener question (incidentally, I want to remind you all that the useful phrase "avant-gardener" is a coinage of Ron Slate's) a rest for a while. It's time to go back to specific poets and poems:
With regard to my comment that Tim Yu's assertion that "We are all post-avant" would be more accurately phrased as "We are all post-Modern," I don't think that he is referring to the historical avant-garde at all; his horizon seems much narrower than that. It seems quite clear that what he means by saying that we are all' "post-avant" is that we are all post-Language poetry, and it was that context to which I was referring when I said that his statement would be more accurately reformulated as we are all post-Modernist (as in, in the wake of). There's a quote from Robert Archambeau in the Samizdat review of The Mechanics of the Mirage that sums it up very well: "all poetry being written in America now could usefully be discussed under rubrics that attach one prefix or another to the term 'modernist': anti-modernist, late-modernist, post-modernist, neo-modernist, maybe even pop-modernist."

With regard to Peter Burger's conceptualization of the avant-garde, I don't think that any of the writers you've discussed admiringly, however interesting some of their work is (I don't share your high opinion of Claudia Rankine, for example, whose work I find banal and often sentimental; the faux-naivety of Don't Let Me Be Lonely, as if the narrator had just turned on her television and found out that the world isn't a happy place, actually offended me), is engaged in the project of breaking down the barriers between the institution of art and the praxis of life that Burger attributes to the historical avant-garde. In that sense they are all modernist or 'experimental' writers, not avant-garde writers. I'd be hard-pressed to think of anyone writing in America today, whether I think their work is successful or not, who is participating in such a project. As a matter of fact, it's hard to imagine just how any purely literary endeavor would even go about trying to do such a thing--Dada and Surrealism were, after all, not primarily literary movements.

In fact, it's clear that whatever avant-garde has been around since World War II at the latest, excepting as you say the Situationists and some of the "critical art" of the 1970s and 1980s (and perhaps Warhol, though Duchamp had already erased the material difference between the art object and the mundane object long before Warhol's Brillo boxes, which were after all not even _real_ Brillo boxes, unlike at least Duchamp's first urinal), has _not_ been engaged in the project of destroying the boundaries between the institution of art and the praxis of life Burger attributes to the historical avant-garde, nor has it particularly been trying to do so. It's not so much a failure as a difference in aims altogether. I frankly don't think that this is such a bad thing. I like art, and I wouldn't want to see it disappear. I think that the world is a more interesting place for containing a variety of phenomena, and I wouldn't want to level out that variety (though I would certainly like to pick and choose--there are many phenomena I would happily see disappear). And as Burger points out, so long as the praxis of life remains that of capitalist instrumentality, to subsume art into the praxis of life would be a defeat, not a victory--that's exactly what capitalism is already doing: "the culture industry has brought about the false elimination of the distance between art and life, and this also allows one to recognize the contradictoriness of the avant-gardiste undertaking." It's a double-edged sword that turns on its wielder.

I think that the dichotomy you set up (yet another one, as you acknowledge) between a this-worldly and an other-worldly would be usefully formulated in terms of what Charles Altieri has called the distinction between an immanentist and a transcendentalist aesthetic with of course the understanding that most writers would fall somewhere in between--it's a continuum or spectrum, not a binary. But to the more I think about what you wrote, the more muddled and confusing it becomes. I end up not being sure what exactly the distinction you're drawing is, or what the relationship between your premises and your conclusions is. I don't know what you mean when you say that the Modernists recognized the fungibility of the world, since fungible means interchangeable, and is usually used to refer to commodities (as my Merriam-Webster Dictionary uses as an example, "oil, wheat, and lumber are fungible commodities"). I would think the opposite, that the modernists were interested in pointing out the uniqueness of the world, its irreducibility to categories and definitions, let alone to tokens of exchange. Nor do I see why "formal breakage and re-making" are antithetical to "some sort of continuity with a tradition that is nonetheless inadequate as is". That was exactly the Modernist relationship to tradition, and indeed the relationship of any strong poetry to tradition: if the tradition were complete and utterly adequate in itself, there'd be no need to write anymore. And if one tried to have no relation to the tradition (an impossibility), there'd be nothing to break or remake. There's no poetry of any interest whatsoever that either slavishly repeats the tradition or attempts to ignore it. The poets whom you champion (I won't call them "the avant-garde") simply have a different version of the tradition than that of "the Poets Whom You Don't Like"--what Harold Rosenberg calls the tradition of the new.

I'm also not clear why Jorie Graham is not _both_ post-Romantic and post-Modern in your terms. She has certainly engaged, on several occasions, in what Helen Vendler calls "the breaking of style," and Swarm, for example (her worst book, in my opinion), is rife with fracture and fragmentation, un-making and un-doing. I think that The End of Beauty is one of the best books of poetry of the past twenty-five years, and it is all about unraveling given narratives and undoing social, historical, and epistemological certainties. Graham is also interested in what might replace those inherited and imposed certainties, if that's what you mean by "[seeking] after some positive meaning." But it's obviously impossible to live without some sense of positive meaning, and you clearly have much of your own--it's the basis of your critique of what I shall just call "the Poetry That You Don't Like," and of the social world you see that poetry as standing in for. Contingent, ironized, or otherwise, you believe that the things you think are true, as does everyone. You are more open than most to the possibility that they are not, but that still presumes such a thing as truth, as positive meaning. Again, human life would be impossible without such, from my belief that when I put my foot down while walking the ground will be there to meet it to my belief that murder is wrong. As for the notion that truth is a human construct (which is somewhat obvious--as Wittgenstein wrote, the world is composed of propositions about the world; that is, we see the world through our ideas about the world), as John McGowan puts it in _Postmodernism and Its Critics, "We moderns spin our truths out of our own bowels (to paraphrase Yeats), and the conviction that this is so engages modernity in its endless polemic against truth claims that deny their human origin; but this polemic has no force if the fundamental insistence that humans make rather than find truth is not accepted as an unalterable truth."

And if you're talking about quest and redemption, what is what you call the attempt "to break up the frozen sea (of reification, of mediated life) within us and between us" but a redemptive quest of the highest order? When Marx writes that the point is not to understand the world but to change it, clearly this change is a version of redemption. (After all, presumably he doesn't want to make the world worse, which would also be a version of change.) There is a wholly non-pejorative way in which Marxism can be accurately described as millenarian--that's a huge part of its point and its appeal. Certainly all the critical efforts of Language poetry have that behind them, as does Adorno's relentless negativity (a point I've made before). Otherwise they're just pointless caviling.
Let me respond to this with some things I've been learning from my former professor Robert Baker's book, The Extravagant, which is providing me with a very useful perspective on how modern poetry (Bob's "modern" starts with Wordsworth and Blake and continues on up at least as far as Williams and Celan) and philosophy (Nietzsche, Foucault, Lyotard, Adorno, Derrida, etc.) traces a movement from Hegelian synthesis and reconciliation to negative dialectics and abjection. That is, modern poets and philosophers alike have become suspicious of the classic Romantic move in which a subject is dislodged from their position as both determined (by social conditions) and determining (by will to power) through an encounter with a big Other (most usually in the form of what we've come to call the sublime; Bob prefers "the extravagant" for its connotations of wandering), then gets "reset" as a subject who has acquired new insight and imaginative power from the experience of the encounter. Thinkers like Heidegger and Levinas and poets like Dickinson and Mallarme have moved us, he claims, to abandon the moment of reconciliation as false or unethical: we are now supposed to empty our subject positions (abject positions) in order to create space for the other (sometimes conceived as other people but could also be nature, in the sense of environmentalism as a "letting be"). Bob then casts doubt, as Reginald does, on whether the valorization of negativity can actually be transformed into a viable ethics/politics, much less an aesthetic. As he points out when writing about Lyotard, Lyotard's assertions that the subject must be emptied of power are made from the position of a powerful, subjective voice—a contradiction most thinkers and poets of negativity tend to get caught up in. I don't know the solution to this, and I don't know if Bob does either (haven't finished the book yet). But his questioning as to whether negativity as an aesthetic/philosophical stance can really produce a viable ethos strikes me as central to the argument we've been having.

Me, I keep returning to Keats' notion of negative capability, which is the precondition for the "poetical character" that "has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen"—a fundamental openness to otherness that does, I think, have meaningful ethical implications. My visceral dislike of George W. Bush stems from what I see as his complete lack of this faculty: doubt, one of the most reliable signs of intelligence, is simply not in his vocabulary. The inadequacy of negative capability as a politics is evident: after all, one must eventually make decisions in the world, and what to do with positive power is a question many liberals seem not to know how to answer, which impedes the pursuit of it. "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are filled with passionate intensity." How to preserve that ethical and imaginative openness while acting resolutely for positive change is a conundrum poetry isn't likely to solve. What poetry does excel at, however, is fostering negative capability in both its writers and its readers. The very prase has a dialectical mobility that I like: the moment of the negative cancels reified associations and logics, opening a space for capability, out of which the new thing might arise. I also favor the Rimbauldian implication of Keats' poetical character: I is another, and will always be something of a mystery to myself and to others. Someone who truly believes this will not only be innoculated against self-righteousness, but will pursue a quest through confabulations of self and other that will never affirm permanent limitations for either. The missing piece here is a social conscience or sense of embeddedness in the world, the only real guard against Romantic solipsism, and something which as far as I can tell must be brought to poetry, not discovered in its forms.

I don't really believe in "the end of art" either, but I do think a given poem's mode of porousness—where the barrier between life and art is thinnest—is significant. That's where what you might call the avant-garde continuum happens. Right now we may not have an avant-garde per se, but we do have many people practicing a poetics of negativity that seeks to break down various mediations and reifications of our experience (Rankine's book is still, I believe, a good example of this). Rarer and more wonderful are poets who manage to praise, to build, without seeming either to offer a new commodity or the shrug of resigned ressentiment that characterizes the middlebrow poetry of reconciliation. I think Ronald Johnson is one of these rare poets, and the recent surge in his popularity suggests to me that many younger poets are trying to rediscover the capability that lies over the rainbow from the negative. My interest in the pastoral largely derives from my sense that, in the right hands, it offers an image of positive value that is neither in cahoots with the Man nor a celestial escape pod from a devalued Earth. I am calling, for now, this sort of poetry a pastoral of the avant-garde because "avant-garde" signifies a tradition of artistic opposition to instrumentalization and resignation by whatever means necessary. It may be no more successful, no less a fantasy, than the pastoral Arcadia is. But the dream is powerful; it has not died. It is an earthly and contingent hope and I will be very slow to let it go.

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