Tuesday, July 05, 2005

So I finally got around to reading, at Jasper's suggestion, Christopher Nealon's wonderful essay, "Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism." (Jordan was talking about it last fall, but I'm slow.) I wish I could just copy the whole thing for you (you can find it on Project MUSE if you have access to a university library), but that's almost certainly against the law. It's one of the smartest assessments of the post-Language, post-NY School situation typified by the work of major younger poets Joshua Clover, Kevin Davies, Lisa Robertson, and Rod Smith. I love his maneuver of deploying the mid-century modernist concept-assemblages of camp and the Frankfurt School to peer beyond postmodernism toward our present engagement with "late-late capitalism." The essay is in part useful for its supple characterization of the earlier generations in the postwar avant-garde tradition: a lot of dazed latter-day argument about "what X movement was" could be settled or at least grounded by paragraphs like this one:
Language school poets later developed a crtiique concerned not with the poet's cultural isolation as much as with the authenticity of lyric utterance—and, ultimately, of language itself—as a transparently truthful medium. Language poets, like the poets of the New York school, were interested in the relationship between mass culture and poetry, but rather than mining mass culture as a referential and affective resource, they tended to focus on its capacity to obscure social truths, especially the truth of the commodification of language. Deliberately fracturing syntax and troubling reference, Language poets developed a relationship between the poetic and the political not so much by striking the implicitly political posture of insouciance toward an official culture as by tearing away at its lies. If the relevant political backdriop for the New York school poets was the Cold War, for the Language poets, it was Vietnam.
Succinctly put. And onfiguring the NY School poets around the Cold War and the Language poets around Vietnam leaves open a space for the present that we must perhaps inevitably fill in with the Gulf War (parts I and II), or more simply the Oil War. (Though this model turns a blind eye to the role of reactionary religious fundamentalism both in this country and in the Middle East.) Equally useful are these sentences describing how Language writing actually works by directing attention to what Nealon calls "the aspectual":
While it is true enough to say that Language writers are concerned with linguistic materiality (since they are poets, it is nearly tautological to notice this), what's distinctive is their relation to the aspectual character of this materiality. Language writing argues for understanding the medium of language as a kind of perpetually mobile surround, which Hejinian typically calls "context": placement, situation, conjunction, animating constraint—the "net" and the "frame"—all serve to establish a scene that invites the reader to experience the toggle between material and referential aspects of langauge as curious, as "a little question frame" that "nets" content but lets it go. Poems like Hejinian's articulate linguistic materiality in terms much like those of a monist Deleuzian plenitude, where difference are not metaphysical or categorical but "implicated"; they are folds. The relationship between form and content in Language poetry takes on the character of a materio-linguistic snapshot, where what is form one minute might be content the next. It is a poetics of fluidity, and if we listen for it, I think we can hear in it the echo of the post-1968 hope for a new, more fluid politics.
Elegant, again. That notion of the "aspectual," of the attention paid to shifts in denotational movement (as he puts it later, a deManian "movment between the figural and the performative"), is a useful critical tool, more acute than "logopoeia." And now he presents us with the next (I am tempted to call it dialectical) move, that of the rising generation:
The post-Language poets to whom I now want to turn, however, exhibit neither a postrevolutionary political apathy nor a specific set of anti-globalist affiliations. They are not "movement" poets. But they do write with an acute knowledgte of the susceptibility of their materials to historical change. What I would like to suggest in the rest of this essy is that the recent affective and strategic shift in American poetry can be described as a shift in attitudes toward the character of late-capitalist totality. We might say that where the Language poets discoverd a reserve of uncapitalized materiality in the lively, "aspectual" character of language—so that the open-endedness of texts might outpace their superscription by languages of power—the post-Language poets, battered by another generation's-worth of the encroachments of capital, are not so ready to rely on those aspectual reserves. They can discern them in language, of course, and in material objects, but it's not their focus; instead, as I'll try to show, they expend their considerable taletns on making articulate the ways in which, as they look around, they see waiting.
Implicit here is an argument that the "aspectual reserves" discovered by the Language poets have already been raided by capital, in the phenomenon of indeterminacy as career move. But the poets under discussion here are, as Nealon remarks, attuned to "waiting," to attuning their viewfinders to operate under conditions of messianic light (c.f. the "Finale" to Adorno's Minima Moralia and of course Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History"). I won't try to paraphrase Nealon's discussions of the actual poems, though I will say I now long to get my hands on a copy of Clover's The Totality for Kids and Rod Smith's The Good House (I've already got the Robertson and Davies books). There's some good stuff on Robertson's use of pastoral and I expect this essay will be very much on my mind when I'm writing the final chapter of my diss. Finally, there's an inspiring push at the end for a "contemporary reading practice of a sympathetic, content-focused aesthetics" that to my ear is nothing less than a call for blogging: "When I read a text that interests me, especially for its political-affective comportment, my impulse, my critical impulse, is: pass it on. Highlight it as best you can, read against the grain, or with it where you can, and make sure others take a look. This is as true for texts that I find repulsive as for those I admire: I don't imagine myself, as a critic, judging by myself." Credo! Finally, I suppose by omitting a discussion of the poets I've omitted what their "poltical-affective comportment" might derive from: their about. You can't generalize too much about that, other than to say that a fine-grained attention to increasingly transient modes of materiality is common to all the poets Nealon discusses. But I respond with alacrity to what Nealon recognizes as their practice of "polemical affection." To wit:
It is the polemical character of this poetic stance that interests me most right now, since it is something we might imitate in our emerging critical practices. And what seems freshly polemical about some of my favorite post-Language writing—what I think we might treat as a model—is its sense that polemic is the lement of the negative in affection, or in judgment. A critical or artistic attachment is polemical, dangerous even, not because of which protagonist it has chosen but because it models what it's like not to know the whole story of its object. The dream of a redeemed matter, that is, doesn't entail a positive vision of what that redemption will look like so much as a resistance to the idea that it will look like any one thing we know.
Practically a paraphrase of my attempts to formulate a meaning for my term, "negative pastoral"! But I'm completely moved by that phrase, "what it's like not to know the whole story of its object." Isn't that where we all are—doesn't that put the poet in the same captain's chair as the Warchowski Brothers' attempting to map the hollow hyperscape of late capitalilsm, but without the paranoia or lousy sequels? It's refreshing. This essay deserves at least as much attention, more, as Steven Burt's Elliptical Poets essay—not only because it seeks the truth-content of a style rather than merely describing it, but because it advocates truth and content as that which drives style or ought to. I can't resist closing with the same quatrain Nealon closes with, from Davies' Comp.:
These cheesy little hypertexts
are going to get better.
I don't know
how much better, but we'll see.

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