Thursday, February 08, 2007

"Strategies of Mysterious Theatricality"

Thinking about a recent essay-post by Stan Apps that he dedicates to Gary Sullivan, "The Great Enabler." It's a rich autobiographical accounting of Apps' experiences writing three kinds of poetry: a kind of proto-flarfist, scatological poetry that would "try to describe the gooey mess of myself (my 'actually existing subjectivity,' as it were) as I experienced it all the time like a hot wet ashamed gunk churning in my skull"; a satirical religious poetry that was "messianic, heretical, and passionate" and which engaged a self-critiquing persona that subtly attacked the very notion of sincerity on the rhetorical level; and safe, teacher-approved poems that were "lyrical, emotional, reasonable, and ended with realizations about how to live"—a poetics of reflexive affirmation. You can see how Apps was most engaged by writing from negativity, and how the first two sorts of poem are flip sides of the same coin, devoted as they both are to assaulting and mocking hypocritical social relations from a position of profound alienation. He then goes on to talk about Sullivan's poetics as a practice of radical materialism, working to undermine the mode of alienating hypocrisy peculiar to poetry itself, including most avant-garde poetries, which goes by various names: sincerity, seriousness, religiosity, all of which can be placed under the umbrella of the phrase I've appropriated for the title of this post. "Gary’s poetics consists of decisively rejecting mysterious theatricality, and thereby creating an aesthetic of material accountability." It's one of the most succinct descriptions of the poetics, which is also an ethics, that I've come to associate with the names of Sullivan, Nada Gordon, Rodney Koeneke, Katie Degentesh, Kasey Mohammed, Anne Boyer, Michael Magee, et al.

I'm most provoked by Apps' criticism of the residual religiosity that he locates at the bottom of the various claims various poetries make to authority. Part of my confusion is personal: my upbringing was thoroughly secular, and so my attitude toward religion and religosity tends to vacillate between horrified disbelief and fascination with the profuse evidence of spiritual experience that lies all around us, not least in poems, not least in myself. It seems to me that, as a critique of socio-poetic organization, Apps' attack on quasi-religious strategies of mysterious theatricality is unimpeachable. As he astutely points out, every avant-garde has positioned itself as an attack on mystification, only to deploy mystification itself as a strategy for consolidating its power. I'm reminded of that post of Ron Silliman's where he discusses Duncan and more or less makes the case for literary theory's replacement of mysticism to explain how, in essence, one avant-garde (Language poetry) came to trump another (Duncan's New American romanticism). Ron refers to the rise of theory's relevance to American poetry as precisely a "resecularization" of poetry, and yet it seems obvious now that the strategies of theory can and have been used as rites of initiation into a social practice of writing, another example of what Apps says Sullivan's idea of religion is: "religion is primarily about the obsessive-compulsive element in human nature enacting controlled scenarios that are supposedly the most important and most meaningful parts of life—but finally the defining material element of these scenarios is their empty ritualistic quality, as Gary puts it 'How arbitrary social code is.'"

A couple of thoughts. One is the possibility of poetry's liberation from archaic social codes through the simple passage of time. On a Cantos reading list that I belong to, the point was recently made that both Dante and Pound proceed from what strikes modern readers as outmoded theologies—but our ability to recognize that means that we have become capable of rediscovering what's valuable in their thought, which may very well be modes of critique applicable to our own socio-historic condition. The other is to wonder what possibilities remain for the spiritual in poetry, assuming the spiritual can be permitted to exist as a category separate from social practices of mystified domination. One might try to clear a space for spiritual experience (or, more aptly in the case of poetry, spiritual performance) distinct from the social, but a good materialist will immediately criticize that as another act of mystification, maybe even the primal one. I suppose it's an obvious point: a materialist by definition denies the existence of the spiritual as anything other than a more-or-less mystified social instrument—though he or she might well resort to the language of spirituality as a metaphor, as Marx famously does to describe the behavior of commodities. Marx's take on religion provides the only viable materialist pathway that I can see at the moment: his description of religion as the opiate of the masses refers less to the sense of the opiate as induced ecstasy than it does to painkillers. As Adorno might say (probably does say), the index of the truth-value of religion lies in the imprint it contains of material suffering. A properly materialist "spiritual poetry," then, would somehow undo itself from within, twist itself inside out to reveal its matrix as that of suffering. Which sounds, come to think of it, a great deal how Apps describes his "excretory" poetry.

What I wonder about is what possibilities may exist for the social organization of the poetic field (which is really what we're talking about here: not poems per se but the ways in which they organize and are organized into a social field which for most of history has been hierarchical and mystified) beyond the essentially anarchist strategy of the flarfists. Or maybe I'm not even looking for an alterantive to anarchism—yay, anarchism!—but rather some strategy to deal with my own semi-choate yearnings for seriousness, mystery, and ritual. Without trying to think myself out of the social, I guess I want to recognize that there are conditions of human being that are not primarily conditioned by it: mortality, personal limitation, what Empson in Some Versions of Pastoral refers to as the enormous waste in even the most fortunate of lives. Maybe this is simply the empty-seeming category of "spiritual but not religious," which seems to express a yearning to engage with these questions without having to participate in a mode of social organization that inevitably strategizes mystery rather than dwelling with or in it. And finally there's the argument from hedonism: attacking social mystification is one thing, but theatricality? The pleasures of a quasi-theatrical representation through the animation of appropriated multiple voices (Googled or otherwise) are certainly active in the best flarf poems, albeit in a campy, over-the-top, deliberately "inappropriate" way. (As a negative category I have some trouble understanding "the inappropriate," and I would suggest to flarfists that that's the dimension of their practice itself most prone to becoming the center of a new strategy of mysterious theatricality, a means of initiation and exclusion.)

The implications of all this for my thinking about the baroque as an alternative strategy of excessive representation have yet to become clear.

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