Wednesday, January 14, 2004

"[T]he rage and shame of wanting to do something this badly"

What is it that is so humilating about desire—about being seen desiring? Are we really all supposed to pretend to be self-sufficient little automata, strong and silent? For some reason I think of the persona Clint Eastwood adopted in most of his Westerns: grim, ironically contemptuous, yet somehow having everything delivered to his hand without his having to ask. Women and emasculated men (like the dwarf in High Plains Drifter) are drawn solicitously to this "Stranger" as if his pronounced erasure of all desire and affect functioned like a vacuum they were compelled to try and fill. It is a grotesque fantasy of independence, an indirect confirmation of our fear and need. The strangest thing of all is how attractive we can find a figure of pronounced and unapologetic appetite: Falstaff, Zorba, Donald Trump. They, especially the last, are also grotesques, but representative of a kind of liberation—from the class-bound strictures of good taste, if nothing else.

Anyway, Stephanie's audition, and the agony of deadlines and rejections have all led me to reflect on the terrifying unseemliness of selection in the arts. Instead of the marketplace, where no one ever apologizes for wanting to sell you a car or a Coke (maybe they should!), we have auditions and submissions (hearings and knee-bendings), seemingly unmediated scenes of judgment paid for in the coin of abjection: I want to be published by your press, I want to be in your play. We are caught in relations of production that imitate the hierarchical modes of capitalism without the medium of an unrestricted market in which our shameful need for recognition can dissipate unnoticed. The most popular alternative is to become your own cultural capitalist by starting your own press, magazine, theater company, etc. Then THEY will bow to YOU. By the way, I think one of the reasons the poetry contest paradigm is so successful is precisely because it introduces money into the equation. When I wrote $75 in checks yesterday I was covering over the presumptions I've made about the value of my work with the value of something we all understand—greenbacks. The exchange value represented by a contest fee—you pony up twenty-five bucks and we'll read your manuscript—mystifies what otherwise occurs when we submit our work to a publisher, which is the conversion of our poetry's aesthetic "use value" into a counter that we're trying to exchange for recognition. The fee mediates this like a fence (not like Fence), keeping our poetry and our desires safely separated. The suspicion most poets are prey to that their work isn't any good—that is, that it has zero exchange value in our culture—is placated by the exchange of cash. I'm not begging for anything, I'm just buying a lottery ticket—that is, engaging in a fantasy of recognition ("fame" and "riches") that is answered on the other end by a cash prize ($1,000 to $5,000). Money is the fetish on both ends of the process that protects us from having to actually submit to the market, trying to sell a product that has literally no value.

In some ways I'm rehashing Nick's compelling post on blogging and narcissism: "These are essentially actual social problems, not individual psychological problems, but these intense social problems for writers can easily and do frequently become psychological problems." (I have piratically abandoned Nick's line breaks; I realize he's trying to break down the distinction between prose and poetry, but I find prose broken into lines very hard to read.) Perhaps the best we can do is remember that these are social problems: it's not our fault that this is the system. Which doesn't diminish our responsibility for trying to change it. Blogging is one way out: at the very least a conversation like this helps, as Shanna has remarked, to spread those obscure feelings of humiliation around and so dissipate their force.

No comments:

Popular Posts