Monday, January 24, 2005

Good morning, everybody. I hope you'll check out my little Richard Hugo essay (I can't vouch for the link) over at

The nor'easter that turned Ithaca into a snow globe this weekend was at least good for my reading: I spent all day Saturday completely absorbed by Susan Buck-Morss's Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West. One of the most exciting works of political theory I've ever read, and the first book in ages that I've read cover-to-cover. Among other things it's a grand and persuasive theory of the disparate cultural logics of Western capitalism versus Soviet communism (in a nutshell: the West constantly reduces politics to the spatial, obsessing over territorial boundaries while projecting no meaningful idea of the future; the USSR reduced politics to the temporal, sacrificing the present to a future utopia of world socialism) with sobering and prescient implications for our present-age "War on Terror"; a history of visual culture in the Soviet Union; a theory of the avant-garde (about which more in a moment); a critical explanation of the collapse of the Soviet Union; and a personal memoir of collaboration and missed opportunities between Buck-Morss (who was and is a professor here at Cornell; I took her Modern Social Theory seminar) and Soviet/Russian (the slippage there encompasses the whole book) scholars in the period of glasnost, perestroika, collapse, and the rise of the ethnic Russian state and economic "shock therapy." Along the way and almost in passing she reframes the question of the avant-garde (she's thinking specifically of the Russian constructivists and futurists and suprematists before Stalin: Malevich, Mayakovsky, etc.) in a way that incorporates Peter Bürger (without actually mentioning him by name) and goes beyond him—re-opening a space for avant-garde action:
Artworks, not artists, are avant-garde, and even here the category is not a constant. It is the aesthetic experience of the artwork... that counts in a cognitive sense. The power of any cultural object to arrest the flow of history, and to open up time for alternative visions, varies with history's changing course. Strategies range from critical negativity to utopian representation. No one style, no one medium is invariably successful. Perhaps not the object but its critical interpretation is avant-garde. What counts is that the aesthetic experience teach us something new about our world, that it shock us out of moral complacency and political resignation, and that it take us to task for the overwhelming lack of social imagination that characterizes so much of cultural production in all its forms.... The art of the Russian avant-garde prided itself in being "nonobjective" and was accused by its enemies of being "formalist," but it remained representational in the important sense that it was mimetic of the experience of modernity. Precisely through abstraction, the artworks gave expression to a human sensorium fundamentally altered by the tempos and technologies of factory and urban life. (63, italics in original)
This is arguably more a work of synthesis than anything stunningly original (Frederic Jameson is clearly a shaping force), but I still find it to be clarifying and refreshing. I'm especially interested in the question of avant-garde means—the continuum she sets up between "strategies" of critical negativity versus utopian representation. It's not a dichotomy, yet it's hard not to feel that these strategies aren't fundamentally opposed to each other; Adorno for one argues that any art that positively represents reconciliation (between humans and nature or between humans and the society of late capitalism) is false at its root. Though he does leave the door open for a lyric poetry that manages to be both critical and representational by completely ignoring capitalist society—by denying its right to exist. But this isn't the same thing as attempting to mimetically represent a modernity which has actually rewired the "human sensorium"—something which my extremely lay understanding of cognitive science suggests might in fact be the case. There's a contradiction here that I must grapple with in my account of pastoral. If the human sensorium has been definitively altered by modernity, the new pastoral must render a relation to nature ("utopian representation") that takes this alteration into account, and presents nature as and by the means of modernism: fragmentation and montage. If it hasn't been altered, or if this alteration might be desirably be imagined as reversible or capable of being slowed, then one's representation should be unified and whole—Frost and not Williams, say. How, in short, do you feel about Rimbaud's "Il faut etre absolument moderne"? Do we do this in order to embrace the utopia of technological harmony? Or to embrace one's own temporality, one's own time, so as to battle against the bad aspects of modernity? Do you seek to reconcile people to their new industrial and modern environment, or do you foment criticism and revolution? Buck-Morss again:
The fantastic constructions of the avant-garde could no more be a blueprint for socialist existence than a Five Year Plan can be for how economic activity actually impinges on human life. Both are utopian representations, the forced actualization of which can have very dystopic effects. The power of art to change life is indirect. But so is (or ought to be) the power of political sovereignty. (65)

[The Russian avant-garde's] "reconstruction of daily life" (perestroika byta) anticipated the socialist future without sacrificing the present. (96, italics original)
This is useful for me to think about, particularly as I begin to deal with the version of pastoral I've so far neglected, which is pastoral as "nature poem" rather than an Empsonian social construct. To paraphrase Buck-Morss, what counts is that the aesthetic experience of the new pastoral teach us something new about our world, that it shock us out of moral complacency and political resignation, and that it take us to task for the overwhelming lack of social and environmental imagination that characterizes so much of cultural production in all its forms. And that is why I now turn to Angus Fletcher's A New Theory of American Poetry with renewed enthusiasm for constructing an account of pastoral that imagines, in its modest way, both socially and environmentally.

1 comment:

Josh Hanson said...

Nice essay, Josh. I am now living back in Missoula, and the appearance of your essay is not disabusing me of the eerie notion that Hugo is an omnipresent force.

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