Sunday, October 29, 2006


Josh Corey, in the throes of academic job-applying (you have my sympathy, Josh, especially since I'm on the other side of the table this year, chairing a recruitment committee), has been doing some personal postion/soul-searching, wondering about the way one functions as a poet-critic. After saying some entirely unwarranted nice things about me, he calls me by name:
there's another rift between poetry/poetics and criticism: as a poet, I am primarily interested in what enables my own work and the work of other poets I care about. When I read a poet like Zukofsky, I am looking for news I can use: techniques and themes and turns of phrase that Zukofsky made more possible. For me, one of poetry's primary functions is the generation of more poetry—reading is writing, or wreading in Jed Rasula's phrase. That's a fundamentally different attitude than that assumed by the critic, who reads in a more specifically interrogatory mode, and with a more or less specific ideological axe to grind. It's the old battle of Beauty vs. Truth, really. And the question for a poet-critic like myself has to be not, Whose side are you on?, but: How are these different modes of reading implicated in each other for me? Why am I hyphenated? How can this tension be productive for both kinds of work, both modes of questioning? Mark, you're a poet-critic. Care to address this question from your perspective?
Something I've thought about a few times over the years. First, in regards to some of the talk going on in your comments box, I agree that one doesn't have to be a poet in order to be a good critic of poetry – I'm reminded of Samuel Johnson's comment to Boswell somewhere, the gist of which was you needn't be a carpenter to assess whether a table was well-made or not – but it helps.

It helps in a couple of ways. First, the committed poet almost always has the most basic piece of equipment needed for useful criticism – a deep investment in ("love of") the art itself, & that investment usually manifests itself in an immersion in poetry that one doesn't get in many critics. (I'm thinking at the moment of Terry Eagleton, a critic & thinker whose work I much admire, but who seems to write on poetry from the window of a speeding car – yes, I know, I haven't read his new How to Read a Poem or whatever its title is.)

More importantly, the poet-critic, who's reading as you say in this "predatory" manner, looking for tricks & tropes & techniques she can make her own, has a grasp of the poem from the inside, as it were, a perspective that one only rarely encounters in non-poet critics of poetry. That can be very enabling, tho it can also tend to blind one to certain approaches to literature – notably the sociological & the ideological – that themselves have great value.

[And such "inside knowledge," let's face it, is often vitiated if the poet doesn't have some sort of developed critical vocabulary in which to describe whatever insights she or he has into the work at hand. Otherwise, it all too often becomes a kind of shaggy emoting, an appeal to the lowest common affective denominator, & ends up telling one more about the poet reading than the poem read. Which is interesting at times, I guess.]
The line between invested criticism & advocacy is a fuzzy one, but my own experience in writing about poets has been this: First of all, I don't write about anyone whose work doesn't interest me, give me pleasure, provoke me to composition, and make me want to steal something. Life is too short to waste on writers I find irremediably alien or uninteresting as poetry. But like you I have fairly catholic tastes, so I'm happy to think about Zukofsky, Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein and Geoffrey Hill or Ann Carson. I'm not really interested in debating sides of any Post-Avant/School of Quietude continuum, & am really quite uninterested in all such divisions except insofar as they bear on issues of literary & institutional history (a big "except," indeed).

And I have yet to read any poet who wholly satisfies me. (Perhaps Bunting, Blake, and Dickinson come closest.) Which means that every time I address a poem or poet, I feel somehow duty-bound to take both my enthusiasm and my dissatisfaction into account – which perhaps accounts for the "dialectical" impulse you so kindly attribute to my scribbles. In turn, one of my impulses in writing poetry is precisely to achieve (in MacDiarmid's words) "the kind of poetry I want" – tho of all of my dissatisfactions, that which my own work affords me is perhaps the strongest.
I've never found the hyphen in poet-critic personally problematic or anything less than natural; but it can be problematic in certain institutional contexts. Like in grad school, for instance, where I did the concurrent MFA/PhD track, & often felt that critical insights I'd arrived at by thinking about the poem as a poet were more or less offhandedly dismissed as non-rigorous (Cornell had a big Paul de Man woodie back then) or even "bellettristic." Since then I've often found myself hesitating over job application letters, wondering whether laying stress on my activities as poet would be a plus or a minus when I applied for a job in (say) American modernism. From the other side of the table, it's rather easier, at least where I work now: when we see a candidate with creative publications, we often think "hey, maybe we can get this person to pick up a section or two of undergrad CW!" In larger departments, where lines between Creative Writing and Literary Studies are more boldly drawn, I suspect it's problematic.
I'm least interested in poet-critics when they're most obviously "spinning" their own practice (Eliot on the metaphysicals, for instance). I'm most interested & moved when they're applying their own deep investment in the art to searching readings of things that aren't necessarily the most congenial or the most obvious reads for them, or when they're teasing out the self-contradictions in the works that have proven most influential for their own practice: Bob Perelman's Trouble with Genius is a fine example of the latter; much of Geoffrey Hill's is exemplary of the former.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Gore & Adorno

Try as I might, I can't make "Al Gore" work as an anagram for "Adorno"; but according to David Postman of the Seattle Times, he-who-used-to-show-all-the-charisma-of-the-cigar-store-Indian has been quoting TWA on the parallels between the current US administration & the Nazis:
Adorno conducted a kind of autopsy on the Third Reich and he said the first sign of this descent to hell was when this happened, and these are his words: All questions of fact became questions of power.
And I'm not drawing an analogy to what happened there. I'm not. [why not?] But it's dangerous when we allow questions of fact to become questions of power.


Ray Davis, on the excellent Pseudopodium – a site which has more good reading than most municipal libraries – put up a lovely post last month on Ruskin's Fors Clavigera that's one of the most thoughtful assessment of the grim one's proto-blog that I've ever read. Which isn't to say that I agree with it entirely – perhaps I have a higher tolerance for ranting & bad-tempered quarrelling. Or maybe because I'm reading the thing on a five-year plan, its frequent shortcomings aren't as apparent to me. I think I'd want it on the proverbial desert island, but I sure as hell wouldn't want Fors & nothing else – at least not after the first month.

The only person I know who ever consistently linked Pound & Fors was another lively stylist, Guy Davenport, & like so many of Guy's insights that linkage is striking & apt but doesn't bear pressing too hard.
Re-reading Geraldine Monk's Interregnum (Creation Books, 1993), & well embarked on Peter Riley's Passing Measures: A Collection of Poems (Carcanet, 2000). Sound files of both of these poets can be found on Andrea Brady's very exciting Archive of the Now; go check out all the cool stuff.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Back [and in progress]

We're back from a long weekend in Connecticut, nursing stuff that ranges from mild sniffles to hacking coughs, but delighted to have enjoyed the fall foliage someplace that has fall foliage. The most WASP place in the world, I'm convinced.
Mystic Seaport

Over some silent footage from the turn
of the last century, Ishmael
narrates the industrial techniques
of drawing forth Leviathan: cinematically
sterilized, the buckets of blood
rendered a gray-black celluloid
shimmer, the work of the precise,
wooden, floating abattoir before me
(for the first time) in living motion
echoes in dull but vivid déjà vu
of the video screen. Too neat:
fifteen, twenty chapters of viscous
dissection tried-out to six
minutes of jerky movement: the Book
of Job in Reader's Digest condensation.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Ron & the Brits ii

I’m dying to get back into that Adorno thang, now that Dave and Bob have both weighed in – but I’m off up north tonight for a long weekend among the autumn leaves. We don’t really have deciduous trees down here – there’s the season when the palm trees drop their nuts everwhere, then there’s the season where they shed their fronds and grow cute new baby fronds, there’s the unbearably hot season and then the warm season when the roads and restaurants are clogged with northerners, etc. So I miss autumn – and winter, and spring, for that matter.

But instead of Adorno, I’ll put up what I hope is the blogosphere’s very last post (yeah right) on Ron Silliman’s “Post-avant vs. School of Quietude” business. Here goes. It comes as intercalary comments to the excellent Michael Peverett, commenting transatlantically on my last post:
I consider the post-avant / SoQ distinction a perfectly valid one for alluding to the fact that there are two and only two audiences for US (and British) poetry that are interested in discussing the history and current state of poetry. (In other words, a child enjoying a nursery rhyme is an audience for poetry that I don't convict of being in either camp.)
[I think you overstate; a good counter-example: the critic Thomas Gardner (see the review earlier this week on John Latta’s Dumpster Island), whose latest book examines the Dickinsonian strain in Charles Wright (slighly post-Poundian SoQ, Susan Howe (definitely P-A), and Jorie Graham (???).]
The two disputatious audiences might indeed be better seen as one graded audience, related by a host of intermediaries somewhat like the interbreeding clines that connect species of mouse that are distinct at their extremes.
[Oh indeed, but why then are the “disputacious” extremes necessarily more defining or interesting than the hybridized middles? Yeah, I know what the Lord has to say about Laodiceans…]
KSM [Kasey Mohammad]'s essay didn't attack the binary distinction, only the validity of the suggestion that post-avant somehow maps on to other descriptions, such as politically activist or aggressively loud. An attack on the distinction itself needs to show that there are other coherent, independent, articulate, critical bodies of poetry-lovers who don't fit well into the existing paradigm. And in my opinion those bodies just don't exist right now.
[“coherent, independent, articulate, critical bodies” is a pretty high standard – & frankly, I’m not sure either the loudest advocates of P-A poetries or the blithe reviewers of SoQ works fit that description much of the time – but you’re probably largely right. I think it’s in the nature of those who think about & write about poets from across the spectrum – & I’d cite, in addition to Gardner, Eric Selinger, Norman Finkelstein, Lynn Keller, & others – to be more interested in insightful readings of particular poets, tropes, techniques than in polemics on behalf of large tendencies. It remains to be seen what will be more useful in the long run.]

I can't help thinking that among poetry commentators diversity is to be celebrated. [Hear hear!] Silliman could never have gained his infectious enthusiasm, his immense range of knowledge of the US experimental scene without his strict diet of never on any account reading Spenser, Keats, foreign-language poetry, novels or science (slightly unfair, I know). But don't you need someone who'll tell you - and will make you feel interested in - exactly how a poet fits into the Spicer circle or Bay Area poetics? I know I do.
[Ron is unsurpassed in his own balliwick – but he has such an indefatigable appetite for poetry, & sometimes a wonderfully unsclerotic ability to accept the “new,” that I’m disappointed whenever I run up against one of his blind spots – & Spenser, Keats, Wordsworth, all of British poetry on the 20th c. save his 4 horsemen is a really big blind spot, no?]

What else can I disagree with? Oh Mark - "ceremonial" - cultures do perceptibly differ, even such similar ones as British and US, but I think it's impossible to narrow down those differences to a phrase; people have written whole books about it, and even so the books are full of contentious generalizations about "tendencies" and "for the most part".
[I think I quoted Sean saying “ceremonious” – a minor distinction, but “ceremonious” also invokes simple “politeness,” “formality” in ways that “ceremonial” doesn’t quite.]
I suppose I am a British poetry person and it's true that I can find things in, say, Geraldine Monk that I couldn't expect from any transatlantic poet - bits of mainly demotic, insular culture that only we would know about. But I doubt if these aspects of writing are of outstanding significance and if I listed the English-speaking poets (and poetry-readers) I feel closest to I think there'd be more Americans than Brits. And really, the framework of nationality just doesn't seem helpful here. "Ceremonial" continues to suggest to me things in poetry that I usually don't like (except in Irish Byzantium) and they can be found on both sides of the atlantic but I believe you are tacitly dropping from view such US ceremonialists as Whittier, Longfellow, Allan Tate, and Berryman - and I don't blame you - but in that case it's not fair that British poetry should be characterized by Tomlinson! I don't feel an identification with the kind of poem he writes.
CT is an interesting case: if he were an American publishing with Athenaeum or Ecco, Ron would almost certainly consign him to the SoQ forthwith; but he's a Briton, & one who spent a good deal of early energy promoting WCW, LZ, Oppen & others, so that he gets at least a respectful name-check in Ron's blog. Which simply underlines the fact that the SoQ/PA distinction has every bit as much to do with social factors as it does with aesthetic or political ones. At base (one of its bases) it's all about "us & them," an us & them which tends to map the struggles of various tendencies in US poetry in the mid-1980s, & is of less & less use the further we leave that decade behind. For all the usefulness of naming what gets published in the New Yorker, designating it as a "school" rather than a default definition of what poetry itself is, the entire SoQ/PA thing is just too big & vague in the end to be of much use, especially in an era when the automatic equation of aesthetic innovation & insitutional marginalization simply no longer holds.

With respect to the transatlantic divide, I would speculate that Ron's scunner against a certain traditional voice (call it "ceremonious," call it "formal," call it broccoli) which can be heard in Whittier, Longfellow, & Tate, & which he associates primarily with the English poetic canon & thereby consigns to the dustbin of SoQ, is at least part of what keeps him from "hearing" much of contemporary British poetry*; I still hear that voice, that tone, in much of the most disjunctive work coming out of the British Isles, as part of a rather rich mix that doesn't exclude all of the vernacularisms contemporary American poets are so set on.

*Ron's enthusiasm for the American Jennifer Moxley, whose work openly embraces much of the diction & tropes of the English romantics, is one of those frequent and unapologetic inconsistencies in his program (programme?) that I always value.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Ron & the Brits

So Ron Silliman turns his attention to the other side of the Atlantic the other day and posts a glowing review of There Are Words, the posthumous collected poems of the Scotsman Gael Turnbull. That’s just fine – I’ve always thought Turnbull a dandy poet, and he was a lovely human being as well (not an inevitable combination by any means); problem was these sentences of Ron’s:
There are gems like these everywhere throughout this book. Small, brilliantly conceived, perfectly executed poems, with an unmistakable ear. This last feature is especially worth thinking about, given just how different accents are in the U.K. compared with the United States. The number of, to use Charles Bernstein’s apt phrase, island poets with an ear that makes sense to a Yank auditory canal is exceptionally small: perhaps, in the past century, just four – Bunting, Turnbull, Raworth, Thomas A. Clark. This is not to fault others – from J. H. Prynne to David Jones to Douglas Oliver or Allen Fisher – whose ears may well make perfect sense on their own terms, but who don’t, how shall I say this, travel well on at least that one level.
As you might imagine, for some reason this didn’t go over well with Ron’s transatlantic readers, & he received what he rightly calls a “general thrashing” on the UK Poetry (not “UK Poetics” – Freudian slip?) listserv. My own favorite bit of British snark came from one “puthwuth,” proprietor of a blog named georgiasam, who perhaps unfairly named Ron’s outlook “soft racism.”

I wouldn’t go quite so far, I think (after all, Britons like Americans come in all different races), but Ron’s inability to hear the maybe 50-100 British poets over the past century in whom he ought to be interested is indeed rather striking. One useful comment to puthwuth’s post was from Sean Lysaght, who opines that “I think the missing piece of the Yank auditory canal is the ability to hear 'ceremonious words'. American poetry is so tuned to the vernacular that it no longer recognises poetry pitched in a higher key.” I think that this is right on the money, with the proviso that when Ron says “a Yankee auditory canal” he means “this Yankee auditory canal” and when Sean says “the Yankee auditory canal” he means “too many Yankee auditory canals.” (No sense in overgeneralizing – that’s what got RS in trouble in the 1st place.)

For better or worse, Ron’s blog has had a enormous influence on the alt-poetry blogosphere. He’s become the Harold Bloom of the post-avant, and the number of pixels sacrificed arguing over his post-avant/school of quietude distinction is simply evidence of how inescapable his presence is. I for one read his blog every day, simply because I like to know what’s going on from the perspective of a poet whom I admire and a reader who seems to have a lot more time to take in contemporary poetry than I do (after all, he doesn’t have to read the book of Job to teach it tomorrow, or work up Ulysses and Paradise Lost for the coming semester).

The problem with Ron’s deafness to contemporary British poetry is in part a problem with the diction of British poetry, which is apt to be turned to a different angle than that of most American writing – what Lysaght shorthands as “ceremonious words.” It’s also a problem with tradition, with what one might call the “dialect” of tradition. Ron claims he “hears” Brit poets better when they write in short lines (the WCW-LZ-Creeley stock-in-trade), & trots out as example two passages from Charles Tomlinson – one of WCW’s best readers, & an early supporter of LZ.
It’s not just that I could read “Writing on Sand” aloud & derive considerable pleasure from the experience & that I couldn’t read ‘The Moment’ aloud at all (I’d dissolve into giggles), but rather I can’t hear its measure. It feels like so many pots & pans banging about in the kitchen.
Moments like this make me sigh. Those “pots & pans” are friggin’ iambic pentameter. (Yes, loose, yes, with some substitutions – but good old IP nonetheless.)

As a message just into my inbox from the estimable Geraldine Monk makes abundantly clear, it’s not that Ron can’t hear contemporary British poets’ music – it’s that his ears have never been sharpened on maybe 400 years of English-language poetry in general.

It's not that I recommend that Ron ought to go back & get a PhD in English – God knows that rarely teaches anyone to appreciate poetry, & Ron already reads contemporary poetry more sharply than 99.9% of the people out there commenting on it – but I'd love to see him doing more of what he did last year, when he dovetailed reading Stephen Greenblatt's (in my opinion dreadful) biography of Shakespeare with a dedicated work-thru of the plays. My RX for RS: tackle the whole of Bunting's list of English poets whose music taught him something (if I recall rightly, Wyatt, Spenser, Wordsworth), or work thru Peter Makin's excellent edition of Bunting on Poetry. Skip the American stuff – you already know Whitman and Zukofsky: figure out what makes Wordsworth & Spenser so amazing, & then (with a goodly dash of Jonson, Herrick, & Marvell) you'll be on your way to "hearing" the English voice.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

clever but stupid

Why am I so attracted to British poets these days? I’ve just gone thru binges of reading Geraldine Monk, John Wilkinson, & most recently Robert Sheppard, & am right now in the delighted middle of Alan Halsey’s Not Everything Remotely: Selected Poems 1978-2005. Part of it I suspect is just unreconstructed anglophilia, of the sort that keeps me watching Monty Python & listening to the Watersons. But there’s also a different relationship to language, to history in these poets that I’m fascinated by.
I learn from Henry Gould (I often learn from HG) that the Library of America has just put out a Hart Crane volume, edited by Langdon Hammer (fellow biographer – he of James Merrill; once we sat together on a panel in the strangest conference I’ve ever attended, smack in the middle of WCW’s Paterson – a strange event I’ll probably recount someday). Crane’s always been one of my blind spots – a poet I just don’t get, despite a semi-annual hauling down of my copy of Complete Poems & Selected Letters (ed. Brom Weber, in the old “Anchor Literary Library” edition, with HC staring balefully over a cigar on the cover) & a re-reading of "The Bridge" & whatever else catches my eye. Time for another try, I think.

By my count, Crane (born 1899) is the youngest of the modern poets to appear in the LOA’s flagship series (the others being Frost, Pound, Stevens, & Stein). It is of course high time for a real LZ volume – not to slight the selection Charles Bernstein did for the LOA’s “Poets Project,” but I worry that getting into the PP (nicely produced but all too short pocket-sized selecteds) is gonna become a de facto consolation prize for not getting a full treatment: We’ve recognized you, lad/lass (addressed to Yvor Winters, Muriel Rukeyser, LZ, etc.) – now fuck along & stop dreaming of those big black covers with their little redwhite&blue stripe. But when oh when will the WCW and Moore volumes arrive?
Hugh Kenner once bitched that the LOA format was far inferior to that of the Pléiade, & he’s right: the books are too big, the gutter too narrow, not enough notes, covers easily stained etc. Shopping tip for Poundians: next time you’re in Rome, pick up the Mondadori Pléiade-style edition of I Cantos – translation by Mary de Rachewiltz, tons of notes in the back, & an English text that’s much better than the thing New Directions keeps tossing at us year after year.
Clever but stupid. I’ve grown from being a brash, self-centered, clever but stupid young person to a timid, self-centered, clever but stupid greybeard, in whom a demon of wholly unwarranted ambition struggles with a torpid Oblomov who’d prefer to sit and read. (The Demon of Consumption – to eat books like deep-fried snacks.)

Why are so many academics unhappy?, asks J. “The best job in the world,” after all, once you factor out fiscal remuneration. It’s the element of self-examination, or an uglier gnawing spur “that the clear spirit doth raise / (That last infirmity of Noble mind) / To scorn delights, and live laborious days.”
Dave Parks weighs in with entry #2 on Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory.

Saturday, October 07, 2006


The folks at the Journal of Improbable Research hand out yearly Ig Nobel Prizes for foolish, obvious, or just plain silly achievements. Last year's Ig Nobel in Literature, for instance, went to
The Internet entrepreneurs of Nigeria, for creating and then using e-mail to distribute a bold series of short stories, thus introducing millions of readers to a cast of rich characters -- General Sani Abacha, Mrs. Mariam Sanni Abacha, Barrister Jon A Mbeki Esq., and others -- each of whom requires just a small amount of expense money so as to obtain access to the great wealth to which they are entitled and which they would like to share with the kind person who assists them.
This year's prize has gone to what seems, once you get past its title, actually useful work. The author is Daniel Oppenheimer, a Princeton psychologist, and his article is titled "Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly." The abstract:
Most texts on writing style encourage authors to avoid overly-complex words. However, a majority of undergraduates admit to deliberately increasing the complexity of their vocabulary so as to give the impression of intelligence. This paper explores the extent to which this strategy is effective. Experiments 1-3 manipulate complexity of texts and find a negative relationship between complexity and judged intelligence. This relationship held regardless of the quality of the original essay, and irrespective of the participants' prior expectations of essay quality. The negative impact of complexity was mediated by processing fluency. Experiment 4 directly manipulated fluency and found that texts in hard to read fonts are judged to come from less intelligent authors. Experiment 5 investigated discounting of fluency. When obvious causes for low fluency exist that are not relevant to the judgement at hand, people reduce their reliance on fluency as a cue; in fact, in an effort not to be influenced by the irrelevant source of fluency, they over-compensate and are biased in the opposite direction. Implications and applications are discussed.
In short: big words make you seem more of a dumbass than you are.

The one I really want to read is the winner in Medicine, "Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage." Ouch.

Friday, October 06, 2006

on the verge of the weekend

It’s been a slow week, both around here & on the blogosphere. I guess everybody is busy watching the spectacular implosion of the Republican Party (one wishes…). I’m polishing up my molotov cocktails, dusting off my red flag, & putting new shoestrings on my Doc Martens in preparation for climbing up on some overturned SUVs.
A very nice birthday celebration earlier this week, capped with the present to end all presents: the “16 Ton Megaset” of all 45 episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Expect many references to funny walks, deceased parrots, falling sheep, and suchlike in the months to come. My students are already suffering; some of them get the jokes, others just think I’m losing it.
A chance step into a used CD place the other week netted me one of the odder cool things that have turned up lately: Hall Willner’s 2-disc Rogue’s Gallery. Willner is the producer known for enlisting unlikely musicians to interpret various (broadly defined) “classic” corpuses: John Zorn, Lou Reed, Aaron Neville, & Marianne Faithfull singing Kurt Weill (Lost in the Stars); Ringo Starr, Sinead O’Connor, Los Lobos doing songs from Disney films (Stay Awake). Rogue’s Gallery is an offshoot of the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie (Johnny Depp is listed as a co-executive producer), and consists of well, pirate songs. Actually, pirate songs and all other sorts of chanteys & ballads from the 16th thru the 19th centuries. Highlights thus far include Nick Cave’s psychotic version of “Fire Down Below,” Eliza Carthy’s take on “Rolling Sea,” David Thomas’s (he of Pére Ubu) extraterrestrial version of “What Do We Do With a Drunken Sailor,” and Richard Thompson’s heartbreaking and astoundingly beautiful “Mingulay Boat Song” – which at the moment I’m convinced is one of the five or six best tracks he’s ever recorded.
Last night’s Netflix pleasure (?) was a second viewing of Volker Schlondorff’s 1996 The Ogre. I’m well aware of the film’s shortcomings – especially when compared with the novel on which it’s based, Michel Tournier’s Le Roi des aulnes – but I still find it incredibly moving, especially the tour-de-force final scene in which the blindfolded Abel (John Malkovich), who has spent much of the film as a dim-witted lackey of the Nazis, kidnapping neighborhood boys for a military academy, struggles thru the icy waters of a marsh with the Jewish boy Ephraim on his shoulders, shouting, “Go, Leviathan, go!” (Makes no sense? rent the thing & tell me what you think.)
Hey, what happened to my Adorno homies? I need some backup here!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Dienstag mit Teddie

[Adorno monument, Frankfurt-am-Main]

It’s that grim and glum time of year again – no, I’m not entirely referring to my birthday, which happens to roll around with painful inevitability this day every year, reminding me of things undone, projects unattempted, chances missed, increasingly grey hair, & so forth – instead, it’s the time that three (or more?) largely unqualified (speaking only for myself) bloggers attempt to work their collective way thru Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Let’s call it “Tuesdays with Teddie” (Dienstage mit Teddie) (or whatever day we happen to get around to it).

This may be a weekly feature on the blogs of y.v.t., the goateed Bob Archambeau, & the doesn’t-have-a-picture-up-but-is-probably-better-looking-than-either-of-us Dave Park, or it may be more like a monthly, depending on how much energy we can muster. Anyway, since I seem to have a spare moment between manuscript revisions & grading midterms, I’ll throw out the first pitch, trusting that Bob & Dave will field – mibbe they’ll even repost what little I have to say here, with their own comments. So here goes –
Ästhetische Theorie was Adorno’s last work, the manuscript he was beavering away at when he died in 1969, but in many ways it seems an inevitable book, the capstone of Adorno’s work & the grand theoretical statement to justify the many thousands of pages he’d devoted over his career to discussion of works of art – literature, yes, but to a much greater extent music. Adorno’s critiques of the “culture industry,” for which he might be best known in some quarters of the American academy, are like a mouse to the elephant of his music criticism.

The book itself is famously difficult – probably even more difficult in its “definitive” translation, that of Robert Hullot-Kentor (U Minnesota, 1997, & the one I'll be citing), than in the 1984 Christian Lenhardt version. In part pressed by his publisher, Lenhardt divided the book up into sections & subsections, broke various Joyce-length paragraphs into more manageable chunks, & even split up sentences – all in the service of a more reader-friendly Adorno. Which, as Hullot-Kentor rightly argues, is precisely not the point. This is a book that is meant to be worked through, clause by clause, sentence by sentence. I’m tempted to say that Adorno’s unit of composition is precisely the sentence – as long & Germanic as his sentences may be – so that while Minima Moralia spins its mordant paradoxes over one-half to five page, densely packed units, Aesthetic Theory both constructs a larger argument (with maddening repetition – only partly an effect of the unfinished state of the manuscript – and constant maze-like divagation) and crams whole volumes of argument into single periods.

The closest the book has to an “overture” (leaving aside the “Draft Introduction,” which is yes probably the best place to start, but I’m already typing) is the 1st section, “Art, Society, Aesthetics” (pp. 1-15). (Section & paragraph titles are indicated in the table of contents, but not in the text, by the way, which presents itself as a single 350-page block of prose – a Steve McCaffery poem, e. g.) The section begins with a discussion of the present state of art, now recognized for better or worse as fully autonomous, fully liberated from its former social function:
Artworks detach themselves from the empirical world and bring forth another world, one opposed to the empirical world as if this other world too were an autonomous entity. (1)

As a result of its inevitable withdrawal from theology, from the unqualified claim to the truth of salvation, a secularization without which art would never have developed, art is condemned to provide the world as it exists with a consolation that – shorn of any hope of a world beyond – strengthens the spell of that from which the autonomy of art wants to free itself. (2)
(See the dialectics machine kicking in? – dialectics, the art of thinking two opposed ideas at the same time.) Adorno’s starting right out with biggest single issue of Marxist aesthetics, the political or social function of the work of art.

It’s worth remembering that the most widely disseminated Leftist aesthetic of the last century – so-called “socialist realism” – argued that art had a responsibility to advance the cause of human progress, & further that it should do so by communicating with its audience. Adorno, one can’t emphasize too much, isn’t interested in art that communicates with the average viewer/reader/auditor, whether it’s a big mural of Comrade Joe Stalin, a touching film about a boy & his tractor, or a neo-Romantic symphony. Adorno is an intransigent advocate for modernist art; the last of the mandarins. For him drama means not “Waiting for Lefty” but “Waiting for Godot” (Aesthetic Theory was to be dedicated to Beckett). It helps to think of Adorno’s aesthetic canon in terms of the harshest instances of 20th “high” modernism: Webern, Beckett, Anselm Kiefer. Philip Glass, Tony Kushner, Andy Warhol, they won’t do – they’re all contaminated by the “culture industry.”

So on one level Adorno’s aim – tho he would never put it so vulgarly – is to justify the art of the 20th century in dialectical materialist terms, to show how forbiddingly abstract & esoteric artworks actually serve to reflect social structure.
Artworks are afterimages of empirical life insofar as they help the latter to what is denied them outside their own sphere and thereby free it from that to which they are condemned by reified external experience. (4)

If art opposes the empirical through the element of form – and the mediation of form and content is not to be grasped without their differentiation – the mediation is to be sought in the recognition of aesthetic form as sedimented content. (5, my emph.)

That artworks as windowless monads [Leibniz, anyone?] “represent” what they themselves are not can scarcely be understood expect in that their own dynamic, their immanent historicity as a dialectic of nature and its domination, not only is of the same essence as the dialectic external to them but resembles it without imitating it. The aesthetic force of production is the same as that of productive labor and has the same teleology; and what may be called aesthetic relations of production – all that in which the productive force is embedded and in which it is active – are sedimentations or imprintings of social relations of production. (5)

The basic levels of experience that motivate art are related to those of the objective world from which they recoil. The unsolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems of form. This, not the insertion of objective elements, defines the relation of art to society. (6)
So when we’re seeking the the “social” element in a contemporary artwork, we should be looking not for a direct portrayal of workers’ conditions (Hard Times) or an unsuspecting bearer of the destiny of history, but at the formal structure of the work. The fragmentation of “Wandering Rocks” and the profluence of “Penelope” are surer keys to the social significance of Ulysses than a mere totting-up of the number of unemployed alcoholics or repressed women in the novel.
Art perceived strictly aesthetically is art aesthetically misperceived. Only when art’s other is sensed as a primary layer in the experience of art does it become possible to sublimate this layer, to dissolve the thematic bonds, without the autonomy of the artwork becoming a matter of indifference. Art is autonomous and it is not; without what is heterogeneous to it, its autonomy eludes it. (6)
(Takes a breath–) Basta for now. I have in unguarded moments been accused of being a Zukofsky scholar, which might account for the cento nature of these comments. Your ball, folks.