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PORES - A Journal of Poetics Research

Postmodern Self-fashioning

- Anthony Mellors


This is the text of a position paper for the Poetics of Globalization Workshop, University of Southampton, May 2nd, 2007.


It is precisely at the moment when the entrepreneur must think himself into the model of the most advanced artistic genius, at the moment when the avant-gardist strategy of innovation at any price becomes the paradigm of dominant economic practice, that the artistic avant-garde necessarily loses its difference, its marginality, its deviance-value.

As you will gather from the quotation from Goux’s essay ‘General Economics and Postmodern Capitalism’, already an ancient text from 1990, I was going to talk about the economic status of the avant-gardes and their countercultural legacy. Instead, but without straying too far from that topic, I’d like to make some brief points about a subject I’ve harped on about before: Language Writing. This is in response to the extraordinary spectacle at the recent, excellent, conference on poetry and public discourse at Plymouth of Barrett Watten, which now strikes me as an interesting example of what’s happened to conceptual work in the global context. Striking, also, is how easily one drifts back to North American examples when thinking about poetry and globalism.

Let’s start by adding to Goux’s remark a more recent quotation, from Hardt and Negri’s influential Empire: ‘In the dark world of cyberpunk fiction,’ Hardt and Negri write, ‘the freedom of self-fashioning is often indistinguishable from the powers of an all-encompassing control.’(Empire, 216.) Self-fashioning and its paranoid subversion is a crucial theme of science fiction following from Philip K. Dick. It seems a long way from the affectless, decentred Steinian texts we have come to associate with Language Writing, though no doubt a connection can be made from the way the New Sentence deals with the noise created by the seepage of the spoken-through into the spoken-by. However, what interests me is the radical but problematic relationship between poetry and theory in this poetics. Charles Bernstein, Steve McCaffery, b. p. nichol, Bruce Andrews, Ron Silliman, and Watten wrote brilliant polemics that fused poetry with semiology and radical politics and went right against the grain of both the complacent, academic poetry establishment and academic theorists who had nothing to say about post-modern poetry. Strategically, this was also a way of conferring value on radically indeterminate and interminable poetic texts. Put very briefly, my criticism of this strategy was that it fetishized the semiotics of the ‘open work’ (aesthetically, libidinally, politically) while making the passage from theory to work intentional. That is to say, the work’s very indeterminacy forms the basis of its determination of libidinal and/or political effect. Language poetics moved quickly away from the exhaustive conceptualist experimentation of McCaffery and Nichol’s Toronto Research Group to an institutionalized neo avant-garde position.

To clarify, let’s take an example from conceptual art and its commentary. Troels Anderson describes Joseph Beuys’s 1966 performance of Eurasia:

Kneeling, Beuys slowly pushed two small crosses which were lying on the floor towards a blackboard; on each cross was a watch with an adjusted alarm. On the board he drew a cross which he then half-erased; underneath he wrote ‘Eurasia’. The remainder of the piece consisted of Beuys manoeuvring along a marked line a dead rabbit whose legs and ears were extended by long thin black wooden poles. When the rabbit was on his shoulders, the poles touched the floor. Beuys moved from the wall to the board where he deposited the rabbit. On the way back, three things happened: he sprinkled white powder between the rabbit’s legs, put a thermometer in its mouth, and blew into a tube. Afterwards he turned to the board with the erased cross and allowed the rabbit to twitch his ears while he himself allowed one foot, which was tied to an iron plate, to float over a similar plate, on the floor. This was the main content of the action. The symbols are completely clear and they are all translatable. The division of the cross is the split between East and West, Rome and Byzantium. The half cross is the United Europe and Asia, to which the rabbit is on its way. The iron plate on the floor is a metaphor – it is hard to walk and the ground is frozen. (in Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (Berkeley, 1997).)

Anderson is so busy misrepresenting symbolism as clear-cut allegory that he fails to notice what is clear: that the rabbit is in fact a hare. The demand for significance displaces attention to the specifics of the text. If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it must be a rabbit. Now, there’s nothing even approaching this crudeness in, say, McCaffery’s North of Intention or Watten’s Total Syntax. And it’s hardly Beuys’s fault if critics choose to explain his work in this manner. However, at Plymouth Watten gave an address to the tune of what he called a new poetic objectivity. The objectivity in question (though not in question) was his own work, in particular a work in which randomly chosen passages from Williams’s Paterson provided the conceptual sparks for the poet’s own text. Whatever the merits of that experiment itself (to my mind an OK idea flogged to death), Watten’s commentary consisted entirely of allegorizing the work, placing it into its context (i.e. an entirely positive context, supplied by the poet, of U. S. history, public and private memory, and the political grasp thereof) and relating it to the seamless trajectory of the poet’s own career. Watten derisively dismissed his academic colleagues, who dared to suggest that making his own work his research specialism might be a little lacking in scholarly rigour, not to mention a trifle self-serving, and carried on waxing lyrical about the qualities of the work. As far as I can see, the only critical tool used was the author’s intention, bolstered by the specious notion that ‘violation of the standard academic protocol’ is a form of political transgression. And the author became noticeably aggressive in response to questions that appeared to question his authority. The intentionality implicit in early Language theorizing became all too apparent.

Watten is Ron Silliman’s prime example of the poet-critic who strives to insert practice into his own theory; he therefore represents the politically active wing of the Language enterprise in its mission to subvert the American academy’s drive to canonicity and exclusion. Only by infiltrating and repositioning the institutions of poetry, Silliman argues, can there be any hope for artists marginalized by the conservative, homogenizing impulse behind these canons. The alternative is to foster a range of practices that emphasizes the diversity of parallel traditions, theory, the open work, de-anthologization – in short, everything detested by Harold Bloom. The bind, as always in institutional politics, is that you have to play the phallic game in order to institute, reinstitute, or deinstitute the law of the father. Unfortunately, the law is just that: those who claim the phallus in order to let it dwindle, ‘subverting the system from within’, usually strive to uphold it (in the form of themselves) even when they know it doesn’t exist. Silliman is aware of the problem, but he can’t resolve it; like his valiant attempt to separate inclusive from exclusive anthologies, his distinction between altruistic and opportunistic ‘insiders’ proves hard to maintain:

These academicians who perceive their own theoretical work as possessing an inherent value are only one segment of a larger contingent quite visible within the university that takes theory itself to be a primary, if not the primary, function of an English department. There is, however, a distinction to be drawn here between those who would argue this because they are, in their own ways and from their own historical and institutional positions, working their way back towards an integration of theory and practice, from those others (probably more numerous) who argue the primacy of theory merely as a mechanism for personal institutional dominance. (‘Canons and Institutions: New Hope for the Disappeared’, in Charles Bernstein,ed., The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy (New York: Roof Books, 1990), 168.)

Here’s the rub:

Strengthening the position within the university of those academics who are concerned with the integration of theory and practice within their own writing … would bolster the institution, even if (or perhaps I should say, even as) this divides them from the opportunists and power addicts who’ve found theory a convenient vehicle for self-promotion. Here the potential divisiveness of any strategy of intervention has positive implications for the academy.

Silliman’s essay, written before Language poetics became an orthodoxy in U.S. university creative writing departments, replete with the managerial rhetoric of ‘strategic innovations’, gracefully unresolves the problem posed by Alan Golding in ‘A History of American Poetry Anthologies’ (in Robert von Hallberg, ed., Canons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); quoted by Silliman, 154):

Much of the interest and vigor of a book like [Donald Allen’s] The New American Poetry lay in its extracanonical status. The book’s tone and contents assailed the walls of the academically established canon, eventually broke them down, and Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and such were admitted. But when these poets became tentatively canonized, their combative rhetoric was assimilated by the cultural institution it assailed and lost much of its point. As numerous studies of the avant-garde show, this is the likely fate of any extracanonical group or individual seeking the acknowledgement of canonization.

It may be that both Golding and Silliman give too much importance to the role of the academy in establishing canons. The only real issue is whether there is anyone or anything stopping me from professing the value of, say, Susan Howe’s poetry and poetics in my creative writing course. The rest is up to a larger receptive community. Yet in practice modernism was always antithetical to the principle of the canon, and the postmodern demand to be both in and out of the ‘system’ at the same time looks flawed, disingenuous, and even plain dull. In this respect, Watten’s realpolitik is so real that it becomes indistinguishable from the terminal autolysis against which it is supposedly set. Where, as T. J. Clark contends, modernism’s bizarre success was to inscribe failure into the structure of the artwork, making it virtually indescribable from a canonical standpoint, Watten’s artefacts become transcendentally clear to self-description, successful in an allegorical fittingness that would have Blake in fits of another kind, and a refutation of the Freudian proposition that self-analysis is impossible.

So is this the culmination of Language’s poetry/theory combo: a return to intentionality and personal authority, rampant self-promotion masquerading as poetic objectivity and impersonality? Writing on the reception of Beuys’s Eurasia, Paul Wood argues that

Part of what happened in modernity has been the fracturing of public symbolism, or its etiolation into the terms and themes of the mass media. Allegories such as the one performed here require assent to stipulative definition if they are to work (‘The erased cross means…’; ‘The dead rabbit means…[  ] and so on. And that requires assent to authority, namely the authority of the artist conceived as shaman. (Conceptual Art (Tate Publishing, 2002, 24)

Perhaps Watten sees himself as more of a shaman than a professor. Whatever. I’m not naively trying to suggest that artistic self-promotion is itself a new thing, or even necessarily wrong – after all, Pound was a consummate self-fashioner – but that it is a new thing for it to take place under the aegis of an emancipatory politics of public discourse and in the context of a conference which, not unlike this workshop, takes as its rubric the critique of national and international power structures. It’s easy to conceive of an event where poets talk about their own work self-critically, but imagine a conference composed entirely of poets claiming academic legitimation for their own work. To return to that quotation from Jean-Joseph Goux: ‘it is precisely at the moment when the entrepreneur must think himself into the model of the most advanced artistic genius, at the moment when the avant-gardiste strategy of innovation at any price becomes the paradigm of dominant economic practice, that the artistic avant-garde necessarily loses its difference, its marginality, its deviance-value.’

At issue is whether this is an isolated case of postmodern self-fashioning or the shape of things to come in terms of the absorption of the poetics of impersonality into a utilitarian hegemony, one that makes the freedom of self-fashioning indistinguishable from the (self) disciplining regime Hardt and Negri call global capitalism. I can’t see any hope for the disappeared, or even for the newly appeared, in the Barrett Watten Poetics Program, Barrett Watten University. The world in which a zed is always a zee.


Anthony Mellors

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