Coercion in Art

by on Nov.03, 2010

I’ve been thinking about “coercion” in art recently (or maybe my whole life).

A while back, Matt Soucy wrote about my book A New Quarantine Will Take Your Place:

“Two criticisms are that the use and reuse of images can lead to sometimes tiresome redundancies and repetitions, and that the whole book as a continuous poem can lead to a page-turner effect a la The DaVinci Code where the reader is coerced, rather than compelled, to keep reading.”

I find this argument interesting for several reasons. For one, it equates “page-turner” with low-browness. But if a book keeps you reading (through its repetitiveness) it is not just like mass culture, but is also “coercive.” This seems true on a fundamental level, since page-turning is a kind of physical act, turning the reader’s body into something repetitive and mechanical. Ie, does the coercive aesthetic take away the human-ness of the reader?

Or does this have to do with an implicit comparison to film? My book imitates a film in its use of silent-era “intertitles,” through the concept of the page (and sentences, words) as a kind of film “frame” with “cuts.” Perhaps it’s the Tom Hanks film that is invoked here? It seems like film holds a kind of negative role in a lot of discussions in poetry: film as the opposite of poetry because it coerces rather than allows contemplation. It’s the most “spectacular” art form and of course so mass-culture. An emblem of unrefined, coercive, undemocratic.


I basically thought the Coldfront review was perceptive, though obviously I have different aesthetics than he does. Joyelle wrote the following in response to the Coldfront review:

“To continue through Johannes’s book is to see this convulsive reflectivity repeated to the point of utter-, over-, and supersaturation, as violence is ‘mediated’, that is, reaches the speaker through media, including the media of his own and others’ bodies, as he discharges violence through the person of his own body (and directed against his own body) at objects, persons, places, infants, girlfriends, forms, his thigh and torso, as he thus becomes a medium for violence working in every direction. The provocative potential of this book is the idea that a book is itself a medium for violence and coercion, the Coldfront complaint. This is not a diagnosis I think Johannes would reject, given the totalness with which he commits himself to this total economy of violence, assuming no pose of ‘ethics’ or sham ‘critique’ which would suggest one could remove oneself from this supply-chain, from this fray, by any instrument but death.”


I think about a thing Ken Chen wrote a few weeks on the subject matter called “The Virtue of Unpleasantness“, in which he discusses the work of poet Wing Tek Lum in terms of coercion. To Ken, this “coerciveness” reminds him of the “Sublime.” He draws a distinction between the “democratic” rhetoric of a lot of contemporary art and poetry – the reader should not be coerced but be invited to participate in the creation of the text – and Lum’s texts.

Like Ken, I’m dissatisfied with the easy moralism of the active vs passive reader/spectator. I think of Steven Shaviro’s book The Cinematic Body, which is about “The delirious excesses of postmodern vision, the excitement and passivity of spectatorship, the frenzy and fragility of images, the desires that inform social construction of subjectivity, the pornographic allure of violence and sexuality, and the politics of the subjugated body.” Here Shaviro argues for a kind of “radical passivity”: “Visual fascination is a passive, irresistable compulsion, and not an assertion of the active mastery of the gaze.”

One example Shaviro gives is the movie Blue Steel: “”Blue Steel exposes visual fascination as a restless, shattering mobility – rather than as the stabilizing fixation assumed by so much film theory…”

About the supposed coercion of the images of film, he writes: “My own masochistic theoretical inclination is to revel in my bondage to images, to celebrate the spectatorial condition of metaphysical alienation…”

From Shaviro’s blog:

“There are just certain directors — not many — who captivate my gaze, and won’t let it go. Bigelow and Abel Ferrara are the only two American directors of their (and my) generation to do so… I think it might have something to do with a kind of sensory immersion. This is aesthetics, both in the narrower sense of vicarious ravishment by works of art, and in the larger sense of “aesthetics” as a sensibility, a play of the senses, a kind of heightened reception… But I digress. What I loved about The Hurt Locker was, once again, as in Bigelow’s other films, the experience of sensory immersion. Only this time, we are not immersed in water, nor in the ambiguous protection and menace of the American rural and urban night. Rather, we get the harshness of sun and sand, the glare of the desert.”

In poetry, I think the distaste for “coercion” has also to do with Taste. This is why notions of indeterminacy and readerly-vs-writerly text could play such a big role The American Hybrid, which I still see as a kid of dominant paradigm in contemporary American poetry (or at least its institutional life). And this goes back for me to a very 19th century notion of “contemplative space” – high art as a place where you can linger, while the movies is a coercive aesthetics of “shocks” and “ballistics.”

In my previous post about “spasms,” I included this quote from Nathan Lee’s article about David Lynch’s Inland Empire:

“It imagines a new kind of body, one we’re in the process of inventing; a body distributed over networks, caught up in feedback loops, delimited by bandwidth, escaping own the multiplicity of pathways. Even by the standards of the Lynch ouevre, the movieis brazenly circutious, perpetually slipping through its own cracks to coagulate anew then fissure once more… If this seems the opposite of embodiment, that’s partly because our idea of craftmanship remains tied to the analog.”

OK, those are some thoughts about the nature of agency, critical distance and “coercion.” Or half-thoughts.

9 comments for this entry:
  1. Carina Finn

    I’m really with you on this thought process, Johannes, especially re: coercion & “Taste.” There seems to be this idea that if a reader is somehow coerced into engaging with a text in a certain way, then their ability to asses it in terms of Taste is taken away, which is something that many readers of poetry are not okay with. In this post-DotA world, readers want to be free to make sweeping judgments based on personal likes, dislikes, & biases without regard to authorial intention; but an inherently coercive text not only insists on the un-death of the author, it insists that the author has an agenda — and since when are writers, poets especially, allowed to have those?!

    I like reading texts that are coercive & overwhelming. Powell’s Cocktails and Minnis’ Poemland come to mind. Poemland would not be nearly as good if the format didn’t force the reader to keep turning pages, if Minnis’ intention was not so obviously apparent. If anything, I feel like this kind of text makes a reader more human, because there is a sense that one is engaging with another human rather than using a text as a vehicle for navel-gazing. Maybe that’s just me, though.

  2. Ryan Sanford Smith

    To be a bit simplistic because elaborating is tedious and I’m feeling lazy, I don’t necessarily advocate that the middle / the compromise(ed)(ing) / moderated(ion) is ever inherently for the best, but once again I just feel like this is another case of two ideologies who cringe at value judgments but want to make them when they’re self-serving–that is, folks who advocate against ‘rules’ except when its their rules.

    I hear an argument here for what one likes and that’s fine, I just always wonder why that ‘argument’ must always be at some other’s expense. It’s never enough (it seems) to say ‘I like this’, it must always be framed as an argument, as a camp, as a ‘side’ being taken. ‘I like’ is always following / followed by ‘But x/y/z is shit / is less human / whatever’, semantics change but it’s the same old song & dance which never says to me that anything is being shaken up. The frame is the same, the painting just changes, and when the painting is claiming bigger change than it examples I just think it’s funny. Frame is still the same / gallery is still the same / you haven’t even moved out of the neighborhood. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, that neighborhood is still a great place to live, it’s just the disingenuous posturing that irks me. ‘The more things change…’, etc.

    @Carina, what’s wrong with art as vehicle for navel-gazing? I’m not sure the coerced / overwhelmed is any less navel-gazing in any way, if you’re reading x because you like x it’s still servicing your navel. I also don’t understand why that’s less human; what could be MORE human?

  3. Johannes

    I really don’t understand what your argument is. My post does not have to do with anybody’s “expense.” My argument has to do with analyzing a common critical framework in contemporary poetry which I happen to disagree with. If any argument is “posturing” – well that’s a “posture” that’s really conservative stance and a recipe for status quo. Saying “there’s nothing new under the sun”: equally meaningless and ultimately conservative. If all you can say is “I like x” that seems like a totally paralyzed/paralyzing way of thinking about art.


  4. Ryan Sanford Smith

    Whether ‘nothing new…’ is an opinion whose extremity I’m completely willing to defend, it’s one that’s certainly not meaningless–if it had no meaning you couldn’t see it as conservative (or see it as anything at all). I think the argument can be made that it’s not conservative if there’s a kind of freedom to be had an the acknowledging of ‘nothing new’; one can stop paying attention / worrying over a certain kind of ‘work’ or ‘innovation’ (i.e., how can I be ‘new’!?) and focus on others; if the posture or gesture or reliance on ‘this is new, this is different, this is…’ is seen as what is meaningless it puts the weight on a different foot, if you can’t rely on that (not that I’m necessarily accusing anyone or anything in particular of relying only on that gesture, but certainly it happens, what doesn’t happen?) you’ve got to rely on something else, and that’s what I find interesting and, yes, very liberating–where is the weight then? Aesthetics, language play, presentation, fabulous ‘gimmicks’ & beautiful failures, whatever. Even as a complete hypothetical I think this is interesting, I think it’s invigorating to ponder.

    RE: ‘If all you can say is…’ all that is said does not equal all is felt. You say ‘paralyzing way of thinking about art’, no, it’s just not a great way of talking about it. That very simple articulation of a reaction to art doesn’t actually necessarily dictate a single thing more than what it states when it comes to what that reader / viewer feels or thinks. What can be articulated in discussion isn’t always necessary or even important to some, this goes back to the debate about discussions of poetry. ‘Discourse’ is only one star in the constellations that constitute engagement / reaction with art, but the biggest star to me will always be the internal engagement, the intimate, private (yes, solitary) experience (whether we see it as a conversation or something more passive). If conversations come out of that experience later that can be great, of course. But simple / poor / non-existent articulation after the fact of that experience are only unhelpful to the conversation, not everyone is invested in that conversation. This is all very astray from the blog post so I’ll leave it at that, just trying to respond to the points you raised in your comment.

  5. Johannes

    I didn’t use the word “new”, which is why the “nothing new” rhetoric is a way of foreclosing discussion.


  6. Ryan Sanford Smith

    Also, rather, can’t the ‘place to linger’ both involve / not involve being coerced? Can I come to the same painting / poem and enjoy being coerced once but decide to ‘navel gaze’ in coming to it a second time? Are the mutually exclusive?

    I think that’s maybe why I feel repelled by the post, my impression is that you’re stating they are exclusive, one must preclude the other, which is why I was arguing against notions of one notion being ‘at the expense’ of the other–not just that coercion was ‘okay’, but that resisting coercion was ‘bad’. I’m fully prepared to acknowledge I’ve simply misunderstood / failed to grasp your ideas here.

    I could not be in more agreement with being dissatisfied by the ‘easy moralism’ of the passive/active dichotomy, though, and as far as it goes, any morality in discussions of art at all, both in praise of anything that is ‘moral’ as well as condemnations of the ‘immoral’ art (decadence, the gurlesque, etc.) For me this goes back to being intrigued by Ben Marcus’s anti-Franzen rant where he literally advocated for the strengthening of our ‘reading muscles’ and whined about texts that were too ‘easy’ for us in this way, but also feeling like I wanted to laugh at him.

    I’ll quit commenting now, just an additional thought I had.

  7. Joyelle McSweeney

    Yes, Johannes didn’t employ a rhetoric of newness at all, that I can see.

    As for Ryan Trecartin: I’ve never seen anything quite like that before. I’ve seen a lot of things that are kind of like it– like the video in ‘The Ring’, and also like Jack Smith, and also like Jem and the Holograms. That lets me feel kind of uncomfortable when I see the Trecartin– if I could just slow it down and make it stop spasming, if I could figure out what its constituitive units are and analyze them segment by segment, I could do more than vaguely ‘recognize it’– I could interpret it, analyze it, compare it. But its very fitfulness and screechiness and violence (which derives from the violence of montage– a violence of form which seems much scarier than the ludicrous content?) keeps me from pegging it down entirely. It makes my brain kind of sieze up like those cartoons that gave the little kids seizures in Japan a few years back.

  8. Johannes

    Yes, the violence is really mostly in the frantic pace (sped up voices, cuts etc); the whole time I’m waiting for violence to erupt. Usually there is some violence. In one a wall is pushed over; in the one we saw in Philly they smash a mirror and obsess over killing a teen star, but then there’s a chalked outline on the floor, suggesting there has been a murder… Also they look like zombies.


  9. Joyelle McSweeney

    To continue from my last comment: Trecartin’s work makes my brain sieze up in a kind of imitation of the video itself– that’s a kind of contagion-through-imitation that recalls Artaud’s ideas about the plague, I think– to pick a quote almost at random:

    “The Grand-Saint-Antoine [a merchant vessel], which passes within shouting range of Caligari, in Sardinia, does not desposit the plague there, but the viceroy gathers certain emanations from it in a dream; for it cannot be denied that between the viceroy and the plague a palpable communication, however subtle, was established: and it is too easy and explains nothing to limit the communication of such a disease to contagion by simple contact.”

    [Theater and Its Double, p. 17]

    Artaud takes his rejection of the notion of contamination by contact, in favor of a model of contamination by similarity, affinity, or mysterious emanation, to a infectiously ludicrous extreme:

    “Boccacio’s example of swine that died from having sniffed the sheets in which plague victims had been wrapped scarecely suggests more than a kind of mysterious affinity between pig and the nature of the plague” [19]