Archive for June, 2011

Contamination (#82): Rut Hillarp, Woman and Surrealism etc

by on Jun.22, 2011

[I’m reposting a post about the Swedish writer Rut Hillarp which I originally posed on Exoskeleton, since it pertains to discussions about Surrealism, women etc:]

When I thought it was time to have a child, I went to the hospital. The doctor said that he had to give me cesarian. “Does Doctor think I want a big scar on my belly,” I said. “Then I’d rather be without it.” He looked surprised but let me leave after some complaints.
After a few days I started feeling something that must have been a pain, even though it didn’t hurt very much. I went to another hospital, where everyone was very friendly. I got to sit on a bed in the corridor and look at the horror. I had no more pains, but nobody thought that was strange. “Maybe I’ve fooled you,” I said. “Maybe I’m not going to have a baby. Though I am pretty fat.”
Without any considerable pains I then gave birth to four children. The first one was of normal size, and there has never been a more beautiful newborn. It actually looked like it was a couple of years old. The others were of descending size, the last one being the size of a finger. They were all red and ugly. – I immediately understood that the two smallest ones would not survive. I didn’t have high hopes for the second baby, but the beautiful child made me happy with his dark-blue eyes and his long black locks.
The next day when I woke I asked for my children, but from everybody’s faces I could tell that something was wrong. “They weren’t fed for several hours,” said my mother apologetically.
I went in to my children. There they lay all four in a row, dead. The largest had never been alive. It was a doll.
But none of this was very strange, since I had never been with a man.

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What is the Avant-Garde?

by on Jun.22, 2011

What is it? The term is much used and is quite central to a lot of literary and art criticism, but people respond to it differently. One recent pretty skeptical debate transpired at Big Other. I’d like to reopen the debate, hopefully in a more constructive manner.

We cannot know what the avant-garde is – we can only know what it has been (and obviously, we can vigorously disagree on that). To some degree at least, we can make the avant-garde whatever we want it to be. Peter Bürger wants it to be dead. Jean-François Lyotard wants to call it postmodernism. Marjorie Perloff wants it to be a continuous practice extending into the present. All three make valuable observations, but I’m primarily concerned with tracing continuities from the historical avant-garde to the present day. I’ve put together a tentative list of characteristics, which may eventually amount to some sort of systematic description. Sorry if it’s a mess right now.

The avant-garde:
1. engages heavily in formal innovation; so-called experimental art;
2. takes from everywhere, making no distinctions between high and low forms of art and culture;
3. makes a radical break with tradition;
4. seeks to change society and challenge the boundaries and role of art;
5. subverts canonical forms of Modernism;
6. is a collective and collaborative practice.
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Eshleman and surrealism

by on Jun.22, 2011

In the wake of the interesting debate about surrealism on Montevidayo the past few days, and Kent Johnson’s remarks about Eshleman’s importance in the transmission of surrealism to the American poetry scene, I’m reposting a review I wrote on Eshleman’s Anticline on Exoskeleton about a year ago.
In his new book of poems entitled Anticline, Clayton Eshleman takes on many of the themes that he has been dealing with through his prolific career–the underlying violence of the American empire, the border between the animal and human, the ways in which the visual arts and poetry attempt to express the “the human” in all of its often inhuman complexity, with Francis Bacon and Bosch being especially relevant to his more recent poems, and also how the imagination can both trap and liberate us. I have to admit, I think Eshleman has become a better and better poet over the years, and Anticline is one of my favorite books of his yet. His images have become both clearer and stranger, and his political instincts, while always being critical of those in power, have sharpened even further during the Bush years–and yet he has continually kept away from the self-congratulatory moralizing that has bogged down so much of the political poetry written since 9/11. His more political poems tend to be too messy, too riddled with conflict, and, frankly, too horrific, to be self-congratulatory. If the image of war we find in some American poetry can seem as sanitized as the images we see on CNN, the imagery in Eshleman’s political poems are like the more uncensored pictures of conflict we find on Al Jazeera. As Simon Critchley points out in his book Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, modern politics is now more than ever about “the control of the image.”

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Contamination (#66): More thoughts on Kitsch and "excessive beauty"

by on Jun.21, 2011

I’ve been meaning to write some responses to all the response I received (here, on facebook, in email) to my post analyzing the anti-kitsch rhetoric of Marjorie Perloff, but I’m taking care of my kids alone while Joyelle is off on her literary international tour and I’m trying to finish translating Aase Berg’s Dark Matter and finish my own “novel” The Sugar Book, so I’m a little short on time. As a result I’ll leave a bunch of shorter replies and hopefully they’ll add up to some kind of sense.

In response to the Perloff post, Daniel Tiffany sent me the first chapter of his next book of criticism, Silver Proxy, which is about kitsch, exploring its historical and theoretical dimensions and applications. It’s much better than my fumblings here on the blog, so I’ll reference it quite a bit. I might also reference Cloning Terror, the latest book by Tiffany’s teacher, WJT Mitchell; it’s a book roughly speaking about the reproduction of images and their relations to the “war on terror.”

A lot of people ask me why I care so much about such a trivial subject matter as kitsch (triviliality itself!) when it obviously has very limited applications to poetry. To this I would say that it’s not trivial at all. Kitsch is fundamentally part of the idea of Taste; it’s the opposite of Taste: not the original and pure, but the contaminated and reproduced. So many discussions about poetry – such as Perloff’s writing – is about establishing the boundaries of taste (we thought Merwin was a good poet, but no, he’s as kitschy as “Longfellow” etc).

Tasteless/anti-kitsch criticism is very effective. I remember being in college and reading a lot of language poetry, which led my to Perloff and the result of this is that I stopped writing because I internalized the anti-kitsch critique and thought what I was writing (Surrealist-influenced, Plath-influenced, kind of like what I write now) was in poor taste. Then I thought through the criticism, embracing a certain tastelessness and I started writing again, and that’s also when I started thinking more about the position of the “immigrant,” a trope you may have noticed that I use almost interchangeably with “art.” And “kitsch.” And also “spazzy.”
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Apparently it takes a lot of boobs to distract the Surrealist from thoughts of his own genius

by on Jun.20, 2011

This is a follow-up post to Johannes’ evaluation of Marjorie Perloff’s newest book, Unoriginal Genius. While I largely agree with Johannes on the big picture, I’d like to bring up a point where we may differ, namely Perloff’s take on Surrealism.

Perloff’s denunciation of Surrealism as a conservative distraction from the avant-garde movement comes via members of the Noigandres group, the Brazilian concrete poets of the 1950s and onward, who apparently don’t mince words when it comes to Surrealism. Perloff and the Concretists have a point: if Surrealism’s method is automatic writing, how come the language comes out in complete and grammatically coherent sentences? Another point we might add: by the late 1920s, the Surrealist Group’s favorite theme seems to be female nudity, treated rather conventionally, except with everything in the plural. (The Czech poet Vítězslav Nezval, an ardent follower of Breton for a period of time around 1930, actually wrote a book titled Woman in the Plural [Žena v množném čísle].) And finally, Surrealism’s proclaimed ties to Marxism, unlike its ties to Freud, seem completely arbitrary.

A few years back, I got a good laugh out of Breton’s description of automatic writing in his “Manifesto of Surrealism”: “After you have settled yourself in a place as favorable as possible to the concentration of your mind upon itself, have writing materials brought to you. Put yourself in as passive, or receptive, a state of mind as you can. Forget about your genius, your talents, and the talents of everyone else.”

Have writing materials brought to you by whom? Your domestic worker? Wife? The Surrealist Group intern? Oh, and whatever you do, try not to think about your genius. Think of boobs instead. Dada was having a successful run in Paris in the early 1920s until Breton and his followers co-opted it and turned it into a petit-bourgeois pastime – an upbeat and politically impotent leisure activity. Coincidentally, Surrealism is considered the last movement of the historical avant-garde.

A few disclaimers are necessary. What about defectors like Artaud? What about Aimé Césaire? These writers obviously don’t fully fit my description. I’d argue that without Surrealism as a label, Artaud might be called a Dadaist today. After all, automatic writing pre-dated Surrealism. Hans Arp was doing it. Tzara was doing it.

Secondly, I think Johannes may be right that Perloff conveniently casts out Surrealism, because it doesn’t fit her anti-kitsch aesthetic. This, though, doesn’t necessarily invalidate the critique that the Noigandres launched against it and that I have extended here.

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The trouble with rationalizing the numbers trouble. A logic problem.

by on Jun.18, 2011

I’m not commenting on the numbers themselves, which are pukeworthy, or the gazillion hours I’ve spent counting things (an expensive–if you believe my time is worth anything–and dispiriting process). I’m developing, eep!,  a very Twisty Faster reaction to the topic. If you don’t know the numbers are skewed, if you don’t understand what the skew means, it really isn’t my job to pluck your head up out of the sand and spoon feed you seventeen books of feminist theory. Except for when it is. I’m an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies. And: I love my job. I love my students. I don’t actually have to do any plucking or spooning. They’re inquisitive and analytical. This is Wyoming; they come in with tough questions. They come to class often with little experience of the discipline, little professional experience of any sort. They haven’t much been out in the adult world of careers, promotions, raises, cocktail parties, parental leave, aging, etc. They haven’t much been out in the world. So, when it’s a surprise to them that the wage gap exists and that our state has one of the nation’s most glaring gaps (the worst if you don’t discount the mining industry), or that even in the 25 top paying fields for women, fellas make more, or that the publishing ratios fall around 70/30 men/women, I’m excited to talk about how and why. I appreciate that men and women students alike find this unfair and weird and I never feel like jumping up on the table and yelling WHY IS THIS NEWS TO YOU? WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? LIVING IN SOME SORT OF PROTECTIVE PATRIARCHY CAVE? Because really, they’ve been very busy becoming the adults who will soon have to go out into the mess we’ve made for them.

[Update: VIDA’s 2011 Count can now be found here.]

The adults who have been out in the professional world awhile now, I hold to a different standard, though. I hold my literary colleagues to especially high standards–I can’t help it! They’re very smart! To these folks, I don’t feel inclined to explain the numbers or prove the numbers or even provide very many more numbers. Blargh. I do, however, need to say something about a logical fallacy that people inevitably employ to rationalize our literary numbers trouble. (If you’re curious about who said what when/where/how, please, visit a fine selection of the responses here.)

We need to know the submission ratios in order to understand these publishing ratios. No, I don’t think we really do. We know women submit less than men. Okay. This is a fact, and it would perhaps be a meaningful fact if we squinted and looked at it from a far-off ill-informed place. However:

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Telex from Solaris #2: Telex from Kyle Minor

by on Jun.18, 2011

Solaris will be your mirror

What’s great about his write-up is not just that it’s personally gratifying to have someone spend so much time thinking about your work, but that he pulls in so many great associations and makes me want to read and write even more. It makes me want to read and write the whole Internet! Hooray  for Art’s contagion, its amplification, its mutations!

Over and out.

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Joe Arpaio, performance artist

by on Jun.18, 2011

I’m in Minneapolis at Netroots Nation, the lefty bloggy conference affiliated with Daily Kos that’s in Minneapolis this year. Yesterday, I was on this panel: Educate, Agitate, Inspire: How Artists are Fighting Anti-migrant Hate, a panel about the anti-migrant crackdowns in Arizona and more generally about the role of culture and artists in progressive change campaigns. The all-star panel featured Gaby Pacheco, who walked from Miami to Washington D.C. to raise awareness of the Dream Act; Javier Gonzales, the organizer in charge of The Sound Strike, the AZ musicians boycott initiated by Rage Against the Machine, and artist Favianna Rodriguez, founder of She did the poster on the left, which you can buy by clicking on the image.

I began my section by saying that there’s been an incredible cultural worker who’s dominated the cultural change campaign in Arizona–the only problem is that he’s on the other side. Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio is the performance artist of the decade.

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Telex from Solaris #1: The Third Airport

by on Jun.18, 2011

[Greetings, Montevidayans. I’m going around the world alone and without kids, whee, and right now I’m in the Boston Airport.  Future stops include many other airports. Here is my first post from the third airport. Hopefully there will be airports in the future.]

Post #1: Travelling without Kids/Solaris

I have to admit I’m having a great day, trapped in an airport as if on a space station until 5 PM tonight.  Johannes is in Indiana taking care of our kids, but everytime I hear a kid whining or goofing off it’s like a puncturing of rationally conceived space—as if my tiny kids are contacting me through other kids bodies, making apertures, punching through with spills of noise to which some part of my brainstem is enslaved.

This is striking to me because I just finished reading Solaris—certainly the best novel of all time. Awesomely, my copy was a tie-in with the Hollywood remake of the Tarkovsky version of this novel—triple counterfeit—Art saturating itself with its own knockoffs, getting more and more chintzy and glamourous. Therefore (as James Wright would say), my copy features a huge embarassing closeup of George Clooney kissing the lead actress on the cover.

So, plot summary (and spoiler alert): Solaris is a planet with just one inhabitant: a huge gorgeous inscrutable ocean which is possessing the astronauts on a space station with its brainwaves. George Clooney has just landed there.  He discovers that the ocean is using humans as a media playback devices; the ocean ‘reads’ the astronauts, then externalizes and embodies their  “internal” thoughts and fantasies and inducing them to interact (physically, sexually, violently) with these material embodiments, in one guys case a weird racist sex fantasy, in Clooney’s case his dead wife who comes back in all her tanned, skinny glory. The astronauts can’t figure out what to call these uncanny, seductive, unkillable figures—visitors, ghosts,  dreams, a plague, hallucinations? They also can’t figure out how to process why they are having these visions; in internal monologues (externalized by the Solaris-like narrative prerogatives of the novel itself!) they ask themselves if they are drunk, poisoned, mad, drug addicted, sick, dreaming, hallucinating.

This list of analogs signals that the Ocean is none other than Art itself. (continue reading…)

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Into the Groove over at Gaga Stigmata

by on Jun.18, 2011

Over at Gaga Stigmata, I’ve got the first in a series of new vid analyses: “Into the Groove of Lady Gaga’s ‘The Edge of Glory,’ a Phenomenological Inquiry”

This is the dance you do by yourself with the imaginary body of your hopeless crush. This is the dance you do when no one’s home and you hold the doorframe and thrust your torso through it like into your lover’s arms. This is the kind of dance you do that feels big in your body, but would look small, ridiculous, would shame you if anyone caught it on film. You strip off articles of clothing, accessories, you shake out your hair which isn’t actually the long porno hair let down from the sultry librarian’s bun, but just your hair. You don’t want to open your bedroom window and leap right out so everyone can see the big thrill pounding through you because the thrill simply won’t manifest on your body, and, for another thing, Butler again, “the soul is precisely what the body lacks; hence that lack produces the body as its other and its means of expression…a figure of interior psychic space inscribed on the body as a social signification that perpetually renounces itself as such.” To lay bare your soul on your ugly body is to admit or accept that your soul is ugly, is plain, is small and disappointing. The edge of glory is in fact not an edge at all. You’re just a little person having a big feeling. The abyss you intuit is actually just a ten-foot drop. At worst, at best, you’ll get a goose egg on your forehead.

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Contamination (#52): "New American Cinema" and Genre

by on Jun.16, 2011

In an issue of The Nation from a couple of weeks ago, Heather Hendershot has an article bringing a bit more nuance to the often mythologized “New American Cinema” of the 1970s. It’s definitely worth reading.

The myth of the “New American Cinema” has been frequently told: In the late 60s a group of ragged, counterculture, All-American individuals – Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian Depalma, Robert Altman, Dennis Hopper etc – rescued the bloated American studio system of musicals and overproduced spectacles with their auteur brand of cinema: low-budget, character- and script-driven, “realist,” European-art-film-influenced etc. After producing many masterpieces, their era supposedly came to an end when Steven Spielberg produced Jaws, generating the age of the blockbuster, which was all spectacle again, with no time for characters or scripts. The release of Jaws took the movie scene to a completely new age and it could be considered to truly be the start of the new era in the film industry. To even have your film classed in the same category as Spielberg’s Jaws, then you may need to enlist the help of a professional DCP creator to ensure that it meets the standards of a high-quality film. With the continuation of the blockbuster, many films may have scrapped the idea of characters and scripts. These ground breaking films can all be found at Avoid Censorship thanks to their proxy links to pirate bay.

Hendershot adds some nuance to this picture, complicating the myth significantly. For one she points out that women were very strangely secondary in the films of this group (I would say Altman is a big exception) – not only were the New American Directors all men, but their leading characters tended to be men, and the women secondary.
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Tiffany's Toy Medium

by on Jun.15, 2011

Daniel Tiffany’s Toy Medium, which makes so many interesting connections between science/philosophy and poetry/lyricism, reminds me of Foucault’s attempts to find similar links, especially in regards to finitude, and to thought being carried out the the limit of interpretation. At the end of Birth of the Clinic he writes:

“The medical experience is related to a lyrical experience which sought its language from Holderlin to Rilke. That experience, inaugurated by the nineteenth century and from which we have not yet escaped, is bound up with the revelation of forms of finitude, death being no doubt the most threatening, but also the fullest.”

Also: the monstrous lyricism of Gravity’s Rainbow, where the lyricism of science is taken to the extreme, producing V-2 bombs, etc., and where the Rilke-obsessed Captain Blicero creates a bomb with a capsule inside in order to send one of his S&M slaves into flight, escaping gravity’s pull…a bomb that escapes the time/space coordinates of WWII in order to land on a Californian movie theater in the 70’s…a theater showing a film that might well be Gravity’s Rainbow itself…


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Montevidayo Survey on Publishers & Genre: Specimen 4: The Dorothy Project

by on Jun.15, 2011

[I undertook this survey on Publishers & Genre to explore the idea that genre might not be inherent in the text but rather an assemblage of author, publisher, materials, readers, other texts. Our first featured press was Spork, followed by Fence. and Blue Square]

This week’s press is Dorothy, A Publishing Project. Answering our survey is the press’s founder, the talented, cool and awesome prose fiction writer, Danielle Dutton.

1)To what degree is your press a host for new genres? What new genres?

Dorothy might be old-fashioned when it comes to genre. Rather than new-genre or cross-genre or post-genre or inter-genre writing, we announce our intention to publish fiction. Well, here’s the line from the website: “Dorothy, a publishing project is dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women.”

For lots of reasons—habits, history, etc.—I’m invested in fiction, in narrative, as a reader and a writer, invested in thinking about ways narrative can work. Our first two books are Renee Gladman’s EVENT FACTORY and Barbara Comyns’s WHO WAS CHANGED AND WHO WAS DEAD. The Comyns is recognizably “a novel,” if a peculiar one, whereas some (not me, actually) might think of Gladman’s novel as cross-genre, or what I’m calling “near fiction,” but the point is I want to look at this work and think through it as fiction. Why?

I’m not part of any conversations about poetry or poetics, but I am aware of and interested in some of them. A lurker. Meanwhile, I find that a number of people who write or talk about fiction from positions of power today seem not very interested in contemporary poetry. I think this is a problem for contemporary fiction, particularly when it means that writers who are doing adventurous work with narrative, such as Renee Gladman, get talked about regularly as poets and in terms of poetry because (I suppose) many fiction folks don’t know about them or don’t know what to do with them. Of course it’s fine for poetry to claim Renee Gladman, it’s great, but what I’m trying to get at is that I think it’s important for fiction, too, to claim her. So I find myself wanting to pull some of this in-between space closer together, not to water it down I hope, but to insist that contemporary fiction is more interesting than it sometimes seems to know itself to be.

So Dorothy isn’t about a new genre so much as it is about a distinctive conceptualization of an old one. Is that a new one? It’s about an appeal to the readership for a pre-existing genre to consider the flexibility of that genre’s terms. But genre is always amoeba-ish. Slipping. Morphing. Breaking off. It’s a situation. A rhetorical situatio. Surely it doesn’t have to be about homogenization, even if it often is about homogenization. But now I should move on to #2 . . . (continue reading…)

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