Factionalism #2: Influence, Affect, Mapping

by on Aug.17, 2011

I’m going to write a response that maybe will respond to the comments to my inquiry about the anxiety about “factionalism.”

As many of the commentators noted, discussions about groups inevitably has to do with ideas about individuals. Groups threaten our sense of the autonomous individual, that sovereign, rational figure who makes choices. The group has connotations of “group-think.” As if by aligning yourself with a group hinders your ability to think for yourself. Turns you into a “zombie” etc.

It’s remarkable how that idea mirrors in many ways various “groups'” idea of themselves as thinkers because they are outside of a thoughtless “mainstream.” See Language Poets, Punk rock scenes etc. And most of all, see Clement Greenberg, whose “avant-garde” was “avant-garde” precisely in that it remained outside of capitalism, in its own little community, offering “critiques” or “subversions” of the mainstream culture.

Of course, poetry has for a long time positioned itself as “outside” of the mainstream, mass culture. That’s as true about the MFA “mainstream” poetics (I’m using these terms very provisionally) as any avant-garde. “We care about language, mass culture is excessive” tends to be a common line of thought amongst both “experimentalists” and “quietists” (again, these terms are provisional).

What’s at stake in a lot of these discussions seems to be the sovereign, autonomous individual. It seems to have to do with a model of agency. Tony Hoagland fears the “skittery” poets and poets who are too influenced by Dean Young because they seem indistinct to him (their poetry is indistinct, they are indistinct). He does not fear language poets (anymore). Why? Because they now have a hierarchy and “great poets” like Lynn Hejinian. He does not fear Dean Young himself, in fact thinks he is a master – because he is a master. It’s the copies, the counterfeits, the influenced, the group must be castigated. And for some reason his copies becoming aligned with mass culture – they are “of the moment,” fashion victims, ephemeral.

In this he’s much like Kenny Goldsmith who continually positions himself as “uncreative” because there are too many “creative” writers. As everyone knows, the “MFA” has become a kitsch figure, the easiest object of ridicule. Why? Because it runs counter to our romantic notions of the artist as uninfluenced, or properly influenced (linneage-ed), but certainly not “taught.” (Popularity is bad according to this model because it turns you into kitsch. Better to achieve prestige, as in Hoagland’s model.)

What’s lacking in these kinds of discussions is a better idea of influence (and of teaching). Not a one-way influence that brain-washes the influenced person, turns them into a zombie, but something more like Joyelle’s idea of the deformation zone (a phrase which she takes from my translation of Swedish poet Aase Berg’s “Upland”, a poem itself largely engaged with translations, counterfeiting, deforming):

It seems to me that a discussion of literary influence would benefit from an effort to think outside these structures and strictures. I’m for thinking of influence in terms of the dead metaphors of flow, flux, fluidity, and fluctuation, saturation and supparation, inherent in the term ‘influence’ itself, influence as total innundation with Art, innundation with a fluctuating, oscillating, unbearable, sublime, inconsistent and forceful fluid.

That such a discussion should require the reanimation of a dead metaphor—the fluid or flow in ‘influence’– is non-coincidental, to my mind, for to think this way about Art is to think about it as something undead, uncanny, something that does not progress, does not move towards a cleaner, better-lighted future, does not conserve, is not healthy or community oriented, does not preserve a stable, reasonably priced image of the artist for the future or secure an inheritance, but pursues its own interests, pierces, ravages, remakes the artist and repurposes him or her as a kind of host-body to counterfeit more viral Art in its own image, Art which possesses the Artist, forces him or her to swell, mutate, to rupture and leak fluids, to leak more Art into the world. To my mind, that is the thrilling, debilitating force of Art, its influence.

And to me, this influence is not just being influenced by Art as some kind of separate region, but being influenced by the world we live in. Ie, not to invent some kind of special sphere for art a la Greenberg, but connect art to the world, not be imitating but by being influenced by and influencing the world. Not by being “engaged” and offering a “critique” but exactly by making – what Montevidayo has so often been accused of being – counterfeits.

I’m reading Steven Shaviro’s book “Post-Cinematic Affect” right now and I find pretty much everything applies to our discussions here. That may be because I am deeply influenced by both his own prior writings as well as the writings of Deleuze and Guattari (a group? cross-influencing each other as they wrote those books?). Shaviro talks about how he’s interested in art that is “expressive”:

That is to say, in the ways that they give voice (or better, give sounds and images) to a kind of ambient, free-floating sensibility that permeates our society today, although it cannot be attributed to any subject in particular. By the term expressive, I mean both symptomatic and productive. These works are symptomatic, in that they provide indices of complex social processes, which they transduce, condense, and rearticulate in the form of what can be called, after Deleuze and Guattari, “blocs of affect.” But they are also productive, in the sense that they do not represent social processes, so much as they participate actively in these processes, and help constitute them…

Shaviro draws on Brian Massumi’s distinction between “emotions” and “affect” (a distinction and a book that has been brought up on this blog several times before). For Massumi,

Emotion is affect captured by a subject, or tamed and reduced to the extent that it becomes commensurate with that subject. Subjects are overwhelmed and traversed by affect but they have or possess their own emotions.


“The disappearance of the individual subject” with which Jameson is concerned (1991, 16) leads precisely to a magnification of affect, whose flows swamp us, and continually carry us away from ourselves beyond ourselves. For Massumi, it is precisely by means of such affective flows that the subject is opened up to, and thereby constituted through, broader social, political, and economic processes.

(What strikes me here is the connection to my Plague Stage post about PJ Harvey. How she in retrospect expressed a feeling of confusion and loss of self at looking back on that stage in her work (though, really, did she ever leave it? To become more personal by sounding like Patti Smith and being in love in NYC? Doesn’t sound exactly like a return to authenticity.) It also make me think of Megan Milks’s comments about Tori Amos – the difference between the pig photographs and the persona record. There it seems that Megan was arguing that the persona record recovered the affect by personalities, emotion.)

I see a clear connection here between Joyelle’s idea of influence and Massumi/Shaviro’s idea of “affect.” That what seems to be frightening to many folks, what needs to be rejected is an idea of art as involved with affect – influenced and influencing, overwhelmed. And to do so is to set up the “person” as this entity in control, a choice-maker, a rational consumer.

Shaviro explain the idea of the kind of art he’s interested as an “aeshtetic of affective mapping”:

… maps are not static representations, but tools for negotiating, and intervening in, social space. A map does not just replicate the shape of a territory; rather, it actively inflects and works over that territory. Films and music videos, like the ones I discuss here, are best regarded as affective maps, which do not just passively trace or represent, but actively construct and perform, the social relations, flows and feelings that they are ostensibly “about.” (6)

You can’t make such maps if you still believe in the heroic, autonomous individual. The critic who “critiques” or “subverts” “dominant paradigms.” You must make for (and of) yourself rather a deformation zone, in which you open up your writing (and your sense of a “self”) to affective flows.

PS, one more thing: Of course I’m not saying that there are none of these people who merely repeat etc There are tons of those people. But I think the anxiety is exagerrated.

12 comments for this entry:
  1. Henry Gould

    Johannes, just a logical question here : how can one insist so categorically that the poet can or cannot do this or that, must do this or that – if there is no substantial individual person to receive and obey these commands? Who’s out there to follow these injunctions?

    I guess these are rhetorical questions, since (as you can probably guess) I disagree with your general anthropology, as sketched out here, regarding the existential status of persons…

  2. Johannes

    Dear Henry,
    I’m thinking about art, about the kind of art I am interested in. You don’t have to do anything.


  3. Henry Gould

    I don’t believe that individual personhood, on the one hand, and openness to otherness, change, affect etc., on the other, are mutually-exclusive modes of being. I think it is setting up a false dichotomy for the sake of just a new version of (artistic) heroism. Sorry, that’s how I affect about it.

  4. Lucas de Lima

    But then where do you draw the line? What is the space of individual personhood, and how do its limits stay stable?


  5. Johannes

    It’s possible that I was wrong to denounce the “heroic” individual. I think art is very heroic, but it’s just not standing outside poking holes in “the dominant discourse” that I find heroic.

    I think that line does get fuzzy in art. I often feel like PJ Harvey when I look back on various things I’ve written. Dear Ra – the person who wrote that book (and I remember him and his hysterias, his gasping, his obscene gestures) seems like a totally different person, a very confused person, but at the time I felt I was more myself than I had ever been.


  6. James Pate

    I love the the quote from Shaviro about the disappearance of the individual leading to a magnification of affect…it reminds me of Borges’ story about Shakespeare, where the writer by taking on different personas in his writing, different masks, leads him to an excess of experience…

    Also, this discussion of influence reminds me of the Borges story about Cervantes, how Don Quixote even if rewritten word-per-word becomes a different text depending on the time and place of its appearance…

  7. David

    This post sort of eats itself in an interesting way. The imperatives present in 14. seem at odds with the rest of the points. Here’s a (somewhat lengthy, apologies) quote from Paul Mann’s “Masocriticism” wherein you could replace his “Blanchot” with Johannes’ “Greenberg,” “Hoagland,” “Goldsmith,” et al.

    “Thus I tear off a bit of Blanchot’s body and consume it, logophagically, in a sort of primary identification. I summon him up to do my bidding in
    the black mass of this essay, and thereby subject myself to his authority. At one and the same time I attach him symbolically to the surface of my text
    and attach myself to the body of his discourse, and hence to the Body of Discourse. He provides the design for a tattoo I trace on my body in the hope of displaying his name among my credentials, even as it remains his trademark, proof that I belong to him. He offers himself up to the discursive apparatus and becomes for me both support and restraint. As prosthesis, the citation is a means by which our bodies are extended and confined.”

    So it may be that the only way to make oneself a deformation zone is to abandon the Body of Discourse utterly or, as Kenneth Koch put it: “Feel fine. Then go away.”

  8. Johannes

    That’s a really good book (Masocriticism), I was actually planning to write about it along this thread./Johannes

  9. Jared

    “…what seems to be frightening to many folks, what needs to be rejected is an idea of art as involved with affect – influenced and influencing, overwhelmed. And to do so is to set up the “person” as this entity in control, a choice-maker, a rational consumer.”

    I think this post nails a lot of things, which is also to say that it loosens and disentangles.

    @Henry, I think you mistake prescription for realization. I don’t take this as a list of prescriptions for the poet so much as a baseline of understanding, that if the individual (and the poet) is in actuality swamped by all kinds of internal and external forces/sources, then it is a mystification for said individual/poet to pretend these forces/sources are *not* an influence against which/in spite of which/because of which the self is being constructed, whether the individual is a poet or a plumber. One could say that the mystified individual/poet is wearing a mask but does not realize it. This post suggests that such an individual/poet tends to be uncomfortable with those who “go with the flow” of this influence, who open up to it, who perhaps figuratively or even literally open a vein to it, allow for intermingling, who wear one mask then exchange it for a succession of others, revealing the fact of all the masks we all wear, the fact of our constructed and un-natural selves.

    At least, this is how I understand it, and it is of course possible to disagree.

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  11. adam strauss

    “but it’s just not standing outside poking holes in “the dominant discourse” that I find heroic”

    Yepyep (tho I don’t, as for the prior words, believe art is heroic: well at-least very rarely, and for me the heroism wld come from biographical circumstances not style which is amusing as art without style is just, well, not there) tho I find it funny how you have at times seemed to oppose working within a mode which expresses culpability and yet the above seems to very much align itself to culpability in its advocating art which does not see itself as at a distance from a given mire.

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