Bug Surrealism (pt 2): "30 Under 30"

by on Nov.15, 2011

Hi, I’m going to expand a little on the discussion about Surrealism from a while back and tie it in with Joyelle’s brilliant post about “Bug Time.”

In my last post I posited that “surrealism” has to do with the kitsch, the immoral, the anachronistic. And perhaps most importantly, it is defined repeatedly as “fake,” tying into Jared’s and Monica’s recent posts. It is “candy surrealism”; it is artifice made unhealthy; it is saturative; it is the virtuality (it’s not “just language”), the “dark matter” of poetry, it’s corrupt and corruptive.

Clement Greenberg, that icon of american taste, was opposed to the original surrealists on the same ground! They were fake! Or: “postcard kitsch”, as he liked to say. They were not medium-specific, not pure, in the way he imagined high art. They were engaged with a mass culture Greenberg wanted “avant-garde” art to be “above.”And it’s kitschy in its seductiveness, its viscerality, its impact. As a result they were not truly “avant-garde.”

That is to say, in Joyelle’s terms, they did not fit in with Greenberg’s linear progression of innovative art (a horrible use of the term “avant-garde”):

I think so-called progressives and innovators need to think carefully about how their ideologies of experimentation, innovation, newness, progress and improvement remap or offer support to these ideologies of capitalist, corporate, historical, patrilinear time. The true experimenters, it seems to me, are the bugs who fail, who die six times a summer, 150 times in a normal human life, who are mutant and non-durable, who are the repositories of anthropogenic forces.


I just found this review by Daniel Green of Lily Hoang and Blake Butler’s anthology “30 Under 30”:

Moreover, readers who do expect that an anthology of innovative fiction will exhibit significant formal innovation will probably be disappointed with 30 Under 30. On the whole, the selections included are quite heavy on narrative, even old-fashioned linear narrative, however surreal or fantastic the events chronicled often are. Indeed, surrealism or a fantasy-inflected version of absurdism seems the dominant strategy in these selections, but it is a fabular, allegorical mode of surrealism in which the reader’s attention is consistently oriented toward story. Many of these stories have strong affinities to the work of Aimee Bender and George Saunders, who, to judge by this anthology, may be among current writers the strongest influence on the rising generation of “younger writers,” although some of the fiction in 30 Under 30 subtracts the essentially whimsical humor that characterizes Bender’s and Saunders’s work, making these surrealistic fables somewhat starker in their distortions of reality.

This to me seems a fairly typical defense against impure innovation, against corrupted innovation, against disappointing “paramodernism.” Surrealism/the surreal here signifies something anachronistic, something leading the young astray from true innovation, something “weird” but not properly “innovative.”

They rely for instance on the improper method of “linear narrative”, something that official “innovative” writing has apparently rendered obsolete. They provide “distortions” rather than insights. They can’t even get George Saunders “right”. They are bad copies. They are genre (“fantasy”). They’re mutations. They’re “bug-time.”

(Bolano could be said to be the icon of this “plague ground” in that he is obviously a fascinating writer but he doesn’t follow the rules for being “innovative,” being more interested in genre conventions and HP Lovecraft than “true innovators”. And obviously being really into narrative.)

What is true innovation? Green suggests it has something to do with (lack of, or “beyond” or rather “above” as one detractor wrote in the comment field a while back) narrative and, more importantly, something to do with form=functions, that very modernist paradigm.

For example, when discussing Zach Dodson’s pieces, which were copied notebook interface, Green suggests that the technology has nothing to do with the content: there’s no reason for the “innovation”:

“…but finally there’s really nothing about the substance of the story–a series of typically disconnected musings by an unidentified diarist–that really is either enhanced by the formal framework or seems to require it.”

Ie true innovation “requires” its innovation; it’s not just wasteful artistrying, not just fucking around, bugging out.

Ie, as I said in my talk at &Now, according to this academic idea of “innovative” writing, the innovation “redeems” literature, purging the corrupted and corrupting pageantry of “surrealism.” Ie Green seems to think there’s something excessive about the form, or the vehicle does not refer back enough to the tenor of the allegory, it’s a “headless allegory.” The weirdness, the Art-ness is not redeemed, made proper and “significant”.

The artwork’s Art has to be redeemed by a function.

Has to be made to work for purpose.

Cannot be waste, shit, Poetry.

Rather than “the original” who get canonized, we get “open source” proliferation of texts.

Joyelle again:

With Bataille and bugs as my model, I reject the so-called economy of corporate time, capitalist time, so called ‘linear’ time, triumphalist time, which is a golden lie anyway, and instead I recognize this tide of shit and waste, I recognize that that is where I live, if I live, on bug time, on bug time; in Indiana, in the necropastoral; I have no interest in myths of posterity, in a secured future, in the supposed future of literature or humans or anything else; the way I’m writing now is disposable; in disposible media and unsturdy genres; but it’s the most important thing in my milisecond life; that’s why I want to be wear my grave clothes now, ceremental, distressed, and yes, bug-eaten, moths in my hair, Miss Death-in-life, like PJ Harvey in her Mercury clothes, mercury poisoned, one part Miss Havisham, one part Gregor Samsa…

Sean Kilpatrick is in this anthology, and this is what I wrote about him in my “Attention Span” list of best books of 2011:

The violent, sexual zone of television and entertainment is made to saturate that safe-haven, the American Family. The result is a zone of violent ambience, a “fuckscape”: where every object or word can be made to do horrific acts. As when torturers use banal objects on its victims, it is the most banal objects that become the most horrific (and hilarious) in Sean Kilpatrick’s brilliant first book.

ie, Kilpatrick “shits silk.”


That is to say, it’s art as luxury, not necessity (necessity either by moral claims or claims of lineage or claims of form-function).

My post about Djurberg seems to fit into with this paradigm as well.

“Innovation,” we are reminded over and over again, is something very much tied up with “lineage” with the “future” with a literary order, with canonicity. “Innovation,” it seems, must be repeatedly protected against the fake temptations of “surrealism”, that anachronistic force which threatens to ruin our canons of lineage, of taste.

Ie it’s Bug Surrealism.

16 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    Johannes, I just want to be clear: Are you saying that ALL kitsch enters the territory of surrealism? Or can art be kitsch without being surreal?

    Conversely, does all surrealism, including the originary, canonized stuff, partake of the category of kitsch? I can see how some of the original stuff could be seen as kitsch, but the work of the Breton group was quite varied.

    And, too, isn’t kitsch much a product of commodification effects? So that in seeing Dali or Magritte as kitsch, say (all those reproductions!), we are sensing something that wasn’t necessarily “there” back in the 20s or 30s.

    No intention to be contentious here–just wondering about what the parameters of these terms are, more exactly.

  2. Kent Johnson

    Also, in terms of “surrealism”: there are important differences on an international scale, even during the “classic” period itself. In Latin America and Spain, surrealism gets figured quite differently from the French “mode.” Is Lorca kitsch (even when he and Dali were sleeping together, their sense of surrealism at the time was miles apart)? Neruda? Vallejo? Maybe so, but in the same way that a Matthew Barney or Johannes Goransson is? Do you see what I’m asking?

  3. Johannes

    For me “Surrealism” has become a word that suggests luxury and kitsch in contemporary poetry discussions. It has ties to any number of past incarnations of surrealism – it’s not totally arbitrary – but what interests me is how “surrealism” (or even better, words like “soft surrealism” or “fake surrealism” or “candy surrealism” or “excessive surrealism”) is employed in a way that exposes some of the most fundamental rhetorical rules of poetry. So it’s really more the way it is used as a condemnation that I’m interested in and what it says about the framework of people who use it in such a way that interests me. And I’m interested in how this “kitsch” can be participated in – for example, how Aase Berg wrote that she could appreciate Transtromer as kitsch. (Also, I certainly I acknowledge that there’s a lot of poetry that is defined as “surrealist” or “soft surrealist” or whatever that I don’t particularly like). In contemporary US poetry probably Neruda is a key figure of soft surrealism, which is interesting since he was so overtly political, which is supposed to be “hard” but then propaganda inevitably becomes “kitsch”. Lorca and Dali were the first kitsch couple of surrealism. Barney is a good example because he uses “kitsch” (or rather, rococo/baroque imagery), corrupting modernism in all kinds of interesting ways; but that’s a very different use of kitsch from the kind of ironic-bunnies that people often think I mean with my interest in kitsch; I’m not interested in ironic bunnies because they maintain striations and binaries./Johannes

  4. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    so much love for this sentence: I’m not interested in ironic bunnies because they maintain striations and binaries.

  5. James Pate

    Really interesting post…

    I have to admit, I find Daniel Green’s obsession with this highly linear “progressive” concept of innovation to be extremely “old-fashioned,” even to the point where I thought he might be pulling some sort of meta-hoax, using the rhetoric of avant-garde progress to make fun of itself.

    Greenberg seemed out of date even at the time he was writing–Foucault and co. were turning such psuedo-scientific truth claims on their head around the same time. And yet, as the Green review shows, there are still critics out there who want to cling to this “old-fashioned” concept of foundational truth (whether it be aesthetic, moral, linguistic, whatever).

    And Kent, I’ve been reading Jaime Saenz and and am completely blown away by him. Talk about sublime “kitschy” surrealism! I plan to write a few posts about his work soon. It’s great stuff.


  6. Johannes

    I think Greenberg wrote that article in the 1930s, in part responding to Adorno and those kinds of Euros. High Modernist Marxism: still a really attractive stance to a lot of folks in US poetry it seems./Johannes

  7. Johannes

    Do you think I misread it? I do have a poor ear for humor. It’s supposed to be a parody?


  8. John Gallaher

    I feel that kitsch is the go-to category for art and literary critics who want to say “BAD NEW THING” but who don’t think just saying that sounds smart enough. I was just reading some Charles Jencks stuff where he does the same thing, and then in later editions, he turns and redefines those same things that he once called kitsch, as examples of successful post-modern innovations. I see the term “ironic” used in much the same way, especially against literature.

  9. James Pate

    You’re right–the article is from the 30’s, though the dominant trends it lays out, I think, seem to really echo in the art/critical world in the late 40s, 50s , and 60s. The rhetoric behind the reception of abstract expressionism, free jazz, etc. (Which I don’t mean as a criticism of abstract expressionism or free jazz: I’m just pointing out the Greenberg-ian framework those works were sometimes considered in, especially early on.)

    Even some of Sontag’s early writing seems influenced by it, though maybe because it was the 60s she was able to get out of that restrictive frame (as in her great piece on The Flaming Creatures, and the one on Marat/Sade).

    The review could be a parody: to me the over-the-top tone of the piece, and the lack of self-awareness about the history of its own arguments, is almost a kind of formalist kitsch of its own…

  10. Kent Johnson

    James, thrilled that you will be writing about Saenz for Montevidayo! As I said to Johannes in an email, Saenz is a “Montevidayo poet” through and through. He’s one of the great Latin Americans, deserving of being named in the same pantheon of Neruda, Vallejo, Paz, Parra, Borges, Zurita, a few others. But being from Bolivia makes it tougher to become fully recognized on international level. Two other great poets, almost completely unknown by English-language readers, are Amanda Berenguer and Marosa Di Giorgio– they are among the twelve poets in the just released Hotel Lautreamont: Contemporary Poetry from Uruguay.

    I’m in the process of putting together a book of translations from Berenguer, hopefully ready by late summer of 2012. An amazing poet.

  11. James Pate

    Not that I want to make Greenberg into some high modernist creature from the black lagoon or anything. But he’s highly representative of a certain formalist approach to art.

    To me, philosophers like Foucault in one direction, and writers like Pynchon and Reed in another, not to mention artists like Thek, Jack Smith, etc., would make Adorno/Greenberg-style high art/low art binaries appear incredibly conservative. And old-fashioned.

    Which is why I’m always surprised by pieces like Daniel Green’s review, which reads as if the 60s never took place.

    Or as if nothing has really changed since the first modernist explosion and the desire to “make it new.”

    Which also gets a key contradiction: Green’s argument for innovation, on making it new, is based on a movement that is several decades old now. What happens when “make it new” is no longer a “new” claim? When, in fact, it has become a fairly old claim?

    Does high modernism, as I suggested above, become kitsch?

  12. Jason Lester

    I think, generally, the academic consensus is that Latin American surrealism is “redeemed” by the explicit political stances in Neruda and Lorca’s art/lives. Their work isn’t excessive art for excessive art’s sake – it’s “about” something. This goes back to Johannes’ idea of bad influence: to “understand” Latin American surrealism, the notion goes, you have to first “understand” Latin American history. The same thought process applies to the Central European and Russian absurdists/surrealists/fabulists – Vasko Popa, Zbigniew Herbert, Novica Tadic, Daniil Kharms. Political critique is what happens over there; self-indulgent poeticizing is what happens over here. We can appreciate their art, but we shouldn’t let it negatively influence our own work. Think also about the complete academic disinterest nowadays in the American “deep image” poets of the 1960s, who imitated and translated the Latin American surrealists. We want to read the originals, not our second-rate American imitators. There can’t possibly be a more ridiculous poetic entity today than Robert Bly.

  13. Johannes

    Jason, yes I think you’re right. I think that’s what I got defensive about in Kent’s comments: that somehow Latin American history redeems the utter pageantry and excess of its writers./Johannes

  14. Kent Johnson

    Jason, but there is loads of Latin American surrealism that has nothing to do with “explicit political stance”!

  15. Jason Lester

    Definitely, Kent, but that’s precisely what I’m talking about. Latin American history and a few specific case studies (Neruda and Lorca) seem to redeem the impulses of the many in terms of the general American literary consensus, no matter how hermetic, insular, or excessive those many poetic individuals may be. On the one hand, this seems strangely farsighted – Latin American surrealism is redeemed by Latin American history, but American surrealism isn’t redeemed by its implicit response to and critique of late American capitalism. On the other hand, all of this begs the question why surrealism needs to be redeemed in the first place.

    I attended a reading by Clayton Eshleman last night (who said he doesn’t consider himself a surrealist, for the record), and while taking to him afterwards he made a comment that Charles Simic’s poetry was best when he wrote like an Albanian, and that he lost his vitality when he started to become too “American.” I don’t disagree with his chronology (I lose interest with Simic after his early work, as I think most people do), but I think it’s problematic and interesting that Eshleman seems to view this in terms of a shift from a compelling (“authentic?”) outsider Albanian voice to just one more watered down American surrealist.

  16. Johannes

    I think with both “kitsch” and “surrealism” people are suggesting a discomfort with art itself – its fakeness and its narcissism, its swoonery. I’ll try to take some time to write more about this but I think Leo Bersani is the most insightful thinker about this. His rejection of the “culture of redemption” according to which art must always be made to redeem life, hiding its narcissism, goes a long way to explain a lot of poetry discussions. It seems in poetry discussions, the poetry must always be made to redeem life, it must be play doctor to reality. But in that I like to turn Bersani around and say that this is an attempt to redeem not just life but art itself. You see that in so many arguments about art – from experimental poets, from Tony Hoaglands etc.