"Gaudy Possibilities"

by on Jan.23, 2012

The other day Gene Tanta asked me some questions about assertions I made about art and poetry at the & Now Conference in San Diego. They are good questions, and they’re definitely worth thinking about, but they are broad. So in order to really reply to them, I’ll take a few different posts, and hopefully I’ll at least show Gene my thinking, my intuition, my bleeder’s disease.

First up, I think it might be useful to summarize my argument from the festival. I talked about Raul Zurita but first I talked about the Lion King. I talked about “Scar,” the creepy uncle who tries to ruin the natural (very authoritarian but multicultural) order of the lion kingdom by infecting this natural nature/order with those icons of the unnatural, the affect, the blurry and uncouth hyenas, foreigners even to the happy multicultural order of the kingdom, screaming/laughing icons death drive and/or the pain/ecstacy of jouissance.

According to my thesis, Scar – with his gothic necroglamor and his showy spectacles, his scrawny body and his accent – is a stand-in for Art, a stunt-double. And like Art, he has no future: he may assume power through infection, but he cannot overturn the natural order of lineage. In the end the true son will take back the power with the help of his feminist wife and they will have a son and restore the natural balance of the world, pushing back art into the chasm, where art’s rotting chasm will be devoured by its own infection – the yelling, hollering, affective hyenas, the foreign, confused, ugly animals. Order will be restored.

Mattias Forshage and Aase Berg (1995):

Surrealism in the ulterior times unreasonable, compromising, conspiratory, confused, singleminded, bloodthirsty. Meet it by the lemures or on the blood stained back streets or in the parks that still are ugly!

The Lion King is in large part an allegory about the role of art in the political order. Art must either be made into an uplifting humanist project (animals sing all kinds of uplifting songs throughout) – it’s how we acutalize ourselves, it’s how we find our inner voice (quietism), it’s how we lead toward a better tomorrow (avant-garde) – or it must be cast aside as a threat.

The lazy, narcisstic artists – those who do not further our cause, do not move us forward, do not heroically assert the individual against he morass of the plague ground, do not, most of all, uplift our spirits – they are art as a threat to the natural order. They are bound for obliteration. They must be suicidal. They lack the life force. They are gothic, morbid.

In this threatening regard it’s a lot like our cultural treatment of terrorists! In my &Now talk I quoted Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages:

In his book Terrorist Assemblages, Jaspir K. Puar quotes John Le Carre, writing for The Nation about Osama Bin Laden to show how images of queerness and terrorist bodies often merge: Le Carre argues that “Bin Laden’s manner in his video was akin to “a man of narcissistic homoeroticism,” which can provide Americans with hope as “his barely containable male vanity, his appetite for self-drama and his closet passion for the limelight… will be his downfall, seducing him into a final dramatic act of self-destruction, produced, directed, scripted and acted to death by Osama bin Laden himself.”

Here Bin Laden shares The Scar’s problems: he’s narcissistic and violent, but his ultimate trait – what seems to cause his entire terrorist venture – is his proclivity for “self-drama and his closet passion for the limelight.” He is of art and drawn to art and art will in the end cause him to put on his own suicide as a kind of spectacle.

One way that a lot of artists have responded to this charge is by saying: yes, we are great, we have a lineage, we do move society forward, we’re productive and responsible. Such artists have responded by disavowing the spectacle, the hyenas. They want to move beyond it, to envision a future, to be progressive. The response is often to disprove the allegory about art’s narcissism: to remove the spectacle, the necroglamor, the “limelight,” the suicide show.

Art has to be *redeemed*.

Look at the workshop ethos of the 1970s: of course similarly, it moves away from the hyenas by insisting on realness, unmediated experience, and by insisting that you “earn” the “images” in your poems (you don’t want them to be lazy, narcissistic, masturbatory, you don’t want to steal!). Or a lot of experimental art: we’re making a better tomorrow, we don’t use lazy images, we are “rigorous” (not “soft surrealism”) etc. Or Poetry Magazine (from its flier): “Poetry is the antidote to all that distraction and busyness” (ie buy this journal to do away with consumerism).

I’m interested in art that doesn’t just want to clean up art’s bad name and disavow its suicidal masochistic narcissism, but to move into, through it. Through me. Art that plays out this necro melee, with these unnerving, infected and infecting bodies. This body saturated and saturating. I am interested precisely in art that doesn’t try to redeem art. Art I don’t survive.

In part the Lion King seems correct: in Art I am shattered masochistically. I move into art and out of art and art moves through me like a beautiful ribbon in a girl’s hair. Or coming out of her mouth as she vomits on a street. Art moves through me, art tattoos me, saturates me, infects me.

From Aase Berg’s 1999 dys-master-piece, Dark Matter:

She wakes up in the middle of the night from the oil horse tightening the reins and neighing. From the great oven cutting and from the fetus child breathing hissingly against her breast cage. Out of the breast the child suckles the black foam. She can feel that the black foam is also coming out of her nose.

She sees the thousand stars against the bow – into dark oil lakes slowly sinking down. Out of the casket she lifts a jug of the warm wine. By the fire the stones roast like shriveled nuts. And the child glides moaning against her shriveled skin. A shame befalls the frozen regions. Where houses and farms have collapsed into the foam.

She knows that old animals writhe in agony. She knows that the oil horse tightens the tendons and topples over. He throws himself against walls in hard spasms. And from his stiff muzzle hang strings of the black foam.

She has to gather an antidote to the black foam. She has to gather fuel for the fire in the great oven. She has to ride all night through exploded villages. Where the foam flecks the snow and there is smoke on the river…

Genet (about Algerian liberation): “We had to admit the obvious: they had liberated themselves politically, in order to appear as they had to be seen: very beautiful.”

[More later!]

15 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    I’m not sure what Gene means by the reference to Zurita in the prior post. He seems to be saying that RZ’s ammonia-in-face act was not really a meaningful gesture of cultural resistance? Or worse, that it shares something with the neo-fascist mini-spectacles of the Pinochet regime? I hope that’s not what Gene means. He would be very wrong, if so. Perhaps Gene is not that familiar with Zurita and the CADA group, Marxists all (their best action, by the way, was when they commandeered eight small airplanes and dropped revolutionary poem-leaflets over Santiago–they could easily have been shot down by Pinochet’s air force: How’s that for political poetry?).

    That said, I think Johannes is way off suggesting (he’s been rather specific about the matter in past comments) that necropastoral or kitsch or potatoesque or debased (I take it these terms slide into each other) art/poetry represents some kind of “advance” over more politically directed forms of lyric. Johannes doesn’t “like ideological poetry,” I believe he once said. It’s too simplistic, I think he said, too predictable. He likes the “Scar” kind, the kitsch kind. In some ways he is an ideologist, really, though I guess he wouldn’t want to be seen as such–but he’s like a commissar of extremity surrealism, or whatever you’d want to call it, a polemicist for the dark side. But poetry needs that tendency, too, and some great poetry has come from it, so that’s not a criticism at all.

    So there is nothing wrong with extremity surrealism, of course. It can be one way of being in the vanguard, as it were. But the value or efficacy of poetic resistance is always contingent, shaped by stuff that is constantly shifting at thirteen dimensions. And the forms or rhetorics of meaningful resistance are constantly in play. This is something that Zurita, in his often very emphatic ideological poetry well understands, just like his very political hero Vallejo understood it– and by the way, in key ways the main current of RZ’s work (and poetic thought) does not exactly surf the politically evacuated Artaud-Bataille debasement wave gloried here at Montevidayo, which makes me wonder exactly on what basis the communist Zurita is proclaimed as Montevidayo’s “fave poet.” His acts of auto-mutilation during the 70s, for example, are only one, and a fairly provisional, aspect of his work. Much of his work is a species of amped-up lyric vision, pragmatic in spirit, and sheathed in the outright light of social revolt– it has, really, little to do with the decadent lower-body nihilism of Montevidayo preference.

  2. Johannes

    In a sequel I’ll explain the Zurita connection. I don’t say anywhere that I’m opposed to political poetry. And kitsch isn’t any one thing. It’s rhetoric.


  3. Gene Tanta

    Kent, I’m always glad to learn more. So, how exactly is pouring ammonia on his face anything other than rhetorical pageantry? How is it efficacious? How is it political, beyond metaphor? Perhaps though, I’m sledding too fast and you’d say: all we have, by way of space, is the chambers of metaphor wherein to make it rain the truth on the heads of oppressive dignitaries? Would you say that, Kent, the Author slayer? Self-immolation like RZ defacing his own face seems very much given to Johannes’ flashing of terms like suicidal and masochistic and nacro-this and nacro-the other.

    Johannes: I don’t think it doesn’t take a Walt Whitman lookalike to see that a puritanical plot (of diverse strains) is stitched through Anglophone poetry: so, yes, the idea of “earning” the effect or image in a poem should be confronted and tickled until political content spurts from its nasal cavities. Here’s a feather. It is a tool. It is a weapon.

    This, I’m afraid, is part of our multiple-values condition: the power of art’s vomit or recess from respectful behavior depends on the readers’ interpretation of the imagined speaker’s intention. Neither perverse gaud nor moral efficacy works without an audience “great” enough to get it. (Whitman’s famous dictum, “To have great poets there must be great audiences, too.”) This existential dependence of both political art and gushy art is a way for a writer to take notice of the space (necessary of ethical and aesthetic effect) between the function of subject and the function of object. Seems to me.

  4. Gene Tanta

    It should read:

    I don’t think it takes a Walt Whitman

  5. Johannes


    I’ll write more later, but let me write a few quick thoughts. I don’t think many people who has read this blog think that I (or other people who write here) am apolitical in my “lower-body nihilism” – to say that Montevidayo is “politically evacuated” is frankly crazy, it’s just that it’s not your particular brand of old-school socialism (and if you read the texts of the Stockholm Surrealists which I briefly quote you’ll find a group of people very much engaged in socialist theory) – and I certainly didn’t say that Zurita was apolitical.

    I am in fact very interested in his politics, in his pageantry/spectacular stunts (airplane poetry, milk-van happenings, scarred faces etc), but most of all I am interested in what you call his “amped up lyrical vision.” No, most of all, I am interested in how these things cannot be teased out from each other. For me it’s an incredibly “amped up” lyrical vision. It’s visionary.

    In my talk I quoted Zurita saying he felt he had to equal the Pinochet govts force with his poetry (I don’t have the direct quote in front of me but that’s close to what he says on several occasions) – not that he would shy away from it or flee from “aestheticizing politics” (which is how Benjamin famously defined Fascism) but that his poetry would be equal to the impact of the dictatorship’s force.

    What Gene is calling American puritanical is the tendency to shy away from the spectacular, the “amped up” etc: to have to find a use for it, to supply a little cliff-notes excuse “redeeming” each project. To be afraid of “aestheticizing” anything – but most of all politics, suffering etc. As if beauty was frivolous, empty, inherently diminishing of suffering/politics etc (See my Genet quote for my own response to this tendency.).

    (However, where i disagree with Gene is that I don’t think the scarring of his face was a “metaphor” – I read that act as an assuming of Pinochet’s violence, of taking it over in his art, mediating the violence (Leonard Schwarz writes about this in his recent essay on Zurita on Jacket). The result: pageantry (he becomes female saints).) He becomes a “convivial” (see Lucas’s post about the “death drops”) figure.

    What do you mean by “sheathed” in Socialist light? One reason Zurita makes such a good example for my thinking is that his art cannot possibly be reduced to propaganda or some kind of quick “project” notes. Art devastates Zurita, shatters him. As he is fond of saying, if poetry ceases to exist, the world ceases to exist.

    Kent, I think a lot of your thinking is what Gene calls “puritanical” in its approach to what you’re calling “decadence.” Art must be redeemed: pageantry is bad. This is interesting because half of your thinking actually engages with this kind of thinking, but you’re critical thinking doesn’t seem to want to engage with the most radical readings of your own work. For example you freaked out in response to my reading of Yasusada as “atrocity kitsch” – referring to scholarly articles that “redeemed” the project institutionally.

    Another related work is that Vicuna book that Daniel wrote about: it’s full of fetishes and erotic/glamorous outfits for Fidel. Pageantry is not “politically evacuated.”

    I agree that politics and art are constantly in flux. That’s why it seems so strange to me that it would seem unfathonamable that Action Books?Montevidayo would be into Zurita. Why this constant need for deliniations (he’s a commie, you’re not etc). Art makes – as Joyelle keeps writing – “strange meetings” happen.


  6. Kent Johnson

    (lengthy reply to Gene and Johannes follows)

    Gene, surprised by your response here. I was hoping the apparent conflation of Zurita’s act with Pinochet’s neo-fascist spectacles was just result of hasty writing.

    The answer here has been and will be given by history, I’d say. Zurita’s branding-iron gesture created a modest conceptual shock at the time (pretty much relegated to Chilean cultural circles, though in Chile that counts for more than it does here), but its meanings have expanded since, as most great acts of symbolic resistance do. For instance, the Buddhist monks in Vietnam who immolated themselves to protest the war, acts even more radically spectacular then Zurita’s: were these sacrifices proto-fascist in their “spectacle,” merely the flip side of imperialist violence? Are such acts of protest fated to be isolated in time? Does their political force cease as soon as they are done? I’m bemused by your scepticism regarding Zurita and the CADA, since the CADA poets and artists constitute one of the truly great and courageous examples of a-g praxis of the last century. They were operating in conditions that required a leaping outside the bounds of the page. Their attempt was to join, in the most real sense, art and life. They targeted the State and they targeted the dominant institutions of Culture. And their impact, over time, was substantial. In fact, it was their slogan, NO MAS, which became the guiding cry of the mass mobilizations that toppled Pinochet. Before you go criticizing someone like Zurita, I’d ask you to tell me: Can you give me a 20th century experimental poetry/art movement that was more radical, revolutionary, and *consequential*? We should be studying the example of the CADA and learning our asses off, not scolding it in superficial and academic ways. Sorry to be so blunt–you know I admire your work, Gene, but this is important.

    Johannes, this is a very good response, very sharp. And I don’t disagree in principle with anything you say about Zurita here! I saw the thing by Schwartz at Jacket the other day and didn’t realize there was more than just the note on the front page, so just read it.

    But I’d say that Schwartz’s short essay actually illustrates what I am talking about, and what I mean when I say that his art is sheathed in socialist light– the sense of socialism spiritually, not programmatically, understood: If it is in any way “necro-pastoral,” as you would recuperate it, it is so with this profound proviso: that its tidal energy, its dark disturbance, is driven forward, in great waves, by real and deep political memory. No, of course this is not “propaganda,” and that is the last thing I meant by the revolutionary light that sheaths the work… But it is *political* through and through, and this is not something that I see, with all due respect, as the psychic drive of most of the work here at Montevidayo. Let me explain a bit.

    In Zurita, the suffering of others, their redemption in memory, the dream of a better world, a rage against institutional power and oppression, a framing of such hope in that amped-up lyrical vision I spoke of, is centripetal. You can’t get around it. It is a *revolutionary* poetry, one that aspires to *inspire* and to be *with* the present and the future in a kind of committed political ecstasy. This to me is very different from so much of the work I see championed here, which is NOT to say I dismiss that work out of hand, or claim it is of no use whatsoever. But Zurita’s work is not, let’s be clear, the same as the “potatoesque,” or the “necro-pastoral,” or the “Gurlesque,” all of which (if they are in any way discrete currents!) seem to me deeply inflected, often in overdrive, by energies of nihilism, debasement, despair, pornography, alienation, even narcissism. Would you deny this?

    Energies, to be sure, that CAN produce and have produced some impressive poetry throughout history! These sources are part and parcel of the human, too, and must be explored, obviously. One even finds traces of them in Zurita’s great and capacious work, as one would expect in a powerful, radical poetry, such as his–those strange meetings, indeed, must happen… But shunting Zurita’s guiding spirit onto the tracks of the dominant “Montevidayo mode” raises some serious problems, I’d say. You will need to do more theoretical work to justify it, and you will need to carefully qualify and frame your claims to make them credible in that regard, I believe. Because (I’d like to hear more about this Stockholm group, by the way) very little of the poetry I see here has *others* at its heart in the literal, political, radical, revolutionary way that Zurita’s work does. I see a lot of somatic obsessiveness, a lot of alienation, a lot of death-fixation and weird and varied fetishism, a lot of dark *inward* gazing–and the inward has to be there in any political poetry worth its stuff–and I see a lot of intellectual brilliance, for sure. But there also has to be a decidedly outward gaze and force, too, a sense of (dare I use the horrid phrase?) ideological purpose and belief, if you’re going to convince me that your poetics of kitsch, however provocative some of its products, shares a major chord with Zurita’s. It’s just that I’ve seen very little of *that kind* of outward here at Montevidayo so far.

  7. Lucas de Lima

    Kent, I think you’re homogenizing and oversimplifying the blog quite a bit. For one, Feng and I actually came up with the potatoesque as a playful/totally serious response to the boyesque/gurlesque debates. Political memory is fundamental to our tuber crop, which was single-handedly responsible for saving an entire nation from famine (Ireland), among sustaining many others during war and colonial rule. We intend to present more analyses, but Zurita was one of the first poets who came to mind for us because of his poetry’s extreme empathy and vulnerability, not just to Chileans, but to various sensations of ecology to which potatoes are also attuned.

    Also, it’s worth noting that in a recent interview with Forrest Gander, Zurita said that as soon as you start telling people how to write, it’s the beginning of fascism. So, just as Zurita eschews prescriptive thinking, I think there’s actually something deeply ethical about foregoing “ideological purpose” and “belief” sometimes in order to invite conviviality and “strange meetings” that don’t just follow political ideology but actually transform its terms.

    Can I just say that I find the charge of “somatic obsessiveness” very suspect. It reads as an articulation of privilege, normativity, able-bodiedness.

    -the Potato Bird

  8. Gene Tanta


    Just to be clear: I’m NOT conflating fascist decree with aesthetic modulation. I asked the question: how can protest poetry be effective without becoming propaganda? It cannot. But as soon as that rhetorical position is occupied the issue of intention and interpretation must be accounted for, muddying up the pure line in the water between good/evil desires and effects.

    I think we’d do well not to avoid the complexities Johannes raises about how form (because pageantry and life-sacrifice is never evacuated of content) can discover new ways to shit in a bag on the door-sill of authoritarian figures. I think this is what you heartily admire (romanticize?) about CADA and how the situation on the ground forced writing to get off the page.

    You pointed to a metaphysical monolith called history, saying: Look at the truth of the thing! And then you gave (to me anyway) a useful summary of how Zurita’s symbolic work has changed Chilean lives and resonated out to a wider audience. Thanks for that. I don’t have to point out that DADA, effectively, invented the idea that art and life should be one and that this idea energizes all modern art. We know this: the problem (like a shadow to the a-g solution) is that art is part of life and therefore we must ask how can it (this tool/weapon) ever be USED only for good? It can’t. Or as Joris says in his Nomadic Poetics manifesto: “Purity is the root of all evil.”

    You ask: “were these sacrifices proto-fascist in their “spectacle,” merely the flip side of imperialist violence?” Imagining we can put aside the huge problems of intentionality and reception, I point back to my question: how can protest poetry be effective without becoming propaganda?

    When we point to history, is that an outward gaze or an inward gaze?

    I could call your approach moralistic, but that would be no more useful than you calling my skepticism (about the effect of poetry on thugs and brutes) academic. The point is to look at these questions and the possibilities they suggest, not to imagine name-cages for others, right?

    As an aside: Is it funny (in a good-natured way) that you’re passionately defending Zurita’s name given your important work on questioning the uses of a name regarding the O’Hara/Koch poem?

    One thing seems clear to me: neither the self-immolation (Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire was one of the reasons the so-called Arab Spring started) nor gaudy pageantry are evacuated of political potential (as writers’ intention and/or as readers’ interpretation).

  9. Johannes Göransson

    I was going to write something, but mainly Gene made the arguments I was going to make. These were the issues I was raising in my talk.

    My main point: according to many prevailing norms (in US poetry, in Disney movies etc), pageantry is shallow, evil, faggy, hyena-loving. And my talk was about rethinking that – how the pervasiveness of the rejection of this art suggests it is far from “politically evacuated” – that it is in fact deeply political. And I’m far more interested in poetry that, rather than try to come up with a good excuse for itself (I subvert, I criticize, I provide a respite from capitalism etc) to “redeem” the artness of art, embraces the pageantry of art, engages in the political terrain of the imagination. That’s what I happen to be interested in.

    Zurita is a good example because it’s also so obviously pageantrish in an obviously political situation: he cuts himself and becomes female saints – permeable and wounded (Leonard touches on this key: art wrecks identities/interiorities/the govt-issued id card and that’s part of its threat – see Plato) – he writes airplane poetry, takes over milk trucks and drives them through Santiago, his poetry is deeply metaphorical and visionary. Ie it is Art that is very spectacular, very theatrical – ie aesthetics that i see rejected both from the left (it’s fascist and suspect, it “aesteticizes violence” or suffering or politics or whatever) and right (it’s not “contemplative” like poetry magazine).

    Another example is Genet, whose work I’ve written about quite a bit. For example The Screens (watching that at the Guthrie when I was a teenager was one of those seminal moments in deciding I wanted to devote myself to art) with its utter pageantry which engages with the pageantry of imperialism (doesn’t reject it but, like Zurita with his mediation of Pinochet’s violence onto his cheek, an act that isn’t AT ALL of marginal importance, it’s the opening act of his authorship, something he returns to over and over in his work) connects with it, channels it (ie Mbebe/lucas’s “conviviality” comes into play).

    Now, Kent, obviously this is my take on Zurita. I’m not saying I’m “the same as Zurita.” That would be absurd. Are you writing the “same” poetry as Zurita? Do yo have the same views as him? Does that mean you can take nothing from reading the work? Does that mean you can’t write about what you make of his work?

    Obviously my poetry and poetics are very different from Zuritas in different ways (and Kent points out some of these differences; many of his observations are correct), but I think art is open to engagements from various readers, including readers in translation, from other cultural contexts – ie it creates strange meetings.

    Like Gene, I find Kent’s insistence on a “correct Zurita” difficult to reconcile with his Yasusada projects. In the end, Kent, are you in favor of a very stable notion of authorship afterall? Perhaps it clashes with a very stable notion of “Socialism.” Why this anxiety of us appropriating Zurita, of claiming to be “the same” as him?

    Further, I have a problem with Kent’s charge that Montevidayo is about “inwardness.” I have spent a lot of posts criticizing ideas of “inwardness” or interiority. Part of why I’m drawn to the “pageantry” or “amped-up lyricism” of Zurita is that it is loaded with affect without the interiority of a lot of contemporary American poetry (the ideology of the poetry foundation, as I note in the post, is based on this idea, that poetry lets us escape into ourselves by buying their magazine). That really interests me as well.


  10. Johannes Göransson

    One more point: Politics is aesthetic. It’s already involved in creating our sense of reality.


  11. Kent Johnson

    Lucas, that’s funny about “somatic obsessiveness.” Now that I read the phrase over, I have no clue what I meant by it. So critique accepted in that regard… And Gene, though I’m replying more specifically to Lucas here, this would be, for now, by way of reply to your last comment, as well.

    Yes, I’m aware of Forrest’s interview with Zurita. That prescriptive sense of “telling people how to write”– indeed, that would certainly be somewhat proto-fascistic. I completely agree with RZ. But that’s different from holding a poetical view or an aesthetical sense and stating it and defending it. We’re all pragmatists, in principle, I take it, so those views and senses will be fluid in nature and we want to be open, always, to the contingencies and the flow. But one can certainly proffer provisional choices and stands, even polemical ones, without engaging in the “fascistic” or censorial, I hope you’d agree.

    For example, in correspondence a few months back, Zurita offered a few remarks on U.S. poetry (nota bene: he was careful to say his comments were from a “distance,” a rough impression, more than a position). He commented on the academic environment, as he saw it, of “experimental” poetry (“poesia critica” is his term) and that it seemed to him this wing of the field had largely drifted into a kind of professionalized and cautious belletristic activity, one trapped in a species of endless, polite rehearsals of an institutionally legitimated “vanguard ballet” that is performing for its own performers, the choreography allowing for certain variations, to be sure, but these ever hyperbolically exploded within the tiny field into effects of “difference” and “originality” that are rather inconsequential in the bigger picture of things. Well, something along those exciting lines is what he wrote (and by the way, whatever my prior comments, I would say that description would not quite fit the “out there” stuff of the Montevidayo School, so that’s good, which isn’t to say the debased can’t be captured, for it certainly can, and in the visual arts it’s already comfortably absorbed, so be careful Bataille/Artaud Potato Heads, I say!). Of course, RZ hastened to add that much “vanguard” Latin American poetry was also suffering from such symptoms of chronic malaise… But in regards his own work, or that of Vallejo, say, along with other Latin American examples, I’d propose we’re sort of coughing in the dust when it comes to road-testing the poetics of the ethical.

    One last thing: When you say,

    >I think there’s actually something deeply ethical about foregoing “ideological purpose” and “belief” sometimes in order to invite conviviality and “strange meetings” that don’t just follow political ideology but actually transform its terms.

    I need to insist on something. I’m not using “ideological purpose” in the sense of party program, or rigid line, but in sense of the elective affinities, the choices we pursue within the spectrum we are given. These choices of purpose are ideological, of course, through and through, because we can never get outside ideology, it is the big house we’re in. But inside it, working with what we’re given, those strong affinities need not in any sense mean we don’t invite conviviality and strange meetings. To the contrary–it would be unethical to not do so, as you rightly say. One of the interesting things about poetry is that in its space such ideological choices are *both*, and at once, extravagantly on display, yet extremely tough to grasp and follow.

  12. Kent Johnson

    Gene wrote:

    >I asked the question: how can protest poetry be effective without becoming propaganda? It cannot.

    OK, but there is propaganda and there is propaganda.

    Let’s say that Neruda’s Canto General is propaganda and that Zurita’s massive Atacama earthwork poem, Ni Pena Ni Miedo, is propaganda, too. If so, they are very different kinds of propaganda, right?

    Let’s say Mayakovsky’s this or that poem would be propaganda and that Dmitri Prigov’s samizdat editions of Little Coffins of Poems would be propaganda. Also very different kinds of propaganda, correct?

    So you see. By the way, the poetic propaganda that is most fascinating, I think, is that which becomes minor but pure propaganda through the Culture’s lubrications of the Author Function, which is (this lubrication) how “a-g” absorption mainly works (though the Author Function has many parts and gears that can be lubricated). For example, Kenny Goldsmith becomes a fascinating and happy case of propaganda (conceptual propaganda?) via his pathetic clown-show gig at the White House. This kind of propaganda/lubrication excites a $100 million phenomenon like the Poetry Foundation, which is a very big species of Cultural Organ now importantly devoted to a form of erotic propaganda that pulls erstwhile “radical” poetry ever more securely into the Big Sexy Tent of Institutional Poetry. In this sense, the PF has become a kind of central re-circuiting station for libidinal power flows in poetry (some outlying towns have been punitively shut off from the grid). This aspect of poetry propaganda is expanding rapidly, somewhat at the speed Jack Spicer is spinning like a centrifuge in his grave, and is much more interesting than the regular political-poetry kind of propaganda.

  13. Gene Tanta

    Hey, Kent, Johannes:

    I’m not surprised we clink to accord on issues such as the plastic uses of symbolic violence to make “us” think about the actual uses of violence, since we’ve had similar indoctrination (I mean educations). That minor concern of consensus (with Johannes on the value of irreverent disgust and with Kent on institutional critique) aside, propaganda is propaganda only if it has the sponsorship of the State (or its proxy, the sovereign corporation). Unsponsored propaganda ends up falling victim to a poorly oiled rumor mill (independent presses, etc).

    How well-marketed does “the real” have to be for it to be “the real?”

    To paraphrase Socrates: “I cannot teach you anything. I can only make you think.” Without respect for the reader-function, ethical writing is impossible. This is why propaganda fails as art, though the contorted remnants squeezing through may fascinate us as documents of the various national miseries.

    Really, I’m writing to make a single point (for the third and I hope least subtle time, since it’s taken our interactions for me to come to it): didactic poetry that makes readers think has a much better chance of making readers see beauty (and thereby become subjects in the world), than didactic poetry teaching readers what beauty is.

    The difference between force and connotation is both stark and hard to put a finger on, as Kent admits. So there we are: the puritanical full day’s labor of art production awaits us. Just pick up the hammer or the typing finger, ideology will do the rest.

    The functions of the connotations of disgust are another way to look at this tropical problem flexing between our presumed intentions and their presumed interpretations. Here’s a good article on how Linh Dinh wages his disgust: http://jacketmagazine.com/27/schu-linh.html

  14. Kent Johnson

    Hey Gene, not sure I’m following all of your points here, my head is kinda slush today, but when you write:

    >propaganda is propaganda only if it has the sponsorship of the State (or its proxy, the sovereign corporation).

    How should we understand sponsorship? Where do we draw the line? Do the NEA, the Guggenheim, and corporate-sponsored writing grants count, and so on? What about University support, as lots of University money is corporate in source and/or from the State? What about poet-bureaucrats working in the Poetry Foundation corporate offices in Chicago? Aren’t they engaged, then, in propaganda dynamics? They certainly engage in selective censorship, which goes right along with propaganda… What about PENNSound and Jacket2, which receives loads of corporate and State money–aren’t these venues engaged in propaganda, then, inasmuch as they are very self-conciously setting down a kind of poetic-ideological line, one based on careful and very literal exclusions of those who have troubled the ease of the Langpo coterie? The examples could unfold for one-thousand megabytes. So this is more complicated than it might appear, me thinks. Of course, nobody wants to talk about the extent to which poets in America, not least us “vanguard” ones, are wired into the institutional matrix. Because in the U.S. we’re Free, you know. Ideology is for losers, like in the German Democratic Republic, or something.

    On another note, and speaking of the State and poetry, someone pointed me to a post at Poetics List archives today about the British Museum publishing an article by someone who argues that I have a more coherent understanding of the concept of the avant-garde than Ron Silliman does. I’m not kidding. But I haven’t even seen the article yet.

  15. Gene Tanta


    Pushing it, certainly, the word “sponsorship” would contain the full range of financial support. But how does a socialism for the arts play out on that other, non-financial range, (no, not the gun-range) the range of how the private property of the self expresses? What political poetry would do away with is that very essence (I hate the word “ego” because it seems like such loose metaphor for “life-style choices”) called an individual.

    We can rail until the eggs are done against the evil of the lyrical voice or the betraying of Marxist ideals by 70s poets, but in the end it is the individual vs. society that the poet sings. Once the poet sings for profit (social, fiscal, metaphysical, etc.), she is cashed out of the game.

    I think hierarchy turns bad once it ceases to represent (me, mainly, since I am no less pragmatic than the next dude). Once representation fails (in political terms but also in symbological terms), our poetic licenses are renewed: we find our individual bodies gazing upon the wider field of vision. Romance is in the air.

    We’ve talked about this before but how do we keep the conversation above (or beneath, as Johannes might say) the order of ideals and name-functions: Silliman’s Pound vs. Johnson’s Spicer? Names don’t matter and yet without names, how to document our errors and delights.