"Does Narrative Become Superfluous…?" – a note on narrative

by on Mar.26, 2012

“Kim” wrote this comment and I thought it was really interesting so I’m putting it up here as an official post (I hope you don’t mind, Kim):

I agree with all points made within the context of that particular polarization but I can’t help to wonder about the polarization itself, that which pits experimental, excessive, gimmicky (those flamboyant howling hyenas) against the earn-your-image “realist” fiction or poetry workshop bunch. In much of the work the latter’s fidelity to realist narrative strike me as limiting as the experimentalist’s distrust of the same. A kind of mutual disregard for narrative as a tool, lifting it up either to the point of (puritan, no doubt) religion or trying to tear it down with dionysian fervor. Both sharing, in a way, an aesthetics of completeness, while the art, or Art, or writing, or other medium, that continually “shatters” me is that which dares to venture into the unknown, where narrative is used, often with the fidelity of that dull realist crowd, though not always, but which is also allowed to crack, fall apart, fail. I love, for instance, how in Bolano, the narrative is temporarily abandoned because a word or topic comes up that needs further exploration, whether poetic or informative, even political. Or David Foster Wallace’s wonderful self-consciousness gnawing beneath the text. I love to read writers fail, fail because they’re trying to do something that is impossible, because the vision is too big. A failure that is almost non existent in so called “realist” writing, but equally so in most “experimental” writing. Barthelme I suppose is some kind of experimentalist house god, but I find his weird strikingly coherent, his “excess” perfectly realistic within his different worlds, a workshop craftsman if there ever was one. Ironically Carver to me is far more out there, his underlying current of menace and violence and weird, not as a premise or aesthetics but as exploration. Couple meets peacock. One-armed photographer tries to eat jello. Blind man watches TV. I don’t think he gave two cents for “realism”.
Anyway. I suppose this went far off topic, still, I’m curious to know more about this montevidayoan (if you will) aesthetics in regards to use of narrative. Does narrative become superfluous in an art which seeks to engage more directly with the world, or other works in the world (as kitsch?), that in a way the surroundings of the work is the narrative with which it breaks?

My response was first of all that I don’t sees experimental as aligned strictly speaking with the “kitschy.” If anything, “experimental” writing seems to be a terrain which depends on and/or provokes a whole lot of anti-kitsch rhetoric (think of Ron Silliman’s “soft surrealism” – and for that matter “quietism” – or Marjorie Perloff comparing Merwin to Longfellow etc). In fact a lot of the instances in which I’ve encountered the use of the “gimmick” charge has actually been from experimental writers, who appear to feel concern with emphasizing the “rigor” of what they are doing.

I also agree about Carver: a much stranger writer than people who claim him as their lineage seem to realize. For one, his narrative technique seems paralyzing and paralyzed: The short sentences allow very little sense of interiority as well as very little mobility: you can only get those brief sentences and brief vignettes, sometimes coupled with a gap and a later scene (she goes home and tells her boyfriend that she’s served a fat man, she tells her friends about the weirdo who put the furniture out on his driveway).

43 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    Longfellow’s a really strange writer, actually.

  2. Johannes

    I agree, but he’s definitely uber-kitsch./Johannes

  3. Kent Johnson

    What’s interesting to me, Johannes, is how Longfellow’s “kitsch” might be appropriated and turned into something new, though. Contemporary kitsch. A kind of Antiques Roadshow kitsch, for poetic money. Longfellow is like a well of kitsch so deep it seems connected to some kind of magma core.

    More generally speaking, I wonder if there is, ipso facto and always, a sense of time-lag to Kitsch-writ-large, a kind of deferral in reverse that it depends on for “conceptual” enactment? That the potential power (whatever I mean by ‘power,’ I can’t say I know) is wholly contingent on a backward looking displacement–not by the author or painter, necessarily–as he or she might be oblivious–but by the ironic consumer. Kitsch as by its nature text that can’t exist without co-production.

    If that doesn’t sound too ridiculous and duh-like. Does anyone out there want to make one-hundred dollars by grading forty-two Compare/Contrast papers? By Wednesday, let me know.

  4. Kent Johnson

    And just to add a speculation to my comment above: That the greater that temporal deferral is, the more “lasting” the kitsch may be. Maybe that’s what I was trying to say with “potential power.” Much in Arte Povera, for instance, or in Russian Conceptualism, reaches into the ancient for its kitsch charge and seems to become all the more strange for it.

    More dactylic hexameter…

  5. Kent Johnson

    Sorry (I’m procrastinating on these papers), but by way of some illustration:

    Take Ashbery’s sestina, “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape”:

    If you substitute Longfellow, Whittier, Lanier, and Helen Hunt Jackson for Popeye, Wimpy, Swee’pea, and Olive Oyl, you can see that the kitsch gets more charge. If you substitute medieval Italian poets, it gets even more zing, and so on. But if you were to substitute contemporary pop stars, it sounds relatively shallow, immediately affected. Lady Gaga for Olive Oyl just doesn’t work.

    See what I mean? This is silly, but also serious. It probably has to do with death.

  6. James Pate

    Kim’s comments here are great. My favorite writers/artists are those that use narrative as a starting place, a jumping off point — but who aren’t puritanical about narrative. Proust, Pynchon, Bolano, Javier Marias, Godard, Sam Fuller, Lynch. I could go on and on. To me, the distrust of narrative that circulates in some parts of the poetry and experimental writing scene is directly related to the iconophobia that is also out there, in those scenes — a belief that if we can just get past certain overtly worldly elements, we can reach a higher more abstract truth. But that kind of truth doesn’t interest me…And it leads, almost always, to the most banal of generalizations…

    Also, I don’t think narrative is escapable. For example, there is a whole narrative around the Language poets, one they’ve built themselves, along with certain critics like Perloff. We read their anti-narrative work within this narrative…We talk about it in terms of that narrative…


  7. stephen

    i appreciate Kim’s thoughts

  8. Dan Hoy

    It might also be useful to distinguish between narrative energy and a literal narrative. Poetry to me is about the manipulation of energies. Narrative energy, the sense of momentum and purpose that engages and unlocks something in the reader, is very useful. A literal narrative is a secondary consideration and only sometimes useful.

  9. Kent Johnson

    But what is a “literal narrative”? Seems a very unproductive use of terms. I’m going to be a bit contentious here, if you’ll forgive me. If I’m misreading anything in this thread, please tell me.

    The closest thing I can think of to fit such a phrase is something like Kenny Goldsmith’s Fidget, or its companion whose title I can’t remember– his recording of every utterance he spoke for a day, or however long it was. Or Vanessa Place’s court transcripts. And that sort of stuff is now considered the cutting edge of the New by many. Whatever you feel about the worth of such work (I’m on record as being pretty skeptical), you can’t say it doesn’t “manipulate” a range of energies, textual and not.

    Or do you mean literal narrative as equivalent to “realist” fiction? If so, there is nothing literal about “realism” as a literary form (we discussed something similar here some weeks ago–I think I challenged Laura for what I felt was a too-flippant dismissal of the mode, which no one seems to be able to precisely define, in any case). I mean, I hope no one would argue there can’t be “manipulation of energy” at work in so-called realist fiction. Think of a writer like Thomas Bernhard. Or Cormac McCarthy. Or Lydia Davis. Or Proust, for goodness sakes. Or whoever. Could one really argue that there is greater or more complex “manipulation of energy” in, say, a non-syllogistic, anti-narrative writer like Ron Silliman than in “tale-telling” writers like those?

    All praise to wild experimental genius of all kinds (and in using Ron as [convenient] example I don’t mean to suggest he isn’t a worthy writer, he is), but this strident bias against realist or narrative/syllogistic forms of writing is a hangover, a bromide, about as current as Maoism and (relative to its more modest purview) as ideologically killing. And nothing is served by it except a kind of factional hubris and arrogance, too-often displayed by people, let’s be honest, who are likely incapable of writing a good, entertaining, well-plotted story.

    Let’s at least try to focus the easy abstractions a bit more. Something I need to work on as much as the next person, I well realize…

  10. James Pate

    Interesting points, Kent, though my take on Dan’s comment is that he meant “literal narrative” more in the sense of cookie-cutter types of narrative, those not-very-original films or books, etc., that read like so many other films or books. That are almost structurally identical to them.

    But I agree with most of what you say here — and I think anti-narrative strategies can be as confining as the most cliched plot line. Some truly horrible language writing has been written that is as leaden as the most banal TV movie.

    Not that there isn’t some great “language writing” out there too — but the idea that writing against narrative or closure is in-itself a path to aesthetic liberation is ridiculous. Dogma often wears the mask of anti-dogma, to paraphrase Kafka.


  11. kim

    Hey, thanks for addressing my comment. I tend to agree with James here that narrative is inescapable, that in a way whatever the writer puts on the page becomes a narration of his thoughts, and choices, a story, whether or not he wants it to be. My main point was more, I think, a feeling that much of both “realist” and “experimental” fiction or poetry share a kind of similar chord of, in search of a better expression, writing the writer out of the work, whether by cool distance or fidelity to an aesthetics or particular narration, avoiding like the plague any sighting of the “writer’s ego”, cliches (gimmickry might fit here) or awkward or anything else that might disrupt the “realism”/”surrealism” of the story. Looking back over history, it seems to me, most big and memorable works goes in search of something beyond their structures, not the least Shakespeare, what narcissistic, imperfect, torture! In regards to Lucas grief project (which I know nothing else about than that post) I can imagine that the modes of expression that are encouraged is either a redemptive “tell us about your loss” realism or a cool “poetic” fragmentation, but not a third, obsessive, awkward, uncontrollable, narcissistic, etc.

    The kitsch thing I should probably have left alone. Making my head hurt. Off to water some plants, or something.

  12. Kent Johnson

    James said:

    >my take on Dan’s comment is that he meant “literal narrative” more in the sense of cookie-cutter types of narrative, those not-very-original films or books, etc., that read like so many other films or books. That are almost structurally identical to them.

    Sure, James, but if so, it begs a key question. Does the supposed defect of such “literal narrative” inhere in the generic form proper, or does the defect have to do with the institutional uses and rituals the generic form has been assigned? These are two very different categories of defect. Dan can correct me if he wants, but it seemed to me he meant (indeed, the concept is a species of post-avant meme) the former.

    My point in the last comment is really this: The assumption that particular forms — or even normative structures of grammar! — [see here: http://absentmag.org/issue02/html/kent_johnson.html ] are organic-natural vehicles for sets of aesthetic and ethical value is downright silly. Forms are forms, and they can be employed, particularly at highly charged political conjunctures, for a range of cultural and ideological aims: Versions of “literal narrative” may quickly become containers for the expression of revolutionary energies, or the most base expressions of kitsch may become suddenly weapons of critical irony, and so on. The classicist Ricardo Reis is no less avant-garde than the futurist Alvaro de Campos; the Prigov of folk-ballad verse is a lot more political than the Hejinian of abstract, fractured lyric. And so on.

    Now, the reasons that silly bias against narrative form or “realism” has become a kind of meme in the subculture of the post-avant are sociological and complex, and I wouldn’t pretend to have a complete handle on the problem. But it would be interesting to speculate on the extent to which survival of the assumption (at the core of now-discredited 1970s Langpo teleology) has to do, paradoxically, with the rapid and now near-complete academic absorption and professionalization of the former U.S. avant-garde; that is, one might say the trait subsists as a successful adaptation for kin-group identity and reproduction within the “ecological” niche of academic culture. It’s a feint, a ruse, like camouflage on moth wings, but it works as a collective trait for species perpetuation. I’m generalizing, obviously; there are selective adaptations that have given rise to new groups that don’t exhibit the trait so prominently, like Hybrid poets, and other evolving poetic sub-phenotypes. But what I’m talking about is basic and ubiquitous. I’d be happy to use more crude natural-selection metaphor to expand on this, if anyone is interested.

    Not that I expect many will be! It’s impolite, of course, in the current, long poetic conjuncture, to broach stuff like this.

  13. Johannes

    To what extent does the prose/poetry divide matter here? After years it seems of being incredibly conservative, very much insistent on certain “realism” rules (though in practice, as Kim suggests, these types of stories do not actually end up being that much Carver-like, generally much more of interiority and feelings etc) it now seems fiction across the spectrum is exploring disparaged genres (Brian Evenson’s gothic tales, Kate Bernheimer’s fairytales, Bolano’s gothic tales, Cesar Aira’s fairytales), and narrative. I mean Bolano is ultra-narrative, much more narrative than the cliche rules of contemporary fiction writing – while Carver writes a paralyzed form of narrative, Bolano moves maniacally in time and space, using very narrative tools (I met x while I was living with a woman who was a lab assistant in a cancer hospital. He had just come back from the war. We shared an affinicity for author y, a long lost occult star from the days when literature was occultly inscribed by… I’m just making this up obviously but you get my point).


  14. Dan Hoy


    By “literal narrative” I just meant something with a plot and characters. This was not meant as a value judgement. Maybe I should have said “figurative narrative as it’s colloquially understood” (or something) vs “narrative energies”, the coordinates of which I would define as space and time and motion, i.e. the engine of what we commonly think of as “narrative”. These coordinates may or may not have figurations attached to them. That’s all I meant to say. I operate in both modes — that’s why I felt it might be helpful to offer a distinction here.

    At the end of the day I just care whether something is good or not. I would not classify any aesthetic category as “good” or “bad”, though I am of course biased against/for certain tendencies, mediums, tropes, etc. In other words I have my tastes. But what matters most is how these categories are put to use, and to what end. Do they acknowledge nothingness as the fundamental material of existence? Or is the world their limit? I don’t trust anything that can’t see beyond the horizon of what we might call, in this particular thread, “the supreme narrative”.


  15. James Pate

    I completely agree with Dan on this point: “Do they acknowledge nothingness as the fundamental material of existence?” For me, the problem with some of the rhetoric around Language writing and, now, Conceptualism, is how surprisingly foundationalist it is, how it appeals to a very classical/conservative notion of truth. Which leads to these not-very-interesting “my aesthetic is more accurate/truthful than yours” kind of debates…Not that they would use “truth,” but the notion of truth takes on many different guises. And of course I’m not talking about all Language writers or Conceptualists here…

    One more quick thought: I think the metaphors we use for narrative tend to over-simplify too. (This might relate to some of Kent’s remarks, but I’m not sure.) Too often, narrative is seen an an enclosure, and if we can escape from it we can reach the metaphorical woods, a place of of continual free play, etc. But I think narrative is more about tension and release, about games, about repetition…I think the idea of a zone free of “narrative” leads to a dead end, and, again, to a lot of not-very-well thought out dogma…


  16. Kent Johnson

    Thanks for that clarification, Dan. Eloquently put and it’s nice to be on what seems to be more or less the same page regarding the issue. And James’s last one is excellent, too. James, what you say here:

    > For me, the problem with some of the rhetoric around Language writing and, now, Conceptualism, is how surprisingly foundationalist it is, how it appeals to a very classical/conservative notion of truth.

    If we take ‘form’ to encompass officially sanctioned rituals of paratext, this becomes even more evident. At bottom, Kenny Goldsmith, Barrett Watten, Billy Collins, and Mary Oliver, just for instance, are all equally at home with a function of Authorial demarcation and claim that originates in 16th and 17th century English copyright law and upon whose current reification a whole institutional apparatus of Lit hierarchy and legitimation (Left and Right) depends. To the Conceptuals or Langpos it’s been unthinkable that energies of conceptual investigation be pushed beyond the bounds of the traditional categories of authorship (though there has been an interesting, particular development in the past couple months, with Craig Dworkin attributing his latest book to me–some stuff will be coming out on that in a prominent magazine early this summer, so we’ll see). Anyway, this is all interesting to me, the way in which what is regarded as the most “advanced” and “rebellious” achieves its “avant-garde” status via a proper respect (willful or not, and the pun is on purpose) for the most basic ideological rules of institutional protocol.

    By the way, the new Poetry Project Newsletter has an article by Johanna Drucker, titled “The Death of Conceptual Poetry,” makes some very sharp points in some relation, so that’s worth checking out.

  17. Kent Johnson

    Johannes, you mention the great Cesar Aira in your last comment. I have a personal anecdote to share:

    Forrest Gander and I spent a few hours with him in Buenos Aires close to three years ago, just the three of us. We wandered around a very cool bookstore in the Palermo neighborhood and then went to a very cool bar and drank a bunch. A memorable meeting. At the bar, I related this almost impossible series of coincidences that had occurred to me earlier in the day. When I was done, Aira began to laugh and laugh, clearly delighted by the story. Then we got on to something else.

    About nine months later, Forrest (who has translated one of Aira’s novels, not yet out) wrote to tell me that Aira had just communicated to him that his latest novel begins with a scene that’s closely based on my story! So you can imagine that I am eager to have this book appear. Maybe it has, but it hasn’t yet been translated.

    The newest translation of Aira is titled Varamo, a slim book, out from ND. It’s about a Panamanian government clerk who one day, through a series of weird circumstances, comes to write the “greatest avant-garde poem” of Latin America. Terrific read.

  18. Johannes

    Joyelle is reading the new one right now. I’m teaching How to be A Nun next week.


  19. Kent Johnson

    Interestingly enough, and in relation to Kim’s post, Varamo could be seen, to some extent, as about “narrative” being an accretion of spooky messages and connections beyond authorical management, no matter what “feeling” of authorial control there may be. Sometimes the messages come in rational sequence, other times in darker, scrambled codes.

  20. Josef Horáček

    Kim’s perceptive post reminded me of something Jed Rasula said at last year’s MSA conference: the nature of an experiment is that there is a very real possibility that it will fail.

    There’s a difference between experimental writing as a genre, and writers and artists taking risks – and failing. Sometimes the two are aligned, sometimes not.

  21. Johannes

    what would it mean for a literary text to fail or succeed?

  22. James Pate


    Good point, and I agree — too often “experimental” means just that, a genre of writing, instead of someone approaching narrative or image or language or what have you in an unoriginal way.

    I disagree, though, with all of this talk about “failure,” though that has become such a large part of experimental writing scene rhetoric recently. Vanessa Place has brought it up, but many others too. The very metaphor of a work of art being a “success” or “failure” goes back to this classical/conservative notion of art. That there is, somehow, some truth-element to art, some objective measurement, with which we can analyze our aesthetic experiences.

    How strange…For example, I love certain films that I know some friends of mine detest. Some of Godard’s more “experimental” films, for example. But by what “objective” measurement am I supposed to use to tell them they are wrong, or vice versa? Neither of us are “wrong” — it’s simply a matter of how we think about art, how we experience it, etc. “Success” and “failure” — frankly, I don’t see those terms as being at all useful in these situations. It’s a nostalgia for some sort of foundation that vanished a long time ago…

    Not that I’m saying you’re making this argument, Josef! Obviously, you’re only reporting on something that’s around quite a bit right now in your comment. I mean my own comment here to be about this type of rhetoric in general…


  23. James Pate

    I mean “original” in that first line — I’m not trying to be all Perloffian here.

  24. Kent Johnson

    Regarding James’s comment: Right.

    The matter is largely temporal. Like light from far away, which can take a long time to reach us. And even then it can take powerful telescopes to focus it, as with the lenses of criticism, one could say.

    The light doesn’t “fail,” as it is there. It just might still be traveling towards us. Likewise, stars that shine bright, that are all the rage, can burn out, and actually be burned out before we even notice, given this matter or time, which is also a matter of sociology and stuff like that. We probably have a bunch of stars in poetry that have already burned out and they still look like they’re there, you know?

  25. Lucas de Lima

    I’ve always thought the discourse of failure, which is also all over the visual arts and queer theory, was more about strategy than assessment. So that one perhaps seeks to “fail” (if that’s possible) in order to “experiment” beyond prescribed ways of writing. That’s what I’ve found useful about it. I don’t remember Place’s take on it, but I do think the rhetoric can get a bit heavy-handed, as if all we could do was fail.


  26. adam strauss

    I’m cheered to see people wonder/raise eyebrows ’bout the rhetoric of failure, which I have never understood: clearly failure is not meaning actual badness in any non rarefied sense, and instead seems to be a disingenuous interest in being badass and calling badassness failure because I guess badassness is being aligned with rupture from a status quo. In other words, I think failure and coolness may be being twined. I have a hardtime escaping the notion of failure as either actual malfunction–the bridge collapses because the builders f’d up–or the dreaded F grade. I rather prefer art to be wildly sucessful; and if it happens that what seemingly should fail–much of Marianne Moore for instance–sparks dazzlingly, well that’s rad but once again then one is not dealing with failure!

  27. Johannes

    i guess im in favor of failure in some part because i dont think of writing poetry like writing an assignment. johannes

  28. adam strauss

    Nor do I think of poems as assignments. I guess I find the word failure a bit weird because it seems to not remotely mean bad, and actually mean in-the-know sophistication or the vicinity. Insofar as this rhetoric could lead to wonderful, spectacular imperfections, diadem failures like A-9 or, lol, Cindy Crawford’s mole, well then hurray! But A-9 is unflawless in an overtly impressive way. Hopkins strikes me as largely a gorgeous failure, but, again, it seems failure should be in at-least two sets of quotation marks.

  29. Johannes

    You did compare it to homework and you keep talking about art in terms that evoke some kind of grade. I don’t think anybody’s talking about a slight “imperfection” enhancing the “perfection” of the overall artwork, but rather a more fundamental antagonism toward the authority of that perfection (ie the Teacher). /Johannes

  30. kim

    I suppose if you look under the hood of this failure aesthetics (I didn’t know there was one!) you’ll find the same old tricks. Not failure but a certain variation/disruption in/of narrative style and voice etc. Still I find the word meaningful, somehow, as a reluctance to adhere to prescribed or self-invented literary forms. A weariness of art as complete, as a thing (craft) that can somehow be perfected. The rational will complain that such is just an ignorance of the underlying mechanics of what makes something what it is, and the punk will scream and bleed all over the guitar in protest of being labeled. A romantic view, perhaps.

    I’ve been stuck in Bolano’s 2666 for a while but there was a passage in there i found interesting, where one of the characters ponders something along the lines: Not even educated pharmacists read the great master’s big works anymore, but prefers the great master’s perfect little practice runs, those small volumes where the master is merely pretend-fighting, getting ready for the real fights, the imperfect, where blood is drawn, the unknown.

    Steeply paraphrased. Still. A kind of concept that might or might not tie in with what has been said here before about “amped up visions”. I don’t see that as author-worship , but as an interest in writers and artists who don’t sever themselves (their thinking, politics, philosophy) from the text in order to attain some kind of (what I feel) objective completeness, thingness.

  31. Kent Johnson

    I don’t know where to put this, so apologies for being off subject. But I wanted to ask here, because there are some people who might know… Here’s a quick translation of the opening of an interview with Cesar Vallejo, originally published in 1931, in the long-defunct Heraldo de Madrid newspaper. The newspaper copy has a photo of the young Vallejo with two other men. To my knowledge it hasn’t been translated into English, though I could of course be wrong. Does this ring a bell for anyone? Clayton Eshleman? The whole thing (introduction and interview) is really charming and historically valuable (obviously), and I will probably translate it if no one else has, though I suspect it must be somewhere by now.


    Q: Cesar Vallejo, why have you come here?

    CV: Well, to drink coffee.

    Q: When did you begin to drink coffee in your life?

    CV: I published my first book in Lima. A gathering of poems titled Los heraldos negros. It was the year 1918.

    Q: What interesting things were taking place in Lima that year?

    CV: I don’t know… I published my book… Hereabouts the war was ending. I don’t know.

    Q: What kind of poetry did you make in Los heraldos negros?

    CV: Well, you could call it modernist poetry. The poems plug into Spanish modernism, you could say, in a somewhat imitative sprit, though with odd incrustations of Americanisms.

    Q: Do you remember…?

    CV: It is April who remembers: [quotes poem; interview continues, with discussion of Trilce, etc.]

  32. adam strauss

    I was referencing a possible connotation/or no I guess even borderline denotation, of failure; that’s very different from equating poems to term papers; my comment, well that nibble, is meant to pair with the term failure, not poetry in general. I think actually giving a poem a leter grade would be almost impossible to do validly, as there are too many potential criterion/it would be too easy to dismiss “Orta or One Dancing” (yes, I’m biased: I dig that piece) and flunk it and give the A to Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode.” So is failure being used in a way akin to experimentalism? I don’t mean experimenal in the, strictly, materiality of language sense, but rather the notion of writing coming from a body–its exposures etc–and its consciousness. Or better yet the word as its been employed seems very much in line with Derrida in his essay in W and D on Bataille. Would “wildness” be an apt synonym? Too, it seems Kim K has constellated the notion to minorness–which helps me some but then again I get confused as I have difficulty equating failure to minorness in an aeshetic context.

    This may be totally muddled, but perhaps it would be relevant to state failure in this emerged context could be called–am gonna totally mispell the French for “trick of the eye”–Tromp-Loy failure?

    My last–for now–question is what’s the relation between failure and badness if failure becomes a positive economy. Is bad the purview of morality not aesthetics?

  33. adam strauss

    I guess the M Moore note might seem to align wih art and grade-like evaluattion, but I meant to suggest that, for example, “The (or wait, is it “An”?) Octopus” doesn’t necessarily seem promising–9 pages largely collaging quotations from other sources in a way that’s not particularly narrative or extremely patterned, is it just me or does this not scream wow neato I can’ wait to peruse it!–and yet the poem, arguably, is saturated in personality/Moore’s sensibility which this reader finds delightful and positively wonderful to encounter.

  34. adam strauss

    This I get–it seems much more specific than the term failure: “A weariness of art as complete, as a thing (craft) that can somehow be perfected”–and it pairs well with “Edge”–“The dead/woman is perfected,” with perfection being linked to a past-tenseness, to arrest not goingness and, of course, deadness. I find KK’s sentence really helpful/clarifying because it gets out of nounness or adjectiveness like the word failure, and instead gets at a kind of verb-state; ugh, English parts of speech are, I think, so confounding.

  35. James Pate


    I really like that passage from Bolano too, and he seems to be referencing himself there. Or at least that’s how I take it. 2666 is a great example of an overwhelming, “imperfect”novel. And yet I would never call it a failure.

    What I object to is the latent pseudo-scienctism of the failure vs. success model. That “experiments” are bound to “fail” sometimes. Again, this aligns art with a very conservative notion of truth, something akin to the logical-positivists. Instead of failure and success, why not intensities, constructivist effects, etc.?


  36. Lucas de Lima

    But in practice it’s easier said than done to bypass conservative notions of truth. Failure is not the ultimate goal; it’s the strategy you use to cut through normativity and get somewhere surprising and intense. It’s nonreproductive futurism.

  37. Johannes

    Yes, I think that’s important: not failure as some kind of destination.


  38. James Pate

    I should probably put this on the post Johannes has just put up, but I’ll add one more comment here…

    Lucas, I agree with you’re notion of failure in this sense. Deleuze talks about the aesthetics of catastrophe in Logic of Sensation, which I’m all for. But to me it seems like the creation of this intensity — that it’s not “success” of course, but that it undermines these two categories. For example, the noise produced by The Velvet Underground in certain songs by most conventional standards would be a complete failure. But I’d rather listen to that noise than to smooth and professional musicianship any day of the week.

    So failure as a strategy, yes, I agree. As long as intensity is the goal, and not some implied search for truth…Which might be what Johannes means about it not being seen as a destination…


  39. Kent Johnson

    Surprised no one has brought translation into this. Ok, I will. Translation is Failure in CAPS. You can even build a divagating poetics of failure out of the Failed “ontology” of Translation. As some poets most recently have been doing…

  40. Johannes

    KENT! I’m right now writing a talk that I”m going to give on Friday about exactly Translation as failure… I’ll post it here when I’ve given it./Johannes

  41. Kent Johnson

    Johannes, that sounds very interesting, and I can’t wait to see it. I’ve got a couple essays on translation issues at the old Jacket magazine, where I talk about translation as failure, too. One of them a point by point response to Eliot Weinberger’s classic “On Translation,” from the old Sulfur, in case you haven’t seen that.

  42. Johannes

    Can you paste in the links to that? It’s also a lot of what Joyelle and I talk about in Deformation Zone.

  43. Kent Johnson

    Johannes, here is one link, which has selections from a book that actually enacts, with some hysteria and anxiety, the failures of translation.

    There is another piece with some relevant stuff in an essay I did working off from Eliot Weinberger’s classic “Notes on Translation,” which was published in Translation Review and then put up at the old Jacket. But I can’t seem to find it now: One of the disconcerting outflows of the new Jacket2 is that most of the materials from John Tranter’s forty issues are now unavailable through Google search. Something that, unless corrected, will stand as a kind of burning of a special room in the poetic archive…

    There is this, too, the introduction to the massive translation feature I edited for the first issue of Tony Tost’s old Fascicle, in which you took part. Some questions on translation nature raised there: http://www.fascicle.com/issue01/Poets/kentjohnsonnote.htm

    Much looking forward to your essay.