Sincerity – New? Old? Normative?

by on Jun.08, 2012

Over at HTML Giant, AD Jameson has been blogging about “Sincerity” and “New Sincerity”:

Why sincerity? What is its present value? My broad and still developing belief is that “sincere” writing is one means of breaking with the aesthetics of postmodernism and self-referentiality: invocation of Continental Theory, metatextuality, excessive cleverness, hyper-allusion, &c. What makes writing “sincerely” even more delicious when perceived against postmodernism 1960–2000 is that it proposes to offer precisely what PoMo said didn’t matter or couldn’t exist: direct communion with another coherent, expressive self, even truth by means of language.

I’ve always felt very sincere about my approach to poetry, but I’ve always felt dismayed at the kinds of discussions “sincerity” seems to generate, so I thought I’d offer a few replies to Jameson’s post.

I think his discussion makes for a broader terrain of talking about art and poetry. In Poetry, it’s obviously a move away from Language poetry and “elliptical poetry”, but it’s not a simple rejection of experimentalism, since folks like Dodie Bellamy and Ariana Reines could be said to be participants in this aesthetic. “Experimentalism” is also part of the “new sincerity.”

One of Jameson’s examples is Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In an Aeroplane Over the Sea”. This suggests to me the unstable terrain of this term “sincerity.” Here we have a record that – as far as I remember it, it’s been years since I listened to it – is loaded with occult symbolism, baroque lyrics, pataphysics and a central story about ouiji-boarding Anne Frank back in the songs. In that way, the occult seems to be almost a parody of sincerity: to actually have a dead girls talk through one’s own microphone:

(As for long titles, I’ve written a book called Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate. It was very sincere and autobiographical, but it was also a pageant. I also have a book – Dear Ra – consisting of letters to an ex-girlfriend, but unfortunately I misremember indie rock lyrics in it.)

I’ve written quite a few posts about “sincerity” (such as here and elsewehre), but I now realize I was perhaps criticizing the “old sincerity”. In a previous post, “More Gaudy Possibilities: Sincerity vs Intensity”, I summed up my view as this:

As I’ve written repeatedly, I have many problems with this model of sincerity, most obviously that it is the Art that seduces me. Art participates in mediumcity, makes a medium of my body, my mouth, my nerves. Artifice doesn’t push me away, it draws me into the melee of Art. I don’t hide behind artifice; artifice pushes me into a world of images, language, bodies. But it also breaks me down, shatters me, makes me vulnerable.

One part about this rhetoric of sincerity that really makes me resist it, it’s the way it seems to remove the troubles of language. As someone functioning day-to-day in a second language, and as someone who’s spent a lot of time translating foreign texts, it’s hard for me to ignore the noise-iness of language, which is what a lot of this “sincerity” discussions seems to lead to. But the noiseiness is not opposed to sincerity! I’m perfectly sincere when I write in my fake English!

Another thing I dislike about the Sincerity discussions is that they seem to be kind of normative. People are sincere when they write poetry about a certain – acceptable – range of emotions. Ie you’re sincere when you’re kind of sad, or kind of funny, or kind of you know indie rock. But the second you get too intense, perverse, ludicrous etc you become somehow insincere (or worse”coercive”!)…

Another thing I don’t like about sincerity discussions is that they often lead to disparagements of the art-ness of art – the pageantry, the metaphors, the spectacular effects, the excess, the deadly glamour become signs of insincerity. This leads to boring poetry that feels very restrained to me; poetry that seems involved in a humanist idea of interiority.

Something I do like is that discussing ‘sincerity’ turns to discussion toward affect, it rejects the “high art” convention – famously made famous by Clement Greenberg – of favoring art that distances, that requires learning and contemplation, and of rejecting art that provokes reactions, that absorbs, that shatters.

Some questions: What’s the relationship between “new sincerity” and Steve Burt’s idea of “the new thing”? And Tony Hoagland’s “Skittery poetry”? And all those critiques of the supposedly all-pervasive “soft” or “candy” or useless or tasteless or grotesque or kitschy “surrealism”?

31 comments for this entry:
  1. Michael S. Begnal

    What about Kerouac’s “MacDougal Street Blues” Canto Uno (1955), which ends, “They are strolling to/ their death/ Watching the Pictures of Hell/ Eating Ice Cream/ of Ignorance/On wood sticks/ That were once sincere/ in trees–/ But I cant write, poetry,/ just prose// I mean/ This is prose/ Not poetry/ But I want/ To be sincere” ? Here there’s both an awareness of the limitations of language and a desire for sincerity, playing off of each other. Why can’t these different impulses and awarenesses coexist? Or take Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker’s essay “Notes on Metamodernism” (2011), which, while among the voices sounding the death-knell of postmodernism, allows that metamodernism moves between different poles: “metamodernism oscillates . . . between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, . . . unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity. . . . One should be careful not to think of this oscillation as a balance however; rather, it is a pendulum swinging between . . . innumerable poles.” A possible weariness with “postmodern irony/fragmentation” does not mean one has to dispense with the awareness of language as a medium.

  2. Johannes

    I think that’s certainly possible, Mike, though I think it’s important that it’s not a “balance.” I’m also not that interested in “self-awareness.” It seems limiting. Also: Is this really still a conflict between irony and sincerity, feeling and unfeeling? And I think the binary here – as in a lot of Sincerity discussion – is limiting. John B-R, who sometimes comments on this blog, had an interesting reading of Ariana Reines poem where she’s getting text messages of cocks – mediumized sincerity at its most distanced and porny at the same time. Perhaps John can add some of his thoughts here. Perhaps what the Sincerity landscape does is call attention to the literary as an “ornament”/kitsch in a way that doesn’t jive with my own thinking about it? My personal feeling is that I am totally sincere in my writing but the results is baroque and noisy, but that doesn’t mean I’m not sincere. I mean I have to be sincere I spend pretty much every moment of my life writing, writing about or discussing poetry…Thanks for the comment though and thanks for the Kerouac poem which I don’t think I’ve ever read.


  3. Johannes

    Another thing: the gurlesque seems to be a key trope in this landscape. Very ornamental and baroque yet usually very emotional. And mostly more interesting than other forms of sincerity abounding.


  4. stephen tully dierks

    enjoyed reading this. impressed with your concision in explaining your views. incidentally, i depart with you in considering the “humanist idea of interiority” unattractive (i am quite the humanist), but otherwise, agree with the tenor of your argument. cheers

  5. Lucas de Lima

    Also, I wonder, who is it that gets to be “sincere”? Who gets to feel “non-mediated” and “uncensored” (as per Jameson’s post)? I don’t see how this concept suggests anything but a fantasy or position of privilege.

  6. Johannes

    That’s certainly true Lucas. I was kind of hinting at this with my discussion of normativity and the whole translation business, but maybe i should have been more overt. But at the same time, I think sincerity-discussions can be very good for poetry, to get rid of some very normative aesthetics of elegance and distance and mastery. It allows people to get more messy?


  7. Anthony Robinson

    Hi Johannes.

    Thanks for this bit. I don’t have much to say right now, but I’m glad you wrote this:

    “I think his discussion makes for a broader terrain of talking about art and poetry. In Poetry, it’s obviously a move away from Language poetry and “elliptical poetry”, but it’s not a simple rejection of experimentalism, since folks like Dodie Bellamy and Ariana Reines could be said to be participants in this aesthetic. “Experimentalism” is also part of the “new sincerity.””

    Although I take issue with your second sentence, I won’t belabor the point here–I’ve made it elsewhere and it’s fallen on deaf ears, precisely because I’m Nobody (are you Nobody too?). It’s a battle for understanding that is largely obsolete because New Sincerity in Poetry became something else about two weeks after the idea was introduced. To claim I have any authority on the matter would be foolish on my part, but I continue to lurk in comment boxes.

    But it’s the second part of this paragraph that communicates succinctly what I’ve been saying all along–“sincerity,” whatever it is, is in no way in opposition to experiment. I’ll add it’s not anti-Flarf, not anti-Langpo, and not anti-elliptical. That said, it is, I suppose whatever you want it to be. your version here, or your explanation of it suits me just fine.


  8. Johannes

    ALso, Lucas, I think it’s better to think about “sincerity” as a terrain, not something one has or does not have. A terrain that includes conflicts as well as similarities.s


  9. Lucas de Lima

    I like terrains… I don’t know, don’t mean to be a hater, but the potential normativity of “sincerity” that you point out just bothers me so much, and makes the label seem so retro/pop psychology. A terrain to me is more about intensity than individuated feelings that ask to be validated as sincere or insincere. I also don’t see how sincerity foregrounds much about the body, which is what interesting contemporary poetics are all about in my mind.

  10. Johannes

    but sincerity might also include the transvestite at the beginning of almodovars all about my mother who is “sincere” because shes made herself a woman.

  11. Kim

    I find the idea of sincerity as some kind of movement peculiar, primarily because all the writing and/or art that I enjoy I find sincere, whether ironic or meditative, restrained or obsessive, and even writing I don’t like I don’t feel I can label as insincere. This “direct communion with another coherent, expressive self” seem to indicate not just a kind of straight-forward intuitive realism which is unaware of its own construction and influences, but also a certain acceptable way of reading.

    Still, poetry movements are fun, manifestos are fun, the way they exaggerate and balloon themselves beyond, well, even sincerity. Not sure what New Sincerity encompasses but I was reminded of and re-read a couple of passages from Sam Pink’s “frowns need friends too”. It’s sincerity to the point of self-cannibalism, a communion in despair. Probably not the right kind of sincerity, but if we have a potato poetry and all god’s childrenesque surely we can have a sincerity club? Or at least infect it.

  12. Lucas de Lima

    Haha, yes, I am for the ALmodovaresque cuz it mocks the very idea of being sincere, and only in doing so bypasses naive criteria for what’s sincere and what is not. Agrado and Almodovar’s other trans characters are masters of the excessive cleverness Jameson says he wants to move away from.

    I’m with Kim. I don’t know what insincere writing would look like. Even writing that is “against expression” departs from a sincere wish to be truthful in ways that can also be problematic.

  13. Matt

    Just wanted to thank you for this post: You got at a lot of what I was thinking, and then a lot more, in better ways than I could. Really helped me clarify my thinking.

  14. Danielle Pafunda

    Yes–seems to me sincerity, like beauty or grotesque or sublime or melancholy or etc. is a strategy, an affect, a terrain (as you say!), or (in basic craft terms) an aesthetic category. Beauty & sincerity get truncated or reified, though, because particular deployments of them are so deeply partnered with (the tyranny of) realism. We start to get the idea that those versions of sincere and beautiful are their static rather than most popular forms. (Lucas, really loved your post on Beauty-gate).

    I have seen Gossip Girl and Dawson’s Creek. It’s a weird suggestion that Gen Xers were more taken with irony than sincerity, and vice versa for the Millennials. This moment in US pop culture is more anthemic than my grunge youth, but hardly more sincere or less ironic. Just different mixes/varieties. & think! If I could travel back to 1994 & kill a girl by replacing Tori Amos with Lana Del Rey, maybe I could save myself from the demon possession of sincere feelings. (Anyone read Karyna’s book, yet?) Anyhow, what I do like about these discussions is moving away from judging a work sincere based on how it resonates with one’s own emotional instrument, moving toward an understanding of sincerity as affect. Or maybe we need to qualify both experiences–the very personal resonant & the more global affect. I’m suddenly thinking my impulse to disregard the subjective feelings of readers of privilege might waste an opportunity to expose the perception of sincerity as relative to one’s privilege in the culture, etc.

    & also, Johannes, this is just a really beautiful post. I love it when you talk about art and vulnerability and the making of a sincere pageant. It feels SOGOOD. When I read your books I experience a sincere transfer of emotion because I go to books to get the affect you put in books. I love art that hurts in all these nuanced ways & I’m constantly surprised more readers don’t want access to those feelings. There is MY personal resonant! But what makes the work sincere in affect, that’s perhaps a different, totally legible cocktail worth parsing.

    Thinking aloud,

  15. James Pate

    Really interesting discussion….I always think Jameson’s take is interesting, but I have to disagree with the idea that POMO is mainly about cleverness and somehow, by implication, not “sincere.” Most of my own favorite postmodern works – Gravity’s Rainbow, Mumbo Jumbo, Weekend, Dogeaters — are never just clever for the sake of it. In fact, they’re incredibly “sincere” in the way they have visions of a world radically different from our own. They’re works that have teeth, that bite…

    But this relates to broad terms such as postmodernism and sincerity. Joyce is actually a lot more “postmodern” than some critics like to believe, and Pynchon is a lot more “modernist.” I think such broad terms add more needless confusion than anything else…

    I have to admit, I prefer the word intensity or affect to sincerity, mainly because “sincerity” often opens the door to the notion of authenticity. In other words, “I am sincerely saying X or Y and expressing my true self.” I think any act of sincerity is a mask anyway, a performance. And the things that emanate from ourselves that we think of as our own tend, I think, to be anonymous anyway, forces that predate us and continue after us…


  16. adam strauss

    Johannes–I don’t think your English is fake at all! It may introduce unconventional torques, but that’s, I’d argue, more an issue of treating language as a plastic medium, as one which can be manipulated in many ways. Is it fair to “say” Celan/Ancel is extremely sincere? I think maybe “old” sincerity” is predicated on the art having a clear biographical genesis (or an existing community/identity as its target audience/foci of address) as opposed to one which is just as much stemmed from the magic of letters as lived experience; and of course one is indeed living when one moves those wonderful letters around! I’ve started reading a bit of Lacan and am impressed at how sincere his writing strikes me; I never would have gussed that it has a solidly goofy/charming component! As well, Derrida strikes me as deliciously sincere; and Cixous (have only read her book with its Stigmata-y title) too. Kristeva less so, tho I don’t have a developed reason as to why. For me, Brian Teare’s Pleasure is perhaps a contemporary apex of sincerity in (“English”) poetry.

  17. Kent Johnson

    Paradoxically, in light of JG’s mention of his best-bogeyman Greenberg, it’s hard to think of a more “sincere” artist than Jackson Pollock. Interesting to consider to what extent Greenberg’s High Modernist polemic might have helped nudge Pollock to the breakthrough into such unmediated, primal sincerity.

    And paradoxically, too, it’s difficult to think of a more “sincere” poet on the page than the self-taught shepherd Alberto Caeiro, the central figure in Fernando Pessoa’s ultra-Apollonian gallery of “insincere” heteronyms.

    Which I guess is to suggest that from the High Modernism you dismiss, you get the sincerity you deserve. And vice-versa, as well.

    Nice to see some words from the brilliant and too-hidden Anthony Robinson…

  18. Johannes

    thats true kent, greenbergs ideas of the avant garde was very sincere

  19. Kim

    I also noticed in that list of long titles two of Carver’s. It seems to me that sincerity rhetoric has a quiet tendency of defusing weird language and subject matter in favor of coherence and workshop carefulness, almost like an initiation rite into the big leagues, like the “sincere” of Bukowski trumps Bukowski-the-weird influencing a sincere (but often oh so boring) everyday realist and meticulous confessional poetry. Not that it always is but I’m curious about how sincerity might influence a creative writing teaching type scenario. I have no own experience, just curious. I can imagine that it is easier to speak of Carver for instance in terms of careful editing, the everyday, craft, how to make images and punctuation count etc. and harder to investigate things like tension and the weird, intruding peacocks, armless photographers eating jello, etc. That the “weird” always threaten to be weird for the sake of being weird, circular, self-referential, and lack the mystical possibilities of something that is “sincere”.

  20. Chris Daniels

    Kent, I was going to mention Pessoa, who was of course very sincere in his belief that human beings are not possessors of monolithically explicable personalities hosted in non-porous bodies.

    Heteronymy kind of massively problematizes the whole thing, doesn’t it?

    Let’s not forget that Greenberg fought the Cold War. Whether or not he thought of himself as a cultural soldier fighting for truth, justice and the American way, well, I’m not willing to speak for the guy, in that regard, but I think he was at least somewhat aware of his role.

    It’s all fine and well to be sincere when one’s work as an artist does little or nothing to unmask Liberalism USA and all the creepy little assumptions contained in that complex of ideologies. When the work strays too far from acceptable norms, it’s easily marginalized in one or more of all the myriad ways. Hell, we all know how that works.

  21. Johannes

    i was just reading those wonderful translations you sent me. good to hear from you again./johannes

  22. Kent Johnson

    Kim, Carver’s ‘sincerity’ is (famously) largely product of the “careful editing” of his editor, Gordon Lish. Lish, of course, was not being sincere when he rewrote the stories, he was creating an Authorship. Which is what every writer sets out to do, deep down.

    Kierkegaard is interesting: He felt that the only access to ‘sincerity’ was through the crucible of the ‘insincere,’ thus the multiple pseudonyms through which he produced most of his philosophy (Personae: You wouldn’t have Existentialism without them!). Pessoa felt in similar vein about his heteronyms. No truth without forging ahead through the false.

    Here’s a question and it’s a sincere one (or so I say): Can a person ever sincerely theorize about sincerity? Or is any kind of theory always a self-interested act in interests of position-takings in the Field? Johannes?

  23. Johannes

    kent its hard for me to answer your questions since i have some serious problems with sincerity. i also dont believe in some kind of selflessness. your question seems to equate sincerity with selflessness. i am interested in how art tampers with the traditional idea of the humanist self; that doesnt mean some kind of zen thing.

    however i like the way sincerity discussions have brought back discussions about the relationship of author and poem. i find the new critical idea of a split between speaker and poet totally unsatisfactory.


  24. Kent Johnson

    Speaking of Chris Daniels, the most important translator of Brazilian poetry active right now (sorry, Chris), I would strongly recommend his two brilliant Pessoa translations from Shearsman: The Complete Poetry of Alberto Caeiro, and The Complete Poetry of Alvaro de Campos.

  25. Johannes

    do you guys know my old pal sergio bessa? he translated de campos criticsl writings as well as some tropicalia etc and he also wrote an intriguing book about brazilian swedish concretist and artist oyvind fahlstrom.


  26. Chris Daniels

    Johannes, I’m glad you like the translations – I have tons else, let me know if you want to see more!

    Lucas, privilege, yes, exactly (and Almodóvar is a genius!).

    I should clarify. I’m a commie, very sincerely so. Or am I an anarchist? Well, whatever I call myself, those creepy little assumptions I mention all have to do with race, gender, class, beauty, able-bodiedness, disablility, health, etc etc, and their supposed separateness. I think they’re all intertwined in a dialectic. I can’t separate them. Politicians, ideologues and single-issue activists can and do, very effectively.

    Kent, that’s a good couple of questions. I think probably no to the first: it just has too much to do with common sense (infinitely debatable), interpersonal relationships (too mercurial), how anyone feels at any moment (ditto), and the whole notion of monolithic human personality (which I take to be utter nonsense). As for the second, well, speaking as someone who has spent a lifetime most deliberately outside what I take you to mean by the Field, I have no idea.

  27. Chris

    yes, i do know sergio, though we’ve been out of touch for a while – he’s a wonderful guy – i haven’t seen the fahlstrom book, but i’d assume it’s no joke!

    i have a translation in the HdeCampos book – sergio insisted it be included over the (apparently rather enraged) objections of his co-editor…

  28. Chris


    in general, i find discussions of sincerity to be unproductive – the word is gone utterly rotten, infested with gruesome ideologies – i’m deeply suspicious of it

    zukofsky used the word to mean unfiltered perception of reality – facts, not “The Truth”, something like that – in so far as that’s even possible…

  29. Seth Oelbaum

    JG: “Another thing I dislike about the Sincerity discussions is that they seem to be kind of normative. People are sincere when they write poetry about a certain – acceptable – range of emotions. Ie you’re sincere when you’re kind of sad, or kind of funny, or kind of you know indie rock. But the second you get too intense, perverse, ludicrous etc you become somehow insincere (or worse ‘coercive’!)”

    I don’t think it’s sincere to discuss human feelings or to constantly criticize MFA programs or to be self-deprecating. If sincerity is used to denote a down-to-earth, detached milieu then I want nothing to do with it. Whenever people “get real” it seems very phony, like they’re acting like a “person,” a “person” being a role one plays. There’s much more thrilling roles to espouse, like that of a monster.

    But sincerity is intriguing when used to mark writers who don’t distance themselves from their work but are immersed in it. Sincerity as a signifier for those who are excited and enthused about their art. I like this definition — one that leads toward extremism. In this context, sincerity can include a whole range writers from Steve Roggenbuck to, as JG mentioned, Reines. Both these poets seem to be entwined with their poetry. Their status is directly related to the status of their work. It envelopes them. Sincerity as a way to discuss authors who allow art to become them.

  30. politics and poetry: both are kinda dirty « yellow house cafe

    […] Sincerity – New? Old? Normative? – Johaness/Motevidayo […]

  31. Jared Joseph

    I’ve enjoyed this post & the ensuing discussions a lot, & if people aren’t at this point feeling exhausted with it, I’d like to steer it to a new point from an old point, being Danielle Pafunda’s commenting on sincerity as an aesthetic category or device. To me the New Sincerity deals directly with this, uses sincerity knives, corkscrew wounding the idea of sincerity & itself.

    To be sure, I don’t really know what the New Sincerity is, whom exactly it encompasses. I read Steve Burt’s essay on the New Thing & found that confusing as well, curiously locating its origins as far back as William Carlos Williams. To Burt “The new poets pursue compression, compact description, humility, restricted diction, and—despite their frequent skepticism—fidelity to a material and social world. They follow [W. C.] Williams’s “demand,” as the critic Douglas Mao put it, ‘both that poetry be faithful to the thing represented and that it be a thing in itself.’ They are so bound up with ideas of durable thinghood that we can name the tendency simply by capitalizing: the New Thing.”

    This sounds suspiciously normative, not new, nebulous, & yet the term “skepticism” seems as if it immediately should be separated from the New Sincerity, as well as by its focus on compression & compact description, which generally has more to do with artifice & craft rather than sincerity, the old idea of sincerity, which would be something like “artless”, but

    Htmlgiant via Blake Butler recently published/posted (June 7th entry) some google doc works by Marie Calloway, which seems to me hyper New Sincere. This is the link to “Men”, which is a “recorded” (user image & user messages screen-photographed) series of gchat conversations with an “actual” illicit-ish lover (see Bizarre Love Triangle) interspersed with photos, large first-person narration text, & quotes, so as to organize & steer the dialogue into narrative. Here’s an excerpt, suffering from format lack:

    Marie Calloway

    when im done smoking tell me to do things for u to sexually excite u

    [Name & Image blotted]

    i like when u look at my dick while ur fingering urself
    and i can tell it turns u on or whatever

    According to Black Butler, these “[seem] significantly more “sincere” in an actually vibrant way than a lot of the other things people have been pointing at as “sincere” lately. Not that I think sincerity is important, but I’m confused as to how people can point to repurposed internet-speak tumblr-timez poise as not of an extremely orchestrated intent.

    Can I ask you all if you agree? I wonder why, when speaking of sincerity, we need so many softening modifiers, words like “seem” “more” & then the quotes themselves around “sincere”, as if sincerity is at once a long continuum line as well as on some totemic taboo pedestal up in false Mount Olympus. Indeed in this very Montevidayo thread, it seeeeems that several posters have ironically distanced themselves from the very word “sincerity” by using it in quotes & in jokes. The excerpt I excerpted to me seems to use the device of sincerity on several levels – the lack of punctuation, the hi-rate usage of internet lexicon, the very private subject matter of the exchange, & the finale “or whatever” which seems like the ironical defensive psychological-behavioral distancing that often occurs after a vulnerable, SINCERE admission – but then it’s this last point, as well as the gaze-nature of the chat, that renders this whole thing conspicuous. Its sexual material is itself based on exhibitionist gaze between the two speakers (when u look at) & now between the reader & the exchange. Is sincerity (as an act) by nature conspicuous, to be suspicioned insincere? With all the social media channels available now one would think that communication would be easier, but the New Sincerers, especially of the more flarfy nature & especially in this particular case, seem to charge such pieces with so much “documentaried” “sincerity” that instead one gets (or I get) the sense of an exposé, or even of the pornographic. The aesthetic employment of sincerity seems an oxymoron, as one must be artful as possible to appear artless. Calloway’s piece to me expresses the impossibility of sincerity in daily life &/or/but, does this by extension imply the impossibility of sincerity in art? From what I’ve understood (poorly or otherwise) of Adorno, construction of the object kills the creative subject in the work, & the idea of an intention to express oneself is counterproductive. But, you know, what’s point? The New Thing is to create a THING that expresses itself. But Calloway’s piece, New & Sincere -ish, is constructed on hypertext & digital storage &, as such, cannot be a tangible THING object as we know it, it exhausts paper. It doesn’t close.