Archive for December, 2012

Fassbinder's Berlin and Franz's Angels

by on Dec.12, 2012

For years, I’ve been meaning to watch Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, and I finally got around to it last summer. Quite a few critics have called it one of the best films ever made, and I agree, though it does have an unfair advantage, being more than fourteen hours long. Should it even be called a film, and not a TV show? It was produced for German television, after all.

It’s a debate that goes back since it was first produced. Sontag was adamant that is was a film, not a TV series. She even argued it should be seen in one viewing if possible — which would be quiet a feat. Others have been as adamant in the other direction.

I think it’s best comparable to Eisenstein’s gloriously weird Ivan the Terrible, with its two separate but adjoining halves. Both are histories with a deliberately staged quality, both bring together elements of “high art” (artistic shots, for example) with “low art” (both are dramatic as hell), and both films are incredibly stylistically diverse (the epilogue in Fassbinder’s film seems to almost have been made by a different filmmaker).

Susan Sontag in her famous review of the film said that it had achieved something in cinema that had never been done before: because of its extreme length, it has, she argued, the elasticity of a novel, with some scenes and scenarios being drawn out almost to the breaking point, and others snapping closed in only a few minutes.
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It's too much… (pt 2): Zambreno, Glut, Theatricality, Lolita and Fan Fiction

by on Dec.11, 2012

I haven’t read Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, but I’ve read excerpts from it and I’ve read her blog and other things she’s written, so forgive me if I start to babble about something I might be getting totally wrong; but Megan’s review really made me think about a few things we’ve been talking about on this blog lately (and not so lately): the “glut” of poetry (there’s too much, there’s no proper hierarchy etc), Teemu’s analysis of Clark Ashton Smith’s flawed “translations” of Baudelaire and the French 19th century, and James Pate’s recent defense of operatic theatricality (versus the pervasive critiques of the authentic/inauthentic, the truly great vs the counterfeiter).

What became apparent to me from reading Megan’s review is this crucial notion, the “vampirism” or “cannibalism” or “channeling” of art: it’s art that makes more art, that feeds off other art to make it immortal, to pass on fluids from one art to the next artwork. The class critique of Zambreno’s book might be most of all interesting in that it echoes Marx’s famous gothic metaphor of capital as a vampire on the working class.

And this for me ties into all the anxious attacks on “the hipster,” that glamorous figure of art that somehow stands in for all kinds of excess, luxury etc. Without ascribing motives to various critiques of Zambreno’s work, isn’t it true that all the cases of vampirism she cites in fact echo her own fan-girl vampiring of certain literary figures. In this sense in her scholarship she performs as vampire, that necroglamorous figure of art standing in as another kind of “hipster” figure, a representative of Art as Luxury, and Privilege. It is the hipster-scholar-artist-art-lover’s privilege to be useless, vampirical, inseminating and inseminated, not dutifully redeeming our society’s ills, as being privileged just to be itself, a blood-sucker.

Lets not forget that Andy Warhol was nicknamed Drella (Dracula + Cinderella):

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Zambreno's Heroines on Fanzine

by on Dec.10, 2012

My review of Kate Zambreno’s excellent third book HEROINES is up now on Fanzine. Here’s an excerpt:

This pattern of men vampirizing their partners’ subjectivities is a central concern of the book: T.S. Eliot writing Vivien(ne)’s hysterical chatter in The Waste Land and subsequently abandoning her; Paul Bowles fictionalizing his marriage with Jane in The Sheltering Sky, a depiction that left her unable to write for years. “Is making someone a character giving them life, or taking it away?” Zambreno asks. Representational vampirism is the stuff that literature is (often) made of, of course; the problem, she makes clear, is that the men in question were championed for aestheticizing their partners’ “madness” while the women themselves were pathologized, institutionalized, and/or forgotten precisely because of it.

In a sense Zambreno is another vampire – in channeling these women she is using them to understand and support her own experience. But Zambreno’s is a reparative vampirism, a depathologizing corrective that identifies and empathizes instead of objectifying. Less reparatively, Zambreno vampirizes her own partner/husband, subverting the gender roles of her precedents by asserting herself as the artist and her partner as muse, their relationship her raw material, not his—even as she is describing the very gendered dynamics of their conflicts: her screaming and throwing things while he retreats into stoicism. Throughout, she interrogates these dynamics, reminding herself that they are playing roles, that John, her partner, is not T.S. Eliot or Scott Fitzgerald: “We might slip into these roles, we might play these ghosts, but we have become aware of this…He tries to listen. We try to learn.”

…Zambreno’s investment in her oppression, as a wife and as a woman writer, whether sympathetic or not, is the book’s greatest strength, and the reason why it will become an enduring text. Except when she celebrates the mainly-women literary blogging community that she helped build, Zambreno’s writing is characterized by cynicism and open hostility. Heroines is a performance of radical negativity, in other words: deploying an indulgent bitterness and a seething resentment, Zambreno refuses to be satisfied with what women writers have been allotted, and she is adamantly, fiercely entitled to more.

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Masks, personas, floating operas, and the limits of authenticity

by on Dec.10, 2012

It’s true I prefer not to identify myself and I’ve been amused by the diversity of ways I’ve been judged and classified.

— Michel Foucault

I’ve been reading Public Enemies, a book by Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq that consists of a series of letters they wrote to one another a few years ago. The topics are wide-ranging, moving from religion, to politics (Houellebecq interestingly describing himself as a “political atheist”), to art (they both love Baudelaire, Lévy having written a book about the poet and Houellebecq seeing Baudelaire as his central model for how to be a writer). I know some people are always saying to other people that we should not read Houellebecq, he’s a shocking human being, etc., but that kind of moralizing only makes it more likely I’ll pick up a book, and when I picked up The Elementary Particles, I actually found it surprisingly good, with an odd, weirdly contemporary melancholy I’ve seen in few other places. Wong Kar-wai’s early films, for example.

One of the things that strikes me about the Lévy/Houellebecq book is how curious they are about the world around them, even Houellebecq with his perpetual miserablism. In one paragraph, they’ll make a nuanced argument about Spinoza, or Pascal, and in the very next one discuss Irish tax policy (Houellebecq lived in Ireland for many years). Films, politics, high art, low art, God, sex, war, alcohol, drugs, insomnia, self-loathing, delusions of self-grandeur, the elegance of certain metaphysical axioms, reasons to write and reasons to not write: it all gets in the mix.

I bring up the book because of a quote from Lévy that relates to my recent post on hate. He writes to Houellebecq (who started their correspondence with a faux-attack on Lévy): “Why is there so much hatred? Where does it come from? And why, when the targets are writers, is it so extreme in its tone and virulence? Look at yourself. Look at me. And there are other, more serious cases: Sartre, who was spat on by his contemporaries; Cocteau, who could never watch a film to the end because there was always someone waiting to take a crack at him; Pound in his cage; Camus in his box; Baudelaire describing in a tremendous letter how the ‘human race’ is in league against him. And the list goes on. Indeed, we would need to look at the whole history of literature. And perhaps we would also need to try and explore writers’ own desire. Which is? The desire to displease, to be repudiated. The giddiness and pleasure of disgrace.”


Years ago, I used to work at a bookstore in Evanston, Illinois, and I would occasionally thumb through one of the many self-help books we had in the store during slow points in the day. A surprising number of them talked of a kind of writing therapy. Keep a journal to become the person you truly are and reach your real self.

I have to admit, I can’t think of a less exciting reason to write. In contrast to the self-obsessed “write to become yourself’ school, Susan Sontag once said in an interview that if writing was no more than “self-expression,” she’d throw her typewriter out the window. (Her journals weren’t written for herself. They were written for herself and the eyes of God, as all interesting journals are. As were Camus’ journals, despite the fact he was an atheist. Camus wrote for himself and the eyes of a God he didn’t believe in.) And there’s Foucault, who said he didn’t write to find himself, but to become somebody different, somebody who did not exist when he first began to work on a particular project.

And Proust, one of my favorite writers: with him, the “I” isn’t stable, but an element of Bergsonian dynamism and experimentation. The self becomes an ever-shifting symphony, not a foundation to discover or to become. In the madeleine scene, it’s clear that memory is not truth, but sensation, or, to put is somewhat more abstractly, what Barthes’ called “an empire of signs.”

I prefer Lévy’s description of writing here — writing to displease, to be repudiated — to the model of authenticity and foundationalism (the two being joined at the spine) that still lingers over a surprising amount of writing in the U.S.

And instead of writing to find ourselves, there is always Kafka’s bracing idea that writing is an axe we use to break up the frozen water inside of us.


Personas, floating operas, scrims hanging in condemned theaters, black velvet paintings, Gilgamesh and Enkidu as Laurel and Hardy, or two Francis Bacon wrestlers, or the Usher siblings, the fictionalized account, the way all accounts are fictionalized accounts, the mask behind the face, Hegel’s night behind the human eye, a night without breadth or depth, without ground or sky, morality as aesthetics and aesthetics as morality, Caravaggio’s saints with dirt on the bottom of their feet, Caravaggio’s Bacchus leaning back on a filthy 16th century pillow: that’s what interests me more than any claim for an authentic voice, more than any search for the so-called truth.

Appearances and not soul. The way writing or saying “I” turns us into other people and turns us out of ourselves. The way “I” turns us into a crowd.

Hume on the utter fucking indifference the world has to our moralities, our principles, our ideals: You cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’

Denis Lavant as an elderly woman. Denis Lavant as an assassin. Denis Lavant as the most fiendish and exact of guttersnipes. All in one day.

Ben from Blue Velvet already knowing the whole story. He’s already a thousand years old, like Pater’s Mona Lisa. He’s already with Poe, dozing in the House of Usher as the roof cracks over their heads.

The bright pointless clarity of objects and surfaces. The face reflected in the train window you don’t recognize as your own.

Beckett’s anonymous voices and Proust’s symphonic selves instead of the private property of “my story.”

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It's STILL "TOO MUCH" – The Plague Ground of Poetry in the Age of Internets (Part 1)

by on Dec.06, 2012

Those of you who have read this blog for some time, and/or read my last blog, Exoskeleton, knows that one of my interests is the use of anti-kitsch rhetoric in modern poetry (and by modern I mean from Wordsworth through Pound up to Perloff and beyond). The most dominant strain these days seem to be the “there’s too much” argument: there’s too much poetry being published, and too much bad poetry, so we can’t keep up, we can’t read it all, and most importantly (the subtext sometimes, sometimes just the text) we can’t police what’s good and bad.

Basically, it’s the anti-kitsch critique. Modern technology has brought poetry to the masses, now how do we make sure that they have taste? How do we keep this, what Joyelle has called the “plague ground” of contemporary poetry-writers/readers from forsaking our Taste, our narratives, our ideas about what poetry should be.

I kind of feel like I ‘ve written a lot about this… But this topic keeps popping up. Recently, there was recently a really great discussion over at Boston Review between Jed Rasual (my PhD thesis advisor) and the scholar Mike Chasar. And it’s really in response to that interview that I write this.

In particular, I think Chasar’s statements are some of the most insightful I’ve read (especially coming from an academic). In the discussion Jed, who is generally pretty suspicious of mass culture (his book “American Poetry Wax Museum” is both one of the best books about contemporary American poetry and a massive brick of anti-kitsch rhetoric) keeps expressing doubt about the proliferation of contemporary poetry, making it a symptom of capitalism etc.

I think Jed makes very good observations, but I think Chasar totally re-directs this conversation (by which I mean the larger conversation about “too much-ness”, not just the discussion with Jed) brilliantly:

My gut reaction (you could maybe call it my glut reaction) is to say that questions like “Is it a glut?” or “Is it a problem?” aren’t nearly as interesting as questions like “Who is it a problem for?” and “Why do those people think it’s a problem?” For critics like Burt, it’s a problem because it challenges what it means to be an “expert” in American poetry. Whenever someone’s status as expert is predicated on knowing everything—all the good poems (i.e., a canon), what everyone is saying, etc.—a glut is going to be a problem because, as Burt puts it, “I just can’t keep trying and failing to get myself to read everything,” and thus the governing paradigm for what it means to be a poetry expert is put into crisis; how can you be an arbiter of taste if you can’t read everything to pass judgment on it? Insofar as the centrality of Official Verse Culture is affected by a period of glut—where there is no longer an official center—then Official Verse Culture has a stake in the matter.

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