Who Took The Bomp? On Mastery & Apathy

by on May.14, 2013

So last night I was sitting in a very date-y bar with two girl poets, which made three of us girl poets in the cozy booth at the date-y bar except I was wearing Converse sneakers and pants and a jacket so maybe I was in that moment the boy or at least the mustach’d girl.

A few nights ago I watched the Le Tigre documentary “Who Took The Bomp? Le Tigre on Tour” with my roommate with whom I have recently formed an electrofolk dancepunk pop rock girl group. Then the next night we watched it again with the third member of our trio.

There are a lot of things to take away from the Le Tigre documentary: the open-space approach to feminism with a rider that includes not being worried about making people (feminists & otherwise) uncomfortable or pissed off, the Supremes-esque choreography, the subtleties of what my roommate called “Bush-era New York music” (because no one’s writing bitch-punk about Obama), and excellent use of neon spandex, among others, but what I would like to focus on is the concept of Mastery.

In the documentary, Kathleen Hanna says that she feels there aren’t more women starting/in bands because there’s this concept that if one is a woman there will be ruthless criticism and therefore it is necessary to become technically masterful with one’s instruments. Not so, says she, for men in bands, particularly punk bands. They can perform on balls, pure nerve. The obvious end to this story is that Le Tigre says screw it and does their thing regardless of whether or not any one of them could shred on Stairway to Heaven.

Let’s backtrack: I recently stopped caring about poetry. I mean this thing that had totally consumed my life for literal years slowly started to atrophy and die, the way the love for an awful ex does. I have spoken often and in many venues of my idyllic and classical upbringing as a poet, how I was reared on the model of Apprentice/Journeyman/Master. It’s a comfort; there’s a road, you walk down it. It doesn’t have to be the one you were walked down when you finally walk by yourself, but it’s nice to know someone’s walked a road before – they’ve shown you some tools and how to use them, told stories about getting mauled by bear cubs or otherworldly encounters with albino deer.

In this situation the Master isn’t trying to dominate the Apprentice or Journeyman, they’re just trying to shepherd them in some productive direction. That is when it’s good, when it’s PURE. Purity is an exceptionally problematic term and it’s one I use a lot because I believe in Purity as I believe in Truth and Sincerity. They’re zero-sum phenomena, relevant only in relation to themselves. Where the self is a concept the substance becomes at once hollow and over-filled, gives in to a weirdly inert sense of transience.

Merely agreeing to set foot on the road, to look at someone who’s done something about which you are curious, implicitly buying into the contract makes you an Apprentice and gives you power. How does a Journeyman become a Master? By passing the knowledge along. You have to be hollowed out at least a little. You have to become totally self-referential in order to best illustrate to your Apprentice how a sort of life might be lived. The Master stands to lose very much; the Apprentice could gain everything.

So last night at the date-y bar we were talking about dominance and Mastery, the sex-/class-/colonial-ist implications of saying “I know how to do this so let me show you.” The other girls thought Mastery was definitively bad, implied a power imbalance impossible to right except maybe in the case of the dominant sexual submissive, and that situation is obviously fraught. The problem, we discussed, might be the terminology. We could say “I am a fount!” or “I am a tissue box!” and mean that we have a sense of proficiency with a given set of tools, but if we say “I am a master of poetry!” or “I am a master of tissues!” skill is no longer the issue – it’s just power.

The Agony of Power.

I read this book all winter. I did and do not think Mastery is bad. I do think there is something agonizing about extreme technical proficiency and what it requires of a person to wield. This is the beauty of something like the kind of art that Le Tigre was making a decade ago – the weight was lifted by the concept of “fuck it.” Not that they were not megastars in the biggest sense that feminist separatists can be megastars, which is to say, howevermuch they want, because everyone is a little afraid of feminist separatists and lesbians with mustaches (See: everything ever written by Kristeva, the general reaction to Gertrude Stein). The combination of apathy and passion makes the hollow/Pure. The apathetic is thusly made Master over care.


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6 comments for this entry:
  1. drew

    hi carina, i always thought the mastery thing was strange. at what point have you mastered writing? it seems like something very arbitrary. according to my resume, i have mastered the fine arts; i am a master of poetry. so are you. but it seems like the moment we allow ourselves to give in to this idea of ‘mastery’ is the moment we become a bloated corpse, ready to be picked clean. not to say anything about the icky politics you mentioned. anyway, i’m off to polish my degrees and to revel in my own mastery.

  2. Carina

    valid point, sir. I ended up having to clarify this the other night IRL. I don’t think mastery implies some kind of total dominance or end-point — rather, I conceive of mastery as a level of technical proficiency at which one has full facility with the tools, but what is made with the tools is constantly changing. The master exists in a continuous moment of creation; so it’s generative, not necessarily bloated — although bloat can be a kind of genesis.

    what kind of polish do you use on your degrees? the one I’ve been using smells like lavender and I hate that scent.

  3. Johannes

    Such a complicated word… Publishers Weekly wrote that joyelles Salamandrine “capsized” into “babble,” suggesting i think that her masterful array of tools were not tempered by the proper sense of taste (another kind of mastery)… But here too there cld be an element of gender? Maybe this is one consistent feature of taste-mastery – a sense of restraint, a sense of mastering mastery by staying in control of the art, not letting the tools run amuck, not letting mastery out of control… Or maybe its true what drew suggested the other day- a lot of folks need to prohibit the joy… / johannes

  4. adam s

    I dig “rather, I conceive of mastery as a level of technical proficiency at which one has full facility with the tools, but what is made with the tools is constantly changing”; I like the way interest in formalism–defined broadly, truly, not meant to only suggest AE Housman or whoso (no diss to any Shropshire Lad intended)–appears to be the pre-rec.

  5. drew

    i also like carina’s definition of mastery. that formal definition certainly takes care of my issue. but, i don’t know, there’s still something off about the idea of ‘mastering’ poetry, as if there are very specific tools which should be mastered. ie, we need to master the use of metaphor because metaphor is the proper way to compose a poem. or, we need to master linear story telling because that’s the proper way to create a story. basically, emphasizing any one ‘tool’ (or technique, maybe, is a better word for this) is inherently a sort of political/aesthetic move to make. maybe what you’re saying (carina is the you in this sentence) is one must master ALL possible techniques, but i definitely don’t agree with that (i’m not sure that you’d say that anyway). i think there is definitely an aspect of taste and propriety in the concept of mastery in a way that makes me somewhat uncomfortable to say ‘i have mastered poetry’ or something. anyway, this is all scattered, i’m into this post and think i’ll write something about it on the actuary.

    ps. i’m all about the concept of “fuck it” (great phrasing there) but don’t think that and ‘mastery’ are necessarily in opposition. not sure where i’m going with that.

  6. adam s

    Drew-would adroitness, or virtuosity, seem a better word? Really what I want most is word-energy, and this can, phew, occur via many, many modes–not the least of which is by emphasizing the fuddy-duddy: rhyme schemes, measure if not full-on meter, seeing what happens when lines end on un-stressed syllables etc. Which isn’t to suggest prose-poems, poems using white space as rhythmic device (aside from, for example, stanzas) etc, aren’t potentially great energy taps. Zukofky’s “A 7 and “A 9” are, I think, amazing attempts at the tremendously patterned, and neat because ultimately they aren’t perfect at-all: they, to me, read, beautifully, like someone trying hugely but still getting their ass kicked by working in elaborate patterning.

    I like the ps!