"Why Shut Down Enjoyment?" On Drew Kalbach, Zizek, Ange Mlinko and Postmodern American Poetry

by on May.03, 2013

Over at The Actuary, Drew Kalbach has written an excellent post on response to Ange Mlinko’s review of the new Norton Anthology of postmodern poetry, finding in her rhetoric a desire to “shut down enjoyment”:

Mlinko’s review genuinely confuses me. Really, this type of rhetoric confuses me in general. Its only goal seems to be to not allow people to enjoy something. She seems to suggest, in the first paragraph, that students who are forced to purchase this book (leaving aside the agency all students have, and the availability of inexpensive used texts, etc etc) are somehow being done a disservice. But she assumes that these students will get nothing from these poems, will not enjoy these poems, because she does not enjoy these poems. More than that, she assumes these students can’t choose for themselves whether or not these poems are worthwhile; they need to be taught proper taste.

His post makes me think about another thing I recently read in Zizek’s book Violence (which I quoted a couple of days ago on a related topic):

What Nietzsche and Freud share is the idea that justice as equality is founded on envy – on the envy of the Other who has what we do not have, and who enjoys it. The demand for justice is thus ultimately the demand that the excessive enjoyment of the Other should be curtailed so that everyone’s access to jouissance is equal. The necessary outcome of this demand , of course, is asceticism. Since it is not possible to impose equal jouissance, what is imposed instead to be equally shared is prohibition.

So far, Zizek’s analysis seems to follow Kalbach’s: especially in an age of “glut,” when there’s “too much” poetry, “too much” poetry that is – inherently in the quantity – tasteless, we more than ever need prohibitions. It seems the only acceptable form of criticism in the poetry world is to stage prohibitions. Witness for example Tony Hoagland who has made a career it seems of attacking poetry that does too much (too “skittery,” too political, too extravagant etc).

But I think it’s important to be clear that those prohibitions come not just from Poetry Magazine, but also of course from “experimental poetry,” which is full of prohibitions – against “the lyric I”, against images, against this and that, against “expression,” against the poetic, against poetry itself (in the case of Conceptual Poetry) – and full of anti-kitsch rhetoric – against the “too much”, the flood of “soft surrealism”, of excess of “MFA poets” etc. Even Flarf in its jokey embrace of “bad poetry” is of course re-confirming the insistence of Taste (you just have to have enough good taste to imitate the bad taste, to know that it’s bad). In many ways, the rhetoric of experimental poetry often reminds me of Zizek’s notion of “hedonistic asceticism.”

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Instead of all this prohibition (including the most famous one, to “ENJOY!”), in this plague ground age, I suggest bug time:

2. What model of literary time is provided by this mutating field time, this bug time, this spasming, chemically induced, methed up mutating, death time, this model of proliferant, buggered, buggy, moist, mutating, selecting, chitinous, gooey, bloated, dying time, a time defined by a spasming change of forms, by generational die-offs, by mutation, by poisoning, a dynamic challenge to continuity, and by sheer proliferation of alternatives, rather than linear succession? How would T.S. Eliot’s golden lineup of genius allstars, constantly reordering itself but still male- and human- and capital-assets- shaped, be affected by this swarm of ravening pissed-off mutant bugs out-futuring them by dying six times a summer, by having no human-shaped future at all?

(From Joyelle’s “Bug Time”)

5 comments for this entry:
  1. Josef Horáček

    You quote Zizek as saying, “The necessary outcome of this demand, of course, is asceticism.” He loses me exactly at the moment when he says “of course” because I don’t think asceticism is the necessary outcome. I get the part about prohibitions, but unlike prohibitions, which are imposed, asceticism is self-imposed and a kind of jouissance in its own right.

    Maybe some more context for Zizek’s argument would help.

  2. Johannes

    Josef, I totally agree with you about asceticism. But he’s talking about a certain kind of thing here: How we should all be adventurous and go into the desert with our SUVs and do this or that sexual thing etc. It’s all about “enjoying” but it’s also so prescribed. That’s how I read it.

  3. Michael Bagwell

    Neat! I’m not sure Zizek ever really offers a solution to the deadlock of the violence of individual jouissance and the systemic violence of the master-signifier– except maybe to call for a vague revolution–and “Bug Time” sounds about right! Kind of reminds me of the “body without organs” but even more dilapidated.

  4. drew

    Hi Johannes, thanks for sharing this. I really like that Zizek. And Joyelle’s bug time. Actually, I’ve been thinking (for the past hour or two) about her bug time essay as having a lot to do with some of the network/media stuff I’ve been reading through lately. What’s more medial than a model of time with no fixed center and a focus on mutation? It’s the parasite in the system. Poetic parasitism.

  5. Johannes

    Sounds awesome, write about it!
    Johannes