Accessibility vs Allure (Kalbach, Shaviro, Vanessa Place, James Pate)

by on Jun.26, 2013

My bookshelf fell over Howards-End-style and when I was picking through the books, I started to read Steven Shaviro’s Post Cinematic Affect. This made me think of the continually so pervasive “accessibility” debates.
A while back Drew Kalbach wrote a post on The Actuary that argued against the model of accessibility:

As we have talked about before on this blog, the issue with accessibility is the paternalistic, condescending tone its backers typically take. There is the assumption that the “common man” would not understand poetry readings, let alone enjoy contemporary poetry. They need to be initiated and taught how to properly read these things if they are going to even begin to enjoy it. I’ve made this point elsewhere, but I’ll say it again: there is no such thing as accessibility, and to continue to argue for or against it simply creates more barriers for those that desire to really get involved with poetry.

I think he’s right to criticize the paternalism of the entire model of the “accessible” and “difficult” poem. Both models partake in the same economy in which the reader, imbued with agency, goes out and finds the meaning of the poem – either through a lot of work or a little. Self-styled populists claim that for poetry to be popular it has to be easy to access this meaning (ignoring the fact that people need to be intrigued in order to read the work to begin with!); experimentalists often argue that the poem should be difficult because the process of gaining access teaches people to be better people (more discerning, more critical or something like that). Both are wrong.

To begin with, we are not in control.
Sold: the Warhol portrait of Elizabeth Taylor owned by Hugh Grant.
But I also don’t entirely agree with Drew when he says there is no hidden thing in the poem. There is to me always an excess in the poem; that is part of its allure, its fascination. The poem is too much. That’s part of what I love about art.

Anyway, I think Shaviro does a good job of explaining this “allure” of the artwork when he discusses Celebrities:

What Harman calls allure is the way in which an object does not just display certain particular qualities to me, but also insinuates the presence of a hidden, deeper level of existence. The alluring object explicitly calls attention to the fact that it is something more than, and other than, the bundle of qualities that it present to me. I experience allure whenever I am intimate with someone, or when I am obsessed with someone or something. But allure is not just my own projections. For any object that I encounter really is deeper than, and other than, what I am able to grasp of it. And the object becomes alluring, precisely to the extent that it forces me to acknowledge this hidden depth, instead of ignoring it. Indeed, allure may well be strongest when I experience it vicariously: in relation to an object, person, or thing that I do not actually know, or otherwise care about. Vicarious allure is the ground of aesthetics: a mode of involvement that is, at the same time, heightened and yet (as Kant puts it) “disinterested.” The inner, surplus existence of the alluring object is something that I cannot reach – but that I also cannot forget about or ignore, as I do in my everyday, utilitarian interactions with objects and other people. The alluring object insistently displays the fact that it is separate from, and more than, its qualities – which means that it exceeds everything that I feel of it, and know about it. That is why what Kant calls a judgment of beauty is non-conceptual and non-cognitive. The alluring object draws me beyond anything that I am actually able to experience. And yet this ‘beyond’ is not in any sense otherworldly or transcendent; it is situated in the here and now, in the very flows and encounters of everyday existence.

Our discomfort with this “allure,” this excess and our lack of agency in the matter goes a long way to explaining the appeal of “close reading” of the kind that finds a meaning (even if that meaning is “ambiguous” or “indeterminate”). Or as the New Critics put it: There is no noise in art.

I was just in Romania the other day, participating in a poetry exchange together with Vanessa Place. She kept saying that she wanted to demystify poetry, reveal that poetry that it is nothing. This kind of attempt at clarity through demystification seems not just a legalistic (I find poetry guilty or innocent) way of in fact making poetry “do something” (reveal its nothingness) but also, more importantly, a way of doing away with allure. The interesting thing about Vanessa is that her declarations of demystification proves an occasion of presenting herself very alluringly and dramatically (her glamorously gothy outfits, her petulant throwing paper on the floor etc). Place’s anti-allure rhetoric works in the service of creating an alluring performance. (And a highly “retinal” performance at that.) This is why she has much more in common with Warhol and his highly retinal iconophilia (and Kate Durbin’s costumery) than John Cage or for that matter those humorless “conceptual” artists of the 1970s.

(It’s not just women obviously who has allure. Joyelle just wrote a 30 page poem for Leslie Cheung. Warhol certainly had it, and – with a similar haircut – Julian Assuange.)

Gaga and Assange

Also, doesn’t the notion of allure give the best reading to Judy Grahn’s famous poem “I Have Come to Claim the Body of Marilyn Monroe”? And the continued discomfort with Plath (who is as I have argued the true subject matter of that Grahn poem).

This allure model also goes a long way to explaining James Pate’s poetry. Unlike Vanessa, James is notoriously bad at presenting himself in an alluring way, but his poems are both alluring and about the allurement. They are full of near-narratives that suggest something similar to a secret but much less stable, something saturated with a sense of secrecy. Perhaps this is best seen in the very title “The Fassbinder Diaries” – the name Fassbinder both gathers the poems together and seems to generate an excess, a noisy key that will not unlock itself.

9 comments for this entry:
  1. Daniel Tiffany

    We could be talking about poetry’s relation to the allure of the commodity in particular (as Benjamin does in celebrating Baudelaire’s poetry): a deliberate rival to the commodity fetish (not merely a critical challenge to commodity culture)–a form of COUNTERFEIT CAPITAL whose critical efficacy is only enhanced by its powers of enchantment. A trap, a snare picture.

  2. Johannes

    I like the cut of your gib, Tiffany.

  3. Carina

    I find what Vanessa is doing now to be irritating and fundamentally in opposition to every single thing I believe about poetry. The slogan “It’s not the point, it’s the platform” encapsulates why I so strongly dislike it. Fuck the platform. I read a great poem taped to the ceiling of a dive bar the other day right before the bartender called me a bitch and then I almost got in a barfight but walked out and wrote a poem instead. That said, I think Vanessa Place Inc. should go on pissing me off, because if I’m not annoyed then I have no reason to prove anyone wrong.

  4. drew

    hi johannes, when i say that the poem is empty, i mean that the poem does not have a single proper reading, its “meaning” in the very definitive sense of the word. instead, it’s devoid of all meaning, just a surface, and is essentially one singularity of possibility. so when you say the poem is too much, i think we’re just getting at the same idea from different angles. in your metaphor, the poem’s infinite possibilities are all already there, whereas i imagine the poem as empty and therefore full of those possibilities. maybe my metaphor is a little mixed/unclear/bad. but i am very interested in the passage you quoted on allure, i’m going to go back into shaviro and re-read that sometime soon (whenever my books are no longer packed away i guess).

  5. Mike

    J, I love the idea of “allurement” as a counter to “accessibility,” both on a conceptual and an alliterative level. I also love my cheap and quick etymological research of allure (training the falcon to hunt) and the way it takes us to “lure” and to the fact that a “lure” maybe originally referred to “a bunch of feathers on a long cord, from which the hawk is fed during its training.” (

    The next time someone says a poem should be accessible, I will say that no, it should be a bunch of feathers on a long cord.

  6. Johannes

    You’ll need to do something with the cord.

  7. James Pate

    I’m not a big Sontag fan, but I’ve always liked her Against Interpretation essay, and to me many of these issues revolve around this idea that art should be something that can be interpreted, that is primarily allegorical. I prefer the ineffable, the paradoxical. Or, if it is going to be allegorical, an allegory of excess and/or withdrawal, an allegory that seems to suggest another reading but withholds itself from any singular reading, as in Beckett. The rhetoric of “demystification” tends to draw on old-fashioned positivism, the idea that if we just get past the shadows and echoes we can reach the foundation. (I’m not saying Place does this — I don’t know her work well enough is say either way — but I’m skeptical of the rhetoric of demystification in general.)


  8. James Pate

    On another level, even extreme clarity can have this ineffable quality. A writing on events and situations instead of interpretation. Writers as diverse as Camus, Duras, Murakami, and Jean Rhys have this ability, I think.

  9. Scott Carver

    Intuitive fears about access – both on the part of creators, and art-non-insiders – ARE based on very legit worries, albeit usually in a mutated and/or poorly expressed form. The surface of a work (poetry or /// other) can act like a sieve, filtering and sorting people in a million subtle ways. The coming-in-contact with that surface is already a vulnerable moment, a bit of a bungee jump, and I think when that sieving is felt (felt how?), the art antennae retract and the construction of whatever-experience begins to change. Unfortunately, that usually gets described by insiders and non-insiders as something like “X is inaccessible”/”I don’t get it”, when the real icky thing we’re feeling is the structuring of sociality around the thing – the sound of knives being sharpened, or smooth surfaces cracking. The “common man at a poetry reading” is useless as hell, but it’s still fundamentally a Rawls-original-position sort of thought experiment, trotted out in an (honest) attempt to investigate some much more vague but really-real problems.

    Allure is a nice concept, though – it suggests walking down a hallway versus walking through a door. There’s an extra dimensionality there… (I feel like stoner-borges would have something to say here about allure, and great works being made of infinite insides-inside-of-insides. Cough.)