On the Importance of Taking Sides

by on Aug.20, 2013

When Joyelle and I started Action Books one of the first things we did was write some manifestos about poetry and poetics (about translation, deformation, the gothic etc). We wanted to not only generate a discussion that interested us and that dealt with work we loved (work which was not being published or discussed), but we also wanted to be honest. We hated how so many presses would claim to publish “the best of any style,” setting themselves up as neutral observers, as if their evaluation of what was “the best of any style” wasn’t a style, a point of view hidden beneath the cool veneer of rational and discerning judgment.

For all his flaws, one hugely important result of Ron Silliman’s blogging is that he made clear that everybody had an aesthetic, made clear that even that “neutral” aesthetic was an aesthetic.

I was dismayed at a lot of the recent responses to Cal Bedient’s criticism of “Conceptualism” in the Boston Review. Many merely dismissed his article using the same binary rhetoric of “anti-experimentalism” as Silliman has employed. Lots of people would simply this complex article as “Just another old guy attacking the new” etc. Here the rhetoric of experiment-vs-anti-experiment was a way of avoiding having to engage in a discussion, a way of merely blocking out opposing viewpoints.

Even more disturbing were all the people – both pro and con – attacking the idea of writing an essay opposed to a group of poets. “Why doesn’t he write about things he likes?” asked some pro-conceptualists, conveniently ignoring that in large part conceptualism has built its reputation on anti-kitsch rhetoric dismissing the “lyric” poem etc. Why is criticism so bad? I would be very happy if a prominent critic took the time to publish an essay on why he disagreed with my poetics! It doesn’t mean I would automatically shut down the Mutilation-Factory, but it would maybe force me to think about certain elements of my aesthetic from a new direction.

But the worst responses to the Bedient essay that I saw were that some people (on facebook) wrote: “Don’t talk about it, it only bring them more attention.” The way we express disagreement in our contemporary American poetry culture is apparently not by expressing disagreement. It’s by ignoring different views and hoping they will go away. By ignoring the things we disagree with. There can be no better recipe for an anemic and dull literary scene.

I remember reading similar reactions to Seth Oelbaum’s provocative, highly thought-out and magnificently performative posts on HTMLGiant (about the AWP, about Marxism, about gender and violence etc). His posts caught on like wildfire a few months back and immediately people started warning each other (in public places like facebook no less) not the “stoke the fire” or “feed the troll.” “Do not read this post, and please do not talk about it,” one poet wrote on a famous critic’s facebook wall in near hysteria, as if afraid that the critic would be infected with the Oelbaum virus. Some people wrote diatribes attacking Seth for his perpetrating the ultimate sin of “self-promotion” (even though he aligned himself with the most-hated “one percent,” a obviously abject position) and of misreading Marx (even though, again, he aligned himself with the “one percent”!). It appears that the most controversial thing about Oelbaum was that he was controversial in a literary culture that is scared of controversy. Oelbaum became a kind of violence to the status quo.

I was reminded of this when Rauan Klassnik recently wrote a response to my posts on violence and art on the poetry foundation. When announcing this post to his e-friend, one person wrote back:

“Fuck you, Ruan. Please stop violating me with your violent emails, composed of language which is inherently violent, and take me off your list.”

Here the different point of view becomes a kind of “harassment” or violence. But the harassed person apparently catches the violence and says “Fuck you.”

This has a wider context. I am reminded of this quote from Slavoj Zizek’s book Violence:

“Today’s liberal tolerance towards others, the respect of otherness and openness towards it, is counterpointed by an obsessive fear of harassment. In short, the Other is just fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as this other is not really other… In a strict homology with the paradoxical structure of the previous chapter’s chocolate laxative, tolerance coincides with its opposite. My duty to be tolerant towards the Other effectively means that I should not get too close to him, intrude on his space. In other words, I should respect his intolerance of my over-proximity. What increasingly emerges as the central human right in late-capitalist society is the right not to be harassed, which is a right to remain at a safe distance from others.”

Here is the crux. In our tolerant age, we don’t want to be harassed by people of different opinions. We act as if they are being violent by expressing disagreement. We try to shut them down if they get too loud. But mostly we ignore different views, hoping they will go away, hoping they will stop harassing us.

To “tolerate” difference in this sense is a way of neutralizing difference, to avoid having to confront it. I think we should try to confront not just difference but our own ugly feelings.

19 comments for this entry:
  1. Elisa

    I’m not opposed in principle to “the idea of writing an essay opposed to a group of poets.” But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a convincing one. It’s one thing if you’re writing a manifesto for your own press — hell yes, take a stance, voice a clear aesthetic. But it generally feels misguided when someone makes a case that a certain kind of poetry shouldn’t exist or that it isn’t really poetry. It’s very hard to generalize across a whole school, and it’s too easy to use those kinds of rules to get fascist-y (e.g. “Free verse poetry isn’t poetry! Identity politics poetry isn’t poetry!” etc.)

    The Bedient essay seemed to hinge on the claim that conceptual poetry doesn’t have feelings and can’t make you feel things. Isn’t that obviously specious? Of course it can.

  2. Johannes

    It is not that people should be out there attacking other schools all the time. For me it’s more like, I want you to actually engage with teh poetry you don’t like rather than dismissing it without discussion. It’s so popular for reviewers or critics to say: unlike all these other surrealist/conceptualist/whatever poets, this poet is engaging and innovative. And then not discuss these supposed other poets. It’s better to ignore difference (and maybe bad-mouth them on listserves or to their students) than to actually engage with them.

    As for the Bedient essay, my reading of it is not so much that he tried to say conceptual poetry can’t make you feel, but to think more about what affect might mean in the context of avant-garde poetry. I wish he had done more to deepen/problematize the binary of cerebral vs feeling poetry. BUT this binary is a mantra of the Conceptual poets themselves: tehy want “thinkership” not “readership.” So why are people who objected to Bedient following their own rhetoric not criticizing the conceptualists for their simplistic binary???

    The other thing is that a lot of people said: He hasn’t read the actual poems! But Kenny G is always saying: You don’t need to read our poems. So why is it Bedient who is being criticized for following the conceptualists’ own rhetoric?


  3. Don

    The problem with Seth Oelbaum’s writings on HTMLGIANT is not that he promoted himself or whatever. The problem is that he took a side that is at odds with human dignity and decency. He expressed a disturbingly popular position on the ‘artistic left’ (albeit crudely) – and it’s a position that is culturally and politically suicidal.

  4. Johannes

    You may say that that wasn’t the “problem,” but if you analyze the threads discussing him, you will see: charges of narcissism and self-promotion, homophobia, and a host of other stupid charges (he hasn’t gotten laid is the best one I saw since he’s been coming out against sex). All these charges are ways of not engaging with his work. On the one hand these responses are maybe honest – they are reacting as if violence is being done to them (see my posts on the Poetry Foundation), but it’s also true that I would hope that the poetry world would be less savage in its defensiveness of people with different views. The major feeling I get from the reaction to Oelbaum is: No weirdos allowed!
    You may be right about his views being opposed to dignity and decency, and you may even be right that this is a popular view in the “artistic left” – but doesn’t this mean that you should be all the more interested in engaging in the discussion rather than trying to shut him down? If for not other reason than it might be interesting to figure out why someone would want to be culturally suicidal (whatever that is, it sounds interesting).


  5. rRoss Sélavy

    @Johannes – I think the answer to the latter question is, in various parts – that the rhetoric of “thinkership” vs “readership” and not reading comes primarily from Goldsmith, and is becoming increasingly untenable – and it’s totally performative, it’s him trying to stir up controversy (in an increasingly irritating way). Place, while repeating that call on occasion (I think), also explicitly denounces the mind(thinking)/body(reading) dichotomy in Notes on Conceptualisms:
    “Note that in a post-Cartesian world, there is no splitting the baby: minds are embodied, bodies mined. The brain is a piece of bodymeat, the body a bit of brain.”
    And I honestly don’t think conceptual writing works without reading, actually. And I think most people would agree with me (Kenny’s inflammatory rhetoric notwithstanding). But it does raise a serious point regarding this tiff – that Kenny has basically given his “opponents” permission to not engage with the work at all. Which is… hrm

  6. Lina

    “A cliché about communists or radicals: they like humanity in abstract, but not concrete people. They are even ready to kill them for humanity.” — ŽiŽek

  7. MR

    I thought the “problem” w/ Seth’s piece was that it was terrible: badly written, poorly thought out, insipid, childish, banal, indifferent to or ignorant of the sociology of the literary field, &, well, dumb.

  8. Johannes

    Well i dont agree with you bit thats not the point! My point was the defensive stance of poets.


  9. Elisa

    Writers’ own rhetoric about their work usually isn’t the best and final analysis of their work. I don’t reduce conceptualism to what conceptual writers say about it.

  10. Don

    But… I think Oelbaum earnestly believes much of what he wrote, and this includes unambiguous anti-semitism. I love weirdos but not weirdos who apologize for terrorism.

  11. Johannes

    I think Oelbaum’s posts challenge the concept of “earnestly” – they are flamboyantly performative in their anti-semitism and homophobia (especially since he’s both jewish and gay). But the thing is you don’t have to “love” him; what I am opposed to is trying to silence a very sophisticated argument/performance/text, what I am identifying is the way that difference (however odd you may feel it is) is perceived as violence. / Johannes

  12. Toby Altman

    Johannes — The most violent thing you can do to conceptualism is refuse to write about it. Conceptualism, like the structures of capital on which it is explicitly modeled, assimilates all critique to itself — absorbs and neutralizes. Maybe here we begin to see the limitations of violence as a critical strategy — it can be neutralized with a shrug.

  13. Johannes

    Violence isnt a strategy, its just how we see difference. Silence is a strategy that is very effective against everyone except folks who liko like the conceptualists have strong institutional support – ie they cannot be silenced. All the same a lot of conceptualists seem very defensive about this, acting indeed like bedient attacked them…

  14. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    If They’d Called It Idea Art Do You Think It Would Catch On?

    I once said the only thing Sol Lewitt ever did was sponsor Kathy Acker. The realization of his Drawing Series at New York’s DIA Beacon proves an incandescent slow fuse type exception to that rule.

    G C-H

  15. Josef Zeko

    Ahh… New York.
    A nice town
    to visit
    but I wouldn’t
    want to live/
    be a poet/

  16. Don


    I don’t play the identity politics ad hominem game – his gayness and jewishness don’t change the texts that he wrote.

    Nobody is trying to ‘silence’ him. He can start dozens of websites every single day where he writes that kind of stuff. There’s certainly a big market for his line of thinking. It does not follow that every website should give a platform to him.

    I’m baffled by how any literate person could call what he did “very sophisticated”. He wasn’t doing ‘violence’; he was writing crude apologies for people who do real violence. It’s bizarre to me that the word violence could be so divested of meaning that infantile anti-semitic/anti-american rants become ‘violent’… especially considering the very real violence happening around the world that he implicitly or explicitly celebrates.

    If I understand you correctly, you’re arguing that websites ought to give platforms to anti-semitic/homophobic/etc speech if it’s presented in a “very sophisticated” way?

  17. Johannes

    You may not think you “play identity politics”, but you do. The difference with Seth is that he knows he’s playing that game, and he does it very well. H “plays” with all kinds of negative rhetoric, in what amounts to a rejection of a traditional humanism, interiority etc. So that when you accuse him of being “infantile” he’s already beaten you to it:he repeatedly refers to himself as a child who loves teddy bears and Disney Princesses. So he has already predicted your criticism. As he did with people saying he needed to get laid or that he was unmasculine etc. He had already beaten everybody to the punch.

    Nobody seemed to want to grapple with why he would present himself in such abject terms (1 percentile, childish, nazi-esque etc). Everybody seems to just fall into the trap and accuse him of things he’s already presented himself.

    I don’t think blogs should give platforms for whatever reason, but HTMLGiant had already granted him a column because of his provocative writings. It was amazing to me to see how many members of that community then wanted to revoke it just because it challenged them a bit.


  18. Christian

    Don, given the definition of “popular,” I don’t understand how it could be possible that Oelbaum’s “side” is both “popular” and “culturally and politically suicidal.” Please explain.