Archive for August, 2013

"Dedicated Experiments in the Deadness of Form": Toby Altman on Nate Hoks

by on Aug.11, 2013

One version of Hamlet

Nate Hoks is a cowboy of the in and out (burger).
Let’s start with an outrageous claim about modernity: Hamlet begins on a wall. This is probably important: one of the things we learn over the play’s long action is that bodies and walls are not so different. If the play has a thesis, it is: walls are necessary. What is inside—the body; the city; the self—must be protected, militarized, quarantined. (In this sense, Hamlet is an ode to the prophylactic). If the play has an animating impulse, it is nostalgia: for a lost regime of bodily openness and political security, when unregulated contact with the outside was possible. But the orchard is tainted, and the open body of the King, violently shut: “a…tetter bark’d about, / Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust, / All my smooth body.”

Hamlet Sr. is not the only one of us obsessed with smooth skin—I, for instance, apply lotion with archive fever. Modernity is, as Hamlet predicts, a matter of boundaries and border patrols: compulsively returning to division and loss—or, the loss which is division. What this compulsion means will depend, in part, on your politics. It might seem like melancholic return to the scene of trauma. Or it might seem like the foundational act of revolutionary rupture. Andre Breton, for instance, insists the primary project of his Marxist surrealism will be a reunification of sensual and physical worlds:

“[Surrealism] expresses…a desire…to bring about an ever clearer and at the same time ever more passionate consciousness of the world perceived by the senses….I say we have attempted to present interior reality and exterior reality as two elements in process of unification, of finally becoming one.”

Surrealist poetry is—or should be—experimental in a scientific sense: a way of making knowledge (happen); research into the real. Surrealism is a technology for solving modernity: designed to resolve (dissolve) in and out.
(continue reading…)

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The Oblivion of Tom Cruise

by on Aug.09, 2013


I watched Oblivion a couple of days ago. Haters won’t be able to get past its shortcomings or acknowledge its topical relevance beyond superficial references to drones and the surveillance state. Good thing I’m not a hater. Complete and total spoilers below.

This is the story of life as Tom Cruise knows it at the beginning of Oblivion: aliens from outer space destroyed the moon in an unprovoked attack on humankind, humans won the subsequent war but Earth was left mostly uninhabitable, and humans are now siphoning off the planet’s water resources (giant floating fortresses circle the globe, sucking up the ocean) and migrating to a new settlement on the Saturn moon Titan. Earth’s remaining inhabitants, at this point, are alien scavengers, the drones that hunt them, and the human tandems left behind to provide drone maintenance and manage the planetary system of water extraction. Tom Cruise is one-half of such a tandem, performing his duty with a sense of pride and adventure and no sense of history, his memory and that of his partner wiped clean every five years to ensure optimal team performance and facilitate their eventual reunion with the rest of their species on their new home planet/moon. This is the story of life that defines Tom Cruise as we join him in Oblivion.

But the story is bullshit, and deep down Tom knows it, and so do we, but access to knowledge in space-time — and movies — is necessarily chronological. Things happen, and Tom eventually learns the alien scavengers are really humans, his human bosses are really aliens, and he is neither, functioning instead as the biological technology that mediates human/alien. Cloned a thousand times over and deployed across the planet with a minor armada of human-hunting drones at his disposal, Tom Cruise is the figurative and literal end of humankind. But as Morgan Freeman, in his capacity as leader of a rebellious band of human survivors, understands, he is also its liberation. In the role of our onscreen proxy, and with the help of Freeman, Tom Cruise comes to an ontological and empirical understanding of himself as not special, not unique, and not even human per se, but as an operator of life. This is why he tells the first clone of himself he meets “It’s ok, it’s ok,” as he chokes the life out of him. He is not bound by the parameters of life and death, but exists as a localized operator of a nonlocal consciousness and a standardized piece of biological machinery. He exists across time and space, but in the form of right here and now.
(continue reading…)

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The Unicorn Paradox: An Epistolary Essay on Lyric Poetry

by on Aug.09, 2013

August 7, 2013 


Last night I spent a long time in a hammock in the foothills of some mountains beneath the Perseid meteor shower. I was thinking about lyric poetry and I was thinking about technology; I had let my phone die and then I did not look for a charger. There was no cell service or internet regardless, and I wanted to have an unimpeded closeness with the natural. Back on the internet, where this text will ultimately reside, there has been a lot of talk about Lyric versus Conceptual Poetry. Because I have no internet I can not directly address any of the specific things that have been said, and I am glad.

For a few months now I’ve been trying to think theoretically about unicorns. I was not at the bar when the friend of a friend said that unicorns must be a little suicidal, but since then I have been thinking about the relationship between suicide and immortality. As an immortal the death drive is a luxury, a tantrum. There is only the slope from the top of the hill; futility.

Perhaps all acts of art-making are gestures in the direction of the death drive. The Lyric is trying to kill something. The assertion of an “I” is a violence. The violence is done to language and the page and the addressee as well as the writing self — no victims are spared, no trauma is unreasonable. The assault is accepted because the stakes are so high: what’s offered as reward is some iteration of the divine. The act of writing lyric poetry, of manipulating the fabric (language) of subjectivity, is an enormous assumption. It requires a rakishness or recklessness, particularly with regard to the emotions of others. Because the deliberate articulation which is characteristic of the lyric is so manipulated, it becomes manipulative. What passes through language is desire; emotion and desire are, at their closest meeting point, the same.

Conceptual Poetry does not set out with this same intention. Rather than straining something through a mesh it creates a faux-solid, a facade. Notions of interiority are irrelevant because apathy is fundamental; there’s nothing inside, there’s not supposed to be anything inside.

Death and apathy are close, barely a border between them. Conceptualism as a movement in art is a response to the deadness of Art. It is urban, it is reactionary. Its relationship to natural form takes a step towards the uncanny. It is the purged and the purgative. Art post-death is an existential edge.

There is pleasure in an empty box in that it can be a vehicle for the creation of furthermore elaborate imaginary boxes, until they become not boxes at all anymore — this is the lyric impulse. The conceptual impulse is to dwell upon the object’s qualities of box-ness and emptiness. This is a purity. But we cannot confuse it with the mantra of “no ideas but in things.” Where Williams sought to abstract from the object, conceptualism strives to prohibit abstraction. There is nothing going on here other than exactly what is going on; not what you see, what is.

The conceptual posits an always-already dead, squaring off against the reluctant vivacity of the lyric. In both instances we see examples of the Unicorn Paradox: the conceptual can’t kill itself because it is already dead, the lyric cannot kill itself because it is immortal.


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"Swallowed Repulsion": Johan Jönson's Soiled Conceptualism

by on Aug.08, 2013

While offering a more nuanced perceptive affect in poetry, Cal Bedient’s recent critique of Conceptual Poetry ultimately seems to fall into a trap set up by the Conceptual rhetoric: that the difference between conceptual poetry and non-conceptual poetry is the difference between “thinking” and “reading,” between the head and the heart. Not only is this –as many people, including pro-conceptual types, pointed out in responses to Bedient’s essay – a false dichotomy, but it also prevents Bedient from putting enough pressure on the word “affect,” a term that has become a convenient catch-all word for various academic discussions. But this criticism is also a bit misplaced because it’s a binary that Conceptualism itself set up: thinkership as the opposite of readership. To read is to be stupid: overwhelmed, absorbed. To “think” is to be clean. You don’t even need to read our texts, says Kenny Goldsmith.

Instead of writing about the very academically accepted and promoted regulars among Conceptual poets, I’d rather talk about one of my favorite poets, the Swedish conceptual poet Johan Jönson, who is not only more extreme in his production than any of the American poets I’ve ever read (or thinked about) but who also really pushes me to consider “affect” very seriously, and very affectedly. Unlike Kenny Goldsmith’s hygienic thinkership model of reading, Swedish conceptual writer Johan Jönson’s work follows James Pate’s words from the other day: “because they are books of action and event, they don’t allow us lounge about on a clean, conceptual hillside, above the muck and dirt and sweat. They plunge us into it.” Jönson’s poetry is often an attack on capitalism, but one that cannot maintain the distanced stance of critique so often advocated by American experimental poetry. The poetry generates a violent ambience that explodes with capitalist urges and fears. Instead of the cool thinkership of American conceptualism, Jönson pulls the reader into an intensive zone where affect violently pulls in self and other, fantasy and reality, masculinity and masquerade.

how can i describe the shame
over my repeated poverty?

it’s hard. Maybe.
it’s possible to compare it to the repulsion.
that follows
one’s own body. that
which has become the swallowed repulsion.


For me Jönson’s poetry exists in that zone of “swallowed repulsion” – you have to get rid of it but you can’t. There is no epiphany, no transcendence, no critique, just a violent impossibility. But as readers we cannot make it into an easy cliff-notes “concept,” we have to plow through 1243 pages of; we have to try to spit out the poems but we can’t. Unlike Goldsmith’s books you don’t have to read [supposedly, I actually find them a quite vivid reading experience], Jönson gives us:

An author who cannot read his own text.

A book that cannot be reduced.

A book that has become the day, the days’ days.


This book’s devouring.

(continue reading…)

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Don Mee Choi on The Trauma of "Second Language Writing"

by on Aug.07, 2013

Don Mee Choi sent me the following note in response to the discussion that followed my link to the NY Times article:

“My encounter with the English language was “catastrophic” like yours but because my historical context is one that involves colonialism and neocolonialism, I also became acutely aware of the hierarchy of languages. English is at the top, needlessly to say. Japanese was at the top prior to English. And during the pre-modern periods of Korea, Chinese was the official written language of the ruling elite. Hangul, vernacular Korean language, only became the national language as part of the anti-colonial nationalist movement under the Japanese rule (1910-45). Since Korean was banned during the occupation, to write and publish in Korean was a political act. So Yi Sang did what he did with the Korean language –using numbers to pun on swear words. His farcical use of Korean was so effective that the Japanese never detected it. However, in a neocolonial context, nothing is banned, but you are willingly supposed to strive for what is at the top. I think for me once I became “dismantle[d]” by English “piece by piece,” I have never been able to put myself together again. I think it is possible that you remain in a broken state out of refusal and trauma. I think this is from where I write, from a place of refusal and trauma, as a fetus refusing to be born. To stay broken is a political act.”

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Second Language Writers

by on Aug.06, 2013

I’ve written and thought much about the act of writing in a second language (like I am doing right now), and I found this article by Costica Bradatan in the NY Times very interesting.

In a certain sense, then, it could be said that in the end you don’t really change languages; the language changes you. At a deeper, more personal level, writing literature in another language has a distinctly performative dimension: as you do it something happens to you, the language acts upon you. The book you are writing ends up writing you in turn. The result is a “ghostification” of sorts. For to change languages as a writer is to undergo a process of dematerialization: before you know it, you are language more than anything else. One day, suddenly, a certain intuition starts visiting you, namely that you are not made primarily out of flesh anymore, but out of lines and rhymes, of rhetorical strategies and narrative patterns. Just like the “book people,” you don’t mean much apart the texts that inhabit you. More than a man or a woman of flesh and blood, you are now rather a fleshing out of the language itself, a literary project, very much like the books you write. The writer who has changed languages is truly a ghost writer – the only one worthy of the name.

Having done all this, having gone through the pain of changing languages and undergone the death-and-rebirth initiation, you are sometimes given – as a reward, as it were – access to a metaphysical insight of an odd, savage beauty.

Bradatan’s “ghostification” might not be so different from what I’ve been calling “kitsch”; certainly the “savage” aspect of second language might jive with my recent post about art and violence; but mostly I think it’s the point above that interests me, suggesting language functioning what we in recent post here have called “ambient[ly].”

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Corean Music #2: Nancy Spero, Basquiat and Zurita

by on Aug.06, 2013

I realize there might be objections to my interest in the connection between violence and art, in my favoring of fascination, absorption and allure over the kind of critical distance that has been the hallmark of most academic writing about poetry for quite some time (and especially the kind of “experimental poetry” favored in the academy). More importantly, as I mentioned in my first post, there is a wider political context for Savage-Landor’s encounter with “Corean music,” one that suggests the complexity of the relationship between violence and art: Savage-Landor is an imperial European visiting a foreign land in “the Orient,” that site of so much of what we view as Beauty (silk, opium, spices etc), and one like Korea in particular which has so often been colonized and abused. Art is of course involved in this violence too. There’s no use pretending it isn’t.

For the whole thing, go to the Poetry Foundation web site.

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"the beauty of the act": Pop Corpse and Haute Surveillance

by on Aug.05, 2013


All profoundly original art looks ugly at first     — Clement Greenberg

Two books I’ve been reading and rereading this summer have been Johannes Göransson’s Haute Surveillance and Lara Glenum’s Pop Corpse, and in many ways the two books go together. They share certain sympathies, certain styles. If they were movies, they would make a great double-feature. In Memphis, there’s a porn theater, a decaying relic from the 70s, called Paris Theater. It brought in a diverse clientele because of its location between an “artsy” neighborhood and a “bad” neighborhood: crack addicts, tattoo artists, philosophy and English and art students, skinny junkies, and young punk couples. I can imagine such a double-feature playing at exactly such a place.

They are both truly hybrid works, not simply a “hybrid” of different schools of poetry. Glenum’s Pop Corpse brings to mind some of the more daring elements of the art world: Cindy Sherman’s Gothic, carnival-esque works, Paul Thek’s meatiness, Matthew Barney’s monumentality, the high-wire acts of certain performance artists (Marina Abramovic, the Russian Voina group), Paul McCarthy’s sense of bizarre, repulsive hilarity. In fact, Glenum’s blend of excess and theatricality is closer in spirit to certain sections of the art world than to much of the contemporary American poetry scene, and I can’t help but suspect that admirers of Thek and/or Sherman and/or McCarthy would understand her work better than some of the her fellow experimental poets (some who, because she so thoroughly does not fit into the currently dominant Language Writing /Flarf/Conceptual mode, simply don’t know how to approach her work).

Like many of those artists mentioned above, there is an element of creative ecstasy in Pop Corpse, and, like them, it’s an ecstasy laced with horror and confusion. As the Sea Witch says, “I perch on heaven / habitually / Pig-sized / nipples.” The entire poem/play takes place on “floating islands of garbage” — the “floating islands” implying a beauty and serenity that “garbage” brutally undercuts.


Haute Surveillance is also hybrid. It is infused with film both in style (montage, tableaux) and reference (Blue Velvet, The Wizard of Oz, mumble-core, the character of “the Starlet”). The spirit of Lynch and Godard and Zulawski especially haunt this work, directors who create films that steadfastly refuse to offer us a privileged bird’s eye view of their projects — directors who immerse us in a world, not offer one up as a representational object. Weekend, Made in USA, Inland Empire, Mulholland Drive, Szamanka, On the Silver Globe: these are films that don’t allow for the luxury (and it is a luxury) of distance. So too with Göransson’s book. “Of all the movies I made with the Starlet,” the narrator says, “my favorite was our mumble-version of Hiroshima Mon Amour. Or the Jacobean piece we filmed in a shooting range. The clothes I wore were positively repulsive by the time she was finished with me.”

Of course, Göransson follows a long line of poets who have been fascinated by film. Frank O’Hara is the most obvious example of a poet engaged with the silver screen (or, in our age, the digital screen). And Artaud loved the Marx brothers. But in the past few decades a serious vein of cinemaphobia has crept into the American poetry scene. Part of this is the influence of Language writing. Despite its revolutionary ardor, it had a surprisingly conservative take on the Image, considering it to be empty, false, hollow, a lie. (There were several exceptions to this view: Palmer, Hejinian, Waldrop, etc.) It’s a view that goes all the way back to Plato, at least, as can be seen in the allegory of the cave where concept is plentitude and beings and images are shadows and falsehoods.

Related to this austerity is poetry written in the more mainstream, lyrical mode. As Göransson has pointed out in various blog posts and interviews, and as I’ve heard several others poets claim too through the years, in some workshops an image must be “earned.” It must fit in with the general pattern and be conducive of an overall meaning. Interestingly, the austerity policies of certain Language poets and the fear of inflation in less experimental poetry have more than a little in common.


But an alternate take on the Image sees it not as a false representation of a real object or event, but a new creation, an addition. This is the view of the Stoics, Deleuze, Warhol (as implied by his “Factory” of images), Godard (“cinema is everything”), and Lewis Carroll. Göransson shares this approach. As the narrator writes, “Ever since I was brought to this goo-goo nation, I’ve trafficked in images. About photography, I love the machinery. I can’t understand any of it. It’s like the inside of a woman’s cunt: fascinating and intricate. And gives birth to millions of childrenchildren.” Here, image is a multiplier, not a shadow-play for dupes.

As the influence Language writing wanes, I suspect that this cinemaphobia will drift away. One of the most thrilling books of poetry last year was Lina ramona Vitkauskas’s Neon Tryst, a collection very different from Göransson’s, but which is also evocative of the spectral, haunting dimension of film. And Rauan Klassnik, one of the most brilliant poets around today, writes poetry that appears to be highly informed by the language of cinema, with odd edits, mini-narratives, and a materialist religiosity that seems to stem as much from Pasolini and Buñuel as Bataille.

There is another link between Glenum and Göransson’s two new books, and that is how they are both books about events. While reading them, I kept thinking back on Monsieur Oscar in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. When the metaphysical performer is asked why he goes on, he answers that it is because of the “beauty of the act.” Both of these books are filled with beautiful (and horrific, and startling) acts, and these acts are related to art-making, art-construction.

As the Smear says in Pop Corpse, “I make a spasmatic pose for the penal colony. I wear a gas mask for the finale. The tourists are allowed to take my photographs if they offer me some food.” And as the narrator in Haute Surveillance writes, “Together we are working in a new medium: sweat clothes. We’re interested in mediumicity. In one sweat cloth we see an image of an artist’s body after a car crash: all ornamental. In another we see a dark lady who may be our lady of the video malaise.” These books are from the Warholian Factory. And because they are books of action and event, they don’t allow us lounge about on a clean, conceptual hillside, above the muck and dirt and sweat. They plunge us into it.

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"Beautiful Soul Syndrome" (Timothy Morton)

by on Aug.03, 2013

“A truly theoretical approach is not allowed to sit smugly outside the area it is examining. It must mix thoroughly with it. Adopting a position that fogoes all others would be all too easy, a naive negative criticism that is disguised position all of its own. it is all very well to carp at the desires of others while not owning up to the determinacy of one’s own desire. This is a political as well as an intellectual position, one to which ecological thinking is itself prone. After Hegel, I call it beautiful soul syndrome… The “beautiful soul” washes his or her hands of the corrupt world, refusing to admit how in this very abstemiousness and distaste he or she participates in the creation of that world. The world-weary soul holds all beliefs and ideas at a distance. The only ethical option is to muck in…”

(Timothy Morton, from “Ecology Without Nature”)

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"Corean Music": Göransson on art and violence

by on Aug.01, 2013

Somewhat surprisingly, I’m guest-blogging over at the Poetry Foundation Blog this month. Please feel free to respond here because they don’t have a comment section, I believe.


This shattering artistic experience seems more public than the kind of private experience generally portrayed in contemporary poetic discourse. According to a lot of discussions of contemporary poetry, the readers are complete agents who “access” the interiority of the artwork (something you find by transcending the stuff, the language, the metaphors, etc.) of the poem. Or we fail to access the meaning, either because the artwork fails to make itself available to us, or because we are not in possession of the proper learning. All of this takes pace in the private study of the ideal, well-educated reader who has learned how to close read—or “access”—the poem’s meaning.

In “Corean music,” Savage-Landor has to struggle to gain control by learning its conventions and gaining some distance from the work, and that seems like the ethical thing to do as an anthropologist. But as an allegory about the experience of art, I find that it’s the murderous impact before learning to appreciate the artwork, before gaining that distance from the music that is the most intense, that gives the best example of how art affects me. While gaining distance makes the artwork intellectually accessible to him, it is when he’s most bewildered by the art that he’s also most close to it. This certainly is a different model, where affect takes you out of the private intellectual sphere of the study and into the circuit of the foreign.

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