Scott McFarland’s O Human Microphone (and related thoughts)

by on Apr.18, 2014

Markets predate capitalism. Capitalism is better understood as designating a society that subordinates all processes — notably the metabolism between humanity and nature, the production and distribution of goods and services, the function and composition of government, and of course, market exchange — to the private accumulation of capital.   — Benjamin Kunkel

Occupy Wall Street says / yes to spectacle./ Yes to virtuosity. / Yes to transformations / And magic and make-believe.      — Scott McFarland

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I’m a big fan of David Foster Wallace — I tend to think of him as probably the best American fiction writer of his generation — and yet there has always been one aspect of his work I’ve disagreed with: the theme of irony versus sincerity. We see it in some his interviews, and it’s a shaping force in many of the stories in Hideous Men. Irony, here, seems incompatible with sincerity, with an expression from the truer aspects of the self. As Wallace said in one interview, irony becomes the bird in love with its own cage. In some of the stories in Hideous Men, there is a constant attempt to undo irony, to take off the multiple masks, to approach the reader as a naked self (fully aware that this self might be a mask too, and not free of manipulative impulses).

But I don’t think there has to be a divide between irony and sincerity. As the Narrator says in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, sometimes we are at our most sincere when being at our most ironic, even mocking. For example, the scene where the Underground Man is waxing sentimentally about family life to Liza, the prostitute he has just slept with. Though the Narrator is performing, and deliberately trying to make Liza uncomfortable with his sentimental visions, he also realizes, as he goes on with his speech, that he is moved by it: he is performing, and yet caught up in his own performance (“I was so carried away by my pathos that I began to feel a lump forming in my throat…”).

And what could be more sincere than Swift’s Modest Proposal? Or Voltaire’s Candide? Works dripping with acidic irony. Godard is one of the great ironists in film, and yet it would be strange to argue he doesn’t have deep-seated political beliefs, or a “sincere” vision of a better world.

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Again, I’m saying this as a fan of Wallace’s work. It could well be the case that the associations Wallace thought of regarding “irony” are very different from my own. In some interviews, he seems to relate irony to a kind of disaffected hipster stance, someone too cool to be bothered with beliefs, passions, and interests. Not Warhol, I guess, but all those people who try (and fail) to be the new Warhol. (After all, Warhol might have wanted to be disaffected and boring, but he was never able to do so — Warhol was fascinating, despite himself.) If Wallace meant “irony” in this light, sure, I agree with him. What could be more inane, in 2014, than someone trying to assume the disaffection and boredom Warhol desired but never achieved?

But why should irony be regulated to such a narrow, negative space? And any take on irony that doesn’t have space for ironists like Swift and Voltaire seems to stack the deck against the notion that irony can be as intense, or even electrifying, as sincerity.

(Of course, all of this is wildly subjective. I find Godard’s films from the 60s to be very intense, Art at its highest intellectual and emotional register, but I know plenty of people who find those same movies to be cold, dry, and overly cerebral. So much depends upon how the brain is hardwired.)

It could also be argued this anxiety over irony and persona underlines those aspects of the poetry scene that tend to distrust metaphor, the first person, the image, etc., as if by jettisoning such techniques and approaches we come closer to a grander, more objective, more structural truth. Something borderline scientific. A poetry immune to criticism since it would have removed all those false, theatrical idols. This is doubtlessly another manifestation of a drive for sincerity and foundation (even if this drive wears the mask of the social scientist, the linguist). But as Foucault argued, why are we so obsessed by “truth”? Why are we so unaware of the history of “truth” itself?

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Which brings me to Scott McFarland’s odd, bold, inventive, loopy, biting, and joyous book O Human Microphone (1913 Press). In the last decade or so there has been a renaissance in American political poetry — a renaissance whose high-water marks, I would argue, have been books such as Reines’ Mercury, Göransson’s Haute Surveillance, and Wilson’s Poems of the Black Object. McFarland’s work belongs with those. Like those texts, his Microphone is more interested in questions, paradoxes, and contradictions than anything singularly doctrinaire, either aesthetically or politically. He uses elements of Conceptualism, but in such a freewheeling manner it would be impossible to label him a Conceptualist. Also, like those other books, McFarland’s work is one of performance and persona, ghosts and echoes.

Even the premise of the book relates to performance: each line is printed in pale print, and then repeated in darker print, as if to suggest that what we are reading if being repeated via the Occupy human megaphone. Which automatically brings up the question of how to read the book. Should we actually read each line twice? Or is the paler print meant to be a visualization of an echo effect (and therefore not meant to be actually read)? When I first started reading it, I did read each line twice, but I soon started to read only the darker lines. Yet the pale print remains in view, in the corner of your eye, creating a continual alienation effect that reminds us every line is being spoken again, and again, and again, through this human microphone. It adds a spectral quality to each utterance, as if we were already hearing/seeing the line vanish through a vague, numberless crowd even as we glance over the words.

At AWP, I overheard a few people ask McFarland how he planned to read the poems at his readings. Would he read each line twice? It was a good question, and though he read each line once, it is easy to imagine a performance (if only in the mind’s eyes) of an actual Occupy-style microphone relating each line further and further into the crowd.

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The poems themselves become even stranger when we imagine them being performed in such a way. While the tone tends toward speech-making (“O proletarian television producers. / I see your carpeted stages / your worn chairs / your fake plants…), the things being expressed are not usual concerns for public addresses (as seen in the lines just quoted). These aren’t confident proclamations of some political vision, or polished political rhetoric. In one poem, McFarland writes, “ O democracy. / You keep being this and not that. / I don’t know what I want from you. / You keep refusing to let me look at you, talk to you.” Imagine such lines being directed through an actual human megaphone, and you begin to sense the radical weirdness of this book.

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And its brilliance too: because in such moments the public/private becomes truly entangled, enmeshed. Is this the crowd thinking itself (something akin to Aristotle’s notion of the prime mover being “thought thinking itself”)? Is this a single entity with multiple voices, a Deleuzian rendering of Rimbaud’s “I is another”? I contain multitudes becomes We are many becomes Not-I. At times, the book seems to address this tension directly, as when the Voice says, “O megaphone. / O stupid device. / Why do you disobey? / Why am I waiting / for the trumpet and the thunders? / I am your owner. / Function! / This is your command. / You have been abundantly furnished / with powers and means to serve me.” Is this the Voice disappointed that it has not fused with the crowd, with the “human” megaphone”? Is this some sort of political disenchantment? A moment of utopian fatigue? And yet, if we also see these lines as winding its way through a multitude, a crowd, it takes on a new aspect: it is as if the crowd itself is turning against its own “megaphone,” the very thing that makes the lines in this book possible. The “owner” is everyone; they want themselves, in a sense, to “function.” And the “you” of the megaphone (“You have been abundantly furnished…”) becomes the I/we of the crowd.

Another element of this book that I find exhilarating its appetite for source material. Like the endless quotations in Godard and, to a lesser extent, early Don DeLillo, McFarland incorporates (as stated in the back of the book) lines from figures as diverse as Oscar Wilde, Karl Rove, Charles Baudelaire, Muhammad Ali, and Sir Walter Scott. Some of the lines I recognize in the book — others not at all. And the quotes are often tweaked, changed, so that the syntax and rhythm remains the same, but the actual expression is different. One of the motifs, for example, is from Ginsberg’s Howl, where something is noticed (in one instance a Scottish Terrier instead of “the best minds of my generation”) and then seen/witnessed (“I see / your bundle of thirteen arrows in one hand…I see / the arc of thirteen cloud puffs”).

There’s nothing new about appropriation and quotation — blues singers were doing it a century ago, and to much greater effect than most Conceptual writing does — but McFarland’s sheer giddiness about it, the wide rage of his source material, gives the reader a sense of a writer actively engaged in the oceanic slip-stream of past, present, and future.

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Lastly, there’s the language itself, which often has the other-worldly simplicity of advertisements and slogans. Or, for that matter, Yoko Ono’s early books. In one passage we read, “It seems Congress is sitting on its hands. / The governing elite doesn’t give a damn. / Many experts have a sick feeling about America’s future prospects.” And this is where the element of irony I mentioned at the start of this review comes in most directly. This passage, and many others like it, is an ironic take on public-speak, a voice both located and anonymous. Yet, it speaks of Occupy, of the 2008 crash; it picks up on the registers of our moment and reflects it back to us. The very simplicity of the language makes it strange, alien, and yet uncannily familiar. This public-speak can also turn personal, existential: “How do I know what change is possible? / How it will or won’t come about? / Who am I to say how society should be organized?”

One of DeLillo’s continual themes, going all the way back to Americana, is the notion that we can never get past the images and representations that create who we are. It’s why his characters so often seem impersonal and detached even in crisis, seeing themselves, in their most private moments, as figures from a film, a commercial, or some highly imagined history. (This is also why DeLillo is a genius at metaphor: every instant becomes an echo.)

So to in McFarland’s world. In O Human Microphone, “personal” moments are mixed in with phrases from Olive Garden commercials, cubicles give rise to such thoughts as, “Am I ready to sound the deeps of my nature? / The parts of my nature that are deeper than me / that go back to the very dawn of man?”

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This book has a great design, by Ben Doller. It is red, compact, with a vaguely Soviet-style cover.  You can put it in your back pocket as you ride the train to work, or as you walk down the street, taking it out at odd moments of the day to read. This really is political poetry at its best: not a work of sackcloth and ash and moral self-congratulation, but of engagement, humor, delight.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Thomas Cook

    With respect to Wallace and irony, I can offer the following: The views on irony expressed above, revolving around the idea that irony does not necessarily preclude sincerity, are not completely at odds with Wallace’s discussion of irony or the discourse on Wallace, irony, and sincerity (Mary Holland’s SUCCEEDING POSTMODERNISM is good on these issue qua Wallace and narcissism); however, and this may be more crucial for the McFarland book than for Wallace’s work, though Wallace doesn’t necessarily say or write that the use of irony and ironic tropes (doublespeak here seeming relevant) is necessarily insincere or incapable of communicating a sincere message, he certainly does suggest in several places (beginning with “E Unibus Pluram” and continuing later in the Chris Fogle novella within The Pale King) that irony’s ability to critique has been comprised by the appropriation of ironic forms by popular media, among other things. The observation that exposure to such media is related to the impersonal and detached DeLillo characters seems right here and is without doubt in line with Wallace’s views on irony.