“Visual Fascination”: More Thoughts on the “Nearly Baroque” and the “Baroque”

by on May.08, 2014

We have had some discussion of Steve Burt’s “Nearly Baroque” article here on Montevidayo. Mostly we have been critical of the article, but I wonder if we cannot use it as a starting point for some more discussions of taste, translation and excess.
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I certainly still believe that excluding any discussion of translation, especially translation of Latin American poetry, is at best what Joyelle called “a missed opportunity” and what Lucas said indexed “a certain allergy and attraction to the foreign, a certain anxiety over the loss of canon control.”

As I noted, this is an article that is very much trying to come to terms with a notion of taste, of the value of restraint as a model of taste. I wrote about this matter a few days ago. What is the pedagogical value to warn against “going too far”? Or using a “nearly baroque” to set up against an over-the-top baroque?

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I think that’s a disastrous rhetoric that discourages writers from going all the way, truly being seduced and intoxicated by their art. And since this rhetoric is pervasive in poetry discussions, I have often railed against it.

As I noted, this tastelessness is not a separate issue from translation: in Haroldo de Campos’s criticism, it’s in fact the “transvoration” that leads to a baroque over-the-top idea of poetry. Sergio Bessa notes in his intro to the selected de Campos that it was translation that led de Campos to move from a concretist poet to a baroque poet.

However, I think it would be interesting to move beyond our criticism of Burt to think about the ways that the article actually have some baroque effect on contemporary American poetry. If we strip away the moderation/nearly rhetoric, Burt does write about some really interesting poets – Robyn Schiff, Nada Gordon etc – that seem anything but “moderate”! Goeffrey Nutter’s book is one of the weirdest books I’ve read in a long time!

Further, many of the points he brings up are points we have brought up here on Montevidayo. For example, this sounds exciting to me:

The twenty-first-century poets of the nearly Baroque want art that puts excess, invention, and ornament first. It is art that cannot be reduced to its own explanation, that shows off its material textures, its artificiality, its descent from prior art, its location in history. These poets want an art that can always give, or could always show, more.

The key here for me is “show” and “more.” I associate the baroque with a saturative aesthetic, an intensive focus on the visual, on what Steve Shaviro (writing about the movie Blue Steel) writes: “… visual fascination as a restless, shattering mobility – rather than as the stabilizing fixation assumed by so much film theory.”

I might add, contemporary poetry criticism. And I should add that I found Steve’s essay on the “new thing” a few years ago very helpful in diagnosing a certain pervasive rhetoric of “thingness” that excluded the flamboyant, the artsy, the showy, the fake, the ornamental, “candy surrealism” etc.
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I have written quite a bit about this rhetoric on this blog (and before that on Exoskeleton, my first blog). The key for me is this restrictive economy of this thing-rhetoric, a tastefulness that in the name of “rigor” excludes and condemns as frivolous the visual, the over-the-top… yes, the baroque… as kitsch.

Kitsch, which Daniel Tiffany we keep reminding everyone has argued is about “excessive beauty.” (Not at all lack of artistry, but a seduction by artistry.)

I have tended to see in this “rigorous” defense against the “candy” kitsch, a defense against a Bataillean “general economy”, against the wasteful luxury.

Burt himself entertains this possibility:

The British critic and poet Angela Leighton, in her important book On Form (2007), has argued that aestheticism is always close to nihilism, belief in form or beauty for its own sake close to belief in “nothing.” The nearly Baroque argues otherwise, making us, as the poet Marc McKee puts it, “celebrant[s] in the throes of nothing,” emphasizing delight in our alterable material world. Form, for these poets, grows out of and exceeds subject, matter, material, the weight of paint, the phonemes in words: form occurs not because we have nothing, but because we want more.

I think there might be interesting new directions to take based on this article. I might for example compare the intensively visual montage work of Robyn Schiff and Aase Berg. I might think about the role of fashion in Schiff and Chelsea Minnis. I might think about the role of the gaudy in Nada Gordon and Joyelle’s work. I might think about the role of violence in ornamentality. (And how might Sade Murphy’s comments from the other day fit in with this: “Violent ornateness. I don’t want ornate to be confused with superfluous because the violence is necessary, it serves a purpose and isn’t ornamental.”). I might think about Ronaldo Wilson’s dancing videos. What might it have in common with Nutter’s adamant ornamentality? And what political dimensions might such an ornamentality contain/release?

Most importantly, I might just argue that Burt’s unwillingness to define “nearly” in his article is in fact a wound that cannot be sewn up because the baroque is exactly about the shattering of the kind of moderation that “nearly” is supposed to connote. And it is out of or into that wound we might take this discussion!

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4 comments for this entry:
  1. Chris Holdaway

    I’ve always found the talk of restrained/tasteful = rigour vs. decadent/overdetermined/baroque = sans rigour to be a little shy of the truth.

    Surely, to pull off powerfully unrestrained writing requires just as much consideration as the terse. Or, rather, there’s nothing inherent in either ‘angle’ to say one works harder than the other.

    To be clear, I can’t recall an instance of someone saying that decadence specifically doesn’t have ‘rigour’. It’s an exclusion thing, again. A defense mechanism of omission, for detractors that need all this to be frivolous, so as to justify turning away.

  2. Johannes

    Chris,
    I’m interested in how a kind of conservative (literally) rhetoric tends to make things both “too much” and “lacking” at the same time. Smells like a dead dog is buried in this rhetoric. / J

  3. John Bloomberg-Rissman

    Not on the baroque per se, but relating to many similar posts of yours, and to Lucas’s “certain allergy and attraction to the foreign”, I just wonder if you have seen Benjamin Hollander’s In the House Un-American, which I just finished, and have to review in the next week or so, and which kept reminding me of your discussions of translation etc http://www.interlinkbooks.com/product_info.php?products_id=3087

  4. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    Some Are Born to Sweet Delight, Some Are Born to The Endless Night
    (Wm. Blake/Jim Morrison)

    Baroque paintings unfold light(s) out-sourced in wild kinds and high numbers: natural, artificial, impossible as well. The supernatural glow of God falls even up. The corpse of one dead saint effuses its own mystic light while sprawled sun-drenched in a field. Allegorical emblems emanate symbolic luxe, looks plus luz and color resounds raucously anywhere it wants — at whim, wish or will — implausibly localized. Um, isn’t this our landscape now? The new baroque must include our realm of omnipresent luminescent screens; Sensurround lite pulsing even from our palms, cell phones recall stigmata. Backlit Ion pixilled pigments, “man” made Pantone hues. No baroque master could choose Pthalo blue. Don’t Broke(n) paintings that have since been cleaned scream irreconcilably loud of “too much” unruly unholy unhealthy inorganic color?

    (I owe some of this thought to the film-still paintings of David Reed)

    G C-H