Archive for November, 2014

Rachel Greenwald Smith on “Compromise Aesthetics”

by on Nov.18, 2014

Over on the website “The Account,” Rachel Greenwald Smith has an essay on what she calls “compromise aesthetics” of contemporary literature. I’m still thinking about this piece. Please let me know what you think!

1. Com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics under­lie a range of crit­i­cal approaches to con­tem­po­rary fic­tion and poetry, but their emer­gence has yet to be ade­quately historicized.

In her intro­duc­tion to the Nor­ton anthol­ogy Amer­i­can Hybrid (2009), Cole Swensen cel­e­brates the ten­dency for con­tem­po­rary works of poetry to make fer­tile com­pro­mises between tra­di­tional and exper­i­men­tal forms. She argues that this ten­dency, a qual­ity she sees as inte­gral to what she calls “hybrid poetry,” is defined by an inter­est in “plac­ing less empha­sis on exter­nal dif­fer­ences, those among poets and their rel­a­tive stances” in such a way that “leaves us all in a bet­ter posi­tion to fight a much more impor­tant bat­tle for the integrity of lan­guage in the face of com­mer­cial and polit­i­cal mis­use” (xxvi). In script­ing the “bat­tle” in these terms—poetry, envi­sioned in utopian terms as a united pro­gres­sive front, against the “mis­use” of commerce—Swensen at once makes a pow­er­ful plea for the social advan­tages of aes­thetic com­pro­mise and affirms poetry as an essen­tially polit­i­cally use­ful (i.e., left­ist) enter­prise. This stance typ­i­fies a posi­tion that I will call “com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics,” or the belief that con­tem­po­rary art is at its most socially rel­e­vant when it forges com­pro­mises between strate­gies tra­di­tion­ally asso­ci­ated with the main­stream on the one hand and those asso­ci­ated with exper­i­men­tal depar­tures from the main­stream on the other.

It was not so long ago that the very works that refused to com­pro­mise, those that placed clear empha­sis on dif­fer­ences among writ­ers’ rel­a­tive aes­thetic and polit­i­cal stances, were seen as the pri­mary means by which any bat­tle against the “com­mer­cial and polit­i­cal mis­use” of lan­guage could be fought. This is how the exper­i­men­tal move­ments of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury con­sti­tuted them­selves against the lit­er­ary norms of their period and sought to expose such norms as implic­itly in sup­port of the social, as well as the aes­thetic, sta­tus quo. [i] Yet the past few decades have seen a dra­matic increase in crit­ics and writ­ers whose inter­est in for­mally inno­v­a­tive work once may have made them seek out oppo­si­tional posi­tions argu­ing instead that such polar­iza­tions are no longer nec­es­sary. Observ­ing this trend, Ron Sil­li­man has recently asked, “Why is it that so many young writ­ers are con­flict averse in a world in which con­flict itself is inher­ent? What is the attrac­tion to not tak­ing a stand?”

This essay is an effort to answer that ques­tion through an assess­ment of recent crit­i­cal appraisals of the con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary cli­mate, includ­ing the defin­ing state­ments on hybrid and ellip­ti­cal poetry; post­language lyric; and post-postmodernist fic­tion. My inter­est here is not in the accu­racy of these appraisals as they per­tain to par­tic­u­lar lit­er­ary works. Instead, I focus on the ten­dency for crit­ics to cel­e­brate what they see as the end of the debates that emerged in the post­war period between those inter­ested in the desta­bi­liz­ing poten­tial of var­i­ous exper­i­men­talisms, and those inter­ested in the expanded access, pop­ulism, and social imme­di­acy asso­ci­ated with more acces­si­ble or main­stream forms.[ii]

A lot of people have been discussing “the avant-garde” recently, and Greenwald Smith offers some very provocative comments on this topic as well:

Pro­po­nents of com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics do have one thing right: if we are look­ing for a coher­ent avant-garde in con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary cul­ture, we are unlikely to find it. Today’s lit­er­ary pro­duc­tion is largely char­ac­ter­ized by the preva­lence of hybrid forms that bring together a range of tech­niques from pre­vi­ously opposed aes­thetic schools. But lin­ing up the utopi­anism of com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics with the utopi­anism of posi­tions like Fukuyama’s shows that the belief in the tri­umph of com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics is just as inat­ten­tive to the con­tin­ued pres­ence of crises and con­flict in the domain of lit­er­ary aes­thet­ics as the belief in a global cap­i­tal­ist utopia is to the polit­i­cal real­i­ties of the present.

And:

If we look closely at con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary works, we can see that aes­thetic chal­lenges con­tinue to exist in works that at first glance look like they con­form to the qual­i­ties cham­pi­oned by com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics. Many of these works are hybrid in form: they bring together for­mal strate­gies from a range of aes­thetic inher­i­tances. Yet this hybrid­ity does not resolve into an easy state of com­pro­mise.

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Prisoners: A Prepper’s Nightmare

by on Nov.17, 2014

Prisoners takes as its protagonist Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a man we might describe as a blue collar conservative Christian American who values family and self-reliance and views as intrinsically unreliable the fragile, gigantic, global apparatus we all cling to, dangling precariously as we are over the void. We might also describe him as a prepper. This movie is basically a prepper nightmare.

[Full spoilers ahead, like immediately – abandon all hope from here on out] Continue reading “Prisoners: A Prepper’s Nightmare” »

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Flowers of Violence: Atrocity Kitsch and American Poetry

by on Nov.11, 2014

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a response to Gregory Orr’s essay in the Writer’s Chronicle, in which he argues that Wordsworth is fundamentally democratic in his preface to the Lyrical Ballads because he argues for a non-flowery, non-poetic language that Orr sees as “open” to the lower classes.

But as I pointed out, this rejection of the “gaudy and inane phraseology” is anti-kitsch rhetoric. Further, Wordsworth was definitely not lower class, though he both used the ballad form (a fake lower class form) for an elite audience.
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But I wanted to point out another element of Orr’s essay and that’s his use of a soldier-poet as an example for how poetry should be “emotion recollected in tranquility” (rather than say poems written in the state of disaster). Orr writes that he had read a manuscript by an un-named contemporary US poet about his time as a soldier in Vietnam, and how the two poems he wrote while in Vietnam stuck out from the manuscript, not only as bad poems but as unreal poems (I can’t quite remember the exact word Orr uses). The poet-soldier needed distance to achieve a tranquility in order to really process the poetry.

Orr also gives a moving account of accidentally killing his own brother and how it took him years to process this violence.
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As I’ve written before, violence is everwhere. And poetry is not difference. The artistic experience is often a violent one. But contemporary American poetry critics still seems obsessed with distancing poetry from the violence of art and the violence of the world at large. It’s the dangers/fears of “aestheticizing violence” (which according to Benjamin is what the Nazis did, more about the Nazi-art connection some other time). And yet, violence is constantly brought in as a way of understanding poetry. Orr has to bring the war into his essay in order to remove poetry from it.

The thing that interests me about bringing it in is the way he joins the “gaudy and inane phraseology” of flowery language – of poetic language, of kitsch – to violence. Kitsch is violence. The poetic is inhuman.

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In Orr’s article, it’s a way to show the importance of achieving distance. I sometimes think about a post I remember reading on John Gallaher’s blog a long time ago, in which he referenced an essay by Hank Lazer about a panel on poetry in the mid 80s. The crux of the discussion between different poets (some language poets and some not) was the prevalence of feeling:

Continue reading “Flowers of Violence: Atrocity Kitsch and American Poetry” »

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