by Johannes Goransson 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.
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.