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.


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.

22 comments for this entry:
  1. adam s

    JG–here’s an initial response to this piece: it seems, without offering an actual quotation (a fault I am about to commit too), to assume Swensen’s goal; more crucially, it assumes politically meaningful discourse must be predicated on conflict, and while it’s true that conflict abounds, I think it’s very important to try and be as nuanced as possible with how one regards it, and to try and figure out when it is indeed productive versus when it is running on autopilot. Back to the anthology–it’s important that compromise does not occur in the actual title. I don’t even like that anthology, but the dumpings on it haven’t seemed exciting to me either. OK, and regarding the market point–the idea that uncompromising athletics are anti-market place may or may not be wholly true, and as the borders between the braided skein of capital and every other aspect of life become increasingly eroded, or unraveled or what have you, any model that posits a way to have a sure-proof divide strikes me as rather nostalgic/simplistic (not accounting, among other things, for the fact that many a radical artist received extraordinary formal educational opportunities etc, such that capital and its endowments was/is never not there–unless Harvard is somehow not part of the Market.) Of course this pro-conjunction–or pro trying to connect–position is coming from an ornery animal who at times is appalled at some culturally largely assumed connections: I do not, for example, think Heterosexual women and Gay guys are anything like organic allies, though this does not mean implicating our lives within the other demographic isn’t a likely exciting dynamic to attempt. But now I’ve switched to blooded tendoned bodies, not bodies of work, and this may not be fair to the essay, which isn’t committing to analysis apart from aesthetic constellations. Final point: I don’t get why the essay assumes compromise somehow voids out difficulty, so the point that much hybrid work entails difficulties strikes me as almost laughable.

  2. adam s

    Is a hybrid even ever always a compromise? Is isolationism inherently worth maintaining? Brands/branding are/is a form of isolationism, I’d argue; and they are very potentially useful for harnessing capitals, but they don’t get one in opposition to Market logic, which seems to be a fractal formation at this point.

  3. adam s

    Oops–error on my part: quotations are included; but it is still notable that “compromise aesthetics” is the author’s own conversion, one which flattens out the potential kineticism of the word “fertile.”

  4. adam s

    Any anthology intro is likely to be a branding statement, so I certainly don’t want to suggest CS is outside of Market(ing) logic.

  5. adam s

    Oops again–I thought the whole essay was posted here; seeing as it’s not, my comments can only apply to the essay as it’s excerpted here.

  6. adam s

    OK–just quickly read whole essay; I find it assuming as more infallible than makes enough sense its core assumptions. As ww2 resistance was uncompromising, so too was what it was resisting. And if neoliberal logic has so massively infiltrated culture, exactly why would anyone–despite even their stated intent–be immune? And since when was compromise permanent? Has compromise itself ever been separate from the warp and woof of contingency? I feel like this essay badly wants an authentic, stable opponent to the status quo, one outside contingency and multiple conflicting valences–a damn monument, which does link to the lament of redacted understandings of history that inflects some discourses. Lastly, the entrepreneur point feels over-determined and under-exfoliated to me; without expansion, I don’t see how a pure, uncompromised stance would not at times gel with it–creating a journal is entrepreneurial, or at-east industrious. Lastly-lastly, why is radical assumed to be oppositional? Neoliberal vectors, for example, are the very apex of extremity. The status quo is totally extreme; it’s just not marked. Lastly-lastly-lastly, I wonder if compromise actually guarantees conflict (this may be where essay and I concur if I remember right). OK I have got to cliff-dive now; others need to replace me!

  7. Johannes

    I don’t think the essay is calling for a WW2-“uncompromised” aesthetic. Since in fact it uses the Flamethrowers as a model of what might be resistant: and she says very explicitly that the time for an easy division between avant-garde and mainstream is over (I disagree with that but that’s another post).
    What I do think she gets very right is this impulse to say that the compromise is always better, richer (obv since she quotes me on this). I think “difficulty” as included in American Hybrid is actually not challenging. It’s high culture, its tasteful, its what we want out of poetry.

  8. Johannes

    Of course, I’ve been saying (here) for years that the langpo model of avant-garde – opposition, apartness – is too easy for me.
    I prefer Kim Hyesoon’s model of extreme writing:

    “We carve on our body what society teaches us and continue this task, not knowing the identity they force us to have. This identity is carved on our faces and our skins. Not knowing our bodies have become “the paper made of human meat,” we stuff our bodies and make them a theater where cultural symbols or suppressed symbols play. It is not possible to explain women’s poetry until you sympathize with how women painfully go through the experience of having these tattoos carved on their bodies. At this point, women’s language is the butcher’s language who sells his or her body. It is grotesque and miserable.”


  9. a strauss

    The point that what used to be regarded as difficulty is no longer so interests me, but I’m not sure why distasteful amounts to difficulty–unless you actually mean something like people who find x-y-z distasteful are actually resorting to being simpletons and not getting the nuances–or value(s)– in x-y-z so they negatively judge instead of comprehend. The quotation you include–which I’m about to read as a whole even as it may be a part–, for example, does not strike me as difficult; it is lyric, charged description, not analysis with complete development of its reasoning, so it could strongly register with someone, or not–I can embrace it or choose not to, and because it is closer to being a poem than a developed argument, I am free of the hounds of un-hermetic reasoning, or reasoning that cannot be readily understood by a third party who is not already somewhat simpatico; I can make of it as I may, and not worry about the hordes of counter-acting points.

  10. Johannes

    No, I didn’t mean that has ‘hard to get’ – if anything the opposite – and that is hard/difficult for some people to stomach, for exmaple people who believe in an elegant “difficulty” of diction. / J

  11. adam s

    So, something like affective versus cognitive difficulty? (This splits cortexes from viscera in misleading ways, I’d argue, but…) I guess I’m the wrong person; I don’t find the above quotation gross, just un-persuasive. Actually honestly I find it like a more lively version of what I think of as almost a feminist theory cliché (tough that very concept makes me squirm), specifically a more energetic version of “written on the body.” The meat-paper is, perhaps paradoxically, quite a nice image, with nice being used not in the sense of “that was so kind of so and so,” but rather “that’s a nice car!” (Ferrari gleams in parking space; mm, I love ’em)! Now–and this I guess is sheer eccentricity, the minute the meat becomes cow or lamb, I might get a psychosomatic reaction. Red–like literally red, not in the technical sense of being meat from a hooved animal, and excepting squab breasts etc–is more often than not totally hard for me to handle. OK, to veer a bit: do you like Jeff Koons’ sex paintings starring him and his former Italian Parliament and porn actress wife? I do like them, and even more if she gave explicit consent to be in them. I like giant flower puppy even more, but that’s neither here nor there; it’s not meant to chide the paintings. Secondly, are you a Pam Anderson, Baywatch or Barbed Wire fan? If you are, I’m delighted to have some company–Barbed Wire is soooooooo perfectly perfectly perfectly; my friend tried to watch it with me, and e said it’s clearly a remake of Casablanca, which is awesome because there is even less reason for me to watch that movie now.

  12. Johannes

    Gross, cliche – these are “difficulties” of a sort for you (and “hybrid” poetics in general). THere is a moral core to a lot of your thinking – and one of the elements of that morality is that the status quo is “extreme” so that we should not write extreme poetry (gross, cliche etc). While I agree that we live in extreme circumstances, I don’t think that’s a reason for quiet poetry, it’s more reason to be extreme. As for KH’s quote: It’s an argument for extremity – not just for standing aside and feeling PC but to actually have one’s poetry participate in that kind of “butcher’s language.” I’m writing an essay on it right now. I haven’t watched Barbed Wire and I’m not a Pam Anderson fan. I guess I don’t now her work very well… ./ Johannes

  13. adam s

    What poems would be examples of difficult diction? I tend towards thinking of diction as so generally yummy that a foreboding word like difficult trips me up. Syntax, though, yah, strikes me as creating potential difficulties; I am obsessed with syntax, and in particular many skeins of Cole Swensen’s, such as in Oh–which I read bits of daily while on the toilet; more than any other writer I know of currently writing in English, I think she has created a signature syntax which is while not wholly hers more hers than the syntax of many other writers’ syntax (yes, there’s traces of Dickinson and Mallarme’s Throw of Dice and Waldrop’s road poem). I’m guessing this may be apex elegant difficulty to you?

  14. adam s

    OH but I do find the quotation moving now that I read it a third time; particularly the end word, miserable–that takes me from extended metaphor which enlivens to actual sadness, a very plain, un-performative one, not the confidence of willed abjection. I love when another reading go does such a different dynamic to me, though lament looking like a prior asshole.

  15. adam s

    I absolutely dispute the term “moral” core; I am invested in ethical world-views, not morality; and they are not synonyms: plenty of morality is the antithesis of ethical, which is utterly a zone of intensity, of tension, of explosive openness, of the very loudness, largeness, abundance of existence, of the impure, of the un-isolated, of the state which is not primarily internal, of the engaging with “foreign” matter, of generously hosting, or attempting to, rather than identifying as invasion or tumor that which does not bolster one’s subject position, of inviting and seeing as necessary the deformations that emerge when one exposes one’s position to counter-states, of not settling for a sanitized zone, of not embracing a quarantine. And pegging me as an advocate for quiet poetry seems really strange. It’d be so nice to not rather consistently get flattened by you; my self-interrogations, for example, generally seem to be totally elided. And since when is there only one valid reading of a quotation? And since when is finding something moving identical to being PC? Finally, unless extreme poetry is an exegetical, or final and irrevocably crystalline state, how are you able to establish that I advocate mild-mannered poetry? I sure as heck don’t usually write the stuff–as in timid mild poetry–but that is I’ll admit not relevant here because I can’t assume you’ve read much of it and of course I am subject to editors taking what they will and what they take may not be representative. OK, I’m out–probably to return again in a few weeks or months (if allowed), but for now gone. You should, however, watch Barbed Wire; but don’t read her novel: it really is terrible and not because the genre it work within is bad, but because it’s a bad case of a good mode!

  16. Johannes

    I wasn’t responding to your poems, I was responding to you saying KH’s statement was “gross”/cliche – which seems pretty “flattening”. It’s totally OK for you to disagree – with what I post, with how I interpret/respond to you – or not. I must say I’m pretty surprised that you get so angry over my short response. / Johannes

  17. adam s

    I never said the quotation was gross–if you had read it and not read an a-priori formula for what I wrote, you would have noticed I praised the meat-paper. I don’t mean to suggest you can’t read; I absolutely believe you very willfully read me as your formulas demand. The quotation does however fit with some hypothetical clichés–the “It is not possible to explain women’s poetry “until you sympathize with how women painfully go through the experience of having these tattoos carved on their bodies” is quite parochial in assuming that understanding can only come with identification, and fits well with the cliché that women are from Mars and men from Venus, that our worlds are essentially alien unless we cross an epistemic gulf. But as I have already stated, feminist as cliché makes me antsy, so I am not content to settle with this formula. Here’s why I’m upset at being identified as having many ideas predicated on having a moral core: many a social cleansing act has been morally grounded; groups who force via being wealthy abortion laws to change or be rendered more than less useless have moral cores; cruel nationalisms have moral cores. Morality is not at-all incommensurate with rape–2002 Gujarat may make a stellar example–economic sanctions leading to large-scale starvation, and many a form of supremacist epistemology. If my core was moral, I would think this very post does not have lacunae, does not have fissures; but because I am invested in ethics, I do not trust this post can serve as exegesis.

  18. Johannes

    I agree that this part of the quote – you can’t sympathize etc – could be read in that way, but I guess I just didn’t read it like that. In fact, I’m writing an essay about KH that makes the opposite point, but I’m glad you pointed it out b/c I might just have ignored it b/c I’m focused on the sense that the violence is happening on the bodies, and the language she uses is the butcher’s language – ie not some kind of essential experience – and elsewhere in teh same interview (I think) she talks about how “women” is not necessarily woman – she writes that she tends to like men who’ve been exiled (and she’s written a great mini essay about my poems) in part b/c they are “women”.

  19. adam s

    Further example of how morality and ethics are not synonyms; the quotation never actually says for men to understand women’s poetry–it uses the ungendered term you, unless one invokes the argument that within Heterosexual discourse the second person is often articulated as the other, the antagonist or incommensurate, which in many instances is male or vice-versa depending on the composer–so this necessitates acknowledging that the Mars Venus citation is not fair. My resistance–tough I was evasive, actually has to do with me being so persuaded by Butler’s discussion of how genitals are typically deemed essential for dividing humans into sexes–namely male and female–and how this very binary is produced by Heterosexuality–in other words that these categories do not precede it, but are produced by it, so that one is already in the zone of Hetero hegemony when one uses tis sex-genital axis as predicate for marking bodies. And, to bring in ethics again, I cannot allow Butler’s amazing writing to itself ossify into a formula. I cannot dismiss this ostensibly Heterosexual modality, and must try and be mindful of how hugely I contribute to its reiteration, how in so many ways I love–or at the least get great pleasure from the fact that humans have been axed into sexes. Morality is a marriage of straightening and excision; ethics demands that authority never be content with the notion its seamlessly coalesced. And, finally, ethics makes the term demands worth wondering about. In summary, via ethics all I get is an articulation of a deformation zone.

  20. Johannes

    Yes, this description of ethics I can support.

  21. Johannes

    And might this not be something like what Rachel Greenwald is moving toward with her discussion of the Flamethrowers? That is, not simple opposition between avant and quietism – as in the Silliman model, a model that has served as a kind of status quo for years – and not a “compromise” (American Hybrid seems actually to reinforce the Silliman model even as it pretend to repute it) – but a deformation zone.

  22. Phil Estes

    When she comes back around to The Flamethrowers in the end, and reveals Woods’ compromised reading, I got on board finally. I haven’t read the novel but now I am interested. It sounds like a critique, the novel that is sounds like a critique, of the type of indie-fiction filling the now complete vacuum left by alt-lit; a fiction interested in avant-garde tassels and complex narrative design, a machine that does its job but is not interesting. This seems worse to me because it is smarmy, it relies on literature I don’t find interesting–speculative fiction, itself something smarmy, an easy way to negotiate discussions of politics and race.

    I think the assessment of the MFA program is accurate, but my diss. head, a politically radical, confessional poet, has always made the case for the MFA in that it provides financial support and space for people who are not able to have the space to write without it–working class kids who wouldn’t have the ability to sit and think without it. I want to believe that, and I think she has run the MFA/PhD program I am in like that–she hasn’t really impressed a particular aesthetic. Maybe this occurs more at the “lower” programs, the ones that seem like blips. As a lower-middle-class kid educated in state schools that emphasize engineering and practical majors, I think I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without writing programs. I’d be hocking Android tablets for commission.

    There is a problem with the MFA and compromise aesthetics: it is, in some ways, an attempt to normalize the subaltern, to give them the idea that they can do this on their own, that high culture equals art. You see this in the Midwest, people dressing up awkwardly, saying “Yes I Can!” and yet posting links in support of Ron Paul on their fb feeds. This is the shit of entrepreneurial spirit. They’ve been sold first quietude, and now they have compromise. In this sense, it is another apparatus, a way for students to take on the mantle of clean, gritty narrative, or the neoliberal, white voice. To paraphrase Cathy Park Hong from a Poetry Foundation discussion a while back, to sound like Sharon Olds even when you don’t understand English. It creates an aesthetic that calls for art to be positive or easy or clever. It calls for wit, which is the most dangerous thing.

    The MFA should exist simply to create space and time to write for those who can’t afford Brooklyn or don’t even know Brooklyn beyond a daydream or Comedy Central. I didn’t get an MFA but a near-one, an MA, and in this space I was allowed to sort of do whatever I want in terms of my aesthetics. I think this is accurate of the CW PhD, the potential for it.

    I’m kind of all over the place, by KH’s quote echoes Catullus 16, which advocates for the poet to act however they want in their poems, because these are not the same thing. Why did all those monks keep Catullus in vases? Because we actually want to read that stuff.