Criticism / Jen Hedler Phillis
:: Against Feeling Dumb ::
“If they don’t need poetry, bully for them. I like the movies, too.”
— Frank O’Hara, “Personism: A Manifesto”
The world of poetry seems hopelessly divided into two camps: the lyricists and the experimentalists, the Blooms and the Perloffs, the Lowells and the Oppens, the Heaneys and the Hejinians. Add to that list Calvin Bedient, who advocates for a return to a “poetry of affect,”[i] and Kenneth Goldsmith, who advocates for a culture-wide embrace of “being dumb.”[ii] Although both men pose as defenders of their respective embattled aesthetic orientations, close attention to their arguments reveals that they occupy identical positions regarding a poem’s place in the world—a position, it turns out, that doesn’t believe poetry, in itself, is something all that valuable.
Bedient’s argument in “Against Conceptualism” is that conceptual poetry is a mechanism for the repression of both emotion (in the form of melancholy) and political engagement (in the form of militancy). He writes, “[m]elancholy and militancy, those contrary but subtly related elements of the poetry of affect, cannot be excised from literature, in favor of methodology, without both emotional and political consequences: misery in the first instance, cultural conformity in the second.” Before we can accept that the consequences of such unfeeling poems and poets are as dire as Bedient claims, we need to split his argument in two to see if it holds water. The first claim is that melancholy is central to the poetic project; the second, that poetry’s melancholy is a mechanism for militancy.
What is not immediately obvious in Bedient’s writing is whether he longs for a more melancholic and militant poet or a more melancholic and militant audience. The argument seems to be a rallying cry for poets; he chastises “[t]he uncreative heads” of experimental poetry who “shook off the body, everything that was alive enough to die.” If what he does intend is for us to gauge the poet’s melancholic level, then, it turns out we’re not judging the poem at all. Take the two great melancholic poems of the nineteenth century: Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” While Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle” is typically understood to be autobiographical, as is most of his work, we don’t have any hard evidence that attests that young Walt, once, on Paumanok, heard the lonely mocking-bird call out for his mate. We do, however, know that Poe never loved and lost Lenore, never flung the shutter, never saw the flirt and flutter of that stately raven. Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” explains that the poem was devised following a basic set of steps through which he determined the length, tone, rhythm, and refrain well before deciding that the poem would mourn Lenore. Now, if we were to find Whitman’s own “Philosophy of Composition,” wherein he describes that he, in fact, didn’t much like being out-of-doors, found bird-song irritating, and wrote poetry because he (wrongly) imagined it would make him money, would “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” lose its status as a great poem? Of course it wouldn’t, and I’m quite sure Bedient would agree. Therefore, why ascribe the biographical poet with a melancholic affect? It can’t be the case that Bedient thinks only those of us with a particularly strong sense of melancholy should write poetry.
Perhaps, then, Bedient wants to locate melancholy in the reader. But, as it turns out, this isn’t a good way to go about things either, because just as when we measured Poe’s and Whitman’s respective melancholic levels and ended up not talking about poetry, if we’re worried about the audience’s melancholic levels, we’re talking about them, not the poem. Moreover, such a conversation is destined to lead nowhere. A poem that makes me feel melancholic (“Out of the Cradle,” certainly; Celan’s “Sprich auch du,” for sure; but also Frank O’Hara’s “Meditations in an Emergency”) might not make you feel melancholic. Despite this, we can still have a conversation about the poem. I can say, “‘Out of the Cradle’ dramatizes the hopelessness of the elegiac project while still insisting on its necessity,” and you, I hope, would say, “Yes, that’s what the poem is about.” Because when you and I are talking about poetry, we’re not talking about our emotions: we’re talking about what we think the poet meant for us to understand as a result of reading the poem. If you say, in response to my analysis of “Out of the Cradle,” “That poem makes me laugh,” then we’re not going to have much of a conversation: that’s a fact about you, not about the poem.
A generous reading of Bedient would set aside his seeming desire to analyze the levels of melancholy and militancy in artist and audience and instead posit that he believes good poetry is the kind that is intended to evoke a particular kind of emotional response in its audience (melancholy in “Out of the Cradle” or “Sprich auch du”; anger in Juliana Spahr’s “HR4811 is a joke”). If that’s the case, then the conversation we, as critical readers of poetry, would have wouldn’t stop at “that poem made me sad,” but would extend to questions about how the poet designed her poem to evoke such an emotion, whether or not it was effective, and so on. But, at that point, we still aren’t talking about how we feel, we’re talking about how the work of art is constructed and why we think the poet would do it that way.
So, melancholy—located either in poet or reader—isn’t much of a criteria for judging poetry itself. What about militancy? Certainly, poets have often claimed the political import of their work—we’ll see shortly how Kenneth Goldsmith, described by Bedient as conceptualism’s “able exponent,” understands the politics of his project; but we can also think of the anti-capitalist claims made by the Language Poets in the 1970s or Percy Bysshe Shelley’s nineteenth-century claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Bedient’s version of the claim rests on the assumption that one only gets political once one gets emotional. He writes:
Veined and vexed by the sensations organized around melancholy and militancy, the imagination is essential to politics: your positions make me miserable, make me mad. It is the imagination that has to conceive opposition. It has to feel it. Otherwise, it is merely being contrary, which is the conceptualists’ post-political position.[iii]
Bedient misunderstands what it means to “be contrary.” Here, he describes it as espousing a belief that one has no strong emotional investment in. But, that’s not quite right. “Being contrary” is the same as playing devil’s advocate: you take up a position not because you believe it, but just to momentarily occupy it. The difference between being contrary and advocating a deeply held belief isn’t emotional, it’s intellectual: to be contrary, you can’t believe; to hold a position, you must believe. But, just as he did with melancholy, Bedient occupies a position about which no debate can be had. I can say, “I don’t feel my politics, I believe in them,” and he might respond, “Well, I feel mine.” There is no criteria for judging whether Bedient is “right” in his position because when it comes to feeling, the categories of “right” and “wrong” simply don’t apply. I cannot call his emotional response “wrong” (I might call it “inappropriate,” perhaps, if he laughed at a funeral) for exactly the same reason I can’t say that it’s “wrong” that someone has a headache or the flu: humans have no conscious control over their physical or emotional responses to stimulus. (Bedient seems to get this, at least initially, as he contrasts conceptualism’s attention to thought to his poetry of affect’s attention to feelings.[iv]) In contrast, I do have conscious control over my beliefs. I believe in a particular political program because I have analyzed evidence, considered options, and come to a particular set of solutions to what I understand as the world’s problems. Admittedly, some days I am miserable and mad, but other days I’m rather complacent, even happy. On those happy, complacent days, the state of affairs that my politics hopes to address has not changed, nor have my politics changed. Because my beliefs, just like the meaning of poems, have nothing to do with how I feel.
All of this is to say that Bedient, throughout “Against Conceptualism,” mistakes feeling for meaning. So, we might think that conceptualism, associated as it is with thought rather than emotion, would offer a better account of how a poem comes to have meaning. If we turn to Kenneth Goldsmith, however, we’ll see that he misses the point as well, albeit in a slightly more interesting way.
“Being Dumb,” published in July in The Awl, reads like Arcade Fire doing stand-up, but instead of the jokes being “men walk like this” and “women walk like that,” Goldsmith distinguishes between “smart-smart” people (poet Christian Bök—who also appears in Bedient’s piece—NPR News, the New Yorker), “dumb-dumb” people (“racists and rednecks”), and “smart-dumb” people (Goldsmith—self-described as “perhaps one of the dumbest that’s ever lived”—as well as Andy Warhol, “Gertrude Stein, Vito Acconci, Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, Seth Price, Tao Lin, Martin Margiela, Mike Kelley, and Sofia Coppola”).[v] The difference between smart-smart and smart-dumb that Goldsmith most cares about (he doesn’t really care about dumb-dumb) is that smart-smart “brims with value” while smart-dumb “owes nothing to anyone.” He writes that smart-smart, “[h]aving sweated for what it’s accomplished, […] pays a handsome dividend to those invested.” It is hard, in 2013, to read “dividend” and “invested” as references to the kind of personal satisfaction one presumably gets from, for example, having read a “smart” book. Instead, we must read them as references to the very tools that, just a few years ago, brought the global economy to a standstill and then re-rigged it in favor of the wealthy. Goldsmith valorizes this interpretation at the end of the article, when he writes that “[t]he world runs on smart. It’s clearly not working.” In contrast to the now ethically suspect “smart-smart,” “smart-dumb” “[t]rad[es] on the mundane and common, […] plays a low-stakes game […] and in that way it is free.” What differentiates smart-smart from smart-dumb, then, is not the superficial difference between preferring Christian Bök to Kenneth Goldsmith, NPR to Sofia Coppola, or the New Yorker to Tao Lin, but the way value either inheres or fails to inhere in their respective projects.
Initially, then, it seems that what Goldsmith is describing when he says that his art (as opposed to Bök’s) “owes nothing to anyone” is a very traditional aesthetic theory that posits the artwork as autonomous from the world. That is, Goldsmith seems to suggest that a particular kind of valuelessness (Kant would have called it purposelessness) is what marks the difference between his book Traffic (a transcription of traffic reports over a holiday weekend in New York City) and the traffic reports it transcribes. The difference between the two comes down to the object’s relationship to the world. While a traffic report’s success is judged on its accurate relationship to the world, Traffic is judged by a different set of criteria: the book isn’t considered a failure if a reader finds herself stuck in unexpected traffic; a traffic report on the radio would be. To put it differently, traffic reports would not exist were it not for the world. Traffic does not depend on any relationship with the world to exist.
I want to live in a world where the smartest thing you can do is the dumbest. I want to live in a world where a fluorescent tube leaned up against a wall is worth a million dollars. Or where a plumbing fixture on a pedestal is considered the most important artwork of the century. Or where building an eternally locked Prada store in a vast expanse of empty Texas desert is considered a stroke of genius. Or where all of the numbers from one to a thousand can simply be classified by alphabetical order and published as a poem.[vi]
So, it turns out, that the one thing that sets smart-dumb apart from smart-smart—its valuelessness—is the thing about smart-dumb Goldsmith would most like to change. Of course, there’s a joke here, and one that Goldsmith is in on: the world he describes is the world we already live in. Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light sculptures have sold for around a million dollars at auction; Duchamp is, if not the most important, one of the most important artists of the 20th century; Prada Marfa received a lot of press when it was initially installed in 2005 (and, a reproduction of its sign appeared in the van der Woodsen apartment on Gossip Girl, a show that uniquely captured our contemporary moment); and Nick Monfort has produced a computer program that alphabetizes Roman numerals from I to M. What this reveals, then, is that while “Being Dumb” might describe aesthetic preference, it doesn’t describe how aesthetic preference works.
When we turn to Goldsmith’s explicit statements about aesthetics, we find that he isn’t so different from Bedient. His most recent project, Printing out the Internet, was a primarily crowd-sourced project: people from all over the world printed out any number of pages of the internet and sent them to the LABOR gallery in Mexico City; at the same time, the gallery held marathon “readings” of the internet, using the crowd-sourced pages as the script. Goldsmith described the project initially as a tribute to hacker-activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide while awaiting trial for having downloaded millions of articles from JSTOR. As the project developed, however, it was met with massive environmental protests, culminating in a change.org petition to stop the project. In an interview with C-Net, Goldsmith responded to the protests generally, saying, “[i]n the tradition of conceptual art, […] the discourse surrounding the show is, in fact, the real show.”[vii] If the point of conceptual art or poetry is not the artwork, but what people say about it, then the artwork is, as it were, incidental, as decorative as the Prada Marfa sign hung on the set of a television show about the foibles of billionaire teenagers. If Goldsmith believes the point of art is the discourse it generates, then he cannot simultaneously believe that the work of art has any meaning on its own. Its meaning must be formed in collaboration with the audience. Such a belief undoes the theory of art implicit in “Being Dumb”: art isn’t autonomous; instead, it waits for an audience to fill in its meaning.
So, despite Bedient’s desire to make the “poetry of affect” different from conceptual poetry, and despite Goldsmith’s desire to set his own aesthetic practice apart from other poets and artists, both men have the same fundamental belief about art. Art, for Bedient and Goldsmith, only has meaning or value once it becomes part of the world. For art to count as art, they believe, the audience must respond to it. That is, they believe that the poem—whether a conceptual poem or a poem of affect—is ultimately defined by the audience, not the poet. While Goldsmith is less proscriptive—he would likely say “more democratic”—about what that response will be, even a cursory examination of both their positions reveals that neither cares much about the art of poetry at all; they care about what it might do to an audience. In other words, both Bedient and Goldsmith define meaning as if it were a property of the body or of a community of consumers. As such, they cannot simultaneously believe that the art of poetry is an autonomous aesthetic activity. If that’s the case, we can go ahead and do without poems altogether, can’t we?
[i] Calvin Bedient, “Against Conceptualism: Defending the Poetry of Affect,” Boston Review, July 24, 2013, http://www.bostonreview.net/poetry/against-conceptualism.
[iii] “Against Conceptualism.”
[iv] Bedient traces the division between conceptualism and the poetry of affect to the end of the 1960s, when those “uncreative heads effectively shook off the body.”
[v] “Being Dumb.”
[vii] Leslie Katz, “Artist wants to print out entire Internet to honor Aaron Swartz,” C-Net, June 6, 2013, http://news.cnet.com/8301-17938_105-57588137-1/artist-wants-to-print-out-entire-internet-to-honor-aaron-swartz/. And that show has indeed been entertaining. Goldsmith has responded in a few ways, none of which are particularly smart-smart (or, smart-dumb, really). In the same interview with C-Net, he pointed out the essential wastefulness of all art, citing the Venice Biennale and Jeff Koons’s use of “strip-mined aluminum,” a classic version of the “But, Mom, everyone at school already has an iPhone 5” argument. On the Tumblr dedicated to the project, he provides two additional responses: first, “[y]our environmental concerns are displaced anxiety about democracy; Secretly, what you hate most about Printing out the Internet is its democracy, that anybody can be an artist with a simple cmd/ctrl+p”; second, “[t]hink of how many invoices could’ve been written on all this paper had we not printed the internet on it. What a waste. Shame on us.” (I want to note that it is perhaps inaccurate to attribute these responses to Goldsmith; they appear on the Tumblr anonymously. They were, however, also tweeted by the UbuWeb account, which Goldsmith maintains.) It would be easy—fish-in-a-barrel easy—to describe why these responses are dumb-dumb, indicating, first, a fundamental misunderstanding of what is at stake when we talk about democracy (it has nothing to do with whether or not people are allowed to be “artists”) and, second, a fundamental misunderstanding of how capitalism works (it is not wholly reliant on the world’s paper supply).
Jen Hedler Phillis is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her dissertation, Lyric Histories, traces the appearance and disappearance of history in twentieth-century American poetry, arguing that the development of the historical in modernist and contemporary poetry mirrors economic developments both in the United States and Europe. She has presented work from her dissertation at the Marxist Literary Group Summer Institute and the New School for Social Research. For the record, she quite likes Arcade Fire.