Forum on Compromise Aesthetics

Criticism Forum/ Johannes Göransson, Ryan Brooks, Stephen Burt, and Rachel Greenwald Smith

:: Introduction ::

In the Fall 2014 Issue, The Account pub­lished a man­i­festo by Rachel Green­wald Smith enti­tled “Six Propo­si­tions on Com­pro­mise Aes­thet­ics.” In that piece, Green­wald Smith high­lights the con­tra­dic­tions in the belief held by many con­tem­po­rary writ­ers and crit­ics alike that art is “at its most social­ly rel­e­vant when it forges com­pro­mis­es between strate­gies tra­di­tion­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the main­stream on one hand and those asso­ci­at­ed with exper­i­men­tal depar­tures from the main­stream on the oth­er.” Notably, she sug­gests that “com­pro­mise” is “symp­to­matic” of the emer­gence of neolib­er­al thought over the past thir­ty years. And, giv­en this fact, we should be cau­tious of cel­e­bra­to­ry claims that poet­ry has found a more “fer­tile” ground between avant-garde and tra­di­tion­al, arguably more acces­si­ble, forms. Her man­i­festo, true to its form and intent, incit­ed con­sid­er­able inter­est from those on both sides of the argu­ment. The Account has con­vened a spe­cial forum on “com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics” fea­tur­ing respons­es by Johannes Görans­son, Ryan M. Brooks, Stephen Burt, and of course, Rachel Green­wald Smith, who responds to her inter­locu­tors.

– Davis Smith-Brecheisen, Guest Crit­i­cism Edi­tor

 

:: The Intervention of Art’s Enchantment ::

Johannes Göransson

1.

The begin­ning of Jean Genet’s clas­sic Our Lady of Flow­ers (trans­lat­ed incred­i­bly by Bernard Frecht­man) is the most beau­ti­ful writ­ing I know:

Wei­d­man appeared before you in a five o’clock edi­tion, his head swathed in white bands, a nun and yet a wound­ed pilot fall­en into the rye one Sep­tem­ber day like the day when the world came to know the name of Our Lady of Flow­ers. His hand­some face, mul­ti­plied by the press­es, swept down upon Paris and all of France, to the depths of the most out-of-the-way vil­lages, in cas­tles and cab­ins, reveal­ing to the mirth­less bour­geois that their dai­ly lives are grazed by enchant­i­ng mur­der­ers, cun­ning­ly ele­vat­ed to their sleep, which they will cross by some back stair­way that has abet­ted them by not creak­ing. Beneath his pic­ture burst the dawn of his crimes: mur­der one, mur­der two, mur­der three, up to six, bespeak­ing his secret glo­ry and prepar­ing his future glo­ry.

A lit­tle ear­li­er, the Negro Angel Sun had killed his mis­tress .… (Genet  51)

I love how Wei­d­mann appears sud­den­ly in the five o’clock edi­tion like a vision—a lit­tle like how Bil­ly Hol­i­day appears sud­den­ly in Frank O’Hara’s famous ele­gy “The Day Lady Died”—inaugurating a flight of fan­cy in which images keep mul­ti­ply­ing and spread­ing. But of course in O’Hara’s poem, the sud­den appear­ance comes at the end of the poem, steer­ing us away from the quandary-induc­ing pick­ing through of books and booze and trans­port­ing us into that deathy-sacred-erot­ic space of her whis­per­ing per­for­mance where we all stop breath­ing. In Genet, this is where the book starts, and the whole nov­el takes place in a deathy-erot­ic-sacred space of art. In Genet’s book, art’s enchant­ment is not lim­it­ed to the mem­o­ry; art—in the shape of crime, or crime as art—intervenes in, sat­u­rates all of life. It is not an escape from life but a trans­for­ma­tion of life into some­thing too much, too full, over­done. One might say that Genet nev­er “stop[s] breath­ing” but goes on and on, and at the same time it is art’s necroglam­orous dimension—the way it stops our breath­ing (as when Weidmann’s hand­some, allur­ing image appears before us), it kills us. 

This is why it is so hard to live in this world if you are con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed by art; this soci­ety needs to exter­mi­nate art’s enchant­ment in favor of a “restrict­ed econ­o­my” (as described by Georges Bataille) of util­i­tar­i­an con­cerns.

There is no place for us in this func­tion­al­ist world, except maybe in the night, if “night” (in Raul Zurita’s words) is “the insane asy­lum of plants.” 

This is also why art is a crime, why enchant­ment is an inter­ven­tion in a world of con­sen­sus and agency, a world where peo­ple make deci­sions and solve crimes. Art’s inter­ven­tion is to ruin us. 

2.

Wei­d­mann appears and is imme­di­ate­ly “multiplied”—first in the news­pa­per copies, then by being com­pared to a nun “and yet a wound­ed pilot,” and this wound­ed pilot leads to the dou­bling of the day (both as a Sep­tem­ber day and the day that Our Lady of Flow­ers is found out). His mul­ti­ply mul­ti­plied face is then trans­port­ed through­out the land to remind every­one of “enchant­i­ng mur­der­ers.” The key for me is the word “enchanted”—a term often asso­ci­at­ed with fairy­tales. In this book, the crim­i­nals are enchanting—that is to say, they are poet­ic like the prose style.

Genet’s prose style is wound around and around like the swaths of Weidmann—and the nun and the wound­ed pilot. One might say that it’s the very def­i­n­i­tion of “Baroque”:

From birth, the Baroque was des­tined for ambi­gu­i­ty, for seman­tic dif­fu­sion. It was the thick, irreg­u­lar pearl—in Span­ish bar­ru­co, berrue­co, in Por­tugese bar­roc­co—the rocky, the knot­ted, the agglu­ti­nat­ed, den­si­ty of the stone—bar­rue­co, berruc­co, or per­haps the excres­ence, the cyst, some­thing that pro­lif­er­ates, at once free and lith­ic, tumor­ous, warty; per­haps the name of the hyper­sen­si­tive, even man­nered pupil of the Car­rac­cis .… Final­ly … the Baroque is defined as “shock­ing bizarreness” (Lit­tré) or as “out­landish­ness, extrav­a­gance and bad taste. (Sar­duy 270) 

I love how Sarduy’s own crit­i­cal prose mim­ics the “thick, irreg­u­lar pearl” of the baroque. As in Genet, here baroque is some­thing that winds, swathes in lay­ers, and “pro­lif­er­ates.” It is both the seem­ing­ly ele­vat­ed and free, and the tumor­ous and warty. The key here is that arti­fice is not—as it is often viewed—the oppo­site of the bod­i­ly and “warty,” the abject, but rather is some­thing that col­laps­es such dis­tinc­tions. 

In Genet, after all, even a fart can become a beau­ti­ful, ornate, ori­en­tal “pearl” through the arti­fice-sat­u­rat­ed lifestyles of the drag queens and crim­i­nals that pop­u­late his book—and are pop­u­lat­ed, cre­at­ed, gen­er­at­ed by his fan­tasies in order, quite explic­it­ly, to get him­self off:

If he says, “I’m drop­ping a pearl” or “A pearl slipped,” he means that he has fart­ed in a cer­tain way, very soft­ly so that the fart has flowed out very qui­et­ly. Let us won­der at the fact that it does sug­gest a pearl of a warm ori­ent: the flow­ing, the mut­ed leak, seems to be as milky as the pale­ness of the pearl, that is, slight­ly cloudy. It makes Dar­ling seem to us a kind of pre­cious gigo­lo, a Hin­du, a princess who drinks pearls. The odor he has silent­ly spread in the prison has the dull­ness of a pearl, coils about him, haloes him from head to foot, iso­lates him. (Genet 15) 

It is both ridicu­lous and beau­ti­ful, art­less and ornate—it ruins such dis­tinc­tions. The tru­ly art­ful is taste­less, goes over the top, becomes farce, becomes porn, goes too far. I love how the small, ephemer­al fart here becomes not just one valu­able but mul­ti­ple pearls, grows to become an entire “ori­ent” and its entire trea­sure trove of exot­i­ca before final­ly turn­ing the pimp Dar­ling into a kind of saint (like Wei­d­mann), haloed by the (f)art. 

3.

This tacky, art­less over-art­ful­ness is in much mod­ernist dis­course dis­missed as kitsch—as some­thing taste­less. But Tim­o­thy Mor­ton has made a point of how kitsch’s tacky, slimy qual­i­ty turns it into a kind of abject:

The Ancient Mariner and Franken­stein are goth­ic and tacky. The tacky is the anaes­thet­ic (unaes­thet­ic) prop­er­ty of kitsch: glis­ten­ing, plas­ti­cized, inert, tac­tile, sticky—compelling our aware­ness of per­cep­tion; too bright, too dull, too qui­et, too loud, too smelly, not smelly enough—subverting aes­thet­ic prop­er­ty. Coleridge respect­ed the tacky; he appre­ci­at­ed the ethics of call­ing sug­ar the crys­tal­lized blood of slaves. So did Mary Shel­ley: her mon­ster sto­ry under­mines the myth of Roman­tic genius.  Both sto­ries are about exces­sive­ly mate­r­i­al stuff, art-mat­ter as pure exten­sion. (Mor­ton 158)

It seems to me that Mor­ton is wrong to call this “anaes­thet­ic”; rather, it seems over-aes­thet­ic, an art­ful­ness that can­not be con­tained by good taste—the defense of a restrict­ed soci­ety, the restraint of con­sen­sus culture—but instead over­whelms us, infil­trat­ing every aspect of our lives. It is this “art-mat­ter” that draws me into art, that enchants me, and it’s the inter­ven­tion of art’s matter—as an enchant­ment, which can trans­form a fart into a pearl—that I am inter­est­ed in explor­ing, in this essay and in my own poet­ry. 

Unlike the more stan­dard pol­i­tics (sub­vert­ing gen­der norms, cri­tiquing the patri­archy, etc.), art’s mat­ter inter­venes in our life like the sud­den appear­ance of Weidmann’s killer mug:

Beyond its cute­ness (a rei­fied ver­sion of Kant­ian beau­ty), an ele­ment in kitsch eco­log­i­cal imagery main­tains this abjec­tion, a form­less, abject ele­ment, Bataille’s informe .… The bour­geois sub­ject would rule for­ev­er if fas­ci­na­tion and hor­ror always result­ed in spit­ting out the dis­gust­ing object. Eco­log­i­cal art is duty bound to hold the slimy in view. (Mor­ton 159)

I would add that it’s not just “eco­log­i­cal art” that should “hold the slimy in view.” It is art’s role in a hygien­ic soci­ety devot­ed to a kind of func­tion­al­ism that runs counter to art’s shit­ty mat­ter. Art is extreme, but in a con­sen­sus cul­ture, extreme art becomes “kitsch.” 

4.

What makes me write about Genet and the baroque? To me, this vein of art—the bad taste of artifice—is at the heart of so many poet­ry dis­cus­sions. It bub­bled up in Stephen Burt’s dis­cus­sion of the “near­ly baroque” (almost in bad taste, almost over the top, almost enchant­i­ng) (Burt, “The Near­ly Baroque”). And in a sense it’s also the name­less oth­er of his “New Thing” essay, which posit­ed a new stan­dard of taste in pro­sa­ic, un-orna­men­tal poet­ry against “can­dy sur­re­al­ism,” which has no stan­dards (Burt, “The New Thing”). Again, it’s the sug­ar that revolts us as if it were shit.

Shit and sug­ar, shit and sug­ar is the mantra of this screed.

It is hard to read a sin­gle issue of the Writer’s Chron­i­cle (a jour­nal for MFA pro­grams, thus invest­ed in teach­ing stu­dents, bud­ding poets, to be taste­ful) or some such jour­nal with­out being remind­ed of the impor­tance of not going too far. This makes sense since the qui­etist ped­a­gogy (it was always more of a ped­a­gog­i­cal stance than an aes­thet­ic move­ment) always focused on restraint—you have to earn the images, write what you know, etc. In one recent arti­cle in the Writer’s Chron­i­cle, Gre­go­ry Orr espous­es Wordsworth’s famous anti-kitsch man­i­festo, the pref­ace to Lyri­cal Bal­lads (1798):

Wordsworth res­cued lyric from elit­ism by say­ing that the lan­guage used in poems isn’t a spe­cial, flow­ery lan­guage reserved for spe­cial peo­ple or a spe­cial class of peo­ple. Instead, he insist­ed it was “a selec­tion of the real lan­guage spo­ken by men” (and women). Poet­ry was just us, speak­ing a lit­tle more inten­sive­ly or rhyth­mi­cal­ly than we ordi­nar­i­ly speak, but not in some spe­cial lan­guage only avail­able to social or eco­nom­ic elite. (Orr)

This argu­ment seems to be repeat­ed over and over: the fan­ci­ful, the “flow­ery,” the “gaudy and inane”—in oth­er words the too-poet­ic, the baroque—is some­how evil, some­how asso­ci­at­ed with the upper class, with elit­ism, even though it is taste­less to write flow­ery language—and taste tends to fol­low mon­ey. 

Too often, some­how the too-poetic—“effete” poetry—is made evil,  exclu­sive, and elit­ist in its “pre­cious­ness.” How can it be, I won­der, that Jean Genet—orphan, pros­ti­tute, vagabond—who wrote Our Lady of the Flow­ers while in jail can be an exem­plar of an exclu­sive, eco­nom­i­cal­ly elite style of writ­ing? 

5.

The answer is quite sim­ple: the elite­ness of the effete is a dif­fer­ent kind of elite­ness from the eco­nom­ic priv­i­lege that Orr stress­es. It is true that the baroque too-much­ness of some art—“heavy” with sym­bols and art’s stuff—is elite in a cer­tain way. Not because its author or read­er has to be rich, but because such art demands more of us, demands not “dif­fi­cul­ty” or “acces­si­bil­i­ty” (both notions that depend on a new-crit­i­cal, inter­preter-in-charge mod­el of read­ing), and most of all: not the bull­shit cap­i­tal­ist idea of “easy com­mu­ni­ca­tion” (achieved, I assume, after read­ing one of those “ten ways of eas­i­er com­mu­ni­ca­tion” books that busi­ness­men tote around in order to rise in the rungs of the cor­po­rate lad­der).

No, it’s an idea of art that over­whelms and “enchants,” appears before us like a vision and sat­u­rates our lives like news­pa­pers mag­i­cal­ly “strew­ing death” into our lives (Genet 52). Of course, Genet con­stant­ly explores the con­nec­tion between art and the anti­so­cial, poet­ry and crim­i­nal­i­ty, as well as the aris­toc­ra­cy of art. So per­haps it makes sense: “Nobil­i­ty is glam­orous. The most equal­i­tar­i­an of men, though he may not care to admit it, expe­ri­ences this glam­or and sub­mits to it” (Genet 194). Art’s necroglam­orous “nobil­i­ty” demands that we “sub­mit” to it. Our rela­tion­ship with art is not egal­i­tar­i­an, with its accom­pa­ny­ing bour­geois idea of progress. It’s not “easy” and it’s not taste­ful. Art’s mat­ter infil­trates, infects, ruins us. 

It is in a sense too easy.

It over­takes us.

“Come on over and do the twist!” (K. Cobain)

And I fill my nose with snow and go Rim­baud, / Go Rim­baud, go Rimbaud,/And go John­ny go, and do the watusi, oh do the watusi” (P.Smith)

 

We will not rise in the cor­po­rate lad­der.

There is no place for art in our soci­ety, but art per­sists as a crime.

 

Sug­ar and shit, sug­ar and shit. 

 

We live in a time when aca­d­e­mics write about con­cep­tu­al poet­ry with its anti-poet­ic stance, which is also based on an anti-baroque mod­el (poet­ry is so over the top, exces­sive, time to write poet­ry with­out the poet­ry, poet­ry that doesn’t even have to be read), accord­ing to which poet­ry is dead. That is to say, whether you sub­scribe to a qui­etist mod­el of “earn your images” or a con­cep­tu­al mod­el that also dis­trusts poet­ic lan­guage, it is taste­less to be poet­ic.  [i] And if con­cep­tu­al poet­ry says that poet­ry is dead, I answer that of course it is. Both con­cep­tu­al poet­ry and qui­etist ped­a­gogy oppose the enchant­ment that is art’s mat­ter, want to dis­ci­pline it into a dull and “easy” com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Both thrive on a com­pro­mise-cul­ture aver­sion to the kind of enchant­ment we have to sub­mit to. Com­pro­mise cul­ture wants us all to remain inter­preters-in-charge, to not have to be ship­wrecked by the inter­ven­tion of art’s mat­ter.

 


[i] And as Daniel Tiffany argues in his book My Sil­ver Plan­et, kitsch finds its ori­gin in the poet­ic, which runs counter to the progress-ori­ent­ed bour­geois idea of “lit­er­a­ture” and the writer as “man speak­ing to men.”

 

 Works Cit­ed

Burt, Stephen. “The Near­ly Baroque.” Boston Review. 11 April 2014. Web. 2 April 2015.

—–. “The New Thing.” Boston Review, 1 May 2009. Web. 2 April 2015.

Genet, Jean. Our Lady of the Flow­ers. Trans. Bernard Frecht­man. New York: Grove Press, 1991. Print.

Mor­ton, Tim­o­thy. Ecol­o­gy With­out Nature: Rethink­ing Envi­ron­men­tal Aes­thet­ics. Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2007. Print.

Orr, Gre­go­ry. “Foun­da­tion­al Doc­u­ment and the Nature of Lyric.” The Writer’s      Chron­i­cle. October/November 2014. Web. 2 April 2015.

Sar­duy, Severo. “The Baroque and Neo-Baroque.” Baroque New Worlds:   Rep­re­sen­ta­tion, Tran­scul­tur­a­tion, Coun­ter­con­quest. Eds. Louis Parkin­son Zamo­ra and Moni­ka Kaup. Durham, NC: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2010. Print.

Tiffany, Daniel. My Sil­ver Plan­et: A Secret His­to­ry of Poet­ry and Kitsch. Bal­ti­more: Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014. Print.

 

Johannes Görans­son is the author of six books, most recent­ly The Sug­ar Book (Tar­pau­lin Sky Press, 2015), and the trans­la­tor of sev­er­al works in trans­la­tion, includ­ing books by Aase Berg, Hen­ry Par­land, and Johan Jön­son. He pub­lish­es Action Books and teach­es at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Notre Dame.

 

:: Conflict before Compromise: A Response to Rachel Greenwald Smith ::

Ryan M. Brooks

Rachel Green­wald Smith’s “Six Propo­si­tions on Com­pro­mise Aes­thet­ics” can be under­stood as an attempt to think through the inter­nal con­nec­tion between U.S. lit­er­ary post-post­mod­ernism and the neolib­er­al turn, two cul­tur­al shifts that have been wide­ly dis­cussed but less often dis­cussed togeth­er. Smith sug­gests that these shifts con­verge in what she calls “com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics,” the belief that forg­ing “com­pro­mis­es” between “main­stream” and “exper­i­men­tal” lit­er­ary strate­gies makes a text “social­ly rel­e­vant,” a belief that dis­places the old idea that texts are rel­e­vant pre­cise­ly to the degree they refuse to com­pro­mise (1). As Smith argues, this new aes­thet­ics repro­duces the log­ic of neolib­er­al­ism in sev­er­al ways, begin­ning with its ten­den­cy to priv­i­lege styl­is­tic accu­mu­la­tion and the “entre­pre­neur­ial capac­i­ty to mar­shal resources effec­tive­ly” more than “social or polit­i­cal form of alliance” (5). Like “the neolib­er­al mod­el of the entre­pre­neur,” more­over, crit­ics and writ­ers in this mode tend to see “the indi­vid­ual as both self-con­scious­ly con­struct­ed and immense­ly valu­able” (7), a com­pro­mise between the post­mod­ern cri­tique of the sub­ject and the attempt, in both lyric poet­ry and real­ist fic­tion, to evoke speak­ers or char­ac­ters “who seem like real peo­ple” (7). Final­ly, just as neolib­er­als imag­ine the end of ide­o­log­i­cal dis­agree­ments about the val­ue of dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal systems—to be replaced by “‘the end­less solv­ing of tech­ni­cal prob­lems’” (“The End of His­tory?” 25 qtd 16)—these crit­ics and writ­ers imag­ine the end of ide­o­log­i­cal dis­agree­ments about the val­ue of dif­fer­ent lit­er­ary styles—to be replaced by the end­less solv­ing of aes­thet­ic “tech­ni­cal prob­lems.”

One way to syn­the­size these ele­ments is to sug­gest that, like neolib­er­al­ism, com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics imag­ines a world in which every per­son is an “entre­pre­neur” or, as Fou­cault famous­ly put it, an “entre­pre­neur of him­self” (226), a vision which reframes social rela­tion­ships in terms of per­son­al choic­es and per­son­al char­ac­ter­is­tics. Smith’s con­cept of com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics is impor­tant, then, because it points to ways this log­ic plays out in con­tem­po­rary crit­i­cism and the lit­er­a­ture that aspires to move “past” post­mod­ernism. At the same time, I sug­gest that Smith doesn’t ful­ly account for the spe­cif­ic dis­cur­sive work per­formed by this log­ic, which serves to per­son­al­ize con­flicts oth­er­wise irre­ducible to the per­son­al, includ­ing both mate­r­i­al and ide­o­log­i­cal con­flicts, and thus sym­bol­i­cal­ly resolve those con­flicts. Dis­avow­ing struc­tur­al antag­o­nism in this way is the ges­ture that all neolib­er­al dis­course must make, inso­far as “neolib­er­al” sig­ni­fies the embrace of lib­er­al­ized mar­kets and mar­ket log­ic, and inso­far as this atti­tude has flour­ished at the same time that eco­nom­ic inequality—the cause and effect of the antag­o­nism known as class—has inten­si­fied. Iden­ti­fy­ing how con­tem­po­rary cul­tur­al forms make sense of such con­flicts is thus cru­cial not only for under­stand­ing their rela­tion­ship with neolib­er­al­ism, but also for try­ing to imag­ine alter­na­tives to this dis­course, in both art and pol­i­tics. 

At var­i­ous moments, how­ev­er, Smith implies that it is “com­pro­mise” itself—rather than the dis­avow­al this “com­pro­mise” performs—that makes this aes­thet­ics a “symp­tom of the cul­tur­al entrench­ment of neolib­er­al­ism” (3).  Although I strong­ly agree that we can see evi­dence of the neolib­er­al turn in the aban­don­ment of the tra­di­tion­al con­flict between “main­stream” and “exper­i­men­tal” lit­er­a­ture, as Smith sug­gests, it’s impor­tant to note that this dis­avow­al doesn’t always take the form of “com­pro­mise” between main­stream and exper­i­men­tal tech­niques. Indeed, as I argue else­where, in an essay on the Jonathan Franzen/Ben Mar­cus debate, this dis­avow­al may also take the form of an insis­tence that, since lit­er­ary tastes are a func­tion of what “kind of per­son” (Franzen 241) one is, writ­ers should not com­pro­mise, but should instead pro­duce as many dif­fer­ent kinds of writ­ing as there are “kind of per­son” or “kind of read­er” (Mar­cus 51). [ii]

More to the point, neolib­er­al­ism can­not be reduced to the var­i­ous polit­i­cal posi­tions “com­pro­mise” is said to embody in this essay. These com­mit­ments include a denial of historicity—“the appeal to inevitabil­i­ty and per­ma­nence that is at the heart of the very con­cept of com­pro­mise” (Smith 2)—and a denial that dis­agree­ments still exist, that there con­tin­ues to be “glob­al con­flict” and “racial unrest” (12). In my view, neoliberalism—as an active polit­i­cal force and not sim­ply a utopi­an the­sis about the “end of history”—does not so much deny that change is pos­si­ble or that peo­ple con­tin­ue to dis­agree as find ways to make these dis­agree­ments impos­si­ble. How can we dis­agree when, to put it as crude­ly as Franzen, our dis­agree­ments are real­ly just a func­tion of what “kind of per­son” we are? 

For a more high-tech exam­ple of this log­ic, in fact, we can look at an instance of com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics cit­ed by Smith, David Fos­ter Wallace’s “E. Unibus Plu­ram: Tele­vi­sion and U.S. Fic­tion,” which has been wide­ly read as an attempt to forge a “postiron­ic” lit­er­ary ethos (Kon­stan­ti­nou 85). Wallace’s oft-cit­ed dia­tribe against post­mod­ern irony doesn’t actu­al­ly reject the social vision reflect­ed by this irony—“theoretical anti-foun­da­tion­al­ism” (Kon­stan­ti­nou 84), or the idea that the world is “con­struct­ed” (Wal­lace 180)—and he clear­ly sees him­self as extend­ing postmodernism’s “gen­uine socio-artis­tic agen­da,” its attempt to “trans­fig­ure a world of and for appear­ance, mass appeal and tele­vi­sion” (171). His argu­ment, how­ev­er, is that in an era when post­mod­ern irony has been “co-opt­ed” (177) by “tele­vi­su­al cul­ture” (172), it may actu­al­ly be con­tribut­ing to TV’s cul­tur­al dom­i­nance: “the most fright­en­ing prospect, for the well-con­di­tioned view­er, becomes leav­ing one­self open to oth­ers’ ridicule by betray­ing passé expres­sions of val­ue, emo­tion, or vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty .… The well-trained lone­ly view­er becomes even more aller­gic to peo­ple. Lone­li­er” (181). In response, Wal­lace issues his famous call for writ­ers “who have the child­ish gall actu­al­ly to endorse sin­gle-enten­dre val­ues. Who treat old untrendy human trou­bles and emo­tions in U.S. life with rev­er­ence and con­vic­tion” (192–193).

Not only does the very instru­men­tal­i­ty of Wallace’s cri­tique make it seem like a pecu­liar­ly iron­ic form of “postirony,” but, as Kon­stan­ti­nou notes (with­out quite teas­ing out the con­se­quences of this obser­va­tion), the belief he calls for is a belief “emp­tied out of spe­cif­ic con­tent” (85). Wal­lace is not telling us what to believe, in oth­er words, but ask­ing us to be “believ­ers” (Kon­stan­ti­nou 104). By this log­ic, it doesn’t real­ly mat­ter what we believe—which “sin­gle-enten­dre val­ues” we “endorse”—as long as we believe some­thing. Rather than a rejec­tion of post­mod­ern irony, then, it seems more accu­rate to call this a per­son­al­ized, neolib­er­al ver­sion of this irony. Post­mod­ern irony sug­gests that we can’t dis­agree because our beliefs are just the prod­ucts of our posi­tions with­in com­pet­ing sys­tems of mean­ing (grand nar­ra­tives, lan­guage games, onto­log­i­cal worlds, etc.), a log­ic that requires us to imag­ine that if we were in dif­fer­ent sys­tems, we’d no longer believe what we believe and thus no longer dis­agree. [iii] Wallace’s neolib­er­al irony sug­gests that we can’t dis­agree because belief is just a rela­tion­ship between the self and the self’s own “expres­sions of val­ue, emo­tion, or vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty” and that no one iter­a­tion of this rela­tion­ship is more valu­able than any oth­er (even if belief or “sin­cer­i­ty” [178] itself is more valu­able than cyn­i­cism). 

Smith actu­al­ly pro­vides an apt sum­ma­ry of this log­ic when she writes that com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics cel­e­brates works that “affirm the fun­da­men­tal exis­tence and impor­tance of indi­vid­ual sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence in gen­er­al even if [these] works demon­strate skep­ti­cism toward any indi­vid­ual subject’s real­i­ty as uni­ver­sal” (7, ital­ics orig­i­nal). Here, again, though, she sug­gests that this is a dis­tinct­ly neolib­er­al log­ic not because of its per­son­al­iz­ing dis­avow­al of antagonism—its unten­able “skep­ti­cism,” the fact it denies the uni­ver­sal­iz­ing nature of our judg­ments even as it makes such judgments—but because it rep­re­sents a “com­pro­mise” with anoth­er neolib­er­al val­ue, in this case the “neolib­er­al pri­ma­cy of being an indi­vid­ual per­son (con­struct­ed or not)” (7). Although I believe Smith is exact­ly right when she describes con­tem­po­rary literature’s ten­den­cy to invest “the per­son­al” with “deep and spe­cif­ic val­ue” (9), it’s impor­tant to remem­ber that, just as neolib­er­al aes­thet­ics can­not be reduced to a denial of his­tor­i­cal con­tin­gency, it also can­not be reduced to a cel­e­bra­tion of “the indi­vid­ual,” as seems to be sug­gest­ed here. [iv]

To see why this is true, we can look again at Wallace’s essay, which, on one hand, does reflect the lit­er­ary-his­tor­i­cal shift Smith describes. Where­as self-con­scious­ly “post-post­mod­ern” writ­ing tends to under­stand social rela­tion­ships in terms of “the per­son­al, and by exten­sion, the emo­tion­al” (6) (and, we might add, “the eth­i­cal”), post­mod­ern writ­ing tend­ed to under­stand social rela­tions in terms of imper­son­al sys­tems of medi­a­tion and pow­er and, fol­low­ing from this, tend­ed to imag­ine that polit­i­cal action meant inter­ven­ing in these sys­tems, includ­ing the sys­tems that con­struct sub­jects. As Smith puts it suc­cinct­ly: “Post­mod­ern aes­thet­ics saw an insis­tence upon the arti­fi­cial­i­ty of the sub­ject as a form of cri­tique. Post­mod­ernist works there­fore tend­ed to min­i­mize the affec­tive pull of the indi­vid­ual by empha­siz­ing their arti­fi­cial­i­ty” (9). We can see this rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al change enact­ed in Wallace’s obser­va­tion about the “well-con­di­tioned” and “well-trained view­er” quot­ed above: ulti­mate­ly he is less con­cerned with the tech­nolo­gies that have “con­di­tioned” and “trained” these view­ers than with their emo­tion­al expe­ri­ences, the fact they’ve been made “lone­li­er.”

As this lament also makes clear, how­ev­er, this com­mit­ment to “indi­vid­ual sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence” (Smith 7) does not nec­es­sar­i­ly trans­late into a cel­e­bra­tion of what Wal­lace calls “the nobil­i­ty of indi­vid­u­al­ism” (174). Indeed, the whole force of “E. Unibus Plu­ram” is, as the title sug­gests, to decry the atom­iza­tion of U.S. life, the “Joe Brief­case-type world that shifts ever more stark­ly from some com­mu­ni­ty of rela­tion­ships to net­works of strangers con­nect­ed by self-inter­est and con­test and image” (154). In protest­ing irony’s “tyran­ny” (184), Wal­lace explic­it­ly rejects the counter-culture’s com­mit­ment to non-con­formism (because it has been co-opt­ed by iron­ic TV adver­tis­ing) and the “con­ser­v­a­tive” belief that “the dis­cern­ing con­sumer instincts of the lit­tle guy would cor­rect all imbal­ances if only big sys­tems would quit sti­fling his free­dom to choose” (185). Thus, we see that Wallace’s social vision is impor­tant­ly dif­fer­ent from the stereo­typ­i­cal right-wing insis­tence on per­son­al lib­er­a­tion with­in a mar­ket framework—the insis­tence that, to quote Philip Mirows­ki quot­ing Slavoj Žižek, “You are free to do any­thing as long as it involves shop­ping” (421). 

What makes Wallace’s aes­thet­ic still a neolib­er­al aes­thet­ic is not, then, an anti­so­cial indi­vid­u­al­ism but a dif­fer­ent kind of “com­pro­mise”: his tac­it accep­tance of the premise that capitalism’s prob­lems can be addressed at the lev­el of per­son­al val­ues and rela­tion­ships. That is, just as his call for “sin­gle-enten­dre” “‘anti-rebels’” (192) dis­avows ide­o­log­i­cal antag­o­nism by turn­ing belief into a per­son­al iden­ti­ty, his ide­al of a nur­tur­ing “com­mu­ni­ty of rela­tion­ships” dis­avows the imper­son­al eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal con­flicts that tend to cut across such “com­mu­ni­ties,” includ­ing the antag­o­nism between labor and cap­i­tal that makes cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket­places pos­si­ble in the first place. Reject­ing this dis­avow­al is essen­tial not just for under­stand­ing neoliberalism—which has func­tioned, as David Har­vey argued a decade ago, “as a polit­i­cal project to re-estab­lish the con­di­tions for cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion and to restore the pow­er of eco­nom­ic elites” (19, empha­sis original)—but for resist­ing it, as acknowl­edg­ing the irre­ducibil­i­ty of these antag­o­nisms is the first step to accept­ing that “eco­nom­ic elites” will only care about work­ers’ “old untrendy human trou­bles and emo­tions” (Wal­lace 193) if work­ers orga­nize and force them to care. This vision is already being embraced in the emer­gent aca­d­e­m­ic labor move­ment, espe­cial­ly among con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty (who are an excel­lent resource if you are look­ing for “old untrendy human trou­bles and emo­tions”), and crit­ics need to bring the same rig­or­ous per­spec­tive to their analy­sis of con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary cul­ture. This is espe­cial­ly true if we are in search of gen­uine­ly rad­i­cal texts, works whose aes­thet­ics are—as Smith sug­gests of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrow­er (2013)—not just post-post­mod­ern, but post-neolib­er­al.

 


[ii] “‘The Fam­i­ly Gone Wrong’: Post-Post­mod­ernism and the Neolib­er­al Turn,” cur­rent­ly unpub­lished.

[iii] For an analy­sis of how “the redescription…of peo­ple who have dif­fer­ent beliefs as peo­ple who are play­ing dif­fer­ent ‘lan­guage games’ amounts to a repu­di­a­tion of the idea that peo­ple actu­al­ly have any beliefs,” see Michaels (189).

[iv] In her essay “Post­mod­ernism and the Affec­tive Turn,” Smith sug­gests that texts and dis­cours­es that attend to the “dein­di­vid­u­al­iz­ing affec­tive forces that bind humans to one anoth­er and to oth­er species” (435) rep­re­sent an impor­tant alter­na­tive to the com­mit­ment to “human­ism and the insu­lar­i­ty of the indi­vid­ual” (442) implic­it in neolib­er­al­ism. Although attend­ing to these “dein­di­vid­u­al­iz­ing affec­tive forces” may trans­late into more rad­i­cal “new forms of con­scious­ness” (441) than the com­mu­ni­ty-mind­ed­ness on dis­play in Wallace’s text—whether you believe this seems to depend on whether or not you find affect the­o­ry convincing—Wallace’s text also demon­strates that neolib­er­al­ism can accom­mo­date many dif­fer­ent forms of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty and that, in fact, ana­lyz­ing neolib­er­al­ism in terms of modes of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty alone risks repro­duc­ing neoliberalism’s var­i­ous dis­avowals of antag­o­nism.

 

Works Cit­ed

Fou­cault, Michel. The Birth of Biopol­i­tics: Lec­tures at the Col­lege de France, 1978–1979. Ed. Michel Senel­lart. Hamp­shire, UK: Pal­grave MacMil­lan, 2008. Print.

Franzen, Jonathan. “Mr. Dif­fi­cult.” How to Be Alone: Essays. New York: Pic­a­dor, 2002, 2003. Print.

Har­vey, David. A Brief His­to­ry of Neolib­er­al­ism. Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2005. Print.

Kon­stan­ti­nou, Lee. “No Bull: David Fos­ter Wal­lace and Postiron­ic Belief.” The Lega­cy of David Fos­ter Wal­lace. Iowa City: Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa Press, 2012. Print.

Mar­cus, Ben. “Why Exper­i­men­tal Fic­tion Threat­ens to Destroy Pub­lish­ing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It: A Cor­rec­tion.” Harper’s Mag­a­zine. Octo­ber 2005: 39–52. Print.

Michaels, Wal­ter Benn. The Shape of the Sig­ni­fier: 1967 to the End of His­tory. Prince­ton and Oxford: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 2004. Print.

Mirows­ki, Philip. “Post­face: Defin­ing Neolib­er­al­ism.” The Road from Mont Pelerin: The Mak­ing of the Neolib­er­al Thought Col­lec­tive. Eds. Philip Mirows­ki and Dieter Ple­hwe. Cam­bridge: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2009. Print.

Smith, Rachel Green­wald. “Post­mod­ernism and the Affec­tive Turn.” Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Lit­er­a­ture 57.3–4. (Fall/Winter 2011): 423–446. Print.

—–. “Six Propo­si­tions on Com­pro­mise Aes­thet­ics.” The Account: A Jour­nal of Prose, Poet­ry, and Thought. Fall 2014. Web.

Wal­lace, David Fos­ter. “E Unibus Plu­ram: Tele­vi­sion and U.S. Fic­tion.” Review of Con­tem­po­rary Fic­tion 13, no. 2 (1993): 151–94. Print.

 

Ryan M. Brooks recent­ly com­plet­ed his Ph.D. in Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go, and he is cur­rent­ly the Post­doc­tor­al Teach­ing Fel­low in Con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Fic­tion at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in St. Louis. His work has been pub­lished in Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Lit­er­a­ture and the crit­i­cal anthol­o­gy The Wire: Urban Decay and Amer­i­can Tele­vi­sion (Blooms­bury Aca­d­e­m­ic, 2009).

 

 :: A Response to “Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics” ::

Stephen Burt

First, thanks to Rachel Green­wald Smith for the atten­tion! “The Ellip­ti­cal Poets” is almost twen­ty years old; some­times I’m afraid it’s the only thing I’ve writ­ten that more than ten peo­ple will ever read. I don’t regret writ­ing it, but I do rec­og­nize that its gen­er­al­iza­tions about some poets I liked in the 1990s (I do still like them) belong to a kind of sto­ry about how the arts change, a kind of sto­ry that we can see over and over, from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, in almost every art form in the Atlantic world since 1910, if not since 1789. It is the kind of sto­ry anat­o­mized, and large­ly endorsed, by Mark McGurl for Amer­i­can fic­tion in his tome The Pro­gram Era, and it is the kind of sto­ry often told—with passion—about pop and rock music over the past 30-odd years of rock fanzines.

In this sto­ry, a set of artists who appear more or less tra­di­tion­al, more or less acces­si­ble to a large audi­ence, and more or less finan­cial­ly suc­cess­ful (large insti­tu­tions owe them a liv­ing), though per­haps in decline, face chal­lenges from new­er artists whose work is more dif­fi­cult, stranger or angri­er, incom­pat­i­ble with insti­tu­tion­al expec­ta­tions, and—at least appar­ent­ly or initially—aligned with a pol­i­tics of rad­i­cal change. Usu­al­ly those pol­i­tics are on the left—like Jon Langford’s, Yoko Ono’s, or Ron Silliman’s—but some­times they are right­ist, like Ian Hamil­ton Finlay’s or Ezra Pound’s. Often these new­er artists have an explic­it pro­gram, with crit­i­cal prose (if not a man­i­festo) stat­ing shared social, as well as artis­tic, goals.  These younger or new­er artists make an impres­sion: they appear to some third set of artists (most of them new­er or less estab­lished) as a resource or a breath of fresh air; to crit­ics as a Hegelian antithe­sis; to tastemak­ing edi­tors as the next big thing. 

To no one’s sur­prise, that third set of artists (most new, a few estab­lished) con­duct exper­i­ments; some of them, mag­pie-like or bricoleur­ish­ly, try to take parts and tech­niques from appar­ent­ly incom­pat­i­ble schools, and of course few of them have signed on to a com­plete five- or thir­ty-year-old pro­gram.  One of those artists “breaks through”—does some­thing that many crit­ics, read­ers, lis­ten­ers, rec­og­nize as imitable and remark­able, if not also mar­ketable. It then becomes pos­si­ble to regard that break­through artist, and her imme­di­ate peers, as a kind of Hegelian syn­the­sis of the tra­di­tion­al, audi­ence-friend­ly art and its tough, pro­gram­mat­ic antithe­sis. 

Two min­utes after that hap­pens, it becomes pos­si­ble (whether or not it’s jus­ti­fied or appro­pri­ate) to regard the break­through artist as a sell­out, dilut­ing or de-politi­ciz­ing or betray­ing the dif­fi­cult artists’ orig­i­nal pro­gram. That’s what hap­pened on the way from Kurt Schwit­ters and Mar­cel Duchamp to Stu­art Davis and Bar­ney Bub­bles; from the Stooges and the Elec­tric Eels to the Clash to REM and/or the Police; from Xenakis to Kraftwerk to New Order and/or Daft Punk; from Lyn Hejin­ian and Ros­marie Wal­drop to C. D. Wright and/or Jorie Gra­ham; from Alurista, or from Anzaldúa, to J. Michael Mar­tinez (whose “Notes on Chic@Nceptualism” you should maybe go read).

It seems impor­tant to say—though it should be obvious—that these sorts of overviews and sto­ries, in which dif­fi­cult or uncom­pro­mis­ing inno­va­tors are fol­lowed by less pro­gram­mat­ic, more pop­u­lar syn­the­ses, do not have to imply par­tic­u­lar judg­ments of val­ue; nor does the way you feel about the sto­ry have to dic­tate what you think of the artists involved. It seems to me that Nir­vana was great and the Police most­ly exe­crable, though both were late­com­ers and pop­u­lar syn­the­sists. I’d rather reread Infi­nite Jest than re-tack­le Gravity’s Rain­bow. On the oth­er hand, I pre­fer the Rain­coats to the Clash. One artist in one art form might be a sell­out, while anoth­er who occu­pies an anal­o­gous art-his­tor­i­cal posi­tion (“the Nir­vana of Britain,” “the Span­ish Gertrude Stein”) might seem to give the mass­es just what the mass­es need.

More­over, sto­ries about move­ments, pro­grams, and syn­the­ses can also omit what’s most inter­est­ing in the indi­vid­ual art­works, what­ev­er makes for dif­fer­ences in prac­tice among the peo­ple who share a the­o­ry or pro­gram. (Does Rae Armantrout ever sound like Charles Bern­stein? Did the Who ever sound like Pink Floyd?) Sto­ries about schools and move­ments are nev­er suf­fi­cient, though some­times nec­es­sary. And almost any sto­ry of any art movement—the sto­ry of Amer­i­can exper­i­men­tal poet­ry, in and out of cof­fee shops and class­rooms; the sto­ry of exper­i­ments and mar­ket­places in Amer­i­can fic­tion; the rise and fall of Alger­ian raï—can be told in a way that cel­e­brates, or decries, the dis­per­sion of their inno­va­tions, the dis­so­lu­tion of a tight pro­gram.

Rachel Green­wald Smith, unless I have mis­un­der­stood her, decries it. She finds in Amer­i­can Hybrid, Cole Swensen and David St. John’s much-noticed anthol­o­gy, and in oth­er reac­tions to the syn­thet­ic impulse in much 1990s and 2000s poetry—including my essay from 1998—a retreat from his­to­ry, from analy­sis of polit­i­cal econ­o­my, from the social util­i­ty that (in her view) dif­fi­cult poet­ry ought to sus­tain. She thinks my piece, and Amer­i­can Hybrid, endors­es some­thing called “com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics,” which she defines as the claim 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.”  

This claim, Green­wald Smith says, is mis­tak­en. It hives inno­v­a­tive tech­niques off from one anoth­er and from the social cri­tique that once came with them. (Steve Evans object­ed to me on sim­i­lar grounds 15 years ago.) It re-inscribes faith in the per­son, in the indi­vid­ual, exact­ly where such faith should not belong: art should chal­lenge the cap­i­tal­ist mod­el of autonomous, atom­ized indi­vid­u­als mov­ing through space, max­i­miz­ing util­i­ty, and mak­ing invest­ments on their own. And it sug­gests that the dynam­ic his­to­ry of inno­va­tion (in art, in pol­i­tics, in any­thing) can reach an end.

I thought I was writing—I think I am still writing—about some poets who share some tech­niques and about some rea­sons you might want to read them; social rel­e­vance seems to me, at best, one rea­son. I have nev­er claimed that com­pro­mis­es, in gen­er­al, make art, in gen­er­al, more “social­ly rel­e­vant,” in gen­er­al, although I do think com­pro­mis­es and syn­the­ses, in art and in pol­i­tics, get a bad rap (more on that below). I do think that the syn­thet­ic poet­ry I’ve rec­om­mend­ed, by Wright and Gra­ham and For­rest Gan­der and D.A. Pow­ell and the Thylias Moss of the 1990s, finds an accom­mo­da­tion with an idea of the per­son, and with an idea of lyric (they are, of course, his­tor­i­cal­ly linked ideas), that lan­guage poets and Con­ti­nen­tal avant-gardes held at arm’s length, or reject­ed out­right. (What cor­re­sponds to “lyric” or to “the per­son” in the cor­re­spond­ing his­to­ries of avant-garde music, pop, and rock? The answers are melody, sung lyrics, and verse-cho­rus-verse song form).

But I do not see how this unsta­ble and qual­i­fied return to the idea of the per­son, or the soul, or the indi­vid­ual, cor­re­sponds to a neolib­er­al “End of His­to­ry,” or to a tur­bo-cap­i­tal­ist “Third Way.” If there is a con­sis­tent pol­i­tics in the idea that we can remake lyric, can open it up to the last few decades of critique—and I am not sure whether there is such a pol­i­tics, although I’d look for it first in C.D. Wright—it is not neolib­er­al, but sim­ply lib­er­al, or social demo­c­ra­t­ic (not the same thing as “lib­er­al” in oth­er con­texts, but com­pat­i­ble with it here), in the sense that Paul Well­stone, Eliz­a­beth War­ren, Richard Rorty, Martha Nuss­baum, and Eleanor Roo­sevelt were and are lib­er­als. This lib­er­al­ism founds a vision of social jus­tice (when it has one) on a notion of needy, volatile, unpre­dictable, wide­ly dif­fer­ing indi­vid­u­als, pro­duced by our cul­tures, our fam­i­lies, and our unjust economies, along with our DNA: it envi­sions mesh­es and net­works made of indi­vid­u­als who—though nev­er real­ly autonomous—deserve a degree of auton­o­my and a mea­sure of respect. That is the explic­it pol­i­tics of Wright’s One Big Self: Pris­on­ers of Louisiana and—though chal­lenged by our cli­mate emergency—the appar­ent pol­i­tics of Powell’s Chron­ic, for exam­ple.

If Rachel Green­wald Smith were argu­ing that my so-called “Ellip­ti­cals,” or Swensen and St. John’s flotil­la of hybrids, could not be rec­on­ciled with cer­tain fla­vors of anti­hu­man­ist Marx­ism (because they do not fit any tight pro­gram; because they find val­ue in imag­ined per­sons), or that they could not be rec­on­ciled to deep ecol­o­gy (because they cher­ish human oppor­tu­ni­ty and a diver­si­ty of human voice), then I would agree and move on. And if she were argu­ing that “com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics,” as she defines them, seems com­plic­it with neolib­er­al non­sense (both neolib­er­als and “com­pro­mise” fans believe that his­to­ry has a direc­tion and that it favors autonomous indi­vid­u­als), then I would also agree, though I am not sure what crit­ic and what art form endors­es “com­pro­mise” in that sense. But she is argu­ing some­thing more: she claims that Wright and Mark Levine and Amer­i­can Hybrid con­form this “com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics,” and that I endorse it.  I do not think I do, nor that I did.

I do think there are peo­ple. Old­er or tra­di­tion­al artis­tic prac­tice, in the 20th cen­tu­ry, often presents itself as human­ist, tak­ing man or human beings or some­body (per­haps a white or a First World per­son) as the mea­sure of all things; new­er, more dif­fi­cult artis­tic prac­tice has often opposed that human­ism, in the name of Marx­ism or of brute force. Take indi­vid­ual agency and feel­ing as one’s only source of val­ue, and we may get stuck with the tragedy of the com­mons, watch­ing the final glac­i­er melt. But refuse to acknowl­edge any­thing like a human per­son as a source of val­ue, and we may end up a nihilist, or worse; we might take “col­lec­tive oppo­si­tion­al posi­tions” with con­fi­dence (so Rachel Green­wald Smith quotes Görans­son), but what would one favor, now that we know what one oppos­es? (Per­haps it’s “inno­va­tion.” Or “the Rev­o­lu­tion”). 

Oth­er than deep ecol­o­gy (which val­ues what’s good for the Earth, not what’s good for peo­ple), and oth­er than cul­tur­al-nation­al­ist col­lec­tivisms (which val­ue what’s good for “my peo­ple,” not what’s good for per­sons), I have some trou­ble find­ing a sense of val­ue that does not assume, in some sense, that there are peo­ple, and that peo­ple have wants or needs, and that some source of val­ue inheres in what peo­ple want or need. Polit­i­cal change, the kind that reduces child­hood ill­ness, rais­es the min­i­mum wage, or gets us a few more yards toward jus­tice for jan­i­tors, requires some atten­tion to what actu­al, already-exist­ing per­sons (vot­ers, poten­tial union mem­bers, child-care providers) believe and think and do (and earn). For me, the most seri­ous chal­lenges to crit­i­cal points of view orga­nized around indi­vid­u­als comes not from pro­gram­mat­ic (post) Marx­ist posi­tions, but from cer­tain kinds of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, which claim that voic­es and tastes can­not be rec­on­ciled if they have suf­fi­cient­ly dis­tant cul­tur­al ori­gins (on which please see Charles Tay­lor), and from deep ecol­o­gy, which claims that you are part of the prob­lem if you pre­fer peo­ple to trees. 

But the “post­mod­ernist” per­spec­tive that Rachel Green­wald Smith appears to pre­fer (her exam­ples come from prose fic­tion, not from poet­ry) does not look like deep ecol­o­gy, nor like a chal­lenge to Euro­pean-Amer­i­can, Atlantic, West­ern ideas of the sub­ject; it looks more like 1890s nat­u­ral­ism, in which “the arti­fi­cial­i­ty of the sub­ject” receives empha­sis, and “the affec­tive pull of the indi­vid­ual” is “min­i­mized.” Does she real­ly want to go back to Stephen Crane? 

It seems to me that Rachel Green­wald Smith has con­fused neolib­er­al­ism with lib­er­al­ism. It also seems to me that she has con­fused my 17-year-old descrip­tion of a moment in the his­to­ry of poet­ry with a claim about the end of polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al his­to­ry. In fact—and I nev­er said otherwise—all things must pass: today’s syn­the­sis becomes tomorrow’s the­sis, to be stomped on, turfed out, and par­tial­ly res­ur­rect­ed in its turn (if cli­mate change doesn’t first do every­one in). 

When I wrote that essay I would have sim­ply reject­ed the idea that lit­er­ary and styl­is­tic com­pro­mise and polit­i­cal com­pro­mise could look like the same thing. I would not quite reject that idea today; they aren’t the same thing, but one can rep­re­sent (or endorse, or repu­di­ate) the oth­er. If I favor compromise—if some of the poets I like also favor com­pro­mise, in the vot­ing booth or in the pub­lic square or at the lev­el of dic­tion and line—it is not an end-of-his­to­ry all’s-well com­pro­mise but a recog­ni­tion that lit­er­ary his­to­ry, like every oth­er kind of his­to­ry, can be unpre­dictable and con­tin­gent, and that if you ask for every­thing all at once, accord­ing to a pre-set pro­gram, if you take a max­i­mal, pro­gram­mat­ic posi­tion, you will only get even part of what you want if some­one (it doesn’t have to be you) will play the inside game to your out­side, the good cop to your bad cop, the nego­tia­tor to your unyield­ing demand. There is (or there are) poet­ics of Occu­py, but there also ought to be a poet­ics of run­ning for your local school board; we need both, unless we don’t need schools. (You can have both in the same poet, or the same poem: for exam­ple, Clau­dia Rankine’s Cit­i­zen).

I nev­er said C.D. Wright or Jorie Gra­ham or Mark Levine or Thylias Moss or any­body else in 1998 (or in 2015) would be the end of his­to­ry, or a sta­ble rest­ing point. Indeed I thought (and said) that their aes­thet­ics were unsta­ble, found­ed as they were on a tro­pism toward the volatile, the labile, even the teenage. If com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics means a con­vic­tion that the com­pro­mise of the moment is not for an age but for all time, then I’ve nev­er endorsed it, nor has any respon­si­ble poet­ry crit­ic I know. Nor would I endorse an aes­thet­ics of per­ma­nent rev­o­lu­tion. Rachel Green­wald Smith’s appar­ent (per­haps just appar­ent) irre­den­tism, her insis­tence on all-or-noth­ing, no-sell­outs agen­das, looks to me like a road to an aesthetic—and a political—dead end. Her insis­tence that his­to­ry isn’t over, how­ev­er, appeals to me—and to my favorite poets, too: I hope we can go on argu­ing about what can, and about what should, come next.

 

Stephen (some­times Stephanie) Burt is Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Har­vard and the author of sev­er­al books of poet­ry and lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, among them Bel­mont (Gray­wolf Press, 2013), The Art of the Son­net, with David Mikics (Belk­nap Press, 2010), and the chap­book All-Sea­son Stephanie, out now from Rain Taxi Edi­tions.

 

:: Rachel Greenwald Smith Responds ::

Rachel Greenwald Smith

Writ­ing “Six Propo­si­tions on Com­pro­mise Aes­thet­ics” was, in part, an exper­i­ment in crit­i­cal form. What would it mean to write some­thing like aca­d­e­m­ic crit­i­cism in the form of a man­i­festo? What advan­tages could such a rhetor­i­cal mode afford? What ges­tures would it make pos­si­ble? For Janet Lyon, “the man­i­festo fos­ters antag­o­nism and scorns con­cil­i­a­tion” (Lyon 9) and yields “an alter­na­tive his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive” (Lyon 15). [v] These char­ac­ter­is­tics suit­ed my project in this piece, which was to sug­gest that hav­ing a name—“compromise aesthetics”—for a shared ten­den­cy across a range of var­ied crit­i­cal and eval­u­a­tive assess­ments of con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture might allow us to iden­ti­fy how these assess­ments reflect some of the ide­o­log­i­cal assump­tions of our social and polit­i­cal moment. While this crit­i­cal ges­ture is entire­ly uncon­tro­ver­sial when applied to ear­li­er his­tor­i­cal peri­ods, I had the sense that apply­ing it to rel­a­tive­ly recent lit­er­ary criticism—by which I mean crit­i­cism of the past twen­ty-five years or so, a peri­od that I see as char­ac­ter­ized by the influ­ence of neolib­er­al­ism in the cul­tur­al sphere—might be a more polar­iz­ing endeav­or. But this was the point: to make some­thing that seems self-evi­dent (the notion that it’s good when exper­i­men­tal­ists and non-exper­i­men­tal­ists play nice with one anoth­er and share tac­tics) iden­ti­fi­able, dis­putable, and there­fore a mat­ter for debate rather than sim­ple accep­tance. A rhetor­i­cal mode that ampli­fies the exis­tence of polar­iza­tion and recasts his­to­ry as a result—in this case, the his­to­ry of criticism—seemed, there­fore, apt for what I was up to.

This forum is a wel­come occa­sion to wit­ness the effects of such a project, both in terms of its con­tent and—perhaps more con­spic­u­ous­ly, if only implicitly—its form. Indeed, tak­ing stock of the respons­es to my piece, the most strik­ing ini­tial impres­sion one gets is their pro­nounced dif­fer­ences in tone and approach: in short, they seem to exhib­it very dif­fer­ent sens­es of how a work of crit­i­cism like this should be received, used, and engaged. The respons­es can, I think, be under­stood to stem from three very dif­fer­ent impuls­es: an impulse to chan­nel the piece’s for­mal ener­gy in order to inspire fur­ther thought (Görans­son); an impulse to ana­lyze, cri­tique, and expand its argu­ments (Brooks); and an impulse to instruct and dis­ci­pline its writer (Burt). 

Inspi­ra­tion. “Six Propo­si­tions on Com­pro­mise Aes­thet­ics” was not intend­ed to be a defense of the avant-garde, but rather an inves­ti­ga­tion of why we might now be so eager to cel­e­brate its pass­ing. As the piece sug­gests, I am wor­ried about the tri­umphal­ism with which self-con­scious­ly polar­iz­ing, oppo­si­tion­al, or exces­sive work can be recast as belong­ing to an expan­sive set of post-avant-garde prac­tices. Johannes Görans­son shares that con­cern. It moti­vates much of his crit­i­cal and poet­ic writ­ing, and it is very much at the fore­front of his objec­tions to Amer­i­can Hybrid, objec­tions that, in turn, have helped me shape my own sense of why that vol­ume might be symp­to­matic of wider social, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic cur­rents. I admire his response to my piece very much. If my piece respond­ed to the state of affairs that I am call­ing “com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics” with an inten­tion­al­ly per­for­ma­tive refusal, his responds with an equal­ly per­for­ma­tive affir­ma­tion of a counter-tra­di­tion in writ­ing. 

Most of all, Görans­son wants us to be “ship­wrecked by the inter­ven­tion of art’s mat­ter,” to be “ruined” by “art in—in the shape of crime, or crime as art” (he takes Jean Genet as muse in devel­op­ing this argu­ment). In my view, whether or not art that per­forms this kind of inter­ven­tion must adhere in some strict sense to what we would expect from the avant-garde isn’t the point. But, as Görans­son insists, if art does any­thing impor­tant, it is only by being dis­rup­tive that it does so. As I argue in my orig­i­nal piece, this is why efforts to retroac­tive­ly script that dis­rup­tive­ness with­in nar­ra­tives that see it as com­pat­i­ble with strate­gies and audi­ences that are essen­tial­ly not dis­rup­tive are so dam­ag­ing: such crit­i­cal approach­es do a vio­lence to writ­ing that is qui­eter, but more thor­ough­go­ing, than the vio­lence of the kind of “crim­i­nal” art Görans­son advo­cates. 

Analy­sis. Like Görans­son, Ryan Brooks uses my piece as an occa­sion to turn to anoth­er source text, in this case David Fos­ter Wallace’s “E Unibus Plu­ram.” But Brooks offers a more direct analy­sis, prob­ing my def­i­n­i­tions and push­ing my think­ing in new direc­tions. The results of this are enor­mous­ly fruit­ful, and I large­ly agree with Brooks’s argu­ments, espe­cial­ly his clos­ing point regard­ing the impor­tance of aca­d­e­m­ic labor orga­niz­ing and the sta­tus of con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty.

Brooks and I do have our points of diver­gence. He argues con­vinc­ing­ly that my piece does not address how neolib­er­al dis­course thrives off of “dis­avow­ing struc­tur­al antag­o­nism” in such a way that goes beyond com­pro­mise. Writ­ing can par­tic­i­pate in this dis­avow­al, for instance, through plu­ral­iza­tion: “pro­duc­ing as many dif­fer­ent kinds of writ­ing as there are ‘kinds of per­son’ or ‘kinds of read­er.’” Brooks argues that neolib­er­al­ism pro­duces not com­pro­mise but the pro­lif­er­a­tion of indi­vid­ual per­spec­tives; not a kind of watered-down same­ness but end­less artic­u­la­tions of equal­ly valid per­spec­tives.

Push­ing this objec­tion fur­ther, it would be pos­si­ble to iden­ti­fy the pres­ence of not one but two dis­tinct ways of avoid­ing aes­thet­ic con­flict in con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary cul­ture: on one hand, the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of pre­vi­ous­ly opposed impuls­es (com­pro­mise) and on the oth­er hand, the belief that the con­flict itself has no basis and can there­fore be ignored (plu­ral­iza­tion). On the lev­el of writ­ing, the lit­er­ary land­scape is char­ac­ter­ized by plu­ral­iza­tion. Writ­ers are large­ly pro­ceed­ing as if there isn’t any need to engage in the old bat­tles anymore—look at the kind of work that is pub­lished in Poet­ry these days, or the diver­si­ty of work com­ing out of the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop. But on the lev­el of crit­i­cism, com­pro­mise still seems to have pur­chase, in part because we aren’t par­tic­u­lar­ly good at account­ing for plu­ral­i­ty (though Mark McGurl’s The Pro­gram Era is an impor­tant excep­tion) and in part because lit­er­ary crit­ics and schol­ars tend to want to draw con­ti­nu­ities. And if the cul­tur­al land­scape is increas­ing­ly plur­al, that plu­ral­i­ty drawn togeth­er sug­gests that the con­cerns that used to divide writ­ers into groups and pro­duce opposed schools no longer mat­ter as they once did. So the meta-con­clu­sion that many schol­ars and crit­ics come to when faced with a plur­al lit­er­ary land­scape tends to look like the crit­i­cal posi­tion I have called com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics. In oth­er words, these two phe­nom­e­na, plu­ral­iza­tion and com­pro­mise, aren’t as dif­fer­ent as they seem when put into prac­tice (think, for instance, of the sug­ges­tion to “agree to dis­agree”). And they seem to require one anoth­er, the lat­ter giv­ing retroac­tive shape to the for­mer as the for­mer jus­ti­fies the pre­sump­tion of the lat­ter. Both com­pro­mise and plu­ral­iza­tion are ways of dis­avow­ing antag­o­nism. Com­pro­mise just explic­it­ly cel­e­brates what plu­ral­iza­tion achieves by mere with­draw­al.

Instruc­tion. In his response, Stephen Burt spends con­sid­er­able time explain­ing things to me: the dis­tinc­tion between lib­er­al­ism and neolib­er­al­ism, the def­i­n­i­tion of deep ecol­o­gy, the dialec­ti­cal process of inno­va­tion in the arts, and the dif­fer­ence between nat­u­ral­ism and post­mod­ernism among them. He begins with a rehearsal of what he calls “a kind of sto­ry about how the arts change, a kind of sto­ry that we can see over and over, from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, in almost every art form in the Atlantic world since 1910, if not since 1789.” It is, as he puts it, a sto­ry that posi­tions a “break­through artist…as a kind of Hegelian syn­the­sis of the tra­di­tion­al, audi­ence-friend­ly art and its tough, pro­gram­mat­ic antithe­sis.” Here Burt describes my work as falling in with the ten­den­cy to call out these “break­through artists” as “sell-outs,” to side with the less­er-known ear­ly avant-gardists over the “late­com­ers.” He casts me as a would-be knee-jerk Nir­vana-hater, which in polit­i­cal terms makes my posi­tion one of “irre­den­tism,” of “pro­gram­mat­ic” rigid­i­ty, of valu­ing some­thing oth­er than the human—maybe “inno­va­tion,” maybe “the Rev­o­lu­tion,” or maybe noth­ing at all. In response to this per­ceived rebel­lious­ness on my part, he instructs me in the impor­tance of lib­er­al human­ism and the dan­gers of nihilism. His over­ar­ch­ing tone is one of patient dis­ci­pline, as one might address some­one who means well but could be helped by see­ing the pos­si­bly dan­ger­ous results of her oppo­si­tion­al posi­tions (in this case, the pos­si­bil­i­ty that she might acci­den­tal­ly advo­cate a return to the nat­u­ral­ism of Stephen Crane. We could do worse, I think).

This impulse to instruct and dis­ci­pline makes sense as a response to the tonal qual­i­ty of my orig­i­nal piece: inso­far as “the man­i­festo eschews … grad­u­al­ist lan­guage of debate and reform”  (Lyon 31), the form of my piece does ges­ture toward the kind of sus­pi­cion toward lib­er­al­ism that Burt address­es in his response. But the sub­stance of my argu­ment is not a call for a rev­o­lu­tion­ary avant-garde. Burt’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of my argu­ment as whole-cloth rejec­tion of those artists who bring togeth­er tech­niques asso­ci­at­ed with exper­i­men­tal­ism and those asso­ci­at­ed with more eas­i­ly digestible modes ignores my piece’s sixth propo­si­tion: “All hybrid aes­thet­ics are not com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics.” By this I meant to sug­gest that we can love a band like Nirvana—indeed I think we should; I do—but not because the band found a way of clos­ing the gap between punk and main­stream rock. We should love Nir­vana because of the pro­nounced ten­sion that remains at the core of its music, the way in which punk seems to con­tin­ue to do bat­tle against the main­stream with­in the songs, as if there is a kind of rage that can’t be loud enough because it’s stuck in a pop song and can’t get out. That rage, I would argue, is more pow­er­ful because it’s stuck in a pop song. Nir­vana was impor­tant not because the band was able to able to mod­er­ate the oppo­si­tion­al aspects of punk or make punk more lis­ten­able and there­fore rel­e­vant to a wider audi­ence: it did do the lat­ter, but so did a lot of much worse bands. Nir­vana did what these bands didn’t do: it retained a fuck-you stance that was total and uncom­pro­mis­ing, wrapped it in a pop veneer, and then showed the world what the bloody fight that result­ed looked like. The lit­er­ary ana­logue, as I wrote in my sixth propo­si­tion, might be some­thing like Kushner’s The Flamethrow­ers, which high­lights the con­flict “between the feel­ings of plea­sure pro­duced by its for­mal fea­tures and the polit­i­cal volatil­i­ty it asso­ciates with the aes­thet­ic impulse.”

So suf­fice it to say that I did not make ref­er­ence to the dialec­ti­cal sto­ry that Burt tells in Close Calls With Non­sense in order to say that the avant-gardists are right and that the artists who learn from and appro­pri­ate their for­mal tech­niques are wrong, but rather to sug­gest that there’s some­thing about that sto­ry that leads us to ignore the more inter­est­ing aspects of a lot of art and lit­er­a­ture. I think we could go even fur­ther and say that the sto­ry he tells, a sto­ry that does indeed go well beyond Burt (though sug­gest­ing that it inheres in all West­ern arts back to 1789 might be a bit grand), is itself a prob­lem in the con­tem­po­rary con­text for three rea­sons. 

First, in posi­tion­ing the artist who brings togeth­er tech­niques drawn from both the avant-garde and the main­stream as the syn­the­sis in a lit­er­ary-his­tor­i­cal dialec­tic, such a sto­ry sug­gests that the com­pro­mise or hybrid form is inher­ent­ly a priv­i­leged vehi­cle for aes­thet­ic progress. It should be up for debate, I think, whether or not this is or has been always the case. Sec­ond, there is increas­ing evi­dence that the sto­ry itself might be wear­ing out. As “under­ground” or “avant-garde” posi­tions become less and less possible—because of the speed with which they are appro­pri­at­ed; because of the expan­sion of taste such that it’s dif­fi­cult to offend any­one any­more; because of the plu­ral­iza­tion of the aes­thet­ic field—the engine of the dialec­tic will like­ly con­tin­ue to have less and less oppo­si­tion­al mate­r­i­al to fuel itself as time goes on. So if this sto­ry describes how aes­thet­ic change always hap­pens, or has hap­pened since 1789, it is now describ­ing the way aes­thet­ic change will stop hap­pen­ing. And that leads me to the third prob­lem with this sto­ry, the one I focused on in my orig­i­nal piece: there is a ten­den­cy for crit­ics to seize upon the sit­u­a­tion out­lined above in order to sug­gest that the wear­ing-out of the con­ven­tion­al/a­vant-garde dialec­ti­cal machine might mean that we’ve final­ly achieved the end of all of that non­sense and can just start pro­duc­ing work in which for­mal deci­sions aren’t envi­sioned as either chal­leng­ing or con­ven­tion­al, but as just a set of neu­tral tac­tics to be mar­shaled in an entre­pre­neur­ial fash­ion. And see­ing this turn to aes­thet­ic entre­pre­neuri­al­ism as a good thing reflects neolib­er­al ide­ol­o­gy.

This is why I don’t think Mark Levine or C.D. Wright (two of my favorite poets, inci­den­tal­ly) are prac­ti­tion­ers of “com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics.” The term com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics doesn’t describe the qual­i­ty of a work of art, but a par­tic­u­lar crit­i­cal pos­ture one can take in rela­tion to a work of art, a pos­ture that relies upon buy­ing into this appar­ent­ly endur­ing sto­ry, a pos­ture that I believe Burt takes in much of his crit­i­cism and the basic assump­tions of which he reit­er­ates in his response to my piece. “What the dom­i­nant order calls ‘progress,’” Lyon tells us, “the man­i­festo aims to expose as aber­ran­cy or mythopoe­sis or hege­mon­ic oppor­tunism” (Lyon 16). This is what I hoped to show in my read­ing of The Flamethrow­ers: what looks like a work that eschews for­mal dis­tinc­tions can turn out to be a work that is very much about the con­tin­ued need to high­light points of aes­thet­ic and ide­o­log­i­cal dis­junc­tion, not to affirm the exper­i­men­tal and crit­i­cize the acces­si­ble, but to ask us to take pause before we cel­e­brate the wan­ing of such dis­tinc­tions. 

 


[v] For anoth­er recent exper­i­ment in this vein, see the Man­i­festo of the V21 Col­lec­tive.

 

Works Cit­ed

Lyon, Janet. Man­i­festoes: Provo­ca­tions of the Mod­ern. Itha­ca, NY: Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1999. Print.

 

Rachel Green­wald Smith is the author of Affect and Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture in the Age of Neolib­er­al­ism (Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2015) and edi­tor of Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture in Tran­si­tion: 2000–2010, under con­tract at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press. Her essays have appeared in jour­nals includ­ing Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­tureMod­ern Fic­tion Stud­iesMedi­a­tions, and Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Lit­er­a­ture. She is cur­rent­ly Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Saint Louis Uni­ver­si­ty, where she teach­es cours­es on con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture, envi­ron­men­tal lit­er­a­ture, and crit­i­cal the­o­ry. 

 

Guest Crit­i­cism Edi­tor Davis Smith-Brecheisen is a Ph.D. stu­dent in Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois-Chica­go. His areas of research include Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, the his­to­ry of the nov­el, lit­er­ary the­o­ry, and eco­nom­ic thought.