Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics

Criticism / Rachel Greenwald Smith

:: Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics ::

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]

In developing an umbrella term for this affirmation of aesthetic compromise, my aim is to trace a surprising consistency among a range of seemingly discrete critical responses to the present and to argue that such efforts should be understood as symptomatic of the historical period in which they have appeared, rather than as responses to an autonomous literary sphere. Invocations of compromise tend to have an end-historical valence, as compromises are generally figured as permanent solutions to specific historical battles. In turn, my aim in emphasizing the historical context for the rise in compromise aesthetics is to highlight their contingency and challenge the appeal to inevitability and permanence that is at the heart of the very concept of compromise.

In what follows, I will argue that the dominance of compromise aesthetics in evaluations of the contemporary literary climate should be read in the context of the rise of neoliberalism in the United States over the past three decades. Ultimately, my aim is not to argue for the continued relevance of polarized distinctions between mainstream and experimental aesthetics. Instead, I will suggest that the hybrid gestures many critics read as signaling compromise might better be read as pointing to the continued presence of tension and dissent in literary and political culture alike.

2. Compromise aesthetics are symptomatic of the cultural entrenchment of neoliberalism.

While the particularities of compromise aesthetics have varied from critic to critic, genre to genre, most share the foundational assumption that contemporary literature is formally interesting primarily in its efforts to produce a compromise between experimentalism and convention; difficulty and readability; and the underground and the mass market. Most also share a fundamental literary-historical narrative that sees this aesthetic shift as initiated at the turn of the twenty-first century by a generation of writers who came up in an age dominated by a highly polarized field consisting of the experimentalists of the 1970s—Language Poets and postmodernists—on the one hand and the counter-revolutionary commitment to mainstream accessibility epitomized by the influence of New Formalism and the perceived conservatizing influence of Creative Writing MFA programs of the 1980s on the other. The new generation of writers are described by the proponents of this narrative as frustrated by the limitations of these two positions, and as a result rejecting en masse the notion that formally inventive literature requires intentional opposition to the norms of mainstream writing and the expectations of mainstream audiences. As Stephen Burt explains, by the late eighties and early nineties, young writers “sought something new: something more open to personal emotion, to story and feeling, than language poetry, but more complicated intellectually than most of the creative writing programs’ poets allowed” (Close Calls 8).

It is easy enough to see why this and other similar narratives have been so compelling. Its institutional analysis is largely accurate, and it echoes what many writers describe as their motivations for seeking out compromise modes. But the noteworthy elision in this way of understanding the evolution of compromise aesthetics is the contemporaneous advent of neoliberalism—that is, the enforced privatization, financial deregulation, and diminished social services (including arts funding) that emerged during the Reagan era and have continued to provide the backdrop for the political and economic policies of every subsequent administration. Neoliberalism has widely been acknowledged to have had a dramatic effect on cultural, as well as economic, formations. David Harvey and others have argued that core neoliberal assumptions have transcended the world of politics to “become hegemonic as a mode of discourse” (3). And as Wendy Brown explains, neoliberalism is fundamentally defined by the tendency for aspects of life previously imagined to be separate from the market to become established and evaluated according to market norms, “extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action” (40, emphasis in original). By the 1990s, when the rise of compromise aesthetics began, neoliberalism had ushered in an entire structure of belief that put the pursuit of profit, the spirit of entrepreneurialism, and movements toward corporatization as essentially not in conflict with moral, social, or political values. 

With this shift came a corresponding effect on the arts as well, as the notion of artistic “creativity” was appropriated as a key aspect of entrepreneurial behavior and economic success. [iii] The result has been increased bleed between the spirit of economic activity on the one hand and the spirit of aesthetic activity on the other. Johannes Göransson makes a related point in his review of American Hybrid:

One of my major problems with the rhetoric of the introduction is the liberal ideology as aesthetics: These poets are superior to more extremist poets, poets who stick to their agenda, because by reading across camp-lines these poets have more “tools” at their disposal. And more is better. More formal tools, fewer considerations for politics. Or as Cole [Swensen] writes: “hybrid poets access a wealth of tools.” They’re rich with poetic tools.

Neoliberal attitudes—in this case an entrepreneurial interest in using all the tools one has at one’s disposal in whatever way is most effective in the moment—are here revealed to be expressed first in the formal choices of writers and second in selections and evaluations by anthologists and critics.[iv] And when these values are used to discount the necessity for collective oppositional positions toward the status quo, they suggest by extension that developing an entrepreneurial capacity to marshal resources effectively should outweigh social or political forms of alliance.

3. Compromise aesthetics claim universal relevance by emphasizing the personal.

The pressure to develop an entrepreneurial posture toward one’s own art carries resonances of the neoliberal expansion of market values to all aspects of life. And, as Göransson shows, those pressures contribute to the tendency for contemporary writers to work in hybrid modes. But compromise aesthetics are not merely affirmations of hybridity; they are arguments for the permanence and universal worth of aesthetic compromise as a general form. The primary argument that proponents of compromise aesthetics invoke to underpin this claim is the belief in the universal value of the personal.

It has become commonplace to define the literature that emerges after postmodernism as returning the personal to the forefront of literary experience. This argument is exemplified in Burt’s definition of elliptical poetry. For Burt, the most compelling contemporary poets 

try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-“postmodern”: they have read (most of them) Stein’s heirs, and the “language writers,” and have chosen to do otherwise. (“Smokes”)

In this view, there is no fundamental incompatibility between “the verbal gizmos” of the language poets and the attempt “to manifest a person” in a posture consistent with the traditional lyric.[v] As a result, literature is imagined as gaining a more immediate sense of relevance to contemporary readers by its engagement with the personal, and by extension, the emotional. Paul Hoover’s effort to define the “postlanguage lyric” as one of the prevalent modes of the post-1990s generation in his introduction to the new edition of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry also relies upon the notion that the personal has a natural primacy in literature. According to Hoover, “postlanguage lyric cannot be said to constitute a school but rather the natural inclination of poetry toward sweetness and depth of expression” (xlvii). This invocation of “sweetness,” with its valences of Matthew Arnold, as well as the notion that “depth of expression” is a “natural inclination” seems like it should be in tension both with Hoover’s previous alliances with various avant-garde movements and with his argument elsewhere in the introduction to the anthology that “avant-garde poetry endures in its resistance to dominant and received modes of poetry” (xxxiii). The fact that both statements coexist as easily as they do is a function of how compelling most readers find appeals to the universality of personal expression.[vi]

The postmodern novel has also come under fire by critics trying to come to terms with the perceived waning of social relevance of literary fiction. Post-postmodernist fiction is envisioned as a remedy to this problem, replacing what is widely perceived to be empty language play with a measure of the social immediacy associated with realism. Robert McLaughlin defines this turn in fiction in terms consonant with compromise aesthetics:

Many of the fiction writers who have come on the scene since the late 1980s seem to be responding to the perceived dead end of postmodernism, a dead end that has been reached because of postmodernism’s…tendency, as one writer once put it to me, to disappear up its own asshole. We can think of this aesthetic sea change, then, as being inspired by a desire…to have an impact on actual people and the actual social institutions in which they live their lives. (55)

For McLaughlin and others, literary engagement with the social sphere requires a more direct engagement with “actual people.” In practical terms, this often leads to the belief that the most important innovation in contemporary fiction is the coexistence of formal play—the incorporation of images, metafictional devices, exuberant and excessive plots—with characters who seem like real people. From “The New Sincerity” advocated by David Foster Wallace’s critical essays to the “post-ironic” aesthetics of McSweeney’s, the coexistence of what Wallace calls “untrendy human troubles and emotions” with self-consciously anti-realist plots and other estranging literary devices, is widely celebrated by contemporary fiction’s most influential critics (192).[vii] Think, for instance, of Sam Tanenhaus’s celebration of Jonathan Franzen as the progenitor of a “new kind of novel” which, through its representation of psychologically dense characters, “cracked open the opaque shell of postmodernism, tweezed out its tangled circuitry and inserted in its place the warm, beating heart of an authentic humanism.” Such hyperbole suggests something beyond an assessment of Franzen’s work and toward a global claim about the future of literary fiction, a future that is imagined to be vastly improved by a renewed focus on the personal.

4. The personal mode of compromise aesthetics, like the neoliberal model of the entrepreneur, sees the individual as both self-consciously constructed and immensely valuable.

Some of these arguments rely upon conservative rhetoric, appealing to the notion of tradition and promising to return literature to its concern with “real people,” but today’s critics have learned from the postmodern critique of the subject. Their claims therefore do not rest on any given literary work’s capacity to represent the universal truth of any individual subject position. Rather, literature is said to affirm the fundamental existence and importance of individual subjective experience in general even if works demonstrate skepticism toward any individual subject’s reality as universal. One of the most noteworthy compromises animating compromise aesthetics is thus the alignment of the postmodern emphasis on the social construction of the subject and the artificial construction of the literary personae with the neoliberal primacy of being an individual person (constructed or not). 

For instance, Burt makes a distinction between poems that insist upon artifice for artifice’s sake (envisioned as the domain of late twentieth-century experimental poetry) and the kind of contemporary works he celebrates, which often “demonstrate that selves, personalities, egos, are themselves artificial, effects of a social matrix.” Yet for Burt, these works “hold together if we can imagine a personality behind them” (13-14). In this example, the personality that allows such works to “hold together” can be an overt product of literary falsification, but the personal is still envisioned as being at the root of contemporary poetry’s readability and, by extension, its relevance.

This capacious concept of the personal that underlies compromise aesthetics resonates with the model of the entrepreneur. Just as compromise aesthetics allow that the personal might be self-consciously invented in a work of literature, envisioning the self as entrepreneur rests on the notion that the self is and should be buildable from scratch, able to be tactically molded according to different needs in different contexts. It is this model of the flexible subject, as both Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze speculated at the end of their lives, that might be one of the most lucrative tools late capitalism borrowed from postmodernist and poststructuralist theory. 

For instance, in a late essay, Deleuze notes with great bewilderment that “many young people strangely boast of being ‘motivated’; they re-request apprenticeships and permanent training” (7). He argues that this tendency stems from the fact that the rigid form or mode associated with the disciplinary society, which held sway for much of modernity, has begun to be replaced by “modulation…a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other” (4). In this model, not only are contemporary individuals artificially shaped, they are perpetually and actively under construction so that the process of shaping is always on the surface. Whereas it may have come as a surprise for liberal subjects to encounter Althusser for the first time and find that what seemed like their integral sense of self had, in fact, been called into being within a particular matrix of power, neoliberal subjects are eager, active, and continual participants in the production, activation, and commodification of themselves.

This model of the entrepreneurial subject requires the same paradoxical compromise as the mode of the personal we see in compromise aesthetics. In both cases, there is a need for the personal to have deep and specific value and yet nevertheless be a self-conscious product of active construction. Postmodernist 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 that artificiality. Compromise aesthetics, on the other hand, celebrate works in which the constructed nature of the individual is highlighted, but where that constructed individual nevertheless remains the vessel of enormous emotional energy. As Stephen J. Burn explains of post-postmodernist fiction, such works are “informed by the postmodernist critique of the naïve belief that language can be a true mirror of reality, and yet they are suspicious of the logical climax to this critique: Derrida’s famous statement that ‘there is nothing outside the text’” (20; qtd. Derrida 158). This compromise between opaque textual construction and the appeal to actually existing personal and emotional value is in pronounced agreement with the neoliberal model of the entrepreneur, who is envisioned as both an artificial construct and intensely important, both mutable and unique, both the result of a process of production and a site of specific and undeniable value.

5. Compromise aesthetics posit an end of literary history that mirrors the end of history fantasies of neoliberal utopian positions.

The compromise narrative has a compelling teleology, inevitably leading to the conclusion that the disputes that led to the polarizations of the late twentieth century (and that have always underpinned self-consciously anti-mainstream aesthetic movements) have been satisfactorily and permanently resolved through an egalitarian form of compromise. In this sense, the fact that this position has been called “Third Way” aesthetics by some commentators has more than a nominal relationship to the rise of “Third Way” politics:[viii] both positions are consistent with a neoliberal end-of-history perspective in which taking a major ideological stand is represented as unnecessary, hysterical, or thoughtlessly utopian, and that the need for such positions is rendered moot by the availability of tactical interventions that are essentially not challenging to the status quo.[ix] 

These tactical interventions may seem groundbreaking, or even radical. Think, for instance, of Third Way proponent Michael Bloomberg’s controversial trans-fat ban during his tenure as mayor of New York City. Banning trans-fats might, indeed, constitute a challenge to individual “liberty” and therefore anger proponents of a truly laissez-faire capitalism on the right, but when the action is aimed at increasing worker productivity, optimizing the health of the population, and decreasing healthcare costs overall, the move falls very much in line with the state-based management of the free market associated with neoliberalism. [x]

Similarly, critical statements associated with compromise aesthetics often see the works they praise as significant, even surprising, interventions in the status quo that nevertheless leave the basic expectations underlying mainstream literature unchanged. This is one way of understanding how James Wood, perhaps the most vocal defender of traditional psychological realism in fiction, was able to make his peace with compromise aesthetics in a recent review of Rachel Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers (2013), despite his longstanding hatred of novels that, like Kushner’s, perform types of esoteric knowledge and highlight the process of their own making. He writes:

Put aside…the long postwar argument between the rival claims of realistic and anti-realistic fiction—the seasoned triumphs of the traditional American novel on one side, and the necessary innovations of postmodern fiction on the other. It was never very edifying anyway…Some novelists, neither obviously traditional nor obviously experimental…blast through such phantom barricades.

Crucially, Wood’s willingness to embrace a work like Kushner’s, which he sees as miraculously both “scintillatingly alive, and also alive to artifice,” is a function of its ability to touch on something universally meaningful: a “novelistic vivacity” that, while achieved through techniques that are more experimental than Wood would ordinarily tolerate, gives the reader a sense of a “living reality”—the ultimate aim of realism—simply through new means (Wood). Kushner’s work “blasts through”—it does not merely obey conventions—but its impact, in Wood’s view, is the perpetuation of what we already know to be valuable: the representation of what we already recognize as “real life.”

The very finality and reach of compromise aesthetics is therefore reminiscent of a range of neoliberal utopianisms, from the putatively conservative Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man to the avowedly center-left Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, that see the totality of global capitalism as a solution to global political unrest. Just as Fukuyama argues that while specific implementations of liberal democracy might show defects, “the ideal of liberal democracy could not be improved upon” (The End of History and the Last Man xi, italics in original), proponents of compromise aesthetics allow that individual works might continue to demonstrate aesthetic evolution, but by seeing oppositional aesthetic positions as superseded by compromise, they implicitly suggest that the general form of aesthetic compromise achieved in contemporary literature need not undergo any significant transformation.

To be done with polarization, to see formal techniques, old, new, estranging, intimate, experimental, conventional, as a mere grab-bag of neutral tactics waiting to be marshaled for the success of the individual work, to forge an indefinite truce with the demands of mainstream expectations, is, in this context, just another mode of capitulation to a form of domination that scripts itself as neutral, permissive, and permanent.

6. All hybrid aesthetics are not compromise aesthetics.

The tendency for compromise aesthetics to coincide with critical positions that ignore the historical conditions of literary production is, at least in part, a symptom of the fact that the very notion of compromise obscures historical contingencies. Compromise signals a satisfactory settlement, an enduring resolution, a calculated truce that serves the interests of two previously polarized camps. In turn, the notion that our tendency to value the form of compromise, both in literature and in politics, might be historically specific undermines the sense of inevitability and permanent satisfaction that is at the core of the very concept. 

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. 

It has become clear that the end of the formal polarizations that characterized the Cold War and the national alliances that preceded it did not mean the end of global conflict. Likewise, we now know that the end of state-sponsored segregation in the U.S. in the form of Jim Crow laws did not mean the end of racial unrest. It is equally true that the end of a clearly demarcated avant-garde in literature does not mean the end of substantive challenges to the very structure of mainstream literary production and consumption, but the persistence of compromise aesthetics suggests that we currently lack ways of reading to make us attentive to that fact.

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. 

Returning to Kushner’s novel, for instance, it isn’t entirely clear that the overall effect of The Flamethrowers is to “blast through” unnecessary distinctions between the mainstream and the avant-garde. Even Wood, later in his review, allows that this might be the case, when he argues that the book’s engagement with the relationship between political radicalism and art “seems like an overloading of the novel’s thematic circuits, a wrongheaded desire to make everything signify.” Ultimately, Wood passes these aspects of Kushner’s novel off as small oversights in an otherwise perfect compromise form. But this misses a glaring irony: the very theme that Wood finds suspicious and therefore pushes aside as marginal—the novel’s insistence upon the connection between political violence and aesthetics—could also be understood to constitute the book’s argument against the possibility for compromise between the kind of aesthetic novelty that Wood praises and the political status quo. Indeed, one of the novel’s major achievements is the conflict it highlights between the feelings of pleasure produced by its formal features and the political volatility it associates with the aesthetic impulse. 

The novel accentuates this tension first and foremost through the passivity of Reno, the narrator, a young artist who sees herself as not so much actively living as quietly “shopping for experience” (313). Reno’s tendency to sit back and let experiences happen to her is what allows the novel to achieve its blend between realism and the insistence on artifice that it maintains through its metafictional reflections on art, its incorporation of documentary photographs, and its fictionalization of historical events. Despite the fact that the novel is about experimental art and is narrated by an experimental artist, it offers the illusion of direct, unmediated experience because of Reno’s passive posture. As a result, the novel can be read without much concern with the questions of mediation and artificiality that it might otherwise highlight, because Reno seems like a reliable and neutral vehicle for the registration of a larger social landscape. 

But the apparent neutrality of the novel’s narrative form is exposed as potentially volatile when, at the end of the novel, we learn that Reno may have unknowingly contributed to the execution of her ex-boyfriend’s brother by the Red Brigades. She has done this, crucially, through a passive activity: by waiting. In the novel’s final pages, when a member of the Italian left fails to meet her where he is supposed to, she paces, seemingly indefinitely, at the foot of Mont Blanc, while the future assassin is likely to be stealing off into the mountains and preparing his attack. Inaction, observation, and neutrality are here figured as paradoxically contributing to an act of revolutionary political violence, while elsewhere in the book the same attempts to withdraw from politics on the part of members of the elite are figured as contributing to various forms of state-sanctioned violence, from the horrors of fascism to the brutality of labor exploitation. Art, in this vision, cannot withdraw from polarization, even in its most seemingly conciliatory modes. The belief that it can do so is, The Flamethrowers suggests, a dangerous source of potential complicity with whatever political force insinuates itself in the moment.

The Flamethrowers is just one example of how works of contemporary literature accentuate the formal and conceptual frictions that result from the very attempt to put conflict to rest. This, in turn, underscores the degree to which compromises will always remain unstable and incomplete. What appears to be a logic of formal compromise, in many of these works, is often the precise opposite: an incorporation of recognizable experimental and mainstream modes that demonstrates the inherent instability of both. 

There is no end of literary history, just as there is no end of political history. Even in times characterized by the most seemingly complete forms, tension, contradiction, and transformation nevertheless abide. At least in that small fact, we might take comfort.



Many thanks to Davis Smith-Brecheisen for his rigorous engagement with this essay.

[i] See, for instance, Silliman’s resurrection of Edgar Allen Poe’s term “The School of Quietude” to draw attention to the specificity of conventional poetry, poetry that he argues possesses “something of a death grip on financial resources for writing in America while denying its own existence as a literary movement.”

[ii] Compromise aesthetics are not defined merely as attempts to run skew of aesthetic debates; such a notion would be nothing new. If the works typical of compromise aesthetics resemble any single, unadulterated individual literary mode that predates the contemporary period, they most closely resemble middlebrow works, which like compromise works, are “very good at co-opting and commercializing the highbrow” (D’hoker 261). Yet most historians of middlebrow culture agree that “the middlebrow is all about class” insofar as middlebrow works are defined primarily by their middle-class, non-academic readers (260). The very designation “middlebrow” is dependent upon a class-based identification of a specific readership; it is not a stable aesthetic designation. In this sense, no matter how much individual compromise works might seem to echo the middlebrow mode formally, their celebration in high literary culture is specific to the contemporary moment.

[iii] For a thorough account of the appropriation and instrumentalization of the notion of “creativity” toward neoliberal social goals, see Brouillette.

[iv] Debates about contemporary poetics tend to skirt pragmatic market considerations, in part because the market for poetry is so small as to be financially inconsequential for all but the very most famous poets. This is less true in assessments of fiction, which tend to be more aware of the complex interplay between aesthetic decision-making and changes in the publishing industry that themselves stem from larger economic currents. Yet these changes affect poetry too—if not by a direct financial incentive to authors then by the slow creep of a wider literary culture that asserts the value of aesthetic trends that themselves are based on market logics.

[v] Jennifer Ashton offers a compelling account of the compatibility between Language Poetry and other seemingly “anti-lyric” positions and a thoroughgoing emphasis on the personal consistent with more traditional expressions of lyric form. Indeed, Ashton’s capacious definition of the lyric tradition suggests that some of the features that I am attributing to compromise aesthetics could be conceived as accompanying a range of works within the lyric tradition, including works of the anti-lyric movements of high modernism and Language Poetry. It does nevertheless seem significant that both the way in which writers self-describe and the most prevalent critical accounts of those writers have shifted over the past few decades, so that writers and critics whose interest in formal novelty once may have made them committed to experimentalism are now vocally embracing features of the lyric that once were contested by anti-lyric positions.

[vi] Oren Izenberg’s contention in Being Numerous (2011) that the various binary oppositions that have been applied to poetics obscure poetry’s fundamental social grounding falls very much in line with compromise aesthetics. Yet his interest in how some works of poetry offer up a minimal definition of the personal provides a crucial corrective to the tendency for a focus on the personal to mean a focus on individual experience and expression. The study therefore manages to recuperate a properly liberal theory of poetry in a moment when many attempts to imagine a relationship between aesthetics and a liberal social agenda, particularly those grounded in an interest in the articulation of personal experience, risk bleeding over into the neoliberal prioritization of the individual over the social and experience over structural critique.

[vii] On post-ironic literature, see Konstantiou. On “The New Sincerity,” see Kelly.

[viii] On the rise of “Third Way” poetics, see Richie.

[ix] In Walter Benn Michaels’s account, prevailing theoretical approaches to literature “[turn] disagreement about the meaning of texts into the registration of their different effects.” Consequently, “[r]eaders at the end of history… differ, but they don’t disagree. And they don’t disagree because they have nothing to disagree about” (80). Beyond the effects of literary theory, my argument here is that this end-historical quality of today’s literary culture is a broad symptom of a basic aesthetic judgment that sees the major formal disputes of the twentieth century as reducible to a plurality of styles. These styles are figured, often by writers themselves, as value-neutral options among endless other equally interesting options. In other words, today’s formal innovations, when they occur, might be understood in Francis Fukuyama’s terms as a practice of “the endless solving of technical problems” in the aesthetic sphere (“The End of History?” 25).

[x] As Wendy Brown puts it, “Neoliberalism does not conceive of either the market itself or rational economic behavior as purely natural. Both are constructed—organized by law and political institutions, and requiring political intervention and orchestration. Far from flourishing when left alone, the economy must be directed, buttressed, and protected by law and policy as well as by the dissemination of social norms designed to facilitate competition, free trade, and rational economic action on the part of every member and institution of society” (41).


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—–. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: The Free Press, 1992. Print.

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—-. “Wednesday, June 24, 2009.” Silliman’s Blog. N.p., 24 June 2009. Web. 19 June 2013.

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Wood, James. “Youth in Revolt: Rachel Kushner’s ‘The Flamethrowers.’” The New Yorker. 8 April 2013. Web. 10 


Rachel Greenwald Smith is the author of Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in 2015. Her essays have appeared in journals including American Literature, Modern Fiction Studies, Mediations, 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 PhD student in English Literature at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His areas of research include American literature, the history of the novel, literary theory, and economic thought.