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. 

A Theory of “Here”

Criticism / Lee Konstantinou

:: A Theory of Here ::

About halfway through Here, the exper­i­men­tal car­toon­ist Richard McGuire opens a window—well, a panel—onto the year 10,175. This far-future scene is lay­ered atop a larg­er image that takes place in 1775, some­where on the east coast of what will become the Unit­ed States, show­ing a cryp­tic con­ver­sa­tion about the pend­ing Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War. By now, we’ve learned how to read Here. McGuire’s book—it would be a mis­take to call it, as many have done, a graph­ic nov­el—scram­bles the nor­mal log­ic of comics nar­ra­tive. Instead of cre­at­ing jux­ta­posed sequences of pan­els that togeth­er tell a uni­fied sto­ry, Here’s pages show the same loca­tion in space at dif­fer­ent times. The book fea­tures a sequence of lush­ly col­ored dou­ble-page spreads, each one set in a dif­fer­ent year (indi­cat­ed with a tag in the upper-left cor­ner of the page). Small­er pan­els often hov­er over the main dou­ble-page frame, depict­ing the same loca­tion either before or after the dom­i­nant year. Most­ly, we observe the cor­ner of a non­de­script room, see­ing how it stays the same or changes across the years, observ­ing its var­i­ous human inhab­i­tants at dif­fer­ent ages and in dif­fer­ent states of health. These pan­els have, by the mid­point of the book, large­ly focused on the past and the present; McGuire has ren­dered times before the house was con­struct­ed, has dra­ma­tized encoun­ters between the indige­nous pop­u­la­tion and new­ly arrived set­tler-colonists, and has even let us see the year 1,009 BCE. We have also already peeked into the house’s future, observ­ing humans who inhab­it the year 2016 (res­i­dents of this dis­tant future seem very much like us), as well as peo­ple using holo­graph­ic inter­faces in the year 2050. So the atten­tive read­er has prob­a­bly already antic­i­pat­ed that McGuire will show us the ulti­mate fate of the house—perhaps let­ting us see far beyond. And he does. But what we see of the year 10,175 is far stranger than we might have expect­ed.

Fig 1-2 Theory of Here

Fig­ure 1: McGuire’s far-future mar­su­pi­al

This unas­sum­ing pan­el, about the size of a play­ing card, opens onto an ani­mal, a mar­su­pi­al of some sort, maybe the lovechild of a large pos­sum and a small kan­ga­roo, stand­ing on an emp­ty field. It’s not any ani­mal that exists today, and not an ani­mal we would expect to see in the Amer­i­can north­east. The crea­ture stares straight at us, as if it knows we’re watch­ing, sug­gest­ing that it might be more intel­li­gent than your aver­age mar­su­pi­al. The animal’s con­fi­dent gaze is ini­tial­ly unset­tling and comes to seem alien pre­cise­ly because the ani­mal itself is so ordi­nary, so unthreat­en­ing. With this innocu­ous pan­el, McGuire opens up a new con­ti­nent of time, sug­gest­ing that the sec­ond half of Here will more ful­ly explore the ulti­mate fate of the house. And again, Here does not dis­ap­point, show­ing us the house’s fright­en­ing destruc­tion by (pre­sum­ably glob­al-warm­ing-relat­ed) flood­ing, tak­ing us as far for­ward as the year 22,175, where new dinosaur-like crea­tures roam the earth. And yet there is some­thing unique­ly affect­ing about this par­tic­u­lar mar­su­pi­al, some­thing about it that is even stranger than the lat­er dinosaur-crea­tures, some­thing about its haunt­ed eyes that gives us access to the larg­er, unnerv­ing sig­nif­i­cance of McGuire’s mas­ter­work. This lit­tle ani­mal per­fect­ly illus­trates how McGuire uses comics to explore the rela­tion­ship between time and space.

McGuire first pub­lished “Here” in 1989 in Raw, an avant-garde comics mag­a­zine cre­at­ed by Art Spiegel­man and Françoise Mouly. Only six pages long, the orig­i­nal “Here” elec­tri­fied the tiny world of exper­i­men­tal comics. It was warm­ly received by long-estab­lished Under­ground car­toon­ists like Justin Green and, most impor­tant­ly, huge­ly influ­enced younger car­toon­ists like Chris Ware. [i] The French comics crit­ic Thier­ry Groen­steen has been extolling its prais­es for years, writ­ing one of the first analy­ses of “Here” in 1991. [ii]

Fig 2

Fig­ure 2: A page from McGuire’s 1989 “Here” 

The 1989 ver­sion of “Here” is super­fi­cial­ly sim­i­lar to the book. Each pan­el fea­tures a dom­i­nant image of the cor­ner of a room over­laid with small­er pan­els dis­play­ing oth­er images, images of the same room in the past and the future. Like the book, the pan­el-win­dows jump around in time and, tak­en togeth­er, don’t tell a uni­fied or straight­for­ward sto­ry, though we do get to see the whole life of a char­ac­ter named William, born in 1957, dead in 2027. Instead, McGuire tells the sto­ry of the room itself (much like Ware tells the sto­ry of a sin­gle build­ing in Build­ing Sto­ries). More impor­tant­ly, “Here” has a sto­ry to tell about the rela­tion­ship between time and space. In McGuire’s exper­i­ment, space and time togeth­er form a uni­fied four-dimen­sion­al block, and “Here” gives us inter­est­ing cross sec­tions of that block. We may expe­ri­ence time as a mun­dane sequence of moments, McGuire seems to argue, but we should not for­get that oth­er times are equal­ly real, exist­ing where (if not when) we stand. What has made this six-page com­ic so appeal­ing to form-con­scious car­toon­ists is, I think, the bril­liant­ly sim­ple device that McGuire devised to com­mu­ni­cate his core idea. Pan­els with­in pan­els: before you see what McGuire does with it, you wouldn’t have expect­ed such a sim­pleeven obvi­ousdevice in the cartoonist’s toolk­it to be so pow­er­ful.

Pan­els are, if you think about it, a pret­ty strange weapon in the cartoonist’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al arse­nal. They depend on cre­at­ing two types of rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al con­fu­sion. First, the indi­vid­ual pan­el cre­ates an illu­sion of open­ing onto a scene with­out obtrud­ing into it. It invites com­par­i­son to the cin­e­mat­ic frame, and one often finds crit­ics using the visu­al vocab­u­lary of film stag­ing to describe par­tic­u­lar moments in comics. Like the pho­to­graph­ic image, the indi­vid­ual pan­el can seem to ren­der frozen instants of time. But, as Will Eis­ner notes in Comics and Sequen­tial Art, the pan­el is much more than a tech­ni­cal device. It is “part of the cre­ative process, rather than result of tech­nol­o­gy” (38). The pan­el is just as much an iconand requires just as much thoughtas the car­toon fig­ures with­in the pan­el, and the best car­toon­ists know this, manip­u­lat­ing pan­el shape, size, and bor­der weight to cre­ate dif­fer­ent moods and aes­thet­ic effects. More­over, as Scott McCloud shows in Under­stand­ing Comics, time works in a fun­ny way with­in pan­els (96). Any seem­ing­ly still moment with­in a pan­el is actu­al­ly inter­nal­ly divid­ed, con­sist­ing of a tem­po­ral sequence. But in order to read comics, we often sus­pend our aware­ness of this sequence.

Fig 3-3-2Theory of Here

 Fig­ure 3: Scott McCloud on Intra-Pan­el Time

The sequen­tial arrange­ment of pan­els invites a sec­ond help­ful con­fu­sion: the con­fu­sion of read­ing comics with read­ing text. It is easy to par­tic­i­pate in this con­fu­sion because pan­els are usu­al­ly orga­nized rough­ly into read­ing order, from left to right, top to bot­tom. We are invit­ed to imag­ine that the order of read­ing cor­re­sponds to the pro­gres­sion of a film strip, that every new pan­el, with the excep­tion of flash­backs and oth­er overt breaks in lin­ear sto­ry­telling, moves us inex­orably for­ward in nar­ra­tive time. And most of the time, this is the case. Avant-garde comics, how­ev­er, such as those col­lect­ed in Andrei Molotiu’s Abstract Comics anthol­o­gy, tend to chal­lenge the assim­i­la­tion of pan­el order to read­ing order. 

Fig 5 Theory of Here

Fig­ure 4: From Ibn al Rabin, Cidre et Schnapps, reprint­ed in Molotiu’s Abstract Comics

Pan­els con­tin­ue, in many of the comics that Molotiu col­lects, to cre­ate a rhythm of read­ing (and with­out this visu­al rhythm it would be hard to dif­fer­en­ti­ate these abstract comics from paint­ing). But Molotiu’s anthol­o­gy also draws our atten­tion to the fact that the comics page can achieve design effects that tran­scend those cre­at­ed by read­ing pan­els in a strict­ly lin­ear sequence. This is the prop­er­ty of the comics page that Groen­steen calls “icon­ic sol­i­dar­i­ty,” which he defines as the capac­i­ty of comics to cre­ate “inter­de­pen­dent images that, par­tic­i­pat­ing in a series, present the dou­ble char­ac­ter­is­tic of being sep­a­rat­ed … and which are plas­ti­cal­ly and seman­ti­cal­ly over-deter­mined by the fact of their coex­is­tence in prae­sen­tia” (18). Pan­els in sequence, pan­els that seem to por­tray time’s move­ment, can actu­al­ly become mean­ing­ful in terms of their spa­tial rela­tions. It’s as if all of the pan­els on the page were occur­ring at the same time or momen­tar­i­ly tran­scend­ing time. So time and space have a fun­ny rela­tion­ship on the comics page. Sta­t­ic moments seem­ing­ly cap­tured by the pan­el always nec­es­sar­i­ly con­tain their own past and future; and tem­po­ral sequences across pan­els always nec­es­sar­i­ly form larg­er spa­tial units of mean­ing that tran­scend the suc­ces­sion of time. But to read the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of comics, we are required to for­get these truths, or at least tem­porar­i­ly to sus­pend our aware­ness of them. What McGuire’s pan­els-with­in-pan­els do is make the unin­tu­itive com­min­gling of time and space on the comics pageand the false­ness that char­ac­ter­izes a sur­face-lev­el read­ing of comics nar­ra­tive tech­niqueexquis­ite­ly clear, turn­ing this com­min­gling into an object of aes­thet­ic plea­sure. This is the genius of the core device of “Here.” Twen­ty-five years on, McGuire’s book-length update to his rev­o­lu­tion­ary six-page com­ic rais­es a vari­ety of ques­tions. If the orig­i­nal had such a huge impact, what is left for the book to do? Does Here move beyond “Here,” or sim­ply bring the short­er comic’s bril­liance to a wider audi­ence (which would itself be a wor­thy goal)? Does McGuire deep­en or recon­sid­er the tem­po­ral phi­los­o­phy of the orig­i­nal “Here”? And if comics are a “way of think­ing,” to para­phrase Chris Ware, what exact­ly is Here think­ing about? (Ball and Kuhlman xix) 

*

Fig 5-3

 Fig­ure 5: A dou­ble-page spread from McGuire’s 2014 Here

One thing Here is think­ing about is the rela­tion of comics to dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy. We might say that Here teach­es us that comics isor at a min­i­mum is becom­inga new­ly dig­i­tal medi­um. Dis­cussing con­tem­po­rary notions of tex­tu­al­i­ty in Digi­mod­ernism, Alan Kir­by brings togeth­er two sens­es of the term “dig­i­tal,” not­ing “the cen­tral­i­ty of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy” for con­tem­po­rary artists as well as “the cen­tral­i­ty of the dig­its, of the fin­gers and thumbs that key and press and click in the busi­ness of mate­r­i­al tex­tu­al elab­o­ra­tion” (51). This might seem like an unfor­tu­nate pun (and it is), but it’s a pun that is nonethe­less help­ful to keep in mind when read­ing the new ver­sion of Here. After all, comics is noth­ing if not a fin­ger-obsessed medi­um: it invites manip­u­la­tion by our dig­its: flip­ping, fold­ing, point­ing, fondling, stroking, even rip­ping.

The reader’s capac­i­ty to touch pic­tures, the phys­i­cal weight of the book in our handsthat is, the hap­tic dimen­sion of comicsis part of what has his­tor­i­cal­ly dis­tin­guished the medi­um from oth­er rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al art forms and is one rea­son comics can so suc­cess­ful­ly com­bine the visu­al urgency of film with the emo­tion­al inti­ma­cy of the nov­el. It is only slight­ly an exag­ger­a­tion to say that comics is an art of touch­ing. And the best comics have often sought to acti­vate our aware­ness of their hap­tic mate­ri­al­i­ty. At the same time, comics is also becom­ing dig­i­tal in the tech­no­log­i­cal sense. Like every oth­er art form, it is being sub­sumed by dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies, butagain like every oth­er artit is becom­ing dig­i­tal in its own strange way. There’s even an iPad ver­sion of Here, which allows read­ers to manip­u­late pan­els show­ing dif­fer­ent times.

Fig 6

Fig­ure 6: Richard McGuire’s recent New York­er cov­er

But Here’s con­cern with dig­i­tal com­put­ers is not just a mat­ter of its (seem­ing­ly inevitable) dig­i­ti­za­tion. Rather, dig­i­ti­za­tion is vis­i­ble even in the dead-tree ver­sion of Here, in the form of con­cepts drawn from the his­to­ry of graph­i­cal user inter­face (GUI) design. At least since Van­nevar Bush first described the pos­si­bil­i­ty of his imag­i­nary Memex machine in the pages of the Atlantic Month­ly and Ivan Suther­land, inspired by Bush, cre­at­ed the influ­en­tial Sketch­pad pro­gram in 1963, the his­to­ry of dig­i­tal com­put­ers has been, in part, a his­to­ry of the schemas, metaphors, and medi­at­ing con­cepts that have been designed to guide our rela­tion­ship to tech­ni­cal sys­tems and to mit­i­gate the intim­i­dat­ing abstrac­tion of the machine. 

Fig 7

Fig­ure 7: Ivan Sutherland’s Sketch­pad

As the sci­ence fic­tion writer Neal Stephen­son has point­ed out, our dom­i­nant oper­at­ing sys­tems have long relied on metaphorsmost­ly visu­al metaphorsto make com­put­ers acces­si­ble (3). So it should come as no sur­prise that con­cepts devel­oped for the design of graph­i­cal user inter­faces can migrate onto the pages of comics and (in the case of the iPad ver­sion of Here) back again. And indeed, one of the orig­i­nal inspi­ra­tions for the 1989 ver­sion of “Here” was the win­dows-based GUI pop­u­lar­ized by Apple and then by Microsoft, which was in turn inspired by (or you could say stolen from) Xerox PARC’s ground­break­ing Xerox Alto, the first com­put­er to use a desk­top metaphor to gov­ern user inter­ac­tions.

Fig 8

Fig­ure 8: The Xerox Alto

(The Xerox Alto itself drew on con­cepts pre­vi­ous­ly devel­oped in Dou­glas Engelbart’s oN-line Sys­tem. Take a look at Engelbart’s 1968 “Moth­er of All Demos” if you want to see how gen­uine­ly non-inno­v­a­tive mod­ern UI design is). All of this design engi­neer­ing was, of course, an impor­tant part of the his­to­ry of com­pu­ta­tion, but it was arguably even more impor­tant as part of the his­to­ry of what we might call applied epis­te­mol­o­gy. How, GUI design­ers were forced to ask, can the abstract world of the machine, the imper­son­al realm of the micro­proces­sor, be made acces­si­ble (espe­cial­ly to non-engi­neers)? But when we begin think­ing of GUI design as applied epis­te­mol­o­gy, it quick­ly becomes clear that visu­al metaphors do not elim­i­nate abstrac­tion but rather sub­sti­tute one kind of abstrac­tion for anoth­er, one rep­re­sen­ta­tion scheme for anoth­er. A term like “acces­si­bil­i­ty” is a decep­tive­ly sim­ple word, whose seem­ing trans­paren­cy obscures impor­tant assump­tions about the rela­tion­ship among per­sons, machines, and the world. As has often been not­ed, the metaphor of the desk­topor the notion of stor­ing data in dis­crete objects we call “files”encodes all sorts of norms guid­ing how humans and machines inter­act, sug­gest­ing that the per­son­al com­put­er is first and fore­most a work machine, a machine for peo­ple imag­ined as work­ers. 

The fig­ure of the win­dow, mean­while, is a spa­tial trans­la­tion of human-machine inter­ac­tion, com­part­men­tal­iz­ing user atten­tion, imag­in­ing the user as engaged in a work­flow of switch­ing between win­dows (dis­crete atten­tion-states), bundling togeth­er tasks that soft­ware design­ers decide belong togeth­er, and facil­i­tat­ing user mul­ti­task­ing. Though soft­ware design­ers influ­ence what we see, what tasks we are meant to asso­ciate togeth­er, the win­dows metaphor invites us to imag­ine that we users have a cer­tain kind of agency, that we have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to man­age our own atten­tion, that we can sim­ply look out of this or that win­dow, by choice, when­ev­er we want to. Win­dows evoke our exist­ing sense of voli­tion (we feel we are choos­ing to look out this win­dow rather than that win­dow) while also reify­ing the tech­ni­cal sys­tems we’re encoun­ter­ing along par­tic­u­lar lines (the con­tents of the win­dow in ques­tion are nat­u­ral­ized, like the land­scape or cityscape we observe from the com­fort of our home). So at the same time that UI research addressed itself to the prob­lem of giv­ing humans access to a seem­ing­ly imper­son­al, tech­ni­cal­ly unwel­com­ing realm, it also shaped that inter­ac­tion toward par­tic­u­lar use cas­es and has invit­ed us to accept what the machine serves up as giv­en, nat­ur­al, and beyond our abil­i­ty to change out­side pre­scribed bounds. The machine becomes both more acces­si­ble andas any­one who has too many win­dows or too many tabs open right now knowsquick­ly over­whelm­ing.

One of McGuire’s orig­i­nal insights was that these tech­ni­cal­ly imple­ment­ed fig­uresmetaphors designed as the solu­tion to prob­lems of human-machine inter­ac­tionwere portable and fun­gi­ble. “Here” appro­pri­ates the win­dows metaphor for new, but relat­ed, ends. In McGuire’s hands, win­dows orga­nize anoth­er sort of inhu­man vast­ness: the incom­pre­hen­si­ble vast­ness of time. Where win­dows-based GUIs unin­ten­tion­al­ly lead the user from a feel­ing of mas­tery (one win­dow open) into a feel­ing of drown­ing (way too many win­dows open), McGuire’s lit­tle win­dows pile up indi­vid­u­al­ly acces­si­ble, even semi-autonomous moments that in aggre­gate snow the read­er under the hideous size of time. In the orig­i­nal “Here,” Deep Time comes in hand, becomes dig­i­tal. Today, our tech­nolo­gies of human-machine inter­ac­tion have shift­ed and so too has McGuire’s approach to the dig­i­tal poten­tial of comics. The most sig­nif­i­cant trans­for­ma­tion of human-machine inter­ac­tion since the cre­ation of the mod­ern GUI is almost cer­tain­ly the rise of ubiq­ui­tous mobile com­put­ing. Bush described his Memex, after all, as “a desk … pri­mar­i­ly the piece of fur­ni­ture at which [the user] works.”

Today, we car­ry our tiny, sleek desks inside our pock­ets. We wear them on our wrists. And we may, soon enough, slap them onto our faces. This mobile rev­o­lu­tion builds, of course, on what already exists. Our lit­tle pock­et desks, run­ning iOS and Android oper­at­ing sys­tems, still depend on var­i­ous desk­top-like and win­dows-based metaphors. We often still work with “files” that we occa­sion­al­ly toss away into the “trash” or a “recy­cling bin.” What is dif­fer­ent, though, is the increas­ing­ly salient pos­si­bil­i­ty that mobile devices might build a lay­er of infor­ma­tion atop real­i­ty, that visu­al fig­ures designed to inter­act with machines might pro­found­ly reshape how we fig­ure oth­er dimen­sions of real­i­ty. As one char­ac­ter announces in William Gibson’s 2007 nov­el Spook Coun­try, cyber­space is “evert­ing” or col­o­niz­ing the world (28). Where­as Gibson’s ear­ly nov­els focus on hack­er anti-heroes who enter the machine, nav­i­gat­ing its sub­lime, unnerv­ing datas­capes, his more recent books have been focused on how machines have trans­formed his char­ac­ters’ modes of embod­i­ment with­in what we used to naive­ly regard as the real­i­ty out­side the com­put­er. In the near term, this set of trans­for­ma­tions may give rise to full-blown aug­ment­ed real­i­ty sys­tems that use var­i­ous visu­al metaphors to lay­er data dynam­i­cal­ly atop the world. Where­as once upon a time we looked out from our com­fy rooms through clear­ly des­ig­nat­ed “win­dows” onto some­thing we could well mis­take for an out­side world, today the room and the world have almost seam­less­ly merged. The world itself has become our office, and we are now, for­ev­er, chained to the desk. This, at any rate, seems to be the new ide­ol­o­gy of user-inter­face design.

This ide­althe con­flu­ence of ubiq­ui­tous mobile com­put­ing and aug­ment­ed real­i­tybecomes the new dig­i­tal hori­zon for Here. The book fea­tures sev­er­al sequences set in the twen­ty-third cen­tu­ry, in which a holo­gram or android leads a group of tourists on a tour of the site of the now-destroyed home. The tour guide has a fan-like device that projects holo­graph­ic win­dows show­ing the past. The mem­bers of the tour group are eth­ni­cal­ly ambigu­ous but visu­al­ly resem­ble the Native Amer­i­cans who were pre­vi­ous­ly dis­placed by white set­tler-colonists. This tour becomes, to some degree, the moti­vat­ing nar­ra­tive device of the book. What the tourists are expe­ri­enc­ing is noth­ing oth­er than a ver­sion of Here itself.

Theory of Here Fig 9

Fig­ure 9: The Fan

We might read this tour not as the tri­umph of the ide­ol­o­gy of mobile com­put­ing but as the restora­tion of what was lost, as a return of the indige­nous pop­u­la­tion to the land that was tak­en from them after the rapa­cious civ­i­liza­tion that dis­placed them inevitably destroyed itself. But our con­so­la­tion (if we find such a vio­lent fate con­sol­ing) does not last long. Though we get a glimpse of what might be some sort of utopi­an future, Here’s human sto­ry ulti­mate­ly stands against a stark back­ground large­ly devoid of human pres­ence. That is, a yawn­ing cos­mic indif­fer­ence book­ends the life of McGuire’s lit­tle house. Begin­ning from the affor­dances of our own prim­i­tive aug­ment­ed real­i­ty tech­nol­o­gythe iPad on which we might be read­ing Here itselfMcGuire wants to give us access to what we might ordi­nar­i­ly find dif­fi­cult to keep in view: the non-human back­ground upon which life unfolds, the inan­i­mate world upon which life final­ly depends. McGuire wants us to imag­ine comics as a sort of mobile device that opens up tem­po­ral vor­tex­es, dig­i­tal­ly extend­ing the human mind, help­ing us con­front the universe’s indif­fer­ence to us. Comics might train us to adopt habits of mind, an ori­en­ta­tion toward the world, that brings the past and the futurethe extreme past, the extreme futurepre­cip­i­tous­ly into the present.

Fig 10

Fig­ure 10: The Mar­su­pi­al

This is, I think, the ulti­mate sig­nif­i­cance of McGuire’s bizarre mar­su­pi­al. It’s an imag­i­nary crea­ture that helps us enter into some­thing like a rela­tion­ship of recog­ni­tion with the vast­ness of the non­hu­man world. If this is true, it would not be too pre­ten­tious to say that, in the eyes of McGuire’s alien ani­mal, we observe the decon­struc­tion of time. 

And I do not mean the term decon­struct loose­ly here. Rather, I have in mind Mar­tin Hägglund’s provoca­tive recon­struc­tion of Derrida’s thought in Rad­i­cal Athe­ism. Häg­glu­nd describes a tem­po­ral log­ic, which he regards as fill­ing out Derrida’s under­stand­ing of the rela­tion­ship between time and space, in which all pres­enceevery­thing that is seem­ing­ly presentis nec­es­sar­i­ly divid­ed with­in itself. Kant’s tran­scen­den­tal cat­e­gories, space and time, are always, in Hägglund’s view, co-impli­cat­ed. Time always becomes space and space always becomes time, a process that Häg­glu­nd prefers to call the “spac­ing of time,” which is in his view “an ‘ultra­tran­scen­den­tal’ con­di­tion from which noth­ing can be exempt” (19). Any “here” can only be “here” by virtue of its exten­sion in time. Any “now,” like­wise, is divid­ed between a past moment (vis­i­ble as a trace) and the future unmak­ing or trans­for­ma­tion of that trace. Time can only be reg­is­tered by the spa­tial means of the trace, and all traces are nec­es­sar­i­ly destruc­tible, which implies that the future is rad­i­cal­ly open, that all pos­i­tive struc­tures or val­ues can become neg­a­tive.

To think the trac­ing of time as the con­di­tion for life in gen­er­al,” Häg­glu­nd writes, “is to think a con­sti­tu­tive fini­tude, which from the very begin­ning expos­es life to death, mem­o­ry to for­get­ting, iden­ti­ty to alter­i­ty, and so on” (79). This notionthe notion of “autoim­mu­ni­ty”holds that “every­thing is threat­ened from with­in itself, since the pos­si­bil­i­ty of liv­ing is insep­a­ra­ble from the per­il of dying,” and that, more­over, “[w]hatever is desired as good is autoim­mune, since it bears with­in itself the pos­si­bil­i­ty of becom­ing unbear­ably bad” (9) It is a destruc­tibil­i­ty thatbecause it depends on the con­cept of the spac­ing of timeuncan­ni­ly mir­rors the imbri­ca­tion of time and space with­in and between pan­els that I reviewed above. I am not, I should make clear, sug­gest­ing that McGuire was famil­iar with Häg­glu­nd or Der­ri­da but am rather observ­ing a fam­i­ly resem­blance between their under­stand­ings of the rela­tion­ship between time and space. More so than the orig­i­nal Raw six-pager, the book ver­sion of Here dwells on the rad­i­cal (because intrin­sic) destruc­tibil­i­ty of life.

McGuire’s inter­est in his mar­su­pi­al, I would final­ly insist, isn’t pre­dic­tive, any more than any oth­er future sce­nario in the com­ic is pre­dic­tive. He’s not telling us to expect odd kan­ga­roo-like future ani­mals but is rather ask­ing us to think dif­fer­ent­ly about what we might call the log­ic of tem­po­ral suc­ces­sion. If time is rad­i­cal­ly open, if every­thing that is good or desir­able might beby neces­si­tyrevealed to be bad, it is not at all clear how we might (or should) relate to this anteater crea­ture that chews on our remains, or how to feel about the flood that destroys our home, or what to make of the tour group look­ing back upon us with the help of a holo­graph­ic fan. In this way, McGuire cuts against the opti­mistic, technophilic assump­tions that gov­erned the orig­i­nal GUI engi­neer­ing he was, how­ev­er indi­rect­ly, inspired by. After all, the ulti­mate promise of win­dows-based inter­faces or aug­ment­ed real­i­ty is a hap­py rec­on­cil­i­a­tion between human and machine. Good design sup­pos­ed­ly makes what is alien, inac­ces­si­ble, or abstract come (often lit­er­al­ly) into hand. It promis­es to domes­ti­cate an unruly non-human real­i­ty. But these promis­es seem hol­low in McGuire’s hands. Instead, his user-friend­ly win­dows open onto the ambiva­lent log­ic of autoim­mu­ni­ty. In Here, here always slips away, nec­es­sar­i­ly only ever exists in rela­tion to var­i­ous nows.

Such a way of under­stand­ing the rela­tion­ship between time and space does noth­ing to obvi­ate what we under­stand to be our ordi­nary or every­day expe­ri­ence of life. It doesn’t mean that we should look for­ward to our own destruc­tion by cli­mate change or throw up our hands despon­dent­ly. What Häg­glu­nd calls “rad­i­cal athe­ism” should there­fore not be mis­tak­en for qui­etism. Noth­ing, as far as I can tell, fol­lows polit­i­cal­ly from this philo­soph­i­cal posi­tion except the sen­si­ble view that no polit­i­cal strug­gle comes with guar­an­tees. Indeed, one might argue that the very pos­si­bil­i­ty of car­ing about the future, of being invest­ed in one out­come over anoth­er, depends on a pri­or con­di­tion of destruc­tibil­i­ty, the nec­es­sary truth that we can lose every­thing. On this view, our aware­ness of our inabil­i­ty to inhab­it these larg­er tem­po­ral­i­ties or his­to­riesour aware­ness of our own destruc­tibil­i­ty, the nec­es­sary destruc­tibil­i­ty of every­thingis the very basis of mourn­ing. 

Mourn­ing, Häg­glu­nd writes, is “a force that can­not be over­come and that emanates from the love of what is mor­tal” (110). Whether or not we find this account philo­soph­i­cal­ly com­pelling, it is pre­cise­ly such a love of mor­tal­i­tythe per­sis­tence of this love not despite but because of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of self-destruc­tionthat McGuire’s art elic­its. Here is, I think, most emo­tion­al­ly grip­ping when it com­pels us to real­ize how (for­give the pun) com­i­cal­ly small-mind­ed our nor­mal, habit­u­at­ed under­stand­ing of life is, how out of touch we are with his­tor­i­cal forces (or with non-human tem­po­ral­i­ties), and yet how lit­tle guid­ance Here’s grand view of Deep Time offers to the nec­es­sary, dai­ly project of avoid­ing self-destruc­tion. It is a brac­ing, deflat­ing insight that comics, in the hands of a mas­ter like McGuire, is unique­ly suit­ed to argue for.

 


Notes

[i] See Chris Ware, “Richard McGuire and ‘Here’—a Grate­ful Appre­ci­a­tion,” Com­ic Art 8 (2006): 5–7.

[ii] Thier­ry Groen­steen, “Les lieux super­posés de Richard McGuire,” Urgences 32 (1991): 95–109.

 

Works Cit­ed 

Bush, Van­nevar. “As We May Think,” The Atlantic. July 1945. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

Eis­ner, Will. Comics and Sequen­tial Art. Tama­rac, FL: Poor­house Press, 1985. Print.

Gib­son, William. Spook Coun­try. New York: Put­nam, 2007. Print.

Groen­steen, Thier­ry. “Les lieux super­pos­es de Richard McGuire.” Urgences 32 (1991): 95–109.

–. The Sys­tem of Comics. Trans. Bart Beaty. Jack­son, MS: Uni­ver­si­ty Press of Mis­sis­sip­pi, 2007. Print.

Häg­glu­nd, Mar­tin. Rad­i­cal Athe­ism: Der­ri­da and the Time of Life. Stan­ford: Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2008. Print.

Kir­by, Alan. Digi­mod­ernism: How New Tech­nolo­gies Dis­man­tle the Post­mod­ern and Recon­fig­ure Our Cul­ture. New York: Blooms­bury, 2009. Print.

Kuhlman, Martha B., and David M. Ball. “Intro­duc­tion: Chris Ware and the ‘Cult of Dif­fi­cul­ty.’”  In The Comics of Chris Ware: Draw­ing Is a Way of Think­ing. Eds. Ball and Kuhlman. Jack­son, MS: Uni­ver­si­ty Press of Mis­sis­sip­pi, 2010. Print.

McGuire, Richard. Here. New York: Pan­theon, 2014. Print.

–. “Here.” Raw 2, no. 1 (1989): 69–74. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Under­stand­ing Comics. New York: Harp­er Peren­ni­al, 1994. Print.

Molotiu, Andrei. Abstract Comics. Seat­tle, WA: Fan­ta­graph­ics, 2009. Print.

Stephen­son, Neal. In the Beginning…Was the Com­mand Line. New York: William Mor­row, 1999. Print.

Ware, Chris. “Richard McGuire and ‘Here’—a Grate­ful Appre­ci­a­tion.” Com­ic Art 8 (2006): 5–7. Print.

Fig­ure 1: McGuire, Here, n.p.

Fig­ure 2: McGuire, “Here,” in Raw, p. 70.

Fig­ure 3: McCloud, Under­stand­ing Comics, p. 96.

Fig­ure 4: Ibn al Rabin and Cidre et Schnapps, “N’ergotons plus, je vous prie,” Les Édi­tions Atra­bile. <http://www.atrabile.org/ibn-al-rabin/Fanzines/fanzine.php?titre=CidreEtSchnaps&page=17>. Rpt. in Abstract Comics, by Andrei Molotiu (Seat­tle, WA: Fan­ta­graph­ics, 2009) 63.

Fig­ure 5: Here, n.p.

Fig­ure 6: Richard McGuire, “Time Warp,” New York­er 24 Novem­ber 2014  <https://www.newyorker.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/CoverStory-Time-Warp-Richard-McGuire-872‑1200-13173805.jpg>.

Fig­ure 7: Ivan Suther­land, Sketch­pad: A Man-Machine Graph­i­cal Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Sys­tem <http://www.wired.com/2013/01/grandaddy-gui/>.

Fig­ure 8: “Xerox Alto”  <http://toastytech.com/guis/altost1.jpg>.

Fig­ure 9: Here, n.p.

Fig­ure 10: Here, n.p.

 

Lee Kon­stan­ti­nou is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the Eng­lish Depart­ment at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land, Col­lege Park. He wrote the nov­el Pop Apoc­a­lypse (Harp­er Peren­ni­al, 2009) and co-edit­ed with Samuel Cohen The Lega­cy of David Fos­ter Wal­lace (Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa Press, 2012). He recent­ly com­plet­ed a lit­er­ary-polit­i­cal his­to­ry of Amer­i­can irony after 1945 (forth­com­ing from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press) and has start­ed a new book project called “Rise of the Graph­ic Nov­el.”

 

Sarah Sillin, Guest Crit­i­cism Edi­tor, received her Ph.D. from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land and is cur­rent­ly a vis­it­ing assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture at Get­tys­burg Col­lege. Her book project, enti­tled Glob­al Sym­pa­thy: Rep­re­sent­ing Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­cans’ For­eign Rela­tions, explores how writ­ers envi­sioned ear­ly Amer­i­cans’ ties to the larg­er world through their depic­tions of friend­ship and kin­ship. Sillin’s essays have appeared in Mul­ti-Eth­nic Lit­er­a­ture of the Unit­ed States and Lit­er­a­ture of the Ear­ly Amer­i­can Repub­lic.

Zac’s Haunted House, Chapter 1

Fiction / Dennis Cooper

:: Zac’s Haunted House, Chapter 1 ::

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From the writer

:: Account ::

I think the ani­mat­ed GIF is a super rich thing, most­ly unin­ten­tion­al­ly? For the nov­el, I thought of them as these crazy visu­al sen­tences. But unlike text sen­tences, they do all the imag­i­na­tive work for you. They ren­der you real­ly pas­sive. They just jug­gle with your eye­sight, and you’re basi­cal­ly left bat­tling their aggres­sive, looped, fire­works-lev­el dumb, hyp­no­tiz­ing effects to see the images and the mini-sto­ries/ac­tions they con­tex­tu­al­ize. I think, ulti­mate­ly, they’re most­ly rhythms, or they reduce their imagery and activ­i­ty, etc. to illus­tra­tive com­po­nents of these real­ly strict rhyth­mic pat­terns that turn the eye into an ear in a way.

My idea is that if you make a nov­el out of them, the visu­als in the indi­vid­ual GIFs can serve dou­ble duty in the same way that the instru­men­ta­tion and vocals in music sam­ples do. They become just the tex­ture of the loop’s rhythm, and that some­how seems to iso­late the GIFs’ con­tent from their source mate­r­i­al. When you com­bine and jux­ta­pose the stacks, if you do it care­ful­ly, you can break or dis­rupt their indi­vid­ual rhythms in a way that makes their imagery either rise to the sur­face or become abstrac­tion. Basi­cal­ly, you can then use their con­tent and appear­ance as sets and actors and cin­e­matog­ra­phy in a fic­tion. They can hold their ref­er­ences, if you orga­nize them to do so, and you can use those asso­ci­a­tions to cre­ate short­cuts to some idea or emo­tion you want to get across, or they can become quite mal­leable and day­dream-like, or you can emp­ty them until they’re just motions that are as neu­tral as a text.

The real­ly excit­ing thing for me is that the nar­ra­tives can be as unre­al­is­tic or abstract or sense­less or triv­ial or abject or unread­able as you want, and they will always remain inher­ent­ly plea­sur­able.

 

Den­nis Coop­er is a nov­el­ist, poet, and crit­ic. His ten pub­lished nov­els include The George Miles Cycle (Grove Press, 1989 – 2000), an inter­con­nect­ed sequence (Clos­er, Frisk, Try, Guide, and Peri­od), and The Sluts (Da Capo Press, 2005), win­ner of France’s lit­er­ary prize the Prix Sade. Addi­tion­al­ly, he col­lab­o­rates reg­u­lar­ly with the French direc­tor Gise­le Vienne. Like Cat­tle Towards Glow, a film made in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Zac Far­ley, will be released inter­na­tion­al­ly lat­er this year.

Church Camp Romance, Age 14

Nonfiction / Anna Joy Springer

:: Church Camp Romance, Age 14 ::

Springer 1
Springer 2
Springer 3

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

These three pages from the longer piece, “Church Camp Romance, Age 14,” are maybe the most point­ed­ly abject in con­tent and form—they are some­thing like comics with no car­toons, bub­bles, or frames. Whose plea does the “Do you hate me now?” become, now thir­ty years old on tou­can sta­tion­ary? As a smudged sur­face of weird­ly con­trolled and con­trol­ling impuls­es that also stage a gen­dered and com­pul­sive sub­mis­sive­ness, the slant­ed, drunk­en, hand­writ­ten text evokes con­ta­gion, like the tox­ic vapors described at the begin­ning of a his­to­ry of mad­ness. It con­tains actu­al lies to make me seem “worse.” I was dar­ing God in a plea to be my ser­vant and mar­ry me, inter­vene and save me from men, from being their thing, from the obvi­ous nar­ra­tive out­come. And do I dare God, now, con­fess­ing this? What hap­pens to dried-up old scanned-in abjec­tion? Does it con­tin­ue to leak even as it seems sta­t­ic, already past? Does the dig­i­tal sur­face where­upon this pic­ture of a real let­ter appears have a san­i­tiz­ing, his­tori­ciz­ing, archival effect? Does it trans­form its read­er into an unchang­ing object, a cool­ly dis­en­gaged “not-it?”

 

Anna Joy Springer is a writer, visu­al artist, and teacher. Her books are The Vicious Red Rel­ic, Love (Jad­ed Ibis, 2011) and The Bird­wish­er (Birds of Lace, 2009). Anna Joy has cre­at­ed many record­ings with the bands Blatz, The Gr’ups, and Cypher in the Snow, and has per­formed through­out the U.S. and West­ern Europe. She works as an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Lit­er­a­ture at Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego and lives in Los Ange­les.

Toe Separators

Nonfiction / Kerry Leddy

:: Toe Separators ::

Kerry_M_image

One of our jobs those first days after my daugh­ter Sarah died was to cre­ate a pro­gram for her memo­r­i­al ser­vice. For the cov­er we decid­ed to use a por­trait of her as a baby, which Sarah paint­ed when she was four­teen years old. She had recent­ly told me how she loved this paint­ing because it remind­ed her of a per­fect time in her life. There was a small piece of her beloved “mom­my blan­ket” affixed to the paint­ing. I, too, love this paint­ing.

Sarah’s paint­ings, with­out ever study­ing the peri­od, were some­how rem­i­nis­cent of the ear­ly mod­ernist Ger­man Expres­sion­ists. Her brush strokes were expres­sive, done in what appears to be long, sweep­ing move­ments. Bold col­ors, often applied in star­tling com­bi­na­tions, cap­ture facial fea­tures, hands, or arms. But in most of her paint­ings, the eyes are the dom­i­nant fea­ture. She paint­ed friends, fam­i­ly mem­bers, or ordi­nary peo­ple found on the street, plac­ing them in set­tings that revealed some­thing about their lives or who they were. She nev­er want­ed her por­traits posed, nor made to look too per­fect, appre­ci­at­ing the beau­ty in flaws and imper­fec­tions. I couldn’t imag­ine her fret­ting over how some­one should sit.

Instead she would work from instinct, paint­ing the fig­ure on the left or the right side of the can­vas, nev­er in the cen­ter, shift­ing the bal­ance of the image to keep it more inter­est­ing. This is true in all of her paintings—that is, except for that self-por­trait of her­self as a baby. Here she sits in her dia­per, front and cen­ter, fill­ing the can­vas. The sub­tle shad­ing of her arms, legs, and tor­so allow you to see the mus­cu­la­ture of her ribs and joints. But, as always, it is the expres­sive blue eyes that grab you. Even at such a young age you can see there is more to the pic­ture, a greater depth of thought and feel­ing, some­thing on the tip of her tongue she wants to tell you. Her brown der­by hat, which belonged to her Aunt Karen, sits poised atop her head. She tips her hat to you.

To me.

My sis­ter Karen sug­gest­ed we bind the pro­gram with col­or­ful yarn, because Sarah often wrapped her dread­locks in a rain­bow of yarns. But a day before the ser­vice, we ran out of yarn and couldn’t fin­ish the pam­phlets. My sis­ter Car­ol offered to go to the neigh­bor­hood store to buy more yarn. I was like a lost dog that had found a mas­ter. I was afraid to be alone, afraid I’d be lost, afraid of what I might feel if actu­al­ly left alone. So when Car­ol jumped up, I rose too, numbly, and fol­lowed at her heels.

Car­ol and I head­ed to Bruce Vari­ety, a store brim­ming with every­thing from craft items to under­wear to ham­mers and nails. If Car­ol went up one aisle, I went up the same aisle. If she turned back, I fol­lowed her back down. If she stopped, I bumped into her back.

Maybe around the third or fourth aisle, I came across a large dis­play with the words “toe sep­a­ra­tors” writ­ten in bold let­ters across the top. I stopped short, read­ing the descrip­tion of this new prod­uct over and over. I even allowed Car­ol to walk out of my line of vision. I couldn’t move on. Here was a tru­ly amaz­ing product—toe sep­a­ra­tors. I had always been a lit­tle unhap­py about my close-set toes, espe­cial­ly the two that over­lapped. Now, here was a prod­uct I hadn’t real­ized I had been wait­ing for all my life. Some part of my brain must have remem­bered the hours my sis­ters and I had spent togeth­er, paint­ing our toe­nails out­landish col­ors of pur­ple or blue, admir­ing each oth­er and then care­ful­ly sep­a­rat­ing our toes so as to not to dam­age our hand­i­work. Footie work. In the moment, though, it was as if I had nev­er seen them before.

This was sal­va­tion in a small plas­tic-wrapped pack­age. Yes, I, too, could now have straight toes! I couldn’t believe my good for­tune.

I called out, “Car­ol, quick, come see. Look! Toe sep­a­ra­tors. See? Aren’t these amaz­ing?”

She found me and looked quizzi­cal­ly at the dis­play, then at me. Her voice was soft, the voice of a kind par­ent who’s hold­ing tight to a peb­ble a child plucked from the ground.

I told her all the won­der­ful things these toe sep­a­ra­tors would do for me, even quot­ed the pack­age: “‘One size fits all.’ ‘They gen­tly divide and cush­ion your toes.’ ‘These soft, foamy toe sep­a­ra­tors are made from a vit­a­min-enriched gel which absorbs pres­sure and fric­tion.’”

 “Yes, they are amaz­ing.” Car­ol sweet­ly kept reply­ing to each of my procla­ma­tions.

 “Look—it says right here they help relieve pain and dis­com­fort.”

Per­fect for you,” she said.

Oh, may I buy them?”

 “Yes,” she said, “you should get two pairs,” as she pulled a sec­ond one off of the dis­play. I tagged along to the reg­is­ter, stood in line next to her, hard­ly able to wait for the cashier to ring them up so I could grab them before los­ing them to the bag.

We traipsed back to our car. Car­ol was bare­ly in the driver’s seat before I was unwrap­ping the pack­age, chat­ter­ing away. “Car­ol, just look at these!” I pulled off a shoe and then a sock, placed my foot up on the dash­board and slipped on my new, very own, toe sep­a­ra­tors!

Look how they fit right between my toes. They real­ly are incred­i­ble. Have you ever seen any­thing like them before?”

Oh. I peered down at my feet and sud­den­ly saw these ridicu­lous pink spac­ers between my toes, mak­ing me look like a webbed-foot­ed pel­i­can. I noticed the burn­ing heat of the black dash­board under my feet, then a dog loud­ly bark­ing in the car next to us. I took in the peo­ple pass­ing by in front of our car. I blinked slow­ly, as if the sun­light had been turned a notch too bright. It dawned on me that I was out in the world—a world I bare­ly rec­og­nized any­more. I couldn’t take in the life that was brim­ming all around me. See­ing peo­ple do ordi­nary things—going to lunch, shop­ping, walk­ing dogs. As if life were exact­ly the same. Didn’t they know it wasn’t?

I turned to my sis­ter and said, “Boy, now I feel bet­ter. So much bet­ter.”

Car­ol, still not sure if I had returned to myself, gave a ten­ta­tive laugh.

I wrig­gled my toes. I wrig­gled more. “Much, much bet­ter,” I said.

Now we were both laugh­ing.

Car­ol backed out of our park­ing space and head­ed down Golds­boro Road with the two of us exag­ger­at­ing how good life now was with toe sep­a­ra­tors. I start­ed to do an infomer­cial: “Have you had tragedy, are you feel­ing down? Well, Toe Sep­a­ra­tors are here to help.”

We laughed the entire fif­teen-minute dri­ve home. Dou­bled over, wip­ing the tears of laugh­ter, or so I thought they were. My hus­band, hear­ing us from the house, came out to see what the com­mo­tion was. He stuck his head out the door—what dis­as­ter was this? He saw Car­ol and me, red with laugh­ter, as I held on to her arm wad­dling along in my toe sep­a­ra­tors.

He grinned. “Don’t you know peo­ple are in mourn­ing here?”

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

In writ­ing “Toe Sep­a­ra­tors,” excerpt­ed from my mem­oir Ghost­moth­er, I am try­ing to cap­ture the ini­tial dis­ori­en­ta­tion I expe­ri­enced after the death of my daugh­ter, Sarah. At that time, my thoughts and feel­ings were a jum­ble, my brain flood­ed with over­whelm­ing and chaot­ic tor­rents of emo­tion. My mind, refus­ing to accept or inte­grate such an event, kept say­ing, “This can’t be.” I want­ed to por­tray this state of con­fu­sion, where I felt caught between two worlds: in one, Sarah was still there, a specter just out of reach, and in the oth­er, the world was irrev­o­ca­bly changed and ren­dered near­ly, unrec­og­niz­ably void. I also want­ed to bring in the idea that even in moments of des­o­late grief, humor can pro­vide solace.

And maybe, most impor­tant­ly, I longed to find a way to bring Sarah’s art into my writ­ing so that a read­er could not only know my loss, but also see for her­self Sarah’s cre­ativ­i­ty and tal­ent.

 

Ker­ry Led­dy is a psy­cho­an­a­lyst and writer in Potomac, MD. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wash­ing­ton Post, Huff­in­g­ton Post, Zone 3, Wash­ing­ton­ian Mag­a­zine, and Voic­es. She is the co-author of Wear­ing My Tutu to Analy­sis and Oth­er Sto­ries (Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2011) and editor/author of The Ther­a­pist in Mourn­ing: From the Far­away Near­by (Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2013). She is cur­rent­ly work­ing on her mem­oir, Ghost­moth­er.

13

Poetry / Isobel O’Hare

:: 13 ::

THE STRUCTURE OF RIME V

Among the bleeding branches I hear sentences of my solilo-
quay. Have you heard the broken limbs of the world-tree knock-
ing, knocking? Here, joy is sternest accuser, a fire that tortures
the wet wood.

I tried to die, one wretched voice declared. There is no death.
I left my body hanging behind me, I sought the void. My body
hangs before me, immortal image. Men still remember. Their
prayers rise from the ground and hold me to the everlasting
promise, to the Adam!

Obsessd poet! another cried. Your desire devours my heart, a rat
tearing at its mate in the rubble of the world. Let us go! The
giant Adam must not awaken, for he would claim even our
ravaged bodies from the consuming black.

Do you not see that dread as well as joy lights the lamps of his
uplifted form? stretchd upon a geometry that rips the wounds
from which, black blood, we flow?

          The Geometry, I saw, oblivious, knew what? of these sunder-
ings? arranged its sentences intolerant of black or white.

No! No! Say that there are two worlds, a man declared. I shot
half my head away.

A woman cried, No! There is but one. I live in one world, and it
is black.

My soul, the man said, swings on hinges of destroyd face. Have
you not seen Yggdrasill, the Abattoir? The human meat is hang-
ing from every bough. Have you no pity that you count the days
of Man?

          You took my life, the woman said. You will not let me die.
Your aroused fire leaves shadows in my heart that whisper to the
black into which I go.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

hinge, my erased title of Robert Duncan’s orig­i­nal book The Open­ing of the Field, is a project that began when stud­ies of the poet­ics of breath led me to Duncan’s writ­ing. I start­ed work­ing with his book Roots and Branch­es, the title of which I erased to Roar, and I quick­ly became obsessed.

hinge has tak­en many forms over the past nine months as I have exper­i­ment­ed with var­i­ous meth­ods to visu­al­ly rep­re­sent the erased text and the book as a phys­i­cal arti­fact. After play­ing with white-out, print­ed trans­paren­cies, and cut-up ver­sions of the pages, I set­tled on this sim­ple black and grey lay­out that allows the orig­i­nal text to exist in con­ver­sa­tion with the era­sure.

This work is also heav­i­ly influ­enced by the knowl­edge that Dun­can and the poet Charles Olson had a close friend­ship, one in which they devel­oped a mode of poet­ic prac­tice they referred to as “field com­po­si­tion.” It struck me dur­ing my work that many of their ideas about the com­po­si­tion of poet­ry are as high­ly rel­e­vant today as they were in the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. In our cul­ture that is increas­ing­ly sat­u­rat­ed with “con­tent,” and where poets find them­selves in a con­stant bat­tle between art and finan­cial sta­bil­i­ty, it seems that the field has been for­got­ten. It is my hope that, in some small way, hinge will serve as a reminder.

 

Iso­bel O’Hare received an MFA in Writ­ing from Ver­mont Col­lege of Fine Arts. She lives in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, with two cats and anoth­er poet. Her work has appeared or is forth­com­ing in Map Lit­er­ary, FORTH, Dirty Chai Mag­a­zine, Queen Mob’s Tea­house, Numero Cinq, and The Doc­tor T.J. Eck­le­burg Review.

Two Poems

Poetry / Myron Michael

:: Our Bodies Are Meant to Cross the Line that Draws Breath from Us ::

          (upenyeru kufema tanise)

Shona, Shona, Shona, Shona, Shona. 
I call on it as if it is a woman,    

phonemes and parable: but watch the lover 
pack his bags then drown in a river   

while he tries to cross it carrying everything  
that was in his house. “Put down your things and this way,”   

disciples say with gospel up their sleeves.  
“From thy parents to thy wife,” the Lord agrees   

looking toward godly vengeance
through his holy and hole-punctured sacrament.  

The lover concedes; and she, one thing at a time, 
removes weight from his corpulent tongue.

 

:: Listening to Oliver Mtukudzi at Leisure ::

He can’t fly off the cusp with rugged syllables, 
bv, dy, and r: his palate catches like carpet under nail.  

“It’ll get easier,” she shrugs, drying a plate with napkin. 
“Waswera sei?” His day was a swollen knuckle of negritude

that he beat out on a counter—at times music is all he feels. 
A new entry entered the glossary of his learning  

:zvakanaka. Which means “alright,” but has the “almost 
there” quality of determination: a man determined to move  

from one platform to another with a suitcase of sounds 
noted for their high or low tonalities that mean one thing   

or similar. When listening to elders, or recalling great nations, 
or addressing heirs who kept breathing over all that ocean,  

I fold my hands and offer gratitude, as Tuku 
and the Black Spirits make a metronome for their feet.

"32"

Michael, creation myth (1)

"Key of Life"

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I was lis­ten­ing to Oliv­er “Tuku” Mtukudzi while read­ing essays writ­ten by Octavio Paz, The Dou­ble Flame: Love and Eroti­cism, which point­ed me to Plato’s The Sym­po­sium. From The Sym­po­sium I took the con­cept “the path of absolute beau­ty” to ref­er­ence as a frame­work for a hep­ta­l­o­gy in progress titled The Plen­ti­ful and Ready­made World. The poems that make up my sub­mis­sion are from book two of that hep­ta­l­o­gy, When a Snake Swal­lows the Moon, a col­lec­tion of walk­ing poems about love and mythol­o­gy inspired by the title of Peter Godwin’s book When a Croc­o­dile Eats the Sun.

I heard Oliv­er “Tuku” Mtukudzi for the first time in grad­u­ate school. My ex-girl­friend intro­duced me to him through his album Paive­po (Once Upon a Time). After hear­ing him sing “Pin­durai Mam­bo,” which is a song that ques­tions why life is pros­per­ous for some but impov­er­ished for others—and because I love the musi­cal­i­ty of con­so­nant sounds, and Shona is a lan­guage com­posed most­ly of con­so­nant clusters—I decid­ed to acquire the lan­guage; my ex-girl­friend who is Zim­bab­wean and speaks Shona was a valu­able resource to have close. Before I wrote the poems that make up my sub­mis­sion, I bought a Shona-Eng­lish dic­tio­nary; though Shona is pri­mar­i­ly spo­ken in Zim­bab­we by Zim­bab­weans, to my delight I found one online. Though the nar­ra­tive of the poems is about a rela­tion­ship that end­ed a decade ago and pro­gress­es through the telling of a cre­ation myth, the mem­o­ry of the rela­tion­ship lives on, and so every time I study the dic­tio­nary, I am made nos­tal­gic by remem­brance of it. But soon after, I am made con­tent by the growth of my vocab­u­lary for I hope to speak Shona flu­ent­ly, and every les­son brings me one step clos­er to acquir­ing the lan­guage.

 

Myron Michael’s poet­ry is anthol­o­gized in Days I Moved through Ordi­nary Sounds and Anoth­er & Anoth­er, appears in print at Toad Suck Review, and appears online at Out­side in Lit­er­ary & Trav­el Mag­a­zine and Riv­et. He col­lab­o­rat­ed with Broad­side Attractions/Vanquished Ter­rains for the text + image instal­la­tion “Ver­ti­cal Hori­zon” (2012) and Micro­cli­mate Col­lec­tive for the exhi­bi­tion “X Lib­ris” (2012), and he is a 2015 Best New Poets and Push­cart Prize nom­i­nee.

Selected Calligraphic Moon Writings

Visual Poetry /Dan Ivec

:: The Last Acrobats ::

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:: The Empty Sky, The Lonely Kitchen & The Endless Forest ::

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:: Only One Room Has A Star Ladder ::

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From the writer

:: Account ::

The lan­guage is writ­ten in a script that includes many logograms. It is a com­bi­na­tion of words that refer to stan­dard­ized speech sounds and also recur­ring images—many of them birds—which rep­re­sent ideas and emo­tions, like in a hiero­glyph. This lan­guage is most­ly read on the moon and in oth­er out­er space climes. I have includ­ed some images of poet­ry writ­ten in this lan­guage. I will not attempt to trans­late these works as it sad­dens me to revis­it them. I will, how­ev­er, briefly allude to the con­tents of each poem.

The first image is of “The Last Acro­bats” and it takes place on a dis­tant star. You can see some crea­tures hold­ing on to a sun and using it as a type of Fer­ris wheel. Two oth­ers walk on a wire above the whole town. And there is a chaot­ic lit­tle sea on this star that is danc­ing so wild by itself below the build­ings. The con­stant com­mo­tion on this star caused it to fling itself fur­ther and fur­ther into deep space, and it has not been vis­it­ed in many years. That is the con­text of this poem, and it is writ­ten in a sad, ele­giac mode.

The sec­ond poem con­sists sole­ly of sym­bols and no script. A very terse and strained work, it is real­ly just a short list of trou­ble­some feel­ings. It is called “The Emp­ty Sky, The Lone­ly Kitchen & The End­less For­est.” In between jobs, I once spent a year wan­der­ing through the forests in the “lost” province of the moon. This poem real­ly cap­tures that time.

The final work, “Only One Room Has A Star Lad­der” tells of a famous dis­trict in my favorite city. This is the city where I once lived. In some build­ings, the occu­pants have affixed to their win­dows enor­mous lad­ders that go nowhere and are only used for sight­see­ing. Climb­ing such lad­ders is great fun and, to be hon­est, is still the only thing I real­ly want to do.

 

Dan Ivec is the author of On the Stairs (Meek­ling Press, 2014). He cur­rent­ly lives in Pitts­burgh, Penn­syl­va­nia.

Two Poems

Poetry / CM Burroughs

:: To Keep a Dialogue ::

She asks if my nipples are pink. During which my body arrives to barter, 
shifts from hand to hand. I give what egg I have and break into a jigger of 
pins. 

Pull charred wick with my fingers then fingers to my mouth. My blackened 
tongue. Narratives for consumption marked by a heedless draw toward 
currants. I can’t know it yet, but I will guard my arc and charter. A bird will 
sing me thus. I will be so shearing. 

Thirsted to and paraded from. Often, I give my form to be made. Gall and 
intention when turning metal in my mouth. My saliva threading its marrow.
I am filled with songdark and ask to be choked. Become hungered and talk
about it for days. My feeling I am owed my little dark. 

 

:: When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive ::

I kiss it, eat it up. Tastes like nothing. I could do forever. Iron enjoys a hang
~ how I know I’m having myself. “Bind,” a slippery trick, history, holdings, 
so even while I’m doing it—erasure, erasure “she keeps on passin,” sampling
myself, as course, to black tie, black bottom, black box, black-eyed, black ass.
Up and aint I aint I aint I aint I anti- ant I anih-

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I com­posed these poems at a time when I was try­ing to answer ques­tions about desire and what desire could enact in the female body. These ques­tions, as you will under­stand by read­ing the poems, relate to arousal and approach ideas of pow­er between the I and the Oth­er. These con­cepts are tight­ly wound with­in lyric verse, but the vac­il­la­tion between cer­tain­ty and uncer­tain­ty of what the speak­er wants, what she can con­trol ver­sus what con­trols her, is pal­pa­ble. The verbs are one sig­nal of this, as in the first stan­za of “To Keep a Dia­logue” we have moments includ­ing: “ask,” “arrives,” “give,” and “break.” Through to its end, “To Keep a Dia­logue” presents the speak­er in posi­tions of nego­ti­a­tion, and none that is sim­ply resolved.

While “To Keep a Dia­logue” demon­strates a speak­er who wavers between her pow­er and a pas­sive or active relin­quish­ment of that pow­er, the sec­ond poem rel­ish­es in grat­i­fy­ing desire. This speak­er wears her desire, which is self-direct­ed and self-sat­is­fy­ing, and this qual­i­ty enables her to gaze wide­ly at her body as historical/object/black/blackened/erasured. Just now, I feel some­what dev­il­ish gath­er­ing this into five lines, but this is the kind of poem from which my most cap­ti­vat­ing speak­ers grow. My work needs this speaker’s atti­tude and self-searched cock­i­ness as much as it needs a speak­er in flux between over­whelm and want.

 

CM Bur­roughs is Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Poet­ry at Colum­bia Col­lege Chica­go,
and the author of The Vital Sys­tem from Tupe­lo Press (2012). Bur­roughs has been award­ed fel­low­ships from Yad­do, The Mac­Dow­ell Colony, and the Cave Canem Foun­da­tion. Her poet­ry has appeared or is forth­com­ing in Best Amer­i­can Exper­i­men­tal Writ­ing, Court Green, jubi­lat, Ploughshares, and VOLT. Bur­roughs is a grad­u­ate of Sweet Bri­ar Col­lege and the MFA pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pitts­burgh.

Story of the Door

Poetry / derek beaulieu

:: Story of the Door ::

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From the writer

:: Account ::

Oscar Wilde argues, “lying, the telling of beau­ti­ful untrue things, is the prop­er aim of Art.” In his 1891 essay “The Decay of Lying: An Obser­va­tion,” he embeds with­in his Socrat­ic argu­ment a tale of a fic­tion­al char­ac­ter who is the vic­tim of an uncan­ny acci­dent, which con­flates Stevenson’s 1886 novel­la The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:

Short­ly after Mr. Steven­son pub­lished his curi­ous psy­cho­log­i­cal sto­ry of trans­for­ma­tion, a friend of mine, called Mr. Hyde, was in the north of Lon­don, and being anx­ious to get to a rail­way sta­tion, took what he thought would be a short cut, lost his way, and found him­self in a net­work of mean, evil-look­ing streets. Feel­ing rather ner­vous he began to walk extreme­ly fast, when sud­den­ly out of an arch­way ran a child right between his legs. It fell on the pave­ment, he tripped over it, and tram­pled upon it. Being of course very much fright­ened and a lit­tle hurt, it began to scream, and in a few sec­onds the whole street was full of rough peo­ple who came pour­ing out of the hous­es like ants. They sur­round­ed him, and asked him his name. He was just about to give it when he sud­den­ly remem­bered the open­ing inci­dent in Mr. Stevenson’s sto­ry. He was so filled with hor­ror at hav­ing realised in his own per­son that ter­ri­ble and well-writ­ten scene, and at hav­ing done acci­den­tal­ly, though in fact, what the Mr. Hyde of fic­tion had done with delib­er­ate intent, that he ran away as hard as he could go. He was, how­ev­er, very close­ly fol­lowed, and final­ly he took refuge in a surgery, the door of which hap­pened to be open, where he explained to a young assis­tant, who hap­pened to be there, exact­ly what had occurred. The human­i­tar­i­an crowd were induced to go away on his giv­ing them a small sum of mon­ey, and as soon as the coast was clear he left. As he passed out, the name on the brass door-plate of the surgery caught his eye. It was ‘Jekyll.’ At least it should have been.

Com­pound­ing the uncan­ni­ness of Wilde’s fic­tion­al retelling is the fact that his para­graph-long sum­ma­riza­tion of one of the most shock­ing inci­dents in the novel­la can be found embed­ded with­in the very let­ters of Stevenson’s orig­i­nal. As I have exhib­it­ed, Wilde’s text can be found, in order, with­in Stevenson’s. Much as the text of Hyde is found encod­ed inside the larg­er nar­ra­tive of Jekyll’s life, these two texts nest with­in each oth­er, ready to be unleashed. “The Decay of Lying: An Obser­va­tion” pre­dates Wilde’s 1895 con­vic­tion for gross inde­cen­cy and sodomy—pataphysically we can con­nect the encod­ed lifestyles of the “Black Mail House” on “Queer Street” (despite the con­tem­po­rary use of the word “queer” not enter­ing the lex­i­con until 1900) in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with the cod­ing of one text with­in anoth­er. Alan Turing’s infa­mous code-break­ing efforts at Bletch­ley Park coin­cid­ed with his reveal­ing of his sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion to his fiancé and the sub­se­quent can­cel­la­tion of their pend­ing nup­tials. Turing’s encod­ed, clos­et­ed sex­u­al­i­ty would even­tu­al­ly lead to his own 1952 arrest and con­vic­tion for gross inde­cen­cy and court-ordered hor­mon­al ther­a­py includ­ing injec­tions of stil­boe­strol (a syn­thet­ic oestro­gen), which bod­i­ly changed Turing’s appear­ance. Short­ly before his death, Tur­ing wrote, in an uncan­ny echo­ing of Jekyll: “no doubt I shall emerge from it all a dif­fer­ent man, but quite who I’ve not found out.” Wilde’s own Steven­son ref­er­ence can be found with­in Steven­son him­self by pro­ce­du­ral­ly eras­ing irrel­e­vant let­ters from the ini­tial chap­ter of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; with each unveil­ing we get clos­er to the enig­ma.

 

Dr. derek beaulieu is the author or edi­tor of six­teen books, the most recent of which are Please, No More Poet­ry: The Poet­ry of derek beaulieu (Wil­frid Lau­ri­er Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2013) and Kern (Les Figues Press, 2014). He is the pub­lish­er of the acclaimed No Press and is the visu­al poet­ry edi­tor at UBUWeb. Beaulieu has exhib­it­ed his work across Cana­da, the Unit­ed States, and Europe and is an award-win­ning instruc­tor at the Alber­ta Col­lege of Art + Design. He is the 2014 – 2016 Poet Lau­re­ate of Cal­gary, Cana­da.

Three Works

Art / Jay Bolotin

 

From the artist

:: Account ::

There is always a dis­com­fort when asked to write a state­ment about one’s own work. I have avoid­ed it, think­ing that the work either stands or falls on its own—like a bas­tard child let loose in the world (proud­ly) to fend for them­selves. And yet, there are some words I have returned to over and over. They are from William Blake’s prophet­ic poem, “Mil­ton.”

Judge then of thy Own Self: thy Eter­nal Lin­ea­ments explore;
What is Eter­nal & what Change­able? & what Anni­hi­l­able?
The Imag­i­na­tion is not a State: it is the Human Exis­tence itself!
Affec­tion or Love becomes a State, when divid­ed from Imag­i­na­tion.
The Mem­o­ry is a State always, & the Rea­son is a State
Cre­at­ed to be Anni­hi­lat­ed & a new Ratio Cre­at­ed.
What­ev­er can be Cre­at­ed can be Anni­hi­lat­ed. Forms can­not.
The oak is cut down by the axe, the lamb falls by the knife;
But their Forms Eter­nal exist, for­ev­er. Amen! Hal­lelu­jah!

These words, these ques­tions, have been my friend—accompanied me on any path I’ve attempted—like a touch­stone one returns to when the path is uncer­tain.

 

Jay Bolotin was born in Lex­ing­ton, Ken­tucky, in 1949. He now lives in Cincin­nati, Ohio. His work is includ­ed in many pub­lic and pri­vate col­lec­tions, includ­ing the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art (NY), the Penn­syl­va­nia Acad­e­my of the Fine Arts, The Aus­tralian Nation­al Muse­um, and the Smith Col­lege Muse­um of Art. Sev­er­al exhi­bi­tions are being planned sur­round­ing The Book of Only Enoch, a port­fo­lio of prints com­plet­ed in 2015 and a cen­tral ele­ment in the nar­ra­tive of a motion pic­ture in progress.

Three Erasures

Erasures / Jenni B. Baker

:: You–Boy ::

BSA Handbook - You, Boy (2)

 

:: Kind ::

BSA Handbook - Kind (1)

 

:: Tiny Town ::

Tiny Town (2)

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

As an era­surist, I feel I need to account more for my sources than I do for my poems.

First, I spend an obscene amount of time inputting odd com­bi­na­tions of search terms in sites like HathiTrust and archive.org: “tem­po­rary wharf lodg­ing,” “fall­out shel­ters,” “butcher­ing,” “mimes.” I’ll spend hours hunt­ing down just the right source texts, ones with unique vocab­u­lary and inter­est­ing syn­tax. Late­ly, I’ve also been seek­ing out sources where illus­tra­tions accom­pa­ny the text, adding anoth­er lay­er of con­text and inter­pre­ta­tion.

You—Boy” and “Kind” are part of a larg­er series of pieces sourced from the 1965 Boy Scouts of Amer­i­ca Hand­book. As soon as I unearthed this text dur­ing my search, it was impos­si­ble to ignore. In addi­tion to invok­ing a sense of Amer­i­can nos­tal­gia, the hand­book is beau­ti­ful and filled with col­or­ful, retro graph­ics. The graph­ics, like the mes­sages in the text, are a weird sort of earnest, cheer­ful­ly unaware of their abil­i­ty to brain­wash unas­sum­ing boys into a sin­gu­lar vision of what it means to be a man. My pieces manip­u­late these out­looks into alter­nate depic­tions of what it’s real­ly like to be an adult.

Tiny Town” comes from a 1951 book, The Boy’s Hand­book of Play Ideas and Things-to-Do by Car­o­line Horowitz. Each page con­tains an activ­i­ty idea accom­pa­nied by an illus­tra­tion, a list of required mate­ri­als, and a set of direc­tions. Sim­i­lar to the Boy Scout pieces, this piece takes a text orig­i­nal­ly meant for chil­dren and turns it into some­thing much more adult. Instead of a tiny town, the child crafts a bur­ial box. What ele­ments from our child­hood do we bury as adults?

 

Jen­ni B. Bak­er is the founder and edi­tor-in-chief of The Found Poet­ry Review. Her poetry—mostly found, some not—has been pub­lished in more than three dozen jour­nals and pub­li­ca­tions. Her Oulipo-gen­er­at­ed chap­book, Comings/Goings, was released by Danc­ing Girl Press in March 2015. Always a fan of a good project, she is cur­rent­ly cre­at­ing era­sure poet­ry from David Fos­ter Wallace’s 1079-page nov­el Infi­nite Jest, one page at a time, at http://www.erasinginfinite.com.

Poetry Comics

Poetry Comics / Bianca Stone

:: Bliss ::

Bliss

 

:: Bliss ::

Bliss (1)

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Some ques­tions we have about life—no doubt we want them answered. The expe­ri­ence of bliss, in par­tic­u­lar, that nev­er comes when we seek it out, but comes uninvited—these images med­i­tate on this anti-pur­suit. Lit­tle empa­thet­ic night­mares that aren’t so bad; the pink women are a cho­rus; oth­ers are green and white in the chaos wait­ing for bliss to come back. It’s because my broth­er gave me a book by J. Krish­na­mur­ti Com­men­taries on Liv­ing. And that fused with Brassaï’s Paris Noc­turne, and it all hap­pened on my cof­fee table, cov­ered with my evening things. The miss­ing final pan­el should say: empathize com­plete­ly.

 

Bian­ca Stone is a poet and visu­al artist. Her books include the poet­ry col­lec­tion Some­one Else’s Wed­ding Vows (Tin House/Octopus Books, 2014), and Antigo­nick, a hybrid col­lab­o­ra­tion with Anne Car­son (New Direc­tions, 2012). She is co-founder and edi­tor of the press Monk Books, and she runs the Ruth Stone Foun­da­tion in Ver­mont and Brook­lyn. The Select­ed Poet­ry Comics is forth­com­ing from Pleiades Books.

Beside the Tall Brick Buildings

Poetry Comic / Sara Wainscott

:: Beside the Tall Brick Buildings ::

needsfixin

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

This project plays with cre­at­ing hybrids of exist­ing texts to stretch their metaphor­i­cal con­texts. The vehi­cle for these pieces is Win­sor McKay’s hun­dred-year-old com­ic strip “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.” In their orig­i­nal ver­sions, each strip recounts a dream—or per­haps nightmare—of a dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter who has eat­en rich food before bed, usu­al­ly Welsh rarebit. For this project, McKay’s com­ic is used as a giv­en form and placed in con­ver­sa­tion with retellings and read­ings of dreams; text sourced from online dream forums and inter­pre­ta­tion sites fills the speech bal­loons.

In the result­ing com­bi­na­tions, I’m not always sure what’s hap­pen­ing. Words and images main­tain par­al­lel rela­tion­ships, yet there’s an inter­play between the defined action and the depict­ed action. Is this fric­tion? Sym­bio­sis? In any case, this exper­i­ment thrives on metaphor that resists log­i­cal com­par­i­son, and to that end, I delight in the absur­di­ties that result from com­bin­ing these texts. These poems give a nod to pho­bia, desire, anx­i­ety; they acknowl­edge incon­gruity; they rec­og­nize the need to tell each oth­er what we see in the dark. I find this all kind of com­fort­ing.

 

Sara Wain­scott’s work has appeared most recent­ly in RHINO, Poet­ry North­west, Requit­ed, The Jour­nal, and The Colum­bia Poet­ry Review. She co-curates Wit Rab­bit, an inter-genre read­ing series, and teach­es writ­ing at Colum­bia Col­lege and Oak­ton Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege.