Against Feeling Dumb

Criticism / Jen Hedler Phillis

:: Against Feeling Dumb ::

If they don’t need poet­ry, bul­ly for them. I like the movies, too.” 

— Frank O’Hara, “Per­son­ism: A Manifesto”

The world of poet­ry seems hope­less­ly divid­ed into two camps: the lyri­cists and the exper­i­men­tal­ists, the Blooms and the Perloffs, the Low­ells and the Oppens, the Heaneys and the Hejini­ans. Add to that list Calvin Bedi­ent, who advo­cates for a return to a “poet­ry of affect,”[i] and Ken­neth Gold­smith, who advo­cates for a cul­ture-wide embrace of “being dumb.”[ii] Although both men pose as defend­ers of their respec­tive embat­tled aes­thet­ic ori­en­ta­tions, close atten­tion to their argu­ments reveals that they occu­py iden­ti­cal posi­tions regard­ing a poem’s place in the world—a posi­tion, it turns out, that doesn’t believe poet­ry, in itself, is some­thing all that valuable. 

Bedient’s argu­ment in “Against Con­cep­tu­al­ism” is that con­cep­tu­al poet­ry is a mech­a­nism for the repres­sion of both emo­tion (in the form of melan­choly) and polit­i­cal engage­ment (in the form of mil­i­tan­cy).  He writes, “[m]elancholy and mil­i­tan­cy, those con­trary but sub­tly relat­ed ele­ments of the poet­ry of affect, can­not be excised from lit­er­a­ture, in favor of method­ol­o­gy, with­out both emo­tion­al and polit­i­cal con­se­quences: mis­ery in the first instance, cul­tur­al con­for­mi­ty in the sec­ond.” Before we can accept that the con­se­quences of such unfeel­ing poems and poets are as dire as Bedi­ent claims, we need to split his argu­ment in two to see if it holds water. The first claim is that melan­choly is cen­tral to the poet­ic project; the sec­ond, that poetry’s melan­choly is a mech­a­nism for militancy.

What is not imme­di­ate­ly obvi­ous in Bedient’s writ­ing is whether he longs for a more melan­cholic and mil­i­tant poet or a more melan­cholic and mil­i­tant audi­ence. The argu­ment seems to be a ral­ly­ing cry for poets; he chas­tis­es “[t]he uncre­ative heads” of exper­i­men­tal poet­ry who “shook off the body, every­thing that was alive enough to die.” If what he does intend is for us to gauge the poet’s melan­cholic lev­el, then, it turns out we’re not judg­ing the poem at all. Take the two great melan­cholic poems of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry: Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cra­dle End­less­ly Rock­ing” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” While Whitman’s “Out of the Cra­dle” is typ­i­cal­ly under­stood to be auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal, as is most of his work, we don’t have any hard evi­dence that attests that young Walt, once, on Pau­manok, heard the lone­ly mock­ing-bird call out for his mate. We do, how­ev­er, know that Poe nev­er loved and lost Lenore, nev­er flung the shut­ter, nev­er saw the flirt and flut­ter of that state­ly raven. Poe’s “Phi­los­o­phy of Com­po­si­tion” explains that the poem was devised fol­low­ing a basic set of steps through which he deter­mined the length, tone, rhythm, and refrain well before decid­ing that the poem would mourn Lenore. Now, if we were to find Whitman’s own “Phi­los­o­phy of Com­po­si­tion,” where­in he describes that he, in fact, didn’t much like being out-of-doors, found bird-song irri­tat­ing, and wrote poet­ry because he (wrong­ly) imag­ined it would make him mon­ey, would “Out of the Cra­dle End­less­ly Rock­ing” lose its sta­tus as a great poem? Of course it wouldn’t, and I’m quite sure Bedi­ent would agree. There­fore, why ascribe the bio­graph­i­cal poet with a melan­cholic affect? It can’t be the case that Bedi­ent thinks only those of us with a par­tic­u­lar­ly strong sense of melan­choly should write poetry.

Per­haps, then, Bedi­ent wants to locate melan­choly in the read­er. But, as it turns out, this isn’t a good way to go about things either, because just as when we mea­sured Poe’s and Whitman’s respec­tive melan­cholic lev­els and end­ed up not talk­ing about poet­ry, if we’re wor­ried about the audience’s melan­cholic lev­els, we’re talk­ing about them, not the poem. More­over, such a con­ver­sa­tion is des­tined to lead nowhere. A poem that makes me feel melan­cholic (“Out of the Cra­dle,” cer­tain­ly; Celan’s “Sprich auch du,” for sure; but also Frank O’Hara’s “Med­i­ta­tions in an Emer­gency”) might not make you feel melan­cholic. Despite this, we can still have a con­ver­sa­tion about the poem. I can say, “‘Out of the Cra­dle’ dra­ma­tizes the hope­less­ness of the ele­giac project while still insist­ing on its neces­si­ty,” and you, I hope, would say, “Yes, that’s what the poem is about.” Because when you and I are talk­ing about poet­ry, we’re not talk­ing about our emo­tions: we’re talk­ing about what we think the poet meant for us to under­stand as a result of read­ing the poem. If you say, in response to my analy­sis of “Out of the Cra­dle,” “That poem makes me laugh,” then we’re not going to have much of a con­ver­sa­tion: that’s a fact about you, not about the poem.

A gen­er­ous read­ing of Bedi­ent would set aside his seem­ing desire to ana­lyze the lev­els of melan­choly and mil­i­tan­cy in artist and audi­ence and instead posit that he believes good poet­ry is the kind that is intend­ed to evoke a par­tic­u­lar kind of emo­tion­al response in its audi­ence (melan­choly in “Out of the Cra­dle” or “Sprich auch du”; anger in Juliana Spahr’s “HR4811 is a joke”). If that’s the case, then the con­ver­sa­tion we, as crit­i­cal read­ers of poet­ry, would have wouldn’t stop at “that poem made me sad,” but would extend to ques­tions about how the poet designed her poem to evoke such an emo­tion, whether or not it was effec­tive, and so on. But, at that point, we still aren’t talk­ing about how we feel, we’re talk­ing about how the work of art is con­struct­ed and why we think the poet would do it that way.

So, melancholy—located either in poet or reader—isn’t much of a cri­te­ria for judg­ing poet­ry itself. What about mil­i­tan­cy? Cer­tain­ly, poets have often claimed the polit­i­cal import of their work—we’ll see short­ly how Ken­neth Gold­smith, described by Bedi­ent as conceptualism’s “able expo­nent,” under­stands the pol­i­tics of his project; but we can also think of the anti-cap­i­tal­ist claims made by the Lan­guage Poets in the 1970s or Per­cy Bysshe Shelley’s nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry claim that “poets are the unac­knowl­edged leg­is­la­tors of the world.” Bedient’s ver­sion of the claim rests on the assump­tion that one only gets polit­i­cal once one gets emo­tion­al. He writes:

Veined and vexed by the sen­sa­tions orga­nized around melan­choly and mil­i­tan­cy, the imag­i­na­tion is essen­tial to pol­i­tics: your posi­tions make me mis­er­able, make me mad. It is the imag­i­na­tion that has to con­ceive oppo­si­tion. It has to feel it. Oth­er­wise, it is mere­ly being con­trary, which is the con­cep­tu­al­ists’ post-polit­i­cal posi­tion.[iii]

Bedi­ent mis­un­der­stands what it means to “be con­trary.” Here, he describes it as espous­ing a belief that one has no strong emo­tion­al invest­ment in. But, that’s not quite right. “Being con­trary” is the same as play­ing devil’s advo­cate: you take up a posi­tion not because you believe it, but just to momen­tar­i­ly occu­py it. The dif­fer­ence between being con­trary and advo­cat­ing a deeply held belief isn’t emo­tion­al, it’s intel­lec­tu­al: to be con­trary, you can’t believe; to hold a posi­tion, you must believe. But, just as he did with melan­choly, Bedi­ent occu­pies a posi­tion about which no debate can be had. I can say, “I don’t feel my pol­i­tics, I believe in them,” and he might respond, “Well, I feel mine.” There is no cri­te­ria for judg­ing whether Bedi­ent is “right” in his posi­tion because when it comes to feel­ing, the cat­e­gories of “right” and “wrong” sim­ply don’t apply. I can­not call his emo­tion­al response “wrong” (I might call it “inap­pro­pri­ate,” per­haps, if he laughed at a funer­al) for exact­ly the same rea­son I can’t say that it’s “wrong” that some­one has a headache or the flu: humans have no con­scious con­trol over their phys­i­cal or emo­tion­al respons­es to stim­u­lus. (Bedi­ent seems to get this, at least ini­tial­ly, as he con­trasts conceptualism’s atten­tion to thought to his poet­ry of affect’s atten­tion to feel­ings.[iv]) In con­trast, I do have con­scious con­trol over my beliefs. I believe in a par­tic­u­lar polit­i­cal pro­gram because I have ana­lyzed evi­dence, con­sid­ered options, and come to a par­tic­u­lar set of solu­tions to what I under­stand as the world’s prob­lems. Admit­ted­ly, some days I am mis­er­able and mad, but oth­er days I’m rather com­pla­cent, even hap­py. On those hap­py, com­pla­cent days, the state of affairs that my pol­i­tics hopes to address has not changed, nor have my pol­i­tics changed. Because my beliefs, just like the mean­ing of poems, have noth­ing to do with how I feel.

All of this is to say that Bedi­ent, through­out “Against Con­cep­tu­al­ism,” mis­takes feel­ing for mean­ing. So, we might think that con­cep­tu­al­ism, asso­ci­at­ed as it is with thought rather than emo­tion, would offer a bet­ter account of how a poem comes to have mean­ing. If we turn to Ken­neth Gold­smith, how­ev­er, we’ll see that he miss­es the point as well, albeit in a slight­ly more inter­est­ing way.

Being Dumb,” pub­lished in July in The Awl, reads like Arcade Fire doing stand-up, but instead of the jokes being “men walk like this” and “women walk like that,” Gold­smith dis­tin­guish­es between “smart-smart” peo­ple (poet Chris­t­ian Bök—who also appears in Bedient’s piece—NPR News, the New York­er), “dumb-dumb” peo­ple (“racists and red­necks”), and “smart-dumb” peo­ple (Goldsmith—self-described as “per­haps one of the dumb­est that’s ever lived”—as well as Andy Warhol, “Gertrude Stein, Vito Acconci, Mar­cel Duchamp, Samuel Beck­ett, Seth Price, Tao Lin, Mar­tin Margiela, Mike Kel­ley, and Sofia Cop­po­la”).[v] The dif­fer­ence between smart-smart and smart-dumb that Gold­smith most cares about (he doesn’t real­ly care about dumb-dumb) is that smart-smart “brims with val­ue” while smart-dumb “owes noth­ing to any­one.” He writes that smart-smart, “[h]aving sweat­ed for what it’s accom­plished, […] pays a hand­some div­i­dend to those invest­ed.” It is hard, in 2013, to read “div­i­dend” and “invest­ed” as ref­er­ences to the kind of per­son­al sat­is­fac­tion one pre­sum­ably gets from, for exam­ple, hav­ing read a “smart” book. Instead, we must read them as ref­er­ences to the very tools that, just a few years ago, brought the glob­al econ­o­my to a stand­still and then re-rigged it in favor of the wealthy. Gold­smith val­orizes this inter­pre­ta­tion at the end of the arti­cle, when he writes that “[t]he world runs on smart. It’s clear­ly not work­ing.” In con­trast to the now eth­i­cal­ly sus­pect “smart-smart,” “smart-dumb” “[t]rad[es] on the mun­dane and com­mon, […] plays a low-stakes game […] and in that way it is free.” What dif­fer­en­ti­ates smart-smart from smart-dumb, then, is not the super­fi­cial dif­fer­ence between pre­fer­ring Chris­t­ian Bök to Ken­neth Gold­smith, NPR to Sofia Cop­po­la, or the New York­er to Tao Lin, but the way val­ue either inheres or fails to inhere in their respec­tive projects.

Ini­tial­ly, then, it seems that what Gold­smith is describ­ing when he says that his art (as opposed to Bök’s) “owes noth­ing to any­one” is a very tra­di­tion­al aes­thet­ic the­o­ry that posits the art­work as autonomous from the world. That is, Gold­smith seems to sug­gest that a par­tic­u­lar kind of val­ue­less­ness (Kant would have called it pur­pose­less­ness) is what marks the dif­fer­ence between his book Traf­fic (a tran­scrip­tion of traf­fic reports over a hol­i­day week­end in New York City) and the traf­fic reports it tran­scribes. The dif­fer­ence between the two comes down to the object’s rela­tion­ship to the world. While a traf­fic report’s suc­cess is judged on its accu­rate rela­tion­ship to the world, Traf­fic is judged by a dif­fer­ent set of cri­te­ria: the book isn’t con­sid­ered a fail­ure if a read­er finds her­self stuck in unex­pect­ed traf­fic; a traf­fic report on the radio would be. To put it dif­fer­ent­ly, traf­fic reports would not exist were it not for the world. Traf­fic does not depend on any rela­tion­ship with the world to exist.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Gold­smith undoes his ini­tial paean to val­ue­less­ness at the end of the piece, where he writes:

I want to live in a world where the smartest thing you can do is the dumb­est. I want to live in a world where a flu­o­res­cent tube leaned up against a wall is worth a mil­lion dol­lars. Or where a plumb­ing fix­ture on a pedestal is con­sid­ered the most impor­tant art­work of the cen­tu­ry. Or where build­ing an eter­nal­ly locked Pra­da store in a vast expanse of emp­ty Texas desert is con­sid­ered a stroke of genius. Or where all of the num­bers from one to a thou­sand can sim­ply be clas­si­fied by alpha­bet­i­cal order and pub­lished as a poem.[vi]

So, it turns out, that the one thing that sets smart-dumb apart from smart-smart—its valuelessness—is the thing about smart-dumb Gold­smith would most like to change. Of course, there’s a joke here, and one that Gold­smith is in on: the world he describes is the world we already live in. Dan Flavin’s flu­o­res­cent light sculp­tures have sold for around a mil­lion dol­lars at auc­tion; Duchamp is, if not the most impor­tant, one of the most impor­tant artists of the 20th cen­tu­ry; Pra­da Mar­fa received a lot of press when it was ini­tial­ly installed in 2005 (and, a repro­duc­tion of its sign appeared in the van der Wood­sen apart­ment on Gos­sip Girl, a show that unique­ly cap­tured our con­tem­po­rary moment); and Nick Mon­fort has pro­duced a com­put­er pro­gram that alpha­bet­izes Roman numer­als from I to M. What this reveals, then, is that while “Being Dumb” might describe aes­thet­ic pref­er­ence, it doesn’t describe how aes­thet­ic pref­er­ence works.

When we turn to Goldsmith’s explic­it state­ments about aes­thet­ics, we find that he isn’t so dif­fer­ent from Bedi­ent. His most recent project, Print­ing out the Inter­net, was a pri­mar­i­ly crowd-sourced project: peo­ple from all over the world print­ed out any num­ber of pages of the inter­net and sent them to the LABOR gallery in Mex­i­co City; at the same time, the gallery held marathon “read­ings” of the inter­net, using the crowd-sourced pages as the script. Gold­smith described the project ini­tial­ly as a trib­ute to hack­er-activist Aaron Swartz, who com­mit­ted sui­cide while await­ing tri­al for hav­ing down­loaded mil­lions of arti­cles from JSTOR. As the project devel­oped, how­ev­er, it was met with mas­sive envi­ron­men­tal protests, cul­mi­nat­ing in a peti­tion to stop the project. In an inter­view with C‑Net, Gold­smith respond­ed to the protests gen­er­al­ly, say­ing, “[i]n the tra­di­tion of con­cep­tu­al art, […] the dis­course sur­round­ing the show is, in fact, the real show.”[vii] If the point of con­cep­tu­al art or poet­ry is not the art­work, but what peo­ple say about it, then the art­work is, as it were, inci­den­tal, as dec­o­ra­tive as the Pra­da Mar­fa sign hung on the set of a tele­vi­sion show about the foibles of bil­lion­aire teenagers. If Gold­smith believes the point of art is the dis­course it gen­er­ates, then he can­not simul­ta­ne­ous­ly believe that the work of art has any mean­ing on its own. Its mean­ing must be formed in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the audi­ence. Such a belief undoes the the­o­ry of art implic­it in “Being Dumb”: art isn’t autonomous; instead, it waits for an audi­ence to fill in its meaning.

So, despite Bedient’s desire to make the “poet­ry of affect” dif­fer­ent from con­cep­tu­al poet­ry, and despite Goldsmith’s desire to set his own aes­thet­ic prac­tice apart from oth­er poets and artists, both men have the same fun­da­men­tal belief about art. Art, for Bedi­ent and Gold­smith, only has mean­ing or val­ue once it becomes part of the world. For art to count as art, they believe, the audi­ence must respond to it. That is, they believe that the poem—whether a con­cep­tu­al poem or a poem of affect—is ulti­mate­ly defined by the audi­ence, not the poet. While Gold­smith is less proscriptive—he would like­ly say “more democratic”—about what that response will be, even a cur­so­ry exam­i­na­tion of both their posi­tions reveals that nei­ther cares much about the art of poet­ry at all; they care about what it might do to an audi­ence. In oth­er words, both Bedi­ent and Gold­smith define mean­ing as if it were a prop­er­ty of the body or of a com­mu­ni­ty of con­sumers. As such, they can­not simul­ta­ne­ous­ly believe that the art of poet­ry is an autonomous aes­thet­ic activ­i­ty. If that’s the case, we can go ahead and do with­out poems alto­geth­er, can’t we?


[i] Calvin Bedi­ent, “Against Con­cep­tu­al­ism: Defend­ing the Poet­ry of Affect,” Boston Review, July 24, 2013,

[ii] Ken­neth Gold­smith, “Being Dumb,” The Awl, July 23, 2013,

[iii] “Against Conceptualism.”

[iv] Bedi­ent traces the divi­sion between con­cep­tu­al­ism and the poet­ry of affect to the end of the 1960s, when those “uncre­ative heads effec­tive­ly shook off the body.”

[v] “Being Dumb.”

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Leslie Katz, “Artist wants to print out entire Inter­net to hon­or Aaron Swartz,” C‑Net, June 6, 2013,–17938_105-57588137–1/artist-wants-to-print-out-entire-internet-to-honor-aaron-swartz/. And that show has indeed been enter­tain­ing. Gold­smith has respond­ed in a few ways, none of which are par­tic­u­lar­ly smart-smart (or, smart-dumb, real­ly). In the same inter­view with C‑Net, he point­ed out the essen­tial waste­ful­ness of all art, cit­ing the Venice Bien­nale and Jeff Koons’s use of “strip-mined alu­minum,” a clas­sic ver­sion of the “But, Mom, every­one at school already has an iPhone 5” argu­ment. On the Tum­blr ded­i­cat­ed to the project, he pro­vides two addi­tion­al respons­es: first, “[y]our envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns are dis­placed anx­i­ety about democ­ra­cy; Secret­ly, what you hate most about Print­ing out the Inter­net is its democ­ra­cy, that any­body can be an artist with a sim­ple cmd/ctrl+p”; sec­ond, “[t]hink of how many invoic­es could’ve been writ­ten on all this paper had we not print­ed the inter­net on it. What a waste. Shame on us.” (I want to note that it is per­haps inac­cu­rate to attribute these respons­es to Gold­smith; they appear on the Tum­blr anony­mous­ly. They were, how­ev­er, also tweet­ed by the UbuWeb account, which Gold­smith main­tains.) It would be easy—fish-in-a-barrel easy—to describe why these respons­es are dumb-dumb, indi­cat­ing, first, a fun­da­men­tal mis­un­der­stand­ing of what is at stake when we talk about democ­ra­cy (it has noth­ing to do with whether or not peo­ple are allowed to be “artists”) and, sec­ond, a fun­da­men­tal mis­un­der­stand­ing of how cap­i­tal­ism works (it is not whol­ly reliant on the world’s paper supply). 


Jen Hedler Phillis is a Ph.D. can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go. Her dis­ser­ta­tion, Lyric His­to­ries, traces the appear­ance and dis­ap­pear­ance of his­to­ry in twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can poet­ry, argu­ing that the devel­op­ment of the his­tor­i­cal in mod­ernist and con­tem­po­rary poet­ry mir­rors eco­nom­ic devel­op­ments both in the Unit­ed States and Europe. She has pre­sent­ed work from her dis­ser­ta­tion at the Marx­ist Lit­er­ary Group Sum­mer Insti­tute and the New School for Social Research. For the record, she quite likes Arcade Fire.