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


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. 


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. 


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.” 


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? 


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.