Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics

Criticism / Rachel Greenwald Smith

:: Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics ::

1. Com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics under­lie a range of crit­i­cal approach­es to con­tem­po­rary fic­tion and poet­ry, but their emer­gence has yet to be ade­quate­ly historicized.

In her intro­duc­tion to the Nor­ton anthol­o­gy Amer­i­can Hybrid (2009), Cole Swensen cel­e­brates the ten­den­cy for con­tem­po­rary works of poet­ry to make fer­tile com­pro­mis­es between tra­di­tion­al and exper­i­men­tal forms. She argues that this ten­den­cy, a qual­i­ty she sees as inte­gral to what she calls “hybrid poet­ry,” is defined by an inter­est in “plac­ing less empha­sis on exter­nal dif­fer­ences, those among poets and their rel­a­tive stances” in such a way that “leaves us all in a bet­ter posi­tion to fight a much more impor­tant bat­tle for the integri­ty of lan­guage in the face of com­mer­cial and polit­i­cal mis­use” (xxvi). In script­ing the “bat­tle” in these terms—poetry, envi­sioned in utopi­an terms as a unit­ed pro­gres­sive front, against the “mis­use” of commerce—Swensen at once makes a pow­er­ful plea for the social advan­tages of aes­thet­ic com­pro­mise and affirms poet­ry as an essen­tial­ly polit­i­cal­ly use­ful (i.e., left­ist) enter­prise. This stance typ­i­fies a posi­tion that I will call “com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics,” or the belief that con­tem­po­rary art is at its most social­ly rel­e­vant when it forges com­pro­mis­es between strate­gies tra­di­tion­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the main­stream on the one hand and those asso­ci­at­ed with exper­i­men­tal depar­tures from the main­stream on the other.

It was not so long ago that the very works that refused to com­pro­mise, those that placed clear empha­sis on dif­fer­ences among writ­ers’ rel­a­tive aes­thet­ic and polit­i­cal stances, were seen as the pri­ma­ry means by which any bat­tle against the “com­mer­cial and polit­i­cal mis­use” of lan­guage could be fought. This is how the exper­i­men­tal move­ments of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry con­sti­tut­ed them­selves against the lit­er­ary norms of their peri­od and sought to expose such norms as implic­it­ly in sup­port of the social, as well as the aes­thet­ic, sta­tus quo. [i] Yet the past few decades have seen a dra­mat­ic increase in crit­ics and writ­ers whose inter­est in for­mal­ly inno­v­a­tive work once may have made them seek out oppo­si­tion­al posi­tions argu­ing instead that such polar­iza­tions are no longer nec­es­sary. Observ­ing this trend, Ron Sil­li­man has recent­ly asked, “Why is it that so many young writ­ers are con­flict averse in a world in which con­flict itself is inher­ent? What is the attrac­tion to not tak­ing a stand?”

This essay is an effort to answer that ques­tion through an assess­ment of recent crit­i­cal appraisals of the con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary cli­mate, includ­ing the defin­ing state­ments on hybrid and ellip­ti­cal poet­ry; post­language lyric; and post-post­mod­ernist fic­tion. My inter­est here is not in the accu­ra­cy of these appraisals as they per­tain to par­tic­u­lar lit­er­ary works. Instead, I focus on the ten­den­cy for crit­ics to cel­e­brate what they see as the end of the debates that emerged in the post­war peri­od between those inter­est­ed in the desta­bi­liz­ing poten­tial of var­i­ous exper­i­men­talisms, and those inter­est­ed in the expand­ed access, pop­ulism, and social imme­di­a­cy asso­ci­at­ed with more acces­si­ble or main­stream forms.[ii]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. All hybrid aes­thet­ics are not com­pro­mise aesthetics.

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

Pro­po­nents of com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics do have one thing right: if we are look­ing for a coher­ent avant-garde in con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary cul­ture, we are unlike­ly to find it. Today’s lit­er­ary pro­duc­tion is large­ly char­ac­ter­ized by the preva­lence of hybrid forms that bring togeth­er a range of tech­niques from pre­vi­ous­ly opposed aes­thet­ic schools. But lin­ing up the utopi­anism of com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics with the utopi­anism of posi­tions like Fukuyama’s shows that the belief in the tri­umph of com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics is just as inat­ten­tive to the con­tin­ued pres­ence of crises and con­flict in the domain of lit­er­ary aes­thet­ics as the belief in a glob­al cap­i­tal­ist utopia is to the polit­i­cal real­i­ties of the present. 

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

If we look close­ly at con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary works, we can see that aes­thet­ic chal­lenges con­tin­ue to exist in works that at first glance look like they con­form to the qual­i­ties cham­pi­oned by com­pro­mise aes­thet­ics. Many of these works are hybrid in form: they bring togeth­er for­mal strate­gies from a range of aes­thet­ic inher­i­tances. Yet this hybrid­i­ty does not resolve into an easy state of com­pro­mise. 

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Rachel Green­wald Smith is the author of Affect and Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture in the Age of Neolib­er­al­ism, forth­com­ing from Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press in 2015. Her essays have appeared in jour­nals includ­ing Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture, Mod­ern Fic­tion Stud­ies, Medi­a­tions, and Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Lit­er­a­ture. She is cur­rent­ly Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Saint Louis Uni­ver­si­ty, where she teach­es cours­es on con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture, envi­ron­men­tal lit­er­a­ture, and crit­i­cal theory.


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