Archive for June, 2011
As I always say: the most famous definition of poetry in US culture is Robert Frost’s quip that poetry is what is lost in translation. (It’s so famous it’s even the title of a blockbuster movie, “Lost in Translation” – which notably is about “poetic effect,” not poetry proper, see my post about McQueen.) And almost as famous is his quip that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. The two are of course related: at the core is the idea of poetry as something disciplined and authentic, and that it must be protected against the fake, the lazy, the chaotic, the cheaters, the foreign.
Despite various changes, it seems translation still is kept at the margins of American poetry. Translation is inherently a challenge to the dominant idea of “lineage” (perhaps lineage is inherently “dominant”) in US poetry: poetry is authentic, to write real poetry you have to know the true version of US literary history. Poetry has to be defended against the fake, against kitsch (“hipster poetry” or “soft surrealism” or whatever). You have to have a “good ear” to write poetry – it must come to you naturally.
Here I could offer, as i often do, countless of examples from Ron Silliman and his obsessive lineage-making. Or any number of conservative poets defending their canon and lineage. But I won’t. You’ve heard it all before.
Translation poses a challenge to lineage because it generates excess: an excess of versions (different versions of the same poem? I thought there was “no noise in art”!), excess of authors (how can we keep track of all these authors) and an excess of “lineage.” Etc. If poetry is the authentic, then the translation is the “versioning” of the authentic.
No wonder, Daniel Tiffany has traced the roots of our anti-kitsch rhetoric to counterfeit translations from Romanticism.
Because of the interesting recent discussion on Lynch, I’m reposting a post I put up last fall about Lynch, and his relation to Warhol, among other topics……
This week, I picked up a copy of Steven Shaviro’s The Cinematic Body, a book Johannes has discussed frequently both here and on Exoskeleton. I like Shaviro’s arguments against a Lacanian/high modernist approach to film–though the book (published in 1993) predates Zizek’s many Lacanian readings of Hitchcock and Lynch, readings that go far beyond the high modernist tradition of holding pleasure and fascination in contempt. (One of the reasons for Zizek’s popularity, I think, is the fact that he has such an unapologetic love for film and Pop culture in general: he doesn’t just examine films as vehicles of ideology–his own fascination with them is always part of his analysis, even when he doesn’t say so explicitly).
Nietzsche in The Gay Science: The unconscious disguise of physiological needs under the cloaks of the objective, ideal, and purely spiritual goes to frightening lengths—and often I have asked myself whether, taking a large view, philosophy has not been merely an interpretation of the body and a misunderstanding of the body.
Foucault: To follow the complex course of [historical] descent is to identify the accidents, the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us; it is to discover that truth or being do not lie at the root of what we know and what we are, but the exteriority of accidents.
Over the years, I’ve read a few pieces on the retroactive aspect of influence, of new or at least newer works of art influencing how we see older works of art: for example, it is probably difficult for most of us to read Nietzsche without thinking of the way his thought has been written about by writers like Foucault, and I know that personally I have a hard time reading Cervantes without thinking about Nabokov and Borges. One line of thought argues that we should try to erase those later works from our reading, and I can see the value in attempting to reach back, to think in modes that are basically extinct (even if this type of thinking might be largely a contemporary fiction).
But I am interested in how the idea of retroactive influence can be a move against our linear and patriarchal sense of cultural inheritance. One example is that of the influence of Marina Abramovic on Kafka (or, rather, how her work might radically alter our sense of Kafka). In “The Hunger Artist,” Kafka’s protagonist is striking in his purposelessness: his feat is ignored by the public, and his torturous performance overflows any clear allegory. He does say, when he is finally taken from the cage, and right before he dies, that he never found a food that satisfied him, and that if he had, he would have eaten as much as anyone. But even this, which has been interpreted in many spiritual and political ways, holds itself away from any conceptual framework. In fact, no matter what interpretation we have for “food” in this context, it seems to lessen the power of the story. Maybe the most radical reading would be to take “food” literally in all of its blatant materiality.
Similarly, I’ve sometimes heard people wondering why Marina Abramovich would put on a performance in which she takes a pill for catatonia, as she does in Rhythm 2, from 1977, or, maybe most notoriously, her performance in Naples in 1974, where she placed various implements on a table (blades, a gun, a bullet, etc.) and put up a sign telling the audience that they could do what they wanted to her (Rhythm 0). What is the point? might be a banal question, but it also reveals something fundamental to both Kafka’s Hunger Artist and Abramovic. With both we see the way Art, by undermining our usual, casual assumptions about healthy responses and reasonable calculations, can expose how the ground at our feet is based on little, almost nothing…And to get back to influence: Abramovich, I would argue, shows us a new Kafka, our at least a new Hunger Artist, that is impossible to forget.
[Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle sent me the following post in response to recent discussions about the avant-garde.]
If You Kill for Money, You’re a Mercenary
If You Kill for Pleasure, You’re a Sadist
If You Kill for Both, You’re a Ranger
There is no avant-garde. It was a military term, where the rearguard* covered a rout. The arts emphatically do not conduct themselves on military models (we don’t use Reaper drones). Even armies & enemies have abandoned toothless tactics. The U.S. army now farms out unlicensed work to Black Water, al-Qaeda runs on a franchise base, each cell independent. Nobody takes point, there is no battlefront (Art hardly has a public); most opposition gets bought off, and we hire their experts when they’re done.
“Prudence is an old maid courted by incapacity.” (William Blake)
The arts today are close to pacts: nobody move, nobody gets hurt. No dark horse is going to break through unforeseen, there’s no real competition, we’ll let you win the next one, hold your positions; you will still get paid.
Poetry is unrequited love.
* Here Perloff means not art, but the university.
I’ve been thinking a lot about kitsch and Alexander McQueen and fashion and Daniel Tiffany’s essays about kitsch. I don’t have any definite conclusions, but I think in these thoughts I am actually thinking about something like lineage and influence – only counterfeit lineages, translated lineages, artificial influences – so I’m going to write a few posts about poetry of “excessive beauty” and “occult glamour,” and I hope that they will tie into both our recent discussions about “the avant-garde” – most importantly the rejection of a contemporary idea of the avant-garde as linear, “rigorous” and high art – and Joyelle’s idea of an anachronistic lineage, a contaminated idea of influence, as well as my recent discussion of kitsch and Daniel Tiffany’s ideas of kitsch. Hopefully in the end we’ll end up with a “kitsched” idea of lineage, of the avant-garde, of poetry.
Some of the works and topics I will broach include Alexander McQueen, Aase Berg’s Dark Matter, Peter Richards’ Helsinki, China Mieville, Dada and Surrealism (“dream kitsch”) and Science Fiction (also “dream kitsch”?). In other words, artworks that have “influenced” me in some ways.
[As part of Influence Week, I asked Blake Butler, author of There Is No Year and impressario of HTML Giant, what was influencing him, and this is how he replied:]
I don’t think I feel influenced anymore. This is because I don’t feel creative. I think I’ve felt this way for all of this year so far and maybe the last 3-6 months of the year before this one. I don’t really know what is happening now. I think I used to feel really excited every day just by waking up and walking around without thinking of what I was doing, in the idea that my body was being piloted for me by a part of me that I could not or should not catalog. This is the same way I approach god, though I have never felt writing was godly. I think this mode of operation seemed centered entirely around being a conduit of something. Or a human filter. In that way I would be a tissue that what had come into me at whatever time would be as interpreted by my body and some amount of logic, like food coming in and being taken for what is needed and passed as shit. I think now I think the writing is the shit, whereas before maybe I felt it was something higher, or at least more eternal. Shit is not eternal. (continue reading…)
I wrote the following in early 2007, at the height of Pussipo’s activities, when a bunch of experimental women poets found themselves together on a highoctane Internet weirdfest known as a listserve:
Pussipo will see you in the Underworld where “poetry in [that] tradition, [has been] self-slain, murdered by its own past strength.”
Pussipo emulate that child who vomits up her own materials in order to rid herself entirely of tainted skins. Pussipo do not try to rescue or retain our own materials, but jar them loosely in fermented mare’s milk and gasoline. Pussipo do not try to rescue our own spilled materials, but send them along with the abject spinning into the Underworld, the sewer, whatevs Underground where we will later collect them and put them to good use. This is not like compost in that we do not expect to grow anything beautifully edible. It is like compost in that it shall be stank.
Pussipo rejoice in Western art and literature’s ascription of the rank corpse. In these glossy hides, Pussipo gain access to the Underworld and begin.
Pussipo will see you in the Underworld.
Pussipo do not fondle the reified detritus of the phallus encrusting the common chat. If its purse is split, pocket its jewels, but otherwise we’ve got bigger fires to tend. Pussipo proceed directly to the genital and carry its mucoid jargon to the Underworld. Pussipo place a pin in every accomplished lip.
Pussipo splice together those brief crags with our own historical organs. Thus Pussipo create gold-toothed cyborgs; part poem, part biologue. Entirely analogue.
Pussipo will see you in the Underworld where Pussipo will remake you with your own discarded fat cells, where Pussipo will poke out your faux god-eye and insert the thousand-chambered fly-eyes of the pussilarva.
Around the time I wrote this, I was reading Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence for my Ph.D. exams. I was thinking about influence, of course, but more specifically in whom influence is expected to (don’t forgive me) bloom.
This is about that basic unit of power: gender. Or it could be about that basic unit of power: genitals. Or: race. Or: desire. Or: nationality. Or: class. Or, or, or. If you’re in some way or another born into the world such that your parents/the state take a gander at you and say, poor perv, it’s the underworld for you, then you’re always already a gravedigger. Your presence is a desecration, a failure of sperm and egg to produce the finest possible copy of a copy of a copy. You’re not a pale imitation of some apocryphal original. You’re a mutation, an incorrect variation. Sometimes you’re a welcome mutant, and they invite you up out of the basement, and you earn a cookie for performing your trick, but eventually you have to go back down.
So. Maybe you feel more at ease than surface dwellers do thieving in the graveyard, and you think, whose old phalanges will I use to type today? You dig up Ginsberg, you dig up Bataille, Nabokov, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Paul Bowles, but Jane Bowles is in the reader, too, and even though you’re a 17-year-old cockroach, you’re not stupid. Plath left you a trail of bones, and Anais Nin’s an easy find. There’s a whole anthology of Russian poets including Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, Bella Akhmadulina. It’s okay if some of these people are still alive at the time. Better, even! Take a souvenir, swipe yourself a reliquary. You’re not an idiot. You read LeRoi Jones, Jean Toomer, Gwendolyn Brooks. This is all before college, even. Then you build yourself a bone suit and hop inside, and this is how you learn to become a writer. You take apart your bone suit. You make bone soup. You deflect your nasty professor with a bone when he tells you your prose is boring. You make yourself a second spine of other writers’ bones. You wear a bone crown and jam bones in your ears when people say dismissive things about you.
In a recent post, Johannes excerpted a provocative quote from Daniel Tiffany:
“… kitsch involves not merely the purification of beauty (i.e. the suppression of all qualities other than beauty), but exaggerated and even delusional regard for beauty. The banality of kitsch must therefore be reconciled with excessive beauty…”
This reconciliation between banality and overflowing beauty is interesting to consider in Taryn Simon’s series An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar:
[Hello, I''m actually on a train in East Anglia but I'm not thinking of Sebald, I'm thinking of you, Montevidayans, the Scum of Baghdad, as Jack Smith would call you. I'd like to post the paper I just gave at a conference called Worlds Norwich.]
Influence = Deformation Zone
I want to begin by suggesting my discomfort with the conventions of discussing literary influence. I want to suggest that influence need not come from literary forebears, elders, teachers, or even people. For me this notion of influence, regardless of the gender of the participants, is too close to patrilineage, which bothers me for three reasons: its method of conserving property and wealth, ownership of originality; its copying over of heterosexist, male dominated bloodlines and the reproductive futurism that goes with it; and its commitment to linear notions of temporality—that what comes before causes what comes after, and that the most important thing is to move forward in time. I find all these structures suffocating and confining. I think we’re all conceptually limited by the unexamined assumptions about temporality, property, gender, sexuality, wealth and inheritance implicit in most discussions of literary influence, regardless of the gender of the writers under discussion.
Influence as Innundation
It seems to me that a discussion of literary influence would benefit from an effort to think outside these structures and strictures. I’m for thinking of influence in terms of the dead metaphors of flow, flux, fluidity, and fluctuation, saturation and supparation, inherent in the term ‘influence’ itself, influence as total innundation with Art, innundation with a fluctuating, oscillating, unbearable, sublime, inconsistent and forceful fluid.
Influence as Dead Metaphor
That such a discussion should require the reanimation of a dead metaphor—the fluid or flow in ‘influence’– is non-coincidental, to my mind, for to think this way about Art is to think about it as something undead, uncanny, something that does not progress, does not move towards a cleaner, better-lighted future, does not conserve, is not healthy or community oriented, does not preserve a stable, reasonably priced image of the artist for the future or secure an inheritance, but pursues its own interests, pierces, ravages, remakes the artist and repurposes him or her as a kind of host-body to counterfeit more viral Art in its own image, Art which possesses the Artist, forces him or her to swell, mutate, to rupture and leak fluids, to leak more Art into the world. To my mind, that is the thrilling, debilitating force of Art, its influence.
In a comment to my previous post about the avant-garde, Adam Jameson said, “it always irks me when people use terms like ‘experimental’ and ‘avant-garde’ to refer to later, derivative work done in established traditions […] someone making scratchy hand-painted films in 1999 [isn’t] necessarily an experimental filmmaker.” The comment nicely illustrates a very common sentiment: if you repeat someone else’s experiment, is it still an experiment, and how can it be avant-garde? Marjorie Perloff offers an interesting answer for this conundrum in her latest book, Unoriginal Genius, which recently sparked a lively debate here about kitsch, Surrealism, and the meaning of the avant-garde. I’d like to bring up one particular concept from the book that I found very useful – the arrière-garde. Perloff’s exposition is very succinct, so I’ll take the liberty to quote much of it directly:
In military terms, the rear guard of the army is the part that protects and consolidates the troop movement in question; often the army’s best generals are placed there. When an avant-garde movement is no longer a novelty, it is the role of the arrière-garde to complete its mission, to ensure its success. The term arrière-garde, then, is synonymous neither with reaction nor with nostalgia for a lost and more desirable artistic era…
The proposed dialectic is a useful corrective, I think, to the usual conceptions of the avant-garde, either as one-time rupture with the bourgeois art market […] or as a series of ruptures, each one breaking decisively with the one before, as in textbook accounts of avant-gardes from Futurism to Dada to Surrealism to Fluxus to Minimalism, Conceptualism, and so on. 
(Perloff traces the origins of the concept to William Marx, Antoine Compagnon, and ultimately something Roland Barthes once said. It’s apparently all in an edited volume [by Marx] titled Les arrière-gardes au xxe siècle from 2004.)
Elsewhere, Perloff suggests that much of the avant-garde experiments have never been integrated into the mainstream. They continue to be marginal, which I suppose is partly what gives some of the rear-end artists the license to call themselves avant-garde. Critics object that such work is no longer avant-garde, because it now operates within a tradition and congeals into a recognizable genre. They charge that calling it avant-garde is pretentious or elitist. They have a point, it’s not properly avant-garde – it’s arrière-garde.
This of course invites a different kind or reading. Instead of wondering, “How is this new?” we may ask ourselves, “How does repeating the same procedure give different results in this other work?” We’re back to the nuanced ways of reading to which we resort when faced with similar works or works in the same genre.
Let me close with something Danielle Pafunda said in a recent comment:
There seems to be little room for avant-garde to circle back on itself or to move in any way other than forward/progressive. Spatially, our front lines as writers/artists are constantly shifting, and the avant-garde that takes on only noble battles (the war imagery being endlessly troublesome) is just one sort of glory-seeking enterprise. What about the less glamorous front lines? The artistic strategies that go out of vogue, become gauche, tasteless, boring, done to death? Don’t they then become, by virtue of abandonment, front lines?
I think this speaks directly to our collective desire to revisit old frontiers, to repeat the experiment, to consolidate the gains. The engine of the Trans-Siberian may have long arrived in Vladivostok and fallen off the dead-end track into the sea, but its cars are scattered all over Siberia and the caboose never left the Moscow suburbs. Party in the dining car, everyone! As for me, I’ll be watching the Omsk Avangard battle the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv for the Gagarin Cup.