Thursday, July 30, 2009


cris cheek's Part: Short Life Housing is a curiously peripatetic selection of texts. Excessively so. The subsubtitle of the book tells us these texts are "poems performing thematic extraction." So the work walks and extracts through a process of distillation and reconstitution, circumambulating geographical spaces, poetic practices, and genres as they intersect with the active performance of recording, transcription and editing across three decades. Many of the poems have been revised and edited several times and in some cases the interval between one revision of a poem and the next is more than a decade.

Much of the work is grounded in the transcription of recorded utterances. From the preface:

Many of these pieces were initially spoken into a voice recorder. Often during one walk and sometimes a sequence of walks that went onto tape until it felt like time for another beginning.

I am reminded of Wordsworth — or more specifically Antin. Text as the reconfigured residual traces of a walking and talking. But what separates cheek's practice from both Wordsworth and Antin is his commitment to an ongoing reworking of his texts. For cheek no one piece appears to be closed in any way. The poems are not a Wordsworthian struggle to reimagine or construct the contours of an evening walk. Nor are they characterized by the directionality that characterizes David Antin's wonderful straight-from-the-Athenian-Academy talk poems (viz. recorded talk followed by heavily revised transcription = talk poem). In Wordsworth and Antin we see an underlying structure — orality and/or lived experience somehow precede the poem as text and are somehow prior to the poem as print object. cheek's work seems fluid and open to contingency in a way markedly different from Antin — somehow an extension of Antin's project.

Wordsworth travelling: "This is the spot." Or Susan Howe: "Historical imagination gathers in the missing." For cheek both are the case. Each poem as an event articulated through and constitutive of an overdetermined complex of other events.

Transcription as poetic practice. The first section of the book, "mud (and fluff)" is dedicated to Allen Fisher and includes an epigraph by Margaret Thatcher: "It is not enough to delve deeply / into the surface of things." There is no alternative. The poem "and fluff":

Crazy memory
Punches its way to me


Under snow
Bound lovers
Coding flow

Skimming through the interdisciplinary transcription number of Interval(le)s edited by Jot Cotner and Andy Fitch — a wonderfully curated and overwhelming constellation of writers and artists — I was surprised not to see cris cheek's name among the ninety or so contributors. I was just as shocked by the inclusion of other names, figures I don't typically associate with transcription (i.e. Zach Finch, Ammiel Alcalay, Richard Price). Here Cotner and Fitch seem to be working toward theorizing transcription in a way that widens the scope of the practice. Their introduction to the feature is itself a transcribed talk between the two editors that begins with a question:

J: Did you even bring a swimsuit Andy?

The feature is in excess of a thousand pages. The task of editing the work must have been grueling. To wade through the muck with or without trunks.

In an interview filmed sometime in the 1970s, no more than a year or two before his murder, Pasolini said, "I wish to do things with editing." When I first heard the statement it struck me. To do things with editing. Ronald Johnson's erasure of Paradise Lost came to mind — as did Antin's talks. Other things also came to mind: i.e. the bits of found Appalachian speech in so many of Jonathan Williams poems, the excavated fragments of fossilized language in Caroline Bergvall's work, Thomas Malory playing the role of author as collator, Plato's transcriptions of Socrates, Niedecker's redaction of Thomas Jefferson's life, the centrality of textual assemblage for Paul Metcalf in imagining a critical fiction, or the demoralizing return to transcription that signals the failure of Flaubert's copy clerks Bouvard and Pecuchet.

Intervalles. In Cotner and Fitch's Socratic-dialog-as-intro Fitch wonders what Eileen Myles' contribution to the feature might look like and says:

She writes in Chelsea Girls that a sloppy look always seems good to her, and I consider transcription inherently sloppy. I mean the meticulous itself gets messy — as soon as it becomes obsessional.

cheek's poems are messy — muddied by contingency and the material fragments of history and historical necessity that gather themselves in the missing. Bergvall remarks in her blurb for the book that cheek is "inhabited by Dicken's dark maze of industrial streets as by mind-altering years of activist art lodgings, smoggy thoughtful wanderings or the eerie shock of the thatcheritic city. That's at least two hundred years of grim and energy you'll find distilled in the celluar lines and in splashes of this great volume."

And it is this which I find most useful in the work: the unrelenting attention in the work to the determining conditions of its own production. commenting on the range of technologies that came together to make the work possible cheek notes in the preface:

Machinic interventions forcing amendments to a text have been those that interlinked considerations of spatiality and typography. Much of this writing maps an intricate conversation of anomolies between those writing technologies utilized in the process of the production of the writings and those reproduction technologies used for their further circulation. This conversation, whose elements are sometimes separated by several decades of technological modification, not only impacts the content of the practice in evidence, but also serves as a kind of parallel to the always changing domestic and public circumstances which frames it.

Attending to his own locatedness in the making of this edition, cheek closes this passage by noting that "the original texts have been changed to bring them into alignment with North American usage." Spellings have been Americanized so that a work like "Canning Town Chronicles" — first assembled through walks, talks and composition in what was "an industrial area on the edge of London during the reign of Queen Victoria" — carries ideologically charged fractals of its further editing and revision in North America. Or as cheek writes in the poem "Part: Short Life Housing":

Stitching market intertwines top sequit
Into stress, dredges the law
Down points where system
Instant replay

But for cheek technological, economic and ideological determinations don't appear to shut down the possibility of agency:

Draws its strength and resilience
Around itself throughout negotiations
Undermining the details with the straights inform
Belief pulls off road

Exeunt: Antin: "and schwitters was like a little rag picker going through the mess and / producing these elegant little works."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Given the hoopla around Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor's ability as a "wise latina" to rule impartially and also heated discussions among poets regarding the strategic necessity of groupness, schools and movements in the arts (notions crudely equivalent to the idea of a political party) it might be useful to consider the value (arguably the necessity) of open and unswerving commitments to forms of prejudice, discrimination and partisanship without party, constituency, group, school or movement.

Watching several youtube clips of protests organized around last week's G8 meeting in L'Aquila, I was reminded of a Perry Anderson essay on Berlusconi published in the London Review of Books earlier this year. This essay links to another LRB piece by Anderson from 2002 that carefully historicizes Berlusconi's success and moves through the conditions and contingencies that paved the way for his political ascendancy. Half way through the essay Anderson takes a moment to meditate on spregiudicato, a word specific to Italian politics which in contemporary usage has a disturbingly contradictory character:

Literally, this just means ‘unprejudiced’ – a term of praise in Italy, as it is elsewhere. Such was the original 18th-century meaning of the word, when it had a strong Enlightenment connotation, which it preserves to this day. The first entry in any Italian dictionary defines it as ‘independence of mind, freedom from partiality or preconception’. In the course of the 19th century, however, the word came to acquire a second meaning, which the same dictionaries render as ‘lack of scruples, want of restraint, effrontery’. Today – this is the crucial point – the two meanings have virtually fused. For other Europeans, the ‘unprejudiced’ and the ‘unscrupulous’ are moral opposites. But for the Italians spregiudicatezza signifies, indivisibly, both admirable open-mindedness and deplorable ruthlessness. In theory, context indicates which applies. In practice, common usage erodes the distinction between them. The connotation of spregiudicato is now generally laudatory, even when its referent is the second rather than the first. The tacit, everyday force of the term becomes: ‘aren’t scruples merely prejudices?’

As a praiseworthy quality spregiudicato blurs the boundary between acting without discrimination (impartially, as judges are expected to) and acting indiscriminately (without concern for specificity or difference; i.e. when military forces refuse to discriminate between strategic and civilian targets). But spregiudicato as it presently means in contemporary Italian usage may in fact disclose a truth or contradictory quality otherwise concealed in praiseworthy notions of impartiality and fairness. In other words, even beyond the context of Italian politics I suspect there may be some measure of indiscriminate behavior (or an impulse toward indiscrimination) in every act or decision that appeals to a logic of impartiality and fairness. And so I wonder about the usefulness of taking to task the homogenizing logic of equality and fairness that potentially effaces or refuses to acknowledge difference: the notion that all (especially under the law) are equal.

If as Anderson suggests scruples can be imagined as prejudices, what about the possibilities embedded in disavowing both the logic of impartiality and the (related) logic that would allow one to act indiscriminately?

To be scrupulous is to take pause and consider a decision further, to hesitate at a moment when others might act boldly and without consideration. Morality — which the OED regards as "ethical wisdom" — precedes ones ability to act with pause, to behave scrupulously. What interests me here (albeit in a flighty and pedestrian way) is the relation of notions like scrupulousness, morality and ethics to forms of discrimination and partisanship — even notions of commitment, fidelity, loyalty. To be loyal to ones family forecloses in some cases on an ability to be loyal to ones community and a decision made in the best interest of the nation is scarcely ever in the best interest of all communities that reside within or cut across the boundaries of the nation.

Alain Badiou's theory (actualized with some success through his politcal work) of a politics without party is useful here. In the interview that closes out Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (Verso 2002) Badiou says:

'Politics without party' means that politics does not spring from or originate in the party. It does not stem from that synthesis of theory and practice that represented, for Lenin, the Party. Politics springs from real situations, from what we can say and do in these situations. And so in reality there are political sequences, political processes, but these are not totalized by a party that would be simultaneously the representation of certain social forces and the source of politics itself.

I write this in haste, without adequate space to responsibly think the issue — though it nags and I wonder here about the possibility not of a politics without party but a form of partisanship without party. Partisan = an unreasoning, prejudiced or blindly fanatical adherent. Rather than act without discrimination and also act indiscriminately, I wonder about the possibility of an ethics built on non-negotiable forms of partiality, discrimination and prejudice. In short, partisanship. To be unreasonable is to refuse the terms through which a conversation is mediated or legislated. Put differently, to be unreasonable is to engage in a politics of no compromise. (Recall the proliferation of anarcho-socialist organizations throughout the 1990s that mobilized around non-negotiable forms of refusal — i.e. the slogan "No compromise in defense of the Earth.")

Or why not let's talk. Or why we can't all get along. If I enter into conversation with Nurse Ratchet or Bill Lumbergh I knowingly enter into conversation (the only legitimate game in town) at a disadvantage. To accept the structure and terms of this conversation is to forget the conversation has already been performed in advance (viz. to acknowledge and develop game plays around an opponent's home team advantage is to accept teamness and territoriality — i.e. the terms and limitations of the playing field.

Grappling exclusively with the work of philosophy, Althusser addresses the problem of impartiality and partisanship through a careful rereading of Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-criticism in "Lenin and Philosophy" (surprisingly one of the least cited essays in Lenin and Philosophy):

This word [partisanship as Lenin deploys the term] sounds like a directly political slogan in which partisan means a political party.

And yet, any half-way close reading of Lenin ... will show that it is a concept and not just a slogan.

Lenin is simply observing that all philosophy is partisan, as a function of a basic tendency, against the opposing basic tendency, via the philosophies which represent it. But [and this is the clincher] at the same time, he is observing that the vast majority of philosophers put a great price on being able to declare publicly and prove that they are not partisan because they do not have to be partisan.

Within the frame of the western tradition philosophy is philosophy and not politics — a position Derrida famously maintained until the end. However:

In Lenin's view, these tendencies [claims to impartiality via the universality of reason in western philosophy] are finally related to class positions and therefore to class interests.
For Althusser, as for Lenin, appeals to impartiality on the terrain of philosophy are a smokescreen. The statement is fair.

Again, these thoughts are sketched out in haste. Nonetheless — and regardless of whether or not one situates class as the determinate element in a theory of philosophy, science, politics or poetics as I am inclined to — partisanship as a concept is indispensable. But at a moment when a number of poetry communities are committed to ideas of groupness, it's also crucial to imagine an idea of partisanship without party, without school, without movement.

Saturday, July 04, 2009


A week ago I was fortunate enough to carve out some time to print a hastily set broadside for Jow Lindsay and Posie Rider just hours before they read at Rust Belt Books here in Buffalo on June 25th. Media announced the death of Michael Jackson earlier that evening. No full moon but somehow all the shithouse wild ones holed up in this crippled city seemed to find their way to Allen Street that night. Strange times all around.

Given the mercenary character of the broadside I was only able to run off a small handful of them and gave all but one to Lindsay and Rider. The poem — drawn from an ongoing collaborative series between the two — frames "the stomach for you" as "a liquid / as though democracy / is a caryatid kidney." Democracy as a caryatid kidney and also the freedom to: a) vote in a CNN Situation Room viewers' poll; b) bury your view in blog comment boxes at the New York Times; c) choose between Pepsi and loganberry pop at Jim's Steakout on the corner of Elmwood and Allen.

(Loganberry: hybrid developed through the unholy union of the European red raspberry and the American blackberry. Loganberry pop: our kidneys filter this highfructose corn syrup slop and are neither strengthened nor destroyed by it.)

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died just a few hours apart on Independence Day, 1826. Whitman was then five years old.

(Mark Lombardi:

Post-Independence Jefferson and Adams discussed the design of the Great Seal of the US. In a letter to Adams, Jefferson — an avid Anglo-Saxonist that angled to situate the study of Anglo-Saxon as a staple of mandatory education — considered including an image of Hengst and Horsa on the reverse side of the seal, confident these Saxon warrior-politicos embodied "the form of government we have assumed" (Cf. Allen Frantzen, Desire for Origins). In Bede's Ecclesiastical History, a text especially important to Jefferson, we find Hengst and Horsa were invited to post-Roman Britain by Vortigern to aid in defending the region against invaders from the north. Accepting the invitation, Hengst and Horsa used the occasion to undermine Vortigern's trust, conquer Britain and occupy the region indefinately.

Today the reverse side of the seal features the totalizing gaze of the Eye of Providence radiating outward and is accompnaied by a quote from the Aeneid: "Novus Ordo Seclorum." The scope of the ambition embedded in the phrase is global.

I recall a Dorn poem titled "Song Called Thomas Jefferson" but can't seem to find it at the moment.

Tocqueville: "Not only does democracy make each man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendents and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart."

Before the Rust Belt reading Lindsay gave me a copy of Francis Crot's Xena: Warrior Princess (Critical Documents 2008):

Xena is a mighty warrior, everyone knows that. She can wound her enemy in the belly without damaging his skin. She is a master strategian. She once commanded an army of insects in a victory over an amry of people, though the insects were two to one outnumbered. She can make the kind of mistakes nobody makes nice nice. Xena is a skilled sea woman. She learned to sail and fish from a corsair admiral, whose beard changed length with the tides and sometimes rushed and hissed with breakers. He tutored Xena's heart to swim like a fish through her body, so that her enemies never know where to pierce her. Xena is an unsurpassed tumbler. She can spring up the side of a mountain which crumbled to dust centuries ago or climb up a flock of birds or bats or the barks of a pack of dogs. Xena was incensed and had no plans to tire.

No secret: Francis Crot = Jow Lindsay. Last year's Veer Off anthology includes Crot's curiously titled "PRESSURE IN CHESHIRE, or TOWARDS A TRAGEDY OF BEYONCE KNOWLES, a discovery of the late and bloody treason in Cheshire, including a true detection obv. of the doings of Arthur House, unfolding certain diverse speeches with his conspirators in the canting tongue of gypsies, beggars, thieves, cheats &c, useful for all sorts of people, especially immigrants, to secure their money and preserve their lives, together with the names of those notables that should have been slain, and also including a tragic brief of the life, dignites, benefactions, principal actions, sufferings and deaths of the Pooja Ali and Paul Litle-Kiev, lately of Chester, faithfully recorded by F.C. and illustrated and C.C.C.L. of Edinburgh this year; to which is added, A NOTE ON THE CONDITIONAL, or the institution, ceremonies and laws of conditional aid, digested into one body by Jow Lindsay; and also OBSERVATIONS ON SUBTERRANEAN FIRES by Sir Thomas Pope Blount, Baronet, salted with the wit of Harvey Gabriel et al.; printed by Stephen Mooney et al. of Veer Books in London, in the Summertime of 2008."

My landlord tells me — just now — the Seneca Casino at Niagara Falls is packed today.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


Q: What happens when a gaggle of middle-aged financially-secure nobodaddys tell an old boring joke as if it were new and not boring?

A: Their ponzi schemes are backed by cultural and economic muscle and richly rewarded. The Whitney. The latest issue of Poetry. Viz. whoever's got the cash can make it sing. Nothing tough or edgy in making cultural capital that challenges nothing sing like a nightingale. It always has the blessing of power.



The joke is safe — like a knock-knock joke. As such boring and old. We share these side-splitting, hilarious jokes with our grandparents over Thanksgiving dinner. These jokes are a species of gratitude that never goes unrewarded. We give thanks by reproducing them.

And if we ironize the boring jokes our grandparents so admire.

Perhaps then we can share them with our grandparents and our friends and cop cheap laughs from both. We can stay out late, impress our pals with something resembling avant-garde "edginess" and at the same time climb into the good graces of the old folks at home. We can have our cake and eat it too. And we can say let them eat cake and boldly call it a shit sandwich because it really is a shit sandwich and our grandmother looking back on her own care-free days as a sprite middle-aged fleamarket giveaway will say, "Those zany kids. They're a wild bunch. But at least they pay their bills on time."

The joke is. Is why we pay our bills on time. Is what guarantees the interminable flow of bills. In other words, the same virtues we admire in the succesful sale of the joke are those we admire in Bernie Madoff. Ponzi schemes are nothing new. Like any appeal to avant-garde practice they promise futures based on forward-looking projections engineered to fool and fail and reproduce themselves like rabbits. They gleefully enter into an already entrenched feedback loop and are in fact produced within it. Like capital. A feedback loop. They profit by it — are constitutive of it — are grist for the mist-producing mill.


The avant-garde is a risk taken at another fool's expense. Like financial markets, avant-gardes anticipate future outcomes. They anticipate anticipations of future outcomes. They make poorly informed investments based on the probabilty of these outcomes and when their far-sighted investments give way to catastrophic but highly profitable short-term results they're handsomely rewarded by the market and protected from their failure by the state. Their failures are regarded as forms of success achieved by way of a certain daring-do.

Put differently, what publicly announces itself as avant-garde through market and state funded megaphones scarcely ever is. Their daring lies in doing what others have done with the blessing of the market.

(NOTE: The spectacular failure of GM should not be considered apart from its decision to manufacture military vehicles — the Hummer — for civilian consumption. Responding in part to Arnold Schwarzenegger's desire for a street-legal version of the HMMWV, the American Motors Corporation began churning out a civilian version of the Hummer in 1992 and then sold the brand name to GM in 1998. Defending the manufacture of these super-sized, hyper-aggressive, utterly inefficient, economically insensible, rolling disavowals of community, Schwarzenegger exclaimed, "Look at those deltoids!"

It wasn't until GM was muscled into filing for bankruptcy and the Obama admin insisted Rick Wagoner step aside as CEO that GM began brokering deals to unload the Hummer on China. Yet Wagner's disastrous reign at the helm of GM from 2000 to 2009 was rewarded rather than punished, allowing him to saunter into the sunset with millions. After GM lost $30.9 billion in 2008 and accepted however many billions in federal bailout loans, Wagoner's salary increased by 35 percent. In 2007, after announcing the closing of four GM plants, Wagoner's combined pay rose 64 percent to a total of $15.7 million for the year.

Here we find a cowardly form of failure which is in fact a smashing financial success for the engineers of this failure. To laugh all the way to the bank on the back of a destructive joke generated by market forces. The joke is called avant-garde. And like the civilian version of the Hummer, any notion of an avant-garde cannot be disentangled from its martial character. The avantgaird — the coward called hero — can never be considered beyond its relation to notions of leadership, aggression, power and, in the end, military conquest and domination. Shock and awe. This preceded the ground invasion of Baghdad. And this is what the cultural "avant-garde" call for? To be shaken, grabbed by the shirt collar, enraged, unsettled, disgruntled, distrubed and eventually awakened into new forms of consciousness by way of cultural hijinx? This is the joke. From Stein to Tzara to Fluxus to Warhol these challenges to dominant forms of consciousness and the sway of an unconscious grounded in the logic of capitalist accumulation have been for more than a century financially lucrative and economically sound. Warhol behaved like a ruthless investment broker and we worship him for it.

There's a marked difference between a rhetoric of struggle and the rhetoric of military aggression. And any identification with an avant-garde or committment to innovation paves the way for a promising career in the culture industry.

Introducing flarf and conceptual writing for the second or third or thirtieth time in the current number of Poetry, Kenny Goldsmith situates what he claims are two "movements" as "two sides of the same coin." Are these social or cultural "movements" as such? Where does Eurocentric economically-privileged coterie end and the expansive popular appeal of a "movement" begin? Are these "movements" global in scale (and do they cut across internally differentiated communities) or is this simply another artificially-constructed self-appointed center presenting itself as representative of the whole (viz. the bulk of contributors to the feature are grounded in the US)? Is disjunction really "dead" or is it a strategy that continues to offer different but nonetheless productive ways of grappling with similar or shared concerns? Must one practice be disavowed, smeared and disarmed in order to valorize or identify the usefulness of another? This either/or logic is oddly reminiscent of Bush admin rhetoric (i.e. you're either with us or you're with the terrorists) and curiously in alignment with the ill-tempered, bourgeois rhetoric of avant-garde manifestos from the nineteenth century on.

For Goldsmith "digital environments" set flarf and conceptual po apart from other approaches, allowing this "new writing" to "continually morph from printed page to web page, from gallery space to science lab, from social spaces of poetry readings to social spaces of blogs." Fuck. This just seems like a negligibly small part taking credit for the work of the whole. If we can bracket out the digital divide and issues of economic privilege, who in the whole of the western world is not producing work that "continually morphs" in this way? Kamau Brathwaite's x/self provides a powerful and well-known early example of the overdetermined relation between digital and print technologies Goldsmith insists characterize this (viz. his) "new writing." If we consider contemporary letterpress production, much of it wouldn't be possible without digital technologies (i.e. the electronic transfer of photoshopped image files for the production of photopolymer plates used on otherwise obsolete proof presses). Who isn't aware of the interplay and confluence of conventional, obsolete and emergent technologies that make the present multiplicity of poetries and poetry communities possible?

The insistence that this writing is fundamentally "new" is itself nothing new and in fact disguises in an especially pernicious way commitments to unnamed traditions and tendencies (i.e. the fetishization of newness and innovation that emerges with the rise of industrial production and consumer culture; the slavish privileging of a temporality that destructively pits a hastily discarded past against a recklessly misread present and ill-conceived future).

Nihil Novi. WCW remarks somewhere or other than the avant-garde is nothing more than a set of stubborn peasant loyalties. An uninterrogated fidelity to innovation is undoubtedly one of these loyalties.

But if this writing is "new" in some fundamental way (recall the necessity of newess as an indispensable category for Adorno in Aesthetic Theory; his careful theorization of the new that insists on the separation of surface charm from deep structural differences), then how is it new? Plagiarism, pouching and citationality are practices old as the hills and were certainly coeval with the rise of Enlightenment commitments to authorship, copyright debates and notions of intellectual properties. Goldsmith tells us no practitioner of flarf or conceptual writing has written even a word in the conventional sense: "It's been grabbed, cut, pasted, processed, machined, honed, flattened, repurposed, regurgitated, and reframed from the great mass of free-floating language out there just begging to be turned into poetry." Based on this description, what appears to separate the "new writing" from, say, Eliot's Wasteland, Pound's Cantos, Benjamin's Arcades Project or any number of Alan Halsey texts is that this work is not disjunctive or "shattered" but crammed "into towers of words and castles of language with a stroke of the keyboard." In other words the practices Goldsmith regards as fundamentally new are heaps of (presumably unedited, uncurated and potentially unread) signs. Heaps of them.

Referring to his Historia Brittonum, Nennius remarked in the eighth century, "I have made a heap of all that I could find." In this heap are any number of indeterminacies, ambiguities and contradictions that Nennius was arguably aware of. David Jones, a disciple of Eliot's, begins his Anathemata with this quote from Nennius and then, after an unusually long preface not unlike those found in works of conceptual poetry, invites us to enter into his impressively complex and contradictory heap of information. But in the case of conceptual writing and flarf it's unclear what is particularly new beyond the use of digital technologies (for instance, how can we not see the continuity that cuts across procedural conceptual works like Jackson Mac Low's Words nd Ends from Ez and Caroline Bergval's Shorter Chaucer Tales or Steve McCaffery's "The Property: Comma" and Christian Bok's "Great Order of the Universe"?

To beg the question again and again: what makes any of this new? Unrelenting critiques of subjectivity (a deep skepticism of identity, expressibility and sincerity)? These have been with us for — wot — more than half a fucking century, as have investigations of flux, fluidity, indeterminacy and undecidability.

Beyond insisting on the newness of the new writing, Goldsmith also leans on "materiality" as a concept. But he seems to confuse it with perhaps mass or excess. In the production of digitally produced excess (viz. the "repurposing" or "regurgitation" of excess information in works like Day, Traffic and The Weather) Goldsmith believes "Materiality, too, comes to the fore: the quantity of words seem to have more bearing on a poem than what they mean." In other words, not representation or signification — no exterior scene or self mediated through a seemingly transparent system of signs and corresponding referents — but a sort of truth to materials as old as Mondrian and Stein. Appeals to notions of materialism and materiality get a lot of play these days, but when a figure like Zizek refers to himself as a materialist philosopher he means this in the post-Hegelian sense (arguably the Marxist sense precisely in spite of his early critiques of Marx by way of a Hegel filtered through Lacan). But what Goldsmith seems to mean by materiality is grounded in the quantity/quality split, matter over mind, body over spirit, etc. Investigations of materialism and materiality in the present moment typically refuse or trouble this split and seek rather to consider the overdetermined relation between the material and ideological conditions of existence (that is, the relations of production are recognized as material relations. Materiality as a concept usually addresses much more than simply the product manufactured by way of these relations. In any case — given Warhol &c — attention to "materiality," citationality and reproducibility is in itself nothing particularly new.

Google: what flarf folk do with search engines, wiki technologies and other web-based applications Ashbery, Bruce Andrews, Bern Porter, Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles and innumerable others have done with print objects and sound texts.

At bottom there's nothing at all fundamentally new about the "new writing." The new boss bears a striking resemblance to the old boss. Perhaps defetishizing innovation and directing attention away from newness and toward shared concerns or sources of pleasure might be the most innovative thing any contemporary writing could hope to achieve.


If we think about Lang Po as an Anglophone "movement" or (richly heterogeneous) tendency we don't have to look too hard to find calls for innovation and newness (Ron Silliman's New Sentence being the obvious example). But for my money the most useful catalog of Lang Po concerns and achievements appears in a 2007 academic book review by Steve McCaffery and mentions neither innovation nor newness but instead the practices that emerged out of a culturally specific historical conjuncture. Reviewing Jennifer Ashton's From Modernism to Postmodernism for the summer number of Twentieth-Century Literature, McCaffery critiques Ashton's narrowly defined view of Lang Po and writes:

A contrived textual indeterminacy was but a single facet of Language poetry, a facet alongside a critique of voice and authenticity, an embrace of artifice, a laying bare of the method of production, a preference for heteroglossia over monoglossia while at the same time rejecting narrative modalities, and a general critique of instrumental language under capitalism, mass mediation, and the consciousness industry — all key elements in its early theorizing. Moreover, fragmentation, disjunction, grammatical transgression, and catachresis are ... modernist tactics reincorporated in a different historical moment ...

Beyond associating with Lang Po all of the characteristics (except use of digital technologies) that Goldsmith suggests separate flarf and conceptual po from earlier tendencies, McCaffery avoids the rhetoric of innovation in this description of Lang Po's concerns and achievements.


Recall Goldsmith's January 13, 2009 posting to the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog—a post saturated with nostalgia for an early twentieth-century avant-garde he identifies himself with, unabashedly referring to himself as an "avantist." Comparing the economic and political contours of the present moment to those that characterized the shift from roaring twenties to depression era thirties in the last century, Goldsmith buys into the utterly untenable split between high art and low art, good art and bad art, illegible or difficult work and intelligible or popular work. He predicts this historical conjuncture (marked by Obama’s tenure as president) will yield a base and terribly unsophisticated populist order of cultural production. For him this moment recalls "the exile of adventurous art during the Depression when intelligibility wiped innovation off the map…."

The crucial terms in the statement are of course "intelligibility" and "innovation"—terms Goldsmith sets up as mutually exclusive categories. Here intelligibility is equated with the low, the popular, the seemingly readable—in other words, forms of culture so dummed-down that a slobbering rabble untrained in the arts can apprehend and delight in cultural objects produced by formally trained intellectuals and artists. But Goldsmith would be the first to point out that such intelligibility, such accessibility, is itself only an illusion grounded in the notion of a mythic popular audience, a mythic popular reader, a mythic masses. What Goldsmith seems to fear most is that artists and writers, scholars and critics, will buy into this myth. By buying into the myth of a popular intelligibility Goldsmith believes we foreclose on the possibility of popularizing—or exposing the rabble to—authentic forms of cultural and artistic innovation (i.e. formal techniques that can somehow be authenticated by an advance party, a messianic few, and then set apart from those forms that aspire to reach a seething mass of idiots through intelligibility. Goldsmith situates innovation and newness in a privileged position, one that attempts to conceal the relation between the culture industry's lust for innovation on one hand and the market forces that rely on appeals to innovation and newness on the other. Goldsmith also fails to point out that what Peter Bürger long ago referred to as an historic avant-garde—an avant-garde historically located and responding to specific situations—stood in aggressive opposition to the institutions and institutionalization of art. In other words, the very same avant-garde of the nineteen teens and twenties that Goldsmith nostalgically looks back to worked in fact to destroy the cultural institutions Goldsmith presently supports and depends on.


These notes necessarily incomplete. And at the Niagara International Airport a few days back I saw an adolescent dragging a set of clubs after what must've been a lovely stint on the golf course in Myrtle Beach. He wore a shirt with a smiley face, smile turned upside down into a frown and a tear rolling down the cheek. The text above the face read "CHEER UP EMO KID!"

Aside from wondering what's especially innovative about Gary Sullivan's Brainardesque comic in the Poetry mag flarf feature, I also wonder how dated, banal and completely inoffensive the emo joke is. For a community that fetishizes contemporaneity and innovation, it's surprising to find such an old boring joke still in circulation. Emo = bowdlerized pejorative for emotionally needy bourgeois kids that first emerged as a subgenre of music with DC's Rites of Spring in the mid 80s. Later what? K Records? The mid-90s Olympia scene? In any case, a handful of the records sit here within arm's reach but in the end a genre I was never particularly fond of. In its present usage, a community of kids (adolescents? or for Sullivan confessional poets committed to bankrupt notions of creativity and self-expression?) that make a delightfully easy target.


Like spitting on a scrub at the front of the cheese wagon, who of any consequence will come to their defense? Isn't this what the culture industry wants, produces, demands — that ridiculing, hyper-competetive cultural mirror of market forces that privileges muscle at the expense of those without? Where's the courage, the risk, the avant-garde bravado, in ridiculing a defenseless and (evidently for Sullivan) vaguely defined community of poets, artists or knuckleheads otherwise shoved around by hyper-masculine frat boys, high school football heroes or former cowards with a narrow slice of cultural and economic clout? This is precisely the sort of Malthusian survival-of-the-fittest approach to cultural production and criticism that greases the gears of the market. These approaches are always rewarded. Big fucking surprise.