CONFIGURING THE GADFLY: TUMA ON JOHNSON & RODEFER
In the most recent issue of Chicago Review (55: 3/4) a provocative piece by Keith Tuma closes out an impressive portfolio of essays dedicated to Robert Von Hallberg. Albeit in haste, I find myself reading Tuma's essay as a sort of critical agitprop, a performance situating American Hybrid (the not-surprisingly well-received Norton anthology edited by David St. John and Cole Swensen) as tragically symptomatic of "the sentimental courtesies and complacencies" that shut down our ability to adequately think the frustrated, all-too-unsatisfying relation of poetry to the academy.
Tuma's performance, appropriately titled "After the Bubble," coincides with a period of culturo-economic contraction, a time when the staggering number of poets and critics emerging out of graduate programs are increasingly less likely to find secure, tenured homes in colleges and universities. But despite this unlikeliness, many of these poets and critics are no less tethered to (manufactured by) the increasingly irrelevant — at worst, destructive — cultural tendencies dominant in university programs. One of the more pernicious tendencies for Tuma is courtesy, the move away from partisanship and toward a self-canceling sense of institutionally-endorsed openness, fluidity, hybridity (the mutant nephew of the cultural pluralism that woefully dominated the free-wheeling but nonetheless neoliberal 90s).
With the total absorption of an historically specific avant-garde initially given to the destruction (or radical reconstruction) of institutions like the academy, Tuma extends Peter Burger's well known analysis of the avant-garde through his critique of American Hybrid:
American Hybrid values the legacies of the avant-garde insofar as they help promote an ethos of formal innovation and experimentalism. This does not make the poets included in the book part of an avant-garde. There is no such thing as an avant-garde now — Swensen and St. John are right about that. The term has become an honorific.
Here Tuma points toward Stephen Rodefer and Kent Johnson as productively disruptive agents that bring into focus the extent to which the avant-garde has been fully domesticated and kettled within the university structure, the extent to which it no longer exists as an avant-garde contrary to dominant practices:
Stephen Rodefer and Kent Johnson ... understand this, too, which is part of the value of their work. At the same time, their work has little use for what, on the evidence of American Hybrid and lots of other publications, is pervasive: an aesthetic "courtesy" that "consists of refusing to pass critical judgment for fear of ruffling the sensitivity of the other," to borrow a phrase from Nicolas Bourriaud's The Radicant.
Tuma's argument is a little too complex to responsibly parse on the fly in this space but there are a few striking passages and aphoristic statements well worth quoting:
Perhaps our reluctance to talk about poetry and the university is a new form of an older reluctance to talk about money and art.Tuma on Rodefer, the (institutionally unaffiliated) bohemian, and the avant-garde :
As the economy staggers, faculty and administrators in most American universities are obliged to cope with a reality where new resources are scarce and the organization of the university is under scrutiny. For the moment, MFA programs, which not long ago were growing like the real estate market, continue to crank out poets, but one wonders how long this can last.
Instead of worrying too much about what constitutes a sufficient degree of autonomy, poets who want to work in the university would do well to suggest what would represent an effective engagement with the discourses of the university.
Rodefer has held a few academic appointments, though not appointments with the tenure enjoyed by some of his contemporaries. I would wager that, like his teacher Olson, he thinks of himself as a bohemian intellectual. The bohemian intellectual survives as an ideal among poets after Olson's era, and Dorn's, has passed. It survives together with the idea of the avant-garde as an alternative to the world or professionalisms that are everywhere increasingly the case.
Although I find myself almost wholly on board with Tuma's analysis, I strongly disagree when he posits the need for keeping "the idea of an avant-garde" in circulation — I mean, the only thing at all advance about what passes for a contemporary avant-garde is that we can anticipate being bored in advance by generally anything that identifies itself with avant-garde practice. Too many careers and too much needlessly mediocre work are too easily built on hopelessly banal pretenses to avant-gardness, innovation, experimentation and newness. And my sense — as I've insisted, however inadequately, elsewhere — is that this language, the language of avant-gardness and innovation, is far too deeply entangled in dominant cultural institutions and market systems to be at all recuperable. Further, the blind lust among artists and critics for newness, for advancedness, rests on a deeply troubling relation to time that not only pits new against old but presupposes a single landscape, a single temporality, such that, to point to one frustrating example, the rich multiplicity of American poetries that circulated during the 1970s and 80s can scarcely ever be considered by critics outside their relation to (or distance from) the New American Poetry or Language Writing. The fact of newness, of innovation, is always already built into efficacious work — work that productively intervenes in a situation at a specific moment in time — and so the desire to fetishize newness, avant- or advanced-ness, is to slavishly subordinate our labor to the stagflated market value of a transcendental signified that wrenches our attention away from the far more immediate, material conditions of our making.
But to belabor this point is to miss the broader thrust of Tuma's argument. In reading Rodefer and Johnson as aggressively disruptive gadflies, Tuma's attention is given to the usefulness of disaffiliation, independence and distance from cultural institutions. The question comes back to one of belonging, or, more specifically, the value of not belonging to the institutions within which one resides and within which ones work circulates. For Tuma, Rodefer's and Johnson's not-belonging to the institutions they are nonetheless tethered to provides each of them with a special advantage that allows them to aggressively transgress the unwritten and widely uncontested rules of a professional politesse among poets:
Johnson is an avant-garde poet without an avant-garde. Rodefer might be nearly the last bohemian on the scene. (There are a few others.) Obviously, neither speaks or writes from a position that will be especially helpful to those obliged to defend the study of contemporary poetry or creative writing in the university. But they are an antidote to the sentimental courtesies and complacencies that prevent a conversation about what and where poetry might be soon from beginning.
When Tuma says there are a few others, one name that immediately comes to mind is John Latta. Three of Latta's poems, all of which were first posted at his blog Isola di Rifiuti, appear in the same number of CR as Tuma's essay, and what strikes me just now is the important but understated role CR has played in challenging hegemonic cultural and poetic formations in the academy. The magazine is in many ways an organ of the academy that has, at least as far back as the Burroughs / Big Table fiasco, accommodated dominant and disruptive tendencies alike. And it is in CR that some of Rodefer's and Johnson's more provocative work has appeared (i.e. the 2009 Rodefer issue that also includes an installment of Kent Johnson's critical novella A Question Mark Under the Sun, a book I enjoyed the honor of publishing earlier this year.
Apropos to Tuma's reading of Rodefer and Johnson in "After the Bubble," a 1985 Rodefer essay first published in Ben Friedlander and Andrew Schelling's Jimmy & Lucy's House of "K" and reproduced in the Rodefer issue of CR begins, "The purpose of criticism is to wake the reader and writer out of their complacency." Satirically aping Dorn, but also modifying the critical model Dorn offered in his early assessment of Olson, Rodefer titles his essay "What I See in the Silliman Project." And what does Rodefer see in the Silliman Project?
Understand in what follows if I seem to be exacting this writing more than praising it, it must be heard in a context of belief in its inherent value, or one wouldn't be bothering to question or confront the example at all. Difference is more useful than ambition or applause, and is actually a way of stating the basic concerns of all writing.
What Rodefer sees in the Silliman Project is a value worth confronting and it is in this spirit that Tuma confronts the broader problematique embodied in an anthology like American Hybrid. We might say the same of John Latta, whose exhaustive but far from laudatory notes on The Grand Piano threaten, as Kaplan Harris remarked in conversation some months ago, to completely overwrite the object of their focus. Bluntly put: at this juncture the enemy is professional courtesy.