Tuesday, December 28, 2010


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).

Tom Raworth and Keith Tuma

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.


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.

Tuma on Rodefer, the (institutionally unaffiliated) bohemian, and the avant-garde :

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.

Friday, December 17, 2010


The response of British university and high school students in recent weeks to austerity measures imposed by the Cameron administration has been immediate and explosive. To refer to this response as a movement, which would suggest an imagined cohesion or cohesive program, might not be appropriate. Maybe a term like moment is more applicable given the spontaneity and broad but uneven reach of the protests. Either way, the student response is immensely affirming. I'm not sure these protests — considered as a whole, as part of a moment — can be regarded as a rigid model for responses elsewhere (the specificity of their conditions resists this sort of instrumentalization), but the charged character of these protests allows for the possibility of imagining commensurate responses in an otherwise anemic US cultural climate.


$ The brightest high school student since Rimbaud (previously posted by Mark Fisher at the astounding K-Punk):

$ A powerfully prescient October 20 article by Independent writer Johann Hari.

$ December 16, 2010 article by Joanna Biggs at LRB on the occupation at University College London.

$ Ben Fox on Jobless Britain in New Statesman, December 17, 2010.

$ Laurie Penny Inside the Parliament Square Kettle, December 10, 2010.

$ Students protesting in Sheffield:

$ Press Conference: Coalition of Resistance & National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts, Nov 25, 2010.

$ Students at Millbank Courtyard (Tory HQ) November 10, 2010:

$ Per Reuters: Europe Faces Rising Austerity Protests in 2011.

Thursday, December 09, 2010


It seems essential, in whatever haste, to offer a gesture toward registering several recent economically oriented class-specific struggles that have been largely unpublicized or depoliticized in the US (where attacks on workers documented and undocumented, as well as attacks on the humanities, the social sciences, and education at large, continue frustratingly unabated).

1. Striking air traffic controllers, who brought almost all air travel to a halt this past weekend in Spain, have been ordered back to work under military authority. The controller's union apologized for its actions. NY Times, Dec 8:

In a country with a strong labor movement that is usually tolerant of wildcat strikes, the confrontation has been hailed as a potential watershed event along the lines of President Ronald Reagan's firing of air traffic controllers in 1981.
The unemployment rate in Spain stands at about %20 of the national population.

2. Student protests continue to unfold in the UK in response to proposed (and now approved) legislation that would raise the cap on tuition for students in England. For the past month or so I've had the good fortune of access to a number of online lists and discussion groups where several of these protests have been actively organized and discussed by a number of younger British poets, artists, critics and activists. The militant and enthusiastic character of the dialog taking place on these lists is incredibly enviable at a time when the most virulently (and violently) active people in the US are a frighteningly conservative, xenophobic and largely racist mob identified with the Tea Party.

3. The largest prison strike in US history was (not surprisingly) criminally ignored by mainstream and, to large extent, independent media. Thousands of inmates in ten prisons across Georgia refused to leave their cells in a non-violent protest coordinated using banned cell phones. The prisoners presented the following demands:

  • A LIVING WAGE FOR WORK: In violation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, the DOC demands prisoners work for free.
  • EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES: For the great majority of prisoners, the DOC denies all opportunities for education beyond the GED, despite the benefit to both prisoners and society.
  • DECENT HEALTH CARE: In violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments, the DOC denies adequate medical care to prisoners, charges excessive fees for the most minimal care and is responsible for extraordinary pain and suffering.
  • AN END TO CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENTS: In further violation of the 8th Amendment, the DOC is responsible for cruel prisoner punishments for minor infractions of rules.
  • DECENT LIVING CONDITIONS: Georgia prisoners are confined in over-crowded, substandard conditions, with little heat in winter and oppressive heat in summer.
  • NUTRITIONAL MEALS: Vegetables and fruit are in short supply in DOC facilities while starches and fatty foods are plentiful.
  • VOCATIONAL AND SELF-IMPROVEMENT OPPORTUNITIES: The DOC has stripped its facilities of all opportunities for skills training, self-improvement and proper exercise.
  • ACCESS TO FAMILIES: The DOC has disconnected thousands of prisoners from their families by imposing excessive telephone charges and innumerable barriers to visitation.
  • JUST PAROLE DECISIONS: The Parole Board capriciously and regularly denies parole to the majority of prisoners despite evidence of eligibility.

With a nationwide population of nearly 2,500,000 inmates, the US prison industry boasts a far larger workforce than the US mining industry which — at just over 300,000 — is about one percent of the population. Yet the mining industry, or the strange figuration of the miner in the American cultural imaginary, carries much greater sway than the far larger prison population. Increasing exponentially since 1980, the prison community in the US is almost 10% of the overall population. And like miners in the US, the prison community is a laboring community.

Within the US, the struggles of the present moment feel far more like the desperate gestures of a starving 1932 Bonus Army than the decisive interventions of a 1965 SDS. But considered in a global context, in conjunction with nationwide strikes and non-violent actions in Spain, Greece, France, the UK and elsewhere, gestures of resistance to economic and social conditions here in the US feel far more affirmative. In most cases the decisions and legislation protested are pushed ahead in spite of popular resistance (viz. pension reform in France), but the scale and ferocity of the protests appears to be having a wonderfully viral, radicalizing effect where the net gain is not located in immediate, real-time concession and reform but in consciousness.

Anyone must recognize well in advance how naive or destructively idealistic this delight in the possibility of shifts in consciousness toward radicalization might be, especially given the failure (and impressive lack of rigor) that characterized so many root-level consciousness raising campaigns in the last decades of the twentieth century. But the strong desire for something not this is everywhere present through the enduring twilight of this economic and cultural blackout. And this desire for something not this is, I suspect, a crucial site of struggle, the wild card up for grabs. This wild card can either be surrendered to "grass roots movements" like the Tea Party or reclaimed by a Left that, however nebulous and internally differentiated, has always been decisively shaped by cultural workers and educators. And perhaps it is this which, from an administrative point of view (or the point of view of capital), makes the elimination of humanities departments so desirable in the US and UK.


Hélène Cixous' 29 November 2010 appeal to the University at Albany registering her opposition to the elimination of five humanities departments (first posted by Pierre Joris at Nomadics):

November 29, 2010
Open Letter to :
George Philip, President
University at Albany-SUNY

Dear President Philip,

In April 2007 I visited the University at Albany, extremely happy to have been invited by Professor David Wills to participate in a conference organized around my work. I had the distinct impression that the university was an institution focused on intelligence and culture, a place open toward the future, thriving on new initiatives. I encountered very high quality faculty and graduate students and found the sciences of thinking represented there to be strong and alive. I had the feeling of excitement experienced by every scholar or student of knowledge who is able to work with an engaged and motivated group of like minds.

One can judge the future of a country by the space that it provides for the Humanities. The warm welcome I received from the New York State Writers Institute, added to the intellectual atmosphere of the programs in French, Italian and Theatre, made me think that SUNY-Albany was a privileged place for emerging research, and that it possessed, in particular, the good political sense to watch over its interests. You cannot imagine how stupefied and indignant I was to learn that that institution was about to mutilate itself.

I don’t wish simply to be scandalized. I don’t want to believe that you are going, of your own account, to destroy your own riches. I’ll allow myself only to ask you to stop the ill advised process that will surely and irremediably weaken you. It is as if one were to cut out one’s own tongue. Don’t do that.

In 1968 I founded the Université de Paris 8, which still remains an experimental jewel within the French university system. I know full well that one has to struggle in order to allow the proper values for insuring the worthy and dignified development of students to flourish. They are your children, whom you must provide with the best opportunity for succeeding in the world. And, as Aeschylus said, “blood once shed cannot return to the veins”. Beware of doing something that is irreversible.

I would be very sad to know that the University at Albany had stifled its own breath. I want to believe, dear President Philip, that you won’t make the wrong choice.

Hélène Cixous
Professor Emerita Paris 8 University
A.D. White Professor at large Cornell University
House playwright Théâtre du Soleil Paris
Writer, author of 70 volumes of fiction and theory
cc. Susan Phillips, Provost
Edelgard Wulfert, Dean, College of Arts and Sciences
David Wills, Professor, Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures