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.