Saturday, July 27, 2013

Conceptualism as affect: or, a defense of both at once

MOMA's poet laureate Kenny Goldsmith appeared on Stephen Colbert this week, dressed as a peppermint stick wearing a full beard, looking a little bit--come to think of it--like a pinker Mark Edmundson. As an outside resident of a certain stripe of the American poetry world, I know that the contemporary conflict between conceptualism and flarf determines a lot of what gets said about poems these days. As a resident of Hawai`i, I find this annoying, as that conversation seems so far away, so noisy in its insignificance to what goes on here. This conversation takes on increasing bandwith as it enters the abhorred and yet coveted mainstream (even if, as Colbert would point out, it's only the mainstream of basic cable). Recent take-downs of conceptualism have appeared in in Boston Review, in Lana Turner, and in The Rumpus. In his essay, "Against Conceptualism: Defending the Poetry of Affect," Cal Bedient writes about conceptualism as if it opposed life itself: much current poetry, he argues, "neglect[s] life values, which include a trembling web of receptivity, sharply interested observation, the ability to make instant adjustments, and organic developments within a constantly changing context, all properties as important to lyric poets as to cats." Kent Johnson and Amy King attack Conceptualism for attacking capitalism, even as its current practitioners use high level marketing techniques. Consider the suit. Johnson goes so far as to call Conceptualism "the right-wing poetic avant-garde." Amy King, noting that she and other poets often employ methods "trademarked" by flarf and conceptualism, writes: "I want to call attention to the claim these groups purport to block capitalism while intentionally employing capitalist techniques (i.e. media-style sensationalism to garner notice, sound-bite saturation, prolific self-referencing, reducing all other modes of subjective expression to exchangeable equivalences, etc.) to achieve and secure status within the capitalist structure. That structure rewards for adherence and perpetuation, regardless of proclaimed critique."

These attacks on conceptualism are smart, thorough, and persuasive. And yet how easy it is to neglect all the other "wings" of contemporary poetry, those that are determined by argument (feminist, anti-colonial), those that are determined by subject position (ethnic), and those that simply investigate language and world (zen, spiritual writing). But I don't want to set all these schools against one another. Nor do I want to attack Conceptualism, even when I harbor doubts about it in its pure form; printing out the internet strikes me more as a waste of paper than as a valuable project, for instance, even if old technologies like printers often become art. (This may be another way to say that I hereby renounce my claim to audience, as arguments pro or con are the coin of that realm.)  Let me do what I do when I edit Tinfish, namely enact a conversation between writers who otherwise seem to have nothing to do with one another. It occurs to me that my facebook news feed, which often displays odd moments of synchronicity, is telling me something. Lately, in among the links to attacks on conceptualism, I've been tracking the work of two fb friends who are writing dissertations, one on Hawaiian history (Ron Williams, Jr.) and the other whose M.A. thesis was on on mo'o (lizard) legends (Alohalani Brown). Something Alohalani wrote the other day suddenly resonates differently.

"I would happily spend the rest of my life gathering together installments of serialized moʻolelo in the Hawaiian newspapers and then typing them out as a way to acquaint myself with them. I just found another one that shows Kamehaʻikana as a moʻo, that makes three now. My list of moʻo is growing (155+) and the number moʻo on Oʻahu that I found in moʻolelo is now 60. Now to write out my prospectus for a possible manuscript on moʻo and see who would be interested."
That first sentence of her status line combines affect--"I would happily spend the rest of my life gathering together installments of serialized mo`olelo in the Hawaiian newspapers"--with what Goldsmith would consider a work of conceptual art--"and then typing them out as a way to acquaint myself with them." There is no separation in Alohalani Brown's mind between the act of copying (uncreative writing, as Goldsmith would call it) and the sensation of joy at discovering a hidden part of Hawaiian culture and history.  
That brings me back to Goldsmith and Stephen Colbert. Goldsmith was on the show to talk about his new book, Seven American Deaths and Disasters. Contra Marjorie Perloff's enthusiastic comment, "Seven Deaths is a real page-turner: you will feel you’re there, living through the horrific events as they unfold," Colbert went right after the version of Goldsmith's polemic that is intended to shock--the avant of his garde, in other words. "When I read this I feel like I'm some sort of time traveling aesthete who is coming in to sample other people's shock and tragedy. I'm tasting their disbelief and the way it's changing them forever... and it feels vampiric." Oddly, both these comments, the con and the pro, involve reactions to the book as an aesthetic event, one that has us turning pages, whether or not we want to.

One of the deaths and disasters is the John F. Kennedy assassination. That event was my first public memory; my mother told me at the door when I came home from kindergarten. Several years ago (it was probably on a significant, even-numbered anniversary) PBS replayed the entire day's television programming from November 22, 1963. I watched quite a bit of it; we'd not had a television in 1963, so I had no early visual memories of the event. The video itself contains no affect, of course, it's just streaming photographs. But I found myself feeling a lot of emotions, from shock to anxiety to sadness, as the newsmen (Huntley and Brinkley, were they?) found out that the president had been shot and then, later, that he had died. Of course I knew how the story ended. Of course I felt a bit like "a time traveling aesthete," except that what I was sampling was my own shock and sense of tragedy. This shock was at once memory (I had heard the news then) and something more than memory, something like an unfolding--in real time--of what has come to seem unreal over time.

Was PBS doing conceptual television? Was there a lack of affect? No, and no. PBS was presenting a document to its audience. The documentary was one that lacked voice-over, as voice-overs always emerge from out of the future of the event chronicled, and the past of the viewer/listener. It was like the skeleton to what would become a monster, an industry based on interpretations of the event. This document comes before interpretation. It's raw, and that's why it hurts so much, even now. How is this event, or this re-event, different from what Kenny Goldsmith is doing? I propose that it's not much different at all. Goldsmith is doing important historical retrieval, archival work in his presentation of these deaths and disasters by way of transcripts of radio shows that occurred when the fateful event took place. But he is not doing anything especially new or avant-garde. Like Alohalani Brown, Goldsmith enjoys recording the recording, retyping the newspaper, printing out what's on the internet. Like her, he is selective (in this case). Like her, what he finds evokes feeling, whether of shock, sorrow, or pride in a heritage that had seemed lost. What is at stake to each of them may be different, as Brown embarks on a recovery of Hawaiian mo`olelo, and Goldsmith is intrigued by how people talk when they experience American historical shock. But they both find emotion in the archive, and that is a not inconsiderable act. I've written elsewhere about trauma and the archive, in the context of Hawaiian history and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Emerson may have been right that poems are already out there. If they do not float in the air to be caught like butterflies, they live in our newspapers, our books, our YouTube videos, and in our daily lives. I do not see where Kenny Goldsmith ends and a documentary poet like Mark Nowak begins, or why historians like Brown and Williams, Jr. cannot be considered poet laureates of the Hawai`i State Archive. I find value in what each of them does. I feel what each of them does. I also want to read other kinds of poems, other documents, have other aesthetic and historical and cultural experiences. But I want them all, not just those that strike me as immediately significant. And I want them, not the contraption within which they are dressed up, like peppermint sticks or like any of the many -isms that we use to teach literature to our students. Anthologies of manifestos are as conceptual as manifestos themselves. And often they are less interesting than the particular works of art (original or copied) that inspire them. For all his peppermint shtick, I find Goldsmith and his polemics less interesting than the documents he's retrieved from the archive. I found his comments on Colbert to be more about finding the affect in our historical words (shock jocks trying to sort out 9/11 would be a fascinating test case) than about cleansing our palate of feeling. And I am especially taken by the joy I hear in the written voices of my friends in the archives.

The mo`o photograph is by Jonathan Morse; more can be found here.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this thoughtful (as usual) post!

There are two "found footage" films that recall the kind of nexus of document and affect i think you are getting at here. I was reminded of them by your account of the PBS replay. The first film is called "Report" (1967) by Bruce Conner. It replays news footage (filmed off a TV) of the JFK assasination (motorcade, funeral, etc) and edited in looped fashion over audio reports of the breathless and somber moments. The second film is called "Perfect Film" (1985) by Ken Jacobs. He titled it that because the word "perfect" means "complete." The apocryphal story is that he found the reels of sound and picture in a film laboratory dumpster, i.e. "already out there." In any case he didn't change the material at all. It's about a 10 minute reel of footage gathered (location shots, interviews, a news conference, archival footage) for a nightly news report on Malcom X's assasination. It's full of white leader (insert space for commentary or commercial?), blank audio, black leader, endroll flares, second takes, etc.

The Conner film has been called an "anti-information" film, which itself is an interesting label to investigate, but i think the meaning of it most relevant to your post is that both films are using (archival) information in a way that evokes how *little* you know about events. A deep sense of loss and mystery accompanies these films about enraging events. It's not the mystery of motivation or conspiracy theory, but a necessarily obscure quality of a particular event. This is not a generic "unfathomability" -- it is a concrete, specific, personal absence of knowledge or understanding of the depth of what actually occured, or rather an awareness of all one takes for granted (assumes) in order to say one "knows" what happened possibly to interpret or rationalize our feelings about an event.

The reason i'm so fond of the titles of these films (aside from Conner's wordplay), is that a Report is just that - the question of objectivity remains in the balance. As if to underscore this, the film was released by Conner in several different edits. And Perfect, meaning complete, is well-named because it shows you all you need to see to know how much you'll never know, a fact in itself quite difficult to represent other than through affect.

konrad steiner

susan said...

Thanks very much, Konrad, for writing. I'll keep an eye out for these films.

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan,

Here is "Perfect Film"

One thing i should say, while my interests align with what you say in the post, i also think that "uncreative" (KGoldsmith) and "mouthpiece" (VPlace) kind of work is doing something different than archival/documentary work. They don't seem to be on a continuum to me. Art like the former seems to be developed, like an app, for use by people (critics or poets)in a discourse (polemic?) of what art should do. The latter kind of work seems to select material for its affect and in that, seems more confident in what art could do.


susan said...

Aloha Konrad--I agree that they don't say they're doing the same thing, I'm just wondering where we leave intention (the should) for what is actually happening (the could)? I do agree with what you're saying about their polemics, just not--perhaps--with what they're actually doing! Susan

Cheri said...