Clearing tabs

by craigepplin

I’ve been finishing up a big project lately and haven’t had time to post here. I have a couple links to share, things I’ve written lately. The first is a post over at Feedback; it’s on an essay by Sergio Chejfec that I really like, inspired by my time in Caracas, where I lived for a little over a year a long time ago. And the second is a review of the new Alejandra Pizarnik translation put out by New Directions as part of their really superb pamphlet series.

Enough self promotion. Another effect of finishing up a project, at least for me, is the realization that I have accumulated many open tabs in my browser, essays I want to read that get pushed off into an ill-defined future. That future is now. A couple of these essays have to do with conceptualism in poetry, which for a few years has been a sort of side interest of mine, so I’ll write some thoughts on them.

The first is a Boston Review piece titled “Against Conceptualism.” Its bias is pretty clear. The historical argument put forth in this essay by Calvin Bedient is that since the sixties artists of all stripes, poets included, have increasingly opted for “emotionally neutral methods” of making works of art and literature. What is lost in works by these “cerebral avant-gardes” is, according to Bedient, melancholy and militancy, which are replaced by something more ominous and staid: methodology.

Oulipo is one of his particular targets; he writes that it is merely “dedicated to play, not change,” a concept that he later allies with Deleuze’s imperative to replace the question of truth with that of function. In a related vein, conceptualism, of the sort identified with Kenneth Goldsmith or Vanessa Place, is understood as inert, “married to ruins.” In general, the purportedly anti-affective poetries are tied also to technological coldness.

There’s lots more in this essay, whose call is for poetry to draw on or provoke (sometimes it isn’t clear which) emotions like “anger, fear, joy, crippling shame, jealousy, grief—emotions that bear on a vital self-regard.” Those emotions, some of them at least, are great, and if literature can be the vehicle for them, that seems fine. But to this I’d add that there is more to the world than the self, and more to the self’s world than those emotions. What about awkwardness, haziness, and discomfort, or blankness, confusion, and disinterest? Among a thousand other feelings or emotions. (I know my terminology around these two terms is slippery, as is Bedient’s, but this is, for now, beside the point.) Anyway, those name just a few of my own bodily responses to the writers I’ve read from Bedient’s “cerebral avant-garde.”

In another direction, I know that by “cerebral,” Bedient means something like “conceptual,” where as Sol LeWitt put it the execution of the work of art is secondary to the idea behind it. It’s funny to me, though, that in as much as Bedient deploys this term against writers like Goldsmith, the latter recently published an essay called “Being Dumb” (on a site whose headline urges us to “be less stupid”). To be fair, the sort of dumbness that Goldsmith advocates for is actually “post-smart,” Warhol-style. In any case, what I liked about the essay was the idea that dumbness is something to deploy against the smooth smarts that run the world in an entirely dumb (pre-smart) way. For Goldsmith, this sort of smart “is TED talks, think tanks, NPR news, Ivy League universities, The New Yorker, and expensive five-star restaurants.” It’s the sunny optimism of liberal capitalism, in other words. Dumbness, the good kind at least, provides an antidote to all this. It stands still like Bartleby; it scrambles language; it stares; it lies in the street like a stone in a poem by João Cabral de Melo Neto (no meio do caminho há uma pedra). It’s anything but cerebral.

I’m not doing either essay justice here. They both deserve more detailed discussions, one that would place them in dialogue with previous entries in this same debate (Marjorie Perloff’s essay on the topic being one starting point, along with the many, many reactions it inspired). But I suppose that the takeaway for me is that the manifestations of affect that Bedient calls for aren’t enough. The cultivation of mixed emotions and minor affects matters too. And besides, I don’t really see the reason that “cerebral” works need to be bracketed off from “affective” works. Lots of great contemporary writers–César Aira, Susan Howe, Mario Bellatin, and Christian Hawkey immediately spring to mind–cultivate both sides of the divide, often forging a sort of weird, mixed emotional space where we’re not sure how we feel or what we think. And that for me is where the real ethical work of literature takes place, somewhere outside of righteous indignation or aching melancholy, where the mix of thought and feeling generates experiences that can’t readily be defined.