Monday, May 22, 2006

A Tonalist and Flarf

I was more inclined to step into this conversation (extended here and here and here) before things got heated and, it seems, not so nice. To start with, I think that Standard's oblique remarks about transgressivity (a metonym for you-know-what) are an inaccurate characterization of most of the flarf--not that much admittedly--that I've read. In _Deer Head Nation_ and _Petroleum Hat_ , for instance, I see nothing of the mere reversal of binaries--where transgression of power simply solidifies the power of power--of which Standard accuses the Flarfitrix/ -ator. But uh, doesn't this critique write off a huge portion of potent artistic, political and theoretical practice-Swift, Pope, Byron, Tzara, Mina Loy, the Baroness, Bataille, Schwitters, Artaud, Beckett, Amiri Baraka, self-immolating monks, Iggy Pop, Karen Finley? In the comments box of Standard's post, Pamela Lu distinguishes between "a kind of theater of harrassment to expose aggressive power dynamics that couldn't otherwise be called out without incurring immediate, heavy-handed backlash" and transgressive art that simply uses experimentalism as a pretence for its own violent, racist or sexist interests. I think this is a good test, and also that the two books above fall under the first category. I see flarf--in its finest instances--as not doing violence for violence's sake but exposing the already existent formal and contentual violences--on the internet, in the stock tropologies of poetry. I don't see it as brutality for the sake of a sadomasochistic readership, but of exposing the brutality that underwrites most every calm. Things can edge away from this first category into the second--this happened in earlier avant-gardes, too--in Bruce Andrews, for instance. I've seen "Flarf" that I found merely reactive and sensationalist. I stopped reading Jim Behrle months ago.

[On the term politically correct: I have on occasion used a personal computer type the term P.C. I regret all of these instances. It's a stupid term, an example of the enormuously successful, Karl Rove-ian marketing strategies which rendered the concepts behind terms like "illegal immigrant" and "pro-life"seemingly value neutral, and yes, I think continuing using it perpetuates the idea that a respect for difference and a desire for a world free of oppression is merely a polite fiction. But I do think that the current protocols of discourse force people to mask their hatred and stupidity in more palatable terms. I'd rather see it out in the open where it can be engaged with as the balderdash it is, instead of hidden behind a scrim of legalistic and scientistic and pseudo-rational nonsense. This is the line that Badiou (In Ethics) and Zizek (The Fragile Absolute) take, and I think that to some degree they're right.]

So, to me, the poems in the books above seem interested in engaging, orchestrating and deploying multiple levels of social voice--some offensive, some inoffensive, some whatever--not for the purpose of exploitation or a Vice-magazine laugh at the different or other, but to have the conversations that are not happening. It's pretty basic social constructivism, the way I read it, pseudo-documentary or documentary, allowing for carnival and polyphony and the social illuminations that derive from this. Except the tone is very different than what you might find in Reznikoff or something like Mark Nowak's Shut Up, Shut Down--ecstatic and frenetic instead of austere and morally serious. It is the mad, hysterical voice of Capital, ready to market any identity or subject position back to itself, with interest, ready to turn any negativity into an instrument blunt or pointed or spectral. I think it's an effective portrait of where we are, of what is and who isn't--and to the extent that it makes visible what goes by other names, or none at all, it's powerful critique.

This to me seems the first and most obvious point of difference between Flarf and the A Tonalist--Flarf's odes to A-Tonalism's elegies; pressure of speech to aphasia; plenum to void. [Here I should say that I also very much admire Brent's and Standard's and Laura's poetry; my claims here are meant to be descriptive not evaluative, in line with Brent's desire for "affirmation without silencing"]. In Brent's version, and in his poems, it seems that the A Tonalist imagines poetry as a reconstellating event taking place within the utter absence of regulating materials--no continuous rules or procedures, no continuous subject: a Mallarmean throw of dice which forms a totality to which we can choose to become subjects or choose to turn our backs. Each poem is a world entire, free (and perhaps the a tonalist only pretends to believe this) of all the messy straps and fetters which precede and therefore limit the non-abolitions of chance. In this, the work that an A Tonalist does may imagine a future world in which people are actually free as such. But if an A Tonalist occurs as subject and as vanishing in the whiteness of the page, in the spaces of non-being and absence--then the Flarfist situates her poetic production amidst excess, plurals and surplusses, landfill, oilspills, exploding populations of deer. She is the "Man on the Dump", the commodifying the, repurposing and recrafting the cast-offs and left-overs of the constant search for value. Seen like this, these two positions couldn't be more opposed, and couldn't be a more interesting pair of interlocutors. Maybe I'll write an essay.

The danger of the A Tonalist position above is a blithe ignorance of the materials which actually constitute its supposed autonomy and the freedom of each and every poetic event (most of these people seem too smart for this, 'cause like, yo, power is coming down from above, below inside, sidewards ); the danger of the Flarf position is that, instead of picturing the moment of the social and of capital to itself, it merely ends up reinstating it, reinforcing it; instead of pointing up and undressing power, it merely volunteers for it. From this derives Dan Hoy's half-thinking that Google was writing flarf poems and therefore the poets were corporate tools--this is a misunderstanding of the kind of work that a poet can do. Arranging or repurposing or re- or decontextualizing is also an act of "voice," an action of the subject [cf. "Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote"]--a snipping subject rather than a speaking subject, to quote David Larsen. Whether such vocal arrangements are manipulative or effective and what kind of sociality they picture can, of course, only be considered on a case by case basis.

As much, though, as these are irreconcilabe notions of poetry they are also hopelessly imbricated --this was the point of Kasey's original remarks, I think. For, in Brent's diagram, the machinery that produces the poetic "event" does so by separating looseness from the undesirable by-products of vagueness and negativity. This shows that for all of the Platonism of Badiou's intriguing and potent aesthetic theories--his desire for purity (or sobriety or a/tonement) is always going to produce a remainder as much as it produces a totality to which we choose or choose not to elect ourselves as contemporaries. At times, I kind of wish Badiou believed in history. But oh well. As for us who still live here, what happens to that atoned and purified vagueness and negativity is something that Brent's diagram can or will not show because, it seems, once the A / Tonalist has become subject to her event that vagueness and negativity no longer really exists. It devolves to someone else to deal with it. And along comes the flarfist bricoleur.


K. Silem Mohammad said...

Jasper, thanks for this great post. What is the moment when things seemed to you to get not so nice? Is it my "assholes" comment at the end of my last post? I hope it's clear from the context that "assholes" refers to right-wingers there, and not to any of the poets involved in the discussion. I'm just asking because I'm concerned about being misunderstood, and if you understood it differently from the way I intended it, chances are other people might have too, so maybe I should change it.

Behrle, Prince of Trolls said...
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