Monday, September 29, 2014

Chinese Democracy: A Report from Hong Kong's Occupy Central



This just in from my pal Lucas Klein, who is on the scene in Hong Kong where people are in the streets in vast numbers protesting for democracy. Reporting has been suppressed in China, but the word is getting out elsewhere.

 ****

I went to the Occupy Central demonstrations this afternoon. I had previously been annoyed and disappointed that the movement’s messaging and organizing had been so deficient in English and Mandarin, resulting in my never knowing where or when their actions had taken place (certainly it makes sense that the primary language of the events is Cantonese, but particularly when up against media representation in Mandarin that’s almost exclusively negative, having a comprehensive campaign that includes explaining to mainlanders what our goals are and how we’re actually on the same side as you becomes all the more important).

Finding the action was not difficult, but it wasn’t exactly straightforward, either. It’s called Occupy Central because it had been, in the days of Occupy Wall St., primarily in the Central district; it’s now moved to Connaught Road, a stretch of highway linking most government and administrative buildings along the northern coast of Hong Kong island. The occupation this afternoon stretched from roughly Statue Square to past the Academy for Performing Arts (red and blue on the map; a distance of a little over a kilometer, or three-quarters of a mile), but the first challenge was getting there: in part because so much traffic has been obstructed, and in part out of fear of traffic being obstructed, most of the bus lines had been rerouted or halted. I took a tram, which terminated a good three kilometers from where I wanted to go.

I could see no signs of any demonstration going on at first, but then I realized that Des Voeux Rd Central, one of the main thoroughfares of that part of Hongkong, was all but devoid of traffic—no cars, no buses, no trucks, no taxis… By the time I got to the primary intersection of Central (Des Voeux, Pedder, and Chater) I saw that two of the streets had been blocked off by police, but protesters were nowhere to be found. This continued as I walked past the former Legislative Council building and the HSBC headquarters, whose gates were lowered and locked—though I saw no one demonstrating yet, it was clear that the official establishment of Hongkong, the government and the financiers, were terrified. Only a few minutes later, though, I found the crowd.

Last night I saw the images of police launching teargas into crowds of demonstrators, but the tears that caught me were on seeing so many people—as thick a crowd as I’ve ever seen, as far as the eye could literally see. Mostly wearing black (in the sun, on a day that reached 34°C, or about 93°F), mostly in their twenties, and, I think I’m right about this, more young women than young men. There were a few people with megaphones making speeches, echoed by what seemed to be Zuccotti Park-style people’s microphones, and a few people with signs sponsored by official labor unions (the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions) or political parties, but mostly it was young men and women sitting in groups while others gave out free bread, bananas, water, wet towels, and cooling packs (the kind I stick on Quentin’s forehead when he has a fever). The atmosphere was lively, joyous, and generous.

Walking up to the protest, I saw a woman selling water bottles at 7 HKD each (a little under $1 USD); there seemed to be enough water being distributed for free at the demonstration, but I had expected price-gouging. The closest thing to negativity I saw at all was when I was part of a crowd pushing west on Gloucester Rd. toward Wan Chai to expand the area of occupation: where Gloucester met the off-ramp from Arsenal, some police vehicles led a few other cars past what I took to be their own blockade uphill; as the police drove past the demonstration, protesters booed at the cop cars (one police vehicle even found itself obstructed by particularly zealous occupiers. I do not believe the protesters would have had so much antipathy toward the police if it hadn’t been for the tear gas last night.

 I ran into two people I knew there, one former colleague of mine and another current student in the class I’m teaching this semester. Before the student strike, she had said she hadn’t made up her mind whether to boycott her classes the following week; a week later, she did in fact attend class; today, though, she was on the street—I take it that the police escalation last night contributed to her will, and she fortified her resolve, just as I imagine the resolve of many other demonstrators to have been fortified, as well. One thing she said to me, though, I almost wish she hadn’t: “Stay safe.” It’s something I’ve heard or read from any number of friends in Hongkong and around the world, and of course it’s generally good practice as well as something of a filler when you don’t know what else to say. It’s also a reminder that we’re dealing with a police force that has used brutality already, and that behind that police force is a national government that has called the military and their loaded and aimed weapons onto peaceful demonstrators in the not too distant past. And yet. “Stay safe” verges on blaming the victim: it puts the responsibility on us as politically active individuals acting collectively in solidarity to temper our demands and actions so that they don’t provoke violent retaliation. That, I think, is wrong. It’s the job of the police and the state that employs them to keep us safe, and when they fail at their job, we need to stop their vehicles and halt the economy that offers them legitimacy. And when that happens, well, I’ve rarely felt safer than I did today, walking as part of Occupy Central with Love and Peace. And in fact, a part of me is not sad to see that the police resorted to brutality so early and easily. Obviously I don’t want anyone to get hurt, especially people whose goals I support. But by engaging in violence the way they did, the police, and the structure of the state behind them, lost a lot of support in the court of public opinion. And that is a good thing.

This doesn’t mean necessarily that we will win and the PRC will agree to have not only universal suffrage in Hongkong but a nomination process in which it isn’t tipping the scales, but it does mean that I can envision such an outcome, because the state has shamed itself in its actions. Against that, a movement such as this one, defined by youth, by love and peace, by aspiration and inspiration, will always find a way to win.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Abject Sublime, or: Jean Genet's Vaseline




Like many people of my generation (I am, God help me, 46) I came to admire French theory in my grad school years.  One thing that puzzled me back in the early 1990s, when as a doctoral candidate in English lit I was happily chowing down on fricassée Foucault, bouillabaisse Baudrillard, and délice de Deleuze, was the relative lack of enthusiasm for these thinkers in American philosophy departments.  Outside of the New School and Columbia—where the legacy of European émigrés was strong—and the Catholic universities—where theology kept philosophy wedded to continental traditions—the thinkers my friends and I found so congenial were often treated with suspicion by American professors of philosophy.  Of course the question I should have been asking wasn't "why do the philosophy departments shun this stuff," but "why do we in English take to it so readily?"  It is not obvious, after all, why a love of the poetry of Seamus Heaney should lead to an appreciation of Luce Irigaray.  François Cusset traces the particulars of how the works of these thinkers traveled from France to the United States via various channels (notably French and comparative lit departments) in his wonderful study French Theory, but I think there's a core affinity between literary study and French theorists, something that lies behind the particulars of cultural transmission across the Atlantic.  In the French tradition, theorists tend to arrive at their ideas by extrapolating from works of literature.  That is, their concepts are, to a degree unmatched in Anglo-American philosophy, created from sorting through and regularizing the observations of poets, novelists, and playwrights: taking just the major works of Deleuze and Guattari as examples, we can point to their use of Artaud as the basis from which they elaborate the notion of the "body without organs" in Anti-Oedipus, and Karl Phillip Moritz as the basis of the idea of "animal-becoming" in 1,000 Plateaus.  They begin where we begin, with a passage of literature, even though they tend to head in different, perhaps more ambitious, directions.

It should come as no surprise, then, to find Julia Kristeva basing her notion of abjection on the writings of Céline.  In her classic book on the subject, Powers of Horror, Kristeva speaks of those who encounter the abject as feeling "a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable."  The abject thing—be it an object, an urge, a person, a class of people, a bodily function, what have you—is something we scapegoat, that we try to throw out as something we cannot accept and don't want to have any relationship with.  But we inevitably have a relation to the abjected, despite what we'd like to think—and when we make something abject we still sense it as something "quite close" even though "it cannot be assimilated." It "fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced." And our "desire turns aside; sickened."  Our conscious minds cling to the (false) certainty the this abject thing is shameful and has nothing to do with us, even as unconsciously we are drawn toward the abject, which is "as tempting as it is condemned." The abject "has only one quality of the object—that of being opposed to I"—that is, to the ego's sense of itself.  It is what we define as not-us, what we have subdued and expelled. "And yet," Kristeva continues, "from its place of banishment, the abject does not cease challenging its master."  So what does this mean, specifically?  I've seen enough people whose religious background has led them to reject and deny their own homosexuality to know that there are many people who turn their own sexual identity into something abject, and suffer a deep and unhealthy split between their conscious sense of who they are, their "I" or ego, and their rejected but ever-present sexuality—a version of the attraction-repulsion Kristeva describes.  Or, moving to an even grimmer example, we could think of what the Nazis did to Jews (and others) as an extreme form of abjection: a casting out of people, an assertion that there is no connection between them and us, and yet a fascination, an unconscious sense of kinship that needs constant denial, a lurking sense, constantly in need of being suppressed, that the dark qualities attributed by us to them might also belong to us.  The core chapter of Powers of Horror is an analysis of Céline's writings, in which Kristeva notes that Céline presents himself as "the only authentic one" who recognizes that which society abjects, and who will guide us through the underworld of abjection in his Journey to the End of Night.

If I were betting on who would be elected to the laureateship of abjection, though, I wouldn't back Céline.  I'd place my chips on the spot marked "Jean Genet," and I'll tell you why.  He understands abjection from the inside: born to a prostitute, raised in foster homes, prone to petty theft, and homosexual in a hostile time and place, he lived abjection, and not as a voluntary tourist in the realm of the abject.  What is more, he found something in abjection that Céline never found: a kind of sublimity.  He turned rejection into a sign of strength and even glory.  The best way to understand this is to take a look at a passage near the beginning of The Thief's Journal, where he writes about a tube of Vaseline.

Genet describes an early experience in Spain, where he'd been arrested.  The police have him empty his pockets, and it is revealed that he was carrying a tube of Vaseline, which the police correctly understood as a sexual lubricant, and a sign of Genet's homosexuality.

I was dismayed when, one evening, while searching me after a raid — I am speaking of a scene which preceded the one with which this book begins — the astonished detective took from my pocket, among other things, a tube of vaseline. We dared joke about it since it contained mentholated vaseline. The whole record-office, and I too at times, though painfully, writhed and laughed at the following:
            “You take it in the nose?”
            “Watch out you don’t catch cold. You wouldn’t want to give your guy whooping-cough.”
            I translate but lamely, in the language of a Paris hustler, the malicious irony of the vivid and venomous Spanish phrases. It concerns a tube of vaseline, one of whose ends was partially rolled up. Which amounts to saying that it had been put to use. Amidst the elegant objects taken from the pockets of the men who had been picked up in the raid, it was the very sign of abjection, of that which is concealed with the greatest of care, but yet the sign of a secret grace which was soon to save me from contempt. When I was locked up in a cell, and as soon as I had sufficiently regained my spirits to rise above the misfortune of my arrest, the image of the tube of vaseline never left me. The policemen had shown it to me victoriously, since they could thereby flourish their revenge, their hatred, their contempt.

The object itself is neutral, of course: it is what the police do when they discover it that renders Genet abject: they need to re-enforce their own sense of difference and superiority, their brotherhood in the confraternity of the norm, by using the object a as a focus for revenge, hatred, and contempt.  But watch the alchemy by which Genet redeems the despised object, and with it himself:

But lo and behold! this dirty, wretched object whose purpose seemed to the world — to that concentrated delegation of the world which is the police and, above all, that particular gathering of Spanish police, smelling of garlic, sweat and oil, but prosperous-looking, stout of muscle and strong in their moral assurance — utterly vile, became extremely precious to me. Unlike many objects to which my tenderness gives distinction, this one was not at all haloed; it lay on the table, a little grey leaden tube of vaseline, broken and livid, whose astonishing discreetness, and its essential correspondence with all the commonplace things in the record-office of a prison (the bench, the inkwell, the regulations, the scales, the odor), would, through the general indifference, have distressed me, had not the very content of the tube, perhaps because of its unctuous character, by bringing to mind an oil lamp, made me think of a night-light beside a coffin.

A night light beside a coffin!  Great!  And the description continues:

Lying on the table, it was a banner telling the invisible legions of my triumph over the police.  I was in a cell.  I knew that all night long my tube of vaseline would be exposed to the scorn—the contrary of a Perpetual Adoration—of a group of strong, handsome, husky, policemen.  So strong that if the weakest of them barely squeezed his fingers together, there would shoot forth, first with a slight fart, brief and dirty, a ribbon of gum which would continue to emerge in a ridiculous silence.  Nevertheless I was sure that this ridiculous and most humble object would hold its own against them…

There is a great deal one might say about this passage—including something about how the erotic way in which the police and the tube are depicted is a kind of revenge against aggressive heteronormativity.  But the thing that I'd like to note is the resemblance between the passage and Kant's description of sublimity in Critique of Judgment.

It's uncanny how well Genet's passage maps onto Kant's notion of sublimity.  For Kant, we get a sense of the sublime when we encounter something grand and vast, something that seems as though it could destroy us: a storm at sea, say, or a volcanic eruption, or a tornado near at hand towering above us into infinity.  We experience these as sublime not because we are afraid of them (although we are certainly fearful) but because of something they call up within us.  Such things, when we observe them and do not flee or faint, "raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height and discover in us a faculty of resistance… which gives us the courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature."  We feel not only fear, but our own capacity to stand tall against the fearsome world, small though we may be.  For Kant, this awareness of our own miraculous endurance in the face of vast powers is the essence of the sublime.

The despised, abjected tube (and the Genet who becomes despised and abjected by virtue of association with that tube) stands in relation to the police as the small but undaunted human stands in relation to the vast natural forces of which Kant speaks.  It endures, in danger, and so gains a kind of dignity, a sublimity in its abjection—in fact, a sublimity by virtue of its enduring of abjection.

Soldiers have a certain sublimity for Kant, because they do not "yield to danger," but go forth "to face it vigorously with the fullest deliberation"—and it is significant, I think, that Genet turns to military language when, continuing his description of the vaseline tube on the police station table, he says "I would like to hymn it with the newest words in the French language.  But I would have also liked to fight for it, to organize massacres in its honor and bedeck a countryside at twilight with red bunting." Genet even adds, in a footnote, that he "would indeed rather have shed blood than repudiate that silly object." Genet would stand up for the tube of vaseline just as it, on the police table, stands for him: defiantly there despite its abject status, despite its vulnerability.  It asserts its being and resilience—and by extension, Genet's—in a world of powers that could easily destroy it.  It is, in some profound sense, his comrade in arms.  No one understands abjection as well as does Genet, perhaps because no one had to search within it so hard to find the dignity of the sublime.


Friday, September 19, 2014

The Futures of Poetry!

Perloff, Kirsch, Nikolayev, and a full house at the Grolier

How many different timelines can we spin out for the future of poetry? The Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts has decided to find out! They've been hosting a series of talks on the topic—the first set by me, Ben Mazer, and Stephen Burt, and the second set by Adam Kirsch, Philip Nikolayev, and Marjorie Perloff. You can check them out here:

Robert Archambeau, March 14, 2014 

Stephen Burt, March 14, 2014

Ben Mazer, March 14, 2014

Adam Kirsch, Philip Nikolayev, Marjorie Perloff, September 12, 2014

I’m not sure who will be involved in the next installment of the series, but I’ve got a pretty good idea where you can hang out with them after their talks. Here’s a hint.

A secret location on Harvard Square

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Poetry and Masculinity





Poetry and masculinity have a complicated relationship.  In most times and places, the poetic canon, and the institutions supporting poetry, have been dominated by men.  This is certainly true in the United States now, as the good people at VIDA have helped make plain with their quantitative analysis of who gets published where.  There’s also a strong sense in which masculinity is associated with power, even in the world of poetry—an issue I tried to assess in this essay for Poetry’s website.  But there is also a feeling, in many quarters, that poetry is in some sense emasculating, as if it were somehow the antimatter to football or the Ford F100 pickup truck.  This goes deep: back in 1958, when the sociologist Robert Neal Wilson interviewed scores of poets for his study Man Made Plain: The Poet in Contemporary Society, one of the complaints that came up frequently was the sense that men who became poets were looked down on as not being sufficiently manly, for letting down the side of masculinity.

Clearly there is a lot of untangling to be done if one wants to approach the Gordian knot of poetry and masculinity, and one thread I want to start with when I take up that attempt again is the one offered in Diederik Oostdijk’s study Among the Nightmare Fighters: Americans Poets of World War II. The book came to my attention in a review in the William Carlos Williams Review by the wonderful Brian Reed, who describes it thusly (with a nice little shout-out to one of my books):
Among the Nightmare Fighters offers an illuminating if partial survey of World War II’s importance in the history of American poetry and poetics. Oostdijk argues that, despite their stereotype of belonging to a “silent generation,” mid-twentieth-century poets who experienced the war either first-hand or on the home front did in fact speak out, albeit often “in a quiet and undemonstrative way” and sometimes years afterward. Their reticence, he explains, stemmed partly from having witnessed “events… too devastating to capture in words” but also from a belief that “the history of World War II was already fixed in the American imagination and that their personal musings would have no major impact.” To illustrate the value of what soldiers, veterans, and conscientious objectors did manage to write, he focuses on a single “tight-knit circle of poets,” “a generation of white, male, so-called academic poets who published their poems in the Kenyon Review, the New Yorker, and Partisan Review” and who “came to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s.” These writers—including John Ciardi, James Dickey, Anthony Hecht, Randall Jarrell, Lincoln Kirstein, Robert Lowell, Howard Nemerov, Karl Shapiro, and William Stafford—“collectively… show that the effects of war are ultimately shattering to all individuals caught in it,” especially any simple “equation of war and masculinity.” 
…. Among the Nightmare Fighters will likely interest any literary or cultural critic who studies warfare, gender, and trauma, especially anyone concerned with the Holocaust and its aftermath. It also deserves to be placed alongside other recent, first-rate works on masculinity and Cold War-era American poetry such as Robert Archambeau’s Laureates and Heretics (2010), Rachel Blau duPlessis’s Purple Passages (2012), and Michael Davidson’s Guys Like Us (2003).
If, like me, you’ve got to have this book, you can order it here.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Imagine What It Does to Americans!": Kenneth Goldsmith and Advertising



Often - mostly unconsciously - I'll model my identity of myself on some image that I've been pitched to by an advertisement. When I'm trying on clothes in a store, I will bring forth that image that I've seen in an ad and mentally insert myself and my image into it. It's all fantasy. I would say that an enormous part of my identity has been adopted from advertising. I very much live in this culture; how could I possibly ignore such powerful forces? Is it ideal? Probably not. Would I like not to be so swayed by the forces of advertising and consumerism? Of course, but I would be kidding myself if I didn't admit that this was a huge part of who I am as a member of this culture.


The paragraph above, and the picture that goes with it, together constitute a recent Facebook update by Kenneth Goldsmith.  Like much of what he does, it is interesting and a little troubling (at least to me).  He’s right, of course, about advertising influencing who we wish to be: that is, after all, the goal of the whole industry.  But we knew that.  What makes it interesting is the deliberate acquiescence, the acceptance, with a bit of a shrug and perhaps a bit of an eye-roll, of the power advertising has over our values and, indeed, our identities.  It’s unusual for a poet or artist to simply embrace these values: in fact, advertising-based mass culture and the modern idea of high culture come into being at the same time, in the late nineteenth century, and there’s a powerful sense in which the latter doesn’t make sense except in relation to the former.  The aesthetes and decadents turned their back on commercial culture, hoping to carve out a little space for something not linked to getting and spending.  The modernists, even when at their most apolitical, asserted values other than those of advertising—from James Joyce’s hyper-crafted and hopelessly uncommercial Ulysses to Robert Smithson’s virtually uncommodifiable  Spiral Jetty, we see the realm of the aesthetic set up against the values of the marketplace.  So when Goldsmith describes his interpolation into the world of commercial values, he’s going against a whole established tradition in the arts (and, like a true Conceptualist, taking the history of the arts as his medium).

Of course the closing of the distance between the fine or high or non-commercial arts and the world of popular culture is old hat: it’s one of the main moves of Ye Olde Postmodernism, with its embrace of everything from Donald Duck to the Campbell’s soup can.  But in much of Postmodernism there’s a kind of distancing from the world of commerce, even a kind of parody of it: Andy Warhol’s Factory as a site of cultural production was, even in its name, a kind of parody of commercial culture, and the star system he willed into being for his friends was a kind of echoing of the commercial culture, with all of the uncanniness we expect from an echo.  Is there, one wonders, any real critical or parodic take in Goldsmith’s approach to the values of advertising?  If not, is there a value—honesty, maybe—to his acceptance of those values even while he while regrets that acceptance?

One also wonders where Goldsmith finds his minimal resistance, his wish that he wasn’t so swayed by the values of consumerism?  In the past, resistance to commercial culture has come from many sources, not all of them healthy.  Folkloric culture gave Yeats a point from which to be critical of commercial culture, for example, but it shaded off into aristocratic snobbery.  T.S. Eliot found in his version of Christianity an antidote to modern commerce, but we all know the ugly side of that equation.

The broader question, perhaps, is what remains possible as a source of ballast or resistance to he values perpetuated by advertising.  I don’t know, but I sense that the problem may be particularly acute in America—in fact, I’m reminded of something Martin Amis once said in a little bookstore in Chicago, something about how corrosive modern advertising was, and how he tried to imagine what it would do to people who, unlike him, hadn’t spent four years in a medieval university reading Milton.  “Imagine,” he’d said, perhaps forgetting where he was, “what it does to Americans!”



Sunday, August 24, 2014

Excess, Pastiche, and Queerness in the Comics: Reading The Black Dossier




One of the things to love about comic books is the sheer excessiveness of the things.  Part of this stems from the genre of the marvelous, where anything can happen and the rules of realism don't apply.  Bodies become plastic, or move at amazing speed, or leap tall buildings at a single bound, worlds connect to other worlds, other times, other dimensions, and so forth.  Part of the excessiveness, too, stems from the fact that most comics are written in the form of the romance—not the "falling in love" sort of romance (although there have been some built on that model), but the romance as episodic quest narrative, a series of trials leading to rewards.  These serial formats are open-ended, and tend to give us a bunch of climaxes ("The villain we've faced for eleven issues is finally dead!" or "The hero we've loved for a decade has died!") that turn out to be false ("The villain was merely frozen in a derelict space station!" or "The dead hero has risen again!").  These false climaxes would be in poor taste in an epic or a realist's novel—but with the serial, the show must go on.  Also, most mainstream comics are shamelessly commercial, and you just don't kill a franchise by killing off its heroes and villains.  You kill it off by driving its best writers and artists away when corporate status monkeys seize control of the operation.  But that's a different story.  Another part of the aesthetics of excess in comics has to do with repetition.  Certain types of gratification must occur again and again—the most overt manifestation of this being the way each volume of Asterix ends with a repetition of what is essentially the same feast, a re-affirmation of the stability of community at the end of the quest.  And finally, there's the excess of proliferation, of adding more and more levels to the mythos of the original.  Jodorowsky and Moebius, in The Incal, for example, always seem ready to add another secret society, a higher level of interstellar government, a conspiracy behind the conspiracy, another galaxy bent on taking over ours.  "I'll explain it all when we get to my secret underwater base," says a new ally, rushing to the rescue of our beleaguered protagonist.  But it will never all be explained—explanation can't keep up with invention.  And that's all part of the contract: it's not like the wretched television show Lost, which promised to stitch everything together and then died a shameful death, strangled on its own loose ends.  The world of the comics promises to continue opening out to wider and more fabulous horizons, and either you're up for that or you go and read Raymond Carver.

            I mention all this as a kind of preamble for some comments about the aesthetics of Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, from back in 2007.  The two are a tremendous team, and Moore is beyond doubt a genius, however one wishes to define that term (my personal definition is this: if, every time I read one of your works, I feel compelled to start planning to write a book about you, you are a genius).  The Moore-O'Neill aesthetic in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen seems to me to be predicated on two things, bit related to the idea of excess: syncretism and pastiche.

            One of the more unusual things about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen throughout its existence has been the creation of false documents to go along with the main narrative.  It's an old literary technique to append letters or testimonies or 'found' documents to a narrative, like the maps Tolkien created for Middle Earth; or to embed them in the narrative itself, like Captain Walton's letters at the start of Frankenstein or the documents Dr. Lanyon leaves for our heroes in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  It's a little more unusual to use this in the comics, but Alan Moore is nothing if not literary— The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a virtual catalog of characters and tropes from centuries of literary and pulp fiction.  It should be no surprise, then, to find him appending supplementary documents to the various installments of League—and we get them in a multitude of forms, from false advertisements—including one for "Marvel Brand Douche" back when he worked with Marvel Comics' rival, DC—to stand-alone narratives of some scale.  As the title hints, The Black Dossier moves these documents to the center of the narrative, but figuratively (there are a lot of them) and literally: many of them come in the middle of the ostensibly 'main' narrative, when our hero and heroine sit down to read the titular 'Black Dossier,' containing documents that chronicle the centuries-long history of the League.

            The role of the false documents in The Black Dossier, or one of them, is to create, and explain, the world in which the events told in the main narratives can exist.  That is: the main narrative of the League traditionally consisted of a bringing together of various creatures from the popular Victorian imagination: Jules Verne's Captain Nemo, Robert Lewis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, H.G. Wells' Invisible Man, H. Rider Haggard's hero Allan Quartermain, Mina Harker from Bram Stoker's Dracula, and so forth.  In The Black Dossier, we expand the historical range into mid-century Britain, adding a young (and villainous) 007, and a recently-ended period of history in which Britain had succumbed to the Big Brother regime of Orwell's 1984, among other things.  It's a tremendous work of syncretism, bringing all of these imaginative works together, and one of the functions of the documents at the heart of The Black Dossier is to take all of these wildly various things and bring them together in something close to a coherent mythos.  So, for example, we read a mysterious document that tells a story of the intervention of supernatural forces into our own world since deep in prehistory, a document that links Cthulu with Conan the Barbarian's Crom, that interweaves Egyptian and Greek mythology with Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné, and Virginia Woolf's gender-shifting immortal hero/heroine from Orlando with Queen Elizabeth as an actual faerie queen.  It takes the excess of syncretism and imposes something like an order on it (I say "something like" because these documents are presented as partial, subjective, and possibly wrong—the excess is partially ordered, but by no means tamed).  The documents that follow present aspects of this syncretic history.

            What makes these documents really tasty, though, is that each takes the form of a pastiche: the pan-mythological document I mention above is a kind of riff on Lovecraft, and the history of Orlando's life is in the form of Classics Illustrated comics.  Another document, one revealing the faerie nature of Queen Elizabeth and recounting her encounter with the ('real life') sorcerer Prospero and the ubiquitous-as-Zelig Orlando, is written in the form of a little lost Shakespearian play, and so forth.  Everything is done in imitation of some other verbal and visual style out of the history of literature and pop culture.  There's an endless invention here, in excess of the mere demands of plot, an invention clearly based on a love of the prolific inventiveness of the past.  A love, maybe even a reverence.  I mean, here's how Moore describes the vast constellation of imaginative creation:
The planet of the imagination is as old as we are.  It has been humanity's constant companion with all of its fictional locations, like Mount Olympus and the gods, since we first came down from the trees, basically.  It seems very important, otherwise, we wouldn't have it.
The thing that keeps this reverence for the whole of imaginative—especially narrative—creation from congealing into something Worthy and Highminded, like the archetypes of Jung or Northrop Frye, is the way the tributes to other styles undergo various forms of what Mikhail Bakhtin called "transcoding."  Bakhtin was thinking of how Rabelais would rework Christian themes with reference to the functions of the body—pissing and shitting and farting and fucking—in order to strip away sanctimoniousness and create comedy.

            Moore often does this sort of thing.  Sometimes it's straight out of Bakhtin's Rabelais, as when he gives us a pastiche of Shakespeare with characters like Master Pisse and Master Shytte (although these aren't too far from the kind of comic characters Shakespeare himself includes); sometimes it’s a matter of incongruously crossing the unlike—as when we find P.G. Wodehouse's Edwardian nincompoop Bertie Wooster recounting his encounters with the demonic and supernatural.  Most often, though, it’s a sexualizing of the narrative source.  There's a brilliant little insert, for example, designed to look like the state-produced pornography secretly circulated among proles by a government ministry in Orwell's 1984.  In one frame, a man cries out about how love proves that "they" can't crush our spirits—but he does this while his hairy buttocks shake during sex on an assembly line, and the transcoding undermines his statement.  This seems like a nasty trick—but then again, it is presented as the action of an Orwellian state, bent on undermining all attempts to subvert its authority.

            Often, the sexualizing in Moore's work is also a kind of queering—a taking us beyond the norms of reproductive heterosexuality.  Sometimes this involves only a little exaggeration of the source narrative (Bram Stoker's Dracula is already liminal with regard to queer sexuality, and you just have to nudge Woolf's Orlando a little toward the NC-17 line to make its queerness explicit).  There's also a tendency to take things that are already sexualized, like the James Bond mythos, and amp up the bondage and discipline or dominance and submission quotient.  All of this makes it clear that we're dealing with pastiche rather than replication: it marks a difference from the original, marking the text as having a kind of difference and aiming at something other than replication.  It's excessive, sure, to add all of this: but the excess makes sense. It frees us from the burdens of accuracy and solemnity, marks the narrative territory as belonging not only to the progenitors of the original characters, but as Moore's own.  And, in the best traditions of popular culture, it adds the titillation of the basic drives and the thrill of the forbidden to the more respectable and 'literary' pleasures of the text.  It's the excess, after all, that makes you want more.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

John Ashbery's "Snowball in Hell": A Note on the Renovation of Poetic Language



I've been tapping away on the laptop at a ferocious pace lately, drafting the John Ashbery chapter of Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself that I've been researching and outlining for months.  Here's a bit about "A Snowball in Hell," from April Galleons, and how it begins with anecdote but soon makes us think about form, and about the figures of speech common in traditional poetic language.

Consider the poem's opening stanza:

In the beginning there are those who don't quite fit in
But are somehow okay. And then some morning 
There are places that suddenly seem wonderful: 
Weather and the water seem wonderful, 
And the peaceful night sky that arrives 
In time to protect us, like a sword 
Cutting the blue cloak of a prince. (April Galleons 5) 

There is a recognizable narrative here: indeed, it seems almost like a group biography for Ashbery and his circle of poet-friends. Misfits whose lives are difficult but not tragic find a kind of haven where they can flourish. But what are we to make of the simile for the arrival of night? We're given both parts of what could have been a perfectly functional traditional simile—the night sky and a blue cloak. It's an apt enough comparison visually, and since the night sky is meant to protect the protagonists (perhaps they are lovers, meeting in secret), the protective connotation of "cloak" is apt enough. But we are not told that the peaceful, protective night sky is like a blue cloak: we are told that it is like a sword cutting a prince's blue cloak. This is startling, and original, and quite hard to reconcile with the sentiment it seems intended to express. The sword neither looks like a night sky, nor does it function defensively: it is a bright object of aggression. Ashbery has drawn attention to a very traditional kind of poetic simile, putting the night-as-cloak figure into our minds even as he subverts it. In the end, the destruction of the cloak is the destruction of traditional simile itself. And perhaps, given the presence of that prince, it is the destruction of the aristocratic world from which traditional poetry comes down to us. The real action of the stanza lies less in the presentation of the alienated group finding a haven than in a formal matter, the unmasking of old poetic figures as hackneyed expressions.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Israel Has Already Lost: American Public Opinion and the Conflict in Gaza



A few years ago, I was at my local Democratic Party ward captain's house, listening to a congressional hopeful give a speech to rally the troops in preparation for the coming primary election.  When question period came, someone asked about his position on Israel, and he said that the Israeli administration had his full support. Such support was not controversial, he continued—indeed, it was not, and shouldn't be, a partisan issue in Washington.  Support was solid on both sides of the aisle.

There are many measures by which it is still true that American support for Israel is bipartisan.  Both the House and the Senate recently passed resolutions, with virtually no dissent from either party, supporting Israel in the current conflict in Gaza, and such support is not merely rhetorical: approval for emergency funding for Israeli military systems has also passed with strong bipartisan support. But the actions of the American political class no longer reflect the reality of public opinion as well as they once did.  Public opinion has begun to divide, and the division has followed both generational and party lines.

Consider the following graph, with information from a recent Gallup poll (I reproduce it from an article in The Economist):


The news is in the numbers. Younger Americans are, rightly or wrongly, critical of the actions of the Israeli administration.  And only Republicans strongly support Israel in the Gazan conflict. They do so by a considerable margin, but Democrats and Independents tend to take the opposite view.  

The American political system will probably not reflect these shifts in opinion immediately, nor strongly.  Indeed, the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, recently made her commitment to the Israeli administration very clear.  But it is significant that she did so on Jon Stewart's Daily Show, where she had to chide the host, whose criticisms of Israel played well with his youngish, heavily liberal audience.

It is plausible that the end of the conflict in Gaza will lead to a restoration of some support for Israel, and even of Netanyahu, outside the Republican party.  But it is also quite likely that one result of this war will be a slow shift away from the model of unwavering bipartisan support for Israel.  For young people in particular, opinion is less a matter of automatic and overwhelming support for Israel, and this will likely make for a different future for American-Israeli relations. Given how much Israel still depends on American financial, military, and political support, this shift will matter for Israel, probably more than any military victory on the ground in Gaza does. Indeed, it makes military victory pyrrhic.

Regardless of how one feels about the events in Gaza, there is a sense in which Netanyahu's administration has already lost this war.  

Thursday, July 31, 2014

John Ashbery and the Lonely Crowd



When I first started teaching at Brooklyn College, I had to teach a genre course for students who presumably had never read a poem before. I was puzzled about how to go about this. I started with an anthology of rock lyrics, because I thought this would be something they would probably be familiar with and we could get going and later become increasingly more serious. But they weren't really that interested in the rock lyrics…. I started to get very bored with this, as did the students. So I finally said, "Well, You have this other anthology, and next time I want you to read Wallace Stevens' 'Sunday Morning' and come and talk about it." And that went much better.

So said John Ashbery in an interview conducted by Christopher Hennessey for the American Poetry Review a few years ago.  It’s an anecdote I’ve heard from a few of the people I’ve been talking to about Ashbery in the process of research for the Ashbery chapter of a book I’ve been writing.  And I’d like to offer it here as a key to an important part of Ashbery’s sensibility: what we might call, following the sociologist David Riesman, Ashbery’s other-direction.

Riesman is best remembered for The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, a work of humanistic sociology from 1950 that he wrote with the help of Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney.  Riesman sees something new in the social character of the generation coming into adulthood in 1950 (when Ashbery turned 23), and attempts to get at it by contrasting it with earlier types of subjectivity.  The book is subtle and complex and full of all of the qualifying statements and codicils one would expect from a responsible sociologist, but the short version of his analysis is this: there are three dominant types of social character, corresponding to three distinct historical phases.  These are the tradition-directed, the inner-directed, and the other-directed (these ideal types are rarely encountered in isolation in an individual or a society, but they vary in which is dominant in any particular society or historical moment).

The tradition-directed individual internalizes his or her values early on from a relatively homogeneous group: a tribe or clan or village.  The individual is small and counts for little; the group looms large and is everything.  Little or no energy goes to the development of new solutions to problems, because life is precarious, and experimentation with the new constitutes too great a risk.  “If we plant the crops in a new way,” the tradition-directed individual might think, “we could all starve: the old ways are best.”  Individuals tend to be well adjusted to the values of the group, and to develop little autonomy, although tradition-directed societies usually have some way of accommodating, or containing, those who deviate from the norms.  Shamanism and monasticism are two of Riesman’s examples of deviance accommodation in tradition-directed societies.  Riesman doesn’t talk much about poetry, but if we wish to think of a poet coming from a tradition-directed context, we could think of the Beowulf poet: anonymous, and giving voice to the heroic values of a tribe, not to the lyric yearnings of an individual.

For Riesman, tradition-direction has been on the wane in the West since the Renaissance, but it is only in the nineteenth century that it is displaced as the dominant form of character formation.  It is then that we see the triumph of the inner-directed character.  While the term sounds like it might designate an independent, autonomous, or even existentially authentic sort of person, the inner-directed character isn’t quite that.  Instead, it describes the type of character formed by the values inculcated by a small family, and internalized to the point where the person becomes largely immune to the siren-song of other values.  This is a subjectivity for the era of social mobility, and perhaps the best way for a 21st century American to think about inner-direction is to think of the value system of many first-generation immigrants: parents will instill, early on and quite powerfully, a set of values and expectations (“you will be studious and dutiful and not wayward and you will be a medical doctor and marry within the ethnic group and excel!”).  The society at large is not the dictator of values, here: instead, the inner-directed person is outfitted with what Reisman calls a “psychological gyroscope” early on, and this gyroscope (given to, not chosen by, the individual) governs his or her actions and choices and life-trajectory.  The inner directed person is on a kind of mission, and rejects the pressure of the outside world.  The stiff upper lip comes to mind as an emblem of this sort of character.  If you want to think about poets who fit this mode, you’ll find them aplenty among the ranks of the reactionary modernists.  T.S. Eliot was surely outfitted with a “psychological gyroscope” oriented toward his family’s values of spiritual rectitude and community leadership.  He suffered terribly when he felt his own urges at odds with the directions of his inner gyroscope, and, when social changes in American society more-or-less dissolved the old paternalistic elite to which he belonged, he had to dream up a society into which his values would fit (you can find this in his illiberal social writings from the period between the two world wars). 

The era of inner-direction, thought Riesman, was just starting to come to an end, at least in the United States, with the social transformations that came after the Second World War.  Some of this had to do with the move from a society of deferred gratification to a society of abundance and consumption; some of it had to do with the ubiquity of mass media, but whatever the cause, the effect was this: character was decreasingly determined by parents and the internal gyroscope they installed in their children, and increasingly determined by shifting signals from peer groups and media outlets.  Instead of unshakable values, we have malleable ones.  Instead of an inner mission, we have both an anxiety about, and an empathy for, those around us.  Father no longer knows best: in fact, if dad has some crusty old views that the media or our fellow sophomores tell us are no longer acceptable, we question and challenge him.  He’s not the Godlike patriarch of old: he’s Archie Bunker, and we’re meant to shunt him aside.  Compared to the inner-directed person, the other-directed person will be less militant, less rigid, more malleable, more open to change, more susceptible to public opinion.  Is Ezra Pound other-directed? Not a chance.  But in certain respects John Ashbery is very much the product of an other-directed generation.

I’m not the first to connect Riesman with Ashbery: Andrew Epstein, for example, mentions Riesman in connection with the 1950s culture of conformism from which the New York School poets sought escape.  While I do see Ashbery sitting a little uneasily with the conformity inherent in other-direction, though, I also see many elements of Ashbery’s sensibility as congruent with other-direction.  In contradistinction from many of the great modernist poets, for example, Ashbery is the least doctrinaire or agenda-driven of poets.  No Celtic Mysteries in the manner of Yeats, no Christian society in the manner of Eliot, no Social Credit in the manner of Pound—none of that for Ashbery.  And some of this comes from the other-directed impulse, the desire to avoid conflict with the world rather than to attack it at the direction of an inner gyroscope.  “John is not a dogmatist,” an old friend of Ashbery’s once told me, “he says he’s bored in advance of all the trouble he’d create if he was.”  This flexibility, this demurral of any strong desire to argue or convert or conquer, probably lies behind another of Ashbery’s qualities, described by the same friend as “his bewildering talent for not threatening people.”  And one can certainly see the character forming influence of a peer-group (especially the poets, like Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, Ashbery encountered while a student at Harvard) as greater than the influence of Ashbery’s family back on the farm in upstate New York.  The influence of the mass media comes into play, too: not just in the pop culture that was to inform so many of the poems, but in the way Ashbery initially encountered experimental art which he discovered through a 1936 issue of Life magazine with a feature on Surrealism.  This was the sort of receipt of values from beyond the family circle unavailable in the childhood of T.S. Eliot.  But it is the lack of a doctrinaire position, and the lack of interest in haranguing or cajoling an audience, that marks a real difference between Ashbery and the poets of the Pound era (it marks him off, too, from some of his contemporaries, like Allen Ginsberg—social character types, as Riesman notes, never cover everyone in a society or generation).

It is this desire not to be bothersome or pushy in one’s views that explains Ashbery’s initial reticence about bringing the poetry he most admired to his students at Brooklyn College.  He wanted, instead, to meet them on what he imagined to be their own terms, and was surprised to find that they were more interested in being guided into his sensibilities—the love of Wallace Stevens, for example—than being left with their own.

Reisman describes the other-directed person as possessing not a gyroscope but a kind of radar that picks up signals from others and tries to accommodate them—and Ashbery was anticipating certain signals from his students.  But what happens when some of those signals being sent don’t seem to be meant for you?  This, for Riesman, is when we find ourselves imperfectly adjusted to the other-directed environment—and this, I think, is what happens with Ashbery.  He is certainly made in the undogmatic, flexible style of the other-directed character, but not all of the peer-and-media signals coming his way in midcentury America were meant for him.  There are a number of reasons for this, including precocious intelligence and aesthetic aptitude, but most prominent among them is his homosexuality, which placed him well outside the penumbra of general social acceptability.

What does one do if one is the conflict-averse product of an other-directed culture, but at odds with some of that culture’s norms?  In Ashbery’s case, it seems that the answer is that one wanders away a little.  One doesn’t pick up a megaphone or take to the streets: instead, one seeks escape.  In many aspects of Ashbery’s life and work, this seems to be what takes place.  There is an often ingenious school of interpretation, whose foremost figure is the poet and critic John Shoptaw, that sees Ashbery’s poetry as a kind of encrypted allegory of gay identity.  At times I find this convincing, but I think if one really wants to see the function of homosexuality in Ashbery’s poetry, one needs to consider Ashbery’s comment, from the interview with Hennessy, that “I think if there is an evasion it comes from having to conceal one's feelings from an early age. Maybe that plays a more important role in my poetry than I'm aware of.”  The evasion here is, I take it, an evasion of statement or narrative completion—and inasmuch as this is a way of neither embracing dominant values nor directly challenging them, it can be said to be the product of a wandering away from doctrine and conflict.  This can be seen as the product of other-directed sensibilities (“I don’t want to give anyone a hard time”) running up against the social prohibition of one’s identity (“but I can’t embrace the values of the society around me”). 

We can see this wandering away at work in Ashbery’s life: a flight from his family background first to the artistic bohemia of New York in the 50s, and then to Paris, which Ashbery often praises for the opportunity it offers the expatriate for solitude and shelter from fashionable opinion.  We can see it, too, in a number of aspects of the poetry.  There is, for example, the escapism of poems like “The Instruction Manual,” in which dissatisfaction with the ordinary workaday world leads not to any kind of programmatic rebellion, but to a dream of wandering away to the exotic aesthetics of Guadalajara.  There is, at a more profound level, the evasion of completion or coherence in the poems: they digress away from anything like a thesis, sometimes in their large structures and sometimes in the syntactic incompletion or ambiguity of the individual sentences.

The escapism, or wandering away, that accompanies Ashbery’s ill-fitting other-direction, comes at a price: isolation.  Ashbery’s poetry is among the loneliest bodies of work of any major American poet, and the Crusoe-like isolation of the shipwrecked figure in “The Skaters” is as poignant a picture of isolation as I have found in any poem in English.  Indeed, for a longer time than most of us realize, Ashbery was a rather isolated figure in American literature, unsure of his reputation, without critical champions, and convinced that fame would elude him.  But like those students at Brooklyn College, a surprising number of readers have come around to admiring Ashbery’s sensibility.  Maybe this is a sign that we’re as uneasy with our other-direction as he is.