Saturday, August 09, 2008

 


Donna Haraway

But didn’t theory fail? Didn’t these grand texts that once promised to change to world simply devolve into being one more “thing,” one last (and slightly sour) dish in the buffet of academic fashion?  Isn’t it true that you can’t find Freudian analysis in most psych departments, not even in an updated post-Lacanian mode? Or that Marx is missing in the econ department? I’ve actually heard somebody have to explain who Saussure was to linguistics majors. Aren’t these old texts & so-called old masters all a little, well, tattered?

Here it’s worth noting a couple of things. One is that just one of the texts I listed Friday really qualifies in any real sense as an instance of American academic writing: Fred Jameson’s Marxism and Form. Jameson’s impact on what has come to be called theory in America is, I think, something that in itself would be well worthy of examination, setting a horizon over the field that positions American theory as forever secondary in its concerns. Thus one of the real attractions several decades hence of the muddle that is Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri’s Empire (PDF) is that it shows a literature professor, Hardt, attempting to take on theory in the largest possible terms. That in itself is refreshing. That he bungles it is another story altogether.

One might go further & claim that the rest of the texts on that list aren’t really academic writing at all, tho that’s a bit of an overstatement. Rather, what each of the others has in common is that its author, whether the Ur-situationist Lefebvre or Charles Olson writing in his most telegraphic critical mode, saw their work, these specific books, as making contributions to practice(s) whose hoped-for fruition existed principally away from the university, whether writing in writing poetry or making a political revolution. They are not contributions to a professional debate.

And what happened to theory in America, more than anything else, has been just that – professionalism, that cancer on thought.

There were, depending on how you count it, two or three distinct stages ( & some might see a fourth) in theory’s role in America. In each case, theory might be said to have been called forward in an attempt to explain some prior disaster – World War I, industrial capitalism, World War 2. What propelled the likes of such disparate souls as Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, Olson and Vološinov (whether or not he really was Bakhtin) into mixing genres in new & unusual ways was at least as much as the failure of the world about them as it was the possible insights some new combination – say sociology & linguistic structure in the case of Lévi-Strauss – might yield.

And what made theory in America powerful was not just the presence of a few very bright & creative people in various humanities departments, but the failure of 1968 – the year in which revolution seemed plausible in France & Czechoslovakia & not so far from the horizon in the U.S., Mexico, Germany & elsewhere. Up to that moment, the anti-war movement in the U.S. had been remarkably untheoretical. It’s not that there weren’t left factions that didn’t care passionately about theory, but few activists paid them much heed. The Progressive Labor Party’s attempt to co-opt – largely through volunteer labor – some chapters of Students for a Democratic Society in cities where SDS was marginalized was about as far as it got.

But the collapse of SDS & the failure of post-Kent State organizing on every campus in the country to bring the war to a close left many activists asking themselves why – just what were they (we) doing wrong – and theory promised a path through which to rethink many deeply help assumptions. This was then reinforced, profoundly so, by a generation of activists who returned to college between 1968 & 1980 to go to grad school. It is not an accident that the list I posted yesterday consists of works first published in English from 1965 through 1978. Subtract Olson & it all would fit neatly into the ’68-’78 decade.

1980 was the second major moment in the history of theory in America – the election of Ronald Reagan as president & the ouster of a half-dozen major liberals from the U.S. Senate, the combination of which transformed American government overnight. Michael Rosenthal, the dean of progressive booksellers in San Francisco, has said that you could date the end of sales of Marx, Lenin & Mao – three cash cows that could keep a lefty bookshop in business – to the Wednesday after that election. Virtually everyone on the left saw Reagan as transparently unqualified to become president &, in fact, he was the person who first introduced the idea of destroying government as a primary project of the Republican party. Further, as governor of California he had built his reputation & popularity on opposing student activism, deliberately over-reacting to the student strike at San Francisco State¹ & then promoting the political career of S.I. Hayakawa, the linguistics professor who became the hero of the right for his role as the comprador for the Reaganauts on campus.

If you look at the history of The Socialist Review, you can see these stages in fairly clear terms. In the 1960s, SR did not exist, although founder James Weinstein (who later went on to start the East Bay Express, an alternative weekly covering the Berkeley-Oakland side of  the Bay, & then In These Times) was active in the earlier journal, Studies on the American Left, the Madison-based theory journal that broke up after 1968 precisely around the question of whether or not to become the “official” theoretical journal of the new American revolution. Weinstein’s faction had been opposed to that idea, preferring to offer critical support from outside of this theoretical object, the Revolution, but by the new journal finally got under way in San Francisco in 1972, it was calling itself Socialist Revolution and its key participants were mostly grad students at Berkeley, several of them having returned to school after some years of organizing in the community.

For many years, the journal had a dual mission – offering deep theory dives on aspects of the left and also developing a connection between theory, as such, and the actual practice of community organizers. If you were a political activist committed to the democratic left in the 1970s, SR was your journal, just as either the Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee (Michael Harrington’s group of Socialist Party members who exited the SP over its failure to oppose the war in Vietnam) or the New American Movement (a regrouping of sorts of the non-Weather Underground tendencies in & around SDS) was going to be your organization.

By the early 1980s, Socialist Revolution had become Socialist Review and there were now two editorial collectives. Each was autonomous, and neither cared much for the other. The one in the Bay Area still consisted primarily of local activists plus grad students from Berkeley, which made it very open not just to the second real wave of theory, the postmodern boom that moved away from master narratives, even celebrating identarian fragmentation. The collective in Boston began because several early West Coast collective members all got tenure-track jobs there, and by the early 1980s they had replicated themselves among the locals. This group was older and more stable than the one in the west, tenured (or on the way to it) and deeply committed to the academy. Any interest in theory was framed in the class and economics-based terms of an earlier left, but no longer with an eye toward building a movement so much as a department, whether it be in Poli Sci, Economics or Sociology. This collective despised the “flaky” cultural theory articles that were coming out of the west coast collective – Donna Haraway’sCyborg Manifesto” became a touchstone of this dispute – which they saw as abandoning the class-based orientation they gave to the word socialist in favor of identity movements that were, regardless of how progressively (or even outrageously) they expressed themselves, essentially civil rights coalitions for increasingly small fractions of the population.²

By the time I arrived on the West Coast collective in 1986, there were active discussions about changing the journal’s name again, this time just to the initials SR (this never happened) and refocusing it more in the direction of what eventually would become Lingua Franca, a serious critical journal about the academy itself (this also never happened). The journal stopped publishing altogether in the late ‘90s³, before being revived in 2002 under a new name, Radical Society.

SR is just one example, although a good one. In each stage of the post-WW2 left, theory’s underlying primary motive was transformed by events outside of theory. What seemed possible prior to 1968 was far more problematic after – and this was the period when theory blossomed, both on the American left and in humanities graduate programs. But by the early 1980s, what you could hope to get from it was far more constrained. From Socialist Revolution to Radical Society may all be phraseology from the left lexicon, but it echoes the very same rightward drift that governed the U.S. and other western nations during this same period. And as horizons change, what theory itself might accomplish does also. From building a movement to building a department sounds just about right. Or, rather, not.  

One might argue that language poetry was the writing of a generation that was smart about theory, and particularly about that which still sought to transform the world. And it’s interesting to think about how the general time frame of the Grand Piano project – say 1965 to 1985 – overlaps but is not identical to this critical 12-year period, 1968-’80. The smart critic could do a lot with that.

 

¹ Although in the wake of the Kent & Jackson State massacres, Reagan was circumspect enough to look the other way as every campus in the UC and Cal State systems turned into anti-war organizations in 1970. Reagan understood when to play a winning hand & when to fold.

² In fact, one could easily argue just the opposite, that the identarian push came first with feminism, a movement predicated on a majority.

³ I served as executive editor from 1986 through ’89 and left the collective when my twins were born three years later.

Labels:



Friday, August 08, 2008

 


Valentin N. Vološinov

I’m thinking out loud here. For a future part of the Grand Piano project, we’ve been tossing around the idea of putting together some sort of bibliography of works that were influential to us during the general period in which we were collectively active in the San Francisco scene. The time parameters being nothing published in English prior to 1965 or after 1985. That was a period of maximum absorption, if you know what I mean. In 1965, I was still a teenager & just starting to write & publish. I would spend the next six years bouncing around (really the right verb phrase) different schools, go through my first marriage, be quickly accepted into (and then walk away from) what I would now call the School of Quietude¹, begin to truly get a grasp of 20th century poetry & meet some incredible people, starting with Barrett Watten that same year of ’65.

I was something of an omnivorous reader in those days, more so than I am now, alas. But what are / were the works outside of poetry per se that had an impact. I tried to put together a list of just ten books, excluding volumes of poetry, and the following is at least my first draft of such a roster. I left some obvious works off of it, such as books by Walter Benjamin or Roland Barthes, or the great anthology of works from the 1966 “post-structuralist” conference at Johns Hopkins (Bruce Andrews being the one poet I know who attended) since other people were already bandying their names about. Ditto Fred Jameson’s Prison-House of Language. And there were a number of vitally important works for me that were published prior to 1965, such as Sartre’s What is Literature?, the volumes of Wittgenstein that I found most valuable, the class notes that pass for the collected writings of Saussure. Other works were important, but either not yet in book form (like Donna Haraway’s “Manifesto for Cyborgs” which first appeared in Socialist Review in April 1985, a year before I signed on as editor), or not reducible to book form at all (the performance art of Terry Fox, the music of the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, the films of Abigail Child). And every time I think of one text, I think of a dozen more (why not, say, Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, a book that led me eventually to blogging?).

But at least today, if I had to choose ten with all of those constraints, these are some books I might think to name, and a hint as to why.

Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, 1971, NY, Monthly Review Press. Althusser is an embarrassment in the annals of Western Marxism, the old Stalinoid who turned out to be a homicidal maniac. His ideas on how to read Marx’s Capital, the most important essay of which appears in this volume, are all wrong. But his piece on “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation),” the centerpiece of this volume, is the best statement of what ideology is and how it functions in practice I’ve ever read. The current Monthly Review Press edition is updated some from the version I have.

Roman Jakobson, Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning, 1978, Cambridge, MIT. Jakobson was teaching at the New School during World War 2 when Claude Lévi-Strauss, having just made it out of South America but unable to get back to France, sat in on these lectures and had an Aha experience that would lead directly to structuralism. Of all Jakobson’s many works that relate to poetry, these talks are the best. The one-time pal of Mayakovsky & later teacher of Rene Wellek shows exactly why a foundation in linguistics is a prerequisite to writing verse. Jakobson is the Kilroy of so many of the important intellectual movements of the last century – from Russian Futurism to post-Chomskyian linguistics (he was George Lakoff’s poetry teacher), even New Criticism. Given Jakobson’s standing in the history of linguistics, it is appalling that this edition has not been reprinted in the past 30 years.

Fred Jameson, Marxism and Form, 1974, Princeton, NJ, Princeton UP. This is a secondary work, Jameson synthesizing the writings of Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse, Bloch, Lukács, Sartre. It’s masterful for what it is, yoking these diverse writers together into a single broader dialogue. This volume gave enormous impetus to the decade of theory precisely by showing how all this writing might be connected. Or read as connected. Of his six subjects, only Ernst Bloch never was important to me.

Henri Lefebvre, Dialectical Materialism, 1968, London, Cape Editions. The godfather of the Situationists, this earlier study by Lefebvre was published by Nathaniel Tarn as part of the brilliant series that included works by Barthes (Writing Degree Zero), Zukofsky’s “A”-22 & 23, Olson’s Mayan Leters, Ponge’s Soap, Trakl’s Selected Poems & more. For me, it’s the clearest statement of this central practice of Western Marxism. Unfortunately, this series did not continue after Grossman/Cape was acquired, and this volume appears not to have been republished since.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropique, 1974, Boston, Atheneum. This is a memoir and a few chapters are reprinted from an earlier edition, so maybe it doesn’t warrant being on this list. Many of the chapters amount to set pieces, but the attempt at “writing a sunset” is one of the great moments in the history of descriptive writing. Lévi-Strauss’ account of inadvertently “giving” writing to the Nambikwara by explaining to the chief what he was doing with his tablets of legal paper, and the fatal consequences this had is, I think, an important message in and of itself as well as for what it conveys about the nature of writing, as such. Why a good trade paperback of this work isn’t generally available in English is a mystery to me.

Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972: a cross-reference book of information on some esthetic boundaries: consisting of a bibliography into which are inserted a fragmented text, art works, documents, interviews, and symposia, arranged chronologically and focused on so-called conceptual or information or idea art with mentions of such vaguely designated areas as minimal, anti-form, systems, earth, or process art, occurring now in the Americas, Europe, England, Australia, and Asia (with occasional political overtones), edited and annotated by Lucy R. Lippard, 1973, New York & Washington, Praeger. The full title gives some of the flavor of this great book. It was (still is) the Junior Woodchuck’s handbook (Huey, Dewey & Louie’s antecedent of Wikipedia) for all performance and  conceptual art. I may have gotten more diverse ideas from this volume than from any other. The current UC Press edition cuts the title off just before the second colon.

Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 1968, Cambridge, MIT. Not being fiction-centered in my thinking or work, I never would have read this book had it not been for the Marxist Study Group at Small Press Traffic pulled together & led by Bruce Boone. The group, which was not large, included Kathleen Fraser, Bob Glück, Steven Benson & Denise Kastan among its members. This is the work that gave me the idea of opacity, which I had never seen described in literature before. It’s still available in paper, but at a price ($32.95) quite a bit higher than the $5.95 I paid for it new thirty years ago.

Charles Olson, Proprioception, 1965, San Francisco, Four Seasons Foundation. This is Olson’s best critical work, and in many ways is a restatement of Lefebvre’s concepts applied directly to literature. I would read them together, Lefebvre’s first. This is now available in Olson’s Collected Prose.

Ferruccio Rossi-Landi, Linguistics and Economics, 1975, The Hague, Mouton. Rossi-Landi was an Italian semiotician who attempted, in this work, to contrast these two seemingly dissimilar domains on the basis of the fundamental metaphor of exchange, understood here to be related to how we transmit ideas through language as well through the abstraction of labor into money.

Valentin Vološinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, 1973, Seminar Press, New York & London. Vološinov may very well have been fronting for his friend Mikhail Bakhtin in publishing this work under his own name. This was the first attempt to broach the possibility of discussion between the two fields, although even in the 1920s, it eschews returning directly to Marx, but rather to Saussure. I think Vološinov may go so far as to use the phrase Social Formalism, which has always struck me as being an apt depiction of langpo two (or three) generations hence. The current Harvard edition is the same translation with a better cover & distribution.

 

¹ I had work accepted into Poetry, TriQuarterly, Poetry Northwest and The Southern Review by the time I was 21. My first big complaint about the SoQ was that basically it’s too easy, a poetic practice for the intellectually lazy.

Labels:



Wednesday, August 06, 2008

 


Not the School of Quietude: Williams with cat, Rutherford, NJ, 1916

(Front row, L-R: Alison Hartpence, Afred Kreymborg, WCW, Skip Cannell
Back row, L-R: Jean Crotti, Marcel Duchamp, Walter Arensberg,
Man Ray, R.A. Sanborn, Maxwell Bodenheim)

Billy Joe Harris notes – and is quite right – that Spring & All is printed in its entirety in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I (1909-1939) edited by A. Walton Litz & Christopher MacGowan, and that this version doesn’t have any of the crowded page disadvantages that render Imaginations unnecessarily reader unfriendly. It’s also worth noting that it’s a good looking book, always a bit of a miracle at New Directions.

The Descent of Winter, Williams’ prose & verse linked diary – I doubt that he knew the word haibun – is also included in this volume. Unfortunately, Kora in Hell: Improvisations, the third volume of poetry from Imaginations, is not. Kora appears to be out of print in its City Lights Pocket Poets edition as well. Like the Frontier Press edition of Spring & All, the 1958 City Lights edition is the one that had a dramatic impact on my generation of poets. It’s still hard to find a book of prose poems as radical as this one Williams penned in 1920.

Kessinger Editions of Whitefish, Montana, a publisher of rare book reprints, has however republished Kora. Kessinger has also published three other early Williams volumes: Sour Grapes (the book immediately prior to Spring & All), Al Que Quiere, and The Tempers. In short, all of Williams’ work that is now in the public domain. This doesn’t solve my problem with the lack of a stand-alone Spring & All, and I haven’t seen these editions, so I can’t tell you how well or badly they’ve been done. But I’m very glad to see that they exist.

Labels:



Tuesday, August 05, 2008

 

I could tell you I’m taking the day off, it being my birthday & all, but the truth is that I’m on my second business trip in as many weeks and just too darn busy.

Labels:



Monday, August 04, 2008

 


photo by Kaplan Harris

Andy Gricevich on the work of Barrett Watten

Watten’s talk on
”The Expanded Object of the Poetic Field;
or, What is a Poet / Critic?”
(PDF)

§

Gricevich & Carrie Etter on Chicago Public Radio

§

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is dead

§

The house of John Ashbery

Ashbery in Italian

§

Poetry and Public Language:
the book

 “Poetry is slow politics

On Poetry and Public Language

No Way Out

No hope for the disappeared

On misusing history

§

Terence Winch on Tim Dlugos

§

My nightmare

§

Mark Nowack on Bill Griffiths

“A working-class hero is something to be”

Alan Gilbert takes the bait

Gilbert on
art and/or propaganda

Freestyle or fakin’ it

Dreams as the brain’s Draino

§

Otoliths

§

Sharon Mesmer on the “I” in flarf

flarf strikes back?

§

Alejandro Aura has died

§

Sonnets and Comedies

§

Defending O’Hara’s Collected

§

Oranges & Sardines

§

Summer camp with Bernadette Mayer

§

The growing world reputation of
José Garcia-Villa

§

Marianne Moore & Magic Johnson

§

From A to Zyxt

§

Small Press Traffic
is looking for a leader

§

Reading Hejinian Slowly

§

Reginald Shepherd on Jack Spicer

§

“the Jerry Seinfeld of American poetry”

§

On difficulty, real or feigned

§

Michael Palmer’s selected essays

§

The Irish-American anthology that never was

§

“World’s first poetry anthology…
by lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans
Christians

§

Third Word:
Post-Socialist Poetry

§

Southern Appalachian Poetry

§

Lucia Perillo on Kenneth Patchen

§

Natasha Trethewey’s Canadian roots

§

Coconut

§

A poetry bookstore in Beacon, NY

§

Pierre Berès has died

§

Andrew Crozier & literary connection

§

Poetry’s back in Baltimore

§

Why D.A. Powell isn’t a critic

Catholic (big C) tastes in poetry

Powell on Alice Dunbar-Nelson

§

Juvenilia for Spring & All

Ginsberg on Creeley & Williams

§

Alvin Feinman has passed away

§

The Epithalamium of Harry Matthews

§

Rejecting Bill Knott

§

The Pigeon Poetry Project

§

Emily Dickinson & radical Tom

A new reading of Emily Dickinson

Alberto Mancini’s ED-based paintings

§

More poetry of Radovan Karadzic,
this time from
Iowa City

The Bad Poets’ Society

§

Helping a bookstore expand

§

Terence Winch on Doug Lang

§

“Untouchable” poetics

§

Mary Karr on Etheridge Knight

§

Restarting the rep of Felicia Hemans

§

Going back with Christopher Wiseman

§

Two books by William Michaelian

§

Roberto Bolaño’s “Clara”

§

Kipling’s elegy for his son

§

The science of satire

§

Horsies!

& more horsies!

§

Poetry & medicine

§

LA bids farewell to
Scott Wannberg

§

Rereading Tipton’s Sophocles

§

What is literacy, anyway?

§

Kay Ryan’s wild ride

Assessing Kay Ryan

malnourished,
under muscled,
simply lifeless
 and still as a rusty coin in a cushion crack

§

Al Young’s latest collection

§

On David Orr’s Baraka

§

Dave P. Fisher has won
the Will Rogers Medallion

§

Anne Stevenson’s latest foreword

§

A Better Class of Doggerel

§

Aussie books want trade protection

§

Literary geography

§

Scruffy is unamused

He’s the bookies’ favorite
in the Mann-Booker long list

Fatwa memoir forthcoming?

A Salman Rushdie podcast (MP3)

On writing Midnight’s Children

§

A novel-a-day for 3 months?

§

The Forward Prize shortlists

India roots for one of its own

§

Orwell’s diaries

§

Shakespeare in your brain

§

20th century poetry,
from a Tamil point-of-view

§

A visit with Sam Cornish

§

Mary Ann O’Gorman’s Life in This House

§

Pitching every woman’s book as “chick lit

§

Talking with Charmai Lai Chaman

§

Talking with Doris Lessing

§

Milwaukee’s team readies
for the National Slam

Madison readies for 76 teams

§

Updating campus bookshops

§

In Edinburgh, James Thin bookshops
are set to disappear
tho the bookstores themselves will survive

§

Poetry & the origins of fly fishing

§

More regulations coming
on file sharing at school

§

Poetry & the material world

§

Murder at the book warehouse

§

A literary renaissance in Point Reyes?

§

Remembering Zbignew Herbert

§

Henry Gould & All

§

Pasternak & creativity

Poetry & the Russian Soul

§

Poetry vs. poetics
plus a game
plus a forthcoming conference

§

Not George Bush’ poet laureate

§

E.M. Forster, Middle Manager

§

Poetry at the Calgary Fringe Fest

§

Dear temperamental adjective

§

A unique writing program in Arvon

§

A television prop
comes to life

§

Microsoft adds tools
for academic publishing

§

Ishmael Reed’s “informed rant”

§

Talking with Ray Bradbury

§

The heritage of gout

§

This is a break-even proposition
if & only if
Tao Lin’s novel makes $31,250
worth of royalties
(do the math here)

§

vomitous stupidity

§

Art + kitsch = ?

§

Buildings have a short list too

§

Apollinaire & Picasso

§

The films of Ish Klein

§

Peter Schjeldahl on “After Nature”
at the New Museum

§

Ad Reinhardt at the Guggie

§

The London art market

& the dysfunctional one in China

§

Hirst’s first – a blow
to the gallery system?

§

Henry Darger’s room

§

Harold & Clement

§

Saving Pollock’s Mural
in the
Iowa City flood

§

Saving rock art

§

Great art disasters

§

Robert Irwin
on the
Getty Gardens

§

The “Mr. Big” of indigenous art

§

Dance + Visual Art = performance??

§

Said on music

§

Does post-genre music really exist?

§

Gilberto Gil chooses
art over politics

§

New Albion goes to Bard

§

Don’t forget Comic-Con

§

The comic art of Gary Sullivan

§

Dissing anthropology

§

The Antikythera Mechanism

§

Kevin Bacon rules

§

Unfortunately, so does Main Core

Labels: ,



This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?