Monday, November 21, 2005

Secret's slipped: The Germ, issues 6 & 7, and also selections from past issues. Online now.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Remarks, favorable and not, on Robert Altman’s Nashville at SFJ & konvolut m.

I feel compelled to butt in – along with Coppola’s Conversation, I place Nashville somewhere near the top of my list of great American films of the 1970s. I came to this film cold at age nineteen, an Altman virgin, with no love for country & western and total ignorance of Pauline Kael and her cult of geniuses. Franklin cites Henry Gibson’s recording of “200 Years,” a buffoonish bicentennial number that opens the film ("We must be doing something right to last...two-hundred years!"), as one reason the movie’s not a bust. Let’s enumerate some more:

*Lily Tomlin, in her first screen role, plays a gospel singer in a black choir. Lily Tomlin, in her first screen role, plays a gospel singer in a black choir.

*Jeff Goldblum: ghostrider motorcycle hero.

*Shelley Duvall’s “L.A. Joan.” Her lame California grooviness.

*The voluptuous horror of Karen Black.

*Geraldine Chaplin’s patronizing, annoyingly liberal BBC journalist. On watching the black choir: “That rhythm is fantastic. You know, it's funny. You can tell it's come down in the genes through ages and ages and hundreds of years, but it's there. And take off those robes and one is in darkest Africa. I can just see them - naked frenzied bodies dancing in the heat they carry on like that in church?”

*Gwen Welles, the tone-deaf wannabe country singer. Her excruciating naïveté.

*The touch-her-she’ll-faint fragility of Ronnee Blakely’s Loretta Lynnish Barbara Jean.

*The opening credit sequence!

*The voice of Replacement Party candidate Hal Phillip Walker. Ross Perot avant le lettre? His political koans. “When you pay more for an automobile than it cost Columbus to make his first voyage to America, that's politics”.

*The car crash sequence. Brilliantly shot.

If there’s a weakness in the film, it’s Keith Carradine. He just seems so unengaged.

Nashville was released the year I was born, so I don’t have much of a sense of what it felt like to live in 1975 – but I feel that this film most closely approximates what 1975 was like, or rather, what I imagine 1975 to have been like – a sort of post-revolutionary wandering stillness, where events happen but the particularity of those events are inconsequential – where a car crash that holds up traffic for a few hours is as significant as an assassination.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

In the comments to my last post on n/OULIPO, Stan Apps writes:

…In my opinion, formalizing avant-gardes, such as L=A=N=G=u=a=g=e [that was a mistake, but it looks pretty] argue themselves as political due to an allegorical similarity between their poetic practices and some sort of concept of political structure. For example, a Jackson Mac Low poem might be organized in ways that are similar to an anarchist society, in an allegorical sense, just as the Fairy Queen was organized in ways that were similar to a totalitarian monarchy, in an allegorical sense. However, these formalizing avant-garde approaches are really less relevant to politics than topical political writing (agitprop). Agitprop, however, is embarrassing, unless it's funny, so most poetic agitprop seems dated and absurd (like much of Baraka say) and only a little stays good (like mid-to-late Ginsberg (in my opinion)).

And here's the point of critique: old formalist avant-garde work can be turned into professional credentials, whereas old agitprop writing can't. Which seems like a clear sign that the politics of the avant-garde formalist are usually less intended to produce political effects, and more intended to further the artist's reputation, though such works might have a secondary political intention. And I'm okay with secondary political intentions. But, here's the downside, formalizing avant-gardes tend to disdain more direct expressions of political ideology, and it's at the moment when non-allegorized political discourse is rejected by such movements that professionalization is privileged over ideology.

First, if I follow Stan’s reasoning in the first paragraph, this would mean that the poetic practice of the language poets has an allegorical similarity to a political structure. But which political structure? Marxism? If not Marxism, then is it just a general oppositional left critique of consumer culture? If Marxism, how is Rae Armantrout’s Up to Speed, for instance, a Marxian text? I think it would be a mistake to group the poetics and politics of a disparate group of writers such as the language poets under a single umbrella. Maybe some of them simply don’t “argue themselves political”… I realize these are old and much-hashed-out questions, that there’s a rather large discourse around this issue…actually, googling just now, I found some excerpts from a book by George Hartley that ask just these questions, so maybe I’ll drop this line of reasoning. But I want to point out that (shuffling from writing to visual art) El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko, Kazimir Malevich, and the Russian Constructivists were at once formally avant-garde and agitprop, and I don’t think their work is particularly embarrassing or absurd (perhaps dated, but only insofar as any historical avant-garde is dated – as a matter of fact, the pop group Franz Ferdinand uses a Rodchenko-inspired design on their new album cover – now there’s a confusing forest of signs! What would the Archduke think? But perhaps the artist would find it a riot…) Additionally, doesn’t it seem that if agitprop writing cannot be turned into professional credentials the same should be true, perhaps even more so, of radical activity? Angela Davis teaches at UC Santa Cruz, and former Weather Underground members Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn teach at the University of Illinois and Northwestern University, respectively…

Friday, November 04, 2005

This Is Our Only World: A Report on the n/OULIPO Conference, Part 4

Nota Bene: Matias Viegener notes that, besides Gilles Deleuze, the other literary model for “experimental potential” he mentioned in his talk is Alexius Meinong, an Austrian philosopher, phenomenologist and experimental psychologist whose 1905 book On Assumptions discusses the assumptions humans make in believing they know or do not know a particular truth (this according to the Encyclopedia Britannica).

The final panel of the n/OULIPO conference was the “Summary Panel”, which included novelist Janet Sarbanes, art historian Johanna Drucker, and poet Tan Lin. Art and poetry critic Carrie Noland moderated. Sarbanes summarized the conference using an “I Remember” constraint, switching mid-talk to an “I Wonder” constraint. It was much more elegant than the rather long summary I’ve composed here, and since you can now read Sarbanes’ piece in its entirety over at Stephanie Young’s blog, I’ll move on to Johanna Drucker’s presentation. Drucker started by reading short poems that seemed to derive from keywords culled from each of the panelists’ talks. She explained that the long history of experimentalism in literature has two cultural traditions we can think about: Romanticism, which tends to the transcendental, and another nameless tradition that resists escape, resists the transcendental. Contra the theorization of much of the 20th century avant-garde, Drucker insists the “experiential” in experimentalism is not an act of liberation. She urges artists and writers to think of their work not as countercultural, but cultural. Drucker tires of the avant-garde and its strict pedanticism, which chides the adventurous artist, “you haven’t performed the avant-garde tradition correctly,” and pulls the artist back to a supposedly “liberating” space. She asked: what will the Oulipo be in 135 years? Her admittedly wicked answer: the seeds of current experimentalism will be muzak played in grocery stores; Perec will be handed out as reading material for kindergartners; in short, the strategies of the Oulipo will be absorbed and integrated into the cultural mainstream, and she looks forward to it.

Tan Lin spoke next, very briefly. As I mentioned before, he spoke of Stephanie Young & Juliana Spahr’s performance in relation to the “dated critical object” and wondered if there was a connection between Oulipian practice and the contemporary practice of sampling. Then something curious happened. Almost off-handedly (I didn’t notice it at first) Lin mentioned the “dematerialization” of the art-object. Johanna Drucker in response insisted that there is no such thing as dematerialization, that dematerialization is a myth. She claimed she had totally “lapsed” and no longer believes in the transcendental or utopian space (there seemed to be some slippage around the axis of terms “transcendental”, “utopian”, and “liberated space” that needed some sussing out). If we say that liberation or utopianism should be a goal in our cultural work, Drucker implied, we condemn ourselves to product-oriented results. Concerning dematerialization, Brian Kim Stefans asked from the audience: what about the data I lost on my computer last week? Drucker: That proves just how material the data was, that it was simply information imbedded on a silicon chip and subject to the laws of the material world. Stefans: what about the artist Vito Acconci and his performance Seedbed, where the artist hid underneath a gallery-wide ramp installed at the Sonnabend Gallery and masturbated while reciting his fantasies about the gallery-goers walking on the ramp above him? Drucker: sounds pretty material to me!

Johanna Drucker, Sweet Dreams:
Contemporary Art and Complicity

I’d like to think about Drucker’s remarks in the context of her latest book, Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity. There Drucker argues that much contemporary art has a complicit relationship with mass-media and the culture-industry, that art (or at least some art) no longer engages in the kind of oppositional critique that has been the hallmark of the avant-garde for the last century and a half, and that critical response to such art has failed to find a language to accommodate such changes. The rhetoric of radicality, says Drucker, has become formulaic and academic; opposition, negative criticality, and esoteric resistance are outmoded:

That stubbornly persistent belief in radical aesthetics is the baby to be thrown out here. The tenacious core of outmoded discourse is that art exists to serve some utopian agenda of social transformation through intervention in the symbolic orders of cultural life. Its dreadful, reified rhetoric of elitist posturing passes itself off as the spirit of political heroism. Far from the fray of real politics, from grass roots community organizing or lobbying agencies, this has become the managed , bureaucratic discourse of new academicism, as repressively formulaic as any of the nineteenth-century salon and atelier styles it disdains. . . .Entrenched and unchallenged, this academic discourse largely serves careeristic or professional interests, while claiming a revolutionary, even proletarian (can we really even still write that word?!?) agenda. Getting free of the grip of habits of thought engrained in this critical legacy is essential if we are to reimagine our relationship to the world of aesthetic experience – and of actual politics as well.
(Drucker, 49-50)

I must admit I was pretty angry when I first read this. I went to school in the mid-to-late 90s and was taught to think critically about culture; the writings of the Frankfurt School, the structuralists, the post-structuralists – for better or worse they've all formed the basis of my collegiate education. And I realize Drucker is not asking us to abandon critical thought. “Nowhere am I suggesting that the culture industry,” she writes, “once deemed the devil incarnate, is now our new best friend. Nor am I pretending that the politics of independent or alternative thought should be abandoned.” But I think she does have a point in regard to certain kinds of art (and I realize she’s writing mostly about visual art in this book, but I think she would make the same arguments about language arts); perhaps we do need a new critical language to account for the likes of Gregory Crewdson, Lisa Yuskavage, or John Currin. But how can we do so and continue to fight, in Rodrigo Toscano’s words, a “hegemony that’s actively colluding with Capital’s violence-military wars, poverty-engineering wars, and (so intense this) the war against the social emancipatory imagination” and continue a “counter-hegemonic perspective that allows for the engagement of different levels of negative receptivity”? I get the feeling Johanna Drucker may still believe in the imagination but not in its social emancipation. Certainly she sees no value in negative receptivity. To my mind these were some of the issues floating in the ether during the last day of the n/OULIPO conference. And though it was perhaps orthogonal to the conference topic, I would have liked to see a bit more debate around these issues, since they seem so important both to the present moment and to many of the conference participants; for instance, I wonder how Stephanie Young & Juliana Spahr’s performance, which invoked an oppositional avant-garde strategy, fits into Drucker’s critical framework, or even if Young & Spahr consider their performance to be in alliance with the social emancipatory imagination.

I’ll end on two lighter notes:

Johanna Drucker mentioned that hearing the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as muzak in Wal-Mart is the ultimate defamiliarization experience. For members of my generation, however, this is totally familiar. Possibly even expected. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was turned into muzak less than a year after it was top of the pops.

Paul Fournel said that the Oulipo was not so interested in constraints in the visual arts. I asked Ian Monk anyway whether the Oulipo had any official position on Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 film movement, which seems influenced by Oulipian techniques. Monk stared into space, deep in memory: “The Celebration. What a terrific film.”

Thursday, November 03, 2005

I've made a correction to my first post on the n/OULIPO conference. Doug Nufer sends word that the book he had the prisoners read was not Never Again (where no word is repeated), but Negativeland (where each sentence has a negative construction). Also the song Nufer sang was "Star Dust" with the lyrics rearranged by spoonerism and inversion.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

This Is Our Only World: A Report on the n/OULIPO Conference, Part 3

I kept notes diligently during every panel throughout the n/OULIPO conference except one: “The Politics of Constraint.” The speakers were poets Rodrigo Toscano, Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, and sound-poet Christian Bök. Jen Hofer moderated. There were rumors hours before the panel began that something remarkable was afoot, and any panel with the word “politics” in its title is sure to be interesting, if not necessarily contentious; but the politics panel proved to be the most thought-provoking panel of the entire conference. I stopped taking notes simply because I felt I was missing too much (though ultimately by not taking notes I missed more) and because I wanted to pay close attention to what was being said. Rodrigo Toscano presented first. If you’re at all familiar with Toscano’s work, you’d know that he agrees with the Historical Materialists that “poems act as a barometer of one’s developing social consciousness” and that one of his tasks is to begin to imagine “a new internationally committed political poetry, with enough negativity and critical reflexivity to last into the night.” (Those quotes are taken not from the Oulipo conference, but from a talk [warning: pdf file] he gave at the UPenn “Poetry and Empire” conference in October 2003). I bring these quotes up not only to highlight a facet of Toscano’s poetics, but because I want to read them against something Johanna Drucker mentioned in the summary panel. But I’ll get to that later. For n/OULIPO, Toscano presented an allusive, poetic text that, if I remember correctly, played off the political connotations of the words “constraint” and “restraint”. I remember: “You givin' me lip?”. I remember: “New…lip…oh?” (I’ve asked Toscano to comment on his talk and if he does so I’ll mention it here).* In the meantime, I’ve found an excerpt of the play/poem he read from on Friday night. It was published in the latest Jacket Magazine: “Traux Inimical.”

Six Oulipian Men (facing, l to r: Jean Lescure,
François Le Lionnais, Raymond Queneau; backs
to the camera, l to r: Noël Arnaud, Claude Berge &
Jacques Duchateau

Next, Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young read from a piece they wrote together (they seamlessly read alternating sentences). I noticed something strange right away; at first I thought one of them had a speech impediment, or that Spahr, who had spent some time teaching in Hawai'i, was reading in Hawai’i Creole English, but I quickly figured out that they simply weren’t pronouncing the letter r in the words of their sentences (it almost sounded like Elmer Fudd-speak, or as one audience member put it, baby-talk; so that, for instance, “writer” was continuously pronounced “wite” – a method that made a poignant point in phrases like “the wites of the Oulipo”). Let me be clear: this piece was about many things, and I don’t mean to be reductive or inaccurate, but I’m working not from notes but memory, so what I’m about to relate (like everything I’ve related about the conference) is only fragmentary. Stephanie Young said she may elaborate on her blog, The Well-Nourished Moon. Spahr & Young’s talk frequently made reference to female artists of the 1960s, 70s and 80s who foregrounded the body in their artwork – Carolee Schneeman, Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke, Marina Abramovic, Kathy Acker – (and, I may be wrong about this, but if memory serves it was only when Spahr & Young mentioned these artists’ names that the letter r returned and was fully pronounced). They had noticed that several young, usually male writers whose work is influenced by the Oulipo have been able to successfully pass off their work as “radical” or “revolutionary”, while several young, usually female artists whose work is influenced by the body art of the 1970s have had their work dismissed as “old-hat” or “derivative”. Spahr & Young also noted that the Oulipo and the body artists developed their art and strategies during roughly the same era (the 1960s and 70s); the former are often spoken of as a cohesive group even as their individual projects differ, while the latter are rarely spoken of as a group or movement at all. Young & Spahr thus made a case for “carrying the body forward”. At a certain point during their talk, Young & Spahr stopped speaking “live” and a recording came on that continued their essay (complete with the poets alternating their sentences, though I believe during this recording the letter r was pronounced). While the recording projected their voices (disembodied, as it were) the two poets very matter-of-factly undressed. Meanwhile, 2 naked men and 1 naked woman casually walked down the theater aisle, sat down in seats near the front of the theater, and started reading. When Spahr & Young finished undressing they put their clothes back on, undressed once more, and put their clothes back on again. All this was going on as the recording of their text continued to be recited over the theater’s PA system. I believe they repeated this action once more before the piece ended. Content & form had often been debated & discussed during the conference, but this was the only piece that put the tension of those two terms to work viscerally; even as the very important content of their essay demanded close scrutiny, the form (both in the disembodied vocal aspect and the clearly embodied physical aspect) could not be ignored. The fact that such form has been ignored, dismissed, or otherwise rejected by self-described members of the avant-garde was part of the point (Though perhaps the case can be made that the critical reception of the work of 70s body artists has focused too much on form and not enough on content. You're only paying attention to form! You're only paying attention to content! Someone said: Harry Mathews was disappointed when reviewers would pay attention only to the formal logic of Perec's novels and not their beautiful narrative content). Some mentioned that the absent letter r represented the absent female subject. The poet Tan Lin speculated that their performance demonstrated the "dated critical object". Anyway, I’d like to hear from others who were present, or from anyone who cares to amend or correct any mistakes in my account (I’m sure there’s a few and it's obviously not comprehensive). I don’t want to be the only narrator. I’m especially looking forward to anything Stephanie Young may write about this talk/performance, as she hinted she may do. A few other notes regarding Spahr & Young’s talk: in Q&A later that night, Oulipian Ian Monk pointed out that simply not using or pronouncing the letter r in a text does not a constraint make. For it to be a constraint the absent letter r would have had to determine which words were actually used, which didn’t seem to be the case. Monk also referred to their performance as a “strip-tease” (is it possible he’s just ignorant of the body art history referenced by Young & Spahr? at any rate – poor and inconsiderate choice of words), which term, inexplicably, was repeated by summary panelist Tan Lin. One more note: I’ve noticed Los Angeles poet Catherine Daly (who was noticeably absent from the conference – if any local poet should have been invited to be a panelist it’s her) has posted a few thoughts about what kind of performance she might have done. She also contrasts Young & Spahr’s performance with the recent Fence Magazine cover controversy.

Christian Bök presented the final paper for the “Politics of Constraint” panel. The contrast with Young & Spahr’s piece could only have been more exaggerated if Hulk Hogan gave the talk. (That’s actually quite unfair of me – Bök’s talk was terrific, but there seemed to be some unacknowledged questions of gender and performance in what one audience member described as Bök’s “machine-like,” “masculine,” forceful presentation. Said Bök: I saw nothing gendered about my presentation; I was simply reading a straight academic paper in accord with the traditions of the discipline. The audience, in response, laughed in disbelief). Bök, a member of the UbuWeb collective, spoke specifically about the politics of the Oulipo. Or rather the Oulipo’s lack of a coherent political program. Whereas most avant-garde movements throughout the 20th century made politics a central tenet of their respective organizations, the Oulipo, despite its individual members’ left-leaning proclivities, has declined to articulate a politics. The Surrealists – with whom the Oulipo’s founder Raymond Queneau was briefly affiliated – despite their shortcomings, nevertheless managed to sustain a social critique that is absent from the Oulipo charter (my two-cents: this question of the politics of the Surrealists and the perceived lack of Oulipian politics may be elucidated by a reading of Raymond Queneau’s semi-autobiographical novel Odile, wherein the commitment of the Surrealist-like group is portrayed as superficial and opportunistic). The College of ‘Pataphysics, the Oulipo’s immediate precursor, was named as an organization that still retained a certain level of positive political activity. For Bök, whose UbuWeb group is greatly influenced by the Oulipo, the lack of social critique by the Oulipo is a kernel of unrealized potential that still needs to be cracked. Needless to say, the Oulipians present vehemently disagreed. Paul Fournel mentioned an article penned by Jacques Roubaud that explicitly criticizes French Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen (using a constraint, of course). Fournel also took issue with the implied political commitment of the College of ‘Pataphysics.

Well I had meant for this to be the final post on the conference, but I think there's enough here to consider for now. I would still like to play those earlier quotes (and others) from Rodrigo Toscano against a few things Johanna Drucker mentioned in the summary panel. Looks like there'll be a Part 4.

*Update: The piece Toscano read at n/OULIPO was called "De-Liberating Freedoms in Transit," an excerpt of which can be found at Silliman's Blog.