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…


stan said...

You definitely demonstrate some kinks in my reasoning. As for the question of what kind of politics are allegorized in different leftist experimental texts, I would say generally a Marxist politics in which it is assumed that the ideal Marxist future transcends description (and in fact attempts at describing it are antithetical to its development), and therefore the poet allegorizes this undescribable and not-yet-fully-conceivable future by producing language objects which either

1) avoid description


2) describe minute particulars but avoid building these up into scenes

Of course, the attack is not only on description; the poet also tries to reduce the conceptual materials of language into a highly active potential state, so that qualities such as argument and reasoning are replaced by the potential for argument and reasoning. These raw materials of conceptualization that are produced are allegorically understood to be the raw materials from which a not-yet-conceivable future might arise.

This is complicated by the fact that, according to Bruce Andrews, "the most important thing in writing is not to create an allegory," and yet I think he in fact does create an allegory in many of his texts, of the type I just described.

I agree that Rodchenko and El Lissitzky did great political art, in their case because they brought such a brilliant sense of design to it. I guess design, along with humor, is another element that saves art of this type.

stan said...

I should probably have been using the word "analogy" instead of "allegory" here; there's definitely slippage happening. Hmmm. . . We should really discuss these things over a drink (to avoid leaving embarassing records)