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.”


chris said...

Thanks so much for this detailed report and response to the conference. I enjoyed reading it and the others you've posted this week.

Chris Murray

stan said...

I really liked all this material also. As for Drucker, I see her point, and I would take it in this direction:

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 Maclow 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 relevent to politics than topical political writing (agitprop). Agitprop, however, is embarrassing, unless it's funny, so most poetic agitprop seems dated and absurb (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 profesionalization is privileged over ideology.

A A Shirinyan said...

Very nice. Everything is sharp. So sharp, in fact, that I didn't have to be there. And the filter of your mind. The filter of your mind is inviting.


Joseph said...

Unfortunately the filter of my mind filters too much.

jane said...

Only in America are people anxious about whether we can "use the world 'proletariat' anymore." Thinking about "dematerialization" outside a context of the material life of social classes is literal non-sense; it involves, for example, pretending that what's happening in France right now is somehow not happening, or must not mean exactly what it means.

jpb said...

Drucker's critique seems similar to the one that Marcuse raises in, er, One-Dimensional Man [?] where he claims that technological rationality is "flattening out" the oppositional dimension of art. Perhaps the difference between Marcuse in 1964 and Drucker in 2005 is the difference between articulating the danger of this flattening happening in the future and articulating the realization that this flattening has happened in the recent past?

Nick Piombino said...

In one of her books, Johanna Drucker takes her critique of professionalism in art back to the Middle Ages when one particular monk got the idea of improving book production by creating assembly lines; she lamented that this ended the practice of monks being permitted to spend entire days on one illuminated letter- (I think this is in her History of the Alphabet book.) I love it when academics excoriate academia, and avant-gardists excoriate the avant-garde. This aids in the effort of learning to distinguish hype from hope. Thanks for the report!