“They imagine a future by practicing it.”
– Michael Davidson, on the non-democratic and elitist writing communities
So, I just got back from attending my first &NOW Festival of New Writing in San Diego. Overall, I enjoyed the balance of panels celebrating experimentation and panels attempting to engage texts or movements more critically. I am writing to document my interactions with Johannes Göransson and Vanessa Place, not because I have a rigid plan to offer, but because we need to find ways to have such difficult and complex conversations, rather than tending to shy away from them feeling relatively justified in the sacred name of our pleasure. Poetry and poetics matter because words create the contours of what we can do.
As the main standout, I really liked Johannes Göransson’s talk on the Lion King film and Raul Zurita where he said he was more interested in the artists who respond to evil or oppressive violence through pageantry or performance or even fun; rather than the traditional attempts artists usually make by asking audience members to see themselves from a critical distance as a result of the art experience. How could you not be intrigued by such a refreshing line of thinking?
But then a question started gnawing at me. I don’t like it when this happens; my heart starts to race; my palms begin to sweat. All this happens not just because I haven’t been formally trained to bounce my voice off of the back wall of the room but also because it means I have to ask the damn thing in public. The public commons is a funny thing. You can feel when a group of people is not interested in thinking critically. This is usually the case. After all, who isn’t mainly interested in hir own pleasure? If you had a butter knife, you could cut in two the public desire to be left alone with its celebrations.
Anyway, I raised my hand, warned that my question may seem moralistic, and asked the damned thing: what does it mean when evil becomes fun? What does it mean, as a goal, to meet totalitarian violence with violent (spectacular) art? How does evil (turned out by fascists like Pinochet, or in by artists like Zurita who had poured acid on his face as a metaphor for totalitarian oppression) not become a distraction or an act of mere entertainment? In order words, what happens when injustice becomes fun or a pageant of performing bodies?
Here are a few more questions that come to mind as I reflect: Can art, as a goal, be more than fun? Should art, as a goal, be more than a parade manifesting the gaudy possibilities of experience through the streets or through the halls of academia? What is the difference between a parade and a protest march? Is claiming the privilege to feel proud for existing as the thing that is possible to manifest the best that art can do or is art more imbedded in life than that?
My other main learning moment at the &NOW Festival in San Diego in 2011 came during the panel I organized on the manifesto. Before I recount my recollection of the dialogue of this moment, I’ll frame how I envisioned the scope of the panel discussion. I’d hoped my event would change some minds and hearts about the received categories through which we usually experience the new. I’d hoped this event would challenge performers and listeners alike to reconsider received ideas about our association of the new as the good. Out of this discomfort, I’d hoped empathy and tolerance would grow since these practices have never been more needed than they are now, which of course is forever and in the future.
The manifesto moment came and went in a blinding flash of bravado just about a century ago. Much given to mimesis, the manifesto wanted to show that not only art for art’s sake was possible, but that life for life’s sake was also possible. Why divide art from life? Who benefits by these divisions of labor? A little later, Walter Benjamin wondered: what is the new without the question of freedom, but mere fashion? What kinds of writing become possible after we stop trying to “make it the new”? How do you imagine your freedom? Was Andy Warhol doing a kind of social Jujitsu move on capitalism by removing his body from the art making process, or was he a just another sellout looking to make a buck?
I’d wanted to invite participants to use the has-been manifesto form to tell/show/perform the has-been idea of “make it new”? I’d intended for our brief statements of formal alarm to guide, convince, and convert us to the possibility of possibility in writing today. How can we imagine an affirmative postmodernism in the literary arts? I was curious to learn what would be our vision for the poetic future or for the future of poetry? How does the tone of the manifesto itself (us versus them) speak to the perpetual crises of form sparked by the death of the agent? (Why did the author die? How did multiculturalism kill the author? Well, the author cannot speak with authority because there are now multiple and valuable perspectives on what truth means.)
Such questions about the aesthetical and social commons rise out of my deep faith in skepticism and not out of a cynical presumption about the essence of the other. So, I was surprised when the normally composed Vanessa Place had an emotional explosion in response to my question. The very reason I had invited Vanessa Place was because of a certain vulnerability to the possible she demonstrated in responding to a question I had posed during the Q&A of the “Flarf and Conceptual Writing” panel at the AWP in Denver, 2010. My question was: “why does biography matter to “uncreative” writing?” She responded with what I took as genuine and unpracticed vulnerability: “I’m not sure that it does.” I’ve written more about the matter here.
The following is a recounting of this important dialectical (for me, anyway) conversation that I hope will continue and that others will join since hygienic objectivity has long been the dream of choice for some.
—start dialogue —
GT: Is progress, utopian visions, and an affirmative postmodernism possible anymore?
VP: NO! Postmodernism is over. We live in the age of Conceptualism which is characterized not by an inability to escape the text but by synchronicity. We need new language.
GT: What is a new way to say communism?
VP: [Rolling eyes; gesticulating with misanthropic enthusiasm.] What?!? I don’t even know what that means!
GT: [Temporarily stunned by Vanessa Place’s emotional deflection of the question, I have a flashback to my interactions with high school bullies who used emotion to gain the upper hand in tempo: someone from the audience speaks during this time and VP responds while calming down.]
VP: Each reader is responsible for the meaning she makes from the text or performance.
GT: I agree that we need new language. But we need to think of how we can be social together. We need a commons, we need a community. I agree with the subject-object ethics implicit in not presuming a certain effect on readers or audience. However, no matter how creatively we appropriate words from various contexts, the “I” that is doing such non-expression is still strung along by capital.
Again, the questions are part of an important discussion which requires courage to continue: how can the subject be happy and ethical in the information age? How might writers come to new and more inclusive language? How does emotion bolster and obfuscate reason? Where are the courage poets to continue the conversation (is one form or another) about how the individual writer can meet the plural other? This is not a call to arms. This is a call to fingers and words.
I wrote the following two satirical texts in response to my experience with Vanessa Place at the &NOW Festival in San Diego in 2011. For more context, please see the official &NOW Festival blog where versions of these writings were first published.
I recognize the need for distraction during wartime and I hope this helps.
22. Conceptual writing is a distraction.
1. Fame is a clown.
19. It is good to be a clown, unless it is bad to be a clown.
5. We delete the individual.
19. We need a commons of selves.
7. You are being distracted from what you are. Stop it.
5. You must have reliable internet service to be a conceptual poet.
16. Bluster is not a good solution.
4. Don’t get hysterical.
26. Get hysterical.
3. Do you know of any fun appropriation techniques?
8. Patriarchy is not a good solution.
17. Your tone is precision guided expression.
3. Flatness is the new agency.
3. This time, it’s personal.
3. This is a distraction, by any means necessary.
We is a Word that Gives You Meaning
Is the possible still possible today? I don’t even know what you mean! Not as dream, but as a practice. To demonstrate the contradictions of Liberal Democratic capitalism, we occupy space and serve as an amplification organ. The beautiful social mess of the People’s Mic permits individual voices to heckle the authority of self expression. We call and respond to the future. We are a high school clique following our leader because she knows how to butter our bread. We are here because we want new words that will set us free from the limits set upon us by corporate imaginations. We is a word that gives our identity a filigree border, without which we don’t even know what you mean. I don’t even know what you mean!
We is a word that gives you meaning. Americans with “fuck you” money live in their “fuck you” houses up on the “fuck you” hill. Nonetheless, we may be the most utopian category of all. A blind faith in moral progress is the elephant in every stanza you enter. We question our fashionable obsession with the new because it distracts us from our role in alms-justice. Community is not something you can opt in or out of like some wise barbarian. The commons is inside of you expressing itself through every choice you make or refuse to make. We will not go primitive nor fall through the trapdoor of dreaming. We demand the possible, now!