Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Against Unity (part two)
(part one here)
I first began thinking in the early 90s about the disruptive, impure, and nightmarish possibilities of hybrid aesthetics. It has influenced a great deal of my writing and, perhaps more importantly for this forum, played a hidden but nonetheless essential role in the essays gathered in the anthology I edited with Steven Marks, Telling It Slant: Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990s (University of Alabama Press 2002), a text that has been insufficiently mentioned in recent discussions of hybrid aesthetics.
To my thinking during the 90s, the hybrid was valuable because it challenged ideas of singularity and purity that I saw as much among writers invested in avant garde, experimental, or non-traditional approaches to literature (feel free to pick your own singular term and its own singular problems) as among writers who denied that those alternatives had value or that they themselves were part of a specific tradition (if there are no alternatives, a tradition isn’t a tradition, it’s simply “all there is”). I noted then something that remains true today: the need to define poetry by the singular, and the fear of the inchoate chaos that might result if one does not, remains a guiding principle of many poetics discussions.
The fear is related to fears about loss of identity, loss of a public profile, and finally loss of all attention. It is related to the fear of democracy both in politics and in poetry, or at least to the fear that democracy might actually be the same as chaos (or its more passive version, an “everything goes” liberalism). I don’t intend simply to criticize such fears, to suggest that the world of poetry will be healed (is it sick, and if it was, mightn’t one want that?) by getting over them. There are worthwhile concerns nestled within the often troubling ways these fears manifest themselves, a point I’ll return to.
My own essay in Telling It Slant, “Towards A Free Multiplicity of Form,” focused on the relation between literary technique, historical context, and social group dynamics among poets. I suggested that it was increasingly unlikely that poets would know only, or work only within, one literary tradition. Instead, many poets now work with an awareness of multiple and global poetic traditions. Insistence on the primacy of any single literary tradition seems more than ever like narrow-minded provincialism. I also raised questions about the relation between innovative literary technique and political/cultural radicalism; historically, those two don’t always match, although manifestos about radical literary techniques frequently align themselves with the desire for large scale social revolution. At the time of the essay’s writing in the mid-90s, there were at least five different, broadly successful schools of thought in U.S. poetry: traditional formalist poetry; MFA narrative and lyrical free verse poetry; a more overtly political poetry of identity raising issues of race, gender, and class; New American poetry; and the New American offshoot of language poetry and other radical aesthetic, often politicized approaches.
At the time, describing U.S. poetry production that way was already overly schematic (something I acknowledged) even as the world of poetry was further changing and splintering. But if there was in the mid-90s a minimum of five major schools of poetic thought in the U.S., the idea of a two party-system (for instance, Ron Silliman’s split between School of Quietude and New American poetries, which has more significance historically than currently), or the notion of a “third way” (which was, at best, in the late 90s no more than a sixth way) was even then an oversimplification. And if trying to isolate U.S. poetic production from the larger global contexts with which it interacts is closer to troubling nationalism than accurate description, the idea of there being only two or three approaches quickly becomes ludicrous.
Not unexpectedly, while the published reviews of Telling It Slant were on the whole positive, the work in that anthology, and of the writers associated with it, was often criticized for lacking direction, or some similar problem that can simply be put as lacking an obvious singularity of poetics. It was conveniently ignored that the introduction that Steven and I wrote highlighted that the anthology purposefully intended to refuse singular answers while pointing to shared questions and the essential importance of disagreement, or that many of the essays were critical of traditions that defined themselves as singular or pure. The anthology did not highlight a singular poetics and therefore, for some people, did not create a recognizable identity. Did not do, that is, what an anthology of contemporary writing is supposed to do.
That anthology did not appear in a vacuum, of course. Many writers shared some of my ideas about the values of disunity (see for instance Steve Evans’ introduction to the Writing From The New Coast anthology, although I disagreed with Evans’ assertion that the writing which similarly interested us was in any shared sense anti-identity). Many others felt that what was needed were new movements, new schools that could be identified as such. Attempts to forge new group identities emerged in the 90s around the magazine Apex of the M, with its editorial insistence that American experimental poetries had neglected spirituality, or in the now long forgotten New Synthesis proposed by John Noto and others. There were also pseudo-groups created to make fun of the group identity impulse (The Bay Area’s New Brutalism, which came several years later, seems primarily to have been a joke). Nowhere is the group impulse and anti-group impulse more connected than in the currently both popular and reviled Flarf group, in which a group in-joke about writing bad poetry turned into a real school of poetics with a now widely recognized name. Flarf is definitely a group but it also makes fun of the group tendency through such practices as ironic, consciously collapsing manifestos.
In circles which had closer connection than I did to the production mechanisms of the 1990s MFA industry, similar responses to poetry group formation were at work. One manifested itself in the anthologies Lyrical Postmodernisms and The Iowa Anthology of New Poetries edited by the late Reginald Shepherd and another, after lurking for years, emerged more clearly in the 2009 anthology The American Hybrid edited by Cole Swenson and David St. John. In these anthologies, a different notion of hybrid emerged. This notion of hybrid tries to find similarity across divergent practices. It breaks down the idea of singular schools by looking for things different poetic groups have in common. It tries to find middle ground. It imagines itself, perhaps, as a new center, one from which the most extreme and divisive elements of divergent practices have been tempered or simply removed. In this imagining, it asserts a power relationship between and over various practices, one in which this new center masters the flaws and excesses of divergent schools of thought, in theory taking the best of each and disregarding the rest.
In rejecting excess and extremes, this notion of hybrid recalls Hegel’s concept of synthesis, which at least the no longer discussed approach of John Noto was willing to name directly. Without dwelling too long on the details of Hegel’s dialectic, which many of us probably already know, a prior set of competing claims in any given discourse is resolved by a synthesis of those claims, one which forms a new central idea. Of course that synthesis, when successful, is according to Hegel again soon opposed, an issue that most attempts at synthesizing contemporary poetry fail to recognize.
The notion of hybrid as synthesis seeks to undermine older competing unities but does so in the name of creating a new, inclusive (but also exclusive), non-competing unity. It’s fascinating that a concept of hybridity, of disrupting the singular, should become a way of creating a new singular. As if one might use a new concept of transgression in order to tame old transgressions. As if the notion of hybridity can become a normative new that can keep monstrous hybrids from being born.