Saturday, April 08, 2006

The School of Resentment

At its simplest, the historical method is not interested in asserting the transcendent or autonomous aesthetic value of literary texts but, to use Marxist terminology, in researching the contexts of their production, consumption and status.

J. A. Cuddon
(Dictionary of Literary Terms)

Much of my disagreement with Dan Hoy and Chris Daniels and, to a lesser extent, R. J. McCaffery, stems from their (at least) implicit New Historicism. Since Flarf is not a stable historical phenomenon, however, this amounts more to the sense in which their perspective on Flarf is informed, let us say, by an amateur sociology of contemporary poetry (see Seth Abramson's widely discussed posts, for example.) It is a historicism of the present in the sense that it undertakes to judge contemporary literary works in terms of their historical moment(um), if you will, rather than their (more or less) "autonomous literary value". Since I simply insist on reading the poems, much of the conflict lies just as simply in their refusal to do the same.

So we might, as Comrade Daniels suggests, just leave each other alone. I could let them have their historical or sociological opinion of Flarf and they could let me value it aesthetically. Except, of course, that there is no sense in which a book I enjoy reading might conceivably be a "pretentious turd" unless I, as it were, like that sort of thing. So there is a real problem there. People like Hoy and McCaffery, who want to call Flarf pretentious, must, in order to convince me, say that particular poems pretend to be more than they are, and in order to do this they must, I would think, look at the poems and identify the relevantly pretentious parts of them. People who want to call it "crap" must also identify the parts of it that are worthless. And this must mean doing more than quoting (parts of it) and saying, "well, obviously, right?"

Another reason that I cannot simply ignore Hoy, Daniels and McCaffery (though there is a weariness in me that would have me do so, to be sure) is that my object, Flarf, actively implicates itself in historical and social concerns, i.e., in "the contexts of [its] production, consumption and status". It also, I would argue, actively engages with, overcomes, undermines, subsumes, subverts, evades, escapes, mocks, rejects, eschews, or even satisfies, the very judgement that "history" would bring to bear upon it. And, by extension, it pre-empts the new historicists critical objections. I want to say that at a programmatic level Flarf, and the critical conclusions I draw from it, asserts the immanent autonomy of literary texts, or what I have often (now) called the mission of a work of art to extricate itself from history. Kasey Mohammad made a permanent contribution to my understanding of Flarf on the Lucipo list when he suggested that there was an "ethical stickiness" to the poems.

[The following paragraph has been cleaned up a bit since being posted.]

Flarf seems to know with exceptional clarity what the historicist dimly perceives: that the artist is free but that beauty is difficult. The historicist converts a vague sense of this circumstance into a profoundly insensitive capacity to read a poem without looking at it (or, perhaps more charitably, to look at a poem without reading it). At its worst, as in the rantings of Comrade Daniels, it proceeds by first declaring that bourgeois poets are free and then suggesting that they've got it easy. This absolves him from having to appreciate the very particular (though of course limited) hardship of poetry. (Which is why it is odd to read that he is "interested in a very particular thing that [he's] noticed about flarf and flarfistes" [my emphasis].) It is only in historical hindsight (which the historicist, rightly, tries to correct) that the artist seems have been granted a transcendent space in which to move. At the time, we always work with what we have on hand.

It is disappointing (it is even a little sad) that the critics who are in an important sense best qualified to appreciate Flarf seem the least willing to do so. Harold Bloom's appelation, the School of Resentment, applies here almost too precisely. The opposite of "resentful" is, of course, "Tostian".


Clifford Duffy said...

how odd to see anyone using a phrase of Bloom's that is already built on a totalization of the field. After, all, Bloom is the hyper-reactive re-territorializer,the one who takes whatever anxiety is, turns it into a tool for reification and ossification. his entire work is a tribute to its own ossuary totalizing qualities. And poetics, poetics, poetics, one never hears the end of it. Well, as you may guess, the only poetics worth considering are the practical ones of a given moment, no more and no less...

Well, so it goes.
Long live the micro molecular. dont' ya thinK?
from the Land of Desire machines... I m not suggesting it's not an interesting phrase, but that what is 'behind' it, is dreadfully boring and reacive, in the true paranoid reactionary sense that deleuze and guattari describe in A/O.
so if one is using such a term it might be sagacious to re-define it.. n'est ce-pas?

As for poetry and context, well, pomes make their own context, at least those that create energy surpassing their circumstances... at least that's how we see it...

Thomas Basbøll said...


The phrase can be found in the first chapter of The Western Canon, which, yes, is certainly a "totalization" of literature. But I think he's right about historicism. I'm not going to defend his ideas about the anxiety of influence because I think his biographies are as uninteresting as the histories he (correctly) rejects. So I think I agree with your "it's an interesting phrase with something dreadfully boring behind it".

As for a poem creating its own context given that they create the necessary energy, however, that's the part of D&G that's never gotten through to me. I think poems are "machines" in precisely the sense that they can only leverage the energy available to them in their context. "Great" literature (Bloomian-canonical works) focus enormous amounts of energy (previously focused by other works). They "charge the language with meaning" as Pound says.

The question is what do you mean by "create energy surpassing their circumstances". Maybe my "conservatism" is simply my belief in first law of thermodynamics.

It would not surprise me if the "revolutionary" nature of D&G can be located in a denial of this law. It is a disagreement I would be willing to work out in some detail. Energy don't some out of nowhere.