Saturday, December 06, 2008

Flarf's Kopóltuš (4): A Theoretical Interlude

Lemon Hound has an auspiciously named series called "How Poems Work". It reminds me a bit of Simon DeDeo's Rhubarb is Susan—especially with its focus on one poem at a time. Like Simon, it also has good taste; the poems that are examined in the series are definitely worth looking at.

But two recent posts on Flarf, at least, strike me as a bit too theoretical for the "how things work" genre. Ryan Fitzpatrick's post on Katie Degentesh's "No One Cares Much What Happens to You" begins with a quote from Baudrillard about "the ecstasy of the social". That's a perfectly interesting notion, of course, and the post is a worthwhile read, to be sure. But it suggests something more in spirit of a program of perception, i.e., what Bourdieu called theory. We are being told "how poems look" (one way of reading them) not "how poems work" (another way of reading of them).

In a different way, the same is true of Jordan Davis's reading of Drew Gardner's "Fixing a Real Phantom Limb". Again, this is a great selection for the series, but this time I'm much more hesitant about the reading itself. At the center (or at least near the middle) of the post, Davis emphasizes

the sense of responsibility and obligation that leaks out of the poem in places. Horney has written extensively of the trauma the ego sustains in the face of unreasonable expectations which it experiences as "shoulds."

This is something Davis sees in the poem, not something the poem does. We know this because he immediately grounds his interpretation in the work of Karen Horney, i.e., psychology. Indeed, earlier on, Davis offers the following:

Wide reading in the key psychology texts of the last midcentury -- Karen Horney, D.W. Winnicott, S.J. Perelman -- informs Gardner's therapeutic approach to the lyric.

We don't have to read this as a psychological theory of Gardner's work—being "informed" can mean many things—but this certainly looks more like a representation of a poet's intentions than the diagram of a poem's operations. We can call this Davis's Theory of Microdistortion in Flarf.

But I'm not being wholly serious. Nor is Davis, I suspect, and nor (certainly) is Gardner. To interpret "Fixing a Real Phantom Limb" as, say, a sequence of microdistortions that carries out (or even just "mimicks") an ego-therapy of the trauma of unreasonable "shoulds", is somehow, not really wrong, but just not really "getting it". Davis, I think, is putting us on, because Davis, of course, does really get Flarf. He's not telling us how flarf works, he is mocking how it looks to a particular kind of critic.

In fact, in both cases, it seems to me that the reading tells us much less about how Flarf works than it shows us how a particular critical apparatus breaks down in its attempt to read it. I'm pretty sure that Jordan Davis, at least, is producing this effect intentionally. And I'm not at all against making even an earnest attempt to theorize Flarf. (Tony Tost, whose thoughts on this I respect a great deal made such an attempt in Fascicle.) But I think there is a much more practical task for critics to undertake in relation to Flarf, and a more urgent one: to catch its kopóltuš red-handed. So far, I think we're still too preoccupied with the theoretical khurbn that is the proximal occasion of Flarf. Instead, we need to really reveal how the thing works. I don't claim have done that yet. But that, in any case, is where my earnesty is currently being deployed.

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