Sunday, April 30, 2006

On the Possibility of Performing Flarf

The performer is interested not in form but in opportunities for vituosity or in the communication of his "personality".

T. S. Eliot

As I've said before, my hunch is that many of those who don't get or don't like Flarf also think that it is impossible to perform it at some level. The poems, it might be argued, lack a "voice" or "immanent orality" to be "realized" in a "reading". Sorry about all those scare quotes. I'm trying to connect the sense in which poets do "readings" with the sense in which critics do "readings". Reading a Flarf poem is famously difficult.

So I'm watching the videos of the Flarf Festival at YouTube with great interest these days. I am enjoying it as much as the next guy, I'm sure, but there is something about these performances that once again makes me think that what I like about Flarf is something other than what its poets themselves see in it.

The readings I've watched so far all seem to introduce personality or "character" into the work (Jimmy Berhle's may be an exception). Many of them do different voices, and they certainly seem to be impersonating (and, arguably, sometimes mocking) their sources as they do this. That is, in reading their work out loud, they lend some support to Tony's "re-imagining the sources" theory.

Tony once applied Kasey's reading of Barrett Watten to Flarf. The key image is that of a poem

"spoken" through a bullhorn by a figure in black pajamas standing on top of an imposing but faceless public structure.

Like Tony, I think this image provides a model for reading (in both senses) Flarf.

Actually, I always try to read Flarf as though presented on a teleprompter in front of a talking head (news anchor, talk show host, president, etc.). The reason is that I think the Flarf materials (let's simplify by thinking of them as Google searches) achieve their maximum effect when passed through the constraints of an established, monolithic form. That is, Flarf calls for a radically entrenched subject position, a well-endowed enunciative modality. On the page, this normally means subjecting the materials to the hegomony of "free verse".

I was suprised that Drew Gardner used different voices. I always read that poem "straight" as a single, coherent statement. Something similar goes for Kasey. Sharon Mesmer's hillarious "Annoying Diabetic Bitch", which is probably the performance that works best (at least when seen on video) used a single voice but does seem to impersonate (and to an extent mock) the sources (though, like I say, construing what must be multiple sources as one). One way to avoid this would be to imagine Scott McClellan reading it off a teleprompter ...

in black pajamas, of course. Or, alternatively, and just as obviously, he might wear a pair of bunny ears and get someone to play bagpipes in the background.

As you can see, this isn't a finished thought.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Duino Epigrams

Listening to CocoRosie's "Terrible Angels" tonight, I suddenly remembered where the refrain ("every angel's terrible") comes from: Rilke's first Duino Elegy. is nothing/ but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure/ and we are so awed because it serenely disdains/ to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.

Rereading the whole elegy, I was reminded that what I enjoy about it is its arrangement of epigrams. The rest seems like filler: a medium in which to suspend its substance. But part of that impression comes from straightforward misprision, i.e., from plucking groups of words out of their context and distorting their meaning. That is, I like the following phrases much better in isolation than in the role in Rilke's poem.

It serenely disdains to annihilate us.

Every angel is terrifying. (And CocoRosie's translation is even better.)

Fling the emptiness out of your arms into the spaces we breathe; perhaps the birds will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.

Where can you find a place to keep her, with all the[se] huge strange thoughts inside you going and coming an often staying all night?

Have you imagined Gaspara Stampa intensely enough?

That fierce example of soaring.

What I mean can probably best be illustrated by providing the shared context of the last two epigrams:

Have you imagined/ Gaspara Stampa intensely enough so that any girl/ deserted by her beloved might be inspired by that fierce example of soaring, objectless love/ and might say to herself, "Perhaps I can be like her"?

I think my intuitions here follow Pound's imagist programme, i.e., the injunction not to add "of peace" to "the dim lands".

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Laboratory Conditions

On vacation last week at the cottage, I had a chance to reread more or less all of Williams' Paterson (especially Book III), Lerner's Lichtenberg Figures, Tost's Invisible Bride and Gardner's Petroleum Hat. I'll probably have something to say about this experience/experiment in the weeks to come. For now, suffice it to say that I recommend it to anyone.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Borges, the Prado, and I

On March 15, I sent the following question about Velazquez's Las Meninas to the Prado by email.

In his essay, "When Fiction Lives in Fiction", Jorge Luis Borges describes his encounter with the painting, recalling that "the Prado's adminstrators had installed a mirror in front of the painting to perpetuate [its reflexive] enchantments." Is this also how the painting is currently displayed? Is there any record of that way of hanging it? Also, has the painting ever been displayed by setting it on the floor like the canvas depicted in the painting itself?

On April 6, I got a reply.

Efectivamente, hasta 1976 el cuadro "Las Meninas" se exhibía en una sala pequeña, con un espejo al fondo y una ventana entreabierta, que proyectaba la misma luz y en la misma dirección que la ventana que aparece en el cuadro. El cuadro estaba situado a una altura que situaba los ojos de Velázquez a la altura de los ojos del espectador. Con este montaje se pretendía recrear la atmósfera que hay en el cuadro e integrar al espectador dentro del espacio creado entre el cuadro y el espejo, en un efecto muy teatral y barroco.

Babel Fish translates this as:

Indeed, until 1976 the picture "the Meninas" was exhibited in a small room, with a mirror to the bottom and a half-opened window, that the same light and in the same direction projected that the window that appears in the picture. The picture was located to a height that located the eyes of Velazquez to the height of the eyes of the spectator. With this assembly it was tried to recreate the atmosphere that there is in the picture and to integrate to the spectator within the space created between the picture and the mirror, in a very theater and baroque effect.

If anyone can improve that translation, I'd be very grateful.

[Update: Effectively until 1976 the painting Las Meninas was exhibited in a small room, with a mirror at one end and an open window that projected the same light in the same direction as the window that appears in the painting. The painting is situated at a height that places Velazquez's eyes at the same height as the spectator's eyes. With this set-up they attempted to recreate the atmosphere in the painting and to integrate the spectator in the space created between the painting and the mirror, in a very theatrical and baroque effect. (Thanks, Stower.)]

In any case, what I find interesting about this is that Michel Foucault, who seems to have seen the painting sometime before 1966, managed to feel his subjectivity not integrated but "elided" under these (almost) ideal conditions.

I'll explain that "(almost)" in a later post. I have myself never been to the Prado.

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".

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Flarf & the Revolution

Just a quick note that this post exists. I can't think of anything at the moment to say about it.

[Update: it's because I don't see the mockery. I don't think Flarf is "about" its sources. The materials allow certain effects, help to avoid many others, that's all.]