Thursday, January 24, 2008
The PostModernist Crisis of Invention
This post will start poorly and end (I hope) better. The better part is a further comment on Reznikoff. The stupid beginning was inspired (not the stupidity, but the topic) by a recent post over at pseudopodium, combined with something I mentioned in and keep remembering from my post on the John Dolan book.
A part of Ray’s post and some of the links touch on the blurring between postmodernist pastiche & plagiarism. The touching pushed my thoughts onto a tangent, into the kind of philosophizing best done in dorm rooms or bars, that is, the playing with truisms: to wit, our age is a lesser age, cannibalizing the works of the previous, creative ages. I kind of feel that way sometimes, though I suspect that has more to do with the lesser-ness of my own imagination. But it is something of a commonplace today, and common in history, so I don’t seem to be the only person to have or have had this problem. Something Dolan says shows a different way of looking at the issue, a way to redescribe it. & redescription, as the Cat-in-the-Hat might have said if he went to graduate school, is fun.
The first mistaken idea I have is that pastiche is a characteristic form of art today. While it is true that questions of borrowings are au courant (I refer back to Ray’s posts), what conclusions can be drawn from them? I must confess the example of P. Diddy (or whatever he’s calling himself these days (& my ignorance of his current name invalidates most of the following opinion)) & what les frères Coen called “hippety-hop music” (& my fondness for that phrase I fear is also symptomatic, though “I left my wallet in El Segundo” is a fine sentence worth repeating often) dominates my mind here. For a while there it seemed to many of us old fogies that pop indeed had eaten itself. I mean, if you’re sampling Sting, you’ve reached some kind of an impasse, haven’t you?
Well, Dolan seems to think such thoughts are nonsense. His era of focus, post-Shakespearian pre-Romantic poetry, was rife with anxiety about invention. Many in that age, some of them among the most talented, thought of themselves as lesser lights when set against the full firmament of English literary history. Dolan thinks the actual problem lies elsewhere. He takes it as a given that talent is evenly distributed throughout history. He says the difference would be in the historical circumstances. For various reasons, poets in the 18th century were restrained by their audience from indulging in their inventions.
I don’t know if talent is evenly distributed. If I may allow the fight from the next set over to spill onto this soundstage, I think one of the problems with contemporary Neoformalism is that the poems it produces don’t compare favorably to Paleoformalism. Is Adam Kirsch worthy to tie the straps of Richard Wilbur’s sandals? If not, that’s kind of a low bar to miss, isn’t it? But even if talent isn’t even, circumstances circumscribe. For example, it seems to me that the voracious inventiveness of Picasso, his blitzkrieg through the various creative possibilities of the new painting, curtailed the possibilities of those who followed. No matter how stout the Cortez, everything to be seen from the hill in Darien had been seen.
Again, I’m undoubtedly mistaken in my thinking here, but fortunately Dolan’s way of parsing the issue helped me see some further possibilities in Reznikoff. By putting creativity into the rhetorical framework, where invention is not the be-all of expression but one of several factors that go into construction, it is easier for me to see Reznikoff’s use of found language in the Testimony poems as a deliberate choice. It is another case of the refusal of invention. Given the circumstances, in this case having more to do with the topic rather than the audience, I sense that any further dramatization would be embroidery or worse. (The same seems to be at work in Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead which Luther referred me to. Though an interesting contrast would be the sensational violence of Reznikoff’s vignettes compared to the uncinematic, or at least un-Tarentino-esque, agony of death by silicosis.)
Reznikoff could feel compelled to let the voices speak for themselves, to present accounts with the minimum of theatrical framing or distortion. Of course even minimal is still some. “Rather a lot, really.” That’s another advantage of the rhetorical framework. It leads you out of the temptation of authenticity, for even found language is a rhetoric. For example, the guy who keeps throwing in lines from Monty Python.
Isn’t it a bad idea to put A Tribe Called Quest together with Puff Daddy? I mean, if you listen to those two songs side-by-side, one is an opening salvo to an illustrious career, the other is hack work, and the difference is obvious. Likewise with sampling—Coolio sounds derivative if you’ve heard the originals, while Girl Talk is nothing but sampled originals, and still manages to be novel.
Why yes, it is a bad idea! & for exactly the reasons you mention. I mean, I like pastiche, & I like sampling that’s well done. I don’t do a good job of extrapolating general principles from what I like & what I don’t like.
Lawrence, I agree with you that pastiche dominates the artworld. Another way of thinking about this is via Jameson’s point in *Postmodernism*: writers don’t have styles, they refer to styles. That is, texts aren’t trying to represent “the world,” but instead they are representing past texts, which Linda Hutcheon would say is as close as we can get to past worlds.
Now, I don’t necessarily see hip-hop as pastiche. It reminds me far more of modernist-era citation styles. Eliot, Pound, and Zukofsky crib from countless sources, but the poetry is always Eliotic, Poundian, Zuko-licious. Likewise, when RZA assembles records for Wu Tang tracks, he creates his own world—which is why his style is always called “cinematic”—you know, we now think that any art that actually describes a world is a film.
The real hip-hop pastiche is in the nostalgia acts that try to sound like old-school hip hop, like Jurassic Five. Here, their music creates not a world but refers to some other’s world: Kurtis Blow or whathaveyou.
I do think that traditional rhetoric gives us a way of seeing writing as made up of invention, arrangement, and style, where invention often involves the use of commonplaces (topoi), and arragement often involves the use of common structures, enthymemes, genres, etc. Style is what separates my rhetorical act as original.
We really see this in Lil Wayne’s mixtapes. Here’s a guy who just grabs popular songs, loops the melodic passages, and spits incredible rhymes over them. The music or rhythm track will be instantly identifiable as someone else’s, but all together, you know it’s a Lil Wayne song.
With found art, I always think of it in terms of framing. (Which is why photography is art, contra those who argue that it is presentation and not re-presentation, and so not art.) If you find a wonderful piece of driftwood, you need not do anything besides “frame” it to transform it into art. The act of framing removes it from one context and inserts it into another, which changes the signification. A rock becomes a sign when thus articulated. A sentence from a newspaper becomes a line in a poem. Stanley Fish’s names on the blackboard become a poem. A urinal becomes a sculpture.
The meaning no longer comes from the original source but from the artist, who in reframing something rearticulates it as his own sign. The artist might want the audience to remember the original connotations—you can usually tell this by how obvious the quotation is. Really, all language is found art. My words are the same words every English speaker uses. But I articulate them. I imbue them with meaning.
Yeah, no one who’s had to point out biblical echoes in eighteenth and nineteenth century Anglo-American literature is likely to mistake our time as unusually referential. And “referentiality” is such a broad brush—as it has to be to cover all of art—that I can’t picture a way to measure the rate of such a thing over time. Similarly for “talent”, of course.
What does vary quite a bit is what particular communities notice about particular genres. (For example, I know your hippety-hop references would’ve received fewer negative responses from an academic crowd back in the day.) My essay exercised itself over the attention being paid to a particular way “high” art references “low” art, but the attention is the thing that struck me—appropriation is just cultural business as usual.
OK,back to Reznikoff. While I like where you end up, there might be more to say about the trip. Collage is a technique, not a description of functionality. (Taking re-recorded music as an example, a hip-hop sample is ideally unrecognizable whereas a mash-up goes flat if you don’t know the source.) How have other poets used found prose?
The Cantos seem to deploy its citations didactically—big surprise—whereas the big personal epics A, Paterson, and Maximus incorporate news-clippings, book excerpts, and personal letters (sometimes offensively) to escape Wordsworth’s self-expressive impasse and swell the voice/consciousness of the hero-poet. Jackson Mac Low’s and Susan Howe’s more focused tributes seem to scrape away at some hidden group soul, as if receiving messages through a not-very-glib medium.
Obviously Testimony is after something different. In it I think Reznikoff revives two of the poetic forms killed off when our attention narrowed to the lyric.
The first is the documentary poem (Hesiod, Lucretius, Virgil, and on through Erasmus Darwin). In the twentieth centry, Marianne Moore represents for biology. For the social sciences, though, the contemporaries who came closest to Reznikoff were, unsurprisingly, other “Objectivists”: Lorine Niedecker with her historical portraits and Basil Bunting with his much-reviled free-verse translation of an episode from Machiavelli. (It’s not online, but my parody conveys the general idea.)
Among its contemporaries, Testimony is unique in its length, and here we get to the other form: the lamentation of the prophet. There, Ginsberg is the most familiar would-be revivalist, and if you compare Ginsberg’s unerasable egotism, his need to play up to the crowd, with Reznikoff, the value of moving from hearfelt “testimonial” to transcribed “testimony” becomes clear: such self-inflation forms part of what’s lamentable in our culture. Reznikoff tried for a restrained American voice for the sake of its apparent trustworthiness: Dashiell Hammett as Jeremiah.
I can’t recall the book spawning any explicitly poetic progeny. (Judging from these excerpts, Blue Mound to 161 indulges the “poet’s voice” more.) But there have been a couple of other sui generis books that go for a similar effect in similar ways from different home genres: Wisconsin Death Trip and various collections of bureaucratic or tabloid photographs. Especially in the latter, you can see the danger that Reznikoff doesn’t quite escape: that repeatedly flatly depicted misery might tip the audience over from clear-eyed to calloused. Reznikoff’s approach assumes an intelligent compassion that seems unlikely given the evidence of Reznikoff’s materials. A book for the unhappy few.
Thanks Joseph, Luther, & Ray for your patient responses. It seems my original post was a somewhat coy (to the point of fooling its own author) bleg. Nonetheless I have been rewarded w/much to think on.
Luther: What if I were to say that the *words* of any poem are a found language but the *sentences* are the author’s construction? I was once told that most sentences, even in conversation, are unique arrangements. Again I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s what I tell my composition students (their job is to make sentences).
Ray: what about the Bunting/Macchiavelli was reviled by these much-revilers?
Sorry to clog your inboxes but I keep submitting before I’m done:
Regarding the dangers of *Testimony*, my technique is to read only a few pages at a time. I can’t take more than that. Which is an advantage of not being a scholar: you don’t have to read the whole thing if you don’t want to.
Speaking of premature submission: Aargh!! I misspelled the title of “A”!! This is payback for all those times I’ve been smug about Finnegans Wake‘s postrophe,* right? Aargh!!
Bunting/Machiavelli : I don’t know, I guess other people just don’t like it as much as I do. I can only find two assessments via Google, and they go:
“... lame reworking of Machiavelli ...”
“... failure to achieve structural intensity ...”
* Opposite of apostrophe.
Lawrence, I’ll go along with the words/sentences distinction. Another way to make it would be with the Saussurian langue/parole distinction, where langue is the system of sound/idea units in binary arrangements, and parole is an individual utterance of sounds and ideas.
Magnetic poetry basically captures my thoughts here. All the words are given, borrowed, etc., but the individual sentences I make on the freezer door are my own.
Now, what happens when, as with *Testimony*, we have an author quoting whole sections of someone else’s sentences? Is it like a quotation, where we’re supposed to read them as “Here is what someone else said on the topic,” or is it like plagiarism, where we’re supposed to read them as “Here is what Reznikoff says about this topic”?
Or is it like an allusion, which is a mixture of citation and plagiarism, in that the new author both preserves some sense of the original meaning while also charging the borrowed language with new meanings?
An example. As a music teacher, I could quote the bass line of “Under Pressure” as an example to a student. As a bad white rapper, I could plagiarize this bass line and claim it as my own, with its own meaning and context. Or, I could allude to it in a song I’ve written about the glories of Queen.
But what is sampling? Is it quotation or allusion? Or something else?
And where does Jamesonian pastiche fit in? If I borrow a Dickensian style to write a novel about Victorian England, I’m not alluding to or quoting from Dickens. But neither am I plagiarizing him, because I clearly want readers to connect my style to Dickens. Instead, I’m using the style as a sort of cognitive link or affective association. Rather than write in twentieth century prose and use “local detail,” I write in nineteenth century prose and evoke the familiar associations and connotations of the nineteenth century. I’m not representing a past world, I’m representing the representations of a past world.
Thing is, Reznikoff is attempting a sort of extreme realism. He isn’t writing a pastiche of legal writing. But he also isn’t simply quoting the legal texts for their original meanings. His comments about the legal sources suggest that he believed that in this plain English prose, the real was unknowingly captured in a way that consciously artistic or journalistic prose or poetry never before had done.
This reminds me a bit of Benjamin’s methods in his Arcades Project, where Benjamin arranged quotations so that they sort of threw off sparks by being removed from their original context and situated nearby one another. He didn’t think he was adding or changing the meaning, but rather that he was uncovering the hidden significances of these relics of the past. (Adorno criticized him for thinking that the quotation or image or object in itself could give up such meanings without being subjected to the dialectical process. Benjamin captured this problem in his paradoxical term “dialectical image.")
So I wonder if Reznikoff’s poems are themselves a sort of dialectical image: others’ writing, removed from context, but arranged in a way to uncover their true, hidden meanings. That seems like his plan, anyway, even if Adorno’s right and language doesn’t really work this way.
The dialectical image would also be a bridge between old school historicism and the New Historicism.
I’m just confusing matters more, aren’t I?
Opposite of apostrophe ... My vote goes with aapostrophe. Or does that look too Dutch?
Good call on the Arcades Project.
Adam, “Joyce’s disapostrophic novel....” has kind of a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
It would have been apostrophic to pass
(or pass over this)
The first is the documentary poem (Hesiod, Lucretius, Virgil, and on through Erasmus Darwin). In the twentieth centry, Marianne Moore represents for biology. For the social sciences, though, the contemporaries who came closest to Reznikoff were, unsurprisingly, other “Objectivists”