Class conflict and diction in avant-garde poetry
July 15, 2014
Jul 15, 2014
28 Min read time
Class conflict and diction in avant-garde poetry
Editors' Note: When we talk about the context of literary production, gender and race (rightly) get a lot of space for debate and discussion, but talking about class makes us squirm. To confront, reinvigorate, and complicate the conversation about class in contemporary poetics, we are launching a poetry forum with this capacious essay by Daniel Tiffany. Stay tuned in September for a range of responses from poets and critics.
Economic class has captured the popular imagination with renewed vigor of late: sparked by the Occupy meme of the 1 percent, there is increasing talk about economic inequality and even “patrimonial capitalism.” This is good news for those who care about meaningful change in society, since according to Marx, social and economic revolution arise from, and are consummated by, class conflict. “A real possibility of emancipation,” he says, demands the self-conscious realization of “a class which is the dissolution of all classes”—that is, the working class. At the same time, he acknowledges that class formation and relations are “the innermost secret, the hidden foundation of the entire social construction.” Quite evidently then, to begin to work towards emancipation, the reality of class conflict must no longer be “hidden” or submerged.
Like the general public, vanguard poetry today displays a growing sense of alarm at class divisions, yet largely ignores in its own practice a number of symptoms of class conflict. Certainly, any attention to class is welcome these days, but our understanding of class identity and conflict must go beyond the trope of the 1 percent—and the 99 percent—a robust but crude assessment that inhibits attention to the contradictions of class identity today. Is it even possible any longer to cleanly divide oppositional classes? Should any class formation, including an idealized egalitarian model, be preserved or identified as a revolutionary paradigm? Due to shifting economic conditions for people in many different circumstances, the trope of the 99 percent—though it is effective as a rough emblem of inequality—does not capture the daunting complexity of class identity today.
Vanguard poetry, by definition, should be at the forefront of efforts to analyze and illustrate more carefully the changing nature of class formation and relations. With its emphasis on an emancipatory, political dimension of art, one would expect avant-garde poetry to try to disclose the “secret” of class conflict by experimenting with its own verbal operations and materials. Language is uniquely equipped to exercise and exploit a transpersonal dimension of social identity. Class consciousness can therefore be grasped, in part, through aspects of language—especially diction—operating beneath, or above, the markers of individuality.
What, then, should be the role of poetry in exploring the conditions of class conflict? How do variable registers of language and diction in poetry embody class relations? What sorts of ephemeral or marginal “languages” (vernacular, slang, patois) does vanguard poetry employ and combine? Or, by contrast, how does poetry—even oppositional poetry—incorporate the formulaic idioms, or jargons, of the dominant institutions (such as the university) on which it depends? In order to broaden its accessibility and political influence, should avant-garde poetry be exploring models of expression—from melodrama to mottoes to kitsch—that might broaden its scope and bring it more directly in contact with larger numbers of people? To what degree can the historical polarity between vanguard experimentation and popular taste, between difficulty and accessibility, be overcome?
The Concept of Class, Yesterday and Today
In Marxist discourse, the paradigm of oppositionality is anchored in the dynamics of class conflict—between capitalists and workers, bourgeoisie and proletariat, dominant and marginal cultures. Any model of political or cultural resistance today owes its discursive integrity to the Marxist paradigm of class resentment: the program of identifying and targeting a class enemy. A basic structural model of class antagonism invariably shapes recent anatomies of the sociality of the avant-garde via categories of race, ethnicity, and gender—even when overt questions about class are marginalized or displaced.
A reluctance to expose and scrutinize class affinities might be explained by the innate volatility of class conflict: it is easier, for example, to speak frankly today about race or gender than to disclose publicly the sources of one’s income or net worth. In addition, however, vanguard poetry’s reluctance to acknowledge its verbal performance of class conflict may stem from anachronistic and inadequate theories of class, which no longer reflect present conditions of unprecedented economic and technological change. Talking openly about class identity and its markers has always been socially risky, but it is made even more difficult in today’s polarized context of simultaneous precarity and economic development, and by technology’s erasure of legible distinctions between economic and cultural classes. Owning a smartphone, it seems, is the only prerequisite these days to becoming a capitalist.
Is the avant-garde willing to risk self-annihilation by incorporating the formulae of popular culture?
To be fair, inattention to class relations in avant-garde poetry is not perhaps surprising, since the Marxist concept of class is highly unstable: its original formulation as an economic principle was translated almost immediately into a political and ideological framework, and later re-created as a social or cultural category, first by Max Weber and later by Pierre Bourdieu. Hence class has shifted from a concept rooted in relations of production to one determined by market relations, from economics to culture (and the delirium of commodification).
The Marxian (that is, applying to concepts derived specifically from texts by Marx—in contrast to “Marxist”) concept of class is riddled with rebarbative and disorienting qualifications, which complicate the emotional foundations of working-class solidarity: for instance, the basic paradigm of Marxian oppositionality implies the destruction not only of the proletariat’s antagonist (the bourgeoisie), but of itself as well—a suicidal structure that is intrinsic to a Marxian conception of revolution. The self-annihilating fate of the proletariat is necessarily enveloped by an aura of volatile feelings, mixing grief, fear, and disbelief, thereby marking an intrinsic but submerged gothic dimension of Marxist theory. The notion of Gothic Marxism has been named and explored by Margaret Cohen and, more recently, China Mieville. Gothic Marxism investigates “how the irrational pervades existing society” (via, for example, the specter of the working class) and “dreams of using it to effect social change.”
Complete class consciousness on the part of the working class can be achieved only by overcoming itself: not only must the working class destroy itself, but it cannot become fully conscious of itself until it does so. By implication, if poetry that identifies itself as oppositional remains blind to the necessary self-destruction of the class it represents, then poetry can only inhibit the development of radical class consciousness—or, worse, mask and fortify existing capitalist structures.
Equally puzzling, the proletariat’s consciousness of itself as a class—and the drive towards extinction that is its revolutionary destiny—cannot be cultivated, according to Marx, by individuals; only the working class as a whole can achieve a fully realized sense of itself—or annihilate itself. But how can these seemingly paradoxical operations be set into motion? What role can language play in revealing and organizing forms of collective identity? Because the foundation of language is necessarily impersonal, and because any sort of diction derives from a particular community and therefore resonates with communal experience, poetry can play an important role in the exploration of choral identity—as the medium of “the class that is the dissolution of all classes.”
Any attempt to define the category of class today is elusive, or incoherent, in part because it has become a kind of zombie-concept, occupied by notions that are inimical to it. According to the Hungarian political scientist Gáspár Miklós Tamás, an increasingly influential theorist of class today, the Marxian theory of the proletariat as a class has been obscured, and largely disabled, by a utopian conception of “the people” derived from Rousseau. Tamás explains, “Rousseau seeks to replace (stratified, hierarchical, dominated) society with the people (a purely egalitarian and culturally self-sustaining, closed community)”—in contrast to Marx for whom “class” is an abstract category produced solely and specifically by the historical conditions of capitalism.
For Marx, there is no “people,” there are only classes—all of which (including the proletariat) are symptomatic of capitalism and must therefore be destroyed by revolutionary change. The emancipation of the proletariat implies, for Marx, its destruction, whereas for Rousseau, emancipation brings about a sublimation of working-class culture—a new hegemony—as a utopian model for the nation. To the degree that the “angelic” (because supposedly innate) qualities of the people mask the “demonic” (because intrinsically historical) conditions of class, our basic understanding of class as a category, and even of the ultimate goal of revolution, is deformed by this retreat from Marx to Rousseau. Class conflict (culminating in a deification of “the people”) comes to serve the ends of capitalism rather than its opposite.
In other words, from a strict Marxian perspective, the valorization of working-class culture as something inherently appealing or virtuous (epitomized by E.P. Thompson) is a misguided variant of Rousseauian socialism (based on the premise that human nature is innately good but has been deformed by the deleterious effects of civilization), which advocates restoring human nature to its benign origin. In Tamás’s view, the penetration of Rousseauian socialism into radical economic thinking has corrupted Marxism in fundamental and pervasive ways. He even goes so far as to claim that “many, perhaps most, socialists who have sincerely believed they were Marxists, have in fact been Rousseauists. Freud has eloquently described resistances to psychoanalysis; intuitive resistance to Marxism is no less widespread, even among socialists.” More precisely, he states, “the workers’ movement was often Rousseauist in regard to itself and Marxist in regard to the bourgeois enemy.”
To counteract these powerful displacements of the meaning of class, the most probing reflections on the subject these days (Tamás, once again) advance a rigorous Marxian view of class by, first of all, acknowledging unequivocally the dissolution of the proletariat (as a cultural formation corrupted by the amour-propre of Rousseauian socialism): “The working-class culture which inspired so much heroism and self-abnegation is dead. That culture was modernist in the sense of taking aim at hierarchy and trying to achieve a secular, egalitarian and rights-based society. This the working class mistook for socialism. It is not. It is capitalism. Capitalism could be itself only if and when aided by socialist delusion.” Seen through the lens of Rousseauian socialism, revolution becomes a matter of “recognition” (of cultural differences), rather than economic redistribution: the apotheosis of the ultra-capitalist doctrine of “freedom.” Identity politics displaces the necessarily economic antagonism of authentic social transformation.
Tamás’s pronouncement of the death of working-class culture activates fully the gothic dimension of Marxist theory, in which the seemingly impossible death of the proletariat (as a cultural formation) induces a preoccupation with what Margaret Cohen calls “the irrational aspect of social processes.” With the eclipse of working-class culture, the irrationality of social change manifests itself, in part, through the collapse of intelligible distinctions between opposing classes (between workers and capitalists). The historical debris of bourgeois and proletarian cultures becomes the phantasmatic material from which one begins to construct the model of a new revolutionary class.
The strategic masking of explicit economic hierarchies—the new capitalist is anonymous—signals the demise of the age of the proletariat (as a cultural formation). Accordingly, Tamás explains, class theory must acknowledge and confront the increasingly unstable and protean relations between economic and cultural classes: “the enemy is…a capitalism without a proletariat—and without a bourgeoisie—at least, without a proletariat and a bourgeoisie as we know them historically, as two distinct cultural, ideological and status groups not only embodying, but representing ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism.’” The inscrutable mingling of class elements in many different contexts—including poetry—becomes essential to formulating a new model of class conflict. We might come to understand the controversial syncretism of some recent poetry—its mash-up of voices and tones—not simply as a symptom of contemporary subjectivity, super-saturated by the technical media, but as an expression of emergent class formations.
In contrast, then, to prevailing anxieties about the growing irrelevance of class, Tamás renews the Marxist axiom of class as the basis of all opposition, even as he acknowledges that a retreat from the economic objective of classlessness to egalitarianism (from economics to culture) has paralyzed our basic understanding of class formation. At best, to the question, “could there be a motivation for a class that exists in deprivation…to change a situation which is dehumanizing and dangerous, but not humiliating to the point of moral provocation?” Tamás responds: “We don’t know.” But with regard to an egalitarian and rights-based society, it can now at least be said: “We are free of this delusion. We see the task more clearly.”
Diction as an Expression of Class Identity in Poetry
The surest way to divine the class affiliation(s) of a poem is through its diction. By that I mean the kinds of words a poem uses—literary, colloquial, technical, slangy, regional—but also its syntax and orthography. Diction, in this sense, occupies a connotative dimension between metrics and reference. Properties of diction are distinct from matters of form and, less obviously, from notions of style. (Style, strictly speaking, pertains to patterns of usage characteristic of individual writers.)
Even if diction is viewed as a performative aspect of a poet’s identity, it is generally understood to speak through the poet as an impersonal expression of social identity in its various registers (race, gender, geography—and class). From this perspective, inattentiveness to class in vanguard poetry manifests itself as inattentiveness to matters of diction. The long modernist preoccupation with form has produced an equally lengthy and persistent incomprehension of the problematic of diction—especially as it pertains to experimental writing. Anglo-American poetic modernism began with a complaint about poetic diction (seeking to make it more, as Pound claimed, “hard” and “gaunt”), yet this transformation of diction gave way to a model of formal innovation—still predominant—in which the plasticity of diction appears to play almost no role.
Vanguard poetry’s fragile immunity to the problem of diction is beginning to change, however. The poetic procedures of sampling and appropriation—notable instruments of Flarf—are essentially ways of importing into poetry a new spectrum of non-poetic (and controversial) diction. These developments have little to do with poetic form per se, yet critical reception of them—as in Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius—is still largely shackled by formalist concepts and terms. It could even be said that the shift from a purely aesthetic to a more politicized conception of the avant-garde in poetry is founded on a turn toward the poem’s social substance—in form but also in diction. The oppositionality of an avant-garde poem operates not only through its experimental form but also through its diction. Indeed, its expression of subcultural knowledge, or class resentment, can be found at times solely in its diction.
A poem’s diction may be an authentic index of its class affiliation—that is one way to read class through diction—yet the sociality of diction can also become evident, paradoxically, through falsehood and duplicity. As a marker of class or racial identity, diction can be faked, which marks an essential difference from form. Form cannot be fabricated, diction can—a condition essential to its potency as a means of social expression. And motives for fabrication are manifold. A poem may craft a synthetic vernacular as a source of authenticity. It may also fabricate a vernacular as an object of ridicule and contempt (as in the verbal formulae of white trash or blackface minstrelsy). Yet a clear distinction between authentic and fake—if indeed such a distinction exists on the page—may be difficult to identify or demonstrate in the framework of a poem.
In fact, the emergence of vernacular language into the poetic tradition via the ballad revival of the 18th century illustrates that imposture and forgery have always been intrinsic to the production of a poetic vernacular, even in its most authentic forms, by “native” speakers. The potentially fraudulent character of diction functions as a primary dimension of its social expressivity—one that may expose the operation of class conflict within the poem. Indeed, with the gradual extinction of the verbal markers of subalternity (the hastening disappearance of dialects and accents), the production of vernaculars may now always be a contrivance—and always politically motivated.
As a critical framework, diction can reveal the social complexion of any poem (whether authentic or contrived), but it may be especially useful in exposing the class affiliations of some recent vanguard poetry that fuses demotic and commodified phrasings with scraps of “theory,” or academic vocabulary, in the service of political critique. This poetry seeks—in the wake of the collapse of blue-collar culture—to invent a cross-class language of fugitive or infidel sympathies, drawing on a range of international subcultures, traditions, and jargons. In its verbal and sometimes sexual syncretism, this fabricated language of the “underneath” can be seen as queering the diction of poetry. Evidence of this developing trend can be found in a wide variety of poets, even when it is not characteristic of their work on the whole: Susan Wheeler, Lisa Robertson, Stephen Rodefer, Juliana Spahr, Rob Halpern, Keston Sutherland, Joshua Clover, Jennifer Scappettone, Simone White, Paul Foster Johnson, Joseph Lease, Chris Nealon, Lucy Ives, Bhanu Kapil, Joyelle McSweeney, Ronaldo Wilson, Lara Glenum, Chelsey Minnis, Danielle Pafunda, Dana Ward, Carmen Giménez-Smith, Heather Phillipson, Jeff Derkson, Fred Moten, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Anne Boyer.
To illustrate this emergent poetry, let me offer passages from several poets, the first by Joshua Clover, whose poetry often rakes the angle of convergence between financial lingo, or the latest Marxist terminology, and commodity culture:
The shift from modernism to world systems is stored in the new candy-colored currencyHistory and capital had been Astaire and Rogers but are now Clark Kent and SupermanTaking advantage of the exchange rate I have acquired a certain afternoon in 1953Though it meant selling the rights to the word peignoir
Now a scrap from Dana Ward, whose dissolution of “theory” and pop culture and personal confession is, unlike Clover’s, almost free of irony:
. . . look how the objects in the roomarray feeling as a viscous confetti inmy Medici aorta it’s blistered, so hotis the commodity requiring its inwroughtdelusions of usefulness to circulate. . . Before my shower startsit comes to me in hard graphiccircuits like a living Mondrian that morphsinto Pac-Man to figure consumption, thenflowers as a network of such repletecomplexity it isn’t even knowable . . .
Jennifer Scappettone, by contrast, works up a kind of Jacobean flourish of contemporary jargons:
Say, what thing—Darling—what thing keeps youup at night?—security, collaboration,innovation, client satisfaction,productivity, the new blackglobal pipeline of sharing. . . .Paris was worth the messof my scream life, the yellow dress, but ayoungster with a supersoaker at the masquing fest,exclusive M-16able void
And Chris Nealon blends the jargons of social economy and sexual taxonomy:
Drag name/ porn name/ spam nameThe whisper some graffiti is‘Your property is valueless’The narrative momentum in disguiseSandy Handbag is all, 60’s flight attendantSparky Dickinson’s a butch bottom
The trend I am trying to document here may be even more common among younger poets: Andrew Durbin, Alli Warren, Janice Lee, Feliz Lucia Molina, Jennifer Tamayo, Brandon Brown, Francesca Lisette. It’s all over the place, though its central axis may run through Berkeley, Brooklyn, and Brighton, with a stop in the Twin Cities and a swim at the beaches in Santa Cruz, San Diego, or Los Angeles.
The poetry and sometimes the criticism of these writers offer a nice tranche of idiomatic talk. It is speech that is aggressively casual in its spread, littered with a few glam-tags of theory or academic jargon, “personal” references to everyday experience (often involving name dropping), and expertise on commodity fields of various kinds—especially pop music, but dabs of high culture, too. The writing is at once confessional, or chatty, and offhandedly “theoretical,” with Marxism often—though not always—the go-to cult-speak. A kind of curatorial ethos, quietly reveling in verbal class rituals, underwrites the juxtaposition of these fancy dialects—even when they are intended to be “simple”—sketching the ontology of an oppositional lifestyle.
The array of synthetic vernaculars and theoretical jingles cultivated by the poetic avant-garde today can be seen as a détournement of poetic kitsch, a deliberate confection of high trash.
Although these poets might regard the confection of vernacular and academic vocabularies as essentially harmonic, or complementary, in their opposition to dominant culture, these mash-ups of diction should be read as enacting the class conflicts inherent in the institutional affiliations, or affinities, of some of these poets. These class conflicts should be viewed as a manifestation of what David E. James, the Marxist historian of experimental film, calls “the most typical avant-garde”: a paradigm in which minority cultures are directly confronted, veiled, or subdued by various dominant structures (especially the university, the principal institution of the poetic elite). At the university in particular (a place with no majors—or even minors—in Proletarian Studies, or Departments thereof), James contends, “The back of a working-class identity must be broken across the abyss of a class migration to a station where feelings of pride and success will always be gnawed at by estrangement and betrayal.” The university, even when it does not economically bar entrance to the working class, suppresses knowledge of its history and its present conditions.
If deliberate exposure and critique of this sort of class polarization is not one of the aims of this fashionable (and acquisitive) poetry—a poetry often sheltered by the university—then one might regard it as developing inscrutably a cult of the poet-intellectual, an apparatus that serves to mask, and even protect, various forms of domination—rather than confronting them, as would appear to be the case.
The Intersection of Class and Race in Poetic Diction
In these tableaux morts of competing dictions, tensions exist between the verbal expression of class affiliation, which often goes unmarked, and the tonal properties of gender or race. This is only one of many ways that class diction can be obscured by competing verbal registers. The variegated diction of a poet such as Fred Moten, for example, complicates and masks the verbal field of class antagonism by submerging it in the verbal performance of race. His writing spins a black vernacular that speaks through the poet but leaves the verbal evidence of class conflict rifting the poems unacknowledged. Here is a passage from a poem of Moten’s entitled “Block Chapel”:
if you walk all over me I’m gon’ say how do you do.the history of art from below is a violent greetingon the surface of kansas city, a readymade social danceupstairs in the gallery. baby, tell ‘em a rushing did it!to burn for creative orchestra in köln, a block fromthe konfrontationen in a ditch, on all this moleculargastronomy for ceramics. . .
Here we see symptoms of elite class formation in phrases such as “a readymade social dance,” “molecular gastronomy,” and “the history of art from below is a violent greeting.” The implications of class also find expression, alternately, in Moten’s devotion to under-phenomena, to languages and communities that lie beneath the dominant culture (“art from below”). His poetry (and theory) evoke what he calls the “undercommons”: a sublimated refuge or demimonde elaborated through “a theory of blackness”—or, inversely, a vision of oppositional black culture translated into class discourse.
With great affection and conviction, Moten summons a space of fugitivity, infidel poetics, jazz, social obscurity, and what might be called tavern talk. (One of his collections is called Hughson’s Tavern.) Yet, in contrast to the patois of a black demimonde, the word “commons” also designates a fashionable academic topic these days—an affiliation disclosing the class tensions at the very core of Moten’s Rousseauian project. The “undercommons” is at once the verbal and ideological space of a demimonde and of the academic elite. In terms of its divergent class affiliations, Moten’s project goes both over and under mainstream tastes. The mainstream appears to be the enemy here, but is the relationship between the two “commons” complementary or antagonistic?
To use a phrase coined by sociologists—brought to my attention by Prageeta Sharma and developed in her poem, “She Did Not Want to Embody Cheap Signaling”—Moten’s conjuring of the “undercommons” through a synthetic vernacular, and its veiling of class conflict, could be identified as an instance of “cheap signaling” (a circumstance in which the social “cost” of transmitting a message is low enough that senders can transmit it fraudulently without risk). At the same time, Moten’s poetry privileges the black vernacular as somehow authentic or genuine—a presumption undermined by the long history of vernaculars forged at once by dominant and marginal classes. (Sharma’s poem, I should note, is subtitled “After Undergloom”—borrowing the title of one of her books—a neologism modeling a variant of the fugitive verbal substance over-written by Moten as intrinsically black.)
Contrary, then, to Moten’s efforts to foreground the authenticity of a black vernacular, perhaps all poetic formulations of vernacular speech should be viewed as synthetic vernaculars. As the jargon of an inaccessible “commons,” both above and beneath the multitude, at once esoteric and moribund, fugitive languages must be seen as possessing the allure and political powers of a dead language (a fetishized medium of cultural tradition and discrimination). The seemingly impossible task of inventing dead languages—the dialectical project of fake folk songs and ballad imitation since the eighteenth century—must infuse the basic strategies of class warfare and oppositional poetics. From this perspective, the invention of dead languages associated with vanished subcultures becomes a revolutionary instrument of the poetics of Gothic Marxism.
Dialectically speaking, it would not be impossible to see the phrase “cheap signaling” as designating a method of authentic defiance and revolt—as long as Moten and other poets experimenting with adversarial dictions acknowledge, paradoxically, that the jargons they forge, whether demotic or theoretical, are indeed inauthentic, or cheap: discounted, vulgar, imitation, unfair, and even criminal (a cheap shot). Only if the poetic vernacular is acknowledged to be a knockoff, as the throwaway property of the underclasses, can it function as a deliberate instrument of class warfare. To escape the pitfalls of what Adorno calls “the jargon of authenticity” (a veiled collusion between dominant and oppositional languages), all jargons (corporate, academic, but also racial or class-based) must be understood—and employed—as inauthentic, counterfeit, provisional.
In addition, if we adhere to a rigorous Marxian theory of class, poets who curate the idioms of a cultural underworld must present these invented languages as incorporating their own destruction, as destined to be extinguished—just as the revolutionary class forging its vernacular achieves emancipation and complete self-consciousness only through its own extinction. Thus the infidel lyric, the jargon, the verbal undergloom, of the “dangerous classes,” to use a phrase of the Situationist scholar of gypsy language and culture, Alice Becker-Ho, always forecasts and expresses its own death—its deliberate, and vital, anachronism. The détournement of infidel tongues becomes a crucial index and weapon of class conflict.
Popular Tastes and Avant-Garde Expression
At the vexed crossroads of the avant-garde’s production of synthetic vernaculars, there persists the conundrum of work that aims to be vigorously popular in scope, yet also uncompromising in form and diction—a tension between aesthetics and politics that derives from class differences. To what degree, one must finally ask, is the bourgeois and now frequently academic cadre of the poetic avant-garde willing to modify its formal strategies—and its diction—to ensure the broad circulation of its adversarial writing? What might be the influence of avant-garde formations that insist on preserving the demotic languages of adversarial communities?
If oppositional knowledge and tactics take root in specific class structures, and if real social transformation demands widespread dissemination of such knowledge, then the poetic avant-garde must invent a fugitive language to circulate as widely as possible. Yet the historical record of attempts to overcome the tension between popular taste and vanguard experiment is—with the arguable exceptions of Brecht, Godard, Warhol, and a few others—largely one of failure. Preoccupation with the conflict between vanguard experimentation and popular taste undermines the basic political objective of revolutionary aesthetics, which is to dissolve the autonomy of the poetic artifact—to integrate art and life.
Regardless of their subversive intent, artifacts that inhibit their own sociality—poems that are essentially intransitive—will never play a direct role in popular revolution. A doctrine of political insularity—of social and poetic obscurity—is defensible for many reasons, but it should be acknowledged openly. Ultimately, the question is whether the poetic avant-garde wishes the adversarial thrust of its writing to be restricted to its own class-coterie, or whether it is willing to risk self-annihilation by incorporating the formulae of popular culture—by altering its work in ways designed to enhance its social capital without abandoning its infidel stance.
One key to enhancing poetry’s revolutionary social capital lies, I have been suggesting, in the neglected category of diction. In their essays in Jacket2 on the “Self-Abolition of the Poet,” the editors at Commune Editions reference the example of folk poetry and the ballad tradition as “fundamentally authorless” and hence consonant with the Marxian concept of a revolutionary dissolution of classes. The introduction of archaic ballads into the elite poetic tradition did in fact trigger a revolution in poetic diction, beginning in the early eighteenth century. As a literary historical event, the so-called ballad revival therefore occasioned a furious struggle within the elite tradition, continuing to the present day, over competing models of vernacular language—and over possession of that irresistible commodity. Furthermore, since the very start of the ballad revival—and throughout its controversial history—cultivating the language of the marginal classes in poetry has been associated with practices of forgery, imposture, and the “cult of simplicity.” A similar duplicity haunts the demotic “undergloom” manufactured by avant-garde poets today—disclosing a similar field of class antagonism and infatuation.
Even as the Commune Editions editors acknowledge that “there is no going back” to the folk tradition, they insist that “knowledge of these folk traditions does help to denaturalize our sense of what poetry is, and gives us, as a result, a much better sense of the possibilities for patterned language under entirely different social conditions.” Absent from these statements, however, is awareness that the example of folk poetry (from Ossian to Bob Dylan) is riddled with accusations of forgery—a condition that is the true source of folk poetry’s value as an index of class relations.
In rejecting—quite legitimately—the notion of an irretrievable folk tradition as a model of revolutionary anonymity, the Commune Editions editors also overlook a despised, but potentially useful, emblem of popular culture embedded in the folk tradition: kitsch. In fact, the properties of kitsch first arose in the context of poetry and, more precisely, in the controversies (and forgeries) of the ballad revival. One need not therefore “go back” to folk poetry to find an example of “authorless” poetry with a volatile relation to the elite tradition; one need only turn to the authorlessness (and fraudulence) of kitsch. With its reliance on verbal formulae and clichés—akin in ways to epic poetry, but also to the shadowy genre of gothic melodrama—kitsch offers a poetic and dialectical mode of cheap signaling.
From this perspective, the array of synthetic vernaculars and theoretical jingles cultivated by the poetic avant-garde today can be seen as a détournement of poetic kitsch, a deliberate confection of high trash. Ultimately, as a relic of the death of working-class culture, kitsch becomes a tool, a weapon, of Marxism in its Gothic phase. Overturning the longstanding presumption of difficulty and intransitivity in avant-garde writing—the product of outdated models of oppositionality and alienation—a renegade poetics of kitsch would foster experiments in verbal and social transitivity. Attention to matters of class in poetry lays the groundwork for a poetic “mass ornament,” a transitivity no longer inimical to verbal obscurity but rather harnessing its affective and imaginative powers via repetition (the basic mechanism of mass culture): a kitsch made of everyday riddles and shadows. A new model of the poetic avant-garde might thus emerge from a Baudelairean program of “inventing clichés” and forging the poetic diction of “counterfeit capital” (what he calls argot plastique) to expose and to shuffle the verbal registers of class conflict.
Founded on a platform of verbal and libidinal duplicity (combining affection and contempt), poetic kitsch offers a strategy for radicalizing lyric poetry by converting it into what may be described as choral lyric in its authorless and formulaic properties. As a means of replicating, but also contesting, what Walter Benjamin calls the “permanent catastrophe” of modern capitalism, the radicalized lyric poem in the form of kitsch becomes what the French pop artist Daniel Spoerri calls a “snare picture”: a verbal trap luring the reader into a disorienting space of indulgence, alienation, and critique—into “the poisonous candy factory” (to borrow a phrase from Jack Spicer) of poetic diction.
The new kitsch operates, to use the latest terms, at the crossroads of the anthropocene, the gurlesque, and the general strike. From this intersection, the poem’s relation to consumerism and the marketplace may be described as homeopathic: the substance of the remedy is an infinitesimal trace of the malady. The homeopathic poetics of kitsch—rooted in the social properties of diction—supports an aesthetic disposition, a mode of critique, at once physically real and undetectable, substantial and negligible, active and trivial.
In addition to the younger poets I mentioned earlier, evidence of the development of a new kitsch can be found in the poems of Patricia Lockwood, Ben Fama, Jenny Zhang, Ana Carrete, Kendall Grady, Nicholas Wong, Amy Key, Monica McClure, and Sam Riviere. The ostensible submission by these young poets to the jingles and formulae of mass culture masks a form of resistance—a new “face” of the avant-garde—that is inscrutable, ambiguous, complicit, indirect.
Only the homeopathic logic of kitsch, forswearing false immunity to the libidinal currents of the marketplace, can put into circulation certain kinds of snare pictures, stealth weapons, letter bombs. At the same time, a critical poetics of kitsch calls for the deliberate and dialectical production of aesthetic failures, for the invention of clichés and the creation of dead languages. Re-animating and consuming the remains of dead language in contemporary culture, poetic kitsch becomes a dynamic tool of Gothic Marxism, marking the disappearance of working-class culture and redefining the specular features of an emergent revolutionary class that cannot yet recognize itself. The riddling tasks of the new kitsch recall the paradoxical Romantic project of creating archaic fragments from scratch—verbal relics contrived in the present—a task that the genealogy of kitsch reveals to be an act of imposture and, therefore, a vital index of class relations in the present. What unites these puzzling endeavors—manufacturing dead languages, crafting artistic failures, inventing clichés—is a conception of the aesthetic artifact that magically comprehends, at the very moment of its production, the history of its own reception. The poetics of kitsch thus offers a solution to the riddle posed by these aesthetic anomalies: a poem that cannot be extracted—like a pop artifact—from its social substance, from its garbled history of transmission.
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July 15, 2014
28 Min read time