Editors' Note: This essay is one of a group of responses to Daniel Tiffany's "Cheap Signaling." Read the rest.
Why kick off a discussion about class in poetry with an essay that is not about poetry as much as critical theory—not about the tactics and mechanics and day-to-day realities of class as much as it is about a utopic academic vision of class’s eventual dissolution? More to the point: why does so much of the authoritative literary criticism of our day rely so heavily on the reified jargons of critical theory? The vocabulary of critical theory can be useful: Tiffany’s citations of Tamás, for example, are nuanced and rich, and allow him to make complicated turns necessary to his larger argument. But there is in the piece a consistency of academic tone—of, ironically, diction—that seems less concerned with being clear or accurate than with garnering a structurally omniscient critical authority. Tiffany’s argument is at base a curatorial exercise: a poet-critic collecting other poets to use as part of a larger, mystifying, and ultimately hegemonic argument. The essay, in this sense, replicates the very same acquisitive structures it attempts to critique.
I am, of course, not the first person to argue that much literary criticism has ventured too far into an authoritative and often hypocritical obscurantism—so far that not only the criticism of poetry, but often the poetry itself, becomes theory, a delivery vehicle for its own critical apparatus. The academic system is, like the capitalist culture at large, an economic system of risks and rewards populated by producers, consumers, and myriad middlemen. It is ultimately a loss for poetry—both with regard to its current diverse practice and its rich and varied history as an art form—that the lingua franca, which is, in this system, the common currency of merit, citation, and tenure, has become in many contexts sociological critical theory. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, it must have been thrilling to see history and comparative cultural studies injected into the hermetically sealed and synchronic discourses promoted by the New Criticism. But fifty years later, this sort of analysis—Frankfurt school meets Francophile Foucault—has become a new brand of stultifying and often intellectually reductionist discourse. Such discourse is by definition academic—a replica of a replica—exactly the sort of fetishized, reified language that Tiffany deconstructs.
Who will speak and who will work? Who will theorize and who will fight?
On a more granular level: though Tiffany does a thorough job of defining many of his terms here, he glosses over some that are central to his argument. “Cheap signaling,” for example, is an elegantly literal economic term that applies perfectly to the kind of fashionable academic poetics Tiffany calls out at the start of his piece, but he refrains from deploying it until halfway through the essay in a complicated section about race. The definition presented—“a circumstance in which the social ‘cost’ of transmitting a message is low enough that senders can transmit it fraudulently without risk”—remains largely unpacked and unapplied; a missed opportunity.
More troubling, the term “avant-garde” is inadequately defined. Many if not most of the poets Tiffany names are, by definition, academic—brought up in the oxymoronic “academic tradition of the avant-garde,” self-proclaimed (if proclaimed as such) in their vanguardery, and professionally and geographically isolationist in their economies of academic commerce and prestige. The term avant-garde is a war metaphor denoting a non-isolationist and aggressive front-line. Are the majority of these writers actually on “the front lines” of contemporary poetic practice? And, if so, how “expensive” is it for them to cast themselves as warriors in this way? I would like to open a debate about when, exactly, this new generation existing, as Tiffany puts it, “on the axis [another war metaphor] of Berkeley, Brooklyn, and Brighton,” (what about Iowa, the Cambridge in Cambridge and the Harvard in Cambridge—speaking of replicas) became “avant-garde.” Wouldn’t a more accurate term in most of these cases be, if not academic, then simply post-modern? Literally: responding to or arguing against modernism?
There is a fine line in Tiffany’s piece between dialectic and tautology, the end of history and its eventual reification, “homeopathy” and the sale of poetic snake oil. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” as George Orwell put it in his famous Marxist allegory Animal Farm, a book that asks many complicated questions about the nature of power and its revolution in simple terms. Who will speak and who will work? Who will theorize and who will fight? Is intellectual and societal regime change without a profoundly “cheap” hypocrisy even possible within a Marxist framework? If it is not, how can poet-critics like Tiffany better own this inherently hypocritical structure? In “Cheap Signaling,” Tiffany calls many poets out on their aesthetic hypocrisy, specifically on the cheapness and ease with which they are able to signal their class sympathies while remaining safely ensconced in their expensive ivory towers. But the essay itself, particularly the way it deploys its own fetishized jargons, replicates the very same signals it attempts to deconstruct.