Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The mystification of the LangPos

Via Jane, I started reading Chris Nealon’s essay “Camp Messianism,” on the poetic milieu of a lot of my favorite poetry bloggers -- Jordan, Franklin, Ange, Jane herself, Jonathan, Sasha, Kasey, and Ron too (most of them are on my links page; the rest will be when I get around to it). Roughly speaking these are “post-LANGUAGE” poets, which does not denote that they are writing in a post-linguistic period, but in the wake of the school of poetry that took the name “Language” (originally, “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E”) for their approach. Ron was one of the original LangPos (as they’re now called, even by Ron); the essay talks about him too. I haven’t gotten very far into it because I’m caught up short by Nealon’s description of LangPo’s contribution to poetics.

Caught up short, because 2 of 3 planks of the LangPo platform strike me as mystificatory jargon, and the 3rd simply mystification -- I can’t make any sense of it at all yet.

According to Nealon, LangPo’s contribution to contemporary poetics consists of:

1) resistance to the commodification of language;

2) rejection of closure in literary production;

3) “the decentering of the postmodern political subject.”

Let’s take these one at a time.

Regarding the “commodification of language.” What does this mean? I am pretty sure it doesn’t refer to the selling of books, nor does it refer to the exploitation of the linguistic-unit workers whose products are sold at huge profits by faceless corporations who try to corner the market on commas. It could possibly refer to a recent business phenomenon: On the fringes of capitalism, large corporations are laying claim to bits of language. Some musicians I know in a steel drum band called the Toucans got sued by Kellogg for copyright infringement of the Fruit Loops mascot; it was a major hassle, and I don’t know how they did it, but they’re still called the Toucans; I can only hope that Kellogg’s had to pay them a fine for wasting their time and attempting to enclose vocabulary from the commons. I don’t think the LangPos meant this, though; if they did, why would they think that writing poems that are difficult to follow would slow down Kellogg’s in their quest to steal our words? It doesn’t make any sense. My guess is that the LangPos intended their abstruse stuff as a resistance to what they considered to be the hegemony of commodity-thinking in everyday discourse; self-reflexively (ironically?), they chose a catchy, misleading slogan (“commodification of language”) to sell their work. I applaud the inclination to resist commercial thinking in daily life, but writing catchy, misleading slogans would not be the way I would recommend going about it. ("Sloganism is fascism" was the title and entire repeated lyric of a song by the great Kalamazoo noise band Tavia Control, which my friend John de Roo founded in the early '80s.)

Regarding the “rejection of closure.” “Closure” is the LangPo’s word to describe artworks that lend themselves to single interpretations. I can see what they’re getting at here, wanting to leave their works open-ended, but doesn’t most art do that already? Even a poet like Kipling -- Kipling’s contemporaries and most commentators understand “The White Man’s Burden” to be a pro-imperialist poem; I read it and thought, no way; it’s racist as hell but incredibly sarcastic about the prospects of empire. The slogan, “rejection of closure,” implies that the old literature told the reader what to think and how to feel. That's true to an extent, but I simply don’t see how anyone could believe this in the absolute ("enclosed"?) sense the slogan implies, especially people who seem to dig the writings of Jack Spicer and the French deconstructionists, all of whom argued (rightly) that language is inherently un-enclosed. The multiplicity of contradictory interpretations of just about any literary text you can think of indicates that the LangPos were overstating the case to create a case for their own work as counter-exemplary. Was Hamlet really crazy, or was he faking? I have little patience for simplistic manifestoists. And again, in the LangPos defense, I understand the appeal of writing deliberately to leave interpretation open. I simply don’t see this as a politically liberatory act, or as a more generous attitude to have toward the reader, both of which motives Nealon attributes to the LangPos.

Regarding “the decentering of the postmodern political subject.” I have no idea what this means, which is why I quoted it from Nealon’s essay and didn’t attempt a paraphrase.

I’ll let you know if the rest of Nealon’s essay illuminates this last point. I’m happy to be reading it, because it is elucidating why I’ve so disliked most of LangPo. The works themselves -- there’s a prevailing drabness of tone, which goes well with the obfuscatory dogmatics of the poetics. Right now I’m thinking LangPo is the serialism of poetry -- joyless academic dogmatism, obsessed with an ivory tower version of art history that’s disconnected from everyday life even as it fantasizes itself as a resistance to the bad guys, even as many of the artists stage their resistance from within the halls of elite state and/or foundation-supported institutions.

“Language” poetry -- sheesh. I think I’m going to call my new style of music “Sound” music, or my new style of novel-writing “Story” novel, or my new style of play-writing “Stage” theater. But I gotta hand it to them -- sure is a catchy name, easy to remember, easy to sell.
It doesn't really change your underlying point, but I think the Toucans thing was actually more of trademark infringement issue. People often confuse the two bodies of law.

Thanks J-Lon. Do you know how the Toucans won?
Well, there is the "new narrative" writers...

I saw your comment about Tavia Control. I was a member of T.C. with John DeRoo, do you have an email address for him? Mine is mcglinnenj@aol.com, maybe you could forward it to him.
Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?