28 January 2007

Roving Thoughts on Apocalpyse

There's some discussion going around the blogosphere of apocalypse and related issues. A post by Joseph Kugelmass at The Valve offers all sorts of interesting ideas, and promises to be the first part of a consideration of the role of poetry and apocalypse, particularly as it derives from the question of what Frank O'Hara has to do with global warming -- or, more accurately, isn't "personal" poetry trivial in a world faced with various threats of destruction?

[Update 1/29: The second post, with reference to the movie Children of Men and to O'Hara's concept of "personism" is now available.]

(Speaking of global warming and apocalypse, as somebody points out in the comments to Kugelmass's post, Bruce Sterling has declared that the Viridian Design movement is winning.)

I fear the discussion of poetry in a world of apocalyptic climate change will devolve into the old arguments about whether writers have to be "engaged" or not, and it's a discussion I find tiresome for all sorts of different reasons, among them that it tends to lead to people advocating for writers to create propaganda, and to tedious discussions of what it means to be moral. Bleccch. On the other hand, I hope the discussion rises beyond that, because the question of how writing reflects particular realities, and how writers choose to represent their perception of the world, can be a thoughtful and valuable one.

In response to, or perhaps out of a desire for, a perceived apocalpyse of poetic expression, Kenneth Goldsmith advocates "conceptual writing" and "uncreativity". The Poetry Foundation, publishers of the venerable and generally somewhat staid Poetry magazine, made Goldsmith a blogger for a week, and the results were provocative and, I found, fascinating. I don't know if the permalink to the discussion will work later (it doesn't right now), but you can also find the posts at the front page for the blog.

I first learned of Goldsmith through Ron Silliman, and have completely mixed feelings about it all, because I'm really rather fond of the traditional old ideas of what reading is and what writing is, and yet while I ultimately reject the results of Goldsmith's ideas, I nonetheless love watching the process of coming up with them, justifying them, arguing them -- it's some of the most lively writing about writing and reading that I've encountered in quite some time. For instance, the opening paragraphs of the Thursday post at the Poetry Foundation:

I am the most boring writer that has ever lived. If there were an Olympic sport for extreme boredom, I would get a gold medal. My books are impossible to read straight through. In fact, every time I have to proofread them before sending them off to the publisher, I fall asleep repeatedly. You really don’t need to read my books to get the idea of what they’re like; you just need to know the general concept.

Over the past 10 years, my practice today has boiled down to simply retyping existing texts. I’ve thought about my practice in relation to Borges’s Pierre Menard, but even Menard was more original than I am: he, independent of any knowledge of Don Quixote, reinvented Cervantes’ masterpiece word for word. By contrast, I don’t invent anything. I just keep rewriting the same book.

What can you say to that? It's not so much Goldsmith's practice that I find so appealing (almost charming), but his way of explaining himself. The ideas aren't too far from Dada or even Gertrude Stein, but the puckish glee, the skirting and skating of irony, the embracing of the most contrary views available -- that's refreshing. So many other manifestos and movements have based themselves on an oppositional anger, trying to create generational and factional skuffles, and I don't see that as much in Goldsmith, which perhaps is why I like his proclamations and analyses so much: I don't feel compelled to accept them. In his Tuesday post on "Uncreative Writing", Goldsmith says:
At the start of each semester, I ask my students to simply suspend their disbelief for the duration of the class and to fully buy into uncreative writing. I tell them that one good thing that can come out of the class is that they completely reject this way of working. At least their own conservative positions becomes fortified and accountable; they are able to claim that they have spent time with these attitudes for a prolonged period of time and quite frankly, they’ve found them to be a load of crap. Another fine result is that the uncreative writing exercises become yet another tool in their writing toolbox, upon which they will draw from for the rest of their careers. Of course, the very best result--and the unlikeliest one--is that they dedicate their life to uncreative writing.
This sounds like a class I'd like to take, even though I think it's unlikely I would devote my life to uncreative writing. (I enjoy the other kind too much.) Nonetheless, I feel no hostility toward the concept of uncreative writing, and I like the idea of it as a tool in the toolbox -- I've always been attracted to collage, which is a sort of half-creative half-uncreative sort of art. I enjoy seemingly pointless, even arbitrary, allusions and structures. I like to see what happens to things ripped from their contexts and wrenched from their environments. It's not all I want in art, but it's certainly a type I enjoy.

The apocalypse of any art lies in the triumph of only one type over all the others -- the destruction of diversity. Manifestos of all sorts can be interesting because of their energy, but when they declare the death of everything other than themselves, I find them unappealing, because eclecticism is the antidote to sterility.

In a universe where Goldsmith's idea of uncreative art somehow managed to overwhelm every other type, it would turn the previous day's or week's or month's or year's uncreative art into a sort of creative art, because there would be nothing else to pillage, no other raw material -- the uncreative would be based on the uncreative, and the degrees of uncreativity would create a fractal explosion of discombobulated expression, a new language of unlimited nonsense.

Such an apocalypse is certainly not desirable, at least for a conservative like me who still enjoys the old ways of reading and writing, but I don't doubt it would be, for a few minutes at least, interesting to behold.

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