There’s been a highly interesting, contentious, engaging, thought-provoking, at times over-the-top, at others simply silly, battle being waged over the past couple weeks regarding Flarf. My engagement in this fray has mostly been via Dale Smith’s blog possum ego, though it’s played out on the territory of several other blogs as well. The dramatis personae on various fronts include Dale, Drew Gardner, Nada Gordon, Ben Friedlander, K. Silem Mohammad, Kent Johnson, John Latta, Joe Safdie, Michael Robbins, Gary Sullivan, Jordan Davis … (I’m deliberately naming names here for the benefit of those who keep themselves on Google Alert).
Andrew Neuendorf has chimed in as well, asking on his own and others’ blogs whether some of the current criticism isn’t partly or mostly a matter of professional jealousy, given the current attention (NPR, the Nation, etc.) being directed at Flarf. A fair enough question. And one that I can’t answer for everyone, except insofar as I personally know some of these poets and believe that, for them as for me, the crux of the matter really is one of those vital sticking points that’s actually worth fighting for, the stakes being a great deal more important than who’s getting reviewed where. But I leave the discernment of personal motives to those who actually know them, or feel confident in claiming them.
Just one of the sticking points, perhaps the main one, I will briefly develop here, before I dip my head back into some books. Dale Smith crystallizes the theoretical side of the argument in his post on Symbolic Efficiency:
If reality and symbolization split apart altogether, we make no claims of knowledge, only we spin our narratives within a void of meaningful possibility: we are left with appetite, and the sheer reduplication of words devoid of significance in a corresponding reality.
Zizek and others see a decline in symbolic efficiency, and indicate that it’s a result of the ongoing transformation of capitalism. I suggested that Flarf naively contributes to this decline not because of its recycling of texts or its hyposyntax, but because it doesn’t account for its symbolization process—doesn’t suppose the significance of the big Other, nor does it much seek association between its symbolic acts and a corresponding reality.
If I understand this properly, it relates to what I think of as a lack of responsibility inherent in the Flarf project. We already stand at a remove from ourselves, and language, and ourselves in language. Generally speaking, humans who type things into the void of the internet are already automatically disconnected from their words in a way that someone speaking face-to-face would not be, or, for that matter, someone writing for print. Just one small but important example is the ability to post letters and blog comments and be “present” in a chat room anonymously or under a pseudonym. A quick scroll through such fields shows how quickly the discourse degenerates into insults, platitudes, and lazy, disjointed thinking that says nothing, connects with nothing. Through the lens of Google, words are freed to be “things” — not in the sense that Byron would have had it, but “devoid of significance in a corresponding reality,” free-floating and able to be perverted, co-opted and sold.
If the Flarf project were a radical critique of this process — as I believe it can and possibly has been in certain authors’ hands — I would be more apt to celebrate it. (I realize, by the way, that there is a critique of language coming from an entirely different vector that emerges from linguistics theory and philosophy, which would be equally as troubled by the Byronic, Romantic notion of “words as things” as I am by the “decline in symbolic efficiency.”) However, I’ve too often perceived Flarf as not really offering this critique; instead, like brokers high up in a Madoff-type investment scheme, they’ve taken advantage of the “excess” burned off in the Internet’s endless proliferation, without really paying the price. I’m talking, mostly, about the tendency of Flarf to profit at the expense of the aforementioned “disembodied,” lazy thinking and writing it gleans from the WWW.
I realize this is a gross generalization based on not one specific example of a poem or author. Drew Gardner’s recent post on Dale’s blog, in defense of his use of the web as a “language chord” that offers access to both high and low, from ordinary speech to Shakespeare, is intriguing to me, though it ultimately does not, I think, address the above issue. But I’m willing to be convinced. Also I will, as time and energy allow, explore more specific authors and texts and respond to those.