Two essays recently came to my attention — one fresh on the Haggard and Halloo web site, by Tony Lopez, titled “Embarrassment” (though the header above this reads “Promoting Your Own Poetry”), which itself takes issue with a Pores piece by Anthony Mellors from several years ago, “Postmodern Self-fashioning.” Mellors was responding to an instance in which Barrett Watten, keynote speaker at something called the ‘Poetry and Public Language’ conference in Plymouth (this must have been 2007 as well), chose to speak about his own work as a poet-critic as the prime example.
Mellors, who admits he has “harped on” Language Writing before, objects to what he perceives as a new and particularly insidious instance of “self-fashioning” by Watten, which seems to be at work in Language / Conceptual writing as a whole. From the essay:
- Charles Bernstein, Steve McCaffery, b. p. nichol, Bruce Andrews, Ron Silliman, and Watten wrote brilliant polemics that fused poetry with semiology and radical politics and went right against the grain of both the complacent, academic poetry establishment and academic theorists who had nothing to say about post-modern poetry. Strategically, this was also a way of conferring value on radically indeterminate and interminable poetic texts. Put very briefly, my criticism of this strategy was that it fetishized the semiotics of the ‘open work’ (aesthetically, libidinally, politically) while making the passage from theory to work intentional. That is to say, the work’s very indeterminacy forms the basis of its determination of libidinal and/or political effect. Language poetics moved quickly away from the exhaustive conceptualist experimentation of McCaffery and Nichol’s Toronto Research Group to an institutionalized neo avant-garde position.
If I read this correctly — which I’m not at all sure I’m doing — Mellors seems to be saying that what began as a “brilliant fusing” of new theories such as structuralism and poststructuralism with poetic praxis, producing “open work” that was “indeterminate and “interminable” became, through the very act of theoretically justifying (“conferring value”) on said work, encrusted with “intention” that has gradually drained the work of energy and spontaneity and solidified it within the academy. I think that’s what he’s saying; there’s something about the keyword “intention” here that I’m not totally able to situate within the argument, but that’s my take on it.
Lopez, meanwhile, objects that Mellors “misunderstands and misrepresents Barrett Watten’s contribution to the conference,” and also accuses him of “confusing terms such as ‘conceptual’ work and ‘open form’, neither of which are particularly relevant to the discussion.” Not having been at the conference or read Watten’s piece, I can’t speak to the first point; the second one is partially valid, it seems to me. Playing fast and loose with terms like “conceptual,” “open,” “language writing,” etc., only reinforces the critical laziness that would propose an interchangeability between them, especially egregious since Mellors — given the poets and works he names in his essay — clearly understands the distinction. Ultimately such generalizations are no more useful than Language writers dismissing everything they don’t like as “romantic.” It’s ungenerous at best, disingenuous at worst.
In the rest of his essay, Lopez essentially goes on to argue two things: he admits that Language Writing has entered the academy, but defends its place there, since (it seems) this was a logical outcome of its having done the work of joining theory to poetic practice and taking the risk of entering the domain of criticism. That Language Writing has taken its place in the academy is, according to Lopez, a sign that it’s important and worthy of study. Also, he asks, is it so awful that prominent poets among that generation have managed to get “proper jobs”? Are they supposed to while away their later years in “Parisian attics”?
Next, Lopez begins to take on the “embarrassment” around literary self-promotion. Note that “self promotion,” however, is not the term used by Mellors. This is a key distinction. While the notion of self promotion in poetry is well worth discussing, literary self-fashioning (Mellors’ term) is a much different, infinitely more complicated idea.
The term originates with Stephen Greenblatt‘s important 1980 book Renaissance Self-Fashioning (though the idea probably originates with Foucault, whose work influenced Greenblatt). In that text, Greenblatt makes a compelling argument that conscious self-fashioning in terms of style, outward appearance, and perception of others begins to take shape in the modern sense during the Renaissance, growing out of courtly norms, portraiture, and literature. In other words, the whole modern idea of identity and public persona begins during the Renaissance due to a (too complicated to go into here) confluence of factors, including but not limited to innovations in philosophy, science, and religion, the rise of the middle class, and notions of individuality, freedom, and happiness.
In literature, we begin to see authorial self-fashioning as well. Case in point (and one that Greenblatt discusses at some length): Christopher Marlowe. The son of a lower-class merchant in Canterbury, Marlowe secured a scholarship to the cathedral school there, excelled in classical studies, and went on to Cambridge. Traditionally, the only two professions for a scholar not from the noble class were cleric or lawyer. Marlowe, of course, became an author instead (and also a spy, a counterfeiter, a heretic, etc., but that’s a bit beside the point). All of his plays to a greater or lesser degree exhibit this anxiety around self-fashioning — Tamburlaine depicts a boy from nowhere who succeeds spectacularly in the military realm; The Jew of Malta is about a merchant; The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is about a scholar, etc. And in all the plays, Marlowe participates in authorial self-fashioning, positioning himself as a poet and playwright, oftentimes in relation and opposition to Spenser, his more famous and court-favored counterpart.
He does this at the most basic level by subtly, in some cases not so subtly, layering in meta-arguments about the viability and respectability of the profession of poet and playwright. Marlowe critiques and skewers the soldier, the merchant, and the scholar — but all the while he draws comparisons between each of them and the playwright-illusionist, exposing the hypocrisy of the noble classes who attempt to block the ambitions of the former. His work as a whole can be read as a complex, spirited defense of the rising authorial profession — and the place in such a profession of just such an author as the lower-class Marlowe was.
Mellors is surely aware of the discourse that hovers behind the term “self-fashioning,” and it’s an oversight that he introduces “postmodern self-fashioning” without gesturing towards this background. Lopez badly compounds this oversight, however, by shifting the term completely to “self promotion.” Self promotion being a set of practices — such as sending out fliers to promote a reading, forwarding e-mails, generally beating the drum on behalf of oneself and one’s work — that the literary community, Lopez indicates, feels is “vulgar.” He writes, “In Mellors’ paper, Watten’s conference presentation is portrayed as blatant self-promotion.” This is not quite the case, though Mellors himself uses “self-promotion” seemingly interchangeably towards the end of the essay. It’s actually, however, portrayed as “self-fashioning.” The conflation of the two terms makes a far worse hash of things than the confusion among “Language writing,” “conceptual,” etc.
Simply put, it’s impossible to characterize a poet-scholar of Watten’s magnitude, speaking about his own work at an academic conference from a position of power and authority, as anything remotely resembling the average poet passing out fliers to a local reading, or blasting out e-mails about a recent publication. It’s categorically different. Orders of magnitude different.
So while Mellors may have been guilty of not defining his terms terribly well, I do take his larger point.
Of course every poet and/or scholar who sets foot in a conference to present is engaging in self-promotion of some sort, whether it has to do with furthering one’s career or one’s position in a certain discourse. But that’s different than the kind of literary self-fashioning that’s undertaken in an increasingly insulated way by poets who’ve secured a place for themselves within the academy.
Not having been at the conference, again, I can’t speak to what Watten said there — I would urge you to read the two differing accounts instead. Nor would I be so unfair as to say that this type of self-fashioning — call it literary movement self-fashioning — is the exclusive terrain of the Language Writers (though I did write about something touching on this with regards to Bruce Andrews in a related post not too long ago).
The fact of the matter is that here in the U.S. we are faced with a situation where the authorized reading of certain poets and kinds of poetry is increasingly qualified and exclusive. This seems to be part of what Mellors objects to — the reductio ad absurdum whereby a poet’s work becomes so specialized that the only critical reading that can be offered is by the author him- or herself. Not only is it necessary to have read, say, Badiou; now it’s essential that you have the same reading of Badiou that I do.
The result is a generation of poets creating work in outdated avant-garde modes every bit as derivative as pallid imitations of Eliot from the 1940s. Or, alternately, desperately creating new modes that can immediately be situated and packaged within a predetermined theorized niche. And the fact of the matter is that no avant-garde, no matter how noble its intentions at the outset, can hope to undo many centuries’ worth of authorial self-fashioning that is (apparently) an integral part of the very condition of modernity.
So… if you can’t beat em, join em?
Update: Barrett Watten has sent a link to his talk from the Plymouth conference.