Literary Self-Fashioning and the Avant-Garde

Christopher Marlowe, pre-modern literary self-fashioner

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.

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9 Responses to Literary Self-Fashioning and the Avant-Garde

  1. Kent Johnson says:

    >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?<

    David, great recap. I’d just printed out those posts the other day.

    Wondering how you’d see the Grand Piano project in context of this self-fashioning idea. Can’t think, myself, of a more prolific, insistent “a-g” instance of such, nor a more curious (poignant?) case of disjunct between early proclaimed ideals (the poetic deconstruction of the “Self”/”I”) and its denouement in Self-regarding–and often unintentionally comical–autobiographical portraiture.

    I wonder, though, about the ending of your post, quoted above: For the fateful “fact” you claim seems quite predicated, to me, on “avant-garde” writers accepting the conventional, reified frames of authorial identity. Insofar as they largely have, I couldn’t agree with you more. But why is it a given that they would? What if writers, to some degree of collective effort, were to begin to challenge, at varying angles and levels, those “many centuries’ worth of authorial self-fashioning” you mention? We can see it never really occurred to the Language poets to do so (much less, it would seem, to their now professionalized heirs), and perhaps that’s why they’ve arguably become the best, most determined poetic models on (you mention Foucault) the Author Function runway. Not that we’re not all on it, course…

    But *must* the AG ever end up in the tight vestments of AF fashions, as you suggest? I don’t see why it should be a never-ending, all-encompassing condition of poetic practice. Maybe time is ripe for some kind of reverse sub-Renaissance of authorial design and experiment. Not that I’m brimming with optimism, mind you.


  2. dhadbawnik says:


    Thanks for the response. Actually I don’t see a way out of “conventional authorial identity” so long as we remain rooted in conventional print culture, with its single book by single author paradigm, and the literary marketplace that both feeds on and is fed by the paradigm. Everyone wants to critique it, but when push comes to shove, everyone wants a place at the table. Or so it seems…

    Now this Rejection Group idea of Kenny Goldsmith’s could be a game-changer. We’ll have to see how it plays out…

    Having now read Barrett Watten’s original piece, it’s hard to know what to say. It’s a fascinating look at the modernism v. postmodernism debate in poetry and hence the UK / US split that seems more and more apparent — once again casting pomo as a sort of necessary progress, but at least doing so in a more careful and generous way than I’d seen previously. The use of his own work as exempla is bold and risky to say the least. From a purely Spicerian standpoint it makes the poems come off as overdetermined, and hence my confusion — it’s revealing and interesting to see him talk about what went into the poems’ construction, but as a reader, what am i supposed to do with this information?

    And I’m very interested in connecting up Spicer’s outside with a Lacanian other, but again, in terms of notions like “excess” and “remainder,” I wonder about talking through one’s own poems — isn’t there always going to be something in the mirror one can’t see? Is that part of the intention here? Fascinating…

    At the end of the day I guess I look out for incremental change from the ground up more than from any avant garde or group of writers. Or maybe it will be both…

  3. Kent Johnson says:

    Yes, this US/UK divide–what is most fascinating about it is the utter refusal of “avant” folks here to confront the critiques that have been put on the table by some of the prominent Brits.

    Of course, there’s nothing new about such silence: It’s a strategy, very much part of the way power in the field plays out, how cultural margins get guarded, hierarchies maintained, and so forth–just ignore those who propose challenge and debate to cut the losses. The Langpos are the champs at this; their Conceptual and Flarf stepchildren have learned the lesson well (not surprising, in case of the last two, given that the embarrassments of their positions are so plain).

    There’s a danger to such behavior, though, and that’s that the cowardly hedging becomes ever more transparent in retrospect and big redistributions and compensations may get made down the road. As they most likely will, I’d say. To my mind, for example, and I suppose we may differ on this, David, figures like Watten and Silliman will be seen as relatively small figures after things shake out for a while, poets of ultimately limited range and vision who, having put out their polemics, have shown themselves incapable of engaging in direct debate on key matters. Watten bunkers now behind opaque, esoteric prose; Silliman has exposed himself over the past number of years already as a pedestrian thinker with very little of import to offer.

    But we’ll see… Having said the above, I will say I’m hopeful that Kenny Goldsmith’s Rejection Group project may prove to lead into interesting territory. Seems to me the most exciting development in so-called “Conceptual poetry” so far.

  4. Kent Johnson says:


    Had meant to say, in relation to Kenny Goldsmith and this Rejection Group project, that I’ve heard this weekend from a strong source that both Vanessa Place and Kasey Mohammed are involved, as well.

  5. Kent Johnson says:

    Read the first seven or eight pages of Watten’s essay linked to above… Quite revealing and emblematic (and the chutzpah of it is amazing): How a by now banal general notion proffered by the L=group more than thirty years back (the symbiotic/dialectical interfacing of “poetry” and “poetics” into a larger praxis) is rewarmed to near boil with quick-take philosophical/psychoanalytic references and name-drops to bring the rhetoric up to high and florid Academic speed.

    Though it’s true the prose is a bit more accessible than usual–likely a consequence of the essay’s self-fashioning topic: Barrett Watten himself!

    Ever onward to the deconstruction of the poetic “Self” and “I”…

  6. Steve B. says:

    I’ve never really understood what being a great poet has to do with engaging aggressively in academic debates. Why should that be thing by which we measure their value? I mean, it’s clear how much it has to do with being an academic, a great thinker on poetry, but the two always seem to get conflated.

    Just my two cents as I saw the discussion drift into issues with specific poets and their work.

  7. dhadbawnik says:


    well, engaging in academic debates by poets has had the effect of securing a place for certain kinds of poetics within the academy — in some instances, not all — while contemporary poetries that spurn academic discourse are marginalized.

    think of diane di prima (or most so-called ‘beat writers,’ for that matter). totally marginalized within most academic circles. yet as her remarkable 2-vol chap on HD — come to think of it, of course, HD is yet ANOTHER poet whose work is less than fashionable academically — for CUNY’s wonderful “Lost and Found” series, which just arrived today, shows, she is a “great thinker in poetry,” as well as a great poet… underappreciated on both counts.

  8. Steve B says:

    Oh, I agree, you can be both– and many are. How can one not spend a lot of time thinking on the art on which you work? I get that.

    But there’s often an attitude that a poet’s poetic output is judged by the value of his critical academic output, and that makes little sense to me. I mean, I understand it as a function of academic circles, and how the politics of that works, but I don’t agree with it on a poetic level.

    Writers have all kinds of stupid opinions. Look at Neruda and Stalin. Look at Hemingway and women. On and on the list goes.

    Of course, the poet is a holistic creature, where his academic and political expressions must inform his poetry, but I often feel like those in academia tend to look at it from that angle, rather than the other way around. The ability to partition things off isn’t fostered. Thus, poets are judged by their critical thought first, rather than by their art.

    I disagree with that.

    I also disagree with and am bothered by the fact that poetry/poetic paradigms are capable of being marginalized by academics. It really just points to the fact that those who are generally reading contemporary poetry are, in the majority, academics. That’s a shame. But perhaps it’s the truth, because as you point out, the power they wield is real. I mean, I’m glad their reading poetry, but I just wish others were as well.

    Much like running a business, the real question is– “Where’s the rest of the audience for this product?” If there were other audiences that were capable of sustaining their own conversation, sales, etc. then the power of academia to judge a poet by his critical output rather than his artistic output would be diminished. And that, IMO, would only be to the betterment of poetry.

  9. Patrick says:

    Something needs to be said about the etiology of “indeterminacy” in this (much larger) debate re: the institutional legacy of language writing (c.f. Jennifer Ashton et al). And thus one cannot critically engage the debate without admitting the relevance of the legacy, which is ultimately what so many wish to deny. The resultant spleen sustains the debate on both sides, I suspect. But almost never is there then a fruitful furtherance of our ideas of “intention,” “concept,” “open form,” indeed writing per se. But I’m just ranting…

    More to the point: David, have you read Gioa’s “Can Poetry Matter?” I feel like you’re steering in his direction here.

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