Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Immigrant is Transposition Kitsch

The other day, Ron wrote the following on his blog:

"Innovation without context, without critique, is mere fashionism, a desire to be the latest thing, whate’er that might be. Such innovation of the market is forever subject to the market. At best, it’s silly & harmless. For the most part, it’s stupid.

But the other innovation is that which looks to the world and brings the world into one’s art, not just as a slapdash invocation (LBJ intoning “We shall overcome,” Pat Boone singing the Rolling Stones), but to actually change the structure of the work so as to make it adequate to the (always already) new context. In that sense, Blake, Baudelaire, Dickinson, Stein, Jack Spicer & Barrett Watten are all united. Such change is fundamentally disruptive."

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This may seem like a throw-away statement by an old grouch, the same rhetoric used by Quietists a million times against Langpo (How does it feel Ron?), and used by many many establishment figures threatened by new ideas. But I think it's actually fundamental of Ron's view of poetry and a prevalent view in contemporary poetry, so I thought I would offer some of my own thoughts.

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At the core of Ron’s statement is this opposition between “fashionism” and “structure”; kitsch (Pat Boone) vs serious High Modernism; trends vs history and lineage.

All these binaries are important to look at. And anybody who’s read this blog before knows that I have discussed them in the past. It is almost as if Ron wanted to provide me with some evidence for my more hypothetical statements in the past.

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I will argue that those binaries result (or imply) some other familiar binaries: foreign/parasite vs native, wax museum vs community, fake vs real.

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This is why the immigrant is kitsch.

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Ron's obsession with lineages is a very damning feature of Ron's thinking as far as I am concerned, one which puts him squarely in the camp of Keannu Reeves' character in My Own Private Idaho, to refer back to my post about that movie; Ron's ideas of the social seems largely focused on legitimacy and descendants. This is thinking obsesses with hierarchy, obsessed with correcting the youth, with "the future of poetry" etc. It's a conservative idea of social interaction: trying to maintain an order.

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The problem with fashion is that it is not deep, it is not a real “structure”; it is rather shallow and subject to the market (so are structures too of course, we all are). In difference to a structure, it is not set, not real, but rather a movement. Fashion moves! It moves across boundaries and various spaces. It is much harder to control, to peg down with reductive arguments about lineage.

In this way, fashion echoes the problems of the foreign –the immigrant and the act of translation. This is in large part why the immigrant is kitsch (a subject matter I raised at the Harriet blog and which I will discuss on this blog in the near future).

While “structure” seems to echo a failed/heroic idea of Marxist Resistance, “fashionism” suggests something more like Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome: it crosses boundaries, it creates hybrids (no not that kind!).

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We can here return to Ron’s problems with translation. We can see his problems with the foreign in his failed attempts to superimpose his simple binary of avant vs quietism on foreign literature. The failure of these attempts to deal with the foreign point out the reductiveness of Ron’s lineage-obsession.

Ron has a notoriously difficult time dealing with translation. He has repeatedly warned against translators who are not native Americans (they make the English language strange when the bring over foreign texts). He has stated that "the American ear" cannot (nor, it seems, should it) make sense of non-native writing. This apparently holds true even of British poetry, which is too strange for the American Ear (ie The American Tree). Ron's repeated use of "ear" - not just in discussions of translation but in a lot of reviews of contemporary American poetry - is indicative of a nativism: there is a natural poetry (you're born into it).

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As I keep repeating, Translation generates an excess that seems to make people like Ron Very Uncomfortable. It generates an excess of poets and lineages (Oh no! My quietist-vs-avant model is breaking down! I can't control the future! Or the Past!), of interpretations and languages. Perhaps most importantly, it creates an excess in the text itself: there is not just one version, there are endless versions. And contrary to the old-formalist idea: the poem is not the exact words of the "original." The well-wrought urn is wrecked with noise! The "hard" "structure" Ron so fully believes in, is lost.

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And this is where the shoe hurts. In his book on Pound, Radio Corpse, Daniel Tiffany suggests that the fear of translations comes from a feeling that translation acts like a fetish; it abstract language in order to create a flow between cultures, a "general equivalence" between things that are not equivalent (poems in foreign languages etc).

I do think this is in large part where the fear comes from. Old Formalism (such as the one espoused by Ron) depends on the idea that the poem is exactly the language that is there: the structure. It cannot be translated. To translate it would be to somehow abstract it, remove it from “realness”.

I would add to that that the translation offers a "bad equivalence," an equivalence that goes awry. More about this in a second. The key is that it generates movement.

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Fetishism brings me back to my Patti Smith entry: how in her book Just Kids, she describes herself and Robert Mapplethorpe interacting in a beautifully fetishistic way with works of art and fashion. And fashion is as important as the art; they seem to exist on the same plane, both with a kind of magic. A haircut changes Patti Smith's art. Re-decorating an apartment turns Mapplethorpe into Genet etc.

We are now back to why I said Smith was the anti-Silliman.

(It is notable that Smith seems to like almost exclusively French – ie foreign – writers, whom she reads (I think) in translation, and US writers who remind her of French writers (Jim Carroll etc.)

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It is interesting that Ron refers to Baudelaire, one of Smith's big heroes, as being someone in opposition to "fashionism." Afterall, in his famous essay on modern painters argues for "particular beauty, the beauty of circumstance and the sketch of manners" and the importance of "fashion" in consideration of beauty. In fact, Baudelaire emphases a kind of "fashionist" awareness as the proper response to modernity.

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However, I don't want it to seem like I want this "fashionist" poetry to be the fundamental "structure" that makes the art work "adequate to the new context." It is a very different response altogether than one that values an “adequate” “structure.”

Fashion is opposed to "structure" if you look at the spatial metaphors: Fashion moves! It is exchanged through a multitude of exchanges and interactions. It is constantly changing through these interactions.

This kind of “shallow” movement (as opposed to a dinosaurish ‘structure’ which has to be constantly updated like a house to remain “adequate” to the new weather) does not need to be adequate because it does not try to finalize, stabilize what “context” means; it is constantly moving.

Deleuze and Guattari’s now-cliché rhizome might be the best description of this model of art. Not an art that tries to remain adequate to a context, but an art that is part of the context, that moves, that connects and disconnects.

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This also goes back to my criticism of Stephanie Strickland’s argument about “e-literature.” In that article she argues that in order to be true “e-liteerature” the writer had to use code; could not just use the platforms of the Internet etc (though in the comments to that post we found out that a lot of her examples of e-literature had done just that). I think Strickland’s argument is a fundamentally conservative one, an attempt to control, dismiss the anarchic, rhizomatic tendencies of the Internet, to locate the importance of electronic media in “structure” rather than in social intensities.

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About fetishism: Tiffany invokes Kittler in his translation discussion in Radio Corpse. It seems to me that contemporary media theory might have the most useful theories for discussing translation.

For example, the quote I posted the other day from Discourse Networks:

"A medium is a medium is a medium. Therefore it cannot be translated. To transfer messages from one medium to another always involves reshaping them to conform to new standards and materials. In a discourse network that requires an 'awareness of the abysses which divide the one order of sense experience from the other,' transposition necessarily takes the place of translation. Whereas translation excludes all particularities in favor of a general equivalent, the transposition of media is accomplished serially, at discrete points."

I think this speaks to the fear of translation as fetish, and improves the model. What you get what you translate is not a generality, the abstraction of a “structure”, but an interaction, a noisy interaction, which generates “bad equivalences.”

Here are some definitions of transposition from the Web:
• any abnormal position of the organs of the body
• substitution: an event in which one thing is substituted for another; "the replacement of lost blood by a transfusion of donor blood"
• (genetics) a kind of mutation in which a chromosomal segment is transfered to a new position on the same or another chromosome
• (mathematics) the transfer of a quantity from one side of an equation to the other along with a change of sign
• (electricity) a rearrangement of the relative positions of power lines in order to minimize the effects of mutual capacitance and inductance; "he wrote a textbook on the electrical effects of transposition"
• the act of reversing the order or place of
• (music) playing in a different key from the key intended; moving the pitch of a piece of music upwards or downwards

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I might add to that again Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of “minor literature”: the politics of Kafka is not a “structure” but the movement of language, the use of Yiddish for example that “deterritorializes” his German language, creates a foreign language out of German (see my recent blog entry about Aase Berg for more of this). In other words, it’s not some deep “structure” that is political, but the movement of language, its “fashionism.”

It’s not accidental that one of the main things Clement Greenberg objects to in kitsch is the way it moves across national boundaries, perverting native folk cultures. It’s not coincidence that Herman Broch wrote: “kitsch is lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art.”

It is not accidental that transposition rearranges the organs. Silliman’s lineage-based idea of literature demands “organs,” translations lead to bodies without organs (ie without the order of the interior). Inside becomes outside, outside inside.

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Finally, I want to say that I think Patti Smith’s “fetishistic” approach to art is not contradictory to Kittler’s idea of transposition; it seems one of the best examples of it. For example, how the word androgynous” gets its magic power, transforming Smith into an the mature artist, precisely by being foreign to her.

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These are just some ideas I've been harboring while cleaning up my daughter's vomit over the past few days. Hopefully some of you will offer some improvements on these ideas.

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Next up: I will discuss the discussion from the Harriet blog about translations that get "the real" foreign text vs those that dwell in "exoticism."

11 Comments:

Blogger Anji said...

this is excellent (your post & the old man grumpery that preceded it)

sorry about the vomit

7:47 AM  
Blogger Max said...

I think we're also talking about a problem with criticism. It seems that critics often require a certain kind of writing in order to "effectively perform" their critical duty. This usually means that the writing must have a lineage, that it must come from somewhere, that it must be, in other words, critically tangible, rather than an unknown, undocumented entity (the word "undocumented" fits nicely with the idea of the immigrant here). It's hard to grab at undocumented ideas, and it's even harder to critique them in old, usual ways.

6:16 PM  
Blogger Annandale Dream Gazette said...

I think you're hallucinating a windmill and tilting at it.

What you claim is the core of what was written in that post of Ron's is a superimposed structure you put on top of it --- it's not what was there, and not what was said. Then to so tenuously connect it to translation --- it doesn't hold up.

He is a fan of flarf, which is three hundred steps or so beyond kitch, way further into kitchland than gurlesque, as far as I can tell.

"Fear of translation" is an odd idea, and a loaded term. It's a tag and it's not a clean or straightforward way to build an argument. So I don't accept it.

An obsession with context, category and history is not an obsession about lineage, in its ultimate intent, anyway, at all. Those are very different concerns.

That essay of Ron's didn't talk about structure as static -- it was the exact opposite of what you are purporting was said, and you even quoted it here on your blog -- "to actually change the structure" and: "such change is fundamentally disruptive" ---polar opposite of the notion of a static, urn-like structure that you claim was invoked.

If you could strip away the snottiness and name-calling, and focus on whatever the real thing you're trying to say about the American attitude toward translation of poetry, I think it would be much more to the point. You destroy your own credibility with such tenous connections, feeble accusations, and what seems like the need for an invented enemy in order to prove your point.

I really would be interested to hear more clearly what you're saying about translation, how it creates movement, how and why Americans do or don't get it, but your point, whatever it is, is buried beneath all the other junk.

I hope your daughter feels better.

9:21 PM  
Blogger John B-R said...

This is just the kind of thinking we, I mean I, need. Thanks.

7:00 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Annandale,

I don't know what flarf is and I've been repeatedly told I misuse the term "gurlesque" so I don't know the relative merits of these (or what in the world gurlesque has to do with this post).

In order for this to have any bearing on my discussion of Ron's thinking, then we'd have to look at the way he describes Flarf. In a lot of instances flarf is interesting to me; in other ways it's not.

Either way, I don't see writing as a contest of who can get the furtest into "kitschland". Whatever that is. (It sounds kind of like some macho sport: I can make it further into kitschland than you by 200 yards...)

"Fear of Translation": perhaps "anxiety" about translation is a better term. I've talked about this a whole lot on this blog; if you're not convinced by that, go to Lawrence Venuti's various books, he probably makes a better case than I can.

In difference to a lot of folks, Ron does try to engage with translations, but I see some anxieties in the way he does so: those are the ones I've documented.And I've written about them more comprehensively in the past on this blog.

I think Ron's obsessed with lineage in a way that is usually not historicized. It resembles Eliot's idea of tradition more than anything. Terms like Quietist and "past-avant" go back in history to Blake (and end in Ron's own work) without the necessary concerns about historical context etc.

As I note in my post, this becomes especially absurd when he starts talking about other countries (Russia for example). And the very post I quoted is I think exemplary in the way he tries to defend against these unnamed heathens. It's just as grouchy as quietists attacking langpoets.

I think the fact that you have this "structure" - solid, apprehensible - that you then have to change to keep it adequate suggests a staticness. Something like a house that you have to renovate to keep up with the seasons.

I don't see any name-calling in my post. I don't see why I'm "snotty" because I have an argument that you don't like. That seems like a really unsophisticated way of arguing.

I happen to like Ron a lot and I think his blog's influence on american poetry has been profound and interesting. I have both defended and criticized Ron countless times in the blog world. I'm not out to demonize him. It's simply that I read hs blog a lot and so I naturally develop ideas about what I read.

If you want to have a discussion I think we could have an interesting ecxchange. But you're the one using words like "snotty" and I don't think that's a good way of having a discussion.

Johannes

7:50 AM  
Blogger Annandale Dream Gazette said...

Maybe I misinterpreted the way you used the word "grouchy." But I thought the parenthetical "how does it feel Ron" statement was definitely rather snotty. It's a minor point.

Mostly my point was that your connection of translation with kitch, as you presented it in your blog post, was not strong enough to be convincing.

My second point was that I think you either seriously misread that essay by Silliman or you're interpreting it in a very narrow way in order to validate your argument.

I like the analogy of a house that one renovates in order to keep up with the season's fashions --- but I think you've got it exactly wrong: your analogy is, in fact, very apt to what he referred to as "fashionist."

Take the world in and CHANGE the existing structure-- - and when that happens it will be disruptive --- that is not at all a concept of structure as static. For you to say that having ANY concept of structure indicates an oppressive binary view of things is a looping kind of logic, and again, does not hold up.

When you use terms like "fear of" or "obsession with" you are negatively psychologizing in a less than straightforward manner, to further your argument. I think it's not a clean way to argue. Again, a minor point.

There was no binary of 'fashionism vs. structure' in that essay --- you're distorting what was said. And if your argument is valid, you shouldn't have to do that.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Annandale,

"not strong enough to be convincing", "misread", "narrow", "wrong", "does not hold up", "not a clean way to argue", "distorting" - Do you want to have a discussion or do you want to police? You seem to do all in your rhetorical power to avoid having to engage with the arguments.

As for translation/kitsch: the argument is not convincing *to you*. A lot of people I have talked to have found it very convincing and interesting.

Also, "convincing" is not really my
primary concern.

I've written numerous entries about kitsch/translation. If you're actually interested in finding out where I'm coming from, you can go back to the archives and find out more.

How can I get the house analogy right and still misread Ron? I absolutely understand what he means by "structure" - and I think that's a very static idea of the way culture moves and a static way of imaginging art's interaction with media/culture.

The problem is not misunderstanding him - it's disagreeing with him. I don't believe in the old "make it new" paradigm.

I think Ron's dismissal of "fashionism" and his inability to handle works in translation suggests the short-comings of this model. That's what I wanted to point out.

He is absolutely setting up a binary - read the quote again. Real "structure" vs fakey fashionism. This kind of binary runs throughout Ron's thinking (for example, the use of "soft" is "soft surrealism).

What all this adds up to is I think is not just the old make it new paradigm but also the old anti-decadence critique.

Johannes

5:12 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Annandale,

"not strong enough to be convincing", "misread", "narrow", "wrong", "does not hold up", "not a clean way to argue", "distorting" - Do you want to have a discussion or do you want to police? You seem to do all in your rhetorical power to avoid having to engage with the arguments.

As for translation/kitsch: the argument is not convincing *to you*. A lot of people I have talked to have found it very convincing and interesting.

Also, "convincing" is not really my
primary concern.

I've written numerous entries about kitsch/translation. If you're actually interested in finding out where I'm coming from, you can go back to the archives and find out more.

How can I get the house analogy right and still misread Ron? I absolutely understand what he means by "structure" - and I think that's a very static idea of the way culture moves and a static way of imaginging art's interaction with media/culture.

The problem is not misunderstanding him - it's disagreeing with him. I don't believe in the old "make it new" paradigm.

I think Ron's dismissal of "fashionism" and his inability to handle works in translation suggests the short-comings of this model. That's what I wanted to point out.

He is absolutely setting up a binary - read the quote again. Real "structure" vs fakey fashionism. This kind of binary runs throughout Ron's thinking (for example, the use of "soft" is "soft surrealism).

What all this adds up to is I think is not just the old make it new paradigm but also the old anti-decadence critique.

Johannes

5:12 PM  
Blogger Frode Barth-Winslow said...

Johannes, random question on your use of the My Private Idaho scene of the competing funerals and its relationship to what Ron is doing... I'm wondering if you're thought is that all lineage-making or lineage-searching is calcifying and reductive. If you recall the film, the River Phoenix character spends much of it on a quest to rediscover his own (matri)lineage, with the Keanu Reeves character along for the ride.

Another way of putting this is that there seem to be two ways to counter what you see Ron doing--one being to reject lineage in anarchic pan-demonium (the funeral scene) or to seek out an alternate anti-patriarchal lineage (the quest for the originary mother).

I suppose in the film the quest for the mother leads ultimately to hetero-sex as the Keanu Reeves character beds the hot Italian farmer lady, then returns to America and inherits his fortune... And that in some way this is instructive. But I'd be interested to hear what you think.

1:52 PM  
Blogger Ana Božičević said...

Johannes, just wanted to chime in with support for your idea of translation as kitsch, which I think is very valid, not at all tenuous. Objections raised to it actually remind me of this post:
http://exoskeleton-johannes.blogspot.com/2008/07/gurlesque-few-more-notes.html
that Amy recently pointed me to. (Warning: digression ahead.) A commenter wondered how theory-allied poetry examining pop-cultural kitsch & using "girly" tropes can have any sort of relevance outside its own narrow American context. Who "gets" gurlesque and how does it break new ground - didn't female surrealists already mow that lawn? But things get interesting when kitsch consumables (be they Rockers Ken http://www.toplessrobot.com/BarbieRockersKen.jpg or Matryoshka dolls) cross borders and become relics of a childhood's political climate -- eg in the case of the USSR, or of former Yugoslavia (my birthland). Fetishized in the collective memory are a whole Atlantis of kitschy products that are no longer produced and exist as brand names and jingles only. They have even been collected in a Lexicon of Yu-Mythology (http://www.leksikon-yu-mitologije.net/).
Their existence is totally disruptive to (or, if the bottom line demands, commodified by) the emergent neocapitalist national ideologies of ex-Yu countries. What does it mean for these products/words/concepts to be examined from the vantage point of an immigrant, whose whole body, bearing the "made in Yu" stamp, is another such kitsch object? The immigrant's English and even hisher "othered" attempts at translation into English, too full of foreign is-ness to be pleasing to that lineage-conscious American ear, are totally allied with kitsch. This seems so obvious. Johannes, I really look forward to how you develop this idea. It's kind of crucial to me that you do, even.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Frode,

Yes, good question. Of course my reading is rather black-and-white. I'll try to respond to this in a post later today or tomorrow. Am caring for screamy baby righ tnow.

J

10:34 AM  

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