Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ron Silliman & Originality

Ron "The Law" Silliman made an interesting post today about erasure and Janet Holmes. I think it could be the start of an interesting discussion. Here is my response:

Interesting post Ron. I think you begin to raise some interesting issues.

First of all, a lot of what this recycling is about making high art out of avant-garde techniques that were not in the 1910s and 20s meant to be high art.

I might argue that your own project is very much about this: Taking art ideas that were meant to be ephemeral and pop-y and turn them into "genuine" "aesthetic experience" and "complex critiques."

The "new sentence" for example is "new" in the sense that it makes certain avant-garde ephemera tolerable to the academy as rightfully high art.

Most obvious is your obsession with originality and authenticity. This of course comes out clearly in your dismissal of translation, which as much as any avant-garde practice trouble notions of authenticity and originality.

But you can see it in your note about seeing Johnson's work in his home (even before publication! Thus more genuine!).

Not only is Johnson's work a recycling of Milton; his process of erasure is hardly new with him. That stuff went on in Europe in the 10s and 20s (and probably before then!).

My favorite figure in this regard is Finland Swedish poet Gunnar Bjorling, who did not erase high literature Milton, but even more radically had a team of young boyfriends erase his own work for him (the more they erased, the better). He did this in the 1930s, in the provincial town of Helsinki (Helsingfors) and he was hardly the only or first one. For one he was inspired by Dada, a movement that was quite clear about its recycling policies.

And of course then we're back to translation. You recently argued that there was no work of translation was "Great." I might add, that no work by the historical avant-garde was "Great."

[Nor - thankfully! - is any work of Flarf "Great" (but often funny, perverse and insightfully ludicrous). There's also some irony in christening Flarf as genuinely new, when its practices are patently anti-genuine and anti-originality. Likewise, your repeated description of Kenny Goldsmith - who is equally overtly anti-original (even his idea of un-originality are very 1960s!) - as genuinely "new."]

Your high modernist framework of Greatness and Authenticity is itself opposed to these avant-garde gestures.



Blogger Max said...

I hate to say it, but I think that Silliman's biggest problem is that he's elderly.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

What will our generation, raised on poetry blogs and online journals be like at 60+? Oh my.

Furthermore, I declare a 10 year moratorium on using the term 'avant'. Starting now.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


8:10 AM  
Blogger Amish Trivedi said...


9:16 AM  
Blogger Fran├žois Luong said...

I declare a moratorium on moratoria in the arts.

9:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Son Rilliman's weblog

2:22 PM  
Blogger Max said...

One objection:

You seem to think it's a problem that Silliman takes "art ideas that were meant to be ephemeral and pop-y" and tries to make them "genuine" or whatever.

But why exactly is that such a big problem? Do you think that art ideas should only ever be one thing, i.e. that which they, in your view, started out as (in this case "ephemeral and pop-y")?

I mean, it's clear that Silliman is just an elderly person readying himself for a deathbed conversion, and all the other cliche crap artists do when they pack on the years and "finally realize what life's all about," but I don't see how taking "ephemeral and pop-y" ideas and turning them into something "genuine" would be any less interesting than taking "genuine" ideas and turning them into something "ephemeral and pop-y."

It seems to me that both impulses come from the same reactionary core. Personally, I like to avoid that impulse, because "hey, let's make this idea into its opposite" gets kind of boring after a while. But I think it's at least just as interesting to move from "pop-y" to "genuine" as it is to move from "genuine" to "pop-y."

5:14 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


There is nothing wrong with it. It's just a different worldview. A different ideology. I happen to disagree with it.

I actually don't think it's because Ron is old. He's pretty much been sticking with his guns since the 1970s in this regard.


6:36 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I guess what I'm trying to say is that, when you argue that Silliman's framework is in opposition to the avant-garde gestures, you seem to be asserting another form of purity for the avant-garde. That it is wrong for Silliman to twist the avant-garde in his high modernist direction because it goes against what the avant-garde "stands for" or something.

9:58 PM  
Blogger Michael Hessel-Mial said...

Having not read much Janet Holmes, my frame in this discussion of Ron Silliman's writing is more focused on language and translation. However, I believe that it still addresses some of the issues that you bring up.

Silliman's stance on translation has more to it than how you characterize it. His work is rooted in language play, a poetics that is necessarily English-centric, made up of puns, allusions, and phrases formed in the history of the English language. His poetics, and the avant-garde lineage he draws from it, seems to me to shrug off translation as impossible, and worse, unnecessary.

That Silliman is a high modernist is a somewhat true statement. From what I've gotten from the Alphabet, his life-work is big, dense, and written from the supreme self. Like Joyce, you can go two ways with the work: follow the rhythms, or focus on the individual language games at play. I would argue that in either case, the relationship between syntax, rhythm, and logic depend on the structures of 'standard' English, however far they depart from its conventions.

Coming from this perspective, Ron Silliman is unable to really pay attention to the translatable, as a poetics of the translatable ignores the poetics of language. That the Rubaiyyat and King James Bible indicates this; it is what they are translated into, how they are written, and not the translatable meaning that helped produce those texts.

Essentially, I'm arguing that Silliman's discourse (see, to a 21 year old he has become The Law) skates around a poetics that you put in quote marks, one that can be "communicated," one that is "genuine," based in "aesthetic experience," "depth," "meaning," etc. It feels corny to list it all off.

12:19 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I am saying that those historical avant-garde were largely opposed to the idea of the aura in high culture. That's definitely what I'm saying. As Roland Barth said (roughly): "Modernity is a all about reproduction."

Would you like to dispute that this is a central tenet of the historical avant-garde?

I agree with your assessment that Ron's ideas of writing are opposed to the idea of translation. I've been arguing that for some time.

Likewise, in his critical readings, he repeatedly falls back on a hierarchical idea of language: certain poets have good "ears" (ie there is a true, high language that can be mastered and Ron is all about mastery, it's largely what his critical frame is about); likewise, foreigners English and even English English are foreign to the American ear/tree (as if there was one central English, not a mishmash of languages). This is why Deleuze and Guattari's "minor lit" has in some ways to do with translation: Kafka uses Yiddish to deterritorialize German etc.

In some sense it's wrong for me to call that High Modernism, because it's certainly far from Joycean. Finnegan's Wake is highly multilingual, highly translatese. Joyce is as far from Ron as you can come. And of course translation is hugely important to ELiot and Pound too, so I'm probably totally wrong to call him High Modernist.

Your idea of translation is extremely reductive, if I'm reading you correctly. Translation is not a mere transfer of information from one language to another (though that is certainly part of it), it is also the site where languages interact, and a site that reveals the illusion of the monolingual model of language (for example Ron's). That's to a large extent the space where Joyce works and where the historical avant-garde works. So in short, if Joyce is High Modernism, then Ron is not.


8:03 AM  
Blogger Max said...


I'm merely pointing out that there's a bit of a problem in criticizing Silliman's idea of making the historical avant-garde "genuine," and then insisting that this is a problem because the historical avant-garde already has its own "genuine" meaning. I don't deny that the historical avant-garde may have some variety of "tenets," but I disagree that these "tenets" are/should be inviolable. Perhaps the direction of Silliman's "violation" is not to my taste or yours, but that doesn't make the historical avant-garde sacrosanct.

5:23 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

To say that opposition to 'aura' was a central tenet of the historical avant-garde is a stretch. Kurt Schwitters, Hans Bellmer Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven are all in some degree 'anti-modern' in the sense Barthes uses it. As is Artaud: were his daily performances--walking down the street making sparks with a cane--not completely immersed in the idea of aura?

Barthes' definition of modernity excludes the primitivist strains of modernist art, including the 'historical avant-gardes.'

5:36 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Max, Jim,

I don't think they are tenets, that's a wrong term. Perhaps *one of the central concerns*.

As literary history has proven, it's very hard to create an overarching meaning that includes all of the historical avant-garde.

Certainly reproduction was a concern for much of the crew, from New York to Helsinki to Tokyo. You certainly have it in Mertzbaum (making art out of mass-produced crap) and the Baroness's use of fashion. Artaud: the greatest use of theater of cruelty were the Marx Brothers. Bellmer took photographs of dolls.

Though I think you are right to call attention to the "primitivist strain" as certainly important. And there is a danger in Warholizing the avant-garde in retrospect. But I think primitive and reproduction are not entirely different - they are both features involved with getting away from high art critical frameworks and its institutions and its autonomous artworks.

This is an interesting discussion to have, but i think my main concern with my entry was something different: I find Ron's terms for studying such ephemeral aesthetics dubious because they emphasize a kind of "high art" framework; and he strangely writes over the historical avant-garde in setting up Ronald Johnson as some kind of true first, something I think his framework depends on. Greatness again.

I think Max is uncomfortable with the feeling that I"m creating a true essence for "the avant-garde" today. That's not my interest. In fact, I think the model of "the avant-garde" is a pretty useless model these days.


6:11 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

"But I think primitive and reproduction are not entirely different - they are both features involved with getting away from high art critical frameworks and its institutions and its autonomous artworks."

Yes, I think this is basically right--modernism as a multifaceted response to reproduction, which necessarily led it away from bourgeois 'high art' in many senses. So the tendency to reproduce and confound the idea of 'aura' exists in a single artist, in individual works--in Schwitters' Merzbau, even in Chernikov's impossible architectural sketches, which become singular artifacts in themselves.

The other side of 'primitivism' that often gets lost in these discussions, is the crucial influence of African and Asian forms on the avant-gardes and modernism in general. This, I suppose, brings up other types of translation--visual, tactile, aural. And to make yet another sweeping generalization, one could map the difference between 'modern' and 'post-modern' on the basis of 'primitivism'--from the widespread influence of pre-industrial cultures, to the eurocentric desire for pre-industrial culture, which results in simulacra of 'primitive' forms. Or, the mass production of anti-modern forms--Tribal tattoos, apocalyptic films, Animal Collective, Cormac McCarthy.

As far as 'greatness' is concerned, I'm not sure how the historical avant-garde escapes this--we still have accomplishments, firsts, names like Duchamp that signify crucial breaks.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Annandale Dream Gazette said...

Max -- Somebody has to say this:

You are being terribly ageist.

Attributing someone's ideas to the sole fact of his or her age, is equivalent to attributing ideas to someone because of his or her skin color, nationality, religion, gender, etc.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Well, on the one hand, I think my comments about age are tongue in cheek.

But on the other, who's to say that one's age can't inform his/her views on any number of things, or that neither can race, gender, religion, nationality, etc.?

Pointing out Silliman's age was my way of half-seriously floating the idea that he may be undergoing the fairly common literary transformation of becoming more conservative in his ideas as he moves into his elderly years. Obviously, this is meant to be cannily dismissive and provocative as well. The extent to which one believes it is either of those things is free to vary, as far as I'm concerned.

No, I don't hate old people.

7:32 PM  

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