Monday, April 05, 2010


If it isn't clear to the readers of this blog by now, I am not scared of "problematic". In fact American poetry has become way too un-problematic.


Blogger Kasey Mohammad said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:18 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

I'm going to take the bait on this one and say that I'm not sure I believe your claim here. So I'll put my tentative point to the test and see where we end up.

It seems to me that almost everything you talk about could be categorized under support for the "return of the repressed"--looking again at things that normative discourses leave out and reject and trying to think about what's interesting in those things and why they've been left out.

I think you do something similar when looking at broad cultural norms (conventional standards for gender) and then also smaller group norms (for like normative histories of U.S. avant garde and modernist poetics).

Both of these approaches to a return of the repressed fit pretty readily under a rubric of "political correctness"--as critique of the norm and support for the marginalized. I don't say that automatically as putdown, by any means, although I understand that the term can into being as a putdown. But I also remember Juliana Spahr saying once, "Why don't more people want to be politically correct?"

If anything, where you run into most trouble is when you try to argue that one instance of return of the repressed (the foreigner, say) is the same as another (kitsch, or the differently abled), thus ignoring distinctions between different kinds of repressed conditions. There, I guess I would say you are often in favor of something problematic.

From my point of view, if you were actually more invested in the problematic, you'd say things like "This stuff about women being abused by men: total bullshit." Or, "All these pansies are undermining what's great about American manhood." Or, maybe most centrally here: "Enough with all this whining loser foreign outsider stuff. What we need is a poetics of effort, unity, and victory."

Looking forward to seeing you in Denver. My essay on hybrid aesthetics mentions positively your fine review of the American Hybrid anthology.

11:57 AM  
Blogger François Luong said...

Isn't it problematic that US poetry has become un-problematic?

12:12 PM  
Blogger JP said...

Hi Mark,

Both Zizek and Jameson have pretty devasting critiques of "political correctness." They have slightly different takes, but they overlap in the sense that they see poltical correctness as all-too-often confusing class issues with race and gender--for them, we should stress class antagonism, whereas differences in race and gender have been socially constructed (and almost always in an effort to hide class differences). One of my own criticisms of Spahr's 9/11 book is that I see her doing largely the same thing. We actually aren't all alike and we aren't all connected. Unless pure exploitation (between, say, a Western corporation and a third world community) is "connection." Which is why I see Spahr's work as being much more liberal than leftist.

Personally, my own politics are anarchist-leaning, and I'm hardly a Marxist, hence why I like Deleuze and Critchley so much, but on this particular point I agree with Jameson and Zizek.


12:56 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

I hear you, James. Of course the problem for left/liberals is that there isn't just one "political correctness"--some talk more about gender, others about class, others about race, others about two of these, but not three, etc. Each critiques the other pointedly on its shortcomings.

I think "all alike" and "all connected" don't mean the same thing. But yes, it can certainly be too easy to suggest that the fact of our physical similarity to other people, and our living on the same planet, gives us a connection in any significant political way. And I don't really think Spahr believes that either; I don't quite buy your take on her book.

Re Zizek and Jameson, I don't see that asserting that class is the essential dynamic is any kind of solution. Sounds like more one-issue thinking to me, and one that's perhaps more appealing to certain politically-aware white men. I think we probably need to imagine the whole variety of ways in which people are connected and disconnected from each other. Talking about economics, class, gender or race in isolation from each other just isn't going to get people to a broader ground of understanding.

1:23 PM  
Blogger Max said...

The problem is that nothing is actually ever problematic in America. The only way anything can ever be problematic is if there's already ongoing, systematized oppression (of the kind backed up by, say, military force) within the culture.

If you want to be a neo-Nazi in the US, you'll find ears for your voice somewhere. Likewise, if you want to be, I dunno, a writer of gurlesque poetry, or a writer of middle-of-the-road pap, or a cleaner of others' chimneys ... there are markets for that.

If everything is possible, then none of it will ever be problematic.

Just because an idea is rarified, not often voiced, not well accepted by an established elite, or whatever else, doesn't mean it's problematic for the culture. It just means that the market for that idea is perhaps very small. But all that really means, at the end of the day, is that the market has room to expand. And expand it will, without cessation, before said idea ever becomes a problem that gets clamped down on. That's how the marketplace works. It doesn't "oppress." It merely absorbs and incorporates. (And the scary thing about this phenomenon is not that it is itself a form of oppression--it isn't--but that it is the "oppression" which does not actually oppress).

5:10 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I'm certainly not out to generate hostility! And I certainly don't believe men or women should hit each other violently.

I also think I am politically correct, but I don't believe in a "political correctness" that is applied as a policing method of shutting down discussion.

And that's how I think the use of hte world "problematic" functions in contemporary discussions. The word has become a word that lets us avoid having to engage in a discussion that might be too uncomfortable, might force us to engage in discussions we're not sure about. It's a punt, as my dissertation committee member said when I answered something about Heidegger in vague terms.

Like I said, I think I'm totally politically correct, but I've also found that countless times people have used "problematic" as a label against me.

The result seems to be that people talk as if nothing is ever at stake. As if there can't be differing point of view, just correct and incorrect opinions.


5:49 PM  
Blogger JP said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:56 AM  
Blogger JP said...

Hi Mark,

You make several good points, though I would have to respectfully disagree with some of them…as far as political correctness goes, we’re clearly talking about two different things. You seem to mean a sort of basic humanist decency (we shouldn’t beat women for example), and of course I agree we should all be politically correct in that sense. What I mean by the term is a certain mood that settled over American academia in the late 80’s to mid-90’s, a mood that led some professors, for example, to teach Conrad as simply an English racist (often glossing over his Polish background), Pound as simply a Fascist, and art in general as nothing more than a means to oppress the marginalized. As crude as such claims might sound today, I was an undergraduate at the time and really did have professors who made such arguments, and really did read articles that endorsed such a view. It always seemed to me like a particularity American phenomena also--both the Left and the Right here have a tendency to go in for some pretty heavy-handed moralizing. It also seems fairly specific to the baby boomer generation.

I’m also wary of arguments that are devised to make people feel guilt and shame over their love for literature/art. Deleuze writes eloquently about this very topic (albeit in a Marxist-Freudian context): he said we should watch out for people who assign for themselves the role of judge or priest, adding that nothing is more “priestly” than guilt and shame. But I’m not saying your definition of political correctness is wrong--in fact, my wife has the same definition, which led to a few arguments until we realized we were talking about different things…

As for the class issue--Naomi Klein, whose politics are more anarchist than Marxist, and who’s obviously not a white male, has frequently made the same class argument, writing that identity politics fails over and over again to substantially challenge globalization and the rise of corporate power. In fact, she points out that corporations all too often use identity politics to their own advantage in their use of branding.

Jameson goes much further: he calls multiculturalism, somewhat ungenerously, a kind of “niche marketing.”

On a more theoretical level, there has been a growing critique of identity politics by writers such as Walter Ben Michaels and Ken Warren, and Zizek himself. Their arguments are incredibly complicated of course, but many of them go back to the problem of racial essentialism, and how identity politics, despite the good intentions, frequently reinforce certain notions of race and gender that are utterly antiquated from a scientific and philosophical point of view.

Even Edward Said, whose work is sometimes unfairly characterized as being in the identity politics mode, criticized what he saw as a growing provincialism in the Humanities, a tendency of some to focus on the literature of whatever group they happened to have been born into. Instead, he argued for a renewed sense of cosmopolitanism. He also saw it as an ethical issue, quoting Adorno’s famous remark that morality consists of not being at home in one’s home.

I would argue that Johannes’ notion of the immigrant as kitsch deals with this debate--a way of trying to create a sense of much-needed cosmopolitanism without falling back on cults of authenticity.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Colin Sheldon said...

Johannes, yours is a most fetching, delightful problematic. I applaud your problematic. I revere it. I covet it.

4:07 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I find this post decidedly too problematic and too un-problematic… simultaneously.

I’m also sort of thinking it is something like this…

@JP: Good points. I don’t think it is a particularly American phenomenon, though. Speaking in terms of theory/philosophy… Heidegger (who is second only to Nietzsche, I believe, in creating the framework for all of the varieties of post (/postpost) modern discourse) was thoroughly ignored on both in Continental theory and on the Anglo-American front. He may have been appropriated by all of the continental theorists—but they sure as hell weren’t about to admit it given Heidegger’s Nazism. Eh. Foucault only admitted the connection on his deathbed. I don’t see anyone reading state sponsored Nazi poetry. Maybe there is someone creating poetry on the same level as Jacques-Louis David created visual propaganda for the revolution and Napoleon. I still don’t find myself particularly interested in reading it. I don’t know if “guilt” is the problem so much as improperly directed care (/a lack of care).

7:12 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I like the guy in the minivan. If that's a visual metaphor for me, I find it entirely unproblematic.

You mean to tell me you're not sick of people running around saying "problematic"?


7:21 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

Hey, if you're pissing people off, you must be doing something right, no?

5:25 AM  
Blogger Kate Zimmerman said...

i don't know johannes. i don't know specifically what you're referencing to if you are referencing specifically- the recent dialogue about the gurlesque, which i've read with interest - but i think it's okay and valuable to indicate what's missing, to analyze the treatment of gender, or sexuality, or race or class (the social hierarchies) in literature, but not at the expense of shutting down a conversation. i very often find my own thinking problematic, because sometimes i am looking at literature or theory as a feminist and the other part of me who's interested in artaud, bataille, etc, this unrepressed someone's speaking of, i like that. i find the problematic enriching and infuriating, that negative space that ambivalence. now i guess it's different if someone says "that is problematic" to dismiss, to shut down, but if we're talking about a tension a dialogue isn't that where an interesting discourse begins? i guess for me i'm thinking of my recent thoughts on hysteria - i valorize the hysteric as possible liberatory force or in terms of the physicality of the hysteric, but yes i find this also intensely problematic (as charcot's hysterics were working-class women, the gendering of hysteria, the normative sexuality hysterics were expected to have, etc.). having one side so cleanly smacks of not being open to new positions, or the conversation about gender or sexuality or race or class that has often been erased from the conversation.but being "political correct" absolutely when dealing with literature yes that is too much of an ideological stand as well.

also, you write you're not scared of "problematic." i think that's a valuable position. but you also say you're uncomfortable with the word as it's used in shutting down conversation. i agree. but i also think in a way dismissing the word might be dismissing the conversation. aren't valuable ideas often yielded from these arguments?

5:37 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Forgive me. I am incapable of reading the Wagner remarks quoted in the previous post without seeing it as a cover PRECISELY for "egotistical concern for permanence and immortality at any price." I do not believe for a second that he was interested in making works only for his own time. However, I do believe the analysis with which he cloaked his denial is valid -- the new always becomes the old, and only after coming into being through intense effort.

I did not realize I would trigger your traumatic personal memories of the American educational system. I regret upsetting you. However, your quoting Wagner with such zeal upset me, therefore I commented.

It was not worth it. In fact, it was a mistake to look at the post at all.

6:18 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Hi James:

"Political correctness" certainly had an academic component, but thinking of it as only that probably ignores the role it played and still plays in a variety of oppositional communities.

It's also not true that the most interesting theories of race are wedded to notions of essentialism, so it sounds like Michaels, like many another well-meaning leftist, likes to pick the low-hanging fruit of other well-meaning leftists as a way of promoting his own version of well-meaning leftism.

It's certainly true, I agree, that it's not only white men who say "class before race or gender." It's just that non-white men are probably rightly skeptical of white men telling them that race and gender are not the essential issues.

I read that comment from Jameson fairly ironically, since he too is his own excellent niche market. But that's another of the problems of this kind of debate--the other leftist theorist is always inauthentic, or incomplete, or co-opted, whereas my theory, which has no more impact on the larger world than any of the other theories I'm debating, is non-co-opted, and the the one that will lead us out of the morass.

I find it telling, for instance, although perhaps about other issues, that in many ways Jameson long ago rejected most non-realist literature.

That's not to say that I don't think some ideas of identity politics have been dead ends. But some ideas of class politics have been dead ends. In fact, if we start judging theories by whether they are dead ends or not, very few such theories and theorists shall escape whipping. And that includes us and our ideas, wouldn't you agree?

2:31 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Well that was James quoting Wagner, but your point is fine anyway.


2:10 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think we might have an interesting conversation about "problematic", sure. I'm just sick of seeing/hearing the word all the time. It seems mostly not to go any place interesting.


2:13 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home