Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Standard Schaefer

Laura writes of unfinished gestures, a lack of one-to-one correspondences between strategies and meaning, coincidences: “Narrative coincides with meaning” but is taken up and recycled through “rhetorical continuity interrupted”. Interrupted continuity is probably not just between the various A Tonalists styles, but also suggest an affinity beneath the various styles. It seems true to me as well that Laura’s work and Norma’s share a “thoughtful, meditative” element that Laura mentions as part of the “old tonalism” as it “suggests suggestion.” Intriguing too is the notion of vision as connected to some musicality. And there does seem to be a lot of lyrical concern among some A Tonalists, though in my case there is often a concern with history— like and unlike Brent’s interest in historical rhetorical forms or Laura’s tweaking of historical musical forms, (Portuguese fado, for example) and Norma’s Spinoza that makes these lyrical concerns less tied to say the “analytic lyric”. So there seems here a sense that writing, no matter how “avant-garde” someone might hope to be, also has an element of conservation. Maybe even a sense that one is hoping to find something sustainable even in traditions about which one is suspicious, such as the lyric. Laura says, “The present and past enter into /A prosody of unfinished gesture/Against formal predictability.” What perhaps goes on in that moment is pruning of any weak elements from the past and a reinscription of what was strong there, what can still be useful. Apropos Brent’s mention of Badiou, Badiou seems interested in what might be called “sustainable ideas” such as justice, both like an unlike Plato’s. So a “radical conservation” is possible—which is something I think I hear in Brent’s and Laura’s comments.

There might be a distinction between transgression and experimentation. Brent’s carving out the possibility of a politically aware poetics that doesn’t necessarily produce the in-your-face political poem implies something sober and tentative about experimentation.

Experimentation might well be any activity that may get you free of the feeling of necessity and ineluctability that attaches to practices such as writing (which everyone is trained to do in one way or another). But I think that however cross-genre or contemporary an A Tonalist is, they are not likely to be transgressive, and even less likely if transgression is seen as purely randomly setting out to fuck with boundaries. I suspect that anyone who is leery of self-proclaimed transgression feels that it has to do with the notion of power.

If you see power as pure repression, if you live in a world that believes some language is politically correct or incorrect, and if you attempt to attack such a conceptualization by being incorrect, offensive, or just plain contrary, you’re reinforcing the idea that power is exercised from above. The danger is that you remain tied to the very significations you hope to transgress.

Against transgression, Deleuze wrote, “The signifier [on one level, the poem] is always a little secret which has never stopped hanging around mummy and daddy…The little secret is generally reducible to a sad narcissistic and pious masturbation: the phantasm! Transgression, a concept too good for seminarist under the law of Pope or a priest.”

Experimentation unlike transgression seeks to affirm positive alternatives. This is why Laura can speak of “beauty” in her “rules,” one that is “unfashionable as the fact/ Of particularity” so not likely a general metaphysical beauty. Or put another way, a beauty that doesn’t hang around with mommy or daddy’s notion of beauty, that isn’t just an inversion of their’s.

For me, experimentation in poetry and life is a search for forms, for configurations of power that can be lived with, not simply overthrown forever. This doesn’t preclude any revolutionary potential, but it would not be the grand narrative of revolution, more akin to recent “post-anarchists” or the DIY crowd, the people who go off the grid, the indigenous peoples movements that do not try to seize state power, but create autonomous zones, the squatters movements, levelers, ranters, the slow-down movements, the Muggletonians. People who remind us that power is diffused across the terrain and that even those on the bottom have some. There’s no one-to-one correspondence here. There is always asymmetry between political movements and artistic ones, all the more so here since A Tonalism is not a movement, but an affinity group among other poetries.

Like those social experiments though, artistic experimentation is a sober and often tentative activity. It can certainly be fun but not in the “look ma, no hands!” sort of way. One experiments with constructing practices that may well have to be abandoned if their effects become intolerable, if they do not enhance one’s ability to experiment or if they become fashionable in away that begins to produce norms.

To me A Tonalists are experimenting not unlike in the sense of Deleuze’s “becoming minor” in which a practice is taken up while within some social terrain, maybe some awareness of a tradition running through you and others, dead or alive. The practice is situated within this network of connections, say a kind of lyricism, not trying to transgress them or become resolutely alyrical, but disrupting the dominant mode by showing how creativity can still take place within what is already there.

It would be distinct from writing as a producing a dialect or ghettoizing poetry. It’s different from satires without referents or attempts to celebrate what used to be called “low culture”. It is not a task of making the minor into a new dominant. It is about carving out an autonomous zone. On the micro-level, to be an A Tonalist might mean to carve out a space where many small gestures, musicalities, and coincidences can be legitimated within your own work.

On the molar level, there are perhaps affinities within the various works and writers that cannot represent A Tonalism. There is no reason to represent it. If I come out of or work in a tradition that is against representation, I might seriously consider myself unrepresentable. And if I were to have any connects to a movement, it would likely be a movement that does not require legitimation from others about its status as a movement, where membership is really one of shared affinities, a state of mind or an interest in poetry that “thinks” in the way Badiou writes. Or maybe it produces thought or vision but not knowledge or certainty. There is no shared style and no efforts to legitimate the differences and similarities between us.


Blogger Brian Strang said...

Fado is very much alive in Portugual; there is a whole new generation of fadistas--Mariza, Ana Moura and others--that have reinterpreted the form for today's world. Interestingly, fado seemed to enjoy its resurgence at the same time Portugal was integrated into the E.U. For young people, it became something to treasure, a distinctly Portuguese form, something to set them apart from the rest of Europe, instead of that boring old music that mom and dad listen to. Mariza is a big-time star now (and can be seen as the heir apparent to Amália) but her fado is very different than the fado of fifty years ago. It is deeply grounded in tradition but, in some ways, "made new."

A central notion of fado (and Portuguese culture in general) is "saudade," a word for which there is no direct translation. Born from a seafaring culture in which loved ones are lost or far away, saudade combines sadness, longing and nostalgia--for specific people, for the past, for a way of life. Or it can be generalized as a state of being.

A Tonalists can be seen as carrying saudade with them, a distinguishing characteristic not only in American poetics, but in America in general.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Laura Moriarty said...

Fado is interesting for being historical and also very current. I started writing Self-Destruction when Nick asked me to translate some fado he had from the 20s and 30s on CD, thinking that my Spanish would allow me to do that, not true of course. I ended up with a thick Portuguese dictionary and a fascination for the form. Some of the short pieces in that book began as translations.

There does tend to be an elegiac quality to A Tonalist and if you will allow that the sense of longing associated with fado could be extended in a formal way to elegy, I would connect them there.

I also agree with Standard that there is no A Tonalist style or perhaps there is a style but one need not use it to be so identified.

In general A Tonalists tend to be obsessed with history. More on that.


11:57 AM  
Blogger pam said...

hi Standard, I appreciate this paragraph of yours:

If you see power as pure repression, if you live in a world that believes some language is politically correct or incorrect, and if you attempt to attack such a conceptualization by being incorrect, offensive, or just plain contrary, you’re reinforcing the idea that power is exercised from above. The danger is that you remain tied to the very significations you hope to transgress.

IMHO, some texts that use offensive language, or that appropriate offensive language collected from other sources, are merely intended to harrass the reader or listener. Here I mean harrassment in all of its social, psychological, power-exploiting nastiness. This may not be that damaging on the page (the reader can simply walk away or throw the book in the garbage); but when the text is presented in front of a "captive" audience (like a poetics listserv or public reading where etiquette and convention require that the audience members "submit" to the text, at least for the time it takes the text to be recited), then the full powers of harrassment come into play. The audience members are made to feel uncomfortable, offended, and upset; they are also psychologically manipulated by the text and the context of the public event into second-guessing their own discomfort and somehow "overcoming" it in order to meet the text on its own "terms" as "conceptual art." Moreover, any audience member who wishes to break the spell of the harrasser by interrupting the text in mid-recital or otherwise quitting the room risks being labeled as "the disrupter," or worse yet, the uptight stick-in-the-ass who "lacks a sense of humor and satire." This is the same cloaked, cowardly, and reactionary strategy that has been used to subtly control women's and other minorities' access to resources and public space ever since the advent of emancipation, suffrage, and civil rights. And as you say, this power continues to be exercised from above.

I'm not saying that the concept of harrassment couldn't be (skillfully, very skillfully) turned toward productive ends, such as to reveal and draw attention to the abuses of power that make it so damned hard to call out and stop harrassment in the first place. For example, I think of White Male Poet Blog, which seems to enact a kind of theater of harrassment to expose aggressive power dynamics that couldn't otherwise be called out without incurring immediate, heavy-handed backlash. There are of course other examples, some of which might fall under the category of Flarf; just as some of the reactionary harrassing texts that I described above might also fall under the category of Flarf, or at least invoke the tenets of Flarf to justify their freedom and right to harrass for the sake of harrassment.

Does anyone else find it funny and rather telling that "politically correct language," which was originally conceived as a set of guidelines to institutionalize harrassment-free interactions, is now under attack by "avant-gardists" who feel that limits on their harrassing behavior amount to a form of "oppression"?


5:21 PM  
Blogger StandardSchaefer said...


Great contribution. I have been thinking along the contours of all you describe here and trying to figure out how to put it. You put it pretty close to perfectly I think. So "yes" and "of course" to the question you ask at the end.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Stanley Bishop Burhans said...

Much of this critique of transgressive poetries seems to be implicitly a critique of Flarf and poetry like Flarf (and Pamela even explicitly calls some Flarf to task, referring to "harassing reactionary texts . . . under the category of Flarf"). I like Flarf, and I think that the attempt to divide Flarf into good "theatre of harassment" and bad "harassing reactionary texts" is misguided, particularly because such a division would probably be no more than a pretext to segregate Flarf poets along gender lines.

The point I'd make in defense of Flarf is that it seems to me like fundamentally a hyperbolic reaction to repressive work environments. The various writers of Flarf are also workers, whether office-workers or academics, and are therefore subjected to codes of conduct, which constitute a rational compromise between left-wing and right-wing views of what's offensive; the compromise is that anything that might offend anyone from either side is against the rules. Generally, debates about such codes of conduct claim that some are repressed by such rules and others are not, but actually everyone is repressed by the rules, which is why such repressive policies are fair. In my view, Standard's move to equate resistance from below with oppression from above is basically an argument that people should abide by codes of conduct so as to avoid admitting the reality of the power that enforces the codes of conduct. As soon as you violate codes of conduct, the possibility of their enforcement is raised, but Standard wants to keep that possibility out of the dialogue, because as long as individuals don't recognize authority they will be "anarchists". Denying authority by obeying it is pretty funny, very logical--sort of a witticism.

Anyway, Flarf in general doesn't so much resist authority; I would say it tries to remain hidden from authority, by being in the under-the-radar world of poetry. Still I have a vision of some Flarf person or other (no need to name anyone since this is hypothetical) sitting in an office writing a poem about "CAMEL DICK" or something, with one hand poised to minimize the screen in case anyone walks in. That's funny; it's also a realistic image of the plight of the individual in society, I'd say.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Gary said...

Pam, if you're still around, Nada and I gave a talk on "the outrageous other," that may (or may not) be of interest vis a vis this discussion. I'm posting it in segments on my blog over the next couple of weeks. You can read it:


7:51 AM  
Blogger Stanley Bishop Burhans said...

I should add, in case anyone here is uncertain of my tone in the comment above, that I have great respect for Standard's work, Pamela's work, Laura's work, and the work of many of the contributors to this blog.

8:35 AM  
Blogger pam said...


I had no intention of igniting some minor blog flames with my comment, though reading it over I suppose I must have had the tremblings of such an intention or else I wouldn't have used a phrase like "reactionary harassing text" in close proximity to a term like "Flarf." I had a pounding headache while cruising the blogs Saturday afternoon, and that curmudgeonly comment is what resulted. Also, I was fighting a violent urge to expel some un-dainty, un-PC intestinal gas while hurriedly typing in my thoughts before the Blogger window timed out. Still, I want to make it clear that I'm not interested in making generalized statements about Flarf being all good or Flarf being all bad; I think that like any umbrella grouping or movement, Flarf offers texts that I appreciate and it also offers texts that I am critical of. I will clarify that most of the "reactionary texts" that I was specifically thinking of do not in fact fall under the category of Flarf; so far I have seen only one Flarf poem that causes me to question it in this respect, and I see it as problematic primarily in its *performance* before an audience more than in its appearance on the page/screen. Still, having seen it and eavesdropped on discussions about it on other blogs, I still have to question the usefulness and effectiveness of its "point." Particularly in its manifestation as a performance. But that is a long, grueling matter for another discussion.

I like it when Stan describes movements like Flarf as being at least in part "a hyperbolic reaction to repressive work environments." I also appreciate Kasey's post calling for progressives to preempt the rightwing project to "own" critiques of PC language rules. As incredible as this may sound coming after my first comment, I actually agree that PC has been a failure in this respect. What might have started idealistically as a set of ground rules to facilitate constructive social discussion has in many ways evolved into a hypersensitized roadblock that curtails such discussion. If someone says something off-color nowadays, the immediate reaction is "Stop saying that. Don't say that." When really the process ought to try to get behind what's actually being said, assuming that the speaker is actually trying to fumble toward a murky, difficult, unexplored issue and to talk about this issue in a direct and honest way. I see many Flarf poems as fumbling constructively in this way, with hefty doses of mayhem thrown in for the count. This is kind of what I was trying to get at with my stab at describing "good theater of harassment." Not good as in dimple-cheeked, but in its full comprehension of the stakes involved.

So I guess for myself as a reader/listener, I need a text that fucks with the limits of what's inappropriate and not okay to be doing so as a means of fumbling toward some constructive point or opening to discussion. If we agree that the PC project has backfired in the ways that it represses potentially constructive, potentially "progressive" social dialogue, then let's use the necessary means (including messing with language and voice and tone) to promote that dialogue. Using un-PC language simply for the sake of using un-PC language to critique the flaws of PC social dynamics is provocative and entertaining, but leads ultimately into an auto-feedback loop without hope of fumbling to the next level. And, this short-sighted approach leaves itself open to be easily re-coopted by the right. And, in its short-sightedness, it may actually replicate the reactionary power dynamics that it is trying to critique the left of being ineffective at addressing. Which is a convoluted way of arriving at something that may look very much like the old harassment. I'll confess here that I have also written texts that incorporate offensive language and subject matter, and I have presented those texts (via performance and publishing) with the intention of manipulating my audience into an emotionally and ethically helpless situation. In retrospect, I see my actions as a form of harassment that I enjoyed very much inflicting, in the name of fumbling toward the next level, which I'm not sure anyone in my audience ever "got." But I could just as easily have been harassing my audience for the sake of letting out some steam. Personally I think it's important to look at the motivational differences between these two modes.

Now I realize that all my blabbing about this may actually incite readers to recite even more examples of big bad "inappropriate" poems whenever I happen to be present in the audience. Fortunately, my recently acquired custom of wearing a false beard and flannel caftan in public, along with the phlegmatic coughing tics that I have developed as a means of discouraging well-respected members of the poetic community from approaching my person, will no doubt aid in shielding me from such meta-literary assaults.

2:11 PM  
Blogger Stanley Bishop Burhans said...


I agree with most of what you say in this new comment, particularly this:

"Using un-PC language simply for the sake of using un-PC language to critique the flaws of PC social dynamics is provocative and entertaining, but leads ultimately into an auto-feedback loop without hope of fumbling to the next level. And, this short-sighted approach leaves itself open to be easily re-coopted by the right. And, in its short-sightedness, it may actually replicate the reactionary power dynamics that it is trying to critique the left of being ineffective at addressing."

If this is a modified restatement of Standard's central point (his critique of transgression), then I think I am now finding that point palatable (though only in this specific form).

I should also say what I neglected to say before, that I very much appreciate this idea of Standard's: "Experimentation might well be any activity that may get you free of the feeling of necessity and ineluctability that attaches to practices such as writing." And continuing: "For me, experimentation in poetry and life is a search for forms, for configurations of power that can be lived with, not simply overthrown forever." These ideas make sense to me. Though surely you would agree that experimentation need not always have this conservative or conservational quality? In other words, you contrast transgressive writing with experimental writing, whereas I think it would be more correct to see experimental writing is a broader umbrella under which can be situated both transgressive writing and the other type of writing you are talking about. I would suggest either "a tonalist" or "sustainable" writing as possible names.

Flarf is surely not a sustainable writing, but is rather a temporary phenomenon. Of course, the writers involved in this phenomenon will continue producing work after Flarf ends, but Flarf itself will end once everyone involved is thoroughly convinced that the movement failed to achieve its project. This is what happens with all poetic movements. "A Tonalism" on the other hand, not being a movement, could be more permanent. Tendencies are permanent.

I should say I still disagree with Standard's reading of power, expressed in this sentence: "If you see power as pure repression, if you live in a world that believes some language is politically correct or incorrect, and if you attempt to attack such a conceptualization by being incorrect, offensive, or just plain contrary, you’re reinforcing the idea that power is exercised from above." The sentence implies that you, Standard, live in a world where no language is criticized for being politically incorrect, offensive or contrary. Apart from the issue of solipsism, I can only say that I live in a world where people are cautious about what they say because they fear reprisals. Power is more or less the ability to stage effective reprisals against people for actions or language which one does not like. Yes, power is distributed across society. No, it is not only repressive: it is repressive AND enabling, but when power enables a person, that person's conduct is even more limited by power than if power were employed repressively. Individuals accept types of repression as the price of being enabled in various ways. Homeless people can swear all day and drink beer in public; business people who have been enabled by power cannot swear and drink beer all day in the office. So in a sense power, while it is not ONLY repressive, nevertheless always includes a repressive element when it is enacted.

Transgressive art is, more or less, an encounter with repressive power while it is asleep.

1:26 PM  
Blogger brack_toe said...

I’d like to pick up on some of Pam’s points about the strategic efficacy of “Their Glittering Guys.” I think it’s probably too much of an emotional issue, with too much bad blog history, to get into Flarf poetics in general (there isn’t homogeneity there, thankfully), so restricting the focus to this one poem might help.

But for the life of me, I can’t understand what could possibly be gained by reifying stereotypes in this manner. I’d have to agree with Michael Nicoloff’s observations elsewhere, on the “Minor American Blog,” “I don’t think that the ironic moves being made here are going to be lost on most readers. As you say, the critique is obvious. But maybe that’s exactly the problem…the kind of extreme language and the extreme reactions it is trying to provoke didn’t give way to any sense of deeper or more nuanced critique…”

To conceptualize “PC” as the repressive arm of some nameless, non-localizable “power that enforces the codes of conduct” is both a radical overestimation of the power of these speech codes and seems like a terrible misperception of the very real loci of power in our society. Not to be sexually harrassed in the workplace may be a bit “repressive” to men, but I doubt that women experience this as a similar constraint.

If by transgressing “PC” rules, we as subjects can somehow manage to avoid the panoptical eye of authority, I would have to ask how this stance differs fundamentally from the way the right hypocritically understands “PC” as a restriction of individual “liberty.” I don’t know about everyone else, but what I find repressive about “repressive work environments” is the very fact of work—working harder, longer, and for less money, with less benefits, all the while making someone, a corporation or a small business owner, rich. As a society, almost all of us are working longer, and for less. The pace is brutal. Real wages have stagnated while productivity and exploitation have increased, with CEO pay shooting through the roof. Isn’t this, and not whether we have to suffer the “stifling” ignominies of non-harrassment codes, what makes work so, well, “repressive”?

But back to the poem. As a “complexly anti-racist” poem, an opinion with which I would have to respectfully disagree, I can’t help but think that the target audience for “Their Glittering Guys” are white liberals—as in “look, we’re complicit too, and even the monuments of high culture are infected with orientalism.” The stance seems to universalize the problem, and brush aside the fact that most Asian Americans, who are the victims of these kinds of stereotypes, don’t experience the same kind of transgressive, titillating charge from this kind of language. Does this advance anyone’s understanding of racism?

As an Asian American, I have trouble locating the object of satire in "Their Glittering Guys.” Orientalism? Identity politics? Sexual fetishes? The pervasive irony of the execution would have us believe that all of these targets are somehow equal or isometric. They’re not.

2:05 PM  
Blogger AB said...


Could you clarify the Flarf poem you are referring to? At first I thought you meant Mike M.'s "Their Guys," but there seems to be some suggestion otherwise.

If your objection is to "Their Guys," I'm curious about why this poem inspired the particular observation that it "invoke(S) the tenets of Flarf to justify their freedom and right to harrass for the sake of harrassment."

I suppose I am interested in this kind of analysis of the individual whether or not it is "Their Guys," & would love to hear more of what you have to say.


2:08 PM  
Blogger AB said...

I meant to say "analysis of the individual poem"


2:13 PM  
Blogger AB said...

brack toe,

I thought the object of satire in "their guys" was Yeats.

I'm still mulling over the rest of yr points, which are interesting, though I think I disagree.


2:42 PM  
Blogger Brent Cunningham said...

Funny how much quoting of each other’s posts is going on here. I have two things I wanted to quote myself and respond to. And in case anyone notices, I'll cut you off at the pass: these two responses do seem vaguely contradictory to each other, apologies, I contain multitudes...

The first is from and for Stan: “Apart from the issue of solipsism, I can only say that I live in a world where people are cautious about what they say because they fear reprisals.”

I know some of those people too, but don’t you also run into people who are cautious about what they say because they are they are in the midst of reflecting on presumptions they have held & are beginning to revise and doubt them as they encounter others in all their complexity and difference? For every person who is cautious out of fear, I imagine I could name somebody who is incautious out of what amounts to imperial and unreflective hubris. And if the topic is our political dilemmas, hubris is as good a candidate for those problems as fear I would think.

The second is from and for Standard: “What perhaps goes on in that moment is pruning of any weak elements from the past and a reinscription of what was strong there, what can still be useful.”

It’s interesting to me that you’re able to use that weak/strong binary, as it’s something outside my own usual vocabulary, whereas I tend to allow usefulness in—all those years reading Wittgenstein maybe. I guess I find the weak/strong tainted by its connections to absolutes of aesthetic judgments, and absolutisms generally, though at the same time I see you’re seeking to use it radically and with nuance, and it’s interested to try to follow you there--still those alarm bells go off in my head: whose weakness, whose strength, who decides, etc. Overall I wonder how you keep this reinscription distinct, if you do, from what T.S. Eliot lays out in Tradition and the Individual Talent? One critique of his valuation of tradition and the “historical sense,” which arguably reaches its flowering in the New Criticism, would say that it doesn’t matter how much nuance you bring to the matter: when conservation of past strengths or achievements are a primary and abstract value, as opposed to valuing the production of a liberated space in a real/ish situation by any means necessary, then such value will inevitably evolve into a system of repressive strictures. This is true, in turn, because the idea of art preserving what is strong or good from the past connects rather easily to a teleological notion of history and time, and not to the modular notion which is clearly what you are meanwhile advocating. I hear you trying to nuance and solve this engaging contradiction, and I agree there’s a useful conservatism in poetry that could be recapitulated somehow (I suspect Badiou’s “event” is sourced in a desire for such a recapitulation), and furthermore I’m intrigued to see you pursue it. But my impulse is to want to stress the A Tonalist as committed to a liberated space of either a potential future or a living present, if for no other reason than because the traditions it pulls from seem to me secondary to the poem’s attempt to make a spark in the work itself. I would suggest that momentarily “forgetting” history and tradition (or even choosing weak language as a tactic, for instance) could be perfectly consistent with the A Tonalist to the degree that a given situation in the work may be able to withstand it--and that’s the test, even more than whether it’s the best or strongest thing to put in the work, but just whether the work can hold it without dissolving into the unintelligible at its furthermost edges.

2:52 PM  
Blogger pam said...


I’ve been trying to stay out of discussing “Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay” because I suspect anything I have to say about it will be repetitive (for me at least, in relation to similar debates?/arguments?/head-slamming sessions? that I’ve encountered in the past). But since you ask, I will attempt to sum up my thoughts about this individual poem. It may not happen right away, because I'm getting ready right now to go on a trip for a week, but if this commentstream is still active when I return, I will post it here (with the permission of the A Tonalists, who have thus far been kind enough to let me wear out the threads of their club sofa); if not, I'll find some other method of relay.


7:12 PM  
Blogger AB said...


I'm glad you are going to write about your thoughts on the poem, and also, I am glad to know which poem you meant. I did find your comments at another blog about the poem soon after I posted this. I hope you know I didn't discuss that poem in too much detail over at Minor Americans because I felt the discussion had come to aesthetic judgments over the poetic"goodness" or "badness" of its surfaces, which really are a matter of taste. (It seemed Michael N. and I agreed it was anti-racist, only he thought the language was not-so-interesting, etc.,) This does not mean I am not interested to hear how you read the poem, or as you said, understand its effect in the context of performer/audience.

So, yes, I moved on to the "redneck" myth of flarf and the idea that Flarf minstrellizes uneducated white people -- things which are arguable (rather than "goodness" or "badness"), though I admit they have very little to do with that poem in particular.

I also think Kasey Mohammad is doing a close reading of Their Guys right now, so maybe when you are up to it you can add to the comment stream at his place.


7:52 PM  
Blogger Stanley Bishop Burhans said...

Dear Brack Toe (?),

My point about repressive work environments is simply that corporate culture has absorbed leftist ideas into the way it formulates repressive work environments. Obviously, the panoptic aspect of a repressive work environment is much of why it is unappealing (the other reasons you list are also true, of course, and are enforced by the panoptic element). The panoptic element is now justified by a mix of right and left arguments, for efficiency's sake. It matters who is articulating a discourse, and repressive institutions can articulate a liberating discourse in a repressive way.


I agree that caution in speech is a virtue. There are also people who say what they are thinking, and then revise their thoughts later, and they also can think perfectly well. In other words, I balk at any suggestion that caution in speech makes anyone a better thinker, though it might make someone better liked. Politeness in general is a virtue which responds to the way power truly is radically distributed throughout society, just as Standard says it is. We don't want to offend others because they have power.

However, much of power is in fact centralized, in the hands, or codes, of institutions (back to previous point).

4:40 PM  
Blogger brack_toe said...

Hi Stan & Everybody,

I think this discussion may be occurring on two blogs at once (here and over at Minor American), which makes me want some kind of program thingee that can actually combine cross-blog comments in some kind of uber-forum.

Stan brings up an important issue about how repressive work environments have absorbed “leftist ideas” for “efficiency’s sake.” Of course, we should specify that this argument is generally meant to refer to the white collar cubicle farm, and not, say, field laborers or the local steel mill or slaughterhouse. I guess I continue to believe that the way to make these environments less repressive is not the speech codes (non-discriminatory language may feel “repressive” to whites but not to minorities, non-harrassment codes may make men feel “put-upon,” but for women this is just plain sensible, a minimum requirement).

I don’t think that there would be very much disagreement that corporate America is already deeply racist, sexist and inegalitarian—a cursory glance at the demographics of CEOs, upper management and owners demonstrates this fairly conclusively. Non-discrimination in the workplace was something that was, historically, fought for by workers themselves, often against the interests of a class of owners who simply wanted to keep pitting working people against each other in terms of race, sexuality, gender etc. What couldn’t be tolerated was collective action on the part of working people as a whole. The whole current anti-immigrant backlash seems engineered specifically to accomplish just this.

My feeling is that the leftist ideas embodied in non-discrimination or non-harrassment codes are a kind of superstructural window-dressing that tends to obscure the actual economic sources of corporate power—the power that necessitates increasing the rate of exploitation of the people who do the work, all the while giving them absolutely no say in how the workplace is actually run. Flouting these minimal speech or behavioral codes seems spectacularly counterproductive, considering that it simply divides you from other folks who doing the same shitty job that you are, and lets the higher-ups continue laughing all the way to the bank. The fact that some of these higher-ups may sometimes be minorities themselves, or women, doesn’t alter the fundamental structure of exploitation. The vertical hierarchy, and its economic basis, remains completely unchallenged.

Boy. That was a lot of verbiage.

To reconnect with some other threads of this discussion, I wanted to address the issue of constriction, felt not only by white poets but by poets of color if all of us continue to reify racial difference as either a permanent, inescapable feature of human consciousness or to isolate those differences from the function they serve in larger historical and material contexts—a context that seems to be able to get us out, at least partially, of the rigid racist/antiracist conceptual bind. I think we might be bumping up against the limitations of liberal thought here.

It doesn’t seem particularly productive for anyone just to feel “bad,” or to acknowledge a vast and sticky complicity, a conceptual move that is tantamount to metaphysicalizing the “Other.” Freud would probably point out that this amounts to feeling good about feeling bad, a prescripted therapeutic drama, a petty and moralistic passion play, that is exhausting for reader and listener alike. Freud probably wouldn’t be able to say that the flipside of this is thinking that “the person of said race possesses the essence of being offended”—echoing a prehistoric observation made by non other than a poet like Allen Tate, “I suppose a characteristic of most oppressed races that when they do find a speaking voice, they utter an accent of resentment usually divided between self-pity and a propaganda for complete liberation.” Geez. If this is the best that canonical white poets and folks of color can do, I’d rather go into the laundry business.

Personally, I think Yeats can be pretty incredible and pleasurable, even if the “Chinamen” have to make a guest appearance. This may sound a bit counterintuitive, but I’m not sure the unevenness of Yeats’ aesthetic, the musicality or emotional intensity, gets a fair shake. Which is not to say that aesthetic value and political orientation aren’t deeply intertwined, but I worry about what gets occluded by too programmatic political critiques.

I think that the dialogue, for me, has raised the interesting question, for me and for others, of how to measure or assess the effectiveness of anti-racist poetry. It’s not like a piece of legislation, of course, or a form of advocacy. Critical prose seems to do the trick, if these are our aims.

I’m sure Pam might have some good observations here, but unfortunately we’ll have to wait a week to hear from her.

Chris Chen

12:34 PM  
Blogger StandardSchaefer said...


I agree that A Tonalism is about clearing a space in the present. This is why I talk about temporary autonomy so much. I don't think this weak/strong thing has to place into the Hegelian sense of time or anything like it. It could be entirely voluntarist, for all I know. But what I'm saying is pretty much typical of the argument in Derrida's "Nietzsche's Women". What you take from a tradition will always be transformed, you know, basic repetition with a difference stuff. I'm not talking about simply taking some idea you like in Kant and transplanting into the here and now thinking that nothing changes when you do that.

But I should add that where this works best in terms of politics is in actual social movement--the self-criticism, the inclusion of radical feminism in autonomist marxism which really alters questions the whole notion of hegemony that was formerly central to that movement yields not only a resistance to the hegemony of hegemony but also a kind of direct action-- the creation of Social Centers, actual facilities that provide medical care and so forth outside the control of the state.

Just trying to give a concrete example to what otherwise might sound abstract.

Trickier to describe the same corrective mechanism in poetry, though, I think we call get how it works if we trace the influence of Milton on guys like Blake, thinking about another revolution in another place. We understand why Blake is more modern.

Kasey no doubt doesn't like this kind of "long view" of history which he seem as an infelicity in A Tonalism, but I use it because it's easier to see there than to say weed out all the varoius types of modern and postmodern collage and say: this here is still relevant and this not.

2:42 PM  
Blogger Stanley Bishop Burhans said...


To clarify, I think 90% or more of the limitations on speech in the workplace have nothing to do with leftism at all; most of the restrictions have to do with centrist bourgeouis values. I think people often accept the "good" leftist limitations on speech and then accept the other limitations as a package deal. This is often justified by claims such as that any and all sexual content in conversation is automatically harassing. That's just not true, but it serves to support prudishness about such topics being a norm in workplace environments. And to the prudish, any broaching of the disallowed topics comes to seem like harassment.

3:17 PM  
Blogger pam said...


Well, I am almost sorry I brought up the notion of harrassment in the context of this discussion, because it is such a loaded term with immediate, hard-to-shake, gender-specific connotations (as Stan points out), and because it inevitably points off in a hundred different directions that aren't directly relevant to Michael Magee's poem. Maybe when I think harrassment, I am really thinking of a continuum of aggression, which can range from mild provocation to emotional/linguistic violence (to adopt Kasey's term, which I think is an apt way of describing poems that appropriate injurious language, subjecting that language to the violence of cut-up and collage, and subjecting the reader to the violence of indeterminate position and intent).

I want to relate this back to Anne's original question to me, which I hope to respond to by way of teasing out the distinction between the *text* of the poem proper and the *gesture* of presenting the poem to an audience (here Chris's points about adequately framing and contextualizing such a poem become significant; in the case of "Their Guys," perhaps its inclusion in a project-specific collection does accomplish that contextualization, as Michael says... I'll have to wait for my next SPD shipment to arrive before I find out), but I'm still catching up on the 70+ comments that have been posted to Kasey's blog in my absence so my fuller response will have to wait. Though I'm also fascinated by what Anne said about the uses of transgression (hearkening back to one of the original points of Standard's post) and hope to respond to that too, somewhere in this blog network. (I want the same tool that Chris wants.)

But for now, just to respond to this issue of harrassment in the (corporate, white-collar) workplace: It is a tricky issue in itself, and goes far beyond the linguistic and into the gestural realm. In my experience, actual sexual harrassment in the workplace happens as much or even more on the non-verbal level as on the verbal. Making it incredibly difficult to pinpoint and address. Which is why most of the people I know who have been harrassed in these situations (who happen here to be women harrassed by men, and femme gay men harrassed by both women and men, not to say that others couldn't also suffer harrassment) never actually report the instances of harrassment; it's just too damn hard to address, and you risk too much of your own reputation and job security by trying to report it. So in this way, imposing restrictions on language use in the workplace has only made the phenomenon of harrassment more covert, more slippery. In the end, the most effective defense against harrassment is for the people harrassed to become just as wily as (or better yet, more wily than) the harrassers, and beat them at their own covert, non-verbal game by calling out their plays into the overt, verbal realm. What else is new?

This is somewhat a digression from Chris's point about linguistic restrictions masking the material effects of corporate exploitation, and Stan's point about these restrictions being manifestations of prudish bourgeois mores, but I just thought I'd throw it up here as part of the discussion on power relations.

5:48 PM  

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