I wonder if the “critique of the (Western/metaphysical/lyric) subject” hasn’t become a tired meme, the contemporary version of the hoary-headed “alienation of modern man” that so occupied my professors almost four decades ago. The problem isn’t that it’s wrong. The problem is that it is too much with us and perhaps too soon. It explains too much and too little all at once.
Here’s my thinking. For some modern and post-modern philosophers, the epistemological subject became untenable because the aporias of subject/object relations proved to be too intractable. For some modern and post-modern poets, the elegiac and epiphanic “I” of post-War American poetry became untenable because it had become cliché. The philosophers were reacting to the history of philosophy and the poets to the course of poetry. The two are not the same.
Now, to be fair, poetry and philosophy meet in all sorts of ways, mediated (or, if you prefer less Hegelian language, determined) by the drift of the social whole. What’s more, the philosophers have often tried to buttress their critique with the authority of poetry (Heidegger’s Holderlin is a prime example.) Starting in the Seventies and the Language poets, American poetry has returned the favor by justifying its moves through appeals to the authority of that branch of philosophy we call “theory.”
You show me your authority and I’ll show you mine.
Adorno claimed that Modernism was not a voyage of discovery, but an ever-growing canon of prohibitions, a series of one-time moves that became illegitimate almost as soon as the artist made them. This obsolescence stems from the fact that the artist’s critical gesture loses its specific power, the power of its specificity, as the target of its original negation gets obscured by the negation itself. Adorno noted how quickly Schoenberg’s revolutionary techniques became institutionalized as a rigid set of demands. When the outlaw turns classic, it becomes the only sheriff in town.
It’s tempting to claim that the uncreative neo-conceptualist attack on the lyric subject is an attack on a very particular vision of subjectivity embraced by an ever-receding “official verse culture.” The x of this rejected subject marks the spot where its insights into an “external” world (epiphany) are colored by the traces of its lost objects (elegy) and are duly expressed in and by the traditional figures of poetry, that is, in and by analogy. Official verse culture verse tells us that the inside is like the outside, the present like the past. But—and this is more often than not the punch line—this like is never like enough and its poetry stands guard, minding the gap between inside and outside, past and present.
By borrowing the term “official verse culture” from Charles Bernstein, I’m claiming that the Neo-Conceptualists have thrown their lot in with the Language poets and to some extent, of course, they have. But while there is still a lot of official verse culture verse out there and while some of it is distressingly bad (and some of it distressingly good), it’s not altogether clear just how official official verse culture actually is these days. While the avant-garde has hardly defeated the mainstream, it has fought it to an honorable standstill. Witness the not unhealthy representation of Language poets and their ilk in writing programs, on prize lists and in book reviews nowadays.
This leads me to suspect that what is interesting in uncreative Neo-Conceptualism is not its attack on official verse culture’s post-romantic lyricism, but rather its critique of something a little closer to home—the Language poets’ critique of that lyricism. In other words, what we see in the Neo-Conceptualists is a critique of the critique of the subject.
How does this work? Bob Perelman has argued that, as a rule of thumb, what separated the Language poets from the New York School was the Language writers’ emphasis on textuality rather than intimacy, on the mediation of language rather than the immediacy of bodily experience.1 Language precedes essence: it trumps interiority by shaping it. More often than not this language comes preprocessed and prepackaged, a skein of clichés and platitudes parading as a self. Bernstein has fun with this in “Foreign Body Sensation,” an antic study in linguistic possession:
After two years at Met State, I became increasingly eager to work with severely disturbed children. I am beginning to dabble in writing screenplays, humor and poetry. What time is left I devote to coursework at the Divinity School, where I am studying for the priesthood. It seems I have done other things also, but maybe not.
This is the stand-up comedian’s take on the classic Foucauldian bait-and-switch: the semblance of interiority is produced by solicitation from the outside. The stereotyped discourses of cultural authority solicit the simulacrum of psychological depth.
Compare “Foreign Body Sensation” to Rob Fitterman’s “Paxil.” in which Fitterman takes advertising copy for a name-brand pharmeceutical and turns it into a short lyric:
I don’t enjoy
I used to
The trademark pill is given its own trademark voice, which in turn expresses a patented emotion. Fitterman highlights the cynicism of the ad by turning it into a stage-show of authenticity, a sincere workshop poem in the manner of Williams. The form is clearly meant to (re)frame the words, which, as readers trained in Modernist techniques of literary distancing, we know to read closely and with a willing suspension of belief. It is surely not controversial to say that we know that Fitterman does not want us to trust the good folks who work for Paxil. We also know that we are not meant to trust the subjectivity that those good folks are selling.
So far so good. We are on familiar ground. In “Paxil,” Fitterman is clearly launching yet another attack on the myth of lyric interiority, the notion that poems are made up of all the fine and private stuff that we have inside us. In his essay “Identity Theft,” Fitterman has claimed that he wants to illuminate “the hierarchical relationship that many readers of poetry express; that somehow original language expresses a deeper, truer experience.”2 The poem demonstrates how easy it is to produce subjectivity effects in the modern lyric, how simple it is to fabricate sincerity and thus the illusion of a “deeper, truer experience.” The most hackneyed language can look “authentic” if you know where to put your line breaks.
Even so, Fitterman’s disdain for the hierarchical view of language cuts both ways. He is also arguing that unoriginal language can actually express experience quite well. If that is the case, then underneath the poem’s sticky self-pity can be heard the echo, however faint, of the real pain that Paixil is meant to alleviate and that the advertising tags cannot completely obliterate. While it is therefore hard not read the poem as Fitterman’s attack on both a commodified and medicalized subjectivity as well as on a debased poetry of emotional authenticity, it is also hard not to hear within and because of its coldness an interest in suffering.
So I am suggesting that Fitterman’s stance towards his material is less manic than Bernstein’s and more complex. First it critiques the cynicism of the advertiser and then negates that critique to catch something else—the sound of something that could be called a “truer,” though not necessarily a deeper, experience. At the same time, it subjects the now readily recognizable “critique of the subject” to its own critique by insisting on a pathos that that is merely incidental to that critique.
Where Language writing has tried to be sensitive to the suffering of the historical others and repressed objects that have fallen victim to the imperialism of the subject, what is new in uncreative Neo-Conceptualism is its sensitivity to the suffering of the vitiated subject itself. To put this in a rather schematic way: where the Language poets showed the disjunctive interiority of the New York poets to be a rather insistent exteriority, a number of the Neo-Conceptualists have shown the vulnerability of that exteriority or rather, have mined the vulnerability that that exteriority—however well curated on the web—creates and cannot help but express.
The “I,” like the truth is out there. It might be a racket, but if you listen, it makes some interesting noise.
1Bob Perelman, “‘fucking/me across the decades like we/poets like:’ Embodied Poetic Transmission,” Don’t Ever Get Famous, ed. Daniel Kane (Champaign: Dalkey Archive P, 2006) 195-214.
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2Robert Fitterman, “Identity Theft.” Rob, The Plagiarist. (NY: Roof. 2009) 18.
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