Friday, March 11, 2011

About "Experimental" Writing

There of course is no real avant-garde in this country. There are writers who pretend to be avant-garde while recycling stale, outmoded ideas.

In truth, the so-called avant-garde captured the academy, and the literary establishment with it, decades ago. With this, however, rose a problem. How could a current self-designated "avant-garde" be the establishment, and at the same time pose as on the margins, as dissenters to that very same establishment? The contradiction doesn't register.

(This is reflected in the discussion I had with Kris Saknussemm at The Millions, as mentioned yesterday in a post below this one.)

We see the contradiction in play time and again, such as with the ULA's "Howl Protest" in 2006, when members of the Underground Literary Alliance-- genuine literary dissenters-- barged into a genteel reading of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" at Columbia University which included the most affluent, bourgie, conformist readers and audience you could possibly put together. Their lack of self-awareness, their own self-mythology, was palpable. Needless to say, the speakers and audience were outraged at us for shattering their illusion, or really, their self-delusion.

Real dissidence, of course, from those who criticize the literary establishment and the narrative of that establishment, is eliminated. Disconnected. Wiped out and pushed down the memory hole.

For background on this, see the chapter "The Avant-Garde Dies" in Eric Hobsbawm's massive historical work "The Age of Extremes." He outlines how the avant-garde devolved into parlor tricks, "desperate gimmicks" of the like Robbe-Grillet has gotten away with, as they and their art became more and more irrelevant.

The novel traditionally was an aid in understanding the world, and understanding ourselves. That it no longer does that may be why there's an absence of self-knowledge among the literary elite. (Harvard students and profs wearing Che t-shirts.)

How does that elite get away with its contradictions? Because they're part of the Dominant Narrative of literature, and control that narrative. It's how they perpetuate an Orwellian, totalitarian set-up where they're controllers and dissenters both, taking all the space, while defining anything done by real experimenters (from Wred Fright to Urban Hermitt to James Nowlan) as non-literature, the writers themselves, accordingly, as non-persons. Which is exactly how the dissent and threat of the ULA was handled.
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This is a huge subject, too big to cover here. It's part of an intellectual contest that was happening in 1900 between literary populists and elitists, which ended in the 1950's and 60's with the populists demeaned in the academy, for political reasons, the elitists, including the culturally irrelevant pseudo-intellectual part of the avant-garde, fully in charge.

There's at the same time the cultural disaster that is postmodernism. Postmodernism was a symptom of the crazy philosophies of the Twentieth Century. In 2011 it's relevant only to the point of being harmful. If it was always out-of-date, as Hobsbawm pointed out fifteen years ago, it's moreso now. It preaches nonsense when young people-- young men especially-- are looking for real-world answers to the insanity around them, seeking certainties, character, credibility, truth, and strength, and not finding it in what passes today-- what is shit out at the public from the ivory towers and the conglomerates both-- as American culture.

Anyway, in the pop novel I'm writing I hope to bring in several clashing perspectives on this society, held by major characters. Art itself is the best place to address these questions.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

I came here looking for a postmortem of the ULA. I came in knowing the denizens of the ivory towers live in a perpetual circle-jerk with each other called Publish-or-Perish, where they are all just trying to help each other hang on, as if conservatism ever published anything new. I also know the appropriate response to conservatism is nihilism (a lesson for the Democrats). I also did not come here thinking that "avant-garde" is anything other than those currently not playing "tenure-before-thought". Nothing is new because we have become too advanced as a civilization to have new thought. "Radicals" seek to gain empowerment. "Conservatives" seek to keep it. That's what we are now. Much as we might want to think of ourselves as capable of infinite thought, the human mind is decidedly finite: us versus them. Personally, I just enjoy poetry for its own sake. I write it only for me; not to be told it is introspective drivel or a masterwork; because it is the only way my thoughts become real

Anonymous said...

...and I am impressed as all hell that you have your blog set to publish a comment that long. a fine postmortem

King said...

According to contrarian theory, "Everything has been done" is most heard before revolutionary change.
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Is the ULA truly dead? I note you fear to put a name behind your ideas. Maybe some things never do change.

Anonymous said...

I'm not afraid to put my name; partly, I'm just lazy. Also, funny thing about my name, Mike Sandidge; its different depending upon whom you ask. Internet truth is relative.

The name on my license is hard to find on the internet, and names being shared around by people, often not actually me. A reasonable facsimile of me is associated with the name: "Reverend Maxwell Snort", often abbreviated "Maxnort", and easy to find on the internet.

Think of it as a different game in the world of Ms. Hocking. Maxnort has lived here for for quiet some time, has accounts at all the places I want to have them, and provides me the ability to isolate my children from from my actions out here.

King said...

Rght. Just as long as you know that I consider anonymous posters lower than cockroaches, whatever the rationalization.
A couple reasons:
One is the history of the ULA you were looking for which you were looking for an obituary. Or a poistmortem. My postmortem is that no organization can operate without trust and loyalty. Which means, in part, transparency. Getting hit with tons of anonymous attacks from our opponents was one thing. They circulated false narratives about the ULA, and particularkly about myself. The shame was that a few ULAers picked up those false narratives and recirculated them for their own purposes. Or, because of the ULA's temporary pr success, a few members were more interested in grabbing control of the outfit, rather than in keeping the thing going.
What was the result? The minute I left the momentum ceased. Those who thought they could do a better job than I did failed miserably. They were very shortsighted.
As Jeff Potter said on this blog a little while ago, there needs to be a "Second Wave" of, for lack of a better term, literary rebellion. He got me to partly agree. The problem is whether the corpse of the ULA could be revived.
What we've lived through in the underground the last few years is not a second wave, but a second stage, marked by a couple other projects founded by ex-ULAers with all their premises-- the same premises which caused them to bolt from the ULA. Their premises have gone nowhere, done nothing.
Unfortunately, they never understood the ULA strategy.
It's unfortunate because none of us is properly positioned to take advantage of what appears to be in literature a revolutionary situation. . . .
(More.)

King said...

(By the way, please don't tell me that you write poetry only for yourself. If you did you wouldn't be here, engaging in this conversation.)
The second reason I disdain the anonymice relates to the subject of this post.
It's how one looks at, and operates in, the world. Fakeness is part and parcel of what postmodernism is about.
The philosophical roots of postmodernism, at the least, were branches of the same decayed tree that created those two postmodern dictators, H and S. I'm talking about Nietzsche, Heidegger, DeMan et.al., who happened to be vicious racists and in some cases totalitarian sympathizers. The dictators were the essence of postmodern philosophy in that they believed in "The Big Lie"-- that there was no such thing as truth; that truth was what they said it was. Orwell attacked this in his two masterpieces.
How does this affect literature today?
We've seen not just the dumbing down of the literary community, but in some ways what could be called the femininization of lit-- if there's a better, more p.c. term please give it to me. Imagination and fantasy trumping reality. I grew up in a world of masculine exactness. The sense of reality which created our civilization. Working on your car, you couldn't substitute a 3/8 socket for a 3/16 one. It just wouldn't work. If you build a house, the two-by-fours and their alignment needs to be precise. Part of the idea of being a credible fiction writer is understanding how the world operates, and conveying this, with clarity, to the reader. The great novelists-- even Melville, as imaginative as anybody-- realized this. If the whale suddenly turned into a mermaid, would his story have any credibility? (Dickens' "spontaneous combustion" is imaginative, but it discredits Bleak House. It calls into question his ideas through the rest of his tale.)
Today's novelists are creatures who know nothing. And so, all Franzen has to write about is birds in the backyard. It's ridiculous when you think about it. And he's one of the system's better writers.
"What is truth?" a totalitarian bureaucrat said once to a revolutionary. The conflict remains relevant today.
I'm way off tangent. Sorry for the rant. Don't bet that the ULA won't be back someday.

Zoe said...

what a great response.

Zoe said...

but "feminization" is def the wrong word. After all, earlier you said that literature should be primarily about emotion (a stereotypically "female" trait). Instead, write a post or think about why it is that emotion is increasingly to be found in fantasy these days... There's really no need to bring in castrating language here - the corporatization of academia, literary publishing, blah blah blah deprives *everyone* of their vital impulses.

Also, another way to look at some points you raise... nonfiction right now is thriving. Given how little fiction seems to show the truth about anything in a real way this makes sense.

Yet..."truth" is not just factual.
Even if using words like "masculine" for things like "exactness" wasn't absurdly sexist, it would also be inaccurate.

Anyway appreciate how seriously you take everything.

msandidge said...

I can respect your disdain for anony-rodents and such. 4chan.org is an example of anonymous running amok.

your postmortem reads like an obituary. "ULA expired today after its heart was ripped out. Services will be at your local bar." Your destination while off on a tangent seems a more likely postmortem: "don't bet ULA won't be back". This is what I had hoped to find.

I propose "McLiterature". PC enough?

you will have to explain your comment about my poetry.

King said...

Zoe, I agree. I don't pretend to have all the answers. Often I grasp for the proper ideas and words to convey what I wish to express. Of course, I'm trapped to a certain extent when looking at the world in viewing it from my own context. I'm male and grew up in a very masculine working class environment. There's no way I can shed that, even if I wanted to.
Life however is about breaking through limitations. That applies to me as it applies to all of us.
Re emotion: to say emotion is female is, as you know, another stereotype. Some of the most emotionaL, passionate artists who ever lived were male. I was listening to a cd recording of Van Cliburn playing Rachmaninoff's 3rd(?) piano concerto. The greatest of them all. Never could you find a more emotional work or performance. Afterward I talked on the phone to one of my three sisters, who run the gamut politically and this was the right-leaning one. She asked if I'd heard about the movie version of "Atlas Shrugged." Now, whatever one thinks of Ayn Rand, she was both very logical-- to a ridiculous extreme many would argue-- yet at the same time she was very passionate. One can disagree with many of her ideas yet be thrilled by their expression. "Atlas Shrugged" is a very exciting work from a reader's standpoint. Ambition, passion, and intellect-- the combination of them-- is on every page. She used every tool in the novelist's toolbox. Nothing-- absolutely nothing-- was held back.
Yes, she had many flaws. So what?
The idea for new writers is to create work as ambitious and exciting; to portray the world we live in, from whichever viewpoint, and to do it with sense and emotion.
Thanks for your input.

King said...

Re truth. Yes, certainly the revolutionary I referred to didn't believe truth was strictly factual. Orwell might've. Orwell was reacting to the insanity of the last century, which surrounded him on every side.
Re femininization. I was just thinking about how off-base that term was even in terms of my examples. I bartended for a few years in Detroit. Most of my customers worked in nearby plants or industrial shops. One of my regulars was a very capable woman-- her male co-workers were disdainful of her, intimidated by her, and respectful of her all at the same time. "You know she built her own house?" one of them told me. The comment was one of disbelief and awe. I forget her name, but she certainly lived in this world.
re poetry. Well, I'm about engaging the literary world, "literary rebellion," and the like. Why would anybody be here who wishes to retreat from the world-- who writes only for himself?
Poetry, btw, is a public art in that it started before written culture. its very nature makes it expressed best to other people. to be read aloud. Rhythmn, rhyme, and the like came about because they were tags, aids in memorization. And so, Homer could tell the epic story of Troy and keep the entire wonderful story stored inside his head-- others could learn it and carry it on.
Re ULA. It would certainly have to be a new ULA. The world is changing very quickly. But in calling for a new/renewed literature, the ULA was far ahead of the curve. It was at the DIY vanguard of events happening now.

King said...

p.s. re "Atlas." It'll be interesting to see how it turns out, in this respect. The strongest narrative line in the book concerns a high-speed cross country train ride.(!!) Talk about topical.
I used to work in a railyard. I love trains. Simply love them.
As do, of course, the Prez and his Veep. Will the train ride be retained??