Friday, October 03, 2014

Bankrupt Literary Philosophy



Here’s a slightly edited transcript of a discussion I engaged in on a HTML Giant post from July 5, 2011. The post was “POP: A Polemic on a Contemporary Language-Based ‘Objectivity.’ “ It was written by postmodern writer Mike Kitchell:

Kitchell’s essay generated 233 comments. Mine came toward the end of them. I went on there originally because I didn’t think Alt Lit had much to do with “pop” writing. It wasn’t populist, wasn’t readable, wasn’t fun. As you’ll see if you read this excerpt from the discussion, we went on to other matters—including the philosophical ideas bolstering Tao Lin and the other members of the short-lived(?) Alt Lit phenomenon.



When I read all this term-paper intellectualizing about something-- pop-- which isn't intellectual but instead pure and emotional and instinctive, I'm reminded of a scene in the classic Elvis movie "Jailhouse Rock."

Elvis Presley of course was one of the early embodiments of American pop culture. His movies became a pop genre unto themselves.

In the flick Elvis (previously seen smashing a guitar) is dragged to a party by his manager. Elvis gets into a discussion with a stuffy prof who, upon hearing he's a musician, proceeds with a long-winded pseudo-intellectual analysis of contemporary jazz. Elvis stares at her for a moment then drawls, "Lady, I don't know what the hell you're talking about."

This was in the early days of rock n' roll which, like the punk version twenty years after, was a rejection of artistic pretentiousness. (See 70's Pink Floyd.) It embraced instead the natural and the organic.

Tao Lin is a pure hustler, and in that sense he's akin to the Colonel Parkers of early rock. But there's nothing remotely punk or genuine about him, absolutely nothing counter to the status quo. I know this well, as I remember his attacks on what was a rebellious, DIY, punk-style lit group from last decade, the Underground Literary Alliance.

Does anyone here know-- or care-- what real pop writing looks like?

(Broah CCro)

Your anecdote about Elvis exposes that, yes, you don't know what anyone is talking about. "Pop which isn't intellectual" only notes the origination and/or intentionality of that which is created. As to its interpretation (which, regardless of my disagreements with Kitchell, we are in agreement), hermeneutic work involves a dialectic with both the text and the reader that is less narrowly defined than assuming the authorial intent to be supreme.

You hate monger academia and theory ("term-paper intellectuallizing" and "are supposed to know because our professors have told us") and yet later consider Tao's relation to late 19th and 20th century Continental philosophy. And while contradicting yourself, you assume a causal relation between postmodernism and "the most inhuman crimes and wars in all of human history." Furthermore, you attack Kitchell's reference to Robbe-Grillet on the grounds of it not being related to American identity/works. So by being hypocritical, rantish, anti-intellectualizing, and tangential, you've fully embodied the Glenn Beck of the literati. Keep up the Ayn Rand references on your blog and maybe some tea baggers will buy your pop.


Say what?

Lady, I don't know what you're talking about.

Criticizing the academy isn't "hate monger"ing it.
I'm anti-intellectualizing, sure. But I'm for sense and intelligence. As I've pointed out, the standards of the academy of late have embraced nonsense and anti-intelligence.

It's a documented fact that many of the creators of postmodernism were either card-carrying Nazis (Heiddegger) or collaborationists (Paul DeMan). It's also impossible to read Nietzsche without seeing some stark parallels to "Triumph of the Will" and such. I assume nothing about postmodernism. The links are there in black and white.

I was using the example to analyze the thinking of Tao Lin, whose own words speak
for themselves. I wasn't discussing there the idea of pop per se. I know that Tao isn't beyond appropriating any idea, without crediting the source, if it serves his own end.

I can't comment on Glenn Beck, as I've never watched his television show. From what I've heard about him, he's yet one more con artist himself. I guess he makes an easy label for you to use. Is that all you can come up with? Go to it.

Re Ayn Rand. She espoused a philosophy of selfishness. The lone artist etc. I understand the appeal, though I strongly disagree with much of it. My entire history speaks against her mindset. The ULA espoused a cooperative mode of operating.

What I won't do, however, is compromise my integrity to the extent of insisting she wasn't a significant American novelist. For me, truth is the highest value.

The difference between Ayn Rand and today's nonsensical postmodernists is that she was living, more or less, in the real world. She knew that you have to know up from down in order to build a house. In Tao Lin's philosophy, in his own words, one can't know anything. He's got the egoistic will part of Ayn Rand down pat but has thrown out the reality ("A is A") part.

(Broah CCro)

You repeatedly are vague about the term postmodernism in your posts. You misrepresent the history of the term and its philosophical ties by relating its creation to Heidegger (one "d") and DeMan. Whereas you could point to Heidegger's later works in relation to destruktion as having ties with what many of the French writers would later popularize, it is inaccurate to call him a "creator." Also, Paul DeMan is a stretch as his works are overwhelmed by the popularity of Derrida (who aligns the two references and seems to be one of the main figureheads you won't note). However, mentioning Derrida who wrote several texts on the Jewish plight (and who is much more appropriately noted as one of the "creators" of postmodernism) would not allow you to make your skewed point as to the evils of the movement. Furthermore, Heidegger's biography notes that as he was writing for the Nazi party, he quickly conceded his role when he began to realize their unethical intentions were in stark contrast to his philosophy of "Being-alongside-others with care." If truth is the highest value, I suggest you read more.

Even if your argument was valid (both in the sense that these two could even be considered in the top ten main fore thinkers of postmodernism and that their Nazi ties were so tightly knit), it still assumes that the work is less valuable as its originators have unethical ties. This is your greatest fallacy aside from your ignorance of these topics as you assume that a work is less worth consideration if its ideological system has unethical practices.

Your traditionalist ties to the superiority of the Enlightenment and supposedly greater American writers misinform your views on what postmodernism means/can refer to. You want to discredit this supposed academy (which you still haven't defined) for its over-intellectualizing yet are unable to draw a distinction as to where your own ignorance should end and education should begin. Please articulate just how knowledgeable us as readers should be before we begin to stare to closely into Nietzsche's darkness.


Here's a definition of sorts about what is and always was a jumble of ideas, from historian Eric Hobsbawm from his book The Age of Extremes:

"All 'postmodernisms' had in common an essential scepticism about the existence of an objective reality, and/or the possibility of arriving at an agreed understanding of it by rational means. All tended to a radical relativism. All, therefore, challenged the essence of a world that rested on the opposite assumptions, namely the world transformed by science and the technology based upon it, and the ideology of progress which reflected it."

Both Kitchell in his original post, and Tao Lin in the quotes I posted of his, dismiss or even mock the notion of objectivity. In this sense, they're postmodernists in the broad sense that Hobsbawm uses the word.

To further push Hobsbawm's point: It's one thing to dismiss objective reality in parlor-game philosophizing ("hermeneutics") akin to debating the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin. I kind of doubt that you or Kitchell or Tao dismiss objectivity when out in the real world. I'm fairly certain you don't often cross against a red ("red") light into the middle of traffic, into what may-or-may-not be real automobiles. You don't walk UP the stairs when you wish to go DOWN to the street, or put your shoes on your head instead of your feet. Why, then, do you dismiss objectivity when it comes to literature and writing?

As for the supposed superiority of the Enlightenment, Hobsbawm's massive work allows me to attempt to further connect the dots about a few of the other things I said, which I admit may seem like a stretch.

In a long section about the past century's endless nihilistic wars, Hobsbawm stresses that the Allies, both the Anglo-American liberal democracies on one hand, and the Soviets on the other, were united by what he calls "the shared values and aspirations of the Enlightenment." Both so-different parties saw themselves as products of the Age of Reason, heirs to that legacy. They united against a society which plunged itself into pure madness, whose leaders embraced UNreason and scorned the Enlightenment in favor of notions of blood, irrationality, and will; ideas which can be found in Nietzsche again and again. Even the uber-Conservative himself, Winston Churchill, was alarmed enough by what he expressly viewed as a unique threat-- a retreat from the values of civilization into barbarism.

How does this apply to literature?

For most of the history of American literature there was a similar consensus between Left and Right about what literature was, what made literature great, the "great American novel" and so forth. And so we see that two great American novels, The Octopus by Norris and Atlas Shrugged by Rand, share aesthetic assumptions and values while coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Neither author believes that the writer can know nothing about this world. Instead they seek to express very large themes embracing all of America, using interwoven narrative threads that lay themselves out like a chess game on a chess board, exemplars of intelligence.

You throw this away for-- what? The mentality of a housecat?

As I've said, it leads not only to jargon-filled writing, it's an artistic dead end.
On one point Tao Lin is right-- that's in seeing "pop" as an aesthetic path, a way to revive the literary art. But to take that path writers will need to knock hermeneutic nonsense out of their heads, to be able to speak, as writers once spoke, with clarity, intelligence, and sense.


Hermeneutics is not an 'anti-objectivity', but rather, takes seriously subjectivity and intersubjectivity as modes of or paths to - or constitutive of - "truth".

Gadamer takes up the philosophical conversation of Aristotle, Hegel, and the rest of the tradition of philosophical investigation that's before him, and does so with a seriousness not a bit less humane - and readable - for its intellectual strength and meticulous scholarship.

Anyone interested in a presentation of actual relations between hermeneutical perspectives and postmodern ones would be well-advised to read the Gadamer/Derrida book and see first-hand a vivid example of the contrasts between these diverse philosophical approaches.

(Broah CCro) (to me)

Your understanding of postmodernism follows from, by your own post, a secondary source. The only philosopher you've noted to have actually read is Neitzsche which you erroneously assume is a postmodernist (which even considering someone a proto-postmodernism seems fallible if they were before the linguistic turn). Any comments regarding actually discussing postmodernism and its relation to hermeneutics (a field of study) is deemed as parlor tricks. How an entire field of study with numerous, divergent opinions can be a parlor trick or nonsense is anybody's guess. Please inform yourself of the topics you want to rave about.


But Heidegger makes little sense even to philosophy professors! There's strong debate taking place about Heidegger within the academy about what he was talking about, and how much he was or wasn't a Nazi. The prof at
for instance argues that Heidegger was a Nazi through and through.
Nearly all sources present Martin Heidegger as the father of postmodernism.
These same sources give Nietzsche as a major influence on Heidegger's ideas, if not the chief influence.
Eric Hobsbawm, from whom I took my definition, is a writer of rare clarity and intelligence. NO ONE has written with more thoroughness about Twentieth Century thought than he has, as you'd understand if you read his Age of Extremes.
The world and what we make of the world is a reflection of our thought.
Clarity of writing is a reflection of clarity of thought. It's that very clarity which is missing from too many writers now-- and it was certainly missing from the work of Martin Heidegger, likely the past century's #1 intellectual con-artist. He even conned his way out of any punishment after the end of the Second World War. The guy could rationalize anything. He was the ultimate bullshit artist-- puts others of the breed like Robbe-Grillet and Tao Lin to shame.


p.s. Broah's post shows the way he's bought the Right/Left binary way of thought which the mass media-- and the educational system-- pushes everyone toward.
Things are a little more complicated.
For instance, in the Cold War context of the time, Robbe-Grillet's ideas were reactionary. They were anti-populist and anti-activist. They were a retreat from involvement in the world. In this sense they were in line with the attitude espoused by William Styron in the Paris Review when he came out against "axe-grinders." In 1950's Europe the Paris Review and Encounter magazine, both backed by CIA  money, were promoting a nonpopulist style of literature as an alternative to what might be called anything smacking of social realism or socially active literature. The same battle was happening within American literature, of course.
This isn't to say Robbe-Grillet was on the "Right." But-- our artistic work is the product of our thought, the foundation of the underlying belief system. The progress of a culture and its art can be tied to the underlying belief system. Is it an accident that the Enlightenment created the greatest works of art and architecture the world has ever seen?
ideas matter.
Many of the ideas being pushed today, in places like the academy, are an intellectual and artistic dead end. You limit yourselves as writers if you fail to recognize this.

Convoluted thought is everywhere, but there are points about this thread, this discussion, to be made.
A couple are about M. Kitchell himself.
Beneath the self-referential nature of his post, ("I suppose," "I feel like," "What I'd like to," "I am invested," "I almost feel like," is the underlying mindset. Kitchell and Tao Lin have superficial disagreements but are in fact ideological soulmates.
The incoherence of Kitchell's post is a reflection of the incoherence of his thought. It's not his fault. His situation is likely shared by most of the readers of this blog.
Everything is conditional. Kitchell can't say anything for sure. Anything he says comes with provisos. Sure, he "disagrees" with "Tao" about "language," but what's "language," something having to do with "words," whatever "words" are. "Tao" is pushing "objectivity," but as we all know or rather are supposed to know our professors have told us there is no "objectivity," and can be none. Or rather, there "is" "no" "objectivity," we can't really know or ultimately say anything, can we? "Know," "say," etc.
Why does Kitchell reference Robbe-Grillet? Why would any American writer reference Robbe-Grillet? R-G and his feckless ideas have nothing to do with the history of American letters, the American character, or the American voice. With the path writers like Kitchell are on or should be on. Robbe-Grillet is taught in the university because his ideas are quirky, and so absurd that for bored profs they're interesting. Kitchell, like so many eager students, has swallowed him whole.
What can we say about Robbe-Grillet?
Yes, I know we can't really say-- or know-- anything about anything, but if hypothetically we lived in an alternate universe where not everything was relative and conditional, where people had sense, then what would we say about a writer like Robbe-Grillet?
(We should put "writer" in quotes in this instance, because scarcely being a "writer" is the R-G appeal, at least for the easily gulled.)
We would say that Robbe-Grillet was a bigger con artist than Tao Lin. Could we say, he was a quack? ("Quack.")
What was Robbe-Grillet peddling? Do you know?
He was selling the ideology of stupidity.
Can anyone dispute this?
Robbe-Grillet wished the writer to empty the mind and so regress himself as a writer as to become the equivalent of a house cat. Like an observant house cat, to merely notice and record, with no thought or judgment brought into the equation.
The great historical analysis, assessment of human society, and theological musings of a Tolstoy-- or even a Frank Norris-- aren't allowed in. That, truly, for Robbe-Grillet, is ("is") another literary universe.
A universe where literature is relevant and important.


tao lin may in fact be a hustler yes but then again so was allen ginsberg / will the world ever be rid of hustlers? i doubt it

poor elvis & all the movies they made him do

i will take a look at yr blog


Now for some further comments on Tao Lin himself. Such comments are for you unfamiliar, uncomfortable to read. Just remember that many people in this society-- possibly even yourself-- are Eloi to whom strong opinion, disagreement, and emotion are new experiences.
A revealing discussion about Tao Lin is the infamous one he had several years ago with Whitney Pastorek. It's still to be found at Tao's "hehehehehehehehe" blog, which might be better named "mememememememememe."
Tao describes how he uses "concrete language," "without emotion." Very Robbe-Grillet-like. He means, without opinion, judgement, humanity.
Here are some interesting quotes from Tao:


(The quotes are the same given yesterday on this blog’s previous post.)

No comments: