Identity and the Avant-Garde
Mar 11, 2016
13 Min read time
In art, formal innovation versus identity politics.
Thinking its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry
Dorothy J. Wang
Stanford University Press, $27.95 (paper)
Many social movements assert an intimacy between personal beliefs and structural oppression. In a backstage confrontation last fall, for example, Black Lives Matter leaders challenged Hillary Clinton not just about what she would do about police violence, but also what she had learned since advocating for sentencing laws that increased mass incarceration. Clinton’s response was that actions matter more than feelings, and there is some truth to her position. However, activists were demanding not just policy prescriptions but, among other things, assurances that Clinton understood the racist origins and consequences of particular policies and her role in promoting them. It is not that confession absolves action. It is that probing the connection between contemplation and action may help us to develop better answers to old problems.
Modernist literary traditions trace this interplay between personal and political, between subjective and social experiences. Modernist authors lay explicit claim to revolutionary objectives through art, and modernism’s emphasis on formal innovation articulates a political association between new forms of expression and radical consciousness. Just as the French Revolution created new calendars, weights and measures to break definitively from the past, the way we write and communicate helps define experience, identity, and our relation to others. In different ways, the newness of Amiri Baraka’s A Black Mass and James Joyce’s Ulysses are projects to connect expression and liberation. New forms shape consciousness, and a project of the avant-garde is to challenge conventions in thought through innovation in form.
Yet the avant-garde cannot claim any easy association between innovative language and movements for justice. The political views of early modernists varied, encompassing war and fascism as well as peace and equality. As explored in these pages, contemporary white avant-garde authors have found comfortable residence in White House audiences, the Ivy League, and moneyed cultural institutions, while often promoting dubious claims about their marginalization and revolutionary position. At the same time, many feel contemporary literary criticism has been slow to respond to the institutionalization of the avant-garde, in part because it does not always present satisfying responses to this age-old problem of how formal innovation relates to politics beyond the text. In the absence of good judgment about this interplay, bad art is more likely to emerge, as well as hollow radicalism and confused evaluations of how individual lives connect to the whole. In contrast, valuable criticism can point to different paths for art and action.
In contrast with experimental work by white artists, work concerned with racial or ethnic experience is often derided as lacking sophistication.
In service of this important artistic and political goal, Dorothy J. Wang’s Thinking its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry reclaims important aspects of the modernist project, especially its vision of the relationship between social experience and literary form. The book, which has also given its name to a national conference organized by Prageeta Sharma and Joanna Klink, is a brilliant case study of the ways race is embodied in both poems and in literary discourse, as well as a powerful reading of several Asian American writers. Literary form and social experience—and their complex interactions—are Wang’s main analytic concerns. She argues that questions of race and social experience always matter for literature, even if the author is racially “unmarked” or apparently uninterested in the social. But her expansive approach brings the question of how form and content interact back to the texts themselves, emphasizing artistic agency.
The book advances two main arguments. The first draws attention to ways that critical discourse that opposes “form” and “content” can marginalize writers of color. In contrast with art that appears primarily concerned with experiment, “content-based” work, especially if it is explicitly concerned with racial or ethnic experience, is often derided for its parochialism and lack of sophistication. Wang sees Kenneth Goldsmith’s statements that “uncreative writing is a postidentity literature,” and Marjorie Perloff’s 2006 MLA presidential address lamenting the demise of the “merely literary” (as opposed to the social or historical), to represent, at best, a repression—whether conscious or unconscious—about the significance of race in U.S. experience, and at worst, the embodiment of racist assumptions that low, “content-based” art is primarily written by people of color. Wang describes how the white avant-garde is afforded a space to see the work’s formal properties alone as both a higher art and a radicalism embodied entirely in method, whereas avant-garde writers of color are excluded from the canon, and when their work is considered at all, it is frequently stripped of its interest in identity. It is thanks to this dynamic, Wang shows, that writers such as Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and Myung Mi Kim are singled out as exemplars of the avant-garde because their work seems to “transcend race,” while John Yau is derided for a “late-found” embrace of identity, an attribution that misreads his work.
This argument is important as a calling out of both racism in the academy and short-sighted literary practice. But perhaps even more important is the other half of Wang’s argument, which offers an integrative—but not reductionist—view of the relationship between form and social experience. Here, she traces what she calls the “nuanced and complex interplay between ‘form and content’” and asks that we “avoid . . . reductive binary categories” that oppose them. It is this “complex interplay” between form and content that the book takes the task of elaborating, as it demonstrates how difficult, modernist writing must be read contextually and for its own embodiment of social experience, while showing that the specific relationship in the work between form and content is contingent, undetermined, and represents a kind of aesthetic choice worth following. That is, in contrast to those who conflate form and politics, arguing that broad formal modes inexorably embody an ideology, Wang suggests that this relationship is not at all determined and manifests differently even among avant-garde authors writing in similar modes. The text itself reveals the terms of the relationship.
• • •
One of the texts that Wang uses to illustrate the power of her proposed method of textual analysis is Pamela Lu’s Pamela: A Novel (1999), a vivid, discursive book that loosely alludes to Samuel Richardson’s eighteenth-century moralistic novel of the same title. It also picks up ironically upon the author’s own first name to develop a philosophical, pseudo-autobiography. In Wang’s description, Lu’s formal method suggests an orientation toward the Chinese diaspora in the United States that questions any easy celebration of the multiple identities or transgressive boundary-crossings that it might otherwise afford. Here is Lu:
Often we felt tempted to page each other over the airport intercom system or to pick up the nearest White Courtesy Phone in response to any number of the muffled, unintelligible announcements that traveled over the airwaves of the intercom system, though R later pointed out, as soon as we were all reunited, that what we needed then was not the White Courtesy Phone but rather the Other Courtesy Phone, a nonexistent piece of technology that would cater to the demands of our marginalized discourse and bring us together against the dominant paradigm of airport static and confusion.
Reading such passages, Wang focuses on Lu’s subordinate clauses, conditional and subjunctive tenses, and mistrust of the pronoun “I,” interpreting these devices as gestures that challenge the notion that identity is an unmarked, universal construct. (The “White Courtesy Phone,” far from being all-inclusive, is a source of confusion and static.) Lu’s project is instead to create alternative artistic communities and to explore ways that language may build a more inclusive social space (finding a haven in the “Other Courtesy Phone”). At the same time, Wang argues that for Lu, these spaces are indelibly marked by marginalization and oppression (embodying “the demands of our marginalized discourse”) and are therefore by no means unproblematic. This is not just an insightful reading of brilliant poetic work; it is also an indication of the expansive potential of Wang’s method: other authors’ formal choices may suggest different stances on the same question of diaspora, but Lu’s particular method reflects ambivalence. In elaborating the interplay between the formal and the social, Wang is careful “not to deny the individuality of each poetic act.”
If Lu’s poetics is marked by ambivalence about the project of forming communities of resistance, Wang argues that John Yau’s work oscillates between, and opposes, contradictory identities. Yau is a Chinese American author who came of age during a period of cultural ferment, which saw both the growth of racial and ethnic identity movements and also the consolidation of a largely-white, urban avant-garde in configurations like the New York School and around poets like John Ashbery (an important figure for Yau himself). Yau has described his discomfort both with culturally nationalist Asian American circles and also with largely white groupings: Wang quotes him stating, “I am the Other—the chink, the lazy son, the surrealist, the uptight East Coast Banana, the poet who is too postmodern for the modernists and too modern for the postmodernists.” Wang locates this articulation of bifurcated identity in the work itself, examining the poem “Missing Pages” from Yau’s haunting Corpse and Mirror (1983). In it, inhabitants of a mysterious island describe the ritual of how they explain its strange towers to outsiders:
Anyone can add whatever they like to the story, or take some chunk of it away, if, in their opinion, it impedes the narrative flow. At the beginning of the summer (or the tourist season) the story, by then refined into its smoothest chapters, is written down by the mayor. A vote is taken by the council. If it passes approval, which it always does after a few revisions are made, the story is sealed away in a vault. In the fall, when school begins, the children of the island are taught the story in their classes. . . . In this way the children learn what must be forgotten, if they are to continue sleeping in their whitewashed cottages by the sea.
Wang’s reading of this passage emphasizes the conflict between memory and oblivion—between history as “tourists” and indigenous inhabitants experience it, between exposure to social conditions and a (racially suggestive) “white washing.” Wang emphasizes the diptych structures within Yau’s work, interpreting this formal choice as a gloss on potentially contradictory and exclusive categories of identity—American and Chinese, the “formerly innovative poet” vs. the Asian American one. While the surrealist poems in Corpse and Mirror differ stylistically from his “Genghis Chan: Private Eye” series—where the poet takes up the racist stereotype of the detective Charlie Chan—in those poems, Wang argues, the device of parody Yau employs involves juxtapositions of high and low culture, thereby signaling another kind of identity rift.
A chapter on Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge—a biracial poet who has sometimes been elevated as an exemplar of an avant-garde that abhors “identity”—puts Wang’s project to its most challenging test, because the poet’s work does not explicitly reflect on identity. The hallmark of Berssenbrugge’s poems is “indeterminacy” —a mode of writing that emphasizes the multivalent properties of language against the hegemonic certainty of those who would strip the world of its nuance. And yet, Wang argues, Berssenbrugge’s thematic “obsessions”—especially the boundaries between the concrete and amorphous—illustrate an orientation toward identity that rejects the false binaries of the sort Yau poses more explicitly in his work. Wang quotes from the poem "Fog":
As lava burst from the ground to cover the planet, it also freed water, which escaped as massive billowing fog, a contradicting ambition of consciousness to acquire impressions and retain strong feelings.
Here, in contrast to Yau’s use of opposition and conflict to address identity, Wang argues that Berssenbrugge rejects the “false binaries” of identity categories, and instead emphasizes the contingent and socially-determined nature of racial constructs. While it is valuable to remember how identity may emerge even in the most explicitly unmarked works—and this, Wang writes, applies both to white authors as well as writers of color—Wang’s critical method may not generate the most expansive close readings of writers whose primary mode is indeterminacy. Fog, by nature, is difficult to pin down and assign value, and it’s hard to say more about it than the fact that it obscures.
Wang’s crucial approach to reading difficult poetry sets a high standard for the book’s analyses of academic politics, which are nuanced, expansive, and deeply integrated with her method of close reading. While her close readings show how texts illuminate different aspects or views of social experience, her glosses on the academy show different kinds of influences of racism upon reading. One case study that may fall slightly short of these standards relates to Wang’s analysis of an episode involving Marilyn Chin’s translation of the eighteenth-century Vietnamese woman poet Ho Xuan Huong. In a letter to Poetry magazine, a writer used the term “noodling around” to describe what he believed to be a dilettantish quality of Chin’s translation from Nȏm into English. Chin called the term “noodling” a racist allusion to Chinese food and claimed affinity with Ho Xuan Huong’s cultural position, as a courtesan in a patriarchal society. In response, Chin’s critics wrote that her claims of affiliation were themselves problematic, as she didn’t read Nȏm, but Mandarin, a language tainted by China’s imperial relationship to Vietnam, and was therefore herself guilty of a form of racism. Wang argues that Chin’s critics indulged in a kind of colonialist rescue fantasy, an attempt to defend a vulnerable Vietnamese woman from a Chinese American author who is too easily equated with “China.” But what happens when claims about oppression and appropriation emerge from those who are not members of that oppressed group? While Wang seems right to call out moments when white privilege excludes the actual voices of people of color, by claiming a more “authentic” relationship to an oppressed original source, her own critical method would suggest that the legitimacy or illegitimacy of claims are not linked to the speaker’s position alone.
• • •
Wang’s vital argument is worth extending, because it raises important questions about the direction of modernism and how we assess the value—both aesthetic and social—of work in its tradition. Her critical method of finding the embodiment of the nexus between social and literary forms, between subjective experience and objective structures of oppression, suggests that literary quality is achieved not by either formal inventiveness or social documentation alone, but in the expansiveness of the relationship between them. The quality of the authors she holds up is illuminated by close readings that show how the work’s beauty and power are intertwined with their thoughtful glosses on identity and social experience.
These model readings carry some needed correctives to the insularity of an avant-garde that is now centuries old and whose methods may need to be reexamined, in part, by a standard that can better distinguish between “good” and “bad” exemplars of its project. While much has been written about Kenneth Goldsmith’s reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy report, it is worth noting that a direction has been to link the two senses of the word “bad” art, which comes when this relationship between formal experiment and social intervention is deeply mishandled—not only for its unexamined and degrading appropriation of trauma, as John Keene has written, but also, as per Bryan Kim Stefans, the “general awfulness” of its artistic production.
From this perspective, Wang’s book is part of an argument that locates “awfulness” in any work that does not add anything to the consideration of death and oppression. No matter how so-called uncreative texts or other conceptual texts claim resistance to mass culture, unreadable work produces more dissociation than insight, and no self-consciousness about its own lack of value can redeem it. Instead, reading—and in particular, close readings of the artful interaction of text and context —requires a different quality of attention. This attentiveness may better lead to a genuine address and consideration of the people in their varied experiences, an examination of the frailty and necessity of progress—important modernist goals which also happen to be more deeply shared by movements that genuinely mourn the dead and mobilize the living.
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March 11, 2016
13 Min read time