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Editors' Note: This essay is one of a group of responses to Daniel Tiffany's "Cheap Signaling." Read the rest.
Immersed as an outsider in American culture, consulting The Official Preppy Handbook, The Valley Girls’ Guide to Life, and How To Win Friends and Influence People for tips on faking the middle class, observing the capitalist machine as a dream from Inception—a life form akin to the Death Star, organic from afar but hewn from quadanium steel and the murderous labor of poorly paid aliens—nurtured at the ample teat of the American dream sustained by the wages of uneducated immigrant parents, a Kafkaesque system of public assistance, and diminishing U.S. public schools—all the while reared on television, pop music, snatches of Peruvian folk music, Danielle Steele novels, late-late movies, Anaïs Nin, self-help cassettes by Wayne Dyer, and Beat poetry—I became an amalgam. I became the opposite of a ready-made, a patchwork of affect and class longing best exemplified by the social realist novels of Theodore Dreiser and by John Hughes’s Pretty in Pink. More Cantinflas than Kantinflas. More ‘of-ten’ than ‘offen.’ My history is not distinctive, but the class edifice I was raised to storm certainly was and still is. Both the dystopias and utopias of my fantasies are littered with the shards of my ceaseless aspiration, the detritus I use to build my poems. Make it knew. I ascended and brought my story with me buried deep in my diction as a way of maintaining a deep connection to the high and low elements that form my subjectivity. The invention and representation of race is inextricably tied to class/economy/gender/sexualities, so I adopted and adapted.
In an essay called “Imperatives” (which will appear in the anthology The Force of What's Possible, forthcoming from Nightboat Books later this fall), Roberto Tejada describes stagnation in contemporary vanguard poetry and asks, “In a brazen pursuit of immediate gratification, how many advocates of formal innovation risk losing sight of modernism’s critical reason for being?” Tejada argues for the vanguard’s inclusion of “a voluptuousness of the self and its overcast contingencies,” and I’ll extend that argument to include the voluptuousness that the dictions of excluded class identities communicate, which make their way into art and poetry mostly through appropriation (and in some cases, invasion). Whether it surfaces through authentic or mimed representation, expressive racial affect is pervasive, especially in the most exciting contemporary American poetry. The play in and out of the theoretical discourse of the academy might be read as a type of miming itself; the United States doesn’t have posh accents per se, but I can tell the difference between Navy surplus and Marc Jacobs, and so can many poets who not only identify the distinction, but also the significance of the distinction.
I am most interested in finding out what the diction of resistance is, and maybe this is not it.
Capitalism is our discourse and buried in our discourse; I want to say without saying I want, but I can’t because all of my wants are types of economies, exchanges. I am too indoctrinated, and too vested, to be outside of this discourse meaningfully. When I read “cheap signaling,” I read signaling I can afford without a black Centurion card, because class and its signs obsess me and also guide me. In my poetry I attempt to disturb the surface of the canonical affect with my race and gender (inevitably and more often than not tied to class) through the signals that popular culture make of me.
I want to talk about poetry and have my head in the clouds of subjectivity, but boys are being murdered in the street, so I am most interested in finding out what the diction of resistance is, and maybe this is not it. How do we describe political accountability and how do we take it down?So far, the language and rhetoric of the outsider seems most apt. In her preface to One Big Self, C.D. Wright considers this strange position of affect and agency as she writes about inmates in Louisiana state prisons:
Try to remember it the way it was. Try to remember what I wore when I visited the prisons. Trying to remember how tall was my boy then. What books was I teaching. Trying to remember how I hoped to add one true and lonely word to the host of texts that bear upon incarceration. . . . Not to idealize, not to judge, not to exonerate, not to aestheticize immeasurable levels of pain. Not to demonize, not anathematize. What I wanted was to unequivocally lay out the real feel of hard time. . . . What I wanted was to convey the sense of normalcy for which humans strive under conditions that are anything but what we in the free world call normal, no matter what we may have done for which we were never charged.
Wright acknowledges class latitudes and complications, and her book uses the language of the incarcerated to bring light to a human rights issue. Vanguard poetry can claim to be purely aesthetic, can eschew expression, because it is a formula that serves those who are already visible, but Wright’s project has to be expressive, to resist that formula, in order for her invisible subjects to be heard. Privilege and visibility are fast becoming precious commodities available to few, which might be why some poets are looking to symbolic systems for other layers of affiliation.
The United States is fast approaching Third World conditions: wages haven’t increased in step with massive inflation and citizens suffer due to wealth hoarding and a shortage of resources. The “haves” mandate from behind the curtains of a small coterie of corporate behemoths, influence insinuated into every facet of our lives, and our culture is enraptured by the minutiae of the rich who throw symbolic social conservatism to the Tea Party as a pabulum. Like the ephemeral écriture féminine, we need an écriture provocante that dismantles systems of oppression.
So far the most promising work I see is the work of poets who enact class struggle by writing from and within the twenty-first century and its complex signals—some of them cheap, but all of them embedded deep in our medial prefrontal cortex and the technological interface that has transformed art. In Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity, Johanna Drucker argues for a more welcoming analysis of contemporary art’s engagement with the material culture that a hyper-capitalist culture creates. She writes, “works of fine art are capable of sustaining contradictions, performing oppositional or resistant functions while simultaneously serving mainstream interests.” I am always a bit bewildered by how quickly visual art adapts and incorporates its responses to historical and social pressures, whereas poetry takes longer. Perhaps because language, the medium itself, is loaded with rigors that are often exclusionary and narrow.
We can walk and chew gum at the same time; we can express, and signal, and innovate. In addition to the poets Daniel Tiffany mentioned, I would add poets like Craig Santos Perez, who inflects his work with Chamorro culture, J. Michael Martinez, who decolonizes the Western historical canon, and Layli Long Soldier, who appropriates political apologies. These poets signal on many levels while resisting the fundamental notion of a static, expressive apolitical self. All together, these voices express a common dissatisfaction that is far too important to ignore.
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