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Editors' Note: This essay is one of a group of responses to Daniel Tiffany's "Cheap Signaling." Read the rest.
I had two responses to reading Daniel Tiffany’s “Cheap Signaling”: one was, wait, that’s not the Marx I know, and the other was, hmm, I don’t hear what he hears in the poems he’s reading. I ended up thinking my two responses were related. In the case of Marx, I think Tiffany reads “class” as a set of static, status-like objects, strata, rather than as a painful, dynamic relation of exploitation. In the case of contemporary poetry, I think his welcome focus on diction nonetheless leads him to hear mostly coterie cleverness in the poems he’s reading, whereas I hear a range of worries and hopes embedded there. Construing “class” as a mere strata, and “coterie” as a mere hothouse, feels like the same gesture.
To start with Marx: for Tiffany, there is something called a Marxist “paradigm of oppositionality,” which he also calls a “Marxist paradigm of class resentment,” that has survived the demise of a politically significant industrial working class. This resentment-paradigm, Tiffany implies, was buttressed by earlier forms of championing the working class as “inherently appealing or virtuous”—a valorization that, for Tiffany (via Tamás), is more Rousseauian than Marxist, because it is cultural and not economic. In Tiffany’s narrative, twentieth century Marxists fell too much in love with the working classes, and forgot that the historical destiny of that class was to abolish itself in a revolution that would abolish capitalism. Instead, in a bitter irony, capitalism abolished them—at least their political force. This left their cultural champions in an awkward position: making working-class struggle into the basis for cultural identity, these earlier Marxists, Tiffany claims, inadvertently made themselves friendly to today’s consumer society, in which “revolution becomes a matter of ‘recognition’ (of cultural differences) rather than economic redistribution.” For Tiffany, the ongoing problem of class continues underneath this misguided, consumer-driven multiculturalism, even though the political charge around “class” no longer necessarily means “working-class.”
The narrative on the far left asks: there is no more party program that could organize everyone who is exploited, or damaged, by capital, and so where does that leave us?
In Tiffany’s account, this situation places heavy demands on the left-wing poets of the day, and the way to measure the success of their response to it is to attend to their “diction,” by which Tiffany means something like the class-specific words and idiomatic phrases poets use. As far as I can tell, he is ambivalent about how we’ve been doing so far. He suspects that the mix of theory-jargon and “aggressively casual” speech in the poetry he is tracking is really just a put-on, one that thinks it sounds revolutionary but really just says, “Hey, I’m a professor!” And this put-on, he suggests, is the product of a theoretical and political error: this new poetry “remains blind to the necessary self-destruction of the class it represents,” thereby producing only ham-handed mixes of high and low speech, and failing to produce truly radical poetic diction. This new poetry thereby misses out on the chance to “broaden its scope and bring [itself] more directly in contact with larger numbers of people”—or, as Tiffany puts it late in the essay, to “enhance its social capital.”
What would this radical diction be? As Tiffany concludes his essay, he offers “kitsch” and “mass ornament” as his answer: an avowedly faked-out poetry that abandons claims to racial or gendered or class authenticity and revels instead in its dialectical relation to “the libidinal currents of the marketplace.” Only this kind of carnivalesque fakery, he suggests, can turn the “cheap signaling” of his title from a term of dismissal—“a circumstance in which the social ‘cost’ of transmitting a message is low enough that senders can transmit it fraudulently without risk”—to one of approval: “a method of authentic defiance and revolt.” The poet-critics of the academic left just need to admit who they are: relatively cushioned professors who are rummaging through earlier modes of radicality, pretending tobe just normal folks, endlessly trying to square the circle of vernacular speech and theory-jargon.
Here we diverge. For one thing, I don’t think Marx was a sociologist of “class,” or that “class” is the object of his analysis; capital is. Tiffany makes him sound like Thorstein Veblen. Much devolves from this mis-identification, not least the way Tiffany imagines the two political options on the table to be either a failed multicultural project of “recognition” or an actual, sleeves-rolled-up project of “redistribution.” The irony here is that by chastening mere culture with class in the name of Marx, Tiffany is wielding a club that is not Marxist at all, since it fails to ask what kinds of value and production lead to bad “distribution” in the first place. Precisely because this redistributionist classology is not Marxist but thinks it is, Tiffany, not the poets he describes, succumbs to “outdated models of oppositionality and alienation.” He recommends Baudelaire; he recommends an ‘80s-style postmodern critique of authenticity; he recommends the “mass ornament” of Siegfried Kracauer’s Weimar essays. These all seem interesting. None of them has much to do with what he refers to as “radical economic thinking”—thinking that, though absent from his essay, has been the focus of sustained attention for many of the poets he mentions.
Tiffany’s own scholarship has done much to establish a literary history for poetry that isn’t meant to “broaden its scope,” or increase its “social capital.” Both his Infidel Poetics and his recent My Silver Planet offer fascinating and persuasive accounts of poetry as graffiti, as tavern-talk, as hermetic insider code, and suggest that it needn’t be elsewise. So I’m honestly baffled by his accusation that the latest left-wing poetry is doing a bad job as a vanguard, since it’s just in-group chatter. For one thing, I thought Tiffany liked in-group chatter; and for another, I really don’t think these poets imagine themselves as a vanguard. Indeed the party-consciousness out of which vanguardism emerged is precisely an object of critique on the far left these days. In this thinking, the narrative is not: there’s no more working class, just a carnival of styles! No, the narrative is more like: there is no more party program that could organize everyone who is exploited, or damaged, by capital, and so where does that leave us?
I hear a lot of contemporary poetry on the left asking that question. But I don’t hear Tiffany noticing the interrogative case that shapes so many of the poems he reads. This is the final irony attached to Tiffany’s very welcome attention to diction: it comes at the price of attention to tone. Because he interprets Marxism as a sociology of class, and because he interprets classes as strata-that-have-become-flux, he misses that they never were strata. So he reads contemporary capitalism as a carnival of dismantled high-low distinctions – that is, as ‘80s-style “postmodernity” – and poetic diction as significant for revealing the trace of that dismantling. But he doesn’t seem to hear the blend, not only of diction, but of feelings and comportments in the passages he cites—bafflement, anger, joy seized on the fly, sheepishness, sorrow, hilarity.
My own poems have, as often as not, been read as clever or ironic, and I can see how that’s fair. But for me the force of irony is greatest not when it bespeaks cleverness about the state of the world, but bafflement and dismay and indiscreet optimism. I’m always thinking of my place in a three-generation immigrant narrative that starts working-class, becomes suburban, and ends up with me, academic. I’m always thinking about how I can never be sure which lines, which turns of phrase, would leave those earlier generations blank, or make them marvel, or repel them. I worry about being a smarty-pants. I’m the beneficiary of a lot of expensive education, and I fear that for all its glories that education may also have deformed my sense of what intelligence is, including poetic intelligence. I fear that our best working definitions of being smart are possessive, or worse, entrepreneurial. So a lot of the movement of my poems—their diction, but also their tones, and their forms—involves trying to maintain a sense that intelligence is or could be a cousin activity to companionability, even solidarity; to physical grace. I am aware this is implausible. But I have high hopes.
A portion of this essay will appear in the forthcoming Volta Anthology of Poetry, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson.
Chris Nealon teaches English at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of two books of literary criticism, Foundlings: Lesbian and Gay Historical Emotion before Stonewall (Duke, 2001) and The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in The American Century (Harvard, 2011), and four books of poetry: The Joyous Age (Black Square Editions, 2004), Plummet (Edge Books, 2009), Heteronomy (Edge, 2014), and The Shore (forthcoming from Wave Books in 2020). He lives in Washington, DC.
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