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Editors' Note: This essay is one of a group of responses to Daniel Tiffany's "Cheap Signaling." Read the rest.
In late December 2001, Argentinians found their currency radically devalued, their savings decimated, and their government in shambles. Students, matrons, pensioners, and workers of all stripes took to the streets beating on pots and pans, calling for a middle-class bailout, not for revolution. Dozens of people were killed or arrested after confrontations with mounted police. Within a year more than 57 percent of the population would be living in poverty. Still capitalism continues in Argentina. If these dire material circumstances could not drive the middle class and proletariat to unite in order to “annihilate” themselves, we doubt poetry could help. While we believe that all poetry carries a politics and ideology, frankly, we are unsure of the relationship between poetic diction and the will to stand firm before mounted riot police.
Our grandparents did not go to high school. Our mothers did not go to college. Our ancestors were mail order brides and day laborers. When they were lucky they received a college education through a baseball scholarship. When we were lucky we took out student loans and got on the tenure track. We cannot theorize without affect. We have stakes in this.
If, say, around midnight after one of our mothers got home from her shift at a convalescent hospital paying less than $7/hour, we had brought poems of the new kitsch to the edge of her class consciousness, we wonder what interpretive strategies, what “cultural class” she would need to occupy to decipher what Daniel Tiffany himself names as the “inscrutable, ambiguous, complicit, indirect” resistance of the poems he champions. Perhaps kitsch poetics, rich as it may be in its flat complications, finds no urgency from this moment’s turn in the dialectical materialist economic dial, speaks no more directly to the proletariat than other contemporary poetries.
We wonder if kitsch can ever be black.
In his reading of Fred Moten’s work, Tiffany’s nods to nuance (“the production of vernaculars may now always be a contrivance”) become ritual alibis for the unsubstantiated claim that Moten’s use of vernacular trades on a presumed authority of African-American identity. Moten’s explorations of “blackness” as a figure for strategies of resistance in his theoretical work do nothing to mark the African-American vernacular that appears in his poems as a sign of authenticity. The move to identify such misread authenticity as “cheap signaling” rests on a questionable presumption of power and privilege afforded certain subject positions and discourses within U.S. cultural production. We wonder if kitsch can ever be black.
This is not an idle question. We worry that such arguments as Tiffany’s turn on a straw man version of multiculturalism said to stymy the progress of dialectical economic history by calling for the recognition of racial, ethnic, and class difference and, consequently, the anti-revolutionary preservation of such cultures, including that of the proletariat. This is what Tiffany alleges when he terms Moten’s work a “Rousseauian project.” Tiffany is not alone in deploying this critical template (see Walter Benn Michaels, see Nonsite). Indeed, it seems that if one believes that multiculturalism is the handmaid of neoliberal forces, then African-American vernacular must be jettisoned from the revolutionary “homeopathy” of kitsch. Although Tiffany carefully develops his notion of kitsch as a remedy strengthened by an “infinitesimal trace of the malady,” he cannot seem to find such salutary effects in black vernacular—as if black speech patterns in all their variety were not readily commercialized,as if black vernacular, like kitsch, could not be part of the poem’s “social substance” and its “garbled history of transmission.” We would like to point out there are many contemporary U.S. poets who approach identity in their work not as an object to enshrine but as a locus of critique, making legible the imbrication of bodies, economic systems, and language.
We agree with Tiffany that contemporary class distinctions blur. We have posted as a Facebook status update, “You know you are middle class, when ______.” Still, while Tiffany acknowledges the illegibility of class, he is quick to tag Fred Moten’s use of academic diction as a symptom “of elite class formation.” Academic and cultural access can turn the working class and people of color into code-switchers; we cross over and learn a new language, a language we take precisely because it helps us understand our material, affective, and ideological conditions. As artists, we are intrigued by Tiffany’s notion of a language born as cliché that rises into its own ruin. We grew up in living rooms with Lladró figurines and wallpaper murals of Colonial Williamsburg. We love our kitsch. But we feel our precarity.
In his eagerness to tag certain poets as complicit with academic elitism, Tiffany rests on more imprecise formulations (“the institutional affiliations, or affinities, of some of these poets”) and misses an opportunity for nuanced economic analysis: how underfunded public universities are subject to financial dependency on right-wing donors who fund neoliberal think tanks (Koch brothers), how faculty work under years-long salary stagnation, and how a burgeoning managerial class executes thin budgets on the backs of adjuncts and student debt. Moreover, how might Mark Nowak’s workshops with laborers, Catherine Wagner’s faculty senate proposal that adjuncts at her institution receive a portion of any faculty salary increase, or Pratt’s new MFA with its emphasis on activism complicate our discussion of the intersection between academic institutions, poetics, and class?
Finally, a conversation that attempts to address class without addressing race as one of its constitutive elements seems incomplete. To cite only one example, disproportionate incarceration rates for people of color yoke whole populations with felony status that inhibits class mobility. Indeed, as we wonder if kitsch can ever be black, we wonder if the always-already criminalized black body can ever help to annihilate a class, if such bodies can ever be seen as revolutionaries.
The work of revolution may happen both on and beyond the page. When we look back at our uneducated or undereducated, wage laboring parents with our books in our hands we learn to say, “These may be just words.” Then we write some more.
Susan Briante is the author of two books of poetry Pioneers in the Study of Motion (2007) and Utopia Minus (2011). She is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Arizona. Her book, The Market Wonders, is forthcoming from Ahsahta Press in 2016.
Farid Matuk is the author of the poetry collections This Isa Nice Neighborhood and The Real Horse. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Arizona.
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