Defending the Poetry of Affect
July 24, 2013
Jul 24, 2013
20 Min read time
Conceptualism aims to eliminiate affect from poetry. There are emotional and political consequences.
The under-examined bone of contention in today’s poetry is the value of affect in art. More and more poets are suspicious of lyrical expression and devote themselves to emotionally neutral methods. The representation of affects—feelings that are often either transports or afflictions—has been increasingly muted in American and European art since the 1960s. Vehemence of feeling nonplusses the modern personality, a hostage to ambiguity and irony.
This turn against strong emotion leaves much at stake. Writers who pride themselves on conceiving projects and executing them according to plan—thus relatively indifferent to the intrinsic value of what is produced and to the quality of the production itself—neglect life values, which include a trembling web of receptivity, sharply interested observation, the ability to make instant adjustments, and organic developments within a constantly changing context, all properties as important to lyric poets as to cats. The new cerebral writing implies that the conceiving head is superior to the intuitive heart, to use the old words. It reinstates the ages-long assumption of the supremacy of culture over biology, the scheme that modern art and thought, as José Ortega y Gasset argued in The Modern Theme (1931), set out to overturn with pagan gusto.
But this cerebral poetry does its work in a period when the old assumption that culture could be progressive is dead. It is thus devoted to ruins. It is reactionary at the same time that its alliance with digital technologies—technologies that facilitate copying, sampling, and remixing; that “float” documents and make them seem up for grabs—gives it the lure of being very “now.” As an effort to form an avant-garde, “head” poetry thus diverges sharply from the disruptive-to-revolutionary aesthetic and political aims that characterized the early 20th century avant-gardes.
Melancholy and militancy, those contrary but subtly related elements of the poetry of affect, cannot be excised from literature, in favor of methodology, without both emotional and political consequences: misery in the first instance, cultural conformity in the second.
• • •
How did we get to this place, where concept has trumped feeling?
Poetry is accustomed to being berated for having too much of this or too little of that, come back when you are classical, baroque, romantic, avant-garde, or postmodern, you just aren’t there yet, you fairly engaging thing. But who could have foreseen that poetry would finally be attacked for being poetry? That the Imaginary, in Jacques Lacan’s sense, would be shut down so that writing could operate solely within the Symbolic order, free of affect? Conceptual poetry has rammed against poetry, saying, I’m the honest stuff, the real poetry, in not being poetry at all.
Lovers of paradox, rejoice. Lovers of lyric poetry, dramatic poetry, narrative poetry, you may find yourselves somewhere in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, looking about at the wasted land and asking what happened.
What happened is that the contradictory culture of the 1960s fell out of history, split as it was between the dehistoricized flower-body and the futureless head (thinking having been reduced to horizonless deconstructions and backward-glancing appropriations). Culture resorted to post-historical play; it just was not going anywhere anymore. Marx’s weapons were in the daddy shed. Psychoanalysis was in the sexual saddle and had disposed of the illusion of the future. French philosophers held the hot viscera of classical philosophy in their hands. And what I shall call the physical avant-gardes—Rimbaud and Lautréamont having already tested the new material atmosphere in the 1860s and ’70s and the Italian futurists having roared aloft in it in 1910—finally expired.
“Avant” means you have a future, but a talking head (as against an imagination operating from the whole personality) doesn’t need the future. It has itself, the autos and noise of language, and topics to ruminate, e.g., the touted end of history, which means, as Foucault said, the end of “man,” since the self-justifying mission of man has been history making. Hence also the end of the attention accorded to the passions, the whole emotional orchestra of Western arts.
How could the artist be avant-garde now, in the absence of the avant? How to intimidate the timid establishment with radical moves? Only by making much of an instrumental and parasitical approach to producing literature. The uncreative heads effectively shook off the body, everything that was alive enough to die. Pataphysics, or idle solutions to imaginary problems, and the French “Sewing Circle” of “Potential Literature”—the Oulipo, a literary gaming house—replaced flatulent French surrealism. The Oulipo started up in Paris, if at first privately, in exactly 1960. What Jean Baudrillard called “the Xerox degree of culture” began its descent. (American conceptual artists started testing a literal Xerox method in the mid-’60s.) More and more, art and literature were thrown upon static methodologies. Originality was inverted into ways of demonstrating its demise.
• • •
The cerebral avant-gardes—Oulipo, Language poetry, conceptual writing, visual poetry, Flarf, critical poetics—are positioned toward the earlier avant-gardes as ego is to impulse, idea to sensation, cynicism to heroism, and no-time to animal faith and its nemesis, mortality. The most serious of their closures is the stonewalling of the affects.
By “affects” I mean the passions Philip Fisher taxonomizes in his book The Vehement Passions (2002): anger, fear, joy, crippling shame, jealousy, grief—emotions that bear on a vital self-regard. (Sylvia Plath’s Ariel is a textbook of them.) I mean what Antonio Damasio means by the subtitle of his book Looking for Spinoza (2003), namely “Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain” (emphasis added). These books portray human beings, among other animals, as shocked into an existence that finds them permanently being tested for their ability to survive. Distinctive patterns of chemical and neural responses, the passions are their patriots, vanguards, alarm systems, armored cars, bayonets, destiny, and weepers over the dead. (Fisher prefers the term “passions,” Damasio “emotions”; I use them here without distinction.)
How did we get to this place, where concept has trumped feeling?
The new detachment from affects means the suppression of the psyche’s outspokenness, which is vital to its health, and a stop to the sociopolitical usefulness of both the libido and the rougher emotions. These emotions fuel what Stéphane Hessel, one of the shapers of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, celebrates as “indignation” in Time for Outrage, Indignez-vous! (2011). This new neutrality also stultifies the creation in art of major new aesthetic affects, distinct universes of feeling: Moby-Dick putting forward one affect, Wuthering Heights another; Rilke his, Rothko his; and so on. Neutrality causes a shriveling up of the variety and values of literary sensibility.
The affects are, as it were, the organs’ speech. What they tell us, in part, is that “suffering,” including primordial alarm, “is the sole origin of consciousness” (Dostoyevsky). Consciousness is “shudder,” to adapt Adorno. One of the great modern poets of alarm and indignation, Cesar Vallejo, pinpoints the case in a poem that begins, abruptly, “Finally without that good continuous aroma, . . . / without its melancholy quotient, . . . / my conditions close their little boxes.”
The least appreciated and understood of the affects is sadness or, better, melancholy, without which militancy has no prod. Melancholy may be called the ur-feeling, even the ground of feeling. It is enigmatic, not least because it piles sadness upon sadness more or less chronologically. We disparage it at the peril of disowning ourselves. Maintained on this side of depression, it has a self-preservative function. The first chapter of Julia Kristeva’s book Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (1987), is the classic analysis. “The depressive affect can be interpreted as a defense against parceling. Indeed, sadness reconstitutes an affective cohesion of the self”: sadness serves as a leaky narcissistic rescue craft, a rudimentary though I barely am, nonetheless I am, which keeps us afloat above an unsignifiable “Thing,” to use Lacan’s term, or what Georges Perec in the brilliant Oulipian novel A Void (1969) dubs “Malignancy.” Vallejo is arguably a seer in regard to Malignancy: “I do not ache now as an artist, as a man or even as a simple living being. . . . I am simply in pain. . . . Today I am in pain from further below. Today I am simply in pain.” Pain from how far below? Freud speculated that melancholy begins with the break from the inanimate. The doctors generally do not agree. But you could go further and imagine that matter itself suffers; after all, it is incomplete, driven, abandoned.
The first layer of melancholy is, then, ontological, material, cosmic. The second is the fall of the sparrow mandated by the first. Mortality was an expectable theme in literature until conceptualism’s practice of disregarding it. Vallejo is again to the point: “Gentlemen!” he says in “Discovery of Life,” “today is the first time that I realize the presence of life! Gentlemen! I beg you to leave me alone for a moment, so I can savor this formidable, spontaneous . . . emotion, which . . . enraptures me and makes me happy to the point of tears.” But to discover life is, alas, to discover death. “Let me alone! Life has now struck me in all my death.” And in another poem: “What’s got into me, that I’m neither living nor dying?” In sharp contrast, the new poetry, though archival, dodges death.
The suffering of being mortal is catalyzed by the incomplete break with the mother. What Kristeva calls “matricide” is roughly simultaneous with the felt sentence of death. I cannot take the space to do justice to her intricate analysis of the hodge-podge of feelings in the situation, but here is a crude synopsis: the engulfing mother (like the Thing) is repudiated, but she is the other or the rest of me, so I suffer a sense of loss. I also feel guilty for cutting her off. I want her back; I push her away. Melancholy is, Kristeva notes, “a combination of sorrow and hatred.” Militancy has thus already set up office in it. Melanie Klein, Freud, and Abraham all agree that depression, like mourning, conceals aggression toward lost objects. In extreme contrast, the ideas in cerebral poetry are scoured clean of ambivalence. Information, quotation, strategies, these are welcome because antiseptic.
Another cause of melancholy is history as shudder (Schlegel). The battle down the street is companion to the asylum on the corner. In particular, the 20th century has made humanity synonymous with inhumanity; it stinks in our nostrils. Our younger writers struggle not to be silenced by history’s devastating march from one catastrophe to another. To ignore history as disaster is to do nothing about it. That history has supposedly ended does not mean that it isn’t deadly.
A final level of melancholy is the accumulation of slights, setbacks, losses. We have a classic presentation of the problem from Elizabeth Bishop: “I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or / next-to-last, of three loved houses went. . . . / I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, / some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.”
The upshot of plastering procedures over melancholy and hence militancy is political compliance or social under-concern. Veined and vexed by the sensations organized around melancholy and militancy, the imagination is essential to politics: your positions make me miserable, make me mad. It is the imagination that has to conceive opposition. It has to feel it. Otherwise, it is merely being contrary, which is the conceptualists’ post-political position. Via empathy, the imagination figures community and solidarity and conjures an extra-human range of connection.
Antonin Artaud evokes this something more in his neglected prose poem “Uccello the Hair”—surrealism at its most powerful. “With your head lying on this table where all humanity is capsized,” the poet says to Uccello, “what do you see other than the vast shadow of a hair? A hair like two forests, a hair like three fingernails, like a meadow of eyelashes, like a rake in the grass of heaven.” The imagination is a multiplier: parts suggest more, objects morph into other objects. A metaphor of the artist’s brush, the eyelash creates a world from a line. “By the breadth of a hair you are balanced over a formidable abyss from which, however, you are eternally divided.” Here is that specter, the Thing, Malevolence. Here is art as Rescue.
• • •
The head poetries shut off melancholy like a mudroom and reduce militancy to neutral-seeming strategies. To begin a brief survey: What is the quotient of melancholy and militancy in Oulipo? Neither sort of feeling is excluded, but neither is cultivated. Here moods, feelings, cries are accidents dependent on the temperament or theme of the writer. Adopting constraints and then trumping them is the only requirement. Method tends to militate against melancholy and militancy in allocating the main focus to itself. Motoring along on method, a work can be prolonged beyond its initial impetus, which may or may not have been affectional. Thus, after the first of the nine sections of Jacques Roubaud’s elegiac poem Some Thing Black (1990), a great opening devastating in its grief, you get only the studied implementation of the rest of the macro-plan: nine poems per section, nine “lines” per poem. Mere talk takes over. “This drain on attention is expected to slow down.” Talk.
In Oulipian work, as in the other method poetries, control is the issue. Emotion is volatile and unpredictable, whereas method is safe and reliable. Certainly there are exceptions to method’s equation with decontamination. For instance, although restricted to erasure, Srikanth Reddy’s book-length poem Voyager (2011) is a melancholy masterpiece. And as to indignation, it is moral criticism of the profoundest kind. In it you cannot even recognize Kurt Waldheim’s memoir, its source text.
The poetry of affect cannot be excised from literature without emotional and political consequences.
But in the main, the purpose of Oulipian practice—as noted by Harry Mathews, an American member of the official Oulipo—“is to demystify the act of writing, to demonstrate to yourself that the fears it inspires in you are as imaginary as they are persistent.” To me, this sounds like an easy way out of the cruelty of writing. In “Clear Abelard,” the companion piece to “Uccello the Hair,” Artaud cries, “Abelard has cut his hands. To that terrible paper kiss, what symphony can henceforth compare.” To write is to make cuts, says Derrida, and to write with feeling is to be cut.
What is the politics implicit in Oulipian writing, if any? I ask it, first, of Christian Bök’s popular Eunoia (2001), narrative poetry in the improbable form of a lipogrammic fantasia on the vowels, each one marched in order in its five chapters, each word conscripted for its contribution to the vowel of the moment. Fans of the poem like to discover profundities in it, but I find it clichéd and shallow. It replaces André Breton’s directive, revolt so as to be adequate to oneself, with the message: be as ingenious as you can. Delight in the auto-affection of your faculties.
By contrast, Jacques Jouet’s “A Supposer” contains what may be the Oulipo’s finest political moment. In the 29th and 30th paragraphs—the constraint being to make each paragraph a single long, elegantly turned sentence—we are nudged to see the work’s sinuous inclusive sentences as the analogs of an inclusive Republic, one that “gives itself equally to everyone, without reserve and without exception.” The “democracy of the other, . . . the opportunity to meet the other—who really does exist” is not unlike, if not very like, the Oulipian writer’s friendly cooperation with the other of pre-established rules. Consider also Juliana Spahr’s satirical “HR 4811 is a joke,” a highlight in the 2007 anthology The /n/Oulipain Analects. Spahr substitutes every seventh word in an anti-abortion text with the word “gag” until it gags the very reading.
But for the most part Oulipian poetics is dedicated to play, not change. Mathews remarks, “It’s only a game” (emphasis added). Raymond Queneau, one of the Oulipo’s co-founders, rather off-puttingly said that Oulipians are “rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape.” Whereas the earlier avant-gardes were intent on truth, Oulipo is intent on winning and fun. Matias Viegener, one of the editors of The /n/Oulipain Analects, notes that Deleuze fits Oulipo inasmuch as he said, ask not if it is true but what it does, how it works.
As for conceptual writing, its focus is not on truth either, but on the archivalism of copying and compilation, the mirroring (direct or crazy) of already published texts, as averred by its able exponent, Kenneth Goldsmith. Conceptual art in the ’60s and ’70s was more creative, but its aesthetic philosophy was much the same. “Once one understands that art is not in objects, but in the completeness of the artist’s concept of art,” declares Ian Burn in a piece gathered in conceptual art: a critical anthology (1999), “then the other functions can be eradicated and art can become more wholly art.” The conceptual artists’ militant intention was to defy the galleries and collectors, the capitalists of art.
By contrast, the current conceptual writers, though descendants of the conceptual artists, defy only the institution of poetry, which, no doubt fortunately, seldom dirties its hands with big money. At the same time, these writers openly make a bid to take over the place and honors of the institution. Conceptual writing ignores the capitalist establishment as such. Its target is the supposed naïveté of literature that aspires to be original, hence writing that is likely to be affectual.
Against Expression is the pithy, direct title of the 2011 landmark anthology of conceptual writing edited by Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin. In his introduction, Dworkin pegs conceptualism as an archival movement, hence “more conservative . . . than most of what passes for mainstream poetry.” But conceptualism is more gravely conservative than Dworkin articulates. It is married to ruins. According to Vanessa Place, spokesperson for the new cynical avant-garde, it has no right even to seek a divorce. Writing is demonstrably inconsequential, and should accept its hollowness, the more so because nothing ever and anyway succeeds—progress is an illusion.
Place calls on new poetry to be “radically evil” toward the old poetry’s aspirations to excellence, its unjustified air of self-importance. Notes on Conceptualisms (2009), the little book that Place coauthored with Robert Fitterman, points to the defeatism in the movement. The argument is, roughly, that conceptual writing, which seems so pert and impertinent, hath really neither joy, nor light, nor help for pain. Conceptualism is thus a counterpart of the 17th-century allegory of ruin. Walter Benjamin concluded that allegory “is in the realm of thought what ruins are in the realm of things.” The baroque poets saw the truth of history in the forsakenness of nature, but drove off the allegory of ruin with the allegory of redemption. By contrast, as the critic Craig Owens observed, modern allegory stops with fragmentation. In it, one text is read through a confiscated text while maintaining an empty space between itself and the found material. The latter is treated as so much detritus, a cultural ruin. Conceptual writing is ruin piled on ruin.
Erected on erotic faith, surrealism’s “analogical thinking,” as Breton called it, is answered by conceptualism’s allegorical thinking. The first kind of thinking excites the libido (Breton: “I hear underclothes tearing like some great leaf”); the second suppresses it. As it feeds on bygone texts, conceptualism may be marooned in the bottoms of a melancholy attraction to dead zones. How various are its ruins: consider decorative ruins, as in Elizabeth Clark’s graphically pretty reduction of Raymond Roussel’s New Impressions of Africa to its punctuation; exhausting tabulatory ruins, archived debris, as in Brian Joseph Davis’s compilation of 5,000 film tag lines; abstraction ruins, witness Dworkin’s Parse (2008), which cannibalizes words about grammar with the grammatical terms for the words; arbitrary-emphasis ruins, as in Goldsmith’s obsessive compilation of phrases ending in “r” sounds or, in a reverse move, the graphic de-emphasis in M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008) and Rachel Zolf’s “Messenger,” their barely legible 6–8 percent gray font; and, to make an end, ruins by over-extension, including paragraphs or stanzas deliberately stupid with repetition.
How could the artist be avant-garde now, in the absence of the avant?
Grave robbers or not, conceptualists tend to avoid a direct representation of ruin, even as they demonstrate it. Further, they avert their eyes from the simultaneity of living and dying. In conceptual art’s heyday, when Ed Ruscha and some friends threw a vintage Royal typewriter from the window of a 1963 Buick Le Sabre going 90 miles an hour on Highway 91 southwest of Las Vegas in “perfect weather,” it was not to gamble on the machine’s survival but to reject writing’s slow temporal articulations and openness to painful emotions. The machine “was too directly bound to its own anguish to be anything other than a cry of negation carrying within itself the seeds of its own destruction,” Ruscha explained. Thus the seemingly Dadaist gesture was a symbolic repudiation of writing as death. There is to be only life conceptual.
The typewriter as technology was not the issue. Conceptualism has no fear of technology. It seconds what the philosopher Bernard Stiegler calls capitalism’s misery-making technological proletarianization of the subject via processes of dissociation and disindividuation that keep the libido from long-term investments. In the vocabulary of Stiegler’s mentor Gilbert Simondon, cultural “transindividuation” is the pooling and bonding of memory. Capitalism and conceptualism alike trivialize memory through their disindividuating processes. Conceptualism is a swampland of derivative texts, dishonored texts adopted for the sake of recycling, not as a nutrient to memory. Kudos to Charles Bernstein, who wrote in 1984 that “the word processor . . . is the latest attempt to domesticate writing—not in order to inhabit it but to trivialize it.” Even earlier, Adorno, in a more complex argument, suggested:
Who really wants to be an artist today . . . cannot dodge the deep and shocking experiences brought about by this [technological] civilization upon every living being. He must be in complete command of the most advanced means of artistic construction. He thus has to be both an exponent and a sworn enemy of the prevailing historical tendency.
• • •
The absence of cultural goals has bred in poetry a large family of short-circuiting, stasis-ensuring techniques. Stuttering repetitions of words and lines, labyrinthine permutations, serializations, parataxis, cut-ups—there are a score of such devices, all of them grammatizing a sense of stalemate.
Thanks to this kitty of dead-end moves, a new hybridization is forming among the various method poetries, making labeling debatable. The tired containers rip apart, or are raided; the methods mingle. This was probably inevitable. In itself, it is not a bad thing.
The 2012 anthology I’ll Drown My Book, edited by Place, Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, and Teresa Carmody, is caught in the dust devil of this mixing of techniques, despite the would-be marshaling (and marketing) ploy of its subtitle, “Conceptual Writing By Women.” As an index to the chaos, Cia Rinne observes that conceptualism liberates linguistic anarchy, as in her trivial lines “o sole mio / sole mio o / mi sole o o / sole o mio,” but in fact unlike Oulipo, conceptualism is essentially hostile to language play. One by one the contributors step up in their commentary on their writing to say how their work is conceptual, as if seeking to qualify before a membership board. (The notable exceptions are the hilariously sensual, rebellious duo Stacy Doris and Lisa Robertson.) But Oulipo’s constraints are more in evidence than conceptualism’s confiscations. And the predecessor for some of the writings is still another movement, Language poetry, whose combination of critique and heterogeneous methods has made a comeback.
But except for some feminist pieces, the critiques in I’ll Drown My Book are relatively timid, consciously “come lately” after Language poetry and the vigorous continental criticism of the latter half the last century. So call I’ll Drown My Book, which follows Prospero in abdicating “rough magic,” an anthology of method writing.
One could single out certain of its pieces as examples of “critical poetics,” adopting a term that Bergvall cites from the philosopher Jacques Ranciére in her dazzling introduction. Its formula is affect + criticism + method, the method rendering the affect “cool.” But there are too few of these pieces to predict the advent of an affect-accommodating mutation of method poetry.
The great examples of the investigation, shaping, and liberation of affect, not least militancy, continue to lie elsewhere, in Rimbaud, Vallejo, Césaire, and more recently Raúl Zurita, among numerous others. “Art can live,” said Deleuze and Guattari, “only by creating new percepts and affects” (emphasis added). Kristeva agrees: “Literary creation is that adventure of the body and signs that bears witness to . . . affect.” Originality, she adds, is “affectivity struggling with signs, going beyond, threatening, or modifying them.” In writing, the affects are key to defending the whole personality against depression, including the desperation, the misery, of the technologically proletarianized subject.
Help fund the next generation of Black journalists, editors, and publishers.
Boston Review’s Black Voices in the Public Sphere Fellowship is designed to address the profound lack of diversity in the media by providing aspiring Black media professionals with training, mentorship, networking opportunities, and career development workshops. The program is being funded with the generous support of Derek Schrier, chair of Boston Review’s board of advisors, the Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, but we still have $50,000 left to raise to fully fund the fellowship for the next two years. To help reach that goal, if you make a tax-deductible donation to our fellowship fund through August 31 it will be matched 1:1, up to $25,000—so please act now to double your impact. To learn more about the program and our 2021-2022 fellows, click here.
July 24, 2013
20 Min read time