Monday, December 21, 2009

POETRY AND CULTURAL STUDIES: A READER, Eds. MARIA DAMON & IRA LIVINGSTON

JEROEN NIEUWLAND Reviews

Poetry and Cultural Studies: A Reader, Eds. Maria Damon and Ira Livingston
(University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Chicago, 2009)

‘I really cannot read another cultural-studies analysis of Madonna or The Sopranos,’ sighs Stuart Hall, cited in Michael Bérubé’s recent essay ‘What’s the Matter With Cultural Studies’ (online, with a still open comment section, at The Chronicle Review). In his essay Bérubé voices disappointment about Cultural Studies not living up to the promise many felt it harbored with its nascence in the later 1960s. He argues – with fervor and disappointment – that it has brought about very little change in American higher education and, again referring to Hall, claims that it has suffered from a tendency to too many monocausal analyses, attractive and problematic for the same reason that they simplify the more complex reality of the way the world works (for example, explaining away complex political /cultural phenomena as results of neoliberalism). Another problem Bérubé mentions is that for lack of a clear methodology Cultural Studies has often devolved into the entirely different ‘study of pop culture’, or a generic ‘cultural criticism’. What remains unclear is how Cultural Studies might indeed be more consistent and effective in complicating accounts of neoliberalism and hegemonical structures.

Poetry and Cultural Studies is a new reader edited by Maria Damon and Ira Livingston, and holds up quite well when considered against the criticisms that Bérubé levels at the field as a whole. And although it has its weak points, this book delivers what it sets out to do and is a handsome, and very useable contribution to, and intermingling of both literary theory and Cultural Studies. The book does not suffer from monocausal analysis – it collects essays, both chronologically and thematically, about a wide range of specific areas. Even the criticism that Cultural Studies has no method is partially circumvented by the fact that all essays share the connection of poetry and Cultural Studies.

There are some minor quibbles to be made regarding the editing of the texts, but on the whole this book has been well put together. The sections are thematically organized and at the same time provide both a sense of historical overview. They are: Precursors, Ethnography, Mass Culture/Cultural Politics, National (De)formation, Subject (De)formations, Reinventing Tradition, and a (short) index. Damon/Livingston perhaps sound a bit overly modest when they write that ‘each reader will likely be struck by glaring omissions from his or her own canon of poetics as cultural critique’ (italics added), but of course it is indeed unavoidable that some readers will find 'classic’ texts from their different disciplines missing.

Yet many classic texts from the beginning of social studies are included. Some examples of modern classic texts that you will find in this reader are – Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘What is a Minor Literature’, W. DuBois’, ‘Of the Sorrow Songs’, and Henry Gates’ ‘The Signifying Monkey’, as well as essays by scholar/poets such as Rachel BlauDuPlessis (about the construction of ‘modern male whiteness’), and Barrett Watten (Gertrude Stein, Fordism, and the historically embedded constructivist moments of radical poetics). At the same time, there is a wide geographical focus, with texts about poetry from India, China, to France. Although what remains unclear is the criteria by which these texts were chosen, why some countries are included and others not. Finally, you will find texts about popular or marginalized art; for example, the engaging read by Robin Kelley about ‘Gangsta Rap and Postindustrial Los Angeles’.

A minor comment about the first section is that it seems slightly odd, maybe anachronistic or revisionist to call the varying texts grouped therein, ‘Precursors’. Should Deleuze/Guattari’s ‘What is a Minor Literature’, published in 1975 really be considered a precursor, or rather an oblique influence? Also, the inclusion of Wordsworth’s 'Preface to Lyrical Ballads’ seems a bit out of place here, even as a ‘sort of self-consciously definitional boundary of literary poetry’ (15). It precedes even the earliest other text by more than a hundred years, and just comes across as somewhat anachronistic. This is mainly personal preference, but one might imagine that instead of including such an old text it would have worked well to tilt the focus somewhat more toward the contemporary, and recognize some of the names of the moment that will probably prove to be of lasting interest, including for example an essay by Alain Badiou, or essays about Flarf or Conceptual writing.

One last point to mention is that the essays have been redacted. This is a shame and really makes the difference between a reader for students and a collection for scholarly reference. This was also the intention, but as even the editors acknowledge the essays are often ‘substantially (and sometimes ruthlessly) condensed’ and ‘smaller omissions and related editing have been done silently’(16). Some pages are scattered with many ellipses, which is annoying with reading; furthermore, the reader does not always know when and why redactions have been made. Sometimes it just stings to see nuance and style being traded in for concision – like with Walter Benjamin’s beautiful essay about Baudelaire.

* * *

When stepping back briefly to think how this volume fits into the larger discipline of Cultural Studies, one realizes that the combination of poetry with Cultural Studies is more complicated than one might realize at first glance. Since, as the editors point out, Cultural Studies was of course conceived of precisely as a protest against the prioritization of high (literary) art forms such as poetry. The New Criticism of the 50s/60s – with its emphasis on the quality and integrity of a poem – did little to further the cause of poetry for Cultural Studies. But at the same time poetry was on the one hand also playing an increasingly important role in the 60s/70s counterculture, while on the other hand being discovered by mass culture (Slams, open poetry readings), as well as capitalism as a useful tool for commodification (the poetry of billboards and commercial slogans). For some time now, Damon/Livingston assert, a Cultural Studies perspective of poetry has been possible. So POETRY, although printed boldly and in capital letters on the attractive cover in fact of course refers to Poetries. ‘We must multiply poetic subjects and objects’ (Guy Debord, motto of the Introduction).

This volume seeks to participate in, more than merely describe the history of Cultural Studies and certainly accomplishes both – although in the introduction the emphasis is really more on the historical. There is an overview in the introduction of how the gap between the poetic and the ordinary everyday has been theorized, followed by a brief example of how South Asian British band Cornershop’s song ‘Brimful of Asha’ triggers multiple cross-cultural, inter-disciplinary readings, but at the same time defies being ensnared in an exclusively Cultural Studies framework. These are also ‘questions opened by the song…as if the rhythm asked our bodies… We live our answers; we keep the question open however we can, or move toward various closures, in the way our brains and bodies are wired and rewired to themselves and others.’

This is a laudable analysis in that it leaves space for a reception of the song that is not solely theorized but also experienced more directly or intuitively. It is an attitude that gives the book a balanced combination of theoretical framing, as well as a flavor of following intuitive connections. For example, on the one hand modern classic texts of the field are included, while at the same time Maria Damon’s own contribution is her personal account of the poems of three young women students at a General Equivalency Diploma course. When Damon started Graduate school she had taken the poems with her for sentimental reasons, never expecting to write about them. In other words, she allows a kind of poetry that would normally not be of interest for scholarly anaylsis, to change the very vectors of her academic writing. And conversely, she places the poems and the social context in which they were written in new light by taking them seriously as objects of analysis.

This question concerning the role and function of scholarly analysis is further explored in a contribution by Charles Bernstein. He deploys his ever unfailing critical wit in both criticizing academic thinking, while at the same time upending the academic format within which he is working. ‘A critic lovely as a poem’ reads the essay’s motto by Dorothy Parker. This line by Parker is fitting because as a critic Bernstein argues for and also uses ‘poetic’ language – readings and writings of openness, movement, affect, enactment. And he inveighs against academic didacticism, elitism, normative preconceived notions of poetry, ‘closed’ top-down poetic analysis, a predetermined literary Canon. The content of Bernstein’s argument is supported by the essay’s form and language. In other words, while retaining the basic format of a scholarly paper he does not argue against academicism in a purely academic fashion. For example, instead of a conventional structure this piece includes a poem, many shorter, aphoristic parts that challenge and stimulate the reader to react, with language scattered with puns.

Bernstein’s humor is not facetious because the humor itself posits an argument, or rather enacts an argument. It is humor that illustrates the potential force of recognizing the humor, jouissance, that is already present in language anyway. Bernstein argues that while recognizing the importance of scholarship, there is no need to do so with a glum face. ‘While I respect the authority of scholarship, I reject the authoritativeness of any prescribed set of books, methods, experts, standards.’ (362)

To slightly resituate Bernstein’s argument – and considering that one of the aims of Cultural Studies is to criticize and democratize institutions – the publication of this book would have been a good opportunity to extend politics of the book/poetry into the presentation of the book itself, for example by making it available online via Open Access (a development that has rapidly been gaining currency with philosophy publishers such as re.press and Open Humanities Press). Although, it should be mentioned that the hard copy of the book certainly looks very handsome, including the visual, anthropomorphic poem ‘Be Poem/Poem Being’, by David Baptiste-Chirot.

Part of Bernstein’s argument is that it makes no sense to just point out a difference if what one says does not also make a difference. The title of his essay – ‘a blow is like an instrument’ – is a good example of his style and content – it is wonderous and intriguing and invites the reader’s active participation from the beginning. Halfway through it becomes apparent that these are the words of a jazz musician, comparing the blowing of a wind instrument to the playing of another instrument. A blow is like an instrument in that it is an unmediated force of its own, in the same sense that Bernstein’s writing and the criticism that he advocates is like a blow of force, or a particular kind of affective wind that blows through the text (as opposed to a purely logical argument that forcibly keeps a text pinned upright).
I open the door and it shuts after me. That is, the more I venture out into the open, the more I find it is behind me and I am moving not toward some uninhabited space but deeper into a maelstrom of criss-crossing inscriptions. The open is a vanishing point – the closer I get to it, the greater the distance from which it beckons. And I begin the journey again. (372)

This book, Poetry and Cultural Studies, is a great place – predominantly for students – to venture out on such adventurous beginnings again and again, and to return to after having explored other texts in other places. Incidentally, a podcast of the book’s launch party in September – with readings by Bernstein, Pierre Joris, and Tracie Morris – can be found at the PENN Sound website.

****

Jeroen Nieuwland has published reviews in Jacket, ibid, and India Nu. His poems have appeared in Spirits, RealPoetik, and Bordercrossing Berlin. He maintains a web log at transversalinflections.wordpress.com

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