The State of Risk in PoMo Verse


In Cheap Signaling -- a serious and important study of poetic diction in the avant-garde -- Daniel Tiffany posits a revolutionary poetics without positing, too, a paradigm shift away from postmodernism. The result is an imagined coterie of poets and an attendant poetics that is implicitly encoded within and critiqued pursuant to the same neo-Marxist poststructuralist dialectics the academy has been wrestling with for decades. One could argue that these dialectics have been politically impotent for a half-century, and that Tiffany notwithstanding they continue to be -- whatever their intelligences, awarenesses, and veracities. Tiffany thus diagnoses the symptoms of a shift that has already occurred (from postmodernism to metamodernism) rather than naming their cause. Yet if we merely add to Tiffany's essay a willingness to posit paradigmatic sea-change as well as smaller shifts at lower levels of scrutiny, we're left with the medium- and long-term possibility of an actionably revolutionary poetics.

Postmodern thought has become institutional thought -- it doesn't take a Literary Studies class at the graduate level to see it. Taking Tiffany's definition of "cheap signaling" -- "a circumstance in which the social 'cost' of transmitting a message is low enough that senders can transmit it fraudulently without risk" -- we can see that it's precisely the ironic distance and oppositional dialectics of poststructuralism that permit such low-cost transmissions to occur with regularity. Kenneth Goldsmith goes to the White House, for instance, and reads (by his own description) "plagiarized poetry"; a review of the videotape reveals that Goldsmith preceded his reading of Whitman's poetry by coyly observing that he'd shortly be doing so. Or, Goldsmith creates a marketing slogan for his "Conceptual" poetry ("uncreative writing") that institutionalizes it as sufficiently distant from that which it parodies ("creative writing") to be teachable in the academy or in MOOCs, anthologized annually, and subculturally marketable. It is, in other words, ironic, and thus not complicit in the systems it operates upon. For this reason it exacts no social cost nor involves, indeed, any authentic fraudulence. Goldsmith never actually plagiarizes, in other words, as there's no market for actual plagiarists in either the academy, the White House, or on The Colbert Report. Postmodernism sells; proposing a paradigm shift that places us beyond postmodernism sends us over a sociocultural cliff.

The revolutionary poetics Tiffany proposes is one that collapses ironic distance to enforce complicity in a system the poet finally uses as a "dynamic tool of Gothic Marxism." Indeed, Tiffany at one point in Cheap Signaling calls the "new 'face' of the avant-garde...inscrutable, ambiguous, complicit, indirect." This inscrutability comes from readers' presumption of finding a poststructuralist dialectic in the work itself -- a measurable distance and discourse, say, between irony and sincerity, cynicism and optimism, knowingness and naivete, class consciousness and blind consumerism -- knocking up against the final fact of its absence or submergence in the writing. Yet Tiffany declines to take the obvious next step and denominate this new poetics as endemic to the paradigm shift that enabled it. One reason for this may be a political and therefore entirely understandable one: we know what neo-Marxist academic analyses look and sound like (Cheap Signaling being an admirable exemplar) but we have no idea, as Jennifer Ashton once pointed out in her essay "Poetry and the Price of Milk," whither neo-Marxism in the age of metamodernism.

Metamodernism: A paradigm, structure of feeling, system of logic, and cultural dominant in which all distances collapse into an alternately (or even jointly) scrutable and inscrutable, clear and ambiguous, all-complicit and indirect singularity whose relationship to contemporary living is a mimetic one. For the moment, we could call that singularity "The Internet," and the poetics it produces one that finds innumerable ways to enact its peculiarities in literature. While this is an overstatement and an oversimplification, certainly the Internet is the spirit animal of metamodernism.

The reason Marxism has no -- or merely differential -- positioning in metamodernism is simple: metamodernism requires such a degree of juxtapositive scrutability and inscrutability, ambiguity and clarity, complicity and indirectness from the poet that it seems to erase her capacity for consequential activism. This gives rise to a natural unwillingness to embrace or write through the paradigm shift from postmodernism to metamodernism. As Tiffany implies, the present avant-garde (Goldsmith at its head) is unwilling to "risk self-annihilation by incorporating the formulae of popular culture," such as those of the Internet. Possible reasons for this unwillingness range from a sincere concern about actionable activism in an authentically (that is to say literally) "post-avant" literary culture, to a vanity that makes impossible the giving up of the enormous cultural capital, institutional patronage, and personal celebrity late postmodernism has bestowed upon its chief practitioners in verse. The point here is not to assign motives, as they can't be known and don't finally matter; moreover, the critic does a personal disservice to his psyche when he habitually assumes bad faith. Enough to say that there was an opening for the avant-garde to embrace our present paradigm shift at the time Goldsmith was publishing Soliloquy (2002) -- that is, there was a moment in which the avant-garde threatened to collapse the praxes of art and life and become fully complicit in the operation of that joinder -- and a turn was made into the White House parking lot instead. From the view of history this may come to be seen as an error, but it was quite possibly an earnest one.

In Cheap Signaling, Tiffany offers a slew of presumptively revolutionary poets who are (a) very seriously talented, and (b) have in fact faced little "social cost" for their development of, to quote Tiffany, "a platform of verbal and libidinal duplicity." These poets hold professorships, conduct lengthy and national reading tours, publish with small presses whose releases make the SPD bestseller list, and have approximately never been told that the execution of their authorial duties places them outside the existing literary subculture. One reason for this is the already stated one -- the talent and commitment of these poets is largely beyond reproach -- and another is surely that these are generally nice people with a sufficient real-time network of literary relationships that no one wishes to enact upon them a social cost for their art. A third and much more interesting possibility is that Tiffany's requirement of "fraudulence" as a condition of "cheap signaling" actually makes impossible the very cost he seeks to observe and measure: all of the poets mentioned by Tiffany are, in the end, let off our collective hook by a sense that they acknowledge and write through their own fraudulence. Sometimes this acknowledgment is as simple as choosing the right shibboleth: for instance, denominate a poetics "kitsch" and you can say and write what you like -- the wink you're making to your community is impossible to miss.

So what would the "social cost" of adopting an authentically revolutionary poetics look like? In discussing the promise of an avant-garde after the postmodern, David Foster Wallace once spoke of a poetics that sounds distantly similar to the one described by Tiffany. "The next real literary 'rebels' in this country," Wallace wrote in "E Unibus Pluram," might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall to actually endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction." Wallace had a vision of how these rebels might be received by the lit establishment -- not with "shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, and nihilism," but a "yawn, rolled eyes, a cool smile, nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists." The new rebels would "risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama, overcredulity, softness, a willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law."

The problem with Wallace's analysis is similar to the fault with Daniel Tiffany's. In predicating itself on the premise of "risk" -- translated as "social cost" in Tiffany's account -- the line of argument trails off into fancy. No poetry written by an individual firmly ensconced in America's literary subculture could possibly risk what Wallace and Tiffany imagine because the most insidious element of that subculture is its ability to absorb any experiment authored by the right person. American poetry is not a subculture dominated by single-entendre principles equally applicable to all, but a series of micro-cultures so self-protective that they inure their participants to any censure or criticism, thereby destroying the possibility of either risk of social cost. While Tiffany's analysis sanctions the absence of social cost in art by theorizing it as "cheap signaling," absent from his analysis is any sense of why signaling is preferable rather than lamentable when it comes cheaply.

Years ago -- in fact, in my first-ever blog-post about American poetry in 2005 -- I argued that poets could not honestly speak about poems without first speaking honestly about the sociology of poets and indeed even a topic as esoteric as the publishing industry. In an atmosphere in which many presses draw their list from an ever-winnowing amalgam of the publishers' friends, mentors, professional peers, and even ex-lovers, the connection between poet and cultural capital runs not through risk but rather exactly the opposite: regard. We therefore discover a second feature within Tiffany's treatment of social cost: It does not exist when and where the use of dialectics permits ironic distance, and it cannot exist when and where cultural mores negate the possibility of risk.

In the present literary culture, a revolutionary poetics will be one that is either anonymously authored, authored by those situated outside the culture, or authored by those within the culture who are willing to be placed outside of it by mere acts of authorship. These first two categories speak for themselves, though it's worth noting that (prior to his very public wooing by the establishment Goldsmith) a poet like Steve Roggenbuck seemed a particularly likely candidate for this second class of author. Patricia Lockwood is likewise a fantastic poet, yet one whose embrace by New York City trade presses and New York Magazine nevertheless reduces the likelihood of her enacting the neo-Marxist revolution Tiffany seeks to visualize.

While Tiffany attempts to recast institutionalization as a locus of revolutionary authority -- "only the homeopathic logic of kitsch, forswearing false immunity to the libidinal currents of the marketplace, can put into circulation certain kinds of snare pictures, stealth weapons, letter bombs" -- the effort is finally unpersuasive because the always-already theorized nature of "kitsch" academicizes it out of political relevancy.

The reason a cultural paradigm shift into metamodernism initiates the possibility of authentic revolution is precisely because it is as yet untheorized. Just as early postmodernism was wild and unparseable -- and late postmodernism can never achieve escape velocity from the body of literature that always-already surrounds it -- metamodernism stands, in this moment, as a structure of feeling that is genuinely and generatively bewildering. A metamodern poem, published at a certain moment and in a certain venue, can result in public disavowals from a poet's publisher; massive depletion of one's social media network; the loss or threatening of a poet's employment or educational status; public allegations of the most hateful and ad hominem sort, disguised as disinterested critique; even death threats to the author and his family. The reason this space for genuine "social cost" still exists within metamodernism is that poet-critics like Ashton read poetry exclusively through the dialectics of distance and closeness -- reflexive contemplation and risible complicity -- that poststructuralist literary theory has thrust upon them. By this reasoning, the metamodernist is always-already guilty of treason to neo-Marxist first principles.

If Tiffany's rebels include in their "remedy" only an "infinitesimal trace of the malady," the next avant-garde is more likely to be entirely indistinguishable from the malady, as the malady is life in the Internet Age and the aim of the historical avant-garde was to unite the praxes of art and life. Including an "infinitesimal" trace of life's maladies in one's rebellious art, and putting upon it a label ("kitsch") that winks away even that infinitesimal trace, offers us only a new iteration of fully-institutionalized late postmodernism. Metamodernism, which prizes scrutable ambiguities, non-reflexive complicity, and the willingness to be ostracized for one's art, takes us well over the line. It requires of us new scholarship, new terminologies, and -- above all -- a new sort of patience at a time when patience is in short supply. We wish for a poetics that both pleases us now and makes clear the efficacy of its political commitments right now, two things metamodernism presently cannot and will not do. When those commitments are foregrounded, they (the commitments, not the metamodern verse itself) will elicit all the reactions Wallace presaged; when those commitments are submerged beneath the work, they will remain invisible to and therefore untouched by our present scholarship and seem entirely fictional. In response, their authors will be castigated and placed under sincere threat of removal from their subcommunities. This, then, is the risk of the metamodern work, upon which foundation we will soon discern the progressive nature of its commitments.