Cruel Buffoonery

By | 14 October 2015

A second ritual that warrants close investigation was ‘readings’, thought of here as oral public performances of literary texts. Faculty and participants were expected to read their original creative work to seated audiences. Not only was a casual male gaze employed by some faculty, but there was a remarkable preponderance of confessional, lyric, stable ‘I’ poetry and prose. In other words, the readings were conservative and liberal. Though by no means a United Colours of Bennetton advertisement, there was a solid sense of the rightness of identity politics. People spoke in glowing terms of Cave Canem and Kundiman but without a sense of their aesthetic merit and importance. There was an agreement against avant-garde work. Kenneth Goldsmith was called an ‘asshole’ on more than one occasion. When I said John Ashbery’s name, someone responded that ‘I can’t believe people still read him.’ And one participant stated ‘Frost, Plath and Neruda are classics for a reason’ as if the popular market was a true arbiter of canonical taste. In contrast to avant-garde interactions I have had, hours were spent discussing prize culture – both the recipients of the Pulitzer and National Book Council as well as the process of judging itself. What this indicates is a participation and obsession with the ‘literary bureaucratic establishment’, which could be thought of as the base mechanisms of ‘official verse culture’. It is not an ideological state apparatus, but an ideological corporate field invested in markets not aesthetics. This is not to say there is no uncontested aesthetic realm, but rather that the arena in which literature occurs is imbued with not only political considerations but also economic ones that determine the product. What was striking though was the maintenance of disavowal – people denied there was a difference between the avant-garde, that people ‘were influenced from all over’. This was less to de-binarise and more to pacify insurgency, or rather to contain and control not only the content of the debate but the terms as well. In other words, through the denial that there are aesthetic distinctions and camps people were able to maintain positions in a field that has material consequences. As Bernstein said, this is a type of ‘cruel buffoonery’1.

The summer MFA style intensive approaches what Erving Goffman termed a ‘total institution’. There was programming from 8:45 am until 9 pm, plus ‘free time’ afterwards, which was aimed not only at getting work done but creating a community. Where it differs from totality is in the autonomy of the participants and the overwhelmingly good natured, nice feeling that exists among and between people. It is not ‘disciplinary’ but more of a collective ‘techne of the self’.

Aesthetics, and politics, are not divorced from social relations and interactions. Indeed they constitute it and are constitutive of it in a feedback loop. If participants claimed that the old arguments were actually old, that ‘people absorbed influences’ from everyone and everywhere, this was a specious fallacy built on an idea of what constituted the material one was able to always already read.

  1. Private email. 16/8/2015.
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