John Hawke Reviews The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey: Culture After the Avant-Garde

1 May 2014

This is partly a problem of the author’s own position in history: born in 1972, Armand’s interest in literary and artistic experimentation coincides with a significant augmentation in debates surrounding politics and aesthetics. The phrase ‘the end of history’ runs like a refrain throughout this collection – but even before the events of 1989 (also the year of Beckett’s death) a shift was apparent, located somewhere between the publication of Baudrillard’s For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972) and Arthur Kroker’s The Postmodern Scene (1986) (something of a high-water mark in the denigration of previously valorised Modernist practice). The death of the radical Left is witnessed in Chris Marker’s epic farewell, Le fond de l’air de rouge (1977), with its remarkable closing footage of wolves being shot down from helicopters on the tundra. And the activities of the 1970s Autonomia movement – now sumptuously commemorated in Semiotexte hardcover – seem artefacts from an earlier period, when the State still exerted an influence worth opposing. All this had run its course by the time Armand’s generation came of age: Debord himself re-emerged briefly to document the new climate in his 1990 work, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, not long before his suicide. And the academy swiftly acceded to this new orthodoxy, dropping ‘difficult’ (that is to say, formally challenging) books from its reading lists, and accommodating itself to the triumph of the spectacle, with fifty-something lecturers introducing nineteen year-olds to the narrative ‘innovations’ of Tarentino and The Simpsons (as if they hadn’t noticed already). Some vestige of the crusades of the 1970s – issues of race, gender, indigeneity – was retained within a formal model untroubling to academics occupying the leafier suburbs: property was seldom threatened by a politics of identity.

Some of the most pertinent polemical commentary here is contained in a recent essay, ‘Realism’s Last Word’, which concerns the status of ‘experimental’ fiction within the current publishing and reviewing climate (Armand is also a novelist). Documenting the decline of such crusading mid-century presses as Obelisk, Olympia, Grove, New Directions, City Lights and John Calder, Armand notes that ‘the majority of presses devoted to experimental works are historical entities, now defunct, like Calder, or partially defunct and defined primarily by their backlist’ (119): Dalkey Archive, the publisher of Joshua Cohen’s challenging 2010 novel, Witz (discussed in an accompanying essay), seems an isolated exception in its willingness to take on genuinely confronting ‘language-oriented writing’. It is unlikely, as Armand notes, that authors such as Pynchon or Coover would these days be welcomed within a publishing industry founded on ‘a business model of corporate consolidation and a marketing strategy that could be described as keeping in step with Hollywood’ (122). As he suggests, dissemination through translation has also been affected – in this case by the emphasis on theory through the 1980s and 1990s: ‘While French Theory provided a certain renewed emphasis for avant-gardism, this impetus was – with exceptions – largely academic and scholastic’. Translations were chosen, in other words, for their service to the critical field that surrounded them (citation by Kristeva or Derrida, for example): ‘In literature, it spurred nominal interests in works by a range of writers, some of them already canonical elsewhere, like Mallarmé, Lautréamont and Bataille’ (123). Armand’s key example here is Phillippe Sollers – a major figure of the 1970s and still a consequential influence for younger French writers – whose work was once widely distributed by Calder, but who had disappeared entirely for an Anglophone readership by the 1990s. (Armand himself has taken on the task of publishing a selection of Sollers’ more recent work through his journal, Vlak: Contemporary Poetics.)

What then of poetry, which is by definition ‘language-oriented’ (‘What makes a verbal message a work of art?’- Jakobson)1, and has long since been largely cut loose from the commodifying strictures of the mainstream publishing industry? It is here, of course, and precisely for these reasons, that the collection identifies the firmest evidence for an answer to its motivating question. Armand announced himself as a critic with a ferociously written essay on John Kinsella, first published in Westerly in 1999, and reproduced here as ‘Ground Zero Warholing: John Kinsella and the art of traumatic realism’. The essay initially focuses on a series of Warhol poems written between 1992-94, extending to a discussion of Kinsella’s two most radical collections at the time of writing, Syzygy (1993) and Erratum/Framed (1995). These books represented an apparent departure for Kinsella from his predominantly narratival poetry (he has since reconciled these disparate stylistic approaches), and one can see how a reader such as Armand, given the range of interests indicated elsewhere in this collection, must have seized on the opportunity presented by such work. Armand carefully disentangles Kinsella’s anti-mimetic approach from any realist ‘verisimilitude’ that might ‘give way to simulacrum’: for Kinsella, he writes, as for Warhol, ‘poetics isn’t a system of artifice, it is the basis of constitutive reality: poetic experience isn’t a system of objects, there is no question of verisimilitude, but of an immanence, we might say, of understanding poetically.’ (149) With some qualifications, Adorno’s ‘Commitment’, with its powerful argument for the political efficacy of an ‘autonomous’ art, is cited in support of this claim, and against any postmodern accession to the ‘real-as-spectacle’. Armand’s essay offers a provocative and fiercely-articulated case for the political intentions of Kinsella’s poetics, especially for the way in which his depictions of the land revisit ‘earlier histories of mostly European encounters with the Australian landscape … aberrant, repellent, dystopic … the destination of those who were considered to have insulted the law of property’. (158) Quoting Kinsella’s own assertion that ‘landscape has always been a political concept’, Armand comments that in his work: ‘landscape functions not as a plane of representation, but as the place of a ‘missed encounter’ between the “real” and those systems that seek to exploit it in terms of what it can be made to represent.’ (165) An order of spectacular representations is in this way acknowledged and unmasked through the fashioning of art as technique.2

  1. Jakobson, Roman, ‘Linguistics and Poetics’, Language and Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1987) pp. 62-94.
  2. It might on the other hand be argued that the randomly-generated verbiage that sometimes passes for postmodern poetry is equivalently ‘spectacular’ in its complicities – mimicking the sensation of drowning in chocolate or suffocating in sugar by which Makavejev so memorably emblematises the totalising immersion of pure capitalism in Sweet Movie (1974).
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About John Hawke

John Hawke teaches in the English Department at Monash University.

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