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

1 May 2014

In an accompanying essay, Armand makes similar claims for an earlier Australian poet, Michael Dransfield, who is adroitly positioned in terms of his historical situation: ‘a time of unprecedentedly rapid intrusion of the spectacle into all aspects of daily life…the Australia of the early 70s appeared to be nothing more than a bad simulacrum, the End of Empire on a scratchy feedback loop’. (182) Dransfield’s poetry of addiction, indeed his addiction itself, offers a ‘solitude’ from this negation of the real, one which is ‘urgent for the poet’s survival’. Armand’s return to Kinsella’s work, in a 2010 Cordite Poetry Review review of Divine Comedy, provides a corrective to more literal readings of that volume’s ‘distraction’ of its source-text: Rauschenberg’s illustration of the Inferno is offered as a comparison for what is once again a dextrous and illuminating exploration of issues concerning what Armand defines as ‘a political geography, as whenever we talk of sense we’re really talking about ideology’ (221). As Armand argues, in terms similar to those of his earlier essay:

The grotesqueries of Dante’s intricately worked-out punishments, assembled into a vast, bureaucratic vision that fails, doubles the failed beatific vision of Kinsella’s antipodean landscape, equally disfigured by past discourses of Romanticism, Enlightenment, Economic Rationalism, and Liberal-Nationalism – from Australia Felix to a ‘place of nuclear abomination, pesticides, land degradation and political horror’ (Kinsella, ‘Loyalties’, Contrary Rhetoric, 248) – alluding, among other things, to British nuclear testing at Maralinga; state and federal agricultural policies long dictated by petrochemical dollars; and Australia’s recent contributions to the global history of the concentration camp. (222)

Armand rounds off his collection by reflecting on the implications of new media poetics: as he notes in a review of Morris and Swiss’ 2006 MIT anthology of essays on this subject, claims regarding the implications of computing technology for a poetics of the avant-garde quickly become obsolescent. What seems more relevant to the questions posed by this collection, though, is the enhancement of dissemination enabled by digital media, which has occurred with increasing urgency over the past five years. It is now possible to quickly access examples of each of the apparently recondite ‘experimental’ works Armand is discussing, as well as a vast history of precursors: Beckett’s Film, once preserved only in art galleries, is freely available on YouTube; Pierre Joris is instantly accessible through his blogsite; and past issues of Vlak are displayed online. Given this expansion of useful knowledge accelerating faster than the speed of capital, it seems that Armand needn’t be too fearful of being isolated at the end of history, shuffling through the remnants of an obsolete avant-garde practice like Buster Keaton in his chamber of solitude. With this salutary and educative collection of essays there should be no shortage of people eager to share his ideas.

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About John Hawke

John Hawke teaches in the English Department at Monash University.

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