Thursday, May 02, 2013

Appropriation and Affective Production In Rob Halpern's “Obscene Intimacies”

Inspired by Eileen Myles' piece in The Volta, I am posting an essay which originally appeared last summer, in the "Crisis Inquiry" issue of Damn the Caesars (ed. Rich Owens).


Last year at School of Visual Arts I taught a class titled “Appropriations: 1915-present.” One of my goals for this class was to consider various uses of collage, documentation, appropriation, citation, and recontextualization within a Modernist/avant-garde writing tradition. Another goal, not explicitly stated by my course objectives, was to discover how these techniques have and could affect political and social resistance, a question that remains an important one for contemporary writing and art.

The course began with “documentary” poetries, looking specifically at Langston Hughes’s “Montage of a Dream Deferred” alongside Muriel Rukeyser’s U.S.1, Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, and Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera. As with the other parts of the course, this first part was oriented by a “core text,” a text by which all others texts could be oriented and refer. This text was Walter Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer,” in which the philosopher argues that writers and artists demonstrate their alliance with certain socio-political formations (in Benjamin’s essay, a working class struggle against capital) through their attention to particular aesthetic processes and techniques.

The second part of this class looked at “shock effects” in collage texts, using Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in an Age of Technical Reproduction” as its core text. From Dada sound poetry I traced a lineage through Bruce Andrews’ work (via John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath), to Rachel Zolf and other contemporary poets who use sound performance as a key element in their work. The third section was devoted to political uses of recontextalization and appropriation among artists and poets. Using Guy Debord’s writings on d├ętournement, I coordinated this core text with Hannah Weiner’s “Radcliffe and Guatemalan Women,” Martha Rosler’s video A Simple Case for Torture, and Judith Goldman’s book, Deathstar Rico/chet, three texts which attempt to read political and social conflicts through a writing practice; which is to say, they write to read said conflicts against the grain of mainstream information channels and official historical narratives.

Here, Weiner amplifies discrepancies between the conditions of women from Guatemala fighting for their lives and communities against a military dictatorship during the 80s and women in the US privileged by their education and class background by placing two texts beside one another: the first reappropriated from Radcliffe’s alumni publication, the second from accounts of political struggle in Guatemala. Confronted with Goldman’s and Rosler’s texts my class wondered how works of art/poetry could not merely reproduce conflict— through an ironic doubling or mimetic principle of sound post-Dada—but present a counter- hermeneutics anticipating tactical media practices in the 90s and 2000s.

In the final section of the class, we turned our attention to problems of authorship and literary property. We used Foucault’s essay on “The Death of the Author” as a way into the problem. What interests me in this essay among other things, and why I think that it may still be especially useful for considering appropriation as an aesthetic technique, lies in Foucault’s attempt towards the end of the essay to imagine something beyond the “author function,” recognizing its origins in 15th and 16th century European political economy. If the author should wither—and Foucault notes that it will inevitably do so with the transformation of economic and social conditions—what will take its place? A host of texts by Dodie Bellamy (Cunt Ups), Tan Lin (HEATH), Stephen Collis (The Commons), and Robert Fitterman (Rob the Plagiarist) seemed to provide an answer to this question. Texts in which the author function is radically displaced by a distributed authorship, ‘crowd sourcing,’ and open source technologies.

In my lead-up to this class I was thinking of numerous conversations I had had with Rob Halpern over the past few years, especially with regards to “conceptualist” trends within a shared community of poets. Without speaking for Rob—who I know would probably narrate these conversations a bit differently, if he remembers them at all—I definitely felt some suspicion about a number of things that were being posited by various writers identified with this supposed ‘movement’. In the call of various conceptual writers for institutional critique, for instance, did they not conveniently ignore their anointment (and appointments) by the university; that their discourse was quickly and seemingly effortlessly being canonized by certain scholars and critics with a preponderance of cultural capital? Why, to paraphrase a prominent younger critic, did “capital want conceptualism now”? Why did it not want other writing movements equally vital, and very probably more crucial, for understanding the history of writing movements since the 60s?

I was actually reminded of this shortsightedness reading Andrea Fraser’s essay for the 2012 Whitney Biennial recently, in which she points out that the problem with current aesthetic practices is not with artists per se, so much as with an art (historical) discourse that makes claims for what art does/can do without looking critically at its situation among institutions and a marketplace (or, I would add, acting sufficiently on these critiques). What would it mean to be more honest about these claims, which should force us to take apart the social and economic structures undergirding aesthetic production? To its credit, conceptualist poetries have gestured at such critiques, however have done little to change actual institutional dynamics within the academic industry or outside in a larger superstructure for poetry/poetics. I would oppose these gestures to the many artists and writers who continuously flee various institutional formations to found new spaces within and without the public sphere, a discourse foregrounded by the Nonsite Collective (of which Rob was both a founding participant and a central organizer), as well as the various ‘free schools’ that cropped up around the Bay Area and elsewhere in the years leading up to the current occupations.

While Rob and I both reacted this way to a perceivable move towards institutional cache, something important that we also recognized was the fact that strategies of appropriation/recontextualization were already very much at play within numerous aesthetic genealogies. Is it not a bit ironic that the work of the Queer-identified art theorist, Craig Owens, undergirds Robert Fitterman’s and Vanessa Place’s arguments in their Notes on Conceptualisms (especially their reading of conceptualism via notions of allegory), but there is very little grappling with a concurrent Queer militancy during the days of ACTUP and affinity groups who used reappropriation strategies effectively to demand civil rights for people with AIDS and AIDS-related illnesses? Likewise, the elision of such key figures as Kathy Acker and others identified with Feminist and Queer resistance strategies appear significant oversights in the argument of this book, which made almost no mention of the ways that appropriation/recontextualization have been used in recent history for cultural resistance and political activism. Given the fact that appropriation/recontextualization is thoroughly engaged by many current political and activist art discourses, this elision seems all the more unfortunate, if not a sign of disconnect between the aesthetic aims and practical, ethical-political effects of such writing practices, which have after all been lifted from a thoroughly digested visual art context into a discourse principally of artisans (poets, small press publishers, community-based curators and editors) and increasingly academics who have taken an interest in confluences between visual art, writing, and cultural resistance as it is figured through legacies of the European and North American avant-garde.

As the poet-activist CA Conrad often points out, we are living in a time in which there is no lack of exciting poetry. Like him, I am often saddened by the fact that so many poets are not given the attention I believe their work warrants; that so much is lost not only to a public attention, but to a (potential) communal discourse. In this very large and diverse conversation, some of the most vital poetry of our time—if not the most progressive—is oriented by an exploration of lyric, so-called. One can feel this investment especially in the Bay Area, where a host of younger writers are combining forms that have appeared through the Internet/social media with more traditional prosodic techniques. This recombination is not lost on Fitterman and Place in their tract about conceptual practices, where they put forward the terms “pure,” “hybrid,” and “baroque” to describe a spectrum of emergent writing practices oriented by repurposing and procedure. Unfortunately, lyric does not find a place in this spectrum, despite the fact that baroque can be ‘original’ writing—writing generated without recourse to appropriation or procedure. Lyric, it would seem, is conceptualism’s other; its foil, if not its avowed enemy.

Poetic and aesthetic techniques are neither progressive nor retrograde in an essential way, though I can certainly think of certain poets I would prefer to attend than others, and certain art works that I think of as offering more to an existing conversation. Rather, poetic/aesthetic techniques—whether considered lyrical or not—have a particular application within different historical trajectories and cultural contexts, and the poet/artist may be judged to some extent by how they choose to apply these techniques, how they take them up strategically or practically within a set of circumstances. Beyond ‘movements’ and ‘coteries’, I want to look at practices and projects uniquely inasmuch as they may be misapplied, or find their application more effective in a different social context. Perhaps more importantly, we might also conceive of how particular techniques of writing or art offer more or less resistance to an existing matrix of power and domination. Seen in this light, we could even say that there is much that is retrograde about conceptual practices in their revisiting of techniques that have been thoroughly codified by markets and institutions.

One of the radical applications lyricism maintains is its embeddedness within specific bodies and within social space. Lyric’s potential—its empowering aspect—lies in the fact that it remains from struggles of bodily and affective predicament. Just as space is a key factor in socio-political struggle—the proximity of bodies to other bodies coproducing one another in a defined physical location and not merely virtually (as has recently been proven by Occupy Wall Street and parallel social movements internationally)—lyric relates the body of the poet to a poetics of collective affects—both disaggregating and affirmative, intended and unintended, recognizable and repressed. In its reliance on sonic and rhythmic qualities, it produces what the French linguist and poet Henri Meschonnic called a “politics of rhythm.” Similarly, Robert Kocik and others have identified lyric as the privileged site of stresses counter to the belligerence and toxicity of our current economic, political, and social environment. Much of Rob Halpern’s writing comes out of this preoccupation with what lyric can do, oriented by a complex of counter-hegemonic forces.

In Rob’s critical and poetic output inheres not just a theorization of affect, but an enactment of how lyrical poetry intends affective re/mediation. This problem—central to all of Rob’s books—perhaps comes across most acutely in Music for Porn, a book obviously born out of the US occupation of Iraq from 2003 until the present, yet also out of a longer history of US military conflicts within and without its national boundaries. How can lyric organize affects productively rather than merely recodify and reproduce existing subjective formations? This is one of the central questions of the book. How can conflicting affects become visible— available to critical thought and sensibility—through the writing of poetry within lyrical modalities and discourses? This is yet another.

The engaging and mediation of affect brings up yet another question central to reactions to conceptual and appropriative writing practices, which is what the position of the writer is towards their material. Are they sampling it, as some have claimed? Are they de- personalizing, or even desubjectifying, themselves through their use of this material, and thus absolved of certain moral or ethical claims about how this material can act upon a readership or towards a potential audience? Is their work a flight into moral ambivalence—a dramatization of this ambivalence—or a confrontation with radical evil? Are they mirroring social processes and subjectivities that are already ‘out there,’ and which merely require
reframing within the realm of art or literary production to be observed and recognized? What is the fate of criticality and sensibility when this doubling takes place? Has the subject really disappeared, or does it appear (sometimes with a vengeance) in a world beyond the text; in the egotistical sublime, for instance, of a particular writer or artist? Faced with any claim to be avant-garde or progressive (two terms that have been oddly conflated by conceptual discourse), I often wonder, too, about those subjects who by their sheer existence provide new formal and hermeneutic challenges; if these specific bodies are well-served by a call to disappear or desubjectify themselves through a set of aesthetic techniques, whereby these techniques also tend to reinforce certain authors, bodies, and subjects, affirming them as ‘normal’ or a verifiable ‘center’?

“Obscene Intimacies,” the last section of Music for Porn to be composed in the summer of 2011, takes up appropriative and documentary practices and benefits from the recontextualization of an affective content not the writer’s own, with an acute awareness of how such techniques have been used historically for various social and political struggles. While throughout Rob’s work he often uses quotations and italics, especially to introduce ‘voices’ other than ‘his own’, which often move in tension with the lines of his poems (and I put scare quotes around these terms not only to draw attention to the problematic equation of writer with voice, but also the reduction of the text to a property of the writer), I can’t think of a place anywhere in his work where he has lifted so much material from an outside context into his original composition. The sources for these appropriated materials are news reports about US soldiers—the central figure of his book. He has also lifted lines from Shelley’s “Adonis” and Whitman’s “The Wound Dresser,” two poems central to his reading of the US soldier as a figure of obstructed utopian longing and homo-social (and sexual) potential.

Remixed, these ‘samples’ do not simply document the obscene (and largely unseen) intimacies of US soldiers tortured, maimed, and killed in Iraq—sacrificed before the Big Other of US democracy—but clock the document differently, reordering and thus also recoding its affects within Rob’s uniquely measured and punctuated lines (often he will truncate words through enjambment, multiplying semantic possibilities; he will also use em dashes to interrupt a continuous line or semantic unit). Rob does not just shift contexts— whereby a legal or news document is placed within the universe of a poem—but sculpts and compresses his materials to fit within the strict measure of his lines, the stanzas of which often bear a uniform shape. Like Charles Reznikoff in his Testimony and Holocaust, however without the same faithfulness to the objet trouve, Rob’s recontextualizations anticipate the affective responses of a reader both confronted by and implicated in human tragedies. Unlike Reznikoff, Rob weaves throughout his appropriation of documentary materials original content that is often directly in opposition to or tension with those materials, if only in form, tone, feeling.

Beyond a simplistic dichotomy of ‘raw’ and ‘cooked’, Rob’s forays into documentary and appropriative techniques reveal a problem central to conceptual poetries and an ongoing lyricism that also takes up collage, quotation, citation, procedure, and recontexualization: How to not reencode affects that have hardened into definite subjective formations? How to not reproduce the dominant language uses and forms through their (uncritical) mimesis? How to inject found language with different and unintended potential? Rob’s struggle against these reproductive tendencies lies in the potential for lyric to lead one (back) to a place where affect is both recodified and produced (critically): the reader’s specific embodiment; the body’s situation within a particular set of discursive practices; what submerged and aporetic cultural materials any subject carries with it that are both beyond and constitutive of its singularity. Measure, rhythm, and other prosodic elements are key to this re/mediation of our affective lives, and our capacity for critical engagements beyond the bare mimetic. The inclusion of “notes” at the end of “Obscene Intimacies” offer a supplementary text encouraging (second) reflection on the function of recontextualization within a measure counter to the gestus of our militarized and economically ruinous world.