June 03, 2008

talk for "An Ethnic Avant-Garde?" at Small Press Traffic Aggression conference.

panel description:
This panel will investigate the often volatile and contentious relationship between race and the idea of an “avant-garde,” however broadly or narrowly both terms are constructed. Can one speak of ethnic avant-gardes? How does race impact theoretical assumptions about linguistic structure? Panelists will have the opportunity to explore the contemporary relevance of the distinction, drawn by an earlier generation of critics and poets, between poetic projects organized under the sign of “identity” or “difference,” versus a “poetics of indeterminacy” informed by critiques of what Charles Bernstein once notoriously dubbed “the official cultural space of diversity.”
Panelists will select several “exhibits”—which might include individual poems, critical essays, interviews, films, visual art, music--which might serve to serve to spark further conversation.

notes for talk:

I began by attempting to write a history on what the description of this panel calls “the contemporary distinction between poetic projects organized under the sign of identity or difference and ones organized under the sign of indeterminancy.” (I am going to shorthand this from now on as “The Distinction.”) My feeling is that The Distinction exists but it really shouldn’t. That it is more an oxymoronic mirage than actual. That The Distinction is often invoked as natural but is dependent upon ahistorical literary histories, the most pervasive being the idea that the concerns of avant garde modernism are mainly with formal innovation.

But before I get to there I want to begin by asserting that the avant garde of the turn of the twentieth century is an “ethnic avant garde.”

When I say the word avant garde I mean a group of literary works that are created around the turn of the twentieth century in Europe that allude and rewrite the conventions of the poetries of the various places that a number of the governments of Europe were colonizing. These conventions from the colonies are those of oral poetries—they are things like polyvocality, disjunction, repetition, unconventional syntax, and frequent lack of a narrative arc or beginning, middle, and end narratives. And they are what make avant garde modernism “strange.” And when I read the word “ethnic” in the title of this panel I am assuming “about ethnicity” and not “writers of color.” I’m also not going to distinguish much in this paper between the terms “race” and “ethnicity.”

These poetic conventions from the colonies both come to the attention of and feel culturally relevant to a small group of mainly but not exclusively Euro-American writers because of how nineteenth century imperialism boomeranged back into Europe. Basically, imperialism not only brought the empire to the colonies but the colonies brought themselves to the empire and thus a number of urban spaces in Europe went from being more or less monocultural to provocatively and extremely polycultural. Paris is the easy example here. When Stein was in Paris in 1911 writing in Tender Buttons “act as if there is no use in a centre,” 600,000 troops and 200,000 workers were brought into France from the colonies. European immigration to urban areas such as Paris was also very high at the time. In terms of how this impacted literature, this migration changed not only the range of languages that one might hear when one walked down the street—and as language is the stuff that literature is made out of this was a big change—but also those 800,000 people that arrived in France from the colonies had ties to other conceptions of the “literary,” had ties to vibrant oral traditions. And these traditions and their aesthetic gestures seeped into the literate work of avant garde modernism. They seeped in unevenly and troubled-ly but still they seeped.

As the avant garde is so much about nineteenth century imperialism and so much about cultures hitting up against one another, it is also often about those categories of race and ethnicity that come into the existence as a result of that same nineteenth century imperialism. So my assertion here is that the avant garde is at its base an “ethnic avant garde,” or a literature that is about ethnicity. Race and ethnicity show up endlessly in the works of this period. So much so that if I had more time I would argue that the identity politics and their poetics of the last half of the twentieth century have to be considered as a continuation of this work even if those movements often see themselves as oppositional in intent and desire.

One brief example of the blatantly ethnic avant garde is Gertrude Stein’s work. Her work is full of racialized language. And much of the discussion around race and ethnicity in Stein’s work is focused on “Melanctha” from Three Lives, but it is worth remembering that the other two lives of Three Lives are also a lot about ethnic identity. More provocatively though are Stein’s less narrative works are full of racialized terms like “nigger” and “coon.”

I was taught to read Stein as a formal innovator. And I often glossed over these moments of racialized language such as this from Tender Buttons: “It was a time when in the acres in late there was a wheel that shot a burst of land and needless are niggers and a sample sample set of old eaten butterflies with spoons” (55). But I don’t think it was just formalism that had blinded me. I actually think what is going on with race and ethnicity in the avant garde is something hard to understand if one buys the terms of The Distinction. In other words, once we assume that when someone writes something that uses some sort of device that we might call by the term indeterminancy that this someone is not saying something about identity.

It was reading Laura Doyle’s reading of race in Stein’s work in “The Flat, the Round and Gertrude Stein: Race and the Shape of Modern(ist) History” that helped me figure out what exactly I was seeing with Stein’s use of racialized language. Doyle carefully reads Stein as a writer whose work directly addresses racial tropes and then manipulates them in various ways. She reads Stein as someone who both “critiques and colludes in the racial order of things” (268). Her reading of “Melanctha” assumes that Stein meant to say something about race, not that she was just mimicking the racial stereotypes of her time. As Doyle writes: “She regularly picked upon such overdetermined phrases and imitated the culture’s repetition of them so as to pound the meaning out of them and alert us to their inculcative power” (263). (As I write this memories of the Michael Magee poem discussion keep popping up.) But at the same time Doyle is not an apologist and she does not say that Stein’s use of racialized language was innocent. She points to how Stein keeps getting caught in racism because of her attempts to use race to provoke.

Stein’s work is just one obvious example of an ethnic avant garde. I like thinking about her work in this context because she is an avant garde whose work has been most defined by endless formalist readings which have, intentionally or not, divorced her work from cultural concerns with identity despite her fairly regular use of racialized (and gendered and sexual-ed and classed) language. But there are many other examples of writers who give almost obsessive attention in avant garde forms to race and ethnicity, from Claude McKay to Aime Cesaire to the Surrealists and the Dadaists; this list goes on and on. All these writers pound on these categories of race and ethnicity that came into existence with imperialism in different ways.


From how we read avant garde modernism, we get the contemporary poetry that we deserve. And there emerges sometime around the late 70s or early 80s in North America, The Distinction. I think it is important to recognize this as at most a North American debate and not one as international as the avant garde was at the turn of the century.

The Distinction has a complicated existence. We in poetry land know it from Californians (which makes sense because a lot of what we know about identity politics we know from Californians). There is Ron Silliman’s now much discussed essay “Poetry and the Politics of the Subject.” I am sure you know this one, the one that argues that “women, people of color, sexual minorities, the entire spectrum of the ‘marginal’—have a manifest political need to have their stories told” (63). Timothy Yu in his article “Form and Identity in Language Poetry and Asian American Poetry,” an article that is in part about The Distinction and locates it in Silliman and Rae Armantrout’s “Why don't women do language-oriented writing?” But I find Armantrout’s piece so jokey and so commitment avoiding that I probably wouldn’t want to use it that way.

At first, I wanted to attempt a more detailed history of who calls The Distinction into existence but I realized it would take too much reading for the short amount of time that I had. However, as I worked on this I did notice that The Distinction kept popping up again and again. It shows up recently in the Grand Piano, in a moment when Ted Pearson talks about the Grand Piano reading series. Pearson puts it like this: “In writing communities formed around social movements, and informed by cultural nationalist or identity politics, it was widely assumed that writers could and should represent and ‘speak to’ the larger communities that sustained them—and for which a speech-based poetics affirmed and gave voice to a collective identity and validated the communicative utility of art. But for writing communities formed around discrepant literary practices and informed by aesthetic and political critiques of normative language, it was incumbent to interrogate, if not reject, the continued efficacy of speech-based writing, the paradigm of linguistic transparency, and expressive, much less utilitarian, notions of art.” (part 5, 58-59) And I also saw it recently in Barrett Watten’s article “The Turn to Language and the 1960s.”He puts it like this: “The textual politics of the Language school are commonly opposed to the expressivist poetics (Black Arts, Chicano, feminist, gay/lesbian) that emerged in the same decade, for good reason. With the former, the self-presence of the expressive subject is put under erasure, while for the latter the formal autonomy of modernist poetics is rejected as a politics” (139). Watten then goes on to say that he will in his essay attempt to locate a common ground that is also a chasm.

But please keep in mind that this is not by any means an argument limited to California poets. Even among the California poets of the last half of the twentieth century, it gets denied and complicated. Silliman’s original statement, for instance, has been much discussed and countered by Leslie Scalapino and others, and then later even by Silliman himself.

I should also confess that I have myself bought into and perpetuated The Distinction. This talk is not intended as accusation.

My guess—although it would take more work for me to figure out the extent of this—is that The Distinction gets chanted into existence not just by various poets but also, perhaps mainly, by the academy. But when I say the academy, I do not necessarily mean scholarship. There has been a lot of critical writing that denies the existence of The Distinction either through direct discussion of it or through example. Among these works are Henry Gates’s Signifying Monkey, bell hooks’s article “Postmodern Blackness,” Trinh Minh-ha’s Woman Native Other, Nate Mackey’s Discrepant Engagement, more recently Fred Moten’s In the Break.

Somehow though The Distinction still manages to define endless hiring descriptions and syllabi. The way literature is taught in the academy is relentlessly haunted by categorization. Early literatures tend to be sorted by century and nation. And then contemporary literatures in the US are institutionalized by ethnicity and race. But this answer feels a bit too pat. And I’m tempted to argue that The Distinction is not an intellectual argument but rather something more complicated, something that to really understand it I would have to delve deep into where the psyche of the academy and then the psyche of a poetry scene that often feels as if it leaves only two choices open to its participants—to be in the academy or to not be in the academy—meet. It is messy there and to be honest I’m a little scared to go there. Perhaps Cynthia Sailors could be a guide.

If I were to attempt to understand the various forces that create The Distinction, I might also begin pondering some of the contradictions of the late 70s. On the one hand, the 70s set the scene for the period of high globalization that was to come in the 80s and 90s. The 70s are the years of OPEC and the rise of the global corporation. Federal Express, Nike, and Microsoft are all founded in the 70s. At the same time, the number of immigrants living in the United States was, compared to current numbers, fairly low: around 9.6 million (by 2000 that number is 28.4 million.) And as a percentage of the U.S. population, immigrants were 4.7 percent in 1970 (it is around 10.4 percent by 2000). The US was, thus, both unusually expansionist and much less international than today. I think it is not a coincidence thus that there is a growing attention within the US at this time to US defined identity categories. This is not a dismissal of identity politics which were hugely reformatory. It is rather an attempt to understand why the poetries on both sides of The Distinction are anti-national and yet neither are international. And still yet also, they often see themselves as oppositional to one another.


Where does this leave me? My general feeling is that The Distinction is a problem. That it is somewhat damaging in how it presents a sanitized version of literary influence and dialogue, one that often myopically takes the easy path and lets geographic or social/friendship groupings define literary history at the expense of more webby and tentacled thinking. It sells the really complicated engagements of all sorts of writing with culture short and thus makes all of us slightly stupid when we turn to that important and large question about the sort of work that poetry might be able to do right now.

There is that line that Sarah Silverman uses to defend her work, that it isn’t racist, it is about racism, a line built on a false understanding that one can’t be both. Or that one isn't always inescapably both. What is interesting about the avant garde is that this both seems unavoidable. And it is with the possibility of that both that it might make sense to begin with when we read a phrase like “needless are niggers,” when we consider the pounding. And I’d probably say the same thing about The Distinction.

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