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Just started reading John Roberts’s The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art After the Readymade, which is excellent from the get-go, potentially impasse-breaking, etc. More later on this book. But for now, a paragraph near the start:

What I am proposing in this book is a model of the ‘post-expressivist’ artist which actually takes on the challenges of expression and representation that now confront the artist of the new millennium. This means retheorizing what we mean by the artist as critic and representor in a world of proliferating doubles, proxies, simulations, etc. For what is increasingly clear (beyond the recent moments of the radical negation of authorship in conceptual art and critical postmodernism) is the need for a model of artistic subjectivity which refuses the bipolar model of interiority and exteriority on which modernist and anti-modernist models of the artist are usually based. (13)

Just for now: how absolutely unimaginable is that paragraph in a present-day work of literary criticism? The present tense verbs in the first sentence, the sense that a theory of art might be developed with actual application today – unthinkable. Sadly so…

Beyond disciplinary dysfunction and seemingly terminal wrong-footedness during poststructuralism’s ebb tide – and these are enough of a problem, believe me – the other thing that prevents the writing of aesthetics (rather than simply the history of aesthetics) is that we don’t know what we mean when we apply the a-word to literary works in the first place.

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 1, 2008 at 9:42 am

Posted in aesthetics

6 Responses

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  1. I don’t actually think this is a true absence in lit crit, or at least not a complete one. People who write on contemporary poetry, and especially those among them who are poets, have been making claims like this for the last twenty years, with no sign of a let-up. Granted, much of it isn’t very good. But there’s plenty of interest in trying to forge an aesthetics that applies to contemporary writing. Indeed, this is pretty much what I want my own dissertation to do, whatever my chances of success.

    Chris Nealon and Sianne Ngai seem like good examples of the best of it. And Marjorie Perloff, too, whose work is usually rather disappointing, can’t stop writing sentences like the above. Barrett Watten, Lyn Hejinian and Charles Bernstein of the poet-critics. . .
    If I seem cantankerous of late, apologies. Chalk it up to a voracious need for methods of procrastination. I take my qualifying exam in two weeks. . .


    May 1, 2008 at 3:35 pm

  2. No, no. You’re right about the poetics types. There are other reasons why I’d have some reservations about holding them up as a model for what I’m thinking about (the coterie factor has something to do with it, rather than something like a broad and, say, relatively disinterested approach to aesthetics) but, yes, they certainly bear mentioning in this regard.

    I’ve read a bit of Ngai, but I don’t think I’ve seen what you’re talking about. Where is it? In the Ugly book?


    May 1, 2008 at 7:45 pm

  3. Ah! I’ll have to read this… sounds right up my alley. And the Ngai needs to go on my very long reading list too.

    Why _do_ we apply the term aesthetics to literature? It seems that rather than ask if it’s any good, we should ask if it’s _interesting,_ and the colossal messes and failures and kitsch is way more interesting than something that does exactly what its aesthetically supposed to.


    May 2, 2008 at 5:12 am

  4. Yes, Ugly Feelings and then, also, this article:


    May 2, 2008 at 5:43 am

  5. @ Sisyphus: well, yeah. Except also: I dunno. By which I mean, “interesting” seems like a far better desire than the version of aesthetics you suggest, which is well-wrought and self-consistent and etc. But this raises two related issues, I think. One is that, in practice, such critical approaches in the last couple decades have tended to render — too-swiftly — all literature as symptomatic, in the Lacan-processed-by-Jameson sense; what turns out to be interesting is the particulars of anisomorphisms between the text and the world/history/etc. I’m not rejecting that reading strategy at all (though I do think it makes more sense for prose/fiction than poetry), but I do think it’s a mistake to go entirely away from the possibility of constructivist activities in literature.

    This leads me to the second problematic issue, deeply imbricated with the first: I don’t finally make sense of the (longstanding) proposed opposition between the aesthetic (with its imputed New Critical well-wroughtness, its blind formalism, its aesthetic autonomy) and whatever its supposed other is — theory, or historicism, or even in this case interest. I’m not sure such an opposition is any more sustainable than interiority/exteriority, or for that matter form/content. Aesthetic form is always form adequate to history; that adequation is itself first content; interest, for me, stems exactly from the dialectical relationship here.

    [“first content” — yikes, do I sound like Olson yet? Somebody stop me…]

    The Ngai book is terrif! See also here (login needed; if you don’t have, drop me a line…)

    (addendum: is AWP’s willingness to bracket “poetics” — and his account of why — related to Sisyphus’s indexing, in a different comment stream, of modern American poetry to Bishop and James Wright? By which I mean, is part of the story here one of art markets, and the dollar values of the art value, and their ability to appear more generalized and less coterie-based, to support and visibilize a broader range of practices and discourses, push their own critical accounts closer to the front of consciousness/front of the bookstore display table/front of etc?)

    (double addendum: sorry, Sisyphus — It must look like I’m feuding with you. Not so! No disrespect intended. j)


    May 2, 2008 at 2:55 pm

  6. Excellent stuff. At least one thing that I mean when I say “coterie” is that the poetics approach isn’t really sanctioned for anyone not involved in / trained by / in touch with this little group. By the discipline I mean. And sure, fuck the discipline, but…. So, were one to take this approach and write, say, about modern fiction with an eye toward current fictional and extra-fictional aesthetic practices, there’d be no place for one to fit. And so, instead, we get the dreary MSA, which sucks the CO2 away from where the new stuff might grow…)

    The special situation of poetics, existing between the mfa and phd tracks, partaking of both but also with a special spot between, is unique and arrives via a unique institutional history, and one that to a certain extent I have had a look at up close. From outside but up close.

    And agreed re: the aesthetic and history. And overall, point taken re: my bracketing in general. Point was taken at Jasper’s first suggestion. Point is even more taken now.

    More soon…


    May 2, 2008 at 3:08 pm

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