A D Jameson & the Avant-Garde

I.

  1. I’ve been writing exclusively in long-form the past twelve months and become exhausted. Simultaneously, my writing has become more self-conscious, self-reflexive, and unwieldy, constant over-qualifications and anxious tangentials interrupting its focus. The list format used here, inspired partly by HTMLGiant’s trademark bullet-point style, is both a way to relieve this long-form burnout and to approach meaningful topics without bulking out this piece in all the wrong places.
  2. Part of this issue, I think, stems from a fairly universal anxiety over being misunderstood by a hypothetical reader: hyper-clarity, in an attempt to quell this anxiety, can paradoxically lead to bloated writing. It’s a phenomenon the critic A D Jameson demonstrates with his concept of “dictionary expansions” as text-generating. Beckett’s “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” transforms into “A self-luminous heavenly body shed or cast light, possessing no possible or remaining course or choice, on something of recent origin, production, purchase, etc.; having but lately come or been brought into being…” Hyper-clarity might even be the wrong term, because the latter iteration (“A self-luminous heavenly body…”) is significantly less clear than Beckett’s original. Qualification, hedging, and the addition of nuance can, in moderation, prove invaluable, but when overdone lead quickly to this “bogging down” effect, an inappropriately dense style that’s unenjoyable to read.
  3. (Another possibility for why this text-bogging occurs: a symptom not of authorial anxiety but of hubris, the result of a discrepancy between a piece’s “actual” and “virtual” readership — virtual readership being the audience that the author envisions will read a piece, which informs how he writes and addresses it. If the virtual audience is less capable, less savvy, less literate than the author imagines, over-explication can result. One can imagine the potential positive feedback loop as well: make a text dense and obscure in an attempt at hyper-clarity, receive feedback that the piece was dense and obscure, attempt to make subsequent drafts or writings even more explicit.)
  4. It seems like there are two types of natural (vs. Jameson’s technological/mechanical/artificial) expansion. The first type occurred in the line you just read: in an attempt to clarify and demonstrate the exact, full qualities of Jameson’s expansion, I gave it three modifying adjectives rather than a single adjective-of-best-fit. It’s true his own expansionary technique is technological, since he’s copy-pasting from online dictionary definitions. It is (to some degree) a mechanical expansion rather than personal or bespoke, since Jameson has virtually no expressive role in the process. And it’s artificial because the action is undergone out of a conscious desire to expand text, and to expand text as an exercise (this in contrast with text expansion which results naturally from a verbose writer’s unconscious habits, hubris, or anxiety). But does the inclusion of all three adjectives contribute substantially to reader comprehension and take-away? The second type of natural expansion, meanwhile, is less about describing something comprehensively and more about extrapolation, more concerned with further implications — it occurs when a variety of items are included under the general umbrella of a topic at hand. In discussing the specific modernism of Joyce’s writing, an area the author is hypothetically well-versed in, he might briefly call upon other authors, movements, or even art traditions in which he is significantly less well-versed. If the danger of the first type of natural expansion (“hyper-descriptive” or “over-explicative”) is that it can become redundant, bloated, and lack artful grace, then the danger of subject matter expansion is its self-sabotaging tendency: through (often unexplained) application onto poor fits or stretched examples, an argument quickly spreads itself thin. If a piece’s hypothetical reader isn’t nearly as acquainted with the direct issue/object discussed (e.g. Joyce’s modernist sensibility), but is familiar with a name-checked parallel issue that fits poorly (or even directly contradicts) the thesis on Joyce (e.g. loose parallels between Pollock’s painting and literary stream-of-consciousness), then the argument’s credibility and effectiveness are undermined. My personal familiarity with abstract expressionism is limited, so perhaps the example I just used has had this very effect on an “actual reader” somewhere.
  5. It’s worth reiterating though (at the risk of over-explication) that these techniques in moderation are crucial to crafting effective arguments — they help achieve the simultaneous depth and breadth present in great critical writing. Observations on modernist sensibility are much less urgent if they apply only to Ulysses and nothing else; observations which hold true of modernism as a whole only by virtue of vagueness and absence of rigor lack the depth necessary to achieve meaningful insight. Perhaps the issue isn’t that these approaches add significant bulk to a piece of writing; perhaps it’s just that, because of the bulk they bring with them, it’s important such tools are used appropriately and conservatively to keep a body of writing focused. Not that this is much of an insight in itself — it breaks down to the well-worn (if prudent) truism for in all things moderation.

II.

  1. It was on the aforementioned HTMLGiant where I first stumbled upon Jameson’s writing. It was December of 2014. Reading through past archives, the site revealed itself as a thriving subculture, a special interest forum, a host to some of contemporary literature’s best writers and reviewers. The most recent post was October 2014; the site had shut down literally weeks before I visited it.
  2. A fair amount of writing on the Internet has been dedicated to HTMLGiant’s collapse, usually as a marker for the collapse of so-called Alt Lit (though HTMLGiant has retroactively distanced itself from that tag). Alt Lit is itself often Internet-based (or Internet-inspired) writing; its novels and short stories sampled IM and Gmail chats as early as the mid-2000s, and discussed topics ranging from online pornography to technology’s deadening emotional effect. Tao Lin helped give the genre its meteoric rise in the mid-to-late 2000s with books like Shoplifting from American Apparel and Eeeee Eee Eeee; his prose has been praised for its minimalist economy, his novels for their deadpan humor and channeling of vaguely millennial ennui.
  3. It was also Lin who arguably helped bring about Alt Lit’s demise. Allegations of statutory rape were made against him the very month that HTMLGiant shut down; Lin had been twenty-two while sleeping with sixteen-year-old E.R. Kennedy. These accusations followed on the heels of other, unrelated accusations of sexism, emotional abuse, and even assault by some male members of the Alt Lit community (not necessarily affiliated with HTMLGiant); given Lin’s stature within and outside the scene, it was a sort of final toppling of the throne long after the castle walls had already been breached. I don’t know quite where the scene is now, though I’ve reached out to past contributors. There are successor sites, but none have the same urgency or presentness of mission, let alone the sheer breadth of talent, that HTMLGiant once boasted.
  4. (Jameson’s “A Dozen Dominants of Indy Lit,” though not exactly particular to Alt Lit, presents a much more complete and well-informed discussion of what Alt Lit looks like.)

III.

  1. Kanye West released two new tracks last fall. One, “Say You Will” (ft. Caroline Shaw), begins with a vocal line paying homage to Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” released in 1981 and widely considered one of the most influential avant-garde recordings of the 20th century.
  2. What’s so interesting about this homage is that it completes an artistic circle of influence. Jameson notes in the piece “Why I Hate The Avant-Garde” that Anderson herself was hardly groundbreaking — she almost certainly took cues from hip-hop and electronic musicians who no one in the academy was paying attention to, then put her own art-world spin on things. When West, a hip-hop musician, repeated the process of appropriation, things came full circle; culture advanced. Jameson’s issue with the idea of a capitalized Avant-Garde is that, contrary to popular perception, its works of art are almost never traditionless or unprecedented; in fact, they are always a part of a highly institutionalized tradition which determines what constitutes experimentation by legitimizing certain experimental directions, creatives, and cultures (demographically academic, Western, upper-class, but with its own, further formal and aesthetic parameters as well). This argument is common within the art world itself and yet the problem persists; I might hazard the guess that this is partially a result of contemporary tastemakers using ad hoc justifications to stand in for actual, fundamental beliefs about what good art can or should do. There are obvious dangers in suspending gut-level aesthetic assessments and judging a work by whether it does valuable things in an effective way (this is the approach so infamously ridiculed by the English professor of Dead Poets Society, when he instructs his students to tear out a page advocating poems be plotted on axes of “perfection” and “importance”). It’s also easy, however, to see how celebrating art which feels or seems elevated in some ineffable, indescribable way is highly prone to all sorts of unconscious biases and arbitrarily narrow-minded snobbery. Luckily, criticism is not an either/or situation.
  3. There’s a potential paradox in mathematics’ set theory that any number not in a set is also simultaneously part of the set “all numbers not in a set.” Jameson may argue that the way the A.G. currently functions is as its own canonized tradition, slowly mutating just like the rest of culture — that Avant-Garde art isn’t actually separate from established aesthetic norms in the way it likes to think it is. But even if we define, for this piece, the A.G. as all art which attempts to break away from traditional aesthetic norms, it still belongs to the tradition or “set” of separateness, which will bear common traits simply by virtue of not possessing the common traits of more conservative and mainstream traditions.
  4. From either of these definitions of the avant-garde, is it fair to label Kanye West an avant-garde artist? Perhaps 20th century institutionalized, academic notions of the avant-garde wouldn’t count him as such, largely for the demographic reasons Jameson outlines (though the artworld in the past few decades has become indisputably more pop-friendly). But West is almost unquestioningly embraced as such by popular music critics, and I think it’s worth questioning that classification to some degree. There seems to be a two-step process of artistic innovation and progress: an (actual) avant-garde discovers new ground, but often has difficulty turning its experimental works into something aesthetically appealing. Figuring out which scouted ground can be best incorporated into, and used to mutate, contemporary art (and then finding ways to synthesize innovative technique with established, more familiar ones) is usually a separate role from that of a “true” avant-garde artist. West isn’t doing the experimentation himself so much as he’s masterfully discovering and identifying contemporary experiments that have been successful — then morphing and integrating them into a cohesive, aesthetically appealing whole.
  5. Lastly: It strikes me that these records (the second-stage-of-innovation works) are the kind that get called “classic” in retrospect. First-stage avant-garde musicians are too out-there, too concerned with formal or technical experimentation to worry as much about other qualities of the art they’re making. Experimental artists were running guitars backwards long before Revolver, but Revolver is canonized because it incorporated existing innovations into skilled songwriting and production. This isn’t unique to music: stream-of-consciousness existed long before Woolf or Joyce. It’s just that novels like Ulysses were able to incorporate the approach into (relatively) accessible and otherwise merit-worthy (merit-worthy, that is, by standards other than scope of experimental vision) works.[1]

Endnotes:

[1] cf. Ioannis Mylonopoulos, “From the Athenian Acropolis to the New Acropolis Museum: A Journey of 2,500 Years,” on the individual features of the Parthenon:

“The curvature can be already observed at the Temple of Apollon in Corinth from 540 BCE, the floor plan has obvious similarities to that of Parthenon II, and the combination of Doric and Ionic decorative elements was, as previously noted, already realized in the Old Temple. It is in the combination of all these features within one single monument together with the level of perfection and sophistication that the architect(s) reached that make the Parthenon such a stupendous example of Greek architecture.”

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