Monday, April 19, 2010

Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism

Nealon, Christopher. “Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism.” American Literature 76 (2004): 579-602.

Nealon’s essay examines a collective of poets, loosely connected by the term “post-Language,” that, as the name indicates, follow the political and aesthetic lineage of Language poetry of the late-twentieth-ccentury. In his estimation, the author claims that these writers “have taken a kind of Frankfurt school turn in their poems” and thus “have become invested in a historical story about what Theodor Adorno called ‘damaged life’” (579). Yet, unlike Adonoro and his sometimes-Frankfurtian-peer Benjamin, post-Language poets “have struck a kind of camp posture toward the ‘damage’ of late capitalism” (579). In this case, Nealon relies on Andrews Ross’ conception of camp as “the re-creation of surplus value from forgotten forms of labor”; such an interpretation of camp encompasses its queer connotations, but also “its migrations beyond subcultural boundaries” (580). A poetry focused upon camp, then, encourages both readers and writers to engage “a polemical affection for what’s obsolete, misguided, or trivial, and to risk the embarrassment of trying it out” (581). After introducing his main argument, Nealon launches into an extended comparison of what, to his mind, differentiates Language (and, to a lesser extent, New York School) poetry from post-Language poetry. To this extent, Language poets create a specific poetic that is a) predicated upon active-readership, so as to b) decommodify a text that will result in c) “a mobile social body” (586) which will produce a “poetics of fluidity” (587). In contradistinction to this stance centered on the materiality of language, post-Language poets, “battered by another generation’s-worth of encroachments of capital, are not so ready to rely on those aspectual reserves”; instead the poetry and poets associated with the more recent trend “expend their considerable talents on making articulate the ways in which, as they look around, they see waiting” (588). To demonstrate this polemical stance characterized by “waiting,” Nealon uses four poets as examples: Joshua Clover, Lisa Robertson, Rod Smith, and Kevin Davies. Yet, while each poet composes poetry that “waits,” they do so in a variety of different manners. Clover, to begin with, attempts to “develop a new poetry of the city,” wherein an “unstable movement between concentration and abstraction” occurs and produces “a suspended grammar, detached from an object” (589). Roberston, on the other hand, interests herself “in ornament, and its uselessness” in an effort to recuperate “material waste” (590-1). Smith, unlike the previous two poets, “approaches the problem of a damaged materiality…by meditating on the allegorical character of objects” (593); but far from merely employing allegory as one would traditionally, the poet oscillates between “modes of abstraction and concentration” to such a great extent that there is a “collapsing second-order allegory that performs and figures the vicissitudes of materiality” (594). Finally, Davies’ poems, which are nefariously overwhelmed by the material world, create a “nesting of abstract objects” that foster a “pointed political irony of pretending” (595) which focuses on the historical conditions of materiality. Nealon concludes his essay with a series of qualifiers that function less as a defense of his work, and more as a catalyst for further questions and examination. Specifically, he acknowledges that his rhetorical stance veers away from formal aspects, such as “line breaks and habits of syntax,” and to a certain extent content itself, in favor of the polemical “preoccupations of these poems” (598).

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