18 jun. 2009

The novísimos were a group of poets inspired by a lot of things "in the air" in the late 60s and early. The neo-avant-garde of the Italian novíssimi, from which the name was taken, the breaking down of barriers between high and low culture, the Parisian May of 68; the poststructuralism of Barthes and Foucault. All these things, taken together, have a convenient name: postmodernism. The argument that these poets were historically anomalous, that somehow what they were doing is out of sequence, anachronistic, is ridiculous prima facie.

What happens to this postmodernism, however, is very revealing. On the one hand, it is attacked (by those making the anachronism argument), in the 1980s and 1990s. It's an embarrassment to have even have had a postmodernism, apparently!

At the same time, in some sense it becomes folded back into a more mainstream high/ late modernism, with highly uneven results. One of the first things to go by the wayside is the interest in pop culture--precisely the element that made these poets seem more postmodernist than modernist. In retrospect this interest seems merely epidermal, in the case of many poets. The (apparent) suspicion of high culture gives way, in many cases, to a rather unproblematic celebration of the same.

Some poets just repeat themselves in book after book, hardly varying their position and writing worse and worse. This is a kind of fossilized late modernism. I won't mention any names.


Aesthetics functions as a kind of radar. The late modernist aesthetic is stringent. Since it doesn't admit other alibis, commercial or political, it pretty much stands or falls by quality. Of course, you will tell me that quality is a subjective determination, a mere value judgment. Yet somehow these value judgments won't go away. The main arguments against modernism (and experimental variants of postmodernism) are

(1) Commercial. It responds to no economic demand. (Note that this is, typically, the objection, not just to modernist poetry, but to poetry itself, and to all but the most commercial forms of literature.)

(2) Political. Modernism does not promote the correct social causes, or does not espouse them efficiently or efficaciously, and may even espouse some incorrect ones.

(3) Social. Modernism is "elitist" in its forms.

Usually (1) or (2) is combined with (3). Note, however, that a 4th kind of objection, aesthetic, is rarely made (any more). You are not going to fight modernism on its own terrain because you will lose. So the argument for quality is almost tautological. If I say Zukofksy and you way Woolf, we are really in agreement. In other words, we don't have to agree about the exact works or authors that our individual subjective taste leads us to in either case. On any given day I might prefer Arlen to Porter, or Gershwin to Rogers.

5 comentarios:

zbs dijo...

I originally misinterpreted your first point in a way that I think may be another legitimate objection, though perhaps you would characterize it as a variant on 2. That is: that modernism as a venture pretends to not admit commercial or political motivations but (like everything) in fact is incapable of being unaffected by them; thereby its pretense only frustrates those inescapable aspects of its substance, and leads to a kind of obscurity that might be criticized in a way similar to your point 3, etc.

Jonathan dijo...

The form that usually takes is: "Modernism pretends to be beyond politics, but it is actually right wing." I've never really seen the version of "modernism pretends to be above commercialism, but it really is just a way of selling more books."

zbs dijo...

The latter is a common interpretation of Andy Warhol, I-would-say mondernist.

The former is, I think, overly reductive. People who think politics are serious business and think that Serious Business is the stuff of art, generally and I think not without some reason consider politics not only one available, but a necessary, criterion of art.

I am not one of these people, though.

zbs dijo...

The literature equivalent that would correspond to my Andy Warhol example for "selling books" would be "pretends to be above commercialism but is really just a way of getting more grants/jobs/awards."

Jonathan dijo...

Kind of like selling out by not selling out.

Warhol breaks with modernist principles in developing a specifically commercial kind of avant-garde. That's exactly what pop art is.