Monday, June 4, 2012

Open City, The New Sincerity, &c.

I finally finished Open City, which I have been recommending since I started it but can now recommend without qualification. The narrator, Julius [spoiler alert, sort of] is easy to like and to trust, so it's surprising, if not shocking, if not disturbing, when we learn at the end that he can't be trusted after all, not entirely: we learn indirectly, via reported speech rather than outright confession, of a past transgression, which Julius does not attempt to atone for or even acknowledge. James of Pur Autre Vie recently wrote of this book:

Teju Cole's Open City is one of the most effective examinations of privilege that I have ever read. [...] Open City reminds us of the disturbing fact that one of the features of privilege is that it is not required to recognize itself. To a large degree, privilege consists of things that don't happen to you, choices that never present themselves, facts that don't seep into your awareness. Not only will the privileged be spared the horrors of war, they will not even have to confront their own abdication. 
It's a disgusting lesson, so Open City is not always an enjoyable book to read. But in a way it is its own antidote: it sheds light on privilege, stripping from it that character of self-ignorance that is so repugnant.

I think privilege is a good lens to view the book through; I might have said instead that it's about culpability. But of course they are closely related; privilege is so easy to shrug off as "not my fault."

Anyway, there is some very beautiful prose in the book; I found this passage on pg. 192 to be almost Forsteresque:

Whether it expressed some civic pride or solemnized a funeral I could not tell, but so closely did the melody match my memory of those boyhood morning assemblies that I experienced the sudden disorientation and bliss of one who, in a stately old house and at a great distance from its mirrored wall, could clearly see the world doubled in on itself. I could no longer tell where the tangible universe ended and the reflected one began. This point-for-point imitation, of each porcelain vase, of each dull spot of shine on each stained teak chair, extended as far as where my reversed self had, as I had, halted itself in midturn. And this double of mine had, at that precise moment, begun to tussle with the same problem as its equally confused original. To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone.

~

AD Jameson is one of several incredibly smart and nice and interesting poets I have met that are currently studying under Jennifer Ashton at UIC, who, according to her bio page, "is currently at work on a new project that examines the historical formation of the so-called 'lyric subject,' tentatively titled: Sincerity and the Second Person: Lyric and Anti-Lyric in American Poetry." I have it on good authority that a snippet of text I wrote on the old Pshares blog before it died a spammy death has ended up on her syllabus, so I've seen a few references to that snippet on the Internet even though the original post is gone. There's a new post up on HTML Giant by ADJ with some historical background on "the New Sincerity," which I'm not sure I've ever been convinced exists or existed, though I do still think "the New Childishness" (a term I attribute to Ana Bozicevic) is a useful category. I've also never really grasped why some readers think Tao Lin's writing is "sincere." I admit I haven't read his novels in full, but all the poetry and prose by Lin I've read seems to be dripping with irony. If there was something new about his first book, you are a little bit happier than i am, when it came out, it was a new form of irony, not a new form of sincerity. Anyway, I'm looking forward to the next post in this series, addressing what's been happening with TNS since 2008.

~


In other news, I just managed to unintentionally offend someone I have followed/been followed by for some time on Twitter: story of my life. But what compels a body to go so far as to block someone, rather than just unfollow? This is not the first writer who I've discovered has blocked me. I don't know how to feel about this. I mean, the only "people" I have actually blocked are spambots. I don't expect everyone to like me anymore, but apparent mutual admiration turning suddenly and without explanation into vehement dislike makes me kind of uncomfortable. One of my least favorite things about Twitter, in fact, is that it highlights a fickleness I find distasteful. (I almost wrote "in humans.") Does "following" someone have to entail liking or agreeing with everything they say? To a degree I can be tolerant even of intolerance, which is to say, if someone I already find sympathetic, interesting, etc. says something that seems mean or wrong or dumb or ignorant, I will probably give them the benefit of the doubt. In fact I usually unfollow people when I realize they're no longer following me, if I had followed them mostly as a gesture of good will in the first place, rather than deciding they suck on the basis of a single tweet, which seems to be common practice (among humans).

35 comments:

  1. I actually wasn't sure what was going on with that character. I thought she really was mistaking him for someone else...but then it seemed like maybe not. I found that confusing.

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    1. I think there is an opening to believe that, if you wish (and the opening is there of course so Julius himself can believe it). But yeah, my take is that it happened, but he is unable to confront this version of himself. It's the "blind spot" he refers to in a preceding chapter.

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  2. Not fully sure I'd think of the character as "likable" -- others seem to find him so, but from the inside he seems plodding and distrait from the start, definitely someone with something to hide. (I am glad James Non-Wood looked up/knew about "open cities," the title seemed a little blah relative to the content of the novel, but I put it down as an odd lapse rather than a sign that I was missing a reference.)

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    1. I did wonder briefly if the narrator would be seen as likable to others, as I tend to think all kinds of curmudgeons and assholes and shifty characters are likable, but I feel safe saying, at least, that he is "cool" -- that we are meant to respect him. Y/N? Part of why I found him sympathetic is that he's not just "nice" without exception; he is judgmental, irritable, and hence relatable. But I felt I was meant to assume he was morally above board.

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    2. He did seem to me a little self-congratulatory on his worldliness, cosmopolitanism.

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  3. Since corporations are people, I think it's safe to assume spambots are people too.

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    1. Had to rescue your comment from spam, like a person.

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  4. I think you are a loser. See how many more words you can get out of my blocking you . . . #napomo

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  5. Happy to block Sarang now too, Amherst College connection and all (though I only spoke to him on one occasion and was less than impressed). Anyone else? Fake-smiling at your garbage grows tiresome . . .

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    1. Hey Adam! That last bit goes double for you. And my apologies if I appeared to conflate your opinion with Ashton's -- that wasn't my intention. I just have noticed that she's sparked or rather renewed interest in the idea of sincerity in poetry. I wish I could take her class myself.

      To be clear re: Lin, *you are a little bit happier than i am* is my main reference for his poetry too, and I think a) it's a wonderful and hilarious book and b) it's utterly dripping with irony. But at some point this breaks down into a semantic argument of what we really mean when we say "sincere" -- and maybe there's where the argument has to go next, in the next installment?

      Who else would you name as a key player in the New Sincerist school?

      Thanks for always being so engagey without devolving into epithets, it's SERIOUSLY refreshing.

      e

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    2. We're going to have to get down into what you mean when you say "utterly dripping with irony" :)

      I think critics are still figuring out what New Sincerity is, if anything. I am being earnest in my post: What do we mean when we talk about it? It's a term that was revived / imported into contemporary poetry by Massey/Robinson/Mister. They seemed to think, at least for a while, that they were New Sincerist. Since then, I've seen the term applied to David Berman, D.S. Chapman, Arielle Greenberg, Matt Hart, Miranda July, Dorothea Lasky, Reb Livingston, Karyna McGlynn, Nate Pritts, Frederick Seidel, Catherine Wagner, Dean Young, Tao Lin, Mumuu House in general, Marie Calloway, and Steve Roggenbuck, among others. I've also been asked whether my first book, Amazing Adult Fantasy, is "part of it." (I would argue that, yes, it is, even though I didn't know about "the New Sincerity" when I wrote it—but I shared similar motivations.) Also of course this poetry is perceived against a larger field of artists including Wes Anderson, Devendra Banhart, Cat Power, Sofia Copola, Dogme 95, Neutral Milk Hotel, Joanna Newsom, Conor Oberst, Will Oldham, Yo La Tengo, and the renewal of interest in Daniel Johnston's music. And more. And N.B. that I'm not personally calling all those folks or everything they make NS, just saying I've seen the claim made.

      I will repeat for the thousandth time that I don't care whether the work is "genuinely" sincere or not. Artistic devices can be used for infinite purposes. Rather, my concern is whether these writers and others are sharing a recognizable body of formal devices that are somehow rooted in the perception of sincerity/genuineness/transparency/so forth. If so, and if that use is prominent in their work, then I think it makes sense to speak of them as somehow sharing an affinity, and the New Sincerity is as good a term as any. (Of course those devices need not be really new; they simply need feel new against the current landscape. John Barth didn't invent metatextuality, but he revitalized its usage, made it register again. Today it feels, I think, dead again? Shrek and Austin Powers killed it.)

      I think I can demonstrate at least some of that shared aesthetic, and demonstrate how Lin's work at times partakes in it. I think I also want to argue that the New Sincerity is at least to some extent a formal response to the (perceived) limits of postmodernist aesthetics in poetry and in fiction: appeals to Continental Theory, endless self-referentiality, excessive allusion to other texts, the insistence that the subject/I is fractured and incoherent. Those are the moves/positions (among others) that register to many as "ironic" and now at best de facto and at worst impossible to maintain, and so the hunt is on for ways to write against them.

      What better challenge than to insist on a coherent, expressive, directly communicative self?

      Cheers,
      Adam

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    3. I will repeat for the thousandth time that I don't care whether the work is "genuinely" sincere or not.

      The problem with this line of reasoning is that you can fall into a trap where irony isn't possible. If irony involves a difference or distance between the actual words used and the intended meaning, then at some point you absolutely have to consider intentions. To quote Wikipedia (ugh): "Irony (from the Ancient Greek εἰρωνεία eirōneía, meaning dissimulation or feigned ignorance)[1] is a rhetorical device, literary technique, or situation in which there is a sharp incongruity or discordance that goes beyond the simple and evident intention of words or actions." (Emphasis mine.) If intentions or even effects beyond simple, first-level meaning don't matter, then nothing is ever ironic. How could we have satire? We could call Swift's "A Modest Proposal" sincere -- it appears sincere on the surface, and in fact, it has one of those long, sincere titles! (In full it's "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick" -- how's that for the New Sincerity?)

      I think I will have to do a closer read of some Tao Lin poems (in a separate post) to full explain why I think they are "dripping with irony"!

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  7. Hi Elisa,

    Thanks so much for the shout out and the link! And I promise I will say more about the New Sincerity, both at HG and in an email to you. (I've been consumed the past 24 hours with prepping for a lecture I have to give tomorrow night, as well as a trip to Michigan this weekend...)

    Simply put, though, I think it will help if we narrow down the conversation on Lin (and it will be helpful to remember that even if we don't think he's NS, that doesn't disprove that an NS style exists, etc.). The work of Lin's I've specifically called New Sincerist is "you are a little bit happier than i am" (2006), and I wouldn't call all of his work NS, not at all. I am one of the few critics, I think, who believes that Lin is very busy exploring a wide variety of styles in a variety of ways.

    As I've said elsewhere, I think asking whether the work is "really" iconic or sincere is really a dead end. More pertinent questions are:
    1. Do some maneuvers in contemporary US poetry read as "sincere"?
    2. Is there currently value in being regarded as sincere?

    Succinctly put, I think the respective answers are 1) yes and 2) yes. (And I think that Tao Lin has engaged with this in his own work—i.e., he's utilized those maneuvers, and he's been assigned that "sincere" value by others.) What those maneuvers are and why that value exists are much deeper questions requiring more space and time than I have here, though as stated I intend to keep discussing this elsewhere.

    Also, yes, my current interest in this topic does stem in part from the seminar I just finished taking with Prof. Ashton, and her insights have been remarkably helpful in clarifying many of my thoughts. But the NS and associated styles are phenomena I've been observing and trying to analyze for quite some time now—since well before I enrolled at UIC—and I wouldn't want anyone to confuse my thoughts on those topics with her own (which are I hasten to add far smarter than mine). I, like everyone else I would imagine, am eagerly awaiting her book on contemporary US poetry.

    OK, more soon! As always I find talking with you both wonderfully provocative and productive!

    Cheers,
    Adam

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  8. I think there is a strong connection between the "first generation" New Sincerists (Robinson, Massey, and Mister) and NY School poets like Schuyler and Ted Berrigan. I don't see that influence in the work of Calloway or Lin. However, and forgive me if I'm wrong, I believe Adam has said that it doesn't matter what the first generation folks said or intended, but then I wonder why bring them up/have them as part of the conversation at all? If I recall, Reb Livingston became a NS when T. Rob said on his blog anyone who wanted to be one could be one. (The open door attitude is also what led to the end of that incarnation of the New Sincerity.)

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  10. No, that's not how I "became" a NS. I have a series of emails from T-Rob from June-August 2005 where we discussed the sinceritiness of one another's work. T-Rob made the argument that my work fit the description (because it "shot from the hip"). After some back and forth, I accepted his argument and embraced the label, although I had other friends who made arguments that my work didn't fit the description (mostly due to my use of irony). A few months later there was a misunderstanding between myself and Joe regarding a comment about shoelaces. This misunderstanding lasted a few hours yet people were insistent on latching onto and attributing it to the demise of NS. There was even an article written a year or two later that said as much. As I think back on it, I'm still a touch annoyed at how quickly people leaped to blame me for breaking up the Beatles.

    At this point, I don't think I understand the definition of NS (probably never did) and I'm not interested in these kinds of labels for my work or myself. Affiliations bore me. If other people want to use them to describe their or others work, more power to them.

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    1. Parts of this comment could go straight into a prose poem.

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    2. But I'm not interested in any labels -- even calling it "text" is too restrictive for my unlabeled, freewheeling ass. These days, all I write are words.

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    3. Even the word "words" seems to put limiting boundaries on letters.

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    4. I almost wrote "sound" -- but I didn't want somebody adding me to the Wikipedia page on "Sound Poetry" --

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  11. I feel like there is some danger of conflating "sincere" (or "sincerist") with something like "accurate" (or "accuratist"?). Sincere means something like "meant." But when you look at e.g. Tao Lin's stories, he seems to (and says he does) choose his flat, specific style because he believes that is the only way to accurately or honestly convey what is happening.

    It is not distinctly "sincere" to introduce an occurrence by saying, "at approximately 6:25 am, . . ." Rather, it is distinguished by a commitment to a kind of reportorial accuracy. Anything other than a flat, Tao Lin-like tone would be a form of lying, at least if your mental space is characterized by a flat, Tao Lin-like depression. The coloring of the world with subjective emotion that we often associate with fiction is seen as a deceptive device, or at least it would be in the hands of Tao Lin.

    I read an interview where TL was quite explicit about this agenda, maybe I will dig it up.

    Anyway, I thought of this while looking at AD Jameson's "New Sincere"-based examination of long titles, several of which come from the Tao Lin-published and -inspired Muumuu House. Look at something like, "selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee," by Megan Boyle. I'm not sure whether this title is "sincere." What it reads like is flat, descriptive, straightforward. This is not a title that pretties things up, that sets an aspirational tone for the book (it says). It just tells you (or purports to tell you) what's in the book. The all-lowercase setting emphasizes the flat affect. There remains the question of whether the title accurately describes the contents of the book -- it seems like it might not. Haven't some of these blog posts been published before? Is Megan Boyle actually a Mexican Panda Express Employee? Insofar as the title is actually inaccurate, can it be sincere? It seems like presenting as accurate (by means of the flat, "accuratist" style) that is actually not accurate is an irony. Can it also be sincere?

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    1. Or maybe what I'm describing is a characteristic ideology that the only way to be sincere is via flat, reportorial accuracy.

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    2. Good thoughts. I don't really know what it means to say that "selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee" (as a title) is "sincere" or not; your description of "flat, descriptive, straightforward" makes more sense to me. It also seems to me that such a title is obviously trying to be funny; I think there are a lot of younger writers who find humor in flatness -- this is especially popular among the HTML Giant crowd -- and maybe they're trying to claim that flatness is a new kind of sincerity, but I call bullshit on that.

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    3. To clarify that: I think a lot of young writers think that very flat, basic, straightforward, even childish language is funny, yes, but also can be paradoxically powerful. I think that is what is going on in a lot of the work that gets labeled as "the New Sincerity." The problem is that we're muddying the waters by talking about whether or not that language is "sincere" -- that's quite beside the point.

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  12. Gina's right. Particularly the part about why are Ashton, Jameson, et. al, using the term if it's only to introduce it and then dismiss it, or at least divorce it completely from its original context? Makes no sense to me.

    As for Reb's comments, cool. If she says it's true it probably happened. I was probably drunk or something. I am also too cool for labels.

    --Anthony Robinson

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    1. Thanks for chiming in guys. Correct me I'm wrong, natch, but it seems to me there are two good reasons for looking for a term to describe this school, such as it exists, other than "The New Sincerity":

      1) "The New Sincerity," in its original context, was used completely ironically; the manifesto was a joke. (Which is not to say that Massey, Robinson, and Mister doesn't write sincere poetry.)

      2) The work that the term is now being applied to isn't especially more sincere than anything else, but is rather exploiting other kinds of tones and language (childish vocab, flat affect, simple syntax, straightforward description of emotional states, etc.). When ADJ says, "It doesn't matter if they work is 'really' sincere," I'll go one step further and say it doesn't matter if it's sincere at all, or at least, that isn't the most salient feature of the writing.

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    2. Ack: Correct me *IF* I'm wrong; *DON'T* write sincere poetry, I meant.

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  13. Nah. You're fine. But I have time to split hairs, so I will.

    1) I'm tired of explaining the "original context." As a wise man once said, "Google it." But the term was not used "completely ironically." The manifesto (which was not the origin of the term) was a one-off between friends. It was silly, but you know, not ironic in any accepted sense of the word. It may have been outrageous and profane, but I think it was *meant*.

    2) The good reason that I can see to find another term is that the things that Jameson, Ashton, et. al, are describing have very little to do with what the "original new sincerists" were up to. The rhetoric and discussions surrounding the term are puzzling to me and at the very least, in an academic context, lazy.

    If you want to write about Tao Lin and Matt Hart, that's great! But why mention Massey, Mister, Robinson at all?

    A stupid analogy: it's like sitting down to watch Game of Thrones, and after five minutes, a voice-over announces "Last week on Lost!" and then dragons and thrones are replaced by that dude from Party of Five.

    Tony

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    1. You've made me realize that in the end, I don't care all that much about details of the origins, because I know I'm not going to bother to Google it. What's important to me is that the term seems to be, as you say, divorced from its original context; and it's now being applied to stuff that's nothing like what you guys were talking about. And that's reason enough to find a new term.

      I don't remember if I ever even saw that manifesto or just a line or two that were quoted in a Jacket article. I think there was something about sunglasses?

      Anyway, thanks again for taking the time (to split hairs, etc.) -- in all seriousness, I'm honored.

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  14. This thread is going to get recursive real fast.

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