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Generationality (In Which I Pirate Jackie Wang’s Groove to Prevent my Becoming BO’s Most Absentee Contributor)

Yesterday at htmlgiant, Jackie Wang asked folks to discuss where they stand re: issues of lineage and generationality, acknowledgment vs. non-acknowledgment of forebears, contextualizing her questions w/ quotations from Judith/Jack Halberstam and Joyelle McSweeney, among others.

It’s pretty much impossible for me to consider these questions outside the context of Queer and feminist aesthetics and politics, particularly given the frameworks introduced by McSweeney and Halberstam, and the critique of canonization introduced by Mike Kitchell in the comment thread.

A few years ago, I heard Halberstam give a really great lecture about the value of forgetting. She argued that with our constant emphasis on “writing our own history,” and claiming and sharing neglected histories of social movements and movements of resistance, and telling the truth about histories of racism, colonialism, imperialism, etc, social justice folks tend to privilege “remembering,” at the expense of “forgetting.” She did not argue against this emphasis on remembering and historicizing, but rather argued that our capacity to forget has untapped potential — for instance, what would it mean to forget heteronormativity? Or internalized legacies of imperialism? To forget them entirely, as opposed, I suppose, to solely unlearning them?

This talk included a critique of the focus on  generational frames in feminist activism and Women’s Studies programs. …There’s pretty much constant talk in Women’s Studies circles about cross-generational tension, and cross-generational dialogue, and this wave and that wave and which wave are you, and how do we value our foremothers’ contributions while simultaneously acknowledging their limitations, or how do we tell young people they’re missing part of the story while also not being ageist, and valuing their “fresh” perspectives, etc, etc.

Anyway — Halberstam argues these conversations around age and generationality often create and reproduce the very conflict they purport to address. And that in particular, the application of the (heteronormative)  family frame in non-familial spaces creates these sort-of bullshit Oedipal dynamics where younger folks are expected to critique and overthrow what came before, and older folks are expected to resist this shift.

And there’s a similar phenomenon in literature, no? I’m not super well-versed in this stuff, but isn’t there a whole Harold Bloom thing about the child murdering the parent? And also that producers of “experimental” or “innovative” texts are understood to be particularly patri-and/or-matricidal?

(One thing I’ve really appreciated about A D Jameson’s epic posts here at BIG OTHER is how he’s prized continuity over disruption and placed various aesthetic innovations in historical context).

One of the things I find really provocative about Halberstam’s argument — and also about the McSweeney quote Jackie pulled into her post — is this idea that the generational framework obscures intersections or analyses or continuities across and between generations that may only be visible when chronological or generational frames are rejected altogether.  And that there are radically creative practices in both aesthetics and politics that are only possible when we “forget” chronology.

So that there is value in a radical “forgetting” (to apply Halberstam’s term) of “literary time” (to use McSweeney’s) — for instance, I can imagine, through this frame, bringing texts into conversation with one another across time, across disciplines, across “high culture” and “low culture” in weird-ass, Orthodoxy-defying, creatively explosive (diarrheal) ways that simply are not possible in more chronological frames.

McSweeney’s words alone are tasty as their own text, no?

a kind of leveled, ambivalent, invisible perpetuity without precedence or antecedence, not based on permanence but on decay, infloration, contamination

INFLORATION. Shit’s hot.

All that said, I understand there is important work to do in claiming and valuing history, particularly for marginalized communities and writers. I guess I’m thinking about the forgetful, anti-chronological, or post-chronological, or un-chronological frame (or frames) as a creatively enticing mode or modes, one with a lot of awesome, but not necessarily one to be placed in a dichotomy or binary with historicizing and remembering and claiming lineage. I think a lot of us  (and I guess in this particular moment, my “us” is queer and feminist-identified or allied folks who write) do embrace lineage, or place ourselves within lineages or traditions, and have done or are engaged in the hard work of excavating forebears who have not received their due. This is work I believe in, and believe in honoring. I am thinking, for instance, of the way Kate Zambreno regularly acknowledges her debt to Jane Bowles, Elfriede Jelinek, Virgina Woolf, Djuna Barnes, Clarice Lispector, Jean Rhys, etc. etc, and seems to do so very deliberately and politically.

What definitely doesn’t jazz me is the murder-the-parent schtick, all that emphasis on generational upheaval and usurpation. That shit sounds an awful lot like a dick contest to me, and as most of the folks who have heard any of the pop songs I’ve been writing for live performances of late know, I prefer to focus a lot more on my ass.

8 thoughts on “Generationality (In Which I Pirate Jackie Wang’s Groove to Prevent my Becoming BO’s Most Absentee Contributor)

  1. Yeah, continuity over disruption! A total disciple of Frank Kermode, I am.

    One of the things I’ve been tickled by recently is how so many groups that name themselves after something are usually not so much something new, but the inheritors of a longer tradition. See, for example, my recent post on New Wave: the New Wave of the 1980s, the one most people probably know (Culture Club and Duran Duran, etc), came twenty years after the first New Wave (the cinematic Nouvelle Vague). And day-glo 80s pop New Wave was already following in the footsteps of mid-to-late 70s punkier/underground New Wave.

    A better example: today we have Conceptual Poetics, supposedly a new thing. But I don’t think they’re really doing anything all that different from Conceptual Art of the 1960s, 50 years ago. New variations on an old idea, is how I’d put it. If even that. (I’m not diminishing the work at all; I think some of it is mighty fine; I just don’t see anything new in it. Except that it might be new to a certain subculture.)

    And even the Conceptual Artists of the 1960s, the ones who identified and named themselves after concept, were following very heavily in the footsteps of FLUXUS (early 60s), John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg’s early 1950s work, and Marcel Duchamp’s 19-teens work. Admittedly, “concept” wasn’t a movement proper (with a manifesto and everything) until Sol LeWit named it in 1967 (“Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”), but it had very clear manifestations, and precedents.

    Same thing with the Minimalist sculpture, painting, and music of the 1960s–70s: there’s a clear line of descent out of De Stijl (1920s), and abstract color field paintings (1940s, 50s), among other things. Those things just didn’t call themselves “Minimalist.”

    What I think happens is, certain tendencies exist in the culture, and sometimes they become popularized by a particular artist and group of artists. So Duchamp made a lot of conceptual art, but no one could call it that, because there wasn’t much cultural or critical mass around him.

    But then, later on, more and more people share that influence, and they band together united by that common idea (which was once an outlier). Then they can identify themselves as that thing: “We are the Conceptual Artists.” Because they’ve inherited something, and are looking backward to a shared influence, they can identify and name it, and label themselves after it.

    (Dick Higgins is the one who really gets this. See his brilliant essay “Against Movements.”)

    Examples abound: the Systems Novelists—Franzen, DeLillo, DFW, McElroy—are heirs to Pynchon, Gaddis, Dos Passos…actually, the Systems Novel, like so many things, can be traced back to Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), arguably the most influential English-language novel of the 20th century. (Take that, Ulysses!)

    So one of my thoughts these days is that the people who call themselves something are never (or almost never) the ones to originate that thing. And I’m sure there are exceptions, but…

    As for appropriation, it’s as old as the hills. (The hills are themselves appropriated.) My roommate Amira just taught a class on collage and appropriation; you can find thousands of examples stretching back simply forever and ever…

    1. Am I correct in perceiving in this some of what fueled your challenges to Vanessa Place last week?

      I did not feel equipped to firmly align myself with either side of that back-and-forth, but found it greatly entertaining as theater (in addition to intellectually stimulating).

      …Do you think some of what you are saying here, though clearly rooted in some pretty thorough knowledge of chronology and influence and lineage, can also, if you choose to apply a different frame, enable the rejection of “literary time” that Joyelle McSweeney is advocating? For instance, by in some way flattening timelines? Juxtaposing texts in reverse chronological or achronological ways? By somehow flattening timelines, or in other ways refusing to do the kind of equivocating about anachronism and context that one has to do when one does cross-historical comparisons in certain academic disciplines?

      I’m thinking even this idea you propose here abt how “certain tendencies exist in the culture” that are more strongly articulated in different moments is a different narrative, less linear and progressive and successive, than what we usually hear when we talk about influence.

      1. I like a lot of Vanessa’s work, and I like a lot of Kenneth Goldsmith’s work, but I dislike the way they often talk about their work—mainly their attempts to own conceptual literary art. (I’m sure they’d say they’re not doing this…but then why do they claim to have invented “Conceptual Poetics”? As I’ve heard them each claim numerous times?)

        As for Joyelle’s argument, I don’t fully know it, and I’d want to mull it over more before I really respond, but I see elements in it I think I can sympathize with. I don’t think that inheriting ideas or tropes etc. from previous artists makes one a lesser artist, or a slave to their ideas. I’m writing this with a keyboard I didn’t invent, and didn’t lay out, and didn’t build, but I can do a lot with it nevertheless. Same thing with language: I didn’t invent it (any of it!), but I can still express myself with it, to some degree. Well, the same thing is true with artistic tropes and devices and stylistic choices. Rothko didn’t invent color field painting, but he sure made great paintings! (Sol LeWit is one of my favorite artists of the 20th century, and I don’t know if he invented a single thing, but I don’t think that makes him a bad painter!)

        There is, I think, too much emphasis put on who invented what—which is, I think, capitalist commodification under a different guise. It’s also a legacy of Modernism: the whole “make it new!” mantra. What’s the ideological assumption behind that? Why should I want to make it new? Isn’t that a legacy of the Industrial Era? Aren’t we more concerned with reuse and sustainability these days? (I’m half joking here, and I’m also aware of how I’m echoing arguments that Kenneth Goldsmith likes to make.) Well, I like new things fine, sometimes, but I’m probably more concerned with how people use the materials they have, whether they be new or old.

        I’m thinking even this idea you propose here abt how “certain tendencies exist in the culture” that are more strongly articulated in different moments is a different narrative, less linear and progressive and successive, than what we usually hear when we talk about influence.

        It could be less linear, etc., but it doesn’t have to be.

        Things go in and out of fashion, in and out of dominance. Look at fantasy. It’s been around as a genre forever, since Gilgamesh, really. (G goes off and fights monsters and talks with gods.) It’s been around since before we had genres. And fantasy has changed tremendously over its 5000-year-long history, and that’s an understatement.

        One of the ways it’s changed is that, in different times, and in different places, it’s been more or less popular, and more or less influential. Right now, in the US, fantasy is extremely popular and influential. It’s simply everywhere: Harry Potter, Twilight, X-Men, Star Wars, LOTR, etc. etc. It’s mostly in the pop culture, I guess, but it’s hugely influential there, very dominant. Lots of young people today are receiving that influence, and making work that imitates it. (Consider that fan-fiction novel you love so much, that we were talking about at Amanda and Rebekah’s place. That was you, right? It’s written in total imitation of teen romance vampire novels, etc.)

        Twenty years ago, the culture was different. Stuff like X-Men and LOTR and Star Trek were a bit more were more underground. Lord knows I was embarrassed to get caught reading that stuff on the school bus. But go back further, to the late 1960s, and comics and Tolkien and Star Trek were really in vogue. So stuff goes up and down in popularity and influence. But for someone who’s been alive since the 1950s and who really likes fantasy, they’ve just been reading this stuff steadily for the past 50–60 years, enjoying what they enjoy.

        To return to Joyelle’s idea, as I understand it: there’s a flattening of literary time because, after a while, old things are just old. The Symbolists directly influenced Oscar Wilde, and I can see that, to some extent—I know it to be true—but honestly, to me, they’re both just old. It’s hard for me to appreciate what was different about Wilde’s time and Baudelaire’s time. A better example: Baudelaire directly influenced Rimbaud. And Baudelaire died when Rimbaud was still only 12 years old. But to me, they’re contemporaries. You have to be a literary scholar specializing in late-19th century French poetry to see the lineage, I think, and to really feel the influence.

        But on the other hand, I can see influences very clearly in the present day. That’s because I’m experiencing as it happens: I know that Owl City totally ripped off The Postal Service, because I saw it happen. But, before 1980, say, there’s Everything Else—the Older Stuff, all of which was made before I was born, or able to pay much attention. And there’s no real program as to how I’m going to encounter that stuff. I’m more likely to run into more popular, more present older stuff first—I picked up Vonnegut before I picked up Céline, because Vonnegut’s newer and in English and my dad had copies in the house—but as one moves farther back in time? There was once a group people call the Modernists, and they all liked to hang out together, I think, at parties. Why should I read Flaubert before I read Proust? Was Flaubert, like, an influence or something? “It’s all the same to me.” And this is true for everyone: just go back far enough, and it all blends together. What was the difference between 1970s art and 1980s art? I’m sure everyone reading this has some idea. Now, what’s the difference between 1870s art and 1880s art? 1670s and 1680s? Etc.

  2. Tim,
    The deconstruction on chronology is an interesting frame to look at the world though. i can safely say that I am still a bit overwhelmed by the prospect, but I think it is especially interesting today as we are not as locked to the past as we used to be… Today we have the ability to jump around due to technology making our understanding of the past more of a mosaic than a tree. Foucault goes into a lot of this in the introduction of “A History of Knowledge.” He even uses writers as his launch point — saying that a cannon of work is a frame put onto that work after the fact and is therefore completely contrived by the governing rules of the systems in place at the present and therefore cannot accurately represent what it seeks to represent…

  3. Tim, engaging more with the Queer/feminist issues of your post: I think part of my problem is not having access to the Halberstam lecture you mention. I think I recall you or someone else describing it to me a while back, and vaguely I recall having some issue with it, although I can’t remember now what that was. I think we were in a car at the time. With someone!

    In general, though, I tend to find generational strife a bit silly. Again, I prefer to see and emphasize lineages and tradition instead of reinvention and revolution. It seems to me, as you mention, that many times a new generation comes along and wants to “overturn” what the generation before them did. And it seems to me that they rarely succeed in doing that; culture keeps getting inherited and replicated, and I see some things as lasting long, long times. I don’t think this tension is a bad thing, though, mind you: perhaps it’s necessary in order to bring in small changes?

    This is another way of saying that I think culture is recombinant, or mostly recombinant, and that newness happens mostly (or even entirely? although I dislike absolute statements) through recombination–not through outright invention.

    The Conceptual Artists prided themselves as overturning Abstract Expressionism, really breaking with Clement Greenberg and his culture warrior, Jackson Pollock. But to my eyes, today, that seems kind of silly. Yes, the Conceptual Artists tried to drain sentimentality from their work, and make it, as Sol LeWit said, “emotionally dry.” Yes, they tried to move away from the object itself, in favor of the concept and the idea. Yes, they brought in indeterminacy and chance in a way you can’t find in a Rothko.

    So there were breaks. But there are also very strong connections: a tendency toward a minimalist aesthetic, lack of representation and figure, a general interest in abstract shapes and lines, a tendency to make very large works…and, despite what the Conceptual folk argued, a tendency to keep making objects. And to sell work to galleries for large sums. (OK, they sold the scores for the works, but the galleries still went ahead and put them up on the walls, and still do to this day.)

    I agree with Frank Kermode (Sense of an Ending) that you can’t just come along and completely reinvent culture; the result would be unintelligible to others, because meaning arises out of shared cultural norms of communication. So it’s pretty funny to me for an Nth-wave feminist to want to break with all previous feminists; they didn’t invent feminism! (Nor, as Kermode wisely points out, did they invent the impulse to rebel and reinvent, which keeps happening over and over…)

    1. …That all said, I think it’s great that the Conceptual Artists did what they did, because I love their work, and I love how it differs from Abstract Expressionism. It’s just the militant denial and claims of breakage from AE that I find somewhat unsupportable now. But I didn’t live back then, and they did, and if that’s what they needed to do to find their own path, then that’s what they needed to do…

      I am in general, though, suspicious of the constantly recurring meme, which one encounters repeatedly in experimental and revolutionary circles, to completely break with the past. I think I first encountered it in Alec Empire and Atari Teenage Riot: “Destroy 2000 Years of Culture.” And I love ATR, but they invented nothing (neither “digital” nor “hardcore”); all of their revolutionary tropes are inherited, and deep parts of the Western culture they supposedly want to destroy.

      …And all that all said, kudos to ATR for their staunch stand against Neo-Nazism; I think it’s awesome that Empire and Endo have reformed the band; I wish I could have seen them back in the day; rest in peace Carl Crack! DESTROY 2000 YEARS OF CULTURE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. There was one a time when modernism meant thomas mann djuna barnes gertrude stein etc and avant-garde meant andre breton marcel duchamp etc–now, they are all modernists.

    the chronology thing is often most notable in works that attempt to mess with chronology–the violation becomes the driving trope of the work. we think recursively, I like to think, and it is of use to wander the literary-scapes as the Situationists wander the city. Debord’s Marxist-inflected poststructuralism leads to Irigaray leads to Gummi Bears leads to Deleuze leads to Neko Case leads to teaching: we might to teach courss–those of us who teach–a-chronologically.

    I don’t always do this, but sometimes, and it’s always more difficult. I’m contemplating a Burroughs seminar, and thinking, why not _start_ with Naked Lunch, because that’s what most people who know Burroughs are going to start with.

    All the periodizing of feminist/queer theory is important for the larger picture, of course, but that is just a version of “the” picture.

    Whose picture, exactly?

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