Introduction to “The Face Gone:
Generation in Presentist Poetics”

presented at ASAP 9, 27 October 2017
“Generation and the Arts of the Present”
with Lawrence Rinder and James Smethurst;
chaired by C.D. Blanton; Rita Raley, respondent

In critical and creative terms, “generation” is a blindspot in the discourse of the arts of the present. My essay starts by questioning the reliance on art historical, literary, and critical paradigms of periodization as assumed across the disciplines: from Foucault’s “epistemic shift” to Jameson’s “cultural logic of late capitalism” to periodizing notions of the literary, artistic, or cultural succession of one movement, school, style, or group to the next. Rather, I see “generation” as a cultural logic is negotiated at every moment in poetic practice: for instance, Language writing does not simply succeed and overturn the “presentness” of the New American poets, nor is it simply overturned by conceptualism or new activist poetries—rather, a complex negotiation of generation takes place at each moment, which may be seen both within the details of the work or movement’s construction or self-understanding, and externally in terms of its aesthetic positioning. The discourse of contemporary poetics, it may be argued, was founded in “generational” terms: specifically with the anthology The Poetics of the New American Poetry (1972), which amplified the individual statements in The New American Poetry (1960), which in turn defined the generation of the New Americans. At present we are witnessing a proliferation of aesthetic “position takings” in relation to generationally defined moments in poetics, along with a general suspicion of all periodization as merely generational and age-related. I will begin by comparing the conflicting logics of generation I am (and we are) subject to in the present with examples taken from my current project on Soviet literature and culture, particularly in the shifts from aesthetic to political to cultural and gendered accounts of the concept. Then, I will attempt to theoretically complicate a reductive politics of generation along several lines: first, through a discussion of Marx’s concept of the “past labor” that must be taken into account in determining the value of “living labor” in its production (of commodities but, by extension, works of art). Second, I will take up Pierre Bourdieu’s understanding of past artistic production as conferring value within a “space of possibles” at a specific moment of artistic production. Finally, I will turn to Nietzsche’s concept of the “transvaluation of values” to describe how one movement internalizes the values of its predecessors while proliferating new ones. In this sense, Language writing “transvalued” the formal value of the New Americans (their presentness, reliance on speech, embodied politics) into a critical alternative that questions the nature of value itself (rather than merely supplanting the New Americans with new values such as atemporality, writing, and critique). Finally, I will situation the generational hybridity of John Ashbery’s most recent poetry in relation to recent poetry by Ted Pearson, Johannes Göransson, and Sandra Simonds to propose how the cultural logics of generation are discontinuous and overlapping in our present moment of poetic production.

 

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