from “Ashbery’s Historicism:
Nonsite Hypotaxis and Modernity Critique
in The Double Dream of Spring“
Presented at John Ashbery in Paris: International Conference
12 March 2010, Institut Charles V, Université Paris Diderot
What makes The Double Dream of Spring both unique and exemplary for Ashbery’s work is its positive critique of social modernity, rather than a mere ironic reversal of modernism, at the intersection of critical theory, poststructuralism, and romanticism. In the figural space of his works, Ashbery inverts of the poetics of radical particularity—seen in terms of an aesthetic of the fragment and the condition of reification under capitalism—that relocates what Altieri terms its “aesthetic agency” in an interplay of “partial local coherence” that at once proposes and disposes of any horizon of totality. The stakes of the “double dream” may be located right there: between the deployment of the situated and particular, on the one hand, and a critique of the total and general, on the other. What results is an anticipatory illumination of the disjunct global order that we now live, emerging in the late 60s in which Ashbery wrote, into the 70s founding of the neoliberal order—in manifesto-like anthems such as “The Bungalows,” “Decoy,” “Soonest Mended,” “Definition of Blue,” “Parergon,” and others. I see the spatial argument of these poems—their drifting between “zones” or regions of argument as always sited toward larger horizons but never fully subordinated to them—as, finally, a historical perception of changes in the structure of modernity, beyond national boundaries, as it emerges toward a global order. At the same time, The Double Dream of Spring makes a specific historical intervention that introduced a new use of language—of critique and theory—into culture at large. The nonidentity of translation, as a critical as much as literary act, is central to this effect. Something more than formal invention and aesthetic bedazzlement is responsible for The Double Dream of Spring’s reception: its mixture of critical reflection and theoretical language engages larger cultural logics as a form of cultural work, of poetic praxis. Its aesthetic is by no means merely an ironic épater le bourgeois but a consistent social critique that moves from a radical questioning of particularity to the détournement of totality. [. . .]
Thanks to Donna Stonecipher for presenting the paper in my absence.