Thursday, June 25, 2009

After Yesterday's Crash

The Avant-Pop Anthology

edited by Larry McCaffery

I stumbled onto the Larry McCaffery-edited ‘Storming the Reality Studio’ as a middle school student, browsing through the Science Fiction/ Fantasy section at a Media Play in upstate New York. It didn’t make any sense. What was this fat, shrink-wrapped book with its cover illustrations of animal corpses attached to clockwork mechanisms? I was about 14 years old and starting to explore different literatures. I’d recently jettisoned my RPG novelizations and Robert Jordan doorstops for JG Ballard, Phillip K. Dick and William Gibson. I had also just begun to write with any real intention, and was desperately searching for something, some direction for what I was doing. This tan anthology was subtitled ‘A casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction,’ taken from a William S. Burroughs quote: “Storm the Reality Studio. And retake the universe.” It contained fiction from Gibson, Ballard and Burroughs, as well as other strange and exciting writers I’d never even heard of, such as Kathy Acker, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and Bruce Sterling. I was startled, confounded and immensely inspired at an age when the idea of a literature actually engaged with technology and cultural progress struck me as radical and unprecedented. Even today, I look back at ‘Storming the Reality Studio’ and marvel at just how well it was edited, both how pertinent and prescient it continues to be. I recommend ‘Storming the Reality Studio’ not just to those readers interested in 80s cyberpunk literature, but to anyone engaged with the interstices of mass media and innovative writing.

McCaffery gets ‘Storming the Reality Studio’ right in large part because of its sharp focus – he provides a close investigation of the cyberpunk subgenre, while also exploring affinities in other fictions (DeLillo, Pynchon, Vollmann), in addition to cultural theory and philosophy (Baudrillard, Derrida, and Jameson). The anthology works within a determined boundary and seeks out possible bridges outside the strict practices of the defined subgenre. Last year, at a flea market with my then-girlfriend, I came across another anthology edited by Larry McCaffery, published roughly around the same time – 1995’s ‘After Yesterday’s Crash.’ It’s a much more modest affair and focuses solely on innovative fiction. Penguin publishes ‘After Yesterday’s Crash’, while ‘Storming the Reality Studio’ came out through the Duke college press.

Once again, McCaffery’s selections are impeccable. Not only does he acknowledge the influential work of novelists such as Paul Auster, Robert Coover, and Raymond Federman, he also spotlights major young writers who had at that time yet to work their way into any fickle canon. It’s a real pleasure to find Steve Erickson, William T. Vollmann, and David Foster Wallace here. The great Steve Erickson was still years away from his mainstream breakthrough, ‘Zeroville,’ and the appendix tells us David Foster Wallace “…currently teaches in the literature department at Illinois State University, Normal, and is completing a new novel.” That new novel being ‘Infinite Jest.’ Better yet, McCaffery publishes in this collection an early story from Ben Marcus, the terrifying and hilarious ‘False Water Society,’ years before the arrival of Marcus’ first book, ‘The Age of Wire and String.’ This is a collection of exciting and innovative fictions, where even the misfires are worthwhile for their audacity. So what is the problem with ‘After Yesterday’s Crash?’

This ultimately falls at the feet of editorship. At their best, editors provide an open receptivity in addition to a discerning mediation. Look, for instance, at the somewhat related field of essay-writing. That is, both can serve as organizational fields, something like what blogging has become. Great essayists, such as Guy Davenport or Hugh Kenner, feed a polymath’s appetite while searching for larger patterns. A good editor does much the same thing. Of course, an editor also functions best while working from an acknowledgement of the very reality of a situation, in addition to a personal aesthetic or political agenda. Look at Donald Allen’s ‘The New American Poetry,’ Ron Silliman’s extremely focused ‘In the American Tree,’ or Cole Swenson and David St. John’s ‘Hybrid American Poetry,’ from earlier in 2009.

‘After Yesterday’s Crash’ suffers from an editor’s desire to seek out, or more correctly to ‘discover,’ the trends of the New. This is related to, but importantly, not the same thing as, the relevance of the moment. Trends, or more aptly put, developments, in the literary landscape should not be ‘sniffed out’ or ‘whipped up,’ so much as observed, or in a more proactive instance, acted upon. It might even be argued that its precisely McCaffery’s blind insistence on the novelty of ‘this particular moment’ circa 1995 derailing this otherwise wonderful anthology. McCaffery’s enthusiasm gets the best of him as he fails to observe localized factors with the same skill as in ‘Storming the Reality Studio. Instead he indulges his zeal for generalizations and punch-drunk manifestos. Critics often trip up when they rely upon aesthetic bridges they themselves sniff out, rather than the social and geographical connective tissue of organic ‘movements’ like cyberpunk, LangPo, or contemporary traditions such as Flarf or Conceptual Poetry. Writers as diverse as Joanna Russ, Raymond Federman and Mark Leyner may indeed share tendencies, but it does the work, and the reader, a disservice to foist an unwieldy umbrella over their heads. Observe the differences along with the affinities.

And McCaffery has dubbed this umbrella Avant Pop. The book is subtitled, after all, ‘the Avant-Pop anthology,’ and boasts on the back cover that this is ‘Writing for the New Millennium.’ The collection’s focus does not fall under the broad reach of writing, but within the particular of fiction. It isn’t as if McCaffery hasn’t elsewhere shown an admirable receptivity to divergent mediums - to innovative poetries such as those of Lyn Hejinian, as well as radical philosophy and cultural theoretics. The book is even preceded by two quotes of poetry. Arthur Rimbaud’s command to ‘Unfold strange flowers/ And electric butterflies!’ nicely segues into a quote from Charles Bernstein’s ‘The Lives of the Toll Takers’ that “There is no plain sense of the word,/ nothing is straightforward,/ description a lie behind a lie:/ but truths can still be told.” Unfortunately, McCaffery does nothing to tie the strong tradition of innovative poetry into his conception of Avant Pop.

Avant Pop itself is something of a test-tube baby. Like Stephen Burt’s New Thing, McCaffery’s Avant Pop is well intentioned, but suffers from a grievous misunderstanding of surrounding social and cultural factors contributing to a linear tradition in the arts. McCaffery conceives of Avant Pop as a trend developing out of postmodernism. After postmodernism. But while postmodernists such as Guy DeBord and Frederic Jameson lament “the Spectacle [that] originates in the loss of the unity of the world, and the gigantic expansion of the modern spectacle express[ing] the totality of this loss…,” McCaffery’s Avant-Popists “…share a fascination with mass culture and the determination to find a means of entering and exploring the belly of this beast without getting permanently swallowed or becoming mere extensions of its operations…” Furthermore, “Avant-Pop combines Pop Art’s focus on consumer goods and mass media with the avant-garde’s spirit of subversion and emphasis on radical formal innovation.” Which is already a dangerously vague generalization of the Avant Garde, not to say anything about the tradition of experimentalism that exists outside the hubris orbiting our notions of the Avant Garde. The break in Avant-Pop is that “…whereas Pop Art was an expression of the logic and technologies associated with the ideology of consumption (which governed capitalist expansion during the fifties and sixties), Avant-Pop represents the logic and technologies associated with the next phase of capitalist expansion, initiated during the Reagan era: the ideology of hyperconsumption.” But how does David Foster Wallace or Lynne Tillman’s appropriation of mass media differ from James Joyce’s use of newspaper techniques and typography in ‘Scylla and Charybdis?’

Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t a difference both in motivation and context. I argued as much in my previous post on Place & Fitterman’s ‘Notes on Conceptualisms.’ But I would argue McCaffery’s statements lack sufficient definition. McCaffery circumnavigates possible illuminations whose failed opportunities manifest as contradictions. McCaffery quotes from the 1918 Berlin Dadaist Manifesto that gives this anthology its title: “The highest art will be the one which in its conscious content presents the thousandfold problems of the day… Hatred of the press, hatred of advertising, hatred of SENSATIONS are typical of people who prefer their armchair to the noise of the street.” What then of the resultant writing of these Dadaists? What then of Apollinaire’s integration of advertising language and vernacular into his poetry? Aren’t these evocations of “the noise of the street?” McCaffery fails to reconcile these blind spots.

He writes how “High culture, of course, had always regarded this bedlam of disposable images and words to be useless, trivial, mere noise, but Avant-Pop and the Berlin Dadaists sensed this chaotic, endlessly circulating swarm of sounds, words, images, and data was actually speaking a new kind of language… a kind of dream symbolism.” Now, this ‘new language’ actually has its origins in industrial culture, and has its expression in the works of early theorists such as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. McCaffery isn’t “…sure if the Dadaists were right about this suspicion, but [he] personally feel[s] that Avant-Pop writers are.” Perhaps. He offers no further explanation. Is McCaffery’s point simply that earlier appropriators and assimilators of mass media were grappling with consumption, while the writers who fall under the umbrella of Avant-Pop are grappling with a ‘hyperconsumption?’ - with ‘more’ consumption? This feels like a rather specious difference, as well as a very subjective one. I’m sorry, it’s also a bit of a cop-out.

Place & Fitterman’s ‘Notes on Conceptualisms’ offers a cogent and articulate definition of the contemporary moment in poetry. The book tackles methods by which Conceptual writing takes account of a tradition, while referencing a particularity. It is a manifesto, yes, but it feels as if it is addressing the development of a localized trend, of a group of writers who have been in dialogue. Perhaps that answers Ron Silliman’s question as to why the similar, yet earlier, works of poet Jackson Mac Low were not included in Fitterman’s appendix. Mac Low perhaps does not possess the same personal and professional clout with younger Conceptual poets that he did with the Language poets. This is not a bearing on Mac Low’s work, I personally find him to be a great poet, but simply on personal proximity. McCaffery’s ‘After Yesterday’s Crash’ exists as a complicit project of critics revolving around McCaffery himself, and including others such as Mark Amerika and Lance Olsen, and in that regard forces selective assessments of particular works and writers in order to fit them into an artificial cult of the New.

This is a fantastic and exceptionally curated collection of progressive fictions. I simply find it unfortunate that such diverse and luminous works are mishandled in the service of Avant Pop. But if Larry McCaffery’s aesthetic notions of incipient movements fall flat, he rises from the affair on the strength of his selections as a paragon of taste and relevance. Read this anthology for the brilliant writing, if not for its specious agenda.

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