108

Felix Bernstein

The Irreproachable Essay On the Amazon Discourse of Hybrid Literature

[1]

A New York-based performance artist, playwright, cultural critic, and poet, Felix Bernstein is a model hybrid of our current affect-oriented age. In what might best be described as a public confession, Bernstein performs here the very voice that he critiques, which is also – or so we must take to be true – authentically his own: that of the contemporary romantic poet.

As I wrote this I was listening to x on iTunes, friend x called, we read x quote from theory, I had sad memory x while at x gallery, where I came to conclusion x about x sensibility. Then I proposed and defined an x+1 sensibility, using timid caution, as apology and alibi to put forward cluster of x+1 artists, including me. My definition of x+1 sensibility isn’t academic, even though I’m in graduate school, but relaxed, like an informed blog. It’s not art-world, even though it’s going to be published in an exhibition catalogue. It’s not commercial, even though it will be collected in a book, which will top the Amazon charts in philosophy-pop-poetry-queer-personal-essay-autofiction, right above Montaigne’s “Essais.” Don’t worry: the tone will not be canonical but personal, as if between friends.

The above is a formula that can be employed by artist-critics to forge a genre that is exempt from immediate contestation for being exclusive and narrow. In contrast to the processes of academic canon-formation, this formula prioritizes the quotidian, friendly, and whimsical above the indifferent and institutional. Used with increasing regularity by budding academics and artworlders, this practice follows the rules of Frank O’Hara’s ironic poetry manifesto “Personism,” which advocated the friend-to-friend tone of gossip over academic formalism. O’Hara was a poet-as-artworlder who glued together the virtuosic cluster known as the New York School in the 1950s. “Personism” was a witty detournement of T. S. Eliot’s snotty theory of “impersonal poetry,” where emotions had to be forcefully channeled into objective correlatives by the virtuosic crafting of the poet; a detournement of Eliot’s culturally conservative traditionalism, while producing a new tradition of his own. [2]

O’Hara worked at New York’s Museum of Modern Art for some fifteen years – from postcard salesman to curator – but died without institutional recognition, despite being a beloved and central figure in the New York art sphere. Today, his poems are among the most canonized of his era, and he’s become an icon of gay style, at large. For O’Hara was that great poet-as-scene-maker, coherent yet personable, institutional yet queer, ironic yet sincere, uptown yet downtown, elegant yet quotidian. His hybrid poetic-personal, poetic-critical aesthetic has since become the fetishized, new norm in poetry, with American MFA and PhD programs expecting students to engage both the critical and the emotional in their work – as, after all, the market for such writing is expanding, with big presses, major art institutions, and mainstream magazines seeking out masters of the hybrid style. And for the younger set, remixing your essay into multimedia art is a mainstay in both radical and corporate pedagogy.

From the Arion Press edition of Biotherm by Frank O'Hara, with illustrations by Jim Dine, 1990

For Percy Shelley, in 1821, the poet-critic’s power as “unacknowledged legislator” of the world gave him the capacity (or so he imagined) to check and balance himself and the world. Percy left an unattainable high mark for blending the aesthetic, poetic, and political. But Mary -Shelley was even more hybridized than her husband. Daughter of trailblazing parents (a feminist mother and an anarchist father), she wrote the greatest nineteenth-century novel, “Frankenstein.” After hearing Percy discuss philosophy with Lord Byron, she thought, “perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and imbued with vital warmth.” [3] She created a monster that inverted the privileged dandy culture of her moment. (Note that Byron would later become the inspiration for Count Dracula: part human, part bat, all dandy).

Frankenstein’s monster stood in stark contrast to the revolutionary men who mastered reason and passion. A radical outcast, the monster had no bloodline. But he was a key harbinger of the innumerable hybrid-monsters to come; to become a loveable trope in American popular culture, where queer monsters increasingly become crucial figures of identification – from Disney villains to those who can claim, by means of social networking, to achieve multimedia, polysexual appeal, such as Hollywood star James Franco.

The Romantics, like the Shelleys, forged their own manifestoes indicating, to the chagrin of cultural authorities, how their work was to be read, meanwhile causing panic for academic and conservative critics. At some point, this issuing of radical directives morphed into the compulsory artist statement. Unlike the Shelleys, today’s poet-critic has a lesser role: one tasked with cataloging the “aesthetic categories” that order our post-digital, 2.0 painterly, queer, middle-class world, with an ephemerality that only appears to be counter-academic.

Those tirelessly pursuing formally divided, medium-specific roles as gatekeepers of institutional practice find the success of the hybrid artist to be an offending slap in the face to their conservative ways. Barthes’s Wrestler (the opening figure of the “Mythologies,” placed right before his essay on Critic) forms a good analogy:

“Sometimes he rejects the formal boundaries of the ring and goes on hitting an adversary legally protected by the ropes, sometimes he re-establishes these boundaries and claims the protection of what he did not respect a few minutes earlier. This inconsistency, far more than treachery or cruelty, sends the audience beside itself with rage: offended not in its morality but in its logic, it considers the contradiction of arguments as the basest of crimes.” [4]

Felix Bernstein, "Bieber Bathos Elegy," Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2016. Performance view

When overcoming a genre or a set of laws, when and where will new parameters be enforced, how will excellence be claimed? The critic-artist, like Barthes’s wrestler, does not offend on moral grounds; but, rather, because the hypocritical standards upon which they would like to be judged seem unfair: “I don’t like to be treated the way I treat others.” Which is to say, if you make a negative claim about the personal essayist, it can be contested either for conflating the artist’s subjectivity with their artistic production, or vice versa. The ever-changing set of rules that are unspoken, yet still hierarchical. This problem resides within my essay too – under differing conditions, I will make the claim that the personal-essayist is a hypocrite, a radical, a genius, or a fraud. But who, in turn, sets these conditions? For, in final analysis, the Baudelairean critic-artist is always the consummate hypocrite – claiming to transgress the rules that he inevitably reinstates.

That this issue is more likely to come into play with the assessment of queer and female writing was clear to Barthes. In contrast to the macho example of the Wrestler, he later addresses the patronizing photo shoot in Elle magazine of 70 female novelists. Unfortunately, donning the cap of the poet-critic-artist (contra-academe) continues to come with the danger of being seen as all persona, all catty drama, too effeminate, and being taken less seriously on a formal level.

Take, for example, pop culture’s recent embrace of poet-essayist Eileen Myles. Through the logic of coolness, punk fashion, and the market’s demand for destructive innovation, everything about her being a poet is praised and consumed, it would seem; everything except her poetry – which, while still seriously received among her peers, tends to be given less attention than her personhood in the broader public eye. A recent Artforum essay [5] lays out the trajectory of this dynamic in art history vis-à-vis the success strategy, among feminist artists, to assume an attitude of “Fuck You.” [6] While making for an amusing, Buzzfeed-style list, its drawback comes from assessing artists under the “mad woman in the attic” approach, or i.e., artist as pure mentality. A case in point: critics have, in positive and negative degrees, referred to my work as reflecting a post-digital queer “attitude” but not displaying a serious commitment to poetic or academic writing.

But increasingly, the personal essayist and hybrid author is seen to mainstream critics as more than mere bohemian camp or coterie poetics. Claudia Rankine’s opus “Citizen: An American Lyric” (billed as criticism and poetry) was unanimously reviewed as a powerful and virtuosic testament of race relations in America and was ranked in the Guardian’s “Best -Political Books” of 2015. Not simply an “irresistible” stylistic gesture, the historical necessity of this update of the American lyric shows the powerful poetical stakes of genre defiance. And more recently, the poet Maggie Nelson was lauded for “The Argonauts,” which, telling the story of her relationship with gender-fluid artist Harry Dodge, is described by the publisher as a “genre-bending” “auto-theory” “memoir” by a “public intellectual.” It is also currently a #1 bestseller on US Amazon in Feminist Criticism, LGBT Criticism, as well as Philosophy Criticism, where Nelson betters Montaigne and Nietzsche. [7]

Turns to verse novels and poetic non-fiction have historically been evoked under the auspices of reaching “ordinary” readers. And there is, of course, a financial incentive in this – since the nineteenth century, English novels have generally sold better than poetry, so poetry that resembles a novel has a better chance on the market.

Marcel Broodthaers, "La Salle Blanche," 1975

Following, with tongue in cheek, the financial incentive to leave poetry-qua-poetry behind, Marcel Broodthaers switched from a failed poetry career to a successful gallery career in the 1960s, going so far as to put his unsold books into a plaster sculpture. The binarization implied by his biographical narrative has led more mainstream reviewers of his recent MoMA retrospective to label him as either a sell-out trickster who is dull to non-academics, or else surprisingly visually absorbing, despite his criticality.

But in his final work, “La Salle Blanche” (1975) – wherein he recreated his room to scale as a monolithic sculpture, decorating his stark walls with terms from art and theory – he reversed his earlier claim to displace poetry from the ivory tower. Broodthaers placed the poetic directly within the museum, within “this perfectly petit bourgeois ground floor where words float.” Showing the artist’s indwelt rumination to be structured like a language, one could have a cynical takeaway – the cunningly employed mask of critical-artist persona has become glued to his insides, and the terms of art theory do not break down the property of the bourgeois artist but remain there, like wallpaper.

It’s like rain on your wedding day … or performing, as I did, a pop-poetry-spectacle opera, “Bieber Bathos Elegy,” at a major museum right after writing a critique of hastily gathered poetry-hybrid events at New York’s New Museum. In my show, Justin Bieber [8] sings to me about the pathetic banality of my fan worship. Though I start the show with a guttural and aggressive deconstruction of YouTube child stardom, I end up swooning over Bieber, collapsing in his arms – the spasm of the gay spastic who cannot yet be post-spectacle, or the post-critical relapse into sentimentality. An intensification of camp logic to the point that the show was critiqued for offering “too much” of the aesthetics of “too much.” Voilà, the problem of the set of a set that includes itself.

Maybe this is akin to a version of Merlin Carpenter’s “Political Kitsch”: Carpenter, a painter and a Marxist, trapped by his own language; the anti-capitalist slogans used in his “Openings” series, deployed sincerely albeit knowingly into the context of the art market, only to be recuperated by others, counter to his intentions, as purely ironic; his position, in turn, starting to feel all the more real (precious). You become the true believer in anti-institutional discourse, right as you get the indifferent handshake, and pat on the back, from the institution. [9]

For my part, no amount of self-reflexivity could stop me from slipping on my own carefully placed banana peel, which, in the end, is what bathos is all about – and part of the stagecraft of performing cultural differentiation. As Maggie Nelson put it:

“A good Foucauldian, I grew to understand that certain utterances have the appearance of transgression only within the logic of a confessional society … I think I’ve developed a certain talent or taste for staging that transgression, while also understanding that staging as kind of a ruse, with broad possibilities beyond it.” [10]

Timing is everything: when to hoard and when to expel, when to be indifferent and when to be affirmative, when to transition – transitions being seemingly ever-hauntingly incomplete. And the badly transitioned, like Frankenstein’s monster, or the transition that does not work out, are destined to be ridiculed and fetishized: per Derrida, “[…] it is always non-work that is stigmatized.” [11] To manage this, the awkward transition must be streamlined into disciplinary criteria of excellence, the good hybrid – the body without organs who can parody gender, whilst emphasizing precarity, matter, ethics; while remaining virtual, ironic, mutable; and self-critically recognizing that this is all “neoliberal” and meant to be surpassed.

Still, we continue to think that the personal essay is anti-academic. Even now, when “evil” standardized testing (for college entrance) has been replaced, in the States, by “good” hybrid portfolio reviews, which analyze high-schoolers in their humanistic totality. Today, the ideal application statement is meant to show the prospective student to be exceptional yet deferential, queer yet normative enough to coherently write about him or herself. And college admissions committees set up online social media “lockers,” where students post a motley crew of their diverse practices. Transgression and banality is the new gold standard. And at New York University, the avant-garde downtown anti-gentrification artist and the gentrifying college student are morphed into the perfect hybrid. Meanwhile MFA programs, mentorship residencies, and PhD programs increasingly have a professor ready to encourage the personal essayist, the artist as critic, and the performer as academic – to poise them for swift publishing in Norton, Penguin, Artforum, and so on, liberating them from the “stale” old guard of the academic journal/press. For the anthology always seeks out an Aristotelean golden mean, which draws back to the West’s originary poetic fantasy of the harmonic purity of the Aeolian lyre.

To be anthologized today you can’t just be an artist, you must explain it; you can’t just be an academic, you have to feel it; you can’t just be a scholar, you have to keep up with blogs; you can’t just blog, you have to keep up with theory. I would call this technocratically neoliberal, but I live in a glass house.

Lady Gaga, 2014

In the queer world, we call the above “you do you,” the tug of war where you give then get permission to be yourself, with a disavowed undercurrent of passive aggression, a vicious competition to prove who is the most self-reliant. Lady Gaga put it best, “I’m a selfish bitch to inspire other selfish bitches.” If you criticize her “will to stardom” you are “hating” and attacking not only her but also the community she inspires. Thus you can’t point to her megalomania, since it is allegedly a megalomania that is altruistically inspiring an entire community.

What occurs with all this you-ness and me-ness is a disavowal of any closet whatsoever, any repression, and any unconscious: To “do you” is to live in an auto-tuned, auto-fictional form of erasure. It is to seek to represent oneself by means of a “perpetual suicide.” [12] It is to live in a culture where the outsider comes before an outside is even visible.

The most exceptional artist-critic can seamlessly combine banality and transgression, trespassing temporal and disciplinary norms, while still reaping the conventional rewards of the market. But to sit in a sovereign seat of charismatic exemption is a double-edged sword. And the risk is producing too perfect a genre, one that is too exclusionary.

The best hybrid authors have an upfront desire to speak about their own complicity in the monetization of feelings and the affective impositions implied by their genre. But this desire leads to the following problem: in mixing deferential footnotes, astute self-criticism, personal sentiment, poetic language, and academic theory with a drive to succeed as a populist tastemaker, the hybrid author creates an integrity that is beyond reproach. In being this irreproachable, have we not fallen into the same old trap of disciplinary authority?

Has the personal simply become the new impersonal? Maybe – but then, you do you.

Felix Bernstein is the author of "Burn Book" (Nightboat, 2016) and "Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry" (Insert Blank Press, 2015). His book on contemporary queer avant-gardes, written with philosopher Kyoo Lee, is forthcoming.

Notes

[1]Henry Weekes, Shelley Monument, Christchurch Priory, Dorset, 1853-4
[2]Frank O’Hara, “Personism: A Manifesto,” in: Donald Allen (ed.), The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London 1995.
[3]Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, Knoxville, TN 1993, p. 4.
[4]Roland Barthes, Mythologies, New York 2012, p. 13.
[5]Ara Osterweil, “Fuck You! A Feminist Guide to Surviving the Art World,” in: Artforum, Summer 2016, pp. 320–330.
[6]Here is a typical conflation of persona, aesthetic form, and personhood; an erasure of the dialectic play between subject and object, impersonal style and confessional authenticity. The attempt to easily resolve these dualisms in terms of praxis is eloquently debunked by Michael Trask in his book Camp Sites: “Camp makes it hard to infer from it a politics because it discomfits our vexatious political presumption […] that attitudes are politics. Since camp is often seen as nothing but an attitude, one that revels in its own inefficacy, it appears to run counter to the effort to tie political change to consciousness raising, the radical’s preferred form of activism.” Michael Trask, Camp Sites: Sex, Politics, and Academic Style in Postwar America, Stanford, CA 2013, p. 13.
[7]Some recent examples of art ccriticism/poetry/theory/fiction/memoir hybrids: “My 1980s” (Wayne Koestenbaum); “White Girls” (Hilton Als); the reprint of “Chelsea Girls” (Eileen Myles); “Torpor” (Chris Kraus); “When the Sick Rules the World” (Dodie Bellamy); “Fuck Seth Price” (Seth Price); “Titanic” (Cecilia Corrigan); “10:04” (Ben Lerner); “Natural Subjects” (Divya Victor); “Rich Texts” (John Kelsey); “The Quarry: Essays” (Susan Howe); “Pitch of Poetry” (Charles Bernstein); “The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis” (Jamieson Webster); “Sex or the Unbearable” (Lauren Berlant/Lee Edelman); “Man Alive” (Thomas Page McBee); “What Would Lynne Tillman Do” (Lynne Tillman); “Blue Fasa” (Nathaniel Mackey); “Love Sounds” (Masha Tupitsyn); “Is It My Body” (Kim Gordon); “The Light of the World: A Memoir” (Elizabeth Alexander); “Dear Alain” (Katy Bohnic); “The Winter the Wolf Came” (Juliana Spahr); “Black Gay Man” (Robert Reid-Pharr); “Writing Entanglish” (Kyoo Lee); “Creative Criticism: An Anthology and Guide” (Stephen Benson and Claire Connors).
[8]Bieber is portrayed by an actor.
[9]Merlin Carpenter/John Kelsey/ Emily Sundblad, “WELCOME TO THE TATE CAFÉ,” http://www.merlincarpenter.com/TATECAFE.pdf.
[10]Maggie Nelson, “The Rumpus Interview with Maggie Nelson,” http://therumpus.net/2015/05/the-rumpus-interview-with-maggie-nelson/.
[11]Jacques Derrida, as quoted in: Anna Alexander/Mark S. Roberts, High Culture: Reflections on Addiction and Modernity, Albany, NY 2003.
[12]“To write one’s autobiography in order either to confess or to engage in self-analysis or in order to expose oneself to the gaze of all […] is perhaps to seek to survive, but through a perpetual suicide.” Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Anne Smock, Lincoln, NE 1995, p. 64.