For this issue of Texte zur Kunst, we take “poetry” as our theme, proposing that the turn toward affect and personal experience in contemporary critical writing in recent years – in an art context, but also in the language of theory, protest, and throughout the digital realm – stems from a newly fundamental desire, particularly in the American cultural sphere, to engage the political from a place of individual immediacy.
But why is this so? Why is the poet subject (once a somewhat embarrassing, marginal identity) now seen as a viable path to social recognition and success? Here, we consider this figure’s voice (her sound and her currency) from a range of perspectives, investigating how she, as a subject, has become such a vital site for the intersection of politics, affect, and digitality. We also analyze the consequences of her rising influence and acknowledge possible historical precedents for her type. With a scope that includes populist poetry, anarchist poetry, post-millennial net-poetry, the poetry of surplus-language and social media, the art historical poetic/poet-turned-object, and shades of fading Poesie (lyrical poetry), this issue, which has been conceived with artist and writer John Kelsey and Isabelle Graw, explores how the seeming immediacy of #poetry and the suggestion of a hyper-personal voice correlates with the current economic necessity to strongly claim visibility.
Central to our interest in this poetic turn is an observation that personal testimony, by which this shift is characterized, is increasingly offered in lieu of established forms of critical thought. This may sound odd to many readers of this journal (especially those holding in mind the emergence of ’90s identity politics) who have long found utility in a model aimed at presenting rationalized (and thus debatable) value judgements; a model wherein particular subjectivites – whether formed by a specific social position or given sexual preference – speaking from a place of situated (oppressed) knowledge, could equally participate in the production of critical thinking. But to invoke one’s identity in that context is/was very different than merely putting forward one’s subjective opinion or locating authority in an anti-discursive assessment of what one feels. In recent years, however, the right to speak seems to have become less about oppression and more about securing visibility, which, in our present attention economy, would mean something different. In any case, there indeed has been growing dissatisfaction (particularly within the younger Anglophone milieu) with the standing academic/theoretical methodological options and writing styles. Such structures, many would claim, do not adequately allow for new communicational forms and, further, give insufficient space for non-binary subjects – or, more precisely, are apparently unable to accommodate the great number of subjects identifying as exceptional to the rule. Now that everyone can be an eye-witness, a journalist, and, in their particular individual experience, can feel empowered to speak, it is not entirely surprising that the institutional authority that once arbitrated objective judgment might appear romantic or even weak. In a “post-fact” world, could it be, as New York-based writer Ada O’Higgins claims in her contribution to this issue, that “objective” criticism has become a poetic object itself? One could argue that if yes, then institutional gatekeepers such as Texte zur Kunst are needed more than ever. Perhaps this is so. But as it is precisely the language seeping in as floodwater that may now also count as critical thought, we aim here to better understand what this language form might be, engaging it, in this issue, through the lens of “poetry.”
Prescient in his understanding of poetry’s transitive properties, Marcel Broodthaers stands as a key progenitor of the poet figure. In her contribution for this issue, Isabelle Graw offers six theses on the Belgian artist’s contemporary relevance, framing the fact that he not only famously switched his identity from poet to artist, but by sealing his poetry in plaster and rendering it “art,” offered it up for critical assessment as an object endowed with the commodity status a work of art implies. Significantly for this discussion, Graw shows how Broodthaers, along with taking language to be one common denominator in his work, also consistently considered the particular staging of his subjectivity – whether bohemian poet, curator-impresario, or artist-as-maker-of-luxury-goods.
It does seem to be the case, as artist-writer Felix Bernstein claims, that the affective-critical subject is all but mandated now by the very institutions (academic and commercial) known for insisting on high theoretical critical standards. Here, Bernstein, in the same schizoid-paranoid voice about which he writes, considers the rise of the poet-artist-critic, tracing this hybrid from Frankenstein’s creature to Frank O’Hara, from Broodthaers to Bernstein’s own generation and beyond. Chris Kraus and Ariana Reines are likewise familiar with the poet-artist speaker, embodying it in their own respective work. For this issue, Kraus (a co-editor of Semiotext[e] and author of numerous works of criticism and fiction) and Reines (a prolific poet and artist and translator of Tiqqun’s “Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl”) name a genealogy of foremothers. In doing so, they show that the literary sphere has long negotiated the private and public use of “I.” But with the increased pressure to expose oneself, to trade on the interior self, Kraus and Reines also see a growing vulnerability – the demand, when one’s value is tied to one’s feelings, to sell (out) one’s inner voice.
German poet Daniela Seel shares this concern. As a founding publisher of Berlin-based press Kookbooks, she speaks of a necessary distance between private “personhood” and public “persona,” pointing, also, to how the English language (which many artist-poets invoked in this issue employ), in particular, limits one’s thought, aligning it, one could say, with the protocol of global capital. While for non-native speakers, welcome deviations may ensue, defaulting to English reinforces the thought patterns of an already dominant language form, thereby diminishing the possibilities of what is thinkable at all. But as Tim Griffin offers in his essay for these pages, it is the very devices charged with accelerating our globalization – smartphones, above all, equipped with auto-correction and instant translation – that have also enabled a new kind of commons for poetic thought. It is this space, notes Griffin, one that is both intimate (in its immediacy and absence of formality) and disembodied (in its technological mediation), that a mode of semiotic abstraction arises to be collectively negotiated anew.
Adding further insight to art historical spaces of semiotic indeterminacy and the role of poetry therein, Liz Kotz considers what promise poetry might have held for a certain network of artists circa 1960 (on both sides of the Atlantic), highlighting how their exploration of intermediality, intersubjectivity, and the limits of a work of art being “about itself” led a transformation in the field of art. However, as scholar and poet Joshua Clover reminds us, no amount of “subjectivity” in a poem alters the extent to which the poet is an object: “The subject of capital is capital.” It is in this light that Monika Rinck’s text can be read, albeit via a different critical set-up. Through her lens, the poet is a “supplier,” a delivery person for language. To introduce an “I” and a (familiar) “you” in this context is to falsify intimacy, to inscribe you, the reader, as the fake-familiar subject (of neo-liberal consumerism). Speaking not to individuation but to the community of readers and receivers poetry now coheres, Berlin-based artist and writer Karolin Meunier considers the spaces and social bodies in and through which poetry is performed. Meanwhile, New York artist Micaela Durand (who also directs the art book press Badlands Unlimited) pens for us a report on present conditions. Neither exactly poetry or prose, her writing assumes a possibly neo-critical voice, borrowing from the form of cyber-platforms, the syntax of Twitter, of texting, of keyword searches, aggregation, and mediation. The same language environment that Durand presents is that which writer and K-Hole member Dena Yago examines in her text, understanding #poetry to be necessarily a precipitate of labor, a kind of surplus language that is crafted from that which is deemed unserviceable by capitalism but turns out to be quite valuable nevertheless.