By Andy Fitch
This conversation focuses on Andrew Epstein’s Attention Equals Life. Attention Equals Life provides an innovative, eloquent account of how 20th- and 21st-century poets’ conceptions (and/or representations, and/or performative embodiments) of attention have overlapped with a philosophically inflected form of everyday-life theory as developed by figures like Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre. Epstein’s expansive scope stretches from the psychological formulations of William James, to the cinematic essays of Jean-Luc Godard and Agnès Varda, to contemporary everyday-life poetic experiments by Brenda Coultas, Claudia Rankine, and Harryette Mullen. Perhaps most importantly, Attention Equals Life offers the galvanizing example of an omnivorous yet meticulous scholarly study that poses direct questions to readers about how best to live out one’s own everyday. Epstein is a Professor of English at Florida State University, and the author of Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006). He blogs about the New York School of poets at Locus Solus, and his critical work has recently appeared in Contemporary Literature, The Wallace Stevens Journal, Comparative Literature Studies, American Literary History, Journal of Modern Literature, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
ANDY FITCH: Would it fit first to contextualize Attention Equals Life in relation to a preceding generation’s critical projects? Here I think of Marjorie Perloff books like Radical Artifice and Wittgenstein’s Ladder, which point to related social phenomena (proliferations of distracting mass-cultural discourse straining possibilities for concerted, constructive, non-consumerist attention), and which provide similar points of philosophical reference (a skepticism regarding transparent linguistic renderings of the world, an incrementalist critique of universalizing moral pronouncements or epiphanic transcendence or systematizing closure), but which focus on models of syntactical defamiliarization somewhat divergent from the forms of everyday-life project that you track. So how have studies like Perloff’s, which seem to take a more distanced stance towards representations of “the everyday,” helped to prompt your own enthusiastic engagement with the everyday, your attempts to retain and yet refine our focus on a fluid artifice/authenticity binary — even just your attempts to articulate a concept as elusive as the everyday (with its multidisciplinary manifestations in any number of materialist, empirical, cultural, phenomenological fields) in the first place?
ANDREW EPSTEIN: From a very early stage, Marjorie Perloff’s work has been very important to me. Since you named her as an example, I would say that her way of reading avant-garde texts (everybody says this, but it’s true), her way of making these texts legible, as things that you can really engage with, and her method of doing close readings of them were hugely formative for me. But more particularly to your question about books like Radical Artifice and Wittgenstein’s Ladder in relation to my own: in Radical Artifice she certainly discusses ways in which mass media or technological change have informed avant-garde poetics, and that’s very important to what I’m talking about, though I think she is not so interested in the category of the everyday. If I think back to that book, and the Wittgenstein book, if she is concerned with the everyday, it’s really in terms of ordinary language. In a couple places in Attention Equals Life I’m very interested in ordinary language, but I’m more focused on everyday experience, action, behavior, and objects — not just language. So as far as thinking about the everyday as a concept, and in terms of work she’s focusing on in those books (mostly Language poetry and other forms of avant-garde poetry), I guess she’s really more of a formalist and more interested in how the poems work in terms of form and language, and less so in terms of content (although I don’t love that binary). I think that one thing I was interested in was how much Language poetry, for example, with Ron Silliman being an important figure in my book, is so insistently focused on the daily and on the ways in which language mediates, shapes, and forms daily life. I didn’t feel like that was a category of analysis in either of those Perloff books, or maybe in the preceding generation of scholarship you mentioned more broadly.
In terms of everyday-life practices, what trajectories in your own thinking or lived experience or readings of the recent present could help to contextualize the shift in theoretical orientation here — perhaps from someone like Shklovsky to thinkers like Lefebvre and Certeau?
I guess you could say my book participates in a broader shift, a kind of materialist turn, or a turn to things, to objects, a coming back to the “real” — as something separate from the linguistic turn. That would be the broadest shift, moving from an emphasis on linguistic experimentation above all else (defamiliarization, and perhaps things like shock and estrangement, which are still important terms in Attention Equals Life), towards an acceptance of real as real, the everyday as everyday, without transformation or defamiliarization — just an acceptance of thingness and ordinary-ness as is, which people like Lefebvre, Certeau, and others that I draw on in the book have opened up for me. They gave me a conceptual vocabulary and way of thinking about how and why the everyday becomes such a central concern for a huge amount of poetry. And not just as subject matter, but as a site for a complicated dance between representation and content, or between the things out there, and the ways in which we try to render them.
Even amid this relatively recent materialist turn, your book traces a broader theorization of attention across the last couple centuries. So could you here locate your working definition of attention — perhaps on a fluid continuum extending from sensory/affective perception to something more like critical understanding? What range of capacities arise as the poets you consider “attend” to something? Or, conversely, if we sketch a continuum from, say, rejectionist/revolutionary modes of attention to pragmatic modes of attention, which aspects of attention stand out as undervalued in preceding accounts, or as coaxing us to constellate an emergent genre of everyday-life projects which we had failed to recognize through preceding critical frames, or as crucial vectors in contemporary poetics for which we still need, as you say, to develop an adequate vocabulary? Admitting, with William James, that attention always occurs as an epiphenomenon of constrictive selection, how would you define attention in terms most relevant to this present book?
Well if we’re thinking about this broad poetic turn towards concrete particulars and material reality, and about the various attempts to render it and capture it in new ways in the 20th century, then I’d say that “attention” has been an important but overlooked term for understanding how that process works. Attention is useful as a mediating term. “Imagination” is another. I’m thinking off the top of my head about Wallace Stevens, and how imagination is such an important mediating term for him, but also you said something about attention as sensory/affective perception, and I think I’m closer to that side of the continuum in thinking about attention as a crucial part of the process by which whatever’s out there gets across to whatever’s on the page. I became interested in why poets in the 20th century seem to start thinking about poetry in terms of attention and even begin to define it as a mode of attention. I don’t know if they would articulate it this way, but attention seems like a crucial go-between or form of relay between the material world and human consciousness. Certain poets begin to thematize, dramatize, conceptualize, and philosophize about acts of perception. That’s what interested me about “attention” as an important way into understanding a materialist poetics. It’s such a slippery and difficult concept or term, and I’m not a cognitive psychologist or scientist or anything. I tried to read up on those fields a good deal, but I’m not somebody who is an expert in recent scientific research on attention. But I do feel like the partiality and the selectivity of attention that William James inaugurates has become foundational for recent research into attention. I talk about “inattentional blindness” and concepts like that in the book, which have to do with distraction and the limits of attentiveness. I don’t know what the percentage would be — maybe 99.9 percent of the “blooming, buzzing confusion” around us (as James calls it) is stuff we don’t process and attend to at all. A whole range of fascinating poets, writers, and artists of the 20th century seem to be bothered and stimulated by that, and want to find new, sometimes artificial means to redirect and expand our attention — to pick up more of what we’re not noticing.
And then you asked about mapping it onto competing but in some ways overlapping philosophical schools: a kind of Marxist, revolutionary, more political orientation, and then a more pragmatist orientation. I’m not sure if I would go as far as you might have been suggesting, to say that they’re mobilizing attention in different ways, but they may be. I would say that someone like Lefebvre is arguing that if you pay attention in a critically Marxist way to a trivial day in our lives (to a moment in which a woman buys a pound of sugar, to use a well-known example from his work), you will be able to understand the totality of capitalist relations at the present moment. The state of the nation can be read in the simplest act, sign, or object, which can serve as an index of larger political, social, and economic forces. That’s a critical act of attention, you could say. And when we turn to the more William James-to-Stanley Cavell axis that I’m talking about with pragmatism, it’s more concerned with cultivating attention as something almost therapeutic, something that helps us live our lives, cures us from inattention and habit, and refreshes our sense of the vividness of life. These are different mobilizations of attention, but I wouldn’t say they’re totally separate.
Sure, and for one contemporaneous parallel, I think of late-20th-century film as the place where questions of how both to represent and to question the real become most popularized and perhaps most diversified. When I read your book, for instance, I wanted to ask about everyday-life film projects, from the serialized abstractions of Stan Brakhage to the home-bound clips of Jonas Mekas, or from structuralist compositions by Hollis Frampton all the way to feminist performance pieces and set-pieces by Joan Jonas and Martha Rosler. And here I’ve tried to reduce my scope to forms of American film experiment. I’ve skipped over the French-language cinematic-essay tradition of Agnès Varda, Chris Marker, Jean-Marie Téno. I’d love to hear you speak of Cinéma Vérité strains from Frederick Wiseman to Chantal Akerman to Pedro Costa and Gianfranco Rosi. Or needless to say, Andy Warhol comes to mind, as does early ethnographic film from Jean Rouch. Or I wouldn’t discount a revised-and-expanded Attention Equals Life devoting a whole chapter to Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her. But to summarize, do you likewise see the everyday-life project first reaching critical mass (and by “critical mass” I here mean demanding scholarly attention) in film?
I’m glad you asked that. I’m definitely not a film studies scholar, but I did become fascinated with some of the figures that you’re talking about. And I think you’re probably right that this trend begins to reach critical mass here, with things like postwar Italian neo-realism, the French New Wave, and American experimental film. Probably the hoopla surrounding Warhol’s movies in the 60s would be one good place to think about it reaching an early peak. How can Sleep or Empire be a movie?! What does it mean to make a film that’s almost contentless but also seems to push realism to its extreme breaking point? So there might already be a robust critical tradition talking about this phenomenon in film studies, but I don’t think I came across it much in terms of the kinds of issues that I’m discussing — branching across to things like poetry, literature. I tried to gesture to film occasionally, and Warhol is definitely a recurring figure throughout my book. I laughed when you mentioned Godard because I became sort of obsessed with Godard during the period of writing this book, and thought about having a chapter devoted to his work. That movie in particular, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, would have been wonderful, as would Varda’s Cléo…
From 3 to 5? Or whatever…
I think it’s 5 to 7.
Yeah I’m on Rocky Mountain time.
But one clear point of connection between things like the Cléo movie and projects I discuss is the fact that the movie is a real-time experiment. Varda’s movie covers two hours of its protagonist’s life in real time. I do get the chance to mention Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, and Martha Rosler’s work as well, which were interesting to me in terms of my chapter on feminist and maternally oriented everyday-life projects. So yeah, this sounds clichéd and cheesy, but I would hope and be thrilled if what I’m doing in this book could speak to people in other disciplines, and if they could see these points of contact. To me it feels like a period moment in the 60s and 70s, when all this exciting experimentation with form seems to be devoted to new ways of capturing ordinary time, ordinary experience, the everyday — across everything from Pop Art, to avant-garde American cinema, to French New Wave, to poetry. I try to attribute this to cultural, social, and political developments, but it can also be understood as simply a fascinating moment of aesthetic ferment. So that’s the broad canvas I was at least trying to hint at.
So while we no doubt could continue with wide-ranging interdisciplinary applications, I do also want to pivot to asking about contemporary poetics discourses, and the potential for a more constrictive range of responses to certain everyday-life projects. I’ll sketch out some context for what I mean. Again, I very much admire your provisional delineations of a fluid continuum of everyday-life approaches, with, say, more revolutionary-oriented work (in a Marxist, Cultural Studies vein) existing alongside more pragmatic (or complacent, depending upon one’s politics) work — a “cult of experience” vein of reinventing the perceptual/textual everyday. Personally, I love this broad profusion of possibilities for the everyday-life project, but I speak no doubt from a social position partially insulated from political urgencies (just based on privilege attached to whiteness, masculinity, profession, class). I can picture an audience skimming some of the texts you track, especially those adopting a “leave the world alone” posture, and spotting, in quick succession, references to figures like Schuyler, Fairfield Porter, Wittgenstein (all of whom I greatly admire), and finding it hard to separate their quasi-metaphysical embrace of “the given” from the fact that each of them lived a substantial part of his productive life off of a conspicuous family inheritance (either their own or their friends’). I could see a reader feeling quite alienated in the face of such unattainable comforts. And I could see those with their own modicum of privilege, when overtaken by a guilty or purgative or self-exonerating mood, thinking I don’t want to be associated with this. To take a step back here: of course Attention Equals Life makes the sustained effort to recast the everyday-life project as a broad, democratizing, complex genre spreading far beyond the parameters of any (real or strawman) unexaminedly privileged white male early-21st-century poetic Conceptualism. I greatly appreciate your insightful and fruitful positioning of numerous texts by writers of color and/or by women writers as foundational and exemplary everyday-life projects. But first to offer the most expansive possible endorsement of the everyday-life poetic field, could you outline, in critical terms taken from our charged and polarizing present, your most full-throated defense of, say, the urban/suburban idylls in Schuyler’s corpus, or in Ammons’s? If we posit that any present reader would have much to gain by exploring the pointed everyday interventions of Mayer, Harryette Mullen, Claudia Rankine, Brenda Coultas (thereby activating a form of what Rancière describes as “redistributing the sensible,” both redressing exclusions from the recent past, and discovering afresh the everyday through the charismatic perspectives that these texts provide), can you make the equivalent case for “Hymn to Life” or Tape for the Turn of the Year? And/or: when does something like a teleological moralizing trajectory creep into critical accounts of the everyday? What kinds of room should remain, in everyday-life poetics, for at least some such projects to traffic in the politically indifferent, the lazy or recalcitrant, the not-hateful but not-overtly-redeemable? Do those questions even make sense?
Oh, definitely, definitely. This was something I wrung my hands over for a long time. I wouldn’t want to recuperate or somehow make the case for Schuyler or Ammons as revolutionary, political poets. I mean, I could defend their work for all of the reasons why I think it’s worth reading and great, but those aren’t really the terms of the question, which asks if their work should be jettisoned, or considered too easy or morally compromised, when they can just sit and look out their windows, or muse in the backyard because of their position of privilege. So how do you avoid that charge?
Then there’s also the whole rhetoric of “leaving the world as it is,” that I draw on from Wittgenstein, and from some things Porter or Schuyler said. To be honest, I was half-cringing when referring to that outlook, and very aware of how it sounds, particularly in charged political times, or probably in any times. Not surprisingly, Wittgenstein, Porter, and Schuyler have been accused of a kind of quietism. I don’t have a good answer to that critique or know if there’s a definite way out of it, but I don’t think their position can be so easily translated into the notion that “The political status quo should stay exactly as it is.” I think it’s more of a philosophical, anti-sentimental, anti-romantic, anti-idealist stance, rather than a claim about whether political action is necessary or desirable (and it’s worth recalling that Porter himself was actively involved in environmental causes, for example).
So I see what you’re saying, and I like where you’re going, because it doesn’t redeem, but helps me make the case for a variety of approaches. I am sensitive to the concern that Attention Equals Life presents a teleological or evolutionary account, which I guess it does, but I didn’t mean it to be one that is value-laden — because I am not personally interested in castigating those earlier works (although I realize some readers might be). Have we moved to this enlightened, progressive present, where all everyday-life projects must be politically subversive or critical in certain pre-approved ways? I don’t think so. I was trying to suggest that these tools have been picked up and used in all of these varied ways, to great effect, but not that they necessarily need to be used in those ways. There are a lot of different functions or goals to which these kinds of tactics and strategies can be put. These tactics have been particularly salutary and good for political critique, for making us think about the penetration of capitalism into everyday life, and the operations of racism and sexism in daily experience, but they don’t necessarily need to do this each time. I still am not sure how to articulate this, but there is, even in works that are not overtly political, an experimentation with form that’s designed to enhance attentiveness to the daily, which is almost by its very nature critical in some way. They awaken us to things that are otherwise invisible. Those responses, even despite the author’s intentions, can be politically valuable.
Related questions crystallized for me as I considered the acute feminist engagements with the everyday-life project that take up much of Attention Equals Life’s second half. I thought of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s recent Purple Passages, for instance, with its compelling critique of a “patriarchal poetics” which seeks to ventriloquize itself into any number of oppressed subject-positions — seeming to insulate itself from any association with privilege, yet betraying its privileged position through this elective act, a choice made without risking exposure to any of the real-life afflictions imposed upon real-life people who cannot always choose how society identifies and treats them. Here it interests me to think through whether any attempt at an expansive, all-inclusive recovery of the undervalued everyday (say in Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day, one of my all-time favorite books, with its intriguing guilty take on what you describe as “the mixed feelings that are perhaps endemic to the role of the bohemian, avant-garde poet-mother”) can’t help but bring about its own fraught power relations. So here one of the most compelling questions posed by Mayer and subsequent poets might become: how/when does one rescue the overlooked without appropriating it? Who gets the privilege and/or the ethical right to embrace the immediately-at-hand, and for which reasons? When does that provide an inclusive gesture, and when, in DuPlessis’s take, a potentially exploitative gesture — assuming the street cred of the everyday while also remaining somewhat insulated from that everyday?
I understand the tension that you’re suggesting, and I do see Midwinter Day as being a fraught text about guilt, but maybe in a slightly different way. I see Mayer as struggling with settling down and becoming a seemingly bourgeois mother in a heteronormative family with kids in a small Massachusetts town, compared to retaining some kind of New York avant-garde street cred. That’s one thing Mayer’s book is wrestling with — her fear of what she calls losing her “tough or punk part” and stuff like that. But I do think she is also aware of the limitations you mentioned. Her project is at every turn a feminist project, but it’s also constantly questioning itself, from the very first pages, when she writes anxiously about people being “all around me / Wondering what it is I write…no one approved of what I was learning.” But in thinking over this question about when the desire to become all-inclusive, to be accepting of the everyday in all of its high and low forms, begins to conflict with a guilt about appropriation (or if not guilt about it, then at least a sense that it is problematic), I maybe should first mention one of Ammons’s most famous poems, “Still,” which is basically an ode to what he refers to as “the lowly.” I struggled with addressing that poem, because it seems more conventional in some ways than other poems that I talk about, in that it seems to rise to this epiphanic ending. But it also seems to be a manifesto for a certain kind of everyday-life poetics, when he discusses the desire to find value in all the different things in creation that are low, humble, overlooked:
I said I will find what is lowly
and put the roots of my identity
each day I’ll wake up
and find the lowly nearby
“Still” works its way up to this ending about encountering a beggar who has “stumps for legs.” The poet has this moment where he realizes that “though I have looked everywhere / I can find nothing lowly / in the universe.” And to me that moment feels (I think I say in the book) like he is using the beggar more as a metaphor or symbol rather than considering him as an actual human being. That feels like an appropriative moment, as Ammons seems to take on this neglected, overlooked, and deprived person only to use him as an emblem, a stepping stone to some kind of philosophical point. I don’t think Ammons does that often, but he does it there. Or I talk about Silliman’s work in this regard, too. There’s a piece by Timothy Yu that criticizes Silliman for this aspect of his work, but also does an interesting, nuanced reading of Silliman that brings out some of the contradictions in his poetry. On the one hand, you have the usual understanding of Language poetry — the notion that it uses fragmentation to scatter subjectivity, or decenter the “I,” which seems to promise that we can get at a more “universal” vision of the everyday, one that does not issue from a particular subject-position. But on the other, Yu argues that Silliman never escapes from “the perspective of a white male avant-gardist.” I pick up on that in my discussion, and I try to argue that Silliman, unlike that Ammons moment perhaps, is always very aware of his own privilege, his own subject-position, and his own identity as a white, male, straight poet — for example, there are these moments where he picks up on racial cues that are inevitably processed through his identity formation. There’s a line in Ketjak where he writes “It was my racism causing me to hear these blacks in the cafe discussing Heisenberg.” In moments like this, Silliman seems to call himself out on his own racial assumptions. He throws this wide net out to incorporate everything there is to incorporate about the daily in a massive collage, but also realizes that you can’t escape the subjectivity of the poet and the codes and conventions through which he or she is seeing the world — and I argue that he wrestles with that in compelling ways throughout his work.
Does Brenda Coultas’s Bowery project fit well here? Or which of the more contemporary texts that Attention Equals Life addresses seem most constructively to push this kind of inclusive/appropriative tension? Or which most deftly, most self-consciously question the ethics/aesthetics of such representations?
The Coultas is an interesting one. And the Claudia Rankine project, which is not really a poem — it’s a sort of mixed-media, experiential performance/outing…
Yes, The Provenance of Beauty, which I guess was pitched as a play, where you’re taking a bunch of people out into the world and creating a project that forces them to attend to the everyday. I myself didn’t get the chance to experience it. But I read about it. It entailed Rankine giving a guided tour of the South Bronx for passengers on a bus who listen to her poetic narration while looking out the window. The piece makes me think of the binary or tension between inclusiveness and appropriation you’re asking about, because we can’t help but think about exactly who is going to get on this bus and tour the South Bronx, and pay money to do it. There would seem to be a kind of touristic-slumming valence incorporated into that work, as passengers travel through this unlikely part of the city listening to Rankine pointing out impoverished neighborhoods, highlighting the beauty lurking there, and so on. I feel that’s built into the project.
And the Coultas book may be another good example of this sort of thing, in the sense that she basically decided to write a poem tracking and documenting life on a stretch of the Bowery in New York that was this blighted area, but one undergoing rapid gentrification. To create the work, she decides to sit “in a chair in the Bowery at the same place and time for a season and participate and expedite street life.” She just witnessed and documented the neighborhood, but also writes about her own obsessive-compulsive-seeming collecting of trash and objects, which, as it goes on, really seems to be more like hoarding than typical works of collage and assemblage. She talks about bringing trash home and filling up her apartment with it. And the poem reflects powerfully on the precarity of urban existence on the Bowery, and doesn’t try to make it into anything else, doesn’t try to reach for any kind of epiphanic gesture. There are long lists of stuff found in dumpsters. She also writes about her direct engagement with people on the street, which seems to be of course complicated by the fact that she’s a poet and she’s turning this into poems, but she is also really putting her money where her mouth is, and really sitting out there for months at a time, getting to know the homeless and indigent people on the street, quoting their actual speech and so on. And there are moments where she’s very self-conscious and self-critical about what she’s doing (like when she calls one section “A Pile of Conflicting Emotions About Garbage”), and writes directly about that tension you’re talking about and uses it as fuel for the work of art.
I went on Claudia’s tour.
Oh, you did?
Yeah and enjoyed it. The narration assumes our typical oblivion to what here gets observed — in a condemning tone that felt really constrictive. It felt like getting unfairly stereotyped, in a useful reflexive way. And of course the play does accurately reflect passengers’ privileged, voyeuristic relation to this neighborhood. Though she’d say something like, “I’m sure you’d never look at this run-down waste-treatment building,” though for me personally, what else would I look at? But anyway, that’s enough subjective experience. To return to materialism, and to this resistance to epiphany, I wonder if we could discuss what felt (again, this observation starts from the fact that you of course can’t track everything in your book) like a broader disinclination in Attention Equals Life to track spiritual implications within work you address. I come out of reading Rosalind Krauss on the spiritual texts of a secular age. Krauss gives this classic deconstructive reading in which behind every abstract modernist grid one can detect a residual Symbolist window.
What if I don’t buy that? [Laughter]
You don’t have to buy it — no doubt. But in terms of the contemplative, the sacramental, the meditative all getting repressed by a burgeoning commercialism’s public sector (except within the realm of art), Krauss sees these quasi-spiritual elements finding their way back into an avowedly secular modernism, and so I wondered if some equivalent return-of-the-repressed reading ever places everyday-life projects alongside, say, mid-century Existentialism (perhaps considered corny from our present vantage). Or Buddhist influences on postwar American writing seem present but rarely directly addressed in your book.
Those more spiritual concerns are certainly there in this body of work in a shadow way, as a kind of return of the repressed. Part of it might be my own personal confirmation bias and, to be candid, a sense of what attracts me as a more materialist, secular reader. I have less patience for that kind of mysticism in my own life and in my own literary taste. Though over and over again, in the run-up to finishing this book, when people read the manuscript or whenever I was just telling friends at parties about what I was working on, people would inevitably say “That’s just like Buddhism — that’s what I do when I meditate.” [Laughter] But I do think to give that its due would call for another book, since the Buddhist influence is sizable and really important in mid-century and New American poetry and beyond (from Kerouac and Ginsberg, obviously, and poets like Philip Whalen, down to Leslie Scalapino and many, many others). It’s there, and it’s important, and it speaks to many of these same issues, but in somewhat different ways.
Jonathan Stalling’s Poetics of Emptiness might fit well here.
Yes, definitely. And obviously you have things like John Cage, and there’s been some work on Buddhism and the Cage tradition as well. So that’s just another answer to the question of what I’ve left out of my study and what I hope others will do. I hope this book will be an opening to a parallel study that would be in dialogue with mine, and that would take up some of those issues. And the reason I left the spiritual to the side for the most part, in addition to my own bias, is that I just didn’t see it in my reading of these particular works, really, from Schuyler, to Ammons, to Mayer, to Silliman, to Kenneth Goldsmith, to Harryette Mullen, Laynie Browne, or Claudia Rankine. I just kept finding…not an absence of the spiritual, but an embrace of what I call the “horizontal,” or the “here and now.” That doesn’t mean the works I focus on are not haunted by the spiritual.
Yeah when I say “spiritual” I just mean charged, meditative, reflective processes which don’t have any place else to go, and so go into art, perhaps into its textured surface.
I would want to think more about the Krauss argument, and the idea that this kind of experience has no realm to go into but art. That makes sense to me. But I think part of my insistence, maybe over-insistence, on a secular and less transcendent version of this kind of poetics is a reaction to some common assumptions that underlie discussions of the everyday. I just feel like the existing approaches to dailiness and to the ordinary in poetry are so drenched in this language of transcendence and mysticism (as you can see at work in poems like the Ed Hirsch poem that I discuss in my introduction). The language that you find in blurbs for volumes of poetry is so focused on how poetry can find the mystical and magical within the everyday — how it leads to moments of transcendence, how it can take us out of our daily existence. I really wanted to find a different vocabulary for talking about what I see happening in a lot of poetry concerned with the quotidian.
Sure, and you know, I have strong personal investments shaping my own reactions here. I have no religious component to my life, but I do consider my favorite everyday-life projects, if not spiritual necessarily, then nonetheless evangelical. I have to admit that on numerous occasions everyday-life projects have changed my own life. They (along with dogs) have provided me with whatever spiritual training I’ve undergone as a person.
I wish I could have quoted you saying that in my book! [Laughter]
I think your book uses the phrase “mildly didactic,” but I would love to hear, now that you have finished this ambitious, incisive, articulate study, about your own lived emotional/intellectual history with a few everyday-life projects — like whether they have had an equivalent conversionary impact upon you, and how that played out amid your expansive reading. Or if the personal doesn’t seem pertinent here, we could just discuss whatever aspects of an author’s exemplary embodied practice, or didactic preaching, or of a reader’s projected mirroring seem crucial to everyday-life discourse but difficult to address in typical academic registers.
Well you used the word “evangelical,” which is not a word that I use, and it is charged in ways that I might have wanted to avoid, but I like the idea. In my own thinking about the book, I kept coming back to phrases like “tool kit” or “instruction manual,” and a lot of these projects seem not only to be interesting works of art or literature, but to provide this kind of tool kit or “you can do it yourself” kind of thing — or, even more than that, that you should do it yourself, and you need to. I said “mildly didactic” because we often criticize didactic art, and I didn’t mean to say that anybody’s preaching here, but there is something about this body of work that seems to be urgently telling you “You need to do this too,” and to give you practical steps you might take yourself. The more overtly project-oriented, constraint-based works I discuss often rely on sets of rules and prescriptions. I was trying to theorize or conceptualize why rules and constraints were so attractive for those interested in the everyday, and kept coming back to the paradoxical fact that they seem so non-everyday. And yet such projects seem to provide this effective set of tools for honing and changing our attention, for redistributing the sensible. I was struck by how often I kept finding examples (from the media, popular culture, YouTube, and all over the web) in which you find people (regular, non-artistic-oriented people) engaging in these kinds of projects and experiments. I quote Darren Wershler calling this sort of thing “Conceptualism in the wild,” which is not a phrase that I love, because it seems a bit condescending, but it gets at the idea of what I’m talking about. And why are such practices so attractive right now? Why are people doing this?
So that’s a rambling way of getting back to the question about me. Engaging with these projects, as a reader, has been energizing. I feel like if you give yourself over to them, get into them…it may sound silly, but you do start to see things differently, become more aware, pay attention to the things we all fail to notice. Suddenly the stone is more stony and all that kind of stuff. Maybe the best example would be this app called One Second Everyday, which I came across a couple of years ago. It’s this app that takes snippets of video, a second for each day, and then mashes them together into a continuous montage movie. I started doing it and found it really fun, and a very cool project. In terms of changing my attentiveness to certain aspects of the daily and so on, this app that anybody can use seems to give you the tools to create your own avant-garde collage film of your life. So that’s just one example of my doing an everyday-life project in my own life. But it seems like everyone is doing this sort of thing. My daughter was just talking the other day about how she’s been taking a picture every day with friends in her ninth-grade Latin class, and for some reason each day they switch seats and she labels the picture and puts it on Snapchat. It’s Rotation One, Rotation Two, Rotation Three, and she’s up to Rotation Eight, and I said that’s an everyday-life project, and we were joking around about it. But this seems like another example of the way in which so many of us are drawn, almost unconsciously, to using new technologies to do these kinds of everyday-life projects nowadays.
This prospect of fun spillover from scholarship into the rest of your life leads me to questions about the place or potential place of the everyday-life project within critical/scholarly practice itself. In Attention Equals Life, for instance, you opt to consider an expansive range of authors, often multiple texts by these authors…rather than, you know, you arbitrarily could have decided to dwell upon your own experiential trajectory reading a given genre or text. So Attention Equals Life doesn’t explore, critique, or represent your own everyday existence as a reading subject. I can imagine any number of good intellectual, disciplinary, professional reasons why it doesn’t do that. But do you detect, within the broader set of everyday-life projects, a subset of exploratory scholarship? For me, writers like Avital Ronell, Wayne Koestenbaum, Eve Sedgwick would come up, and of course Roland Barthes — champion of the novelesque without the novel, composing “Death of the Author” almost at the same time as he writes the mesmerizingly first-personal Incidents. Or what types of everyday-life scholarship would you like to see emerge, if they don’t exist already?
Yeah, as you suggest, there are lots of disciplinary, professional, and various other reasons why this book doesn’t present a self-reflexive critical practice. But your question is interesting because I don’t really think I’ve given it as much thought as I should. It wasn’t a conscious choice, like, “Oh, I could do this more experimental Roland Barthes reflexive practice with my own everyday experience, or setting up parameters.” And that might have been really interesting. I like the predecessors and current examples that you’re mentioning. They make sense to me. And I try to argue that someone like Silliman is basically writing poems that are engaging in a theorizing about the everyday. That’s obviously in keeping with a lot of rhetoric surrounding Language poetry, or blurring lines between criticism and practice, or theory and poetry. Or I guess you could flip that around and think of models in which literary critics and scholars could incorporate some of these sorts of methodical aspects into their work. I don’t see it happening right now in too many places, and I’m not fully ready to give a full-throated call for it. This turn to the personal in criticism doesn’t always work. But I guess one person that comes to mind, who maybe doesn’t quite fit, would be Maggie Nelson with Bluets and The Argonauts — these works that are wonderful mixtures of criticism, autobiography, fiction, and poetry. So it would be great to see people as talented as her continuing in that vein and maybe institutionally situating it, disciplinarily situating it in works on the critical side.
Yeah, you also make me think of Louis Bury’s Dalkey Archive book, with something like one hundred chapters on one hundred Oulipian projects. So I don’t necessarily mean the personal, but the constraint-based, with the text’s format having its own idiosyncratic logic outside the parameters of typical academic work. I think we both understand the professional ramifications of why that doesn’t happen much. But so just to clarify, because I see your book bridging a few lively types of writing and thinking which don’t pay enough attention to each other: if you attended an academic everyday-life theory conference tomorrow, and you presented Silliman and Mayer and Rankine as theorists, not just as exemplary everyday-life poets, could your audience work with that argument, or would they consider it a non-starter?
I wonder. I think probably if I were talking to people outside of poetry, unfamiliar with Language poetry, for example, it might be a hard sell to see that sort of imminent practice as being somehow legitimate as a form of criticism. Although it sounds like an interesting challenge. I think I could probably make the case.
To be honest, I think your book already made that case — persuasively. And to close, I just want to extract one useful term that I believe Harryette Mullen uses in your book: “pleasure.” In Attention Equals Life, with its generous citational practices throughout, I can imagine your editor fighting to cut back on all the quoting. [Laughter] But I feel like that’s your Schuyler-esque window to sit and stare out of. So what have we not yet addressed, or what did Attention Equals Life never get to say, about the place of desire, the place of pleasure in the composing, reading, scholarly contemplation of everyday-life projects?
So you’re talking about me? I’m not sure if this quite answers that. But I do feel like some readers will approach this book and say “These aren’t poems,” or “Why would anyone want to read Georges Perec talking about what he ate for a year?” And part of my goal (and this might go back to my early immersion in the work of somebody like Marjorie Perloff that we discussed at the outset) is that I find tremendous value, pleasure, and excitement in works that might not fit within constrained ideas about genre or what a lyric poem is. My goal as a critic or scholar, at least in part, is to try to convey some of that pleasure, and some of why I find these works stimulating or interesting or delightful — and not only talking about how they operate, or how they’re responding to society, but also why they give aesthetic pleasure. It must give pleasure, I guess, as Stevens would say. And so in reading strange works like Ammons’s “Shit List” or some of Goldsmith’s work, I never want to give up on the fact that they can be fun and invigorating to read, and to talk about and think about. This is why I’ve tried to communicate to students why a work like Soliloquy is fun to read, and not just something you can hear about in one sentence. And why I’ve tried to explain how a poem like “Shit List” can be such a dazzling verbal ride. I take pleasure in reading these works. I take pleasure in writing about them. And part of the goal of my work as a whole is to try to help others find pleasure in them, too, and not to dismiss them as strange, or as boring, or outside the bounds of art.