Neo-Dada and Its Discontents: On Poets Peligroso, Roggenbuck, Aurist and Pauline
31 March 2011
It happens, in literary or music criticism, that “movements” are invoked. Either as the new shit that we can all get on, if we only wrote or sang this way, or the way to understand a broad group of artists without knowing much about any in particular, an easy slur or a cheap metaphor for the contemporary.
Sometimes, disturbingly often when academics write about rap music, it’s supposed to be a compliment, like the following disturbed paragraph from The Poetry Foundation article on OFWGKTA, “Odd Futurism“.
When I listen to Odd Future, the closest parallel I can come up with is Futurism. The early-20th-century Futurist poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s high-energy verses about the beauty of warfare are (in nearly tragic ways, today) pumped up for all the wrong reasons, and similarly out to force the modern world on us in ways that turn the new and uncomfortable into something ordinary. If you can’t adjust, Marinetti and OFWGKTA imply, it’s your own problem. Certainly, his role is to do nothing more than hammer away with the best modernity has to offer, love his job, and spit at anyone who ends up with his feelings hurt. Yet Marinetti is, to say the least, problematic, as Walter Benjamin obliquely noted in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and countless others have since. Spectacle, as stimulant and necessary assimilation, puts volume and aesthetic at the forefront—with nothing bringing up the rear. This was the popular and intellectual rationale for fascism, both in one place. So it’s not as though we want a new hip-hop Marinetti in the world.
Everything particular to futurism, the obsessions with speed, with machines, with dynamism, with its neo-Heraclitian vision of a war-fire burning off the weak and womanly until we all eat from pills and have flying trains, is ignored because “Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All” has the word “future” in their name. The reference to Benjamin is so uselessly deployed, to such a bizarre end (will violent rappers incite a new fascism?) that the failure to deal with Odd Future is almost forgotten; the argument about the particulars of Marinetti and Mayakovsky and Benjamin obscures, as it is meant to, some new shit that the writer doesn’t have the creativity to grapple with or the respect to allow unmolested by their Modernism survey course-packet.
Which leads us to Kat Dixon, and her post about the “Neo-Dada”. There is no “movement” so misused as a description (fascism excepted), nor prefix so vapid. So what the fuck might a “Neo-Dada” mean, at least to Dixon?
It seems to mean, first, an internet epistemology. It is Tao Lin “known through and by the Internet”. “Internet Primitivism” is Dixon’s description of a peculiar use of a contemporary “straightforward” language, culled from or styled in the manner of chatlogs, tweets, and text messages, again conditioned severely by the technological environment where the words occur, the Internet. While Dixon includes “meaninglessness, irrational emotionality, and an overdependence on shallow introspection, drug-use, and sex” in her description, only “meaningless” seems important to her description, insofar is it blooms from the dead-eyed flat patois of the internet gutter. What really bothers Dixon is the lack of “actual poetic conventions (traditional or otherwise)” that make a literature, that further make an “art”.
Whether the “Neo-Dada” appellation is accurate to the “boykittens,”1 isn’t really the point. The term is just vague enough to be meaningless. All such recourse to dead, non-working “movements”, as they are here conceived, misunderstands the degree and style of a movement’s holism, and whether the persistence of obsessions (which do not factually exists between the “boykittens” and Dada, but if they did) is a kind of resurrection of this holism. That it is an intellectual crutch to append “neo” or “post” to things, that is avoids considering them in their unique configuration and location, makes me wary. Why not put up some small effort or attempt at a less analogous critical description?
This isn’t to ignore the genuine dispute here, particularly over meaning and the internet-demotic, which is worth exploring outside the confines of English major name-calling. Of the poets noted by Dixon, I’ve decided to focus on Poncho Peligroso, whose manifesto is as close to an outline of the group’s ideology, and who has responded most concretely to Dixon’s claims.
What is most prevalent, to me, in the writing of the “boykittens” are the aspects of technological production, rooted in a conscious theory of literary democratism. That these themes, broadly described, exist elsewhere, are we doomed to call them Neo-Post-Transcendentalists or Re-Post-Bellum? Fuck me, I hope not. Here goes. The technological contortion of language is, explicitly in Roggenbuck’s DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM, MSN Messenger and it’s “history” feature. Blog publishing, twitter, facebook particularly, whose multifacets Roggenbuck explores natively, these domains contort, limit, and produce the ground of the poetry being attempted here. Word economics are short, curt, stylized projections of broader, alluded to conversations. Themes recur, ghosts, bees, swag, that give us poems in conversation, composed as conversations, and conversations excerpted and granted the title “poem”. The use of found poetry, even “found” in one’s own chatlogs, gives us a vernacular that Dixon calls “hyper-simplistic”. As an argument for stylistic nihilism, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. There is something rather traditional in the “boykittens” detached performance of close-contemporary language, including exploring the new practices and technologies that form its evolving parameters, these possibles and propers of a way of speaking. The 1990’s had actual news articles, written by paid adults, that detailing the use of “emoticons” for elderly reader, while the actual practices were actively introducing a textual distance in the fraught and compromised speech of intimates and a new grammar, or better, a new etiquette, between strangers. When Dixon writes that these new poems are “nothing but the bare bones of language” it makes me wonder what the fuck a bare bones of language might be; the question plaguing 20th century philosophy, and its aesthetic contemporaries like, goodness, Dada even, is clear to Dixon. Even the now canonical post-Derridean use of quotation marks loses its standard ability to indicate the failure of correspondence central to this conception of meaning, and instead are perhaps merely “poorly chosen”. Problems with Derrida’s theses are irrelevant, this is the faddish ignorance, and even better, dismissal of those things once called “post-modern”, leading down a blind alley where Dixon can mischaracterize and castigate without a positive understanding of the ground she’s repeating, or more importantly, the specificity of what it is she’s describing.
Beyond the vernacular shifts, Roggenbuck and Peligroso use platforms themselves as media. Roggenbuck makes poems from the functions of facebook itself, the styles of alerts, the giddy juxtapositions. They collaborated to ingeniuously turn google into a medium, google bombing Peligroso to the first link responding to “2011 Poet Laureate”. It’s a funny stunt, to make up a fake position like poet laureate of a given year. More interesting is the use of affiliated bloggers and twitter accounts to establish Peligroso in the position, less genuine self-promotion (most people googling a made-up position are familiar with Peligroso already) than a community building game, a fan kingdom identification practice. The title of Roggenbuck’s book, upsettingly miscited in several reviews as merely HELVETICA, is the closer to the real thing, using the frequently googled question as a prop, a distribution device, and a clever referent to the internet as the proper environment for the writing and reading of these poems. Roggenbuck even helpfully provides a link, so you can finally download helvetica for free after reading his delightful book, written, of course, in helvetica.
And finally, there is the democracy of the thing, what I would characterize as an “anti-theory” drive in the “boykittens”, particularly in Peligroso’s “manifesto on the universality of poetry and the equal validity of words”. There is a rejects the aristocracy of Heidegger’s caveat in ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, “only [great] art is under consideration here… .” Peligroso poses himself explicitly against the “magic words” of the pseudo-Heideggerean, or as Dixon alludes toward, “postmodern” conception of language, that the essence of poetry has anything of Hölderlin or Homer left in it. Words, the kind of words that Peligroso values ever so slightly, are “wholly unnecessary to the continuation of a life”, mere “entertain[ment], influence, instigat[ion of] thoughts and emotions that would have been unthought and unfelt”, even a psychological palliative to “lessen loneliness when you find one you really connect with”. The democracy of words, “all words are equally valid”, “poetry is universal”, further, against “‘poets’ .. projecting an air of pretension or exclusivity”, a “simultaneous humbling of poetry and elevation of common language”. This is a theory of flattened meaning with relations to technology’s erasure of “aura” in Benjamin. It isn’t clear how much consideration has been given by these poets to the formalizing of their language by the technical practices or media, but it doesn’t matter; the “superficiality” of the “boykittens” is given to trust their formalizations, to embed and inhabit them.
There is some degree to which Peligroso is aware of the pitfalls of his method, but his democracy is posed against the alternative, people “dissuade[d] … from starting to write at all … locked into stagnant vocabularies, fearful from exploring the limits of the language they use every day”. The democracy of writers and the democracy of words aren’t exactly congruous here, but they are related insofar as Peligroso considers the exclusion of the quotidian (an essential project of the “modernists”, Dada among them, which which the “boykittens” have been nonsensically compared) incapable of undermining or “exploring the limits of” language.
In the landscape of the internet we now inhabit, there is a tendency to allow “great works” an unhealthy exclusivity. If one considers the growing infinite availability of “masters” in online texts, the project of writing something new can appear to be superfluous, or it can lead to all things being reduced to previously canonized forms like “Dada”, all newness denied an identity other than a prefix. Yet, however spirited my defense of Peligroso in particular and Roggenbuck and other associated writers in general, I diverge pretty concretely from this assumption. It relies too much on pairing “democracy” and “exclusivity”. That there are works that extend historically, that is, disrupted and translated by history, these can have a differential value. There is a flatness, not just of affect, to this conception, where radicalism gets untethered from “mistakes”, of which meaning and value are two, but not in the same way, and when there is a connection, it renders a flatness that the poems themselves don’t deserve, a pretense of fleshlessness that these embodied and intensified dislocations gain by being set in a particular typeface, that political gestures like self-publishing or open copyright works require for weight. Twitter poetry, blog poetry, zine poetry and chapbooks, online journals, these things have a sort of meaning and a condition to them, not necessarily a “value”, or not a value that has to be accepted and given to hierarchy. A person who recognizes the limits of their own affections doesn’t need to pretend they don’t exist, that there aren’t poems that draw them with more strength, that orient them “properly”, as Peligroso says, “connect with” you. Provisionally, it is more meaningful to be connected with, and poems that do that are better. Again, the utilitarian re-girding of tradition, that a poem that so enlivens many is better than a poem that merely interacts with you, is mistaken, but it sometimes seems like the argument between Dixon and Peligroso is formed on similar mistaken premises, Peligroso arguing preemtively, to misquote Dixon, that “Poetry – and literature in general – can now hold anything. That does mean that it should.”2
I don’t entirely fault Dixon; Peligroso’s manifesto, which triggered the reponse to a movement that Dixon was already irritated with, is rooted in many of her same assumptions. An example, not by Peligroso directly, but cited in response to Dixon, is composed by “Mom” Peligroso. Dixon countercites Wordsworth’s “Daffodils…” to argue that Wordsworth was not as “anti-Magician” Roggenbuck claimed. A snide point, surely people can choose the vein of their influences without having to accept the “whole” and submit their project to every stanza of their claimed heritage. But in a response written by “Mom” Peligroso, the “elitism” that Dixon re-assigns Wordsworth is rejected and the poet is dismissed as “ha[ving] way too much time on his hands”.3 The rejection takes the argument of the rejected too easily, and misses the potential in the work, or the counter-productive strains that alleviate in Wordsworth and animate when extracted.
This response isn’t representative of Peligroso, but the dialectical form is. Before Dixon wrote a word, Peligroso was speaking in response. Dixon’s disdainful references to Duchamp bring up the root of the mistake; the insufferable freshman year question “Is it art?”. Both positions ultimately retain the question, Peligroso answering in the affirmative, Dixon in the negative. The question isn’t just insufferable because of its persistence, banality and uselessness, but for its inability to elicit anything but the affective prejudices of its audience, and further, to drive them to the extremes evidenced by both disputing parties, canon and anarchy. That is, the question is stupid, and all answers, regardless of earnestness and intention, carry some degree of its mistake within them. There isn’t any description of value that can be assigned to work produced within different regions, not even their rigor toward their own construction, the ugly turns of “authenticity”. Mere “art” or “words”, as an argument, erases the specificity of things, crafts opponents to be opposed (the unflagging cheerfulness of the based laureate and helvetican ringleader aside) instead of positively manifesting what the poems already are.
The best argument against Dixon are the poems themselves. The poetry of Roggenbuck or Peligroso doesn’t need a theory or manifesto to back it; theories and manifestos fail them. I’ll take two examples here, my personal favorite poets embedded in this mess wrongly conceived of as a movement, Aurist and Pauline4. Where Peligroso has an earnest exploration of loneliness, relationships, and sexuality, where Roggenbuck projects a beaming, sweet openness and self-confidence, Aurist has a more despairing vision, a dissolution of himself into ghosts, their haunting, their ephemera. In the poem that begins “i have killed some stuff i have eaten”, the voice is upset, returning again and again to death, imagining the food he has eaten as ghosts following him around, sensitive even to the death remaining in “an intangible, years-old pork chop”. The voice ventures toward being ghosted itself, telling someone “that i was literally / haunting them / by talking to them”. Too deeply aware of himself, he undercuts his open sensitivity to this other person by pretending “that i was joking”. In the last line, “can ghosts haunt each other”, the poet returns inward, wondering at his own ghosting. The circular haunting, the identification through guilt, and guilt revealing another mode of being, the “ghost”, the gravity curls up around you and allows us the intimacy the poem denies to his someone. Sympathy at the loneliness of the expression is mixed with honor that the expression is ours too, and a final curiosity, is the question at the end still a caveat or a mask?
Where Aurist is despairing, Pauline is a contrast to the dry humor in the other poets, bodily sexual without the abstractions of some of the other poets, violent and caustic, bloody, scratching, prone to glossolalia, circling around words and then fucking using the shit out of them. She has put together two long scrolls, so far unpublished. While her work is profoundly shaped by twitter and chat programs, (she is my absolute favorite on twitter, follow her, I insist), it emphasizes different aspects; what Roggenbuck captures in …Helvetica…, the staccato, the conversational, above all the short, the Twitter of Pauline is a torrent, a pervasiveness, each line’s craft more or less important but the overwhelming mood of it is the thing, the sense of itself so thoroughly moment to moment that the moods are the crash of moods and urges against each other. Yet, it overflows the technical founding essence more often than the other poets, is less coherent, perhaps less systematic but in the best sense, and in the scrolls it explodes. It’s difficult to give a sense of a work that envelopes you so thoroughly, but I’ll try.
I WANT TO MAKE YOU CRY AND I PROMISE IM GOING TO DO IT SOMEDAY
last night when i went to bed i was hearing hip hop music in my head and it made me worry about my mental health again
i’m a good writer *whips my dick out and waves it around*
i seriously need to get laid. by someone i don’t actually have feelings about other than attraction. i need human sex.
let’s stop trying to be otherworldly beings and just get each other the fuck off
hail satan *gets a bigass boner*
i’m a faggot bitch with your girl on my dick
there needs to be a word for internet exes who you never actually met or declared a formal relationship with
change all instances of “love” in a song to “swag”
some things we do for money, and some we do for swag swag swag
swag, swag me do / you know i swag you / i’ll always be true / so please / swag me do
and in her eyes you see nothing / no sign of swag behind the tears
all you need is swag / swag is all you need
going to self-publish this .txt file as a book and throw it at people in st louis and they will read it and cry because of how bad a person i am
hey do you know who pauline is. here’s her book. Read It And Weep
hoes on my dick cuz i’m a seriously flawed human being
~*~but at least im cognizant enough to hate myself~*~
What a fucking monster this section is, I wish I could keep quoting it forever. The swagger of it, the violence, both in the piece and in the vascillation between worlds, moods, sense, selves, it’s indescribable. I keep wanting to just go back and read it, why write about it at all.
stray cats in cemeteries
a young man wearing expensive clothes passed out on the steps of a cinema
old men who go to parks to read
young men who sit outside parks with their heads in their hands
girls asleep in the sun with textbooks open next to them
kids selling orange juice to tourists
a guy drives a donkey cart full of cardboard down an avenue and i naively feel surprised that this is happening in 2011
girls in denim skirts look at me like i’m the one dressed poorly
i smile at a boy with dreadlocks
a girl wearing a grey tanktop with short hair and i can’t stop staring but she doesn’t seem to notice
two years ago i bought shoes from this place
couples making out at bus stops
Here, the surfaces of Buenos Aires burst in precisely their surfaces. The interior of the poet’s voice is nearly erased, “surprise” already detached to it’s naivete, what could be a memory just a description, “two years ago…”, actions like staring and smiling. Pauline’s work embodies the closest thing I would venture to a description of poetry, from Novalis’ Soliloquy: “[f]ormulas comprise a world of their own: they play only with themselves, express nothing but their own wondrous nature and are for that very reason so expressive.” Placed in such an expansive context like her scroll, they do so in an environment as precise as “the Internet”, with a more adamant voice.
What distinguishes Pauline here, for me, is the confrontation that permeates her work. When Roggenbuck responded to the Dixon piece with such uncanny grace, “hi kat thanks for the attention paid to all our writing in this piece. i like dada so i’m happy someone is making the comparison. / i hope u can have fun and relax now u got this off ur chest. i don’t think u need to be upset over my poetry or anything, i’m just doing what i love and trying to inspire people every day”, it has such a strangeness to it. Maybe that’s a healthy response, maybe it’s a confident response, but one so estranged from any way I have of seeing things that I couldn’t help but think of it as the theory of the poems overwhelming the darkness, anger, upset and fear that makes them interesting.
Ultimately, while Dixon and Peligroso might be related in their mistake with regard to the question of art, Peligroso still has made the right mistake, making a strong push away from the control and hierarchy that drives people like Dixon, whether they’ll admit it or not. It’s a position I hope will shift over time, as the poems being written better define themselves without reference to questions of art or words, and the critiques will fall to the thinkers, the theories will fall to the theorists, and the movements can be again be constructed by the anthologists and the historians.
1. A name coined by Dixon and gleefully overtaken by Roggenbuck and Peligroso.
2. Peligroso clarifies his position slightly in a response to Dixon by saying “i did not mean that all language everywhere was poetry / what i meant was that all language has the potential to be poetry if we want it to / we should not exclude casual vernacular and new vocabularies from poetry”. I don’t think this escapes my point, Peligroso is still much more “inclusive” than agnostically “non-exclusive”.
3. I don’t necessarily disagree, of course; it’s very difficult at times to read Wordsworth without noticing his insidious bourgeois habit of gazing at things like an eyeball with a body fed by exploitation. I still remember the rising anger of reading The Solitary Reaper, whose “subject” is annihilated to a flat object for inspection by the elitist on the road.
4. One of the many reasons I kind of loathe the “boykittens” name.