Poetry in the Age of Total Communication
Let us sing the surface of the song.
Since the mid-nineties, the Riga-based textual group Orbit (Orbita) has accompanied its poetic performances with electronic music and video/slide projections. Midway between multimedia installations and techno parties, these performances produce a sensorimotor effect. Listeners (who are also viewers) are plunged not into a lexical-melodic flow, as they would be at a traditional reading, but into a cybernetic-machinic plasma. The group’s printed output displays the same tendency. The first issue of the almanac Orbit (2000) already gravitated towards synaesthesia. It was amply supplied with photographs, which subordinated the texts to their visual logic. The second issue was packaged as a CD-ROM that presented listeners with a “soundscape of Riga in the year 2000”—techno mixes by DJs and fragments of Internet acoustic projects. It was telling that when this high-tech product (which requires special equipment for playback) was presented in Petersburg, the venue was not a literary club, but the Pro Arte Institute, a citadel of contemporary art that serves as an incubator for the city’s young artists, curators, gallerists, and other art scenesters.
It was around this same time, in the late nineties, that another poetry group that actively uses music and video during its readings, Helter Skelter Drills (Dreli kuda popalo), announced its arrival on the Petersburg scene. Although the group’s stage presence is much more nervy, even aggressive—unlike the neutral, impassive trance pulsations of Orbit, which are accompanied by views of sterile urban spaces, the trademarks of the Petersburgers, heirs of the post-punk sound, are a deliberate grunginess, brutal gestures, and appropriately jumpy videos—it would seem that their work draws on the same aesthetic premise as their Riga colleagues. The premise is that the word as such has become devalued and ineffective and, therefore, needs to be compensated by an energetic audiovisual supplement. In fact, performances by the Drills often resemble rock concerts more than poetry readings. Poems are sung into microphones, and the frenzy of real bodies onstage and digital bodies onscreen serve as a peculiar reminder of the fate that befell the first lyric poet (Marsyas), as bequeathed to us by Greek myth.
Similar moods guide such relatively recent collective undertakings as the Listen Up Theater of Poets, the Musical-Poetical Ring, and Asya Nemchenok’s Videopoetry project, which combines video art, live music, and poetry readings. It is of less importance that all these groups favor different formats. For Orbit, this format is the multimedia show. For the Drills, it is the rock concert. For Listen Up, it is the poetry cabaret or poetry theater. What is more important is that all of them strive for a total aesthetic effect in the spirit of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk—for spectacle, for interaction with the audience. We might also mention Dmitry Vodennikov’s slams, which by definition aim for direct, “corporeal-familiar” contact (as Mikhail Bakhtin would have put it) with the audience; or the Musical-Poetical Ring, which stages “battles royal” between musicians and poets. It is, of course, possible to debate the degree of talent and professional merits of the performers in such projects (if such categories are applicable here). We can ask whether they bring something new and meaningful to poetry itself, or instead reduce poetry to the role of an ingredient, a “handmaiden” to other art forms. What I find most interesting, however, is the symptom itself, which is especially clearly manifested in Orbit’s high-tech experiments. As Dmitry Golynko-Volfson notes, the poetics of this group “articulates a radical mistrust of, and a cautious suspicion towards, the conventions of the text-in-itself, showing how unprofitable and useless it is without audiovisual vaccinations and injections.”[i] The trajectory of the Nizhny Novgorod duo PROVMYZ (Sergei Provorov and Galina Myzinkova) is telltale in this sense. While they began in the early nineties with scintillating neo-futurist performances, they quickly abandoned poetry for video art. In this medium they have enjoyed indisputable success, as witnessed by their participation in the last Venice Biennale.
The sense that the poetic word is “unprofitable” and “useless” is fueled by a complicated set of problems occasioned by the socio-cultural transformations of the last several decades. The turn to new technologies on the part of poets is merely the tip of this iceberg. The “soft” terror of the mass media and the cult of consumerism have replaced ideological control in the post-Soviet space. The everyday experience of the urban dweller is more and more determined by a constant cerebral shock. By virtue of its constancy, this shock is no longer perceived as such, but merely as a rhythmic tickle, the invariable background that follows us everywhere—on the streets, in cafés and supermarkets, on buses and trains, in movie theaters, offices, and airports. The speed with which information is transmitted via electronic and wireless networks has increased so exponentially that our customary (bookish) skills for reading and making sense of it malfunction, yielding to machinic processing and digital surfing. Television, the Internet, mobile telephony, computing, and all the other forms of instantaneous recording and communication form a market of synthetic, simultaneous perception that deepens its industrialization and automation. They lead to the emergence of what Paul Virilio has termed “machinic vision.”[ii]
As the lived environment mutates, so does language mutate. The center of creative work has shifted. This is apparent in the destinies of philology and (even more so) semiotics. Having achieved its structuralist acme in the sixties thanks to the configuring of linguistics as a hard science (with phonology as its basis), semiotics has ceased to be the frontline of theoretical research, in the same way that philology had, earlier, ceased to be the paradigm of the humanities. Thinkers no longer appeal to linguistic models and poetic language to ground their concepts and procedures, as had been the case with Heidegger’s ontological turn, Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, Lacan’s psychoanalysis, Kristeva’s intertextuality or Derrida’s deconstruction. On the contrary, their methods have migrated into the analysis of other, non-verbal practices.[iii] This situation in many ways resembles the one described by Roman Jakobson in “What Is Poetry?” (1933–34):
The latter half of the nineteenth century was a period when linguistic signs were suddenly, violently inflated. This thesis can be easily justified from the standpoint of sociology. The most typical cultural phenomenon of the time exhibit a determination to conceal this inflation at any cost and shore up faith in the paper word with all available means. Positivism and naive realism in philosophy, liberalism in politics, the neogrammarian school in linguistics, an assuasive illusionism in literature and on the stage (with illusions of both the naive naturalist and the solipsistic decadent varieties), the atomization of method in literary theory (and in scholarship and science as a whole)—such are the names of the various and sundry expedients that served to bolster the credit of the word and strengthen confidence in its value.[iv]
Need I remind you what followed hard on the heels of this late-nineteenth-century crisis?
We will refrain from labeling the current changes a decline or pronouncing a final verdict on them. Such appraisals—“rise” and “fall”—depend on the system of coordinates in which they are made. Take the so-called golden age of Russian poetry, for example. Even the poets of this golden age contemptuously referred to it as an “iron” age. Pushkin: “Our age is a trader; in this age of iron / There is no liberty without money.” Baratynsky: “The age proceeds along its own iron path.” For the poets of Pushkin’s day, the golden age was the time of Shakespeare or Dante, or even of Homer. Baratynsky dates the “infant dreams of poetry” to the pre-scientific, prehistoric age, thus refusing the contemporary world the gift of “prophecy.” What we Russians nowadays call a golden age of poetry, he perceived as an age of cupidity and shamelessly mercantile concerns, of the “impudent cry” of polemical journalism, which was capable of engendering only what is trite and commonplace. At the brink of the Russian Silver Age (at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries), the poet Nikolai Gumilev made a similar gesture: he compared the fallen state of contemporary language to an “abandoned hive” and referred his readers to the “hosanna” of the divine Word, which could make the sun stand still and raise cities from the dust.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to yield to the temptation to engage in such (comforting) relativizing. Historical ruptures have indeed taken place, and they have radically altered the situation and function of poetry in society. Perhaps they have altered its essence as well. In Russia, these shifts did not coincide chronologically (chronically?) with the same shifts in the west, and this presents a separate problem. It seems that only here and now are we in Russia fully confronted with Hölderlin’s “childish” question: “In meager times what are poets good for?” In meager times or, to put it differently, in “times of adversity” (in dürftiger Zeit)—that is, when everything has already been said, all myths debunked, the gods have perished or departed forever, and the work of art has nothing to say. All the artwork can do is indicate this exhaustion, this emptiness in which it is lost itself, in order to become, paradoxically and visibly, the experience of endless wandering. This is what happens in Andrei Monastyrsky’s “Perforated Composition” (1973):
Where am I?
In bad weather.
at an end.
Speech falters: a line is drawn under it. This is an ending. And this ending (we should not forget) led to Collective Actions (as the Moscow conceptualists came to call their “outings to the countryside”).[v]
The current turn of poets to spectacular forms and technologies is, therefore, not simply their means to find a new audience, preferably a bigger one. It is not simply a means for concealing the word’s insolvency with a “direct” psychosomatic attack or, on the contrary, for demonstratively flaunting the end of an egregious literature-centrism. Nor does it come down to merely expanding the range of poetry’s possibilities. In performance art and multimedia technologies, poetry seeks to reunite with the ground that has been slipping from under it—the sensual reality-cum-irreality at stake in all the artistic revolutions of the twentieth century. Apollinaire had already formulated the aesthetic program of the future avant-gardes in “On Painting” (1909): “Artists are above all men who want to become inhuman. Painfully they search for traces of inhumanity, traces of which are to be found nowhere in nature. These traces are clues to truth, aside from which there is no reality we can know.”[vi] Until a certain point in time, this program was held in common by poets and artists. The futurists, Dadaists, LEFists, constructivists, and surrealists wrote joint manifestos and published their works in the same periodicals and books. Moreover, it was the poets (Apollinaire, Tzara, Breton, Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh, Ilyazd, Pound, Marinetti) who acted as the ideologues of the new currents. The situation changed in the thirties, however. This moment is recorded in Paul Valéry’s essay “Problems of Poetry” (1935):
The fate of an art is linked, on the one hand, with that of its material means and, on the other, with that of the minds who are capable of being interested in it and who find in it the satisfaction of a real need. From the remotest antiquity to the present time, reading and writing have been the sole means of exchange and the only methods of developing and preserving expression through language. One can no longer answer for the future. As for minds, one already sees that they are wooed and captured by so much immediate magic, so many direct stimuli, which with no effort provide the most intense sensations and show them life itself and the whole of nature, that one may doubt whether our grandchildren will find the slightest savor in the outdated graces of our most extraordinary poets and of poetry in general.[vii]
Valéry doesn’t specify what kind of “immediate magic” and “direct stimuli” “show [us] life itself,” but in any case it is clear that, compared to them, poetry (and its graces) will seem “outdated.”
Valéry, of course, could not have predicted that things “themselves,” objects and phenomena, would be replaced by their electronic images; that information flows would replace nature; that the reality principle would be shaken to its foundations by the “reality effect,” delivered to one’s door by industrial means. He likewise could not have predicted 24-hour music, entertainment, and news channels, which establish a new temporal regime of planetary “real time.” He could not have foreseen satellite communications, microprocessors, low-orbit automatic tracking cameras, implanted chips, and other “material means” for increasing the velocity of the “means of exchange” and perception a thousandfold. However, it was in the thirties, in Europe and the US, that what would be called the “culture industry” (Adorno) and the “society of the spectacle” (Debord) came into their own. Cinema became the most important of the arts, and a total mobilization began to proceed apace (a mobilization of natural and human resources designed to service and prosthetize the rising technosphere). In 1934, finally, media technologies were used for mass propaganda purposes for the first time: Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will captured the NSDAP (Nazi) Nuremberg Rally on film, and Hitler’s speeches in the Reichstag were broadcast over the radio.
In this same year, Ernst Jünger published the essay “On Pain.” In it he addresses the possibility of repeatedly experiencing an event in all its immediacy from a distance via instantaneous electronic transmission. He sees in this the potential to transform any socially significant event into the simple object of a news broadcast:
Today any event worthy of notice is surrounded by a circle of lenses and microphones and lit up by the flaming explosions of flashbulbs. In many cases, the event itself is completely subordinated to its transmission; to a great degree, it has been turned into an object. Thus we have already experienced political trials, parliamentary meetings, and contests whose whole purpose is to be the object of a planetary broadcast. The event is bound neither to its particular space nor to its particular time, since it can be mirrored anywhere and repeated any number of times.[viii]
Jünger sings the praises of the technological era’s objectivization of events as a new form of aesthetic purposelessness whose spellbinding, anesthetic power we can fully appreciate only today, in the age of reality shows and the (preferably slow-motion) live rebroadcast of natural and manmade disasters. (We should recall here Stockhausen’s remark about the collapse of the World Trade Center as the most perfect work of art.)
The mobilization potential of media technologies paves the way to the spectacle of a reified, standardized humanity that despises pain insofar as “[h]idden behind the face of entertainment promoted by the all-encompassing media, are special forms of discipline.”[ix] These forms of discipline differ radically from those we customarily associate with the traditional forms of art. They inculcate in the masses the aesthetization of alienation via the phantasmagoria of the image. This aesthetization celebrates its triumph using remote-control technologies. They also inure the masses to a new technogenic sensibility whose herald was photography, the first industrial anesthetic:
Photography stands outside the realm of sensibility. It has something of a telescopic quality: one can tell that the object photographed was seen by an insensitive and invulnerable eye. That eye registers equally well a bullet in midair or the moment in which a man is torn apart by an explosion. This is our characteristic way of seeing, and photography is nothing other than an instrument of this new propensity in human nature. It is remarkable that this propensity is still as invisible as it is in other fields, such as literature; but no doubt, if we can expect anything from writing as well as painting, the description of the most minute psychic events will be replaced by a new kind of precise and objective depiction.[x]
Out of fairness we should note that this new form of objective, photographically distanced description already existed in simultaneous poetry, the Merzbau of Kurt Schwitters, and the objectivist montage poems of Blaise Cendrars (e.g., the “Kodak” cycle) and other poets. The problem, however, lies elsewhere: namely, in the fact that the new visual methods can produce the same effect better, more quickly, and, most important, with an impact a thousand times greater than the “outdated” medium of poetry.
After World War Two, the paths of contemporary art and poetry diverged ever further. Contemporary art was institutionalized and taken under the wing of governments, museums, foundations, and corporations. It gradually became an inalienable component of the culture industry and the political propaganda machine, as the Moscow Biennale has recently demonstrated with such showy brilliance. Citing the campaign to promote American abstract expressionism, mounted with the direct support of the CIA, some historians argue that the institutionalization of the visual arts undertaken in the west in the post-war period was a farsighted, well-conceived policy to socialize and, thus, domesticate the anti-bourgeois spirit. This policy channeled radicalism into the autonomous buffer zone of the arts.[xi] (Clement Greenberg, American abstraction’s principal theorist, had been a Trotskyite in the thirties, while the majority of artists had been leftists of one stripe or another.)
This version of events sounds plausible, but it is only a part of the truth. No less significant is another factor: the deterritorialization of art, its escape from the surface of the canvas and traditional easel painting. Its new forms—assemblage, object, happening, body art, land art, installation, process art, relational aesthetics, video, and multimedia—conform precisely to the deterritorialization wrought by transnational capital. Two logics encounter and reflect each other here: the immanent logic of art, which seeks to overcome its own limits (the limits of the “human,” per Apollinaire), and the logic of the expanded (re)production of goods. Put crudely, if the thing (the painting, the object) has become an item on the market or has been purchased by a museum and exhibited there as “contemporary art,” then for me to remain an artist I am now forced to create, for example, ideas or relations, not material things. In turn, these things acquire an exhibition value (a price)—that is, a commodity form. Nowadays, the “universal” of this crisscross logic, the aesthetic sign of expanded (re)production, is the “project.”
But what kind of “project” could the poet have? Poetry quite quickly, as early as the nineteen-teens and twenties, ran up against the material boundary of deterritorialization: pure phonetic writing (glossolalia, transsense language) and/or the blank page. Mallarmé had already anticipated this dead end in his poem Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (“A Throw of the Dice,” 1897). Here, it is not the word or the line, but the page that functions as the self-standing unit of text. The collages of the Dadaists or the “vacuum” poetry of the Nothingists (nichevoki) pushed poetry to the verge of exhaustion or dissolution in the other art forms. (Mallarmé himself described his experiments with terms borrowed from scenography and dance.) Other less radical and notorious practices were even more unable to acquire that disturbing ambivalence constitutive of the commodity. This is what Marx has in mind when he writes of the commodity’s “fetish character,” of its “metaphysical subtleties” and “theological contrivances.” These qualities have been borrowed by the contemporary artwork, even (and especially) in the form of a rejection of the work as such. The dyslexia, aphasia, and speech defects evinced by the OBERIU poets were not only a revolt against normative totalitarian grammar, but also a reaction to this dead end, which reduces the poetic utterance to a mark on the page or a wordless gesture. It is telling that Vvedensky and Kharms turned to genres of dramatic farce, to “processions” and vulgar mystery plays. These forms laid bare the archaic, magical/ritual mechanisms (dating back to spells, incantations, and prayers) that in fact would now form the impossible horizon—the origin and, simultaneously, the limit—of all poetic utterance.[xii] The later works of the OBERIU are imbued with a particular sense of horror because these corporeal-linguistic techniques, sacred in their origins, appear in these works as out-of-control automatic writing machines, alienated from the enunciating subject. (Antonin Artaud, a poet who abandoned poetry for the theater and cinema, dreamed in parallel with the OBERIU about a new spiritual automatism rooted in archaic ritual. However, the figure of the automaton has attained its genuine, high-frequency resolution only now that contemporary electronic and digital technologies have fused with biotechnologies.)
Valéry’s prediction has been fulfilled in one other way. As the world is integrated via mass communication, the World Wide Web, and porous national frontiers, as it becomes (as they say) globalized, and national cultures mix, lose their strict contours, and more and more often generate a non-national, supranational or international art, poetry, on the contrary, is locked in its local traditions as in ghettoes, unable to overcome its cultural and linguistic barriers. Since the time of the surrealists and, with certain provisos, the beatniks, not a single poetry movement has emerged that could lay claim to true international status or provoke a public response outside its local audience. The influence of the Italian hermeticists, the German-Austrian concretists, the French Lettrists, the American Language School poets, the Latin American Neo-Baroque poets, and other current national poetic schools bears no comparison with the influence once exercised by the symbolists, futurists, and Dadaists. (This doesn’t mean, of course, that there have been no significant or even great poets after the surrealists and the OBERIU poets. Perhaps the contrary is the case. But this is not my point.)
In other words, the industry of contemporary art has the advantage of upward mobility, as the sociologists put it. This means immediate access to the international market, while poetry is forced to make do with a national symbolic economy. This economy is literally symbolic: it consists of several thousand (or even several hundred) devoted poetry lovers, and most of these are one’s fellow poets. It is a closed economy: it corresponds to the hermeticism (and hermetization) of local poetic traditions and poetry itself as a form of creative work within an ever-expanding field of cultural production. “Scratch on, my pen: let’s mark the white [paper] the way it marks us.” (Joseph Brodsky, “The Fifth Anniversary,” 1977.) Today we perceive in these words not the unique experience of an émigré poet, stranded in an alien linguistic and metaphysical landscape and thus deprived of his rightful audience, but a universal statement of how things stand in the poetic economy. Poetry is an anachronism, a natural economy (pen?! paper?!) in an age of permanent industrial revolution. To borrow the late Dmitry Prigov’s favorite expression, poetry is a cottage trade.
Let’s summarize. The center of creative work has shifted to the visual arts because (1) they immediately reflect, and partly coincide with, the new technogenic environment, (2) which mobilizes the cerebral and sensorimotor resources of human beings along with the earth’s natural resources and outer space. (3) The visual arts correspond to the dominant regime of temporality and synthetic perception established by the mass media. (4) They are inscribed in the culture industry and, consequently, (5) in the capitalist machine, which deterritorializes any form of identity based on linguistic competency. This competency has been replaced by (6) an expanded (re)production and consumption of audiovisual images, (7) which now form the primary zone for experiments with the collective unconscious. This unconscious is nowadays not structured like a language (per Lacan), but like an exteriorized sensorium, a screen-projected ectoplasm whose center is nowhere, but whose affects are everywhere. (What are the ontological and neurophysiologic premises of this reconfiguration, in which the audiovisual image is privileged over the written or spoken word? This is a separate question, and the search for an answer to it would lead us far afield.[xiii])
In the face of this machine, what is poetry’s lot? First and foremost (and this is obvious), exclusion from the machine. Is this exclusion something new, however? Hadn’t Plato already dreamed of exiling the poets from the Republic? Don’t we encounter the very same figure of exclusion throughout the history of poetry, from Ovid to Dante, from Villon (“I’m received by everyone, and everywhere exiled”) to Hölderlin (“We are in exile”), from Tasso in chains to Pound behind bars, from Tsvetaeva’s “all poets are Yids” to the wanderings of Celan? This is not a romantic figure; it is not an historic dispositif summoned into life by particular (transitory) circumstances such as tyranny or a corrupt and arbitrary bureaucracy. In and of itself, the poem is already a form of exile from the world, and the man who gives himself over to the seemingly harmless game of poetry thus testifies to his willingness to dwell outside the law, outside the order of truth and its infrastructures, his willingness to be thrown outside, even outside himself. He risks something extreme, something more than madness and death, something more even than the “lawless thrills” of the poetic game itself. In all ages he has lived through “meager times,” times of adversity and misfortune. To ignite misfortune round oneself, to admit the hell of nonsense into his head, the hell of wild noises and screams, to devour his head (the rat-eaten head of Orpheus) under fire—this is his success.
But why? How can we call a time of adversity success, moreover, an unprecedented success? And why Hölderlin? Because, at very least for Heidegger (the thinker who thought the essence of the technology and destiny of the west, that sunset land par excellence), as with no other poet we still feel Hölderlin’s link to the Greek origins of poetry as poieisis, a link that is felt through separation and undoing. Written on the threshold of the new industrial era, his hymns call out to the dawn of dawns when art still bore the name tekhne and thus belonged to poieisis. This chiasmus, this errant unity-in-separation of art and technology permeates all of western history. It exposes and makes plain the “placelessness” of poetic locution, which once was the intermediary (the medium) between men and gods, heaven and earth. To persist in this placelessness, this widening gap into which the “surface of the song” has now been sent to wander, apparently means wishing for the impossible. But perhaps the impossible is the only domain and the sole destiny of the poet—that is, of the man who must “take upon himself the weight of the double infidelity and thus keep the two spheres distinct, by living the separation purely, by being the pure life of the separation itself. For this empty and pure place which distinguishes between the spheres is the sacred, the intimacy of the breach which is sacred.”[xiv] Poetry must still invent means for dwelling in the heart of this absolute rupture, for delivering and enduring it as an openness to the future. And, perhaps, as an openness to future (absolutely real) collective actions.
Translated by Our Swimmer
[i] Novaia Russkaia Kniga 1 (2001), p. 95.
[ii] This is a “machine of absolute velocity.” It undermines such traditional notions of geometrical optics as “observed” and “unobserved,” and it has begun to effect an “intensive blinding.” See Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine (Bloomington, Ind., 1994).
[iii] It is not only the flowering of visual studies that I have in mind here. The “re-qualification” of the leading theorists is symptomatic as well. Thus, near the end of his life, Barthes wrote about photography (Camera Lucida is, perhaps, his best book). In the eighties, Deleuze turned his attention to the cinema, while Lyotard and Rancière took up the study of the visual arts. The only exception in this series (by no means complete) is Alain Badiou—but even he has written about the end of the “age of poets.”
[iv] Roman Jakobson, Language in Literature, ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), pp. 376–7.
[v] In the preface to “Perforated Composition,” Monastyrsky writes that it was “conceived as a performance in which the invited guests (mainly artists) were first supposed to listen to the author perform the text of the composition itself (a kind of Stimmung). Then they would be handed pieces of paper. As the author read his ‘Pictures,’ they would draw, in any style, the subject that had just been read out. (There was a five-minute pause between the reading-out of each subject.) This performance was realized once, in November or December 1973, for several of my artist friends.” Andrei Monastyrsky, Nebesnomu nosatomu domiku po puti v Pagan (Moscow, 2001), p. 54. The composition itself is built on the serial principle, whose invariants are children’s counting rhymes and love charms, the ür-phenomena of oral poetry.
[vi] Guillaume Apollinaire, The Cubist Painters: Aesthetic Meditations, 1913, trans. Lionel Abel (New York, 1949), p. 11.
[vii] Paul Valéry, The Art of Poetry, trans. Denise Folliot (Princeton, 1985), pp. 95–6.
[viii] Ernst Jünger, “Photography and the ‘Second Consciousness’: An Excerpt from ‘On Pain,’” Photography in the Modern Era: European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913–1940 (New York, 1989), p. 209.
[ix] Ernst Jünger, “Über den Schmerz”; quoted in Anton Kaes, “The Cold Gaze: Notes on Mobilization and Modernity,” New German Critique 59 (1993), p. 115.
[x] Jünger, “Photography,” p. 208.
[xi] Cf. Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, Chicago, 1983; Taylor D. Littleton and Maltby Sykes, Advancing American Art: Painting, Politics, and Cultural Confrontation at Mid-Century, Tuscaloosa, 1989; Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, London, 1999; and Michael L. Krenn, Fall-Out Shelters for the Human Spirit: American Art and the Cold War, Chapel Hill, 2005. All these historians concur that art and cultural values (in particular, American abstract expressionism) were weapons in the Cold War and a matter of direct concern to the US State Department. Frances Stonor Saunders offers a particularly detailed account of how the CIA infiltrated and influenced a variety of cultural organizations. To this end they used such friendly intermediaries as the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Moreover, the CIA did not just openly or secretly fund artists and intellectuals who toed the official Washington line. It also financed arts, literary and opinion journals (in Europe and elsewhere) that adopted a critical stance towards Marxism and revolutionary politics.
[xii] In “The Kernel of Comparative Slavic Literature,” Roman Jakobson reconstructs the general prototype of the Slavic verse, tracing it to folklore—in particular, to laments (keening), to sung and conversational verse. “Even where there is some alien influence, it appears only as an incitement to realize a traditional form of the native lore, which is familiar to the modern poet both from earlier literary adaptations and from the oral tradition which still surrounds and inspires him, and which speaks the same language he does. Thus ‘new rhythms’ in Czech or Russian or other Slavic poetry of this century are structurally—and often also genetically—closer to certain forms of the native folklore than to the French vers libre.” Roman Jakobson, “The Kernel of Comparative Slavic Literature,” Harvard Slavic Studies, vol. 1, 1953, p. 35. In another essay (“On Russian Folklore”), Jakobson makes a confession that also sheds a new light on the genesis of structuralist poetics. He talks about how he had occasion to read Alexander Blok’s study “The Poetry of Spells and Incantations” (1908) soon after it was published. He was stunned and gladdened by how abruptly the study broke with the notions that he and his Russian contemporaries had been taught in their textbooks on the oral tradition. Among other things, Blok’s essay charmed Jakobson with its beautiful example of the strange magical songs, filled with incomprehensible words, that were performed to ward off mermaids.
[xiii] I will limit myself to remarking that one would have to discuss the arrangement of the sense organs and the imagination, which is capable of transporting us through time and space. This function has now been taken over by the media technologies. What philology defined as the word’s “inward image” is now being replaced by the exteriorization of “internal” mental and neurophysiologic processes. (Hence, the new “sensorium,” which is an electronic version of the cerebral cortex, dissected and turned inside out.) As the philosopher remarks, “As if it were necessary for the world to be broken up and buried for the speech-act to rise up.” Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis, 2001), p. 268.
[xiv] Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln, Nebr., 1982), p. 274.