Notes toward the Postmodern Baroque
by Joshua Corey
I want to pursue an intuition about the baroque as a mode of American poetry—a mode of early modernity particularly well adapted to a postmodern era which has seen an acceleration of the modern tendency to break down experience into fragments. It is peculiarly well-suited to a poetics of resistance—not in a nostalgic re-creation of some lost lifeworld, but through a radical materialism that paradoxically creates a new aperture for subjective, even spiritual, experience.
A product of the Counter Reformation, the historical baroque was a response to the assault on the Catholic church being led by Protestantism. The baroque style in art was born in the same period as the Inquisition and the Society of Jesus—institutions designed to combat heresy and compel orthodoxy. But where its siblings are repressive or disciplinary, the baroque was intended to attract the allegiance of the common people. Through painting, music, and architecture, what had become a rigid and corrupt administrative structure sought to present its doctrines in a more fresh and appealing way; we might nowadays call it, “Catholicism with a human face.” As a style, the baroque “establishes a total art or a unity of the arts” (Deleuze)—an untimely manifestation of the modernist urge toward the Gesamtkunstwerk or “total artwork” that dissolves the boundaries between the arts as it dissolves the ground between artwork and spectator. Gilles Deleuze’s reading of the baroque stresses its spatial and architectural qualities: “the painting exceeds its frame... sculpture goes beyond itself by being achieved in architecture,” so that “the painter has become an urban designer” and “The sum of the arts becomes the Socius, the public social space inhabited by Baroque dancers” (123). Such an aestheticization of public space reminds us of the aestheticization of politics characteristic of Fascism and its spectacles: one thinks of the soaring forms and innumerable torches defining the seemingly limitless space of the Luitpold Arena in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. And yet the baroque also refers us to the sculpture of Bernini and the paintings of Caravaggio, which convey the spiritual through its impact on solid matter. Caravaggio turned street people into saints and back again, while Bernini’s sculpture of Teresa of Avila captures an ecstasy that transcends and returns us to the saint’s transported body. There is a monumental baroque and a baroque of intimacy. There is a blurring of the bounds between the sacred and profane, even as the ruling ideology that the baroque artists served was struggling to enforce the distinction. In their work, the spirit becomes a special effect of the ecstatic and suffering body. Catholic ideology is the detached superstructure of the too too solid flesh whose nakedness compels our attention.
Today we are living through another legitimation crisis, or to speak more accurately, a crisis of legitimation. The right-wing reaction to the liberation movements of the 1960s has pulsed like a shockwave through our society, opening an unprecedented rift between politics and culture that continues to widen. As Andrew Joron has remarked, “Here in America... ‘culture’ has been reduced to a simple play of intensities, to the simultaneously brutal and sentimental pulsions of mass media. Any ‘legitimation function’ would be superfluous: the American machine, with its proudly exposed components of Accumulation and Repression, has no need for such a carapace” (Fathom 18). Increasingly, it seems that the forces of capitalism no longer even need the carapace of politics, let alone culture. For confirmation of this we need only glance at the Riefenstahlian spectacle of George W. Bush’s famous “Mission Accomplished” speech, which the speed of events transformed almost overnight into a dialectical image of the man’s hubris and haplessness. And yet the war machine marches on unfazed, sustained as it is by a subtly self-distributed myth of accumulation and enclosure that retains all the mystification of myth while discarding its traditional forms.
In a time when even the acknowledged legislators appear helpless to do anything other than ride the tiger of accumulation, what are the unacknowledged ones to do? The blue pill of ideological critique offered up by the Language poets seems to have lost some of its kick, while the “I do this, I do that” of the New York School has come to seem merely descriptive of how most of us behave in the residual shopping mall of culture. My heart is no longer in my pocket with my copy of Pierre Reverdy—it has been broken up and distributed along innumerable lines of socio-economic flight—a part of the larger reality that must, in Paul Celan’s words, be searched for and won. The baroque comes to my aid by foregrounding the tenuousness of the connection between ideology and materialism, cultural politics and the means of production, the spirit and the letter. To quote Deleuze once again, “In the Baroque the soul entertains a complex relation with the body. Forever indissociable from the body, it discovers a vertiginous animality that gets it tangled in the pleats of matter, but also an organic or cerebral humanity (the degree of development) that allows it to rise up, and that will make it ascend over all other folds" (11).
What Deleuze describes here, I believe, is nothing less than a new way of thinking about those aspects of reality that resist representation, whether speaking of the soul and subjectivity of the individual or the social as a whole. And it suggests an approach to poetry that, in its foregrounding of folding interplay of the sensuous signifier, anchors truth-content in bodily experience. It seems to me today that we have a very strong poetry of “vertiginous animality,” whose radical materialism serves to ironize and corrode the myths of accumulation. I refer of course to flarf, which in the words of Stan Apps is a poetics that “consists of decisively rejecting mysterious theatricality, and thereby creating an aesthetic of material accountability." Flarf’s loony, goony, and aggressive repurposing of discourse—from the boardroom to the porn movie, from Silliman’s Blog to the New York Times—punctures the balloon of mystification that poetry, of all the arts, is the most prone to conjuring. At the same time, flarf poetry is hardly untheatrical: it is a shadow play of discourses and unattributed voices, played out on a skewed soundstage’s version of the American totality: psychiatric regulation of subjectivity in Katie Degentesh’s The Anger Scale, normative gender stances in Drew Gardner’s “Chicks Dig War,” patriotic road rage in Kasey Mohammed’s Deer Head Nation. The title of Michael Magee’s Mainstream says it all: this toxic, mortally funny spewage of language arranged in lines, superficially at home in any anthology of verse, is our new mainstream, visible to anyone who will open their eyes to the ways in which we actually think, write, and speak. The comfortable mythology of the stable subject in the scenic mode has been left long behind, of course. But also rejected is the very notion of a subject able to rise above his or her very bodily immersion in the material gunk of discourse—there is no higher ground.
Here is where I part ways with the flarfists in my own ambitions for poetry. To supplement their corrosive irony and the necessary “inappropriateness” of their “vertiginous animality,” I look for a baroque that feels its way back toward something like spiritual experience and knowledge—what Deleuze calls “organic and cerebral humanity.” The combination of “cerebral” with “organic” is key: we are speaking of a conceptuality or subjectivity that cannot be divorced from bodily experience, that accepts the body as its ground. As a mode of the baroque, this speaks to the reality of St. Teresa’s ecstasy before the church fathers found ways of assimilating it to doctrine; it speaks to the warm flesh of Caravaggio’s painting of John the Baptist as the saint grapples with a ram while directly, erotically engaging our gaze: by being so sensuously enfleshed, we feel more acutely the possibility that he is a forerunner of the divine. To speak in more materialist terms, I believe it is through the folds, ornaments, and patterns of sensuously folded and patterned language that we discover the truth of our subjective relation to the sociolinguistic whole.
In the space permitting I can only hastily allude to two of the most remarkable examples of this mode of the baroque, Jo Anne Wasserman’s The Escape and Shanxing Wang’s Mad Science in Imperial City, both published by Futurepoem Books. Both of these books press hard against the usual genre distinctions of poetry, alternating prose with verse and, in Wang’s case, incorporating copious scientific terms and diagrams. Both are highly inventive in their use of form—Wasserman’s book is distinguished by its narrative sestinas (the combination of “narrative” with “sestina” into a single phrase seems thoroughly baroque in itself), while Wang pursues writing itself like the ouroborous of legend, searching and never finding the correct English for his tumultuous experience as a ambivalent subject-object of recent Chinese and American history. Both draw strongly on autobiography, but also on innumerable other discourses and social texts to produce the unmistakable effect of spirit. You read these books for cognitive maps of the world that the normative discourses of enclosure conceal. You read these books to rediscover what’s still possible for subjectivity within the body of what’s written, said, and done in the name of a history that is under no institution’s control, or author’s agency. The work of these poets hints at a continuing role for both major modes of the baroque in our poetry—a dialectic of destruction and construction that keeps us in touch with the body of the word, and reminds us of the possibilities of spirit.
Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Foreword and translation by Tom Conley. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Joron, Andrew. Fathom. New York: Black Square Editions, 2003.