- I’ve been writing exclusively in long-form the past twelve months and become exhausted. Simultaneously, my writing has become more self-conscious, self-reflexive, and unwieldy, constant over-qualifications and anxious tangentials interrupting its focus. The list format used here, inspired partly by HTMLGiant’s trademark bullet-point style, is both a way to relieve this long-form burnout and to approach meaningful, meaty topics without weighing down or bulking out this piece in all the wrong places.
- Part of this issue, I think, stems from a fairly universal anxiety over being misunderstood by a hypothetical reader: hyper-clarity, in an attempt to quell this anxiety, can lead to dense, clunky, and bloated writing. It’s a phenomenon A D Jameson demonstrates with his concept of “dictionary expansions” as text-generating. Beckett’s “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” transforms into “A self-luminous heavenly body shed or cast light, possessing no possible or remaining course or choice, on something of recent origin, production, purchase, etc.; having but lately come or been brought into being…” Hyper-clarity might even be the wrong term, because the latter iteration (“A self-luminous heavenly body…”) is significantly less clear than Beckett’s original. Over-qualification, endless hedging, and the addition of unnecessary nuance all are a form of hyper-clarification, which, while utile if used conservatively, can quickly lead to this sort of “bogging down” and an inappropriately dense style that’s downright unenjoyable to read.
- (Another possibility for why this text-bogging occurs: a symptom not of authorial anxiety but of hubris, the result of a discrepancy between a piece’s “actual” and “virtual” readership (“virtual readership” being the audience that the author envisions will read the piece, which informs how he writes and addresses it). If the virtual audience is less capable, less savvy, less literate than the author imagines, this sort of unclear hyper-clarity can result. One can imagine the potential positive feedback loop as well: make a text dense and obscure in an attempt at hyper-clarity, receive feedback that the piece was dense and obscure, attempt to make subsequent drafts or writings even more explicit.)
- It seems like there are two types of natural (vs. Jameson’s technological/mechanical/artificial) expansion. The first type occurred in the line you just read — in an attempt to clarify and demonstrate the exact, full qualities of Jameson’s expansion, I gave it three modifying adjectives rather than a single adjective-of-best-fit. True, his technique is technological, since he’s copy-pasting from online dictionary definitions. It is (to some degree) mechanical rather than personal or custom, since Jameson has virtually no expressive role in the text expansion — he’s merely inserting the definition he is given. And it’s artificial because the action is undergone out of a conscious desire to expand text, and to expand text as an exercise, as opposed to text expansion resulting naturally out of a verbose writer’s unconscious habits or aforementioned hubris/anxiety. The second type is less about describing something accurately and more about extrapolation, and further implications — it occurs when a variety of items are including under a general umbrella of the topic at hand. In discussing the specific modernism of Joyce’s writing, an area the author is hypothetically well-versed in, he might briefly name-check other authors, movements, even art traditions, in which he is significantly less well-versed, as reflecting a similar aesthetic sensibility. If the danger of the first type of natural expansion (“over-descriptive”) is that it can become redundant or lack artful grace, then the danger of this brand of expansion is its self-weakening tendency: through (often unexplained) application onto poor fits or stretched examples, an argument quickly spreads itself thin. If a reader, for instance, isn’t nearly as acquainted with the direct issue/object discussed (eg Joyce’s modernist sensibility), but is familiar with a name-checked parallel issue that poorly fits, or even directly contradicts, the thesis on Joyce (eg loose parallels between Pollock and stream-of-consciousness), then the argument’s credibility and effectiveness are massively undermined. My personal familiarity with abstract expressionism is fairly limited, so perhaps the example I just used has had this very effect on an “actual reader” somewhere.
- It’s worth qualifying, though, that these techniques are crucial to effective arguments because they help achieve the necessary depth and breadth present in great writing. Observations on modernist sensibility are much less urgent if they apply only to Ulysses and nothing else; observations which hold true for modernism as a whole only by their lack of specificity and rigor lack the depth necessary for meaningful insight in the first place. Perhaps the issue isn’t that these approaches add significant bulk to a piece of writing; perhaps it’s just that, because of the bulk they bring with them, it’s important that they’re used appropriately and conservatively to keep a body of writing clear and focused. Not that this is much of an insight in itself — it essentially breaks down to the classic (if prudent) call for in all things moderation.
- It was on the aforementioned HTMLGiant, in fact, where I first stumbled upon Jameson’s writing. It was December of 2014. Reading through past archives, the site revealed itself as a thriving subculture, a special interest forum, a host to some of contemporary literature’s best writers and reviewers. The most recent post was October 2014; the site had shut down literally weeks before I visited it.
- A fair amount of writing on the Internet has been dedicated to HTMLGiant’s collapse, usually as a marker for the collapse of so-called Alt-Lit (though HTMLGiant has retroactively distanced itself from that tag). Alt-Lit is itself often Internet-based (or Internet-inspired) writing; its novels and short stories sampled IM and Gmail chats, as early as the mid-2000s, or discussed topics from online pornography to technology’s deadening emotional effect. Tao Lin helped give the genre its meteoric rise in the mid-to-late 2000s with books like Shoplifting from American Apparel and Eeee Eee Eeee; his prose has been praised for its minimalist economy, his novels for their deadpan humor and channeling of vaguely-millennial ennui.
- It was also Lin who helped bring about Alt-Lit’s demise. Allegations of statutory rape were made against him the very month that HTMLGiant shut down; Lin had been 22 while sleeping with a 16-year-old E.R. Kennedy. The allegations followed on the heels of other, unrelated accusations of sexism, emotional abuse, and even assault by male members of the Alt-Lit community; given Lin’s stature within it, it was a sort of final toppling of the throne long after the castle walls had already been breached. I don’t quite know where the scene is now, though I’ve reached out to past contributors. There are successor sites, but none have the same urgency or presentness of mission, let alone the sheer uniformity talent, that HTMLGiant once did.
- (Jameson’s “A Dozen Dominants of Indy Lit,” though not exactly particular to Alt-Lit, hosts a much more complete and well-informed discussion of what Alt-Lit looks like.)
- Kanye West released two new tracks last fall. One, “Say You Will” (ft. Caroline Shaw), begins with a vocal line paying homage to Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” released in 1981 and widely considered one of the most influential avant-garde recordings of the 20th century.
- What’s so interesting about this homage is that it completes an artistic circle. Jameson notes in the piece “Why I Hate The Avant-Garde” that Anderson herself was hardly groundbreaking — she was almost certainly taking cues from hip-hop and electronic musicians no one in the academy was listening to, then putting her own spin on things. With West, a hip-hop musician, repeating the process of appropriation, things come full circle; culture advances. Jameson’s issue with a capital Avant-Garde is that, contrary to popular perception, no work of avant-garde art is ever traditionless or unprecedented; in fact, it’s part of a highly institutionalized tradition which determines what constitutes experimentation by legitimizing certain experimental directions, artists, and cultures (specifically, academic, Western, upper-class).
- There’s a potential paradox in mathematics’ set theory that any number not in a set is also simultaneously part of the set “all numbers not in a set.” Jameson argues that the way the AG currently functions is as its own canonized tradition, slowly mutating just like the rest of culture — that “avant-garde art” isn’t actually separate from tradition and established aesthetic norms like it likes to think it is. But even if we define, for this piece, the A.G. as all art which intentionally tries to breakaway from traditional aesthetic norms, it still belongs to the tradition or “set” of separateness, which will bear common traits simply by virtue of not possessing the common traits of mainstream tradition.
- With either of these definitions, is it fair to label Kanye West an avant-garde artist? Perhaps 20th century institutionalized/academic notions of the avant-garde wouldn’t count him as such, largely for the reasons Jameson outlines, but he’s certainly embraced as such by popular music critics, and I think it’s worth questioning that classification to some degree. There seems to be a two-step process to artistic innovation: the avant-garde discovers new ground, but often has difficulty turning its experimental works into something aesthetically appealing. Figuring out which scouted ground can be best incorporated into, and used to mutate, contemporary music (and then finding a way to synthesize the innovative sounds of these techniques with established ones) is usually a separate role from that of a “true” avant-garde artist. West isn’t doing the experimentation himself so much as he’s masterfully identifying which contemporary experiments have been successful, and then morphing or integrating them into a cohesive, highly aesthetically appealing whole.
- Lastly: It strikes me that these records (the second-stage-of-innovation works) are the kind that get called “classic” in retrospect. First-stage avant-garde musicians are too out-there, too concerned with formal or technical experimentation to worry as much about other qualities of the art they’re making. Experimental artists were running guitars backwards long before Revolver, but Revolver is canonized because it can incorporate these innovations into skilled songwriting and production. This isn’t unique to music: stream-of-consciousness existed long before Joyce; it’s just that novels like Ulysses were able to incorporate the approach into a (relatively) accessible and otherwise merit-worthy work.
Graham Johnson is a member of the editorial board of The Columbia Review.