Modern Language Association
Philadelphia, 2006

Poetics and Cultural Studies:
Engaging the Debate

Friday, 29 December, 2006
7:15-8:30 PM, Regency Ballroom A, Loews
Barrett Watten (Wayne State U), presiding


Ruth Jennison (U Massachusetts), “The Political Economy of Parataxis: Mediation and Uneven Development in Zukofsky’s ‘A’.”

Eric Keenaghan (SUNY Albany), “The Conflict of the Poetic Faculties: On Social Pedagogy and Undated Grammars of Self.”

Jeffrey T. Nealon (Penn State U), “The Ends of Autonomy:  Jameson, Poetics, and Cultural Studies Revisited”

Tyrone Williams (Xavier U), “‘Apparently I am picking fights’: Cultural Studies and Poetics Mix It Up in Taylor Brady’s Yesterday’s News"

The importance of poetry within the study of literature and the resurgence of critical interest in poetry are reflected in this year’s MLA Program. We propose this special session in order to call attention to work in poetics as a necessary parallel to the practice of poetry. Most importantly, we want to stage a debate between those who propose historicist and culturalist readings and those who see the renewed interest in poetry as support for a revival of formalism and the autonomy of literature. Our call for papers, addressed to critics of poetry and poet critics, read:

“We are proposing a Special Session as a precise adjunct to this moment—a session in which debates can be staged about the relation of poetics and cultural studies, or the theory of poetry and sociopolitical accounts of literary culture. How does poetics interface with cultural studies approaches? Is poetics a term that should be implicitly or explicitly reserved for aesthetic, formalist and theoretical studies alone, with cultural studies, postcolonial, global, and other concerns seen as extrinsic to poetry as literature? Can poetics intersect with socially and historically exploratory approaches, and how does poetics provide unique and important sociocultural evidence?”

Of the four panelists, one argues strongly for the use of poetry as a site for theorizing the transition of capitalist modernity to an emerging global order; one questions the “split” between poetry and cultural studies to Fredric Jameson’s negative assessment of poetry in his famous postmodernism essay; one argues that cultural studies models do not sufficiently account for the specificity of the literary; and one argues across racial and class logics in describing the cultural sources and politics of a new generation of politically engaged experimental poets. Otherwise put, we have contributions defending historicism, postmodern theory, and cultural studies accounts of race and class, and one suggesting that cultural studies methods are inadequate. We think the range of approaches provides an excellent forum for presenting many of the most important implications of either the common ground or antipathy between poetics and cultural studies.

Ruth Jennison begins by positioning poetics in relation to recent global criticism and notes the adoption of a series of key terms—center, margin, core, periphery, and uneven development—taken from global systems theory and adapted to poetry. She proposes that the move to a global poetics still requires that poetry be situated historically, citing Louis Zukofsky’s Marxist-inspired epic “A” as just such a historically situated text. She elaborates a theory of an alternative mode of poetic production, as a cognitive map of modernity’s “combined and uneven development” produced through the formal device of parataxis. As a revolutionary avant-gardist committed to the critique of capitalism at transitional points, Zukofsky writes a poetry that both represents the lived time of mediation and serves as an immanent critique of ideology. Zukofsky’s epic poem is thus political precisely for the way that it produces a “cognitive map” of emerging global orders.

Eric Keenaghan problematizes “the shared presumption that literature can and must bring us closer to social conflicts.” After a critique of the oversimplifications to which cultural studies readings are prone—including assumptions of the stability of the subject, ethical normativity, reluctance to face the specificity of the literary, and an instrumental use of the past as “lessons,” Keenaghan proposes a social pedagogy of literature, drawing on the work of Gertrude Stein, Peggy Kamuf, and Jacques Derrida. He further elaborates a concept of voice as crucial for the study of poetry. This is not “voice” as expressive or transparently readable but as a vocative relation, a calling that mobilizes our senses of differences, conflicts and “unnarratable alterity.”

Jeffrey Nealon proposes returning to a “primal scene” for debates between poetics and cultural studies, Fredric Jameson’s 1984 “Postmodernism” essay, which described language writer Bob Perelman’s poem “China” as an instance of postmodern schizophrenia, depthlessness, nostalgia, and pastiche. Nealon questions the symptomatic logic of Jameson’s reading, but suggests that the reading itself invites a reconsideration of the kind of “semi-autonomy” poetry needs in order to perform a critical function. As well, he criticizes the poetic and critical defense against Jameson’s position as an unexpressed, and unresolved, instance of the separation of the literary from the cultural and political. If poetics is to have agency in contemporary debates about culture, it will need to be discussed in the same analytic terms as downtown office buildings, with the caveat that in being discussed in those terms, poetry is not determined by them. Nealon’s touchstones in making his argument will be philosopher Gilles Deleuze and language writer Bruce Andrews.

Tyrone Williams reads Taylor Brady’s just published Yesterday’s News (2005) as a site of contestation between lyric poetry and the sources for the work, daily newspapers from the beginning of the Iraq War to the present. For Williams, cultural studies is analogous to the form of the newspaper, a public forum where diverse but “autonomous” interests and spheres are drawn into dialogue: feminist, postcolonialist, African-American, aesthetic. In modeling his work on the form of the newspaper, Brady is working within and between the claims to autonomy of these various sectors. As well, his work critiques the form of the lyric in its use of blank or empty spaces to “suspend” its materials from the quotidian while it is, at the same time, contaminated by them. Brady’s hybrid work encourages us to rethink lyric form in the terms of public discourse, specifically in the mutually reflecting claims to autonomy shared by identity politics and the aesthetic.

The proposed special session was co-organized by Barrett Watten (Professor of English, Wayne State University) and Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Professor of English, Temple University); due to other MLA commitments, Prof. DuPlessis’s name will not appear on the program, though she helped to frame the call for papers, advertise the call, and read proposals. Both co-organizers are poets and critics with significant emphasis on cultural studies and historicist approaches in their recent books: Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934 (DuPlessis) and The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics (Watten). Each is the author, as well, of numerous volumes of poetry, including Drafts 1-38 (Toll) (DuPlessis) and Progress/Under Erasure, Bad History, and Frame (1971-1990) (Watten).

Ruth Jennison, with a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley (2004), is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is currently working on a book entitled The Zukofsky Era. Her article “Waking into Ideology: Lorine Niedecker’s Experiments in the Syntax of Consciousness” is forthcoming in a new collection of recent Lorine Niedecker scholarship, edited by Elizabeth Willis.

Eric Keenaghan is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at SUNY Albany. Much of his work has been in queer theory, and he has published articles in The Wallace Stevens Journal, Modernism/Modernity, and Journal of Modern Literature. His current book project is Intrinsic Couplings: Queer Ethics, Anti-Liberalism, and the Critique of Nation in Cuban and U.S. Poetry during the Cold War.

Jeffrey T. Nealon is Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. He is author of Alterity Politics: Ethics and Performative Subjectivity (Duke, 1998) and of Double Reading: Postmodernism after Deconstruction (Cornell, 1993, 1996); co-author of The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, with Susan Searls-Giroux (Rowman-Littlefield, 2003); and co-editor of Rethinking the Frankfurt School: Alternative Legacies of Cultural Critique, with Caren Irr (SUNY, 2002). His articles have appeared in SAQ, SubStance, and Twentieth Century Literature.

Tyrone Williams is Professor of English at Xavier University. As a poet, he is the author of c.c. (Krupskaya Books, 2002) as well as several previous chapbooks. His poetry appears in Hambone, Callaloo, Denver Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, First Intensity, Kiosk, Chicago Review, XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics, Colorado Review, and River Styx.


[Papers to be posted here after the session.]

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