PPL In A Depot by Gary Sullivan
(Roof, New York, 2007)
There is an unusual receptive anomaly often associated with the emergence of “new” ways of writing. Firstly, we can sometimes see, on the part of critics, an initial historicizing tendency: an attempt to posit the relationship of a new type of writing to its literary-historical precedents. Secondly -- and existing entirely simultaneously to this effort for chronological placement -- we can also note a sort of ideational hyperbole, which posits that this new style is “like nothing else”, that it surpasses “prior notions”, “old concepts”, exploding aesthetic boundaries into territories for which we have no current critical nomenclature.
The pertinence of these preliminary remarks will, I hope, soon become clear; but before speaking specifically of Gary Sullivan’s PPL In A Depot, I’ll attempt to explain what I’m getting at in my identification of this receptive paradox.
First, let’s first take the blurbs which here encase Gary Sullivan’s faux-dramatic dialogues. What is interesting is that each blurbist not only feels the need to posit a precedent and history to Sullivan’s writing, but that such precedents, though in themselves appropriate, form together a surprisingly eclectic lineage.
Stacy Doris, for instance, situates this writing “in the Yeatsian lineage of Flarf Noh, received via Spicer and Oulipo”. Kasey Mohammad has recourse to Artaud’s “‘Theatry of Cruelty’, an ‘impossible theatre’ that would confront spectators with the violent truth of their lives in ways that exploded traditional notions of dramatic form and propriety.”
Of course, what is so curious here is that it hardly needs be said that Antonin Artaud is perhaps as diametrically opposed to Oulipo as one could get. If the former represents the violent, spiritual, personal digging into the depths of an existential ennui, the latter incarnates more closely an attempt to overcome expressive effusion via procedural concentration, mixed with the development of complex praxe.
And the interesting thing here is that both heritages are, of course, correct. They are perspicaciously identified, regarding PPL In A Depot, by both Doris and Mohammad, because they do indeed exist, in varying degrees and at variant moments, within this writing’s breadth of performance and performativity.
But then something strange occurs: something which seems to me nevertheless rather common to the reception of Flarf specifically in the contemporary critical climate. For Doris then advances, in her otherwise stimulating appreciation, that: “These snappy, to the point acts of writing bounce genre, authorship, taste, and all the other no longer interesting issues out of the house.”
Oh really? It’s a recurrent gesture, not only to Flarf, but to a variety of new or variant movements across the history of literary modernity. First, Sullivan -- and perhaps Flarf generally as both collective and mode of writing -- is given a variety of coherent possible forbears: Dada, Oulipo, Situationism, Surrealism ; Tristan Tzara, Raymond Queneau, Jack Spicer, Guy Debord. Then it is posited, in almost the same breath, that Sullivan “dismisses”, “ignores” or “explodes” known notions of “genre, authorship, taste”: those precise notions, then, which were the central speculative inquiries -- the formal and contential nodes or axes -- of the precise movements and histories previously convened.
It’s perhaps a critical ambivalence common to the reception of new forms of art generally: a mixture of evolution and intelligent design, a desire to say at once that this new form has historically evolved out of mutations of its former avatars, coupled with a concurrent desire to claim for this new form the status of anhistorical ex nihilo.
It’s a known paradox, then, of almost every avant-garde; but it is still, in my sense, a slightly disturbing tendency, for the reason that what comes to be hidden from us in this emphasis on Gary Sullivan’s “dismissal” of “all the old questions”, is the truly complex, multivalent engagement with such problematic notions that a work such as PPL, albeit obliquely, implies.
Of course, I feel that it is hardly necessary to say that Gary Sullivan, and Flarf writing in general, in no way bounces “genre, authorship, taste, and all the other no longer interesting issues out of the house.” It is difficult to see how any form of contemporary writing -- even that of the most hardcore transceptual -- could claim such wide-reaching manumission. Genre is not important in PPL? Isn’t the question of genre the central grounding feature at the base of Mohammad and Doris’s articulate desire to identify for Sullivan’s writing a specific literary grounding? Taste is not an issue? Isn’t the notion of taste -- as I’ll attempt to suggest later -- one of the primary preoccupations of these intricate, ambiguous dialogues?
Perhaps I am being humorless here -- a humorless critic? -- and that Stacy Doris’s statement is much more jocular and elliptical than I am giving it credit for. Though that might be the case, I concentrate on it here simply because this type of statement seems to me a recurrent common-place, appearing at so many different points in so many discussions, that it seems important now to talk of it. In line with this hypothesis that Sullivan, and Flarf generally, is uninterested in such “traditional” questions, is a linked critical tendency, for instance, to suggest that certain poets -- and Gary Sullivan in particular -- seek to “destroy” the poetic. Mac Wellman, for example, says of the plays in PPL that: “They could be called poetic, but the author would probably prefer to be shot than thought poetic.”
Of course, the term “poetic” here refers not to all poetry -- we have already said that there are echoes ranging here from Spicer to Artaud -- but rather a very specific heritage: that of a hard-line lyrical, ideational, utopian, transcendental or ecstatic tradition, coming direct from Schelling’s slightly toxic universal Esemplasie and coursing in a green run-off throughout the entire creek of Anglo-American Modernism.
But, to be honest, if “destroying the poetic” was truly Gary Sullivan’s project, I wouldn’t be so interested as I am. I honestly do not think this is the primary project here at all, (even if Gary were to inform me of the contrary!) For, of course, almost all modern poets have wanted to destroy “the poetic”: as everyone from Jean Paulhan to Rosalind Kraus to Louis Menand have pointed out, destroying the poetic was perhaps the central tenet of almost all 20th century engagement, whether reactionary or avant-garde. (The reactionaries often seeking to destroy “the poetic” through a return to the self and its expressions; the avants often through recourse to various forms of play, disjunction, and procedural praxis. This is the history -- the cliché -- of poetic Modernism, let alone of the Post- in its prefix).
Even the most hardcore literary Terrorist, then -- to use Jean Paulhan’s evocative term -- engages with these “outdated” notions, albeit in a negative or contrastive way. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Gary Sullivan’s writing is as much about taste, genre, and authorship as it is “about” anything else, (and that, moreover, it is the complex way such notions are here engaged that constitutes one of the most intricate aspects of this most vital book).
Perhaps, though, these statements will be controversial. Perhaps Gary Sullivan, even, will not appreciate such a hypothesis! I will no doubt have to argue my case. Let’s take this passage, then, from the remarkable “Written in Styrofoam”:
BARISTA [Bringing their order to the table]: When Foucault wrote that the “author” is a product of the discourse of her times, he could as well have included the reader. “Who reads?”
SHIRLEY WOOD: It’s easy enough to figure out “who is reading” in most cases, by the reader’s response.
DAVID MOORHEAD [Standing, walking slowly toward edge of stage]: Oh, I get it, Brooke. You want to play “Phantom of the Opera”? Okay. We’re all alone, and I’m in the mood for a singing lesson. I’m going to sing now. I hope no one comes up behind me to ravage me. I feel a mysterious presence. Who is it? ( p. 77)
Now, Stacy Doris’s position may be -- and it would be an interesting one, with its own supporting evidence -- that such a passage merely serves to highlight how meaningless and unimportant such discussions regarding authorship appear now to a writer such as Sullivan. For there is here -- in a gesture common to Gary Sullivan’s writing in particular, even more so than other members of the Flarf Collective -- an intriguing magnanimity to this anti-didactic satire. It is, it seems to me, almost like a making-fun of all apparent “convictions” or “positions” one may have regarding, in this case, the question of an author’s ontology. Strangely, all positions here -- such is the dialectical density of the derision -- appear almost equally absurd. It is this type of wide-ranging, non-didactic, non-Horatian satire, which threatens to throw the question itself -- rather than any particular response to it -- into a pit of not-quite-nihilistic nonsense.
The “not-quite” aspect of my maladroit neologism is, I feel, crucial here, for we must then ask: is the initial question truly “dismissed” as just one more wave-length of nebulous cultural noise? Does such simultaneously light yet acrid satire as Sullivan’s create a pure dialectic snow -- a sort of dark cultural relativism, if not nihilism -- wherein no position can seem more valuable than the next?
Of course, we cannot think so, though perhaps, regarding Flarf generally, such a hypothesis has often been evoked. But what is going on here is, I feel, much more complex. To see what is indeed happening, let’s take another so-called “traditional” question, this time that of “writing and ethics”. Here is a passage from “Written in Styrofoam” relating to the poems from Guantànomo :
DAVID MOORHEAD: There are times I would really love to hear these poems explode into a different kind of jam, looser and free of the constant drama. [Going back to the table]. I’m not tanking the book over this, I’d just love to hear these poets go NUTS with less of the lamenting.
SHIRLEY WOOD: It’s one thing to drop a word like “Diet Coke” or something into a poem, but to repeatedly use language that a normal person would never use?
BARISTA: [Heading back to the counter] This book has so many OMFG moments it’s hard to assemble highlights.
SHIRLEY WOOD: The big realization that I had is how much this book totally relates to blogging. You are more attractive when you share, share, share yourself.
Of course, all of this is at once hilarious, while sufficiently analogous to heard exchanges that the reader occasionally feels like huddling in a corner to cry. The strange thing is that, given the fact that the satire of these ideological “positions” is so acutely obvious -- the hypocrisy, absurdity and near-depravity of comparisons between Gunatànamo poets’ self-expression and the “self-expression” of free and prosperous “sharing” -- such positions themselves become something one cannot readily adhere to.
What does this mean? Well, perhaps we could posit that this is a type of theater which Brecht would have deplored. For we are presented here with various socio-cultural and linguistic situations where we are each accustomed to having an “argument”, a democratic “choice”, based on our “convictions”, which must be made between variant positions. And rather than being forced, as Brecht would want, to actively and dialectically implicate our moral or social selves in this debate, we almost have the impression that all such dialectical implication -- on the part of the speakers as much as the reader -- would be rendered here immediately absurd.
We remember, then, that Brecht’s ideal theatrical interaction consisted in audience members screaming out advice and abuse to the characters they were meant to be simply “observing”. And in this way, observation ceased to be simple observation, becoming instead a sort of dialectical -- thus social, thus political -- engagement.
I feel then that it is difficult to imagine such a readerly, Brechtian relationship to Gary Sullivan’s “plays”. This is not necessarily, of course, a criticism. It is perhaps simply a different type of engagement which is manifested here. As, faced with Sullivan’s writing, it is difficult for us to voice our “approval” or “disapproval” -- our affirmation or our negation -- regarding the heterogonous cultural and aesthetic episteme presented to us on this strangely-lit stage. It seems almost then -- in this choice between outrage at such visions of Guantanamo “expression” or their facile acceptance -- that we do not have the ability “to choose”, in a Brechtian sense, as our choice of one or the other option leads us into the midst of the selfsame cultural noise. But this noise is itself, of course, revelatory. It is a noise which profoundly digs into the heart of our current cultural discourse -- into its densely woven, if often strangely vacant, fibres -- where the problem is often not so much which option do we choose, as the dilemma that the very discourse itself -- its rhetorical and ethical ways of functioning -- seem to render contrasting opinions all equally null.
This said, such fascinating exposition does not, I insist, equate to a new incarnation of fin-de-siècle nihilism. It is not that all discourses here are equally valuable, or even that all discourses are here without value, or “beyond” value: that this writing has progressed into a state beyond “traditional” axiologies -- “genre, authorship, taste” -- into a realm which, while negating them, does not necessarily provide us with a variety of cogent alternatives.
To my sense, it is more suggestive of the fact that to truly and appropriately account for language’s current formations and deformations, we need to examine not the apparent “arguments” or positions of certain speakers, but something deeper in the discourse itself. The personages of PPL In A Depot, who are able to spend their time arguing over the respective merits of art and money, church and state, decaf and latte, as if such discussions were in some way meaningful or comparable, seem to reveal to us then the inane, almost invisible flattening-effect, of our cultural discursivity itself.
This is no doubt what Stacy Doris means, in part, when she speaks of Gary Sullivan’s writing as that which “surpasses” older critical fetishes. But Mozart and Salieri -- in their incongruous discussions here on the ethical and aesthetic merits of art and artists – in showing the arbitrariness of contrasting positions, allow us to penetrate into an inner working beneath such cultural constructs. Though we may at first see such writing, then, as satire which reduces all to the level of the ideologically equal playing-field, this reduction seems to exist only as an initial means, whereby we come to better understand the more primary motivations of this language.
It is an observation equally applicable to the less theatrical, but still often profoundly dialogic poetry, of a K. Silem Mohammad or a Sharon Mesmer. What is fascinating for me however, in Sullivan’s work, is the degree to which he is often preoccupied with the relation of these cultural discourses to the question of poetry itself. Art. Aesthetics. Ethics. These are key fixations of these pieces, to such an extent that large portions of the brilliant “Mozart & Salieri” bizarrely resemble nothing so much as Milan Kundera’s heavier reveries in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. There are other unusual parallels here – which Gary Sullivan may or may not appreciate -- with a poet such as Kent Johnson: the same questioning of the contemporary poetical imperative, the same cultural darkness which swims beneath a more glittering surface.
Such “darkness”, however, seems to take on here an entirely different form. As Kent Johnson, in his surely vindicated, if sometimes slightly righteous, anger, is perhaps situated in a much more clearly Brechtian tradition. (We usually know who Johnson thinks is in the wrong, for instance, who is being hypocritical or fucked-up, and we are left then to taste of the clever praxis of his dark analysis). Sullivan’s writing is, however, at least for me, less open to such dialectical positioning. In the following excerpt, for example, Salieri has just handed to Mozart a new fragment of “art”:
MOZART: You like?
SALIERI: What profundity! What boldness!
What perfect foam!
MOZART: Oh, come now, Salieri,
What’s foam to the starving man?
SALIERI: Dinner is on me: Red Lobster!
But let me first address
Why we exist.
The “point” of the exchange is here rather too obvious to be its true point. We understand immediately that Sullivan is not trying anything so simple as to instruct us how decadent, dissolute and disconnected artists can be in the face of social realities. For, making this point with the absurd, unworldly comparison of eating lobster before an imagined starving mass, is to put upon the stage two equally inconceivable limits. The comic effect of their collision here is not based upon our immediate decision as to the hypocrisy of one or the other -- a parataxis of the type: “isn’t it terrible that famous artists eat lobster while there are thousands of other people who are starving?” -- as this position, presented thus, would itself be rendered absurd, and based on an entirely imaginary limit.
Famous artists eating lobster while having existential discussions then, though perhaps a vision dear to some, is here reduced almost to the status of meaningless cliché. Importantly, however, the opposing “starving man” is also reduced to the status of comparable common-place: the term “starving man”, we see -- at least in the way this term is used as a rhetorical device in arguments and contemporary conversations -- is a notion as divorced here from its true referent as its apparently less positive pole.
All of this is to say, then, that we should not be surprised that if it is (in)famously impossible to guess Gary Sullivan’s “tone”. In a related question: I’ve often felt that some of the most fruitless discussions surrounding specific instances of Flarf have been oriented around an attempt to determine the degree of “irony” in a given text. Not the poet’s irony, of course -- we are all still good little New Critics -- but the irony “of the poem”. Though it has been a question dragged out at different points -- notably in relation to discussions of such poets as Michael Magee and Drew Gardner -- it seems to me not only a generally useless endeavor, but entirely misses the reason-for-being of such writings.
To see how this may be case, I’ll take the final notion that Gary Sullivan apparently renders démodée: taste. In “The Separation of Church and State”, we read:
COUNSELOR: Now see here! [“Wild West” music stops abruptly.] I will respect your point of view ma’am, but I don’t appreciate your tone!
BONUS MILLER: I don’t care what you appreciate! People who chew with their mouths open should be shot. People who lick the ends of their fingers should be forced to lick the ends of OTHER people’s fingers, the very fingers they used to squeeze --
COUNSELOR: Ma’am you are way over the line! You should be preparing to face problems on Earth, not in some fairyland called Your Opinion!
All of which leads to me to a general hypothesis. This may appear reductive, but it’s a thought I kept returning to throughout each of these most dexterous and circuitous dialogues: if PPL In A Depot is “about” something, it is less “about” such notions as “inappropriate language”, “bad writing” or the “un-PC”, as it is the broad inquiry into the question of language in communities. The freedom and constraints of such communal language. Their meaninglessness or pertinence. In attempting to outline what Sullivan’s specific type of non-Brechtian engagement might resemble, I kept mentally returning then to a quote from Jean-Luc Nancy regarding the communitarian, and communicative, status of writing as engaged act:
To write for others means in reality to write because of others. The writer gives nothing to others: he does not envisage, as his project, to communicate to them anything whatsoever, neither a message, nor himself. Of course, there are always messages, and there are always people, and it is important that both -- if I can for a moment treat them as though they were identical -- be communicated. But writing is an act governed only by the necessity of exposing a limit: not the limit of communication, but the limit at which communication takes places”.
It is a similar idea as that presented by René Wellek and Austin Warren in their Theory of Literature, though Nancy here adds an important element: namely, that the point at which writing, and art in general, becomes of most pressing value, is that point where it has forged not only a new limit for itself, but a new limit at which other forms of intellectual, emotional and social engagement -- communication -- may become possible.
Gary Sullivan’s writing, for me, reads like the extreme creation of just such a limit. Against the idea, then, that this writing goes “beyond” genre, authorship and taste, I would conjecture that this writing situates itself at the very limits of genre, authorship and taste. “Situates itself” meaning here, of course, that it creates a new limit, necessary for its own existence, which simultaneously expands our own understanding of these antediluvian categories and terms.
That this is exhilarating writing should not, in the end, surprise us: what creates new limits, while not abolishing its precedents, will always create a vibrant perspective. In criticizing our current communities and communal languages then, perhaps PPL, for me, beyond any nihilistic tendency, shyly and subtly gestures towards a new, possible communal language. If it is in some ways, then, a criticism of the value of certain ways of saying, it also manifests a deeper desire, as in much Flarf, evident beneath the leveling satire, for the invention of different ways of being in the language of a time.
At one point in “Gray Matter”, the character Jenny remarks: “If you think America is so bad, why not leave and go to another place?” There is, of course -- as she is immediately reminded -- no “other place”: if it is not in the possible creation of a different language which we hope, some day, to use.
Nicholas Manning teaches comparative poetics at the University of Strasbourg, where he is currently completing his PhD. His first full collection, entitled Novaless, will be released in August 2008 from Otoliths. A chapbook of new poems is also forthcoming from Ypolita Press. Editor of The Continental Review, his poetry and criticism may be found in such places as Jacket, Verse, Fascicle, The Argotist, Free Verse, among others. He maintains the weblog The Newer Metaphysicals, where readers are invited to rebuke him for his negative reviews.