Friday, March 11, 2011

Why Tao isn't a Minimalist and Poncho is kind of a Dadaist...

Here's a polemic on some of my poetic contemporaries and some younger fellow Millennials who use the Internet as a new vehicle for art and expression. I keep reading everywhere people talking about a "literary minimalism" that Tao Lin is a proponent of. Is this the same minimalism that Pound and Williams expounded? I just don't understand it, I don't think people understand what minimalism is? Is a minimalism "Less is more"?

Some of the discussions I've briefly perused on the subject of contemporary literary minimalism make a reference to the "most fundamental features" of a form. Other definitions I've quickly rounded up term a minimalism a use of the "fewest and barest essentials or elements" or a "style or technique that is characterized by extreme spareness and simplicity." Spare and sparse mean thin or meager, mean there is not a lot to it. While we may argue that Lin and others of this "school" embody sparse themes and employ a simple diction, I think the style is far from a return to the fundamentals of a form.

Lets examine this more closely. We may consider Lin, with most-illustrious Wikipedia, a "writer." A writer works with language, there are many forms which "writing" may take. Lin is known as a writer of poetry and prose, perhaps an occasional essay, etc. I'm feeling the crux of my argument shift. Now we may have to delve into what "form" means. What is the form of writing? What is writing? "Writing is the representation of language in a textual medium through the use of a set of signs or symbols" We can use these ASCII characters as our textual symbols, we can appropriate a differing script, perhaps an abjad, etc. A writer works with the form of text and text is merely a set of symbols.

Now we'll return to minimalism. Were we a writer with a minimalist tendency, what would the "fewest and barest essentials" be? As we've established, a writer merely works with signs and symbols, arranges them in a formation conjuring a meaning (or non-meaning). We may debate at this point whether the "bare" essentials of the writing form are the characters, the words, the sentences, etc. or if they are the themes, emotive contents, evoked meanings. A keen reader may not see the slippery-ness of our essentials assertion. Could we not just as easily find a photographer, a sculptor, an architect, etc working with "themes, emotive contents, evoked meanings"? These are basic elements of art beyond merely writing or literary formalisms.

It would seem at this point, on basis of this argument, that the "most fundamental features," true minimalist formal elements, could not be related to semantics or anything involving meaning, as these elements are not exclusive to the writerly form. Therefore, a true minimalist writer would strip his or her language of superfluous characters and graphemes, of extraneous lines of text, etc. in order to draw attention to the fundamental components of the writing form. Many modernist writers have done this in a very formal way. Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" is a truly formal minimalist composition. Inspired by orientalism and the haiku form, he very literally reduced his form, text, to its most simple and fundamental elements.

Now we may approach the other side of our argument supposing some may retort Lin and others are not "minimalist writers" but "minimalist artists." If we qualify these individuals as artists instead of writers we may avoid the pitfalls of characterizing them as minimalists based on their thematics and semantics alone. An academically noted portion of minimalist music (a kin in art of writing) is repetition and iteration of figures. Early minimalist composers such as Steve Reich focused on the repetition of a single phrase and the changes perceived by a subject over the course of extreme reiteration. Lin and others of this supposed school may be classified loosely as minimalist artists under this criterion.

An insistence on over-erudition, the repetition of simple sentence patterns and excessive over-detailing may be viewed as an extension of the minimalist aesthetic of repetition and the consequent monotony. While this may support themes of "spareness and simplicity," as we've noted in previous definition of minimalism, these are not the "barest elements" of the form. Themes continually explored in Lin and his mimes' works are those of alienation and separation from others in a real, physical and personal way via superfluous technology. These themes are easily noted by preponderance of "low" diction, gChat conversations turned into literary "material," and insistence in the narrative of mentioning the technological apparatus in various ways. The style reminds me of machine language, it's dry and unfeeling in it's feeling and journalistic in its totality.

There is much art of all epoch and era that falls into this category. Some have noted the oriental tendencies of some of these so-called neo-Dadaists, but touching on themes of alienation via technology, the emptiness of life and its concomitant suffering are no hallmarks of a "new" style. These are themes touched on by great artists of all epochs, from those depicting the Buddha through the centuries, to Eliot's "Wasteland," to the Futurist's fascist celebration of the violence of machinery. In other words, classifying a writer as a "minimalist" because of the themes he or she purports would be yet another slippery slope.

I'll end this with a few words on the gross mischaracterization of writers like Poncho Peligroso and Steve Roggenbuck as "neo-Dadaists." More a scourge on and polemic against nearly-a-century-old Dadaism than a criticism of said poets, Dixon's complaint unfairly characterizes Dada as merely a revived "primitivism." While Dada certainly embraces low culture, everyday language, simple dialect and nonsense sound, the gist of the movement was a destruction of the status-quo of institutions. Be they social, political, academic or artistic, Dada challenged and attempted to destroy the standards and accepted notions of these institutions.

The anti-art experiments proposed by Duchamp, Ball, Tzara and other Dadaists were not merely grasps at low culture for a grasp's sake. Dixon's base criticism of the mundane, monotonous and repetitive works of these "neo-Dadaists" is that the "self comes in the way." These writers most certainly fill their works with seemingly endless lists of detailed and superfluous information. The true paragons of Dada, however, were producers of artifacts that challenged the accepted notions of the art institution. Whether it be Duchamp's "Fountain" or Rauschenberg's "Portrait of Iris Clert", these works' main impetus was the questioning of the standards of the artworld.

Additionally, terming these writers neo-Dadaist is a fallacy because, in fact, Rauschenberg and others were already deemed neo-Dada half a century ago. Many artists have followed in the footsteps of early modernists in the field of Dada. While many Dadaists proclaimed their "art" was no art at all, this does not mean their dialogue and work doesn't interact with the institution. Dixon's claim that Dadaism "isn't art" is outrageous in its audacity and falsity. The thinkers and doers who participated in the movement and its offshoots quite obviously recognized their products and projects as art. This is evidenced in their intentional polemic with recognized art personalities and ideas. The artists themselves, Hugo Ball in particular, recognized their work as "an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in." In this way, Roggenbuck and Peligroso's works are in the spirit of Dada, and this polemic against them demonstrates their Dadaism.

Criticism of this "neo-Dadaist" Internet poetry as full of "self" is also a bit ludicrous. Dixon herself is the author of appetitive, self-concerned poems. Concern with the minutiae of "me," "I" and "my" is not just a tendency of "neo-Dadaists," but a tendency of nearly all poets and artists. We speak about our bodies, our thoughts, our desires, our needs, our feelings, our emotions, our perceptions, etc. Much of the greatest Dada arts, as I've said, spoke not of a person but of the art institution. Many of the techniques used to promote Peligroso and Roggenbuck's works are exactly that, critiques of the established poetic institution. Criticism and dismissal by editors, writers, academics and other players in the institutional game are exactly the purview of Dadaism and the reasoning for Peligroso's call for a freeing of language.

I think I've meandered enough in this one, wandered helplessly from theme to theme without a hope of backbone. But essentially my point is this: Lin isn't a "minimalist," he's a writer; Peligroso and Roggenbuck don't write "neo-Dadaist" poetry, they just write regular old appetitive poetry about being emotive and having desires. What is Dada about their endeavors isn't their content, its their insistence on challenging traditional poetic norms, including vernaculars of now in their works, and refusing to bend their creative output to what is accepted by editors, academes or otherwise. In the end, however, I won't shirk from the argument like Peligroso has in saying he "did not mean that all language everywhere was poetry." When you can tell me once and for all what "poetry" is, better yet "art," and without exclusion of a myriad of counter-examples, get back to me. Until then, I float amum a none with an infinitely tolerant aesthetic attitude.


  1. poetry is a formal violence performed on the body of language

    i think you're right about Tao Lin's not being a minimalist, but it's always seemed like a boring cul-de-sac of a question to me. what seems much more crucial (to me) is how he fits in the tradition of realism (via the Bloch/Lukacs/etc debates)

    i also think i left a comment on that neo-dadaist blog post positing that the Dada project might be boiled down (on one front at least) to an active destruction and reconstitution of lived (admittedly often abstract) spaces (via Schwitters' Merz project, particularly Merzbau), i am interested in what you think about this

  2. holy cow babie

    yea i read ur comment on poncho's blog about approaching/reading everything aesthetically/as poetry or in the same way as poetry. i like that. that also seemed to be an effort by john cage and some fluxus artists maybe

    delineating between poetry and other things is really difficult, increasingly difficult for me (altho i'm considering it mainly as a marketing issue now that just has practical consequences), and i'm not sure it's worth a lot to declare one way or the other..

    the main reason i would assert that something is poetry is just to challenge the boundaries people have set up around poetry, and inspire people in the poetry community to feel free to write in new forms, and to inspire people outside of poetry to confidently value their writing to the same degree that poets value theirs. but to me any piece of writing would be just as valuable as an aesthetic object if it was technically a blog post or a jpeg or a webcomic or something, not a poem

    oh my god
    Dream Inside ur Fantasy.

  3. Good Work, Maybe you will want to see my ?

    Marcel Duchamp: Nude Descending a Staircase No 2
    Computer Mirror Image: "THE BLUE BUTTERFLY IS 33YO NOW"

    Watch video


    Seriously, though, thank you very much for your insight, Rod!