28 May 2006

tribal identity : tentativeness

What is it, if anything, that unites the works or perspectives of those participating in this blog and beyond in the world of "alternative" writing?

Initially, the answer strikes me as not much to nothing. Some of us don't like the word "experimentation," others "postmodern," others "avant-garde," others still the very notion of the "alternative." Some embrace the rhetorical pyrotechnics of theory; some eschew it. Some want to talk about the economics of writing; others find such discussions dull. Some foreground language and minimize narrative; others don't. Some get antsy around conversations concerning genre. For some, it's "all writing" (except, apparently, nonfiction, which is something to be scorned); for others, such assertations are proof of the lack of precision and rigor. The very books that some cherish, others find failures.

To make matters more tricky still, writers/artists in general are iconoclasts by nature (and, yes, I use the term loosely) who don't like to belong to things, don't like to be associated with trends and movements, since such chimera seem to minimize their individuality and originality (as if these traits are the ones that make artists artists). Yet, of course, all of us writers/artists do belong to things. Some of us "belong" to universities or colleges. Some "belong" to presses or magazines. All of us "belong" to the category "writers" and "contributors to this blog." All of us, for better or worse, "belong" to the politics of the present.

But simply because what we have in common may be complex to pin down and even more complex to articulate shouldn't by my lights be a cause for making a difficulty into an impossibility.

I've been thinking about the notion of the tribal lately in an effort to begin to begin to make sense of these continuities in the midst of myriad divergences. The dictionary definition works thus: A unit of sociopolitical organization consisting of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent.

I find appealing the notion of many families and clans being part of something that is both them and not them. The notion of shared ancestry and culture. The notion of impermanent, unformalized leadership or center.

If we start there, and proceed tentatively, then the following are some questions that bloom:
  1. Why make an effort to search for common ground?
  2. What sort of sociopolitical (or, perhaps in this case, aesthetico-political) organization(s) are we?
  3. Can we/should we in fact enumerate some of the common ancestry and culture we share? That is, what are our histories? Who are we?
  4. The dangers of such enumerations are obvious, it seems to me, in this age of difference and deferredness, but what are the opportunities and benefits?
  5. If the metaphor of the tribal doesn't seem illuminating, are there others that might function more effectively for helping us contemplate who we are and what we're doing?
As I mentioned in my comment to Ted's last post: Once upon a time we knew all this stuff (and all the stuff Sukenick et al. wrote) before. That's no longer the case.

Speed is all about forgetfulness. I'd like this to be a small space of reminding.


Mark Wallace said...

Lance, re your intriguing comments on the tribal and what other metaphors might be connected to it, in a half-joking but also serious way I was having a conversation with people the other night when I characterized (in the overdetermined way of all such generalizations) three social tendencies I saw among a variety of writers whom I know.

Populist: A desire to write books that broad numbers of people will read.

Groupist (which you're calling tribalist, I believe): A tendency to define the value of one's writing in terms of specific social and literary communities that take that writing up. The desire, for instance, to represent oneself as "avant garde" and in touch with a specific group that also self-identifies that way. The groupist often greatly dislike the populist, by the way.

Individualist: a committment to aesthetic autonomy and originality (to the extent of course that those are possible) that feels impatient both with populism and groupism. A determination to do what no one is doing.

Leaving the somewhat joking names aside, I find that I'm both skeptical of all three approaches, and yet use them against each other when I feel myself veering too closely to any one of them.

If I feel, for instance, that I'm too much writing things with the tribe in mind, it may be time to go populist (by reading, say, a horror genre novel) or individualist by stopping (for awhile) any attempt to pay attention to what any of my peers are doing.

Ultimately, in my writing I think I've been mostly individualist, whereas in public engagement with others (reading series, etc) I tend to be groupist, looking for connections between people and writing approaches that I find most immediately around me. But I'm also not entirely willing to forego populism; I think it's possible to be both groupist and individualist and still keep in mind the populist impulse. I think that's true too for many people on this blog so far; part of the reason for being pissed comes from a desire for broader response to the writing (and its implications) that we've all taken so seriously.

I'm reading at the Poetry Project on Wednesday night, in case any of you folks are in NYC at the moment.

Lance Olsen said...

Your categories—whatever we choose to rename them—make a good sense to me, Mark, and help illuminate the topography in which we all seem to be working.

I'm afraid I can't bring myself to get very excited by the products that define the Populist impulse. I'm just not wired to enjoy most broad-numbers novels. They all seem to be telling some version of the same handful of narratives in the same handful of ways.

But I very much oscillate between The Groupist and The Individualist. The point, for me, is that all "innovative" writers (perhaps all writers, period) are part of larger conversations that extend across space and time, and there are at least two ways to engage in that conversation, one voluntary, one not.

The first is talking with live people who are participating in the same conversation at, say, conferences or through blogs like this. That's the Groupist impulse, and, for me, a stimulating and important one. So important, that I've begun to think of it in Trialist terms.

The second is talking via one's writing with people who are participating in the same conversation manifested by different texts written in different places at different times. That's the Individualist impulse. (By my lights, that is, there's no truly Individualist impulse save solopsism; to write is to engage, either consciously or unconsciously, either willingly or unwillingly, with a network of others texts; that, as Barthes taught us, is how texts function.)

Hey, and have fun at the Poetry Project on Wednesday! I really wish I could be there and get to meet you, but, man, oh man, you should what a plane ticket goes for from Idaho to New York these days. I'm lucky I can afford to drive to the store.

Joe Amato said...

Who are we? Good question, thanks for the prompt, Lance...

I want to spin this in a slightly different direction though. Matt Bai has an article in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “Can Bloggers Get Real,” that reports on next week’s YearlyKos convention, “the first-ever corporeal assemblage of the bloggers at the Web site Dailykos.com.” Some of you are probably familiar with Dailykos, and a number of the other “political” blogs out there with massive traffic. (Massive traffic isn’t always a good thing, btw -- a site (or a moderator) can be overloaded by massive traffic. Something we ought perhaps to think about regarding our initial yearnings here.)

Bai comments in his essay that, b/c “politics is, by its very nature, a tactile business,”

"New technology may change the way partisans organize and debate, and it may even spawn an entirely new political culture. But at the end of the day, partisans will inevitably be drawn to sit across the table from the candidates they support or oppose.... Online politics can’t flourish in the virtual realm alone, any more than an online romance can be consummated through instant messaging."

(Kass and I met online a dozen years ago, so I can relate at least to this last nod toward, uhm, tactility.)

This kind of fleshy teleology (let’s say) results in the same old “meet the new boss” conclusion we’ve all grown accustomed to hearing since, oh, 1971 or so:

"And those who lead the most consequential revolts against the status quo never really vanquish the party’s insider establishment. They simply take its place."

The analysis makes me wonder whether and to what extent it’s applicable to “us,” both in terms of our literary aspirations and our (thus far) largely virtual transactions (though many of us know one another “in the flesh”). If we’re to discuss “withins” (and correspondingly, “withouts”) it strikes me that we might consider our respective, what, locations in terms of an “insider” to “outsider” spectrum. Now, I didn’t say inside of or outside of WHAT -- but I think (or like to think) I tend myself toward outsider-insider status (or is that insider-outsider status? -- similar to Mark’s individual-groupist couple).

Further, most political movements by their very nature want to be popular. So I think the populist impulse ought to be seen as at least risking a kind of leveling (some would say, fascist) appeal to mediocrity, even while pointing us toward any number of egalitarianisms. It’s not an impulse that I, for one, can do without (b/c I hold, with Whitman, that great poets need great audiences). Groupism, at the same time, risks cultism, and individualism risks solipsism, or perhaps nihilism.

And I know it’s too early, at the same time, for us to talk about “coming together” in jeans and tees (or whatever). But it might be helpful to keep in mind that these words we’re swapping are disembodied, at least as far as the tin can + string configuration we’re busy exploiting. When you and I meet f2f, you’ll understand better what I’m getting at. I know you will.



blonde said...

lance and joe:

cool ideas--though i keep thinking, if we are corporeally inscribed by culture and language from the get-go, than why is it "more real" to be f2f than to be here, at the site of language and the body (for me), in a space as yet unrestricted by the forces which institutionalize meaning, mouths and heads?

put your lips together and blow (HERE).


blonde said...

haha and change that than to a then. grammar's prison house.

Frank Sauce said...

you will know me better when we never meet face to face, hand to hand, in here only my words and you reading them aloud in your head are matter.

When you meet someone all they are trying to sell comes on. Sometimes you buy it, sometimes you don't.

The voice you hear when you read my words is you're own voice talking back to you in your head.

It's the only voice you will every listen to if you're a writer.

If you're a speaker, you want you're voice to be heard.

there's the rub.