Talks on Metamodernism with Seth Abramson:
Part 3 of 3
by Kirsten Clodfelter
This post is part of a three-part series exploring metamodernism and its use in American poetry through discussions with the talented poet and teacher, Seth Abramson. Catch up on the conversation with parts one and two.
Kirsten Clodfelter: Okay, so what about when we examine the paradigm moving beyond poetry? Is Shia LaBeouf really a metamodernist?
Seth Abramson: He says so, and of course I don’t want to gainsay anyone who’s interested in metamodernism, especially as the term is so new in the States that all of us intrigued by it are still trying to figure out what it could mean to us as artists and human beings. But I do think the recent series of spectacles involving Shia LaBeouf was prompted, first and foremost, by his misreadings of both metamodernism and so-called “Conceptualism.” And I think those misreadings were entirely understandable, given the confusing climate surrounding avant-garde literary theories and the communities that have popped up around them.
KC: Without telepathically channeling Shia LeBeouf, can you say a little bit more about how his actions might be read within the context of metamodernism?
SA: I want to emphasize that me approaching Shia as a metamodernist had little or nothing to do with his initial plagiarisms—the context and purpose of which I can’t speculate upon—and everything to do with how Shia handled his public “apologies” for plagiarizing the work of others, all of which were themselves plagiarisms. I found the latter maneuver metamodern because the concept behind it dovetailed with metamodernism on several fronts: First, Shia was using existing hard data as a form of contextually apt self-expression; second, the context for this self-expression was such that the “apologies” could neither be called “sincere” nor “ironic,” but rather existed in a troubling space between and beyond those terms; third, Shia was playing with a layering of observable and possible realities in a way that I associate with metamodernism, as his treatment of both his recent malfeasance and his own celebrity suggests there is no clear, decontextualized “outside space” from which one can apologize for a wrong or perform the expected duties of a celebrity; fourth, because Shia’s Twitter feed suggests a rapid oscillation between poles, for instance between ignorance (consider his now-infamous double-tweet, “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE”) and knowledge (a duo of strident manifestos he deleted from his Twitter feed shortly after posting them).
Despite publicly terming himself a metamodernist in the first of those personal manifestos, Shia gave much of the credit for his newfound interests to Kenneth Goldsmith, one of the architects of so-called “Conceptual Writing.” He did this largely—I suspect—because he misunderstood that movement’s engagement with the idea of plagiarism.
KC: Can you expand on Conceptualists’ ties to plagiarism as an artistic practice?
SA: For many years now, the Conceptualists have gotten much attention for saying that they support the use of plagiarism in Art. So it’s understandable that Shia, a confirmed plagiarist, would consider the Conceptualists kindred spirits. The problem is that Conceptualism is definitionally anti-plagiarism; Conceptual writing is typified by bulk appropriations that are immediately or in short order either attributed or attributable. This is a necessary adjunct to Conceptual writing because of that movement’s emphasis on creative curation (a concept substantively indistinguishable from creative writing, given the already-broad history and definition of the latter term). Creative curations require a witness to fully perform their literary ambitions, and so a reader’s focus must ever remain on the work of the curator—in other words, his or her readily-attributed appropriations and their subsequent manipulation. Conceptual writing does not plagiarize, though rhetorically—as a matter of offering scholars and cultural pundits some newsworthy salaciousness—it benefits from being seen to favor the deceptive use of others’ words.
Shia may also have found Conceptualist writing appealing prior to coming out as a metamodernist, because the Conceptualists habitually misapply the term “uncreative” to their writing. They argue that Conceptual Writing is “uncreative” because of the size and scope of its appropriations. As someone who’s studied for years now the post-1960 reception of “creative writing” in the American Academy, I tend to think the utility of the phrase “uncreative writing” is more likely that it appeals (as ready rhetoric) for those scholars who a) are critical in institutionalizing literary movements for posterity, and b) are hostile to “creative writing” as they conceive of it. No one doubts that curation requires substantial creativity—it did when it was the Grecian cento; it did when it was the postmodern pastiche—so while in fact the more full-bodied transcriptions Conceptualism is predicated upon could indeed be deemed (as objects resting in a vacuum) “uncreative,” the process of curating those transcriptions is creative in the same way we’ve used that term since Apollinaire’s pre-World War I poetry (or much earlier). Shia picked up on the “uncreative” element of a transcriptive object without realizing that a necessary Conceptualist corollary is the highly creative editing, excerpting, curation, framing, and marketing of those transcripts. (As Kenneth Goldsmith once wrote for the Poetry Foundation, Conceptualists do things like “mold,” “soil,” and “package” language through a series of elective acts no artist would deem “uncreative.”)
KC: And how do you think it is that Shia might have taken this misapplied understanding of Conceptionalism and bridged that to labeling himself as a metamodernist?
SA: At most, plagiarism “as such” (in other words, unattributed use of the words of another) is a metamodern compositional technique—something done not for profit or accreditation, but to enforce a “meta-” (middle) space in which truth is not merely relative but genuinely immaterial. But I think unattributed appropriation is one of the less interesting or fruitful compositional techniques native to metamodernism, not least because privately getting pre-approval from an author to use his or her work in no way diminishes the effect plagiarized metamodern art has on readers and their reading technologies. In other words, with unattributed appropriation the theft is incidental to the art, and therefore gratuitous and (we might also say) lazy. Much more importantly, such deceptions by definition strip the Art in which they appear of its pedagogical aspect, as plagiarized work does nothing to challenge our circumscriptions of reality if we never discover the game was afoot in the first place. This is why metamodern verse more typically uses material from the public sphere, or minor appropriations of the most readily attributable sort, or, if an appropriation is to be in bulk, appends a Statement of Concept to the poem so that readers can get the bewildering experience of seeing a work through two very different lenses at once—an experience essential to metamodernistic oscillation.
The good news for Shia—and the reason I’m glad he took my recent suggestion that he’s a metamodernist at heart—is that he chose a medium for his plagiarized apologia, the Internet, that has built into its DNA a plagiarism-checking device known as Google. Given his fame and the reach of his online persona, Shia could not have doubted that his misconduct would be caught in short order, which I treat as an implied, ex-post Statement of Concept his reading audience was allowed to discover for itself. But I also distinguish Shia’s initial plagiarisms from his later ones by virtue of the self-expressive content in evidence in the latter; whereas Conceptualism is conventionally devoted to the praxis of Art by virtue of its steadfast avoidance of personalized data and contexts, metamodernism-the-praxis is very much an instrument for use by humans in extremis. Faced with the demise of his acting career and the destruction of his good name, Shia performed his confusion over both Art and his own life using techniques which, in that context, were undoubtedly emotionalized and self-expressive. Good for him; the praxes of Art and Life can’t be reunited if we turn to Art only as a way of escaping, rather than defining, our brief lifetimes.
KC: What’s next? How do you think the paradigm of metamodernism is going to be influencing American art (and in particular poetry) in the near future?
SA: Metamodernism is going to be everywhere. We already find it in the most popular and critically acclaimed movies (think Holy Motors or Inception), fully-integrated street art, television shows (nearly every program in the “Adult Swim” lineup), music (e.g., Girl Talk and other mash-up artists), stand-up routines (e.g., Bo Burnham and Reggie Watts), and novels (think David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas).
Poetry, and particularly American poetry—because metamodernism hasn’t penetrated here yet as it has in Europe—is way behind the curve with respect to metamodernism. Which is a shame, because poetry is as compelling a data-processing praxis for the metamodern cultural paradigm as are any of the genres above. One reason I and others intrigued by metamodernism have been so frustrated with Conceptualism (besides the obvious: that it sucked up all the oxygen in the contemporary poetry community, to the detriment of other emerging avant-gardes) is that it quite deliberately harkens back to compositional techniques that were already dead in the visual and material arts by 1960. It sets poetry back, in other words. More importantly, it’s not offering any critiques of capitalism we haven’t seen before, in no way speaks to the experience of language and culture younger Americans now inhabit daily, and (ironically) turns the focus away from the concepts that actually drive cultural phenomena and toward an emphasis on compositional techniques (i.e., craft) and institutions that I think of as retrograde.
Whereas metamodernism is a shared inheritance with an implicit pedagogical component, making it an invigorating presence not only in the art-house and the classroom but also nominally “private” spaces, Robert Archambeau has noted that Conceptual Writing is most readily identified by the institutions willing to patronize it—which has become the real test of whether an act of capital-C Conceptualism is generative—and not necessarily what it tells us (in verse) about art, culture, language, reality, or ourselves. Tell a classroom of students that their next assignment is to transcribe a National Public Radio interview verbatim (an actual Conceptualist exercise) and you’ve lost the ability to posit poetry to them as a practical data-processing praxis that abides simultaneously in the spheres of Life and Art; encourage a classroom of students to create a self-expressive, cohesive, plausible statement of thought and being out of snippets taken from their Twitter and Facebook feeds, or from the lyrics of a song that’s caused them anguish in the past, or from contradictory but “true” statements about who they are and how they live, however, and the point could not possibly be missed that Life and Art are always-already inextricable.
Unlike a literary clique or movement, metamodernism isn’t looking for, nor could it be given, “fifteen minutes of fame.” Those who write about and through metamodernism insist, as I insist, that it’s part of an ineluctable triumverate of cultural paradigms that have always been with us, though how they manifest depends upon when they manifest. Modernism, postmodernism, and metamodernism already offer a complete and coherent matrix, so just as Modernism will never “go away,” nor will postmodernism, metamodernism may at various times and in various spaces be spoken of more or less, but it’s a perpetual sociocultural engine. In the United States, right now the question is simply how many younger artists are willing to consider the period-specific confusions they’re experiencing as humans and as artists to be conducive to compositional and conceptual impulses we might regard as metamodern. I’ve been loath to “out” anyone but myself on this front—my current manuscript is conspicuously a series of metamodernistic performances—but as the term increasingly gets embraced as a cultural paradigm one cannot help but inhabit, rather than a pigeon-holing taxonomic moniker one chooses to conform to, I expect we’ll find more and more poets coming out as metamodern in terms of both their poetics (i.e., their reflexive relationship with language, as well as their vision of poetry’s unique capacities and incapacities) and their ethos as humans.
Seth Abramson is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, as well as the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize, and Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose. A regular contributor to both Poets & Writers and Indiewire, he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing, the first edition of which is forthcoming from Omnidawn in September 2014. He is presently a doctoral candidate (ABD) in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. She has contributed writing to The Iowa Review, Brevity, Narrative Magazine, Green Mountains Review, storySouth (forthcoming), and The Good Men Project, among others. Her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published this October by RopeWalk Press. Clodfelter writes and lives in Southern Indiana with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com, @MommaofMimo