Cynthia Sailers

Now that the conference is over, I'm thinking about several things: my talk, my role as an organizer, my thoughts about the particular conference papers (and the high standard of work), the group dynamics and the overwhelming sense of myself as it ended. A week has passed. I've been able to feel less fragmented by my experience, able to see certain ways we succeeded as a group and the inherent failures of an academic conference (esp. if one is seeking a self-study of community or affective connectivity). Simultaneously, I feel less pressure to form an overall narrative of the conference and instead to allow myself to puncture through a more generalized impression, or the illusion of our being a good group, producing good work. I have a growing sense that we may have failed to activate our own aggression (with its destructive/creative potentiality) or at least to acknowledge the ways it was there; we may have failed to do what Camille Roy suggested we do, to look at ourselves as a group, the here-and-now of our group moment/formation. I think we may have failed to be self-critical enough, being able to let go of the "looking outside ourselves" at problems (example: that we were revisiting the intense critique and debate surrounding Mike Magee—why?).

I also surrendered to the impossibility of giving enough attention to everyone's papers, the ideas, and also to one another. To what extent can a group be a good working group and also process the affects, anxieties of being in a group? I hypothesized that Chris, Stephanie, and I may have followed a recognizable conference model, despite discussing alternative frameworks, because it may have been easier to put ourselves in the roles we are accustomed to. Maybe it's just easier to produce a certain kind of work, a certain kind of discourse, we're mostly all familiar with? However, at the end of the day I felt disappointed, agitated, disconnected, anxious, alone, despite those friendly faces and engaging ideas that surrounded me. It's also been on my mind that someone had gotten spontaneously sick during the last panel, and many felt saturated, overwhelmed, too full to talk, too tired, myself included. The after party, thus, has a psychic quality of the post-Thanksgiving meal, some missing (napping it off), some feeling excluded, some loosening up their pants, some wanting to get rid of bloatedness and uncomfortable feelings, some wanting to give ourselves a pat on the back for making such a great meal, and some playing with a pickaxe found in David Buuck's backyard. I found I wanted to retreat to the waters!

I was immediately grateful for Laura's post on Sunday, for someone able to make some sense of it all, to provide a barometer for if things had gone well. Similarly, in checking in with those on the panel I worked closest to, I nested in the idea that no one was mad at me (yes, a very simplistic ideal, sadly) and that something useful has happened. But when Lyn Hejinian sent a supportive note, about self-reflexivity, our ability to be self-critical—I wondered if that were true. I had so many impressions, questions, curiosities about what had transpired. What kind of group were we? How did we negotiate our own needs with those of the group? There was so much left unsaid.

And there was the predictable, fraught, provocative quality of envy in the group, the admiration and the more aggressive responses to certain papers in particular. I'll admit, I was proud that even if we doubted our own intelligence, we could look around and marvel at how smart our friends are. And, yet, I missed so many voices, so many ideas, hidden and not articulated, and sometimes shared in private and sometimes not.

I also heard from a lot of people, some desire that my talk might have taken a different direction; there was desire for a more overt, interpretive stance of "the group." And so I've been thinking about what "the group" is, who constitutes it. Was I being asked to interpret or theorize about the kind of group "we" are? And, yet, I found myself needing to be very concrete—since it was an SPT conference, is the group, this potential self-study, limited by SPT group membership, i.e., "the official group" (in a psychological systems analysis, the group would be clearly defined as an organization with roles, dynamics, membership, and leaders. This kind of analysis seems valuable in and of itself, esp. in times of recent SPT leadership change, the question of community involvement, and ambivalent feelings about SPT as an organization—"what kind of organization is it?"). Or was I being asked to postulate on the notion of "community," assuming "the community" could be analyzed as some amorphous external group with numerous internal subgroupings, somewhat loosely defined by aesthetic and market driven adjectives, such as "the experimental poetry" community?

And so my talk left people with desire for something else; it may have failed to do what it could have done or what might have been unconsciously expected of me: I may have left too much open, failed to "do the work," introduced a lot of ideas and failed to draw more connections or conclusions. So I've been thinking about desire, lack, and the invitation for an interpretation: if I would have interpreted our group, would I have engendered a defensive response (the resistance to knowing, understanding, of being known. And my being positioned suddenly as a critical other, arrogant, perversely pleased with some newly acquired skill). And I wonder how I would have interpreted a group which hasn't yet formed. Or specifically the conference group, one which hadn't yet happened.

Those questions: Who are we? Are we a community? What does that mean? How do we position ourselves in context to another group, the Other? were largely left unanswered, and perhaps seem too loose, unless specific contexts and group ideals are defined. Above I comment on a sense of the group ideal as being a good group; I think I mean the way we take pride in our sense of cooperation, inclusion and collaboration. We prophesize a logic that is anti-competitive because we have no real currency to compete over, and yet there are demonstrations of mastery over discourse, aesthetic and political, there are a few decent jobs in the area some special people get, and there is the management of anxieties caused by our various social hierarchies. I won't go into it here, but this might be a good place to think about forms of healthy opposition.

I'm particularly thinking about Tyrone and Bhanu's presentations (the two outsiders to this poetry community) and how untouchable their presentations seemed if gauging by the response. I have been dreaming about their various content/images throughout the week, the experience as Bhanu noted of putting the shit back in the mother's body, experiences which were mainly left unprocessed. I thought of Bion's notion of "beta elements," and how these talks had the impression of raw sense-data and of "inchoate elements." (Bion first uses the term beta-elements in Learning from Experience: "If alpha-function is disturbed and therefore inoperative the sense impressions of which the patient is aware and the emotions which he is experiencing remain unchanged. I shall call them beta-elements. In contrast with the alpha-elements the beta-elements are not felt to be phenomena, but things in themselves"). As a group we problematized the panel, turning to Chris to explain the frame, his distinctions about race and ethnicity; there was a sense of intellectualization, of wanting someone to know. Many felt the responders were not talking to one another. Some explained to me that it was because we were tired. My experience was altered: in/by Bhanu's sense of a schizophrenic narrative, a process is, an integration of different coordinate strands, the relationship between illness, ethnicity, digestion, the body, BDSM behaviors, locality. In Tyrone's work, we again return to the body in a very different way (one I'd love to hear people's thoughts about), in slavery, in the sensuality of part objects, the tongue, as speaking tool, as likened to an erotic. They both provide us with a calculus, something to grapple with, the other's voice, streaming in, experiential/experimental, attempting to deconstruct what it posits, a point of anxiety.

So much anxiety gets generated in showing up and speaking or not speaking, of wanting to be seen but not humiliated. Robin described the feeling of being at a hearing; I think in part a response to our long wooden table, the microphone, a crowd looking on. This association has stuck with me: we might all be implicated. Our own affinity and otherness. When people mentioned later, at the party, the next conference can be called 'shame and poop' or the other exposing affects, the creative destructive potentials that were discussed as historically generative examples and thoughtfully contested are brought to bear. Those other social spaces, relations which we might learn to critique: the psychic, the social apocalypse, and utopic ideals resonant in Jasper's paper around capitalism and our own demise. Again, we face the perverse, the hysterical modes our social defenses, and those suddenly old, familiar anxieties which permeated the atmosphere, made us conscious of our participation, shy to speak up, to be uncontained. But what might be the negotiation for us to have more connection, to raise more issues with one another, and to try to speak the unspeakable? This is a conference, a work group, yet on aggression. So how can be harness our aggression and simultaneously decenter ourselves so that we might open up those caverns and crevasses which remain underground?


bill said...

Although the system has many nice features,
it also has its share of blemishes.
Some of these blemishes make the system
hard to implement, while some violate the all-important Principle.
This principle states that:

A system and its commands should behave the way most people would predict,
that is, the system should operate with 'least astonishment.'

pam said...

Least astonishment, yeah. Also: least resistance, maximum comfort, maximum self-protection through modes of obliqueness, indirect communication, etc. etc.

Are you going to post a transcript of your opening talk here at some point? It would be interesting to see how you initially framed the affective concerns of this conference.

Above I comment on a sense of the group ideal as being a good group; I think I mean the way we take pride in our sense of cooperation, inclusion and collaboration. We prophesize a logic that is anti-competitive because we have no real currency to compete over, and yet there are demonstrations of mastery over discourse, aesthetic and political, there are a few decent jobs in the area some special people get, and there is the management of anxieties caused by our various social hierarchies. I won't go into it here, but this might be a good place to think about forms of healthy opposition.

This is very interesting, though I question the logic of anti-competitiveness. This seems like a utopian illusion; despite the absence of monetary currency, there is still competition for jobs for some, for publishers, reading venues, and that terribly ubiquitous notion of "cultural capital."

But I think you've hit on a key point here with "the management of anxieties caused by our various social hierarchies." I agree this would be a good place to begin a more overt group self-critique (at least that's what I gather you mean by "forms of healthy opposition").

Is aggression (along with its sibling affects: anxiety, envy, resentment, insecurity, defensiveness) inevitable in a group which functions simultaneously as a working group and a group composed of individuals (or, as I like to think of them/us in my more cynical moments, "author-functions," or, more cynical still, "would-be author-functions") who are awarded membership on the basis of an identity that's tied to group-recognized achievement, e.g., "poet," "experimental writer"? And when the audience that gauges and assigns value to various group achievements is largely the group itself?

Both you and Chris have observed that the aggression you so feared and perhaps unconsciously desired failed to materialize at the conference (though maybe some of it, as Stephanie notes below, is seeping out during its aftermath, unsurprisingly on the net). Could it be that by explicitly titling the conference "Aggression" you created a frame of self-selection around the participants, in that the people who attended may have been extra circumspect about their latent aggressive tendencies, reluctant to exhibit behaviors that might be construed as pathological and make them objects of study, resistant to "perform for the doctors," so to speak? I'm just speculating, I wasn't there.

I do, however, feel like confessing that when Chris first told me, two months or so ago, about the premise of the conference and his panel in particular, I had an aggressive response. Lots of exclamation points, words in all caps, etc. etc.

cynthia said...

Hi Pam,
There is a lot to respond to in your comment. The short answer is I'm not sure if I'll post the talk. I was actually more interested in posting an audio file and the recording didn't quite work. David Brazil and Sara Larsen are publishing a part of it I was able to edit for their magazine Try!Try! this week. I'm sure we can get you a copy. But it's so far it's just a draft I dont' feel comfortable putting out there until I can edit.
I think it's fair to say we 'consciously' desired more aggression; it wasn't an unconscious wish as you imply. Rather we talked about ways exploring aggressive affects, latent conflicts, oppositional stances, etc. could be useful, to speak of what is felt but not spoken to. I can only generalize at this hour, but we discussed ways that aggression can be productive (allow us to have more than sympathetic identifications with one another) and ways it might be destructive, hurtful, messy.
I'm not sure about your ideas of self-selection. We asked you to participate because Chris described some ongoing conversations he was having with you around the area of the conference he wanted to moderate. We asked you because we thought you could articulate some important issues/conflicts we were struggling with (you'd have to refer to Chris here). And we had a feeling you would say no but we asked anyway.

I think the fantasy that we might be picking people to perform something for us, us being "doctors" would negate my point that we all felt implicated. It would have been easier for me, if I could have stood outside and watched.

But I think that somehow that fantasy was there in the group, as I counted three references throughout the day to "fishbowls." In the context of your comment it makes more sense; there may have been an anxiety about being watched and/or objectified.
Maybe others can take up the other questions you raise; they're good ones.

Chris said...

Just wanted to comment here on the term, “group,” since there is obviously more than one, and a persistent question that’s been raised has been about whether or not everyone who came to the conference constitute a unitary group at all, “co-workers in the kingdom of culture.”

My sense is that the issue of internal hierarchies contains an underlying question about those implicit criteria or codes which are used to structure discussion and debate, to invest some modes of discourse with more authority than others. I’m reminded of Rob Halpern’s presentation and his question about those peculiar and subtle structural determinants that make productive disagreement possible.

I can’t speak for Stephanie or Cynthia, but it felt urgent to me to foreground the topic of the malaise of dysfunctional or obstructed social relations between and within various poetic “subcultures” constituted through social identities, political identifications, aesthetic methods, what have you. The provisional psychoanalytic frame was intended as simply one approach among many to conceive of antagonism—maybe we could define antagonism here as the impossibility of the sort of disagreement Rob mentioned (he offered the striking image of community as “the circumference around an exclusion”).

Perhaps a less rigid thematic frame and one such exclusion would be the riskiness of “self-critique,” as you point out.

pam said...

Cynthia, thanks for responding. I'll look for your edited talk when it becomes available.

I didn't mean to be snide with my "doctors" comment. I'm sorry if it came off that way. I didn't mean to imply that you, Chris, and Stephanie were trying to set yourselves up as authority figures in white lab coats, with the conference attendees serving as objects of scrutiny. Rather, that the attendees might half-jokingly view themselves as subjects in a group experiment, given the self-reflexive psychoanalytic frame. The doctors in this case would be the participants themselves, an imagined audience of spectators, or imagined authority figures. But perhaps I am just projecting my own imagined experience here.

By self-selection, I guess I meant that participation would largely be determined by one's ability to manage latent strains of antagonism and messy feelings in a public setting, so that these feelings could be looked at more constructively and contribute to increased group self-awareness. I did not feel that I would be able to do that, judging from my initial reaction to Chris' query, so I self-deselected.

(The remainder of my note is addressed more generally to the unknown readers of this commentbox.)

Part of the extremity of my initial response stemmed from the sense I got (proven true by the internet panel) that the incident now known in the archives as the Race discussion would loom large over this conference. I admit to feeling a bit irritated with you guys the organizers, for dredging up this topic at a time when I had just eased into the feeling that it was a thing of the past. At the same time, I felt relieved and grateful that others were now handling and interpreting the debris of that discourse, so that I could further detach and let go. Erika's Tristam Shandy comparison is generous as well as wry; my own impressions of the episode are infinitely more petty and scatological, reminiscent of a marathon reality TV session. When Stephanie speaks of digesting the indigestable, I find myself nodding vigorously in agreement.

Like others, I have felt baffled, awed, dismayed, disgusted, and guiltily satisfied at how long the discussion went on and what it all meant. It's tempting to make large cultural generalizations about the discussion, to say that it indicated X or Y about the relationship between race/ethnicity and appropriative aesthetics, but the more I think about it, the more I question whether the discussion was actually about race or aesthetics at all. Let me clarify. In the individual blog posts and comments, almost all of them cogently and passionately written, there are many worthwhile arguments made regarding race & aesthetics. This I believe is the great value of the archive, that it preserves a record of these individual ideas and arguments. But in the communicative spaces between these individual posts, the sociological/psychological connective tissue, if you will, something else is going on, something far more sticky and immediate, more intricately personal. For example--and I say this with full self-implication--the "race" and "missing-race" archive documents could easily be renamed "panic" and "paranoia," respectively. Monolithic concepts like race and aesthetics function as the clothesline on which a restlessly intellectualizing community hangs its not-so-clean washing, its issues, its hang-ups, all the persistent, disturbing feelings it can't quite process or understand. As mentalizing types, it's easier and more familiar to grasp onto the clotheslines, to analyze its weight & thickness & other fascinating properties; but it's the washing that really matters here, that drives us to create the clothesline in the first place.

pam said...

I meant to say above, but forgot to add, to the organizers, that I'm impressed by how far you've been able to push this process of community self-examination. Really.

Chris said...

The bay area seems to loom large in one of Ron Silliman’s recent posts about conceptual poetics and Flarf. Erika Staiti, one of the conference panelists, has pointed out how the poets collected in Stephanie’s “Bay Poetics” anthology doesn’t have a “center,” recognizable spokespeople, chroniclers—and how this might be a strength rather than a weakness, leaderlessness, non-alignment, small and highly mobile guerilla bands. But if there’s an absolute necessity for spokespeople and a ten point party platform, I’d like to nominate Boots Riley and Pam The Funkstress as our official Bay Area representatives to the council of historical vanguards.

Or the entire administrative staff of AK Press.

I guess “dysfunctional or obstructed social relations” could be read fairly pessimistically, but almost all of the participants at the conference offered some version of a positive critique—that there are and have been more flexible and creative responses to those inchoate “ugly feelings” among poets whose allegiances are divided, multiple. It’s an important question to me, how to negotiate these various subcultures without recourse to a passive pluralism or a consensus about technical means.