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Romanticism and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Sociopolitical (i.e., Romantic) Difficulty in Modern Poetry and Aesthetics*

Robert Kaufman, Stanford University

  1. Modern poetry is difficult; that’s perhaps the most familiar characterization of those modernist and postmodernist poetries committed to thematic and—especially—formal experiment. But if this judgment seems like old news (and it is), try the following experiment of your own, if you haven’t previously done so: In your next encounter with people whose primary work doesn’t involve literature or the arts, and who ask with genuine interest what period or area of literature you "specialize in," tell them, whether it’s true or not, "modernist poetry." To be sure, various periods and genres in literary history seem foreign or obscure to many intelligent and/or educated people in the culture at large. Nonetheless, admittedly unscientific but not entirely random surveys indicate that almost any period-and-genre answer other than modernist poetry (Renaissance drama or poetry; the novel since the early eighteenth century; romantic or Victorian literature in general; etc.) results in far more interested or at least polite questions than does the response "modernist poetry." For "modernist poetry" still tends for many common readers to represent prior frustrated or pointless experiences with what appeared to them as a willful aesthetic obscurantism, an unjustifiable foregrounding of difficulty that turned the perhaps already-intimidating enigma called poetry into a downright hostile wasteland of entirely impenetrable meanings.

  2. There’s lots to say about such perceptions, and lots of poetry and criticism has tried to say it. Consideration of how the questions at issue relate on one hand to romanticism and on the other to modern American poetry usefully delimits what could become an overwhelmingly large subject. And even this narrowed scope will require still-tighter focus, not to mention some necessarily brutal compression, in order to avoid book-length treatment. By way of beginning: it’s of course the case that to those accustomed to reading and working with romantic literature, difficulty does not seem a quality or characteristic specific to modernism. Yet it remains true that much modernist and postmodernist poetry takes as its point of departure an image or caricature of high romantic poetics that stresses the latter’s apparent emotional immediacy, over-earnest sincerity, authenticity, and gushy, melodious feelingfulness; that stresses, in a phrase, the risks inherent in lyric address, which for countless twentieth-century poets and critics is simply and balefully synonymous with romanticism and its presumably transparent "I." But an alternate view has always been present within experimental modernism and its aftermaths, a view that difficulty and complexity are actually the raisons d’être of romantic lyric, and that the real complexities of romantic lyric explicitly or by default underwrite modernist experimentation (an experimentation that in its turn honors romanticism’s unprecedented insurgencies precisely by avoiding the temptations of an easy, conventional neoromanticism).

  3. To put things this way is already to distinguish between key strains in contemporary American poetry. And within the poetries most often treated under the rubric of experimentalism (as opposed to what is usually discussed as, for lack of a better term, mainstream poetry), there has for the last two or three decades been a rough division between "Language" poetry’s critique of the allegedly "bourgeois-aestheticist" character of romantic and postromantic subjectivity, and, on the other hand, the practice of an exploratory poetics for which experiment is virtually synonymous with the stretching (rather than the abjuration) of lyric subjectivity. For this latter grouping—and for reasons to be addressed below—lyric practice, far from eschewing difficulty and complexity, is instead a militant commitment to them. The governing notion here (invented for modern purposes precisely in romanticism) is that lyric undertakes literary art’s go-for-broke artistic and aesthetic effort. On this view (whose progressive and radical adherents include but are hardly limited to Kant, Marx, Engels, and the Frankfurt School), lyric attempts simultaneously to make song think and to make thought sing, in such a way that the boundaries of extant conceptuality are formally extended through the critical experience of this emotional-intellectual complex; the formal process of the experience itself enables the emergence into view of materials for what can become the post-aesthetic construction of new concepts (and for the construction of new social dispensations that might correspond to them).

  4. The best, most critically responsible way to develop these ideas would be patiently to survey the romantic and anti-romantic, lyric and anti-lyric poetics at work inside a representative number of contemporary American poems. This essay will shirk that more immanent, aesthetically committed, and systematic manner of proceeding (though it will finally engage in the close reading of some important poems), because I want to take up a related matter that has profoundly informed these debates within poetic experimentalism (and which has also informed the debates between experimentalism tout court and mainstream poetry): namely, the place of difficult "theoretical" concepts and discourse in contemporary poetry and the arts. Controversies about the difficulties of the last few decades’ theoretical discourse—controversies over how much, if any, of the difficulty in theoretical writing is necessary or justifiable or is, on the contrary, merely evidence of bad prose—have migrated with force into the poetry world. One can say somewhat schematically that experimental poetry has, from its own perspectives and for its own needs, been attracted to a good deal of the philosophy and critical theory so popular in academic circles. This has frequently led to mainstream charges that contemporary experimentalism has simply made difficult theory into regrettable poetry; and it has more perversely seemed to mean—so the mainstream arguments go—that even good theory causes indifferent or bad poems (with most twisted honors perhaps being won by the bad theoretical writing that engenders exponentially bad poetry). As for the discussions within experimentalism itself, one finds a reprise of the same old back-and-forth about romanticism (though keyed to standards of sophistication now often taken from recent theoretical discourse rather than—as was once the case—from modernist poetry): Is the lyric-romantic legacy simplistic or complex? Is lyric hopelessly naive, escapist, and self-deluding, or an inherently difficult enactment of a theoretically articulated dance-tension between intellection and sense-experience? Is it more difficult or valuable to transform theoretical precepts into richly-textured poetic form, or to forego such comforting "aestheticist" pleasure and baldly "bare the device" by having the poem use theoretical language and ideas in a relatively direct, undigested—and thus, aesthetically subversive—manner?

  5. At all events, the task of this essay will be provisionally to reroute both paths that these debates have lately tended to take. Rather than examining how the difficulties of theory may have nurtured or contaminated recent poetry, or how language or style that might be appropriate for experimental poetry has liberated or gummed up critical and theoretical prose, I’d like instead to think about how modern and contemporary poetry may offer invaluable means for distinguishing between necessary and spurious difficulty—not only and most obviously in art, but in theoretical and critical writing themselves. As will continue to be evident, the modern controversy over kinds of difficulty in art, and over how we experience and judge them, is a genuinely romantic legacy, and—inseparably from the ongoing question of lyric—it is perhaps the mode in which romanticism most powerfully continues to inflect today's American poetry, aesthetics, and criticism.

    * * *

  6. But it probably needs to be said again, if a bit differently: That the notorious difficulty of modernist poetry could provide a critical purchase on recent debates over difficult academic prose seems pretty dubious. Or worse; the suggested relationship to poetry might prove congenial to those who overhastily assert that much of contemporary theoretical discourse in the humanities, pretending to describe sociohistorical reality, actually commits egregious crimes of genre with every line it writes: Texts that would otherwise be recognized as impressively bad prose-poems instead pass for something called theory (or theoretically-informed analysis). That is, when liberal and Left commentators have criticized the fashion for what is seen as needless obscurity or difficulty, the charge of inappropriate or adolescent literariness is often implicitly or explicitly in play. (I’ll leave aside the somewhat different lines of critique found in conservative and Right attacks on today’s academic discourse.) And at least among liberal and Left critics, such charges are generally not made from a Socratic-Platonic stance of hostility to the idea that mimesis (artistic representation) might have a right to participate in, or might have a real contribution to make towards, knowledge claims. Rather, what is expressed is an essentially Enlightenment and progressive notion that useful presentations of social, political, historical, and cultural reality should be offered in as clear and communicable a manner as possible—so that the greatest possible number of people can share in such knowledge (and so that they can, should they so decide, attempt to use that knowledge to change the world).

  7. Poetry may be inspirational, but it’s usually not been thought to provide objective, empirically verifiable facts that can be shared or transparently communicated. And ever since romanticism, the communicability even of poetry’s inspiration has been questioned, precisely on the grounds of whether self-consciously difficult modern art can convey anything of consequence to a broad (and hence potentially world-changing) audience. That was already the crux of a century-long Left debate before anyone had ever heard the names Althusser, Lacan, Derrida, Irigaray, Foucault, Kristeva, Benjamin, Adorno, Zizek, et al. It might thus prove useful, in revisiting that debate and examining its relevance to discussions of contemporary academic prose, to consider a telling literary instance that arises in a decidedly unacademic setting. Though the issue scarcely appears in the film’s reception history, Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae (1979) meditates on, and in subtle ways highlights, the meanings of poetry’s difficulty, and it does so while trying to communicate broadly about socioeconomic, political, and cultural struggles. You may recall that Norma Rae is a fictionalized account of the effort by the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) to organize the then-largest textile manufacturer in the South, the J.P. Stevens Company. (Years after the film’s release, the ACTWU merged with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union to form UNITE, the Union of Needletrade and Industrial Textile Employees). The film’s fictional protagonist, Norma Rae Webster, is a composite of several women workers who had participated in attempts to organize J.P. Stevens, most notably, Crystal Lee Sutton.[1]

  8. One night, after she’s thrown in her lot with the union and is working round the clock for its cause, Norma Rae browses through union organizer Reuben Warshowsky’s volume of Dylan Thomas’s poetry. She asks if Dylan Thomas is "hard to read," and—finding that Thomas does seem difficult to understand—asks, "Why should I bother?" Reuben casually but pointedly responds, "Maybe he has something to say to you." Their repartee furthers not only the film’s leitmotif of the social import of advanced levels of literacy, of opportunities for education that for the working class have tended to go hand in hand with the conquest of some measure of industrial democracy and economic justice; the conversation also reiterates the film’s earlier, insistent focus on the difficulty of understanding words (and, in turn, the difficulty of finding words that will communicate ideas that unquestionably need to be communicated): Standing outside the plant and passing out union literature early in the action, Reuben had heard a then-uncommitted Norma Rae call out to him, after she had glanced at his proffered leaflet, "Hey, there’s too many big words; if I don’t understand it, they [her fellow workers] ain’t gonna understand it." The next time Reuben had given the still-undecided Norma Rae a leaflet, he’d furthered the same banter and theme: "I took your advice; I think I got it down to two syllables." "One’s better," she had parried. Yet finally it will be the two syllables of one word, which she’s defiantly written on pasteboard and held high for all inside the plant to see —UNION—that causes the workers to stop their machines and that gets Norma Rae accosted, fired, arrested, booked, and jailed. Terminated and therefore technically no longer an employee eligible to vote for the union, Norma Rae concludes the film standing outside the factory gates with Reuben, overhearing the jubilant shouts that tell of the union’s election victory by vocalizing— by chanting—that two-syllable word, union. The film then ends with Reuben’s promising, at their parting, to send Norma Rae the volume of Dylan Thomas; she tells him not to bother—because she’s already gone out and bought her own.

  9. Now, Dylan Thomas is hardly an exemplar of modernist esotericism. On the contrary, precisely the combination of his perceived accessibility even amid moments of alluring obscurity, his able reconjurations of traditional notions of bardic romantic oracularism and lyric mellifluousness, his progressive sociopolitical stances, and, of course, his hard-drinking image, led to Thomas’s popularity in activist trade union, Left, and Marxian circles in the UK and, to a lesser extent, in the U.S.[2] That’s why it’s so intriguing that Ritt and the film’s screenwriters (Harriet Frank, Jr., and Irving Ravetch), well aware of this tradition of Left Thomas-reception, nonetheless make Thomas into a sign of difficulty. As Norma Rae retells a classic Left-Enlightenment scenario (in this case, via an encounter with Thomas’ poetry), hard-won literary education or aesthetically-articulated insight parallels, or somehow even contributes to, hard-won victory in social struggle. But, significantly, the film’s conclusion doesn’t erase or resolve the question of why either contest (aesthetic or social) has been hard-won, which is to say that it doesn’t erase the question of difficulty. For what ultimately persists is the difficulty—indeed, the seeming impossibility—of the neat integration of realms or levels of experience, thought, and action.

  10. Having given almost everything to the organizing struggle, having been the key activist in that struggle, Norma Rae finally finds herself standing literally outside the struggle’s central physical and material location. As the film closes, she’s outside the factory grounds, banished not by a defection from class struggle to literary delectation but by the company’s retaliatory action for her having voiced, written, and inspirationally communicated the union’s message; and as she ever more definitively links herself to Dylan Thomas and poetry, she now—in a charged inversion of the old J.S. Mill formulation—can only "overhear" the triumphant public celebration of her fellow workers back inside the plant. It would be exactly wrong to see this emphatically literary and aesthetic "overhearing" as what is today typically (and, far too often, facilely) stigmatized as "bourgeois, self-cultivated transcendence," wherein a literary or aesthetic "ideology" of autonomous separation supposedly trumps committed engagement with material, sociopolitical reality. Because in the most rigorous, tightly-constructed manner, the film has ensured from the start that the literary and the sociopolitical constantly articulate, without ever determining, each other. Neither causes the other; neither demands an escape from, or triumph over, the other. Instead, the film manages to do what critical aesthetic semblance—critical mimesis, critical artistic representation—does when it’s really working: It makes the audience feel, as an apparent intellectual-emotional insight (parallel, here, to Norma Rae’s own insight), that the aesthetic and the social necessarily comprehend, translate, or, on some ultimate level of the characters’ own experience, voice one another. In that sense, aesthetic experience undertakes the difficult task of making or fortifying subjects’ felt capacity for transformative relationships with, and to, conceptual knowledge (and to the empirical world to which conceptual knowledge corresponds). It is among Norma Rae's most remarkable decisions that the film chooses at once to allegorize and enact just such artistic-aesthetic ambition—this film's own ambition—through a subtle yet profound cinematic conjuring of the theme, image, sound, and felt presence of lyric poetry.

  11. As usual, the issues are more than academic. I first saw Norma Rae at the time of its initial release, at a moment of embarking upon what I’d assumed would be a permanently postliterary trajectory, one that, as it turned out, did occupy the better part of a decade spent in law school and as a fledgling labor lawyer. The fervent debates over Norma Rae (its basic authenticity; its decisions about addressing "ultimate" matters of sociopolitical causation; its chosen modalities for representing workers’ at-the-machine, in-the-meeting-hall, and at-home experience, not to mention issues of race, gender, and regionalism; its overall approach to the cinematic means and relations of artistic production; etc.) that I’d avidly followed in film, art, and political journals in some ways paralleled, and in some ways split off entirely from, the astonishing reception the film enjoyed (immediately and for an impressively long time thereafter) across wide sectors of labor and in the labor movement itself. One could point to various American films that, at least as courageously and perhaps even more militantly, narrate labor’s story (Salt of the Earth and Harlan County, USA come immediately to mind, though their genre and historical differences from Norma Rae—their respectively semi-documentary and documentary character, along with the McCarthyite context informing Salt of the Earth’s production and distribution battles—distinguish them from Norma Rae). But quite simply, virtually no other American post-McCarthy labor film seems so effectively to have reached its intended potential audiences: namely, people currently experiencing, or likely to experience, organizing drives in their own workplaces.

  12. The rapidity with which Norma Rae became a touchstone, and then the ways it sustained that status, not only within the labor movement but also for unorganized workers, was little short of remarkable. An extraordinary number of those who have worked in the labor movement, or in government agencies or independent organizations involved with labor, or in occupational safety and health and related areas, have testified to this phenomenon. Within a year of the film’s release, the number of workers who began explicitly referring to or riffing off the film’s story and dialogue (during union campaigns, all the way to the sort of National-Labor-Relations-Board election portrayed in Norma Rae’s penultimate scene), was unprecedented—as, again, countless participating workers, as well as union, management, and Labor Board representatives, have noted. (I vividly recall experiencing this personally, and recall hearing scores of labor-movement and Labor Board colleagues from around the country report—in a process that spanned years—about having witnessed near-identical instances of Norma-Rae invocation, allusion, and applied interpretation, quite frequently on or near the shop floor.) Perhaps more remarkable is the fact that by all accounts this phenomenon continues today, twenty-three years after the film’s release. And although Crystal Lee Sutton had vigorous disagreements with the film’s portrayal of the character that was based in large part on her, it is also the case that Norma Rae’s long afterlife has created successive waves of interest in Sutton’s biography and activism; in response, Sutton has continued as a notable presence in labor struggles around the country. She was, for example, one of the keynote speakers at a June 2001 march-and-rally in Columbia, South Carolina that was called to defend the Charleston Five. (The Charleston Five are activist members of a largely African-American local union in the International Longshoremen’s Association, against whom an extremely conservative South Carolina state attorney general brought Riot-Act charges after a Charleston judge had refused to enjoin or otherwise curtail their picketing activities in a 1999 labor dispute.) Meanwhile, in a striking number of cases, the Norma Rae references made by workers (and by union representatives) have involved the question of the character Norma Rae’s reading, of the way that her burgeoning literary interest functions as a dynamic sign, so to speak, of her participation in the fight to secure some measure of a simultaneously collective and personal autonomy.

  13. One could say that the powerfully-felt significance of Norma Rae’s poetry-reading is a palpable, yet difficult or complicated thing for working people to explain; but the truth is that it’s an inherently difficult thing for anyone to explain. It bears emphasizing that it’s not the matter of seeking to attain factual knowledge in relation to sociopolitical struggles that’s so complicated; however hard certain facts may be to come by, and however complicated are the particular facts themselves, the necessity of getting them, and the problems caused when they’re unavailable, are pretty obvious. What’s more difficult to express is why people’s own aesthetic experience can seem so dramatically to be at stake in social, political, and historical matters. Indeed, this difficulty of stating (let alone in a descriptive and accessible vocabulary and form) just how and why such things can feel like they are so inextricably related is one of the oldest conundrums of literary and aesthetic theory. The enigma is so persistent—and has been so central to politically-intended art and criticism—that one begins to understand the paradox of the orthodox Marxian critic Ernst Fischer inaugurating his most important literary-aesthetic work by quoting, with surprising and disarming approval, the emphatically uncommitted artist Jean Cocteau: "Poetry is indispensable—if I only knew what for" (qtd. in Fischer 7). Well before asking the question of whether difficult writing might best present the difficulty of this difficult subject matter, one might observe that there has often enough been a rough consensus about the difficulty of the subject matter: the difficulty, that is, of understanding and articulating the aesthetic’s status—as individuals and collectivities experience it—vis-à-vis the sociopolitical and the historical.

  14. Precisely such difficulty has been theorized (from the romantic era of Kant’s third Critique, to the modernist period of Benjamin, Adorno, and the Frankfurt School—and beyond) as the central problem of modern art and aesthetic theory. Generally speaking, in these theorizations of what Kant had initially understood as a "reflective aesthetic judgment" paradoxically synonymous with estrangement and defamiliarization, the aesthetic has been grasped as the felt-as-necessary (but notoriously difficult to account for) "bridge" between nature and freedom, cognition and morality, theoretical and practical reason, fact and value. In short, the aesthetic wants to bridge objective-conceptual knowledge (or the objective world to which conceptual knowledge is meant to correspond) and the subjective human capacity for a critical agency that would be more than arbitrary in relation to objective knowledge of existing reality. The key notion is that aesthetic thought-experience, while feeling itself to be cast in or aiming for conceptual ("objective" or objectively-oriented) thought, is not yet substantively-objectively conceptual. In proceeding via the feeling that it is objective (that it is keyed to judgments that could be universally shared), aesthetic thought-experience maintains the form—but only the form—of conceptual thought; this formality in relation to substantive conceptuality makes the aesthetic effectively quasiconceptual. The inherently experimental exercise of that "formal" experience can produce, to paraphrase Kant, a wealth of thought-emotion that cannot be reduced to any determinate, presently-existing substantive concept, and that thus can allow for the emergence or reconfiguration of the materials for a subsequent, postaesthetic construction of new concepts and the sociopolitical dispensations that would correspond to them.[3]

  15. It may be ironic that some recent defenses of apparent difficulty in academic writing have turned for support to Frankfurt School texts, because Frankfurt briefs for the necessary difficulties in postromantic and modernist art, and in critical theory, actually tend to apply or extend all those initial Kantian-romantic concerns about truth, objectivity, and universality in ways largely inimical to most Left postmodernist discourse. But this in turn leads us to inquire anew about why Benjamin’s and Adorno’s modern-Marxian restatements of indubitably romantic ideas so often make poetry—lyric poetry in particular—a special case within a Marxified Kantian view or theory of how art and aesthetic experience attempt the difficult task of bridging, and the task of stretching (or stretching past), the bounds of extant concepts (of gesturing toward the construction of new concepts that would be more than instrumental but also more than arbitrary). (Here I can only assert something that will receive full elaboration elsewhere: Contrary to so much of contemporary Marxian and Marxian-inflected theory’s "anti-aestheticist" hostility to aesthetic experience and aesthetic judgment, Marx himself intentionally marshals the aporetic but by no means paralyzing structure of Kantian reflective aesthetic judgment precisely for the "theory of praxis" announced in his Theses on Feuerbach.) For the romantic and postromantic traditions of poetics in which Benjamin and Adorno participate, modern lyric ambition stands as a, or even the, high-risk enterprise, the "go-for-broke-game" ["va-banque-Spiel"], of literary art: The lyric poem must work coherently in and with the medium—language—that human beings use to articulate objective concepts, even while the lyric explores the most subjective, nonconceptual, and ephemeral phenomena. This theoretical or philosophical difficulty, concerning how simultaneously to think objectivity and subjectivity, also arises practically as lyric’s great problem of form-construction: How—with language alone as medium—to build a solid, convincing artistic structure out of something as evanescent as subjective song and how, in the bargain, to delineate or objectivate the impressively fluid contents of capitalist modernity? How, spontaneously yet rigorously, to make thought sing and to make song think? For the Frankfurt School critics, romantic and postromantic lyric dramatizes with special intensity modern aesthetic quasiconceptuality’s more general attempt to stretch conceptual thought proper; this special intensity arises from lyric’s constitutive need musically to stretch "objective" conceptual thought’s very medium, language—to stretch it quasiconceptually all the way towards affect and song, but without relinquishing any of the rigor of conceptual intellection.[4]

  16. Benjamin and Adorno go on to argue that high capitalist modernity and its unprecedented acceleration of the abstracting processes of commodification (the "reification" not only of objects, products, and people, but of thought and language themselves), along with the concomitant "loss of aura" (the collapse into immediacy of a previously charged, critically enabling, auratic-aesthetic distance) require that Kantian-romantic aesthetic difficulty—the difficulty of grasping and negotiating the transition between types of knowledge and realms of experience—be supplemented. What, in a later, faster, and technologically more complex modernity, is Kantian-romantic difficulty to be supplemented with? Apparently, with a lot more difficulty: more difficulty within art, and within the judgment, interpretation, and criticism that art calls forth; and all this for the purpose of accurately conveying the problems bedeviling the attempt critically to cognize an increasingly opaque modernity. And as far as Benjamin and Adorno are concerned, a crucial chapter in this modern aesthetic-social history involves Charles Baudelaire’s barely postromantic lyric poetry, where romantic lyric’s presumed condition of possibility—the availability of an auratic, reflective experience that in its turn makes possible a noninstrumental, potentially emancipatory capacity for constructing new conceptual-objective knowledge—seems to have disappeared. Hence the Frankfurt focus on Baudelaire: Baudelaire, who for his subject "ch[ooses] the modern itself"; who abjures or scorns an already-known socio-literary language, so that his "lyric poetry is a slap in the face not only to the juste milieu but also to all bourgeois social sentiment," yet whose "tragic, arrogant mask" of advanced technique is nonetheless—indeed, is in consequence—"truer to the masses" than conventional "'poor people’s poetry'" (and this because Baudelaire’s experimentalism proves capable of bringing into aesthetic experience the new historical reality unavailable to a conventional poetics, a conventional poetics effectively if unwittingly determined by reigning concepts of what social conditions are or have been) ("On Lyric Poetry and Society" 44, 45-46; "Rede Über Lyrik und Gesellschaft" 87, 89-90).[5] The much-vaunted Frankfurt preference for modernist artworks of great complexity is the preference for a Baudelairean art still intent on risking experimental enactments of romantic aura together with mimetic reflections on postromantic modernity’s most anti-auratic, advanced technical-productive developments. This is a preference for an art that, while refusing to give up romantic aura’s ghost (which is to say, while continuing its attempts to differentiate itself from reification and the reified communicative discourse that have tended to vitiate aura), also views productive and technological modernity as having become part of art’s very materials.[6]

  17. To say this much is to say that the Frankfurt School’s reputation for difficulty (a reputation that is not the only source, but is certainly a crucial source and touchstone in today’s debates about academic prose) is best understood in relation to the Frankfurters’ romanticism-derived emphasis on the aesthetic. And while this clearly involves the taking up and foregrounding of self-consciously difficult artworks of the Baudelairean line —and of a properly aesthetic critical prose aiming stylistically to dramatize the defamiliarizing experience of the artworks at issue—it is not only artworks themselves that constitute the aesthetic sphere. Benjamin’s and Adorno’s attempts to contribute to Marxian-derived projects that seek historically, sociologically, economically, and politically to grasp capitalist modernity are always to some extent broached through an aesthetic insight that is prior to, or broader than, their experience of individual artworks or of artistic tradition more broadly. This ur-aesthetic and romantic inflection informs their criticism not merely because Benjamin and Adorno are from virtually their earliest years profoundly and preternaturally aesthetic thinkers and writers; nor does it occur because of some belief they hold in the sheer superiority of aesthetic modes of thought and presentation.

  18. Rather, the crucial point is that Frankfurt analyses of sociohistorical phenomena tend to concern themselves with human subjects’ abilities critically to take in and respond not only to the local but especially to the larger systemic situations that confront them. This capacity for reflective and potentially activating response is conceived as the possibility of an act of understanding that would proceed in a more than merely instrumental, and in a more than merely arbitrary manner; that would proceed, in other words, in a manner directed toward meeting at least the minimal requirements for critical agency. In the quite Kantian-romantic tradition that those in and around the Frankfurt School generally share, the precise designation for such thought-experience (where subjectivity itself tries critically to understand its animating, quasiconceptual relationship to concepts and objective entities like capitalist society) is aesthetic. An aesthetically-generated or informed approach is by no means the only valid path that one could or should take when examining and writing about social phenomena. But for the Frankfurt School’s modernist extensions of romantic theory, the aesthetic is by definition the key modality for the investigation and enabling of subjective, critical human capacities to process intellectually and emotionally (and to work transformatively with) the overarching objective structural realities of modern society.

  19. A number of conclusions would seem to follow. First, Frankfurt-School commitments to difficulty do not imply that economics, history, sociology, political science, and the theories attendant on them (and on adjacent disciplines) should be characterized willy-nilly by difficult and/or aesthetically-inflected writing. For the Frankfurt School, the aesthetic’s difficult modalities can challenge one-sidedly positivist analyses in which a crucial subjective element may have essentially been ignored or banished; Frankfurt studies in fact often dedicated themselves to correcting such positivist one-sidedness. But this means that there is no warrant for believing that difficult academic or theoretical writing is inherently required, advisable, or even justifiable, much less inherently progressive or revolutionary. In short, the justification for difficult writing depends on the materials the writing seeks to present, and on judgments about one’s intended audience for the presentation. (In that light, perhaps too little attention has been paid in the United States to the ways in which members of the Frankfurt School—even those most identified with "Mandarinism"—while trying to remain faithful to the complicated concepts and theories they were developing, nonetheless attempted regularly to modulate their discursive registers and to pursue opportunities to address non-academic audiences via the mass media, most notably, radio and newsmagazines.)[7]

  20. Even where complex modern artworks are not the central concern, if the materials under study nonetheless contain an important aesthetic element—if the materials are in significant part composed of or oriented towards human beings’ attempts subjectively to imagine their way into the assimilation and potential re-formation of concepts that correspond to objectively-existing social phenomena—then modalities of aesthetic difficulty may well be called for. And if one traces the course of various Frankfurt disputes—even or especially those between Benjamin and Adorno, over technical-mechanical reproducibility and over the need simultaneously to engage the questions of aura, economic structure, and the aesthetically-stimulated reconfiguration of materials for the construction of new concepts—it turns out that all those difficult dances with aesthetic subjectivity, quasiconceptuality, and the not-yet-formed concept are meant to serve an expanded, noninstrumental notion of "objective" conceptuality and reason. This is, in effect, the project quietly hinted at in Dialectic of Enlightenment and more explicitly articulated in Negative Dialectics: an imagining of the ways in which Enlightenment conceptuality or reason might examine and critique itself and its own tendencies towards sheerly instrumentalist and identitarian thought; an imagining of the ways in which conceptuality might cease to repress those areas of experience and reality left behind after they’ve been conceptualized; in sum, an imagining of how scientific (or scientistic-objectivist) conceptuality might remain in dialogue with aesthetic quasiconceptuality, with the thought-mode that stands formally for the materials or areas of experience that conceptuality tends to leave behind after having intellectually "dominated" them. As I’ve shown at length elsewhere, Adorno’s and Benjamin’s debate over the latter’s essay "The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire"—their debate over competing versions and approaches to lyric aura—is actually a debate over the possibility of continuing to expand conceptuality beyond determinist parameters. Significantly, that debate leads Benjamin not only to write his brilliant "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire" (with its animating and fruitful tension between the disappearance of romantic lyric aura and an artistic-critical re-posing of aura precisely in aura’s wake). It also—on his own account—directly leads Benjamin to think and write a romantic-messianic critique of linear, deterministic "progress" and its presumably unbroken "continuum of concepts," a critique that will be known as the "Theses on the Philosophy of History" ["Über den Begriff der Geschichte"] and that will become a key source-text for later Frankfurt efforts to understand, critique, and transform Enlightenment conceptuality and reason (from Dialectic of Enlightenment all the way to Negative Dialectics, Aesthetic Theory, and The Aesthetic Dimension).[8]

  21. As far as Benjamin, Adorno, and their cohort are concerned, all these ideas depend in part on a criticism that takes care to write some very precise, concrete, crackling prose. The desideratum stems at least in part from Benjamin’s theorization (which Benjamin often repeats and which Adorno constantly echoes) of the constellation and force-field. Contemporary theoretical discourse rightly understands the theory and practice of the constellation as an intellectual attempt nondeterministically to identify and dynamically connect elements (historical, socioeconomic, cultural) that are not initially given as relational, but that, when animated—constellated—into conjunction create or reveal a signifying force-field. That force-field for its part illuminates the larger social reality whose elements have been brought together in affinity and tension (rather than in a misleadingly integrative totalization) to make the force-field visible in the first place. After our previous discussion, it may not be surprising to recall that one of the Frankfurters’ key models for understanding how concept-expanding constellations of critical thought are made, and for how force-fields are created, is art: not least, the "go-for-broke" art of lyric poetry, with its special relationship to conceptuality’s basic medium, language. And while Benjamin and Adorno emphasize the need for criticism to learn aesthetic lessons from lyric’s manner of constructing constellations, they nonetheless inveigh against an aestheticist identification between criticism and lyric; they caution against self-deluding modalities in which the critic tries to write as if he or she were a poet working (even if dialectically-critically) with aesthetic semblance [Schein]. From a Frankfurt perspective, critical writing that invokes the concepts of the constellation and force-field asks to be judged by standards as rigorous as those that Benjamin and Adorno apply to lyric poetry and other forms and genres of art.

  22. In Benjamin’s and Adorno’s view, artworks are to be judged by how well they accomplish their difficult constellative task of formally enacting art’s determinate indeterminacy, art’s exact but capacious—and sociopolitically enabling—ambiguity (a "precise ambiguity" that must be, à la Coleridge, spontaneously enacted or forged anew with each work, yet that also springs in some general way from the fact that art pushes toward an expanded conceptuality while itself remaining quasiconceptual). Criticism likewise seeks, with a matching recourse to experiment and precision, to construct constellations of critical thought; but unlike art, criticism seeks to do this essentially without semblance. Criticism conceptually articulates the contributions toward an expanded conceptuality that art has generated mimetically, nondiscursively. Criticism thus follows art in open-endedly and nondeterministically constructing constellations that are in no way pregiven; but criticism’s precisions finally seek to enunciate conceptually what art has, in accord with its own character, quite precisely constructed as quasiconceptual.[9]

  23. At any rate, criticism’s profoundly aesthetic dimension, which stems from its affinities with artistic practice and aesthetic theory, becomes ever more evident when one considers Benjamin’s often-stated specification of what, within criticism, constellative form requires, of how and why it creates a force-field (and this is a specification Adorno will time and again make his own): in writing that seeks to present constellative critical thought, each sentence should point back—formally and substantively—to a constantly-moving center from which that sentence has all along radiated. That’s no small task; in fact, it’s pretty damn near impossible, as it perhaps would figure to be, given that Benjamin develops this ideal of exact, imaginative, in-motion form largely through his formidable engagements with the formidable artists of the Baudelairean lyric counter-tradition. Benjamin’s formulation also stands as one of the great modernist, constructivist reimaginings of that familiar old lyric-aesthetic friend whom it thereby radically reinvents: romantic organic form. In Adorno’s musical formulation, such constructivist reimagining of what is still really organic form appears, in advanced modernity, as the simultaneously dissociative and structural principle of dissonant composition.[10]

  24. This would be the moment to turn, from the sketching of overviews and principles of romantic and modern poetics, towards treatment of concrete examples from Benjamin and Adorno: towards a detailed engagement with their discussions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetry and the other arts; and then, towards coordination of such a treatment with fuller consideration of contemporary academic theory’s attempts to apply or enact these Frankfurt notions of difficulty that owe so much to romantic and modern poetic history. Limitations of space unfortunately make it impossible to do all that here; and they likewise prevent me in this essay from satisfactorily taking up one of the most significant challenges that Benjamin and Adorno set for themselves and others: that criticism about aesthetic or aesthetically-informed matters should immerse itself in the problems of contemporary art, including the art of poetry. For now, the most minimal gestures in that last direction will have to suffice, and to serve as a provisional conclusion about the historical connections between romantic and twentieth-century approaches to poetic, aesthetic, and sociopolitical difficulty.

  25. "Baudelaire envisaged readers to whom the reading of lyric poetry would present difficulties" ["Baudelaire hat mit Lesern gerchnet, die die Lektüre von Lyrik vor Schwierigkeiten stellt"] ("On Some Motifs in Baudelaire" 155; "Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire" 607). Benjamin took his life within two years after writing that well-known first sentence of "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire"; Adorno for his part spent a good portion of the next three decades trying to unpack and trace the meanings of those difficulties for—and in—the modern art that succeeded romanticism and postromanticism. The two short texts presented immediately below come from later moments of the history Benjamin and Adorno had been investigating; these texts are separated by almost thirty years, and are authored by two of the United States’ most important contemporary poets, both of whom, though they belong to different generations, are known for their filiations with the longue durée experimental traditions of romantic and modern lyric (and for their more-than-passing interest in what Frankfurt School aesthetics has itself meant for post-1945 poetry). Indeed, it cannot be gainsaid that these texts are by artists who are known for both the musicality and difficulty of their work, and who have always taken pains to underscore their poetry’s links to romanticism and romantic difficulty. If the following texts seem far from mainstream or direct styles of lyric address, they nevertheless take up the same romantic problem (albeit very much further along the continuum) that Norma Rae discovers and voices in her fraught initial encounter with the nontransparency of even a Dylan Thomas lyric. First, a passage from Barbara Guest’s book-length poem Symbiosis (2000), a work made in collaboration with the painter Laurie Reed:

    The difficult! aathe difficult!

    loosen the ropes that entangle it,

    aaatear them down from the mast!




    The schooner off its route,

    to the bird of prey,

    aaflies in another direction, the nineteenth

    aawears a plaid cap.[11]

  26. Guest—now in her 80s—is one of the original members of the "New York School" of poets; the New York School has, of course, been made almost synonymous with the advent of postmodernism in American poetry (though it is significant that Guest, often deemed the School’s most aesthetically fearless and formally uncompromising artist, is also thought of as its most relentless modernist, and hence as its best candidate for matching, phrase by phrase and layering by layering, the formidable complexity and difficulty in the earlier modernisms of a Pound or Olson). Here, characteristically, she swings with such grace of musical phrase and gentle backbeat that the gravity of her subject seems to register only recursively. Playfully and exclamatorily turning "difficult" from adjectival description into a substantive that is then itself made to signify a quality or state of being, Guest uses both sound values and the suspended pause of the page’s blank space to make "difficult!" virtually chime with "entangle it." She sets the pleasing suggestions of sonic and visual affinity in intriguing tension with the perhaps paradoxical command to loosen the bonds that entangle "the difficult" (disentangled, will Difficulty Unbound prove more—or less—difficult? Will it move farther from, or closer to us? What of the fact that the ropes entangling it seem to be made of these verse-lines themselves?). Meanwhile, the increasingly complicated—yet increasingly mellifluous, sensually serpentine—commingling of pleasure and problem seems to suggest a triangulation of the present moment (the contemporary perils and beckonings of song and thought) with two crucial earlier moments of history (and of literary history): Homer singing about Odysseus’ self-torturing attempt to know the sirens’ song without being fatally dashed against the rocks; and the deathships' mascot-albatrosses in the flights of Coleridgean and Baudelairean song.

  27. If Guest implicitly shades in the Homeric instance as the ancient or archaic foundation-stone in this structure of music-and-dilemma (a structure which yields, among other things, musical dilemma as both artistic and social problem), her more charged historical gesture casts the Coleridgean and, especially, the Baudelairean instance not just as absurdly outdated ("the nineteenth/ century/ wears a plaid cap") but as positively archaic in their turn. Indeed, for the nineteenth-century or Baudelairean flaneur-figure, with all its cool-culture cachet (not least in its repeated rediscovery and celebration during the last three decades of poetics and criticism), to be pictured now in a plaid cap is playfully but insistently to have the "fli[ght] in another direction" operate to make "the nineteenth/ century" (whose very enjambment conveys its being reduced to pieces of itself) more archaic than the Odyssey. Or, perhaps more devastatingly, it is (in line with Benjamin’s analysis of what had once made Baudelaire so modern) our moment that is archaic and the Homeric which is modern, while the presumably modernist-archaic epoch of flaneurisme (so imbricated, in Benjamin’s thinking, with the emergence of both modernism and Marxism) has become that trivial thing, the simply quaint or comically outdated: "a plaid cap." The exacting construction of syntactical indeterminacies drives home the poem’s exploration of the ambiguous cross-directionality of the phenomena at issue, quite pointedly on the model of ships crossing in the night (is it that "schooner" or "the bird of prey" that actually "flies in another direction" and gives us to understand the plaid-cap nature of a nineteenth century that will apparently last just as long as postmodern celebrations of it—celebrations, that is, of a certain aesthetic-political flaneurisme?). In any case, Guest’s stripped-down but sinuous lyric, re-accessing the oldest and most troubling riddles in both poetic and sociocultural history, works from a longstanding and recognizably romantic nexus of music, meditation, and difficulty to ask again about what has changed and what is new—and about how to ask that question itself.[12]

  28. And here is the poem "for," from "The Brown Book" section of Michael Palmer's 1974 volume The Circular Gates:

    for . . .

    This is difficult but not impossible: coffee
    childhood; in the woods there’s a bird;
    its song stops you and makes you blush
    and so on; it's her
    small and dead behind the roses
    better left alone; we wander around the park
    and out of our mouths come blood and smoke
    and sounds; small children and giants
    young mothers and big sisters
    will be walking in circles next to the water

    Palmer—one of the most-admired poets writing today in English (a status recently codified by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass' poem "The Palmer Method"), and a member of the Chancellors’ Board of the Academy of American Poets—began to come to prominence in the early 1970s, as a new voice extending aspects of the experimental lyric practice of the "San Francisco Renaissance" (most associated with the great later-modernist yet unabashedly romantic Robert Duncan, to whom Palmer was extraordinarily close until Duncan’s 1988 death). The Circular Gates, with its epigraph from one of the volume’s abiding presences, the great Left, modernist poet César Vallejo ("Toda la canción/cuadrada en tres silencios" ["All the song/quartered in three silences"]), was one of Palmer’s first books.

  29. "Coffee/ childhood" is indeed "difficult but not impossible" to wrap one’s mind around; the two don’t tend logically or sequentially to go together. Except that they do, retrospectively: in the aftermath of thought-provoking, madeleine-spiked cups of coffee that fuel the view back towards the past. Such retrospection here moves somewhat eerily, if not surprisingly, into nostalgia for lyric’s own vulgar-modern roots; it moves, that is, to echoes of Dante’s "wood" and haunted-forest birdsong and common tongue. Yet poetry’s historical lyricizations of birdsong also appear here as the object of critique, a self-mockery at once gentle and unsettling, as the straightforwardness of Palmer’s language not only undercuts any possible divineness in this comedy but also shifts quite explicitly to the language of parody and cliché: "makes you blush/ and so on"; and then, disturbingly, we pass from parody to something noirish, violent, troublingly ambiguous (is the "her" of "her/small and dead behind the roses" a girl, a woman, the bird, overly-romanticized birdsong in modernity, institutional-cliché birdsong?). In its direct and slightly clipped and then periodically more expansive rhythms and diction, the poem moves from enunciations of imagistic strangeness towards full-blooded Surrealism: towards "mouths" "out of" which emerge "blood and smoke" (and, only at that point, out of which also emerge audible articulations—"sounds"); towards a pairing of "children and giants" that turns what otherwise might merely be a slightly asymmetrical coupling ("young mothers and big sisters") into a jointure that helps unfold an arresting other-logic.

  30. Progressing through vocabularies of estrangement and parody and dissonant critique, and with a start-and-stop irregular metrics that nonetheless makes felt a coherent rhythmic expansion and contraction of thought, Palmer’s almost-deadpan delivery yields weavings and phrasings that stretch from a classic Surrealism to his own, remade-again language: of fable, Grimms fairy-tale, philosophical meditation, singsong nursery rhyme, Webernesque condensation. With the final line’s return to an expanded length we catch up to find we’ve all along been treading a homeopathically artificial path, a classically romantic process that has, paradoxically, had us traveling backwards-forwards towards breath-song’s circulations around nature’s life-source: ". . . small children and giants/young mothers and big sisters/will be walking in circles next to the water."

  31. Much more is at work in these ten lines, and those additional elements could be felt without specialized knowledge of poetic history. But such knowledge would help one better describe the virtuosic formal layerings that contribute decisively to the reader’s sensing of a charged and ghostly echolalia. For Palmer has pillaged and translated the majority of these lines from Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations, adding crucial components to them, torquing them differently, and—perhaps most ambitiously—imagining and working out the sedimented form- and content-effects that will carry over or be created when he re-places Rimbaud’s already modernist prose-poem passages into still-more-modern verse lines (in ways suggesting that, at however subterranean a level, the formal transposition or retranslation is itself crucial in order to convey not only estrangement, but also—and equally a reimagining of romantic vocation— song’s self-renewal, melody’s altered, stagger-step yet weirdly elegant re-emergence from song’s wake and its own self-critique). If experimental lyric’s re-posing and exercising of such formal aesthetic dynamics and capacities can indeed prove "difficult but not impossible," it may also, through its work, help demonstrate—or stimulate—a critical subjectivity that asks about how to know the coordinates of a much-changed world, and about how to refashion knowledge-processes themselves.[13] With such necessary, and necessarily complex explorations, contemporary poetry rededicates itself to what an earlier stage of modernism had likewise taken from romanticism: a commitment to the challenge—at once aesthetic and sociopolitical—of what is difficult.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. "The Essay as Form," Notes to Literature. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen, 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991-1992, 1: 3-23; "Der Essay als Form," Noten zur Literatur 1: 9-49.

---. "Keine Angst vor dem Elfenbeinturm" (May 5, 1969 interview with Adorno in Der Spiegel); trans. Gerhard Richter under the title "Who's Afraid of the Ivory Tower? A Conversation with Theodor W. Adorno," ed. and with an introduction by Richter, Monatashefte für Deutschsprachige Literatur und Kultur 94:1 (Spring 2002): 10-23.

---. "On Lyric Poetry and Society," Notes to Literature, 1: 37-54; "Rede über Lyrik und Gesellschaft." In Adorno, Noten zur Literatur. Ed. Tiedemann, 4 vols. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1958-1974, 1: 73-104.

---., and Walter Benjamin. Briefwechsel 1928-1940. Ed. Henri Lonitz. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1994; trans. Nicholas Walker under the title The Complete Correspondence, 1928-1940. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Benjamin, Walter. "The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire." In Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Trans. Harry Zohn. London: New Left Books, 1973, pp. 9-106; "Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire," Gesammelte Schriften, prepared with the cooperation of Theodor W. Adorno and Gershom Scholem, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1972-1999) [7 vols. in 14 individual vols., plus 3 Supplement vols.], 1.2: 431-603.

---. "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire." In Benjamin, Illuminations:EssaysandReflections. New York: Schocken, 1969. Ed. and introduced by Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, pp. 217-251, 155-200; "Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire," GesammelteSchriften. Most of these texts are likewise found in Benjamin, Illuminationen:AusgewählteSchriften vol. 1.2: 605-653.

---. "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Illuminations, pp. 253-264; "Über den Begriff der Geschichte," GesammelteSchriften 1.2: 693-704.

Bernstein, J.M. Adorno:DisenchantmentandEthics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Cascardi, Anthony J. ConsequencesofEnlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Caygill, Howard. ArtofJudgment. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

Ferguson, Frances. SolitudeandtheSublime:RomanticismandtheAestheticsofIndividuation. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Fischer, Ernst. TheNecessityofArt. Trans. Anna Bostock. 1957; London, 1963.

Guest, Barbara. IfSo,TellMe. London: Reality Street Editions, 1999.

---. Quill,Solitary,APPARITION. Sausalito: Post-Apollo Press, 1996.

---. RocksonaPlatter:NotesonLiterature. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1999.

---., and Anne Dunn. StrippedTales. Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 1995.

---., and Laurie Reid. Symbiosis. Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 2000.

Jackson, Carlton. PickingUptheTab:TheLifeandMoviesofMartinRitt. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994.

Kaufman, Robert. "A Future for Modernism: Barbara Guest’s Recent Poetry." AmericanPoetryReview 29:4 (July/August 2000): 11-16.

---. "Adorno's Social Lyric, and Literary Criticism Today: Poetics, Aesthetics, Modernity." In TheCambridgeCompaniontoAdorno. Ed. Tom Huhn. Forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

---. "Aura, Still,." October 99 (Winter 2002): 45-80.

---. "Negatively Capable Dialectics: Keats, Vendler, Adorno, and the Theory of the Avant-Garde." CriticalInquiry 27:2 (Winter 2001): 354-384.

---. "Red Kant, or The Persistence of the Third Critique in Adorno and Jameson." CriticalInquiry 26: 4 (Summer 2000): 682-724.

Paananen, Victor N. "Dylan Thomas As Social Writer: Toward a Caudwellian Reading." Nature,Society,andThought 3:2 (1990): 167-178.

Palmer, Michael. AtPassages. New York: New Directions, 1995.

---. TheCircularGates. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1974.

---. CodesAppearing:Poems1979-1988. New York: New Directions, 2001.

---. TheLionBridge:SelectedPoems1972-1995. New York: New Directions, 1998.

---. ThePromisesofGlass. New York: New Directions, 2000.

---. "Some Notes on Shelley, Poetics, and the Present." Sulfur 33 (1993): 273-281; also published in Keats-ShelleyJournal 42 (1993): 37-47.

---. Sun. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1988.

Strauss, David Levi. "Aporia and Amnesia." Review of Michael Palmer’s AtPassages. In TheNation, December 23, 1996, pp. 26-29.


* For their responses to earlier versions of this essay I am grateful to Bill Brown, Adam Casdin, Norma Cole, Jonathan Culler, Geoffrey Galt Harpham, Kevin Lamb, Saree Makdisi, Jocelyn Saidenberg, Lisa Steinman, Arthur Strum, Robert von Hallberg, and Alex Woloch. I am also indebted to numerous former colleagues from a different, sometimes overlapping world, including especially Robert Remar, initially of the National Labor Relations Board and, later, counsel to the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union, AFL-CIO; the late Maxine Auerbach, initially of the National Labor Relations Board and then counsel to numerous San Francisco Bay Area unions; Michael Eisenscher, former Field Organizer for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America; Mary Ann Massenburg, District 65, United Automobile Workers of America, AFL-CIO; and David Borgen, Communication Workers of America, AFL-CIO. A somewhat different version of this essay was written for (and will appear in) Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena, eds. Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb (forthcoming from Stanford University Press, 2003).

1 For a quick rehearsal of the film’s background and the labor history it tells, see Jackson 180-193.

2 For a useful, essentially orthodox Marxian recounting of this Thomas-and-the-Left history, see Paananen, "Dylan Thomas As Social Writer: Toward a Caudwellian Reading."

3 For discussion see, for example, Cascardi, Consequences of Enlightenment; Ferguson, Solitude and the Sublime; Caygill, Art of Judgment; and Kaufman, "Red Kant" and "Negatively Capable Dialectics."

4 See Adorno’s quite Benjaminian "On Lyric Poetry and Society," 44, 43; "Rede über Lyrik und Gesellschaft," 87, 85. For more on the history and theory of Benjamin’s and Adorno’s approaches to lyric, see Kaufman, "Aura, Still" and "Adorno's Social Lyric, and Literary Criticism Today: Poetics, Aesthetics, Modernity."

5 Adorno here again seeks to telescope Benjamin’s prodigious although largely uncompleted writings on Baudelaire into a few pages.

6 For sustained treatment of Frankfurt-School analyses of the Baudelairean counter-tradition in modern lyric, and for Benjamin’s, Brecht’s, and Adorno’s surprising later indications that lyric aura might have a renewed, progressive role to play in contemporary poetry and theory (after lyric's apparent supervention by mechanical-technical reproduction or reproducibility), see Kaufman, "Aura, Still."

7 While Herbert Marcuse—and the Benjamin of the mid-1930s—would be obvious instances, the case is perhaps best made by considering the most ostensibly Mandarin of the Frankfurt critics; in that light, see, for example, the May 5, 1969 interview with Adorno that appeared in Der Spiegel under the title "Keine Angst vor dem Elfenbeinturm," trans. Gerhard Richter [the literary critic, not the painter] under the title "Who's Afraid of the Ivory Tower? A Conversation with Theodor W. Adorno."

8 See, again, Kaufman, "Aura, Still" (esp. 73-74, n.46). For a valuable consideration of how the triangulated crises of aura, experience, and conceptuality inform an always-implicit ethical theory in Adornian and Frankfurt thought, see J.M. Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics. See also Walter Benjamin, "The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire" and "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire" in Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections; "Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire," and "Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire." See too Adorno, Benjamin, Briefwechsel 1928-1940 (138 ff., 364 ff., and 388 ff.); in English, The Complete Correspondence, 1928-1940 (104 ff., 280 ff., and 298 ff.). Finally, see Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History"; "Über den Begriff der Geschichte."

9 For a simultaneously comprehensive and succinct meditation on these ideas about constellative form in critical writing—and for an identification of Benjamin as the greatest theorist and practitioner of such writing—see Adorno, "The Essay as Form"; "Der Essay als Form."

10 For an extended discussion, see Kaufman, "Aura, Still" (esp. 74-79).

11Barbara Guest and Laurie Reid, Symbiosis (n.p.). Guest’s recent work also includes the Adorno-invoking Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature and If So, Tell Me; see also her Stripped Tales and Quill, Solitary, APPARITION. These and other volumes of Guest’s poetry have been published by smaller presses whose books may sometimes prove difficult to find. I should therefore add that most of Guest's work—and that of other poets often associated with experimental traditions—is available through the (non-profit) Small Press Distribution, the leading such distributor in the United States, at 1341 Seventh Street, Berkeley, CA 94710, (510)524-1668 or (800)869-7553, fax (510)524-0852,, <>.

12 For more specific treatment of Guest’s relationship to the early and continuing reception of Frankfurt School aesthetics in the United States, see Kaufman, "A Future for Modernism: Barbara Guest’s Recent Poetry."

13 For some of Palmer’s more recent work, see At Passages; The Lion Bridge: Selected Poems 1972-1995; The Promises of Glass; and Codes Appearing: Poems 1979-1988. For an example of Palmer’s thoughts on the dialogues between Frankfurt aesthetics and contemporary poetry, see his "Some Notes on Shelley, Poetics, and the Present" (an essay that might best be read in relation to his Sun and At Passages). For a very helpful discussion of Palmer, see David Levi Strauss, "Aporia and Amnesia."

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