Felix Bernstein: Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Dinner at Goldsmith’s

Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Dinner at Goldsmith’s: On Daniel’s Canon and Kenneth’s Memes
by Felix Bernstein

In his article Cheap Signaling, professor Daniel Tiffany argues that there is something new amongst a freshly grouped constellation of poets. That something new (to be brief: culture jamming) is not far from what I have written about in my own Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry forthcoming from Insert Blanc Press. In Tiffany’s particular constellation, we seem to see poets working steadily in the traditions of flarf and the gurlesque, traditions that involve appropriating language from the Internet, pop culture, ethnic culture, often with a somewhat comedic intent. Additionally, he has thrown Anne Boyer into the mix, probably to give a radical feminist Marxist street-cred to his argument, and in spite of the fact that her work with its serious critical tone (that lacks the ironic parodic linguistic ‘play’ of many of the poets he mentions) just doesn’t fit what he is proposing. Obvious problems concerning his overlooking of racial and gender appropriation are crucial to discuss, but in the end, Tiffany claims these problems are irrelevant because his piece is about, point-blank, class. But though class is mentioned, class inequality is not looked at (anthropologically or economically or at all) but skipped over, as Tiffany flies straight to the utopian premise that the poets listed exceed class brackets and identity configurations. No longer a black poet or a white poet playing particular games with particular linguistic frames that cause micro-level subversions, his new constellation of poets, by his assumptions, are universally rupturing the system of class and forming a large meta-class of urbane bohemians who have a relatable inclusive authenticity, despite being counter-cultural and making fun of authenticity. Moreover, they have a direct relationship to pop and mainstream culture, and do not merely stand opposed to it in the stark Adornoian tradition.

Is this bunch of self-consciously complicit yet still leftist bohemians somehow also a resurrectionary Marxist faction important to the avant-garde canon? Tiffany answers resolutely yes, and does so without recourse to any socio-economic or anthropologic-historical argumentation or proof. Not that I am asking for demonstration that the class system has been altered materially by these artists, but even just demonstrating how any person’s ideals about the class system had been altered by these artists would be useful. As the argument is framed, it appears not that these artists have altered Tiffany’s ideas about class, but rather that these artists were useful to illustrate ideas about class that he already held. Though he avoids the topic of Conceptual Poetry, this sort of utopianism (a bohemia apart from the class system) is absolutely consonant with Kenneth Goldsmith’s recent memes that disparage the Adorno, celebrate Twitter as a form of Modernist art, and argue with a kind of Napster-Mac-Utopianism that copyright is dead, but never is able to sustain a claim these things alter the fundamental economic system of capitalism or even alter the hierarchical formations of art canonization, even if they make both appear to be more ‘inclusive,’ radical, and hip. This shift against Adornoesque tendencies to control not just modernism but also postmodernism, has been signaled as well in art world discourse by the shift from the core set of October criticism with its postmodern ‘masters’ (particularly the writings of Hal Foster, Rosalind Kraus, Benjamin Buchloh) to the looser, queerer, micro-masters proposed by Grey Room and recent issues of Artforum (particularly in the writings of Claire Bishop, Ed Halter, David Joselit). Here, by throwing out the king (Adorno, Foster, Brakhage, etc.) an attempt to yield a more fluid sense of the contemporary is given; yet nonetheless, as happens when kings are dispatched, the superego becomes more secretively coercive, power structures seem more neutral and less contestable. And thus there is an unconscious repetition of Adorno’s hierarchies even as they are attempted to be undone. Indeed this is the case with articles like Tiffany’s and in fact, the whole Grey Room, queer theory, micro-master enterprise [therefore it becomes harder to question the judgments that raise an artist like Ryan Trecartin into a superstar because it seems that this is beneficial to ‘us’ as a community, not just art patriarchs and academics: or at least, this is the story as it is told by Christopher Glazek in n + 1]. Goldsmith’s recent memes and Tiffany’s article [as well as the work of Joselit, for example] share a cloying desperation for empathy and empathic communities, as well as for adulation and shared canon values, all the while seemingly debunking the notions of such clean-cut canons as high art would premise. In Goldsmith’s case the refusal to be entertained by emotional tweets is all the more ironic given how pathos-ridden his memes are.

Indeed, Goldsmith’s work brings us face to face with the problematics of doing universalizing PR for microcultural formations. There’s a kind of horror then to his persona, even a kind of terror, for those who have fought to keep the idealized hermetic circle of experimental art sacred. And yet what Goldsmith is doing is hardly unique. Besides being enacted by the SparkNotes and textbook industry, professors and artists, who should allegedly be better equipped to write, think, and teach in less streamlined ways, have tended to op for the sales pitch. In part because the customer comes first, and the customer is in this case the college student, a teen-consumer who wants to do as little work and thinking as possible but certainly wants a Hot Topic T-shirt of Adorno or Perloff. This is not to say that the wearing of a Hot Topic T-shirt denies that there is a ‘thinkership’ at play here, a group of thinkers who are thinking through the irony of their inability to transgress in palpable ways.

However, it does not take a cynical historian to note that this particular brand of irony is too much old-news to be described as inventive. But is not particularly inventive to write in the Artforum or Mousse that this sort of irony is not Marxist enough, as if there is some better more authentic form of Marxism or that the hermetic art itself is somehow more authentic or sincere or better than post-80s art [a point that even Goldsmith traffics in] because to take this position in such a blasé way, especially within academic and art-world discourses, is merely to reify that work, and canonize it by virtue of it having a comparative moral high-ground, as if that is what is important about the art. All I am saying here is not that fourth-generation conceptual, ironic, institutional critique and culture jamming is immoral and ought not to be made or discussed (after all this is the sort of art I make too) but merely that it not inventive. However, Goldsmith is able to traffic his work as new-news is because what he does has not occurred in poetry per se, though it had in art, for the reason that it had been useless to make jokes about the complicity of poetry with capitalism when poetry had been so entirely uncommodified for so long. Goldsmith’s magic act was to make poetry seem like an art/fashion object that could be considered a commodity and as soon as he did this, he also simultaneously pointed to the irony of this fact. However, this joke is hard for others to maintain since the poetry book, even Goldsmith’s is still not a valuable commodity on par with a Warhol painting. Thus, there is a sublime irony in a Warhol painting that will always fall flat, comparatively, when viewing a Goldsmith book. For one thing, a main enjoyable feature of Warhol’s works is owed to his paintings selling for millions, despite being appropriations. Goldsmith’s work is not selling for millions, whatever his dandy posturing might indicate, and therefore the joke does not translate.

Still, there is something to Goldsmith that can’t be said of Tiffany, which is the ambivalence in his memes point to an underlying sadness: that what he is saying is beyond even his own belief systems. It is clear in many ways that Goldsmith is trying to keep up with the kids (or at least the Kardashians), the desperation is there as a kind of humor, call it the humor of the hipster.  While it is a generic, even Sophomoric humor, only acting as inventive genius, nonetheless it demonstrates more wit and intelligence than the humorless prose of Tiffany. Though, one must note that plenty of academics, such as Jeffery Nealon, who attempt use humorless prose to defend Goldsmith as if he were doing the same thing as they are, attempt to turn counterculture and subculture and the quotidian and the queer into a teachable 101 English course that can also be deemed Marxist and transgressive, despite being entirely catered to middle-class students. These professors, like Tiffany and Nealon, reduce the ambivalent complexity of works that trade in the culture industry so that they seem unilaterally ‘negative’ in the sense of holding up a critical mirror, and this of course, to our shared Leftist-Marxist values is meant to be positive. And yet what might be most interesting and dangerous about these works is that they really just wanna have fun, that is they might not be doing anything Marxist whatsoever, they might just be participating in the mass hysteria, and enjoying it.

The second mistake that professors like Tiffany make is they attempt to domesticate the nomad, and treat works that explicitly avoid partaking in the culture industry or the industry of dogmatic interpretations (the academy) as if they did (Tiffany does this with Anne Boyer’s work) or should. Tiffany hopes to argue that the interruptive impediments to communicative seamlessness marked by poetry ought to be viewed as the very enabling conditions for a political-ethical community. Though what he ought to say is: interruptive, rambunctious, difficult poetry forms the enabling conditions for his own seamless, safe, academic prose.

Tiffany writes in Infidel Poetics, “Obscurity, rather than being the principal impediment to poetry’s social relevance, would provide the key to models of community derived specifically from the nature of lyric expression.” His punchline is not unlike the desire to make a meme of the hermetic: Solipsism is socially connecting! Secrecy is expressive! Hostile politically indifferent poetry is polite and universal and leftist-Marxist! The impossibility of communication is the grounds on which communication is built! Disturbingly tricky riddles can be very catchy!

In my Notes, I ask a different question: Is not the creation of a single category of erudite bohemian –– merging the learned academic with the street rapper through a common language of uncommon speech, of slang and remix –– is this not merely the fantasy of a middle class, each with their Macs and each with their artistic hobbies? Exceeding class, race, and gender, while not actually doing anything to rupture the distribution of wealth? Even thinkers as astute as Žižek have fallen into the trap of attempting to create this unity –– to move beyond identity politics and to deliver us a counterhegemonic kernel of transgressiveness, a wounding punctum, not unlike queerness that would unite high and low, rich and poor, through nothing more and nothing less than a middle class oasis. This connects thinkers as unlikely as Žižek to the more routine Affect Studies tactic, of celebrating negative affects that speak to middle class students into positive radicalized badges-of-honor. Such is the routine used, for example, when Sianne Ngai admires Bruce Andrews: the curse word and the disgust it implies can become an identifiable place for empathetic unified transgression.

What the academy, from Žižek to Ngai to Tiffany has been able to do, is create a queer-Marxist post-class class of bohemians connected at the hip to the World Wide Proletariat-Queer. At most, the art historical import of this strategy has allowed for an extensive cataloguing of the transgressive hopes and negative feelings of a principally middle class group of recognized artists. The need to immediately rush to the ethical-moral defense of art is the problem here. It means skipping over the search for proof and for reality. One needs to slow down and look either anthropologically or socioeconomically at these problems or else, at least, bite the bullet and examine the art for merely its own aesthetic and formal properties without attempted to redeem it or make everybody love it. Or if one has not the skill to do any of those things, then at least be a little bit more critically acute. To start, here’s a very basic entry-level question Tiffany and Goldsmith might ask, to open the door to critical self-reflexiveness: do not our doors remain just as locked as they were before Napster and Ubu and Queer Theory and hip-hop? Or at least ask, whom does transgression serve, rather than simply saying ad nauseum “this is transgressive.” Then one can start to investigate the phenomenological distinctions in how the works serves, how intelligent or witty it is, how provocative, etc. Of course, this means making specific judgments and risking the posture of the fanciful elitist. But this risk must now be made, as the attempt to bill artworks as a priori novel and unique, based on a set of ethical egalitarian pretenses, is a tactic that has finally run its course.


Felix Bernstein debuted on YouTube with his real and satirical Coming Out Video in 2008 and went on to play characters from Amy Winehouse to Lamb Chop to Leopold (peter) Brant. His critical and uncritical writings have been published, or are forthcoming, in The Brooklyn Rail, Htmlgiant, The Volta, GaussPDF, Imperial Matters, Coldfront, Boston Review, The Believer, and Bomb. His main goal these days is to make his rent payments on time because now that he’s graduated and moved out, rent is a real thing and not some imaginary construct used by adults to scare him into responsibility. With Gabe Rubin he fronts the band Tender Cousins. The ambiguous duo directed and starred in Red Krayola’s opera Victorine at the 2012 Whitney Biennial and directed the films Unchained Melody and Boyland. Their next film Sweetly about Nazi-ish punk kids killing JAPs and Hipsters in Manhattan is in pre-production. You can experience all of the above, but slower, at felixbernstein.com. And you can preorder Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry at insertblancpress.net. In his spare time, he plays ultimate Frisbee.

edited out formatting issue, 3:59pm