Anger and the Banality of Academe

Michael Robbins.jpg

My
editors at the Chronicle last
week declined to permit me to publish my last piece on the same-sex marriage
debate. They pointed out, reasonably enough, the topic is “too far afield from and
tangential to academe and academic policy to run on Innovations.” That
topic has, of course, had plenty of play on another Chronicle blog, Brainstorm, but I
understand the skittishness of the post-Naomi opinion section of the Chronicle when
it comes to dissent from
the prevailing norms of academic opinion, and I quietly slid the article over
to Minding the Campus, where
its academic anchor held fast.

With
that out of the way, I turned to issues that I was pretty sure wouldn’t set off
tsunamis of protest: the importance of teaching the history of Western
civilization; my own multicultural undergraduate education; and the creative
side of coming to terms with cultural loss. I am rather enjoying this placid
stretch, and rather than rush to re-join the debates over student financial
aid, the higher-education bubble, governance at UVa, the role of technology on
campus, the latest sustainalunacies from last month’s conference at UC
Davis, and the like, I’m sticking with the theme that higher education is
relaxing deeper and deeper into banality. Not just any kind of banality but a
banality that artfully and sometimes pleasingly combines the detritus of
popular culture, the ersatz sophistication of the opinion elites, a consumer
ethic, random bits of globalized commerce, and the jumbled fragments of the old
civilization. We recline in the shade of those ruins. And it is not so bad
.

Alien vs.
Predator

Maybe
the best exemplar of this happy combination is the poet Michael Robbins, who
leapt to fame on the publication in The New Yorker in
January 2009 of a short poem, Alien vs. Predator. The
title refers to the 2004 horror movie mash-up that united two franchises: 
the carnivorous Alien stowaway saga that began with Ridley Scott’s
1979 movie, and the trophy-hunters from outer-space series that began with the 1987
Arnold Schwarzenegger pic. Uniting the two fantasies must have seemed like a
good idea, but the result was sadly lackluster.  It did, however, offer a
metaphorically rich title. Which is the greater monster: appetite or ego?

Not
that that battle is necessarily what Robbins’ poem is
about. The poem appears as a mélange of pop – culture allusions mixed
with bits of high-culture tradition. The opening line, “Praise this world, Rilke says, the jerk,” refers to Rilke’s “Duino
Elegy, No. 9
,” (“Praise this world to the Angel.”)  Rilke’s poem is a
trembling meditation on the evanescence of life, calling us to pay attention to
the here and now. Why is does this make Rilke “a jerk”?  I have no idea
except that Robbins has more fun excoriating this world–the
world of 21st century American
consumerism–than he has praising anything. But I’m not sure Robbins’ poem lends
itself to close explication. The immediate pleasures he offers are off-tilt
rhymes (“…the jerk/ We’d stay up all night. Every angel’s/ Berserk…”), cascades
of references to rap lyrics, comic books, and advertisements, verbal glissandos,
puns, and a general high-spiritedness.

“Alien
vs. Predator” takes the form of competitive boasting between the monsters, as
if they were playground rivals or perhaps the two keelboatmen from Chapter
Three of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi,
who exhaust themselves trading grandiose taunts and never actually get to
trading blows:

“Whoo-oop! I’m the old original iron-jawed,
brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw!–Look at
me! I’m the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a
hurricane, dam’d by an earthquake, half-brother to the cholera, nearly related
to the small-pox on the mother’s side! Look at me! I take nineteen alligators
and a bar’l of whiskey for breakfast when I’m in robust health, and a bushel of
rattlesnakes and a dead body when I’m ailing!’

Robbins’
antagonists are more succinct than Twain’s but the rambunctiousness is the
same: “I set the controls, I pioneer/ the seeding of the ionosphere./ I
translate the Bible into velociraptor.”  “I fight the comets, lick the
moon,/pave its lonely streets.”

Unlike The Wasteland, with its retinue of footnotes, Robbins’
poems leave the reader to his own devices to figure out where all that cultural
detritus originated. Eli Lehrer, reviewing Robbins in The Weekly Standard, dubbed him “the Wiki-Poet” since his
“work can be appreciated only with an Internet connection.” Truth be told, the
Internet connection isn’t that helpful. A
site that tries to unravel the rap references in “Alien vs. Predator”
doesn’t offer much. I think you either enjoy Robbins’ poems for their sheer
verve or you give them up as mostly incomprehensible. They are certainly open
and easy to read for several lines at a time, where they are often hilarious.
In “The Learn’d Astronomer,” he writes:

Even then, I was so skillful a lover

That when I said, “Life is wasted on the living,”

The rivers ran for days with suicides.

Occasionally
he turns his hand to something perfectly lucid, as in “Space Mountain,”
twenty-three couplets of oath-like curses along the lines of:

By the millionaire playboy’s cape and his cowl,

By that wise old Zen master, the Tootsie Pop owl,

Which
concludes, falsely, “I am a man of few words, each one a thrown switch,” and a
promise to name the “mouth-breathers” he execrates.  “Then pull up a
chair.  This could take a while.”

Robbins
is a poet of what I have called “new anger”–the show-off, look-at-me anger in
which most of the point is the pleasure of performance. So what is Robbins
actually angry about? You can read his collection of 55 short poems several
times closely and not really know. Some of the poems start angry:

“You homicidal bitch…”  [Appetite for
Destruction]

Or
ugly:

“Every last one of my thirty-eight years

Would fit inside Jeffrey Dahmer’s
freezer.” 
 
[Affect Theory]

But
they are pretty soon captured by the giddiness of exuberant play. Robbins is
having enough fun that he doesn’t mind putting a little Ogden Nash doggerel in
the mix:

“My fish, fast and loose, shoot fish in a kettle.

The boys like the girls who like heavy metal.” [I Did This
to My Vocabulary]

I
am nominating Michael Robbins as a poet whose poems capture the spirit of the
academy. I concluded that before finding him in two interviews declaring his
perfected academic disdain for America. Here he tells a writer for Vol. 1 Brooklyn who asks him about his “strong
ambivalence in [his] poems about late capitalism.”

I wouldn’t call it ambivalence as much as a
contradiction. I think that I’m drawn to the Marxist critique of capitalism,
because of its dialectic. I feel like a douchebag saying a sentence like that,
but you know, Marx is not simply bashing capitalism, he’s extoling [sic] its
liberating aspects. At the same time he’s urging that the contradictions that
it contains are oppressive and ultimately will lead it to its ruin. I feel a
similar contradiction in late capitalism insofar as I’m wholly antagonistic to
it as a form of economic life. Right now it’s a way of producing apartheid and
slums. I feel like there’s no sensible person who could not see capitalism as
an immensely destructive force that produces immiseration on mass scales. I’m
completely opposed to capitalism politically, but I’m at the same time as
attracted to its products as anyone else.

And
he tells an interviewer from the Paris Review:

My poetry is partly about how everything is for
sale. It seems astonishing to me that we accept that as normal. At the same
time, I love Taylor Swift and it would be ridiculous for me to not listen to
Taylor Swift or to not see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which I
just saw, because they are consumer spectacles that disguise the actual
relations of production. So yeah, I think the sense that those phrases are
completed for me by capitalist vernacular, by advertising, by jargon and cliché
is a way of thinking about language and my relationship to it. I want to
register my antagonism while also registering my complicity.  

                                                                         A Whale on Stilts

I
rather like Robbins’ poems, but when interviewers speak without irony of “late
capitalism” and the poet strides right ahead in the language of Marxist
“contradictions,” dialectic, and “relations of production,” I hear a man more
besotted with the junk of campus pseudo-intellectualism than he is troubled
with the disorders of his society. Robbins the poet has a bit of Mark Twain in
his DNA. Robbins the visiting professor (most recently, the University of
Southern Mississippi) is, to borrow a phrase, “a whale on stilts.”

Artful
banality ceases to be artful and becomes a lot more banal when the poet
subsides into these sorts of clichés. Whether, when I hold up Robbins as a
mirror of the contemporary university, the university will catch a glimpse of
itself, I don’t know. But it is that time of year when it seems allowable to
offer a metaphor instead of an argument.  Something like throwing
marshmallows to the alligators. So which is the greater monster?  Appetite
or ego?  “Whose whales these are/I’ll never know. They lawyer up. I’m
lying low.”

Peter Wood

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

5 thoughts on “Anger and the Banality of Academe

  1. I know this is belaboring the point in a forum not really amenable to it, but one more comment, then I’ll retire.
    The “contradictions” of Marx’s that I had in mind are outlined in Capital & the Grundrisse, not the Manifesto.
    For Marx, contradiction is hardly a clumsy matter of the proletariat rising to smash the oppressors. Marx, contrary to popular opinion, was far from sanguine about the prospects of capitalism’s overthrow. (One can find him in different moods about it at different points, of course.)
    Instead, the vital contradiction is that between the production of use value and private consumption. Under capitalism, exchange value dominates, & overproduction arises when exchange value outpaces sustained accumulation.
    So far, this is not controversial. Marx’s story in Capital, not his romantic story in the Manifesto, is the story that matters, because it is a story about how capitalism in its drive for expansion inevitably competes & produces its way to disaster. He’s talking about booms-bubbles-busts. The history of capitalism is a history of repeated crises that can be described in exactly these terms.
    The most recent crisis (predicted by more than a few Marxian economists) shows us what has changed in the situation since Marx wrote: the crisis of 2008 was a crisis of the overproduction of *value.* There is a gap between what we used to call “value” & what the financial markets call “value,” which is, of course, fictitious value, a claim on future value (mortgage payments, say) that produces no actually existing value of its own. That gap closes with a slam, as it did in 2008, & it will continue to do so as the lessons are forgotten, as they always are, & people start to believe a lot of nonsense about the self-regulating power of the market, as they always do.
    Marx’s argument is that such contradictions are inherent to capitalism & cannot be regulated or reformed away. That is an argument that we can have. But the notion that Marx is just some guy banging on a drum about the proletariat is unfair. I mean, no wonder you guys are so convinced the academy is a bastion of countercultural revolutionaries having free sex, or whatever.
    It’s condescending. You could do a little better, too.
    Anyway, thank you again for the discussion & for the kind words about my work. As I say, I’ll bow out now.
    mr

  2. Thank you for responding–something I never expected. I’ve done lots of phone interviews and I concede that the medium is not among the best ways to draw subtle distinctions.
    True, I didn’t produce an argument about why Marx’s language is irrelevant to the disorders of our society. This is mostly a matter of where one thinks the burden of proof lies. 164 years after the Communist Manifesto, 75 years or so after Stalin’s show trials, 37 years after Pol Pot came to power, nearly a quarter-century since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and long after we have heard in numbing detail how Marxism played out in practice wherever its proponents attained political power, I would say the burden lies on those who would continue to recycle the intellectual vacancies of Marxist analysis as though they provided some special insight into contemporary economic and social conditions.
    My guess is that intellectually-inclined folks who are alienated from our mass consumer society gravitate to Marxoid categories of analysis for want of familiarity with alternatives and because Marxism bizarrely retains a degree of coolness, which is something like smallpox retaining a aura of bodily vigor.
    I realize that what I just wrote is still not an “argument.” Maybe a small sample is needed. Marx was dead wrong about the “contradictions” in capitalism. The contradictions he had in mind were capitalism’s supposed relentless drive to exploit the workers to the point where the workers in their utmost misery would destroy the system that oppressed them. It never happened–not once.
    Among the many attempts among intellectuals to keep Marxist analysis going as a viable system, Daniel Bell’s idea of the “cultural contradictions” of capitalism seems more suited to your purposes. Bell argued that capitalism gave rise to more and more leisure and an ethic of consumerism that undercuts the savings and thrift and attitude of self-denial that makes capitalism possible.
    Bell may be right, but of course, Bell is a Marxist only in a very loose sense. All that mumbo jumbo you adopt about relations of production and the like falls away.
    All this, however, is a diversion from what matters. You write vivid, imaginatively powerful, and very humorous poetry. If you need to believe in the harumphing declarations of an obsolete 19th century theorist to get on with your writing, by all means, stick with Karl and his boys.
    But you could do a little better.
    And the next time you are in midtown, drop by the NAS offices (8 W. 38th Street) and we can talk more about this.
    Peter Wood

  3. Also, I know it’s obnoxious for me to comment here, but I wanted to point out that when I call Rilke a jerk I am, of course, alluding to Berryman’s famous poem. And in the context, he’s a jerk for saying we should praise this world, which is, um, not terribly praiseworthy. That, at any rate, is the attitude of the speaker. Who is not I, or not exactly.

  4. Recall: Eliot was compelled to include that “retinue of footnotes.”
    No one, thank god, was compelling Robbins.

  5. 1. You’ve obviously never given a phone interview (& I’m not the one who misspelled “extolling”), or you’d be a little kinder to my banalities.
    2. You haven’t produced an argument about why Marx’s language is irrelevant to “the disorders of [our] society.”
    3. Thank you for the perceptive readings of my poems.

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