Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

Powers of Possibility: Experimental American Writing since the 1960s

Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

Powers of Possibility: Experimental American Writing since the 1960s

Article excerpt

Powers of Possibility: Experimental American Writing since the 1960s by Alex Houen, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, 282 pages.

If the literary movement known as modernism was not simply a sort of literary fiction, why would it not be possible to renew, if not precisely to redeem, it today? Alex Houen's important book is committed to the effort of what he calls "defending literary vanguardism," and blurring the subtle distinction between the terms modernist and avant-garde, he argues for the importance of "formulatpng]," in full postmodernity, "something newly modern" (13). Thus, unlike other recent critics, who like to say that postmodernism has made avant-gardism "neither culturally nor stylistically viable," Houen strongly insists on its "continuing possibility" (13). His affirmation of "the persis- tence of avant-gardism" depends is that, in his view, the line, the so-called "great divide," between modernism and postmodernism is more or less vague and "porous" (14-15). This is not to say that we begin to witness the return of modernism after its demise, but rather that we might be able to assure its uninterrupted (although somehow differentiated) continuity with what followed it (of which we have not until recently been aware). But before dealing with this question of periodization, it seems more appropriate at this point to consider why we should call, of all things, for avant-gardism.

Houen's claims for a "literary avant-garde movement" rooted particularly in "sixties American avant-gardism" are primarily concerned with its "powers of potentiality, both aesthetic and political" (16). These powers are crucial for Houen because he defines around its attempts "to turn new aesthetic possibilities into powers of social action" (11). Emphasizing that the core debates about avant-gardism have always centered on whether literary forms can be "politically affective," or can have "the effect of political power on oneself" (7), Houen argues that the most revolutionary aspect of avant-gardism consists of its "affective potency," its ability to "touch on sensibility, feeling, and experience," or, more precisely, to "elicit thoughts, desires, and feelings that do take place in the real bodies and minds of readers" (10). This affective energy or force plays a crucial role in the politics of "potentialism" since the affective charges "shaped in and as literature" are essential to "personal liberation" (47), that is, to the realization of "individual capacities and potentials" (4). (While Houen does not go into great detail about what he means by "realizing individual potential") He challenges the notion that these affective possibilities are diminished or lost (along with the notion of potentiality) under postmodern circumstances, in which aesthetic production itself has been fully integrated into commodity production and consumerism has become a dominant way of life.

"We can act," Houen (following Charles Bernstein) asserts, "We are not trapped in the postmodern condition" (12). It is precisely because, in his view, the legacy of the avant-garde is still largely with us and still clearly operative: indeed, no exaggeration at all to say that his book is designed to show how-or, if I say, how greatly-the sixties avant-gardism has influenced the formation of the latest, post-modern, American literary experimentalism: the list of works that demonstrate this, according to Houen, includes William Burroughs's cut-ups and viruses, Kathy Acker's abject piracy, Allen Ginsberg's auto-poems, Lyn Hejinian's open text, and Amiri Baraka's Black Arts writings. Houen contends that literary avant-gardism reemerged in the sixties and has flourished ever since, or, in other words, with the ongoing vitality of the old avant-garde legacies reinstantiated by the works of the later "new" avant-garde writers (or postmodernists, as other critics call them). The question then necessarily arises: if avant-gardism still remains influential, why do we need to "formulate" and "defend" it in the first place? …

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