Mary Ellen Solt: Concretizing 1968
Mary Ellen Solt’s The Peoplemover: A Demonstration Poem tries to make sense of the political turmoil and resistance unfolding across the U.S. in the spring and summer of 1968.1 First performed at Indiana University on August 7, 1968, as a “dadaesque” demonstration with participants wielding protest posters, Solt developed The Peoplemover over three performances in the next two years to include a libretto.2 A full version of the work, published in 1978 by West Coast Poetry Review, draws the libretto together with stage directions and reproductions of the posters. In this final form, never to be fully performed,3 The Peoplemover is an illustrated performance script that juxtaposes concrete poetry’s visual immediacy with a fragmentary arrangement of speechwriting and other political utterances quoted from across U.S. history. On a stage that suggests “a patriotic occasion or a political rally” and accompanied by a tape of fragmented “patriotic songs and marches,” four speakers “weave a series of tapestries of American words” by quoting the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln (ATP).4 Demonstrators march around the stage and hold aloft the protest posters, which are designed with the typographical manipulations characteristic of concrete poetry (fig. 1).
At certain points in the performance these demonstrators flip their posters to reveal what Solt calls their “back-ideograms.” These simple but arresting characters are painted extensions of the posters’ wooden back-scaffolding and signify with its shape, as if attempting to cut through the poem’s idiomatic haze of political speech with concrete picture-thinking.5 In this way, The Peoplemover links concretist poetry with an avant-gardiste critique of aesthetic autonomy. That is, it dramatizes a question: Are the posters’ back-ideograms only the material supports—literally the sign-handles—of the meaning expressed on their flip sides? Or are these supports objects of passive contemplation, components of a work of art? The Peoplemover answers this question with a dialectical yes. The work does not merely transform what might otherwise be wall-hung or anthology-bound works of concrete poetry into tools for protest; it more fundamentally demands interpretation of what such a transformation of art into activism means in 1968. Solt’s “demonstration poem,” as she calls it, is a revealing engagement with the formal problematics of concretism and the historical contradictions concomitant with the rise of New Left protest politics in the U.S.
Although The Peoplemover is the major work of one of concrete poetry’s foremost proponents, it has received scant critical attention.6 While Solt does have more widely discussed concrete poems like her 1966 collection Flowers in Concrete, her most well-known project is scholarly. Solt’s 1968 anthology Concrete Poetry: A World View, now considered the definitive English-language collection of concrete poetry, sorts poems and manifestos from the 1950s and 1960s by nationality and ensured that after originating in Europe and—most vigorously—in Brazil, concrete poetry would reach its largest audience in the late-1960s and 1970s U.S.7
The Peoplemover is an exceptional part of Solt’s oeuvre not merely because it is her longest, most complex work and only performance. More importantly, it is Solt’s aesthetic attempt at bringing together her two scholarly pursuits: the ideographic form developed by the international concrete poetry movement and William Carlos Williams’s elusive concept of the “American idiom.” For The Peoplemover presents a dramatic interaction between a display of two-sided posters and the performance of a libretto; the work appears to be structured around a tension, developed through performance, between the ideogram developed in concrete poetry and the “American idiom” Solt theorizes in Williams. This essay will argue, however, that the work’s more fundamental structuring tension is between two forms of experience: the absorptive experience of the autonomous artwork and the theatrical experience of the political protest. As such, The Peoplemover is a significant work in the history of concretism because it is a transitional work, marking a historically and national-politically specific moment in which the theatrical and literalist pressures of postmodern performance art impinge on concretism’s modernist problematic.
I approach Solt’s work primarily through concretism and not through 1960s performance art or anti-war poetry for two reasons. First, Solt’s interests lie primarily in concretism. The Peoplemover’s theatrical elements are important but do not appear intrinsically related to the rest of her career as an artist-scholar. And second, because concretism’s modernist engagement with aesthetic autonomy is central to The Peoplemover’s engagement with social history. The work plays out the subsumption of concretism’s ambivalent but substantial commitment to aesthetic autonomy by an emergent postmodern hegemony that uncritically collapses art into life.8 In short, I will argue that Solt’s work concretizes 1968 insofar as this postmodern hegemony seems to emerge in The Peoplemover not just through an engagement with concretism but out of the actual political events roiling the U.S. in the spring and summer of 1968. So, while Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” (1967) was trying to pull the emergency brake on postmodern theatricality in the abstract sphere minimalist art, Solt was working on the ground, as it were, making a mere political demonstration into something more: a “demonstration” of the changing life of art in 1968.
In the foreword to The Peoplemover, Solt recounts making the work’s posters in 1968 to express her anger, frustration, and sorrow—“part of a deep, national sorrow”—at the war in Vietnam, at the Watts riots, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, at Martin Luther King’s and Robert Kennedy’s assassinations, and so on. While she connects the work to the wave of demonstrations across the U.S. in which people “were exercising their democratic right to protest,” The Peoplemover is not merely a protest poem (ATP). Which is to say that Solt’s earnest provocation—that with citizens exercising their right to peaceful demonstration, then “Why not a demonstration poem?”—gets more complicated when, in the same foreword, she attributes her work’s title to the “famous conveyance in Disneyland.” In a passage that stands as a thesis of sorts for The Peoplemover, Solt writes:
Day and night The Peoplemover transports hoards of fun-seeking Americans around a world of fantasy and fake history. In the real world of 1968, the peoplemover was the demonstration. Seeking its place in that world, the PEOPLEMOVER poem grew in response to the demands of particular performances. It was first performed by Donald Bell’s experimental design class at Indiana University on 7 August 1968. (ATP)
By modulating the capitalization of her poem’s title, Solt relates two objects—the Disneyland conveyance and the performance poem—to indicate a general concept that applies to both. The enigmatic proposition, “In the real world of 1968, the peoplemover was the demonstration,” stands in for this general concept and schematizes the intention behind The Peoplemover: Solt wants to make aesthetically intelligible, through the “demonstration” form of her poem, an historical conjuncture in which protest politics starts to bear a troubling resemblance to a train ride through Disneyland. The Peoplemover is not merely a protest poem because the internal organization of its “demonstration” form aligns the theatricality of Disneyland—an experience that is meaningless insofar as it demands no interpretation, only the basic arousal of interest or excitement—with the efficient information-transfer of protest poetry and propagandistic art more generally. As we will see, Solt’s “demonstration poem” tries to ironize this alignment and overcome the saturating theatricality of market culture that is this alignment’s condition of possibility.
Solt’s triangulation of her “demonstration” form between Dadaist anti-art, the commodified spectacle of Disneyland, and the art-institutional space of the experimental design class foregrounds the problem of commodification while associating Solt’s work with the cultural formation of the neo-avant-garde. As Peter Bürger has argued, this formation redeploys within the institution of art the techniques and materials that the historical avant-garde designed in order to abolish this institution.9 To be clear, this essay understands the essentials of Bürger’s concept of the neo-avant-garde to emerge unscathed, in an American context, from his numerous postmodernist critics; neo-avant-gardism’s institutionalization of the anti-institutional discloses the compromised aesthetics and politics of an emergent postmodernism.10 But from the standpoint of a Hegelian-Marxist critique, Bürger’s concept has an under-elaborated account of the historical relationship between aesthetic autonomy and commodification or, in other words, the relationship between the institution of art and the market.11 The achievement of Solt’s Peoplemover is that it stages this relation in a way that makes its neo-avant-gardisme a critical index of the art and politics of 1968, albeit in a formal and esoteric sense to be elaborated in this essay, rather than in the sense of the work’s exoteric expression of political commitment. To grasp The Peoplemover‘s neo-avant-gardisme in this way, this essay will interpolate close reading with contextualization, situating Solt’s concretism first in relation to the Brazilian Noigandres group and then within the context of Solt’s William Carlos Williams scholarship. Ultimately, I will show how The Peoplemover’s ambivalence about its aesthetic autonomy—that is, about its capacity to be meaningful as art—offers a window onto the predicament of the New Left in the U.S. vis-à-vis institutions and the market.
Concrete poetry displaces traditional poetic syntax and form in favor of compositions that foreground the visual aspects of words and their spatial organization on the page. Solt first encounters concretism in Brazil’s concrete poetry movement, which emerges around the São Paulo-based Noigandres group, founded in 1952 by Haroldo and Augusto de Campos and Décio Pignatari. Noigandres’s 1958 “Pilot Plan for Concrete poetry”12 theorizes a concrete poem as, on one hand, “an object in and for itself, not an interpretation of exterior objects and/or sensations more or less subjective” and, on the other hand, a “poem-product: useful object.”13 This theory resonates with Constructivism’s twofold commitment to the semantic autonomy of abstract, objective form and the political heteronomy of art as a use-value in a process of progressive industrialization.14 Yet, part of what distinguishes Noigandres concretism from Constructivism is its claim to the aesthetic relevance of advertising and electronic mass culture, implicit in what the “Pilot Plan” calls the word’s “verbivocovisual” ensemble of “sound, visual form, semantical charge [carga semântica]” (PP 72)15 and explicit in Decio Pignatari’s well-known “anti-advertisement” (fig. 2).16
The doubled connotation of obligation and electrical signal in Noigandres’s “semantical charge” suggests a tension between the interpretive burden that communication, as a social act, necessarily entails and information theory’s ideal of communication as frictionless signal transmission. With their billboard-ready inheritance of Ezra Pound’s “ideogramic method,” these poets were generally intent on overcoming this tension by aligning their work with the instantaneous mechanics of electronic information technologies: “Control. Cybernetics. The poem as a mechanism regulating itself. Faster communication (problems of functionality and structure implied) endows the poem with a positive value and guides its own making” (PP 72).17 Gravitating toward a sure-fire picture of meaning that calls for no hermeneutic operations on the part of the reader, the Noigandres concretists wanted to achieve an identity of poetry and signal transmission.
Solt had read the Noigandres “Pilot Plan” by 1963,18 and her 1964 poem, “Moonshot Sonnet,” exemplifies not only their cybernetic interests but also their early-1960s tendency toward distilling the verbal aspects of concrete poetry into purely graphic form (fig. 3).
Décio Pignatari and Wlademir Dias-Pino’s “semiotic poems” exemplified this tendency, which radicalized the non-representational and anti-expressive principles concrete poetry inherited from Constructivism.19 They illustrated how claims like “Concrete poetry does not separate languages; it unites them; it combines them”20 lead in practice to the departure from language altogether. As we will see, this move from a verbal/visual problematic to the ostensible universality of the purely graphic is central to Solt’s Peoplemover posters; her “Moonshot Sonnet,” then, is a prefiguration of these posters’ “back-ideograms.” Its technophilic satire of the sonnet form links concrete poetry’s tendency toward graphic universalism with the popular internationalism that accompanied the 1960s’ mass-mediated race for a God’s eye view of Earth from the moon. By arranging the diagrammatic symbols found in Ranger 7 images into the metric form of a Petrarchan sonnet, Solt’s “poem” replaces the intentional phonetic composition of poetry with the mechanically-given centering lines of aerial photography (fig. 4).21
Ranger 7’s images were meant to evaluate the suitability of the moon’s surface for a spacecraft landing, so the centering lines facilitate measurement. By abstracting these lines from the photographic content they quantify, Solt distills them into the poetic equivalent of information-transfer.22 For the cybernetic information theory essential to the Noigandres group’s notion of poetic meaning is a “nonsemantic, mathematical theory of the capacity of communication channels to transmit data”;23 in its cybernetic sense, “information” has nothing to do with meaning. Solt’s “Moonshot Sonnet” makes this nonsemantic position into a compositional principle that it works out to its limit, achieving a concretion, as it were, of Noigandres concretism’s fantasy of meaning as information transfer. By freeing the metric form of the sonnet from the idiomatic particularity of language, the work not only thematizes the “moonshot” aim of a universal sign system on which concrete poetry stakes its internationalism but also dramatizes the semantic emptiness entailed by this posture’s reliance on information theory. And since “Moonshot Sonnet” is about this emptiness, its highly visual poetic form confronts us with the contradiction posed by concrete poetry’s theoretical commitment to both the semantic plenitude of Pound’s “ideogramic method” and the nonsemantic signal of information theory.24
Four years later in The Peoplemover, Solt’s two-sided posters enact this concretist tendency toward purely graphic, literalist form, and like “Moonshot Sonnet,” The Peoplemover posters relate this literalism to valences of meaning. The “demonstration poem” has nine parts, each of which, except the first and last, uses a different poster as ideographic counterpoint to the libretto’s “tapestry of American words” (P 1). Thus, a problematic concerning the relation of the literal, or merely material, to the semantic is built into The Peoplemover’s counterpoint of ideographic form and verbal performance and, as such, ramifies throughout the work’s “demonstration” of the tumultuous events of 1968. Solt introduces this counterpoint in Part II of The Peoplemover, when a demonstrator carrying the “CIVIL RIGHTS” poster stands at the front of the stage and, at two specific points in the libretto (P 12), flips the poster to display its back-ideogram (fig. 5).
The poster’s front arranges the pun “CIV / ILL / RIOTS” on a monochromatic field which resembles both an upside-down “F”—for “failure” or “freedom”—and an aerial view of a street across which the syntax of the phrase’s pronunciation maps a progression from civility, to social ill, to riots—and (red) blood spilled—in the streets. This composition faces the audience as readers intersperse excerpts from anti-violence speeches by King and Lyndon Johnson with shouts of “BLACK POWER” and “Burn, baby, burn!”—the latter a catchphrase of participants in the Watts riots of 1965 (P 14–15). With this “verbivocovisual” ensemble, Solt takes up the political contradiction between the nonviolent, diplomatic tactics of the Civil Rights Movement and the violent, chaotic tactics of participants in the Watts riot in terms of the counterpoint between historical speech acts and ideographic posters that structures her “demonstration” form.
Solt develops this counterpoint and its variously ramified semantic/material problematic when a protester flips the “CIVIL RIGHTS” poster to reveal its back-ideogram and, in turn, the poster’s two-sided structure (fig. 5). The back-ideogram’s austere black stripes are, like all of the posters’ back-ideograms, “designed as extensions of the lattice wood carrying sticks” and painted with acrylic enamel (P 12); these stripes are the poster’s material support and literalize a relation of instrumental use. This reveal coincides with a reader speaking the word “jail” and follows a recitation of Watts statistics, divided like an accounting table into two sections: the dead, injured, and jailed alongside the total cost of property damage (P 15–16). The poster’s reversal thus extends the spatial and thematic progression of “CIV / ILL / RIOTS” to the brute materiality of a jail cell, as if to contain the former’s de-civilizing declension behind the black bars of the ideogram. And while the poster’s front has a compositional logic that relates verbal and graphic form within an implied frame, the back-ideogram’s blunt repetition of itself as a material support emphasizes its own materiality so that it seems to repel interpretation.25 Like “Moonshot Sonnet,” this austere and self-referential form enacts a shift from the semantic to the literal, as if to stage the Noigandres fantasy of meaning as information-transfer, which is to say a fantasy of meaning as merely given, bracketed from the contestatory social process of interpretation.
Yet The Peoplemover’s posters push this “moonshot” literalism beyond the esoteric bounds of an ironic sonnet. They relativize this literalism as one part of a dramatic whole because their back-ideograms only appear or disappear in relation to the historiographic—and explicitly political—content of the verbal performance. Depending on the moment of verbal performance that Solt pairs with the posters’ front-to-back or back-to-front manipulation, the semantic/material problematic formalized by their two-sided structure takes on a different valence of concrete, political meaning. When a performer flips the “CIVIL RIGHTS” poster to its “JAIL” ideogram, graphic materiality corrodes the sociality of language and, in the context of the libretto’s performance, the violent force of necessity embodied by a rabble corrodes the representational process of liberal-democratic politics—at the same time as this rabble is imprisoned by the economic structure that grounds this political regime. The picture-thinking of Solt’s back-ideograms is analogical: here, Watts shadows the Civil Rights Movement, just as theatricality shadows a formal problematic that grapples with the literalism of a work’s material support. As part of a dramatic whole, these posters inhabit the literalist paradigm of Noigandres information-transfer to try to make meaning out of the political-economic contradictions—and the ominous sense of theatricality, or “Disneyland”—attendant to the New Left protest politics of 1968.
Solt’s posters, along with “Moonshot Sonnet” and her concretism anthology, seem to strike a marked contrast with The Peoplemover’s libretto and the other half of Solt’s oeuvre: her scholarship on William Carlos Williams’s notion of the “American idiom.” The libretto is intent on formalizing distinctly American speech in the spirit of this “idiom,” so the contrast seems to lie between its nationalist particularism and the internationalist universalism of concretism. As we will see, however, this contrast is only apparent. Solt arrives at Noigandres through Williams and arrives at The Peoplemover as an ambitious attempt to unify her grasp of each—ideogram and “idiom”—into a whole. So, before returning to The Peoplemover below, I connect an account of Solt’s Williams scholarship with an earlier, influential critique of Brazilian concretism. This connection clarifies the prosodic and more broadly ontological concerns that shape Solt’s composition of The Peoplemover and are essential to its meaning.
Before and alongside her prolific correspondence with concrete poets around the world, Solt spent the 1960s cultivating a close intellectual friendship with William Carlos Williams and investigating his notion of the “American idiom.” Williams used this enigmatic concept to describe his pursuit of a poetic form that breaks from the “sclerotic” conventions of English poetry and roots itself in authentic American speech patterns.26 In a 1956 letter to Harold Norse, Williams presents the “idiom” as a prosody that has escaped the institutional capture of the academy:
The idiom spoken in America is not taught in our schools but is the property of men and women, which though they do not know it, is one of the greatest modern languages waiting only for a genius of its intrinsic poetry to appear. The difference between it and the language taught to us in our schools is essentially a prosodic one which we have only as yet recognized by ear. The measure is what we refuse to recognize … It is in the measure of our speech, in its prosody, that our idiom is distinctive.27
In resentful opposition to the English departments that ignored his poetry for much of his career, Williams praises what he sees as Norris’s achievement of the “idiom” and concludes the letter on a bittersweet note: “Sometimes there appears to be a justice in literary history.”28 It is precisely this “justice” that Williams felt academia denied his work. At the same time, however, he believed that he could only achieve literary-historical “justice” in his work through the “intrinsic poetry” of the “idiom,” which rejected the Eliotian tradition and metrical structure advocated by New-Critical English departments at midcentury.
Williams’s late-career friendship with Solt flourishes, in part, as an attempt to overcome his exclusion from academia (TTCP 133–34). With his approval and encouragement, Solt investigates the possibility of a systematic account of the “American idiom” across four works of criticism: “Poems in the American Idiom” (1960), “Idiom and Structure” (1962), “The American Idiom” (1983), and finally “Idiom as Cultural Icon” (written last and unpublished until 2010).29 Solt’s project across these essays is to explain two interacting principles of composition in Williams’s poetry, “relative measure” and “variable foot,” which are supposed to allow the “exact” scansion of poems like Williams’s that deliberately elude an exact metrical line count (TTCP 151–52, 143).30 Solt uses these concepts to try to show how Williams’s poems are immanently shaped by a prosody arising from everyday American speech. She claims that this prosody, when handled by the poet, is “capable of achieving a theoretically perfect correspondence in the movement of language to the psychical nuances that give the poem its legitimacy, its truth, as a work of art” (TTCP 143). Solt’s critical acuity draws her repeatedly, however, to the conclusion that Williams’s “idiom” resists the exactitude of prosodic theory. She concludes her 1983 essay, for example, on a warmly ambivalent note when she recounts how Williams “was convinced that he had isolated for himself and for poets to come the ‘radiant gist that / resists the final crystallization,’ a structural principal that he called ‘the American idiom’” (TTCP 155).
While an account of Solt’s conceptual scheme of “relative measures” determined by “variable feet” is beyond the scope of this essay, what Williams’s “idiom” means for Solt in relation to The Peoplemover is actually better illuminated by her attention to the visual aspect of the “idiom”—that is, how Williams invents line breaks to capture and heighten rhythmic events in idiomatic speech (TTCP 143–44). For Solt recounts in 1983 how her fascination with the “structural use of space” in Williams drew her to the visuality of concrete poetry (TTCP 155).31 In an essay also published in 1983, Hugh Kenner notes this visual aspect of the “idiom” when he argues that for Williams, “the event is not the line, the event is the line break.”32 This inventive mediation of the verbal and visual makes the “idiom” a poetics rather than just a notation of speech patterns drawn from life. Williams’s “favorite tension,” Kenner continues, “is between the look of the poem and the sound of it.” Thus, for both Solt and Kenner, Williams’s “idiom” is a highly intuitive project committed to rendering the rhythms of American speech sensuously intelligible and therefore convincing as poetry. Both insist, in this vein, that Williams’s distinctly visual poetic form articulates prosody with what Solt calls “structural use of space.” But as the fascinating yet dry prosodic theory of Solt’s criticism shows, Williams’s poetic form both demands interpretation and remains irreducible to the propositional intelligibility of theoretical knowledge.33
Both the visuality of the “American idiom” and its theoretical difficulties lead Solt to the highly visual and rational form claimed by the Noigandres group. More generally, the common thread here is Solt’s concern with the ontology of the poem as an artwork, that is, the poem’s status as an object bearing a distinctly sensuous intelligibility which is irreducible to, yet necessarily bound up with, the historical progress of theoretical knowledge. As we have seen, “Moonshot Sonnet” exemplifies Solt’s attention to this dialectical relationship between the aesthetic and the theoretical. And by the time Solt discovers concretism, Férreira Gullar has penned a critique of Noigandres in his 1959 “Neo-Concrete Manifesto” that foreshadows and dramatizes these broader concerns about the ontology of artworks. Gullar rejects “concrete art taken to a dangerously rationalist exacerbation,” and argues that:
rationalism robs art of its autonomy and substitutes notions of scientific objectivity for the non-transferable qualities of the artwork: thus the concepts of form, space, time, structure—which in the language of the arts are linked to an existential, emotive, affective meaning—are confounded with the theoretical application that science makes of them.34
Concretism, in other words, tries to collapse into an identity the historically-contingent relation of artists’ intuitive-sensory work to the theoretical-propositional work of the philosopher or the engineer. Gullar sets Noigandres in his sights when he denounces the “rationalist concrete poets who likewise pose the imitation of the machine as an artistic ideal” (NCM 274). As we have seen, this posture tries to evacuate the concretist poem of intuition and expression by understanding it on the model of the signal-transmitting machine, a “useful object” embedded in the commodified circuits of a capitalist mass culture. Gullar’s contention, then, is that while theoretical commitments like those of Noigandres can lead to mechanistic and etiolated aesthetic production, they are secondary to the works themselves, which can overcome the “limits imposed by theory” by unifying form and content into a meaningful whole that evokes conviction independently of an external, theoretical criterion.35
Conviction arises only through interpretation, so the difference Gullar asserts in the “Manifesto” is, as Nicholas Brown has put it, “the difference between the concretist understanding of art as a carrier of information, and the neo-concretist thematization of interpretation as an unavoidable entailment of aesthetic autonomy.”36 Thus Gullar’s “Manifesto” confronts us in 1959 with a specifically concretist version of the line between art and objecthood that Michael Fried draws in his 1967 critique of theatricality in minimalism.37 Fried criticizes the literalizing tendency in minimalist sculpture to privilege the spectator’s experience of the work over an immanent formal coherence. According to Fried, while the modernist artwork attempts to hermeticize itself, evoke conviction, and thereby demand interpretation, minimalist sculpture refuses internal coherence and panders to the response of the spectator, giving rise to the anti-art quality of Friedian theatricality. And for Brown, Fried’s line between art and objecthood is more substantially the line between the autonomous artwork and the mere art commodity.38 Thus Gullar’s and Fried’s defenses of high modernist formalism—in Brazilian neo-concretism and U.S. abstract expressionism, respectively—constitute a defense of the instrumentally useless immanent purposiveness that, in objects produced in capitalism, marks the artwork as the unemphatic other to a world of useful objects produced to meet the anonymous desires of the market.39 Gullar’s “Neo-Concrete” aesthetic is therefore less of a revolutionary break from concretism than it is a recognition of the social ontology of the artwork that emerges with industrial capitalism in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.
The criterion of this social ontology is aesthetic autonomy: the formal quality of instrumental uselessness that Kant identifies as the purposiveness without purpose found in all beautiful objects and that Hegel revises as purposiveness without external purpose, thus introducing the frame and making this criterion immanent to human artifacts.40 As such, autonomous artworks have immanent formal criteria: they satisfy the form/content conventions they set for themselves and in this way demand judgements that bracket the contingent subjective responses of their beholders. Friedian theatricality is therefore a symptom of the commodity form’s impingement on the institution of art. Grasped in this way, art is a contestational haven for the actualization of intention—which is to say meaning—in a capitalist lifeworld whose market-dominated social metabolism demands that art commodities mean whatever their beholders want them to mean, as long as they sell.
Returning now to The Peoplemover, Solt puts Williams’s “idiom” to the test of aesthetic practice, rather than theoretical investigation, and in direct relation to concretist technique. She refers to Williams’s “search for the American idiom” in her foreword and recalls composing the libretto with the conviction that “there must be an authentic, fragmented poem in the utterances of the people deeply involved in the events of 1968.” Solt tries to achieve this “poem” by imposing a fragmentary prosodic and spatial arrangement onto speech acts quoted from across American history (e.g., fig 6).
The libretto consists in short and occasionally indented lines which, like Williams’s later poems that use indentation but do not conform to the triadic structure of the stepped-line,41 seem intent on creating a visual form whose movement “is distinguished in each case by the character of the speech from which it arises.”42 Solt’s use of indentation seems to notate pauses that convey the oratorical intensity of the libretto’s collage of political rhetoric. And while a detailed metrical analysis of the libretto might prove fruitful, its relation to the The Peoplemover’s dramatic form as a whole actually makes the question of its poetic success ontologically ambiguous. This is because while Williams’s “idiom” consists in an inventive tension between the way a poem sounds (authentic American speech patterns) and the way a poem looks (the line break as the rhythmic event), the libretto’s extensive stage directions demand a performance that pulls the text off the page. The libretto demands to be interpreted like a musical score. Which is to say that despite Solt’s aspiration to the distinctly visual poetics of Williams’s “idiom,” the libretto’s appearance on the page is only a means to its ultimately non-visual meaning as a spoken part of the “demonstration poem.”
Solt’s posters pose a concretist solution to this ambiguity generated by the libretto because, within the dramatic whole of the work, they stand in for the libretto’s visual aspect. Held aloft and manipulated by demonstrators milling around the stage, they are how the poem looks, but as such, they relate only to the libretto’s historiographic content and not to its metrical form. So apart from its relation to the posters, The Peoplemover’s libretto is theatrical: without a coherent internal organization, it is a collage of American political discourse that does not convincingly hold on its own.43 This means that Solt’s attempt at the “American idiom” produces a redundancy that dramatizes the immanent purposiveness of the work’s “demonstration” form while sewing theatricality within it. This theatrical aspect of The Peoplemover hangs together with the work’s attempt at concretizing the events of 1968: an attempt that proves intrinsically related to the pressure of commodification on the artwork’s capacity to mean.
Part III of The Peoplemover develops its “demonstration” form’s relation to commodification by taking up the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC). A multiracial movement for economic justice formed by Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the PPC marched on Washington in 1968 and constructed a protest camp called “Resurrection City” on the National Mall. The Peoplemover’s turn to the PPC suggests a mediation of the political contradiction between force and diplomacy developed in Part II because, as King noted in 1967, the campaign was a “middle ground between riots on the one hand and timid supplications for justice on the other.”44 More than this, however, Part III marks a shift from the Civil Rights Movement’s fight against discriminatory inequality to the PPC’s fight against market-generated class inequality. For while the Civil Rights Movement’s emphasis on desegregation, the right to vote, and affirmative action posed no immediate threat to liberal capitalism’s reproduction of class-based inequality, the PPC’s platform was rooted in a universalist principle of decommodification that fundamentally challenged the market.45 So when The Peoplemover takes up the PPC, the historicity of its neo-avant-gardiste tension between art and anti-art—immanently purposive “demonstration” and theatrical demonstration—emerges with more clarity in relation to the commodity form.
When a performer recites a line from an eighteenth-century petition for fair taxes: “The poor inhabitants in / general / are / much op- / press’d” (P 25), a demonstrator flips the poster displayed throughout Part II to reveal its back-ideogram (fig. 7).
This ideogram distills themes of poverty, necessity, and action into graphic form. Its superimposition of multi-colored—multi-racial—handprints on black, rectilinear scaffolding depicts a blockage or distance between these hands and the square toward which they grasp.46 The green background evokes Resurrection City’s location on the National Mall, and footprints along the sides suggest passersby whose measured steps contrast with the hands’ assembled urgency. Accordingly, this ideogram’s display coincides with excerpts from a Robert Kennedy speech decrying public ambivalence and ignorance toward poverty (P 26).
As in all of The Peoplemover posters, an ideographic handling of the poster’s back scaffolding produces a literal and instrumentalizing effect. But in the context of the thematic emergence of the market, as The Peoplemover shifts from the Civil Rights Movement to the PPC, we can now grasp the back-scaffolding’s literalism more specifically as an index of the commodity form’s concrete dimension: use value. The black square of scaffolding the hands reach for is the least depictive form to appear in any of posters’ back-ideograms because it is emphatically concrete in the most general sense. It represents the material necessities—the use values—that the market’s absolutization of exchange-value structurally forces the working poor to obtain by fighting among themselves or by organizing as a whole to fight capitalist exploitation. This superimposition of hands over and before the black square of scaffolding allegorizes decommodification because it asserts that the square of scaffolding is not merely the material support of the poster and, in turn, that use-value is not merely the material support of exchange-value. In this way, the poster disrupts the two-sided structure—with back-ideograms composed entirely of scaffolding made from extensions of the posters’ sign handles—that otherwise remains consistent throughout all of The Peoplemover. That is, by disrupting the semantic/material problematic that structures its engagement with concretist form, The Peoplemover tries to express, in the terms its “demonstration” form sets for itself, how the PPC posed a potential disruption to liberal capitalism’s market-mediated reproduction of the commodity form.
The PPC, however, disrupted very little. Life in Resurrection City was mostly a disorganized mess, and by late June of 1968, police evicted its inhabitants and destroyed their structures.47 The Johnson administration could easily ignore the PPC’s economic demands because the campaign wielded little economic power. The PPC approached the state as lobbyists with the symbolic power of prominent Civil Rights leaders and a protest camp. As if enacting the inevitable foreclosure of the PPC’s radical intentions, the “RESURRECTION CITY” ideogram is quickly turned away from the audience. With the front of the poster again visible, excerpts from King’s rousing but less radical “I Have a Dream” speech—thematizing abstractions of “freedom” and “heaven” instead of concrete economic transformations—are read in the call-and-response manner of a sermon for the remainder of Part III (P 27–35). This dissolve of the PPC’s fleeting Left-radicalism into struggles more removed from economic transformation continues throughout The Peoplemover’s next four parts (P 37–84), which incorporate themes concerning the Vietnam War, the 1968 presidential election, and the Robert Kennedy assassination into its “demonstration” form (e.g., figs. 8 and 9). A demonstrator reveals the “JET PEACE” back-ideogram, for example, after a Robert Kennedy speech declaring the “mis- / guided / policies” of the war to be “at / root a / question / of the / national / soul” (P 44). The moralizing symbolism continues as a Lincoln excerpt accompanies this ideogram and concludes Part IV with an invocation of “the / better / angels / of / our / nature” (P 45).
The penultimate Part VIII presents a long excerpt from a speech Robert Kennedy gave the day after King’s assassination (P 87-93). Kennedy meant to placate riots erupting around the country, and the poster accompanying this speech excerpt uses typographical manipulations to render explicit the triumph of liberal capitalism in 1968 (fig. 10).
By saturating the command “change the American environment” with colorful homonymic play about the assassinations of 1968 that, from King to Kennedy, likewise saturated mass media, this poster presents a pastiche—and set in Futura, almost a caricature—of Noigandres technique. Part VIII concludes when readers shout “CHANGE AMERICAN DOLLARS” in unison to pun the qualitative “change” on the poster’s front into the quantitative and monetary. At the same time, a demonstrator reverses the poster, and its “DOLLARS” back-ideogram draws us into the register of Guy Debord’s 1967 provocation that “spectacle is capital accumulated to the point that it becomes image.”48 With this evocation of the “real subsumption” of the work of art under the commodity form,49 the “AMERICAN ENVIRONMENT” marks the arrival of The Peoplemover’s immanent development at “the world of fantasy and fake history” surveyed by its namesake, the Disneyland conveyance. Part VIII, in other words, explicitly links The Peoplemover posters’ two-sided structure to the commodity form50 and illuminates the aesthetic overlap between DeBordian spectacle and the information theory central to Noigandres concretism: both intend the production of sure-fire or infallible effects—consumer titillation and signal reproduction from one point to another—that have nothing necessarily to do with meaning but instead with quantitative concerns of efficiency and profit.
Gone are the grasping hands that, in “RESURRECTION CITY,” broke into the austere and formalistic fields of The Peoplemover’s back-ideograms. These forms only fleetingly inflect the posters’ art-institutional problematic of semantic content and material support that, by this point, Solt has explicitly rendered immanent to the commodity form. Which is to say that the one instance in which resistance to the market appears to gain popular and institutional force in 1968 registers as a blip—the desperately grasping hands of the PPC—in a narrative whose endpoint in Part VIII is an acknowledgement of the cultural field’s heteronomy to the market. These hands are necessarily a thematization (depicted use-value) and not a literalization (actual use) of the historical avant-garde’s project of dissolving the institution of art into a revolutionary social field because this social field never emerges in the 1968 U.S. Which is another way of stating the obvious: that The Peoplemover is an experimental poem circulated within an art-institutional setting, and it is not—although it is about the idea of—a work of propaganda put to popular and revolutionary use in the streets.
The historicity of The Peoplemover’s form as an artwork, then, lies in the way that its neo-avant-gardisme reflects on its own immanence to the commodity form and, for a moment (albeit a moment quickly foreclosed), tries to look beyond this immanence. For in the absence of a revolutionary social field and its concrete political alternatives to neoliberal marketization, the avant-gardiste intention to merge art and life can only result in the “non-art heteronomy of the art commodity.”51 We have seen how The Peoplemover tries to organize both this neo-avant-gardiste intention and a critical reflection on market heteronomy within its “demonstration” form. Not only does Solt’s attempt at achieving the “American idiom” amount to little more than a graphically embellished recitation of political speechwriting; she also expresses a recognition of her neo-avant-gardiste work’s immanence to the commodity form in her framing reference to Disneyland’s Peoplemover conveyance: literally the material support for a capital-valorizing Gesamptkunstwerk.52 Solt’s “demonstration,” then, entails a contradictory commitment to both the anti-art theatricality of political performance art and the art-institutional problematic of concretely mediating the visual and verbal. The Peoplemover produces a critical standpoint on this neo-avant-gardiste contradiction because its “demonstration” form generates a meaning that is precisely about the pressure of commodity-theatricality—that is to say meaninglessness—on the cultural formation of the neo-avant-garde.
At a higher level of abstraction, we can link Solt’s critical neo-avant-gardisme to the predicament of the New Left vis-à-vis institutions and the market. Many have told the story of this predicament, in which fragmentary New Left protest politics emerge in the sixties largely as an accommodation—rather than a challenge—to the neoliberal onslaught of marketization. The New Left’s strategic leveling of liberal fights (for equality of opportunity in market-driven institutions) with socialist fights (for revolutionizing market-driven institutions according to principles of decommodification and redistribution) has, as our neoliberal moment of decimated union density and unprecedented inequality illustrates, overseen the wholesale sacrifice of institutions to the market. Whether the weight of this story’s analysis falls on the concrete history of agents engaged in class struggle,53 on these agents’ subjection to abstract processes of capital accumulation,54 or on the macroeconomic articulation of these standpoints,55 the market’s absolutization of value as the external criterion for all social life has largely emerged victorious over the immanent criteria of institutions. So, in 1968, The Peoplemover indexes this emergent predicament in terms of its ambivalent relation to the institution of art, at once dissolving art into life—which in the absence of a revolutionary social field dissolves aesthetic autonomy into market-heteronomy—and recontaining this dissolve within an art-institutional problematic structured by the commodity form.56 In this way, The Peoplemover achieves a moment of aesthetic autonomy from within its neo-avant-garde “demonstration” form, whose subsumption within commodity-heteronomy it momentarily acknowledges as intrinsic to its problematic, and thus attempts to sublate in unemphatic, formalist terms.
By the final Part IX, however, this formal problematic of the “demonstration poem” dissolves because there is no graphic counterpoint to the libretto apart from four cubes on sticks that spell out “1968” (P 95). Solt’s “American idiom,” unsuccessful in itself but formally intrinsic, overwhelms the “demonstration” as the longest arrangement of speech excerpts yet—collaging Eisenhower, Lincoln, Washington, King, and so on—burgeons with rhetoric about crisis, responsibility, and rejuvenation (P 95–113).57 Demonstrators continue to march around the stage from which the readers perform this drawn-out recitation of phrases from great American politicians. As if reaching for a notion of American identity in over-accumulated political rhetoric while also, and perhaps inadvertently, staging the abstract emptiness of this identity, The Peoplemover concludes with a shout of “Let us move / PEOPLE” and the instruction to play “music suitable to the patriotic occasion” (P 113). As performers merge with the audience in an all-encompassing demonstration, the autonomy of Solt’s “demonstration” cedes to the theatricality of her attempt at the “American idiom.” So, while Solt achieves a critical index of the art and politics of 1968 in her “demonstration” form, the ultimate dissolution of this form is both an aesthetic shortcoming and an artifact of foreclosed political hope. That is, Solt’s attempt at the “American idiom” does not hold on its own, and in the context of the early- to mid-1970s when Solt writes the libretto, it seems to be a naive reaction to the center-right patriotism of Nixon and his “Silent Majority.”58 Thus, in the absence of a revolutionary social field, The Peoplemover ultimately opens to the contingent responses of its milling beholders, “liberating” the complex senses of 1968 that emerge through its “demonstration” form just as the market “liberates” the consumer of commodified culture with calls to participate, make your voice heard, and demonstrate.