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Totaling the Damage: Revolutionary Ambition in Recent American Poetry

All around us the bodies rose out of the stone, crowded into groups, intertwined, or shattered into fragments, hinting at their shapes with a torso, a propped up arm, a burst hip, a scabbed shard, always in warlike gestures, dodging, rebounding, attacking, shielding themselves, stretched high or crooked, some of them snuffed out, but with a freestanding, forward-pressing foot, a twisted back, the contour of a calf harnessed into a single common motion.  A gigantic wrestling, emerging from the gray wall, recalling a perfection, sinking back into formlessness.1

Some readers will recognize this passage as the opening of the first volume of Peter Weiss’s novel trilogy, The Aesthetics of Resistance, published in German in 1975. We’ll return to it in a moment. Now here is a different description of the same bodies rising out of stone, this passage focused on a single group of figures, in this case, given their names, starting with:

the giant Alkyoneus whose head…is seen to be wrenched back by the hand of the Olympian paragon, Athene, who is about to destroy him.  Alkyoneus’s right hand grasps the fatal right hand of Athene. His left arm is stretched out in hopeless appeal to his gigantic but only partially realized (eidetically incomplete) Mother Earth. Nike has appeared to crown the Olympian.2

These stone figures, belonging to the war between the Olympian gods and the Titans and Giants, form the great frieze of the Pergamon Altar, housed at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.  The second description, published roughly three decades after Weiss’s novel, in 2002, is from the poet Allen Grossman’s essay, “The Passion of Laocoön: Warfare of the Religious against the Poetic Institution,” in which Grossman argues that the face of the giant Alkyoneus is a model for that of the central figure in the famous (and two centuries later) statue of the Trojan priest Laocoön, punished for prophesying the fall of Troy. In the sculpture, we find him in agony as he is destroyed, along with his younger son, by a giant serpent, while the elder son looks on. At the same time, Grossman argues, the faces of both Alkyoneus and Laocoön represent a type that we see in multiple depictions, spanning many centuries, of the face of the poet Homer. For Grossman, the giant in the frieze is an archetype, moreover, not just of Homer but of the poet in general.  What this means for poetry is that the face — more precisely, the practice of recognizing the face and giving it form — is at the center of the work the poet is called upon to do:  “The practice of poetry,” he writes, “makes faces manifest and is constituted of the faces it manifests.”3 What, then, is it that makes the giant Alkyoneus, the priest Laocoön, and the poet Homer, alike in what their faces manifest?

One answer, Grossman argues, and we see this particularly in the case of Laocoön, is pain (hence the “passion” of the essay’s title). The pain on both figures’ faces, moreover, refers us to something else, something that we know about Laocoön even though we don’t see it in the statue itself, and something that we do see — that we see depicted – in the Pergamon Altar, not only in the Alkyoneus panel, but in every panel of the frieze: the overturning of one “institution” (as Grossman terms it) by another. In both cases, whether it’s the Giants who stand for unassimilable chaos under the Olympian order and must therefore be killed or forced underground, or else the Trojans who are predestined by the Gods’ internecine rivalry to be defeated by the Greeks, “the Laocoön narrative” by which Grossman means the type that the Laocoön represents, “specifies the crisis that gives rise to new representation. Pain locates that moment: the moment of the superseding of one institution that grounds representation by another.”4

The un-grounding of representation in the violent overturning of one institutional order by another – in other words, the un-grounding of representation through what surely qualifies, at least in Grossman’s account, as a form of domination – also leads him to argue that the beings who suffer defeat become the archetype of another crisis, conceived in different terms, in terms, that is, of “scarcity”:  what Grossman calls the “exclusionary difference that effects recognition” also “produces the archetype of economic scarcity. . .scarcity of what constitutes the human interest, the image.”5 (Grossman). What does it mean for our contemporary poetic practice, and for what we might take to be its politics, to see “eidetic” scarcity as “the archetype of economic scarcity”? Is conflict over the latter — what we might also call class conflict — at bottom a conflict over representation? Could something like eidetic justice bring about economic justice?

The struggles through which some (the Giants in the Theogony, for instance) are excluded from civilization and thereby from representation, extend, according to Grossman, from moments in which differences in kind (gods versus giants, divine versus human) are, as he puts it, “unfixed.” These are imagined, as we’ve already begun to see, as struggles over a resource that is precisely eidetic – that of image-making.   And the struggle over image-making very quickly becomes synonymous for Grossman with a struggle over identity as such. It is, he argues, the source of our terminologies of difference – not just of differences like the human versus the divine, but one kind of human versus another kind:

After the first unrepresented moment (the beginning of the world), which unfixed the difference of divinity, there follows the cosmic (i.e., general) conflict — Olympian against chthonian — which, in order to restore that difference or its effect, supplies the (unstable) terms — race, class, and gender — by which the recognizability of the face (its value, acknowledged, its intelligibility determined) is narrated.6

Part of the point that Grossman means to make about the poetic imperative to acknowledge – to manifest, to name, to recognize, and above all to value and give form – is that it’s not confined to the representation of giants or Trojans, but extends across the entire history of poetry as a “civilizational” undertaking.7  It must extend, in other words to all subjects, both beloved and abject, and so it must extend to poets in all times.  Indeed, at the time Grossman was writing “The Passion of Laocoön,” the “unstable” terms of identity (“race, class, gender” in his terms) that he understands to be supplied by an ongoing crisis of recognition were – and they obviously continue to be – at the center of our contemporary institutional struggles, including those within the much narrower precincts of contemporary American poetry.  Here I want to try to trace out what it might mean to think one step further, and ask what exactly the economic meaning of scarcity would be in the context our contemporary institutional concerns, and to put my earlier question somewhat differently: if we could imagine something like a just redistribution of the image, what would be economically different?  Can utopian ends be achieved by what Grossman thinks of as eidetic means?

If we return now to The Aesthetics of Resistance, we can begin to see where the limits of this form of poetic justice might reside, and precisely in terms of economic scarcity.  When Weiss’s novel opens with the same figures in the Pergamon frieze that Grossman connects to Laocoön and Homer, its depiction of the Olympians destroying the giants also provokes a recognition. The first-person narrator stands in the museum with his two comrades – the three are young communists from the working class living in Berlin, and the scene takes place “on september twenty-second, nineteen thirty-seven,” as he is “about to leave for Spain,” where fascism is about to win out, as it already has in Germany since the Nazi takeover in 1933.8   What the narrator sees, just as what Grossman sees (and for that matter, what Alkyoneus sees, what Laocoön sees, and what Homer sees), is one group of beings overpowering another group. And in seeing the figures in this way, the narrator also sees the beings overthrown as fundamentally different – that is, different in kind – from the beings who overthrow them.  This recognition occurs, moreover, precisely at a moment when the narrator looks closely at a face – not the face of one of the stone figures, but the face of his friend and comrade:  “Heilmann’s bright face, with its regular features, bushy eyebrows, and high forehead, had turned to the demoness of the earth. . . .She had given birth to the Giants, the Titans, the Cyclopes, and the Furies.  This was our race.”9 To look at the features of Heilmann’s face in this physiognomic way, where, I should add, we also cannot help but see the phrenological mindset that helped to shape Nazi racial taxonomy, is, in other words, to see Heilmann’s “race” in his face.  At this moment the kinship between the young revolutionaries in the novel and the brutalized giants in the frieze appears to be a form of racial solidarity.  But as the three comrades continue to discuss the work before them, we quickly find that what is meant in saying  “This was our race” entails for them a very different kinship, a brotherhood of another kind.

The conversation unfolds around what this stone frieze, in whose “silence,” the narrator tells us, “the paralysis of those fated to be trampled to the ground continued to be palpable,” might mean to those viewing it in the novel’s present (that is, in Berlin in 1937):  “And has this mass of stone,” one of the friends asks, “which served the cult of princely and religious masters of ceremony, who glorified the victory of the aristocrats over an earthbound mix of nations — has this mass of stone now become a value in its own right, belonging to anyone who steps in front of it.”10 The logic whereby the stone of the Pergamon altar can be said to “belong” to anyone becomes clearer as Heilmann begins to elaborate on the social order of the ancient city of Pergamum itself and to imagine the altar viewed not only by the ruling class for whom it is made, but by the workers who do the making:

They, the real bearers of the Ionian state, unable to read or write, excluded from artistic activity, were only good enough to create wealth for a small privileged stratum and the necessary leisure for the elite of the mind.  The existence of the celestials was unattainable for them, but they could recognize themselves in the kneeling imbruted creatures.  The latter, in crudeness, degradation, and maltreatment, bore their features. The portrayal of the gods in flight and of the annihilation of urgent danger expressed not the struggle of good against evil, but the struggle between the classes, and this was recognized not only in our present-day viewing but perhaps also back then in secret glimpses by serfs.11

Whether, then, we imagine the viewer of the “imbruted creatures” in the frieze to be a serf in Pergamum or a worker in Nazi Germany, the idea that one might see in them one’s “Geschlect” (“Dies war unser Geschlecht”) means recognizing them not so much as members of one’s race or even of one’s family (or house, or lineage, to call upon some of the related connotations of the term), but as members of one’s class.12  Or perhaps a better way to put it would be to say that the young communists in the novel see themselves as belonging to the same “Geschlecht” as the ancient serfs only because they see themselves as members of the same class. It’s important that the stone figures’ “features,” which is the same word as appears in the earlier description of Heilmann’s face, is also repeated (Züge) in both passages in the German text. It’s also important that here the “features” that the young men recognize themselves to share are not eyebrows and bone structure, but “degradation” and “maltreatment.” The ties that bind the ancient generation of serfs to the present generation of workers are those of exploitation. For the narrator’s friend, Heilmann, it’s this recognition – that the extraction of value from the labor of serfs in the 2nd century is in some fundamental way the same as the extraction of value from the worker in 1937 – that the work of art itself makes legible.  But if, for the young communists, this recognition is a precondition of their politics and the task the novel puts to them is to discover its aesthetics, what then does an aesthetics of resistance look like in our own time?

We can begin to answer that question by noting the high and still growing level of interest in the very question of finding political value in art in American poetic discourse, especially in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 and the increasing attention we’ve seen paid to economic inequality, which, as anyone reading this is no doubt aware, is at its highest since the Gilded Age. The conjunction of poetry with crisis in the title of Christopher Nealon’s 2011 book, The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century indexes what I take to be a general state of affairs in contemporary American poetry, particularly for poets in the generation born roughly between 1960 and 1980 who think of themselves both as aesthetically ambitious and ambitiously anticapitalist.13 For them this state of affairs has presented a problem which we can put in the form of a question: What should the revolutionary poet be doing, when crisis – whether it be economic, social, environmental, or for that matter, aesthetic – appears increasingly frequent, inevitable, and irreversible? Or to ask the question in a slightly different form: What poetic forms do these conditions of crisis seem to require?

As it turns out, when looking at the work produced by poets of such ambitions in our current century, it’s almost easier to describe what forms they think their poems cannot take. Pointing at the previous generation’s hallmark techniques is of course one way to do this. The body of work that has served as the point of departure and resistance for so much of the politically ambitious poetry of our current moment has been what many to consider to be among the most politically ambitious avant-gardes in American poetry in the latter part of the 20th century, namely that which acquired the moniker of “Language” writing starting in the mid- to late 70s and achieved a certain prominence from the mid 80s through most of the 90s. The movement lost its avant-garde credentials in the late 90s, however, as central figures like Lyn Hejinian and Charles Bernstein began to acquire the same stamps of legitimation – major national and international literary prizes, named professorships at elite universities, large press and wide-circulation magazine publication – as the poets of “official verse culture” from whom they had spent their careers differentiating themselves. The now defunct academic journal Lingua Franca  helped to ring the death knell when it ran a cover story with the title “Verse vs. Verse: The Language Poets are Taking over the Academy, but Will Success Destroy Their Integrity” and pointed, among other evidence, to Charles Bernstein’s appearance in a Yellow Pages ad that ran during the 1999 Super Bowl.14 Even the Language poets themselves took notice of their own obsolescence. As one of the voices in the title poem of Bob Perelman’s 2006 volume IFLIFE proclaims, “the gestures that Language poetry triumphantly said were still radical are super codified now.”15

But after the fall of Language poetry came the fall of the World Trade Center and then of Lehman Brothers, and the problems with the poetry of the previous generation started to look like a matter of political as well as aesthetic collapse. If Language poetry could appear to some as if it had simply run its course – as the poet Kenneth Goldsmith asks in an interview, explicitly in reference to Language writing, “Should we continue to pound language into ever smaller bits, or should we take some other approach?” – it had also begun to appear more reactionary than radical.16 Indeed, for critics like Brian Reed, new techniques like Goldsmith’s particular brand of conceptualism appeared necessary precisely because the old techniques looked indistinguishable from the opposition, both as a style and as a politics. The disjunctive syntax and semantic ruptures that had typified the most radical experiments of the Language writers in the 70s and 80s could now be found in the pages of Poetry as well as, Reed argues, the speeches of then-President Bush”:

After 9/11 many assumptions and practices that defined the late twentieth-century American, British, and Canadian poetic avant-gardes […] began to appear outmoded, even defanged. With grammar-mangling, fragment-spouting George W. Bush on television every night arguing for war, how could a leftist poet in good conscience continue to advocate anacoluthon, solecism, and other varieties of non-normative English usage as tools to achieve utopian ends? 17

Of course, outmoded is one thing; defanged is another. If your dress is so 5 minutes ago, you can look for a new design.   Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that, following the proliferation of free market ideology that so notoriously characterized the decades since the advent of the Language movement and has only intensified in the years since their demise, one of the striking features of the first decade and a half of poetic production in our millennium has been its emphasis on innovation. One the one hand we’ve seen the rapid succession of movements, collectives and manifestos (conceptualism, Flarf, Mainstream poetry, the Black Took Collective, Gnoetry, Gurlesque, necropastoral), and on the other, the renewal and rebranding of older forms: the pantoum is the new villanelle, the cross-out is the new erasure, the concrete poem is the new collage. But if innovation as such is hardly a means to achieve left utopian ends — that is, if innovation is hardly the means to resist capitalism — where then, in the age of what Nicholas Brown has identified as the work of art’s “real subsumption under capital,” can a young poet find a sharp set of teeth?18

Timothy Donnelly, in his 2010 volume The Cloud Corporation, presents us with a vision of the poet as one who, in order to sing proper songs of resistance in a world of underwater mortgages, corporate personhood, and state-sponsored terrorism, seems to require the aid of a sharp object. While the volume is composed of ostensibly discrete lyrics, together they also form an epic narrative, in which the recurring first-person speaker appears in most of the poems in various states of inactivity, much like Achilles sulking in his tent. Only instead of refusing to enter battle, he finds his throat constricted, and instead of seething with anger, varying states of numbness are the only feelings available to him: “I have been held down / by the throat and terrified / numb enough to know. / The temperature at which no bird can thrive –.”19 The story told across the epic arc of this poem is the story of Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking,” the paradigmatic tale of the lyric poet discovering his vocation. Following many variant states of inactivity and anesthesia, including, at the end of one poem, “discovering me asleep on my own weapon, a threat to no one but myself,” it is only in the very last lines of the last poem of the volume that the speaker has not only awakened to his calling but appears capable of fulfilling it.20 He imagines three different doors opening onto three different “opportunity rooms”:

. . . it’s the third I like best, the one

behind which opens a meadow, vast, and in it, grazing
on buttercups, an errant heifer with a wounded foot,

its bloody hoofprints followed by a curious shepherd back
to something sharp in the grass, the point of a long

sword which, unearthed, the shepherd now polishes with
his rodent-skin tunic[. . .]

[. . .] a gift for me, a task, an instrument to lay
waste to the empire now placed before me at my feet.21

It matters here that the “task” of the vocation comes by way of a shepherd, for in one of the foundational texts of the Western poetic tradition – the one to which I’ve already alluded through the images depicted in the Pergamon Altar and to which Donnelly’s volume insistently pays homage, the tradition that gives us both epic and lyric – it’s famously a shepherd, Hesiod, who finds himself one day in receipt of a staff handed to him by the muses and is commanded thereby to sing. Here, in Donnelly’s version, we have Hesiod transformed into Attila the Hun, delivered a sword, not a staff. Of course, the song Hesiod sings is the Theogony, in which the Olympian gods seize power over the cosmos by overthrowing the chthonians. In this latter-day cosmic allegory, it’s the “Cloud Corporation” – capitalism itself – that stands in for the Olympian gods, and the poet as Attila, awake and no longer a pathetic threat to himself, stands poised with his “instrument” to “lay waste to the[ir] empire.” But what’s also striking about this moment is that despite the fact that our man has been given arms and a mandate to sing, this epic lyric leaves us on a threshold, with only a prospect and, seemingly, no final achievement. We end in suspension, awaiting both the battle the song that will sing of it.

In this respect Donnelly’s poem shares in what Christopher Nealon identifies in his 2004 essay, “Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late, Late Capitalism” as a tendency among poets writing in response to “the ‘damaged’ material life” of “late capitalism.”22 It’s a tendency that Nealon calls a “posture.”23 And while I would not include Donnelly in what Nealon terms more precisely the “camp posture” that he locates, for example, in the work of Lisa Robertson, Kevin Davies, and Rod Smith – which is to say, I wouldn’t describe Donnelly’s work as “camp” – I think Nealon describes quite accurately what Donnelly does share of this posture and inadvertently points to the fundamental problem with it. For as Nealon puts it, these poets “expend their considerable talents on making articulate the ways which, as they look around, they see waiting.24 Indeed, in all of these instances, the waiting counts as a poetic success because what matters is not what we are waiting for but the attitude we adopt in our waiting. Camp is an especially popular one, but melancholy and sadness have their attractions, and so does anger. Indeed, Donnelly’s Attila completes the poem not when he takes up the sword (he’s had it in his possession all along), but when, as the poem insists, through repeated iterations of the phrase “I feel,” the speaker becomes capable of an attitude, in this case anger, for which expression the sword potentially has some use. But it’s the attitude itself and, as the speaker says, the “gift for me” of the means to express it, that matters in the end. Political resistance, under this dispensation, requires no action, only attitude. Poetry is a way to have an attitude, and the “task” of the poet is to express it.

Whether this is a good thing for either poetry or politics can for the moment remain an open question, although by the end of this essay I hope it will be clear that I believe it’s not, and why it’s not. One way to pose the problem is to return it to Allen Grossman’s terms and ask whether the kind of expression imagined by Donnelly counts as (in Grossman’s terms) a kind of eidetic justice and to ask further what relation eidetic justice might have to redistributive justice – how, in other words, it might address the problem of scarcity. But it’s important to see that whether good or bad, the way Donnelly and Nealon – and I would add poets like Juliana Spahr, Joshua Clover, Jasper Bernes, and Dana Ward – understand what counts as an aesthetics of resistance is not the only way we have to understand it.25 But to begin to see the alternative, I want to look at the work of a poet with three much lauded volumes to his credit, but whose most immediate relevance to this discussion may seem at first invisible, because the work I want to discuss is a novel.

Everywhere in Ben Lerner’s 10:04: A Novel we find what we could easily call, borrowing from Nealon’s deployment of the phrase, “damaged material life.” The novel is set in New York, beginning in August of 2011, just before the Occupy protests would gain momentum, at the time when emergency preparations were underway in anticipation of another landfall for Hurricane Irene.26   In its opening pages, the narrator is about to attend an auction of his as yet unwritten novel in hopes of a six-figure advance (which he will get), and by the end the reader has realized that the novel she has just finished (10:04) is the novel for which the narrator received the advance. The plot of 10:04 is thus predicated on the fate of 10:04 itself, which, throughout its pages – that is, even as we are reading it – looms as a potential crisis. And the potential crisis is both aesthetic (will the novel be bad?), and financial (will the press reject it, leaving the author to be sued for the advance, which he will have spent?). Furthermore, throughout the story, even as we confront the looming economic and ecological crises represented by the two hurricanes, the narrator himself is suffering from a vascular condition in which his aorta could explode at any moment and kill him instantaneously. In another story within the story, the narrator of the novel the narrator is writing faces a different, but equally looming bodily threat, a sinus growth that could become malignant and destroy his brain function. Along the way, lesser and greater crises of scarcity arise – in the novel’s present one of the characters is unemployed and her health insurance is running out just as she faces an expensive and medically necessary wisdom tooth extraction; and as the narrator points out, the conditions that threaten to submerge Manhattan when the hurricanes make landfall, are the same climate changes that with respect to the future mean “[a]lmost half of humanity will face water scarcity by 2030.”27 More generally, the novel tends to understand every crisis happening to the narrator as part of something larger or, as he himself puts it, “to figure the global apocalyptically.”28

For our purposes, what matters is that the apocalyptic itself is being figured globally, that the crises and damages the characters envision and worry over are catastrophic to the point of being – as Lerner repeatedly insists – “total.” And it’s with respect to the idea of “total damage” (which is something quite different from, indeed almost exactly the opposite of, “material damage”) – that 10:04: A Novel, is able to conjoin crisis with literature (and more specifically, as we’ll see, with poetry), and to articulate an aesthetics of resistance very different from, and from my standpoint more convincing than, the postures adopted by Donnelly, Nealon, and many others in our current field of poetic production.

“Totaled” is, in fact, the term the novel uses, and it occurs most strikingly in an episode that takes place with the narrator’s artist-friend-slash-sometimes-girlfriend. It probably matters, too that this episode occurs in the third of the novel’s five sections, at its very midpoint. The friends are in the process of creating what they will call “The Institute for Totaled Art”:

Along with an artist friend of hers, Peter, who also had a law degree, Alena had been working on a project — not an art project, she kept insisting — that she’d often described to me, but which I’d always largely dismissed as fantasy: she and Peter were in the process of trying to convince the largest insurer of art in the country to give them some of its “totaled” art. When a valuable painting is damaged in transit or a fire or flood, vandalized, etc., and an appraiser agrees with the owner of a work that the work cannot be satisfactorily restored, or that the cost of restoration would exceed the value of the claim, then the insurance company pays out the total value of the damaged work, which is then legally declared to have “zero value.” When Alena asked me what I thought happened to the totaled art, I told her I assumed that the damaged work was destroyed, but, as it turned out, the insurer had a giant warehouse on Long Island full of these indeterminate objects: works by artists, many of them famous, that, after suffering one kind of damage or another, were formally demoted from art to mere objecthood and banned from circulation, removed from the market, relegated to this strange limbo.29

What the novel gives us if we read closely here – and if we miss it, by the time we reach the final sentence of 10:04 we’ve been carefully instructed to see it – is a lesson in the difference between art and objecthood by way of what it means for something to be “totaled,” on the one hand, and for it to be “total” on the other: in short, a lesson in totality. Lerner has obviously read his Michael Fried, and he seems to have gotten the point.30 The first evidence we see comes from the very first object the narrator encounters in his visit to the soon-to-be Institute for Totaled Art: “Put out your hands, she said, and I did. She dropped what felt like a series of porcelain balls or figurines into them. Now open them, she said: what I was holding were the pieces of a shattered Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture, an early red one. It was wonderful to see an icon of art world commercialism and valorized stupidity shattered.”31 It isn’t just that Lerner is so disparaging about Jeff Koons that suggests he might have some grasp of the Fried argument to which his narrator alludes. What is also important here is that the narrator recognizes the work – I don’t mean by this that he sees it as a Koons (it’s not a matter of brand recognition) – but that he recognizes the porcelain balls in his hand as parts of a work. In other words, by understanding that the balls are parts, he understands the work as something whole.32 Without the concept of the work as a whole, without the concept of the total work, in other words, there can be no “totaled work.” This is a claim about the ontology of the work of art, about the conditions under which something counts as a work of art. Here what makes something a work of art, what makes it not merely an object, is that any damage to it renders it “totaled.”

But the particular formulation Lerner uses in giving us the Friedian version of this claim also points, by way of a qualification, to another crucial distinction. For when the narrator says that works in this damaged condition are “formally demoted from art to mere objecthood,” he informs us that the damage that demotes them is formal. 33 Which is why Lerner makes certain that the Institute for Totaled Art also contains objects whose damage is barely or not perceptible at all:

But it was not the slashed or burnt or stained artworks that moved me the most, that made me feel that Peter and Alena were doing something profound by unearthing the living dead of art. To my surprise, many of the objects were not, at least not to my admittedly inexpert eye, damaged at all. Here was an unframed Cartier-Bresson print. I held it up to the pale light streaming in through the studio window but perceived no tears, scratches, fading, stains. I asked Peter and Alena to show me the damage, but they were equally baffled.34

The implication here is that the damage by which the Cartier-Bresson print counts as “totaled” needs to be understood as present in the work, even if the narrator and his friends never discover it. In other words, to total the work is to damage it in a way that violates the principles of its integrity. The novel insists that these principles exist (this is the point of the Cartier-Bresson) even if the narrator and his friends fail to grasp them. And it insists also that this is the basis on which they might be able to look together at the work and see (or fail to see) same thing. This is part of what it means for the ontology of the work of art to be a matter of form (rather than, say, mere shape).35

Why this ontology of the work of art might count as an aesthetics of resistance becomes clearer when the narrator returns to look again at the print by Cartier-Bresson:

It had transitioned from being a repository of immense financial value to being declared of zero value without undergoing what was to me any perceptible material transformation — it was the same, only totally different. . . . I held a work from which the exchange value had been extracted, an object that was otherwise unchanged. It was as if I could register in my hands a subtle but momentous transfer of weight: the twenty-one grams of the market’s soul had fled; it was no longer a commodity fetish; it was art before or after capital.36

We might be tempted to read this little encomium to the autonomy of the work of art as an anachronism, a belated attempt to embrace modernism, as if in 2014, a world in which everything belongs to capital, the work of art could somehow be undamaged. As if, in other words, the subsumption of the work under capital were somehow not complete. But the autonomy the novel actually ends up imagining for itself as a work of art and as a form of aesthetic resistance now is not quite the same as what is being envisioned for the Cartier-Bresson. In the scene with the dismembered Koons, the narrator describes Alena, enthusiastically hurling one of the porcelain balls at the floor and watching it shatter, as a “chthonic deity of vengeance,” then goes on to say, “Not for the first time, I wondered if she was a genius.”37 The critical indication of her genius for the novel’s purposes comes near its conclusion, when, after Hurricane Sandy has wrecked Lower Manhattan, the narrator observes that “Scores of Chelsea galleries had been inundated and soon the insurers would be welcoming the newly totaled art into their vast warehouses. Alena’s work wasn’t on a ground floor, I remembered; besides, she strategically damaged her paintings in advance; they were storm-proof.”38  The ingenious form of aesthetic resistance that the novel imagines for itself is based on Alena’s ingenious form of risk management. 10:04 imagines, in short, that instead of the work of art being subsumed within the inevitable damages of capital, the damages of capital are subsumed within it. 10:04 presents itself as the achievement of this work.

The first paragraph of the novel begins with a description of a meeting between the narrator and his agent over “an outrageously expensive celebratory meal in Chelsea that included baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to death.”39 What they are celebrating, of course, is the successful auction of his novel. The narrative then simultaneously loops back in time and into the future:

A few months before, the agent had e-mailed me that she believed I could get a “strong six-figure” advance based on a story of mine that had appeared in The New Yorker; all I had to do was promise to turn it into a novel. I managed to draft an earnest if indefinite proposal and soon there was a competitive auction among the major New York houses and we were eating cephalopods in what would become the opening scene.40

Later we learn that the New Yorker story, which is published with changes that the narrator has been forced to make in order to sell the story to the magazine, has also been incorporated in its entirety as one of the chapters of the novel, as has a different chapter with a third person narrator, referred to only as “the author.” In it one of the key situations attributed in the main frame story of the novel to the narrator’s friend – her need for an expensive dental extraction – is transposed onto “the author.” We might describe the various signs of alteration that emerge within and between the stories as evidence of a kind of damage, of outside forces affecting the work, and thereby as evidence not of its autonomy but its heteronomy. But this of course exactly is what the novel means for us to see and to think, and insofar as it’s part of the meaning of the work, part of what the artist intends for it as a whole, it also becomes integral to the form of the work.

If the novel allows (even requires) its characters to become interchangeable (and doubles down on this fungibility by refusing to describe its characters’ faces, suggesting that friends requested this as a guarantee of anonymity), it is explicit about the idea that artworks are not. In the chapter in which “the author” undergoes the wisdom tooth extraction that the narrator’s girlfriend is supposed to have in the frame narrative, he sits in a doctor’s office (it’s his dental x-rays that have revealed his perilous sinus growth) and fantasizes a conversation in which he trashes the pictures hanging on the wall:

“Who chooses this art?” the author wanted to ask. . . . They are images of art, not art. . . . [T]he problem, one of the problems . . . is that these images of art only address the sick, the patients. It would be absurd to imagine a doctor lingering over one of these images between appointments, being interested in it or somehow attached to it, having his day inflected by it or whatever. Apart from their depressing flatness, their interchangeability, what I’m saying is: we can’t look at them together.41

We are reminded here of the point of the invisible damage to the Cartier-Bresson – damage to the whole of the work turns the work into something else, an object rather than art – even if we can’t see it. We see or fail to see the same thing. But Lerner goes further here, the force of the work’s wholeness, the thing it loses if it’s damaged, is also what renders it impossible to exchange for anything else.

“I am looking back at the totaled city in the second person plural,” the narrator says at the end of the novel.42 But he goes on in novel’s final sentence, in the first person singular: “I know it’s hard to understand / I am with you, and I know how it is.43 What makes it hard to understand is that it looks as though we have one person recognizing, acknowledging, another at the same time that the persons here are interchangeable – literally and grammatically. What we’re seeing can be understood to be in the second person plural even if the pronouns are first person singular, because the difference between you and me (the difference recognition recognizes) no longer matters. The sentence that we’re looking at, we’re looking at together.

As the narrator looks at the “totaled city” we are looking at a work that has been totaled in advance. Its damage – the fact of it being totaled – is no longer understood as something that has happened to it but as something that is – in the form of the novel – subsumed by it. We can think about what we’re looking at when we finish Lerner’s “totaled” novel, when we understand ourselves to be looking at a damaged work of art, by thinking about the difference between what Grossman and Weiss see when they look at the damaged Pergamon Altar. At the same time, we can think about it in terms of the difference between the unwilled damage to the work (whether it’s visible damage like that in the frieze or the hidden damage to the New Yorker version of the story or the Cartier-Bresson photograph) and the willing subsumption of damage within the completed, “total” novel that is 10:04: the difference, in other words, between the literal shape of the work (including what we can’t see) and its intended form. Lerner removes any possibility of understanding the damage to the work as damage to the reader’s experience of it; unlike the pain of a bad tooth in need of extraction, it’s not about your pain or my pain – it isn’t about anyone’s pain. But precisely because the subsumed damage is a matter of the intended form of the work and not a matter of your experience or mine, it has become something we can look at together. This is what I meant by suggesting earlier that Lerner gives us a better aesthetics of resistance. What Grossman sees in the disfigured Alkyoneus is Laocoön, and what he sees in Laocoön, in Laocoon’s face, is pain. What Weiss’s communists see in the figures of the Pergamon altar is the effects of exploitation and of the economic structure that causes it. If what we see is pain, it can only be yours or mine or someone else’s. We can’t see, much less feel, the same thing. If what we see is exploitation, we are looking together at the same thing. What Lerner wants us to see in the totaled work that is 10:04, what the work is designed to help us imagine, is not the end of pain but the end of exploitation.44


1. Peter Weiss, The Aesthetics of Resistancevolume 1, trans. Joachim Neugroschell. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005), 3.
2. Allen Grossman, “The Passion of Laocoön: Warfare of the Religious against the Poetic Institution,” in True-Love: Essays on Poetry and Valuing (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 98.
3. Grossman, Laocoön, 82.
4. Ibid., 74.
5. Ibid., 85.
6. Ibid., 76.
7. Ibid.
8. Weiss, Aesthetics, 7.
9. Ibid., 6.
10. Ibid., 8.
11. Ibid., 9.
12. Peter Weiss, Ästhetik des Widerstands: Band 1 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1975), 10.
13. Christopher Nealon, The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).
14. Andrew Epstein, “Verse Vs. Verse: The Language Poets Are Taking over the Academy, but Will Success Destroy Their Integrity?” Lingua Franca, September 2000, 45-54. PennSound houses an archive of the Yellow Pages advertisements: PennSound, “Charles Bernstein and Jeff Preiss: The Yellow Pages Ads, Filmed in Hollywood November 14, 1998: conceived and directed by Jeff Preiss,” accessed April 12, 2014,
15. Bob Perelman, IFLIFE (New York: Roof Books, 2006), 52.
16. Sarah Posman, “Transitzone: An Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith,” nY, June 2, 2010,
17. Brian M. Reed, “Textbook Uncreative Writing,” American Book Review 32. 4 (May/June 2011), 5-6: 5.
18. Nicholas Brown, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Real Subsumption under Capital,”, March 13 2012,
19. Timothy Donnelly, The Cloud Corporation (Seattle and New York: Wave Books, 2010), 10.
20. Ibid., 113.
21. Ibid., 147.
22. Christopher Nealon, “Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism,” American Literature 76.3 (September 2004), 579-602: 579.
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid., 588.
25. A few works I have in mind include Jasper Bernes, We Are Nothing and So Can You (Oakland, CA: Commune Editions, 2015); Joshua Clover, The Totality for Kids (Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 2005); Juliana Spahr, this connection of everyone with lungs (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005); and Dana Ward, The Crisis of Infinite Worlds (New York: Futurepoem Books, 2013).
26. Ben Lerner, 10:04: A Novel (New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 2014), Kindle edition.
27. Ibid., 222.
28. Ibid., 14.
29. Ibid., 129-130.
30. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” (1967), in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 148-172.
31. Lerner, 10:04, 131.
32. It’s not clear, of course, that Fried would view a Koons in the same way that the narrator of 10:04 does. For Fried in “Art and Objecthood,” what distinguished the work of sculptors like Anthony Caro and David Smith as modernist and as art from the “literalist” “non-art” of minimalists like Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and Tony Smith is the extent to which the parts that form the whole of the work (indeed the very reason for their forming a whole) involves “the mutual inflection of one element by another” so that “the identity of each element matters . . . the same way . . . as the fact that it is this word or this note and not another that occurs in a particular place in a sentence or melody . . . it is in this sense, a sense inextricably involved with the concept of meaning, that everything in Caro’s art that is worth looking at is in its syntax” (Fried, Art and Objecthood, 161-162). The way that a Koons balloon dog is put together is not quite a “syntax” of the kind a Caro sculpture possesses because what one might see in the former as “inflection of one element by another” is simply that of a typical balloon dog, not a matter of artistic intention. Or to put this in Fried’s terms, the articulation of the Koon sculpture’s parts is not “involved with the concept of meaning.” My claim about 10:04, however, is that Lerner understands the form of the work of art – both its capacity to be “total” and its risk of being “totaled” – to require the kind of syntax that Fried aligns with Caro, with modernism, with meaning/intention, and with art as such. Fried recently recalled nonsite readers’ attention to precisely this aspect of Caro’s work, pointing to the form of the work as a “naked” assertion of “will,” in “Anthony Caro’s Park Avenue Series”:
33. Lerner, 10:04, 130.
34. Ibid., 132-133.
35. As Fried famously argues in “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons,” shape and form are not mutually exclusive. In the developments Fried charts beginning in the mid 60s in the work of Stella along with Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, shape becomes “a medium with which choices about both literal and depicted shapes are made, and made mutually responsive” (Fried, Art and Objecthood, 77). In opposing shape to form here, I simply mean to foreground the difference between something like literal shape (for example, the rusted surfaces, I-shaped beams, hexagonal bolts we can see in a Caro sculpture) and what we might call intended shape (what form those things take when we understand them as contoured, painted, welded, and otherwise assembled in the ways that are intended by the artist).
36. Lerner, 10:04, 133.
37. Ibid., 132.
38. Ibid., 231.
39. Ibid., 3.
40. Ibid., 4.
41. Ibid., 72-73.
42. Lerner, 10:04, 240.
43. Ibid.
44. It should be clear by now that insofar as the idea of the totality of the work of art (and our ability to see it as totaled) is inextricable from understanding the work’s form as intentional, I understand my analysis of 10:04 to be consistent with Nicholas Brown’s in “Art after Art after Art.” I’m indebted in this essay not only to several previous exchanges with Nicholas Brown about the novel, but also to conversations with Todd Cronan, Michael Fried, Rachel Greenwald-Smith, Mitchum Huehls, Günter Leypoldt, Ruth Leys, Philipp Löffler, Walter Benn Michaels, Charles Palermo (whom I want to thank explicitly for giving me the idea of the bad tooth analogy in the last paragraph), and Clemens Spahr, as well as with audience members in the Humanities Center at The Johns Hopkins University and at the symposium on “Contemporary Literature and the Culture of the School” sponsored by the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, where I presented earlier versions of this essay.
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