D’Agata speaks of his desire to “divorce the essay from being read exclusively as a form that’s tied to its subject matter, or that is propelled by its subject matter.” But what, really, can this mean? Writing is communication, and form is only meaningful—only artful—insofar as it aids and inflects the travel of a thought from one mind to the next.
I could write a whole long thing about the clumsy aesthetic philosophy at play here, which as Cunningham says is old. But Cunningham has wedded his take on D’Agata’s project to the only topic the kind of affluent post-collegiate strivers who read The New Yorker want to talk about these days, which is their politics, by which they mean their righteousness, by which they mean themselves. He references this piece by Jerry Saltz and Rachel Corbett from New York, which purports to name a new movement within the world of (New York, elite, expensive) visual arts. But the movement Saltz, and others, have named is already in the process of dying. Corbett’s history is impressive, but Saltz has always been an undertaker who’s mistaken himself for a midwife. Indeed the very act of being named means that this “movement,” whatever it is, has stopped moving long enough to be pinned to the page, and that’s usually a sign of its impending demise. Like sharks, you know. In the broader sense that contemporary art, music, film, and books are expected first to fulfill the dictates of bourgie political signalling, and then to get around to being good at some point after, there too I find this piece oddly timed. The great pretense of those who talk endlessly about “social justice” as some entity distinct from their own daily moral practice is that we’re nearing the final victory. But neither politics nor history are a march towards progress; both are an endless cycle of advance and retrenchment, and the ricochet is the second part. You can ask Hunter S Thompson about that. And anyway: rich bankers put protest art on their walls and then busily do the work of keeping injustice alive. When you look beyond the performance, when you stop appraising the value of these symbols and instead try to chase down the change they’re meant to signify, what, precisely, has been changed? Who’s chains were broken today?
Do you know what the exhausted final stage of a commodified political movement looks like, one that has become inseparable from the social jockeying of the cultural elites that movement once thought to critique? It looks like Matt McGorry’s Twitter feed.
Given the subject at hand, rather than bore you with an essay I’ll send a fox to catch a foxcatcher instead. And I’ll remind you that the archives are full of works of religious education, and no one reads them, no one remembers them, they just grow more brittle and yellow with age.
“The Creations of Sound”
by Wallace Stevens
If the poetry of X was music,
So that it came to him of its own,
Without understanding, out of the wall
Or in the ceiling, in sounds not chosen,
Or chosen quickly, in a freedom
That was their element, we should not know
That X is an obstruction, a man
Too exactly himself, and that there are words
Better without an author, without a poet,
Or having a separate author, a different poet,
An accretion from ourselves, intelligent
Beyond intelligence, an artificial man
At a distance, a secondary expositor,
A being of sound, whom one does not approach
Through any exaggeration. From him, we collect.
Tell X that speech is not dirty silence
Clarified. It is silence made dirtier.
It is more than an imitation for the ear.
He lacks this venerable complication.
His poems are not of the second part of life.
They do not make the visible a little hard
To see nor, reverberating, eke out the mind
Or peculiar horns, themselves eked out
By the spontaneous particulars of sound.
We do not say ourselves like that in poems.
We say ourselves in syllables that rise
From the floor, rising in speech we do not speak.