An introduction and guide to reading John Ashbery Daffy Duck in Hollywood
Legitimate Contexts of Reference, or the Lack of them
Moving away from a basic consideration of postmodern form as figment not fragment, perhaps the other key difference between modernist and postmodernist practice concerns not so much how the parts internal to the poem connect and cohere, but how the poem can be integrated into a wider matrix cultural discourse. This matrix is strictly regulated by a number of core values relating to individuality, community, emancipation, value and power. We call this matrix the Enlightenment tradition and as Habermas argues we use it as the background against which we establish the legitimation of all other acts and values. The values engendered by this tradition are those universal ones of humanity we cherish so much in our art and our democratic governance. Indeed, in terms of postmodernism in all its manifestations, it is the threat to humanist value systems posed by postmodern sceptical discourse that the fuss is all about.
One of the promises of modernist poetics is that however fragmented the internal body becomes, its relationship with the exterior world, what we might call its central referentiality, will always be maintained. Indeed, the fragmentation of form is often a direct result of the fragmentation of values felt in the world beyond the poem. The Waste Land is typical of this system of referential exchange, is “Daffy Duck in Hollywood”? If at this point we turn to the many fascinating readings of the poem we discover a very different ideology of referentiality and allusion to that found in modernism. Vernon Shetley notes that the poem’s “style of chaotic juxtaposition produces an effect of agitation and urgency, which in turn is continually undercut by the humor generated in the collision of elevated language and the mundane.”[i] This could also be said of many modernist works. As for the reasons for this, he suggests the poem “has embodied the predicament of a mind assaulted by the chaos of discourses that compete for priority in our culture.”[ii] According to Shetley the “chaotic juxtaposition” of the poem is the result of the life going on outside of it and so the poem remains resolutely modernist in this crucial regard.
In this opinion Shetley is joined by Douglas Crase who sees the poem as Whitmanic and essentially American in its attempt to contain multitudes, only
the world is very much bigger now, in terms of all the information blazing into one man-size neocortex…we cannot reduce this to the still privilege we once expected from poetry. This is the exploded culture in which we truly behave, and it is no help to cry “No context!” because we cannot find one small enough to suit us”.[iii]
Again, the sense that the poem is non-modernist does not come through here. Postmodernism seems like modernism only there is more of it with certain concomitant results like a problem with mutually agreed upon contextuality.
Altieri’s theory of postmodern poetry suggests that the divinity of the postmodern resides in the proliferation of detail through which the poet is able to negotiate her/his way by establishing connections and finding potentialities for the self (the self as as not as is).[iv] In contradistinction to Altieri’s benevolent view of this emphasis on reception, process and cognitive accommodation, both Shetley and Crase seem to suggest this is a dangerous, subject-threatening, agonistic procedure. The voices of doom, aided by an apocalyptic tone to be found in some later sections of the work, can also be heard in Keith Cohen’s view that the poem is an attack on the non-differentiation of the object in a consumer age,[v] and David Herd’s argument that Ashbery is looking to find a non-canonical sense of textual worth without allowing all value to be totally overwhelmed by an undifferentiated, and totally contingent, “Hollywood” culture.[vi]
Here the debate begins to shift the poem towards an essential element of postmodernity that one does not find in modernist work. The poem initiates a movement away from meta-, single voiced narratives towards multiplicity and things in their singularity, yet at the same time it reveals how, within contemporary consumer culture, diversity and choice are also ideological constructs. In other words, it does not matter how many different cultural voices one hears in popular, Hollywood films, they are all reducible to a level of sameness. They are merely there for our uncritical consumption; to wear on a t-shirt perhaps. This is the central conflict between the Enlightenment values behind modernism, and the post-humanist deconstruction of value typical of our current age. Irrespective of the degree of conflict or fragmentation to be found in modernism, there is always a common ground of mutually accepted values whose roots are traceable to the Enlightenment culture. As Habermas asserts, historically and culturally traceable context provides the preconditions for us to ascertain value, a particularly useful tool in a world where we suffer from signification overload.[vii] Outside of the sense of context as a continuum, however, we have not so much a lack of context as an excess of contexts. For example, in the poem’s opening lines we encounter poetic lyricism, obscure opera, consumer items such as baking powder, the movies, cartoons, pornography, existential angst, fake doctors and America’s colonial expansion through the Gadsen Purchase of parts of Mexico.
Where one goes from here really depends on one’s opinion of contemporary diversity and choice. One could say it is a great thing that we no longer all have to value the same thing. Then again the poem itself is rather critical of the way that our culture reduces everything down to a product of technologically advanced, consumerist modes of reproduction. So one could assert that a lack of context is an ideological imposition to mask the fact that, as Cohen suggests, in the end whatever you choose, its singularity is replaced by its exchange value within the capitalist system. Cohen’s argument here is basically a re-enactment of Baudrillard’s radical theories of signification as consumption.[viii] If this is the case, then one could say that mutual context is not missing from postmodern poetry but instead is relocated from humanism to consumerism. This is the final conclusion of most theorists of the postmodern, in particular Jameson, Baudrillard, Habermas and Lyotard. If this is the case then postmodernism is different from modernism only in terms of the different context for universality in play, which is consumerist, the implications this has for the process of referentiality, dominated by equivalence of exchange rather than comparison of value, the role of rhetoric, that it is foregrounded as the unstable mediator of all truth claims, and one’s political response to all of this.
[i] Need to find the original Shetley essay
[iii] Douglas Crase, “The prophetic Ashbery” in Harold Blood ed. John Ashbery (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985) 134-5.
[iv] This idea is developed in Altieri’s articles “John Ashbery and the Challenge of Postmodernism in the Visual Arts,” Critical Inquiry 14 (Summer 1988): 805-30 and “Contemporary Poetry as Philosophy: Subjective Agency in John Ashbery and C.K. Williams.” Contemporary Poetry 33.2 (1992): 214-42. I have discussed this in detail elsewhere, see William Watkin, In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 2001) 232-245.
[v] I will go into the detail of Cohen’s argument in due course but his argument is contained in the opening pages of his essay “Ashbery’s Dismantling of Bourgeois Discourse” in David Lehman, Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980) 128-133.
[vi] Talking of the opening of the poem Herd concludes: “The picture is of a culture so diversely productive that is has exceeded, and is always exceeding, the customs and conventions by which it understands itself… The problem is that culture continues to cling to customs and conventions… designed for occasions now past. What such outmoded conventions are not equipped to deal with is what the poet calls the “Civilized Lethe”: that flow of details with which the poem opened, and which by its sheer volumes threatens to obliterate all memory of culture.” David Herd, John Ashbery and American Poetry (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000) 171.
[vii] Responding to Richard Rorty’s contention that Enlightenment values are not universal but just those of a particular speech community which has then imposed these values on everyone else through the exploitation of their political, financial and cultural ascendancy, Habermas restates his basic position: “In believing that he can consistently replace the implicitly normative conception of "valid arguments" with the descriptive concept of "arguments held to be true for us at this time," Rorty commits an objectivistic fallacy. We could not even understand the meaning of what we describe from a third-person perspective as argumentative conduct if we had not already learned the performative attitude of a participant in argumentation; that is, what it means from the perspective of the first person to raise a validity claim that points beyond the provincial agreements of the specific local context.” Jurgen Habermas, “Questions and Counterquestions” in Jurgen Habermas and Modernity Ed. Richard J. Bernstein (London: Polity Press, 1985) 194. If we relate this to the question of aesthetic value we could reformulate Habermas’ point that we could not even contest modern aesthetic concepts of value if we did not have modernity as a location from which to pose such questions. Thus debates over value as concept in itself do not negate the idea of value because the idea of value is foundational and essential, while the debate over value is localised and contingent on context. Postmodernism cannot contest modernity except through the terms of modernity which it takes for granted as normative and naturalised when it suits it, and imposed and rhetorical when it does not.
[viii] Baudrillard is anxious in his early essay “The System of Objects” to stress that the consumption of an object has nothing to do with its material reality but its presence within the network of signification and its availability, as a concept, for exchange with other such concepts. For this to happen the materiality that matters in relation to the object is that of its signifier or its linguistic materiality: “Consumption is not a passive mode of assimilation and appropriation which we can oppose to an active mode of production, in order to bring to bear naive concepts of action (and alienation). From the outset, we must clearly state that consumption is an active mode of relations (not only to objects, but to the collectivity and to the world), a systematic mode of activity and a global response on which our whole cultural system is founded. We must clearly state that material goods are not the objects of consumption: they are merely the objects of need and satisfaction…Consumption is the virtual totality of all objects and messages presently constituted in a more or less coherent discourse…Consumption, in so far as it is meaningful, is a systematic act of the manipulation of signs. In order to become an object of consumption, the object must become a sign. Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings (Stanford Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1988) 21-2.