On Naming Names
In my last post, I observed a practice that in Jacket2 may have seemed too sensitive, but which has a long history: I refused to name names. Rather than associate specific people with my own decisions in attending an overseas academic conference at a politically volatile time, I wrote: "The next day, four of us from the conference — whom I will not name until I have their say so, such is the difficulty of this topic — took a cab . . . for the day." The "two scholars and two poet/critics" of the group are otherwise not named; each will have their own senses of what the politics of the moment, or of the present, might be, and they are free to express them (or not) as they wish. Quite the opposite is the case in a series of recent episodes in the poetics community: there is a notion that to name names is transgressively gratifying or painfully purgative act. I want to question why this is occurring, and why now? What is it about poetics, or artistic communities more generally, rather than strictly political ones, that gives a particular urgency to this dated strategy?
Naming names, of course, is a politics from the days of the anti-Communist witchhunts. Suspected or identified communists were called up before congressional committees, their rights to due process suspended, and then were asked to name those with whom they were in cells, saw at meetings, or merely knew. The concept of "fellow traveler" had a particular use in characterizing those who were not members of a given organization but who were associated with it. By means of these tactics, the broadest interpretation of what it meant to be a communist, a communist sympathizer, or fellow traveler could be created, one that had a massively chilling effect on cultural politics at the time. With the downfall of the witchhunts, the tactic gradually lost force, though loyalty oaths and other tests of political acceptability remained. The practice had an immediate effect on the politics of poetry: it worked to entirely surpress the literature of the Popular Front and much of the Harlem Renaissance in the 50s, when the New Critics and conservative modernists had their sway. Any number of individuals were directly affected by this climate (whom I would name but for my attempt to write, here, without naming names). The history has not yet been written that accounts for the cultural damage these kinds of broadly targeted smear campaigns created.
Now it has come to poetry and poetics, and the question is why? I want to take a look at several recent examples of the "politics of the name" in poetry and poetics, as a critique of their specific instances, to raise some larger questions, and to try to find a general explanation for this phenomenon. And to do so, I will attempt to suppress all names from my quotes and discussion; not only that, but I will encrypt the initials I substitute for the names to make them even more difficult (but not impossible) to identify. The reader is advised that naming names is not the point. My first example is a recent conceptual poem:
H— D— is comfortable.
I— D— is a rich poet.
K— D— is a rich poet.
R— D— is a rich poet.
This is a well-known example, but bear with me. The poem presents fifty-eight identical stanza forms, each on a separate page, in which four poets known within the poetics community (or someone's version of it) are the subjects and the predicate is either "is comfortable" or "is a rich poet." Without the actual names, this device is entirely trivial; it merely divides up a field of objects (names) into two complementary categories. One of these aligns with a normative assumption of someone doing well in life and who is neither exploited or unsuccessful (like a "poor poet" might be) nor profiting from others (the adequacy of their circumstances is their own), while the other infers a socially superior status that might indicate ill-gotten gains or an exploitative relationship to those less advantaged. Something like the American middle class is the former, while the bourgeois 1% would be the latter. The fact that innovative writers may be divided into such groups is either exciting or troubling, in that it infers legitimacy or illegitimacy through an act of predication based on naming names. With the names restored, the situation changes drastically, given the overarching rubric of the piece, which implies some kind of threatened outcome to the bearers of these names, likely on the basis of the represented economic status. It is a short distance from there to the list of leftists who may be identified as working for the State Department in the 50s, or a list of enemies maintained by a president in the 70s, or a list of targets for some sort of violent action in the present. One critic of the poem felt that the point offered a form of self-criticism necessary for those living in privileged economic circumstances to imagine the terror of being targeted in acts of actual violence such as drone strikes. But this seems symptomatic of the psychic consequences of being on the list in the first place—a kind of expiatory denial to shield one from the threat. Through the naming of names, the poem calls up such guilty responses as happiness to make the list or Schadenfreude at others' misfortune. My question: why has poetry turned to this?
My second example uses conceptual and appropriations strategies that name names as part of a critique of the gender politics of the poetics community. Having gone past the dubious technique of number counting to establish the proportions of a male to female poets in a list of magazines, anthologies, and presses (revealing little insight from quantitative data that approaches the condition of naming names itself, rather than any form of statistical method), the authors turn to transgressive analogies for their gendered critique of poetics by means of the mere name of the author. First, they create a "neutral" scenario in which interrogates qualities one might associate with the word poet, unnamed, doing transgressive actions derived from performance art:
What if two poets stood naked in the doorway entrance to a reading to that those who wanted to listen to another poet's reading had to walk between them, touching them?
What If instead of reading poetry yet again, a poet cleaned the floor of the lecture hall/gallery/living room on her hands and knees with a wet sponge? [. . .]
Clearly poetry has a different set of assumptions than performance art, but that is not the point. The point is to find a way to interrogate the gender dynamics of the social space of the poetry community, through critical art. In order to make this point, the authors substitute names of women poets:
What if R— M— [F] and I— T— [F] stood naked in the doorway entrance to a reading so that those who wanted to listed to Y— D— [F] reading had to walk between them, touching them?
What if instead of reading poetry yet again, U— I— [F] cleaned the floor of the lecture hall/gallery/living room on her hands and knees with a wet sponge. [. . .]
Finding that the substitution of women's names for poet only worked to denigrate women, by associating them with corrective activities that seem to take away from their actual accomplishments, the authors decided (probably their goal all along) to substitute the male poet's names in place of the women's:
What if Y— N— [M] and I— D— [M] stood naked in the doorway entrance to a reading so that those who wanted to listen to S— O— [F] reading had to walk between them, touching them?
What if instead of reading poetry yet again, I— W— [M] cleaned the floor of the lecture hall/gallery/living room on his hands and knees with a wet sponge? [. . .]
The authors conclude, from their substitution of women's names for poet, and then men's names for women's names, that the only effective reversal of the gender bias inherent in poetry, disclosed through the strategies of performance art, is through an affirmative gesture to women writers: "Hey H— U—. We love you get up. Hey H— K—. We love you get up. . . ," assuming that women writers as a group are individually "down" in a consistent way that may be reversed by being shouted "up." What is going on here is all in the politics of naming names, of placing the names of authors [M or F] in imagined scenarios in which the authors [M or F] interact with given artistic contexts as gendered. The statistical or performance tactics of 80s gender critiques is thus inflected toward the same community politics as were mined in my first example, with quite similar results: guilty pleasure or wishful fantasy to be named; Schadenfreude for those portrayed in unlikely or embarrassing situations not of their choosing; along with a sense of the authors' sovereign right to arrange that community according to whatever optimizes their personal place in it, as law-givers or promulgators of gender equity. It is the desired control over gender humiliation within parameters of transgressive desires, modified by guilty feelings and amplified by power claims, that names names. The sovereign ego, managing the faultlines of gender through appropriation strategies of transgressive art, is what is demonstrated here.
My third example reaches back to the emergence of naming names as a poetic tactic, associated with the New York School (though examples of it, often with dashes inserted to protect from lawsuits, can be found in modernism). The technique has its hallmark among both first and second generation poets, creating a new poetic genre of "naming names" that has been reproduced in any number of subsequent variants. One such poem is "Our Friends":
Y— the tight-ass
K— the insignificant
W— the dawdy old lady
H— the superficial
I— the spoiled snoot
R— the Elephant with
the soul of a Butterfly &
the temper of a Scorpion.
N— the bad painter
T— the Self-Important
The grotesque Q— H— of
the bad character [. . .]
Many will recognize the author, or at least infer the range of style; what is notable is, on the one hand, the "life-giving vulgarity" of this practice of naming names, and on the other refusal of systematic objectification in its practice. Names are not being used to associate someone with morally objectionable content, nor with a normative identity within a presumed form of community, but rather to parody those associations. In the poetics of coterie—whatever it masks of its social assumptions—name and community are imagined in a productive, creative relationship. That is not the case with the current politics of naming names: normative forms of identity are being used against the creative potential of names, to limit them. And there are other examples, some quite recent and some from the more recent past, of a reversal of the productivity of the name for something less tangible, more terrifying: its "name value." As with John Frederick Peto's The Cup We All Race 4, a masterpiece of nineteenth-century appropriation art, the stakes here are precisely this: reputation. It is the striving for reputation, the push-pull of who's in, who's out, that underlines the sovereign reorganization of aesthetic community by naming names. Is there a larger politics to this? If we may separate poetics from the guilt by association of the repressive 50s, the answer has got to be probably not.