Under the beach, the office

On 'The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization'

Photo by Jonny Erixon via Wikimedia Commons.

The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization

The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization

Jasper Bernes

Stanford University Press 2017, 240 pages, $25.00 ISBN 978-1503610088

“Society can absorb almost anything that purports to attack it,” Kenneth Rexroth would conclude in the early 1960s, seeing few new political prospects in the wave of oppositional literature emerging from the Beat generation. One only had to look at the fate suffered by their rebellious literary predecessors: “Who laughed uproariously at the antics of the petty bourgeois upstart Père Ubu? Other bourgeois who had learned to tell a Château Haut-Brion from a Pommard.”[1] By the time Rexroth was writing, the mechanisms that turned works of artistic dissent into bourgeois status symbols were so well established that they began to seem built into the process of artistic production and circulation itself.[2] As Paul Mann puts it, the avant-garde appeared bound to “sustain what it opposed simply by opposing it.”[3] A dead end for a certain kind of political art.

But in fact, the story doesn’t end there. Instead of asking whether this kind of absorption is bound to happen (it is), what if we ask questions about its consequences? It is easy enough now to see the way oppositional works of art have long been repackaged as novel objects of taste for culturally adventurous segments of the bourgeoisie. But what of practices, methods, and social formations that are assimilated the same way? Where do they go? How do they modify everyday life in mainstream society, in the realm of exchange, and in the workplace? Questions like these are at the heart of Jasper Bernes’s ambitious cross-disciplinary study, The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization, which gives a new account of postwar American poetry as it punctuates and inflects the transition to postindustrial society in the United States.

As the country’s industrial base eroded and new forms of labor began to take hold, Bernes notes, a flurry of critiques of capitalism arose in avant-garde poetry. Bernes traces the evolution of those critiques alongside sweeping changes in the world of work, and in doing so he carves out a surprising place for experimental poetry in the socioeconomic landscape we have inherited in the twenty-first century. We learn that poets and their peers in the avant-garde not only track changes in labor during this period, but play a role in shaping them.

It is increasingly apparent that American experimental poets were indeed keen to construct textual mediations of ongoing economic changes in the postwar era.[4] But Bernes’s argument goes a step further to suggest that poetic critiques of capitalism actually prefigure and in some cases seemingly help drive these changes. He sets out to show just how poetic ideas, forms, and practices are signal instances in the evolution of the country’s working life. The “imaginative transformations of actually existing economic conditions” effected by poetry, Bernes says, “become laboratories in which the emergent social relations, techniques, and ideologies of the future economy and future conditions of labor develop.”[5] This will read to some as outlandish. No doubt possessing a larger social reach than it does now, the idea that avant-garde poetry would have had a sizeable presence in midcentury boardrooms and economic policy institutes seems doubtful. But Bernes deals with this problem by framing experimental poetry as part of a wider group of avant-garde cultures that were in fact influential among the country’s economic elite. The book relies on an increasingly canonical set of arguments, advanced especially by the French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, about the way avant-garde values, forms, and practices were recuperated and became embedded in the heart of capitalism in the last few decades of the twentieth century.[6] Adapting and extending these historical arguments, Bernes argues that writers and artists associated with the New York School, Fluxus, conceptualism (both in visual art and later in poetry), and Language writing situate their work at the bleeding edge of economic, social, and cultural transformation.

Still, Bernes clearly recognizes the risks of this kind of cultural study. A radical critic and poet well-attuned to the interpretive liabilities of this model, he is at pains to avoid turning poetry into an “odd delivery mechanism” for macro-level historical arguments.[7] And it is impressive to watch the way he carefully mediates between complex social histories and the various textual layers of the poems. There are numerous examples of this mediation throughout the book. The bank teller character in Frank O’Hara’s famous poem “The Day Lady Died,” for instance, is discussed in Bernes’s first chapter as an example of “proletarianized” white-collar labor. While it initially seems like this figure will have to take over the poem in order for the argument to gain purchase on the text, Bernes has something a bit more subtle up his sleeve, forming a multilayered analogy between the care-based labor the proletarian bank teller performs for O’Hara’s poetic persona and a similar kind of labor performed by the poet on behalf of his readership: “O’Hara takes the vast, impersonal world of 1950s Manhattan and makes it familiar, providing an intimate and therefore less threatening view of it. … O’Hara’s charisma is the charisma of a salesperson” (25). Bernes is not merely suggesting that O’Hara is internalizing the affective imperatives of the new service economy. Instead, he treats the poetics as both absorbing the logic of, and bearing its own unique position in relation to, changes in the world of work.

The phenomenon of deindustrialization, half the book’s object of study, represents such a massive shift that it is possible to assume both that we understand it intuitively and have no idea at all of its historical extent. At its simplest, deindustrialization names an incomplete, ongoing transition to a postindustrial economy (3). Bernes uses the term to refer to a period that saw exponential growth in white-collar and service-sector work, and a shift away from commodity production. This era began in the US (and in other parts of the industrialized world, especially in the global North) in the 1950s and picked up speed in the mid-1970s, with reverberations lasting up to the present (19).[8] The term “dematerialization of labor,” which refers to a surge in mental and affective work, is a necessary but not adequately descriptive phrase for the range of new work experiences of this period, and likewise for the forms artists would use to resist and reshape them.[9] Bernes doesn’t shirk descriptions of these new experiences; his book, among many other things, provides a helpful taxonomy of changes in the postwar workplace that is bound to be useful for artists and humanities scholars aiming to deepen their knowledge of twentieth-century social and economic history. A sampling would include: the de-skilling of the new technical and administrative workforce, the extension of authoritarian Fordist and Taylorist models of management into white-collar sectors of the economy, mandated increases in productivity in white-collar and blue-collar work alike, and the so-called “feminization of labor,” which denotes both the increased participation in the workforce by women as well as the extension of traditionally feminized forms of affective labor into virtually all sectors of the economy.

How do poets actually engage these changes? The answer comes in a variety of forms. From the “disorderly grammars” pressing up against the limits of administrative communication in John Ashbery, to the continuous crisscrossing of the labor/leisure divide in the work of Bernadette Mayer, the poetry here seems to become more heterogeneous and specific, not less, in Bernes’s hands. If we are initially surprised to see some of the poets considered here so close to the mundane realities of the economic sphere, Bernes makes a strong case that he takes his cues from the artists themselves. He recognizes, with O’Hara, that in order to effect its social critique, lyric poetry (a genre discussed at length) need not emphasize its withdrawal or adopt critical distance from “the mercenary exchanges and exacting labors of the workaday world, [but] could instead take place among and through them” (55–56).

This brings us to the real hinge of Bernes’s story, which is the moment when the artistic values that were mobilized to oppose undesirable features of the postwar (Fordist and Taylorist) workplace, its lingering authoritarianism and social traditionalism in particular, take center stage. Oppositional and often anticapitalist in spirit, these values — collaboration, participation, and self-management especially — incubate in avant-gardes, filter into 1960s countercultural demimondes, and ultimately, Bernes says, get absorbed by capitalism’s managerial class. (He traces part of this process in the O’Hara chapter, which unearths an encounter between a fictionalized O’Hara and Don Draper at a pivotal moment in season two of Mad Men.) The effects of this contact are far-reaching: the avant-garde critique of the Fordist workplace unwittingly offers an opening for capitalist firms to embrace new values, liberalize themselves, and ultimately discover new ways of making money. Boltanski and Chiapello’s monumental The New Spirit of Capitalism outlines the scope of these changes in detail in the French context.[10] Bernes’s book is a substantial addition to the body of literature expanding and deepening our knowledge of them here in the US, and it is probably the most sustained effort yet to probe their artistic dimensions.[11]

Each chapter participates in this narrative to a degree, though the chapter on Bernadette Mayer, which is perhaps the book’s most ambitious, gives the clearest sense of it. In Mayer’s multimedia and multisite work Memory (1972, 1975), Bernes wants us to notice how many of the logics that justify and structure the world of work today were in a sense pre-given in avant-garde productions of the late 1960s and early 1970s:

Memory investigates the way in which the whole of life gets subsumed under the protocols, affects, and techniques of waged work. The book is not just a representation of this subsumption but its agent as well: it converts quotidian activities into art work; it portrays a world where, at any moment, one may or may not be acting out a part in someone’s artistic project, or even acting out multiple parts in multiple projects at the same time. … Everything is brought into the circle of work: under the beach, the office.[12] (130)

The suggestion is that Mayer’s critique of the traditional boundary between waged work and the rest of everyday life, especially unpaid domestic work performed by women (and other groups performing traditionally unwaged forms of work), and her efforts to put pressure on and ultimately break down this boundary with a new form of labor — “art work” — foreshadow a regime that has recuperated just this sort of critique. The result is familiar in our own time: a project-based form of labor that cuts across the traditional working day and across traditional spaces of work, that depends on the commodification of personal relationships and networks, and that can easily turn a beach (and many other spaces) into an office.[13] None of this is too neatly referential: the waged work/unwaged work/art work triad that Bernes finds in Mayer’s Memory is simultaneously enriched by, and allowed to exceed, the critique of unwaged labor that animates Bernes’s reading.[14] More, here as elsewhere, Bernes gives his close readings another leg to stand on: analogous projects in visual art, in the Mayer chapter “postmedium” art, give the argument a helpful mediating layer.

The ambiguous postures adopted by poets toward situations like this — Mayer’s attitude toward these evolving forms of work, if a bit sharper edged than many of the poets considered here, seems critical and receptive in equal measure — leads me to a question I have about the book’s political mood. For Bernes, the socioeconomic afterlife of these poetic experiments is, in an important sense, tragic: a compelling case is made that the increasing convergence of labor and leisure, of work and creative experience, of what we produce and the way we live, patterns which are now common in many sectors of the economy, are actually ersatz versions of earlier artistic innovations. Fair enough. If we resent the way our friends and professional contacts seem to shade eerily into each another on social media, we may want to take it up with one of our local experimental poets. But despite this boldness in making claims for the “effectivity of the aesthetic sphere,” i.e. the role of artists in shaping our current socioeconomic conditions, Bernes seems at times reluctant to account for these artists’ own political attitudes and objectives in light of these developments.

This reticence on Bernes’s part might be seen as a nimble sidestepping of a problem which still roils poetic and activist communities, and which it is hard to blame him for wanting to avoid: namely the political legacy of the 1960s and ’70s countercultural left.[15] Instead, the evaluation of the success, failure, or traction of such artistic critiques is often replaced with a turn to historical explanation. One has the sense that Bernes appreciates the aesthetic and political experiments he considers for the way they help make sense of the complex and unwieldy cultural history of the postwar US, at least as much as for the specific artistic or political values they embody.[16] Hannah Weiner’s oppositional use of information technology in her code poems, for instance, is remarkable for its avant-garde temporality, for when it occurs in a sequence of emergent cultural forms, just as much as it is for the ideas, forms, and postures the poems themselves work through.

If experimental poetry has a vocation in Bernes’s work, it is this kind of responsiveness to evolving history, tracking down its horizons, and signaling their scope and significance. Readers of Jacket2 may remember the commentary series Bernes, Joshua Clover, and Juliana Spahr wrote a few years ago, in which something similar was argued: that poetry above all ought to do the difficult work of disclosing the nature of its own time, situating itself as close as possible to “the antagonisms of the age.”[17] Positive statements like this about poetry’s sociopolitical vocation abound in this book, which will no doubt strike some as lopsidedly historicist, perhaps even economistic, despite Bernes’s efforts to head off potential criticisms. One foundation of such disagreements seems to lie in the fear that embracing a model for poetic interpretation like the one given here would, wittingly or not, open the door to a radical reshaping of poetic value by nonpoetic discourses, ideas, or forms.[18] Bernes’s book is in many ways a good litmus test for this problem, as it places concepts extrinsic to poetry at the heart of postwar poetry’s concerns. Here political economy does indeed insert itself into just about every interpretive claim, and into the very fabric of poetic value. But perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing. For instance, the rigorous exposure of the concept of labor to poetics sheds light on important postwar cultural histories that might have remained obscure. It is all too often assumed, following New Left cultural theorists like C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse, that the 1960s completely did away with the labor-centered worldview that had previously held sway on the left, and that work had little to do with the demands artists and their allies were making on the dominant classes during this period. What Bernes shows is that these demands were not estranged from labor, but instead that labor was estranged from its earlier forms; thus, resistance to workplace exploitation and domination looked quite a bit a different than it had a few decades earlier. The full complexity of these new ways of working and new forms of resistance are, in a real sense, only educed by the poetry and other artistic forms Bernes examines. Early Ashbery investigates “who represents who” in the diffused power structures of the white-collar workplace. Weiner grasps the importance of “feedback” — of calibrating new inputs based on earlier results — in the production and maintenance of systems of control. The attitudes and methods of conceptual poetry and Flarf seem uniquely positioned to show the complete erasure of the divide between labor and leisure, work and play, routinized composition and art in the contemporary economy.

Other necessary criticisms will arise. Questions of social outsiderhood and marginalization might have played a bigger role here, given that many of the book’s central poets — O’Hara, Ashbery, Weiner, and Mayer for example — each, with varying degrees of overtness, framed their work as antinormative with respect to gender, sexuality, and/or ability, and given that the moment in question is one in which capitalism is redrawing the boundaries of work and worker classification: stipulating who “counts” (and how much) and who doesn’t. Bernes’s excellent epilogue, part of which reads Fred Moten, Nathaniel Mackey, and Amiri Baraka, probes some of this terrain, examining the relationship between “wageless life” and the idea of “fugitivity” in black poetics and critical theory (189). This probably could have been a bigger part of the story. Despite robust employment throughout the era of deindustrialization, the collapse of the nation’s industrial core meant heightened economic exclusion and marginalization for African Americans — something black experimental writers were closely attuned to.[19] This is less a complaint than an unfulfilled wish, since the epilogue does address these questions in interesting ways, but it would have been interesting to see, for instance, what an exploration of “life making improvisation beyond the wage,” Bernes’s phrase for a central facet of Moten’s poetics, might have looked like had it been scaled up relative to the book’s overall argument.

If Bernes’s book convinces us that the stakes of poetry might be much higher than we had imagined, it also leaves us wondering what to do with this new knowledge of the possibilities and risks associated with critical poetic and artistic practice. What might the “social laboratory” of experimental poetry look like in the future? The epilogue offers clues, engaging in a bit of prognostication as to ways poetry and poetic scholarship might participate in a new wave of artistic critiques emerging around a new capitalist status quo Bernes predicts, one centered on expanding conditions of surplus population, of unemployment, of non-work, and of precarity. As we contemplate this economic horizon and others, we would do well to heed Bernes’s reminder that as work goes, so goes poetry, and not necessarily in that order.

1. Kenneth Rexroth,World Outside the Window: The Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth, ed. Bradford Marrow (New York: New Directions, 1987), 201.

2. Early overt attempts to mitigate this phenomenon would include efforts by the Letterist International and the early Situationist International to construct works of politicized art that would stay embedded in particular fields of action, i.e., in situations, and which thus would not easily circulate in cultures of artistic consumption. The “happenings” of Allan Kaprow in the same period in the US exhibit a similar strategy.

3. Paul Mann, The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 11.

4. See Christopher Nealon’s The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011) as well as Michael Davidson’s essay collection On the Outskirts of Form: Practicing Cultural Poetics (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011).

5. Jasper Bernes, The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017), 6.

6. Bernes is keen to emphasize broad agreement on this point, which is foundational to the whole project. Besides Boltanski and Chiapello, who provide the main theoretical backing in The New Spirit of Capitalism (Paris: Gallimard, 1999; English trans. 2006), Bernes refers to related arguments made by David Harvey in The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), Thomas Frank in The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), Alan Liu in The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), and Julia Bryan-Wilson in Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

7. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908–1934 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 7.

8. “Deindustrialization” is also a neat way of patching up the moment when Fordism turns into post-Fordism, a sometimes too-hard rupture in left historiography.

9. As Bernes points out, it’s easy to construct a homology between the “dematerialization of labor” and the “dematerialization of the art object” (Lucy Lippard’s phrase) that is said to occur around the same time. Both are under investigation as phenomena and as discourses here.

10. For a thumbnail of them, see Boltanski and Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, 200–202.

11. See note 4 for a short bibliography of related work.

12. Bernes is inverting the famous Situationist slogan “under the pavement, the beach” here, perhaps by way of Lisa Robertson’s adaptation “under the pavement, pavement” from Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2006), 20.

13. See Boltanski and Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, 111, and chapter 2 as a whole.

14. The specific part of the poem being read here is the July 1 entry of Memory (Plainfield, VT: North Atlantic Books, 1975), 8.

15. This problem was alive in the 2014 commentary series in which Bernes participated in Jacket2 (about which I say more below). See Joshua Clover’s pointed exchange with Barrett Watten, who had commentary essays running at the same time.

16. “Rather than merely seeing both the workplace and artistic manifestations of the times as expressing some underlying anti-authoritarian or libertarian spirit — a view that is certainly correct to a degree — my book asks us to consider the historical sequence of these struggles, in which the artistic critique in many ways seems to precede and prefigure the challenges that emerge in the workplace” (16, emphasis added).

17. Bernes, Clover, and Spahr, “Spring and All, Farewell to Jackets,” Jacket2, April 1, 2014.

18. This is the argument made by Watten in a 2015 essay, “Poetics and the Question of Value; or, What Is a Philosophically Serious Poet?,” Wallace Stevens Journal 39, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 84–101. Watten critiques the methodology of Clover, Nealon, and, by implication, Bernes and other post-2008 exemplars of poetic Marxism, suggesting they overlook the implications of Marx’s theory of value (much more capacious, in Watten’s view, than is frequently assumed) in framing one-to-one correspondences between poetry and political economy.

19. See Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996). In artistic terms, Detroit would also be an excellent place to look for black experimental responses to deindustrialization in the Midwest: ambitious cultural productions by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, as well as Dudley Randall’s Black Arts–affiliated Broadside Press, come to mind.