Sunday, November 1, 2009

Intolerant of Rachel Zolf's The Tolerance Project

Rachel Zolf has recently, and perhaps productively, run into resistance on a micro-level regarding her MFA, The Tolerance Project.  An extremely interesting / important poetry of resistance, The Tolerance Project emerges as Rachel is pushed into an MFA environment as one of the only viable routes for staying in the U.S. to be with her same-sex partner, given the homophobic laws that extend into immigration.  That is, Zolf finds herself in an MFA program in large part because this is one of the only ways she can attain a visa and live in the U.S.  So, the MFA becomes both metaphor and site of deconstruction.  After posting some of her peers' critique on The Tolerance Project blog, posting them as anonymous bits of feedback, Rachel is roundly criticized.   As Rachel explains on the Project blog: 

The key problem that seems to have arisen unbeknownst to me is regarding my taking the constructive criticism that you put on the poems I brought to class and putting this criticism on the blog in a completely anonymous form. I never assumed this would be a problem, and if there was a problem I assumed that people in the class who went to the blog would have told me. So for example, for the poem, “the Tradition,” the one on breastfeeding and all the chemicals in the milk, I wrote on the blog all of the workshop feedback I thought would be constructive to start with in terms of revising the poem. Here’s exactly what I wrote preceding that poem (btw, since this controversy I have taken down all the comments and we can discuss that more in a minute):
Some comments on Poem 2: “Poem has too much repetitions. It grates on listener’s/reader’s ear”; “a little preachy...look at tuning some passages of melodrama”; “I almost wanted to see some less robotic mixing in the beginning”; “I think plain, clear language could make it stronger, ie cut the repetition of not really me and simply refer to it as a child…it gets worn from overuse”; “hmmm very both motherhood and sex, lube and oils, perhaps just my reading”; “'economics and labor time and biology' could be too direct”; “reminds me of The Talking Heads’ 'Heaven'”;“'Hand this over./Pass this on' feels a little chain-letter like to me”; “'raisons' as intentional misspelling?”;“Follows some directions of the 'contemporary' canon, but explosive”; “Suggests the speaker is a kind of machine, so the speaker is the engine oil, what needs the additive.”

So that’s an example of what I would write preceding a poem (and just for the record, I don’t have a child). I deliberately didn’t post the positive comments, because they don’t really help in the revising process. The aim was that the online public would look at the poem and the comments and make more comments on the poem, that it would open up the workshopping of the project poems beyond just the few voices here. And that I could show donors actual critique on their poetic donations from relatively unbiased MFA students. Many donors are established poets from earlier generations that didn’t have to take an MFA in order to teach. So the project plays with the interesting fact that many of the people of earlier generations that are teaching poetry workshops have never actually undergone the workshop process themselves. In fact, one thing I like about being here is learning from established writers like [name edited out] how to teach these types of classes.

Given that all the comments were completely anonymous and blurred together as a collective response, I had no idea it would be violating the “privacy” and “sanctity” of the MFA workshop, as I have recently been told.

This has generated a discussion, including several anonymous critiques, some from MFA students in the program, as well as thoughtful responses to these posts by Lisa Robertson, Jeff Derksen, and others.

Given that I used to organize unions comprised partly of MFA instructors, some of them graduate employees (teaching assistants, lecturers, etc), the discussion, but especially the Project, is greatly interesting to me.  Below is what I wrote on the Project's site.  I reproduce it here as a way to revisit the corporate academy, especially the cash cow that is the MFA. Comments from readers are welcome.

Thank you, Rachel, for brilliantly allegorizing the inequities built into U.S.  human trade and wage labor laws that we, as a so-called “LGBT community” face, and that “we,” as so-called U.S. citizens, are all complicit in.  Complicit in our quietisms, in our inadvertent and habituated othering, in what appears even here on the blog: neo-liberal fundamentalism after fundamentalism.    Were your project “only” to expose the apparatus of “homosexuality as debt,” it would be an important detournement.  Yet, the project is so multivalent.  That its allegory pivots around the Academic Industrial Complex, that “cash cow” that is, and is increasingly, the Masters Degree, makes for a truly multi-channeled and collective project that will connect up several, interrelated substructures of our un-doing. 


Thank you, Lisa, Jeff, and Kasey—for contextualizing this for us, and for “signing” this document.  Rachel, I think it spot-on to make anonymous the comments I hope will be reposted.  Indeed, it’s important to go beyond recognizing, but always pushing poetically the polyvocal, fractured and multiple construction of the subject/agent—I am certainly, the multitudes; and the conditions under which identifications are constructed, even the very names we are given, constantly call out for witness and analysis.  Yet here, like Lisa, I find it fascinating to see who signs their comments and who decides to “remain anonymous.”  As a locus for ascriptions of responsibility, but also for purposes of delving into why just this set of comments is identified with just this name, or not: it’s interesting that the vast majority of writers out there would like to make sure their names are attached to their good poetic works, but not to anything that might be crucially controversial sans accolade.  Or might simply be slip of the tongue.  Or a thought sketched out in a moment of self-defensive wounding.


Going on far too long, and mainly I decided to chime in here in order to riff off of what Lisa posted.  And to give anecdote to what Jeff was getting at.  Before I started teaching text arts (got the job as inside gig, along with the fact that I’d simply published a couple of poetry books – another e.g. of the normative professionalization here, what makes one “qualified”), I spent about seven years as a union organizer, organizing several different job categories, among them graduate teaching/research assistants and adjunct professors.  Chances are I probably organized at the institution where you are, Rachel.  And there was, indeed, a pervasive anti-union sentiment among most of the MFA writing students that I organized, at several different institutions.  It initially shocked me that there seemed to be such a crevasse between the arts and left social activism—I’d have predicted that disenfranchised writing instructors at corporate universities would be predominantly “pro-union,” even if many students were just out of college, etc.  This, especially after the fact that a) we’d just won (were the first place to do so in the U.S.) domestic partnership healthcare benefits for same-sex couples, and b) had drafted, as addendum to bargaining, a comprehensive student/work visa protection proposal for internationals, one that would ensure that internationals would be protected from losing their job or benefits during a delay in visa processing (this was in the wake of September 11, when “administrative review” of J-1, H1B, etc., was especially high, and there was still hope of stopping some of the legislation that ended up leading to many of the invasive practices Lisa mentions).   The link to that document is below for any interested.  


The reasons I got for why MFA students would not support unionization were largely twofold: either the MFA student came from a management family, was “well to do” and so did not support unions and/or didn’t consider themselves “workers,” or the MFA candidate was so deeply in debt, so beholden to their advisors, so on the fringe of an institution, that “rocking the boat” was simply unthinkable.  I found that this sort of alienation manifested in the mimetic/institutional reframing (or deframing) of the socio-political use value of aesthetic production.  Either poetic practices are “too meaningless” to be “work” or sites of political activation/critique, or such practices are fetishized as being transcendent of work, of “politics.”  Jeff’s pointing out that this project’s critique via submission, as well as its dissensus has a trajectory that goes back to Benjamin is extremely helpful.  To riff on that as I sign off here.  The beginning of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory also seems crucial, here, not just as it relates to your project, Rachel, but as it relates specifically to some of these posts and other reactions within the institution: “Only by immersing its autonomy in society’s imagerie can art surmount the heteronomous market.  Art is modern through mimesis of the hardened and alienated; only thereby, and not by the refusal of a mute reality, does art become eloquent.”  (AT, 31)



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