Art in the Age of Economic Recession: B.S. Johnson and Ben Lerner

Historically, experimental form and linguistic innovation have not always needed to find their societal analogue in a radical political praxis. There is no necessary link, after all, between a disruptive aesthetic practice and an agenda of social reform. The writers of the avant-garde have, however, consistently deployed imaginative tactics that attempt to subvert and reconfigure the linguistic strategies and structural energies of dominant forms of capital. This is a tendency that goes beyond mere biographical fact, which is to say the paradigmatic figure of the nobly impoverished artist struggling on the margins of an uncaring technological society. It instead represents a concerted challenge to the established ordering codes of linguistic and societal value. ‘Value’ is, of course, a loaded term in this context, rooted in the language of economics and exchange. In the lexicon of the avant-garde writer it means more though, acting as an identifiable avatar for the self-ratifying strategies by which a system of control ‘discovers’ the meanings that it itself materially produces. An experimental challenge to ‘value’ in this expanded sense then becomes, almost by definition, inescapably utopian, providing a re-ordering and re-definition of the terms by which the world understands the codes that constitute its own ‘reality’.

A cursory glance at the sort of terms that experimentation has prided itself on offers initial signs of the economic meeting points between an artist and the world. In words like ‘innovation’, ‘new coinages’, a rejection of imaginative ‘debt’, the avant-garde meets the ideally straight lines of progress and economic growth, introducing tangential orders, occulting orbits, and wavering interactions of disruptive meaning. The modes by which this interaction has been formulated are multivalent rather than singular, variable rather than characterisable by a neat historical arc. From David Markson’s carefully economised imagination of scarcity in Wittgenstein’s Mistress, to the untrammelled wealth and unlimited material buying power of Canterel in Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus, experimentation has sought to define the terms by which it engages with its economic system, and, by engaging, change it. We are now, almost undeniably, entering a period where tectonic shifts are taking place in global economics. Power is shifting from the west to the east, and the old empires, already fallen, are falling further into their self-created historical abysses. Investors have lost confidence in the liquidity (which is to say the palpable reality) of virtual capital, and are seeking new mediums for encasing and protecting value. If we are to create artistic and critical work commensurate to the times (not necessarily a desirable task), how will they interact with these vast changes?

To start our search for answers, we could do worse than turning to B.S. Johnson’s 1973 novel Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry. The book is ostensibly a self-aware parody of the bildungsroman, in which the titular Christie grows into an embittered adulthood working a bureaucratic job at a chocolate company. There is a twist. Having trained as an accountant, Christie turns his technical skills to real life, seeking to quantify and, as a result, rectify the wrongs visited upon him by his boss, mother, society, world, and cosmos, all on a neat debit and credit form. So the ‘Unpleasantness of Bank General Manager’ (valued at £1) is placed against ‘Small Kindnesses from Joan’ (£0.28). Maury’s accountancy is, it becomes clear as the book progresses, radically out of joint, tending towards an indignant mania generally aimed towards social malaise. He starts calling up government departments, issuing bomb hoaxes and death threats; he aims for restitution with the tax man by sending explosives on a toy train into their building, killing seven; soon, he is poisoning water supplies, and planning to bring down the government and the entire system of power. And still the coldly rational accounting continues: the ‘general diminution of Christie’s life caused by advertising’ is rated at £50 where the value of those he has murdered is calculated as £1.30 (terms that relate to their probable real economic worth). In so doing, he creates a fictional universe where cause and effect are divorced, reality and unreality merge, with the form of the novel being blown further apart with every explosion.

Christie Malry was published only two years after Richard Nixon ended the gold standard, meaning that the U.S. currency no longer could be converted directly into a palpable material (gold). A similar fissure between imaginative designations of value and concrete actuality energises its world, with Johnson revelling in the newly virtual system of flux. Though the book rigorously subscribes to a coldly rational method of attributing value, certainly recognisable as that of finance capitalism, the enacting of this method exposes the arbitrariness of the truth claims that it makes, at the level of both form and content. Johnson enters in the very heart of his version of capitalism and, by choosing to take the claims it makes on the world literally and extending them infinitely, exposes the time-lag that exists between value and material, reason and practice, word and meaning. Johnson’s project may be said to be, then, a realist one. He chooses to listen intensely and depict the irrationality that fires and creates the capitalist reality, baldly bringing to the surface its contradictions, problems, and manias. These are conceptualised in both formal and linguistic terms through an obsessive and self-destructive focus on economy (in the sense of shortness) that forces the book to close early and arbitrarily, and with vast blank spaces, digressions, and negotiations between Christie and the bored and earnest author. Language is reified, made ridiculously and meticulously literal, with meaning pushed to the very surface of the word and beyond, to the extent that the provenance of their own coinage is problematized: words like ‘exeleutherostomise’, ‘incunabula’, ‘transcursion’, ‘fastigium’, and ‘sphacelated’ abound.

Unsurprisingly, the literary marketplace did not respond favourably.

Nonetheless, what Christie Malry does suggest is that rather than entering into a dialectically opposed relationship with capital, which, ultimately, only serves to reconstitute the dominant system, experimentation can be at its most forceful and disruptive when it attempts to enter into and take over the sources of value production. In so doing, its language, rather than being constrictive, becomes multivalent, new, and transformed from the inside out, a resource for potentiality and the creation of dazzling imaginative terrains. This should not be confused with a mere reductive political didacticism or oppositionalism for the sake of it, and does not constitute a demand for an ideological message in every act of text. Rather, experimental utopias, if they are to be achieved, will take a pre-existent language and give it a new sort of life, where the relationship between world, things, and perception are unalterably changed. Whether we like it or not, we are confronted with a given way of speaking, a given set of conditions and codes that regulate life as we know it: the challenge becomes how to redeem them.

“You can’t study a mode of production directly” Adam Gordon, the protagonist of Ben Lerner’s debut novel Leaving the Atocha Station, warns us. Gordon’s point is only half-serious: he is trying to appear learned to impress a female friend. However, Lerner’s miraculously innovative poetic work can be characterised as, among many other things, an indirect exploration of the linguistic and systemic structures of modern day capitalism. His collection Mean Free Path is full of the language of economics and finance and we hear how, for instance, ‘in your long dream / money changes hands’, how ‘they phased us out / across the backward capitals / like paper money’, and ‘I stand for everything / Like money changing hands in dreams’. The initial point to take is that ‘money’ in these constructions ceases to be a palpable means of exchange in ‘the real world’ and becomes instead etherealized, a marker of poetic interchange. It is placed within a constellation of almost purely internal connotation, with ‘changes / changing’, ‘hands’, ‘dreams’ magnetically gathering around it, altering its meaning through logic of strange position and juxtaposition. Confronted with a dominant mode of expression, Lerner finds ways to revivify its language, finding an almost lyric beauty in words thought stripped of poetic currency – they radiate back into the world, stepping lightly as though new born. This is not to say that they are societally useful, but, nonetheless, after reading them the world seems uncannily altered, as though you wake, not to find the dream real, but, at least, with the consolation of remembering the act of dreaming itself.

Lerner’s idiom is hypnotic and repetitive, with unfinished phrases straining to find their negative half, and lines altering and transforming as they are unfurled:

the new construction going up
is elegy, no
money down or interest through
The twilight of the medium
We’re heavily indebted to
interior scenes, now destroyed,

The words to look at here are ‘money down’, ‘interest’, and ‘indebted’. Where the above examples outlined the mode of Lerner’s relationship to language, this passage describes his method, his systematization of the language of capital. Having established a set of words that orbit about the word ‘money’ (with ‘money’s meaning slowly melting as a result) it is now placed into both Lerner’s internal aesthetic structures and a broader poetic gestalt. ‘Elegy’ acts as the point of rotation, altering the words’ constitution, and how they are to be perceived. In other words, ‘money’ ceases to be either the means or the end, but merely another cipher in a differently constructed universe, a ‘new construction’ of meaning that is the poem itself as a medium of possibility. As with Lisa Robertson’s rescue of ancient meteorological discourse in The Weather, Lerner’s project seeks to recover some semblance of meaning, not within the historic, but within the present.

To conclude, then, we can describe a new form of experimental poetic language or poetic mode by stating that there is no such thing as poetic language, only language that takes place in ‘poetry’. But this is a good thing. It means that we can start to think less about impalpables like voice or even rhythm, but instead about a series of strategies for poetic engagement with the world, a series of tactics for ascribing new orders of value to the world. We might think of the language of capital as a sort of Oulipian constriction on expression, one to be encountered, wrestled with and overcome, only to be repeated again and again, with results varying with every iteration. This way societal ‘value’ can be changed from within, as a series of textual acts serve to reconfigure reality: words become newly ghostly, like spirits in the machine, or sparks in the dark, alluding to some greater order that, as yet, we are unaware of.