Essay: Wit and the Use of Incompetence

reviewed by Nathan Austin

Incompetence will show in the use of too many words.

The reader's first and simplest test of an author will be to look for words that do not function; that contribute nothing to the meaning OR that distract from the MOST important factor of the meaning to factors of minor importance.
— Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading

I've developed allergies, Marie Antoinette's mortgage put the vote on the mouth rib misnomer. G-G-G-G
headsup ghost ink – explainer – disease-free GTR AKG Tapco OHM PA / JBL slap it!
— Bruce Andrews, Civil Tongue

In a post to Lime Tree, K. Silem Mohammad raises some provocative questions about what sort of “test of poetry” might be applicable to contemporary poetics, given that the medium (or, rather, the strain to which he alludes) no longer thinks itself in terms of rigid and formally codified rules. As he explains, Victorian poetry (to use one example) could be objectively regarded in terms of prosodic rules— that, in other words, its “mere competence” could be objectively regarded by way of testing it against rules of scansion, rhyme, etc., and that its relative merit beyond this point is extrinsic to these qualities. Competence, then, is a value at once positive and prescriptive: it can be ascertained by testing the poem against the rules, and can be used to rule out a poem as merely incompetent without a consideration of the poem’s “content,” without reading the poem for other, less-quantifiable values, like “brilliance” (whatever that means).

Modernism, Mohammad's account suggests, arrives onto the scene as a sort of “death of art,” as the term has been applied to, and subsequently used by, Arthur Danto in theorizing aesthetics after Warhol's

Brillo Boxes

re-presented the quotidian (or its exact replica) as art, thus changing the terms for everything that followed, and for art itself. Danto takes up a Hegelian model to history, writing that “whatever art there was to be” after this moment “would be made without benefit of a reassuring sort of narrative in which it was seen as the appropriate next stage of the story,” at which point art becomes self-reflective of necessity, the meaning of the term “art” having been placed under question, though not erasure. Thus, and thenceforth, “an artwork can consist of any object whatsoever that is enfranchised as art, raising the question ‘Why am I a work of art?’”

Tests of poetic merit— the term here refers to matters of competence rather than to larger concerns that would situate the work of art within the world beyond prosody's bounds— still exist, of course. But, as Mohammad notes, these usually rely upon subjective qualities as their bases for valuation. He mentions that certain tendencies in post-war poetry value avoidance of cliché, or the construction of arbitrary rules, and adherence to those rules. We might add to his list such considerations as Charles Olson’s “form is never more than an extension of content,” or the phrase “what will suffice” in Wallace Stevens’ description of the “poem of the act of the mind,” which leaves first to the poet, and then to the reader-as-critic, the open-ended matter of what it means to suffice, much as Pound's distinction between the “MOST important factor” and “factors of minor importance” leaves unresolved the question of whether the relative importance of a poem's features can be assessed in absolute terms.

What is more, certain of these tests present themselves as an ironic refutation of absolute rules. By way of an example, Mohammad cites O’Hara’s joking “Personism,” which treats craft-competence as “common sense” and “tightness”: “As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.” As Mohammad points out, O’Hara invokes craft only to poke fun at it. O'Hara doesn’t deny that craft exists, but suggests the objective measure is nothing more than desire— itself a subjective value, if also a significant force in the world of inter-subjective relationships— even if it is playfully universalized with the word “everyone.”

O’Hara’s account of techné serves as a model for what Mohammad calls “wit,” which he playfully describes according to the mathematical formula “competence + awareness of the inadequacy of competence [as a model for assessing a poem’s relative merit].” It is this ironizing awareness— analogous to the “why am I a work of art?” question posited in Danto’s account— that wit relies upon in his formulation. Wit, then, is dialectically related to competence; we might regard it as competence taken, knowingly, to its very limit.

Hints in Mohammad's post— namely his reference to “certain strands of contemporary poetry”— indicate that he’s talking about flarf, to which the notion of wit seems particularly applicable. At the same time, the question could be posited in thinking through poetic experiments in general: if we could test the competence of Bernadette Mayer's “X on Page 50” by measuring her adherence to her own compositional parameters, we would still have a difficult time identifying which of the poems in Bruce Andrews' oeuvre is competent. But flarf’s desire to be deliberately “bad,” at least in certain of its theorizations, necessarily invokes a standard, a certain quality of “goodness,” according to which it positions itself, if in the negative. This need not presume competence, of course— and Mohammad’s own formulation of this badness as a heavily ironized rejection of “acceptable” and ” P.C.” sentiments is one way of formulating it. Nonetheless, the general tenor of flarf is such that it not only implies, but relies upon, a standard of goodness against which it positions itself, and this standard is, at least in part, based on notions of craft that, if a poem can be determined to be flarf, or “good flarf,” must be at least somewhat stable.

It might be interesting to look at the question of wit (and at flarf in general) in terms of Danto’s writing on the “death of art.” One of the examples that he raises, and that might be relevant, even if only partially, to flarf and to Mohammad’s notion of wit is that of the Most Wanted paintings by Komar and Melamid. These paintings, executed after the collapse of the Soviet Union’s totalitarian rule over art production, and designed according to poll results on what people want from art, are terribly bad. Nonetheless, they do adhere— and surprisingly strictly — to normative paradigms of art, including a particular emphasis on mimetic representation that isn’t particularly different from the realism demanded by edict under Soviet rule. That is to say that they would score high on the competence measuring stick.

Komar and Melamid’s paintings are, by any standard other than kitsch, quite bad. At the same time, they are quite good— once the viewer becomes aware of the apparatus according to which they were produced; their insistence on an imagery that Danto compares to calendars is re-read not in strict terms of normative conventions of art production, but in something like an opposition to them. Or a problematization of them, rather, as simplistic models of opposition are not apt either.

The question, then, is whether this constitutes a form of wit, as Mohammad uses the term. Danto reads Komar and Melamid’s paintings in different terms, of course, regarding the “rules” to which they apparently adhere as, in actuality, a result of the reductive values of the marketplace, to which the polls implicitly refer. Nonetheless, that the paintings find themselves drawn into relation to extremely conventional rules according to which, as in Mohammad’s mention of the Victorian measures of competence, contemporary assessments no longer subscribe. So, in other words, the rules are “there,” even if only accidentally, and the paintings’ process of generation would seem to ironize them, even if their “target” is elsewhere. Furthermore, Komar and Melamid’s insistence on designing the paintings such that they include everything the polls identified as “wanted” points to an ironic relationship to the rules extrapolated from the polling data.

I've already quoted O'Hara's knowing and ironic account of competence; what I haven't called attention to is the fact that he defers the judgment of a work's competence to an abstract and broad public, the “everyone” who will “want to go to bed” with the poem. “Competence,” as suggested above, isn't quantifiable, but is rather a subjective measure, and is deferred not to the experts but to the public at large, to “everyone.” And in the Most Wanted series, Komar and Melamid perform a similar act of deferral, figuring competence in terms of the public taste at the same time that, through the folly of polling, they do attempt to quantify it.

But the Least Wanted series, adjunct to the Most Wanted, operates at the negative end of the polls; it thus embraces incompetence at the same time that performs another turn of the “good vs. bad” screw. In so doing, Komar and Melamid return us to Mohammad's initial question, and force us to reconsider the equation for wit that he has established. If wit is equivalent to “competence + awareness of the inadequacy of competence,” the question of whether the Least Wanted paintings can constitute wit is troubled by even the most knowing and ironic definitions of competence that have been suggested thus far. Or, to put it differently, does an extreme measure of ugly incompetence sacrifice wit precisely in its move towards the limit? It is within this troubled space that the questions of competence and wit find themselves, not only for flarf, but for other poetries as well— particularly those that knowingly embrace that which is not only ugly and unpleasant, but which absolutely resist aestheticizing that ugliness.

By way of a provisional closure, we might imagine re-reading Sianne Ngai's “Raw Matter: A Poetics of Disgust” not as an account of certain strains in contemporary writing, but as the preface to an alternative measure of competence, a new test of poetry, the substance of which has not yet been written.

A poetics of disgust would … rely on the use of … raw matter: words with insistence or “attentiveness to living,” inseparable from their material embodiments, as letters on the page. Language's raw matter (flow, gush, outpouring; inarticulate sound; “something between a groan and a cry”; ow, help, no; woo, braah; smiles and shouts) does not seek to be evaluated epistemologically or symbolically as one might evaluate a proposition, for the truth value or representational value of the assertion it makes. Its rhetorical force comes from elsewhere and is perceived differently: as that which solicits a response from the other in the form of pure affect or noise.

— Sianne Ngai, “Raw Matter”

Nathan Austin’s publications include tie an o and (glost). An essay, “Omage,” was recently printed in I Have Imagined a Center // Wilder Than This Region, a collection devoted to the teaching of Susan Howe. Read more at his blog This Cruellest Month