Anger and the Banality of Academe

Peter Wood

My editors at the Chronicle last week declined to permit me to publish my last piece on the same-sex marriage debate. They pointed out, reasonably enough, the topic is "too far afield from and tangential to academe and academic policy to run on Innovations." That topic has, of course, had plenty of play on another Chronicle blog, Brainstorm, but I understand the skittishness of the post-Naomi opinion section of the Chronicle when it comes to dissent from the prevailing norms of academic opinion, and I quietly slid the article over to Minding the Campus, where its academic anchor held fast. 

With that out of the way, I turned to issues that I was pretty sure wouldn't set off tsunamis of protest: the importance of teaching the history of Western civilization; my own multicultural undergraduate education; and the creative side of coming to terms with cultural loss. I am rather enjoying this placid stretch, and rather than rush to re-join the debates over student financial aid, the higher-education bubble, governance at UVa, the role of technology on campus, the latest sustainalunacies from last month's conference at UC Davis, and the like, I'm sticking with the theme that higher education is relaxing deeper and deeper into banality. Not just any kind of banality but a banality that artfully and sometimes pleasingly combines the detritus of popular culture, the ersatz sophistication of the opinion elites, a consumer ethic, random bits of globalized commerce, and the jumbled fragments of the old civilization. We recline in the shade of those ruins. And it is not so bad.




Alien vs. Predator

Maybe the best exemplar of this happy combination is the poet Michael Robbins, who leapt to fame on the publication in The New Yorker in January 2009 of a short poem, Alien vs. Predator. The title refers to the 2004 horror movie mash-up that united two franchises:  the carnivorous Alien stowaway saga that began with Ridley Scott's 1979 movie, and the trophy-hunters from outer-space series that began with the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger pic. Uniting the two fantasies must have seemed like a good idea, but the result was sadly lackluster.  It did, however, offer a metaphorically rich title. Which is the greater monster: appetite or ego?

Not that that battle is necessarily what Robbins' poem is about. The poem appears as a mélange of pop - culture allusions mixed with bits of high-culture tradition. The opening line, "Praise this world, Rilke says, the jerk," refers to Rilke's "Duino Elegy, No. 9," ("Praise this world to the Angel.")  Rilke's poem is a trembling meditation on the evanescence of life, calling us to pay attention to the here and now. Why is does this make Rilke "a jerk"?  I have no idea except that Robbins has more fun excoriating this world--the world of 21st century American consumerism--than he has praising anything. But I'm not sure Robbins' poem lends itself to close explication. The immediate pleasures he offers are off-tilt rhymes ("...the jerk/ We'd stay up all night. Every angel's/ Berserk..."), cascades of references to rap lyrics, comic books, and advertisements, verbal glissandos, puns, and a general high-spiritedness.

"Alien vs. Predator" takes the form of competitive boasting between the monsters, as if they were playground rivals or perhaps the two keelboatmen from Chapter Three of Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, who exhaust themselves trading grandiose taunts and never actually get to trading blows:

"Whoo-oop! I'm the old original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw!--Look at me! I'm the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane, dam'd by an earthquake, half-brother to the cholera, nearly related to the small-pox on the mother's side! Look at me! I take nineteen alligators and a bar'l of whiskey for breakfast when I'm in robust health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I'm ailing!'

Robbins' antagonists are more succinct than Twain's but the rambunctiousness is the same: "I set the controls, I pioneer/ the seeding of the ionosphere./ I translate the Bible into velociraptor."  "I fight the comets, lick the moon,/pave its lonely streets."

Unlike The Wasteland, with its retinue of footnotes, Robbins' poems leave the reader to his own devices to figure out where all that cultural detritus originated. Eli Lehrer, reviewing Robbins in The Weekly Standard, dubbed him "the Wiki-Poet" since his "work can be appreciated only with an Internet connection." Truth be told, the Internet connection isn't that helpful. A site that tries to unravel the rap references in "Alien vs. Predator" doesn't offer much. I think you either enjoy Robbins' poems for their sheer verve or you give them up as mostly incomprehensible. They are certainly open and easy to read for several lines at a time, where they are often hilarious. In "The Learn'd Astronomer," he writes:

Even then, I was so skillful a lover

That when I said, "Life is wasted on the living,"

The rivers ran for days with suicides.

Occasionally he turns his hand to something perfectly lucid, as in "Space Mountain," twenty-three couplets of oath-like curses along the lines of:

By the millionaire playboy's cape and his cowl,

By that wise old Zen master, the Tootsie Pop owl,

Which concludes, falsely, "I am a man of few words, each one a thrown switch," and a promise to name the "mouth-breathers" he execrates.  "Then pull up a chair.  This could take a while."

Robbins is a poet of what I have called "new anger"--the show-off, look-at-me anger in which most of the point is the pleasure of performance. So what is Robbins actually angry about? You can read his collection of 55 short poems several times closely and not really know. Some of the poems start angry:

"You homicidal bitch..."  [Appetite for Destruction]

Or ugly:

"Every last one of my thirty-eight years

Would fit inside Jeffrey Dahmer's freezer."  [Affect Theory]

But they are pretty soon captured by the giddiness of exuberant play. Robbins is having enough fun that he doesn't mind putting a little Ogden Nash doggerel in the mix:

"My fish, fast and loose, shoot fish in a kettle.

The boys like the girls who like heavy metal." [I Did This to My Vocabulary]

I am nominating Michael Robbins as a poet whose poems capture the spirit of the academy. I concluded that before finding him in two interviews declaring his perfected academic disdain for America. Here he tells a writer for Vol. 1 Brooklyn who asks him about his "strong ambivalence in [his] poems about late capitalism."

I wouldn't call it ambivalence as much as a contradiction. I think that I'm drawn to the Marxist critique of capitalism, because of its dialectic. I feel like a douchebag saying a sentence like that, but you know, Marx is not simply bashing capitalism, he's extoling [sic] its liberating aspects. At the same time he's urging that the contradictions that it contains are oppressive and ultimately will lead it to its ruin. I feel a similar contradiction in late capitalism insofar as I'm wholly antagonistic to it as a form of economic life. Right now it's a way of producing apartheid and slums. I feel like there's no sensible person who could not see capitalism as an immensely destructive force that produces immiseration on mass scales. I'm completely opposed to capitalism politically, but I'm at the same time as attracted to its products as anyone else.

And he tells an interviewer from the Paris Review:



My poetry is partly about how everything is for sale. It seems astonishing to me that we accept that as normal. At the same time, I love Taylor Swift and it would be ridiculous for me to not listen to Taylor Swift or to not see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which I just saw, because they are consumer spectacles that disguise the actual relations of production. So yeah, I think the sense that those phrases are completed for me by capitalist vernacular, by advertising, by jargon and cliché is a way of thinking about language and my relationship to it. I want to register my antagonism while also registering my complicity.   

A Whale on Stilts

I rather like Robbins' poems, but when interviewers speak without irony of "late capitalism" and the poet strides right ahead in the language of Marxist "contradictions," dialectic, and "relations of production," I hear a man more besotted with the junk of campus pseudo-intellectualism than he is troubled with the disorders of his society. Robbins the poet has a bit of Mark Twain in his DNA. Robbins the visiting professor (most recently, the University of Southern Mississippi) is, to borrow a phrase, "a whale on stilts."

Artful banality ceases to be artful and becomes a lot more banal when the poet subsides into these sorts of clichés. Whether, when I hold up Robbins as a mirror of the contemporary university, the university will catch a glimpse of itself, I don't know. But it is that time of year when it seems allowable to offer a metaphor instead of an argument.  Something like throwing marshmallows to the alligators. So which is the greater monster?  Appetite or ego?  "Whose whales these are/I'll never know. They lawyer up. I'm lying low."

This article originally appeared in Minding the Campus


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