Brent Cunningham posted this in one of the comment boxes below:

"I wanted to express some doubt that you could support what seems to be a component of your counter-argument to Ron, namely the idea that the Futurists weren't a central influence on the Formalists. Shklovsky anyway never misses a chance to champion Khlebnikov and Mayakovsky especially, & does connect the formalist method of literary analysis to futurist compositional strategies--this is very clear in VS's Mayakovsky & His Circle (where he writes "I was a Futurist at that time," i.e. 1915) and elsewhere. I'd say the Formalists analyze Doestoevsky or Pushkin as application of their method, but the method itself finds much inspiration in Futurist principles: the valuing of science and the mechanical, the sense of the primacy of component parts, the contempt for Symbolist mystification and transcendence, and also just personal friendship with that older generation. Tho he is maybe not a formalist (tho in many ways a formalist-linguist perhaps?), Roman Jakobsen's My Futurist Years also makes clear the personal and intellectual effect Mayakovsky had on his immediate circle.

Certainly, there was more to it than Ron's crib--yes, naturally formalists intervention in lit crit took place in a different field, where there was a different history and different figures and different debates, etc., that's all true--but for a thumbnail it's not far: Futurism, and Mayakovsky looming as its main figure, was really the great tributary into Formalism, and provided much of the social and tactical inspiration.

Ron's sense of connection between Russian Formalism and the New Critics is, as you suggest, much more debatable. But at the same time it is quite striking, as one goes along reading Shklovsky or Tynanov, to run across so many ideas that are deeply resonant with positions held by Brooks or Warren etc. despite the difference in their politics. Ewa Thompson has a whole book on this from 1971 that is worth looking at."

This is a serious challenge, & it got me to go down to the library today & look into the history of Russian Formalism - for which I'm grateful to Brent. And, after looking at some of the scholarly work on this, I have to agree that the Futurist poets, primarily Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov, were closely affiliated with the Russ. Formalists - at least, with some of them - during their early (pre-Soviet) years. The Moscow wing was closer to the Futurists - the circle in Petersburg, however - primarily Boris Eikhenbaum - seem to have been more interested in the Acmeists.

However, these issues are extremely complicated. "Thumbnails" - mine included - easily become reductive distortions. It would be a mistake to project a kind of genetic or domino-theory description of the emergence of Formalism out of Futurism. Many of the ideas which the Futurists & Formalists shared - about the emphasis on the signifier, the autonomy of art from biography or social sentiment etc. - were in the air : one only has to point to the parallel genesis of abstraction in the visual arts during the same period. Moreover, even some of the most "avant-garde" Futurist assertions about the nature of poetry actually echo trends from the fin-de-siecle & decadent-symbolist styles which preceded them. (There's a good monograph on this topic, which I will try to locate.)

In other words, it would be a mistake to look at Mayakovsky as the "father" of the critical movement known as formalism. The poets & the critics shared some common interests and judgements, for a time. Then the critics moved on to refine & apply their theories to literature at large; and both movements traveled toward eventual destruction by Stalinism & soviet realism in the 30s.

So I will have to withdraw, partially, #1 of my proposed list of necessary logical props for Ron's original statement. But #2-4 still stand. First, the New Criticism and Russian Formalism are better described as parallel 20th-century developments, than as a genetic development of the former from the latter. Second, the relation between the New Criticism and Ron's School of Quietude is murky at best : if he's going to argue that the (soi-disant) School of Quietude has "nc roots", then he might as well say that Language Poetry does, too. Thirdly, to label poets like Auden or Lowell as among Brodsky's "School o'Quietude friends" is to misrepresent their work. Auden's neoclassical, social poetry displays the antithesis of New Critical dicta; Lowell's work, after Life Studies, differentiates itself also - toward autobiography, documentary, social chronicle.

All this nit-picking is out of proportion to the sheer nonsense of Ron's "thumbnail" depiction of Brodsky's career, these ersatz ironies. But if it leads myself and others toward a more detailed investigation of Russian poetics & literary history, I have him & Brent to thank. & I find it continually curious to have these debates, with their very faint and distended echoes of the original battles between Symbolist & Acmeist, Acmeist & Futurist, Potebnia-disciples & Formalists. What's ironic to me is that the debate takes place in the context of one of Ron's thumbnail biographical profiles (in which he specializes on his blog) : ie., the topic is molded, not by the literary, philosophical, philological or compositional problems in themselves, but by an author biography. Now this gets back to Kent Johnson's liminal presence in these debates, the way he harks back to ancient quarrels & hurt feelings on a Langpo trip to Leningrad, decades ago... because, considering the emphasis of the Futurists on the "word itself" - Khlebnikov's & Mayakovsky's insistence on the obliteration of the "author biography", the idea that "the poem is the only hero", and the poem itself is just "words as SOUNDS" (zaum) - when you get into this territory, you are getting into Kent Johnson territory : which is to say - away with these "thumbnail" promotion-demotions of individual writers!

So, in an odd & fairly primitive & definitely anachronistic American way, KJ & RS & HG are replaying Futurist/Acmeist debates. The Futurist demotion - in fact their scornful obliteration - of the bourgeois "author principle" & "literary tradition", played (for a while) into the hands of the general Russian-revolutionary zeitgeist - until their time of usefulness to the regime had passed. But the usefulness of such a demotion is still visible in the postmodern poetics coming out of Langpo and some other New American strains - and this usefulness, for his own poetics, is what propels Ron's Futurist-Formalist genealogy. Kent offers a more radical critique, regarding the consequences of such a theoretical move (in poetry). & I still stand with the Acmeists, more or less - unwilling to dispense either with "tradition", or with some purely poetic notion of "personhood", which has yet to be fully articulated.

No comments: