Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism
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American Literature 76.3 (2004) 579-602



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Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism

University of California, Berkeley

Recent innovative North American poetry is a good place for thinking about the status of a new aesthetics, since it's been busy writing one. I'm thinking of American and Canadian poets, most in their thirties and forties now, who are writing in light of the poetic and critical projects of Language poetry, though they are by no means simply following them out. These poets, referred to as "post-Language" writers in the small-press world in which they've emerged, raise interesting questions about new habits of literary criticism, since their poems read both as theory and poetry. Although these poets have not yet produced a body of writing like the criticism and theory of the Language poets, their poetry reads like the yield, if not the foregrounding, of significant theoretical effort.

More specifically, many of the post-Language writers seem to have taken a kind of Frankfurt school turn in their poems, by which I mean not so much that they are crankily denouncing a culture industry—though they may—or critically miming "authoritarian" types of language—though they do—but that they have become invested in a historical story about what Theodor Adorno called "damaged life," or what Susan Stewart might call the "fate" of the material world, its pasts and possible futures.1 Unlike Adorno or Walter Benjamin, though, many of the post-Language poets have struck a kind of camp posture toward the "damage" of late capitalism, in a way that borrows from but reinterprets both the messianism of Adorno and Benjamin and the subcultural (especially queer) trajectory of camp.

The best sketch I can offer of the Frankfurtian part of this historical story about a "damaged" material life is to say that it's not [End Page 579] just a story of the culture industry whose workings Adorno and Max Horkheimer detailed at midcentury, nor even of the "late capitalism" Fredric Jameson first diagnosed in 1984;2 it's the story of something like really, really late capitalism; capitalism in a fully globalized and triumphal form, the destructive speed and flexibility of whose financial instruments alone make Nixon's lofting the dollar off the gold standard in 1971 look thoughtful and conservative. Depending on how one understands the massive glut of capital unleashed on the world markets since the collapse of the Soviet Union, capitalism has either taken on a new, omnipotently viral character (traveling across national boundaries, for instance, with the power to imperil entire economies for no other reason than to keep a tiny group of wealthy investors' portfolios mobile and artificially inflated); or it is in the last, seizing phases of a horrible addiction to its own mobility. In any case, the privatizing, shock-treatment destruction of the post-Soviet economy in the early nineties, the collapse and bailout of the peso in 1995, the Asian currency crisis of 1997, and the bottoming out of the United States' supposedly posthistorical new economy in 2000—all these indicate a volatility to capital on an order of magnitude beyond even the ricochets of the early twentieth century.3 If Adorno and Horkheimer made much of how the Enlightenment's dream of the equality of all people had become the nightmare of the interchangeability of all people, that interchangeability could now be said to have become entirely liquid, even quicksilver.

We might say that the camp aspect of post-Language writing, meanwhile, is the rueful astonishment that, against all odds, this liquidation is still not complete: post–Cold War global economic volatility has not resulted in wholesale disaster for the United States or Europe. Instead, late-late capitalism gives texture to our everyday lives more murmuringly: most of us are at least intermittently aware of being solicited day and night by a kind of manic mass culture that seeks, ever more aggressively, to stuff our attention to the gills. When Andrew Ross remarks, then, that...