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How the US Government Used Avant-Garde Literature as Soft Power


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In the boundary 2 review, an online publication associated with the humanities journal boundary 2, literary scholar Rob Wilson reviews Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment by Juliana Spahr. Spahr is an Oakland-based poet and professor whose poetry concerns ecological loss and extra-parliamentary social movements like Occupy. In Du Bois’s Telegram, a work of literary history and polemic, she traces the connections between self-described “autonomous,” apolitical literary movements in the US and state support from agencies like the CIA in the postwar period. As Wilson explains in his review, state intervention in the literary sphere systematically severed the ties between social movements and literary scenes in the US, recruiting the latter for soft-power diplomacy instead. Here’s an excerpt:

“Relentless monitoring” and co-optation of literary sites, outlets, and works became the US state-funded norm to counter, mollify, moderate, neutralize, and defuse resistance and thus keep any form of “armed militancy” (especially black or Third-World affiliated) at foreign bay (130-131). Networks of foundation funding and State Department support provided the capillary flow of power and capital, covertly and more openly so at times across the sixties and seventies if still “under recognized” (141) in its pervasive impact and consequences as Spahr claims. At the university level, this meant “an institutionalization of these culturalist movements that would sever them from more insurgent and militant possibilities as they were located within the university” (139). Such networks of biopower helped to produce and contain racialized resistance, as Roderick Ferguson, Eric Bennett, and Jodi Melamed et al have noted, as recuperated within if not beyond the Cold War academy.

Challenging her own immersion in lyric ideologies of First World privilege and a university literary culture aligned with US “imperial globalization,” Spahr exposes claims, taking academic dominion as absorbed in her “avoidance” training at SUNY Buffalo, that “the modernist tradition excluded [valuing] writing that had direct connection to thriving culturalist and anticolonialist movements of the time” (8). “I was thinking,” Spahr admits while tracking her own counterconversion to “poetry’s [subaltern] socialities and prosovereignty literatures” in counter-nationalist Hawai’i in the 1990s and the alter- or other-than-Englishes then emerging, “in the way the State Department and the liberal foundations that worked with the State Department wanted me to think” (10). As Spahr will admit later in chapter three reflecting on another wave of stubborn nationalism, “in many ways this book is an autobiography about how my education [at Bard and Buffalo] told me that certain forms of literature were autonomous when they were not and how long it took me to realize this” (110). Still, Spahr’s will to cultivate resistance remains no less stubborn, no less deeply affiliated as material and literary intervention.

Image via 57th Street Books.