Sunday, May 15, 2011

Theories of the Mainstream

No mainstream, whether literary, artistic, or political, has any need to come up with a theory to explain itself. Theory is necessary to explain things that do not go without saying, and mainstreams cannot even see that they have assumed that they go without saying.

From the inside of the political mainstream, radicals appear in need of explanation, but the inside is that which does not need to be explained. A generation later, the old mainstream does require explanation, and hence theory and historical analysis. As a result, the contemporary mainstream can be quite critical of its historical antecedents, but the idea of turning such critiques upon itself remains unthinkable.

This can also be applied to poetry: the contemporary mainstream reads the Modernists, not the poets who were the mainstream back then.

[Revised version of comments on this post by John Gallaher.]

1 comment:

Joseph Hutchison said...

Maybe mainstreams only exist in retrospect. The backward look simplifies and so falsifies what was, in fact, an almost-chaos of individual practice. I say "almost" because there are certainly anti-entropic forces at work, though they work as they do in real streams: there are swirls, eddies, rapids and backwashes, rain that swells and freshens, droughts that shrink and encourage stagnation. Only after the season has passed does it seem that we see general movements—but there are no "general movements." They are figments of the retrospective view—a view denied to the present. We think we have a sense of whose poetry, right now, is "major" and whose isn't (the Library of America has already devoted a volume to John Ashbery), but that sense is a fantasy—a kind of hubris.