English Composition As A Happening

English Composition As A Happening

by Geoffrey Sirc

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What happened to the bold, kicky promise of writing instruction in the 1960s? The current conservative trend in composition is analyzed allegorically by Geoffrey Sirc in this book-length homage to Charles Deemer's 1967 article, in which the theories and practices of Happenings artists (multi-disciplinary performance pioneers) were used to invigorate college writing.…  See more details below


What happened to the bold, kicky promise of writing instruction in the 1960s? The current conservative trend in composition is analyzed allegorically by Geoffrey Sirc in this book-length homage to Charles Deemer's 1967 article, in which the theories and practices of Happenings artists (multi-disciplinary performance pioneers) were used to invigorate college writing. Sirc takes up Deemer's inquiry, moving through the material and theoretical concerns of such pre- and post-Happenings influences as Duchamp and Pollock, situationists and punks, as well as many of the Happenings artists proper.

With this book, already a cult classic, began a neo-avant-garde for composition studies.

Winner of the Ross W. Winterowd Award for most outstanding book in composition theory.

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Utah State University Press
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Copyright © 2002 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87421-435-2

Chapter One


(Notes Toward a General Teleintertext)

1. English Composition as a Happening (as all composition that followed him does, consciously or not) begins with Duchamp. When Richard Kostelanetz interviews Allan Kaprow, who coined the term Happening, "the conversation opens with Kaprow speaking of Marcel Duchamp" (The Theatre of Mixed Means 102). Calvin Tomkins calls the influence of Duchamp on Robert Rauschenberg, creator of some of the most poetically charged Happenings-like theater events of the era, "crucial ..., confirming and reinforcing what must often have seemed a highly questionable use of [his] talent" (Off the Wall 131). There is that amazing moment of desire, in 1954, when Rauschenberg and his friend Jasper Johns wander amazed through the recently installed Arensberg Collection of Duchamp's art in the Philadelphia Museum; stopping in front of one of the works, a birdcage filled with sugar cubes called Why Not Sneeze? (1921), Rauschenberg can't restrain the urge to poke his fingers through the thin bars of the birdcage to try and steal one of the marble lumps of sugar inside. A museum guard suddenly appeared: "Don't you know," the guard said in a bored tone of voice, "that you're not supposed to touch that crap?" (Tomkins 130).

The scene of Duchamp, then, is typical of "Composition as a Happening": what's conventionally thought of as a questionable use of talent turns out to be crucially influential, poetic; what's prized enough to steal is tediously dismissed by the guardians of culture as so much crap. An account of Duchamp's influence on Happenings Composition, then, is in large part a story of seemingly failed production, work which is judged too crappy to win prizes. Failure is a fitting lens by which to view Duchamp. There was the time, coming home in a taxi, March 1912, with a painting that was supposed to ... well, not win prizes, of course. It couldn't have. It was his Nude Descending a Staircase, and the show where it was to be exhibited was in Paris at the Société des Artistes Indépendants. The slogan of this salon, open to anyone, was ni récompense ni jury, so there were no prizes to win, no panels to award them. But even if there were, Duchamp was out of the running before the show began. A 1953 catalogue from the Musée d'Art Moderne refers to the story: "1912. March-April. Paris. 28th Salon des Indépendants. Gleizes, Le Fauconnier, Léger, Metzinger and Archipenko, members of the hanging committee, turn it into a great demonstration of Cubism" (Lebel Marcel Duchamp 10). Duchamp's Nude was a sort of culmination; he'd taken Cubism as far as it interested him. He was at the time moving out of, away from, that particular school of painting; it implied a technology, an aesthetic, a certain problem set and certain materials, with which he'd grown bored. The show's hanging committee must have thought ... a Cubist nude? This is a joke, right? And one they certainly didn't want played on their great demonstration. So Gleizes convinces Duchamp's brothers to get him to withdraw it. He does, and riding home in the cab, with this amazing work next to him, he feels some bitterness, surely, but vindication, as well, knowing he succeeded in turning his canvas into a machine. "Just the same," he smiles, "it moves" (Lebel Marcel Duchamp 9). Then there was the Big Show of 1917, the American counterpart to the Indépendants. Another show which was supposedly open to anyone, but another show which refused one of Duchamp's works-this one, the urinal called Fountain. That piece, taken to Stieglitz's studio, photographed (inscribed on glass), and then mysteriously disappearing-why, its photographic representation alone is enough to ensure its central place in art history. And finally, the later Duchamp, the one who has since left the stylistic nostalgia of painting's cult of technique (its mystic craftsmanship) behind to pursue the mechanical processes of "precision oculism," at a French trade fair in the 1930s, trying to sell even one of his Rotoreliefs, those fascinating revolving spirals, made for a kind of optical massage, to transport perception to another place. But his project fails. Roché recalls the scene with a certain smug glee:

None of the visitors, hot on the trail of the useful, could be diverted long enough to stop [at Duchamp's booth]. A glance was sufficient to see that between the garbage compressing machine and the incinerators on the left, and the instant vegetable chopper on the right, this gadget of his simply wasn't useful.

When I went up to him, Duchamp smiled and said, 'Error, one hundred per cent. At least, it's clear.'

These Rotoreliefs have since become collectors' items. (84-85)

Ah, that Marcel. Even in chronicling his failures, we simply chart his success. But yet each failing must have been felt acutely at the time. "Given that ...; if I suppose I'm suffering a lot" (Duchamp 23). Failure intense enough, for instance, to warrant inscribing a theme of lament in his most famous work, the Large Glass (1915-1923). Lebel reminds us of a note to that effect scrawled in The Green Box (1934), concerning

the disillusioned litanies of the glider: "Slow life. Vicious circle. Onanism. Horizontal. Return trips on the buffer. The trash of life. Cheap construction. Tin, ropes, wire. Eccentric wooden pulleys. Monotonous fly-wheel. Beer professor." All these terms express a single one: ÉCHECS, which Duchamp, with his instinct for inner meanings, seems in some way to have made his motto. (Marcel Duchamp 67)

Échecs, we are reminded, is the French term for "checks" and "failures," as well as "chess." For Duchamp, chess was "like constructing a mechanism ... by which you win or lose" (136). So chess, as failure/success, both in accordance, delayed, in check. Motto, indeed.

Like many, I'm interested in Duchamp. I'm interested, for example, in failures that really aren't, in works barred from gaining the prize which end up changing the world. Brief, personal jottings that become a litany for posterity; apparently impoverished writing that proves a rich text. I'm interested in Duchamp, then, the way I'm interested in writing, writing done by anyone-whoever: useless, failed, nothing-writing by some nobody that turns out to be really something. I'm interested in what Duchamp reveals about our era, the Modernist era, specifically in the way Modernism is institutionalized in both the larger culture and our particular field. I'm interested in the way Duchamp, almost from the start, offered an alternative Modernism, one that constantly challenged forms, materials, and contexts. This was the effect Duchamp had on the Happenings, showing how alternative technologies and strategies can change fundamental compositional questions. To represent Modernism in our field, I'll draw heavily on David Bartholomae's piece "What is Composition and Why Do We Teach It?", an article that exists as his attempt at the field's self-definition. I choose Bartholomae, as always, because I feel he manifests some of the most committed thinking about students and writing in our literature, but thinking which nevertheless results in the persistence of a very specific compositional program. The limitations of that program I find not so surprising, given that Modernism is all about limits, but-and this is my central point-they may be limits we no longer want to define our composition. We have increasingly different compositional means: new tools for the mechanical reproduction of texts and an on-going electronic salon in which to circulate them. Materially, Modernism delimits choice, fixed as it is on a certain work with certain materials; Duchamp didn't:

[I]f you can find other methods for self-expression, you have to profit from them. It's what happens in all the arts. In music, the new electronic instruments are a sign of the public's changing attitude toward art.... Artists are offered new media, new colors, new forms of lighting; the modern world moves in and takes over, even in painting. It forces things to change naturally, normally. (Cabanne 93)

Painting was simply "a means of expression, not an end in itself" (Duchamp 127). Modernist Composition, I would argue, the nemesis of Happenings artists, seeks to define its ends in terms of narrowly-defined means, despite the modern world's take-over.

2. In "What is Composition?", Bartholomae defines the enterprise as "a set of problems" located, mostly institutionally, around notions of "language change," specifically as those notions affect the "writing produced by writers who were said to be unprepared" (11). Bartholomae, here as elsewhere in his writings, structures his analysis of this set of problems around a few student papers-in this case, two essays from Pittsburgh student writing competitions and a travel-narrative, written in Bartholomae's introductory composition course, concerning a trip to St. Croix the writer took as member of a religious youth-group. The problem set Bartholomae theorizes through these papers concerns his general project, using textual artifacts to articulate "the sources and uses of writing, particularly writing in schooling, where schooling demands/enables the intersection of tradition and the individual talent" (12). Bartholomae focuses first on a prize-winning essay, an academic account of Pittsburgh's steel industry, which he considers "too good, too finished, too seamless, too professional" (13); he wants to open up the "official disciplinary history" to "other possible narratives" (13), suggesting this essay reads as if it were "assemble[d] ... according to a master plan" (14). Seeming, then, to dismiss "official" composition-which would only ask of a student's revision that it "make [the writing] even more perfectly what it already is" (14), and presenting himself as a teacher who would allow a student to fracture open the text, making it "less finished and less professional" (14)-Bartholomae nonetheless manages ultimately to champion a preferred version of official composition, one whose patina is more transgressive, more outlaw, but still charged with academic cachet. The St. Croix paper is brought in as student-writing-degree-zero, which needs a hipper make-over along newly delimited Modernist lines, a remodeling (in this case) around the style of Mary Louise Pratt's travel narratives. The prose he prefers is politically more acute, so a variety of cultural-studies heuristics (like the all-purpose "Whose interests are served?" [27]) are brought to bear on the naive narrative in order to enhance it.

Analogically, Bartholomae sees most writing instruction as preparing student-artists for their juried show by having them dutifully perfect quaint, realistic sketches of traditional subject matter (in this case, simplistic renderings of St. Croix's local color); he offers instead revision as a series of treatments-a different master plan-that will complicate the sketch into a more daring work, a Cubist canvas, say. This new program nonetheless maintains a focus on the traditional compositional scene-the space on the page where the work is done and the space on the wall where it is hung and judged-a space, in general, where the writer graduates from dilettante to artist, "the space where the writer needs to come forward to write rather than recite the text that wants to be written" (14). Despite his distinction between those two verbs, in both scenarios the composition stands prior to the writer, as already-written. The juried competition is not questioned, merely the taste operative among current judges, i.e., the way "we give awards to papers we do not believe in and ... turn away from papers we do, papers most often clumsy and awkward but, as we say to each other, ambitious, interesting" (16). The language is still the connoisseur's, now claiming vanguard status. Bartholomae claims a distinction between himself and most composition (with its "same old routine" [16]), but outside of his specific compositional space, in the space of composition-in-general-where Bartholomae is compared to, say, William Burroughs-such distinctions become moot.

So, we first must speak of prized composition. For Duchamp, art was to be rid of privilege. "No jury, no prizes," became the slogan of the American Independents, as well, of which Duchamp was a founding member. The rules for their Society stated, "Any artist, whether a citizen of the United States or any foreign country, may become a member of the Society upon filing an application therefor, paying the initiation fee and the annual dues of a member, and exhibiting at the exhibition in the year that he joins" (de Duve "Given" 190). Any artists today who want their work displayed now have an electronic exhibition-site. Though the initiation fee and the annual dues may be different, in many respects the Internet is the contemporary version of the Society of Independent Artists, a virtual museum-without-walls, a public salon open to anyone. But the academy, now as then, stands all too unaffected by the techno-democratization of the cultural space for composition. No jury, no prizes? Composition is all about prized writing, about what makes writing good; its scene, as shown in "What is Composition," always originates in a juried competition. Any artist eligible? Clearly not, for Bartholomae's theory works a very specialized field, our field, "writing in schooling," particularly that flashpoint, "the point of negotiation between a cultural field and an unauthorized writer" (12). There is no utopic dissembling about Beuys's dream, his basic thesis, "Everyone an artist" (Tisdall 7). Some artists will simply not be hung, and art, for institutionalized composition, is defined by exhibition-value. But Bartholomae's description of the juried scene delineates the confused folly that is academic judgment: Another prize-winning essay in a university contest, an essay on "Fern Hill," was

the unanimous first choice by every judge except the one from the English department, for whom the piece was the worst example of a student reproducing a "masterful" reading (that is, reproducing a reading whose skill and finish mocked the discipline and its values).... The rest of us loved the lab report the chemistry professor said was just mechanical, uninspired. The rest of us loved the case study of the underground economy of a Mexican village that the sociologist said was mostly cliché and suffering from the worst excesses of ethnography. (15-16)

Such moments of disciplinary slapstick don't ironize the notion of juried writing for Bartholomae; rather, they cause him, in true Modernist fashion, to dig in his heels, insisting on the need for more discussion "on the fundamental problems of professional writing, writing that negotiates the disciplines, their limits and possibilities" (16), in the presumed belief that with enough dialogue we can give awards to papers we do believe in. This is composition under the sign limited possibilities.

3. "Composition ... is concerned with how and why one might work with the space on the page.... [T]he form of composition I am willing to teach would direct the revision of the essay as an exercise in criticism.... I would want students not only to question the force of the text but also the way the text positions them in relationship to a history of writing" (Bartholomae 21). Such an attempt at defining the genre-finding, in this case, what is unique to composition (as opposed, say, to literature or theory, not to mention writing-in-general); doing so in terms of self-criticism or self-definition-is the Modernist enterprise. Greenberg outlines Modernism in the arts after Kant:

What had to be exhibited and made explicit was that which was unique and irreducible not only in art in general but also in each particular art. Each art had to determine, through the operations peculiar to itself, the effects peculiar and exclusive to itself. By doing this, each art would, to be sure, narrow its area of competence, but at the same time it would make its possession of this area all the more secure. ("Modernist Painting" 68)


Excerpted from ENGLISH COMPOSITION AS A HAPPENING by GEOFFREY SIRC Copyright © 2002 by Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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