Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Friday, January 04, 2008

Conceptualism and the Politics of the Art Object

“The editor has written me that he is in favor of avoiding ‘the notion that the artist is a kind of ape that has to be explained by the civilized critic.’ This should be great news to both artists and apes.”

--Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”

As we move through the art of the 20th century (and beyond), from Dada forward, we move increasingly toward the dematerialization of the art object—from breaking apart the object in Cubism, to abstracting it in Abstract Expressionism, to eliminating it as a criteria altogether in movements such as Fluxus, which favored experience over the sacredness of the object, and Conceptual Art, which favored the idea of the object over its actual execution of lack of.

As with many “movements” within art, there is some contestation around Conceptual Art, including its origins and its time lines. Charles Harrison, former editor of Art-Language places Conceptual Art within a very specific time frame of 1967-1972, during which time he sees the existence of a “critically significant conceptual art movement.” (29) A 1998 exhibit, Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, organized by the Queens Museum of Art, placed the movement globally within a much broader frame from the late 1950s into the present day. Likewise, Harrison traces the inception of Conceptual Art back to minimalism, with its anti-formal tendencies, a claim that Sol LeWitt, in his “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” denies by saying that no one he knows will admit to being a minimalist.

Dick Higgins’ “Intermedia Chart” is a useful reference, because it shows a number of contemporary cointerminous art movements and the way in which they intersect with one another. In it, we see Conceptual Art linked with both Fluxus and Happenings, and indeed, a number of artists’ work did fall into both Fluxus and Conceptual art, most notably Yoko Ono, whose performance pieces such as “Cut Piece” and “Piece to Hammer a Nail” emphasize the interactive, experiential nature of the work to the audience, whereas works such as the “War is Over! (if you want it)” billboards and Grapefruit fall into the realm of Conceptualism. In fact, I would alter Higgins’ chart to bring concrete poetry, visual novels, etc. closer to Conceptual Art in the matrix.

Without getting too bogged down in debates over origins and timeline, however, we can look at the tendencies that define historical and contemporary Conceptual Art, particularly as set forth by LeWitt himself in his “sentences” and “paragraphs” on Conceptual Art as well as looking at some of the politics of the dematerialization of the art object itself.

At its most basic, Conceptual Art privileges the idea over the object. In fact, according to LeWitt, whether the object is actually ever created or not is incidental. Point 10 of “Sentences on Conceptual Art” asserts that “Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.” While talking about an art made of ideas and language may at first blush sound very cerebral and based in logic,
LeWitt is quick to emphasize the intuitive nature of Conceptual Art and desire to work against “rational art.” The logical exists only to be subverted.

“Logic may be used to camouflage the real intent of the artist, to lull the viewer into the belief that he understands the work, or to infer a paradoxical situation, such as logic vs. illogic.”

While there are many examples of objects created by Conceptual artists, including the prolific LeWitt himself, pieces that have come to be known as “instruction pieces” such as Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, or text pieces with few, if any, visual elements that we have come to associate with “art” are what we generally reference when talking about Conceptual Art. In fact, textuality plays a major role in Conceptualism, both in the art works and in the works of the artist. At the most basic level, Conceptual Art works have a tendency to be include text. “Since no form is intrinsically superior to another, the artist may use an form, from an expression of works (written or spoken) to physical reality, equally.” (Sentence #15). “If words are used, and they proceed from ideas about art, then they are art and not literature; numbers are not mathematics.”

Harrison calls Conceptualism a movement of “artists who write” and there is a strong anti-critic streak within the movement. Even though LeWitt acknowledges that the artist may or may not fully understand his or her own work, LeWitt also criticizes the “secret language of the critic” [13]. By conceptualizing the art from the outset, the artist becomes a sort of self-critic, eliminating the critic as mediator between the audience and the art. Writing about the art was as important as creating it and vehicles such as Art News, where Lewitt’s sentences and paragraphs were first published, as well as Art-Language, offered forums for conceptual artists to show themselves as critics. Even using a format such as sentences and paragraphs which sets up a grammatical, language-based approach, rather than invoking the form of the manifesto, which previous avant-garde movements relied upon, shows a break with past ideas of art objects as separate from language.

Conceptual Art reacted against Abstract Expressionism as not pushing art far enough away from the object, still privileging the art object as self-contained and as more concerned with its internal relationships than with the object’s relationship within the world. Abstraction, then, questions the image, but not the architecture of positions or the social relationship of the object. (Harrison, 31) Seeing painting, sculpture and traditional art forms as rigid and hegemonic, signs of an imperialist culture (41), Conceptual Art, as a movement of opposition, was self-conscious about its position among historical avant garde revolutions. Moreover, according to Harrison, the artists were not so much concerned with overthrowing, but to “reformulate and revalue modernism so as to validate their own enterprise as artistic . . . . clear[ing] a space for themselves to work.” (42) In fact, he contends that modernism needed to be current in order for the Conceptualists to establish themselves as avant garde. (42)

It is on this critique of the art object and of the architecture it inhabits that I would like to linger and focus for the remainder of this piece. Among the hegemonic institutions that Conceptualism was reacting to was the art museum itself. I’d like to go out on a limb and borrow from Peggy Phelan’s ideas about the politics of representation to talk about the politics of the art object and of removing the object from the gaze of both spectator and critic.

LeWitt distinguishes, first of all, between perceptual art, being art for the eye, and conceptual art, in which the concept is the most important aspect. Art that exists for the eye alone is subject to “the gaze”. Harrison describes the art object as “something contained within the ambient space of the stationary spectators gaze, its means restricted to whatever that gaze could pick out and animate.” In Unmarked, Peggy Phelan describes “the institional effect of the gallery” as putting the art object “under house arrest, controlling all conflicting and unprofessional commentary about it.” In this way, the gallery is able to maintain a degree of critical control over the work, and through controlling the placement and architecture of the piece, directing the gaze in certain ways.

In discussing art and representation within a feminist frame, Phelan suggests that “it can be effective to politically and aesthetically deny representing the female body imagistically, psychically, to bring about a new form of representation itself.” (164) 1 I contend that we can substitute the art object for the “female body” as a way of looking at the art object in this context of politics and representation.

Phelan draws a link between the gaze and commodification, and here, there can be no denying that Conceptual artists, concurrently with artists in Fluxus and other parallel movements, were indeed reacting against commodification of their work, and consequently, I would argue, against the gaze of institutions that wield power. As we can see in current political conditions, art is frequently on the front lines of political battles, either standing with or in opposition to, powerful institutions. Phelan describes an aesthetics of representation as offering a “pleasure of semblance and repetition [that] produces both psychic assurance and political fetishization.” (3) She further describes visibility politics as “compatible with capitalisms relentless appetite for new markets . . . The production and representation of visibility are part of the labor of the reproduction of capitalism.” (1)

Harrison talks in a parallel way about beholding as problematized by Conceptual Art. Specifically, how is the “beholder” qualified to view and judge the art object, to what end does “beholding” lead, and under what conditions is it taking place? (33) This gets to the heart of the gallery/critic system, in which experts decide the architecture and placement of the work as well as its aesthetic and critical interpretation. Indeed, this is what situates the gallery as a hegemonic, anti-democratic institution from which art had to be freed.

By emphasizing the idea of the object as primary over its execution, Conceptual artists bring into question the “value” of every piece of art that hangs in a gallery or museum. Sometimes refusing to create objects at all, they then sidestep the commodification of their ideas and their creativity. Some artists set up tables and sold small items themselves, including “selling” intangible objects or concepts for whatever their “buyers” were willing to pay for them (Camnitzer) and in the process, democratizing and subverting the system of selling art altogether.

Of course, it is the nature of the capitalist gaze to create commodities, which fits hand in hand with the nature of artists and their movements to want to be remembered. Consequently, Conceptual Art has not been able to completely escape the traps of representation. While they may have initially confounded the gallery system, the writings of many original Conceptual Artists and the textual nature of the work lend themselves to book publishing, and what objects do remain from previous moments of Conceptual Art now find their way into museums and traveling exhibitions. This is a tension that the avant garde has not been able to free itself from completely as it moves from present moment to retrospective. Nonetheless, Conceptualism has provided the opportunity for visual artists to challenge the very bases of their work: both the gaze of the spectator and critic, and the gallery system in which they encounter the art object. In its current practice, Conceptualism remains an art form that through its use of text and idea, lends itself easily to political and activist contexts and in doing so, continues to struggle with and confront these very issues.

1While I don’t know that I am willing to argue that the art object itself is inherently female at this point, it cannot be denied that the subject of many masterpieces has in fact, been the feminine form. Thus the art object in those cases becomes directly implicit in the relationship of the gaze to the female body. And in fact, a number of feminist artists have turned to Conceptual art to produce works that confronted the male gaze outright. See Camnitzer et al.


Alberro, Alexander, and Blake Stimson. Conceptual art : a critical anthology. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1999.

Camnitzer, Luis, Jane Farver, Rachel Weiss, László Beke, Queens Museum of Art, Walker Art Center, and Miami Art Museum of Dade County. Global conceptualism : points of origin, 1950s-1980s / foreword by Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver, Rachel Weiss ; introduction by Stephen
Bann ; essays by László Beke .. New York: Queens Museum of Art : Available through D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 1999.

Harrison, Charles. Essays on Art & language. Oxford [England] ; Cambridge, Mass., USA: Blackwell, 1991.

Higgins, Hannah. Fluxus experience. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

LeWitt, Sol. “Sentences on Conceptualism”, Referenced February 25, 2004.

Munroe, Alexandra, Yoko Ono, Jon Hendricks, and Bruce Altshuler. Yes Yoko Ono / Alexandra Munroe with Jon Hendricks ; with essays by David A. Ross, Murray Sayle, Jann S. Wenner ; contributions by Bruce Altshuler .. New York: Japan Society ; Harry N. Abrams, 2000.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked : the politics of performance. London ; New York: Routledge, 1993.

Addicted to Liminality: The Ritual Year of the Mexicas

Performance, Peggy Phelan insists, is ephemeral, leaving us only traces of the original event, whether that trace is the documentation of the event, the recreation or repetition of it, or merely the memory of its occurrence. Consequently, that places performance as focused on the now, on the present moment,

When the mode of performance is ritual, or religious ceremony, its temporal intention can be different. Ritual and religious ceremony serve not only in the present moment, but also as commemoration as well as what Inga Clendinnen calls “primitive technology,” a desire to influence the future. In the case of pre-conquest cultures such as the Mexica, this technology was tied to a deep level of anxiety over their very existence, over fears of the extinguishment of the sun, of the cataclysmic end of cycles of life. Consequently, ritual held a central place in the life of the Mexica.

In his study of ritual across cultures, Victor Turner describes the process of social drama, in which breeches occur, followed by a period of suspension, and then reintegration. This period of suspension he calls liminality, and it is in the liminal period of time, the liminal space, that change and transformation occur. Ritual and ceremony, including sacrifices and divination, fall directly within liminal time. The Mexica, with an almost constant cycle of rituals, maintained a continual sense of liminality, that space of suspension and transformation and this, we can argue, may have been one of the strongest appeals, the most enduring trace of Mexica ritual—and addiction to the liminality of performance.

The Mexica maintained two separate calendars. The solar calendar, or calendar of the seasons, consisted of 365 days, just as the contemporary western calendar. The Tonalpoalli, or ritual calendar, made up 260 days, nearly 2/3 of the solar year. Everyone in the community, regardless of social position or wealth, had roles to play in these ritual celebrations, from the small to the elaborate. The months of the Mexica calendars were divided into 20 day segments, and many elements of Mexica ritual and preparation were encompassed periods of months or even a year. The feast of Hitzilopochtli, the sun god, lasted for 20 days. According to Clendinnen, fasting by both priests and laymen would occur for periods of 20, 60 or even 80 days—up to four months in the Mexica calendar, and “warriors who had pledged themselves by eating the flesh of Huitilopochtli, the austerities endured for a full year.” (256)

Communal preparations for rituals and feast days included creating objects such as ritual costuming and robes, creating images and likenesses of the gods, which the European consquistadors later mistook for idolatry, focusing on the final product rather than on the process of its creation, cooking, including the making of seed dough and of certain types of bread. In fact, Clendinnen suggests that the rituals created a “bridge between high ritual and domestic action,” (246). Thus for even the most ordinary Mexicas, their lives were permeated by ritual. “Access to ritual excitements was not,” she says, “an occasional grace note, but an enduring part of the rhythm of living . . . ritual generated experience and . . . knowlede[,] . . . opened zones of thought and feeling at once collective, cumulative and transformative.” (241) It is this sense of transformation that I want to linger on for a while, to remain, if you will, liminal, suspended.

Clennnendin describes the use of objects in rituals as dislocated from their ordinary contexts. In the same way, the very lives of the Mexica, when engaged in rituals, in fasting, in preparation, were also dislocated from their ordinariness. In this way, the rhythm of life offered a degree of pleasure that kept the Mexica engaged in these contstant performances. It may seem odd to talk about pleasure when we think of the nature of some of the rituals—human sacrifice, the flaying of the victims and the wearing of their skins, strict fasting and sexual abstinence, ritual piercing and bloodletting, and endurance performances, including all-night or multi-day dancing, storytelling, and other performances. To a modern culture such as ours, devoted to pleasure and to the avoidance of pain, it might seem absurd to talk about these forms of participation as pleasurable.

There is, however, what we consider to be a shamanistic element to these practices. We certainly know that there are physical effects of exhaustion and starvation, which can include visions and hallucinations as well as the changes in the way our bodies respond to stimulus and to the world around us. Thus even the most ascetic, difficult, and painful practices take us out of our own bodies, again, suspending us from ordinary life. Clendinnen describes the long isolation from routine in these periods as well as describing the rituals themselves as “a calculated assault on the senses.” In what has come to influence our current conception of ritual as merely proscribed, repeated behaviors, Freud hypothesized a connection between obsessive behavior and ritual practice. And so repeated performance of and immersion in these practices, combined with their psychological and physiological effects create an addiction of sorts to the rituals and an anticipation for those feast days and celebrations which provide temporal liminality, periods of life in transformative suspension.

In a more literal sense, Mexica practices of representation allowed participants to live the lives of others. In some cases, victims who were to be sacrificed were to assume the persona of the god being celebrated. In the celebrations of Tlaloques, those who were to be sacrificed y drowning would first impersonate the water deities. Often in cases of embodying the gods and goddesses of the feast, the “actor” would be revered, treated as the deity. The sacrificial victim then spends their final days in a suspended, liminal zone in which “the preparation of the body and the doing of appropriate regalia moved one away from one’s social being and for some [such as the Ixitplas who were to die] eclipsed it permanently and altogether.” (Clendinnen 258) In the same way others participating in the rituals were also able to transcend their very identities and existences. Sahagun describes in detail the ritual costumes that crossed the line between animal and human, man and god:

“[H]e went garbed in the costly cape of precious feathers. The quetzal feather device went places on him. He had bars painted upon his face, he had the star design painted upon his face . . . He had a turquoise nose rod. His was the hummingbird disguise.” (Sahagun Part II)

Similarly, those who had been sacrificed were flayed and their skins worn by members of the community—including the warriors who had captured their victims, and those to whom they loaned the skins (as in the case of beggars or the lowly within the community). And so for many participants in the rituals, from the sacrificial victim to the poorest in the community, to the revered priestly and warrior classes, there was a very literal suspension, even elevation, out of their ordinary lives and identities. For most, there was Turner’s eventual reintegration back into the community, but understanding the nature of liminality, along with theories of religious experiences, possessions, trances, etc., we can imagine that the reintegration came with a sense of change or transformation upon the individuals.

Finally, the very spatial relationships within Mexica cities created sites of liminality. The wealth of public space, including squares and temples, provided gathering places that anticipated the events to take place there. Joseph Roach describes “vortices of behavior” public, what he calls lucid, spaces, that allow for and encourage community participation. Their very presence within the city serves as a constant reminder of the rhythm of life, of the permeation of ritual in Mexica culture. They are designed specifically for the events that they contain, such as being designed for the ritual sacrifices, to allow for the flow of blood, the positioning of the victim, and visibility of the ritual to those who are present. They are not ordinary spaces, but spaces of perpetual liminality, spaces that have been set aside for specific functions and when stepping into those spaces, participants understand and anticipate what is to take place there.

There are, of course, a variety of other functions to the varied and extensive ritual performance practices of the Mexica culture, including Clendinnen’s “primitive technology,” as well as state-building functions and those of political power. But I don’t know that these rituals would have survived and enjoyed the level of participation from all members of the community, if there were not a “payoff” beyond alleviating the existential fears of the people. The idea of liminality, of suspension from ordinary time that celebration and ritual affords, combined with the promise of transformation, the idea that life will never quite be the same, offers one way to look at that “payoff” and to understand the devotion to these rituals and willingness to participate, despite their often difficult, painful, ascetic nature.


Appel, Willa, and Richard Schechner. By means of performance : intercultural studies of theatre and ritual. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Clendinnen, Inga. Aztecs : an interpretation. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

de Sahagún, Bernardino, Arthur J.O. Anderson, and Charles E. Dibble. General history of the things of New Spain : Florentine codex. Santa Fe, N.M.; Salt Lake City, Utah: School of American Research; University of Utah, 1950.

"Mexica/Aztec Calendar Systems." [cited 2004]. Available from

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked : the politics of performance. London ; New York: Routledge, 1993.

Roach, Joseph R. Cities of the dead : circum-Atlantic performance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Thursday, January 03, 2008


This is from a paper I wrote for a seminar this semester and is going to work into my dissertation. The idea is to look at the roots of sentimentalist philosophy and politics as it informs contemporary artistic practice and in particular, poetry slam.


There is an approach to poetry that takes inspiration from the idea that “the personal is political” and combined with a trend toward confessionalism in contemporary poetry, posits itself as political in showing and celebrating the lives of “ordinary" people or marginalized groups and individuals. The most highly visible form of performance poetry these days is poetry slam, and in the vernacular understanding, poetry slam is in fact, synonymous with performance poetry. If spoken word and performance poetry, specifically the work seen at poetry slams, can be said to have a consistent political activity to it, it is in the maintenance of what is known as identity politics. It is a common lament that “playing the race card” or the “gender card” or pulling out a sentimental story will win you a slam. That lament is often uttered as a contrast that “good poetry” rarely wins slams as much as sentimentalism and identification with the plight of the poet. Regardless of your aesthetic or political bent, it is obvious to even the most casual observer or attendee of these events that the conventional logic does ring true. The “cliché” then is that identity politics rule the day—that poems dealing with race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or angry politics in general will do better in poetry slams than a piece of surrealism or a poem about flowers or puppy dogs. (Unless the puppy dogs are owned by a Latina lesbian who was just released from prison after a long sentence for drug charges, in which case the puppy dog poem may do quite well.) Through the baring of deeply personal experiences, even trauma then, the politics of these works draws on a sentimentalist assumption that social change can be brought about by empathy, by affective identifications.

There are some inherent dangers of misusing sources within this project. One way in which this manifests is the danger of citing anthologies whose editors and “spokespeople” attempt to place context and offer commentary and that ultimately both intentionally and unintentionally lead to reification of the works themselves. We might end up giving the appearance of a unified ideology where none exits. There is also the problem of attempting to cite a few particular poems or lines out of the thousands of slam and performance poems that have been written and circulated over the years, whether from performances, websites, or anthologies vs. that of citing none and being seen as too vague or general. Will four lines of one poem within this paper lend credence to the claims herein? Will ten? Will five lines from six different poems? Trying to find something that is “representative” in this way can be a dangerous venture. Out of the wealth of material published and performed, available in anthologies, at open mics, on public access television, internet blogs, MySpace sites, CDs, etc., there are any number of pieces that could be used to justify many, if not all possible theses on politics, aesthetics, identity, etc.

What does exist is a largely unspoken, subterranean set of assumptions by which the culture at large of performance poetry (particularly in its easily identified category of slam) can be seen to operate, to adhere and which plays itself out between performers and audiences in relationships of identification, affect and satisfaction. Talk to anyone who has been to a poetry slam and there is a knowing nod that there is not only a reified form that the work takes, but that there are certain predictable themes that will emerge and that these themes center on identity and on trauma. And so instead of citing poems, I have decided to refer to a vernacular reference point, Poetry Slam Bingo. This parodic piece, playing off of popular knowledge of slam has been widely distributed throughout the internet and can be found at the site, which also features the work “Def Poet” Big Poppa E. The “bingo sheets” contain a variety of poetry slam “clichés”, including:

Feminist Rant
The Revolution
Guilty White Guy
Didactic Poem
Gay Marriage Reference
I am . . . I am . . . I am . . .
Anti-Bush Poem
Pimping Pain for Points
Popular Culture Reference
Identity Poem
White Guy Trying to Prove He’s “Down”
Conspiracy Theory
Poet Cries
My pain! My pain! My pain!
Current Events Reference
Slam as Religion
Childhood Sucks
Politicians are Bad
Didactic Poem
History Lesson

Represented here are a variety of themes that involve history, politics, identity, and sentimentalism, many, if not all, of which may overlap and intersect throughout a given piece. In other words, the clichés do not fit into discrete categories, which the “rules” for poetry slam bingo reinforces:


1] When a poet fulfills one of the above categories, mark out the square. When you fill a row, shout “BINGO!” If you black out the entire card, shout “SUPER BINGO!”

2] Do not ever shout “BINGO” during someone’s poem. That would be rude. Wait until the host has returned to the stage after a performance to shout “BINGO!”

3] Keep track of who does what and when because you will have to defend your categories in front of the audience. If the audience does not agree with your choices, you will be disqualified from Slam Bingo, so be sure you can defend your choices.


Central to contemporary progressive politics is the concept of identity—those groups and subcultures the individual identifies with in any given situation—which plays out in both of these realms—sentiment and memory. The individual’s self-identification will determine how effective the affective forms of address will be and the shared assumptions, history, memories, etc. they will engage in. Political organizing along lines of identity remains a common practice, reinforced by commonly held beliefs about art and political efficacy. 1970s feminist consciousness-raising groups operated on the assumption that the act of telling one’s story was an inherently political act, one that would empower others to come forward, to bring injustices into the light of day. The belief was that once these stories were told, they would inspire compassion and lead to social change. This belief continues 30+ years later as activists and artists alike speak of the “power of story.”

Nonetheless, identity politics has taken a hit at the hands of many theorists from a variety of fields. It is has been criticized as highly limited, reifying and re-essentializing notions of race, class, gender and sexual orientation. It has been cited by a number of theorists, including Peggy Phelan, as falling into capitalist commodity fetishism. And yet, in his own critique of identity politics, Is Identity a Useful Cross-Cultural Concept? Richard Handler suggests that:
“to distance ourselves epistemologically from ideologies of identity is a politically delicate task, for many of the claimants to collective identity whose cultural philosophy we may dispute are nonetheless peoples whose struggles for social justice we support.” [1]

While critics of identity politics question the reification of identities, it is possible for our purposes to talk about a politics of identity in which identity is not necessarily a fixed category, but fluid and multiple. In fact, acknowledging the fluidity of categories may be more useful, as this fluidity allows us to approach the very sense of “community” that is presumed in this type of work. If, for example, an audience member can identify as Black and Latina, as a feminist and as a lesbian, for example, then her subject position allows her to cross lines and borders, to empathize with a wider range of “other” identities. While multiple identifications may also impede political progress at times by creating conflicts of interest where “discrete” identity categories come into conflict, the concept of fluid identities may also facilitate sentimental identifications and their moral and political exhortations.


“[T]he heritage of tragedy may well be more effective than that of triumph: suffering in common unifies more than joy does.”[2]

In The Culture of Sensibility, G. J. Barker-Benfield traces the rise of sentiment in 18th century England through medical and scientific theories (based largely on gender) through moral reform, and the rise of sentiment(ality) in the then newly-emerging genre of the novel. Barker-Benfield discusses the use of sentimental(ist) theories in reforming male manners and behavior and improving the “morals” of English men. These reforms included trying to keep men out of ale houses and other locations of “ill repute” and discouraging wanton male sexual behavior. Reforms such as these were seen to benefit women, particularly by improving conditions for women within home and family life, arguments which will find some resonance a century later in the domestic melodrama. For my purposes in looking at the political uses of sentiment, Barker-Benfield’s discussion of religion and ethics are of particular interest. This passage from The Spectator offers an insight into early assumptions about the role of sentimentality in religious and moral conversion that still has echoes today in assumptions about the nature of story and narrative in their capacity to evoke empathy:
“[S]tories of calamities . . . melt our hearts with compassion . . . since we can neither see nor hear of, nor imagine another’s grief without being afflicted ourselves.”[3]

In her work on a politics of compassion, Lauren Berlant describes the way in which such “testifying moral functions of suffering” are assumed to “authorize the reader to imagine changing the world.”[4] Preachers of the day, including John Wesley, utilized such stories as well as particularly emotional styles of preaching, which Barker-Benfield characterizes as “[t]he first revolutionary technique” which Wesley (and others) employed to:
“produce emotional effects in his listeners. . . . Whitefield wept at nearly every sermon. Tennent writhed and fainted. They wrought their spellbinding speech with a mastery of ‘stylized emotionalism.’ Whitefield’s oratorical ‘pathos,’ his ability to get his congregation sobbing, was admired by [actor David] Garrick. Implementing very similar techniques in the theatre now aiming to reform its audience by making them weep, Garrick invoked similar responses. . . . Edwards, having read sentimental fiction, in his sermons used ‘all the weapons, conscious and subconscious, verbal, emotional and sensuous, of the [sentimental] author at his best.”[5]

The relationship here between religion and literature is undeniable. The sentimental novels of the day prepared audiences for the type of emotional appeal that Wesley and his contemporaries employed. Religion and literature at this time worked together to unite emotion and compassion with moral, ethical and religious conversion, a kind of intertextual citationality. Centuries later, in the realm of politics, civil rights movements from Gandhi to Martin Luther King to Malcolm X, have appealed inherently to the moral imperatives of their causes while also employing the language of their respective religions.

Now, think back to our Poetry Slam Bingo for a moment. One of the bingo boxes is “Poet Cries” while others include “Preach!” and “Poetry Slam As Religion,” bringing together at the very least, the performative and the evangelical aspects of 18th century moral and religious sentimentalism. Alex Ogg’s history of rap cites “linguistics of signifying, testifying, schoolyard and jailhouse rhyming”[6] and John Szwed locates the sermons of black preachers among the roots of rap performance in the way they would “sing the word” and also in what he calls the “high” oratory of black leaders from Martin Luther King to Muhammad Ali. [7] Dr. King himself employed a very rousing and emotional oratory style that was intended to appeal to the morality of his listeners, much as Wesley and his fellow evangelicals. Given the large numbers of African Americans in Methodist and evangelical denominations in America (including the African Methodist Episcopal Church), the link between 18th century sentimental preaching and 21st century “slamming” cannot be easily ignored or dismissed.

In the 19th century, the relationship between sentiment and politics continued to be played out through the theatrical form of melodrama. In particular, melodrama was used to tell the story of the working class in England and in both England and the United States and the domestic melodrama was pressed into service for the women’s suffrage movement. One of the unifying goals or ideologies behind melodrama is the creation of a group identity and the exhortation toward the theatre’s audience to understand, sympathize, or even identify with that group. Pulled to the right or the left, for revolutionary or conservative ends, melodrama is never outside of the politics of identity nor is it ever without ideology.

“[T]the melodrama served as a crucial space in which the cultural, political, and economic exigencies of the century were played out and transformed into public discourses about issues ranging from the gender-specific dimensions of individual station and behavior to the role and status of ‘the nation’ in local as well as imperial politics.” [8]

Berlant interrogates the imperative placed upon “the modern incitement to feel compassionately – even while being entertained.”[9] While melodrama may attempt to “authorize the reader to imagine changing in the world,”[10] Berlant sees the risk of replacing social transformation with a “civic-minded but passive idea of empathy.”[11] The criticisms leveled against melodrama’s political potential focus on ideas of escapism, arguing that the neat and tidy endings of melodrama satisfy the audience’s desires in a way that allows life outside the theatre to continue unchanged—admittedly, a common complaint against many forms of political theatre. For Ilsemann, melodrama’s crime is the irrationality it produces in the audience’s response, the emphasis on clear cut ideas of hero/villain and good/evil which forecloses the kind of rational response that would be required for create political consciousness and ultimately inspire action. What we see in this critique of melodrama is not the pairing of sentiment with rationalism that Barker-Benfield describes as the foundation of early 18th century theories of sentimentalism, but the squaring off of these attributes as opposites that neutralize the power and potential of both. Instead, what the audience experiences (according to Ilsemann) is “a corrective dream world . . . that confirm[s] the integrity of the spectator’s moral feel and the self-esteem derived from the wholeness of being.”[12] And so, if we are to believe Islemann, the moral imperatives directed at the audience do not inspire conversion or change as Wesley and his fellow evangelicals sought, but mere complacency.

Peter Brooks is more optimistic about melodrama, asserting that “[w]hile its social implications may be variously revolutionary or conservative, it is in all cases radically democratic, striving to make its representations clear and legible to everyone.”[13] Melodrama’s apologists and critics alike have debated and interrogated claims that melodrama helped to spread ideas about modern subjectivity and even expand our ideas about how the identity of modern “subject” is constituted through ideas of compassion and representation found in the forms and subgenres of melodrama.

For Brooks, the “social melodrama,” elevates the quotidian and gives it a heightened importance with its focus on “representation of man’s social existence, the way he lives in the ordinary, and with the moral drama implicated by and in his existence.”[14] He sees social melodrama as an attempt to make “the ‘real’ and the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘private life’ interesting through heightened dramatic utterance and gestures that lay bare the true stakes.”[15] In doing so, the personal does in fact, become political. For women denied full access to participation in public life and whose domain had been identified as the private sphere, bringing the home, the private, the domestic interior, into the very public space of the stage serves to blur the two, foregrounding the role and concerns of women. The stakes of (female) representation are not only laid bare, but are also heightened. Whether or not genuine social and political change necessarily follows is a more contentious question. The more important question here is the way in which the domestic melodrama would become an attractive vehicle for feminists seeking to represent their (heretofore hidden) struggles within the public sphere. Suffragists like Harriet Stanton Blatch were very willing and eager to adopt the tendencies of melodrama to the suffragist cause, believing that “the actress’s powers of persuasion – her capacity to move the hearts and minds of the audience – made her vital to the suffragist cause. . . . ‘People must be appealed to through their emotions.’”[16] A case in point is that of the British actress and playwright Elizabeth Robins, who used her work in the 1891 production of Hedda Gabler in London to construct “a new female political subject in her campaigning on behalf of the suffrage movement.”[17] Robins also wrote her own plays, including one entitled Votes for Women, illustrating what Berlant suggests as the “particular place that femininity has played in maintaining optimism around sentimental pedagogy in and about the U.S.”[18]

While the domestic melodrama was seen as appealing primarily to women, for suffragists and political crusaders, the audience was much more expansive. Garnering sympathy from male audience members, who could vote and who could turn the tide for the cause of suffrage, often meant “translating the display of female political assertion into theatrical images that were palatable to male members of the audience, the press and the Broadway establishment.””[19] Given the ultimate success of the women’s suffrage movement itself and the movement’s use of sentiment on the stage and in the political arena, it’s easy to see why tactics that combine affect with an appeal to morality would be remain attractive within the political and aesthetic imagination, through second wave feminism and the liberatory movements of the 1960s and 70s and into today. Indeed, according to Brooks melodrama remains a “central fact of the modern sensibility. . . the search for meanings and symbolic systems [that] provides a model for the making of meaning in fictional dramatization of existence.”[20]


“The possibility that through identification with alterity you will never be the same remains the radical threat and great promise of this affective aesthetic.”[21]

The Nuyorican Poets’ Café on New York’s Lower East Side represents itself as the “Real McCoy” of spoken word. It is the “Mecca” that all traveling spoken word and slam poets must make pilgrimage to when they go to New York. Both in the “Open Room” and at the poetry slams, the work at the Nuyorican draws heavily upon sentimental politics in a variety of ways, self-consciously contrasting personal identity to national or citizen identity or social/political power. For example, one of the poems the night I attended the slam began with:
“I do not pledge allegiance to a dream deferred.
Anti-American? There is no America.
Money rules.”[22]

The second piece focused on a woman’s story of teaching a struggling inner city student:
“Her eyes are filled with the hope of Amazonian warriors. . . .
“Her soul must have tripped over her words . . .
“I told her, ‘You are special.’”[23]

Another piece that night told the very moving and disturbing story of a rape. A poem from the open mic night started with “I am not your Spic” and went through a litany of racial stereotypes (of various levels of offensiveness) about Latinos. Each of these assumes some level of identification with or sympathy for the poet and/or the subject of the poem and possibly shame or embarrassment on the part of those whose racial identities would align them with the “oppressor.” (Remember the “Guilty White Guy” from our Poetry Slam Bingo.) While “warming up” the audience and giving the judges their rules or criteria for judging the slam, the host the night I attended asked “How do you put a number on someone’s pain and expression?” Regardless of the scoring of the pieces, the highly individualized and sensitive soul of the author/performer, combined with the politically and socially charged subject matter of the pieces, leaves the audience with only one appropriate emotional response. On a ten-point scale, no poems that night scored below an 8.5.

Finally, perhaps because of the close identification of the performer with the text in performed poetry, the use of sentiment also leans toward a “confessional” ethos. For Foucault the confessional mode is “one of the West's most highly valued techniques for producing truth,"[24] and indeed, many spoken word poets cite “truth telling” as an aspect to what they do, whether the work is overtly political or whether it leans more toward personal details. David P. Terry elaborates:

"For Foucault, the impulse to reveal our "true" selves stands as one of the central figures of Western civilization and one of the central ways in which power enacted in micro relationships produces and reinforces macro socio/political structures."[25]

Terry sees in this confessional mode, “a . . . kind of self-expression that is supposed to bear a special stamp of sincerity and authenticity and to bear witness to the truth of the individual personality . . giv[ing] the illusion of addressing broader social/political ills . . . .”[26]


“The possession of an historical identity and the possession of a social identity coincide.”[27]

Many memory theorists such as Olick, Beim and Zellizer discuss the relationship of memory to identity construction both within the contexts of maintaining ethnic and cultural identities and within the context of creating a nationalistic American identity. On the surface, these might look like dissimilar, even opposite operations. Yet I believe it might be argued that these are in fact, similar complementary operations in which one is a step in the process toward the other. In this case, it may be seen that the collectivity, although maintaining its group identity, seeks to be brought into citizenship together as a whole, rather than merely through its individual members. This is, in fact, the underlying assumption behind mass movements – civil rights, feminism, etc. Thus, the presumed American tension between the group and the individual is here erased, effaced, resolved dialectically, at least for the duration of the struggle for acceptance, acclimation and ultimately assimilation – ie citizenship.

Toward this end, these collective identities of race, culture ethnicity and ultimately national citizen identity, are constructed through shared experiences and shared memories – shared understandings and expressions of collective memories. Some of these may be specific incidents – such as the shooting of Amadou Diallo by the New York Police Department—and others may be more general—as in memories of growing up in Harlem or the description of a sexual assault, which others may relate to. In the rubric of The Personal is Political, it is assumed that the personal story will touch off a collective memory, which will help unify the community from which the speaker comes and at the same time, create sympathy, possible even a form of affective identification, from those outside of that community, spurring all of those who have been addressed by the work to act for social change.

In our highly mediated world, the sense of belonging created by shared (cultural) memory no longer belongs exclusively to any one group. Through film and television, any audience member may believe that they understand, for example, what it is to grow up poor in Harlem, and when this mediated memory is combined with the presence of a live performer speaking passionately about the experience, (and with the skill of the evangelical preacher or the weeping poet, moving the audience to tears) the sentiment that is felt from the performance may combine with that mediated “memory” so that the person in the audience may come to believe that they fully understand how it feels to grow up in Harlem. The memory and the identification may no longer be particular to the community from which the performer originates, and from which he or she speaks. This may sound “inauthentic,” and the irony here is that while authenticity is one of the most highly valued attributes of identity politics, this type of empathetic identification is critical to sentimentalist political assumptions. Is this experience, then, a mis-identification? For a sentimental or affective politics to be effective, there must be a degree of universalism, an understanding that no one can be excluded from the moral charge that is presented by this work.

Aaron Beim explains such an operation when he describes Jeffrey Shandler’s work on Holocaust images in television. “Shandler argues that since television has brought the Holocaust into the homes of millions of Americans, it transformed the event from a deeply disturbing yet otherworldly event into a personal tragedy. Television transformed watching the Holocaust into the morally changed act of witnessing the Holocaust.[28] He continues:

“Now let us say that some . . . Jews . . wanted to produce a documentary about the Holocaust. To produce the object, they would by default call on their Holocaust collective memory schemata to make sense of the Holocaust for themselves and thus to operationalize the topic for film production. Once produced, this film would in turn influence how other groups give meaning to the historical event and thus would begin anew the cycle of Holocaust collective memory production.”[29]

Sentimental politics combines here with first person confessionalism here through the sharing of memories that might be either personal or individual (being called a racial epithet at school) or collective (the riots after the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles).

One of the claims of poetry slam is that it builds community, and if this can in fact be the case, it is not simply by bringing a collection of people together into one room (that would merely be a crowd, and not a community), but through creating a sense of identification that can transcend the boundaries of identity and create, perhaps, a new identity within the particular space and time of the event. Beim discusses the idea of collective memory, which he describes as “largely the cognitive by-product of social interaction. . . . Collective memory . . . naturally stems from social structure through the interaction of individuals with institutionalized collective memory objects (like a memorial, film or a reputation).”[30] It’s not that the audience members are having false or inauthentic memories necessarily, but that they are brought into the community through the hearing of stories that have become familiar to them through mediated forms or popular culture rather than through the actual experience of the event. A large, mediated tragedy such as September 11th offers one of the best examples of this. Even people who were not directly involved in the events of that day (ie on the planes or in the World Trade Center or Pentagon) have intense memories of that day through television news and documentaries. Most people who witnessed the event in this way can be said to have a memory of the event and an emotional response to the event. Does if follow that one can have a memory of a smaller or less traumatic event, such as growing up poor in the 1950s, through repeatedly watching documentaries? Many memory theorists describe the importance of collectivities in generating and stimulating memory. If as Olick suggests, “only individuals remember, though they may do so alone or together,”[31] we do so in conversation with what Barbie Zellizer calls a “community of memory”[32]. She cites George Lipsitz in suggesting that “popular culture has precipitated a crisis of memory, in which all identity construction comes to rest at least in part on memory work.”[33]

According to Zellizer, collective memory is always political and is always about the establishment of identity and community before issues of “truth” or accuracy:”
“[C]ollective memory refers to recollections that are instantiated beyond the individual by and for the collective. . . the collective memory comprises recollections of the past that are determined and shaped by the group. By definition, collective memory thereby presumes activities of sharing, discussion, negotiation, and often, contestation. Remembering becomes implicated in a range of other activities having as much to do with identity formation, power and authority, cultural norms, and social interaction as with the simple act of recall. Its full understanding thus requires an appropriation of memory as social, cultural and political action at its broadest level.” [34]

“[C]ollective memories help us fabricate, rearrange or omit details from the past as we thought we knew it. Issues of historical accuracy and authenticity are pushed aside to accommodate other issues, such as those surrounding the establishment of social identity, authority, solidarity, political affiliation.” [35]

If this is the case, then memory, whether it be “personal” (autobiographical or vernacular) or “political” (official), can be a powerful tool in building a sense of community and collective identity, particularly when paired with sentiment.
As a tool for transmitting memory as well as emotion, performance poetry is well-positioned historically. Zellizer points out that:

“ . . . the earliest expressions of a community’s collective memory have tended to be language-based—chants sung by tribes during cattle round-ups, sagas of the Icelanders, Homeric epics of the Ancient Greeks. . . Some scholars have argued for memory’s fundamentally oral nature, and for the fact that early forms of remembering were associated with oral sources and the oral tradition. . . .”[36]

While there are many criticisms of identity politics, the political uses of sentiment, and of the confluence of these factors in performance poetry and poetry slam, it is important to understand where the political assumptions behind this work comes from and the foundation that artists and activists alike seek to build upon. Sentimentalism combined with collective memory has had its political successes, as well as its limitations. In his introduction to Listen Up!, Yusef Komunyakaa asserts that “[t]he voices in Listen Up! are personal and public, and they also speak on behalf of others. . . This is a poetry of engagement and discourse. It celebrates and confronts.”[37] He suggests that the personal is political and vice versa, not in overt didacticism or sloganeering, but in the subtle assumptions that underlie the work, that the “voices” represented therein speak for others (or possibly in some cases, Others).


Anglesey, Zoe, Ed. Listen up! New York: One World/Ballantine, 1999.

Barker-Benfield, G. J. The culture of sensibility: sex and society in eighteenth-century Britain. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Beim, A. "The Cognitive Aspects of Collective Memory." Symbolic Interaction 30:1 (2007): 7-26.

Berlant, Lauren Gail Compassion. Essays from the English Institute. New York: Routledge and Net Library, Inc, 2004,;;

Berlant, Lauren. “Poor Eliza.” No More Separate Spheres! Cathy N. Davidson and Jessamyn Hatcher, eds Durham: Duke University Press , 2002, 291-323.

Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination : Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

Glenn, Susan A. Female Spectacle : The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Handler, Richard. "Is Identity' a Useful Cross-Cultural Concept?" Commemorations: the politics of national identity, edited by John R. Gillis. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1994, 27-40.

Hays, Michael and Anastasia Nikolopoulou. Melodrama : The Cultural Emergence of a Genre. London: Macmillan, 1996.

Ilsemann, Hartmut. “Radicalism in the Melodrama of the Nineteenth Century,” Melodrama : The Cultural Emergence of a Genre. Michael Hays and Anastasia Nikolopoulou, eds. London: Macmillan, 1996, pp. 191-207.

Lowenthal, David. "Identity, Heritage, and History," Commemorations: the politics of national identity, edited by John R. Gillis. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1994, 41-57.

Ogg, Alex and David Upshal, The Hip Hop Years: A History of Rap. Philadelphia: Trans-Atlantic Publications, Inc., 1999.

Olick, J. K. "Collective Memory: The Two Cultures." Sociological Theory 17:3 (1999): 333-348.

Olick, Jeffrey K. and Joyce Robbins. "Social Memory Studies: From "Collective Memory" to the Historical Sociology of Mnemonic Practices." Annual Review of Sociology 24:1 (1998): 105-140.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked : The Politics of Performance. London ; New York: Routledge, 1993.

Szwed, John F. “The Real Old School,” The Vibe History of Hip Hop, Alan Light, Ed. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999, p. 3-10.

Terry, David P. “Once Blind, Now Seeing: Problematics of Confessional Performance.” Text and Performance Quarterly, 26:3 (July, 2006): 209-228.

Townsend, Joanna. “Elizabeth Robins: Hysteria, Politics and Performance.” Women, Theatre and Performance : New Histories, New Historiographies. Women, Theatre and Performance.

Maggie B. Gale and Vivien Gardner, eds. Manchester ; New York: Manchester University Press,
2000, pp. 102-120.

Zelizer, B. "Reading the past against the grain: The shape of memory studies." Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12 (1995): 204-239.


[1] 38
[2]Lowenthall, 50
[3]Barker-Benfield, 68
[4] Berlant, 2002 301
[5] 72.
[6] 39.
[7] It is difficult, if not impossible, to untangle rap and hip hop from contemporary performance poetry and poetry slam. Rap and hip hop are often used interchangeably by scholars and historians, as well as by some practitioners. Likewise, poetry slam and hip hop styles of performance are seen as difficult to distinguish from one another. There is definitely a trajectory from rap into poetry slam and contemporary performance poetry.
[8] Hays and Nikolopoulou, viii
[9]Berlant 2004, 5
[10] Berlant 2002, 301
[11] Berlant 2002, 297
[12] 202
[13] 15
[14] 22
[15] 14
[16] Glenn,135
[17] Townsend, 103
[18] Berlant, 2002, 297
[19] Glenn, 149
[20] 13
[21]Berlant, 2002, 303
[22] Laura Winton research trip notes June, 2006
[23] Laura Winton research trip notes June, 2006
[24] Terry, 210
[25] Terry, 210
[26] Terry, 217
[27] Olick & Robbins, 122
[28] Beim, 2007, 13
[29] Beim, 2007, 20
[30] Beim, 2007, 8
[31] 338
[32] 228
[33] 229
[34] 214
[35] 217
[36] 232-233
[37] xii-xiii

you and the world

The longer we're together (I'm with you)
the harder it is to say goodbye
the lingering imprints of your hands
fingers (fingertips)
vibration lingers on my lips
Today a woman assassinated
Benazir Bhutto is dead
and I feel my vulnerable woman's parts
more than ever
what it is in me that longs for all things
that wants more of you than I can take (handle)
I feel how easily all is
and the world
I am jolted from forced
back inside
into hiding perhaps in my
self or outside an exile
perhaps I
move slowly my heart
is (beats) ir
reg u lar(ly) perhaps a bubble
all things already
said in these moments uncertain wordless without courage
My stare steady silent perhaps
vacant but not blank
inside it's you only
I see feel phantom fingertips left
yesterday six months past september summer
there was power
hope -----inadequate-----magic half
conjurations a spell in my hand
an imperfect sister is dead
and I want
to live my power in the world
and you.