Letters from “The Contemporary”: Aku, Letter 6

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In March 2016, a group of scholars gathered for “The Contemporary,” a conference on twenty-first century literature and culture, hosted by Princeton University. This series of responses by participants Aku Ammah-Tagoe, Christopher Patrick Miller, and Mande Zecca takes up questions raised there.  

An essay by the organizers was published earlier on Contemporaries; further information on the conference’s program and participants can be found at contemporary.princeton.edu.

Christopher, I'm fascinated by your closing idea. Scholars often frame breakage and rupture as traumatic. That's certainly the case when we claim the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, the global financial crisis, or even the Anthropocene as important periodizing moments for the contemporary. But you're suggesting that this period of cultural production is characterized by an ongoing sense of discomfort with one's many allegiances, and thus a constant struggle towards reconciliation.

And Mande, you're saying something similar when you look to poets for "a different rhetorical register" to "supplement the militant call-out." You're most engaged by writers who create neither harmony nor factionalization, but a kind of political friction. Perhaps what we're getting to is the idea that friction or agitation could be a key aesthetic and political strategy within the contemporary. I love how that gives us a point of distinction between what we want to call contemporary culture and classical Western culture, with its emphasis on harmonious form. It also might also, eventually, lead us towards subtler distinctions between the contemporary and postmodernism (without forgetting that, as Sarah Wasserman put it in her conference talk, "we have never been post-postmodern").

I'm glad to hear about the ways in which breakage and agitation are rippling through conversations within the poetry world. At the moment, I don't think American literary fiction is experiencing the same movement. But I do see friction emerging from the imaginative fictions that some contemporary artists use, and maybe this will result in a reverse movement back into the world of fiction. Recently, I thought of this while visiting a satellite installation of the Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History. You may have heard of it or visited; this summer it was open at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, here in San Francisco. In 2012, Ian Alan Paul created the museum as a site for critically examining the legacy of what was once the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp; in the museum's official language, it is a space for "collectively remembering a passed future."

For me, the museum's ongoing fiction produces exactly the kind of break that you're talking about, Christopher. I stand for the present that the museum proposes, which means I must think deeply about all the ways in which I stand with the nation that has produced our actual present. It's a heady experience, one that I've experienced in some recent small-press fictionsJohn Keene's Counternarratives (2015) foremost among themand one that I'd be interested in seeing in more mainstream fiction and the conversations that surround its production.

So I think what I'm ending on is a sense that the counterfactual is necessary to creating change within contemporary art, culture, and society. That's something Paul Saint-Amour has argued in Post-45, and something that seems inherent to any argument about "imagining" a new world. Present conditions remind us that this work is as urgent as it's ever been. As Claudia Rankine puts it in Citizen,

because white men can't

police their imaginations

black men are dying

In March, Rachel Greenwald Smith explored this verse as an example of Rankine's entrepreneurial use of form. Today, it's a reminder that as we stand for literary form as a key site of culture, there are countless real bodies for us to stand with. It's for them that we're exploring these new possible worlds.

Mande, Christopher, It's been a pleasure thinking through all of this with you. Many thanks to Sarah Chihaya, Joshua Kotin, and Kinohi Nishikawa for fearlessly organizing this conference and for listening to what we had to say about it. I very much look forward to this conference's many afterlives, and to finding visions of the world we can't even imagine at present.

– Aku


Christopher, Letter 1

Mande, Letter 2

Aku, Letter 3

Mande, Letter 4

Christopher, Letter 5