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The Work of Spontaneity--Becky's Chapter


I think your chapter is amazing! Its ideas and connections are so well thought out, complex, and clearly expressed. I enjoyed reading it. You're helping me think through some ideas in my own work-- not only because the Gothic and ghosts make appearances in your chapter, but also because, in it, you touch on some issues I'm considering in relation to Proto-filmic Poe and Jewish emigres' 1930s film adaptations of Poe's stories. Thank you for your insights.

I think the turn to Niedecker's poem works well to conclude the chapter. What's missing for me in the final paragraph is a fuller comparison of N's and Albers' ways of, and reasons for, "lament[ing] 'today's' lack of useful objects," that links all of the issues that the chapter has so brilliantly pieced together. I also suggest adding transitions between sections in the body of the chapter to make the development of your argument on Albers' theory of modernism more explicit. Finally, I think beefing up support for your claim that Albers "was not entirely alone" in her perspective on "the connection between art and life, as well as labor, craft, and politics" would serve the chapter well. In addition to Adorno, Benjamin comes to my mind as a theorist to compare to Albers. In particular, B's expressed purpose of writing theses on art to contribute to the worker's struggle, and his argument that mass production can be used toward revolutionary ends, in the "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility," and his ideas on having instantaneous flashes of insight (spontaneity?) while reading, and on comparing 'moderns' to "the ancients," in "The Doctrine of the Similar," seem to resonate with your claims about Albers' theory, not to mention that Benjamin is another German-Jewish exile. (Though perhaps simply because these essays are on my mind!)

Some questions on Albers' theory that occurred to me while reading your chapter and that perhaps would help you address the above:

1. Is the artist's struggle with material a kind of "negative objectification" in that, rather than do violence to the object, the artist gives (or takes?) voice/expression to (from?) the object? Perhaps say more about how Albers redefines objectification, as well as subjectification.

2. Do the terms unconscious, thought, subjectivity, subjectiveness, and individuality mean the same thing? Can you clarify how Albers redefines "thought," and why, if she's bringing the body and work into her idea of thought, does she see "convulsion" as anti-thought? Is Albers' theory anti-Freudian? (I think Benjamin has been interpreted as challenging Freudian theory.) Does Albers differ from Adorno in her refutation of a Freudian psychoanalytic paradigm? Does this relate to Albers "advocat[ing] working *with* mass production" (which, needless to say, Adorno found problematic, particularly in Benjamin's writing)? Is her comparison of the human and non-human (particularly, the machine) anti-Freudian?

3. What is the relationship between marginalization, minorities, minor art, the past, the folk, the feminine, and the response to WWI (as manifestation of the wrongs of and possible end to Western civilization)? Is Albers' theory primitivist because, in an effort to change the 'today' of the West, she equates the present of other cultures with the past (of the West), and argues the West must revive Others' pasts to create a future for the West? When Albers refers to "our way of doing things," does she collapse "Modernist" and "Western"? Is her theory implicated in a kind of cultural amnesia toward the pre-Enlightenment West?

4. Is Albers' theory anti-primitivist because she redefines assimilation?

5. On Naming: is Albers' stance toward anonymity more "conflicted" or "dialectical"? Can you say more about how advocating anonymity helps to revive the past and/or give voice to Others (in comparing Albers' theory to Niedecker's poem)?

6. Why is Albers' theory seen as conservative, exactly? Because she is against experimental art? Are conservativeness and conservationism the same?

That's all I have, for now. I hope these thoughts/questions are helpful. Feel free to email me or post any comments/questions on them. I'm sorry I didn't include page numbers in citing parts of your chapter, above. I printed out a copy with smaller font, less pages. But, if you can't tell what parts of your chapter I'm referring to in questions above, I'm happy to point to them.

Again, thank you for sharing your chapter, and well done!



Hi Becky,

I definitely second the praise from Maddy and Lauren--not only is your topic compelling and the connections you trace rich, but the writing itself is clear and a pleasure to read. I learned a lot. I think that most of my suggestions are along similar lines as have already been posted, so I'll keep it brief. I agree that the chapter would be well served by some more explicit mapping of Albers' place in the big-picture conversations taking place mid-century among modernist thinkers--and perhaps meatier footnotes would do the trick, although I agree with Lauren that transitions between sections of the paper could do a lot of that work.

I'm primarily interested in hearing more about the link you're making between the avante-garde artist and the factory laborer. Firstly, why is this link important for you to make? What's at stake in terms of our understanding of Albers as an artist and/or the currents you're tracing in modernist thought? I think it could help to make the terms of this debate more explicit. There are several moments where your paper points to interesting tensions that such a link creates, but those tensions seem somewhat unresolved--for example, your observation that Albers' focus on anonymity both "aligns her with the unnamed worker" but also helps her "move up" in an elitist, exclusive art world. I think this relates to Maddy's last comment, and this is something that I struggle with in a big-picture sense, too. What does it mean to "reclaim" a writer/artist who has been cast as conservative in the name of a more progressive politics? What is gained and risked/obscured in such a move? I think exploring some of those tensions in Albers' thought more explicitly could be a way to think through some of these questions.

Lastly, there are a couple of Albers' terms that aren't totally clear to me--and this may just be a product of my own lack of knowledge or art history (in general, I think you do a really nice job sketching out her use of specific terminology). What does she mean when she opposes *design* to craft, especially given that she does theorize design? Also, how does Albers use the notion of *form*, especially as you talk about it in relation to Dormer's argument?

Thanks for sharing this, Becky. I really look forward to seeing more!

Thanks to Maddy for taking up my "beef/meat" metaphor and for cluing me in that the word is "conservatism," not "conservativism."
Also, I forgot to suggest, in my comments, that perhaps the chapter simply needs "meatier" footnotes to more fully situate Albers' work in relation to other mid-20th-c theory and, as Maddy discusses in a), above, modernist art.

I think that Lauren has covered a lot of ground, and though I'd jokingly warned that I might steal from her comments, it might come to that yet.

I have to say that I'm impressed with not only your having completed a chapter, but also by the quality of the chapter. You make some excellent points, and your readings of Albers in general seem superb. In particular, I thought that your understanding of Albers's notion of spontaneity was complex and interesting-- your focus on precise language ("revelation") is impressive. Also, I thought that your analysis of the overlapping of feminine and frivolous in Albers's terminology (pg. 15) showed an attention to linguistic detail that I envy. By the end of the chapter, I was surprised and saddened by your remark that Albers-as-theoretician continues to be ignored by the academy; which is to say that you convinced me that she deserves much more attention than she gets. Bravo.

However, I do have a few concerns which you might consider addressing in future drafts:

a) While your general impression of the various literary histories you cite is admirable, you might benefit from a more specific engagement with these histories. For instance, you say much about a certain kind of modernism that elevates the individual (also "high art") that Albers sets herself against, and it would be nice to see specific thinkers/artists in play here. Obviously, there's a good chance that Albers does not engage with them directly, but I feel that it might be part of your work to conjure for your readers the kinds of people she is self-consciously setting herself against. This would also help, I believe, in clarifying other parts of your chapter. Namely, you mention on page 14 that her "perspective is very much in line with her fellow modernist thinkers," which somehow reads as contradicting some of what you've established. A clearer distinction between the modernist trajectories that she sympathizes with, and others that aren't really her cup of tea, would really help here.

b) Along the same lines, there are a few very interesting claims you make that go generally unanswered. The relevance of Albers's status as an "assimilated Jewish woman" seems intriguing, but is mostly left alone. There's a good chance that you feel this relevance to be obvious, but I think it could easily do with a few more sentences. Also, to sort of relate to what Lauren says about Adorno, he could do with some more page space. Lauren has already asked of you some very specific concerns regarding Adorno, and I second that need for specificity. The section in your chapter where you mention the similarities between the Bauhaus and the Frankfurt school, for instance, seems a great place for you to really investigate what these very different "groups" work towards. I imagine that the same conclusion you come to now (i.e. both these groups focus on art and life) would be made a lot more meaty if it came after a moderate examination of Bauhaus and the Frankfurt School. In my line comments (which I've emailed you) there are other instances that I feel might benefit from more explicit conclusions and connections than the implications that you hint at.

c) In general, many of your sentences are guarded to the extent that they need not be, or even to the extent that you wouldn't want them to be. You seem to defend your textual choices sometimes (p2), or the decisions you make regarding her politics, which you don't need to defend, since you earn them through your analysis. I'm of the opinion that the fewer "I" statements in your dissertation, the better. (You'll notice I make no changes to my own rhetoric in this regard.)

d) You do a fine job anticipating certain kinds of disagreements (Albers's conservatism, her romanticization of workers). I feel, however, that first, you may not really confront these disagreements even as you articulate them. (Why isn't she conservative after all?) Second, you may be able to expand this chapter at least a little by anticipating some more. For one, I'm interested in this move of hers of equating her craft with factory work-- there seems to be the possibility of her eliding some very important questions of material wealth and working conditions there. I feel that you begin to address why this move is progressive and admirable rather than the other thing, but I don't know that you fully articulate it.

I want to (re)emphasize that I think you're doing some very, very interesting work here, and that your writing is solid, argumentative, and intelligible. I hope these comments have been of some help, and I'm excited to read more of your work.