Following Stanley Cavell’s death last month at the age of 91, we invited some of his students, friends, and admirers to write about his life and work. We were particularly interested in soliciting personal essays that acknowledged how Cavell’s thinking or character as a scholar and teacher had influenced the contributor’s own thinking or teaching, or helped to point them in new directions in their work. We ultimately received eight such pieces, with essays by Charles Bernstein, R.M. Berry, Beci Carver, J.D. Connor, Andrew Epstein, Walt Hunter, Imani Perry, and Johanna Winant.
I initially encountered this remarkable hobo of thought in graduate school, nearly twenty-five years ago, when I was first blown away by the strangeness and beauty of his writing. What other philosopher or theorist is so eloquent, so moving, so curiously human when discussing the problems of philosophy and literature and film? Like many others, I’ve always been drawn to Cavell in part for his genius as a writer, a stylist, a creator of striking, distinctive, indelible sentences. Certain phrases and passages, including some I’ve quoted above, have simply become totemic for me, recurring at odd moments and never far from my thoughts. They seemed to speak to something deep-seated in me that I hadn’t quite articulated or fully understood. His writing also seemed to have a weird knack for providing powerful language, images, and metaphors for concepts and ideas that happened to be at the center of my own work. Looking back, I can now see Cavell became something of a guiding spirit hovering over both of my books, echoing and deepening their themes.
Faced with the daily calamity of the Bush years, Flarf testified that verbal play, and the creative détournement of our culture’s own language, could be a liberating act of resistance. Its antics were a valuable method of pushing back against what Wallace Stevens called, in another dark time, the almost unbearable “pressure of reality.” Perhaps right now we desperately need art forms that can seize on the language of our time, expose its absurdity, its deceit, and its sinister designs on us, and repurpose it for different ends. But in 2018, the online culture of misogyny, racism, stupidity, and hatred that Flarf exposed doesn’t need much further unearthing: it seems to be everywhere. As we gasp for air and sanity in the depths of Trumpworld, Flarf seems prescient but also somewhat redundant. To paraphrase Man Ray’s famous remark about why Dada could not survive in New York: Flarf cannot live in America. All America is Flarf, and will not tolerate a rival.
For anyone who has been dying to get my recent book but couldn’t stomach the cost, good news! It’s just been published in paperback by Oxford University Press, now at a more affordable price — plus it’s got some new blurbs/review excerpts on the back.
“Attention Equals Life is an exemplary work of criticism. Authoritative but not dogmatic, at once wide-ranging and immersed in the textual details of individual poems, it provides in each chapter both a conceptual map for understanding broad cultural and aesthetic trends and the sort of sensitive and synthetic account of a poet’s career that will stand as the starting point for future scholars and students. It is certain to become one of the definitive literary histories of postwar and contemporary American poetry.” — Brian Glavey, Contemporary Literature
“A book of enormous breadth and ambition, Attention Equals Life is at once astonishing and reaffirming, challenging and clarifying. It engages more broadly than its scholarly focus would suggest. Epstein (Florida State Univ.) explores contemporary poetry’s obsession with the quotidian, setting that obsession in literary context (both historical and current) and identifying it as contemporaneous with cultural interest in the ordinary, the commonplace, the “real.” His argument is persuasive, the information is abundant and compelling, the endnotes and bibliography are extensive if not exhaustive, and the style is accessible. This book has something for everyone-poets, critics, teachers of literature and contemporary culture, fans of contemporary poetry, and even those who think that no poetry of value has emerged in the US since Robert Frost…Summing Up: Essential.” –J. A. Zoller, Choice.
“Epstein’s Attention Equals Life (2016) offers a powerful account of the preoccupation with the everyday and the construction of what he calls a “skeptical realism” in postwar US poetry. … Epstein’s argument is not only original but persuasive too. It has that quality that only the best arguments do of cutting through an already well-plowed field in order to reveal similarities and affinities between otherwise aesthetically disparate materials.” –Christopher Breu, American Literary History
According to the website: “Every year in the January issue, in print and online, Choice publishes a list of Outstanding Academic Titles that were reviewed during the previous calendar year. This prestigious list reflects the best in scholarly titles reviewed by Choice and brings with it the extraordinary recognition of the academic library community.”
The College of Arts and Sciences at Florida State University, where I teach, was kind enough to post this article about the recognition:
English professor’s book named one of ‘Outstanding Academic Titles for 2017’
A Florida State University professor’s book on the rise of “experimental realism” in modern poetry is making waves in the academic world.
Andrew Epstein, a professor in FSU’s Department of English and associate chair of the department’s graduate English program, is the author of Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture. The book, published by Oxford University Press, was recently named one of the “Outstanding Academic Titles for 2017” by Choice, a magazine of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL).
In awarding Outstanding Academic Titles, Choice editors apply several criteria to review titles:
Overall excellence in presentation and scholarship
Importance relative to other literature in the field
Distinction as a first treatment of a given subject in book or electronic form
Originality or uniqueness of treatment
Value to undergraduate students
Importance in building undergraduate library collections
Being named to this list is a prestigious accomplishment, as it is often influential in determining which books libraries will purchase. Epstein’s book has also made the shortlist for another top award in his field: the Modernist Studies Association Book Prize.
“After spending years of hard work researching and writing a book, it’s very gratifying to know that people are reading it and finding it interesting and useful,” Epstein said. “I’m especially glad that the book seems to be reaching people beyond just academic experts in my area of specialty, because I think the problems and issues I discuss — about attention and distraction in the age of the smartphone, the complexity and appeal of the everyday, how art forms can capture the daily, and so on — are topics of broad interest and urgent concern in our culture today.”
Attention Equals Life examines why modern poetry and other art forms have become so preoccupied with representing the ordinary and humble experience of daily life.
“Rather than focusing on grand subjects, timeless themes and sublime beauty, contemporary poets, and many other writers and artists, have been much more invested in documenting and capturing the everyday and mundane,” Epstein said. “I view this turn to the daily as a response to the rapid transformations that have characterized the period since 1945, which have resulted in a culture of distraction and information overload. My book argues that poetry has become an important, and perhaps unlikely, cultural form that responds to, and tries to resist, a culture suffering from an acute crisis of attention.”
Gary Taylor, chair of the Department of English, praised Epstein, saying his book “really does make the ordinary extraordinary.
“Although Andrew Epstein is a theorist and observer of everyday experience, there is nothing quotidian about his achievement.”
Writing in Choice, reviewer J.A. Zoller stated, “A book of enormous breadth and ambition, Attention Equals Life is at once astonishing and reaffirming, challenging and clarifying. It engages more broadly than its scholarly focus would suggest.
“. . . This book has something for everyone — poets, critics, teachers of literature and contemporary culture, fans of contemporary poetry, and even those who think that no poetry of value has emerged in the U.S. since Robert Frost,” Zoller added.
Taylor described Epstein as a tremendous resource for the English department, as “he is exceptionally valuable in linking the Graduate Program in Literature, Media and Culture to the Graduate Program in Creative Writing.” In addition, he credited Epstein with being instrumental in bringing the nationally acclaimed poet and critic Stephanie Burt to the university, where she gave both a poetry reading and a critical lecture on the relationship between poetry and song.
Attention Equals Life is the culmination of work from the past several years on modernism and the everyday, particularly American poetry moving toward the mid-century. The book is extremely readable for broad audiences and makes a compelling extension of discussions of the everyday, both from an American standpoint and with a focus on mid-century literary production. The nuanced attention to poetic language is convincing and the theoretical and philosophical argumentation is bested only by detailed analyses of poems, which are frequent and efficient. Close attention to the text itself is always diligently related to the American philosophical tradition so that textual analyses do not operate as mere illustrations but signal a new step in scholarship. This study challenges our perception of poetry as a genre and as a form – it raises new questions in terms of poetics, aesthetics, and ethics, and particularly how poetry works as a form of cultural and political action. Attention Equals Life is a completely convincing work.
Fitch and I discuss the central concerns of my book and how I came to write it, including theories and poetics of the everyday, French New Wave film, secular vs. spiritual approaches to dailiness, politics, an app that lets you take one second of video per day, and many other things.