“Is Impressionism finished?” “Does the situation of the educated Negro in America with its pathos, humiliation and tragedy call for artistic treatment at least as sincere and sympathetic as ‘Porgy’ received?” “How, in your opinion, are the influences of the United States manifesting themselves upon Europe and in Europe?” These questions, taken from the Mercure de France, The Crisis, and transition respectively, reflect a highpoint in the literary questionnaire, a form that flourished along with the magazine as modernism, avant-garde movements, and the ubiquity of print converged in the early 20th century. Luminaries from William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein to the Surrealists and Joseph Stella were prompted with these potentially unanswerable questions, giving readers today an opportunity, as Lori Cole argues, to hear writers and artists make sense of their own historical formations.
As Full Stop enters its fourth year, having thrown our own hat in the questionnaire game, we turn to Lori Cole, faculty fellow at NYU’s Draper program in the humanities and social thought and expert in this curiously overlooked form. Lori has written extensively on the questionnaire, unearthing gems like the following from a 1929 Little Review questionnaire: “What is your worldview? (Are you a reasonable being in a reasonable scheme?) Why do you go on living?” She is currently indexing questionnaires from 1891 to the present, and welcomes further examples.
Michael Schapira: I was wondering how you became interested in questionnaires, because most people studying modernism and the avant-garde will focus on manifestos and editorial statements. But you make a compelling case that questionnaires are the flip side of, or complete a circuit with, the manifesto.
Lori Cole: Well, I’ve always been interested in manifestos. I actually wrote my undergraduate thesis on manifestos, so that was definitely a starting point. I came to the questionnaire when doing research for an article about magazines in Madrid, looking specifically at the 1930 questionnaire “What is the avant-garde?”, which was issued in a Madrid-based magazine called La Gaceta literaria. In one of the responses to that particular questionnaire a writer refers to a 1907 questionnaire “What is modernism?”, suggesting that the 1930 questionnaire was modeled on this prior citation. That alerted me to the fact that all of these people were aware of a genealogy and a form in which they were self-consciously participating, perpetuating, and repurposing. That’s when I followed the trail and realized these were ubiquitous and perhaps of as great importance as the manifesto.
What’s interesting is that you would think, with the avant-garde, that people would make some sort of proposition, or there would be some positive content that would orient people to go forward, but with the questionnaire things are reversed and the question pushes people forward.
That is what it is so fascinating, because [the questionnaire] punctures the bravado of the manifesto, which is such a singular, almost bold, optimistic doctrine or document. The questionnaire allows room for doubt, ambivalence, dissent, and debate. However, it is typically used by editors to garner support for a movement or a program. Questionnaires are born out of this anxiety because they use the form of the question and enable all kinds of debate, but they also feel like a way of reinforcing the magazine’s platform. So for example the Argentine magazine Martín Fierro issued a questionnaire in 1924 asking, “Do you believe there is an Argentine sensibility or mentality?” Obviously they wanted everyone to answer yes, as they were trying to support their manifesto declaring that there was such a thing.
In the time period you have written about [the 1920s and 30s] the United States emerges as a looming and organizing presence in many of these questionnaires. You started doing research in Spain, so did you go into the project with the idea that you’d get all these different perspectives on America?
I had no idea what I was going to find. I imagine that this project could have gone in a different direction had I focused on German questionnaires.
Do you think America would still be an issue?
I think it would because [America] was this ascendant force for which, at least in the context of my project, Europeans and Latin Americans had very vitriolic responses. For example, in 1928 Eugene Jolas, in the magazine transition, issued a questionnaire asking Europeans, primarily Surrealists, what they thought the influence of the United States had been on Europe. He said that the violence of the answers received was so strong that they spoke for themselves. I think the United States was a force to reckoned with, but from the perspective of the US and Latin America, magazines were trying to forge what they took to be an American art or literature that compete with or displace Europe. After I did a lot of research I realized that this was one of the key entryways into making sense of the ubiquity of questions being asked.
Was another through line the burgeoning awareness that people were operating in an international context? Or maybe in the tension between nationalist movements in Europe, burgeoning nationalist sensibilities in the Caribbean and Latin America, and the idea that magazines in particular exist within a community of international writers and artists?
I think that the form of the magazine beautifully exemplifies some of these tensions or concerns because it is a site for collaboration between artists and writers across regions and enables them to distribute their work internationally, but is often a community wherein artists and writers from around the world can appear side by side. A lot of the questions that I look at are specifically about internationalism, and mirrored the network that the magazine helps to create. What is our relationship to the international avant-garde? Can we participate in it and be as contemporary as these other artists that we are reading about and featuring in our own magazine? So like the manifesto, it is a genre that demonstrates or signals one’s participation in the avant-garde, but it is also born out of an anxiety precisely to be a part of it.
It seems like we’re ripe for a revival of the questionnaire because there is something inherently funny about its standardized form.
It’s funny to me too because the language of bureaucracy that the questionnaire provides gives it a kind of authority that these magazines found appealing. One of my favorite examples is a poetry magazine called The Chapbook, which issued a questionnaire asking whether prose was going to displace poetry — and it’s using prose to ask about the relevance of poetry. It’s so contradictory and people of course responded saying, “no, poetry is still so important,” reinforcing the magazine’s very mission. So I think that technocratic language can provide some authority, but of course none of these [answers] are quantifiable data. While we might be obsessed with quantifying all the answers to the question “What is the avant-garde?”, all we are going to get is a series of literary, philosophical, open-ended responses that contradict each other and are often unreadable.
Is there one that sticks out as a favorite in the questionnaire’s function of parodying the bureaucracy?
Yes, only because you used the word parody. In 1926 this Argentine magazine called Campana de Palo issued a questionnaire asking what was the worst book of the year, which was itself a parody. [The editors] wrote all of the answers themselves in the voices of famous authors like Borges, and they all nominated the same book, which is called Zogoibi, that the magazine itself published. It was all a publicity stunt, which to me indicates that this is such a ubiquitous phenomenon. I have examples of people making fun of the questionnaire, ranging from Ezra Pound to Bernard Faÿ. Everyone was weary of questionnaires, but continued to respond to them and participate in them. The parody function is a great example that this has reached the point of total and utter nonsense, but yet it continues.
One big exception to the lightness of the questionnaire that came to mind for me was What is Enlightenment? I forget the journal Kant was responding to . . .
It was in the Berlin Monthly in 1784. I have a different interest in that essay. I think that particular question becomes famous because Foucault talks about it in 1984. The original answer is really beautiful and important philosophically because Kant is so important, but what’s so interesting from my perspective is that he’s reflecting on the Enlightenment, the very formation of which he’s a part of and contributing to in his own time. This signals another kind of trend that I’ve noticed, which is questions about periodization and trying to make sense of your own historical period, be it “What is the avant-garde?”, “What is modernism?”, “What is the contemporary?” (which October issued in 2009). I think this is part of that tradition, or the earliest incarnation of that tradition, which is an opportunity for someone like Kant, someone of that stature, to take themselves outside of their own work to reflect on their broader moment.
It’s something you mention, calling these questionnaires a “patchwork historiography.”
I do think of it as an alternative historiography in a sense. Let’s look at what these artists and writers themselves thought at the time, and let them generate a framework for thinking about these historical formations as opposed to imposing some sort of retroactive sense onto them. This enables, at least for me, a way to think about aesthetic debates happening in Latin America, or other so-called peripheries, and Europe as happening simultaneously.
Going back to Kant, he names the relevant community for Enlightenment discourse as the community of scholars, and all he means by that is the reading public who would read a journal like the Berlin Monthly. What is the role of the reader in these questionnaires?
What’s interesting is that it includes the reader only tangentially. You as the reader might identify with an answer or respond to the question on your own, but it is actually a closed circuit because typically editors invite contributors to respond to questions, so it’s not wholly democratic in the way that the letter to the editor is, but it is inclusive in that it is open-ended and open for debate, and you do subsequently see letters that contest or comment on the questions.
There is something that you identify that I found very interesting, which is that the questionnaire can be seen as figuring a collective subject through individual, private responses. Is that something that you think is a unique contribution of the form that has been under-theorized or under-appreciated?
Well, I think the whole phenomenon is under-theorized, but the questionnaire is a kind of extreme or amplified version of the magazine form itself. A magazine is a form that brings together a dispersed group of contributors, perhaps working in different media, and is a kind of collaborative community. The questionnaire highlights that because of the way it works visually in this patchwork of responses. You see the list of contributors side by side, you get the sense that these are people jointly invested in this larger project, so it creates, albeit provisionally, the kind of community that is emblematic of the magazine as a whole.
Would you ever be tempted to engage with your social science colleagues and look at associated forms like surveys, which are attempts to yield some kind of collective identity of a population, but are explicitly geared towards packaging that information as data which can be manipulated analytically or translated into a policy initiative?
My initial instinct was to consider this [form] alongside the social science survey, which was concomitant with the questionnaire at the turn of the 20th century. However, that [direction] didn’t yield very much because I found this artistic, literary, philosophical genealogy of the questionnaire to really be parodying the form of the survey. None of these questionnaires give empirical results that can be tabulated. Rather, it’s quite the opposite.
If you read an interview in the Paris Review they identify the interviewer as Interviewer and only name the interview subject. There are ways to standardize the literary interview, but the questionnaire really stretches this form, and through it’s inflexibility forces respondents to contort into these strange positions. Do you want to say something on the relationship between the literary interview and the questionnaire?
To finish my thought on the social science survey, that line of research yielded very little as a precursor to the literary questionnaire. Instead I noticed that many questionnaires modeled themselves on the Mercure de France and the enquête, which was originated by Jules Huret, who interviewed subjects like Mallarmé and Zola. His interviews were soon codified as questionnaires. So it started out as an artist interview or an author interview that he subsequently published and compiled in book form, but later streamlined his process by issuing questionnaires and publishing responses in the Mercure de France, which issued tons of these asking things like, “Is Impressionism finished?” and “What is the relationship between French and German literature?” It really was a kind of shorthand for them because the interview had become so popular.
And I do think there is a relationship between the appeal of the first person voice of the interview and the questionnaire as a less edited and personal contribution to an issue or debate.
Michael Schapira is the Interview Editor for Full Stop.