canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The lowdown on the loser class

The following critical introduction/friendly roast was delivered at the Montreal launch of Jon Paul Fiorentino’s fourth poetry collection, The Theory of the Loser Class (Coach House, 2006), at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival, Thursday, April 6, 2006.

A reading by Fiorentino from his new book followed. During the opening moments of said reading, Fiorentino’s daughter comically waddled towards her father crying, to which Fiorentino smiled and said, "You’re ruining daddy’s career." And we all laughed.



By Jason Camlot

I have looked into the Theory of the Loser Class and have found no theory there. I refer you to footnote eleven on Page 77 of Jon’s book for the author’s confirmation of this assertion. QUOTE "No theory here." CLOSED QUOTE. There is no theory, per se, just a lot of losers, and an exciting array of lyric refraction expressing loss. And certainly that’s enough for a poetry book dressed—handsomely dressed—as an analysis of bourgeois culture and the function of conspicuous consumption in fin-de-siècle Boston or New York. Still, despite the absence of a coherent theory, I’m very proud of Jon for the great accomplishment that is his latest collection of poems. Jon came to me for advice as he was working on the manuscript, and I recommended a small cluster of books that I thought would help him accomplish what he was aiming for. Among the books I told him to consult were:

Poetry: Yes You Can! (Grades 4-8), (CHAPTERS 1 AND 2) by Jacqueline Sweeney

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (more familiarly known as the DSM-IV), by the American Psychiatric Association (In ITS ENTIRETY)

The Anti-Depressant Fact Book: What Your Doctor Won't Tell You About Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Celexa, and Luvox by Peter R. Breggin, M.D. (ALL CHAPTERS)

My own poetry collections The Animal Library and Attention All Typewriters, (IN THEIR ENTIRETY)

And one of my favorite essays by T.W. Adorno, his essay titled "Veblen’s Attack On Culture" (translated and published in the collection entitled Prisms)

Now, given that I have been unable to locate the theory within the Theory of the Loser Class, and given also that among the suggestions I am certain he did read (because it provides an epigraph for his book) is Adorno’s essay on Veblen, I think it might be appropriate, by way of introduction, to attempt to theorize the absence of theory in The Theory of the Loser Class, through a selective reading of that Adorno essay in the context of Jon’s new book. So for the next few minutes I shall conduct a mini-lecture, a Loser Class, so to speak, on the latest work of Jon Paul Fiorentino. I have a handout.


Following his summation of Veblen's thinking as an amalgam of positivism and historical materialism, Theodor Adorno characterized Veblen's "basic experience…as that of pseudo-uniqueness" (78). That is, as a result of an early sensitivity to the false pretensions toward uniqueness inherent in the jargon of sales, Veblen came to see everything but what is sacred in his theory—the work instinct—as sham.

Unlike Veblen’s theory, in Jon’s work, nothing is sacred. Well, certainly not the "work instinct", in any case. I sincerely believe that Jon has evolved beyond "the work instinct". I believe, further, that this remarkable evolution beyond one archaic instinct has been accompanied by a heightening in him of several other instincts, these being the "Alpha Male Macho Hunter Instinct", the "Check Cell Phone for Text Messaging Instinct", the "Morrissey is Grand Instinct", and the "Death-ly Dissatisfied With Myself Instinct."

Veblen argued that the pseudo-realm emerged with a shift from industry to exploitation. Industry "is the effort that goes to create a new thing," and exploitation is defined by Veblen (as cited in Jon’s book, page 58) as the conversion of someone else’s industry to one’s own, newly defined ends. Rather than rely on industry as an antidote to exploitation, Jon’s work most interestingly and creatively explores the psychology that permeates a culture of exploitation. In this sense, Jon is writing his own chapter of the DSM-IV, the chapter titled "Exploitation Disorders."

The tone of Veblen’s attack on culture is decidedly elegiac. Like Matei Calinescu's "Kitsch-Man" who experiences the sunset as the Florida postcard (so to speak [259]), Veblen already saw the real temples as the false imitations (Adorno, 79), and consequently, Adorno notes, "Veblen explains culture in terms of kitsch, and not vice-versa" (79). This experience leads Veblen to posit everything as 'pretend' and results in a puritanical approach to culture, an approach that hopes to wipe the slate clean of non-productive (i.e. cultural) functions. Everything non-productive (not industrious) Veblen posits as inherently decadent.

The Theory of the Loser Class can be read as an extended song of lamentation, a lament for the dead. But it is never exactly clear just what is being lamented, what has died, in a world where everything is somehow impervious to death, either because everything is already dead (in a bong-hit philosophy sort of way), or because, as in American TV you never, never say that a serial has been killed in favour of a new serial. It is always pre-empted. We just don’t speak about things dying anymore because that implies we might have defended them (to the death) and perhaps even have prevented them from being killed. In loserdom we’re well beyond such utopianism. Death, and all its pomp and circumstance, is for winners. As Jon notes in one of the poems, "I tend toward pre-emptive elegy." It’s in his establishment of a preemptive elegiac mode, that Jon’s relationship to culture differs from Veblen’s.

For the present purpose, I prefer the OED’s third definition of the verb, To Pre-Empt:

3. To set aside (one thing in favour of another); to preclude (something); to prevent (an occurrence); to forestall (someone).

Jon’s poetry sets aside the Paxil for the Robot, the Robot for the joystick, the joystick for the pipedream, the pipedream for the Photoshopped self.

His poetry precludes itself, syntactically, at every turn, not allowing his ingrained lyrical drive (to epiphany) and narrative drive (to comedy) to realize themselves in the ways poetic syntax demands.

Contrary to decades of creative writing advice, his poetry prevents things from happening. Industrious occurrence is prevented. As in slapstick comedy, his poems combine bad aim with exquisite timing (that’s from a poem in the book called "Jerry Lewis With A Gun"), and result in the thing not happening to great tragic-comic effect.

In his poetry Jon forestalls himself, leaves himself a loser, so that he can get on with further, pressing losses.


By way of conclusion, it might be useful to turn this discussion back to Adorno's essay on Veblen for a moment. A consideration of Adorno’s treatment of "spleen" in Veblen's theory will help to clarify some of the issues I have raised here.

The curious conjunction Adorno finds in Veblen's thought is that between positivism on the one hand, and a Rousseauistic theory of a primitive ideal state on the other (88). This combination manifests itself in the motif of "spleen" which permeates his work. As Adorno writes:

The observer who is guided by spleen attempts to make the overwhelming negativity of society commensurable with his own experience. He seeks to make tangible the impenetrable and alien character of the whole, but it is precisely this quality which lies beyond the grasp of direct vital experience. The idée fixe replaces the abstract general concept in that it rigidifies and stubbornly preserves specific limited experience. (89)

Adorno goes on to note that spleen attempts to create its own un-mediated experience in face of the fact of the mediation of all experience by consumer culture. It attempts to escape the contradiction inherent in the notion of vital experience by positing its experience of the artificiality of contemporary culture as a vital suffering—as 'real suffering'. In preserving (in Veblen's case) the experience of conspicuous consumption in society as a vital experience, conspicuous consumption itself loses its elasticity as an abstract concept and becomes, like the Rousseauistic primitive utopia, a static idea.

This is not how it works in The Theory of the Loser Class. Because there is a distinct absence of theory in Jon’s Theory, Jon does not fall prey to the same kind of spleen that Adorno finds in Veblen. So, if I were to formulate a thesis on this point, and perhaps a thesis is overdue, it would sounds something like this:

While both Veblen and Fiorentino manifest spleen in their work, Veblen’s spleen is not the same as Fiorentino’s spleen. Their spleens are qualitatively distinct, yes, but even more importantly, they relate to their respective spleens in very different ways.

Veblen’s spleen is his utopia. Fiorentino’s spleen is the labyrinth of suburban basements, discount malls, talk show line-ups, and other reality interfaces through which he explores a lyrical system of thought.

And this leads me to my conclusion about the status of theory in Jon’s Theory of the Loser Class. He has no theory, but a virus-infected system of poetic syntax with which to tangle, crash, jump-start and twitch the nerve of a theory that has a lot of nerve insofar as it asserts the legitimacy of some suffering, and discounts other suffering.

The Theory of the Loser Class is not a theory, but a system (like software) designed to render all suffering legitimate, by communicating to us evidence (like the blisters of the herpes virus) that we are all insufferable losers, suffering endlessly, for real. Probably.

Your assignment for next week is to read the first two sections of Jon’s book, and come prepared to discuss the import of the "snivel" in his poetry.

Class is not dismissed. We will now witness what I have tried to describe as a system of loss, in practice. It is my pleasure to introduce our featured reader tonight, Mr. Jon Paul Fiorentino…


Adorno, T.W. "Veblen's Attack on Culture." Prisms. Trans. Samuel and Sherry Weber. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1986. 75-94.

Calinescu, Matei. Five Faces of Modernity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1987.

Fiorentino, Jon Paul. The Theory of the Loser Class. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2006.

Jason Camlot is the author (most recently) of Attention All Typewriters (DC Books, 2005).







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