Thursday, August 23, 2007

Since my last post inspired such a vigorous and clamoring response by my nation of commenters, I figure I should strike again while the topic is hot.

I kind of drifted off at the end there about setting aside my interest in poetry (as a genre) for what I feel is my more abiding interest, in the poetic (as a modality?). In the spirit of spilling out and discovering my present thoughts on the matter, I'd like to test out a hesitant definition of the poetic.

1. the poetic is.

2. the poetic is also poiesis.

3. the poetic also is indirect (at the noumenal).

4. also, the poetic is shared.

Really quickly:

Poiesis, "to make." This is meant to guide a sense of the poetic as inflected more within an actively, as opposed to passively, receptive charge: it would then imply a degree of change or flux in the poetic, a push towards a becoming.

Noumenal, from Kant, the "thing in itself" as opposed to the phenomenal, its appearance (it may take more reading or thought, but Rudolf Otto's notion of the numinous, a sense of the wholly other which may underwrite a theological orientation [the sense I get is that Otto's term was developed independently from Kant's prior one] probably pushes things out too far).

The noumenal, by definition, it seems, cannot be directly presented or grasped, but my sense of the poetic is that an immersion in the poetic is guided by the possibility or even promise of an indirect sense, glance, or at least anticipation, of the noumenal, of a real itself that resists representation.

Shared, or not reducible to individual psychology or whim. The idea is that the poetic shouldn't be reduced to one's subjective orientation, anywhere along a writer-reader continuum; this suggests, right now for me, two possible spins: 1) the poetic adheres to the object, and can be discovered, or 2) the poetic is precisely an event in which a subject-object categorization of experience fails. My own temperament is to leans towards the second option. Either way, I would like to suggest a spirit of shared space in my view of the poetic.

Part of what I'm trying to do for myself with these attributes of the poetic is to differentiate what I'm interested in from competing modes or tendencies that may have generic or media sympathies with the (Tostian) poetic. That is, there's a lot of poetry I'm simply not interested in, either critically, creatively or otherwise. But I am interested in "the poetic" both in my own writings and in the projects of others, regardless of genre or media.

For instance, my strawman version of Language writing would resist being labeled as (Tostian) poetic, even though it would be very strong instances of writing that pivots on notions of both poiesis and being shared (it would actually seem to join these two attributes as its major intervention): it prides itself on a collaborative approach to meaning, and on its address of its own social and historical embeddedness. My strawman version of Language writing, however, is focused mostly on questions of signification and not on any pursuit or glimpse of a real prior or outside language; it would be more of a critique of a "desire for presence" as opposed to an activation or possible culmination of that desire.

That said, as soon as I move from my strawman version of Language writing to specific texts or authors, I begin to identify Hejinian's My Life or Silliman's "Sunset Debris" or McCaffery's "Lastworda" and sound-poetry, etc., as works that move towards the noumenal, usually by a logic of accumulation, as opposed to some piercing gesture. This would be fairly consistent with my preference for the above Language writers over others whose projects, as I read them, veer more towards critique; this isn't absolute, as Andrews' I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up is way up there for me as well, but it is, I think, a general tendency for me.

I suppose a specific sense of the poetic as a modality would suggest some other modality to define it against, which would be, I guess, the prosaic.

This would be an aesthetic tendency that is less concerned with poiesis (especially in terms of medium) or the noumenal (though it may describe an encounter with the noumenal, the prosaic itself doesn't attempt to indirectly encounter it), though the prosaic would have a strong emphasis on its shared nature, as it would have little motivation, I think, to be otherwise. What do I mean by this? I think it may have something to do with the prosaic being a mode of being while the poetic is more a mode of becoming; that's fairly easy, I think, but the difficult thing for me will be to argue how this is also shared, since most narratives or notions of becoming/transformation fall back to privileging or even fetishizing the orientation or psychology of a subject.


Part of what I'm struggling with in all of this, what a motivating factor is, is my own tendency or preference for a phenomenological orientation towards questions of aesthetics and experience, a tendency which on one hand I am most at home in but on the other I also resist because of how easily that tendency can fall into an ahistoricism and willful refusal to regard the social situation of what the poetic may be.

But I also resist complete secularization partly because I cannot help it, and partly because I feel the cognitive, emotional and aesthetic range of the (comfortably or strictly rational or dogmatically) secular to be claustrophobic.


Some texts of the (Tostian) poetic would likely include The Maximus Poems, The Geographic History of America, John from Cincinnati, Juniper Fuse, Spring & All, Highway 61 Revisited, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, Leaves of Grass, Heart Food, the Arcades Project, Divine Horsemen (film), The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, the Martyrology (what I've read of it), Curves to the Apple, the Anthology of American Folk Music.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

To clarify or expand upon my previous post, which was an off-the-cuff series of thoughts around a Data/Belief/Presentation triad that I thought may work better than a Truth/Facts opposition, as instigated by generous responses from Brent Cunningham (comment to previous post) and David Need (post to Lucipo). . .

To answer Brent’s most immediate concern, over what precisely I’m trying to describe or explain in the previous post: I suppose first I’d have to say what I think a Truth/Facts opposition tries to do (since that was what I was trying to revise):

I think a Truth/Facts opposition is trying to cover a range of legitimacy in perception and expression.

To get at the truth, the normative thought is, sometimes you have to stray from the facts. Art is a lie that tells the truth, etc. What I think such a statement relies upon is the notion that the truth cannot be adequately accounted for by the facts; it’s a subtly disruptive folk wisdom, I think: a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts: a greater whole that empirical or logical mastery cannot account for.

I wonder if such a shading to Truth in this makes it structurally similar to Faith: it implies that a leap across the unknown, or across improbability, is necessary. A belief can be rationalized to a degree: a professional placekicker must believe, when he approaches the ball, that the holder will have it in place for him: previous experiences, and the assumed competence of his holder and their shared goal all make this a probable belief he can operate under.

Contrast this with, say, Charlie Brown’s faith that, at some point, he will be able to kick the football? He really shouldn’t be seen as the presentation of a belief that Lucy won’t yank it out right before he tries to kick it (the popular definition of insanity as doing the same act over and over expecting a different result); if we were to project a psychology for Charlie Brown, we could probably say that he believes Lucy will pull the ball away. It is not necessarily paradoxical to say he has this belief and that he is also a presentation of a stubborn, moving faith in the notion that the world he inhabits is one that would eventually allow him to kick the ball.

But anyway, I’m probably not mapping out different types of language use (you’re right, Brent, there’d be a ton more); I guess a more precise description of what I’m trying to do is to say that I’m not trying to describe or explain cognitive processes of reception either, at least in not a ‘hard science’ sense.

Maybe it’d make it clearer to say that I think reception can be as outward or intentional as artistic expression, which (if accepted) would allow for me to describe Data/Belief/Presentation as all being involved in the production of knowing, but hopefully with a bit more range than a Truth/Facts framework.

I’m pretty sure that what I’m going to begin dissertating on a year from now is a study of “technicians of the immediate”: William James, Stein, Olson, Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Carolee Schneemann, others. Crucial to my being able to do this, I think, is to be able to argue for a sense of immediacy other than how it is usually framed and thereby systematically debunked, most thoroughly by Hegel in the opening sections of the Phenomenology, as a naively posited “given.”

What I have in mind is not a given, passive immediacy; I would agree that what is taken as immediate or natural consciousness is not innate, and is, if not culturally determined, then at least prescribed and conditioned by the cultural. What I would want to discuss is the way I believe these above figures (James, Stein, et al) are engaged in a projection of immediacy, and that a full aesthetic experience of their works calls forth a similar, experimental projection of immediacy by the audience.

I think this is what Olson was trying to get at in the Special View of History when he talks about Keats’ negative capability as the “inch of steel” that “wrecks Hegel.” An aside: this is not to completely subscribe to Olson’s notion here: he read very little of Hegel, and none, as far as I know, of the Phenomenology (O references just a handful of pages in the Logic), and is constructing him probably like AN Whitehead did, as the progenitor of a certain brand of idealism, and not as the fuller, more complex figure he appears as in the Phenomenology.

Ok, so it may appear I’ve already skipped right out of my claim to not be describing psychological processes; but the tenor I’m trying to get at is closer to a shading to how we regard what it is we know, as opposed to claiming a systematic terminology for an accounting of what can actually be known.

I wonder if there’s a sense that data has a degree of certainty underwriting it, that belief has a degree of probability underwriting it, and that presentation has a degree of purpose and/or play underwriting it. It’s probably as much the emotional feel of these “underwritings” that I’m concerned with here as the notions that are underwritten.

David talks about the relation of “belief” and “habit,” which gets pretty directly to my sense of Wm. James; it may be hyperbole, but there’s a sense in his writing that belief and habit are two ways of talking about the same thing. Part of what I’m unsure of right now is to what degree do I think aesthetic projections/performances of habits of expression/reception are different from other habits of expression/reception: I suppose one’s stand on this depends on whether you see a centralized, consistent self that the aesthetic projection projects out of, or whether you see a self as the collection of projections that the biological organism endeavors.

I’m unsure on this latter account, which keeps me from talking about Data/Belief/Presentation as a triad that can account for the cognitive processes of an authentic, psychological self behind whatever projected selves exist.

I should maybe start talking about this through a specific poetic example. Flarf comes to mind, because of the charged manner it is discussed. A random couple of lines from Drew Gardner’s “Chicks Dig War”:

He is a poor fool who has
listened too literally
to the women who lie and say that what they want
from men is adoration and understanding.
What they want is war.

This will probably get real simplistic real quick; at least I hope. Anyway, to regard this as either Truth or Fact begins a slip, I think, immediately to regarding it as something to be moralized about: is it a fact that chicks dig war? is it an unacknowledged truth? This seems like an unfruitful path of questioning.

In the Data/Belief/Presentation triad, I find it more useful, both in experiencing the poem as a reader and in later discussing it as a critic, to regard the lines as a Presentation, one that is accomplished by the staging of a possible Belief, a belief that shouldn’t be tied back to some authentic or legal self of Gardner’s, or even as the projection of a Belief that Gardner bases his actions and habits upon, but as a Presentation of a Belief that contemporary discourse networks and value systems may make accessible, or even desirable, for some (perhaps of interest here is the degree to which this “some” is “some Other”).

Joyelle McSweeney somewhat famously suggested “Chicks Dig War” as a contemporary “Howl,” so it is interesting I think, to take that suggestion even more seriously than McSweeney may have intended it. Or to at least let it guide a few more thoughts.

A large part of the appeal of “Howl” for myself and others, I think, is the combination of the complex, dissenting self it projects (and that it invites for its reception), and the invention of language that is put to use in writing (and is indistinguishable from) that projected self: the rhythmic and emotional texture of “Howl” is electrifying, astounding, and I’m sure part of the threat that it posed for authorities back in the day is that the poem’s urgency operates in such a manner that it was difficult to regard it like Kant would like us to: disinterestedly, as an aesthetic presentation of a self in language. I’m sure the persona it registered was a very present and dangerous (because seductive) one. And this is completely speculative, but I’m sure the poetic, projective self that “Howl” writes became a kind of guide for Ginsberg as an avatar of some sort for his social self.

“Chicks Dig War” is appealing in a completely different matter for me, largely because of its Presentation of a kind of logic underwriting a mainstream discourse of gender and violence; it is less overtly poetic, maybe, in that its language is not noticeably divergent from normative usages of language in any number of venues. Very different, I think, from the situation with “Howl,” as that particular kind of language use would offer up Whitman, the King James Bible, and other literary/prophetic sources as models (along with NYC/SF music/art talk) but not any types of language found in advertising, magazines, etc. For me, “Chicks Dig War” invites closer look at its linguistic inventiveness, but not at all in the same way that “Howl” does: there is no promise implied here that feeling this type of language use more deeply will open one’s self up to more authentic, more free experiences: to become other.

The feeling for me, with Gardner's poem, is closer to acknowledgement: “yes,” I think, “that is one of the terrifying and darkly seductive undercurrents pulsating through the culture I inhabit.” Part of the irony, for me, of the Kent Johnson vs. Flarf vibes is that I think a lot of Kent’s work is similarly compelling, but that instead of acknowledging the dark undercurrents of the mainstream culture “out there,” I’m forced to acknowledge those undercurrents closer to home in the pursuit of a poetic quote-unquote career: it is more difficult to regard the self of many of Kent's poems as already other in the way that the "Chicks Dig War" self seems already other.

I wonder if McSweeney’s suggestion of “Chicks Dig War” as a contemporary “Howl” isn’t also directed at the difficulty of writing an aesthetically compelling contemporary political poem that could also guide one’s own social self: a poem that could be the means of becoming other, and not as a projection of an already present, hidden other.

I very seriously doubt that the projected self of “Chicks Dig War” has guided much of Drew Gardner’s social actions in its wake; it seems unlikely to be an index of a self he would claim for himself. “Chicks Dig War” is closer to Fredric Jameson’s call for a cognitive mapping in art: to parrot Jameson, as opposed to the “let’s take to the streets” spirit of “Howl,” what we need right now is to find out where the streets are, which seems closer to what Gardner accomplishes.

But there’s also a nagging part of me that feels that that’s about the best the best of us are hoping for, this mapping, which (for me) is a pretty enormous diminishment of the poetic from the days of Ginsberg/Levertov/Olson to now.

Part of what I’m struggling with right now is my impulse to set “poetry” aside and to instead seek out “the poetic” (which, of course, may occasionally be found in poetry itself). I’m not quite sure precisely what I mean by this; it may be, as my good friend told me today on the phone, complete bullshit. But this diminishing of techniques for constructing "the poetic" within poetry itself (at least as I currently inhabit my own sense of self within the distributive/social economies of poetry) is part of what I'm wrestling with.

Monday, August 06, 2007

In the middle of middleness, trying to gather a few stray thoughts together.

A quick, immediate thought: was happy to see Mark Scroggins back on his blog, and a comment to his post here, where the commenter notes the helpfulness of differentiating between "truth" and "facts," and that in her writing she has very few facts but tries to express "the truth" (as relative to herself), reminds me that that was a kind of line of thought feeding through my MFA experience, one that I didn't bother with much then (because it seemed to be attached to the motivations and aims of so much uninteresting work), but that I right now find in interesting contrast with an excellent book I am absolutely losing myself in, Robert D. Richardson's hefty intellectual biography William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism.

Anyway, after reading the blog comment, on my drive to class today I found myself silently composing a diagram of rebuttal, where instead of Facts and Truth set in opposition I instead formulate a (forgive me) pragmatic threesome between Data and Belief and Representation.

I choose data instead of facts mostly to make a little less natural the possible collapse between what is taken to be fact and what can be measured, resulting in reality being reduced to mere measurement. Wm. James speaks of hard, stubborn facts, but I think there is a phenomenological and imaginative fullness to his use of fact that I'm not sure adheres to the blog commenter; in fact, James' embrace of a radical empiricism, as opposed to a traditional empiricism, is a push towards including a fuller range of experience before the rigors of the empirical. Riding along with this is the notion, taken from Bergson, that the often grueling experience of time itself--duration--should also be included in what one takes to be experience; plus, because I'm seemingly incapable of evoking one of my holy trinity of modernist philosophers without evoking the other two, the above also can be thought of through a multitude of AN Whitehead's precepts, including his distinction between "presentational immediacy" (that which can be measured) and "causal efficacy" (that which cannot be measured but which underwrites the ontology of presentational immediacy).

I also think belief works better for me than truth, and not just because it less easily slips into an unthinking universalism. Moving out from James, again, I prefer belief because it is so intimate with action: a belief can be wagered on, acted upon, and defended, all without resorting to a simplistic or brutalizing metaphysics. And because a belief can be best observed through its effects (the scale, vigor and direction of one's actions is a continual illumination, I think, of one's beliefs), there is no inherent contradiction between data and belief. This is not to say that they go happily and naturally arm in arm; a belief that continually asserts itself in defiance of available data may serve as a possible definition of ideology. But, data and belief can certainly be brought to reflect upon and influence each other.

My third term, representation, is a much more hesitant one, which might reflect the fact that the three philosophers I most rely on have less to say about the relation between, say, representation and experience than they do about experience itself. What I would like to do with this term is to allow space for the kinds of speculative and dramatizing uses speech, writing, gesture and art may be put to, where there is less an attempt at a direct correspondence between, say, one's present experience of writing a poem and the poem itself than the aesthetic dramatization of a subject in the act of poeticizing.

What I'm basically getting at is an arena of, in Frostian terms, serious (or unserious) play. I guess I could trace this back to Kant and the difference between a beautiful thing and a beautiful presentation of a thing, the latter of which we may properly call aesthetic. I have found this especially necessary as I have been working on an essay on Gertrude Stein's aesthetics of modernist time, especially as there seems to be a small upsurge of critical essays that regard Stein's writing as a kind of specimen of her behavior, as if they were the pure spewings of a strange creature ("If a lion could speak we wouldn't understand it"), and not the aesthetic presentation of a newly possible way of being a subject in the unique complex of Darwinian/Industrial/Cinematic space and time.

(Addendum: instead of Representation, I should more precisely call my possible third term Presentation or The Presented. It is exactly its refusal to be limited to a representation of an existing reality that makes it notable, though it most likely will, in its speculative presentation, make use of existing data and beliefs.)

My first thought is that the above may leave out questions of media (speech v. writing v. film v. etc), which I've been finding a useful and perhaps necessary access point to any discussion of literature after reading Friedrich Kittler's Discourse Networks and especially Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato. But then I'm also wondering if anything is left out if one inquires into the importance of media as an object/vehicle for data, belief and representation. Robert Duncan's title of his Stein imitations/studies, Writing Writing, seems to point directly at the possibility of the aesthetic presentation of a medium in terms of data and belief; similarly, Stan Brakhage's Mothlight is as much an aesthetic presentation of the basics of his chosen media (the materiality of the film, its duration, the projection of light) as it is anything else.

I've been wanting to respond at length to Brent's response, and haven't yet, but perhaps this will be a kind of indirect address. My sense of close reading is derived more from Wm. James' notion of Radical Empiricism than from a New Critical paradigm; that is, I read Stein closely not to judge the aptness of her lines but to try and see how she writes (beautifully) writing.

There are a couple of passages from Goethe's scientific writings, specifically from "On Morphology," that last semester I took to be proto-Radical Empiricist in my seminar paper on Stein; reading the James biography, this notion has been very much reinforced as my sense of his immersion in Goethe's work has deepened. In any case, Goethe speaks of his close study of the leaf of certain plants, and how this close attention should be tied not to a fixed ideal but rather a kind of imaginative gestalt of the plant's entire development/duration: his belief is that the leaf can thus be read to reveal the structure of the entire plant. Elsewhere, in the same (unfinished) piece, he notes that a plant cannot be conceived separate from its environment.

My sense of close reading takes Goethe's radical empiricism as its ideal, especially as it seems to imply, for literature, a radical historicism as well.


Along with my pursuit of a mythos-rejoining-logos path I am beginning the first steps towards a tekhne-rejoining-episteme path, taking Andre Leroi-Gourhan's Gesture and Speech and Bernard Stiegler's Technics and Time 1 as my early guides.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

[click on image to enlarge to a readable size]