Thursday, October 23, 2008

I scrolled through some of my posts from '04, fer shits and grins.

What the hell happened to that guy? I kind of dig that guy.

Who replaced him with the twirling academic gargoyle that sporadically pops up on here these days?

Duke, where have you hidden my soul sauce?

What else of I have you bent over in your politically responsible gloom?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

My dissertation is centered on the poetry and poetics of Ezra Pound (1885-1972), that troubling impresario of what we now call Modernism. His profiles are manifold: poet, translator and critic; composer, editor and discoverer of geniuses; gadfly, Fascist and would-be whisperer to kings. Although Pound – who lived most of his life in exile, and who was tried for treason after WWII and committed to St. Elizabeth’s for over a decade before being released so to return to Italy to live out his remaining years in a self-imposed silence – may be a familiar specter haunting the conscience of English Departments, literary critics and poets of the last century, it is my view that his relevance to our contemporary moment has yet to be fully grasped. In the most general sense, my dissertation views Pound with questions concerning technology, myth, and cultural memory in mind, connecting him with various poets, musicians, filmmakers, artists and philosophers of the 20th century.

When Pound becomes the locus of inquiry, even simple questions disperse into concurrently widening and tightening gyres. The most gaping gyre is, perhaps, existential: a distinction between a technological and a mythological mode of being. If we follow thinkers such as the philosophers Martin Heidegger and Gianni Vattimo, we begin to see the modern proliferation of intertwined technological systems – made visible early in the last century by telephones, assembly lines, telegraphs, and so forth – as the inevitable product of rationality. In this view, the essence of modern technology (the aspect of technology that is present in all its instances, regardless of era or location) is nothing technical but is rather metaphysical. That is, it is not any particular mechanism, device or action that is consistent from technology to technology; rather, it is a particular view of the human that is consistent, a framing of Being as a resource, as something to be made more efficient.

This is a view of the human that Pound saw creeping into modern society; to his eyes, emblems of this reduction of being were present everywhere, from the classroom to the concert hall to the vast bureaucracies of the US government. One repercussion of this model of being is the complete alienation of individuals from understanding history, a vital force that had become (in schools and elsewhere) a mere set of dates and places to memorize, no longer something felt to be emotionally and tangibly present. A kind of default mode of apathy and helplessness, therefore, is one repercussion of this distancing from the forces and forms of history, a sensation reinforced by what has been called the “culture industry,” the mass production of distracting and passively consumed entertainment products. Many of Pound’s projects, including his innovative translations and his massive life-poem The Cantos, were aimed at sloughing off the received ideas and practices that led to such a predicament. His ambition was to make all eras felt as simultaneous, to render otherwise “exotic” cultures – such as China in the era of Confucius, or Occitania in the period of the Troubadours – as immediately relevant to contemporary practice.

When discussing the entirety of The Cantos, a massive poem of history organized by juxtaposition and collage via a method that would come to be called ideogrammic (after the Chinese written character), Pound offers just two general “plots” for his epic: the metamorphoses of Ovid’s poetry, and the descent of Odysseus to the underworld in Homer. Both of these plots not only find their source in ancient Greek myth but also posit what I am calling a mythological mode of being. In Ovid, all strata of existence, whether human, animal, plant or divine, connect to one another through change: a human and a tree are intimately related to one another because, at any instant, each can suddenly become the other, a view of the world at profound odds to the disparate categorization of the more rational worldview that Heidegger places as the essence of technology. The descent of Odysseus to the underworld – offering blood to the dead so to gain prophecies of his future – likewise binds the past, present and future together into a relationship more complex and rich than mere linear progression. In addition to weaving together varying strands of existence and time, a mythological mode of being also frames the human as always potentially on the cusp of some great expansion or transformation of ability even as it also teeters on the edge of some tragic fall, a conception at great odds to the efficiently pre-arranged systems of perpetual sanitized activity emerging in a technologically-oriented society.

But Pound’s project can’t be reduced to a mere confrontation between these proposed mythological and technological modes of being. Pound, to a degree unique amongst his peers, enthusiastically applied and explored new technologies to his myth-historical poetic projects, whether it was his innovative use of the typewriter as a compositional instrument or his proposed orchestration of a working factory or his embrace of the radio as an artistic and polemical medium. This enthusiasm for new technologies places Pound’s sense of the mythological not in some space outside of the common social realm, or as a blank refusal of it, but rather embeds this sensibility within the most modern aspect of modern society. In this spirit, my first three chapters will stage an immersion into Pound’s poetry, poetics and historical context under three signs: sound, image, polis. I will explore the tensions in Pound’s work between his myth-historical poetics, the increasingly rational-technological context of his engagement, and his imaginative uses of new technologies, all with the notion of cultural memory in the foreground. Pound is insistently, and occasionally unbearably, pedagogical in his intent: he is convinced that modern educational models succeed only in separating knowledge from instinct. One consequence of modern pedagogies is a thinning out of available intellectual and artistic materials – the triumphs, failures and practices of other civilization – a consequence compounded by the narrowing of culture into entertainment and of work into repetitive toil. Pound’s intent is to expand the reach of culture’s memory beyond its immediate bounds, and to present his own texts as an alternative educational institution.

In my chapter on sound, I excavate not only Pound’s overlooked writings on music and his musical projects, but also the technological and musical atmosphere in which he was working. This includes his collaborations with the composer George Antheil, his scoring of poems for musical performance, his day job as controversial music critic “William Atheling,” his peculiarly hostile view of the piano and imaginative conception of the player piano, and his placement within an intellectual climate that included theorists and composers such as Antheil, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, and others. Perhaps most importantly, this chapter will also explore the formation of Pound’s poetic-musical sensibility in his study of the Troubadours, especially in terms of the medial shift from a song to a book based musical culture that occurred in the same period as the Troubadours’ rise and fall. Brought into this context, many of Pound’s supposedly inscrutable musical theories and terminologies sing with new clarity, bringing a whole new light to the organizational logics and emotional resonance of his poetry, an art Pound believed to be inexplicable from music. In the chapters on image and on polis, I will similarly bring critical literatures on technology and myth together with the material situation of Pound’s practice to construct a fresh reading of Pound’s poetry and poetics and of our contemporary, technologically dominated moment. My final chapter will be on Pound himself as a figure of culture memory, how her persists in various personae in the writings of Charles Olson, John Cage, Guy Davenport and others.