Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Annotated Pilot, Part IV

The suprising defenders of Góngara exonerated him of the charge of innovation—by documenting the fine erudite lineage of his metaphors.

Jorge Luis Borges


There are, of course, many ways of defining the classical mind and its poetic sensibility. One of them has the virtue of subsuming the work of T. S. Eliot, William Burroughs and Tony Tost under the same concept. It was proposed in 1931 by Jorge Luis Borges, who would no doubt deny its originality. A classical text, said Borges, "is not really expressive; [it] does no more than record a reality, [it] does not represent one" ("The Postulation of Reality" in The Total Library, p. 60). This distinction, between representing and recording a reality, is crucial to the understanding of flarf and, of course, to its misunderstanding.

A writer, said Burroughs, can write only about "what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing" and saw this "direct recording of certain areas of psychic process" as the "function" of the writer, however "limited" it may be. Today we may smile at the invocation of psychic processes, but it is clear that Burroughs meant only a sort of automatic articulateness in the ebb and flow of experience. "I am a recording instrument," he said, "I am not an entertainer." His procedure is more or less well understood, and is not in any case advisable; what concerns us here is the recording of articulate process.

Today we are so embarrassed by the claim that one or another young author's work is "utterly original", say, or "a new voice in contemporary literature", that to set out to disprove such claims, or "exonerate" a writer of "the charge of innovation" strikes us as equally absurd. One lets it pass and passes one's eyes from the dust jacket to the pages actually inside the book under investigation. But one is, sometimes, compelled to indicate the sense in which an author's greatness does not depend on his ability to "represent" a subject matter. It is enough, we want to say, that the writer presents certain areas of the process perspicuously: that it be recorded clearly.

In the recording industry, the words "high fidelity" have always been misleading--something which should have become clear with the advent of digital audio (about which we may also, in turn, be mislead). Recorded music is never loyal to the source. Fidelity is finally a romantic notion that must, in its very passion for the earth, the trees, the "life of things", eschew high technology and all its pretensions. Those who use the Internet to write poems cannot be romantic, just as Glenn Gould knew that recorded music ought, logically, to dispose of our tuxedos, our cathedrals and, yes, our applause. Classicists can, however, discuss the quality or precision of a recording relative to certain acoustic properties, not of the studio (which must itself be engineered to effect the supposed "fidelity") but of the listening situation, i.e., the living room equiped with a sound system.

High fidelity is loyal to the context of reception, not the context of performance. It is a recording of reality not a representation of it. This is what I want to say of flarf in general and of "I Am Not the Pilot" in particular. Today we want to exonerate our young poets not of the charge of shameless originality, but of the charge of facile representation. We want to demonstrate that their poems do not "stand in the place of" something else (like a psychological state or even an artistic process), but that they are, in their own manifest facticity, sufficient unto themselves and effective in their "limited function". Many poets today claim that their work is only a symptom of their process (I and others have tried in vain to discourage them). Their publishers and editors include this desire among the author notes to impress the importance of the author's process (a coy euphemism for personality) and accidence of the work itself, upon the reader. This is especially embarrassing for the reader when he finds himself enjoying the poem and caring next to nothing about the life (or any other process) extant in the poet.

Flarf allows even the reader with little or no critical skills to exonerate a given poem of representationality, and this is part of the genius of its method. Let us consider some examples. "I Am Not the Pilot" is of course written in the first person, so the first thing it must be exonerated of is Tony Tost's authorial persona or personal authority. Now, the first three lines,

I am not a pilot and do not have
the technical knowledge or training
to analyze complicated data.

Are no doubt "true" of Tony Tost and therefore threaten immediately to represent him. And this particular example is in fact also an example of the relatively ephemeral qualities of flarf. Try as you might, you will find no evidence through Google that these words (together) belong to the air rather than Tony Tost. But in the spring of 2003, I was able to locate the source in a piece by Devvy Kidd on the JFK, Jr. plane crash.

The NTSB is currently working on the final CD-ROM's which will contain approximately 2,000 photographs of the plane wreckage and investigation while it was underway. I am not a pilot and do not have the technical knowledge or training to analyze complicated data. I loaned my file and the CD-ROM to two pilots for their evaluation. One pilot has been flying 19 years and is instrument rated, the other is a pilot for American Airlines, also instrument rated. To protect their privacy and current employment, their names will not be is closed.

The archives of Kidd's writings are now available on CD on her website, where one can also get a sense of the general flavour of her investigations. Even if we may admire the vaguely Poundian bent of her politics and monetary policy, Tost's poem surely does not "represent" her views. That is, the flarfed reading has divested the poem of all personality, both that of the poet and of the "source". We are left with a recording of the Googling process, pure articulation, or what Kierkegaard called "the perfect immanence of the presentation".

Two further examples can make this point more simply. Take, first, the strange sentiment seemingly expressed in the two consecutive lines:

I would have a hard life as a pilot.

I could only kill in self defense.

And compare them with their source, Dimitri Sokolenko’s How I Escaped from the USSR:

Hijacking a plane wouldn't work; I could only kill in self defense. Of course, I am not a pilot myself. Lord Byron would have had a hard life as a Soviet. It was easy in his lifetime to board a ship and say good-bye to a hated fatherland.

This is arguably a case where too much depends upon Googling the poem to discover its sources. Once we see the original cold war context and the elegant shuffling of references, the emotion of these lines shift from self-pity (of the already elided poet-subject) to admiration (for the Byronic adventurism of flyers), which, once negated, leaves us only with the crystaline grammar of "I could only kill in self defense" (already available but easy to miss on a first reading). It is as if the poem is saying: Byron was a poet and a pilot and he owned the ship, we have no ships and are not pilots and Greece is very far away. This poem has no poet. We Are not Romantic.

Our last example is that of the otherwise intolerable lyricism of the phrase "the glamorous end of the sword". It represents a mode of discourse that ought, we think, to be foreign to us. But return it, if only for a moment, to the hands of the fighter mechanic, Marvin P. Maxson, who uttered them (and who remains their only source, according to Google, beyond the poet Tony Tost) and somehow we are only happy that such language still exists, somewhere in the American idiom. Norman Mailer, we might recall, once pointed out that vulgarity is a way of rescuing words from the oblivion of meaning. Thus, the word "noble" could be recovered in the words of the soldier emerging from the bushes saying, "I just had me a noble shit, Jack." May the perspicuous impudence of flarf serve a similar, if always limited, function.

Borges said that it was characteristic of the classical ethos to believe that "once an image has been brought into existence, it is public property" (ibid. p. 61). Nothing could more aptly illustrate this publicness of poetry than the flarf procedure, both in its creative and its critical mode. (Tony Tost's poem, it may be noted, is available for free 24 hours a day, while you can buy a copy of Kidd's piece on CD.) The flarfist undertakes an investigation into a certain region of the articulate process, records it, and presents his findings. He is not an entertainer.

2 comments:

Laura Carter said...

You are subtly classicizing me. But I'm hanging on to my romantic self in spite of my Hulmistic judgment. Keep going.... :)

Thomas Basbøll said...

That's part of the plan, of course. Scholarship is the enemy of romance and in flarf scholarship is a machine that is built into the poem itself. It is automatic. But subtle, yes, always subtle.