Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Dantesque Simile (notes)

Philosophy and poetry have imagination in common.

The unit of imagination is the image, a particular likeness.

I've been putting together a list of what I think are synonyms for the literary correlate of this aesthetic moment.

Pound's "luminous ideograms" and Wittgenstein’s "perspicuous presentations" are the ones I feel closest to.

But their sense of detail is certainly matched in Nabokov’s "rain-sparkling crystograms" and Borges' "Dantesque essays".

It is the imagined detail that is important.

I picked up J. H. Whitfield's Dante and Virgil the other day. He emphasises the image of a flame devouring a piece of paper, which is used as a simile for the merger of a man and a serpent (p. 84; cf. Inferno, XXV, 64-66). I knew I had read about it before and found it again in the prologue to Borges' Nine Dantesque Essays. It's a textbook example, no doubt.

(If anyone knows of other critics who mention it--I was sure I had seen it also in something by Eliot--please let me know.)

Whitfield uses it as a point of departure for discussing what he calls the "dantesque simile" (p. 86). Borges calls it "comparison", as Pound does in the Spirit of Romance (in order to include both simile and metaphor in a broad sense).

All of them talk about the importance of "detail" in the Divine Comedy (all of them also use Milton for contrast).

Consulting a few dictionaries and handbooks I confirmed my suspicion that "image" and "simile" and "imitate" are etymologically related. All indicate "likeness".

I think there is a difference between a philosophical likeness and a poetic one, though both are "imaginary", and you can’t have one without the other. (An issue Eliot deals with his essay on Dante.)

I think it is the task of the philosopher and the poet to display likenesses of various orders. In what sense, for example, is a piece of paper with black marks on it "like" a human body? (Wittgenstein, PI§364)

My brother in law and his wife gave me William Gaddis' The Recognitions for Christmas. In the first chapter he recounts the dispute that was settled at the Council of Nice over whether the Trinity is composed of one substance (homoousia) or of like substances (homoiousia).

"The dantesque simile," says Whitfield, "is in the main something which establishes identity, not something which enhances it" (p. 86).

Thursday, December 29, 2005


Since finding Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave by accident in a used book store last year, I've had the vague sense that it is a foil for my poetics.

V. S. Pritchett's blurb pegs it as "a modern egotist's anthology" and Connolly himself says in the introduction that its plot turns on "the core of melancholy and guilt that works destruction on us from within." It's main strength is really to present this mood, without (convincingly) arguing for its validity.

Connolly published The Unquiet Grave under the pseudonym Palinurus. I want to say that the poetry that I'm reading these days, the poetry that pleases me, is strongly marked by anti-palinuroid tendencies (turning a phrase from Connolly's postscript). Palinurus was Aeneas' pilot; and my contact with contemporary American poetry begins precisely with Tony Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot".

A few weeks back, there was a bit of an incident about calling my aesthetic response to this poem "flarfy". I want now to suggest that it was really anti-palinurian, though it's an unhappy term (negative contrast). To show what I mean, consider a poem of Ben Lerner's from The Lichtenberg Figures, also published in Ploughshares (Winter 2002-3):

I’m going to kill the president.
I promise. I surrender. I’m sorry.
I’m gay. I’m pregnant. I’m dying.
I’m not your father. You’re fired.
Fire. I forgot your birthday.
You will have to lose the leg.
She was asking for it.
It ran right under the car.
It looked like a gun. It’s contagious.
She’s with God now.
Help me. I don’t have a problem.
I’ve swallowed a bottle of aspirin.
I’m a doctor. I’m leaving you.
I love you. Fuck you. I’ll change.

First, recall the Palinurian plot -- "the core of melancholy and guilt that works destruction on us from within" -- and recognize the sense in which this poem seems to actively engage with and deconstruct it (or just takes it apart). Second, consider the following very Palinurian sentiment:

We cannot think if we have no time to read, nor feel if we are emotionally exhausted, nor out of cheap material create what is permanent. We cannot co-ordinate what is not there. (Connolly, p. 2)

I think Ben Lerner and Tony Tost are saying (and doing) the very opposite. They refuse to lament their point of departure. More importantly, they will not allow the reader to valorize the act of simply reading a poem. The "materials" that are used in Lerner's poem are as "cheap" as anything we find in journalism, but the effect of putting them together as he does is, I would say, permanent. He co-ordinates what is there.

This application of ostensibly cheap materials to poetry, I suspect, is also what I immediately appreciate in Kasey Mohammad's Deer Head Nation.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Man and his Chisel

The mission of the poet should be to restore to the word, at least in a partial way, its primitive and now secret force.

Jorge Luis Borges
Preface to The Unending Rose

The ultimate business of philosophy is to preserve the force of the most elemental words in which Dasein expresses itself.

Martin Heidegger
Being and Time, H. 220

The immediate likeness of these these two pronouncements about poetry and philosophy is supported by closer reading. Borges' "at least in a partial way" is matched by Heidegger's caution against "uninhibited word-mysticism", which opens the just cited paragraph. Borges proposes his restorations (each poem is a partial restoration of the primitive force of words) to counteract "the usury of time" (ibid.). Heidegger's efforts at preservation are intentended "to keep the common understanding from levelling [words] off" (ibid.), which is interesting when taken together with his suggestion that "everyday common sense first takes 'Being-guilty' in the sense of 'owing', of 'having something due on account' ... "Being-guilty" as 'having debts'." (H. 281)

Usura rusteth the chisel
It rusteth the craft and the craftsman
It gnaweth the thread in the loom.

Ezra Pound, Canto XLV

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Electronic Wallpaper

The Glenn Gould Archive has radio speech online that is worth listening to. Click here and listen to tape 7283.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Teutonic Bombast

In the recent interview with Richard Polt (thanks to Enowning for the link), Ereignis identifies three "rough" meanings of Ereignis:

1. the phenomenological appropriation of phenomena
2. an ontologically determinative event
3. the universal condition that gives time and being to humans.

These strike me not as differences of meaning, but differences of emphasis, consistent with a philosophical project that had to cover a variety of issues. Polt (whose translation of the Introduction to Metaphysics has been very useful in my work) cites Thomas Sheehan for the idea that

[Heidegger] is teaching us that humans are constituted a priori (or "always already") by finitude, historicity, etc. The rest -- all the business about our fate at this unique moment in history -- is "Teutonic bombast".

He then proposes "to take the opposite tack":

I take the term das Ereignis seriously: it means "the event," that is, a unique happening that would found intelligibility.

This idea of "founding intelligibility" can be understood in terms of two questions: "what makes it possible for things to make sense to us? Or in still other words, how are we given our sense of givenness itself?"

Here's a story that Glenn Gould tells about recording the A minor Fugue in Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier:

Upon most sober reflection, it was agreed that neither the Teutonic severity of Take 6 nor the unwarranted jubilation of Take 8 could be permitted to represent our best thoughts on this fugue. At this point someone noted that, despite the vast differences in character between the two takes, they were performed at an almost identical tempo (a rather unusual circumstance, to be sure, since the prevailing tempo is almost always the result of phrase delineation) and it was decided to turn this to advantage by creating one performance to consist alternately of Takes 6 and 8. ("The Prospects of Recording")

It is worth noting that Gould is here discussing the morality of splicing. Meanwhile, I'm reading Deer Head Nation alongside The Lichtenberg Figures and Invisible Bride. I think our best thoughts on the Ereignis of Flarf will emerge also in the splicing.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Toward the New Song

In my play The Birthday Party I think I allow a whole range of options to operate in a dense forest of possibility before finally focussing on an act of subjugation.

Harold Pinter
"Art, Truth & Politics"
(The Nobel Lecture)

My song has alternated between the song of a dog tied to a post and the song of linear subordination. I'm working on a new song. It goes: "I won't hurt you, I won't hurt you, I won't hurt you."

Tony Tost
"Crossing a Bridge Sweetens the Body"
Invisible Bride, p. 43

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Membership, Authenticity, Historicity

I like this post of Tony's. The immediacy of poetry is exactly what draws me to it. I think this immediacy is what we have poetry for.

Memberships, authenticies and histories are what politics is for.

They are what poetry is against, if you will. Or, less polemically, what poetry is up against, what it faces/voices.

I don't find the political intention (or inside joke) of any poetic project illuminating when declared outside the work itself.

But I do think that the poems I read are immediately up against my own politics, i.e., membership, authenticity, historicity in regard to non-literary matters.

That is just to say that I engage with poems subjectively, i.e., from within the present state of my subjugation.

The didactic mission of the grammarian (the editor) is to improve the immediacy of language. To sharpen the edge of subjugation.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Notes on Pinter's Lecture, part 3

[In order for politicians] to maintain [power] it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

Harold Pinter

While I do think something like an economy of knowledge and power is operative, I think politicians weave a "tapestry of lies" only to the extent that we undertake to believe them. A statement made by a politician should not be confronted with our beliefs, however; it should be confronted with our desires. One thing that the arts (philosophy and poetry) might teach us is that we are in no position to know the so-called facts that politicians refer to. We can, however, quite well decide whether or not the world they present us with (represent us in) is a desirable one.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Notes on Pinter's Lecture, part 2

In his nobel lecture, Harold Pinter proposes that art might allow "a whole range of options to operate in a dense forest of possibility before finally focussing on an act of subjugation." (He is referring specifically to his play The Birthday Party.) "Political language," by contrast, "does not venture into any of this territory since the majority of politicians ... are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power."

Now as I pointed out earlier, Pinter does not think that art is interested in truth either, certainly not the truth. For the artist, "a thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false." So, on the basis of Pinter's remark about political language, we can construct a grammatically similar statement about art.

The majority of artists are interested not in truth but in beauty and in the maintenance of that beauty.

But there's one more thing. To be fair, politicians are arguably not interested directly in power but in justice; their interest in power is only an interest in the maintenance of the means to accomplish justice. (There will, of course, be differences of opinion about what is just: these are "political" differences.) Likewise, artists are interested not in truth (nor in justice) but in beauty and in the maintenance of the intensity to achieve it.

I am not saying that Pinter's complaints about political lying are completely irrelevant. I am suggesting a different standard against which to hold them accountable.

Finally, I'm still trying to hold my ground on the idea that philosophy and poetry are the presence that stretches between our scientific and political representations. Science is objective in the (still somewhat unfamiliar) sense that it produces and transforms objects (of knowledge). Politics is subjective in the same sense: it produces and transforms subjects (of power), i.e., it "subjugates".

Politics is not about whether to subjugate or not; it is about how to subjugate. And this is how I think poetry is specifically related to politics.

I think that a good poem should do what Pinter says his play The Birthday Party does. It should present "a whole range of options" that "operate in a dense forest of possibility" and should then "focus on an act of subjugation." It should not of course actually carry out this act of subjugation.

My somewhat uncomfortable point, here, is that it should leave that to the politicians.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Two Reasons to Keep an Eye on Kate Greenstreet

1. "Dusting for Prints".

2. December 5, 2005.

Notes on Pinter's Lecture, part 1

Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize lecture is interesting in many ways. His politics are very straightforward, and it will no doubt be useful to both this and future generations to have such a stable reference for this point of view. (It is a remarkably committal account of the 'secret' history of imperial policy after the second world war.) But my concerns here are not directly political.

I found it interesting that Pinter opened his speech with a statement about the artist's free relationship to the truth, while at the same time granting the politician no such freedom.

In 1958 I wrote the following:

'There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.'

I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?

But surely a citizen must ask a good many questions and leave a good many other questions on the side.

In this blog I have been cultivating what I am starting to think of as a "modistic" approach to language. So, for example, I believe that there is scientific language and political language, philosophical language and poetical language, and that each of these have altogether different aims. Their "explorations" (investigations of linguistic experience) are different.

And here is where my concerns intersect with Pinter's. For, as I see it, truth is a concern of science and justice is a concern of politics; and I think politicians have as much reason as artists to claim that this specific concern justifies them in asserting that there is no such thing as truth or falsity in their business. We might say that they stand in a free relation to truth in their exploration of reality through politics; actually, I would say that politics explores ideality and this is why "truth" is an irrelevant category. But that last point is quibbling.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Rhubarb Variation #1

Simon DeDeo's Rhubarb is Susan is back. His tastes are not identical with mine, but I normally find the poems he picks for review interesting, and his reviews always give me something to think about.

Beyond the aesthetic uses I put poems to, my reading normally involves two more or less imaginary operations. I tend to revise poems I read and to anthologize them. Both make me a kind of armchair editor. And I propose to make this activity public [post the results of this activity] every now and then, using Simon's selections as a point of departure.

Here, then, is what I did with Karol Wojtyla's (aka Pope John Paul II) "Girl Disappointed in Love":

It is time we measure pain
as we measure the meat
of bodies to discover our limits.

You are the center of things,
you said. If you would
only get it: the center is here,

and it, too, finds love. Why
don't you see the human heart
for what it is? What it's for.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Philosophy as Linguistic Paganism

I think my (tiny) preference for Wittgenstein over Heidegger can be seen in my linguistic paganism. The problem is never that a language is too pagan for philosophy but, rather, that it is not pagan enough. The goal is always to find the illustrious in the vernacular, as Dante might say. Of course, one natural way to bring words back from their Heideggerian to their pagan uses is to translate them into American.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

On Ereignis

All right, if you know that Ereignis is its name, I'll grant you all the rest.

Philosophy drags words back and forth across the threshold of sense, from their metaphysical to their ordinary uses (Wittgenstein) and back again (Heidegger). It is therefore not advisable to introduce verbiage that is incapable of the passage.

There are two equally unadvisable ways of making such introductions when translating Heidegger. First, you can leave the word in its original German, e.g., Ereignis or Dasein; second, you can manufacture a neologism, e.g., Enowning or There-Being (capitalizing and hyphenating are simple ways of producing new words out of old ones; the structure of en-owning is quite clear in this regard.)

But how can I show why I think this is a bad idea?

Here's a passage from Being and Time (H. 253).

"Der Tod" begegnet als bekanntes innerweltlich vorkommendes Ereignis.
And here is that last sentence of "Die Kehre" I've been redoing again and again.
Dass Welt, weltend, das Nächste sei alles Nahen, das naht, indem es die Wahrheit des Seins dem Menschenwesen nähert und so den Menschen dem Ereignis vereignet.
Would you know from their translations that these both make use of the ordinary German word "event"?
"Death" is encountered as a well-known event occuring within-the-world.

May world in its worlding be the nearest of all nearing that nears, as it brings the truth of Being near to man’s essence, and so gives man to belong to the disclosing bringing-to-pass that is a bringing into its own.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Speculative Grammar

"Thomas's entire reputation derives from De modis significandi, which is the only one of his works to have been studied in any detail."

Passing Remarks

The Pangrammaticon needs a change of pace. Instead of the usual longish passages of prose, I want to try my hand at writing the blogging equivalent of scattered remarks on slips of paper--Zetteln if you will.

Project Outline

I'm waiting for a number of books to arrive. When they get here, I think I will slowly be able to construct an ideogram of my poetics. There are reasons not to call it "flarf" but an indication of the nature of this project can be made by my choice of materials.

Ben Lerner's Lichtenberg Figures
Lara Glenum's Hounds of No
Tony Tost's Invisible Bride
Drew Gardner's Petroleum Hat
Gary Sullivan's How to Proceed in the Arts
K. Silem Mohammad's Deer Head Nation
That's not a complete list of my interests, but they mark out a field. As an indication of my approach, I can offer a few simple declarations, mostly summarising earlier pronouncements.

First, beyond the immediate aesthetic bliss it provides me, my interest in contemporary poetry is related mainly to my attempt to find a model for a comparably artful or crafty way of doing philosophy.

Second, I am interested in the grammar of poetry, i.e., its use of words.

Third, the poetry that appeals to me seems to work with materials that are in some important sense unprepared for poetry.

Tim Peterson has noted my lack of humour. He suggests that I don't understand flarf because I don't get its basic joke. Much of the recent discussion suggests that this may be altogether right. I hope that isn't a serious problem, of course.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Notes on Camp X-Ray

Many things in the world have not been named; and many things take the American dream public. From the moment a prisoner arrives at X-Ray, he starts enjoying a visceral, steamy night with the head counselor of my daughter’s camp in the Adirondacks.

1. To start very generally: Most people think of sensibility or taste as One. Thus, you can pick out fags in a diner because they always provide a large amount of community culture, art and entertainment. (Images of blindfolded prisoners kneeling shackled by wire cages.) In Camp X-Ray you've only got five minutes but in Delta you walked around for 15. In Camp X-Ray it was yellow and in Delta it was black.

2. So what is the legal status of the prisoners? The US government has classified the detainees in Camp X-Ray as illegal. Care of detainees was handled by Joint Task Force 160 (JTF-160), a temporary holding facility dedicated to truth, justice and the American way. When the detainees arrive, they are told they're in Cuba and that life at Camp X-Ray emphasises artifice, frivolity, and shocking excess as the keynotes. The common use of reliable military news and military information is directed by John Pike.

3. People who love camp say that non-camp people simply put gays on the cultural map, or so the familiar story goes. It was the author's first contribution.


I've never been quite happy with this piece of Google-sculpting. In my recent attempts to understand Gary Sullivan's poetics of flarf, however, it occured to me why. I find it inappropriate. In that spirit, which I guess is pretty flarfy (along with the distinctly post-9/11 imagery), I thought I'd put it out there, in part to see how I would feel about that. I don't normally approach poetry that way, neither my own nor that of other people, but, well, in the interests of science. Here we go.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Ereignis: contributions to flarf

Gary has now posted the introduction to How to Proceed in the Arts and, as promised, it is all about inappropriateness. I don't want to say "the art of the inappropriate" because, if I understand the gist of it, inappropriateness is a category he introduces to understand all art. There is something essentially aesthetic about the boundary between what is appropriate and what is inappropriate, something I want to blow altogether out of proportion in this post.

Martin Heidegger's famous "other book" (in addition to Being and Time his ouevre consists mainly of lectures and essays) was called Beitrage zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis). It has been translated as Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning) though some argue that From the Event would have been sufficient. I am inclined to agree: in most cases the individual words in Heidegger's German should be translated into colloquial English (and certainly an ordinary German word like Ereignis should not be rendered as an English neologism). The profundity of Heidegger's work does not lie in the meaning of the individual words he uses but in his arrangement of them (as with all writing, the depth of philosophy is an illusion arranged on the surface of the page). In any case, Ereignis is also sometimes translated as "event" and sometimes as "the event of appropriation", to wit: en-own-ing, i.e., making something your own, appropriating it (er-eig-nis, I think, is how it goes). I've been playing with a passage from Heidegger's "The Turning" here at the Pangrammaticon for reasons that are, therefore, now becoming clear to me.

There is, it seems to me, an altogether crucial aesthetic moment implicit in the appropriation of an experience as one's own. Art makes an event of it, of course. And flarf, it seems to me, makes exactly as much out of it as it (or anyone) can bear.

Art cannot be content to be "appropriate for the occasion" (making paintings that match sofas, for example) and I think Gary is onto something in drawing attention to the inappropriate. But I also think Gertrude Stein was right to caution against being "inaccrochable", which amounts to being radically inappropriate (appropriate to no occasion). Being repulsive is not (necessarily) an artistic stance. I think this is what Gary means with the quotation marks he sometimes puts around "inappropriate".

For a long time now, I've been convinced that poetry works with (and upon) our institutions much like philosophy works with (and upon) our intuitions. (Kant's whole critical project can be understood as an investigation of intuition.) Intuition is the immediate givenness of things to our knowledge of them, whereas institution is our immediate takenness with people through our power over them. (That's a rough pangrammatical homology.) That is, intuition is the moment of immediately "seeing as" (e.g., "That's a rabbit") whereas institution is the moment of immediately "doing as" (e.g., "I am attending a funeral"). Institution and intuition are what I call "the media of immediacy"; they condition the "first impression" that an action or perception makes on us as meaningful experience. Making us aware of these media is the task of philosophy and poetry (and, no doubt, all the other arts, albeit in less easily pigeonholed ways).

On this background, I want to venture the hypothesis, which I will develop later (when I've read Gary's book and Petroleum Hat and the rest of Deer Head Nation), that flarf is really the appropriation of the inappropriate, i.e., what Gary calls a "toggling" back and forth between institutionally defined appropriateness and inappropriateness. Art plays with the difference between them, making notions like decency and debauchery absolutely central to its production. Again, I think the genius of flarf is that it only just barely makes the inappropriate, the debauched and the indecent "fit" for public display. It produces just exactly poems. They are not the events, but the incidents, of appropriation.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

An Epigraph in Search of an Essay

There are times when I like to think I still have my card in the intellectual's guild, but I seem to be joining company with that horde of the mediocre and the mad who listen to popular songs and act upon coincidence.

Norman Mailer
An American Dream

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Vivacious and Successful on My Own Terms

... if somewhat intellectually driven.

(This I will take as a compliment.)

Also, as collaborative aphorists, Brian and David have made a real contribution:

Information does not want to be free.
It wants to be brief.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Flarf and the Flail of Jehova, part I

Lenin was a very moderate person ... Apart from the social aspect he was of interest, technically, to serious writers. He never wrote a senctence that has any interest in itself, but he evolved almost a new medium, a sort of expression halfway between writing and action.

Ezra Pound

The experiences are not "recollected," and they finally unite in an atmosphere which is "tranquil" only in that it is a passive attending upon the event.

T. S. Eliot

Poetry and politics are profoundly related. Politics is to poetry what science is philosophy; a place to begin. But a poem is not to be judged on its politics; on the contrary, it is to be judged on its ability to extricate itself from the policies that impinge upon it. (Similarly, you don't judge philosophers on their scientific knowledge but on their ability to compose themselves in specific ignorance thereof.) This is the idea that I want to explore in this post.

Take the simple case of wanting to write a poem on the occasion of meeting an intriguing woman. The troubadour, for example, was for a time faced with the problem of "finding a new way of saying in six closely rhymed strophes that a certain girl, matron or widow was a like a certain set of things, and the troubadour's virtues were like another set, and that all this was very sorrowful or otherwise, and that there was but one obvious remedy." (Pound, LE, p. 102) Well, the girl was obviously also caught up in a number of other "courtly" intrigues, i.e., she and the poet were what we today might call "politically situated subjects". ("The 'trobar clus', grew out of living conditions, and ... played a very real part in love intrigue and in the intrigue preceding warfare." LE, p. 94) But to be situated politically and there to write a poem is not to engage in a political act. Not if the poet is good.

The poet is not trying to remind the woman of her political responsibilities. In most cases, he is trying to make her forget them, set them on one side, promptly to imbibe the "obvious remedy". That is, it is the task of the poem to negate or neutralize the politically charged content of the situation, releasing its aesthetic moment, its pleasures. The poet must "understand women", their political situation, and play on this understanding to manipulate the situation, bringing the emotion to presence, writing it down on the page.

In so doing, as Eliot tells it, the poet brings an enormous amount of impersonal experience to bear on personal matters. And the effect is to release us from the subjectivity that our political apparatuses (our "royal courts") produce. A good poem overcomes the difference between "man" and "woman", transcends, say, the politics of gender.

Consider Pound's idea that Lenin invented a new medium for writing: "a sort of expression halfway between writing and action." We can gloss this in all sorts of ways. Most importantly, there was obviously a sense in which only Lenin (who acted by pronouncing) could produce such writing. The point, however, is that this power, according Pound, showed in his writing. Lenin proceeded from the emotion, through the writing, to the action.

The poet works in the same medium but in the opposite direction. Starting within a field of ongoing political activity, (Heidegger's translators render Betrieb sometimes as "ongoing activity", sometimes as "hustle", thus) the hustle and bustle of the city (polis), the poet must pass through the writing to the emotion. This is what is noted down, committed to the page.

Bureaucracy (what Pound called "the flail of Jehova") is automated politics; it is the material reality of policy, not its social ideal. It is the system of machination (modernized court intrigue) that willy-nilly "goes on" in culture. It is the working (wirklich, real) aspect of the political context. Pound advised us to accept it, but to keep it within its bounds. To contain it.

Today, the Internet (the manifold of policy documents, technical manuals, war blogs, chat rooms, pornography, ...) renders perspicuous the political context of modern love. Google allows us to collect (not recollect) its experience, not to attend upon it passively, but to play technical jargon off hard core porn like second rate diplomats, opening a space for sensible, sensitive, sensual people once again to find "the one obvious remedy". This is flarf's potential to bring comfort. I wonder what Gary thinks.

(Coming soon: part II on Dewey, Burke and pragmatism.)

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Attitude and Procedure

This very faculty for amalgamation is a part of their genius and it is, in a way, a sort of modesty, a sort of unselfishness. They have not wished for property.

Ezra Pound

Now, of my early work, a critic has said:
"It was open, so I let myself in."

Ben Lerner

Looking back over my archives, I see that flarf has been with me from the beginning. In my first installment of "The Annotated Pilot", for example, written almost exactly a year ago, I opened with the following rather confident assertion.

Flarf is not just a principle of literary composition. It is also a principle of literary criticism. And it is not so much a principle as a procedure.

In his last contribution to this discussion (comments), Gary offers (or inspires me to construct) a distinction between flarf-as-attitude and flarf-as-procedure (if only then to dissolve it). Gary distinguishes between the "formal" ambitions of OuLiPo and the "attitude" of the Flarflist; I have no problem reconstructing this so that an attitude-driven project begins with content and lets the form emerge as you go, whereas a procedurally driven project (one that starts, say, with a set of mathematical properties that must belong to the finished poem, which is then generated by an algorithm to that end) will begin with formal constraints and see what, so to speak, flows into it as content.

That is, attitude is to content what procedure is to form (what texture is to structure), using these words in pretty orthodox senses. We can say this without having yet said anything about flarf, i.e., without deciding whether flarf is best approached in terms of its form or its content, its procedure or its attitude. Lining up the discussion a bit more neatly than it has in fact developed, let's say Gary has been pulling for content and attitude, and I've been pulling for form and procedure.

Flarf as such, i.e., the Great Flarfette Above and/or Beyond Us, is, of course, sniggering lovingly at these debates. (Some participants to the discussion have been channeling Her laughter.) I think the reason for this is that, in flarf, the attitude is the procedure and the procedure is the attitude. Or, again, that is what I hoped I discovered when I stumbled on it.

Works of flarf are openly the result of aggregating "search results" (though we may grant a broader definition of "search engine" than Google, and even go beyond our confinement to the Internet). They are made out things that were just lying around in plain view. And this is also one of the things that struck me about flarf from the beginning (of my awareness of it):

Flarf, it seems to me, has made one thing very clear about the relation of the strophe to the poem. Building a poem is not a matter of arranging strophes, i.e., of putting poetic atoms together. If that were the case the poem would owe its poesie to the accumulation of strophic matter that was originally poetic. But strophes become poetic, become strophes, only in their arrangement with other strophes. A coherence theory of poetry.

Another way of saying this is that flarf is just barely poetry, made out of something that is obviously not poetic. Mainstream poetry, by contrast, is usually made out of words ("solace", "nocturnal", "translucent") and imagery (rain, jazz, herbal tea) that are canonically poetic. When flarf succeeds, then, it is very precisely poetic; it produces something that is just exactly a poem (which may be Katie's point).

The risk of failure is of course high, as is the possibility that someone else will take one's experiments and run with them, producing "major work" out of one's own "minor" efforts (if Chronos bestows on them this favour, as Pound noted in the same paragraph that I drew my epigraph from; cf. "The Serious Artist", LE, p. 48-9). That is, flarf is itself something that looks like it's just lying around, "gratis". May as well make something useful of it.

I just got Ben Lerner's Lichtenberg Figures in the mail. The lines quoted in the epigraph occasioned much laughter yesterday. They describe me (perhaps ridiculously) as a critic when I discovered the "secret" of "I Am Not the Pilot". It was the sensation of being let into the work, the works, the workings of the work. It opened the poem in a radical sense. That sense of openness is what I thought flarf was "as such", i.e., the complete exposure of a poetic attitude as a completely perspicuous procedure for working unpoetry into poetry. The heart of all making. Poiesis, itself.

Stealing a page from A Thousand Plateaus, we might say that there is no difference between what flarf is about and how it is made. There is no separation of attitude and procedure. My hypothesis had been that "flarf" is a quality that is common to Deer Head Nation and Invisible Bride, Petroleum Hat (just been added to the list) and The Lichtenberg Figures (the back cover has "academic theory collid[ing] with American slang, the idiom of the Old testament [with] the jargon of the Internet, and clichés..."). I now think that flarf belongs to two of them more than the others (is there, perhaps, in flashes) and what I'm looking for is our particular "modernism" (to go with that bad dada), which they would share: the glad intensity (glee) of openly displaying one's procedure as one's attitude (flarf being just one attitude-procedure among many). Poetry is (just) putting words together. Words are available everywhere, 24/7. They're all over the place.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Poetics of Inaccrochability

You mustn't write anything that is inaccrochable. There is no point in it. It's wrong and it's silly.

Gertrude Stein to Ernest Hemingway
A Moveable Feast, Ch. 2, p. 20

In truth, I had not thought of flarf as the poetry of discomfort, but as a radical application of modern technology to the liberation of the individual from his talent, allowing "emotions which he has never experienced [to] serve his turn as well as those familiar to him." (Eliot) One of the most insidious functions of the art world is to erect a "personality", or sometimes a whole "community", around the smallest indication of real talent. When artists themselves try to carry out this function it becomes, as John Latta notes, and I think rightly (I think), a way of circling the wagons round one's flurf. It is a way of protecting society from what Irving Layton called "talented sickies" (poets).

That is, I think Gary's poetics are alarming (at first I just found them surprising) precisely because they suggest an intention to be both discomforting and perfectly harmless. It can probably most easily be seen in his suggestion that flarf was originally conceived as an attempt to be "inappropriate" in "private"(!). Now, I don't for a minute think that he will think this is a fair way of stating his intentions. But I do think flarf's mission of actually being inappropriate (or at least truly risking it) and therefore actually making discomfort manifest is undermined by articulating its poetics in the way Gary does: by disqualifying some approaches to its criticism and qualifying others, i.e., by identifying those who do and do not get it.

And, in a way, just as I finally prefer Elvis Costello to Johnny Rotten, Steve Nieve to Sid Vicious, the Attractions to the Sex Pistols, as, let us say, artists, I also think (but as yet really only suspect) that "what works" about flarf is not the discomfort of its results (or the discomfort that results from it) but the way it arranges materials that were obviously unprepared to become poetry, thereby allowing (forcing) the reader to engage with the work much more directly and rendering a good deal of traditional criticism (which always in one way or another insulates the poem with the personality of its author) irrelevant.

I think Google is an important tool to this end, but I'm sure that the Flarf Collective has discovered many more ways about it. I hope, of course, that some reverse engineering is possible even with Advanced Flarf. Ultimately, I want to suggest, it would be disappointing if any of the enjoyment of flarf depended on anything like erudite obscurity. Nothing, I had hoped, was hidden in flarf.

When Stein instructed Hemingway not to write anything inaccrochable she meant "like a picture that a painter paints and then he cannot hang it when he has a show and nobody will buy it because they cannot hang it either." In a sense, as I understand Gary's remarks, flarf was an attempt to break this rule. To be wrong and silly. But once we understand this intention (and Gary is explicitly asking us to), once we "get it", we can safely buy and hang it in our anthologies (which might be Kasey's point in advertising the death of flarf).

The trouble with that small segment of the public that is seriously interested in poetry is that once they believe that something is poetry it cannot but comfort them. When I discovered flarf (and I mean real, bona fide, certified, locally produced flarf now), I found it comforting. What people do with popsicles I already knew.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

What New Wave was to Punk

It looks like Gary and I are agreed on the error of using the word "flarf" to track the aesthetic I'm interested in. I'll just keep looking, I guess, and thank him for the tip about reader response poetry, though I'm doubtful I'll find what I'm looking for. (After all, for me, the light was so bright and so blinding at, specifically, the level of Google that my mind was bewildered.) Most of what I find interesting about language poetry so far brings me back to our shared inspiration in Wittgenstein's innovations.

As for the idea that "I Am Not the Pilot" is a sort of New Wave, Post-Punk, derivative of Flarf, well, I'm not sure why that would make it bad or uninteresting (beyond its possible historical inaccuracies). I don't expect Tony to agree with me about this, but if New Wave is, say, what the Jam, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and, maybe, the Police and the Cars, did with an undisciplined "Fuck You" that was "invented" by, say, the Sex Pistols or ´(depending on how you tell the story) the Ramones (which would also change your list of leading New Wave figures, no doubt), but all somehow comfortably nurtured by the basic Rock impulse and industry (no matter how much they might have wanted to deride it) to explore the potential of the electric guitar, then its lasting contribution strikes me both as richer and deeper, but I don't see why anyone should be forced to choose. Perhaps look at the strange and beautiful relations between "God Save the Queen" (Pistols) and "Tramp the Dirt Down" (Costello). Both were gleefully working on the hypothesis that you can tell the ladies in charge to fuck off. In any case, I don't see any basis for using "you're so New Wave" as an insult. Beyond the arguable sincerity of some of its participants, punk was about marketing, it was a cultural phenomenon, first and foremost, which happened to work with musical tropes. New Wave was made by people who wanted to make music more sincerely than they wanted to make a scene.

Will there be a Flarfy Lucre Tour in 2020? Looking forward to it. As I will be looking forward to the Complex Sleep of the Blue Turtles.

Always remember, kids: anger is an energy.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

"Flarf" [sic]

I was obliged to learn that my results (which I had communicated in lectures, typescripts and discussions), variously misunderstood, more or less mangled or watered down, were in circulation. This stung my vanity and I had difficulty quieting it.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Some of this chatter puts me in a somewhat difficult position. The chatter is definitely gratifying, even interesting, on one level. But reading much of it, one can feel the need to fight for the right to have one's work experienced without a lot of others' verbiage encrusting it, making it literally invisible.

Gary Sullivan

Gary Sullivan has found it encumbent on him to point out that I am not qualified to opine on the nature of flarf (first here then here). Indeed, I have the sense that I have just been disqualified.

His concerns seem to divide into two overarching issues. The first has to do with "the right to have one's work experienced" in a particular way and the second has to do with the accuracy of the description offered by critics of flarf.

Over the past year, I have been trying to address some of my concerns in terms of flarf. Gary construes this as my attempt to reimagine flarf in my own terms, which is to say, he imagines that I am trying to explain what he and his friends are "doing" (his scare quotes). In fact, I have mainly been trying to understand a particular species of beauty in recent poetry, specifically, a particular lightness that pleases me; and to connect this to certain technological developments that appear to be defining my age (Google).

To call that an interest in "flarf" may have been rash. For, obviously, if flarf is poetry that can be traced back to 11th Street in Brooklyn around the turn of the century then I have not, as Gary points out, done the corresponding "leg work" ["footwork"]. Indeed, I am not familiar enough with any particular body of work, whether individual or communal, to even begin to offer a "slant" (let alone an "academic" slant) on a "movement". I think the movement or community effort that Gary is defending from misappropriation is entitled, perhaps, to its indignation at the way I've been bandying the word around and, certainly, to its condescending smile.

But, like T. S. Eliot ("The Perfect Critic"), I am

inclined to believe that the 'historical' and the 'philosophical' critics had better be called historians and philosophers quite simply. As for the rest, there are merely various degrees of intelligence.

Gary proposes to group the various degrees of intelligence that have been applied to flarf in terms of whether or not they belong to a particular list, community or group of friends: at bottom, in terms of whether or not he knows who they are. This operation is so counter to my own inclinations, both historical and philosophical, that I'm certain that his sense of "flarf" is nothing like mine (especially when applied as a kind of honorific). Finding my own tentative observations about Hannah Weiner and flarf grouped ramshackle (and, I take it, on this occasion largely unread) with a bunch of other remarks that happen to use the same word is embarrassing. Because, in a sense, Mr. Sullivan is right. Construed as talk about flarf, my efforts amount to idle "chatter".

I was really only trying to find out what it was that appealled to me about "I Am Not the Pilot". I quickly discovered that it had been Google-sculpted and found in this an explanation for its spritely lack of vanity (I'm not trying to be very precise about this just now). This also seemed to me to be what "The Flarf Files" were driving at. Flarf appeared to me to be a way of making it new by depriving the poet of some habitual vanities. And this definition seemed to apply to the material I was looking at, whatever its origin.

Now, what Gary is saying this week is that his community would prefer not to be reduced to simple formulae. What they are doing may be many other things. There may be other ways of "risking inappropriateness" (i.e., having done with poetic vanity) than to replace one's muse with Google. But to my mind, Google is an effective icon for the demystification of linguistic inspiration.

I was suprised to learn that at least one member of the community that "invented" (again, Gary's quotes) flarf would feel threatened in any way by academic criticism, especially in the nascent form of the blogosphere. I'd have liked to think that my remarks were simply beading up on flarf's feathery back (its swan costume, yes?). But I was never trying to do an anthropology of flarf or its social history. I was trying figure out what made a number of poems I was suddenly discovering so good.

I don't know if I'm going to keep calling it "flarf". This may be the final [just another] indication that our age, like all ages, is more complex than a single movement's experiments. I imagine it's a bit like the role of "imagism" in "modernism". Any history of early twenty-first century poetry will very probably have to mention flarf. But that won't be enough. Also, in such a history, flarf will doubtless be represented by a reductive sample of works and poets. Critical work like mine will no doubt then appear partly laughable, even lamentable. Flarfy?

A Year in Blog

Today (at this hour) it is one year since I began posting to the Pangrammaticon. This is the 149th post. The first was posted at 8:53pm on November 17, 2004.

Back then, I wrote that "the most straightforward way of introducing my project is to say that I am a philosopher who suffers from MFA envy. I wish there were a writing programme for philosophers." The recent talk of workshopping till the kitten drops only confirms this early sense of my project. "Thinking is a craft skill," I also said in that first post. "Philosophy is the art of writing concepts down." And today I still "want to use this blog to investigate what those two sentences could possibly mean."

At this stage, I am willing to venture that their meaning is very closely tied to the art of editing.

I would like to thank all those who have contributed to this project over the past year. Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten. You've all been teaching me how to do that.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Another Tostian Item

Here's an interesting bit of trivia. In the epilogue of the Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly quotes, in Dryden's translation, all the passages of the Aeneid dealing with the peculiar destiny of Palinurus. Among these we find the following lines on page 135:

While cumber'd with my dropping cloaths, I lay,
The cruel Nation, covetous of Prey,
Stain'd with my Blood th'unhospitable Coast:
And now, by Wind and Waves, my lifeless Limbs are tost.

As far as I can make out, the whole work is built out of rhyming couplets, which means that we have here a seventeenth century precedent for rhyming the words "coast" and "tost", even though, if I'm not mistaken, what Dryden means here is "tossed" (not, say, "toast", though we might mean that today, or would have in the eighties, dude).

Anyway, I wonder what Tony might say, in his "fearless blogging voice", to this (my fearsome blogging eyebrow).

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Text Editor is the New Typewriter (Google's the Muse)

If Google is the new typewriter (that's what my guess is), we need to explore this simultaneously bright and dull instrument.

Tony Tost

We live in an age of science and abundance. The care and reverence for books as such, proper to an age when no book was duplicated until someone took the pains to copy it out by hand, is obviously no longer suited to 'the needs of society', or to the conservation of learning. The weeder is supremely needed if the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a garden.

Ezra Pound

The recent negotiations over the dead cat that Kasey started have me going back over an old theme. What is the function of criticism? Or what can a piece of prose offer a poem? Is there really anything there for criticism (one or several poetics) to do? Is there a contribution to be made to poetry, either by non-poets or poets pretending to be dead, by writing something other than poetry?

I don't want to survey the possible answers. What interests me is how the workshop, depending on the form we imagine it to take, poses this challenge in the most pointed way by suggesting that the poem is, in principle, always subject to revision.

Suppose we say that a critique is nothing without a list of suggested edits or queries. I.e., the critic is obligated to engage with "what is there on the page". T. S. Eliot suggested that the "perfect critic" is the one who "is criticizing poetry in order to create poetry," and Pound indeed offered Eliot as an example of "criticism in new composition": "the criticism of Seneca in Mr. Eliot's Agon is infinitely more alive, more vigorous than in his essay on Seneca." (LE, p. 75).

The workshop approach is, in a sense, an insistence on only this kind of criticism (i.e., criticism that is tantamount to a new composition). But if we take this line out to its logical conclusion then new compositions, too, should be nothing other than criticism of old ones. Old whats? Well, old "compositions", but that means nothing other than any arrangement of language, any instance of usage. So poetry, like philosophy, becomes a "critique of language" (Wittgenstein, T4.0031).

This brings me to my point, which is about Flarf as procedurally defined. The use of Google shows how the poem might be understood as "criticism in a new composition" of existing usage.

One can imagine a poetry (and this prose is trying to be a contribution to its poetics) that works in two windows: one is used to run Google searches, the other is a simple text editor (NotePad, for example). Text is cut out from the one and placed in the other and is then "workshopped" until perfect.

I think the argument for confining oneself to this procedure is about as good as the argument for confining oneself to saying about a poem only what might be said in a workshop*. But I note this not to dismiss it.

After all, consider the following line of thinking. Suppose there is no longer any need for "original compositions". Suppose that we can be sure that all the writing we will ever need is already getting done, more or less automatically. Suppose only the weeder is now needed. Pound meant this as a guide for the critic and teacher of poetry but suppose that today the language is a reckless blossom of weeds, yes, all the way down to the kitten.

We need to examine our instruments, bright and dull. We may be guided by the beauty of these weapons.


*Note that, when it is finished, the poem is submitted for critique (further workshopping) and publication (only to be Googled).

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Art, Craft and Voice

"Only the artist in yourselves is more truthful than the night."

e.e. cummings

I've heard rhetoricians talk of something they call "immanent orality" (yes, sometimes it's just that). The idea, which appeals to me, goes like this. All interpretation is about finding out how to read a text out loud. Nothing you can learn about a text's meaning is inconsequential for its enunciation. All footnotes to all poems are instructions for the reader reading aloud.

Laura Carter is obviously the e.e. cummings of the blogosphere. Absolutely modern and hopelessly romantic. In a word, hip.

Do not hate and fear the artist in yourselves, my fellow citizens. Honour him and love him. Love him truly--do not try to possess him. Trust him as nobly as you trust tomorrow.

That's cummings.

I think voice matters. I don't want it taken from me. I think it has something to do with being a person, which I think is a good thing. I hope that whatever I write has an indelible mark of me on it.

That's Laura. So is this:

If it is just about making objects, then forget it.

And here's cummings:

If a poet is anybody, he is somebody to whom things made matter very little--somebody who is obsessed by Making.

"What a hoot!" says Laura. "Talking of voice as a device, as a thing to be manipulated," just as cummings warns us not to "confuse an act of God with something which can be turned on and off like the hot water in a faucet."

I think cummings is probably the most charming poet that ever lived; Laura Carter is certainly the most enchanting blogger. How can you not agree with them when they insist on the irreducible perfection of the individual soul that's just trying to do its own imperfect thing? How can we not encourage them when they express their hope that their works "are neither 'good' nor 'bad', neither peacelike nor warful--that (on the contrary) they are living." Life against judgment! Voice against the absolute tyranny of the workshop!

Well, when good poets, like Laura and e.e., say these sorts of things they are simply and irresistably endearing. We want to believe with them that a poem is a just (or even partly) an honest poet being herself, desperately so, in a world of "supermechanized submorons". After all: "mostpeople fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit of nondestructible selflessness" (i.e., a kitten costume). After all: I, too, could be myself.

Every artist's strictly illimitable country is himself.

An artist who plays that country false has committed suicide; and even a good lawyer cannot kill the dead. But a human being who's true to himself--whoever himself may be--is immortal; and all the atomic bombs of all the antiartists in spacetime will never civilize immortality.

Which is all good and true if you're writing about Ezra Pound in 1945.

Before your immortality has been secured, before your honesty comes anywhere near to being interesting (or, perhaps more precisely, before your sincerity even approaches honesty) you have to use your voice for a long time, in public and among people who don't, as a point of departure, all find you very charming ("you and I are not snobs"). You have to enter an apprenticeship, you have to find a master craftsman and a workshop (though it need not be that workshop). You have to use your voice to find it, and what you are doing, finally, is not finding (trouver) but inventing (trouvèr) it: tinkering with what you were given at birth, finding out what it can usefully accomplish. The discipline that guides this usage is grammar, and mastery of grammar is craft.

Bibliographical note: All quotations not attributed to Laura Carter (here, but no doubt not for long) are taken from Chapter 4 of e.e. cummings' i.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

It's Down to the Kitten

Thanks, Jack. My position as of this evening is that it's craft, tactics and workshop all the way down. I do not accept Kasey's "narrow" definition of craft as "a familiar set of mechanically 'workshoppable' skills such as meter, lineation, rhyme, etc.," mainly because I don't accept his constraints on the workshop.

(I think there is an ideal Platonic workshop that is just, well, ideal when compared to real, bounded, sited workshops, whether on or off line, and that that's the workshop we're talking about.)

Pirooz and Allyssa are discussing the idea that "voice" is the other of craft. One way to understand this is that just as poets might have strategic interests that go beyond their tactical problems with a particular poem, and just as their poetry may be subjected to criticism that goes beyond the sort of thing you deal with in a workshop, so too do poets work on their voice as something above and beyond their craft. I don't think this distinction is advisable.

Josh championed the strategic approach to poetry in his response to Jeffery Bahr's reading of Dan Chiasson's "To Helena Concerning Dan Chiasson", which, he says, "is entirely oriented toward what makes a poem an invulnerable object or monument." Such a reading is fixated on tactics, "ignoring or obscuring other possible attitudes and valences (poem as discourse, poem as social actor, poem as social tactic or meditation on same)."

This reminded me of T. S. Eliot's introduction to the Sacred Wood and his "repeated assertion that when we are considering poetry we must consider it primarily as poetry and not another thing." It seems to me that as soon as we move our "critique" of a piece of work outside the workshop we debauch the art.

So I think those poets who have been workshopping (or pimping) Mary Oliver's poem have been showing her the greatest respect possible. Those who have been excusing "The Kitten"'s defects and trying to sell it on merits that do not belong to it, but, perhaps, to the sentiments of a likable poet or an amiable public, have been cheapening the art.

Yes, poems can be appreciated for features that cannot be improved in the shop. The inticement to do so, however, is not about poetry, but another thing. It is no doubt a strategic matter.

In The Rebel somewhere, Albert Camus said that true generosity to the future lies in giving all to the present, as a part of an argument for tactical cells, not strategic organizations. I think we can say something similar here. The art of poetry lies in giving everything to the poem.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

What is Thinking?

Before bed tonight, my four year-old daughter asked, "What does one do when one thinks?"*

I gave it my best shot. Thinking, I said, is a bit like imagining. We imagined the playground at her daycare and the two of us on the swings. Then I told her to imagine an elephant under the swings while we were swinging back and forth, and she of course just obliged. "Thinking," I said, "is not being able to imagine that elephant."**

Thinking is the experience of possibility. But this does not distinguish it from feeling. Thinking is experiencing a possible perception (when faced immediately with a perception, we can think it only by experiencing the possibility of some other perception). Feeling, by contrast, is the experienced possibility of action.

Pretty standard stuff.

*She doesn't talk like that, of course. In Danish there is a "man", just like the German "man", which is the source of Heidegger's famous analysis of "the they", i.e., "das Man" (H. 113ff.). What she said would best be translated, "What do you do when you think?" as long as we are clear that she was not asking about my mental procedures in particular.

**We had a bit of fun with this notion of course. Thinking would be the act of imagining it to be very small or ethereal. That is, thinking would force us to imagine something not wholly like an elephant.


On November 17, the Pangrammaticon will be a year old. Out of curiosity, I've added a site meter. I'm not sure I'm going to keep it past the seventeenth (for the same reasons that I've put off getting one). I have no plans to make this ratings period more exciting at the Pangrammaticon than usual. But, well, stay tuned.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


The answer to the riddle is that all three paintings occasion apperception. The most poignant, painful and accurate statement of this effect I know of can be found in the "argument" of Ben Marcus's The Age of Wire and String.

It has been demonstrated by Sernier (and others, although without violence) that the outer gaze alters the inner thing, that by looking at an object we destroy it with our desire, that for accurate vision to occur the thing must be trained to see itself, or otherwise perish in blindness, flawed.

These paintings are part of the training. But they are not mirrors: we must realize that our perceptions of these objects (art works) are, when succesful (i.e., when not blind, flawed), not moments in which we see them and not moments in which we see ourselves, but moments in which we are the occasion for them to see themselves.

Fichte had his finger on something when he pointed out that the object just is the totality of the conditions under which it may be experienced.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Two Metaphysical Hints

Γνώθι Σεαυτόν

In the Guide to Kulchur, Ezra Pound tells us that "metaphysics [is that] about which no man knows anything save what he finds out for himself." (P. 47)

In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger expresses the same attitude in more formal terms: "The Being of [the entity to be analysed] is in each case mine." (H. 4241)

Read the riddle here.

Bonus hint?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Another Hint

In what sense are the following paintings all "metaphysical compositions"?

David Hockney's "Going up Garrowby Hill", 2000.

Giorgio de Chirico's "Metaphysical Composition (Composizione metafisica)", 1914.

Diego Velazquez's "Las Meninas", 1656.

Jay provided an important clue: "we're looking from the eyes of Velazquez as he paints his own reflection in a wall-sized mirror".

My first hint tried to suggest that Hockney's painting is probably not a picture of Garrowby Hill but a picture of, well, going up it, which is something Hockney often did in his youth.

The third hint comes to us from an unlikely source, namely, John Henderson's Pliny's Statue (University of Exeter Press, 2002). On page 221 he points out (more or less in passing) that Paul Eluard renamed "Composizione Metafisica" as "Portrait d'Artiste par Lui-même" and that it accordingly appeared under the title "Self Portrait" until the 1950s.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Three Metaphysical Compositions (a hint)

Here is the riddle, again. In what sense that makes them all "metaphysical compositions" are the following three paintings alike?

David Hockney's "Going up Garrowby Hill", 2000.

Giorgio de Chirico's "Metaphysical Composition (Composizione metafisica)", 1914.

Diego Velazquez's "Las Meninas", 1656.

Jay has noted an important clue: "we're looking from the eyes of Velazquez as he paints his own reflection in a wall-sized mirror".

Here's another hint. Of "A Closer Grand Canyon", Hockney, I think, has said, "This is not a picture of the Grand Canyon. It is a picture of looking at the Grand Canyon."

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Latin Conservatism

Michael Lennon: Are there any Latin American writers you are familiar with?
Norman Mailer: Well, I think Borges and Márquez are the two most important writers in the world today.
Lennon: Why Borges? In political terms he is a reactionary, is he not?
Mailer: Well, he is a conservative, but . . . I detest having to think of a writer by his politics first. It's like thinking of people by way of their anus.

(From Jeffrey Van Davis' documentary
Norman Mailer: The Sanction to Write
transcription excerpted in
Pieces & Pontifications, p. 157)

I don't know whether this is an elegant or crass analogy (writers are to their politics as people are to their anuses in the way we think of them). But I like it. I supply it, first of all, as a contribution to Jonathan Mayhew's discussion about the possible conservative function of literature as such.

Grammar was once taught by immersion in the literature of a culture; it included both the parts and the figures of speech, and prosody as well. It also included the whole range of canonical allusions and orthodox metaphors. Mastering a language was understood (that is, not, as today, misunderstood) as something that went well beyond the conjugation of verbs.

(Pangrammaticism, then, is remarkably conservative even about the concept of grammar.)

And grammar is also profoundly ambiguous about the progressive/conservative distinction. On the one hand, grammarians are famously conservative, preferring to stick with forms that are understood by the majority over allowing new forms that violate this understanding. On the other hand, nothing is more conservative (in the pejorative sense) than a language that is so vague and unruly that only platitudes can be articulated in it. Teaching people to be articulate, even by orthodox standards, makes them better able to engage with the power that governs through discourse. Turning it back around again, it may be argued that such people also become less likely to use this ability to challenge that power.

I think Borges' writing, like all good writing, conserves qualities of language that progressives will find useful in their political projects. By a similar token, linguistic progress can be very useful to conservatives. I think activists and reactionaries, however, who really (and, for their purposes, perhaps rightly) distrust language as a cultural force have very little use for literature, which occupies so much of our time with harmless chatter.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Three Metaphysical Compositions

Today I'll try my hand at constructing a riddle.

These three paintings are alike in an important sense that makes them all "metaphysical compositions".

David Hockney's "Going up Garrowby Hill", 2000.

Giorgio de Chirico's "Metaphysical Composition (Composizione metafisica)", 1914.

Diego Velazquez's "Las Meninas", 1656.

What is that sense?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Grammar of Zen

"You can indulge your righteous rage but the things it comes out of are pretty cheap. The trick is to make yourself an instrument of your own policy."

Norman Mailer's General Cummings
The Naked and the Dead, ch. 3)

I want to get back to some core pangrammatical issues. Last night, a friend and I worked out an elaboration of a piece of Zen advice. Make few your desires

in order to make a precision instrument of them. The same, I would argue, goes for belief. Make few your beliefs

that they may be more precise. It is easy to see how this advice might be radicalized. Reduce your desires to one and your beliefs to one. Make these the same.

I want to emphasize, however, that the simplification of desire need not imply a simplification of emotion. Institutional experience (the immediate takenness of subjects by power) may be very complex. The maintenance of a simplicity of desire may therefore demand a rich assemblage of emotions (system of machination).

In fact, I would argue that excess desire and emotional deficit go hand in hand. Emotions are the discipline of desire, as concepts are the discipline of belief.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Lyric's Task

"Lyric's task is to mediate between particularity and totality in the representation of persons." It is less important to me to decide whether this is Adorno's or Stewart's or Mlinko's axiom than it is to connect it to my own axiomatic.

The first task for the pangrammarian is to construct a provisional transposition of this insight in philosophical terms. I think we can keep "task" and "mediate" and "representation", which are grammatically equivalent for poetry and philosophy.

We automatically replace "person" with "thing" and carry out a simple dialectical inversion of "particularity" into "universality" (the particular is to poetry what the universal is to philosophy and vice versa). The same reasoning can be applied to the replacement of "totality" with "elementarity".

I take it "lyric" just means "poetry", which would allow us to substitute "philosophy", but I would prefer to find a word for philosophy that is to it what "lyric" is to "poetry". Perhaps I'll come up with something later (logic is taken). In any case,

Philosophy's task is to mediate between universality and elementarity in the representation of things.

This is a perfectly respectable suggestion, its means of construction notwithstanding.

Notice that we can here replace "lyric" with "emotional notation" salva veritate.

The task of emotional notation is to mediate between particularity and totality in the representation of persons.

This suggests that it is the noted emotion that carries out the requisite mediation. It must, of course, be accomplished immediately (or we would ask what mediates the mediation), and while the concept is available immediately in intuition for philosophy, the emotion is available to poetry only in institution. (Indeed, concepts and emotions are what make things and people respectively available to knowledge and power respectively in, respectively, intuition and institution.)

So everything works out very nicely. Poetry presents the institutional ground of the representation of persons, and the institution is nothing other than the immediacy of the mediation of a particular person ("I") and its totality (history). Homologously, philosophy presents the intuitive ground of the representation of things, and the intuition is nothing other than the immediacy of the mediation of a universal thing (the world) and its elmentarity ("it").

I wonder if that helps.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Claims and Arguments, Poses and Motions

And as a reader, I'd far prefer to live in a world where Kristen Ross reads Rimbaud as a set of claims on how we live, where Kristeva reads Mallarmé for argument and even for political argument, shock! — insightfully, dialectically — no matter how high he runs the l'art pour l'art flag up over the shipwreck.

Joshua Clover

A catalog of poses and motions produced from within a culture may read, then, like a form of special pleading, or, at the very least, like a product that must be ravaged of bias by scholars prepared to act as objective witnesses.

Ben Marcus

If we stick with the dark idea that the "thought" or "argument" to be extracted, by insight or dialectic (hook or crook?), from a poet's work is the "linguistic consciousness" that it "expresses", then we do well to ask whether Rimbaud or Mallarmé are the best places to go looking for it. They were not, after all, making the argument.

What they were doing was affecting poses and motions within the culture. And I think this simply is the difference between philosophy and poetry. Poetry should be assessed on its poise or stance, philosophy on its vision.

Scholars like Ross and Kristeva, it seems to me, are engaged in the act of ravaging their subjects of bias (insisting on an argument allegedly "expressed" by the pose). But bias just is the index of poise, it indicates a leaning.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Cheng Ming: The Rectification of Names

In Book Thirteen (§3) of the Analects, Confucius says,

When names are not correct, what is said will not sound reasonable; when what is said does not sound reasonable, affairs will not culminate in success; when affairs do not culminate in success, rites and music will not flourish; when rites and music do not flourish, punishments will not fit the crimes; when punishments do not fit the crimes, the common people will not know where to put hand and foot. Thus when the gentleman names something, the name is sure to be usable in speech, and when he says something this is sure to be practicable. (D.C. Lau's translation)

Ezra Pound provided his own translation, which I think is preferable in many respects. (I don't know whether it is more accurate, of course.)

If the terminology be not exact, if it fit not the thing, the governmental instructions will not be explicit, if the instructions aren't clear and the names don't fit, you can not conduct business properly.

If business is not properly run the rites and music will not be honoured, if the rites and music be not honoured, penalties and punishments will not achieve their intended effects, if penalties and punishments do not produce equity and justice, the people won't know where to put their feet or what to lay hold of or to whom they shd. stretch out their hands.

That is why an intelligent man cares for his terminology and gives instructions that fit. When his orders are clear and explicit they can be put into effect. (Guide to Kulchur, p. 16)

I actually prefer Lau's translation of the last part, mainly because it shortens the distance to "usage" (i.e., "usable in speech") but both translations make it clear that something as simple as correct terminology or "the rectification of names" (cheng ming) has wide reaching consequences for life more generally.

"To govern (cheng) is to correct (cheng)." (Analects, XII, 17).

What intrigues me here is the central place that language is given in much broader business. Pound made the idea his own in the ABC of Reading as part of a theory of language that I've heard some people describe as naive or simpleminded: "Language was obviously created, and is, obviously, USED for communication." (ABC, p. 29)

Your legislator can't legislate for the public good, your commander can't command, your populace (if you be a democratic country) can't instruct its 'representatives', save by language.

I recently stumbled on a passage in Wittgenstein's Investigations that reminded of this idea:

Not: "without language we could not communicate with one another"--but for sure: without language we cannot influence other people in such-and-such ways; cannot build roads and machines, etc. And also: without the use of speech and writing people could not communicate. (§491)

Pound makes it clear that literature is that specialized use of language which keeps it working properly. Literature just is the rectification of names, correction of usage. Cheng ming.

"If a nation's literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays." (ABC, p. 32)

I believe that Hamlet was talking about something along these lines in his first soliloquy.

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

(I take it "business is not properly run" = "unprofitable use of the world".) The abiding concern of these pages is the condition of all the uses of the world, the shape they're in, their form, which may ultimately be traced to the state of current usage, to grammar.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The crush of thoughts
that do not get out because they all try to push
forward and are wedged in the door.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Dark's Dare

Joshua Clover (aka Jane Dark*) dares us to show him "[some poetry that doesn't] express the poet's linguistic consciousness within its particular social circumstance and historical moment." Of course, we can't show him a poem that fits this bill; but I wonder what that is supposed to prove.

Consider one of Shakespeare's sonnets. It does, of course, express Shakespeare's consciousness of English within its particular social circumstance and historical moment (the Elizabethan age). But is that all it does or even the most important thing it does? Is the most important thing about it what it expresses at all? That is, when does delineating "the poet's linguistic consciousness within its particular social circumstance and historical moment" become an interesting task, whether for the ordinary reader or the critic of the poem?

Surely all we need to do is to find a poem that, in addition to expressing this consciousness, i.e., in addition to representing one or another "style of mind" (socially and historically conditioned, to be sure), is a good or apt poem in some more immediate sense. And here any of the Sonnets will do.

I guess I'm not sure that anyone is making the claim that commits them to taking this dare.

*Please correct me if I'm wrong about this identity issue.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Then Thus the Palpable

Properly, we shd. read for power. Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book shd. be a ball of light in one's hand.

Ezra Pound

A machine is a poem / made of metal.

Tony Tost

Comparing the letters of James Joyce with those of Ezra Pound, Marjorie Perloff made an astute observation. "Pound conceives of the page--whether it contains poem or prose text or letter--as a visual construct" (76). This may have been Pound's version of Mallarmé's dictum, "poems are made of words, not ideas," in a variant perhaps best captured by Tony Tost's ironic, "poems are not made of words, but paper." (28) That is, a poem is something you arrange on a writing surface, something made first and foremost to be beheld with the eyes.

In Canto 81, Pound indulges his Elysian fantasy, his theology of light, saying, "First came the seen then thus the palpable." Of course, he may have meant this only in a particular case, only with regard to the "new subtlety of eyes" that he is recording in this passage. In any case, I want to suggest that the construal of a poem in essentially visual terms is no longer plausible. Like Abner with his shovel in Canto 77, we must now lift the poem "instead of watchin' it to see it [will]/ take action".

Perloff, in fact, saw postmodernism in terms of the passage from "image to action", but she meant simply that narrative was returning to poetry. To my mind, current developments, like Flarf, remain "imagist" in their basic orientation (eschewing narrative); the shift lies in passing from the visual image to the manual image.

So the shift is not a move beyond modernism, but is a continuous modernist sensitivity to the technological conditions that make the arts possible. In literature, the page stops being simply something to look at and starts to become something you have to do something to. You might Google it, for example, or, more often, follow hyperlinks to other pages, other genres, other media.

As reading becomes something we do as much with our hands as with our eyes, the poem itself becomes palpable. I don't want simply to reverse the error of the original emphasis, and say that the way the page "looks" is now subordinated to the way it "feels" (its texture, I suppose). There is, however, a new balance emerging.

We face a poetry that either depends physically on the page as a manual device or in any case employs a good deal of manual, tactile, palpable imagery. I think the work of Lara Glenum, Tony Tost and Ben Marcus are good examples of at least the latter. But as such texts begin to be written with an awareness of the infinitesimal space between the reader's copy of the poem and a search engine, the imagery and the mechanics of reading will, I suspect, become still more important to calibrate.

Poems are still made of words, but not of paper.


Perloff, Marjorie. The Dance of the Intellect. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1985.

Tost, Tony. Invisible Bride . Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004

Ladle, the Crutch (3)

(a work in progress)

Ziggy finds that the soup du jour had been a ruse all along and Thomas' decaying body had drawn upon some charge from at least 1450. The crutch or crutchstaff, upon which he leans, was given to him out of respect for his age.

She is represented in homely garments, with a ladle or skimmer in her hand, leaning against the edge of the table, pulling up the empty pant leg. Attached there are small scraps of cloth.

An hour later, the crutch is done. The cross piece had been nailed into place using the ladle. She dipped it into the hot water, then transferred pure honey in a timeless ceremony.

His trousers split completely (an incongruous sight) and as the oar creaked softly in the rowlock it pronounced, "Pasquale can get another from the main glass-house."

Friday, October 07, 2005

Ladle, the Crutch (2)

(a work in progress)

Ziggy finds that the soup du jour
had been a ruse all along. Thomas'
decaying body had drawn upon some
charge from at least 1450; the crutch
or crutchstaff upon which he leans,
was given to him out of respect for
his age; she is represented in homely
garments, with a ladle or skimmer
in her hand, leaning against
the edge of the table, pulling
up the empty pant leg. Attached
there are small scraps of cloth.

An hour later, the crutch is done.
The cross piece had been nailed
into place using the ladle. She
dipped it into the hot water,
then transferred pure honey in a
timeless ceremony. His trousers
completely split (an incongruous
sight) and the oar pronounced
them as it creaked softly in the
rowlock: "Pasquale can get
another from the main glass-house."
Well, when in doubt, ladle on.

So here's a big steaming bowlful.
Just like the one gracing the top.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Ladle, the Crutch

(a work in progress)

Ziggy finds that the soup du jour
had been a ruse all along. Or if
Thomas' decaying body had
drawn upon some charge from
at least 1450, the crutch
or crutchstaff upon which he leans
was given to him out of respect
for his age;
she is represented
in homely garments, with a ladle
or skimmer in her hand, leaning against
the edge of the table, pulling up
the empty pant leg. Attached there
are small scraps of cloth. An hour
later, the crutch is done. The cross
piece had been nailed into place
using the ladle. She dipped it into
the hot water,
then transferred
pure honey in a timeless ceremony.
His trousers completely split (an
incongruous sight) and the oar
pronounced them as it creaked
softly in the rowlock: "Pasquale can get
another from the main glass-house."
Well, when in doubt, ladle on.
So here's a big steaming bowlful.
Just like the one gracing the top.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Redoing Heidegger's Thing (procedural note)

A project like this needs rules to determine what counts as a correct replacement, or at least some background against which to discuss its wisdom. (This question just came up in the comments section over at Enowning.) What I am trying to do, in a sense, is to subject Heidegger ca. 1950 to Heidegger ca. 1927. That means that the arguments for replacing, say, "world in its worlding" with "things" is to be found in the pages of works like Being and Time and The Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Since much of Heidegger's accomplishment there (which I think was greater than he himself finally believed) was to effect the "ontological difference" between beings and being, and thereby to break with ordinary usage in order to establish a critical phenomenological vantage on experience (structured by language, of course), what we are doing here, working backwards, is to "bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use" (Wittgenstein PI§116).

In this first step, for example, we can consult Being and Time, Chapter 14, to account for the replacement of "world in its worlding" with "things". Here Heidegger tells us that "describing the world as a phenomenon ... means to let us see what shows itself in 'entities' within the world'" and "the entities within the world are Things." (H. 63) Their "thinghood" is the world-structure of being-in-the-world, i.e., when world is worlding there are things. Thus, things are the result of the world worlding, and world in its worlding as such, is tantamount to things.

As I said at Enowning, I am aware of the damage I am doing to (other possible readings of) "The Turning". What Heidegger is presenting as a prayer or act of metaphysical faith, I am restating in terms of what a younger Heidegger might describe as its "phenomenological evidence". That is, the evidence for world in its worlding is the presence of things. And, yes, the next step is: "May things be in hand..." (not merely at hand).

But more on that later. Those who have a better sense than I of the progress of Heidegger's thought may notice that this exercise does in fact terminate in an interpretation of a rather vacuous, late-Heideggerian "openness for being" in terms of the (at least immediately) more robust notions of authenticity and anxiety.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Toward a Scientific Interpretation of the Default Object

Jasmine is a complete object.

Her language is based upon part of the difficulty.
A few additions (protective devices, danger signs, barricades,
an enclosed chute) make it a building, a bridge,

a highway, etc.

Racine, with his unerring good taste,
knows the danger of consistent understatement.
E.g., "This task is not for the fainthearted."

But, ahh, there is fun in danger, isn't there?

The artist: first a rough version, then anxiety
to wrap them up and take them from this place.
"A partial object is not a complete object."

And you can pretty much rely on "to thine own self be true".

A one-fourth human being is
not; and there is a danger in choosing
a sense object as the ideal.

(Even Phaedra cannot be a complete object of horror.)

The meaning of a 'danger' object
is merely the startled jump
which constitutes responses

to a complete object in all its setting.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Disconcerted Critic

And again, the purely "technical" critic--the critic, that is, who writes to expound some novelty or impart some lesson to practitioners of an art--can be called a critic only in a narrow sense. He may be analysing perceptions and the means for arousing perceptions, but his aim is limited and is not the disinterested exercise of intelligence.

T. S. Eliot
"The Perfect Critic"

My aim is certainly limited and my criticism surely narrow. If I feel confident about it, it is only because my object (Flarf) reliably broadens my perceptions by its distinctly "hi technical" machinery. That is, I believe that a narrow interest in the technique of Flarf, because of the virtually ("virtually"?) physical way that it is connected to the apparatus of the language (through Google), forces us willy-nilly to apply our intelligence purely to the work we are given.

Eliot was "inclined to believe that the 'historical' and the 'philosophical' critics had better be called historians and philosophers quite simply," and I agree with him. To try to "contextualize" a poem in order to tell us what it means (or, more often, meant) is simply a way of not reading the poem at all. "As for the rest, there are merely various degrees of intelligence," which, I would add, the critic may share or not share with the reader. Critics who try to help us to "understand" a poem, rather than helping us to see how it works, will apply their scholarship to the task of uncovering the sources, the references of its symbols, for example. A good poem will normally make this exercise immediately ridiculous.

I'm sure that is what Jorge Luis Borges meant in his capsule biography of T. S. Eliot when he said,

The erudite obscurity of [The Waste Land] disconcerted (and still disconcerts) the critics, but is less important than the poem's beauty. The perception of this beauty, moreover, precedes any interpretation and does not depend on it. (The Total Library, pp. 167-8)

I think Flarf radicalizes this obscurity; or, more precisely, reverses it. Flarf is perspicuously rudimentary. (Etymological note: the words "erudite" and "rudimentary" seem to share the same root, namely, "rude", from "rudis", unwrought or, where the human material is concerned, untrained.) Flarf forces us back to basics, to the substratum of the usage, where it all begins, where it all must be done. Here the fabrications of the poet begin.

That is, Flarf makes the unpoetry that underlies all poetry perspicuous, or "übersichtlich", as Wittgenstein might say. Still more disconcerting than not being able to discover the sources, or being played with by the poet in his footnotes (as Tim Peterson emphasized to me in a comment to an earlier post), is to discover that the sources of the poem are, in a word, Flarfy. That is, the poem came out of something other than poetry, out of materials the mere delineation of which do not explain the poem's poetry.

(It is this materiality that I think Tony Tost comes dangerously close to sublimating when he talks about the "original sources" of the language of the poems and the life of its language "outside the poem". But my insistence on technicalities, it should be noted, has its own danger that Tony is clearly better able to avoid, namely, it risks eliding whatever empathy we might otherwise have with the voice(s) of the poem.)

The sources are, in any case, unreliable referents. Discovering this (quickly, easily, efficiently unless he simply refuses the means he has been granted), the critic then faces the various degrees of his own intelligence and must condescend actually to read the poem. He must then try really to perceive the poem's beauty. It is because "the means for arousing" this perception in a work of Flarf tell the critic nothing, that his analysis of perception becomes so pivotal. Not only does nothing depend on erudition; everything now depends on the rudimentary order of usage.