Archive for the ‘avant-garde’ Tag

Nine Provocations to a Sympoetics

The Analytic and Synthetic Writer. “The analytic writer observes the reader as he is; he calculates accordingly and develops his machines in order to have the desired effect upon him. The synthetic writer constructs and creates a reader as he should be; he does not conceive of the reader as still and dead, but rather as lively and counteractive. He allows what he has invented gradually to come into being before his eyes, or he entices the reader to invent it himself. He does not want it to have a specific effect on the reader, but enters with him into the holy relationship of the tenderest symphilosophy or sympoesy.”—Friedrich Schlegel, Critical Fragments 112, (1797-1801).

Christian Wolff, difference, and Saussure. “Wolff’s importance for philosophy generally and for the philosophy of language in particular tends to be underestimated today. For example, staying within the philosophy of language, he seems to have been a prime source, not only for the doctrine in question here [thought’s dependence on language], but also for the revolutionary idea in the Herder-Hegel tradition that language and hence conceptualization and thought are fundamentally social, as well as for the idea, later fundamental to Saussurean linguistics, that difference is at least as important for the constitution of concepts as similarity.”—Michael N Forster, After Herder:  Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition, Oxford, 2012, 79.

“semiotics cannot generate semantics” and related matters. “…there is a crucial homology in modern European philosophy between the constitution of metaphysical systems in ‘Spinozist’ terms via the principle of determination as negation, the structuralist idea of language as a system of differences with no positive terms, and the commodity-based economy of negatively related exchange values. In all these cases the question arises as to the ground upon which the differentially constituted system relies:  the system of ‘conditioned conditions’ leads in Jacobi’s terms to the question of being; meaning cannot be explained in differential terms because mere differentiality requires a ground of identity (semiotics cannot generate semantics); and the notion of value itself makes no sense in purely relational terms because exchange values are grounded in use values.” —Andrew Bowie, From Romanticism to Critical Theory:  The Philosophy of German Literary Theory (New York:  Routledge, 1997), p. 169.

Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776-1810) on speech as writing. “Tell me, how do we transform the thought, the idea, into the word; and do we ever have a thought or an idea without its hieroglyph, its letter, its script? Truly, it is so:  but we do not usually think of it. But once, when human nature was more powerful, it really was more extensively thought about; and this is proved by the existence of word and script. The original, and absolute, simultaneity was rooted in the fact that the organ of speech itself writes in order to speak. The letter alone speaks, or rather; word and script are, at source, one, and neither is possible without the other…”—in Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (New York:  Verso, 1977), pp. 213-14.

Duncan on Language. “‘What was it like in the late 1940s if you were concerned about language?’ And then you found that language itself was a process, in Whorf and Sapir. And along with this, Olson wanted to reject the symbolic role of language. I was also interested in Cassirer’s approach to language as a total system of symbols. But it’s a process, you see; it’s not a system.” —Robert Duncan, 1983 interview, in A Poet’s Mind:  collected interviews with Robert Duncan, 1960-1985, ed. Christopher Wagstaff, Berkeley:  North Atlantic Books, 2012, 89-90.

On Poetic Form.

“Form is never more than an extension of content”—Robert Creeley, quoted by Charles Olson in “Projective Verse” (1950).

“[Ron] Silliman wrote Revelator according to a simple procedural concept: a long poem with exactly five words per line, and exactly enough lines to fill one notebook.”—Sam Rowe’s review of Revelator (2013) at Full Stop.

“…there is a ‘fluid’ as well as a ‘solid’ content, that some poems may have form as a tree has a form, some as water poured into a vase.”—Ezra Pound, “Credo” (1912), in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (9).

Against Expression. “…it’s meanings I’m after, not expression. I’m anti-expressionist. But I don’t think expressionism is disorder. I’m anti-expressionist because I dislike personality and I dislike integration. And in general, I have a double play between meaning and feeling, which keeps me quite busy.”—Robert Duncan, in an interview with David Ossman, 1960, in A Poet’s Mind:  collected interviews with Robert Duncan, 1960-1985, ed. Christopher Wagstaff, Berkeley:  North Atlantic Books, 2012.

The Reader as Producer. The thesis of Benjamin’s “The Writer as Producer” might be cast as “the reader should not be a consumer but a producer alongside the writer.” This demand echoes later formulations that turn on oppositions analogous to consumer/producer:  Bernstein’s absorptive/anti-absorptive or Goldsmith’s readership/thinkership. However, such demands that the reader labour along with the writer are already met in the the Jena Romantics’ opposition of the analytic/synthetic writer and their practice of the fragment that require of the reader active collaboration in a “sympoetry”. Theoretically, the opposition between the passive reader and active writer collapses in Barthes’ work/text, which he thoroughly deconstructs in S/Z:  reading is a kind of writing. What power, then, can Benjamin’s demand have if in practice it was met a century before he made it and in theory it is always already met?

On our “romantic” unconscious.  “A veritable romantic unconscious is discernible today, in most of the central motifs of our ‘modernity’ [or ‘postmodernity’]. Not the least result of romanticism’s indefinable character is the way it has allowed this so-called modernity [or postmodernity] to use romanticism as a foil, without ever recognizing–or in order not to recognize–that it has done little more than rehash romanticism’s discoveries.

…it is not difficult to arrive at the derivatives of these romantic texts, which still delimit our horizon. From the idea of a possible formalization of literature (or of cultural production in general) to the use of linguistic models (and a model based on the principle of auto-structuration of language); from an analytic approach to works based on the hypothesis of auto-engendering to the aggravation of the problematic of a subject permanently rejecting subjectivism (that of inspiration, for example, or the ineffable, or the function of the author, etc.); from this problematic of the (speaking or writing) subject to a general theory of the historical or social subject; from a belief that the work’s conditions of production or fabrication are inscribed within it to the thesis of a dissolution of all processes of production in the abyss of the subject. In short, we ourselves are implicated in all that determines both literature as auto-critique and criticism as literature. Our own image comes back to us from the mirror of the literary absolute. And the massive truth flung back at us is that we have not left the era of the Subject.”—Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute (trans. Barnard and Lester), Albany:  SUNY, 1988 (original French, 1978), 15-16.

Two (more) solitudes

Anyone acquainted with English-language Canadian poetry will know that it’s divided into a variety of mutually uncomprehending schools, a staid-of-affairs most recently borne out in a discussion thread concerning a recent review of Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the the Present in the National Post.

The thread’s originator first took up three strands, more-or-less:  the review is “jargon crusted”, often nonsensical and stylistically repulsive. The review, however, employs little jargon: “identity formation,” “deixis,” and “deictic shifters” are the only offenders, and the last two are explained, if a little clumsily; the accusation of nonsense, meanwhile, was quickly downgraded to the charge that the review’s style would fail to excite the “intelligent yet non-specialist reader” to rush out and buy the book.

What strikes me as more curious though is what the review’s “style” indicates about the reception of avant-garde poetry. As one acute interlocutor observed “a poem whose second line is ‘You move into the distributive texture of an experimental protocol’ might be asking for this sort of review,” a remark that might be taken to mean that “experimental” poetry demands a particular response, in this case, one couched in the discourse developed over the past century precisely in answer to new art forms for which no existing critical vocabulary seemed fit. Indeed, ‘shifter’ is a most appropriate term in this respect, introduced by Otto Jespersen in 1923, taken up by Roman Jakobson in 1956 and, most tellingly, by Emile Benveniste, a linguist whose work deeply informs Robertson’s.

In one respect, then, the review might be said to possess a pedagogical purpose, attempting to orient the “ordinary reader” to be better able to approach a work that might otherwise seem outlandish and perplexing. Regardless of its purpose, however, the review’s “content” and “form” should be less disconcerting than its spontaneously possessing a ready fluency to articulate and appreciate an “experimental” work. How “experimental” can a work be, after all, when it is composed and readily appreciated within an already existing set of institutional, artistic-critical conventions? It would seem “experimental” only to those offended by there being more things in the heaven and earth of poetry than they read in their English classes. The review and discussion thread, then, are less indices of the alienation of the “specialist” from the “non-specialist” than of the fractious relativity of two equally well-established schools.

A number of curious implications unfold from this reconfiguration of the issue. Those defenders of the “intelligent yet non-specialist reader” come to appear disingenuous:  the criticism of poetry, already a very specific concern, is never merely a matter of intelligence, Eliot’s famous dictum notwithstanding, but is inescapably rooted in education. As Paul de Man observed (in his essay “The Resistance to Theory”):  “even the most intuitive, empirical and theoretically low key writers on literature [make] use of a minimal set of concepts (tone, organic form, allusion, tradition, historical situation, etc. ) of at least some general import.” To pretend that the understanding and appreciation of poetry is not enabled and cultured by a particular schooling hides the social specificity of the language(s) of criticism, which is to pretend the language of one group is that common to all, which is to assume a commonality whose universality is merely a repression of difference. The specialized, literary critical vocabulary that sticks out as it does, however, ironically gambles an initial, potentially-alienating difference in the hopes of cashing in on the winnings of a wider understanding, all for the sake of rendering the unfamiliar familiar.

Where it appears perverse to restrict poetry reviewing to a non-technical language (even when it is explained in “layman’s terms”), while terms such as “lipids,” “stem cells,” or even “molecule” for that matter can be found in the same newspaper as the review in question, it seems equally, ironically counterproductive to anaesthetize what is uniquely lively in a work. The criticism that restricts itself to recognizable formulae reinforces the illusion that all is already right with the world and that there is nothing new under the sun that would require an effort at cognition, as true for the resolutely plain-spoken journalist-critic as for the reviewer in question, for whom Robertson’s book can hold no surprises nor upend his critico-theoretical status quo, understanding the work as he does in advance thanks to the conceptual schemata that enable his understanding and appreciation in the first place.

Robertson’s—anyone’s—poetry is surely better served by a—dare I say—”dialectical” criticism, that introduces the work without interrupting the ensuing, hopefully unending and open-ended, conversation that is the life of art and of the mind.

Turning the table on Bernstein’s spin on Reznikoff

Recently, Jerome Rothenberg posted Charles Bernstein’s liner notes to a CD recording of Charles Reznikoff reading from his Holocaust. As much as I am very much in favour of Reznikoff and his work receiving praise and a wider readership, I must take exception to how Bernstein at points seems to characterize Reznikoff’s Holocaust and Testimony in a sectarian way, one exemplary of much of our contemporary avant-garde.

Both Testimony and Holocaust take up documentary material, court documents from turn-of-the-century America and the Nuremberg Trials respectively, and present it in a powerfully understated manner Bernstein quite illuminatingly compares to the style of Italian neorealist cinema. However, regarding this manner, Bernstein claims

What’s most radical about Testimony is the kind of reading his method makes possible, because this work … can’t be read in traditional literary or aesthetic ways. At first reading Testimony is numbing, but this experience of being numbed is the place not where aesthetic experience ends but where it begins. Reznikoff’s refusal to aestheticize or sentimentalize (some would say humanize) the legal cases presented is exemplary of Testimony’s ethical grounding…

The deployment of the notion of the aesthetic here is simply too blasé and, morever, subtly spun to position Reznikoff and his work on one side of North America’s poetic, ideological struggles. Who reads Testimony will, yes, likely be “numbed”, overwhelmed by the relentlessness of its material, “numbed” by an exhausting over-stimulation. I cannot count how many times I have used Reznikoff’s poetry as an example of the power of sheer presentation, unsettling classes of college-level English students by reading them the poem from Testimony that begins “Amelia was just fourteen…“. Such  poetry is indeed neither “literary” nor “aesthetic” in a “traditional” way in its resolute refusal to metaphorically develop, embellish, or otherwise “cook up” its material, boiling it down, rather, to the plainest, factual presentation, a refusal of a certain kind of (poetically mainstream) “artistry” or “technique” that would make of the poem an “aesthetic” object possessed of artistic beauty, a beauty that would be at odds with the moral repulsiveness of what the poems present. But the squinting limitation of the notion of the “aesthetic” here is betrayed by a contradiction. Bernstein observes Reznikoff refuses to aestheticize his material while at the same time the reading “experience of being numbed is the place not where aesthetic experience ends but where it begins.” Bernstein, at best, seems to be playing two senses of “the aesthetic” off each other, claiming that the manner of Testimony and Holocaust divides one sense of the aesthetic from another, the traditional (derived originally from Alexander Baumgarten and referring strictly to theories of only artistic beauty) from the more radical, wherein “the aesthetic” denotes how something is or is made sensuously present (derived from Kant, related but not restricted to the experience of the beautiful whether in nature or art, a sense most recently and powerfully developed by Jacques Rancière). Arguably, though, a concept whose effective history can be traced back to Kant is “traditional” however much it differs from that concept found more locally ready-to-hand. It seems truer to say that Reznikoff quite literally re-presents the material that makes up Testimony and Holocaust by the mediation of his editorial labour that produces a striking, marked effect or response, which is precisely the index of its aesthetic power. Bernstein’s point here seems intended to serve interests other than to praise or illuminate Reznikoff’s accomplishment.

Regardless of exactly how Bernstein’s deployment(s) of “the aesthetic” might be taken, I find more troubling his apparent attempt to recruit Reznikoff as a “conceptual” writer. Bernstein remarks

…Reznikoff pose[s] a challenge to how we read and where we find meaning, creating conceptual works that make our initial inability to read an aesthetic challenge to read differently, read anew. As Kenneth Goldsmith remarks about conceptual poetry: it requires not a “readership” but a “thinkership.”

The argument here seems to turn on a too-easy distinction between what Barthes termed works and texts or what Bernstein himself has called in a similar vein absorptive and antiabsorptive. The absorptive work demands little conscious labour on the side of the reader, adhering to literary-aesthetic conventions whose familiarity enables them to function unconsciously and therefore ideologically; the antiabsorptive text, on the other hand, that breaks with or otherwise problematizes these conventions demands an engaged reading, whether playful or laboured, thereby inculcating an awareness of the conventionality of all discourse and the inescapable activity, and thereby collusion or power, of the reader. On the one hand, exactly how Reznikoff’s method demands more than a familiarity with the workings of metonymy to be understood and appreciated eludes me. On the other hand, the distinction apparently deployed here between the readerly and the thinkerly was one roundly and rigorously deconstructed by Barthes himself in S/Z that demonstrates in numbing detail that the readerly absorptive work is always already a writerly antiabsorptive text. More seriously, though, is the way Goldsmith’s distinction characterizes the reader of a conventional work as mindlessly passive, a characterization at odds with the de facto reception of literary and other texts. One need be no connoisseur of reader response theory or devotee of deconstruction to know that even the most prima facie literal texts are subject to an uncontrollable range of interpretation. How different (and humane) is this remark from Friedrich Schlegel’s Critical Fragments that addresses a similar distinction over two centuries ago:

112.  The analytic writer observes the reader as he is; he calculates accordingly and develops his machines in order to have the desired effect upon him. The synthetic writer constructs and creates a reader as he should be; he does not conceive of the reader as still and dead, but rather as lively and counteractive. He allows what he has invented gradually to come into being before his eyes, or he entices the reader to invent it himself. He does not want it to have a specific effect on the reader, but enters with him into the holy relationship of the tenderest symphilosophy or sympoesy.

Reznikoff, it seems to me, is precisely a “synthetic” writer, one who understands and assumes that his readers are “lively and counteractive”, thoughtful and sensitive enough to judge for themselves the facts of the case laid before them. His work doesn’t need to be ranked with an avant-garde or legitimated by its participating in the latest thing; it, like the matter it presents, might well be said to speak for itself.