Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail

Derrida

"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Singing Nothing or, Hymns to Zero: Rosmarie Waldrop's "Driven to Abstraction"

What is the value of zero? Is it nothing? Or might it be better to ask instead, what kind of cultural work does zero perform? How is absence woven into the metaphysics of presence, as Derrida might put it? To what extent do we depend upon the little bit of emptiness encompassed within the narrow circle that is zero? How does it uphold us? Undo us? Re-affirm us?

These questions bring to mind Paul Valery’s witticism: “God made everything out of nothing, but the nothing still shows through.”

They also call up some of the earliest, most primal considerations of nothing (or is it “something”?) from The Rigveda.

There was neither non-existence nor existence then.
There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond.
What stirred? Where?

On the other hand: “The Void is a quantum sea of zero point waves, with all possible wavelengths,” as Frank Close tells us in his delightful book, Nothing.

On the other other hand, Andrew Joron announces: “zero point is also a crossing point, a crossing out and a crossing over of the Sign.” Poesis is cognate with the ground of the unsayable, a plenum of zeroes spilling over into speech: “an articulation, not a cancellation, of silence.” And: “This crossing point is a site of utter suspension, of an utterance suspended at the crux of beyond-being: the Cry at zero.”

Such thoughts belong to a vatic order of language. They lay a charge for a logos that somehow lives outside of history, even as it seeks to intervene, to alter and revise and clarify its logic. If there is a logic to history. If there is, it must in some way be supported by nothing and through the sign for nothing we can begin to imagine the greater valences of random connectivity which 0 both invites and permits.

The extravagant, multi-pitched final sequence in Driven to Abstraction, Rosmarie Waldrop’s newest book, takes up these questions in a storied and extended ode to the powers of kenosis and the ultimate value of nothingness. Waldrop is decidedly not of the tribe of the mystic, as is Joron, but of the skeptic, the ironist, the worker of the warp of words who subtends the genius of slippage. Yet, this, too, is somehow and in spite of itself, vatic.

Waldrop’s extraordinary constellation – beginning with “Zero or, the Opening Position” – reads like a history of the metaphysical comedy of negation -- its failures and its hopes -- from its cosmic architectures to its daily economics. It is a remarkable poem, a poem, not about nothing, the nothing of the mystics, of either the via negativa of Pseudo-Dionysus or the khora of Derrida, but a recitation of zero and its curious history as a concept. Of its migration into the West from medieval Arabic mathematics and its subsequent role as a placeholder for the underlying, the foundational that is anti-foundational, “zero, the corrosive number,” as she calls it, without which nothing counts.

Nothing. Zero. Absence of things, of signs. Unnatural. Hover in the same space and identical as twins. Point nowhere and like poems mean but what they say. And are but what is not.

Absence, signed by zero, is what enables language at all, for Waldrop. Zero is the empty knot at the center of every calculation. The absent present that permits speech to conjure spirit, the ghost inside every word and number. A form of grace or is it haunting that blows through every economy, the wind of circulation making the invisible tangible even as it drains the real of substance in the name of meaning.

“Zero or, Opening Position,” is really a suite of interlinked meditations, each one taking up some particular historical, cultural, or philosophical aspect of the concept of zero and its passage into the very core of Western epistemology (though it could be argued it was always already there, from Plato’s Parmenides, at least).

There are poems on money -- both bank and paper; on Vermeer and Montaigne and the ayn sof of the Kabbalists. On Meister Eckhart, modern cosmology, the hermetic lore of nothing, and King Lear's nothing, which strives to pierce his own blindness and is finally reckoned in blood.

If all this sound too abstract, Waldrop reminds us that zero is also profoundly intimate, a richly embodied experience.

Impossible to picture nothing. Even in a mind where unicorns roam whose bodies crumble before the light. Always I find myself hiding somewhere near the edge.

It’s not that nothing can come from nothing. Is it vanity, the delirious power of zero? Its exuberant potential? Of vanities? Its manufactures (and without hands) an infinite of numbers we can barely imagine.

And what profit has a man? Or, for that matter, a woman? Who loves the damp detour of the body? How, among, the infinite numbers – exceeding the grains of sand that would fill the universe – will they know each other?

The tenderness that haunts the precinct of zero casts a lonely, auratic light here. Zero is at once the inexorable, yet phantasmal, structure of capital's brutal empire, and the numen of plenitude that shines when one body touches another, the place where eros redeems, if only for a moment, the depredations of history.

In Waldrop’s catalogue, her bestiary of 0, it is everything and nothing, emptied of all potential and replete with the full range of signification and agency.

And yet. At the bottom of any thing I find a word that made it. And I write. Have made a pact with nothingness. Make love to absent bodies. And though I cannot fill the space they do not occupy their shadows stand between me and thin sky.

In the end, this is not the work of an ironist at all, but of a poet devoted to the thrill of language's endless permutations. Driven To Abstraction offers the deepest affirmation of how the poetic is wedded to the body’s tendrilled affiliations, its desires to connect across the void and against the heartbreaking limit of mortal distances and their continual erasures. It is the most sustained and powerful poetry of Waldrop’s entire career.

Monday, November 22, 2010

On Libraries

A library is useful to a writer only insofar as it lacks discernible utility.

In addition to whatever it has of the needful – the research texts, the books one teaches, the responsible range of volumes which cover one’s chosen field – it should also contain a collection of the odd, the eccentric, the offbeat, the undervalued, the curious, the weird, and the totally indulgent and utterly useless.

Only in this way can it fulfill its true mission, which is not to be a summum bonum of knowledge, a repository of all things written, but to exist as a kind of commons for encountering the random, the chanced-on, the unlooked-for – whatever can spark the surprise of intervention. Which is also what goes by the name of grace.

Foucault, commenting on "The Library of Babel," by Borges, praises the idea of “the great, invisible labyrinth of language, of language that divides itself and becomes its own mirror.”

And in his magnificent elegy for Duncan, Palmer writes: “Send me my dictionary./Write how you are.” What else is a dictionary for a poet but a grimoire, a book of spells by which a world might be conjured and the dead come to visit us again? This is the very essence of the library -- a vast whispering colloquy of ghosts, attendant.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

On Innocence and Contingency

I was at a dinner with some poets and scholars not long ago when the conversation turned to the question: “What is it that artists want?” To which a noted Milton scholar smugly replied: “innocence.” How like a Miltonist, I thought.

But to understand innocence is to understand that it is and can never be primary, but secondary always. Innocence is what comes after; it is known only through its loss, its absence; it is what comes into being after the fall from grace, if grace is to understood as a category of not-knowing, of not-being-able-to-know that one is in a state of grace; a kind of spiritual blindspot.

Innocence is the name we give to the condition of na├»ve experience that cannot know itself. It can therefore never be true innocence. True innocence can only be arrived at – as a state of achieved simplicity that comes through and after complexity. That comes only through a dialectical negation of experience, loss, and the sorrows born of contingency.

The only innocence which can finally matter is not that which we have lost, but that which are striving to obtain. As a return to the imaginary of grace. A state that never was, but which we need to posit as original, as both preceding us and yet always still ahead of us. A state derived from the logic of the supplement, that precludes all appeals to the foundational, that recognizes that grace must always, can only, come after. It is not given – it is undergone. In a word, it is suffered. (See under: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, et al).

It must be thought of as a kind of forgiveness, then. Just as Kristeva writes that forgiveness breaks the concatenation of cause and effect, its endless iron chain, so innocence is an intervention into and a surpassing of history. Its economy is libidinal, erotic, a-historical, that which opposes contingency.

But of course it cannot come on its own. It needs contingency to supply it with its moment for falling. Innocence is therefore inseparable from contingency. Without the pressures of history, innocence is an empty descriptor, a sentimental fetish marking some pre-conscious realm of purity.

What is it that artists want? The immature artist longs to recapture lost innocence. The mature artist strives to redeem language and experience from the predations of history. This, I would humbly submit, is the only and true meaning of hope.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Camera Lucida or, Obscured by Light

Taken as pure artifact, the photograph may be seen as that singular instrumentality of desire by which we seek perpetually to recover or recuperate the past -- be it our immediate past, or the past of previous generations. Always, the photograph acts as the medium that would obliterate all trace of itself in the performance of its delivery of the Other -- other time, other culture, even other self. My self, as composed only yesterday in the failing garden of autumn, undergoes, through the agency of the photograph, a sea-change: the absent made present once again, the vanished self returned as revenant.

To see ourselves in the photograph is to gaze into a mirror with the power to eternize the past, to fix and stabilize identity, to stop the slippage of time. In its role as recording angel, as talismanic preserver of the real, the photograph provides the unimpeachable evidence by which we build a sense of continuity with the past, even as it subtly undermines that continuity, or rather, renders it fictive, replacing the idea of the past as immutable and somehow sacrosanct with a highly contextualized version it has manufactured on its own.

The photograph, seemingly innocent of history, is maculate with its desire to puncture and despoil history, to become its sole totem and fetish. The speculum of the photograph, which we clutch and display as we might some charm to ward off death, is steeped and stained in our mortality.

Perhaps this explains the deep and utter fascination it holds for us: through its impossible project of effacing the inevitability of death it appears to afford us with the opportunity to enlarge our personal being, to supplement our sense of loss and decay with the image; yet at the same time, it mordantly impresses on us that death is the end of all plots. At bottom, the photograph is metaphysical -- it expresses the longing of human beings to transcend space and time and the limitations of personal condition, to displace the acute anxiety we feel at the disappearance of the past through the replication of the past in an image. And yet, the ideality of the light, its power to illumine and clarify, is in the photograph transformed to something murkier, almost opaque.

To write with light, literally, in the photograph, is to inscribe on the psyche another kind of darkness or obscurity; “the real” is presented in all its crystalline and incontrovertible quiddity, only to be subsumed beneath the desire to possess what cannot be possessed; to restore by means of a technological apparition that which is already irretrievably lost, and by doing so assuage the unbearable melancholy that we read into the daily diminution of our being.

This theology of light embodied by the photograph represents for Roland Barthes both the triumph of a pellucid realism and the apotheosis of the romantic yearning to immemorialize the past. Barthes is openly and joyously lyrical about this self-described utopian project: for him, paradoxically, the photograph makes possible the ancient dream of a pure and wholly unmediated perception. In the photograph, proclaims Barthes in Camera Lucida, “the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation” (89).

Barthes fetishizes the documentarian power of the camera. His is a peculiar realism -- it extols and valorizes the image of the thing above the thing itself. This attitude extends even so far as to encompass the individual himself. The act of being photographed induces the subject to transform himself ”in advance into an image” (10). “I feel,” writes Barthes, “that the Photograph creates my body...” (11). It is very much as if Barthes feels himself to be undergoing the primal dehiscence which for Lacan characterizes the creation of the specular-I, that projection of one’s infant body in a mirror that presents an image of the self perfected, whole and complete.

Lacan writes, in “The Mirror Stage,” that the infant (or to substitute Barthes’ term, “the spectator”) gazing into a mirror is caught up in a drama whose origins are prompted by a sense of deficiency that eventually passes into the re-figuration of the self “through the lure of spatial identification” to arrive, via “a succession of phantasies” at a new a form of totality (4). “What I want,” says Barthes, “is that my (mobile) image, buffeted among a thousand shifting photographs ... should always coincide with my (profound) self” (12). Although a few sentences later he laments that this desire is doomed, that he can never attain a “zero degree” of embodiedness, the entirety of Camera Lucida is nevertheless underwritten by this wild and unfulfillable longing to authenticate the self as Other, to re-assemble the fragmentary aspects of being through the seemingly automatic, autonomous and anonymous aperture of the camera’s lens.

The key for this, for Barthes, is held in what he calls “the punctum” of the photograph, a term he initially characterizes as “that accident that pricks me” (27). The punctum precipitates a frisson; through the representation of some arbitrary detail it evokes a sharp emotional response. By its completely contingent nature, it speaks both to the wound and the mystery of being. It is the mark of the human, that is, it has the power to surprise us by touching us in a profoundly intimate way. For Barthes, the punctum provides a gateway to the Absolute, to the purely unmediated vision of the real. Charged with a “power of expansion” (45), the punctum is liberating: it bears the signal quality of what in an openly theological discourse would be called “grace.”

“What I can name cannot really prick me,” says Barthes (51). The punctum acquires its virtue through its resistance to classification; its opacity ennobles it, and deepens the sense of mystery it carries to the eye. The punctum behaves as a kind of Derridean supplement, making available a surplus of meaning that does not so much confirm the “studium” of the photograph (by which Barthes means its field of interpretation, the precise historical moment it presents to us) as it subverts and lays it open to another and deeper kind of seeing. The punctum is what restores being to its most intimate disclosure by way of violating the field of the studium. It is essentially a-historical. This is what enables Barthes to assert his claim for the photograph as the mechanism that rescues desire from mediation. It is a claim that refuses to recognize that desire is always already shaped by intention, that vision is always vision of something, and therefore necessarily delimited from its inception.

There remains, nevertheless, something appealing in Barthes’ impossible project. Merleau-Ponty sums it up in his essay, “The Specter of a Pure Language,” thusly: “We all secretly venerate the ideal of a language which would ... deliver us from language by delivering us to things” (4). For Barthes, photography is such a language. It “reverses the course of the thing” photographed and opens the way to a “photographic ecstasy” (119), a moment of perception that is outside time, yet drenched in the erotics of the mortal, the absent.