Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


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

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Departed (Michael Gizzi)

The news of Michael Gizzi's death, so sudden, it seemed, first came to me through Silliman's Blog. The rollcall of the dead, as someone named it. Yet Ron, for all his prickly acuity, does a great service here -- the duty of remembering the fallen, even if you've never heard of them, who share this queer hard labor of the word.

Which is what has struck me about Michael Gizzi's death. A guy I barely knew. A guy who bristled with strange charisma and his work, well, it was lovely. His departure, through deep trouble, sends out ripples and connects so many of us who care for the craft, care for what he cared for. The instant of surprise. That sense of being astonished on the lip of a poem.

I saw him last fall in Lowell, on a panel about Kerouac with Anne Waldman, Pen was there, lovely and poised, and he was bright with the call and response, and later, standing outside, early evening, by a brick wall, kind of hunched into himself, weirdly glamorous and all alone, and I could have spoken then and didn't.

The Departed

Say you say nothing.
That would be the simplest way.

Or say you sing a song of sixpence
then put the phone down.

Say you say the words, a few words
for you, for you are departed.

Choose random phrases.
It’s raining today.

Mix random phrases
with items from the news.

If I can bear it, I will call.
If I can bear his dearness then
I will call or I may fall silent.

Say you plead silence
and put the phone down
as terrestrial love creeps by unawares.

Say you say how each word matters.
The green grass, the golden pine needles.

Say it is raining somewhere.

How we go out in the morning.
How we come home in the evening.

Say in a few words how less
is better. How least, lost,
the last letter is a whisper.

Say it so the ghost can hear you.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Shudder

In my last post, I offered a somewhat clumsy overview of Adorno's notion of spirit, contrasting it with Hegel's. What drew me to the passages from Adorno's work was not so much his conception of spirit, but his insistence that art must become darkened, and enigmatic so as to protect "the shudder." A few more words then, on the shudder, which Adorno places at the heart of this theory about the origins of art and with which he concludes Aesthetic Theory. I find this passage perhaps the most forceful, if not exactly the most eloquent, apologia for the necessity of art among all I've read. It restores to art its original Dionysian violence and strangeness, its sheer uncannyness.

"Ultimately, aesthetic comportment is to be defined as the capacity to shudder, as if goose bumps were the first aesthetic image. What later came to be called subjectivity, freeing itself from the blind anxiety of the shudder, is at the same time the shudder's own development; life in the subject is nothing but what shudders, the reaction to the total spell that transcends the spell. Consciousness without shudder is reified consciousness. That shudder in which subjectivity stirs without yet being subjectivity is the act of being touched by the other. Aesthetic comportment assimilates itself to that other rather than subordinating it. Such a constitutive relation of the subject to objectivity in aesthetic comportment joins eros and knowledge" (AT 331).

What the shudder delivers to us is not only the strangeness of the other, but the intimacy of our bond with him; an empathetic link that both confirms and overcomes our essential strandedness and fraility. The shudder is anti-classical. It does not confer unity, it does not offer clarity, it makes no parade of symmetry or balance; none of the traditional consolations of art. And yet, it is erotic, touched perhaps with jouissance; ecstatic, maybe; corporeal, certainly; absolutely radical.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Adorno, Spirit, Enigma

(N.B. - some random pages from my dissertation that will probably end up on the cutting room floor).

The question of what happens to spirit in modernity is a complicated one and I shall only touch on it briefly here since it seems to me that the late Objectivist moment is less concerned with locating and resolving issues about spirit as such and how it might continue to mean in some worthwhile sense, and more on how history might be repaired and redeemed. In other words, the concerns with spirit that occupied a previous generation (and continue to vex those who would appeal to the government-in-exile of timeless transcendental values) have now migrated into the question of how to redeem historical disaster, how to alleviate human suffering.

What Raymond Williams said of "nature" could be applied with equal justice to "spirit." It is perhaps the most complex word in the language, used by widely divergent groups to indicate often dissimilar things. Yet the one thing these usages of spirit share in common is the designation of a non-material essence or property, either etherially transcendental, in the theological sense, belonging to an intuitive order of perception, or describing an innate attribute, drive, or primary feature of character in the empirical sense; an interiority that is both self-reflexive and rational.

Hegel uses it on several registers: as the subjective intellect or feeling; as the objective common values of a group; as, in the absolute sense, art or religion; and finally as the historical process whereby the world recognizes its own totality; a kind of pan-cultural self-reflexivity. Dialectics propels spirit along these stages of identity, through ever widening spheres of self-consciousness, toward the culmination of history through the negative movements of Absolute Spirit.

Adorno’s use of spirit derives from this Idealist tradition but is turned in such a way as to oppose the idea of spirit as a vehicle for world history or unifying social totality. What spirit signifies, at least in part, for Adorno is “inwardness,” a category of subjective experience that has become increasingly emptied out to the degree to which the autonomous subject itself has lost social power. This inwardness, Adorno, says, poses a problem for art since it is at once “the mirage of an inner kingdom” that has become empty of content and yet without which “art is scarcely imaginable” (AT 116).

To meet this challenge, art must become enigmatic, or endarkened. It must “do justice to contingency,” which can be read as another word for history, I think, “by probing in the darkness of the trajectory of its own necessity. The more truly art follows this trajectory, the less self-transparent art is. It makes itself dark” (AT 115). This endarkenement (a term Robert Duncan employed in an anti-rationalist, or intuitive, context closer to that of The Cloud of Unknowing) acts to counter the synthesizing propensities of spiritualization, its inevitable drift toward abstraction and totalization.

To become truly redemptive, Adorno claims, art must act so that “the spirit in it throws itself away” (AT 118). This radical self-canceling “holds true to the shudder, but not by regression to it. Rather, art is its legacy. The spirit of artworks produces the shudder by externalizing it in objects” (AT 188). That is, art replicates the originary shudder of recognition and displacement in the work itself, which, endarkened and estranging, disrupts spirit’s recidivist move to totality. In this sense, all artworks are caesuras, ritual scissions which cut into the illusory fabric of social relations and ideology.

If spirit for Hegel is rational self-consciousness coupled to a restless pursuit of self-negation and overcoming that stems from the desire for achieving an absolute self-realization, then for Adorno spirit's vitality must always remain oppositional.
“Dialectics is the self-consciousness of the objective context of delusion; it does not mean to have escaped from that concept. Its objective goal is to breakout of that concept from within” (ND 406).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Wayback Machine: D.A. Miller on Jane Austen

(N.B. these notes first appeared on the Green Romanticism listserv at the University of Colorado, Fall 2002).

A Report on Style – D.A. Miller's “Jane Austen and the Secret of Style”

The Miller talk was as well attended an event as I've ever seen here. I didn't take notes, so what follows is my hazy reconstruction. From my perch in the back of the cavernous, faux-Oxbridge mead hall the backs of peoples' heads appear not as the absence of their faces, but as a second kind of face, albeit one that can't return my gaze, which must be what makes them a bit uncanny.

The gist of what Miller wanted to suggest is that all style results from a queering of language or textual affect. That style is that feminized part of the text that narrates the process of its own production and is concerned solely with that and with nothing else. Substance is associated with the masculine portion of the text, the content, or message. According to this queer logic, style inhabits a kind of aesthetic closet, which the writer must resort to disclosing in order to achieve style, which is otherwise barred from normative discourse. Style is invisible, then, in some ways, but calls attention to itself in others. It can and does appear everywhere, but always in code, never under its own name. A lot like the homosexual in hetero-dominant culture. Hence, the masterfully tranquil and transparent appearance of naturalness to Austen’s highly rigorous and artificial style.

To illustrate, he gave a close reading of a passage from Sense and Sensibility, in which a group of women observe a dandy in a jewelry store go through some preening, overly elaborate arrangements about a toothpick case. The case, itself more important than what it contains, serves as a metaphor for style, as does the performance of the arrangements, a gesture whose expenditure is calculated to inflate the value of the case itself, in effect, making it insignificant. The dandy himself, through a complex exchange of inverted gazes that code him as gay, likewise seeks to re-position himself over the discomfited women as the primary object of visual desire in the store. Again, a metaphor for style. Miller unpacked a wealth of meaning from this finely wrought, but very small, episode. I thought it was a pretty brilliant reading. At the very least, it displayed considerable style.

In response to a question (by an undergrad!), Miller asserted that Barthesian jouissance and Derridean play are not factors that effect Austen’s text since she maintains an “absolute control.” And she gets this control by way of “discipline,” or “repression.” But surely wherever repression is involved, then so is a return of the repressed. Which means that whatever has been excluded comes back into play to destabilize the text. “Absolute control” is an odd sort of retro-move to make this late in the day, a kind of nostalgia for the imperial text.

One area that I wish Miller had expanded on was the notion of style and donation. I didn’t catch all of what he said, much less make sense of what I did hear. But it made me wonder about the idea of style as a gift, as donatus. Style as donation may be the way a writer tries to escape the constraints of the debt incurred to presence by staging writing as a pure gift, a gesture void of content or substance. The “gift” of style tries to displace one presence - the writer’s - and substitute for it another - the authority of the text itself, purged of authoriality, as though it were a spontaneously and organically self-producing form. Such a move alleviates the burden of anxiety the writer carries in facing her text. The move to purify removes or cleanses the text of its polluting elements, which is the imprint of the writer herself. Style gives itself in place of the author. It’s a kind of sacrificial strategy, a formal violence that elides the writer in order to present the text itself to the reader.

The idea that style is generated out of the secret tensions between an expressed masculine and a repressed feminine inside the text makes it appear as though the question of detecting style, or of producing style, will always be a matter of “outing.” This is a very clever argument, but I’m suspicious of arguments that are only clever, as I’m afraid this one may be. Which perhaps is another way of saying that all style and no substance makes me anxious. But my question remains: isn’t this an overdetermined queer reading of the production of style?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Shelley Love (aka the 69th English Institute)

Let me just say right out: I love Adela Pinch. She makes me all, I don't know, swoony. Her talk on Shelley love as a major chapter in the evolution of the psychology and discourse of love, on a Sunday morning, in the Fong Auditorium of Boylston Hall, was the highlight of the whole conference for me.

The English Institute, which sounds like some kind of sinister cabal of world plotters in a William Gibson novel, annually gathers the leading scholarly lights from across all fields to discourse dazzlingly each September on a single theme. This year it was "The Author."

Because I was back in Cambridge and seeing so many old friends, I attended only sporadically and no doubt missed some Major Stuff. But Pinch's talk, "A Shape All Light," from Shelley's "Triumph of Life," knocked my socks off. Witty, impassioned, and just plain beautiful, it mapped out the Victorian cult of PBS as a sentimental fetish and the demigod of etherial love -- an almost Christ-like figure, esp. for women writers like the now forgotten Elinor Wylie -- only to argue that this cultic frenzy played a strong role in the formation of early British object-relations psychology. Though she quoted Procul Harem's "Whiter Shade of Pale," I'm surprised that Pinch didn't see fit to work in The Beatles' "All You Need is Love" as well.

The love of authors -- the author as oracle, the author as the picture of our truer and better selves, the author as messianic -- was central to the larger cultural understanding of love itself. Though I think, really, that instead of "love," she might have used "interiority." For the author is the mapper of internal space, indeed, the author of that space, a space traditionally marked as feminine, but eventually seen as foundational to the confusing operations of subjectivity.

In some ways Pinch's talk reminded me of Judith Butler's thesis in "Psychic Life of Power" that the scission of melancholy produces subjectivity. Like love, melancholy, in Pinch's words now, not Butler's "gives shape to our internal object world." (She made this remark in reference to how Woolf used PBS in her famous essay, "On Being Ill").

There is much I'm skipping over here. The Shelley haters. The fascinating way Victorian occultists glommed onto poor Shelley, penning posthumous works in his name, even revising his poems! And the role which "good sound" plays in Shelley love -- the euphony of semiosis. This was drastically under-read, I thought. Perhaps the single point to take away was this: Shelley lovers were in the habit of planting violets around his grave. Other Shelley lovers practiced the ritual of tearing them up as keepsakes. Even Shelley's heart, Pinch told us, was wrapped at the last by Mary in a page from "Adonais." After she died, it was found in her desk drawer, crumbled to dust.

The word Pinch uses for all this is: "transferable." By which she also means: "perverse." "A shape all light" is that which continually eludes us; feeding and defeating us, it teaches us through the figure of the author how we might love ourselves as though we were other.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Poetry Chronicles, Part 2-Desire Series, Mark DuCharme

This review was originally to have appeared in the journal 6ix in 1999 or 2000. But as one of its editors, Heather Thomas, later told me, an intern mysteriously vanished with the disc containing all the files for that volume. In my mind's eye I can still picture him, an unshaven undergrad with a perpetual slouch, some disheveled dude slacking away into obscurity.

Note: I haven't figured out how to preserve indentations in the blog editor yet, so some unfortunate violence will be visited on the elegant lines below.

Desire Series, by Mark DuCharme (Dead Metaphor Press)

With his latest collection of poems, Desire Series, Mark DuCharme once again offers compelling evidence that the poem is not an artifact, but an odyssey, and that reading is not a matter of passive absorption, but an activity that requires serious and engaged attention. Desire Series is a finely reticulated set of meditations on the mysterious interactions between between eros and imagination. Desire here behaves as both the longing for expansion and the perpetual deferral of that expansion. In other words, as differance.

The work is never as saturated as
We desire their presences to
But still we live like houseguests
Strain at pushing into it

+ + +

Anything at all
Will do

Desire is not the transparent medium through which some inchoate impulse takes on form and movement. Rather, it’s coeval with language. More than that, desire resists the effort to lucidity that language attempts to assert. For desire, writes Judith Butler, “will be that which guarantees a certain opacity in language, an opacity that language can enact and display, but without which it cannot operate.” Any cogent theory of desire, then, will also be a theory of poesis, one that advances the liberation of reality from the machine of insensate consumer practice, which is also the practice of everyday language. This is precisely what DuCharme accomplishes in these austere and frequently haunting poems. Unease with language, an acute sensitivity to its betrayals, is coupled with the irrepressible longing of the poem to attain not some final arbiter of representation, but the ongoing availability of a highly contingent collaboration.

I knew I could find you there
In this place, holy to both of us
Though for reasons not located on any map
Terminus, or grace
The make-believe & infected decision
Idols, or an audience
Degree shed in moonlight

In this, the closing poem of the series, DuCharme addresses the beloved, the reader, and language all at once. For all three are linked by their evasiveness, their refusal to be pinned down, and their unsettling tendency to become “Idols, or an audience,” that is, the chimerical force the Other exerts on us, compelling us to re-question our own subject positions. The place we occupy then, with respect to all three, is provisional -- both central and marginal. It is also, recalling Plato’s image of Eros as interlocutor, the ceaseless shuttling inbetween. Like desire itself, language is a medium of endless fluidity and abrupt intransigence.

This view of desire does not seek to locate and pinpoint the Other through language in order to subjugate it. Rather, it welcomes and invites the homeostasis of reciprocity, by which self and other, subject and language, author and reader, mutually engender one another. Lacan’s originary misrecognition is reconfigured as a play of signs (and of bodies) offering not primordial lack, but plenitude.

I need desire, a substance lodged in black. I don’t believe in closure implying the strong poem, the wieldy senator. As if above her head were stirred with a kind of aching to be done. The vistas we liked best are subtle. It’s a secret we were eager to contain.

Between vista and containment the poem works its desire to be many and not one. But it also embraces absence, “the substance lodged in black,” more readily than presence, the old longing of the poem for closure. For closure forecloses the possibilities set in motion by poetic desire, which, like language itself, is always exceeding itself, always yearning for what lies beyond its boundary. If consciousness is in some way cognate with desire, and restlessly expansive, then what is the desire of desire if not more desire? Paradoxically, absence leads toward, not away from, fullness.


Which are not ours to make anymore ---
But name us

As surely as the conventions of the love poem, the desire

Who are you, shadow I reach to touch

Mouth of straw
Which becomes my unbidding

Because it can never quite sing of its complete fulfillment, because it exists as differance, desire is also that which continually performs its own valediction.

Marked throughout by an elegant spareness, Desire Series dislocates the familiar locutions of “beauty.” Lyricism’s freight of song is still tinged with its ancient impulsion to praise, but it’s newly charged by the ambiguous rifts between the richness of our inner lives and the increasing dissonance of the world. To live in the continuum of our utterance requires a total discipline. In Mark DuCharme’s poetry, the resistance to an archaic transparency, to outmoded ways of saying, means oscillating in the boundary zone between the daily necessity to express and the obligation to transgress.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Lyn Hejinian's "Letters Not About Love"

Friday, May 1, Rachel Levitsky and I drove down to the University of Denver to hear Lyn Hejinian show a film, give a talk, and read some poems. We also gorged ourselves on mussels and bouillabaise at a very nice French restaurant -- but that’s another story.

Present at one or both portions of the event: moderator Cole Swensen, Bin Ramke, Rikki Ducornet, Beth Nugent, Jack Collom, Jennifer Heath, Michael Friedman, Anselm Hollo, Andrew Schelling, Bobbie Hawkins, Laura Mullen, Cedar Sigo and Jeni Olin. And a host of grad students.

The film -- “Letters Not About Love” -- is remarkable. Directed by Jacki Ochs (incidentally, sister to Hejinian’s husband Larry Ochs, who himself provided a very powerful and haunting jazz score), it concerns itself with an exchange of letters between Hejinian and Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoschenko from 1988-1993. Ochs asked the poets to shape their correspondence around a set of words -- Home, Grandmother, Neighbor, Poverty, Book, Work, Violence, Window -- which she gave them. The results form a sustained dialogue/meditation on two cultures, two idioms, and ultimately, the nature of dialogue and language itself.

As the poets’ conversation progresses, it underscores the way language both encodes against loss, in a very daily and personal way -- the loss of a sense of place, the loss of memory, of the quotidian -- and is vulnerable to that very same loss and slippage. The letter figures both as a method of communication that creates its own self-contained and ongoing continuum and a form of expression anxious about its existence, about the sense of dislocation, physical and emotional, that the act of writing letters has always sought to overcome.

Throughout, the richness of Jacki Ochs’ stream of visual images, combined with the music of Larry Ochs, provides a continual counterpoint, adding additional layers of “language” to the spoken words (read by the actress Lili Taylor -- Lyn said that Jacki thought her voice too “girlish” - and dialect coach Viktor Hurd).

Afterwards, some of the discussion of the film (both public and private) focused on the erotics of letter writing: on the subtle tensions that pre-inhabit the word and guide it; on the richness and power of letter-writing as a genre, a genre too often relegated to the ghettoized status of “women’s writing.” Hejinian spoke about “negotiating the gulf between words and things -- not to fill it [that gulf] -- but to enter it, as a realm of possibility -- a poetics of possibility...” An old White Russian woman who first read Arkadii’s letters for her warned her that he was a demon and wanted to possess her soul. And Lyn quoted Shklovsky: “the role of art is to kill pessimism.”

“Letters Not About Love” is, of course, precisely and ironically about love -- about the eros of logos. And the logos of eros. It has been screened at a number of film festivals, received at least one award, but at present lacks a distributor. Lyn remarked that exhibitors were nervous about its “lack of an ending.” (Haven’t they read “The Rejection of Closure”?).

After a break for dinner, Hejinian gave a reading, beginning with a selection of twelve poems from “Oxhota” -- the section based on expatriate jazz musician Steve Lacy’s list of the 12 components of the Russian soul: Betrayal, Death, Conspiracy, Truth, etc., which Lyn says got a good laugh from her Russian friends.

This was followed by new work -- an appropriately sprightly and altogether enchanting poem called “Happily,” a meditation on chance, sequence and agency:

“Is happiness the name for our involuntary complicity with chance?”

She closed the evening with a long portion from “A Border Comedy” (forthcoming soon from Sun & Moon). She described the genesis of this work as having arisen from her collaboration with Jack Collom in “Wicker,” which having enjoyed so much she attempted to try on her own -- a kind of self-collaboration where a line would be written, then put away to undergo some form of effacement -- and then added on to as if written by another.

“However lively the imagination it still benefits from contact with reality.”

“But a man doesn’t dump his mother in a horsepond just because it starts to rain.”