Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Revisiting Surrealism

A person walks down a city street. Everything seen, heard or felt is passed through the language appropriating, symbol generating and sorting process of the mind--some of this conscious, much of it not. The very act of naming things and events as they move through the perceptual field is a form of continual classification, assigning every 'name' its place in relation to the imaginative hologram (mis)taken for 'reality.' Nothing is encountered as raw material. Everything has already been 'cooked,' manufactured and set in motion as a part in that world--fabricated to perpetuate a self-generating cultural process... what, with a completely unjustified lack of irony... we reorganize and narrate afterwards as 'history.'
A quote from Barrett Watten's War=Language

The critique of the language is the first place to begin to attempt remove the veil to perception that has been imposed on us and to see things as they are. Pseudo-rationality based on lack of evidence or supporting argument: “It is difficult to conceive the volume of supplies required for a large combat force or the difficulty of delivering them where they are needed in a timely fashion.” We need to take the mechanized hardware of the language of war apart—by locating alternate evidence in multiple media, by questioning the pseudo-objectivity of its delusional conclusions, by unpacking its embedded metaphors and narrative frames, by thinking otherwise. [ ... ]To dismantle this war, in its causes and consequences, we must begin with language itself.

Read at a Day of Reflection on the War on Iraq, Wayne State University, 26 March 2003.

The problem isn't confined to language about war--and I imagiine Watten would agree; but to the whole language constructed cultural universe within which war is but one set. Deconstructing the distortions of propaganda is like trying to rid the house of an investation of roaches by stepping on the ones you can see; they will just go on breeding behind the walls. The language of war is not generated by a misuse of language about war; the misuse of language about war is a reactive need to hide the more obvious deficiencies of the whole self-generating network of economic, political, social (read, CLASS) activities by which we sustain ourselves. We overvalue the symbolic if we ignore the way the habitual structures of economic and social life become themselves both generators of those symbolic representions requiered to sustain them (neoliberal ideology), and active conditioners appropriating for its service all language and symbols felt to be alien to its aims.

This is why reason and evidence--when used to critique and expose the fundamental presuppositions of the culture, and even more, when perceived to attack or alter habitual structures of activity, have so little impact. The harshest, the most rigorous critique, as long as the object of the critique retains the appearance of its culturally constructed representation, is merely reinterpreted in terms which  support the continuing adaptive evolution of the system.

To return to Watten's assertion that "To dismantle this war, in its causes and consequences, we must begin with language itself;" besides broadening the concern to encompass, not only war, but the whole destructive historical, cultural cul-de-sac we've been heading down, I would add that we must begin below the level of language--that before we can alter the constructions, we must come as close as possible to reducing them again to raw materials... that is, by learning, or relearning... how to play.
Play is not recreation... it is re-creation. We cannot magically wish away the symbolic configurations of our received world, stripping away the names with which we dress our perceptions. But we can play with them, and in play, serious or whimsical, named things regain their plasticity, loosen their attachments to the assigned order. In a sense, what is most fulfilling in any human relationship--friendship, love, the companionship of work--is a kind of play, unfixing the other from the conditioned; if there is any meaning to 'freedom,' it would be this. In language, too--we can either rehab the old structures, repairing and rebuilding--or make new. And yes, we can 'make new,' by unfixing the parts, razing the building, turning bricks to clay and glass to sand and fire. When poets pry loose the joints of syntax, and novelists refuse to follow the established maps of narrative--this too, is play, play that makes us free, and while poets cannot themselves remake a better world, they can make it easier to imagine how it might be done by unlocking our vision from the received conditions of the terrible hologram, this script we've been following to our untimely end. I see this as an endorsement of both the surrealist project(s) of the last century, though not neccesarily of (their take on them) the psychoanalytic theories they used to defend it), and of poetic movements like LangPo and Flarf--and of the least entertainment driven Rapp and Performance poets (Ursula Rucker) "I didn't come here to make you feel good... "). Less than that--and we, as poets and artists, will again and again find ourselves, against every intention, having our work, at best, serve to comfort and reinforce believers in the Hologram... and at worst, transformed into propaganda to fuel the endless cycle of war and economic exploitation.

Demand the Immediate Release of Liu Xiaobo

Send protest HERE

And to beg this creep to stop throwing poets in prison you have to call him 'Your Exellency.' Not what come's outta my mouth when I think about these bloated thugs.

There goes my cultural excange invitation to China...

Thanks to Ron Silliman for his link to the PEN American Center: Liu's Poems
There's a link to Paul Auster reading three of the poems. He reads well... almost as well as anyone might hope for... only slightly rushed. Not so much the speaking of the lines... but misses implied pauses, merging the reading into a single stream of sound.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Tricksters of the Real

I finished writing what I hope will do for a bio for an upcoming reading… as follows
Jacob believes that poets and artists are the ultimate subversives. Not prophets and seers, as the Romantics thought, not hermetic guides blessing humanity with visionary truth, but…
tricksters of the real,

Marxists …
of Night at the Opera, destroyers of painted sets ripping away the masks of power, tearing down the curtains of the Corpratocracy--all that makes it possible to believe in what Joe Bageant calls the American Hologram--the artifice of the military/industrial/prison complex. By using the stuff of our collective illusions as raw material for… play,

for delight,
for life

—they...we... poke holes in the artifice that everyone might see, that the vision be not for the few, but for all.  

… in reading it over it occurs to me that there are some interesting implications here: that the subject matter of the artist (and I’m using art as an inclusive type, an active, shaping relationship with a complex encounter—one that includes on the same plane: direct perception, memory, ideas, associated cognitive and psychic material) as stuff already worked over and encountered in itself, as artifact… as culturally conditioned, and thus, problematic vis a vis—what is ‘really real.’
The problem … is not that of an opposition of real-in-itself-nature and artifice, but (thank you Levi Bryant*) of aspects or ‘kinds’ of reality … the artifice being no less real than unculturally conditioned nature.

The artist/poet offers a parallel critique of received reality to that of both science and philosophy, but in a more holistic form… seeking to reconcile cognitive and affective experience—to more closely approximate a direct relationship with the natural world and/with our cultural overlay of the same.
I think of the painters of the cave walls… that already present… there was some experience of alienation—of dissonance between the encounters of the hunt, and what it must have meant to them for their survival—imaginatively, intellectually (yes, intellectually!) . Some terrific gap those images were fashioned to reconcile, to bridge.
Somehow this makes me wonder if that isn't part of the 'message' of those images... the wonderfully rendered natural renderings of bison and horses and bears and ...  the questionable status of the human stick figures  who so uncomfortably inhabit the same space ...
, let the ring of the Imaginary refer to the domain of ideology, signs, group identities, political parties, images, the content of media, the sense or meaning possessed by cultural artifacts such as films, clothing, commodities, certain norms, etc., collective narratives, texts, and so on. It is important to emphasize that in placing these in the ring of the Imaginary I am in no way suggesting that these things are unreal or demoting their status. Here the category of the Imaginary retains some of its Lacanian resonances. Lacan associates the imaginary with the domain of meaning (hence the reference to cultural artifacts, texts, signs, etc). Likewise, Lacan associates the category of the Imaginary with images (visual, acoustic, olfactory, tactile, etc), as well as the domain of the ego and identity.
from Ontology over Epistemology

Monday, December 21, 2009

We are Human... but what does that mean?

If a wide ranging and thoughtful reading can make us wise... Litlove of Tales from the Reading Room might be offered as convincing evidence in the affirmative. Her recent post,
Being Cruel to be Kind, comes close to the heart of what I deeply believe to be one of the most important and liberating insights into human behavior and our extraordinarily primitive understanding of how we come by our capacity to make ethical and moral judgments and to alter our actions accordingly.

Our pre-medieval legal assumptions--linking cognitive awareness of social codes to the ability to act on same being but one of the more egregious cases in point: that is, if you "know" it's wrong, and you do it... you're guilty. As though the capacity to act were nothing more than a cognitive triggered event.

Expanding on a comment I wrote to Litlove's post: I think that our ‘normal’ assumptions of free will are no less warped and distorted than that of an individual with Aspergus syndrome... or someone with bipolar disorder in a manic state. Only different.

Different, yes, and so fall under different normatively defined judgments and assumptions. We become responsible by acknowledging responsibility–and the ‘normal’ pattern is the one we learn–assuming that everyone else outside that pattern is either willfully deviant and ‘bad,’ or suffering from a ‘disability,’ as though it were an either/or: those in the fold are good or bad, those outside… just don’t know any better and are not capable of making ethical or moral distinctions. When the reality is far more likely that there are different ways of assimilating this necessary fiction of personal responsibility–and ways of adapting to it–which enable all of us, Normies.. and those outside the Normy fold, to some limited degree, to be capable of assuming responsibility.

Let me repeat: we become responsible by accepting responsibility for our actions. I remember writing something like that in a journal entry... "I become who I am as I accept responsibility for the consequences of my actions. " There's a lot to unpack in that statement... that in accepting what amounts to a profound FICTION... that we are, not only the cause, but the FREE AGENTS of cause and consequence of our actions--we become, what began as a fictive construct... in fact... free and responsible agents.

But we do not come by this all in the same way. Who is the autistic woman who has been working to inspect conditions of cattle taken to slaughterhouses? She offers us a level of mindful consciousness... of conscience... that calls to mind legends of Francis of Assisi. She LISTENS to the animals... and converts what she hears to an ethical judgment translatable to legal and Normy understanding.

To treat anyone as though they are incapable of normative understanding, reduces them to the sub-human...and releases 'us' we so-called Normies' to exploit and torture them to our own perceived advantage... with a free conscience. Our courts of law do this thousands of times every day.

We come by this strange and seemingly paradoxical capacity, not all by the same paths. Yes, we only fully join the human community as we become 'moral and ethical' free agents... but we are only half way there... or less. when we exclude those who learn by different means... and there is room here to consider, by way of extension--to a more limited degree... those other species, the other animals we have invited to share in our domesticated state. How different, really--the arguments we offer to their exploitation than those we apply to fellow humans we deem mentally, socially, politically, psychologically deficient and inferior?

Rabbi Ishmael and William Blake in Blake's Garden

Excerts from an old short story:
The layout of the pages in the traditional volumes, the illustrated cover plates, the architectural gateways and arches, the promise of hidden gardens beyond; the grave and authoritative blocks of print that centered each page, set within a labyrinth of commentary, beckoned like a latticed balustrade around a shuttered window. The sages twined their questions over the margins, prying open the secrets of the text, shooting out a tendril to pluck a phrase here, a word there; a single letter in the darshan's hands could strike a spark like flint on glass, to light new meaning in the text, or ignite and turn to ash an older one. In his own mind, he reinvented the sages. Before his eyes, they shattered the Biblical stories as one shatters a mirror, then gathering the remnants, the gleaming splinters, arranged them in shifting mosaics, kaleidoscopes of words, letters that sounded one off the other like wind chimes, cantilations in the holy of holies of the imagination. [. . .]

Words! Words that were at once song and speech, indecipherable, inexhaustible as wind. Words, incomprehensible, whose meaning and power seemed, to the young Mark, to lie beyond language. Words, the hazen bent into music as a blacksmith bends iron to his will, as a goldsmith beats gold into grape clusters, date palms, pomegranates; he chanted, and the air was filled with silver--the burnished jewels of intelligible emotion.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Winter Poetry/Arts/ Politics --Culture Jamming on the Riverfront

A Proposal
Arts and Poetry Event
The River in Winter: Toward a vision for the future of the waterfront

An open call for Philadelphia artists, poets, laborers for the cause of social justice!
That we might come together to celebrate with art and poetry--to sound our voices for justice, to protest corporate greed, the corruption of the democratic process, and to begin to create through art, an alternative vision for the future of our city and it's waterfront!

Please RSVP


---you are interested in performance, in reading poetry or related work the afternoon of the event?

----you are able to contribute time or other resources to help coordinate and organize?

----you are a video artist who would like to record the event?


At the end of September I participated in a protest at the site of the proposed Sugarhouse Casino on Delaware Avenue; 14 of us were arrested in a symbolic blocking of the construction site. It occurred to me that this might be a good occasion for a poetry reading/demonstration--maybe a token benefit for the legal team, in appreciation for their willingness to take on civil liberties cases pro bono. I mentioned this to Debrah Morkun and Adam Merea a few weeks later at a Writer's House event; they both thought it would be a great project. Debrah and I met a few weeks later for some general brainstorming and walked to Penn Treaty Park from the Rocket Cat Café to check it out as a possible site. We agreed that it has a lot going for it. It's adjacent to the two neighborhoods most affected by the proposed Sugarhouse site, Northern Liberties and Fishtown, and the great view of the river suggested a wider focus--not just anti-casino, but pro park, pro development of the riverfront for public use. Right there in front of us you could see the potential that would be lost if Sugarhouse succeeds.

In the meantime I discovered the Arts and Culture group of the Media Mobilizing Project (MMP), a group whose members are involved in different disciplines and are devoted to looking for ways to make the arts a force for justice and social change. Beth Pulcinella, who’s designed work for other demonstrations, was enthusiastic about the idea and thought she might be able to create some graphic pieces for the reading.

Back to the Future!

When Debrah and I met we were thinking about a date some time in January, maybe the second or third Saturday after New Years to give people time to recover from the holidays. But a second meeting with MMP opened up the possibility of something perhaps more interesting than a Reading for a Good Cause. Why not look at the whole event as work of art? No reason we should stick to the conventional arrangement--with poets and speakers, in a face off with an otherwise disconnected audience. Why not think about how we can involve everyone? Scatter the poets through the audience and through signals--visual or sound, lights or tossing a bright colored ball, 'ignite' and turn on one poet hear to read, and than another at another point... maybe passing out copies of the poem being read--or have the poet visible by fancy headdress, say, and let the audience do the selecting. I can see maybe--a graphic work.. suggesting a torch or baton... handed to a member of the audience who then 'turns on' the next poet, and passes on the signal object to someone else who does the same. I'm just brainstorming here--nothing is fixed or set, but if this is worth doing it's worth making into a something that will be fun--that will make a good video, one that might serve as means to communicate our ideas...

For that, I think it's more realistic to set a February date... maybe Saturday the 13th. I'd be open to doing it later, but having it before the February 16 trial date makes sense--and without a realistic deadline, projects die a slow death of procrastination. We should also file an application for use permit with the Fairmount Park Commission. If there is any chance there'd be 50 or more people--this is required by law. So we need to get cracking.

I can volunteer to pass on information, to solicit poets, to apply for the permit, to coordinate meetings as needed, but I need to know who would like to be in on this... a preliminary RSVP to see if there is enough interest to make it happen. We can leave lots of room for spontaneity--let it come together as a grassroots effort, but need to know who will be doing what--and we need to start talking to one another, by email, face to face--can anyone set up a Listserve discussion board?

Up to this very moment I'd been thinking that we need to formulate a clear statement of purpose... but it occurs to me that maybe THAT should be a part of the purpose.. Some will come because they believe in civil liberties and stand in support of those who defend them. Some to oppose the corporate powers that have usurped democratic process to build a casino Tax Farm to take money from the poor so the rich won't have to pay. Some will come to the riverfront to celebrate their love of art and poetry without borders. Some because this is the site where William Penn eschewed conquest by arms to sign a treaty of peace with the original inhabitants of the land. Let us bring with us our own ideas and motivations that we might begin to discover through the vision of our several arts what is common to us all.

What is Your Novel About?

William H. Gass on The Recognitions, quoted by Ricard Crary on The Existence Machine
No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation--indeed, any explanation--would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes. Easy answers, convenient summaries, quiz questions, annotations, arrows, highlight lines, lists of its references, the numbers of its sources, echoes, and influences, an outline of its designs--useful as sometimes such helps are--nevertheless very seriously mislead. Guidebooks are useful, but only to what is past. Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms. "Okay, I get it," we say, dusting our hands, "and that takes care of that." "At last I understand Kafka" is a foolish and conceited remark.

I wish I had the moxie to recite that every time I'm asked, what is your novel about... or better, use it when I send out queries to agents or publishers in place of my miserable attempts at writing a synopsis . That's half my motivation for trying to get it in print... I just want someone to read the thing so they can tell me what the fuck it's about!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Poetry Readings: Inhabiting a Poem

Some thoughts on presentation...

With so many poetry events now in Philly, I thought I’d follow up on a couple of earlier posts), thinking about what makes for a good reading—not so much poems written with performance in mind, but the poetry written to be seen, to be read from the page.

For a long time I was turned off by readings. I hated what I call the dreaded poet’s voice, that convention that dominated (and still does) so much academic poetry--where every line ends in a rising inflection—a dull, utterly unnatural and unmusical Sing Song. It’s a style that makes every poem and every poet sound the same, no matter how different they might be on the page. There are still one or two series in the city where you hear that—but it’s no longer representative, an affliction most Philly poets have happily abandoned. The lesson here is that there’s no set of rules, no one way to do it: homogenization is deadly. The enemy of poetry. Every poet—and every poem—deserves to be rendered in a way that gives the audience some sense of its unique, inner voice. In practical terms, what does that mean?

A poem exists on the page waiting to be delivered from silence—whether in solitude and heard only by the mind, read aloud to oneself, or presented before an audience. In that way it’s analogous to a musical score, and like musical notation, bringing it to life assumes a certain amount of knowledge and training--and I’m not thinking here about explication, interpretation, decoding—but about awakening the voice in our imagination, in the throat, on our tongue—and most important—in our breathing. This is a physical act—where inspiration has a real and literal meaning—giving the poem the breath of life, to body it forth.

We learn how to read—that is—to hear a poem--through all the poems we have read before and through those vocalizations we carry in memory, as we learn to sing by hearing others sing, as we first try out our own voice through what we have heard before, through the music that has found a home within us. But hearing the music and being able to bring it to life for others are different skills, different gifts. Here the analogy of poetry to music may be strained, though perhaps not so much as it might seem—not if we think of the musical score through the mind of a musician, for whom there is always more music latent in the notation than any or all performances can ever manifest. So too with the reading of a poem—and here the point to keep in mind is that the fullness of the poem, as of a song or symphony or tune in the hands of a jazz musician, has another side: that the reading or performance is never complete—that there is always more left behind, left out, and with the greatest performances, you know that, you sense it; an absence communicated by the very mastery of the interpretation—which by its perfection suggests its incompleteness… that there are yet other interpretations, other ways to perform the piece--a waiting fullness not communicated by mechanical virtuosity or from a struggling beginner. There you hear the failure… but nothing of the unrealized music.

Let me see if I can take this as a model. A good reading, a strong reading, leaves out more than it delivers. A strong reading is not measured alone by the ability of the reader to capture and move the audience, but also by what she is able to communicate of the deficit—to suggest what remains on the page, remains to be discovered in another reading—whether in silence or voiced. This is why I seldom find readings by actors satisfying; the way they tend to overdetermine a particular interpretation, their own idiosyncratic way of hearing the voice tends to smother alternate possibilities, caging the imagination rather than releasing it for the listener.

A good reading is not necessarily dramatic. Dylan Thomas, for all his vocal gifts and the power of his presence, made it virtually impossible to read, recite or hear his poems in any other voice but the one he used in performance and recordings. No writer, no artist owns their work once it’s completed and made public. The poem has a life that is greater than the poet, evoking associations, ideas, feelings that will be renewed and recreated for everyone who encounters it, and of a range and scope—if it’s a good poem--which the poet cannot possibly imagine or anticipate. A just reading, then—gives the audience a sense of how the poet hears the work, but also releases it to and for the listeners—it is not a display, but an invitation, a meeting.

There is a certain ineffable quality to the best reading. I think of how CA Conrad, for instance—inhabits the poems he reads, inhabits, but does not dominate. His style is his own, and entirely in sync with the poems. Inimitable. Unavailable as a convention one might borrow and pass around as a medium for homogenization. There’s not much one can say about how to do this—you know it when you hear it. But there are more purely mechanical aspects—skills that one can talk about and work on in timing and delivery. Too many poets stand in front of an audience as though they were reading to themselves—making too little effort to listen through the ears of their listeners; they may read too softly to be heard, or too rapidly, not giving you time to take in a line or phrase before the next. They may neglect the importance of the pause… rattling on and depriving the words of their surrounding silence. The physicality of language is important, you don’t want to lose the stutter and clack or ebb and flow—this is not about acting: this is speaking, articulating physical sounds. These are the kind of things that poets might benefit from working on together. Reading and listening to each other. Workshopping.

“How did this sound?” “Now you read my poem and I’ll read yours” “Here’s something I wanted to do… what do you think? “Am I loud enough?” “Reading too fast?”

For the love of our poetry… maybe we can help one another to make the experience of our readings as good as they can be—to take some of the care and energy we put into the writing, and put it into making ourselves even better as readers. Who knows... it might come to pass that we can attract more people to our readings than we thought possible--an audience made up of more that other poets, family and intimate friends!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Poetry Viewed from the Brink of Extinction

I had this feeling once before, on the third or fourth day of the Cuban missile crisis, standing outside the door of a nearly empty auditorium on the Campus of Wichita State University, listening to a member of the faculty playing a Bach partita  for unaccompanied violin. This time, it doesn't go away. It comes over me every time I look up at the sky.
Below is a comment I tried to leave to a post on pas au-delà, but there seemed to be a problem with the system. As it's something I think about every time I hear someone complain about Obama's failure, I'll post it here.  But pay a visit to Matt's blog--and buy someone you love one of his beautifully crafted cutting boards for Xmas. 
We have turned ourselves into collective infants--a two year old--who out of terror and anger at the failure of the gods we invented to define and lead us, are a about to destroy everything in a final uncontrollable tantrum.
We need a revolution... but of what kind?

The problem with blaming Obama is it suggests that, whatever it is that's wrong, the right individual in the right place, is going to be able to make it different. Even if there were truth to the cliché  that the American president is the 'most powerful man in the world,' his power is still limited to stirring the soup; he can't cook up a new reality. His power is borrowed--it belongs to the whole vastly complicated network that created the mess in the first place.

No president is going to start a revolution, and nothing short of revolutionary change is going to get us out of this. I say 'revolution,' because I can't think of a better word--I sure don't have in mind any historical example I can think of. Not going to help to turn the pie upside down, put the one's on the bottom on top, but same old pie. And it's not going to come from the top down. Before power corrupts, it blinds. Even the prospect of destroying all life on the planet isn't enough to penetrate the belief of those used to having their way, the belief that they are in control, that whatever comes, they--if no one else, will be able to tough it out, to survive and prosper.

I don't have a picture of how that 'change we need' is going to happen, but I'm damn sure it's gotta be big... bigger than the industrial revolution, bigger than the emergence of nation states... something equal to the neolithic agricultural revolution, the beginning of settled urban life and our invention of the gods. In a way, our imaginations are still dominated by that vision--whether or not we hold to any of the great mythical systems that grew out of it. What we need is nothing short of starting over, of building anew from the ruins... (is this, perhaps, the ultimate challenge to artistic vision...?)  trouble is, I don't think we're going to have a second chance. We have turned ourselves into collective infants--a two year old--who out of terror and anger at the failure of the gods we invented to define and lead us, are about to destroy everything in a final uncontrollable tantrum.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

We are Doomed..

I'm going to quote almost all of Sean Carroll's post on Cosmic Variance.

A model of well reasoned response to what should be, at least in public, a non issue.
The comments that follow make me despair for the very survival of the planet.  Read them for yourself. HERE
Money talks. Science and reason have to pay for a pass just to get let in the door.
The whores and corporate pimps win in the short run, and everybody dies in the end.
We are fucking doomed. Venus Syndrome... not even cockroaches are gonna survive.

Of course, there is no such thing as a purely objective and judgment-free presentation of data, no matter how scrupulously the data itself may be collected; if nothing else, we make choices about what data to present. And a side-by-side comparison chart like this can’t help but give a slightly misleading impression of the relative merits of the arguments, by putting the conclusions of an overwhelming majority of honest scientists up against the arguments of a fringe collection of politically-motivated activists. But it’s certainly good to see the actual issues arrayed in point-counterpoint format.

Still, there remains a somewhat intractable problem: when people are arguing about issues that necessarily require expert knowledge that not everyone can possibly take the time to acquire for themselves, how do we make judgments about who to believe?

This problem has been brought home by the incredibly depressing news that James Randi has come out in favor of global-warming denialism (via PZ Myers). Randi is generally a hero among fans of reason and skepticism, so it’s especially embarrassing to see how incredibly weak his reasoning is here. It basically amounts to: “The climate is complicated. And scientists don’t know everything. And I admit I don’t know much about the field. Therefore … we have good reason to distrust the overwhelming majority of experts!” Why Randi chose not to apply his vaunted powers of skepticism to the motivations behind the denialists remains a mystery.

This gets to the heart of why I’ve always been skeptical of the valorization of “skepticism.” I don’t want to be skeptical for the sake of being skeptical — I want to be right. To maximize my chances of being right, I will try to collect what information I can and evaluate it rationally. But part of that information has to include the nature of the people making arguments on either side of a debate. If one side consists of scientists who have spent years trying to understand a complicated system, and the other is a ragtag collection of individuals with perfectly obvious vested interests in the outcome, it makes sense to evaluate their claims accordingly.

By all means, we should apply our own powers of reason to every interesting problem. But when our reasoning leads to some conclusion at odds with the apparent consensus of a lot of smart people who seem to know what they’re talking about — whether it’s on the nature of dark energy, the best way to quantize gravity, the most effective route to health care reform, or the state of the environment — the burden is on us to understand the nature of that difference and try to reconcile it, not to take refuge in “experts don’t know everything” and related anti-intellectual piffle.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Winter Dancer

from a letter of William Blake: "I have been near the gates of death & I have returned very weak & an old man feeble and tottering, but not in ?Spirit & Life, not in the Real Man the Imagination which liveth forever. in that I am stronger and Stronger as this Foolish Body decays"
... it's an old poem. Too sentimental. Full of archaic rhetorical flourishes...but one that helped get me through a rought time

Winter Dancer

The sun has drawn its arc four times
across the circle of the year,
transcribed its tangent on the bow,
and now the bow is laid aside, the music stops.

I wake, and see ahead a season without change,
a winter free of spring's apologies, the green
embarrassments of summer lies: an Amundsen
of mind who shakes his shaggy coat
and makes a blizzard out of June!
His eyes glitter under frozen brows;

He smiles, and ice clouds wrap his shoulders
like a mountain in a Himalayan storm.

I know this man, have seen that face,
and not in dreams. His hands are small
and strong like mine; the wind blows brittle
at their finger tips, and yet
a supple music lends his movement

Grace, an ease as when the mind
remembers what the body's lost,
as when an old dancer on a winter day
stops, stiff and cold beneath a snow bent tree,
and hears the dance well up within, and motionless,

Rises like a child's song
into a season of its own creating.

I am the child singing,
out of fear of his old bones,
I sing. He takes my hand
as though it were his own and wraps
me in his great coat. I sing,
and still unmoving as the winter tree above,
he teaches me his dance -- our foolish bodies
clinging one to one

Monday, December 14, 2009

Samuel Beckett Bridge

From the Irish times, December 10, 2009 Samuel Beckett Bridge opening.

Does anyone else find this more than a little weird ?
The Irish Times reports on today's opening of the Samuel Beckett bridge in Dublin:
The opening ceremony of Dublin's newest bridge, named after Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett, took place today.

The iconic structure stretches 120 metres across the capital’s River Liffey from Guild Street on the northside to Sir John Rogerson’s Quay on the southside.

Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the bridge takes the shape of the Irish harp with cable-stay ‘strings’.

Actor Barry McGovern performed Beckett excerpts at the ribbon-cutting ceremony as the Waiting for Godot author’s niece Caroline Murphy, nephew Edward Beckett and hundreds of Dubliners looked on.

Ms Murphy said her uncle would have been amazed by the 40 million euro creation.

“He was a very, very unassuming man and I think he would have been quite overcome.

“I can see the tears in his eyes now — he probably wouldn’t have turned up to the opening but I think he would be very, very overcome by emotion,” she said.

“It’s wonderful that Seamus Heaney came and I’m quite amazed that there are so many people here.

“I thought there would have been only a sprinkling of people in the know but I think Dublin has taken this bridge to its heart.” [Read More]

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Interpreting the Failure

This is an expanded version of a comment I left on Richard Crary's Existence Machine to a long and thoughtful post on  Flannery O'Connor, and the problem of how to balance (if balance is justified) the aesthetic merits of her stories with the, at least superficially, offensive political and moral nature of the content.

I've made some additions that I hope justify my repeating my amended comment here on The Dog.  Amounts to a summation of ideas I've been working through here lately.
See HERE, and here on Creative Failure  (or should I call this Negative Capability, after Keats--only applied more to the interpretive potential of the poem than to the poet?)
Content is not only impossibly entangled with form, but (in part, because it is), also impossibly entangled with interpretation. The text is not whatever the reader makes of it, but neither is it free of the associational (re)configurations necessary to make sense of it. It's precisely this openness that makes it impossible to fashion any set of signs that can't be put to use--turned into propaganda. Why for me a critical reading has to be speculative and theoretical--in the sense that it is positing and responding to (not explaining or explicating) a relationship which is only partly manifest--not unlike a dream, a cultural dream only in part already present, and in part constructed with every reading. No work of art is complete or completely successful--this sounds trite, but that element of failure is all important--the interacting force that mediates and brings author, the evocation of the completed work, and reader into an encounter with what is other, not reducible to any part in this set--an encounter with what is real in the world, a relationship that is below the threshold of normativity, and only out of which do we construct and choose among the possibilities, political, ethical, and moral.

I would go so far as to say that normative judgments, whether moral or political, are as irrelevant to a work of art as to a dream (for similar, but not identical reasons); and that when such judgments are irrepressible, when we feel we cannot responsibly ignore their interpreted content-in-relief (raised in profile of reduced dimensions from their dynamic relationships)  we have altogether abandoned them as (aesthetic) objects in relation to their generative ground.  This is not so because they are above politics, but because they are below politics, figuratively speaking: prior to politics and to normative calculus, as much so as the behavior of other primates, for all those behaviors have contributed to, and are still retained in our own--as the material of what has not yet become fully human--and so, possibly all the more important for the understanding of our political and moral life

Thursday, December 10, 2009

To What Are We Accountable?

In my PREVIOUS POST, drawn for a journal entry written shortly after Reagan's defeat of Carter, I asked... to what are we accountable?
A conversation with Iago, Judge Holden, Edmund, King Lear and Zipporah (wife of Moses)
Almost 20 years later, I ask: accountable to what? If I were to say, "to ourselves." it would be too pat. Beg more questions than it would answer. Accountable—but not the accountability of a ledger. Nor to any measure outside it, but to the encounter itself, and only that: an action which is an event, a meeting prior to any normative judgment, prior to good or evil.
Think of the great villains of literature, of Iago, Edmund, Judge Holden—of what makes them so terrifying: the ascendancy of a power that arises out of the relative fullness of their engagement with what confronts them as compared to those lesser figures who they reduce to ciphers in their game.
Think of Lear, the one character who might have matched and more than match Edmund, who begins the play by retreating from the world, an act of abdication of his sovereignty as King and person, and so prepares the ground for Edmund, and under him, Goneril and Regan-- to fill the void he leaves. It isn’t that Lear might have represented Good to Edmund’s Evil, and so checked him. In his banishment of Cordelia and Kent, he is at this early stage, by far the greater monster, and by reports we learn he has always been more noted for strength of body and will than for his virtue. It is his abdication of sovereignty over that aspect of the world whose governance was dependent on the full engagement of his royal person that opens the way, and the first consequence is his own ungovernable rage, setting in motion events which, for a time, only Edmund proves himself able to meet with a fullness of being proportionate to the moment. We are accountable… for our response, in all fullness, without reserve, without withholding of ourselves… not to anything, but to be, to become; prior to good and evil—we become capable, in and through our encounters with what meets us: creators of good and evil.
I think of that uncanny figure (the invention of the author of that scene in D’varim) who—after instructing Moses to return to Egypt, inexplicably attacks him in the night, seeking to kill him. He is only saved from death by his wife, Zipporah, who circumcises him and flings the bloody foreskin at the assailant. An encounter prior to good and evil. We are not, first—human agents meeting the world. We become human, in and through engaging that which meets us, in the encounter.  By ignoring, by turning away—even from the momentary wonder of sunlight on a drop of rain on a blossoming forsythia, we surrender our humanity. Adorno's question? ... no...I answer no... giving ourselves freely to the beauty of the world—fashioning our response in works of art—will not make us good. But in withholding ourselves, our humanity is diminished and we sink beneath even the possibility of either good or evil.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Journal Entry: November, 1980

          Journal Entry, November 1980
The servants of Death have taken over the ship.

To live in the center of the storm, surrounded by violence, as though the violence does not concern us, is a kind of madness. We live in a slaughterhouse while the slaughter goes on, the dead hanging thick as leaves from the branches above us. To live we
must shed blood. To be of service, we must live. The madness we would change penetrates us, we enter into it that we may live, and that we may be the instruments of its transformation. What terrible clarity is required. What an impossible balancing act.

March 1, 1981
That which is most intensely felt must be returned. The sharp, always startling intrusion of beauty never fails to waken a profound loneliness--and the need to overcome it. What is to be done with the gift?

We are accountable even for our wonder.


You can't put humility on like a cloak, can't choose it as a desired virtue: that's not humility; that's timidity. Humility is a gift only granted to those who have worked to achieve whatever they have imagined as the highest, and stumbled at last, on the threshold of the utmost limits of their ability and character.

Nemesis is the personification of that seductive force that fools us into crossing the threshold--to our own destruction, or paralyzes us with fear before we've reached it.  She is, of course, the ultimate trickster, blinding us to where those limits lie until it's too late.  

Monday, December 7, 2009

Steven Fama ( and Helen Vendler) on Ashbery's Plenisphere

Steven Fama, of glade of theoric ornithic hermetica on John Ashberry's most recent book of poetry.
A “planisphere” in its primary definition is “a map of half or more of the celestial sphere with a device for indicating the part of a given location visible at a given time.” I like this as a kind of stand-in Ashbery’s work. The poems singly or together present matters and ideas – representative of the actual – in focus at that point, while much else always remains hidden. This of course is just how a planisphere works: it shows the stars and other celestial bodies visible that would be seen at a particular place and time if you were to look at the actual sky. Read a few more lines of an Ashbery poem, or turn the page to a new one (as one would rotate the “wheel” of the planisphere), and there’s, you might say, a whole new universe in view.


So what can be seen, if only momentarily and then shifting towards something else, in Ashbery’s Planisphere? Well, there are poems in which meaning materializes, or almost. Most explicitly there are every so often lines that can be lifted from the page and used to suggest a sort of Ashbery-ian philosophy. This has always been true in his poems, I think, but maybe these days, in this book, the outlines are a bit clearer within the purposeful or unavoidable ambiguity.

Read Steven's review HERE

Add to that, Helen Vendler in the NYT Review of Books (cribbed from the ever vigilant and ever wary BLKDGRD.

I've read those whose dismiss Vendler.... for whatever reasons, as a sterile apologist for academic poetry, the School of Quietude... whatever... I find her always refreshing, stimulating... and in no way stuffy or backward looking in the poetry she selects. She also pays attention to poets as thinkers, and that is always going to be close to what I hope to find in poetry.

Magic Slate: Complete Novel on-line

Novel linked, chapter by chapter HERE

                                         The Magic Slate

A Trans-Millennial Semi-Comic Fiction in 363 MS pages, 94,300 words.

What would happen if someone at the extremity of the world pushed his sword through the limiting wall? On the one hand, indeed, this seems easy, as there is nothing to limit it; on the other hand, impossible, as there would be no place where it could be pushed.

                                                A. Koyré: From Closed World to the Infinite Universe:
                                                                                    Henry More, Letter to Rene Descartes

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Notes on a Poetry Reading

“How’d you like it?” I’m asked when the reading is over.

I don’t know what to say. It's poetry. I could say, "I enjoyed it," which I had. But poetry deserves more. I might like it, enjoy the reading… yet still have serious questions about the poetry, the poet’s delivery and voice. Can’t answer those kinds of questions on the way out the door, and if you haven’t read the work or are only minimally familiar with the poet’s writing (assuming this is not spoken word, where the written page is to the reading what a musical score is to a performance), there’s no way to fairly judge or understand it. What’s left to say?

I was thinking about this last night after the Philadelphia New Poets reading at Fergie’s Pub with Marion Bell, Laura Sims and Joseph Massey. I was broke and didn’t want to hang around watching other people drinking beer, so put on my coat when the reading was over and began to sidle my through the crowd toward the door. Greeted Frank Sherlock as I passed…

What'd you think? he asked.

Would have been enough to say I’d enjoyed it—which I did, but something about Joe Massey’s poems—and his reading—that had troubled me, and I foundered for words, some way to sum up my reaction—but hadn’t had time to think about it, and there was Joe coming up behind Frank and I felt like an ass cause I was afraid that whatever would have come out was going to sound too personal, too dismissive. Just wasn’t the place. If I was going to say anything less than “really liked your stuff,” he had more than earned the right to hear something with a measure of thought behind it—which was more than I could come with on the spot.

Maybe if I’d had time to relax, have a glass of wine, talk about this and that—the words and thoughts would have come together, maybe not. As I sat on the Broad Street subway, the question began to take shape—about how the think about the reading itself—any reading.

Hearing a poet whose work I’ve read and thought about presents no problem. I’ve internalized some of my response; the spoken reading, with poets who are at least moderately competent at voicing their work, offers a new way to hear and interpret it, something to compare and inform my thinking and judgment. How did the performance help or detract from the poems? But with a previously unknown poet, or one whose work is only passingly familiar to me, it gets more complicated. Since that’s mostly the case for me; I go to readings as much to discover new voices, to hear poets I’ve not had the chance to read, perhaps never heard of--as I do to add levels of appreciation for those I know, .

Complicated, because poetry worth the time demands more than a single reading, and when you hear a poem without experiencing it on the page, the visual arrangement of lines and spaces, without the voice of the poem coming alive in your own mind—there’s only so much you can say with any justice or sense of fairness to the poet.

All that said, some readings are better than others. Maybe it’s worth having a go at a review, keeping in mind, always—that without a deep relationship to the poetry in question, one’s response is going to be personal, mostly subjective, and can't pretend to offer anything like a considered critical judgment of the poems themselves. Here then, are some notes I wrote in my journal when I got home—far briefer than this preamble. And dear poets—it’s my profound conviction that the true merit of your work likely far exceeds any too quickly conjured opinion offered here!

For additional general thoughts on vocal readings, Inhabiting a Poem
Marion Bell: has a way of pausing, turning her head to the left, taking a quick shallow breath—making me wonder if she is responding to something on the page that I can’t see—a part of the poem, or is this a minor personal tic? Either way, it becomes part of the reading—part of its spoken rhythm, noticeable without being distracting. The text of the backlit pages appears to be printed in blocks—like a prose poem. But this is not prose, nor prosaic. Chiasmic structures, internally and at beginning and end—marking a sound equivalent of stanzas (as do the pauses, though they seem to come mid-‘stanza’.. an effect like a mid-line caesura). Uses repetition—relocating words phrases in changing contexts, demanding continual reinterpretation and layering of associations. I found myself very interested in the what and how of her poems and look forward to reading her work for myself.

Laura Sims: … need to see and read on page. Dense and layered associations, flowed past more quickly than could follow as I listened. Her reading voice is clear and precise—closely following the lines and typographical rhythms. Strong aural quality. Employs repetition as musical element, in places reducing words to pure sound and rhythm

In a body
In a body
Ina body
Ina body
Ina body


The last, coming more as breath than spoken word. Called to mind how Ursula Rucker uses vocalized breath, like a chant, like a black preacher on a roll, like percussion, to punctuate, link and propel phrases from one unit to the next.

Ina field
Ina field
Ina field
Ina field


Her poems demand reading on a page. When I have the chance to see them, her vocalization will remain with me.

Joe Massey: Finely crafted poems. Employs—with great skill—traditional devices: alliteration, internal and slant rhymes. Visions of semi-urban landscapes, intersections of natural and human scenes. Images… brought to mind a book of black and white photographs: empty lots, vacant buildings, leafless winter trees under winter skies. Close ups. Miniatures. Each a kind of outdoor still life. Vocabulary, exquisitely precise. Diction—relaxed, not quite colloquial. Everything under control. Physicallity of things. If there were direct representation of human presence, I missed it. Deserted, as though post-apocalyptic. I found his vocalization painful… a kind of unvarying monotone… monochromatic. Is this what brought to mind black and white photos? Uncomfortable too with the very precision and control—a too impressive control of language which, too my ear, left no room for doubt, no rent in the semblance, no point of entry to question the seeming transparency, identity of sign and referent… “this is really how it is. How it was. How it looks,” they seemed to say. “Believe this!”

My own preferences, my tastes--a deep mistrust of words impelled me to resist. The invitation was there--to dissect and examine the artifice—but closed to questioning the implied representative transparency. This is what I was fumbling to say to Frank as I left, and to Debrah Morkun outside on the sidewalk as I passed.

I will read Joe’s poems, and trust when I do, I will find that my doubts were groundless.

*Marion... I couldn't find a web page to link to your name. If you have one, let me know and I'll add it.
You can find links to  MP3 recordings of the readings at Gregory Bems, The Stale  (warning --no fault of the STALE, the sound quality is not good)
For another post on the reading voice:Dreaded Poet Voice

Thursday, December 3, 2009

It is Now Upon Us

From the New York Times Review of Books, Tony Judt What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?
In the contemporary United States, at a time of growing unemployment, a jobless man or woman is not a full member of the community. In order to receive even the exiguous welfare payments available, they must first have sought and, where applicable, accepted employment at whatever wage is on offer, however low the pay and distasteful the work. Only then are they entitled to the consideration and assistance of their fellow citizens.

Why do so few of us condemn such "reforms"—enacted under a Democratic president? Why are we so unmoved by the stigma attaching to their victims? Far from questioning this reversion to the practices of early industrial capitalism, we have adapted all too well and in consensual silence—in revealing contrast to an earlier generation. But then, as Tolstoy reminds us, there are "no conditions of life to which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him."

This "disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments." Those are not my words. They were written by Adam Smith, who regarded the likelihood that we would come to admire wealth and despise poverty, admire success and scorn failure, as the greatest risk facing us in the commercial society whose advent he predicted. It is now upon us.

Molly's Bookstore is Back!

Off for a brisk walk down Passyunk, 9th Street--shake the cobwebs from my brain this dull December afternoon... what's this? An old man in a hoodie bent over a bin of 33 rpm records and... books. 

Books? Here? The Zagger mosaic on the wall above the sidewalk bin says that... yes, this is the place... and there's the old sign...

Molly's Bookstore!

Sad day back in July of 2008, Molly's books became a homeschooling project (still is) ... than  a health food store... then..  I lost track.

Today, it's a bookstore again. the Molly's Bookstore sign is back in the Italian Market, 1010 S. 9th Street, a little spot of light in the December gloom.  

Here's a Webpage recently appeared... still underconstruction. Check on it later for the news of the opening. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Expression, Representation, Adaptation

If fiction is not, and cannot be, either mirror or lamp to reality, than what is it? What is the relationship of art to reality? I've written any number of posts on the problematic character of the idea of 'realist fiction.' (HERE  HERE HERE).
Let's take a another look at the idea of the mirror and the lamp. For M. H. Abrams, the mirror was how art was conceived before the Romantics, as reflection of nature, mimesis, while the Romantics thought of the soul of the artist as a lamp,  illuminating nature and revealing its truth. Both these metaphors share a common problem: they posit a division between reality and the conscious subject, between culture and nature--a problem because neither is able to account for the intersecting reality of culture and nature and lead to misleading attempts to harmonize the contradiction by totalizing one at the expense of the other.  Either culture is nature, or nature is entirely subsumed in our conceptualizations, and hence, unknowable in itself; there is no relationship here because either nature or the human subject loses its identity in the other--how then can one speak of any sort of 'realist' art? If all is nature, all is equally real--forms of expressions which must share the reality of the natural subject. Totalizing culture, on the other hand, leaves us stuck with all the epistemological conundrums of Kantian transcendentalism and makes nonsense of any claims we might make for art as representation... representation of what?
If the dissolution of subject in object or object in subject is our problem, than to get past that we need to find a way to think of reality in terms that allow for a meaningful difference, the difference makes possible a relationship between fabricating consciousness, the symbolic reality of the fabrication, that which stands over against both.
The ideas Paul Levi Bryant has been working through on Larval Subjects, in as much as I understand them, have powerful implications for aesthetics, and seem to offer an elegant way past the problems inherent in totalizing either nature/reality, or mind/culture.  Let me cite two passages from the post linked above and see what you make of them, in how they profoundly alter the ways we might think about aesthetic theory.

If I’m interested in fictions and the ontological status of fictions then this is not out of any sort of perverse wish to say that fictions are real, but rather because fictions provide a sort of exemplary case of a purely symbolic entity that is not a representation of something else. As a consequence, fictions shed light on what symbolic entities are in general.

In another post Nature and its Discontents (please, go to Larval Subjects and read this in full), I find the missing link, as it were: adaptation. As a species does not assimilate itself to nature, only imperfectly reacting and adapting itself to a nature which is both larger, and other, each maintaining a difference, as Bryant likes to put it, a difference that makes a difference, so the fabricating work of the artist is a continuous adaptation to another aspect of reality, a different kind  of real. This leaves us open to a different ground for criticism--one that has no need to compare or test for verisimilitude in a work of fiction, nor to shift to the equally problematic tactic of treating the aesthetic object as autonomous: it is both and neither, no more autonomous from nature than the evolving organism, no more an indistinguishable conformity with nature than the always imperfectly adapting organism--the relationship endures, and finding and describing the imperfection of adaptation in the work of art,  in the artist's encounter, in the occasion that engenders it, provides the outline for a more useful critical method, as it is there that the distinction becomes visible and the character of the reality of each may be given its due.   

One of the narratives we find in Lacanian psychoanalysis is this idea that man is a fundamental rupture within nature that is perpetually alienated from, and out of step with, nature. This thesis is only plausible on the assumption that 1) nature independent of man is a harmonious whole, and 2) that other organisms, unlike the human, possess a harmonious relationship with nature. Working on this premise we get books like van Haute’s Against Adaptation that argue against evolutionary theory on the grounds that humans are fundamentally out of step with nature such that adaptation to nature is impossible for us.

The problem here is not with the thesis that humans are out of step with their environment (or, in Latour’s terms, the network of actants among which we dwell). The problem here is with the implied interpretation of evolutionary biology suggesting that any organism is in step or phase with their environment or the network of actants within which it dwells. What this cereal box understanding of evolutionary theory misses is that “adaptation” as understood in evolutionary theory does not mean “well-fitted”, but rather refers to a wager or gamble on the part of an organism. An adaptation is a gamble that certain features of the environment will remain stable and consistent. In this respect there is nothing unique about humans in their lack of perfect phase relations between innenwelt and umwelt. Insofar as any environment is always more complex than the manner in which the organism “represents” the environment, every organism is more or less out of phase with its environment. This lack of fit between environment and organism has all sorts of consequences for the life of each and every organism as it navigates its world. Psychoanalysis is right to critique the ideological conception of nature as a harmonious, self-regulating whole. However, it goes astray in believing that somehow the fissures and antagonisms of “nature” are unique to humans.