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.


  1. Thank you. You've articulated the fundamental point that I seem to be so far unable to reach in the argument about criticism over on that other blog that I won't name. The application of reason and evidence based critique is inherently an attack against certain types of poetry.

  2. Pritchard (I see no reason to protect the guilty...he's free to defend himself here if he wants to.) makes a hoo haw about reason and evidence, then chases his tail in silly circular arguments... like nailing Jello to the wall, you can't pin him down...he writes something, then claims he's saying something different when he defends it. I almost choked trying to keep from spitting a mouthful of wine on the screen when I read that line about readers needing a Trusty Guide cause the task of sorting through all the poetry out there was 'too daunting' a task! I mean, unpack that one!

    "Here I am, your Trusty Critic Guide, shepherd to you poor lost lambs, here to lead you to what I think you should/might like!" And all those grateful sheep... I mean, readers, would flock to the Good Stuff and the Bad Poets would be shamed into going back to business school like their Daddy's wanted... This guy has a not very repressed Messiah Complex...

    Poets are drawn to poetry and poets that excite them, poetry that makes them feel liberated to write in a way that satisfies them. There's a natural sorting out that goes on in that process. The strongest work has a kind of gravitational force... poets will circle around those they admire... both resisting and imitating.

    Good critics can observe this process as it unfolds and use it to enrich our understanding of the poems--but they aren't good leaders cause what they will be describing is stuff that already happened... the past... while the future is unfolding before them in the actual work and interaction of the poets.

    I have a post that touches on this... why it's so important to be a part of contemporary creative circles.


    Thank you for your comment. Clicking your name led me to a closed profile... let me know your blog name and I'll link you here.

  3. What certain types of poetry are unintelligible to critique, Christopher?

  4. CivilizeMe,

    You addressed your question to Christopher... but I'm not sure I understand what you're asking... wonder if you could explain. It may be that my post-NewYear brain is still a bit hungover and needs a little extra push to get started...

  5. Christopher proposes that "reason and evidence based critique" is inappropriate for certain types of poetry. For which types of poetry is this kind of response an attack, rather than an entrance? Surely it isn't the case that unreason and speculation are more appropriate access points to such verse.