Friday, March 12, 2004

"We, conscious of the justness of that confusion of tongues [at Babel], recognize the fragmentary as a characteristic of all human striving in its truth and realize that it is precisely this that distinguishes it from the infinite coherence of Nature, that an individual's wealth consists precisely in his power of fragmentary extravagance, and that the producer's enjoyment is also that of the receiver, not the laborious and meticulous execution, nor the protracted apprehension of this execution, but rather the production and enjoyment of that gleaming transience for which the producer contains something more than the completed effort, since it is the appearance of the Idea, and which for the recipient too, contains a surplus, seeing that its fulguration awakens his own productivity--since all this, I say, is contrary to our Society's penchant (and since, indeed, even the period just read could well be regarded as a disquiting attack upon the interjectory style in which the idea breaks out but without breaking through, a style which in our Society is accorded official status), then, having called attention to the fact hat my conduct still cannot be called rebellious, seeing that the bond holding this period together is so loose that the intermediary clauses stand out in a sufficiently aphoristic and arbitrary manner, I shall merely call to mind that my style has made an attempt to appear what it is not--revolutionary."

--Soren Kierkegaard, Either Or: A Fragment of Life. trans. Alistair Hannay. New York: Penguin, 1992.

This is Kierkegaard speaking under the aesthete pseudonym "A" in "Ancient Tragedy's Reflection in The Modern;" In my more skeptical moments, I've entertained the idea of making it the epigraph for the thesis.

Monday, March 08, 2004

"All the leisure time which his school life left him was passed in the company of subversive writers whose gibes and violence of speech set up a ferment in his brain before they passed out of it into his crude writings."
---James Joyce, Portrait of An Artist as A Young Man

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Fascinating comments connecting the nostalgia for debate (of which my lengthy post the other day is surely a, perhaps mild, example) and Debord's Society of Spectacle on fait accompli

Nick's final questions,

Can I wonder aloud if this argument and debate method of exchanging
knowledge and inducing change, discovering truth,
and uncovering greatness is totally bankrupt?
What might replace it? What could replace it?

beautifully frame what is at stake, i think. It is interesting to think about the idea of the debate (especially considered in the context of the shrewdly DNC orchestrated primary election season recently witnessed) as being a sort of spectacle (see my previous comments on the "prurient" interest of those observing a blog/listserv fight), especially since I tend to think of "the debate" in the best sense of the word, as a sort of anti-spectacle--an arena for contesting value in which the parties involved actively participate (I like Charles Berstein's suggestion that a poetry reading could also be thought of as a sort of anti-spectacle--you can't go to a poetry reading to "be entertained;" it's not an arresting experience, but a potentially engaging experience). I find it interesting that the recently attempt by the last active members of the buffalo listserv to revive it didn't call for a debate or a discussion, but a "fight"--in my mind fights are what happens at the point where engaging discourse becomes arresting; there is no longer anything that the observer of the dialogue could take from it other than its status as spectacle.

I am still troubled by the fact that, on the blogs, it seems very difficult to have a sustained interchange in which there is clearly something "at stake," and maybe this is a belief in a sort of dialectical understanding of knowledge that's time may be gone. Despite this qualm, i am very much interested by the idea of blogs as a system of signal response interchange that operates like a network (as opposed to linear/dialectical) model (as I take Nick's comments on signal-response to be suggesting).

A final thought. I reread a great Roland Barthes essay called "Saussure, the Sign, Democracy" (in "The Semiotic Challenge;" trans. Howard, CA UP, '94) in which Barthes discusses the curious parallels between (and near simultaneous emergence of) Saussurean linguistics, democracy, and a financial world that abandoned the gold standard in favor of a system of exchange value. Speaking very crudely, we can draw parallels between all these phenomenon and the emergence of the pluralistic (network) model of exchange about poetics that occurs (has the potential to occur?) on the blogs: there is no positivist "norm" by which to discuss poetics, "the relation to the signified (to gold) [to an aesthetic norm] being uncertain, fragile, the whole system (of language, of currency) [of poetic discussion] is stabilized by the behavior of the signifiers among themselves..." (154; my brackets)

Despite the positive/democratic connotations of this parallel, theories that posit language as a system that operates via the play and difference of signifiers, not via a more stable relationship between the signifier and the signified (still being rudimentary here...) have always induced a great deal of skepticism in me, even though to a large extent I buy into them...Barthes reads a similar anxiety in Saussure:

"There is another Saussure...this Saussure already hears modernity in the phonic and semantic swarming of archaic verses: then, no more [social] contract, no more clarity, no more analogy, no more value: the order of the signified is replaced by teh gold of the signifier, a metal no longer monetary but poetic. We know how much such hearing troubled, even maddened, Saussure, who seems to have seen his entire life pass between the anxiety of the lost signified and the terrifying return of the pure signifier." (156)

The reference to poetry here opens up a whole vast new issue that i don't have time to wade into, but i think the basic analogy i'd like to draw may already be self evident. The anxiety people are feeling about the network of interchange, as opposed to the dialectic of debate, that occurs on the blogs is very similar to the sort of anxiety one might feel when approaching a poem that highlights its own materiality (poeticitiy): one can't help but mourn the loss of the stability presented by a text (or a form of aesthetic discourse) with pretensions towards the normative, but on the other hand awed by the unstable but dynamic system of multivalent reference that is energized by its freedom from positivist standards.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Considering another angry vote for Nader. Tell me why I shouldn't.
Howdy folks. I'm really hitting the thesis hard this week, but stay tuned to Derailed Commodity over the next couple of weeks for my two cents on Foreman's "King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe" and some musings on sex(ual politics?) in the poetry of John Godfrey. It's gonna be wild.

A quick thesis preview. The neologism "paratext": on the one hand, so annoyingly jargony. On the other, what a great term to describe the poetics (meaning the actual material poetic statements criticism etc) of the language poets. On the one hand, they're texts that are metalinguistic--the prefix "para-" shares with "meta-" the meaning "beyond" (paranormal). On the other, they are texts that vigorously assert that they're not metatextual/prescribing poetic practice at all, but instead an alternative way to voice the critique that the poetry (the "primary texts" in an old fashioned vocabulary) is (supposedly?) asserting on its own--thus invoking the alternative meaning of "para-," "beside." The whole tension (paradox?) is embodied right there in one nifty term.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Also, feeling guilty about my caustic post about Dean dropping out. I am really and truly (what a disgusting phrase) sad about it--sad about seeing Kerry and his focus-group stump speech towing the populist line long enough to get the nomination, at which point he'll move things right back to a Clintonian centrist line that will be just wishy washy enough to allow GW to compete with him even as the country goes to shit. I can't believe he has had the audacity to lift Dean's anti-special interest rhetoric when he's more beholden to the lobbies than any other senator. As for Edwards, I can't believe the media hasn't jumped on the fact that the vast majority of his campaign funds come from a single special interest--the trial lawyers.

I still believe Howard Dean was the smartest man in the race, and the man with the best values--it's too bad he didn't have anyone in that campaign that could help him become 'presidential.' His fast, conversational style of speaking made him seem like an average Joe to us in NYC or to the folks in Vermont, but made him sound like a bumbling but cocky New England asshole to everyone else.

Monday, February 16, 2004

As the Dean Campaign crashes and burns, I find it really funny that a few months ago I posted on this blog that I thought I was being overly pragmatic/compromising my lefty values by becoming involved with a (really, seriously, contrary to popular belief) fairly centrist candidate. It's good to know I'm an abject romantic even in my moments of pragmatism.
Derailed Commodity is tentatively back online--with the caveat that in some sense I feel like I was doing it all wrong before. We'll see what happens. I was sick, home, working for Howard Dean in Iowa (sob), and then just disillusioned with blogging. This post is a way to try and work through that last problem. So anyway. Away we go.

Been thinking about what would happen if I was suddenly (and honestly?) very confrontational about art/writing, but at the same time questioning the faux confrontational nature of the net, the ridiculous angst of the listserv troll.

It seems to me that in some ways, the current embrace of pluralism, or perhaps more realistically, the unwillingness to voice confrontational (normative? Provisionally normative, if that’s possible?) opinions in public discourse has the effect of acting as a sort of fixer on the scene--in a particularly confrontational metaphor, the current poetry scene seems to me a lot like so many niche cable tv channels who've found their market share and have found that the easiest way to hold on to that chunk of cultural capital is to make sure any newcomers on the scene either fit themselves into one of the pre-existing categories or get out of the way.

Literary bulletin Boards, listservs, and now blogging communities, fascinate me because on the one hand they are a space for discourse that are democratic in a unique way--the amazing leveling effect of the anonymity of cyberspace. But, but--I think that line of thinking is predicated upon the idea that the internet allows for a disembodiment of thought from context in a sort of Rawlsian move that would allow for a conversation untainted by the speakers' positions.

Of course this isn't how it works out in reality--being confrontational is the fast track to internet obscurity--think about the poetics listserv. On the blogs, saying anything confrontational tends to bring down a wave of derision, a confrontational post isn't dialogue, it's a 'flame,' a personal attack--not to say there aren't a lot of personal attacks thinly disguised as artistic arguments floating around out there.

No one ever pays attention to outspoken people on the blogs. The most intelligent bloggers are either those who are almost universally positive, or alternatively avoid polemic in favor of irony and pastiche as a means of critique—a critique which is always only proscriptive instead of productive. When a “flame war” (why is it that term seems so ridiculous to me) gets started, people start paying attention, not because they want to see what the person has to say, but because their prurient interest wants to have a good laugh at people making themselves ridiculous duking it out the old fashioned way.

THE ARISTOCRATS OF THE POST-AVANT POETRY WORLD no longer maintain their position by othering poets of a particular school or ideology, but instead by othering anyone who rocks the boat by having enough conviction in their own position or aesthetic. The mood that governs the New York scene now is not one of democratic openness but is something more like the salons of Stendhal’s Paris—high irony and boredom rule the day at the expense of open discussion, dynamism, poetry.

But now, just because of who I am, I’m already backing off of my own polemic—I feel its something that needs to be said but I can’t say it without admitting that I’m wrestling with it myself, and I already feel my internal ironist laughing. I’ve deeply admired the arguments of Nick Piombino against the infighting that could potentially paralyze the cultural left, and I agree with Charles Bernstein that ultimately we should aim for a literary pluralism that would reject the balkanizing process of canonization.

But canonization is a reality—the literary history currently in vogue has, for example, put Stein and Zukofsky on the syllabus of the 20th Century poetry lecture here at Columbia at the expense of Allen Ginsberg and Alice Notley, a fact that would surely trouble many of the poets who began championing Stein and Zukofsky in the first place. Even as the Language poets quietly insist on the provisional nature of their own paratextual output, they are read as the final step in a dialectical progression by the vast majority of their readers.


I’m fascinated by trying to find out what happened in the 70s when the Language Poets in New York “broke” from the St. Mark’s poets. It’s something that really saddens me in some ways because the poets I’ve learned the most from lie on both sides of that “divide” if it can even be called that anymore. The Language Poets (maybe that should be in quotations too) defined themselves against the St. Mark’s scene not only through new institutions (Roof, the Segue Series etc) but through a paratextual community that facilitated a poetic output that remains inspiring and empowering. But as that paratextual discussion moves away from polemic and towards self-caricature, irony, indifference, but most notably disdain of conviction and sincerity, one has to wonder if what is happening is not a sudden embrace of pluralism, but rather a nifty act of self-effacement that would end American literary history with the language poets on top by turning the ideology of the last identified movement into an unassailable (provisional) phantom.

People on both ‘sides’ still talk about the split between the St. Mark’s/New York School crew and the Language poets with a certain amount of mean-spiritedness and bitterness that makes me think that the polemicism at that point was to a certain extent counterproductive. But on the other hand, I can’t help but wish for a new context for discussion about poetics in which

“whatever it is

that we take to be what we judge ourselves by

when we have a conversation

& we say

that’s fucked and that’s not

whatever we go by in that sense”

is more important.

What do you think?

Friday, November 28, 2003

mmm. My apolgies to my meager audience. Been sick and otherwise occupied layin out the Columbia Review--which should be off to the printer by next wednesday (cross my fingers). I also wrote a long post on Kristen Prevallet's talk "On Elegy" but blogger mysteriously erased it and i don't feel like reproducing it. Instead, here's an exerpt from a recent email to my friend oliver; it's a bit of a rant, but kind of fun. Enjoy.

...What else. Writing is going decently;
got a new poem attatched below that riffs off some favorite quotes of mine
spliced together in weird ways with some other random collage material so
that it al comes out in a randomly conversational way...i dunno, see what
you think. St. Mark's is still fun, tho i had to miss a couple of times due
to the asthma cough/cold combo. Working up a manuscript for that chapbook
contest Creeley's judging...getting a little anxious about it, still at the
point where i really start to dislike the work i did even just a year ago,
ya know, with a few exceptions...hard to get 25 pgs of stuff together...
Last night when i was becoming a little too paranoid reading Dostoevsky i started On
The Road again (ha)...i was thinking about how weird it is that i still
think of Kerouac--and really Ginsberg too in some ways--as such a compelling
model, ya know? What a big cliche and ultimately a dude who was so
misguided in so many ways. But then this moment in American history has so
much in common with his...there's been this cooption of everything American
by the right, coupled with an academic left/artistic avant-garde thats all
but given up on the idea of the American. As a writer i feel like one of
the most valuable things i could do is write toward, or thru, the America
that is not an idea but a commitment to a public sphere that refuses to be
defined; teleological, in the way that the right tries to make it. It's
interesting to think about how Kerouac was able to do that...thru a fiction
that was sort of vaguely populist but also inaccesible (in some of it's
manifestations~Visions of Cody, Desolation Angels) in a sort of way that
turned off both his popular and critical audience, but at the same time connected to Jazz in an astounding way--I think Kerouac, like all the best writers who write on and thru Jazz (Clark Coolidge especially) understood it not only as something that could influence his prosody (as the most boring "Jazz poets" do) but also as something that could serve as a model for a sort of entirely new sort of (smuh!) epistemology, a new way of reading and appropriating the old, and a new way of writing and acting in the present...

Poetry is so much about those questions of audience...when the pen goes to
paper, who is it speaking to and who is it speaking for? Intersting to
categorize poets in that way...for some the interlocutor seems so consistent
thruout their whole project--for others it seems like every poem is probing
the quiet for a new ear. I don't know where i stand on this--i think too
many of my poems are written to my self(ves) as an attempt to start over, to
redefine, to find some ground to stand on, etc etc--but i really like poets
that seem to speak, maybe, even, sure, to confess, to an other that seems
very close. Not that i think that poets traditionally considered
"confessional" (Plath Lowell et al) really do that--speaking, as they do,
thru a form so invested in tradition--to me any real act of confession is a
sort of act of construction, its me telling you how i bring form to all
these "materials...strewn along the ground" as Emerson says.

Ack, enough of all that. Do you ever get the feeling, talking about such
things, that what you're saying is just a pastiche of things you've heard
before? Maybe its an inevitability of talking about talking.

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