Saturday, August 21, 2004

Here is an edifying exchange between me and Stuart Greenhouse apposite to the discussion I was having with Josh Hanson:

8/19/04 2:46 PM
I, like everyone, I imagine, greatly enjoy your blog. It has a great balance of personality and deep intelligence, very friendly.

I write because there is no comment field on your blog, and I am confused by the Heidiggerian circlings of your most recent post, regarding Oppen and a poem’s ‘objectitude’ vs. its ‘transcenditude’. You seem to by trying hard to avoid something I can’t pin down as to the nature of yet; but I do feel impelled to ask, out of curiosity, what object of the world doesn’t both refer beyond itself and exist separately from that it refers to? Isn't that a quantum balance, in that it can't partially refer unless it is partially separate? Who posits the existence of such a thing as other than theoretical (i.e. immoveable object)? Isn’t that what Olson means when he says “ENERGY”?

I don’t know if the horizontal v. elevated modeling of ‘transcendental’ is your construction or Heidigger’s (well, either way, it is very Heidigerrian, etymologically based, so I guess it doesn’t matter) but I think it is a little simple; it’s setting up a straw man maybe, though I don’t think you intend to. Again, I’ll rely on Olson, who relies on “SPACE” (yes, I think his caps are funny, too). Space is more than the two dimensions of your model-of-language. It’s more than three, also (Einstein etc.). More than four, too. Transcendent is a word (god, I know, super-famously etc.), a signifier which is not identical to what it signifies. I think it is best to let it do its referential work and, idea-experience gained or communicated, even if not verifiably exactly, let it go. Maybe that’ll help you advance on your interrogation.

This probably sounds really simpleminded. I’m sorry I’m not well-read-enough in the philosophical basis you are writing out of. I suppose it’s a hazard to write into a philosophical thought-process of another with one’s own writing-gained sense of how these things pan out, without the vocabulary matching & figured out. Please indulge me, I would like to understand where you’re coming from.

But I want to be clear: I don’t mean I don’t follow the logic, I do. Again, it’s what it avoids, what gives it its centripetal anchoring, I’m confused by. That is, it seems to be a construct, a self-enclosed, self-perpetuating system, one which is trying to isolate, as if a pearl, not admit, what it ostensibly wants to. (fancy: is the argument itself trying to be the example against itself? A syllogism?)

I hope this helps (or at least is intelligible), and also hope I’m not being boneheaded in some fixation I’m blind to the easiness of. & I look forward to your further excursions.

And, finally, I wish you the best of luck with your dog’s health.

All best,


Stuart Greenhouse

8/20/04 6:04 PM
Hi Stuart,

You have a nice blog as well--earnest and intelligent. Plus I empathize
with your dislike of Jersey humidity--I grew up with it.

Let's see if I can address your questions with a semblance of pertinacity.
You write that all objects refer to something beyond themselves, but that
doesn't make sense to me unless you're a Platonist. As a more-or-less
materialist, I think that only language refers to something beyond its own
material thingness. Of course, non-linguistic objects can be brought into
language--we can all agree that a mug of coffee is symbolic of friendship,
for example--but that still leaves language in its position of uniqueness
as that which both is and refers. What I puzzle over is how language does
in fact manage to refer--that is, how does its referral or "resemblance"
operate? To insist on a word's difference from what it refers to leaves
open the question as to how it got attached to its object in the first
place. Sassure would say it's completely arbitrary, but nothing that
humans do is completely arbitrary--nor can it be totally determined. This
is when I get interested in Rimbaud's idea that individual letters have a
color--when people try to determine and describe the attributes that
signifers have apart from reference, through which they only refer to
themselves. We can make language, or an Objectivist poem, as much of an
object as we can, but it seems neither possible nor desirable to totally
disable the referent function. The slippery thing about language is that
it's transcendent and immanent at once: as a thing, it's part of the
object world that it refers to, but the act of referring always implying a
transcendental origin OUTSIDE the sphere of things that referred to. That
looks to me a lot like Spicer's Outside, or Lacan's Real: it generates
language but can itself only be located indirectly in the form of the gap
between signifier and signified.

Yet these words do keep pointing at things we can pick up and put down: "I
gotta use words when I talk to you!" I'm interested in meanings of
connection, or being-with if you like, that supersede or bypass the
subject-object relation. If we take language and use it to make a concept,
then we have something that grabs its object firmly (though it will still
wriggle out of the concept's grasp if we look closely enough). But maybe
the relationship of language to its object can be nonconceptual, can be
something--well, friendlier than subject-object. I was reading an article
today about something called "ambient poetics"--the poetics of a
perception that happens prior to conceptualization--the aesthetic, that
is, in the most strictly Kantian sense. Which brings us back maybe to
Olson and SPACE. I don't strictly know where his ENERGY comes from. The
unconscious, probably--that part of us most in touch with the
unconceptualizable Real. Somehow the energy gets transferred over ("all
the way over") through language, is recognizable in the force field of the
poem (which the constellary appearance of page-as-field makes visually
explicit, making manifest the non-syntactical relations between words and
phrases). Inside, outside; horizontal, vertical. There's no getting away
from dualities and dichotomies. The best you can do is dialecticize the
terms and keep moving. Truth is what happens in the flow between
conceptual polarities.

I don't know if any of this is remotely coherent; I'm very much in a
see-what-I-said-to-know-what-I-think mode nowadays. Hopefully I'll get
enough of a grip on the ideas I've absorbed to produce something
resembling an argument. Abstract thought doesn't come quite naturally to
me, though it's fascinating; that's why I'm a poet first and a scholar

Let me know if I can post this whole malarkey--your question and my
rambling reply--on the blog.



8/20/04 10:23 PM
Hi Josh,

Thanks for the cogent reply. Of course, please, feel free to post anything you feel worthwhile. I'm pleased to think you want to, though I do ramble.

I'll do my best to frame my next response as best I can. You say ". . . unless you're a Platonist. As a more-or-less materialist, I think that only language refers to something beyond its own material thingness." I see--I am writing not (intentionally) as a Platonist, which strikes me as hopelessly top-down. I tend to think of material, absent consciousness, as a physicist (or someone with college classes in such) would, if one were me. I'd say, for example, that a magnet amongst iron filings refers to those filings, and that a tree refers to the sun, too. In a more Platonist and Stevensian mode I might say we all refer to the sun, but the sun doesn't necessarily refer to us. But that is an aside.
But you're right, this is not linguistic reference. I've never heard of Rimbaud's color theory, though it does neatly complicate things, I like it. And I like where you go in your second paragraph, the one beginning "Yet these words . . ." I find it very coherent, though I have little response to it yet.
As far as the general drift goes, I'm afraid we may be debating the old tree in the forest thing. You seem to be saying nothing can refer unless it is in language, and I'm saying language may be one of many referential systems--and that any referential system must be as well. Because, again from a physicalist point-of-view, if space and time are contiguous, then all interacts with all in some form or another, and gravity says it is constant on any scale. Let alone the quantum realities by which no object is as discrete as it appears; though there is reliability within scales, there are plenty of interactions between scales as well. And so on. I apologize for what over-assurance is in my argument; I mean it as possibility, supposition. I really don't know yet. Abstract thought confuses me too, especially where language is concerned. I have in mind what Perry Meisel says regarding James Joyce, that he wrote of a universe where there was only copies, and no originals (same could be said of Andy Warhol). But in mind confusedly.
Especially now. I haven't had this much consistent thought-trying in a very long time, and my brain is very tired. I apologize for the patchquilt's inadequacies, above. And thank you.

&: Jersey, huh? Whereabout?


Which is just about where we've left it. FYI: Morristown, NJ, a strategically hilly spot where Washington and his troops wintered during the Revolutionary War. They had an even grimmer winter there than they did at Valley Forge.

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