Saturday, September 18
Absolutely torrential rain this morning has shut down the subways, so the conference begins in disarray, with the "Design, Media, Film" and "Spinoza" panels temporarily combined.
Steve Shoemaker's paper is "Modern Times: Objectivist 'Movies' and Thinking Matter in Louis Zukofsky's Poems of the 1930s." Begins with the solid-liquid-gas model of culture again, and says Z thought of his time as "an age of rampant intellection."
We're at Barnard College today and the room we're in, the Sulzberger Parlor, has mostly portraits of women on the walls.
Quotes Basil Bunting: "The mind is a piece of man surrounded by facts." And Z: "It is impossible to separate thought from that which thinks." (Shoemaker here seems to be doing the work of the rain, conflating the topics of film and Spinozan metaphysics.)
Charlie Chaplin as Noh dramatist. A sentence of Z's regarding Chaplin's work: "A half-baked idea like humanity."
"Mantis" as word machine testing the poem's ability to record life. "Mantis: An Interpretation" argues for the need of the sestina form?not a mere exercise?making the sestina's force palpable. Sestina form likened to Chaplin's use of montage in Modern Times. "Discrete nature of the film shot."
Objectivist writing holds a commitment to words and things, not just words as things. (This gets problematized later by another panelist.)
Central fact of "Mantis" the great mass of people suffering in poverty in the Depression.
Joshua Schuster now delivers "The Harmonics of Affects in Zukofsky's Spinoza." "No one has yet determined what a poem can do"?a paraphrase of Spinoza's "No one knows what the limits of happiness could be."
Z finds Spinoza's system of ethics and Bach's art of fugue comparable in their perfection.
Spinoza as ultimate outsider: an excommunicated Jew. His thinking is Aristotlean and naturalist, not Talmudic?"he does not offer a philosophy of Jewish exile."
(I should note here that I knew next to nothing about Spinoza before hearing these papers. Now I feel like I know quite a bit, and I'm interested in reading the Ethics.)
Philosophical atmosphere of 1920s dominated by "late pragmatism"?the "intuitionism" of Bergson, Whitehead, and Poincaré. Whitehead vis-a-vis Z's essay "Sincerity and Objectification"?"objectification" is a term of Whitehead's.
The five sections of the Ethics:
I On GodSpinoza's theory of affects: passions are inevitable so how best to govern them. Their origin is bodily, given Spinoza's radical monism: God is the infinite universal substance all substancs participate in. "What to do with all these affects?" Principal affects are pleasure, pain, and desire. It is the mind's task to filer and "tease out" the pleasurable affects. These feed the mind until one reaches intellectual love of God.
II On the Nature and Origin of the Mind
III On the Origin and Nature of the Emotions
IV On Human Servitude, or, On the Strength of the Emotions
V On the Power of the Intellect, or, On Human Freedom
Pound: emotion organizes poetic forms.
Z: "The closer one gets to the brain, the closer one gets to the thing." (Is Z pre- or anti-Kantian in orientation?)
Schuster: "The mind is an image or idea of the body." "Ideas respond not to simulations but to stimulations." "A metaphor distrusts the power of words." (metonymy vs. metaphor = monism vs. dualism?)
Sincerity for Z is "a reassertion of faith in words." "After the revolution words and claims will be sincere."
"Carousing openly with signifiers." Language is embedded in an affective relation to the world.
Z on "objectification" as nature working toward its perfection. The "perfect rest" of objectification as "perfect shabbat"?a hidden messianic moment in Z's poetics. (Shabbat as pastoral? Probably not theologically. But the notion of an paradisal island floating separated from the everyday working week is suggestive.)
At this point enough people have straggled in for us to separate into different rooms. I follow the Spinozists into a lecture hall. Ruth Jennison, the chair of the panel, presents "'In wracked cities there is less action': Modernism, Materialism, and Human Agency in Zukofsky's post-WWII "A"." (Z is hell on titles.) She proposes that the move from Marxism in the first half of "A-9" to Spinozism in the second half constitutes a sublation of Marx's critique of commodity culture.
Spinoza: "Love is pleasure with the accompaniment of an external cause." Z paraphrases this in "A-9".
"The consciousness of an infinite totality of particulars."
Spinozan love by focusing on attachment to objects?indeed only meaningfully existing as love of something?recuperates historical connections and actual relations.
Sublation of the mystified relations of the commodity.
Spinoza: "Love is not the desire to be united with the loved thing." Love as an abstraction whose concrete nature has been restored.
"A-9" as a "political economy of love." Love as consciousness of a vast network of determinations.
Louis Cabri is next with "Objectivist Sublimation: Zukofsky, Freud, Spinoza." How poetry becomes "scaled invention" in "the green and seen world." (That last is from Bottom.)
Nature not a myth for Z as it is for Pound. Refers critically to Pound's "palpable elysium" and "learn from the green world" in Canto 81.
"The undeterminable arc of politics."
"How does one make society out of nature?"
Theory of natural law as influence on Z's palpable elysium.
"How is subjectivity constructed in Objectivist poetics?" Subjectivity as a formal effect in two of Z's 1931 poems, "Prop. LXI" and "Immature Pebbles." These poems are "objectifying lenses without subjects."
In "Immature Pebbles," "the subject does not want to participate in conspicuous consumption."
Sublimation as a Freudian concept approximating Spinoza's theory of affects. "The understanding cuts off the affect from its external cause in order to comprehend the affect in itself."
Kristeva's claim that sublimation induces melancholia.
Distorted syntax of "Prop. LXI" makes subject and object interchangeable. "Rested totality" achieved by subtraction of words' suggestibility (by which I think he means something like connotation?).
Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas is next with "Spinozian Poetics in Zukofsky's Late Works." Spinoza: All entities exist on a moving scale of being. They are all moving toward or away from full realization of their being. Radical monism in which "the object of thought is the body."
"As a distinct body the poem has a nature to fulfill." "Shakespeare's text is a Spinozan body."
Bottom reads Shakespeare as if he were writing "A-21" and "A-22". (Deterritorializing Shakespeare by foregrounding textual references to eyes and vision over all other considerations: characters, plot, history, etc.) Attention to the words themselves first. A similar strategy guides Catullus, with Z choosing a text he "is both blind and deaf to."
"The text everywhere expressing its desire to realize itself." "Catullus" not a person but a huge convergence of cultural knowledge, events, and history: "unaccountable millenia of human endeavor."
"For Spinoza freedom is a necessity."
Last up is Mikel Parent, "Zukofsky and Political-Ethics: reading "A" in the light of Recent Spinozist Thought." "I want to argue for the absolute priority of ontology" re Z. But in light of Spinoza, not Heidegger.
Spinozan ethics of "A-12" emerge from ontology. Refers to Tim Woods' work on the ethical turn in "A" (away from politics?). Burton Hatlen has written of a cleavage between politics and ethics in "A-12." (This narrative of a political "break" coming in "A-12" seems to be something of a Zukofsky studies commonplace.)
"A" as "immanently political." The poem makes palpable the failure of collective political action after WWII.
Parent wants to question the move that parallels the turn from politics to ethics and collectivity to the family?a family is still a tiny collective.
Refers to Levinas' attempt to shift philosophy from ontology to ethics, bracketing the question of Being in favor of realizing the altogether Other. C.f. Badiou's critique of Levinas. The other as infinitely Other as opposed to Spinoza's radical materialism which translates "what ought" into "what is."
"Infinite alterity is all we have to work with."
The figure of God conflates ethics with ontology if God is synonymous with nature. (I don't think many scholars of the Hebrew Bible would go along with this: there are too many instances of God showing his power or demanding allegiance through the contradiction of the "natural," from circumcision to parting the Red Sea.)
Quantum physics for Z what God/Nature is for Spinoza.
"Labor as the transmutation of light energy." "Unprotected wandering waves stopped in their wandering."
Re light: particles as historical particulars, waves as revolutionary inertia.
"Substance as a concept actually enacts substance in the poem."
Language animates the bodies of the people?a hope crushed by Mussolini.
"The early search for a community of linguistic efficiency is damned by 'A-10'".
Ontology in terms of the adequation of the word to the thing as not necessarily totalitarian; Antonio Negri on "the common name"?a renewed common name as Z's project in "A" signified by the shift to the small community of the family as the place to build it.
"A linguistic environment that is a multiple of multiples and nothing else."
The Ethics stands with "what is." How to participate in the necessity of your freedom. "Power is virtue in Spinoza."
After WWII commodification definitively enters the domestic sphere. Cites Henri Lefebvre on the reproduction of production in capitalism.
Q&A. Jamison questions that "break" narrative about the move away from politics and the tendency to posit the "modern" as virile and social while the "postmodern" is domestic.
Barrett Watten: negation of the aesthetic by the political in "A-1" when the crowd emerges from the concert and onto the street. Bob Perelman: you're in or you're out.
"Every determination is a negation" vs. "Every determination is a difference."
Perelman: Z's desire for totality alternates with negation. Alternating voices within Z. (What defines negativity is what's negated, right?)
LUNCH. Ithaca compatriot Joel Kuszai had arrived at the conference early in the morning and he and I meet up with Ben Friedlander, Charles Alexander (of Chax Press), and Ron Silliman, and we all head north up Broadway for lunch at a little Thai place. Ron holds forth about the curious history of politics in Pennsylvania?how the state became full of religious dissenters like the Amish (it was a kind of real estate scheme) and what it's like living in a house once owned by the Eisenhowers. The restaurant had the incongruous name "Blue Angel" (Marlene was not in evidence) and it was pretty good; very friendly waitstaff. Then back to Barnard in the drizzle where my attention span will be challenged by after-lunch sleepiness.
Having to choose between "Form" and "Transformations" for the next panel's theme, I chose "Form." What does that say about me? Jonathan Ivry's paper is called "Zukofsky's Quincunx." What's a quincunx? It's basically a form based on the number 5 as it's typically represented on a six-sided die; the five points of an X. I suppose you could also call it the visual representation of a chisamus. In describing the form, a word from Z comes up: "decussation," meaning crossing or intersection.
Paradise as quincunx: an enclosed space or garden with the Tree of Life at the center. "Upper limit paradise."
"Paradise appears in the textual garden."
Chris Beyers is next with "History, Affect, Ideology: Louis Zukofsky and Collage Form." (Incidentally the full text of this and some of the other papers can be found over here, and I think the goal is to eventually have all of them posted there.) Beyers' paper argues that collage is a more accurate description for what Z is up to than fugue. He says that collage throws the reader back upon his or her own ideology by not providing any of the usual semantic connections between its elements. Kind of obvious, really.
Though it's exciting to see Robert Grenier in person speaking on "Zukofsky's Numbers," his presentation is a little wandering and I'm already having trouble concentrating. Basically he calls attention to the various kinds of counting Z does in his poems: of syllables and beats, but most of all of words (as in 80 Flowers which uses 5 words or hyphenate-words per line). Claims that Z more or less "owns" word counting and you can't really do that without evoking him. I wonder what Bob Perelman, who's done a lot with word count (there's a longish poem in couplets with six-word lines in The Marginalization of Poetry) thinks of that. It's clear that we receive techniques or constraints invented by historical individuals differently than we do traditions like blank verse. Again, sort of obvious.
A little coffee revives me for the next panel, "Epistemology, Memory, Poetics." Barrett Watten always puts on good show and he backs a lot into a comparatively brief talk on "Zukofsky's Historicism," in which he purports to read Z in conjunction with Derrida's Spectres of Marx. Watten see's Z's work as a lifelong meditation on Marx's project of liberation.
Z's work as a self-generating, self-effacing instruction manual on how to read it?continually "unzipping" (like a computer file) and modifying its structures as it proceeds. Like a computer engineer, Z abandons systems (like the leap from 3.4 to 4.0) while retaining their basic operationality. He reads the shift from Marx to Spinoza in "A-9" not as a dialectical sublation, but as "re-functioning" Marx with Spinoza. A horizon shift brought about by construction rather than dialectic. (But it still seems to me that replacing/preserving is more or less the definition of sublation. The difference might be in seeing Spinoza as another stage to an ongoing project rather than an antithesis to Marx?which makes a certain amount of sense.)
"Art and politics generate a method."
"A-1" as offering a horizon shift from inside aesthetic experience to outside it.
"In 'A-7' the quotidian is redeemed." "A logic of substitution and overriding. "Toward horizons that cannot be predicted by method." "Presentation over representation."
"History's situatedness in language." "Revolution exceeds the mot juste in Marx and Z."
"Overriding of redemption as loss to redeem the method of Marx." "Error is the material instance of our lived condition."
"Charles Olson and Louis Zukofsky have the most to say to we moderns about [something] history."
Barry Ahearn, as far as I know the original contemporary Zukofsky scholar, steps up to talk about "Zukofsky and the Next Wave." This paper deals with Z's various correspondences with younger poets: Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley principally. Duncan seems to have generally been treated more warmly than Creeley?Z recommended them both for Guggenheims, but his language re Duncan is much more effusive.
Abigail Lang, a French scholar with nearly accentless English, calls her paper "The Remembering Words." "The word is clearly the unit, the atom of Zukofsky's poetry." Fair enough. He has "an implicit belief in the ability of words to disclose meaning." Trust in the arranging power, the memory of individual words?each word's history is apparently immanent to it.
"The word 'bay' should convey something of all the meanings of the word 'bay'"?a body of water, a color of horse, the verb, etc. Attention not just to all its possible meanings but also all its possible parts of speech.
Keeping the word in relative isolation promotes its multiplicitous semantic and syntactic functions. Again 80 Flowers offers the clearest example of this.
(I'm deeply impressed by the difficulty of writing a paper about a poet and then presenting it all in a language not your native one. Imagine writing a paper in French on someone like Roubaud or Jabes and presenting it at a conference in Paris.)
"Only the riven connections count"?midrashic practice of judging two verses from the Torah entirely out of context, just because they share one or more words. This permits the meaning of a given word in one verse to be part of its meaning in the other. (Sounds kind of viral.)
Cites ABC of Reading's fourth chapter: "the capacity of words to remember their brilliant and memorable uses." Pound "owns" hyaline as Shakespeare owns incarnadine, so Z is invoking Pound when he uses the word.
In "A-9" the word semblance becomes a fetish or synecdoche for Marx's statement on commodity fetishism (commodities having a semblance of independent existence? can't find the precise quote). An invisible yet potent and real constraint on the letters N and R as they are used in "A-9" has the same relation to them as labor has to the commodity.
"Words which are the fetishes of things." Words as "works" in the same sense Duchamp's readymades are works.
Z's "faith in the ability of invisible work to shine through, to affect reality."
Distillation?pages and pages of notes by Z on Henry James reduced to the single word "angel" in 80 Flowers.
"A" a totalizing account of the world the way the Bible or a dictionary are. Matched by Z's assertion of will on behalf of the individual parts.
Thomas Nelson starts tailing about a desire for "the theatricalization of the archive" after this, but I'm worn out. I go watch some jazz musicians on the Columbia campus for a while (today happens to be Columbia's 250th birthday?too bad about all the rain), come back to cadge a glass of wine from the reception, and then go and meet my cousin Harold and his partner John for dinner at a nice Korean place. That evening we attend the performance of "A-21" at the Theater in Riverside Church. Bad moment at the beginning when the woman playing the Prologue flubs her lines, twice. Can't blame her, it's an extremely difficult monologue. But the play goes smoothly and entertainingly after that. It's a lot like Shakespeare; the Plautus play Z was "translating" here is obviously one of S's sources for Twelfth Night and The Tempest, with Leno the pimp more or less prefiguring Caliban. Some very beautiful poetry spoken by the "voice off," though why they chose an actor with an Australian accent to read it is anyone's guest. Harold and John were, I think suitably entertained.
[Okay, that's enough for today. Sunday's notes will follow soon.]