Wednesday, September 15, 2004

First things first: check out my friend and co-conspirator Theo Hummer’s new poem up at the Verse blog. Good going, Theo!

Okay, now I’m very interested in Ron Silliman’s post today. Duncan’s HD Book as a kind of precursor to blogging—that’s a semi-intriguing proposal. But I’m most struck by the same paragraphs that grabbed Stuart Greenhouse on the supplanting of mysticism and esoteric theologies by poststructuralist theory in the work and thought of post-New American poets. Stuart is surely right to point out that Walter Benjamin is a figure overlapping both alternative systems ("systems" isn’t at all the right word—"parasystems"?) of knowledge; furthermore, I don't think you can underestimate the role of Jewish practices of interpretation and theology to the thought of Derrida. And surely one of the most important poets that Derrida championed, Edmond Jabes, could be seen as not just overlapping but actually synthesizing a mystical and theological critique (and hope) with a philosophically informed skepticism about (and desperate need for) language.

That aside, I find the move from mysticism to "theory" to represent a positive trend (if not necessarily "progress") in American poetry, since it is (especially in its Frankfurt School manifestations) explicitly concerned with understanding the political world—the surface of the earth upon which we actually live and die—whereas mysticism always diverts one's interest either below the surface (the "deep image") or into the heavens. (Though of course it is possible for mysticism to be a long road back to the actual world, a road which drives and develops the imagination to new visions for being: Blake is the supreme example here.) But the most troubling part of Ron's post is this remark: "[A]ll modes of theory also offered one of the primary phenomena that had been associated previously with modes of mysticism - a difficult, convoluted linguistic tradition in which verification often mattered less than authority and prestige."

The rightness of this seemingly offhand observation is immediately recognizable: how often, in academia and elsewhere, I've seen people invoke names like Derrida and Kristeva and Benjamin not as synecdoches for the thought of these women and men but as talismans of charisma and glamour (from the Scottish for "magic spell"). I'm guilty of it myself. There's an unquestionable pleasure to be derived from the sense of initiation into mysteries I experienced when I first encountered the texts of Nietzsche and Foucault: palpably resisting easy comprehension by virtue not just of their "convoluted linguistic tradition" but because, like any mystical thinker who directs your attention away from phenomena, they were so counterintuitive. Theory is transcendent to common sense, and no one who ever truly grasps Marx's concept of the uncanny life of commodities or the Nietzschean geneaology of Christian morals or Derridean differance will ever truly return to believing in the sufficiency of the apparent and empirical. Which is not to say you can get by without the apparent and empirical, the realm of daily life and suffering, all too easily overlooked by those for whom theory offers a radiant glimpse of the ideal.

Verification without simplification or quantification—that's the standard of truth I try to hold myself to, while leaving considerable wriggle room for those dimensions of experience which we only approach through metaphor or hazy talk of "being" or the intensification of perception (and language) that comes of being in love. Authority and prestige seem like very poor things to build a system of knowledge upon—though that's precisely what the various "wisdom traditions" opposed to Western rationality over the centuries rely upon (even and especially though indigenous prestige has shattered, again and again, not against Western rationality but the brutal force the West has brought to bear against every Other it's ever encountered). Or at least they rely upon those things for their transmission, coming as they do from the elder (poem). The content of such traditions, like that of theory, is simply a means of comprehending the world that does not take phenomena at face value. If we could live by appearances it might not be such a bad thing, and perhaps that's what the calculated naivety of the Imagists (back to the things themselves!) and Objectivists (the poem's a thing, too!) was aimed at. But of course we can't and don't; we are hopelessly interpolated by ideology and we can't come to consciousness about that, can't find a grip, can't imagine an outside, without some sort of theory. Maybe it remains a questions of initiation: for every ten grad students clutching Discipline and Punish as a magical talisman there's a single thinker who's brought genuine self-consciousness to the consciousness of consciousness and its structures that postmodern philosophy offers. The main problem with this model may be all the bad, convoluted, second-order theoretical writing one has to slog through and probably generate (QED). You get through it all, you really think it through and into and then out again of your very body. And then you start writing like William Bronk. Or A.R. Ammons. Or a third-rate Coleridge. Hum.

Such waltzing is not easy.

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