Friday, August 23, 2013

Paris Notebook (June 2012)

June 3. Much dirtier and less glamorous than I remember: my heart is not opened. Part of the problem is simple jet lag--plus the fact that I was just "here"--in Europe. German phrases leap to my lips as often as French ones--I am even taken for a German at a kebab shop and offered a "Danke schon" upon departing. Plus my allergies. But Paris--Paris is somehow not yet Paris to me, and I find myself, astoundingly, comparing it unfavorably to Chicago! Could it be that was first impressed me ten years ago was the sheer urbanity of the place--and now that I'm a city-dweller the novelty is gone? A sense of all I'm experiencing being already in the past. The next big project will not begin here. So I am a tourist, looking for what I expected to find. Also, it's unbelievably expensive.

Lunch at a tourist trap across from the Pont des Arts--too hungry to search for something more "authentic," which would be even more expensive. Even a bad French restaurant is good. I do like how the couple on my left has brought their little scruffy dog inside with them and no one objects. The middle-aged American guy says, "Can I get a steak and a glass of red wine?" I'm no different.

I've had better soupe a l'oignon in Chicago. In Evanston, even.

They break a lot of glassware in this place.

Ineffable faint disappointment yet I'm hardly displeased to be her. It's only that Paris no longer nourishes my sense of the ideal--it's just a city whose best days are behind it. Something I didn't feel in Berlin.

The American with the steak is actually Australian.

L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts: entrance on Quai Malaquais. Two fish-backed gray marble columns. Stairs to a great hall in front with dirty glass arcade-style roof.  Obscure panels of classical figures overlook le grand salle where a student exhibition is taking place. A barefoot young woman in a black top and long black skirt conducts an ecstatic dance to the dissonant scrapes of an upright bass.

The cellist, a young man in a dark jacket, bearded and bespectacled, wears a hungry stare. How intimate--the dancer is just a few feet from me. And I must follow her body in motion, or look away. She gets high, then way down low, never quite collapsing. Her long, dirty feet! "At Henry's bier let some thing fall out well..."

A placard: "Programme de recherche La Seine."

In the back courtyard a man in a Spider-Man costume saunters by. Cops, les flics, barricades. An enormous party is apparently being prepared. A wedding?

After work I would follow the steep narrow channel of Rue Bonaparte to the B. Saint-Germain, and from there the tide of young humanity bore me irresistibly to the Sorbonne. Seeming sneer under the bust of Poussin that guarded the entrance to the courtyard. My bulk sailing as if before my I down the strip of sidewalk encouraging those ahead of me to step into the street to avoid a collision. My native diffidence was impossible to sustain. Gigantic and alone, a head taller than the matchstick-sized Parisians, I could only be covered by a tide as deep as the Events themselves. Ever since and after my eye has ceased to matter.

And have Ruth recall "filthy Paris." Alluring cesspool of generation. Horror of copulation: the Old Coutnry with the New.

I met her on the bridge from the Ile de la Cité walking fast. Are you coming from the Cathedral?
- No.
- Charles is out. I thought perhaps we could get dinner.
- Memorials aren't about remembering!
- No?
- They build the memorial so that they can forget. It's only grass and stone.

- If you're not hungry..
- Of course I'm fucking hungry.
She reached up to me with both arms extended like a child asking to be picked up, and almost involuntarily I stooped to her, bent my face toward hers. She kissed me once, fast and dry: I felt the webbed texture of her lips.
- Let's go, she said.

Filthy Paris, with its best days behind it, the days of the world.

June 4. Another fortuitious performance at the Centre Pompidou, a woman plays cello for a group of schoolchildren sitting before an enormous canvas of Cy Twombly's on which I read the words, "Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus."

In the room and corridors of the Sorbonne, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the Opera, in houses and flats, the students sat or squatted in great teeming hordes, clusters, groupuscules, adhered to one another by media of sweat and smoke and endless talk. The tiger paced his cage. Black strips cover the eyes of the police, the legislators, the fearful mothers. We walked everywhere, with linked arms, foregoing trains, the Metro, the pastoral of the automobile. We sang. We all but sang.

Every artwork without exception refers first and foremost to our anatomy.

Two Scythes by I.H. Finlay. One bears the legend: "French Revolution, n.: A pastoral with scythes." The other: "Revolution, n.: A continuation of pastoral by other means." Written on green card: "For the best of the Jacobins the Revolution was intended as a pastoral whose Virgil was Rousseau." Also: "Three Parties in the Convention: The Mountain, the Plain, the Ravine."

Incommensurable gap between those artists who believe in "depth" and those who don't. The abyss (or shapelessness) peered into by Pollock in one of last paintings, "In the Deep" (or some such title).

Always moved by hints of process--the fragment, the sketch. The pencil lines visible through the painted volumes of a woman's head.

The windows: intrinsic mystery that plays with our desire to see.

Line and color: so often these were enough for Matisse.

The young American guy on the Metro explaining the plot of Inception to two middle-aged women, at exhaustive length.

Bach's Mass in B Minor at Salle Pleyel. The music of the Mass expresses a fervent hope--becomes in the glory of voices what it scales after. Credo: in music itself, the only resurrection.

Pairing voices with instruments: a tenor with a flute, a bass with an English (French?) horn, each following the theme of the other. To heighten the expression of the words? Or to gesture at a higher form of speaking? Zukofsky's integral.

June 5. As I emerge from my building a middle-aged black man with a receding hairline, wearing a blue checked jacket, carrying a canvas in his hand--it appears to be a rather indifferent painting of a seascape. He holds it up to someone sitting in the passenger seat of a small white man and begins to explain or sell the painting.

Je parle francais, mais je ne comprends pas francais.

People still smoke here, but not as many as I remember.

Charles Fourier's tomb at the Cimeterie de Montmartre, whose walls I can see from my apartment.
The cemeteries here are more integrated than I expected: a fair number of Jewish graves, some of which allude specifically to the Holocaust and anti-semitism. One sees also the occasional historical placard while walking around:

I note that the students were deported for being born Jews. To emphasize their innocence? Or their Frenchness?

To the east of the cemetery past Rue de Caulaincourt toward Sacre Coeur things get more fahsionable in a hurry. Rue des Abbesses a very cute little high street. Coq au vin just inside the door of a cafe with doors flung wide to the streaming sunny late morning.

Maturity comes with the discovery of limitation. That is the real morning Olson (a late bloomer) speaks of: the work of methodology, how to use oneself and on what. Since the end is imaginable--since one's powers are not, after all, unlimited.

My Paris can't be that younger man's Paris. It's a city. Like anywhere for me, it points inward. I'm perhaps not putting enough into it.

Lumiere. Licht.

June 6. Middle-aged bourgeois in a gray suit and blue tie, a briefcase in one hand an a ukulele case in the other.

Jeu de Paume, Rosa Barba exhibition. Mute, staring. "Wrapped in plastic." Where a spine should e, a cut. The actual sublime, refers us to a text. Floyd, Jermaine. Too many voices. Too many choices. Under the rose with an extra R. The film flickers, cut.

Laurent Grasso's Uraniborg: "spaces of uncertainty or doubt aroused by any conjecture."

Being is more terrible than non-being. As Prometheus shows.

The sea is not the desert. The sea is bountiful. Even when it is a desert to the eye, even while it parches the shipwrecked mariner, the idea of the sea--its secret world of multitudinous life--consoles by what it conceals. Cyclops hammering at the surface of the sea, trying to break through. No-man's mocking laughter.

The most desolate of spaces yet ineluctably refer to the hand of man. To the vulnerable throat, channel of his life.

Les Oiseaux--immense flocks of starlings collecting and decoalescing in shapes and patterns over the Vatican, as though demonstrating some immutable law. They look like the smoke monster from Lost.

The Hungarian-Jewish photographer Ava Besnyö, 21 years old, herself photographed seated on a bed hugging her knees alone at the center of

The composition of an immense space.

Another provocative photo of the young woman shot from below, her expression defiant, hands clasped behind her head so that her elbows are thrust out, revelaing double lustrous patches of hair beneath her armpits. The image of M.

June 7. Conference and conferees. On the left foot. Again that sense of speaking the language without really grasping it.

What I miss in these critiques is Duncan's consciousness of the enemy within. Innovative writing gets fossilized in advance, foreclosed.

But is "reality" so purely a social category? This question of "magnetism" that Christina Milletti talks about.

Easy to throw around words like "fascism." But we are our own fascists--we have fully internalized fascism.

Markets, however, area always about competing narratives--supply vs. demand.

Metafiction: the pathos of conscious investment or cathexis in a narrative--the drama of self-fashioning (Hedwig and the Angry Inch as an example).

If we are Americans or Europeans we participate this reality. We all write it.

The  moment one suspends disbelief: chooses to believe, to go along for the ride--an exquisite unnarrativized moment that can only be re-lived.

Narrative as a simple machine incapable of dealing with the sheer volume of available information. Versus the manifold capacities of rhetoric.

Breakdown now of even secularized theology: the expectation of the integrity of the deal.

Truth-seeking through a manifestly alternative, minority system (Duncan's theosophy, etc.) perhaps opens up the most maximal fields--including fields of the self--to critique and transparency.

Rhetoric versus mimesis. Persuasion by other means?

Rob Halpern: Perec's early essay, "For a Realist Literature." [C.f. "The *Nouveau Roman* and the Refusal of the Real."]

June 8. Panel, "Architectures of Absence."Absenting oneself to permit other entities to enter. Amaranth Ravva: "We can imagine what we've covered up with our life." Leah Souffrant: "The effort of attention is more important than its object."

"IF you are a spam filter, you're just like, 'I don't get poetry.'"

June 9. Musée Carnavalet. A little astonished to discover that the Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety had its own stationery.

Lance Olsen: All literature is now too complex for the market. Is an excess of lyricism, of attention to the sentence, enough to be "experimental"? Is it excess itself--of signification or its absence?

Exterior. Exterior.

June 10. Harry Mathews. "The Dialect of the Tribe," a story dedicated to Perec.

Homage to Perec's Bartlebooth. A story about translation and the (I presume) fictional language of a New Guinea tribe that is untranslatable because it's a process, not a vehicle for content. The phatic, the mere presence of the communicative. Quotes Gaddis: "Having an unfinished novel in your house is like having a sick man."

"But how do you construct a novel?" The need for more mathematically advanced Oulipian techniques.

Problem of Oulipo-produced work: the method overdetermines the critical response. (The potentielle more significant than the littérature.) There's also "Canada Dry": a work that pretends to have a procedure but doesn't. (Roubaud.)

Mathews: "I'm a serious romantic writer."

You saw her alive, less alive, still less alive. You saw it: the degree zero of her living. Then you stepped out of it, went for a walk, went to the library. Between the doorway and the card catalog you got the call. Then she was not alive. You went home to see: a corpse. What you missed: the unalive, the last moment, the final breath. Clinamen of her body abandoned in the bed. She's gone, but you did not see her leave, and so it persists, all the remaining minutes of your life: a doubt.

Coover and Mathews in dialogue. Coover: what holds it together beyond the constraint--voice? Mathews: No, voice comes after, in rewriting.

Two beautiful French words: passé composé.

Gerard Richter at the Pompidou: intensive dialectic of his painting. A 1968 canvas, Bunt auf Grau, has a creamy smooth undulant gray background and reddish impasto pink spattered on top. Two layers of technique married in space.

Curious boundary of illusion or spatial point of disbelief--suspension: when you locate on a illusionistic canvas (a seascape) the mark of the paint. The line of the horizon is a line.

Remarkable echo of Titian's Annunciation. Quotes the painting without mocking it, falls short of the original but is not itself degraded or degrading.

Abstract jungle of greens, yellows, oranges, with a pale red arrow gesturing upward on the right and a thick horizontal slash of darker red on the left as a kind of sibling.

There is a kind of reference to natural forms in the big abstracts, but no gestures toward naturalism.

Force: volume: color: line. 1987's large Abstract Painting: a durably joyful sense of release.

Ghostly horizon, sky and sea in a deep blue abstract. Title: Forest (3), 1990.

Abstracts always present surface forms, but very rarely the illusion of perspective or depth, or even of planes.

It must take enormous confidence to move toward the aleatory abstract from a figurative or lyrical abstract mode.

Destruction is not erasure.

Abstraction --> reality
Landscape --> nostalgia

"The landscapes are a type of yearning... The abstract works are my presence, my reality, my problems... The abstraction is more real, the other more like a dream." Gerard Richter in 1986.

Six monumental fucking canvases inspired by John Cage for the 2007 Venie Biennale. Did I see them there?

A series of mother-and-child paintings on the wall opposite portraits of his uncle Horst, a Nazi, and his aunt Marianne, euthanized for her mental disability.

"The Forest."

Friday, August 16, 2013

My Poet's Novel

"Now, Ariel, rescue me from police and all that kind of thing." (Wallace Stevens)

Eileen Myles, poet.
For quite a while now Laynie Browne has been doing a fascinating series on the phenomenon of the poet's novel over at Jacket2, something I had at one time contemplated doing myself. She has written about or interviewed a panoply of poets who have engaged the novel form in various ways: Alice Notley (who when I asked her about novels, said simply, "Poems are better"), H.D., Dan Beachy-Quick (not to my knowledge the author of a novel, but someone who has in effect laid a claim onto an existing novel: Melville's Moby-Dick as "poet's novel"); Bhanu Kapil, Marguerite Duras (not a poet), Etel Adnan, Lydia Davis (not a poet, not a novelist either!), Aaron Kunin, and most recently, Clarice Lispector (not a poet!). I doubt it's a coincidence that most of the poets she's engaged are women: I think many women writers feel the need to press up against, escape, or violate the strictures of genre (a word quite close to gender, and also to gendarme, "a soldier involved in police duties"). I think the phrase "poet's novel" is transgressive, in a way that gives the genre/gender both its liveliness and its comparative invisibility (the obscure but real difference between a "poet-novelist" and "a poet who has written a novel"). It queers.

One of the most prominent women to have produced a poet's novel recently has not yet been profiled by Browne: that's Eileen Myles, of course, whose Inferno (A Poet's Novel) is one of the most compelling recent examples of the genre/gender. The parentheses are important: they suspend the claim as to the book's genre; the book itself is very must a Bildungsroman or Kunstlerroman, more or less transparently about the experience of the author herself. The parentheses are double (as most parentheses are), inscribing the poet's generic transgression and the transgression of a "novel" whose claims to fiction are put in doubt. Something similar happens with Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station, which I've written about before: the protagonist, Adam Gordon, is clearly a version of Ben Lerner, and the novel's plot focuses, as Myles's does, on becoming a poet. Except for Lerner, it's the "becoming a poet" that should be in parentheses, since there is for his protagonist a fraudulence, an inescapable contaminating fiction, that penetrates the personae he inhabits: an American in Spain who speaks deliberately broken Spanish; a poet who only appreciates poems when they appear as quotations in prose; a grieving son whose father has not actually died. Gordon is very much a manqué version of his author, alternately comic and contemptible; Myles's Eileen, her I, is earnest, questing, angry, and above all, desiring. Adam Gordon tries to be a poet because he thinks it might get him laid; for Eileen Myles sex and writing are almost indistinguishable, part of the continuum of intensities that is life itself. Inferno is more transgressive, more avant-garde than Leaving the Atocha Station, though the latter novel is arguably more entertaining, and less dependent on the reader's investment in the author's work a poet. Inferno puts the emphasis heavily on the Bildung; Atocha Station is much more of a Roman.

If a poet's novel is not any sort of a Bildungsroman, is that when it ceases to be a poet's novel at all, and becomes instead a novel written by a poet? (Thinking suddenly of Denis Johnson's story collection or novel-in-stories Jesus' Son, a kind of ironic anti-Bildungsroman that may mark the transition point, in his career, from poet to novelist.) Or is what matters, what distinguishes the form, that sense of undomesticated queerness? That transgression?

In a recent interview with Lisa Robertson the genre in question is not the novel but the philosophical essay, a discourse that "contains some of our most intensely gendered, authority-ridden constraints." Robertson goes on:
To claim a discursive right you have to engage intimately, and repeatedly, with that right’s potential at the most intimate sites of your relationship to language. A right is not only given by a community or institution. It must be psychologically and intellectually confronted, even invented, in the privacy of cognition and composition. The fear has to do with that process itself. My relationship to philosophy has been that of a passionate life-long reader. Writing the Nilling essays I made a decision to enter this discourse, as an amateur.
I am a white male tenured professor, simply lousy with privilege, and yet I felt much of the same fear and trepidation when I began to write my novel. But the question--it is still a question--is whether I am trying, as Robertson says about the essay, "to claim a discursive right" (which means claiming the identity of novelist) or whether for me what matters in in some way preserving or paying attention to that illicit quality, that fear. Remaining a poet: or as Robertson puts it, an amateur, which of course means both "non-professional," "dabbler," and "lover." Imagine if Inferno bore the parenthetical subtitle, (an amateur's novel). Or even, more precisely, (a lover's novel). Would that capture even more precisely the transgression, the loosening of narrative imperatives (plot, etc.) that "poet's novel" always seems to imply?

Writing about Kapil's Incubation: A Space for Monsters, Laynie Browne says, "Readers of poet’s novels want our relation to the text to be released from the expected conventions of telling. We want instead, to be shown one of any manner of ways in which a text can behave." Release from "conventions of telling," from behavior. A release that can only be meaningful, of course, if one feels the force of those conventions in the first place: something that comes, as Robertson says, of being "a passionate life-long reader." I have always felt that novelists were the only "real" writers; everything else is either overly professionalized (journalism, scholarship) or incapable of professionalization, always already amateurized (poetry). Novels are unique beasts, capable of negotiating, at least at times, the demands of the market and the more rigorous demands--the erotics--of reading. A poet's novel plays with the form, adopts it partially or wears it as a mask. But if it does not take becoming a poet as its subject (as Beautiful Soul does not) then it walks a razor's edge: it becomes a novel, full-stop. Or it becomes something else, stained by its amateurism, its goofy passionate unrequited love, its fears, its queerness, its sojourn in a foreign land that remains, irreducibly, foreign.

My novel can be summed up, for me and for its protagonist, Ruth, like this:
  1. The desperate need to tell a story;
  2. The desperate need to escape the story one has told.
I hope it may find readers for both imperatives.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Venus / Joan of Arc / Lucretius

Joan of Arc, Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1879.
Something about this painting (which I discovered via this Believer interview of Ben Lerner by Tao Lin) reminds me of the ambiguous role of the gods in Lucretius's De rerum natura. He begins his Epicurean epic with this invocation to Venus (in Basil Bunting's translation):
Darling of Gods and Men, beneath the gliding stars
you fill rich earth and buoyant sea with your presence
for every living thing achieves its life through you
rises and sees the sun. For you the sky is clear,
the tempests still. Deft earth scatters her gentle flowers,
the level ocean laughs, the softened heavens glow
with generous light for you. In the first days of spring
which the untrammelled allrenewing southwind blows
the birds exult in you and herald your coming
Then the shy cattle leap and swim the brooks for love.
Everywhere, through all seas mountains and waterfalls,
love caresses all hearts and kindles all creatures
to overmastering lust and ordained renewals.
Therefore, since you alone control the sum of things
and nothing without you comes forth into the light
and nothing beautiful or glorious can be
without you, Alma Venus! trim my poetry
with your grace; and give peace to write and read and think.
This invocation is deeply puzzling to me, given the thesis that Lucretius goes on to unfold: that the way things are, the nature of the universe, is entirely atomistic and material: the gods have no role in creation, and "grim Religion" is castigated as "Horribly threatening mortal men" (switching now to Rolfe Humphries' translation). Yet Venus, the goddess of eros, "alone control[s] the sum of things," and Lucretius entreats her to distract Mars, the god of war, by having sex with him so that he becomes "Forgetful of his office, head bent back, / No more the roughneck, gazing up at you, / Gazing and gaping, all agog for love, / His every breath dependent on your lips." Later in the poem, Lucretius seems to suggest in almost the same breath two opposed ideas: 1) the gods are only a story or "tradition," metaphors at best; 2) the gods are real, but remote:
All this, all this is wonderfully told,
A marvel of tradition, and yet far
From the real truth. Reject it--for the gods
Must, by their nature, take delight in peace,
Forever calm, serene, forever far
From our affairs, beyond all pain, beyond
All danger, in their own resources strong,
Having no need of us at all, above
Wrath or propitiation.

                                   Let a man
Call upon Neptune, if he likes, say Ceres
When he means corn or wheat, miscall his wine
By an apostrophe to Father Bacchus,
Let him keep on repeating that our globe
Is the gods' mother--but let hi, all this while,
Be careful, really, not to let religion
Infect, pollute, corrupt him. Earth indeed
Is quite insentient, has always been,
And as possessor of all particles
Sends many forth in many ways to light,
No consciousness about it.
Look at Joan in Bastien-Lepage's painting. She is rendered with meticulous realism: her flesh is heavy and palpable, her clothing almost rough to the touch. Her outstretched left hand touches nothing; her gaze is fixed at some elevated point we can't see. Behind her are the weightless, nearly transparent forms of angels--one armed, offering a sword, one enraptured or entreating, one bent over in sorrow or ecstasy. Joan sees, and does not see, what we see. The divine messengers have for her both more and less reality than they do for the viewer. Her vision is ethical: not a mimesis of what is, but of what should be: she, Joan, shall fight for France. And yet she is alone before her humble house.

The angels do not confront her. They are behind her, as her own body as visible object is "behind" her in Merleau-Ponty's theory of the intersection of the body and world as "flesh": "the total visible is always behind, or after, or between the aspects that we see of it, there is access to it only through an experience which, like it, is wholly outside of itself" (The Visible and the Invisible, 136). The body, for Merleau-Ponty, is a kind of fold, möbius strip, or "chiasm," as sensor and sensed. Merleau-Ponty speaks of the world as appearing "behind" the body, in a manner reminiscent of how the world appears in a third-person shooter game like Assassin's Creed. He rejects the transcendental subject--the subject that literally "overlooks" the world, the god's eye view: "No longer are there essences above us, like positive objects, offered to a spiritual eye: but there is an essence beneath us, a common nervure of the signifying and signified, adherence in and reversibility of one another--as the visible things are the secret folds of our flesh, and yet our body is one of the visible things" (118).

Not quite a god's-eye view.
The flesh of Joan appears real, and that flesh discloses to her the the angels as flesh-of-the-world-that-must-be, and they appear to us in question: they are there in an indeterminate register that is not simply psychological. The gods in Lucretius are real in the same indeterminate register, to be appealed to as virtualities, as names for forces that we might address, that hold us in their own grip, behind or to one side of the atomistic actions of matter. Chaste Joan is called to war, as Venus is called upon to "pour yourself around [Mars], bend / With all your body's holiness, above / His supine meekness, drown him in persuasion, / Imploring, for the Romans, blessed peace." Venus and the angels are as real as Mars, as Joan, the flesh of war, the erotics of peace.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Vital Materialisms

Jane Bennett's seminar "A Political Ecology of Things" (which was offered at Cornell's School for Criticism and Theory this past June and July), in which we read among others Thoreau, Whitman, Darwin, Nietzsche, Bergson, Whitehead, Perec, Serres, and Deleuze & Guattari,  has given me valuable new tools for thinking critically and poetically about materialism. The emphasis of the seminar was on vital materialism: a materialism, in a word, that takes into account the uncanny liveliness of matter, harkening back to Bergson's theory of élan vital and farther back than that to Spinoza and Lucretius. Bennett's influential book Vibrant Matter seeks to be an investigation of "thing-power and the out-side" (italics original):
Thing-power gestures toward the strange ability of ordinary, man-made items to exceed their status as objects and to manifest traces of independence or aliveness, constituting the outside of our own experience.... a liveliness intrinsic to the materiality of the thing formerly known as an object (xvi).
It's not entirely clear to me why she restricts this liveliness to "man-made items," given that her investigation begins with the following catalog of found objects encountered in a storm drain in Baltimore:

  • one large men's black plastic work glove
  • one dense mat of oak pollen
  • one unblemished dead rat
  • one white plastic bottle cap
  • one smooth stick of wood

"As I encountered these items, they shimmied back and forth between debris and thing" (4). It is an encounter with brute particularity, but there is more to it than that: "When the materiality of the glove, the rat, the pollen, the bottle cap, and the stick started to shimmer and spark, it was in part because of the contingent tableau that they formed with each other, with the street, with the weather that morning, with me" (5). Bennett's philosophical stance insists that this "tableau" is not an artistic production or an aesthetic reaction centered in herself as subject-observer, but a lively "assemblage" (a word she intends in its Deleuzian sense) in which "objects appeared as things, that is, as vivid entities not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects set them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics" (5).

Bennett's encounter with "a culture of things irreducible to the culture of objects" (5) brings vital materialism into tantalizing contact with what Quentin Meillassoux calls le Grand Dehors, the great outdoors which he claims has been sacrificed to philosophical "correlationism," the post-Kantian doctrine that we can never know things themselves, only in and as they relate to us (After Finitude). This "out-side" takes on its most political charge, in my view, when it is brought to bear on our own entanglement with it on a physiological level: the vitality of microrganisms in my intestines, or my own neurobiology which the right sort of parasite can permanently alter, or the evolutionary imperatives of my genes. Vital materialism extends and scales the insights of the great modern discoverers (Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Einstein) of a universe governed by material forces that we can never master or control without doing tremendous violence to the "out-side" that is, in fact, us. Where environmentalists, as Bennett puts it, "selves who live on earth, vital materalists are selves who live as earth" (111, italics mine).

Materialism, as Bennett is well aware, usually takes a different valence in political theory: it is a word generally attached to the words "historical" or "dialectical." Historical materialism, as she sees it, is limited by its anthropocentrism: "Because politics is itself often construed as an exclusively human domain, what registers on it is a set of material constraints on or a context for human action" (xvi). One way to square the circle of historical and vital materialism comes through Bruno Latour, whose position in Politics of Nature and other books Bennett summarizes: "Give up the futile attempt to disentangle the human from the nonhuman. Seek instead to engage more civilly, strategically, and subtly with the nonhumans in the assemblages in which you, too, participate" (116). Perhaps the nonhuman is the new proletariat of a "vital Marxism." Or perhaps the uncanniness of the participation of the nonhuman in political life needs to be pursued in an archeological fashion: I'm thinking of Foucault here but even more of Benjamin's thing-love. More on that another time.

One of Bennett's most interesting jiu-jitsu moves takes place in her relation to anthropocentrism, which she views not simply as the entire problem (as deep ecologists do) but as something that needs to be applied as it were homeopathically: "We need to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism--the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature--to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world" (xvi). This goes hand in hand with a strategic naiveté and a de-emphasis of the task of demystification and critique that are the chief weapons of dialectical materialism (particularly in its Frankfurt School manifestations). There is also in this philosophy a welcome focus on the particular: Thoreau is a touchstone for vital materialism because his version of transcendentalism never reduces this particular huckleberry or that particular wood-thrush to a symbol of anything. (I think Melville and Moby-Dick would also be useful in this regard, particularly as that novel stages in its very structure the conflict between the dark trancendentalist Ahab who would "strike through the mask" of nature and the incredibly detailed investigation of whaling and cetology that shows such care for the particulars of blubber and scrimshaw.)

This has resonance with the challenge presented by the concept of the Anthropocene: humans have become the most significant geological force in the shaping of the planet, so that we have entered a new geological epoch with our name on it. We have met the white whale, and he is us. But he is also not us. Paradoxically, our confrontation with the Anthropocene demands on the one hand an ontological power grab the likes of which has not been seen since Copernicus; on the other hand, it requires a vast humility and Buddha-like acceptance of our inability to fully control the forces we have unleashed. Which is not to say that we mustn't try to control them! But I always get nervous when Buddha, or any cosmological world-view with its eye on the big picture, starts asserting itself: such an ontological position provides little ground to stand on for a politics of action. An ethics of humility and letting-be, necessary and beautiful as that may be, must not be severed from a politics of participation and collaboration, though one that cannot have the hypostasization of any one form of life or being as its goal.

What about poetry?

I was very glad, in Jane's seminar, to finally read in Alfred North Whitehead's Process and Reality, an exceedingly difficult text to grasp without guidance. Whitehead was THE philosopher for Charles Olson, and so his influence on Black Mountain poetics cannot be underestimated. Maybe in a future post I'll explore how my reading of Whitehead has clarified the essence of Olson's project, but for now I find that Whitehead's vocabulary of "prehension" and his wonderfully scalar ontology, which is capable of dealing coherently with the relations between a needle and thread as well as between humans and what he insists on calling "God," are quite useful to me. I have been thinking about Stevens and Ashbery lately, and how their poetry through its whimsicality and parataxis can seem like artifacts of a deconstructive faith in the limitlessness of the signifier and the near-irrelevance of the referent. Or put another way, their poetry constantly and consistently defeats mimesis: it is impossible to visualize the action "I placed a jar in Tennessee"; the images in that poem do not cohere into a mimetic narrative but place the emphasis firmly on the sensuous play of such otherwise inscrutable signifiers like "slovenly wilderness" and "a port in air."

And yet: Tennessee is real, and jars are real, as real at least as Heidegger's jug. And poems are real, and if we encounter them as "actual entities," in Whitehead's language, there is a mutual prehension going on. The poem is a datum for the reader, who will be unable to positively comprehend every semantic action in it; but more basic that comprehension is prehension. In the encounter with a poem (I say "encounter" to light up the possibility of reading the poem aloud, or hearing it read, or otherwise interacting with it in a bodily way) there takes place both positive and negative prehension or selection: this happens on a pre-conscious level, something akin to but more primordial than Stevens's adage that "A poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully." If we are in sympathy with a poem, it may have more to do with this material action than with our ability to understand what it "says." The play of the signifier is indissociable from its materiality. That play is akin to what Whitehead calls "process": the becoming of actual entities, the materialization of concepts (what Whitehead calls "eternal objects") in a procession of activities which has no predetermined end point (or "satisfaction"). Whitehead helps me understand the materiality of poetry in a new way, lighting up the complex interaction between things in the poem, things of the poem (words), the thing the poem is, and the reader.

There are implications here for why poetry may be well-suited to the task of cosmogony, of tracing reality flows, and for demonstrating the liveliness of the nonhuman, that I will be exploring for some tie to come.

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