Contemporary Poetics, edited by Louis Armand
(Northwestern University Press, 2007)
Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics by Steve McCaffery
(Northwestern University Press, 2001)
Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science by Christian Bök
(Northwestern University Press, 2002)
These three books are part of Northwestern University’s ‘Avant-Garde & Modernism Studies’ series edited by Marjorie Perloff and Rainer Rumold. Their intention is to challenge. They succeed.
Armand, in his ‘Editor’s Introduction: Transversions of the Contemporary’, defines, at p xiii, the boundaries of this work:
Neither is the purpose of this volume to enter into a polemic as to the claims and counterclaims of various ‘schools of poetry,’ nor does it intend to suggest that there is any determinate aesthetic, formal, or philosophical dimension of ‘contemporary poetics’ that could be taken as a legitimatization of the views of one party over another. Moreover, it in no way seeks to report on what might be considered the current state of poetry or of poets writing ‘today.’ The sense of the term ‘contemporary poetics’ as it is used in this volume rests neither in the delineation of a specific period or epoch nor in a present conceived in terms of it but rather of a ‘condition’ of writing – of the poetic enterprise – which is both historical and attuned to the radical complication of poetics and the ‘present time of writing.
He then sets out an overview which whets one’s appetite for what will follow. And so we enter the realm of theory.
Following on the heels of ‘How Empty is my Bread Pudding’ where Charles Bernstein writes a poetry of language disguised as aphorism, Marjorie Perloff asks, in ‘After Language Poetry: Innovation and its Theoretical Discontents’, “And how much longer can poets keep innovating without finding themselves inadvertently Making It Old?”(16) Perloff reminds us that:
The lasting contribution of language poetries...is that at a moment when workshop poetry all across the United States was wedded to a kind of neoconfessionalist, neoromaticist discourse, a discourse committed to drawing pretentious metaphors about failed relationships from hollandaise recipes, language theory reminded us that poetry is a making [poien], a construction using language, rhythm, sound, and visual image, that the subject, far from being simply the poet speaking in his or her natural ‘voice,’ was itself a complex construction, and that – most important – there was actually something at stake in producing a body of poems, and that poetic discourse belonged to the same universe as philosophical and political discourse.(21)
Perloff then appears to wander off before reaching near to a conclusion where she indicates that in poetry today:
two important things are happening. The first is a visualization of poetic text – a visualization which is again a time-honoured mode, as in George Herbert’s The Temple or Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés (A Throw of the Dice), but reconfigured in important semantic ways in Johanna Drucker’s The Word Made Flesh or Susan Howe’s Eikon Basilike. The second is a form which I call, for want of a better name, ‘differential poetry,’ that is, poetry that does not exist in a single form but can vary according to the medium of presentation: printed book, cyberspace, installation, or oral tradition.(33)
In Part Two: Precursors, the things, ideas, images that led to the present epoch of post-modernity, post-romantic, post-post are examined. In ‘Getting Past Odradek’, Kevin Nolan takes us through Kafka and his Odradek, a “’star shaped cotton reel’ trailing ‘old, broken-off bits of thread, knotted and tangled together’”(41) used here, whether or not used by Kafka as same, as a symbol of the things that get stuck in attempting to enter a new epoch, Donald F. Theall, in ‘The Avant-Garde and the Wake of Radical Modernism’, takes us back to 1939, the year James Joyce published Finnegan’s Wake, which he postulates as the advent of ‘digiculture’, arriving at the conclusive statement that “if new modes of electronic communication and other technologies (e.g. the railroad, the automobile, film, and the airplane) complemented by Riemann’s discovery of descriptive geometry partly transformed the nature of space and time, artists explored these new altered perceptions in poetry, mobiles, montage, and the exercise of the imaginary.”(65) leading him to say that “living within this context, Joyce organized this network of intuitions and linked them to the longer-term prehistory of the newly emerging media world which many of his fellow artists had also intuited, thus providing an even greater irony to his statement, ‘Wait till Finnigan wakes,’ for that waking would be both the transformation of dream into virtual reality and the transformation of the participants (the audience) through their understanding of the media effects.”(ibid)¨
In ‘Doctor Williams Position, Update’, Bob Perelman analyzes W.C. Williams’ ‘Asphodel’ initially through the lens of Plato’s Ion then leading us through poetic hoaxes and an examination of candor as represented by Ginsberg and Williams whereupon he briefly returns to Asphodel before launching into Paterson and saying “here speech, mimetic depiction of banality, internal didactic rant, and stumbling approaches to more illuminated states of mind are all granted equal access to the page...As the stanzas follow one another, each makes something different and a little more active out of what has come before”(91), all in imitation of an accordion without ever arriving at a place which one could call a conclusion which, by the standards of a good Language writer, avoids closure. Describing Wallace Stevens as a romantic (which is true of most poets to which the appendage ‘modern’ has been applied for Modernism is but the end of Romanticism), Simon Critchley states, at p. 106, that “Stevens is philosophically significant because his verse recasts the basic problem of epistemology in a way that perhaps allows the problem to be cast away. What we might call his ‘poetic epistemology’ can be said to place in question the assumptions behind the traditional epistemological construal of the world. This is what I think is at stake in approaching poetry as philosophy.” From there, he arrives at the conclusion regarding Stevens that “the consequence of Steven’s argumentation is that the truth we experience when the poet’s fictive imaginings are in agreement with reality is a truth of fact. But it is an enlarged world of fact: things as they are, but beyond us.”(108) And his conclusion regarding poetry and poets that “poetry is like the light which illuminates objects in the world, it is the unseen condition for seeing, unseen until seen with the poet’s eyes and then seen anew. Like light, it adds nothing but itself. Close to the heat of that light, we live more intensely. Or so we say.”(109) D.J. Huppatz, in ‘Corporeal Poetics: Kathy Acker’s Writing’, comes to the conclusion that
Acker’s corporeal poetics suggests a writing that can produce erotogenic zones. Indeed, there is a clear sense of corporeal production in reading Acker’s texts (or listening to her perform); the predominance of dialogue and multiplicity of voices take on another dimension when read aloud. While the sense of sight when reading functions by doubling and dividing, hearing functions through resonance. While visual possession of characters is difficult and the complicity of sight and speech in conventional narrative is undermined, when heard aloud, Acker’s excessive writing attains a rhythm; the repetitive scenes and speed of changes becomes cinematic ebbs and flows of desire.(123)
Finally, in ‘Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and the Secret History of Maximalism’, Michel Delville and Andrew Norris substitute for a discussion of James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake and Samuel Beckett’s oeuvre a discussion of two of sixties’ rock’s most innovative performers/composers – Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart – reaching the conclusion that
the inside-outside on the edge laugh in Zappa, which encapsulates the maximalist body, represents the rhythm of response...with its vertiginous plunge from miraculous gain to catastrophic loss and back again, while at the same time mocking it with an audaciously recessive form of metafiction. In the light of this phenomenal laugh one might even be tempted to risk a universalizing statement and suggest that the origin of maximalist art is the antisocial impulse to go on joking regardless of the potential for real and feigned amusement.(146)
But, in the end, we are left wondering what exactly is ‘maximalism’ as it relates to poetics – unless, of course, Delville and Norris are telling us that the poetics of late 60s rock are the same poetics that informs Joyce and Beckett and other ‘maximalist’ writers. By the way, this section is a maximalist attempt at throwing everything into the soup, including the pot, of precursors to postmodernity.
We now move into ‘Conjunction’. The first article in this section, ‘Metaphor: The Color of Being’ by Ricardo L. Nurinberg, explores the concept of metaphor and its inadequacies. He initially discusses Max Black’s ‘More About Metaphors’ (1977) which sets out that the “two traditional (and inadequate) definitions are ‘substitution’ and ‘comparison.’ The former states that a metaphor substitutes for a set of literal propositions; the latter requires that those propositions present a likeness or analogy between two concepts.”(116) This definition is then extended to include the ‘interaction’ concept which applies a mathematical analysis of the ‘isomorph’ whereby “a one-to-one function between two sets A and B”(ibid) is created but which, again, proves wholly inadequate. John R. Searle’s definition is then brought into play that all words have connotations and denotations before leading to George Lakoff’s Metaphor and Thought in which his “definition of metaphor...is the same as Black’s but maimed”(158) as the concept of isomorphs is abandoned with the domain of comparison being limited to that of the conceptual, i.e. “metaphor is not a linguistic phenomenon; the mapping occurs between two sets of concepts or mental objects, in other words, between signifieds, not signifiers.”(159) An interesting discussion of the meaning of metaphor ensues during which Nurinberg looks to the Renaissance discussion of whether color or design is primary and how this relates to the idea of metaphor. Proceeding through an examination of Bertrand Russell’s concept of vagueness set against Ezra Pound’s equating of ‘good art’ to ‘the art that is the more precise’ and punctuating this prose with references to the ‘precise’ time that it is being written, Keston Sutherland, in ‘Vagueness, Poetry,’ discusses the ambit of the vague before arriving at a semi-precise statement that “In poetry this impossible defiance shines, like love as the ideal limit of hatred.”(183) Conjunction proper emerges in the collaboration of D.J. Huppatz, Nicole Tomlinson and Julian Savage who are all part of the Melbourne-based experimental writing collective Textbase. In addition to extending the parameters of Fluxus where word and image are montaged into mobiles, soup cans ala Andy Warhol, et al, they have combined their opinions in this op-ed piece on contemporary poetics, ‘AND &,’ arriving at the realization that “it was never every artist but only those of a particular order that were to be expelled from the republic...those poets leading astray the citizenry by presuming to know a thing beyond the entitlement of art – imitating second-order occurrence – traversing an indecorous, a dangerous and corrupting region of shadow – stepping beyond a constrained invocation of the presence of the gods – threatening instead to displace them – to multiply them – to obscure, cover over, or rupture the One/Idea.”(195) This section concludes with two essays – ‘Reading Notes’ and ‘Lost and Found’ – by Bruce Andrews. Andrews begins ‘Reading Notes’ with the following:
There are givens of writing open to contest, but there are also givens of reading open to contest...
...Especially when it comes to connecting the possibilities for such drastic new writing with the opportunities we take up as readers. Here, we could focus on the ways that meaning & pleasure & challenges in ideology get fashioned out of the up close experience of reading, not just from our taking in the triumph of experimental writing. We’re pulled outside of any model of straightforward communication & exchange, or of cultural capital to be appropriated as someone leans back to be impressed & entertained. Certainly it goes beyond a reading dedicated to some revelation of prepackaged content or response to an author’s prior intention: ‘include stakeouts beyond sense declension.’(197)
which leads to the following in ‘Lost & Found’: “Even the facts are pastiches – to keep you from getting demiremanded to the doxauthorities.”(209)
‘Concrete Poetry: A Manifesto’ by Augusto de Campos, originally published in Portuguese in 1956 in a Brazilian architectural magazine, opens the section on ‘Cursors’. It is immediately followed by a ‘Questionnaire of the Yale Symposium’ completed, again in Portuguese by de Campos, for submission to the Yale Symposium on Experimental, Visual, and Concrete Poetry which took place in 1995. In response to the question “Is there a poetics of concretism, or is concrete poetry a formal device rather than a conceptual device?”, de Campos responded, at p. 218:
As I see it, concrete poetry did not come about as a formal specialization in the field of modern poetry...but rather as a proposed radicalization of poetic language in which the visual aspects constitute just one of the relevant parameters. What concrete poetry sought was to recuperate the specificity of poetic language itself, the materiality of the poem and its autonomy, beginning with a revision and radicalization of the methods of modern poetry and of the elaboration of a new creative project in the context of new media.”
This analysis of concrete poetry is then followed by Darren Tofts’ ‘Epigrams, Particle Theory, and Hypertext’ in which he examines the epigram from the perspective of Deleuze and Guattari’s interpretation, “in an intriguing, multimedia way, using images instead of text”(221), which then takes the discussion through Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Sand in which “we encounter a text that is never the same each time it is revisited, a text that never repeats itself”(223) and on to Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller which “stands for an attitude to experimental writing devoted to the problematic of the beginning, of the commencement”(225) then into particle physics and Stephen Hawking’s ‘virtual particles’ “and it is for this reason that this particle theory of hypertext is a potential literature, an Oulipean exercise in speculative possibility”(229) which takes us back to Borges as “we can temporarily think outside the pervasive cultural logic of binarism that still structures new media forms such as hypertext”(ibid) for which Tofts says “it is a theory of the text occupying a fabular space and time of the possible, parallel to our own.”(ibid) Gregory L. Ulmer’s ‘Image Heuretics’ is a fascinating excursion back into Baroque times in order to excavate the Italian concetta “the most useful feature of [which] is that it provides a form with which to compose the image-text (seeing-reading)”(249), the concept of which fascinated both Walter Benjamin and Deleuze, via Leibniz, where “what makes a concept a concetto, Deleuze stresses, is the folding of the concept into the individual”(250) leading to the individualistic form of the emblem, the impresa, a subcategory of the concetto, and arriving finally at where this essay began: the creation of the Memorial which “performing the EmerAgency...treats the disaster as a source for understanding contemporary values, specifically as a mode of self-knowledge, rather than attempting to impose on the disaster a predetermined meaning”(253) and its application to 9-11. If what you were expecting from J. Hillis Miller’s ‘The Poetics of Cyberspace: Two Ways to Get a Life’ was a discussion of hyperlinks in the use of poetry and other writings, they you’re in for a disappointment. Instead, Miller creates two hypothetical characters – Horace and Jimjim – one a ‘book person’, the other a ‘cyberperson’, discusses their hypothetical lives and arrives at “my conclusion of conclusions, the ultimate result of my thought experiment, is that it is better to be a cyberperson than to be a paper person, though I have some reservations about that.”(276) This section is completed with two articles on codework. McKenzie Wark begins ‘From Hypertext to Codework’ with the statement that “digging writing out of the prison house of ‘text’ might just be what is needed to unblock thinking about where the Internet is taking writing. There has always been more to writing that text, and there is more to electronic writing than hypertext.”(279) Wark then lists three limitations of hypertext before arriving at the conclusion that “for all the talk of the death of the author, the hypertext author assumes much the same persona as his or her avant-garde literary predecessors.”(280) Wark then wanders into codework stating that “many codework texts hover on the brink of legibility, asking the reader to question whether the author if made of flesh or silicon, or perhaps whether authoring lies at the level of writing text or coding software to write text.”(282) Although it is somewhat long, Wark, on p. 284-5, provides an excellent summation for what codework is and how it fits into the postmodernist agenda:
At the heart of the codeworking enterprise is a call for a revised approach to language itself. Many of the creative strategies for making or thinking about writing in the latter part of the twentieth century drew on Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics. In the hands of poststructuralists, language poets, or hypertext authors and theorists, this was a powerful and useful place to start thinking about how language works. But Saussure begins by separating language as a smooth and abstract plane from speech as a pragmatic act. Language is then divided into signifier and signified, with the referent appearing as a shadowy third term. The concept of language that emerges, for all its purity, is far removed from language as a process.
What codework draws attention to is the pragmatic side of language. Language is not an abstract and homogeneous plane, it is one element in a heterogeneous series of elements linked together in the act of communication. Writing is not a matter of the text but of the assemblage of the writer, the reader, the text, the text’s material support, the laws of property and exchange within which all of them circulate, and so on.
Codework draws attention to writing as media, where the art of writing is a matter of constructing an aesthetic, an ethics, even a politics, that approaches all of the elements of the process together. Codework makes of writing a media art that breaks with the fetishisms of the text and the abstraction of language. It brings writing into contact with the other branches of media art, such as music and cinema, all of which are converging in the emerging space of multimedia and which often have a richer conception of the politics of media art as a collaborative practice that has been the case with writing conceived within the prison house of ‘text.’
The section ends with ‘Codeworld’ by Alan Sondheim, one of the leading practitioners of codework. We are presented with examples before being taken to Wittgenstein’s Tractus Logico-Philosophicus and the exception the codeworkers take to it leading to sentence residue.
Louis Armand’s essay ‘Strange Attractions: Technopoetics in the Vortext’ opens the final section ‘Transpositions’ with an analysis of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake before taking us through John Cage’s chance techniques, chaos analysis, the Fraser Spiral, etc. before arriving at the following:
The seeming paradox here is that the more ‘chaos’ in a data stream, the more information that is conveyed by each new bit. Thus again, as in Cage’s mesostics and Joyce’s Wake, the elaborate models generated by means of acrostic coordinates suggest models evolved in recent chaos theories involving turbulence and nonlaminar flows in thermodynamic systems. Like these, the technopoetics of Cage and Joyce appear to function as a kind of `system` which moves from predictable behavior to unpredictable behavior, by virtue of the introduction into the system of an element of indeterminacy, or conversely the withdrawal of the possibility of straightforward or statistical `redundancy.`(315)
Steve McCaffery’s, ‘Parapoetics and the Architectural Leap’, is an extremely thought-provoking essay dealing with the concept of frames as permeable boundaries, dissipative structures that, on a quantum level, dissipate energy and matter in violation of thermodynamics through an increase ‘in small random fluctuations’, and contrasting ‘parapoetics with comparative poetics as “parapoetics does not work to constitute and defend the discrete frame of the poem but rather explore[s] how the frame can be challenged to open up a poetics without borders.”(325) After short essays by Allen Fisher, ‘Traps or Tools and Damage’, and Steve McCaffrey, ‘Discontinued Meditations’, Marjorie Perloff concludes this section, and the book, with ‘Screening the Page / Paging the Screen: Digital Poetics and the Differential Text’ where, early in this essay she cautions:
“But no medium or technique of production can in itself give the poet (or other kind of artist) the inspiration or imagination to produce works of art. And poetry is an especially vexed case because, however we choose to define it, poetry is the language art; it is, by all accounts, language that is somehow extraordinary, that can be processed only on rereading. Consequently, the ‘new’ techniques whereby letters and word can move around the screen, break up, and reassemble, or whereby the reader/viewer can decide by a mere click to reformat the electronic text or which part of it to access, become merely tedious unless the poetry in question is, in Ezra Pound’s word, ‘charged with meaning.’(377)
McCaffery has been at the forefront of contemporary poetics which is why two of his essays were used to close Armand’s book. McCaffery continues his explorations in Prior to Meaning. In his introduction, he states:
Prior to Meaning studies the ways in which language behaves rather than how it’s designed to function. It traces a limited autonomy of the written mark at a level both beneath and around the semantic. Collectively the twelve essays index a general shift in my thinking away from a Saussurean model of language (langue/parole, signifier/signified) to a different set of provocations found in Prigogine and Stengers, Deuleuze and Guattari, Alfred Jarry, Sade, Leibniz, Lucretius, and in the ‘other’ Saussure, the Saussure of the programmatic notebooks – provocations that led me to consider writing as a material scene of forces.(xv)
This voyage into language is a voyage even Homer would have trepidations about taking.
In his first essay, ‘Insufficiency of Theory to Poetical Economy’, McCaffery, after first briefly discussing Aristotle and Plato’s The Apology (and even more briefly The Republic) which leads him to say that “in the Apology, it is the axiomatic separation of creator from semantic determination and from all rational procedures that is called for. Poetry (in a manner Foucault later demonstrates of madness) is defined, enclosed, and then silenced. After the Apology, the poet is committed to the domain of semantic heterology.”(6) McCaffery calls up Kristeva to salvage theory:
Issuing from a ‘split’ subject divided between conscious and unconscious drives, such texts involve an oscillating tension between two discrete signifying processes that Kristeva famously terms the ‘symbolic’ and the ‘semiotic.’ The latter carries the burden of instinctual drives and forces that affect, but do not support, a social transmission. Despite the strictures of a siociolect, the semiotic is disposed in specific detectable aspects of language, especially its rhythmic and sonic intricacies. The symbolic process, by contrast, involves a disposition toward the normative modes of signification: grammar, syntax, sentence integration, and the covering rules that guarantee unproblematic, intersubjective communication. (Needless to say, textual practice valorizes the former, semiotic disposition.)(6-7)
After engaging in discussion of Bataille, Benjamin and others, McCaffery says that “the stability of substance in any poetical economy would announce itself as a provisional equilibrium in a dissipative structure, between lineal, grammatical accumulations of words that integrate into higher units and the simultaneous expenditure of the letter components into potentially infinite indexical configurations.”(14)
‘Zarathustran ‘Pataphysics’ begins its examination by determining what Alfred Jarry meant by ‘pataphysics’ leading us to an analysis of Lucretius’ concept of the ‘clinamen’ being one of the two “presidential concepts in pataphysical method”(17), the other being the syzygy, derived from astronomy and applied by Jarry in the sense that “a word must transfix a momentary conjunction or opposition of meaning” whereas the clinamen bears resemblance to a typographical error being “like a slip of the tongue...less a performance than a happening” which discussion eventually leads us through Nietzsche to Brisset and homophonic construction where “homophony registers a certain autonomy of language outside of referential constraints and systematic relations but also unleases a dynamis of vertiginous, uncontrollable transformations.”(29)
This philosophical - in particular the philosophies of Leibniz and Deleuze and Guattari - application to poetics is continued in the examination of Robin Blazer’s The Holy Forest in which McCaffery attempts to reconcile the Deleuzian fold with Leibniz concept of the monad or, as McCaffery says at p. 44 “The compound, monadic cavities of a male womb folded as a ripple in a holy sea or ocean and refolded into that sacra bosco Robin Blazer names his Holy Forest.
McCaffery, in ‘Charles Olson’s Art of Language’, provides a fascinating look into Charles Olson’s poetics dividing this examination into two quasi-discrete aspects: that of the breath and that of Mayan hieroglyphics. In each case, he slides Blanchot alongside Olson. In concluding the examination of breath, for example, he states, at p. 52:
Against Olson’s conception of the poem as a ‘high-energy construct and at all points an energy discharge,’ Blanchot offers the notion of writing as low-energy inscription whose pneumatological-physiological coordinate is asphyxiation – further suggesting that to release expression, yet keep it void (as in pain, fatigue, or misfortune) may be to stage expression within ‘the dimension of the infinity of language.’ Blanchot senses a deeper cessation than that of aesthetic silence occasioned by the space of the line-break. For him, space, silence, and lack constitute a site for the entry of a profoundly nonunifying language – the start of a struggle, in fact, toward a writing that cannot figure in language. It is that otherness – a radical alterity registered by a modality of waiting – that negotiates itself as the suppressed aspect of the Object, and permits a return to Olson in a relation other than registered by a modality of waiting – that negotiates itself as the suppressed aspect of the Object as the Other emerges nonproprioceptively in a context other than Olson’s poetics: his study of – and fascination with – the art of the Mayan language.
This then takes us into that other aspect where McCaffery says, at p. 57:
If the presidential binaries of ‘Projective Verse’ and proprioception are inner-outer and surface-depth, then Olson’s Mayan project effectively abandons them. Indeed, a somewhat modified relation to alterity might be argued: a depthless gaze on and cruising of an essentially laminar flow. The fact is, Olson is seduced by Mayan glyphs...In neither providing discursive encounters nor communicative exchange the glyphs offer themselves as the optical induction of self-encrypted meanings. One might call this the protosemantic stratum of the seductive sign – insinuating fittingly into Olson’s Mayan project with its emphasis on the ‘live stone’ and with attention fixed not on the glyph as denotation but on its connotational seduction through ‘its force as carved thing.’
In ‘Richard Bentley: The First Poststructuralist’, McCaffery examines the relationship, rivalry even, between poet and editor as it existed between Milton and Bentley. At p. 61-2, he makes a fascinating and provocative statement:
Such rivalry reduces to the simple issue, in localized aspects of the poem, of who exercises the better poetic judgment. It is at these moments where the fissure in respective taste becomes apparent. Milton’s Baroque complexity of thought, Italianate and fueled by metaphoric license, is pitted against Bentley’s uncompromising insistence on logical correctness and rational consistency. Detectable at these times is an unbreachable gap in poetic tastes, a Lyotardian differend at the root of Bentley’s assurance that, if Paradise Lost were to be established as a classic, it must be purified of what he calls its ‘romantic rubbish.’
In ‘Johnson and Wittgenstein: Some Correlations and Bifurcations in the Dictionary and the Philosophical Investigations’, McCaffery continues his eccentric but, nonetheless fascinating, excursions into the realm of language. He sums up his assessment of Johnson’s Dictionary as follows:
I hope I have shown that the Dictionary is a book that rewards scrutiny and encounter through current conceptual apparatuses, but that I have also indicated its sober aspects as a document of eighteenth-century Tory ideology. While grasping the essential turbulence and metamorphosis of living utterance, Johnson refuses to see the inherent shiftiness and intractability of quotations. Like footnotes and marginalia, quotations are by their very nature capricious objects of transfer – clinamens effecting dialogue and alterity. Yet Johnson’s dream is to assemble these instable fragments as a reservoir of absolute exemplarity. As a result, the Dictionary registers as the convulsive confrontation of a lexical list by an analogy of cultural fragments.(101)
[Note, by the way, that ‘instable’ is not incorrect but, in fact, an acceptable variant of ‘unstable’ at the time Johnson was writing.] In comparison, he says of Wittgenstein that:
Such presumption to power is absent in Wittgenstein, and the classlessness of his ordinary language paradigms retains its force as the Investigations’ instant, if evanescent, attraction. In reality, Wittgenstein remains captive to naive instances, failing to carry through a fully social articulation of those ideas and theories instantiated in his banal, interpersonal examples. As a consequence, no insights are offered into language’s noninstrumental workings and effects. For Wittgenstein, it is unproblematic to assert that ‘people use language’ and inconceivable that language might be thought of as using people. He is to be thanked for returning philosophical discourse from metaphysics and ontology back to ordinary human phrases, but the question needs to be asked – what follows from this success? The task now is to overcome the humanism that Wittgenstein sanctifies and which Johnson decants and guards.(102-3)
‘Between Verbi Voco and Visual, Some Precursors of Grammatology’ is, by itself, worth the price of admission. This chapter takes us through a variety of ‘writing’ techniques beginning with Pound’s dependence on Fenollosa and his treatise on the Chinese character as the inspiration and force behind the Cantos through scriptio continua to various medieval and renaissance techniques for visualizing the writing process including scoring as in a musical passage where the silence between words and at the end of the passage itself is notated. McCaffery’s comments on scriptio continua are fascinating, particularly for those poets who have engaged in writing without punctuation:
Scriptio continua puts language into both graphic and semantic indeterminacy, resolved only by a reader’s active intervention as the producer of periodicity and differentiation. A censura caesura, or prohibition upon pause, takes effect in which particles in void transform into a plenum. Language tropes itself as a sheet folded into nonarticulation.
By confusing secondary articulation, and thus rendering the discretion of the very articuli indeterminate, scriptio continua creates a syrrhesitic movement of the text – a flowing together of verbal discretions precipitating a more intense, libidinal encounter with the written. In passing, one might note that Lecercle demonstrates how logophiliac délire – that confluence of language, nonsense, and desire – is experienced as a kind of scriptio continua; as a process not of separation but of segmentive erasure. Because segmentive clarity is dissolved, words in continua are initially encountered as letters-becoming-words, presignificatory instabilities and uncertainties in a protosemantic continuum. Punctuation and spacing – as well as its complicated conceptual incarnation as Derridean différance – can be thought of as severing activities that slice a continuum into culturally recognizable sequences but may also be seen as clinamens.(110)
In ‘Sade’, is the following to be taken as merely applicable to the writing of Sade or is the same expandable into McCaffery’s ars poetica:
Just as the libertine functions successfully within the ideological state apparatus..;., so the imaginative transgressions of fiction must be represented through orthodox grammar and syntax...Sade’s is not a semiotic of drive à la Kristeva, effected upon the sensuous materiality of the sign, but a controlled, classical unfolding of the monstrous as a content. This eschewal of formal innovation is a masterly fraud and one worthy of his libertine heroes, for by acquiescing to the established linguistic order, a normative contract with the reader is preserved then invested into a criminal incrimination. Sade, of course, is profoundly aware of the institutional nature of the reader function and of the ideological basis to style. The criminal implication is that of the vehicular neutrality of the language, that demonstrates the same amoral, indifferent, and ultimately evil constitution as Nature itself. Through the innocuous transparency of classical language, the reader functions to reproduce – by consumption – Sade’s primary, imaginary narrative and arguments.(143)
‘Voice in Extremis’ is about just that: the voice – or, to be exact, the second of two meanings of voice as set out by McCaffery on p. 161-2:
The twentieth century presents two distinct scenarios for the voice in poetry. One is a primal identity, culturally empowered to define the property of person. This is a phenomenological voice that serves in its self-evidence as the unquestionable guarantee of presence. When heard and understood through its communication of intelligible sounds, this voice is named conscience. The other scenario – renegade and heterological – requires the voice’s primary drive to be persistently away from presence. This second is a thanatic voice triply destined to lines of flight and escape, to the expenditure of pulsional intensities, and to its own dispersal in sounds between body and language.
Following this, McCaffery sets out the history of sound poetry.
McCaffery begins the essay ‘Jackson Mac Low: Samsara in Lagado’ with a quotation from Ezra Pound: “like the lotus shells, moved by no inner being.” He uses this phrase as the jumping off point for the next, and final, two chapters, which, as he says at p. 187: “I will examine this in the next two chapters, here focusing on the ‘selfless’ productions of Jackson Mac Low and in the final chapter moving on to the ethical implications in this practice – implications that unfold in the light of Levinas’s philosophy.” And with this we shall leave McCaffery to the reader.
Completing this literary triumvirate from Northwestern is Christian Bök. ‘Pataphysics: The Study of an Imaginary Science’ represents, as stated on p. 3: “a supplement to metaphysics accenting it, then replacing it, in order to create a philosophic alternative to rationalism...the disappearance of scientificity itself when reason is pushed to its own logical extreme. Such a ‘pataphysical qualification of rational validity is symptomatic of a postmodern transition in science from absolutism to relativism.” Begun by Alfred Jarry, it is “structured as a descriptive explication, which emphasizes a theoretical perspective...Jarry has provided an often neglected but still important influence upon the poetic legacy of this century (particularly the Italian Futurists, the French Oulipians, and the Canadian Jarryites.)”(4)
In the opening chapter of this survey ‘Science and Poetry’, we are informed, without stating outright, that ‘pataphysics’ is an extension of the Platonic ‘Ideal’:
Philosophy has everywhere begun to threaten the constraints of both the real and the true in order to practice an antiphilosophy – what Jarry might call by the name of ‘pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions and arbitrary exceptions...Jarry suggests through ‘pataphysics that reality does not exist, except as the interpretive projection of a phenomenal perspective – which is to say that reality is never as it is but always as if it is. Reality is quasi, pseudo: it is more virtual than actual; it is real only to the degree to which it can seem to be real and only for so long as it can be made to stay real. Science for such a reality has increasingly become what Vaihinger might call a ‘philosophy of as if’..., wilfully mistaking possibilities for veritabilities.(8)
Declaring ‘pataphysics as the Ur of science, Bök, at p.9, compares Jarry with Nietzsche:
Jarry performs humorously on behalf of literature what Nietzsche performs seriously on behalf of philosophy. Both thinkers in effect attempt to dream up a ‘gay science’, whose joie de vivre thrives wherever the tyranny of truth has increased our esteem for the lie and wherever the tyranny of reason has increased our esteem for the mad. Both thinkers lay the ground work for an antiphilosophy, whose spirit of reform has come to characterize such alternatives to metaphysics as the grammatology of Derrida, the schizanalysis of Deleuze, or the homeorrhetics of Serres. All such antimetaphysical metaphilosophies argue that anomalies extrinsic to a system remain secretly intrinsic to such a system. The most credible of truths always evolves from the most incredible of errors. The praxis of science always involves the parapraxis of poetry.
Bök, at p. 11, refers to three “declensions of exceptions” defining them as follows:
Exception, after all, can resort to an assortment of modalities: variance (anomalos), alliance (syzygia), or deviance (clinamen). The anomalos finds a way to differ from every other thing that values the norm of equivalence; the syzygia finds a way to equate things to each other in a system that values the norm of difference; and the clinamen finds a way to detour around things in a system that values the fate of contrivance.
Regarding science and poetry, “like poetry, science is a bricolage of figures, an assemblage of devices, none of which fit together perfectly – but unlike poetry, science must nevertheless subject its tropes to a system, whose imperatives of both verity and reality normally forbid any willing suspension of disbelief.”(15) He goes on to discuss “four phases of distinct change” that the histories of poetry and science have shared: “the animatismic, the mechanismic, the organismic, and the cyborganismic” which he goes on to define as follows:
Ultimately, the conflict between science and poetry concerns this power to speak the truth, and this power has undergone four phases of epistemic transition: the animatismic phase whose truth involves interpreting signs through an act of exegesis; the mechanismic phase, whose truth involves disquisiting signs through an act of mathesis; the organismic; whose truth involves implementing signs through an act of anamnesis; and the cyborganismic, whose truth involves deregulating signs through an act of catamnesis. ...
During the animatismic phase, when papal academies divide discourse scholastically into modes of textualization and numeralization (trivium and quadrivium), knowledge is rarefied largely because of its insufficient supply. During the mechanismic phase, when royal academies divide discourse aristocratically into modes of investigation and dissemination, knowledge is rarefied largely because of its unspecialized market. During the organismic phase, when state academies divide discourse democratically into modes of ratiocination and acculturation (scientia and humanitas), knowledge is rarefied because of its specialized labor. And during the cyborganismic phase, when state academies divide discourse plutocratically into modes of totalization and optimization, knowledge is rarefied largely because of its overabundant supply.(16-17)
In the next chapter, ‘Millennial ‘Pataphysics’, we find this provocative statement: “For every solar truth of a royal science, there is the lunar truth of a nomad science – a forbidden knowledge that history must outshine.”(33) Bök goes on: “’Pataphysics confronts such a millenary conundrum with imaginary solutions, whose metaphors of exception have perhaps lent as much to Derrida as they have owed to Nietzsche, providing an unwritten intertext for postmodern philosophy.” Bök analyses Jarry’s own writings, such as Ubu, to demonstrate the approach Jarry took in exemplifying the scientific core of this anti-science, the philosophical core of this anti-philosophy. From this point, Bök brings in the concepts of anomalos, syzygia, and the clinamen. Of the anomalos, he says: “such a principle of variance does provide a pretext for postmodern philosophy about the theme of paralepsis (e.g. the supplement in Derrida or the parasite is Serres) – excesses that replace what they augment, operating against but within the limits of the system that must exclude them. The anomalos is the repressed part of a rule which ensures that the rule does not work. It is a difference which makes a difference and is thus synonymous with the cybernetic definition of interferential information – the very measure of surprise.”(38) As to syzygia, it “does provide a pretext for postmodern philosophy about the theme of syncretism (e.g. the chiasmus in Derrida or the syzygy in Serres) – conceits which conjoin as much as they disjoin, inverting, while equating, the values of the binary that must support them. The syzygia is the neglected part of a pair which ensures that such a pair is neither united or parted for more than an instant. It coincides with the laughter that erupts when we eliminate differences in order to imagine the incompossible.“(41) Finally, as to the clinamen, it “provides a pretext for postmodern philosophy about the theme of misprision (e.g. the détournement in Derrida or the déclination in Serres) – vagaries that diverge from what directs them, escaping the events of the system that controls them. The clinamen is simply the unimpeded part of a flow which ensures that such a flow has no fate. Not unlike the spiral of Ubu or the vortex of Pound, such a swerve is the atomic glitch of a microcosmic incertitude – the symbol for a vital poetics, gone awry.”(45)
In the three remaining chapters, Bök takes us through three artistic movements or occasions which attempted to further the pseudo-science of ‘pataphysics: ‘Italian Futurism’, ‘French Oulipianism’, and ‘Canadian “Pataphysics’ (note the double quotation marks). ‘Italian Futurism’ is a misnomer as Bök also addresses the Russian Futurists and the Russian Formalists as well as Duchamp’s ‘machines’. Bök looks at Futurism as an accident, as the play of the clinamen. In his excellent conclusion to this chapter, he states:
Futurism subscribes to an atomist dynamic of becoming to which the machine does not represent the universe as a mechanismic assembly of causes and effects (each event a reprise in the plan of its engineer); instead, such a machine represents the universe as a cyborganismic fracture place of forces and energy (each event a reprise to the bias of its conjurer). The universe is simply a celibate creation for finding out what happens next: it is a surprise machine.
Marinetti hopes to evoke a molecular revolution that might take the ’pataphysical epistemology of Jarry by surprise, augmenting its declensions of exception through the machinic paralogy of shock, noise, and speed...
Futurism ultimately postulates an applied science of poetic theories, in which poetry itself is an accidental instrument for a scientific experiment...Such an avant-garde pseudo-science reveals that the Future is nothing more than a poetic notion that provides an absurd domain for the epistemic fantasies of ‘pataphysics: the as if of its own science.(62-3)
Bök views the Oulipians as akin to the Futurists in that they “regard literature as a cyborganic phenomenon that results from deliberate collisions between poetic devices: the machinic paralogy of accidents. For the Oulipians, writing is automatic, insofar as it results not from an aleatory impulse (as in Surrealism) but from a mandatory purpose (as in Mannerism): writing is itself a machine to be studied methodically and guided systematically, as if by science.”(64) He goes on to say that, “working under the auspices of a speculative institution (le collège de ‘pataphysique), members of Oulipo (who include, among others, such literati as Queneau, Lionnais, Calvino, and Perec) study three unique species of exceptional eventuality: the excess of order emerging out of chaos, the chasm existing between order and chaos, and the swerve of chaos breaking away from order.” Of the Canadian “pataphysicians, firstly, Bök explains the doubling of the quotation as follows: “Canadian “Pataphysics adds another vestigial apostrophe to its name in order to make not only the excess silence imposed upon Canadians by European [note that this time we are not blaming you Americans] avant-garde but also the ironic speech proposed by Canadians against European avant-garde.”(83) This being accomplished, he goes on at the end to state:
Canadian “Pataphysics attempts to perceive the world only through the ironic window of what [bp] Nichol might call a ‘critical frame of reference’ – a clear sheet of acetate that permits the user to reach ‘new levels of philosophical and philological awareness’, since the user can simply place the FRAME (Fixed Reference and Meaning Explainer) over an area of text in order to respond to sceptical inquiries about the context for an academic argument. The FRAME differs from less expensive models sold by less reputable stores [mostly European controlled] because the FRAME lacks ‘the now obsolete black border whose funereal aspect properly announced the intellectual death of its users’; instead the FRAME has clear edges that become invisible at a distance so that, in the end, ‘the whole world fits inside the frame’, the real coinciding with its “pataphysical perspectivism.(96)
So it is clear that the Canadian FRAMEwork for “pataphysical research is the superior one.
In concluding, Bök asserts that “Science at its logical extreme appears to conduct a capricious experiment that facilitates the extinction of the species, doing so as if to facilitate the extinction of science itself. The fear of such a suicidal tendency in science has in turn spawned an array of vitally urgent but largely futile countermeasures (such as neo-Ludditism, ecoterrorism, etc.). But now ‘pataphysics has arrived like the cavalry coming over the hill to save science from its self-immolation.
This poetics excursion has led us through many exotic lands – Codeworld, Protosemantica, ‘Pataphysiconia. These lands, largely uncharted, are left for the intrepid poet/writer to explore. It is only through the efforts of these fearless pathfinders that we can bring light to these dark continents. The efforts examined here provide a rudimentary outline of the coastlines. It is those that follow that must map the interior.
John Cunningham resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada where he writes poetry, poetry and poetics as well as cultural and arts reviews, and where he has recently begun a stint as host of a half hour radio show, Speaking of Poets, of CKUW-FM 95.9 (which can be googled and downloaded or streamed for your listening pleasure). His reviews have appeared in Canada in Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Arc, Antigonish Review, Fiddlehead, the Danforth Review and the Northern Poetry Review, in the U.S. in Quarterly Conversations, Rain Taxi, Rattle, Big Bridge and Galatea Resurrects, and in Australia in Jacket.