Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Of Another Tostian Item

When you face this apparition in the clouds.
Zettel for a wet, black crowd.


With that the Pangrammaticon takes a Christmas break. Thanks to all those who have been following along and contributing along the way. Special thanks to Laura, Jay and Tony for their insightful comments, to Aaron for his tip, and to Gary and Marcus, and those I have forgotten, for spreading the word. Thanks also to anonymous. I know who you are, but I haven't allowed you to post a comment. Maybe next year.

Please (continue to) have a look around, leave your thoughts wherever you wish. See you in the new year.

Here are some posts I think are especially clever:

You should, of course, have a look at my series of pieces, entitled "The Annotated Pilot" on Tony Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot", which is a poem you should read in any case. I think Part IV of this series is probably the most coherent.

For some general observations and exercises of a vaguely philosophical kind, try "Remark and Strophe", "Metaphysical Composure", "Do your own thing, man" (about Heidegger's "The Turning"), "The History of the World" and "Likeness, Transparency, Delinity".

For light entertainment (or superior amusement, if you will) I recommend "Cécité à l’aspect", "Untested Poem", "Intermission" (which is also recommended by my sister) and (before bed) "Anodyne Pillow".

Monday, December 13, 2004

The Articles of Articulation


Laura: "I suspect that the best writers are always in some capacity working within a tradition while working against all traditions and find their peace in the singularity of that experience."

Gary: "I think it is up to us to make the discourse about poetry be solid and useful and illuminating. And it is up to us to illuminate the variety of poets.... With poetry: the poet, everything is the poet."

Laura: "I like this: the. Which makes it difficult to generalize. If it is the poet, then, what is the variety?"

This dialogue only almost happened, so it has the strengths and weaknesses of any reconstruction. I hope Laura and Gary don't mind. In any case, the idea I want to introduce with it emerges from my initial reaction to the first remark.

Shouldn't it read, I thought, "the best writers are always . . . working within THE tradition while working against SOME traditions and find their peace in the singularity of that experience." The argument for putting it is this way is that once you have the substantive, but indefinite, article "a" you really already have a singularity. Whatever it is that gives the writer in question a tradition, one that is not necessarily shared by other writers, imbues that writer with a constitutive difference. So there is no need for any conflict or contrast with anything, let alone everything.

Articles (a, an, some, the), as their name suggests, are crucial bits of grammar in regard to the articulation of experience. (I wonder if "all" is an article of this kind in Laura's sentence.) Conjunctions (and, but, if) of course also "join" parts of the sentence, but in a hamfisted, rough and ready sort of way, since the words or clauses to be conjoined remain intact after the operation. The article reaches into the word it joins, defining not just the structure of the sentence, but the texture of the experience sentenced.

But I don't think I'm just being a stickler for logical grammar here. THE poet, who is, according to Gary, everything, cannot be just any old poet, but is an indication toward the full variety of poets (the multitude contained, however imperfectly, by Walt Whitman). It is within THE tradition, when contrasted with the available, off-the-shelf fashions ("some" traditions) that the poet finds her haeceity, or this-ness, i.e., completes the work.

I'd like to defend the idea that "the best writers" of neo-classicism, romanticism, modernism and post-modernism were all doing the same thing and that the best writers of our generation will be doing that as well. Not against all tradition, but toward the one tradition.

What Kitasono, again, called "pure and orthodox poetry".

Friday, December 10, 2004

Apparatus and Machination: an approach to form

Like you, I'm suspicious of etymological analysis. But here's something I picked out of my Concise Oxford Dictionary tonight. In "The History of the World" I said, in effect, that (laboratory) apparatus is to science what (parliamentary) machination is to politics. I very much like that way of putting it. Now, here's what I discovered.

Apparatus comes from the Latin for "to make ready for", while machination comes from the Greek "contrivance". An apparatus, of course, is just scientific or technical equipment, while machination involves the laying of plots and intrigue.

(Readers of Foucault, by the way, will note that "apparatus" translates "dispositif" and that a disposition is a kind of readiness. Readers of Shakespeare, meanwhile, will note that Claudius' machinations are underscored with the slogan "Be in readiness.")

Now, a "scheme" (when it is not also just a plot) is "a systematic plan or arrangement for work or action". And it comes from the Greek for "form, figure". It is also the source of Kant's schematism by which the transcendental categories were to be somehow imposed on empirical experience. Lastly, we have the German "Bild", as in "Bildung", also meaning "form", and which gives us both "picture" and "image".

None of this proves anything, of course. But it indicates a direction. Between our scientific apparati and our political machinations, we have our imagery, the imagination at work (according to the plans, arrangements, plots, intrigues, etc. of our culture and our nature), and this is precisely the site of form. One should imagine (!) two enormous rigs, one material (the apparatus) and the other social (the machination). We connect the one to the other and call this thinking.

The task now is to make all of this experimentally plausible, that is, to devise (to contrive) clever ways of peeling images off appearances and applying them to surfaces. To think.

The History of the World

[Compare Ben Lerner's "Didactic Elegy"]

‘. . .a successful scientific theory of cognition must account for phenomenality, that is, . . . for the fact . . . that things have appearance.’

From the introduction to
Naturalizing Phenomenology

The world is everything that is on my case.
The solution to the problems
of phenomenology, which are problems
of action
as much as of perception,
is that
things appear as people surface.
Appearances are things arranged
on the surfaces of people
And surfaces are people arranged
among the appearances of things.
Note that the tenses are preserved.
Note the surface tension; the apparent ease
Of the presentation is an illusion.
We push against surfaces
and stand before appearances.
The appearance is the locus of our seeing.
It is the ambivalent object of sensation,
Determined in perception.
The surface is the locus of our doing.
It is the ambivalent subject of motion,
Determined in action.
We may push and push
and remain immobile.
We may stand and stand
The immediate determination
of what is seen
is intuition.
The immediate determination
of what is done
is institution.
The image is detached
from appearances,
and applied to surfaces
with equal ease.
The image is what can be done
without effort,
and seen,
without strain.
The image is easy*.
It is no substitute
for thought
for feeling.
Beauty remains the difficulty.
To negotiate the passage
between the intuition
and the institution.
To grasp the concept
is Begrifflichkeit
and to hold emotion,
We play them
off against each other
like third rate diplomats.
Style is negotiation.
The image is a concept
backed like an emotion.
The facility of style
lies in the arrangement of imagery.
May the republic retain
its style.
Imagination is not for children
Politics is to action
What science is to perception.
A doing that transforms the
immediacy of doing, the institution.
A seeing that transforms the
immediacy of seeing, the intuition.
Note where we stand to see.
Note what we see to stand.
History is all that has been done,
the total subject, everyone.
The world is all that will be seen,
the total object, everything.
Knowledge is the rightness of perception,
power the rightness of action.
Science cannot plumb the mind because
the mind itself is stretched
Between the surface and appearance.
Science works alone
on the appearance.
Science wants to see all that it can
Forgetting all that it has done.
Science assembles its apparatus,
and forgets.
By this means it locates objects
in space.
Just as politics positions subjects
in time and
its machinations.
Phenomenology recovers the time lost
In the spaces between things,
The space lost in the time
that is left to the people.
The history of the world:
Everything and everyone
that is on my case.

Post Script

Ezra Pound’s vision of elysium stipulates that ‘First came the seen, then thus the palpable.’ (LXXXI/535). This eidology is here corrected. Motion is as fundamental an experience as sensation. Spirit or mind is not sensation sensing itself (Novalis). Spirit is to be moved by sensation, to be sensitive to motion. To move against sensation. To sense against motion. To stand before and push against. To understand. To stand firm in this middle distance and write.

*We lift images from appearances and apply them to surfaces never the other way round. A surface is that to which an image may be effortlessly applied. An appearance is that from which it is lifted without strain. To imagine is sometimes to see and sometimes to do. The image may equally well be seen or done. The same image is equally compatible with surfaces and appearances. There are not some images that go better with surfaces than with appearances. But we must keep in mind that we cannot impose an image on an appearance; we must lift it from there. Nor can we lift an appearance from a surface, we must put it there. Thus, we lift an image off the appearance of the closed door and apply this same image in opening its surface. This whether in imagination or in experience. That is, the door appears closed as we run into it, and it surfaces in its openness as we pass through it. Note here that the door's openness is nothing to the door but belongs to you and me (the subject), i.e., that which is in motion. Its closedness, on the other hand, is the door’s imposition on our motion (and is objective).

Wednesday, December 08, 2004


One question that is worth asking, if only to show that it can't be answered, is what images are made of; another is where images may be found. The non-answers are: nothing and nowhere.

Images are often attached to things when one thing serves as an image of another thing and therefore represents it (though there are other ways of representing). And images are also, perhaps necessarily, instantiated in or as things (paintings, drawings, photographs, to take standard examples).

But I want to situate the image itself. I want to know how it materializes.

Consider the fact that experience includes something we call "appearances". These are often distinguished for philosophical purposes from "reality" and are sometimes qualified as "mere" appearances. Science compares a great many appearances in order to discern what we are told is an "underlying" reality, unfooled by deceptive appearances.

But experience also includes surfaces. I would like to distinguish these, with a similar aim in mind, from "ideality" again in order to give a sense to the "mereness" of a surface, or its superficiality. Reality and its mere appearance. Ideality and its mere surface. Politics, they say, brings together a great many surfaces in order to approach an "overarching" ideality, undaunted by disconcerting surfaces.

Now, the image, I want to say, is what can be immediately peeled off an appearance and applied to a surface. It is what can be seen without strain and done without effort. When expressed in a well crafted remark or strophe, it is also what can be said without question. Notice, then, that in working with images (at least on my definitions here) we are cut off from representations of the real and the ideal (which we will leave to science and politics).

Pure imagery is the perfect immanence of the presentation. It is what the poet and the philosopher are after.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The Image and the Item

We make ourselves pictures of the facts.

I am thankful for Jay's question a couple of weeks ago about "the conditions (assuming they can be defined) which permit something to qualify as a full image" because it has given me so much to think about. I think I might have something halfway coherent to say about it now.

The first thing I want to note is the adjective "full", which I also used in the original post. I had talked about "full imagery" in contrast to the, as it were, "mere" aesthetic feeling of Kitasono's sample line

a shell, a typewriter and grapes

But I think it is important to remember that the items on this list are quite real, and the words themselves are "fully" meaningful. There seems, then, to be two sets of conditions: those that permit something to qualify as an item on a list and those that permit it to qualify as an image in a poem: indeed, we can say that what we're after here is the distinction between "mere" lists and "full" poems. And Kitasono's procedure is very interesting because it suggests that it is possible to produce imagery, and to go on to produce ideoplasty (or what he called "orthodox poetry"), by the accumulation of lists, i.e., by the concatenation of items.

Some will pause at the other words we seem compelled to use to state this problem, as I do. The conditions in question are to "permit" imagery, by "qualifying" something. We can ask, what is this "something" when divested of the relevant conditions? What is it qualified to be? I think we can proceed experimentally here.

Put three grapes on a white plate.

I am asking you actually to do this, or to do something that is, for all phenomenological intents and purposes, similar (put a couple of round purple somethings on a flat white something . . . or something.) It is not enough that you imagine it because that would of course beg the question.

You're stuck with the image as long as you look at this plate. Cover the plate with a napkin (or something). The image is lost but the items remain there under the napkin. My question now is whether something comparable can be achieved with words. I think Kitasono managed it.

The individual words, "shell", "typewriter", "grapes", evoke images immediately, but when listed along with the conjunction "and" we can't get our minds easily around what is supposed to be happening. That is, when listed, they become items. Now, consider our experiment in terms of a "mere" list

three grapes and a white plate

Well, this is qualitatively almost as good as

three grapes on a white plate

which is to say, it "qualifies as an image". Why? Because the grammar of these words themselves, "grapes" and "plate", so to speak, put the grapes on the plate for us. This sort of thing is no doubt what poetry teachers make a great deal out when trying to explain the brilliance of William Carlos Williams' art of lineation. Kitasono carefully selected words that are held together only by a vague aesthetic feeling, if at all.

I will say more on this tomorrow.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Untested Poem

In hopes of a future owner who will do the honor
I have not yet named Humphrey Gilbert.
I have not yet named him.
I have not yet named the dog the research circles round.
I have not yet named it.
I have not yet named or pointed fingers.
I have not yet named old bills that have my name on them.
I have not yet named members of the Planning Committee.
I have not yet named a second qualifying machine.
I have not yet named the trust.

Yes, I will bring the new basset horn, but I have not yet named it.

I have not yet named who is.
I have not yet named the end of the dream hazy.
I have not yet named this image.
I have not yet named the reasons I chose.
I have not yet named any parts of my site.
I have not yet named Xanthippe's planet or the antagonistic race.
I have not yet named my fliers, but will report.
I have not yet named my loss to her.
I have not yet named this constraint.
I have not yet named the world, but I would not recieve advice.

It occurrs to me that I have not yet named my digital camera.

I have not yet named the most beautiful thing about America.
I have not yet named its geographical features.
I have not yet named them as each is known from only one male specimen.
I have not yet named what is far more vile than this.
I have not yet named the “project”.
I have not yet named the most objectionable and fatal ingredient in the English Magna Carta.
I have not yet named the story of Kano himself.
I have not yet named my secretary of environment and natural resources.
I have not yet named him but I have asked one of his children to name him.
I have not yet named “it”.

My newest car is a 1998 Ford Taurus. I have not yet named it.

I have not yet named the chords below.
I have not yet named a chair.
I have not yet named it cause I don't know what to call it.
I have not yet named any specific individual.
I have not yet named this one.
I have not yet named the fact that all of my own set travelled on foot.
I have not yet named the age.
I have not yet named the price of Warch's freedom.
I have not yet named his requiem.
I have not yet named him as a Cardinal.

Check out my first poem. I have not yet named it. Click here.

I have not yet named the other option open to you.
I have not yet named Robert Louis.
I have not yet named the Father.
I have not yet named the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans).
I have not yet named them, nor have I built anything on them.
I have not yet named these things and simply calling them Titans would be an absolutely blatant and unoriginal ripoff.
I have not yet named them, and will probably allow a variety of names with similar syllables or sounds so that they can have names that suit the cultural contexts
I have not yet named. But ply me with them:
I have not yet named my machine but when I do I’ll let you know.
I have not yet named a world I’ve not completely tested.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Parsing Flarf

I heard a fair lady sigh: 'I wish someone would write a good treatise on prosody.'

Ezra Pound, 'Treatise on Metre' (ABC of Reading)

A poet who writes prose poems is like a grammarian who parses sentences into words. Having chosen the on the face of it least complicated approach to lineation, the poet must now accomplish the (necessary) versification, the rhythm and the rhyme of the strophe, in the smooth (unintentional) space between each single word (intentionally) chosen, and must accomplish the requisite ideoplasty, not as an accumulation of aesthetic feelings (protopoetic emotional content) line by line, but, again, in the concatenation individual words and bits of punctuation. This, in fact, allows for a high degree of prosodic subtlety, and here as elsewhere flarf offers a unique opportunity to both the critic and the poet.

["A poet who writes prose poems is like a grammarian who parses sentences into words," I wrote, but I wonder if the force of the point is obvious. Consider the fact that grammarians normally parse into "grammatical units" or "parts of speech", the joints or articulations of which are not located unambiguously in the spaces between each word. The poet (like Kitasono, whom I've dealt with previously in regard to ideoplasty) often approaches prosody at the level of the line. My own belief is that grammar is constitutively a matter of individual word usage; and, indeed, one meaning of the word "parse" is to situate a word grammatically in its context (describing its inflection, etc.).]

A colleague drew my attention to a mystery I had not noticed when I composed (if that is the right the word) "The Anodyne Pillow". I googled its title and my poem is, in fact, the whole text provided by the search engine (at the time of this writing, Google continues to return only one hit.) He, however, had found, in his own search, a slightly different text, he said (wanting to know why I had made the changes that I seemed to have made.) Looking into it, I discovered something odd. Try googling only

"locality to the spring"

You end up getting four strangely similar texts, which are also strangely similar to "The Anodyne Pillow", but (strangely) the list does not include it.

... well curve. Indeed, the basilica nearby the pillow silk thai trades an unit stuck between a locality to the spring. An irreverently ...

... Indeed, the basilica nearby the car interior upholstery trades an unit stuck between a locality to the spring. candle centerpiece floating glass,

... curve. Indeed, the basilica nearby the motorcycle oil trades an unit stuck between a locality to the spring. winchester gun collector. ...

... a well curve. Indeed, the basilica nearby the dba filing trades an unit stuck between a locality to the spring. An irreverently ...

This cannot be a coincidence, we think, and our natural impulse is to click ourselves onto the pages indicated. The critic who tries this will notice that the text is not available at the source indicated by Google. Indeed, even the domain names alone (www.mdmk.org, for example) redirects you first to adfarm.mediaplex.com and then, you guessed it, to search.ebay.com, i.e., you've been baited and switched. This is true of all the hits, as was true of our remarkably similar "anodyne pillow" search.

I hope there is someone who can explain to me how this sort of "marketing" works, but the very fact that there are machines out there that are ready to construct language for the purpose of being searched is very important to flarf.

After all, I had simply been working on my series of critical pieces under the title "The Annotated Pilot" and had grown tired. I let my mind wander, doing the James Joyce thing, and came on the words "anodyne pillow", which I liked immediately, given my mood. So I searched "the public mind" for precursors to exonerate my innovation and, lo and behold, discovered (it seemed) that someone some time ago had tried to sell a pillow by calling it "anodyne", meaning "mentally soothing", I took it, or perhaps "metalic" (like electrolyized aluminium). In any case, the phrase "anodyne pillow", i.e., the grammatical form where anodyne modifies a pillow, was not my own creation but, I thought, someone else's.

There is a lot of grammatical garbage out there it seems. Palinurus sayeth "the stream is being polluted by a string of refuse-barges tipping out their muck." Flarfists should take it all in stride, of course, though the commercial applications, as it were, are disturbing. If marketeers are putting words together at random, then perhaps Google will not serve the purpose I had hoped in regard to prosody. I thought Google could determine interesting proportions in various word combinations, distinguishing orthodox from original grammar (in order, of course, to avoid the latter). I do not want to give the power to determine orthodoxy to e-bay's henchmen.

Can self-respecting poets really apply the luminous ideoplastic of "the basilica nearby the motorcycle oil" or the "frippery at some saggy panorama" to their work knowing what their source may be? Are we back to searching through the whole language within, word by word, hoping to be blessed by the muses?

I leave it as a question.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Annotated Pilot, Part V: Gubernator non sum

. . .nor out of cheap material create what is permanent.

It would be (has been) foolish to set out to produce what one hopes to be a seminal piece of Tost scholarship without consulting Palinurus. As I now flip anxiously through the pages of The Unquiet Grave, a reading of "I Am Not the Pilot" recommends itself that both mocks my investigations and confirms them.

In 1944, Cyril Connolly published The Unquiet Grave, A Word Cycle under the pseudonym Palinurus. It was, Connolly reports, described by critics as "merely an anthology, a collection of extracts chosen with 'outremer' snobbery and masquerading as a book or . . . if book it be, then it is both morbid and depressing." It would seem that Tony set out to produce an anthology that might provoke an equal but opposite critical force. Connolly said that his was "inevitably a war-book", and it seems to me that "I Am Not the Pilot" is inevitably a 9/11 poem. I mean "inevitable" with the same irony that we find in Connolly's introduction. "Although the author tried to extricate himself from the war and to escape from his time and place into the bright empyrean of European thought, he could not long remain above the clouds." (We see the cover of Invisible Bride before us, of course.)

This book mocks my analysis because its existence strips the poem of its innocence of tradition. The Palinurus of the Æneid was a pilot, and Connolly's first chapter is accordingly called "Ecce Gubernator [Behold the Pilot]". Thus a whole subtext, in the traditional sense of that word, unassisted by search engines of any kind, installs itself under the poem. The story of Palinurus is the story of a sailor who falls into the sea (because he falls asleep) and spends three days and nights in the ocean until he "at last [comes] safely to the seashore near Velia", after which he is murdered for his clothes by the locals and left on the beach to rot without burrial. Now, the Oracle tells us, "The shade of Palinurus must be appeased." Connolly explains that the real theme of the book emerges from this injunction: it denotes "the core of melancholy and guilt that works destruction on us from within." The simple theme of Tony's poem, then, is "I am not Palinurus and must not be appeased." If that were all, the critical flarfing so far explored would be a waste of time. While mildly interesting, the nature of the sources would be incidental to the poem, would have nothing to do with "what we vaguely call its poetical effect" (Kitasono). Tony's poem simply inverts a theme of Connolly's (who seems, however, to have wanted it to be inverted) and Peter O'Leary's recent suggestion that flarf is a mode of parody and Google-sculpting just a method of inspiration seems to be more or less right.

Two rhetorical figures will bring me from this mockmaking to confirmation. The first is an exchange between Allen Ginsberg and Robert Duncan during a writing class at Kent State in 1971.

RD: . . .Inspiration. You can't learn that, nobody can teach it to you, you either feel it or you don't.
AG: I think you can teach inspiration.
RD: Teach inspiration?
AG: Taking it literally, inspiration being a matter of breath, you can teach breathing.
RD: Oh, breathing, right. And you can teach vowels.
AG: And if you can teach breathing then you can teach a certain body looseness and mind-freshening-- (Allen Verbatim, p. 109)

Which might remind us of a page from Pound's ABC of Reading.

Perfectly sincere people say you 'you can't teach literature', and what they MEAN by that is probably true.
You can quite distinctly teach a man to distinguish between one kind of book and another. (p. 87)

The sense in which both of the arguments pass from the unteachable mystery of poetry to the teachable craft, is exactly that which at some point brings us up to the flarfomatic algorithms built into Google. You can quite distinctly program a machine to identify words and phrases and use this to establish a body-looseness (if you will).

"I Am Not Palinurus" is not a meaning that the poem carries, but is embedded in the very grammar, the apparatus of the poem itself. Meaning, here, is use. So it, too, is an anthology, but it is neither morbid nor depressing: has no melancholly core, feels no guilt. It is, on the contrary, shameless. And its sources display no snobbery at all, no erudition, no "empyrean of European thought", just the Global Idiom in use.

Connolly compared the English language to a polluted river (a river actively now being polluted) while "a few patient anglers are sitting" on its shore. It

has, in fact, so contracted to our own littleness that it is no longer possible to make a good book out of words alone. A writer must concentrate on his vocabulary but must also depend on the order, the timing and spacing of his words, and try to arrange them in a form which is seemingly artless, yet perfectly proportioned. (p. 93)

Here flarf is more optimistic about what can be fished out of the waters. Connolly called the classicism/romanticism debate "a dead dispute over the distribution of emphasis between man and nature". I wonder if I can still recover the poem as a classical exercise; or at least my criticism. In any case, I think I've been pushed to the edge of my own transatlantic snobbery and must now try to find a body-looseness somewhere in the new American idiom. Google. Blog. Flarf.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Annotated Pilot, Part IV

The suprising defenders of Góngara exonerated him of the charge of innovation—by documenting the fine erudite lineage of his metaphors.

Jorge Luis Borges

There are, of course, many ways of defining the classical mind and its poetic sensibility. One of them has the virtue of subsuming the work of T. S. Eliot, William Burroughs and Tony Tost under the same concept. It was proposed in 1931 by Jorge Luis Borges, who would no doubt deny its originality. A classical text, said Borges, "is not really expressive; [it] does no more than record a reality, [it] does not represent one" ("The Postulation of Reality" in The Total Library, p. 60). This distinction, between representing and recording a reality, is crucial to the understanding of flarf and, of course, to its misunderstanding.

A writer, said Burroughs, can write only about "what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing" and saw this "direct recording of certain areas of psychic process" as the "function" of the writer, however "limited" it may be. Today we may smile at the invocation of psychic processes, but it is clear that Burroughs meant only a sort of automatic articulateness in the ebb and flow of experience. "I am a recording instrument," he said, "I am not an entertainer." His procedure is more or less well understood, and is not in any case advisable; what concerns us here is the recording of articulate process.

Today we are so embarrassed by the claim that one or another young author's work is "utterly original", say, or "a new voice in contemporary literature", that to set out to disprove such claims, or "exonerate" a writer of "the charge of innovation" strikes us as equally absurd. One lets it pass and passes one's eyes from the dust jacket to the pages actually inside the book under investigation. But one is, sometimes, compelled to indicate the sense in which an author's greatness does not depend on his ability to "represent" a subject matter. It is enough, we want to say, that the writer presents certain areas of the process perspicuously: that it be recorded clearly.

In the recording industry, the words "high fidelity" have always been misleading--something which should have become clear with the advent of digital audio (about which we may also, in turn, be mislead). Recorded music is never loyal to the source. Fidelity is finally a romantic notion that must, in its very passion for the earth, the trees, the "life of things", eschew high technology and all its pretensions. Those who use the Internet to write poems cannot be romantic, just as Glenn Gould knew that recorded music ought, logically, to dispose of our tuxedos, our cathedrals and, yes, our applause. Classicists can, however, discuss the quality or precision of a recording relative to certain acoustic properties, not of the studio (which must itself be engineered to effect the supposed "fidelity") but of the listening situation, i.e., the living room equiped with a sound system.

High fidelity is loyal to the context of reception, not the context of performance. It is a recording of reality not a representation of it. This is what I want to say of flarf in general and of "I Am Not the Pilot" in particular. Today we want to exonerate our young poets not of the charge of shameless originality, but of the charge of facile representation. We want to demonstrate that their poems do not "stand in the place of" something else (like a psychological state or even an artistic process), but that they are, in their own manifest facticity, sufficient unto themselves and effective in their "limited function". Many poets today claim that their work is only a symptom of their process (I and others have tried in vain to discourage them). Their publishers and editors include this desire among the author notes to impress the importance of the author's process (a coy euphemism for personality) and accidence of the work itself, upon the reader. This is especially embarrassing for the reader when he finds himself enjoying the poem and caring next to nothing about the life (or any other process) extant in the poet.

Flarf allows even the reader with little or no critical skills to exonerate a given poem of representationality, and this is part of the genius of its method. Let us consider some examples. "I Am Not the Pilot" is of course written in the first person, so the first thing it must be exonerated of is Tony Tost's authorial persona or personal authority. Now, the first three lines,

I am not a pilot and do not have
the technical knowledge or training
to analyze complicated data.

Are no doubt "true" of Tony Tost and therefore threaten immediately to represent him. And this particular example is in fact also an example of the relatively ephemeral qualities of flarf. Try as you might, you will find no evidence through Google that these words (together) belong to the air rather than Tony Tost. But in the spring of 2003, I was able to locate the source in a piece by Devvy Kidd on the JFK, Jr. plane crash.

The NTSB is currently working on the final CD-ROM's which will contain approximately 2,000 photographs of the plane wreckage and investigation while it was underway. I am not a pilot and do not have the technical knowledge or training to analyze complicated data. I loaned my file and the CD-ROM to two pilots for their evaluation. One pilot has been flying 19 years and is instrument rated, the other is a pilot for American Airlines, also instrument rated. To protect their privacy and current employment, their names will not be is closed.

The archives of Kidd's writings are now available on CD on her website, where one can also get a sense of the general flavour of her investigations. Even if we may admire the vaguely Poundian bent of her politics and monetary policy, Tost's poem surely does not "represent" her views. That is, the flarfed reading has divested the poem of all personality, both that of the poet and of the "source". We are left with a recording of the Googling process, pure articulation, or what Kierkegaard called "the perfect immanence of the presentation".

Two further examples can make this point more simply. Take, first, the strange sentiment seemingly expressed in the two consecutive lines:

I would have a hard life as a pilot.

I could only kill in self defense.

And compare them with their source, Dimitri Sokolenko’s How I Escaped from the USSR:

Hijacking a plane wouldn't work; I could only kill in self defense. Of course, I am not a pilot myself. Lord Byron would have had a hard life as a Soviet. It was easy in his lifetime to board a ship and say good-bye to a hated fatherland.

This is arguably a case where too much depends upon Googling the poem to discover its sources. Once we see the original cold war context and the elegant shuffling of references, the emotion of these lines shift from self-pity (of the already elided poet-subject) to admiration (for the Byronic adventurism of flyers), which, once negated, leaves us only with the crystaline grammar of "I could only kill in self defense" (already available but easy to miss on a first reading). It is as if the poem is saying: Byron was a poet and a pilot and he owned the ship, we have no ships and are not pilots and Greece is very far away. This poem has no poet. We Are not Romantic.

Our last example is that of the otherwise intolerable lyricism of the phrase "the glamorous end of the sword". It represents a mode of discourse that ought, we think, to be foreign to us. But return it, if only for a moment, to the hands of the fighter mechanic, Marvin P. Maxson, who uttered them (and who remains their only source, according to Google, beyond the poet Tony Tost) and somehow we are only happy that such language still exists, somewhere in the American idiom. Norman Mailer, we might recall, once pointed out that vulgarity is a way of rescuing words from the oblivion of meaning. Thus, the word "noble" could be recovered in the words of the soldier emerging from the bushes saying, "I just had me a noble shit, Jack." May the perspicuous impudence of flarf serve a similar, if always limited, function.

Borges said that it was characteristic of the classical ethos to believe that "once an image has been brought into existence, it is public property" (ibid. p. 61). Nothing could more aptly illustrate this publicness of poetry than the flarf procedure, both in its creative and its critical mode. (Tony Tost's poem, it may be noted, is available for free 24 hours a day, while you can buy a copy of Kidd's piece on CD.) The flarfist undertakes an investigation into a certain region of the articulate process, records it, and presents his findings. He is not an entertainer.

The Anodyne Pillow

... locality to the spring. An irreverently anodyne pillow silk thai over again reaches a frippery at some saggy panorama. Now and then ...

Sunday, November 28, 2004

The Annotated Pilot, Part III

So you won't find much technical
information here. Just my emotions :)


The Nicholas Gurley passage of "I Am Not the Pilot" (Tony Tost, Cortland Review 22, Feb. 2003) occupies seven lines (ll. 22-28) of a seventy line poem. The Maria Excerpt, which will concern us here, occupies eleven (ll. 44-54). These quantities are only interesting in their critical effects on Google searches, i.e., in so far as they determine the Googable properties of the poem. The Maria Excerpt is an especially interesting example of this effect.

If we enter line 45

"When I take off within the airplane"

into Google we get, at first pass, exactly one hit. Searches that return very few hits are normally indicative of high grade ideoplastic (the material from which good flarf is wrought) because it specifies a source. Compare, for example, the line immediately preceding this one, line 44.

"No, I am not a pilot."

Here you get 29 hits displayed, only the second to last of which is the real source, viz. Maria's page about skydiving (though the first, interestingly, is Tony's poem.) I don't want to say that nothing interesting can be gleaned from the content samples that Google provides (or even from clicking yourself onto the pages provided), but the sense of the line is rendered vague. The light the search sheds on the poem, we might say, is "diffuse": it has no clear focus, and the theme of the poem therefore loses its edge.

What is strange about a single hit in the case of line 45 is that "I Am Not the Pilot" is known to be available online and is not identified by Google. The mystery is solved by reading the fine print. Google has "omitted some entries very similar to the 1 already displayed" in order to "show you the most relevant results". And, sure enough, if we ask Google to repeat the search without this ommission, Tony's poem is hit. That is, the poem we are investigating is not, according to the machinery of the search engine, considered "relevant". Google was not able to distinguish Tony's poetry significantly from Maria's prose, which reads:

No, I am not a pilot. When I take off within the airplane and feel beneath my feet that lonely piece of the ground mysteriously flying in the sky my only desire is to leave it ASAP and fly "on my own". Because I know how my parachute works but know nothing about the strange sounds the airplane makes sometimes, what do that dozens of airplane indicators mean, what does the pilot thinks... So you won't find much technical information here. Just my emotions :)

Tony has fixed the language a little (Maria, it should be noted, is Russian) and, more importantly, has dropped the last two sentences (even though they refer back to the opening lines of his poem). I was struck by Tony's reading of K. Silem Mohammad's "Mars Needs Terrorists".

by fixing his general processes and sources, Mohammad presents as variables not his own emotions, thoughts and imaginings but (as noted above) those of his sources.

Flarf is a system of notation, but I am not sure that what it notes down are the emotions of the sources. Rather it uses the materials provided by others in their attempts to note, not just emotions, but thoughts and images, or simply inventories, lists, half-thoughts, exclamations, slogans, etc. The flarfist or flarfer may use three half-thoughts, two items off a list, a couple of loose emotions and an image to present (note), in the poem, a single, well-wrought and useful emotion. The emotions in the source are, I would argue, incidental to the poem--something which is often very clear once the source has been located.

In short, I think the first part of Tony's statement is correct. Flarf spares the reader the variable of the poet's own emotions. But the second part is not right, and that is not why the sources are interesting. What is interesting about the sources is their automatic availability to the reader. By using Googable sources, the poet makes the field of his sources surveyable, we are afforded a clear view of the grammar of the language that the poet uses and, in the usual way, "corrects", that is, "uses well".

The well-wroughtness of "I Am Not the Pilot" may be contrasted with less intense uses of the same language, whether in other poetry or in offhanded prose, like that of Maria. To return to Borges's observation about The Wasteland, I'd like to put the contrast more starkly than I did in the last post. If the "erudite obscurity" of modernist poetry disconcerts the critics (while giving them something to do), flarf should disconcert the critics (because it leaves them so little to do) with its rudimentary perspicuity. The difference between the un-wrought and the well-wrought word is on the surface of flarf, where it belongs.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

The Annotated Pilot, Part II

When Wittgenstein says that "what is hidden is of no interest to" philosophy (PI§126), he is indicating an important presumption about language underlying his method. Language consists of things lying around in plain view. We can understand how language works by arranging these things (words) in ways that afford us a "clear view" of their interrelations. He called this perspicuous presentation. This approach can be usefully compared with Pound's ideogrammic method: the presentation of "luminous details" without comment, "the permanent basis of all psychology and metaphysics."

Flarf renders certain aspects of the poetic process perspicuous. By the sheer speed and mechanical intensity of the method, it also renders some traditionally insidious aspects of that process superfluous. The most important of these is the all too common sentimentality of poetic composition. Using Google as a typewriter (in Tony's phrase), the poet is discouraged from any "spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion" or other forms of promiscuity. Indeed, Norman Mailer (Cannibals and Christians, p. 51) defined sentimentality as "the emotional promiscuity of those who have no sentiment" in his review of the "totalitarian prose" of nothing less than Lyndon Johnson's My Hope for America.

The core value of Flarf, I would argue, is not authenticity but discernment, not expression but selection. It is a classical project rather than a romantic one. And one way of reading "I Am Not the Pilot" is as a critical comment, at least in part, on David J. Blocker's "The Poet". A possible Google-based ideogram of this connection can be produced with the search terms:

"I am not an athlete" "I am not a pilot"

Tost's is not a literary critique, mind you, but a poetic critique of the sentiment it presents (it is possible, but not likely, that Blocker is himself critiquing this sentiment using an ironic deadpan that doesn't quite succeed). This poem, not incidentally, is available on poetry.com (the Flarf aesthetic, I'm told, was originally a response to this project). Having discovered Blocker's effort by an act of critical Googling, we come to see that part of what Tost is saying is "I Am Not the Poet", which is rife with all kinds of extra associations given the "source" of any work of Flarf.

When I presented my results to the English Department at the University of Copenhagen, I offered Blocker and Collins as contrast cases for the Flarf aesthetic (though I hadn't yet heard the word). Recall the flarfen link between the poetry of Billy Collins and contemporary totalitarianism from yesterday. Now consider Mailer's analysis of Johnson's style.

The essence of totalitarian prose is that it does not define, its does not deliver. It oppresses. It obstructs from above. It is profoundly contemptuous of the minds who will receive the message. So it does its best to dull this consciousness with sentences which are nothing but bricked-in power structures. Or alternately a totalitarian prose slobbers upon its audience a sentimentality so debauched that admiration for shamelessness is inspired.

We will return to "debauchery" (the inticement to leave the workshop for cheaper pleasures) in a later post in the context of the craftsmanship of the troubadours. Their slogan may well have been Pound's "what thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross" (Canto 81). Flarf, I want to show, has the capacity to seperate the scum from the metal of poetry, the emotion from the sentimental sigh. In a sense, however, it doesn't hide its admiration for the shameless emotional promiscuity of ordinary language (and mainstream poetry?). It simply gives us a clear view of it.

In a comment to Tony's blog I have said of "I Am Not the Pilot" what Borges said of The Wasteland. "The erudite obscurity of [this poem] disconcerted (and still disconcerts) the critics, but is less important than the poem's beauty. The perception of this beauty, moreover, precedes any interpretation and does not depend on it." (Total Library, p. 167-8) But it is more likely the opposite. Indeed, Flarf is a way of passing from the erudite obscurity of poetry to the promiscuous illiteracy of ordinary language on which "so much depends". Or, as Wittgenstein might put it, it is a way of connecting the metaphysical uses of words to their ordinary usage.

Nothing in the grammar is hidden. This may disconcert the critics.

Friday, November 26, 2004

The Annotated Pilot, Part I

Flarf is not just a principle of literary composition. It is also a principle of literary criticism. And it is not so much a principle as a procedure. I think it is important to understand that procedure, in terms of its consequences both for reading and for writing. In the spring of 2003, I discovered Flarf by accident and carried out a full annotated study of one of its exemplars. I want to present my results of the study and speculations about the genre here over the next few weeks.

This post is a bit long, and a bit old hat as far as I can tell from other discussions of Flarf I've been able to find. I wanted to start by collecting some material for comparative analysis.

I actually encountered Flarf, Tost and contemporary American poetry at the exact same moment. Until then I hadn't really been interested in current poetry and poetics. A natural question (Who the hell is Nicholas Gurley?) and a universal source of answers (Google) was the beginning an epiphany for me. It is possible to reconstruct something of the experience very simply. Just now I entered the phrase

"Folks I am not a pilot and therefore"

into Google and got two hits. One of them was Tony Tost's I Am Not the Pilot (Cortland Review, 22, Feb. 2003.) The other is a page at Boeing's website where F-4 Phantom pilots and crew pay their respects to that plane. The very same result can be returned with the search phrase "glamorous end of the sword". You can also try "I, Nicholas Gurley, am not a pilot" for a similar effect.

Then I tried

"if I lower my head now and listen"

And got over 25 hits, all of them to Billy Collins' I Ask You (Cortland Review, 7, May 1999) including what appears to be a translation into Chinese and a posting of the entire poem to a blog called Totalitarianism Today without comment. That last fact made me chuckle.

Next I entered the phrase

"there is nothing that I need"

And got over 600 hits. The 15th was to a listserv archive where Collins' poem was again quoted in full.

The preceding hits (1-14) consisted of the following material. I quote here only the text that Google provides from the web page refered to (the refrain is not an error).

He chose the way of the cross: There is nowhere you must go. In His body was ample payment: There is nothing that I need. Because

When you are in the mind, everything I am saying will seem false. But I wish to tell you that for myself there is nothing that I need.

It’s a language I have ceased to need. There is nothing I have to wake for.There is nothing that I need to sleep from. I have no dreams.

thee. I smiled at the genie And said please forgive me, But there is nothing that I long for There is nothing that I need. For I

each beat. 4) I am relaxed and I have all the time I need. 5) There is nothing that I need or want to do at this moment. 6 ) I will

builder of my experience. I usually don’t ask for anything as there is nothing that I need at this point. I do however sometimes

LMU: Poetry is not my salvation because I need no salvation. There is nothing that I need to be redeemed from. MD: What about teaching?

I've been thinking about putting a 2nd card in that also has FM radio capability and want to make sure there is nothing that I need to be concerned about.

The panel issued a statement describing Bush and Cheney as "forthcoming and candid." "There is nothing that I need from the president that we didn't get today

I think I went a little overboard this year!! I sorted through it to see what I might need and, trust me when I say, there is NOTHING that I need!!

and me! I am quite public about my being HIV Positive and feel there is nothing that I need to apologise for in my past. Certainly

am. There is nothing that I need but your saving grace and there is no need that I could ever have that is deeper that this one.

me. Now, there is nothing that I need that I would want them to buy for me. Let me revise that, there is NOTHING that I NEED. There

The panel issued a statement describing Bush and Cheney as "forthcoming and candid." "There is nothing that I need from the president that we didn't get today

These searches constitute physical properties of the poems: mechanical properties, aspects of their machinery. That a single line in a poem returns two hits (one of which is to the poem itself) when Googled is a fact about the poem. That one line in another poem returns 25 hits (all of them references to the poem itself) and another returns more than 600, the first 14 of which together comprise a poem of comparable quality to the source is a fact about that source. (I say "comparable" very imprecisely. I hope to be more precise about this later.)

They are facts about the poems and about their grammar. They are facts about the language that I think are well worth looking into. They are the new facts of literary criticism.

Likeness, Transparency, Delinity

In trying to understand what it means to carry out a calculation in the head, Wittgenstein compared this operation to the act of working out a math problem on paper. He then wonders if these two operations are "like" each other in any way and asks, "Is a bit of white paper with black lines on it like a human body?" (Philosophical Investigations, §364) You can't tell me you don't like that question. It contains a whole theory of reading comprehension, especially when plucked out of context in this way. Words are understood in their likeness to the human body. When you write a poem (in strophes or in remarks) you try to make the page look like a human body.

Correction. You are trying to make the page like a human body. It will have to look and move like a human body: feel, smell and taste like a human body. "In some sense," as philosophers like to say. Exactly, in some sense.

It is probably the extreme difference between the page and the body that makes writing such an articulate business. When writing succeeds, it's really impressive. It's harder than making a shoe look like a blender.

In his Remarks on Colour Wittgenstein takes up the issue of likeness again. "Explaining colour words by pointing to coloured pieces of paper does not touch the concept of transparency." (§189) It would only indicate the likeness between colours (and their concepts). In order to describe the logic of colour you have to relate colours to other concepts, concepts that are related to colour but are not themselves concepts of colour (§190). Concepts like transparency.

(An aside. Today I found a copy of Josef Albers' Interaction of Color. Chapter III has an argument for using coloured pieces of paper instead of paints to teach colour. I'm looking forward to reading it alongside Wittgenstein's remarks.)

In delineating the poesie and possible philosophy of word constructions, we draw black lines on white pieces of paper about black lines on white pieces of paper. We try to emphasise a peculiar likeness among them. But we have to relate these similarities to something that is not writing, something that is not articulate, or not articulate by the same means. Doing so, however, risks various forms of intolerable sublimity.

While it too is a source of error, the risk can be minimized by focusing our attention on the analogue of the bits of coloured paper: the word constructions, the remarks and the strophes.

We must draw the lines that connect the elements of these constructions. Pound called poetry "a sort of inspired mathematics" (Spirit of Romance, p. 14). The pangrammatical quest for delinity is the search for written proofs. Transparency.

I don't expect I'll be able to lift it.

Thursday, November 25, 2004


Benjamin Britten's kitten
and Benjamin Britten's cat
stole Benjamin Britten's mittens
and Benjamin Britten's hat.

We found both the hat and the mittens
on Benjamin Britten's mat.
But none but the cat and the kitten know
where Benjamin Britten is at.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Ideology and Ontology

My attempts to correct the post from earlier today didn't really work. I think I'll just leave well enough alone next time.

One thing that got lost in bits and pieces through the editing was an attempt to apply a distinction owed to W.V.O. Quine. Wanting to give "a good sense to a bad word" he proposed to distinguish the ideology of a theory from its ontology. He said that there was no clear correspondence between them: two theories could have the same ontology, i.e., the terms of the two theories could refer to the same set of things, while one theory could express an idea that the other could not. Ideology, in keeping also with its bad sense, defines limits to the expression of ideas independent of the entities that populate the world.

Now, Pound said the poet should build us his world. And the question that I have been asking, on the aspiring poet and philosopher's behalf, is, What should we build our worlds out of? The short answer, and Kitasono's answer, is language. Words, words, words. If we stick to the sample line Kitasono provided, we have a world populated by (roughly) three things:

a shell, a typewriter and grapes.

But, because there is "no further development", these terms are under no ideological constraint. They are in no "regulated order", as Dante demands, and therefore do not qualify as a "construction". And this lack of ideological direction, which I would equate with a lack of grammatical form, is what is behind the unimaginability of the line (in its isolation).

I once said that Tony's commitment to the sentence in Invisible Bride is the civil disobedience of working to rule. I still need to figure out what that means. But I'm sure it has something to do with what I'm trying to say here.

No one stands above the grammar.

Allegory, Imagery and Grammar

(This post emerges from Laura's and Jay's comments on yesterday's post. Thanks also to Tony and Laura for their recent endorsements of this fledgling of mine, which is still looking for its wings, but making progress. I'm now, e.g., able to install real live links.)

The Divine Comedy is an allegory but I think part of my project here is to distinguish poetic from allegorical effects, as I think Dante, Eliot and Pound would also advise us to do. Cf., e.g., Eliot's use of a Dante in "Tradition", Part II, on the way a poetic effect is "a working up of the emotion evident in the situation", a "fusion of elements", and how "the artistic process [is] the presure . . . under which the fusion takes place."

Dante has some wonderful examples of "construction" in his De vulgari Eloquentia (II, vi), ranging from the prosaic "Aristotle philosophized in Alexander's time" through the Flarfen "Peter loves Miss Bertha a lot" to the "illustrious" or poetic "I am the only one who knows the overwoe that rises" (Arnaut Daniel). I think the point of Kitasono's sample

"a shell, a typewriter and grapes"

is that it is unclear how to classify this construction along these lines or even to identify it as a construction. "You need to know that we call 'construction' a group of words put together in regulated order," is all Dante gives us in the way of a definition. And there is a sense in which Kitasono's list is not in any particular order, which accounts for its inability to occasion an image.

Is the problem the lack of a verb as Jay suggests? I think we're looking not for verbs so much as prepositions. Pre-com-positions, connections, situations.

"A shell on a typewriter with grapes"

Putting in prepositions gives us a single and reasonably clear image, but the possibilities from here are not as promising as they had been. In fact, I' d argue we have just sacrificed aesthetic feeling for the image. This is why Kitasono leaves the sample as is and says, "We add the next line and then another aesthetic feeling is born."

And this leads us to the question of the relation of imagery to grammar. Images are the items into which experience is articulated (by concepts and/or emotions). Note that there is a (not very poetic) sense in which our sample contains three images. But these are articulated at a linguistic level (i.e., correspond to differences between words). The trick is to construct expressions that provide single images that are internally "smooth", i.e., where the symbolism is so fused or compounded or composed in feeling that allegory (reading otherwise) is impossible.

But I suspect my sense of allegory, even of Dante's allegory, is what Laura would call naive.

Caesar non supra grammaticos.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Ideoplasty, March 12, 1937

I'll probably return to Chapter 20 of Pound's Guide to Kulchur (pp. 137-140) again and again.

Here he quotes from a letter he received from Katue Kitasono about "the relation between imagery and ideoplasty". Ideoplasty, I take it, means formed thought. (In "The Possibility of a Poetic Drama", Eliot praises the "clear and beautifully formed thought" of Russell's "On Denoting"). Kitasono talks about "orthodox poetry" and "the system of literature". And he talks about "the method of poetry" in terms of a progression from language, through imagery, to ideoplasty.

"What we must do first for imagery is (in this order) collection, arrangement and combination."

Ideoplasty, or what I want to call metaphysical composition (inspired by Giorgio de Chirico), seems to be all about the arrangement of imagery drawn from whatever sources are available. Kitasono offers the example of

"a shell, a typewriter and grapes",

which I've mentioned in discussions elsewhere. Those are really just words, and are therefore operative on the level of "language". Full imagery would require more words (as I understand Kitasono's point here) and we are left, so far, only with "aesthetic feeling", not yet "that which we vaguely call poetical effect."

Once we have an image, I'd argue, we have a strophe (in poetry) or a remark (in philosophy) but not yet an emotion or a concept (ideoplasty, composure). This comes through the arrangement of images.

I know this is all pretty standard modernist orthodoxy. It is a bit like Pound's advice in the ABC of Reading (p. 31). While "Coleridge or De Quincey said that the quality of a 'great poet is everywhere present, and nowhere visible as a distinct excitement', or something of that sort," Dante said simply, "A canzone is a composition of words set to music." Like Pound, "I don't know any better point to start from."

Monday, November 22, 2004

Metaphysical Composure

Start with a large sheet of polished glass and a naked body. The pane of glass should be monumental in size and thickness, but perfectly transparent, perfectly clean. Set it upright on the ground and pose the body next to it. Let the body stand with its back to the glass. The head should be tilted downwards and stare to the left, into the middle distance. It should comport itself toward the glass monument like the guy at the end of the scene who hears the telephone ringing.

Sunday, November 21, 2004


Laura raises some interesting problems in her comments to my last post. One of them is about whether the poem's being a discrete unit of work done implies its self-containment, or stand-alone character. I don't think it does.

Suppose a poem is a machine of sorts. A machine is only useful if it is connected to its environment in manifold ways. It is not connected to its environment in an infinitude of arbitrary ways, but it is connected in ways that are unknown to the machine's inventor (who often has no conception of what it will end up being used for). I think this analogy is useful because it doesn't make the machine's "working" depend upon a relation that points back to the inventor. The inventor may have been a genius, but the machine's importance does not lie in its being a sign or trace or symptom of that genius. It's just a brilliant piece of equipment.

Machines can always be improved, and go through all sorts of provisional designs, models, mock-ups, prototypes. None of these are intended to stand alone, but to connect to the (test) environment in specific ways.

That is, to see a poem as a discrete unit of work done is not to suggest that it is cut off from its environment. On the contrary, the poem is open to its surroundings in especially intense ways. It is this special intensity, this specific openness, that we read poems for. And we try, of course, to be as discrete about it as possible.

So on my view the whole idea is to get away from the idea of a poem or a philosophy as a gift. (This is what I'm least sure of at present, I'll add. And I'll say something later about the suggestion that the poem ought emerge from the philosophy of the poet.) And the hope is precisely that the poetic/philosophical process does not have to "keep churning", but can complete itself, albeit tentatively, in completed work along the way followed by periods of well-deserved rest.

The tinkerer's satisfaction with gadgetry. Making something that works.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Remark and Strophe

Here's a favourite problem of mine. One of the most striking differences, to my mind, between philosophy and poetry has to do with the lack of anything like a poem in philosophy, that is, a discrete unit of "work done". I often think of Mallarmé's maxim that "a poem is not made of ideas but of words". Well, any old collection of words will not suffice to constitute a poem. This post is not a poem. But something about the way some words are put together makes them poetic. I want to be able to say something similar about philosophy.

Here's one promising analogy. Wittgenstein, who said that philosophy ought to be composed like poetry, organised his work into remarks. Many of his remarks are quite ordinary in their content, but in their arrangement they are able to illuminate the concept or set of concepts that Wittgenstein is after.

Philosophy is the art of writing concepts down; it is the art of passing remarks so as to draw attention to concepts.

Poetry is the art of writing emotions down. And I want to say that what are passed by poets, are not passed, but turned, and are not remarks, but strophes.

"America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 down on your old strophe" (Ginsberg)

That's what so appealing about poetry: it's got a product. We philosophers ought to approach our passing remarks in a similar fashion, commodifying what is already our fetish for thinking. Not, yes, without irony. Always with irony, yes.

(This may be a deeper philological insight than I intended. Consider the possibility that the "work character" of poetry is intimately connected with the need for the poet to capture a market share of the attention space, i.e., to move product, while the philosopher's coy silliness allowed him a species of pure loafing.)

Flarf, it seems to me, has made one thing very clear about the relation of the strophe to the poem. Building a poem is not a matter of arranging strophes, i.e., of putting poetic atoms together. If that were the case the poem would owe its poesie to the accumulation of strophic matter that was originally poetic. But strophes become poetic, become strophes, only in their arrangement with other strophes. A coherence theory of poetry.

In any case, that's how far I've gotten in this direction. The strophe is to the emotion what the remark is to the concept. The strophe is to the poem what the remark is to the . . .

But in both cases the proximal theme of the crafted words (the remark or the strophe) is an image. The remark passes the image, and the strophe turns it. An image is a concept backed like an emotion, maybe, and vice versa.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Do your own thing, man.

I'm still trying to think of a good way to start. I thought this little throat clearing exercise might be entertaining for some of you.

This is the last sentence of Heidegger’s essay “The Turning” as it appears in William Lovitt’s translation from The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (p. 49):

“May world in its worlding be the nearest of all nearing that nears, as it brings the truth of Being near to man’s essence, and so gives man to belong to the disclosing bringing-to-pass that is a bringing into its own.”

I offer here a particular kind of reading, proceeding by substitution of phrases and words salva veritate. That is, I assume that if the original sentence is "true" then my modified sentences are also true. What we are doing here does not pretend to preserve the sense of the sentence at each step but attributes a particular sense to it in the course of the whole process; it is an act of interpretation. It tries to locate "the sense in which" Heidegger is (or may be) on to something. It is as much an attempt to give meaning to the original tautology as it is an attempt to emphasize the vital truth of the emergent platitude. I start with the interpretation and then offer an explanation of the substitutions I have carried out.

The square brackets at each step signal the portion to be substituted in the next. The substitution is there set in bold type.

(1) May [world in its worlding] be the nearest of all nearing that nears, as it brings the truth of Being near to man’s essence, and so gives man to belong to the disclosing bringing-to-pass that is a bringing into its own.

(2) May things be [the nearest of all nearing that nears, as they] bring the truth of Being near to man’s essence, and so give man to belong to the disclosing bringing-to-pass that is a bringing into its own.

(3) May things be in hand, as they bring [the truth of Being] near to man’s essence, and so give man to belong to the disclosing bringing-to-pass that is a bringing into its own.

(4) May things be in hand, as they bring disclosure near to [man’s essence], and so give man to belong to the disclosing bringing-to-pass that is a bringing into its own.

(5) May things be in hand, as they bring disclosure near to man’s accomplishments, and so [give man to belong to] the disclosing bringing-to-pass that is a bringing into its own.

(6) May things be in hand, as they bring disclosure near to man’s accomplishments, and so allow man to appropriate [the disclosing bringing-to-pass] that is a bringing into its own.

(7) May things be in hand, as they bring disclosure near to man’s accomplishments, and so allow man to appropriate the open accomplishment that is [a bringing into its own].

(8) [May things be in hand, as they] bring disclosure near to man’s accomplishments, and so allow man to appropriate the open accomplishment that is an aquisition.

(9) May there be tools that [bring disclosure near to man’s accomplishments] and so allow man to appropriate the open accomplishment that is an aquisition.

(10) May there be tools that work, and so allow man to [appropriate the open accomplishment that is an acquisition].

(11) May [there be tools that work], and so allow man to acquire that which is in each case his.

(12) May real things be given, [and so allow man to] acquire that which is in each case his.

(13) May real things be given, so man may [acquire that which is in each case his].

(14) May [real things be given, so man may take what is his own.]

(15) May man [take, of the real things that are given, what] are is his own.

(16) [May man do things that are his own.]

(17) Do your own thing, man.


Step 1 is quotation and the first act of bracketting.

Steps 2-3 are intended as Heideggerian orthodoxy. The worldling world is the being of things, or simply is things (Dinge) and the nearest of these are “in hand” (Zuhanden).

Step 4 strikes me as orthodox also. Disclosure is the truth of being.

Step 5 is less orthodox, but captures a subtle existential point, namely, that a man is not as he does (though stupid may be), but rather as he accomplishes something by doing. Man’s essence is not blind activity, but the projection of his desire onto the field of his behaviour.

Step 6 is a trojan horse: a preparation for the imperative form introduced at 17. I render “gives man to belong to” as “allows man to appropriate” as a subtle inversion that preserves the equally subtle crossing of the give-and-take of Heidegger-Lovitt’s original. Properly speaking one is not “given” one’s belonging (much as one is not “granted” a prison cell), nor is one allowed to appropriate something. Heidegger is talking of a taking that is given and we are now talking of a giving that is taken. In case the reader is afraid he will forget that this step has been taken, he will be reminded below that at step 17 we do nothing but reverse it—we step back, which is to say, we return to Heidegger’s text there (da) exactly what we are taking from it here (da).

Step 7 is a simple postulate. A bringing-to-pass that also discloses, which is to say, one that does not achieve closure, is an accomplishment that remains “open” in the sense that its being (as accomplishment) is not yet determined even though it has been brought to pass, which is to say, its becoming has been completed, or brought off, but its being not yet contained, or closed off.

Step 8 is simple banalisation. “Bringing into its own” is construed as “acquisition”. Much as one firm can bring another, as it were, into its own by buying a majority interest in it.

Step 9 is an orthodox continuation from step 3. Things in hand are tools. Tools “as they” something or other are tools that something or other.

Step 10 is an act of interpretation in the direction of the banal. Notice that “[tools that] bring disclosure near to man’s accomplishments” is replaced simply with “[tools that] work”, since surely a tool works, if it does, in so far as it is the proximity (or proximate occasion) of an accomplishment. But taking a broader view of this section of the text, we can say that when a discloure is brought near one is “let into an enclosure”, in this case into that enclosure in which what we achieve remains, only until then barred to us. We are here let into the clearing. While we might think that this step then takes us only as far as “allows man into the clearing”, it must be remarked that all allowance is the opening of the clearing, and, therefore, what is at stake here is allowance itself (now ontologically determined). This is the sense of “allows man to”. One is, however, still more primordially always already allowed-to-work, i.e. let into the clearing of one’s task, so the whole phrase (taken in the form of the prayer that the “May” at the outset suggests) comes to modify the tools as functioning properly.

Step 11 is also difficult and could be taken more precisely I am sure. An acquisition left open is open as to what has been acquired in the taking, but, since it is determined as an accomplishment it is not open as to its success. Thus whatever has been taken (the particular that we are openminded about) it is nonetheless determined to thereafter belong to the taker. Thus, that which he takes is simply that which is his.

Step 12: workly = real (wirklich). Tools working are real things when given.

Step 13 has no existential import, it is a superficial adjustment in the sentence, improving readability.

Step 14 suggests a difference between something being yours and being your own. Something which is yours may be yours just now or until the end of the year, but something being your own (as in “a place of one’s own”) is something you find is yours even as you find it, that is, it is yours in each case.

Step 15 also has no existential import. It merely gathers into a single string two phrases that would otherwise have to be replaced simultaneously in the next step.

Step 16 is an example of existential grammar. When we “take of the real things that are given what” we simply ”do things that”. The ”real things that are given” are haeceities (this-nesses), and the doing-that captures exactly this singularity in the what-for of the deed. (Much as there is a difference between seeing and seeing-as.)

Step 17 is where we give back what we took at 6.

Extra Credit Exercise: An interesting “proof” of this derivation may be imagined by translating line 17 into German. This demands that we find the corresponding expression in demotic German, ca. 1960. From there, each step must be taken in reverse, adjusting as need be for the new materials, with the aim of arriving, after a finite series of steps, at the original German sentence from “Die Kehre”. This, of course, would also constitute a kind of “ontological proof” of Lovitt’s translation (on one sense of Heidegger’s original).

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Over the past few months a number of encounters on the blogs listed to your right have made me appreciate the potential of this medium. So I thought I might give it a go myself. I'm not really sure how to begin, nor even when one can be said to be under way, but being listed on The Unquiet Grave is no mean mark of distinction. Thanks Tony.

I suppose the most straightforward way of introducing my project is to say that I am a philosopher who suffers from MFA envy. I wish there were a writing programme for philosophers. (If anyone knows of one, let me know.)

Thinking is a craft skill. Philosophy is the art of writing concepts down. I want to use this blog to investigate what those two sentences could possibly mean.