Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Body, Inc.

Tim and Tony have had two brief but spritely encounters (here and here) on the body. I'm sure I won't be able to settle the issue but here are some of my views on the question.

Consider the sentence

This is my body,

which has a bit of a history. Christ said it while holding out a piece of bread. This was translated into Latin as "Hoc est corpus meum", which famously gave us "hocus pocus". Now, here's an interesting bit of trivia. William James said that "the whole hocus-pocus of erkenntnisstheorie begins" when the "concrete particularities" of "intervening experiences" between idealities and realities (which he also called "intermediaries") are made to evaporate, leaving only abstract schemata. I take it Tim's objection amounts to something along those lines.

Next, consider Descartes' peculiar claim in the Discourse on Method (Ch. 4).

I could pretend [feindre] that I had no body.

This also of course implies the ability to make sense of a sentence like

This is not my body.

(Not, mind you, "That is not my body.") Wittgenstein's remarks in On Certainty, as I read them, display the implausibility of that kind of pretence. In any case, I find myself generally in agreement with Tim (and James) that conceiving of the body "in the abstract" is a phenomenological error. But I am suspicious of statements like "The notion of embodiment is a massively more complicated issue [than Foucault's use of it as a stable term in his history suggests]," because I don't want to give anyone the right to tell me how complicated my body is. What is "disrespectful to the experience of having a body" is the act of calling a material reference to it into question. This is the line that has been so elegantly crossed and recrossed in the exchanges between Tim and Tony.

I have a feeling that Tony's aesthetic needs "the body" as a "single material signifier", needs to be able to indicate it with a single, simple gesture--"a child's body", "a pool of bruises". And I think he is right about this.

It is true that the sentence, "This is my body," is ambiguous. But its ambiguity may be very simple, cleaving (despite the threat of deconstruction) into an assertion on one side (the body's empirical aspect) and an injunction on the other (the body's normative aspect). There are gestures that say, "This is my body," and which are clear indications of significant material. Sometimes you are asked to confirm the body. Sometimes you are asked to obey.


Tim Peterson said...

Hi Thomas,

Thanks for these eloquent and thoughtful comments. Yes, that's what I was trying to do -- point to phenomenological experience as a body. I want to try and address your other point though, which is that I was allegedly trying to tell someone use how to use theirs. My objection is not to the word "body," but to the prefix "the" -- does this make sense? As if there were only one body in the abstract. The larger debate (how you use your body in your poem) is one of both philosophy and fashion, in which we'd both take up different positions. Mine is that I find this phrase "the body" to be a pretentious cliche when it appears in poems, one which has implications for ideology and poetics (if you don't see yourself as a body in your poems, for example, but only refer to "the body" in the abstract, what does that tell us, that you prefer to look rather than being looked at? You can tell a lot as a reader by these choices, etc). So, in the spirit of "making it new," I was trying to suggest that there are other ways to write about embodiment without writing about "the body." David Shapiro, for example, deals with embodiment and phenomenology as central issues in his poetry, but you almost never find that phrase itself popping up in his work -- in my experience it's a late nineties Iowa convention that needs to be looked at more closely in the larger picture.

Furthermore, those passages that you quote from Tony are fine and interesting ones...they aren't examples of what I'm talking about.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks for the comment, Tim. I'm going back and forth over this, and you're right of course to point out that you weren't talking about those passages of Tony's work, which are all nice and conrete, all intermediaries accounted for, etc.

I guess Descartes' pretence carries over into post-structuralism. I.e.,

This is not my body,
It's THE body.

Of course, now we're really getting orthodox, because the next stage is St. Paul,

This is my contribution to The Body.

Sometimes I think the only error of Catholic moral psychology was to advise against participation in proximate occasions of sin.

But I still think we/Tony need/s an abstract body to license a sufficiently Tostian empathy. This body is not always mine, or not mine alone.

Tim Peterson said...


Sure, why not? More power to him...

I think what I initially bridled at was the use of that abstract term when dealing with someone who I actually knew personally (as Tony himself correctly anticipates).

I'll have to think more about whether that construction "the body" really is a source of empathy, though. That's the official argument I've heard from a lot of poets who use this type of style, but I'm not so sure that's actually what it me it feels rather distancing, awe-filled, and perhaps a little sleazy in some contexts. I'm not quite sure I trust it.

Thomas Basbøll said...

In "some" contexts? I'm a bit of an outsider myself, so I find references to Iowa abstract in their own right. (If you have an example on hand, I'm curious now.)

I would think that referring to "the" body is an attempt also to refer to "the" context. Or an attempt to make such a reference, even if it will always be incomplete.

I think I share your suspicions, though. Will think more about it too.

Tim Peterson said...

"I've seen flame flicker around the edges of the body / pentencostal, evidence of inhabitation"
-- Mark Doty

"what it was in the best of times to cross the bridge of shame, from the body un-
encumbered to the body on the block"
-- Linda Gregerson

"Slow waltz of grit when the body isn't there,
Flesh becoming pine
And a water that tastes like leather. Who
Would ever have thought
The body could be poured? Like anything else?
Who would have supposed
The body pouring out of the body in the stench
Of resurrection?"
-- Larry Levis

"It is dark inside the body, and wet,
and double-hearted."
-- Larissa Szporluk

"The body is not an allegory — it
can't help that it looks like one, any more than
it can avoid not being able to stay."
--Carl Phillips

"Splinter souls—sinuosities or organic forms flattened to fill shadow space,
The body's music:
Awakens for her dream, sleeps off continuity"
-- Martine Bellen

"I think thinking is not
the body's job,
that the body gets in the way."
-- Ellen Bryant Voigt

Laura Carter said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tony Tost said...

Eh, I don't know. It doesn't seem to me that my lines ("An imaginary circumference/centers the body" or also the earlier, opening lines "Sweetness possess us/the plea of an elsewhere/inside the mouth" [I'm assuming it's kind of sleazy, etc. to use "the mouth" too]) are trying to do what it seems most of these above lines Tim, by some miracle, pulled out of a handy New Iowa anthology or whatever are doing. For me at least, both of my quoted excerpts deal with issues of language and its usage, with 'the plea of an elsewhere inside the mouth' using 'the mouth' as a metonym (is that right?) for language. Because I think of words as being inside the mouth. The hope of an otherness inside the mouth/language; not a spooky otherness but simply a something else because I'm an optimist. The "the body" lines hopefully embody a sense of recognition of a non self centered circumference, which does seem in ways seem to contradict the desire for a something else inside language since we have words inside our mouths and our mouths are stuck to our bodies. But then I'm writing a poem and not an academic paper. I still dig the lines!

Of course I'm writing this explication all after the fact, and I kind of feel dirty, like I'm prostrating before you, Thomas and my better self, secretly hoping that all involved will acknowledge that I'm not the young person's Larry Bryant Gregerson. Not sure how much I care, but this is kind of interesting at least to me, you and Thomas. It's engrossing, like a good game of cutthroat (Rick Danko: "the aim is to get the other guys' balls off the table"). Some healthy sporting amongst peers. Anyway: unless I'm totally deluding myself, I think I work best in the realm of rhetoric; setting up possible statements, following them with other possible statements, seeing what kind of effect that causes. This is where my worries about becoming a series of effects arises from because ultimately I cannot point to this or that theory or figure and say "see, I'm right."

I'm going to see if I can recreate with any accuracy my impulses in writing the lines -- my sensation upon hearing about Jackson Mac Low's death, via email, was a strange one being that I've had no interaction with him, he didn't know who I was, and though I'd been a fan for years he wasn't someone whose work I had immersed myself in yet. A sense of loss and also guilt that I had not yet devoted the attention to the work that I have wanted to. I clicked over to his Light Poems in the Light & Dust anthology and found myself reading them anew from this current sensation. Certain combinations suggested themselves to me, and I began to put them together as I read through his poems. My emotions concerning his passing were a strange mix -- it wasn't a private, personal grief, and I certainly did not want to present anything in a poem that pretended to that. So I think the impulse to generality arised from that recognition. It probably is a cliche to use "the body" in a poem, but really really honestly I hope at my best I'm not trying to be correct in my writing; trying to be correct sounds seems so sterile. Avoiding cliches is so cliche. Wait. I think that logically means I should avoid them because to use them would be avoiding the cliche of avoiding them, thus being a cliche. Thomas will explain this to me tomorrow I hope.

Back to our spriteliness: I think it's a question whether I had any claim to write some lines upon the death of a poet I didn't know personally, whose work I admired greatly though I'd read maybe a handful of his books. Personally again the poem wasn't an expression of my personal pain but more of a lament for a relationship that I didn't have. Tim, I'm certain I could've responded earlier to your issues with more generosity; I don't think I have too much problem with people criticizing aspects of my writing, or even person. I'd like to be curious about myself. And ask anyone who knows me -- I'm not very fragile. But man, I couldn't answer your tone with a straight face.

Your tone: "We have come to a point where putting the phrase "The Body" (or, "the self" for that matter) into a poem is a cliched device that seems to surface mostly among the ranks of the Iowa poets as a really pretensious, and empty, flourish. This is because they have subconsciouly ingested a version of Foucault via poststructuralist ideas which, I would argue, is incorrect."

We? You and me and the professors? That's a lot of authority you're dressing yourself up in. I'm pretty at peace with writing, thinking and emoting like a bright animal and not as a theorist or intellectual. You're obviously smarter than me, though I have a hunch I'd win in arm-wrestling, which probably leaves us about equal in terms of poetry. I'm sure you're right on the phenomenological notions about the body. I'm pretty sure though your reading of the lines is quite a bit more self-involved, close minded and unimaginative than I hope my readings of your poems will be.

Tim Peterson said...

I'm getting weary of this's only a little less dogged at this point than Charles Olson's prose style.

Tony, I don't believe I mentioned any "professors" in what I said (you're the guy who's going after a PhD in Creative Writing, not me). I also think you're misreading my tone completely throughout this whole exchange...instead of "stern parent" think "please Dad can I get a soda?" I was trying to open more possibilities for how to look at the notion of "the body" as a way of explaining my reaction to your poem, but to do this I have to argue that the abstract version isn't the only one on the block. Does this make sense?

I don't care who's smarter than who -- I care about the issues involved in how we frame this discussion of "the body," and they happen to be some of the main things I deal with when I write poetry, so naturally I get emotional about them.

But seriously, do your an artist, that's all any of us can do...

Tim Peterson said...

So the next question I have is, when can I get on your list of blog links, Thomas? I've added you to mine...

Laura Carter said...

I want to see the virtual arm-wrestle.

Tony Tost said...


I think, wide awake in bed at 3 am, I pinpointed the source of my angst. So I'm back up now, giving it a go. To me (and I'm not being coy when I suggest I'm just the writer), presenting a different way of looking at the body as to the one presented in a line of mine would be nearly (but not identically) akin to presenting a different way of looking at kittens to the one presented in a line of one of Kasey's poems in Deer Head Nation. I think a large part of the appeal of Flarf to me, especially as utilized in my favorite poems of Kasey's, is simply the act/fact of (from the poet's view) language-coming-first, sentiment/idea/ethic-coming-after. It gets more complicated because from the original source's pov, it was reversed; then the Flarf person comes along and uses the language that arose from the original person's sentiment and the Flarfist utilizes the language often in a way unanticipated by the original user of the language (though I'd argue that knowledge of the Google process allows for the ghost of the original usage to possibly ride along -- I think this is where Thomas and I differ). Anyway, much of Flarf carries to a more difficult and frankly riskier aesthetic degree the same impulse that I think I've always had in terms of writing poems: construct by hook or nook the lines and see to what extent I can push myself to imaginatively/emotionally/intellectually embody them. That is my usual method, compiling by whatever methods necessary lines and sentences to construct into some sort of magical force field, hopefully playing at the boundaries as to what I can stand behind as poetry. So I'll stand behind lines of a poem as poetry while not necessarily stand behind the sentiments in them as my own ideas about the world (though I often do include my ideas about the world). This is what coming of age immersed in Ashbery has done to me. So the difficulty arises when there is an actual emotion or sentiment before the language, and I want to give voice to that emotion or sentiment without merely spilling out the drivel that comes when I try to express myself in that manner; my approach seems to still be by nook or crook try to find the language to use, but in this case to make lines that can somehow correspond to the original emotion/impulse without just expressing it. Much more troublesome, and which pushes me towards studying the poetics of someone like Olson, where there seems to be very much a point and an intention previous to the language, even if it is presented not with a pre-established model but with a faith that the world coheres and close attention to it will produce a kind (a new old kind?) of coherence. Anyhow, for me the lines we are discussing never arose from a specific notion of "the body," but the lines (as presented in the poem) seemed to correspond with the vague impulse/emotion at hand -- the weird impulse first, the discovery and/or invention (same thing!) of corresponding lines next, the attempt at embodying and understanding the lines next, then the late night spritelies. So, objections as to notions of the body as presented in a poem (as opposed to an email, or blog post) of mine seem fairly irrelevant to me. Questions and objections as to the poem as a whole, or as a gesture, are very relevant though. So I think it was the irrelevant (from my view) objections to notions of "the body" as presented in the poem combined with what struck me as the firm assurance in the correctness of your reading and attending objections that made a fully thought out explanation nearly physically impossible for me.

And while I'm up: you're not worried about who's smarter than who? I am! I keep a mental tab. Here it is:

Bloggers Whom I'm Certain Are Smarter than Me (in no particular order):

K.J. (honorary blogger)

Bloggers Who I'm Certain I'm Smarter Than (in particular order):

C.F. (honorary blogger)
Aaron McCollough

Bloggers Who I Think Are About the Same or About Whom I'm Not Sure Yet:

everyone else

Also: Bloggers Who I Think Can Beat Me in Arm Wrestling:


(this seems really fun to me, right now, at nearly 4 am)

Tony Tost said...

That was supposed to say, "this all seems funny to me." This all being the above lists. Funny in that it'd be funny if I was actually the kind of person who kept such a list, and that it would be the above list, and that I just had to share it. Like it'd be funny if I went along thinking I was the thinking man's Zukofsky. A good explanation of funny: me and Zach Schomburg would make poop jokes in front of all our smart friends in college, not that we thought poop is funny, but that it'd be funny if we were the kind of guys who thought poop was funny and could not but help to make poop jokes, even around our smart friends. "I'll supersize a number 2, thank you." "Gonna give Mr. Brown a little pinch." Etc. You all knew that anyway (at least all of you on the smart list), but I'm just covering my behind.