Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Primer Book Notions Akin to Madness (or Politics)

Western civilization is at the mercy of an international conspiracy of bankers ...

Wars are caused by this "usurocracy" in order to run nations into debt and create opportunities for manipulating the currency.

From Malcom Cowley's summary
of Ezra Pound's "ideas" (1961)*

I was out of focus, taking a symptom for a cause.
The cause is AVARICE.

Ezra Pound's forword to
his Selected Prose (1972)

I have stayed largely clear of political questions in this blog. And scientific questions as well, for that matter. But I've recently become aware of the enormous grassroots opposition to "American empire" that has formed around so-called 9/11 conspiracy theories. I've always suspected that real politics must transcend right/left distinctions. This movement seems to be doing that.

As far as I can tell, the 9/11 conspiracy is related, by a variety of networks, to the conspiracy Pound saw in the monetary system. (Michael Ruppert and Webster Tarpley have different versions of this connection, but to roughly the same effect.) Earle Davis notes that these ideas may "appear somewhat extreme or even 'akin to madness,' if one may venture a euphemism."* The point, for both Cowley and Davis (who disagree about just how kooky Pound should be taken to be), is that the Cantos "exploited" these ideas and may be judged, at least in part, by them. I've resisted this approach to poetry until now. But, as I keep saying, Kasey Mohammad's idea that some poems, at least, have an "ethical stickiness" to them has had me reconsidering this.

A couple of years ago I found an old book called Friendly Fascism by Bertram Gross (Evans, 1980). It's really not a very good book, but it does describe a strangely familiar society, governed by an inscrutable network of powerful interests (an avarice system, let us say), indifferent to any distinction between government and business. It was, to my mind, actually prefigured by Alexis de Tocqueville's description of "the new physiognomy of servitude" (the subtitle of Gross' book is "the new face of power in America").

I once proposed that Flarf, and perhaps post-avant poetry more generally, is the sort of literature that could remain poetic even under fascist conditions. That is, even if we live in the nightmare world described by those who believe 9/11 was carried out by a "rogue network", a "secret government" beholden to "an international conspiracy of bankers", in order to accomplish all the much more terrifying things that followed, these poems are there to "make glad the heart of man". A "poetry after Auschwitz".

The basic idea behind approaching the poetry/politics issue in this way is to consider the possibility of an abyss between the political consensus and the political reality. And then to live intensely within that possibility.


*Davis, Earle. Vision Fugitive: Ezra Pound and economics. The University Press of Kansas. 1968. pp. 13-14.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


Flarf is both an intellectual and an aesthetic exercise. It may be fantastic, humorous, macabre, ludicrous, or abstractly beautiful. But as an art form flarf is not a medium for the expression of profound themes. It is curious that while a pencil and a sheet of paper in the hands of a master may be used to create a sensitive, moving, emotionally dignified poem, the very materials of flarf stand between the poet and his theme, preventing more than a casually witty or psychologically exciting expression of an idea or feeling.

(The above is adapted from John Lynch's How to Make Collages, p. 9: "Collage is both an intellectual and an aesthetic exercise. It may be fantastic, humorous, macabre, ludicrous, or abstractly beautiful. But as an art form, like mobiles and constructions, collage is not a medium for the expression of profound themes. It is curious that while a pencil and a sheet of paper in the hands of a master may be used to create a sensitive, moving, emotionally dignified drawing, the very materials of collage stand between the artist and his theme, preventing more than a casually witty or psychologically exciting expression of an idea or feeling.")

Friday, September 22, 2006

Did you mean: "call an ambulance"?

No, I did mean "call a mambolance", though "no standard web pages containing all [my] search terms were found."

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Downright Corruption

Every bank of discount is downright corruption
taxing the public for private individuals' gain.
and if I say this in my will
the American people wd/ pronounce I died crazy.

Canto LXXI

Now a new motion picture by Aaron Russo.

These are interesting times.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Reading Heidegger II: while these machines are to us

There is a grammatical asymmetry in Heidegger's "Age of the World Picture". He defines the modern age in terms of two related events: the world becomes picture and man becomes subject (subiectum, in fact). It would be more precise (for those who care about such things) to say that modernity is constituted by the world becoming an object and history becoming a subject. But what, then, to do with this "picture" and this "man"?

We need to find something in the world to correspond with man in history. Heidegger provides a clue in invoking anthropology. After all, the pangrammatical homology of anthropology is metaphysics, just as the pangrammatical homology of ethnography is ontology. We can reinterpret "man" as "people", then, and can oppose them with "things". Thus, things become objects just as people becomes a subjects.

Now, the conversion of the experience into a picture (of the world) is certainly part of the process of objectification. Heidegger is not wrong to say that a "world picture" is an essential modern notion. But if things in the world are getting pictured as objects, then people in history are getting (what?) as subjects? If the world/thing is becoming a picture, then what is history/people becoming?

The answer, I think, is a machine. Modernity is the division of experience into, on the one hand, a series of images ordered into one comprehensive "world picture" and, on the other, a series of devices ordered into one comprehensive "historical machine".

Reading Heidegger

In "Science and Reflection", Heidegger tells us that "science is the theory of the real." But he is quick to assure us that it is not the task of philosophy to tell us that. In fact, it tells us very little. It is, at bottom, a question; and it is the task of philosophy to interrogate such definitions, not make them.

I think that is basically right. More generally, I think it is the task of philosophers to describe specific knowledge claims (scientific moments, if you will) in terms of "the theory of the real". That is, Heidegger's definition gives us a guide for how to proceed.

One important feature of the definition, to my mind, is the tension between "theory" and "the real". Science is not a description of reality but a theory of the real. There is an implicit sense of brute reality on the one and a "mere" theory of it on the other. That is, science is an approximation of the real, an approach to it. Philosophy exists in the tension of that proximity.

My concern, as always, is what this means for poetry. We begin (I've done this before) by saying that politics is the practice of the ideal. Again, there is a tension between pristine ideality on the one hand and "mere" practice on the other. Practical matters seem somehow degenerate. But politics is precisely the dirty business of approximating the ideal without ever reaching it. If science is our (theoretical) approach to reality, politics is our (practical) approach to ideality.

(Here one might stop to read Borges' "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim".)

Poetry works the tension between our practices and the ideals they approximate. It resides, not in the proximity of either politics or ideality, but, rather, in their proximity to each other. Again, I find Kasey Mohammad's notion of "ethical stickiness" useful.

In philosophy, there is a corresponding epistemic stickiness.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Li and/or ethos

Achilles Fang's introduction to Pound's translation of the Odes contains an interesting connection between Pound's poetics and Confucius'. Both seem to cultivate a pragmatic aesthetics that situates poetry in the environment in which living goes on (shades of Dewey?). Fang begins his quick gloss on ancient Chinese poetics by noting Pound's definition: "a poem is an emotional value verbally stated." Or, as I normally put it, poetry is emotional notation, just as philosophy is conceptual notation (shades of Frege!).

But the really interesting part comes in the connection between poetry and "the rites", li in Chinese.

The word li, essentially a code of behavior, is generally rendered "rites" when that behavior is directed towards the supernatural or the manes, and as "etiquette" when it concerns man's relation with his fellow men. ... Perhaps the late Ku Hung-ming had an insight when he rendered it as a "tact." It could, as well, be translated as "character."

As could the Greek "ethos", which also covers moral disposition and "theory of living". I think poetry is essentially related to (though not directly subject to) "appropriate behavior" or "decency". Rites invoke institutions, poems evoke emotions.

Institutions are the media of the immediacy of our manner of doing; emotions dispositions to feel. These connections all seem pretty tidy to me.

Replace emotions with concepts, feelings with thoughts, doing with seeing, institution with intuition, and ethos with episteme, and you have the pangrammatical homologue for philosophy.