Friday, November 28, 2008

Another Sentence Only Available (as of Now) on the Pangrammaticon

"If you believe in God then you believe in intelligent design."

I imagine it could serve as the starting point for an interesting engagement with Christopher Hitchens, who believes in neither, but would, I think, accept it. In fact, he might argue that since a belief in God commits you to a belief in ID, you should (on pain of being a complete ass about the origin of your species) reject the belief in God. As an argument against God, that's pretty solid rhetoric. But it is also a suitable argument for ID.

After all, atheists are not really opposed to ID "on the evidence" (as they claim) but as a point of faith. (I know that's become a trite jab in these discussions. It can't be helped here.) There can't be intelligent design because there isn't a designer, the argument runs. Whatever "evidence" you adduce for design is therefore illusory. But, leave aside evidence for a second, the really interesting audience for ID is not those who don't believe in God in the first place. It is those who believe there is a God and that evolution explains our origins.

What the hell kind of a position is that? I think it is fair to ask. If you're not going to let God explain what you are, where you came from, and why you are here, what's He doing in your doxy?

Good question?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Flarf's Kopóltuš (1)

Poetic composition, literally 'to find'.

Ezra Pound (SP, 95 fn2)

What I have always liked about Flarf is the arrangement of (obviously) non-poetic material for (undeniably) poetic effect. Katie Degentesh's "No One Cares Much What Happens to You" is a perfectly good example. So is Sharon Mesmer's "I Am Beautiful". The question I want to ask about these poems is whether they achieve their effect before the last line or whether they have become "poetic" long before that. At what point does the picture take over the seeing?

Or we might put it this way: at what point does the finding give way to a composing? At what point does what we have found become a composition?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Angry Kopóltuš

The ideas from my last post could easily be applied to Flarf—a poetry that might well be said to arrange items found in the mud. Ryan Fitzpatrick's reading of Katie Degentesh is a perfectly good place to start talking about this. I'll do that soon.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Khurbn & Kopóltuš

An idea which is, or ought to be, central to my thinking can be presented by bringing together a sentence of Jerome Rothenberg's with one of Robert Duncan's. In his preface to Khurbn, Rothenberg writes:

Our search since then has been for the origins of poetry, not only as a willful desire to wipe the slate clean but as a recognition of those other voices & the scraps of poems they left behind them in the mud.

Let us leave aside, if only for a second, the question "Since when?". Here's Duncan's contribution, taken from "Kopóltuš":

The figure of the jig-saw that is of picture, the representation of a world as ours in a complex patterning of color in light and shadows, masses with hints of densities and distances, cut across by a second, discrete pattern in which we perceive on qualities of fitting and not fitting and suggestions of rime in ways of fitting and not fitting—this jig-saw conformation of patterns of different orders, of a pattern of apparent reality in which the picture we are working to bring out appears and of a pattern of loss and of finding that so compels us that we are entirely engrosst in working it out, this picture that must be put together takes over mere seeing.

(I am relying on one of Ron Silliman's old posts. He provides a useful lineation of this "serpentine sentence". I have only removed his linebreaks.)

Khurbn means simply "destruction" in Yiddish. The back cover of Khurbn and Other Poems says "total destruction", and, as Rothenberg notes, it means specifically "Holocaust" in this context. "Khurbn beysamigdesh" means "Destruction of the Temple". I am, of course, no expert on any of this. Here's something I found "on the internet":

The spontaneously generated, circulated, and adopted name for the Holocaust among the survivors themselves was the Hebrew/Yiddish word "khurbn"—or, more specifically, the third "khurbn," the first and second having been the destruction of the first and second Temples.

"Total destruction" in the sense of the destruction of the signifying totality. There is apparently some question about whether even the Holocaust can be said to measure up against the destruction of the Temples in this regard. But it is, in any case, against precisely the catastrophic loss of meaning that the Kopóltuš may be proposed. Before the sentence quoted above, Rothenberg writes as follows:

The poems that I first began to hear at Treblinka are the clearest message I have ever gotten about why I write poetry. They are an answer also to the proposition—by Adorno and others—that poetry cannot or should not be written after Auschwitz. Our search since then...

After khurbn, we might say, there is, in the first place, only the "mere seeing", vision without significance. A kopóltuš is a "picture that must be put together" to "take over" this "mere seeing", it is an arrangement of items (drawn from patterns in light and shadow, loss and finding) that occasion complex associations and, by this means ... by this means alone ... produces significance. If khurbn is total destruction, kopóltuš is elemental creation.

The poet, being human, "creates" only by arrangement. Significance is produced, not "out of nothing" (ex nihilo) but from "scraps left behind in the mud". The origins of poetry.


I just read Jane Gregory's poem in Absent 3. You should too.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bolidigal Basshuntz III

The present crisis means the end of liberal capitalism, the economic system which emphasized the individual profit motive, and marks the beginning of a new economy which stresses collective interests.

Benito Mussolini
October 4, 1934

Good government is the proper administration of the nation's energies. This includes both a stewardship of natural resources and the organization of the labour force. But it must also include the administration of the nation's intelligence. A national leader can have an important effect on the quality of thought in his realm.

Pound admired Mussolini, in part because he was "the first head of a state in our time to perceive and to proclaim quality as a dimension in national production" (SP, p. 200). What is interesting, at least to me, is Pound's focus on work. (Emery quotes Lincoln Steffens: "And the [Italian] people did go back to work, and they worked as they had not worked before.") In Detroit at the moment the problem is not a lack of demand for cars, nor a scarcity of labour, nor a scarcity of resources. What is missing is simply money (in the unfortunately usurious form of credit). What is missing the means of bringing the available energies together in production.

"Liberal capitalism" prevents the coordination of available means of production in a quality product. At one extreme, it makes it unfeasible (because "unprofitable") to provide a sculptor with a sizable chunk of granite, a space in which to work, a time freed from worry about what to eat and where to sleep. At another, it supports "the production of pointless artifacts [like plastic back scratchers] that seem justified because people can be gotten to buy them" (Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, p. 303-4).

It is the "quality of the affection" that counts (Canto LXVII/480). The nation's energies must be coordinated to this end. The leader presides over an affection.

Good art does not result directly from sound fiscal policy. But "the arts" depend on good government. Under the contemporary "liberal capitalist" order there is an "unemployment problem". You can of course still write a good poem. But it is unlikely to enter cultural life and contribute to "the arts".

In 1937, Hemingway believed that fascism was the only system of government under which a writer could NOT work. In 1933, Pound almost believed that ONLY fascism could provide the appropriate fiscal and monetary framework to support the arts. Somewhere between granting every aspiring writer a lifetime stipend and shooting anyone who would put pen to paper we find Pound's "decent fiscal system", which would ensure that "the few hundred people who want work of first intensity could at any rate have it" (SP, p. 199). That same system would ensure that there was money to pay people for really productive labour.

"WOT IZZA COMIN'? // I'll tell you wot izza comin'/ Sochy-lism izza comin'" (Canto LXXVII/ 478). Or some other vortex of political passions.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


From the author note in my copy of Ulysses: "But he soon gave up attending lectures and devoted himself to writing poems and prose sketches, and formulating an 'aesthetic system'."


When it crashes, the aircraft
is alone. It just falls.

Night is a species of dust.
Governments cannot alter.

The technique is easy
to master. You enter into it.

E.g., when the plane hits the
ship. They are together.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

How Desire is Not a Lack

Laura breaks it down for us:

Intensity craves a surface, a place to believe from, a language....

Pangrammatically, of course, "a place to believe from" is always "a way into desire" (and/or a way out of desire?). So we learn that our experience of desire is always an intensity craving its surface.

Pangrammaticism immediately allows us to construct the philosophical homologue. Our experience of belief is always a clarity seizing its appearance. (Something like that.) Clarity seizes an appearance, a way into desire, a language....

Desire is not a lack; beliefs are not held.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Bolidigal Basshuntz II

The effects of social evil show first in the arts. Most social evils are at root economic. I, personally, know of no social evil that cannot be cured, or very largely cured, economically. (E.P, "Murder by Capital", SP, 199)

Make Love, Not War was, let us say, Propertius's slogan. Pound contributed an intervening "fiscal" policy. Once we realize the importance of the financial system (the system that manages the circulation of money and credit) we can understand the pivot between love and war, viz., the slogan's pun on "making" (poiesis). There is a sense in which one "makes" war and another in which one "makes" love. But can these senses be brought together—so that a trade-off becomes meaningful?

I bought Clark Emery's Ideas into Action (University of Miama Press, 1958) because Allen Ginsberg said it had helped him to understand Pound's monetary theory. Here's one such helpful passage:

In Pound's estimation, bad poetry and social disorder are the results of misgovernment. And misgovernment may be defined as that in which the rulers misuse the wealth of the state. The Medici had made a reasonably good start (see Canto 21); learning and letters flouraged under their patronage. But the time came when their banking practices deteriorated—when, specifically, they began to lend money to the princes for their wars, instead of making it available to the mass of people who produce goods. (p. 32)

The state may choose to finance production or destruction. We could also say that it can choose between building productive capacity or producing destructive capacity.

The bailout plans and stimulus packages that are being discussed these days will ultimately lean one way or the other. It may either make credit available to the "mass of people" who, not only produce goods, but do most of the love-making, or it may be distributed to "the princes" who very definitely make war. We have just gone through eight years* of the latter, in which virtually the whole global economic order has been driven by the need to finance military operations. We have been making war, not love.

Much turns on the difference. The immediate issue of money results in a corresponding national debt. But will that debt be "secured" against future production or imminent destruction? Hopefully Obama understands the forces implicit in these kulchural basshuntz.

*It's of course been longer than that. 60 years. 160 years. Whatever. I'm talking about a specific military operation.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bolidigal Basshuntz I

Autobiography if you like. Slovinsky looked at me in 1912: 'Boundt haff you gno bolidigal basshuntz?' Whatever economic passions I now have, began ab initio from having crimes against living art thrust under my perception. (Ezra Pound, "Murder by Capital", SP, p. 200-1)

I'm not much for biography, actually. But in this case the date (i.e., pre-1920) is important. It situates Slovinsky's remark (his real name was Henry Slonimsky, an old classmate of Pound's, see also Canto 77/483) in Pound's "aesthetic" period, before Mauberley. We assume that Slonimsky had (accurately) noticed that Pound didn't take much of interest in politics at that time.

So, in 1933, Pound, who was now not only interested in politics but was also a declared fascist living in the Duce's Italy, phrased the question as follows:

What drives, or what can drive a man interested almost exclusively in the arts, into social theory or into a study of the 'gross material aspects' videlicet economic aspects of the present? (SP, 198)

That is a good question. The short is answer is that Capital turned out to be an utterly incompetent patron of the arts.

Pound says specifically that scarcity economics is to blame for the paucity of the "bureaucracy of letters"; I am sure we could add the labour theory of value. These theories were part of the "specific and tenacious attack on good art ... which has been maintained during the last forty years of 'capitalist, or whatever you call it', ci—or whatever you call it—vilization" (SP, 201).

Concretely, Pound blamed "maladministration of credit": "The lack of printed and exchangeable slips of paper corresponding to extant goods is at the root of bad taste" (SP, 199). He wrote this, like I say, in 1933:

There is no reason to pity anyone. Millions of American dollars have been entrusted to incompetent persons, whose crime may not be incompetence, but consists, definitely, in their failure to recognize their incompetence. I suppose no pig ever felt the circumscription of pig-ness and that even the career of an Aydelotte cannot be ascribed to other than natural causes.

This what American capitalism has offered us, and by its works stands condemned. (SP, 200)

I suppose it's been all lipstick since then.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bolidigal Basshuntz (trailer)

"nothing counts save the quality of the affection" (Canto LXVII/480)

"It is perhaps only now that these disagreeable phenomena can be traced to maladministration of credit." (E.P., "Murder by Capital" SP, p. 199)

Dropping the H-Bomb on Obama

"We can't be lulled into complacency. You have to remember that Adolf Hitler was elected in a democratic Germany. I'm not comparing him to Adolf Hitler. What I'm saying is there is the potential of going down that road."

Paul Broun

As someone who has been using the Mussolini trope from the beginning to understand Obama's appeal (for me), I'm in a poor position to be outraged at this statement. I have actually heard rumblings even from very liberal Americans much earlier in the campaign. Some had attended his rallies and were genuinely concerned about how Obama was able to make them feel. George Clooney told Charlie Rose (someone added very cheesy music to this) that Obama is the kind of man he'd follow anywhere, a real leader. Mainstream European journalists could not entirely conceal their mental associations of the DNC with the Nuremberg rallies. Etc.

Here's Norman Mailer's prelude to his assessment of Kennedy:

It was a hero America needed, a hero central to his time, a man whose personality might suggest contradictions and mysteries which could reach into the alienated circuits of the underground, because only a hero can capture the secret imagination of a people, and so be good for the vitality of a nation; a hero embodies the fantasy and so allows each private mind the liberty to consider its fantasy and find a way to grow. Each mind can become more conscious of its desire and waste less strength in hiding from itself. Roosevelt was such a hero, and Churchill, Lenin and De Gaulle; even Hitler, to take the most odious example of this thesis was a hero, the hero-as-monster... (PP, p. 42)*

I think it is safe to say that Obama has a pretty firm hold on the American imagination at this point. That gives him a particular kind of power that Bush has never had. And look at what Bush was able to accomplish. So the worry is a real one, and the only hope (I'm afraid) is that Hitler was not all bad, i.e., that his "heroism" (better: heroics) and "vitality", his power, could have been used for good—that his fantasy only incidentally became a monstrous reality.

*I think it is worth emphasizing that Norman Mailer here, in 1961, before Kennedy's election, in an article that he himself believed contributed to Kennedy's victory, but only 16 years after the end of WWII, is comparing Kennedy to Hitler. And Hitler to Roosevelt and Churchill. I don't think the remark stirred any public outrage. (If anyone knows of some, I'd love to see it.) Keeping the full argument in view: note that Pound wrote a pamphlet called simply Jefferson and/or Mussolini.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Presidential Presser

"His style in the press conferences was interesting. Not terribly popular with the reporters (too much a contemporary, yet too difficult to understand ...), he carried himself nonetheless with a cool grace which seemed indifferent to applause. ... There was a good lithe wit to his reponses, a dry Harvard wit, a keen sense of proportion in disposing of difficult questions ... Yet there was an elusive detachment to everything he did." (PP, 45)

Back in Kennedy's day, public officials would hold press conferences with their mistresses at their side. The journalists simply wouldn't comment. The press conference itself would not be transmitted or recorded in its entirety. The journalists would filter out the parts that were to remain between the official and the journalist.

So we're seeing an important difference in the rhetorical conditions faced by Kennedy and Obama. But we're also seeing a real difference in style. Kennedy was "too much a contemporary, yet too difficult to understand". Obama, who we must say is well-liked by reporters, is also a bit too contemporary. In fact, he may be younger in spirit than most of the Washington press corps. He may even be less square.

But this will get him in trouble it seems. Jon Stewart could never be president because he would not be able to detach himself from a comedic resonance. Once the word "living" had been (inadvertently) emphasized, popular culture sends you looking for a reference to the occult. As it turns out, the White House is associated with the occasional séance. (Hillary Clinton is said to have conducted one or two in her time.) Obama could have left it at that. He could even have said, "Unlike some of my predessors..." But he accidently (and apparently wrongly) took a good-natured, chummy-with-the-press-corps jab at Nancy Reagan by name.

In the room, that would not have been a problem. But on "national TV" it looks terribly mean. (Jon Stewart is not on national TV in that sense: he's got a "demographic".) If he had been Kennedy, it would have remained between Obama and the reporters.

I like this gaffe because it explains why Obama reads prepared statements so often. When he's in public, he's exposed. More so than presidents have been in the past. As a symbol of this, remember that he held his acceptance speech behind bulletproof glass. I found his delivery too detached. He did not connect with his audience, he did not share his feelings of victory with them. He did not, finally, seem happy. But he had also just felt, I think for the first time, the full chill of his Secret Service protection. It descended on him like a cheese bell.

Off his script, Obama spoke not like a late-night talk show host but like a Harvard professor who watches late-night talkshows and tries to be funny in the classroom. "If one had a profound criticism of Kennedy it was that his public mind was too conventional, but that seemed to matter less than the fact of such a man in office because the law of political life had become so dreary that only a conventional mind could win an election" (PP, 49). So we must hear about the puppy (has anybody thought compare this theme to Checkers?), but, it must be granted, in a manner supported by a pretty crisp sense of irony. There is something cooler about a president who likes to talk about basketball than one who likes to talk about football, but it's still sports. It's conventional.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Presidential Papers

It is increasingly clear to me that the Obama presidency offers (and threatens) something very much like the Kennedy presidency. This clarity is coming mainly from rereading Norman Mailer's The Presidential Papers in the light (or afterglow) of Obama's victory. Consider the following snippets:

It has long been the thesis of this self-appointed Presidential advisor that the FBI has done more damage to America than the American Communist Party.

J. Edgar Hoover has done more to harm the freedoms of America than Joseph Stalin.

Mailer did not imagine that Kennedy would agree with these statements, not even in private. His hope for the Kennedy presidency was simply that these statements would not be meaningless in Camelot. It is not difficult to construct contemporary corollaries:

It has long been the thesis of this self-appointed Presidential advisor that the Department of Homeland Security has done more damage to America than Al Qaeda.

Dick Cheney has done more to harm the freedoms of America than Osama bin Laden.

(The parallels aren't perfect: Michael Chertoff is not as much of a character as J. Edgar Hoover.) Thinking about the Obama/Kennedy parallels is helpful to members of my generation because we don't understand how abhorent the notion of "communism" was in the early sixties. (Witness how flat the "socialism" and "Marxism" charges fell.) But to suggest that Cheney is worse than Osama bin Laden!

Mailer's point was that if such sentences could be uttered in the polity ... that a literary rogue could write them did not mean anything ... if they could enter political discourse then it would "create a new psychological reality" that would be "closer to history and so closer to sanity". "It was Kennedy's potentiality to excite such activity that interested [Mailer] most."

Well, I feel that way about Obama. He will never say such things, or even think them ... he knows not to go there. But under his administration we will be able to think them. And this, as Kierkegaard would point out, is more important than whether or not we can say them with impunity.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Ground Game

Given the make up of his potential advisors, we're in for a long uphill battle. So let's drop our illusions and start organizing, beginning with a discussion of what "organizing" even means in today's political climate.

Joshua Frank

DISTINGUISH between fascism which is organization, with the organizer at its head, to whom the power has not been GIVEN, but who has organized the power, and the state of America...

Ezra Pound

I'm almost afraid to suggest it. But there seems to be reason to believe that if Obama had lost the election he would still have been able to run the country. By the time the polls opened, Obama had all the relevant billionaires and warlords behind him, and he had the better part of the nation's energy and intelligence organized "on the ground". At that point he didn't need the Office to change America. America had already changed. He could simply have ordered a March on D.C. I'm not saying he would have; I'm simply pointing out that he probably could have.

By the same token, in his acceptance speech, I had hoped (knowing better) that he would tell his legion of volunteers to return to the neighbourhoods they had canvassed, this time not as campaigners but as those fabled "community organizers". That he would inspire them to keep up the work "on the ground" instead of thinking of their work as over. One might argue that he sort of did. But he could have been much more direct. The joke about the legions of now-aimless Obama supporters walking the streets like zombies or flaking out on the couch (there's an Onion video to this effect) captures some of this mood. Obama built up an organization around a purpose that seemed endless. Then it strangely ended.

Is it Year One in America? Anno I E.S. (l'era di speranza)?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Superman Returns to the Supermarket

The night Kennedy was elected, I felt a sense of woe, as if I had made a terrible error, as if somehow I had betrayed the Left and myself. It was a spooky emotion. In the wake of the election, one thing was clear—the strength the Left had been gaining in the last years of Eisenhower's administration would now be diluted, preempted, adulterated, converted and dissolved by the compromises and hypocrisies of a new Democratic administration. And so I began to follow Kennedy's career with obsession, as if I were responsible and guilty for all which was bad, dangerous, or potentially totalitarian within it.

Norman Mailer
Postscript to "Superman Comes to the Supermarket"
The Presidential Papers, p. 61.

I just googled the title of this post and it seems to be, well, mine. "In this moment..." I think there is a lot to learn from a look back at Mailer's obsession with Kennedy. And by the same token (as this little snippet already suggests), we might learn something from Pound's infatuation with Mussolini. I'm as excited as the next guy about what might happen tonight. But there really is a danger implicit in all this excitement. At least, the One Himself acknowledges the problem:

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Towards the Odes

(Talking Points) Memo to Norm Coleman: "having a private businessman pay for your clothing is never a good idea if you're a public official".

This made me think of Pound's translation of the Odes (75):

Live up to your clothes
we'll see that you get new ones

There something here that also applies to Palin: "we'll get you new clothes," let's say, "in the hope that you live up to them."


(To spike that tonic.)

"People in Europe had better wake up; that silly romantic illusion they have about Obama is going to be suicidal." (Webster Griffin Tarpley)

Tarpley (book here) is as admirably nuts as Chomsky is disturbingly sane.

McCain Conceding?

Maybe it's more tragedy, if we can see it that way. But McCain's appearance on SNL looked to me like he was conceding defeat. The joke about his campaign strategy that they didn't make: "If that doesn't work, I'm going to make a desparate, last-chance appearance on Saturday Night Live." It had absolutely no purpose, and no effect other than to make him look like a clown. Somehow the saddest part of this was the opening skit. I feel the need to point out that I saw the relevance of the "television salesman" joke weeks ago.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Aunti Zeituni

This story, and especially Obama's denial of any knowledge (and of course involvement), reminded me of Canto XIII.

And they said: If a man commit murder
Should his father protect him, and hide him?
And Kung said:
He should hide him.

And Kung gave his daughter to Kong-Tch'ang
Although he was in prison.

It is of course unthinkable in today's political environment that Obama might admit that he knew she was in the country, and that he did not turn her in. But would we really have expected him to do that?

There is still a need for Confucius.

The Craft of Hope

Building on my last post, which pitted a "masterful" Obama against a "tragic" McCain, I want to say something about the aesthetics of politics. (In an important sense, the Pangrammaticon is not "political", just as it is not "scientific". It traces science and politics back to their immediate presence in experience.)

Bismarck defined politics as the art of the possible. In that light, one should, perhaps, not be surprised to find one of its major artists today pursuing a tragic vision. If he loses, he can be considered a failed artist of his own possibilities. But even in failure an artist retains his dignity (even his loss of dignity can be construed as tragic!). While "possibility" conjures up a somewhat wonky technicity, "art" gives the pursuit a nobler aura. (Bismarck's pith depends on this collision.) Thus we do not call McCain a "failure" but a tragic destiny. A man of character who struggled with his contradictions and went down in that struggle ... in one sense, so we would not have to. He sacrificied himself for his art.

In Obama's case, the opposite is true. His message is not the measured real-politik of possibility, but, the, yes, "audacious" promise of "hope". But he somehow does not get carried away. Obama has redefined politics in a way that will take us some time to understand. It is no longer the art of the possible but the craft of hope. His sobriety lies not his message but in his method. His message rocks.

Just to nail this down: for contrast, consider McCain's somber message and scrappy method. And what I have just said is, of course, very much in line with McCain's critique of Obama's "eloquence". The point is that the immediate political problem is aesthetic. Its substance, right now, really is secondary. Perhaps it always has been; we just feel it more intensely right now. Our polity must regain a sense of style.