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 (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.

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