Friday, September 30, 2005

Dissection (alt. take)

(on a theme by Julio Cortazar, after Ludwig Wittgenstein)

3.22 In a lion the owl is a forgotten object.

3.25 A lion has one and only one complete analysis.

3.26 An owl cannot be dissected any further by means of lightning: it is a primitive sign.

3.3 Only lions make sense; only in the mane of a lion does an owl have meaning.

3.31 I call any part of a lion that characterizes its sense a memory (or a symbol cymbal).
(A lion is itself an instrument of recollection.)

Original version here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The New Idiom II: Hyperliteracy

(This started as a comment to the previous post and grew into a post of its own. Thanks Phil, Jay and Jane.)

I think Jay is right to point out that there will be limits to what we can learn. Historians of the future, however, may gain access to the "Rank Page" algorithms of our time. These will be telling, i.e., they are in many ways decisive.

For example, it will help us to understand the sense in which George W. Bush epitomizes the concept of "miserable failure" (I'm sure you've tried this) and, of course, the limits of that application.

Jane brings up a vital issue. I like to think of myself as a technology conditionalist, not determinist. That is, technology conditions both aesthetic and historical progress and this, in a sense, is what makes aesthetics less conditional on history (i.e., the historical epoch of a particular aesthetic) than we think.

No understanding of X without an understanding of the technology of X.

But, no, I am not saying that technology, in the narrow sense of "how the equipment works" (which is the sense I've been trumpeting here), will answer all the relevant questions.

Even in this narrow sense, however, (cue trumpets!) technology has a way of summarizing and stabilizing social conditions. What I am suggesting is that the physical properties of texts (how they work, again in the narrow sense: their readability, durability, searchability, editability) are currently rendering substantial habits of cultural sensibility (the sort of thing we learn in our humanities courses; the sort of thing we teach there because we don't know enough to do otherwise) are now, or will soon be, peripheral to the real enterprise: "the process now going on," as Pound might say.

That is, aesthetics, along with history (but not "because of" this association), is becoming increasingly conditional on brute technical processes.

The phenomenal distance or ontological difference between our humanity and our technology (what we normally experience as "consciousness") is shrinking. The interface is being perfected.

It will never be perfect.

As the semiotic properties of texts are linked in ever greater detail to their material properties, their social properties will follow along. Indeed, semiosis just is the interlacing of social and material properties. What we are witnessing with search engines, blogs, wikis and Flarf, is a remarkable development in the mediation of social and material processes, cultural and natural events.

Picking up on Phil's enthusiasm here, I find myself wanting to announce (as if I'd be the first) a new linguistic era: from orality, to literacy, to "hyperliteracy". That is a word worth Googling for origins, but for me it simply means the ability to read and write hypertext--to see, e.g., a blog post as an occasion for further Googling (on the reading side) and to write a post knowing it will be read in this way and, of course, using links, comment boxes, etc.

I would caution against using words like "ubiquitous" here; as with literacy, progress belongs always first to the few. Which is also basically a reprimand to myself for all this (bordering on) techno-ecstatic hype I seem to be caught up in right now.

Coming back to Jay's point (and Jane's), yes, there will be old fashioned forms of power and ignorance to subtend these developments--just as literacy did not mean the end of oral communication.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Google, Wiki, Blog and Flarf: The New Idiom

Most of what I know about contemporary poetics and the current potential of the Internet, began by reading Tony Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot" very closely back in the spring of 2003. I've just spent the morning reading up on Google and Wikipedia (in fact, I've been reading about Google on Wikipedia, and looking Wikipedia up on Google.)

I am now convinced that we know nothing about human knowledge if we do not understand the workings of these new technologies. The new media. We know nothing about what a poem is, what it means to read, what a myth is, what it means to believe, what an idea is, what it means to think, etc. if we do not know how web pages are made (by humans and machines) and how they are related (personally and mechanically).

New projects like Google Print will inevitably succeed. Sources will inevitably be (in some sense) "open". Creativity will be manifest in the combination and recombination of what is available and "availability" will be a high-tech business of the first rank (is already).

Flarf has been exploring the materials of this new medium in its own way, but I believe our literary theory of Flarf has a long way to go. (I'm here talking mainly about myself.) My attempts to read "what is on the page" must take the "source code" seriously (though I will continue to insist that the classical anthropological assumptions about the writers of the sources must be abandoned and replaced with a technical understanding of the medium in which they "express themselves"--i.e., that which keeps them from doing so--i.e., the sense in which the medium is the message.) Also, concepts like "residual", "dominant" and "emergent" cannot be understood without a detailed understanding of the technologies that make texts available and unavailable (including points of contact with intellectual property issues) to readers. Historical or cultural awareness offers next to nothing when compared with savvy Googling.

"Erudite" will no longer mean "well read" but "super connected".

I generally assume that Michel Foucault's "archeological" approach to human knowledge is right. What I am trying to say is that it will soon be (if it isn't already) silly to study "the archive" without knowing how the "the library" (Google etc.) works, and I mean "works" in its mechanical details.

Finally, I believe that the only way to present the results of intellectual labour today is by way of the "luminous ideogram" or "perspicuous presentation", which will (we must presume) be read always by Googling its words and phrases.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Emergency Reading List

A discussion has recently begun about what is being called an "emergent poetics", which it will take me awhile to understand fully, but which I also think has some urgency. Here are some of the things I'm looking at, along with the links and references within them.

Jane Dark's post on Sept 16 and July 8.

Kasey Mohammad's posts on Sept 17 and Sept 18.

Josh Corey's post on Sept 19.

Also, Steve Evans' very interesting piece, "Continuous Present: On Hearing Modernism in Contemporary Poetry" at Third Factory.

Without yet knowing what side I'm on, or even if there are sides to speak of, my own position is a "modernist" one in whatever sense this amounts to a "classicist" position, i.e., I am not a romantic and, again, in whatever is exactly the same sense, not a post-modernist.

I think the important difference here is whether one believes that "all ages are contemporaneous" or not (a formula you find, somewhat ironically, in Pound's Spirit of Romance). I believe that they are, especially in the sense in which that idea is relevant for poetics. A work of art "emerges" (if you will) from cultural practices in proportion to its likeness to all other works of art (past and future). Thus a work of art becomes its own contemporary with all other works of art.

The competing view, as I understand it, is that a work of art emerges from local and temporary conditions. Each age defines what a work of art is. A work of art does not depend on the sensibility of "present moment of the past" (and the future) but is an indictment of the present's domination by the past (on behalf of the future) or obssession with the future (on behalf of the past). However we turn it, the problem with this refusal to be contemporary is that it implies that historical knowledge is necessary in order to understand the artistry of a given work.

For a long time now, I have found the formula "No understanding of X without an understanding of the history of X" a depressing one. It may, of course, be true.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

"I See Words"

In Kiosk No. 2 (2003) there are some notes by Patrick Durgin on Hannah Weiner, which got me looking around for more about her. I wonder if the "sources" of Weiner's poems can teach us something about how to approach Flarf. It would seem there are different ways of interpreting the poems. Jackson Mac Low calls her a clairvoyant and Charles Bernstein saw her more as a schizophrenic. I'm not getting that exactly right. The important thing is that both emphasize her ability to to record her experience over the real or imagined sources of the experience. What makes the poetry important is not where it came from but how it got down on the page. That is Weiner's achievement, as I understand it.

The point is that the sources need not have any authority. It does not matter whether Weiner was visionary or insane. She could have been that without being a poet. "I see words," she said, and she undertook to write them down. Perhaps today Google allows everyone to see words. Not everyone, however, makes poems out of them.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Prigov Transmission

(With apologies to Robert Ludlum)

Back in the old days, before I had a blog, we all used to hang out over at the Unquiet Grave and talk shop and I remember in particular one story that I've never been able to shake. We were talking about product and process and Kent (I'm assuming) Johnson told a story about Dmitrii Prigov "the great samizdat Conceptualist poet." You can read it in his words in the comments to Tony's post on September 12, 2004. It suggests a Cold War spy novel of sorts.

In 1989, an American poet arrives in Leningrad to attend an international conference. A famous conceptualist approaches him and, making sure that he is in plain view of everyone in the room (almost exageratedly not suspicious) he hands him three packets, carefully stapled around the edges. The poet fondles the packets gently and decides that there are folded pieces of paper inside. The word "Coffin" followed by a number appears on each package, and the conceptualist explains that these are the sole copies of his very best poems. He looks gravely at the poet and says, "Take these back to your country and give them their proper burial. Do not disturb the dead." At the end of the conference the poet returns to America.

Well, two years later the Soviet Union dissolves and history moves on to other concerns. The poet eventually returns to Russia, now St. Petersburg, where the famous conceptualist still lives, having emerged from the Cold War era as a legendary member of the underground avant-garde. They meet by what the poet at first interprets as an accident. But it soon becomes clear that the conceptualist has a bone to pick with him.

"What did you do with my packets?"

"What do you mean? I did just what you told me to?"

There is a pause.

"You mean you...?"

"Yes. I burried them."

The conceptualist seems at first horrified, then he sighs, and smiles.

"You are a kindred spirit," he says. "You understand me better than my own people."

They shake hands and part. The meeting is unsettling to the poet and he relates it to his wife when he returns again to America. She listens and looks at him, slightly puzzled.

"I didn't know what else to say."

"You lied."

"Yes, but what else could I tell him?"

"I don't know. Maybe it doesn't matter."

(To be continued)

Thursday, September 15, 2005


(on a theme by Julio Cortazar, after Ludwig Wittgenstein)

3.22 In a lion an owl is the representative of an object.

3.25 A lion has one and only one complete analysis.

3.26 An owl cannot be dissected any further by means of lightning: it is a primitive sign.

3.3 Only lions make sense; only in the mane of a lion does an owl have meaning.

3.31 I call any part of a lion that characterizes its sense an expression (or a symbol).
(A lion is itself an expression.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Dissecting Owls

Emily Lloyd recently posted this poem by Julio Cortazar.

To dissect lions
You need lightning
For little owls you need
The last word ruins it for me for reasons I can only explicate by experiment. These poems are better (translations?):
To dissect lions
You need lightning
For little owls you need
To forget.

To dissect lions
You need lightning
For little owls ...
(Forget about it.)

To dissect lions
You need lightning
Try to forget
The little owls.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


I am generally against approaching philosophers or poets through their biographies. To my mind, "intellectual biography" is really just a veiled form of ad hominem refutation. Many prominent Kierkegaard scholars, for example, insist that you can't understand his thinking without an understanding of his life, mostly to assure themselves and their audiences that existential anxiety is a peculiarity of some especially tormented souls and nothing to worry yourself about (unless you happen to like that sort of thing, i.e., want to identify yourself with it.)

When I first heard the celebrated Joakim Garff say something (I interpreted) along those lines, I came up with the punny idea of reading Kierkegaard biogarffically (as opposed to, say, philosophically). This has turned out to be more profound a joke than I thought. It has recently been argued that Garff uses every trick in the book (and other people's books) to turn Kierkegaard's life to his own ends.

Marilyn Piety offers a useful summary of the debate, which we witnessed here in Denmark. I agree with her that there is a real problem in what we allow biographers to get away with in terms of "interpretation", and just the generally lax attitide in the academy with regard to proper referencing of sources. If I was more interested in biography I would have the facts straight enough to offer an assessment of right and wrong. As it stands, I imagine the worst, and I think Peter Tudvad (the whistle blower) has been treated unfairly.

Part of my reason for writing this post is simply to come clean about what may be a double standard of mine. I think Flarf is fully justified in its acts of "plagiarism", but the scare quotes come off when it comes to academics.

Davis, Bernes, Affect

I like these posts by Jordan Davis and Jasper Bernes on the status of affect in poetry.

This formula of Jordan's is especially useful: "Affect, feeling, whatever term you like to name the category of feelings-that-come-through-when-you-read: these obtain to words, ideas, representations of social relationships (especially power dynamics)."

I would say that emotions obtain to words, ideas, representations of social positions (i.e., the subjects of power dynamics) while concepts obtain to words, realities, representations of material relations (i.e., the objects of knowledge states). In a poem we arrange words so as to present emotions ("affects" or whatever you call "feelings that come through when you read") and these therefore provide the basis of new capacities to represent social positions, new involvements with power. The poem does not represent these positions (is not "about" them) but presents their basis (the emotions that obtain to them) in words.

As we "absorbe [poems] into our responses to the world" (Jordan), we become better able to fight boredom, i.e., "the enemy" (Jasper).

Finally, I really like Jordan's suggestion, if that is what it is, to do one thing at a time.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Modern Sources

In "Blowing Up Just to Say Something to Us", Tony proposes that Flarf should be situated

in the tradition of other modernist poetics made possible by technology, with Google playing a role somewhere between Personism's telephone and Projective Verse's typewriter: a new instrument for both gathering information and for re-imagining the construction of a poem. (p. 5)

I think that's correct. Modernist poetics are best understood as driven by technical advances in the physical properties of the medium of poetry (e.g., the printed word).

Where I disagree with Tony is when he says that "the re-imagining of source, and the reader's knowledge of the source of Mohammad's language, is perhaps the great realization of these poems." (p. 2) Here it will be best to look directly at an example.

you are an anus mouth , are you retarted
this has damage bonus fruitcake

fuck up u are obviously have some kind of obsesion wit me
it's a wonder why your husband left you and you're all alone

you venture into my valley and you then ask for your life??
you will not leave this valley alive little dwarf

(From K. Silem Mohammad's "The Led Zeppelin Experience", quoted on p. 1)

As Tony reads them, what these three strophes do is to juxtapose the "general state of some type of obliviousness" of the first with the "full and sinister awareness" of the second. What he may mean is that as he "re-imagines the sources" of these lines, the first is taken as throwaway invective and the second as mean-spirited jab from someone who knows the addressee.

In fact, however, the third strophe, which may be imagined as a part of a Dungeons & Dragons scenario, reveals that this re-imagining gets us literally nowhere. The real power of this poem is the stability of the speakers voice and the stability of the addressee's attention.

YOU are an anus-mouth
YOU're all alone
YOU ventured into my valley

It is in the possible world where this situation arises that the poem exists. If we re-imagine a real juvenile (who knows no married people) and a fictional D&D valley (where they would not call each other anus-mouths) then we have missed the point of the poem by trying to connect it to its sources.

T. S. Eliot agreed to pretend that the sources of The Waste Land were important by adding his endnotes. Google has undermined the sacredness of the Outside as a holy source of high poetic sentiment, that is all. Our awareness of the sources annihilates the importance of the sources. And therein lies the damage bonus fruitcake, friends.

Friday, September 02, 2005


Well, the thing to do now is to read Fascicle.

I just read Tony's essay "Blowing up Just to Say Something to Us". It challenges me to think about the thesis that Flarf poems (especially those written by means of Google searches) "establish a community not just among the readers of his poems, but also among the readers and the speakers/sources of his poems."

I once looked very closely at Tony's "I Am Not the Pilot" on the assumption that this thesis is true. But the closer I looked the more I realized that if Google searches allow the poet to "enunciate a wider range of emotions than most poems are willing to offer" it is not because they allow poets "to access social climates and circles that – whether because of geography, race, class or inclination – [they] would not otherwise access".

I need to spend some more time with "Blowing Up" in order to make this point clearer. This is really just a promisory note to myself to use my reading of Fascicle to get a better grasp on the relation between the poem and the community that produces and consumes it. After all, I do believe that a poem articulates community structures in some sense (poems are emotional notations, emotions are moments of the Self, and the Self is embedded with the Other). I think my issues here will revolve around the idea of the "language of original sources".

The emotion noted in the poem has an only accidental connection to the emotion displayed in the sources. None of the poetry of the poem can be traced back to the sources and nothing ought to depend on any "awareness" of the sources. Not even the general awareness that there are (or even may be) such sources, i.e., that the words "lead separate lives outside" the poem.

Naturally, I do not want to suggest that nothing interesting can happen if you use Google to assist the reading of a poem. But consider the difference between using Google to read one of Pound's Cantos and using it to read "I Am Not the Pilot". Hmmmmmm...

Okay, that's what I have to consider in more detail.