Thursday, November 24, 2005

Attitude and Procedure

This very faculty for amalgamation is a part of their genius and it is, in a way, a sort of modesty, a sort of unselfishness. They have not wished for property.

Ezra Pound

Now, of my early work, a critic has said:
"It was open, so I let myself in."

Ben Lerner

Looking back over my archives, I see that flarf has been with me from the beginning. In my first installment of "The Annotated Pilot", for example, written almost exactly a year ago, I opened with the following rather confident assertion.

Flarf is not just a principle of literary composition. It is also a principle of literary criticism. And it is not so much a principle as a procedure.

In his last contribution to this discussion (comments), Gary offers (or inspires me to construct) a distinction between flarf-as-attitude and flarf-as-procedure (if only then to dissolve it). Gary distinguishes between the "formal" ambitions of OuLiPo and the "attitude" of the Flarflist; I have no problem reconstructing this so that an attitude-driven project begins with content and lets the form emerge as you go, whereas a procedurally driven project (one that starts, say, with a set of mathematical properties that must belong to the finished poem, which is then generated by an algorithm to that end) will begin with formal constraints and see what, so to speak, flows into it as content.

That is, attitude is to content what procedure is to form (what texture is to structure), using these words in pretty orthodox senses. We can say this without having yet said anything about flarf, i.e., without deciding whether flarf is best approached in terms of its form or its content, its procedure or its attitude. Lining up the discussion a bit more neatly than it has in fact developed, let's say Gary has been pulling for content and attitude, and I've been pulling for form and procedure.

Flarf as such, i.e., the Great Flarfette Above and/or Beyond Us, is, of course, sniggering lovingly at these debates. (Some participants to the discussion have been channeling Her laughter.) I think the reason for this is that, in flarf, the attitude is the procedure and the procedure is the attitude. Or, again, that is what I hoped I discovered when I stumbled on it.

Works of flarf are openly the result of aggregating "search results" (though we may grant a broader definition of "search engine" than Google, and even go beyond our confinement to the Internet). They are made out things that were just lying around in plain view. And this is also one of the things that struck me about flarf from the beginning (of my awareness of it):

Flarf, it seems to me, has made one thing very clear about the relation of the strophe to the poem. Building a poem is not a matter of arranging strophes, i.e., of putting poetic atoms together. If that were the case the poem would owe its poesie to the accumulation of strophic matter that was originally poetic. But strophes become poetic, become strophes, only in their arrangement with other strophes. A coherence theory of poetry.

Another way of saying this is that flarf is just barely poetry, made out of something that is obviously not poetic. Mainstream poetry, by contrast, is usually made out of words ("solace", "nocturnal", "translucent") and imagery (rain, jazz, herbal tea) that are canonically poetic. When flarf succeeds, then, it is very precisely poetic; it produces something that is just exactly a poem (which may be Katie's point).

The risk of failure is of course high, as is the possibility that someone else will take one's experiments and run with them, producing "major work" out of one's own "minor" efforts (if Chronos bestows on them this favour, as Pound noted in the same paragraph that I drew my epigraph from; cf. "The Serious Artist", LE, p. 48-9). That is, flarf is itself something that looks like it's just lying around, "gratis". May as well make something useful of it.

I just got Ben Lerner's Lichtenberg Figures in the mail. The lines quoted in the epigraph occasioned much laughter yesterday. They describe me (perhaps ridiculously) as a critic when I discovered the "secret" of "I Am Not the Pilot". It was the sensation of being let into the work, the works, the workings of the work. It opened the poem in a radical sense. That sense of openness is what I thought flarf was "as such", i.e., the complete exposure of a poetic attitude as a completely perspicuous procedure for working unpoetry into poetry. The heart of all making. Poiesis, itself.

Stealing a page from A Thousand Plateaus, we might say that there is no difference between what flarf is about and how it is made. There is no separation of attitude and procedure. My hypothesis had been that "flarf" is a quality that is common to Deer Head Nation and Invisible Bride, Petroleum Hat (just been added to the list) and The Lichtenberg Figures (the back cover has "academic theory collid[ing] with American slang, the idiom of the Old testament [with] the jargon of the Internet, and clichés..."). I now think that flarf belongs to two of them more than the others (is there, perhaps, in flashes) and what I'm looking for is our particular "modernism" (to go with that bad dada), which they would share: the glad intensity (glee) of openly displaying one's procedure as one's attitude (flarf being just one attitude-procedure among many). Poetry is (just) putting words together. Words are available everywhere, 24/7. They're all over the place.


Anonymous said...

Not being very precise, and due to it being very late, I would suggest that it's not just the arrangement into strophes but the contract of strophes that dictates the emergent poeticalness here. EVEN THEN though, the flarfed or googled or whatnot poem is still subjected to its audience. I mean, I have myself a very hard time convincing even my own editors that I can take, say, stuff written by Finnish teenagers in 1337-5p33|< (leet-speek) and call it "concrete poetry" or visual poetry... It's about FRAMING, I think: the way a discourse gets colonialized, "meaninged", by certain sets of pragmatic rules...or something. I'm trying to be really concrete here, thinking about my own work in editing a magazine and trying to get my experimental poems published by a house that's not that much into avantgarde...what are the strategies of selling a point of view...

Thomas said...

Hi Teemu, thanks for getting involved.

My intuition is that flarf is or ought to be quite sanguine about publishing. Prima facie, it's as easy to publish flarf (Blogger) as it is to write it (Google). (Gary may be right about something here: the "difficulty" lies in being comfortable with the work yourself, not in getting it past anyone.) In a sense, it operates on the premise (which is shares with the broader trend I'm trying to describe) that the difference between reading and writing is a matter of emphasis.

Now, taking an object constructed out of things lying around in plain view and displaying it as a museum object (in an edited, "meaninged" journal) is one kind of task, but one that must preserve the subtlety of the difference between the reader and the writer of the poem. The difficulty intensifies but does not change in nature. The poem must, again, emerge in being seen as such. It cannot be pre-authorized (or nothing must depend on this). Otherwise we're just dealing with ready-made canned poop, which is art by virtue of its opposition to Art in its inception, but very quickly of course just becomes Art proper, i.e., something to be opposed.

I thought flarf was an expression of boredom with occupying the "outside" position of the avant garde.

Each poem is a partial object, a mulitiplicity, amenable to insertion into several (unspecified) contexts as "art". Flarf radicalizes this partiality. Here, again, I see a difference between my sense of flarf and Gary's, which would be interesting to look into.

Gary seems to be rebelling against poetic norms in the old-school Marlon Brando voice:

"What are you rebelling against?"
"What've you got?"

But, as in punk (and, I think, dada) the addressee (a representative of culture or society) is here specified too neatly. Flarf seems (to me) to answer a different question in the same way:

"What are you conforming to?"
"What've you got?"

That is, it's an open question whether there are any respectable norms out there and what they are. The openness of the question is the real scandal.

All the roads are washed out in the yellow wood. Flarf meets this situation head on.

Anonymous said...

I think I agree with most of what you're saying - that there certainly is an inherent critique of the literary institution and its discursive practices that (normally) allow a poem to be construed as such. I'm also trying to read your insistence on the difference between the reader and the poem as an indication of holding some sort of theory of the intentionality of meaning. It's all good. But here's the catch: do you think that you could accept an explanation based simply on expressive feeling (this would include intuition, inspiration, imagination, but remain in some sense irrational) as an adequate causal explanation for flarf coming about - that the critical force of it is an emergent quality and based, simply, on its superior expressiveness? Sounds old hat, I know, but I have a rogaine bunny hidden in it...

Montana said...


For what it's worth, this strikes me as the most insightful thing you've written about flarf. Your mention of Ben's book (which I very much admire) as related to flarf makes me think that it might be fruitful to your inquiry to look at some of the pre-Flarf Collective books of its members (if you haven't already) in order to further explore the question of attitude/procedure -- and specifically whether attitude *preceded* procedure and in turn whether procedure then had an appreciable effect on attitude (a heightening of it? for instance). So, Nada's earlier books, My _MS_, Drew Gardner's SUGAR PILL, Gary's HOW TO PROCEED..., Kasey's A THOUSAND DEVILS.

With _MS_ (the book I know best obviously) I can say that there is quite a bit of flarf attitude here and there -- but it is restrained (I think that's the right word) by alot of viruoso (I mean this not necessarily as self-compliment) poetic f/x -- which fix the poems more squarely in THE TRADITION. I would say this same thing is very much true of A THOUSAND DEVILS. So that, these are wonderful wonderul books (!) but dont seem to me to be flarf, despite their occasional flarfiness...

Thomas said...

Thanks, Mike.

In many ways, I suppose, it's the first time I've known what I was talking about. More later.

Montana said...

Looking forward to it Thomas. More food for thought on attitude and procedure perhaps:

Here's one of Kenneth Burke’s more lucid descriptions of language as symbolic action, in regard to poetry:

The general approach to the poem might be called "pragmatic" in this sense: It assumes that a poem’s structure is to be described most accurately by thinking always of the poem’s function. It assumes that the poem is designed to "do something" for the poet and his readers, and that we can make the most relevant observations about its design by considering the poem as the embodiment of this act…this pragmatic view of the poem…through the emphasis upon the act promptly integrates considerations of "form" and "content."

Burke’s "pragmatic view of the poem" has as its antecedent Dewey’s stipulation [in ART AS EXPERIENCE] that "in the act [of writing] there is no distinction between, but perfect integration of manner and content, form and substance."


Anonymous said...

I feel perplexed by the fact that as a poet, from the point of view of my own practice, I feel I must uphold the pragmatic view: a poem is what it does. But from the point of view of criticism I have to agree with a separation of form from content: what a poem wants to do, say, mean is different from how it is done. No poem is a nazi, though it can be used by a nazi - but there are no specifically nazist methods of writing poetry (to my knowledge). And so: if we say that Flarf isn't defined by it's material but by the way that material is used then yes, the use IS the poem from the point of view of procuding it, of it's intention that is, but then again ISN'T the poem from the point of view of the conditions of it's being able to mean what it does (the method and the language used)! Is this a paradox? Am I falling for Derrida's old iterativeness-trap?

Anonymous said...

What I'm saying I guess is that a pragmatic definition of the poetic act as symbolic action isn't enough, you need a theory of symbolic action as social contextualizing to go along with it. Equating attitude with procedure is pragmatic and has only pragmatic ends: you can certainly go on writing poetry and criticism, at least (I've used this line of argument many times for convenience's sake). But I believe there is still the problem of misunderstanding and communicativeness to be dealt with, is all I'm saying. To put this another way: even a pragmatic definition of flarf doesn't really help in correcting misunderstandings about flarf since what is at issue are the conditions of poetic communication. How does flarf communicate what it does? In other words: how can you teach someone to enjoy flarf, to "get it", if they don't enjoy it at once? It's like teaching someone to laugh at a joke they don't find funny - you are dealing with a larger issue than just something that makes you laugh (the use of a joke as it's meaning). It's not the form and it's not the content and it's not even the pragmatic union of these two things, but rather their framing in a specific production network, a language-game, if you will, and their putting-into-context of certain readerly competences or, let's say , "tastes". There's a reason why the flarf collective is being referred to all the time as a referee: a poem is not what it does but what it tastes like and why. What is at issue is how you can play the game called flarf and when do you know you're playing it correctly.

Gosh, I feel like I'm spamming.

Montana said...

Teemu, you said,

"What I'm saying I guess is that a pragmatic definition of the poetic act as symbolic action isn't enough, you need a theory of symbolic action as social contextualizing to go along with it"

Yes, I think that's right and I think Burke's theory of language as symbolic action does do this (it's even more clear in a "disciple" like Clifford Geertz.)

So, for instance, in order for a Nazi to use a poem -- say, OTTOMH, William Carlos Williams's "Proletarian Portrait" -- he has to do violence to it. The violence BECOMES an element INTEGRAL TO the poem IN THE ACT OF the nazi's using it. Which is to say, if one has the whole poem in front of one AND the nazi's reading of it, one will see the poem's scars and will, as an-other reader, be able to say, look at how this nazi has tortured this poem. Burke's pragmatic view of the poem takes for granted that the poem itself will be a site for social contestation.


Thomas said...

I should have said it's as easy to publish flarf (Blogger) as it is to be find inspiration for it (Google). I stand by my endorsement of Gary's sense of the "difficulty" (which is always beauty) and I want to say that it should be exactly as easy to write flarf as it is to read it (please don't understand that too quickly), perhaps better: it should be as easy is to understand it as it is to mean it.

Sentences don't mean anything any more than they understand things. We use sentences to mean and understand things about our world. That is a pragmatic view of language and I fully endorse it.

But a poem ought not to exemplify a theory of language, it ought to replace it. (If all language use were poetic there would be no need for a theory.)

I'm just jotting thoughts down here.

"It's not the form and it's not the content and it's not even the pragmatic union of these two things, but rather their framing in a specific production network, a language-game, if you will, and their putting-into-context of certain readerly competences or, let's say , "tastes"." (Teemu)

I think it IS the pragmatic union of them, and I can't see that as something other than the "framing" of "tastes" (as one frames people for crimes). "You set me up!"

Finally, I think the relation between poetic quality and Nazism is exactly like the relation between the quality of a knife and Nazism. A good poem works or does not work and a Nazi who uses it as a poem will get as much out of it as a social democrat or a communist. The important difference is that Nazis often do know how to use a knife.

The poem feels no pain.

Anonymous said...

Yes, let's say that we all agree if the poem feels no pain when it is scarred. But framing someone for a crime is still to me not the same as framing a portrait with a gallery, but the difference between those two acts needs its own thick description - but I don't think it's really relevant anymore, we'll do nicely with what we have. Thank you both for a nice discussion. :)