Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Asphalt of Influence

Kate Greenstreet sent me a copy of Court Green 6 (among other journals) to look at. (Thanks, Kate.) Tonight I sat up (and ruffled my hair, I want to say) when I read Susan Briante's "Dear Mr. Director of the Census Bureau" (page 97). Here's the opening stanza:

Last night, hundreds of broadwing hawks moved in kettles over eastern Travis County, dropping shadows on scaly pines and glassphalt drives, powerlines and watering holes, sailing in currents of rise and fall, heavenly, purgatorial.

It's quite nice, and the rest of the poem satisfies Pound's injunction that the poet must "build us [her] world". What struck me is that the world Briante builds, the mood she stretches out between things, is manifestly also the world that Tony Tost built for us in his untitled piece on "playground reform" on page 3 of Invisible Bride (also published in No and available online here). It opens thus:

For years, irate mothers’ groups have demanded playground reform as child-guidance experts, educators, architects and artists formulated the exact number of dangerous illusions in the world. For openers, the lakes appear to be sheathed in glass while it is in fact the dreary expanses of asphalt that are stuffed with it.

Both works are prose poems and both affect the style of public speech. Briante's can be read as an open letter, Tony's as an op-ed piece in the newspaper, though each with its own strangeness, of course—a sort of clinamen. Both poems get us thinking (or, rather, feeling something) about the place that adults grant children in their world, but because we empathize with the children, not the adults, they ultimately draw our attention to our own tenuous relationship with public spaces. (Briante does this quite explicitly.)

The awareness they occasion can be compared to that described by Leo Frobenius in Part One, Section 6, of Kulturgeschichte Afrikas, in which he imagines the keen observer of a group of twelve-year-old boys reacting to the passage of two girls through the square in which they are playing (page 22-23). Different means are employed, but the essentially "poetic" aim of "emotional notation" (Ergriffsschrift) is the same.

In any case, the affinities between Briante's poem and Tony's are so striking that they seem intentional. I'm assuming that Tony's is the precursor (and nothing about either's familiarity with Frobenius). The "glassphalt drives" in Briante's poem, if I'm right, should be read as a reference to "the dreary expanses of asphalt that are stuffed with [glass]" in Tony's. Both, like I say, appear in the first stanzas. Likewise, in the final stanzas, Tony's "wintry ground" can safely be imagined beneath Briante's "winter treetrops".

[Update 18/12/2014: I just found another reference to glassphalt in Ben Lerner's new novel 10:04. On page 26 he writes: "We chatted for the length of her cigarette about the show—the opening started in an hour or two—most of my consciousness still overwhelmed by her physical proximity, every atom belonging to her as well belonged to me, all senses fused into a general supersensitivity, crushed glass sparkling in the asphalt below" (my emphasis). Ben Lerner edits No.]

Birth of Empire

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

The "Anonymous" K__l R__e

I sometimes argue that politics is not about facts but (their pangrammatical homologue) acts. Politicians don't discover what is true, they decide what is just. (As for the legal system, Billy Bragg said it best: "This isn't a court of justice, son. This is a court of law.")

A great example of this can be seen in the current "birther" controversy, which I follow as a long-time aficionado and sometime fellow traveller of conspiracy theories. The recent passage of a bill that, in effect, declares Hawaii to be President Obama's birthplace, clearly illustrates the "active" rather than "factive" quality of politics.

Birthers, like all conspiracy theorists, believe in "the facts". Though their brethren won't acknowledge them, conspiracy theorists are the indestructible core of the "reality-based community". If you think facts subtend the policy realm you will, at some point, sooner or later, come to the conclusion that there is a vast conspiracy (usually "in Washington") to "cover them up", i.e., "the facts". It begins with the idea (recently dealt with in the Economist) that "all politicians lie". It ends with the idea that once the lie is exposed, the facts will come to light, and the world will "grow honest". As Hamlet astutely pointed out, then the end is near.

Anyway, Congress just passed a bill that, at least in opinion of Eric Kleefeld at TPM, puts the congressional supporters of the birthers in a tough spot. They were asked to affirm or deny that Obama was born in Hawaii, i.e., to vote for or against a bill that declares (albeit in passing) that Obama is a "natural born citizen" of the U.S. Kleefeld deftly brings Bill Posey's vote in this matter into contact with his previous statement that 'he wouldn't "swear on a stack of Bibles" that Obama is a natural-born American citizen'. That is, Posey has (arguably) been forced into the position of taking a position on a matter of fact that he wanted to leave open. Though he doesn't "know" (to his own satisfaction) where Obama was born, he has had to vote in favour of a bill that "enacts" this as a truth. It's a sort of "Ha, made you say it!" joke.

While this playfulness is going in Washington, of course, reality-based America (what Palin might call "the real America", I guess) only grows more disenchanted, and arguably, disenfranchised. The facts don't matter. Congress simply declares what they are. As politicians and journalists increasingly define what issues are "relevant" and what stories are "dead", the general population loses faith (or, worse, interest) in what is really going on. Ultimately any interest in what the facts are, in what "really happened", will mark you as a "conspiracy theorist", a wingnut, a nutbag, a loon. More respectfully, it will make you a kook, one of Old Ez's impractical cats. I.e., those who judiciously study what imperial justice is, i.e., what the empire does.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

More Grammur

"Men do not seem to have acquired speech in order to conceal their thoughts," said Kierkegaard, thinking of Talleyrand's remark to a Spanish envoy, "but in order to conceal the fact that they have no thoughts." Pound was quite certain that scholars often use words, not to tell us what they know, but to conceal their ignorance. Heidegger emphasized the existential importance of "idle talk" (Gerede) and, in scholarly contexts, "scribbling" (Schreiberei).

"The essential business of language," said Russell, "is to assert and deny facts." I never tire of articulating the pangrammatical homologue: the existential business of language is to enjoin or denounce acts. Language is there to be understood or obeyed; the grammar embodies the underlying regularity and regulation of our statements and our commands. If logic is the grammar of the statement; pathos is the grammar of command.

And then there is our grammur, the diffident wobble of language when it is used neither to state a fact nor command an act, when it has no specifiable meaning—when it offers neither sense nor motive. But the grammur, too, has a kind of logic, a kind of passion. It begins, naturally, with irony, which is governed by grammar, conditioned by paradigms of assertion and injunction. Grammur, like kulchur, begins where we no longer care what the ironist means, when we recognize the irony only as such.

Grammur is all over the place. It governs (if that is the right word) most of what we say (i.e., mostly we are not saying anything when we speak). Poetry and philosophy lead us, with a little light, like a rushlight, with little string, like lyre's string, back from grammur to grammar.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Canada Day in Disneyland

"Oh, don't it smell like some perverted money-making plan?"
Bob Wiseman

I think this is my first post to celebrate Canada Day, but it is not my first to celebrate the music of Bob Wiseman. If you go to "Bob Radio" on his site, let me repeat that "White Dress" (aka "Luisa") may be the most beautiful song ever written.

There's a free download of "Disneyland" here, which is where the epigraph comes from. Play it loud.

And there's free access to the 1989 album In Her Dream (including the previously redacted "Rock and Tree") here. Enjoy.