Thursday, April 28, 2011


"it makes toward me brothers"
Leonard Cohen

A woman's body is the site of much injustice.

Honesty is the appearance of truth, decency the surface of justice. The immediate presence of injustice in the experience (whether hers or mine) of a woman's body is called indecency.

In general, it is the task of a poem to extricate an experience from its history. History weighs like a nightmare on the bodies of women, as it does on a man's experience of the body of a woman.

History impinges on experience immediately in our institutions. A woman's body is an institution, it is a way of doing things. There is, take note, an immediately right and wrong way about a woman's body. A way to do it justice, immediately. But be warned: every body is different.

"No matter how broad and changeable the relative morals of styles may be, there is always an absolute norm to be kept after having heard the admonition of conscience warning against approaching danger; style must never be a proximate occasion of sin." (Pope Pius XII, 1957)

A woman is, willy-nilly, indecently dressed. Whether she is compelled by her culture to dress like a whore or to dress like a nun, or simply to be a whore or a nun, and in whatever degree this be the case in whatever culture and whatever woman we consider, she is, in any case, immediately subject to injustice. (And what a whore dresses like? Yes, that too is decided by culture. A whore's body is an institution, no less than a nun's.)

In general, the injustice is that she is dressed in the first place. From the incompleteness of the attempt to hide her body, indecency immediately follows. (The weather is merely an excuse. A spring day exposes the sham instantly.)

No matter how much pleasure her body might give her, she is willy-nilly too fat or too thin[1], and she is robbed of the pleasure her body could give her. Or she is too chaste or too promiscuous. And she is robbed of the pleasure my body could give her. This is the culture working through the institutions, depriving us, immediately, of pleasure. Pleasure is the momentary experience of beauty, despite everything.

Beauty is difficult. All women are beautiful. All women are... (it's a syllogism).

The difficulty of a woman's beauty is not itself an injustice. A woman's justice, after all, may constitute the difficulty of her beauty.

A woman's body is intensely political—and something ought, indeed, be done about the injustice. But poetry is not politics.

It is the task of a poem to extricate a woman's beauty from the justice and injustice her body is subject to. To extricate her body from its history. To untangle her unfathomable hair from the policies in which it has been implicated.

The poet has only his style with which to do it.

I'm just putting this out there. It is spring.

A number of comments, online and off, have made me recognize certain (perhaps inevitable) weaknesses in this presentation. I will enumerate them here as I find them, fixing them if possible. Feel free to help out.
[1] This image is too tired, perhaps because too true. While I tried to avoid letting this remark target how women (supposedly) feel about their bodies, it can't help but participate in that boring exercise in liberal indignation. The problem is not, of course, how women "feel", but that they, in fact, are too fat, or too thin. But explaining (my way out of what the reader probably thinks I mean by) this is only likely to occasion indignation all the more directly. What is needed here is a different image of how we are, as Cohen put it, "oppressed by figures of beauty". I'll work on it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Memo to John Keats

Truth is truth, justice justice.
"Beauty is difficult." (Beardsley/Pound)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Locus and Tempo

Intuitions constitute the immediate locus of experience, the "here". Institutions constitute the immediate tempo of experience, the "now". We might say that intuitions locate our experiences and our institutions temper them.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Society as a Subjective Ideality

In my thinking on institutions I'm guided (or spurred) by the work of the economic historian Douglass North, as well as Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, who wrote the influential The Social Construction of Reality. In reading Berger and Luckamnn I note that when they talk about "institutionalization" under the heading "society as an objective reality" (Part 2) I just, you know, don't buy it. It strikes me like Descartes pretending that he could imagine that he could have no body and yet remain his same old self. Society cannot be an objective reality. Society is always a subjective ideality. Only materiality constitutes an (the) objective reality.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Doctrine of Method

If I am right, there is only one way to experience institutions. You must feel them. That is why only poets are qualified to "study" (wrong word)* institutions. Just as only philosophers are qualified to study (more appropriate there) intuitions. One must think.

Properly speaking (and why not speak properly for a change) there is no "method" to the "study" of institutions. There is a mandate to engage with them.

And not even that. Methods are for scientists. Mandates are for politicians. Poets and philosophers have only their style. A kind of cunning, put in writing.

*The right word is "strive" (see "study").

Wisdom and Love

One wants love to pervade one's institutions, just as one wants wisdom to pervade one's intuitions.

Intuitions and Institutions

Kant, I suppose, can be credited with the discovery of intuition as the immediate concern of philosophers. We might say that intuitions are the way the world is here. So we can do "metaphysics" as a study of the structure of intuition and derive our [basic or fundamental] concepts [i.e., categories] from such study. For Kant, this meant that intuitions deliver knowledge to us immediately, they determine the immediate meaning of what we see. It is said that the Kantian Critiques brought about a revolution in philosophy by showing us exactly how concepts might be experienced, "as such" as it were.

I think a revolution in poetry could be brought about by engaging with institutions. Institutions should be the immediate concern of poets. They capture us immediately with their power, they determine the immediate meaning what we do. (Sense is the meaning of the seen. Motive is the meaning of the done.)

Actually, I think a revolution in poetry already has been brought about by this means. But not quite as explicitly as with Kant. I think it is present in Pound and Williams. I think Watten and Waldrop were vaguely aware of it. I think Tony Tost and Ben Lerner and Kate Greenstreet feel it acutely. A poem is capable of presenting the immanent kinesthetics of institutions. (Philosophy, said Kant, was to be grounded in the transcendental aesthetic.) "The immanent kinesthetics of institutions"—the experienced motion of history. How emotions are experienced "as such".

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Philosophy and Poetry

"If one tried to advance theses in philosophy," Wittgenstein famously said (PI, §128), "it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree to them." I just came across a very similar statement about poetry in Anthony Cronin's "The Notion of Commitment" (X 1 (1), 1959, p. 9): "If you can argue with a poem it ceases to be one."

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Being St. Teresa

Tonight, Jonathan brings this to our attention:

Remember the example of the flamenca, duende-filled St. Teresa. Flamenca not for entangling an angry bull, and passing it magnificently three times, which she did: not because she thought herself pretty before Brother Juan de la Miseria: nor for slapping His Holiness’s Nuncio: but because she was one of those few creatures whose duende (not angel, for the angel never attacks anyone) pierced her with an arrow and wanted to kill her for having stolen his ultimate secret, the subtle link that joins the five senses to what is core to the living flesh, the living cloud, the living ocean of love liberated from time. (From Lorca's "Theory and Play of the Duende")

To me, this is a bit like Heidegger's question about the meaning of "Being". I mean, suppose these words are actually meaningful (compare: suppose Being constitutes a serious philosophical problem). Suppose that some people know about "the subtle link that joins the five senses to what is core to the living flesh" and some people do not. It's a "secret", after all. Suppose that this flesh is "the living cloud, the living ocean of love liberated from time", and suppose, importantly, that there is some problem that pertains to it. Suppose that an effort is required of us to fathom "the living ocean of love" and those who make this effort (successfully) become saints, that they deserve to become saints. Those who do do not are somehow deficient in "joining the five senses to what is core to the living flesh". (Compare, again, Heidegger: is it possible to "be" more or less?).

One of the important questions that literature raises is that of living "fully". If literature has a contribution to make this is it. I must admit that I don't always have Lorca's faith. After reading Jonathan's book, I don't even know whether the phrase "the living flesh, the living cloud, the living ocean of love liberated from time" is even Lorca's, or some translator's kitsch. But tonight it moves me. I really do wonder whether my five senses are joined properly to that ocean of love. How would I know? How would Heidegger know? What did Lorca know?

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Units of Composition

On my other blog, I have been emphasizing the paragraph as the unit of prose composition for academic writers. Scientists and scholars should compose themselves in orderly paragraphs that each make a claim and support it. A standard academic journal article consists of about 40 paragraphs, which are crafted to articulate what the author knows. The text is intended to represent the objects of the author's knowledge.

If the paragraph is the unit of scientific composition, what is the unit of political composition? Let's keep in mind that "composition" here means putting words together articulately for the purpose of producing a representation. Scientific writing represents objects in prose. Political writing represents subjects in prose. So my hunch is that political writers will also compose themselves in paragraphs. These paragraphs, however, will not state claims. They will, perhaps, make promises. Or something like that; threats, perhaps? I haven't quite thought it through yet.

One of the reasons I'm not wholly comfortable with the idea of the paragraph as the unit of both scientific and political composition is that the symmetry does not repeat with philosophy and poetry. Here at the Pangrammaticon, after all, philosophy is supposed to be to science what poetry is to politics. And we already know that the unit of poetic composition is the strophe, while the unit of philosophical composition is the remark. So when we ask about the unit of political composition, we are really asking: what is to the paragraph as the strophe is to the remark?

But what really counts as "political writing?" A bill (i.e., a proposed law)? A speech? A platform? Here, again, it seems most useful to think of such texts as divided up into paragraphs. But instead of representing objects, these texts represent subjects. "We the people..." pervades such texts, even if the author's idea of "who" the people are may vary widely from text to text. The paragraphs of science describe what there is; the paragraphs of politics prescribe who ought to be. "Who ought we to be?" Or, better, "Who ought we to become?" can be considered the fundamental political question.

I'm thinking a great deal about these things these days because I worry about the influence of social science on political expression. I am myself making a return to scholarship, and while my position is resolutely "critical", I will be working squarely within the social sciences, more specifically, the administrative sciences, whose articulateness I've been working to improve over the past five years as a language consultant at a business school. Ezra Pound has never been far from my thoughts.

Should I not, rather, be writing "a poem that contains history"? Can I devote myself to the composition of paragraphs that represent (as an object!) the life of society? Or should I not, rather, explore more deeply to find that epic (or at least lyrical) subjectivity that is the true heart of our becoming? Does the paragraph or the strophe, finally, situate the problem of my composure?