Friday, December 28, 2012


"Pacifists who refuse to examine all causes of war, from natural fitfulness on through the direct economic causes, are simple vermin, whatever their level of consciousness, their awareness or unawareness of their actions and motivations."
Ezra Pound (GK, p. 117)

In the prologue to Douglas Adams' So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, we are given a characteristically silly analysis of our predicament. Adams tells us that, here on Earth, "most of the people ...[are] unhappy for pretty much of the time." He goes on to explain that this problem persists because the proposed solutions "[are] largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper", i.e., money (for those who hardly see the stuff anymore or whose money isn't green). Adams does mention in passing that part of the problem is that "lots of the people [are] mean", which I'll get back to in a moment. In any case, it is clear that Adams believes that economic solutions to our problems entirely miss the point. After all, "on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy."

Adams also tells us that "two thousand years [ago] one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change", and then proposes to tell the story of a woman who "suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time," and figured out how to fix it. "[S]he finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything." For my part, rereading this prologue, it suddenly became clear to me that Adams' analysis of "the problem" is as facile as his interpretation of Christ's message, which, whatever your faith in it may be, is neither as simple, nor as obviously true, nor as harmless to the state, as he makes it appear. Unhappily, fixing our problems may very well involve nailing somebody to something, certainly on having someone's head on a stick (bring it on Dr. Dooley!). It's highly unlikely that someone will not make a martyr of anyone who proposes a solution.

This post marks my New Year's resolution to stop ignoring money, whether in my personal, professional, or political life. (Such as all of these are.) Money has never really been a problem for me. I'm privileged that way. But I've also never really taken it seriously, except in the abstract and intellectual sense of having "gotten wise" to the scam that it obviously also is. I now believe that solving the problems of the human condition can not get around a plan for the careful management of money. It's not everything. But it is one medium of human activity in which both the "natural fitfulness" and general meanness of people can be be channelled towards, well, yes, more "profitable" ends. Taking it seriously will probably also make me less of a nuisance to my administrative surroundings.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Wisdom, F/act, Love

Philosophy is the love of wisdom.
Poetry is the wisdom of love.

Wisdom is conceptual clarity.
Love is emotional intensity.

Concepts condition thought.
Emotions condition feeling.

You cannot touch a thought.
You cannot see a feeling.

In philosophy one brings the thought
into the realm of feeling, one gives it texture.
In poetry one brings the feeling
into the realm of thought, giving it structure.

Philosophy renders thought palpable.
Poetry renders feeling visible.

To love is to approach the act
with intensity in feeling.
To be wise is to approach the fact
with clarity in thought.

True wisdom, like true love, is wordless.
That is why philosophy is not wisdom
and poetry is not love. They are too wordy.

But the words can be arranged
more or less carefully
more or less daringly
To indicate the fact, the act.

Now, the act just happens.
The fact just obtains, here.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Hollow Mayan

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Image is Easy

It can be seen
without strain
and done
without effort.

You peel it
off the appearance
And stick it
onto the surface.

The image is light:
It is not hard.


See also: "Procedural Notes", "Sensation, Appearance, Image", and "Motivation, Surface, Image".

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Beauty is Difficult

In poetry,
the difficulty is
The poem must extricate
its emotion
from the dominant practice,
achieving beauty.

In philosophy,
the difficulty is
The work of philosophy frees
the concept
from its domination by theory,
achieving beauty.

Clarity in thought.
Intensity in feeling.
It isn't easy.

Existence and Inspiration

I can't decide whether inspiration or ecstasy is the proper pangrammatical supplement of existence. (As a result, I can't decide whether they are merely different names for the same emotional complex.)

Either: The philosopher is trying to solve the problem of existence; the poet is trying to solve the problem of inspiration.

Or: The philosopher is trying to solve the problem of existence; the poet is trying to solve the problem of ecstasy.

The words "solve" and "problem" should probably be set off with scare quotes. Philosophers and poets engage with problems that are not quite problems because there is ultimately no solution. Sages and lovers, of course, merely suffer these problems perfectly, wholly accepting their insolubility.

Dasein is the form of existence that belongs to humans, it is "in each case mine". Duende is the form of inspiration that humans belong to, we are in each case his. Dasein is the being "we ourselves are". Duende is the becoming that is us. The philosopher and the poet pursue their being and becoming more doggedly than most.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Existence and Ecstasy

I'm returning to a theme from this post, though I'm no longer considering "presence" to be an even possible translation of "Dasein". What I do think is that there is some connection between existence and ecstasy, which corresponds to the connection between being and becoming, as well as caring and daring, and, importantly, Dasein and duende.

But my problem right now is whether any of this can be taken seriously. Is it a dignified activity to be deeply concerned about existence & ecstasy as such? Did Lorca take the duende as seriously as all that? Are we meant to suffer like St. Teresa? Is philosophy, and poetry for that matter, ultimately about that suffering. Or is that kind of suffering, that kind of pathos, simply a pathology?

Yes, it will always have a certain measure of dignity to talk about Heidegger and Lorca and, perhaps, their "existential" problems. Their pathologies, if you will. But to propose outright to solve the problem of existence?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Writing Under Surveillance

"The thing that he was about to do was to open a diary. This was not illegal (nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws), but if detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced-labour camp. Winston fitted a nib into the penholder and sucked it to get the grease off. The pen was an archaic instrument, seldom used even for signatures, and he had procured one, furtively and with some difficulty, simply because of a feeling that the beautiful creamy paper deserved to be written on with a real nib instead of being scratched with an ink-pencil. Actually he was not used to writing by hand. Apart from very short notes, it was usual to dictate everything into the speakwrite which was of course impossible for his present purpose. He dipped the pen into the ink and then faltered for just a second. A tremor had gone through his bowels. To mark the paper was the decisive act." (George Orwell)

The recently uncovered surveillance program at the National Counterterrorism Center reminded me of this passage in the first chapter of Orwell's 1984. It notes the guilt of writing down something for one's own personal use. Of writing down simply one's own ideas. Ever since I started blogging, I've been more or less consciously committed to the idea that if I write something, it may be read by others. I "know" that my gmail is in principle open to government investigation. In fact, I have no illusions about the privacy of any of my electronic correspondence. (I am only confident that no-one cares what I think and, in the worst case, that no one would dare to admit they've been snooping. So some agent, somewhere, may know what I'm up to, but it's our little secret.) On a bad day, I imagine that every keystroke is, under the right circumstance, visible to Big Brother. (Again, I imagine he leaves me alone because I'm not worth the bother.) Events like the recent Petraeus affair reminds one of one's vulnerability. It makes one think twice about seeking fame and influence. It makes one want to remain powerless.

Anyway, the extreme situation in which it is a suspicious act to write something down that Big Brother can't see, i.e., on paper, in one's diary, is probably still a few years off. But it made me realize that I don't write things I don't imagine are for publication. I keep those things in my head. I feel guilty about the poems I've jotted down in notebooks here and there and not told anyone about. After all, I felt those things. Who am I to keep them to myself. I should stand to account, right?

I think that mindset is totalitarian. It says something about what the Internet has done to how we (or at least I) feel about writing. Having an unfinished novel in your files feels like participating in a bomb plot.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Sublimation II

Embarrassed by my wondering mind
I pursued the high art of thinking.

Embarrassed by the depth of philosophy,
I learned the craft of history.

Embarrassed by a fruitless dialectic,
I sought election to the parliament.

Embarrassed, now, by the policy proposed
I lay in wonderment at your side.

Sublimation I

Ashamed of my lustful body
I sought to express myself in art.

Ashamed of the uselessness of poetry,
I learned the craft of scholarship.

Ashamed of my learned pretensions,
I took to day laboring at the mill.

Ashamed of the lies of journalism,
I lay my lustful body at your side.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Descending Phrygian Blowout

"And in terms of 'copying', I don't think Bran is copying Trane as much as doing/exploring a Trane thing in this song...but he is not helping his case by creating a descending Phrygian blowout tune...almost exactly like "Transition"! High quality jazz from master musicians, but not what I would call Branford at his best." (Puujisan, comment on "Jack Baker")

I don't know exactly what a descending phrygian blowout is, but I like it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


"In my strange past," writes Borges in his "Utopia of a Tired Man", "the superstition prevailed that every day, between evening and morning, certain acts occur which it is a shame to be ignorant of."

All day I've been puzzled by my reaction to the news. I don't care. I really don't care at all. I would feel no shame to be ignorant of any of these acts.


Listening to Glenn Gould this morning (WTC), it occurred to me that I believe in the sort of utopia in which everyone is allowed to specialize. Why shouldn't someone be allowed to contribute just and only his interpretation of Bach to the culture? Why shouldn't that be enough? Given advances in technology, each of us needs to make only a very limited contribution in order for life to be highly enjoyable for all.

(The argument unravels a bit as I try to develop it, unfolding into platitudes about everyone contributing according to their talents and desires. But the basic intuition, that a society built around highly specialized contributions by each member to the enjoyment of all members would work, holds, I think.)

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Terms, Tears

Two definitions:

SADNESS The first powder to be abided upon waking. It may reside in tools or garments and can be eradicated with more of itself, in which case the face results as a placid system coursing with water, heaving.

EMOTION, n. A prostrating disease caused by a determination of the heart to the head. It is sometimes accompanied by a copious discharge of hydrated chloride of sodium from the eyes.

The first is from the "Terms" section of the "Sleep" chapter of Ben Marcus's The Age of Wire and String (p. 13). The second is from Ambrose Bierce's Enlarged Devil's Dictionary (p. 79).

Friday, December 07, 2012

Getting Into Nothing University

I actually completely agree with Vendler. I just wish she had said straight out that Harvard needs to look for people it can teach how better to make nothing happen, rather than trying to prove that they might make something else happen. I think we give the game to the forces of reaction by trying to show that Homer, Dickinson, Picasso and Wittgenstein (of all people!) made "something" happen too. (Scare quotes very needed here.) No, they helped nothing survive their age. Without them we'd only have all this something, something, something.

Anyway, she says prospective students should be asked: "Who is the poet you have most enjoyed reading?” I paused for moment. It's the sort of question one thinks one has answered a hundred times already. But then a clear answer emerged.

There are really two* experiences that I've had with poetry that could be considered intense experiences of "enjoyment". The first was as an undergraduate in a comparative literature program (which I, somewhat regrettably, dropped for philosophy.) I read Keats' "Ode on Melancholy": "And if your mistress some rich anger shows, imprison her soft hand and let her rave..." The second was many years later, as a PhD student, suffering intense melancholy (as one does at that stage of intellectual development) and stumbling on Tony Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot". The light here really was bright, blindin' and bewildering. I was high for days.

These are the two poets I would mention. If you're trying to get into Harvard feel free to steal those answers. I think loving those two poems really intensely accomplishes nothing, of course. And that accomplishment should get you into Harvard.

*Obviously my enjoyment of poetry is not limited to two occasions only. But these are the two occasions that pop to mind as the "most" enjoyable. They are certainly the moments during which my enjoyment of poetry formed itself into an appreciation also.

Grammar and Nothingness

From Helen Vendler's piece on university admissions in Harvard Magazine:

W.H. Auden famously said—after seeing the Spanish Civil War—that “poetry makes nothing happen.” And it doesn’t...

One feels Heidegger and Sartre have lived in vain. Why do we not say:

W.H. Auden famously said—after seeing the Spanish Civil War—that “poetry makes nothing happen.” And it does.

I think of Diogenes rolling his barrel on the parade ground, making "nothing happen" in preparation for war. Anyone can make something happen. (And they do...) Beauty is difficult.

[PS: Another example: "Music makes nothing happen, either...", where she could have said, "Music makes nothing happen, too."]

Monday, December 03, 2012

Positive Feedback Loops

Think clearly.
Write honestly.

Feel intensely.
Write decently.

See things accurately.
Believe them truly.

Do things precisely.
Desire them justly.


The idea here is simple. One who thinks clearly is able to write honestly and one who writes honestly is able to think clearly. Obscurity in thought fosters dishonesty in writing and dishonesty in writing fosters obscurity in thought. Mutatis mutandis for the three other loops.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Practice of the Absurd

Something struck me the other day when reflecting on Camus' Myth of Sisyphus. He makes a number of practical proposals for how to live with the insight that life is ultimately meaningless. Some are lifestyles, others are careers. Thus, he can imagine the absurd man as a seducer (Don Juan), but also as an actor and a warrior. He discusses acting quite literally (both in terms of the work and the fame that goes with it). The "conqueror", meanwhile, stands for any historical actor (a general, a politician, or a business executive, could presumably fill this role). Finally, he clearly believes that artists, and especially writers, can live the "truth" of the absurd, i.e., can work without hope.

But what about more conventional, more "bourgeoise" lifestyles and vocations? Is it possible to be an absurd accountant, for example? Or an absurd bus driver? (There is a remark in The Rebel, as I recall, about the difference between the bus driver who can repair the bus and the one who can't.*) Or an absurd doctor or teacher? Can these lives be lived without any assumption that life "means something"? What about being a parent? What, indeed, about being a child? Does becoming a parent or a teacher constitute what Camus calls "philosophical suicide", i.e., does it require a baseless faith in the meaningfulness of existence?

At the time of the publication of The Myth of Sisyphus Camus was married (against his principles, it should be noted). But he did not become a father until three years later.

In any case, it seems to me that participation in institutions like schools and families assume that life means something. I am not willing to grant, in any but a very formal and abstract sense, that this is a philosophically untenable position. (It is perhaps the "form" of a philosophical position to declare ordinary lives untenable.)

Update: "The truck, driven day and night, does not humiliate its driver, who knows it inside out and treats it with affection and efficiency." (The Rebel, p. 293)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Yoffe's Existential Politics

While I generally think Emily Yoffe (aka, "Prudie", i.e., an advice columnist) is part of the larger problem she here happens to be part of the solution to, I have to give credit where credit is due. She's absolutely right. Obama would have a chance to become a great president if he hired Petraeus back. In fact, it would inaugurate what Norman Mailer would call "existential politics". Superman might really return to the supermarket. Then perhaps he could also help get Anthony Weiner his job back (cf. The Contender, cf. Thebes ca. 1250 BC.)

It's a shot at greatness, not a slam dunk, I should emphasize. He has a similar existential moment to face in Colorado and Washington.

Monday, November 19, 2012

On the University

It seems like an unassailably good idea to have an institution in society the aim of which is to discover and propagate truths, produce and distribute knowledge.

Such an institution should be able to attract and retain a staff that desires to satisfy its curiosity. I.e., it should employ a group of people that feels pleasure at the discovery of an unknown fact and the communication of that discovery to others when it is made.

It would be a good idea not to confuse the staff with an incentive structure that presumes other forms of ambition, such as the desire for material comfort or social status.

It is of course true that if a group of people had "no care in the world" other than to discover and propagate truths, a number of industries, whose current business model is based largely on the concealment and hoarding of particular classes of truths, and their translation into "products" which can then be sold at a profit, would become less lucrative.

It does not seem to me, however, that the species benefits as a whole from a system in which the incentive to discover a truth is positively correlated with the incentive to conceal it from others.

On the Objects of Historiography and Sociology

History is the process by which the few dominates the many.

Society is merely the current state of that oppression.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Moon of Moral Peril

Here's a thought that might help us to answer Fred Kaplan's question "Why?":

How can he, Bill Clinton, endanger his presidency so? Of course, men take weird chances when the navigator at the center of oneself whispers in the dream: Kid, your cancer is near.

For some, the cure for cancer is to visit the moon of moral peril. If the cause of cancer is undissolved shame, and cancer is a revolt of the cells against the hegemony of the CEO (that mysterious Chief Ego Officer who runs the body), then it may be that Clinton is full of undissolved shame. Let us warrant that it is not because of oral sex.

His shame, if he has any, is that he has never been able to stand up to the big money. He is powerless before men of huge financial size. Face to face with such buckos, the wind dies and the proud flag on the flagship commences to droop. As Monica Lewinsky is to Bill Clinton, so is Clinton to the big money--just a kid trying to earn his presidential knee-pads.

If it all comes to the worst for him and he is obliged to resign, a denouement which seems unlikely at this writing, well, an old moral law will have been observed: The criminal is rarely condemned for his true crime.

Nixon's sins in Watergate were venial compared to the monstrosity of allowing the war in Vietnam to wind down over four years while two million more Asian men and women were killed. Clinton's major crime is not that he has charged relations of one sort or another in the White House (that palace of presidential purity!) with a young girl, but that he betrayed the poor and enriched the wealthy. (Norman Mailer, August 2, 1998, excerpt at

I think it is important to keep in mind that Petraeus' "sin" here is decidedly venial when compared to what his agency is involved in in, say, Pakistan.


A good piece in the Atlantic and another one in Slate. I have to admit that I've been distracted by it too, but just as the legalization story is bigger than the election, it's bigger than the Petraeus affair as well.

It's often said that the War on Drugs is irrational. But a policy should not really be assessed in terms of its rationality per se. Such assessments merely grant the policy its purported goal, rather than exposing its real motive. The Drug War is, first and foremost, malevolent. It's aim is to oppress, and it achieves this aim very well. There's nothing irrational about it.

As a policy for dealing with "the drug problem", of course, it's complete madness. But that problem is itself an ideological construct, a lie.

What is needed now is a long conversation among executives and lawmakers, taken at the highest level. We now have two states whose representatives must represent the idea that pot should be legal. This means that research that shows it is relatively harmless must be considered in a different way, i.e., taken seriously. This is where America shows us whether or not it really is a democracy, whether or not policy is made as an expression of the will of the people or the entrenched interests of enforcement agencies.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Too Close to Call?

On election night 2004, Jimmy Breslin went to bed early, certain that Kerry would win—in fact, "it shouldn't even be close". I've felt that way since the Republican primaries. I simply couldn't see how Obama could lose. The only thing that made me even consider the possibility was the media's insistence on treating it like a horse race. So I'm grateful to Paul Krugman for saying what I've been feeling must be true these past few weeks: "reporting that suggests that this is a too-close-to-call race [is] just lazy, and a disservice to readers."

What does this have to do with Breslin and Kerry? Well, Kerry lost, and Breslin's "service to readers" was to underscore the fraudulence of Bush's win before it happened. Krugman is doing us the same service now. He's reminding us that this election is not close. If Romney wins, that's not just one of the possibilities coming true. It's a minor miracle. Like Bush's win in 2004 was a major miracle. It should force pollsters and pundits and political scientists to explain something. It should not simply be accepted.

Tomorrow night, then, let's remember that "too close to call" means simply "close enough to fix". I, for one, am going to bed before the results come in.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

WCW on Prose, Poetry, and Emotion

I just finished Spring and All, embarrassed, now, to admit that it's my first time reading it as a whole, as a book. I'll have a lot to say about it in the weeks to come. Tonight, I just want to note that on page 85 Williams says that "poetry liberates the words from their emotional implications, prose confirms them in it". This is very much line with my thinking about how a poem "extricates" the feeling from the emotion our institutions imposes on our experience of history.

Friday, November 02, 2012

John Keats on Men's Health

MIND, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with. From the Latin mens, a fact unknown to that honest shoe-seller, who, observing that his learned competitor over the way had displayed the motto "Mens conscia recti," emblazoned his own front with the words "Men's, women's and children's conscia recti." (Ambrose Bierce)

Don't ask how I stumbled on this list, but Men's Health offers ten interpretations of the female body, at least two of which (linked below) made me think of this passage in Keat's "Ode to Melancholy":

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

I really do worry that these magazine "tips" and advice columns are replacing poetry as the "data for ethics". Notice how the interpretations of female physiology are supported again and again by science. Compare Pound's "conception of the body as perfect instrument of the increasing intelligence" with the practical attitude of "men's sana", if you will: "Treat her to a breakfast in bed consisting of warmed banana-nut bread, which has an aroma that, according to one study, increases bloodflow to the vagina." I suppose this is also a solution to the troubadour's problem: "finding a new way of saying in six closely rhymed strophes that a certain girl, matron or widow was a like a certain set of things, and the troubadour's virtues were like another set, and that all this was very sorrowful or otherwise, and that there was but one obvious remedy." (Pound, LE, p. 102)

Here's to a men's sana in a corporate sano!

Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Pronouns of War

The first victim of a drug war is grammar. Here's a good example:

"That's not to say legalizing pot is without risks; it has been shown to impair concentration." (LZ Granderson)

While the entire article is against the war on drugs and in favor of legalization, the whole argument for the war is reproduced in the space between that semicolon and the next word. What, after all, does "it" refer to?

It can only refer to pot, not legalizing pot. The fact that something impairs concentration does not identify a "risk" associated with its legality. Love is legal. Television is legal. Email is legal. And so, of course, is alcohol. Making alcohol, or television, or love illegal today would involve much greater risks than keeping them legal. (The risk lies in driving something the multitudes enjoy daily underground, into the hands of crime lords and the police that, consciously or unconsciously, colludes with them in their business.) Likewise, it remains to be demonstrated that the criminalization of pot reduces the risks associated with pot.

Anyone who thinks about it for a moment understands that this is a complete red herring. But I imagine Granderson would not have been allowed to publish this piece without that sentence. I imagine there was some editor who thought an article that didn't say that the risks associated with pot are also risks of legalization, i.e., that if pot is a risky thing to do then it is also a risky thing to legalize, would lack "balance".

That is, you are not allowed to say that the drug war was irrational at its inception. You must grant, first, that because pot is what it is there was, initially, good cause to make a law against it. But as Granderson almost says, Nixon was not afraid of what pot would do to our ability to concentrate. On the contrary, he was perfectly willing to destroy the left by madness, leaving it starving, hysterical, naked. He was afraid of the left itself, and especially the minorities they represented. He wanted an argument for invading their homes, tapping their phones, and breaking up their families. To this day, the drug war is a way of equipping the police for suppression. It's also a great way to sell weapons.

Leave aside the plain stupidity of the statement "it has been shown [that pot impairs] concentration". As the president once said, with greater honesty than he's presently capable of, albeit on a slightly different matter, "that was the point". Needs no ghost come from the dead to show us this!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Physiology of Music

Recently, I noticed that it had been a long time since I had seriously listened to music—or listened to serious music, if you will. When I do put something on, it's as background for cooking or cleaning, for which I normally use jazz and pop respectively.

This week, I've been putting classical music on in the mornings after the family leaves for work and school. Yesterday it was Shostakovich, today it's Bach. Tomorrow it'll be Haydn. By 9:00 I'm ready to work. Frankly, it's been a long time since I've been truly ready for work. This is helping. It's an aspect of living that I have been neglecting.

Music may be lower on Maslow's hierarchy of needs than we sometimes assume. Perhaps it is true that, for a musician, playing is work done towards self-actualization, just as a writer must write to be himmerherself. But to not even listen to serious music for extended periods of time is like not drinking water, or being exposed to sunlight, or having sex. It's a physiological need.

* * *

Let me take this opportunity to lament the fact that we are at present squandering the youth of our young people in poorly structured undergraduate programs situated on more or less debauched campuses. If these same young people spent an hour every morning listening to serious music, then an hour or two writing intelligent prose, then two or three hours in class or, better, in seminars, then a few hours in the evening reading serious literature, punctuated of course by the charms and furies of social life (while eating, while playing, and yes before sleeping) their minds would become something to behold. Something altogether more useful to the species than what we are bilding these days.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Tension in the Clearing

Intuitions and institutions are what I call "the media of immediacy". They are that through which things are given to us and people are taken with stuff immediately.

Lately I've been reading Heidegger's "The Turning". I was struck by this sentence, for obvious reasons:

When the turning comes to pass in the danger, this can happen only without mediation. (TQCTaOE, p. 44)

I think my pangrammaticisms may have a contribution to make in identifying the site of the turning. Or rather, Heidegger has already done that by calling it "the clearing", but there is more to it than Being merely "coming to light". It is also, as he emphasizes, a taking in hand. Though he is himself aware of it, I think Heidegger, like Kant, favors intuition and does not draw institution explicitly into his analytic. We must supplement the clearing with a tension no less immediate.

So "the turning" is more precisely a poetical turn (a strophe) that is philosophically marked (a remark). Its nature is best understood as the confrontation of our intuitions with our institutions, the immediacy of knowledge and the immediacy of power, the tension between our beliefs and our desires, experienced immediately. There is a tension in the clearing.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Utopian Thoughts

We can easily imagine a physician who is good at curing an illness that he also happens to know how to prevent.

Now, suppose the cure involves an elaborate and costly procedure and he can therefore make a good living curing (sufficiently wealthy) people. But suppose also that prevention requires only the distribution of a few simple guidelines for living well, i.e., that there is no money to be made in preventing the disease. Everyone could follow these guidelines, and anyone (regardless of income) could therefore avoid the disease, i.e., could permanently avoid the need for the cure.

One must, in my opinion, judge a society (or any social organization) based on its ability to encourage the discovery and dissemination of the preventative strategy in this case and discourage the physician from keeping that knowledge to himself.

We must imagine that his motives and morals are entirely normal, if not quite noble. That is, he may have a family to think of, and an uncertain future to save up for. If sharing the secret means choosing a life of poverty, most of us would grant that he is, at least, in a difficult situation. Sure, safe in our ignorance of such simple panaceas ourselves, we can demand that in this fictional example the doctor must share what he knows and suffer the consequences. The alternative, after all, is simply to shift that burden onto the poor man who cannot afford the cure, or even the rich one who must suffer its inconvenience.

But the doctor's children should suffer also? It's complicated, is all I'm saying.

This is why a just and good society would take this kind of situation as an obvious one, and would establish conditions under which neither his curative power nor his preventative wisdom become the basis of his wealth, status and security. This sounds a lot like socialism, I'll grant. That is, I'm imagining that we could let everyone live in the same comfort or discomfort, and let greater comfort come only to those who can devise ways of raising the general standard.

But lest anyone think I am talking about "redistribution", consider the simple fact that our laws today privilege those who accumulate wealth, i.e., encourage hoarding (both intellectual and material). All we need is to stop protecting the right to hold obscene amounts of property (and patents). Entrepreneurs, then, would simply not be protected artificially against the erosion of their advantage, normally acquired by some momentary combination of an inconspicuous draw on the collective genius of the species, a little cunning, and great deal of luck. (No, if you've accumulated 250 million dollars, sir, you didn't build that! No amount of hard work can reasonably account for your advantage.)

A natural ecosystem of innovation would emerge.

To be sure, the sorts of innovations that would be come of this would be quite different than we see today. We would, for example, innovate new social forms rather than new medicines for difficult personalities. We would calmly prevent social ills rather than scrambling to cure them.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Chops vs. Smile

A couple of posts at my other blog are worth bringing together for poetico-philosophical purposes. Consider the difference between our admiration for a person's "chops" and a person's "smile". In the case of the former, we appreciate the hours and hours of training that formed the "facility" of the performer. In the latter case, however, we are not impressed with training, in fact, we assume that the smile is the natural result of years and years of pleasant company, pleasantly entertained. A smile manifests a disposition. Chops reveal an apparatus.

Norman Mailer, Wyndham Lewis and Universal Imbecility

I quoted this in my previous post because of the tenuous connection between "goods" and the "desire for new commodity":

It is likely that the survival of capitalism is no longer possible without the creation in the consumer of a series of psychically disruptive needs which circle about such wants and emotions as the desire for excessive security, the alleviation of guilt, the lust for comfort and new commodity, and the consequent allegiance to the vast lie about the essential health of the State and the economy, an elaborated fiction whose bewildering interplay of real and false detail must devil the mass into a progressively more imperfect apperception of reality and thus drive them closer to apathy, psychosis, and violence. Nineteenth-century capitalism exhausted the life of millions of workers; twentieth-century capitalism can well end by destroying the mind of civilized man. (Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself, p. 355-6)

That was written in 1958 or 59. This morning I happened to be reading Wyndam Lewis's The Art of Being Ruled, from 1926:

There is today a new reality; it is its first appearance in terrestrial life—the fact of political world-control. Today this may be said to be in existence, and tomorrow it will be still more of a fact. Neither can it be hidden—short of destroying everybody's sense of reality altogether. People could no doubt be persuaded that they did not see the sun and the moon: but the effort to assimilate this gigantic lie would destroy their brains altogether, and universal imbecility would ensue. (TAoBR, p. 367)

I hope we can agree that there is a striking affinity between these two statements. It is, perhaps, important to recall that "in 1927, Philo Farnsworth made the world's first working television system", i.e., Lewis was writing in ignorance of something that Mailer knew very well. Universal imbecility, we might say, did ensue. And twentieth-century capitalism did, I'm afraid, destroy the mind of civilized man.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Truths and Goods?

Is that all I meant? Is a particular instantiation of justice, i.e., "the good", simply "a good", like a particular instantiation of truth is "a truth"?

Capitalism has done much to convert our sense of the Good into a taste for goods. And it would not be wrong to say that something similar has happened to our appreciation of Truth.

We think of justice, now, as merely a fair price for goods and services. What, I wonder, of truths and __________s?

* * *

"It is likely that the survival of capitalism is no longer possible without the creation in the consumer of a series of psychically disruptive needs which circle about such wants and emotions as the desire for excessive security, the alleviation of guilt, the lust for comfort and new commodity, and the consequent allegiance to the vast lie about the essential health of the State and the economy, an elaborated fiction whose bewildering interplay of real and false detail must devil the mass into a progressively more imperfect apperception of reality and thus drive them closer to apathy, psychosis, and violence. Nineteenth-century capitalism exhausted the life of millions of workers; twentieth-century capitalism can well end by destroying the mind of civilized man." (Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself, p. 355-6)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


"The arts," said Ezra Pound, "provide data for ethics" ("The Serious Artist", LE, p. 46). He also says they are sciences "just as chemistry is a science" (p. 42). At a time when science was more likely to be taken seriously than poetry, and scientists had not yet lost their minds ("The scientists are in terror/ and the European mind stops," Canto CXV, ca. 1962), one can understand his rhetoric. As the foundation of aesthetics today, it is inadequate, imprecise.

The sciences are grounded in the procedures by which they generate "data"; this is called method. Method determines what is "given" to a particular field of study, and this material is then studied so as to represent the "facts" and subsume them under a theory of the regularities that obtain among them.

Philosophy is an art. Its task is to move backward from the general regularities (theory) to the represented facts (results) to the objects as they are given (data) and bring to presence, i.e., present, "the thing" before it has become an object. The thing, that is, to whatever extent it is possible, as it is "in itself".

Of course, this is philosophy understood as essentially an epistemological and ontological affair. My argument is that philosophy should not concern itself with ethics. That should be left to poetry.

Politics is grounded in the procedures that generate "capta"; this is called mandate. Mandate determines what is "taken" in a particular policy domain, and this society is then ordered [in a sense suggesting both "commanded" and "organized"] so as to represent acts, subtended by a practice of regulation.

Poetry is the art that brings to presence the "people" (whether as "a person" or "a people", i.e., lyrically or epically) that political mandates capture, i.e., represent. This is poetry understood as the basis of ethics (not, as Pound says, also being imprecise, the basis of psychology and metaphysics, though what he means, I'm sure I believe).

The arts, when they are poetic, provide the capta of ethics. They show us how we are "taken" with experience. They do not merely enthrall. They show us how we are enthralled. In a profound sense, this is what it means when a poet tells us "how he feels". Not, you will notice, what he feels, or even who he is, but how the feeling gets done. How it feels to be governed. What Wyndham Lewis called "the art of being ruled".

Philosophy is an art in the sense that it also does not tell us what there is, but how it is. "How it stands with being," as Heidegger put it. How things can be objects. Philosophy does not, however, provide data for ethics. Poetry does that. That's the sense in which it makes us feel better. I.e., it teaches us to have more precise emotions.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Insistence and Inspiration

Propositions don't exist, said Deleuze, they insist (DR, p. 156). Things, of course, exist, even "as such" if you want, but the truth is something we must insist upon.

Proposals, likewise, don't expire. They inspire. People, of course, expire, but justice is something we must inspire to.

Let us keep in mind that propositions articulate facts, facts are the state of things ("what is the case"), and things exist. Proposals articulate acts, acts are domain of people, and people expire.

A concern: there is properly speaking no difference between a fact obtaining, i.e., being the case, and a proposition being true. It's the same articulation (the logic of the proposition just is the logic of the fact). Can that also be said of acts and justice? "Properly speaking there is no difference between carrying out an act, i.e., its execution, and a proposal being just. It's the same articulation (the pathos of the proposal just is the pathos the act.)" I'll leave that question open.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

What Empire Sounds like When It Is Pretending to Think Seriously About Itself ("from a progressive point of view")

"...from my progressive point of view this doesn't seem to be a very challenging value tradeoff..."

I may comment on this later. But this doesn't really require comment. I think 1:39 offers a "nuff said" moment.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Truth and Justice

The pangrammatical supplement of truth is justice. Justice is to power as truth is to knowledge. Philosophers engage with the nature of truth; poets engage with the culture of justice.

In philosophy, we call that which can be true or false a "proposition". When someone uses a proposition directly, i.e., states it as a fact, we call this an assertion.

I recommend we call that which can be just or unjust a "proposal". When someone uses a proposal directly, i.e., states it as an act, we call this an injunction.

Sentences are the outward form of propositions when they (the sentences) express "truths", individual truth-nesses.

This raises a terminological issue. When are sentences the outward form of proposals? Is there such a thing as a individual "justice", as there almost certainly are individual "truths"? I can assert something rightly, stating a truth. Can I enjoin something rightly, stating a "justice", an individual just-ness?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Advertising, for example,

does not seduce. It is too cynical for that. Nor does satire contradict, owing to its humor.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Humor and Cynicism

It works like this: at degree zero of humor, you have the possibility of pure contradiction. That is, contradiction is for people who have no sense of humor. Likewise, at degree zero of cynicism, you have the possibility of pure seduction. That is, seduction is for people who lack cynicism.

Don't try to understand all that too quickly. Remember there are only degrees of humor and cynicism (degree zero does not exist). No contradiction is perfect. Nor is any given seduction.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Problem, Seduction, Solution

Last week, I posed a riddle:

Wittgenstein said that "the civil status of a contradiction" constitutes the philosophical problem. Deleuze and Guattari said there are no contradictions, "only degrees of humor." I have said that the poet's problem is "the civil status of seduction". But what if there are no seductions? Only degrees of...

The solution is: cynicism. Cynicism is to power as humor is to knowledge. I had offered this entry at Etymology Online as a hint. Notice that the "province" of humor is "human nature". The stated province of cynicism is "morals", which we might rephrase as "human culture" (culture is nature's pangrammatical supplement). Also, humor aims at "discovery". We can rephrase the aim of cynicism as decision, i.e., cynicism is the mood towards which all decision making tends: it simplifies the moral situation to make my act possible. That is, it offers "self-justification". Humor's audience is "the sympathetic", but knowledge of course needs to push against our sympathies. That's its critical edge. The critical edge of cynicism, meanwhile, is set at the throat of respectability, which so often causes us to forget the name of action.

Finally, we can adjust the chart's sense of the "methods" of humor and cynicism in both directions. On the one hand, negotiation is to power as observation is to knowledge. If contradictions dissolve in a series of more or less humorous observations, seduction ceases to be seduction as it approaches negotiation. On the other hand, an observation is a way of registering concealment, just as cynicism is the "exposure of nakedness". An observation will only ever capture an appearance, but it is an observation (and not merely an impression) because it senses that this is an appearance of something concealed.

It's not perfect, but we do what we can. Deleuze and Guattari said, "In truth, there are never contradictions, apparent or real, but only degrees of humour" (Anti-Oedipus, p. 68). We can now add: Justly, there are never seductions, superficial or ideal, but only degrees of cynicism. The Pangrammaticon is a machine for making aphorisms.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

As a matter of fact...

"We have nothing against you as a people," it is often said; "our argument is with your leaders." Well, I actually think we can have a beef with the American people after the current election, and Conor Friedersdorf has made it very clear why.

Consider the fact that the vast majority of American voters will vote for either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama in November. This means they will not choose a president who intends to cease hostilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but will, instead, continue to do whatever serves "US interests in the region". That means that the drone war (which Romney does not disapprove of, as far as I can tell) will continue. Terrorizing thousands of ordinary people. Also, nothing very serious is going to get done about America's financial oligarchy, which will continue to dominate world finance and, as a consequence, come between the anxious mother and her ability to feed her hungry child all over the planet.

Meanwhile, other candidates, like Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, have stepped up. They would do something about the military and financial violence that the US does in the world.

But the "issues" that will determine the choice between Obama and Romney have to do mainly with ensuring continued access to entitlements for Americans (simplifying somewhat, the question is on what end of the income scale the entitlements will be maintained or expanded.) That is, "it's about the economy, stupid," i.e., the American economy. It's about whether or not Americans have jobs, not whether or not America will continue to fight its wars.

Most of all, it's about preserving the lifestyle and privileges of the middle class, as well as a few (given the harsh realities elsewhere in the world) rather exotic "rights". In addition to worrying about how to continue to live lives of unprecedented comfort, we have here a nation that is enormously conflicted about, say, gay marriage. At the same time, it appears to be of virtually one mind about bombing civilians in foreign countries. (The key question seems to be: should it be at all apologetic about it? Not, should it stop?) As an outside observer, might one recommend first discussing the question of who you are going to kill, and thereafter taking up the question of who you're going to allow to marry? It would just seem to indicate a saner scale of values.

(Needless to say, if the productive capacity of America stopped being expended in wars to enrich the already rich, the lifestyles of the great majority of Americans would be just fine. Unless of course we buy the premise that America's lifestyle depends on the spoils of war. In which case America really needs to make do with less, don't you think?)

This is really what I think Friedersdorf is trying to get us to understand. The moral questions about sexuality, race and abortion will take a great deal of discussion, as it already has, over many generations. For the people who are currently at the front of America's wars on drugs and terror, there are, I think, more pressing concerns. A truly great nation would put the question of who it is afflicting on its frontier well ahead of the question how it might get a bit more comfortable in the homeland.

UPDATE: This BloggingHeads conversation gets to the core of it at around 61 minute mark.

CF: "Some progressives put insufficient value on the lives and rights of muslims."

MC: "I'm a progressive...I think the surge is indefensible [because a thousand Americans have died] … but I will vote for Obama because when I weigh that issue against the 30 million Americans who have health care, that's more important to me."

My point in this post, and my previous one, is that progressives believe that the benefits that Americans derive from their health care system is more important than the damage that their warfare system causes non-Americans. (It's a "gotcha" moment, I know, but, especially given the context, it is really embarrassing for Cohen that he emphasizes that the problem with the surge lies in the amount of american lives lost. After the 66:00 minute mark, Cohen becomes simply unhinged. He's trying to win an argument and forgets what he's saying. Roughly speaking, we find him saying that you can weigh 1,000 foreign killings against 150,000 domestic savings, but not 1,000 domestics killings against those same savings. At 75:05 Friedersdorf masterfully sharpens this point and holds Cohen to it.)

My view is that they should stop killing people at the frontier, and only then think about how to redistribute the peace dividend at home. There is a vast moral difference between not providing health care to someone and making war on their homes and villages. You can't just go ahead and do both and then "weigh" the pros and cons.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Cudos to Conor Friedersdorf!

In his widely discussed piece on why he won't vote for Obama, Conor Friedersdorf makes a really important contribution to consciousness raising in the Empire. (I have to talk about the Empire, here, because I'm not an American citizen but insist on considering myself an imperial subject, one with only very indirect access to representation. I'm a Dane.) I want neither Romney nor Obama to be president from 2013 forward and would, yes, very much prefer Gary Johnson. Like many others, I did very definitely prefer Obama over McCain, and very, very definitely Obama-Biden over McCain-Palin. In truth, my "deal", which I did of course expect to be broken, was that Obama would end, not just the occupation of Iraq, but the War on Terror. That is, I hoped he would admit that the policy of fighting terrorism with a military machine was simply wrong. Morally wrong. Insanely wrong.

I hoped also he would do the same for the War on Drugs. Both of these wars, which are central to the administration of imperial power today, are "deal-breakers" for me. And they are such horrors for this planet and its people that one president that is, within the limits of current presidential power, not working to end them is morally indistinguishable from another president that is not working to end them.

These are not so much "imperialist wars" as wars of imperial administration. Fighting the wars achieves no strategic objective. There is no end-game for them. They are simply ideological cover for a great deal of highly militarized police work, that is, for the state's interference in the lives of millions of people, foreign and domestic. This interference is not just a nuisance, though it is that for most, it is (as Friedersdorf notes) also very violent for some. It is an oppressive use of force.

So I'm not impressed with Robert Wright's response. Frankly, I don't think a presidential election ever gives the American people a choice between an ordinary imperialist and a monstrous one. These days, it gives Americans a boring alternative between two ways of fighting the wars on drugs and terror, both of which are nonsense in theory, and immoral in practice. The entire apparatus of the state serves these two wars. (I will leave aside the role of the wars in the administration of the financial system. And vice versa.)

In short, I think Wright's "consequentialism" is a way of scaring people into voting for empire rather than against it. I didn't read Friedersdorf's thought experiment as an occasion to compare Pretend Racist Obama to Possibly Insane Romney and therefore testing consequentialism in principle. What Friedersdorf was doing was remind Obama supporters that they ignore, say, the drone war, in way that they would (he presumes) not ignore evidence of Obama's anti-hispanic sentiment. Wright is basically saying that he doesn't have "deal breakers".

My "vote" (a sentiment only, given my citizenship) will always go to the candidate who offers the best hope of rolling back the menace of drugs and terror, which is to say, the candidate that is most likely to call off the insane wars against these really, relatively harmless aspects of life in a complex world. I'm with the emperor who calls off the pursuit of threats the pursuit of which itself coverts them into menacing horrors, and turns us into those horrors ourselves.

In 2008, I decided Obama was the best hope. Not because his policies were better than, say, Ron Paul's, but because he was clearly electable, and Paul was not. Today, neither of the two electable candidates offer me hope. And I refuse to be frightened into approving of empire with the threat of a slightly more violent empire than the one I live under today. To vote for Obama out of fear of Romney is no better than to vote for McCain out of fear of Osama.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Courage and Curiosity

In his short story "Lance", Nabokov invokes "the man of imagination and science, whose courage is infinite because his curiosity surpasses his courage." From this I have constructed a pangrammatical formula: Curiosity is to knowledge as courage is to power. Now, wisdom is a knowing that transcends all knowledge just as a love is mastery that overcomes all power. So love takes infinite courage just as wisdom takes infinite curiosity. Or rather, genuine love exposes all courage as self-delusion and vanity.

This, I think, is how Kate Bush can tell us that when "the hounds of love" come for us we will confess that we have always been cowards. It is also why the sage appears so sublimely disinterested. It is not that the lover really is a coward; rather, courage has become irrelevant. It is not that sage is not curious; his curiosity has simply been taken to the limit.

(All this will soon lead us to a solution to my most recent riddle.)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Hounds of Love

"I have always been a coward."

"Take my shoes off and throw them in the lake."

Thursday, September 27, 2012


Prose is a discipline, poetry a liberation. You're a fool to think you need one and not the other.

Contradiction, Seduction, Humor

Wittgenstein said that "the civil status of a contradiction" constitutes the philosophical problem. Deleuze and Guattari said there are no contradictions, "only degrees of humor." I have said that the poet's problem is "the civil status of seduction". But what if there are no seductions? Only degrees of...

(Suggestions for a pangrammatical supplement for "humor" are welcome. Humor is to knowledge as ____________ is to power.)

UPDATE: Here's a really good hint.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


C. W. Eckersberg, ca. 1815
(Source: Nivaagaard Collection)

Martinus Rørbye, 1835
(Source: Nivaagaard Collection)

Giorgio de Chirico, 1911-1912

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Comparative Playground Reform

Here's an exercise we might do. Take Alan Hammond's "Playground Injuries: Statistics and Prevention" and compare it to the "poem" that appears on page 3 of Invisible Bride, which appeared in the journal No.

What makes Hammond's piece prose and Tony's piece poetry? Does it make sense to say that the difference is that Tony "versifies"? If so, what do we mean by that? The answer is going to be, I think, that Hammond writes with a kind of institutional earnestness that Tony does not. The poem "writhes", as I recently said, in its institutional constraints. But how does it manage this act of turning against the immediacy of the playground, and the obviousness of the need for playground reform?


"...the failure of the poem to reach the objective right margin of the page is for me one of the almost definitional ways poetry makes absence felt as a presence." (Ben Lerner)

"[Poetry is] lineated. It’s just that. A three-hour class on what is a prose poem is? A waste of time. That doesn’t mean it can’t be prose, or that prose can’t be poetry—but for all practical, speaking purposes, it’s right-flush margin or it’s lineated. It’s so simple. What is all this postmodern complicated bullshit?" (Mary Ruefle, HT Andrew Shields)

It can't be lineation. I'm not sure what Ben Lerner means by "the objective right margin" (the edge of the page? i.e., not the imaginary line where the text "returns" to the left margin.) In any case, there are too many examples of poetry, as distinct from prose, that does not depend on lineation. (At least lineation conceived of as a line return that stops short of the right margin.)

There's a difference between what Tony Tost did in Invisible Bride and what he did in Johnny Cash's American Recordings. And also a difference between the non-lineated passages of Ben Lerner's Angle of Yaw and what he did in Leaving the Atocha Station. That difference is the prose/poetry distinction, though all these works have right-flush margins.

Or here's an easy case: the introduction to Waldrop's Curves to the Apple vs. the actual pieces in The Reproduction of Profiles. Again, all right-flush margins but no question about what is prose and what is poetry. Much of Kate Greenstreet's "56 Days" has right-flush margins and is clearly poetry, not prose. Or compare Lisa Robertson's Seven Walks with Nilling: all the margins are flush but the former is poetry the latter is not. (The distinction is probably most subtle and most interesting in Nilling's "Time in the Codex" and "Lastingness", which might easily be confused with prose poems if it did not say "prose essays" on the cover.)

More and more I think Robertson is right that poetry is writing that "innovates its receivers". Prose is writing that does not. (This is also what Merleau-Ponty probably meant when he talked about "founding a new universality" with a "poetry of human relations".)

Another great example: Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations vs. Heidegger's Being and Time. Wittgenstein himself said philosophy should be written like poetry. And I think if we take a moment to seriously consider the "implied reader" in those two books, one of them is clearly being innovated while the other is merely being "convened", if you will, i.e., addressed as conventional academic subject.

The difference between poetry and prose is one thing. The difference between poetry and philosophy is another. As a contrast to prose, real philosophy is on the same side page as poetry. That's an important clue to what poetry is.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Strong View of Poetry

I've compared Lisa Robertson's poetics to Irving Layton's before. Here is a paragraph from Layton's "Poets: The Conscience of Mankind" that is worth comparing to the paragraph I quoted from Robertson's "Prosody of the Citizen" in my last post.

Poetry opposes the totality of the self to the creeping totalitarianism of the twentieth century. The pressures on the individual to simplify and abstract, to deaden his senses, and to live either in his brains or in his loins, are becoming more and more difficult to withstand and resist. In the face of these pressures, poetry affirms that life must be enjoyed in all its delicious complexity. It says to the harassed men and women of today: you must live fully and experience all that you can; only in that way will you be living humanly. A great poet said it a long time ago: we must all be born again. Modern life, with its specialization and division of labour, is turning each of into anatomical and physiological fragments — a brain, an eye, a nose, an arm or a leg. We must somehow find a way to re-assemble these into a human being. I believe that the reading and writing of poetry is a necessary start in the process of reassembling.

Layton's essay is from 1963, which offers us an interesting (if of course entirely constructed) line of historical development from Ezra Pound's "The Serious Artist" (1913) to Robertson's "Prosody of the Citizen" almost a hundred years later, with Layton right in the middle. We go from poetry's foundational role in the ethics, to its opposition to totalitarianism, to its "urgent social abjection". It is important to notice that Robertson and Layton agree on poetry as the "beginning" of something, and both I think mean the beginning of being human. (Layton seems to be quoting Jesus on the need to be "born again"; Robertson gets her concept of "natality" from Arendt.) But isn't it curious that they all (including Pound) have such high hopes (and desperate needs) for poetry? Why should it be so important to write verse? Does our ability to "live humanly" really depend on writing down lines of words that form strophes and then arranging these into poems? Is our humanity threatened, these days, by the palpable absence of poetry in public life? Or are our needs, along with our humanity, changing?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Shapely Urgency?

In his comment to my last post, Andrew asks what role verse plays in my definition of poetry. How important is prosody in our understanding of whether an "emotional notation" is a poem? How important, indeed, is the actual writing of lines of words on the pages of books and magazines? In answering it, let me turn to an essay by Lisa Robertson that has occupied my attention since I read it this summer in her collection Nilling. Here's a key passage:

What do poems have to do with an ethics of conviviality? The urgent social abjection of poetry might act as shelter to a gestured vernacular. Covertly the poem transforms that vernacular to a prosodic gift whose agency flourishes in the bodily time of an institutional and economic evasion. Let us suppose here that poems are those commodious anywheres that might evade determination by continuously inviting their own dissolution in semantic distribution. In poems and through vernaculars citizens begin themselves, because only here speech still evades quantification, escapes the enumerating sign, and follows language towards its ear, which is anybody’s. Here my use of the word poem parts from the conventions of aesthetic autonomy that have resulted from commodity culture’s limits and heroisms, to propose that the poem is the shapely urgency that emerges in language whenever the subject’s desiring vernacular innovates its receivers. The poem is the speech of citizenship. The poem distributes itself according to the necessity of subjects to begin, to begin speaking to anybody, simply because of the perception of continuous co-embodiment as the condition of language. This shaped speaking carries the breath of multiple temporalities into the present, not to protect or to sanctify the edifice of tradition, but to vulnerably figure historicity as an embodied stance, an address, the poem’s most important gift to politics. ("Prosody of the Citizen")

It is still unclear to me whether Robertson is here trying to open the word "poem" to a meaning that goes beyond the "mere" arrangement of words. That is, I don't know if she wants to make citizens capable of some sort of general poetry, implicit in their speech and gestures, requiring no specific act of "writing emotions down". But it does seem clear that, as the title of the essay suggests (leave aside the fact that she un-titled it for the collection), she believes that this "shapely urgency" is in fact a form of verse.

But what is "verse"? Do we not just move the question "What is poetry?" to this new question by tying it explicitly to the art of versification? I prefer to think of versification (the "turning" of phrase, also the root meaning of "strophe") as essential to the art of "writing emotions down". That is, as I said on Monday, you can't bring to presence how institutions make us feel without turning, bending, or twisting experience. When we writhe, if you will, in the grip of institutions we are, willy-nilly, making poems.

A poem is simply a confrontation of feeling with emotion, a confrontation of how we actually feel with how we are supposed to feel. Any such confrontation is a poem. But it is only possible in verse. It may be that, given "the prose of the world", only poetry, i.e., lines of verse literally written down on the page and read silently to ourselves, allows us to experience freedom. All other forms of communication (or even community) are impositions of feeling on experience.

That's my long answer to Andrew's question. Still thinking it through, though. So comments are more than welcome.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What is a Poem?

Poems are what poets make. This may seem trivial, but it means much more than "philosophies are what philosophers make". On days when I feel like my intellectual life has been wasted, I remind myself that I'm much closer than I was a decade ago (and perhaps even very close) to having a good answer to the question, What is a poem? Also, these days, I'm even approaching an understanding of why poetry is important, i.e., why knowing what a poem is is a real accomplishment. That makes me feel better, which, not incidentally, is exactly what poetry is supposed to do.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Poetry and Politics, Strophes and Institutions

Let's say, following Kant, that intuition is the way things are given to us in experience, perhaps the fact that things are given immediately to us, or that we know some things immediately. And let's then call institution the way people are captivated by experience, the act of capturing them immediately, or the way some people have power immediately. And since remarks are the compositional atoms of philosophy, through which intuitions are brought to our notice through marks on the page, i.e., "philosophy is the art of writing concepts down", we can think of a strophe as the means by which the poet brings institutions to presence.

Poetry is the art of writing emotions down. The purpose of this is to "turn, bend, twist" experience, and thus to notice the grip of institutions on experience. Institutions are the way we are captured before we even begin to feel and act. Poetry cannot liberate us as such (only a revolutionary politics can do that, if anything can), but it can make the emotion present to us. It can extricate the feeling from the grip of the emotion that the institution imposes on us.

When Lisa Robertson talks about "the prosody of the citizen", I imagine this versification of institutional prose is what she has in mind.

The Agents of Destruction are Many

I'm still reading Irving Layton's Engagements. It's sometimes refreshing to read a straightforward invocation of art as the fight against everything that is deadening to life and experience. To wit:

The agents of destruction are many. Here are the names of several that modern poets have observed: trivialization, mindlessness, conformity, the loss of self in a civilization that grows increasingly purposeless and routine. Mental breakdowns are becoming more frequent and Western civilization seems to be enveloped in a Freudian sadness that assumes the world has become one vast sanitarium or hospital.

For a large number of people life has lost its savour and zest. The joy of living has gone out of them. They are weighed down by inexpressible cares and worries; they are repressed, anxious, and suffer from feelings of unreality. (47-8)

And poetry is the answer, Layton suggests: it "opposes the totality of the self to the creeping totalitarianism of the twentieth century." (I like that way of putting it a lot.) "It says to the harassed men and women of today: you must live fully and experience all that you can; only in the that way will you be living humanly." (48) It reminds me of that passage in Lorca's essay on the duende that gave me pause last year.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Darkness over the Surface of the Deep

"Poems should not produce enthusiasm," I said recently. "Likewise, philosophy should eschew profundity." But this conflicts with something I said seven years ago:

Truth is the first virtue of belief; justice is the first virtue of desire; perspicuity is the first virtue of thought; intensity is the first virtue of feeling. The precision of objects fosters (but does not guarantee) truth; the precision of subjects fosters justice; the precision of concepts fosters clarity in suffering (perspicuity); the precision of emotions foster enthusiasm in suffering (intensity).

Most of that still holds. It doesn't matter here, but I'd rather talk about the precision of concepts and emotions today than the precision of objects and subjects. In any case, I had pretended there is a substantive distinction to be made between clarity and perspicuity, one that parallels the difference between enthusiasm and intensity. My recent discovery suggests a different likeness: profundity is to perspicuity as enthusiasm is to intensity. (Clarity finds its complement in something like tension, tightness, like the string of a lyre or bow.)

This allows us, perhaps, to recover some of the "depth" of philosophy, along with some of the "raptures" of poetry. Consider: we can see the bottom of a lake if the water is clear and the surface is still. The depth of philosophy does not depend on having "gotten to the bottom of it" but of "seeing through" it, all the way down. That can certainly seem like a kind of profundity.

How would that work in poetry. Well, the surface is to poetry as the appearance is to philosophy. Notice that the mind appears ("seems") deep precisely when it is still and clear, like water (sages everywhere agree). So, too, might the heart surface enthusiastically when it is stirred and tight. (In Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises people "get tight", i.e., drunk.) Philosophy stills the mind. Poetry moves the heart.

When you arrive, by way of a sophisticated pangrammatical computation, at a juxtaposition of platitudes, you know you've done it right.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Thesis XI (b)

(for Andrew Shields)

The poets have only ever obeyed history more precisely; the point is precision in our understanding of the world.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Thesis XI

The philosophers have only understood the world more precisely; the point is precision in our obedience to history.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On War

One could have some respect for the thing if it provided a real opportunity to destroy our enemies, not merely a series of humiliating occasions on which to obey our commanders.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Memo from Norman Mailer to Romney/Ryan

"So long as there is a cold war, there cannot be a conservative administration in America. There cannot for the simplest reason. Conservatism depends upon a huge reduction in the power and the budget of the central Government. Indeed, so long as there is a cold war, there are no politics of consequence in America. It matters less each year which party holds the power. Before the enormity of defense expenditures, there is no alternative to an ever-increasing welfare state. It can be an interesting welfare state like the present one, or a dull welfare state like President Eisenhower’s. It can even be a totally repressive welfare state like President Goldwater’s well might be. But the conservatives might recognize that greater economic liberty is not possible so long as one is building a greater war machine. To pretend that both can be real is hypocritical beyond belief. The conservatives then are merely mouthing impractical ideas which they presume may bring them power. They are sufficiently experienced to know that only liberalism can lead America into total war without popular violence, or an active underground." (Norman Mailer, The Presidential Papers, 1963, p. 170-171)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Layton & Robertson

I want to put two passages alongside each other. The first was published in 1961, in the foreword to Irving Layton's The Swinging Flesh:

The society of the future will have no more need for living, creative art than for religion. To the comfortable air-conditioned suburbanite of tomorrow the intuitions of the one will appear as ludicrously pitiable and archaic as those of the other. Indeed, they will be as incomprehensible to him as the vanished ecstasies of bull-worshipping. Such a society — its outlines are already visible to anyone who is not afraid to take a good look — will be run by a tolerant élite composed of scientists, well-heeled technicians, and efficient commissars, buttressed by serviceable cadres of social workers and psychiatrists. As the tragic drama unfolds,these grousp must play the assassins of whatever is passionate and unpredictable in human experience — that is, of art.(Engagements, p. 93)

The second is from Lisa Robertson's "Untitled Essay" in Nilling (Bookthug, 2012) also published online as "Prosody of the Citizen". Here she says:

Now language and money circulate using the same medium, a grammar which is digital, horizontal and magnetic, and politically determined. Maybe all language will be eventually administrated as an institutional money: a contained and centrally monitored instrumental value. On the other hand, the digitization of value could mean that language in its vernacular expression can infiltrate and deform capital’s production and limitation of social power. If it is to be the latter, then vernacular language’s magnetism will reorient the polis.(Nilling, p. 78)

There are vast differences in temperament between Irving Layton and Lisa Robertson, but I think they are diagnosing the same problem (the tragedy continues to unfold), and, interestingly, they offer the same solution: poetry. The problem, in a word, is money. (See Layton, p. 35ff.)

Robertson's introduction to Occasional Work reads as follows:

The Office for Soft Architecture came into being as a I watched the city of Vancouver dissolve in the fluid called money. Buildings disappeared into newness. I tried to recall spaces, and what I remembered was surfaces. Here and there money had tarried. The result seemed emotional. I wanted to document this process. I began to research the history of surfaces. I included my own desires in the history. In this way I became multiple. I became money.

Layton quotes Pound's "Serious Artist" with approval: the poet displays "a sort of persistence of the emotional nature, and, joined with this, a peculiar sort of control" (125). That describes Robertson's work during her process of, if you will, becoming-money.

For Robertson a "poem is the shapely urgency that emerges in language whenever the subject’s desiring vernacular innovates its receivers". Layton is more old-fashioned: A poem is "the miraculous fusion of sound and sense" (124). In both cases, the poem is going to have to counter (or perhaps just modulate) the effects of money, in which our cities, and our homes, are dissolving.

Poetry and Postmodernism

Over at, I offered Lisa Robertson as an example of what postmodernism in the social sciences might imply. A "nilling" of social science, if you will. To be replaced with poetry.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Things behave in particular ways and things are made of matter. Our understanding of matter is expressed in our physical theories. People, too, behave in particular ways and people are shaped by society. Our obedience to society is expressed in our social practices.

Practice is to power what theory is to knowledge. Obedience is to power what understanding is knowledge. There is (ought to be) no such thing as social theory. ("Ought" is to power what "is" is to knowledge.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Irving Layton on Corporations

Many years ago while on vacation in Canada, I went looking for a book of Irving Layton's prose, which I thought I'd found when I found Taking Sides, four years ago. (See this post for a funny story about this quest.) Well, this year I finally found it; the right book, it turns out, was his 1972 collection Engagements. I was looking for this passage in particular:

Marx's vision of the proletarianized dregs of mankind finally revolting against their condition of abasement and humiliation and establishing a classless society has nothing but its thrilling poetry to recommend it. It is necessary to do with Marx what Marx did with Hegel: turn him over on his head. The only hope for civic and world peace lies in the rapid growth and spread of multinational corporations. By a paradox that Marx undoubtedly would have greatly appreciated, it is the Devil's pitchfork of greed, pride and egotism that is prodding the capitalist and managerial class to create a world where mutual benevolence and goodwill have become eminently profitable. The swift unstoppable development of multinational corporations and oligopolies will do more to eliminate wars between countries than the Sermon on the Mount or Shelley's pious hope that people can be humanized by reading poetry. (P. xiii, my emphasis.)

I'm not sure what Layton had behind his idea to "recommend it" at the time. But it's interesting to note that his idea has been tested in practice. Not only have multinational corporations taken over the Earth, poetry has, in the same period (the last 40 years) come to occupy an entirely marginal position.

PS. I almost forgot: on the next page he puts a button on it with the notion that "the United States is the most powerful single force promoting peace and social democracy in the world today".

Monday, July 30, 2012

Enemies of Enthusiasm

I think Edmund Burke was right to say that "a great clearness is the enemy of all enthusiasm whatsoever." Fortunately, clarity and enthusiasm are not proper pangrammatical supplements. Clarity is to philosophy as intensity, not enthusiasm, is to poetry. Poems should not produce enthusiasm at all. Likewise, philosophy should eschew profundity. Ultimately, philosophy and poetry are the enemies of profundity and enthusiasm, two entirely dispensable (and often distasteful) states of mind and heart. In their place, they put clarity and intensity. Philosphy clarifies the appearance. Poetry intensifies the surface. Out of the depths. Down from the heights.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


This clip will soon be the substance of a post on the point where this blog intersects with my other blog. (Hat tip.)

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Philosophy as an Art

This paragraph from T.S. Eliot's "The Possibility of a Poetic Drama" has never left me. It many ways, it expresses the spirit of this blog:

In the works of Maeterlinck and Claudel on the one hand, and those of M. Bergson on the other, we have the mixture of the genres in which our age delights. Every work of imagination must have a philosophy; and every philosophy must be a work of art—how often have we heard that M. Bergson is an artist! It is a boast of his disciples. It is what the word “art” means to them that is the disputable point. Certain works of philosophy can be called works of art: much of Aristotle and Plato, Spinoza, parts of Hume, Mr. Bradley’s Principles of Logic, Mr. Russell’s essay on “Denoting”: clear and beautifully formed thought. But this is not what the admirers of Bergson, Claudel, or Maeterlinck (the philosophy of the latter is a little out of date) mean. They mean precisely what is not clear, but what is an emotional stimulus. And as a mixture of thought and of vision provides more stimulus, by suggesting both, both clear thinking and clear statement of particular objects must disappear.

Wittgenstein said that philosophy should be composed in the manner of poetry. I think he's right, but I don't think this means that philosophy is poetry. I agree with Eliot that philosophy is an art, and that it is the art of forming thought beautifully. Poetry is another art. Any attempt to conflate the two, which is often what is meant by people who declare philosophy to be an art, is only likely to obscure the problem, which is probably what they want. Thinking precisely, i.e., clearly, is difficult. Feeling precisely, i.e., intensely, is difficult. Beauty is difficult.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012


In the Guide to Kulchur, Ezra Pound tells us that "metaphysics [is that] about which no man knows anything save what he finds out for himself." (P. 47) In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger expresses the same attitude in more formal terms: "The Being of [the entity to be analysed] is in each case mine." (H. 41) This should remind of us something: the problems of existence are only ours to solve; and we solve them only in our own case.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Epiphany and ?

Epiphany comes from the root verb phainein, "to show". The prefix "epi" means "to" or "on", i.e., an epiphany is a showing-to.

There must be a pangrammatical supplement. Epiphany is to philosophy as _________ is to poetry. But I fear I will have to resort to neologism.

First we must find the supplement of "show". It will be to "doing" as "showing" is to "seeing". When we are shown something we are meant to see it. When we are _____ed something we are meant to do it.

We are not ordered to do it, just as the showing does not force us to see anything. It is merely offered to us. So perhaps we are looking for something like implore, or beg.

As for the prefix, "epi-", it seems to me that we must replace it with "endo-", i.e., from within.

What we need, I think is a Greek word for "pleading-in".

"Deomai" seems to fit the bill, and it gives us "deésis" ("felt need", "urgent want") as well. So we've got our word: endodeésis, which would mean literally "an urgently felt inner need", a "pleading from within". It might be suitably anglicized as endodesy.

Friday, June 29, 2012


Philosophy extricates "it" from the world of science and makes it "mine". Poetry extricates "us" from our political history and makes us "me". This amounts to extricating the concept of the thing and the emotion of the person respectively.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Personal, Possessive

We might say that while poetry is "personal", philosophy is "possessive". Both virtues can be corrupted into vices, of course.

To Have and to Want

In its reflection upon what is "in each case mine", philosophy helps us to appropriate what we already have. It is always already ours, we might say, but we need to make it our own. This entity that is ours to begin with but yet in need of our appropriation is called existence, i.e., Dasein. Here, then, is one sense we can give to Heidegger's "event of appropriation" (Ereignis), i.e., the experience of making the world one's own. (Which, as I have said before, amounts to doing one's own thing.) Philosophy is interested in how we appropriate our existence.

Poetry has a complementary mission. It cultivates inspiration not existence (duende not Dasein) and its theme is therefore not what I have, i.e., what is mine, but who I am or, more accurately, who I may become. If there is something tautological, unnecessary, or even wholly futile, about appropriating something you already own, i.e., taking ownership of your property, then in poetry a different kind of futility rules. Here, we must renounce (or disown) something we will always lack, i.e., we must refuse something we will never have.

Philosophy always seeks the occasion for the event of appropriation, the moment when we can make things our own, take what is given. Poetry, by contrast, is the recusal of ownership—it acknowledges the duende as the true owner (the dueño). The poet gives himself to what he is taken with. The mind of a philosopher-poet is therefore a strange place ... in a strange time. It finds its composure at the very point where its clarity about what is mine is balanced against the intensity of who I want to become.

It is not altogether wrong to interpret "want" here as "need" or "lack", but the poetic recusal is precisely the act of doing without that which I do not have, so that I may become that which I am destined to be.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


"It" is to science as "we" is to politics. "Mine" is to philosophy as "I" is to poetry.

When philosophy asks the fundamental question "What is it?" it is really asking "How is it mine?" (We owe this insight to Heidegger: the entity to be analyzed is "in each case mine", je meines.) The "objects" of our scientific theories do not belong to us, but the things we experience are ours before we discover a single scientific fact.

Poetry, likewise, traces the fundamental question of who we are becoming back to the question of how I got here. We do not become the "subjects" of our political practices, but the people of our experience are themselves before we decide upon a single political act.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Insubordination of the Flesh

"Pleasure is preceded by a certain appetite which is felt in the flesh like a craving, as hunger and thirst and that generative appetite which is most commonly identified with the name lust, though this is the generic word for all desires." (Augustine)

I've always had great respect for Catholic moral psychology, though not much love for Catholic ethics. So, for example, I agree about the mechanics of "proximate occasions" of sin, but not that we should avoid such occasions. This does not mean I think we should sin, but that we should be open to the situations where sin, and therefore virtue, is possible.

I have a feeling that Augustine's views on lust and pleasure have to be part of my own canon on this subject (they are of course just part of the the canon on the subject.) I've said that pleasure is the immediate satisfaction of desire in the act, unmediated by an emotion (intellectual pleasure is the immediate satisfaction of belief in the fact, unmediated by a concept). But I have also argued, following Kierkegaard, that this still requires an "image", which just is the immediate presence of the act (or fact) in experience.

Augustine does not (at least here) mention the important work of the imagination in shaping and indeed civilizing (or humanizing) lust. Pleasure is not just the satisfaction of a "craving". It requires the formation of an image (the passage from craving to imagining) and it is here that our "spiritual" lives begin. What Pound described as "a form of stupidity not limited to Europe, that is, idiotic asceticism and a belief that the body is evil", is this substitution of the idea that images arise in the human body with the notion that man is created in the image of God. After the fall, the body is construed as merely "insubordinate". Spinoza was very right to suggest that "we don't yet know what the body can do." And to make this the basis of sane ethical inquiry.