Saturday, March 31, 2007

Labor Theory of Value

Noah: Will you give me lots of money so that I can buy a giant tyrannousaur?

Me: No, I don't have lots of money. You need to work to get money. Well, at least most people do.

Noah: Oh.

Me: So, what kind of thing are you going to do for work?

Noah: I'm going to get lots of money!

Friday, March 30, 2007

Is Vagueness a Style?

I've been following with interest the discussions (now finished, I'm late) about the teaching of creative writing, and thinking in particular about Reginald's remark, and Joshua's and Kasey's response, that "vagueness is not a style."

At the risk of sounding like a creative writing student in one of Reginald's class-- (well, I once was)--I must say that I'm not at all sure that I can maintain--as he does-- a meaningful distinction between vagueness and ambiguity (two forms of abstraction, it seems to me), even if I can understand why one would want this kind of distinction.

There is vagueness that I dislike and vagueness that I like, vagueness, that is, which I find "meaningful," ripe with possibilities, experiences,"expressive," with room for thinking and feeling, that I sometimes might dub with the valorizing new critical term "ambiguity." While I find the Eliot quote about free verse, and, more generally, the inescapability of form, an important observation, I often feel that the way this kind of claim gets used, true as it may be in the long run, might encourage a kind of complacency as regards given forms and the urge to escape them (no doubt, this is far from Eliot's intention in the essay). Beckett may have ultimately found only another type of style instead of stylessness, but the fact that he tried "écrire sans style," in a second language, is important. Too often, the Eliot quote is used to discourage such attempts, rather than to describe their impossibility (which was his original intention, I think).

(Tone is, of course, everything here, as is keeping in mind that reader's concepts, teacher's concepts, writer's concepts, and critic's concepts, while full of overlap, don't always translate. They are different discourses, structured by different social relations, and in that each of these things might ask for different things from poetry).

But back to the original discussion: the difference between vagueness and ambiguity, two forms of abstraction that are, respectively, "discouraged" and "encouraged" by many people involved with poetry, lies in that verb "tried" that I used to describe Beckett This is where the distinction originates, in my view--in a pesky notion of authorial intention. However tattered my copy of On Grammatology or Philosophical Investigations, however many times I've read Barthes and Dickinson and Foucault and DeMan on notions of authorship, if I say that something is ambiguous I probably mean that the abstraction seems willed, intentional, purposeful, calculated, meant; vagueness, on the other hand, when it's used as a pejorative, will seem like an accident, a mistake. To the extent that "vagueness" is a style it is an intentional mistake, "kind of accidentally on purpose" as Walter Neff puts it in Double Indemnity (B-11). Am I agreeing with Reginald or not? I don't know. Perhaps I'm being "purposefully" vague, (er, ambiguous). Perhaps I just said that to get out of trouble, backloading intent. Personality as plug-in.

If vagueness is a style, and I think it is, isn't one of its names "John Ashbery?"Ashbery, that "mainstream unto himself" (as a friend has called him), whose advice to his own creative writing students, recorded in the poems from Houseboat Days, was as follows:

. . .Now one must
Find a few important words, and a lot of low-keyed
Dull-sounding ones.

Indeed, Ashbery's middle-period poems, from, say, Self-Portrait to A Wave often proceed from vagueness and emptiness toward a kind of specifity which they then evacuate in a final gesture of setting off again:

"The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths, if only for the sake
Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you
For other centers of communication, so that understanding
May begin, and in doing so be undone."

This intentional vagueness, which occasionally becomes (especially in Ashbery's imitators) a didactic, even moralizing vagueness, didn't start with Ashbery. It also goes by the name of Gertrude Stein and Wallace Stevens. Vagueness is what haunts Stevens dictum about the poem, that "it must be abstract." It is behind Stein's choice of a vocabulary no larger, often, than that of a third grader's, in order that she might reveal the structures of cognition, rhetoric and grammar that underlid and define the way that we talk and think and write. It is for love of vagueness that Stein turns from nouns; it is what makes her prefer words like "the" and "a" and "as."

As with Geoffrey's book, the choice of purposeful vagueness, flatness, abstraction might mean a refusal of the division of labor, of the law that says, "be specific! Do this thing and not that thing! Pick a historical field, a genre, a subject, a medium! Stay within the discourse! Ground yourself in your predecessors, in origins!" It might mean a refusal of these kinds of identities. Or, alternately, it could mean a submission to the laws of exchange and abstraction which wants our discourse as bland and fungible and interchangeable as possible, so that the speech of one group is abstract and contentless enough that it can be fitted to the speech of another, etc., etc.

So I run into a problem here. My descriptions--vagueness-- of what I value in a certain poet could equally be descriptions of what I detest in another--vagueness. Vagueness is both too vague and yet again not vague enough, and so I have to come back to tone, to relationality, placement, the fact that there may be very little inherent in a certain device that can make it aesthetically effective or ineffective. And I'm back, too, to notions of intention, which I can escape, probably, only by positing other kinds of agency: history, hegemony, the unconscious, power, discourse, language, etc.--all of the things that might speak through writing that is "purposefully vague." I'm not sure I can get away from these bewitchments, problematic as they may be. But what I can do is to keep reminding myself of the wish to perform these operations on texts.

Another example of effective vagueness, of the "new vague" (le flou nouveau?) and its refusal of specifity and specialization and identity, can be found in Juliana Spahr's Response (.PDF). Indeed, all of Spahr's books are lessons in the use and misuse of vagueness and the kinds of political and aesthetic knowledge they can deliver:

realism’s authenticities are not the question

the question [role of art in the State]

we know art is fundamental to the [New State] as is evidenced in village scenes,
majestic ancient views, masses and masses of [generic human figures]
marching in columns, swords coded as plowshares, image as spectacle

we know [name of city], [adjective], [name of major composer]
to recode [reduce] it: Linz, ambiguous, Wagner

we know a [name of major historical figure] calls, authentically, for a more total,
more radical war than we can even dream in the language of the avant


we know a commercial promises to reduce plaque more effectively in this same

but sometimes we exceed even our own expectations to surprise even ourselves

something encloses the impossible in a fable

an unreal world called real because it is so heavily metaphoric

we can’t keep our fingers of connection out of it
[from "Responding"]

I find this excerpt remarkably moving, as I find so much of Spahr's work, moving in the way that it seeks to uncover existing structures or systemic forces and find in them the kind of commonalities--destructive or constructive-- that they might allow.

Or, to use an example from a poet who plays a different role in the poetry world, one might think of Jorie Graham's use of the blank in The End of Beauty as a vagueness effect. No doubt, I'm missing numerous examples of effective or potent vagueness, but I'm sure you get my point.


I say all this while fully accepting, not so needless to say, the claims of specificity in poetry, of the material, the concrete, and its ability to resist the liquidation of the senses, the attentionlessness that seems to be, at least speaking for myself, the fate of my more and more mediated and virtual and bloggy life. I don't think I write good vague, and I wouldn't be surprised if I never manage to do so. There are other kinds of poetry out there.

Reginald's poetry, especially his new book Fata Morgana, is certainly concerned with making worlds from concrete colors and textures and details, concerned with preserving specifics against their misuse. But it also displays a tricky and ambivalent relationship to the vague, to the terrain vague in which the fata morgana of the title throws up its apparitions and mirages. At the risk of overworking the above formulations, I'm curious about the book's persistent attraction to spaces of openness, plainness and emptiness (spaces of, dare I say, vagueness?). This is pretty much, as it seems to me, the scene of writing here--a generative expanse, often described as a visual field, which seems to reinforce the incompleteness of the speaker, driven out of himself by lack and desire. One of the other names, too, for lack, in this book, is the gods, figures it seems for the world's disenchantment, its exposure:

But the Sahara isn't all sand
bare-scrubbed plains, barren
soil, thorn, broken stone,
gravel shimmering ocher and dun

Dunes the color of honey, wind sculpted
ruffles and flutes, a knife edge to leeward,
a hundred feet high
Tied dunes, echo dunes, barchans, seifs
parabolic blowout dunes, tranverse dunes, sigmoidal
dunes, sand seas' shifting shapes
(quartz ground fine as flour, powdered sugar)

["My Desert"]


Distance is money just out of reach,
a kindness like rain-laden clouds
that never drops its coins. Epochs
of fossilized trees crawl rusting hillside
strata: they smell like somewhere else
I've never been, an Anatolia
just outside the mind. Geometries
of travel and desire (from here to want
and back again), the myths of pleasure
reinvent another ancient world: oiled boys
racing naked around the circular walls
of Troy to find out who will wear
the plaited wreath, parade painted circuits
of unburnt parapets waving
to the crowds.

("Homeric Interim")

Vague space is what allows, it seems, for virtuousic reflection, meditation, for gorgeous spills and tumbles of detail. It's important to note, of course, that the poems are only vague at one level of their content, vague at the level of referent, but hyperspecific at the level of the sign. In this, they are the opposite of, say, Spahr's poems.

If there is anything that's vague at the level of the writing in Reginald's book it is probably the curious and charming presence--as a kind of internal voice, sometimes allegorized as "song"--of pop lyrics, whose cliches seem to push the poem forward to some kind of specifying concretion:

Song keeps repeating

shit where you eat, don't shit
where you eat. The day
begins with burning, then remembers
to wake up: sweetbitter resins,
pollens, dripping cum smells
flower, white. Highway's haunted
by rememberd men and boys, no light
but passing pickup trucks.

("At Weep")

What am I getting at here? Well, I suppose I'm trying to imply that form solidifying from a vague content, and vagueness deforming specific content, are in tension across these different poems by very different poets. Each strategy might need the other as a precondition, as the material or scene for its own work.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

All night
He wants the young Hegelian, young Hegelian, young Hegelian,
He wants the young Hegelian
All right
He wants the young Hegelian


I make a North American Free Trade Area with you, Ron Silliman.

Did everybody see this great little essay by J-clo on the prehistory of the dérive over at the Academy of American poets site?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Free! Indirect Discourse!

In the hope that there are interested readers and respondents, I'm making available an essay which imagines an encounter between the opposed aesthetic stances of Frank O'Hara and Theodor Adorno; that is, two thinkers whose moving and persuasive accounts of art have been absolutely indispensable to me, and who seem irreconcilable.

I wrote this essay with contemporary poets and contemporary poetry in mind (that is, I wrote it while thinking about you, about the claims of the recent past on you). In rough paraphrase, the essay theorizes forms of resistance and autonomy that do not depend upon negation and oppositionality as Adorno conceives it ( à la Beckett), and that do not require the kind of autonomy from the "culture industry" that may no longer be possible. It's a tendentious essay, purposefully so, and I welcome all forms of (civil) response to it. If there is interest in this piece, I will share other essays--on Bernadette Mayer and Vito Acconci, on Jeff Wall (just in time for his retrospective), and on Juliana Spahr and exception theory.

Having a Coke with Adorno and O'Hara (pdf)

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Black Sabbath - War Pigs (Live in Paris 1970)

And, since we're doing YouTube, not a week goes by where, reading the newspaper, I don't have fantasies of interrupting transmissions with this: drums, here, on Bush's skull. Still about as good as this genre gets, next to Dylan's "Masters of War." Maybe we can resurrect Heartfield to do a video.

Brazil--Restaurant Scene

L'hyperréalité est morte, vive l'hyperréalité

Before I read Deleuze, or Derrida, or Foucault or any of the other world-rending New Philosophers, there was Baudrillard, a good introduction into so-called "theory" for kids like me whose life-philosophies were partly based on readings of Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance and lyrics from Funkadelic songs [insert picture of me with dreadlocks here, 1993] and who didn't know enough about Marx or Hegel or Nietschze or Kant or Heidegger to understand much of what was going on. So, you know, I owe a great deal to Baudrillard's hilarious, poignant, gadfly's-eye view of the world in Simulacra and Simulation, a book that I've come to read as an attempt to extend Debord's Society of the Spectacle, as well as an example of the giddy fatalism that threatens all those on the left who dare to look capitalism in its big, ugly face for decade after decade while "doing" philosophy: Zizek avant la "z". His account of Los Angeles is still, basically, correct, even if its broad swaths miss the visible, irrisible marks of the real that are everywhere off the yuppie yoga-trail. The LA of Starsdown owes much to him. Embarrassingly, S and S is the only book of his I know, along with excerpts from the Gulf War book. But The Mirror of Production and Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign are things I look forward to reading soon. I like this quote of his from Le Monde, too: La lâcheté intellectuelle est devenue la véritable discipline olympique de notre temp.

I've always loved the restaurant scene in Brazil--1985 to Baudrillard's books 1981--below. This is how the simulacral looked then: already nostalgiac. Skip forward to minute 3:00.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

"And the other of them, they lost their job a few weeks after the buildings fell, began writing a computer program that they would never finish. They made a program that took all the discussion on the internet that the other of them was looking at all day long in order to build their charts and scrambled it. The program then made a fake page of information where none of the connections, the analysis, the numbers made any sense. The program took hours to make and they would get up in the morning and turn on the computer and start before breakfast. Then they would go and make coffee and return to the computer. This would go on all day and when it started to get dark they would turn on a small lamp which didn’t extend much light beyond the desk and they would continue in the light of the small lamp and the light from the monitor of the computer which spread out over the light of the small lamp and filled the room with a certain, specific bluish glow. Their shoulders kept getting tighter and tighter as they worked harder and harder to scramble the information that kept being called out by the other in the room below. Because they barely moved from the computer, they often grew stiff from not moving all of their limbs. They were possessed by a special feeling, a feeling that the only escape, the only way out from all the endlessly bad information that came over the television and the internet was to keep scrambling it. And they saw this scrambling as an endless chore, as each day large amounts of new information was produced and this producing of new information continued into the night as they slept."

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Green and Gray

I can't really think of any books--recent books, that is--that are doing what Geoffrey G. O'Brien's Green and Gray, is doing. (One of my favorite poems is here, others are here and here). Perhaps the thematics and thought-structure recalls the Frencher side of meditiative-speculative poetry in the last twenty years--Rosmarie Waldrop, Michael Palmer and Norma Cole. He might be a tonalist.

But there's such a relentless refusal of particulars, of the soft law of detail and concretion ("show don't tell" in workshop-ese) in Geoffrey's book, a refusal enabled, I think, by the fact that the poems insist on remaining lyrics written in something that hovers close, often, to blank verse. They insist on--and consist of, and insist in--the line as a kind of untransgressable boundary, strengthened the more that they push up against it with puns and rhymes and syntactical prestidigitation. Line as a mobius strip that enforces a forgetting of its own past, a smudged present part not-yet and part already.

I have forgotten what
would travel from the north
as a series seen from above
or from below, and the followers,
the flowers, I tore them up
the next summer, or rather
before or immediately after
and thought no more about it. ("Three Seasons")

I'm already screwing up the end of the poem
with a hopeful form of forgetfulness.
Let me confess to you that I plan a perfect poem,
one written during the historical period.
Now this was a period I don't remember
and now another is coming to meet it.
This may fuck up the perfect poem
I admit I'd already planned a kind of mass for. ("The Nature of Encounters")

Each kick-turn, then, involves both a (necessary, involuntary) forgetting of its origin and an attempt to ward off an ever-imminent ending, here the period to the couplets that keeps dislocating the poem (pushing it forward or back) and keeping it from being equal to itself.

Over the course of the book, if you read it in one or two sittings, the adventure of the line-as-phenomenon/line-as-subject leaves in the mind an image of what form is and what it can be--a way of resisting the dislocations of time. I keep thinking of Marcel Broodthaers rewriting of Mallarme's "Un Coup de Dés" as a utter visuality, as form whose content is form.

It is tempting, I suppose, to read form-as-content in Geoffrey's book, its intense abstraction ("remorse of the senses") as a critique of the increasing homogeneity and contentlessness of American life, where opposition is, in fact, turned to a curious kind of affirmation, activism become passivism; where dissent is neutralized into some pale form of civility, and the cherished freedom and choicefulness of the U.S. middle-class has no relationship to matter. This is a correct reading of the book, and a helpful one. But I wouldn't want to miss the work's deep positivity, its participation in the experimental project I mention in the last post. It is not only a critique of life-made-abstract, of sameness, but an attempt to use these things as methods that can prevail against them as lived. In reading recently for a working-group meeting on Marx and Darwin, I was pointed to these sentences from the first preface to Capital:

Nevertheless the human mind has sought in vain for more than 2,000 years to get to the bottom of it, while on the other hand there has been at least anapproximation to a successful analysis of forms which are much richer in content and more complex. Why? Because the complete body is easier to study than its cells. Moreover, in the analyiss of economic forms neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of assistance. The power of abstraction must replace both.But for the bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labor, or the value-form of the commodity, is the economic cell-form.

I think this is a fantastic account of the power of abstraction to work against abstraction, to find forms of concretion and difference and particularity that are not false or chimerical. Just as for Deleuze, whose empiricism is similar to Marx's, repetition of the same, repetition as a stutter, demonstrates the baseline difference that cannot be submitted to claims of identity--"differnece without concept"--in Green and Gray, Geoffey dresses his poems in a camouflage of non-particulars, somnambulance and hypno-melancholy, submits the poems to line's repetition-without-concept to reveal the sub-perceptible differences and particulars to which we might attend:

The experience of leaving
one category for another,
of smooth being colder
than rough and of
that December I suffer
as the experience of leaving
one category for another,
using a life that way
that opens and stops
moving, done,
furtively waving
as with one month
that opens and stops
among the others. . . ("Mixed Mode")

This isn't really the abstraction of, say, Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man," described recently by an interlocutor as " the individual subject purging itself of material determinations." The purge happened long ago. Instead, Geoffrey works to drive abstraction to its breaking point. Coming a few poems away from the end of the book, the repetition above, the little stutter, could be read as a kind of pivot, the book having hit a kind of zero-degree of abstraction-contra-abstraction, and finally giving way to the new, refreshed particularity I'm suggesting is its end. The penultimate poem, "Hysteron Proteron," allows itself the enormous conceit of containing "examples of all that has happened" and goes on to index various events political, personal and literary. The first time I read the book, I objected to this poem as the book's end; after a run of poems which so steadfastly refuse proper names and the like, to come across "Paris" and "911 is a joke" truly threw me. Now, though, I guess I'm pretty convinced that this is the point. Though I'm still not sure that the close of the book completely succeeds at what I'm reading it as attempting (a turn to particularity after the suicide of identity, the suicide of the same) I'm also not sure what such a success would look like in this instance. Only Beckett, it seems now, has pulled this off, if anybody has. And in any case, if the exit arc comes too little and too late, then perhaps what it does is point us to the next book.

For those who are skimming, the point is that you should get this book. I look forward to hearing what people have to say about it, and about my reading of it.