Flow, Fissure, Mesh

Posthumous Errata for Tom Raworth

An obituary for Tom Raworth appeared in this Sunday’s issue of The Guardian. His website at present appears to have been taken down: consigned maybe to the transitory dissolution of language, its entropy, to which his poetry was so closely attentive. He had died in early February, but I was either busy or distracted, or likely both, and I missed any notice. The last I had heard from him was a mass-emailed season’s greeting in December, 2015. He was brilliant and under-recognized. His writing has played a sizeable part in my scholarly and teaching life, and his poetry has strongly impacted my own practice. 
Some years ago, I mistook at first reading the last text in his 2010 collection Windmill in Flames — an “Errata to Collected Poems (2003)” — for a poem itself, a misprision that I think Raworth might have encouraged. What might or might not constitute a poem, and who might do that constituting, remained a playfully and vitally provocative question for him. In 2012, I was working on a set of still-unseen visual-typographical poems, which I want to call Typos, and one of them is a reworking of this errata page, and my goofy error. I’d like to offer it up here as a tribute to Tom Raworth.


Some Country Music (poetry)

It has been more than a few months since I last posted. Well, yes. Here is an impromptu piece composed yesterday in reaction to the American election. More things to come when I can.

Some Country Music (for Wednesday 9 November 2016)

Place of lost welcome, place of faithlessness, place of the disenfranchised, place of glib hunger, walled off place, place of broken windows, place of honey, place of gouged certainties, place of barely invisible menace, place of unrequited promises, place of vinyl siding, despondent place, place of recycled batteries, place of scorched all-season radials, place of without, of the less-than-remarkable, place of uneven hygiene, stolen place, place of dissolving hazards, place of smeared lipstick, place of tossed-off b-sides, place of jeans with the knees torn out, tongue-in-groove place, place of small mercies, place of the difficult, that and not this place, place of compassionate hatreds, place of leaky pipelines, place of the backward and the unredeemed, another place, place of the more-or-less, place of coal-fired remorse, place of chained bicycles, place of a few more regrets than you thought you had, place of stale ketchup-flavoured potato chips, punk place, place of the awful and brave, place of stark miracles, place of poorly sutured gunshot wounds, someone else’s place, place of comb-overs, place of flight risks, uncharted place, place of robust decrepitude, place of sweet fritters, unlikely place, place of the remainders, place of special sauce, place of conflicted dreams, place of beatings, place of income splitting, place of diversified wants, place of barren shelves, of selective plenitude, unthinkable place, place of cracking asphalt, place of various plastics, unspeakable or unspoken place, place of adoptive parents, place of hatreds, place of cinched foreign aid, place of disheveled love, of amateur pornography, long-haired place, place of manicured lawns, place of unrepaired elevators, place of cream corn, place of unqualified expertise, place of the quick, this mortal place, place of almost, place of everyone’s worst nightmare but your own, place of loss and profit and loss again, place of bleak water, place of deficits, place of contaminant-free topsoil, place of deadfall, place of stillness, place of thin government, place of rampant loneliness, deplorable unceded place, place of discarded cellophane wrappers, place of careless attraction, place of risk, pride of place, place of cheap stainless steel, place of fallen stars and wheat futures, agnostic place, no better place, place of refuge, place of excluded hearts, place of fraught witness, place of those who can laugh and weep at the same time.

Anthony Davis at the Western Front, 24 March 2016

What a privilege to hear Anthony Davis play two sets of solo piano at the Western Front last night. His performance—a return to Vancouver after thirty years—also marked the release of past – piano – present, an LP anthology of audio recordings from the Western Front’s archive featuring tracks by Anthony Davis, Paul Plimley, Al Neil and John Kameel Farah.

In her sleeve notes, pianist Dana Reason notes how, in his 1985 performance of “Behind the Rock,” Davis’s “ease mobilizing and maximizing the piano . . . suggests a careful study of Duke Ellington’s rich orchestral tradition.” Not that Davis’s playing sounds studied or academic; his aesthetic – his performance style and his method – seems to offer an idiosyncratic mix of (what George Lewis has called) Eurological and Afrological sensibilities, blurring composition and improvisation, chamber music and blues, Olivier Messiaen and James P. Johnson, recital and gig, to generate a vital, kinetic music of layered possibilities. He played two sets lasting almost an hour each. The first set opened with a piece built from variations on cascading intervals, which Davis later identified as fragments from his composition Wayang No. IV. The second piece, which Davis did not identify, spun magisterially through components of what felt like a 32-bar song, unpacking and reassembling melody with a recognizably Ellingtonian grandeur. The third piece was a version of “Ankle and Wrist” from his 1997 opera Amistad; built on shards of a blues motif, the music surged in swathes gathered and propelled by Davis’s powerful sustain pedal, while his strong left hand offered up lines recalling Sir Roland Hannaor Earl Hines. Davis’s touch is fierce and firm, but he also has a keen capacity for tenderness, as the concluding piece of the first set, a gently deconstructed jazz waltz, suggested. 
The second set opened with what he called his “Goddess Variations,” improvisations developed around the “orchestral material” from the aria “They come as if from the heavens (Goddess of the Waters),” also from Amistad. He followed with an extended wordless version of “Five Moods from an English Garden,” a work he described composing when he found himself stranded in Munich – after touring with violinist Leroy Jenkins – sleeping on a studio floor; on a snowy May morning, he said, he walked through the city’s English Gardens – listening to birdcalls – and into an exhibit of Wassily Kandinsky paintings – “moods” – at a gallery there. The composition draws onthese two palettes to create a vivid tone poem. The closing piece from the second set involved a return to Wayang No. IV, extending Davis’s exploration of the material in intense overlaid chords to produce what felt like kinetic densities, a powerfully mobile aural weave.  As an encore for an enthusiastic, deeply engaged audience, Davis played a remarkable meditative version of “Monk’s Mood,” a suitably elegant and resonant conclusion to a brilliant concert.

Noticing and/as Listening in Edgelands and Wool

Here is some text composed for a lecture for my current class on “Denatured Reading.” I’m making a transtition between Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (2011) and Hugh Howey’s novel Wool (2012).
Because of its subject matter and its project, Edgelands is a book its collaborative authors are unable to finish. The last of its seemingly ad hoc jumble of twenty-eight segments—“chapters” feels like too tidy a word for the various unruly trajectories Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts trace through England’s inter-urban spaces—begins by disavowing closure as something fundamentally at odds with these transitional and unfixed terrains: “So where do the edgelands end? How far can the idea take us?” (261). They offer, in place of any conclusion, only another contingent figure, the abandoned and collapsing pier. Humanity marks the limits of its fraught and absurdly enervated dominion over place by extending its spindly architectures off-shore, although, as Roberts and Farley resignedly note, you still can’t tether the tide (262). As a kind of enactment of this futility, they describe the thrill-seeking art of “tombstoning . . . jumping from height into the sea” as a way of testing our human, mortal and English limits:
Piers are among the most inviting of springboards for a jump, but also the most dangerous, as tides can pull the jumper out to sea quickly, or smash them against the iron legs and supports. It’s common for tombstoners to scream as they fall, as if their captive souls have been reintroduced to the wild, albeit only for a second or two, before they hit the water. (263)
Some jumpers, they tell us, “punch themselves in the face, very hard,” a bleakly comedic reminder of the consequences of anthropocentric hubris. The indifference of the inhuman world—uninhabitable all but briefly—manifests itself in the recalcitrant decrepitude and feral reclamation of whatever people try to make or do. Piers represent a last land-bound effort to rationalize and to master the inhuman world and also offer stages on which to enact our temporary, imaginary release from our mortal limits into wild, animal being. The last passage of the book emerges from a description of their visit to the West Pier at Brighton “just months before it suffers a fatal collapse and a series of fires and is closed,” hinting at the fatal finish in burnt-out rubbish—the deferred but inevitable closure—to which all human endeavor in the edgelands seems to come: but that small apocalypse lies in the future, outside the bounds of their writing. Instead, they focus on the gloomy, birdshit spattered remains of the “Laughterland” arcade in the deserted pavilion at the outer end of the pier; connecting the interloping birds, starlings, etymologically with the “sterling” admission prices “still painted on the wall,” they “notice for the first time,” in the book’s last sentence, that the walls had once been painted “a very watery blue, the colour, in fact, of a starling’s egg” (264). Against the lugubrious and moribund image of decaying carcasses (both birds and architecture), they offer an attentive glimpse of oceanic albumen and of these remains as a promise of rebirth, as hybrid human-animal gestation, as egg. The work of noticing that their prose undertakes, even in passing, wants both to describe and to enact—in the verbal textures of their conversation—what I want to think of as an edgelands poetics.
         That work of noticing seems primarily visual throughout the book, but I want to make a case that it’s as much aural as it is ocular, a honed form of listening both to other human voices and to that world’s often incomprehensible soundscape. In “Wire,” they imagine bundles of taken-down chain-link fence as decommissioned memory coils, holding “recordings” of ambient sounds from the past. In “Masts,” they meditate on the “multiple text messages, wireless e-mails and mobile phone calls cutting through” our bodies if we stand anywhere near transmission towers—which have been located in the edgelands as far as possible from “schools and homes” for fear of the dire, mortal effect all that electromagnetic energy can have on us (133). Still, Farley and Roberts nudge us: “Listen to them whisper as they pass through you. Take on the cares of the world.” They seem to want an impossible acuity, a noticing beyond human capacities; but really, what we’re invited to listen for is exactly that—the limits of our attentiveness, of our ability to care and to feel ourselves implicated in these contact zones, these all-too-inhuman spaces. Finally, it turns out, it’s the starlings who come to provide a tenuously viable model for this poetics of listening. In the book’s penultimate section, “Weather,” Farley and Roberts remark on starlings’ ability to be “keen mimics” of whatever they hear: “They’re the samplers among our avifauna, able to incorporate all manner of human, animal and mechanical sounds into their repertoire, and urban starlings are well know copyists of telephones and doorbells, even dial-up modems” (258-9). In their terms, these starling imitations are moments of absurd comedy, audio witness of a feral reabsorption of human technocracy, but they are also instances, they suggest, of the mutating, fractured archive of human presence, an organic version of the chin-link memory coils that still retains vestigial potential to be decoded, heard, observed, noticed:
Starlings have been observed at abandoned human settlements recreating the noises of former human or mechanical activity: a squeaky water-pump, even though the pump is long seized up, or the rasp of a bandsaw, even though the woodshed is long deserted. Could it be that the starlings that gather here sing a song made from bits of the area’s former soundscape? . . . The area has always been a kind of edgelands, but could it be possible that starlings still carry within their complicated songs some of the sound elements of that former industrial world? Thought of this way, the birds themselves are a kind of information storage system, a winged databank. (259)
The watery blue paint on the walls of the West Pier’s pavilion gestures metaphorically and materially at the starling’s re-populating of waste space not only with their own living murmurations but also with the re-created echoes of human habitation. It’s this sort of lyric performative archive that Farley and Roberts want to sound in their sentences, in their verbal desire paths, their lines.
         We’re making a transition today, according to the syllabus, from reading Edgelandsto Hugh Howey’s speculative fiction in Wool. While we’re shifting genres and, arguably, prose styles as we move from one book to the other, I want to note in Howey’s opening story a few key connections and articulated joints, chiefly around this poetics of noticing. The world of the silo—or of the siloes, as we’ll find out—juxtaposes a panopticon-like architecture (recall Farley and Roberts’s repeated invocations of panoptic surveillance) that governs and sustains human survival by maintaining clear boundaries between the technologically managed interior of the human space and the poisoned and deadly world of the post-natural outside; the hill we glimpse in the images of the exterior world—through illusions of transparent windows that are actually faulty projections made by data projectors on opaque, curved subterranean walls—marks the physiographic mortal limit of human life, as far as those who have been sent out to clean the lenses of the electronic cameras can possibly walk before their bodies give out. Those boundaries are marked by not only by technological illusion—and everyone in the silo appears to recognize that, while presumably accurate depictions of the outer world, those images are also artificial and contrived, signaled by the wear and breakdown of the image into “dead pixels” here and there—but also false consciousness:
a handful of dead pixels . . . stood stark white against all the brown and gray hues. Shining with ferocious intensity, each pixel . . . was like a square window to some brighter place, a hole the width of a human hair that seemed to beckon toward some better reality. (9)
Sherriff Holston’s wife Allison, digging into corrupted, overwritten, archaic and deleted electronic databases, thinks she has uncovered a conspiracy, on the part of the silo’s IT directorate, to manipulate those images (“Nothing you see is real” [26]), and both she and Holston come to believe they understand why those exiled to their deaths through the silo airlock turn back to clean the lenses—because they want the others to see the outside world as they are certain they now see it: cartoonishly pastoral, a world of natural beauty kept hidden from the silo’s inhabitants in order to keep them inside, their bodies docile, law-abiding and well-governed. This is, of course, a fatal mistake—the visuals of a perfect spring landscape are projected on their helmets’ viewscreens to trick them into cleaning, to fool them into walking out of their own volition. The edge or verge into which they walk is a virtual landscape, an overlay of visual membrane masking the decimation of outlying space – think of their proximity to and distance from the destroyed city on the horizon—with an illusion of manicured garden, a space in which nature never did betray the heart that loved her. Once that membrane—screen or suit—becomes porous or breached, the realization that the planet has become an inherently inhuman twilight zone dawns on Holston as a question both of seeing and being seen: “What would they see, anyone who had chosen to watch?” (39). Reality and illusion collapse into each other. “Holston could see,” but what he sees is exactly what he thought he didn’t.

         Notably, too, what initiates this collapse—which is both a realization or groundtruthing and a reinscription of false consciousness—is a speech-act and a moment of public listening. In this world, you break the law and condemn yourself by asking, publically, to go outside: “I want to go out” (23). This demand is both perlocution and illocution, a command that enacts, as it’s pronounced, its own sentencing. When Allison speaks the fatal words, Holston tries to quiet her, but also knows “it was too late. The others had heard. Everyone had heard. His wife had signed her own death certificate” (24). Noticing, in this space, offers only a warrant for execution. But, as the four posthumous sequels emerge from each other as the novel unfolds, we discover that moments of noticing—hearing voices from the other siloes, decoding messages, understanding what the fragment of computer code Allison uncovered actually does mean—are also key to the unveiling and debunking of the coercive governance of siloed humanity, a vital disillusionment that, unfortunately, both Allison and Holston don’t have enough information to comprehend or to challenge. What their speech-acts do accomplish, however, is to open a crack, to prize apart the fatal flaw in their worn, decrepit hegemony. They begin to make the instability audible, like the small skew we’ll hear in Juliette’s well-oiled and carefully-repaired generator.

Notes Toward a Practice of Denatured Reading

[I presented this text as part of a lecture in the first week of my upper-level undergraduate course on “Denatured Reading,” taking a cue from – among many others – Graham Harman’s claim that “[n]ature is not natural and can never be naturalized.” What kind of writing do such claims ask for?]
I’m looking for a way to frame a set of concerns for this class, to trace some kind of conceptual architecture. By beginning with what must seem like arbitrarily compiling a handful of poems—some from writers on the course syllabus, some not—I haven’t made it too easy to see anything like a focus, and the syllabus itself, revised from an earlier version of the course, still appears to me a bit cobbled and unkempt—heterotopic, perhaps, to borrow a term from the introduction to Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, an idea he develops from reading Jorge Luis Borges. Maybe this amorphousness, this assemblage, is appropriate to the course, too, given the unruliness of the subject matter—the decomposition of contemporary concepts of the natural—and its attendant image-pool—flotsam, junkyards, scrapheaps, wastelands, yardsales, edgelands, cyborgs, plastics, stuff. But I still feel like I need to offer you, and myself, some means of holding the material together, some imperative that drives me, and you along with me, through this slice of the contemporary, of the work of those who  live with us, now. I need, I think, to pose a question—and what comes to mind is a question posed a good seventy years ago, but which has a way of lingering, of insinuating itself into our present.
Ventriloquizing a key half-line from Friedrich Hölderlin’s 1801 elegyBrod und Wein,” a disgraced Martin Heidegger asks, in 1946, “und wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?”—”and what are poets for in a destitute time?” or “and why poets in [a] paltry time?” Following on the material and cultural desolation of Western Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, Heidegger inclines toward a version of the religiosity of the late and last Romantics, linking Hölderlin to Rainer Maria Rilke’s orphic vestiges, to discover some remainder of a saving grace for humanity, some reason for our collective persistence as a species, some scrap of holiness:
To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. This is why the poet in the time of the world’s night utters the holy.
Theodor Adorno notoriously excoriates this poetical onto-theology as barbaric, consigning the lyric—except, perhaps, that it makes room in these latter days for the voices of suffering—to bathos and redaction. Even if we remain justly suspicious of Heidegger’s cult of Being, it feels too desolate, too hopeless, to abandon altogether the poetic imperative he articulates. At least, it does to me. How can writing, poetic or otherwise, still manage somehow to face the hard fact of our looming destitution, the tenor of our catastrophic times, what Maurice Blanchot names our “disaster”? “We others,” Heidegger continues, by which he seems to me to mean we readers, “must learn to listen to what these poets say.” Poetry, in our time, emerges around the recalibration of attention. We have missed hearing something, have been less than perfect listeners, poor students. Hölderlin’s poetry, though a bit dire and over-serious, presents an imperative to attend to what persists and insists beyond its human limits: “But there would be, and there is, the sole necessity, by thinking our way soberly into what his poetry says, to come to learn what is unspoken.” Poetry, in fits and starts, still gestures sometimes toward a refiguration of the encounter with the non-human world, the obscurity into which those fugitive gods appear to have retreated, and is still impelled by creative effort. Hölderlin’s adjective dürftiger—needy, meager, scanty, sparse, paltry, destitute—has at its root the verb dürfen—can or may—which suggests both capacity and possibility, a trace of this ontological imperative. When I quoted, a little abruptly last class, a line from Isabelle Stengers’s In Catastrophic Times remarking on “the felt necessity of trying to listen to that which insists, obscurely,” it was with an eye (and an ear) toward framing this poetic imperative. Following James Lovelock, Stengers names “that which insists” Gaia, the inhuman earth, and argues that if we mean to resist barbarism (deriving for her more from Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of capitalism than from Adorno), we need to try—notice how qualified her imperative remains—to think creatively and experimentally, and I would say poetically around and with this imperative. Pervasive anxieties these days around climate change, displaced populations, pharmacology, genomic modification and other environmental and biological incursions of human progress have become shared hallmarks of our human condition. Biotechnologies both reactivate and intensify an unease around what feels like an unspoken and unspeakable ontological threat. What poetry, what creative writing, might be for in our times is to broach the question of how to voice what’s unspeakable, to begin, again, to trace the boundaries, the contact zones, the edges, the membranes between humanity and its others, between the made and the given, between the natural and the denatured.
The philosopher Alain Badiou declared in a fairly recent interview that “[i]t must be clearly affirmed that humanity is an animal species that attempts to overcome its animality, a natural set that attempts to denaturalise itself.” Badiou is not only reframing an enlightenment rationalism embedded in myths of human progress—what remains to us today, maybe, of liberal humanism—but also pointing up an irony inherent in deep ecology and human concern with the environment: an untenable separation of the human and the non-human in the guise of the “natural.”  Just yesterday, an article in The Guardian reiterated that human technologies have fundamentally altered the geological record, that we have inscribed ourselves into the planet such that we have ashifted the narrative of the history of being itself, and hardly for the better. The anthropocene has arrived. “The history of life on earth,” Rachel Carson writes in Silent Spring (1962), “has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings,” but those interactions, particularly from the human side of things, have been characterized not so much by reciprocity as by “irrecoverable” contamination. The three poets we have touched on so far address this contamination, directly. Tom Raworth’s “Beautiful Habit” concatenates the fragmented discursive remainders of those contaminants, and attempts to siphon some form of last-ditch, vestigial beauty from them, the leftover possibility of close listening: “it’s us / or rust / listener.” Paul Farley, by contrast, calls the creative intellect’s bluff, shuffling through the greasy, porous surfaces of man-made objects—a deck of cards, a microwave—trying to make contact with the nothingness—the withdrawn guarantees of meaning or of surety—behind his own crafted and crafty words, his tells and his tellings. Kathleen Jamie wants to attend to the “seed-small notes” along a remote shoreline scattered with natural detritus, to begin to listen to what’s left to her brief attention.  

Ches Smith, Mat Maneri, Craig Taborn: The Bell at the Western Front

Last night at the Western Front, Ches Smith’s trio (with him on drum kit and vibraphone, Mat Maneri on electrified viola, and Craig Taborn on piano) offered two sets of provocative, engrossing and powerful music drawn from The Bell, their recent album issued by ECM. Each set consisted of extended suites of Smith’s compositions; his writing practice sounds to me typically to involve a logic of serial disjunction, assembling each piece from layered rhythmic and melodic cells—emerging in the recording as fractal loops, insistent frittered ostinato, reminiscent at times of Steve Reich’s music for percussion—conjoined in distinct, contrasting sections. In performance, those assemblages—close to coruscating, unfixed fragments of wordless art songs—link up, often with turn-on-a-dime jump cuts, to produce a compelling admixture of meditative resonance and hard-driving, impactful disturbance. The music feels both openly improvisational and exactingly through-composed, as it moves from the intimate lyricism of chamber-jazz to—I’m not exaggerating—bone-shaking heavy-metal thrash. The first set emerged as a single suite, gradually ramping, like “I Think” and “Wacken Open Air” do on the recording, toward a propulsive, drum-driven wall of sound; the recording itself is quieter, with the drums mixed down a little, while in performance Ches Smith will build a thunderous and gleeful abandon. (I don’t know which compositions were played in which set, although I think they began with “The Bell”; they may have played extended version of the album tracks in order, since the second set—which featured two more compact suites instead of one—closed with “For Days,” the final cut on the recording.) Craig Taborn’s lines concentrated principally on repeated motifs, either locked chords or looped shards of melody, but he also provided an insistence, a fierceness, that introduced a provocative and—if this is the right word—actively contemplative energy into the potential stasis or fixity in such unwavering recurrence to push the sound forward. Gilles Deleuze names a philosophical version of this practice, simply, the imagination: “The role of the imagination, or the mind which contemplates in its multiple and fragmented states, is to draw something new from repetition, to draw difference from it. . . .  Between a repetition which never ceases to unravel itself and a repetition which was deployed and conserved for us in the space of repetition, there was difference, . . . the imaginary. Difference inhabits repetition” (Difference and Repetition 76). Mat Maneri’s contributions on viola either established electronically-enhanced bass drones, or, more frequently, negotiated the interstices of upper-register tonality, pulling at the spaces between notes, microtonally fraying and re-stitching phrases. All told, it was a truly powerful gig, the trio collectively laying down a spate of compelling trajectories through variegated tensions and multiplicities: overlapping lines that attend on, that sound, I’d say, the “barely intervallic” collisions and differences inherent in present-tense collaboration, to grant an audience moments of shared, unsettled, and imaginatively rich listening.
Book
Gilles Deleuze. Difference and Repetition. 1968.
Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia UP,
1994. Print.

Unmade Remarks on Innovation (Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, Samuel Beckett, C. D. Wright, Tanya Tagaq)

I was invited to take part in the closing panel of the UBC Arts Undergraduate Society’s student conference on “Innovation.” The members of the panel were asked to discuss ways in which academic faculty could foster innovation in student research, but I seem to have missed the memo, and so I prepared a set of remarks offering a critique of the concept of innovation. I realized my mistake about five minutes before I was scheduled to speak, so I ended up improvising some comments—using bits and pieces from what I had written—on the poetics of “study” (gesturing a little at Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s work on the undercommons) and on research as question and risk rather than innovative production: that it might be better to think of ourselves as students rather than experts. I also felt that I had pitched my remarks all wrong, and that it would be better to talk with this audience than read out my prose. Still, I like what I wrote; I used this moment to start thinking about Tanya Tagaq’s music, a critical project I have been meaning to set in motion for some time. Here is the composed undelivered text I’d prepared.
Innovation Without Innovation
Kevin McNeilly, University of British Columbia
Unmade Remarks at the AUS Humanities Conference
Saturday, 16 January 2016
I want to make a few remarks to frame and to critique the ideological loading of the concept of innovation. I’m resisting the un-interrogated praise of making things new—the allure of novelty—and at the same time trying to suggest a relationship to time, a going forward (or perhaps better, outward) that can be sounded as a crucial potential in particular forms of lyric, in poetic language that W. H. Auden famously imagines as “a way of happening, a mouth.”
Approaching the end of writing The Order of Things(1966/1970), Michel Foucault admits that he discovers himself “on the threshold of a modernity that we have”—that he has—”not yet left behind” (xxiv). This unqualified “we” is epochal, its episteme described asymptotically by the reflexive acknowledgement not only of the limits of his own language, but also of a cultural latecomer’s language as such: “the question of the being of language,” as he puts it, is “intimately linked with the fundamental problems of our culture” (382). (I’m poaching and re-appropriating material, if not the argument, from John Rajchman’s 1983 essay “Foucault, or the Ends of Modernism” [50].)  The shared cult of Bildung—linked to myths of progress, of newness, of innovation, of transcendence, of what the philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers refers to as the “epic” of our time—presently and lately, as it touches the expressive limits of its own futurity, its forward motion, can only cannibalize and repurpose itself in the guise of renewal, a mortal remix that tends to pass off an eviscerated avant garde for material discovery.
Foucault must be thinking of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, pictured in the ninth of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”:
A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
So-called progress names a cultural if not an ontological imperative as a species of dire pharmakon: remedy as ruin, betterment as destruction. In the opening paragraphs of one of his last texts, Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett articulates this imperative as driving whatever remains of self-expression in our time, the need to “go on,” and to go on saying, despite exhaustion, despite the obvious futility and emptiness of the new, despite the asymptotic approach of his language to its absolute expressive limits, its nohow: “On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.” The work’s title parodies Charles Kingsley’s 1855 novel Westward Ho!, an extended romance of colonial expansion, masculine industry and liberal self-reliance. More recently, Beckett’s lines have often been  misappropriated and repurposed as a kind of global capitalist mantra, a call to technological and corporate innovation. As readers, and fellow latecomers, we need to be more rigorous and careful about what Beckett articulates here.
Beckett’s language sloughs off the trappings of Western progress for an acknowledgement of cultural and epistemic decrepitude: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Speech deteriorates into fragmented clichés and bathetic puns; pushed to its verbal limits, the romance of expressive imperatives can only cannibalize itself. What passes for innovation or renewal reduces to tautology: “Imagination dead imagine.” For me, this fraught word-circuit allegorizes the broken teleology of the human project, its attenuated failure, a diagnosis that seems increasingly self-evident in our era of climate change, endocapitalism, exhaustive consumption, viral technocracy, global insecurity, displaced populations and supersaturated media. The imperative to innovate, however, persists as a resilient remainder, or “stirrings still” as Beckett’s last text puts it. Acknowledging the vestiges of this imaginative prod that might stir us on is one of the cultural functions of lyric, still, today. Confronted with its own extinction, Beckett’s language nonetheless enacts a thetic rhythm, a halting but persistent step beyond itself.
The American poet C. D. Wright, who died earlier this week, suggests in One with Others (2010) a comparable cultural function for poetry in our fraught, self-destructive era of “progress”: “It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free, and declare them so.” Wright’s declaration may sound as if she wants to recuperate naïve confession, potentially masking wreckage in aspirational nostalgia. That’s certainly a danger in advocating for poetry in an age when lyric language becomes increasingly corny, recycled and fatigued. Better understood, Wright advocates for a fracturing of interiority, a form of innovation, a freeing that doesn’t so much foster the cult of expressive genius as open intimacy onto an alterity, an outside, that refuses merely to cannibalize its own ruins.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Tanya Tagaq’s 2014 album Animism culls a lyric intensity, an embodied affective immediacy, by splicing and looping an extemporaneous, situated circular breathing derived from Inuit throat-singing back onto itself, supported by her core improvising trio with Jesse Zubot and Jean Martin, and others. Confronting the porous boundaries between the human and the animal, the corporeal and the machinic, the given and the made, the recording troubles the edges of signification, and generates its eros by turning those zones of encounter inside out. Each nascent “song” offers a kind of post-natural ecology. It innovates not by being new but by freeing up, by crossing lines, and by making vocal music from the come-and-go of those transgressive stirrings. Her/their music surges up, finds its pulse, in sustained and audible risk. There is much to say, and to say on, about this recording, but I’ll finish my own set of re-purposed texts by briefly noting how Tagaq and group re-purpose and renew—innovate through—The Pixies’s “Caribou.” A parody, perhaps, of ethnomusicological collecting, the CD opens by concocting a form of techno-shamanism with a cover not of Inuit folksong but of American post-punk, inverting salvage anthropology into a call for, if not a performance of, primordial agency—deft ululation, yes, but also voicing an acute cultural politics through expansive virtuosity, decolonizing the ear: “Give dirt to me / I bite lament / This human form / Where I was born / I now repent.” In an interview in NME Black Francis apparently disclosed that “maybe even the singer of the song is reincarnated as a caribou.” In Tanya Tagaq’s version, animistic metempsychosis emerges from speech act—thematized as repentance in the lyrics—toward verbal becoming, the self—its human form—transubstantiated through unfolding textures of voice: anthropomorphic debris reanimated, said on, sung on.

Talk for Harry Potter, Brands of Magic

Here is the text of the seven-minute talk I gave as one of five panelists at the Harry Potter, Brands of Magic colloquium at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia on October 29, 2015.
I first taught Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stonehere at UBC in the winter term of 2002, in a course, not on children’s literature, but on cultural theory, as a sort of case study around the impacts and interpretation of popular media. With the publication of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2000, and the release of the first Harry Potter film in November, 2001, the publishing industry phenomenon arguably passed its tipping point, and Harry Potter became a name – and a literary brand – that garnered global recognition in the media. In the opening chapter of the first book, as the infant Harry is being delivered to Privet Drive (you all know the story), the wizard Albus Dumbledore tells his colleague at Hogwarts, Professor McGonagall, that he has written a letter to the Dursleys that will enable them “to explain everything to him when he’s older.” “Really Dumbledore,” Professor McGonagall replies,
“You think you can explain all this in a letter? These people will never understand him! He’ll be famous – a legend – I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in future – there will be books written about Harry – every child in our world will know his name!” (15)
I can’t help but hear this passage as J. K. Rowling articulating a playful fantasy of literary success, as she sits unknown and unpublished scribbling in a notebook in The Elephant House tea shop in Edinburgh in the mid-1990s. This passage not only proves to be strangely and accurately prophetic, but it also sets up what I take to be the core quandary of the whole series of books “written about Harry”: how to understand him, how to read “Harry Potter.” That problem of knowing is positioned initially here as a dichotomy, a choice between worlds: magical or Muggle, Hogwarts or Privet Drive. But we have to recognize that, unpleasant as the Dursleys are, Professor McGonagall is also off the mark herself: Harry doesn’t so much choose as negotiate or mediate between those two poles. He enables us, if you think about it, to read our way between the everyday and the fantastical. Harry both enacts and embodies a specific set of reading practices, a literacy; knowing his name means working to acquire that competence, that mobility, that literacy.

         In the three or so minutes that remain, I’m going to sketch out three key aspects of that literacy, of what the Harry Potter literary brand represents. Those three aspects of reading – you might call them diagonals through this book, mediating between magical and Muggle being – are the material, the heuristic and the haptic.
[The Material]
         When the Dursleys try to escape the onslaught of Hogwarts admission letters addressed to Harry, they end up in “the most miserable little shack you could imagine,” on what Rowling describes as “a large rock way out to sea” (37). Significantly, both Dudley and his father are certain that, whatever else, “there was no television in there.” Hagrid, as you all know, still hand-delivers the letter to Harry amid flashes of lightening – echoes, perhaps, of the scar on Harry’s forehead. Manuscript, signed text inscribed on paper, is consistently counterpoised to electronic media, especially television. (There is no TV at Hogwarts. Mass media, complete with moving images, is displaced into the wizarding newspaper The Daily Prophet, an assemblage of stories, gossip and propaganda that requires reading rather than viewing.) Magic, especially spells, appear to require a return to the material object of the page, the book. And in 2001, too, despite its commercial refiguring in Hollywood movies, “Harry Potter” seemed to represented a resurgence of reading and of book-buying, an antidote to screen and network. Books, as circulating and consumed objects, stood for a particular intimate reactivation of the readerly imagination.

[The Heuristic]
         That reactivation is also figured in the books themselves as heuristic: Harry, Hermione and Ron solve problems by learning to be engaged readers. They decode text (as with the mirror of Erised, for example), text we’re meant, arguably, to decode along with them. We’re invited, you could say, to solve the books. But it’s worth noting that Rowling doesn’t offer up singular solutions, or “correct” answers. She doesn’t keep silent because, following Professor McGonagall, that readers can’t understand, can’t cross into the hermetic realm of magical privilege. Rather, it’s because the process of puzzling out what Harry means to discover is pluralistic and divergent. You might recall the Hogwarts school song, which declares that we will “learn until our brains all rot,” is not choral so much as “bellowed” cacophony, with everyone picking their own favourite tune: an enactment of differential community, a solution that won’t resolve or homogenize.

[The Haptic]

Harry Potter doesn’t so much refuse electronic media as reinsert a haptic interface, through the material technology of the book, into the various circuits of public consumption. Books are tactile; they have to be handled, touched, their pages turned. The demise of Quirrell (and the name suggests, aside from quarrelsomeness, a quire, a fold of pages within a book) has to do with his incapacity to read Harry, to interpret what Harry embodies or even to see the mark of Harry’s mother’s love on his skin. That mark, as Dumbledore tells us, is “not a scar” and leaves “no visible sign” (216). The haptic feedback – the touch – that proves to be “agony” for Voldemort and Quirrell isn’t something that we, as readers, need fear – we’re protected, in a sense, by the opaque surface, the skin, of the pages before us. But it functions, nonetheless, as a form of transmission, an ionizing, organic ether, that the lightning-bolt scar on Harry’s forehead metonymically displaces and displays. The transformative power of that touch, the shift from the distracted reception of screened images to the proactive thoughtful connection to a living world, is what reading Harry Potter might just be about.

Elegy for Aylan Kurdi, Galip Kurdi, Rehan Kurdi (poem)

2 September 2015
Most of us saw those photographs.
Washed up small sneakers first, face down
in the blunt sand, forehead lapped
by the torpid, receding surf,
a drowned three-year-old slumps against
the gritty diminishing edge
of one flotsam-caked Turkish beach,
one among others. Waterlogged,
red t-shirt and blue shorts cling
to his numb frame. Officially
compassionate, a policeman
puts on a pair of latex gloves
and grimly lifts the child’s slack form
away. Somewhere along the strand,
his drowned mother and brother wait
their turns. There can be no refuge,
no coming home, no going back
for them now that a capsized world
sees fit to care. Who can gather
their overwhelming remainder
into our staid human embrace?

Edgy Listening: Evan Parker and Jean-Luc Nancy

[This is the draft text of a paper I am set to present at the 2015 Guelph Jazz Festival Colloquium, on Wednesday, September 16.]

The collective trajectory of this year’s colloquium links practicing various forms of improvisation to nurturing various forms of intersubjective well-being. By attending—carefully, critically and briefly—to solo and to collaborative electro-acoustic performances by the British saxophonist Evan Parker, I want to gesture at the nascent work of remediation that Lisbeth Lipari has recently called “an ethics of attunement,” a close listening that cultivates compassionate alterity within an attentive body: an akroasis—an audition, an audience—that provides a resonant and differential basis for the possibility of what Jean-Luc Nancy has provocatively named an “inoperative community,” a version for me of what Alphonso Lingis calls The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common, of our conflicted and diverse human species. Nancy’s philosophical interrogation of listening to music (as “the art of the hope for resonance”) offers contingent conceptual support with which it’s possible to assess the sensibly vibrant sounding of interstices, both between and within each human frame, that constitutes Evan Parker’s improvising. 
         Claims about well-being and health tend to presuppose an uninterrogated sense of what constitutes a proper, well-ordered body. Rather than extend a critique of what Michel Foucault might have called the “care of self” and its biopolitics, I am going to premise my remarks on improvisation and well-being by assuming that corporeality may also be understood as porous and conflicted instead of individuated, discrete or holistic, and that this porosity is a founding condition both of co-creativity and of lived community. Reworking a Deleuzean pluralism, Annemarie Mol writes of a medical practice that addresses and heals the “body multiple,” which she presents as an “intricately coordinated crowd” that “hangs together” through “various forms of coordination” (55). Following on Maurice Merleau-Ponty, David Abram describes “the boundaries of a living body” as “open and indeterminate; more like membranes than barriers, they define a surface of metamorphosis and exchange” (42). I’m interested in pursuing with some rigour those “forms of coordination”—or the textures of that porosity—at the level of acoustic experience, as a humane and ethically preferable set of cultural interactions.
         Lisbeth Lipari proposes “interlistening” as a term for “the multiple dimensions of embodied consciousness that vibrate in the dance of conversation between [among?] people talking” (161). Her aim is to delineate discursive practices that listen otherwise, that attend to the presence of others, even as they enable speech.
Listening otherwise,” she writes,
challenges the ego and the illusion of control and sees how the distortions that arise from our insistence on innocence, certainty, and understanding damage our capacity for compassion. . . . [L]istening otherwise . . . suspends the willfulness of self- and foreknowledge in order to receive the singularities of the alterity of the other” (Lipari 185, 186).
Heavily influenced by Emmanuel Levinas, Lipari also models her auditory ethics on the music theory of Hans Kayser, whose concept of akroasis(the Ancient Greek word for “hearing”) articulates a “theory of world harmonics” as a holistic gestalt-series rooted in Pythagorean acoustics (Lipari 27). Kayser appears to mitigate dissonances in attunement, and prefiguresby several decades R. Murray Schafer’s disciplined “ear-cleaning” of European music . I’m less sanguine about what I know of Kayser, however; without refusing the hopeful tenor of his thinking, I worry that he only re-instates a cult of primeval innocence, a re-tooled Ptolemaic naïveté. It helps me, instead, partially to recover the etymology of akroasis, which occurs in Aristotle as a term for audience and hearing: notably, not in The Poetics nor in the sections of his Politics focused on music, but in his Rhetoric. The ἀκροατής (akroates), frequently translated as “hearer,” is actively implicated in discursive exchange: “Now the hearer (akroatēn) must necessarily be either a mere spectator or a judge (kritēs), and a judge either of things past or of things to come.” That is, listening—at least, to speech—is inherently active and deliberative, and those deliberations, within a polytemporal reciprocity, include critical intellection. Akroatic listening, close listening as thinking, becomes more agonistic than syncretic, more unsettling than epideictic. (Compare George Lewis: “In its marginalization, its often-unseen, intangible presence, which generates new discourses, in its mobility and facility with hybridization, and in its locus, the contestatory space where difference can [be] and is enacted, improvisation’s general importance to the underlying health of the musical ecosphere and the public commons must be recognized, valued and protected [138].”)
         In a 2014 interview, Sonny Rollins repudiates any sort of reflexive intellection as disruptive to improvising, invoking the demanding temporality of playing: “I don’t want to overtly think about anything, because you can’t think and play at the same time — believe me, I’ve tried it (laughs). It goes by too fast.” 
http://www.npr.org/player/embed/309047616/309304660Rollins appears to be suggesting that, when you listen to yourself as you play, you lose your through-line, lose the formal sense of your music. But his point, I think, isn’t to romanticize or mystify his artistry—he focuses on his lapses, not his genius—but to assess the cognitive velocity at which that agon, that deliberation, can even occur. What Lipari calls compassionate openness wants to happen not as immediacy but on the fleeting lip of the present, closer to reflex than reflexive. Jean-Luc Nancy refers to “sonorous time” as “a present in waves on a swell, not in a point on a line; it is a time that opens up, that is hollowed out, that is enlarged or ramified, that envelops or separates, that becomes or is turned into a loop, that stretches out or contracts, and so on” (13). The challenge, the risk posed by such a hysteresis, is not merely the neglect of what is other—and this is perhaps why thinking about solo music, about the improvised solo, helps us to re-conceptualize otherness as such, not as a condition of the co-presence of individuals but even as a porosity of self, of voice—but also an issue of technique, of the virtuosic coordination of enharmonic singularities as they pass in and out of our membranous bodies. Listening, writes Nancy, “—the opening stretched toward the register of the sonorous, then to its musical amplification and composition—can and must appear to us not as a metaphor for access to self, but as the reality of this access, a reality consequently indissociably ‘mine’ and ‘other’ . . .” (12).
         I want to read Evan Parker’s solo saxophone technique as a crucial instance of this intensely vacillating subjectivity (if that’s the right term for a solo voice), of the surging disavowal of self sounding itself. Here is an excerpt of the solo music, recorded without overdubbing, from his 1989 album Conic Sections:

Writing in the early 1990s, John Corbett describes Evan Parker’s seemingly linear, monophonic instrument as more of an “assemblage” of body—“[f]ingers, mouth, tongue, teeth, lungs”—and horn—reed, ligature, keys, pads, bell—“constellated in such a way as to break the seeming unity of melodic expression” (82). But in Evan Parker’s solo playing, both live and on recordings, those fractures are not ends in themselves, and rather initiate—as what Lipari describes as “challenges” to passive listening—the possibility of tonal and linear multiplication, of what the reedist calls, with measured self-deprecation, a form of “polyphony”: “There’s a more complex sense of linearity,” he says, “to the point where the line folds back on itself and assumes some of the proportions of vertical music, and some of the characteristics of polyphonic music” (qtd. In Corbett 83). Combining circular breathing, cross-fingering, tonguing and biting the reed, Evan Parker is able to generate layers of overtones and nearly-simultaneous contrapuntal arpeggios at high velocity, effectively producing a continuum of cascading choruses from a single breath. But while Corbett is keen to endorse Evan Parker’s virtuosity and instrumental mastery, he also notes, as the saxophonist himself does, how accident and uncertainty find their way inevitably into any performance, subverting claims to absolute technique or intention and undermining the “notion of the unitary, intending subject”—that is, of self-expression—in improvisation. As Evan Parker puts it succinctly in a 1997 interview with Martin Davidson,  “It’s to do with layering stuff that I don’t know on top of stuff that I do know.” Here, I think, is exactly the looping of self and other, of expressive intention and unruly, noisy sound, that Jean-Luc Nancy describes as listening. Evan Parker’s descriptions of his improvisatory practice align remarkably closely with Nancy’s philosophical investigations of listening:
It’s clear to me that if you can imagine something, you can find a technical way to do it, but if you can’t imagine it, whether or not there is a technical solution never occurs to you because there’s no need to. So it’s very necessary to listen closely to what happens when you try to do things, because usually at the fringes of what you’re producing is something that you’re not really in control of – that there is a central thing that you are fully in control of, and then a kind of halo of suggested other possibilities which have to come with the central thing that you’re in control of, whether it’s a wisp of breath escaping from the side of the embouchure, or an overtone that you could push harder, or some key noise which you can’t escape. There’s always something there, and if you’re listening at the fringes of the sound as well as at the centre of the sound, then you can be led to other things and other possibilities.
The collision of self-possessed declamation and open-eared deliberation in what he calls “trying”—and what I’d suggest in fact takes the form of a musical essay—points up the irresolute multiplicity at the edges of extemporaneous sound, its tensile present tense.

https://player.vimeo.com/video/83893846
Roulette TV: EVAN PARKER from Roulette Intermedium on Vimeo.


         Gently pushing back at Sonny Rollins, I hear Evan Parker—playing at velocity, going by too fast—as negotiating between an organic immediacy and an akroatic self-scrutiny, as both listening to himself and not in the same breath. Corbett calls this tensioning a form of “research” (85), a science or an intellection, and I’m inclined to agree: this music is, it’s my contention, one instance of practice-based research into the possibility of inoperative community. So, to think about community, and to close my remarks today, I want to listen to a recording of a recent performance of Evan Parker’s electro-acoustic septet at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle in Victoriaville in May, 2014. Evan Parker supplies a typically ironic sleeve note: “My art of composition consists in choosing the right people and asking them to improvise.” He playfully refuses the “rampant egomania” both of the improvising soloist and of the composer, preferring an unregimented collectivity. At the same time, the consistent spatial arrangement of the septet onstage—which can be seen both in the inner sleeve of the VICTO cd and in the video taken of a performance at Roulette in New York City, positions Evan Parker at the centre and apex of the group, facing out like the others but occupying the conductor-leader’s chair. There’s much to note about this music, but I want to make just a few points. The three laptops to Evan Parker’s left are able both to sample and re-figure the live improvisations and to contribute other electronic sound textures—this is the key concept of most of Parker’s electro-acoustic groups—which means that the instrumentalist is displaced across the ensemble. On the Victoriaville recording, Evan Parker doesn’t initiate the performance, and—if my ears are right—doesn’t even enter as an contributing voice until the six-minute mark: not through diffidence or even deferral, necessarily, but as an audible disavowal—silence amid sound—of egocentric voicing: he starts by listening rather than playing. A version of his own solo practice emerges into the swirling sonic layers of the ensemble around eighteen minutes into the performance, combining both self-parody—inserting his long-established unaccompanied voice into the group dynamic, which both pushes the tutti back, but also opens up a series of interstices into which other voices might enter. As a model of community, what the group manages around this moment of solo horn is what Jean-Luc Nancy calls “a mutual interpellation od singularities prior to any address in language,” a corporeally-based multiplicitous nudging that, despite the reflective stillness of many of the players onstage – particularly the three at their laptops, who enact the reflexive, deliberative aspect of the music, as opposed to the apparent organicism of the improvisers to his right: the point, for me, is the co-creation of a virtual in-coherence, a playing apart together that inheres in the shared differences among the ensemble members, the byplay between egocentric voice and a yielding to the voices of others. Community, Nancy writes, is not the panacea of delusive  “communion . . . nor even a communication as this is understood to exist between subjects. But these singular beings are themselves constituted by sharing, they are distributed and placed, or rather spaced, by the sharing that makes them others” (IC 25). Well-being, as listening otherwise, means neither self-satisfied holism nor ludic conflict, but a sharing that nurtures our mutual unknowing.
Works Cited
Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and
Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York:
Vintage, 1997.
Corbett, John. Extended Play: Sounding Off from John
Cage to Dr. Funkenstein. Durham: Duke UP, 1994.
Lipari, Lisbeth. Listening, Thinking, Being: Toward an
Ethics of Attunement. University Park: Pennsylvania
State UP, 2014.
Mol, Annemarie. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical
Practice. Durham: Duke UP, 2002.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. Listening. 2002. Tr. Charlotte Mandel.
New York: Fordham UP, 2007.
———. The Inoperative Community. Tr. Peter Connor.

       Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991.

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