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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.  

Keith Jarrett, Yard Sales and the Commodification of Genius, Part One

In the next handful of posts, I’m going to parcel out some revisions of a sixty-odd-page draft of what remains of a chapter for a book (once called Earmarked) that was never to be, maybe never meant to be. The chapter, which I called “Keith Jarrett, Yard Sales, and the Commodification of Genius” was occasioned by me finding (about ten years ago now, maybe longer) a fairly pristine LP copy of Keith Jarrett’s famous and well-circulated Köln Concert album at a yard sale in Vancouver, and also by a brief and really unremarkable exchange I had with the seller over the right price. The chapter was intended as a recuperation of a Marx-influenced formalist materialism, close to the sort practiced by Theodor Adorno about forty years earlier; as an implicit plea for the necessity, in our own time, of a kind of critical archaism, a deliberately out-of-step temporality; and as an interrogation of the figure of the postmodern genius, or of the virtuosity of the extemporaneous thinker. How does improvisation either resist or accede to becoming cultural capital? Is its cultural capital, in fact, inscribed or encoded into the work of resistance?
I’ll start with two quotations, to set the project up, the first from music critic John Corbett:
One of the things I like most about LPs is the way they absorb history. By that I don’t mean the history of the music, but also the history of each record as an object; records are repositories of music’s material culture. CDs seem less historically palpable than LPs. Collectible CDs? Maybe, but not for me.
And the other from Karl Marx, the eleventh of his theses on Feuerbach:
Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt darauf an, sie zu verändern. (Or, something like, “Philosophers have merely and variously interpreted the world; the point is to change it.”)
Despite my hopes at academic relevance, it seemed quaint to me then and its seems quaint now to begin with such a citation from the “Theses on Feuerbach,” particularly this one, the eleventh, which has been flogged like a dead horse at the crossroads of interpretation and action, of what thinkers do and what they think they ought to. To me, now, it sounds more like an excuse than an imperative, a means of translating the feint of engagement in critical and academic writing into something that really matters, that changes the world. Marxism now, however various and unruly it might be, however impossible to frame as a coherent movement, has also come to appear dated at best: notions of socialism and social reform, class consciousness, commodification and exchange, property and value, have shifted so drastically in the last century, many to the point of conceptual dissolution, especially in the rather privileged Western European sphere. With multifarious levels of access to and exclusion from investment (everything from bank accounts to mutual funds), the blurring of ethnic and national identities, the suffusion of global capital into uncertain and contingent oligarchies like multinational corporations and free-trade alliances, the diffusion of a complex body of worldly information through the mass media, the idea of an economically determinate class, for example, seems historically remote, out-of-date. All this seeming is no doubt at least in part a function of my own economic and cultural privilege; I have the luxury and the leisure to release myself from the imperatives of social transformation, a comfort zone established by my rarefied – if still tenuous – position within many networks of value. Certainly there are haves and have-nots, the well-to-do and the poverty-stricken, but the boundaries and divisions are no longer so easy to determine, if indeed they ever were. Participation in the mechanisms of consumption and exchange is neither uniform nor closed, and the forms of consciousness and solidarity on which Marx might have depended for the renovation of labour and worth have become permeable, plural and radically indeterminate. It is truly difficult, for instance, to ascertain who exactly might constitute a proletarian body. Most late and post Marxisms, from Adorno on, have winnowed away the categories of Marxist analysis (from class to ideology) to the point that they can no longer find much of a purchase in the contemporary economic and political morass. It would be fatuous to dismiss Marxism as irrelevant; indeed, given the transformation of an orthodoxy of political economy into what Michel Foucault once characterized as “divergences” in a foundational “discursivity” (Rabinow 114-5), I should note instead how Marxism has come to designate a limited but prolific body of intersections, a master canon continuously inflected and re-written by an array of theoretical and critical modes:
Annales school historians, Frankfurt School theorists, Poststructuralists, Reader Reception Theorists, New Historicists and Cultural Materialists have reformulated Marxist principles and extended them by drawing more and more widely on other ideas from other texts — texts of philosophy, ethnology, anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis and religion. They have produced a variety of transformations, inversions, displacements and reformulations, resolving some of the impasses they inherited and reinscribing others. And they have made Marxism perhaps the most imperialistic discursive formation today. (Bannet 2)
I think I tend, however, to lose sight, in the wake of this permanently self-revolutionizing theory, of what might still be said to constitute the core of a Marxist critical praxis. (Bannet appears unwilling to grant the positional solidarity of a proper name to her “Marxism,” given its decentred plurality.) Returning to canon, to the classic statements of value and revolution we might associate with Marx himself, doesn’t prove particularly satisfying, either. The demand that workers of the world unite, for example, would serve as well for a slogan for Benneton advertising as it might for union bureaucracies, and clearly re-inscribe a deeply problematic collective determinism that is deeply endemic to the hegemonic forms of western politics. (What workers do we mean? What constitutes work? How is a proletariat demarcated? What world do we mean — first, second, third or fourth? Unite on whose terms? How?) It is difficult still to hear a deeply felt call for socialist revolution. Manifestoes date themselves, locked into their own inevitable anachrony.
The flipside of such anachrony, its camera obscura inversion, has to be nostalgia. I remember when I was fourteen, or fifteen at the most, I bought from our local bookstore a blue-spined Pelican paperback version of The Communist Manifesto. It’s short, a quick enough read, but it is also so historically and materially specific in its frames of reference, with its welter of dated prefaces and that its smallish scholarly apparatus (by none other than A. J. P. Taylor), that I had a hard time feeling anything of the insistent presentism of its famous opening: “A spectre is haunting Europe . . . .” but a spectre that felt, at least as an adolescent reading experience, more archaic than disturbing. I wasn’t a particularly careful reader, sure, but I seemed to know that the book, that this particular book, could have very real transformative power as a material object. I could use that manifest spectre, I mean, to scare my parents. Which is exactly what I think I did. I remember announcing to them from the back seat of the family car, book in hand, that I had become “a communist.” I hadn’t joined any political organizations, of course, and I don’t think I even knew anyone who was especially political. I think my parents took my declaration fairly calmly, assuming I had next to no idea what I meant, which wasn’t exactly true. I knew some things. I think, looking back, that this announcement offered me a point of Oedipal differentiation, a small shock I could leverage into separating myself from the everyday security of a safe middle-class paternalism. I’m not sure why I wanted to do this; privilege will feed and clothe you. Maybe I liked the idea of risk, without any experience of it. This moment, when saying “communism” offered me the literary pretense of action, a very small-scale moment of teenaged shock-and-awe, was also the moment when politics – at its very outset, even – deteriorated almost instantly into mere style.
In Why Marx Was Right (2011), Terry Eagleton reacts to this political anesthesia, symptomatic of late-stage capitalism, by arguing for – or at least asserting, declaring – the necessity of Marxist thought in a seemingly post-Marxist world, a world that appears to have left Marx behind. Marx’s “archaic” quality, Eagleton asserts (making a point about a return to “Victorian levels of inequality”), “is what makes him still relevant today,” that Marx still offers a means to regard capitalism, critically, from a contingent but critically-viable outside (Eagleton 3). “In these dire conditions,” Eagleton writes, citing Fredric Jameson, “‘Marxism must necessarily become true again’” (8). Marx is right for our own time, for Eagleton, because of his vatic prescience, because – against the odds, perhaps – in Adorno’s formulation, he threatens to be right, because we don’t want him to be. Eagleton suggests that Marx foresees the contemporary consequences of globalization, for example, and also offers a still-viable conceptual path for the critique of the massive commodification of experience. I think Eagleton is following Friedrich Engels, in a famously deferential note in the last chapter of Engels’s late book on Ludwig Feuerbach:
Here I may be permitted to make a personal explanation. Lately repeated reference has been made to my share in this theory, and so I can hardly avoid saying a few words here to settle this point. I cannot deny that both before and during my 40 years’ collaboration with Marx I had a certain independent share in laying the foundation of the theory, and more particularly in its elaboration. But the greater part of its leading basic principles, especially in the realm of economics and history, and, above all, their final trenchant formulation, belong to Marx. What I contributed — at any rate with the exception of my work in a few special fields — Marx could very well have done without me. What Marx accomplished I would not have achieved. Marx stood higher, saw further, and took a wider and quicker view than all the rest of us. Marx was a genius; we others were at best talented. Without him the theory would not be by far what it is today. I[t] therefore rightly bears his name. [Italics mine.]
Praising the genius of Marx, for Engels, is obviously a way of acknowledging both his intellectual brilliance and his visionary acuity. The Latin etymology of the term genius – a transliteration of the Roman name for something like a guardian angel or “tutelar spirit” – is linked (my old companion W. W. Skeat suggests) to the idea of the genus, genetic kinship, creative or generative origin, maybe even to push things a bit, something like a muse, an instructive spirit. Marx’s genius, along these lines, makes him into a corrective spectre who haunts our world, and who persistently speaks against the oppressive tendencies of our times, a counter-episteme. Eagleton explicitly states that this Marx isn’t the one he wants to recover, the Marx of “moral and cultural critique” who seems to him next to impossible to dismiss as foundational to most critical projects in the humanities. And maybe this means leaving Eagleton behind now in my current trajectory; but it’s important to acknowledge how even Eagleton’s doggedly practical and political recuperation of Marx depends upon and is haunted by that genius.
         The political and the cultural, that is, are difficult to disentangle, which seems like a banal enough claim to make, hardly a claim at all, except that the question of how that interdependency articulates itself, particularly across the domain of the aesthetic, becomes both crucial and vexed – bewitched, Adorno might say. Aesthetic abstraction, the rarefication of artistic material and experience, takes on the quaintly archaic appearance of privilege and withdrawal, but that rarefication can also be understood as an at least contingently foundational moment for political engagement, the fraught origin of what Fredric Jameson calls, potentially, “a radical intervention in the here-and-now and the promise of resistance to its blind fatalities” (The Cultural Turn35). I hear Adorno’s negative dialectics all over Jameson’s argument:
In the old days, abstraction was surely one of the strategic ways in which phenomena, particularly historical phenomena, could be estranged and defamiliarized; when one is immersed in the immediate – the year-by-year experience of cultural and informational messages, of successive events, of urgent priorities – the abrupt distance afforded by an abstract concept, a more global characterization of the secret affinities between those apparently autonomous and unrelated domains, and of the rhythms and hidden sequences of things we normally remember in isolation and one by one, is a unique resource, particularly since the history of the preceding few years is always what is least accessible to us. (35)
Jameson is talking about theorizing the postmodern, but – and I don’t think I’m out of synch here – he is also outlining a poetics here, at least implicitly, and even – in his gesture at rhythm – a musical aesthetic. And he’s talking, for that matter, about how Marx’s genius might materialize in contemporary language, how it might sound itself.
What’s emerging, I think, is an aesthetic of relevance, of creative urgency that matters. How is it, the question goes, that Marxism might remain, as Marxism, relevant if not contemporary, given its archaism, its ineluctable entanglements with “the old days”? Douglas Kellner argues, following both Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, that Marxism is defined by its persistent field of crisis:
Marxism still has the theoretical and political resources to provide an account of contemporary history and strategies for radical social transformation. In a sense, Marxism is always in crisis as new events emerge that require revision and development of the theory. Marx himself and subsequent Marxists were always revising and reconstructing the theory to take account of historical developments and to fill in the deficiencies in the original theory. In this sense, “crises of Marxism” are not so much signs of the obsolescence of the Marxian theory as a typical situation for a social theory facing anomalies or events that challenge its theories. (16)

For Kellner, scientific or orthodox Marxism can only be misapplied and inappropriate, but critical Marxism remains relevant (especially Frankfurt school, especially Marcuse): “Because no competing economic theory or critique of capitalism has emerged to replace Marxism, it is still an indispensable part of radical social theory” (18). But what constitutes the core of a theory, the theory, which is wholly self-renovating? For me, it’s the collision of the archaic and the nostalgic – that is, in a sense of the ideological and the utopian – in textual-materialist engagements with the historical. Historicizing Marxism itself, which asserts its relevance as a theory of historical crisis and transformation, refigures its quaintness. Responding to critiques of Adorno’s Marxist anachrony, Jameson argues that “if you reproach Marxism with its temporal dimension, which allows it to consign solutions to philosophical problems to a future order of things, . . . a vision of postponement and lag, deferral and future reconciliation,” you are in effect assuming an a-temporal critical posture he associates with the postmodern:
it may be admitted that this future-oriented philosophy — which prophecies catastrophe and proclaims salvation — is scarcely consistent with that perpetual present which is daily life under postmodern or late capitalism. (Late Marxism 231)
The radical critique proffered by Marxism has remained, for Jameson, its “genuine historicity,” the insistence upon historical renovation — even to the point of facing its own immersion in the historical, its own perpetual theoretical anachronism — to which Kellner also holds.
      So, I want to use Marx as a point of departure for at least two reasons. First, my initial object of study, the yard sale, operates like a peculiar pocket of capital production and exchange both within and outside the complexes of regulation, distribution and control that constitute the wider market. Like Marxism itself, yard sales are inherently quaint. They are highly localized, interstitial formations at which nascent commodities, in the Marxian sense, are able to gestate, baldly exposed to view: yard sales offer an immediate display (an aesthetic) of capitalism in its infancy. Marxist critique, for a moment, applies. Second, the actual ideologeme that I want to isolate and interrogate – the production of “genius” – feeds back into the dialectic articulated by Marx’s eleventh thesis, tired as it may seem. How is it, I want to ask, that an acquired object – in this case, a particular record by Keith Jarrett – shifts from a thing interpreted (as valuable, as meaningful) to a political manifesto, an immediacy which no longer simply represents but enables participation in a kind of community of action, a shift, as Keith Jarrett might say, from the passivity of audience member to the activity of listener. An apparently trivial, everyday act – buying a used album in somebody’s garage – presents a potential moment to call radically into question the structures of consumption and determination that almost invisibly and nearly inaudibly govern and shape us.
         More to come. (Next, theorizing yard sales, then acquiring, and listening to, Keith Jarrett.)
Works Cited to This Point
Bannet, Eve. Postcultural Theory: Critical Theory After the Marxist
Paradigm. New York: Paragon House, 1993. Print.
Corbett, John. Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage
to Dr. Funkenstein. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. Print.
Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx Was Right. New Haven: Yale UP,
2011. Print.
Engels, Friedrich. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German
Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the
         Dialectic. London: Verso, 1990. Print.
– – -. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern,
1983-1998. London: Verso, 1998. Print.
Rabinow, Paul, ed. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon,
1984. Print.

Mixed Materials: Raymond Williams Meets Don McKay

Here is another review-essay that seems not to have made it into the pages of Canadian Literature during my time there as an associate editor, although it was written – the date-stamp on the document file puts it at January 2003 – about unsolicited review copies of books sent to the journal. I hope you can pardon the datedness of some of the references, but I thought it might be worth getting it out into the world, making it a little bit worldly, if only to mark one of my attempts to get Anglo-American intellectual work to resonate with some of its less-obvious Canadian counterparts – in this instance, trying to set up a reading of Don McKay through an overview of some reissued Raymond Williams (and some new-ish, at the time, Edward Said).
New Contexts of Canadian Criticism, a 1997 Broadview Press anthology of cultural analyses collaboratively edited by Ajay Heble, Donna Palmateer Pennee and J. R. (Tim) Struthers, offers more than an update of its namesake, Eli Mandel’s classic (and out-of-print) collection of cultural backgrounds; it also presents theoretically-informed forays, through a set of variously Canadian discursive lenses, into the concepts of context and worldliness: a spate of essays that gesture heterogeneously at the possibilities inherent in a distinctly Canadian materiality— which here suggests everything from historicism to autobiography, from socio-economics to bibliography. Still, the first name mentioned in the book – and a critic who, enmeshed in contradictions and pluralities of his own, appears to set the irresolute tone for the collection – is not a Canadian, but Raymond Williams, late professor of Modern Drama at Cambridge. In the last five years or so, Williams’s unstable and disputatious amalgam of Leavisiteformalism and Lukácsiansocial realism  — which he had come to call “cultural materialism,” and which arguably gave rise to Cultural Studies in the English-speaking world — has undergone a recuperation that, national provenance aside, has a tangible, even material, bearing on practices of Canadian criticism, in its several and conflicted guises.
Before I come to any overtly Canadian content, I want to touch on Williams’s worldliness, to suggest how his method might start to be dislodged from its British sinecure and beach itself on the other side of the Atlantic. Williams’s influence is audible (despite a paucity of direct reference) in Edward Said’s finely crafted Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (from Harvard UP). Williams’s impact registers more than in Said’s style, which has the transparent surety of a public intellectual at his peak; Said reads Williams as the voice of “an emergent or alternative consciousness allied to emergent and alternative subaltern groups within the dominant discursive society” (244), and — perhaps surprisingly, given Williams’s rather ardent Oxbridge traditionalism — as a figure of critical radicalism closely akin to Antonio Gramsci (from whom the vocabulary in the passage I have just quoted is drawn), Michel Foucault and Theodor Adorno. Williams probably wouldn’t endorse this reading, particularly the Frankfurt School associations, but it does speak closely to the recuperation of Williams in recent literary criticism, criticism that concerns itself with addressing, and moving non-regressively beyond, the impasses and stalemates of a postmodern condition. Williams, for Said, has been “responsive to the real material texture of socio-political change from the point of view not of what Adorno calls identitarian thought but of fractures and disjunctions,” of the “non-identitarian” thinking that Adorno’s own negative dialectics pursue; Williams writing is not, like Adorno’s, an especially philosophical or conceptual interrogation of these critical alternatives, but instead offers their verbal enactment:
To Williams, quite uniquely among major critics, there is this capacity for seeing literature not as a Whiggish advance in formal and aesthetic awareness, nor as a placid, detached, privileged record of what history wrought and which the institution of literature incorporates with sovereign, almost Olympian prowess, but rather as itself a site of contention within society, in which work, profit, poverty, dispossession, wealth, misery, and happiness are the very materials of the writer’s craft, in which the struggle to be clear or to be partisan or detached or committed is in the very nature of the text. (469)
Williams, as writer, reworks this struggle as he reads and responds; like Said’s, his criticism is suffused with a public, pedagogical imperative. Teaching, for Williams, whether in postwar night-schools or rarefied universities, is a matter of social justice and of the redistribution of cultural wealth, of access to empowerment and to the contingent, pressing formations of identity and self-worth that circulate in the world, and that find themselves embodied, better than anywhere, in the literature of a national tradition. Not that Williams is parochial: for Said, he is the best example of a worldly thinker, one who seeks to restore “works and interpretations of their place in the global setting” and to “engage with cultural works in [an] unprovincial, interested manner while maintaining a strong sense of the contest for forms and values which any decent cultural work embodies, realizes, and contains” (383). Williams’s essays, like Said’s, aspire not to dispense high-blown wisdom but to “teach the conflicts,” as Gerald Graff put it: to enable readers to enter crucial debates in cultural politics and to contest meanings and values, rather than to acquiesce to the false gods of scholarly and cultural authority.
Peterborough’s Broadview Press has also reissued, as “encore editions,” two of Williams’s important works from the 1960s: The Long Revolution and Modern Tragedy. In both, Williams takes up challenges facing the public intellectual, and takes those challenges seriously. He aspires not only to transparency in his prose — framing questions of cultural value in a style accessible to the common literate reader — but also to putting at issue the dynamics of societal transformation — through emergent literacy, through public education and through political heuristics — in writing itself.
He begins Modern Tragedy (1966) by describing a conflict built into the term tragedy, a tension between its literary and its common meanings; he notes how theoreticians and literary scholars have tried to narrow into a “particular kind of event, and kind of response” that is not merely “death and suffering,” or accident, or “simply any response to death and suffering,” the sense commonly called tragedies “in ordinary speech and in the newspapers,” a usage regarded as “loose and vulgar” by academics (14). As long-term readers of Williams will recognize, he never tosses off a word like “ordinary,” and it soon becomes clear that he stands apart from the academics he parodies, finding himself impelled ethically to discover what scholars and theoreticians tend to dismiss, the “actual relations” we “see and live by, between the tradition of tragedy and the kinds of experience, in our own time, that we ordinarily and perhaps mistakenly call tragic” (14-15). The so-called mistakes people make in everyday language, for Williams, are not so easily put aside, but point significantly to literature’s relevance: why it matters and how it materializes in the world. He doesn’t cast critical scholarship aside — the second half of the book is a survey, revised from his lectures on modern drama at Cambridge, of innovations in modern European theatre, a thoroughly academic enterprise — but pursues instead the historical, cultural and institutional conflicts built into both the genre and the concept of tragedy, and transforms what might on first glance seem like a dry piece of literary exegesis into a compelling profession of revolutionary dialectics.
In the book, we oscillate between literary and political problematics, as opposed to progressing from one to the other; it’s significant that Williams concludes with, rather beginning from, literary exempla. Literature, for him, is not as creative work separable from everyday life — as he puts it in The Long Revolution, art neither attains a transcendent priority nor dawdles as secondary, leisure-time activity, both of which, he asserts, are “formulations of the same error” of dividing the creative from the ordinary (54).  Literature is for Williams concerned instead with “communication,” by which he means not simply its “transmission” but the “social fact” of the aesthetic, its recognition and re-inscription of “reception and response,” of audience, into its own fabric: “Art is ratified, in the end, by the fact of creativity in all our living. Everything we see and do, the whole structure of our relationships and institutions, depends, finally, on an effort of learning, description and communication. We create our human world as we have thought of art being created” (46, 54). Material and last causes, poetic making and revolutionary disruption, interweave in Williams’s cogent syntax; his critical method is deceptively banal, but his argument, if we attend to it carefully, is as disturbing as it is affirmative — not to draw art down to some lower level of the everyday, but instead to perceive “creative interpretation and effort” in living, to attempt to abolish all such levels and stratifications, as embodiments of social and cultural imbalances. His methodology neither reduces art to sociology, nor detaches the aesthetic from the lived, but pursues the communicative processes that link text with social or historical context, to see “works and ideas in their immediate contexts, as well as in their historical continuity” (16), a social aesthetics. His historicism evinces a kinship to Foucauldian genealogies, as we trace, for example, the evolving conceptual shifts in the term “tragedy”:
The tragic meaning is always both culturally and historically conditioned [. . .]. The essence of tragedy has been looked for in the pre-existing beliefs and in the consequent order [of a society], but it is precisely these elements that are most narrowly limited, culturally. Any attempt to abstract these orders, as definitions of tragedy, either misleads or condemns us to a merely sterile attitude towards the tragic experience of our own culture. (52-53)
Despite a shared humanist vocabulary, Williams’s work on the genre is diametrically opposed to the archetypalism of his near-contemporary Northrop Frye, which pursues exactly those “abstract orders,” abstractions Williams understands as historical products, rather than as structural fixities of a verbal universe that is ultimately divorced from real human experience.
By historicizing even his own critical apparatus, Williams hopes to push through the aesthetic — here framed as tragic redemption — toward a broader ethics he names revolution. In Modern Tragedy he appears at crucial junctures to inhabit a moment of critical reflex, at which the generic structures of classical tragedy overlap with the social forms of their communication: tragedy provides the structural basis for its own interpretation and application. For example, he takes the Aristotelian apex of anagnoresis, or recognition, and overlays a Marxian rubric of emergent class consciousness as revolutionary flashpoint, to explain the gap between the ideal of revolution and its repeated ossification and failure in real human societies, as well as the epistemic break between the literary and the ordinary:
At the point of this recognition, [. . .] where the received ideology of revolution, its simple quality of liberation, seems most to fail, there is waiting the received ideology of tragedy, in either of its common forms: the old tragic lesson, that man cannot change his condition, but can only drown his world in blood in the failed attempt; or the contemporary reflex, that the taking of rational control over our social destiny is defeated or at best deeply stained by our inevitable irrationality, and by the violence and cruelty that are so quickly released when habitual forms break down. (74)
Williams attributes this impasse to a self-defeating liberalism, that he regards as “hemmed in on all sides” (73). His attitude is never defeatist, however, and by reading the modern European canon of tragedy, he projects — progressing from Ibsen through Ionesco to Brecht — a “new tragedy” that refuses to accept the contradictions of human injustice as inevitable, and moves through that “recognition” to break down the “fixed harshness” of any regime, revolutionary or not, with the ongoing “struggle [to] live in new ways and with new feelings,” and by “including the revolution” in “ordinary living,” to “answer death and suffering with a human voice” (103-4). Admittedly, this insistence on the potentially revolutionary character of the ordinary, as redemptive, remains something of a sticking point for Williams’s readers, because of his mystification of “experience” as resolutely unassimilated by abstract or literary forms, even as those forms seek either to contain or to unleash it. Williams’s theory of tragedy, for this reason, is largely anti-cathartic, not because it does not aim toward changing minds, but because he does not want the energy of that change to be dissipated in aesthetic experience: communication, instead, transmutes pathos into ethos, affect into responsibility.
         The resurgence of a human voice in literary forms even as arch as tragedy produces revolution, however “long,” subtle and attenuated, because it speaks to the fundamental emotive substructure of community (an argument closely akin to Herbert Marcuse’s aesthetics of liberation): “A society in which revolution is necessary is a society in which the incorporation of all its people, as whole human beings , is in practice impossible without a change in its fundamental form of relationships. [. . .] Revolution remains necessary [. . .] because there can be no acceptable human order while the full humanity of any class of men is in practice denied” ( 76, 77; original italics). That revolution should “remain” and endure, rather than find a sudden, violent social articulation, is for Williams a consequence of his New Left mistrust of revolutionary regimes and of revolution’s essentially cultural character; culture, as he defines it in The Long Revolution , names a “creative” process — the “long revolution” locates itself not a fractal shock, but in “the essential relation, the true interaction, between patterns learned and created in the mind and patterns learned and made active in relationships, conventions and institutions. Culture is our name for this process and its results, and then within this process we discover problems that have been the subject of traditional debate and that we may look at again in this new way” (89). This Leavisite insistence on the rediscovery of tradition and an Arnoldian vocabulary of true pedagogy, of what must be “learned,” hardly appears revolutionary at all. But Williams’s rhetoric is designed not to shock but to educate, to forge connections between his own ethical imperatives and a popular status quo enmeshed in histories — such as that of literacy, which Williams explores in this book — that have been misrecognized as stasis, as tradition. When Williams writes, with calculated banality, that he wants to look at culture in “this new way,” he is not falling back into the reactionary radicalism of Thomas Carlyle or Matthew Arnold, whom he often quotes approvingly, but trying to engage with what he calls “a necessary tension in language,” particularly in its popular manifestations in organs such as the press, “between powerful impulses to imitation and to change,” a tension that he understands as “part of our basic processes of growth and change,” and of the human movement toward fundamental betterment. Simply put, you need to speak in a language that can be understood, or you will get nowhere, and no change, revolutionary or otherwise, is possible; you need to discover, in the commonplace or the “traditional,” a revolutionary moment (a critical tactic that is closely reminiscent of Antonio Gramsci’s work on the “national-popular”).
The Long Revolution closes with an extended meditation on “Britain in the 1960s” — a period that was only just about to unfold — which Williams clearly intended as a gesture toward critical immediacy, an attempt to historicize his own present and to map its socio-cultural tendencies (as he does early in the book for the 1840s, the remoteness of which from his own time offers a more rigorous and clear-sighted approach to the selective and accumulative processes of history and historicizing; it is difficult to step back from your own present, even contingently). His critical project, however, is not so much utopian — a concept he associates with a liberal idealism content to proclaim the virtues of such things as education, participatory democracy and “common culture” while still “leaving our training institutions as they are” (176)  — as it is hopeful, that “unevenly, tentatively, we get a sense of movement, and the meanings and values extend,” that language, in other words, gets put into practice, “keeping the revolution going” (383). To this end, Williams precedes his social and historical reflections with a call for renovated literary form, what he calls a “new realism” that is “not the old static realism of the passive observer,” a writing inured in regressive objectivity that, though “nostalgia and imitation” merely reinforces oppression, but is instead “necessarily dynamic and active,” not so much the mere representation of social reality as one means of its continual establishment, by which Williams means that writing enacts “this living tension, achieved in communicable form,” the process he calls “culture,” a negotiation between pattern and practice, imagined ideal and lived reality: the “achievement of realism” in the contemporary novel, as praxis rather than telos , is for Williams both “a continual achievement of balance,” the temporary resolution of this tension, and “the ordinary absence of balance,” the dialectical resurgence of a lived asymmetry, an ethical call (316).
But Williams, sadly, does little better than gesture toward this form. The unavoidable conceptual haziness of “experience” in his work needs to be honed away, and the formal character of that realism more carefully articulated, if his hope is to be (no pun intended) realized. I think that Williams’s realism can be supplemented with a kind of late phenomenology to affect such a precising, specifically that of Emmanuel Levinas, and specifically its inflection in the work of a Canadian poet, Don McKay. There are certainly a number of significant caveats to such a claim: Williams had little sympathy for the privileged defamiliarizations of a phenomenological poetics, one that insists on personal consciousness-raising, poetic complexity or intellectual pretense; Levinas, at least in his work up to Totality and Infinity (1961, tr. 1969), expresses a fundamental distrust of the aesthetic, particularly poetry, and outright refuses any kind of socially or politically engaged writing; and McKay’s own poetics repeatedly discover their indebtedness to Martin Heidegger and, more recently, to Levinas himself, but leave Williams and other social realists largely unmentioned. Still, I think that a coalescence emerges from this conjunction, particularly when Williams is re-read in the way I have been suggesting, and on Canadian turf no less. McKay’s Vis-à-Vis (from Gaspereau Press) is a collection of essays and poems that ostensibly focuses on “nature poetry,” but in fact accomplishes this difficult conceptual mix, in discrete textual space.
McKay’s reflections gather around a set of recurrent concepts: wilderness, alterity, translation, apparatus, place. Poetry is not, for him, a form of apprehension — of consciousness as possession or appropriation — but a release, through language, into what cannot and ought not be completely grasped: a form of listening or attentiveness that honours, and pays homage to, what McKay calls wilderness, which he describes as “not just a set of endangered spaces, but the capacity of all things to elude the mind’s appropriations” (21). His work finds an imperative in the intersection of the ethical and the ecological, and seeks to revise our sense of home-making, as a collision of oikos with poiesis , to point to a fundamental form of human responsibility for the world, a revision and an extension of Heidegger’s shepherding of being. Where justice in Raymond Williams’s work adopts a human face, and seeks a better form of human society, for McKay justice must necessarily find a prehuman foundation, must at least gesture beyond its own narrow limits. While acknowledging the inevitable and obvious humanness of language and perspective — an echo of Heidegger’s insistence on the humanity of what the philosopher named Dasein — McKay rethinks this anthropocentrism in terms of response and responsibility, producing a version of what Levinas calls “l’humanisme de l’autre homme, ” the humanism of the other person: “nature poetry should not be taken to be avoiding anthropocentrism, but to be enacting it, thoughtfully. It performs the translation which is at the heart of being human, the simultaneous grasp and gift of home-making” (29). Writing nature, that which is outside or beyond the human, is an essentially human act for McKay, a practice he describes by taking up Levinas’s image from Totality and Infinity of the face — le visage , as in vis-à-vis — as wholly other ; McKay refuses the stalemated, dyadic archetypalism of Margaret Atwood’s “The Animals in that Country” (who have either human faces or “the faces of no-one,” a forbidding juxtaposition of mutual solitudes), and instead gestures toward an otherness that is both vital and responsive, as gift and grasp: “we can perform artistic acts in such a way that, in ‘giving things a face’ the emphasis falls on the gift, the way, for example, a linguistic community might honour a stranger by conferring upon her a name in their language. Homage is, perhaps, simply appropriation with the current reversed” (99). McKay doesn’t idealistically renounce human grasping —  in the capacity of language, for example, to name and overwrite what it cannot finally possess, to give a human aspect, catachrestically, to that which is beyond it, making the stranger a familiar — but suggests that such forms of naming and writing, while unavoidable, need to be enacted thoughtfully, responsibly.
Heidegger’s definition of the tool, as that which is to hand, provides McKay with a crucial instance of how to produce such thoughtfulness, as he revises — in ordinary language, through anecdote and reminiscence — a defining human moment, the utility in taking up a tool, as an encroachment of the non-human, of wilderness: “That tools retain a vestige of wilderness is especially evident when we think of their existence in time and eventual gradation from utility: breakdown” (21). He describes the stuff we find at yard sales and in garages — a disused hand-turned meat grinder, for example — as evidence of this inevitable slippage, of what sounds like a vestigial otherness, as its apparatus, its techincal human contrivance, is foregrounded in its collapse into uselessness. (He attaches a military terminology for waste ordinance to this collapse: Matériel , a word that for him marks not only human appropriation but also, as apparatus, resurgent wildness, and that he defines as “any instance of second-order appropriation, where the first appropriation is the making of tool, or the address to things in the mode of utility,” an infliction of the human “rage for immortality on things, marooning them on static islands” as pollutants, as discards [20].) But McKay is careful not to slip into naive appropriations, by idealizing an otherness in language itself, whether common speech or poetry: “poetic attention is based on a recognition and a valuing of the other’s wilderness; it leads to a work which is not a vestige of the other, but a translation of it” (28). This, again, is a Levinasian claim, that hinges on a distrust of the illusion, within the aesthetic, of an incorporation of its outside, to make meaning of the world, to represent; poetry, for McKay, is an example of the foregrounding in language, lovingly, of its inability to represent, of its artifice, its apparatus, even as it describes the human necessity of representation or of making sense: “Poetry comes in here, as a function of language in its apparatus-nature, and not its crowning glory. Poetry comes about because language is not able to represent raw experience, yet it must; it comes about because translation is only translation, apparatus is apparatus” (65).
This separating off of language from world does not, however, occasion a move into post-structuralism, which McKay repeatedly acknowledges as his own philosophical reflex; but his writing takes up the Levinasian il y a (again, a revision of Dasein , there-ness) as opposed to the Derridean il n’y a pas (a accession to the pervasive texuality of the human), and language, for him, is not so much a giving in to limits as a gift, a gesture toward its outside: “The first indicator of one’s status as a nature poet is that one does not invoke language right off when talking about poetry, but acknowledges some extra-linguistic condition as the poem’s input, output, or both” (26). “They’re out there, the unformed ones,” he opens “The Canoe People,” a reworking of a figure from Robert Bringhurst’s Haida translations (77), linking that sense of place, there, to displacement, a floating outside, as these mythical strangers maunder “their wayless way/ among the islands, and now even/ into English with its one-thing-then-/ another-traffic-signalled syntax” (77-78). The point of Bringhurst’s complex work, he implies, is not and cannot be appropriation, but rather, as translation, it manifests an honouring of what it is not, and an insistence on that alterity as the foundational stuff of poetry: an offering of gifts, as thanks, as listening. Poets, McKay claims — and by these he must mean poets such as himself, since he excludes by implication much of the work of those inured in post-structuralism, from the language poetry of Christian Bök to the ideology-critique of Steve McCaffery, even as he shares their vocabularies — “are supremely interested in what language can’t do; in order to gesture outside, they use language that flirts with its destruction” (32). McKay’s terminology is, again, Heideggerian, and he echoes the concept of Destruktion , which Derrida translates into deconstruction ; that flirtation, however, is neither playfully ironic nor dead-ended in itself, but hopeful, a saving grace.
The image of lichens, with which the book concludes, offers a metaphor, which is to say a translation, a mutuality of word and world, as the rock plants both embody and represent “that tiny, shocking, necessary invasion; that saving of language from itself” (106). Poetic language — and this, for me, is how McKay both supplements and refines the problematic posed in Williams — materializes the attempt at what Williams calls “communication” and McKay writes of as gift, the responsiveness and mutuality that clings, like lichen, in words. Both Williams and McKay can be, as I have already pointed out, deceptively colloquial and quotidian. They seek out, in the everyday and in common speech, a “new way” that was always present, an ordinary revolution.
The Books
McKay, Don. Vis-à-vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness.
Kentville, NS: Gaspereau P, 2001. Print.
Said, Edward. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard UP, 2002. Print.
Williams, Raymond. Modern Tragedy. Peterborough: Broadview
P, 2001. Print.
– – -. The Long Revolution. Peterborough: Broadview P, 2001.

An Unlikely Sameness, Alias Myself

                                                                                     She is importunate, indeed distract (Hamlet IV.v.2)
Michael Robbins has fast become the laureate of American culture trash. Fast, in the contrary senses that his work confronts both the disjunctive velocities of the non sequitur and the tenuous monumentality, the making fast, of whatever might still remain of the well-turned poem in these late, noisy days. Positioning himself, with the recent publication of a spate of reviews and of his own provocative poetry, as an ornery aggregator – an alien-predator hybrid, maybe – of media flows, commoditized tag-lines and discursive meshes, he repurposes packets of worn, oversold language into brutal, keen lyric, making out of the deliberate anachrony, the untimely music, of rhyme and of vestigial stanzaic form both a temporary stay against confusion and a plastic word-bin to hoard our swelling cultural clutter.
         I say “our” with some trepidation, because I’m not even American. As a reader, I still want to stay a little outside of those ineluctable surges of images, music, and text stemming from the plugged-in United States, still want to maintain a bootless resistance to the manifest destiny of its whelming literacy. Robbins’s poems might be read as articulating just such a resistance, but from somewhere inside its pervious borders:
            The coyote drives her in a false-bottomed van.
            He drops her in the desert. The bluffs are tan.
            She’ll get a job at Chili’s picking up butts.
            I feel ya, Ophelia, I say to my nuts.
            And there is pansies. And that’s for thoughts.
Erotic lyricism has degenerated to bathos, and here – in the final lines of the recently published “The Second Sex” – discomfiting literary pleasures (in the reiterated highbrow melopoeia of Shakespearean misogyny) collide with the craven vocabularies of yellow journalism around “illegal” immigration and the clichéd lyrics of YouTube pop bands. The disjunctive quotations echo Eliot’s technique in The Waste Land, and enact an ironic distancing of self – the fraught “I” that enounces this poem, and for that matter most of Robbins’s poems – from its own broken voices. From this angle, Robbins might be understood as a late modernist, in as much as his ostensive love poem consists of ventriloquized stock phrases and hollowed-out figures of speech, a brief constellation of fragments shored against itself, redeployed in the service of ideology critique, parodying the commodity fetishism of literacy itself, of our sense that we’ve been sold this wordy bill of goods before. “These love poets,” he jabs in “The Learn’d Astronomer,”
couldn’t write their way
   out of a bag of kitty litter. The genitals, the heart,
   the burning fantastical heavens themselves–
   just junk in a Safeway cart I’m pushing
   down to the recycling center. (Alien vs. Predator 31)
Any Romeo-and-Juliet-style romantic transgression of boundaries, any hint of the hyperbole of “love” and tragedy, degenerates in “The Second Sex” into exploited “illegal” janitorial labour, at best some recycled junk.
This contrariety informs the “vs.” of the title of his viral New Yorker poemand of his 2012 collection, Alien vs. Predator. Picking up cigarette butts at a Chili’s (even the restaurant name suggests mestizo-mestiza cultural commodification, capitalist appropriation) literalizes the work of gathering culture trash that I am associating with Robbins’s poetry; I’m suggesting that the resistance to commodification – again, from this particular reading’s angle of incidence – takes part in the remainders of a late modernism that emerges from, say, Theodor Adorno’s assessment of Samuel Beckett in “Trying to Understand Endgame” (from which I’ve poached the whole idea of “culture trash”):
The objective decay of language, that bilge of self-alienation, at once stereotyped and defective, which human beings’; word and sentences have swollen up into within their own mouths, penetrates the aesthetic arcanum. (281)
Or, as Adorno puts it otherwise, “because there has been no life other than the false life” (275), Beckett can do little but try to confront his own, and our, ontological impoverishment, and to shock us into recognizing, if only temporarily, that falsity. (“All of old,” he would write in Worstward Ho, some two decades after Adorno’s passing:“Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” [Nohow On 101].) Those small, particulate shocks, I’d say, are exactly what Robbins’s poems aspire to generate – like how, for instance, his Robert Frost gets bent backwards over an In Touch magazine: “I kiss your trash. My boobs are fake. / I have promises to break” (“Plastic Robbins Band,” Alien vs. Predator 15).
But this reading of Robbins as fusty modernist is belied in those same lines, because he doesn’t merely trash his literary forebears, but also kisses that trash, embraces it with what I read as genuine vigour. In a review of John Ashbery’s Quick Question for the Chicago Tribunein December 2012, Robbins implicitly acknowledges his indebtedness to Ashbery’s mixed technique, colliding cartoonish daftness with lissome lyric, concatenating “lucid sentences” from “marooned pronouns” and “mismatched adjectives.”Ashbery, he asserts has been replicating himself in successive publications, suggesting a certain self-parody in his work. But that auto-iterative tack, making poetry (new?) out of its own garbling memes, is what Robbins says he admires in Ashbery: “Lots of poets write the same book over and over, of course, especially as they age. Why complain about Ashbery’s sameness when it’s so unlikely?” Ashbery might be read as a latter-day modernist, a holdover, but it’s his recovery of creative disjunction from the relentless sameness of Anglo-American literary culture, from its overflowing virtual trash bin, that gives his poems their vitality. And it’s in this ardour for the unlikely that Robbins finds his own poetic purchase.
I had planned to say plenty about some of Robbins’s new poems, and as with all of his work there is probably too much to say. Instead, I’ll just return to “The Second Sex” for a moment, to its aphoristic opening line: “After the first sex, there is no other.” He’s toying with the cult-value of chastity, as a marker of moral or existential purity, and as a figure of authenticity (shades of Adorno, again?); he’s also gaming the gender-politics of the heteronormative love poem, front-loaded with patriarchal idealizations of a passive and commodified femininity, which Simone de Beauvoir criticizes in The Second Sex – the source of Robbins’s backhanded title – as a projection of masculine horror of the flesh. The poem precipitates into a set of gender-b(l)ending quips, but I want to hang on to the first line a little longer. The balanced cadence – it’s an end-stopped iambic pentameter – gives the line a monumentality, a closure that might seem at odds with making it the poem’s opening gambit. It also sounds like you may have heard it before; it sounds like poetry with a capital P – because it is, or rather, it’s an un-likeness, a turned echo, of the last line of a modernist masterwork, Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” (1946): “After the first death, there is no other.” Some might read Robbins’s substitution of sex for death – Freudian Eros for Thanatos, a very Thomas-like pairing – as crass, but what Robbins accomplishes with this detournement blurs lyric into trash, not to choose between them but to make them vacillate and phase. If I had to name this kind of intertextual figure, I’d suggest that it might be best understood not as epigone allusion but as distraction, as an unlikeness, a tangential negation that hangs unresolved in a hiatus of semantic duplicity, or even multiplicity. In a review-essay published in the January 2013 issue of Poetry, Robbins seems to trash Dylan Thomas by comparing his overcooked verbiage to the names of heavy metal bands:
The best metal undercuts its portentousness with self-awareness
if your major tropes include corpse paint and Satanism, you’d better not take yourself too seriously. In Thomas’s work, self-seriousness is the major trope.
But you have to remember that Robbins professes to love heavy metal. Apparently disavowing the influence of Dylan Thomas – alongside his early enthusiasms for James Wright, Rilke (“the jerk”) and Neruda – Robbins comes to recognize the impact of Thomas’s poetic clutter:
That’s what I hate most about Thomas: if you care about poems, you can’t entirely hate him. Phrases, images, metaphors rise from the precious muck and lodge themselves in you like shrapnel.
The love-hate, the un-likeness, which Robbins registers here as influence has a visceral, palpable and (I would say) shocking aspect, because it marks what remains, amid the distractions of too much to say and hear and register, of lyric impact, of language making something happen. I think there is a connection to be made with Walter Benjamin’s prescient juxtaposition of modern, mass-culture distraction and late romantic aesthetic concentration, in his investigation of media viewership in “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” (1935-36). In the collision of art and commodification – in photography, in dada poetry, in newspapers and especially in film – Benjamin perceives a shift into distraction that ultimately politicizes the aesthetic (another modernist fantasy of redemption and recovery), but which nonetheless still entails a revitalization of perception rather than the anaesthetizing of viewership (and, I would suggest, of reading):
For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at historical turning points cannot be solved by optical means – that is, by way of contemplation. They are mastered gradually – taking their cue from tactile reception – through habit.
Even the distracted person can form habits. What is more, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction first proves that their performance has become habitual. The sort of distraction that is provided by art represents a covert control of the extent to which it has become possible to perform new tasks of apperception. Since, moreover, individuals are tempted to evade such tasks, art will tackle the most difficult and most important tasks whenever it is able to mobilize the masses. (40)
Overcoming habituation is not simply a matter of the shock-work of ideology critique, but the discovery of a mode of apperception – a more fully and technologically mediated embodiment – that can master the uptake of aesthetic and cultural shrapnel. You can look, all the signs used to say, but you’d better not touch. On the contrary, yes, you’d better, says Benjamin. Touch this, says Michael Robbins. “A cheap knockoff, the night / proved to be,” he writes in “Be Myself” (a retooling the grandiloquent “multitudes” of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” into recirculated “platitudes,” an epigone diminishment, perhaps, but definitely a knockoff): “Nokla / not Nokia on the touchscreen.” The poem becomes touchscreen, rife with distracted tactility, rendered apparent – and apperceptive, if you read carefully enough – in the fracture that opens in an uncertain, ersatz, out-of-country brand name. Unenglished.

More Stuff
Adorno, Theodor. Can One Live after Auschwitz? A
Philosophical Reader. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Stanford:
Stanford UP, 2003. Print.
Beckett, Samuel. Nohow On. London: John Calder, 1989.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of its
Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on
Media. Ed. Michael Jennings, Brigid Doherty and
Thomas Y Levin. Cambridge,Mass.: Harvard UP,
2008. Print.
Robbins, Michael. Alien vs. Predator. New York: Penguin,
2012. Print.


I have been listening to Atemwende, a recent CD of music composed by Bojan Vuletić for string quartet and trumpet. His work is new to me, and I bought the CD because of the presence of Nate Wooley on the recording. The composition is a suite in nine movements, and each section is derived from Vuletić’s reading of a poem by Paul Celan. These aren’t settings of text, and there is no vocalist, but Wooley’s idiosyncratic trumpet lines often cleave close to the range and timbre of the human voice, and the music sometimes seems to aspire to the condition, to the textures, of speech, particularly in the trumpet obbligatithat occur in most of the movements. I can’t really comment knowledgeably on Vuletić’s compositional method, although there are times when the textures he achieves remind me of the chamber music of Giya Kancheli, or of Krzysztof Penderecki in a rhythmic mood. But that’s just an impression: the music is accomplished and well-crafted.

It’s very tempting to hear the suite as a series of sonic allegories, as mimicking the collapse of meaning in much of Celan’s later work – a poetry that skirts the epistemic and phonemic edges of its own language. Vuletić invites exactly such an interpretation when he cites, in lieu of a liner note, a key passage from Der Meridian, Celan’s 1960 acceptance speech for the Georg Büchner Prize (the translation, uncredited on the package, is by Rosmarie Waldrop):
Poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of our breath. Who knows, perhaps poetry goes its way—the way of art—for the sake of just such a turn? And since the strange, the abyss and Medusa’s head, the abyss and the automaton, all seem to lie in the same direction—is it perhaps this turn, this Atemwende, which can sort out the strange from the strange? It is perhaps here, in this one brief moment, that Medusa’s head shrivels and the automaton runs down? Perhaps, along with the I, estranged and freed here, in this manner, some other thing is also set free?
Celan’s challenging poetic, I want to say, ties neither to inspiration – to the romanticizing of personal transcendence – nor to expiration – to a fraught modernist teleology of collapse. Instead, it seeks in the dissolute fraying textiles of his own language (a dire and lyrical German that offers him both enmeshment and estrangement) a semiosis, a graining of air across the larynx. Celan’s voice, the “I” that finds itself estranged poetically from itself, that appears to inhere in that very estrangement, can also temporarily – extemporaneously, for “one brief moment” – find the means to sing: es sind / noch Lieder zu singen jenseits / der Menschen (Faddensonnen, “Threadsuns”). That passing contact with a music other than or “beyond the human” can happen so fleetingly it’s hard to trust it happens at all: it’s worth listening to Celan himself read to hear if that breathturn can be made audible in his own elocution.
Eric Kligerman reads Celan’s Atemwendedifferently, as the moment in a poem when mimesis dissolves into a terrifying, stony silence; representation, as achieved semiosis, collapses into empty phonemes (as it does, literally, at the close of Celan’s Keine Sandkunst, “No More Sandart” – Tiefimschnee, / Iefimnee, / I – I – e), a loss which for Kligerman can be mapped over “the horror of an historical erasure” (118-9), an address to the unspeakable event of the Shoah. Celan’s poetry, for me, offers no simple redemption, but neither does it fall to pieces before the unspeakable; I take Kligerman’s point, but I still want to claim that Celan’s words effect a contingent but necessary return to the aural grounds, the sound-loam, into which human speech roots itself and from which it emerges. It’s risky, I think, to attempt what Vuletić attempts in recasting Celan musically, in as much as those settings might pretend as glib heurisms to give voice to the unspeakable, rather than, as Celan seems to seek to do, to find a language that takes up a fraught alterity at its core. “After Auschwitz,” as Theodor Adorno puts the problem in Negative Dialectics, “our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims; they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate,” because such sense-making, for Adorno, is altogether too bleak, an “absolute negativity” (361).  Celan’s poems, I believe, respond to this terrible linguistic quandary, this crisis in sense itself, not by refusing to speak, but instead by attempting to voice that resistance as feeling, as such.

It’s tempting for me to hear Nate Wooley’s untempered trumpet lines in Vultelić’s suite as a tense, unruly sound-commentary on the through-composed string quartets. Wooley sounds very occasionally like a kind of Maurice André-Chet Baker hybrid, but more often produces a species of brittle, breathy, steel-wool (pardon the pun) sound. The seventh section, named for an early Celan poem Zähle die Mandeln, opens with a single tone (a concert G?) attenuated through circular breathing and played into what sounds like an aluminum pie-plate (I have seen Taylor Ho Bynum produce a similar timbre using a CD-R as a mute); the quick, resonant rattle not only picks up overtones, but also essentially de-tunes the sound, shivering the harmonics into a myriad of metallic threads; when the note moves a whole step, and Wooley’s starts alternating between G and A, the effect is to overlay a stannic breathy wash onto the audible effort of embouchure and string to find the sweet spot in their given pitches, to make their notes resonate and sing. At those brief moments, as  sound-grain and resonance pull at each other, I think I hear a kind of breathturn begin.
Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E. B. Ashton. New
York: Continuum, 1973. Print.
Celan, Paul. Collected Prose. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. Manchester:
Carcanet, 1986. Print.
Kligerman, Eric. Sites of the Uncanny: Paul Celan, Specularity and the
         Visual Arts. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007. Print.
Vuletić, Bojan. Recomposing Art: atemwende.  Nate Wooley and the
         Mivos Quartet. Ignoring Gravity Music IGM 12-13. 2012.
         Compact Disc.