Monday, November 14, 2011

Interview with bill bissett by Ryan J. Cox

Simply by virtue of the volume of work he has produced over the course of his career, bill bissett is one of the most important and influential Canadian poets of the past fifty years. He has published at least 85 volumes of poetry since 1966, serving as his own publisher through his blewointment press for the first half of his career. Despite this extremely prolific poetic output, bill bissett is also an accomplished painter and was the lyricist and vocalist for the band, Luddites. His importance to Canadian art and culture, however, transcends the mere volume of material he has produced over his career. He has been at the forefront of several important movements that have shaped Canadian literature during, for lack of a better word, the post-modern period. bissett and blewointment, along with House of Anansi, Coach House and others, took part in the first wave of the small press revolution in Canada that helped diversify the kind of poets and poetry Canadian readers has access to. He was early innovator of both concrete and sound poetry in Canada, combining the visual aspects of the word with an intense interest in chant--which bpNichol notes is the important North American mutation of the global concrete movement (46). This combination of the visual and the aural--along with a strong distrust of the hegemonies that standardization enables--anticipates the single most recognizable aspect of bissett's poetics, his idiosyncratic orthography. In choosing to resist standardized spellings and standardized English, bissett creates a space of resistance against the forces of control. This is where the reader finds bissett the social critic that is suspicious of authority, and it opens on to the mystic or shamanistic poet that seeks transcendence through the ordinary and the erotic: the one that seeks the outside of the closed system of language and the repressed self. bill bissett's poetry lies at the junction of authentic and mundane human experience and the ecstatic. As a result of this resistance and his desire for ecstatic, he shares a dubious honour with poets bpNichol and Bernard Lachance: he is one of the few poets in Canada to have the aesthetic value of his poems discussed on the floor of the House of Commons.
In his essay on poetic invention, "Invention Follies," Charles Bernstein posits that "severe forms of oppression rob a people of its right to poetry--and the crisis for poetry, for the aesthetic, is to create a space for poetry again and again" (35). This drive to create a space for poetry, for art, while resisting oppression and repression is at the centre of bissett's poetics. In his poem "Th Emergency Ward," bissett describes a shrink's misdiagnosis of a cerebral hemorage--apparently feigned so that bissett could get out of painting--and when he is subsequently saved from potentially fatal electro-shock by a neurologist, he wakes mid-surgery and conducts a poetry reading. In the face of oppression and possible death, bissett is able to create a space for poetry and celebrates life.

Ryan J. Cox: When I've given your poems to students, the first thing they notice and have to confront is your approach to language and spelling. It pushes them outside of their comfort zone and, I think, makes them think about their expectations of what a poem is and what a poem looks like. Could you explain why you use an idiosyncratic orthography or language in your writing and how you arrived at the particular approach you use?

bill bissett: whn i bgan writing i was in2 sylabuls stronglee n also painting n drawing n prseevd th lettrs in th image n th shapes strokes n image in th lettrs each lettr espeshulee as writing was is originalee
piktographik n i alwayze wantid th words n th papr 2 look visualee as much as possibul th wayze 4 me th words sylabuls n nuances uv each word wud sound soundid sew th sort uv phonetic spelling b
came natural 2 me n bcame 2 b continualee evolving changing langwage fluid

RJC: Is there a worry that it might or has become systematized? How do you resist possible systemization and still make the work comprehensible?

bb: no worreez2 keep going n letting evreething b as indiviual 2 th sylabul 4 its sound n its enerjee as possibul th sound in th image th image in th sound sylabbul lettrs

RJC: Is it significant that the structural or semiotic difference between the way you present the words on the page and the standardized spellings is apparent visually but not sonically? Is it intended to highlight the difference between notational language and the ephemeral, immediate impact of the spoken word?

bb: uv kours th diffrens btween standardizaysyunal spelling n individual nuansd sound based spelling is sonick evn whn peopul reed silentlee they heer th words n whn they reed aloud its sew sound n th mor sound based or mor phonetik th spelling is th mor sonic th work reelee is sonic meenings see th lettrs btween qween Elizabeth 1st n sir water raleigh n yu see all th shifts in spelling 2 indikate shifts in meening

RJC: How should the reader experience these poems?

bb: i dont kno th word shud its a pressur word i wud hope th reedr xperiences these pomes with xcellens out loud if he or she wants 2 n feels th xcellens mystereez n xplooring gifts uv langwage espeshulee with th sound pomes

RJC: Please describe your writing process

bb: It cums 2 me n i follo go with it whn it th process th writing givn 2 me n me ar in different places as th going with continuez i inklewd that n or both nd th process continues n it i thn whn is thn let go uv it like letting go uv a stroke in a painting th trope fulfills itself n changes changing whethr its a narrativ meditaysyun or say visual or sound pome in in n furthr in n out th work thn is on its
own as it alwayze was is xplooring th that jestyur jestr no

RJC: Has it changed over the years? Has technology effected the way you write or create?

bb: not reelee xsept i dew way less work with typwritr 4 konkreet visual pomes n as in narrativ enigma a lot uv th konkreet visual work ther is dun on th compewtr wher i live reelee sum manee hours a day with email n th writing

RJC: Charles Olson said in his essay on Projective Verse, "It is the advantage of the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends. For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had." This is a quality of the typewriter I think your work captures, and I believe the way you have been able to use the typewriter to create visual and concrete poetry reveals the way that this rigidity can be exploited. How does the computer compare as a tool for this type of composition?

bb: th compewtr less eezilee 4 th realiteez a typwritrs can dew espeshulee a smith corona n a compewtr can not reelee type wun word or lettr on top uv anothr ther ar ways around ths agen chek out narrativ enigma wher a lot uv th visual work was dun with a compewtrthers still a lot that can dun yes

RJC: What is the role of the poet in society? What is the role of poetry?

bb: th role uv th poet is 2 write n reed poetree th role uv th poet in societee is 2 write n reed poetree
th role uv poetree in societee is sirtinlee 2 continu yes

RJC: What is the poet's responsibility to society and culture?

bb: th responsibilitee uv th poet is 2 th pome

RJC: During the last Canadian federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper attacked the arts community saying "when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see a gala of a bunch of people at, you know, a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren't high enough, when they know those subsidies have actually gone up – I'm not sure that's something that resonates with ordinary people." In the late 1970s, you were targeted by several members of parliament in a similar manner on the floor of the House of Commons, though the rhetoric aimed at you was much more extreme with your work being described as "evil" by Robert Wenman. Why do you think this tactic of demonizing the writers and artists persists?

bb: i think th taktik uv demonizing th writrs n all artists prsists as a conservativ rite wing stratajee usualee tho not alwayze 2 mussul free speesh n free xpressyuns 2 create n enfors a crowd control that is xcellent 4 th intrests uv th controlling leedrs 4 theyr profits n wepons sales n powr

RJC: These attacks historically are constructed to be an expression of the thoughts and tastes of the "Canadian people" or the common man or, to use Richard Nixon's label, "the silent majority." Who is the ordinary person and how do they react or relate to the poet?

bb: lukilee ther is no ordinaree prson th idea uv ordinaree peopul is a ficksyun invented by rulrs leedrs 2 keep peopul down another veree machiavelian ploy by th politikul mastrs manee peopul dew love poetree n its praktishyuners sew lukilee 4 th poets n all artists

RJC: Should people in authority be afraid of you?

bb: agen th word shud is not reel from th beginning peopul all peopul need 2 inklewding me let go uv theyr feers meditaysyun xercising not wanting 2 control aneewun all these approaches can help

RJC: looking back, you started writing and publishing during a period of heightened and contentious nationalism in Canada. It was also the period when, arguably, the Canadian literary canon solidified and the New Canadian poetry developed. Is it useful for you as a poet to think of yourself in terms of nation or Canadian-ness? Do you feel that there is anything intrinsically Canadian about your work?

bb: sure pomes like th Canadian n killer whale both in BYOND EVN FAITHFUl LEGENDS n Canada in my mouths on fire love uv life th 49th parallel in nobody owns th erth th writing work is also abt evreething

RJC: Your work is consistently described as shamanistic and Blakean, and, without a doubt, there is a strong spiritual component to your work. What I think gets discussed less is the focus on real lived experience. An example would be when you write "th trucks ar/ goin past ium pretty/ stond thrs still a/ lotta light ium/ alone typing/ what i feel for/ yu" in pomes for yoshi. Is it important for you to balance these two aspects of your work?

bb: thees 2 realms being bcumming oftn inform n modify each othr help each othr speek 2 each othr
in my nu book novel ther is a pome specifikalee abt what yu ar saying reelee its calld mariashi mewsik in th chinees restaurant sumthing like that its reelee xaktlee calld ium in th chinees restaurant neer by i dont think these 2 th spiritual n th reel livd xperiences realm ar in anee way mutualee xklusiv or ar in anee binaree opposisyunal relaysyunshp with each each othr they reelee can inform each othr tho they ar different realms ther ar sew manee realms uv consciousness yes

RJC: Does the transcendent work without the mundane? The magical without the physical?

bb: 4 sum peopul maybe 4 me they enchance n oftn inhabit each othr

RJC: You have been incredibly prolific producing approximately 78 books in your career. What drives this need to produce and publish?

bb: th taktilitee uv lettrs th pickshurs in th lettrs as well uv kours th silk screen deepr thn diamonds n time th thrill uv artikulaysyun however it follos itself r sum names or unnamed goal thats 2 write n 2 paint 2 publish n 2 show is 4 me an offshoot uv thees aktivitees a necessaree n oftn veree fun n xhilerating xperiens 2 say 2 show 2 share 2 b bcumming

RJC: For the first half of your career, you were primarily your own publisher and editor at blewointmentpress. Since 1981 Talonbooks has served as your publisher. What are benefits and the deficiencies of each publishing model?

bb: theyr both great benefits self publishing yr choices 4 book size can b mor vareed 4 publishing with talonbooks n all th othr publishrs i workd with b4 talonbooks yu get access 2 a biggr market othr kinds uv presentaysyun choices working with talonbooks has bin an awesum wondrous n wundrful xperiens alwayze

RJC: Do you miss being your own publisher?

bb: i lovd being my own publishr tho it wasint xklusivlee sew n it was wrenching 2 give it up i espeshulee lovd n enjoyd sew much printing othr writrs works n dewing theyr books but i fairlee soon didint miss it sew much as nu n othr opportuniteez wer alwayze opning up

RJC: The internet theoretically makes the ability to publish and proliferate poetry, thoughts and ideas available to anyone with access to the web. What does this do poetry and the community of writers and readers?

bb: inkreesing access 2 evreething n that is alwayze xcellent yes

RJC: Where does poetry go next?

bb: poetree totalee goes next wher it goes in all its multi fasiting infinit wayze approaches n beings

RJC: You are known primarily as a poet, but you are also a painter and visual artist and you've performed music with a band. What attracts you to these diverse modes and how do they inform each other?

bb: th lettrs in th image th image in th lettrs strokes shapes strong diffrenses sumtimes in th writing n painting n drawing n also amayzing similariteez

RJC: How did you come to perform with Luddites?

bb: they askd me 2 play with them wun nite in theyr rehersal n thn they askd me in n i realizd it had bin an audishyun i had a lot 2 lern n i lovd lerning it writing lyrics 4 th mewsik dewing th vokal
work th math all th wundrful gigs we did i was part uv an amayzing xperiens lovd it n lernd a ot n
unlernd a lot amayzing time 4 me

RJC: How would you describe the group's sound? When I've listened to the songs I'm reminded of groups like Public Image, Ltd, early Sonic Youth, and a little of Suicide, but it may just be that these groups all have an avant garde sound.

bb: iuv thot uv thos groups yu mensyun as echoes n velvet undrground peopul have mesyund 2 me n us at th time n i wud def describe luddites sound as alternativ rock peopul also sd we wer like th cure but mostlee like ourselvs

RJC: What music do you listen to these days?

bb: reelee evreething

RJC: What have you been reading?

bb: A perfect waiter by alain claude sulzer

Saturday, November 5, 2011

EXCHANGE ON FILM AND POETRY by Thomas Fink and Eric Monder

Thomas Fink: Let’s begin with film aesthetics. In your 1994 book, George Sidney: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood Press), you argue that Sidney’s movies from the forties through the sixties “not only challenged the aesthetic principle of classic Hollywood cinema, but also anticipated, and influenced, modern styles of filmmaking” (1).

While the classic Hollywood “style was to maintain suspension of disbelief in the storylines by concealing the manufacture of the production” (4), you indicate various strategies that Sidney uses to foreground this “manufacture.” One involves narration. You compare “the structure of many Sidney narratives” to “the unfolding of an origami object—its parts are revealed along the way through digressions (or “set pieces”) that do not, at first, seem to add to the story” (16). Characterizing “Sidney’s cinema” as “one of character, mood and incident,” you nevertheless assert that “the seemingly disembodied vignettes. . . do contribute to the understanding of character development or a general theme.”

I want to understand how, in your view, Sidney and later innovative practitioners disrupt narrative via digression or perhaps reinvent narrative as a weaving of digressions and how these formal choices produce thematic consequences. (And I use the adjective “thematic” because you use the noun “theme,” but I’m quite willing to suppose that a movie or poem may have contiguous themes and not one central theme.) In the light of Sidney’s work and what you find most compelling in recent years, I’d also like you to unpack the powerful, evocative statement: “Narrative space (whether a train, a show boat, or a stage) often becomes a character itself, and the pattern of repetition, returning to specific spaces, creates thematic, not narrative, development” (16).

Eric Monder:
In Pilot #5 (1943), Franchot Tone’s character returns to the location where he had “sold his soul” to a corrupt local government (by helping to evict an indigent couple from their home); his epiphany leads to his voluntary demise during a WWII mission, so it dramatically strengthens the ideological theme (standing up to fascism, whether “foreign” or American home-grown), but does not necessarily strengthen the character’s dimensionality.

In Show Boat (1951), Howard Keel’s Gaylord makes a realization about his departure from his marriage when he accidentally meets Ava Gardner’s Julie on a boat (but not the show boat, where both of them had become stars). Julie informs Gaylord that he he has not only left his wife but a child as well. This information prompts Gaylord to return to the original boat, the show boat, and his family, including the daughter he didn’t know he had. Again, there is a circularity of narrative, which offers a neat closure for Gaylord though not for the tragic, mixed-race character of Julie, who is excluded from the traditional family structure and that original space.

In The Eddy Duchin Story (1956), Tyrone Power’s Eddy finally meets the son he barely knew (Duchin rejected him because his son was a painful reminder of his late wife). Either by accident or design (I don’t remember), Duchin takes his son to a NYC park, which used to be the location of a nightclub, the very place Duchin met his first wife (Kim Novak), the boy’s mother. It is at this point, Duchin tells his son that he is dying of leukemia. Again, a circularity of the narrative and a return to a space, which is affecting on a level of grand melodrama and minor suspense though does not necessarily develop narrative or character in a significant way (we already knew about the illness and Duchin’s impending demise—it is only a matter of telling his son).

Fink: These examples help me understand the concept of narrative space as “character” with thematic implications. In the case of Pilot #5, I wonder whether Sidney is simultaneously promoting the ideological theme and indicating how mechanical it is for Hollywood to have to crank it up again and again. In later experimental cinema and even, perhaps, in an occasional contemporary Hollywood “art” film, is there a further use of such space as character in ways that make it more difficult to locate thematic intention?

Monder: By their nature, art films and experimental films confuse thematic concerns. How would you answer your question vis a vis modernist poetry or your own work?

Fink: In the 1920s, the first critics of modernist British and American poetry wanted to emphasize the thematic unity of their objects of attention while acknowledging the difficult multiplicity of references, tones, and “events” in the work. For example, between 1922, when it appeared, and around 1970, every critic seemed to stress that Eliot’s The Waste Land was not just a collage of fragments but a text with a coherent center—for example, a critique of the sterility of post-World War I European society through juxtaposition with the great myth and literature of the past. By the seventies, with the influence of continental theory, critics were returning to texts like The Waste Land , Wallace Stevens’ long meditative poems, H.D. myth-inflected work, Pound’s Cantos , Marianne Moore’s collage-poetry, and other texts to show how various themes interrupt and complicate each other without resolution at the end. From such a perspective, yes, The Waste Land includes elements of critique of Eliot’s contemporary culture, but the insufficiencies of ancient cultures are also manifested, traces of the poet’s personal life infiltrate in ways that cannot persist in being read as wholly “universalizing,” seams between collage-elements are not stable, sometimes bursts of language resist any thematic recuperation, and the “whole” is not reducible to a statement or image.

As for so-called postmodernist poetry written after World War Two, what we’re calling “thematic confusion” is evident from the beginning. (Of course, to cite only one example, some scholars perceived the William Carlos Williams of the long poem Paterson as a modernist and some as a postmodernist, and others find the binary itself too problematic for use.) Among the Black Mountain poets, Creeley and Levertov in the fifties and sixties were more thematically coherent in a given poem than Charles Olson, who believed in leaping directly from one perception to another. But disjunction is a fundamental technique of New York School poets like Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery. In my own poetry, I am often interested in the collision of various themes, though I would not fetishtically “mess up” a poem that works well yet consistently pursues a specific theme.

Regarding another form of disjunction, you observe that “Sidney frequently undercuts the iconic expectations and relationships between star and audience” (10). Do contemporary Hollywood filmmakers use this technique, and if so, is it still able to have a similar impact? Why or why not?

Monder: I don’t think contemporary Hollywood filmmakers as a lot are trying to undercut generic expectations any more than most Hollywood filmmakers of the past. Those who experiment this way are usually (still) on the margins of the Hollywood scene (whatever that is anymore). For example, I don’t see Spielberg even wanting to achieve something different from the typical bourgeois narrative (rather, he reaffirms it), but a director like Abbas Kiarostami is more apt to make film like Certified Copy, which challenges the very idea of narrative and character development. Since those expectations have changed over the years, a Kiarostami must “up the ante” to have a true impact. In retrospect, Sidney seems like that latter kind of filmmaker, yet he worked within the system, so it is difficult for many to appreciate him the way they would a true pioneering independent (e.g. Oscar Micheaux or Orson Welles). Using Welles as the more celebrated version of Sidney, I would argue Welles’ work would have had greater impact, or at least a different impact, in its day. His techniques and ideas have been appropriated over the years, so an uninformed contemporary viewer would not necessarily notice what is different or special about them.

Does any part of what I am saying resonate with you vis a vis John Ashbery or the other New York School poets or is it too difficult to apply to such a different form with its own unique history?

Fink: Neither mainstream nor innovative poetry are solid commercial ventures, to say the least, so a Spielberg in poetry is not being rewarded for “conformity” significantly more than a Kiarostami, even if in most cases, though not all, mainstream poets have greater access to the kind of cultural capital afforded by traditionally respected publishers like Norton or Knopf and magazines like The New Yorker and Poetry. However, what you are saying does resonate with the poetry of Ashbery and company.

Much as it would be interesting to focus on a good-sized portion of the New York School, Koch, O’Hara, Guest, Schuyler, and Ashbery (to cite the figures generally mentioned as the forefront of the first of several generations of the “School”) have as many telling differences in the ways that they deploy disjunction as they do similarities, and a perusal of “second-generation” poets like David Shapiro, Bernadette Mayer, and Ted Berrigan would multiply those differences. So I’ll just discuss Ashbery and those outside the New York School who have “upped the ante.” (And in the interests of brevity, I’m going to do a great deal of simplification.) Ashbery’s best known poem is “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1975), which might seem to be a coherent meditation on a Mannerist painting by Parmagianino. However, if one really reads rather than sails through the poem, s/he finds that generally, every few sentences (and within long sentences), the drift of thinking goes somewhere else, a “place” that cannot clearly be predicted from where it had been. Parmagianino’s painting receives a great deal of attention but does not center a narrative with a determinate trajectory. Contexts multiply. And the ringing conclusion does not conclude in a way that can contain what precedes. In fact, it may raise more questions, however dramatically “final” it sounds as a statement about a privileged moment of perception in relation to presence and absence.

Even if “Self-Portrait” and many of the poems, long and short, that follow it use conventional syntax, unlike “Europe” and other poems in Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath (1962) that dismember all standard models of sentence structure, the poet’s work offers no encouragement for a reader’s retrospective reconstruction of a clearly delineated conflict, complication, climax, etc. And if one somehow discovers “character development” in the text, s/he is making powerful use of her own imaginative (you might say, projective) capacity. In fact, where one character is “speaking” and another has yielded the floor in an Ashbery poem is surely a matter for conjecture, and this New York poet follows Gertrude Stein’s tendency to distribute pronouns throughout a text without tying them to specific human antecedents. For over fifty years, Ashbery has utilized the linguistic tools and signals of narrative—for example, forms of transition like subordinating conjunctions pertaining to space and time—and small bits of plot only to thwart their usual functioning.

On the other hand, to those who appreciate (and write about) this kind of work, these texts do not give the impression of 100% randomness or arbitrariness. It is presumed that the disjunctions—leaps from one image to another, from an image to a trope, a trope to an abstraction, an abstraction to an image—possess a “logic” that may or may not be able to be articulated. It could be a dream logic, a metonymic chain that reveals the functioning of words saturated with social significances and their evasion.

About the time that Ashbery was writing “Self-Portrait,” what would coalesce—at least according to the narrative of literary historians—as Language Poetry in the late seventies and early eighties on the east and west coasts of this country was beginning to gather its forces by concentrating on advanced continental and other theories of language and political discourse. Language poets constructed texts that “upped the ante” through a disruption of syntax that, in some cases, exceeded those of The Tennis Court Oath, through the placement of intervals of disjunction even smaller, through the resituating of lines on the page, through the use of complex procedures such as those introduced by the French Oulipo as early as the fifties and even through the breaking up of words and introduction of “nonsense”-words. Narrative and character development became even more difficult to fathom, even as, in the eighties, writers who were in sympathetic dialogue with the Language poets were conceiving of a “new narrative” that included disjunction as a strategy. Nowadays, “post-avant” or “post-Language” poets are not “upping the ante” in the sense that they are not necessarily finding ways to be even more disjunctive; what they perceive as innovation is the reintroduction of strategies of coherence alongside the kinds of disjunctive modes that Stein and a handful of other modernists, New York School poets, Language poets, experimental feminists, and others made available.

I’d like to hear more about what you consider the most invigorating and influential cinematic techniques used by Orson Welles. And then I’m wondering if you can tell us how Abbas Kiarostami or a similarly representative filmmaker develops strategies that are even more “revolutionary” than those of his precursors.

Monder: That is interesting about the superficial parallel in the history of poetry. A simple example of a “revolutionary” technique in Welles would be his use of multiple narrative levels and points of view in Citizen Kane (1941), though how much this could be attributed to the screenwriter (Herman Mankiewicz) should be considered, since only a few of Welles’ films really do this. Nevertheless, this “breakthrough” from traditional linear narratives—at least in Hollywood---is often attributed to Welles (in his first film yet). Stylistically, his films also have a consistent use of bold camera angle experiments (particularly with wide angle lenses). Multiple narrative levels and points of view are much more common today in mainstream films. Of greater interest to me, actually, is Welles’ deconstruction/reconstruction of film elements in his marvelous art forgery “documentary,” F for Fake (1974), one of his last films: Welles takes “found footage” and joins it with his own to create a reality that doesn’t exist, or at least is questionable. Thus, Welles questions the very notion of “the documentary” as reality and, at the same time, cleverly comments of the theme of his subject—art forgery! It is a highly self-reflexive, Chinese-box sort of film. Today, anyone can create this effect on YouTube—sometimes crudely, sometimes in a more sophisticated way than F for Fake. But I still marvel at the fact the film was made in 1974, and up until then, there had been only minor experiments of this sort in the avant garde.

A note about Kiarostami: he, too, blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction in some of his films (before it became fashionable). I found a quote by Jean-Luc Nancy regarding Kiarostami's 1992 film, Life, and Nothing More...

[I]t all looks like reporting, but everything underscores (indique à l'évidence) that it is the fiction of a documentary (in fact, Kiarostami shot the film several months after the earthquake), and that it is rather a document about "fiction": not in the sense of imagining the unreal, but in the very specific and precise sense of the technique, of the art of constructing images. For the image by means of which, each time, each opens a world and precedes himself in it (s'y précède) is not pregiven (donnée toute faite) (as are those of dreams, phantasms or bad films): it is to be invented, cut and edited. Thus it is evidence, insofar as, if one day I happen to look at my street on which I walk up and down ten times a day, I construct for an instant a new evidence of my street (Jean-Luc Nancy, "On Evidence: Life and Nothing More, by Abbas Kiarostami," Discourse 21.1 (1999), p.82).

In the more recent Certified Copy (released in the U.S. this year), Kiarostami toys with traditional character development (and undercuts the narrative development simultaneously) by creating fully-rounded characters who seem to become other people as the story progresses (or at least makes you wonder about them) and the ambiguity remains until the final moments. David Lynch has also experimented this way—my favorite of his in this respect is Mulholland Drive (2001). I don’t think you will find anything quite this bold in earlier mainstream films (Welles’ or anyone else’s), though I might be forgetting something. In all these cases, I believe the reception has been mixed. Not everyone loved Citizen Kane in its day, not everyone loves Certified Copy. But Citizen Kane is much more accepted (and cited as influential) today, so it is likely Certified Copy will be considered more mainstream in the future.

What future outlook do you see for poetry? Are there trends you could cite? What period (or specific poets) seem to be influencing younger writers?

Fink: Some recent trends in contemporary American innovative poetry have important thematic components. Poetry connected to environmental movements, Queer Theory (and especially transgender concerns), Web 2.0, the reclamation of history by people of color, or work that combines two of this categories is likely to have increased visibility and number of practitioners for the rest of this decade, and the dialogue among practitioners within each group will likely produce substantial complications. Thus, possibilities of “statement”/demystification of statement and aesthetic modes of delivering such communications will multiply. The poets’ points of solidarity and conflict with one another—often played out in blogs and other social media—may shift and will become increasingly evident, so more and more divergent positions within such areas as ecopoetry, transgender poetry, and new media work will supplant any sense that the practitioners should be lumped together.

To recall Robert Creeley’s dictum, “Form is never more than an extension of content,” the struggle to establish a solid relationship between new perspectives and information and poetic forms will engender both new formal constructs and yet, perhaps contrary to Creeley’s point, may influence how the content itself is absorbed. As often is the case, evolving (hard) scientific, social scientific, and computer scientific knowledge will put pressure on poets to expand or transform their linguistic, auditory, visual, and kinesthetic imagination.

Ecopoetry has been around a long time, so I should mention that, in the texts of ecopoets like Brenda Iijima and Jessica Grim, the relatively simple, declarative, descriptive modes of eco-forefathers like Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder (both still writing) give way to a discourse that complicates declaration, description, and focus while providing markedly different aesthetic pleasures.

Since the cinema and poetry are our foci here, I want to mention the cinematic poetry of Paolo Javier and Peter Nickowitz. Both poets (and there are undoubtedly others I’m not thinking of or am not yet aware of) not only write poems that include the cinema and metacinema as subject matter—I think especially of Javier’s “Ladies and Gentlemen—Mr. Bill Murray” in ways that complicate Frank O’Hara’s homages to the movies, but they “shoot” poems as though they were movies, and Javier also has also produced powerful comic book poetry. These cross-genre innovations can certainly be elaborated in different directions by poets to come.

To move to another aspect of film, do films really need music to manipulate the emotional responses of audiences? Or does a relative lack of music make a movie too “naked,” and if so, why?

Monder: I found your answer a bit startling. I knew that that race, gender, and political issues had become addressed in modern poetry, but I thought (or would have thought) that was the trend (say, 1980s - 2000s) and now something else, less didactic or obvious, would be emerging, as we both acknowledged--in our earlier exchange--has happened in the cinema. Not that cinema and poetry could be considered on the same track, as we also acknowledged, or that generalizing this way is very useful.

Fink: What I’ve been trying to convey is that contemporary innovative poets have taken up the challenge to address these political issues in ways that are “less didactic or obvious” than mainstream writers tend to do.

Monder: So I'll move on to music.

Music does not need to be present at all to evoke or manipulate emotional responses. The visuals alone could do that. It is noteworthy that several provocative films have no (or at least very little) music--Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and The Birds (1963), Ackerman's Jeanne Dielmann (1975), and many avant garde classics. Originally, in fact, Hitchcock wanted no music in the famous Psycho shower scene. I think music has the potential to greatly influence a viewer's feelings about a scene or an entire movie, particularly in a melodrama (melos = music in Greek) that employs a leitmotif, but music could also have the opposite effect (either by the filmmaker's design or mistake): thus, a score in a Godard film will probably not manipulate a viewer's response in the traditional sense. If anything, it will most likely repel the viewer in the same way Godard's editing style is oft-putting. But if that was the intention, that is also a sort of manipulation.

I guess you could call the films without music I referenced "naked," but I don't really think of them that way because each one has very sophisticated uses of sound--just not musical sounds.

Fink: Yes, it makes excellent sense to speak of “sophisticated uses of sound” without necessarily including music. The lack of music can force viewers to attend more carefully to that sound.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Interview with Graham Harman

Tom Beckett: I’m interested in intersections, crossroads, points of connection and departure. Is there a place, for you, where poetry and philosophy meet?

Graham Harman: At times I wonder if they are different at all. This statement causes outrage for scientistic philosophy, with its insipid model opposing real facts outside the mind to arbitrary, decorative, poetic fictions inside the mind. I reject this scientistic model not for the “postmodernist” reason that everything is a poetic fiction inside the mind, but rather because everything is a poetic reality outside the mind. In other words, I don’t see the real world as the brutal collision of physical chunks monitored by tough-minded researchers in white coats, cheered on by their philosophical sycophants. Instead, I see the physical world as riddled with cracks and fissures of the same sort that is generated by poets, and the great scientists know this as well. There is obviously something quite poetic about the ideas of Einstein and Bohr, for example.

We read lots of material during our education, but now and then there are books and essays that have the sound of doors opening onto strange new corridors. This is the special privilege of the young, and they don’t appreciate it enough, not knowing how soon it will be lost. One of those moments for me came as a college freshman, eighteen years old, when I read an essay-length introduction to a book of poems by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset from his collection Phenomenology and Art. The seeds of my philosophy are in that essay, which I read before ever finishing a single book of Heidegger. Its topic is metaphor.

Ortega distinguishes between the reality of things as perceived, and their “executant” reality as just being what they are. The direct (“executant”) experience of a toothache cannot be translated into any descriptions of it, no matter how detailed. Reading a 1,000-page Proustian novel about a toothache is not the same thing as experiencing that toothache first-hand. This point is now fairly standard among philosophers of mind who defend first-person “feels” against the hardcore eliminativists who want to reduce everything to objective third-person descriptions. But the important point with Ortega is that he did not limit this to human or animal consciousness. Instead, he says in the essay that everything in the cosmos can be viewed as an “I”– there is an “I box,” an “I candle,” and an “I star.” Ortega was no panpsychist and didn’t think that these things had feelings. He was simply making the point that nothing, not just conscious experience, can be fully translated into outward descriptions. The executant reality of things forever withdraws from access. The greatness of art, in Ortega’s view, is that it gives us a special kind of simulated access to executant reality.

The essay is quite atypical of Ortega, and he never developed its themes any further. Most of the time he was a bit too obsessed with the mutual dependence of human and world. But in this one essay he touched upon a radical metaphysics that wasn’t just interesting to my 18-year-old self, but deeply engrossing. For perhaps the first time, I felt myself in contact with a genuinely unexplored philosophical idea, and it seemed obligatory always to keep it in mind. The best essay I wrote as a freshman used Ortega’s essay to interpret Paul Verlaine’s poem “Pierrot.” Only when writing Guerrilla Metaphysics (2005), which contains a whole section on that Ortega essay, did I finally force myself to start putting my thoughts about it into words. That was nearly 20 years of incubation, and I reread the essay countless times along the way.

For me, art in general is a special way of breaking the bond between an object and its own qualities, and I believe it is now the central mission of philosophy to theorize the deformations and breakdowns in this bond. As I see it, they come in either four or ten forms, depending on how you count them. In this sense, aesthetics is first philosophy; aesthetics is not lipstick and jewelry worn by sober truths that can otherwise be stated as discursive propositions. Many literary critics already knew this, of course, but they tended to think that this was a special property of literature as opposed to science or philosophy (see Cleanth Brooks, for example). But in fact, not even science or philosophy are doing their jobs properly if they dish out nothing but straight literal propositions. The world is not made of propositions, but of animals, chemicals, sports teams, and bombs.

None of these things can be translated into words or perceptions without significant energy loss.

TB: The world is not made of propositions. Yet any person’s experience can be conceived as being made of language. What is your sense of the limits of language in terms of your practice as a philosopher?

GH: The only limits of language in philosophy are the same limits found everywhere else– language cannot make the things directly present. The things cannot be transmuted directly into language. The attempt to set up rules for how to use language logically to refer to the real world rather than referring to mere illusions is hopeless. We need to be as inventive in our language as Picasso in his depiction of solid objects.

Different personality types dominate philosophy in different eras, as new needs come to the fore. The dominant personality type of recent decades has been the precise and assertive arguer who speaks clearly and likes to call people out on “nonsense.” It’s a personality that holds itself not to believe in very much, but to undercut the gullibility of other people’s beliefs.

My view is that the era of this personality has now run its course, and has become a pestilence of sorts. What we need now is something more like the artist type, given to new ways of staging problems. We need to find the equivalent of “philosophy installations,” whatever that might be.

There are too many calls in philosophy for clear writing, but rarely any calls for vivid writing. I agree that writing should be clear, but if this is your first priority, it means that you think the real problem with most philosophy is obfuscation, muddiness, evasiveness, and so forth. But the real problem with much philosophy is that it simply takes a position in some pre-existing trench war without innovating as to the terms of the problem. The result is an increasing supply of rational but boring assertions, not a fresh rethinking of the problem.

Philosophical language should be primarily vivid, and only secondarily clear. We should be clear when things are clear, but when we reach the edge of what is known, why pretend to know more than we do? I like a philosopher with a sense of when to use chiaroscuro. There are shadows in the world, and good writing should contain corners of shadow as well.

TB: I tend to read a difficult long poem—Pound’s Cantos, say, Zukofsky’s “A” , or Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation—in the same way that I read a challenging philosophy text. I suspend any pretence of total understanding and forge ahead. I’m “studiously unprepared” to borrow a phrase from William Carlos Williams. I’m most engaged when I’m at least somewhat textually uncertain. I like having room for improvisational thought. But, you’re right, what sustains me as reader in such situations is vividness. As, for example, your gorgeous invocation of Dante or of a giant ferris wheel in Circus Philosophicus. Among poets, some of us talk about the music of meaning. It seems increasingly that among the new philosophers, yourself and other “Speculative Realists,” it is the chatter of objects that holds sway.

What is an object, anyway? And why should philosophy be oriented toward objects rather than language, social change, sexuality or animals?

GH: An object is a unified entity that has qualities differentiating it from all other objects. The majority of philosophies we see are attempts to annihilate most objects. This is done by those who want to say that there are no mid-sized horses, tables, and chairs in the world, but only tiny little particles or mathematical structures. But they fail in this effort, because larger-scale objects are not merely an illusory aggregate of the behavior of their tiny little components.

The other kind of reductionist works in the opposite direction. They say that there are no objects because objects are merely superstitious fictions posited as lying beneath whatever is presented to the mind, or whatever has real effects in the world. But they fail as well, because if objects were nothing more than their givenness to the mind or their effects in the world here and now, there would be no reason for anything ever to change. There would be no surplus in the present world capable of making things other than they currently are, just as Aristotle saw when critiquing the Megarians for saying that no one is a house builder unless they are building a house at this exact moment. (I simply disagree with Aristotle that “potentiality” is the way to solve the problem.)

Objects are paradoxes, because they are more than their subcomponents but less than their effects on other things. Objects live on the mezzanine level of the world. Or rather, there are countless mezzanine levels in the world, because a proton is an object no less than a horse is.

This makes some people worry, because they assume that this would lead to a wild proliferation of imaginary entities bloating the cosmos. But there is no problem here, since not all objects are real. If I conceive of some bizarre monster, it is no less an object than genuine trees and horses are. But whereas the trees and horses are deeper than any possible effects they might have (because they are real objects) and can act on each other even if all humans are dead, the same is not true of the monster in my mind (which Husserl called intentional objects, a term long since distorted to mean the same thing as “real,” though it means exactly the opposite).

To answer your second question, the reason to focus on objects rather than on “language, social change, sexuality or animals” is because philosophy is obliged to be global in scope. If philosophy were to give one of these other entities a starring role, it would have to reduce the rest of the universe to them. “Language is the root of everything.” Here, you are choosing one specific kind of entity to be the root of all others, and there is no basis for this. Sociology tends to view all reality in terms of its emergence from human societies and belief-systems. Psychology treats all reality as made up primarily of mental phenomena. Physics deals with tiny physical objects and says that everything is made out of them, except that physics is useless when trying to explain things like metaphors, the Italian Renaissance, the meaning of dreams, and so forth.

All these other disciplines focus on one kind of object as the root of all else in the world. Only philosophy can be a general theory of objects, describing Symbolist poetry and the interaction of cartoon characters just as easily as the slamming together of two comets in distant space.

TB: I began this interview wanting to pursue your ideas about language and the poetics of experience. Instead I find myself stuck on your idea of “philosophy installations” and imagining a room full of simultaneous translators amidst a giddy “carnival of things.” Have you given any further thought to what form a philosophy installation might take?

GH: The closest we ever came to this in the history of philosophy was a strange manuscript by the young Leibniz in 1675, proposing a sort of carnival of knowledge. He mentions magic lanterns, optical exhibits, fireworks, and water fountains, along with gardens of medicinal herbs, laboratories, adding machines, and even including such sideshows as rope dancers, fire eaters, and “perilous leaps.” Plenty of the activities at this circus would also be purely scientific, but always surrounded by the aforementioned carnivalesque entertainments, which Leibniz obviously took great pleasure in imagining.

If it were my carnival, I’d probably go about it a bit differently. For me, philosophy has a great deal to do with the tension between objects and their qualities, and with the various forms of breakdown in this tension. I would want exhibits that shed light on these processes somehow. Probably the easiest to envisage at this point would involve the “Heideggerian” sort of breakdown of environmental equipment when we least expect it.

My thoughts about this are rough and green, but given the increasing frequency of my contacts with artists of various sorts, it’s probably just a matter of time before someone from the arts world comes and throws down the gauntlet and says: “we have backing for this, so what are your ideas?” And then I’ll have to turn my energies very suddenly in that direction. It feels almost inevitable.

TB: I can’t wait to see that eventual collaboration.

Meanwhile, at the end of Guerrilla Metaphysics, you wrote: “…although we have tried to undercut all claims for the preeminence of language in philosophy, it would still be important to know a thing or two about language even if it is no longer destined to play the starring role it has enjoyed for the past one hundred years.” I took that to mean that you still have some issues that you want to work out regarding the role of language in philosophy. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on these matters at this point in time.

GH: Heidegger famously distinguishes between the “ontological” and the “ontic.” The ontological is what pertains to being as such, while the ontic is that which is of relevance to specific beings.

What we saw during the very long Broadway run of the “linguistic turn” in philosophy was language elevated to an ontological role, with all philosophical problems reinterpreted as problems of language. Obviously, this is no longer allowed by object-oriented philosophy, which treats all objects as equally objects.

Nonetheless, our new ontological principle does not mean that all objects are equally interesting or important. We might say that language and aluminum cans are equally objects, but a philosophical exploration of aluminum cans is unlikely to bring much light into the world. Language, however, is an extremely interesting ontic topic even after being deprived of its ontological monarchy– just as Rome remains one very interesting city among others, even though it is no longer the center of the universe.

In this respect, language may still loom large in object-oriented philosophy even though it must be stripped of its transcendental-ontological constitutive power for everything else that exists.

TB: I understand that you’re working on a study of H.P. Lovecraft. What instigated that?

GH: Most readers discover Lovecraft in adolescence, but I never read a word of him until my late thirties. My reaction to reading him was not quite immediate, but when I finally reached “The Call of Cthulhu” and also “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (perhaps the most underrated Lovecraft tale), the effect was powerful and lasting.

As the years passed, I found that I was rereading the best Lovecraft stories almost compulsively. And I found that he had little in common with what is usually called “pulp” literature. I saw Lovecraft not just as very imaginative, but as a literary stylist of the highest caliber.

Then, when the original speculative realist group started in 2007, we were astonished to discover that while there were no shared philosophical heroes in the group, we had all read and adored Lovecraft, even Meillassoux in Paris.

I wanted to share my enthusiasm for Lovecraft by someday writing a book about him. Thanks to the experimental spirit of Zero Books, the chance arose much earlier than expected.

The American University in Cairo has generous research funding available, and thus I was able to spend a large part of the summer of 2011 in Providence, Lovecraft’s very formative home city, a place I had never been before. It’s important to see the hometowns of authors you’re writing about, I’ve found. You might not be able to put in words what you learn about the author from seeing the place where they were molded, but you can get a sense of the atmosphere– a glimpse of what they regarded as normalcy.

The atmosphere of Providence? Charming and a bit eerie. It’s more quiet than I expected, and also incredibly hilly, at least in Lovecraft’s part of town near the Brown University Campus.

Lovecraft is one of the greats in American literature. I don’t think it’s a stretch to put him in the same league as Poe, and I say that as something of a Poe-worshipper. And both Poe and Lovecraft are given too little credit as stylists. Everyone is in a rush to identify them as co-enthusiasts of “scary content.” But what they really have in common is style, a certain way of hinting and alluding to make things more horrible than if they were directly stated.

Poe is the more polished high-literary figure of the two, but if Lovecraft is slightly more awkward at times, he makes up for it with a vaster cosmic vision than Poe ever attempted.

TB: China Miéville is a writer who emerges as a character in Circus Philosophicus. Does his fiction figure importantly for you too?

GH: I met China at a Lovecraft event at Goldsmiths College in London, just one day before the inaugural Speculative Realism event, and we’ve occasionally corresponded since then and I’ve met him a few other times in London. He’s a well-spoken guy who makes a great impression. This may sound silly, but I met him without realizing how famous he was, so I asked him a dumb question: "Where can I find your books?" He answered graciously and humbly, but then I felt like an idiot on the way out of London when I saw his books all over Heathrow Airport.

I’ve read a number of China’s books. My overall favorite is probably The City and the City, which uses a superb idea that someone should have come up with a long time ago. It changed my experience of daily walks, as I often try to practice “seeing” and “unseeing” people to imagine what it would feel like. But my favorite individual feature of any of the novels is probably the magnificent descriptions of music in his debut novel, King Rat. You wouldn’t think that techno music could be described in words, but he pulls it off in that book. China has also written a treatise on international law with a strongly Marxist flavor, which is not as well known among his fans. He’s charismatic, smart as hell, and I’m glad he’s around. We’re not close personal friends, but he did enjoy being put on an oil platform in Circus Philosophicus, which was a bit of a prank on my part.

TB: In the chapter on Humor in Guerrilla Metaphysics, you wrote: “In this book, we will have to bypass the topic of dreams, despite its obviously promising connection with two of our central topics, simply because a reading of Freud in terms of object-oriented philosophy would require more than a few pages.” I’m wondering if you could at least provide a sketch of your approach to the subject.

GH: Allow me to begin with an anecdote. I didn’t read Freud until my senior year of college, largely because he is one of those authors, like Marx, where you feel (wrongly) as though you already know what they’re going to say, simply because they have permeated the culture. So, you grow up hearing that “Freud thinks everything is sex,” and it sounds too robotic, and so you don’t bother to read him. That was my own experience until I was 21 or 22 years old.

Then much to my surprise, I loved Freud. It was an immediate passion and a rather strong one. (Among other things, he was one of the best writers of the twentieth century in any genre, fiction included.) Along with the three works we read for class –On the Interpretation of Dreams and a couple of the case studies– I then spent the entire summer before graduate school reading pretty much nothing but Freud for three months.

But backing up to senior year, a gruff classmate of mine walked into my workplace on campus one day and asked what I thought of our Freud readings for class. I said I loved them passionately. His reaction was dismissive: “What? I thought you were a Heideggerian. What does it mean to say that a dream ‘is’ a wish-fulfillment?”

I didn’t have a good answer to his question, and of course I did agree with the anti-reductionist sentiment behind the question. But I somehow felt there was something different going on in Freud from the reduction part of it. For me it was more the reverse movement that was underway in Freud: a system of translations, not of reductions.

An easy object-oriented critique of Freud would go something like this: “Last night I dreamed that I was a harpooner. But this dream cannot be reduced to a wish for mighty phallic prowess. Instead, it might also refer to a desire for adventure on the high seas, or to have a remarkable object of quest in my life analogous to Captain Ahab’s White Whale. In many ways a harpoon is more interesting than genitals in the first place. Aside from that, the harpoon is a symbol resembling the trident, which through Poseidon is linked with horses and earthquakes. Indo-European anthropologists tell us further that earthquakes are connected symbolically with Such-and-Such and So-and-So, and these further symbols are more the meaning of the dream than any phallic connotations. Freud is wrong.” And so forth. And all these critiques have been made many times, yet they somehow fail to make Freud uninteresting.

We would have to say not just that the harpoon symbol in the dream is irreducible downward to its libidinal causes and irreducible upward to its systematic anthropological interrelations. This is true enough, but something more is going on as well.

First, there is the fact that the “phallic” aspect of the harpoon is already an overly specific translation of a rather amorphous libido, which Freud knew can cathect objects in many different ways.

Second, it may very well be the case that the harpoon does serve as a kind of substitute satisfaction for whatever frustrated impulses the dreamer is undergoing. This idea of indirect fulfillment is what made Freud one of the greats, opening up a vast field of psychoanalytic study covering all of human culture.

But I would say that they are not just substitute satisfactions. They soon become real ones. If you become an ace harpooner on board the Pequod and begin to take real pleasure in it, perhaps your Freudian analyst in the morning will trace this back to some sort of compensation for organic inadequacy, and perhaps your Jungian analyst in the afternoon will tell you about the harpoon archetype (which I doubt even exists in Jungian circles; this is a made-up example just for fun). But maybe what is really happening is that an erotic wish has been transformed into a self-fulfilling love of the harpooner’s career. And this leads me to a more basic idea that interests me in many different spheres.

There is a widespread tendency to think that if anything is moved in any way by ulterior impulses, then it must be entirely corrupted by those impulses. For instance, John Dean of Watergate fame came to lecture in Cairo six years ago. He was presenting himself to some extent as a hero for turning on the Nixon people and testifying against them in Congress. A rather cynical friend of mine said: “So what? He only did it to save his own skin.”

To which I should have replied: “So what to you too?” The fact that something is guided initially by self-interest does not reduce it utterly to that aspect. For example, the initial reasons for St. Thomas Aquinas becoming a Catholic may have been something petty like the wish to please his parents and be treated as a good boy. Well, that hardly matters, does it? The origins of a thing do not always contain its truth. Supposing young St. Thomas wanted to please his parents, then enjoyed the praise he received during his studies, who cares if these were his original motives for extreme piety? Over time, it became something much more. We could say that the original incentives lured him into the profession, but then the profession became much more to him than the original lures.

To give another example, about twenty years ago I dropped by a co-worker’s house after work. He had a number of ballet books on his coffee table, and in no way was he the ballet-loving type. I asked him about the books, and he candidly admitted that he had met a ballet dancer, found her extremely attractive, and was reading about ballet to impress her, out of purely sexual motives. He even chuckled about it in a way I found unpleasantly cynical.

Whether or not he succeeded with the young woman I don’t know, but I’m sure he went nowhere in his knowledge of ballet. But what if he had? Let’s say he had become fascinated by the books, forgotten the woman, and realized his vocation and become the world’s greatest expert on Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” It wouldn’t really matter how crude his initial motives were, would it? Aristotle is very clear about this. We become good by imitating good people, meaning that we’re fakes and frauds in stage one, and become genuine only later. This is the main reason that it’s unfortunately difficult to trust young people, because they’re often at a stage of imitation or play-acting as a way of becoming the real thing, and you can never be sure if what you think you see before you is the genuine item, or just an assumed costume that will be reversed the next week under different impulses. Over time, we all become more and more who we are.

And so it is with desires, I think. The cynical approach would say something like: “Basically, all people care about is sex and power.” Perhaps at some stage that is more or less true of everyone, but the lust for sex and power can be transformed by a kind of alchemy into a love of harpoons, Catholicism, or ballet. This isn’t quite the same thing as “sublimation,” which still assumes a kind of dualism, with the libido lurking underwater and ballet a pristine Other that provides substitute satisfaction. Instead, I would say that the libido is in the ballet, which isn’t really sublimated at all, but simply a metamorphosis of the libido that has now become autonomous and self-contained.

The issue goes beyond dreams, and covers all transformation of one thing into another. I’m against the reduction of anything to its causes or foundations, but also against the idea that anything rises too far above those causes and foundations. A child can never be reduced to its parents, yet the child will always preserve a disturbing number of features and mannerisms from its parents. Do you ever cough and hear the sound of your father coughing, or recognize your mother’s eyes when you look in the mirror? It would be like if you transmute lead to gold, but then the gold is still somehow lead at the same time.

To go back to the original anecdote, where my gruff classmate mockingly asked what it means to say that a dream “is” a wish-fulfillment, I would turn this around and ask: how does a wish turn into a dream? That’s what I always loved about Freud: the fact that one thing always had the power to turn into another, especially if blocked or stymied.

TB: A final semi-articulate question, then. Where do you locate your hope(s) for transformation and change?

GH: In the avoidance of trench war, and that’s what insight always means. There is a tendency to set oneself in opposition to a certain position and attempt to annihilate it, as if that were the work of thought. “If only there weren’t so many stupid people who keep believing in irrational things like God, then everything would be OK.”; “If only people would stop clinging to the pathetic illusion that a self exists, then we would make real progress.” Look at the political sphere, and you’ll find some examples of this as well.

But the key to overcoming trench wars is not to compromise with some watery hybrid of the two. This will always secretly favor one of the two sides. The golden example of such a gesture is correlationism, which claims to “overcome” the idealist/realist opposition, but is really just idealism with some defense mechanisms built in. “We’re not idealists, we believe the self is always already outside itself in pointing at the world” (phenomenology); “We’re not idealists, we believe in the Real as an originary inassimilable trauma” (Fichte, Lacanians).

No, the way out of the trench war is usually to adopt openly the “old-fashioned” side that is being critiqued, while finding some way to flip it completely into something strange. I think of Cézanne in painting, who amidst the impressionist revolution found a way to retrieve the solidity of objects without relapsing into academicism, and in doing so he paved the way for cubism. In philosophy I think of Leibniz, who amidst the general assault on substantial forms in the new physics, and the general assault on multiplicity in Spinoza (who has been a bit too much in vogue lately), revived substantial forms and the multiplicity of individuals. Instead of merely extrapolating from the general modern critique and pushing it a step further, Leibniz like Cézanne gave us an unexpected reversal. This is the only way to win a trench war, otherwise you’re simply locked in a war of annihilation with an enemy defined as the evil that must be crushed so that things can turn out happy in the end.

Cézanne was really an impressionist, but he also understood what had been lost with the breakdown of three-dimensional pictorial space, and that forced him to discover an innovative way to render solidity simply because he had no other choice. Leibniz was really a modernist, but he had read Suárez like a fiend in his youth and understood how solid the Scholastics really were, and this led him to his strangely gorgeous retrieval of Aristotelo-Scholastic philosophy. These are my heroes: the people who look at first like throwbacks, but are actually more modern than the moderns, because instead of just tweaking daddy’s nose, they also preserve the ways in which daddy was right, and thus go further than the more overt radicals.

And that’s how it is with object-oriented philosophy, we hope. There has now been a long assault on objects, objectivity, essence, substance, and so forth. The cutting edge opposes these concepts and the supposedly gullible, oppressive patriarchs who champion them, and seems to think they are superstitions that must be put behind us forever. But history doesn’t work by putting things behind us forever. It puts things behind us for awhile, and then they resurface in some non-archaic form suited to the new conditions. Who really thought that pirates would return as a major threat to the world, for instance? Who in 1965 would have guessed that political Islam would reappear on stage, at a time when the Arab world was in a socialist and secular phase? Who could have thought in 1646 that someone was being born that very year who would write great philosophy by retrieving the substantial forms, which modern thought was supposed to have exterminated? If you want to see the future, look for the supposedly naïve theories that have just been debunked, and try to figure out some futuristic way to modify them so that they would be feasible under the new conditions without being mere relapses.

And let me just add that I’m not sure how this would apply to the present political situation, which is one reason I’ve kept a certain distance from it (I’m against Badiou’s conception of philosopher-as-militant, refreshing though it may be after decades of deconstruction). What is the truth here? Was Marx wrongly thought to have been refuted in 1989, and is now returning from the dead in novel and highly pertinent form? Or is it that the protestors, in letting their prefixes do the thinking for them (“neo”-liberalism), are missing the inner truth and greatness of liberalism?

There is undeniably a certain banality to the world in our time, a demoralizing commercial hustle. But I’m extremely suspicious of the near-unanimity that prevails in political views in world intellectual circles right now. The price of admission to these circles is a series of expected denunciations that reassure everyone that you’re on their team. This is why I don’t respond immediately to demands to provide a politics of OOO, because I suspect that I’m just being asked to provide the usual, predictable denunciations, just as if I were being ordered to wear a flannel shirt and beard stubble at a grunge music party. That’s not intellectual debate, that’s just group solidarity, and I don’t care how good you think your group is– group solidarity is not a form of thinking.

For example, I’m writing this response from Istanbul, where I saw the 2011 Biennale yesterday. The theme was art and politics, and I was disappointed to find that all the political messages were exactly the same! Everything is America’s fault, Israel’s fault, capitalism’s fault. So, is the answer really that easy, and all we need to do is join forces to fight all the stupid and greedy corporate interests that prevent the truth from prevailing? Maybe, but this smells too much like trench war to me. It looks too much like the very “failure of imagination” of which everyone is so quick to accuse the current system.

There’s a wise old saying: don’t become worse than what you’re fighting. I would put a twist on that and say: don’t become less imaginative than what you’re fighting. This is the big danger for the political Left right now. I’m not interested in its moralistic self-congratulation, but only in what it can build. This is why I loved Žižek’s speech at the Occupy Wall Street protest; he hit the spot and said exactly what needed to be said. Maybe this Left will be able to build quite a lot. We will soon find out, because they are probably on the verge of seizing the upper hand. What is now called neo-liberalism is a little over thirty years old: the California property tax revolt in 1978, Thatcher in 1979, Reagan in 1980. Like any way of looking at the world, it has turned into a robotic application of clichés and no longer seems to be up to the challenge. We are about to undergo a big Leftward swing. When that happens, let’s see what people can do other than critique and oppose. They’ll have about thirty years of leeway before they start to become completely banal themselves, and then we’ll swing in the other direction again in about 2045, just as my own life is coming to a close.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


Thomas Fink: The noun “Notes” in the title of your book indicates that you are studying something: “Texture.” We’ll get to why you’re doing that a little later. The titles of the prose-poems give a sense that the note-taking took place on particular days, but this mode of titling also evokes the idea of a diary. Of course, as this excerpt from the beginning and end of the table of contents indicates, the dates are not in chronological order; most are from the year 2003 but a few are from 2004:

10.9.2003 . . . .


What I notice is that the progression isn’t exactly random. For example, in the first part above, the first and third prose-poems are a day apart, as are the fourth and sixth, and the seventh and tenth, whereas in the second part, the first and third are a day apart, the second and fourth two days apart, the fifth and sixth the same day. And in the first eleven, there’s a buildup from the numbers two to nine in the date category, whereas in the last eleven, the buildup in the date category is from 25 to 29. So it’s not merely a matter of disrupting chronology so that the “notes” or “diary” are “flowing” in an “organic” way from poem to poem. Imagine what a diary with such a smashing of chronology would do to the reader’s sense of temporal unfolding! But this is not a set of notes or a diary; it’s poetry.

The marking of time is problematic. The prose-poem “6.2.2003” could have been started and finished, merely started, or merely finished on that day, or even none of the above. Something begun in 2003 could have been finished just in time for the book’s production.

I don’t want you to give away any mystery or any absent center. Could you just, please, tell us something (anything) about the use of the date titles and the undermining of chronology?

Sawako Nakayasu: Is it not a set of notes? And not a diary? How do you know that it’s poetry? Of the many interesting topics you bring up, that’s where my attention initially lands: if you remove the book from context and just look at it as an object, the title would (should?) lead you to think that it is a set of “notes.” If you flip through the pages, the dates should stand out as a signifier for “diary,” though, as you note, they are not quite in chronological order. The editors at Letter Machine were kind enough to respect my wishes to not have the label “poetry” on the back cover – and with most of the book written in prose, who’s to say? Of course I love poetry and have little to no objection to being called a poet, but I’ve always found troubling – or rather, I’ve always felt a desire to trouble – any kind of genre segregation: market-based, institution-based, or otherwise.

Around 2003, when I wrote this book, blogs were just starting to get embraced by the masses, including masses of poets. Poets had blogs where they talked, opined, argued about poetry, and/or blogs to which they posted their poems. I wanted to try it out, too – and Texture Notes is what came out. That was the name of my blog, initially, though I eventually removed most of those original posts as I started to form a book out of it. So – chronology: the dates do correspond to the dates when the poems were written, which is also the day they were posted (and “published”) to my blog. And by that I mean that most, if not all, of the poem was written on that day. The poems were later revised, at various points between the date of inception and the day I finally gave it over to the editors at Letter Machine, but it was largely surface-level; the core of the poem arrived on the date that serves as its title.

There was something interesting, psychologically, about instantaneously publishing a poem – I’m sure many writers had this experience around that time, but the notion of an audience being immediately present (regardless of whether they were actually there or not – the potential was enough, I guess) compelled me to write on a somewhat regular basis – it was fun, sort of – (though if I look back at the contents of what I wrote then, I would question how much fun I was really having in life). (The previous statement would imply that this work also does function as a diary, at least in part.) But I would venture to say that a sense, some sense, of audience, is a part of my writing process. After graduating from college, I was worried about the sudden lack of writing workshops (with its built-in audience system), and began writing texts for performances – and hence writing for real, live audiences. When I finished graduate school, Craig Watson took it upon himself to give me an “assignment” – his way of keeping me writing. And so it turns out that it’s not necessary to have a large audience, but an audience of one is enough too. Writing on a blog was like that – I didn’t need to have a large readership, but any reader would suffice. My current idea (current, as in, from the last month or so) is to give poetry readings for an audience of one – one person at a time, I mean. It’s very intimate.

Back to the idea of chronology. The poems are placed in order of the day of the month they were written; hence the pseudo-pattern that you notice. When it came time for me to turn the blog-entries into a book, I considered many many ways of ordering the pieces – and concluded that this worked the best. (Many of my decisions are made intuitively, so I’m afraid I can’t explain any further than this.)

TF: Your questioning of genre segregation is very useful. A diary involves autobiographical notes, and notes could be framed as a diary. Chez Derrida and de Man, an autobiographical text is no less a fiction than a poem or prose-poem. The diary and notes as blog poetry also promote intimacy, as you say, between writer and audience. Intimacy, I think, is a major component of an investigation of texture. How did you get interested in doing a blog with (prose-) poems/ notes/ entries with texture as topic?

SN: After all that, let’s just call them poems, for simplicity’s sake. As for your question, it’s been so long since I wrote this that I’m having trouble recalling how it all got started – I just went back to the blog and took a look, where I can actually see the pieces in the order I wrote them (though they’re no longer visible to the public). So it looks like the first one I wrote was on 5.25.2003 – though it turns out that looking at the first few poems I wrote doesn’t tell me how all of this got started either, but it’s just as well. I start many writing projects, often, and some of them stick and some of them don’t. After I had exhausted the Texture Notes project, I changed the name of the blog to Insect Tutelage, and started posting Ant poems – those went on for a long time, if a few years can be considered a long time, and then I just stopped writing them. The ants have come to take on another beyond-text life, involving performances and other projects.

But regarding texture: I was in a between-cultures state, and texture seemed to be a means of capturing what I found varying between the places where I wrote, or lived, or thought about, the contents of this book – mostly Japan, the US, and France. In Japan, there’s something about the lack (in general greetings) and abundance (unintentional and undesired, as in crowded trains) of physical contact which I found interesting. That somehow you could be in a packed train, where your bodies are literally smashed up against everyone else’s, and yet by sheer intention you could somehow feel that you were not actually touching any of these people. So it’s possible that my interest in texture evolved out of a consideration for bodies in space. Contact improvisation dance was a big part of my life around then, too – which means I was interested in individual textures (“Whenever I meet new people I want to touch them first and find out their texture”) as well as the textures that arise among groups, masses of people and things – hence the field of bicycles, trail of anything, rooms full of things – boots, eyeballs, an airplane filled with diamonds. The population density of Tokyo must have played a part, since many of the poems seem rather heavily populated.

I was interested in how far I could take this idea of texture.

TF: In the last poem, you joke about “contact improvisation dance”: “Went to a fight. Contact improvisation broke out” (109). And I understand that you’re a hockey player, too; that’s quite a contact sport!

“How far [you] could take this idea of texture”—yes, and exceeding customary thresholds is itself an important topos. In such poems as the “Nightmare about Hamburgers” (“9.2.2003,” 3), the direct encounter with the “very very fat woman’s” folds of fat (“6.3.2003,” 5), the “trail of anything—insects, hamburgers, bicycles” (“9/19/2003,” 61), and a man’s quest for a woman in a roomful of boots (“10.25.2003,” 87), I find an extreme immersion in an extreme or, by usual standards, excessive sensual event, sometimes deliberately cultivated and sometimes, (as in the first one above) seemingly imposed, that either borders on or reaches something like sexual experience. There seems to be a battle between attraction and repulsion, and sometimes repulsion is overcome by fascination, which is not exactly attraction. And sometimes it’s the sheer quantity and thickness of catalog elements that make the event both enticing as quasi-masochistic pleasure and overwhelming, hence unpleasant. As a writer bearing intentions or as a reader of your own text, how would you characterize the psychosensual or psychosexual aspects of such unusual and intense textural encounters?

SN: I like your idea of extremes – or extremities – of sensual events. On one end might be a whole-body immersion (in hamburger meat, or a room of boots), and on the other, very particular sites of contact: licking an eyeball, poking a finger into an open wound (“9.19.2004,” 63). I’m interested in all that you mention – and in fact I wish you would say more, since I can’t. I can’t, because a) as a “writer bearing intentions,” my intentions are not very clearly known to me at the time of writing; and b) being a reader of my own text would probably lead to some kind of armchair-self-psychoanalysis that we probably should leave alone. These themes are not new to my work, either, but perhaps they are most explicitly manifest in this book in particular.

TF: OK, I will say a little more about extremes. In this book, you lay out some intriguing conceptual art projects, and extremity makes the concepts striking. I wonder how a “fried umbrella” would perform in a rainstorm. And a surrealist would need a lot of rendering skill to paint a “fried umbrella” well. The backwards vomit poem (“6.18.2003”) is reminiscent of Vertov’s cinematic experiments. But perhaps there’s a big distinction between the distancing effect of reading about a moving picture of backwards vomit and the dis-ease of seeing it on screen. This form of mediation may be necessary to avoid being overwhelmed and thus unable to get anything meaningful from the experience. The idea of diamonds filling up the airplane, in which the flight attendant has to serve food and drinks (“9.24.2003”), is equally exciting but less threatening, since diamonds have a positive association.

SN: I like you describing them as “conceptual art projects” – this also overlaps with my writings for performance, some of which are more performable than others. Often I’ve written pieces that I thought were conceptual (and hence not performable), only to end up staging it somehow – this includes “Ice Event,” a hockey game/performance in which there is only one audience member, who is also the puck. The diamonds in the airplane – are intended to counter the positive associations we have with diamonds – they are obstacles that prevent the flight attendant from making progress in her dreadful task of serving Salisbury steak to the passengers, and “what her face looks like at the end of it” implies that her face has been cut up, damaged by the sharpness of the diamonds. When the diamond drops out from under her skirt, it’s like the maid getting caught stealing jewels from the mistress.

I’m not too familiar with Vertov’s work, but if I had to name a filmmaker I feel an affinity for, it’d be Jan Svankmajer – he has such a wacky sensibility that somehow resonates as very honest to me. His films often chew around the intersections between food and flesh, pleasure and revulsion, the abject subject and the boundaries of propriety or social norms… he is definitely a master of the “excessive sensual event,” a lovely phrase you used earlier. We all need more excessive sensual events, I think.

On the other hand, you liken that poem (the backwards vomit poem) to “reading about a moving picture of backwards vomit” – which I find interesting, as that was not my intent, and yet I can see that there is something about the way I narrate that makes it seem as such. I think it’s a mode (or a style, voice, what have you) that I often use, which is related to the distancing effect that you mention.

Or perhaps there are several kinds of distance and intimacy at work. In part I might attribute it to my bougie upbringing – my mother is so proper that I got scolded when I mentioned I had eaten an apple (whole, unpeeled) on the street while walking to the train station. And so these poems filled with snot, shit, vomit, might sound very different coming from someone else, I think. I don’t want it to seem like some kind of ongoing teenage rebellion, but it seems I’ve taken to mining the discord between the propriety of the young Japanese woman (that I was supposed to become) – and the sort of clear, controlled, removed tone of writing that comes with it, and the vomiting and fucking and whatever other improprieties that may go on, to whatever extent, in my life and work.

TF: The representation of abjection (diarrhea, vomit, etc.) and the boundaries of respectable or antisocial behavior (i.e. to eat or not to eat fish eyeballs) are important thematic components of Texture Notes. On the one hand, precision and seemingly objective reportage militate against emotionalism in the treatment of these areas that folks either avoid mentioning or find painful or disgusting, while on the other, in “9.15.2003,” the “addendum” to the first “diarrhea” poem, for example, emotion is cultivated. It’s an emotional solidarity with suffering women:

The texture not of motherfucking diarrhea, but texture of the girls, women, all ages and sizes, who have it, diarrhea like a motherfucker.

Line them up, all of them, after they have done their business or between rounds, holding hands and lined up all across the hemisphere, or holding one hand out, the other hand clutching belly, and hold them, one at a time, warmly, tenderly, but firmly, these women, such consistencies. (47)

You make the textural differences between the waste product and the girls clear, but, for you, what’s the telling difference between the phrases “motherfucking diarrhea” and “diarrhea like a motherfucker”? And do you feel that there’s a feminist component in this and other poems in the book?

SN: Tom you ask such interesting questions that even I wonder if I am getting the answer right…the difference between those phrases is performative, I think. So you imagine: a group of women with sweet, young, feminine voices saying “I have motherfucking diarrhea” or “I have diarrhea like a motherfucker.” Wouldn’t you choose the latter too?

TF: Yes, the rhythm of utterance is better for those speakers!

SN: I might also add that all this grossness, the visceral details, might not so much be about being abject or antisocial, but is perhaps about intimacy, after all. Intimacy, in some ways, is forged through a sharing of viscera – so if you’re holding a woman with diarrhea, or one who is vomiting, or orgasming, or giving birth, that’s intimate. I hope he’ll forgive me for telling this story, but when my partner and I got engaged, I opted to receive my engagement ring in the form of a trip to South America. We were traveling lightly, and after paragliding off the coast of Lima, we went to the hotel room sink to wash our clothes, and discovered skid marks on the inside of his boxers. Of course it’s an embarrassing moment for him, but somehow in that moment I really felt like we were about to get married – sharing our dirty laundry, literally.

As for feminism, yes. I don’t know what kind of feminism this is (do you?), but just comparing Japanese and American language, I feel like Japanese is oppressive linguistically in that the so-called bad words are a) not that strong, and b) not accessible to me, as a woman. I just wouldn’t say them. If I wanted to say in Japanese that I have “diarrhea like a motherfucker,” it wouldn’t sound right at all…just like, “really bad diarrhea” or something. So I find English quite liberating, and I find writing liberating, as it allows me to say things that I generally would not speak. Or do I have some variation of Tourette’s syndrome? As for the poem you quote, the solidarity is with suffering women, abject women, and in a way, all women: even the most beautiful of women have diarrhea sometimes, don’t they?

TF: Diarrhea is neither sexist nor racist nor lookist. “Motherfucker” is such a classically American expression—though it should have its roots in Freud’s study of the Oedipus Complex or maybe Greek tragedy itself—that I can’t imagine a Japanese equivalent. (And I never knew more than 300 Japanese words anyway, but I can’t imagine the word “okasan” or “ha ha” attached to anything vulgar.)

In developing short, medium, and long paragraphs, as well as in balancing paragraph-lengths in a given prose-poem, do you have guiding ideas for what might be a rather intuitive process?

SN: I don’t think I have “guiding ideas” regarding length, but I have “some idea” whenever I set out to write a piece, and some ideas take more words than others to make themselves heard.

TF: The “hamburger” poem (“9.2.2003”), for example, places a paragraph that consumes nearly half a page between two one-fragment paragraphs on top and five very short paragraphs below it. It makes for an artful asymmetrical balance. The poem about a park (“9/13.2004”) expands gradually from short to medium to a long paragraph before ending with two medium ones.

SN: So I suppose it isn’t quite as arbitrary as I made it seem – I do think about phrasing, whether at the sentence level or paragraph level – and I often think that the way I shape my writing is connected to some sense of music, or musical development (or anti-development, as sometimes the case may be), that I try to achieve in my writing. In some of my earlier work, like So we have been given time . Or, it’s more apparent that I am trying to write music with words – I would have liked to become a composer, and perhaps I’ll pursue it again one day - but the way rhythms and patterns are shaped in the text, the movement of time within the text, has always been important to me.

TF: In “3.21.2004,” you think about ways of describing “the texture of a [musical] conductor’s” body, including not only “the physical memory of every symphony” but every bit of experience that he undergoes and that serves as the “source of that thing called music otherwise known as love,” but then in the next paragraph, “that conductor turns out to be not one of music but of trains,” one attuned to “the pressure of a speeding vehicle or even that of an angry nation” (69). The accidents of language double context, and then there is a reference that does not obviously follow from either context and a closing sentence that seems to stem from that reference: “Two days ago a man and his wife strung themselves from a tree, finding no other way to face down the unbending fact of their negligence.” For you, aside from what you said before about “bad words” in Japanese and English, how does language (or how do languages) impinge on the experience of texture?

SN: For starters, the texture of music was a point of departure for me in writing this book. When I studied music as an undergrad, we listened to music while following along to the scores – and one thing I found really interesting was the texture of sounds – and how you could only hear it, but also see it in the score. And then if a non-tactile sense like sound could manifest texture, then it would also apply to much more: so then there was visual texture (“Start from the outside of a peephole…”), auditory texture (sound of the wrong band warming up), and then on to the texture of abstract nouns – memory, need, uncertainty, danger.

As for your question, and regarding this poem, I’ve tried to answer this question numerous times and keep failing. By failing, I mean – first of all, I don’t think language impinges on texture, but rather allows for the textures of experience to overlap, or perhaps butt up against each other – creating a meta-texture, if you will.

TF: “3.30.2004,” the penultimate prose-poem, presents one of the most lucidly descriptive, dramatic, and touching narratives in Texture Notes. When the speaker, perhaps an attendant at a nursing home, feeds “strawberry short cake to a large, very large indeed man” (105)—reminiscent of the extremely big woman and the sumo wrestlers earlier in the book—but doesn’t succeed in helping him have “the most satisfying eating experience” (107), the two of them are so sincere and determined to make the process work, but it doesn’t happen, as “some third-party observer,” also well-intentioned, takes away the cake so that they don’t have to see “the swarm of ants that are having a ball at their expense.” We encounter human kindness/good will at the same time as we confront (what should only be a temporary) failure of intersubjective understanding, textural negotiation, and circumstance; we might also wonder why the eating area is ant-friendly (bad luck or human negligence) and whether the cake is a low-sugar, low-fat version. Could you supply any context(s) that would help us think further about this simultaneously complex and accessible text? And also, consider the reference to ants at the end, is this a nod to your poetic project involving ants or had that not yet been conceived?

SN: The “failure of intersubjective understanding, textural negotiation, and circumstance” – isn’t that just another way (or an academic way) of talking about the messiness of love? I think this is how fiction often works, too – where the actual details of the events (the large man, the strawberry shortcake) are fictional, but all stemming from some real lived experience - this book is dedicated to Eugene, not only of the aforementioned skid marks of intimacy but also the “person for whom I have spent a great deal of time and love,” (53) – not only by default because he is my partner, but also because he figured largely in my life in 2003 and 2004, in which case you might suppose that our relationship has had some struggles along the way. Were the ants because of bad luck or human negligence? Ants are everywhere. And strawberry shortcake is their favorite cake. As for my ant project, I first wrote about ants when I was nineteen. It was an assignment for class, the last line of which was “Can you find your sensibility in a colony of ants?” – a question I’ve been attempting to answer for many years now.

TF: Since September 2004, when you composed the first version of the last entry that made its way into this book, have you found your daily encounters with texture to be enhanced, deepened, dulled, troubled, intensified, and/or compromised in any way?

SN: Compromised, forgotten, buried, mistaken, undermined, overexposed. I no longer think about texture.