Commentary on “The Prynne Reflex” by Christopher Nealon

I’ve been enjoying Chris Nealon’s latest essay over at the The Claudius App. Nealon’s essay,  like his recent book, The Matter of Capital, has sparked some variegated attentions in UK Poetry Land, and when I heard last year that he had been working on Prynne, I got excited because I sensed that it would be something of a critical appreciation–that it would not allow its admiration outwork its desire for critical moxy. Prynne’s reputation in the US mostly precedes him–I think he appears to many as a modernist stalwart, embodying a kind of old-boy reluctance to get on with the post-Language stacking of ironic pop scripts. Because the UK Poetry Land tends to be inimitably close-knit and often entangled within auto-feedback mechanisms no Nature could ever design, it is refreshing to read Nealon’s take on Prynne and what the latter’s poetry represents.

That said, I found myself in disagreement with nearly everything Nealon had to say. Even some of the few historical “facts” strewn throughout the essay seemed to cast an aura of suspicion around the text. For example, his inaccurate dating of Prynne’s botanical satire, “The Plant Time Manifold Transcripts”, which was written during the summer of 1972, and not 1968, as Nealon writes, ironically embodies the same reversal of time his argument presupposes. I’m not willing to blame any prolonged discomfort on dates alone, though, and I’d like to try to articulate why I found “The Prynne Reflex” both unconvincing  and unpersuasive, in the ready-to-hand rhetorical senses those words signify, and also tendentious. I found it tendentious because it seemed to stage its argument more and more on a desire to discover its argument woven within the texture of Prynne’s poems. I found it unconvincing and unpersuasive because it does not seem to recognize the approbation of difficult textuality as itself a provocative and intransigent disengagement with the medium of argumentation. Perhaps, that’s only playing into the preponderance of “poetic difficulty”, but I think it’s the type of phenomenological indicator that can’t be theoretically sidelined.

Not that such a recognition would make for a more interesting read. Perhaps it would not. Sure, the odd bit of forward thrust occasionally bursts through in even the most recent work, Kazoo Dreamboats (Cambridge: Critical Documents, 2011), which is pocked and jostled with oblique political undercurrents in tune with the London riots of that summer. But, on the whole, attempting not only to summarize an apparent lifelong trajectory of one of the most complex bodies of work written in the last 50 years, but also to include within its scope Prynne’s prose and poetical writings, as well as his apparently obvious “critique of capital”, all in a relatively brief essay, would be audacious and bold, not least because there is so little consensus about the historical status of Prynne’s work, and how it will likely be part of an ongoing shift in poetics away from the limitations imposed by the conceptualization of Modernism.

Nealon’s own reluctance to grant default authority to “modernism and modernity”  is clear from the get-go. He writes that his thinking about Prynne emerges from the same scholarly desire to replace modernism and modernity with a conceptual (re)cognition of poetry in the age of capitalism. This is, in effect, the central urgency behind Nealon’s (as well as Joshua Clover’s) recent critical work, and the theoretical angle would seem to match Prynne’s work of the last half-century, which, like others of his generation, seems increasingly aware of the economic vortices by which we consume, and the biochemical, cosmological, mathematical and metaphysical aspects of those activities and our awareness of them. Making sure that the poetic  lines were unforgettably strange and twisted artifices of violent exchange packaging is so necessary to poetic thinking that it is as though we are on the inside looking outward at a translucent blueprint of radiant palimpsests, each jaggedly textured and inhabitable.

There are several points in Nealon’s preamble that more or less structure the rest.

  1. Prynne inherits the modernist narrative/desire to undo cultural damage.
  2. Prynne is an exemplar of post-Mallarmean “open-ended assemblage”.
  3. The glue that holds (1) and (2) together is the poetical desire to reverse time.

Now, while (3) is not exactly surprising to those familiar with vitalist Bergsonian gestures, its simultaneous denial of time’s definite impact on events and esteem of time’s substantial impact as something worth reversing, seems puzzling. It’s not clear how reversing time works: do events unfold in reverse (walking backwards, etc.)? or do they unfold in such a way as never to have occurred? or does the origin become the destination, and if so, what happens to the events between them? Moreover, does framing the desire for time’s reversal not pin the poet to be an anachronistic, “good old days”, malapropism amongst the ever non-recurrent events that continuously unfold? In other words, does this not cast the writing of poems in a decidedly and perhaps irreversible atavistic light? And if it does (and I think it does), does this not presume the very conclusion it has to argue for, namely, that the concept of reversing time shares a partial investment in the idea that such reversal is possible? If it is impossible–and we already know by the argument that it is impossible–then the mind and spleen of the poet are disconsolate and hopeless; poets are incurably backward-facing as they yearn to reverse the passage of time that has caused “this” or “that” to occur. This would be the lamentation of a primordial utopia rather than utopia itself. But the idea that there is a connection between “open-ended assemblage” and cultural damage is one that has been canonized by the theorists of modernism and modernity, not necessarily or at all points actually by the poetic work itself.

[Sorry, there is a fourth: (4) the link between "open-ended poetic form, and ways of reading poetry for its ethical value as a vulnerable tissue of fragments", which Nealon coordinates directly to the ethics of difficulty. I'll come back to this, maybe in a different post.]

Nealon’s casually implied linkage between time and syntax at one point in the essay seems remarkably casual. After all, we read in English from left to right and more or less linearly, but we also read in time, which means that we are not caught in a deterministic cube with toothpicks between our cheeks and eyebrows ingesting data. I look out of the window, I look up a word, I get a sandwich, I sit back down. Just because we read temporally does not distract from the accompanying notion that we also read in time, in shared but also unique psychosomatic frames. That Nealon’s essay seems to rest easy that an apparently obvious homology exists between temporal progression and reading English is all the more disconcerting. I suppose the basic point is that open-ended assemblage plays with and fundamentally alters SVO syntax. But, despite printed syntactical trains, we also read by cohesion and relevance, by establishing temporary and lasting ranges of contextual presumptions and interpretive schemes by which we articulate the various ambiguous logics and segmentations of a text. The echoing logic that captures and releases the text as we push through and around it does not seem to me to suggest temporal linearity as a necessary condition, although our syntax relies on word order.

Nealon’s further point about Prynne’s apparent argument against the arbitrariness of the sign, which is a necessity of Saussurian semiology, is another commonly-echoed misreading of Prynne’s 1993 lecture, “Stars, Tigers, and the Shape of Words”. I don’t have time to go into it just this hot minute, but it’s clear from Prynne’s reading of Saussure, John Locke and Alexander Pope that the arbitrariness of the sign is in some sense necessary for the motivating work of the poem to take place at all. I mean if the sign were not in some normative and perhaps despicably neutral sense arbitrary, then the efforts of poets and of child-like word play–including the range of sonic and morphological puns–would be rather fruitless. But this is perhaps a side issue. As with most brief mentions of American Language Poetry, Nealon does not choose to dip into the miasma for a bit of torque, but lets the cliché about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E persist in its inarguable ether.

With the skeleton of Nealon’s essay somewhat in outline, let’s look closely at his “three quick examples of how, in his critical writing, Prynne has imagined pitting reversal or undoing against what he takes to be the historical damage of modernity”. Nealon essentially frames his examples as themselves a species of imploration stemming from the need for undoing the cultural damage wrought by modernity. He frames it as such: The first is from the aforementioned PTM Transcripts, the second from Prynne’s 1968 essay, “A Note on Metal”, and the third from a much more recent (a nearly 40-year spread) essay, published in The Chicago Review in 2010, “Mental Ears and Poetic Work”. Not only does this entail quite a static range of continuous thinking, as though the stage was set in the late 1960s for Prynne’s lifelong lamentation of cultural damage wrought by capital, but it also seems to presume an ethical comportment to this historical coagulation. While at the beginning of the essay, Nealon seeks to “register” his “demurral” from the twins Modernism and Modernity, he nevertheless has no qualms in using the theoretical architecture about cultural damage to frame Prynne’s work. Whether Nealon is arguing about Prynne’s work or about high modernism becomes a source of increasing confusion throughout the essay. I’m perplexed by this because it seems to suggest that the familiar modernist cliché is more or less not only conceptually invalid, but also accurate and appropriate, at least in Prynne’s case. It would seem that Prynne’s work offers a challenge to the bracketing of the modern, and that the monikers of postmodernism and late modernism should not be taken as some kind of intractable gospel that  must accompany his work wherever it goes.

  1. The PTM was, as already mentioned, not written in 1968, but composed during the summer of 1972 and published under the author’s own name separately in the Grosseteste Review and Wound Response in 1974. Nealon writes that “the scientists” of this imaginary, but inspired, conference on botany (aka PTM Symposium) “are interested in how plants might be describable as being alive and dead at the same time.” Apparently, despite warnings from such namesakes as “Dr.  Lichen”, the ‘scholar’ only known as “Black Cosmos (C. diversifolius atrosanguineus)”, and “Grass, the pasturage team”. Prynne is nevertheless “dead serious”, according to Nealon. Well, that’s of course true, at least depending on what you mean not by “dead” but by “serious”. Doubtless, Prynne read a lot of “serious” scientific research for his conference proceedings (try and contain yourself during Jukes’ 1966 Molecules and Evolution), and he quotes and plagiarizes liberally from them (and not only in this script); indeed, there is an auratic earnestness to the labors of his ulterior research, which may be an inextricable feature of Prynne’s poetry to date. But to imply that the theory of plant time–which is not so much original as a post-Einsteinian update of Empedocles–could somehow be understood apart from its satirical and deliberately comic textual attire is to miss the point entirely. And yet, Nealon includes it as an example of Prynne’s “critical writing”, which seems frankly wrong considering it was written for the avant-garde newspaper, Bean News, under the editorship of another poet then interested in forgery, although perhaps of a more abruptly metaphysical variety, Edward Dorn.  The ‘maybeen’ and ‘willbeen’ inspiration for this satire is, as Simon Perril points out, an article by Rupert Sheldrake on the hormone ‘auxin’ which occurs as a result of plant cell death, but which also is required for cell growth. Prynne parenthetically calls the ‘release of auxins (time-lapse transamination)’, and essentially mutates Sheldrake’s botany with a dose of relativistic temporality. By boiling it down to life/death, Nealon rather misses the point of the prolixity.
  2. “A Note on Metal”, a brief and dense prose tract written for The English Intelligencer in response to the British poet Peter Riley’s “Working Notes on British Prehistory”, is the only prose in Prynne’s Poems. Parenthetically, I’d like to know whether this indicates a kind of mandate about the range of the scholarly prose-poem, or whether Prynne merely wanted to include a prose piece important to this poetic thinking. It doesn’t much matter, but in any event I’m not entirely certain that it indicates anything proximal to “critical writing”, at least in the sense that Nealon gives it. In any case, Nealon emphasizes the essay as “a sketch of economic history that tells a story of how stamped coinage emerged as the result of complex processes of social abstraction that began, at the dawn of recorded history, with simpler, more concrete measures of value, like weight.” This is a good summary of the basic vector of “A Note on Metal”, but where I think Nealon goes awry is the rather tendentious comment that “for Prynne what’s damning about the imposition of that authority [that given to gold coins by virtue of political power] is that it’s an abstraction–an abstraction and a displacement from something magical, something alchemical, that was once evident to us when we first encountered gold”. There are two major problems I have with this statement: A) It’s difficult for a reader to find any evidence for a feeling of “damning”. Nowhere in the essay does Prynne seem aggravated that such continuous abstraction takes place, and there is not the familiar cliché of hand-wringing when it comes to discussing origins. The entire prose piece is hardly scintillating with disapproval–it is cool and calculated, if a bit sarcastic at times. B) Prynne’s brief foray as a V.G. Childe-inspired economic anthropologist is reluctant to say that “displacement” from the magical properties of stone is something for “us” to suffer under. Prynne is quite clear about this in the conclusion to his essay: “The literal is not magic, for the most part, and it’s how the power of displacement side-slipped into some entirely other interest which is difficult, not a simple decision that any one movement is towards ruin. Stone is already the abstraction of standing, of balance; and dying is still the end of a man’s self-enrichment, the ‘reason’ why he does it” (Poems, 131). That is to say, Prynne’s sense of “abstraction” is multi-faceted and not redolent of the doomsday simplicity that Nealon seems to foster here. Moreover, it is worth noting that this conclusion comes just after Prynne’s comment about an “exilic (left-wing) history of substance”, which comment Nealon seems to hold as solid ground that Prynne finds “The triumph of the left” to be measured “by a return to ‘reality’ or authentic life.” I think Nealon’s imposition of a linear eschatology at the beginning of his essay has begun to skew his reading of Prynne beyond the interpretive and into a kind of advantageous paraphrase.
  3. Finally, an actual morsel of declared “critical writing”. Nealon’s final example fast-forwards about 40 years to a 2010 issue of the Chicago Review, in which Prynne published a seminar paper called “Mental Ears and Poetic Work.” This example, unlike the previous two, seeks to argue not a thematic but a direct correlation between open poetic form and reversing time within the poetic medium itself. At least according to “The Prynne Reflex.” Here is the passage from Prynne’s essay: “line-breaks or step ordering that override the unfeatured page space of normal printed language perform the over function of  continuity by versus and retroflex” (p. 140). I understand how these rhetorical functions seek “to create a kind of instability in linear time” for Nealon, but if I also read in time, which time is being destabilized? Is it the imaginal and generative dynamic of cognitive connections and coherence across the span of my body following each line until it dips down below into the other, or do we understand by this that the poetic design of the page itself destabilizes the fluid, but nevertheless linear, time scale of “living”? This is a major gap in explanation, not to mention, if we go beyond the putative dynamics of the reading situation, the problem of whether destabilization of temporal habits is the same as reversing time.

I think that this slightly ridiculous close reading of Nealon’s essay has perhaps persisted long enough, but in near-closing I’d like to take issue with a bit of the stuff Nealon makes with Prynne’s early poetry. First, the buffet; then the digestif:

“And the back mutation is knowledge and
has always been so in the richest tradition
of the trust it is possible to have, to repose
in the mysteries. The perversions which
thrust it forward, as a new feed into the
same vicious grid of expanding prospects
(profits) are let through by the weakness, now,
of names. ([Poems] 16)

“There are three things in this passage that are resonant throughout Prynne’s career: the reference to knowledge as a “back mutation”; the sense of forward movement as a “perversion” (rendered here in cybernetic language, as a “new feed”); and the sense that capitalism, in accentuating forward movement at the expense of our ability to remain aware of the role of “back mutation” in shaping authentic perceptions, has done damage to language (“the weakness, now, / of names”).”

So this is just one example, and yet how inadequate it appears. Not only the hyperbole about “throughout Prynne’s career” but also what I take to be a somewhat confident misreading. The sense of forward movement isn’t itself a “perversion”; but rather it is the perversions that thrust the whole historical dialectic forward. It is the source of forwardness, not its definition. Moreover, it is precisely poems like “Die a Millionaire” (from Kitchen Poems) that directly contradict Nealon’s thesis about undoing cultural damage: “we are the social strand | which is already past the twist-point” (p. 15). While it has been tempting for Prynne’s readers to read into the first two lines of this poem (“The first essential is to take knowledge | back to the springs” (p. 13)), they shouldn’t forget about lines 112-114: “The fact is that right | from the springs this water is no longer fit | for the stones it washes” (p. 15). Unlike Olson, Prynne’s apparent atavistic tendency in the 1960s is paired with an intransigence for non-dialectical approaches to the problem. The shifting aporetic continues through the poem as a process of speculative attention–for it to declare its hand in a single statement (like the prosaic critic must) would be to give far too much delight and satisfaction to the “gas-and-water talk” it mocks.

The issue of names in Prynne’s work of the 1960s is not quite the simplistic critique against the commercialization of language. It’s far more confusing than that. For example, in “Sketch for the Financial Theory of the Self”, names are self-chosen tricks, not lost beacons of authentic selfhood:

but the names,

do you not
see, are just
the tricks we
trust, which
we choose. (p. 20)

Thus, it becomes far more difficult to erect Prynne’s theory of names as a homogeneous position, much less as a critique of the commercialization of language. Indeed, it would seem that to instill a critical position within the texture of the writing–itself complicit in the pre-eminence of commercial communication–then one is stuck between the mobility of an artificial dismantling of language convention, and the fixed by dynamic position of propositional argumentation, frequently conceived in terms of ironic forecasting and dramaturgical staging.

Despite the apparent glimpses of piety, Prynne’s work in the late 1960s is suspicious of any “career-long will to reversal”, as Nealon describes Prynne’s work as a whole. While there are some Heideggerian overtones about the misuse of language during the 1960s, this is not quite the case with the arrival of Brass, Prynne’s 1971 collection. There is one poem in particular in this book that would seem to satirize the ability of the self (poetic or otherwise) to make some kind of reversal, or rather to express playfully that the ability to move forward or backward is a matter of verbal artifice. See “Thinking of You”:

Not going forward let alone re-

turning upon itself, the old fat in the can.

The old fat rises to a reason and

seems because of its can, not going

forward but in its rank securely,

so as to be ready. Divinity rises

to no higher reason since going up alone

is returning itself to the can. You choose

if you like whether we stay in the rank

or go forward as alone we can, divinely

secured about the midriff. Older than

forward is the way we might go and

grow because we do, fat. In the can it

is the rancid power of the continuum. (p. 171)

The “fat in the can” is the experience of having to wade through one’s desire for potential action–the pun on “can” as a modal verb and as a container creates a harsh sardony between the pragmatic go-get-’em attitude and the feeling of containment despite that attitude’s best efforts. Eating too much fat and thereby steadying ourselves in non-interference is also suggested, but “Older than | forward is the way we might go and | grow because we do, fat.” The language-points at which geometry and time intersect are here toys to be combined into new structures. This type of experimentation with temporal relativity is common in Prynne, from “Chromatin” of Wound Response to the obdurate dynamism of work from Not-You (1993) onward.

My beef with this truck is that it often steers sideways. While Nealon quite brilliantly argues that the principle of “reversibility stops being a ‘theme’ of the poems” in the late work because “it becomes their formal principle”, we have already switched from reversal to reversibility, which distinction should be crucial. The desire to reverse time and the desire for reversibility are not quite the same thing–the former being more concerned with the reanimation of a past event; the latter with the relative mobility within time despite it being a “rancid continuum”. This delicate slice aside, Nealon’s reading of The Oval Window seems to exacerbate the problem now become fully sturdy position: “But where in the volumes from the late 60s and 70s Prynne would have offered a first-person statement of program or theme, pitting griddedness or spectacle (understood as perverse forms of relentless forward motion) against one or another micrological reversal of time, in The Oval Window we will come across it in small rhetorical turns and word-choices: the theme is in place, if miniaturized.” While I can see about the capitalistic forward motion, where is the “micrological reversal of time”? Nealon’s reading of the epigraph to The Oval Window seems to suggest that  the separation of the past from the future by the present is a proposition about the reversibility of time, which seems far less convincing than the idea that it suggests the irreversibility of time. The present locks out the data of the past as it accepts the data of the future. Moreover, that “the thematics of un-damage are played out in the mini-structure, revoke-vs-infold”, seems not quite right. The relationship between revocation and infolding is not progression vs. reversal, or damaging vs. undamaging, but going back vs. turning inward, a typically oblique movement for Prynne, for whom the fat in the can would rather get older by going forward. Unfortunately, while the presentation of the argumentation is somewhat engagingly infused within the poetical examples, a closer reading of the readings evinces a feeling that the foundational premise of the essay is somewhat opportunistically using the work to make a point about modernism.

I feel less compelled to offer any thoughts on the foray into somewhat sketchy readings of Prynne’s late work, which heavily rely on a kind of meta-phonological historicism of historical vowel shifts to the neglect of attempting to actually read the lines, although I can sympathize with the rebarbativeness and density of the surface. If the words in the late work should primarily stand as phonological shells, why use words with distinct references or tone at all? Less semantic residue for clean-up, at least. In other words, that there are more sounds than another in a given line may indeed be noteworthy, but at what cost to what is there?

I found Nealon’s shift into a discussion about the apparent supremacy of Adornian readings of Prynne very interesting. I assume he means the work of Simon Jarvis and Keston Sutherland, though he doesn’t mention any names. Jarvis’ recent essay on Adorno’s aesthetic theory and Prynne, “Irreversibility” would seem to be in agreement with Nealon’s dissatisfaction with the triumph of the “modern”, which has become anodyne and perhaps a kind of myopic historicization.

We arrive at Nealon’s ending to find that Prynne’s work “has staked its claim to legibility…on an ethical practice of self-ruining negativity”. Although formed as a question, we have moved from the ethics of difficulty prompted by open-ended assemblage attached somehow to the reversal of time thesis, all of which has something to do with modernity. I don’t have much more to add beyond registering my own “demurral”, but Nealon’s argument leaves much to be desired, pocked as it is with shadowy references to the work of Prynne’s interpreters rather than compelling readings of the poems themselves.


Barque Leaks New Poetry Book

I at last have on the desk before me, a campanile of living meaning upjutting in the stony rubbish of spreadsheets and other wage guano, a heap of the spanking new book from Barque Press:

_SHOUTS FROM OK GLAMOUR_ by Ryan Dobran

Paperback, 54pp. £8 plus postage from http://www.barquepress.com/index.php

It’s a vastly inventive and comically thick-with-deranged-anecdote-and-audit object, leaping between trapezes of prose, verse, open fields, lockdown left margins, jokes and parodies, stubs, fundamentals and ephemera. Glad rummagers in _The Golden Age of Paraphernalia_ may be similarly glad to work through and out this book of Dobran’s. Catch him at it:

Copies on the table at the next Hi Zero event in Brighton.


Glossator 9 CFP

Elevating the Footnote: Glossator 9 CFP

Kepler vita notes

Glossator: Practice and Theory of the Commentary

Volume 9 (Fall 2013) – Open-Topic

CALL FOR PAPERS

For the Fall 2013 issue, the editors invite submissions on any topic. See the About section for general submission guidelines.


 For this issue, we are above all interested in publishing commentaries that use footnotes or other similar methods of annotation for the purpose of commentary. Suggested primary and secondary reading: Johannes Kepler, Kepler’s Somnium: The Dream, or Posthumous Work of Lunar Astronomy, trans. with commentary by Edward Rosen (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1967);  Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962); Evelyn Byrd Tribble, “‘Like a Looking-Glas in the Frame’: From the Marginal Note to the Footnote” in The Margins of the Text, ed. David Greetham (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 229-44; Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1788-9); Chuck Zerby, The Devil’s Details: A History of Footnotes (New York: Touchstone, 2002); Jacques Derrida, “This Is Not An Oral Footnote,” in Annotation and Its Texts, ed. Stephen A. Barney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 192-205; Jonathan Swift, A Tale of A Tub, 5th edition (1710).


Your Guilt Is A Miracle, copies still available from Bad Press

A bit late on this front, but one more saturnalian linkage in the virtual world can’t hurt: http://badpress.tumblr.com/post/26015708396/yr-guilt-is-a-miracle-by-ryan-dobran


Review of Keston Sutherland, ‘The Stats on Infinity’ (Crater, 2010)

NB: This review is for a book now out of print, focussing primarily on the long ode therein. It was to be published by an official institution, but was dropped. So here it be. 

This handsome, large and slim pamphlet, typeset on fine paper, produced by Richard Parker and John Packer for Crater Press, comprises ‘The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts’, six 12-line sonnets, and ‘Reindeer’. It follows the book-length project, Stress Position whose titular pun on torture and stress-guided versification invites an uncomfortable analogy between the poet coping with political complicity and the victims of pre-emptive neoconservative aggression. But the vanguard iconicity of the lyric is part of Sutherland’s special purchase on various spectacles, states of emergency and bathetic life manoeuvres. The network of passionate irony and dis-allegiance which rushes through Sutherland’s work to date are similarly shared by Stats: immanent longing within procedures of alienation and commodification, neo-con interlopers, spectacles of violent agents and populations, and a particularly vivid method of object production: recall the ‘miniscule 7-11 concealed in a special Yngwie Malmstein [sic] Signature version of Duchamp’s Hidden Noise’ from Hot White Andy or the ‘Mr. Plato Head guillotine’ in Stress Position. Both ‘Eli Roth’s Darfur’ and ‘Escape from Ciudad Juarez’ premiere in this present volume.

The Stats On Infinity is a welcome shift from the murky, jagged laminations of Stress Position, whose occasional injections of tacky superficialism failed to aerate the dense numerical blockages. In some sense, the purpose was to push language through an ultimate opacity to a kind of transparent and disposable cartridge system. Slippages into static narration hinted at the structure of a plot blueprint evaded. There is a writerly desperation in Stress Position, which is rather an aspect of precision in the more acclaimed Hot White Andy (London: Barque Press, 2007). The chromatic incandescence of the latter was diluted and prolonged into linear and predictable exercises. Now that we have Stats on Infinity, Stress Position seems like a transitional work, a conceptual addendum to Hot White Andy.

Contrary to its precedent, The Stats on Infinity is economical in its ambitions, and reminiscent of the local intonation and concentration of an earlier book, Neutrality (London: Barque Press, 2004). Its full A4 size feels unusual for a short collection, but the parameters are necessary for anyone familiar with Sutherland’s particular collusion of sonic and visual performativity, whose dual-aspect invites a particular synaesthetic practice. The eye-voice span becomes a rhetorical source of tensile power. It is what makes the lines elastic but often taut with anxious patterning and unreserved excess. As the reader negotiates the typographical traffic, he must also keep up with the intense and electric prosodic forwardness. Such parafoveal disruption is necessary here to facilitate an effect of alienation between the various kinds of performance the text might enact. Sutherland’s poetic form evades the traps of various transcriptions (I think of Olson or Cage), which were trying to systematically pursue visual form as an instrument of performance. As successful and exciting as Sutherland’s actual performances may be, his form never exists as a mere token transcript of a perpetually ‘original’ performance. Visualization becomes rather a conceptual auxiliary for the afflictions and hesitations of versification.

The cover-title page declares its contents in large Blast-like blocks, and offers two epigraphs. The first, taken from U.S. patent 5027473 published in 1991, is the précis for an automatic refrigerator door closer, whose spring-loaded hinge and pin design closes the door when less than 90˚ to the confronting frame surface. The single sentence is written in the vapid accuracy of legalese, which nevertheless has all the forensic tedium of Watt, and seems as much chosen for its intensely specific self-criterion of convenient kitchen praxis, as for its juxtaposition to the final two lines from Henry Vaughn’s ‘The Obsequies’: ‘That from the murd’ring world’s false love | Thy death may keep my soul alive.’ The ability to close your own door is a strictly pre-Gulf War sentiment and it warms the pittance of Vaughan. This montage creates a mental space between the two poles for the poem to interfere and intermit, as a locus of inflicted comedy and scorn, made salient by the sacrifice of the progenitor in order to save the victim’s soul from the killing fields of gluttonous artificers and deceitful opportunists. It is precisely the simplicity of closure which the fridge door allows for so perfectly, each rubber channel aligned to the body of the frame; such delicate, silent confrontations are supported in Vaughan’s technology only by the ordo amoris of musical thinking. But bathetic cheekiness is not (yet) the immoral high ground of the contemporary lyrical I, the spectator of political action at a distance. For the design of that distance is an enemy to exposure and one this ‘bloodless anathema’ seeks to dismantle. Sutherland’s technique of inserting abstract selfhood into the hypermediations of global capital is especially instructive at the beginning of ‘The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts’:

In 1983, over 13,000 workers’ compensation claims
to Erato I scream this bloodless anathema
a veto on forklifts’ trussed talons in its face scrub,
thrown out of the world
of which you were actually sick,
waxing anaemic, Halon fire-hosed,
Let be so sick with anxiety but you were actually sick,
Borders in administration for recalled aphrodisiac,
I am upwardly alive
a flesh that fucks the shit out of its bone,
‘counting stressballs up your piece of ass
one Exploding Rat
two Ghost Cow eased in by a phantom broken limb
three dark glut of idiot Ducklings, exudate from YouSqueeze
mambo on the impacted grit slope to
                                          Asylum & Immigration Tribunals

The units of reference seem at once opaque and transparent, but not particularly difficult. A fragment reportage splits cinematically into lyrical preface. We can easily link worker’s comp to the menace of forklifts. If we type it into Google, then we find that the first line cites verbatim an abstract about what we thought it might be about.[1] The rest of the sentence reads: ‘for lost-workday injuries involving forklift trucks were filed in 30 states’. As an allusion, the appropriation lacks power because its knowledge seems trivial or private. But Sutherland seeks to escape the pressures of the full-knowing reader. Here, the statistical accuracy of forklift injuries are treated as no more than quantitative ephemera, which like any given object put into such relation, may be accumulated, and used as evidence for a number of ideological frames. We do not sense that this has been done as a matter of ‘genuine’ research. We can plug it in and get a discursive context through which we can extend the vibrating scope of the lyric; but does such pseudo-allusive practice also make readerly cognition pivot on the Google-search feature? The target text can then saturate the poem and create a habitus of readerly expectation and distrust. It can also turn transparent and delete itself the moment it is acknowledged. This notional dilemma rests on an idea of language as a sedimentation of potential knowledge and world-recognition. But Sutherland’s practice attempts neither the restitution of the historical instance so that the lyric exists as a condensed fragment of some other type of experience, nor does it present an autodidactic feature within the text. Rather, these types of referral place the lyrical I into a spot of deprived recognition. It may indicate the traces of a privatleben, but even the most vacant referentiality confirms a context the poem takes to task, contra any poetic sincerity. These comp. claims go to ‘Erato’, the muse of lyric poetry, and invite the jarring entry of ‘I’. This functions like an incomplete allegorical screen describing the entry of lyric into public discourse, like some pronoun late for the warehouse.

Sutherland’s lyrical mode is the site of intense upheaval. His work jolts us out of the cathexis which accompanies desire’s commodification of vision. It is not enough to unlock the suitcase of tricks being played on citizens in some grand conspiratorial theme, for the theme is everywhere unthematic. It can be imbued into the very design of the object. The construction of dissent to which Sutherland’s polyvocality gives utterance invites the sympathy of the listener to take part in these pressures: not in order to evaluate an abstract nugget of injustice, but to create an excessive potential within our very encounters with objects and relations.

In this book, Sutherland’s negative philology risks the slinging of bad jokes (‘YouSqueeze’, ‘Ray Bans Apollo’, ‘payback to the future’). These are not allegorical frames which morph into micro-cosmological edifices of character-location, but joke-fractions, jibes at the kind of fluff that clots up the spectacle’s deríve of silly finds. We are deterred from emotional investment in forklifts—not even ‘Proxy’ compensates for the dull clarity of industrial metaphor—and we cannot seem to situate the silly decadence on the rear end of the noble. The denial of tension between ‘Proxy’ and ‘Inhumanity’ creates an unsatisfactorily simple undertow beneath the thermal surface. Along with its collection title, The Stats on Infinity, it is a kind of Neo-Romantic blunder, an irony so deficient in cognitive nutrients as to appear a frail resort to instant legibility, or perhaps the just dessert of a well-worn fulcrum in British irony.

One of the strongest moments of Sutherland’s verse comes after the frenetic numbered prose shaft in ‘Proxy Inhumanity’. The section begins in Gothic schtick, but then registers a hallucinogenic and apocalyptic zombie-vision:

It is midnight.
A foul mist creeps between the droning trees,
Dries to a scab on holograms of the bulging irides
In from the neighbouring governorate,
Come at last to see for themselves,
Inquirers into barcodes on broken eggshells,
Irides fixed like doormats on pentangles,
Their black holes glisten in the diaspora of limelight
As whine the Al-Kifah wraiths,
And one by one the grim convenors count
Spotless deskilled skeletal sluts cut into toothpicks,
Spineless embeds fried on sniper’s diazepam,
Tanked up preps all slurring their eat shits,
The rapid response post-avant errata of Who’s Who,
Marxist twinks, Muj holes pornographically licking shrinkwrap,
Sententiae addicts, fodder for Dutch Flarf Paeans to conceptual litanies,
antimetastatic to infinity.

A desire for reportage by image and contemporary references to foreign roles, industrial detritus, and other war-time sundries, enables Sutherland to construct mini-productions of surrealistic inventory. The carnivalesque atmosphere writhes against its own comedic description. The text insists not on the equivalence of corresponding realities but on the specificity and non-identicality of those objects closest to the mundane stupefactions we eat, think, discuss, and expurgate. The irrigation of desire is made possible by reification, and the involuntary contortions of body-image montage make this kind of self-inventory appear reckless and unhinged.

It is typical of the generosity and sympathy of the contemporary reader of this kind of work to catalyze loose assemblages of discursive references, and to make them fit an exophoric structure of critique or judgment on aspects of the contemporary world.[2] In a climate of informational saturation and accessibility, the aleatory effects of allusive play can easily become tokens of authorial heroism. The reader, intoxicated with little bits of ‘Muj’ and ‘Al-Kifah’, generates a heroic strategy by which the poet, poem wrapped around the chest, signals powerfully the atrocities and injustices of Western aggression and neo-imperialism in the Middle-East. Poets who find themselves compelled to pre-emptively manage their readers may reveal an anxiety about the political capacity of their verbal artworks. There is no mistaking the references to violence and violation, but contemporary readers are too apt to take the living word of the author as a bulwark against cognitive difficulties. Such generous, even gallant, historicism deadens the lyrical counter-knowledge which performs resistance to comprehension. In Rancierè’s terms, Sutherland’s work seeks to mediate between the politics of aesthetics and the aesthetics of politics, which coordinates the ‘double effect’, which ‘is always the object of a negotiation between opposites: between the readability of the message that threatens to destroy the sensible form of art and the radical uncanniness that threatens to destroy all political meaning’.[3] Poetry becomes predictable when it seems necessary to address a need that has become obvious. Direct counter-statement against authority and power may make the reader a kind of false friend, so that the whole hermeneutic practice reduces itself to votes of confidence.

The sonnets are études. Stress and end-rhyme patterns vary slightly, but they fail to interest. I think that this has something to do with a perception inherent to Sutherland’s work which views form as a container for content. This is by no means a naïve formalism but a standpoint on emotional reality. I think the purpose behind this is to indicate the fractured, fetishized and disgusting relations we may have with various kinds of objects and the production from which they emerge beautifully packaged. Sutherland has recently stated elsewhere of his interest in the accumulation of poetical commodities.[4] Sutherland’s own recent work seeks a way through the shadow-market of Prynne’s Brass (1971), Rodefer’s Four Lectures (1982), and Wilkinson’s The Speaking Twins (1992). To which we might add Hot White Andy (2007). But there is a tendency in Sutherland’s recent poetry to compromise its unpredictability and inventiveness, its high-intensity reification in order to simulate the manner of direct speech, of straight talk; but here, each line produces an assemblage of consumable devices and derogatory excesses. Elsewhere, however, the ‘same shit, different war’ on a single line, uncontravened by saturnalian horror or pharmacological hemorrhaging, seeks to make good on a gesture of political commitment, whose stupid obviousness, makes the thirsty reader of the spectacular and inhibitive poetic surface cringe. There’s no getting around it: ‘but to do what about it is stupid to do about it’. To act for or by means of the glaringly wrong ‘it’ is stupid because it is ‘about it’. The error lies in the ‘aboutness’ of consciousness; its purport of righteousness is the flakiness of a retarded realism, and yet its simulcast of radiant otherness is the instrumentalization of our desires. The synthetic events in the extract above appear not merely as adversaries of a consciousness able to see and speak with lucidity, whence those banal compromises, but more interestingly as a set of refracted personalities into which the intellectual jeers are deposited as satire capital. For this reader, these parlances of wit bask in a negative light, and are occasions of the cultural moment, reminders of catastrophe and the grotesque. It is in their playful negation of narrative that they achieve something which has revitalized narrativity in British poetry, as the synthesis of a virulent set of personae within the corporeal.


[1] ‘Characteristics of work-related injuries involving forklift trucks’, Journal of Safety Research 18.4 (Winter 1987): 179-190.

[2] See, for example, Adam Piette, Review of Keston Sutherland, The Stats on Infinity, et al, blackbox manifold 5 (July 2010): http://www.manifold.group.shef.ac.uk/issue5/AdamPiette.html

[3] Jacques Rancierè, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. and introd. Gabriel Rockhill (London and New York: Continuum, 2004), p. 63.

[4] See Zoe Sutherland, Danny Hayward, and Jonty Tiplady, ‘Brighton Poetry: An Interview with Keston Sutherland’, Naked Punch 14 (Autumn 2010): 41-43, 45-46.


Comments on Eileen Joy’s ‘Notes Towards a Speculative Realist Literary Criticism’

Eileen Joy gave a series of stimulating, ‘gnomic’ (her term), feed-limited notes towards what a speculative realist literary criticism might be here. I’d like to respond with a slightly more scrambled set of notes. I want to raise some questions about the ‘fitness’ between speculative realism and literary criticism, although these problems should be seen against the backdrop of a common enthusiasm for its possibility. If Eileen’s note moves ‘towards’ something, the following comments are less directed and far less coherent.

One of the less exciting things about learning and using philosophical engagements is that it quickly starts to feel like a method, both in the sense of a procedure for interpretation (structural) and as a predominantly rational enterprise. By the latter I mean the way in which the reading practice itself is bureaucratized by its own file folder. But nor is hedonistic opportunism the sensible way to understanding the quandary of the textualized object.

Perhaps, the first application of object-oriented ontology to literary criticism might begin with de-prioritizing the supremacy of the text in relation to its ilk (ink, page, book, pixel, web page, libraries, university, etc.) not in order to create a flat ontological plane whose residents are equal and equivocally summoned, but in order to understand the ideological and institutional contexts through which texts arrive in our mailboxes, homes, tables, eyes and ears. This has been done and continues to be done by various historicist and post-Foucauldian agents. It would also require understanding the history of the emergence of the text as a written object, as opposed to a ritual, memory, or recitation; and indeed, might think about how the emergence of the written text in the West  (and its relation to the current emergence of the hypertext) [I'm thinking here of Paul Saenger's Silent Reading, and especially David R. Olson's The World on Paper] contributed to the phenomenological con-fusion of the text with the mind, as something mental-evident, at least for those whose competence takes place in the know. Hence, the development of a humanist interpretation is closely related to the ‘text as speech’ idea. Meaning, strictly speaking, is a metaphor for the text as a kind of mind. Indeed, mind and ‘to mean’ share the same Indo-European root. Taking a more anthropological stance, i.e. understanding the text as a kind of cultural record without the immanent development of subjectivity lurking behind it. The dialectical tearing and damage inflicted upon language by the writers of those texts whose language relinquishes its author–these are the encounters of textual resistance and enigmaticalness which produce the alien status of the textual object. I’m thinking especially of recent poetry, such as J.H. Prynne, Peter Manson, Lisa Robertson, Marjorie Welish (especially!). If we accept that the mind, and also the groups of embodied minds in a community or culture, are largely  homologous with ‘language’, then the mind absorbed in reading is experiencing the kind of effects that a landscape painting might generate when placed in the middle of a field. That is to say, uncanny, strange, weird, defamiliarized. It would seem that OOO has something interesting to say about the status of the verbal artwork.

The next step would be to counter-act this de-prioritization by understanding the role of language (e.g. English) in texts: what does it look like, how does what it looks like contribute to how it may potentially be read, how does the praxis of reading change the status of the object, how does the language on the object (*not* the language ‘of’ the object) make claims upon the object’s status fundamentally uncertain? Is the textualized object a special case of ‘vicarious causation’, and who is the proxy there? If I look at a book cover whose text is written in Mongolian script, the status of that book as an object–its flickering between ready-to-hand and presence-at-hand, say– is markedly different than a book cover in English, or one featuring a picture. Even if the picture is inscrutable, my identification of it as a picture goes a long way to understanding the ‘bibliographical code’. So this means that it is not enough to try to squash meaning-hermeneutics by thinking of the text as an object–the precise role language has in constituting the text must be thought through as a material practice of discovery.

I’ve been enjoying Levi Bryant’s post about Eileen’s talk. But I disagree that the humanist tradition of textual interpretation has always attempted to ‘close the text’. This strikes me as a very Derridean reading, but overlooks a whole tradition of praxis whose precise aim has been not to ‘complete’ the text or to ‘have the final say’, but rather to further open the text. Commentary. The history of Biblical, Scholastic, Renaissance, scientific, and literary commentaries shows that the quest for meaning has done nothing but the opposite of closure. ‘Meaning’ has generated intense dialogue and debate. And yet, there is still this ‘ghost in the machine’ problem; this transcendental spirit of intention/author which continues to haunt the grounds of lit crit like a specter of moral edification and redemption, as though waiting for the text to animate itself and speak.

The idea of autopoeisis, which Eileen mentions in her lecture, never quite hit full steam, despite Jerome McGann’s use of the term in The Textual Condition (1991). He writes:

This book attempts to sketch a materialist hermeneutics. In so doing, it considers texts as autopoietic mechanisms operating as self-generating feedback systems that cannot be separated from those who manipulate and use them. Their autopoiesis functions through a pair of interrelated textual embodiments we can study as systems of linguistic and bibliographical codings. (p. 15)

This raises an important question for sketching an OOO for the text: how will it become operative? If the text is not, strictly speaking, a phenomena, it nonetheless requires a human mind to make sense of its language, and how can this set of neural cognitive activity be distinguished from an ontological claim for the object’s autonomy? Autopoiesis is a term derived from Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (1980). I’m already over my head here, but I’ll just say that their idea came about when they switched from asking a semantic question (e.g. what does it mean for x to do y? what is the cause or root of x?) to a structural question: “How does it happen that the organism has the structure that permits it to operate adequately in the medium in which it exists” (p. xvi). This powerful structural idea was notably taken up by the German systems-theorist Niklas Luhmann, who virtuosically combined it with G. Spencer Brown’s algebraic thinking in Laws of Form (1969). In Art and Society (1995), Luhmann still observes the (unfortunate) distinction between medium and form. By ‘medium’ I think he signifies something like the materiality of the page: “the whiteness of the paper from which figures or letters emerge” (p. 109). By form, I think he must signify the the cognitive-abstract system of language.

I’ll try and give a hackneyed glimpse into this monumental work with a big citation. I’m wondering how it might ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’ with OOO. Following Spencer Brown, Luhman  outlines the “calculus of form” where:

[O]bject and creative process coincide (in this respect we are dealing with a kind of ‘constructivism’), since both emerge—simultaneously—from the imperative ‘Draw a distinction.’ An observer can once again distinguish between object and process when selecting this distinction as the form of observation. This is why it takes an observer to raise questions about objects; a system simply starts operating. It takes an observer to see the paradox of a beginning that presupposes itself, to recognize the self-implicative structure of the distinguishing act, and to plunge himself, at least logically, into confusion. Only an observer can run into paradox and be forced to admit that paradox is always presupposed—in mathematical and even more so in logical operations—as the blind spot that makes distinction, and thus observation, possible in the first place. Operations, on the other hand, including observing operations, simply happen. A distinction discriminates; its mere occurrence must be observed (retrospectively by the same system, simultaneously or later by another system); only then does the unity of the distinction become apparent as the blind spot that enables observation. This unity remains invisible while the distinction is used—this holds for all distinctions. It is as indisputable as our certainty about the world, a certainty based on inaccessibility (pp. 31-32).

Thus, form is a dialectic in which distinction withdraws into an invisible unity as the selection of further distinctions makes this possible. Luhmann’s work has been taken up by critics (notably Cary Wolfe’s “The Idea of Observation at Key West, or, Systems Theory, Poetry, and Form Beyond Formalism”, NLH 39 (2008), 259-276). Stopping short here for more later.


Mike Davis on Winter

Mike Davis, ‘Spring Confronts Winter’, New Left Review 72 (Nov-Dec 2011)


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