On the art of Susan Stewart
In the summer of 2007, I had occasion to be in London for Blind Light, the Hayward Gallery’s retrospective of British sculptor Antony Gormley. The work from which the exhibition took its title — a rectangular glass-walled “room” with doorlike openings at either end and a ceiling fitted with vapor generators and uniform sources of high-intensity white light — involved visitors in an uncanny perceptual exploration. From outside, the boxed and glowing cloud revealed no sign of the exhibition-goers moving within, until here and there a silhouetted hand or elbow floated into view as it approached the glass. Once inside, the visitor experienced an almost complete loss of spatial reference. The vapor’s efficient scattering of light made sight beyond a few inches impossible. Proximity to other persons or to the perimeter could not be judged; the contours of one’s own body became invisible. Sound was attenuated by the density of the fog and the steady breath of the vapor generators. Only proprioception and the ear-brain system’s balance mechanisms remained to orient the visitor, and, absent visual and auditory cues, even these were not always reliable. Despite the brightness hanging in the air, the distant senses — sight and hearing — were as useless as they’d be in a black box. Blind Light, indeed.
The sole exception to this sensory muffling occurred when, moving within the cloud, one person encountered another. A face, or occasionally a shoulder, emerged from the surrounding whiteness only inches away — much closer than the usual bounds of personal space in our culture — and often at the instant that the two bodies touched (thus activating one of the proximate senses). The work’s conditions created, at least to the prepared mind, a kind of dramatic heightening of the intimacy implied by any face-to-face encounter.
Blind Light, along with many of Gormley’s other works, is an eloquent investigation of the subject-object division. His sculptures often begin with his own body (via plaster casts), not as an object of contemplation or a vehicle for biographical narrative, but as a starting point for exploring the boundaries of the human person. Through manipulation of scale, positive/negative space, and a variety of other devices, he tests those boundaries against the natural world as well as the social and built worlds, inviting us to consider the implications of the relationships created across, and represented by, those boundaries. The devices — encounters in a glowing cloud among them — force us to attend to the role of the senses in constructing and mediating both boundary and relationship.
As I made my way through the show, it struck me that Gormley’s work addressed several preoccupations of the poet and thinker Susan Stewart. I might have known; when I reached the gift shop I found that she had, in fact, authored one of the catalog essays. In that essay she suggests that
Gormley’s contribution to the subject-object problem in art is analogous to the contribution the phenomenologists have made to that problem in philosophy more generally — Gormley begins from deep within the experience of life and moves outwards to encompass more and more of the given world; there is no alienation between perceiver and object or, more accurately, artist and nature.
The procedure Stewart here ascribes to Gormley could equally describe much of her own poetic practice. She has also said that she uses her critical essays “as a kind of notebook for thinking through projects I’d like to do in poetic books”: the poetry and criticism form a continuum. I’ll begin this essay, then, from within the experience of her poems, reading closely from the most recent collection Red Rover and following a few of her meditations outward into her critical thought. By setting her ideas in the context of a range of other voices — some that she engages directly and others that she does not — I’ll draw out some implications for her poetics and for her sense of the place of art, including poetry, in contemporary culture.
Red Rover opens with “The Owl,” a poem that is at once invocation of the muse, genre exemplar of the nocturne, figure for the creative act, and catalyst of a primary thematic exploration of the book — the relationship of perception to conscious being, to knowing, and to human and aesthetic encounters:
I thought somehow a piece of cloth was tossed
into the night, a piece of cloth that flew
up, then across, beyond the window.
A tablecloth or handkerchief, a knot
somehow unfolding, folded, pushing through
the thickness of the dark. I thought somehow
a piece of cloth was lost beyond the line —
released, although it seemed as if a knot
still hung, unfolding.
Some fragmentary shape, like a hand at the wall of Gormley’s Blind Light, crosses the poet’s peripheral vision “through / the thickness of the dark.” Here, however, the fragment cannot yet be firmly identified or domesticated; it remains provisional. Its indeterminacy, though tied to naming, does not come from any quality or limitation of language itself; it is prior to that cultural negotiation. What the sense organs send the brain is not yet a settled percept, but still “lost beyond the [clothes-, sight-, or poetic] line.” Even an orienting scale is not yet clear (“tablecloth or handkerchief”). The poet is troubled by her provisional identification and, in an inversion, restates the problem by means of a different image, almost in passing:
The after-image went, a blot beyond
the icy glass. And, closer, there stood winter
grass so black it had no substance
until I looked again and saw it tipped
with brittle frost.
After positing alternatives to her first identification (cloth), the poet settles on a different one — a snowy owl — in a passage that introduces the role of memory and volition in perception even as it emphasizes the unstable link between natural phenomena and their perceiver:
I called this poem “the owl,”
the name that, like a key, locked out the dark
and later let me close my book and sleep
a winter dream. And yet the truth remains
that I can’t know just what I saw, and if
it comes each night, each dream, each star, or not
at all. It’s not, it’s never, evident
that waiting has no reason. The circuit of the world
belies the chaos of its forms —
Stewart here invites us to consider that the incommensurability of alternative percepts (and of the local worldview each implies) arising from a given stimulus might yield not an alienation between perceiver and object, but rather a space for the play of imagination, a site of the artist’s creativity, and a field in which her intention will operate. Elsewhere in the collection she will suggest that such incommensurability also constitutes a source of social conflict and tragedy.
In reviewing “The Owl,” John Kinsella makes the general observation that it is “also a poem about writing poetry, about where poetry comes from,” and indeed Stewart’s line “the name that, like a key, locked out the dark” echoes a principal thesis of her Poetry and the Fate of the Senses that “the cultural, or form-giving, work of poetry is to counter the oblivion of darkness.” Following Kant in the Critique of Judgment, Stewart has often made use of the idea that works of art and aesthetically striking things in nature exhibit finality of form. Ange Mlinko in her review notes a parallel with Hegel, who uses the figure of the owl of Minerva that, in his words, “begins its flight only with the onset of dusk” to argue that philosophy can provide understanding of a stage of reality only after it has occurred. Beyond a general claim about where poetry comes from, then, we might posit that “The Owl,” in its retrospective meditation, stages the process of coming into form.
In focusing on slippages of perception, slippages that raise the questions whether and how prior concepts or categories of understanding might be necessary for sensory events to be resolved as perceptions — and thus for us to know the world — Stewart engages in a mode of poetic exploration different from, and complementary to, one based on exploiting the slippages and cultural bindings of the linguistic material itself. This mode is a peer rather than an heir to that of Language writing.
The principal device Stewart uses in “The Owl” might be called a “troubled-recognition topos.” The recognition involved is not Aristotelian anagnorisis, in which discovery precipitates a tragic character’s pivotal realization, but the assimilation of sense impressions, troubled by some knot or mistake in that process. The knowledge or identification ultimately reached may be partial or flawed owing to the rigors of the passage to recognition. Though perhaps not commonplace, the device has numerous precedents. A few examples will indicate the wide range of inflections such troubled recognition may give to the passages in which it occurs and help characterize Stewart’s use of it in her poem — and in her poetics more generally.
The hero of the fourteenth-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when directed to the site of the Green Chapel, has no language for the “balȝ berȝ,” or swollen mound, he finds there:
And al watz holȝ inwith, nobot an olde caue,
Or a creuisse of an olde cragge, he couþe hit noȝt deme
[And all was hollow within, naught but an old cave,
Or a crevice of an old crag. He could not deem it
It appears to be nothing but a cave or cleft in an old crag, but he “could not deem (judge or pronounce) it with speech/words”:
Þenne he boȝez to þe berȝe, aboute hit he walkez,
Debatande with hymself quat hit be myȝt.
[Then he makes for the mound; he walks about it,
Debating with himself what it might be.]
As he struggles to fit the evidence of his eyes to his concept of a chapel, Gawain speculates that in such a wild and ruined place the devil himself might tell his matins: it is “þe corsedest [cursedest] kyrk þhat euer I com inne!” The poet uses the knight’s inability to recognize the structure as something from his own world to suggest the presence of the supernatural: here Gawain expects to be beheaded by the as-yet-unnamed Bertilak, whom the reader will learn was transformed into the apparently invulnerable Green Knight by the great sorceress Morgan le Fay. Gawain’s troubled recognition contributes to the mood of dread and suspense, and thus to narrative drive and to the poem’s psychic weight. That an unresolved sensory–cognitive incongruity evokes the uncanny or the supernatural is a phenomenon Stewart also acknowledges in her poem: “Some human hand could not / have thrown that high, or lent such force to cloth, / and yet I knew no god would mind a square of air so small.”
Emily Dickinson, in “In Winter in my Room,” describes a mistake in sensory interpretation that leads to a misnaming. The speaker “came upon a Worm” that later turns out to have been a young snake, a fact that becomes apparent to the speaker and one that terrifies her, sending her running to the next town. Here the naming that tames this intrusion of nature into her bedroom (a harmless worm, “Pink, lank, and warm”) is disrupted by the later appearance of the snake “in feature as the worm before / But ringed with power —.” The poem ends with the ambiguous line “This was a dream.” — a line that retrospectively both undermines the earlier namings and raises the possibility that the dream explanation is itself just another naming that attempts to reconcile an unassimilated sensory experience. It also evokes the genre of the dream vision, which Stewart explores later in Red Rover in “Variations on the Dream of the Rood,” and hints at one approach to dealing with the subject-object division: the subjective idealist or “life is a dream” strategy (to borrow Calderón’s title), versions of which have played an important role in Buddhist thought as well as in Western philosophy.
In his 1944 poem “The Forgotten City,” a storm forces William Carlos Williams’s speaker to drive an unfamiliar route from the country back to the city. Along the way he passes through “extraordinary places, as vivid as any / I ever saw,” inhabited by “this / curious and industrious people” with “completely foreign manners” who live with “little apparent communication / with an outside world. How,” he asks, “did they get / cut off this way from representation” in “our” media, when they were “so near the metropolis, so closely / surrounded by the familiar and the famous”?
The suburban city and its inhabitants appear to Williams’s urban speaker as a newfound land or exotic civilization. Partly because of the estranging effects of the storm and its floods, and partly because “I had no idea where I was,” the entire scene strikes him as uncanny. He can vividly perceive physical attributes of the place and its people, but seems to be unable to abstract from these any category or label — any recognized place or street name, or term such as “suburb” — that might relate them to the world he knows. This speaker’s encounter with the philosophical problem of universals contrasts with that in Stewart’s poem, whose speaker has several categories at the ready but cannot establish the vision’s attributes with sufficient accuracy to confidently deploy any of them absent a self-conscious act of will.
Nearer parallels to Stewart’s use of troubled recognition occur in two poems from Robert Frost’s 1923 collection New Hampshire. In “A Boundless Moment,” the poet emphasizes the act of will involved in perception, and the potential such an act holds for the speaker’s self-deception. Frost’s poem, however, unlike “The Owl,” admits the possibility of a knowable external truth: its speaker consciously rejects his own comforting interpretation of pale ambiguous shapes among the bare maples (the kind of naming that allows Stewart’s speaker to “sleep a winter dream”) in favor of the harsher identification his reason and experience dictate must be correct. By contrast, Frost’s “For Once Then, Something“ insists on the speaker’s inability to be sure what he has seen in a well’s depths, as Stewart’s speaker insists that she “can’t know just what I saw” beyond her window. Frost’s speaker is allowed — only once — to glimpse something in the well of poetic inspiration beyond his lyric self, something durable (“Truth? A pebble of quartz?”) that presumably remains at the bottom of the well awaiting better viewing conditions. Stewart’s speaker is of a different kind, and the nature of her encounter is both more dynamic and more exemplary. Like the casts of his own body from which Gormley often elaborates his sculptures, the speakers of Stewart’s poems are less vehicles for expressing the drama of individual personality than they are representative human beings, whose encounters with the world a reader might equally experience. Frost’s poet-speaker has been “taunted” with “never seeing deeper” than his own reflection in the water’s surface; he has strived (“trying”) to make out some treasure of meaning, and “lost it.” He has pursued an agon with the nature that frustrates discernment, depicted in language laced with moral judgment (“always wrong,” “rebuke,” “for once”), emerging with a tone of bittersweet pride at having achieved at least a glimpse of something beyond himself. Stewart’s speaker, by contrast, is all inquiry: the “it” in “I can’t know just what I saw, and if / it comes each night, each dream, each star” can as easily refer to the dream and the star as to the thing she has named snowy owl. The subject-object problem remains, as does the paradox of simultaneous pattern and chaos in the world of phenomena. Even astronomers, the poem reminds us — whether Galileo making his pioneering drawings, or those who now observe a universe of accelerating expansion — must look down from their instruments and the vastness of their perceptual field in order to record what they can’t know with certainty they saw; the patient corroboration of their results by other observers produces the accumulating probability that is as close as science comes to certainty. Stewart writes poems of wonder, in every unsentimental sense of the word.
And she’s been doing so for a long time. Stewart toyed with troubled recognition in “Pear,” from her 2003 book Columbarium. The poem begins in the context of schoolchildren breaking off branches of pear blossoms for their teacher: “Believing each simple thing passes from a perception that is less clear / into one that is, eventually, more clear …” A few stanzas later, the grownup speaker, now stalled in traffic on a bridge, looks “out and up and there / I saw the girl flying and falling, flying and falling” with arms outspread; the speaker infers, though she cannot see, the trampoline “that must have been the yielding source of all her motion.” First wonder, then perception passing from less clear to more clear. But this faith is undermined by the rest of the poem, in which the speaker, stalled again weeks later at the same point of the bridge, cannot remember the flying-and-falling girl but only the vague sense that something is about to happen, which precipitates instead the memory of a fire alarm in her childhood (whether drill or actual conflagration is left unclear) when “everyone must leave the school — with every sweater and pencil left in place / — to burn, and burn / and burn back to the ground.” These images of the instability of perception, which relies on memory, and of the fragility of the edifice of knowledge in contrast to irreducible matter, serve to direct our attention again to the moment of encounter with the flying-and-falling girl at the center of the poem, just as the conclusion of “The Owl” returns us to the encounter interrogated in the first half of that poem. It’s always the moment of encounter — with natural objects, with people, with works of art — that raises the subject-object problem and poses the question of what we can know. And beyond the specific trope of troubled recognition, the nature of that encounter and the question of what attitude one should take toward it are central to Stewart’s work.
The second poem in Red Rover, “Lavinium,” begins:
I met the girl who held the flower and mirror
And the boy who sent his hoop up to the god.
Put away childish things they said, and stepped
Into the future. They were made of baked earth,
Their tenderness intact. (6)
Later, “The hoop rolled down again, / clattering.” And “The girl awoke and put her flower / inside the mirror.” The speaker observes, “We think of them. / They never think of us. / We think of them” so that “love’s asymmetry is true” (italics in original).
A reader conditioned by the emotional logic of personal lyric might see in this poem the wistful lament of an adult (Stewart is herself a parent) regretting the inevitable individuation and distancing of maturing children, depicted with symbolic attributes and a Genesis-like reminder of mortal clay. Such a reading is not illegitimate, but it’s incomplete. You can almost hear the borscht-belt plaint hovering in the background: “You don’t write, you don’t call …”
The richness of “Lavinium” and the rationale for its placement near the head of the collection are both signaled by the title. Lavinium (modern Pratica di Mare) was a port city of Latium, some fifteen miles south of Rome, whose legendary founding by Aeneas is mentioned by Virgil. It remained a religious center into the Roman period, with important cults of Minerva and other gods. During the first five centuries BCE, certain classes of Latins made votive sacrifices of terracotta figures there to mark rites of transition from childhood to adulthood. Some of these are now displayed in glass cases in the Museo Archeologico Lavinium. The poem’s characterization of the boy and girl as made of baked earth (translating ‘terracotta’) and its mention of locked cabinets, glass, a doll, and robbers that had come and gone for years, thus place the speaker before ancient votive figures rather than living adolescents. Knowing this context changes the poem into something richer and stranger.
Boston Globe reviewer David Barber complained that Red Rover is “dense with … hermetic allusion.” In the age of search engines, however, one is tempted to say, as the poet herself does in “The Owl”: “So look it up.” Because, to quote Stewart on allusion, “It’s very important to me to have my poems be accessible to people from all kinds of backgrounds and experiences. … There are some things we all know, and some things that only a few people know. … A poem cannot be based on an experience that’s merely private, or esoteric to the degree that it’s private.” Here the use of allusion rather than exposition — whether a reader acquires the particular references or not — represents an economy of poetic means that permits concentration on the moment of encounter.
Stewart’s choice of the verb “met” to characterize her speaker’s encounter with the votives, and her use of the words “boy” and “girl” to designate them, enact what she has called “the deep formal analogy between the face-to-face encounter between persons and the face-to-face encounter with artworks.” The initial making of the figures presumed an audience or receiver of the offering: originally the priests of the cult, the family members in the rite, and ultimately the god. The rest being long dead, the modern speaker viewing the votives stands as if in the place of the god. And indeed the poet restarts suspended time: the hoop that the boy sent up to the god rolls down again and he turns cartwheels over “endless” sand.
So one encounter figured by the poem is the imaginative meeting between the speaker and the ancient children represented by the votive figures. This encounter invokes the wistful emotional response proper to the adult-child relationship of the first reading given above. However, as Stewart has pointed out, any work of art posits a reciprocity in which the “stored activity of the maker” is “simultaneous to an implicit and reciprocal capacity for animation in the receiver.” Therefore the speaker in “Lavinium” is confronting not only the reanimated images of the ancient children, but the reanimated work of an ancient maker.
To attend to the maker is to realize that the adult-child relationship in the poem, in which the reader shares the speaker’s godlike position and assumes the respect due from minors to elders, has been altered and indeed reversed. The votives of the ancient maker are the work of the modern speaker’s artistic forebear; the child is parent to the woman. It is the “hard-hearted doll,” after all, who “repeats the lesson”: “love’s asymmetry is true, / they never think of you.” What relationship, Stewart invites us to consider, do we as contemporary audiences and artists bear to past (and future) makers and their creations? Do we think of them? What ought we think of them? These are ethical questions, a point to which I’ll return.
“Lavinium,” as the book’s second poem, thus introduces Red Rover’s exploration of childhood: the legacies we receive as children and those we leave our own children. In “as clerkes find written in their book,” one of the Songs for Adam later in the collection, the words are given to Adam, who broods on one child’s murder of the other: “Think of the child, / your father, / think of the mother, your child.” — the reader here addressed as if the offspring of Cain, and Adam’s grandchild.
Stewart has said that her 1995 book The Forest was concerned with the world of her parents and their generation, while the next, Columbarium, depicts the situation of her contemporaries as they face the future — the collection’s georgics, for example, ask what knowledge will be taught and what lost to the next generation, with what consequences. In Red Rover she explores what it means to be very young in the world, to be transformed into the no-longer-young, to be recruited into the transmission of cultures with all their horrors and achievements. Several of the poems evince this directly in their conceits and titles, taken — as is the book’s — from children’s games. Others extend the concept to cultural childhood. The town of Lavinium, for instance, flourished during the formative stages of Latin civilization. Stewart’s “Variations on the Dream of the Rood” reinscribes one of the earliest poems in English, portions of which were carved in runes on the Ruthwell Cross in Scotland in the eighth century. She translates or adapts three poems from Chaucer, who wrote during English poetry’s youth; in “The Former Age” Chaucer himself conjures an innocent, mythic time before metal and techné introduced inequality and strife into human affairs.
At the very center of Red Rover opens the collection’s hinge, the poem that puts the greatest pressure on the book’s nexus of childhood and legacy: “Elegy Against the Massacre at the Amish School in West Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, Autumn 2006.” The background to the triggering events, as well as Stewart’s ties to the locale and culture, are well covered in Mlinko’s review. “[A] girl is not a kind of girl,” writes Stewart of the five schoolgirls shot dead in their classroom; “she knows her rhyme / she has her name.” This quiet insistence on individual personhood parallels the assertion of Stewart’s early mentor, Alan Grossman, in his Summa Lyrica that “the traditional function of poetry is the conservation of names.” The statement also inverts the category problem in “The Owl” — here it is the individual that matters, not the class “girl.”
Stewart constructs a spare and elegant form to preserve these names, as befits the culture of the Plain People of Lancaster County. Each of the poem’s fifteen stanzas has five lines, or one for each girl. The first two lines of each stanza consist simply of the italicized names of the slain girls, separated by commas, and occasionally the conjunction “and.” The litany of names is not, as we might expect, an exact refrain:
Lena, Mary Liz, and Anna Mae
Marian, Naomi Rose
when time has stopped
where time has slowed
the horses wear the rain
Mary Liz, Anna Mae, Marian
Naomi Rose and Lena
the lanterns lit
at midday dark
At each repetition, with one exception, the leading name of the previous series vanishes from the head of the line, reappearing elsewhere in the list. Thus the poem enacts the shock of loss at every turn. The retention of the displaced name in the set creates, as Mlinko notes, an analogy with children’s circle games, thus conceptually rhyming with other poems in the collection titled with the names of games. More importantly, however, this retention testifies to the poet’s determination that through poetry none of the names should be truly lost, and bears witness to the faith of their community that its circle will ultimately be unbroken.
The remaining lines of the first stanza are repeated in the last, forming a ring composition that closes the sacral circle of the poem: “when time has stopped / where time has slowed / the horses wear the rain.” The figure of the dripping horses looks back to conventions of pastoral, and indeed to the pathetic fallacy of sympathetic nature in the pastoral elegy. I don’t think it mistaken to see even the immortal horses of Achilles, weeping for Patroklos, as ghostly presences at this scene of mourning for the young and the beautiful. But it’s typical of Stewart to choose such a detail, with all its literary-historical resonance, in order to stress a much more fundamental fact: this is a culture that still uses horses. Death has stopped time for the five girls, and in another sense for their families, in a community that has chosen not to be modern — to slow time. The killer introduced modernity into their schoolroom in the form of a 9mm pistol, a stun gun, and bondage equipment. He introduced, in other words, a fatal regime of nonconsensual time.
Face to face
In her pivotal essay “On the Art of the Future,” Stewart proposes that “what the practice of art in general [as opposed to the making of individual works] might be for is the carrying forward of a practice of ethical encounters between persons.” Purposelessness in aesthetic making — freedom from political, pragmatic, and other predetermined ends — is for her “at the heart of what makes art a possible ethical sanctuary.” This purposive but purposeless quality, familiar from the first part of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, is foundational for Stewart. It acknowledges that a work of art is the result of an artist’s intentional or purposive activity, but to the extent that it is art, it is free of a prior purpose or agenda. It exists in and for itself; achieving its completed form is its highest or final end. Stewart also emphasizes something less often stressed, citing Kant’s paradigm (developed in sections 46–50) of aesthetic experience as “in truth an encounter between persons — the maker and receiver.” Like nature, the genius (Kant’s term; Stewart extends the sense to include any maker) gives an unanticipated rule to art, but one that Stewart notes can be inferred only retrospectively and which thus requires the participation of another person: the person who receives the work. Though every work of art requires an intention or purposive action simply to come into being, that intention cannot be teleological, or it would be inadequate to any aesthetic result. “Here,” says Stewart, “every artwork confronts us with its integrity as form [Kant’s “finality”] and with its existence as the outcome of a prior intention. Engaged with the work, we can only move backward from its particulars to inferences of that intention.” Those particulars, like the work as a whole, cannot be fully brought under our pre-existing concepts or any predetermined program. We don’t explain the work away; we “enrich our apprehension, to challenge our usual habits of making the world intelligible.” Thus, “this meeting with an artwork that is of itself and for itself is analogous to that free ethical stance in which persons are encountered in themselves and for themselves — without prior determination of outcome or goal.”
In this formulation of the free encounter of persons Stewart draws first on the controversial ethics of Emmanuel Levinas, who holds that “the approach to the face is the most basic mode of responsibility.” She notes, however, that Levinas rejects any true intersubjectivity, fearing that we inevitably project our own subjectivity onto the being of others, and thus in his ethics of the face-to-face he requires the perceiver to be “held hostage to the requirements of the other” — a position reminiscent of the sacrificial logic of human relation to the gods, and one that for Levinas has theological roots. Stewart retrieves from this a secular, less extreme, and more intersubjective potential, “since we are able to recognize the common human position of others without projecting upon them the features of our own interiority, just as the way we recognize faces in general is separate physiologically from the way we recognize particular faces.” Hence the face-to-face response both to art and to persons partakes of an obligation of openness and nonhostility, if not of sacrifice, and Stewart draws several specific parallels between Kant’s aesthetics and Levinas’s ethics: “the nonteleological, the asymmetry inherent in reception, the imbalance between the underdetermination of received intention and the overdetermination of consequences, [and] the requirement of an affirmation or recognition of being.”
Though Stewart does not engage with him directly, such a model of the face-to-face encounter shares striking affinities with the relational dynamics of Martin Buber. Buber’s state of pure relation, instantiated by speaking face to face the “primary word” I-Thou, represents for him the fullest realization of human personhood, and is contrasted with the objectifying and instrumental relationship of the I-It. For Buber the I-Thou relation is direct, occurs in an intense and timeless present, and cannot be continuously sustained: “this is the exalted melancholy of our fate, that every Thou in our world must become an It.” Understanding, experience, recognition of means — all cause the Thou to become an object among objects. This is true of beloved persons and also of works of art: when “[a] man is faced by a form which desires to be made through him into a work”; this form is a Thou, which arises not from the artist’s soul but which “steps up to it and demands of it … effective power.” Through speaking the primary word with his whole being, the artist bodies forth the work. “To produce is to draw forth, to invent is to find, to shape is to discover. In bodying forth I disclose. I lead the form across — into the world of It. The work produced is a thing among things, able to be experienced and described as a sum of qualities. But from time to time it can face the receptive beholder in its whole embodied form.”
This last sentence hints at a crucial point for Buber — that every It retains the potential to return to the fullness of a Thou in response to the “turning” (Umkehr) of an I: “that which has been so changed into an It, hardened into a thing among things, has had the nature and disposition put into it to change back … again and again that which has the status of object must blaze up into presentness and enter the elemental state from which it came. … So too in art … It [the work] longs as in a dream for the meeting with man, that for a timeless moment he may lift the ban and clasp the form.” Thus in his own somewhat mystical formulation Buber not only affirms Kant’s characterization of the aesthetic experience as an encounter, but offers many colorful figures for the process that Stewart calls reanimation: the recuperation of the stored labor and intent of the maker.
Buber’s “turning” inevitably evokes the modern poet who “from his youth” had “read and revered” Buber — Paul Celan, whose “breathturn” (Atemwende) makes the poem the site of a similar impulse toward relation. In his 1960 Büchner Prize address, the “Meridian” speech that is his most carefully considered and influential statement on poetics, Celan develops a number of ideas that offer illuminating context for Stewart’s own reflections on making. He identifies poetry first in the perception that its language is “tangible and like a person,” having “shape, direction, breath” — “breath, that is, direction and destiny.” It is this sense of movement and intent, figured several times in the speech as a journey, that distinguishes poetry from mere ‘art’ — understood as petrified nature, trained carnival monkey, or technical automaton — and that, by defying any such program, allows it to become “an act of freedom” (a formulation not incompatible with Kant’s purposive purposelessness). “In other words: language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation which, however, remains as aware of the limits drawn by language as of the possibilities it opens. … This shows the poem,” Celan writes, “as one person’s language become shape and, essentially, a presence in the present.” (In his notes for the speech, Celan quotes from Whitman’s poem “So Long” as if to illustrate the strength of this commitment to the poem as agent: “Camerado, this is no book, / Who touches this touches a man.”)
But though “the poem speaks … only on its own, its very own behalf,” it has also “always hoped to speak on behalf of the strange — no, I can no longer use this word here — on behalf of the other, who knows, perhaps of an altogether other.” Celan evokes the cultural separateness he feels as a Jew, one valence carried by “strange” or “alien” at several places in this text, before redirecting his emphasis to a sense of the other as Thou, perhaps even a transcendent Thou (“This ‘who knows’ … is all I can add … to the old hopes”). Celan doesn’t dwell on this incorporation of the other into the “shape, direction, and breath” of the poem, but it makes a crucial space for the absent other(s) to stand, as it were, beside the poet-as-survivor or poet-as-witness in the encounter with the reader, who is also an other. And this encounter is at the heart of poiesis for Celan:
The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author stays with it.
Does this very fact not place the poem already here, at its inception, in the
encounter, in the mystery of encounter?
The poem intends another, needs this other, needs an opposite. It goes
toward it, bespeaks it.
And like Buber, Celan understands this encounter to be renewable. Even though the poem carries with it only “one, unique, momentary present,” it “holds its ground on its own margin. In order to endure, it constantly calls and pulls itself back from an ‘already-no-more’ into a ‘still-here.’” Thus “the poem becomes conversation — often desperate conversation”:
Only the space of this conversation can establish what is addressed, can gather it into a ‘you’ around the naming and speaking I. But this ‘you,’ come about by dint of being named and addressed, brings its otherness into the present. Even in the here and now of the poem — and the poem has only this one, unique, momentary present — even in this immediacy and nearness, the otherness gives voice to what is most its own: its time.”
In his insistence on incorporating the temporal situation of the other — the receiver, the spoken-on-behalf-of, the Thou — into the unique present of the poem, Celan makes a place for the dead, who were a constantly felt absent presence for him. But he also makes a place for the future reader, and so out of the poem’s constant struggle with darkness and silence “find[s] the connective which, like the poem, leads to encounters.”
Stewart, like Celan, writes with a sense of addressing an audience that includes the living and the dead. She does not, however, share Celan’s suspicion of — or hostility to — art as a history of forms. Hers is the poetics of someone who sees the present moment vividly, but as embedded in a long view; of someone steeped in cultural and aesthetic history, for whom the makers of the past seem intensely present. In The Poet’s Freedom (2011) Stewart meditates on and theorizes such transtemporal encounters, proceeding in her usual way by means of historical examples, in a chapter entitled “Meeting.” She attends carefully to this passage from Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir of the Stalin years, Hope against Hope:
Both [Osip] Mandelstam and Akhmatova had the astonishing ability of somehow bridging time and space when they read the work of dead poets. By its very nature, such reading is usually anachronistic, but with them it meant entering into personal relations with the poet in question; it was a kind of conversation with someone long since departed. … This would probably have been understood by Keats, who wanted to meet all his friends, living and dead, in a tavern.
Of Akhmatova, Stewart notes: “Deliberately choosing confinement [under surveillance for a suicide watch in her little room at Fountain House] over emigration, she continually expanded her empathetic powers of imagination in space and time.” Stewart espouses a similar empathy. She has said of Harold Bloom’s idea of the anxiety of influence that “I really don’t feel that very powerfully,” and indeed, rather than any revisionary spirit of agon, she appears to share Mandelstam’s sense that he “could look for friends and allies” among writers of the past. That spirit pervades Red Rover in the many poems that translate, rewrite, or otherwise converse with texts by known authors. It is also consonant with Stewart’s interest, in that book, in the cultural knowledge and rhetorical forms embedded in the rhymes and rituals of the children’s games she deploys.
Stewart’s commitment to cultural and literary continuity is the opposite of nostalgia. If she is less than partisan on behalf of avant-gardes, she is clearly skeptical of the categorical and totalizing claims to which they are prone. Artists make what rebellions they must in order to create their art, and inevitably those will take their place in the history of encounters.
In The Poet’s Freedom, Stewart develops a three-part model of artistic creation, drawing not only on classical sources but on the variant origin stories in Genesis and their influence on Western traditions of art-making. Here she argues that human making requires, first, a freely spontaneous act of will, independent of the biography of the maker — a speech act, as it were, analogous to the divine “Let there be light” or to the priestly source’s account of man as created “in our image” through the divine word alone. Second, since humans are not transcendent deities and cannot do their creating ex nihilo but must intervene in the material and cultural conditions into which they are born, there must be an act of making or forming analogous to the divine separating and forming on the six days — or to the Jahwist source’s account of man formed from clay and woman from man’s rib. Finally, in addition to these interdependent tasks of the intellect and tasks of the hands, Stewart reminds us that artistic making requires a judgment — the “it is good,” or decision to stop or abandon the work, that signals finality of form and separates the work of art from all that it otherwise might have been. This decision launches the work into the life of its reception, and into the possibility of its destruction. It’s worth noting that by incorporating this third component into her model, Stewart also facilitates the application of Kant’s account of aesthetic judgment to the artist’s creative act itself rather than solely to the apprehending act of the receiver.
Any of these three components of creation — volition, formation, judgment — may be, and indeed have been, valorized by artists or theorists to the diminishment or even exclusion of the others. Stewart observes such exclusive emphases as salient in different art-historical moments: a realism of “absolute obligation to the experience of the maker”; a Hegelian “art of absolute spirit” or pure conceptualism; an art of material intervention alone, or of everyday craft. For her, however, such narrowly focused practices are intrinsically both limited and inadequate to the ethical potential of art:
Each would have its own claim of resistance: the realist in a critique of imagination, the conceptualist in a critique of materialism, the materialist in a critique of hyperintellectualism, the artist of the everyday in a critique of self-consciousness. Yet, for obvious and self-contradictory reasons, these approaches to art making are defined by negative freedoms — they are driven by freedoms from. Bound by definition to those practices they deny, they cannot overcome their secondariness.
In “On the Art of the Future” Stewart articulates her motivating concerns — for the essay and, I would propose, for her poetics more generally: “To put my aims simply, I am interested in preserving persons from totalitarian systems of social control, including systems of nonconsensual time and technological development, and preserving artworks from speculative allegory.” We have seen Stewart protesting, in her elegy for Lena, Mary Liz, Anna Mae, Marian, and Naomi Rose, the fatal imposition of nonconsensual time; later in this essay I’ll consider some implications of technology for her poetics. First, however, I want to look at Stewart’s extension, in The Poet’s Freedom and elsewhere, of her argument that works of art, including poems, must be free, in their creation and in their interpretation, from extrinsic allegory.
“Why,” she asks in an interview, “would I ever make a work of art where I already know what I’m going to do when I start?” To begin with a definition of a ‘poem,’ or a prior idea of a particular relation of form to content, would be “a frame that you would then have to … bring as an allegory to what you’re doing.” For Stewart, “art is way ahead [of culture as an already made thing] and doesn’t know its terms from the outset. This is also why … I have advised against chance procedures of composition, but I’m really for chance in art. I think art is the most chancy thing.”
This last remark may be a uniquely insightful reformulation of Mallarmé’s famous title, Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance), reminding us that the use of aleatory methods, appropriation, or rule-bound procedures — however productive they may be as techniques — can never relieve the artist of her position of uncertainty before, and responsibility for, her choices in the field of possible actions. And to the extent that a chance procedure or constraint determines the character of the resulting work — gives it a prior purpose — to that extent it imposes on the work the nature of an allegory, as surely as any preexistent symbolic schema. To that same extent the work would no longer partake of Kant’s purposive purposelessness, and so, presumably, for Stewart it would be less adequate to aesthetic judgment.
This chancy quality of art is important for Stewart because it is a touchstone of the artist’s freedom. And the artist’s freedom is for her the paradigm of the person’s freedom: that preservation from totalitarian systems and nonconsensual development. So while art and ethics may have “strikingly different consequences,” in the sense that fictive actions and real ones are incommensurable, they both involve forms of reflective judgment. Moreover,
[t]he artist’s positive freedom of making, and the face-to-face encounters between persons that follow from it, are … the foundation for the meetings of free and freely creating persons in free associations — those ideal meetings where persons sustain a mutual respect toward one another’s intentions as they move toward an open future.
Stewart follows Kant and Marx in seeing self-legislation as central to both the artist’s creativity and the person’s authenticity; she follows Arendt in seeing art as the epitome of the distinction between labor, “which becomes erased back into time and nature,” and work, which “has some manifested consequence.” The further distinction between objects made for an explicit purpose and works of art “carries over into our sense of a life worth living,” since art “gives us an opportunity to judge what counts and what doesn’t count.”
Stewart sees such a life, historically never very secure, as threatened. “We have an economic system that is willing, in the interest of short-term gain, to destroy not only the physical and mental health of individual workers but also, in utter self-defeat, the resources of the earth itself,” she writes. “Concepts of planned obsolescence and replacement, the operations of profit’s sublimity, are as counter as they could be to the values of singularity and saturated meaning I have been pursuing.” She cites as a counterforce some prescient lines from Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry” addressing those values:
The cultivation of poetry is never to be more desired than at periods when, from an excess of the selfish and calculating principle, the accumulation of the materials of external life exceed the quantity of the power of assimilating them to the internal laws of human nature. The body has then become too unwieldy for that which animates it.
Shelley’s distinction between the body and that which animates it brings us back, via its mind-body dualism, to the larger subject-object problem. We have followed Stewart through poems that meditate on the mysterious paths by which physical sensations become perceptions and then intended images and ideas, including aesthetic creations. We’ve traced some implications of her assumption that, as Donald Wesling said in his review of Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, “the senses need a body to center and register them, and a person to socialize the body.” We’ve seen that this concept of persons underpins a fundamental analogy between the face-to-face encounter of persons and the encounter with works of art, including poems. Such encounters with art, and the making that enables them, stand for Stewart against a privative solitude, darkness, and silence, thus exposing a deep affinity between this aspect of her work and that of Paul Celan. The person as subject of encounter is for Stewart also the subject to be spared from repression. In working out the implications of this idea, she — and we — must confront the subject-object problem in particularly contemporary forms.
Modeling the person as maker allows Stewart to explore at length, in The Poet’s Freedom, a variety of political, cultural, and biological conditions that characterize essential negative freedoms — freedoms from — and positive freedoms — freedoms to — that contribute to her paradigm of the creative, open, and tolerant life. In contrast to political action or certain technological interventions, the limited field in which free art-making operates “allows for erring as a kind of opening.” The reversibility of art — the maker’s “control over time and consequences” and the necessity and safety of constantly starting over — allows for “further richness in the emerging form and further knowledge of nature.” In Stewart’s view,
when human beings intervene in the fabric of nature at the level of molecules and cells, for example, it is only by doing so within a finite sphere, characterized by reversibility, that they can be saved from disaster. Irreversibility is the standard for damage as reversibility is the standard for healing.
The centrality to Stewart’s poetics of the embodied person as individual subject, and of Kantian aesthetic judgment as a third capacity beside knowing and feeling, position those poetics as a kind of barometer of intellectual and cultural developments. If, as the philosopher and commentator on noise Ray Brassier proposes, the fundamental issue facing contemporary philosophy is how human experience fits into the world described by science, participants tend to fall into two camps: “those who want to explain science in terms of human experience” and “those who want to explain human experience in terms of science.” Brassier adds:
I side with those in the second camp who insist that we can attain an objective perspective on our own subjectivity. Philosophers in the first camp dispute this on the grounds that to explain experience objectively would be a contradiction in terms which would only ‘explain consciousness away’ and ultimately alienate us from the subjective core of our own humanity. … My own view is that despite its fundamentally reactionary tenor, the objection above registers a genuine difficulty, and that it is unrealistic and a little panglossian to insist that we will remain ‘human’ much as we are now even after the explanatory ‘reduction’ of experience.
Stewart has said, “I have one primary goal as a poet and that is to get people to read more slowly, and to re-read … and see connections between poems.” She sees a “whole biological transformation that can happen in the reader” when attending to the physical aspects of poetic expression, and “by slowing readers down and helping them attend to language in this way, I have some small role in slowing the culture down and being a stay against this incredible imperative toward speed that we have, and toward making ourselves more machinelike.” Stewart is not unaware of technology’s role as a sometimes-productive counter to contingent nature for art making. She notes, for example, that “the conditions necessary for the practice of art by women have only been available by means of technological interventions in our biological destiny.” But she is more concerned about “an alienating technological determinism and absorptive social coordination of time” to which art making might be an alternative, rather than a mere negation. Even as little is done to mitigate poverty and physical dependence under hierarchical social forms, “new varieties of impoverishment have been brought about by the unthinking acceptance of technology.” It’s not physical want that she has in mind here, but the dearth of “undedicated” awareness in which a creative agent — Stewart dislikes the way the term “subjectivity” can elide the distinction between volition and passive experience — can have free play. “It has been our choice,” she writes, “to let machines demand our attention rather than free it.”
It is, as McLuhan might have predicted, the dynamic of technological change and the seductive fascination of new media for both artists and audiences — more than the depredations of a hypostatized “capital” — that have the profoundest consequences for contemporary ways of being in the world, including art-making. As of 2011 data centers, or server farms, consumed about 2 percent of global electricity — more than Russia, and about the same amount as Italy or Spain — and worldwide, the amount of data to be stored doubles about every eighteen months. Even without factoring in the environmental impact of the servers that feed ereaders (including tablets used for reading), their mere production, replacement, and use for reading ebooks over five years would account for a carbon footprint at least twice as great as that of the same quantity of printed books, and so far the explosion in ebooks has not resulted in a decline in the production of printed books; the impact is additive.
The direction and scale of this trend are clear enough, and one could multiply citations in every domain of cultural production, from movies to scientific journals to digital art, and extend them to include blogs, social networks, and games like Farmville, whose data reside almost entirely in the cloud. While companies and researchers are working to mitigate the environmental impact, whether by moving server farms to Scandinavia (where ambient air can be used for cooling and most electricity comes from carbon-free sources) or pursuing quantum computing (whose greater efficiency depends so far on power-hungry cryocooling), the cultural record is being shifted wholesale to media that depend upon the electrical grid and to data formats that must be regularly updated or converted. Meanwhile the machines that read them obsolesce, only to be redundantly replaced by newer models at ever shorter intervals.
Stewart’s work meets these trends at two junctions. First, she resists the philosophical position that the given world, including the earth and its resources, exists for humans in an instrumental sense. The often-noted elegiac strain in both her poetry and her criticism begins in this resistance. Lament for what has been and will be lost is further prompted by that ethical concern for persons and encounters that I have already discussed. “If we have any kind of environmental consciousness,” Stewart says, “we have to care about strangers, who may or may not have a blood relationship to us, in the distant future.” Using E. O. Wilson’s term, she observes:
Perhaps we in contemporary Western societies do not see nature as a “language” — that is, as organized at a coherent, sacred, level of signification — but certainly most of us respond to nature, even at the most rudimentary level, with a kind of biophilia. Living things call out to other living things.
If, as some believe to have already occurred, the progress of global warming reaches a point at which only geoengineering can salvage life on the planet, then we will all, ironically, become dependent on the very instrumentalism Stewart warns against. Not surprisingly, then, her work — especially The Forest but other poetry and criticism as well — turns up regularly in syllabi and conversations on ecopoetics.
A second junction with technological determinism involves the preservation of created works. Unlike, say, a sixteenth-century book in storage, a digital file cannot survive under a regime of benign neglect. Unless regularly copied and converted to a current data format, or unless obsolete machines (whether virtual or physical) are maintained to interpret it, a digital work will likely become unrecoverable even faster than works on notoriously volatile cellulose nitrate film stock or nineteenth-century newsprint. Undertaking such preservation activities on a large scale raises questions of societal commitment and allocation of scarce financial and other resources. As Stewart has said, “Like natural resources, art works need continual care — and care only comes from intimacy and knowledge.” There is no such intimacy without access; the universal availability of “the most refined, considered works of our minds and hands,” requires that “every person … have the resources and education necessary to cultivate his or her sense of taste. It seems to me to be as much a birth-right as the inalienable status of our bodies.” Networked digital technology at once advances this availability and increases the long-term cost — and risks — of maintaining it.
In light of the speed, seductiveness (1.01 billion Facebook users and counting), costs, and risks of technology uptake, Brassier’s question about the status of human experience takes on a new urgency:
Some recent philosophers have evinced an interest in subjectless experiences; I am rather more interested in experience-less subjects. Another name for this would be ‘nemocentrism’ (a term coined by neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger): the objectification of experience would generate self-less subjects that understand themselves to be no-one and no-where. This casts an interesting new light on the possibility of a ‘communist’ subjectivity.
This is not too far from the concept of “substrate-independent mind,” one of the scenarios associated with a postulated technological singularity, or emergence of greater than human intelligence through technological means. Rapid advances in hyperconnectivity, robotics, biotech, nanotech, and miniaturization have led to predictions that the singularity is near; and though, as Bruce Sterling has recently written, machines still can’t pass the Turing test, many artists in the generation born after postmodernism are trying out aesthetics that reflect their comfortable collaboration and symbiosis with technology. Whether or not “seeing like digital devices” results in recruiting satellites or London’s web of ubiquitous surveillance cameras to construct a suprapersonal vision, it’s certainly not hard to imagine a day when the cliché of the smartphone as prosthetic becomes literalized. But as Sterling reminds us, “the aesthetics of surveillance cams are not value-free. Because aesthetics are not value-free.”
So if, as Brassier imagines, an objective, scientific characterization of human experience were achieved, and that characterization facilitated a collective subjectivity of some kind, what would it mean for such a subjectivity to create a work of art? Some more tightly integrated crowd-sourcing version of the artist’s collective might be a recognizable template for the volitional and formative aspects of making. But what would it mean for such a subjectivity to experience and judge a work of art? We don’t yet have a metaphysics or an aesthetics equal to the question. Maybe a better question is what kind of ethics would apply to such a collective subjectivity. Again, we can’t know with confidence, but we do have a kind of prototype in the corporation. Legally a person, the liabilities and responsibilities of its constituent biological persons are explicitly limited. The track record for corporate ethics warrants critical study in this context.
But what if, as science grows closer to understanding the nature of human experience, that nature becomes, rather than a superseded and mystifying fact, a thing in Bruno Latour’s sense, a matter of concern — so that art, philosophy, and science together work to enlarge our appreciation of its complexity rather than reducing and fragmenting it? It was after all the neopragmatist Richard Rorty who appropriated and “stretched” Harold Bloom’s term “strong poets” to designate writers who had enriched and advanced the contingent vocabularies of philosophy. And while Rorty extended the term to include prose writers who had given us new language games, it was verse — not the philosophy he had read or written — that comforted him in the experience of his own final illness:
I suspect that no comparable effect could have been produced by prose. Not just imagery, but also rhyme and rhythm were needed to do the job. … [A]ll three conspire to produce a degree of compression, and thus of impact, that only verse can achieve. Compared to the shaped charges contrived by versifiers, even the best prose is scattershot.
For Rorty, in other words, it is the sensory effects of verse that give it such force.
There is no more cogent exponent of the relationship of poetry to the embodied senses than Susan Stewart; she remains among those strong poets who enrich our ability to describe human experience as — in Latour’s sense — a matter of concern. And perhaps, as she writes, “the knowledge of parts and wholes, the freedom to act and the freedom to judge that art can provide, might help us become … a resource for that nature we have heretofore depleted.”
In the concluding lines of “The Owl,” Stewart recurs to wonder and uncertainty:
And still I thought a piece of cloth
had flown outside my window, or human hands
had freed a wing, or churning gods revealed
themselves, or, greater news, a northern owl,
a snowy owl descended.
The wisdom of troubled recognition is shown to be the wisdom of humility. Neither human ingenuity nor divine intervention is “the greater news,” but rather the given world of nature. The difficulty portrayed here — as in Gormley’s Blind Light — in fixing the boundary between the human subject and the natural object suggests the ecological and philosophical interpenetration of human experience and the “objective” realm. However powerful science becomes in characterizing each, Stewart cautions in both her poetry and her criticism against excessive confidence in either the ‘disruptive change’ of technology or the teleological ‘creative destruction’ of aesthetic revolution. Unintended consequences, she intimates, are buried in small graves in Lancaster County. Inquiry, not mastery, is her aim:
In the Iliad, there is no natural death —
everything comes about by intent
… All that violence
out of somebody’s error.
Intent, even the recovered intent of poets, is fallible. In art’s ability to accommodate error Stewart sees a great strength. In life, however, consequences matter. When the forests are gone, who will be able, like the Amish, to forgive?
Acknowledgments: In response to my query, Clare Kinney and Bob Perelman contributed examples of troubled recognition; thanks also to them, to members of the Smedley Street writers group, and especially to Rachel Epstein for insightful comments on the draft of this essay. Thanks to Danny Snelson and John Paetsch for early links to noise and nonphilosophy.
1. Susan Stewart, “The Sculptor as First Finder,” in Antony Gormley: Blind Light (South Bank Centre, UK: Hayward Gallery Publishing, 2007), 94.
2. Stewart, Studio 111 interview at University of Pennsylvania, May 4, 2004.
10. Among the mythical wells of wisdom and poetic inspiration that prefigure Frost’s symbol is Connla’s Well, alluded to in several of W. B. Yeats’s works including “The Wanderings of Oisin” and the play The Shadowy Waters, and which the Irish poet encountered in a visionary experiment. In a letter to Mrs. Dorothea Hunter, a fellow member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, Yeats described its waters as “the waters of emotion and passion, in which all but purified souls are entangled” (letter of January 1, 1898, in The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Alan Davis [London: Hart-Davis, 1954], 293–94). Frost met Yeats in London in 1913 and was familiar with his work.
11. In this Stewart’s practice recalls, though for different ends, Auden’s dictum: “Our sufferings and weaknesses, in so far as they are personal, our sufferings, our weaknesses, are of no literary interest whatsoever. They are only interesting in so far as we can see them as typical of the human condition. A suffering, a weakness, which cannot be expressed as an aphorism should not be mentioned.” W. H. Auden, “Hic et Ille,” in The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (New York: Vintage, 1968), 99.
12. In Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, Stewart quotes Henri Bergson from his 1908 treatise Matter and Memory: “There is no perception which is not full of memories. With the immediate and present data of our senses, we mingle a thousand details out of our past experience” (Stewart, Poetry, 152). Contemporary research is even more emphatic. British neuropsychologist Richard Gregory estimates that “visual perception is more than ninety per cent memory and less than ten per cent sensory nerve signals” (see Atul Gawande, “The Itch,” The New Yorker, June 30, 2008, 58–65).
13. Publius Vergilius Maro, Aeneid XII, 193–95.
15. Confidence in this mise en scène is supported by the fact that Stewart taught aesthetics at the Tyler School of Art in Rome from 1988 to 1997 and was a visiting writer at the American Academy in Rome in 2001.
17. Stewart, “On the Art of the Future,” in The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 15. A version of this essay was presented as a talk at Slought Foundation in Philadelphia on April 9, 2003.
34. Celan, The Meridian: Final Version–Drafts–Materials, ed. Bernhard Böschenstein and Heino Schmull with assistance from Michael Schwarzkopf and Christiane Witkop, trans. Pierre Joris (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 132.
35. In his longest draft of this section before the final redaction of the whole speech, Celan throughout this passage uses “I speak” rather than “the poem speaks” (on its/my own behalf and on behalf of the other/alien) and connects this first-person agency with “the poem’s hopes” — emphasizing how deeply personal was his sense that the author “stays with” the poem. See Celan, The Meridian: Final Version–Drafts–Materials, 55.
41. “[W]hen we use language, we’re entering into a relationship with others, both the living and the dead, and when I write a poem, I’m very aware of all kinds of audiences: an ideal audience, perhaps of just a few people who might, to my mind, represent very high standards for poetry or what poetry can do; but also I have to keep in mind people who might not understand what I’m talking about, so the poetic project has a kind of pedagogy to it — I think especially in the course of reading a book. … And of course the whole history of women as poets and artists and intellectuals has meant a great deal to me. And those women are among my ideal listeners, whether they’re present or not” (Stewart, Studio 111 interview).
42. Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope against Hope, trans. Max Hayward (New York: Modern Library, 1999), 231, quoted in Susan Stewart, The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on Making (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 178.
46. It’s tempting here to detect traces, applied to the Western corpus, of the ethnopoetics pioneered by Dell Hymes, who was teaching in Penn’s Department of Folklore and Folklife when Stewart began her doctoral work there in 1973.
51. “In art we can explore freely a range of ethical choices without having to bear the burden of what would otherwise be their lived consequences. Art is saturated with intention in this way, and the receiver, instead of suffering from the maker’s will, is instead able to enter into it at a distance, and in turn make errors of interpretation that are likely to be productive.” Stewart, “Poetry and the Senses: An Interview with Susan Stewart,” Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry 4, no. 9 (Spring 2009): 54–55.
58. Ray Brassier and Bram Ieven, “Against an Aesthetics of Noise,” nY no. 2 (2009). Brassier might also be termed a nonphilosopher, having often been associated with the “nonphilosophy” (sans-philosophie) of Francois Laruelle and its sympathizers.
62. On the percentage of 2011 global power use and the comparison with Russia, see The Los Angeles Times Technology blog for April 22, 2011. On the 2010 percentage and the comparison with Spain and Italy, see The Telegraph for October 26, 2011. On the rate of growth of digital data stored on servers, see The Economist for June 30, 2011.
63. The Millions blog; “Are eReaders Really Green?” blog entry by Nick Moran, May 1, 2012.
67. Michael Specter, “The Climate Fixers,” The New Yorker, May 14, 2012.
68. Conversion of data formats itself raises the question of the definition of the digital “work” to be preserved. In many cases, the original code is an important constituent of the work itself, perhaps even more so than a manuscript or book as “material object.” As with analog sound recordings on magnetic tape or 78 rpm phonograph records, preservation of such formats implies maintenance of archaic playback machinery, whether in hardware or virtual form.