Marjorie Perloff: Die Dichtung und das Ding (poetry and the thing)

Perloff lecturing on Duchamp at CUNY, 2012. Photo by Matthew Knip.
Perloff lecturing on Duchamp at CUNY, 2012. Photo by Matthew Knip.

According to Wikipedia, a “Wittgenstein’s ladder” is a reductive explanation of complex material, a “lie-to-children” or “tender introduction,” such as falling apples are to Newton’s Second Law.[1] For her part, Marjorie Perloff’s Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (University of Chicago Press, 1999) supplied an introduction, neither tender nor reductive, to the place where poetry meets the everyday, a place both aesthetic and ethical. For in WL, Perloff set forth what would prove to be the primary concern of the contemporary avant-garde: “To put it more concretely: what role does the interrogation of language that dichten (composing poetry) entails play in the mass culture of the later twentieth century?” Furthermore, to détourne Perloff: “what role does mass culture play in the interrogation of language that dichten (composing poetry) entails in the early twenty-first century?” Bringing us to her Unoriginal Genius (University of Chicago Press, 2010), and what I see as the birth of conceptualist criticism.

Perloff’s ongoing engagement with Wittgenstein, like her involutions with Cage and Duchamp, provides a rough guide to her steady preoccupation with what makes poetry poetry. The touchpoints here involve the readymade, the everyday, and the constant press of context. One of Perloff’s favorite Wittgenstein moments is found in Culture and Value, when the philosopher asks us to imagine a theater: “the curtain goes up and we see someone alone in his room walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, seating himself etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; as if we were watching a chapter from a biography with our own eyes — surely this would be at once uncanny and wonderful. More wonderful than anything that a playwright could cause to be acted or spoken on the stage. We should be seeing life itself.”[2] The predicate problem, of course, is that in imagining a theater, we are already within a context that cannot produce “life itself,” but only an aestheticized object — like a biography, like poetry. Life as we know it is not “life” as we frame it. To wit, Duchamp’s Fountain, Cage’s 4’33”, Goldsmith’s Weather. In emphasizing the way poetry has most recently intersected with “life itself,” Perloff’s work has moved us from considering the readymade as argument (Language poetry) to the readymade as context (Conceptual poetry), in other words, embodied, constructed, contingent on the spectral gaze. In this sense, though Perloff does not make this claim, the poetic readymade becomes an essentially feminist gesture. (Some hot ass! — Duchamp) As does the refusal of the retinal. (No more retinal poetry! — Place) Whether pro- or con-, text remains objectified, situated. And in a brilliant aphoristic moment, Perloff fuses the two: “To put it simply, artworks are always site-specific.”[3]

If the question at the end of the twentieth century was whether poetry matters at all, the question at the start of the twenty-first is what happens if the very stuff of poetry is all matter. The first preoccupied the postmoderns, particularly the Language poets. They used the quotidian to convey the common, and in conveying the common, argued for an ethical commons. The second preoccupies the Conceptualists, who use the ordinary to convey the real, and in conveying the real, stop right there. As Perloff percipiently noted about my own Statement of Facts: “But what is the ‘real’ anyway? What is the difference between fact and the interpretation of fact?” Thus the famous Duchampian aesthetic indifference is equally a Kantian moral indifference — i.e., the state of being without prejudice. In her latest book, Perloff takes the made-ready of Benjamin’s Arcades Project — a book not written by Benjamin, inasmuch as he copied most of it, and a book not written by Benjamin, inasmuch as it was assembled by the editors at Harvard University Press — and treats it as a work of conceptual literature. A genre not written by Benjamin the essayist, nor, at this point, presumably vetted by the editors at Harvard University Press. Perloff’s indifference to all but context, in this case, the context of a literary critique, appears to be the first public performance of a conceptualist criticism. Reading the work outside all forms of authorial or affective intent and right into the site-specificity of the current reading of the work. Content only as context. The ordinary language of Benjamin’s notes on ordinary life in nineteenth-century Paris is conceptual literature because Perloff treats it as such. The man in the theater is performing “life itself” — because the use of the reflexive pronoun is crucial, and absolute. (All games are first played in language.) Aesthetics necessarily involve objects, or reflected experience. “Life,” like “poetry,” exists only as a categorical conceit, as the infra-thin of ordinary being, as poetry is the infra-thin of ordinary language. The theater, after all, is just a room in which we all agree to face forward.

At the end of Wittgenstein’s Ladder, Perloff quotes Wittgenstein: “Aesthetics is descriptive.” In other words, not normative. At the beginning of Wittgenstein’s Ladder, Perloff quotes Wittgenstein: “Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten.” (“Philosophy ought really to be written as a form of poetry.”) In other words, what?[4] The reciprocal readymade, according to Duchamp, returns art to its fundamental nature as object — use a Rembrandt as an ironing board. So too aesthetics and ethics may now be returned to their fundamental nature as rhetoric and rhetorical. Not as the conveyance of singular sublimity or transcendent collectivism, not as exhortation to right thoughts or narcissistic epiphanous uplift, but as language as such, as how language works. Once climbed, the ladder is thrown over for a new ladder, one that takes the earlier ladder into account. Criticism, like poetry, is a matter of accretion. Accretion, like criticism, is a matter of natural extension.[5] By way of its extended interrogations and descriptions, its casting and recastings, Perloff’s criticism is poetry, because it is a model for a poetry that is no more or less than language itself, that does not tell us how to be but that we be as we be, for what good is poetry if we cannot articulate ourselves with at least the elementary elegance of an ordinary clavicle.[6]

[1] This seems to be a rather louche adaptation of Wittgenstein’s proposition 6.54 in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which states: “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them — as steps — to climb beyond them. He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.”

[2] What is the probability, between logicians, of Wittgenstein’s having read Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno, which contains the following scene:

“Did you ever make real life into a drama?” said the Earl. “Now just try. I’ve often amused myself that way. Consider this platform as our stage. Good entrances and exits on both sides, you see. Capital background scene: real engine moving up and down. All this bustle, and people passing to and fro, must have been most carefully rehearsed! How naturally they do it! With never a glance at the audience! And every grouping is quite fresh, you see. No repetition!”

It really was admirable, as soon as I began to enter into it from this point of view. Even a porter passing, with a barrow piled with luggage, seemed so realistic that one was tempted to applaud. He was followed by an angry mother, with hot red face, dragging along two screaming children, and calling, to some one behind, “John! Come on!” Enter John, very meek, very silent, and loaded with parcels. And he was followed, in his turn, by a frightened little nursemaid, carrying a fat baby, also screaming. All the children screamed.

“Capital byplay!” said the old man aside. “Did you notice the nursemaid’s look of terror? It was simply perfect!”

“You have struck quite a new vein,” I said. “To most of us Life and its pleasures seem like a mine that is nearly worked out.”

“Worked out!” exclaimed the Earl. “For any one with true dramatic instincts, it is only the Overture that is ended! The real treat has yet to begin. You go to a theatre, and pay your ten shillings for a stall, and what do you get for your money? Perhaps it’s a dialogue between a couple of farmers — unnatural in their overdone caricature of farmers’ dress — more unnatural in their constrained attitudes and gestures — most unnatural in their attempts at ease and geniality in their talk. Go instead and take a seat in a third-class railway-carriage, and you’ll get the same dialogue done to the life! Front-seats — no orchestra to block the view — and nothing to pay!”

[3] Marjorie Perloff, “‘The Madness of the Unexpected’: Contextualizing Duchamp’s Readymades,” unpublished, courtesy of the author.

[4] Perloff has noted that Wittgenstein was “not interested in connotation, nuance, or in word choice based on considerations of rhythm and sound, but in the uses of the denotative properties of words, phrases, and particular syntactic constructions” (“‘But isn’t the same at least the same?’: Translatability in Wittgenstein, Duchamp and Jacques Roubaud,” Jacket 14, July 2001). However, she begins WL by discussing Wittgenstein the “poet.” In part because of this maxim, in part because his interrogations of grammar are the interrogative moves of poetry (17). To which I would simply note as well the sly rhythms and rhymes of Wittgenstein’s line: dur/nur; phie/ei; lich/dich. Put another way, maybe there are no other words.

[5] As duly noted by Eliot — “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past” (“Tradition and the Individual Talent”). Or, as Wittgenstein put it: “What belongs to a language game is a whole culture” (Lectures on Aesthetics no. 25, 9). Current culture creates (and is created by) a set of language rules; given that the past now exists in the present (as we exist in an age of simultaneity rather than repetition), a rigorous conceptualist criticism can engage in a (duly noted) dehistoricized critique that is nonetheless not ahistorical.

[6] See Hegel, “Der Geist ist ein Knochen.” (Spirit is a bone.)