Commentaries - November 2011
Tan Lin turned me on to the work David Bunn, who some years ago took possession of the entire Los Angeles public library’s card catalogue. Tan had noticed my interest in Erica Baum’s word-centered photography of old catalogues, and suggested I get to know Bunn's project.
Leah Ollman wrote an article for Art in America on Bunn in 2000, and here are two passages:
As libraries replace their card catalogues with on-line databases, the cards themselves--obsolete, bulky, worn--are usually discarded. Artist David Bunn rescued two million such cards and, in his elegant installations, directs our attention to the strong poetic voice still coursing through them. In 1990, David Bunn took possession of the two million cards in the Los Angeles Central Library’s catalogue somewhat in the manner of an eccentric heir claiming the unwanted portion of an estate. To administrators at the library, the card catalogue was not so much an inheritance as the deceased itself. Its contents had been made available on-line several years earlier, and it sat, an unwieldy, inconvenient corpse, awaiting suitable disposal. Why fill a storeroom with information that can now be saved on a chip the size of a postage stamp?
And later in the same article:
Strains of both Dada and Duchamp course through these found objects rendered into found poems. Mere alphabetic adjacency is the operative force, making close neighbors of utter strangers and catalyzing all sorts of disarming associations. Some of the poems are more like quips — “Sometimes a great notion/ sometimes a hero/sometimes a little brain damage can help” (1996)— while others offer swatches of casual beauty: “The sea is a magic carpet/the sea is also a garden/the sea is for sailing/the sea is for sailing/the sea is strong” (1997). The multiplicity of meanings and contexts for a single word, the very thing that stymies subject-driven computer searches and causes them to produce a cumbersome load of search matches, is what makes these snippets blossom on the page.
The poems often read as lists, oral recitatives drummed into memory, the rhythm of repetition building density, layer upon layer:
And the band played on / and the bride wore ... / and the bridge is love / and the children came too/ and the dawn came up like thunder / and the desert shall rejoice / and the doctor recovered/and the floods came / ... and the flowers showered/and the morrow is theirs/"and the next object ..." / and the river flowed on/and the sound of a voice ... / and the third day ... / “and the two shall become one flesh” /and the walls came tumbling down / and the years roll by.
The catalogue enables Bunn to narrate what he calls “a whole constellation of stories,” some focused on a particular moment in time or a brief thread of plot, others conjuring the grand, seamless narrative of existence, without beginning or end, shape or evident purpose.
In philosophy and art humanity is no longer worthy of our enquiry or representation. Philosophy as an attention to human problems must yield to science dealing with mechanical masses of non-human material. The questions of medicine, hygiene and psychology are being relegated gradually to physiology. Art no longer attempts to mirror man, or the things in nature as seen by man, but depicts unrecognisable patterns which are like nothing on earth—lines, cubes, inhuman designs. The art of representing visible likeness is relegated to the science of photography. The philosophies and arts of one age are the exact sciences of the next. Philosophy, searching for what is true, and art, searching for what is new, may be discovered as being always out in front of society, in the vanguard; while the sciences and industries—the more utilitarian and moralistic activities—may be considered as forming the main body of the army, moving into the positions the spearhead establishes. This division of labour is rarely seen operating on a large scale, but viewing the world as a whole it will be seen that the humanism which has inspired so many of the great philosophers and artists of the past is a goal attained. We have arrived at humanity; there is work for science, enormous work—but the vanguard has to look to new goals ahead. — Harry Hooton, excerpt from "Problems are Flowers and Fade," from Things You See When You Haven't Got a Gun, self-published booklet, 1943.
Over the last few months, Harry Hooton has been on my mind. His name has been mentioned a number of times as I have progressed through this archival project, and on my first visit to Amanda Stewart's house she lent me a copy of Poet of the 21st Century: Harry Hooton, Collected Poems, selected and introduced by Sasha Soldatow and published by Angus & Robertson in 1990. I didn't open the book until I knew I could take it to bed and read it entirely. My gut told me Harry and Sasha would eat me, my night, my bed, effortlessly. And they did!
Harry Hooton was born in England in 1908 and sent to Australia at sixteen, during a campaign that relocated young people to healthier colonies. Not much is known of Hooton's earlier years in Australia, though it is suggested that he had family in Maitland, NSW, and ended up in Newcastle, north of Sydney. In Newcastle, he became active: identifying initially as a Trotskyist, then getting involved with the Internationalist Industrial Workers of the World, and later with the Peace Pledge Union. Hooton was a pacifist anarchist with no money: landing him in gaol for an unarmed robbery, which in turn named his second self-made booklet, Things You See When You Don't Have a Gun. His first, These Poems, was a collection of parodies, critiquing bourgeois, boring, self-important, politically anaemic, overwrought, nationalist and parochial poetries (of which I am quite certain there will be no shortage, ever, to critique).
Hooton was critical of modernism (he takes every opportunity to shank Joyce and Pound), and especially so of its nascent local branches that were grafted onto a suspect foundation of Australian nationalism. Hooton's auto-select poetic predecessors were Lawson, Shelley, Whitman, Wilde and Sandburg. He also, evidently, read Epicurus, Spinoza and Wittgenstein. He named his politico-philosophical investigations "Militant Materialism," and "Anarcho-technocracy":
Anarcho-technocracy is the theory of Direct Action on Things. It is anarchist, insomuch as it states that all government over men must be replaced by the administration of things; it is technocratic, in that it contends this administration can be encompassed, in this era of increasing technological complexity, only by the technicians. It comprises the other political theories, which in reality, if not avowedly, all have the same end in view. In particular, it comprises and furthers democracy, our own brand of political theory.
Democracy is not the rule of the majority of people over a minority, which inevitably becomes the rule of a minority over a majority, a rule over the people; it is not self-government, the rule of the people over the people, which is a physical impossibility--it is the rule of all the people, over something else, something other than and outside the people. There is only one thing outside the people to be ruled--that is their material enviroment, that part of that enviroment transformed in industry, the machines. Democracy becomes inevitably Industrial democracy. In doing this it transforms political terms, methods, institutions. It transforms politics itself--from politics, which is a matter of the government of men, into technics, which is a matter of the Government of Things. ("Anarcho-Technocracy: The Politics of Things, c. 1951, reproduced in Poet of the 21st Century, p.88)
Later in the essay, Hooton recognises that the fear inherent in his programme is the fear of a ruling class of technicians: this is something that must be resisted, he says, for no one need be ruled. Collective campaigns to organise and move matter, under the direction of technicians (those who can "make a pot, grow a turnip, open an atom" (p.90)), will manifest the modern utopia: an industrial co-operative democracy.
Hooton's politics is a toughnut. His futurist, tech-fetishist materialism, combined with his thoroughly Romantic conviction in an abstract, prior-to-the-social, perfection of "man" (unforch HH is very attached to this gendered subject), combined again with his reification of the Thing AND his call for human domination of the non-human, produces a confusing polemic that doesn't quite fit anywhere. (An aside: Soldatow tells a great story of Hooton defending his use of the word "man" to Miles Franklin at a party: he tries to argue that he uses the word "man" to signify a certain subject in a certain power relation who might be the only chance for emancipation, that is to say, the freedom of both men and women. He follows this up by assuring that he's a feminist; Franklin is unconvinced.)
But all this confusion must surely be precisely what he means by anarcho-technocracy: incommensurable, unfalsifiable, methods for arranging and rearranging relations between things (but not the things themselves?) that will come to replace the structural institutions that have acquired, naturalised and enforced relations at the level of the state, the military, the economy, the school, the family. If you could imagine what graphic representations of these methods might be, Hooton seems to say, then you can see them already appearing in modernist art: "The whole tendency of recent works is an endorsement of my thesis that the focal point of modern art is the inhuman world. Cubes, vortices, cylinders, lines are the ‘unconscious’ selection of subject matters as far as possible outside man’s mind that I posit as worthy only of our attention." (Hooton, cited in Soldatow's introduction to Poet of the 21st Century, p. 14) It is here that Hooton aligns himself with a modernist conceit, but his broader programme is clearly one of the twenty-first century, and not of the twentieth. Writing in 1955, in the first issue of '21st Century: The Magazine of the Creative Century,' Hooton declares:
We are sick of the past. London, Paris, New York, Moscow, are dead. Like Rome, Athens, Babylon, they have had their day. The sun has indeed gone down on the west, and on the east. You could knock on the doors of the old world with a new idea till your knuckles were red-raw and bleeding, through all eternity; they would not hear you—there is no one at home. (p.22)
How much of Hooton's tongue was jammed tight in his cheek at any one time is unclear. What is clear is that Hooton's speculative intuitions about the possibilities for anarcho-poetic take-ups and distributions of "things" are apt. Hooton was a hacker. And though there's a lot of devastating tripe in this century that would have kicked holes in all of Hooton's weak spots, I want to honour his conviction that it is the poet -- the one who is invested in the construction of language events in the most minor circumstances -- who might both exemplify and interrogate the possibilities of acting on matter, acting on matters. When the smallest unit turns on the smallest unit, there's action: the consequences are never neutral. Are poems bit torrents? No doubt.
When the students of syntactics stop worrying about
subjective things like communication, meaning,
interpretation, and look at words OBJECTIVELY we will
have some logic. Words have weight, move. Grammar is
dynamic or at least mobile. One can observe and measure a
thing moving. What does a thing do when it means—
wriggle, flap wings, quadrepedally locomote? When we
replace to mean by to move we shall be scientific. A scientist
is not concerned with the essence of a thing—the thing in
itself—a static entity; he is concerned with motion—the
relations of things—events, processes. He does not want to
know what a thing is; he wants to know where it is going.
No thing is going to itself—it is there already. There are no
instransitive verbs, all things are in transit. No thing just
goes, it always goes somewhere. That somewhere is other
things. To speak grammatically, and that is to speak
logically, a subject moves to an object. What I wish to point
out is that the OBJECT OF MAN’S EXISTENCE IS NOT
MAN—IT IS SOMETHING OTHER THAN MAN, IT IS
NON-HUMAN. In the sentence I am forming, man, the
subject doing something, does not move to man, he moves
to something different, the OBJECT. I call it the world. What
is important is to realise that the subject does not move to
the subject. One word does not make a sentence.
(From "Very Words (NOT A POEM)", Proems in Pose, first published in Number Two, 1944, collected in 21st Century Poet p.79-80)
from Jacket #5 (1998)
Loy at Last
Mina Loy, The Lost Lunar Baedeker. Ed. Roger L. Conover (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996)
I HADN’T MEANT TO write anything on Roger Conover’s new edition of Mina Loy’s poems, happy as I was to see it appear. I figured the more interesting approach would be to wait for the reviews of the book and write something about them. I had an inkling that Mina Loy’s time had come, that this Conover edition, given its publisher, would reach a public an earlier Jargon Books edition had not. The nearly simultaneous publication of Carolyn Burke's biography, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy, would help to push Loy over the top. I was right, I guess — the books have been widely reviewed in publications as various as Harper’s, Modernism/Modernity, American Book Review, and TLS, and Mina Loy’s name seems to be everywhere. In the week that I type this I've found it in a electronic PostModern Culture review of The University of Buffalo's Electronic Poetry Center and, out of the blue, on a listserv devoted to experimental British poetry, where Loy’s poem “O Hell” was cited by the Australian poet John Kinsella. In London a month or so ago I saw the Carcanet edition of Conover’s book on the shelves of some pretty average bookstores where nothing was stocked by contemporary British poets such as Tom Raworth, J. H. Prynne, Maggie O'Sullivan or anybody else not right down the center or floating behind a mainstream. Reviews of the Loy edition have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, though Helen Vendler is not, it seems, altogether convinced that the gates should be opened and Loy admitted to — to what? The elegant badger is already out the barn door. The predictable response of Vendler and some others breeds discourse, accelerating the name already ineradicably a part of the discourse of modern poetry, feeding the fires of those for whom Mina Loy's work has long been a “cause,” near the center of various arguments about aesthetics and poetics, or gender and modernism. Beyond Vendler others have felt it their duty in life to make ill-informed statements about Loy’s fitness as a mother, sometimes allowing their exhaled righteousness to pollute an evaluation of poems they would rather not read. A few boos to set off the chorus of cheers.
Conover’s edition is surely deserving of praise. It’s meticulously edited and annotated to be of use equally to scholars and readers needing introduction to the personalities and propositions of Italian Futurism and whatever and whoever else enters into the poems. A few changes have been made in the poems also appearing in the Jargon edition, most of which are carefully explained though not all of which equally please. The opening lines of “Three Moments in Paris,” for instance, have been changed from present tense — “Though you have never possessed me/I have belonged to you since the beginning of time” — to past: “Though you had never possessed me / I had belonged to you since the beginning of time.” The breathlessness and consonantal richness of “have never” is deflated to wry narrative, the awkwardness of articulating “had” before “never” seeming of a different order than the metallic stuttering of her best poems, where hard consonants rattle like arcane dictionaries bouncing on the tin roof of a music hall, and verbs (and nouns looking like verbs) are often offered their own line — as if the power to propel a racket of eroticized jargon and ironized poeticisms towards the stony propositions of sentence were a perpetual source of amazement. If the cost of getting towards an accurate, usable and widely available text is one disappointment, that's small cost indeed. And the gains — several previously unpublished poems, the short essay “Modern Poetry” with its remarks on jazz and American speech and the Americanness of the modernist moment in poetry, among others — are cause for another fifty hurrahs. The only unfortunate limitation to the edition is the omission of the long poem “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” for reasons of space, but it is soon to appear in another book edited by Conover. I’m not sure everyone knows how much the poetry world owes Roger Conover for decades of work on Loy’s behalf; together with Burke and a few other scholars and poets he has brought her back from near-oblivion to the celebrity she knew once briefly in New York. There was something perfect about the page in Harper’s, the sensation become a sensation again as she enters the archive, touching down just once in the glossy pages, beautiful and scandalous in the sheen of sex and fashion.
[read the rest of the review]
Yunte Huang on racist immigration law in sweet home Alabamaa
Who but the ever marvelous Yunte Huang could possibly get away with this marvelous opening sentence in an op-ed piece in today's TImes Sunday Review: "IMAGINE this: It’s Sunday morning, beautiful and quiet, except for the mockingbird practicing comic routines on the sweet gum tree in the backyard." Then there is this gem, about Yunte as a new Chinese immigrant in Alabama: "In reality, I was kosher as far as my immigration status was concerned." That's good enough for me, as is the injunction he quotes from Leviticus to welcome the stranger in your midst. But perhaps the problem with the new Alabama anti-Mexican-American law is that its perpetrators think the New Testament freed them from that Old Testament injunction. I hope Yunte's article gets them to think again, or else We the Kosher (in the metaphoric sense!) will keep crowing like mocking birds in gum trees of our own devising.
The New York Time Sunday Review
November 19, 2011
Southern Hospitality, but Not for Newcomers
By YUNTE HUANG
IMAGINE this: It’s Sunday morning, beautiful and quiet, except for the mockingbird practicing comic routines on the sweet gum tree in the backyard. As usual, you get ready and drive your family to church. Everyone is well dressed, and the kids are singing in the back seat.
Somewhere along the way, you spot a stranger by the roadside, carrying a Bible, looking lost. As a good Christian, you pull over and offer him a ride. In the car, you introduce him to your family, making sure your kids know their manners. You chat with the stranger. Chances are, he’s from somewhere else, maybe even another country. You drop him off near where he’s going; or, God willing, he’ll come, on your invitation, to your church for the service. If the latter, it will make your day, having welcomed a stranger into the benevolent fold of the Lord.
That stranger could have been me, 20 years ago, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Fresh out of college in Beijing, I had left my home country in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre. Landing in the sleepy college town, I was disappointed that Times Square was nowhere to be seen. I started going to churches, and without a car, I had to rely on good Samaritans for rides on Sunday. A newbie not yet brazen enough, I always carried a Bible, which seemed to work better than a hitchhiker’s thumb. When kindhearted folks — men in immaculate suits and women in puffy, flowery dresses — stopped for me and asked what church I was going to, I would invariably say, “Yours.”
If the same scene is played again today, you, the good Samaritan, could be in trouble. According to an Alabama law that went into effect on Sept. 1, it is a crime to knowingly give an illegal immigrant a ride. In reality, I was kosher as far as my immigration status was concerned. And even if I were not, you might walk away scot-free because you didn’t know I was illegal. But after Gov. Robert J. Bentley — who in January apologized for saying after taking office, “Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother” — signed the immigration law in June, you probably wouldn’t stop for a stranger like me, kosher or not. And that’s one of the problems with the law — its mean spirit. It goes against a basic tenet of Christian belief: “Help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you” (Leviticus 25:35). But that’s not my only beef with the law.
The reason I chose Alabama out of all the states was very simple: it’s alphabetically the first. It may sound incredible, but in those dark days after Tiananmen, when Beijing reeked of blood and horror, I was so desperate to leave the country that I simply did not care where I was going. I went to the university library and opened a guidebook to American colleges. Lo and behold, there was “Alabama” on the first page. (Sorry, Wyoming.) As much as I found Tuscaloosa to be almost unbearably provincial — think of leaving Moscow and ending up in Moscow, Idaho — I never regretted it.
Alabama, with its tall pines, red clay and festering swamps, was a land under a charming spell. As I learned to appreciate the rich history and culture of the Deep South, I also figured out a problem: race. Yellow, I found, was not a visible color in a society where everything had for more than two centuries been black or white.
Falling into such a racial vacuum was not, however, without advantage — call this the yin-yang of racism. Before xenophobia began to cast a different spell on the South, the folks were courteous, warmhearted, always ready to help out a stranger, as my hitchhiking amply proved. Even in my closest brush with the law during those years, I walked away with a profound admiration for the kind of hospitality characteristic of the South.
That was after I bought a car, a beat-up Toyota hatchback, for a whopping $500. One night, I did what I now know as a “California rolling stop” near the university campus. A patrol car seemed to zoom out from nowhere, and I was pulled over. With scenes of “My Cousin Vinny” fresh in my mind, I was more than a bit scared. I tried my best to sound apologetic and remorseful to the approaching policeman in his brown uniform and shining boots. To my surprise, he was very courteous, addressing me as “sir” in a pleasant, melodic drawl. After checking my license, and sensing there were no drugs or alcohol involved, he gave me a warning and let me go. (He didn’t actually wave me off with a “roll tide,” as a recent commercial comically portrays, but you get the drift.)
Such a comedy of manners — my Chinese politeness and his Southern chivalry — might not play out today in Sweet Home Alabama, because the new law allows the police, even in a routine traffic stop, to arrest anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant. Just imagine the paranoia that would have pervaded the situation, both the policeman’s suspicion and the driver’s fear. Or when, a year later, out of economic necessity, I wanted to open a Chinese restaurant in town and went to city hall to apply for a business license. The clerks looked at me as if I were fresh off the boat, but never thought to inquire into my immigration status. They were just happy that there would be a new business in town, a place where they could order egg rolls and sweet and sour pork.
I’m waxing nostalgic because I miss the time when the sweet Southern air was, at least for this immigrant, not poisoned by fear, the malevolent phobia that haunts Dixie today. The new law is as much an ineffective solution to economic woes as a xenophobic reaction by an already bifurcated community to the arrival of new immigrants, be they Asians or Hispanics. As Charlie Chan might have asked, “What in the name of Confucius happened to Southern hospitality?”
Yunte Huang is a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of “Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History.”
Ruth Perry of MIT has written a chapter for a volume being edited by Ellen Pollak, A Cultural History of Women in the Age of Enlightenment, to be published by Berg/Palgrave. This work will be part of an illustrated, six-volume Cultural History of Women being assembled with a general audience in mind. Ruth Perry's topic is Anna Gordon Brown, whose repertoire of English ballads was the first to be tapped and written down by antiquarians and literary scholars in the eighteenth century, at a time when scholars feared that the oral tradition was in danger of disappearing forever. It turns out that Ruth Perry, aside from being an eminent scholar of the ballad tradition in English, is a talented ballad singer herself. As of today, PennSound has added to its "Classics" page a studio recording of Perry performing “Burd Ellen,” generally deemed to be one of the most beautiful of Brown's ballads. Ruth transcribes “Burd Ellen” in her forthcoming chapter, and discusses it as well. It is the hope of Ellen Pollak that the published book will refer to the PennSound URL so that readers can have easy permanent access to the recording, without the need of a CD inserted into the book. We at PennSound are happy to help with this project and any similar endeavor.
Here is a brief excerpt from Ruth Perry's chapter: “What follows is a transcription of one of the most beautiful of Anna Gordon Brown's ballads, taken down from her singing or recitation by her nephew, Robert Scott, in 1783. This magnificent ballad cannot be fully apprehended if one simply reads the words on the page. The pace set by the melody, the restlessness of the tale, the stately way it unfolds, the way the language rhymes and reverberates — these require it to be heard rather than read.”