Commentaries - February 2013
Ken Lum is the the new head of Penn’s undergraduate program in Fine Arts (as of Fall 2012). Lum is an artist, curator, editor, writer, and teacher. He has published extensively, and a book of Lum’s writings, edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist, is forthcoming from Walter Koenig Books. In addition to holding faculty positions at University of British Columbia (Vancouver) and Bard College, he has realized several permanent public art commissions including for Vienna, St. Moritz, Leiden, Toronto, Vancouver and Utrecht. He is currently working on public art commissions for the cities of Seattle, St. Louis, and New Orleans. This discussion took place at the Kelly Writers House on January 30, 2013.
The title of my particular Commentary series for Jacket2 might seem, initially, alarmingly pretentious, channeling the spirits and writings of Wallace Stevens, Theodor Adorno and the actual inspiration for this series, the philosopher Graham Harman, in one fatal, repulsive act of “verbal behavior.”
But actually, the title is perfectly bland and accurate: I wish to sketch out, in brief blasts of 500-words or less (the basic formal constraint for “commentators” on Jacket2) some ideas about how the developing field or trend in philosophy known generally as Speculative Realism, and more specifically as “object-oriented ontology” when concerning the writings of Harman and his followers, can be corralled, seduced, kidnapped or appropriated to describe something of value concerning “poetry.”
I’m not kidding. I’d like to attempt something that has been largely unfashionable in recent literary history, which is to describe poetry — the very category of “poetry,” the actions of individual poems, the corpus of poems attributed to individual “authors,” and the way poetry is evaluated either by the casual reader or the professional reviewer and academic -- in terms that derive from the metaphysical tradition of philosophy dating back to the pre-Socratics. Naive?
I’m hardly looking for eternal or absolute “truths” about poetry and poems so much as to liberate poems from what I feel has been a dispiriting attempt, largely by either a passive or active support of a “post-structural” emphasis in thinking, either casual or academic, to describe poems themselves as symptoms of social, material or even ethical forces, just stuff that happens to crop up when different human interests collide, cohere, or otherwise conspire which we are more or less forced to be interested in because someone, somewhere, decided that “poetry” is of central importance to the progress of mankind.
My own sense is that poems, and by extension “poetry” itself, has managed to survive, or at least be of perennial interest, regardless of whether the poet was a good person, out of date person, attentive to the language of their time or hopelessly antiquated in vocabulary or diction, a master of fifteen languages or a mere novice in one, good with money, bad with mascara, etc. And regardless of the poet, what of the poem itself?
The “speculative realists” in the most general way agree on one particular point, which is that philosophy since Kant has been stymied by a central idea, which is that all we can ever know about the world is so mediated by human subjectivity that there is no possibility to create truth statements about the non-human world. “Realism” becomes displaced by “idealism”: all we ever know of the world is what is made available to consciousness, even if (as Kant did) we were to at least acknowledge (if not think) an inaccessible non-human other. Thought cannot simply escape the mind and embrace the reality of a coffee cup, dog or The Sound of Music because the fact of cognition renders all of these things inaccessible.
To speculative realists, the ultimate end of this tradition which renders as primary the human-object relationship has been the so-called “linguistic” turn in 20th century philosophy, most notably epitomized by Derrida, for whom there are no meanings beyond the operations of language itself. The basic turn that speculative realists take is to displace the singular human-object relationship — called “correlationism” by Quentin Meillessoux — and replace it with the plural object-object relationship (of which a human, generously, can be one element). Hence, “object-oriented ontology,” Harman’s particular brand of philosophy that seeks to make the object the central subject of metaphysics.
It goes on from there... I’ve exceed my 500 words already... but my future posts will try to do three things: one, describe as briefly but accurately the main tenets of this school of thinkers; two, suggest whatever bridge I can establish between this school of thought and a general theory of poems, perhaps largely in contradiction to “materialist” notions of how poems work, without embarrassing myself; and three, applying some of these ideas to specific poems, which is really my favorite part of the exercise since it will allow me to revisit several bits that have continued to fascinate me even after I’ve read them 30 or 40 or a gazillion times.
From the syntactically and sonically ecstatic sprung lyrics of Fits of Dawn to the yearning spirituality of Millennium Dust, Ceravalo’s amorously meditative, searching, migratory poems make a refreshing contribution to postwar American poetry’s pursuit of wild logos.
Last Wednesday night, the Poetry Project of St. Mark's Church, NY, presented a tribute to Stacy Doris. Lee Ann Brown and I presented the films from the Cake Part, by Lee Ann And Tony Torn and by Felix Bernstein. In honor of Stacy, I have added to her EPC page the fantastic feature she did on French poetry for an issue of boundary 2 I edited. And below, the two filsm
French poetry feature with Pierre Alferi, Olivier Cadiot, Katalin Molnár, Christophe Tarkos, EmmanuelHocquard, Christian Prigent, Stacy Doris and Ray Federman in boundary 2, Vol. 26, No. 1, 99 Poets/1999: An International Poetics Symposium(Spring, 1999), ed. Charles Bernstein: pdf
Note also Doris's first French anthology:
The Violence of the White Page, ed. Stacy Doris, Philip Foss, Emmanuel Hocquard; Tyuonyi 9/10, 1991: pdf
A passage from "Scenes of Life at the Capital"
In August 1971, Philip Whalen performed “Scenes of Life at the Capital,” a 45-minute reading recorded by Robert Creeley who’d brought his tape recorder to the event. In a passage of “Scenes” — it comes to around two minutes of the reading — Whalen responds to Wallace Stevens. Here is that 2-minute passage: MP3.