Jill Richards' "Distribution Series"
Ronald Paulson's The Art of Riot in England and America is a small, thin book. Its concerns are mainly with art, with nineteenth century pictorial representations of riot. In it Paulson attempts a taxonomy of riot so as to understand its festivities, its seditions.
I have read Paulson’s book several times in the last few years. At moments frustrated with how it seems too ecumenical. At other moments frustrated because when it gets to the literature his examples feel a little tired (and so male): Norman Mailer, Nathanael West, George Romero, etc. But still his taxonomy has felt useful for thinking about the various books and blog posts and poems and prose that have started appearing in public in the last few months that are full of what David Buuck keeps naming — with at moments a snideness and at other moments a joking generosity — “occu-po,” or writing that is somewhat informed by and/or about the various moments of political antagonism of the last few years. And as I keep reading Paulson on the nineteenth century I keep wondering about how “riot” shows up in these twenty-first century works.
I will eventually get to works that attempt to represent the interruptions, the antagonisms in various ways. But I want to begin with a piece by Jill Richards called “Distribution Series .” I heard her read this piece at Davis during the Revolution and/or Poetry conference. And while many at this conference were reading works about the joyous hope that comes with possible sedition (see Sean Bonney’s reading), Richards read a work about what happens after these moments: “we agree that it is lonely now, that it is lonely at home and it is lonely in the large groups of people at the beginning of the summer.”
Richards’ piece is written in twelve parts. She has written it in a sort of modified version of the form Nanni Balestrini used in The Unseen: narrative prose paragraphs with limited punctuation that frequently, but not always, start in one time and then without transition move to another. I like this form because I see it as getting at some of the complications of connection that are impossible to articulate except through proximity. Here is section two:
At reading group there is an argument about what a lull is and whether it exists here or not. There is an argument about who attends what meeting and who speaks for how long. The people I know work shit jobs or have no jobs or keep working the jobs that promise to lead to better jobs we agree that it is lonely now, that it is lonely at home and it is lonely in the large groups of people at the beginning of the summer the Holdout was robbed and the robbers separated the white people from the non-white people now there is a door that is locked after dark
Most of “Distribution Series” is about what happens in the lull. The way that everything gets a little brittle. That if before in the time of festivity and sedition, everything and everyone felt possible to see, after everyone is forced to play one singular representational role. At least three times this sort of statement appears:
Everyone knows that outside of this assembly or reading or conference where everyone is represented equally is one thing and that outside of the poem or the conference or the assembly is another that the people who shake sometimes still shake and the people who are stared at are stared at the people who don’t belong don’t belong the people who are beaten are beaten the people who can’t pay rent can’t pay rent the people who are bosses are bosses and the people who are harassed at work are still harassed at work before and after they are the ones that speak on the stage.
Recently "Some Oakland Antagonists" wrote a piece for CrimethInc for a series that was to study “what we can learn from the waning phase of social movements." It was about “the rise and fall of the Oakland commune,” and after inventorying the rise, it turned to the "toxic interpersonal dynamics" that come after the rise. These antagonists end their piece like this "But the questions still remain: what would it mean to actually take care of each other and to collectively sustain and nurture an unstoppable insurrectionary struggle? How can we dismantle and negate the oppressive power relationships and toxic interpersonal dynamics we carry with us into liberated spaces? How can we make room for the myriad of revolts within the revolt that are necessary to upend all forms of domination?" These are, of course, not the easiest of questions. They are big and bold, full of aspirational bravado.
I begin trying to understand an art of riot with the lull, even as I am looking for a literature to understand what it means to collectively sustain and nurture an unstoppable insurrectionary struggle, to dismantle and negate oppressive power relationships and toxic interpersonal dynamics. In part I do this because I feel as if I am writing this in the lull and because so much of the literature about the occupations, the possible seditions of the last few years has been written from the lull. Poetry after all has a long tradition of tranquil recollection, for better or worse. And I suspect that this makes some of the work that has been written about these moments full of heroism. And some of it full of defeat. What I like about Richards’ piece is that it is about being inside and being involved and trying to think from that position. It is neither heroic nor defeated. Richards’s piece juxtaposes the moments of friendship with the moments of brittle, perhaps in an attempt to work through an answer. It ends with a story of wheat pasting posters about Marilyn Buck and leaving one of the buckets of wheat paste on the sidewalk. It’s a nice story of a moment before the lull, about being together. If I was an optimist, I could write here about how it remains there for some else to pick up. Wheat pasting will go on! But I'm not an optimist. Marilyn Buck spent a lot of time in jail and only got out as she was dying.
Richards doesn't say it but Marilyn Buck was a poet too. I mention that though not as a moment of hope for poetry will not save us, but just for the historical record.
[NOTE. After two years in public view (the project goes back some forty years before that), Thomas Meyer’s translation/transcreation of the Beowulf poem stands out as an extraordinary example of the transposition of a major poem from one language or epoch to another. It’s my contention further that translation, as here, can serve as a form of composition, to make a new work in which the presence of the old is a necessary underpinning or shadow, as in the words of Gertrude Stein, rather than Pound in this instance: “As it is old it is new, and as it is new it is old, but now [she adds] we have come to be in our own way, which is a completely different way.” Here it’s the visuality of the work, along with its clarity of language, that first astounds us, or as Meyer has it rightly for this kind of project: “Instead of the text’s orality, perhaps perversely I went for the visual. Deciding to use page layout (recto/verso) as a unit. Every translation I’d read felt impenetrable to me with its block after block of nearly uniform lines. Among other quirky decisions made in order to open up the text, the project wound up being a kind of typological specimen book for long American poems extant circa 1965.” In the “fit” or section that follows, I reproduce Meyer’s original typographical version – “[through] the modularity of a typewriter – pace Robert Duncan.” That the poem remains new, while it renews its Anglo-Saxon predecessor, is a mark of what’s still possible for this kind of composition. (J.R.)]
[From Beowulf: A Translation by Thomas Meyer, edited by David Habdawnik, punctum books, 2012, Brooklyn, NY 2012.]
Madeline Gins, a poet, architect, and long-time collaborator with artist Arakawa, died this morning. She was 72. The cause of death was cancer.
Gins lived all her life in New York, much of it with Arakawa on a loft on Houston Street. She graduated from Barnard College (1962), where she studied physics and Oriental philosophy. She was also a graduate of the High School of Music and Art. Her first book, a work of conceptual fiction, was Word Rain (1969). She went on to publish several other books of poetry, including What the President Must Say and Do (pdf) and her magnum opus, Helen Keller or Arakawa. With Arakawa, she created the masterpiece The Mechanism of Meaning, a philosophical investigation of the relation of words to meaning. They also published two other works of philosophical and architectural speculation: Architectural Body and Making Dying Illegal.
Gins met Arakawa in 1963. Arakawa died in 2010, at the age of 73. Together, they designed and built residences and parks: Site of Reversible Destiny-Yoro Park (1993-5; Gifu Prefecture, Japan), The Bioscleave House (2007; East Hampton, NY), The Reversible Destiny Lofts–Mitaka (2005; Mitaka Japan), and Gins's last work, the Biotopological Scale-Juggling Escalator for Dover Street Market in New York (December 2013). Their architectural projects formed the basis of the 1997 exhibition "Arakawa + Gins: Reversible Destiny" at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo. In 1987, they founded what was to become the Reversible Destiny Foundation.
[In the first & heady days of ethnopoetics I was led by Gary Snyder into a close association with the anthropologist Stanley Diamond, a covert poet & a major thinker on the limits & pitfalls of civilization as a state of mind & of governance. For Diamond, while we all recognized its inadequacy, the term “primitive” remained the defining & necessary counterproposition “to understanding,” as he put it, “our contemporary pathology and possibilities.” For me at that time the two key essays in his oeuvre were “In Search of the Primitive” and “Plato and the Definition of the Primitive,” underlying both of which I found a wide-ranging poetics that became crucial to my own understanding of the work at hand. Over the years that I knew him, his writings and the conversations that our friendship allowed reinforced my own efforts in that direction, & it was Diamond also who initiated my interactions with the Allegany Senecas in western New York, for which I remain forever grateful. The pivotal collection of his essays, In Search of the Primitive, remains in print, and the one gathering of his own poetry, Totems, is still available from Station Hill Press. Of his experience as a poet he wrote, in words reminiscent of the Surrealist master André Breton: “Writing a poem is like trying to describe a totemic column which passes right through and beyond the world. We see it, but its existence is elsewhere.” The following brief essay gets most of it said. (J.R.)]
Primitive is, I believe, the critical term in anthropology, the word around which the field revolves, yet it remains elusive, connoting, but never quite denoting, a series of related social, political, economic, psychological, and psychiatric meanings. That is, primitive implies a certain level of history, and a certain mode of cultural being, which, in this paper, I shall make a further attempt to formulate.
This mode of cultural being is continuously obliterated or attenuated by the processes of civilization, and more radically so than we are usually able or willing to acknowledge; as a result, the image of an identifiable, cross-cultural, pre-civilized, and, yes, a priori human nature has practically disappeared from our conceptual lexicon. Unyielding cultural relativism, cultural determinism and social scientism are, in part, and each in its own way, rationalizations of a civilization that has forgotten what questions to ask of itself. These attitudes have helped blunt the sense of universal human need, conflict and fulfillment which has been most adequately expressed, in the past, through art and religion. It is, I believe, a singular task of anthropology, no matter what its practitioners call themselves, to assist in the reformulation of pertinent life-preserving questions.
The search for the primitive is the attempt to define a primary human nature. Without such a model, or, since we are dealing with men and not things, without such a vision, it becomes increasingly difficult to evaluate, or even to understand, our contemporary pathology and possibilities. More pertinently, without an anthropology bent on rediscovering the nature of human nature, the science of medicine may survive, but the art of healing will wither away. For healing flows from insight into primary, "pre-civilized" human processes, into a comparative and individualized sense of human needs; that is, it presumes a knowledge of the primitive, a sense of the minimally human, that is, of what is essential to the condition of being human.
Human consciousness is historical; in order to understand ourselves, to heal ourselves, in this age of abstract horror, we must regain the sense of the totality and the immediacy of human experience. In order to determine where we are, we must learn, syllable by syllable, where we have been. The sense of history is, for society in crisis, what relentless self-searching, psychoanalytic or otherwise, is for the individual in crisis, that is, it can be releasing and enriching, cathartic and creative; it may be the only thing that can save our lives. History implies exhortation, because it is confession, failure and triumph. It is the measure of our capacity, the link between man and man, the key to ourselves. The lack of the sense of history, or the mechanization of history, that is, the view of its processes as immutable and inevitable, is the death of man. The only inevitable, literally unavoidable, events are, in the cultural sphere, accidents, and certain categories of natural phenomena, which, from the human perspective, have the fatality of accidents.
Yet, the "post-historic" creature, necessarily congealed in a bureau and reduced to a function, is a common enough plotting of the future. This image of the human termites of tomorrow, each exuding its specialized bit of culture to what is conceived as an infinitely rich and almost palpable social whole, used to be one of Kroeber's favorite predictions, based, as it was, on Wheeler's work with insects, and attitudes toward men. All those who assimilate human history to natural history, or mechanize it, help dull the sense of history and prevent men from confronting themselves. The penalty we pay for blunting the historical sense is dissociation,both social and individual; the tripping of the fuse on the bomb, will, under such conditions, become only the ultimate incident in the course of a chronic cultural illness – something abstract, that we nevertheless do.
"When we contemplate the past, that is, history," Hegel said, "the first thing we see is nothing but ruins." Out of these ruins of civilization, we must win through to a whole, but concrete, vision of man. Every thinker of consequence from the beginning of the industrial revolution, to the present has, in one way or another, warned us of this necessity. Darwin, Freud, Marx, Einstein, L. H. Morgan, Tylor, Henry Adams, Paul Tillich, Boas, Kierkegaard, Sartre (We read these names like Moslem beads, but do we understand them?), have, while concentrating on particular problems, urged us to a vision of the unity and autonomy of man. Modern anthropology itself, as Lévi-Strauss has, in effect, argued, probably germinated in a search for the historical contrast to our own intolerable condition, in a search, that is, for the primitive; it was, no doubt, as he also implies, an expression of remorse for the ideological and technical conquest of the planet by western Europeans, themselves restive in a culture they had learned to wield as a weapon. It follows that the anthropologist has been the, disengaged man par excellence. dissatisfied at home, questing abroad. He is a scout sent out by a civilization in turmoil to find a resting place, and learn the lay of the land. He is, if true to his origins, a type of Ulysses, though, I am sure, more Joycean than Homeric.
Modern anthropology is the search for man in history. undertaken by society threatened with automatism In broader perspective, anthropology may be said to begin with civilization, certainly with the Greeks, and perhaps with the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the ancient East Indians or the Chinese. It would be instructive to study the records of the latter four non-western civilizations in
order to determine how far anthropology had advanced among them and what forms it took. Wherever civilization arises, the primitive in Man is subordinated; it withers away, grows attenuated or is replaced. Thus the puzzled search for what is diminished, the search for different ways of being human, for the primitive, which is anthropology, begins. Even Plato, who was probably the most beneficently civilized man in history, pays tribute, in the beginning of The Republic, to the satisfactions of his bucolic version of primitive life, which he feels plausibly constrained to replace by his towering and totally civilized Utopia. Plato understood that, in civilization, we cannot know what has been gained; until we learn what has been lost.
Later, when brought down to earth in The Laws, the last of the Dialogues, the Heavenly city turns into a rather ominous polity. Plato spent his life trying to define and create a model of civilized man in civilized society. All of his work is a kind of anthropology of civilization, a vast exploration of political society, and it should interest us that it ends on a note of despair. For The Laws is no longer Plato struggling to grasp, to create, civilization as part of an expanding human consciousness; his final social statement is frankly repressive and pragmatic, and prophecy becomes mere prediction. In The Laws, human nature has become the enemy, and we recognize civilization. Freud, had he permitted himself the luxury of philosophizing, would have analyzed the Plato of The Laws perfectly, just as Plato, had he acknowledged the primal necessity of poiesis, of ritual, would have been able to penetrate more deeply into the nature of that “primitive," actually rustic, life which he nostalgically abandons in favor of the ideal state. Yet in
The Republic, in contrast to The Laws, whether we like it or not, we are caught by a vision of man finding himself in civilization, although in ways that are hardly viable since they exclude, rather than incorporate, the primitive.
If Plato concerned himself with the problems of civilization, ranging from the aesthetic to the technical and legal, at a time when civilization in Greece had become an insoluble problem, other philosophers, writers, travelers, and historians have been more deeply concerned with uncivilized people. Their descriptions vary immensely, and many are clearly projective, or otherwise distorted, but what runs through them all, whether drawn by Herodotus or Tacitus, Ovid, Seneca, or Horace, Columbus or Camoens, Montaigne or Gide, Rousseau or Monboddo, de Bougainville, or Melville or Conrad, is the sense of contrast. Civilized men are here confronting what they presume to be primordial; they are saying, "this is the way we were before we became what we are, this is the other side of our humanity." That is the anthropological statement, and it will always remain the anthropological question.
Paradoxically, as civilization increases in depth and scope, anthropology proliferates, but it becomes increasingly professionalized. The urgency of the central question is lost sight of, it is even denied. This question of our humanity is repressed because of its awful urgency, and the risks we must undergo in attempting to answer it. The very circumstances, then, that lead to the deepening need of the anthropological search, that is, the expansion of civilization, also convert anthropology into a mere discipline with narrowing borders, more mechanical techniques, and more trivial goals. It may even come to pass that the central question, the question of what part of our humanity we have lost, and how and why we have lost it, and how and in what form we may regain it, will soon cease to be a concern of anthropology. Perhaps significant statements about man will no longer be made by anthropologists, just as most sociologists no longer say anything very compelling about society, or political scientists about politics, economists about economics, and so on, precisely because these fields, reflecting the larger division of labor in our culture, and increasingly analytic attitudes, have grown .further and further apart. But man cannot be subdivided endlessly; moreover, the most critical tissues escape the scalpel;. it is the entire organism which must be studied. Correlatively, history cannot be quantified; we must win back the courage to evaluate.
In the beginning, bureaucracies counted – people, goods, land, in order to muster, levy and control, to record those facts which became the basis for civil imposition. It follows that in the logic of history, a bureaucratized discipline is, first and foremost, a quantifying one. Later, quantification becomes an end in itself, not just, as it always is in the human sciences, a problematic and limited means. The principle of evaluation is absorbed into, or subordinated by, this numbers game-an abstract ploy of counters that avoids policy, principle and meaning by presuming to rise above them. The new pedantry is the pedantry of the machine. The danger that anthropology faces, then is literally this: it is
becoming too civilized, too abstract, too bureaucratized. It is being transformed into just another specialized exercise, a symptom of our civilization, congruent with, rather than antithetical to it. The latter is its true patrimony, and it should be a vocation of anthropologists to make this truth known.
My contention, then is that the term primitive has content in anthropology; that it cannot be evaded; and that the attempt to explore its implications remains our central task, precisely because we are so civilized, and so in need of a deeper vision of man. It is in this way that anthropology can remain one· of the most instrumental and useful, though it may often seem the most remote and eccentric, of disciplines.
[From Diamond's essay, "The Search for the Primitive, " which appeared in full in Ashley Montagu's The Concept of the Primitive, The Free Press, 1968. This excerpt was later reprinted by Dennis Tedlock and me in the second number of Alcheringa (1971), now available with the complete run of the journal at https://jacket2.org/reissues/alcheringa]
Thinking of Reznikoff's “Amelia,” and the long essay on this poem by Richard Hyland posted here, and then, yesterday, going to a sewing machine performance of Elena Berriolo, I was remind of a song sung by Fanny Brice (1891-1951) that I have long been planning to write about — as an extension of discussion of Second Wave Modernists in “Objectivist Blues” in Attack of the Difficult Poems. I hope to come back to this song in the context of Brice’s other work, but for now, just the song:
“The Song of the Sewing Machine”: Orch. dir. by Nat Shilkret. (BVE- 41190-2) – 12/20/27. (3:26). Lyrics by Billy Rose (William Samuel Rosenberg [1899-1966]) and Ballard MacDonald, music by Jesse Greer. MP3 from Archive.org
When I was young, a former son
Of a land that was milk and honey
Where people were rolling in money
All over the billowing sea
And so one day I sailed away
With a heart that was light and sunny
I came to the Land of the Free
I ask you, is this is liberty?
There is no sun, there no moon
There is no May, there is no June
If you listen to the song of the sewing machine
The babbling brook, the summertime
Is just a lazy poet's rhyme
If you listen to the song of the sewing machine
All through the day a drizzling rain
Is playing upon my window pane
And every drop is saying
There is no Lover's Lane
There is no song, there is no birds
And God is just another word
If you listen to the song of the sewing machine
Linen! Linen! Miles of linen!
Stichin', stichin', cotton pinnin'
With no end and no beginning
That's the song of the sewing machine
Cohen, Cohen, ever sewing
Going nowhere, always going
Growing older, without growing
That's the song of the sewing machine
Tears, tears and yet more tears
Nights that last a thousand years
Heartaches for my souvenirs
What am I doing? And what does it mean?
There is no song, there is no birds
And God is just another word
If you listen to the song of the sewing machine