The task of onwardness

A review of Kristen Case's ‘American Pragmatism and Poetic Practice’

American Pragmatism and Poetic Practice: Crosscurrents from Emerson to Susan Howe

American Pragmatism and Poetic Practice: Crosscurrents from Emerson to Susan Howe

Kristen Case

Camden House 2011, 178 pages, $75, ISBN 9781571134851

This review of Kristen Case’s 2011 work of literary scholarship, American Pragmatism and Poetic Practice: Crosscurrents from Emerson to Susan Howe, will not be a review at all. That is, it will abjure, as it pleases, summary, synopsis, critical narrative, argumentation, and contextualization in an effort to respond to the book’s provocative closing question: “What sort of writing becomes possible if we relinquish the myth of scholarly apartness?” (141).

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answered the door went to the gym changed Ethan’s diaper felt guilty that I don’t read or write

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Frame 1: “Given the plausibility of other readings of Emerson and Moore, on what ground do I defend the critical narrative I have fashioned? The only plausible answer seems to me, on no ground: for it is precisely groundedness that Emerson, in his commitment to onwardness, deprives us of” (Case, 40).

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as much as I’d like watched too many episodes of The Big Bang Theory had several epiphanies

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Frame 2: “Like The Iliad lying open on Thoreau’s desk during his first summer at Walden, these texts [Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems and Thoreau’s Kalendar] ask not to be read so much as lived with” (119).

To live with a book means more than just allowing it to linger, visibly, in your presence, but to do so with the ambitious intention, however unlikely to be realized, to return to it as a resource again and again. In other words, living with a book, as I have been doing with American Pragmatism these past several months, entails, in some fundamental sense, not-reading it, letting it lie dormant, in potentia, so that you might better discover alternate uses for it in your life.

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that turned out not to be epiphanies at all loaded and unloaded the dishwasher bought a tight-

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Frame 3: “In ‘The Fixation of Belief,’ [Charles Sanders] Peirce defines ‘inquiry’ as the process in which ‘the irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief,’ suggesting that inquiry is motivated not by an impartial desire for truth, but rather by the need for ‘a firm belief … whether that belief be true or false’” (139).

The irritation: how books matter in our private lives squares too infrequently with how they get written about in both popular and, especially, scholarly discourse. The belief: that private, unsanctioned usages of books can, with judicious tailoring, contribute to, even shape, the public discourses about them, rather than it always happening the other way around.

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fitting t-shirt and felt good acted inconstant poached some chicken reminisced about cheesy ’90s

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Frame 4: “During the period of time in which this text was conceived, several important facts pressed themselves upon my experience: US-led airstrikes killed hundreds of Afghan civilians, many of them women and children. My husband’s mother was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a cancer now so common in her region that her doctors strongly suspect an environmental cause. I learned that my father’s Parkinson’s disease was likely caused by his exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. I moved to a small house surrounded by woods. I had two children. Certain of these facts, the illnesses of my father and mother-in-law, for example — remain behind the text, unannounced in my writing, but shaping in important ways my understanding of human beings’ relations to the places they inhabit. Other facts — US military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, my daughter’s birth — have intruded so suddenly and so thoroughly into my thinking that I found rendering them invisible to be impossible. By allowing these facts to surface in my writing, I hope to enact, rather than simply describe, a pragmatist conception of knowledge” (xv).

“Scholarly apartness”: not only distance from one’s object of study, but also perhaps, more insidiously, the condition of being riven, pulled apart by an alienating methodological stance. At bottom, scholarship is a private supplication dressed up as — transformed into — a public service.

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horror films with Shari and Jen felt buoyed by a reading ate exclusively from the bland side of

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Frame 5: “By allowing these facts to surface in my writing, I hope to enact, rather than simply describe, a pragmatist conception of knowledge” (xv).

In both the form and content of her readings, Case places continual emphasis on poetic and philosophical enactments, a term of deep value for her. Hypothesis: enactment, always somewhat histrionic, edges philosophic discourse toward poetry.

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the menu had my first book accepted for publication went to therapy hammered and nailed things

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Frame 6: “The accepted prose style for literary scholars, [Charles] Bernstein writes, is characterized by ‘an insistence on a univocal surface, minimal shifts in mood either within paragraphs or between paragraphs, exclusion of extraneous or contradictory material, and tone restricted to the narrow affective envelope of sobriety, neutrality, objectivity, authoritativeness, or reanimated abstraction.’ Bernstein concludes that this rigidity of form, which he calls ‘frame lock,’ is derived from ‘what might be called the rule of the necessity of paraphrase[:] the argument must be separable from its expression so that a defined message can be extracted from the text’” (92).

I herein offer no messages about American Pragmatism separable from the histrionic gestures by which I am trying to deliver them. Why the necessity of histrionics: because nothing calls attention to itself — to its status as artifice — more than bad acting.

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acquiesced to sleep on occasion lost 10 lbs. then stopped counting started posting again in online

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Frame 7: “Describing relations is poetic work. It involves the continual search for a form” (41).

What’s difficult about writing a review in a series of discrete frames is not producing coherence but resisting it. Howsoever you edit and splice it, the reel wants to spool a narrative.

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poker forums even though I don’t play anymore grinned wryly sleep trained Ethan i.e. stood by

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Frame 8: “To begin, a confession: I am a trespasser in the territory of philosophy. I come by way of poetry” (xi).

Explanatory confession: my own dissertation-turned-book, due out next year, also takes up questions about the intersection of the scholarly and the personal, albeit in less scholarly ways than American Pragmatism. Another confession: Kristen and I were classmates at the English Department of the CUNY Graduate Center, an incubator of quiet poetic insurrection.

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and helped him cry torn picnicked in Central Park shaved my head even on days I couldn’t be

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Frame 9: “As James contends, our philosophy is less a matter of intellectual position than it is of temperament” (45).

Temperament: For all its wide-ranging poetic and philosophical erudition, American Pragmatism leans heavily on the work of a few literary critics, principal among them Joan Richardson, Case’s dissertation advisor. I consider such self-elective fellow feeling poetic in nature: just as Allen Ginsberg hailed as his predecessor William Carlos Williams, who himself hailed Whitman, scholars do the same thing — even more so, in fact — but cannot, for reasons of decorum, easily acknowledge or romanticize it in the way their artistic counterparts can.

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bothered read American Pragmatism in enthusiasm bursts and regretted agreeing to review it in

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Frame 10: “I cannot separate the thinking that writes itself in these pages from the snow, from the waitress, from my daughter, whose future is a story I can’t tell” (94).

Despite Case’s suggestive insistence that she can’t separate her personal experience from her academic thinking, the book’s structure in fact performs just such a separation: the brief experiential interludes, whose function is not so much to relate her experience to the poems she writes about as to assert repeatedly that such a relation is necessary, feel, by and large, orthogonal to the straightforward academic argumentation that comprises the bulk of the book. I point out this oil-water separation descriptively, without value-judgment, to call attention to the way the book works to “destabilize the boundary between argument and form, thought and feeling, philosophy and poetry” from within the bounds of scholarly discourse and not, like most books with similar ambitions, from without: an infinitely harder task.

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between practiced pleasantry with several doormen and the regulars at the gym tickled Ethan

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Frame 11: “The title of this book puts the emphasis on poetic practice, not poetry, for several reasons … In contrast to performance, practice suggests repetition, dailiness, and fallibility. It suggests an ongoing activity, not complete action” (19).

Still: what higher compliment could be paid scholarship than that, in its Talmudic intensity, it epitomizes the ongoing, the incomplete — the asymptote. Perhaps my favorite moment in American Pragmatism comes when, at the end of a chapter on Emerson and Moore, Case acknowledges the cogency of several prominent counternarratives baldly contradictory to the critical narrative she has just spun, without in any way trying to refute or otherwise diminish those counternarratives: one of the more bracing interpretive moments I’ve ever come across in a work of scholarship.

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and wondered how other times it could feel so hard braised a verb or two only used ice for guests

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Frame 12: “The title of this book puts the emphasis on poetic practice, not poetry, for several reasons … In contrast to performance, practice suggests repetition, dailiness, and fallibility. It suggests an on-going activity, not complete action” (19).

When I speak, in grand terms, about how books matter in our private lives, I’m not sure what I have in mind — how do they matter, exactly? — but I can say with some confidence, after a decade of monastic slumber from which I am just now beginning to wake, that a book, once read, only begins to work its effects slowly, unpredictably, over long periods of time, and not in any immediate, daily way. Why I read: because, of course, it is pleasurable, and because that pleasure is the most reliably time-released one I know.

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breathed without giving it any thought went grocery shopping again and again kissed Shari and

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Frame 13: “The title of this book puts the emphasis on poetic practice, not poetry, for several reasons … In contrast to performance, practice suggests repetition, dailiness, and fallibility. It suggests an on-going activity, not completed action” (19).

Practice also entails an unavoidable measure of reluctance, the state of performing an action not because you’re motivated to do so at that exact moment but because you believe its forced repetition will be good for you in the long run. Poetic practice, so fraught in relation to the daily, is one of the few practices canny and capacious enough to turn practice’s seemingly less desirable attributes into a strength, a fundament, of the art.

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was still in love puttered on the Internet went to Bed Bath & Beyond way more than I cared for

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Frame 14: “To construct a book is retrospective work, a sorting through of the work done, to see what has accrued” (Don Byrd, Charles Olson’s Maximus, qtd. in Case, 165).

How I am constructing this review: by sorting through my notes with disciplined whim. What has accrued: a series of misgivings, poetic in nature, about accrual’s presumed palpability.

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sorted and qualified the laundry settled into the rhythms of my new apartment building pretended

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Frame 15: “To regard a text not as an object of inquiry but as part of a process in which we participate involves an ethical as well as an epistemological shift. It involves a new relation to the world” (120).

An ethical shift: from a relationship of accumulated mastery to one of, well, anything, really — pleasure, boredom, curiosity, indifference, frustration, excitement, confusion, rapture, gratitude, libidinous political overload. An epistemological shift: from philosophic knowledge to poetic knowledge — from settled exposition to unsettled enactment, onwardness.

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I was OK without fooling anyone made my students laugh did not stop to contemplate duration

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Frame 16: “Throughout the writing of this book I have been haunted by the persistence of two facts — the intimate, almost-voiceless reality of motherhood and the (to me) frighteningly distant, dangerously abstract reality of war” (123).

Given how I’m acting out in this review, I feel as though I should include some further mention of the personal stakes for me in writing it, some telling anecdote about my reading life that explodes like a depth charge in these otherwise abstract seas, but few, if any, opportunities for riveting private detail have presented themselves. Why I read: because the experience is at every moment about me and yet I can remain comfortably in the background — subordinate, inessential — to the content’s gripping furor.

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took sluggish notes toward a book on gyms practiced selective conviviality slept in unfractured

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Frame 17: “In the pragmatist epistemology, meaning is generated through the interaction of mind and world — it is made. Knowing is not a passive activity, the mere beholding of an object by a perceiving subject, it is a kind of work, a by-product of active engagement with the world” (16).

All scholarship involves active engagement with the world, involves poiesis, construction, imaginative leaps. The difference, quite simple, lies in the extent, usually considerable, to which the work’s creative and personal dimensions have been muted in the end product.

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sky flirted to make the day feel better read magazines upon their arrival and never again picked

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Frame 18: As Dalia Judovitz contends, the exile of poetry (and more broadly, of aesthetic experience) from philosophy in Plato can be understood as philosophy’s founding gesture” (28).

“Inside” and “outside”: always only ever coordinates for longing’s provisional orientation. What American Pragmatism’s longings have clarified for me: less so than even philosophy, scholarship, cool and pure, cannot brook the misfit, the medial, the messy — the everyday.

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them up unlocked the front door diagrammed desire along Shari’s thighs couldn’t bother to cook

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Frame 19: “Reading is a name for one kind of engagement with the world” (120).

What sort of writing becomes possible when we relinquish the myth of scholarly apartness? Almost any sort of writing — almost any sort of engagement with the world through reading — becomes possible: almost any, that is, but scholarship itself.

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the broccoli began watching soccer again contemplated if I could ever truly contemplate suicide

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Frame 20: “It is remarkable to me the way it sounds — rereading these pages — as if a single voice is speaking, at a single point in time. Writing, or scholarly writing, at any rate, is deceptive in this way” (40).

Onwardness, its task: to point up deception by abetting it. To don so many masks that onlookers can’t help but realize they are party to a masquerade.

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boiled and peeled eggs for Ethan listened on repeat to Brian Eno exulting in climactic waves