Monday, April 22, 2013

John Ashbery, "Popular Songs", Some Trees (1965)

“Popular Songs”, 10-11

“The involuted consonance (“car with the cur,” “gone to a longing”) of “Popular Songs” anticipates the wilful music of “Two Scenes”, whilst jarringly disjunctive lines point towards the novel-collages of The Tennis Court Oath.” (Shoptaw 30).

 I will hand over to the authority of Shoptaw in fact for most of the analysis here.  So, Shoptaw notes the songs of the 1930’s that embedded throughout the piece: “Blue Blue Ridge Mountain”, “The Garden of the Moon” and so on.  He quotes Ashbery as saying: “it was written in an attempt to conjure up the kind of impression you would get from riding in the car, changing the radio stations and at the same time aware of the passing landscape. In other words, a kind of confused, but insistent, impression of the culture going on around us.” (Shoptaw 31, citing Ashbery).  This is actually a good general summation of Ashbery’s own sense of composition as a combination of an actual circumstance in ‘reality’ and the imposition of discourse, text, memory, culture and so on.  Many of his poems tread the line between these two something actually happening and there being nothing outside of discourse so nothing new actually happens.  Think of “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” for example.

 Shoptaw also notes that the diction changes = different narrative viewpoints:
-plot summary

As well as a number of characters: he, her, the host (cf. “Pied Piper” and “Answering Questions in the Mountains”), (we, them, both, us), the cur (pervert?), Alton, his mother, you, the footman (watchman, sentries), the actors

This results in a number of implied and of course incomplete narrative strands:
-popular songs
-narrative of ending and disappointment
-props and syntax
-involuted consonance

Again this is a powerful insight into the Ashbery method.  The cohesion of the poem is organised around a limited number of discursive patterns which are no just say the language use but also syntax, limited choice of imagery, and readerly presuppositions which will be capitalised on but rarely satisfied. 

Your first role is to spot these, categorise them and name the sets included in this work.  However the work does not stop there.  One must pay attention to the significance of the choice of sets.  Thus here popular songs is clearly a postmodern self-referentiality to poetry, popular culture and the origin of  the lyric in popular songs.  These generate the meaning potentials of the work, although you can never say they are meanings in the traditional sense.  Then you need to consider the ‘prosody’ and structure of their inter-twining and interaction.  For example here songs on the radio cutting across observations of passing landscape.  Perhaps these meet in the narrative of endings and disappointment, so often the themes of popular songs, but also here perhaps the motivation for the narrator ‘going on the run.’

What I am suggesting is that in the past commentators, myself included, concentrated in the disruptive effects of Ashbery’s poems on poetic presuppositions such as consistent narrative voice, syllogistic structures, lyrical ego, confessionalism and so on.  All this is true but this is not the totality of the significance of the work.  The poems are as constructive as thy are destructive, and it is time to now concentrate as much on what they say and do, as what they make it no longer possible to say and do.

 That said the work is rich in Ashberyian attacks on readerly presuppositions.  In stanza 1 alone you can find cut-ups, pronominal shifters, citations, parentheses, dashes, simple repetitions/rhythms and rhymes.  In contrast stanza 2 begins not in the middle of something but with a complete statement:  You laugh...”, and the collage technique of the first stanza dissolves into more the more sinuous flatness of an Ashberyian argument of disappointment: “There is no way to prevent this / Or the expectation of disappointment.” In my own work I defined the two techniques as paratactic and hypertactic and Shoptaw’s final word is right. Here we have 3 elements of the Ashbery constructive principle typical throughout Some Trees:
1. the involuted ‘musical’ duality of “Two Scenes”
2. the collage of The Tennis Court Oath
3. the hypertactic poetry of later Ashbery especially Three Poems

There are, as ever, imagistic modes of associative cohesion.  The host is clearly the host of the restaurant: “The Gardens of the Moon” which is organised, one imagines, around the fountain with the backdrop of the mountain.  Here the actors, people, characters of the first stanza, moving across America, perhaps the mythical travelling band of players, seem to have come to a rest after a trying day.  The sustained note of laughter, replaces the intermittency of “tears came and stopped, came and stopped…” Although these tears are recalled in the fall of water from the fountain.  One is left with a problem.  When on the move, the actors, we are the actors, cannot make sense of the diverse material thrown at them.  Yet when they are at rest, they are too painfully aware of the underlying disappointment of their lives against the fragmented untrustworthiness of the movement through landscape.  In a sense then this is the postmodern, cultural paradox of popular songs.  The songs’ popularity means they are a stable source of reference but a banal one, whilst their ubiquity and indeed the ubiquity of diverse cultural product in our age means that they also contribute to a increased fragmentation of common experience.  Ironically it is the accessibility of these popular songs to all of us in common that has, effectively, robbed us of a common, significant experience of culture. 

 “…And now as silent as a group/ The actors prepare for their first decline.”
The poem ends on the word decline which means of course to go down.  This is a common way to tie together the semiotics of the end of the poem with the semantic charge of the final word which often relates to death, breath, ends, returning to the beginning and so on.  The decline here however holds an impossible number of meanings, impossible in the sense that it is not possible to decide which of the available meanings is the correct one.  It could refer to sunset, it certainly refers to the end of the poem, perhaps the decline in standards implied by popular songs. It also means to deviate or turn away from something, falling off in general in all its possible connotations, to turn down an invitation.  Finally it recalls the grammatical declination or the variation of form and inflection of words constituting different cases and so on.  Declension also suggests a diagonal inclination from the vertical to the horizontal.  Finally, following Shoptaw’s thesis, surely there is an occluded “first line” here, which all actors prepare for.  Of these the movement downwards (due to the mountains), the sense of corruption of values, and finally the variety of cases for words seem to combine forming a powerful semantic complex for the poem of change and corruption, songs as novelty and songs as corrosive of our wider sense of aesthetic value which forms a kind of diagonal between culture as vertical, old style culture, and horizontal, surface, flat popular culture.  Yet another masterpiece!


Thursday, April 18, 2013

John Ashbery, "Two Scenes" from Some Trees (1956)

This is a poem about duality so in this sense the title actually refers to what the poem is ‘about’. John Shoptaw notes, for example, the phonic mirroring of the poem which he sees as an element later phased out as is the “linear introversion” to be found here. Thus we have the following phonic recurrences: “we see us as we”; “Destiny...destiny”; “News...noise”; “”; “-y” and rhymes of section 2; and “...old man/...paint cans”.

This simple but subtle semiotic device is then developed structurally as well, as the title hints. So ‘scene’ 2 reflects back internally onto ‘scene’ 1. “Machinery” recalls the train as does the canal; general honesty recalls “truly behave”; “history” relates to “destiny”; “fumes” to the “air” in the “mountains” (cf. “Answering a Question in the Mountains”); “dry” speaks to the “water-pilot”. Finally there is an example of what we should call image logic or associative deduction which is perhaps, in the end, Ashbery’s greatest talent. The “warm and pleasant day”, “fumes” and “dry…poverty” then establish an associative and metonymical context for the sparks of scene 1 to produce a fire that results in fumes. This being the case then a joke is revealed in that in this poem there is smoke without an actual fire! I seem to remember that Shoptaw summarises the theme of the poem as “possible combustion”.

Like many Ashbery lyrics, the poem conforms to the law of structure to be found in my own work on poetics inspired by Husserl, Agamben and linguistics. I usually call this the cataphora/anaphora tabular matrix or the way a poem will hint towards something that will come later and then later also refer back to what came before. Husserl calls this protention-retention, Agamben calls its structure. So, here Ashbery uses “units” because it rhymes in the future with “cadets” and “old man/paint cans” so there is a semiotic, phonic pretension or cataphora. In contrast the conclusion of the “schedule” returns us back to the “destiny of the train”. This destiny is established locally by the train whose sparks illuminate the table. The table is a surface image upon which the water-pilot's boat sits. It is also, however, the time-table or schedule. Thus it has a double cataphora.

Then, the destiny of the water-pilot is able to be anaphorically worked back say using the determined track of a canal which is wet and on whose surface perhaps the boat skims. The significance of death and of course transition from one scene to another it perhaps the most predictable element of the poem.  Thus forward-backward semantic interchange of association is what allows us to ‘deduce’ that destiny relates to the train. It is a fundamentally formal, logical mode of deduction, as powerful as syllogism for example, it is just that it operates due to an associative logic or what some used to called dream logic. If you know your Freud you will see this is actually quite accurate.

Anyway once you have determined the link of train to destiny than this concept of train-like, mechanistic destiny casts us forward again to its sense of schedule only this time with a different semantic register. This may occur several times within the poem, for example if you then look at the complex but stable rules of the poem’s construction then, the two forms of destiny, water-pilot destiny which is free to travel the table (the poem is our table) and canal-train destiny which moves forward along predictable trackways, syntax, lineation, laws of grammar and coherence. Perhaps then this is the real meaning of the poem, a free destiny within a tabular field and a directed destiny within a linear track.

One of the most recurrent of Ashbery’s motifs is units, or small enclosed entities of all sorts. You will often find this image in his work across most of his career. Here, the interaction of the “terrific units” is quite complex:

1. two scenes interact internally

2. two scenes picks up ways of seeing (seens)

-2 levels of the poem
-as we truly behave
-language usage itself

3. internal mirroring and linear introversions already mentioned

4. the argument of the poem:
-as we truly behave/honesty
-machinery, history, order
-interaction of themes with use of language as structural cataphora-anaphora

5. Locally the units that are terrific seem to be units of cadets but they are also paint cans. We already saw a phonic interdependency of units on cadets. We also have a double syntactic potential here. The terrific units could be on an old man or this could be old-fashioned inversion meaning units are terrific on an old man, terrific here perhaps meaning instilling terror. In other words the same thing can be said the same way and mean two different things. Please remember Ashbery went to Paris to write a dissertation on Raymond Roussel; this was his narrative conceptualisation.

6. the “narrative”:
-train (from corner)—table (toy train?)—water pilot—news—outside to the warm day in the mountains//—industrial scene—teleology—fumes—poverty—units—paint—old age—cadets. Onto this we can map two worlds, moods what have you. We could say that scene 1 seems a carefree, childish life, while scene 2 presents an almost 19th century, Dickensian world. Finally onto that we can then map our projective-recursive, involuted, cataphoric-anaphoric tabular structural dynamic.

From this we abstract the theme which is, as stated above, honesty-journey-order-combustion. I would take this as a single ‘word’ in that it is impossible to say which value comes ‘first’, which leads causally to the next and so on. So we take this meaning compound, then we articulate it as it is in two parts, we tell the story of its first reading development, we then pay attention to the tabular forward-backward referentiality of its deeper structure, and finally we always have to accept there is a degree of detail here that should never be entirely recuperated into the ‘meaning’ discourse. Ashbery criticises these early works for lacking in this final element, suggesting they are like puzzles for which you can find a solution, so accept and expect more of the elements which don’t fit the pattern as a pattern as his work matures.

Taken on its own the complexity of this poem must make a case for it being a masterpiece of twentieth century art as well as the perfect guide as to how to read Ashbery. Not the only way but one of the key ways definitely.

Friday, March 08, 2013


Tarkovsky Poems

This article reminded me of my own poem inspired by Tarkovsky's 'The Mirror'.  One of the greatest and saddest films of all time.

The Minutes

Tarkovksy’s ‘Mirror’ won’t leave me alone,
images unendurably sad.
For minutes I can’t be held to account.
Email can’t reach me, devices go blank.
The rain outside a tautology.
My shit stinks and I do not want to die
yet immortality is not my thing.
The dog in sorrow nuzzles a ball
whose deflation is irresistible.
My son stirs in his sleep clasped to my arm.
My daughter’s silence, symbolism’s shame.
My wife drives alone through a northern night,
and sometimes when I’m coming home from work,
bundles of mist suspended like pale fish
in waters implausibly dark and clear
are snagged in the lure of my light and drown.
If I am not able, if I am not able,
if I am not able to put in words
all that you recount of that gay siege
that childhood laid at your pantry door
forgive me, I do not take dictation.
As I read my lips are seen to move,
as I move my limbs are dangled on a string.
I wonder what’s on breath’s nether side?
A gravel crunch sound-at-the-door key twist.
The surface clouds and the barking dogs.
You’re home and yet no one asked you to leave.
I’m lost in a cloud that is torn by fire.
If he does not come now he never will,
If he does not come…we are waiting still.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Under Glass: Agamben, Ashbery, Cornell and the Museum

As ever in Agamben's philosophical archaeology there are, according to him, two contesting theories of poiesis in the period of aesthetic modernity. The first concentrates on the role of the artist as god-like being of creation (the sovereign or common). The second on the art object itself as thing unto itself (artistic bare life or the proper). Naturally the two positions are connected in that, as we always see, god needs the world to give his power of making specific instances of operativity, while the world needs god to retroactively found its power of particular making. In this way then we can 'easily' read Agamben's first book The Man Without Content in light of one of his most recent, The Kingdom and the Glory. If we were to do this then we can say that the universal power of creation founds of course every specific object created, but that without these objects created pure creation remains merely a potential and thus inoperative. There is, therefore, no relationship more ripe for indifferential suspension than the signature of art during the period of modernism. In my own consideration of Agamben's modernism I concentrated on subjectivity and poiesis in relation to sovereign creation (Watkin, Literary Agamben Chapter 3). Agamben, however, is as interested in things as he is beings and so now we turn our critical gaze to the art object itself, especially its simultaneous creation and negation during aesthetic modernity.

Within the logopoietic project of taking art as a parallel means of thought to that of philosophy--with the ultiumate aim of indifferentiating the common (philosophy) proper (art) oppositional economy which defines the signature art in the west and thus suspending this signature for good--place is of central importance. It has been the exteriority of art that has marked it out for philosophy as first despised object, then servant to thought, and finally thought’s salvation, the positions of Plato, Hegel and Heidegger respectively. Thought is in the mind, contained within a concept of subject that it founds and destabilises. Art, we know, has been placed in an outside zone but forcibly and artificially. Art has, in effect, been forced to occupy the place of the despised common or homo sacer (an included exclusion).

If art is not outside, where should art in fact be? By the time of the advent of modernism the place of art is a contested and compacted room. Within the aesthetic modern age in which we still tarry with joy and a heavy burden, each definition of art brings with it its own environment. Art for us is increasingly seen as an object in the world, result of subjective poiesis and criticism. It is also seen retrospectively and with increasing nostalgia as transmissibility within a tradition of experience. Here the space of art is stretched and pegged to the four corners of the total cultural environment, past present and future. This is a place-less and object-less concept of art as medium for the transmission of common experience (are as pure communicability). In terms of art as poiesis, Agamben's and our own favoured term for the designation of an art that thinks, the work of art is the coming to presence of something and so is a zone of truth, a-letheia, the un-veiling of a truth previously withheld from view. This is the famous Heideggerian lichtung or lightening clearing.

The room of such an art is becoming arboreal, like Max’s bedroom in the great novel by Sendac. Art can also be within the modern epoch the negation of a number of these positions. A place of irresolvable and often tragic contentiousness. Thus art is taken by we moderns as a conception of what can and cannot be art, the ontological decisionist stance of the modern critic/spectator. In this manner art is the space of the coming to presence of art as such, a path through the woods to a clearing that turns out to be nothing other than a path through the woods to a clearing and so on. Just as much as art was conceived by the moderns as once-transmissible, it is naturally now described as the non-transmissibility of the pure creative act, ex nihilo, out of nothing into pure shock. Such an eventful art almost immediately comes to also be seen as inter nihilo, into nothing, resulting in the nihilised isolation of an art object without content, a pure conception or of the aestheticised object whose sole content and meaning resides it is self-consciousness of having no content at all. This is the art without content emerging from the hands and mouths of the women and men without content all of whom are modelled on Musil’s marvellous Ulrich, the great man without qualities. No one single definition of art pertains in aesthetic modernity, no sole landscape is settled. Art is all of these things contained in a stanza which is capacious enough to allow all these contesting claims to art to enter and be in relation, and injudicious enough to avoid trying to choose between them. Art, by which we must always mean modern art, is the place of the displacement of the concept of art, a negative yet potentially constructive space. Or at least this is the theory of the art object that can be construed from the later pages of Agamben’s early, great treatise on art and modernity, The Man without Content.


Agamben’s discourse on the object is highly charged with Marxism and ideas of commodity fetishism. It is these early considerations of the art object as fetish that allows Agamben to declare that in our age all art is reduced to ‘the exhibition of an impossibility of using, of dwelling, of experiencing’ (Prof. 84). All art objects, in other words, are eventually to be found in a museum of our regard. The place of art, in other words, is under glass, and the role of the logopoietic thinker is to crack the pane.

It was during the 18th century that the first publically accessible museums came into being and it is probably not insignificant that there seems to be disagreement over which was the first museum. As is well known the name museum comes from the Greek meaning seat of the muses and was originally a term for a scholarly learning. The first musea were akin to modern universities comprising of libraries and so on. By the 18th century the term was more widely used as a location to house artefacts, things to be looked at but not necessarily read. This shift in meaning leads to a debate as to whether the British Museum or the Louvre was the first publically accessible museum, all depending on a very Anglo-French debate over what constitutes ‘the people’. Is the public everyone or those who represent the people of the state? Either way, it is the origin of the shift in meaning of museum from the word to the thing, writing to the image, that most interests Agamben in his essay on the European tradition of the Wunderkammer or cabinet of wonder commencing around the beginning of the middle ages. These promiscuous collections, as he calls them, were made up of such diverse elements as alligators, canoes, antlers, sawfish teeth, minerals and statuettes, to sample some of the elements of the famed collection of Hans Wurms. That said, through such confounding diversity ‘only seemingly does chaos reign in the Wunderkammer, however: to the mind of the medieval scholar, is was a sort of microcosm that reproduced, in its harmonious confusion, the animal, vegetable and mineral macrocosm’ (MWC 30). Thus a central element of the Wunderkammer was metonymy: the diverse, seemingly random, parts of an apparently capricious collection, in fact emulated in part the whole that was nature. In Britain, a significant example of the modern cabinet is the Pitt-Rivers museum in Oxford which, across town from the Ashmolean, proposes a permanently alternative pre-modern view of the collection. The second quality of the Wunderkammer that Agamben highlights is its discursive nature. Having explained the synecdochal nature of the collection he adds: ‘This is why the individual objects seem to find their meaning only side by side with others, between the walls of a room in which the scholar could measure at every moment the boundaries of the universe’ (MWC 30). In this sense, therefore, the museum presents a double syntax of the object. Its synecdochal qualities resemble nothing so much as generative grammar where the whole of the universe of language is reduced to a number of representative items, NP VP and so on. On the other, it also emulates structural linguistics with meaning dependant not on a deep structure but on a surface proximity. While it is ideologically essential that modern institutions such as Tate Modern present their collections based on entirely different, scholarly principles, the rehanging of the Tate’s collections based not on historical periodisations but thematic relations allowed for just such powerful juxtapositions and in effect transformed the foremost museum in the country into a medieval cabinet of wonder. Albeit housed in a vast, groaning eviscerated factory.

The beginning of the end of the Wunderkammer is traced by Agamben to the year 1660 with the publication, in Antwerp, of the first illustrated catalogue of an art museum, a work entitled Theatrum pittoricum by one David Teniers. In Teniers’ rhetoric Agamben already finds that of the modern museum and senses the death knell of the cabinet of wonder soon to be replaced by the museum. This is further confirmed with the publication in the same year of Boschini’s Carta dal navegar pittoresco which contains a detailed guide to seventeenth century Venetian painting. It also includes a description of an imaginary, perfect galley. This is a location within which the diversity of art works can find some kind of architecturally assured order or as Agamben says, appropriating the saline, nautical tang of the text: ‘It seems that for Boschini, his imaginary gallery is in some way the most concrete space of painting, a sort of ideal connecting fabric that is able to ensure a unitary foundation to the disparate creations of the artists’ genius, as though, once abandoned to the stormy sea of painting, they could reach dry land only on the perfectly set up scene of this virtual theatre’ (MWC 32) One can sense here the pre-cursor of the modern style of galleries reified most recently in the naming of the White Cube gallery in Hoxton. This provision of a fabric contravenes the law of proximity to be found in the Wunderkammer in that it replaces a syntax of display, each work coming to meaning in relation to its proximate works, and invokes instead a diction of display, each work displayed as a single word surrounded by space. Proximity, the very basis of the synecdochic power of the Wunderkammer, is replaced by separation, the basis of the modern, metaphoric space of the museum. The museum, it transpires, is yet another material manifestation of the prevalence of scission within metaphysics.

Two other qualities of Boschini’s imaginary gallery become important to Agamben. The first is the fact that Boschini is so convinced of the importance of gallery space to the monstration of art that ‘he even compares the paintings sleeping in the halls of the gallery to balms, which, in order to acquire their full power, have to rest in glass containers’ (MWC 32). Agamben speculates that similar assumptions, that art is edifying only when matured under glass, is behind the modern practice of sending art directly from the hand of the artist to the hall of the museum. {insert quote from art magazine here]. This aside, the rise of the museum, better to term it the transformation of the museum from seat of learning, through cabinet of wonder, to hall of preservation, is indicative of the essential Heideggerian assumption behind Agamben’s, and indeed contemporary philosophy’s, central theory of modern art:

What is certain, at any rate, is that the work of art is no longer, at this point, the essential measure of man’s dwelling on earth, which, precisely because it builds and makes possible the act of dwelling, has neither an autonomous sphere nor a particular identity, but is a compendium and reflection of the entire human world. On the contrary, art has now built its own world for itself (MWC 33)

Or to put it on Hegelian terms, art is no longer the sensible presentation of the idea, but is the sensible presentation of the idea of sensible presentation. The museum breaks open the syntax of the cabinet, smashes its glass frontage, and displays the objects therein alone, in a hall, surrounded by space, to be ogled and appreciated merely because, in effect, they are in the museum.
This almost cruel ostracism of art leads Agamben to the second quality of modern art to be found in the inception of the art gallery, that of distanciation. ‘Consigned to the atemporal aesthetic dimension of the Museum Theatrum’, while the work will retain indeed increase its double aura (metaphysical and financial) the actual space of the work will, Agamben predicts, dissolve so that it will come to resemble the convex mirror Boschini wished to hang in his gallery, ‘where,’ he says with satisfaction, ‘the object, instead of coming closer, steps backward, it its advantage’ (MWC 33). These Works Are Fragile! Do Not Touch! No Flash Photography Please! Do Not Feed The Exhibits! The result of this is a paradox that Agamben simultaneously delights in and bewails, namely the logic of apotropaicism: ‘We believe, then, that we have finally secured for art its most authentic reality, but when we try to grasp it, it draws back and leaves us empty-handed’ (MWC 33). Unless, of course, we buy an imprinted postcard, mug, tea-towel, T-Shirt, set of underwear in the gift shop, in which case we can own the work, as many copies as we like.

One cannot help thinking that the long journey to the first and last art, art as art, is to be located in these three metaphoric spaces. In its first existence as the seat of the muses, the museum is nothing other than the zone of poetic dictation, and one has no interest in the manifestation of art as in object, but only as a means of knowing the truth. Here the museum is really the seat of the muses, if one takes the muse in Agamben’s sense as dictation. The museum is the space where poiesis facilitates the coming to presence of truth. This is symbolised precisely, I believe, in the difference between the library and the museum. The library requires thought whereas the gallery merely requires your spectating presence. The second space is that of the cabinet. For the first time the museum is a place of objects not ideas, and they are located under glass because they are rare, auratic, precious and singular. Yet they are held within a single, metonymic, syntax: the cabinet. They are not so much objects of curiosity as curious objects demonstrating a compendium of the wonders of God’s creation: nature. In an odd way, much like the monster in literature and art, their uncanniness does not undermine transmissibility, but further confirms it. Like Agamben’s Homo Sacer, these cabinets are held in a necessary zone of indistinction the better to secure nature’s sovereign, unified diversity. Two facts Agamben neglects to mention in relation to the collapse of the cabinet in favour of our third symbolic space, the theatre, are traceable directly to the Enlightenment: the rise of science and of universal rights. The objective classificatory systems of science replace fairly rapidly the compendia of earlier traditions, so that by the time the surrealists begin to revive the tradition with their own Wunderkammer of objets trouvees, it is precisely not to provide compendia but wild juxtapositions of items which is the main concern. Taxonomy has replaced the compendium and the Wunderkammer become ideological tools to preserve in perpetuity objects which are torn from their taxonomic syntaxes and forced into new a-syntactical, tabular and thus effectively poetic metaphoric juxtapositions. While at the same time the decision to make the Louvre free to all several days a decade, converted the rights of private ownership into that or the public good. Museum’s ceased to be closed collections and the doors of the gabinetto were thrown wide open for all to peer inside. This strikes one as the aporia at the heart of any Heideggerian theory of aesthetic transmissibility, for the modern museum, source of the collapse of arts dwelling amongst us, seems to result from precisely the accessibility of art to all.

I have already hinted at a continuing, mutating life for the Wunderkammer in modern art through the work of the surrealists. For them, however, what is placed in a box behind glass is not a compendium or some form of digest or epitome. The origin of the word epitome resides in the Greek to cut but, like compendium, it also retains the meaning of miniaturisation. In contrast, the effect of the modern, surreal cabinet is, of course, anamorphic gigantism rather than perfectly proportional miniaturisation. The juxtaposition of two objects produces a metaphor charge between the two greater than the sum of the parts. Artistic versions of this can be seen, for example, in the famous Lobster phone where the two objects placed together have a profound, aesthetic anamorphism or gestalt. This was never the intention of the cabinet of wonder and, in fact, this is not the feature of the cabinet that is retained by the greatest exponent of the work behind glass we have ever known, supposed surrealist Joseph Cornell.

Under Glass
Cornell’s assemblages do not benefit, on the whole, from the gestalt of alienating juxtaposition, the greatest development of the modernist arts, but rather sustain a greater uncanniness due to their medieval origins. They create microcosmic unities that are unsettling, rather than macrocosmic isolations and subsequent recombinations. The influence of Cornell on the contemporary art scene can be felt strongly in the preponderance of vitrines and taxonomic art works of which the most significant practitioner is Damian Hirst. That the most ‘influential’ artist of the present moment should be an adept of the glass cabinet and its more sculptural outcropping the vitrine should first to be traced back to Koons before noting how in Hirst the majority of his attention is given to the content of the box rather than boxing itself. While this content can be controversial, divided calves and sharks, it can also be staid and taxonomic, shells, giving a clue as to the true genius of works that are not destined to appear behind glass in a museum, but which incorporate glass and the very staging of the Theatrum pittoricum.

Three works by Cornell, who was far from prolific, present us with the vital link between the Wunderkammer and the theatre space of the contemporary vitrine. The first of these, ‘Pharmacy’, provides a clear line of influence from Boschini to Hirst. It displays behind a glass fronted cabinet door a modernist grid in the form of four glass shelves each then bisected by glass partitions resulting in twenty cells or [cabins within the cabinet.] In each cabin is a glass specimen jar containing a single object or class of objects: shells, minerals, butterfly wings, what looks like gold. Here, almost as if Cornell knew of Boschini, which seems almost impossible to think, precious balms have been placed under glass so as to attain power over time. In some senses a form of ready-made, in that it reproduces the industrial fittings of an actual Pharmacy, the difference here between Duchamp and Cornell is the emphasis on the craftsmanship, the techne, which Cornell has applied to the work. In some senses this is the archetypal Cornell work and, perhaps, one of the forgotten masterpieces of modernism encapsulating, indeed subdividing and displaying, the very condition of an art in a world where art no longer has its dwelling amongst us on earth. Art is, instead, on a wall, subdivided and, most importantly, behind glass.

In a slightly later work, ‘Cockatoo and Corks’, Cornell comes closer to the surrealist side of his surrealist-constructivist affinities with a clear juxtaposition of objects placed under glass. The cut-out image of the Cockatoo occupies the majority of the top cabin in the work which occupies around two thirds of the total cabinet. Even so it feels cramped in there. In its beak the bird holds a string attached to the door of an embedded cabin attached to the top right of the cabinet, pent inside of which are several corks. The door of this sub-cabinet is divided into four sections. Corks litter the floor of the Cockatoo’s cage/cabin, and the architecture of its restricted life, perch, feeding station and so on, are primarily fashioned from cork. In the lower cabin of the cabinet, we find a complex of subdivisions totalling seven cabins of varying shape and size. The central cabin, that largest, holds the machinery of a musical box. The cabin to the right communicates with the home of the bird by means of a cork which passes through the dividing ‘floor’ to the habitat above. In the remaining cells are what resemble pill boxes and a few more corks. While the relationship between the bird and the corks remains mysterious to me in that I have never been drawn to the caging of flying or for that matter scampering beings—perhaps corks once used for the bird to chew much like cuttlefish bones—the dominant effect is the complex syntax of the work. The various divisions of cabins into sub-cabins, of miniature cabinets within cabinets, as well as the stratification of the work into foreground, subground and inserted ground not only add to the effect of claustrophobia, but make one engage with a reading of the interior world of the cabinet. It is, in effect, a sophisticated architectural vision of a form of museum.

These two rather different works come together for me in the sparse and thus, for the desubjectivised critical spectator, provocative ‘Window Façade’. Here the cabinet of ‘Pharmacy’ appears to have been raided and the content of six shelves subdivided into four making thirty cabins have been looted. While in this box the shelves and walls are not glass as was the case in ‘Pharmacy’, each cabin is fronted by its own piece of glass a small number of which have suffered shivering or impact fractures. It feels as if junkies had raided the pharmacy, or the people had finally looted the Louvre. I find it a somewhat terrifying work. Away from the sentimentality of the found objects that occupy much of Cornell’s work, Benjaminian objects of lingering aura such as old photographs and excerpts from provincial publications, this piece has a much sharper vision. The cabinets of our imagination and of our institutions have been attacked, and the things held inside have been imbibed, stolen, broken, or maybe just flew away. It is Cornell’s masterpiece, impossibly moving and enigmatic.

Taken together these three works provide a fascinating illustration and development of Agamben’s theory of the museum. The first literalises the adoption of a industrial and scientific paradigm, that of the medicine cabinet, to represent the new status of the art object when placed under glass by modern means of isolation, classification and democracy. The second presents the possibility of a complex, constructivist visual rhythm of the procedure, suggesting that the very act of vetrification could be the source of aesthetic power. A dream most fully realised in a work such as Hirst’s astonishing ‘Mother and Child’ and then left to drain away in his recent works. Finally, the third has an almost Messianic edge to it. We arrive at the cabinet of wonder when all the exhibits have been lost to carelessness, greed, events, lack of vision, or simply time. This is a haunting work in which the very hall of the museum has, lacking exhibits, becomes itself the exhibit, much in the way the turbine hall has become the most powerful visual experience of any visit to Tate Modern, or the exterior of the Guggenheims regularly outstrip the collections held within as we rapidly run out of masterpieces to show in them.

Poetry, as yet, is not kept in a museum. Not that there are not literary museums, but as yet poetry remains free from glass. This may not be for long. Of all the literary arts poetry is most under threat by modern publishing, reading and even academic habits. Even I, co-keeper of the Archive of the Now, have an office full of thin volumes that I will never have the time or inclination to read. They are each, for me, a kind of terrible and admonishing cabinet, for the only thing worse for art than being kept under glass is being held between covers, unseen by any but the most professional and obsessive eye. Poetry is, like the majority of the visual art works in the world today, already in the archive. If the modern art work suffers the contracted transaction from production to display and preservation, passing from the studio directly to the gallery, literature runs the risk of an even more deadly transaction, from the study to the archive.

If poetry is the archetypal western art, and the act of museumification or vetrification is the archetypal modernist aesthetic gesture, there must be some link between poetry and the gallery. As we will see, Agamben traces this link through Baudelaire and the fetish, but poets are in general figures of catholic tastes with time on their hands and perhaps drawn by the fiduciary promise of a modern ut pictora poiesis, they often wander into galleries and studios. Auden of course famously wrote 'Musee Des Beaux Arts', while in Williams’ Paterson a flood bursts into the library and washes all away. These two represent two modes by which poets enter the gallery, either in reverence, witness Bishop’s wonderful ‘descriptions’ of art works, or with nihilistic intentions. During the hey day of the New York School, many works were written about the complex relationship between the visual and written arts. Of these, Ashbery’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ remains one of the most sustained considerations of ut pictora poiesis ever written and, due to Ashbery’s admiration for Cornell, leads us towards some closing words on art behind glass.

Ut Pictora Poiesis

‘Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ is Ashbery’s masterpiece work of 1975 for which he was awarded the three major literary prizes in America. Widely read as a consideration of postmodern issues pertaining to identity, self-reflexivity and representation, it consists of Ashbery’s reflections, literally, on the painting of the same name by the mannerist painter Parmigianino, now housed in Vienna. The use of a convex mirror, away from considerations of subjectivity, simulacra, and the like, also allows Ashbery to consider the inter-relation between creation, display and, of course, glass. Later we will come to consider the centrality of apotropaicism in Ashbery’s ‘Down by the Station Early in the Morning,’ a work that ends, as does this poem and also Ashbery’s Three Poems with an assault on, or at least exit from, the halls of display. Indeed across these three remarkable works Ashbery touches on the three zones of the history of art display as I have detailed them. In ‘Down by the Station’ it is a library, original seat of the muses, that the wrecking ball ventilates brutally. In Three Poems it is a theatre. While ‘Self-Portrait’ comes to an close with the exiting of an art gallery. In contrast to ‘Down by the station Early in the Morning’, which concludes on the aforementioned apotropaic gesture, ‘Self-Portrait’ commences precisely in the modern paradox that Agamben has noted of the way in which the work of art on display invites merely to push one away:

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And Swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. (SP)

At the end of this long piece, as Ashbery seeks to quit the poem/museum/analogy (‘As Parmigianino did it’ being a classic statement of ut pictora poiesis), he returns again to this image of welcome/warning: ‘Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand, / Offer it no longer as shield or greeting, / The shield of greeting…’. What is fascinating here is the means by which Ashbery conflates the apotropaic with the anamorphism of the modern museum. The hand is literally looming out of the work, although not yet as the beginning of a progression from the Renaissance to modern art that one can detect in the mannerists for, as Ashbery points out, the anamorphic hand is actually the result of acute observation or a realistic depiction of optics. That said, it is a harbinger of what is to come on the surfaces of Picasso or the narrative of Molly Bloom. The hand here, master metonym for the creative process, is both pushed out of the compendia of this small painted masterpiece, and also provides the complex distanciation of a post-assimilable art, that which invites one into the gallery precisely to display the unassailable alienation of the modern art work.

Ashbery is a creator-spectator throughout the poem in his complex reworking of ut pictora poiesis which is, in effect, the absolutely correct interpretation of the phrase through a full understanding of what poiesis actually means. Like the poem which could be a useful companion to this work, O’Hara’s “Why I am not a painter”, Ashbery and his friend both understand that any similarity between poetry and painting comes not from a comparison of the finished work, which is not to say that paintings and poems do not share aesthetic commonalities, but through the act of working or making. For poiesis means not the making of an object but the act of coming to truth through making and it is this which Ashbery the postmodernist shares with Parmigianino the post-Renaissance mannerist. Ashbery, therefore, as observer-creator, exists in the same space as the figures of Frenhofer and the nephew in being both the artist alienated from poiesis by the Ut or spectatorship, and the spectator able to present the perfect critique of the work of art which, however, as a poet not a painter, he could never hope to emulate. This is the most full investigation, therefore, of the much abused syntagm ut pictora poiesis combining, as it does, creation, observation and alienating separation. Parmigianino is not the first painter to use or even to depict a mirror, but he is the first to use a distorting mirror and as such he too becomes a self-alienating, desubjectivised creator-spectator. Ashbery hints at this in a contradictory interpretation of the painting as both modernist museum and medieval cabinet of wonder. At first he exhorts,

But your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.
There are no recesses in the room, only alcoves
And the window doesn’t matter much…

This distinction is a troubling one for in fact an alcove is defined as being a type of recess. That said to recess means to go deep while an alcove is itself a shallow, vaulted space. Recess is the result of perspective, while an alcove is an anamorphic space or vaulting as the result of distortion perhaps. Remarkably, Boschini’s work (and of all modern writers Ashbery is perhaps the most likely to know of this obscure work) describes almost word for word the effect of distorting flat space into a false recess to which Ashbery refers here: ‘The work on the ceilings, which are flat, molds them into arches, and transforms them into vaults. Thus he gives to concave spaces the look of flat ones…’ (MWC 32). What Ashbery is clearly alluding to in his comment on the recess-less alcoves of painted space is that the painting is a realistic portrayal of the effects of light on surface, the mirror, so that literally there is no perspective here as the painter is copying a surface not actual space. Here he seems to dismiss the metaphoric potentials of the cabinet with its recesses and glass frontages for a form of display that is entirely reflective, negating poem as capacious stanza in favour of the surface aesthetic of the visual arts. Yet he goes on to conclude ‘I see in this only the chaos / Of your round mirror which organizes everything / Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty’. The picture, therefore, is a cabinet of wonder still, a compendium of potential chaos organised not on the side by side proximity of what is displayed, but in the modern nothingness of the artist’s gaze. For how can a self-portrait be contained in a Wunderkammer, whose precise purpose is desubjectivization in the face of God’s world. Here, rather, we witness desubjectivization in the face of man’s own ingenious self-reflective creation.

About midway through the poem, Ashbery becomes less concerned with the solipsism of subjectivity and surface, and moves rather through the contested hallways of several institutions and city locations that mark the complex history of production and reception for this particular work. The first of these is Rome, ‘where Francesco / Was at work during the Sack: his inventions / Amazed the soldiers who burst in on him; / They decided to spare his life’. Having been saved by the wondrous power of his invention the artist’s life is spared. The poet then speaks of Vienna, where he first saw the work in 1959, and then ‘New York / Where I am now’, producing a complex of temporal and spatial shifts to further add to the rich soup of the poem’s reflection on the act of invention through epochs and layers of reflection and display. As he says of this complex syntax, itself a kind of cabinet of wonders, ‘Our landscape / Is alive with filiations, shuttlings’. This being the case when he finally comes to occupy the gallery space, it is hard to state at which point in time he is and, increasingly, whether the spatial co-ordinates are real, imagined, remembered, or a comment on a space contained within the image in question:

Yet the ‘poetic,’ straw-colored space
Of the long corridor that leads back to the painting,
Its darkening opposite—is this
Some figment of ‘art’, not to be imagined
As real, let alone special? Hasn’t it too its lair…?

This darkening corridor mirrors in negative the looming anamorphism of the painter’s hand suggesting an alternative depth to the poetic in contrast to that of painting. The space of the museum becomes, here, overlaid with precisely the dark qualities of poetry—linearity, depth, darkness, memory, imagination, figuration and realism—resulting in the museum itself becoming, not so much the dwelling place of art displaced as we saw from its dwelling on earth amongst us, as art itself. This corridor becomes transformed in the dark arts of poetic, associative thinking into the temporal flow of the present, the tension between the now of reception and the then of his first encounter with the work and before that its invention being felt across the whole of the poem’s cabinet form. This multiform space, first corridor, then lair, then water way, ‘as the waterwheel of days / Pursues its uneventful, even serene course?’, is eventually made to speak:

I think it is trying to say it is today
And we must get out of it even as the public
Is pushing through the museum now so as to
Be out by closing time. You can’t live there.

We are left with the same profound, modern anamorphic apatropaicism we began with when Francesco’s hand loomed out of reality/the painting/memory/time, both inviting us and warning us to stay away. The corridor leading into the gallery where the work is held behind the glass of the Viennese Theatrum pittoresco, at first leads us back to the painting for one last glance, yet at the same time it is an institutional space. The museum will close and we must be out of there before it does. Just as the soldiers of the Sack were allowed brief entrance into the cabinet of Francesco’s inventive wonders, so we too, the hoards of modern spectators, are allowed a glimpse of the truth of art, before we are expelled and the glass case closed on the cabinet against the gathering dust and degradation of time. Such a sad confession the artist makes at this point: marvellous though the corridors of art are, we are only welcome as visitors. Never forget, he seems to warn, that while we can sit on the seat of the muses for an epoch or more, we are in effect only keeping it warm for their return. So settle down in the gabinetto of the wonders of modern art, but don’t become too comfortable. One day poiesis will return to its dwelling, and all we interlopers in the corridors of creation, will be flushed out onto the streets.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Agamben's Aesthetics Explained in 1000 Words

My previous work was concerned with the “Literary Agamben” although its primary interest was Agamben’s extensive work on poetry.  While indifference was a central part of that study, it was completed before the availability of the key works on method and language and so in some ways is deficient in answering the question as to the actual significance of poetry for Agamben’s work.  That said it is a detailed study of the question so I can allow myself the luxury of a very simple summary here, a kind of concluding statement on poetry which is perhaps missing from the previous book.

            Poetry is a signature in Agamben.  It operates according to the logic of the common and proper by assigning prose to the realm of the common and the poetic or semiotic to that of the proper.  Agamben repeatedly talks about the signature of poetry in terms of the semantic/semiotic split, the age-old antagonism between philosophy and poetry, or indeed that between prose and poetry.  The semantic element of this signature is assumed to be writing that places the communication of meaning ahead of that of the medium of communication.  Poetry, represented by the technique of enjambment, interrupts clarity and coherence of communication by favouring the semiotic over the semantic.  Thus, simply put: a sentence in a poem, if it is longer than the designated syllabic allocation stipulated by the metrics in play, let us say here ten syllables, will be interrupted by a line-break, the sentence concluded therefore on the next line.  The line break naturally imposes a pause, it traditionally gives extra emphasis to the word at the end of the line due to where it is not what it says, an emphasis often enforced by the use of rhyme and by semantic-semiotic shifters such as ending lines on words like fall, dead, drop, pause etc.  Enjambment is not the only technique that foregrounds the semiotic in poetry, but it is the strongest paradigm amongst all the various semiotic techniques to hand.  This is especially because of the relation between enjambment and caesura.  The caesura interrupts the flow of the line, in the opposite manner to the way in which enjambment interrupts the coherence of the sentence.  This model or signatory paradigm is to be found in a pronounced fashion both in Derrida’s work on Literature/literature and Deleuze’s work on the relation between segment and flow in the theory of the assemblage.  Put simply, the semiotic is only made operative by means of it rendering momentarily inoperative the semantic.

            The complexity here that perhaps was beyond my previous study is that poetry is defined in Agamben as the tension between the semantic and the semiotic, not as it has seemed so far, the material singularity of the semiotic.  There are then two poetries in play here.  Small p poetry is the foregrounding of the semiotic, while large P Poetry is the relation between semantic and semiotic.  Thus Poetry as signature is the oikonomia between the semantic and the semiotic in our tradition, whose moment of arising is Plato’s Republic and the “expulsion of the poets” myth promulgated there.  This is further confused by Agamben coming to call this the Idea of Prose.  Prose is actually, after Agamben, Benjamin and Walser, indifferent Poetry.  The distraction is the assumption that, after Heidegger, and more recently Derrida, Nancy, Lacoue-Labarthe and Badiou, it is the singularity of the poetic in terms of its asemantic materiality that defines its nature as a signature.  Or poetry’s poiesis as opposed to philosophical dianioa to paraphrase Badiou.[i]  Rather, what now must be concluded is that Poetry is the impossible economy between philosophy as dianoia or as universal truth irrespective of its mode of communication, and poetry as poiesis or material singularity that communicates nothing but communicability as such.  This viewpoint is strongly supported by my own comments here as to the origins of communicability in Kant’s third critique and its extension by Heidegger’s work on art which eventually became attenuated to considerations of poetry alone.  Thus poetry’s tension is the constant interchange between its meaning and its form, and its definition as this tension between the semantic and the semiotic is not its definition as object, but its revelation as process in the modern sources cited by Agamben: Valéry, Milner, Heidegger… 

            This being the case Poetry is the inoperativity of the ancient metaphysical division of thought and its expression.  In this way it is a special signature which again makes its excavation rather tricky.  For example, it suspends the signature through which we come to understand indifferent suspension: philosophy.  Plus it suspends the quality of singularity that The Coming Community defines as central to indifference.  In that it is concerned with semantic and semiotic, it of course suspends language as a signature and its reliance on signified and signifier in metaphysics.  In that the semiotic has been defined as the essence of poetry as the art of all arts since Hegel, reified almost by Heiedegger’s later work and the manner in which poetry as the material singularity of language per se catches hold of such thinkers as Derrida, Nancy, Lacoue-Labarthe, to some Degree Badiou, and as it often seems in the earlier work Agamben, Poetry renders indifferent and thus inoperative the signature Art of which it should be epiphenomenal.  Naturally in Agamben’s paradigm—signature model there is no epiphenomenal relation here meaning that poetry must be a paradigm of the arts.[ii]  Finally, as the semiotic is presented by this tradition as the foregrounding of language as such as the communication of communication per se, before above or to the side of what is being communicated, in other words communicability as such, if poetry is suspended, so too is communicability.

            Poetry then is a special case.  First it is a signature and a paradigm in Agamben’s work.  Second, when it is a paradigm it is a paradigm of art as such in terms of its semiotic materiality, although Agamben does not pursue this signature.  Third, when it is a signature it suspends another key signature, Philosophy.  Fourth, in so doing it also suspends a second signature, the most important of all, Language.  Fifth, as it is defined as the foregrounding of language as such as semiotic, Poetry is another name for the communicability as such of language encountered in terms of its material support for all signatures.  A materiality whose Being however it also suspends in terms of its traditional counter-definition as not-semantic, not-communication, not-philosophy, not-universal, not-true.  This makes Poetry, for me, the most difficult of all the signatures to explain in Agamben’s work, or better the longest to explain in a shortened form in that this fifteen hundred or so words has taken me ten years to arrive at.

[ii] See my reading of Nancy’s reading of Hegel here as regards the relation between poetry and art…

Monday, January 28, 2013

Kant's Aesthetics of Communicability in 300 Words

Kant uses the idea of communicability in several texts, but its sustained development is the early sections of Critique of Pure Judgement where he develops his theory of what I will call here the indifferent universality of subjective taste, moment 2, and that aesthetic judgement is indifferently pleasurable, moment 4. 

In the third critique, the second and fourth moments put to the reader a complex theory of communicability. Placed together the moments present the concept that every subject is capable of judging something as beautiful or not, and that in so doing they are also capable of communicating this judgement to every other subject through the establishment of a sensus communis of pleasure attained from aesthetic judgement. 

Communicability then is the ability of every subject to make a singular judgement on an object as beautiful, and to confirm the validity of making such and such a judgement first because they gain pleasure from the judgement, pleasure gained from a realisation that their will is attainable in the world at large, freedom, and second because they can confirm that the faculty of gaining pleasure from judging beauty is shared with every other subject, confirming that the world at large is always under the sway of the rules of reason. 

We are left then with what is, in fact, both a classic statement of communicability and indifference. Aesthetic judgement, as described in our introduction, is the faculty or capacity of every subject to freely respond to an aesthetic object that is pleasurable, combined with the rule that in doing so they must turn to their neighbour and ask: “Do you find this beautiful?” Their neighbour is then free to respond: “No I don’t find that beautiful, but I do find other things beautiful.” 

Communicability here then is the manner in which a free subjective response is entirely communicable with every other subject even if they do not agree with the choice of object for said response. 

Communicability is then represented in Foucault as intelligibility, in Habermas as communicative action, and in Agamben as communicability of signatures. 

It is, to my mind, one of the key concepts of our age and I hope after my indifferece project to move on to the relevancy of communicability to epistemology at large.

Tags: Kant, Foucault, Habermas, Agamben, aesthetics, third critique, communicability, intelligibility

Agamben, Language, Communicabiity

Opening of the final chapter of my book Agamben and Indifference dealing with language in The Sacrament of Language.

One of the earliest pieces of important Agamben criticism, Düttman’s introduction to Idea of Prose, attempts to delineate the key element of language for Agamben’s thought: communicability. Düttman concentrates on the Benjamin source for the term, specifically the idea that communicability communicates nothing other than language’s capacity to communicate.  It does this only through its praxis or act, its contingency, context, operativity and intelligibility.   Yet, at no point can language communicate its communicability it can only demonstrate it through its being a communicable medium or process.  This relates to Agamben’s interest in the Russell-Frege paradox of statement self-predication although as we shall see an important element of communicability is that it concerns compound linguistic series, not individual words.  Perhaps at this stage we should progress through an admission of failure. In my own extended comments on communicability in my earlier work, while I approached this quality and delineated some of its aspects, I did not arrive at a state of clarity in terms of its definition.  I am certainly to blame for this lack of clarity and so many other dark obfuscations.  Having said that with the publication of The Sacrament of Language, The Kingdom and the Glory and The Signature of All Things it is now increasingly impossible not to be clear over what Agamben takes to be language’s primary characteristic: its communicability defined in terms of its intelligibility or its operativity.  It has been a long road for many of us to this refuge point, itself only the gate to a whole new territory for which we remain woefully ill-equipped and with little to guide us beyond sketches on the backs of match-books, outlandish stories from the mouths of the mad, that sort of thing. 
Tags: philosophy of language, Agamben, Sacrament of Language, Communicability

Thomas Gray Archive : Texts : Poems : "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"

Thomas Gray Archive : Texts : Poems : "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"

Just following a few Thomas Gray links on Twitter and thought is would be great to have a link to his finest work via the Thomas Gray Archive. 

Tags: 18th century poetry, thomas gray, elegy

Agamben's Homo Sacer completed by The Kingdom and the Glory

The recent publication of Agamben's The Kingdom and the Glory is a milestone in his work, completing as it does Homo Sacer, and in contemporary political theory.  Unfortunately the text is long, for Agamben, and mostly made up of archival and philological observations on theology from the 2nd century on.  Dotted through the text innumerable brilliant observations on our politics but I am not sure how many will get through the text to find those. 

Not to worry.  My forthcoming book, Agamben and Indifference, has a whole chapter that weeds out the theological detail and concentrates on its political significance.  Not through some hatred of theology, just because it is the politics that most of us are interested in.

This chapter should appear as a separate article in Madrid soon.  Will post link.  Until then here is a taster...

To say The Kingdom and the Glory is an advance on Homo Sacer suggests something about the earlier text lags behind the later work, which is not the case, rather what I mean is that Homo Sacer was never designed to be read in isolation but a part of sequence of texts.  At this point, more than a decade later, due to the full availability of the method by the time it was composed, it can be asserted without controversy that The Kingdom and the Glory (Homo Sacer II, 2) is therefore a significant and perhaps predictable corrective development of Homo Sacer I, 1 in at least three senses.  The first is that it presents an articulation of Power missing from the earlier study of sovereign power, an articulation that not only suggests that Power is two-fold but that Power is not merely to be presented as articulated into two contesting elements, kingdom and government, but that said articulation defines the operativity of Power as a signature.  The second is that the use of paradigms in Homo Sacer, often its most controversial moments, is superseded to some degree by the development of the theory of signatures in this later work.  In that the method is made up of an interpenetration of paradigmatic logic, signatory distribution and archaeological messianic reconstruction, the lack of any mention of the signature in Homo Sacer is certainly a limitation.  This is particularly the case in relation to the later work where the signatures pertaining to Power in the form of oikonomia, Secularization, Glory, Order and so on, present a much more complex and radical formation than those to be found in the paradigms of the earlier piece.  The third and final difference is the development of the Agambenian method of indifference.  Indistinction, one of the key synonyms for indifference in Agamben’s work, is central to Homo Sacer of course, but by the time of the publication of The Kingdom and the Glory, the centrality of indifference to the method is fully developed.  By this I mean specifically the suspension of historically imposed oppositions wherein one element plays the role of the common, the other that of the proper, and thus where the common element then functions as sovereign foundation of the singularities it makes intelligible but, without which, it itself would be entirely unintelligible (the first clear definition of indifference in Agamben, to be found in The Coming Community).  But I also mean that through this method of indifference, while the complete articulation of power becomes available to view through our current access to the history of its operations and the recent period of indiscernibility between its two key elements, kingdom and government already impossible to discern from Homo Sacer, the real purpose of the text is the role of inoperativity as such, specifically through the signature of Glory.  In that The Kingdom and the Glory takes us, in its final pages, towards a possible suspension of inoperativity, it marks a significant advance in Agamben’s use of indifference, constituting in effect the inoperativity or indifferentiation of indifference as such.

Tags: Agamben, Homo Sacer, Political Theory, Theology, Indifference

[i] Usually I capitalise signatures b

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Deleuze and Badiou

I have been of the opinion for some years now that the future of philosophy and theory in general lies in the decision between the philosophical system of Agamben and Badiou around the use of indifference in both their works.  More than this a second comment is relevant which is that it is Agamben's critique of Derrida and his modification of Foucault that needs to be taken into account in contrast to Badiou's more compact critique and modification of Deleuze.  This is not to ignore the centrality of Deleuze to Agamben's philosophical archaelogy and his comments on potentiality which are mappable onto Deleuze's virtual but with significant modifications. 

All in all what I mean is that we are now heading into an 'immanentist' century that moves away from the post-transcendental valorization of difference/alterity typical of Levinas, Derrida and all those philosophies of otherness and ethics that they spawned.

This being the case anything that gets us to think in more detail the relations between immanentist philosophers is essential to guide us as we enter into a post-difference age which I am calling the age of indifference.  Top marks to anyone who gets that reference.  And so the Besana's review of Roffe's commentary on Badiou's critique of Deleuze is an interesting and potentially important document.  Check it out here:

Gray's "Eton College"

Check out this excellent article on Gray's "Eton College...".  It is an amazing work in its own but with Lehman at the helm, all is clarity indeed.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Thousand Club

Since I started keeping stats on this page, about five years ago, slowly some pages have achieved for me 'mythical' status in having achieved a 1000 page views.

Remember that this is a highly specialised blog.  Contemporary poetry and contemporary philosophy are perhaps two of the most recherche areas in our culture.  Add the two together and the result is positively occult.

So far only two pages have arrived there:

Amazingly my highest rated page is about the most obscure collection by one of the most difficult poets of the modern era since Mallarme.  Perhaps only Prynne raises more eyebrows and questions.

The other is about postmodern poetry, probably the least read and commented form of postmodernism and poetry.  In fact that article, it is in 9 parts, has had over 2500 hits.  Amazing considering it is a specialised academic piece with one of Ashbery's most difficult poems, "Daffy Duck in Hollywood" at its centre.

Bubbling under so to speak are several pages at around 500:!/2007/04/john-ashbery-three-poems.html!/2007/07/deleuze-difference-and-repetition.html!/2007/04/john-ashbery-double-dream-of-spring.html

All of these have been around for years slowly accumulating a readership but in like a rocket is:!/2012/10/agamben-explained-in-500-words.html
Not quite at 500 hits it has only been around three months and if it carries on taking hits at the rate it has achieved the last few days, it will be at 1000 in just over a week.  And over the coming few months, who can say, but it may end up in a special 10,000 club all its own.  Ah the headiness of dreaming!

Agamben's State of Exception Explained in 200 words

Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (2003)

The purpose of this complex text is found in the final pages in the consideration of the articulation or relation between two types of power: auctoritas and potestas.  The assumption is that a state of exception suspends potestas of publically sanctioned governmental power, by applying auctoritas, sovereign power.  What Agamben discovers is that this state of exception is not exceptional but omnipresent, and that rather than there being two types of power, power is nothing other than the fictional and machinelike constant interaction between government requiring a sovereign to legitimate its decisions and sovereignty needing government to makes its power actual in the world.

One can see here that Agamben is using Foucault’s governmentality, but suggests that this did not develop over time, but that sovereign and governing power are fundamentally inter-linked from the start.

His overall aim is to show the articulation between sovereign and governmental power, reveal the logical impossibility of this relation and thus suspend or render indifferent the machines of power.

The text itself is a crucial articulation between the incomplete portrait of power as sovereignty in Homo Sacer and the final vision of power as the articulation between sovereign power and governance in The Kingdom and the Glory.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Agamben Explained in 800 Words

This is a combination of two articles on Agamben in general and then the system. This is because I feel strongly that Agamben's form of metaphysical critique only functions and makes a claim on originality and future significance because of the method. So if you have read the other two articles skip this. Or better re-read with a sense of their articulation.

 Part One: Agamben's Philosophy
Agamben’s philosophical project is the making apparent and then rendering indifferent all structures of differential opposition that lie at the root, he believes, of every major Western concept-signature or discursive structure. In this manner his philosophy can be termed a form of metaphysical critique that argues all abstract concepts are only quasi-transcendental, in that they are historically contingent not logically necessary. As such Agamben willingly participates in a tradition that includes Nietzsche, Heidegger, Deleuze and Derrida, thinkers he regularly engages with. Where he differs from all of these is that he is not a philosopher of difference in any way we take this term to signify within the tradition to which I have just alluded. Arguably all his predecessors undermine philosophical structures of consistent identity through the valorisation of difference in some form.

Agamben, however, insists that the difference is as much implicated in the system of metaphysics as that of identity. If, he argues, identity structures are historically contingent, not logically necessary, then so too are differentiating structures, which can then further be said to be complicit in metaphysics, not a means of overcoming it. Rather than undermining identity with difference, therefore, Agamben reveals that identity and difference themselves are not necessary terms but historical contingencies, that in fact they form one single entity within our tradition, what I will call identity-difference, and based on these observations one can suspend their history of opposition by rendering them indifferent to each other.

For Agamben self-identical full presence, what he calls the common, is a discursive entity not an actual state. Difference, what he calls the proper, is the same. Further, concepts are no longer to be taken as identity-concepts, ideational structures possessive of communal consistency around an agreed set of referents that can be held under the same conceptual heading, but identity-difference-concepts that have a historical moment of arising when they become active, a mode of distributing this activity to control large and stable discursive formations over time, such as language, such as power, such as poetry, such as glory, and an almost fated period of indifference where the clear definitions of the system either break down, or can aggressively be shown to be assailable contingencies. The method of tracing these moments for the purpose of suspending identity-difference constructs, what he calls signatures, is an overall methodology that Agamben names philosophical archaeology.

The extent of this archaeology is such that even the terms identity and difference, the founding terms of Western thought and logic, are mere historical presences to him. The implication being that there was a time, permanently inaccessible to us now as totally non-communicable, when we thought, spoke and acted otherwise, and there could be a time when we think, speak and act without a sense of identity, difference, or their opposition. Such a mode of thinking-after-indifference, meaning both thinking that ‘takes after’ or resembles indifferential structures and also a thinking that comes subsequent to them, is the best summary we currently have of his work’s lasting originality.

In 2008 Agamben published probably his most significant work: The Signature of All Things: On Method. Here he corrects his numerous critics the majority of whom mis-construe how he uses historical paradigms within a philosphical system. His remarkable synthesis of philosophy and philology, heavily inspired by Foucault and Benjamin, he calls philosophical archaeology. The system as it is presented in The Signature of All Things is summarised below:

Part Two, Philosophical Archaeology: Agamben's Method
This method consists of tracing the origins of large scale concepts back to the moment when they first became operative as modes of organising and legitimising discourse through Foucauldian intelligibility.

That said, these moments of arising, as he calls them, are not historical data in the usual sense but, inspired by Benjaminian now-time, they actually say as much about us as contemporaries as they do about historical origins.

Thus every contemporary moment, is founded on an origin or arche, yet every arche is constructed by our contemporary discourse. Thus the past only lives in the present yet the present is constantly a construct of the past. In this way time is marked by an essential double anachronism, of past things projected forward into the present and the present as a construct of the past.

Revealing this historical paradox at the basis of large scale concepts such as power, being, secularization, language and so on, is Agamben’s aim, so as to show them as logically unworkable. The past, or temporal common, is founded on the present or temporal proper, yet the present founds the past through its attempts to access it as origin.

Thus take any concept, here for example the modern age, and you reveal the paradox between a past found, even created, by the present and present founded on the past, allowing you to suspend or make indifferent a clear separation between origins and current examples, subsequently freeing yourself of the discursive control of said concept.

It is Foucault with a happy ending.