Essay as Wager
In the dream a small plane falls out of the sky. The writer is lucky. She crawls out and walks away with bad memories and a crooked smile.
Dita Fröller, "Autobio: A Littered Aria," from
New Old World Marvels
Former Guerrillas Are Dressed in Dark Suits and Children Play in Foxholes
New York Times, 9.28.01
Life is subject to swerves—sometimes gentle, often violent out-of-the-blue motions that cut obliquely across material and conceptual logics. If everything were hunky-dory, it might not be so important to attend to them. As it is, they afford opportunities to usefully rethink habits of thought. Relativity theory, the quantum mechanical principles of complementarity and uncertainty, constituted major conceptual swerves with consequences in the culture at large, as did Freud's theory of the unconscious and, more recently, chaos theory. Dada and surrealism, the work of James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gertrude Stein, Benoit Mandelbrot, John Cage have all created productive cultural dislocations. The sudden interconnectedness of the planet via satellites and the internet has brought on a cascade of unforeseen consequences. September 11, 2001, was a paradigmatic swerve, wrenching a parochial "us" into a new world of risks without borders.
How can one frame a poetics of the swerve, a constructive preoccupation with what are unpredictable forms of change? One might begin by stating this: what they all have in common is an unsettling transfiguration of once-familiar terrain. They tend to produce disorientation, even estrangement, by radically altering geometries of attention. In today's world politics a geometry of straight lines in the sand ("we dare you to cross") is obsolete. Whether global leaders recognize it or not, "world us" is now in a situation where the fractal geometry of coastlines, with their ecologically dynamic, infinite detail, may be a more
In the third century B.C.E. the Greek philosopher Epicurus posited the swerve (a.k.a. clinamen) to explain how change could occur in what early atomists had argued was a deterministic universe that he himself saw as composed of elemental bodies moving in unalterable paths. Epicurus attributed the redistribution of matter that creates noticeable differences to the sudden zig or zag of rogue atoms. Swerves made everything happen yet could not be predicted or explained. Lucretius put it this way in his Epicurean poem De Rerum Natura:
While the first bodies are being carried downwards by their own weight in a straight line through the void, at times quite uncertain and [in] uncertain places, they swerve a little from their course, just so much as you might call a change of motion. For if they were not apt to incline, all would fall downwards like raindrops through the profound void, no collision would take place and no blow would be caused amongst the first-beginnings: thus nature would never have produced anything.
Assigning such a crucial role to chance roused many critics, Cicero chief among them. Cicero saw that the refusal of preordained necessity opened up disquieting possibilities. He accused Epicurus of, among many other offenses, denying that there was no alternative to statements of the form "either this or not this." In an interesting post-Socratic, or perhaps neo-pre-Socratic, blurring of genres, the poesis of the swerve had shown up in Epicurus's logic and in what one would now call his social philosophy, as well as his physics. (He felt no need to distinguish between micro-and macropatterns.) Epicurus founded a community, remarkable for its time, known as "The Garden." It was devoted to friendship, philosophical conversation, and delight in simple pleasures of the senses (free sex not among them). Women and those of humble origins participated on equal terms with educated men. Ethical and aesthetic values were considered inseparable. Epicurus's belief in free will engendered, if anything, a heightened sense of ethical responsibility. But, if Cicero could feel impelled to characterize Epicurean meta-physics as brazen and shameful, imagine the reaction to The Garden. This community swerved so startlingly from accepted norms that it was from its inception reviled. And that is certainly less surprising than the fact that a utopian community based on the Epicurean maxim, "it is impossible to live pleasantly without living prudently, honorably, and
Many, I know, find this discouraging. If innovative ideas with the best of intentions are likely to be misunderstood and maligned, isn't it better to forgo the trajectory of the swerve for routes more familiar and thus more widely intelligible from the outset? There are numerous versions of these qualms about the efficacy of experimental thought, except in the sciences, where it's seen as the nature of the enterprise. My inclination is to respond by identifying a certain poetics of responsibility with the courage of the swerve, the project of the wager—what I call a poethical attitude. Swerves (like antiromantic modernisms, the civil rights movement, feminism, postcolonialist critiques) are necessary to dislodge us from reactionary allegiances and nostalgias. This is, one way or another, what all the essays in this book are about.
I write the "project" of the wager because I'm interested in a poethics that recognizes the degree to which the chaos of world history, of all complex systems, makes it imperative that we move away from models of cultural and political agency lodged in isolated heroic acts and simplistic notions of cause and effect. Similarly, the monolithic worldview that leads to assessments of success or failure in the arts based on short-term counts of numbers persuaded—for example, the size of the audience—is particularly misguided. Although news media operate on the premise of a single worldwide field of events, from which the most important are daily chosen for review, human culture has always consisted of myriad communities with very different interests, values, and objectives. There are disparate "audiences" to define the character of culturally significant events and no way to know which will have the greatest effect on our multiple futures.
It makes much more sense to conceive of agency in the context of sustained projects, during the course of which many swerves may occur but which one guides with as much responsible awareness as possible. Whatever the outcome, such projects will make contributions to climates of value and opinion. In our unpredictable, polyglot world this means working out some kind of dynamic equilibrium between intention and receptivity, community and alterity. Collaborative, conversational values and a patience for duration may increase the chances of large-scale constructive effects, but the most realistic aim is a fairly modest one—to behave
I count on the form of the essay—as urgent and aesthetically aware thought experiment—to undertake a particular kind of inquiry that is neither poetry nor philosophy but a mix of logics, dislogics, intuition, revulsion, wonder. The result can be a philosophical poetics as lively as current developments in the form of the prose poem. These mixed genres are the best way I know to make sense of the kind of world in which we live. To wager on a poetics of the conceptual swerve is to believe in the constancy of the unexpected—source of terror, humor, hope. I've attempted to use the energy that comes from that triad in all the forms my writing takes, to develop a poetics that keeps mind in motion amidst chaos. This motion on the page is analogous to that of the swimmer who takes pleasure in the act that also saves her from drowning.
In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, avant-garde poetries became a laboratory of languages colliding with an accelerated onrush of the new. The essay, with its capacity to accommodate interruptions and digressions, may be the chief prose-based experimental instrument of humanistic thought. At its best it detaches itself from the epistemology implied by narrative grammars, a tone of certainty that pervades even the most provisional material. (It may be happening right here.) By contrast the distractible logics of the essay are, or should be, attempts at nothing other than productive conjecture. This is the work of the literary humanities as they meet up with the intrusive unintelligibilities of breaking experience. The source of vitality for the essay is its engagement in conversational invention rather than ordinal accounts of things (including thoughts) that have already taken place.
Because it seems that what is most meaningful to our complex species will never make complete rational sense, will always defy paraphrase and description, may be wonderful and frightening at the same time, that is, approach paradox, genres that wholly depend on principles of identity, sequential narration, noncontradiction can only be of limited help. They're just not generous or improbable enough to encompass a complex realist perspective. It takes work to sustain complex rather than naïve realisms. (According to a complex realist view, for instance,
The most vital meaning has always come out of a dicey collaboration of intellect and imagination. The intuitive nature of this (inherently playful) balancing act makes it hard to fully know what one is doing while one is doing it. At the end of my work on this book, I wonder if it was about arriving at realizations still barely articulated in it—that a poetics of memory, for instance, must be transfigured by an informed poetics of desire if it's to nourish agency. (The question of meaningful cultural agency is what's always at stake.) By poetics of desire I mean whatever moves us toward a responsive and pleasurable connection to the world by means of informed sensualities of language. But in all this is an afterimage, aftertaste of discomfort with my own poetics of desire—an acute sense of chronically irresolvable reciprocal alterities.
Reciprocal alterity, as ethical and epistemological destabilizing principle, reveals itself in the problem of pronouns. However much one (or is it I?) may try for clarity, the conversation will never arrive at the apotheosis of the insider. Neither will it arrive at the status of reliable narrator. My implied "I am" as I write is as other to myself as any other that is an I whom I/we can never fully know. It propels me toward grammatical alienation from the very experience my language is clumsily trying to touch. The pronouns teeter on the knowledge, negotiating a calculus of entitlement, attempting a decorum of respect for tenuous distinctions between the scope of my experience, one's, ours, yours, hers, his, theirs. In the excitement, on the threshold, of what appears to be an enlarging perspective, the enterprise may seem not more but less troubling than it should. The pronoun should betray itself as contingent
So, as antidote to my incorrigible earnestness I feel it incumbent upon myself to admit that I experience the I in my essay writing as something of a stranger although I know that the ethos of the work is entirely dependent on it. (This situation is different from poetry as I experience it, since any I in poetry is by definition persona.) Something disturbingly like individual will, even ego, is pushing itself into the conversation with what clearly lies outside the scope of its understanding. Perhaps that disturbance is its saving grace. Drawn to the object— whose existence as object one has already denied in one's up-to-date epistemology—does that one still dare to want to know and be known, to understand and be understood? In one's fallen epistemologies of desire is one seeking the relief from or of otherness? Is this why I'm attracted to languages and worlds that are too beautifully, terrifyingly opaque and distant to care about or even register what I think about them? Paradoxically or not, the whole enterprise is entirely intimate. Touching, being touched, partaking of textual transfigurations in the unsettled weathers along personal/cultural coastlines is irreversibly compelling, incorrigibly real.
What prevents the logic of the essay from being arbitrary is the degree of its engagement as wager. The essay is a commitment to a thought experiment that is itself an ethical form of life. As such, for better and/or worse, it yields consequences like any troth. Troth is as close to truth as I can hope to get, and perhaps that's for the best because it discloses the rise in danger and responsibility as poetics of desire threaten to become socially enacted wagers. The nature of the wager is nothing other than complex realist conversation. But conversation—in too many of the greatest hits of Western thought—mutates into polemics. Conversation demands holding an image of the other in one's mind long enough to notice the difference between one's own point of view and possible alternatives. What was the Epicurean alternative to either/or?
Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy troubles and astonishes in its simultaneous acquiescence to the Apollonian-Dionysian bifurcation (which Euripides' Bacchae identifies as M and F) and its refusal to declare a winner. Apollo and Dionysus are fierce contestants in a wrenching equilibration that has given distinctive form to that pattern-bounded disorder we call Western civilization. Together they locate the dangerously ungrounded current that is our source of cultural energy. Alone they stand for something too fundamental to be trusted. Because rationalist/irrationalist
Among my most cherished conversational pleasures were some that occurred regularly during the 1990s with an elderly neighbor in a Washington, D.C., neighborhood, a career government employee who had nurtured an active unlived life as a classicist through fifty years with the Civil Service Commission and twenty years of retirement. When I moved to Ridge Street, he informed me that its golden age was over. It had come and gone in the 1950s, when a former Miss America lived there. For this and more profound sadnesses—the death of his wife, the death several years later of his companionable dog, the infrequency with which he saw his children and grandchildren, the continuing degradation of culture (monitored daily on TV talk shows)—his consolation and sustaining passion was Latin.
What I noticed immediately was that Mr. G. almost entirely refrained from the clichés of small talk, except in Latin: Ars longa vita brevis! Sic transit! Potius sero quam nunquam! (Better late than never!) … I experienced him as a Virgilian specter gingerly cruising the neighborhood, neck extended forward, head held high and stark still, eyes fixed on an internal horizon while nonetheless scanning peripherally for passersby. One day, nodding hello, he leaned over to pet my dog and said, You know, this is not one of your better centuries—Ilias Malorum! (An Iliad of evils!). His preferences weren't surprising—fifth century B.C.E., the seventeenth and eighteenth, the first half of the nineteenth. How could I protest? How could I protest the mythical past, but also the brutality of our own times?
It's hard not to see the twentieth century's violent lurches between utopian dreams and catastrophic revenge of the real as having improved the mechanics of hatred much more than hope. What was once rather romantically called "unspeakable" has been spoken so many times over
The linguistic packaging of an event that took place three days before 9/11 in Durban, South Africa—"United Nations Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance"—is instructive. The aftermath of its success/failure was couched, like all similarly earnest meetings, in a "declaration" rendered effectively invisible by the clichés of its own evocations and injunctions:
We are conscious of the fact that the history of humanity is replete with major atrocities as a result of the gross violation of human rights and believe that lessons can be learned through remembering history to avert future tragedies.…
We are conscious that humanity's history is replete with terrible wrongs inflicted through lack of respect for the equality of human beings and note with alarm the increase of such practices in various parts of the world, and we urge people, particularly in conflict situations, to desist from racist incitement, derogatory language and negative stereotyping.
Attempts at international consensus typically embed themselves in self-neutralizing linguistic decorums—prolegomena to a putative solution on the eve of the next disaster. They predictably underscore the need to remember (that is, to describe what has happened in the past); the need to recognize certain descriptions as legitimate and others not; the need to acknowledge what certain descriptions imply; the need to
The metaphorical placement of history—as "the past" "back there" rather than "here"—is to see history as having literally "passed" out of current space-time. Could this semantically embedded misconception make the problem of linking a poetics/politics of tragic memory to a poetics/politics of constructive agency all the more difficult? A descriptive legitimation of memory does not change the cultural ethos or the power relations that spawn violence unless it is already enacting a poetics outside the patterns of that ethos. It's the poetics of memory— what is made of it now—that might create a difference. It's not that the grudge is ancient that causes volatility; it's precisely that the language by which it is evoked is very much a present form of life, sustaining an ethos of lethal anger. This is a question of poethics—what we make of events as we use language in the present, how we continuously create an ethos of the way in which events are understood.
The poetics of inevitability is everywhere. Images of being locked in the past aren't erased by the formulaic "if you don't know history you're doomed to repeat it" because, unfortunately, the converse isn't automatically true. If the message is that history is bent on repeating itself, then the knowing mind must take on—as unawares as the unknowing mind—a syntactical thrust toward predestined climax. It's all, again, all too familiar—a cheap-thrill déjà vu. Aren't these the patterns of classical drama embedded in nineteenth-century temporal arts— music, metanarrative philosophy, the locomotive novel, the well-made play, the epiphanic poem? It's the engine of political rhetoric from Pericles to the latest "saber rattling" occupant of the oval office. All describe trajectories of hyper-and hyporational (that is, romantic) destiny. As war maintains the health of the state, patterns like these maintain the health of what Pierre Bourdieu calls the habitus—culturally congealed values and practices carried largely unconsciously from one generation to the next. So thoroughly established that many "against-the-grain" strategies produce little more than Ptolemaic epicycles. One thing is certain
The present is, in fact, made out of the residue of the past. What, after all, is there materially but all that is after? Light takes time to travel to the eye across the space of a room. The speed of sound is slower still. All images are after; this is their seduction and their terror—the distance they imply and traverse, the possible betrayal of one's senses. If the cultural future is invisible until we've noticed what we ourselves have fashioned out of the residue—by accident, habit, intention—the act of noticing, and its transformation (all present-tense matters), may be the most relevant focal point for an aesthetic. As it indeed happened to be for Marcel Duchamp, John Dewey, Gertrude Stein, John Cage, and others. Noticing becomes art when, as contextualizing project, it reconfigures the geometry of attention, drawing one into conversation with what would otherwise remain silent in the figure-ground patterns of history. The legibility of these projects can remain poor for decades. Stein opined that it takes forty years for aesthetic innovation to sink in, much less become intelligible. What is the work of human culture but to make fresh sense and meaning of the reconfiguring matter at the historical-contemporary intersection we call the present?
If the only active time bracket is at the rim of human consciousness and sensation, at the rim of history—that is, of making and occurring—then that excitable rim may be identical with signals across synapses in the brain. An amusing thought, that the location of the making of culture may be the degree of space-time located in the cleft between neurons. That this infinitesimal space-time bracket turns out to be as expansive as the sum total of thought processes at work on the planet at any given moment suggests how important the quality of those thoughts is to a cultural ethos. What it clearly indicates is that the present is activity and vice versa.
Meanwhile, grammars—which must carry on the pragmatics of everyday life—lag behind changing awarenesses and intuitions that exceed old forms. Vocabularies mutate more than grammars. This is why an avant-garde in the arts and theoretical humanities—philosophy and science—will always have work to do, work that only gradually (sometimes never) enters the common language. Historical metaphors tend to support an image of time travel toward an absent past, paradoxically full of objects to be retrieved. Traversing this image in the other direction, one can bring those objects, framed as data, into the present. "That was
I'm troubled by this construction and its consequences, the most obvious of which is nostalgia for an idealized, irrecoverable past. (An irremediable past should be the greater concern—the past that tragically persists in our barbarous proclivities.) The contemporary doesn't leave history behind; it further complicates it. We're still embedded in the detritus of all your centuries, better and worse. The only thing that's changed is the composition of the materials of living. Composition is everything in culture; and the act of composition, which is an act of presentness, when brought into the foreground as the making of form (poesis), is the preoccupation of that part of culture we call the arts. The poethics of the contemporary, that is, the ethos of making something of one's moment in the historical-contemporary, is another preoccupation of this book.
Literature (in contrast to journal writing) is an entry into public conversation. At its best it enacts, explores, comments on, further articulates, radically questions the ethos of the discourses from which it springs. Hence my use of the word poethics. Every poetics is a consequential form of life. Any making of forms out of language (poesis) is a practice with a discernible character (ethos). Poethos might in fact be a better word for this were it not for persistent sociological contentions that matters of ethos are inherently value free. We can disagree about their implications, agree on their contingency, but values are an inextricable dimension of all human behavior. Our values are what we care about; they are always contingent; but there's too much at stake for values to be arbitrary.
The efficient cause of my coining the term poethics in the late 1980s (a time when I was working closely with John Cage) was an attempt to note and value traditions in art exemplified by a linking of aesthetic registers to the fluid and rapidly changing experiences of everyday life. I present this hybrid as frank and unholy union of modernist and postmodernist questions joined to the Aristotelian concern for the link between an individual and public ethos in pursuit of the good life—a good life that must be contrived in the midst of happenstance and chaos.
A neo-Aristotelian like Martha Nussbaum might lament the swerve from universal grounding. That Greek philosophers were rationalists, essentialists, universalists need not deter those of us for whom the only universal is contingency from appreciating their questions about citizen and polis. In fact it's the innocent contingency of their How-To books, along with their against-the-odds reasonableness, that stimulates the imagination. (Although the justification for Alexander the Great's murderous imperial campaigns—that the Greek way embodied universal virtues—came straight from his Great teacher, Aristotle.) Despite proportional differences in contemporary relations of individuals to society, the question of that relation remains urgent. We—some of us— think of ourselves now as citizens of the world, as well as of nation, province, state, county, city, perhaps even city-state. When modified by circumstantial evidence and something like Pascal's dilemma (what to think in conditions that preclude certainty), one can see how ethical questions become matters not of calculating a position within a range of absolutes but of wagering on values in order to remain in motion in the face of otherwise paralyzing doubts, if not fears.
To place ethos in the foreground of the discussion of aesthetic process is to think about consequential "forms of life" specific to formally distinct experiences of art. What kind of life is one living in the act of reading Gertrude Stein? Is it the same as the act of reading Wallace Stevens or John Cage? What of Flaubert or a romance novel? (How are these different from viewing a film or watching TV?) What of the sensitive I-lyric, innocent of contemporary vocabularies that might trouble its carefully controlled "poetic" tone? The most pressing question for me is how art, particularly literature, helps form the direction and quality of attention, the intelligences, the senses we bring into contact with contemporary experience. A related question concerns the ways in which contemporary poetics invites us into an ethos of the collaborative making of meaning. "Making," poesis, is always key. This is an imaginative activity that materially affects the life one lives in language, the life of language at large, the world of which language is both made and inextricable part. Another way to ask the question of poethics is, How can writing and reading be integral to making sense and new sense (sometimes taken for non sense) as we enact an ongoing poetics of daily life? We do that of course among many languages, social structures, events, persons … in humorous juxtapositions and Venn overlaps of the familiar, the mysterious, the unintelligible.
In acute consciousness of the twentieth century's inventions and disasters, the reexamination we call postmodernism has brought a growing range of conceptual frameworks to the roles literatures play, as well as to the language games constructed out of poetic energies. One recognizes, for instance, significantly different poetics of memory and desire. There is the frank poetics of direct witness; the poetics of a restless longing that refuses delayed gratification, rushing to epiphany; poetics with more complicated epistemologies and a self-imposed resistance to closure. These and many other directions also determine the poetics of the essay as form.
My own frame of mind comes (inevitably?) out of that postmodern angst and introspection—mixture of sorrow, humor, irony, and incredulity—over how easily grand hopes can go wrong, how the ridiculous and sublime, like tragedy and farce, are consanguineous. The selfconsciousness we've labeled postmodernism has created a constructive geometry of attention, foregrounding clusters of cultural silences that range from retrovalued styles to inquiries into the ethically suppressed. As the formerly colonized now come to colonize the streets and imaginations of the new city-states of multinational empire, there are increasing demands that projects of a global political ecosystem come into conversation with articulations of localized desire. What poethical explorations are crucial to such a situation? Those, I wish to suggest, having to do with complex realism, reciprocal alterity, polyculturalism, polylingualism, contemporaneity. A search for new ethical and aesthetic models is inevitably, haphazardly, contingently under way.
At some point I realized that the lurking question in everything I've written about literature is this: how can imaginative, responsible, meaningful agency thrive in such a complex and perilous world, fallen many times over, hardly off its knees when it comes to matters of hope? One model that's been useful to me in thinking about this is chaos theory. The poethical wager—to act against the odds in composing contemporary language (both lightly and with great seriousness)—presumes the mess of complexity, the near-automatic pilot of large cultural trajectories along with constantly changing local configurations. In this light I've begun to find "modernity" and "postmodernity" less useful for my inquiry than the more dynamic concept of a (chaotic) continuous contemporary.
The continuous contemporary is the scene of the poethical wager as I construct it. It's my view that a vital poetics must acknowledge the degree
Here's one: The horizon of the future is visible only as it has become that part of the very recent past we call the contemporary. The contemporary rises (as the sun doesn't) out of the residue of the past. One might even think one glimpses a thin crack of light in the near-hallucinatory state of envisioning that moment as the future breaking over the dotted line of the present. (Tear here.) This is of course image of a mirror image; the horizon is the mirror of futurity only as envisioned out of history. (Cf. Hegel: "Philosophy concerns itself only with the glory of the Idea mirroring itself in the History of the World.") Insofar as they exist at all (in the imagination) the horizon of the future and the horizon of the past are one and the same. There is no temporal direction for gazing at the past or the future, other than nondirectionally outward. Get up and look around, as Cage once said. You will see everything there is to work with right (t)here, at the conceptually contingent location of your besieged senses.
The image of horizon that has been so crucial to romantic idealist philosophies and literatures may not be a threshold of possibility at all, unless one locates possibility in a mirror. Suppose one asserts that a poethics of possibility must be founded on improbability, pattern-bounded unpredictability, the intercourse of chance and intention, self and notself. Then one must move from idealized images of Euclidean horizons (which turn out to be nothing but a series of vanishing points) to fractal coastlines. The horizon is always a function of the position of the viewing subject. This is clear in perspectival painting, where the vanishing point directly locates the position of the eye of the artist. As such, the Heideggerian horizon of time may well throw us into conversation only with our own logics of identity, inevitability, destiny, will—subject masquerading as object revealing itself as subject in the sigh of genius. Heidegger's limiting condition of inquiry in Being and Time is couched in the metaphor of the "horizon of time." This, in my view, because his own "primordial" desire is located at the same horizon as Hegel's historical destiny—the rendezvous with spirit. Romantic idealism charts the destinies of its geniuses along the imaginary line spanning a series of what
I raise this specter because the "horizon of time" is an example of a class of heavily freighted metaphors (emanating out of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century—chiefly German—poetries and philosophies) whose incompletely examined historical implications exert a gravitational force that warps the edge of the contemporary as it emerges into critical view. Imagining a cultural coastline (complex, dynamic) rather than time's horizon (dare I say it?—linear, static) thrusts the thought experiment into the distinctly contemporary moment of a fractal poetics. If art can be conceived as having a fractal relation to life, then I think the infamous art vs. life gap is closed because it's no longer needed to account for mirrorimage representational symmetries.
Pascal's wager was framed in the computational science of his era, as our wagers must be cast in terms that construct our time. Future explorers of the continuous contemporary will no doubt structure their wagers in the new terms by which they understand the nature of their worlds. This is one way of saying that the working idea of the poethical wager is nothing more than a casting of one's lot into contemporary conversation as it is occurring not on a pseudoserene horizon of time but along the dynamic coastline of historical poesis. The continuous contemporary, not so much as label but as challenge, suggests a poesis of the increasingly unintelligible present. That poesis creates the foreground of our acts of noticing. In "Composition As Explanation" Gertrude Stein wrote, "Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen …" She emphatically asserts that the thing is made to be seen in the act of composition. In this essay and others Stein recognizes the importance of working with the material contemporary. This is not merely an acknowledgment of one's condition but an aesthetic judgment. She says quite normatively in "How Writing Is Written" that it is the business of the writer to live one's contemporariness in the composition of one's writing. This is what I have intended as the poethics of this book.
During the mid-nineteenth-century acceleration of those changes we notice as "contemporary," those artists identified as avant-garde took it on themselves to bring barely legible elements of change into their compositions. The present as locator of experimental adventure is the active
To see things anew, to notice fresh possibility despite the empirical odds against this, requires complex realist devices and, yes, our post-modern self-conscious complicating of the most ingrained longing for certainty. This book is indebted to all those authors and artists of the improbable who help us sustain a culture that can yield pleasant surprises. A disciplined inclination to be pleasantly surprised is really the only poetics of hope that, no matter what happens, still works for me. Like the readiness of the student of Zen to make sense of no-sense, it comes of strenuous practice.
The work in this book is as much exploration of the form of the essay as the declared cluster of concerns I query under the rubrics of poethics, complex realism, the experimental feminine, reciprocal alterity. In thinking about engagements with texts and consequences of form I'm equally indebted to Wittgenstein's concept of socially contextualized language games; Dewey's notion of art as experience, D.W. Winnicott's distinction between fantasy and imagination—his emphasis on the role of play in the self-invention of a cultural life that's worth living; Cage's idea of chance operations (composed clinamen) highlighting a productive sense of contingency, his redefinition of silence as all that we're not attending to at any given moment; Stein's sense of the business of writing
One might also term this the against-all-odds project of recomposing some small portion of the habitus. Bourdieu's idea of the habitus has been helpful to me in my attempt to gain perspective on the cluster of assumptions and behaviors that characterize the social matrix of any historical moment. In the tragic apotheosis of one such habitus Adorno came to think that it is a chief function of art to awaken us to those influential cultural vectors that are persistently obscured by ideology. The most vital art is not oppositional ideology but an attempt to be as free of ideology as possible, even as it can never be free of values. (I'm convinced, contrary to many thoughtful people I know, that art can be free of ideology, never of politics.) The habitus, as Bourdieu describes it, is not something over which we have much conscious control, insofar as it is composed of "[s]ystems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them."
The contained, but squirming, matrix of habitual, value-laden, self-perpetuating practices, all but invisible until something dramatic goes awry, is in fact the continuous present of our experience of history. The habitus is "embodied history, internalized as a second nature and so forgotten as history … the active presence of the whole past of which it is the product." This is how attitudes and genres become naturalized, including the genres in which we write our histories. Is it in fact any easier to achieve perspective on the implications of genres than on the infinite complexities of lived sociopolitical experience? The logics and values of aesthetic genres are in conversation with that experience, but, to the extent that they are independent of ideology, they enact an alternative language game. That language game can be analyzed, however tentatively, for its poethical consequences.
Although it's usually only the irruption of undeniable trouble (the post–WW II rise of feminist consciousness, the civil rights crisis of the 1940s and 1950s, the Vietnam War, the outbreak of AIDS…) that jolts us into reevaluating discrete aspects of the habitus, experimental arts have tended to launch more global challenges to the values of containment and closure, boundary and identity logics of genres (including those of gender). This can be a pleasurably alarming project since aesthetic
A primary value I assume in the essays that follow is that of the difficult pleasures of the most significant literatures. The kind of enduring and cumulative pleasure that Aristotle called The Good, or happiness, comes of an ethos of rising again and again to the occasion of those activities that require strenuous engagement of one's whole being—intellect, passions, sensual presence, meditative awareness. This is happiness as activity, as project, as agency. The poetries that stimulate us in this way, that ask us to rise to the sometimes baffling occasions they present, are also inviting us to stretch toward a readerly action of complex awarenesses. Literary pedagogies, among others, need to catch up with the active, collaborative reading demands of new forms. Happiness is struggle as well as the bliss of wide-angled attentiveness. To wrestle with life's Relentless Ness monsters without becoming one— to find the perilous, pleasurable game in that—requires exacting artifice. It also requires the long views of projects generous enough to form a dynamic equilibrium amidst contradictions and contingencies, injustices and suffering, serenity and delight. Perhaps happiness isn't really possible over the long range. Perhaps it's only possible over the long range. Whatever the case, it takes humor to sustain energy of the kind that can make meaning of historical-contemporary collisions.
Both Gertrude Stein and John Cage ask implicitly in their art, and explicitly in their writing about it, How does one develop a contemporary aesthetic, a way of being an artist who connects with the unprecedented character of one's times? Their starting principle was that we must meet the contemporary moment on its terms—not in ignorance of history but in informed composition of it. Is there any aspect of one's work that poses greater difficulty? Although one can draw on many models and examples, there is no one to follow into the future. Stein and Cage each tell us—in the spirit of the undeniable, as well as experimental adventure—although we can never really know where we're going, we must be on our way. Over the centuries this has been said in many ways. It's part of Buddhist traditions; it's at the heart of Pascal's wager; it's expressed in a villanelle by Theodore Roethke, hardly an experimental poet—"I learn by going where I have to go." This shouldn't be hailed as invidious comparison between thinking and feeling. I take it as an awareness that the range of complexities in the world—a range that careens between certainties of cultural logics and unintelligibilities
If psychologists have any inkling about the mechanisms of impulse, memory, and desire, if Bourdieu is right about the default mode of the habitus, every society has the capacity to live in radical innocence of its own self-perpetrated destinies. Acts of responsible consciousness are difficult, but the refusal of that difficulty is never benign. In poetries whose energies depend more on questions than answers, whose moving principles engage in exploratory projects and procedures, it is the work's poethical form of life—what informs its geometries of attention—that makes a difference. The contemporary work from which I benefit is by poets who care enough about the world in which they live to experience it broadly, to think and learn about it with dedicated intensity.
Where does this leave one? Current ideas of memory as witness often serve to imprint guilt and prophylactic horror rather than to examine a poetics of memory that recomposes the actively present elements of historical tragedy. Who knows what might lead some us or another to become better at transfiguration than reenactment. Or what humorous collision of novel circumstances might lead some us or another to swerve out of a suddenly illuminated detail in one of the many patterns of ruin. The shape of historical outcome reveals itself by chance as much as intention, yet at any moment one can act out of considered values that inform the projects of one's poethically cultivated intuitions.
Is happiness the name for our (involuntary) complicity with chance?Lyn Hejinian, Happily
I sometimes wonder whether the attitudes that propel my aesthetic come down to instinctive hope, strategic optimism, or an unaccount ably cheerful—always precarious—retrofit of despair. Perhaps it's more truthful to say I'm in search of a poesis that wagers on all three in un settling but synergistic conversation. The many strange texts that popu late my library are there because in one way or another they have taken part in this sometimes euphoric, often troubled, intercourse. Luckily, one never knows the circumstances in which one will find oneself, the circumstances in which a happy coincidence might give meaning to otherwise perverse pleasures. Of one thing I feel certain: it's much too early/too late to abandon (the humor of) improbable attempts.