The word Versuch, attempt or essay...thought's utopian vision of hitting the bullseye is united with consciousness of its own fallibility and provisional character.
--Theodor Adorno, "The Essay as Form"
"I'm looking for The Great Utopia. Do you still have it in stock?" "No, but we have The Rape of Utopia in stock."
--conversation overheard at Guggenheim Museum Shop
1. The poet Tina Darragh has written some of the shortest, best essays I know. Piet Mondrian could write one in a title: "The Arts and the Beauty of our Tangible Surroundings," "Down with Traditional Harmony!," "The Evolution of Humanity is the Evolution of Art." (1) The prose that follows is almost superfluous. On their own, the titles exert aphoristic power. An aphorism is a sudden essay. Darragh's book of what one could call poetic essays, a gain)(2)st the odds, contains formal experiments with a new kind of narrative poetry and ends with "three manifestos": "The Best of Intentions," "Error Message," "Don't Face Off the Fractals (Revisited)." I don't wish to be contentious, but they are not manifestos. They are riddled with interrogatives of the sort the manifesto can't tolerate. Each is three or four pages long and, like John Cage's essays, articulated in part by its spacing on the page. "The Best of Intentions" has this:
While following this line of questioning, I am consoled by the existence of the random function as an ordering principle. We think of "random" as "helter-skelter' but as a programming concept it is used to define parameters within which the direction of diversity is productive.
It's a matter of becoming accustomed to this new mode of organization.
If poetry can be thought of as having a role to play in our culture, one aspect of the job would be to make this random function--as a process, as an organizing agent--visible, tactile, part of our sense of the world. We know we can do it. (2)
The random function exercised by the writer's I reader's mind is the operating principle of the essay as form. One might ask how to understand forms whose pleasure it is to violate or exceed generic expectations. Perhaps the point is not understanding at all, at least not in the sense of grasping. Essays, like poems and philosophical meditations, should elude our grasp just because their business is to approach the liminal spectrum of near-unintelligibility--immediate experience complicating what we thought we knew. In this case, "to write" means to engage in a probative, speculative projection of the often surprising vectors of words as they graze the circumstances of ongoing life. "To read" means to live with the text over the real time of everyday life so it can enter into conversation with other life-projects. Forms that move the imagination out of bounds toward pungent transgressions, piquant unintelligibilities intrude into our tangible surroundings. They maintain an irritating presence, pleasurable or not, as radically unfinished thought. They give the reader real work to do. If the essay is a worthwhile wager it is about startling the mind into action when much is at stake and intelligibility is poor.
Which is to say, the best essay is a puzzle. What's a reader to think when in the course of reading Montaigne's "Of the Power of Imagination" ("A strong imagination creates the event," etc.) she comes upon a section on sexual impotence?
People are right to notice the unruly liberty of this member, obtruding so importunately when we have no use for it, and failing so importunately when we have the most use for it, and struggling for mastery so imperiously with our will, refusing with so much pride and obstinacy our solicitations, both mental and manual. (3)
Is Montaigne conflating penis and pen? For such flagrant erratics the term belles lettres is much too prim.
The history of opinion on the essay is as full of disgust as admiration. Samuel Johnson evokes gastrointestinal disorders gone to the head: "A loose sally of the mind; an irregular undigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition." A century before, Francis Bacon had referred to his own essays as "dispersed meditations." Addison, of Spectator fame, remarked on "the Wildness of those Compositions that go by the Names of Essays." The Petit Larousse--keeper of Montaigne's langue if not his parole--denotes essais as first drafts or "titres de certains ouvrages qui ne pretendent pas epusier un sujet." Think of the degree to which prose styles with built-in grammars of persuasion service the pretense of exhausting the subject. If one avoids this pretense, if the subject is questionable or constantly shifting or densely complex, there is the risk of frustrating the reader who has been trained by the cultural marketplace to expect attractively packaged exhaustion. Every element of style is saying, Don't worry, there's nothing more to it than this. If this is called "essay," its a misnomer.
Despite increasingly efficient exhaustion, or perhaps in dialogue with it, the tradition of the exploratory essay thrives in its improbable universe. If in times of rampant fundamentalism complex thought is a political act, then the essay is at least a poethical wager. The most happily adulterated essays continue to enact attempts and experiments that promise less about outcome than about unexpected, often complicating possibilities noticed in the activity of exploration itself. I value the poethics of "wild" poet-essayists like Tina Darragh, Rosmarie Waldrop, Charles Bernstein, Leslie Scalapino as they, in conspiracy with their exigent and excessive times, reinvent the form to require collaboration with an ardent reader. Since a genre lives first in its composition and then in its realization by those who "perform" it (I take writing and reading to be equally performative acts), the essay text, like the poem, like the musical score, is nothing other than notations for performance. If the tentativeness implie d by the word "essay" is its primary identifying principle, its traces in the text embody the directed random function we call subjectivity.
Early readers of Montaigne noticed the subjective investment his essays enact and invite. Pascal wrote "It is not in Montaigne, but in myself that I find all that I see in him"; and Emerson, "It seemed to me as if I myself had written the book..." Montaigne's essaying was in fact of the nature of lively idiosyncratic, contingent, and digressive conversations with absent friends, a moving play of the senses, intertwining intellectual history and everyday life with rhetorical gestures (countless interrogatives, for example) implying the presence of an interlocutor. And the invention of this form was itself circumstantial. According to Donald Frame, Montaigne only started writing essays after the death of a close friend whose conversation he sorely missed. This reaching out of text toward reader (Wittgenstein's notes have the same effect) foregrounds the limitations of the writer, the fact that the richer the matters at hand the more the writer needs the help of an intelligent, informed, interested reader. Diffi cult texts, those that are difficult because of the proportions of what the writer is attempting to take on, have this quality of appealing vulnerability. Rather than pushing the reader away, they suggest collaboration. I wonder if the great sacred texts in every culture, those that enlist whole communities of readers as commentators and interpreters over vast stretches of time, don't all have this quality of being unfinished, unfinishable, posing enough puzzles for generations to live with.
Such enigmatic texts can be fetishized into static orthodoxies, but they also inspire active reading traditions--e.g., the commentaries on the I Ching; the Talmudic tradition of Midrash; the role of marginalia in early humanist reading; the persistently disparate, even contradictory readings of Dickinson, Heidegger, Pound, Stein, Wittgenstein that spawn communities of avid conversationalists. These are scenes of reading as poesis--a materially based making of the text into something of use, positioning it phrase by phrase (the conversational ritual of the quote) in complex--often interrogative--relation to one's projects. From the nineteenth century on, reading as a more passive reception of the text seems to have become widespread. This is in coincidence with the rise of a narcissistic myth of author as genius that demands an audience stunned into submission by its own comparative insufficiency. Barbara Stafford is eloquent on this historical turning point in her book Artful Science: Enlightenment Entertainm ent and the Eclipse of Visual Education, a remarkable account of playfully active learning in the eighteenth century:
If it is true that present-day neoromantic artists focus more and more on themselves and reach out less and less to their audiences, then nineteenth-century developments offer no consolation. Rather it was in the eighteenth century's demonstration of pleasurable learning that aspects of personal experience were put at the service of a public beyond the borders of the narcissistic self. The activity of attractively making knowledge visible not only kept the performer going, but engaged the viewer to constructively play along. (4)
We are left with three, sometimes intermixed, currents--text as didactic silencer, fantasy enthraller, interlocutor. ('Where do Internet texts fall?) With the decline of the amateur intellectual and the Enlightenment ideal of the mind flourishing in thought experiment and other kinds of imaginative play, active reading is prey to the academy's chronic ambivalence between authority and novel thought. But there is also the displacement of private pleasure from cultural work that is part of our obsession with the advancement of self as the sole point of a career--the career of one's emotions, desires, gratifications measuring success or failure in relation to one's power to become publicly conspicuous and, of course, to consume. The highly rewarded entrepreneurial strategy of forging ahead with an air of mastery nomatter-what spurs impatience for the point or gist. This is the economy of generically busy expertise. It must detach itself from values that encourage the necessarily inefficient, methodically haphaza rd inquiry characteristic of actually living with ideas.
Who in today's world has the luxury of Montaigne's practice of writing as it negotiates the linguistic distance not only between the invention of self and the presence of the other, between culturally informed consciousness and idiosyncratic inventions of genre, but in open invitation to daily contingencies? Who can afford to not do this? Montaigne cultivates sentences that admit unsteadiness while finding a moving balance in disequilibrium. This is the way every interpermeable life system works--in dynamic, vertiginous flux--finding its patterns in contingent motion. He writes in "Of Repentance":
I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness. I take it in this condition, just as it is at the moment I give my attention to it. I do not portray being: I portray passing. Not the passing from one age to another...but from day to day, from minute to minute. My history needs to be adapted to the moment. I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention. This is a record of various and changeable occurrences, and of irresolute and, when it so befalls, contradictory ideas; whether I am different myself, or whether I take hold of my subjects in different circumstances and aspects... If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial. (5)
Lacking a final coherence, the necessary incompleteness of an intelligence respectful of its own complexity leaves room for the reader to bring other elements into the mix. If one trusts that intelligence, one is drawn back to it by the seduction of a further glimpse, a new angle, a new view from the strange topography one has already helped form with the circumstantial evidence of one's own tropisms and reflections. Each return of the reader, inevitably changed by intervening experience, further elaborates the conversational matrix that has formed around the text-its charged history. (This could be a defense of a canon.) The essay, like the best of any art, is nourished over time by the transformative passage through it of all those exotic interlocutors bearing gifts and explosives.
The field of potential within the essay lies in the active zones between believing and doubting. (Congealed belief, or doubt, produces tracts.) This is why the essay in its best uses can be the most important exploratory tool of humanistic thought. Its active middle term is a particular kind of play with and of ideas--the play of minds in pursuit of both pleasure and meaning, the pleasure of making meaning. Or, perhaps more accurately, the pleasure of composing meaning at (and out of) the limits of the kind of knowledge that is possible only with language. It's interesting that a Frenchman brought the modern possibilities of this form into such high profile. French is a language at play (often ironically) with its own severe limits. Notice also the Paris based OuLiPo (workshop for potential literature) that thrives on constraints. For centuries the well-guarded, relatively small French vocabulary (about one-fifth the expanse of English) necessitated cultivating an ingeniously permutative semantic field laced with strategic ambiguity and multivalent implication.
In France there has also been, at least since the sixteenth century, a strongly imprinted national competition between institutional belief and radical doubt. French writing has been the scene of an obsessively disciplined and exclusionary culture along with a playful, transgeneric one. Can one read the history of French philosophy in this light from the Encyclopedists, Pascal, Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau....to Derrida, Kristeva, and Baudrillard? (6) The play of intellect and imagination that characterizes French prose styles is a model of the poesis of curiosity that constantly flirts with a resistance to authority. It exists in the transitional space between individual and tradition, subjective experience and larger reality, as well as that scintillating spectrum of "in-between" that haunts all binaries. We can learn from playful forms in the humanities, sciences, mathematics, and the arts--scenes of intellectual, imaginative, sensual thought experiments--that we need not get stuck at either end of the d ichotomous structures we're so prone to ritually enact. The intelligently informed playful imagination makes it possible to experience binaries as magnetic poles that form productive limiting conditions of vast fields of cultural energy, i.e., cultural playgrounds.
I find myself continually drawn to the writing of D.W. Winnicott, the British psychoanalyst who charted "transitional objects," "transitional space," and "transitional phenomena" in his thinking about the way in which play negotiates zones between personal experience and shared realities. He emphasizes throughout his work the precarious, experimental nature of play. The collection of essays, Playing and Reality, is a stylistically awkward, intellectually and imaginatively lucid, conceptually suggestive collection of notes, case studies, and theory that help one think about the kinds of values the essay enacts. Winnicott's "location of cultural experience" is precisely where I situate the essay as wager:
1. The place where cultural experience is located is in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the object). The same can be said of playing. Cultural experience begins with creative living first manifested in play.
2. For every individual the use of this space is determined by life experiences....
3. [...]This potential space is at the interplay between there being nothing but me and there being objects and phenomena outside omnipotent control.... (7)
With the high stakes involved in appearances of control and completion (careers, money, respect), forms that refuse these illusions are necessary to retrieve space for creative living from a culture blindly driving toward total regulation of the imagination. According to Winnicott, play is "inherently exciting and precario us" just because it is the moment in which the near-hallucinatory imagination--so skilled at seeing the expected pattern with even the sparsest cues--must intersect with both shared and contingent reality. It's the moment that divides imagination from the stillborn internalizations of fantasy. By occupying the mind with hallucinatory belief, fantasy breaks the connection with the dissonant cues of the sensory world to celebrate the solace of isolated subjectivity. What opens up the active principle of imagination is believing and doubting, equally suspended in poesis--invention that works only in conversation with the material world. What's at stake is one's zest for life, what happiness ma y be possible given fortunate circumstances. Winnicott puts it this way:
It is creative apperception more than anything else that makes the individual feel that life is worth living. Contrasted with this is a relationship to external reality that is one of compliance, the world and its details being recognized but only as something to be fitted in with or demanding adaptation. Compliance carries with it a sense of futility for the individual and is associated with the idea that nothing matters and that life is not worth living. In a tantalizing way many individuals have experienced just enough of creative Living to recognize that for most of their time they are living uncreatively, as if caught up in the creativity of someone else, or of a machine. The second way of living in the world is recognized as illness in psychiatric terms. In some way or other our theory includes a belief that living creatively is a healthy state....The general attitude of our society and the philosophic atmosphere of the age in which we happen to live contribute to this view. We might not have held this view elsewhere and in another age. (8)
Winnicott conscientiously negotiates the dichotomies of his own culture: ideals of creativity versus pressures to conform.
Theodor Adorno wrote as one who had experienced the havoc of what many have characterized as the Ur-Kultur of compliance impossibly linked to a chronic adulation of creative genius. It turned out that since total compliance is anathema to creativity, and the compliance of the majority of citizens was obligatory, creativity had to be the inexplicable exception. Hence the myth of Genius as the mysterious anomaly of the great, transcendent soul. In such an atmosphere the manifest lack of mastery in the essay might be construed as a potent subversion.
Almost four centuries after Montaigne, Adorno is thinking about these matters in "The Essay as Form, (9) (Oddly, he neither mentions Montaigne nor the French term for the genre.) The German word for essay, Versuch, has "search" (suche)--seeking, tracking--embedded in it. Versuch is an experimental seeking whose writing-act and trace--accommodates clear directionalities and peculiar contingencies. For Adorno the essay is above all the discursive form that confounds the dangers of ideology and entrenched thought. It is part of the aesthetic project he championed all his life: upsetting ideological strangleholds by means of forms that resist the commodification of nefarious marketplaces of ideas and images. Great art-and this includes the art of the essay--reveals what ideology conceals. Essay writing must take place in the tentative and transitional space--time that is always in between the publicly entrenched vocabularies and grammars of official thought and the writer's engagement with temporal processes. Th e goal is to resist all those standards that create what Adorno calls the "illusion of intelligibiity'
In his Aesthetic Theory Adorno scorns the way in which the cultural consumer is served by conjoined promises of intelligibility and possession. He is in fact skeptical of the truth value of anything contaminated by official thought and its self-serving strategies of interpretation. In discussing the discourse surrounding art with socially established value, he writes, "What everybody takes to be intelligible is in fact not intelligible at all.... When something becomes too familiar it stops making sense. 'What is immediately accessible is bound to be lifeless..." This is of course part of an argument for the "defamiiarizing" role of art: "If one perceives art as anything other than strange, one does not perceive it at all." (10) One is instead perceiving yet another iteration of official thought (what Gertrude Stein referred to as the already classified). The question becomes how thought can hope to escape the pervasive, high-pressure marketing of faux-intelligibility, what one might call the argument of the habitus--Bourdieu's useful term for the nexus of internally reinforced customs and ideas that create the prevailing climate of opinion in every culture." Adorno writes,
The word Versuch, attempt or essay, in which thought's utopian vision of hitting the bullseye is united with consciousness of its own fallibility and provisional character, indicates, as do most historically surviving terminologies, something about the form, something to be taken all the more seriously in that it takes place not systematically but rather as a characteristic of an intention groping its way.... There is both truth and untruth in the discomfort this procedure arouses, the feeling that it could continue on arbitrarily. Truth, because the essay does not in fact come to a conclusion and displays its own inability to do so as a parody of its own a priori. The essay is then saddled with the blame for something for which forms that erase all trace of arbitrariness are actually responsible... emancipation from the compulsion of identity gives the essay something that eludes official thought--a moment of something inextinguishable, of indelible color.... Hence the essay's innermost formal law is heresy. Through violations of the orthodoxy of thought, something in the object becomes visible which it is orthodoxy's secret and objective aim to keep invisible. (12)
It's remarkable that "an intention groping its way"--full of desire for discernible form but driven by questions rather than certitude--can gather enough courage to welcome the play of the indeterminate, the grace of the swerve, the conceptual metaphysick of coincidence, the poethical integrity of a self-prescriptive rather than wholly predictive agency. The love/fear of one's own will toward utopian perfection or of one's own impotence, the anxiety in this groping might at any moment tip that fragile equilibrium toward hysterical mastery or manic exhaustion of the subject. Adorno has often been criticized for his "pessimism," I see him as exercising enormous moral spirit in his work to find forms (both for his own writing and in the arts of others) that could generate constructive energy despite history's default habits of destruction. I think the aphoristic essay is for him the chief instrument of a working optimism.
Adorno's essay chooses to negotiate transitional spaces in a culture that has yielded a very particular set of dichotomies. If in French culture these spaces are bounded by extremes of establishment rigor versus playful skepticism or irony, in German philosophical traditions one finds the "genius" of Systematics as Romanticism, Romantic Mastery as Transcendence, Transcendence as Beauty. (Think of Kant's fateful analytic hubris, so beautiful in its categorical imperative toward the beauty of the categorical.) What might be irresolvably dichotomous elsewhere becomes fused in romantic idealism creating an idea of will that reflects the strength of the philosopher's intellectual bonding agent. The strength of this tradition, the systematized romanticism of ideas that become policies, depends on protection from empirical interruption. It is an internally unassailable, a priori fiat of absolute purity.
Is this why the essay for Adorno is shot through with the dangers of heresy? Does that drive its turn toward parody? Adorno's tone is often one of bitter irony, a much heavier form of play, if play at all. Parody derives the energy of its self-reflexive trajectories from a sense of entrapment that produces alternating currents of anger and despair. It lacks the buoyancy and surprise of more optimistic forms of play. These differences have never observed unadulterated genealogies nor national borders but they do seem to have to do with divergent projects. The utopian sense of a possible use, or even invention of, transitional zones as the free space of unrealized possibilities (e.g., as alternative or countercultures) is quite different from projects of resistance and subversion where the power of the status quo is perceived to be so great it constrains the imagination from envisioning new territories. The light and fluid transitional zones of play are scarce where dichotomies either appear to be terminally i rresolvable or are read as two sides of the same coin.
Adorno, in the black light of the Third Reich debacle, helped along by those fraternal twins Systematics and Romanticism and their mirror images Mastery and Transcendence, often chose to write, like Nietzsche, aphoristically. His attempts to construct a working optimism out of a dialogue of reason and despair found its most viable possibilities in the idea of the essay as a kind of Epicurean clinamen, a swerve away from the grim determination of official thought. This swerve cannot be legible in grammars of the status quo. It must occur in its unpredicted contingency as a moment of something inextinguishably strange unless it is so vastly overdetermined it has already become part of a paradigm shift. The essayist, by virtue of peculiar means, may project new geometries of attention, oblique vectors ricocheting between authoritative generic poles, describing unforeseen patterns. Writer and reader wander in lush untranslatability, surveying new territory as they go. Or that's how a near-utopian account of the essay as form might go.
2. To get lost in the writing can be a way out of officially charted territory. Gertrude Stein says this, enacts this emphatically in her own essays--to act out of one's unprecedented contemporariness is to be able to tolerate, even enjoy, not knowing where one is going even in sustained forays. Stein's essays--in a tradition that continues through John Cage, Rosmarie Waldrop, Leslie Scalapino, and others--literally compose (live) their way through the necessary uncertainty that transforms language according to one's sense of the active principles of change in one's time. This is to enter the event of literature (as writer/reader) most directly as a "form of life" in Wittgenstein's sense. The language game of the exploratory experimental essay is in dynamic intercourse with the cultural contexts that form the developing rims of one's social world. If one sees change as the very definition of temporality, then the poesis of living that change is one in which the action of time is the action of composition. Ste in puts it this way in "Composition as Explanation":
It is understood by this time that everything is the same except composition and time, composition and the time of the composition and the time in the composition.... The composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living. It is that that makes living a thing they are doing. Nothing else is different, of that almost any one can be certain. The time when and the time of and the time in that composition is the natural phenomena of that composition and of that perhaps every one can be certain. No one thinks these things when they are making when they are creating what is the composition, naturally no one thinks, that is no one formulates until what is to be formulated has been made. (13)
Stein's explanation of composition as explanation is a fortuitous elucidation of just how the essay can elude official thought. The act of composition in the writing is radically preformulaic. Official thought has no existence except as formula. The essayist in Stein's world is creating her composition in the transitional zones of the contemporary as unclassified (14) temporal space. This is one way of understanding her phrase "continuous present:' In the poethics of an experimental activity with contemporary "use" as the guiding value one must always have the courage of "an intention groping its way. Stein again:
There was a groping for using everything and there was a groping for a continuous present.... Having naturally done this I naturally was a little troubled with it when I read it....When I reread it myself I lost myself in it again. (499)
Each period of living differs from any other period of living not in the way life is but in the way life is conducted and that authentically speaking is composition. After life has been conducted in a certain way everybody knows it but nobody knows it, little by little, nobody knows it as long as nobody knows it. Any one creating the composition in the arts does not know it either, they are conducting life and that makes their composition what it is, it makes their work compose as it does.... And now to begin as if to begin. Composition is not there, it is going to be there and we are here. (498)
Nothing changes except composition the composition and the time of and the time in the composition. (502)
It is in the act of composing, and only in composing, that one notices and arranges memory; fully lives in, makes something of one's contemporary experience. This has to do with the fact that being where one is--in the present as it is continuing to complicate history--is the one thing we are certain to not understand in advance. (Or perhaps we understand nothing in advance.) It takes everything we think we know along with everything noisily! silently unknowable to form the patterns that will eventually give visibility and meaning to things.
Gertrude Stein likes to give an unfolding map (now I am here, doing this, having just done that as I move on to do this which is not that....) of the process of getting lost as she gropes and relishes her way through what Montaigne called the "changeable occurrences and contradictory ideas" of lived dailiness. In this way and through the use of repetition she presents a bounded pattern of indeterminacy. When John Cage wrote his "Lecture on Nothing," he had clearly learned from his reading of Stein that this principle could be applied to musical composition and language:
Here we are now at the beginning of the eleventh unit of the fourth large part of this talk. More and more I have the feeling that we are getting nowhere. Slowly, as the talk goes on, we are getting nowhere and that is a pleasure. It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else. (15)
Cage's essays (like all his other compositions) are experiments in forms of living one's life that are ways of not wanting to be anywhere other than where one is. In this sense they, like Stein's essays, enact a concrete utopianism that is not futuristic but is embodied in the composing moment of the contemporary. Poet and novelist Rosmarie Waldrop is also interested in the implications of contingency. She makes her skepticism about utopian thinking, idealism (and certainty) frankly manifest in "Alarms & Excursions," an essay form she invents for the "impossible" topic of politics and poetic form. In the opening paragraph of the essay, she explains her form:
"Alarums and excursions" is an Elizabethan stage term for off-stage noise and commotion which interrupts the main action. This phrase kept running through my head while I tried to think about [the] topic because all that occurred were doubts, complications and distractions. So I decided to circle around this mysterious interaction of private and public that is poetry with theses (things I believe or would like to believe), alarms (doubts), and excursions into quotes, examples, etc. I numbered the theses to give an illusion of progression which will only make their contradictions more obvious. (16)
Despite all the precautions against it, this essay does in fact turn out to be a kind of utopian enactment--a playful movement through the safety zone the essay genre provides, constructing something instructive out of the inability to make decisions (like Montaigne) or to conclude (like Adorno) or to make a systematic whole out of the notes (like Wittgenstein) while rearranging the residue of history in an unmistakably contemporary manner (like Stein and Cage). Waldrop's essay charts itself into existence so that she and the reader can at least maintain an illusion of not having gotten entirely lost in radical uncertainty. This is an interestingly Cartesian method, except that God will never appear to save the day and neither will that inflated puncturn, Q.E.D. The essay demonstrates the impossibility of demonstrating the relation between poetics and social forms.
Poet-essayist Leslie Scalapino, whose most urgent concerns inhabit a region where poetics and politics are inseparable, interestingly does not, will not, cannot operate in this way. She is perhaps our most Steinian contemporary essayist. Her form is frank in its poethos of surface unintelligibility as textual eros and new semantic geometry. The reader must map Scalapino's intellectual-imaginative sensorium by attending to odd edges in the language, poking the mind into its logical interstices. This is to explore moving principles in the palpable temporality that is an act of writing/reading. One in fact apprehends Scalapino in the act of writing a linguistic erotics whose mystery is its compelling lucidity. Her essays evoke multiple senses of time, intersections of poetics and politics--a long history of con/texts, a recent past full of local excess and global abuse displayed in the fragile surface tension of the present disappearing/reappearing unevenly at the speed of sound and light.
Scalapino acts on her own knowledge that "we don't have words at all, that "the text is erotic not simply by withholding" but insofar as it touches "the rim of occurring." How can language with its densely freighted etymologies and indebtedness to institutional inertias do such a thing? Scalapino (as essayist as poet) achieves the shimmering moment of words as forms of life through a transmission that does not attempt, or pretend, to pin things down, what she calls "writing on rim' It is this very incompleteness that brings words to life by sending them into the world as one locus of energy in an intercourse that is dependent on the seductive attraction and creation of the other. It can only happen in the context of a euphoric textual love. Here are some examples of Scalapino's writing on writing on the rim of occurring, from her book of essays on the work of selected contemporary poets, Objects in the Terrifying Tense Longing from Taking Place:
If the writing is on ('seeing') something that's real, it keeps disappearing as the occurrence, as the occurrence does. The comparison of the image to the living object is occurrence as rim of observation, in the comparison of these texts. One is seeing their observation of the object, as an image, to see.
In the reality which is created by a writing, to narrow to the outlines of its form is utter scrutiny, is real.
If we ourselves are objects in the terrifying tense, our writing reflects the object of oneself. It reflects back the object seen through 'their' eyes to 'them'.
Now not as 'doctrine one can't cleave to or be 'masculine' 'tradition' which is non-existent as we're together floating with real individuals. This is the only love. There is no separation between essay and poetry. (17)
For Scalapino, "the form is the occurrence" and this is a contemporary enactment of Stein's composing of a contemporary time as the thing seen. Here are some passages from Scalapino's long poem, New Time, like the work of Tina Darragh, an example of an investigative poetics that conflates essay and poem:
bud-outside--but which is fully open--because outside of one as occurring lightly
a 'burst' that's from one being returned to oneself- after one being away (outside). the outside is one's awareness
The writing is not narrative 'telling' the story or stories of events. Rather it is movements, a movement that was a'real' event where all is fictional as phenomena. So history is scrutinized by phenomena, observed as minute, particular--and thus 'fictive' as haphazard moving.
Biography that is not 'completed/whole' 'a life', poems, fictions, notillustrating, are not an early form, undeveloped narrative, but as mere movements are subject to scrutiny by phenomena, are 'the life's' construction per se. (18)
Scalapino's poetics of exploration along the horizon (rim) of writing (occurrence), that is, writing the rim (history) into occurrence, is experiment not in the scientific sense of tracking highly probable hypotheses but in complex wagers of luminous improbabilities moving through negative space, the constantly shifting remainders left by familiar logics. Poethical wagers are most important, operate most crucially, where existing cultural structures create inverse and distorted relations between what is desirable (just) and what is desired (drawn by seductions of power). Scalapino's work is urgently ethical, concerned as much about social injustice and the U.S. tropism toward war as the always failed attempt to invent an honest subjectivity. Her sense of the real is a double-ended telescoping of awareness in relation to language as it gives on what Kant called the "empirical self." From Objects "In so far as I noticed myself trying to change or avert reality by the writing, I had to recognize that motive, no te where it's occurring, which is fantasy"; "The current culture is produced in one as one's inner self." (19) The middle spaces, where new work can be done, is found in the gaps left by geometries of intelligibility that both create and cordon off subjective and historical silences. What is the poethics of a wager on silence? In Scalapino's case, it's a wager on meaning that can only be created between zones of intelligibility. In this realm of exploratory poetics one must count it one of life's significant projects to develop linguistic intuitions that are unintelligAbilities.
Wallace Stevens wrote to a friend, "people ought to like poetry the way a child likes snow." (20) Here's a sample of his "Snow Man":
One must have a mind of winter...
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. (21)
Lines in another Stevens poem, "Snow and Starts," could have been written for a child's ear: "The grackles sing avant the spring I Most spiss--oh! Yes, most spissantly." The "mind of winter" is a mind's eye's ear primed to enter and explore gaps normally erased by the syntactical momentum that functions as speed-set glue in every grammar. The child's synesthetic awarenesses of language have not yet been arrested. Though they lack capacities for complex thought, children recognize the dicey urgency in the off-logics of Mother Goose or Lewis Carroll. Is this literature so nourishing in its strangeness just because its humor is not about trivial things, does not try to erase difficulty? The instances of violence in M. Goose are in the hundreds; Alice in Wonderland, like much of the best children's literature is about terrifying events. To become an adult in our culture (which for most of us means to become compliantly productive) is, as Winnicott argues, to be increasingly disabled for the kinds of humorous and dire, purposeful play that creates geometries of attention revelatory of silences in all the terrifying tenses that elude official grammars. Of course, those official grammars are themselves terrifying in a different way.
The essayist takes up the child's project under difficult conditions--an irrecoverable innocence, a realization that the cultural stakes are always too high. Every essay, like every poem that is a poethical wager, creates a working ethos of attempting--to the utmost--the improbable. It must be simultaneously grave and light, taking perverse pleasure in a curious precision that illuminates its own defeat. The poethical form awkwardly, if good-humoredly, nods to its limitations as it beckons toward the reader for help. A collaborative making of meaning is its only redemption. In coformations of material agency some "we" just might create projects for a viable present despite the generic impossibility of the task. This is why the extrageneric, experimental instrument of the essay may be indispensable to the collaborative project of our humanity. The interesting question is not whether "I am" teetering but real on the rim of my writing, nor even whether "I think" a "therefore" contains any glue. It's whether, in improbably writing out of the "I am" into the thought experiment that begins with "Let's imagine" that strangely playful cognition will find the filaments of other minds.
(1.) In The New Art-The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986).
(2.) Tina Darragh, a[(gain).sup.2] st the odds (Elmwood, Connecticut: Potes & Poets Press, 1989), unpaginated.
(3.) The Complete Works of Montaigne, trans. Donald M. Frame (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1980), 72.
(4.) Barbara Stafford, Artful Science (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), 310.
(5.) Complete Works, 610-11.
(6.) For thoughts on why they mostly happen to be men see my ":RE:THINKING:LITERARY:FEMINISM:" in The Poethical Wager (Berkeley: U of California P, 2003).
(7.) D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (New York: Tavistock-Methuen, 1984), 100. Winnicott's sense that creativity (the play of the active imagination) is what brings us into meaningful contact with realities beyond subjective space is what John Dewey simply terms experience. For Dewey the function of art is to restore a vivid connectedness to the world that we too often lose in cultures that tend to produce distracted, alienated adults. Playing and Reality and Dewey's Art as Experience can be read as working on the same problem--the life worth living. Interestingly, Dewey was skeptical of the kinds of play theories of art that stressed "make believe" origins of art in dream or fantasy states. He writes, "In art, the playful attitude becomes interest in the transformation of material to serve the purpose of a developing experience. Desire and need can be fulfilled only through objective material.... Art is production and that production occurs only through an objective material that has to be managed and o rdered in accord with its own possibilities" (Art as Experience [Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1989], 284-85).
(8.) ibid 65.
(9.) Notes to Literature, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen, 2 vols. (NY: Columbia UP, 1991), 1:92.
(10.) Aesthetic Theory, trans C. Lenhardt (NY: Routledge, 1984), 262.
(11.) See Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990), particularly Chapter 3: "Structures, Habitus, Practice," for a useful tool in thinking about "climates of thought" whose omnipresence and enormous power anyone interested in innovation and change worries about.
(12.) Notes to Literature, 1:16-17; italics mine.
(13.) "Composition as Explanation' in A Gertrude Stein Reader, ed. Ulla Dydo (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1993), 497. All quotes below are from this edition.
(14.) Perhaps in contrast to Adorno's declassified zone.
(15.) John Cage, "Lecture on Nothing," in Silence (Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1961), 122.
(16.) Rosmarie Waldrop, "Alarms & Excursions" in The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, ed. Charles Bernstein, (NY: Roof, 1990), 45. For many years, first-year students at Bard College have been reading this essay with excitement in the Language & Thinking program, entering their own alarms and excursions into conversation with her text and each other.
(17.) Leslie Scalapino, Objects in the Terrifying Tense Longing from Taking Place, (NY: Roof Books, 1993), 67, 1,66,67.
(18.) Leslie Scalapino, New Time (Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1999), 11-12.
(19.) Objects, 73,74.
(20.) The letter is to Hi Simons, January 9, 1940, in Holly Stevens, ed., Letters of Wallace Stevens (Berkeley: U of California P, 1996). 349. I owe this quote to Linda Norton in whose Brooklyn Journals it appears.
(21.) The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), 9-10.
* Joan Retallack's recent works of poetry include Mongrelisme:A DifficultManual for Desperate Times (Paradigm Press) and Memnoir (Wild Honey, Ireland). Her book of conversations with John Cage, MUSICAGE, was published by Wesleyan in 1996. The Poethical Wager, and a book on Gertrude Stein are forthcoming from the University of California Press. She is John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Humanities at Bard College, where she also directs the Workshop in Language & Thinking.…