Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page

Uh-oh-oh: my flirtation with OOO

My “learned” self, out of curiosity and for the sake of its intellectual life, always has one eye on what’s happening in poetry and theory. So Amazon’s recommendation algorithm piqued my interest when it proposed The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, an anthology of contemporary European thinkers, who “depart from the text-centered hermeneutic models of the past and engage in daring speculations about the nature of reality itself.” It must have been via this recommendation I became acquainted with Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), a new philosophical movement (if not yet a school) marked by its being one of the first to come to the fore not via the traditional matrices of learned journals and conferences but on-line in what Graham Harman, who coined the movement’s name, calls the Blogopolis. Interested  but not having the time to conscientiously plunge into an immersion course in OOO I followed Harman’s lead and started to follow several blogs—Harman’s, Tim Morton’s, and Levi R. Bryant’s.

My first impressions were promising. I learned that Morton, who began his career as a scholar of British Romanticism, is the author of a widely-remarked work in ecopoetics (among others), a fan of Heidegger, and a man not unfamiliar with Buddhism in practice and theory. Harman, whose thought takes its initial impulse from Being and Time, is the author of several studies on Heidegger, both in general and more specifically. As arguably the first philosophical movement to develop its thought on-line, these thinkers have had to reflect on the writing process itself, culturing a spontaneity of formulation not dissimilar to that developed by poets with whom I am more familiar, such as William Carlos Williams, the Beats, and the Black Mountain poets (and not unimportant to my own practice, at times, as well). Finally, their work involves an explicit ecological dimension, attempting to formulate new, non-anthropocentric ways of conceiving relations and reality.

My enthusiasm began to cool, however, when Morton published  an excerpt from the conclusion of his latest book on his blog. I was troubled by Morton’s decentering the human being, grouping that “Heideggerian submarine of Da-sein” with those entities, those “objects” that “constitute all there is”, on the grounds that

[t]here is not much of a distinction between life and non-life (as there isn’t in contemporary life science). And there is not much of a distinction between intelligence and non-intelligence (as there is in contemporary artificial intelligence theory). A lot of these distinctions are made by humans, for humans (anthropocentrism).

If I understand him correctly, he is arguing against the grain of the most important insights of Being and Time, that distinguishes the being of the human being from that of all other beings and the ontological (that which explicitly raises the question of the meaning of ‘to be’) from the ontic (that which does not). It is hardly surprising that “contemporary life science” doesn’t make “much of a distinction between life and non-life” or that computer scientists and neuroscientists collapse intelligence and non-intelligence, since, in Heideggarian terms, these ontic sciences owe their  power to their presupposing that their objects are inanimate! How surprising is it that Western technoscientific culture is so lethal to other societies, organisms, and ecosystems when its worldview assumes Nature is neither living nor intelligent, that it is, as it were, dead?

One of the virtues of the early Heidegger, at least, is his project of the Destruktion of the history of ontology, the detailed, rigorous (one is tempted to write “phenomenological”) engagement with the history of Western philosophy with an eye to where, at crucial points, it has been guided by key ontological presuppositions, a project rightly renowned for Heidegger’s gift to engage the figures of the philosophical tradition as if each were a living interlocutor. When I read on Harman’s blog, then, that he agrees with Robrecht Vanderbeeken that the best way to deal with the “Berlin Wall” that stands between Anglo-American Analytic and Continental philosophy is “an agonistic pluralism” my misgivings deepened. First, anyone familiar with “Continental philosophy” will know that it is hardly a harmonious unity, because of a  long-standing mutual misunderstanding and enmity between French and German thought going back at least to the end of the Second World War. More seriously, though, even a philosophical amateur like myself is well-apprised that sincere and trenchant work has been underway for decades to articulate what these agonists—English-, French-, and German-speaking—must share in order to conflict in the first place. Here, I am thinking of the work of Dieter Henrich, Ernst Tugendhat, and especially Manfred Frank and Andrew Bowie, whose research and thought has explicitly traced the sparks that fly between the developed world’s philosophies, especially in terms of how the problems around meaning, history, and subjectivity are cast in an illuminating new light within the horizon of the epoch of their origin, i.e., the Enlightenment and its immediate critique in “Romanticism”.

It is very possible my misgivings are mistaken, based, as they are, on a perversely narrow sample of OOO thought. In my ideal library, there are shelves dedicated to the complete works of Morton, Harman, and their associates, where an avatar of mine is working diligently to register the fresh, strong, useful insights their work contains. However, as an old friend used to say when I encouraged him to look deeper into some matter not to his taste, “Life is short.” Perhaps a day will come when I, rather than my avatar, can attend more appreciatively to OOO, but, for now, my more mundane self is waiting with no little expectation for the latest additions to my Frühromantik library while taking notes on a future post on gene-tech and Poesie

Occupy All Wall Streets

Because the media in the U.S. and Canada are remiss, and not everyone’s on Facebook, it seems a public service to help publicize events on Wall Street… Bookmark it, check it out.

9/11 in poeticompositional real time

Between 16 August 2001 and  1 February 2002, I was composing a sequence, one of whose constraints required I write every day, which I managed, more or less. Curiously, the events of 9/11 left no immediate impact, rather hearing of, I think, Billy Collins’ refusal to write of the event almost a week later spurred several days of response. What follows then is five consecutive parts of what was published as “Sewn Knot” in dANDelion, Number 28, Volume 2, 2002. The original version exploits different typefaces and point sizes to create a polyphony (here lost due to WordPress’ limitations…). Given that my new book March End Prill due out  next month was composed under the same constraint, except then coincident with the invasion of Iraq, it seems not apropos to reissue, however provisionally, these stanzas.

from Sewn Knot


Big Huff—Terrorism and the Western mind stops. wozu Dichter. It is 10:19 in Montreal a Sunday. Five six days after Tuée’s Day. “Will you ever write a poem about what happened…?” “No,” quickly and emphatically. Who has been stuck a tin wreath upon? die miserably every day for lack. A bard of each side watched the battle on high ground and after agreed on a version; the Ollave rich in rhythms and myth embroidered a coat for the moment; the Wit quips “Allah’s snuff.”; the Scop might scoop up the bard harping on Beowulf’s Slaying of Grendel (ISBN 0 14 04.4268 5) / a fellow of the kings whose head was a storehouse of the storied verse whose tongue gave gold to the language of the treasured repertory wrought a new lay made in the measure the man struck up found the phrase framed rightly the deed…drove the tale rang word changes / ; Petöfi and Radnóti scribbled. —Scribes scramble laptop clay dusty clumps; reeds good kindling; one library crumbles another burns or more slowly falls in dust; what towers over the words that raised them? & that a breath as easily stopped?


Foul meat eye coffer rage. Crock the wit. Deferent citation / winces / winds a trump bone. Sick utter coroners what dare lips. Better scrawls wall owed. Raw urge it hated revel elations. Jawin’ on pat most in axe aisle. Fore gut litter chewer. Letter cheer eye cop’s latter. Ich or us or th’us spay ache swimmer saw raw twos straw. Die imbecile! ‘domicile’ ‘haunt’’s synonym. Cryptic Coptic Gnostic a craw’s tick crossed stick a crow’s trick wing glick flick kwa! kwa!  Who facade in it. A/n assured / cheap chirp. Sublimated dinosaur sotto voce. Vollied simian takes to air like a fish to strand. Heart o’ gold hard off hear to go. Hour dust any in spays. In the bug grinning wash “WORD”. —“Ten year old schoolchildren in Hanover pressed posters against their classroom windows Now bin Laden will show you what he can do!” The nation that invented chess & zero has since the seventh century plotted the West’s end infiltrated a porous open society with assassin generations just waiting for the word when only one colour will be left on the board. Frank Rogue in cuffs calls out “I stand for America all the way!” who gunned down a turbaned bearded Sikh gas station attendant & took a shot at an employee of Ali Saad & Saad Saad & an Afghan-American home. A Moroccan gas station clerk’s attacked; someone guns a car at a Pakistani woman; mosques torched from Seattle to Montreal, a Hindu temple burned down in Hamilton.—Stale some tang missung. Philosopher Consort silent in Governor General’s shadow; our rich charred roar tea of the ’’gnored / too / quiet.


Strip mine. Striped mind. Loching through rods and koans. Trenchant thought’s trough. Pry sun break. no way to make a work of Art! Litter chewer swine. / high bred / Peary plum hype rid. Dreams rise like swells salted of earth. Numberless schools shoal never to surface, e.g., Billy /(/Collins or Jori/)/ Graham. Bored by the dilemma. Mycenaean vault over a cretin maze. Fin, sail, or wing. He stomped right over the hoods of cars stopped in the crosswalk. Riding clear of / illusive / mythification. Dawnward orange sun…sparrowsuite…traffic aleatoricsoundtrack / backgroundnoise /…ceilingpipe / upstair/tap ablutions…ubiquitous towerfan…nagahyde officechair squeak…jetroar…warming brick crack and wood creak…carhonk…explosive sneeze & apologetic sigh: awl a tread of scents. Timbre sap: xylobones flowin’; wet reed leaps / ; stickdivotted skins in a crashing jungle of simples (no cur—nay, cheer—throbs the temples); elephant and treefrog trumpet / : stiff breeze of applause. Classic cull cored tête; twin fugues can veer risabley. Percussion composition for precipitation and random venue. Heaving it out with the line in five-ten time / foot in mound / (i.e., the berth chord) / : ounce more into the breach! Empyreal tailor’s Adamic Fall line. Virtual atomae variable as elements. Pillow soporific all. Two the tangs dissolved! Hysterically roughly half of us carry fishegg seawater —[…]—Bending corners.—Dog-eared year. Serious sorry series.


Hypnopomp jabs fork up into tongue out.—Eye dull rhumour dozeled bi anoughter manic keen bindery: Eider yore wit us or agin‘em! Bale a cause spear rite jabs carries over and tosses another squirming body into Searcull of Blood ‘mid the vie yell lent. Mythed ague in….bearing cog ant raisins, a skuller is never sans loot: caught between warring camps, one week no food,  Kung played on his k’in the Odesentences bleed into each other, commas stage a comeback, the language in question dialects syntax? Nor more plurality of worlds on ‘errd.—core poor rate muddle ya one or ship mayas the boughty pullatick’s had; pub lick real late shuns avail gene yes….fied huntered chainnull causemost….


Disfrig meants shore up hour runes. Elude sieve mess memory’s mummeries. Leapin’ lacunae! The boredinerry rudder re-sent fool aversion of un’s self. Bach’s Magnificat D Major BWV 243 & BWV 1083 Autumn air cools sunlit room an occasional sparrow checks the emptied birdfeeder. Canned worms best left unopened after or before best before date. Fingers’ capers. You think I care about your lousy hermeneutic when the language is speaking to me?!–… “You must lie 53 years with the Bone Maiden.” She lies on blackredbrown mud against a stonebrick wall as dark, looking seven feet tall, heavy bone, shreds of flesh like on some hamshank after hungry dinner—What ? I can’t mourn Peace? Pax packs a punch? I’m running out of cheeks to turn.—What is the heaviest thing, you heroes? so asks the weight-bearing spirit, Is it not this: to desert our cause when it is celebrating its victory?—All answers will be questioned….

Philosophy in real time

I’ve chanced on a very lively, new philosophical movement lately, Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), one of whose members, Timothy Morton, Professor of English (Literature and the Environment) at the University of California, Davis, is presently tracking the writing of his new book, live:  here is the first of four posts, already.

Critical Paths: a meander through Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bp Nichol

[Another orphan piece, the following review was commissioned by Vallum but eventually turned down because it “stepped on” on Roy Miki’s editorial toes, however lightly, at least from a scholarly point of view. Devotees of Nichol, as I note in the review, may well take exception to my evaluation of his critical writings gathered in Meanwhile. Let me be clear that I have nothing but the utmost respect for Nichol’s wildly vast and varied corpus, he wrote my favourite episode of Fraggle Rock, and, when cloning technology has been perfected, I intend to subcontract a book that would study The Martryology as a key site of conflict between the so-called humanist and posthumanist tendencies in postmodern poetry!]

The more writing on poetry by poets one reads, the more likely one is, I think, to agree with Socrates, that they know not what they do. Regardless, poets review and assay each other’s work; many, especially in North America, earn their keep passing their craft on to apprentices; others teach literature or work in what one scholar has named  “poetheory”.  In Meanwhile, editor Roy Miki has collected and collated nearly five hundred pages of bp Nichol’s critical writings. Whatever the ultimate worth of Nichol’s criticism, Meanwhile as a book is a curiously incoherent volume to have issued from the hands of a professional scholar. Its content is arranged neither generically nor even according to Nichol’s own criteria, but chronologically, from 1966 to the poet’s untimely death at 44 in 1988. Whatever the virtues or vices of such a presentation, the editorial notes mysteriously reclassify this material as interviews, visual texts, and critical writing, per se, rendering the editorial apparatus needlessly, frustratingly labour-intensive. The interviews, likely like all interviews, will delight or frustrate according to how closely a reader’s curiosities match the interviewer’s. A more serious problem is that more than a quarter of the book’s nearly two-dozen “visual texts” appeared almost a decade before in Ondaatje’s and Bowering’s bp Nichol reader An H in the Heart. Given Nichol’s profligate creative output, one regrets the redundancy and wonders how the visual pieces were chosen: certainly not because Nichol refers to them in the rest of the book. At the very least, an index would have facilitated a more hypertextual reading experience. Nevertheless, overriding all these faults is that happy truth of every book that  Socrates, again, relates to Phaedrus: readers make of a book what they will.

Fortuitously, Nichol himself suggests how one might get into and get something out of Meanwhile. In 1978, reflecting over six years’ collaboration with the Canadian journal of writing and theory Open Letter Nichol observes

But what has crept up on and surprised me is my own desire to articulate for myself a way of replying to other writing that honours my awareness of it. By this i mean […] an articulation of a particular (to this writer) understanding (and i’ll take that literally as standing under or subservient to the text) which may offer a way in for others if they choose to take it. That free choice option as opposed to critical dogma strikes me as crucial. (189 – 190)

Regardless of exactly how one might subject oneself to a text in the first place, the humble, civil generosity Nichol writes he aspires to here orients his critical approach. In any case, writing that honours will be honoured, but how? In the same editorial, Nichol goes on to distinguish two aspects in another’s work that call for a response:  “My response to another writer’s work must deal not only with a response to the content of his or her words, but a response to their gestures as I see them writ large on the page with the form the pieces take” (190). A glance at the forms of gestures Meanwhile collects reveals an impressive array of critical genres:  letters, statements, notes, reviews, critical introductions, appreciations, studies, readings, panegyrics, performances, and academic papers, among others. Notwithstanding this variety, each gesture’s ready familiarity frames the content, focussing attention on what is said. Nichol, again, guides our reading: the earliest piece in the book is a letter written 3 May 1966 to Open Letter editor Frank Davey castigating him for closing his eyes to the validity of visual poetry. In the process of pointing out the blind spots in Davey’s view, Nichol writes that in “any criticism there are always key statements around which the whole thing pivots” (16).  A key pivot of Nichol’s critical writing is the notion of the open. Nichol desires to open up the poem by removing obstacles to understanding and appreciation by rendering such obstacles absent; alternatively, Nichol seeks to bring the poem’s materiality out into the open by revealing aspects normally overlooked, making them present.

The economy that determines which texts Nichol addresses is essentially hedonistic, i.e., he writes about what “honours” or excites him. Therefore, the traditional exegetical gestures of close reading and appreciation combine. Nichol’s detailed scrutiny of work by Beckett, Marguerite Duras, Dashiell Hammet, Kerouac, Proust, Birney, and especially Gertrude Stein (to whom three major pieces are devoted) exposes the workings of their writing down to the punctuation. A vivid example of this approach is Nichol’s lecture “When the Time Came” wherein he explicates the opening paragraphs of Stein’s Ida a sentence at a time, literally drawing the reader’s attention to the writing’s workings by means of arrows and underlinings. Nichol’s presentation juggles playfulness with willfulness, reading ‘Ida’ as ‘Id/e/a’ (why not, for example, as a feminization of Id?). This unruly leap shows Nichol’s practice is closer to that of Marshall McCluhan’s “probes” (which he explicitly praises in Meanwhile) than old New Critical  explication de texte. The tour de force of these by turns lucid and ludic exegeses is Nichol’s page by page reading of Shant Basmajian’s 1978 Quote Unquote, which, along with his appreciation of Earl Birney’s Solemn Doodles and explanations of seven of his own visual poems, opens concrete or visual textuality, closed to more doctrinaire, less exploratory sensibilities. Nichol’s refined attention to poetry’s material possibilities concretizes the art — and, too, how he reads, how he replies to, other writing.  Such exemplary considered and considerate reading grants Nichol’s praise for the work of Frank Davey, David McFadden, bill bisset, and Coach House Books a solid, persuasive sincerity.

This focussed attention to the letter is matched by an equally acute grasp of language as such. An early, brief manifesto “statement, november 1966”, begins

now that we have reached the point where people have finally come to see that language means communication and that communication does not just mean language, we have come up against the problem, the actual fact, of diversification, of finding as many exits as possible from the self (language / communication) in order to form as many entrances as possible for the other

and ends “i place myself there, with them, whoever they are, wherever they are, who seek to reach themselves and the other thru the poem by as many exits and entrances as possible” (18). Nichol seeks to open channels of poetic communication outside of whatever the poem might intend to “say”. To open “as many exits and entrances as possible” Nichol manipulates the artistic material under hand:  the appearance of the written language, the vocal sounds that underwrite speech, even the workings of the book. To communicate extra-linguistically  Nichol opens the borders between poetry, painting, music, and sculpture. The poem, then, unfolded and spread out, reveals otherwise unseen sides, which become means of expression and reception. As a note from the same time says:  “i come out of the poem in as many ways as possible to get back into the person in as many ways as possible. Concrete poetry, kinetic poetry, poem sculptures, poem / objects, ideopomes, journeys, postkon, sound poetry, traditional poems…” (23)

Nichol’s desire to communicate by every means possible comes not so much from a need to express — to say — something as to make something poet and reader or audience can hold in common. In a 1974 discussion with, among others,  Pierre Coupey, Nichol remarks:

The whole reason I got into concrete […] was that I thought I was being too arrogant, that I was sitting down and I was writing and I was coming to the situation obsessed that I had something to say per se: a very didactic purpose as opposed to simply giving myself up to the process of writing. And as a result, I was not learning from the language. And the fact is, the language is there before me. I’m born into the language community. The language has a history of its own. I have things I can learn, if I sit down and let myself play with it — which is more or less the motivation behind getting into concrete, getting into sound. (154)

This interrogation of an art form and its material is in step with the avant-garde assault on inherited art, its tacit conventions,  habits, reflexes, and other automatisms. In the same interview, Nichol agrees with Daphne Marlatt who, taking stream-of-consciousness as an example, observes that techniques once novel to the point of outrageous obscurity lose their paradoxical power to reveal by alienating, as they themselves become commonplace, clichéd, worn out: “by that time it’s become a habit of thought rather than a new perception” (154). To open our eyes and ears to all poetry is, Nichol refuses to write or speak, but paints and sings in language instead. For Nichol, “language is a tool” whose nature transcends our use: to reveal that nature, he must remove language’s utility, so what it is over and above its use to our blind will stands out stark naked. The entrances and exits into and out of the poem are the ways the poem’s opaque materiality comes out into the open. After all, you can open only a door that is closed.

The palpability of language increases acutely for Nichol with his introduction to poststructuralism in the early Seventies. At first, single terms and conceptual expressions, then a whole discourse inspired by the French Theory so parodied in North America comes to accent Nichol’s critical view, which eventually comes under the sway of the paranoid critical-theoretical doctrine of the Prison House of Language. Nichol invokes this hermeneutic of suspicion in 1975 when he asks “isn’t the operative premise that a man is shaped finally by the language he uses the categories his thinking gets trapped into whatever the level of language those categories operate on” and when he targets “bourgeois notions of language as commodity” (166 -167). In 1987, he explains it this way:

We live in the midst of language, surrounded by books, and, as a result, the nature of both has become transparent to us. We look thru the books to the content inside them. We learn to speed read so that the words too can be strip mined for their information. Thus are we made more ignorant. And painting, sculpture, dance, photography, etc. ALL the so-called Fine Arts, suffer, because we look but don’t see. Once the surface of the world, of its objects, inhabitants, etc. becomes transparent to us, it quickly becomes unimportant to us as well, and things that should register — political, social, ecological — don’t. (429)

Habit and reflex spontaneously close the mind to what is or could be, in part veiling the machinations of the ideology that preys on our automatism. That we stop talking when we consider our words shows that speech flows over a bed of reflexes, thus implicating language, if not spontaneity as such, in an unconscious slavery. Ironically, then, a grave political urgency charges Nichol’s work, often ungenerously dismissed as merely amusingly playful.

In the foregoing, I’ve tried to follow Nichol’s example in his appreciation of the poetry of David McFadden:  “in truth I’ve tried not to analyze […] but to deal with my responses […], what it is […] that keeps me excitedly rereading” (415). One constant response (particular to this writer) that Meanwhile excites is a melancholy over its belatedness and consequent superfluity. My reading was marked — and often marred — by my memory’s constant spontaneous glossing of nearly every passage with the antecedent, canonical expression of its ideas. Aristotle notes in his Rhetoric, for example, that the poet has to pierce the minds of a corrupted audience, and that it is through the devices of style that such an audience can be brought to hear. The “devices” referred to in Meanwhile — including concrete, sound, and performance poetry—are provisionally mapped in the first edition of Rothenberg’s 1968 gathering Technicians of the Sacred (as much a textbook as anthology, published by the University of California Press), which places avant-garde poetics within a global context whose orbit includes the Neolithic. The endless richness and plasticity of the poem’s materiality, and a fortiori that of the world, has not gone unnoticed by phenomenologists or unremarked, for example, by Blake:  “If the doors of perception were to open the world would appear as it is Infinite.” Even the strongest pieces — the close readings and appreciations — are a sorry index of literary culture in Canada, often not transcending the level of the schoolboy exercises of an Auerbach or Curtius in Gymnasium or a George Steiner in the Lycée. Nichol’s literary theory as such is a pandemonium of howlers. One could go on: suffice to say, Meanwhile is not for the overfed.

I can hear derisive hoots and denunciations from a thousand anti-Oedipal Deleuzians rooted on their respective plateaus, that no repetition is ever of the same; at least since Rimbaud, some poets have known they are inescapably absolutely modern. Nichol concurs when, in a 1979 interview with Ken Norris, he quips concerning  charges of unoriginality: “some reviewers have said, ‘Hey that was done in Berlin in 1921’; I look at it and say ‘Yeah, well I guess it was done in Berlin in 1921, but this was done in Canada in 1965 without knowing what was done in Berlin in 1921’” (238). Books can be read too early or too late, but, luckily, often books find readers ripe. If our ready reader were a young poet, he or she would benefit from the pieces touched on here: Nichol’s 1966 “statement”, his Open Letter editorial, his excurses on notating lyric and sound poetry and on the book as a unit of composition, his close readings and appreciations. Most pertinent for a young Canadian poet are Nichol’s introduction to The Last Blew Ointment Anthology Volume 2, his reminiscences and reflections of Coach House Press “Primary Days”, and his interview with Geoff Hancock. These all recount Nichol’s experiences in composing and culturing poetry in Canada, a story in which he played no minor part. Miki and Talonbooks have therefore performed a service for young poets and Canadian letters, contributing to the more main-stream, institutional publication of bp Nichol’s corpus, which has already issued his collaboration with Steve McCaffrey Rational Geomancy, Ondaatje’s and Bowering’s reader, and a selection of his drawings.

The publication of Nichol’s oeuvre is part of the process of his canonization, a process that is discovering Nichol’s work escapes a too-ready formulaic summation. Sharon Thesen reported in the penultimate number of Sulfur (44) on the battle over whether Nichol will be represented by his more approachable if more ambivalently humanistic and courageous long poem The Martyrology or his more challenging posthumanist avante-garde and as yet largely uncollected work. That Nichol’s corpus is capable of  inciting just such pointed debate (albeit at a scholarly conference on his writing) between the two major sides of Canadian English-language poetry reveals not only a fault line in our poetic culture, but that, like a coin, Nichol’s work, when flipped, shows neither monarch nor beaver, but spins on edge and rolls between the sides competing to win the toss. As Charles Olson, an early influence, put it: the poem is a high energy construct, designed to get the charge from where the writer got it all the way over to the reader. Forgetting like a good Nietzschean for a moment the Theory I’ve read: who can, plug in & turn on.