Monday, May 5, 2008

How Do You Make Yourself a Zukofsky without Organs?

[The entirety of this essay has been removed; the introductory paragraph remains as a place holder.]

In her monograph of Louis Zukofsky, Sandra Kumamoto Stanley writes that the poet recognized “that no unified, transcendent, unmediated ‘I’ exists; when we seek to recover ‘LZ,’ we recover bits and pieces of Zukofsky’s life and writings, all filtered through and reconstructed in our minds” (1). Her claim, with regards to Zukofsky’s ontological stance, stems from a letter the poet wrote to his friend John Seed, which states: “I may show some interest in ‘LZ,’ whoever someone else thought he was” (1). By acknowledging multiple versions of his past Self (both as “LZ” and “someone else”) as distinct from his present Self, Zukofsky disassembles the notion of a holistic, unified Zukofsky and instead forwards a fractured and contingent multiplicity of himself. Such a diffusion of the “I” prefigures a Deleuzian metaphysics, in that the philosopher, when conceptualizing Nietzsche’s eternal return, claims that we “must lose…the resemblance of the Self and the identity of the I must perish…For ‘one’ repeats eternally, but ‘one’ now refers to the world of impersonal individualities and pre-individual singularities” (Deleuze, Difference 299). Or, as Deleuze and Guattari write in the incipient chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, the Self needs to be re-conceptualized so that we may not come to “reach the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer our selves…We have been…multiplied” (3).


TC said...

No doubt a meticulously written paper that levels a powerful apparatus of theory and criticism on its subject matter.

But I would take to task your argument that the perception of poetry as 'difficult' comes from "the reader’s lack of critical engagement." This smacks too much of an avant-garde snobbery that would alienate anyone who doesn't already 'get it' while ostensibly lamenting its dearth of allies. Also, to wholly heap the 'blame' on the audience courts a lack of rigor on the side of the poetry. In other words, it presents the opportunity for a poorly executed poem to blame its failings on an ignorant readership. Even more, aren't a lot of 'difficult' poems difficult on purpose? To eschew received notions of reading and interpretation is one of the fundamental tenets of literary avant-gardism, which is to say that the audience isn't supposed to 'get it,' at least at first. I'd say that when one is confronted with that which they're not supposed to understand is certainly a difficult situation, and through no lack of critical engagement on the audience's part.

I would also challenge the gesture to a paradigm other than that which is concerned with "meaning." You resist the idea of transcendence, but does this yearning for an asignifying subject not the very transcendence you would reject? I've read many arguments for this transcendence/shift to an asignifying literary paradigm, but the problem always is that such arguments are made in the manner that they would reject. The result tends to be, at best, a vague gesture to something by talking about that which it is not. In the end, it rubs off like a bunch of sound and fury.

I also have the more general question: what is so bad about received methods of syntax and signification that post-avant-gardism (or experimentalism or whatever you want to call it) must outright reject them? This paper invokes "the signifying regime" pejoratively, and though it does admit that signification should not be wholeheartedly abandoned, it suggests that signification will be kept on board only as a lower-class citizen. It seems a stretch to imply that there is some sort of oppression at work when people approach a text to read it in traditional ways of reading. Language itself is functional, and that is how most people approach it in a text. To imply that the signifying regime is oppressive would be like saying it's oppressive to approach a shovel as if it's to be used for digging, which, in the words of Anton Chigurra, it is. It could be argued that to quarantine language's use-value is more oppressive than to embrace it, since the former cannot be more than a purely intellectual effort with very little, if any, consequences beyond the virtual.

Of course, you do make this sort of gesture by admitting that regarding meaning, "one must engage the work on its own terms and not foist incongruent, interpretative models upon it." But this statement rhetorically depends on a straw-man version of how most of us 'signifying' folks read. It's one thing to demand that work should be approached on its own terms, but when that work eschews most ways in which its audience knows to approach it, then the work makes it so that the audience is inadequate to its terms. I find it more than a stretch to claim that the signifying folks read so reductively. I'd say we understand that language is always contextual. The kind of readers you're invoking seem to be the kind of reader that would open every book of poetry with a dictionary at hand. I don't think it's limited to poetic camp, the understanding that the word "boat" has a particular meaning in the work of one poet, or one poem, and an entirely different meaning in the work of another poet, or another poem. Or even another stanza or line. I'll conclude by asking, How can one engage a work on its own terms if the work resists terms and resists its audience's attempts to understand those terms? This sort of situation produces the very alienation it laments and uses to justify its own existence. A self-propelling machine, in that sense. But the raison d'etre seems the be an effect disguised as a cause.

Warchevski said...


I think these 3 responses address all your questions, but I might be leaving something out. Anyway, here goes:

1) I use the term "difficult" to enter into a pre-existing rhetorical situation, but make sure to state that, in fact, there is no such thing as said "difficulty." Poetry, IMO, is only "difficult" when (as you quoted already) the reader attempts to "foist incongruent, interpretative models upon it." In that sense, the only "difficulty" is in the approach. I don't think there is such a thing as "difficult" poetry. The entire term is a contrivance; perhaps, I should have made that clearer in my argument. As you mention, work perceived as "difficult" sometimes means: "To eschew received notions of reading and interpretation." Yes,but I disagree with the statement that "when one is confronted with that which they're not supposed to understand is certainly a difficult situation." Rather, I would claim that contexts that eschew immediate understanding are a) exciting and b) oppotunities to enact thought instead of relying on a previously constructed knowledge-base. "Difficult" would seem to cast these contexts into a perjorative light. I suppose I don't expound on this more overtly in the essay because it wasn't the argument in-&-of-itself, merely a contextualization of the main argument.

2) "I've read many arguments for this transcendence/shift to an asignifying literary paradigm, but the problem always is that such arguments are made in the manner that they would reject."

True, but my written argument for a particular reading of Zukofsky isn't not the act of reading Zukofsky's poems. This is a big difference. Your argument seems to conflate the two.

3) "What is so bad about receive methods of syntax and signification?"

Well, this is a Deleuzian reading, so...

According to the D&G: “the elementary unit of language—the statement—is the order-word,” which is “not to be believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience,” and every “rule of grammar is a power marker before it is syntactical marker” (Deleuze and Guattari, Thousand 76); language, in-and-of-itself, always already functions as an auditory and/or visual source of oppression. Speech acts “tell us what we ‘must’ think, retain, expect, etc” (79); and if language places particular epistemic demands upon individuals, it only stands to reason that such demands will fundamentally alter an individual’s ontology.

If one wants to approach syntax and signification uncritically, to accept pre-given epistemic and ontological propositions without thinking through them for oneself, I suppose its not a bad thing. If one finds these aspects oppressive, then I suppose it is.

Vance Maverick said...

Just a detail: you make heavyish weather of "Motet", asking

Can this be seen as a moment of a ZwO through becoming-music, becoming-violin? What of the fact that this piece is a collaborative effort? How does this alter our reading of the work? Can this piece even be properly read without musical accompaniment?

Even a glance at the score shows that it's not for violin, and not an accompaniment. It's a setting of LZ's text for four-part chorus -- it is a way for the text to be sung. (Pretty weak, musically, but that's another issue.) This is not, to put it mildly, the first instance of text-setting in Western culture. Is Campion somehow problematic?

Warchevski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Warchevski said...


Your point is duly noted, but the concept of becoming-violin, like becoming-insect, focuses on the instrumentalization of the voice (and the deterritoiralization of the refrain) as opposed to literally transforming into a physical violin. So, in that regard, the specifics of the score don't matter as much as the fact that the language has been scored, IMO. (BTW: the use of "violin," instead of "music," was more a subtle head-nod to another blogger than anything else.)

But, your comment does bring up an important point: if the language itself is already becoming-music (or "violin"), does the fact that it has been scored create an unnecessary redundancy? Or, at least, an over-done gesture towards meta-consciousness? To be honest, I don't really know and would have to examine "Motet" in more depth.

As I mentioned in the essay: "there is no one way to create a ZwO, or a BwO in general. The construction necessitates experimenting with different strata and discovering relational links between them. While section sixteen of “29 Songs” operates in interesting and exciting ways, both sonically and linguistically, by conceptualizing it through the lens of becoming-cricket, deterritorialization of the refrain, and the affective and intensive possibilities of the stutter, different ZwOs will necessitate a different network of relations to produce flow conjunctions and continuums." I placed "X" and "Motet" at the end, not necessarily for a full analysis, but only to suggest that such works necessitate different reading strategies and those employed on section sixteen won't correspond in a 1:1 ratio.

Nonetheless, I appreciate the critical feedback.