Thursday, November 19, 2009

WORKING NOTES: ABGRUND (AGROUND)


(Rockwell Kent's Father Mapple, 1930 Lakeside Press edition of Moby Dick)

Choir answers choir. In her notes on Jonathan Edwards and Wallace Stevens in the spring number of Chicago Review, Susan Howe comments on the contemporary critical attitudes toward Edwards that reduce him to a proselytizing mouth-foaming Father Mapple of the 1951 John Houston variety. This reduction comes with consequences, generates blind spots: "In 2008 we see through speculative knowledge and are unwilling to embrace the imaginative and aesthetic crossing he makes between our material world — the world of types — and the spiritual world as it actively flows from revelation into human history."

The order of march (from the spiritual into human history) is possibly an order of idealism difficult to reconcile, but I get the sense the material world for Howe, at least here, precisely here, is a world of, as she says, types — categories, forms, typologies, a priori subject positions, language. The flipside — the spiritual world — then might be a sort of terra firma or void beyond the horizon of these types, not a utopian space as such but a sort of ground zero or point of departure that might allow one to act on a human history legislated by types.

Like Howe's Jonathan Edwards, Amiri Baraka too is often dismissed as a pathological pulpit-climbing evangelical. And I come back again and again not to his blown up America or his Dutchman but the figure of his daughter praying in "Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note," a poem so well known I find it difficult to engage. In the poem he hears his daughter speaking but on peeking into her room sees she speaks to no one. He finds she is praying, her prayer an utterance thrown out perhaps toward the void. But before he encounters his daughter, and testifies to a very particular recognition of his daughter praying, he is swallowed Jonah-like. The poem begins with a ground that opens up and envelops him (or "the broad edged silly music in the wind").

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Looking again at Žižek's first essay in The Monstrosity of Christ, he points toward a brilliant but easily ignored material example of the ideological distance between the US and Europe:

There is a detail which, perhaps, tells a lot about the difference between Europe and the USA: in Europe, the ground floor in a building is counted as 0, so that the floor above it is the “first floor,” while in the USA the “first floor” is at street level. In short, Americans start to count with 1, while Europeans know that 1 is already a stand- in for 0. Or, to put it in more historical terms: Europeans are aware that, before we start counting, there has to be a “ground” of tradition, a ground which is always- already given and, as such, cannot be counted; while the USA, a land with no premodern historical tradition proper, lacks such a “ground”—things begin there directly with self-legislated freedom, the past is erased (transposed onto Europe).

Thinking about Badiou's refusal of one, Žižek then asks which of these is in fact the case, the European model or the American. Not surprisingly he insists neither is the case and points toward Poland (a state incidentally located in a historically nebulous border region) where buildings have no first floor, where there is only ground level (0) and above that the 2nd floor (viz, the opposite of multiplicity is zero, the void, and not one, communion). What Žižek fails to consider here in this distinction between the US and the European is the internal cultural differentiation in the US that allows a poet like Baraka, a black poet on his way to Black Nationalism and then Leninism-Marxism, to not only take account of the ground as void but surrender himself to it. And it is through his later commitments to Black Nationalism and Marxist political philosophy that Baraka maintains an on-the-way-ness toward the conditions of possibility within the ground (the space of a radical negativity) that swallows him in this early poem. This preface to suicide is the opening salvo in an ongoing and fundamentally spiritual series of disavowals that refuse what we are and move toward a deeper and long abandoned we projected into an unimagined but nonetheless possible future.

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A couple weeks ago I managed to snag Robert Bertholf's copy of Baraka's 1964 collection The Dead Lecturer at a used bookshop here in Buffalo. One of the herd thinned before Bertholf bounced to Austin. A couple of lines from Baraka's "The politics of rich painters" leap out at me:

You know the pity
of democracy, that we must sit here
and listen to how he made his money.

In "Expressive Language" — written around the same time the poems in The Dead Lecturer were composed, gathered and prepared for publication — Baraka writes:

As if Brooks Adams were right. Money does not mean the same thing to me it must mean to a rich man. I cannot, right now, think of one meaning to name. This is not so simple to understand. Even as a simple term if the English language, money does not posses the same meanings for the rich man as it does for me, a lower-middle-class American, albeit of laughably "aristocratic" pretensions. What possibly can "money" mean to a poor man? And I am not talking now about those courageous products of our permissive society who walk knowledgeably into "poverty" as they would into a public toilet. I mean, The Poor.

Front end differential. Back end standard. The poor have always known how to be poor and money means something different to an
otherwise comfortable "middle class" family fresh out of sheckles than it does to a poor family that never had any in the first place.

An economist interviewed on NPR a day or two ago claimed the US economy would have to grow at 2.5% over the next year to accommodate new bodies preparing to enter the workforce for the first time. An unlikely rate of growth that suggests unemployment will rise over the coming years.

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In "The Expanded Object of the Poetic Field; Or, W hat is a Poet/Critic?" Barrett Watten writes:

What I often find lacking, I will say, in much poetry of the present—not that it is not worthwhile in other terms, no—is a connection to the conditions of its own production. If that sounds like a prescription for what counts as aesthetic experience, again I’m s
orry. By ‘conditions’ I mean motivating factors, not surface effects that can never locate them, that dissolve in the bitstreams of channel switching or the identity profiling of data pools. The act of ‘erasure’ only gets us so far; I want to see the larger logic or motivation that makes such acts of abstraction and recombination necessary and productive, on other terms than simply as a placeholder for producers of like objects seen as a ‘community’ (maybe ‘community’ itself is one such logic; in which case let’s hope for an engaged one). But even more I am struck with the pervasive inability to read or comprehend the information one is given. We need high-level interpretants, and poetry can produce them.

A poetry turned inward not toward the ground of its being but the conditions of its production. If the figure of embedded liberalism is outward, the figure of neoliberalism is inward — a hermeneutic no measure of reason can penetrate. But reason is not
force and the legibility of the illegible is just another form of wish fulfillment.

Love turns inward (I looked up at the moon and saw pictures of me). Torque = the moment of force. "Moment" is a synonym for torque. Un momento. Torque is not force as such but the moment of force — a momen
t in time. This moment always involves leverage and relies on three quantities: 1. the amount of force applied; 2. the length of a lever's arm connecting the source of force to that against which this force is exercised; 3. the angle between the source of force and the object upon which it acts. The length of the lever is especially crucial. The length of some levers extend across centuries, even millennia. Love is a lever crimped at the fulcrum under neoliberalism. Ideology too is a lever.

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As if Brooks Adams were right. In 1967, under Olson's direction, Harvey Brown — courageous product of our permissive society — published Brooks Adams' New Empire through Frontier Press. In 1969 Brown brought out The Book of Daniel Drew, Bouck White's fictional autobiography of the financier and founder of Drew Theological Seminary (Drew University). Commenting on Drew's rise to power in an introductory note on par with Slinger, Ed Dorn writes:

It isn't done like this anymore. Not now. Now the thing, the pass, the action is made another way, shudders behind very hard shades. Perhaps reflects where you stand in your "world," the eagle flies across the convex mirror lens — dig — in the sky it's a bird, no! and while you were looking somebody nailed your big toe to the floor.

We encounter a bitterly jaded Dorn in this passage, a Dorn fresh on the ugly side of '68 and suspicious perhaps of The Book of Daniel Drew's continued relevance. Undoubtedly, as Dorn insists, the action is made another way these days and nothing registers this more masterfully than Slinger. But the collisions seem remarkably similar to trainwrecks during the rise of big industry. Point of fact: most of the work published by Bouck White, "P
astor of the Church of Social Revolution," can be viewed through Google Books (monopoly pharmakon of a chimney sweep variety; I can look up and read thousands of radical texts for free, but only as my big toe is nailed to the floor and thousands of Chinese miners die working to fuel an economy expected to expand over the next year at a rate of 8%).

In any case, I'm stunned by White's desire for an economic history of Christ's life in The Call of the Carpenter (1912):

We here address ourselves to view Jesus, the Carpenter of Nazareth, from the viewpoint of economics. Concededly a different viewpoint from that usually held. But we shall be rigorously historical. The present is not a work of the imagination. It affirms to be a piece of cool, scientific history.

Too much a socialist for the Congregationalists (he graduated from Union Theological Seminary) and too much a Christian for the socialists, White founded the Church of Social Revolution in NYC and later did a stint in prison for flag burning before the outbreak of WWI. Like Hugh MacDiarmid's contradictory nationalist and socialist tendencies, White's twin commitments to Christianity and socialism were synthesized in writings that infused biblical exegesis with a social and economic history from below informed by Engels. (I'm reminded here of Saint Cecilia or Don Arcangelo Tadini, founder of the Worker's Mutual Aid Association in southern Italy and beatified (effectively neutralized) by Pope Rottweiler earlier this year; Tadini died the year Call of the Carpenter was published.


Critiques of the theological tendencies that shape orthodox Marxism are old hat. Ditto for investigations of the socialist tendencies in scripture. But my interest in White has something to do with the possibilities contained in locating the retroactive seed of a sort of piss-and-vinegar Liberation Theology in the global north — at least the usefulness of pointing toward a Christianity in America not the Bible Belt — or a reminder to myself that it ain't always been profiteering evangelical ministers, God-fearing woman-hating war-mongering congregations and abusive priests. It helps to remember other Berrigan's as important as Ted, Anselm and Edmund — Daniel and Philip.

But I want to come back to
Žižek's Monstrosity — the figure of Christ read through Job not as the representative of God on earth but as the crest-fallen material trace of a God thrown in a moment of abandon into his own creation, a God that does not sacrifice his son but forsakes himself through a transfiguring gesture that fully disavows his power. If I read the work correctly — which I fear I don't — Žižek goes the long way around, through Hegel, to come eventually to Jean-Luc Nancy's deconstructionist position on Christianity:

Apropos of Christianity and its overcoming, Jean-Luc Nancy proposed two guidelines: (1) “Only a Christianity which envisages the present possibility of its negation can be relevant today.” (2) “Only an atheism which envisages the reality of its Christian provenance can be relevant today.”

And Žižek agrees here "with some reservations." His reservation lies in Nancy's inability to recognize the split parallactic view that frames the Crucifixion not as an event succeeded by Resurrection, but each as one and the same, a single event viewed from two different vantage points:

This is why Hegel is the Christian philosopher: the supreme example of the dialectical reversal is that of Crucifixion and Resurrection, which should be perceived not as two consecutive events, but as a purely formal parallax shift on one and the same event: Crucifixion is Resurrection—to see this, one has only to include oneself in the picture. When the believers gather, mourning Christ’s death, their shared spirit is the resurrected Christ.

For Žižek the issue extends far beyond the need for Christians to imagine the negation of Christianity or the need for an effective atheism to locate the material traces its Christian provenance. For Žižek the figure of God is fundamentally a space of relation, the space of a "shared spirit" that retroactively bodies forth an eternal and everlasting body beyond the material world and prior to man. And for Žižek the same is the case for revolution, the moment of reconciliation is located in the moment of conflict itself, in the space of relation that doesn't change reality but generates a parallactic shift in our recognition of it. It is here that I have difficulty. At its worst this logic frames effective political change as a shared (single / one) point of view, reducing an idea of revolution to a shift in consciousness and allowing one to come in through the backdoor and again subsume multiplicity. At bottom it's this notion of God not as an immanent whole within which the multiplicity of all particulars is contained but God as the willfully activated space of relation I take as a potentially useful saving grace.

Another name for the shared spirit Žižek addresses is belief — or faith.

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In Bertholf's edition of Baraka's Dead Lecturer I see a note in the margins of the poem "Duncan Spoke of A Process." Bertholf, who wrote his diss on Wallace Stevens and served as executor of the Duncan estate for many years, comments in the top left corner of the page, "Stevens / here perhaps." Toward the end of the poem Baraka confesses: "I see what I love most and will not / leave what futile lies / I have. I am where there

is nothing, save myself. And go out to
what is most beautiful.

Baraka is where there is nothing except himself. But he is also — perhaps — where there is a nothing that has the potential to save him, a nothing that is the site of a ground where he can be saved and removed to what is most beautiful, what Adorno would call the non-identical. Duncan spoke of a process, an on-the-way-ness that finds the shape of its aggressive force in the form of a surrender to the ground that envelops. Here torque is a moment, the moment of force, the moment of a shared spirit that recognizes crucifixion as resurrection.

It's appropriate here to give Howe the last word. After commenting on Steven's "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words" in her notes we find:

Poetry has no proof nor plan nor evidence by decree or in any other way. From somewhere in the twilight realm of sound a spirit of belief flares up at the point where meaning stops and the unreality of what seems most real floods over us. It's a sense of self-identification and trust, or the granting of grace in an ordinary room, in a secular time.