Sunday, July 11, 2010


May 26, 2010 — the day my family and I flew into San Francisco for a whirlwind tour of love and affection — I had the incredible privilege of introducing Sotere Torregian at Moe's Books in Berkeley for the launch of Envoy, a book I published a couple months earlier. Recognizing my nerves would be shot and my brain would be trash after a six hour flight from Buffalo, I hastily sketched out an introduction in advance. Here tis:


Since many of us here are more or less familiar with Sotere Torregian’s published work and the scope of his accomplishment, it might be appropriate to begin in media res—that is: we know he traces his ancestry to the Aghliabid Dynasty of Moorish Sicilian rulers and to Greece, Ethiopia, the Levant, the Maghreb and Central Aisia; we know he was a rogue figure among second generation New York School poets that contributed work to journals like Ted Berrigan’s C magazine; we know he left New York to aid in organizing the African-American Studies program at Stanford in the sixties; we know friend and fellow-surrealist Philip Lamantia provided a stunning foreword to his second collection, The Wounded Mattress, published by Oyez in 1968; we know first collection, The Golden Palomino Bites the Clock was published by Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh in 1966. What I did not know—though others may have—was that Torregian’s investment in surrealism extends well beyond the limits of North America, as far at least as Senegal, the home of Leopold Sedar Senghor, a figure with whom he has corresponded and discussed surrealist strategy. Traces of that correspondence are embedded in Envoy, a brief constellation of poems I recently had the privilege of editing and publishing. While on the surface the selection of poems in the book may seem eclectic or organized around nothing more than the accident of time, there is in fact a sense to their arrangement and the poems, both individually and as a collection, enact nothing less than Aime Cesaire’s clear sense of the poem: “What presides over the poem is not the most lucid intelligence, the sharpest sensibility or the subtlest feelings, but experience as a whole.” In Torregian we have lucid intelligence and sharp sensibility—but most importantly we have a practice that angles toward the whole of experience. Any sense of a whole—a hole—insists on a fluid and productive commerce between an “inside real” and an “out sidereal,” or what Torregian refers to in the title poem of Envoy as “the course … between the madhouse and the abyss.” And for Torregian this course is plotted and traveled by nothing less than the force of desire.

This desire—desire as the single-most essential instrument of cultural production—is palpable in Envoy. Appropriately the book is dedicated to David Gascoyne. In his Short Survey of Surrealism Gascoyne insisted that the surrealist artist maps “the image of his desires and obsessions upon the concrete, daylight world of objective reality; he actively takes part in ‘accidents.’” While I think Torregian’s sense of surrealist practice is fundamentally more dialectical than Gascoyne’s remark suggests, the extent to which Torregian brings the force of his desire to bear on the material limits of his living cannot be overstated. His very manuscripts are a testament to this force. And I say his manuscripts, NOT his published texts. By the time any of Torregian’s poems appear in print the terms of the accident have been largely washed away. Painstakingly constructed on anything from ruled notebook leaves to card stock or other materials, Torregian’s manuscripts stubbornly sabotage any attempt to reproduce the poems for wider circulation. They are an enduring performance—at one and the same time visual image and text, autograph manuscript and typescript but they are never reducible to the categories through which art is often mediated. And they violently resist reproduction. Indeed, neither faithful transcription nor facsimile reproduction can ever adequately extend any one poem of Torregian’s beyond its utter singularity. In short, these poems refuse both commodity culture and technological development— so much so that editors using digital technologies to bring out the work today encounter precisely the same difficulties editors preparing Torregian’s work for mimeo, offset and linotype reproduction must have faced in the sixties. Although we might look to the work of a figure like Blake as an analog of sorts what we immediately recognize is that Blake produced his work toward reproduction. But an accident—an accident—can only happen once. Accidents cannot be engineered—their logic refuses this—and if Torregian’s manuscripts reproduce anything through their striking singularity it is not accident itself but rather Torregian’s having taken part in accident. In other words, an envoy is never more than a representative, an agent. And if we have anything in the corpus of Torregian’s published work it is never the singularity of the work as such but an agent of desire, a visiting specter that gestures toward the uncontainable excess of the whole by pointing us toward the unfolding and interminable scene of accident.

Andrew Joron writes, “Sotere Torregian has always given his place of birth as ‘No-Man’s-Land”—a place situated between forces in opposition, where the dialectical imagination is most likely to come alive.” Located between the force of desire and the antagonistic limits of material conditions, Torregian’s poems are precisely where this imagination throws itself into being, but in published form the poems are only a trace of this becoming. And for anyone that might have the paradoxically frustrating but urgent honor of handling Torregian’s unique manuscripts, all we can hope is that the circulation of their published traces offer a navigable path toward that species of imagination given to accident.

Friday, July 02, 2010


Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold and former investment banker for Sachs and Stearns Nomi Prins offer an incredibly sobering view of the financial reform bill now touted by mainstream media as the most radical overhaul of financial regulation since the Great Depression. Although the chassy of both analyses are grounded in a clear commitment to market systems (i.e. the belief that a few bad apples rather than the fundamental structure of capital steered us into the dirt), many of the insights Feingold and Prins offer seem especially salient. For a broader and weirdly digestible perspective, see the animated excerpt of David Harvey's lecture "Crises of Capitalism":

In thinking the present financial crisis (referred to by some now as the Great Recession), the Social Structure of Accumulation theory (SSA) developed by economists Samuel Bowles and David Gordon may be useful, however incompatible SSA may be with other theoretical models (i.e. World Systems Analysis).

Cf. Contemporary Capitalism and Its Crises, ed. Terrence McDonough, Michael Reich and David M. Kotz (Cambridge UP 2010) — Samuel Rosenberg's essay "Labor in the Contemporary Social Structure of Accumulation":

Excessive consumer debt and asset bubbles preceded the onset of the current recession, the most severe of the post World War II period. Debt and asset bubbles were the direct result of the "neoliberal" social structure of accumulation [which emerges in the 1980s with the Washington Consensus, etc]. Due to stagnating real earnings and declining employer-provided healthcare benefits, families were forced to take on excessive debt to maintain their desired standard of living or to meet unexpected medical expenses. The rise in profits relative to wages and the increasing concentration of household income at the top of the income distribution resulted in a large and growing volume of funds seeking investment opportunities, be they productive or speculative. With a shortage of available investment opportunities relative to available funds for investment, conditions were ripe for asset bubbles in real estate and securities. The collapse of these asset bubbles led to the current recession.

For anyone given to cultural politics what is missing is clear: the articulation of this — and generally any SSA — economic analysis with a thoroughgoing critique of ideology and subjectivity. On the other hand, what I often find desperately lacking in cultural criticism is precisely this type of economic analysis. And despite any difficulty I may at times have with critical work by, say, Ron Silliman or Barrett Watten, it is here, on the terrain of economics, that both offer models for thinking the cultural that can be developed much further and in a wide range of productive directions (i.e. the usefulness of the painstaking number-crunching Silliman performs in the mid-eighties essay "The Political Economy of Poetry" and in recent years on his blog; or the attention Watten often devotes to modes of production in his criticism).

Thursday, July 01, 2010


National Geographics reports on the fossils of a predatory sperm whale found buried in the sand of a high desert plateau outside the Peruvian city of Ica:

Living alongside the largest sharks ever known, the raptorial—meaning actively hunting—whale measured about 60 feet (18 meters) in length, about as big as a modern male sperm whale.

But whereas modern sperm whales feed primarily on squid, Leviathan's large teeth—some of which measured more than a foot (36 centimeters) long—suggest the whale hunted more challenging prey, including perhaps its close whale relatives.

The Book of Job re leviathan:

Can you put a cord through his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook?
Will he keep begging you for mercy? Will he speak to you with gentle words?
Will he make an agreement with you for you to take him as your slave for life?
Can you make a pet of him like a bird or put him on a leash for your girls?
Will traders barter for him? Will they divide him up among the merchants?
Can you fill his hide with harpoons or his head with fishing spears?

What species of cultural imperialism allows the fossils of the most fearsome predatory whale in the world to be subsumed under the mantle of Melville when its remains were discovered far afield in Peru? What oil in the Amazon? Divided among the merchants to fuel the lights that guide.

Merchants (selling futures) do not divide. They consume (consummate), retroactively inscribing their names in bone. Melville re Ahab:

He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his heart's hot shell upon it.
Naming is too often never more than an act of appropriation. The sum is nominal. Viz. Tzvetan Todorov on Columbus, The Conquest of America:
Things must have the names that correspond to them. On certain days this obligation plunges Columbus into a veritable naming frenzy. Thus, on January 11, 1493: "He sailed four leagues to the East, reaching a cape which he called Bel Prado. From there to the southwest rises the mountain which he called Monte de Plata, which he said was eight leagues away. At eighteen leagues to the East, a quarter southeast of the Bel Prado, is found the cape which he called del Angel ... Four leagues to the East, one quarter Southeast, there is a point which the admiral called del Hierro. Four leagues farther, in the same direction, is another point which he named Punta Seca, then six leagues farther is the cape which he called Redondo. Beyond, to the East is found Cabo Frances...." His pleasure seems to be such that on certain days he gives two successive names to the same place (thus on December 6, 1492, a harborage named Maria at dawn becomes Saint Nicholas at vespers); if, on the other hand, someone else seeks to imitate him in his name-giving action, he cancels that decision in order to impose his own names: in the course of his escapade Pinzon had named a river after himself (which the admiral never does), but Columbus is quick to rebaptize it "River of Grace." Not even the Indians escape the cascade of names: the first men brought back to Spain are rebaptized Don Juan de Castilla and Don Fernando de Aragon ...

Olson, "Places; & Names" (Human Universe):

the crucialness being that these places or names
be as parts of the body, common, & capable
therefore of having cells which can decant
total experience — no selection
other than one which is capable
of this commonness (permanently
duplicating) will work

Alien objects surgically embedded in the tissues of the body. Names become the body. Not to keep it alive but to keep it functioning in a particular way. Fishing communities in Peru never produced a whaling tale on par with Moby-Dick. This much paleontologists (never Peruvian) know. Or they bring their own utensils abroad to consume the remains of a whale-eating whale that lived time out of mind, on ground before ground. Olson, Call Me Ishmael:

It is cannibalism. Even Ishmael, the orphan who survives the destruction, cries out: "I myself am a savage, owing no allegiance but to the King of Cannibals; and ready at any moment to rebel against him."