Thursday, March 17, 2011

SPICER HIS BEOWULF (ROUGH NOTES ON INSURGENT PHILOLOGY)

Nothing so postcolonial as the New Philology, but a reimagined philology that likewise dispenses with the eighteenth-century antiquarian's creepy devotion to dusty parchment and linguistically determined claims to power, race and nation. Even Thomas Jefferson was an amateur Anglo-Saxonist (recall the First Barbary War, the first US assault on the Muslim world in 1805; or, later, when Seamus Heaney's Beowulf fell from Faber like Little Boy from the Enola Gay.

Jack Spicer's Beowulf is work of a markedly different variety. Brought out as part of the CUNY Poetics Document Initiative and collaboratively edited by David Hadbawnik and Sean Reynolds, Spicer's raw and unfinished translation of the Anglo-Saxon is overwhelming. Until now — and aside from, say, his Troilus or The Holy Grail — there has been little in the whole of Spicer's formally published work that points so boldly to his scholarly investment in the Anglo-Saxon and medieval.

Hadbawnik frames Spicer's translation with an extensive introduction to the work, and what I find far more interesting than Spicer's interest in Beowulf — or any investment Duncan or Blaser had in the medieval — is Hadbawnik's interest in it all. Hadbawnik's introduction is careful work built not only on an intimate familiarity with the poetries of the Berkeley Renaissance but with medievalism as a discipline — that is, Hadbawnik comes to Spicer with formal training in Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, Medieval Latin and any other number of languages essential to a responsible appraisal of the medieval. But — and I may be wrong in assuming this — Hadbawnik's deeper, more fundamental interest appears to lie in the production of poetry and an investigation of language itself (viz. I'm not sure his desire is to participate in the practice of Anglo-Saxon or medieval studies in the same way scholars like Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Louise Fradenberg or Patricia Ingham have). So I am reminded of Alan Halsey's or Steve McCaffery's neoantiquarianism, Bill Griffith's Anglo-Saxon scholarship — or, more recently, Geraldine Monk's poetic excavation of Sheffield, Caroline Bergval's foray into Middle English, Andrea Brady's commitment to Early Modern studies, Keston Sutherland's theorization of a conceptual philology (built on a rigorous familiarity with the rise of German philology), Andrew Rippeon's attention to eighteenth and nineteenth century theorizations of lyric practice, the incredible scope of Rob Halpern's inquiries into German and French Romanticism, and Michael Cross' various interest in Icelandic sagas. All of these come to me first and foremost as poets, or poet-critics, whose scholarly commitments are given to the construction of an efficacious poetics. And this is not to say their scholarship is secondary or subordinate to their work as poets, but I do believe their scholarly work is driven by deep commitments that extend far beyond the disciplinary limits this work emerges out of.

The type of work I'm addressing here and which I see embodied in Hadbawnik's devotion to a rigorous study of the medieval and its reception across centuries — at bottom brutal, painstaking work — is something utterly singular and wholly distinct from the usual scholarship given to twentieth century or contemporary poetries. Not sure what to call it, or that it needs to be named at all, but I see this work as a sort of radically reimagined philology, oriented toward questions of language and history and fundamentally different than the more hermeneutically oriented critical work produced by poets during the 80s and 90s. This work is given to the matter of history differently than, say, the theorizations and critical work constructed by many Language poets (i.e. Silliman, Bernstein, Hejinian, Andrews, Watten). This work extends well beyond critiques of interpretive processes and, as such, the work seems — or at least feels — more contiguous with what we encounter in Prynne's commentary on Wordsworth or his critique of Saussure and structuralism. The materials of history are imagined and engaged differently; the speculative character of the work takes into its purview vast panoramas that allow for critiques of cultural tendencies and practices as they develop across centuries.

Thinking in broad strokes here — and 2007 MLA president Michael Holquist's odd call for a return to philology in the classical sense hasn't escaped me — but perhaps something more in line with Nietzsche, "We Philologists": "To make the individual uncomfortable is my task," or, earlier, commenting on the weaknesses of nineteenth century philology and the unconscious (ideology, hegemony, or culture in other languages:

It is the task of education to change certain conscious actions and habits into more or less unconscious ones; and the history of mankind is in this sense its education. The philologist now practices unconsciously a number of such occupations and habits. It is my object to ascertain how his power, that is, his instinctive methods of work, is the result of activities which were formerly conscious, but which he has gradually come to feel as such no longer: but that consciousness consisted of prejudices. The present power of philologists is based upon these prejudices ...

We might say the same about the contemporary English Department, or the humanities as a whole, or what Spicer refers to more broadly in Admonitions as "the English Department of the spirit":

It was not my anger or my frustration that got in the way of my poetry but the fact that I viewed each anger and each frustration as unique — something to be converted into poetry as one would exchange foreign money. I learned this from the English Department (and from the English Department of the spirit — that great quagmire that lurks at the bottom of us all) and it ruined ten years of my poetry.

(viz. Gavin Douglas' "Conscience": "And fra conscience the con thay clip away, | And maid of conscience science and na mair." Or the whole of the opening paragraph from Ryan Dobran's introduction to the Prynne number of Glossator:

In the ‘Preface’ to Daybreak, Friedrich Nietzsche states his preference for lento, for what Roman Jakobson would pass along to his students as the definition of philology: slow reading. Nietzsche writes: “For philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow—it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of ‘work,’ that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to ‘get everything done’ at once, including every old or new book....” There is no mistaking this model of devotion, which presumably inheres to all good philological readers: the physiological intimacy with the texts, reading with recursive parafovea, attending to obscurity with curiosity and research; all of these approximate a rough ethics of thinking the text, rather than about the text as a completed or completable event. Nietzsche’s critique of the ‘present-moment’ figure, whose speedy “work” must hasten to meet the mass allotment of task, whose epitomization of sameness would later become un-lost in the illusory image-mediation of Debord’s spectacle, is also a call for commentarial labor, which invokes the pleasure of the text, as much as it enhances perceptivity and description of those yet unmarked potentialities into which reading may move, pre-articulate feeling born of pre-representation, prior to the delimitation of paraphrasis and readerly introjection. If the slow reading of the philologist aims to complicate presumed epistemological achievement, knowledge as circumscribed locus for the residence of belief, then the speed-reading of the sensationalist requires the ideological vacuity of that which can never begin, for its historical valency is anoxic; in remission without desire for truth-claims, it bites the first idea it thinks, sloughing off the pressures of precision for quotidian ressentiment. While interpretation can end, commentary is endless.

Care or a notion of committedness — a particular type of attention — can, no doubt, stand in as an adequate substitute for slow (which I fear might elide the energy and urgency of the work at hand if construed too narrowly). The point is, I believe, as Dobran suggests, to avoid "the speed-reading of the sensationalist" that too hastily "bites the first idea it thinks" in a desperate effort to close the circuit and get on with business.