(Based on a talk given at the conference “Re-Imagining the Poetic-Critic” at the University of California, Santa Cruz,  March 13, 2010)

 

 

I will start in proper institutional fashion, with something whose meaning will become apparent most in retrospect, after I explicate while embraiding the poetical-critical concepts most frequently put before me, and which, in retrospect, may add another bit of critical dimensionality to those approaches. Name-dropping is also good. One-upping, better. And as we are in a university, potentially engaging in, as Lacan would certainly note, the discourse of the university, this something should be a thing of knowledge, previously signified, which wears a sticky veil of objective Truth and finds itself devoted to the excremental subjective other. So I will start with Kant’s formulation of radical evil in his late work, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, which, in addition to the virtues previously cited, also concerns a quaternity, poetically conceived, as well as an excresence.

 

In Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, Kant moves from a conception of evil as privation, i.e., the absence of good, made popular by Augustine, to a notion of willed evil, i.e., evil positively chosen. Given that humans have the capacity for good and evil, and that they furthermore have the ability to will evil, Kant reasoned there must be a natural propensity to evil that manifests itself in the free choice to do evil—to have our own ends, rather than moral rightness, direct our actions.1 According to Kant, “This evil is radical, since it corrupts the ground of all maxims.” Maxims being “the subjective principle of volition,”2 or the subjective imperative, as distinguished from the practical law, the objective principle of volition, or the categorical imperative. Our affirmative will to evil is thus the point at which the categorical imperative is fundamentally revealed as a maxim, not a given. For if the categorical imperative were a given, there would be no ability to choose to behave according to its principles, and therefore, as Joan Copjec has noted, Kant’s concept of radical evil also posits that “our only consciousness of the law is our consciousness of our transgression of it. Our guilt is all we know of the law.”3

 

For some time now, the poetical-critical4 landscape features, and appears to favor, the discursive/generative reading, via (1) stylistics (such as in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) and post-structuralism (such as with the one-two of Derrida/Cixous), and (2) left-liberal-leaning collaboration (such as in the works of so very many experimental duos). If we fashion a critical poetics out of these approaches, we have, on the surface, a three-chambered ecumenics of: (1a) impotency, by way of penned constellate meaning; (1b) elision, by way of the metaphoric slide, glide, and aside, and (2) reform, by way of errant liberal recombinancy. I would like to be stupidly reductive here, in part because these positions have already been dilated upon in many other fora, but more because such reductivity may telescope the problem of the law lying within, and indicate, or indict, a radically stupid response. In other words, a response of willed evil.

 

So to be reiterative and reductive: the langpo-tinctured discursive venture is not a poetics5 of pure indeterminacy, but of pure contingency, and in this sense, of failure. Failure to communicate, which is the fundamental condition of language itself, and the place where the categorical imperative—act as if communication is possible, and communication is possible—serves as maxim for most standard poetics and traditional criticism. Taking Susan Howe’s oft-cited My Emily Dickinson as emblematic of this kind of exegesis, this kind of failure may lead to greater success, as the inability to convey something creates the space to convey schools of somethings. However, the problem with Howe now (because Howe then was writing against a backdrop in which the author was a little sickly, but rigor mortis had not yet set in, and sentences like “Poetry is the great simulation of life. Poetry leads past possession of self to transfiguration beyond gender. Poetry is redemption from pessimism,” could be said without sniggering6), as I was saying, the problem with Howe now is that she forgot how she started, in other words, what happened to Gertrude Stein? In her intro to My Emily Dickinson, Howe critiques canonical criticism for forgetting Stein (though they’ve long since remembered), then Howe proceeds to forget Stein, at least the Stein of pure unparsed surface, the one who wrote a rose, meaning, in other words, a rose. Nothing more, nothing less. Nothing to be read but a rose. Similarly, those who engage in the too-liberal practice of liberal “creative” collaborations want full frontal collusion in their conflicts and contradictions, “to lay bare the individual anguish inhabiting any received form”7 by way of compounding that form, a poetics of process, not production. Deconstruction, by way of and possibly supplementary to écriture féminine, meanwhile considers the shared crest-point of philosophy and literature via the tipping-point of metaphor, again words signifying, i.e., signifying signifiers, and how the non-existent subject unsurely (and inevitably) comes to be linguistically. But those who read through Derrida through Cixous still believe that Cixous is “she,” that “Cixous” is, in other words, “Cixous.” Cixous being perhaps an alchemy or algorithm, but chock full of Cixousishness nonetheless. In other words, Cixous is a metaphor for Cixous. (Voilà = voix + là.) Because, to quote Derrida, in all this, it is necessary that there be “some minimum of readability” for “a reading to take place.”8 (Voilà = vois + là.) In other words, a rose is still a loaded gun, difference qua difference is the view via mountain bottom and top, and any form of formalism assumes that the object proper is the proper point of subjugation, or, in other words, that there is still the thing and still the thing is to be read. Thus form remains important, and words must mean something more than what they most superficially communicate. As Kant said in another theistic context, so “need is taken for insight,” and so the needs of poets and philosophers are perhaps mistaken for truisms about poetry and philosophy. Infinity, that is. Immortality. Sovereignty, even if in a minor and variant key. Reading and to-be read as acts of, if not mastery, at least virtuosity.

 

In other words, and I say this often for a reason, the question becomes whether proffering a multitude of meaning is a sufficiently ethical response. Whether proffering difference or différence is a sufficiently ethical response. Whether embedding the dialogic is a sufficiently ethical response. Whether reading itself is a sufficiently ethical response, whether there is a sufficiently ethical response. Let us assume, for purposes of this small argument, that Wittgenstein, Rancière, Riefenstahl, etc, were right and there is an ethics for every aesthetics, and vice versa. And let us assume that all of the above are certainly (and serially) an ethical response, that is to say, one ethical response among possible ethical responses, or at least a slightly allergic reaction to a kind of cloistered criticism. However, each of these propositions lies within the realm of the problem posed by me, or, better still, a solution crafted by you. That is to say, the same thing, la même choose. In other words, a cornucopia of concepts spun, like clouds of sugar, around a single stick, is still dialogic—a conversation involving the conversional and the converted, the text that, like fairground food, is to be consumed, stuck alongside its consumers and consumings. Similarly, the collaborative/recombinant poetics redouble is a kind of call and response, also dialogic, also promising some consolatory relief, necessarily bas-, and the line walked by Derrida and Cixous is walked, as Johnny Cash said, “because you’re mine.”

 

That is to say, there must be an excavation, necessarily wrenching, in addition to a radical archiving, necessarily annoying. In other words, it is not enough to walk down the Department hall, or cross a theoretical divide that is not a divide, at least not in practice. There is no art without theory, no theory without art, there is the art of theory, and it is just as impure as any theory of art. It is time to rescind all licenses and make things truly free. Which, though it sounds like a sweet liberatory call, something that ought to be issued by one with some modicum of utopianism, or at least the itch for something better than this, is more a statement of fact, designed to prod us along into the future anterior, that conditional to-be. In other words, a violent and manacled responsibility, even duty. To what? To insist that poetry is what poetry isn’t.

 

Recently, I watched a movie about the Baader-Meinhof gang, a Communist terrorist organization that was operative in Germany from 1970 to 1977, with other incarnations active until 1998, more properly known as the Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion). My father was in the Army, and we lived in Germany during that time, and I remember having to evacuate the base movie theater, the school auditorium, the commissary, having bomb-sniffing dogs board our school bus, in case one of us or the bus itself was wired to blow once we entered the base. The abstract yet quite concrete possibility of being blasted to smithereens was familiar to me, and as nonsensical and real as mandatory PE. But there was a reason in this new violence: aside from the particular philosophic demands of the group—end to American imperialism, capitalist global exploitation, etc.—there seemed to be in all this new violence a violent breaking with historical violence. The way to expunge the violence of the Nazi regime was to machine-gun the bourgeois lawmakers and Bürghermeisters of the 1970s. For wasn’t one of the basic lessons of the Third Reich itself that the law itself is no guarantee of, and in fact may operate contra, morality?

 

That law is a trick of rhetoric. So too, the idèe pre-fixe.

 

To return to the eternal: in Christian iconography, there is the quaternity of the trinity plus the evil one: deus, filius, spiritus sanctus, and satan. If moral man is imago, evil man is a-imago:  “a” as both in the sense of without morality (again, the pre-Kantian notion of evil being the absence of good) and in the sense of against morality (as with Kantian radical evil). Too, there is in this the plus as plus, meaning “more” and “no more” for which there is no English equivalent except the notion of the immaterial, which can mean that which has no corporeal presence—that which does not exist—and that which is too much present—that which is, but is irrelevant.

 

A poetics of immateriality is a poetics of radical evil. A poetics of a-poetics.

 

An a-poetics is not concerned with the lack of aesthetic or ethical good, as in insufficient quality/quantity, for that is institutional critique of the dialogic variety, one that hopes that widening the terms of the dialogue will produce more poetic goods—the subjective and objective imperatives will happily coincide. An a-poetics rather insists that, to use another numerical referent, the trinity is the new binary, and there is no dialogue, no call and response because the poem is no longer treated as a text to be read, however many ways and loose, but is cut loose altogether. The poem is simply a site of potential engagement like other works of art are simply sites for potential engagement, and there may be no “reading” just as there may be no “writing,” but a tripartite encounter with a textual surface.9 An encounter effected by what I have called a “sobject,” an entity that is neither subject nor object but anthropomorphic soup, spatio- temporally seasoned. An a-poetics, a radically evil poetics, is thus concerned with the Lacanian excrescence, or, looked at another way, the petit objet a, the excess presence, that thing within the thing you think you want. The answer to the response “what do you want of me” being wanting. Wanting in the clichéd sense of desire and absence, and also wanting in the way that want is for the sake of wanting itself, for the sake of will itself. This a-poetry underscores the constituent surplus and lack, the plus that can only be an affirmative will to evil as it freely chooses that which is not in anyone’s best interests but in the interest of want, that is to say, of will. A radically evil poetics is not exclusively or necessarily conceptual, though immateriality often figures prominently in conceptualism, and conceptualism situates the poem as such a site. Though it may be exclusive or necessary as well—it’s too soon to tell.

 

In much conceptual poetry there is no critical reading per se, because the materiality of the text is entirely surface, sometimes mirrored, like 80s apartment walls. For example, there is no “reading” of a work such as Rob Fitterman’s “Mall Directory,” a list of stores in a galleria,10 or Craig Dworkin’s “Fact,” a composition on composition in which the chemical composition of the material in which the piece is materialized is itemized, or Steven Zultanski’s Pad, a litany of every single thing in and constituting his apartment, and whether or not his dick can lift it. There is nothing to be mined from these texts, no points of constellation or dilation, no subject within which to squat. The text object simply is. The reader is, but is irrelevant. But the thinker becomes quite important. There is no direction for this thinker, no spots to think to or horizons to muse toward, but there is a place upon which to think.11

 

Poets Carr & Wunker have written that “Poetry is inherently political, & vice versa.”12 I like this vice versa: vice as in wrong, versa, as in versus. If politics is inherently poetic, then inasmuch as poetry has defined itself as a formal aesthetic device cum object for the subject, and politics is the formal constituent frame for the subject cum object, whether as normative-contingent, in Foucauldian terms or, in Kantian terms, as the formal categorical frame, then to situationally oppose the two, to put the two into non-dialogic collusion of the very worst sort, is to postulate a radically evil poetics,13 one that advocates asubjectivity while at the same time insisting on an absolute individual lack of objectivity. In other words, call all you want, baby, because nobody’s home.

 

And so many of my poetic projects are such affirmative wills to evil, in the sense they affirmatively contradict the will to the materiality of poetry by advocating a will to poetic immateriality. For, as artist Andrea Fraser has said, “What I want are other things.”14 These other things, among other things, propose a more willfully stupid institutional critique, one that I am performing here, inasmuch as I am stupidly taking Bourdieu’s advice that “the very mechanisms” of the institutions “should be used without hesitation for a critique of the dominant system of beliefs.” Which I think should apply even here, that is to say, even if those dominant beliefs are more liberal, such as the necessity for multiplicity and/or, more fundamental, for reading, or for any kind of “I.” And so, for example, I adopt Lacan’s maxim, la femme n’existe pas, and wed this to conceptual artist Lee Lozano’s Boycott piece, in which she refused to speak to women beginning sometime around 1971, a project that apparently did not end until her death, and am generating a Boycott series in which I intervene in iconic feminist texts, replacing all women with men: woman becomes man, she turns to he, feminism to masculinism, sisterhoods to more bands of brothers. And in these texts, men finally become Man, not through an act of reading or authorship or any of the constellary or otherwise universal comforts of unbridled institutional engagement, but because there’s no one here but us guys. So too, my 50K word Dies: A Sentence is nothing but baroque excess, syntactically and sensuously mirroring the (broken) linguistic and corporeal excess of war—performing along the way its own “critical obsolescence.”15 My Factory series is a series of chapbooks “by Vanessa Place,” that are being composed by other writers/artists, with no authorial input by me: I, being the one they call “Vanessa Place,” am the (immaterial) public author function. Unlike “Cixous,” “Place” is overtly a signature, the legal apparatus that acknowledges and constitutes my subjectivity—or, more properly, my sobjectivity. As Fraser has noted viz visual art, the proper name of the artist is “interior” to the art object; the artist is “locked in a structure of institutionalized subjectivity.”16 And in my Statement of Facts, in which I self-appropriate my legal writing, and unadulterated narrative accounts of sex offenses are re-presented as poetry, the rhetoric of witnessing—and what is the law if not rhetoric? and what is poetry if not rhetoric? and what is law and/or poetry if not the rhetoric of witnessing?—is overtly rendered immaterial. The bulk of these works are not necessarily amenable to exegesis or the university (or the master’s) discourse,17 they do not inherently reward a knowledge of traditional poetics except as the negative space on which these texts pop. On a material basis, they are less product than proof—of what? I.e., if the poet is immaterial, if the text is immaterial, if there is no meaning to evacuate like survivors from rooftops, if the poem is obscenely unreadable because it is dull as dishwater or redundant as daisies or hopelessly rococo as so many muffed metaphors, if the spiritus sanctus is disorientation (and by dis- orientation I mean to turn away from the orient, from the east, from the place where comes the light as regular as dawn, that time of day soldiers most fear being shot), then what is poetry.

 

Or, in other words:

(¬¬P ? P)18

 

I.e., poetry is that which occurs within the institution of poetry. That is to say, form is not inherently important, words are not necessarily significant, language is utterly irrelevant, “I”’s can be put out with impunity, there can be nothing but thick-skinned idiotic literality, and it is still poetry because it exists as poetry.

 

Ulrike Meinhof’s most famous quote was written after the attempted assassination of a student anarchist in 1968: “Protest is when I say this does not please me. Resistance is when I ensure what does not please me occurs no more.” All I know of poetry is of my transgression of poetry. Through a-poetry, radically evil poetry, poetry that cannot be poetry as poetry has been previously conceived, poetry that takes the execution of poetry quite literally and quite stupidly, there is poetry.

?

 

1 Kant, Immanuel. Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 46. Hannah Arendt famously countered Kant’s theory of radical evil with her concept of banal evil, or the administrative murderer, emblematized by Eichmann, who considered (correctly, despite Arendt’s argument to the contrary) that he was essentially Kantian in his devotion to (the categorical imperative of) duty (as morality). This opens the question of philosophy versus anti-philosophy. As described by Alain Badiou, “the simple question ‘Is mathematics a form of thought?’ organizes, subterraneously, the debate between philosophy and antiphilosophy. Why? Because if mathematical propositions think, this means there exists a saying [un dire] without experience of an object, an asubjective, regulated access to the intelligible. That being is not necessarily foreclosed to all proposition. That the act is perhaps even of a theoretical nature. Antiphilosophy challenges all this absolutely” (quoted in Peter Hallward, Badiou: a subject to Truth, University of Minnesota Press, 2003, pp. 21-22). According to Badiou, philosophy is obligated to think closely to anti-philosophy, especially to the anti-philosophy of Lacan. For anti-philosophy is im-bricated with the Real, and slips in content and the seductive possibility of Meaning.

2 Kant, Fundamental ?Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, Wilder Pubs, 2008, p.19.

3 Copjec, Joan. “Introduction: Evil in the Time of the Finite World” (Radical Evil. ed. Joan Copjec. New York: Verso, 1996, xiv). (The institutional tic here of citation and attribution is not only the appropriation of authority, but is also its perversion, insofar as the appropriate note is used to inappropriate ends. To improperly quote Ulrike Meinhoff: “If one sets a car on fire, that is a criminal offence. If one sets hundreds of cars on fire, that is political action.” Though it is also true that if one sets one hundred cars on fire, it is art.)

4 Here I would draw a vulgar equation between Joan Retallack’s poethical practice and the poetical-critical modes, described herein, which appear more à la, and my own hard-headed confusion of the apparatuses of poetic/ethic/critique. While I absolutely agree with Retallack that “essays, like poems and philosophical meditations, should elude our grasp just because their business is to approach the liminal spectrum of near-unintelligibilty—immediate experience complicating what we thought we knew” (48), and also agree that “complex thought is a political act” (49), I would insist that part of this poetical-ethical-critical complexity be not just failure, but willed failure, or, to quote Retallack quoting Cage, “to make matters worse.” (Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003, p. 46; see fn. xii.)

5 While I do not for a moment share the belief common among poet-critics that prose, or at least prose of the artful variety, is a happy union of sound and sense, or that the sentential structure is immune from enjambment or other trade-tricks that confound communication (while establishing genre identity, another form of intercourse, as noted by Agamben), or even that communication (or identity) is as easily got as all that, I agree that poetry often wears its failure to communicate on its sleeve. Or rather on its shoulders, burdensome but obligatory, a form of poesie oblige. Though sometimes too easily—the critical divide between what is truly transliterative in its potential comprehensions and what is warm goo. Of course, there is the other obscenity—clarity for clarity’ sake.

6 Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson, New York: New Directions, 2008, p. 138. Putting one in mind of:

Because painting is a game,

Because painting is the application (consciously or otherwise) of the rules of composition,

Because painting is the freezing of movement,

Because painting is the representation (or interpretation or appropriation or disputation or presentation) of objects,

Because painting is a springboard for the imagination,

Because painting is a spiritual illustration,

Because painting is justification,

Because painting serves an end,

Because to paint is to give aesthetic value to flowers, women, eroticism, the daily environment, art, Dadaism, psychoanalysis, and the war in Vietnam,

We are not painters.

Buren, Daniel, et. al. “Statement” (1967). ?See Institutional ?Critique, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson, Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 2009, p. 50.

7 As described by Emily Carr and Erin Wunker in their essay, “prefix to the pre-fix of prefixes,” presented at Re-Imagining the Poet-Critic conference held at the University of California, Santa Cruz, March 13, 2010.

8     “Il faut bien que quelque lis Dalkey Archive Press, 2010. ibilité minimale—un élément d’univocité, resistent à la surcharge de la condensation joycienne pour qu’une lecture commence à avoir lieu.” Derrida, Jacques. Ulysse Gramophone, Paris: ?Galilée, 1987, 28. ?There is a joke here (and everywhere) in quoting Derrida as textual authority, but there’s no other choice or joke to be made.

 

9 Tripartite in the sense that there is the thing, there is the??sobject engaging with the thing, and there is the site of that engagement.

10 In which a mall directory is a mall directory is a mall directory.

11 While there is inevitably some joke about whether the text is necessary
at all, or if one can just think about the text, I think this mistakenly conflates the dematerialization movement in 1960s-70s conceptual art with current conceptual claims that the writing doesn’t necessarily need to be read. As I have written about elsewhere, there is a profound difference between abandoning the object in visual art (which leaves behind its linguistic referent) and abandoning the text object in literary art (which leaves nothing behind). More to the point here, there is a difference between “reading” and having a text object—part of the problem is that many writers assume that writing is to reading as soup is to supper, an assumption Warhol debunked in 1962. Though still and all, “soup is good food.

12 Carr & Wunker, p. 1.

13 In an e-mail exchange, Joan Retallack critiqued my declarative categorization, calling my poetics simply transgressive, i.e., not evil in an ethical sense “since neither the declaration nor the practice will destroy poetries as others have known and loved them.” To be “evil,” according to Retallack, “an act or practice must have truly dire consequences—usually on a premeditated or socio-political scale”; it must be “literally demoralizing.” While she agreed with me logically, insofar as my logic involved a Nietzschean “transvaluation of values,” she disagreed with me substantively. And while I agree with her substantively, I disagree conclusively. As she rightly noted, my logical thesis remains that radical evil entails working a root harm to the system, i.e., rendering it rootless, and thus working a devastation to/demoralization of that system. However, even if I abandon this order stricto sensu and consider simply subjective effect—am I hurting something—I would still maintain that (unlike flarf, for example) conceptual poetics is radically evil because it destroys both the assumptions of and the consolations of poetry as others have known and loved poetry. Poetry is revealed as nothing but poetry: to love poetry is to love nothing on nothing’s account. Or, as Bataille wrote: “A return to reality does not imply any new acceptances, but means that one is seduced in a base manner, without transpositions and to the point of screaming, opening his eyes wide, then, before a big toe.”

14 Fraser, Andrea. “An Artist’s Statement.” Institutional Critique, p. 328.

15 Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique.” Insti-tutional Critique. 412. In this essay, Fraser also provides the following helpful definition: “Art is art when it exists for discourses and practices that recognize it as art, value and evaluate it as art, and consume it as art, whether as object, gesture, representation, or only idea. The institution of art is not something external to any work of art but the irreducible condition of its existence as art.” p. 413.

16 Fraser, “In and Out of Place.” Institutional Critique, p. 298.

17 I have elsewhere proposed that such work engages in the discourse of the slave, a literal inversion of the master’s discourse.

18 As Descartes said, “When writing about transcendental issues, be transcendentally clear.” In this spirit, it should be noted this essay advocates occasionalism over causality.

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