Monday, November 10, 2008

Radical Acts of Anachronistic, Contemporaneous Combustion: Notes Toward an Historical Poethics

Figure 1. Stanley Spencer, Love Letters (1950)


[Be sure to note below the call for submissions from Cary Howie for the special issue of L'Esprit Créateur on "sanctity"]

Let's gather firewood. We'll light a fire on the mountain.
--Pablo Neruda, from "Love Sonnet LXXVIII"

As promised, I am going to share here my talk from the GWU Symposium on "Touching the Past," and I want to thank everyone who was there for such a stimulating set of conversations just after the papers were presented and beyond, well into the evening. I also want to thank the other presenters--Peggy McCracken, Julian Yates, and Carolyn Dinshaw--for their beautiful and thought-provoking papers. I found it almost frightening how much our four papers collectively paced and fretted around certain subjects: the inter-penetration of bodies and times, the pastoral (English landscapes, especially), affective/ghostly presences, the animal and animality, queer loves/affections, anachronistic "after"-lives, and resurrections. I never really got to the "poethics" part of my presentation (not enough time to if I didn't want to shirk my attention to the images of the paintings of Stanley Spencer, and I didn't), and so I have included it here in the more full version of my paper. My conclusion draws upon some of Joan Retallack's ideas in her book The Poethical Wager, but also upon the various manifestos written by the members of Oulipo, a literary collective formed in Paris in 1960 (and still going); members have included such figures as Italo Calvino and Raymond Queneau, and I'm wondering if any of our poet-medievalists are familiar with their work (I am thankful to the wonderful R.D. Morgan for giving me as a gift their "primer of potential literature"). If you want to understand the title of this post, you will find it in the paper itself (in which I have also included the images of Spencer's paintings):

The Faded Silvery Imprints of the Bare Feet of Angels: Notes Toward an Historical Poethics

NOTE: And it goes without saying, I hope, that any constructive questions that might be lobbed my way would be considered most useful by me since this forms part of the Introduction to a book that I am trying to complete this coming semester, when I will be on a leave from teaching (and that also means "hint hint Dan and Mary Kate: can you re-articulate here some of the questions and elaborations you had for me in DC?).


dan remein said...

eileen: thanks for putting this up...I will re-peruse and re-articulate my questions within a few days I hope. In the meantime...Oulipo is a thing with which I have a certain kind of obsession. My friend (of whom you've heard much) Sarah has fed my interest. Recently, what's been of great interest is the McSweeney's 'State of Constraint' volume of Oulipo work (packaged with 2 other books help together by magnets, including a WONDERFUL volume of poetry chains (the magazines only print publication of poetry to date, I believe).

Eileen Joy said...

Dan: I did not know about the McSweeny's "State of Constraint" volume of Oulipo work, but will definitely check that out. They are a bit nutty, a la Queneau, with all of the mathematics, but I think what they were articulating in the 1960s regarding tradition and innovation is really apropos to a lot of what I have been trying to formulate myself for a long time now--by sheer serendipity, someone [R.D. Morgan, herself a poet] drops their "primer" in my lap this past summer, and it was a happy thing.

Eileen Joy said...

And the other reason I love Oulipo, of course, is for all of their ideas for the "ouvroir" [the "ou" in oulipo]: the idea of the collective laboratory, convent of nuns, sewing circle, and workroom. And I love that they reject a later semantic association between "ouvroir" and "seminaire" because it bothered them that "seminar" conjures up "stud farms and artificial inseminination; *ouvroir*, on the contrary, flattered the modest taste we shared for beautiful work and good deeds."

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I so enjoyed your paper at the "Touching the Past" symposium, and I have enjoyed it once again in its written form here. This post strikes me as yet another version of what you posted shortly thereafter, which is after all a meditation (in a slightly more lighthearted mode) on the complexities of temporality divorces from linearity.

Eileen, I think that you and I hve been approaching the same question recently, but from different directions. We're both interested in finding what in art is beyond history. We both turn quickly from the visual to the literary (Isn't it Spenser's letters that really grip you? I've known about them for a long time because you mention them so frequently in conversation). I think what youa re trying to locate in art-outside-of-history is very human: it is love. What I have been seeking is maybe a little colder: a beauty or lyricism that is ahistorical and indifferent to the human, a beauty that isn't in the end all that distinguishable from desire. I think these two things can and should co-exist, but to my mind one is the smaller and more human subset of the other.

Eileen Joy said...

Yes, Jeffrey, you are right again: I am completely swept up in Spencer's writings, even more so than the paintings [to a certain extent]. I just can't believe how much he wrote, let alone how much he expressed every aspect of his craft in them as well, his personal feelings, etc. They are quite literally one of those "reservoirs" of "creative affirmation" you mention in a comment to my other post. And I agree, too, that we are both kind of working on a similar question having to do with what art can *do* that is a bit beyond the reach of conventional histories/history, but we do, indeed, approach that question from very different angles. You are looking for something more inhuman, but I don't know if this "love" I am supposedly after [it's more like a libidinal attachment to the world, which could be called "love," but could be something that maybe even exceeds that] is necessarily not, maybe, extra-human [if not inhuman]: in excess of the human but still dependent somehow on human agency [on the artist, for example, who is human]. Unlike Karl, I do not believe that love is an ethically empty concept--I think , rather, it is a term that embarrasses us *enough* that we simply have not spent enough time delineating its ethical content. I am well aware of Sara Ahmed's powerful argument in "In The Name of Love" [in "The Cultural Politics of Emotion"] that love cannot really provide a foundation for political action or be a sign of "good" politics, but at the same time, she argues that "we must love the [political] visions we have, if there is any point to having them. We must be invested in them, whilst open to ways in which they fail to be translated into objects that can secure our ground in the world. We need to be invested in the images of a different kind of world and act upon those investments in how we love our loves, and how we live our lives, at the same time as we give ourselves up and over to the possibility that we might get it wrong, or that the world we are in might change its shape" [p. 141]. That could almost be my credo, now that I think about it.