Saturday, May 03, 2008

It Is Understood By This Time that Everything Is the Same Except Composition and Time: Joan Retallack’s The Poethical Wager

The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. It is understood by time that everything is the same except composition and time, composition and the time of composition and the time in the composition. . . . The composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living.—Gertrude Stein, “Composition As Explanation” [used as the epigraph to Joan Retallack’s The Poethical Wager]

Think what it would be to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring and the tree in fall, to stone, to cement, to plastic.—Italo Calvino, “Six Memos for the Next Millennium”

In his post, “The Moment of Interpretation and Those Carried In Its Wake,” Jeffrey wrote:
. . . it is no use doing cold history any more, one in which a disembodied *I* surveys the evidence from a dispassionate (lacking in time and place) viewpoint and renders judgment.
This kind of so-called "objective" history has, of course, been pretty soundly questioned and critiqued within historical studies itself [although it may be that, in history departments, more so than in literature departments, it is still very much believed in and practiced--I figure this out every single time I'm hanging out with historians, with some exceptions, of course!]. But I always took my guidance from work in contemporary historiography by scholars such as Dominick LaCapra who understand the importance of art in rendering historical memories and even the therapeutic mediation of those memories, but who also think [and worry] a lot about ethics and what LaCapra has described as the “intricate relation between any form of empathy and identification and critical distance” [History and Memory After Auschwitz, p. 24]. What, further, is the proper methodology for writing about the past when some notion of "what happened?” still matters, perhaps because, as Benjamin has written, the claims of the past cannot be settled “cheaply,” or because, following Edith Wyschogrod, we “stand under the judgment of the absent dead,” while at the same time, we should never forget Nietzsche’s caution, in “The Uses and Abuses of History”: “Who compels you to judge? If it is your wish—you must prove first that you are capable of justice. As judges you must stand higher than that which is to be judged; as it is you have only come later” [qtd. in Wyschogrod, “Memory, History, Revelation: Writing the Dead Other,” p. 31]. And then we might also recall Levinas’s idea that “judgment is the act of situating by reference to infinity” [Totality and Infinity, p. 240].

Admittedly, as I've shared probably way too many times on the blog here, some of these scholarly imperatives--if we want to call them that--obviously participate in some kind of theological or thaumaturgical perspective on history, and that could be a problem--after all, you can't have a "hauntology" of history without believing in ghosts and specters that are, in some sense, "alive" all the time, or else in need of being put "to rest.” You might counter by saying that you never thought, in committing your life to writing about that past that you were in charge of judging anything, and that would be fair enough up to a point, but it seems to me that a commitment to writing about the past on some level always has to grapple with what I would call the problem of memory and what Jacques LeGoff has called the “stake of memory”:
Overflowing history both as a form of knowledge and a public rite, flowing uphill as the moving reservoir of history, full of archives and documents/monuments, and downhill as the sonorous (and living) echo of historical work, collective memory is one of the great stakes of developed and developing societies, of dominated and dominating classes, all of them struggling for power or for life, for survival and advancement. [History and Memory, pp. 97-98]
But for today, I am dwelling on ljs’s comment that the conversation here as regards more experimental forms of scholarship is one we have been having for a long time now, and I myself have been obsessing of late over the idea of poetic histories, or, poetic [but also/still ethical] interventions into history, or what Dan Remein, in a seminar paper he recently wrote [“Desiring Auden Desiring Wulf and Eadwacer: Provoking a Poetics of Historiography”], calls "poetic historiography," and what Joan Retallack calls the "poethical wager." In relation to what Jeffrey writes in his post, Dan references in his paper [which is about a lot of really cool things, but mainly concentrates on making a "statement of desire" across time for the Old English poem Wulf and Eadwacer, and also involves Auden's poem "The Secret Agent”--I am planning to make this essay one of the installments in BABEL’s regular column in The Heroic Age] the thinking of John Caputo on a "poetics of the impossible" as a movement that "rises up from presence to provocation." Now, keeping in mind that Caputo's thinking is directly connected to his Christian theology, which is not a skeptical theology, to say the least [which is problematic, but let's save that fight for another day], his elaborations on this "poetics of the impossible" has a lot to say to those of us within the field of medieval studies who want to work against that cold and dispassionate way of "doing history" [and for Caputo’s “kingdom,” maybe substitute whatever you think might count as some sort of immanence in historical life, in the sense Deleuze gives to the term “immanence” in his last essay, “Immanence: A Life,” as a sort of “transcendental field” that “doesn’t refer to an object or belong to a subject (empirical representation),” but appears, rather, “as a pure stream of a-subjective consciousness, a pre-reflexive impersonal consciousness, a qualitative duration of consciousness without a self,” but which, nevertheless, also produces the self, or, “A LIFE,” which is the “immanence of immanence, absolute immanence,” which is both “an impersonal and yet singular life that releases a pure event freed from the accidents of internal and external life, that is, from the subjectivity and objectivity of what happens” (Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life, p. 25, 27, 28; my italics)]:
A poetics gives voice to the properly symbolic discourse of the kingdom, while a logic enunciates the literal discourse of the world. As a symbolic discourse, then, a poetics is a certain constellation of idioms, strategies, stories, arguments, tropes, paradigms, and metaphors—a style and a tone, as well as a grammar and a vocabulary, all of which, collectively, like a great army on the move, is aimed at gaining some ground and making a point. We might say that a poetics is a discourse with a heart, supplying the heart of the heartless world. Unlike logic, it is a discourse with pathos, with a passion and desire, with an imaginative sweep and flare, touched by a bit of madness, hence more of an a-logic or even patho-logic, one that is, however, not sick but healing . . . . [The Weakness of God, p. 104]
On the matter of “poethics,” here is Joan Retallack, who makes a convincing argument for the form of the poethical essay as a “wager”: an “urgent and aesthetically aware thought experiment” that undertakes “a particular kind of inquiry that is neither poetry nor philosophy but a mix of logics, dislogics, intuition, revulsion, wonder,” and in which essay, meaning arises from a “dicey collaboration” between the intellect and the imagination [the following remarks are made in relation to the context of a United Nations conference that was held shortly after 9/11 in Durban, South Africa and that focused on the uses of historical understanding in avoiding racism and xenophobia in the present]:
The metaphorical placement of history—as “the past” “back there” rather than “here”—is to see history as having literally “passed” out of current space-time. Could this semantically embedded misconception make the problem of linking a poetics/politics of constructive agency all the more difficult? A descriptive legitimation of memory does not change the cultural ethos or the power relations that spawn violence unless it is already enacting a poetics outside the patterns of that ethos. It’s the poetics of memory—what is made of it now—that might create a difference. It’s not that the grudge is ancient that causes volatility; it’s precisely that the language by which it is evoked is very much a present form of life, sustaining an ethos of lethal anger. This is a question of poethics—what we make of events as we use language in the present, how we continuously create an ethos of the way in which events are understood. [The Poethical Wager, p. 9]
As to the importance of better understanding how the contemporary is also always at once the historical, and also speaking directly, I believe, to Jeffrey’s desire for a form of historical writing in which he would “sweep along in [his] writing's wake those who were present in the moments gathered and brought forward,” Retallack writes,
The present is, in fact, made out of the residue of the past. What, after all, is there materially but all that is after? Light takes time to travel to the eye across the space of a room. The speed of sound is slower still. All images are after; this is their seduction and their terror—the distance they imply and traverse, the possible betrayal of one’s senses. If the cultural future is invisible until we’ve noticed what we ourselves have fashioned out of the residue—by accident, habit, intention—the act of noticing, and its transformation (all present-tense matters), may be the most relevant focal point for an aesthetic [and I, EJ, would add here that this is the most relevant focal point for a scholarly poethics]. . . . Noticing becomes an art when, as contextualizing project, it reconfigures the geometry of attention, drawing one into conversation with what would otherwise remain silent in the figure-ground patterns of history. . . . What is the work of human culture but to make fresh sense and meaning of the reconfiguring matter at the historical-contemporary intersection we call the present? [The Poethical Wager, p. 10]
In relation to my own work, I want see if I have the courage to imagine and put into practice what might be called an avant-garde and poethical scholarship, to engage in what Retallack calls “experimental adventures” that form the “inbetween-zones” of “historical residue and hope” [pp. 15, 16]. This would also mean, however, taking on the “against-all-odds project of recomposing some small portion of the habitus” [p. 17] which, to be sure, would be quite difficult, maybe even terrifying. But like Retallack, I think engaging in these experimental adventures might be crucial to happiness—“happiness as activity, as project, as agency. . . . Happiness is struggle as well as the bliss of wide-angled attentiveness” [p. 18]. I don’t think we talk enough about happiness in relation to our work.

Last night, I had dinner with my friend [and historian] Michael Moore, and we were talking about all the ways in which our discipline [medieval studies] works awfully hard sometimes to police its boundaries, deeming some work unacceptable, not necessarily because it’s poorly written or under-researched, but because it’s not about the right things [it won’t, apparently, garner an audience because that audience doesn’t yet exist or has, like, five members, or has “passed away” or is presumed to be impossible to call forth] or because it takes certain risks with form and with styles of argumentation, and we were laughing a little bit about how, in two publications on which we have collaborated together, we felt like we “got away” with some things, and it felt good. By “got away with some things,” we meant that we knew we had written and published some work, under the aegis of BABEL and our own somewhat unsupervised supervision, that likely would not “fly” in a lot of venues, but now it was out there, and it felt good to “get away with it.” In other words, we’re happy that we were able to do exactly the work we wanted to do—work that we always knew was risky and maybe even crazy—simply because we were willing to make what Retallack calls a “wager,” similar to Pascal’s wager, where he wrote,
God is, or He is not. But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions. . . . Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.
Michael and I started talking, too, about how we need more venues for scholarly publishing that would have the liberty of worrying less about outcomes and more about simply expanding the range of voices and work that could get heard. After all, even if some bad work got through, no one will end up dead [i.e., what’s the harm? don’t you want more than less?]. But this is also becoming a tiresome conversation between us. Ultimately, whether those venues do or will or will never exist, we simply must wager as Retallack argues Gertrude Stein did: “to compose authentically out of one’s contemporary situation is to live in the new time that one is taking part in making through the act of composition. Unavoidably this is to some significant extent to not know where you are going, to literally make your way with a poetics whose language leads you to see things in the changed perspective that only the present (with its new cumulus patterns) offers” [The Poethical Wager, p. 170].


Jeffrey Cohen said...

That was beautiful (I will wager). May I ask why you used the Calvino epigraph? Specifically I'm interested in the lines:

to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring and the tree in fall, to stone, to cement, to plastic

What are the limits of your wager?

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: I actually chose that quotation from Calvino, partly because it appears in Retallack's book, in the second chapter, which is an interview/conversation between Retallack and Quinta Self, in the context of their discussion of Calvino's praise of a multiplicity of epistemologies in writing and his ideas of a "hypernovel," but the real reason I chose that quote is because it seemed very apropos to how you have been talking about your "weight of the past" project, and I was thinking even more particularly of your "At Avebury" post and Alexander's comment about the stone megalith, after "listening" to it, "It knows it killed someone." And you admit in that piece that you kind of lied to your son when you said you could definitely feel/hear something in there, too, but at the same time, much of your project here, which deals with stone megaliths as well as human corpses and abandoned barrows, is about considering whether or not these artifacts of the past bear particular "messages" or how they might "speak" in their own languages, etc., and so I thought the Calvino quotation was apt for thinking about your project: how to get out of what Calvino describes as the limited perspective of the individual self in order to give speech to what, essentially, does not possess, let's say, *human* speech. And I think this would require what Retallack calls the "dicey collaboration" between the intellect and the imagination. At the same time, however you approach this project, in which you have very purposefully chosen, in a sense, the most mute and in/non-human and *pre*-historical objects and landscapes, whatever styles and forms of articulations you choose and experiment with, you're really undertaking a project that is as much about the present as it is about the past, because your very writing itself is a kind of struggle for meaning *in* the present, for articulation in what Retallack calls the historical-sontemporary present. And by thinking about your writing [your "composition"] as you are now, you are in some small measure "taking part," as Retallack argues, in making "new time."

As to the question: what are the limits of my wager [?], hmmmmmmmmm . . . one way of answering that would be to say that, in imagining the possibilities of the poethical essay, there are no limits, but in terms of the term *wager*, where limits might mean: what are the things you are betting *between* [i.e., what is at stake? for Pascal, obviously, it was partly the existence of God that was at stake, but more so, his own happiness and beliefs], or where the question might also mean: how much of yourself will you stake in this wager [?], I would say that:

1. what I am wagering *between* is a Western-centric rationalism and a more complex realist perspective [let's say, between science and art], or, between sense and meaning [explained this way by Retallack: "sense has to do with patterns and logics; meaning (which is larger than but includes this sense of sense) is what makes life worth living"]. This also means wagering for the mess of fluid complexities, every time, over the singular and straight lines of certainties. The "bet" is, that if there is an meaning at all, it will always be located in what Retallack calls "the middle spaces": inbetween the different "zones of intelligibility."

2. as to how much I will stake of myself on this wager [what I am willing to risk, what I am willing to give time- and effort-wise, etc.], I would say almost everything, because happiness depends on it, because writing is also a "form of life," and when practiced rightly, it is utopian.

But those may the right answers to the wrong questions. Perhaps you could define in more detail what you were thinking in asking about the "limits" of my wager?

Nicola Masciandaro said...

In relation to my own work, I want see if I have the courage to imagine and put into practice what might be called an avant-garde and poethical scholarship, to engage in what Retallack calls “experimental adventures” that form the “inbetween-zones” of “historical residue and hope” [pp. 15, 16]. This would also mean, however, taking on the “against-all-odds project of recomposing some small portion of the habitus” [p. 17] which, to be sure, would be quite difficult, maybe even terrifying.

Word! Way to pull back the reins on the self-entombing assumption that the end of knowledge, or the world for that matter, is a book.

And I am certainly hoping and thinking of Glossator, as an invitation to think scholarship as practice, might represent such a small reconfiguration of habitus.

Yesterday I attended a conference organized by the Brooklyn College graduate students on the theme of the new. In relation to your passages on time, work, and newness, it was inspiring to see among the presentations a lot of serious questioning of the temporality, historicity, and ontology of reading, scholarship, poetry--present textual practice. Michael Stone-Richards gave an excellent keynote address on the time of the subject. I also made some remarks you might enjoy.

See you soon!

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Woops, messed up the Glossator link.

Eileen Joy said...

Nicola: I, too, agree that Glossator is one such experimental adventure that, as you say, in some small way might help us to re-adjust out habits/habitus.

I read your comments on the "new" over at The Whim and enjoyed them very much, especially your ["objective"] description of the new as

"as an ontological threshold in the objective sense, as a liminal property of things, something between what they are and their taking place, between, in Western philosophy’s classic terms, the what and the that."

I will include here yet another [and longish quotation] from Retallack that speaks, I think, to the concerns of your post, and also invokes some of your metaphors:

"The horizon of the future is visible only as it has become that part of the very recent past we call the contemporary. The contemporary rises (as the sun doesn't) out of the residue of the past. One might even think one glimpses a thin crack of light in the near-hallucinatory state of envisioning that moment as the future breaking over the dotted line of the present. (Tear here.) This is of course image of a mirror image; the horizon is the mirror of futurity only as envisioned out of history. (Cf. Hegel: 'Philosophy concerns itself only with the glory of the Idea mirroring itself in the History of the World.') Insofar as they exist at all (in the imagination) the horizon of the future and the horizon of the past are one and the same. There is no temporal direction for gazing at the past or at the future, other than nondirectionally outward. Get up and look around as [John] Cage once said. You will see everything there is to work with right (t)here, at the conceptually contingent location of your besieged senses." [p. 14]

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Eileen. That Calvino quote really spoke to me, and I very much appreciate the thought about my own work that went into choosing it. I appreciate your gift.

As to the wager ... that is pretty much what I was asking, though in the back of my mind I always wonder if Pascal doesn't perform a crisis rather than discover one. That is, at stake in his wager are two ways of seeing the world that don't allow for a middle space ... a forking road that he resolves by saying that there really is only one choice to make, one direction to travel, even if the destination may not in fact exist. The limit of his wager though is in the frame of his question/crisis: assumptions that if God does exist, then He is good and just; that beauty and justice and happiness are aspects of the same; that divinity is aligned with reason; that divinity is singular; that divinity is just the ultimate version of enlightened humanism.

Your wager -- and, I think, Retallack's -- has more at stake, because it assumes less in its framing: the outcome is truly unknown in advance, and the choice isn't forced by the assumption that all choices amount to the same thing. That's why Nicola's insertion of a meditation on the new is so apropos.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: I completely agree with you that Pascal's wager stages an unnecessary crisis [and a binary at that] that also does not admit of a middle way. Retallack borrows her idea of "wager" from him, but also notes in her book that "Pascal's wager was framed in the computational science of his era, as our wagers must be cast in terms that construct our time."

Karl Steel said...

Another great post EJ. A couple of things strike me: you can take them are refinements, quibbles, or, better yet, interactions. And also recapitulations, rewordings, not because your words are lacking, but because I want to make them mine.

So: the emphasis on 'seeing' in the Stein quote, Calvino's call for "a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego," and, from a different post, Jeffrey's assertion that it is no use doing cold history any more, one in which a disembodied "I" surveys the evidence from a dispassionate (lacking in time and place) viewpoint and renders judgment all remind me of some recent reading.

Ralph Acampora's Corporeal Compassion, a short and very vital phenomenological take on interspecies ethics, argues repeatedly that the Cartesian subject/object separation is a kind of "psychological malady or hyperintellectual pretense" (5). Thus he does not need to argue for his phenomenology. It's anti-phenomenology that needs justification: "it is the movement toward dissociation and nonaffiliation that needs to be justified against a background of relatedness and interconnectivity" (5--see also 94). Dissociation and nonaffiliation are also a simplistic understanding of how creatures have come to be. The ongoing evolutionary process does not create us as discrete blocks of creatures--contra the Hexaemeron--but rather as interreliant: he cites Neil Evernden, "our [anthropocentrist] assumptions of separateness are unacceptably simplistic...we might more closely approximate the facts of [living] existence by regarding ourselves less as [homo-hypostatized] objects than as sets of [transpecific] relationships" (45) He also cites Kuang-Ming Wu, "we ourselves are communal first, before being individuated into isolate units" (79). And thus "cultivating a bodiment ethos of interanimality is not a matter of mentally working one's way into other selves or worlds by quasi-telepathic imagination, but is rather about becoming sensitive to an already constituted 'inter-zone' of somaesthetic conviviality" (84). We do not present each other to each other; we are already present, in a space that constitutes us and that we constitute: "What we and the great majority of other animals are to each other is not so much citizens-of-the-world as fellow- inhabitants-of-the-earth. The ones that we encounter in habitual proximity are our neighbors, literally near-dwellers" (87). From these arguments, Acampora argues for a concept of "symphysis": physis to stress bodiment, bodiment to argue against the notion of being in the body, and sym to counteract the workings of "empathy": Acampora writes, "Empathy is a force that builds bridges of identification across separation, whereas symphysis is a state or condition of merging through commonality...empathy establishes atomic or molecular connections as external relations, but internally relational symphysis has no atoms to begin with" (78).

What does this have to do with Stein and Calvino and, to a much lesser extent, Cohen? Simply put, that Stein's "seeing" must be understood as a bodied action, that Calvino's hope for a work that shatters the loneliness of the self attempts to break free of a loneliness that is actually self-deception (and here, we should understand this in the sense of a self-producing deception), and that Cohen's call for "warm" history is a call for something that, at least in some sense, has always been happening. Disassociation requires vigorous effort; loneliness must be guarded against symphysis; history, no more nor less than anything else, can only pretend to be cold. Judgment is always already engagement.

And our engagement should not imagine that we are putting anything to rest. If we do it right, we stir it up. To use Caputo's words, we "provoke." Now, Caputo writes, We might say that a poetics is a discourse with a heart, supplying the heart of the heartless world. I prefer pathos but, given my druthers, I'd choose joy as what drives my stirring up. "Heart" evidences a bias towards a central font of feeling, and "pathos" towards the notion that something sad underlies all authentic emotion. To return to an earlier conversation, it's likely not possible, in good conscience, to discover ourselves engaged with--note, NOT "study"--York 1190 without pathos. But, following so much thought here--from Benjamin, Ingham the pastoral, Jeffrey on touching and loving past times, Eileen on "holding things open," it might be possible to engage with York 1189 with some kind of joy that might, by holding pathos off, hold open the pleasures of that present moment and also the joy for what might have been and what might yet be.

Within the month, I'll read the Retallack.