Wednesday, December 01, 2010

From the Aquamarine Notebook: Part Two

A few more things from the notebook. It’s small and aquamarine. And tentative. Sometimes indefensible, as well. 


For an art object to have unity, a unity must be willed by the perceiver. The reading of the art unifies disparate elements. This is why I always distrust readings (explications) of poems. They become a translation. This is not a new thought, but it’s the thought I’m having today, stuck on repeat.

Unknowable things clutter the landscape, causing us to trip.

Unity is a trick (or by-product) of form and temporality. It is written over the work at hand by the reader’s desire for a coherence, or it is abandoned if the reader feels there is going to be no coherence at the macro level. Coherence, as well as unity, is a trick (or by-product) of the frame, the form, the temporality, of the art object.

Coherence, unity, and meaning are not indivisible.

In this way, the part does not require the whole. Just as the part of the world that is the art object does not require the entirety of reality to exist, so too, one can find meaning in the art object without a need to create a unified totality of it. The parts do not need the whole.

This is obviously true, and avoided by many people.

Metaphors of unity, when relating to art, impose a false economy on what is in actuality gestural and provisional. Readings reify. I’m not thinking of deconstruction here, as I’m not interested in breakages, but in constructedness, in the fissures that bring things into a contextual relationship.

Art begins as the mystery of otherness, and ends with the mystery of the self. Parts to a whole.

The whole and unity are not indivisible.

In the way one can say “at room temperature” and mean any one of several precise measurements.

If an artwork can be called “more than the sum of its parts” we can know for certain that art is, at its finality, irrational.

If art is at its finality irrational, why should it, finally, be expected to yield to rational readings?

Is there a possibility for art beyond representation? What is beyond representation? Time itself? The future? The alterior?

For art to be successful it must be more than what it is. Exceptional art will express more than it can.

This is why Imagism / Objectivism / and Language Poetry (etc) are best in their failures. The examples ruin the poetics. In art, this is what examples must do. The goal of art is not the accomplishment of the theory or the application of the theory. That’s between you and your box of robots.

But can one regard art without presuppositions?

Art is a radical presence—metaphor is key, an irrational whole, whereas simile is attendant, rational. These are tendencies only.

Ethics in art is a presupposition. Ethics is not in the art but in the perceiver of the art (this is less true, of course, in art that is directly meant to persuade, but it is still present). The art object is static though its ethics is dynamic. Ethics requires the social. Art, even communal art, is not in and of itself social. It must be carried over by a perceiver.

Ronald Reagan's 1984 campaign used "Born in the USA" as an inspirational, pro-USA, way to get the crowd pumped-up. I found that odd. 

An ethics of art will always be contingent on the alterity of the artwork.


At 12/01/2010 5:53 AM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

Here are two quotes from my friend and mentor, Dave Lee:

"Art does not imitate life. Life imitates art. Art sets the model, and if we accept the model, then we change our lives to fit that. What I'm trying to do is create a blueprint for a pattern of dignity."

"Art is a conservative tool, a stabilizing tool. It shows what our society is at the moment. But while art itself is conservative, the approach to art must be radical. The opposite of conservative is not liberal. It's radical.The artist must retain that radical approach. Difference rather than sameness."

Any thoughts?

At 12/01/2010 6:37 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I know that is directed at John, but I'll chip in.

Regarding the first quote:

I'm not sure this kind of distinction is useful. All it does is flip the mimetic equation that Plato used to damn poets. If deconstruction has taught us anything, it's that inverting a hierarchy doesn't solve any problems.

As many issues as I have with Breton, perhaps the best thing he laid down in his Surrealist Manifestos was the desire to erase the dividing line between life and art.

Maybe we're saying the same thing, I don't know. The word "imitate" in that context just seems to exude negative connotations.

And the second:

This is much better, but I'm not sure I would juxtapose difference and sameness. I think of the binary more as difference and repetition (in Gertrude's Stein usage, so, insistence). Both are necessary and present in every work of art, be it a poem, painting, whatever.


At 12/01/2010 6:49 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I really like things like these, as I believe all conceptions of art are really conceptions of ourselves. My favorite bumper-sticker quote on this is from Jackson Pollock: "I don't paint nature, I am nature."

I don't really have proof but I have a belief that all binaries are a failure of imagination. There's always at the very least a third term that is erased, but, that said, I really like the idea of the art act as radical, even as I would want to press hard against the idea of art itself (big A art!) as conservative or stabilizing. Duchamp's fountain? Picasso's Guernica? The Waste Land? I don't know . . . maybe a further investigation of conservative / stabilizing would help. Conservative / stabilizing in what frame, what time frame, what economy?

And in Shane's iteration, the idea of diff and sameness being present . . . I've always been attracted to that position as well. I have yet to be talked out of it, but I can imagine that a work of art could exist in only one or the other mode?

At 12/01/2010 7:13 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...


That's interesting. I don't know if I'd call them failures of the imagination, but they are entirely arbitrary. One writing prompt I've been playing with lately is to pick any binary and try and break it or stretch it to some point that lands out of the black / white field of thought. It's been a lot of fun because it produces these confusing metaphors that keep getting disrupted as they fail to cohere.

Also, could you provide an example of a poem/painting/song/medium of choice that only relies on just difference or repetition? I've been trying to find one myself and haven't come up with something.

At 12/01/2010 7:44 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Nope, I can't. that's why I was saying I could imagine such a text exists, but I can't think of one. Perhaps it has to do with the terms. How can just difference exist, when the language itself relies on repetition (sameness) (conventions)? Easier to imagine is a text that would rely on only repetition, but that text would have a difficult time being anything other than a Hollywood movie. Ahem.

At 12/01/2010 9:23 AM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

Not to get lost in Tangentville, but:

"If deconstruction has taught us anything, . . ."

I am not sure it has taught me anything. And I am being completly serious here. Derrida, and Levinas, too, both give me fits, and not because of the concept of deconstruction, which I understand, but rather, I don't know what is served by it---what is gained.

I may be undervaluing deconstruction, but in my opinion, it lends itself to stopping the conversation about art, and more specifically art which is unsettling in its implications.

At 12/01/2010 9:45 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well, there is an "if" there, I see. For me, it's more how I was thinking of it in the post:

"I’m not thinking of deconstruction here, as I’m not interested in breakages, but in constructedness, in the fissures that bring things into a contextual relationship."

Deconstruction is a version of classification and division, which can be of use. That's about as far as I go with it, however. Truth is, it's difficult to keep any of these language philosophers straight in my mind. I'm just not interested enough in what they say. I keep pretending they're talking about poetry and then I'm out in the yard rubbing sticks together.

At 12/01/2010 11:01 AM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

The question, or context, in which I find most interest is that of Hegel's ideas on dialects and synthesis.

At what point is art relevant?

When does art make that leap from being what we "do" to what we "show" to what we "absorb" in our process of creating new art?

Just like we ask at what point a bushel of wheat no longer remains a bushel of wheat when we remove one grain at a time; I want to know the threshold of art.

What is the minimum effort needed in the creation process? What is the tipping point between non-art and art?

At 12/01/2010 12:16 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

"At what point is art relevant?"

I've thought a lot about this in the context of music, but if or not a work of art is relevant seems to me to have more to do with the social context around the art than it does with the art itself.

At 12/01/2010 12:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You used to write these sorts of posts more often, I think? I forgot about that until I saw this one. Are they collected somewhere?

I don't always agree with you -- maybe 50% of the time -- but they're always interesting anyway.

At 12/02/2010 6:52 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...


I agree that deconstruction more often than not drops a huge roadblock into the conversation. That being said, it is useful for exposing the hierarchies in a text, what it privileges and marginalizes, and at least giving some hint at a third option.

Regarding the dividing line of art/non-art, I think it has to do with intention. For all the shit that people talk about Jackson Pollock or John Cage, there is a real intention behind their work, which is what makes it different than some kid throwing gobs of paint at a wall or randomly fingering keys on a piano.

Even the most nihilistic of art movements, Dada, for example, have an intention behind what they produce, even if that intention is not a positive, constructive one.

When thinking about the minimum amount of effort needed to create, I immediately think of punk rock. All of those bands from the 70s had a lot of passion, but not a lot of...lets call it musicianship. They learned the basics and stuck to those. But, even today, listening to that music, you can feel how much they have on the line despite their limited ability to play their instruments. What makes that music sound so alive to this day is that intention, I think.

At 12/02/2010 6:52 AM, Blogger Michael Schiavo said...

"When art equals life there is no art, but when life equals art there are no people."

Greil Marcus

At 12/02/2010 9:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reagan's use of "Born in the USA"--not odd at all. Typical of the non-thinking, make it black or white, right or left (well, "Right," in this case)--appeal to the emotions political strategy. Springsteen never publicly supported Reagan or any political party back then, did he? He sold millions of albums, solidified an image as the "working man" wrapped in an American flag, finding his way in a broken country. Then he campaigned for Obama. Same difference?

In defense of feeling and emotion... Of course, breaking down the existing order that one perceives to be stale and rotten is as necessary as it is a stab at something new and vital, however messy. It sounds corny and overplayed at this point, but... more about the act of revolution than the lazy, uptight empire that might follow. Damn the consequences (e.g. the disillusionment that might follow). Because eventually, there's a brain-jones (not Brian Jones) for meaning out of chaos... I think the same could be said of punk, or the "spirit" of punk anyway. Which is why the lack of "proper" technique and "craft" is excusable, even required.

I think, no I feel, no I think, no I feel that...

"The true essence of poetry is revolt and desire, not the craft of literature."

--Paul Garon

Anyway, excuse me, this is my morning brain on no coffee.

--Chris D.

At 12/02/2010 9:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tangentially more on the "Boss"... Unlike Dylan, perhaps Springsteen has made a nice career out of often being reduced to a slogan, whether by himself or by others. Maybe Dylan has too, but he has the will and intent to change it, or to confuse it time and time again. Not to be melodramatic, but besides typical rock star burn out and/or death, maybe those are the options after selling zillions of albums.

--Chris D.

At 12/02/2010 9:58 AM, Anonymous Julio de Luna said...

I have placed the onyx ring of my aloneness
on layaway because I could not afford it.
I will pay for it, friends, in installments
of blood. My love! I will send you letters
tucked in the puckered anuses of panthers,
a ruse to deceive the guards! Let your hair,
that photographed cascade, fill the quarry
of my aloneness, as my finger will fill the ring
of my aloneness, one day, when I have paid for it
in installments of blood, and you are gone.

(from a forthcoming collection to be published by Red Tanagram Press this spring, entitled Will You Follow Me Into the Trees, Love, Where We Will Dally Awhile With Pink Revolvers?)

At 12/10/2010 5:51 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

"Coherence, unity, and meaning are not indivisible."

Coherence and unity are the same, are they not? If things cohere, they stick together to form one thing. So you're saying coherence and meaning are not indivisible. But what is meaning? If something means something, an idea is conveyed. If the parts of the thing don't cohere, no idea can be conveyed. A wheelbarrow can't convey a pile of dirt if the wheel and handles are detached.

An incoherent poem can mean something, but only if the reader provides coherence.

At 12/12/2010 7:10 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi David,

I disagree. I can easily imagine a text that is coherent but not unified, depending on how narrowly one wants to define "unified."

You write: "If the parts of the thing don't cohere, no idea can be conveyed." I would counter that the parts might not cohere, and therefore several meanings can be conveyed.

You write: "An incoherent poem can mean something, but only if the reader provides coherence."

The reader is always there, yes. Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is a good example of how people provide meaning.

At 12/12/2010 11:15 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Hi John. I suppose you could define "unified" so as to make a coherent but disunified poem possible. I suppose you could be underwater but not subaqueous, too--if you defined "underwater" broadly enough to include objects only partly engulfed. To my mind, however, if the elements of a poem act in concert to produce an effect in the reader, they cohere, which is to say they're unified--discrete but united, like the states of America. They may seem irreconcilably disjunctive on the surface, but if they're conjoined by a subtext--even an intuitive/emotional, hard-to-articulate subtext--they cohere, i.e., they're covertly unified, like members of a cabal who publicly pretend to be strangers.

As for "the parts might not cohere, and therefore several meanings can be conveyed," that's true. But consider this poem:



To me, this is meaningless until either the poet or the reader provides coherence. If I amend it to "Jack White played songs so danceable that the monsters in the parlor capered around until they were too exhausted to catch the ferryboat," I render it meaningful. Now it means, er, there was this parlor full of monsters, and they were, er, dancing, etc. It means exactly what it says. If I install each word in a grammatical device, they can work together to convey an idea. Or the reader could say, "This is about The White Stripes, and it alludes to 'Little Room.' Jack White wants to ride the ferryboat of nostalgia back to when, like a mad scientist, he created danceable songs ('monsters')in his little room('parlor')." Now the poem means something because the reader has mortared the word-bricks together with his own argument.

That the original poem means several things as it is--"white," "danceable," "monsters," just the denotations and connotations of those words--is true, but is this attitude conducive to good poetry? If you find this attitude necessary for writing your poetry, John, I wouldn't try to dissuade you from striking it. But does it engender poetry that helps us to enjoy and endure? Or does it just give us permission to sling some disparate words and flatter ourselves that we've produced real poetry--poetry as good as that of a poet with the talent and skill to make language coalesce in a truly meaningful way?

At 12/12/2010 12:01 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I absolutely agree that this is the fundamental question behind what people call "experimental" poetry, or Post-Avant, or Third Way, or elliptical, or The New Thing:

"... does it engender poetry that helps us to enjoy and endure? Or does it just give us permission to sling some disparate words and flatter ourselves that we've produced real poetry--poetry as good as that of a poet with the talent and skill to make language coalesce in a truly meaningful way?"

I would answer that some does and some doesn't. Rae Armantrout, I believe has no hidden story (as in the poem you use here), no erased narrative. What she writes IS what she writes, so the gaps are just that, rather than little mystery stories. At least that's how I read her work. Other poetry, though, might have other things going on, or at least leave one with the feeling that something has just been leaped over.


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