Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Notes toward an ecology of the practice of poetry

This is a talk given in Seattle on December 6 at Pilot books.

What I want to talk about is Isabelle Stengers' notion of an Ecology of Practices as a tool for thinking -- and what the implications of this might be for poetics and poetry – ie, for those who write and read and listen to it.

First as a preliminary example, I want to say that Irrational Dude viewed immanently, that is, from within its own practice, is not exactly irrational. While it’s not a fully logical machine, and it is admittedly full of fits and starts, it was an attempt to cohere or to foster its own force.

The title is a nomination from outside (my nephew’s nickname for me) – which Nico Vassilakis and I freely adopted -- which might anticipate the responses of some readers.

But it is precisely this kind of external (dismissive or critical) naming or labeling that is rejected by an ecology of practices.

Coherence is not necessarily logical, but rather it is eco-logical. Something coheres in relation to its environment.


Briefly, Isabelle Stengers is a philosopher who lives and teaches in Belgium. She wrote a number of collaborative essays on philosophy of science with Ilya Prigogine. Her influences include Deleuze and Guattari, Michel Serres, Bruno Latour and Alfred North Whitehead.

Unfortunately, her recent books Cosmopolitics (Cosmopolitiques) and Thinking with Whitehead (Penser avec Whitehead) – have not yet been translated into English. In these later works she’s still distinguishing between good versus poorly constructed science – but she moves more towards philosophy proper – using metaphysical tools to explore questions of knowledge.

For Stengers, science is inherently problematic since it typically attempts to stabilize the world.

I should say that I find Stengers very rewarding to read, but also difficult -- maybe in part because of the translation, but more likely because science was never my strong suit.

I’ll try to outline some of her underlying ideas.

1. She believes after Whitehead in the primacy of feelings and experience. The number of feelings or prehensions we experience greatly exceed our cognitive activity. There’s a lot going on below the level of cognition. Our bodies process lots of activity without alerting our minds.

This numerical superiority of feelings helps to explain the next concept which is that: we don’t own our own causes. For me this is a deeply held belief. I’ve been saying for twenty years that the words write me as much as I might write them.

Decisions are made but we’re not exactly their author.

Thus, free will is a problem. As Brian Massumi says: The skin is faster than the word. Feelings are translated and we too easily accept what arrives as our own thought. Perhaps the only free will humans have is in exercising a suspension – that is, in deciding not to act on the thought that arrives.

2. She’s interested in the Constructive (or process oriented – focused on becoming or how things change), rather than the destructive or the deconstructive (more focused on critiquing “being” or presence).

“You never construct in general, [but] always in relation with … a matter of concern.”

She’s a constructivist. She looks at how propositions (or entities or things or objects) are produced, and how these productions can (sometimes) become autonomous...

3. Constructivism is non-foundationist. That is, truth is a construction – so there is no primacy of truth. She’s against either-or propositions. It’s not the chicken or the egg, that’s a false choice. She won’t accept claims that separate themselves from the actual practice, the actual becoming.

It is along these lines, that she argues for the minor stage (or minor literature) and against the major – because the “major” always appeals to Truth (-with a capital T -- which by history’s lights must lead directly to freedom, as in: “the truth will set you free”) The minor resists this traditional form of “enlightenment” – ie, this appeal to truth.

Working from examples in the sciences, Stengers is against universalization (ie, against any world view or model) that would deny the validity of other theories and practices outside its own practice/discipline. Universalization usually denies the validity of all other theories.

She sees innovative scientific propositions as (in part) making fiction – & if the fiction is accepted, it modifies the scientific reality – in a sense it makes history.  The “what if” that drives the innovative proposition is accepted as truth -- not necessarily a good thing.

4. Stengers is very much with Latour & Whitehead & the Speculative Realists against the bifurcation of the world into two realms: the human (or culture) versus nature. This has vast implications. One way to think about this is as a denial of the distinction between how we conventionally think about subject and object. They are, in fact, hopelessly intertwined.

For Latour, it is modernism that tries to purify the world by splitting it in two. Of course this distinction gives special transcendental powers to the human: the unique ability to cross the bridge between these two worlds.

The implications for poetry here are interesting. What does poetry look like if there’s no split between human word and world? What does a non-anthropocentric poetics look like? Is it a celebration of the democracy of all objects? Along the lines of: “Hello! tree” And what would a non-modern poetry look like? A poetry that would not privilege (the human realm nor) its own language.

I’m trying to write an essay suggesting that one example of what the non-modern might look like is visual poetry, which might be enhanced by crawling out of its own pigeonhole.

C. Ecology of Practices – as a tool for thinking.

It is performative, an attempt to address itself to practitioners of a field. “To dream along with” – “in a mode that is not critical, which [does] not remind [practitioners]… of limits inherent to their activity.”

An ecology of practices addresses how practices relate to each other. (but they can only partially relate). There are no practices that can be independent of environment.

"An ecology of practices does not have any ambition to describe practices 'as they are’…. It aims at the construction of new… possibilities for them to be present or, in other words, to connect. It thus does not approach practices as they are… but as they may become."

“If there is to be an ecology of practices, practices must not be defended as if they are weak. The problem for each practice is how to foster its own force, make present what causes practitioners to think and feel and act.” …

The challenge is to think: "par le milieu" (with the milieu) which implies becoming THRU the middle (without grounding definitions or an ideal horizon—in other words, unmapped) and WITH the surroundings. No theory gives you the power to disentangle something from its particular surroundings.

Blaser’s definition of the poetic resonates here: “The poetic is the language of the mapless.”

The ecology of practices as a tool for thinking must be immanent – so to the extent that it’s a critique, it’s an immanent critique. It wants to contrast rather than oppose. In fact it wants to find the stubborn facts and (ala Whitehead) to convert oppositions into contrasts.

Finally, it wants to affirm the positive value of attachment – which is what obligates practitioners. So it asks how it is that one belongs, and how that belonging obligates you.


So, how to translate all this to the practice of poetry or poetics? Can there be an immanent critique – from within the practice of poetry?

The first step would be to situate the relevance and limits of poetic practice without engaging in critique. In other words, where are the borders with other practices and what questions matter – what questions make us think rather than re-cognize?

For poets and artists, one of the biggest questions that matter may be: how does one produce objects or poems that have lives of their own?

The next step might be to ask: what are the obligations or “attachment(s)” of a poet practitioner. How am I obligated? Frankly, I don’t know the answer – and maybe it’s not knowable.

Maybe obligation is in part about affiliations or involvements – the more of these you have, the more autonomous you become? Or are these attachments related to tradition, community or methodology?

Stengers says: Attachments are what cause us to think. So it’s probably not really pencil and paper, or keyboard and screen that makes us think. I’d suggest that what makes us think is more of an aesthetic question. There is some mysterious allure or charm in my relations and interactions with other objects/entities that causes me to think. Like an aesthetic judgment it is singular and uncategorizable.

Looking at disputes within contemporary poetics – this does cause me to think and hopefully not just to recognize what I already like or dislike. For example, why so many hated and still hate L-poetry & why the same thing seems to be happening regarding so-called conceptual/flarf poetry. I think there are clues here about how what attaches poets to poetic practice.

Looking around, it seems to me that the notion of a poet’s obligation implies a real tension between ethics and aesthetics.

According to Latour and Stengers, moderns (and post-moderns) confuse attachments with universal obligations – therefore they destroy attachments. They “feel free to define themselves as ‘nomads’, free to go everywhere to enter any practical territory, to judge, deconstruct or disqualify what appears to them as illusions or folkloric beliefs and claims.”

If one takes (and this is where I think I’m going) aesthetics as “a primordial form of relation and interaction,” in effect a first philosophy, then the obligation may be to struggle – to relate and interact. To connect. And not just to words – but to all objects /entities that one meets in the world.

Modernist (and post-modern) poets -- the ones I have most cherished -- often answer the obligation question by moving away from aesthetics toward an ethical answer.

I’ll end by walking through some quotations about poetic obligation, but first I should say that the manifesto-like answer to this rift may be to try to convert oppositions into contrasts, a phrase which I seem to be repeating. In this case, it would be to try to find an aesthetic place for ethics; an immanent place for transcendence.

E. OBLIGATION On Poets and Vice Versa

First some examples that are not foregrounding ethics:

T. S. Eliot on the ineffable: "The poet has the obligation to explore, to find words for the inarticulate, i.e., to capture those feelings which people can hardly even feel, because they have no words for them. The task of the poet, is making people comprehend the incomprehensible…"

Brodsky: to write well…

Neruda: to listen – to become a conduit… to society/others.

Afraid I might prefer Shakespeare: “The truest poetry is the most feigning...”

To aim at unachievable totality, perfect sleep, rested totality, burnt toast… Sincerely, Louie Zukofsky.

And some that are foregrounding ethics:

For Pound (Gertrude Stein’s village explainer) the obligation is to act correctly – to make new. Right poetics lead to right action.

Oppen’s obligation to the other is ethical – to take responsibility. It’s a linguistically self conscious ethics – [“ethics as a structure of relationship between self and other”]

For Reznikoff, the obligation is bearing witness to things not seen.

Horace: uses Aristotelian principles to give specific obligatory advice (like the Koran): “there should not be more than 3 speaking characters on the stage at the same time” and… “we forbid the comic poet to ridicule our citizens, under a penalty of expulsion from the country and a fine of three minae.”

Plato: It is the poet's obligation, wrote Plato, to bear witness. But if you bear false witness three times, that’s punishable by death. That is, Plato requires a personal guarantee – he distrusts writing or rather, other writers.