E I R E E N E N E A L A N D ON C H A R L E S O L S O N
T O W A R D A P R O P R I O C E P T I V E P O E T I C S
A N N E X P R E S S 2 0 1 6
“Better to be a bird...they kept moving their heads so nervously to stay alive, to keep alerted to what they were surrounded by.”
Introducing proprioception in conjunction with the “open poetics” he ushered in along with the term postmodernism, Charles Olson, who some call the founder of American avant-garde poetics, wrote about a “sensibility within the organism” that works “by movement of its own tissues” using “organs [that] lie in the muscles, tendons, joints,” which “are stimulated by bodily tensions” (Collected “Proprioception” 181).1 At the time of his 1965 manifesto, few in literary communities had ever heard of proprioception, a coordinative perceptual faculty that allows humans to navigate textures, movements and shifts. Even now, when scholars have increasingly begun to look to a ‘somatic,’ ‘haptic,’ or ‘kinesthetic’ body knowledge as an important source of understanding, mentioning the
1 Charles Olson did not invent the term “postmodern” but in poetics communities of his times, he was often given credit for doing so. In fact, the term is much older. In his essay “Charles Olson and the Postmodern Advance,” Georges Butterick traces the term back to Toynbee and credits Olson with being the first to use the term to mark aesthetic qualities in poetry (5). Somewhat loosely, he describes the term as used “to distinguish the new energies appearing in American culture following WWII, from an exhausted modernism which had outrun its course” (4)
physiological faculty more readily calls up images of physical-therapy balance boards and drunk-driving tests than literature.
Olson’s claims about the aesthetic shift made possible by the physiological faculty, however, were sweeping. Writing at a time when poets focused on objective correlatives and strictly metered forms, he asserted in in his1950 manifesto “Projective Verse” that, by paying attention to tensions and releases, one could produce a poetry that cohered without recourse to traditional rhyme schemes, meters, or inherited forms (Collected “Projective Verse” 239).2 Through his proprioceptive method “the egotistical sublime” or lyric “I” upon which traditional poetry depended was to fall away, as was the lyric tradition’s understanding of poetry as gathering point for descriptions of disparate sensations tied together by subject expressing epigrammatic epiphanies (Collected “Projective Verse” 239; Lindley 3). In place of traditional poetic practices for unifying discrete sensations, he claimed, a proprioceptive poetry could produce a coherence where the only thing holding the poem together was a field “where all the syllables and all the lines must be managed in their relations to each other...[since] every element in an open poem (the syllable, the line, as well as the image, the sound, the senses) must be...seen as creating the tensions of a poem” (Collected “Projective Verse” 243)
His proprioceptive poetry, in other words, was to use juxtapositions of syllables, lines, images and, famously, the back and forth motions of the breath, to produce coherences that, far from being imposed upon their contents, arose as a form organically through the intake and discharge of the speaker’s breath, the poem’s rhythms, and any
2 I am here thinking of Robert Lowell, Robert Frost, and TS Elliot, all of whom dominated the poetry scene in terms of readings and prizes. Other poets, such as Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen and Gertrude Stein were also writing during Olson’s lifetime, however.
tensions in cultural forces embedded in them were to be referred to one another through the dynamic rebalancing—of forces within and beyond the poem—that is induced by the poem’s juxtapositional field (Collected “Human Universe” 61; Collected “Proprioception” 182). In this, the poet and reader were to be unseated from their usual roles. As carriers of culture, they (and poems, themselves) are little more than an “intermediary, the intervening thing, the inter-ruptor, the resistor” through which the poem was to pull in or dispel what it needed (Collected “Proprioception” 182). After all, Olson’s new poems did “not seek to describe, but to enact” (Collected “Human Universe” 61). All this Olson summed up in what are his most famous lines from “Projective Verse” where he enjoins poets to compose their poems through:
the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE
the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE
(Collected “Projective Verse” 242)
Past Partial Implementations of Olson’s Poetics
Following up on Olson’s manifestos, poets indeed broke markedly with the ontological and epistemological conditions of lyric poetry. Denise Levertov, who worked with Olson at the Black Mountain School, looped larger histories into her lyrics, producing poems that played with temporal continuities. Robert Creeley, who studied under Olson and carried out a lively corresponded with him, used juxtaposition to create sparse, haiku-like stanzas with rapid jump cuts. The stutters and gaps he emphasized as he read, indeed, produced a sensation of the poem as an “inter-rupter” and “resistor.” Meanwhile, New York School poets, such as Frank O’Hara, followed up on the idea of using language’s sensations, created sprawling lines that followed the juxtapositional
rhythms of everyday speech. Beat Poets, likewise, changed and sung to find their own self-cohering forms. The lyric ‘I’ proved difficult to dispense with, however. As a result, one did not see anything like a ‘field’ in the new American poetry until Language Poets such as Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, and Michael Palmer allowed structuring structures—architectonic conditions of possibility such as grammar, to override the coherence associated with conscious comprehension and lyric subjectivity.3
In her essay, “The Rejection of Closure” (2000), Lyn Hejinian provides what is perhaps the best explanation of Olson’s projective verse, when she suggests that in an ‘open text” with a “vertical intensity” and “horizontal extensivity” allows a “psychology [to be] generated” through the poem (Inquiry 44, 49). Like Olson, Hejinian suggests that “complex forms of juxtaposition” will play an important part in generating the produced psychology. Suggesting the inclusion of “di-verse, particular, and contradictory elements” multi-directional pulls as a means for producing tensions, Hejinian writes, that poems, where “ideas cross the landscape and become the horizon and weather” might “prevent the work from disintegrating into its separate parts—scattering sentence-rubble haphazardly on the waste heap” (42, 44). Perhaps because she and other Language poets’ poetics were so frequently limited to a play with grammar and syntax, however, it is unclear whether her suggestions were ever implemented, or whether their poetic implications would be recognizable if they were. After all, most of Language poetry’s most physiologically-oriented works, among them Leslie Scalapino’s numerous dance
3 Michael Palmer is often associated with Language Poetry, but he frequently differentiates himself from this movement by stating that he is less systematic (Poetry Foundation “Michael Palmer”). Among his other influences were Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley. He met both in the early sixties and in his work there is more of a tendency to play with multiple grammars than in early Language poetry (Poetry Foundation “Michael Palmer”).
pieces and Carla Harryman’s theatrical works, and a later poet’s theater tradition, were left unanalyzed in terms of the psychologies they generated.
Nor has Robert Duncan, the poet said to have most closely followed up on Olson’s work, ever been discussed in physiological terms.4 5 Duncan, who in 1960 published The Opening of the Field, follows up on Olson’s teachings through an easy movement between pictures and words, a play with law, and a mix of mythology and mysticism.. Far from producing a picture of the state of the world, its gaps and jumps allow the reader to interact with the poem using multiple parts of the body and responding with a full range of sensation, imagination, memory and desire (Open Universe 145; Coyote’s 13). Still, analysts are more likely to connect Duncan’s work with Pound’s than Olson’s. Olson’s works, too, are traced back to Einstein, or to an ontological interest in Alfred Lord North Whitehead, which while exploring a new form of coherence does little explore the physiological implications of Olson’s work (Cooley 66; Maud 43).6 As a result, Olson’s, Duncan’s and others’ disjunctive works are frequently said to cohere only by means of a vague, mystical religious made possible by the poet’s authorial experiences (Aiken 26; Moebius 18; Cooley 66; Finkelstein 342).
Yet, Olson’s point in “Proprioception” is that in order to accomplish the full scale
4 Or perhaps I am too hasty. Leslie Scalapino’s numerous dance works, among them Flow-Winged Crocodile and The Tango might easily be called proprioceptive. Carla Harryman performed multiple theatrical pieces directly addressed to senses. A poet’s theater tradition developed in part by Language poets frequently reaches into some of Olson’s teachings about proprioception.
5 Again, I am excluding many possibilities here. Arguably Beat poets, such as Allen Ginsberg, Diane Di Prima and Bob Kaufman, also produced poetic fields through their ritualistic performances of poems like Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Di Prima’s “Revolutionary Letter 14,” or Kaufman’s “Believe, Believe.” Doubtless I could find others. However, these works, like Olson’s and Duncan’s works, have yet to be analyzed in physiological terms.
6 Both claims can be substantiated. Einstein lectured at the Black Mountain School Olson explicitly mentions Einstein’s writing in his letters and Whitehead in both letters and lectures. As my dissertation will explain Olson added something important to the work done by both of these thinkers by exploring the physiological and poetic problems to be associated with the field of Einstein’s field equations and movements of Whitehead’s process philosophy.
epistemological, ontological, eidetic and aesthetic shifts he proposes in his early manifesto poets will have to reconsider not only knowledge or objects, identities or meanings, but the very physiologies of which we are made.
This, in a own manifesto-like way, is an attempt to do so.
Proprioception as Understood by Physiologists
While writing “Proprioception,” Olson was likely to have been reading a 1906 scientific work, The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, by the physiologist Sir Charles Scott Sherrington who generated the term “proprioception” in order to point to an apprehension held in the opposed movements of paired muscles, in the stretching of tissues, and in the press of one organ upon another (130).7 Sherrington studied reflexes, specifically, the scratch response in dogs. Puzzled by the fact that his dogs responded to an itch stimulus not just by lifting a leg, but also by adjusting innards, turning their heads and tucking their tails, he coined the term proprioception in order to distinguish tension- based apprehensions from “exteroceptions,” apprehensions associated with the external senses (seeing, hearing, smelling etc.) and “intero-ceptions,” apprehensions derived from the states of one’s internal organs (hunger, kidney pain, etc.). After all, in the delay between stimulus and response, Sherrington discovered, were an astounding number of feedback loops and micro-adjustments that distributed the body’s response and helped it to maintain its balance as it responded to his stimulus (130). Attaching the suffix proprius (one’s own) to the root for taking (caption), he marked the double-sourced pull of
7 While there is no proof that Olson read this work and not some other, Sherrington’s work was among the few available. Further, Sherrington’s terminology is used in Olson’s “Proprioception.”
opposed muscles, the deformations and reformations and the tension-producing resistances in tissues as characterizable through their reflexivity (130; OED “proprioception”).
Current-day physiologists have located additional proprioceptors in the joints, tendons, ligaments, tissues, and skin as well as in the fluid of the inner ear, the miniature hairs that line the muscles, the pineal gland, the spinal cord, and the subcortical neurons, packed beneath the folds of the brain (Montero 231; Berthoz 5; Damasio 5). Yet, these same physiologists are careful to note that proprioception cannot be fond in any one place. In that proprioception works to achieve the homeostasis after an external or internal stimulus has created an imbalance, it is better to think of proprioception in terms of its functions. As Alva Noë notes, echoing Olson’s manifesto in his own book Action in Perception, proprioception is not descriptive, but enactive (100). As it distributes responses to stimuli throughout the body, it deploys organs, organizes, and coordinates their activities, creating senses and responses on the fly. Alain Berthoz notes in The Brain’s Sense of Movement, proprioception is a faculty for generating senses (Berthoz 5). Indeed, according to Berthoz, through proprioception we have not just five senses, but eight or nine, or perhaps an infinite number, depending on the ways various organs are deployed and their signals coordinatively combined. 8
Among the more established of these senses are “locomotion, gaze, orientation, control of balance,” but proprioception is frequently invoked for the apprehension of other multi-event phenomena, such as speed, trajectory, volume, texture, distortion and shift. As a coordinative sense it is invoked any time one must receive information from
8 Notably, for Sherrington there were not five external senses since, for him, both touch and taste qualified as proprioceptive.
multiple organs or when one must integrate information from multiple times. It is for this reason that the literary scholar Reuven Tsur terms proprioception a pattern-seeking faculty. For Tsur, proprioception is especially important for reading poetry, since it allows readers to integrate different types of information and to read on multiple levels at the same time (4).9 Further, as Berthoz explains, using the example of a ski champion who must coordinate many limbs and many degrees of freedom, not just the external senses, but also the imagination and memory are involved in the process, since the body must frequently respond too quickly for all sensors to be checked at once (Motion 5). Instead of collecting full sensory information, proprioception draws upon past experiences and projective desires to make organize its responses (Simplexity xi).
In that proprioception is primarily invoked through juxtapositional imbalances, it is also often associated with emotion and irrationality, since, according to the philosopher Antonio Damasio, both involve dynamically integrative work that combines information “in concert across many levels of neuronal organization” (Descartes 6). Indeed, as Andy Clarke explains in Being There, with the guiding consideration being the maintenance of homeostasis, for example, the blood’s need to maintain a constant temperature, or the body’s need for upright balance, proprioceptors produce what Clarke calls an “embodied embedded” circuit, whereby the body adapts to feedback from the external environment (105).
Further, because its distributions allow different organs to receive and respond to information at the same time, a more dispersed set of responses can take the place of a centralized subjectivity. Perhaps the best example of such a circuit is that to be found in
9 Notably, Tsur and Olson disagree about whether proprioception is to be associated with traditional poetry.
body create mountain climbers who:
flow up the mountain, flow or tack against the downward gradient of gravity – but also must become hypersensitive tamers and channelers of the gravitational sink, masters at storing it in their muscles or making it flow through certain parts of the pelvis, thighs, palms, and this only at certain times; they must know how to accelerate the flow into a quick transfer that could mean the difference between triumph and disaster, to mix and remix dynamic and static elements in endless variation – for it is not enough to prevail against gravity but rather to be able to make it stream continuously through one, and especially to be able to generalize this knowledge to every part of the body without allowing it to regroup at any time...as a spatialized figure in the head. (29–30)
Due to its distributive functioning, it is, in this, well-positioned to address that which cannot be apprehended through closed structures, top-down conceptualizations, or totalizing meanings. As such, Olson noted early on, in proprioception is a means for addressing heterogeneity and multi-dimensionality.
Indeed, the faculty may be just what is needed in order to produce the new senses that have been called for in recent works by literary and cultural critics. In The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, for example, Frederic Jameson states that social and economics which produced gaps and discontinuities in individual identities were “an imperative to grow new organs, to expand our sensorium and our body to some new, as yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible, dimensions” (3999). Gilles Deleuze’s The Fold, calls upon art to develop “new cerebral pathways, new ways of thinking, aren’t explicable in terms of microsurgery” in order to respond to complex conditions of multiplicity (5).10 Feminist theorist, Vinciane Despret, takes the problem to an ethical level, pointing out that responding to animals who do not speak as we do requires that we pay attention to texture and “tact,” as a means to create “talented bodies [that] have the power to distribute...tension...to sustain it long enough to relax it at the right moment” (Care 114). We can also imagine that proprioception might be implicated in Donna Haraway’s project of developing new “respons-abilities” (89). Through the production of what Haraway calls “practices and imaginative politics of the sort that rearticulates the relations of minds and bodies” proprioception can help us to integrate the action of the external senses, intellect, imagination, memory, and desire (89). Finally, because it is addressed to patterns and differentials proprioception allows us to apprehend what Nigel Thrift in Non-Representational Theory, calls invisible possibilities for which we must use not just the external senses but also our projective capabilities (166).
Some work has already been done in using proprioception to develop these senses. Within the field of dance critics are prone to use terms like “thick knowledge” and to write of what can be translated from one body to another using mirror neurons (Franco 4; Samudra 666). Further, what is apprehended is associated with “relanguaging” transferences said to occur “without necessarily encoding the meaning of one’s actions in words” (Franco 4; Samudra 666).11 Proprioception has also been explored with respect to video games and cinema (Beller 189-192).
10 Deleuze’s argument for why we ought to take a physiological approach to multiplicity is telling. Neurobiological matter, Deleuze claims, “doesn’t have the drawback, like...[psychoanalysis and linguistics] of drawing on ready-made concepts” (Negotiations 60). In that it begins as “a relatively undifferentiated mass” and develops pathways it is more able to adapt and reorganize itself than concepts or grammar (Fold 5)
11 Olson, indeed, wrote at least one dance piece and several plays. The Fiery Hunt, a danced dramatization of Moby Dick, was, according to George Buttering’s introduction, written in April and May of 1948 (xiii). It was not published until 1977, when it came out in conjunction with several other scripts for performances works.
If the association between proprioception and these arts of movement is obvious, the connection between proprioception is much less so. Yet, as I will show in tracing the use of proprioception in conceptual art, and by various members of the French avant- garde, Olson’s idea that proprioception might be connected with a new poetics was prescient. Language –specifically poetry – offers an access to multidimensionality that dance alone may not be able to provide. When understood as a sensory trigger, moreover, it offers access to the memory and the imagination and desire. As I will show in connecting the literary and visual arts, in syllables and rhythms and words, there are also cultural phenomena – histories that circulate in language and through bodies, positioning and embedding them in ways that go beyond the physicality of the body in space and reach outward into the very conditions of possibility of which spatiality and temporality are made.
Chapter 1: Remaking the Perceptual Model:
A Physiological Approach to Marcel Duchamp’s Conceptual Art
True, it may at first seem odd to begin a discussion of poetics with an analysis of a visual artist, but I do so because art history has, traditionally, been a place where the connections between physiology, epistemology and ontology have been most explicitly examined. Specifically, I use a critique of a Renaissance aesthetic of realism to excavate assumptions lurking in the five senses (perceptual) model, upon which the idea of the lyric subject depends. Using Erwin Panofsky and Jonathan’s Crary’s historical work exploring the conditions of possibility for a physiological imaginary that describes the external senses as passive receptors of mimetic pictures, I show that such a model, associated with the camera obscura and Renaissance three-point perspective, depends on the fiction of a stationary observer. Further, in the case of vision, I show that such a model requires a construction of space as a homogenous container of objects, which are to be measured and related by means of a unified horizon and set vanishing point.
Herein, I believe lies the root of Olson’s objection to traditional form, since such a spatial imaginary can be shown to cut the spectator off from the work of the imagination and memory, which had previously served to provide the connective tissues out of which earlier pictures were made. However, as the conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp would show, in drawing upon the works of the pointillist painter Georges Seurat, a proprioceptive approach to vision returns to the spectator many of the functions that had been taken over by the standardized Renaissance spatiality. Specifically, Seurat’s pointillist technique uses juxtaposed dots in contrasting colors to create pictures that depend on the fact that different colors reach each of the spectator’s eyes at slightly different times. As a result of the slight offset spectators blur the colors, producing depth effects and experiences of color that exist neither on the canvas nor in the eye (Washburn 200-201).12 Moreover, because seen colors and depths differ as the spectator moves about the painting, the experience of the picture tells the spectator as much about where she is in relation to the picture as about the picture itself. In this, the spectator becomes the canvas upon which the painting is made.13 Further, unlike what was the case in the Renaissance, the spectator is understood as someone who moves about the picture navigating different possible views through the various coordinations she makes of the
12 This technique is now widely used, for example, in the creation of pixelated screens. At the time, however, such a technique was seen as a nearly mystical invention. See Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger’s comments in On Cubism about Cezanne, who used a similar technique.
13 Or in Olson’s terminology an “intermediary.”
slightly different signals received by each of her eyes.14
Using the example of Seurat to produce an invented spatial concept called the
“infra-thin,” that is, a “very, very, very thin,” difference, usefully described by at least one critic as an “infinitesimal difference...that you easily imagine but doesn’t exist,” Duchamp proposes that art’s function is to alert its audiences to perspective-based “elementary parallels” (SS 45; Obalk 1). As examples of these, he suggests the textured traits of the mother and father looked for in the face of a child, the smoke inside and outside of the mouth, and the two sides of the sound made by pant legs brushing against one another (SS 45). This texture-based approach to spatiality, added a play between sensory data and the imagination. Allowing a flexible spatiality to be created by viewers, who in texturing differently-sourced information created their own spatialities.
Duchamp’s explorations of spatiality, moreover, helped him invent an ontology based on “givens” and “possibilities” which were then combined by the viewer to set this or that detail in relief without help from a standardizing horizon line or vanishing point. Indeed, Duchamp eventually eliminated standardized backgrounds from his pictures altogether, sometimes by painting on transparent glass panes and sometimes by layering accenting details onto pictures. In his most famous picture, L.H.O.O.Q., an artwork in which of a mustache added to a postcard of Mona Lisa, Duchamp proclaimed, the mustache made Mona Lisa a man by drawing out the (always possible) masculine features of her face. With such maneuvers, he suggested the ease with which the picture could be transformed through various navigations of possibilities, none of which were
14 Duchamp was, of course, writing before the discovery of individual proprioceptors, distributed throughout the body, he associated these projective effects with the “grey matter” and the “the brain.” It’s for this reason that his work is called ‘conceptual.’ The coordinative and projective work carried out, however, is the same as that which physiologists now call proprioceptive.
inherent in objects. They were always a product of texturing details that drew out these possibilities. Herin was an early recognition of the importance of multi-dimensionality for seeing.
An equally important insight was to be found in Duchamp’s work with language. Recognizing that the signals travelling up the optic nerves had to be processed, Duchamp made a further epistemological shift in casting these signals as providing information, but not necessarily information in a pictorial or mimetic form. Such an insight allowed him to place linguistically triggered visualizations on par with visual data. For example, in his famous “ready-made” sculpture, “Fresh Widow,” viewers looking at a miniature sculpture of a darkened glass pane are prompted to imagine a number of possible erotically suggestive women as hidden from view. The play between the seen window and the imagined woman produces a friction between the external senses and the imagination that, itself, becomes the work of art. Through such a play with language, Duchamp produced a condition in which a near infinite number of dimensions could be opened in sensory experience. Again, Olson would have likely approved.
Duchamp’s works cannot, of course, be contained within the field of the visual arts. As is hinted at by Duchamp’s The Large Glass, a sculpture in glass that depicts a series of “bachelor” machines who attempt to communicate with a “bride-cloud” the textured juxtapositions produced within the optical field are meant to produce a movement, not only in the body of a willing spectator, but also in the various not-quite-compatible types of experience the spectator is made to confront.
The role of art, in such a process, I suggest, is best exemplified by a strip-tease dance by Hannah Wilke around The Large Glass, where one has ample reason to see why
Olson may have cast art as having the role of “inter-ruptor.” After all, as Wilke strips on one side of the glass, moving about in her address to the various bachelor figures Duchamp has painted, audience members on the other side of the glass also shift about as they anxiously try to see Wilke in the nude. In this, the art work, no longer gazed at or even used as a clarifying spectacle, becomes an interruptive obstruction that cuts various parts of the environment off from one another and forces them into a reflexive dance.
Such a dance, as Duchamp would show in works like Fountain, a famous toilet that, in being placed in a museum, is said to have deconstructed the difference between high and low art, did not just involve physical movements, but also intellectual ones that disrupt the very the conceptual contexts in which the viewing was to occur. Nothing less than ontology, epistemology and the very physiologies of which we are made were shown to be at stake. If Olson said no less, it is my hope that the detour through optics will have demonstrated that his concerns were both visceral and coordinative. Indeed, as Duchamp’s eventual turn to chess-playing shows, a proprioceptive (or coordinative) mixing of signals received through the external senses according to flexibly projective contexts requires that viewers to see not just objects, but transformations and shifts composed of patterns that vary according both to physical and strategic movements. To discuss such a phenomenon, however, one must move beyond the visual arts and into the literary arts, where narratives – and temporal horizons – can be examined.
Chapter 2. Adapting To Unstable Horizons: Multidimensional Integration in Jean Genet’s The Maids
It’s narrative, indeed, that I turn to in my second chapter. Here, it may again seem that I am departing from poetry and poetics. However, as Olson’s turn from lyric to epic poetry suggests, a proprioceptive poetics must of necessity address the links between the multiple perspectives produced by the mobile observer as she navigates transformations of her view. Duchamp’s Large Glass and subsequent interest in chess indicates a navigation of something more than shifting pictures. A friction between juxtaposed elements generates a dynamic tension that, itself, produces a series of balancing transformations whose results are worth being traced.
It is not, however, the case that any narrative is able to address these transformations. After all, as Peter Brooks explains, traditional narratives as we know them through eighteenth century realist novels deploy language in a modality of description (326). Readers encountering described details are asked to look beyond these details, distinguishing between plot (fabula) and suject, by abstracting from details in order to find the rules of each tale (Plot 326). Such a practice, as Brooks notes in Realist Vision, is derived from an “empiricist tradition” that, according to Brooks, foregrounds primary qualities in such a way that the reader is thought to use only the external senses in apprehending her environment (87). As such language’s role in presenting details and offering multiple possible stances towards these details is minimized in such models of narrative.
As such, I look to an older form of narrative, associated with court trials, where, in fact, the term narrative has its origins. Court narratives, in contrast to realist narratives, recognize that multiple perspectives and multiple claims as valid (Mäkinen and Pihlajamäki 538). Further, through an implication-based approach to facts they involve a staging of sensory evidence. Through the staging of evidence, court audiences – jurors, judges, lawyers and witnesses among them – are cast as canvasses, whose immersion in a field of multiple testimonies opens a series of tensions between individual stories (Place 1). A series of micro movements and feedback loops are induced in the conditions of possibility for meaning. As the presentation of testimonies and evidence and schematics engage with one another on multiple levels, multiple lines of questioning stitch narratives together across dimensions, producing expansions and contractions in the contextual tissue of the case. Arguably, these expansions and contractions are the events to watch in a proprioceptive narrative. After all, the actions produced by courts occur almost against any one individual’s will. As I show by looking at several writings in legal theory the expansions and contractions of the underlying architectonic functions by expelling elements or drawing them in, thereby producing the transitivity of Olson’s open verse.
A new form of coherence is produced in the process. What governs the movement is not an application of the law to the crime, but rather a dynamic between what legal scholars called the actio and the exceptio (Pennington 1). This interplay is designed to produce what the OED calls “the maintenance of a dynamically stable state...by means of an internal regulatory process,” as when as when we sweat or breathe more deeply in order to maintain a constant body temperature despite changes in the weather (OED “homeostasis”). In their efforts to restore a balance, bodies draw in and expel extraneous elements into our out of the surrounding environment. Moreover, in that homeostasis coordinates the actions of multiple systems of the body the manner in which it restores a balance is flexible. After all, a tension resolved in one system can easily irrupt in another, where it appears in a new form.
Using a 1946 play, The Maids, by Jean Genet, a French poet, novelist, and playwright who spent seven years in prison and wrote almost exclusively about topics of concern to outcasts and criminals, I show the importance of theatricality for understanding the mechanisms that must be used to approach a proprioceptive narrative. Importantly, the play uses a play-within-a-play to produce a doubled structure of performance, whereby two maids repeatedly dress up as their mistress and perform a ritualistic ceremony designed to produce a state in which they might (symbolically) kill her. The doubled structure, along with a series of what the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre calls a series of “whirligigs” or forced reconsiderations, prompt audience members to develop a multi-dimensional (poetical) interpretive stance by repeatedly forcing them to re-approach way they deploy their initial impressions of the opening scene (8).
In doing so, the characters make use of a construct called “modality” that specifies the grounds as well as the limits of the claims that can be made according to an individual approach. A link is produced between different dimensions of meaning based on the particularities of the case at hand. For example, when an alarm clock rings, audience members realize that what they thought was a maid and a madame is actually two maids playing the roles. They contextualize their initial understanding, distinguishing between the literal roles of the maids and their theatrically performed roles in the play- within-the-play. As audience members learn to approach sensory data through a shifting set of stances, whereby multiple inferences can be drawn from sensory data, they also adapt their initial stereotypes, even going so far as to create new categories and dimensions of meaning in response to the particular movements of the play. In doing so, they develop new relations between sensory experiences, memories and conceptual understandings.
With both sensory information and conceptual understandings in flux, audience members must use “clues” not typically employed in mysteries to navigate their way through the scenes. That is, they do not just add up sensory cues according to a single logic. Rather, they must also their histories of experience with these sensory objects along with the questions produced by the different modalities associated with them.15 As they do so they learn to pay attention to shifting configurations of meanings constructed by phrasal and gestural repetitions across scenes. In the multi-modular field of possibilities created through these repetitions each phrase, role, and gesture must be understood, metaphorically, suggestively, and instrumentally. Furthermore, since each new gesture serves as an inflection against several standing assemblages of meaning, “reading” the play invokes a multi-modular field of possibilities whose shape may expand or collapse based on the ways that accenting repetitions highlight and actualize particular possibilities or leave them fallow.
While such a stance might initially seem to result in an endless play of variations, Genet’s play shows that one can track burgeoning actions by paying attention to homeostatic drives that are seeking to be met through the expansions and contractions induced to satisfy these drives. While it is difficult to predict causes and effects, directly, one can track tendencies and availabilities, keeping track of atmospheres and moods in order to sense whether the timing is right for any one body to be drawn in or discharged. As I show, what one tracks when one does so are adjustments in the architectonic
15 Arguably, any detective might do so, but the play makes the experience of coming to know explicitly historical.
structure that, in the delay induced between stimulus and response, produces the need for individual elements to be expelled in the drive’s eventual discharge. Again, a poetical sensibility is needed in order to track this process. However, the poetry required is not traditional verse, but rather the poetry of an open field, since only an open field poetry allows for this experience of the remainder (whether in the form of an excess or lack) to be associated with this discharge.
Chapter 3. Creating New Senses: Prose after Cinema in Marguerite Duras’ Running Writing
In my third chapter, as in the previous ones, I make a detour away from what we know as poetry. I do so by using two works, Truck and Blue Eyes, Black Hair, by the French writer, Marguerite Duras, as an occasion to look into the history of prose and cinema. Both works are what Duras calls film-texts, a blend of cinema and prose that she associates with a projective running writing (écriture courante) and both might be associated with what, for reasons I explain in my chapter, might best be called a sense of possibility.
I begin the chapter with a history of what cinema learns from prose and prose learns from cinema. As I explain, using the work of Wlad Godzich, Jeffrey Kittay, prose teaches cinema how to produce fictional points of view in the form of disembodied narrators that process information gathered from elsewhere, which they then make sense of by a series of grammatical rules. Readers and viewers, as I will show, access such material through the simulative capacities associated with proprioception. The process is most visible in prose writing, where the indeterminacy inherent in language draws on audience’s memories to produce imaginative visualizations. Guided by grammar, these visualizations do not have to make sense according to the perspective that any one individual might have. Instead, grammatical phrases help readers slip in and out of various pointes of view through the coordination and manipulation of bits and pieces of sensation and memory.
Cinema, as I explain, borrows prose’s capacity for compiling information and presenting it through a fictional narrator’s point-of-view. With the help of a shot-based grammar, classical cinema allows its viewers to see things no actual human could see. It, however, replaces prose’s visualizations with actual sensory experiences in the form of sound tracks and images. In doing so it takes over for the work of the imagination and memory, producing a determinate experience of sensations that no actual human eye can see.
Duras’ cinema is different however. Her movie, Truck, retains the indeterminacy and need for visualizations associated with prose. She does so by juxtaposing her films’ narrated text against the visual images presented on screen. Indeed, even as Truck’s audience members watch a truck move across the screen the film’s text describes a woman who rides in its passenger seat. Because she is not present in the picture, viewers must visualize her and project her into the seat. With text and images each accessing her film’s audiences in a different way, a relationship with the senses that is both active and passive develops. In the visualization procedure, the work of the imagination is enhanced by an opportunity to project images of characters into a sensory (and material) landscape. As such they seem more real and more determinate than images imagined only in the head. Further, in Truck Duras ups the vividness of these images by intermittently including sensory images to sample from by means of the external senses. These images, not directly related to the tale being told are of herself and a truck-driver-looking actor who sit not in the truck but in Duras’ dining room, where they are shown reading the film’s text aloud. As such, viewers must translate the sensory experience from one scene to another, using a combination of memory and afterimage to produce the images they project, whereby they mix their imaginations of the woman in the cab with their recent sensations of Duras, producing a picture that is both their own and almost as vivid as an actual sensory experience.
While the idea of partially projecting the movie one sees might seem impossible, I show that Duras is merely accessing the proprioceptive simulative capacity Berthoz described. Duras’ use of this capacity in Truck, however, adds to the importance of this capacity’s practical and political use. By engaging with proprioception to create a loop through memory and the imagination as a part of the work of the external senses, she allows her viewers to apprehend both materialities and concretely placed potentials.
Such a projective capacity, Duras shows in her later book, Blue Eyes, Black Hair, is not limited to cinema or to visual landscapes. While distinctions between prose and cinema previously classified the two signifying practices as being divided into determinate and indeterminate arts, in overcoming the distinction in cinema, Duras discovers that the simulative capacities associated with motion can also be used to create sensations of abstract phenomena, like interactions and coordinations. Through a series of short interruptive paragraphs that disturb any ability to consciously follow the book’s slow-moving plot, she allows a series of obliquely-related details to cancel tensions about to be built up by other details, almost as if the individual paragraphs are waves in sea. The sea, indeed, is the most frequently mentioned image of book.
Readers experience the text’s rhythm without being able to hold on to any images. Instead, they are left with acoustic impressions associated with shifting schematics caused by oblique openings created in each of the patterns they subconsciously apprehend. Oddly, they seem to hear the sea, as if in a seashell. This sound represents both the interactions of the patterns of the text and the audience’s newly produced openness. “Touched” by the text, later audiences will be given to see how they and their own schematic understandings have been drawn in.
Together, Duras’ works suggest that sensory experiences involve much more than a passive intake of data from something that impinges on the external senses. In her model of perception, sensory organs can be understood to be little more than the pathways that data takes in order to reach the brain and be distributed in the body in service of action. Moreover, if the purpose of the senses is to aid navigation, more than merely external environments may need to be navigated. By creating a simulative perceptual faculty that engages with both internal and external environments and produces a condition in which they can be integrated. While such a capacity exceeds what Olson might have dreamed of, I believe that Duras’ work is crucial for understanding the transformational powers of his poetics.
C o n c l u s i o n
In my conclusion I return to what – at least in bookstores – is more properly called poetry. Looking at the work of Barbara Jane Reyes’ Poeta en San Francisco I show that the proprioceptive poetics, as I have described it, can be defined by a common set of stances and a common set of techniques. Among these, as I have noted, are (1) enacting a turn against a realist aesthetic by integrating the work of the external senses memory, intellect, imagination, and desire; (2) an incorporation of multi-dimensional information across systems without the creation of abstractions or totalizing horizons; (3) the production of actions through distributive work of contextualizing architectonics; (4) an emphasis on balance, homeostasis and juxtaposition.
Others working with the physiology will likely find other points of entry and describe the faculty differently. This is a good thing. My dissertation, like Olson’s manifesto, is meant not just to be read, but also to be used. It will have been successful if it has set its readers in motion --and not just any motion – the motion of a restless reflexivity that, in turning back in on itself, produces a fruitful hollowness that erases and opens as much as it adds. Certainly, an aesthetic geared towards expansions and contractions of possibilities is to be associated with balance boards and drunkenness. Our attempts at balancing under such delightfully precarious conditions results in a decidedly poetic dance. To the extent that neither we nor the boards upon which we balance are set, we are never in danger of falling or losing ourselves. Quite the contrary, we are always discovering ourselves in the itchy frictions co-created by us and the world as we move.
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