Tag Archives: adorno

Simon Jarvis and spirits and counter-fictions.

This is the third and final attempt to get my small brain around ‘Lessons and Carols’ from last year’s ‘Eighteen Poems’ collection. There is no guarantee that I’ll get to the bottom of this remarkable poem in terms of all that it has to say but it’s probably time to move on. What follows, as ever, is entirely provisional and I reserve the right to change my mind.

I occasionally get brief flashes of recognition or (even) insight into what things might be trying to say but I need to be careful because these often lead me into imposing the meanings that I may agree with rather than what is actually there. As I finished the second piece on this poem such a flash flickered across my brain and it’s still lingering around , it relates to these lines:


  knowing at once in these spiritual tunes the sound of what comes
straight from the other world, straight from enchantment and straight
  from the terrible kingdom of non-love, of freedom and absence and longing,
so do these presents stand vigilant there at the window.

The spirits are fictions, the gifts are their counter-fictions.

The flicker was sparked by the vigilance of the presents which took me into social policy mode. I spent far too many years of my professional life dealing with aspects of the British underclass and was very aware that the main function of this group is to act as central plank of social control. One of the main reasons that we economically conform and play the material/status game is that we don’t want to fall into the chaotic and seemingly cursed world of the Undeserving Poor. The other aspect of crass materialism is that we use objects to reassure ourselves and others that we are far removed from that kind of deprivation.

So, I’m provisionally reading this kingdom of non-love as the sink estates where these difficult and dangerous souls eke out a hand-to-mouth existence and the vigilant presents as fictive or illusory guards against falling into this realm of freedom and absence and longing.

This is probably far too neat but I can discern something of Adorno’s reference to thought having become its own watchdog although his inherent pessimism takes the above to a more extreme and bleak place.

I wasn’t going to do this but it probably needs to be noted that the fictive but compelling lures and snares of late capital have occurred in previous poems. This is from ‘At Home with Paul Burrell’ which was published in 2007:

(You’re going to have to scroll off the screen for this but I think it’s important to preserve line length and the shape of this material.)

Yes my daughter everywhere false immediacy glints at a lure or pastes this slip of null now back over everywhere.
   Yes everywhere mediation curls up into the no less false shape of a blind trust.

And this is from the brilliant and ground-breaking and generally wonderful ‘Dionysus Crucified’ published in 2011:

                                              Spirit-seducingly all the kind wives & the mothers: every one of us has a face made of cash
Every one of us now wears the mask of sold labour and each time I look in a face 
  All that comes back is the answer of cash and of freedom from love turned up in a picture of ideal & absolute * perfectly perceptless sex
All that comes back is the light not light but elicited twinkles of lusterous sold simulacra of faces, the person I wear to the bank.

Of course, it can (and should) be argued that I’m attempting to prop up this tottering edifice by ripping lines out of their original context/meaning. I’m guilty as charged but this ‘lesson’ as to the fictive and increasingly mindless nature of our passive existence is at least a bit of thread.

You’e delighted to know that I’m going to glide over perceptless sex and return to the spirits. I think it’s reasonable consider at least a few possible meanings for this tricky noun. The common factor in most of these would appear to be the absence of the physical or tangible. There’s the various religious and theological meanings, there’s the distinctly Hegelian ‘geist’ as in the force or thrust of progress, there’s spirit as a characterising feature or essence, there’s spirit as soul and as the thing that lives on after death.

All or any of these throws up number of challenges to the above – we are told that these spirits are ‘fictions’ but that doesn’t quite equate with the very real function that they undertake. The desire to play the status game and the fear of a slide into poverty and deprivation are very real for most of us, it can be argued these are merely illusory barriers but they aren’t fictive- they are very real and effective devices that are at least in part responsible for the cultural and social blandification that we see around us.

I hope these three attempts give some indication of the quality and depth of ‘Lessons and Carols’ – am now torn between moving on to ‘Night Office’ or paying some more attention to Burrell and the remarkable Dionysus.

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Simon Jarvis, Adorno and complicity

This is the second attempt to do some kind of justice to “Lessons and Carols” from the recent ‘Eighteen Poems’ collection. In view of the response to the first attempt, I think I should reiterate that what follows is entirely provisional and that I am likely to change my mind as time goes by.

This particular poem is ‘about’ many things but one of the centralish threads would seem to be that we participate in the current ways of doing even though we deplore them and, in turn, deplore ourselves for knowing this and continuing to participate. Before taking this any further, I think that I should present some evidence for this bold assertion:

    All that I feel for them floats in an ether of foolish
      half-waking conjecture, cutting the circuit short just
    where thought might become painful, might tell me how to wake up.

The ‘them’ refers to the gifts that we buy for family members at Xmas and I’m currently reading these as a kind of metaphor for all the products of the free marketplace- a place that lulls us into this kind of anaesthetized thoughtless folly. This is accomplished stuff in that it covers a lot of ground in just three lines and carries a couple of deft phrases. This ‘half-waking conjecture’ in which feelings float is effective but I’m not entirely sure that it can be described as ‘foolish’ – the point for me is that my participation in this bauble-driven world is anything but foolish, I am fully aware of the compromises that I make and tell myself all kinds of stories (at least I’m doing something, I try to live an honest and decent life etc etc) to make this reasonably bearable.

Just after writing the above paragraph I fell across (in a big book about Gerhard Richter) a quote from Adorno which may inform some part of this theme:

Whilst thought has forgotten how to think itself, it has at the same time become its own watchdog. Thinking no longer means anything more than checking at each moment whether one can indeed think….The socialization of mind keeps it boxed in, isolated in a glass case, as long as society is itself imprisoned.

Jarvis is probably this country’s strongest Adorno advocate, his ‘Critical Introduction’ is an incisive endorsement of all aspects of the Adorno project. Coupling this with Jarvis’ view that poetry can ‘do’ philosophy really well and it is possible to read ‘Lessons and Carols’ as a working through of what Richard Haidu describes as Adorno’s ‘testy pessimism’.

I don’t share this pessimism although I can see that the analysis behind it has some merit. I’m more convinced by the gauntlet that Bourdieu throws down in ‘Distinction’ which points out that all forms of creative expression are fundamentally tied to the prevailing economic order. I’d like to think that most of my adult life has been spent finding ways to act/intervene that make small but incremental changes to this dynamic. If I didn’t do this then I’d probably remain in the Slough of Despond for a Very Long Time.

So, this poem offers both an ideological and personal challenge that asks questions about the current Bebrowed strategy for changing the world. It also further undermines my view that poetry and ideology don’t mix. Jarvis’ work over recent years has moved me closer to a grudging acknowledgement that poetry that ‘does’ ideology can be successful in both arenas.

This is an accomplished and adept poem but it sometimes goes over the top in making its point. The second ‘might’ on the third line quoted above is an example of (to my ear) too much emphasis being given so that the ‘message’ is diluted.

The other aspect that springs to mind is the use of the first person to make the wider point- he presents his own situation as being compromised by ordinary things and thus gently suggests that the reader should consider the extent of compromise in his/her own life. This is of course well worn device but Jarvis gives it a final twist:


    May the bereft state continue its care for our welfare
      there in the dark, where its artless security shines!
    I shall go walking back home, while these measures and lines
      borrow some part of their tune from the fictional spirits.

I’m not usually a fan of the self referential in poetry. There was a time when I thought it was clever and daring but now I find most of it to be too knowing and mannered for its own good and this is probably a reasonable example. The theme has already been spelled out with some aplomb but is somewhat undermined by this ending which seems to say that only ‘some part’ of the poem is bound up with society’s imprisonment whilst Adorno and Bourdieu would both say that all of creative expression is thus fettered.

I also need to confess that I don’t understand the exclamation mark which seems simply inept but Jarvis is too accomplished to succumb to this level of naffness.

This is a provisional reading that’s in some kind of progress, on the next occasion I want to tackle the more complex nature of the spirits and the gifts.

Simon Jarvis’ F Subscript Zero

I blame Neil Pattison.
At the beginning of July I was enthusing about ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and which I saw as a radical departure from Jarvis’ previous work which had been characterised by a quite defiant use of regular metre. I continued to enthuse through the comments thread which is where Neil informed me of F subscript zero’ which was published by Equipage in 2007. I received a copy about a month ago and what follows is an interim / provisional report about which (as ever) I reserve the right to change my mind.
The first thing to note is that it contains two poems, neither of which are written in regular metre which demolishes the above mentioned chronology. In fact, the verse in the first poem is decidedly free and the second contains some odd formatting. The title is the abbreviation for ‘fundamental frequency’ which Vance Maverick has helpfully defined as
“within any tone, it’s the lowest frequency of any component. So If I sing a C, sounding about 125 Hz, that’s F0 — the overtones above it, which also contribute to the sound, are F1, F2, etc. (Of course, when an instrument plays its lowest note, that note has an F0 too.)”
The first poem would appear to have two titles, the first being “ODE” which appears in very large letters on an otherwise blank page and the second being “At home with Paul Burrell” which appears at the top of the first page of verse. This poem also carries an epigraph- “Immer zu! Immer zu!” in very small italics.
For those who who don’t know, Paul Burrell was butler to Princess Diana and became imbroigled in a fairly public row about some items belonging to Diana that found their way into his possession. As a result of this Burrell becama one of those minor celebrities beloved of the popular press. “At home with” is a headline used by magazines like ‘Hello’.
These preliminaries aside, the first few lines make it clear that we’re in Jarvis territory by which I mean that we’re dealing with poetry where nothing much happens but it happens in really interesting ways and with a strong leaning towards the abstract. The first seven lines are:

"Pudge blinks up or is it glints up from an area of skin pushed out as a fat
fat reserve held against no imaginable lack under the jawbone.
An eye glassy with its declaration of fair dealing first fixes then blurs its blue
or grey trompe window cum aperture into what were the most seeing or most living
or as a hole through which we can gaze into the trace left by a paralogism
or as one of two little caverns frankly welcoming two other little caverns of mine
into it/our ownmost shared inner expectorated category mistake."

I may be wrong but I cant think of anyone else who writes quite like this. I’d like to draw attention to ‘no imaginable lack’, ‘trace left by a paralogism’ and ‘inner expectorated category mistake’. There will be many who will view such phrases as being either unbelievably pretentious or far too mannered for their own good. There have been times in the last month when I have shared this view but now I’m not so sure.

It is worth bearing in mind Jarvis’ view that poetry is an excellent way of doing philosophy and also that doing difficult or ambitious things often comes with a price. The standard, sensible response to reading the above as the start of a six and a quarter page poem would be to put it down and not proceed any further but I’d like to suggest that those who do peresevere will be rewarded. I’m not suggesting that this is an easy ride and that all it takes is to re-adjust your head in line with the Jarvis thesis. What I am suggesting is that this overt attempt to put his thesis into practice has resulted in some of the most startling and though-provoking verse of the last decade.

The above use of ‘parologism’ and ‘category mistake’ announce Jarvis’ intent and the use of many clauses in one sentence echoes the digressive habits of ‘The Unconditional’.

Reviewing ‘The Unconditional’ in Jacket Tom Jones described the poem as “scholarly and in part its scholarship is part of Jarvis’ professional life”. I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking about whether I agree with that observation and what a scholarly poem might look like. I’ve decided that the term is less than useful because it implies an excess of objectivity which is inimical to the production of verse. One could argue that the ‘Maximus’ poems are scholarly because they are based to some extent on Olson’s archive-based research and are informed by Process and Reality but this would to overlook the utterly biased way that Olson argues his case. There is more of a case to be made for the astronomical aspects of ‘Paradise Lost’ being viewed as scholarly because they are based on contemporary science but nobody would argue that astronomy was Milton’s main ‘point’.
Jarvis’ professional life does however throw some light on this poem but more as a way of understanding one particular piece of polemic. He has written a well respected tome on Adorno in which he waxes eloquently and enthusiastically about the major elements of the Frankfurt School. This isn’t at all surprising as most poets writing in or around the Cambridge vein have bought into the Adorno view. One aspect of this view is its ingrained and unapologetic positivism and another is the view that poetry somehow has a privileged position as a means of creative expression. This particular breed of positivism is deeply/violently against most aspects of post structuralism and especially the works of Jacques Derrida. I now need to quote a lengthy extract which displays this tendency I’m providing such a large chunk because I want to try and avoid taking something out of context-

ready to call all bliss abstract from its long laboured fund of public inattention which is
at once a wrong screen and an exact measure of all goods failing to find a port
at once cloud and the only lit ghost of majesty not babied in blue melancholy
which is a flood at once drowning so punishing and so or and illuminating this dark orb
or which would be at once both saint and criminal only by virtue of this Mobius-at-once generale gloats
taking the hiatus in the a a tongue has broken down for mere representation of breakdown and thus
taking all breaks only for an imaginary slippage and hence whispering or otherwise repeating
a disowned indifferent cosmology of perennial deferal and differing eyelessly in its
refusal to speak a cosmology but instead just slid up topless topologies displacing all top
viz an insideless life no life but built like an invisible brainless bottle or blurred into lobbed blobs
innerless outerless upperless lossles less here than there, deathless, seamless, nested & recursive
less even like 'an advanced credit system' that it is a causality-through-freedom of holding companies
than it is the way my eye flees from sight of a pupil to a fugitively lit corner of restrained eyewear
than it is like the way my ear drops from the grain of an insignificant abrasion to its indexical stuff
than it is like the way my tongue slips from a kiss to a lick collecting some sundry or some sexy data
hand flips from a caress to a blow than it is like how in any event I may not discriminate a quality and how I may not discern a change

I’ve written at length about the ‘Stripogrammatology’ quip in Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ and have been critical of both its brevity and the abusive terms in which it is expressed. To be fair, Sutherland has put forward a vigorous defence of the two lines in question and I think we’ve agreed to differ. My primary concern was the fact that it’s intellectually shallow to dismiss Derrida in two lines. The above however is a much fuller critique of how the Anglo Saxon academy views deconstruction in general and the controversial ‘Differance’ essay in particular. I have to concede that it ‘works’ in that it is an effective statement in verse form of the standard position and that there are many good ‘philosophical’ bits, in fact I find the first ten lines to be quite stunning, especially ‘babied in blue melancholy’, ‘Mobius-at-once generale’ and ‘just slid up into topless topologies’. After line ten things get a bit too mannered for my liking without adding very much to what’s gone before but the whole does represent a poetic way of doing philosophy.
I need at this stage to come clean with the fact that I don’t share the Jarvis/Sutherland line on this particular subject and I would question whether the above standard refutation is an accurate reflection of what Derrida was about and whether this particular piece of condemnation latches on to the weaker bits of this particular essay or is just another wide-angled volley in the hope of taking a few prisoners. I’d also question whether Derrida actually did philosophy, but then again I’d ask the same question about Adorno.
The other point is that I had to read the above three or four times before I realised what was going on which indicates that I probably need to pay more careful attention to the rest of it.
I don’t want to say much more at the moment because I’m still trying to get my brain around most of it and haven’t yet begun to think about the second poem. Some bits are very experimental-

then but
so not

Some of these make sense whilst others at the moment are merely annoying. As for Paul Burrell…….

Adorno, Prynne and Lyric Poetry

This is going to require a preamble, I’ve said before that I have no problem with poets who write with a political objective nor would I denigrate a poem just because I don’t hold with it’s political stance. My two favourite contemporary English poets, Prynne and Hill, write from opposite ends of the political spectrum and I’m comfortable with that because I don’t read poetry to be politically persuaded. I’ve also said before that I think it’s a mistake to endow poetry with powers that it doesn’t actually have. By this I don’t in any way wish to deny the power of poetry to enable us to radically challenge the way that we think about things. I also recognise that poetry is immensely influential in shaping the culture of any society but let’s not forget that it is one of many forms of creative expression and each of these has its own strengths.
Now for the confession, I’ve been on this planet for 54 years without reading any Adorno. Unforgivable, I know, but I’ve never felt the need to get to the bottom of Critical Theory even though the Frankfurt School has a reputation for intellectual rigour and ‘sound’ Marxian thought.
Being aware of this lacuna in my reading, I’ve been psyching myself up to start working out the finer points of negative dialectics. The other reason for tackling Adorno is that I’m various types of dialectical analysis since reading Benjamin’s ‘Arcades Project’ last year. I’ve re-read David Harvey’s description and examples, I’ve also read Stalin’s explanation and examples. I have to say that I’m not convinced by any of these, Benjamin seems to miss the point whilst Stalin is incredibly facile. David Harvey (who is a personal hero) tends to over complicate things and throws in elements that shouldn’t really be there. Adorno therefore is my last hope in getting to the bottom of dialectics but then I came across an essay entitled ‘On lyric poetry and society’ which seemed to offer a useful short-cut.
I got through the first few pages without finding any thing too disconcerting then; “My thesis is that the lyric work is always the expression of a social antagonism. But since the objective world that produces the lyric is an inherently antagonistic world, the concept of the lyric is not that of a subjectivity to which language grants objectivity.” Adorno goes on to point out Romanticism’s link with the folk song, Prynne makes the same point in Field Notes and John Wilkinson has pointed out the importance of work songs and sea shanties in Prynne’s poetry. I don’t however accept that lyric work is always the product of social antagonism, nor do I accept Adorno’s view that some lyric poets are privileged because they are capable of grasping the universal through ‘immersion in the self’ or ‘to develop as autonomous subjects capable of freely expressing themselves”. This seems more than a little far-fetched, I’d need to know precisely what is meant by ‘immersion in the self’ and isn’t ‘autonomous subject’ an oxymoron? Nevertheless it is clear to me that Prynne’s view of the Romantics is very close to that of Adorno.
The essay continues with the introduction of two poems which Adorno says he will treat as philosophical sundials telling the time of history. The first poem is “On a walking tour” by Edward Morike which is ostensibly about a visit to a small town and the poet’s experience of happiness. Adorno commends it as it skilfully blends the classical elevated style with the romantic private miniature and is particularly impressed with the tact by which this is achieved.
At the end of this discussion Adorno writes: “In industrial society the lyric idea of a self-restoring immediacy becomes- where it does not impotently evoke a romantic past – more and more something that flashes out abruptly, something in which what is possible transcends its own impossibility”. Normally I would groan at this point and despair of ideologues ever getting rid of tautology but I have to ask whether this transcending the impossible business is at the heart of the Prynne project. We know that he has an antagonistic relationship with the ‘witty circus’ of discourse which he sees as corrupted and I now have to consider whether the poems are actually striving for the impossible by means of a ‘self-restoring immediacy’. It does appear to explain the very enthusiastic and detailed analysis contained in ‘Field Notes’ as well as some of the more lyrical (if truncated) passages in the later poems.
Adorno then introduces a poem by Stefan George which is a kind of pared-down love song and remarks that it is written in a kind of German that could be a foreign language to German speakers. He refers to the use of the word ‘gar’ in the poem and concedes that critics have said that it serves no purpose in the lyric. Adorno counters this by remarking that “great works of art succeed precisely where they are most problematic”. Adorno concludes by saying of George “this very lyric speech becomes the voice of human beings between whom the barriers have fallen”.
Is this what Prynne is after? His work is recognised as problematic and his project would seem to be about creating a discourse that is less corrupt.
I have to say that most of this essay is far removed from my own views on the place of poetry, I also have to say that I still don’t understand the Romantics but it does enable me to understand a bit more about Prynne’s motivation in writing the way that he does. The essay is available for download on the incomparable AAAARG.org site.