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I am excited about the prospect of teaching a course in which students will be given an opportunity to dismantle certain suppositions, while at the same time studying the mechanisms of dismantling which we call literary movements, and literary greatness. First, what is a gatekeeper? What gate does he keep? And what is the literary greatness he upholds? What verbal strategies and “values” are employed to maintain a standard or rebel against a standard? Is there any real difference between the strategies of obeying a structure or dismantling it? If there is no standard, and anything is great if you say it is, then why do certain works persist? Does this mean they are truly great, or that the argument for their greatness, the strategies and rigor of those arguments, or the simple fact that one feels compelled to continue the argument make them so? What are the advantages of upholding a tradition and the advantages of dismantling it, if any, beyond power? And, if power is the only constant of both those who would reform and those who resist being reformed, then is there any movement at all–or just new and seemingly competing terminologies for the same basic thing?

We will be examining through both a historical and theoretical approach, a couple of simple adages and quotes, the simplest of which is: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” We will add to this adage, a couple of insane variants:

The more things same, the more they same the change.

Things change by staying the same.

Things stay the same by changing.

If change equals sameness and Sameness equals change, where in this process of the constancy of change, and the inconstancy of sameness do terminologies emphasize their rigorous nomenclatures of change or their equally rigorous nomenclatures of sameness? How does the atrophy of one lead to the hypertrophy of the other? What are the common mechanisms and verbal strategies of sameness and change in any verbal aesthetic? In what sense is the break down of any system A.) Breakthrough? B.) Proof that the system exists? C.) Prove that it never existed? D.) Proof that it may or may not exist and is to be considered only in so far as it exists as a series of assertions and all terminologies in the verbal construct gather around it to prove or disprove its “validity?”

What do we mean by cultural evolution? If we can come up with a definition for evolution, does the definition cease to be challenged effectively? And if it ceases to evolve, does it, itself, contradict cultural evolution? And if it contradicts cultural evolution, doesn’t that prove evolution by way of evolving beyond it? Can we ever escape the mechanisms and strategies by which we assert that we are beyond the mechanisms and strategies of assertion? Why do we put flesh on the mechanisms of the bones and organs. What is the value not only of methodology, but of hiding one’s methodologies behind a terministic screen? How do literary terms resemble the veil over the covenant. And when we hide anything by a vocabulary of jargon, exclusion, or discourse, do the gatekeepers mistake mastery of the jargon for the value? Do people ever really value truth, or do they value the power that comes from mastering certain mechanisms of truth? To that end:

“Every discourse, even a poetic or oracular sentence, carries with it a system of rules for producing analogous things and thus an outline of methodology.”
~Jacques Derrida

All selections from reality/life are distortions of reality/life. They imply a rhetoric (method) of inclusion and exclusion implicit in the choosing of one thing or way over another. Thus Kafka’s statement: “the minute you write she opened a window, you have already begun to lie.” What can we say about correctness then, the right or perfect way to do something save that it is obeys to the furthest rigor and skill the rhetoric of its own distortions, and, when it disobeys the rhetoric of those particular distortions, it does so with equal or greater rigor? Error exists not in whether something is true or false but in whether one has obeyed its rhetoric (methodology) or disobeyed without full rigor. There can be no errors in perception if all perception is misperception,only errors in methodology. If one attempt to obey and fails, this is sin/error, or incompetence. If one disobeys and succeeds with full rigor, this is a new system. If all this be so, then there is no difference between postmodernism’s obsessions with deconstruction (the process of instability) and the bureaucracy from which it came into being and in which it thrives. To quote Derrida again:

“It is the rigor and conviction of my views and methods that seem threatening– not what I say, but the rigor, conviction, and competence by which I say it.”

What is the outline of methodology in Ashery’s poems? (we will look at three of them). IN Larry Levis (again three poems). In Keats’ “Odes?” in Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of ORder at KEy West,” “Large Red Man Reading” and in Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s family and identity poems? How do these methodologies contradict or exclude the possibility of the other?

Besides this old adage, we will be considering the following:

To what extent is art for art’s sake, in its purest most absolute expression, merely a morality and didacticism made conspicuous by its absence? (We will compare the verbal strategy of Oscar Wilde’s essays on art for art’s sake, with some famous sermons and their verbal strategies)). How does an aesthete resemble a strict moralist? What are the verbal strategies of disdain an aesthete employs for the meaningful and the ontological, and how do they resemble the “outrage” of moralists? How does the “cool” and indifference, and practiced inconsequence of an aesthete betray the same underlying violence and zeal as the heat and fanaticism of a moralist? What are the particular strategies of violence in a system that must maintain it is above and beyond “for and against” and is for unending nuance?More importantly, how does an insistence upon ontology (meaning) falsify substance. How does an insistence on substance falsify meaning.

What are the advantages of “who cares” and “so what” in the history of power (the strategies of inviting and not inviting) and how do they figure in the development of post modernism? For this we will be looking at some of the journal entries of Andy Warhol, and some of the party scenes in Proust. We will examine the supposition: power is the right to be arbitrary and contemptuous of all subjects that do not reflect the right to be arbitrary. Power is the lawless generative force of laws, traditions, and beliefs to which it need not adhere. Power never participates in the consistency which it engenders, in that which upholds it. When power obeys its own laws and gatekeepers, it ceases to be power. If this is true, then there are three ways to dismantle a power structure:

1. To go against it (reformers, new movements,)
2. To obey it so perfectly, with such utter obedience that one becomes a “pure” servility. Hence: the gates and the gatekeepers supplant the very thing they were built for and protect. Substance confers substance upon essence and deconstructs it as an essence. The “power” disappears into that which obeys it. (Kafka)
3. To confuse the issues to the point where they shift.

We will look at disdain for romantics in the work of the arch-romantic Byron. Does he disdain romanticism, or only its leadership in the forms of Wordsworth, etc? This will lead to a study of one of the main mechanisms of power which I call: “renaming the father.”

Byron: Not Wordsworth, but Pope (Don Juan).
The modernists (especially Pound): Not Tennyson, but Browning.
The beats: Not Eliot but Williams. Not west, but east. Not leftist action but leftist life style.
Post modernism: not substance, but semiotics of substances that do not exist save for their semiotics.

We will discuss vicarious power through the claiming of origins. We will study the power dynamics of “Studied with.” “read with” “published in” “sponsored by” and “born from.” All this virtual “proof” as created by German academics ad science.How does a poem imply its “studied with,” “read with” “published in” and “born from?” To that end:

If something doesn’t fit any category, and we call it unique, do we mean we are impressed by its originality or confused as to its origins? When we are confused as to a thing’s origins, two reactions– both from the power structure result:

1.We champion the thing or artist as an exotic, a novelty, a bit of the primitive, and the raw, thus either mythologizing or eroticizing it or
2. We disparage, disdain or reject it as a “mistake” an ineptitude, a lack of craft or skill, proof that the artist is a rank amateur.

(Usually we do both).

For this supposition:
- The “peasant” poetry of John Clare
- “Outsider” artists as championed by the elite.
- “Outsiders” as championed by the star making machine (Dylan, Madonna, Eminem)
- Outsiders made immortal by early death (the second generation romantics for example.
- Obscenity trials as a good career move (Baudelaire, Flaubert, Joyce, Lawrence, Ginsberg): scandal as a success story.

Some other things we will be delving into:

The modernist obsession with process and material as a value in and of itself and its relation to industrial and post industrial consciousness. The poem as a “thing made out of words.” The painting as paint. Movements against the representational toward the abstract. Movements to retain the representational through disconnects, incongruity, distortion, or comic pastiche.

Finally: the power of literary friendships (how cronies work on the golf course and in the academy). Friendship as power.

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Joe Weil is a lecturer at SUNY Binghamton and has several collections of poetry out there, A Portable Winter (with an introduction by Harvey Pekar), The Pursuit of Happiness, What Remains, Painting the Christmas Trees, and, most recently, The Plumber's Apprentice, published by New York Quarterly Press. He makes his home in Vestal, New York.

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  • Bob Rixon via Facebook December 8, 2010, 12:11 pm

    Only poets know how many poems end up as pies.

  • ChristopherPhelps December 8, 2010, 5:45 pm

    I really enjoyed this. May I quibble with something, in the interest of shoring up the overall sweep? You say, unpacking Derrida:

    Claim: “There can be no errors in perception if all perception is misperception, only errors in methodology.”

    It is consistent to say, “not by force of truth but by force of belief,” but not, “not by force of any truth but this,” unless we then take that latter statement as the sole exception to its own mandate. Many in positions of power do (force) exactly that.

    Let me say it another way. The claim above comes out as a Wittgensteinian meta-truth: gesturable toward as placeheld in logical space, but not “perceivable” unless that word is allowed to shift its meaning. Suppose we perceive it to be true that all perception is misperception. Then we’ve misperceived it, which, plugging back into the statement, means we’ve perceived it. It’s a variant of the Liar paradox.

    I’m not trying to be a gadfly here. But this is one of my favorite conundra, and there are rigorous ways around it.

    To the larger point that power resists systems (logical systems, for example) in order to maintain itself: this idea is endlessly fruitful. Theological arguments address it. God can’t make a rock too heavy to lift because that would entail giving up his omnipotence, one party claims. Another says that’s the point exactly: a choice to self-limit is one of the most powerful a being can make. Logicians like the idea that logic is the softest force but the strongest, but even they allow various ways out of the Chinese finger cuffs.

  • joe weil December 8, 2010, 9:23 pm

    Thank You. Your correctives are useful, and I made some movement towards them myself in other sections of these lecture notes not posted. One of my favorite quotes on the recalcitrance of systems, especially in terms of their absurdity is a parable by Kafka: “The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy the heavens; doubtless this is so, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for the heavens signify simply: the impossibility of crows.” To give you a concrete example of systemic idiocy: I was running an international poetry reading, poems in 20 languages, but I made the mistake of running it in the English faculty conference room. All the confirmed atheists suddenly behaved as if I had trespassed on holy ground, though no one was using it at that hour, and they had booked my class to meet in that room earlier in the day. They claimed our reading had disrupted 4 conferences, which was odd because we only had two readings. Actually the class of mine they had assigned to that room had interrupted four conference, not the reading, but when I proved this to them, they were upset at being mistaken.I was thrown out of that space. I had the student I was training to host readings seek out another room. My chair tried to help him book the Graduate student organization’s lounge. She was successful, but on my host in training asking if the room was available on December 10 at six oclock, was told it was booked. Here’s the comedy and insanity of it: it was booked by my chair, for us! Because the functionary did not connect the student to the event or the authority of the chair, he locked us out of the event which was reserved for us. No one will give us the key because “We” have reserved the room and “We are not able to run the reading because “We” have reserved the room. That is the best example of systemic madness I have experienced yet. By the way, forgive the typos. Micah lifted these from notes I posted. My fault.

  • Anonymous December 8, 2010, 10:20 pm

    did i miss any? i think i caught almost all of them.

  • ChristopherPhelps December 9, 2010, 3:21 am

    Joe, I love the Kafka quote. Thank you for that. And your anecdote about the self-defeat of (at least bureaucratic) systems is keen.

    It’s probably no coincidence, either, that Cantor and Godel made seminal contributions to mathematics and logic, then (swiftly and slowly, respectively) went mad. I think it was Chesterton who pointed out how the analytical mind goes wrong sooner than the poetic. A reason why, or just a phenomenon: whereas social and political systems constrict, in mathematics it can feel opposite; too wide open. Cantor again: “The essence of mathematics is freedom.” Procrustean but pretty accurate up in the theory seats. Godel is still a hero of mine. In making logic capable of describing itself (somewhat analogous to crafting a mirror fine enough to reflect both the world and its own reflection of it — an infinite mise en abyme he found a way to circle back on itself), Godel found the soft spots: the modesties and misgivings. The limitations (of consistency and completeness) self-confessed in that mirror. I wish literary camps and schools could find that sort of knack, to self-critique without a war having to be brought. I’m sure they have, and do. But the interfactional sniping — in the vituperative reviews and scab-biting that goes on in the republic of letters — is what shows more distinctly in the Comment section of Poetry, et al.

    Sorry this ramble has been only marginally on-topic.

  • Anonymous December 9, 2010, 3:41 am

    ah yes chesterton…i was actually just rereading (or relistening again, courtesy of librivox) orthodoxy. that part of the book is one of my favorite in chesterton….

    Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

  • Anonymous December 9, 2010, 3:42 am

    by the way, chris–i think it’s perfectly on topic!

  • ChristopherPhelps December 9, 2010, 4:12 am

    A rhetorical satori, that Chesterton. Thanks for the delicious quote, Micah! I read Orthodoxy once, on a plane. I remember reacting physically, both good and bad. (He can be maddening, hammering a point home… but when you’re in agreement, you want to join in with his fist pump! Haha.)

    To be a critic (nevermind Critic) isn’t intrinsically as bad as he makes it sound — to switch sides for a moment — but he’s put his finger on the danger. To criticize is to feign yourself more sophisticated than what you criticize. I can describe the workings of a pendulum (elliptic integrals, if you make me) because I am more sophisticated than a pendulum. But a poem is more than a pendulum (or, more aptly, than a metronome). It’s amazing how soon Critics seem to forget they’re just people with opinions, and that poetry is a form of awareness on the level of other people with opinions, so to criticize it properly would seem to require being everyone and having all opinions. Whereas, more commonly, a Critic peeps through his or her keyhole, faulting the line of sight: “Too discursive” or “Not autobiographical enough” or “Too many abstractions.” So much for defending criticism! I’d like a world where critics did nothing but clear avenues and clarify intersections.

  • Anonymous December 9, 2010, 4:34 am

    agreed about him hammering points home. lewis (who i’m not as big a fan of) described chesterton’s rhetorical moves as the flashes of a sword…of a man who is fighting for his life. chesterton does have an amazing ability to move ideas (even ponderous ones) around with slicing, witty remarks. i think the comparison to a man fighting for his life is appropriate. there’s a sort of desperation in his pacing. there are stories (apocryphal i’m sure…probably originated with gb shaw) about chesterton dictating an essay while writing another by hand. it wouldn’t surprise me though. even if you hate his ideas, you have to admire his ability to write and speak.

    have you read zizek on chesterton? there’s an interesting essay here:

    i don’t know hegel (or zizek to be honest) very well, so a good bit of that essay goes over my head. but from what i can understand, zizek has some interesting takes on chesterton.

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