Abstract for Essay on Prynne, Philology, and Commentary

Rembrandt van Rijn, “A Scholar in His Study (‘Faust’)” [c. 1645]
“‘The review of struggle to fix the sense’: Speculations on Commentary and J.H. Prynne”

Abstract: The commentaries of the Cambridge poet-scholar, J.H. Prynne, represent a renovation of commentary as critical practice in English studies. Neither their interdisciplinarity nor their density is unique; critics as different as Erich Auerbach, Giorgio Agamben, Helen Vendler, and Jacques Derrida have shown what can be done with and through commentary. But Prynne’s commentary is of an extreme kind: a radicalized version of close reading that frames the poem as a locus of convergent and contradictory tendencies whose sedimentation supersedes both author and reader. Despite the brilliant adumbrations in the margins, the commentary retains its marginality by making the poem into a curriculum. Never has the aesthetic autonomy of the single poem been so challenged than by so intensely focusing on a single poem.

This was started years (and years and years) ago and finally buttoned up this morning! It’s been sent out for review…

Comments on Eileen Joy’s ‘Notes Towards a Speculative Realist Literary Criticism’

Eileen Joy gave a series of stimulating, ‘gnomic’ (her term), feed-limited notes towards what a speculative realist literary criticism might be here. I’d like to respond with a slightly more scrambled set of notes. I want to raise some questions about the ‘fitness’ between speculative realism and literary criticism, although these problems should be seen against the backdrop of a common enthusiasm for its possibility. If Eileen’s note moves ‘towards’ something, the following comments are less directed and far less coherent.

One of the less exciting things about learning and using philosophical engagements is that it quickly starts to feel like a method, both in the sense of a procedure for interpretation (structural) and as a predominantly rational enterprise. By the latter I mean the way in which the reading practice itself is bureaucratized by its own file folder. But nor is hedonistic opportunism the sensible way to understanding the quandary of the textualized object.

Perhaps, the first application of object-oriented ontology to literary criticism might begin with de-prioritizing the supremacy of the text in relation to its ilk (ink, page, book, pixel, web page, libraries, university, etc.) not in order to create a flat ontological plane whose residents are equal and equivocally summoned, but in order to understand the ideological and institutional contexts through which texts arrive in our mailboxes, homes, tables, eyes and ears. This has been done and continues to be done by various historicist and post-Foucauldian agents. It would also require understanding the history of the emergence of the text as a written object, as opposed to a ritual, memory, or recitation; and indeed, might think about how the emergence of the written text in the West  (and its relation to the current emergence of the hypertext) [I’m thinking here of Paul Saenger’s Silent Reading, and especially David R. Olson’s The World on Paper] contributed to the phenomenological con-fusion of the text with the mind, as something mental-evident, at least for those whose competence takes place in the know. Hence, the development of a humanist interpretation is closely related to the ‘text as speech’ idea. Meaning, strictly speaking, is a metaphor for the text as a kind of mind. Indeed, mind and ‘to mean’ share the same Indo-European root. Taking a more anthropological stance, i.e. understanding the text as a kind of cultural record without the immanent development of subjectivity lurking behind it. The dialectical tearing and damage inflicted upon language by the writers of those texts whose language relinquishes its author–these are the encounters of textual resistance and enigmaticalness which produce the alien status of the textual object. I’m thinking especially of recent poetry, such as J.H. Prynne, Peter Manson, Lisa Robertson, Marjorie Welish (especially!). If we accept that the mind, and also the groups of embodied minds in a community or culture, are largely  homologous with ‘language’, then the mind absorbed in reading is experiencing the kind of effects that a landscape painting might generate when placed in the middle of a field. That is to say, uncanny, strange, weird, defamiliarized. It would seem that OOO has something interesting to say about the status of the verbal artwork.

The next step would be to counter-act this de-prioritization by understanding the role of language (e.g. English) in texts: what does it look like, how does what it looks like contribute to how it may potentially be read, how does the praxis of reading change the status of the object, how does the language on the object (*not* the language ‘of’ the object) make claims upon the object’s status fundamentally uncertain? Is the textualized object a special case of ‘vicarious causation’, and who is the proxy there? If I look at a book cover whose text is written in Mongolian script, the status of that book as an object–its flickering between ready-to-hand and presence-at-hand, say– is markedly different than a book cover in English, or one featuring a picture. Even if the picture is inscrutable, my identification of it as a picture goes a long way to understanding the ‘bibliographical code’. So this means that it is not enough to try to squash meaning-hermeneutics by thinking of the text as an object–the precise role language has in constituting the text must be thought through as a material practice of discovery.

I’ve been enjoying Levi Bryant’s post about Eileen’s talk. But I disagree that the humanist tradition of textual interpretation has always attempted to ‘close the text’. This strikes me as a very Derridean reading, but overlooks a whole tradition of praxis whose precise aim has been not to ‘complete’ the text or to ‘have the final say’, but rather to further open the text. Commentary. The history of Biblical, Scholastic, Renaissance, scientific, and literary commentaries shows that the quest for meaning has done nothing but the opposite of closure. ‘Meaning’ has generated intense dialogue and debate. And yet, there is still this ‘ghost in the machine’ problem; this transcendental spirit of intention/author which continues to haunt the grounds of lit crit like a specter of moral edification and redemption, as though waiting for the text to animate itself and speak.

The idea of autopoeisis, which Eileen mentions in her lecture, never quite hit full steam, despite Jerome McGann’s use of the term in The Textual Condition (1991). He writes:

This book attempts to sketch a materialist hermeneutics. In so doing, it considers texts as autopoietic mechanisms operating as self-generating feedback systems that cannot be separated from those who manipulate and use them. Their autopoiesis functions through a pair of interrelated textual embodiments we can study as systems of linguistic and bibliographical codings. (p. 15)

This raises an important question for sketching an OOO for the text: how will it become operative? If the text is not, strictly speaking, a phenomena, it nonetheless requires a human mind to make sense of its language, and how can this set of neural cognitive activity be distinguished from an ontological claim for the object’s autonomy? Autopoiesis is a term derived from Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (1980). I’m already over my head here, but I’ll just say that their idea came about when they switched from asking a semantic question (e.g. what does it mean for x to do y? what is the cause or root of x?) to a structural question: “How does it happen that the organism has the structure that permits it to operate adequately in the medium in which it exists” (p. xvi). This powerful structural idea was notably taken up by the German systems-theorist Niklas Luhmann, who virtuosically combined it with G. Spencer Brown’s algebraic thinking in Laws of Form (1969). In Art and Society (1995), Luhmann still observes the (unfortunate) distinction between medium and form. By ‘medium’ I think he signifies something like the materiality of the page: “the whiteness of the paper from which figures or letters emerge” (p. 109). By form, I think he must signify the the cognitive-abstract system of language.

I’ll try and give a hackneyed glimpse into this monumental work with a big citation. I’m wondering how it might ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’ with OOO. Following Spencer Brown, Luhman  outlines the “calculus of form” where:

[O]bject and creative process coincide (in this respect we are dealing with a kind of ‘constructivism’), since both emerge—simultaneously—from the imperative ‘Draw a distinction.’ An observer can once again distinguish between object and process when selecting this distinction as the form of observation. This is why it takes an observer to raise questions about objects; a system simply starts operating. It takes an observer to see the paradox of a beginning that presupposes itself, to recognize the self-implicative structure of the distinguishing act, and to plunge himself, at least logically, into confusion. Only an observer can run into paradox and be forced to admit that paradox is always presupposed—in mathematical and even more so in logical operations—as the blind spot that makes distinction, and thus observation, possible in the first place. Operations, on the other hand, including observing operations, simply happen. A distinction discriminates; its mere occurrence must be observed (retrospectively by the same system, simultaneously or later by another system); only then does the unity of the distinction become apparent as the blind spot that enables observation. This unity remains invisible while the distinction is used—this holds for all distinctions. It is as indisputable as our certainty about the world, a certainty based on inaccessibility (pp. 31-32).

Thus, form is a dialectic in which distinction withdraws into an invisible unity as the selection of further distinctions makes this possible. Luhmann’s work has been taken up by critics (notably Cary Wolfe’s “The Idea of Observation at Key West, or, Systems Theory, Poetry, and Form Beyond Formalism”, NLH 39 (2008), 259-276). Stopping short here for more later.

The Battle of Maldon

MS from British Library, Cotton Otho A xii (burnt)

J.H. Prynne’s ‘Song in Sight of the World’ (The White Stones, 1969 [2005], p. 76) makes brief mention of the event (and Anglo-Saxon poem about the event) known as the Battle of Maldon, which occurred in 991CE in Maldon, Essex, UK between Byrhtnoth, eaoldorman of Essex, leader of the thanes, and a Danish raiding-force. The lines are:

We are a land
hammered by restraint, into
a too cycladic past. It is
the battle of Maldon binds
our feet: we tread
only with that weight & the empire
of love, in the mist. The name of this
land, unknown, is that.

The causeway separating the Vikings from accessing the Anglo-Saxons has a large amplitude of high to low water, meaning that it is impassable during high tide and wet, mud flats during low tide. There is considerable suspense in gazing and concentrating upon the enemy, refusing their offer of tribute-money to leave without battle, and having to wait for possible battle. The binding of the feet refers to this loyalty to place, but also to the excessively cycladic past of this binding. The proto-Indoeuropean culture on the Aegean islands becomes an adjectival link to medieval England. But is this a kind of agoraphobia? Does Prynne wish to tap into the formative stages of English civilization, and also island-culture, to describe contemporary (c. late 1960s) behavior? Surely, the English ‘restraint’ supports a false platform for the staging of imperial modesty. And this is only to diagram an ongoing poetic argument in each of these White Stones. We follow the enjambment of one prosaic constituent into the next, we often end up feeling unrewarded for our close attention and interested enthusiasm: ‘The politics | of this will bear inspection.’ The suavity and grace with which this is delivered creates a problem for the display of ironic units, as each flame burns into its neighbor. Implorations for meaning, for truthful restitution of historicity or truthful language-use are by no means resolute, neither by their isolation within line, stanza, page, or poem, nor by the thought-narrative of a single speaker, free from device, artifice or objective focus.

But to return for one moment to this treading: the poem assumes the ‘we’, which bears the reader, including him within the expanse of what is said, but also does not speak for him, which is the cognitive dissonance between reading <we> and listening at any location to a speaker attempting to speak for you , and thereby including your proxy, some flicker of exclusivity from whoever is not yet there. It is a dangerous game. And it is saturated with a depth of enthusiasm and compassion for the present tense. Frequently, definitions, evidential formations, and other corroborative matter follow colons: this historical event that ‘binds | our feet’ leads to, or is supported by, or means that ‘we tread’, firstly, ‘only with that weight’; and secondly, ‘only with that…empire | of love’. This treading is done ‘in the mist’. The weight refers to the weight of the binding of feet. As this lacks a transitional dative-object, the feet are bound to themselves by the battle of Maldon. The ’empire of love’ embodies the idea-structure of belief, caught in the simple syllogisms of the good and bad. We might ask whether the speaker’s <we> is viking or Anglo-Saxon, but the problem of name-drops in the context of such propositionality is that false parallelisms abound. With no formal separation, even if the historical reach of the Maldon metaphor (only part-metaphor anyway) is dropped quickly as it was picked up, its details when articulated by an interested reader may be led to try and support some rather faulty structures of thinking. And yet there is that playful suggestiveness, which is a gentle unease.


The Battle of Maldon at Archaeology in Europe

Full text Old English with translation and commentary at University of Oxford, Old English