Perloff and Critchley

by on Jun.15, 2011

I’m reposting a post I did on Exoskeleton about a year ago that relates (roughly) to the Perloff discussion from a few days back…

I would just add that I think Daniel Tiffany, especially in Toy Medium, strikes me as a critic in the Critchley mode as opposed to the Perloff mode…philosophy and poetry work together in his work, one being a contorted mirror of the other, a baroque interchange between the two…


Recently I found myself rereading parts of Marjorie Perloff’s The Poetics of Indeterminacy, and once again wishing that she would bring more of a philosophical element into her work. I should make it clear that I think Perloff is an excellent close reader and an exceptionally lucid writer. Like many people, my introduction to experimental poetry was largely through her books. But something that I find frustrating about her work (and also about the work of certain other critics who write about experimental poetry) is her unwillingness to take on the larger philosophical issues that provide the ground of so much contemporary literature — the issues of death, non-being, and “becoming,” that really started in full with Nietzsche and continued through Heidegger, Bataille, de Beauvoir, Sartre, Foucault, Cixous, Derrida, Kristeva, and Deleuze. (Not that there aren’t major differences between all of those people…) This unwillingness to bring a philosophical dimension to her writings sometimes leads to some curious readings. For example, Perloff’s Rimbaud is oddly one-dimensional–as if he had more in common with Saussure than Nietzsche. (I would argue it’s almost impossible to really get a sense of Rimbaud without thinking about Nietzsche. There are passages of Rimbaud–the “Car Je est un autre” phrase, and his letter on the disordering of the senses–that almost sound like they could have been written by Nietzsche.)

Her book on Wittgenstein’s influence on contemporary writing is fascinating, but her interest in Wittgenstein, as she herself more or less admits at one point, has more to do with his writing style than with his radically new way of approaching language. I have to admit I’ve never found her coupling of Gertrude Stein and Creeley and the LANGUAGE poets with Wittgenstein completely convincing, though I’ve seen it frequently repeated by other critics. The later Wittgenstein used a very intense, specific method involving a careful study of “cases” and ordinary word and phrase usage. I love Gertrude Stein, but she wasn’t interested in ordinary language usage–in fact, she was drawn toward the exact opposite, in non-ordinary usage (which is what makes her such a great writer). The same is true of most of the texts Perloff examines in the book…

The importance of philosophy to poetry (and vice versa) can’t be overstated, and many of the most ambitious poets in the past 150 years or so (Rimbaud, Whitman, Dickinson, Mallarme, Artaud, Lorca, Vallejo, etc.) have also been philosophers of a type, their work being less representational than, as Deleuze would say, “expressive.”

Simon Critchley’s Very Little…Almost Nothing addresses the issue of nihilism, and his main focus is on Beckett, and Beckett’s ability to put “meaning” on trial, so to speak. The issue of death saturates the text. It’s a wonderful book–with great sections on Blanchot, Adorno, and Nietzsche himself. Critchley is associated with the novelist Tom McCarthy, whose Remainder I plan to write about on this blog shortly. They’re two of the chief members of the International Necronautical Society–a group that wrote a manifesto stressing the importance of death to literature, and the importance of thinking and writing in ways that go against banal, totalizing strategies. Critchley has also recently been involved in a fascinating debate with Zizek about the role of violence in contemporary politics. In short: I realize comparing Critchly’s work with Perloff’s is somewhat unfair, since he is a trained philosopher, and since his books therefore have a different emphasis. But the scope of his work on aesthetics, especially Very Little, has such a generous, expansive element! And I believe this expansiveness comes directly from his willingness to relate aesthetics to issues of nihilism, becoming, the death of metaphysics, etc.

I don’t agree with Critchley’s arguments entirely–he agrees with Heidegger, and believes that Nietzsche never escaped the metaphysical straitjacket he fought so hard against. I tend to agree with Deleuze and Derrida, and think that Nietzsche actually DID largely escape metaphysical modes of thought…with the “will-to-power” being less about “power” in our usual sense, and closer to what Deleuze means when he talks about “force.” But overall the book makes a compelling case about Beckett, and Beckett’s own struggle to think through what death in our modern sense really means…


2 comments for this entry:
  1. Josef Horáček

    I disagree with your claim that Stein wasn’t interested in ordinary language. I think the precise opposite is true: Stein was interested in nothing but ordinary language. So much of her writing seems to come from overheard conversations. She notices the things we don’t usually notice until we hear our voices in a recording: all the detritus and filler, self-interruptions, the shortcuts and fragments, and the rhythms and repetitions of mundane speech.

    What she does with that language, of course, is quite non-ordinary.

  2. James Pate


    I agree with your description of Stein here, but what I mean by “ordinary language usage” (which is different from “ordinary language”) is that she is not, unlike Wittgenstein, attempting to examine the multiple common employments of a given term in order to understand the function of that term, and clear out the metaphysical debris…her work is about radical juxtaposition, and hence its overlap with cubism…she does use ordinary language, true, but, as you say, in a non-ordinary manner…for Wittgenstein, that “ordinary” usage is a fundamental attribute to his approach to language…