Author Archive

The book of nature in Plath and Vallejo

by on Nov.02, 2011

Kenneth Anger's occultism

As though it were nothing other than a little globe of darkness from which there flashed out a strange light…

– Foucualt (about Bataille)

Frequently the occult elements in writers such Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Artaud, Vallejo, and Plath are seen as a sideshow, the least important part of their art, as something even embarrassing and best forgotten.

Baudelaire becomes the poet of modernity, as opposed to a poet who wrote also wrote about spirits, occult correspondences, vampirism, etc. And Artaud’s occultism is frequently linked to his madness.

But what if this occultism in their work is actually a way of denaturalizing nature, of finding the weak points in the wall between Art and Nature, of writing, as Huysmans’ says, “against nature” (or at least against the image of nature as a form of immediacy, transparency)? What if this occultism is actually one of the most radical and least digestible elements of their work?

Vallejo in his famous poem “The Book of Nature” attempts to “read” a tree as if he were an ancient priest or prophet attempting to read the meaning of a group of birds flying through the sky or the entrails of a slain animal. The poet, who is both a “good student” and a “bad student” (Vallejo’s paradoxical universe always straining to the breaking point with simultaneously existing contraries), sees the linden as displaying “dead foliage” that is also a “deck of cards” that can somehow be interpreted.

Yet the cards are also in the poet himself. The relation between poet and tree is not a “natural” one (he doesn’t make of the tree a metaphor for his soul, his thoughts). Rather this image of the cards is what links the pair: cards that are dead foliage. The occultism of reading cards distorts any simple correspondence between poet and tree, between self and nature. Both self and nature become cards to be examined  instead of mirrors to be looked into.
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And Now review blog

by on Oct.13, 2011

For all those going to the &Now conference, some friends and I have set up a blog for further discussions. The blog is a real-time experiment: it will only exist during the hours of the actual conference. Then it will be sent off into the cold reaches of cyberspace where it will exist as a free-floating document, as cyber debris. The blog and project will be used for a future EBR article..

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some thoughts on Huysmans

by on Oct.08, 2011

 Years ago he had trained himself as an expert in the science of perfumes; he held that the sense of smell was qualified to experience pleasures equal to those pertaining to the ear and eye, each of the five senses being capable, by dint of a natural aptitude supplemented by an erudite education, of receiving novel impressions, magnifying these tenfold, coordinating them, combining them into the whole that constitutes a work of art.   – J.K. Huysmans

The deliberate attitude of modernity is tied to an indispensable asceticism. To be modern is not to accept oneself as one is in the flux of the passing moment; it is to take oneself as object of a complex and difficult elaboration: what Baudelaire, in the vocabulary of his day, calls dandysme. — Foucault

I’ve recently been rereading J.K. Huysmans’ A Rebours, which has been one of my favorite novels since I stumbled upon it at a bookstore back in high school. (I bought it because of the creepy medieval cover and the equally uncanny picture of Huysmans in the first pages, showing him with a dark goatee under a huge crucifix, included in this post). And once again I’m struck not only by his remarkable style, a style that is at once static and yet paradoxically, within that arrest, very kinetic (much like a Caravaggio or El Greco painting where nothing moves and yet everything twitches, pulsates), but also by how contemporary he sounds.

The novel could be described as being Warholian. Artifice and ventriloquism take over (one of des Esseintes’ lovers, for example, can throw her voice around the room, making his statues of the Chimaera and the Sphinx carry on a dialogue)…And it’s easy to imagine both Guy Maddin and Catherine Breillat making film versions of the novel, both extremely different from one another, one being kitschy and full of Gothic effects and silent film devices and the other muted and somber and shot in earth browns and sky-grays.
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Boettcher's Theater-State: a review

by on Sep.02, 2011

from the Cremaster series

We have had enough of a haphazard magic, a poetry that no longer has the support of science.

–  Artaud

 For science would go completely mad if left to its own devices

                                                    – Deleuze and Guattari

 In Jack Boettcher’s new book Theater-State, the bracing head-on mix of art and science, that dream of so many poets and philosophers, has finally come to pass. And what does that future look like? Matthew Barney’s Cremaster series comes to mind. The biological is fused with the technological, and aesthetic experimentation cannot be separated from scientific experimentation. A beautiful jellyfish might hold the key to immortality; a Megahighway is created that is shaped by the desires of the drivers (much to the fear of many pedestrians); a mysterious principal completely reinvents his environment depending on whatever anthropological interest he might have at the moment; and an academy that resembles a well-funded Montessori school carries out educational experiments as a-moral as anything found in Shelley’s Frankenstein —–including a class in which students are given an actual seat in the parliament of “the newest country in Central America.”

This future is neither dystopian nor utopian, though. It simply is, in all of its discordant complexity. And yet we can clearly see our reflections in this picture of the future. Everything is in motion; American society has reached the state of being an ongoing theater. As Janus, the main protagonist in the book, thinks at one point, “Nothing remained as mapped for very long.” The world of essences and depths has vanished. We have now reached a place of perpetual transformation.
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Parra, genre, and poetry of the near future

by on Aug.26, 2011

Nicanor Parra

Here’s Bolano on the future of poetry, taken from his essay on Parra called “Eight Seconds with Nicanor Parra”: The Poetry of the first decades of the twenty-first century will be a hybrid creation, as fiction has already become. We may be heading, with terrible slowness, toward new earthquakes of form. In this uncertain future, our children will watch as the poet asleep in an armchair meets up on the operating table with the black desert bird that feeds on the parasites of camels. At some point in his life, Breton talked about the need for surrealism to go underground, to descend into the sewers of cities and libraries. Then he never spoke on the subject again. It doesn’t matter who said it: THE TIME TO SETTLE DOWN WILL NEVER COME. (The capitalization is Bolano’s.)

Three reasons why I like this quote:

1: The phrase the “poet asleep in an armchair meets up on the operating table with the black desert bird that feeds on the parasites of camels.”

2: The idea that poetry “will be a hybrid creation, as fiction has already become.” What did he mean by this? When we consider that most of his favorite contemporary fiction writers were artists heavily influenced by genre (Javier Marias, Cormac McCarthy, Philip K. Dick, James Ellroy) I can’t help but suspect that he meant, at least partially, that poetry would start to gain some new energy from genre (and, I would argue, not in the condescending aren’t-we-so-much-smarter-than-the-average-genre-reader tone that all too frequently mars experiments with hybrid fiction in experimental writing, but rather approaching crime fiction and sci-fi and mysteries with the same passion we’d bring to “literary” writing).

And 3: The recognition of Parra in the essay as a whole, who really is one of the great unsung heroes of twentieth-century poetry, a badly needed modern day Petronious laughing in the midnight graveyard.

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The Sookie Stackhouse Anthology

by on Aug.18, 2011

Pam from True Blood

All the authorities who write about what [folk music] is and what it should be, when they say keep it simple, that it should easily be understood—folk music is the only music where it isn’t simple. It’s weird…Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death.   — Bob Dylan

I’ve been watching season 4 of one of my favorite TV shows at the moment, True Blood, and I’ve also been re-listening to Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of American Folk Music, very possibly the best complication of songs ever put together in the States, and I can’t help but see one as haunting the other. Unlike, say, Friday Night Lights, which gives the viewer an earnest portrayal of “the south” (or at least Texas), with its quotidian vision of small town life, a vision that is clearly trying to give us a sense that this is an authentic world we are watching, with real-life problems, both the Smith anthology and True Blood revel in the more grotesque notions about the south. The south they present is spectral and excessive and gargoylean. It’s not a place so much as a fever dream of images and narratives.
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Bolano's Blood Meridian

by on Aug.15, 2011

from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I’ve been reading Between Parentheses, Bolano’s book of essays and nonfiction pieces. Bolano is definitely a critic in the Walter Pater mode: just as, say, Pater’s famous essay on the Mona Lisa could easily be read as a Baudelaire-influenced prose poem, Bolano’s reviews are not so much “critiques” as a kind of aesthetic response of their own.

Criticism as Art. Or: Art messily spawning more Art.

One of my favorite pieces is his review of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. (Evidently, McCarthy and James Ellroy were the two American writers Bolano respected most. Both of them haunt the margins of 2666. And McCarthy and Bolano have another similarity too: they’re both Dionysian though they wear the mask of Apollo.)

Here’s the last part of the review:

Blood Meridian is a novel about place, about the landscape of Texas and Chihuahua and Sonora; a kind of anti-pastoral novel in which the landscape looms in its leading role, imposingly—truly the new world, silent and paradigmatic and hideous, with room for everything except human beings. It could be said that the landscape of Blood Meridian is a landscape out of de Sade, a thirsty and indifferent landscape ruled by strange laws involving pain and anesthesia, the laws by which time often manifests itself…

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Foucault's dandy and some thoughts on modern poetry

by on Aug.11, 2011



The dandy as philosopher: It is will known that in the last decade of his life, Foucault moved away from attempts to describe power as simply normalizing and repressive and towards a notion of power that could be seen as creative, stimulating, constructivist. A form of power related to his notion of “the care of the self.” At its most radical, the “care of the self” can be seen as a continual and systematic experimentation upon the self.

Foucault: “From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think that there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art.” But this isn’t a redrawing of the existentialist map. Foucault, unlike Sartre, does not dilute his insights with the concept of authenticity. Rather, for Foucault there can be no appeal toward an authentic self (no matter how we situate that authenticity, be it Freudian, Marxist, etc.) and no final appeal to the sciences (economics, psychology, sociology, etc.). All we have, and all we can ever have, are different forms of fiction.
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Warhol and Lynch re-visited

by on Jun.29, 2011

Because of the interesting recent discussion on Lynch, I’m reposting a post I put up last fall about Lynch, and his relation to Warhol, among other topics……


This week, I picked up a copy of Steven Shaviro’s The Cinematic Body, a book Johannes has discussed frequently both here and on Exoskeleton. I like Shaviro’s arguments against a Lacanian/high modernist approach to film–though the book (published in 1993) predates Zizek’s many Lacanian readings of Hitchcock and Lynch, readings that go far beyond the high modernist tradition of holding pleasure and fascination in contempt. (One of the reasons for Zizek’s popularity, I think, is the fact that he has such an unapologetic love for film and Pop culture in general: he doesn’t just examine films as vehicles of ideology–his own fascination with them is always part of his analysis, even when he doesn’t say so explicitly).
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The influence of Marina Abramovic on Franz Kafka

by on Jun.29, 2011

abramovic 1977

Marina Abramovic 1977

Nietzsche in The Gay Science: The unconscious disguise of physiological needs under the cloaks of the objective, ideal, and purely spiritual goes to frightening lengths—and often I have asked myself whether, taking a large view, philosophy has not been merely an interpretation of the body and a misunderstanding of the body.

Foucault: To follow the complex course of [historical] descent is to identify the accidents, the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us; it is to discover that truth or being do not lie at the root of what we know and what we are, but the exteriority of accidents.


Over the years, I’ve read a few pieces on the retroactive aspect of influence, of new or at least newer works of art influencing how we see older works of art: for example, it is probably difficult for most of us to read Nietzsche without thinking of the way his thought has been written about by writers like Foucault, and I know that personally I have a hard time reading Cervantes without thinking about Nabokov and Borges. One line of thought argues that we should try to erase those later works from our reading, and I can see the value in attempting to reach back, to think in modes that are basically extinct (even if this type of thinking might be largely a contemporary fiction).

But I am interested in how the idea of retroactive influence can be a move against our linear and patriarchal sense of cultural inheritance. One example is that of the influence of Marina Abramovic on Kafka (or, rather, how her work might radically alter our sense of Kafka). In “The Hunger Artist,” Kafka’s protagonist is striking in his purposelessness: his feat is ignored by the public, and his torturous performance overflows any clear allegory. He does say, when he is finally taken from the cage, and right before he dies, that he never found a food that satisfied him, and that if he had, he would have eaten as much as anyone. But even this, which has been interpreted in many spiritual and political ways, holds itself away from any conceptual framework. In fact, no matter what interpretation we have for “food” in this context, it seems to lessen the power of the story. Maybe the most radical reading would be to take “food” literally in all of its blatant materiality.

Similarly, I’ve sometimes heard people wondering why Marina Abramovich would put on a performance in which she takes a pill for catatonia, as she does in Rhythm 2, from 1977, or, maybe most notoriously, her performance in Naples in 1974, where she placed various implements on a table (blades, a gun, a bullet, etc.) and put up a sign telling the audience that they could do what they wanted to her (Rhythm 0). What is the point? might be a banal question, but it also reveals something fundamental to both Kafka’s Hunger Artist and Abramovic. With both we see the way Art, by undermining our usual, casual assumptions about healthy responses and reasonable calculations, can expose how the ground at our feet is based on little, almost nothing…And to get back to influence: Abramovich, I would argue, shows us a new Kafka, our at least a new Hunger Artist, that is impossible to forget.

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Eshleman and surrealism

by on Jun.22, 2011

In the wake of the interesting debate about surrealism on Montevidayo the past few days, and Kent Johnson’s remarks about Eshleman’s importance in the transmission of surrealism to the American poetry scene, I’m reposting a review I wrote on Eshleman’s Anticline on Exoskeleton about a year ago.
In his new book of poems entitled Anticline, Clayton Eshleman takes on many of the themes that he has been dealing with through his prolific career–the underlying violence of the American empire, the border between the animal and human, the ways in which the visual arts and poetry attempt to express the “the human” in all of its often inhuman complexity, with Francis Bacon and Bosch being especially relevant to his more recent poems, and also how the imagination can both trap and liberate us. I have to admit, I think Eshleman has become a better and better poet over the years, and Anticline is one of my favorite books of his yet. His images have become both clearer and stranger, and his political instincts, while always being critical of those in power, have sharpened even further during the Bush years–and yet he has continually kept away from the self-congratulatory moralizing that has bogged down so much of the political poetry written since 9/11. His more political poems tend to be too messy, too riddled with conflict, and, frankly, too horrific, to be self-congratulatory. If the image of war we find in some American poetry can seem as sanitized as the images we see on CNN, the imagery in Eshleman’s political poems are like the more uncensored pictures of conflict we find on Al Jazeera. As Simon Critchley points out in his book Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, modern politics is now more than ever about “the control of the image.”

(continue reading…)

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Tiffany's Toy Medium

by on Jun.15, 2011

Daniel Tiffany’s Toy Medium, which makes so many interesting connections between science/philosophy and poetry/lyricism, reminds me of Foucault’s attempts to find similar links, especially in regards to finitude, and to thought being carried out the the limit of interpretation. At the end of Birth of the Clinic he writes:

“The medical experience is related to a lyrical experience which sought its language from Holderlin to Rilke. That experience, inaugurated by the nineteenth century and from which we have not yet escaped, is bound up with the revelation of forms of finitude, death being no doubt the most threatening, but also the fullest.”

Also: the monstrous lyricism of Gravity’s Rainbow, where the lyricism of science is taken to the extreme, producing V-2 bombs, etc., and where the Rilke-obsessed Captain Blicero creates a bomb with a capsule inside in order to send one of his S&M slaves into flight, escaping gravity’s pull…a bomb that escapes the time/space coordinates of WWII in order to land on a Californian movie theater in the 70’s…a theater showing a film that might well be Gravity’s Rainbow itself…


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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.) (continue reading…)

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