Friday, November 19, 2010

Christopher Rizzo, "Olson & Emergence"

Christopher Rizzo

From Discourse to Experience:
The Poetics of Charles Olson and the Question of Emergence

The use of “emergence” as a critical term is dizzyingly ubiquitous across a range of disciplines. In the hard sciences, for instance, one is apt to read about the emergence of novelty in the configuration space of a biosphere. The social sciences, on the other hand, often parse the reconfiguring dynamism of complex societies through an optic of emergence. In philosophy, and subsequently in literary theory, one of course finds emergence persistently emergent as well. While a rigorous tracing of the term is obviously outside the scope of the present discussion, one particularly familiar place to begin is with Foucault’s analytics of power, in particular his well-known critique of origin in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” In decoupling emergent events from specific spatial environs, Foucault offers a contrasting vantage from which to view the question of emergence in the work of Charles Olson. Unlike that of Foucault, Olson’s sense of emergence is radically empirical, informed not only by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, but also by the hard sciences—the work of Albert Einstein and Werner Heisenberg in physics are easy examples, as is the mathematical thought of Bernhard Riemann and Hermann Weyl. Unapologetically interdisciplinary, Olson’s empirically framed sense of emergence is anything but theoretically innocent, in other words, yet at the same time his project proves particularly problematic to contemporary literary discourses due to not only the variety of his source material, but also his insistence upon the import of a non-discursive empirical present that underwrites his methodology.  In “From Experience to Discourse: American Poetry and Poetics In the Seventies,” Charles Altieri makes an important distinction between “a poetics of immediate experience and a poetics acknowledging its status as discourse,” and now that such a critical distinction is thirty years old—the essay appeared in 1980—the question of an empirical poetics may strike us as either disingenuous or naïve, depending upon the degree of theoretic sympathy given to the early New American writing, spearheaded by Olson, that largely constitutes the landscape to which Altieri attends (191). In an age of postmodern critique, after the profound announcements of cultural and linguistic turns that readily reveal the ostensible “empiricist myth” of unmediated access to reality, I will explore how “a poetics of immediate experience” is still relevant to contemporary writing, in particular how such a poetics understands language as experientially indexical rather than discursively representational. Above all, I hope to show how Olson’s project conceives of emergence as inextricable from the specifically lived and thus immediately experienced rhythms of particular spatial environs. 

Space and the Foucauldian Stage

Entstehung designates emergence, the moment of arising,” Foucault reasons in his reading of Nietzsche, yet he goes on to qualify the temporality of “arising,” explaining that “emergence designates a place of confrontation but not as a closed field offering the spectacle of a struggle among equals” (Language 149-50). In this way, emergence is a temporal and ultimately infinite site of dominations, yet, at the same time, “it is a ‘non-place’, a pure distance, which indicates that the adversaries do not belong to a common space. Consequently, no one is responsible for an emergence; no one can glory in it, since it always occurs in the interstice” (Language 150). While there is certainly something to be said about the disturbingly utopic constitution of struggles and dominations (“utopia” literally means “no place”), my point is to suggest that this temporal character of Foucauldian emergence is not only inextricable from “struggle,” or rather the “play of dominations,” but also from the process of aufheben or sublation. Such a “play” leads to the obvious trope: “In a sense, only a single drama is ever staged in this ‘non-place’, the endlessly repeated play of dominations” (Language 150). Apparently, all the world is not only the dialectic, but also its only actor or agent “responsible for an emergence.”
The insistence that “only a single drama is ever staged” is telling. Foucault’s “sense” of emergence is profoundly formal in its abstraction, and it is this “sense” that decouples the specificity of spatial contexts from the temporality of emergent events. And, to follow the trope of the stage, it is useful to note that Foucault’s “sense” of emergence runs counter to what has become relatively common sense in the physical sciences, specifically the contemporary physics that Olson’s project engages, over the past century. By decoupling the temporal from the spatial, Foucault essentially assumes a Newtonian clockwork universe that is geometrically Euclidean. In an intuitively written and insightful book, The Trouble With Physics, contemporary physicist Lee Smolin explains that, for Newton, “space and time constituted an absolute background. They provided a fixed stage on which a grand drama is played out. The geometry of space and time was needed to give meaning to the things that change, like the positions and motions of particles. But they themselves never changed” (44). Indeed, in Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, Einstein’s description of the “stage” is analogous:

In this, the essential thing is that “physical reality,” thought of as being independent of the subjects experiencing it, was conceived as consisting, at least in principle, of space and time on the one hand, and of permanently existing material points, moving with respect to space and time, on the other. The idea of the independent existence of space and time can be expressed drastically in this way: If matter were to disappear, space and time alone would remain behind (as a kind of stage for physical happening). (164-65)

A Foucauldian theorization of emergence assumes that the “grand drama” of power iterates the “play of dominations” on a fixed stage that takes space and time as independent of one another. As we will see, Olson will not take space and time as existing independently. Ann Charters explains that, for Olson, a “purely deterministic philosophy of the universe, as in Newtonian physics, where physical space was considered discrete, independent of the phenomena that occur in it, is meaningless” (Olson / Melville 15). As it turns out, Foucault’s stage is an “absolute background” so abstract that it is both every stage and no stage at all. Comparing a Newtonian framework to that of Einstein, Smolin observes that

Einstein’s theory of general relativity is completely different. There is no fixed background. The geometry of space and time changes and evolves, as does everything else in nature. Different geometries of spacetime describe the histories of different universes. We no longer have fields moving in a fixed-background geometry. We have a bunch of fields all interacting with one another, all dynamical, all influencing one another, one of which is the geometry of spacetime (44).

Immediately striking is how Smolin invokes “spacetime,” whereby space and time are combined to form a single continuum. In 1905, when Einstein introduces the notion of spacetime in his special theory of relativity, Western thought realizes that the actor and the stage processually change one another through interactivity in a single spacetime continuum. Which is as much to say that the actor and the stage are inextricable from Smolin’s “bunch,” a term that is deceptively uncritical yet arrives at the crucial point that every actor, as part of this “bunch,” has a common interest with the physical world: the events of change that emerge through interactivity.

Spacetime, Quantitative Measure, and the Primordial Instancy of the Event

Olson is deeply interested in such interest, which he discusses in his essay “Quantity in Verse, and Shakespeare’s Late Plays.” He argues that, in the late plays, “Shakespeare is no longer a Humanist in which Nature and Man are separate,” by which he means that the Shakespearean dramatic line evidences a quantitative vernacular measure rather than a accentual-syllabic measure, the former of which attends to the particular durations of bodily and thus spatially voiced syllables (Collected Prose 271). Comparatively, one could make a similar argument for the verse of Sir Thomas Wyatt, albeit before the metric was generalized for inclusion in Tottel’s Miscellany. Considering Olson’s claim from a different point of view, one can also point out that contemporary textual scholarship on Shakespeare has compellingly argued that the texts of the plays are not as fixed and stable as Olson presumes. Be that as it may, in focusing upon a passage from Henry VIII, he articulates phrasal voicing and quantitative measure to the question of spacetime, not to the canonical authority of the single author we know as Shakespeare:

To sum up, then: “by violent” (which is only 1 accent and 4 syllables) already shows for the weave of accent, quantity, breath which makes prosody the music it is: and here is a very close music, sharp, long and stopped, all in a small space of time, reflecting the truth that it is, that this art, when it is at its best, is powerful just because it does obey space-time. (Collected Prose  274)

The Newtonian assumption that “Nature and Man are separate” is analogous to the independence of space and time, only with the caveat that “Nature” is the empty stage upon which the idea of Man performs an existential “grand drama.” For Olson, the ostensible stage of the world is dynamic rather than a “fixed background.” His insistence on “the weave of accent, quantity, [and] breath” recalls the closing paragraph of his oft-cited “Projective Verse” essay, wherein he argues that “a projective poet will, down through the workings of his own throat to that place where breath comes from, where breath has its beginnings, where drama has to come from, where, the coincidence is, all act springs” (Collected Prose 249). For Olson, dramatic action begins not merely with the body, but with the body entangled with the spatiotemporal dynamics of its environs. Such dynamics, of course, are radically rhythmic. Every act by an actor is an empirical interaction with the specifically lived rhythms of the environs with which they are entangled and, in this sense, every act is a dramatically emergent event that “does obey space-time.” The question, however, is what constitutes such an act of obedience.
            “We’re trying to regain the primordial instancy of the event,” Olson states in his aptly titled Last Lectures, which he delivered at the University of Connecticut in 1969 (19). On the one hand, such “instancy” has everything to do with Foucault’s designation of emergence as “the moment of arising.” On the other hand, we have seen that such a Foucauldian designation is dialectical and thus squarely discursive. While Olson’s qualification of “instancy” as “primordial” may be construed as a gesturing towards the impossibility of the genealogically traced origin that Foucault so powerfully critiques, Olson’s use of the term has more to do with the biological sciences than with the Western metaphysics both he and Foucault find philosophically problematic. By “primordial,” Olson indicates that the immediate and unmediated experiential knowledge of “the event”—and, more specifically, the emergence of events in a spatiotemporal continuum—belongs to the earliest stage of development of an organism. As Olson argues in his well-known essay “Human Universe,” “discourse has arrogated to itself a good deal of experience which needed to stay put,” and that “the primordial instancy of the event,” as he says in Last Lectures, “needs now to be returned to the only two universes which count, the two phenomenal ones, the two a man has need to bear on because they bear so on him: that of himself, as organism, and that of his environment, the earth and planets” (Collected Prose 156). The quantitative vernacular measure that Olson locates in the late plays of Shakespeare is the measure not merely of projected breath, as an actor will project a phrase, but also, and just as important, the spatiotemporal events of words as they emerge in an empirical present. The actor, the stage, and the language are all integrally emergent elements of the spacetime continuum.
Quantitative measure recommits poetics to “the primordial instancy of the event,” a pre-Platonic “instancy” that does not assume even a primitive form of the dialectic as necessary to the process of ordering experience. As Altieri suggests, Olson “stresses the non-discursive quality” of his poetics (179). It is interesting to note that in The Special View of History, which collects a lecture series Olson delivered at Black Mountain College in 1956, he evidences such a form of evental emergence by drawing substantially upon the scholarship of the classical scholar Jane Ellen Harrison, in particular her aptly titled study Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion. Harrison supplies for Olson a point of articulation between myth and narrative, which he terms “mutho-logos, the practice of life as story” (21). “A mythos to the Greek was primarily just a thing spoken, uttered by the mouth,Harrison explains in a passage from Themis cited by Olson, “Its antithesis or rather correlative is the thing done, enacted, the ergon or work” (328). More pointedly, Harrison discusses “the thing done” in the introductory passages of Ancient Art and Ritual:

The Greek word for a rite as already noted is dromenon, “a thing done”—and the word is full of instruction. The Greek had realized that to perform a rite you must do something, that is, you must not only feel something but express it in action, or, to put it psychologically, you must not only receive an impulse, you must react to it. The word for rite, dromenon, “thing done,” arose, of course, not from any psychological analysis, but from the simple fact that rites among the primitive Greeks were things done, mimetic dances and the like. It is a fact of cardinal importance that their word for theatrical representation, drama, is own cousin to their word for rite, dromenon; drama also means “thing done.” (35)

Dromenon and mythos are here linked in a correlative relationship. In interpreting Harrison, however, Olson takes this linkage one step further, explaining that “things said are things done,” or rather that mythos and dromenon are strongly homologous terms, rather than merely resonant (The Special View of History 22). In other words, both terms at once constitute “the primordial instancy of the event,” a sense of emergence that, to recall Olson on the practice of projective verse, is bodily and thus spatially situated “where breath has its beginnings, where drama has to come from, where, the coincidence is, all act springs.”
But ancient Greek culture is not the only source of linguistic information for Olson. In a dated yet erudite book, Semantics: Studies in the Science of Meaning, Michel Bréal notes the Latin etymology of “primordial”: “The weaver gave to the Latin language the words which mean ‘to begin’: ordiri, exordium, primordia. Ordiri, was to arrange the threads of the warp for making the woof” (126). When Olson observes in Henry VIII  “the weave of accent, quantity, breath which makes prosody the music it is,” the articulation of “primordial” to the activity of weaving is not lost on an accomplished student of Latin such as Olson. To “regain the primordial instancy of the event” is to take a proactive interest in a spatiotemporal continuum that, moment of arising to moment of arising, forms the existential fabric of not merely creation, but of the Creation. “There are laws,” Olson states at the outset of “Human Universe,” and his prosody sets out to “obey” those of “space-time,” rather than those of discursivity. And it is interesting to note that the Latin roots of “obey” variously mean “to listen to,” “to hear,” and so forth. As Gerrit Lansing explains in his foreword to Charles Olson: Maximus to Gloucester, “one of Charles’s most common expressions was ‘I hear you’ when the quality of your own articulated attention matched his and the sound was true. Always he listened intently to what you offered. And attention to his own thought, rephrasing it and explicating it so as better to be understood” (x). This kind of Olsonic interest reestablishes the value of empirical attention to emergent events, to the dromenon and mythos at once. Of course, Lansing points out what Olson’s close listening to Shakespeare evidences: the act of articulation is always already an emergent interaction.  Language is evental.

Logography and the Indexical Sign

At the end of his Beloit lectures, Olson admits that “I have labored to find Charles Peirce quotable to you. I couldn’t” (58). At times, the work of Peirce is as dense and articulately convoluted as Olson’s own, but we can, indeed, summarize the gist of “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs.” In his analysis of language, Peirce identifies the icon, the symbol, and the index as three forms of sign. Icons signify what they resemble, such as a map; symbols are arbitrarily related to what they signify, such as words; and indexes are naturally related to what they signify, such as thunder or a footprint. In an important and insightful paper “Language and Event Perception: Steps Toward a Synthesis,” Robert R. Verbrugge interestingly sets out to review the potentials and problems of articulating event perception to language use and, in doing so, rewrites Peirce’s  threefold sign theory. On the one hand, Verbrugge argues that information is indexical and, on the other hand, he claims that all language is indexical and, thus, deictic or environmentally specific in terms of directive meaning:

For Peirce, indexes were limited to deictic expressions and gestures of this kind, and all other words were treated as symbols. My extension of the term index to cover all of language is based on what I see as an “existential” relation between all words and their natural occasions. Words are existentially related to events in the current social setting (including processes in the speaker and the listener), and they are existentially related to previous social settings by the developmental continuity of the listener. If prior attunement and current redintegration can provide a natural “cooccurence” of present and past, then all words (indeed, all symbols) are indexical, by extension of Peirce’s own definition. (179)

The kind of existential relation for which Verbrugge argues sheds much light on Olson’s project. “Anything which focuses the attention is an index,” Peirce claims and, in doing so, he supplies an inroad to Verbrugge’s indexical view of language that usefully and quite uncannily resonates with Olson’s project (Philosophical Writings 108). Consider “‘Additions,’ March 1968—2,” which Olson drew upon in his Beloit lectures and George Butterick appropriately included in the posthumously edited final volume of Olson’s epic The Maximus Poems:

                                                Wholly absorbed
                                                into my own conduits to
                                                an inner nature or subterranean lake
                                                the depths or bounds of which I more and more
                                                explore and know more
                                                of, in that sense that other than that all else
                                                closes out and I tend further to fall into
                                                the Beloved lake and I am blinder from

                                    spending time as insistently in and on
                                    this personal preserve from which
                                    what I do do emerges more well-known than
                                    other ways and other outside places which
                                    don’t give as much and distract me from

            keeping my attentions clear (III.191)

The activity of writing attunes one to and thus clarifies inner attention. Alternatively, distraction or distortion of attention stems from the “outside places” of society, which, citing Norman Mailer, Olson terms “corporationland” in his Beloit lectures (65). In this situation, language use is crucial to the process of keeping “attentions clear.” If we follow Verbrugge, the information of language is indexical, which suggests that the words or signs are events that direct attention in specific contexts or environs of knowing. “You shouldn’t know the words you use / until you use them,” Olson says in Last Lectures, or rather “what I do do emerges,” suggesting that the emergence of such evental directivity is not an a priori proposition (20).
Olson’s writings are not records or documents of past experiences given shape through traditional narrative form, but, alternatively, they are the information of perceptive attention marked on the page. Verbrugge notes that “all occasions of perception and recollection can be viewed as indexical,” and he later explains that “an attuned agent experiences storm on hearing thunder, predator on seeing footprint, or hell on reading Dante” (178). Not only is the body phenomenal, but also the language that we use as an indexical guide to orient action. Both the sign or word-event and the nature-event of “thunder” constitute directive information given in a specific context or environ of emergence. In other words, indexes are spatiotemporally  indicative of deictic functionality.
One key way in which Verbrugge explains his indexical view of information and language is to consider the direction of attention in terms of catalysis.

Like chemical catalysts, words are rarely the substance of the process they affect, but they can trigger a flow of imagining and constrain the flow in very specific ways. Words are also like catalysts in that they constrain a process without in any sense containing a representation of the process or its results. Thus, it is inappropriate to say that words contain meaning, or convey meaning, or embody meaning, or represent meaning, contrary to so much of our ordinary language about language. (170)

When we consider the work of Olson, this catalysis analogy should sound more than apt. “That which exists through itself, is what is called the meaning,” Olson provocatively claims in his Beloit lectures, and it is precisely this kind autonomy that he assigns to indexical signs (61). In his introduction to Olson’s selected writings, Robert Creeley echoes Verbrugge when he notes that “meaning is not importantly referential” (Selected 9). Understood as indexical, “meaning” indicates a direction to which organisms orient themselves. “Word writing. Instead of ‘idea-writing’,” Olson proposes in Proprioception, the former term indicating the indexical function of language and the latter term that of reference (Collected Prose 184). Interestingly, Olson speaks of such indexical word writing as “logography”—a term appropriated from I. J. Gelb’s A Study of Writing—which takes every word or sign as an emergent event. In Olson’s sense, the practice of logography registers the emergence of words in specific environs of use, which means that meaning is a consequence of empirical interactivity. Subsequently, logographic knowledge is decidedly not grammatologically a priori. “You shouldn’t know the words you use,” Olson claims, “until you use them.”


In my opening comments, I suggested that Olson’s project is worth a reinvestigation by contemporary literary discourses, especially that of American poetics, despite the difficulty of not only his source material, but, more pointedly, the provisional conclusions that he draws from such diverse research interests, which is not to mention the varying degrees to which his written works—the poetry, essays, letters, lectures, and so forth—prove intractably cryptic. Be that as it may, Olson is indeed a formidably serious postmodern thinker, and the problematic of emergence is arguably crucial to both his project and to contemporary considerations of emergence. The stuttering vernacularity of the phrase “what I do do emerges,” for instance, is particular to its moment of emergence in the developing structure of the poem, anticipating what may consequentially emerge in the act of writing itself. My point here is not to recall the tiredly reiterated arguments over “open form,” “composition by field,” “process,” and other key terms that Olson himself used in a critical manner, but rather to point out how the poem articulates the bodily power of individual agency, of dromenon and mythos, to “the moment of arising.” In an oft-cited passage from Maximus III, Olson asserts that “nothing is possible without / doing it. It is where the test lies, malgre / all the thought and all the pell-mell of / proposing it. Or thinking it out or living it / ahead of time” (III.190). His insistence on the empirical present rejects the proposition of living “ahead of time”—the proposition of propositions, in other words—and resituates the power of agency in the physical expression of agency. What is more, emergence understood as “the moment of arising” undergoes a significant revision, whereby emergence becomes a radically spatiotemporal phenomenon, as life itself is just such a phenomenon. To Olson, we are our emergencies.


Works Cited

Altieri, Charles. “From Experience to Discourse: American Poetry and Poetics in the Seventies.” Contemporary Literature 21.2 (Spring 1980): 191-224.

Bréal, Michel. Semantics: Studies in the Science of Meaning. Trans. Nina Cust. New York: Henry Holt, 1900.

Charters, Ann. Olson / Melville: A Study in Affinity. Berkeley: Oyez, 1968.

Einstein, Albert. Relativity: The Special and the General Theory.1916. Trans. Robert W. Lawson. New York: Three Rivers, 1961.

Foucault, Michel. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. New York: Cornell UP, 1977.

Harrison, Jane Ellen. Ancient Art and Ritual. New York: Henry Holt, 1913.

---. Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010.

Olson, Charles. Charles Olson: Maximus To Gloucester. Ed. Peter Anastas. Gloucester: Ten Pound Island, 1992.

---. Collected Prose. Eds. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.

---. The Maximus Poems. Ed. George F. Butterick. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983.

---. Olson In Mansfield: Last Lectures. Eds. John Cech, Oliver Ford, and Peter Rittner. Poets at Northeastern 9. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1977.

---. Poetry and Truth: The Beloit Lectures and Poems. Ed. George F. Butterick. San Francisco: Four Seasons, 1971.

---. Selected Writings. Ed. Robert Creeley. New York: New Directions, 1967.

---. The Special View of History. Ed. Ann Charters. Berkeley: Oyez, 1970.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Ed. Justus Buchler. New York: Dover, 1955.

Smolin, Lee. The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. Boston: Mariner, 2007.

Verbrugge, Robert R. “Language and Event Perception: Steps Toward a Synthesis.” Persistence and Change: Proceedings of the First International Conference On Event Perception. Eds. William H. Warren, Jr. and Robert E. Shaw. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1985. 157-194.

Christopher Rizzo is a writer, scholar, and editor who lives in Albany, New York. His critical and creative work has appeared in Art New England, The Cultural Society, Cannibal, Dusie, Jacket, Otoliths, Process, and Spell among other publications. He has authored several collections of poetry, most recently Tmēsis / In Other Words Continuing (Boat Train, 2009), a chapbook that documents the documentary “Philip Guston: A Life Lived.” The founding editor of Anchorite Press, Christopher is currently a doctoral candidate in English at the University at Albany.
RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture, http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume 4 (2010): Emergence

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