Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Swerve of the Thing

I felt as if Ginsberg’s assertion in the last video clip that “‘no ideas but in things’ means that there's no God, basically” was a little glib, so I decided to take yet another dive into Williams’ materialist (but perhaps crypto-theological) apothegm, this time via Slavoj Zizek, who has been, since his appearance on the scene, the philosopher of the “Thing,” and who has recently taken up the project of “thinking the subversive deadlock of monotheism through to the end.” (71) I find a lot of chance points of intersection in Chapter 3 of The Puppet and the Dwarf with various readings of Paterson, especially Zizek’s reevaluation of Freud’s notion of psychic automata and traumatic blockage. What follows may be more my riffing than a close reading, as can be only possible in this constrained space.
Firstly, those “thousand automata” of Paterson “who neither know their sources nor sills of their/ disappointments,” may in the end, be better materialists than Williams is; the language fails them, but they operate fine, and are the body of the demos. They are Paterson. Williams, in contrast, posits himself as alienated demiurge of the things he sees—the things emerge from him and the Falls rather than just sitting there like the green bottle glass. Poet is trumped by the people, and like them may also be an epiphenomenon of the Falls, which are, in turn, a better, natural geist that animates all the automatons. Can Williams get from geist to mere gist, thus overcoming the oversoul that haunts his search for the thing (although becoming Christ in the end?), or will he always miss this encounter in his deadlock with the people of Paterson?
The Falls may be what Zizek (citing Jonathan Lear) calls an “enigmatic term”: a seductive, empty concept that keeps a traumatic inconsistency from true consciousness. They are not “false” per se, but are structurally important placeholders for opacity, blockage, and the impenetrability of the Other’s desire, to use his terms. What’s important is that, in this reading, the Falls are not a stand-in for the Real as the thing-in-itself beyond the grasp of language—the flow, the noise, the movement towards death, etc. Rather, they mark the blockage and inconsistencies of the Paterson-system: “this Real . . . is not the inaccessible Thing, but the gap that prevents our access to it.” (78) This gap may be the all important antagonism between the poet who individually sings the city and the multitude that does not hear the song, so Williams is hep when he sings the blockage, but not when he makes the Falls an allegory for the flow behind appearances. There is no flow, only these blockages. There is no crossing the gap of the structural antagonisms, and this realization—the materialism of Williams—is paradoxically when he is most Christian, according to Zizek: “It is the very radical separation of man from God that unites us with God, since, in the figure of Christ, God is thoroughly separated from himself—thus the point is not to ‘overcome’ the gap that separates us from God, but to take note of how this gap is internal to God Himself” (78) We could say that Williams’ separation is incomplete—perhaps because of his Unitarian shilly-shallying with the divine—and, to end with a Zizekian doosy, it is only, then, the Jewish poet Ginsberg who can then become the Christian God.
Zizek makes a rare reference to poetry (Plath’s “The Other”) at the end of this chapter, which makes me think it is an apt one for these meditations. Here’s another good quote from this chapter for the poetics grab-bag:
It is not that we need words to designate objects, to symbolize reality, and that then, in surplus, there is some excess of reality, a traumatic core that resists symbolization—this obscurantist theme of the unnameable Core of Higher Reality that eludes the grasp of language is to be thoroughly rejected; not because of a naïve belief that everything can be nominated, grasped by our reason, but because of the fact that the Unnamable is an effect of language. We have reality before our eyes well before language, and what language does, in its most fundamental gesture, is—as Lacan put it—the very opposite of designating reality: it digs a hole in it, it opens up the visible/present reality toward the dimension of the immaterial/unseen. When I simply see you, I simply see you—but it is only by naming you that I can indicate the abyss in you beyond what I see. (70)

Or if you are completely bored by all this, here’s his dirty joke about tennis.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Ginsberg Drift

As described by Al in the last entry, here is the clip of Allen Ginsberg taking documentarists through the defunct industrial groves of Paterson, and talking about "no ideas but in things." He starts with his reading of one of his letters to Williams (which we musicated earlier this spring for the blog) and somewhat reinforces my hunch that Williams did not expect Ginsberg to become famous, since Ginsberg describes Williams as wanting his letters for their "street" quality (the way Ginsberg mentions this, you get a sense that he might have felt honored by this inclusion but also condescended to.) This footage was shot 20 years ago, and from what little you can see, the landscape remains little changed. As one is apt, Al marvelously scrambled the elements of this footage in his memory. I'm still looking for the boot and the shopping cart!

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

You Need This Kind of Unhappy: Filreis, Lowenthal, and Couch on Paterson

New Jersey as an Impossible Object
brings me to University of Pennsylvania again, which makes sense since we can probably map Williams’ cosmos as a quadrilateral connecting Paterson/Rutherford, New York, Paris, and Penn (he went to medical school and met Ezra Pound at the university, and his impact is still felt there today). In fact, this interview took place at Penn’s Kelly Writers House, where they consider Williams their patron saint. His poem “Quality of Heaven” is etched in its pavestones, and as Kelly Writers House director and Kelly Professor of English, Al Filreis says, “Williams is what underwrites so much of what we do. He is absolutely central. He’s accessible, in small pieces (not Paterson). He is liked for his crazy geniality and he is very much hip to the language-centered people who inhabit the space. He does it for everyone.” I talked with Al—a native of New Jersey, who did his undergraduate thesis on Paterson (to the dismay of his advisors); as well, joining the conversation are Kelly Writers House director and poet Jessica Lowenthal, and poet, teacher and translator Randall Couch. They are all regularly involved with Poem Talk, a new podcast series which is probably what will force me to break down and get a new iPod. For the life of me, I can’t sit in front of the computer and listen to anything longer than a few minutes, so, if you are like me, I would suggest too these long clips more for loading and listening on your mobile media playback device of choice. As always, pieces of these relatively raw conversations will be worked back into the mix at a later date.
Teaching Paterson: (11 min. 20 sec.)
Paterson, Keep Your Pecker Up!: (3 min. 8 sec.)
Ginsberg and Nardi: (13 min. 51 sec.)
Sam Patch and General Privation: (6 min. 25 sec.)
The Discovery of the Triadic Line: (10 min. 5 sec.)
Approaches to Knowledge: (2 min. 11 sec.)
Paterson and the World: (3 min. 24 sec.)

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

t'aint Paris

Click on image for audio teaser sampled from a few seconds audio of one of our next guests. I felt I needed a little noise-break after going through the one-word-after-another all day. Stay tuned for more!

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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Paterson Cloud

Here's a "word cloud" version of the introduction to Paterson. You can make one yourself at In the first couple versions I did, I wondered where Williams hid the bodies, because "dead woman" seemed to always dominate the arrangement. I would have liked to have keep one of those versions, but I lost it trying to figure out just how to save the image the way I wanted. It's great to see the words pile up in real time, but you can't save that animation. One of the things that they also will hopefully work out is that one of their best format options is the vertical word pile (seen at above), but the only way you can view it on the site is horizontally (making it difficult to read), unless you export it to a different program.


Friday, July 04, 2008

More Monuments of Passaic: Gondry in New Jersey

Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind takes place in Passaic, but the set seems more like a mix between Williamsburg and Sesame Street. Even though the film uglies-up the smooth edges of CG Hollywood by celebrating a DIY folk-media aesthetic, it’s not beyond the reverse operation of prettying up an unbearable reality. Where do these thin uptight white girls come from? I didn’t know the L went out that far. Strangely, however, Mia Farrow’s role as the slightly cracked lady stuck in a dying town is more plausible than the Mos Def character (protected from nihilism by the haze of a nostalgic fiction) although the latter was better acted. Yet this notion of “better acting” or “ugly/pretty,” as well as the notion of the real falls away in Gondry films. If the more seasoned actors in this film (Farrow, Glover, Weaver) act like they are in a school play rather than a Hollywood film, they are perhaps resisting the pull towards verisimilitude and embracing the Brechtian message at the film’s core. Similarly, and like in Williams' work, in the drive to create beauty out of the disrupted fragments of a defunct city, we are also asked to see the traditionally beautiful as bankrupt. Or perhaps it is merely disavowed, like a tony hipster playing the nerd. This is where Gondry gets to play it both ways, because while he is interested in model-esque beauty—lending all his films the patina of youthful 90s-style techno-affluence—he makes these perverse script choices that only make sense if we are asked to imagine a character ugly who is obviously beautiful. When we are introduced to “Alma,” the situation unfolds as if she is the “ugly sister” (when she’s the hotter one): the two filmmakers suddenly become uninterested, they don’t want to use her for the kissing scene. Similarly, in The Science of Sleep, we are asked to imagine that Charlotte Gainsbourg is a homely slob who can’t compete with her much plainer friend, and that Garcia Bernal can’t get a date! What’s this all about? Fables of ideology and aesthetic brainwashing? The puppet-theatre squint that asks us to see Moby Dick in some pop-tops and string, turned on its ear so that we see neorealism in the corners of a well-worn celebrity face? A way to avoid the self-perpetuating cruelties of realistic casting (“OK, fatso, you’re playing the fat loser. Again”)? Or is Gondry, in the end, an unrepentant aestheticist, merely interested in the pretty?

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