Monday, 15 November 2010


‘The unconscious is knowledge; but it is a knowledge one cannot know one knows, a knowledge that cannot tolerate knowing it knows’ (Lacan, ‘The Non-dupes Err’)

‘Our manner of excluding,’ writes Maurice Blanchot, ‘is at work precisely at the very moment we are priding ourselves on our gift of universal comprehension’. The manner of excluding to which Blanchot is referring here works to suppress within language the very silence that underlies and supports it, the silence out of which the text itself speaks. It is such a silence that James evokes, in The Turn of the Screw, ‘…a stillness, a pause of life, that had nothing to do with the more or less noise we at the moment might be making…'. I want to suggest that to engage with poetry, with the literary thing, requires of one a peculiar kind of libidinal investment, an investment beyond the regime of pleasure, manifest in a decisive rupture of legibility and identification. It will require an engagement with what Lacan calls ‘something beyond, something at the point of origin of the signifying chain’. This something is, of course, jouissance—the enjoyment that Lacan explicitly contrasts with pleasure. The notion of jouissance is intended to evoke a movement of language beyond the representable or accountable: the literary thing is an enigmatic signifying event, an act that shows itself forth in ‘a suspension of constituted reality’ (Zizek), a point of singularity that resists any form of verbal equivalent and yet drives us irresistibly on towards it. To quote Luke Thurston, there is something about the literary thing that ‘resists our reading, and encumbers or drags against our attempts to enmesh it in a discursive network or introduce it to an economy of signifying exchange or translation’. Aesthetic experience testifies to some fundamental opacity—something not to be read, beyond analysis—at the heart of the fantasmatic investment. The attempt to enmesh the thing in an order of signification, an order of comprehension, is the very act that puts it beyond us: the dimension of the literary thing is the dimension of ex-sistence, the dimension—as Lacan would have it—of the extimate. ‘To explain art with the unconscious seems to me to be highly suspect; but it is what analysts do. It seems to me more serious to explain art with the symptom’. To identify with the singular, an unidentifiable particular, something impossible to reduce to a symbolic identification, is a distinctive procedure or act that Lacan designates (in Encore) as the not-all, pas-tout. This, for him, is a position of creative excess, where one may, perhaps, locate the feminine. One may also perhaps think of Antigone, of Lady Macbeth, or Laertes’s response to Ophelia’s madness: ‘This nothing’s more than matter’.

If we are to see sublimation as the elevation of an object ‘to the dignity of the Thing’, then I would suggest it has been characteristic of one approach to Olson’s work to see in it an operation of sublimation so understood. In De magia Giordano Bruno wrote of a ‘language of the gods’ immune to the change and decay of ordinary language. The hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt had been man’s last contact with the ancient symbols, before the invention of letters such as we use today brought about ‘a tremendous loss, first of memory, and then of divine science and magic’. To restore such a divine language would require the grammar of ordinary language to be displaced into a more originary structure, one in which the obfuscations that derive from the customary use of syntax and predication give way to an order of language that embodies what originates it—the primordial. To cite the ghost of Hamlet’s father: ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word/Would harrow up thy soul’. The ambition of such a language is to speak out of the very energies of the earth itself, to articulate in a concatenation of names—understood by analogy with the hieroglyph or ideogram—the essential configurations of being. Of a writing so understood it seems plausible to say, as has J.H. Prynne in his review of the later Maximus poems: ‘The nouns have an almost secret insistence, lent now to great fluent transitions of discourse and lyric measure, so that the passage-work here is powerful and immensely poignant’. Prynne’s account here implies, I think, some order of homology—even isomorphism—between what is made manifest within the ‘rhythmic flux & balance’ of the metrical energies of the writing and the energies of earth and sea. He clearly intends the following lines to be seen as an exemplary instance of such an intertwining of ‘flux & balance’:

The top of Dogtown
puts one up into the sky as free-
ly as it is possible, the extent of
clear space and air, and the bowl
of the light equalling, without at all
that other, false experience of mountains
climbed, heaven

It is passages like this, and others, including the opening lines of ‘Maximus from Dogtown—I’ and ‘Maximus at the Harbor’, that are able to persuade the critic ‘all over again’ that the concretion here achieved is that of ‘the man speaking to men’. What these lines manifest, Prynne avers, is ‘the image of the most exact freedom to be gained now, from the sustained sequence of full-grown poetic speech, and from nowhere else’. The voicing, the uttering, of the sequence of lines is inseparable from, is immanent within, the sequence itself: what generates the metrical energy is made manifest by it. The origin of the lines, their source in the breath and so in the voice and hence in the being of the poet, is given palpable existence in those same lines. The enounced is what it is inasmuch as it is the articulation of the process of its enunciation. The poet speaks as ‘the man speaking to men’ inasmuch as his words, in their rhythmic expressiveness, embody the function that engenders them. (I would be inclined set this beside an aphorism of Lacan’s: representation is the representation of the lack of the function that engenders it.)

The review concludes with a characterisation of Olson’s writing as such, a characterisation in which language is seen as ‘a mythic likeness resting on the earth, the mappemunde of man’s being, and not by any means a “universe of discourse”’. What we encounter here is ‘not secondary assemblage but primary writing’. Unlike the ‘great unifying sentimentalities of dream’ or the merely naïve procedures of ongoing narrative, Olson’s work ‘retains the whole freedom of primary speech’. That there is a slippage here between ‘mythic likeness’ and ‘universe of discourse’, a slippage whose effect is to bring into question certain aspects of the position being argued for, has been made clear by Anthony Mellors in his book on late modernist poetics, and I won’t rehearse his arguments on this occasion. What I would say is that the mesmerising power, the sheer bewitchment, of language used in this way should not under-estimated. The notion of poetic language as being in some sense an enactment of those processes whereby words are returned to some primordial adherence to things exerts a powerful fascination. Such a vision of language implies that it might in some way be possible to say pure existence itself, to say the originary presence of pre-linguistic space. It is as though the impossibility inherent in such an enterprise is what recommends it. That it is an impossibility is something Giorgio Agamben has made clear: as he says, there is a distinction within language, first made clear by the Greeks, between onoma (name or term) and logos (speech or proposition): ‘primal and simple elements can have no defining discourse but only names. A proposition cannot say what the name has named’ (Potentialities p69). He cites Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (3.221): ‘I can only name objects….I can only speak of them. I cannot assert them’.

It is in connection with Wittgenstein that something further emerges concerning the correlation of language with what lies outside it. In the Big Typescript, he reflects on the concept of a sentence: ‘Can one understand anything other than a sentence? … In a certain sense, there is no such thing as half a sentence’. In a discussion of this passage, Katherine Morris has suggested that the issue of whether something is to be counted as a sentence or a proposition is linked to the question of whether it is used to communicate something, of whether it makes sense to speak of understanding what is said. Seen in this way, there is no such thing as half a sentence. On this view, ‘Fire!’ may well count as a sentence (something may be said with it), whereas on a conception of the proposition to which ideas of syntactic structure are central (that of subject and predicate, say) it would not pass muster. For Morris, an approach to the proposition based on saying and understanding is to be contrasted with a different idea, according to which meaning is inseparable from rules and an order imposed by syntax and its articulation. Given that neither position in this contrast can impose itself definitively on us, the notion of there being a correlation between the forms of language and the forms of reality loses its immediacy and power of fascination. It is pertinent to note that in his earliest writings, in the Notebooks, Wittgenstein observes:

The method of portrayal must be completely determinate before we can compare reality with the proposition at all in order to see whether it is true or false. The method of comparison must be given me before I can make the comparison. (NB 23)

As Denis McManus has pointed out, one may be inclined to think that this true-false matching is ‘made possible by a deeper meaningful-meaningless match between the “forms” of proposition and possible fact. But this deeper match or mismatch must itself presuppose a “method of comparison”, not merely in order for us to be able to test whether the match holds, but in order for what it is for the match to hold or not to hold to be a determinate matter: only if the method is given, is it settled just what the test in question is….settling on the method is settling on what the relevant kind of similarity and dissimilarity is’. Or to evoke the idiom of Lacan, there is no Other of the Other: there is no metalanguage. The ‘autonomy of the signifier’ is strictly correlative to the ‘subjectivisation’ of the signifying chain. As Slavoj Zizek has it: ‘This is what the “arbitrariness of the signifier” means: not the fact that we can “compare” from outside words and things and ascertain that their connection is arbitrary (table is called “table” or “Tisch” or …), but quite on the contrary the very impossibility of assuming such an external position from which we could “compare” words and things’. Any ascertaining of a ‘correspondence’ between words and things, as when we ascertain the truth or falsity of a proposition, is possible only within the already established field of language. Any attempt to establish the accuracy of a factual statement already relies on language for the very meaning of the proposition to be established. That this is so is clear from the following set of remarks, remarks in which Wittgenstein also brings out with astonishing clarity the lack of foundation of language, the lack which alone supports it, its emergence ex nihilo:

Even where the feeling that arouses joy is localised, joy is not: if for example we rejoice in the smell of a flower. – Joy is manifested in facial expression, in behaviour. (But we do not say that we are joyful in our faces.)
“But I do have a real feeling of joy!” Yes, when you are glad you really are glad. And of course joy is not joyful behaviour, nor yet a feeling around the corners of the mouth and the eyes.
“But surely joy designates an inward thing.” No. “Joy” designates nothing at all. Neither any inward or any outward thing. (Zettel §§486-87)

(One might substitute jouissance for ‘joy’ and the point will, I think, remain.) Our having the concept of joy that we do is part of our having that kind of complex life with language, its words, its grammar (in Wittgenstein’s sense) into which agreement—agreement in judgements, not just in definitions—enters in specific and often unforeseeable ways. In Zettel §351 he remarks:

‘If human beings were not in general agreed about the colours of things, if undetermined cases were not exceptional, then our concept of colour could not exist.’ No: our concept would not exist.

It is in our lives with language that the concepts that we have are indeed the concepts that we have. There is nothing beyond this: our lives in language float free in empty space. We possess no firmer ground than this. One might say, as Zizek has it, that language maintains ‘an unnameable distance from the Real’. One might also say that what is being revealed here is the primordial character of the word. To repeat: discourse cannot say what is named by the name; there is no metalanguage. Something similar to the import of Wittgenstein’s vision is grasped by Agamben when he writes: ‘we finally find ourselves alone with our words; for the first time we are truly alone with language, abandoned without any final foundation. This is the Copernican revolution that the thought of our time inherits from nihilism: we are the first human beings who have become completely conscious of language’. To adapt a formulation of Zizek’s, the barrier separating language (the Symbolic) from the extra-linguistic (the Real), is impossible to trespass, since language (the Symbolic) is this very barrier. It is in this gap that Lacan locates the subject: the subject is in effect the ‘abyss that forever separates language from the substantial life-process’. [Cf Psycho: the impersonal abyss we confront when we are face-to-face with Norman’s gaze at the end of the film is ‘the very abyss of the subject not yet caught in the web of language—the unapproachable Thing which resists subjectivization, this point of failure of every identification, is ultimately the subject itself’’ (Zizek).]

It is in relation to this impossible gap separating the Symbolic from the Real that, in Agamben’s view, we may locate the voice. Insofar as the voice is conceived no longer as the experience of pure sound and not yet as the experience of a meaning, the thought of the voice alone leads to a dimension that indicates ‘the pure taking place of language without any determinate event of meaning’. It is this that shows, he contends, that ‘there is still a possibility of thought beyond meaningful propositions’. The dimension of at issue therefore is not that of meaningful speech but ‘of a voice that, without signifying anything, signifies signification itself’. An example of such a revelation of the voice is, I think, to be found in Joyce’s story, ‘An Encounter’. The story concerns the encounter between two boys playing truant from school and an older man in a park. As the man speaks to one of the boys, the narrator of the story, and reveals to him his fantasies of chastisement, his voice seems to become detached from him, and becomes repetitive, insistent:

He described to me how he would whip such a boy as if he were unfolding some elaborate mystery. He would love that, he said, better than anything in this world; and his voice, as he led me monotonously through the mystery, grew almost affectionate and seemed to plead with me that I should understand him.

As Luke Thurston has noted, in an admirable account of the story, the obscure libidinal traces, traces of an obscene jouissance, set down by the narrator—‘almost affectionate’, ‘seemed to plead’, ‘he would love that better than anything in this world’—form an essential part of the narrative mystery unfolded in ‘An Encounter’. There is, Thurston observes, ‘a crucial perception of something more, something in excess of the discourse uttered, a surplus that possibly indicates (and the element of doubt is precisely the point) the libidinal force or pressure of some hidden fantasmatic object’. In other passages, in which the man describes his fascination with ‘looking at a nice young girl, at her nice white hands and her soft beautiful hair’, it seems to the narrator as though the man were repeating something he had learned by heart, ‘or that, magnetised by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit’. As Thurston puts it, the speaker’s repetitive, insistent phrases point to an invisible centre, a fantasmatic black hole, at once restlessly motivating and always eluding his utterance. In the language of the man there is a split or antagonism between desire and drive. Inasmuch as this verbal jouissance is entirely circular, the man’s speech turns back on itself in masturbatory self-fulfilment, in what Thurston describes as ‘a kind of libidinal autism’. There is thus ‘a split between the chain of signifiers and the concrete utterance embodying it, which remains outside the signifying chain: the object voice, a raw pulsation of the real’. The voice is here identified as the objet a. In the graphs of desire, as Lacan sets them out, the voice occupies a place outside the signifying chain: the split between diacritical signifier and the singular condition of utterance is an inescapable and, so to speak, ‘transcendent’ condition of discourse.

I have been struck by something not unlike this in parts of Olson’s work. To bring this out, I propose to look at ‘In Cold Hell, In Thicket’. Whatever the argument, the discursive thrust, of the poem, the insistence of repetition, an insistence that constitutes one crucial mode of its unfolding, effects a shift from representation to something quite different—to a vision of the surface of language, to something not unlike the slimy and obscene utterance of the man in ‘An Encounter’.

In cold hell, in thicket, how
abstract (as high mind, as not lust, as love is) how
strong (as strut or wing, as polytope, as things are
constellated) how
strung, how cold
can a man stay (can men) confronted

Apart from alluding to the Inferno, what in this context might be signified by ‘cold hell’, by ‘thicket’? It is, I would say, the void around which the text, in the act of endeavouring to represent it, circulates. Even in the opening lines repetition of word and reiteration of syntactic structure are already strongly marked. The same pattern is evident elsewhere, for example see the indented section in Part 2, beginning ‘How can he change, his question is’. In connection with this poem, Robert von Hallberg quotes the following remark of Olson’s on his mode of writing (Olson is actually talking about ‘The Kingfishers’): ‘Each of these lines is a progressing of both the meaning and the breathing forward, and then a backing up, without a progress or any kind of movement outside the unit of time local to the idea’ (p145). The writing goes forward only to fold back on its own progress, in a circling movement around its own passing beyond itself. In an Escher-like topology, the writing describes a redoubled loop, in which the movement on and forward is twisted back into itself, disclosing within itself its own enunciation, which in turn stands beyond itself.

How shall he who is not happy, who has been so made unclear

In this line the second clause turns back on the first, in a movement one might see as anaphoric—even anamorphic. As one goes through the poem, the effect of this type of torsion is not so much to build to a conclusion or climax, as to create a sense of partial movement, first this, then that, an effect similar to that which Lacan calls démontage. I would see in this also a movement reminiscent of the game described by Freud, the fort-da, in which the constitution of child himself as subject is at stake.

Who am I but by a fix, and another,
a particle, and the congery of particles carefully picked by another...

As this section of the poem continues, the verb tenses set in the passive and active give way something more like that of the reflexive middle voice: ‘that they are, in hell or in happiness, merely/something to be wrought, to be shaped, to be carved, for use, for/others’. The reflexive voice effects a montage of the self and the other but as partial objects. One should note that Lacan’s grammar or formula for the drive is se faire, to make oneself. Outside the active and the passive voice, the drive aims to make itself be seen, be heard. As Mairie Jaanus has argued, it is a minimal way of making oneself exist: as she says, ‘it is matter of perpetuating our existence against what drives us towards non-being’. For Lacan, the fort-da game, with its throwing forth and pulling back of the cotton-reel, is not a game intended to master the mother’s disappearance. The reel is both the subject and its lost object—object a. What the child is aiming at, according to Lacan, is that which ‘essentially not there qua represented’. The repetition aims at something that is not there, and involves the ‘impossible to think’ and ‘the impossible to say’. It involves an encounter with the real ‘which is not situated at the level of thought, but at the level at which “oracular speech” yields non-sense, that which cannot be thought’ (Bruce Fink). ‘In Cold Hell’ does not end, it wavers, it gutters, to a finish, ‘precise as hell is, precise/as any words, or wagon/can be made’. In the later work also one can see the self-representation of a global ego with its geography doubled and disseminated by the colours of rhetoric and the insistent rhythms of repetition. The subject is able intermittently to escape the enclosure of an oppressive truth.

Were I to take this further, I would want to consider Eric Santner’s discussion in The Psychotheology of Everyday Life of Franz Rosenzweig’s understanding of singularity, which, as Santner presents it, draws crucially on a notion of drive not unlike the one sketched out here. What I have tried to suggest is that on occasion in Olson there is a struggle to affirm a strange temporality, which is by no means an apotheosis of the present, but of the singular. The writing exhibits the lack of a present, a non-self-presence that typifies the mode of its rhetoric. Something is revealed that is untranslatable, and not be appropriated: one apprehends, as Thurston has it, a metempsychotic rupture of the ‘I’. Evident in parts of Olson’s writing there is that which testifies to something like the very dimension out of which the writing speaks. There is in his texts a dimension of foreclosure, an opening onto what Lacan has called ‘the realm between two deaths’, the realm of a death-in-life that for a moment one is forced to live. I will end with a quote from Olson himself. On the page immediately following his account of ‘In Cold Hell’, von Hallberg quotes the opening lines of ‘Burnt Norton’ and then the comment Olson wrote on them in the margin of his copy of Eliot’s poetry. Olson says: ‘This is a beautiful passage, & does not contradict space. But at the heart of it, in the man, is a lack of the hole of space, & it is that lack that gives Eliot his minority’. Set in motion by the word ‘lack’, there is a play here around and between the objective and the subjective genitive, as in ‘lack of the hole of space’ (one might compare ‘season of no bungling’), a play that, together with an ambivalence attaching to the word ‘hole’, serves to expose the very act that supports and generates Olson’s note as the act of its own un-doing. The lack Olson denigrates in Eliot is a lack Olson’s text is traversed by also.

I have little doubt that all this will have seemed unrewarding and beside the point. All I can say is that I find the struggle for semantic mastery to be what it is only insofar as it disappoints the authority of its own rhetoric.


The following remark by J.L. Austin is to the point: ‘There is no need whatsoever for the words used in making a true statement to “mirror” in any way, however indirect, any feature whatsoever of the situation or event; a statement no more needs, in order to be true, to reproduce the “multiplicity,” say, or the “structure” or “form” of the reality, than a word needs to be echoic or writing pictographic. To suppose that it does, is to fall once again into the error of reading back into the world the features of language’. One might add that grammar/language is not responsible to reality; only some statements are. To turn the form of our thought into a content, a statement, is not an intelligible project.