Kinetics of the Thing

The mysterious title character of Thomas Pynchon's first novel V. resembles in some ways Beckett's "Godot" in her capacity to dominate the story almost from its beginning without ever actually materialising within it. Pynchon emphasizes the allusive, symbolic nature of this figure early in the tale:

As spread thighs are to the libertine, flights of migratory birds to
the ornithologist, the working part of his tool bit to the production
machinist, so was the letter V to young Stencil. He would dream
perhaps once a week that it had all been a dream, and that
now he'd awakened to discover the pursuit of V. was merely a
scholarly quest after all, an adventure of the mind, in the
tradition of The Golden Bough or The White Goddess.

(V. 50)

Much more than the identity of a single woman, the letter "V" in Pynchon's hands seems to evoke an entire cultural order. Given such symbolic potency, it is not surprising that Stencil, the agent of this epic search, becomes frequently skeptical that any one object might eventually be rescued from within this complex mythological matrix. In the symbolic landscape of Pynchon's text, even the most literal of material quests threatens to dissipate into wider typologies at any given moment.

Bereft of any actual objects Pynchon's novel presents, accordingly, a rather effervescent image of the American postwar state. Although symbolically integrated, its culture encourages a corresponding subjectivity that is completely transient at best, unable to offer any definitive interpretation of its surroundings. As Stencil himself admits, in Pynchon's modernity, there is neither a proper nor false way to read "V". More than a single figure, V. hosts a wide variety of equally arbitrary disguises, including Victory in Europe, the mythological land of "Vheissu" and even Queen Victoria.

As an initial symbol of the postwar era, therefore, V. reigns supreme. Yet, even her ubiquitous presence at this time does not fully account for the intensely political nature of her role in the 1949 trial of Alger Hiss for espionage. This time, "V" appears in one of her more culturally authoritarian disguises: the little steel "V" in mechanical typewriters that guides individual letters to the ribbon before making an imprint. In many models, there was an unfortunate tendency for this "V" to bend under repeated use, thereby causing it to mis-channel and disfigure the approaching letters. In the case of Alger Hiss, it was exactly this type of flawed mechanism which misaligned the capital letters of his wife's old Woodstock, thus incriminating the machine as the one typewriter that copied sensitive government letters for Soviet agents during the Second World War.

Given this new evidence, between twenty-five and thirty FBI agents diligently combed Washington D.C. for the unamerican typewriter. As with Stencil's search in Pynchon's narrative, however, this manifestation, too, of the enigmatic V. was to remain elusive -- though not before causing much anxiety in the public mind. For one brief moment, a disfigured symbol revealed itself from inside the wider spectacle. A gap appeared within the cultural order, one serious enough to require the corrective energies of the police state.

As most accounts of the trial maintain, eventhough the typewriter was never found, the disruptive and ephemeral manner in which Hiss's capital letters escaped the lines of type contributed more publically to his image as traitor than any actual material evidence. Hiss's typographic offenses, in other words, conveyed symbolically what his prosecutors had long suspected: that in a cultural matrix as seamless and fully incorporated as that produced by the bi-polar politics of the cold war, any typewriter could be mistaken for an enemy agent.

The prominent role of this machine in generating modern cultural meaning appears also in Olson's writing when he notes its unique ability to provide a more direct connection between the individual and his/her community. "It is the advantage of the typewriter" Olson declares in his 1950 statement, "Projectivist Verse", "that due, to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends" (Selected Writings 22). The typewriter, Olson recognised, initiated a profoundly different relationship between writers and language as a medium of symbolic exchange. In general, one's access to an entire network of ongoing cultural production seemed much more immediate and comprehensive. Exactly "how far," Olson admits in this essay, "a new poet can stretch the very conventions on which communication by language rests, is too big for these notes,..."; nevertheless, the potential for intensive social revision never seemed quite so convenient.

In his poetics, Olson continued to emphasize a widely inclusive typology, one that featured, as with V. a fairly ephemeral social vision. Within this typology, one's engagement with the symbolic begins at the very level of breath, itself, producing what has been commonly described as a kinetic, fluid theory of language. This more immediate, direct sense of symbolic exchange prefaces, for Olson, an entirely new epistemology, one that originates in the development of the natural sciences of the 19th century. At that time, Olson notes,

An idea shook loose, and energy became as important a
structure of things as that they are plural, and, by matter,
mass. It was shown that in the infinitely small the older
concepts of space ceased to be valid at all...Nothing
was now inert fact, all things were there for feeling, to
promote it, and to be felt....

(Selected Writings 47-48)

In this manner, Olson abandons a conventional object-oriented perception for a more relativistic, internalised sense of things, what Olson called "proprioception". An elusive term at best, "proprioception" has inspired a wide array of definitions ranging from Duncan's ontology of the body to what Stephen Fredman characterises as a "spiritual discipline," based upon a "bottomless sense of self as founded on inexhaustible mystery". Robin Blaser also defines these themes in Olson's poetry as "spiritual" in the sense that they outline a type of "cosmology". In an essay comparing Olson's poetics to the philosophy of Alfred N. Whitehead, Blaser contends that "the most striking matter of these poetics the fundamental struggle for the nature of the real. And this, in my view, is a spiritual struggle, both philosophical and poetic" (Line 2 62).

Olson first encountered many of these more philosophical themes through the poetry of Ezra Pound. The younger poet studied Pound throughout the 1940s and was among his first visitors at St.Elizabeth's. In Pound's intellectual forays into fascism and moral dogmatism, however, Olson quickly glimpsed the more disturbing social ramifications of an uncritical, propagandistic use of aesthetics. The politics of Olson's poetics suggest, accordingly, a very different agenda. On guard against any overtly politicised use of culture for social change, Olson remained skeptical that a revolutionary poetics would ever be justified. Rather an alternate, more capacious assessment of what comprises a discourse's social legitimacy tended to neutralise all explicit ideological censure. If there are resistant factors in his poetics, they derive solely from an ontology of flux -- itself, a fairly coherent category of value.

This repudiation of fixed structure and containment is also apparent in Olson's early rejection of the Objectivist poetics of writers like Zukofsky, Reznikoff, and, to some extent, Williams. His critique of "Objectivism" appears first in "Projectivist Verse" in a section that attempts to isolate further some of the weaknesses in Pound's cultural theory. The very fact that Olson labels both Pound's and Williams's writing as an "objectivism" comments well on his limited exposure at that time to the 1930s aesthetic movement. Likely what he called "objectivism" depended almost exclusively upon Zukofsky's short summary of his aesthetics for Poetry magazine in 1931. In February of that year, at the instigation of Pound, Harriet Monroe formally contracted Zukofsky to edit a special issue devoted to the work of such new writers as George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, and Zukofsky himself. However limited Olson's exposure to these writers may have been, it does not change the fact that in 1950 he felt it necessary to respond to a very particular set of aesthetic issues, generalised here under the heading of "objectivism"; and this response, in itself, still establishes a useful dialogue between his methodological interests and these earlier reformisms.

Immediately evident in comparing the work of the Objectivists to the poetic theory of Olson, is a similar concern for wide-scale revisionism. For Olson, however, the unique coherence of Objectivism, remained too dependent upon an abstract notion of structure. This quality is, in some ways, substantiated by Zukofsky himself in the 1931 essay where, in no uncertain terms, his methodology appears as a new formal system of organising human knowledge. The capabilities of the Objectivist poem were such that they could provide what Zukofsky called a "rested totality" within one's interpretative framework. Zukofsky writes,

The need for standards in poetry is no less than in science
...Good verse is determined by the poet's susceptibilities
involving a precise awareness of differences, forms and
possibilities of existence - words with their own attractions
included. The poet, no less than the scientist, works on
the assumption that inert and live things and relations
hold enough interest to keep him alive as part of nature.

(Prepositions 67)

While Olson openly praised the complex, yet structurally consistent principles behind Zukofsky's poetics, few of its premises seemed to him to be particularly natural. Particularly disturbing to him, in fact, was the debt that Zukofsky's aesthetics claimed to owe to the empiricism of conventional science. By Zukofsky's own admission within the 1931 text, little difference existed between Objectivism's fidelity to poetic "objectivity" and the technical notion of "objective" as defined by the science of optics: "A lens bringing the rays from an object to a focus" (Prepositions 12). For Zukofsky, the structures of verse operated in an analogous manner. Thus, in 1930 in a section of his long work A:
My one voice. My other: is
An objective - rays of the object brought to a focus,
An objective - nature as creator - desire
for what is objectively perfect...


Zukofsky's language tended to emphasize quite explicitly, then, the importance of technical form above all other components in the generation of knowledge. In his work, the visible is directly reduced to the very conditions of visibility. More than just metaphors, Zukofsky's linguistic devices collectively constituted an important set of instruments through which writing, itself, was demythologised, i.e., purified as a medium of the "Real". As Peter Cole writes, "the language of the Objectivist poem aims to recreate in us the sensation of the poet's eye, ear, and mind moving along the contours of what is being sensed or thought. Literally the kinesthesia of this brought into the language."

Olson, for the most part, strongly accepted this interpretation of language as a potential tool of disenchantment, a new eye as lens, so to speak. Both Pound's and Fenollosa's earlier study of the pictograph had already impressed upon him the importance of technical precision in aesthetics. Laszlo Géfin, in fact, formally groups such writings into a single genealogy he calls the "ideogrammic stream." The use of the ideogramme signals to Géfin more than a common imaging technique, it implied a wider thematic search for an increasingly naturalised discourse of the Real. In Olson's own methodology, this search is conducted by way of the syllable as an even more exact mediating device. That "objectivisms" continued to critique representational forms of writing as overly biased and anthropomorphic further testified, for Olson, to the earlier movement's past cultural validity. For both Olson and Zukofsky, the "realness" of a poem's object or focus remained a function of disenchantment, not the work's ability to reference some form of universal. The aesthetic principle operating here, in other words, is not a type of mimesis; rather, Objectivist writing attempts to convey a more immanent notion of the Real. Poetry thus conceived does not record reality so much as it attempts to re-enact it as an integral, rational process.

Consistent with this logic, Zukofsky considered his poems to be nothing less than natural structures, "keeping time with existence" -- a perspective that evokes as distinctive a paradigm of nature as it does a theory of writing. Hence, his use of formal devices implied no significant detachment from human experience. Zukofsky's sense of the Real stressed its precise organisation as a coherent framework or composition. Reality, itself, in other words, remained commensurate with a discourse of value. Accordingly, as a poetics of disenchantment, Zukofsy's writing literally encouraged objects to become objects; reality defined itself as a reality.

It is this characteristic of Objectivism that Peter Quartermain further qualifies as a unique resolution of aesthetics with social activism where "the demand for the poem to be political is a formal demand." As Quartermain suggests, to separate the two propositions is to ignore one of Objectivism's most salient features. Properly read, each line, perhaps even each individual word in a Zukofsky poem inherently evokes wider moral themes. Hence, when Zukofsky, himself, describes his aesthetic methods, it is usually with reference to a work's "sincerity" and linguistic "integrity". As Michael Heller notes, Zukofsky's structural vision "has about it a moral burden: the Objectivist poet, meaning to inform, to convey or translate to the reader the existence which he knows through the media of objectification and sincerity, must resist not only the aleatory, freewheeling associativeness of words but also the usual decorative conceit of the symbol or image."

Such a moral repudiation of the decorative appears throughout Géfin's "ideogrammic stream" of modernism. Of Imagism, Pound declared in 1913, "the natural object is always the adequate symbol" (The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound 5). Even in Olson, social reform properly conceived proceeds directly from a naturalised paradigm of discourse. In all three movements of revisionary modernism, issues of public morality remain effectively sublimated as themes of symbolic reform: Proper signification in the ideogrammic vision equals proper government.

As I've implied , this equilibrium is even more evident in Olson's works than in the poetics of the earlier two writers. His keen promotion of a more kinetic or gestural aesthetics, in many ways, overtly exhibits what was only hypothesised in the work of Pound and Zukofsky. The tendency in Zukofsky's early poetry, for example, for the conditions of aesthetic reform to remain theoretically abstract implies that the proper symbol itself is still very much an unfinished project, still very much an object of desire. One reads Zukofsky's science of disenchantment, his "ABC" of objectivity, consequently, as a set of principles not yet enacted. By contrast, Olson's projectivism declared a much less hypothetical sense of "realness" as a formal quality. In the later poet's vision, the nature of the Real demanded an even more immanent, indwelling sense of structure, one that automatically rejected all abstract speculation as evidence of a false universal. For this reason, Olson consistently refrained from attaching any formal conditions to the objectivity of his verse; a poem's legitimacy, instead, continued to derive from an almost intuitive notion of the real particular.

Given its essentially innate authority, projectivist verse required no explicit aesthetic theories with which to counter either Pound's or Zukofsky's more doctrinal approach to poetry. In fact, if Olson's relationship to these earlier attempts to construct a transparent epistemology of the Real can be reduced to a single strategy it is that of reconciliation. Consistent with his antagonism to abstraction, Olson promises no new symbolism in his poetics, but rather a recycling of older ones by setting them in motion. Under the aura of kinesis, one glimpses, thus, not so much an alternate objectivity as a new tolerance for objectivity as an inherently relative and pluralistic mode of thinking.

Such an attitude of open compromise translated, for many of Olson's contemporaries, into its own agenda of political progressiveness and cultural emancipation. Consequently, with its pretense of natural immanence, projectivism comforms well to wider trends in the American postwar political economy and the shifts in consumer capitalism precipitated by it. After World War II, industrial production emphasized then as now a newly de-objectified, de-centralised economic framework. A more sophisticated, reified network of consumer markets contributed to an increasingly autonomous system of symbolic exchange, one in which the semantic attribution of value is able to transcend most material contexts. One clear correspondence between the symbolic "openness" or recyclability of projectivist verse and these newer economic networks appears in the various ecological paradigms of social development popularised during this period. In the ecological vision, important parallels quickly emerge between the particularity of Olson's "composition by field" and America's postwar management of its commercial resources, between the open text and the open market.

For Olson, a proprioceptive focus upon phenomena extols not only a more relevant social agency, but a naturally authentic human voice. The sincerity, thus, with which Zukofsky claimed to mediate his real environment is effectively reiterated according to the very terms that he, himself, had set. However, what was for Zukofsky a highly theoretical, often politicised struggle for total coherence becomes in Olson's hands an open dialogue where criticism is replaced by feed-back, argument with negotiation. in Olson's vision there is, after all,

  not one death but many,
  not accumulation but change, the feed-back proves,
                                                 the feed-back is
  the law

("The Kingfishers" 170)

Once again, repudiating any notion of fixed ideological position, the complex symbolic field associated with proprioception emphasizes an aesthetics of constant movement -- a logic of absorption by which all opposing cultural discourses are successfully assimilated to form a new and improved symbolic environment. In the context of this landscape, there are no rested totalities; instead, writers engage in a cold war of constant translation, an ongoing process of encoding and re-encoding. What specific objects might appear in such works continuously fade in and out, change their shape from line to line, secure in the knowledge that, since they cannot be located, their symbolic integrity can never be challenged.

A similar interest in symbolic integration also appears in the ecological attitudes emerging at mid-century in many different social disciplines, ranging from agricultural production to political theory. Common to each discourse is an equally arbitrary sense of national, historical, and even cultural contingencies. The new mandate of the "ecosystem" transgresses what conventional politics may be functioning at the time by repudiating all positions of class-based hegemony. As Karl Kroeber recently writes, "an ecosystem is a constantly self-transforming continuity. No ecosystem exists outside of time or is adequately representable as anything other than an encompassing ongoing process made up of diversely intersecting subordinate temporal processes." Such an emphasis in criticism upon this new sense of immanent social holism became increasingly prominent throughout the postwar era, with Olson representing one of its earliest expressions. The ecosystem, it seemed, could adapt to almost any social context. Skeptical of all extreme narrations of political diversity, these discourses considered no single position or specific activity innately outside their logic. No individual voice was exempted from the possibility of dialogue.

The ecological quality of a Black Mountain aesthetics is most clearly evident in the work of editor and poet Richard Grossinger. In Grossinger's ecological readings of the postwar landscape, a very explicit correlation between natural process and modern social structure is revealed. This is especially palpable in Grossinger's etymological presentation of the very word ecology. Recalling the term's common linguistic root in the Greek term oikumene meaning "law of the house", Grossinger spells ecology with a capital "O". For Grossinger, a firmly integrated, and rationalised social system continues to reflect larger, natural coherences. All technologies, all formal compositions are interpreted collectively as yet another encoding of the Real. As Grossinger comments, "the house has been built, and we've been living in it all these many years, and we're long past the time of deciding whether it's beautiful or functional. We've got to begin living in it."

Similar to Olson, Grossinger offers his readers a firmly integrated landscape, complete with its own semiotics of the organism. In his naturalised economy, yet another language of the Real provides its subjects with an improved network of communication. The organic, microcosmic quality of this language emerges in his work Solar Journal, in which Egyptian hieroglyphs are able to interact with both astrological zodiacs and urban traffic lights with very little loss in translation. "Every motion," writes Grossinger, "wind through trees, blue warpaint on the forehead, taste of pig flesh is as real, is universal." Such are the terms of consensus described by Grossinger, and implicit in all ecologies. Absorbing what traces of ideological distance were evident in the "objectivisms" of the interwar period, these later cosmologies, Olson included, do seem to reflect a more essentialised cultural logic. Grossinger's flirtation with linguistic consciousness might be situated, thus, within a larger political and moral idealism germane to the postwar American cultural order and its corresponding symbolic coherence.

Yet, as in both Stencil's quest for the mythical "V.", and Olson's search for real "Kingfishers", it is useless to seek in Grossinger's oecological journal any single synoptic key or legend that might formally reveal the inherent connection between "the taste of pig flesh" and "wind through trees". To do so would tend to re-emphasize what objective differences remain between the two phenomena, and, thus, violate the inherent integrity that binds that particular oecological community.

In Grossinger's discursive universe, symbolic dissent is considered not so much intolerable as impossible -- at least in theory. No interpretative guideline exists save for a simple choice between full compliance and complete withdrawal. The debate over which rooms of this particular cultural "house" are more relevant than others has long since become obsolete. At best such critiques run the risk of appearing inauthentic and insincere, at worst completely unnatural, punishable by their quick removal from the entire system. In the mythological postwar state, there are no wrong questions. Gaps in the symbolic order, far from indicating a relentless desire for some lost object of value, tend to signify instead necessary phases of cultural re-invention, moments in which one's search for meaning in the postwar symbolic landscape confronts yet another new disguise.

End Notes