Olson's Republic This piece is excerpted from an essay, less in progress than in dispersion, addressing the question of writing's socially constitutive enactments as a way of eventually rethinking "the political" as a form of process relating powers of saying to powers of doing. In more ways than one, then, its conclusions necessarily partake of what the poet calls "the open-ended character of the future." * _tesserae / commissure_ having descried the nation to write a republic in gloom on Watch-House Point Volume III of Charles Olson's _Maximus Poems_ begins with this runic directive dating from June 1963. George Butterick, in his note to these lines, suggests turning to a letter from Olson to Ralph Maud for further evidence on what it may mean to "write a republic": "a republic [still so far as I can 'hear,' the real word for politics--res politius populus puberte public" (505); and in his note on the first mention of the term "polis" in _Maximus_, Butterick cites Olson's essay "Definitions by Undoings": POLIS, then, is a filled up thing (in the passive as city, the community or body of citizens, . . . not their being as material, but being as group with will, and that will is from the Sanskrit stem to fill or fulfill, and includes such words as plenus, plebes, po-pulus, publicus, thus our public . . . (25) Butterick also cites an earlier essay, "The Methodology is the Form," where Olson writes: "The question, now, is: what is our polis (even allowing that no such thing can be considered as possible to exist when such homogeneity as any Greek city was has been displaced by such heterogeneity as modern cities and nations are)?" "Our polis," it turns out here, is "the very whole world," "the State," "The System," the "totality" that it is incumbent on writers to "invert" and oppose "by discovering the totality of any--every-- single one of us." * It is by means of this discovery of _singular_ totalities that the _Maximus Poems_, which begins with the epigraph "All my life I've heard/one makes many," is able to effectively counter the national logo of _e pluribus unum_ with an injunction to write, to constitute, "a new social body" enacted in dispersed singularities, the "complex of occasions" that characterizes both American potentiality as Olson sees it and the changing human body itself. His resources for this undertaking are many: they include Whitman's poetics of constitutive address, Whitehead's philosophical understanding of process, Heraclitean readings of language as commonality, Keats's articulation of negative capability. The force of Olson's proposition, however, depends on how we construe the political composition of this body, its relation to the totality that it is intended to invert and reinscribe, its modes of speaking, and particularly the dynamic of its responses to contingency and environment, document and event. The question these considerations are intended to address is simply put: What does it mean, in the context of postwar totality, to write a republic? * "It was a polis," sd his friend, "no wonder you wanted to take part in its creation." ("Obit" CP 426)) "To write a republic" can be understood as a statement of purpose for the entire last phase of Olson's work, as well as a way of reading what came before it. Olson uses certain passages in his work in the manner of soundings or compass readings, enabling a simultaneous drafting and perusal of the map that the work constitutes as it unfolds. To begin to read this statement requires asking careful questions of the words and their possible contexts in order to discern a direction that orients and locates them. How are we to read terms such as "nation," "republic"? How should we understand the poet's absent agency, the missing I whose already achieved act of descrying the nation appears to motivate the writing of the republic--as, perhaps, "another kind of nation"? What does it mean here to descry, to write? * Having descried the nation: having sighted it, sited it, and, by establishing distance between it and the poet's own place, having provided a measure of location for both. Yet the word "descry" deploys an unstable set of emphases, shifting from "catch sight of" to "discover" to (in an obsolete usage) "reveal, make known"--a use echoing the word's origin in _descrien_, to proclaim. Catching sight of the nation, then, as a fin might be sighted on the sea's horizon (content's slippery glimpse)--or locating it as land is "discovered" from on board ship? And then, within that word, another--"decry"--with its senses of both officially engineered depreciation (as currency is decried) and autonomous public condemnation. Descrying the nation: crying against it? belittling its importance as entity or category? What the poet has seen or done regarding the nation suggests a motive for the project of writing a republic, even if that motive is aversive, a turning away; and the sense in which "nation" is distinguished from "republic" would appear to have affiliation with the sense in which descrying differs from writing. Yet the kinship among these paired sets of words is equally there. One relationship cancels itself in clearing a way for the other; but even in doing so, the ghost of a descried nation lingers alongside the activity of writing a republic, as the gloom of dusk or melancholy lingers over the privileged site of poetic composition, Watch-House Point--a place at once particular and allegorical, situated precisely in a moment of time, the darkness of coming to write. * Writing a republic, then, can mean inscribing ("from scratch") that body of persons, creatures, things ("objects" all, in Olson's revisionary materialism) that go to make up a complex, recognized or unrecognized, of social relations and aspirations. Equally it may mean correcting (righting) the already written nature of that body, revisiting the site of its writing in order to turn its course, alter its outcome. Poetry, outlawed from Plato's republic, would here return as drafter of its constitution--not in late acknowledgement of Shelley's unacknowledged legislators of the world, or even of Oppen's revisionary legislators of the unacknowledged world, but as something different from either--not lawmaking at all in the regulatory sense (gridding of the state-form), but instead wayward line-making, surveying: walking and mapping the eccentric boundaries of possibilities for social assemblage (elements gathered across time as well as space), marking its contours in the linguistic field according to a sense of responsibility toward objects as "units of experience." Knowing objects, recognizing them, means having "waked to the truth that the act of knowing a real object alters it" (Peirce 255); extending the rejection of Cartesian thinking, it also means acknowledging the reciprocally constitutive relations incurred by perception of objects. Objects know us into being as we know them. Like Walter Benjamin, Olson understood objects as specific instances or local tendencies of a general temporal turbulenceQa disruptiveness that provides ground for a reconsideration of the relation between political and aesthetic practice. * The republic that Olson invokes, it should be noted, is one fundamentally removed from any system of organized differences posing as the fulfillment of a collective will (though the potential for such fulfillment resides, as Olson's etymologizing on "polis" suggests, in the basis of any republic). What he is concerned with here turns on a familiar paradox of constitutionality, embodied in the performative utterance "we the people," which simultaneously depends on and enacts recognition of the polity it invokes. The poet will write this republic into being by means of an address to it, taking "writing" as a double form of addressing: to the elements or materials configuring the polis and to the totality that comprises them. Austin's notion of the illocutionary as a (nondiscursive) force in verbal signification is relevant here, particularly if it is extended beyond a restricted class of utterances to encompass the potential of _any_ utterance. To write a republic is to perform it as a relation, to rescue it from the status (stasis) of arrested happening; it is a process of doing. * The poetics Olson enunciates here radically extends his understanding of how to locate writing _socially_ in spatio-temporal terms. "People want delivery" (M II 97), in words attributable to his father the mail-carrier and union-member, because they lack it; and not simply delivery _of_ letters but delivery _from_ the conditions of separation and disarticulation that letters traverse. It is Olson's task to deliver the elements of language back to these conditions in order to recognize their transformative potential, to see in them the forming ground of a potential energy constitutive of meaning. This is a prefigurative politics of poetic form that is at the same time figurative (descrying the nation) and configurative (writing the republic). Yet in its use of the materials at hand it is, as well, altogether literal. Littoral (coast haunting). Poetry as constitutionally uncertain enactments of a littoral address. * "As we have gone back beyond the polity to the polis, so we have to go back beyond the polis to the polites or citizen. A polis or state belongs to the order of 'compounds', in the same way as all other things which form a single 'whole', but a 'whole' composed, nonetheless, of a number of different parts." (Aristotle 94) "The 'compound' is a genus; the 'whole' is a species of that genus. 'Compounds . . . are of two sorts--aggregates like a heap (mechanical), and aggregates like a syllable (organic)'. 'Wholes' are aggregates of the second or organic kind: they have a Form which gives them an organic unity . . . The polis is such a 'whole'. . . . . Aristotle notes in the _Ethics_, Book IX, c. viii, sec. 6, that 'a polis, or any other systematic whole, may be identified particularly with the most sovereign element in it.' (Barker, in Aristotle 96) Not Sybils but by syllables shall you be free (Olson, "Antimaximus II") * _the Confederacy / for the Doubles to End the World's / Troubles_ State philosophy. Unsteady state. The history of conceptual state-building from inside what Olson called "the Western box" affords little encouragement for prospective constitutionalists, especially those who demand that (in Arakawa and Gins's phrase) "justice be done to the poetic jump." "Do we know of any greater evil for a state," asks Plato's Socrates, "than the thing that distracts it and makes it many instead of one, or a greater good than that which binds it together and makes it one?" (701) Not least among the ironies associated with the history of the public sphere, so called, is that its instantiation as a temporary autonomous zone originally hinged on the project of making itself obsolete--the philosopher-king's dream. This irony takes its modern form, Brian Massumi reminds us, in Wilhelm von Humboldt's nineteenth-century blueprint for university education as the "spiritual and moral training of the nation," whose originary principle (truth) drives all learning toward an abstract ideal (justice) by means of an exclusive Idea (the State)--"the Prussian mind-meld, " as Massumi terms it (4), that continues to inform present-day notions of educational mission. Consensus deformation. Plato: "There is from of old a quarrel between philosophy and poetry. . . . So long as [poetry] is unable to make good [i.e., Good] her defense we shall chant over to ourselves as we listen the reasons that we have given as a countercharm to her spell . . . for we have come to see that we must not take such poetry seriously as a serious thing that lays hold on truth, but that he who lends an ear to it must be on his guard fearing for the polity in his soul" (832-833). Don Byrd points out that in Eric Havelock's _Preface to Plato_, a work from which Olson drew substantial confirmation for his later thinking, Havelock construes the contest between poetry and philosophy in _The Republic_ as a struggle between oral poets and literate philosophers for control over education in the polis (Byrd 35-6). Yet Plato's ideological recasting of this division between _muthos_ and _logos_ itself recognizes, despite its absolute claims, the continuing dependence of each of these modes on the other, and of both on the power site that is the state-form. Even in _The Republic_ philosophy's victory over poetry is necessarily incomplete, when Reason itself must be chanted as charm to ensure psychopolitical tranquillity. * Poetry as that form of discourse which distracts the state. Dis-tracts, that is, not simply by diverting its attention from the good, but by drawing it apart, dispersing and multiplying its loci of value; not just by constituting a space alternative to that of the state-form, but by de-gridding the concept of state-space, revealing it as lumpy, heterogeneous, desquamated; energizing it into spills and flows. Field as phasal, tendential, in formation. The alternative to such antihegemonic agitation is a tendency toward brittle simulacra, pasteboard masks ranged round an absent center of power. the fake which covers the emptiness is the loss in the 2nd instance of the distraction. Gloucester too is out of her mind and is now indistinguishable from the USA. (M III 204) * _Still life / public sphere_ Olson's career as a poet begins with his departure from the world of organized national politics. This move was not the result of an "aesthetic" decision per se--unless _aisthesis_ be taken in the older sense that Olson would come to support, a sensory link between interior and exterior worlds (thus the correspondence between individual and historical tides mentioned in Olson's "good-bye to all that" poem, "The K"). The political organs of containment and opposition Olson worked for in Washington prior to 1945 took on a new function in the postwar dawning of "the American century" (a term whose imperialist overtones echo back to the _pax romana_). "I am no Greek," ends "The Kingfishers," "And of course, no Roman." From Greek polis to Roman republic-turned-empire to modern nation, heterogeneous yet imperializing: what remains of this sequence of state- forms? What is recuperable beyond traces of their exoskeletal supports, scattered as stones at the sites of their extensions across the world? * In his book on modern and premodern political formations, Claude Lefort charts the development of symbolic power inherent in the identification of society with a corporeal body. He notes that "the democratic revolution, for so long subterranean, burst out when the body of the king was destroyed, when the body politic was decapitated and when, at the same time, the corporeality of the social was dissolved"; in modern democracies, "there is no power linked to a body. Power appears as an empty place" (303). The virtuality of the modern democratic state-form lies in its character as "a body without organs," in Deleuze and Guattari's phrase, a "crowded void" lacking a center and continually contested by agencies of fulfillment. The success with which the boundary-agency of entropic capital is able to run through this dissipative structure is a measure not of the latter's incorporeal nature, but of the _dis_incorporation of the individuals ("the unit the smallest there is," M 623) that constitute it. the problem is then whether a Federal organization or organization at all except as it comes directly in the form of the War of the World is anything (M II 198) After world war, the intensities focused in the struggle against fascism do not simply dissipate; they disperse and refocus, challenging the limits of the democratic state-form. * The public as phantasmic environment, a chamber of echoes. Olson's insistence on words as actions involves a theory both of signification and of action. Just as the act of speaking or writing within a given space will tend to reorganize the hidden givenness of that space, redistributing the points or nodes of its social composition, so action, as Olson understood it from his reading of Melville, tends to proceed from a place of repose--a "calm," a waiting "passivity" that presupposes "the inertial structure of the world." That the action of writing is predicated on a moment of inertia has consequences for the ways in which it means, for its entrance into the world's spaces. light signals & mass points normal mappings of inertia & every possible action of aether and of change (M III 133) I looked up and saw its truth through everything sewn in & binding each seam (M 564) The virtual reality of matter's emergence from _potentia_ is thus diagrammed in Olson's poetics of mapping-forth. "Into the Diagram,"--as, in Peirce's phrase, "an Icon of intelligible relations" (252). * The republic as resonant body whose emptiness enables its writing--not as a filling of that space, not as fulfillment, but as a concretizing of the invisible within it. If ideology is what disallows the seeing of what lies before us (ob viam = in the way), then hearing those lies as history's echoes is what art may permit. * _Bona Dea / Athena Polais_ It is clear that if the republic is a written body, it is a sexualized, naturalized one at that. The "res puberte" of sexual maturity hinted at in Olson's definition of politics in the letter to Maud is extended in the "Definitions" essay to include among the roots of "polis" the Latin for "pelvis"--"which means a basin fr which our meaning of pelvis comes"--as well as, by way of Sanskrit, the words for "cleanse," "purify," and "fire" (not to mention _ur-_ itself, the "original place"): "THE FIRE-CLEANSED FULL PLACE OF THE FIRE, THE PURE PLACE ist POLIS." This ideal intersection of sexual and sacred, situating the place of politics within the female body, is alluded to further in the poem (M III 11) equating "Bona Dea" and "Athena Polais," the Roman goddess of fertility and the Greek goddess in her role as protector of the city, and later in the extension of nature as culture, natural history as the history of polis, in the proposition "the city/is only the beginning of the earth the earth/is the world." From "republic," then, we can trace a direct lineage to the "Mother Earth alone"(M III 226) that is Olson's compulsive focus in the late poems of _Maximus_, an ecological extension of the notion of polity that gives full weight to _all_ citizen- denizens of the earth. In that extension, too, Olson hopes to relocate the "feminine" principle that has eluded him in previous addresses to an overly narrow conception of the "political." * The political science necessary for recuperating neglected citizenries in an all-too-human universe is the subject of Olson's strange, hilarious performance from the late 1950s, "Rufus Woodpecker," a visionary sortie into the televisual vocabulary of frantic blandness saturating the Eisenhower years: Rufus Woodpecker visited the President today. The subject of their discussion was foreign policy. He advised that bi-partisanship must be replaced by symbiosis, or else. . . . On all hands there is the thought that though normally, and normally, the, and in certain seasons, not eat, and actually the young are born, Rufus Woodpecker wouldn't come near these shores . . . (CP 451) This satiric reinscription of an ecological worldview on to the glossy mediatized surfaces of corporate representation ("where states previously boasted/they had democratized creation") goes beyond satire; it amounts to a detournement, to use the situationist term, of America's dominant image- discourse in order to rescue "an earth of actual value" from it. The woodpecker, last seen as "the representative of the rest of creation/nesting inside the Mouth of the nation, and pecking/broccoli out of it, clearly concerned/that if he went any deeper he was apt to find more/foodstuff buried in the Defrost" is both frozen-vegetable corporate icon (Birdseye?) and ambassador from a world where "union is possible" and all inhabitants begin "chirping excitedly at the approach of each other." Thus Rufus's arrival may signal a climatic return to the Ice Age, or herald the coming of a global warming in interspecies relations. * The counterparts of these happy 'toons in "The Gonfalon Raised Tonight," written at the same time and with a similar appropriationist twist, appear as teen gang-members from the grim-faced world of _Time_ magazine reporting: They declare no interest whatsoever in the state of the world, demark the nation as turf on which it will be as they say or it won't be any longer allowed to go undisturbed by their active attention. (CP 449) "Human Universe": "it behooves man now not to separate himself too jauntily from any of nature's creatures" (10). And nature as human, now, is no more than man's acquisition or improvement of her--or at least his entrance into her picture (M III 203) --a picture that nonetheless holds _him_ captive. * Another citizen of the earth, appearing in Volume III of _Maximus_, is the star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata) from "West Gloucester" (M III 26). Maximus encounters this creature, discombobulated ("probably . . . knocked in the head"), in the middle of the highway: actually fighting all the time, with its fore-paws at the lovely mushroom growth of its nose, snow-ball flake pink flesh of a gentian . . . like a flower dizzy with its own self . . . drilling itself into the pavement The futility of this burrower's dazed attempts to spiral itself into the road clearly resonates for Maximus (the poet-historian as mole, "batted on the head" by accident; its spiralling motion reenacted in those late poems where the lines whorl in upon themselves, following the flower-vortex; the mole as spy, descrying the earth's secrets, seeking the underworld). The attraction of the image is perhaps too clearly thematic, indeed, unless we consider that the freak magnetization posited as "what was wrong" with the creature ("that the highway/ had magnetized the poor thing") is as exact an instance of illocutionary performance as anything in _Maximus_. The poem's elements, with this stroke, configure in a total assembly. If I twist West I curl into the tightest Rose, if right into the Color of the East . . . in this aspect the Nation turns now to its Perfection. (M III 106) In its third sense the "mole" is the causeway (Route 128 encircling Boston) built to reach former islands Tyre/ Gloucester (for analogously imperial purposes, in Maximus's view), and thus the very highway whose magnetizing agency distracts its namesake. It is in this sense that "it does take a mole to join Gloucester to the Nation" (M III 225). * Feminine Writing so that all the World is redeemed, and history and all that politics, and "State" and Subjection are for once, done away with, as the reason of Writing (_The Archaeologist of Morning_) Olson's much-vaunted return to "the feminine" in the last decade of his career has been read in a variety of ways. From the perspective of writing the republic, one thing becomes clear: the public matters of constitution, attention, and governmentality that preoccupy the Maximus of the early poems, that return in inverted form in the satires and topical commentaries of the late fifties and early sixties, and that acquire their widest environmental context in the late work--these singularly and resonantly lack a context that acknowledges women except in mythological-archetypical terms. Yet "the fire-cleansed place of the polis" is preeminently a female topos, as are various of the most prominent landmarks that increasingly become the poet's mainstays in an ever-cloudier phenomenal world. What to make of the links between female-coded environmental power and male- coded political address in these late poems? How can such links be used to address the political problem that informs the _Maximus Poems_ throughout, "the democratic proposition" hinted at in its epigraph? Does the idea of "the feminine" as symbolic debt, to use Andrew Ross's formulation, speak to the symbolically empty space that Lefort locates at the vacuum center of the modern democratic state-form? care of such an order love itself was put down as over- ably, as, if she chose and she had still no choice to organize every thing (M 566) * In an unpublished essay entitled "Culture and Revolution," dating from the early 1950s, Olson addresses and embodies the paradoxes of organization as they relate to the problem of locating poetry's task: "inside totality, where are we, who are _we_?" (emphasis added). Totality, Olson intimates, can be taken in two divergent senses: on the one hand it is the System, the "goods" that evacuate "good" (value) and lead in the end to systemic suicide by commodification--organization as death, totalitarianism (exemplified in its extreme form in the model of the concentration camp); on the other it is "the work," the active principle of making that includes working toward the society to come--organization as art, the democratic self-creative proposition. Olson sees totality in postwar terms as "culture" rather than (politico-economic) "revolution"; yet there is a "revolution of culture" that must speak to the Good after the "ruin" wrought by commodification. The question he poses is whether, again, totality can be rescued ("inverted") to its second sense of aesthetic-political work, the social body to come. In this essay, Olson contrasts the possible approaches to this question in terms of a (European) "ideality" and an (American) pragmatism, arguing for the necessity of developing a relativist, skeptical basis for the democratic totality that nonetheless presses the question of the good within it, as alternative to it, finding place and name for it, without lapsing into the idealisms of absolute faith and martyrdom that motivate the "aristocrats" or saints of spirit. It is in the light of this position that the question of "the feminine" needs to be taken up in considering the later work. * Added to making a Republic in gloom on Watchhouse Point an actual earth of value to construct one, from rhythm to image, and image is knowing, and knowing, Confucius says, brings one to the goal: 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. (M III 190) A revealing moment occurs in _The Republic_ when Socrates alludes to the absurdity of the phrase "master of himself." For if the self is subject to its own command, who is mastered and who does the mastering? Socrates goes on to recuperate the sense of the trope by arguing for the self's division into good and bad elements and positing a hierarchical relation between them: the many dominated by the few. "Do we know of any greater evil for a state than the thing that distracts it and makes it many instead of one, or a greater good than that which binds it together and makes it one?" (701) A policing of the unruly subjects of the subject within the bounds of the composite imperial self: the king's two bodies; the state's incorporate body; democracy's nobody. It is a measure of Olson's achievement in writing his republic through the late _Maximus_ poems that it strives less and less to cohere as organizational totality derived from the poet's own willful agency--that it is less _his_ republic, more an active seeking out of the full constituency of the earth as polis, beyond its constitution by appropriation: totality as necessary perceptual and compositional _process_. It is the degree to which _Maximus_ restricts extension of such process to the common denominator of the poet's own perceptual horizon ("the ownership/ solely/mine")--occlusions of a singular bodily template--that it leaves asymptotic limits for subsequent readings to trace, other writings to overcome. Works Cited Arakawa and Madeline Gins. _The Mechanism of Meaning_. New York: Abbeville, 1988. Aristotle. _The Politics_. Ed. and trans. Ernest Barker. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958. Austin, J. L. _How to Do Things with Words_. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975. Butterick, George. _A Guide to the Maximus Poems of Charles Olson_. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. Byrd, Don. _Charles Olson's "Maximus"_. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980. Deleuze, Gilles and Flix Guattari. _Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia_. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983. Lefort, Claude. _The Political Forms of Modern Society_. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986. Massumi, Brian. _A user's guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia_. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1991. Olson, Charles. _Additional Prose: A Bibliography on America, Proprioception, and Other Notes and Essays_. Ed. George Butterick. Bolinas: Four Seasons Foundation, 1974. ______. _"the calyx of the Flower/can cup all things within itself . . .": a Charles Olson reader_. Bibliophasia Reprint Service, 1992. ______. "Culture and Revolution." Unpublished essay. Charles Olson Papers, University of Connecticut Libraries, Storrs. All rights reserved. ______. _Collected Poems_. Ed. George Butterick. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. ______. _Human Universe and Other Essays_. Ed. Donald Allen. New York: Grove Press, 1967. ______. _The Maximus Poems_. Ed. George Butterick. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Peirce, Charles Sanders. _Peirce on Signs_. Ed. James Hoopes. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Plato. _The Republic_. Trans. Paul Shorey. From The Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton: Princeton University Press (Bollingen Series LXXI), 1961. Ross, Andrew. _The Failure of Modernism_. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.