Olson's Republic
			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
	("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
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
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
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
of the materials at hand it is, as well, altogether literal. Littoral (coast 
haunting). Poetry as constitutionally uncertain enactments of a littoral 
"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
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
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
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
	(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,
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 
	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 . . .
	itself into the
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).
	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
needs to be taken up in considering the later work.
	Added to
	making a Republic
	in gloom on Watchhouse
		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.

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