visionism 2/ against form: internality and the avant-garde

twilight writing. charged with memory. gone before. before what? before the issuance, already written, in twilight. as light and dark recall each other, neither fully present, but present in their agreement to enter the other, saturate the other, dying into the other so to erase themselves as a condition of their appearance. the darkness or light that dominates in a few hours conceals its genesis in twilight which bears (bares) the erasure of light and dark. it is a pointing toward and a pointing away, a mutual occupation only to be returned by the act to one's own folding backward into another, which is itself, a yearning for the lost, for what will have arrived, i.e., the night, the day, as imperfect totalization, already on the way out at the very moment of arrival. a coming that is also a going. an "against" if we trace the word's etymology to the middle english "eyeynst," meaning "eye to eye," each seeing into the other, each seeing into the other's seeing into. the animation of emptiness, of desire

as olson said of form and content, that form is content, that content is form. yet we divide them in our language, as our language, as us as our language. symbolic, no doubt, as mallarmé understood, and keats. we fall to division so to speak of them, so to grasp the erasure, the "against" of twilight. so we may see it, or recall that once we have seen it, this making and unmaking of form and content, this seeing into seeing into. is there, then, a fabrication more vulnerable, a stitching more threadbare, than the concept of form

nevertheless a spooling that in-forms. an attempt at identity (this unraveling), a setting into relation. a politics. the avant-garde is itself "twilighted," inevitably, in the sense of occupying a position already gone before. to stand upon the privilege of form, the identity of it as a-part from content yet somehow whole and alone, is merely to deny seeing into seeing into, to deny and to grasp the hand that erases, to grasp and vow that writing shall not be the twilight it is, the already lost, the no-present that words and sentences point toward and away. so form without content? if so then form as desire, a forming of the what that is lost, the form of nothing that mourns itself, its own erasure as the twilight that is writing

to speak of the avant-garde, or for that matter all writing, is to articulate a perversion, a body that cuts itself, bleeds itself for pleasure, for pain, for the pleasure of pain. for it is to speak of what drains itself, its definition, as a condition of formulation. an "advanced guard," a gesture "ahead of its time": coincident with the desire, the animal need, for spilled blood. the argument for a future re-produces time, presumes a future time which arrives, if and when it arrives, bereft of its character of futurity. time to come retains its indication only as anticipation, which is the same as saying its name is bound within the present, possible only insofar as it appears here, now, re-calling its name as the lost possibility. to perceive the "ahead of its time" is to bind it irrevocably within the present, to assume it as of its time which, of course, it always is. in a more elementary sense, to recognize, to conceptualize anything as ahead of its time is to acknowledge that it no longer is, that it has been re-cognized within present time and thus bound there, or so it may seem. ironically the present meets the criterion of recognizability, of conceptualization, only insofar as it has already passed, is something to be recognized, i.e., comparable thus compared. if the avant-garde operates as a record, or at least an echo of past events, then the most conventional poetry -- conventional according to avant-garde politics -- meets the same criterion. if to identify what is avant-garde requires that the work already occupy the past and gone, then all conventional poetry is in fact avant-garde, and all avant-garde work is in fact conventional. one may argue that whatever assumes a dominant position, or seems to, represents the most successful avant-garde work. hardly too far afield of the notion that all work was once judged new, thus avant garde, thus behind us, lost to us since nothing already perceived as avant-garde can lead us, can stand in front of us, except in the sense of eye to eye, in the sense of seeing into seeing into, the past seeing into the present, the present seeing into the past -- in that sense in front of us, in that sense before us. "in front of," "before" -- the language here prevents us from identifying parameters, from closing off form, content, time. "before" in the sense of to come, or in the sense of precedence -- both? "in front of" suffers the same indecision

but what of influence, of the politics of domination and rebellion? a work, a method, whatever achieves hegemony, in time, can no longer boast itself avant-garde. or so we assume. in fact such designations can only formulate themselves as formulae, and only insofar as they achieve dominance either of the minority or the majority -- it little matters. and the designation inevitably requires the exclusion of whatever is in violation, i.e., the denial of against, of the eyeynst, of the twilight, of the mutual self erasure, self-effacing, without which neither design -- what we insist is conventional and legion, what we insist is avant-garde and spotting the hills -- may muster an identity. in this sense it is almost nonsensical to suggest that either the majority or the minority achieves hegemony since the hierarchy upends in mutual dependence, mutual contingencies. and what of these contingencies? what of this against, these oppositions that are also appositions since dependency is integral to definition, the impossibility of hierarchy the root of our never ending desire to construct one? what are they if not the eye to eye, the seeing into seeing into, the mark of nothing that is desire? as plotinus said, "Form is the trace of the formless. It is the formless that produces form" (Enneads, VI, 7, 33, trans. S. MacKenna)

if many construct as we do, then we may fail even to be suis generis in the confidence that our work appropriates an exoticism not found in "conventional" narrative and lyric. for the reverse always obtains, and the same position may be claimed for the conventional, i.e., that it proffers an elegance deliberately excluded from, prohibited by, the avant-garde's most radical elements. here we find ourselves, of course, in the geography of politics. a group aesthetic designated avant-garde, for example, might violate the group's comfortable self-identification by virtue of its popularity, its ecumenism. we may suppose that whether or not a violation has occurred depends on the size of the group. after all, how many artists can at once be ahead of their time? does 40% of the whole qualify; does 50%? if the group boasts a large membership, even if it does not quite achieve majority, perhaps we should look elsewhere for inspiration. any grouping of considerable size and weight clearly expresses a significant current both in the sense of its timeliness and the motion of time which carries us from present to present, past to past. what isn't, after all, of its time

but we may prefer to anoint as avant-garde that which violates the aesthetics of the largest group, or groups. in other words, what is avant-garde contains the least industrial juice, the lesser power within an art industry -- again more a political designation than an aesthetic one, though certainly cogent and workable. in the realm of aesthetics, attention to form, however misshapen the product might seem to pedestrian onlookers, does not necessarily signal an advance, though it may amount to a type of specialization. as an example, if we acknowledge the self as primarily a linguistic event which experiences its own existence in both intellectual and emotional gestures, then to ignore one or the other is to specialize, to limit, to suppress the psychical expanse that each individual lives as and through. it should be noted, of course, that all experimentation, whether in the arts or in the sciences, may well depend upon this operation of limitation, this resistance to the delimited and delimiting "essence" of things

in addition, there remains always, as excess, the intrusion of crap, i.e., work which repeats formulations or categories of formulations, however popular or unpopular, that have little to say about human experience, about humankind's intellectual and/or emotional life. what we have in such cases is no doubt driven by an unhealthy attachment to hollywood, i.e., by the lure of special effects

but to challenge the avant-garde means also to acknowledge its crucial function . if to recognize that what is present insists upon a repeated and repeatable structure, then the avant-garde, which is of its time, repeats possibilities already written within language. in this sense it functions as exposition rather than wholly new creation. it displaces some elements of pre-existing structures in order to draw attention to what remains. (this must be true even of visual poetry if we agree that all objects, if they are to mean, are contingent upon language for their cogency.) avant-garde art thereby unmasks, functions as dis-closure. in this sense avant-garde work is always prophetic, a revelation of what was written. yet we often find ourselves concealing the structure of prophesy, i.e., the self, the story, the myth, the narrative, for the purpose of presenting our work as new, as original, as without debt, as an unsullied beginning. one suspects a radical formalism is best at keeping secrets. nonetheless, what may appear invisible to an untrained audience certainly makes itself known to others with a talent for excavation. such concealing re-covers a desire, a yearning within language to begin again, to destroy itself and thus the distance, so clearly expressed by narrative and lyric, between it and its origin, its god

what is meant by the internal life of language, by internality? it has already been said. it is eyeynst, eye to eye, seeing into seeing into. it is twilight. it is desire. I do not describe here a simple binary since the condition involves not only "face to face," but "face within face." each concept "contains" the other. the binary does not operate merely between two things, but as the interior of each thing, each word, each concept. in this way all relational structures are internalized by each linguistic element. in the case of the avant-garde, what identifies it "for us" is precisely this slippage of identity within the concept, the indeterminacy/interdependency which produces the impossible center of language, and of poetry. the blur of twilight. the full emptiness of desire. the unbalance of looking into looking into. deviance at and as the heart of all things. how else may we mediate the unknowable, the animal conceptualized both within its forest and within ourselves? the utterly Other. the formless. the blank and blood. the deviant and endlessly deviating genesis of our passions, our story.

when dissecting language, excessive use of the scalpel, while it might seem to be going at root structures, merely plays around the edges -- a specialization, we agree, often striking and valuable. the root nonetheless escapes us, always. yet its expression as escapee may be found in its procreation, its proliferation (minimalism can be abortive). the challenge is to re-view in language, in art, the deviance/ desire that drives and disperses, to engage this heat, this "passion play" --and to do so without repeating what has worn out its welcome. for narrative and lyric also grow cold over time if they are not permitted to reinvent themselves. all fixities, all totalizations are lies. the truth is that the desire to complete is made possible by the impossibility of completion, as the desire to begin again is driven by the impossibility of beginning, of making a new thing that is not intrinsically indebted

in one sense we are always playing with appearances, with technique. what else do we have at hand? the answer is that we have choices at hand. some will prefer to specialize. others will channel the expanse of a culture, the way it appears as well as the way it feels. picasso's "Guernica"; eliot's "The Waste Land"; pound's Cantos; williams' Paterson; stevens' "The Comedian as the Letter C"; joyce's Ulysses; nearly everything by o'keeffe; ginsberg's "Howl" and "Kaddish"; ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror"; o'hara's "In Memory of My Feelings"; rivers' portrait of o'hara, his "Washington Crossing the Delaware" and so much more of his work; coolidge's "At Egypt"; koch's "The Art of Love": merely a few examples from the previous century. these works do not abandon narrative and/or lyrical elements. they reinvent them. and in doing so they appropriate power. they revel in it. the power of desire, of the self's quest for an ending. what is it, after all, that moves us in cummings, that encourages us to feel? the juggling of punctuation and syntax, the innovative technical experiments? perhaps not. perhaps it is what we find in his metaphors so brilliantly reinvented in lines such as this one from "somewhere i have never travelled": "nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands." an exercise in passion, if there ever was one, perhaps to touch the twilight

we have heard the avant-garde described as that which effects new ways of perceiving our world, new realities. even if we accept this as a working definition, we must acknowledge that each innovative metaphor acts in precisely this manner, yoking familiar elements in startling combinations, setting them together so they may enter one another, occupy one another, change one another. what is this crossing over, this site of the crossing, if not twilight, if not the self's yearning for self-annihilation, if not the seeing into seeing into? if we do not acknowledge cummings' imagery alone as avant-garde, then we risk critical hypocrisy

certain images we are likely compelled to call beautiful. some people may, of course, resist the compulsion. but we are not wrong to equate desire with beauty. not when the beautiful thing ever and always involves imperfection, incompleteness, the disjointedness in each attempt at coherence -- the failure, finally, of the hands in cummings' poem to grasp the rain, to be the rain, even as they reinvent the rain that in turn recreates the hands. an exchange of identities never quite accomplished, a failed death that regenerates the desire for an end as more writing, more poetry, more analysis -- that widens the search. cummings' image is a lesson in humility, of course: no hands so small. it speaks the poet's inability to create that which will make further creation unnecessary, untenable. this desire for totalization aristotle called tragedy. keats wrote that "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty' -- that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." who would deny that keats and his fellow romantics were courting the new, that they constituted the english 19th century avant-garde? and plotinus before him: ". . . the primary nature of Beauty must be formless" (Enneads). the connection between desire and beauty is already there for us in the language, in its yearning for totalization, for completion, for systemic closure in time. and being made of language, we share the desire. we are its expression, the way a universe yearns for the day its expansion will lead home to its original singularity. its singularity, that which it possesses in memory, as lost. whatever method we choose, we create to follow our losses, to be one with them. and it is this yearning, this desire, this memory, this past, this spilled blood that drives our forward and outward as narrative, story, myth, as well as the need to conceal our indebtedness, our trajectory, our belatedness. nothing we do can change what is already there and gone, gone so there

the avant-garde is impossible in seeking its distinctions. form, in order to formulate, must contain within it that which resists form. this impossible completeness is nevertheless the genesis for the desire to be avant-garde, to create the new. and that desire is without form, before form, formless

what then is in the advance? what resides always before us, in front of us, at a distance, away and within us? only that which is not bound by form, that which we constantly "miss" in both senses of that word: measurable distance and nostalgia. the brilliance of art is to fill the eye on the formless, to see into seeing into -- a brilliance that also blinds. formalism in this sense makes no sense as an end, but only as a re-cognition, a re-calling and re-marking that the formless, the lack of distinction, measure, shape, is the source of form, the within of form. the avant-garde attends to this which is not a mere picking apart of the language, for what is inside remains secreted within all the pieces. narrative, lyric, metaphor, metonymy, parataxis, atavism, orphism, discordance, the devised, the aleatoric, with or without pictures: these we make as our rush into formlessness, our desire for closure. we must open ourselves to that longing when it comes, however it comes, without rules, without guidelines, without preconceptions. "anything goes," the lost generation believed. hemingway, stein: friends at odds, extremes, yet tracing each other, dis-closing the other's deficiency. eyeynst. eye to eye

the avant-garde works in twilight, falling always short of full development. we must be against form in order to insure its survival. to formulate an avant-garde is to accept a false totalization, to institutionalize and so deny the avant-garde. yet it is this desire to define, never complete, never correct, which has produced and will continue to produce a litany of failed definitions, a plethora of experimental works. we must feel this necessary failure, this blood of the animal, and our work must compel others to feel. only then are we in the advance, in the advance and thrown back, and in the throwing re-sign that we have been where we seek to go

 

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