Bonding Poets / James Sherry

Bonding Poets

Jackson Pollock: “I am nature.”

Hans Hoffman: “Ah, but if you work by heart, you will repeat yourself.” 

Noted biologist Richard Lewontin writes in the NYRB, May 27, 2010, “Nothing creates more misunderstanding of the results of scientific research than scientists’ use of metaphors.” He writes this sentence in an attack on the misuse of the “metaphor” of natural selection, a Darwinian umbrella concept that he describes as containing four mechanical principles of survival and reproduction “stripped of its metaphorical elements”: heredity, variation, differential reproduction, and mutation. While his querulous response to the term natural selection has some value in pressuring scientists to be rigorous, it seems impossible to condemn all metaphor or even that specific metaphor because it can be misused. 

The skeletal form of evolution itself is metaphorical as variation is a metaphor for countless disparities that operate differently, some more directly and some inconsequentially. Heredity does not mean offspring must resemble their parents, but that they tend to look more like parents. Plenty of people are dead ringers for each other coming out of unrelated parents. And the vague generalization of differential reproduction does little to show us the variety of relationships between organisms and their surroundings.

Not only does Lewontin attack metaphor, he also characterizes natural historical stories as an invalid method of understanding principles of survival and reproduction, citing several examples of how the narrative about an organism fails to include certain important contradictory elements that reduce the accuracy of the “causal story of natural selection”. So if we can’t have metaphor (and I assume any other figure of speech) and we can’t have stories, what are we left with?

Sadly “mechanical consequences” that Lewontin wants to be the primary, if not sole, methods of description in natural science are insufficient for the purposes of  society’s goals for science and even for the accuracy of the results. Too often restricting the modes of discourse to mechanical consequences result in excluding important features of reality that emerge from the complexity of those well-defined mechanisms. Paul Feyerabend has pointed out in Against Method (1976) that Galileo could not have prevailed against the orthodoxy of the church with only scientific method as his tool. He points to rhetorical, stylistic, and other persuasive activities such as writing in Italian instead of Latin as key contributors to the church’s ultimate vindication of the scientist and the science. Feyerabend concludes that “theoretical anarchism is… more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives” (p10). Here we have the exclusionary principle on the other hand. Each structure has its value, but excluding one in favor of the other merely precipitates argument.

Underlying Lewontin’s argument is a plea for purity. If only we say just the right things in the right way, people will believe in us and we can continue with our work. We have heard this plea for purity of language and intention before. Language writing fought this running battle for years with the academic literary establishment until it carved out its niche (another metaphor) in the poetry world. Language writing rebalances lexical meaning and grammatical/formal meaning, meaning built into structures of writing like sentences and sonnets that go unquestioned for years until someone willingly breaks with tradition. Poets start writing in ungrammatical sentences. “Shakedown baby, I don’t like you so cosily—Payback is a devil dog.”  Or later “God is science—First, they have to get more Nazi-like Modern English in their gender qualifies first indoor life;…” (Bruce Andrews, Give ‘em Enough Rope

This impurity, read lack of consistency, was exacerbated by the pastiche strategies of many of the language writers like Steve McCaffery, Charles Bernstein, Ray DiPalma, Ron Silliman, as well as Andrews. Their landmark collaboration Legend put forms of writing on the chopping block, fragmenting in a Dada-like manner. The catchphrases of pop culture were juxtaposed and in some cases the words themselves were chopped up into letters and syllables as in P Inman’s Red Shift, “print dockery. / drew , mang. / figment keeps to hum // off flections / . climb in / draw nints” (12,13).

Making this point is not new to poetry criticism. Aligned with an environmental model of culture Feyerabend points out how this same approach in science also leads to new ideas. Science like poetry develops unevenly and as a result non-rational approaches must be brought to bear in order to change orthodoxy. “The consistency condition which demands that new hypotheses agree with accepted theories is unreasonable because it preserves the older theory…” Or Feyerabend’s citation from Einstein. “The external conditions…which are set for [the scientist] by the facts of experience do not permit him to let himself be too much restricted, in the construction of his conceptual world, by the adherence to an epistemological system. He, therefore, must appear to the systematic epistemologist as a type of unscrupulous opportunist” (Feyerabend, 18) 

The underlying legalistic or maybe one should say ideological terms of both orthodox scientific and literary arguments lie in a concept of efficiency that not reflected in natural systems like animals or languages. Rather a principle of inefficiency more accurately, although perhaps less emotionally satisfying, maps most complex, real-life processes than any single theory or point of view. And neither is the principle of diversity universal as Vaclav Smil has pointed out in The Earth’s Biosphere… Diversity is more effective in sustaining an environment in only about 30% of cases, better but far from universal. (p227)

If we release all these restrictive approaches from their disciplinary confines, we are left to model nature and humanity together along the lines of Lewontin’s mechanical principles with the added understanding that each frame as modeled alone isn’t going address all conditions or situations. To effectively achieve our real life biological and cultural aims of sustainability we constantly need to add mechanical principle to mechanical principle until their very complexity produces properties that are not present in any of the individual mechanical principles. 

Science cannot progress past its orthodoxy without input from metaphor. The metaphors and narratives of culture need the mechanical principles of interaction from grammar, syntax, and format to accompany purely observational methods. These statements imply that metaphor not only reflects the mind’s ability to bridge logic with images, but also that the world has transformational or emergent characteristics. New things and processes arise from complex combinations of existing things and processes.

The complexity of these interactions of organisms and poems leads me to begin to look at the relationships between them more completely rather than simply view relationships as a characteristic of organisms. The relationships between organisms are the peer of the organisms themselves. Strangely, however, no thorough study of relationships exists that I know of that compares to the detailed disciplines about organisms and poems. Each discipline has its own set of relationships. Physics has four forces connecting matter. Anthropology identifies various group relationships. Poetry uses grammars, syntax and figures of speech. But poetry has forces and anthropology has syntax and physics has group dynamics that are both similar and different from the way they are used natively. 

Since relationships are things, too, they like organisms have characteristics. For example, relationships can be strong like the relationship between noun and verb, neutron and proton, mother and child or weak like the relationship between sentences, atoms and clans. Relationships can be holistic like gravity and periods or transmit only specific components of the organisms like blood vessels and poetic line. Relationships can be uni-directional like time or bi-directional like roads. They can support relatively consistent flows like copper wire and iambs or change the volume and speed of their flows like locks in canals and punctuation. 

The point of connection between the relationship and the organism varies in character. The point of connection can be a property of the organism such as the mouth in a kiss or part of the independent connector like a chain. In some cases the connectors themselves are organisms and in other cases there is a third organism that acts as a connector between organisms as in primitive termites that use specific gut bacteria to help digest wood. There are other cases where connection is made so thoroughly that one organism becomes part of another as in exosymbiosis where mitochondria and chloroplasts, starting as separate bacteria, became part of the very cells of animals and plants.

While this is a far from thorough list of connectivity options, I hope it shows the complexity and importance of having a theory and a science of connectors as we have a culture of connections in poetry or anthropology. And finally the emergent properties of all these connections some of which are merely concepts, some of which are forces and some of which are organisms themselves implies that we have spent much time on the organisms and insufficient energy understanding the connections between them.

Now let us review the poetry and biology in terms of organisms and connectors where some organisms are themselves connectors. Both organisms and connectors have component models, that is, they are built up from other things. Questions of ontology can be dismissed as irrelevant except where knowing where a thing came from helps to understand its function.

There are conditions when vocabulary does not extend beyond a specific discipline, and situations where translating a term is not only useful, but points to the larger planetary environment. For example similarities of form take place at different scales. The curve defined by certain flows along nanowires is virtually identical in two dimensions and in one dimension. (Nature, P740, Ap 9, 2009) So similarities not only jump disciplinary boundaries, but even dimensional boundaries. 

Cultural changes occur in patterns that are isomorphic to changes taking place in natural selection: heredity, variation, and environmental differences. The idea that purity of language implies purity of meaning has to be approached more carefully than the orthodoxy of science and poetry admit. There are many misuses of terms like natural selection or quantum or poetic, but to exclude all trans-disciplinary uses locks us into our current patterns of behavior and language and makes it doubly hard to accept change when change varies. Theoretical anarchy is a far more fertile process than demanding that each theory be consistent with existing theories. Such demands repress advancement in science and poetry.