by Ryan Ruby
Context Collapse is a long, mock-academic, critical essay poem. Beginning in ancient Greece and continuing beyond the present, it examines how the increasingly wide gulf between poets and their audiences are mediated by new communications technologies and changes in publishing economies, and how this, in turn, significantly impacts poetic form. You are reading Context Collapse 5, which spans the second half of the 20th Century, and takes place largely in New York and San Francisco. In this period, the accelerated syntactic and typographic experiments of modernist poets like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein go into overdrive, thanks to the democratization of the printing press (via the mimeograph revolution, xerox machine, and small press distribution), the institutionalization of poetry (via the MFA system), and radical shocks to the global economy (via neoliberal financialization). By the dawn of the 21st century, cutting edge poetics have turned poetry into a decontextualized, authorless visual-conceptual art form, preparing the way, like so many other sectors of contemporary culture and the economy, for its algorithmic automation.
When the set of producers overlaps
The set of consumers in an Euler
Diagram of the literary field,
The centrifuges of innovation
Spin that much more quickly, actualizing
And exhausting the potential resources
Of the medium, as the rapacious
Scramble to lay one’s claim to novelty
Comes to operate under conditions
Of informational saturation
Fostered by a common guild identity.
The fissile waste product of this process
Of accelerating modernism,
Viz., syntactic distortion,is among
The many features of language writing
That prompted a sympathetic critic
To notice how, after two decades,
It had congealed, like every avant-garde
Before it, into a period style,
Though the influence of the academic
(And academy-adjacent) milieu
Is more visible, she writes, in the way
The technical vocabularies of
Philosophy, the social sciences,
And, above all, literary theory
Were launderedvia English departments
Into poetic diction, where they served
To stimulate recursive discourses
On what some in the movement liked to call
Method,which would come in handy when it came
Time for them to engineer a reverse
Merger of poetry and poetics,
A friendly takeover ostensibly
Undertaken in the name of a certain
Oft-neglected external stakeholder
Some in the movement liked to call the reader.
In “The Rejection of Closure,” for instance,
Hejinian rips a page out of Barthes’s
Playbook to make a distinction between
Two types of text, the closed and the open:
The work whose elements are all “directed […]Toward a single reading” and the one
Whose elements are all “maximally
Excited.” In a closed text, the writer
Retains “directive” “authority” over
The “passive” reader, while in an open text
The absence of control mechanisms
Like narrative, syntax, and formatting
Makes the reader an active participant
In constructing the meaning of the text,
Determining not only what it says,
But even in what order it might be read.
Rejecting the writer’s authority
Over the reader is analogous,
In Hejinian’s view, to the rejection
Of “the authority implicit in
[O]ther (social, economic, cultural)
[H]ierarchies.” Less polemical than
Other language poets, however, she
Acknowledges that closure and openness
Lie on a continuum, and, furthermore,
That the totally closed text is something
Of a straw man. Even when an author
Directs a reader toward a single
Interpretation, it does not follow
That there is only one, nor would a text
Which everyone agreed could only be
Interpreted in one way foreclose response.
A contrario. All communication
Invites—but does not compel—further acts
Of communication.But when one half
Of the circuit is removed (or doubled)
The writer-reader polarity is
Destabilized,and the latter is not
So much addressed by means of written signs,
As s/he is presented with instances
Of script: with data, not information,
Data which, to top it all off, does not flow
At a high signal-to-noise ratio,
But circulates (as if) autonomously.
That is why radically open texts
Are inevitably more resistant
To interpretation than closed texts are:
If there can be no consensus about
The rules governing how a text should be read,
Meaning ceases to be operative.
Confronted with such texts, even the best
Close readersfind themselves reduced to typing
Descriptions of their physical features,
Speculating about how to translate
Them into grammar-obeying phrases,
Or attempting to reconstruct lexical
Shards that, however carefully arranged,
Are indistinguishable from random
Scatters of letters and spaces on the page.
Considering that a text needn’t even
Be written as an open text to be
Read as one,the reader’s apotheosis
Is but the prelude to her disappearance,
As the activity once known as reading
Is supplanted by the act of looking
At a text, whereupon the verbal art
Surrenders at last to the visual
And poetry becomes post-poetry.
What happens next should come as no surprise.
The Epsilon “cut so rudely on that
[O]ldest stone,” the mystery of whose sense
Had so transfixed Olson, resurfaces,
Floating at the omphalos of one of
McCaffery’s cloudlike ciphers, where it stands
(Unfalsifiably) for the empty string,
The symbol for the absence of symbols
In various programming languages
For non-deterministic automata.
As another fin de siècle approached,
The time had come to wonder: why write at all?
If language is a subjectless process
Rather than an intersubjective one,
A counter-communicative flow of parts
Through decontextualized language zones,
Rather than a communicative relay
Informed by a discrete social context,
An algorithmrather than a message,
Wouldn’t it be better, now that the means
Were available, just to automate it?
Hasn’t the epithet poet’s poet
basically become a pleonasm?
Though they consider themselves scientists,
i.e., producers of measurable
knowledge, Humanities scholars are no
strangers to the logics of fad and fashion,
fostered, in their case, by the requirement
that dissertations contain original
research and in the ‘publish or perish’
bellum omnium contra omnes that
plays itself out in tenure committees,
on the editorial boards of peer-
reviewed journals and university
presses, and among those who chose the themes
and personnel for conference panels.
New critical paradigms—the currency
of the realm—would experience ever
shorter life spans as one academic ‘turn’
is overturned by the next, until it,
in turn, is turned aside by the turn whose turn
has come, turning and turning, ad nauseum.
The description is Perloff’s, but as Steve
McCaffery notes, this “specific feature”
went by many other names: formalist,
language-centered, cipheral, etc.
See “The Death of the Subject,” “Language Writing.”
In his attempt to challenge this description
of language writing with a broader critique
of “conventional art historical
periodization,” Watten fails to
engage with the substance of Perloff’s point,
which fundamentally has to do with
synchronic formal mannerisms.
Despite seeming singular, idiolect,
as critics as different as Stewart
and Frederic Jameson have also warned,
should not be confused with personal style:
the closer a text comes to idiolect,
the harder it becomes to distinguish
from other such texts. Ironically,
syntactic distortion thus represents
the self-cancellation of linguistic
originality—in addition to
a decrease in complexity relative
to any number of putatively
more conservative styles of poetry.
To turn William Carlos Williams’ quip
on its head: all counter-communicative
texts communicate the same thing of no
importance, viz., communication is dead.
From the U.S.S.R. (formalism),
West Germany (critical theory),
and, of course, France (post-structuralism).
Someone at the Stanford Literary Lab
ought to crunch the numbers to see whether—
and, if so, by what factor—the poems
that take poetry—implicitly or
explicitly—as their subject matter
have increased over the last hundred years.
(Please include this one in the data set.)
Esp. Bernstein (“Writing and Method”)
and Bruce Andrews (Paradise and Method).
Others preferred ‘process’ or ‘procedure’.
In any event, while their counterparts
in official verse culture were rehashing
the free verse vs. formalism debate,
innovative writers were more concerned
to explore the chance operations of Cage
and Mac Low or, conversely, the constraint-
based procedures of LeWitt and Queneau.
From the perspective of a Marxian
theory of literary production,
this de-emphasis on the work had its
prima facie salutary effects
—it seemed, for one thing, to remove writing
from the logic of commodity exchange—
but the turn to method / process is
just as easily explained as the flight
of highly skilled labor from a resource-
depleted sector (artifactual
production) to one where there was little
competition (conceptual production).
Yet again these innovative writers
found themselves marching in step with rather
than bucking global trends, in this instance
the shift from a manufacturing-based
to an information-based economy.
The ensuing genre hybrid can be
further subdivided, using Perloff’s
terminology, into THEORYPO,
a poem that propounds a poetics
(e.g., Bernstein’s “Artifice of Absorption,”
Watten’s “Under Erasure,” Perelman’s
“The Marginalization of Poetry”)
and POETHEORY, a poem that enacts one
(e.g., Hejinian’s “Writing is an Aid
to Memory,” Grenier’s “Sentences”)
with Susan Howe’s work as a middle case.
These pieces were produced alongside more
familiar instances of discursive prose.
The proof of this pudding is in the reading:
what is the history of poetry
if not a series of more or less closed texts
responding to other more or less closed texts?
Nearly all of Empson’s illustrations
of the seven types of ambiguity—
which must surely be considered as techniques
for opening the poem—are taken
from pre-20th-century poetry.
As Luhmann argues in Social Systems.
The authority of writer over
reader is therefore merely apparent.
An alternative model of closure
without hierarchy can be found in
the notion of hermeneutic friendship,
which is premised on the implicitly
dialogical nature of all texts,
even the ones that cannot, stricto sensu,
be read. See Grossman, Summa Lyrica.
Around the same time, as Michel Foucault
notes in The Birth of Biopolitics,
the classical liberal opposition
between producer and consumer dissolves
into a new, unified category:
human capital. “The man of consumption,
insofar as he consumes,” writes Foucault,
summarizing current neoliberal
thinking on the subject, “is a producer.
What does he produce? […] [H]is own satisfaction.”
Thanks to the laborization of leisure
and rapid improvements in surveillance
technology and data collection,
which made it possible for corporations
to extract surplus value from the fact
as well as the act of consuming goods,
services, information, etc.,
this is not the tautology it at first
appears to be. But that is beside the point.
e.g., Perloff and Peter Quartermain.
That is to say the neo-avant-garde
wound up arriving at the same dead end
as the arche-.
If, as Michel Serres writes, the potential
for noise is the transcendental condition
for the manifestation of signal,
the converse is also true. Dialogue
may fail to totally exclude the “demon”
Static (in French, Parasite) but even so,
there can obviously be no “third man”
without the existence of the first two.
Hence Jameson’s characterization
of such open texts as schizophrenic.
You could read a closed text vertically
rather than horizontally, for instance,
or backwards, or, best of all, translated
into a language you don’t happen to speak.
Mallarmé’s revolution was now complete, but poets still had
lots of catching up to do. Marrying
Freytag-Loringhoven, Duchamp, and Warhol’s
institutional critiques of the art
object with the citational techniques
of Pound, Eliot, and Walter Benjamin,
the next step for the material text
was to become a linguistic readymade.
On this new understanding, ‘poetry’
is analogous to the museum,
a contextual frame that can transform
any instance of language into art;
‘poets’ are no longer generators
of language but curators of the vast
quantities of already-existing text,
which was proliferating, every
nanosecond, by orders of magnitude;
and ‘curatorship,’ as Boris Groys writes, is
[an] extra-linguistic operation
of inclusion or exclusion of certain
words in certain contexts […] The curator
is interested not in what […] texts ‘say’
but rather in what words occur in these texts
and what words do not. (Emphasis added.)
Today the question—what is the social
function of poetry?—is almost always
answered subjectively, that is, in terms
of what persons who call themselves poets
believe the impact of a poem on a real
or extrapolated audience ought
to be. It is almost never answered
objectively, from the point of view of
society itself, that is, in terms
of a broad consensus about the role
poets (unquestionably social actors)
and their poetry actually play
in the course of communal life. Thus, while
a subjective answer might range from some
to be clear, not in terms of its import—
to ‘none whatsoever,’ the objective
answer is clearly none whatsoever.
(See Craig Dworkin’s publishing stats below
and compare how easy it is to answer
the question in the case of teachers,
doctors, or, yes, even politicians.)
Now it is not entirely obvious
to what extent this loss of social function
is the cause or the effect of the fact
that poetry has become whatever
anyone says it is, but it can be said
with confidence that the two phenomena
are related. Always a little vague,
definitions are nevertheless themselves
matters of social consensus, such that
the loss of definition goes hand in hand
with the loss of function—and vice versa.
What is an Oulipian constraint like
Jean Lescure’s N+7 procedure
if not a mechanism by which to turn
any instance of ordinary prose
into a passably surrealist text?
To go back to the beginning. The notion
that messages are necessarily
rational statements and that a poem
can therefore be said to have a meaning
if and only if it can be translated
(read: paraphrased) into a determinate
series of truth-functional propositions
is, quite frankly, confused. No one—except
apparently Plato, Yvor Winters,
and legions of high school English teachers—
denies that poetry, if it so chooses,
can operate according to different
logics than logic, with criteria
of success that are not reducible
to truthfulness, e.g., the transference
(read: communication) of energy,
as theorized by the Projectivists,
or openness (see above). The problem
with such ‘quantized’ criteria, however,
is that they are impossible to measure,
and are thus not criteria of success,
properly speaking. There is quite simply
no reason to assume, as Olson does,
that difference-in-itself discharges
more energy than repetition does;
the preponderance of evidence suggests
that the opposite is the case, as a quick
comparison between the responses
to poetry and pop music will show.