Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Somewhat confirming my notion that an A Tonalist is also an antinomian is the opening of Norma Cole’s AT ALL, a book that is built in relation to Tom Raworth and his collages. I just read it yesterday. It is composed of Raworthian collages, but also includes that most curious member of the Royal Society of Science, Robert Hooke. His Micrographia is itself a kind of collage, and lodged in Norma’s poem, represents an unusual example of the collage with historical roots, and a list at that, of things in the world. Within Norma's book, it serves to suggest how history can be used to reclaim the present, not condemn us to the repetition of the same old complaints about what's wrong with it. Hooke serves here ironically to also suggestthat art itself is not a "royal science", of the sort Deleuze condemned for serving the State. There's a becoming-minor in AT ALL, the sense of collage as a form of radical humility, often a kind of unlearning all things royal. There are subversive gestures, a little fun poked at a Major Stickwell who is used to assert a sense of A Topia, an unwillingness to chase commodities: Referring to a hard to find kind of glue, Norma writes after a long list of places she might have to visit to find some, "I'm sure I will [get it], some day." For now, it seems, there is something to savor in being amid all the collage, where realism can't really reign. In a world saturated with commodities, maybe realism is untenable because the real world (of commodities) is untenable. Just be here now playing with the laws.

Here's a quote from AT ALL that suggests A Tonalism: "I really have no sense of questing for knowledge. At all. My idea is to go the other way, you know. And to be completely empty and then see what sounds."

Norma often uses a lot of quotes and almost always attributes them. I’ve often wondered about this, also when reading Laura. Laura sometimes doesn’t attribute the quote and when I once asked her about a specific one, she told me where it came from but also that she didn’t want people to know. It turns out she stole the quote from some remark in a tabloid. This theft isn’t particularly helpful in understanding her poetry though, but it got me thinking. See, I sometimes don’t love the citations in the middle of Laura’s and Norma’s work if I’m listening to them read it. They have this odd a-lyrical but lyrical tension going one when suddenly the citations jar me in a way that doesn’t challenge me. Turns out it maybe isn’t supposed to. Still, alone reading their work I like to know where they are getting things and the music usually picks back up. Anyway, it seems like if you cite the person, you are acknowledging the legitimacy of the copyright, or some notion of property at least. But you’re also acknowledging the intellectual work, so not exploiting it. In fact, in a way, you increase its circulation and in that way challenge the idea that property rights are based on the fundamental law of economics— scarcity. In the economies of information, though, the most widely successful piece of data is the one that is distributed most widely.

I’ve long thought that experimental poetry precisely because of its “unpopular” status is the most ripe place to explore notions of the Gift economy, as articulated by Marcel Mauss and later Marshal Sahlins.

Giving stuff away of course made The Grateful Dead immensely popular with is taping fans. Though this begs the question, what did they get in return? Plenty. But this might not seem so bad if transferred to poetry. I realize there are real costs and things. I’m not talking about that right at the moment because to do it justice I’d need my copy of Bataille’s The Accursed Share and I can’t find at the moment. I’m talking about the ethical challenge it suggests. Bataille suggests the supremacy of the gift given without an expectation of return.

Norma always seems to GIVE her immense reading away in her writing. The quotes for some reason don’t seem like “a look how smart I am, I actually read this book while you only saw it cited in the footnotes in some undergrad class.”

Often the quotes form a dialogic with the more lyrical collaged moments, but they also illuminate and let the reader orient. It seems more like a “I want you to see how I got here” kind of gesture. Or a “if you like that, here’s where you can get more.”

Anyway, I really just wanted to thank Brent & Neil for publishing AT ALL. Contact them for your copy of this book. It's very antinomian. Early on it says, “What if, in the non-oppositional mode, he drew upon the senses to begin to make this form, and made play of the laws?” This question I think is common to almost all the A Tonalists on this list, whose work I’m busy reading as much as I can find.

One caveat: We all know Taylor works wonderfully in the oppositional mode, but still he has these love poems in Yesterday’s News that suggest something of the gift economy and the ethical challenge, to love anyway, from a state of abundance that capitalist modernity would suggest does not exist. A love that does not need to be loved, to paraphrase that little minx Spinoza. Or maybe not. But there’s at least a commitment to something ancient about love, that there’s something worth conserving in the notion. Maybe not agape or eros, but philia. It’s easy to be cynical about love and love poems, but the challenge is perform both anyway.

Alongside Taylor’s fervent anti-capitalism, you’ll find things like In the Unfinished Bathroom that finds love where you most likely would expect only a mediation by the commercial or some lousy metaphor of love as “work”. He seems to find through excavation and labor “a topia” where experiencing love goes on anyway, perhaps more out of study rather than work, something more right now than labor exchange is:

for Tanya

by sluice of gray cold by
the open window stripping

wall down to lath and plaster

by the by to locate
or to the ablative

dust in the ablutions

washed smudge of locale
back across the back and the buttocks
clenched almost blue and only shocked

hair clearing topsoil says hello stranger

pouring water from the bowl I’ll be
your archaeology this morning

Taylor's work is also about places, A Topias, a reclaiming of the present: "Since I am in love and in the world. Neither is given in advance where what advances is the war."

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Beginning again

“Yesterday’s tomorrow is not today.” [Lawrence Alloway, from The Independent Group]

anonymous vigilance is the state of the mother” [Norma from “Ruth” in Mars]

(and later) “how they refer to each other”

“For it is who that appears and disappears” [me, from “Gone Again” in Self- Destruction]

Your work predicts my life

as wife and mother and father

farther than the bride of the day

that decays beneath our feet

wears the world away

The map is apparent

a firm permeability

identified as your chance (stance)

“The definition of the Independent Group in British art history is not much like the lived experience of being involved in the group at the time, for individual profiles get dissolved in a bath of similarities, but there are verifiable factors.” [Alloway, ibid]

“lyric is a continuous beginning
again” [Norma, “Spinoza in Her Youth”]

A genealogy of readings takes unexpected turns as the reader (writer) follows her desire (you are following her) (and she yours).

“and again
‘cut it out’” [Norma, Spinoza]

verifiable factor:

“It then – It – abandon of the impersonal – of the infinitive – at last resigned – to embody – with flesh in pain – to embody like the thumbnail – It then” [Danielle Collobert, It Then translated by Norma]

or being an artist one might make

instead of say or having said

one might write

verifiable factor:

Born in the immediate post world war at the same time as the aforementioned movement into a movement of one’s own from place to person to form. A lot about faces. About face. Formal attributes are noticeable and yet count for nothing compared to love.

“How privileges eat form. Transgressive responsibility.” [from Mars]

Skip the explanation and go directly to go. Just go.

Stand back
Look out

“How can it not know what it is?" [Norma, quoting Bladerunner]

“(what letter is not a love
letter?)” [from Spinoza]

“I begin again exactly as when before claiming
So then as I say I begin I began again” [me, from Rondeaux]

““ for Laura ‘all the colors silently’
with much love

[dedication written into Mars by Norma, quoted by me in A Tonalist]

“There is constant action and the action is in us.” [Norma, from At All]


This is my introduction to Norma Cole’s reading last night for the Artifact series in San Francisco. My reference to the Independent Group in it relates to what Norma read (new work from Pluto) and to her book At All written for Tom Raworth who was influenced by this movement in British art. She read with Melissa Benham and Mary Burger whose readings were both very well received.(David Brazil made an eloquent introduction for Melissa and Jay Schwartz suavely introduced Mary.) The success of this house series causes getting across the small living room to be much like playing a game of Twister, providing one with an ideal opportunity to get really up close and personal with the scene. The digital paparazzi were hard at work so I imagine there are images of the event floating around out there. This picture of Norma and I was taken a year ago on the last day of Norma’s installation "Collective Memory" The installation was part of the Poetry Center show at the California Historical Society. At All is a lovely chapbook, the first from Brent Cunningham and Neil Alger's Hooke Press. It can be had by contacting Brent Cunningham.

Laura Moriarty & Norma Cole

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Dreaming Bay Poetics 2

Reading Bay Poetics by candlelight last night due to giant power outage in the East Bay. A Tonalists are all about the darkness though so I was okay with it.

Reflecting on the Sunday's celebration, it occurs to me that the making of the anthology (according to Stephanie Young’s description of her process in the introduction) was mirrored by the event. In fact Stephanie commented that putting the book together was more an activity of assembling than editing. Assembled then at the New Yipes space were friends, interlocking affinity groups, lone wolves both in and not in the anthology, people new to the scene and people who have been on the scene quite literally since before Stephanie was born (revealed in the anthology to be 1974). I wasn’t on the scene at the time of the Stephanie birth but some quick math tells me I was the age of several of the younger contributors. Energy was very high among those drinking, talking, skulking, sulking, lurking and posing for pictures. If Stephanie had thrown herself out into the poet mosh pit her feet need not have touched the floor all evening.

One could observe people hanging with writers they were placed with in the anthology (or avoiding them) and there were also many other groupings in what is clearly now a chaotic Bay Area primal soup of poetics. I observed many A Tonalists, writers who have used the term New Brutalist in a poem or comment, surrealists, Beats, language poets, members of the New York School and Flarfists. Could it be that there was one person who was all of the above? Was it Bill Luoma?

The presence of many younger writers in the anthology and at the event seems to be the key aspect of the whole project. Their poetics are quite various and they are at different places in their writing practices and their careers, but they are there (here) in force and are way ready to take over. A number of younger writers are among my close friends and I had a teacher’s (archivist’s, mother's, publisher’s, distributor’s) pride in their power and was reminded of why it is good to show up on the actual scene once in a while.

Bay Poetics is not inclusive and doesn’t really have a poetics other than being experimental. (Poetics being a code word for experimental.) It does constitute, as Stephanie has pointed out, a snapshot of the scene. In that way it seems like an ideal teaching tool. Teaching it would allow students to read younger writers along with their teachers and important influences. The fact that it isn’t complete would allow one to teach books by the not included writers and talk about community. It would be a very different experience from the one I had being taught the New American Poetry in Ron Loewinsohn’s class at Cal in the 70s. The difference is that it feels, as it did on Sunday night, like you can walk right into the book.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Dreaming Bay Poetics 1

Listening to Cynthia Sailers read Norma Cole last night during the celebration of Bay Poetics I was thinking how one thing leads to the other and how the text is really the context for the scene and all that is left of it, though not all that is there in the reading.

There is a confluence of incident and comment. One is in the back while oneself is being read. Or one is at work while reading or writing. The gesture is only itself.

“statement is as statement does Resist repeating on paper, its yellow edge enriched by relief of the victim by the role of the suffering victim Suddenly her voice a phrase precise Hesitancies from sight to mind”

from “Suddenly Hesitancies Quietness," Norma Cole (in the anthology)

Also by Norma:

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Standard Schaefer

Laura writes of unfinished gestures, a lack of one-to-one correspondences between strategies and meaning, coincidences: “Narrative coincides with meaning” but is taken up and recycled through “rhetorical continuity interrupted”. Interrupted continuity is probably not just between the various A Tonalists styles, but also suggest an affinity beneath the various styles. It seems true to me as well that Laura’s work and Norma’s share a “thoughtful, meditative” element that Laura mentions as part of the “old tonalism” as it “suggests suggestion.” Intriguing too is the notion of vision as connected to some musicality. And there does seem to be a lot of lyrical concern among some A Tonalists, though in my case there is often a concern with history— like and unlike Brent’s interest in historical rhetorical forms or Laura’s tweaking of historical musical forms, (Portuguese fado, for example) and Norma’s Spinoza that makes these lyrical concerns less tied to say the “analytic lyric”. So there seems here a sense that writing, no matter how “avant-garde” someone might hope to be, also has an element of conservation. Maybe even a sense that one is hoping to find something sustainable even in traditions about which one is suspicious, such as the lyric. Laura says, “The present and past enter into /A prosody of unfinished gesture/Against formal predictability.” What perhaps goes on in that moment is pruning of any weak elements from the past and a reinscription of what was strong there, what can still be useful. Apropos Brent’s mention of Badiou, Badiou seems interested in what might be called “sustainable ideas” such as justice, both like an unlike Plato’s. So a “radical conservation” is possible—which is something I think I hear in Brent’s and Laura’s comments.

There might be a distinction between transgression and experimentation. Brent’s carving out the possibility of a politically aware poetics that doesn’t necessarily produce the in-your-face political poem implies something sober and tentative about experimentation.

Experimentation might well be any activity that may get you free of the feeling of necessity and ineluctability that attaches to practices such as writing (which everyone is trained to do in one way or another). But I think that however cross-genre or contemporary an A Tonalist is, they are not likely to be transgressive, and even less likely if transgression is seen as purely randomly setting out to fuck with boundaries. I suspect that anyone who is leery of self-proclaimed transgression feels that it has to do with the notion of power.

If you see power as pure repression, if you live in a world that believes some language is politically correct or incorrect, and if you attempt to attack such a conceptualization by being incorrect, offensive, or just plain contrary, you’re reinforcing the idea that power is exercised from above. The danger is that you remain tied to the very significations you hope to transgress.

Against transgression, Deleuze wrote, “The signifier [on one level, the poem] is always a little secret which has never stopped hanging around mummy and daddy…The little secret is generally reducible to a sad narcissistic and pious masturbation: the phantasm! Transgression, a concept too good for seminarist under the law of Pope or a priest.”

Experimentation unlike transgression seeks to affirm positive alternatives. This is why Laura can speak of “beauty” in her “rules,” one that is “unfashionable as the fact/ Of particularity” so not likely a general metaphysical beauty. Or put another way, a beauty that doesn’t hang around with mommy or daddy’s notion of beauty, that isn’t just an inversion of their’s.

For me, experimentation in poetry and life is a search for forms, for configurations of power that can be lived with, not simply overthrown forever. This doesn’t preclude any revolutionary potential, but it would not be the grand narrative of revolution, more akin to recent “post-anarchists” or the DIY crowd, the people who go off the grid, the indigenous peoples movements that do not try to seize state power, but create autonomous zones, the squatters movements, levelers, ranters, the slow-down movements, the Muggletonians. People who remind us that power is diffused across the terrain and that even those on the bottom have some. There’s no one-to-one correspondence here. There is always asymmetry between political movements and artistic ones, all the more so here since A Tonalism is not a movement, but an affinity group among other poetries.

Like those social experiments though, artistic experimentation is a sober and often tentative activity. It can certainly be fun but not in the “look ma, no hands!” sort of way. One experiments with constructing practices that may well have to be abandoned if their effects become intolerable, if they do not enhance one’s ability to experiment or if they become fashionable in away that begins to produce norms.

To me A Tonalists are experimenting not unlike in the sense of Deleuze’s “becoming minor” in which a practice is taken up while within some social terrain, maybe some awareness of a tradition running through you and others, dead or alive. The practice is situated within this network of connections, say a kind of lyricism, not trying to transgress them or become resolutely alyrical, but disrupting the dominant mode by showing how creativity can still take place within what is already there.

It would be distinct from writing as a producing a dialect or ghettoizing poetry. It’s different from satires without referents or attempts to celebrate what used to be called “low culture”. It is not a task of making the minor into a new dominant. It is about carving out an autonomous zone. On the micro-level, to be an A Tonalist might mean to carve out a space where many small gestures, musicalities, and coincidences can be legitimated within your own work.

On the molar level, there are perhaps affinities within the various works and writers that cannot represent A Tonalism. There is no reason to represent it. If I come out of or work in a tradition that is against representation, I might seriously consider myself unrepresentable. And if I were to have any connects to a movement, it would likely be a movement that does not require legitimation from others about its status as a movement, where membership is really one of shared affinities, a state of mind or an interest in poetry that “thinks” in the way Badiou writes. Or maybe it produces thought or vision but not knowledge or certainty. There is no shared style and no efforts to legitimate the differences and similarities between us.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A tonalist unconscious

Reading H.D. recently it occurred to me that I had no idea whether we still have an unconscious. A lifelong aversion to psychoanalytic theory and, well, the 80s has produced this perhaps not untypical contemporary dilemma. I have been asking around. Alan Halsey replied helpfully:

"And there I was thinking that I'd abolished the unconscious mind years ago -- 'the discovery of railways coincides with the invention of the unconscious mind' -- & so I'm a bit alarmed to hear that it's still out & about. It occurs to me though that my 'wordland' thing fulfills some of the functions of the unconscious, in so far as I don't conceive it to be itself language (& much less A language) but rather the ground which the languages inhabit & where all the little words can relax when they're not in use. For the question 'where are words when we're not using them?' is very similar to the one about what becomes of the self when inactive, or conversely from what ground the self arises, which leads directly to the supposition of an unconscious. A line of thought which is certainly pre-Freudian -- Leibniz is very explicit about it, and I suspect it is present in medieval theology but disguised by Xtian scholastic terminology, and from a western point of view goes back to the Greek philosophers. But re Freud himself (and leaving aside his obsession with railways) it's striking that so much of his analysis is actually about words, so that his speculations about the subconscious often seem a transposition of observations about the way words work and indeed the way we are the creatures of our language-governors. Or, put another way, bound by words to be ourselves inhabitants of the wordland."

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

I thought it worthwhile to give some response to Kasey’s A Tonalist post on his Lime Tree blog.

First I think Kasey does a fine job of summarizing many of the points I sought to make. There may be a light bit of flarfist mockery of all the philosophic-theoretical diction, but it’s not farce, rather it’s a careful reading with serious wonderings. He’s also right to note that, whatever may be said of Flarf now, I feel there’s no great urgency to begin assembling the borders of what it could or could not become over time. Same with A tonalist perhaps.

As I see it there’s only one thing in his post that asks for response, which is his point in the last paragraph that "A tonalism is fairly recondite about its ontological convictions."

I'd want to first reiterate that the A tonalist, as I see it anyways, is certainly developing differently from how Language Poetry or Flarf developed, and these differences are to some degree readable, certainly suggestive, as possible deeper differences. Still I won't make much of a claim in that direction, because I'm not yet sure I can say what the differences in kind might be, but it's not impossible they are more than a difference in degree.

I also want to take the opportunity, here, to keep in mind that the blogsite for A tonalist notes (I follow Laura in using only A tonalist rather than any A tonalism, in the same way there were Situationists but no Situationism) has many "contributors" with very ambiguous relations to the A tonal, and who certainly are not regularly consulted in any way, and who should therefore not be thought unified in any convictions, ontological or otherwise.

Meanwhile it’s the case that Laura invited us onto the blog; she has done all the initial writing on the A tonalist; she has made the claim and could still make the claim that a given something is specifically allied in a given somewhere within the writing of a grouping of poets.

(Gary Sullivan might have once had a similar primary "possession" of flarf, but has tried to distribute it since then; also differently, it was created in the course of an aesthetic act, not reading into the works of existing writers or past productions per say.)

This is what I wrote to Standard Schaefer the other day: "Laura is intuiting what is a very specific sensibility already ‘there,’ among people she has been reading, something that is not just subtle but also in motion, and I think she meanwhile acknowledges that it's not easy to do that. Such an acknowledgement is both an invitation and a stricture. It manifests, I think, the difficulty of giving away a thought to others even as it is born of her own thought and ‘deal’."

What I have tried to do is to read her thought as open enough to allow me to fit my own terms into it in a way that is necessarily, because it is hers, limited, and thus requires a sense of stricture and care in my thinking towards it. The point is that the A tonal has both the specificity of a "truth" which stands at the points Laura determines, and the multiple openness of those places she determines not to determine it (which, as in her writing, has turned out to be almost everywhere except in specific events of art).

I think this is what Kasey hears as reconditeness of ontological conviction: both that there are many others Laura considers A tonal with no doubt a multiplicity of feelings about what Laura is pointing towards, plus the irreducible fact that Laura herself has initiated and is willing to still hold the ongoing intuition into what I want to describe as a either a gesture without movement or a movement restricted to gestures.

What the A tonalist offers in terms of conviction, then, is another idea for experiencing aesthetic groupings, one not authoritarian or singular in the Bretonian vein (because always with Laura’s ongoing ambiguousness as to what its "style" is), yet still with specificity and rule (because Laura continues to be the holder and noticer of what its "orientation" is). Chris Vitiello wrote me an email that used these terms for it: "looseness without vagueness."

Or: the project is to assert without silencing. Put in those terms, the A tonal is not only a political problem, it’s the political problem. To me it seems fairly clear as a conviction and a sense of lived being, too.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Notes from negative space

Negativity. One of my favorite things. Or "making song think" as Rob Kaufman put it on the back of Barbara Guest's Forces of Imagination or Imagination, "Poetry the True Fiction" as Barbara says in the book. How can I whose last book is called Self-Destruction presume to deny that my capability is negative?

I don't see this as a category problem, Kasey, or conflict of isms so much as an assertion and counter assertion of both fragmentary excess and lack of authority. Or A tonally speaking "How low can you go?"

Interesting, even strange, Brent, that we should both have recently come to Badiou independently though we occupy almost exactly the same work space. My reading of Badiou has produced more reverie than conclusion so far, though I am interested in how one experiences and defines the truth event and whether it is elegiable, being always of a practical bent in these matters.

I have a notebook of notes. Here is a passage from one of the introducers, Gabriel Riera:

"The event, therefore, points to the void or inconsistency out of which a situation holds together." And later: "The poem's negative force consists in producing a fragment of truth."

There is a negative space created by the poem of what it does and does not do. In that, there is a suggestion of how to proceed.

Picking up literally the top book on the A tonalist pile by my desk I read (from Alli Warren's "Poem against Monody" in HOUNDS)

Commerce on the prairies
heats a rocket of the day
traitor In a promised land
inventory business parks
and other Open spaces
where ferns grow

Beware of engine references
A bloody head often is a sign
of Empire Down the hall
a perpetually regenerating empiricist
Candies the shoes of upper crusts

A trunkfull of fiddles
A textbook on welding
In the mustard grass

low clouds
yanked from them
hills a premonition

So there is observation, Open space, plain word choice, alacritous word choice, prosodic sophistication, truth suggesting and sex. There is speechiness here but this is no joke. There is love.

In an upcoming review (join SPT to get your copy in their newsletter), Mary Burger points out that Norma Cole's SCOUT "enacts forms of memory that are ways of looking outward, using the past to find new forms of engagement."

You get a nice Duncansian cross-eyedness here. Looking forward and backward while executing a perfect three point engagement.

Norma points out herself:

We attend to each other. Informed by the world, poetry goes back out into the world, and the world returns with the text. Experience and imagination are in a dynamic relationship of gesture -- the body in motion -- between idea and thing. So the body of the poem, its voices and images, fill the space betweeen, for a time.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Notes on Notes (A tonalist)
Brent Cunningham

Last week Laura posted a list of A tonalist rules. I’m going to take those as permission for what follows, which are largely speculations in a register more discursive.

I sometimes suffer from a tendency to explain the village to itself. But my intent here is to present this as a description of a real and ongoing relation. I am A tonalist, not the tonalist, problematically neither untonal or tonal. Still I’d like to bring to light some presumptions about the A tonal/ist which my mind is already using to order its thoughts. Not as foundational premises or system, but still inside the tone of consistency.

On that last point, there’s a useful distinction in Alain Badiou’s writing between systematic consistency and systematic unity--the former is positive as long as in relation to inconsistency, while the latter is negative intrinsically. The One and the Whole are Badiou’s sworn enemies; against them he invents Events and the Multiple-without-oneness. As his translators write in a postface, for Badiou "Truth’s transcendence is only ever relative, never absolute; it is the transcendence from this situation through the unknowable of this situation." Hence notes on notes.

"Against formal predictability"--one of Laura’s rules. But predictable to whom, against what? Rhyme is not predictable in midst of a novel, say, and may even pass unnoticed. It follows that predictability is always a matter of the intricate construction of surroundings, of the operations of the poem-cosmos. In Laura’s rules all words like "continuity," "coincides," "mitigates," all non-spectacular kinetics tucked into the small motions of prepositions: the idea, I think, is to speak of subtle mechanics towards the geometries of the poem in its true occuring. Laura is perhaps nudging the potential A tonalist rulemaker into the place and diction of the work/s themselves.

A rule, then: Foremost, I take the A tonalist to be grounded in the situational practice of works.

This can sound like a not much original way to displace a question to a new arena. (In the village of critique they wonder how to reach the village of poetry, in the village of poetry they wonder how to reach the village of life, in the village of life they wonder how to reach the village of thought, etc.) But saying the A tonalist is not a pre-determined set of signs, and does not stand prior to the work to declare its specific techniques or artistic values before they are in play and in use--saying that it seeks to withdraw itself from that very debate--may have more significant reverberations than meets the eye. This too is one of Badiou’s better habits: he finds the mere in many ideas that claim radicality, and also the radical in what sounds mere or redundant.

On what empirical basis do I assert this is the quality of the A tonalist? A little of talking to Laura, more of reading, some of listening to some on this blog, more of looking for my own place in what remains Laura’s thought. Yet also in the name itself. To me "tone" is one of the more elusive qualities in the spectrum: certainly it’s the hardest to define and the one high school students are most mystified by in writing. The ambiguity over the a/ in the tonalist further places its science at the far reaches of aesthetic indeterminacy.

Grounded in situational practice: that is, there are no a priori determinations regarding specific use of style, technique, form, order. Importantly, this is not a lack of aesthetic theory. In a sense it is theory theorizing upon theory. The indeterminate is never, here, transcendentally indeterminate: rather it maintains a connection to the determinate of its being claimed in the first place. Just as the unknowable is only and merely something a person may come to know, this indeterminate is something that may very well be tethered to a forthcoming determination.
So this non-declaration of the A tonalist, however wavery, is hence meaningful. If I hold in mind some of the value Language Poetry had for certain poetic manoevers over others, in the name of revolutionary impact and interruption of conventional consciousness, or even when I think of the recent taxonomies of style and method of many Flarfist declarations, it appears more clearly that the A tonalist has a distinct meaning to make. For me this is a meaning that, soundly understood, does not accuse anybody of either pseudo-revolutionary grandiosity or irresponsible aestheticism (the former being the most rote critique of the language poets, the latter the early and already rote critique of Flarf). However it does possess an intuition of an understanding, which is rooted, for me anyway, in what may (for this moment) be different philosophical premises.

Nothing is yet suggested here except a displacement: from the location of critique, onto the location of the artwork. A silly, ironic line may very well be the very thing. For the A tonalist it depends where the line is and what is happening around it or through it. Radical parataxis may be called for. A stanza later it may not. Once again: what are we talking about, where are we, who is writing, what is the situation in the poem-cosmos? This poem-cosmos could even reflect back toward the writer, yes even their biography, anything thinkable, even to the critique itself. But it is indifferent (mere) to critique that establishes a value-system or parameters in its forefront.

It took some contortions not to write "An ironic line may be the best thing to write in a given situation." But I think the A tonalist would question that construction. Even in its own context, the poem does not provide, like a little god, some answer to what belongs at a specific location, it doesn’t teach a person how to write ("if one only listens"). Rather the site of the poem, and each point in its site, is inter-woven to the edges of its cosmos, out to the endlessly fluxuating question of how value judgments take place at all, for anyone. When Badiou argues that poetry thinks, this is what he is saying: the poem is as termed and structured by its contact with the poetry-cosmos as thinking is by its contact with the thought-cosmos.

Two counter-positions or accusations crop up immediately: the first that this idea of the poem as a mini-cosmos is mimetic, hence derivative or secondary, since it is attempting to operate as an autonomous self-generating "nature" or environment which is itself merely the mirror of the "real" nature--presumably made up of groves, oceans, paths, spacedust, grotesque feelings, pleasant feelings, and taxes.

Parallel and intertwined with this critique of mimesis is a critique from the empiricist position (note that the A tonalist, or at least myself as A tonalist, is materialist so more difficult to attack from there). This empiricist critique states that an A tonalist autonomy partakes of a political or ethical irresponsibility all its own, that it’s mere aestheticism to think of the poem as cosmos self-generating in a bubble critique does not condition.

I have complicated responses to both these accusations I’ll try to make brief: in the first case, as I’ve already started to hint, I’d want to make more visible this critique of the Aristotelian trope (art as mirror / mimesis), examine it, and manifest the fact that despite its problems and status as 2,500 year old cliche the mirror has suggestive uses for thinking the poem or artwork. Given the wavery structures of the "nature" reflected therein, it is easy tweak the mirror metaphor to the point where the effective distinctions between the mimetic and non-mimetic begin to break down (not, I need to say, because of the "linguistic turn" Badiou so relentlessly criticizes, but because the relationship is really that fraught with complications in the course of thinking imitation).

There’s more to say there, but moving for now to the second accusation, this is something I’ve been trying to respond to for some time. My own sense of it owes much to the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky and his negotiation of the accusation hurled at him for his theory of the "autonomy" of artworks. But to arrive at Shklovsky requires a detour back through Badiou:

As far as I can tell, Badiou offers what could be, for poetry anyway, an extremely applicable and generative philosophy. It is based on an identification of mathematical thought as ontology that owes much to Cantor’s set theory, much to Plato, some to Deleuze, and a lot to a critique of empiricist presumptions latent in much 20th century "post-modern" thought, including (according to AB) Deleuzian thought. To get philosophy on a footing neither neo-empiricist but not unaware of the valid critiques of idealism (especially the critique of the One and the Whole), Badiou feels he must "subtract" philosophy from its claims on the theory of knowledge and the theory of being. But this leads him (and maybe this is intrinsic to any neo-Idealist project no matter how nuanced) to the idea that philosophy is perfectly justified to construct "for everyone" the "common shelter" where truths (relative maybe, but still truths) take place. And indeed Badiou turns out to be quite serious in his attempts to represent the "true" events that take place in the untethered history of poetry, distinguishing these from the meaningless or mistaken gestures of other poets and poems, and taking on the task of representing the works of true resonance for thought and "for the era." The result is Badiou, seemingly without much awareness of the current terms of poetry (no mention of Hocquard, Collobert, Cadiot, or any living poet), making stark claims for arts and writers, and most especially for "the poem." While philosophically coherent, naturally, and even resonant with his ideas, his claims are practically suffocations for anyone wishing to actually think their relationship to writing in the course of creating that writing: "The poem does not consist in communication. The poem has nothing to communicate...The poem is a purity folded in upon itself. The poem awaits us without anxiety."

To me this is the opposite of the A tonalist, which sees that these statements could be true in a given poem-cosmos, as situation of a specific order or logic of the work, but would never prescribe as either its first or last gesture of enactment. To put it succinctly, the problem is most obvious where Badiou claims the poem "presents itself as a thing of languague, encountered--each and every time--as an event." The A tonalist, on the other hand, would instead argue that Badiou’s understanding of the entirety of being (where not every moment can be an "event") would be the more exact view of the poem-cosmos: there are soft spots, errors, confusions, wanderings, all as the background for periodic, emergent events.

The reason for Badiou’s declarative totalizing stems from his neo-Idealistic view of event wherein, for something to appear, it must (in my words now) have the analytic and formalizable elements that grant it both temporary universality and a border that can thus acknowledge the depth/reality outside itself. Otherwise, as with Delueze’s open and closed models, Badiou sees a danger of nothing much happening except an endless dissipation without the subtraction that is elemental to production of a truth.

To me, in poetry the counter examples spring readily to mind. Take the American poet-theorists: Williams, Stevens, Stein, Spicer, Duncan, Susan Howe. Almost anyone engaged in the making of works can now have analytic and formalizable declarations (either in poems or in critical essays) which are meanwhile striated and complicated by the existence and interplay of their poem-cosmos in its "shamelessness" (as Laura puts it).

This is equally true of Shklovsky. What he and Russian Formalism effected was, to my mind, on the one hand similarly analytic and formalizing, hence actual, but able to preserve the entrypoint of writers and readers into the works. And not only due to the existence of Shklovsky’s own writing but also in its relationship back into his theories. Shklovsky first of all connected the measure of the artwork to the production of moments of "enstrangement," which amounts to any vivifying effect on the reader and is pointedly a matter of context of readerly experience (whereas the reader, in Badiou, basically disappers as an experiencing creature to make room for the constant event). At the same time Shklovsky either gave no fixed rules for production of that vivifying effect, or made those rules so papery and axiomatic--polemical, declarative, unargued--that they appear as the obvious product of a singular commentator, without foreclosure of new applications or counter-truths. This is closer, as I read it, to what Badiou claims to value broadly and what his idea of multiple, relative truths seems to offer. Surely AB has the means to support his position from the point of view of his entire system (where it is mathematics, not poetry, that actually shows the multiple-without-oneness to the era), but I still see him missing an opportunity to subtract philosophy, in just such a papery manner, from its grandiose task as procuress of the truth of poetry.

With all that in mind, turning now back to the question of the political, I first of all see the A tonalist as proposing the autonomy of the artwork foremost as a mere displacement of the critical domain: that is, the political could very well be engaged, its questions voiced and in cases possibly answered, during the course and logic of the poem--nothing is foreclosed there. But even if or when the A tonalist refuses that sort of political motion, and does not call back to the politics of discursive critique, it is done in such a stark and unmistakably formal/mimetic way that its paperiness is visible, as is its source in a particularized claim (ok: a person) that does not forego the possibility of others outside of its situation. This, I would say, in fact opens political possibility by viewing "this" moment as not always a political moment, which in turn grants the possibility that a moment for action could really arrive in all its necessity and demand. At least it argues that such action is not foreclosed by the finally dissipating and zeroing idea that holds all actions at all times and places to be political.

A tonalist steps

The old tonalism is thoughtful, meditative, it's practitioners given to Swedenborgianism.The word suggests music.
It suggests suggestion.
There is vision.
Atonality exists and has a history. John Cage rejected the term.
A tonalist thinks of herself as a tonalist. Or not.