Monday, November 10, 2003


Keston Sutherland is being vague. Actually, this isn’t accurate. Keston Sutherland is being very exact about being vague, almost painfully so, in his superb article “Vagueness,” which begins on the front page of the new PLR. Given that I was just as harsh I seem to have been on Jake Berry over this very issue, the question of vagueness – or perhaps The Vague – seems worth considering further.


Sutherland begins with Bertrand Russell – a cagey starting-point, given both Russell’s mentoring relationship to Wittgenstein (and through Wittgenstein the whole ordinary language movement) & Russell’s own commitment to political engagement (which leads not necessarily to, say, the Frankfort School or the later likes of Bourdieu, but is not so distant from the trends these continental writers represent, either). More precisely, Sutherland begins (albeit after several paragraphs stalking the point) by rejecting Russell’s conception of vagueness as “merely the contrary of precision.” The implication, as Russell proposes it, is something like this: the world is not vague; it is only human beings who can be vague, by not understanding their relation to a set of facts that is (not just represents) the world.


That’s a position that might lead one to modes of moral certainty & it is this predilection that seems to make Sutherland most uneasy. If one were merely “clear” about the facts, it would be self-evident to anyone that, say, the U.S. incursion into Iraq was the run-up to a disaster that may well take decades to unfold, detail by distressing, gory detail. Yet the very presence of moral certainty as a stance is exactly the tone usurped by the likes of George W & even the most radical Islamic fundamentalists, such as Bin Laden, who directly oppose Bush & the capitalist modernity Bush might be said to represent. In such a milieu, it’s hard to feel good about moral certainty.


Which brings Sutherland (via Heidegger) to this:


It is vigilant now not to avoid but to comprehend vagueness, to substantiate for an in vagueness its dialectics. This is a laborious kind of vigilance. For me it is most thorough only in writing poetry. I feel my work becoming thickened by inspecificities, I see and produce language ripped down a screen of vagueness. It is a kind of unhappiness and can in facile ways be attributed to anything: I say “over the lilac / and nothing and bake” maybe because, what? Kim Il-Jong? Because a Labour MP in Portsmouth called the Paulsgrove outbursts a healthy expression of democracy?

What I feel is a pressure not to specify, but more anxiously a pressure not to concede to precision, by which I do mean Pound’s sense of the word, and Russell’s sense, and the word less specially understood. This would be easier to theorise if I could believe that vagueness in language is a definite index of disappointment, or alienation, or even of the pretentious believe that I experience these conditions. I would then merely be documenting and not dementing life. It is perhaps vaguely such an index; but this reflexive circularity, the characterization of experience by reference to itself as a predicate, is now – in our present spin of days – a form of recumbent and ultimately indifferent thinking.


The idea of vagueness as a register or index of something concrete – alienation, disappointment, overwhelming complexity, whatever – is attractive, no doubt. Sutherland senses its implications for poetry &, quoting Gadamer on Celan, takes us to the idea, oft expressed, that


it is “obligatory” that a poem “not contain a single word standing for something in such a way that another word could be substituted for it.”


This is a concept that we have heard said of the poem a million different ways. It is implicit in the first two of the three principles for Imagism that Ezra Pound, H.D. & Richard Aldington concocted in the summer of 1912:


1.      Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.

2.      To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.


Sutherland turns instead to Eliot: “It is impossible to say just what I mean.” That’s a statement that might be read as yet another dictum against paraphrasing the poem, but it might also be seen an acknowledgement of an ineffability that lies right at the heart of what Sutherland intends here by vagueness. Sutherland carries this into an attack on the concept of le mot juste, the idea that there might be (must be?) if not an ideal order to any statement, at the very least a best one. And that beneath juste hides an entire conceptualization of justice. Sutherland asks


Is le mot juste, so admired by Pound, the negation of vagueness? Had vagueness been, at this earlier point in the century, unjust? Could it now be time to reverse the intuitive order of that relation, choosing to feel that vagueness is the just, positive term of which precision is the distorted negative?


Sutherland is asking, if I read him right, if in fact vagueness might not now be a register of the impossibility of specification as such in a world in which specification has been reduced to missile-targeting coordinates? The word that Sutherland really wants to defend, to propose, is just this: impossibility.


Impossibility is not just a faded watchword echoing the 1960s campus occupations of “Utopian” vocab. It is the absolute target-concept; it is a positive contingency of all humane expression.


Yet once the term impossibility is introduced, Sutherland does indeed invoke a utopian rhetoric:


this defiance is crucial and true, it is impossible, and as such it is truly expressible only without precision. . . . In poetry, this impossible defiance shines, like love as the ideal limit of hatred.


I don’t agree with Sutherland not because I don’t share a sense of a common goal, but rather because I think he has conflated different (and conflicting) circumstances into this word vagueness. What is called for is a little Coleridgean desynonymy, teasing out the differences between two states – a politically retrograde & dangerous one (much exploited by the current regime here in the U.S.) that I think is the historic & adequate meaning of the term vagueness & a second one that has, indeed, liberatory potentiality & which is characterized not by vagueness but by a specific mode of overdetermination Norman O. Brown used to call the polymorphous perverse.


To draw the distinction, though, I think we need to go back to Russell’s initial conceptualization & add to it the Gramscian notion of positionality. That is, I would agree with Russell’s initial assertion that the world is not vague, but would reject any concept of a universalizing objectivity because that necessitates a transpositional universe, the idea that these relations – and it is the relations to facts that Russell thinks can be vague – are not impacted by our position with regards to them, not so much to challenge the idea, say, that two plus two equals four, but rather that this equation means the same thing to all peoples, regardless of age, gender, color, history, class, historical moment & so forth. Thus the same “facts” might mean very different things to different people – if the current situation in the Middle East were not evidence enough, let us think simply of how any poetic device changes meaning generation to generation & place to place. In 1923, when William Carlos Williams first published Spring & All, the speech-defined free verse line was a concept that stretched the possibilities of English-language verse in ways they had not been challenged since the youth of Wordsworth & Coleridge. Not one, but several generations of poets arose who made great use of the device, particularly important in articulating all the ways in which American poetry was not to be confused with its indirect historic antecedent, British verse. This work reached its apotheosis in the 1960s in the writing of poets such as Charles Olson & Paul Blackburn, both of whom have been dead now for over 30 years.


Indeed, their deaths in 1970 & ’71 largely ended that tendency of poetry as an investigative approach toward expanding our understanding of poetics. There are many – thousands, literally – poets who follow modified free verse protocols in their work today, but few if any do so with a sense of extending the possibilities of transcribed dialect implicit in the work of the Projectivists. Furthermore, this is true on both sides of the School of Quietude / Post-avant Poetics divide. Thus, what the speech-based free verse line means in 2003 is quite different from what it meant in 1970 & even more radically unlike what it meant in the 1920s. Yet, in fact, the dynamics of what happens inside a line have not changed & even the subroutines poets run (e.g. enjambment) to signal The Spoken to their audience are largely untouched over the past three decades.


What then is a “fact”? It isn’t any less objective than before, certainly not if we gauge by actually existing lines in actually existing poems, but its position, both historically in the most general terms and with regards to what each of us might want to do with it personally, is completely different. To write like William Carlos Williams in 2003 does not make one post-avant or even avant. Indeed, it defines one as a particular kind of antiquarian, just like the neo-beats one seems to find in any major metro area, replicating Allen Ginsberg in form perhaps, but antithetical to his life & the project of his writing.


Vagueness, to my mind, is the recognition of just such pressures (social, historic, economic, etc. etc.) on any given topic, object, “fact,” without a perception of position. Vagueness lacks critical consciousness precisely where (and when) it is most needed. That lack is what defines the vague. When George W articulates the logic that Saddam Hussein was a vicious autocrat with no visible appreciation for the preciousness of life and Osama Bin Laden is a vicious autocrat with no visible appreciation for the preciousness of life, therefore they must have been in cahoots, he & his handlers rely on a sizeable portion of the populace not recognizing that the relations of these two historical individuals to – to just pick one detail – the role of the state in Islamic societies was entirely different, even if their background as one-time CIA “projects” is not. That vagueness was politically useful to Bush in the run-up to the war, in that it prevented some from questioning the obvious problems in pro-war rationale. The Bush program for the environment, the economy, education and numerous topics not beginning with the letter E relies heavily on just such vagueness, because infusions of critical consciousness would transform each of this issues precisely because they erode the welfare of most Americans (not mention our neighbors) most of the time. 


The shape-shifting overdetermined aspects of the polymorphous perverse (PP) recognize not only position, but direction & the compression of felt change. As such, PP certainly has room for the irrational – that is often our first register of changing conditions – but it works very hard at not being vague. The distinction in practice is not hard to draw.


Here is an example taken not from poetry, but from the most recent round of American elections held just this past Tuesday. In the village of Bolinas, just north of San Francisco, whose 1,200 residents include such poets as Joanne Kyger, Robert Grenier & Stephen Ratcliffe, Proposition G passed by a vote of 315 to 142. Proposition G reads exactly as follows:


Vote for Bolinas to be a socially acknowledged nature-loving town because to like to drink the water out of the lakes to like to eat the blueberries to like the bears is not hatred to hotels and motor boats. Dakar. Temporary and way to save life, skunks and foxes (airplanes to go over the ocean) and to make it beautiful.


Dakar! It is not possible to know from this electoral prose poem whether that noun refers to the city in Senegal or to the custom-designed off-road vehicle. Either one throws a conceptual frame that is consistent with enough of the remaining two sentences to make some sense & the co-existence of the two haunt the text in a way that makes it vibrant, not vague.


For sake of contrast, here is one sentence I quoted before from Jake Berry’s Brambu Drezi:


Their pulsing flesh-blue fingers dominate

         the boundless sky that lies between the vertebrae

      whose long electric veins

             pour a half-ape angel into old winds and hollows.


The only phrase in this passage that isn’t vague is “flesh-blue.” Telling us that fingers have pulses or that the sky is boundless is to tell us nothing, exactly, any more than resurrecting  the old trope of the half-ape angel tells us anything even remotely new about humankind. Long electric veins suggest the course of the nervous system through the spinal column, but in terms any child has seen dozens of times in science museums – nothing new there. Berry has some idea that he is trying to convey here – roughly “fingers dominate sky between vertebrae” – but he doesn’t have a sense of position & instead just plugs in cliché after cliché, trying to surround or overwhelm the emotion. But clubbing an idea into submission is not articulation. Knowing that “Their” refers to “ancestors” doesn’t do much more than suggest that Berry was fretting over biological determinism.


My conclusion is that Berry is vague where Prop G is not. Not that I expect either to save the skunks & foxes, but one raises issues in ways that makes me take it seriously, at least as a desire, and one does not.


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