Monday, November 10, 2003
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
For sake of
contrast, here is one sentence I quoted before from
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.
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.
conclusion is that