Thursday, December 08, 2005

Julie Mehretu, “Excerpt (Suprematist Evasion),” 2003


Don Byrd sent an email in response to my note on OlsonNow that I think deserves a wider readership. The Olson blog continues to grow as does the related documents page at the EPC site, now with material from the event in New York itself.


You are right, I think, that the next generation of Olsonian's are still unborn, or I hope, just born or just coming into their active work. We probably do not have much time.

One cannot expect a change of the size Olson claims responsibility for (as one claims responsibility for a bombing) to happen in a lifetime. Since the species began to transmit large parts of the necessary information from one generation to the next by signs, poetry and poetics have been fundamentally involved in the evolution of complexity on the planet and the survival of Earth's most complex, if not most, admirable creatures. Poetry, that is, is not only a physical object—marks, breath, and so forth—it has a profound biological function.

Olson saw the death camps and the A bomb as the end of one evolutionary arc. Neither Johnson nor, to date, Bush have equaled Truman in casual murderousness (though Bush’s crimes are more numerous). There was no reason to believe that the 1914-1944 war was other than the implicit violence of a cultural order of generalization and empire that began with the Greeks. Olson quit the Truman administration in disgust. What is at stake in Olson's work is nothing less than the transition out of something that is larger than a politics. The Church and the empires from Greece to the US are manifestations of an evolutionary strategy of generalization—we call it globalism in its present form— that figures in Olson’s history as the subjugation of the Titan’s by Olympians—that is, the replacement of evolution of local forms with the evolution of universal and social forms. Truman’s A bomb was Zeus’ lightning bolt.

If, however, the project of producing complexity on Earth (the other honorable project is to find, like the Galapagos turtle, a viable niche and stay with it) is to continue, generality will no longer suffice. Knowing, acting, and constructing environments—these acts of communication and negotiation—are constituents of physicality as much as matter and energy.

So Olson brackets the history from that moment obscured in preliterate history that Hesiod records to 1910—what he calls the revolution of the ear—not as a mistake, but as the form of a necessary human migration and generalization into Earth’s spaces as possibility. Its value was always tension, and its breakdown was always violence, but now something else—radically something else—must happen and in the most fundamental formal sense.It is necessary to understand not just how writing is material but how information is physical.

The vested interests in language are so vast that it has proven difficult to make much headway on this problem with poetry. Painting hit the same wall (though I recently saw some new paintings by Cy Twombly at the Madison-Av Gagosian that hold their own). Only music continued to deal with the formal issues in serious ways. I think of Matthew Shipp, William Parker, and the scene around Thirsty Ear records, for example, and some of the turntablists, such as Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky). Kodwo Eshun’s, unfortunately out of print, More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction, is an unerring guide to this music, and one of the most important books—conceptually—I have read in the last decade.

But it does seem to me that serious things are beginning to happen. There is a 35-year-old painter named Julie Mehretu, who has moved into new territory. What’s happening at the Stone—the new music venue on Avenue C—is certainly news. I talked to some brilliant younger writers at the Olson event on Saturday.

Bush and these people are barbarians. I hope things happen quickly.