Wednesday, June 07, 2006


One of the interesting – problematic may be a better word – aspects of reading not just Charles Olson, but any poet of the last century on subjects that move even a little away from the realm of the close inspection of poetic texts, as such, is positioning – framing may be the better word – their arguments within the broader landscape of contemporary intellectual discourse. Read Ezra Pound after Marx, or even after a few issues of the Monthly Review, and you realize that Pound’s initial impulses weren’t so bad, but that addressing problems of justice through monetary policy requires a theoretical infrastructure so vast – precisely because you are so far from root causes – that the opportunity to go astray is huge. And Pound is sort of the test case to demonstrate just how far astray one might wander. There’s a viciousness in his radio broadcasts that registers just how maddening – I’m choosing my words carefully – it must have been to see his vision of the future coming asunder. And it’s no accident that his very best writing occurs next, at the moment when, living in a wire cage in a prisoner of war camp, waiting to be sent back to the U.S. for trial or possibly just taken out & shot, Pound is stripped of all his books & intellectual trappings, penning the Pisan Cantos literally on scraps of paper.

Similarly, I wonder how Olson’s Proprioception, specifically the title essay, three page outline that it is, might have proceeded had Olson ever read Althusser. Or, at the least, extracted from Althusser the concept of ideology as it is expressed in the essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)”. The question is bogus, at least partly, simply because Olson wrote Proprioception between 1960 & ’62, while Althusser first published his essay in La Pensée in 1970, very much as a reformulation of theory in the wake of the failed French revolution of 1968. Olson lived just two weeks beyond his 59th birthday, dying on the tenth of January 1970 – he never lived to read Lenin and Philosophy, really to absorb any of the material that would begin to flow forth in great quantity in the U.S. after the height of the anti-Vietnam war movement peaked in 1970 with the murder of students at Kent and Jackson State Universities. Olson may have, almost inadvertently, been among the first to coin the phrase post-modern to characterize the epoch then coming into existence, but if, for example, he knew of the “Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” conference held at Johns Hopkins in October, 1966, the iconic tipping point between the structuralism of the 1950s & the new world of Post-everything that this conference announced, I haven’t seen evidence.¹ Although the conference, whose speakers included Derrida, Lacan, Todorov & Roland Barthes (presenting “To Write: An Intransitive Verb?”), occurred just 16 months after the Berkeley Poetry Conference in which Olson gave his infamous lights-out marathon talk, by 1966 his critical writing is already largely behind him. My own impression, based I must say largely on my reading of Tom Clark’s gothic bio of Olson, is that his drinking ramped up significantly after Betty’s death in an auto accident in 1964. Beyond sketching out “A Plan for the Curriculum of the Soul” in early 1968, Olson will make no more major theoretical statements in his life. The productive core of his life – from the first poems in the late 1940s until the work begins to trail off in the late ‘60s, is just twenty years. Longer perhaps than the careers of Jack Spicer or Frank O’Hara, perhaps, but not very long.

Ironically, soul is exactly the word I wish Olson had had the opportunity to interpenetrate with Althusser’s conception of ideology. It is the third term in Olson’s dialectic, between physiology & the unconscious, and it’s the focus of the second half of Proprioception’s title essay. The sidebar to the next full paragraph beyond the one I ended Monday’s note with is: the soul is / proprioceptive. And is worth quoting further:

the ‘body’ itself as, by movement of its own tis-
sues, giving the data of, depth. Here, then wld be
what is left out? Or what is physiologically even
the ‘hard’ (solid, palpable), that one’s life is
informed from and by one’s own literal body –

What obsesses Olson here, the point if you will, of Proprioception, is that

which is what gets ‘buried,’ like, the
flesh? bones, muscles, ligaments, etc., what one
uses, literally, to get about etc

that this is ‘central,’ that is – in
this ½ of the picture – what they call the SOUL,
the intermediary, the intervening thing, the inter-
ruptor, the resistor. The self.

This key passage of Olson’s sounds like nothing so much to me as this:

ideology “acts” or “functions” in such a way that it recruits subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or it ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: “Hey, you there!”

Which is the key paragraph in Althusser’s essay. In each instance, the intervening/interrupting thing at home in our identity is being defined as X, whether X is ideology or X is Soul.

This does not mean that I think what Olson is describing here necessarily is ideology, whether in the broad Althusserian sense (ideology is that which defines us) or the more narrow daily meaning (ideology as a political label). For one thing Althusser’s ideas themselves – like those of any of the major structuralist theorists of the past half century – are themselves deeply problematic, flamboyantly so in the instance of the French philosopher who later murdered his own wife and was at least as psychiatrically challenged as Pound, let alone Olson. But it would be of extraordinary use, I think, if we could read these twin conceptions – ideology/Soul – as partaking of one another, seeing what each might then tell us further about the other.

It is clear, to my eye at least, that Olson’s goal in identifying the Soul is construct a dialectic, as he literally says in the next paragraph, that the “gain” is

to have a third term, so that movement or action
is ‘home.’ Neither the Unconscious nor Projection
(here used to remove the false opposition of
‘Conscious’; ‘consciousness’ is self) have a home
unless the DEPTH implicit in physical being –
built-in space-time specifics, and moving (by
movement of ‘its own’)   – is asserted, or found-
out as such. Thus, the advantage of the value
As such.

Althusser himself has gotten to his essay on ideology immediately after one on dialectics in Lenin, quoting Lenin on Hegel as follows:

Thought proceeding from the concrete to the abstract . . . does not get way from the truth but comes closer to it. The abstraction of matter, of a law of nature, the abstraction of value, etc., in short all scientific (correct, serious, not absurd) abstractions reflect nature more deeply, truly and completely. From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice – such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality.

Olson rejects the unbodied presence of categories – his fascination with the details of historical record is just the surface of a deeply anti-Platonic nature, although it is interesting to see where in his system he puts this:

the three terms wld be:
surface (senses) projection
cavity (organs – here read ‘archetypes’)
unconscious the body itself – consciousness:
implicit accuracy, from its own energy as a state of
implicit motion

Identity,        therefore (the universe is one) is supplied; and the
abstract-primitive character of the real (asserted)
is ‘placed’: projection is discrimination (of the
object from the subject) and the unconscious is the
universe flowing-in, inside.

At one level, one could read Olson here as being part of a long chain – stretching out beyond Althusser or Henri Lefebvre & Lenin or Hegel, all the way back to Socratic method.² Yet these are largely disconnected discourses – even more so now than in 1970 in fact. If the rise of theory, specifically the rise of the continental tradition of the human sciences, so called, in the wake of the collapse of the left in the west after 1970, was part of a flow back into the academy of a generation of intellectuals who now used this thinking not just to try & understand what had so profoundly not worked in the late 1960s, but eventually also as an emerging professional language, focused not on understanding the world & changing it so much as on the more pedestrian goals of academic professional life, the long-term transformative potential of theory in the west was doomed from the start.

But if the banalization & bureaucratization of theory was in the cards as soon as the activists of 1968 began to realize that they needed tenure if they were going to raise families & have personal lives of their own, Olson’s own Curriculum of the Soul was never aimed in the same direction. He’d already lived the experience of Black Mountain College, which was – at once, as it only could have been – it proved both the most successful educational experiment in the history of the arts in America and a complete & utter disaster administratively & financially.

What would a Curriculum of the Soul for a post-theoretical age look like?


¹ The one poet I know who did attend the Johns Hopkins event was Bruce Andrews, still a teenager at the time.

² It is, after all, Engels who first discusses dialectics in terms of its (partial) roots in Buddhist practice, where it was a already a descendant of earlier Vedic thinking.

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