WHAT IF D-O-G SPELLED “CAT:” TOWARD A SPECULATIVE CRITICISM

luke leia han

PART ONE: English 80k

One of the more brilliant aspects of a class I’ve been fortunate enough to assist with (twice) here at Berkeley- Children’s Literature, taught by Professor Joseph Lavery- is the Do-Your-Own-Final project. For this project, students are asked to do two things:

1) think up and execute a “a project of [one’s] own design.”

The idea is that the “range of possibilities” in terms of the form one chooses to give one’s project is “in principle, limitless.” It “may include creative, experimental, autobiographical, digital, archival, or anthological projects” as opposed to “critical or essayistic work (which will,of course, also be allowed).”* And

2) construct your own grading rubric re your own project.

That is: decide what it is that you feel you need to accomplish in order to a receive an A, a B, or a C, and so on and so forth.

Together these two components amount to an experiment in self-referentiality re e/valuating both aesthetic and intellectual work, as well as the critical significances and possibilities of creative work itself.

This project has produced a large archive of very interesting projects, from a series of cakes baked according to a matrix of signifiers whereby the characteristics of four separate aethetic categories are translated into their respective decorative sweet desserts, to mix tapes, to short films, to paintings, to all sorts of stuff, you name it.

There is a lot going on here with this project, but I wanted to comment on an aspect of it that I find particularly interesting: it’s speculative nature. In one sense, this project is undertaken by simply asking the question “What if I translated this particular concept into this more or less unified set of signifiers?” What if our four aesthetic categories were actually cakes? What if this scene from a novel were actually a painting? What if J. M. Barrie’s 1912 play were actually a mid-century young children’s board book? Etc.

What is thrown into high relief once one begins imagining putting this into form is the fact that every single action or decision one takes or makes carries with it an implicit comment or critique on that which they are translating something into and that from which they are translating from**. The work is inherently either or both a critique or a commentary.

What is interesting about this is, after sitting down with more than quite a few students, is the fact they find that these instincts- when they get an idea- to render this or that into this or that other form, open up to them the possibilities of apprehending, understanding, and articulating that thing they’re giving new form too. They thought their idea was simply interesting, they thought they were just “having fun,” when in fact they were carrying out de facto critical work, and learning from it.

So why can’t critical work be “fun?” Why can’t critical cognition begin with something as simple as a “fun idea?”

emperor on his throne
It’s beautiful how literature sustains us (the emperor of mankind on his throne). 

PART TWO: Star WarsHammer 40k

One of the crackpot research ideas I’ve been throwing around is something I like to call Speculative Criticism. Simply put: I want to ask any number of “what if” questions of a text. I want to speculate about what isn’t apparently the case and, in a sense, I think work backwards along the lines of critical methods and assumptions, the first of which being that critical work isn’t fun.

For the record: I hate the term “speculative fiction” as some sort of catch-all for science fiction or fantasy or whatever they’re grouping under whatever these days. I hate the work of umbrella-ing anything under some sort of “useful” file tree for the purposes of who knows what. Personally, I want to destroy that way of seeing literature and the way of thinking that makes it that way. But that’s not my point here.

Secondly, this sort of work seems to, at least in the case of my first speculation here, to involve a couple of old school assumptions: a) that in considering the significance of texts, one is obliged to talk not just about culture and society, but about history, in sort of broad strokes, and b) that the relationship between a text and its culture/ history/ whatever is dialectical: that the possibility of a text even existing is predicated on the historical(ly unfolding) set of material conditions which give birth to it, as it were, and that the history that is birthed along with it is itself significantly created somehow more or less anew because of that text. History and texts, in this schema, cause each other, in a sense, which is why folks tend to get annoyed with historical dialectics, but why I’m starting to fall back in love with it: apropos of my contention that fun should be a significant element to one’s methodology, I’m thinking that it’s the odd sort of non-totality of dialectical considerations- all the shit that gets missed when things “change,” or revolutions don’t happen- that the dialectic itself- with all its intent to help tell the future- contributes to, or even makes possible: the surprises, the new(ish) things, the fantastic.

So my first question has to do with Star Wars. Not how or why it’s so popular, or how it’s managed, as a franchise or whatever it is, to entrench itself to such a degree- how it is that we’ve gone from waiting decades to months between movies, the significance of its insistence on continuity and canonicity while at the same time multiplying itself out like a multi-media rhizome. Ok it’s not those questions, and really it’s not even a question about Star Wars. It’s:

What if, instead of Star Wars, the somewhat well(?)-known gaming franchise Warhammer 40k had somehow managed to reach the close-to-sublime-level of saturation into our globalizing mass popular culture? I have had the feeling that I will very soon get tired of the preeminence of Star Wars, even if only in my various social media feeds; sitting here now I’m starting to fear its cultural hegemony- and not really for its content (though I’m sure that too), but the fact that something can get so soaked into our fabric. I don’t think any pop culture phenomenon has reached this level before. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.

What would a world- the world, this actual, *IRL* one- look like where instead of Star Wars, we had Warhammer 40k? What sort of world could birth that- could ours have actually birthed it? What might’ve happened to culture after that? After its prequels, it’s purchase by Disney- what would the theme parks look like? What sort of violence would be ok?

For the woefully uninitiated, and as a reading assignment for next week’s part two to this post, this bit of text does a good job of giving one the gist of what Warhammer 40k is all about:

It is the 41st Millennium. For more than a hundred centuries The Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the Master of Mankind by the will of the gods, and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the Imperium for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day, so that he may never truly die.

Yet even in his deathless state, the Emperor continues his eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the Warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican, the psychic manifestation of the Emperor’s will. Vast armies give battle in his name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst his soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Imperial Guard and countless planetary defence forces, the ever vigilant Inquisition and the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat from aliens, heretics, mutants – and worse.

To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.

All this and more in next week’s installment of fantaaaastic criticism!

Well maybe not all, but some stuff.

*English 80k, Children’s Literature, Syllabus, Spring 2017

** Really “translating” is just a working term/ fill-in here

“The Dome of Being Seen,” In Memoriam: Ren Hang (1987-2017)

RH 2016 05

there are no edges
to the light
of apprehension
as a sort of capture
a kind of remembering

whether or not
one realizes
it’s there
is a question

whether or not
it is there
is also
a question

(I want to say
that something about
the experience
becomes a convexing out
from the navel
as some sort of
center of being that
has as its central
principle seeing
an orbish projection
that wants the light
and isn’t concerned
with the exact
location of that towards
which the light as
seeing is presumed
to be something like
focused on –
or emanating from-
there is only a fuzzy
center of gravity)
the light-seeing wants
to touch

maybe that’s why
there’s so much pubic hair
in these photographs

maybe that’s why
pubic hair

light seeing
wanting to touch
close orbits

RH 2015 03

2.

the possibilities
inherent in
the miscellaneous
assembly of bodies
doesn’t necessarily
negate ennui
and ennui
doesn’t necessarily
negate that
which its anxiety
covers up as an
unnameable threat
which we now
know is simply
a lack

bodies fit together
here
red nail polish
writing words like
‘proximity’ on the
dome of being seen

the proximity of parts

the analysis
of an assemblage
that de-emphasizes
the stable identity
of that which comes
together
and begins instead
with the significance
of the proximity
of their parts
as though
that which came
together to enable
said proximity was
merely
a side-effect
a memory of
what used to be

what really happened

RH 2016 01

3.

therefore that
which was behind
has come to the fore:

bedroom walls
high rise suburbs

if I hold an animal
it’s so you’ll see
how different my skin
can be
according to its
proximity to certain
parts of my body

taught, purple
darkened crease
exploding with hair
luminous

however it is
is somewhere between
celebrated and holy

however it is, is
and my vision pushes
on the language
of smell, or of taste

blood as the shape
of words

RH 2013 01

for my dissertation
I will hold a peacock
in the nude

RH 2014 02

all images via RenHang.Org

Jane Gregory’s Virtual World

A quick report on a practice job talk/ reading given by poet Jane Gregory at the English Department at UC Berkeley on Thursday, January 12th.

jane-gregory

I met Jane Gregory because we’re both smokers- or used to be, or sometimes are. Before it was anathema to smoke on campus, we’d cross paths at the usual smokers’ haunts around Wheeler Hall. I can’t remember how it happened but I eventually learned that she was a poet, and the next time we crossed paths she gave me a copy of her (then) new book, MY ENEMIES, which I’ve read over multiple times.

It feels like I say this a lot, which- if it’s true- must mean that I’m actually fairly lucky, though mainly I’m interested in whether or not other people experience the same thing: that thing where you meet somebody, find out they’re a writer, request and receive a copy of their work, all the while worrying that it’s going to be shit and you’re going to have to either lie, tell the truth, or just avoid that person forever. Anyway the thing I say a lot (usually to my partner, after I’ve met a new writer) is something along the lines of “I was worried that their work would suck but it’s actually really engaging” or something like that. The other option is that I’m incredibly uncritical, which I really don’t think is the case. Now of course comes the question: how many people are avoiding me because they’re read my writing, and hate it? I make an attempt to solicit bad reviews/ honest opinions, or at least I try (to remember) to, but I somehow think that taking me up on the offer is more awkward for more people than the above mentioned options. Which is to say, of course, that Jane Gregory’s work is really, really good, and I highly recommend it.

Gregory’s poetry succeeds in the same mode in which Daniel Owen’s fails, though to be fair hers is a more extreme version of the sort of poetry that manipulates its own surface- what with her plethora of slashes, back-slashes, parentheses, and de-etymologization of words via intentional misspellings, etc. The success of Gregory’s reading at the English Department at UC Berkeley on Thursday night had to do with- not unlike the similar but different success of the readings at SPD the night before- the hovering about a nexus of possible thresholds across which material was or was not disclosed, or promised to be disclosed and then withheld, and how the non-apprehension of things like gloss-data or marginalia or footnote like meta-data translates into a certain (aural/ oral) knowing unknowing- and whether or not this was a question of the virtual (Gregory’s claim) or the negative (via a comment from the audience).

What I mean to say is there was a whole lot of material that Gregory told us was there, on the podium or the page, but that she wasn’t going to or wouldn’t read to us. There were material reasons for this: this reading was really a practice job talk, in preparation for a visit with a prominent midwestern university (good luck Jane!), and so she was flying by night, as they say (I think), trying to find out what would work and what wouldn’t. In the end, I felt as though this was perfect: the uncertainty about what was desired led to an uncertainty in regards to not only what was or wasn’t really there, but where (podium or page?), and why something was or wasn’t there. All this is to say that Gregory’s poetry functions to perform the same work: in it’s increasingly fine distinction-making as made possible by the above mentioned plethora of surface markers, it sort of relentlessly slides about its own possibilities, all the while sort of displaying its own ability to agent distinctions or make judgements or claims in the world.

I was happy that she chose to read a number of her “BOOK I WILL NOT WRITE” poems, a series of poems that challenge the idea of a series on a number of levels (that she also spoke about during her reading). There are eight, I believe, such poems in MY ENEMIES, though interestingly enough she didn’t read the first one, which also happens to be my favorite. These poems are shot through with carefully constructed uncertainties: a) they claim to be a book, which they are not, 2) they claim to be one, which they are not (they are many), 3) they claim they are not written, or will not be written, but they are, 4) they fill out their given margins- are justified- but said margins fall short of normative prose/ book practice (again, defying bookishness). Their content performs similarly: the first BOOK (she) WILL NOT WRITE (see photo) couples its own motives for being written (“I must and know how to”) with the reasons behind that motive: “because it helps you.” The antecedent for this “it” is both either and/ or both because she “must” AND knows “how” to. It’s a both/ and situation, and affirmation, a yes that threads its way through the whole series as a contrariety with its own uncertainty.

jg-book-i-will-not-write

This is fitting because Gregory kept mentioning, in her talk, the virtual, which amounted to those pieces that she didn’t read, or wasn’t going to read, or didn’t want to read, or decided she didn’t have time to read, or that she mentioned as not going to be read on purpose (without the intention of ever reading them (we’ll never know)). All of these came to occupy the space of the virtual in that Deleuzian sense of things not there/ revealed, but that exist in a sort of adjacent field, nearby and as-of-yet undisclosed, while the presence of their absence yet puts pressure on experience. This is the virtuality that Deleuze tried to articulate up to and against (that space of) the negative, which at least one member of the audience misidentified Gregory’s virtual space for: the significance isn’t that something was effaced or ever had the option of not being there, but that all these not-theres were carefully arranged in a virtual spectrum of sorts- from not being mentioned at all to being specifically mentioned as NOT there- and comprised just as much of the experience of the poetry as the read words, the spoken ones, the positives. Gregory’s work therefore does what the most sophisticated poetry-as-a-mode-of-thinking does: it articulates the mechanics of what to an untrained eye might simply seem like inference- that gap between the distinctions it can and does make in the world, and the virtual significances that fueled its own ability to do so.

Undisclosed Dis/Closure: 4 poets at Small Press Distribution

A quick review- the first of many, I hope- of a reading held at Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, California on Wednesday, January 11th, 2017 featuring Kristen Kosmas, Lisa Rogal, Claudia La Rocco, and Daniel Owen

For years now I’ve lived something in the order of a mere stone’s throw away from (the legendary? I feel like it’s legendary) Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, California. Yesterday evening, for the first time- I am ashamed to admit- I finally visited for one of their many poetry readings. The reading popped up in my Facebook timeline, as these sorts of things tend to do, and since it’s the beginning of the year and I’m still in touch with my desire to do certain things I traditionally don’t, I decided to go*. Also since it wasn’t raining yet, and wasn’t scheduled to do so until midnight or so, I decided to walk. Once there and sat surprisingly comfortably with about twenty or so other folks in SPD’s front office, I realized that thinking about the rain as something schedulable was a bit ridiculous: soon from a skylight I imagine would be extremely pleasant to have during any given work day came the tell-tale pitter-patters of intermittent East Bay raindrops. It was the sort of reading, luckily and however, wherein the anxiety that I might have had in regards to the possibility of having to walk home through said rain never won out over my ability to give my attention to the readers. Also luckily, it stopped raining before I had to walk home.

Kristen Kosmas, playwright, performer, and assistant professor of theatre at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, began the night with the preface that she wasn’t a poet and a piece that amounted to a fictional-ish letter to an old friend of hers, who turned out not only to be in the audience, but the final reader for the evening (at the time that Kosmas took to the mic, I was not aware that the Dan in the front row was the Daniel from the Facebook event page). Her piece reminded me of a subtle way that (something like) poetry might function like science fiction: in creating an absurd(ish) scenario wherein she claims to have been abducted by some sort of alien that is running a camp for people to stop being “in-effective,” and by issuing with candor the sort of lyricism made possible by the epistolary mode, she managed to do what I want to call shift her subject position to a place that somehow deepens the real feelings the voice of the letter expresses precisely through this bizarro-world (see: not real) scenario. This shift was effected all the more by what was either an extremely well-done performance, or simply real, which I suppose is the crux of the matter: the fact that the question of how real something is, in a dramatic or lyrical setting, is unanswerable: there very well might be this oscillation between fiction and nonfiction, but we’ll never know.

Lisa Rogal’s poetry accomplished something similar, but only insofar as it actually did something in a sort of opposite sense, something that a lot of contemporary poetry seems to do- sometimes effectively, often not. Both Kosmas’ and Rogal’s work had to do with a diegesis; their oppositeness has to do with the fact that while the world of Kosmas’ world was (at least partially) fantastic (see my scifi reference above), Rogal’s was realist. I wanted to say it was that mode of contemporary poetry that is something like creative nonfiction or journalism, something that told you about something you couldn’t really know in a way you wouldn’t normally know it or think it, but that’s not all of it. I think a lot of folks might describe the kind of poetry Rogal does as something that expresses the writer’s “personality,” as in her work puts a personal touch, or spin, on everyday occurrences that we all experience, etc. etc. And honestly? This sort of poetry usually bores me. I’m not saying it’s not entertaining- it actually usually is. Powered by the charisma or the quirk of whoever is reading it, I find myself chuckling along, nodding in that weird affect-exchange space that affirms the fact that I do, in fact “get it.” But I wasn’t annoyed by Rogal’s work. There was something in it that had to do with that undisclosed nature of the oscillation between fiction and fantasy that I felt when listening to Kosmas’, only here the threshold straddled was between that which can be known or experienced, and that which cannot- or should not- between people, either in everyday interactions or when sharing common experiences with others, via poetry or in everyday speech. More than simply the question of whether or not chicken tastes like chicken to you and pickles to me, or whether or not there is such a thing as a one-to-one translation between any words ever, it’s a question of losing track of when and whether or not we slide into and out of each others’ consciousnesses somehow, how something that maybe shouldn’t feel familiar can feel familiar in much the same way a dream just out of reach of memory lingers there on the margins.

Claudia La Rocco- poet, performer, and critic for ArtForum and The New York Times- read third, bringing a certain gravity to the evening. At first, her work seemed to echo the mode of Rogal’s: a strong voice cutting through various daily encounters, either sliding cutting critiques into the gaps left by the various brokenesses of everyday life or creating the cuts herself. I found myself thinking about how I would write about these writers during her first poems, and was thinking this about the cuts, when she introduced her final piece, which was a splicing together of her editorial/ critical notes with notes from her physical therapy sessions. Fittingly, the vacuous question that fuels all narrative was left unanswered prior to the poem, and only fragmentedly so by/ during the poem, which worked to create that space of undisclosed dis/closure mentioned above, with regards to the realness of Kosmas’ drama and the improbability of real-world free-indirect-discourse with Rogal’s work. This time it’s the question of diagnosis, of the urge to work one’s way back from the symptoms, if the text of the poetry-notes could be seen to be anything like a symptom (the documentary mode of notes seeming to better enable this possibility). But the splicing, the enmeshing of two documents atop each other seemed to want to fight against any systematization that might capitalize on allegory. It felt like an anthropological experiment, an inquiry, and observation as much for La Rocco as it was for us; a standing outside of and looking back at herself. Afterwards I perused the few books that were offered for sale, and was particularly taken with a work she edited entitled “I Don’t Poem,” in which sixteen different artists were asked to write, or provide, text/ poems to accompany sixteen color fold out plates of their work. It’s a book I want, and a mode I’m smitten by and haven’t seen enough of (have I not been looking in the right places?).

Finally the addressee of Kosmas’ letter, Daniel Owen, whose work- unlike the three previous readers- eschewed the diegetic or modal emphasis, focusing instead on the surface of its own language, took the mic to finish the evening. This sort of work, work that leans towards being about its own form, as opposed to its content, is usually the sort of work I am drawn toward. In its simplest register it’s wordplay, at the other end it’s extreme gibberish, and in between exist a vast amount of fantastic possibilities along a wide array of competing vectors. It’s here that words, concepts, notions, the bricabrac mechanics of prosaic language are all fucked with either for their own sake or for the magic of nonsensical allegory- that bizarre occurrence in which chaos somehow triggers meanings or sensible forms or even, sometimes, manages to elucidate the real world or whatever it is that’s outside the (experience of the) poem at any given moment. This might be a slapdash explanation of a mode of poetry that misses important things or trips up on problems I haven’t noticed, but at the end of the day a more refined exposition is still liable to accusations that poetry like this, poetry that is described like this, falls under the auspice of the “my kid could do that” realm of letters and arts, and that all criticism extrapolated from this sort of art is but an echo (if not a worsening) of the blather. Of course I think *that’s* bullshit, and one of the reasons is because Owen’s work ultimately fails to construct the sort of fantastic meanings or affect or experience that this sort of poetry is fully able to effect. Mostly it reads as a succession of disparate images or concepts, notions or descriptions that are strung together in an effort to relay whatever lyric experience they’re about, but fails to do so. They somehow obscure, somehow come across as blockages, as opposed to in-roads, to their meanings or my experience of them.

I walked home almost immediately, sauntering down the wetted street through too few streetlights- at least I think I was sauntering- and I realized that I really enjoy poetry readings. Also I can’t tell if I’m consistently growing or just a slow learner.

* This isn’t really true (/ the best way to say what I want to say): I actually do attend poetry readings on a somewhat regular basis. I think the idea of this years’ iteration of the old resolution has to do with the determiner “more,” as in go to poetry readings “more,” go to “more” poetry readings, etc. The desire itself isn’t for something other than what I usually desire.

FOUR POEMS

I’ve recently stumbled across four poems that were cut from the final version of COLORS MORE COLORS. You can read them below: a saucy true story about public sex and a lightning strike, a rumination on a bee at Codornices Creek, another rumination on Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee-level eschatology and mild depression I recorded one afternoon at People’s Park, and a eulogy on the mode and style of the poems in what was then my previous (/first) ‘zine, MY FIST IS A BOOK OF ETHICS. All of these are, of course and along with my collaboration with the inimitable Bonnie Cherry, available at both my Etsy store and via my Patreon. Be sure to keep your eyes open for next month’s IT’S HERE THAT I AM COMFORTABLE WITH MYSELF, HERE THAT I HAVE FRIENDS, in which I attempt to both sharpen and put to rest a mode of poetics I’ve been attempting to call the poetry of knuckles. More soon xo and all that.

May 20th, 2011

we ran into the library

soaked by rain, she

put me in her mouth

and then her self

we came and

lightning struck

the steam whistle,

its billowy contents

streaming

out into the storm,

when she noticed

that we’d fucked

next to Whitman

and Miller and

a student who

we didn’t know

was there

Degrees of Proximity Dictating Value

a small green bee

leaves behind no

orbits, nor follows

mindless, mindlessness

buzzes

Its shadow suggests a swarm

or the possibility of one

one of many

sound logic is anything but

knowing the way an animal

crouches before it pounces

or an insect floats or that

a plant grows imperceptibly

but that doesn’t mean we’re

blind, doesn’t mean god

doesn’t see us in order

to exist, doesn’t follow

mindless orbits

soundness of mind is like

the soundness of anything

else: it never actually has

it; is adjacent like smoke

causal like flowers facing

the sun, degrees of proximity

dictating value

there isn’t a mountain

for miles around and as

such it can’t be forced

to disclose itself, what

it can only suggest are

the possibilities made

such by its closeness

to the sun

perhaps granted by the

small trauma of the fact

that I have just killed

the small green bee

having swatted it once

and twice on its return,

sending it softly to the

ground into which I

smashed it with my

foot proclaiming

leave

me

alone

Whole & Entire

… and if the soil present

would itself be so kind

as to rise to the occasion

of swallowing the just and

the unjust so that it might

be known that in doing so

myth would be undone and

the world would fall apart

I would be grateful

grateful for the fistful

grateful for the grasp

and the grasping

grateful for the outness

of the sunlight

for that which I would

be unable to ever know

again would cover me

cover me whole

cover me entire

My Fist Was A Book Of Ethics

all that will have been

will be the case as well

if, that is, indeed, the case

so, you see, it must respond

in kind: by opening- we

are desperately in need of

the verb; to be, at least,

for a moment, the passive;

to have been opened unto

and so we needed the

verb of the question – the

activity that brought

about both the perfectly

present opening as well as

the state of openness

that shoots out an inability

to delineate the limits of

the verb to open, that forces

us to choose, to trace

a line of force from

emptying object to

emptying object until

what ends and begins

becomes a flow that

bleeds out its own

trajectory into every

nothingness

and so to regain,

to gather up our

useful singularity,

we must remember

the rhythm of

the litany along

which we travel