Principal Hand 001, aka the infamous Issue 1, Eds. Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter
(Published online at www.forgodot.com, 2008)
“Could it be true,” as Chris Funkhouser asks, “that [computer-generated] poetry is, in fact, a simulation of poetry?” (C.T. Funkhouser, Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995). Could it be true that computer-generated poetry is, in fact, real poetry? What criteria might we use to answer these questions? I maintain that the only criteria we have must be grounded in what I can no longer unreservedly believe, romantic humanism. I quote Baudrillard’s Ecclesiastes:
The simulacrum is never that which never hides the truth--it is the truth that hides the fact that there is none.
The simulacrum is true.
-Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (tr. Sheila Faria Glaser)
On the other hand (or is it the other hand?),
in later seminars (from 1972 to 1978) [Lacan] argued that the real (R), the symbolic (S), and the imaginary (I) are strictly equivalent. In effect, the symbolism that Lacan borrowed from logic failed to formalize the real, which “never ceases to write itself. Thus Lacan attempted, by borrowing from the mathematics of knot theory, to invent a formulation independent of symbols. By affirming the equivalence of the three categories R, S, and I, by representing them as three perfectly identical circles that could be distinguished only by the names they were given, and by knotting these three circles together in specific ways (such that if any one of them is cut, the other two are set free), Lacan introduced a new object in psychoanalysis, the Borromean knot. This knot is both a material object that can be manipulated and a metaphor for the structure of the subject. The knot, made up of three rings, is characterized by how the rings (representing the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary) interlock and support each other. From this point on in Lacan's teaching, the real was no longer an opaque and terrifying unconceptualizable entity. Rather, it is positioned right alongside the symbolic and tied to it by mediation of the imaginary. Thus, whatever our capacity for symbolizing and imagining, there remains an irreducible realm of the nonmeaning, and that is where the real is located”
-Martine Lerude, “Real, The (Lacan)”, in the http://www.enotes.com/psychoanalysis-encyclopedia/real-lacan International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis
I’m tempted to define poetry, then, however generated, as at one and the same time the truth that never hides the truth that there is none and yet is nevertheless true, and as a kind of Borromean knot in which the real, symbolic and imaginary interlock and support each other. Or, put otherwise, a simulation is as real as everything else.
This is all a way of confirming that Principal Hand 001 (aka forgodot.com’s infamous Issue 1 (eds. Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter)), consists of 3.9MB, 3785 pages, of poems.
It is not he who says it. It is I. I who write. I who, by means of displacements, samplings, fragmentations, play with people and their titles, with the integrity of their proper names.
Does one have the right to do this? But who will determine the right? And in whose name?
-Jacques Derrida, “Why Peter Eisenman writes such good books” (tr. Sarah Whiting) (in Psyche: Invention of the Other II, eds. Peggy Kamuf, Elizabeth Rottenberg)
That identities can be stolen, traded, suspended, and even erased through the name reveals the profound political power located in the capacity to name; it illustrates the property-like potential in names to transact social value; and in brings into view the powerful connection between name and self-identity.
-Barbara Bodenhorn and Gabrielle vom Bruck, “‘Entangled in Histories’”: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Names and Naming”, in The Anthropology of Names and Naming (eds. Bodenhorn, vom Bruck)
It’s fairly clear to me that this anthology does not seriously threaten the connection between name and self-identity. I doubt anyone had an existential crisis because his or her name appeared as signatory to a poem. Upon finding my poem, I wrote that it was a “poem I did not remember writing til I saw it in print, but as soon as I saw it I was all like AH!” That was a weak joke, perhaps; it was certainly not an identity crisis.
What’s also clear to me is that what Principal Hand does call into question is “the property-like potential in names to transact social value”. The work of Pierre Bourdieu is a useful tool that helps me think social value. Social value can be subdivided into four “types”. I quote that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, which summarizes these usefully enough:
In “The Forms of Capital” (1986), Bourdieu distinguishes between three types of capital:
Economic capital: command over economic resources (cash, assets).
Social capital: resources based on group membership, relationships, networks of influence and support. Bourdieu defines social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.”
Cultural capital: forms of knowledge, skills, education, and advantages that a person has, which give them a higher status in society. Parents provide their children with cultural capital by transmitting the attitudes and knowledge needed to succeed in the current educational system.
Later he adds symbolic capital (resources available to an individual on the basis of honor, prestige or recognition) to this list.
Principal Hand puts all four types under temporary erasure. How? In the words of Tom Beckett (personal communication), “all the texts collected in the anthology appear to be the equally bland productions of a poetry-generating software program (the writing equivalent of, was it, Jorn's paintings which were sold by the length) …” The equality of “product” associated with each name has, then, a leveling effect. If the poems are equally whatever (bland, brilliant, it doesn’t matter (though I will add that I tend to admire Erica T Carter more than Tom does), then the capital inhering in (adhering to?) each name is also equalized. For a moment, at least, no one has more command over economic resources than anyone else; no one has a better place in the pecking order based on their group membership(s), relationships, networks of influence and support than anyone else; no one demonstrates forms of knowledge, skills, education, and advantages that give them a higher status in society than anyone else; no one has any more honor, prestige or recognition than anyone else.
You should have, you probably did, in fact, hear the resultant roar (did it remind anyone else of Lew Welch’s remark to the effect that human noise is the same as the chatter of the birds in a tree, and all that’s going on is the eternal argument re: who gets to sit where?). Here’s what’s probably the most prominent response to this “provocation” It’s Ron Silliman’s blog post of 5 October 2008 (Ron notes that this post received more hits than any other in the history of his blog. At the moment I write, there are 142 comments) (I should add that I am not singling Ron out; it is and it isn’t his fault that he’s the most prominent commentator on Principal Hand):
One advantage of e-books is that you can have an odd number of pages, like Issue 1’s 3,785-page debut. A second is that you aren’t bound, literally, by the physics of binding. A 3,785-page “book” is not an impossibility.
These are not, however, the only quirky things about Issue 1, nor even the most quirky things. The issue advertises itself as “new poetry” by its contributors, and the list is both long and impressive:
[list of names omitted]
I kid you not. Nor is this roster, at 3,164 names as complete a collection of mostly post-avant poets I have ever seen, the quirkiest thing about Issue 1.
No, the quirkiest thing about Issue 1 is going to be that, if it includes your name – and, hey, it probably does – you have no memory of having written that text, nor of submitting it to Issue 1. Or, as Ed Baker put it so elegantly in the comments stream to For Godot,
I DIDN’T FUCKING WRITE THIS GARBAGE!
As I certainly did not write the text associated with my name on page 1849. And I doubt seriously that my nephew Dan wrote the one-line poem associated with his name in here either -- tho it’s a much better piece than “mine” and I can almost envision him entertaining the German puns lurking there in the word-roots. I did not know that he wrote poetry, frankly. Nor does, to the best of my knowledge, somebody like Larry Lessig. Nor the late Henry Darger. Further, I doubt that Walt Whitman, Aimé Césaire, Laura Riding, Ezra Pound, Geoffrey Chaucer, Jack Kerouac or any of the other dead poets included here have any new work to share. I don’t think you wrote your work either.
Issue 1 is what I would call an act of anarcho-flarf vandalism. The second pages lists the compilers as Stephen McLaughlin & Jim Carpenter, and a search of domain ownership for the web host arsonism.org at Whois.com turns up the following:
Registrant Name: Stephen McLaughlin
[what follows is personal information, including home phone number, that turns out to not be McLaughlin’s, but rather his parents’. I’m not going to repeat it here]
If you are unamused, you might want to tell Steve this directly. If you’re amused, I suspect that he’d like to hear that as well.
I might note that the last time I felt ripped off by an on-line stunt, I sued -- as a lead plaintiff in a class-action case brought by the National Writers Union. And while I can’t discuss the suit, as a condition of the subsequent settlement, I will note that we could have gotten a pretty good major league middle infielder for the final amount. Play with other people’s reps at your own risk.
While Silliman’s post is somewhat ambiguous (it’s almost as admiring as it is “unamused”), it exemplifies the uneasiness that arises when someone living under our cultural conditions, in which capital is all, is stripped of his or hers. Wherever we stand politically, many clearly find it uncomfortable to stand there with nothing but holes in their pockets. “No direction home, like a rolling stone …” (Plus c’est change, eh?)
Does one have the right to do this? But who will determine the right? And in whose name?
What I find most interesting about the whole thing is how pissed off so many poets are about being included. On the surface this may not seem the most interesting aspect of the project, in part because anyone positing theoretical or poetical readings of it always finds time to mention this humorous tidbit. But from what I can tell these are missed opportunities, as everyone mentions it and everyone skips over it—as if it were merely humorous.
What all those poets with their panties in a bunch are displaying is that little demon who ruins everything, hubris. Poetry ain’t precious. Poets ain’t precocious. Names and constructed (let alone promoted) identities ain’t precious. Our little projects ain’t precious. All such things are meaningful, significant—but they ain’t immune, and they ain’t worth immunizing. Especially considering the historical context in which poetry is still written, rather, all our little projects are deserving every once in a while of a slap in the face, a wake-up call to their utter disposability.
Judging from the UB Poetics listserve, it’s interesting that the most disgruntled observers seem to primarily be “established” poets, most of whom work from within the academy. Their well-known and advertised names are commodities and their gripe proceeds from there—heavens-be their precious little names should be associated with a bad poem or two, or a joke, or a critique cast in their own direction. Heavens-be they should be forced to look in the mirror and ask if they are willing to pass control over to something larger and therefore, dare I say, more meaningful.
The “authors”—or editors—my point is not academic here—of Issue 1 had to have anticipated this animosity. In this light, it’s interesting to examine the anthology’s title. “Issue 1” of course signifies a first issue of some rag, but it also signifies “Issue #1,” the issue of primary interest raised by this anthology, or the beginning, first-order concern the anthology raises, the issue we must tackle first in order to read it. What could that be?
-Jared Schickling (personal correspondence)
Does one have the right to do this? But who will determine the right? And in whose name?
-JD, third time (third time’s the charm)
Which brings me to mention of Manuel Castells. In his trilogy The Information Age, Castells has developed three notions of identity (I quote from Felix Stalder’s review at http://www.indiana.edu/~tisj/readers/full-text/14-4%20Stalder.html The Information Society: An International Journal):
1. Legitimizing identity: introduced by the dominant institutions of society to extend and rationalize their domination over social actors. Legitimizing identities generate civil societies and their institutions, which reproduce what Max Weber called “rationale Herrschaft” (rational power).
2. Resistance identity: produced by those actors who are in a position/condition of being excluded by the logic of domination. Identity for resistance leads to the formation of communes or communities as a way of coping with otherwise unbearable conditions of oppression.
3. Project identity: proactive movements which aim at transforming society as a whole, rather than merely establishing the conditions for their own survival in opposition to the dominant actors. Feminism and environmentalism fall under this category.
My question, and my response to Jared, is: under which category or categories does a poet’s identity capital fall? To the degree that it falls under category 1, I’m all for destroying it; I think today’s dominant institutions are too often perpetrators of what Adi Ophir calls superfluous evils. To the degree that Jared is accurate when he writes, “the most disgruntled observers seem to primarily be “established” poets, most of whom work from within the academy. Their well-known and advertised names are commodities and their gripe proceeds from there—heavens-be their precious little names should be associated with a bad poem or two, or a joke, or a critique cast in their own direction. Heavens-be they should be forced to look in the mirror and ask if they are willing to pass control over to something larger and therefore, dare I say, more meaningful”, then the unease is felt by those with something to lose, something which by nature pushes others into Castells’ category 2. And I will answer Derrida’s questions with this: we do. If we are moral beings, that it. To quote Ophir’s The Order of Evils: Toward an Ontology of Morals (trs. Rela Mazali, Havi Carel), “What guides moral judgment and the intention of a moral act is the care for those others whom evil befalls.”
On the other hand, to the degree that the unease is felt by those who fall under category 2 or 3, then I think that the feeling is quite reasonable. I picture the old R Crumb comic, “Salty Dog Sam”, in which an African American is finally enabled to become a surfer the day the ocean dies. He says, and I quote, “It’s de same old sad story. Us niggers gits it aftuh nobody else wants it!!”
[Note: After the election of Obama-Biden and the increase or pseudo-increase in identity capital of African-Americans I thought a lot about quoting from this Crumb piece. But I decided to go ahead with it. Here’s why: in California, at least, virtually the entire African-American vote went for Obama. About 70% of those same African-Americans voted Yes on 8, which stripped homosexuals of their right to marry. This same phenomenon was seen all over the country. So let’s play a little. While Salty Dog Sam is making his social comment in the last couple of panels, a homosexual is seen leaning on the pier, thinking how s/he always wanted to surf, too. When the opportunity arose, Salty Dog Sam said no (“I don’t have to sit in the back of the bus any more, YOU do.”). Thus, superfluous evil continues …]
It would be (it is) a terrible thing to strip the little identity capital they have from “those actors who are in a position/condition of being excluded by the logic of domination.” It would be, in Ophir’s sense, a superfluous evil. In which case, I will answer Derrida’s by saying, we don’t.
Luckily, that’s not what I think Issue 1 is doing. I don’t think the leveling here is taking anything from the “have-nots”. I don’t think that it’s actually taking anything from the haves, either. What it does do is reveal disparities vis-à-vis capital, and what would happen if such disparities were to disappear. Which, of course, they won’t, not in the “real” world. In the ‘real” world, there really is capital, and Castells’ categories hold.
… on 30 June 2004, when he appeared on the British television sports show Fantasy Football League - Euro 2004, broadcast on ITV … Blissett intelligently joked and quipped about his own (alleged) involvement in the Luther Blissett Project. After host Frank Skinner read a line from the novel Q's prologue (“The coin of the kingdom of the mad dangles on my chest to remind me of the eternal oscillation of human fortunes”), Blissett produced a copy of Luther Blissett's book Totò, Peppino e la guerra psichica (AAA Edizioni, 1996) and quoted extensively from it in the original Italian: “Chiunque può essere Luther Blissett, semplicemente adottando il nome Luther Blissett” [Anyone can be Luther Blissett simply by adopting the name Luther Blissett]. At the end of the show, hosts and guests all said in unison: “I'm Luther Blissett!”
“Luther Blissett is not a ‘teamwork identity’ as reported by the journalists; rather, it is a multiple single,” one of the sites states.
“The ‘Luther Blissetts’ don't exist, only Luther Blissett exist. Today we can infuse ourselves with vitality by exploring any possibility of escaping the conventional identities.
“The struggle is still against the language of the powers-that-be, in order to create by merry pranks new links and break any old hierarchy.”
-Luther Blissett’s website, sometime in 1999
A letter received by Tom Raworth, dated Bologna 8:x:08:
I see that the author is not dead, but merely irritated and worried about appearances. I call for an independent jury to declare which poems are better, and which worse, than the authors’ usual productions.
The eye is no longer on the pyramid but on itself.
And as I wrote everything in (at) ISSUE 1, I remain
So what happens now that, as Principal Hand 001 would have it, we’re all Luther Blissett? Let me turn to Alain Badiou for an answer. The emphasis on “Otherness” dissipates, as perhaps it should:
Infinite alterity is simply what there is. Any experience at all is the infinite deployment of infinite differences. Even the reflexive experience of myself is by no means the intuition of a unity but a labyrinth of differentiations, and Rimbaud was certainly not wrong when he said: “I is another.” There are as many differences, say, between a Chinese peasant and a young Norwegian professional as between myself and anybody at all, including myself.
As many, but, also then, neither more nor less.
-Ethics (tr. Peter Hallward)
If distinctions-between are, therefore, banal (at best: Badiou insists, correctly, I think, that the ethics of Otherness is either religious (à la Lévinas) or a capitulation to our current suicidal global capitalist business-as-usual neocon desperation scene), perhaps Principal Hand 001’s elimination of difference in favor of (Badiou again) the Same shouldn’t be seen as reductive. Perhaps it is an elevation. Perhaps something serious is at stake.
To put it in utopian terms, quoting Thomas Müntzer in Luther Blissett’s Q, Omnia Sunt Communia. I’ll say it again, like John Lennon in “God”: Omnia Sunt Communia. Even -- or, perhaps, especially -- Poetry.
John Bloomberg-Rissman's most recent publications are No Sounds Of My Own Making, World0, and (forthcoming) A Spectrum of Other Instances. His work is anthologized in The Hay(na)ku Anthology Vol. II. His current projects are editing the anthology 1000 Views Of "Girl Singing" and constructing the interminable Autopoiesis. He has just been named co-editor of Leafe Press. You can catch him in action at Zeitgeist Spam.