One of the key strands of early thinking by the Language Poets, notably Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews and Steve McCaffery, was that the poem—particularly the mainstream, American lyric in thrall to the Imagist tradition—should be understood as partaking in the commodity system, either[...] Read more.
One of the key strands of early thinking by the Language Poets, notably Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews and Steve McCaffery, was that the poem—particularly the mainstream, American lyric in thrall to the Imagist tradition—should be understood as partaking in the commodity system, either in its capacity of presenting the world itself as consumable or as a commodity itself. Strategies to retool the poem included an exaggerated de-naturalization of language (akin to Brecht’s Verfremdung Effekt
), the permanent deferral of epiphany as “pay off” (i.e., writing as ongoing phenomenological investigation), and, most extremely, the poem as engaged in a “general” as opposed to a “closed” economy—as pure expenditure, linguistic waste, in George Bataille’s sense. These practices, however, while they might have, in theory, “de-commodified” the poem (the evidence weighs against it, but it’s quite impossible to prove), have nonetheless confirmed the centrality of the early notion by William Carlos Williams that a poem is a “machine,” an autonomous producer of meanings, and to that extent an object. The French philosopher Gilbert Simondon argues in his theory of technicity that something human lies at the heart of the technical object and that its technical essence, like any player in the Darwinian evolution, has its own evolutionary journey through time. In Bernard Stiegler’s succinct formulation, “[a]s a ‘process of exteriorization,’ technics is the pursuit of life by means other than life.” This confluence of ideas suggests a possibility: that the technical elements of poems—what might have formerly been understood as stylistic tics, characteristic methods, visual and prosodic features—are themselves engaged in a quest for “life,” and that poems are in fact always already objects, existing outside of the system of commodities if only by virtue of obtaining an ontological status both: (1) irreducible to an over-determined system of exchanges (an unreachable “essence” in Graham Harman’s “object-oriented ontology”), and (2) autonomous from the life, actions and intentions of the poem him/herself. To that degree, the focus of early Language poetry on configuring the poem against the system of commodities overstepped its reach by attempting to “de-objectify” the poem, to dissolve it among systems of relation. Poems are less human to the degree that they are not proxies for the poet him/herself or total subjects to the “social,” but more human to the degree that they contain—as a steam engine, a diode or a Swiss watch—a technical essence.