The New Commodity: Technicity and Poetic Form
1. Language Poetry and the Commodity
Technological objects are not simply replacements for humans, and certainly not just tools subservient to humans, but “what resides in machines is human reality, human action fixed and crystalized in functioning structures” . Simondon’s central, radical insight here is that humanists have been conditioned, at least since the Romantic period, to think of machines as products of the most abject, least “human” side of creativity and therefore they craft philosophies that merely treat technology as a necessary plague. Simondon instead argues that there is “human reality in technical reality,” that machines are indeed an “other” to the human and are closer to being human than, say, a stone, a bird or the stars due to the crystallization of human functions in their operations. Bernard Stiegler draws much of his thinking on technics from Simondon (along with paleontologist André Leroi-Gourhan and a host of more canonical thinkers). Stiegler states in the general introduction to his three volume Technics and Time that “technics evolves more quickly than culture” and that his project will be to showCulture has become a system of defense against technics; now, this defense appears as a defense of man based on the assumption that technical objects contain no human reality. We should like to show that culture fails to take into account that there is a human reality in technical reality and that, if it is to fully play its role, culture must come to incorporate technical entities into its body of knowledge and its sense of values. […] The most powerful cause of alienation in the contemporary world resides in this failure to understand the machine, which is not caused by the machine but by the non-understanding of its nature and essence, by its absence from the world of meanings, and by its omission from the table of values that are part of culture.
The concerns of Simondon and Stiegler are on both an ontological level—they wish to describe this third order of being and demonstrate how it evolves according to its own laws and processes beyond the human—and phenomenological—suggesting that a rapprochement of the human with the technical (which contains, in Simondon’s phrase, “human reality”) lies at the heart of various industrial-era ills, including most poignantly the failure of human individuation in an age of technological milieus (these two terms are central to Simondon’s thought).how various contributions to the history of technical evolution permit the hypothesis that between the inorganic beings of the physical sciences and the organic beings of biology, there does indeed exist a third genre of “being”: “inorganic organized beings,” or technical objects. These nonorganic organizations of matter have their own dynamic when compared with that of either physical or biological beings, a dynamic, moreover, that cannot be reduced to the “aggregate” or “product” of these beings. […]Life is the conquest of mobility. As a “process of exteriorization,” technics is the pursuit of life by means other than life.
A critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of the eighteenth century are the work of a single individual. As yet such a book does not exist. Darwin has directed attention to the history of natural technology, i.e., the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which serve as the instruments of production for sustaining their life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man in society, of organs that are the material basis of every particular organization of society, deserve equal attention?
Echoing concepts dear to N. Katherine Hayles, Marx’s “account at times seems to anticipate the kind of ‘extended’ or ‘distributed’ quality” in its imagining of the human body “that contemporary cognitive philosophy now regularly attributes to mind” . Simondon posits a “successful coupling of the schematic corporeality of man and machine” that, he acknowledges, is punctuated by periods of “discontinuity” . Simondon is, therefore, a humanist in the Marxist tradition—his central problem is that of human emancipation and creativity—but is also a rather new brand of psychologist, one who advocates a rapprochement between humans and technical objects as a form of social therapy, a notion that would be expanded by Stiegler as a central component of what he calls the pharmakon.For Marx…human species-existence (if we can still use such a term to name something in which the human itself is only one element) is both productive of, and produced by, its technical interactions with its environment: man and matter invent one another through the medium of the tool. It becomes possible, in the light of such a conclusion, to imagine a Marxian materialist genealogy (rather than a simple anthropology) of the human where, as Amy Wendling notes, “the embodiment of different forms of tools produces different types of human being.”
3. Toy Made Out of Words
To invent is to make one's thought work as a machine works, neither according to causality, which is too fragmentary, nor according to purpose, which is too unitary, but according to the dynamism of lived functioning, understood as a product, and understood also in its genesis. The machine is a being that works. Its mechanisms give material expression to a coherent dynamism that once existed in thought, and that was thought.
That is, a new essence, the “internal combustion engine,” is introduced by the inventor and goes through a continuous process of improvement, ultimately converging with other technical essences (machines exploiting diesel fuel) and making the discontinuous leap into the new individual, the diesel engine.[Simondon] will therefore distinguish between:
- the first invention of a technical essence, as the absolute origin of a lineage, such as the technical essence of “the internal combustion engine”
- the continuous, minor optimizations that take place within this technical essence as it progressively realizes itself
- the discontinuous invention made necessary by the “saturation of the system” that results from a continuous series of minor optimizations. This discontinuous invention is that in which the technical object really “concretizes” itself as reality of a progress, such as the invention of the diesel engine within the technical essence of the “internal combustion engine.”
4. Ben Lerner’s The Lichtenberg Figures
There is much to observe in general about this poem, but I think it best to sketch its activities line-by-line to isolate its infernal machinations.The dark collects our empties, empties our ashtrays.Did you mean “this could go on forever” in a good way?Up in the fragrant rafters, moths seek out a finer dust.Please feel free to cue or cutthe lights. Along the order of magnitudes, a glyph,portable, narrow—Damn. I’ve lost it. But its shadow. Castin the long run. As the dark touches us up.Earlier you asked if I would enter the data like a room, well,either the sun has begun to burnits manuscripts or I’m an idiot, an idiotwith my eleven semiprecious rings. Real snowon the stage. Fake blood on the snow. Could this goon forever in a good way? A brain left lace from age or lightning.The chicken is a little dry and/or you've ruined my life.
The Lichtenberg Figures doesn’t fetishize technology or the machinic in the manner known from the Flarf, conceptual, digital or neo-Oulipian writers, and yet its manner of evoking a limited array of distinct meanings from the repetition, or internal division, of words or phrases can be explained by Simondon’s emphasis of the multi-functionality of parts in a technical object. The language manages to be denatured (or deterritorialized in Deleuze and Guatarri’s formulation) in a fashion familiar to anyone who has read New York School or Language writing, but manages to keep the option open for the sort of “personism” that Frank O’Hara advocated—the poem as direct address to at least one (or only one) other individual.The dark collects our empties, empties our ashtrays.The most salient aspect of this first line is the doubled use of the word “empties,” which moves from being a colloquialism meaning empty beer cans to a verb being performed by the “dark” on “ashtrays.” This play on discrete definitions point to the excluded middle, the non-semantic border between meanings—the space of the undecidable. The dark is, of course, the void, and thus Lerner informs us early that “meaning” in these poems can bottom out into aporia over the space of a comma. Waste and anxiety—empties and ashtrays—are introduced as conceptual figures.Did you mean “this could go on forever” in a good way?“This could go on forever” is a phrase that can mean, with a slight tonal shift, either that one wants something to not end or that one is in despair that something will never end. Unlike with the previous use of the word “empties,” the repetition is internal, and as we have entered, in media res, an intimate conversation. Having no access to a sound recording to help render this line unambiguous, two distinct meanings are put in play, and not a polysemantic plethora or rampant “indeterminacy,” all without the use of a proper pun. Our narrator is suspicious, anxious, picking up on the theme of the first line.Up in the fragrant rafters, moths seek out a finer dust.This line is curious—“finer” to whom, the moths? “Fragrant” to whom (few of us spend time in the rafters)? Moths offer a suggestion of the non-human, though not quite the machine (maybe Nagel’s bat?). This is Ashberian in its sudden turn, as if distracted or wanting out, to imagining another location (“In a far recess of summer / Monks are playing soccer.”)Please feel free to cue or cutthe lights.Lerner plays with a poetics of deconstruction or perhaps pure difference, as the word “dust” produces through paragrammatic play the words “cue” and “cut,” each of which is linked by two letters but have little semantic connection. A void is opened up by this sudden deixis, a gesture to the reader (again, Ashberian). The figures of light and dark return.Along the order of magnitudes, a glyph,portable, narrow—Damn. I’ve lost it. But its shadow. Castin the long run. As the dark touches us up.“The order of magnitutes” suggest a sort of pre-semantic realm, not unlike Simondon’s concept of the pre-individual or Deleuze’s “plane of immanence,” which can generally be categorized as the void from which concepts and objects emerge. A “glyph” is only “portable, narrow” when it’s not subject to the sequential ordering of an alphabet (and, of course, a word); it must have sped by quite quickly or perhaps never fully entered existence—not quite potential, not quite concrete—unlike its shadow. Can this “glyph” be an element of a formal language, as in the supra-alphabetic elements of Frege’s “concept-language”? “Touches us up” returns us, finally, to the sort of wordplay that characterized the earlier part of the poem. Is this a cosmetic “touch up” (picking up on the cued lights) or being “felt up” in an unwelcome sexual way? The “dark,” done emptying ashtrays, returns as a character from the first line.Earlier you asked if I would enter the data like a room, well,either the sun has begun to burnits manuscripts or I’m an idiot, an idiotwith my eleven semiprecious rings.“Enter” is either the mindless clicking of keys in a low-level white collar job, the act of walking through a door, or—as if something synthesis of the two—immersing oneself in a virtual world (like the cyber-cowboys of William Gibson’s Neuromancer). Again, three distinct meanings are put into play. We are conditioned to think of the sun burning something else, confirmed until the enjambment; unlike the glyph but like the dark, the sun has somehow become a creative (and highly self-critical) individual, suggesting that all of history is merely writing by a frustrated mediocrity. The “I” moves from vague, general “idiot” to a concrete, narrativized idiot possessing ostentatious jewelry drenched in the aura of myth (like some cross between Forrest Gump, the Hobbit and Liberace).Real snowon the stage. Fake blood on the snow.Another variation of the original technical element, linguistic doubling, but this time applied to the visual. The allusion is to a cinematic, rather than stage, simulacrum, as it’s generally only in film that one might find fake blood in real snow. These two images merge into one, but operate like a Möbius strip: we are left somewhere quite specific, but are vulnerable to reversals with the flip of a world. (These lines are recycled as the final line of Lichtenberg Figures, suggestively preceded by the line “Vallejo’s unpublished snow.”)Could this goon forever in a good way?Just before the sonnet’s volta, the narrator asks the question that the poetic sequence itself might be seeking: how to reconcile a poetics of becoming, the poem’s emergence as it draws upon the speed of thought, and the object of the poem itself which, in the tradition of the Language poetics but extending back to the Romantics, aspires to escape technicity (or formality) in a bid for something like authenticity (communication of “essential” meaning, or vulgar communication). Lerner settles on a meaning for “going on forever,” namely the good version of play and pleasure, but knows the poem must indeed end. We are also reminded of the direct address—we are now included in the intimate conversation—introduced earlier.A brain left lace from age or lightning.I’m not quite sure what to make of this line. There is a suggestion of Alzheimer’s disease (associated with plaques and tangles in the brain) but with an aesthetic virtue, the intricacies of lace, evoking Eliot’s line about James: “He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” Missing the Oxford comma, the line can be two objects—it’s either a “brain” or “lightning”—or one brain incapacitated by one of two unrelated causalities.The chicken is a little dry and/or you've ruined my life.This seems to be a play on both the “dailiness” aspect of much later New York School poetry—just put down what’s in front of you as you’re writing, no observation is too trivial—but is also the final twist of the extending beyond the “game” of the poem in the way the final seconds of a comedy sketch can just throw all the pieces into the air (the Queen enters in “Royal Family Doctor”). The final phrase echoes Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (“You must change your life” in Stephen Mitchell’s translation) or James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” which also ends with a reference to the dark and a chicken: “I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on./A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home./I have wasted my life.” As the concluding line, it’s notable that these two options share an “and/or,” following through on the note of undecidability that the act of linguistic doubling creates.
The most extreme form of recursion in the volume, this poem has the distinct virtue of being partly true: though Lerner did not, of course, die in 1945, he was born in 1979, and the ISBN number is indeed 1-55659-211-6. This poem is suspended by the invisible figure of the Lerner sonnet which we’ve encounter by this point through 42 previous poems. The poem asks at once to be verified by a renewed reading of the copyright page, but it also asks to be verified as 14-lines long with some of the qualities—the punning, the linguistic doubling (“Sleep: A Journal of Sleep”), characteristic of the other works.The author gratefully acknowledges the object world.Acknowledgement is gratefully madeto Sleep: A Journal of Sleep.The author wishes to thank the foundation,which poured its money into the sky.A grant from the sky made this project impossible.Lerner, Benjamin, 1979–1945The Lichtenberg figures/Benjamin Lernerp. cm.ISBN 1-55659-211-6 (pbk.: alk. paper)I. Title.PS2343.E23432A6 1962911’.01-dc43 52-28544CIP
Conflicts of Interest
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Stefans, B.K. The New Commodity: Technicity and Poetic Form. Humanities 2017, 6, 9. https://doi.org/10.3390/h6010009
Stefans BK. The New Commodity: Technicity and Poetic Form. Humanities. 2017; 6(1):9. https://doi.org/10.3390/h6010009Chicago/Turabian Style
Stefans, Brian Kim. 2017. "The New Commodity: Technicity and Poetic Form" Humanities 6, no. 1: 9. https://doi.org/10.3390/h6010009