Wednesday, August 06, 2008

K. Silem Mohammad

K. Silem Mohammad asks the question that never seems to die: Is poetry a Technology?

I'm in the middle of teaching a 4-week online course on "Poetry and Technology," and some thoughts are bubbling up in my head that are probably too esoteric to include in my lecture notes (though that doesn't seem to stop me the rest of the time).

One of the assigned readings is Heidegger's 1958 essay "The Question Concerning Technology," in parts of which, as in other writings of his, he rehearses the old relation between poiesis and techne --"making" and "know-how," in the most simplistic translation I can render. Without getting too far as yet into Heidegger's notion of "enframing" (Gestell), the phenomenon he points to as the result of modern technology, that is, the "challenging-forth" of resources (including human beings) as a "standing reserve," I want to stop and mull over the poiesis/techne nexus, in ways that run the risk of stating the obvious, and/or simply reworking the gist of Plato's Ion, and/or boring the pants off of anyone.

Poiesis is making, techne is knowing how to do things, including making. When the making in question is of an explicitly material nature, as in sculpture, architecture, carpentry, etc., the role of techne is relatively unproblematic. It involves a knowledge of materials, tools, and, physical techniques (hence the word techniques). (This is the stating-the-obvious part, so please bear with me.) The techne of the builder, the craftsperson, the designer, is measurable and finite, at least at a certain basic level that defines minimal competence.

I'll put off till another time pondering at what point in history this happens, but at some point poiesis develops the specific sense of having-to-do-with-poetry, that is verbal poetry, that is an activity for which "making" starts to assume the status of a metaphor, something performed intellectually and/or emotionally that results in a physical artifact, but does not actually involve the manipulation of solid materials, other than a pen and paper (or keyboard, etc.). I say "other than" in order to point out that these materials, unlike, say, the marble used by a sculptor, do not inhere in the finished product--not that particular paper and ink, touched by the hands of the artist. The making performed by the poet is at a remove. It is a making that, for one thing, requires very little bodily exertion, things like repetitive-stress-syndrome aside. Most of it happens in the mind.

So as I was saying, poiesis eventually assumes this specialized sense. Or is this special sense there from the beginning? (I welcome input from persons whose philological acumen is more acute than my own--my days as a Classics major did not result in any permanent knowledgability.) That is, does poiesis from the very start stand in a relation of resistance to techne?

By "resistance," I mean to ask whether there is some implied distinction between the practical functionality of techne and a dreamier, more perverse aspect of poiesis. And if there is, is it there from the beginning, or does it emerge only at a certain time, under certain circumstances?

I'm worrying over all of this in order to get to my title question, whether poetry is a technology. I want to ask if there's a way of thinking about this in which it becomes clear that poetry absolutely cannot be a technology, almost by definition. And at the same time, I wonder whether poetry assumes an ironic relation to technology, in which it exploits technological resources, explores technological themes, and generally behaves as though it were a member of the set "things that are intelligible under the rubric of technology," precisely in order to burlesque that relationship, to flaunt its total resistance to any subsumption by (modern) technology.

In looking at the tendencies of the past century or so that involve heavy interaction between poetry and technology, one observes a fairly constant perversity quotient. Almost never is the interaction one of straightforward cooperation or mutual embrace, and even when it sets out to be, as in the case of the Futurists, the results are hardly coherent as a smooth symbiosis of industrial efficiency and artistic epideixis or supplication (let alone the inverse). Rather, one is always aware of the absurdity of the union, as though vandals had broken into a factory and readjusted the machinery so that its gears ran in useless circles, or so that its mechanized arms produced frivolous and obscene objects. This, in fact, is almost the entire program of 'pataphysics: an indulgence in the rote motions of "scientific" procedure, but with the prior knowledge and intention that any equations or formulae thereby derived will be fit for nothing more creditable than the outfitting of ducklings with bullet-proof vests.

Now, it is true, we live in a time when poets use technology constantly as a convenience and an aid to composition. Certain poetic works are designed expressly to be viewed/heard/experienced via technological media. Their very existence, in fact, would be unimaginable in the absence of technologies like Boolean generators, Flash animation, and so on. Is there a fundamental difference between these apparent alliances and say, Bob Brown's "readie" machine, a little wooden contraption with rollers that allowed a spool of text to unravel its message in an anticipation of digital advertising marquees and cable news networks' "crawls"?

My inchoate thesis is that when poetry puts on technological goggles and overalls, it does so ultimately to highlight its intrinsic incompatibility with the overarching agenda of modern technology--its capacity, perhaps, for "enframing" us all as a standing reserve of resources. This is in a sense yet another variation on the old "poetry makes nothing happen, and that's what's good about it" position. I'm tempted to push back further into history and suggest that poetry has also always had this relationship to philosophy, albeit in a necessarily subtler form.

Finally, part of what led me to write all this was the idea that the writing of poetry is most "successful" when one knows least what one is doing: when the poet's claim to techne is least sustainable. It's complicated, however, because it almost seems as though there has to be some claim to techne in place, just so that claim can be travestied, either overtly or in some secret laughing chamber of the poet's mind. Therefore, poetry written by persons without any literary or craft sensibility whatsoever will almost always be negligible, because the poet therefore has nothing to misapply or subvert. But poetry written under the misconception that there is a reliable set of techniques one can use in some "correct" way will be sterile, inert. If there is a technology of poetry, it is a technology of failure--a technology of the failure of technology, except so far as technology can be made to succeed in assisting its own failure as a measure of poiesis.

Posted at Mohammad's blog on Tuesday, August 5th, 2008. Used here without permission.


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