Monday, August 31, 2009

Permission to Treat the Witness as Hostile - Watten's Grand Piano 7 Essay

Being Non-Being

Identity Non-Identity
Remembering Forgetting
Testimony Nostalgia
Truth Hearsay
Remembering: Deliberate Distortion Accidental Distortion
Conscious Distortion Unconscious Distortion

Being as Living vs. Being as Not Living
Identity as Not Living vs. Non-Identity as Living
Radical Being as Living vs. Non-Radical Living as Non-Being (and Non-Identity)

Memory as a Creative Act  

Here, in Grand Piano #7, Barrett Watten addresses, in his essay "Nonidentity"--for the first time, as I read him--the central dilemma of the Grand Piano project, of what he calls, in the sub-heading of the series, "an experiment in collective autobiography" [italics mine]. Grand Piano is a series of ten "essays" by ten writers, whom the editor has chosen, to represent (or explore) their mutual interaction(s) and imagined versions of events at a key period in their creative lives, during a time when they were forming ideas and programs for living and creative activity (creative writing). 
The curiosity and interest would be: What do we remember? Or, what did they remember? How do we corroborate and collaborate to confirm our versions of our own existence in such a way that we can derive meaning and confirmation, in other words "proof that we [they] even existed?" 
Living itself is a creative act. Memory, which is the supposed residue of conscious living, is not static: Each of us derives a unique record of experience. This unique record undergoes constant transformation: Decay, rearrangement, recycling, refreshment--in a gigantic swirling mass of "data" which itself is constantly undergoing reformation, transformation.
Memory itself is largely unconscious. We can't "choose" to remember, any more than we can " 'choose' to live" (the great fallacy of "Existentialism"). In genetics, the gradual adjustments of DNA (mutations) insure that no species need remain static against the context of its own survival. In remembering, the flux and incremental augmentations of mental data, constructed out of the oscillations and minutiae of perception, insure that no one individual will ever have a completely accurate record of what "happened".
In his essay "Nonidentity" Watten explores a few of the crucial contradictions inherent in his project, and provides a surprising provisional conclusion: As an ideal form of identity, he would like to think of himself as having had what he has called "non-identity". Non-identity is acquired, through the conscious radical position of resistance to prevailing modes of behavior (in the present). When he looks back on his past, he wishes to think (if not believe) that the success of his life rests on his ability to convince us (and perhaps himself) that he had indeed "achieved" an effective radical persona, through his ability to define an effective non-identity, and a "correct" response to the (creative) challenges of his life. 
In earlier responses to Grand Piano, I had challenged the notion that, as witnesses of their own shared past, the contributors would be able to furnish accurate (and useful) reports about those shared memories of event. Writers write in the present, turning over memory, looking at it from multiple viewpoints. But the context of this process is first of all personal: That is, the motivation for making an account of some part of one's experience (in the past) is driven by a desire to create: If memory itself is a creative act, then what writers write about their own past(s) will be another layer of the textual surface. 
We tend to think of autobiography as aspiring to an idealized truth, of what did happen, versus what others may have thought happened to us. But there is a layer of distortion--that of the conscious or unconscious disambiguation, which we may or may not wish to acknowledge. If we deliberately set out to provide an augmented version of our past, one made out of a certain preferred set of facts and events (as opposed to any other set), we are remembering deliberately. Ultimately, autobiography must deal not only with the vanity of deliberate distortion, but with the unconscious decay of actual memory (which is, after all, subject to the constant influence of desire, regret, boredom, delight, play, anger, jealousy--or all the positive and negative feelings we have about the mass of experience which is thrown into the cauldron of remembered experience).
Grand Piano, then, was never about a mutual recollection of what actually happened to a group of artists, but about a creative use of the past. Truth--in the sense of the legalistic use of testimony as a source of verified, substantiated fact--was never its aim. 
If one were to attempt to create a version of one's past that was an idealized (or imagined) account--one that portrayed one's actions and decisions as having a certain shape and purpose--that attempt would constitute a creative act. In other words, it would be a kind of fictionalized partial autobiography. Partial in both senses--that is, incomplete, as well as "preferred". The sad or happy fact is that all autobiography is a combination of deliberate and accidental intention, made up of eccentric (prioritized) data, as well as conscious manipulation. Is any individual consciousness capable of even a partial veracity to event and experience?

If autobiography is an acknowledged creative use of materials, we must be cautious about imputing any significance whatever to the purported meaning of the one's own (the Author's) version of the past. Watten's essay is an explicit acknowledgment of this dilemma (or fallacy).   

"What is the past, and how do we know it?...How would we learn to know the difference--in the form of a work of art, from out of the culture's bounds?"
In discussing Watten's Progress [The Compass Rose, May 22, 2009], I wrote the following: 
"The poem cannot be permitted to belong to the context from which it derives, therefore all aspects of its pedigree, its terms and conditions, must be scrubbed clean of association. All "events" "feelings" "episodes" are merely jealous fictions, possible exhibits in the conspiracy of bankrupt cultural residue."
In other words, in order for Watten to achieve a sense of "non-identity" (radical negativity, as in "relief" against the background (backdrop) of the zeitgeist (culture)), he must strive to portray (a version of) himself in opposition to prevailing modes. This idealized version of his past is the "preferred" (partial) account, which the Grand Piano is designed, in part, to furnish. Certain events, certain persons, are excluded from it, and certain other events, certain persons are emphasized. Events and persons are scrambled and rearranged in order to present a preferred order and hierarchy of history. This is partly deliberate, and partly unconscious.
Is it possible to make people and events disappear, as if they had never happened, or, collaterally, to "make up" versions of events that are so unlike what actually happened that they constitute a superior reality? Obviously, this is what everyone does, to some degree or other. If you start with the supposition that you have no duty or obligation to the truth as you experienced it, there is little likelihood that what you tell the reader will have much value in terms of the events and characters themselves. 
If the set of possible persons and events to which the contributors in Grand Piano refer in their respective accounts, is limited to each other and their shared experience--and not to others--we can be reasonably sure that the result will be channeled and directed towards a mutual approbation. Conflicted, contradictory, or different accounts create controversy. This is why the accounts in Grand Piano tend not to reinforce or reify each other. Each participant's account is limited, but the sum of them together is no more accurate nor reliable than any one of them, because truth (an accurate account) was never the intention.
If Grand Piano is not an accurate account of what any of the participants experienced, then Watten's acknowledgment of the creative purpose of his program, allows us to treat it as a kind of hybrid fictionalized nostalgia. We ordinarily think of nostalgia as a longing for a real or imagined past. By summoning up a version of the past, made out of unverified or freely manipulated memory, we are acknowledging our preference for another reality (or unreal dream). The desire to inhabit and indulge our memory for aesthetic purposes is a form of escapism from the creative present, as if by writing the preferred version of our own past, we could transform ourselves (and our present) into a preferred identity, or, as in Watten's case a "nonidentity". 
If the present is Being, the past is non-Being. If the past is non-Being, it is also non-Identity, but only in retrospect: Being--the total experience of all participants--did once exist, even if we wish that it hadn't, or that our experience had happened differently. If all autobiography is a form of nostalgic longing (or a longing to alter the past to suit a superior version), then truth is simply a hostage to intellectual vanity. If we treat our past the same way we treat the present, i.e., as material for formation (clay for the shaping), we are unreliable witnesses. 
The Grand Piano is like a grand conspiracy of evasion in which all the participants agree beforehand to tell a false version of an event (or events), in order than none of them can be held responsible (or "guilty") of having committed a deliberate lie (or set of lies). It doesn't matter whether this vow or virtual oath ever happened; It is inevitable: Even if the participants believed they would set out to create a true version of something, they would be unable to produce coordinated accounts, or a "collective" truth. They could, of course, agree to write a single text to which all would sign their names. This would blur the identity of the account, and raise questions of coordination and consistency; but that will happen in any case. 
Personally, my impression is that the "editing" process for Grand Piano has a subtext of exclusion, designed to privilege the members of the collective through a deliberately distorted account. In other words, we can change the past.
Conscience is a word we use to describe a personal responsibility against a prevailing mode of conduct. Against such rules of conduct we can posit any version of identity that suits our purpose. If that purpose is ruled by vanity, or ambition, or jealousy, or hatred, then conscience becomes nothing more than a convenience, a hypocritical self-justification. 
As the example of Pound's life demonstrates, the consistency and validity of one's hypocritical self-justification, on balance, isn't really the defining criteria against which a literary reputation can be measured. We all delude ourselves constantly. Self-delusion is nothing more than another form of creative behavior. Indulging it, however, carries risks. One can, like Pound, literally become the fool of one's own dream.    


phaneronoemikon said...

In other words, these people are assholes.

Curtis Faville said...

I have considerable admiration for several of the so-called Language School poets, and for their works.

My feeling is that the Grand Piano project, edited by Barrett Watten, is an ill-conceived attempt to preserve the memory of, and find useful meanings in, a specific period in the lives of a group of writers. I think the results speak for themselves.

The individual essays contain much that is interesting and revealing, but my point is that autobiography is a notoriously ambiguous form of self-regard, and the risks of distortion and/or self-delusion, are much greater than the potential rewards.

Could it have been done differently? Could it have been more clearly conceived? I'm not sure. I question the stated purpose to create a "collective" autobiography--just what the heck is a "collective" autobiography, anyway? And how do you go about it? Has Watten adequately defined it?

It would have to have been more focused on actual event, instead of ratiocination about meanings and implications. Philosophical/cultural criticism applied to specific event is very problematic. It may be that the participants weren't sufficiently prepared.

Writers, like other people, generally try to create a favorable impression of themselves. Writers may be more skilled at creating fictions, than they are at describing real event.

There's a paradox about all of this. We want to know precisely what the participants wouldn't want us to know. This isn't a National Inquirer phenomenon, but an important problem. Most of what we do in life is a result of fear and loathing (not desire and love), despite what spin we choose to put on it. And that's exactly what we're guaranteed NOT to get from Grand Piano.

phaneronoemikon said...

Curtis, it's a single word.


Curtis Faville said...

History was originally a different affair than we now regard it. Herodotus, considered the father of historians, believed that history was the accurate account of what people "told" him. "Istorin" for him was the "essence" (or significant meaning) of events, not a dry recitation of dates and places and persons.

Is Watten advocating a creative use of memory, of jointly conceived "collective" autobiography? Is it intended to be a multi-faceted crystal, the intersection of 10 perspectives?

phaneronoemikon said...

I would say, since, in a molecular sense, even the participants can hardly know, that the idea is purely 'reflexive' ie a sort of project
pointing at the immensity of the discrete ie at the organic interface of memory and the material umwelt aka

They know they partook in history or 'hostory' and they can produce memories, and that production is likely to be whatever it is, but

an evanescent history would be the ability to know and to track
every molecule which has come into
and left one's body.

That ideal history is really the only one of interest, technically.

The rest are always literary, folkic, happy-natty, semtimondtal, etc..

I know the 'character' of oxygen
mush better than any of these contemporary sapiens, and since I don't know any of them I would probably never buy such a thing.

I can go to a junkyard
and look at various oxidation patinas
and have what would probably be
an equally interesting experience.

I can't really think of anything
I want to know about any of these people, not particularly, anyway.

Maybe, I'm the asshole.

Curtis Faville said...

Not at all.

I took a graduate course in Boswell's Johnson, and one of the central themes was: To what extent can we "know" what the meaning of a life is? Being alive is a phenomenological trap, self-consciousness a kind of riddle. Wittgenstein was a genius at showing how the brain deludes itself--that's very unsettling.

I think Watten deliberately set out to create a favorable account of his literary coterie. It's his major investment, since he seems to have completely given up writing "poems" in the last 15 years. He's "talked himself out of it" in a manner of speaking. Is it possible to become so preoccupied with how things may be apprehended that you become unable even to speak? That almost seems like some sort of mental illness.

Your punning seems obsessive. Do you read Joyce?

phaneronoemikon said...

you're a pruner, not a punner, eh?

Ever seen a glass worker make a punty?

Curtis Faville said...

Guilty as charged.