Sunday, October 21, 2007

Adventures in Heresiology

Priests and Levites shewing the sentence of judgment

Stan Apps makes some provocative (if in my view somewhat puritanical) observations on "Rear-Gardism and Aesthetic Norms" here. Why such earnestness and territoriality in someone who displays a puckish and transgressive sense of humor in his art?

Apps says he wants to "imitate science, in its fantastical escape from prior knowns." But science is a process of gradual corrective action, based on testability and the constant revision of theories.

He thinks that the relationship between Newtonian mechanics and quantum physics is one of supersession. But actually Newtonian (a.k.a. classical) mechanics hasn't been superseded. It's used all the time to predict the motion of spacecraft, comets, planets etc.

And Einstein's corrections to the system are so small that they make no difference in calculating mundane things like the orbits of satellites.

Quantum physics is a "new" theory but the mathematics behind it was spawned by classical mechanics, and that mathematics is in constant use.

So no fantastical escape from prior knowns is possible in science or in art, and attempts to parachute out are less fantastical, in their impulses, than they are hygienic.

Here we go again (as I began to say here): solemnly patrolling the perimeter of the avant-garde, casting out the heretics, keeping the pure of heart within the fold.

Perhaps it's my origins in the order of the red diaper, but I am ever so tired of claims that in their humorlessness remind me less of art, or science, than religion.


Stan Apps said...

Hi Rachel,

Hmm, I disagree with your account of the relationship between Newtonian mechanics and quantum physics. Quantum physics, specifically, relativizes Newtonian mechanics, arguing that Newtonian machanics is only true in specific contingent circumstances (the macrocosmic level of observation) rather than universal. To relativize prior claims, strip them of universality, and claim them as no more than a special case is one way of superceeding past claims. It is not unlike the gesture when a particular literary canon is revealed as lacking universality in its construction of the literary, as when Europeans discovered that their print-driven poetic culture was radically different from various African and Asian and indigenous American literary cultures, and that any canon created out of european works would necessarily be relative and contingent because it had an outside. Quantum physics creates an outside to our local world of Newtonian mechanics, and relativizes our very capacity for observation.

Rachel Loden said...

Hi Stan,

Now we're arguing about the definition of supersession, which (argument) seems silly. But I don't think this is a matter of one theory superseding another (if supersession is to take the place of, replace, cause to be set aside) but rather complementing and extending what came before.

Quoting my resident scientific advisory panel, "A good physicist uses the best available tools (a.k.a. mathematical models) for the problem in question. When it is about the microscopic realm, she would probably delve into quantum physics. In our usual world, classical mechanics works just fine. And if she is thinking about traveling near the speed of light, she might take Einstein's papers with her."

But if your mileage varies, let's agree to disagree. My larger point had to do with what Nicholas Manning (in your comment box) called the "desire to give the impression of having sprung, utterly ex nihilo, from aesthetic space."

That's what I was objecting to: a sort of faux know-nothingism that would be impossible to achieve, in a relentlessly invasive, permeative culture, even if it were desirable.

But enough for one day, and the next. Back to the laundry. Cheers!

Cris said...

If I understand "heresiology", it begins with an erection (so to speak) of borders-- or the proclamation of borders accomplished by drawing a line in the metaphysical sand and saying "cross this and you're a heretic"-- followed by actually patrolling the border to catch heretics in the act. I'm not interested in whether qmechanics supersedes Newton. I'd guess the question causes no discussion among physicists (though I don't know)-- and besides, there are so many borders that cause greater hindrance! In general, the discussion is about borders and border crossers and border patrollers. And those who would do away with the borders altogether-- those we might call Harlequins, after Harlan Ellison's short story,_Harlequin!%22_Said_the_Ticktockman.
The point is that border crossers and patrollers are a pretty serious lot, while harlequins are not. There was an essay reproduced on NewPoetry recently that stated that there is not a single joke in the Bible. Though I visited a church once when I was young and distinctly remember a few people laughing when the preacher quoted Lazarus' sister saying:"He hath been dead three days and his body stinketh."

This recalls the Humpo discussion reprinted in Jacket Magazine
where the topic of how as seriousness increases, humor increases proportionately (this could be stated as a kind of Newtonian mechanical formula... h=s*f ... humor = seriousness * force with which propriety is enforced) and so the whole area of heresiology could probably be proven to be very funny, and how funny it is could actually be predicted. The problem, the Dangerfield problem really, the problem of "no respect", is essentially a political one. Harlequins are always on the fringes politically. Makers of borders, followers of border rules and illegal crossers of borders form the rule, the ruled and the anti-ruly respectively and they are the political majority. (And in the state of Guanojuato, where I live, you see that border crossers really are a majority of working age men.) In the "changed world" we are told we're living in post-911, harlequins have become even more scarce, though the humor quotient has gone up measurably because of all the unflared methane coming out of the discussion. This is predictable from the above equation.

One amazing thing about the Humpo discussion was that everyone involved was actually taking the side of the harlequin and even noting, correctly I think, that it is unpopular to decry humor. Probably because it makes you a target-- and despite its "lack of respect" no one wants to set themselves up to be the butt of a joke. This demonstrates that humor actually is quite powerful. And may in fact trump seriousness, as the discussants mused. However, this power does not translate politically very well. Whether poetry may someday embrace humor and make it respectable is doubtful. For one thing, if comedy were respectable, it would likely become laughable itself-- that is, it would have to become serious-- with turf to defend and borders to watch. Poetry humorists could become the ones saying, "Hey, that's not funny! Read this document ("Humor's Agreement with the Status Quo") and you'll see that the joke you're making cannot possibly be funny."

In reading the roundtable (several times now over the past few months), I started to yearn for more specific examples of what people considered comic poems. Some of the refs went past me, though, as I readily acknowledge, and so I'm going back now to find some of them. The first is by Ange Minko to Ed Barrett. Her quote from "Lyrical Ballads" did not seem comedic to me. But I was curious so I looked him up and found excerpts from _Tell on You_, specifically "IV Lady."
Little of the poem is funny to me maybe because of its difficult syntax and overall gloom. But I thought this amusing: "His face was the grave of the joke he was about to tell, cheerless as/
an approach to the Van Wyck Expressway..." Both Gabe Gudding and Ron Silliman and Doug Powell name a lot of poets they think are funny-- but they do not name any specific poems or excerpt the jokes. Gary Sullivan excerpts some of Pound-- and I agree with him that although Pound is trying to be funny, the examples are not amusing. And I can say that (although I haven't read most of the Cantos) I've never found Pound even mildly amusing. I don't know Dream Songs well enough (and my books are not here) to judge its funniness.

The conversation steers to unintentionally funny poems, a topic that doesn't interest me. Maybe because it is a kind of patrolling the borders of craft passing itself off as a harlequin mission.

That leads to Chicken Bucket-- imo, a wickedly funny piece (though I didn't laugh out loud reading, just kept saying 'I can't believe she's saying that'). CB has no rudder-- no way, that is, to navigate the despair that it depicts. I don't think I'd want to read Knox's next poem, because what could it do but enumerate? I like what you say about it: "Brilliantly and mercilessly observed."

Here's a poem that is actually funnier to me than ChickBuck, and has a way, albeit grim, to navigate despair.

Dahn the Plug'ole

A muvver was barfin' 'er biby one night,
The youngest of ten and a tiny young mite,
The muvver was pore and the biby was thin,
Only a skelington covered in skin;
The muvver turned rahnd for the soap orf the rack,
She was but a moment, but when she turned back,
The biby was gorn; and in anguish she cried,
'Oh, where is my biby?'-- the Angels replied:
'Your biby 'as fell dahn the plug'ole,
Your biby 'as gorn dahn the plug;
The poor little thing was so skinny and thin
'E oughter been barfed in a jug;
Your biby is perfectly 'appy,
'E won't need a barf any more,
Your biby 'as fell dahn the plug'ole,
Not lorst, but gorn before!'


The consolation of "Not lorst, but gorn before" is incredibly funny I think. Is the muvver going to go dahn the plug'ole after? Yes, the plug'ole we all go down. And this is so little comfort as to be no comfort at all-- and yet it is comfort. The other reasons the Angels give for not being too upset are also very funny, like "'E won't need a barf anymore", etc.

"A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island" I like not because I think it's funny but because it has a buoyant joy in it.
Doug Powell's examples of O'Hara's humor are not really funny to me. I think O'Hara is glib and witty, but not funny:
a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible
disease but we don’t give her one we
don’t like terrible diseases

I've read some of his plays too and they were filled with these kind of witty in-jokes with his friends. And humor (and language!) can be so much more. John Cage's use of language in his "lectures" remains more interesting, provocative and funny than the "professional poets" (I say this because Ashbery does talk about Cage, but only as a composer) than any of the "NY School". And this is where I have to go to sleep. But first I have to say one thing that is motivating this post: I haven't been able to find any poet writing in English whose lifetime overlaps mine that I love. I admit my ignorance is wide, but that excuse is wearing thin as I read more.

Rachel Loden said...

Crisman, gosh --

I really like your formula (h=s*f ... humor = seriousness * force with which propriety is enforced) and the notion that "heresiology could probably be proven to be very funny, and how funny it is could actually be predicted." That proves we're in the same circus tent and possibly on the same pink elephant.

Also agree that if humor were embraced, it would become respectable and thus no longer funny. As Lily Tomlin said to an audience, when her friend Richard Pryor ruffled a lot of feathers, "You invited Richard Pryor and you got Richard Pryor."

Sad to hear that you don't find a poet to love: I love so many. For laughing out loud I recommend a book by Kenneth Koch called Thank You and Other Poems. It's ancient (1962), but the poems are collected elsewhere and I see someone is selling a used copy on amazon for as little as $5.25. That's a steal.

Forgive the brevity of this response for now -- I'm way beyond my pull date and probably making no sense....

AM said...

Is black humor the only serious humor, then? I would almost like to recommend Frederick Seidel to Cris -- but I don't really want to recommend FS to anyone.

"Dahn the Plug'ole" makes me want to cry, not laugh. Which is fine, but frankly I'm tired of the sense I get from some in the avant-garde that negativity is the ultimate value. Nietzsche's Silenus, who stops laughing long enough to advise one that it would have been better never to have been born, might be its mascot.

François said...

I came here from Nicholas Manning's blog, via Stan Apps'.

I'll have to say, Rachel is right on the relevance of Newtonian physics. That would be why they are still taught at college level. And physics professors are always careful to mention they work in a Galilean referential (that is, a geocentric referential within a time frame where the movement of the Earth can be considered insignificant).

Similarly and contrary to what Stan asserts, there is no universal in science. If there were, there wouldn't be any scientific discovery, since everything has already explained. I am referring to two essays here, one by Albert Einstein and Max Ernst, the other by Karl Popper. The former states that science follows a course limited by an asymptote. That asymptote is the line dividing Reality (the universe as we see and understand it) and the Real (the universe as it is). In short, science can get close to explaining how the universe works, but will never get there.

Meanwhile, Karl Popper states that science constructs a narrative explaining how the universe works, but that narrative will always be falsified. I think the keyword here is "narrative."

Rachel Loden said...

I was wondering when Popper's name would come up in this!

Thanks, François --

Yes, a narrative. Hear hear.

François said...

You're welcome, Rachel. Is it really possible to speak of philosophy of science without mentioning Popper or the Einstein/Planck essay? (not Ernst, as I previously wrote ... Not sure why a Surrealist would pop up here)

Rachel Loden said...

François, maybe you were thinking of Ernst Mach (of Mach 10 fame, philosopher of science and physicist) rather than Max Ernst?

It would seem easy enough to mix them up! If they married, we could get Max Mach or Ernst Ernst.

This is what my resident science advisor suggests, in any case....

François said...


I didn't know about Ernst Mach (for some reason, I never bothered to look up the etymology of the word).


Stan Apps said...

It's long after the point Francois but I didn't see this until now.

It used to be believed that Newtonian laws were universal. Now it is not. The writers you cite write in the period after that particular revolution.

I said that science had total revolutions, leaps, and that I thought poetry could take such leaps, maybe. I never said science was universal.