Tuesday, February 17, 2004

On modernism: the problem with knowledge is a problem with history

From Silliman, today:
The problem of knowledge in poetry has bedeviled modernism & what's come after since Pound first edited T.S. Eliot in order to make him more, not less, cryptic.

          Not to disparage Silliman's overall point. I take this quote out of its context and from his continuing conversation about Pattie McCarthy's work. Not to disparage, then, but to address my place in learning about poetry more directly:

      The story about Pound editing Eliot is a meta-content-keyword in the conversation "problems of modernism". It reeks of the spectacle of history. We shouldn't forget that it has meaning simply because we insist it does.

      Moreover, the crumb concerns less the reason(s) Pound actually had Eliot remove footnotes to Wasteland than it concerns marking a place where the problem with knowledge as a modernist problem is located for us. Nostalgia for a moment none of us lived. Sentimental for our birth from a mother who has been consistently absent--a yes to our question about where we come from, an American moment still becoming present, Pounds NO was very fatherlike, so why not a birth. (Awfully ugly orphans we are.)

      I have never quite understood the claim to genus: bits of information students feel obliged to spit up upon demand.

      The problem of knowledge in modernity may not be a problem with knowledge but a problem with anchoring knowledge in tradition, wrestling it from one position on a map to another through historic assignation. Such naming tends to be as arbitrary as a consumer's flavor of the day. The problem with anchoring knowledge is a problem with acknowledging specific kinds of labor to produce specific kinds of monuments which maintain their meanings without the need for cultivation. In other words, damn fine stones, deep cuts, lasting encasements.

      Consider the veracity of the following function: Any decrease in the awareness of ideological structures underwriting particular histories must be accompanied by a proportional increase in the gravity or density of particular "great" moments in history. It is very hard to question the truth a great moments in history. Because they are there--just like the stones in Dog Town. But history is not a monument nor a language even; it is there in spite of us all disordered contemporaneous mess.

      We can look back to Leibniz for an ordering principle, possibly, and then forward to the modernism of late 19th and early 20th centuries and remark: maybe, possibly, might it not be the case that what we call modernity's "problem with knowledge" is its "problem with history." That, in mistaking a revolution of ideas for a dismantling of first principles, these modernists refused to see their own relationship to, say, the Enlightenment. Rather than a Continental Design or a British Empirical Design or an overreaching Christian Rule, we have an American Thing Yet UnNamed But If We Don't Include the Footnotes Then They'll Have to Name IT With US.

      Questions like "What is Culture?" become very significant: as if something behind and before us was lost that could actually be held, owned, cherished, maybe bought. Something like civilization--very white and boy-ish, something to fight over, a secret-decoder ring containing the code, the knowledge, the thing itself, the prize at the bottom of a box of the yummiest cereal.

      By removing the footnotes from Eliot's work, Pound wasn't making the poem more cryptic, just making the work, its purpose, more transparent.

Silliman continues:
Where Robert Duncan wrote of "the secret doctrine," Charles Olson countered that "such secrecy is wearing the skin that truth is inside-out."

          Absolutely, under the skin of truth lies a structure for truth. We often choose, do we not, to write either in-wonder-about or being-with language, people, things in our communities or about the wonder and being itself --the structure of the things in our communities. In other words, we are either using language or doing language. Olson's ideas of truth are strange projections; like Williams, he is a wanderer--skin right side down--producing maps often refusing to alter perspective. He says, here I am in IT without bothering to tell us the secrets of truth just exposing moments. Fishing for truth, in his case, heh...

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