Monday, July 12, 2010

George Oppen's Ecological Vision, Part 1: "The Simplest Words"

       Having worked fruitlessly on a ceaselessly proliferating post about George Oppen’s “ecological vision,” I must now resign myself to breaking up the entire attempt into fragments digestible to both readers and myself. And while the original, unitary plan was to begin with a sketch of “ecological vision” – primarily drawing from Tim Morton’s recent The Ecological Thought as well as my go-to theory trinity (Agamben, Benjamin, and Deleuze) – I will instead allow a working definition of my particular sense of “ecological” to unfold through the coming series. For now, however, I will only offer a provisional definition of ecological vision: a vision of interconnectivity( Morton: “ecological thought is the thinking of interconnectedness” [7]), or, more grandly and precisely, an immanent metaphysics.

    Being who I am (an English scholar), I could easily begin my inquiry into Oppen’s possible ecological vision by offer a close reading of what his poetry says. Such a reading would be, I fear, too reductive. After all the title of the poem I will focus on, “Of Being Numerous,” screams, “interconnectivity!” And the main sections I would call forth to Fractal Paradigm’s witness stand are all, I also fear, too evident in their “ecological-ness” to require a thorough critical gaze (for example, the opening lines: “There are things/ We live among ‘and to see them/ Is to know ourselves’” [163]) – such passages being too ecological to hold up to the singular, “case-making” coercion of a close reading, their fragile tension collapsing under a too-taut gaze while their immanent expansiveness would perpetually fly from any discursive attempt at capture. Instead, I will suspend the “ends” of Oppen’s language to arrest it in its systolic-diastolic withdrawal-flight from my critical gaze; that is, I will consider Oppen’s poetry independent of its “meaning” and “content,” focusing instead on the gestic elements crystallizing Oppen’s immanent, ecological vision.
     When first confronting “Of Being Numerous,” one is struck with its terse and sparse language – a common feature of most of Oppen’s work (no surprise, Oppen was one of the founders of the objectivist movement in the 1930’s – a movement which treated the poem as an object and viewed the world as clearly as possible). Take the poem’s opening nine lines: “There are things/ We live among ‘and to see them/ Is to know ourselves’./ Occurrence, a part/ Of an infinite series,/ The sad marvels;/Of this was told/ A tale of our wickedness./ It is not our wickedness.” Thirty-seven words, only two of which contain more than two syllables (occurrence and wickedness, used twice). Yet Oppen does something even more curious in these lines than simply polish his diction into terse one and two syllable words. In a recurring gesture, Oppen shifts all activity away from both the narrator and “us” – those seemingly privileged subject positions – and onto third parties left startlingly ambiguous. In the opening stanza, “we” do nothing except “live,” the real action, “to see,” is merely implied, buried within inverted commas (this phrase coming from Robert Brumbaugh’s Plato for the Modern Age). Similarly, “occurrence,” which is, by definition, an act, is striped of all activity, suspended in a fragment while its active force is appropriated by an unstated “they” violently construing it as wickedness. Finally, and most obviously, the only verbs in these opening lines are “be” and passive verbs; and precisely because of such weak verbs, all action occurs off the page and beyond the agency of the narrator, objects, or us.
     What is so ecological about such a gesture? What makes a seeming rehearsal of the violent fitting multiplicity (an infinite series of occurrences) into tales of wickedness (or, as Oppen writes a few sections later, the choosing of “the meaning of being numerous”) and singularity ecological? Well, everything. The manner in which Oppen seemingly expropriates authority (the power of words and narration) to coercive, non-immanent forces (those calling our immanent life wicked) strips those very forces of the authority they seem to have received so easily. That is, those forces of proclamation are given an “authority” that is fully emptied of all power – a desiccated language muttering impotent judgments on a ceaselessly re-occurring “world.”
    Oppen’s language, which he both offers those coercive forces and retains for himself, is at ease. That is, Oppen’s language is one that has exceeded (or simply ignored) its “theological” task – the job, enacted between the poles of lament (nature’s being betrayed by meaning) and praise (the name perfectly saying nature), of referring to the thing. Simply, “Of Being Numerous”’s language has “declined any pretense of denomination” and instead both comports itself towards “a nature that has exhausted its destiny among created beings” (Agamben, The Coming Community 59) and reveals it as existing without recourse to transcendence and pure in its immanence. Oppen’s ecological vision, encoded in his gesture, takes as its task the opening towards such a “nature” (not, as Tim Morton would be quick to point out, “Nature” with a capital N, but is instead simply living reality), which, while forming a “mesh” (Morton’s term), has exhausted and outlived itself teleological ends.
     Such a mesh (a plane of immanence) forms the very ground of “Of being Numerous” in time and space, both coming about through the “shipwreck of the singular,” a bankruptcy of the ideologies of individualism (a middle-class, Protestant ideology emergent during the 18th century, which gave rise to, among other things, my beloved “Novel,” evoked brilliantly by Oppen in the running allusions to Robinson Crusoe) and its philosophical compatriot, the individual-universal binary (which claims that the singular opens to knowledge of the universal, and vise-versa). Instead, a new singularity arises out of this shipwreck: “The absolute singular” (167). Crucially, such a singularity correlates with Agamben’s “whatever being:” in whatever being, “[s]ingularity is thus freed from the false dilemma that obliges knowledge to choose between the ineffability of the individual and the intelligibility of the universal” (Coming Community 1). Singularity is, with whatever being, “such as it is” (Agamben’s emphasis”).
     Things in “Of Being Numerous” acquire whatever singularity. Days have “only the force/ Of days/ Most simple/ Most difficult” (167); Rain falls with indifference to the “world” (169); occurrences “occur[] ‘neither for self/ Nor for truth’” (187). And art must comport itself towards whatever singularity as its proper gesture: the artist “must somehow see the one thing/ This is the level of art/ There are other levels/ But there is no other level of art” (180).
     As poetry, “Of Being Numerous” can only confront the indifference of the absolute singular with language. And Oppen’s language is, as previously noted, one at ease, indifferent and “modest” in regards to its referent (the thing as it is). Oppen’s referent “is no longer nature betrayed by meaning . . . but is what is held – unuttered – in the pseudonym or in the ease between the name and the nickname” (Coming Community 60). And it is the “ease between” the name (denominative) and nickname (the “being-in-language-of-the-non-linguistic”) that gives rise, in language, to the figure of the absolute singular. Oppen’s poetry, in its diction’s very indifference to its traditional task of signification, is a language of ease, and through this ease the shipwreck of the singular opens up the gap out of which “the discovery of fact/ Bursts” upon us “[i]n a paroxysm of emotion” (166). As Oppen elsewhere writes, his language is of the “simplest words,” which “say the grass blade” as it is (“The Occurrences” 1-2).

Works Cited:
Agamben, Giorgio. The Coming Community. Trans. Michael Hardt. Minneapolis:
      University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 2010.
Oppen, George. "Of Being Numerous." New Collected Poems. New York: New
      Directions, 2008.
---. "The Occurances." New Collected Poems. New York: New Directions,

1 comment:

Mr. C said...

I find the discussion of our culture's vision of vacation to be very interesting. I have noted for some time that, by all measures, Americans work longer hours, more days and take smaller and smaller vacations. In the business world now, there is often considerable pressure, both overt and covert, to refuse vacation time.

As such, your "inoperativity" may give us a way to release ourselves from the imposed work ethic guilt.